nothing to say

by cimorene

Mark turns to Colin and says "I'm leaving."

Mark has never said anything like it before. That doesn't seem like Mark. "Wha'?" Colin says, looking at him.

"I can't handle this. 'S doing my brain in."

"Where are you going?" says Colin.

Mark doesn't answer right away. "Anywhere." He has to think about it.

Colin thinks about Mark leaving. He isn't sure, but pretty sure, that it means Mark isn't coming back. There would be no one in his room then--no one except Colin.

He is sure Mark meant he wasn't coming back, Colin decides. He's thought about it for a while. But he doesn't know whether to believe Mark.

His ma says "Mark don't mean the things he says, usually." Colin knows other people understand things he doesn't. But he doesn't believe his ma. Mark is Colin's brother and he knows Mark better than she does. He is the one who sits on the other bed when Mark talks about his new jobs--he's always lying--and smokes and sometimes just stares at the ceiling. He is the one Mark is really a tosser to, sometimes.

He knows the things Ma is talking about and he knows that Mark means them. He really meant that Colin shouldn't take Auntie Barbara's job because he'd mess it up. And when Mark says he shouldn't have been born he means that, too. He doesn't say it very often.

But the reason he doesn't maybe believe Mark is Mark mostly means what he says, but he mostly lies about what he's going to do. And what he did. Colin thinks it's partly because he's so slow that Mark tells lies to him, but he doesn't know exactly. When Colin asks Mark why he lies Mark never answers the same thing twice. Colin might never know. But he still asks.

So that's why he doesn't say anything else to Mark about "I'm leaving" that night. It's why Colin doesn't say a lot of things. There's not anything to say, is there?

Colin doesn't talk when there's not anything to say. He likes to listen to other people sometimes, though. But he doesn't like to hear himself. Mark is different. Mark wants everybody to listen to him; when people listen to Colin, Colin usually wishes they would stop.

Two days after that Mark comes home in the middle of dinner. "Where you been," says Ma.

"Out," says Mark, snuffling. It's a little cold in the flat. Even though his ma and da have already seen his head, Colin has been wearing his coat for two days. Mark was right on Monday. He sweats in it. It is starting to smell.

"Well don't expect us to save a bit for you when we don't know where you are, when you'll even be back," says Da.

Mark gets a plate of the food from the stove muttering to himself the whole time. He hasn't talked to their da in two days. He eats in the living room.

Colin goes back to sit on his bed after he eats. He's run out of cigarettes again, so he takes off his shoes and sits on the edge of his bed with the blankets on his legs and waits for Mark to come and give him one, if he isn't out too.

Mark comes in. "What you doin'?"

"Nuffin," says Colin.


"C'n I have a fag?"

"You want one o' them too, yeah?"

"Yeah," says Colin.

"Here," says Mark. "Bought some new ones."

Colin doesn't say anything. He takes the lighter from the dresser, flicks it patiently until the end catches. He leans back on the wall again.

"I'm leaving," says Mark just like the other day. "And you're coming with me."

"You sure your head ain't got nuffin' to do with Coxy?" says Mark.

"No one told me," says Colin, like that's the same thing. But he knows it isn't.

"Huh," says Mark. "You ain't never gonna get no job like that."

Colin doesn't answer that. It is probably true, even if Mark doesn't know what he's talking about. Colin thinks he does. And he can't imagine having a job, anyway.

"Now, I got a job, me," says Mark. "Taking photographs for a magazine. Pays good. Full-time."

"Where?" Colin asks.

"Dublin," says Mark, "I'm moving tomorrow. Told me not to bring nobody with me, they did."

"Liar," says Colin, almost sure. Mark could never go to Dublin. He might leave Ma and Da, but he'll never leave the South End. "You're lying."

"Well, I couldn't very well have that, could I?" Mark continues, like explaining.


"I can't move there all alone. Live in my own flat? Never afford the rent."

"You ain't," says Colin.

Mark grins at him. Colin is relieved. That means he was right, that Mark was lying. Mark is done with this lie now. It makes him happy to tell them and happy to be done, too. "Actually," he says, "I'm going tonight. You ready?"

"Going?" says Colin warily. But he thinks he knows what Mark means.

"Going," says Mark, crouching in front of him. "Outta here, 'way from them, Kermit. You ain't already forgot? I told you Monday. What you got in there, anyway?" He reaches out to knock on the side of Colin's head like it's a door and Colin ducks away, scowling.

"Don't call me that."

"Are you ready?" says Mark.

Colin thinks about whether he should ask where they're going. He isn't sure he wants to go now. Before, when he wasn't sure if Mark was really taking him, though, he was.

Today while Mark was gone, Colin went out almost all day again. Now that he did it once when he came back from Auntie Barbara's he can't stop doing it. He doesn't want to come back any more.

He walked to the laundrette and down the pub and even all the way to Sweeney's market. He started back, and stopped outside the building they knocked down last week that's all a pile of broken things and rubbish now, and smoked two cigarettes. While he was there, Coxy went by on the street by himself, dancing instead of walking, and looking at his feet and sort of singing. He danced right by Colin, swinging his arms, watching his red DMs. Then he turned back. He strolled up to Colin and put his hands on his hips, leaned close and breathed on Colin's face breath that smelled stale and sour, of beer and fags, and pickles.

"Colin," said Coxy, "Colin the... Eskimo." Colin just looked at him until Coxy reached up and tugged sharply on the cord tying his hood under his chin. "Let us have a look then."

Colin frowned and shook his head. He didn't want Coxy to see that he'd shaved his head. He wasn't a skinhead.

"Got a fag then?" Coxy said instead.

Colin took out the pack and tipped one out, handed it to Coxy and held up his lighter, flicking at it to get it to light. Even though he was watching the end of the fag he could see Coxy's wide pink mouth in his pale face, the blue eyes that were pointed at the corners. He could see the way Coxy looked almost all the time, like he was thinking about something, and like he thought something was funny, or he was mad. Coxy smiled a little at him when he lit the fag, very fast, and then stopped again right away.

And he stared at Colin without talking the whole time he smoked it. He only moved back one or two steps. "You and me," he said after he was done with it. "We're mates." He wasn't smiling when he said it. He almost yelled, "You're my mate, aren't you?"

Colin nodded, and Coxy went away, but he looked over his shoulder three times before he got round the corner, and every time, he was smiling.

Coxy is one of the people Colin doesn't understand. He talks a lot, and most of the time Colin doesn't know what he's talking about. He can tell the difference, though, between Coxy and a lot of other people. The difference is that nobody else understands Coxy either, and Colin likes that.

"Where are we going?" He asks Mark.

Mark says, "I told you. Away from here. Come on."

Colin stands up reluctantly. He still isn't sure, exactly. But he has to follow Mark out.

Mark has opened the door of their room. He stands in the opening and sighs, "Come on. Coxy'll be waiting."

Colin stares at him, and follows him out the door.

Mark has not underestimated Colin's eagerness to follow him when he hears who's waiting. Colin is careful not to stumble, even when he moves fast, so it's hard to see that way, though Mark can still tell. He runs down the stairs after Mark in his footsteps and the sound of their feet reverberates up the dark stairwell.

Mark is a cynical bastard. He considers whether their parents will be upset that they're gone, and he decides they won't. Ma loves them both in her own way, but they were always another pair of broken washing machines to her anyway.

However broken Mark and Colin are, thinks Mark, neither of them ought to be a washing machine.

The thing that has bothered him about this from the first is money. He knows he's not suddenly going to get a job. He's not even going to suddenly start looking. But when he realised that money could hardly get worse it was almost easy to realise it didn't matter. He couldn't stay. It was that simple. And he wouldn't leave his brother behind either.

It wasn't about brotherly love or human decency or spiting his parents. Colin had always followed him about and been more his than theirs. That their ma couldn't understand that just showed again how well she knew either of them.

Coxy's outside in the dark, with mostly the toes of his boots visible because they're the farthest from the wall, shiny and red. He tilts his head and the light catches wetly in the whites of his eyes. "That it then?" He says. "We all ready? Colin?"

Coxy says Colin with a heavy, mocking stress.

At least Mark thinks it's mocking. Coxy has never so much as mentioned Colin to him while Colin wasn't around.

Colin squints at him. "Yeah."

"We going?"

"I reckon," says Mark.

"You reckon?"

"I reckon."

"I reckon," says Coxy. "Colin, what about it?"

Colin steps forward a little, into the one streetlight that isn't yet smashed in, and turns his head this way and that and looks at Coxy until Coxy grins and dances forward, seizing his arm in one hand, catching Mark's elbow in the other, and dragging them after him down the street.

For a whole week at first, Coxy doesn't leave the little flat. "Can we live here?" says Colin, because it doesn't have lights and electricity and he thinks that if they were supposed to be there it would.

Coxy pushes him in the chest until he falls back sprawled and stupid in a chair, leans into his face and says, "We can live anywhere we want. Can't we?"

Colin walks down to the laundrette twice, Tuesday and Wednesday, and watches the people there all day without saying a word to any of them. Thursday Mark finds him in the pub watching telly--there isn't a telly in the little flat although by then, there is electricity in one of the rooms.

Friday Mark jostles him awake early and says, "Come on. Up. We're going to see Auntie Barbara." There are no beds in the flat. Coxy sleeps on a dirty old sofa without the cushions and Mark has somewhere got a mattress to go on the floor without sheets. Colin sleeps on the sofa cushions, laid out in a line on the floor. They are too flat to slide out from under him in the middle of the night.

Coxy's still sleeping and snoring loudly when they leave. He sleeps on his back with his arm thrown over his forehead and his mouth open. His mouth is wet, and the dim light through the dirty window shines on the spit collected in the corner.

"Colin! Well, Mark!" Says Auntie Barbara. "Boys, I must say this is a surprise, I really must."

"C'n I talk to you?" Says Mark.

"That's an interesting question, Mark," says Auntie Barbara, wiping her eyes with the cuff of her shirt. Her nose is red. "What are you boys doing here?"

Colin hurries into the living room by himself and hunches down in the corner of Auntie Barbara's long grey sofa, looking out the window.

"Colin? Would you boys like some tea?" He hears, but he knows Mark will answer her.

There is a red plastic birdfeeder hanging outside the window of Uncle John and Auntie Barbara's house. A bird comes to the birdfeeder and stands on one of the little sticks. It pecks for a while and flies away and flies back, switches sides to the other side of the feeder and finally leaves. Colin watches for a long time, but it doesn't come back again.

"Well," says Auntie Barbara, coming back in with a tea tray. "Oh, my, where is my mind today? John's gone and left all these magazines on the coffee table and here I am with my hands full. Mark, could you just--no, of course not, you'll have to be on your way, won't you. Colin, could you move those for me so I can put the tea tray down?"

Colin takes a pile of slippery magazines off the coffee table and since he doesn't know what to do with them, puts them down next to him on the couch. Auntie Barbara is looking at him expectantly and the front door has slammed from Mark leaving. Colin doesn't know what to do at all, but he takes the cup of tea Auntie Barbara pours for him. "Colin," she says. "What have you been up to?"

Colin stares. He doesn't say anything.

Auntie Barbara smiles at him for a minute, but then she blinks very fast and looks past him at the window. When Colin turns around he can see a bird at the feeder again. He thinks the bird has come back at first, but it hasn't. It isn't the same one.

Mark doesn't actually have a job as yet, but he figures he's done his part getting Auntie Barbara to give Colin the money. And he can't really leave Colin to go there on his own, and he can't let dear Barbara drive the boy home.

For one thing, he's not sure Colin could direct her to the new flat. For another, she'd be bound to know they're squatting there--for now anyway. And she'd probably go right and rat them out, not like she didn't like as run away from home herself. She probably thinks Mark doesn't know that. Sometimes when Mavis gets angry she gets talky.

Coxy doesn't say anything about it, just vanishes completely about one day in three, and then one day--Sunday actually--starts coming back with two big sacks of food, more than all that was in his grandmother's old refrigerator to that point.

"Funny," says Coxy, "moving out because the old bitch dies," and flicks his fag directly at the fridge.

Mark stamps it out and throws it away in the paper bag in the corner. "Cheese sandwich?"

Coxy produces a jar of pickles from the second sack, the one Mark hasn't looked in, and then half a dozen eggs and an onion. "Omelette?"

"I didn't know you could cook," says Mark.

"Can't," says Coxy, and throws the onion at him. Of course that doesn't mean anything; the wanker's always lying.

"I'll make some tea," says Colin, hanging in the doorway of the small kitchen with his bald head uncovered and his windbreaker still on. There's barely room for Mark and Coxy, let alone the three of them, but Coxy backs up and lounges against the wall by the sink. He closes his eyes and the red lights of the cars going by in the street fall from the top down over his face like criss-crossing veils. It looks like he's asleep, but Mark looks over while he's cutting the onion, hoping to get a breath of fresh air so his eyes will stop watering, and sees Coxy's eyes are open, and he is watching Mark's brother, and Mark didn't see him move, but one hand is stretched out over the sink, blocking Colin's access to the cold tap so the water just keeps running and running, overflowing the mouth of the kettle.

Coxy's eyes meet Mark's and he gets the glitter of a little smile. Mark looks back at the onion and Colin doesn't say anything, and Coxy finally turns off the tap himself.

Coxy saw Colin's head the second day. Colin kept the hood up when he went to sleep, which made more sense in their new flat than back home with his ma and da because it was cold there, even under a pile of mothball-smelling blankets including an old pink and grey quilt that looked like someone made it by hand.

But he must have moved too much in the night because when he woke up and reached off the old couch cushions for his glasses beside him on the floor, Mark and Coxy were sitting side-by-side on the old sofa, pale blurs, and first Mark turned to look at him, then Coxy.

"Mornin', Kojak. All right?"

Colin nodded and felt the slipperiness of his hood too far back against the top of his head. Coxy sprang off the couch and was crouching next to him when he got his glasses on properly. When Colin sat up, he put his hand out, on the hood, and tugged it back. The short prickles of hair that had been gradually growing on his head since he first got it shaved were still barely long enough to keep his head fuzzy--like a tennis ball, Mark said.

"Soooooooooo," Coxy breathed, and for a minute Colin thought he wasn't going to say anything else. Colin just looked at him, until he said, "You really went and sodding shaved your head."

Colin didn't know what to say to that, but he didn't have to. Coxy wasn't looking at him; he was looking at the top of Colin's head, moving the palm of his hand back and forth, pushing all his hair one way and the other, making it itch.

But Colin didn't move.

Coxy finally laughed and slapped Colin's shoulder and said, "You're going to have to keep that."


Coxy's eyes became big and round when he sounded really serious. The fact he sounded serious didn't mean he was serious. Colin wasn't sure but he thought he had never seen Coxy serious, at that point. But when he sounded serious, his soft face got even softer, with his mouth hanging open, looking pink and loose, and his eyes round. He did that then. "'S nice," he said, but he couldn't keep up that still look of softness and his mouth pulled up into a grin again, showing his teeth for an instant.

Colin didn't say anything for a second, just thought, and while he did that, Coxy grinned and stood up and sort of bounded past him, with his red braces hanging down around his legs and his back bare.

Mark was still sitting on the couch with his hands tucked inside his jacket, his curly hair sticking up all around his head and matted together. Colin rubbed his eyes and looked at Mark.

Mark said, "What you lookin at me like that for?"


Mark snorted. "Got a smoke?"

Colin clumsily pushed the blankets out of the way and wriggled round to get his feet on the floor under him, pushed up until his head was away from the floor and went to look out the window at the listless grey breeze. "Nah, no more."

Mark joined him at the window. "Freedom, though," he said, and looked at Colin with a quick little smile, like he was smiling to himself, and he hid it quickly. "Listen, 'm going back this morning."

Colin was confused because Mark was the one who made them leave, but he just waited.

"Gotta tell them," Mark explained, shuffling his feet. He paused. "Left some smokes there."

Colin just nodded.

"You don't have to come," said Mark.

Colin licked his lips and watched an old car drive by, rattling a little.

"I'm going to tell them we're not coming back," said Mark.

It took Colin a minute to realise Mark was talking to him. He looked at Mark, and found that Mark was already looking at him, his eyes wide, waiting. His eyes were almost the same color as Colin's--they got them from their da's side, Ma had told him once. "We ain't?" Said Colin.

"That's right," said Mark, still watching him, "we ain't."

Colin just nodded, "Okay."

Mark seemed satisfied. He turned back to the window. It was silent for a little while except that behind them Coxy started singing really badly in the kitchen.

"They ain't gonna believe you," said Colin.

"It don't matter," said Mark, drumming his fingers on the window frame faster and faster. "It don't matter if they do. But they will. After a while."

When he asks Mark why they walk halfway back from Auntie Barbara's, he says, "Good day for a walk."

When he asks Auntie Barbara what the matter is--he finds her in the midst of old sheets half spread out, sniffing and wiping her red eyes and nose on the pink cotton bandana from her hair--she says "Oh Colin" and hugs him so hard he can't get away, and stands there with him in the middle of the room rocking back and forth with her chin stretched up to reach his shoulder, making wet snuffling noises, and squeezing him so hard it hurts.

The second day coming back from Auntie Barbara's Mark says the same thing. They take the train the third day but on Wednesday they're walking again, and Mark always says the same thing.

Auntie Barbara asks him if he needs a lift, and Colin looks away from her and says, "Dunno," and then Mark gets there.

"Hullo," says Mark, "You've got paint on your nose."

"These things happen," says Auntie Barbara, smiling hard at Mark and putting her hands on her hips.

"They happen, huh," says Mark, looking at her. Mark isn't smiling back.

She shakes her head. "Would you boys like a biscuit before you go? I made some this morning, Colin, and put them in the refrigerator, I'm sorry I forgot at tea-time."

Colin shakes his head mutely.

"You're a piece of work," says Mark, following Auntie Barbara into the kitchen, and murmuring to her something quiet that Colin can't hear.

"You know," says Auntie Barbara, "I don't think I want to talk about it." When Colin comes in the kitchen she's clutching the white plate hard, the edge cutting sharp into her belly and making a dent in her purple sweatshirt. She has left the refrigerator open. "Now, would you like a biscuit, or not?"

"Yes, please," says Mark.

"Yes," says Colin, "please."

But Auntie Barbara still stands there. "Is there something you'd like to say, Mark?"

Mark sits down at her kitchen table, looking a little angry. But he finally says, "I'm sorry," very slowly, and she finally comes out of the refrigerator with the biscuits.

"'S growing in," says Coxy one day. He's sprawled lazily on the couch in the pile of blankets they've taken off the floor and piled there.

Colin sits in the only chair in the room, watching Coxy lie there lazily with a fag, wriggling his bare toes occasionally, grey strings of smoke curling up from his nose and mouth. "Wha'?"

"Your hair, mate." Coxy turns his head quickly and tilts his chin down and stares hard at Colin. Colin thinks it must mean something when Coxy stares so hard. There are a lot of things that he can't understand, but he can see that when people make faces they usually mean something by it.

"Oh," says Colin. Coxy doesn't say anything. Colin can't think of anything to say, but he wants to say something--Coxy is looking at him still, and his face isn't exactly the same, but Colin is wishing he would look different, not so hard, or look away, or--and then Colin doesn't know that he wants him to look away; he likes it when Coxy talks to him. "Yeah," he says, because that's all he can think of.

"Better take care of that." Coxy picks the fag out of his mouth with two fingers and holds it in the air above his face, and squints like there's something to see in the little piece of paper. But because he's not looking at Colin any longer, Colin doesn't feel that he has to respond. "Want a light?"

Colin thinks for a moment, then sticks his hand in his pocket after the crumpled pack of smokes Coxy's came out of a few minutes ago. It takes a second.

"Better hurry. 'S running out," Coxy says thoughtfully, takes another drag, then lifts it up and squints at it some more.

Colin gets them out of his pocket, drops out of the chair and onto his knees next to Coxy so Coxy can reach the fresh cigarette with the glowing end of his fag. But Coxy doesn't put them together right away. He turns his head to look at Colin. "You gonna get a haircut again, yeah?"

"I dunno," says Colin honestly.

"Why? Don't you want to?"

Colin thinks, I ain't a skinhead. He doesn't say that to Coxy.

"Like how it looks, do you?"

Colin stops. He doesn't know if he likes how his shaved head looks. He stood in front of the mirror some after it was new, even later, yesterday, squinting at it. He still keeps changing his mind.

"Yeah, you do, don't you?" says Coxy.

Colin is still kneeling there, holding the cigarette, dumbly.

Coxy leans up a bit on his elbow and finally touches the very end of his cigarette to Colin's. "Want me to come with you?" Coxy is smiling like something is funny.

Colin almost says yes. "No," he says after a minute.

They go to pick up their benefit checks, Mark and Colin, before they go to Auntie Barbara's one day. "You know you ain't done no work," says Mark. "When they ask. You ain't got a job. 'S only a job for a business or something like that. You're just helping Auntie Barbara."

"I know that," says Colin, huddling in his wind jacket and his favourite sweater against the rain.

"Da might be there you know," Mark mutters as they go round the last corner.

"All right," says Colin, but he isn't.

They stand in line a long time. When they're coming out it's raining even harder and Coxy's at the door, with his face shiny and wet. He hasn't worn a raincoat, just his green jacket. He grins and smacks Mark on the arm. Mark ducks away with heavy steps. Then he stops in front of Colin, bouncing on his toes. "Give us a light, yeah?" His hands are by his sides, white and shiny with rain.

"How come you don't ask me then?" says Mark.

"Never got one, 'ave you?" says Coxy. "Always asking."

Colin gets a lighter out of his pocket. And Coxy pulls a cigarette from his jeans pocket and holds it up to light. It's damp and takes a bit to catch. Once he's taken a long drag, Coxy reaches back in his pocket and pulls out another one, slightly crumpled, and holds it up for Colin. "Pay you back." Colin takes it from his hand silently and lights it himself. It catches just fine.

"Come on, Colin," says Mark by the door. "We need to catch the train."

"Colin's got a job," says Coxy in a stage whisper.

"I ain't," Colin says. "I ain't."

Auntie Barbara is in the kitchen when they get there. Mark leaves him outside; Colin has to go inside alone and face her. She is facing the wall with her shoulders hunched. He never knows what to say to Auntie Barbara. She is always either happy or sad.

He drags his feet a little and walks as far as the middle of the kitchen. Then he stops, watching her.

At first it looks like Auntie Barbara doesn't hear him, but she does. She finally turns around and says, "Good morning, Colin. You're late."

"Had to go to the unemployment office," he mutters.

She nods. "Well! I let the time get away with me, I see."

Auntie Barbara and Uncle John's house is very clean, and very grey and white. Grey and white in the hallway, grey and white in the stairs. Grey and white upstairs, and down in the living room. Only the kitchen is yellow. The bedroom they are painting used to have a wallpaper border of pink and red flowers which they scraped off already; now they are painting it green. It's a green as bright as the sun outside, on the days when it is out.

She stops on the stairs and looks at Colin over her shoulder. "Colin," she said, "You and Mark. Have you left Mavis and Frank?"

Colin turns his head a little. She knows. There is no point in lying to her and Colin doesn't like to lie, because he knows he is not good at it. But he doesn't like to tell her anyway. "Guess so," he says.

"So that's why," she murmurs.

Colin doesn't have anything to say to that, even though he realises she is talking about Mark. He follows her the rest of the way up the stairs. The blinds are closed but all the light that comes in through the cracks is the colour of rain.

Colin waits for Mark to say something. He knows Mark will want to know what their aunt asked him. He doesn't know what Mark will say about it, though. This is why Colin can't decide if he should tell Mark soon, or wait until they are back in the flat.

Sometimes Mark asks if he's been fired yet or how he's getting on. Then it would be easy to wait. But it isn't so easy when he asks Colin, "How's the old hag?"

"She asked," says Colin.

"She asked, did she," says Mark sarcastically, but his face is white, and he looked round at Colin a little too fast before looking back at the floor again, so Colin thinks he understands.

"She asked me. About if we'd gone."

"And what'd you say then?"

Colin fears suddenly that Mark will be even angrier than he realised. He looks across the train a full two stops without saying anything more. The fat man who has been sleeping near the doors gets off at last. The smell of him washes back over them, sweaty and meaty, like Uncle John, although the man was much fatter than Uncle John.

Mark has not asked Colin anything for a while. Colin turns his head carefully and looks at him.

Mark looks back and Colin is surprised to see that Mark isn't angry at all. He looks a little worried. He doesn't look angry. "Got somethin' on your mind, Kojak?"

"She already knew, I think," says Colin.

Mark watches him for a second. He's thinking something, but Colin can't tell what it is. "Go on then. What'd she say?"

Colin shifts in the seat, rubs his hands inside his pockets over the sides of his jeans. "Nothin' much."

"Come on."

Colin shrugs. It's good that Mark isn't angry, so he decides to tell him although he doesn't know what it means. Telling someone something you don't understand, Colin knows, isn't a very good idea. It makes things happen--things you can't see coming.

But he knows they'd be living with their ma and da still, if not for things like that. "She just said--'So that's why.' That's all."

Mark laughs a little to himself and hits Colin's shoulder. They take the train nearly all the way back.

When they get there Coxy is making a pyramid on the folding table out of soup cans.

"Oi," says Mark, "you'll bring the table down. Got a bum leg."

"Fixed it," says Coxy, pointing to where the table leg stands inside a dirty, broken-up old shoe. He looks up and smiles at them, and puts a can of pea soup on the very top. "Took me all day, this did," he says. "Hope you weren't wanting any supper."

"Give me that can," Mark insists, "or Kermit's making it."

"Don't call 'im that," says Coxy, grinning, before Colin can say anything, and Colin closes his mouth again. Coxy and Mark are laughing, and Mark looks sideways at him still laughing, and Colin laughs too.

Mark has been thinking about getting a job, trying to anyway. Because Coxy brings almost enough food, Mark hardly has to buy any with his benefit check, and they've used the money Auntie Barbara gives Colin already to buy a second-hand mattress, a flattened one that smelled at first of little old lady, but a mattress still. And weeks have gone by without Frank or Mavis saying anything to him, or Auntie Barbara either.

And because when he wanders into the dirty flat alone in the middle of the day, half the time there isn't anyone there.

He sees Coxy often enough to know he hasn't got any sort of regular job, besides which he still has a benefit check, and he doesn't talk about it and Mark doesn't try to ask him.

He comes to Auntie Barbara's one day and she meets him at the door, standing with her arm blocking his way through. "Mark," she says, "how are you. Colin's upstairs." She doesn't ask him in.

Mark looks at her for a moment; she must be awful upset if she wants so badly to avoid talking to him or Colin either. Colin wouldn't in a million years ask her a question. Colin isn't "too smart for his own good".

"You ran away from home, didn't you, Auntie Barbara," says Mark.

"I suppose you could say that, Mark, yes," she returns brightly, not faltering even a little. Everything she says these days, for years even, is sharp. Mark remembers before he was smart at all, when he and Colin were both small, being enveloped in her fluttery pink and yellow hugs and the shiny roundness of necklaces near his eyes because she used to carry him around on her hip.

"And what did you do, went to college, wasn't it," says Mark.

"Yes. I studied Economics," says Auntie Barbara, knowing Mark knows this.

"Economics, is it," says Mark. "Well, I suppose you could even still get a job, couldn't you."

"I haven't been a secretary for years," she smiles graciously. And she only finally lets him into the house to shut him up. She doesn't offer them a lift today although Mark almost wouldn't put it past her to offer one to Colin alone. She doesn't like him asking questions, seeing things.

Another day he comes early on purpose, and stands upstairs watching Colin with a white paintbrush and Auntie Barbara with dishwashing gloves on her small soft hands. He waits outside until Uncle John's car comes up. "Mark," he says. He gives Mark a nod and goes right past him in the house.

Mark leans on the brick corner where Colin waited for him and Auntie Barbara once, smoking a cigarette still and watching Uncle John up to the door. "Long day," he says after him as Uncle John goes through the door, but John doesn't look around.

Mark wakes up on a rainy Sunday and rolls off of the mattress on the floor into an empty flat. He comes up to the biggest window, the one out of the living room, and for a minute watches the cars going through puddles with their red back lights flashing around them in the water. It's still grey everywhere same as when he went to sleep, so he can't tell what time it is.

Finally he goes in the kitchen. Outside the kitchen window he can see a dingy yellow wall and his little brother, wearing his hood pulled up over his shaven head, watching Coxy standing in the rain under a streetlight. Coxy isn't, actually, standing. He's swaying, looking first up at the light, then round him and--Mark thinks, he can't tell--at Colin.

Even at this distance, through the falling rain and the dirty windowpane, he can see the smile on Coxy's face and the rainwater glistening on his cheeks and his mouth. Coxy keeps dancing and Mark's brother keeps standing and smoking. There's a shadow that must be his glasses inside his hood, shifting every now and then. Mark can imagine the faces Colin makes.

It is just like Coxy to dance under a streetlight in the rain. He moves from under the circle of light, a little way down the sidewalk until Mark can't see him anymore and then back. The only sounds to all of this are the rain sounds, and the car sounds, but Mark knows they are talking.

Coxy hooks his arm round the streetlight, jumps up onto the base of it and then down off it. He kicks his feet. Mark sees the brown water splash up to Colin's knees in a dirty spray. He shakes his head. He would shove Coxy back or dunk him in a mud puddle, or at least he would try. He's surprised his brother is even out there at all.

He's surprised Coxy is out there dancing in front of his brother.

He knows Colin and his way of standing unmoved, just thinking the whole time, no matter what you do to him. But he lifts his head and says something to Coxy almost immediately. Coxy laughs and waves his arms and makes as though he's falling, catches himself on the wall and the front of Colin's jacket. Colin turns his head, but Coxy just hangs from the front of his jacket laughing for a moment and then skips back to the streetlight and twirls round it.

For some reason Mark continues to watch them as Coxy puts his back against the post, kicking one of his feet, and spreads out his hands. Colin moves on the wall, shifts to the side as if he might walk away. Coxy must be jeering from his face, sticking out his chin and then tucking it down with his body peculiarly still as he un-slumps from the streetlight and stands up straight under it. Rainwater glistens all over him, running over his shiny skull and his face and down his neck. The neck of his jacket is dark with it.

Colin moves again, and Coxy moves quickly too. They're both still again and Colin takes a step. Coxy spreads his hands wide again and lifts his face up so that even from across the street Mark can see the shape of it, lit full-on by the orangey light.

And then Mark's brother tilts his head a little and walks straight up to Coxy under the streetlight. From a distance there's a little confusion about what's going on. That is Coxy's green shiny arm, still sticking out. That is Colin's darker jacket, Colin's arm over Coxy's, Coxy's arm sticking out. That's Coxy's head moving--maybe talking again, and he isn't throwing Colin away or pushing back against him. And then both of them move again, and Colin is kissing Coxy.

Mark blinks, because it is far away, and of course it's raining and he can see now that it must have been near sunset when he woke, because the sky is a darker shade of grey, and instead of slacking the rain has got heavier and faster. But Colin and Coxy are still standing there, and Coxy's waving arms have disappeared in closer to the dark merged blur of their two bodies. There are the tiny sort of private movements of Colin's head and Coxy's head, lit up helpfully by the streetlight, so that Mark can be sure. Yes, that is his little brother. Yes, that's Coxy. And yes, he's somehow sure, although he'd never again be able to describe how it happened, that it was Colin who kissed Coxy first.

He wonders if he will ever find out what they were saying.

The rain comes down and a particularly loud car goes by round the corner, outside the living room window; Mark turns back to the refrigerator and opens it to look for his dinner, without turning on the light. Colin and Coxy haven't moved apart.

When he finally stops kissing Coxy, Colin can do nothing but stand there for a while, breathing. It's become hard to breathe, like he was running up and down stairs or something, although all he has done all day is sit on the chair, and the couch, and stand in front of this wall in this alley, and kiss Coxy. But it seemed like he kissed him for a long time. And Coxy kissed him too.

Colin realises, standing there, that even though he isn't touching Coxy's mouth anymore, his own mouth still tastes a little like Coxy's did. He can taste the cigarettes he gave Coxy and something sour, and the strange warm dirty water taste of rain. Coxy's face is covered with it, and his neck, and his hands. His skin is slippery and cold. Colin has his hood pulled up, but his face is wet now too, and the neck of his jumper under his jacket, where Coxy was touching it.

"You're wet," says Coxy, staring at Colin hard. He says it loudly, and hard, like something very important. "You're wet. You're going to be soaking."

Colin just stands there and looks back at him. The front of his body is a little warm just from standing against Coxy's, even through all the layers of their clothes. It's strange because he hasn't been so close to another person outside in a long time. But it isn't normal to stand out in the rain in the street leaning against another person and kissing them until you have to stop because you can't breathe anymore.

"Don't you have anything to say to that?" says Coxy, smiling.

Colin thinks that it's good he's smiling, although he still doesn't know exactly why. He's not sure Coxy exactly knows either.

He opens his mouth to talk, and that's when he realises that he is smiling too. Without even realising it. It must have happened while he was kissing Coxy, and he didn't notice.

The kissing, and leaning against Coxy, felt really good. That must have been why.

"It's raining," says Colin. "You're wet too."

"Am I?" Coxy sounds surprised. "Am I?" He doesn't seem to be talking to Colin. "Colin," he says, "you've really gone and done it."

Colin keeps listening, wondering if Coxy is going to say anything he will completely understand, or anything that will give him something to say to it. But in the end all Coxy says is "Did you want to do it though, Colin? Did you want to kiss me?" He sounds angry when he says it. But he doesn't give Colin the chance to answer. He untangles his long fingers from Colin's hands--they aren't cold now, not for a while--and grabs on tight to the front of Colin's jacket, and jerks it back and forth a little, but not hard enough to shake Colin. And he puts his mouth back on top of Colin's mouth and after a minute, he stops moving anything but his mouth, but he doesn't let go of Colin's jacket.

"We are friends, aren't we?" That was something Auntie Barbara used to say to Mark. He remembers her saying it to him one day in her kitchen, while she took some biscuits from the oven. She was wearing an apron, a flowered apron with a round top and a ruffle that he remembers really clearly. He was sitting on a chair at her kitchen table, swinging his feet because he wasn't tall enough to reach the floor.

Another time she said it to him in the supermarket--he must have been in the supermarket with her without Mavis or Frank or anyone. It happened when Mark was a little boy. Auntie Barbara used to "have him for the day" sometimes. He can't remember it very clearly, he doesn't think that she ever said anything about it to him, but he knew that she loved him. When he went home she used to say "we'll have to do this again sometime." He remembers looking over Mavis's shoulder, seeing Auntie Barbara wink at him. He remembers one time sitting on her lap watching a movie, and she had her cheek against the top of his head.

Mark didn't realise, when he was little, that Auntie Barbara is almost as old as Mavis, only a few years younger. She always seemed young and pretty to him. She always had a necklace or earrings on, and a frilly blouse, or a pretty dress.

Mark tried to talk to Barbara already, when he first realised how really unhappy she was, when he saw that she was as unhappy in her pastel house as he and Colin and everyone over in South End were. It made him feel almost good, in a way, when he realised that. And it made him like Barbara a little better--it had been a long long time since she'd "had him for a day"--since he started going to school, more or less, or since Colin started at least.

He tried to talk to John then, but was disgusted and embarrassed to realise he just didn't have the balls. He didn't want to talk to Uncle John anyway, and what should he say after all?

So he had been back to the house early more than one day since then, and more than once he had almost said something to Auntie Barbara. He knew she could tell. She was never happy to see him anymore. He could tell it made her angry.

In the end he had only told her where they lived, now, the last time she had said that she really could give Colin a lift home. She had been surprised, he could see. But she had only said "Well! That isn't so very far from home."

Mark didn't say that it was far enough Colin couldn't find his way back. All he said was, "I can keep coming by instead, if you want."

"No," she had said brightly, "no, it's no trouble at all; maybe if I'm over there, I might stop and see Mavis." He could tell Auntie Barbara was hardly any happier to stop by and see Mavis than he was. He thought if he were Auntie Barbara he'd wait for Ma to come visit him too. He wondered if he might like to see her better himself if he could do it in Auntie Barbara's clean, grey house.

Auntie Barbara drives Colin most of the way back on Monday. "Well, are you ready to leave, Colin?" she asks him, just like that.

He doesn't know what she's talking about at first. She has to tell him that Mark has told her where they live now. "I'll drive you there," she says. "Come on. It's a lot better than taking the train."

And it is. But Auntie Barbara stops somewhere that isn't where they live. It isn't near the laundrette or the pub either, or the unemployment office. Colin thinks he has been there before, but that's just because he remembers what it looks like. When she puts him down there, he walks to the end of the block and to the end of the next without knowing where he should go. By then Auntie Barbara's car has gone.

Colin stands by a bit of empty wall and smokes a fag, watching an empty plastic bag skip and roll across the pavement across the street. Finally he starts walking again.

But he doesn't know where he's going. He passes streetlights and brick walls and glass shop windows and a stray cat and a girl who crosses over to the other side of the street not to be near him. He doesn't want to go too far in one direction that might be the wrong one so he turns around and goes the other way round. He walks all the way around the block.

At last Colin walks right into Coxy. Coxy's skipping and looking at his feet; and Colin is looking at him, looking hard because he's surprised, and so they walk right into one another. Coxy puts his hands up and wraps one around the upper part of each of Colin's arms. First he leans forward a little, then he leans back. "Colin! Watch out there, mate!" He says. "Got a fag?"

He doesn't let go of Colin until after Colin nods and fishes the pack out of his pocket.

"Now, where have you been all day?" says Coxy, who has dropped himself onto the ground in front of the big glass windows that belong to a second hand shop. "Living a double life? Or--that's right--you've got a job, don't you." He stops smoking and turns his head sideways, staring at Colin like he's really surprised.

"I ain't," Colin mumbles, looking awkwardly at his hands resting on his bent knees, instead of at Coxy.

He wanted to look at Coxy before. Now he's kissed Coxy, and Coxy's kissed him too. Now they've stood together in the cold rain until their bodies turned hot and Coxy's hands have circled around his neck, inside his hood, under the collar of his jumper, and stayed there until their cold turned to hot, and the slippery water made them stick to his skin. Now he's afraid he won't stop looking at Coxy. Because he can't stop remembering it. His whole body has been hot and tingly. He has hardly stopped thinking about Coxy all day.

Coxy snorts and goes back to his smoke. He doesn't talk again until he finishes it. "What you doin' down here, then?"

Colin shrugs. He doesn't know where "here" is.

Coxy doesn't say anything for a while. Colin only looks at him once, out of the side of his eye. Finally he gets up and gives himself a shake, his foot twitching, arms flapping by his sides. Then he sticks his hand out to Colin. It stays there until Colin looks up at him.

Coxy's not smiling, but he doesn't look angry either. His eyes are bright and sharp and hard. He is making one of those looks that means something. He keeps making it until Colin puts out his hand and lets Coxy pull him up to his feet, and follows Coxy home.

Mark wonders sometimes if they ought to go to a place that you have to pay rent to live in. It is illegal to stay where they do, and probably a bad idea after all. He wonders if the water in the kitchen is really meant to be drunk. The electricity only works in the one room, and more than once they have had to throw away food that was in the refrigerator when it stops.

They could afford to, he thinks, if he found a job. Auntie Barbara even had one, for God's sake. She ran away from home, got a room and got a job. The three of them, they don't need the empty flat in the condemned building--although he doesn't know if it's really actually been condemned. People live in rooms. He could live in a room.

It's what he and Colin have done, anyway, for most of their lives.

He could have moved out, into just a room, and taken Colin with him. If it was a slightly bigger room Coxy could be there too.

Mark isn't sure what he thinks about that, good or bad. There's no point thinking about it really, and Mark has always been too cynical to waste time on pipe dreams. He was almost too cynical to leave his parents' home, too.

Colin isn't cynical, but he is matter-of-fact. There is plenty of the real world that is outside the field of Colin's view, and Colin doesn't know what he can't reach. But Mark would never have thought his brother wasted time on pipe dreams either. DMs were his first clue; shaving his head was the second.

But Mark isn't sure what they're the sign of anymore.

Maybe they were pipe dreams, maybe they weren't. His brother seems to watch Coxy just because he likes to look at him, not like watching for anything, not waiting, not wistful.

And early one morning this week when Mark woke up, they were both of them piled on Colin's mattress, Coxy draped so thoroughly over top that Mark wasn't sure his brother was there at first. When Colin wriggled out from under him Coxy barely stirred, let alone woke.

"You should get a job, you know," says Auntie Barbara to Mark the next time he comes there, a bit early to make sure she won't already have left with Colin. "Sorry about last week. I was--I wanted to get to--well. No matter--I'll drive him all the way there next time," she says.

Mark is glad he doesn't have to pretend to know what she's talking about; he seizes on the other instead. "Oh, I should get a job, should I," he says sarcastically. "Good work, you. That's the solution to all our problems there."

"He might not get another one," says Auntie Barbara very seriously. "Mark, you though..." And he just stares her down.

Colin was watching Coxy dance under a streetlight the first time he kissed him. They went outside when it was still only starting to rain. Coxy laughed and looked up at the sky and spun around until he almost fell over, while his shiny red boots got slowly shinier from drops of water.

Coxy danced around and under the streetlight in the alley for a long time. Colin stood against the wall and watched him for a long time, without having to say anything. But Coxy kept looking up at him, smiling or frowning or with his face completely blank, doing nothing at all.

It kept raining harder and Colin knew he would have gone inside any other time, or if he was alone, and he stayed and stayed, because he didn't want to go inside. The rain was cold outside, and Coxy danced until he must have gotten tired, because he stopped. "You, Colin," he said, really yelled, "kiss me," and he was watching Colin when Colin looked up.

"Wha'?" Colin said.

And Coxy yelled even louder, "Kiss me," like he was yelling just because he wanted to, just to fill up the air with noise. "You know what kissing is, don't you?" Coxy said.

"Yeah," said Colin, and tried to decide if Coxy meant it.

In the end he decided it didn't matter. He wanted to do it. So he did.

It was days before it happened again. Colin came out of the toilet to find Coxy lying upside-down on the sofa, with his feet in the air against the wall, and his head hanging down near the floor. The flattened cushions were back on the couch now that Mark had bought a second mattress for Colin to sleep on, but Coxy's blankets were still piled on top of them. Colin was walking to the kitchen, but Coxy said loudly, "You wanted to kiss me, didn't you!"

Colin stopped walking, turned around and came back to look down at Coxy lying there.

"Well?" Coxy asked.

At first Colin didn't realise that Coxy meant it as a question. He couldn't quite believe that Coxy didn't know. And Coxy never sounded the way other people did, so Colin never knew what he knew and what he didn't know.

When he realised, it was still hard for him to answer. He sat down on the floor in front of the couch. "I. Yeah," he said.

Coxy nodded solemnly, upside down. His face was getting redder and redder from being upside down, the way Mark's used to when he did headstands when they were little kids. Colin couldn't do headstands. He had tried to, for weeks or months.

Coxy slowly stretched out one hand while Colin sat there, not moving. He touched Colin's lips, moved his fingers down the side of Colin's face to his shoulder. Then he rolled sideways and unfolded himself from the sofa, and stood up and went in the toilet, while Colin still sat on his knees on the floor.

Coxy's face has appeared out of the darkness next to Colin's bed at night three times now. "What about it?" Was what he said the first time. "We're mates aren't we," was what he said the second time, and that time he didn't wait for Colin to do anything before he leaned on top of him and started kissing him.

Coxy whispers just a few things quietly, at first, and then stops talking entirely, and gets in under the covers with Colin. Then he lies on top of Colin and touches him, so he can't see it, only feel, and kisses him for a long, long time, and rubs his hard prick against Colin's hip. And more importantly, he lets Colin touch him, and he likes it, he squirms when Colin touches him and wraps his leg around Colin and once he put his hand down inside the front of Colin's pants.

Twice when Colin woke up Coxy was still there in bed with him. The first time, Coxy was back on the couch. That morning Colin sat on the edge of his bed and looked at Coxy for a while, thinking. But he knew he didn't dream it or make it up, because he had never made it up like that before.

In the daytime, Coxy is almost the same. He touches Colin, though--Colin has always noticed when Coxy touched him; he thinks Coxy does it more now.

And Wednesday he bangs through the door while Colin and Mark are sitting in the kitchen, slurping cream of mushroom soup from cracked cups, and comes into the kitchen and puts his cold hands on the back of Colin's neck.

When Colin jerks his head up to look at him, opening his mouth, nothing to say, Coxy slides quickly between him and the table, and sits down on Colin's lap.

He wiggles a bit and flings his legs apart wide on the sides of Colin's legs. Colin can see that he's got his toes on the floor for balance. He leans back until his back is along Colin's chest and tilts his head back until Colin hears it click against the back of the chair behind his shoulder.

Mark is watching over the top of his cup and still drinking his soup. He doesn't look surprised. He doesn't say anything. He just says, "Better open another can of this then."

"What kind you got?" asks Coxy, lifting his head a little. Colin can feel, but not see, that he's moved his legs. He can feel them move through the fabric of Coxy's and his jeans. But he can't see around Coxy, who is taller than him anyway.

"Tomato," says Mark sarcastically, tilting the cup to show thick white cream.

"I'll have some of that then," says Coxy, bending his spine back and then forward and sitting up, moving all over, sliding against Colin until Colin thinks he can't move. He's gone hot and uncomfortable. He can feel his prick getting bigger and harder inside his jeans and pants, pressing up against the fly, against Coxy's bum.

For a long time Colin doesn't move. Then he reaches out around Coxy's middle for his soup again. The cup is cold, but not empty. He drinks the rest of the soup and puts the cup down. And when he puts his arm back down, too, it comes down around Coxy's waist. Coxy stretches, and touches Colin's hand on his side, and then puts his hands back on the table. So Colin leaves his arm there wrapped around Coxy.

It's hours before he goes to the toilet, and his prick's been hard the whole time. Colin's sweating when he gets to the little room, but before he can turn the lock the door pushes into his back, and when he turns Coxy slides through behind him. "Got to piss?" He says.

Colin is getting used to Coxy by now, because even though he's surprised, he still shakes his head right away. He still manages to answer.

And Coxy pushes him, hard, so the hard white edge of the basin comes up against Colin's back, and shoves his feet apart and gets on his knees in between them. He opens Colin's jeans and pants, pulls his prick out, and leans forward and takes it in his mouth. Colin's stunned, his back still hurting, and he grabs at the edge of the wash basin, and Coxy sucks on the end of his prick, and touches it with his hand, and then opens his mouth and slides more of it in until Colin feels something besides the wetness and hotness of Coxy's mouth all around, something touching the tip. Coxy keeps sucking, and his tongue is moving, and it's hot and slippery. Colin closes his eyes and feels it and lets the world go away. He's never imagined it would feel anything like this.

He didn't imagine Coxy would get up licking his lips, either, then leave him in the toilet alone to try to rub the red out of his face with cold water.

Colin doesn't get into his bed that night. He sits on the floor next to the couch, and when Coxy's done brushing his teeth and comes out of the bathroom and sees him there, Colin thinks he's going to laugh, but then he doesn't.

He sits down on the edge of the couch, and leans down and puts his elbows on his knees, and turns his head sideways and looks at Colin, right into his eyes. "All right then," he says.

Auntie Barbara tells Colin one day, "You can tell Mark something for me, can't you?" She says "can't you" but it isn't a question. Colin looks over at her, and she isn't even looking at him. She is looking very hard at the wall.

Colin doesn't say anything.

"Tell him I can't go back again," Auntie Barbara says softly to the wall. Colin has always thought she sounded soft, and nice. "It's been too long now, since I had a job. I'm..."

Colin doesn't wait for her to finish. He just keeps working, peeling at the edge of the old carpet, trying not to catch his fingers on the sharp tacks sticking out of the floor.

It's a while before she finishes. She says, "I simply can't go back," and that's all. Colin looks over at her, and he waits, but she doesn't say anything else.

Before she drives him home that day, she locks herself in the bathroom for a long time, and Colin can see her face is red and wet like she's been crying, even though she hasn't made any noise.

Some Saturdays all three of them go down the pub to watch telly in the bar. "I tell you it's poverty," says Coxy, elbowing Mark hard in the ribs, "not having one of those things at home."

"Worst part of the whole thing," says Mark, "even worse than the water."

"Or the refrigerator," says Coxy. It's odd to realise the tiny difference out on the street here, on the way to the pub, that Coxy pulls back sooner, that there isn't a one in five chance, the way there usually is when they all sit down at a table, that by the end he'll have draped himself on Colin's shoulder or climbed into his lap or pinned Colin's hand against his own thigh.

"I've been thinking I might like to switch with you," says Mark. "Sleeping in that back room, no window, gets a bit old. Besides, keeping a mattress on the living room floor, someone's bound to trip over it."

Someone does, usually Colin, several times a day. Tripping over a mattress doesn't hurt nearly as much as, say, tripping over a coffee table, though. He always just falls on the mattress, so it hardly matters.

"All the same to me," says Coxy. He moves the other mattress that night while Mark scrapes burnt egg out of a pan and makes dinner a second time. It is that night Mark he realises that he probably could get a job.

The last Mark saw Colin, he was sitting in the middle of the sofa, smoking a fag and staring at the empty wall where a telly would go. The next time he sees him, he's standing like a statue in the middle of the small windowless bedroom, with Coxy holding up one of his hands and slowly licking the palm, looking up between the fingers at Colin's face.

Mark wonders whether they need a television more than a door.

But Colin eats standing up, leaning with his back against the wall next to the window. Every now and then he turns his face. Mark knows he's trying to get fresh air to chase the burnt smell, but Colin would never say anything about that.

"You think I can get a job, Kojak?" He asks him, and takes another small bite. The second omelette he made is good, but the burnt smell in the kitchen gets in his mouth, and spoils the taste. Coxy doesn't seem to notice. He's shovelling the food in, clattering sharply against his plate with fork and knife. He seems almost angry.

"Yeah," says Colin. He stops eating to look up at Mark.

"Sure he says that," Coxy scoffs, "he has one."

Colin looks from Mark to Coxy and back. Then he looks back down at his food, apparently deciding not to say anything.

"Was Auntie Barbara a secretary?" Colin asks unexpectedly after a few minutes.

"She used to be, before you were born," says Mark. "What's it to you?"

Colin shrugs. "She said." He eats another bite. Mark thinks he is done, but he's not. He says through another mouthful of food, "She can't go back anymore. She can't do it again."

It's odd, hearing Colin say the things Mark can almost hear their Aunt telling him. "She said that?"

Colin nods. "She can't go back again," he repeats. When Mark looks up and checks, Colin's face is turned down, but he's looking up to the side at Coxy, just watching him.

Sometimes, Coxy says it again: "You wanted to, didn't you", or "You want to, don't you?"

He said it to Colin after the first time they kissed. He said it the second time. He whispered it one night with his mouth almost against Colin's ear, and he had to say it several times before Colin woke up and heard him and turned his head, and then he climbed on top of Colin, under the blankets. He smiled when he said it, the first night they squeezed together on the couch, and he whispered, "And you wanted me to suck you--you liked that." Later he whispered, "Do you want to suck me?"

Colin answers him sometimes, but other times he thinks Coxy probably doesn't want him to.

After Auntie Barbara lets him out of her car in front of the building, Colin walks round to the alley to have a smoke before he goes inside. Coxy is already there, his back against the yellow wall with his red boots stuck out in front of him. His head is bent all the way back and he's frowning and then smiling at the cloudy sky as he smokes. Colin stands next to him, stuffs his hands in his pockets. He leans carefully against the wall without saying anything. Coxy stays quiet and lets him be there.

He gets out his fag, and they both just stand for a while. Without turning his head, Colin can see how Coxy is pursing his mouth and blowing air, the way he does with the smoke.

"That aunt of yours let you off?" Coxy asks.

Colin nods.

"Gives you a lift home every day, doesn't she," says Coxy, "so nice."

"Not really," says Colin.

He's been thinking about it a little, lately, because Auntie Barbara talks more in her little car than she does the whole rest of the day in her house. Mostly Colin doesn't understand what she's saying, or not well enough to remember it later. She has told him all kinds of things about when he and Mark were little boys and about when she and his ma were little girls, and lots of other things too that he didn't understand from the beginning. Sometimes she talks about college. Once she started talking about what it was like to have a job. After just a little bit of telling him about that, she stopped, and didn't say anything else the whole way back.

Coxy flicks the fag at him and some bits of ash fly off it. "Ungrateful."

"She wants to," explains Colin, "and Mark told her to."

Coxy stares at him for a second and then he turns himself back around and goes back to smoking, but he's hardly paying attention to Colin anymore. He has a look on his face, a look like he's thinking.

"The whole lot of you," Coxy starts to say after a while, but Colin doesn't want to hear about the lot of them.

"Can I--," he says.

Coxy turns his head to the side. "Can you what, Kojak?"

Colin doesn't finish for a second. "Kiss you," he says.

"Kiss me," says Coxy.

"Yeah," says Colin.

"Yeah," says Coxy slowly. "Yeah," he says again.

Colin turns his head quickly to look up at him. Coxy's leaned back against the wall, but he's turned a little bit to look straight at Colin. His eyebrows go up while he watches Colin watch him.

"Okay," Colin says, and keeps looking. Coxy turns his head a little bit, one way and then another way.

"What do you think we've been doing," says Coxy. Colin stands in front of him and leans forward so he says it against Colin's mouth.

When he takes his mouth away from Coxy's, and stands back a little, Mark is standing there next to them with his hands in his pockets.

Coxy turns around right away to talk to him. "Oi!" he says, "There's something not right about your family."

"Yeah?" says Mark cheerfully, "There's something not right 'bout your head," and takes one hand out of his pocket to slap Coxy over the head. "Think I should shave mine too?" He asks Colin, when Coxy has run ahead of them through the door.

Colin wrinkles his nose to push his glasses back up and looks at Mark, trying to tell if he is being serious. "Shave your head?"

"You know. Be a skinhead. Like you and Coxy? I think it could be a way to express my individuality."

"No it ain't," says Colin. By now he is almost sure that Mark isn't serious.

"I got a job, you know," says Mark, smiling and looking sideways at Colin, and that is when Colin knows he is lying. There are plenty of things he doesn't know and doesn't understand, but Colin knows his brother. He knows that when Mark gets a job, he isn't going to tell them like this.

"No you ain't," says Colin, and pushes open the door.

"Yes I do. At a publisher's in West End," says Mark. As soon as he comes through the door after Colin Coxy throws his hat at him, and it hits right in the middle of Mark's face. For a second there's a circle of black with Mark's curly brown hair just sticking out on the sides, and then the hat drops to the floor and Mark says, "No need to be jealous."

Coxy is standing in the kitchen doorway with a white and green bag of frozen peas in his hand. "Jealous, is it?" He asks slowly. His eyes are a little way shut, his mouth open and smiling, still red from Colin's kissing before, kissing him hard. He looks like that sometimes when Colin is wanking him with his hand. When Colin sucks him off, it's too hard to see Coxy's face.

Colin looks at Coxy looking at Mark and then he looks at Mark. Mark throws his arm around Colin's neck and rubs his hand over the top of Colin's head. Colin ducks a little, not enough to get away. "We're talking about my job, Coxy," Mark says. "As a typesetter."

Colin moves out from under Mark's arm and unzips his jacket and tugs down his jumper underneath. "Your job as a typesetter in the West End ain't none of my concern," says Coxy, shaking his head.

Mark is shaking his head too. "Ain't none of your concern."

Coxy throws the peas at Mark. Mark jerks back a bit. Colin thinks he isn't going to catch them, but then he does. "'Ere, you know what to do with those," says Coxy. "Don't think the refrigerator can quite make them happy. I don't think it's the place for them."

"I hate peas," says Mark, going in the kitchen. Colin takes off his shoes and puts them inside the small bedroom in the back, too small even to have a window. This room's smaller than their room at home, but it looks larger. All that's there are two mattresses on the floor, pushed up next to each other like one giant bed, and a pile of blankets on top.

Coxy hardly ever takes off his shoes. He's sitting on the top of the kitchen table kicking his feet in their red Doctor Martens back and forth, and every time he does this, the table sways to one side or the other and creaks. "Colin," he says slowly. "Colin. Colin, Colin..."

Colin stands next to the door, because it's the only place in the kitchen he can reach where he won't be in the way of Mark's elbow, or Coxy's kicking shoes.

"We all know his name," says Mark over his shoulder. "Coxy Coxy Coxy."

Coxy stops kicking, licks the corner of his mouth and tilts up his chin. He drums his fingers on the edge of the table and looks very hard at Colin, and Colin is pretty sure it's a look that means something. And he thinks what it means is come here. He walks closer to the table until Coxy's hand darts out and he sticks his fingers through the belt loops on the front of Colin's jeans.

"The question is," says Coxy, moving his thumbs up and down, drawing lines with them on the front of Colin's jeans. Colin can feel it through his jeans and his pants and he tenses up and thinks about stepping away, but he doesn't. Coxy dips his finger into the fly and looks up at Colin from under his eyelashes.

"The question is..." Mark says, by the sink. His head turns a little, but he doesn't look at them.

"The question is if you are jealous of me," says Coxy, pulling Colin's jeans by the belt loops. Colin stumbles into the edge of the table. He feels one of Coxy's heels kick the back of his leg, not very hard. Coxy leans forward and puts his chin on Colin's stomach, looking up at Colin.

Mark pours the peas out of the bag into the pot on the stove, with a long rattling noise. He turns around from the stove and says, "Ain't none of my concern, Coxy."

When Coxy turns his head, his chin digs into Colin's stomach. Colin glances down at him and then looks back up at Mark, but he doesn't want to move away yet, so he doesn't. "Ain't none of your concern," Coxy repeats, agreeing.

Mark looks at Coxy for just a second. Then he looks at Colin seriously for more than a second. For a few seconds, anyway. Colin wonders what Mark is thinking. But then Mark smiles and shakes his head at Colin.

Coxy lets him go, and Colin goes round the edge of the table to fill up the kettle.

He hears Coxy say "Hm?" behind his back. He puts the kettle on. "Noooooooooone of your conceeeeeeeeeeeeeeern," Coxy is saying, the way he does sometimes, dragging the words out long, but he's looking at Mark.

Colin looks from Coxy to Mark. Mark looks from Colin to Coxy, and smiles. "Maybe," Mark says. "Maybe just a bit of concern, huh, Kojak?"

Colin looks at him for a second, and Mark keeps smiling, kind of shy. Most people don't know it, but Mark is shy. Colin knows. He looks at Coxy. Coxy's smiling too, like he's thinking to himself, but Colin knows he saw Colin look. He looks quickly at Colin and back away, and he still keeps smiling. That's all right then. Even if he doesn't know exactly what it means. "Maybe," says Colin.

Coxy makes a face Colin doesn't understand and looks up at the ceiling, away from both of them. "Good."

beta by wild boys and some mild on-egging by lilah. thanks!