“You know, it sounds good,” says Arthur coolly. “Who did it with you?”
Arthur’s green eyes are hard. Not angry. Just closed off. Mathias can’t read his expression. Sure his eyebrows might be raised in interest, but that is just a mask of normalcy. Idiot. Doesn’t he know? Mathias is sure what happened between them has been leaked to everyone else he knows, for whenever he goes to pubs or shows up in class or walks into the library he is met with sympathetic glances. He doesn’t fucking want sympathy. He wants out of this place. He wants to go away, to Denmark and kiss a pretty Danish boy and scream and hit something GOD DAMN he cannot stand Arthur anymore—
“Jager. And Sadik. They were in town.” Control yourself, Mathias.
Arthur nods his head to the beat. “It sounds nice.”
Nice. Nice. Mathias supposes that is good for his first song. At least it doesn’t sound like total shit. At least it sounds better than he feels. Which is, in essence, total shit. He feels like total shit. Ha. He might start laughing, if he weren’t in front of Arthur and Gilbert. They might not even notice him, though, Arthur has his eyes closed, and Gilbert is facing away from them, looking out the window covered only by a mesh wire, a cigarette at his lips. The only noise inside the parking garage practise space is the music, his song. His soul, almost. He might as well be baring his insides to Arthur and Gilbert, and as much that makes him uncomfortable and naked, that makes him feel relieved. He wonders if that is how Arthur feels.
Stop thinking about Arthur, Mathias. Stop it.
I can’t stop when he’s right there.
The only way that this song works, Mathias realises, if he feels the anger and feels the pain. From the ache the song was born, and from the ache the song is meant to be played. It’s—it’s releasing in a way, that when he drums, and drums once more (with feeling!) that he feels the knots of anxiety and misery ease and the muscles in his arms and shoulders flex effortlessly, his mind free and high on oxytocins. And in those moments, even with all of the pain channelled through the music, he feels like he can forgive Arthur in that moment.
What a funny thought. To forgive Arthur, something impossible that seems possible in a brief moment after music. It heals everything, doesn’t it? I suppose that is why Arthur is so attracted to it, why he never stops, why Mathias can’t stop, why Gilbert can’t stop, why their band, even if Arthur hates Gilbert and Mathias hates Arthur and everything, works. Why they work. Why people liked the song when they played it on Sunday, despite all of their personal differences, despite all of their ambivalence and their conflicts and agendas.
What a rush. Hahahaha. What a fucking rush.
It doesn’t feel all completely there. It feels like a horrible, terrible aching. It feels like an emptiness that is numb and cold. It feels dreadfully still, thick, thin. His sternum aches, and behind it his heart aches, and his lungs ache, and his stomach craves a want of anything.
He’s just so drained, drained of energy and life and love. He wants to run his hands over Arthur’s face again, to feel his neck and hair and collarbone and ribs, to count the bones and muscles in Arthur’s body with his fingers, and to feel Arthur gasp and shudder and groan under him, to put his mouth to Arthur’s skin and breathe in his scent. It looks so far away now, and he is too tired to get out of bed to walk and run and chase it, for no matter how much closer he gets to it, the more he swipes at it blindly, the farther it dances out of his reaching grasp. He is too tired to eat. He is too tired to live.
On the fifth day, Gilbert knocks on the door and walks in without a moment’s hesitation. He’s a dick in that way, and normally Mathias doesn’t give a shit about Gilbert’s rudeness, but now, when he really needs and wants to be alone. Elizaveta’s absence is probably a good thing as well, as Gilbert, nowadays, goes nowhere without her, and their presence together would hurt more than either one of them alone.
Gilbert sits himself down on the bed across from Mathias. “I brought takeaway,” he says, holding up a brown paper bag labelled King Wok House 8. Mathias looks blankly at it. He loves Chinese food, but he wants—he wants to go to Denmark again. He wants to stay at his grandparents’ cottage painted yellow in Aarhus, bike the stone roads, sit on the tall grass and listen to the wind and the waves crashing on the shore, watch the sky blue, eat frikadeller smørrbrød after cross-country skiing in the winter, or sweet pastries after a rough game of footy in the streets with his friends. He just wants to leave England, leave, because as long as he is in England, Arthur will be here, and Arthur is English and he is England; he eclipses the whole of the country and Mathias is mad, absolutely raving mad, but things are as they stand and things are how he sees them.
“You hungry at all?” asks Gilbert.
Mathias shakes his head. “You can have the food if you want.”
Gilbert stares at him for a moment, then shrugs and opens a carton of fried rice.
“I worry for you,” he says, while devouring sweet and sour chicken. “Francis worries for you, too.”
Mathias shrugs, his eyes closed, his finger tapping steadily to a beat in his head. A beat that builds. A bassline. A guitar building the body of the song, and then words, soft and crooning.
“Francis told me… about… Arthur.” Gilbert’s voice doesn’t waver. Mathias opens his eyes and looks over at Gilbert, his strange pale eyebrows furrowed, a trace of red sweet and sour sauce on his chin. Mathias waits a heartbeat.
“Does everyone know?” he asks in a low voice.
“Everyone in our circle of friends, I think.”
Mathias heaves a sigh. Gilbert’s phone buzzes. The German slides it out of his pocket and glances at the screen briefly.
“I gotta go,” Gilbert says. “And—you look like you need to be alone.”
He leaves, closing the door softly behind him. Mathias rolls over and looks at the ceiling. The words are still floating in his head, the music still flowing, the beat still pumping…
Mathias finds Arthur sitting on the roof of Sadik’s flat building (obviously the building is not his, but they have found a way out to the roof, where sometimes they smoke cigarettes and sleep under the stars and pluck soft chords on acoustic guitars and hum wandering melodies) sitting on the edge, dangling his feet over the streets below, lonely written all over his face. Even in the darkness and the squinty light of the moonlight, Mathias can make out his misery, the tightness in his shoulders, the tangled bedhead straw blond hair. He sits next to him on the ledge, facing away from the street, and pulls out a pack of cigarettes.
“D’you want one?” he asks. Arthur turns his head, sees Mathias, and seems to sigh inwardly of relief. He takes the fag and puts it in his mouth, letting the Dane light it, and inhales the smoke and watching white wisps curl upwards into the sky. For a while they watch the smoke, illuminated in the silver moonlight, spiralling lazily into the night sky, disturbed only by the night breeze. Mathias wants to say something, he feels that urge in his gut, but he can’t think of anything to say. All right? Too casual. He had already sat there for a bit; saying “all right?” now would just feel silly. How are you feeling? For fucks’ sake, he wasn’t Arthur’s therapist; like hell he was going to say that. What’s happening? Now that was just ridiculous. He doesn’t need to worry though.
“This lonely shit, it sucks.” Arthur says quietly. “Being with no one, doing nothing with no one, sharing your life with no one—it sucks.”
“You have your music, don’t you?” Mathias asks. “It connects you to people, connects you to us, the band.”
“Yeah but—” Arthur throws down the cigarette on the ledge, grinding it under his long fingers. “I need to feel someone’s skin, you know? Feel them, kiss them, fuck them, watch movies with them, eat with them, play music for them—”
He stops talking because Mathias kisses him.
God, it feels so good. It feels so good to let everything that had been bottling up for nearly a year now, the passion, the desire, the craving, to press his lips against Arthur’s and to put his hands on Arthur’s face, and feel his palms on Arthur’s cheek bones, taste the smokiness of Arthur’s breath. Arthur seems to tense up, his shoulders rising like a cat’s haunches, leaning away from Mathias. Mathias opens his eyes. Arthur’s eyebrows are scrunched strangely, his green eyes almost fearful, panicked.
“I’m sorry,” he says, breathing heavily. “I’m really sorry. I mean—I have respect for that but—”
Mathias blinks blankly. His mouth searches for words, but his tongue serves an empty plate.
“I can’t,” says Arthur. “I can’t. I can’t. I—can’t—”
He swings his legs over the ledge, and leaves, Mathias still dizzy from the kiss and from how long it lasted—really, how short it lasted. He might as well have fallen off the ledge.
“Massage my feet,” says Elizaveta. They’re watching Game of Thrones,and he is sitting forwards on the couch, while she is sitting sideways, her legs propped up in his lap. They’ve stolen Sadik’s flat for the night, because it’s much more spacious and comfortable than their shitty little dorms. Also Sadik has a proper flat-screen TV, which beats a shitty little laptop screen any day.
“You want me to what now?” says Gilbert.
“Massage my feet.”
“I’ve been walking around all day in those damn heels.”
“Why the fuck were you walking around in heels all day?”
She gives him an almost condescending look. “To break them in, of course.”
“What d’you need to break them in for?”
She wriggles her foot in his face. “So this doesn’t happen every single day I wear heels!”
He pretends to think about it. “Hmm. Well. I’d rather not massage your feet—”
“—You little fuck—”
“—I think I’d rather massage your legs… your thighs…” His hand playfully creeps up the inside of her leg.
“Christ, Gil, you’re so horny all the time,” she complains, but she laughs anyway, as he pushes her down on the couch.
“No? You don’t want the D?”
“Yeah.” Gilbert grins. “Fuck me.”
A click from the doorway. The heavy clunk-clunk of footsteps reveals Arthur, his face tired and haggard, shoulders slumped from the burden of nothing, his eyes sore and red-rimmed, widening in some sort of emotion—shock, and some other things Gilbert can’t make out—his hands dangling at his sides.
Gilbert sits up straight. Elizaveta straightens her clothes, combs her tangled hair with her fingers. Arthur walks briefly towards the drum set, picks up his guitar in its hard case, and leaves without saying a word.
A thick silence settles over their shoulders and desires, and Elizaveta sighs deeply.
“Are you still in the mood?” she asks him in a low voice, tickling his ear.
“I dunno. Arthur’s my friend. He doesn’t look all right.”
She scoots closer to him and leans on his shoulder. “He’ll be all right. He’ll sort himself out. He always does. It’s Arthur, after all.”
He looks at her kind eyes. “Yeah, he will,” he admits. She smiles back at him and puts a soft kiss on his mouth.
Arthur doesn’t know how or when it happened, but—Elizaveta and Gilbert are together. Together together.
He gets back to his dorm at five in the morning and sees them lying on Gilbert’s bed, intertwined in a tangle of limbs and sheets, their faces so kind and affectionate towards each other even when they sleep, Gilbert’s fingers lacing with Elizaveta’s, his silvery blond hair mingling with her warm brown.
He doesn’t know how to react, so he leaves, with his things and sleeps at Sadik’s flat for a few days. Mathias finds him there, sitting in the kitchen with a cup of coffee that had long since gone cold, staring indifferently at the window outside. London Eye. Parliament building. The streets, with a car rushing by every once in a while. The sky is grey and cloudy, typical London, and the air is cold and inside the flat is cold. Even still, Arthur wears nothing but his t-shirt and sweatpants. He hasn’t the motivation to change.
“Arthur?” Arthur doesn’t move. Mathias. His voice is unchanged through all these days, and he always says Arthur’s name the same way. Same way every time. There is a strange tone in the inflection of his voice—shaky. Something uncertain, something different. It doesn’t concern him, but he notices and forgets in the same instant, and instead opts to return to the greyness outside the window.
“Arthur? You all right?”
Mathias sits down across from him at the table. Arthur turns his head. Blue eyes. Mathias has blue eyes. They look at him with concern. Arthur might respond, if he cared at all. He doesn’t.
“I know you’re upset and all, but you have studies to do and—”
“I’m not upset,” Arthur says firmly.
Mathias seems to back off after that. The Dane leans back in his chair and sighs. “D’you want to go out for lunch or something? It’s noon.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Mathias doesn’t say anything. “All right.”
He gets up slowly and walks out of the room. The door to the flat opens and closes. Arthur remains seated at the table.
Gilbert and Elizaveta, Gilbert and Elizaveta—he can still see Gilbert’s pale hair and pale skin next to Elizaveta’s fair face. They’re probably out now, together now, Facebook-official, holding hands in a pub and studying together in the library and watching films together while slowly getting drunk and falling more in love.
He is not jealous, but he has been alone all his life, and he is tired of that. That’s what he tells himself, but the words taste funny and the feeling drags him down to earth. He wants to fly—music makes him fly, but he doesn’t know if music can bring him out of this.
They go to see The Great Gatsby in the cinema together, and on the late train back, they sit side by side, and Elizaveta puts her sleepy head on Gilbert’s shoulder.
He gazes down at her, and feels a rush of emotion: affection, maybe nostalgia—when was the last time he’d liked a girl this much? He can’t remember anyone else nearly as beautiful, as kind, as funny as her. He can’t remember anyone that he’d taken seriously and that he’d really liked seriously, anyone who had the soft curve of face, curve of lips, curve of eyelashes, anyone who had the gentleness and tenderness in her green eyes and the brightness in her smile, anyone who had such a full laughter and rich voice, anyone who could sing with him as well as he could. She is better than all of the other girls in the world, warmer than anyone he can remember or compare to, and—well, she made him better. She is better, and he is better, and together they are more better than he can ever conceive, and life is better.
He strokes her hair a little bit, and when they get off the train to go to their dorms, she clings to him even after they reach the point where they normally part ways to go to their separate dorms. “I’m tired,” she murmurs in a low voice. “And you’re comfortable.”
Gilbert disagrees. She’s more comfortable. Her skin is soft and warm, and her hair silky, and when they squeeze together on the dorm bed, they seem to fit together, the crevices between their fingers interlocking like they were made for each other, the curve of her back matching the slouch of his front. He puts an arm over hers, fighting the desire to kiss her and touch her and feel her inside and know her; instead, he settles for burying her face in her hair. It smells so good. It doesn’t smell sweet or like fruit or anything. It smells familiar. Like he’s known her forever and a day.
“Are we spooning?” she asks him drowsily in the darkness. He runs a hand over her shoulder, not daring to feel any more.
“Bitch, we might be,” he replies.
She laughs. “Move a bit, I want to roll over.”
He wriggles back towards the wall, and she rolls over so she’s facing him. They make eye contact in the dim light. She smiles.
Gilbert’s not sure what makes him do this, but he leans forward and kisses her on the mouth, softly, tenderly, not wanting for sex, but for her. To his surprise, she kisses back, fiercely and firmly, and they kiss and kiss and angle their heads this way and that, until his fingers are reaching for the strap of her tank top and hers are inching towards his hips and the elastic band of his pants and he is on top of her and she is arching upwards.
“Are you sure?” he whispers in her ear, wanting to make sure. Did this not happen before?
She looks into his eyes, grabs his face and pulls him down. “I didn’t know if you fancied me back,” she breathes, almost with a sigh of a relief.
He might cry of those words—he is weak and silly, but he is hers and she is his, and that is all that matters.
Elizaveta texts Gilbert around noon on the first day of classes after the winter holidays and invites him to lunch. He complies most willingly. They go to a small pub.
“So, how was your Christmas?” she asks him, leaning forward, green eyes bright and interested.
He shrugs casually. “All right, I suppose. You?”
“It was quiet. My cousins were awful, as always.” She rolls her eyes. “Have I complained about them to you yet? I probably have. They’re so annoying, you probably don’t want to hear about them…”
“What? No, I’d like to.”
She makes a face like she doesn’t believe him. “Sure.”
“No, no, like—” He feels a sort of flurried rush to his face. “I would like to. Hear about your cousins. They seem interesting.”
“Well, they’re not really. I mean there’s Vlad, who’s a total pain in the ass, in that he’s just absolutely whiny and annoying…”
She goes on and on about her annoying Manchester City fan cousin Vlad, and Gilbert just finds himself sitting there and not even really listening or paying attention at all. Elizaveta’s too beautiful for that. Her expressions are animated and she gestures wildly, but her face has a timeless sort of charm, a soft, warm, open sort of happiness that draws you in. He finds his eyes tracing the planes of her face, her full lips, her eyes with long, soft lashes, her eyebrows arching upward gracefully.
“Ugh, I’m sorry, I must be boring you.” She leans back, running a hand through her hair. “I need to shut up sometimes.”
“It’s all right,” he says a bit dreamily. Dreamily? Wow. He is stupid. He is becoming very stupid. He wants to start laughing at his own sheer stupidity but no, he’s in a public place, and even worse, he’s with Lizzie. Lizzie.
The weird thing about this is that it feels like a date, even though (he’s fairly certain) Elizaveta probably doesn’t consider it one. They’re just friends, and they had been friends before New Year’s and Christmas and all of that, and they’re having lunch in a pub catching up on each other’s holiday. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t texted during the holiday; they had, but there had been so much going on with the band and Liverpool games and really getting to know Arthur (the lad isn’t so bad after all. He’s a strange character, really) he hadn’t really touched his phone as much as he did when he was at university.
“So, yeah. I’m sorry I’m boring.” She sighs deeply.
“You’re not boring,” Gilbert tells her.
She smiles at him (and Gilbert feels his chest shiver a little bit). “You’re sweet to try to make me feel better.”
“I’m here for you, mate.” Mate. God, that’s so cringey. She doesn’t seem to notice though.
When they leave, she kisses him on a cheek, and he walks on clouds for the rest of the day.
Christmas comes and goes. It’s a quiet one this year.
On the Sunday after New Year’s, Arthur takes a bus to the cemetery and on the way, buys flowers. Purple ones. Purple was her favourite colour.
The path to her spot is much too familiar to him; he can walk it without thinking too hard about where to go. At her gravestone, he pauses. He lays the flowers at her grave, propped up on the stone. Then he sits down, hugging his knees.
He never talks when he’s there. Not with words, not with his voice actually coming out of his mouth—no, he doesn’t do that, that’s just awkward. But he does talk to her. He sits there and thinks and tells her things.
He tells her about university, about the band, about his relaxed classes. He tells her about Elizaveta and how he feels like he might have been in love with her, but probably not. No, he probably wasn’t. He tells her about Mathias and meeting Mathias and forming the band. He tells her about Gilbert and how, despite the German’s obnoxiousness and loudness, he is amazingly talented and a good lad. Maybe he’s a mate. He could be a mate. It’s not nearly as tense anymore, the air between them; it’s more relaxed, and maybe Gilbert still picks on him but it’s less malicious and more good-natured. It’s… not really that bad. Not as bad as it was at the beginning of the year. He wonders if that’s why they didn’t switch dormmates immediately. At the time he just supposed that neither Gilbert nor Arthur was willing to put enough effort into it, and the fact that Arthur spent a lot of time outside his dorm living in Sadik’s flat helped, since that way they never really had to interact with each other. But now that they were in a band together—well that was convenient.
Band. Haha. Is it even the right thing to do? They’re amazing, and when they play it feels amazing. They all have passion, but it’s different kinds of passion: Gilbert the soulful, performer passion, while Arthur is the intense, raw-emotion passion, and Mathias is just unbridled, energetic passion. But they balance each other, and the energy is never too overbearing to the others. They know when to back off for the others and how to support the others. It hasn’t happened to Arthur for anyone else that he’s played with, the subtle balance of blending and voices within the music of the band. Not instinctively, not right from the very beginning. That sort of balance always came from a few times of playing with each other. But not with these people.
He knows firsthand though, how much strife being in the industry can bring: success, failure, emotions clashing like ocean waves in a storm. Watching Roma manage bands has taught him so many things, and he feels—like the industry will take him and pull him apart emotionally, physically, mentally. And not just him, but his bandmates as well: Gilbert, Mathias. They’ll get their entire lives turned upside-down. And, if they get really famous, their privacy will be gone.
Is that worth it? Is that worth it? He wants do to it more than anything else in his life; he can’t imagine doing anything else in his future. He does want to study literature and all of those, but music—music is what he really lives for. It is his passion and his life and his everything, and nothing can eclipse that.
The wind picks up a little bit. He stands up, touches the top of the gravestone for a moment.
“Thanks, Mum,” he whispers, but the breeze blows it away before anyone to hear it, carrying it to the other side so she can hear.
More often nights than not, Mathias dreams to fill the empty ache inside his chest, to put his fingers on Arthur’s face and kiss it and kiss it and then kiss his neck and the Adam’s apple and then his collar bone and his shoulder and bicep, and trace the crevices and bumps on his back, and run his fingers through his blond hair and mess it up, and feel his face against his, so close that it’s hot, but a good kind of hot, a filling, pleasured kind of heat that he craves from the very vacancy inside himself, a vacancy that hurts so much that he might cry with emotion.
It feels strange. Arthur is not his type. Well, maybe Arthur is his type. He tends to like people who are reserved and cool but dangerously attractive and mysterious. Arthur is all of those things. But the thing that makes Mathias truly want him, the thing that attracts him most to Arthur is his passion and life when he plays music, when he sings, when he drums, when he plays guitar, when he plays bass, the fervour so hot it scorches the whole stage, blinds eyes of everyone watching, makes Mathias shudder with want, because that is all it is, want, hands and shoulders and closer, closer, closer, farther, farther, farther.
The feeling tortures him, so the weekend before Christmas he visits Erik again.
“Oh. Mathias. I haven’t seen you in a while.” Erik gazes at him coolly. His words are dry, as Mathias has always remembered. They haven’t spoken for months now. Erik goes to the University of Liverpool, and Mathias University College in London. Erik cold and calm and cool, Mathias outgoing and wild and passionate. As he could get.
Mathias does not say anything. He steps forward, closes the door behind him, and takes Erik’s face in his hands, and kisses his mouth.
Erik inhales deeply. His thin hands creep to the waistband of Mathias’s jeans, running up under his shirt, forcing his jacket off.
Mathias keeps going. He’s empty. He needs something. Something that will make him feel full again. And he doesn’t know anyone else who will go at such short notice. He doesn’t have time for the coy plays of flirting and getting someone to go home with him. He just needs this bare essential, raw, emotion. Unrefined emotion. They kiss and they kiss and they kiss and then Mathias is pushing Erik down on the bed.
Afterwards, when they are done, Erik falls asleep quickly, tired, but Mathias lies on his side and watches Erik’s chest rise and fall slowly, the soft outlines of his face in the dim, dim light of the room.
To his disappointment, the desire still claws at him. And while Erik is beautiful in his own right, he is no Arthur.
Gilbert’s laughing as they walk offstage, his bass still slung over his shoulder. Evidently he’s on top of the world too. Arthur breathes in and out. The cool dark air offstage is such a relief.
“You idiot!” Roma calls from backstage. “Aren’t you going to clear out for the next band?”
“Sorry!” he calls back, and runs to grab amps and toms and stands. The band after them seems cool with it.
Arthur fights his way out into the crowd. He stops. Mathias, tall and awkward like a horse, bumps into him.
“Arthur?” he says in a strangled-sounding voice. “Are you all right?”
Arthur. Kirkland. That was his name. Yeah. No. He isn’t all right. He is never all right around him. Not just him. Him. I have to go home. I have to leave. His feet won’t obey his brain. His stomach might squeeze its contents up his throat. Breathe. God fucking damn it Arthur. Breathe.
“Arthur?” Arthur? Arthur?
Ian Kirkland is tall and burly. The girls like him because of his green eyes and strong eyebrows and thick auburn hair that he likes to run his hand through and comb it back. He’s attractive enough, unlike Arthur, who is awkward, desperately skinny, and desperately English-looking. Strong and weak. Ian and Arthur. Brother and brother. He’s going to throw up.
He swallows hard. He can’t move still. Mathias is behind him, his big drummers’ hands on Arthur’s shoulders, and they are warm and they reassure him a bit but nothing compared to what he needs.
That isn’t from Mathias’s mouth. That is Ian’s voice, as condescending and arrogant as ever. Arthur feels a prickle of anxiety, one so strong that his eyes water, and he keeps them stretched wide open for the fear that the tears will overflow. He feels like such a pussy. Crying. Weak. Ian. Ian makes him feel weak.
Ian cocks an eyebrow. “Well. Look who we have here. The next John Lennon, innit?”
He dares not say a word. He can’t satisfy his scum of a brother any more than he is right now. This reaction is exactly what his brother wants isn’t it? His damn son of a cunt brother.
“Shame that you’re actually quite into it. As I remember you were never particularly stellar at everything.” Ian lights up a cigarette. “Well. It was nice seeing you. Hope you’re doing well.”
The words don’t mean anything. They have never meant anything.
Ian wanders away, leaving a trail of tobacco in his wake, and shaking anger in Arthur’s limbs. That night he grasps for sleep on his side, trying to claw his way out of self-loathing and self-disgust.
Hope you’re doing well.