All Alone With Friends
"See you all next year!"
The cheery farewell rang round the duty-room, and was answered by the few agents left in the Headquarters block. Among them, Ray Doyle, who had mixed feelings about being on stand-by over the Christmas period.
He checked the roster again. Yes, he and his partner of a month, Bodie, were on stand-by to cover any shortfall in the duty agents. Chances were they would get a call before Christmas Day was through -- unless, of course, the Irish stuck to their word and the cease-fire held...
He felt vaguely guilty about not going home for the annual gathering of kith and kin, but on reflec- tion, he had little in common with any of his family -- except his genes -- and there would be the usual interrogation by his mother, and her sister, and her sister's eldest son. 'What are you doing with your life, Ray -- should be making money at a proper job, not sitting behind a desk pushing pens. When I was your age, I was works manager of the biggest...' et cetera, ad nauseam...Ray never told his family that his job in civil service DIDN'T largely consist of chasing secretaries and counting paper-clips; apart from his own innate sense of -- isolation -- from THE FAMILY, he was bound by the Official Secrets Act. When asked, he told them 'I'm a civil servant -- it's boring, but it pays the rent', and left it at that.
The other agents who were officially off-duty had organised an evening do, and were taking spouses and fiances, a chance for their own personal 'support crew' to meet, compare notes, make friends. Doyle had been invited, but had declined: he would feel out of place amid the family atmos- phere. Christmas would be quiet and lonely for him this year.
Not, of course, that he was the only one who would be alone. His partner -- that pain-in-the-arse- prima-donna -- Bodie, had just finished with his current girlfriend -- one broken date too many -- which would've upset HIS plans. Doyle only knew about it because Lucas' wife happened to know the bird in question...
Doyle didn't know much about his new side-kick: Bodie kept very much to himself, but he did know that the ex-soldier had no close relatives left alive. He was almost tempted to brave the frosty attitude and suggest they go out to celebrate together. But Bodie had made it clear from the start that theirs was strictly a business relationship, that he would brook no overtures of friendship, and would not fraternise with fellow agents outside of working hours. Doyle had come to the conclusion that his colleague was an ignorant -- and arrogant -- slob. Resigned, he set off for his own flat, and switched his mind to the more important problem of who he had forgotten to send Christmas cards to.
Christmas Eve morning. The city was heaving with people who were doing last-minute chores -- buying presents, food -- any number of eleventh-hour preparations. Doyle grinned. Nobody to worry about, except himself, and that was all taken care of. He was delivering the last of his cards to a former colleague.
Paul McDonald had worked on the records side of B Div. when Doyle was a constable. Paul and Sid Parker had had an on-going battle, which was an in-joke round the station, but when Sid died, Paul had been devastated, and had left soon afterwards. Doyle always stayed in touch -- birthdays, anniver- saries, and as many times in between during the year, when circumstances would allow; they would meet and remember, and reminisce.
Paul was currently working part-time in a second-hand book-shop. Doyle went in, looking round hopefully, before asking after his friend at the till.
"Downstairs," replied the assistant shortly, as he turned to deal with another customer.
Doyle dutifully went to the rear of the shop, and slowly descended the steep and winding stairway. Few members of the public ever ventured into this area: it was full of old hardbacks, rare and highly priced. Row upon row of dusty volumes on ancient shelves that spanned the available space between floor and ceiling...It smelled old, unused -- unloved -- and always made Doyle think of childhood days and abandoned toys...He paused at the bottom step, took a breath to call, and stopped when he heard the voices.
"It's the only copy we have at the moment. As you'll appreciate, it's (in) very poor condition -- " Paul was explaining.
"Would you mind if I take a look -- as long as it's legible..." There was something about the other man's voice...
"By all means. There are some of his others -- and a few anthologies that contain his better-known works -- "
"Thanks, Paul. Would you mind if I browsed round for a while?"
Doyle knew the answer to that: there were valuable items down here...
"Of course not. I'll see you in an hour or two..."
Paul was approaching, coming out of the maze of bookcases. Doyle stepped down to meet him. "Hello, Paul," he grinned, waving the card at his former colleague.
"Ray! Thank you. I left yours up by the till -- was going to drop round with it later -- "
Doyle nodded towards the back of the room. "Mind if I have a nose round?"
"Still broadening your horizons?" Paul teased. "Be my guest." He started up the stairs, and Doyle plunged into the depths of the library, his curiosity piqued.
He found his quarry in the poetry section. Tall, dark, casually dressed, with his head buried in a dusty old book. Doyle blinked, rubbed his eyes and decided he was hallucinating. Of all people he would've expected to see in a book-shop, Bodie would not have figured on his list, and the fact that he was also known at this particular shop hadn't gone unremarked. Poetry and Bodie didn't readily mix, in Doyle's mind...
Whatever his partner was reading had commanded his undivided attention. As he watched, Bodie slid down the wall, and settled comfortably against the rack, oblivious to the world, and the fact that he was being observed at close quarters. Smiling, Doyle retreated noiselessly to the stairs, and up into the main part of the shop. There was, he mused, more to Bodie than met the eye.
The buzzer sounded twice. With a sigh, Bodie carefully laid his newest acquisition on the coffee table, and went to answer the door.
"Doyle? What do you want?" he asked impatiently.
His partner barged past cheekily and dumped his carrier bag beside the book with a suspicious clank. "Thought I'd come over and wish you a merry Christmas," he replied, as he tugged off his jacket. "Don't tell me you were going to spend it alone?"
"I did have other plans," Bodie sounded annoyed.
Doyle's eye lighted on the title. 'Oscar Wilde'.
"Such as?" He picked it up. It was the one he'd seen Bodie with that morning. "Catching up on your reading?"
"As a matter of fact, yes. I prefer books to people. They don't make as many demands on your time -- "
"Bodie -- " Doyle sighed with exasperation. "Bodie, it's Christmas. Everybody should be with family -- or friends -- at Christmas."
"So why aren't you at home?" Bodie countered.
Doyle squirmed a little at the question. "My family lives in Derby -- out of range as we're on stand- by -- " Bodie waited. " -- and besides, I didn't want to be there. It's always the same old thing: by ten o'clock Christmas morning, the kids will have broken their toys, and my mother and aunt would be arguing over who was cooking the turkey..."
Bodie was trying very hard not to smile at the images of domesticity.
"And I thought about you -- being alone -- so I decided to come over and bring a couple of jars of Christmas spirit..." He looked askance at his colleague.
The handsome face cracked into a rather appealing grin. "All right, you can stay -- and I appreciate the thought. There's turkey in the kitchen, if you want, and wine in the fridge. Make yourself at home -- the only stipulation I'll make is that you keep quiet so that I can finish this book." Doyle picked up his contribution to the evening and took it out to the ice-box.
Bodie closed the book softly and glanced up.
Doyle was sitting close by, absorbed in a large volume of poetry. Bodie sat up slowly and peered over his partner's shoulder. The words caught his attention, and he laughed gently.
'I am utterly content.
In all my being is no ripple of unrest
For I have opened unto you
The wide gates of my being
And like a tide, you have flowed into me.'
Doyle looked up and in that moment, he knew what had driven him to come to Bodie's flat that night. Their eyes met and locked. A hand reached out to ruffle the unruly thatch of curls and Doyle caught it, bringing it down to his mouth, where he could kiss the callous palm.
Bodie leaned forward, twisting slightly and placed an answering kiss on one stubbled cheek, sliding his arm round Doyle's neck to hold him close...
"It's getting late -- we may get a call-out tomorrow..." he murmured huskily. "Let's go to bed now, Ray."
The IRA cease-fire lasted until the early hours of the 27th of December, by which time both 3.7 and 4.5 were off-duty and celebrating a belated Christmas -- all alone with friends.
"Who hath a book, has friends at hand"
-- THE END --
Quotes from 'Fulfillment,'author unknown, and 'Who hath a book,' Wilbur D. Nesbit and Brian Rankin