Last Line 2: Ring Around The Sun

Excerpt

 

A night of flames on bitter frost. Michael South, daubed from head to foot in firelight, surveyed the farmhouse gardens and wondered if his party might be getting out of hand.

 

He hadn’t expected such a turn-out. It was the last night of October, but he and John hadn’t billed the event as a Halloween bash. In the Glastonbury countryside there was a movement towards reclaiming the sanctity of that ancient festival, and stripping back the modern veneer of gunpowder plot from Bonfire Night too. Michael, after years of resistance to the Pagan excesses of his hometown, now moved and lived within its tides. This year more than any other it had felt right to answer the shortening days with fire. They hadn’t sent out invitations, just let it be known via Quin and his network of mates that there’d be bonfires and barbecues up at Mike and John’s place tonight. And everyone had come.

 

The kids were tearing round in the firelight. Most of them had dressed up. Quin and his sixth-form college friends were obligingly chasing after them, making sure nobody came to grief. Mike watched in amused approval as Quin—John’s little brother, but part of their lives and their household for so long now they simply saw him as their son—caught a tiny werewolf by its tail at the last instant and swung it away from the blaze.

 

That fire, the great one in the corner of the garden, was climbing too high. Michael turned his attention away from the muted conversation of the group of parents around him. He didn’t need to ignore them completely—could still nod and smile. He extended one hand, palm down, in the direction of the flames.

 

The fire settled instantly. Mike turned the volume on his friends back up. It might have been only a shift of the breeze, a lessening of the frosty wind that breathed down from the Tor. Andrew, one of Quin’s teachers, was saying something to him, his face shadowed and solemn in the light. “Sorry, Andy. What was that?”

 

“Did you see them burning the effigy of Jacob Powell down in the fields outside town?”

 

Mike nodded. The ugly caricature of the reactionary new US president had been getting hauled into place as he’d returned from his grocery run. “I saw them putting him up. To be fair, they were setting up Anatoly Milyukov in the next field down. With a humiliatingly tiny British PM somewhere between them. It’s just kids.”

 

“No, Mike, it’s not. It’s grown-ups.”

 

Mike looked into his worried face. A handful of the others around him were listening too. Off in other parts of the fields and gardens there was some feverish partying going on, mulled wine leaving the kitchen as fast as he and John could brew it up and take turns to top up the pans. Elsewhere, in groups like this one by the orchard wall, people were huddled, their coat collars pulled up, hats drawn down. “Well,” he said, “best they get it out of their systems like that, maybe.”

 

“Yeah,” said a new voice, tight and bitter. “Because there’s fuck-all else any of us can do, is there?”

 

Mike looked in surprise at Jill Watts, the mother of the werewolf and a couple of other small monsters chasing round the fires. She was a prim Christian soul, an unlikely guest at a party like this. She was clutching a mug of John’s powerful wine, and it wasn’t her first. “Come on, Mike,” she went on, swaying a little. “We all know you and John used to work for some hush-hush political outfit in London. What do you two think about all this? What’s really going to happen?”

 

Mike sighed. Once settled in Somerset, rebuilding the farmhouse and their lives, they hadn’t bothered to conceal their previous employment with Last Line. Nor had they advertised it, but Glasto would always be a small town, its swirling energies sending gossip fast round the cauldron. “It wasn’t political as such,” he said gently. “We dealt with terrorists. And it’s been a while, Jill—years now. We’re retired.”

 

“Retired?” God, she had had one too many, hadn’t she? Mike watched in alarm while the top half inch of the wine sluiced out of her mug with her gesture. She was laughing, but there were tears in her eyes. “Oh, yeah. You and John and your retirement, which never fucking ages you a day. I hope you’re fucking well enjoying—”

 

“Jill!” Clive Watts emerged from the shadows and put an arm round her. “Shut up, love. What’s the matter with you?”

 

“Nothing. I don’t know.” Suddenly she laid her head on his shoulder, her face crumpling. “But what are we gonna do, Clive? What about the kids?”

 

Clive extracted the mug from her hand. “Home time for us, I reckon.” He tightened his arm round her waist and began to lead her away. “Sorry about that, Mike,” he said over his shoulder. “She’s just upset.”

 

“No worries. Do you need a lift home?”

 

“No, thanks. I’ve stayed off your Samhain sauce. Car’s just down here.”

 

Mike watched them go. Clive put out his free hand, and the werewolf tumbled out of the crowd of kids around an apple-ducking barrel, followed by a vampire and, incongruously, a miniature Elvis. Mike took a few steps away from the group by the wall. Clive didn’t need to apologise to him for Jill’s distress. He looked at the other women, the other mothers and fathers who had come here tonight to face-paint smiles over their fears, drown them or furtively turn them over in corners. Mike knew why everyone who could attend this party had come here tonight. He knew why every family with kids would make sure they got their fill of bonfires, additives and mindless fun, and when it was over, start preparations for Christmas as soon as they damn well could. A sense of last chances burned in the air, brighter and hotter than fire.

 

A sense of the eve of war.

 

Laughter sailed up out of the crowd, so like John’s that Mike turned to look for him. But it was Quin, who had just plucked a small child bodily out of the water barrel and been drenched in the process. He was reaching for a towel to dry the kid off. Quin was almost out of his teen years, tough and independent. Still, to Mike he was a boy—Mike’s own, as surely as Clive and Jill’s brood belonged to them, or any of the children here belonged to their frightened, angry parents. Mike was just as worried.

 

Just as pissed off. He turned his attention back to the fires, and each of them acquired a sharp new brightness at its heart, a diamond incandescence to match his rage. This time he didn’t bother to halt or question the reaction. What was that poem of James Reeves’? Happy should we live in the interstices // Of a declining age // Even while the impudent masters of decision // Trample and rage... Well, he had tried. He and John had lived down here in the Somerset interstices, deliberately disengaged from the great world, from the masters getting burnt in effigy in the fields outside town. Time to be together, to let their boy grow up, and what for?

 

He clenched his fists. The fires leapt. Oh, he hadn’t always been a man of peace, had he? He’d carried gun and badge for MI5. He’d walked Sir James Webb’s Last Line.

 

A cool hand closed round his. A voice, needful and sweet to him as water, said in his ear, “What are you up to, you bloody brooding great Russian?”

 

“Me? Nothing.”

 

“Come with me for a minute, then. Come on.”

 

Mike left his hand in John’s, and let his lover lead him through the scattered crowd and through the gate into the orchard. Their neighbours were used to them—to their relationship, anyway, the twenty-first century having made it even this deep into rural England. Other things about them had just recently started to raise more than an eyebrow. Your retirement, which never ages you a fucking day... Mike pushed the thought aside. John couldn’t deal with it, and just now all Mike wanted was to see and touch and feel him. John could settle his world on its axis again. The bare trees folded their shadows around them. Leaves crunched underfoot, a rich scent of windfall apples and frost rising up. John drew him deeper into the cool dark, and deeper again, and then when they were quite alone, the shouting and firelight fading to nothing, pushed him up against the ancient, mossy wall.

 

Mike seized him, every part of him he could get. He pulled off the black woolly hat that was John’s one concession to Halloween dressing and ran his fingers through the silky hair beneath. He dropped both hands to John’s backside, then—realising his partner needed no encouragement to thrust and grind against him—took hold of his face instead, cupping it like a chalice. John’s sculpted mouth was on his in an instant. All that time shoulder-to-shoulder in a lonely farmhouse had done nothing to hone down the urgency of their encounters. All that intimacy, all that daily life, and Mike still got hard at one kiss. Could raise the answering signal in John, bright and hot. They tussled briefly, tongue shoving tight against tongue, grip bruising down through layers of jacket and jersey, then just when Mike had caught hold of the top button of his partner’s jeans, one practised thumb ready to pop it free of its hole, John jolted back, breaking their kiss with a pained, laughing moan. “Mikey, no. Not here.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“It’s a kiddies’ party.” John held him at arm’s length, immobilising him. He was leaner than Mike, built on a lighter scale, but his grasp was powerful. Distant scraps of firelight gleamed in his eyes, transmuted into green. “Besides, I want more from you than that tonight. A lot more. You’re going to have to wait.”

 

Mike shivered and smiled. “Quin staying over with his mates, then?”

 

“Oh, yeah. That sort of night.”

 

“Jesus. I love you. All the more because...”

 

“What?”

 

“Because I know you’re trying to take my mind off things.”

 

“Well, maybe a touch.” John eased his grip, and their stand-off became an embrace. He wrapped his arms around Mike’s neck. “What did you say to upset poor Jill Watts?”

 

“Nothing. She’s just freaked out, like practically everybody else. And they expect me—expect us—to have answers, because of what we used to do.” He drew John close to him, suddenly more anxious to shield him than rip his way into his clothes. “I dunno, love. When I was growing up here, there were a few remnants of CND groups, ban-the-bombers, that kind of thing. But not much. It was like everyone had got used to the threat. Our generation... We were just born into it, weren’t we? The idea of the great deterrent. Nobody thought...”

 

“Nobody thought we’d actually get nuked,” John finished concisely, rattling brief involuntary laughter from him. “God, it’s very eighties, isn’t it?” he went on, pushing his advantage, brushing soft kisses against Mike’s jaw. “A kind of vintage Armageddon.”

 

“You’re not funny. Or... you shouldn’t be, at any rate. What am I supposed to tell people? We’re not part of that racket any more. I don’t have a clue, any more than anybody else. What am I supposed to tell Quin?”

 

“Oh, Quin has ideas of his own.”

 

Did he? Mike hadn’t noticed much sign of dawning political awareness in his bright but live-for-the-moment boy. Before Mike could formulate the question, John’s eyes darkened. “Do you regret it?” he asked softly. “That we’re not out there any more?”

 

Mike studied him. John was good at holding back his shadows. And he took his duties as the co-host of this party seriously, approaching the task with good-natured thoroughness, just as he did everything else. Still, he was the man who had turned down a whole world of action, drama and highly rewarded risk to carve out a path at Mike’s side. To build a home with him and try his hand at love. “No,” Mike said firmly. “No, not for one bloody second.” He stole another kiss, and pressed their brows together. “Anyway, sweetheart, even if we’d still been in harness, I doubt we could’ve stopped World War Three.”