Courting Disaster

“Bill?”

“What?”

“You don’t think we might be being…just a teensy bit hasty? At all? Do you?”

Bill glanced back over his shoulder, found his top-hat blocked any form of peripheral vision, and slung it nonchalantly into a passing hedge. It’d made him look like an exclamation mark anyway. The vicar, who had been running alongside them for the mile or so since they had left the church which had almost been the site of his and Graeme’s double wedding, was beginning to go an interesting scarlet colour.

“Nah,” he shouted back over the noise of the wind whistling past, as the trandem powered down the country lane. “He’s got a good few m.p.h. in him yet. These old models, you’d be surprised how many miles you get per gallon of Communion wine. Anyway, it’s good for him.”

“Good for the skin?” yelled Graeme from somewhere in front, steering a somewhat erratic but generally Cricklewood-bound course.

“Probably,” Bill yelled back. “Look at that lovely healthy glow.”

“Really?” bellowed Graeme. “But it’s quite mild for the time of year!”

“…it’s July.”

“Yes, I just swallowed one too!”

Bill paused for a moment. At least, he paused as far as speech was concerned. If he’d attempted to pause in his peddling, the results would have been, in order: 1) Torn trouser-cuffs; 2) Bloodied shins; 3) The three of them (and, presumably, the Rev. George Throckmorton and St Olave’s and All Angels, Cholmondley) being violently precipitated into the nearest ditch. The trandem was a cruel mistress. “You can’t really hear a word I’m saying, can you?”

“Well, tell him to do it quietly, at any rate!”

“What?”

“What?”

Tim tapped him on the shoulder. “What did Graeme say?”

Bill counted to ten. It didn’t do any good to lose his temper on the trandem. It always won.

“He said he thinks the Vicar will be fine.”

“You fibber!” Graeme shouted.

Bill poked him sharply in the small of the back, making their path homeward for a moment even more erratic than usual. “If you kept your mouth shut, you wouldn’t catch so many flies in it.”

“True, but not very practical,” said Graeme, breezily. “When we get home I’ll start work on a simple oral filtration unit that Tim can use – a bonded polycarbide shell, I think, with an oxygen-exchange membrane – “

The rest of the monologue was, thankfully, sufficiently breezy that it was whipped past Bill’s ears and away.

“But we can’t make the poor man run all the way to Cricklewood!” Tim insisted.

“Why not?”

“Because the chain’s chafing my arm something rotten.”

Bill considered that. “All right, fair enough.”

“Anyway, I don’t much like the look of him.”

“I expect he doesn’t much like the look of you either. Not in that get-up.”

“Ooh, you bitch,” Tim hissed, somewhere in the vicinity of his left ear. “I’ll have you know that this outfit is the height of feminist-activist chic!”

“More like the height of feminist-activist shi-“

“Sir, I would thank you…to moderate you language…in the presence of a…lady!”

Bill looked back again at the perspiring priest, puffing along beside the bicycle. “Don’t you go encouraging him! He’s loony enough already! For one thing, he’s not a lady – “

“I believe…sir…that any member of the…fairer sex…has the right be considered…a lady…until proven otherwise,” the Vicar went on between gasps. “No matter how…unladylike…her demeanour…or how masculine…her attire.”

“Believe me, mate, it’s not nearly as masculine as what she’s got underneath,” Bill muttered.

“Pay no attention to him, Father!” Tim shouted, in as coy and ladylike a voice as was possible under the circumstances, and leaned forward to say over Bill’s shoulder, “At least he isn’t as reactionary and mired in the dictates of the patriarchy as some people I could mention.”

“I am not mired in anything!” said Bill, aggrieved. “I only bathed last week!”

Tim made a little ‘hmmph’ of displeasure. “I still think we ought to stop and let him off. He’s going a very funny colour.”

“You are…too kind…madam,” panted the Rev. G. Throckmorton. “For does not…the Good Book say…that sooner shall a camel…pass through the eye of a needle…than an Anglican priest…shall win the hundred metre dash?”

“Amen, Father,” said Tim, piously.

Bill glanced back again. The priest’s scarlet face was now more closely approximating to puce. “Maybe you’re right. Probably not a great idea to drag a dead priest behind your bicycle through north London. He’d never fit into our parking space for one, and it’s always me who ends up having to pay the tickets. Have you got the key handy?”

“…ah. I wondered if that was going to be a problem.”

The little strangled noise, as of penguin attempting to swallow a stickleback, was all the outward manifestation of annoyance that Bill could allow himself. For the present. But the minute they got back to the office, he was going to start on the best china. Including Tim’s coronation mug.

Especially Tim’s coronation mug.

He leaned forward towards Graeme.

“You’d better stop at the next phone box. Tim wants to get rid of our guest.”

“…and if you could include some sort of acid bath for dissolving the flies, then I think following the example of the Venus Flytrap – what?”

“I said, STOP – “

The arc which the Goodies (and the Rev. G. Throckmorton) described as they flew from the sharply braking trandem into the nearest convenient ditch was the elegant curve of a swallow in pursuit of midges.

“- at the next phone box,” Bill finished, levelly, attempting to extricate himself from a sizeable plantation of goosegrass.

“You should have said,” said Graeme, as reproachfully as could be managed with one’s legs somewhere in the vicinity of one’s ears. “What do you want a telephone for?”

“To call a locksmith.”

“What do you want a locksmith for?”

“To open a lock,” said Bill, through gritted teeth. “Unless you happen to have a pair of bolt-cutters on you?”

“Don’t be silly, why would I have a pair of bolt-cutters?” asked Graeme, reprovingly. “I haven’t needed them since I started carrying my pocket oxy-acetylene torch.”

* * *

“Shouldn’t we have some sort of protection for our eyes?” asked Tim, as Graeme fiddled around with the pressure regulators on the two tubes which ran from the torch’s cutting-head, one into each of his trouser pockets. Tim hadn’t liked to ask where they went after that. It didn’t seem polite.

“Oh, I shouldn’t worry about that,” replied Graeme cheerfully. “Just keep your eyes shut, you’ll be all right.”

“But shouldn’t you have some sort of protection for your eyes?”

“No need. I’ll have my eyes shut too.”

Tim whimpered, quietly.

The meadow would have been a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon if it hadn’t been for the imminent danger of first-degree burns and, perhaps, disembowelling. Graeme had assured him that if anything went wrong then the cutting flame was so hot the wound would be cauterised instantly, so there was really nothing to be worried about. Tim couldn’t help but feel that he might be missing the point.

“Stop whimpering,” called Bill from where he lay in the shade of the hedge. “You’ll scare the birds.”

“It’s all right for you,” Tim snapped. “You’re not likely to find yourself in two neatly cauterised pieces in the next few minutes!”

“It’s your own fault for chaining yourself to the Vicar in the first place,” said Graeme, examining the steel links. “You could have waited for ‘if anyone knows of any lawful impediment why this short hairy idiot should not be joined to this woman, or this tall dashing genius should not be joined to this computer, in holy matrimony’, like everyone else does. You could just have lain down in front of the brides and started a quick chorus of ‘we shall not be moved’. You could have started a letter-writing campaign. But oh, no, not you…”

“I was overcome by the excitement of the moment,” said Tim, with great dignity.

The Rev. G. Throckmorton was sitting as far away from Tim as the chain would permit, getting his breath back amidst the long grass. The sun was shining. The bees were humming. Whatever birds had not been fast or intelligent enough to escape Bill’s dedicated stalking were singing merrily. All in all this would, Tim reflected, be a bloody stupid way to die, even by his standards.

“I don’t want to die,” he commented.

“We are all in the hand of the Almighty, my child,” said the Vicar, comfortingly, before adding, “I don’t suppose any of you chaps have any oil of chrism about your persons, do you?”

“Whatever for?” asked Graeme, fussing over the cutting torch with a preoccupied and worryingly anticipatory expression.

“Well, I always think that it’s better to be safe that sorry where the Last Rites are concerned. If it turns out that you’re not actually going to die and so didn’t need them, then there’s no harm done, but if on the other hand – “

“I don’t want to die,” Tim repeated, at a rather higher pitch.

“Look, you’re not going to die,” said Graeme firmly. “Now, closed your eyes and sit very still. I’m almost certain this won’t hurt a bit.”

Miraculously, it didn’t. The feeling of a 3000°C flame about a foot or so away from his back was hardly comfortable, true; and the juxtaposition of the roar of the torch, the Vicar’s quiet prayers, Graeme’s occasional ‘Oops’s, and Bill’s cries of ‘Did you see that linnet? Beautiful swooping flight…’ was more than a little unsettling. But it didn’t hurt. Tim obediently kept his eyes screwed tightly shut, and thought very hard of England.

There was a clinking noise, and the heat and noise of the cutting torch ended abruptly.

“Done!” announced Graeme. “Or least I think it’s done. Either that or your chastity belt’s got loose again.”

“Oh, thank God!” said the Vicar, more fervently than was perhaps the wont of Anglican priests.

“Tim?” Graeme enquired, putting his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Tim, can you hear me?”

“My whole life is flashing before my eyes,” said Tim, distantly, his eyes still tightly closed. “Don’t distract me, I don’t want to miss the interesting bits before I’m interrupted by my inevitable death.”

“Fast-forward to the bit with Big Nellie from Cockfosters,” called Bill from his hedge. “That’s about as interesting as it gets.”

Tim’s brow creased, and he opened his eyes. “You know, he’s absolutely right,” he said, puzzled. “Gosh, what a disappointment.”

“That’s what she said.”

“If you would be so good as to excuse me, Madam,” said the Vicar, pushing himself to his feet cumbrously and unwrapping the truncated chain from around his torso. “I will take my leave. If I make good time, I should be back in my parish in time for Evensong.”

“Of course, Vicar,” said Tim, scrambling up from the ground and hastily smoothing the grass-seeds out of his rather rumpled wig. “And – well. Sorry about chaining myself to you. It’s not your fault you’re a representative of the repressive patriarchy. And – well, I think you’ve been jolly decent about it.”

“No need to apologise, my dear lady,” said the Rev. G. Throckmorton, taking Tim’s hand and pressing it in a fatherly way. “I’m glad to see that there are still young people of principle and conviction amongst the younger generation. If you do ever decide to marry, I would be honoured to put myself and my church at the disposal of you and your lucky husband.”

Tim smiled, and blushed, prettily. “You old charmer!” he giggled.

“Reverend, I don’t think you quite – “ began Graeme, before the priest drew himself up with much the same expression as Gideon must have worn before engaging the Hosts of Midian.

“As for you, ‘sir’, I would suggest that you keep a more civil tongue in your head when conversing with such an intelligent, charming and decorous young lady! Good day!”

It should have been difficult to make a dramatic exit from an open field; perhaps the swish and sweep of the cassock through the long grass helped. Bill’s giggling certainly didn’t.

“I don’t know what you’re laughing at,” said Tim, coldly.

“Tim, for the last time – you are not a woman!” growled Graeme, pulling Tim’s second-best wig from his head and tossing it over the hedge, where it was promptly eaten by an inquisitive goat. “You are a man. M-A-N - man. What are you?”

Tim sniffed. “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

He fluffed his own short, fair hair a trifle awkwardly – for some reason removing the wig while retaining the flared jeans and brightly counter-cultural tee-shirt made him feel oddly out-of-character – and sat down again, cross-legged.

Graeme stood over him, arms folded in a manner reminiscent of two pipe-cleaners mating, and looked down on the bowed head and hunched shoulders.

“Anyway,” Tim went on, pulling up a buttercup in a desultory manner, “when I said we might be being a little hasty, I wasn’t really talking about the trandem.” He toyed with the little golden flower for a long moment, and Graeme began to dismantle the cutting equipment. “Charles was quite a good-looking man, wasn’t he?”

“Well, yes, I suppose you could say - what?”

“I mean, he’s older than me, yes, but that can have its advantages. And he’s already got a grown-up daughter, so it wouldn’t really matter if we didn’t end up having any children – “

Graeme stared down, eyes almost as large as his glasses. “But – he’s a man!”

“Yes?”

“And you’re a man!”

“Must you always keep harping on that?”

“It isn’t legal!”

Tim sighed, and tied the stem into a complicated knot. “How can the law alter what the heart dictates?”

“And it isn’t very nice!”

Tim looked up at him, archly. “At least Charles has a pulse, which is more than can be said of your paramour.”

“She had a pulse!” Graeme insisted. “It just happened to be measured in hertz rather than beats per minute! Anyway, I told you – under British law they can’t touch you for touching your computer.”

“It’s still disgusting,” Tim sniffed.

“There, you see! You’re just as prejudiced as everyone else!”

“Perhaps I just think that a mature relationship between any two or more consenting adults, irrespective of technical gender, should be given the recognition it deserves,” said Tim. “That does not extend to carnal relations with items of hardware.”

“Oh, come, that’s prejudice pure and simple!” Bill piped up, lying back on the flowery bank and watching the blackbirds rustling through the branches above. “What a man gets up to with the egg-whisk and the lemon-juicer in the privacy of his own kitchen is his own affair.”

Tim thought about that. “Well, yes, all right. But that doesn’t mean he has the right to marry the hoover. No matter how tempting that may be.”

Bill turned his head to look at Tim sideways. “Upright or cylinder?”

“Now you’re just being silly,” said Tim, reprovingly.

“Yeah, you’re right,” Bill admitted. “You’d never get the dress to fit a cylinder.

Graeme pushed his glasses up and rubbed his eyes. He had the nasty feeling that he had been outside the lab and in the Fresh Air for too long. Surely it was the surfeit of Fresh Air, full of pollen, microbes, dust and insect-life, which was giving him this rotten headache. “Could we please attempt to return to the matter in hand?”

“Forgotten what it is now…” Bill muttered, closing his eyes.

“I was just saying that Charles is a very wealthy, attractive and charming man, and I’ve got every right to marry him if I want,” said Tim, firmly.

Graeme sat down on the grass, awkwardly arranging his long limbs in such a way that as few bony joints as possible were being attacked by hummocks of grass, tree roots, and occasional rocks. “Look, Tim – even setting aside the wedding night – please God, let’s set aside the wedding night, when even your ingenuity would surely not suffice to prevent your new husband from realising there was rather more to you than met the eye – “ He paused for a second, distracted and filled with a sort of morbid fascination by the mental images, before shaking himself violently awake. “Even setting that aside – not to mention the attendant legal, moral, ethical and sartorial difficulties – you don’t actually want to marry him.”

Tim picked another couple of buttercups, and studied the pool of reflected gold in the palm of his hand with minute attention. “Ho would you know?”

Graeme paused. “Because you don’t like – I mean you’re not – are you?”

“Not what?”

“Well – you know – “ Graeme whistled a couple of cryptic notes, and made strange semaphore signals with his eyebrows. Then he began to gesture in an abstract but oddly suggestive manner. “You know – “

“I’m not sure I do!”

“Not that I think there’s anything wrong with it if you are,” said Graeme, hastily. “I mean – not that there is anything wrong with it. But – well, it would come as a bit of a surprise – “

Tim paused in the act of plaiting a wreath out of buttercups and daisies, and looked over at him with wide eyes.

“No, all right, maybe it wouldn’t,” Graeme went on, each sentence coming out a fraction faster and a fraction higher. “Not that that means anything. I mean, there’s no reason a man can’t make daisy-chains today and go out with his best girl tomorrow. Not that I’m saying that you’re any less of a man if you don’t go out with your best girl, or any other girl for that matter. Or that you’re any less manly if you don’t make daisy-chains. I mean, I frequently don’t make daisy-chains myself. Not that there’s anything wrong with it. Some of my best friends make daisy-chains. Lovely day, isn’t it?”

“Yes?” Tim hazarded.

Graeme laughed nervously, and inserted a finger between his overly tight collar and his neck.

Bill sighed and sat up. “What he means, Timbellina my old son, is – are you gay?”

Tim frowned. “I’m – generally quite cheerful, if that’s what you mean. What difference does that make?”

Bill buried his face in his hands, and began to giggle uncontrollably.

“Bill, come on – give me a hand here!” said Graeme, pitiably.

“Not a chance!” Bill managed, in a rather choked voice. “You can field that one for yourself!”

Graeme push his hands into his hair, as if debating whether to extract a handful or two. “You see, Tim – when a man and a man love one another very much – “

“I don’t mean smut!” said Tim, quickly, going very red. “I mean – remember what you said before, about the soul being more important than the body?”

“It was you who said that!”

“Exactly!”

Graeme opened his mouth, hesitated, then closed it again. “I think this discussion is threatening to turn into the argumental equivalent of a Klein bottle. Shall we start again?”

“Why should it matter if Charles and I aren’t – physically compatible?” Tim went on, with passion. “If we can see the beauty of one another’s souls, and meet and mingle on a more spiritual plane – “

“There’ll be no meeting and mingling if I’ve got anything to do with it,” said Graeme, primly. “Anyway, have you ever considered that your husband might not share the same exaltedly Platonic views as you? What then, eh?”

“Then he can jolly well keep his grubby paws to himself! Why should every marriage descend into – “ He lowered his voice. “- rumpy-pumpy?”

Graeme rested his chin on his updrawn knees, and regarded Tim with wonder. “You know, against all the odds, your marriage may yet turn out to be the only one in the country actually approved of by Mary Whitehouse.”

“Our life together will be one of harmony, simplicity, intellectual intercourse – and absolutely no other sort,” Tim stated, with great dignity. “And if that means that I’m forced to take up a life of ease, comfort, fine wines, polo and solid silver dinner-services, then so be it. I’m prepared to make that sacrifice.”

“Ohhh, so that’s it!” said Bill, surfacing from his giggles in time to shake his head admiringly. “You sneaky little swine! This isn’t about a person’s right to marry whoever they want to – it’s about you getting a cushy retirement!”

“Of course, a rotten little Commie like you couldn’t begin to understand the nobility of my feelings,” said Tim, raising his chin loftily. “You have to reduce everything to the level of sordid gain.”

“Come off it,” said Bill, scrambling over to crouch next to Tim and grinning into his ear. “You took one look at the size of his – tracts of land – and got that greedy little gleam in your eye.”

“Oh, and so what if I did?” Tim muttered, his expression of cold hauteur dissolving into a scowl. “I have to think about my future! I’m not getting any younger, you know. How many more proposals like that do you think are going to come along?” He turned his head to sneer in Bill’s general direction. “I’m not intending to work myself to a shadow running around after you two for the whole of my life. ‘Tim, get me a cup of tea!’ ‘Tim, cook my dinner!’ ‘Tim, dust my whatnot, it’s got fluff on it!’ Ohhh no! I’m young, I’m free-spirited, I’m beautiful – stop laughing – and I’m not going waste my youth on you thankless bunch!”

“So that’s all this is about?” asked Graeme. “A retirement plan?”

“Of course that’s not all,” said Tim, standing up and absently brushing the loose petals out of his lap. “Unlike you two, I don’t particularly want to end up old and alone. With Charles, I can imagine a day when we sit around the fire, him a white-bearded old grandfather, me – “

“- a white-bearded old grandmother – “ put in Bill.

“- precisely – “ continued Tim, gazing into the cornflower sky with a hazy expression. “Us and his daughter and our ten or twelve beautiful golden-haired grandchildren playing with the puppies on the floor, all with the fine Brooke-Taylor profile, carrying on the honourable traditions of the name – “

“How do you imagine the children are going to get your profile?” queried Graeme, before an expression of more than mild horror crept over his face. “You can’t mean – “

“Oh, no, they can do wonderful things with adoption these days,” said Tim, gesturing vaguely into the middle distance. “And I shall knit them a new jumper for every birthday, and when at last my time comes to leave this world, I shall be surrounded by those angelic faces, their eyes full of tears – “

“- their fingers in your wallet - ” said Graeme.

“Oh, how could you possibly understand!” said Tim, rounding on him passionately. “You’re a cold-hearted scientist – there’s nothing in your heart but cogs and gears!”

“Thank you,” said Graeme, pleased.

“But look here, Timbo,” said Bill, standing up (and thus making himself almost as tall as Graeme sitting down). “You don’t need to marry Charles to have all that. There’s still plenty of time for you to find the right girl! I mean, I haven’t met Pan’s People yet, and I just know that when I do I’ll have found the five or six girls that are right for me, and then I can think about settling down.”

“Have you both gone out of your little minds?” demanded Graeme, launching himself to his feet with the grace and elegance of a newborn fawn. “I thought we decided that we’re happy to be bachelors gay! Only not in that sense.” He prodded Tim with an accusatory finger. “And what was all that back at the church then – about how it was demeaning for women to chain themselves to a hot stove for the rest of their lives and spend their time bringing up horrible sticky little babies?”

“Oh, that’s only a problem for poor people,” said Tim, cheerfully. “Charles and I will be able to afford staff to do those things for us.”

Graeme groaned. “It’s amazing. You actually have double standards on your double standards.”

“Come on, Tim,” said Bill, grabbing hold of his friend’s elbow and steering him firmly in the direction of the trandem. “Time to go home.”

“But I’m still not sure – “ began Tim, plaintively.

“Look, if you still want to marry Charles tomorrow, then we’ll think about it,” Bill soothed. Then he looked back at Graeme, trudging along behind, and caught his eye.

In unison, they mouthed the word ‘Loony!’

* * *

“It’s no good. We’ve got to do something about Tim.”

Graeme looked up from his copy of New Scientist, lowered his cup of overstewed tea, and raised his eyebrows at the angrily-pacing Bill who had burst into his field of vision.

“Why, what’s the matter with him?”

“What’s the matter?!” demanded Bill. “The matter is that he’s still sitting there in his room, mooning over pictures of his boyfriend!”

“Well, it’s not doing any harm, is it?”

“We can’t keep him under house arrest indefinitely!” Bill insisted, scuffing his foot moodily against the bright-coloured rag-rug. “For one thing, it means that I’ve got to do the shopping, and if Mr Wright the grocer looks plaintively at me at asks me where that nice Mr Brooke-Taylor is this week one more time, I swear I’ll use his leeks for something God never intended!”

Graeme laid his magazine face down on his chest. “Well, from the religious perspective, one could perhaps argue that if God made them that shape then he must have intended – “

“I’m not talking about the purpose of leeks! I’m talking about Tim’s unhealthy habits!”

“Well, the two aren’t necessarily unconnected – “

“And I have no wish to think about that.” Bill covered his face with his hands for a second in a vague effort to composed himself. “It’s been a month. A month when he’s spent all his free time scouring the society pages for eligible bachelors, or memorising the railway timetables to stockbroker commuter-belt villages. It’s not healthy, and it’s got to stop!”

“I don’t see what’s so bad about it.”

“Remember what happened last time we let him out? We found him two days later on Threadneedle Street, seducing poor innocent investment bankers with promises of mock-tudor houses in Esher!”

“He’s just getting a bit broody, that’s all,” said Graeme, folding up the magazine and putting it back in the neat Habitat magazine-tidy. “It’ll wear off.”

“Will it?” grumbled Bill, throwing himself down on the green velour pouffe. “When? I mean – just look at this place!”

Graeme looked.

“All right, I take your point,” taking his feet off a tapestry-stitch footstool and arranging the crocheted antimacassar a little more neatly over the back of the armchair. “Perhaps Tim has taken this little exercise in home-making a touch more seriously than one might have wished. But it’s hardly all bad! Getting your newspaper ironed and brought to your room every morning with a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice and a cup of freshly-brewed coffee – you can’t complain about that, can you?”

“It’s all right for you,” Bill said, folding his arms sulkily. “He always did like you best. Me, I get him coming in at seven every morning with the bloody hoover, making loud comments about how I never tidy my room before he does the place and that if I’m going to keep living under his roof rent-free then I should at least do my share of the household jobs. And he keeps going on at me to turn my music down and get a haircut. It’s getting so I can’t call his home my own any more! And in any case – ” he added, sniffing diffidently, “It’s embarrassing.”

“Embarrassing?” Graeme echoed. “Who’s embarrassed?”

“Me!” snapped Bill, jumping up and aiming a vicious kick at a vitrine full of Dresden shepherdesses. “I can’t bring girls back to this place!”

“Why ever not?” asked Graeme, picking up his tea again – tea in a delicate china cup with a pattern of hand-painted rosebuds around the rim. “Your corner used to be covered in dirty socks and dirty magazines, and you never worried about bringing girls back here then! I don’t see how this can be any worse.”

“Because that’s who I am!” Bill cried, striking a pose reminiscent of a Communist recruitment poster. “I am a free-spirit! A radical! I’m the one who wears jeans to formal dinners, who gets his naughty bits out at Ascot -”

“- who gets three months community service -”

“The point is, piles of dirty washing on the floor – that’s me,” Bill went on, loftily. “Crochet table-cloths and dried flower arrangements, however, are not. I’m young! I’m a gay bachelor! Not in that sense.”

“Don’t you think you’re over-reacting a bit?” asked Graeme, pulling his hand-knitted shawl a little more warmly around his shoulders.

“No I do not!” Bill glowered down at him. “You’re actually enjoying all this, aren’t you? You like having Tim play happy families with you!”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Graeme, shiftily, and tried to conceal the slice of home-made Victoria sponge on the side-table behind a stack of computing textbooks.

“Well, I’m not intending to spend the rest of my life in some sort of cross-dressing version of I Love Lucy,” Bill announced. “For I – have a Plan!”

Graeme propelled himself precipitously out of the enfolding depths of the armchair. “Ah – Bill. Do you think that’s an entirely good idea? I mean - I’m clearly the one who comes up with the plans around here. I’ve got the glasses and everything. You don’t want to strain yourself coping with the unaccustomed exercise – “

“Relax, Graybags,” smiled Bill, snatching Graeme’s glasses from his nose and popping them on. “This is a plan that can’t possibly fail. Tim thinks he wants to get married, right?”

“Right,” said Graeme.

“But we both know that the minute he’s actually married, he’ll regret it?”

“Right?”

“So it’s obvious that the best thing would be for him to actually get married as soon as possible and get it over with so he can move straight on to the regretting bit.”

“But – you can’t do that!” Graeme squawked. “What’ll the poor groom think when he finds out?!”

“Well, obviously Tim couldn’t get married to just anyone,” Bill conceded. “For one thing, if word of it ever got out, no one would ever give us another job again.”

“Well, yes – “

“So it’s obvious, isn’t it!”

“Not to me it’s not!”

“Tim has to marry one of us.”

Graeme sat down, very heavily, and with only the vaguest relation to the position of his chair.

“Or, to be more accurate – “ Bill added, reasonably, “– he’s got to marry you.”

“Me?!” yelped Graeme, stumbling to his feet again. “Why me?!”

“He’s hardly going to marry me, is he?”

“Well, no,” Graeme conceded.

“He thinks I’m a rude, fat, hairy little oik.”

“You are a rude, fat, hairy little oik.”

“My point exactly.”

“Listen here, my little friend,” said Graeme, with rather laboured patience, and plucked his glasses off Bill’s nose. “I believe there may be one or two flaws in your masterplan. For one, there’s no way Tim would agree to it.”

“Oh, come on, don’t sell yourself short,” Bill protested, giving Graeme an encouraging pat on the arm. “You’re not as hideous as all that. More or less. Anyway, you’re a very eligible bachelor! You’ve got qualifications, you’ve got a nice steady income – which housewife today doesn’t swear by Dr. Grayboots’ Pretty Paws, Protection Against Dishpan Puddies? Some might even consider you a catch!” He grinned, and jabbed Graeme in the side with a well-placed elbow. “If circumstances were different, I might even marry you myself.”

Graeme rolled his eyes. “Thank you. But the fact remains that Tim and I are not going to get married.”

“You don’t need to actually get married, obviously,” said Bill. “You just need to make Tim think he’s married. That way he’ll get the short sharp shock he needs to snap him out of this loony behaviour.”

“I could just administer a short sharp shock with a set of jump-leads. It’d be far less complicated.”

“I tried that two weeks ago!”

“So you did,” Graeme sighed. “All right then. For the sake of argument – how would you make Tim think we were getting married?”

“Easy! I’ll marry you myself!”

Graeme blinked. “What, both of us? Isn’t that illegal?”

Bill rolled his eyes. “I mean – I’ll be the priest. I’ve got the hat, I’ve got the robes – don’t ask where from, you don’t want to know, but if Ken Russell ever drops round tell him I’m out – I’ve even got a certificate to prove it.”

“Where did you get that?” asked Graeme, as Bill produced a most impressive-looking scroll from his jacket pocket, complete with swirling capital letters, seals in scarlet wax, and large gold ribbons.

“Sent off for it from an advert on the back of the Radio Times.”

“But – it doesn’t count, does it? I mean – if, say, completely theoretically and for the sake of argument, you were to marry me and Tim, we wouldn’t – “

“Don’t be so daft,” said Bill, handing the certificate over. “Look, it says my parish falls within the Diocese of Bishop Tony Blackburn. I’m fairly sure the Archbishop would have something to say if anyone ever tried to enforce it.” He perched on the arm of chair, and began swinging his legs, in an astonishingly accurate impersonation of a leprechaun. “So? What about it, Graybags? Are you prepared to do the decent thing and make an honest woman of Timbellina?”

“No. I’m not. N-O-T spells ‘not on your life’. Never. I won’t do it.”

“So I can put that down as a ‘maybe’, then?”

Graeme cast a despairing glance at the ceiling. “For the last time, I am not going to marry Tim!”

“You needn’t act like you’re so horrified at the idea,” said Bill, with a knowing leer. “I’ve seen the way you look at him when he’s putting his stockings on. Honestly, it’s disgusting. It’s like getting between Cyril Smith and an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

“That – is an outrageous slur on my character,” Graeme managed, pulling himself up to his full height and looking haughtily down the foot or so between it and the top of Bill’s head. “I just – happen to have a professional interest in women’s hosiery.”

Bill smirked. “They can lock you up for that you know.”

“I refuse to continue this conversation,” said Graeme, stalking over to the window. “I am not marrying Tim. Not under any circumstances. Not if we were the last two people on earth and I had to invent some sort of loony way we could repopulate the planet and couldn’t do it until after we’d got married, because otherwise Mary Whitehouse would write rude letters about us. No.”

“And what’s wrong with me, pray tell?”

“Tim!”

Perhaps that wasn’t the most original of responses, thought Graeme, as he spun round to find Tim standing in the doorway to the office, hands planted firmly on hips, chin stubbornly jutting out as far as was possible.

“There’s nothing wrong with you,” he added hastily. “I mean – nothing I know of. Apart from the bit about entrapping stockbrokers. And the sock-suspenders. And the life-size cardboard cut-out of the Queen under your bed. And – “

“Don’t try to weasel your way out of this with empty compliments!” said Tim, blue eyes flashing. “What exactly is so repulsive about me that you’d never marry me, not under any circumstances, not if we were the last two people on earth?”

“Oh, well, if you’re going to quote me out of context – “

“Gosh, is that what I’m doing?” asked Tim, voice shrill with angry sarcasm. “What context was that then, dear old Graeme, old friend, old partner? Do explain it to me!” He strode up to Graeme, and jabbed him in the chest with an admonitory forefinger. “Let me tell you why you’re never going to marry me, Mr Graeme I’m-so-wonderful-I-could-marry-anyone-I-liked Garden!” Then his lower lip began to tremble, and his face crumpled like damp tissue. “It’s because you think I’m ugly, isn’t it.”

Then he sat down on the pouffe, and began to cry, noisily.

“Oh, Tim, it’s not that!” said Graeme, helplessly.

“You cruel beast!” said Bill, suppressing the edge of a giggle through sheer force of will-power. “Now look what you’ve done!”

“I didn’t mean – “

“You apologise to Tim this instant!”

“It’s all right, he doesn’t need to apologise,” Tim sobbed. “It’s true. That’s why I’m twenty-five years old – “

“And the rest…” muttered Bill, safely under his breath.

“- and I’m still not married. I’m on the shelf. Past it. No one’s ever going to want me. I – I should just go and become a nun now!”

“Oh, please don’t cry, Tim,” said Graeme, awkwardly, crouching down next to his friend and putting one thin arm across Tim’s shaking shoulders. “You’re not ugly, honestly.”

Tim sniffled, noisily. “Really?”

“Really,” said Graeme, hastily, fishing a rather crumpled handkerchief out of his pocket and shaking the screws, diodes and dead insects out of it before pressing it into Tim’s hand.

“You’re just saying that so I won’t be upset…”

“No, honestly Tim, I’m not,” he soothed, squeezing Tim’s shoulder a little more warmly. “In fact I – I think you’re a – “ He swallowed, heavily. “A very attractive man.”

Tim sniffed again, then turned to look at Graeme with the large, soulful eyes of an orphaned bush-baby. “You’re not just saying that?”

“Of course I’m not,” Graeme managed, though his tongue was apparently suddenly two sizes too large for his mouth. “I think you’re – one of the most attractive men I’ve met – since – well, quite a while, anyway.”

Tim’s lip began to tremble again. “That’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

“That’s settled then!” said Bill, briskly.

“Settled?” asked Graeme sharply, trying to jump up and away from his somewhat moistened friend, but finding that with Tim’s arm inexplicably clamped around his waist he couldn’t actually move. “What’s settled?”

“Well, I don’t believe in long engagements, do you?” said Bill, as he jumped off the arm of the chair. “After all, you two’ve know each other long enough already, nothing’s really going to come as a surprise after you’re married. Well, except the obvious, obviously.”

“Now hang on a moment,” said Graeme, managing to get to his feet even though it meant hauling Tim with him. “When I said I wouldn’t marry Tim, it wasn’t because I thought he was unattractive, it was because – “ At that point he made the mistake of catching Tim’s eyes, which were beginning to swim again, and tripped over his sentence. “It – it was – well – “

“What?” asked Tim, quaveringly.

“It was – it was just that – “ Graeme croaked, before opting for the most spineless possible way out. “It’s just that I don’t think I’m good enough for you.”

Tim gave a watery smile. “Oh, Gray,” he said, and the warm arm around Graeme’s waist tightened slightly. “That’s awfully sweet of you. Of course, I’ll be marrying beneath my class, but – but that doesn’t matter so much in modern society. You mustn’t get a complex about it.”

“I don’t have a complex – “

“In that case – yes, Graeme,” said Tim, a little shyly.

“Yes what?” Graeme whispered.

“I accept your proposal. You may consider us engaged.”

Graeme managed to attract Bill’s attention by flailing desperately around behind Tim’s back, and to catch his eye over the top of Tim’s fair head, which had found a nestling place somewhere in the vicinity of his collarbone. When he mouthed ‘HELP ME’, Bill only grinned.

“Well, Timbo, this is your lucky day!” he beamed.

“I know,” murmured Tim into Graeme’s collar. Graeme suddenly found he had no idea what to do with his arms, and his expression tipped over from imploring to beseeching.

“I mean,” announced Bill, pulling a rather grubby surplice on over his head and topping it with a jaunty cope, “you can get married right now!”

Tim looked round. “I beg your pardon?”

“I can marry you – right here, right now!”

“You?” Tim asked, dubiously. “But – you’re not a priest.”

Bill flourished the certificate. “That’s not what it says here.”

Tim frowned at it. “What’s that signature at the bottom? The Arch-Primate, His Ipsissimusness, The Lad Himself, David Fr-“

“That’s not important!” said Bill quickly, snatching the paper out of reading distance. “The point is, it’s got a big red seal on it, and that makes it legitimate!”

“But – I don’t want to be married by a grubby little squirt like you,” said Tim, a trifle plaintively.

Bill snorted. “Listen, mate, if you can find any other vicar who’s prepared to marry you two – “

“I think it would be a – a lovely gesture, don’t you? Darling?” said Graeme, with a fixed smile of what was meant to be reassurance. “To be married by the person who, more than any other, is responsible for forcing us – I mean, bringing us together?”

“Well, I suppose,” conceded Tim, grudgingly. “But – what about the church? What about the dress? I haven’t a thing to wear!”

“Ah, Timbellina, if only you knew how lovely you are just as you are,” cooed Bill. “In any case, what could be better than a simple, intimate service, the epitome of your life to come?”

“In fact, just the same as our life to come,” put in Graeme. “The same office, the same clothes, the same grubby little squirt – “

“I – I suppose it does have a sort of – romance to it,” Tim said, uncertainly. “But – what about all our families and friends? I haven’t had time to invite anyone!”

“But Tim – all your family and friends are already here!” said Bill, gesturing wildly around the empty room with a crozier which he had retrieved from the umbrella-stand.

Tim leaned a little closer to Graeme and said out of the side of his mouth, “Ohhh dear, I think Bill’s gone loony again…”

“I meant,” said Bill, with dignity, “that through the wonders of modern technology, the ceremony could be recorded for all your friends and relations, and we could just send them copies. It’s easier than trying to pile in your Uncle Butcher and your Uncle Frank and your Uncle Tom Cobley and all.”

Tim frowned. “How do you know my Uncle Tom Cobley?”

“Anyway, we’ve got the priest, we’ve got the couple – let’s make a marriage!”

“Wait a minute,” said Tim, uncertainly. “I’m not sure we should be rushing into this – “

“You’re not having second thoughts, are you Tim?” asked Bill, perching a mitre on his head at a rakish angle. “Starting to think that maybe getting married at the first possible opportunity was a bad idea?”

“Not in the least,” said Tim, narrowing his eyes suspiciously, before grabbing Graeme by the arm and dragging him over to the desk. “Kneel.”

“Look here, Tim, are you sure – “

“Kneel!” Tim barked, before tapping Graeme not-entirely-lightly on the back of the knee-joint with his foot. He followed his betrothed down with slightly more decorum.

“Right!” said Bill, hopping up to sit cross-legged on the desk, and kicking the phone out of the way as he did so. “Let’s get this wedding on the road! Dearly beloved brethren, we are gathered here in the sight of this – attending-via-the-wonders-of-cinematography congregation – to join together Graeme and Tim in holy matrimony, which is an Honourable Estate, possibly a Volvo or a Peugeot.”

“Kindly refrain from making awful puns in the middle of my wedding!” hissed Tim.

“All right, all right, short version. Who gives this w- um, man, away?”

Graeme glanced around. “Um…me, I suppose?”

“You can’t both give and take me,” Tim insisted.

“Does it really matter?”

“You’ve got to do these things properly, otherwise you might as well not bother doing them at all!”

“It’s all right, I’ll give you away, Tim,” said Bill, helpfully. “Do you, insert name here – ”

“His name’s Graeme,” offered Tim.

“It’s not, it’s David,” Graeme whispered.

Tim frowned. “No it isn’t.”

“My first name is David! Look, I ought to know – “

“Of course your name’s not David. Who’s ever called you David?”

“Look, I don’t think it matters much – “

“Well it matters to me,” said Tim. “I’m not sure I could marry a man called David – “

“If you’ve quite finished,” said Bill, with weighty sarcasm. “Do you, Graeme and/or David ‘Fuzzychops’ Garden, take this – man? – to be your lawfully wedded wife? Do you promise to love her – him – honour her – him – and keep her – him, in sickness and in health, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, as long as you both shall – wait, did I turn over two pages at once – “

“Look, Bill, I’m really not sure – “

“He does,” said Tim, quickly.

Bill shrugged. “Good enough for me. Do you, Timbellina Brooke-Taylor, take this man, etc etc etc strike out words which do not apply?”

“I do,” said Tim, simply.

“Great, I’m off down the pub,” said Bill, jumping off the desk with alacrity.

“Um, didn’t you miss a bit there?” asked Tim.

“Nothing important,” promised Bill. “Oh – wait, the marriage licence.”

He scrabbled in a drawer, and produced a piece of paper which he proffered to the happy couple.

“Bill, that’s the TV licence,” said Tim patiently.

“It was either that or a signed photo of Rolf Harris.”

“We’ll take the TV licence,” answered Tim.

“Right. Sign.”

Tim, head bowed over the middle third of his signature, didn’t notice Graeme making desperate faces at Bill.

“Oh – yeah,” Bill added. “I now pronounce you man and man.”

Graeme made a softly despairing sound.

Bill deposited the mitre on the hat-stand and slung the vestments into a corner. “Right, pub time. I’ll leave you two love-birds to enjoy yourselves. And remember – this is the first day of the rest of your lives!”

He leaned over and hissed none-too-subtly in Graeme’s ear, “Remember – short sharp shock! And don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

The slam of the door sounded remarkable loud.

“Well,” said Tim, after a lengthy sort of silence. “That wasn’t exactly how I’d been imagining it.”

Graeme turned to sit on the floor, hands clasped between bony knees. “Well, that’s often the way, isn’t it? The cold, hard reality just doesn’t live up to the romantic ideal.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“And, bearing that in mind…” Graeme took a deep breath, then bellowed, “This place wouldn’t do credit to a pig-sty! I want that floor clean enough I could eat my breakfast off it, you ‘orrible little man! Put the hoover over! Polish the silverware! Dust Great-Aunt Mildred’s portrait – bad enough I have to have the blasted in-laws scowling at me all day, I don’t have to put up with grubby picture-frames too!”

“I beg your pardon?” squeaked Tim.

“Honestly, I come home from a hard day’s work, expecting to find a nice hot meal on the table, but no, not my wife, she’s off gallivanting all day!”

“I’m not – “

“Wash the curtains! Darn the children! And, most importantly – “ Graeme’s accent dipped unexpectedly into the Mid-West of America “ – git back in that kitchen and make me a sandwich!”

“Oooh, you - lout!” shouted Tim, jumping to his feet. “We’ve not been married five minutes and you’re already taking me for granted! I should have listened to my mother, she warned me against men like you! It’s just this sort of male chauvinist codswallop which has kept women in virtual servitude for thousands of years!”

“And quite right too,” Graeme replied, lazily, leaning back on his elbows. “Honestly, I don’t know what you’re getting so cross about. If women didn’t stay at home and look after the house and the children – why, nothing would ever get done! We’d all just…sink into our own mess! You’ll be playing a very valuable role by staying here and devoting your life to my comfort while I’m out with the lads.”

Tim tore off the pretty floral pinny he had been wearing. “You selfish beast! I don’t know why I ever married you!”

“Oh, come on, you don’t think it would really have been any different if you’d married old Charlie-boy, do you?”

“Charles was simply misguided, you’re impossible,” said Tim, folding his arms crossly. “I could have devoted my married life to turning his thoughts and actions in more enlightened directions.”

Graeme shook his head. “You should never go into a marriage thinking you’re going to be able to mould your husband. It never works.”

“More arrogant chauvinistic twaddle!”

Graeme sighed, and got to his feet. “Look, Tim, can’t you see that rushing into marriage with the first person who asks isn’t a good idea?”

“Only because the first person who asked was you,” Tim huffed.

“I am merely trying to prove a point,” said Graeme, patiently. “You can’t just go straight from the wedding to the white-bearded old grandmother stage. You’ve got to put up with someone for forty years in the middle.”

“I’d probably have had to put up with you for the next forty years even if I hadn’t married you,” Tim pointed out.

Graeme perched on the edge of the desk. Tim was standing a few feet away, scowling petulantly, and wringing a corner of his apron between his hands. He looked scuffed, and somewhat red around the eyes, and more than a little unhappy.

“This was a very bad idea,” Graeme announced.

Tim nodded, miserably. “I don’t know how one goes about getting a divorce under these circumstances.”

“I don’t mean – “ Graeme broke off, and started again. “Look, it was Bill’s plan. He thought that if you actually got married, found out what it was really like, you’d give up on the whole thing.”

Tim made his way to the desk and perched about a foot away from Graeme. “And you – you agreed?”

“We couldn’t let you go and marry that oaf Charles,” Graeme pointed out, uncomfortably. “For one thing, he’s an idiot. For another, it would have meant that if Bill and Barbara ever got back together, then you’d be Bill’s step-mother-in-law, and that’s just too horrible to contemplate.”

Tim shuddered, delicately.

“And if you’d rushed into marrying someone else, you’d only have regretted it,” said Graeme. “Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon, and for the rest of your life. Because it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. And after all, tomorrow – is another day.”

“But Grae – “ Tim choked, tearfully, “if you go, where shall I go, what shall I – that’s hardly the point!”

“Sorry, you must excuse me, I – seem to have something in my eye,” Graeme murmured, looking away and blinking rapidly. “Only a piece of grit or something – “

“Do let me look, I happen to be a doctor,” said Tim, vowels ascending at least two degrees of pluminess as he gently took hold of Graeme’s chin and tilted his face towards the light. “Now, look up – look down – “

For a second, the silence and tension stretched out between them. Then Tim’s eyes narrowed. “You rotten liar! Stop trying to distract me with soppy films!”

“Oh, all right,” Graeme grumbled. “I didn’t want you to marry Charles because I didn’t want to see you unhappy.” He pondered for a moment. “Or me embarrassed. But mainly you unhappy. More or less.”

“So…you decided to make me unhappy yourself?”

“It’s the least a friend could do.”

Tim slid an inch closer to him along the desk edge. “Thank you.”

“You didn’t really want to marry an investment banker, did you?”

Tim sighed, and started plucking distractedly at a loose thread at the bottom of his waistcoat. “No, not really. It’s just…you were going to marry your computer, and Bill was going to marry his girlfriend, and you were going to throw me out, and I’d rather marry an investment banker than freeze to death on the streets next winter, eating refuse and dancing for coppers.”

“Just about.”

“Just about.”

“Love makes fools of us all,” sighed Graeme, casting a glance at the computer in its corner. It hadn’t spoken to him since he’d jilted it at the altar. Of course, he’d removed its voice-synthesiser the morning after so he wouldn’t have to listen to it crying, but that was hardly the point.

Tim frowned. “If you’re so dead certain that marriage is such a bad idea, then why were you so dead set on it?”

“I told you. It’s very unhealthy going into a marriage expecting that you’ll be able to mould your spouse, as you’ll always be disappointed. If, the other hand, you know that your wife is totally reprogrammable, then I can’t see the difficulty.”

“Isn’t that a little unethical?”

“Not under current legislature,” said Graeme. “Anyway, I didn’t say that all marriage is necessarily a bad idea. I just said that you getting married was.”

“And what makes me so special?”

Graeme looked sideways at him, at the smooth, well-groomed golden hair, the rather damp blue eyes, and the petulant set to the lips. “You really can’t see what the difference is between Bill marrying his girlfriend and you marrying some unpleasant investment banker from Ealing? Tim, you like girls.”

“I don’t see why that should be such a decisive factor.” Tim pulled the loose thread free, and dropped it delicately onto the corner of the desk. Finding himself now without adequate means of distraction, he began to examine his nails. “The fact is – even though I like girls, I’m not really very - good at them.”

“Nonsense!” said Graeme. “I’ve never seen anyone so made for a gingham smock and a pair of kitten heels!”

“I mean I’m not very good with them.”

“Ah. Um. That might be verging on the edge of a teensy bit too much information.”

“Ever since I was at school I’ve been awful at talking to girls,” Tim went on, miserably. “I got treated for laryngitis every year, because whenever I went to Matron I was too embarrassed to speak. I nearly died of peritonitis because I couldn’t bear to take my shirt off in front of her.”

“That sort of thing comes with practice – “

“But the things I say to the girls I’m out with!” cried Tim, in an agony of remorse.

Graeme considered. “You could just try being nice to them?”

“No,” said Tim, definitely. “I think that – on the whole – spending my life with another man would be a much more sensible option. We could talk about cricket! The off-side rule! We could go and watch Derby County together!”

Graeme put his head in his hands. “But Tim, you don’t like men! Not in the – marrying sort of way!”

“I might,” Tim answered, pouting slightly. “I’ve always been a bit of a chap’s chap…”

“I don’t think the phrase ‘chap’s chap’ necessarily extends to any sort of sexual connotation.”

Tim raised an eyebrow, sceptically. “If it doesn’t, then trading standards ought to get onto them, as it’s a very misleading description.”

“And what about your poor husband, eh? What if he’s not a ‘chap’s chap’?”

Tim scuffed one beautifully shined shoe against the back of the other trouser leg. “I think I’ve got enough women’s underwear and stockings to confuse the issue for a good few years.”

“Ohhh, no,” said Graeme, firmly. “You’re not hiding behind your own petticoats this time. What happens when it comes to the wedding night, and your lawfully wedded husband takes you in his firm, manly arms – “ He grabbed Tim’s shoulders, pushed him down onto the desk, and pinned him down by the simple expedient of sitting on his stomach. “- and demands his conjugal rights? What then, eh?”

Tim stared up at him with the expression of a codfish in the headlights. “Graeme David Garden, you take your hands off me this instant, or I won’t be responsible for the consequence of my actions!”

“Why, is marital bliss starting to sound a bit less desirable now?” asked Graeme, leaning down a little more into Tim’s face. “Come to think of it, I am your lawfully wedded husband. Come on, little Timbellina, you don’t have to be coy – “

To the end of his days, Graeme was never certain how much of that first kiss was motivated purely by Tim’s desire to wipe the smirk off his face.

It certainly achieved that end rather effectively. Graeme let go of Tim’s shoulders, scrabbled into a more vertical position, and sat with his mouth open for several seconds. Then he realised that he was still sitting across Tim’s stomach, threw himself backwards between Tim’s knees, and somersaulted gracefully off the end of the desk.

When eventually he was able to look up from the floor, it was to find Tim’s face framed between his feet, peering over the edge of the table. His expression had managed to achieve a delicate balance between concern, smugness, and a hint of uncertainty.

“I told you I wouldn’t be responsible,” he announced, primly.

Graeme struggled up from his semi-recumbent posture onto his knees. “Ah – Tim. Tim, you do know I was joking, don’t you? I mean – even if we were married, then I would never demand – I mean, I wouldn’t do anything unless you wanted – “

Tim frowned. “What do you mean, ‘if we were married’?”

“It was all Bill’s idea,” Graeme rushed on. “Which, on reflection, probably explains why it’s almost certainly going to end in maximum embarrassment for all concerned, except, presumably, Bill.”

“What was Bill’s idea?”

“That he’d pretend to be a priest and pretend to marry us so that you’d realise you didn’t really want to get married and you’d go back to normal,” Graeme finished, a little wretchedly.

Tim sat up, swung his legs over the side of the desk, and put his hands in his jacket pockets. “Oh,” he said, quietly.

“Look, we only did it to try to help,” said Graeme, making his way around the desk on his knees. “We never meant to hurt your feelings.”

“I know,” said Tim, looking away. “It’s probably for the best, anyway.”

“Tim, would you kindly look at me when I’m attempting to grovel to you – “ Then he broke off. Something that the size of a small chicken had apparently managed to launch itself into his cornea. His eye began to water furiously. “Tim – I seem to have something in my eye – “

“Oh no, you’re not playing that card again!” Tim snorted.

“No, really, I’m sure there’s something there this time,” said Graeme. “You know you can go blind from leaving a bit of grit in your eye too long…”

“Oh for heaven’s sakes,” Tim muttered, taking a much less gentle hold of Graeme’s chin than last time and leaning down. “Look up…look down…now just hold still, I can see it – “

He pulled a blue silk handkerchief from his pocket, and deftly extracted the offending speck.

“There – looks like a piece of grit – “ he managed, before Graeme leaned up and kissed him.

“Um,” he remarked, intelligently, a few seconds later. “Are you exercising your droit de seigneur again?”

Graeme frowned. “No, I told you, I’ve put all my experimental animals in the kennels for the holidays.”

“Oh, well, that’s all right then.”

It would probably have been rather awkward even if it hadn’t been conducted at least in part over the desk, Bill’s bean-bag, and, for one notable five minute period, the dining-room table. Graeme, Tim rapidly discovered, was made almost exclusively of knees and elbows, strung together with limbs that seemed inclined to be anywhere and everywhere, all at once. While Tim, Graeme found, was ticklish in the most unlikely places, and embarrassed about the most unlikely things.

“Look, I’m not going to laugh, I promise,” he promised, as Tim deflected his fingers from his waistcoat buttons for the fourth time. “What are you keeping in there, Lord Lucan?”

“I’d just feel a lot happier if you could see your way clear to leaving that particular garment on, that’s all…”

So Graeme had to content himself with the V of soft skin below Tim’s unbuttoned collar, and the paleness of his throat, and – because Tim apparently didn’t have the same provisos about his shoes, socks, sock suspenders, trousers or indeed boxer-shorts – a variety of highly satisfactory areas further south.

It was, he decided as he came up for air at one point, a fascinating learning experience. At every stage there might be something that made Tim tense, and something that made him shiver, something that provoked a squeak and something that caused a gasp. And he could never quite predict what they would be.

He couldn’t have predicted the gentleness of fingers in his hair, or the bruising strength of fingers on his shoulders. He couldn’t have predicted Tim’s oddly knowledgeable movements, the certainly of his hands (though since he knew Tim had been to Winchester, perhaps he ought to have been able to.) He couldn’t have predicted the odd feeling of warmth which he more typically associated with algorithmic progression, and which he hadn’t quite anticipated feeling for anything that he didn’t communicate with by punch-cards.

He couldn’t have predicted that analysis would be quite so difficult.

“Um,” said Tim, eventually, lying on his back on the desk and gazing up at the ceiling.

“You said that three quarters of an hour ago, and it wasn’t very original then,” said Graeme, lying alongside him, and wondering vaguely just where Tim had been concealing the suspender belt which was now draped over the lampshade.

“Well, I don’t quite know what one says at this sort of moment.”

“…thank you?”

“I suppose it does…sort of confirm one’s chap’s chap status,” Tim mused.

“Not to mention the chap’s chap status of one’s chap.”

Tim sniffed. “I might have known you wouldn’t manage to keep beastliness out of this for five minutes, even on our wedding night.”

Graeme found himself smiling, and had to turn his head to hide it.

And at that moment, the door burst open.

“All right, lads, I’m going to tell you something and I hope you’re going to take it like mature adults and not, for example, attempt to strangle me with my own hair.”

Graeme made a desperate sort of bleating noise as Tim shoved him hastily off the desk and into the relative cover of the shadows underneath. He curled up, and attempted to hide behind Tim’s bare legs, as Tim threw himself into a chair.

“Bill!” Tim managed, hastily straightening his hair, rebuttoning his cuffs, and in general attempting to make it appear that he sat looking flushed and slightly sweaty in his shirt-sleeves at the desk every day of the week, preferably before Bill turned round and looked at him.

“Where’s Graeme?” Bill demanded, putting the little transistor radio down on the corner of the desk. “Don’t say you’ve killed him already!”

“Um – um, no, Graeme’s just…popped out for a moment,” said Tim, with a rather forced little giggle. “I’m sure he’ll be back any moment.”

“Well, before he does, Timbo, my old mate, my old pal, bosom companion, person who, in short, would never attempt to insert someone’s transistor radio into him for something that wasn’t his fault – “

“Bill, what have you done?” asked Tim, the last word rising to a squeak as Graeme’s cold hands clutched at his naked calves.

“I should point out from the start that it’s not really a question of what I’ve done,” Bill insisted. “More a question of what the Archbishop of Canterbury’s done.”

“Bill – “

“Oh, listen for yourself!”

He flicked the radio on, and the voice of the newsreader crackled loudly into the room.
‘In reaction to the current disastrous shortage of Church of England clergy, the Archbishop of Canterbury today announced that all those who have taken up the Free Priesthood offer available from the Radio Times, Crunchypuffs Cereal and Raz washing powder are now bona fide priests, and have been licensed to perform all the rites and ceremonials of the Church of England. The new priests are to be drafted at once into service, and members of Parish Councils all over the country are currently moving from house to house, rounding up new clergymen and dispatching them to inner-city parishes. Bishop Tony Blackburn of Penge is said to be thrilled with his new responsibilities. As the decision applies retroactively, all those marriages already celebrated by the new priests are to be legally enforced. Buckingham Palace has welcomed the innovative and forward-thinking solution, despite the discovery that Prince Andrew has now been married more than four hundred times. The fifty-seventh Duchess of York, a small Javan gibbon called Mimi, made this statement earlier today – ‘

Bill clicked the radio off.

“Now, I don’t want you to do anything I’ll regret,” he said, looking at Tim’s expression. “It’s all right. I know that you’re - slightly more married to Graeme now than we were exactly intending. But it’s okay – so long as the marriage hasn’t been consummated, you can still get an annulment – “

Slowly, but inevitable as continental drift, Graeme’s head emerged above the level of the desk.

Bill bent over, and peered underneath. Then he straightened up, very deliberately, and covered his eyes with his hands.

“We’re going to get letters about this,” he said.