The staircase wall was clean at last. They’d finally got round to scraping off the layers of paint from that idiot exercise in filling balloons with latex paint and launching them at the wall. Peter had admired the contraptions they’d built for throwing the balloons even though he’d hated the results. And hated the fact that the balloon launchers had beat him to the wall by half an hour. But now it was a brilliant, pristine white of stunning clarity.
Peter paused at the top of the staircase long enough to exult then swung himself down the steps. Class waited for no one, not even the hung over. Eager artists had to wait, however, for no one to be around. He’d wait for the night, stash himself and his supplies into one of the studios until long after most people would be out drinking or asleep, and then do it. Paint it.
The wall would be his.
Craig texted him to badger him into going out drinking, but Peter was determined. He hid himself and his satchel in a studio and tried not to gnaw on his thumb. He did some work for a class, of all things, to keep himself distracted. That paper did ought to be written at some point, and now seemed like a moment.
And then, around midnight, he heard the caretaker do what was usually his final round. Peter grinned, packed up his satchel, and hustled. Out, down the hall, down the steps, out to the covered quad. Paused, looked around. Nobody else there. The wall was his, free and clear. He did a little dance all by himself, a fast shimmy around. He’d done it.
Now for the hard part, the work part. Peter ripped opened the satchel and poured his stuff out onto the flagstones. He lined up his cans of spray paint. First stencil: the dance, where the boy alien meets the girl alien and takes her hand. Light colors first. Where did he put that tape?
“You looking for this?”
Feet appeared in front of him: feet in black leather boots with chunky heels. The boots were on the feet of a girl in a hoodie. Peter looked up and blinked; the girl, whoever she was, had the light right behind her head. She moved and her face caught the light. Brown hair. Cute nose. She was holding out his roll of masking tape. “It rolled off,” she said.
She had a paint-stained bag slung over shoulder. Peter knew what that meant, but he’d got here first. The wall was his. He nodded and took the tape. “Thanks.”
He turned his back on her. His wall. No mercy.
She said, “You going to use the whole wall?”
Peter turned and looked at her again. There was something about her round face, her hair. “I’ve seen you before,” he said.
“Yeah. We were in the same photography workshop last year. I’m Jenna Coleman.”
“Oh, you’re the one with the Mamiya! I remember you. I’m Peter Capaldi.”
She waved a hand at him. “Hi. So, yeah, about the wall.”
“What about it? I was here first, fair and square.” Peter bent and shuffled through the stack of stencils. He’d done it right this time. He had a plan. He was going to tell a story on this wall. His wall.
She came up and set down her bag next to his. He heard the clink of cans from inside. She said, “You made stencils?”
“Yeah. Been waiting a fortnight at least.”
“So have I. I was five minutes too late last time, too.”
“Oh.” Peter straightened up again and looked at her more closely. She’d sounded disappointed in a way that made him feel bad, which made him upset. She didn’t have a right to make him upset, but he wasn’t a bad sort. As a rule. “Look,” he said, “What were you planning? Maybe we can collaborate.”
“Collaborate?” Jenna’s hands were stuck into her hoodie and she looked dubious.
“Just show me,” Peter said, impatiently. Jenna bent to her satchel and dug out a sketchbook that looked hardly used. It was, improbably, not stained all over with oil pastels or anything like that, the way his always were. It was nearly filled up, however, with unbearably tidy patterned designs done with technical pens and markers. Close to the end there was an almost architectural drawing of the wall, and a pattern methodically drawn over it, with measurements.
“Interesting,” he said, to be polite. Then he looked more closely. It wasn’t a boring regular pattern the way he’d thought, but it shifted subtly and twisted on itself. It was actually cool, the way it interlocked but wasn’t the same until it meshed with itself at the edges. “That’s stonking.”
“Stonking?” She sounded doubtful. “Not sure how this is going to work.”
“Look, it’s obvious, isn’t it? We do yours, then mine over the top.”
“Oh! Tessellations as a background, then your figures at interesting places.”
“How big you want to make these?”
“Maybe three meters each way? Nine copies.”
“Yeah, that’s loads of room for these little blokes.”
“How many you got?”
“Yeah, that’s enough space.”
“We’ll need a stepladder.”
Which Jenna, it turned out, knew how to get by lock-picking the caretaker’s supply closet, which was a thing Peter had never seen done in person before. She dragged it out, set it up, and they got to work. They had maybe four hours before the early morning caretaker arrived. First step: cover the wall with her patterns. A tessellation of the plane, she told him. It looked like Escher but was, she said, mathematical. Once that was marked off, fill the areas with color. She had a pattern in mind but Peter pshawed her and then took out the three different colors of green he had in his bag. He wanted it to be a romantic lush wild landscape all contained within those severe mathematical borders. Jenna thought it over, and agreed if he’d let her do the coloring for his figures. She took his cans and proceeded to do the most stunning job of shading his pair of lovers as they danced and flung each other across the wall.
Some time around three in the morning, they set down their cans, stood back, and looked at their wall. It was covered in her geometric shapes, from which his pair of figures burst in violent action. It was fucking gorgeous, and Peter told her so.
“Yeah, came out okay,” she said. “Think it’ll dry enough for another pass for shading tonight?”
“No’ enough time,” he said. “Need at least a couple hours horizontal before I face class.”
“What time is it, oh shit, I’ve got to get home too. Need sleep so badly.”
First they had to return the stepladder and set everything to rights. Leave no trace but their art, was Peter’s philosophy, and it was Jenna’s too. Eventually they made their way out of the quad to the street. Dark skies, cloudy skies, wind gusting, rain spattering down onto the pavements. It’d not been raining long, but it looked like it was settled in.
Jenna zipped up her hoodie and wrinkled her nose. “Dammit, I’m going to get soaked through.”
She nodded. “Stayed later than I planned. No bus. Have to leg it.”
Peter bit at his thumb. Here he went again, doing ridiculous things for this girl, who was an utter pain. And yet something about her made him feel soft in the head.
He said, “Stay at mine. Three streets away. I’ve got a sofa. I wouldn’t bother you, I swear it. I’m too tired anyway. Not that I would.”
Jenna turned and looked up at him, studying his face in the light of the street lamp. She smiled for a moment. “Yeah, I trust you. Lead on.”
Peter led her to the house where he rented a room, all full of art students and actors and one very strange opera singer. He let them in quietly, because while they all kept late hours, this was extreme even for his roommates. They tip-toed up the stairs to his room. Peter stared at it with new eyes, somewhat alarmed by its state. He had drawings tacked up on all the walls. A messy cloth with all his acrylics covered his entire drawing table, and he’d left the stuff he’d cut out of the stencils on the floor. At least his pants weren’t also scattered all over the floor. He’d done laundry earlier in the week. He wasn’t that much of a wreck. Barely.
Jenna ignored the wrack and ruin of his life and pointed at his sofa. “That it?”
“Yeah, let me just–” He lunged for his bed and took the heaviest blanket off the top and handed it to her. There was a cushion that would do as a pillow, so he didn’t have to go without a pillow for her sake. He had to draw a line somewhere. First his wall, now his sofa. Peter stole a look at Jenna, who was kicking off her trainers. Red socks. Very cute.
Jenna wrapped herself up in a blanket and fell onto the sofa with no ceremony. Peter took his shoes off but nothing else and climbed into bed. Light out. Ceiling. What was that on the ceiling? Oh, right, he’d painted stars on his ceiling months ago. There they were, glowing faintly.
He said, “You, um, you do this often? The wall thing?”
“Trying to make it a project. I know, I know, it’s cliché, but I have four different tessellations I want to do. At least. For a project.”
“Yeah. Me too. Not tesselwhatsits, but a story. Showing those little aliens doing things.”
“Huh. Look, Peter, I gotta sleep.”
“Sorry, yeah. G’night,” he said. He stared at the ceiling. He was never going to fall asleep. Never. Not with a girl in the room with him. It was impossible.
His phone woke him up, buzzing in his pocket where he’d forgotten it the night before. Peter turned off the alarm and sat up. Late night, no drinking, lots of spray painting. Right! He found his specs on the desk and stuck them onto his face. Jenna was asleep on his half-broken sofa. There was green paint on the end of her nose and smudged over her cheek. She was, he thought, prettier than he’d taken her to be in the night, all wrapped up in the hoodie. She was adorable, in fact.
He edged out of his room quietly, so as not to wake her, and made his way to the kitchen. His landlady was there. She was a terrifying and fascinating woman in theater who knew all the most interesting people in town, because she designed costumes. Dreadfully aged, at least forty years old, and she always knew everything that was going on. She was forgiving of him when he was late with the rent, and only bothered his parents for it when he was drastically late. More importantly, she made him tea now and then and listened to his wittering.
“Tea, love?” she said.
“Second cup, please, Ms McCrimmon.”
“Oh? Somebody stay the night?”
Peter shoved his hair away from his face and scratched at his ears, which were feeling unaccountably hot. “A friend. She’s just a friend. We, um, we painted a wall together.”
This did not slow down his landlady in the slightest. “Lovely! Did the work turn out well?”
“I think so! Need to look at it today.”
Peter balanced one cup on top of the other and danced his way back to his room. Jenna was still wrapped up in his spare blankets, but her eyes were open and she was blinking at him.
“Morning,” he said to her, and when she smiled he felt pleased with himself though he wasn’t sure why. He held out a cup of tea to her with a flourish. She sat up and took it and bobbed her head to him.
“You are a marvel,” she said.
Peter grinned and buried his nose in his own tea to cover it up. Strong tea with milk, one sugar, as Ms MacCrimmon took it and he had learned to like it. Morning tea. Jenna drank her tea, asked where the bath was, then came back a few minutes later with the green paint gone from her face. There was of course serious paint removing soap in the bath, because Peter often had his own problems with paint on his hands.
“That was fun last night,” he said, tentatively.
“Yeah! Yeah it was. Thanks for sharing the wall.”
“No bother. Anybody would have done.”
“No, not anybody would have, and not anybody does. The last time I tried that wall I here at the same time as this team of people with a trebuchet and this absolute wanker had his friends carry me away from it. They threatened to fire balloons at me if I complained.”
“That’s-- that’s fucking unacceptable. Excuse my French.”
“I wasn’t best pleased,” and that sounded like the biggest understatement ever. She looked as if she’d done her own streak of swearing at those arsewipes.
Suddenly Peter was very glad he’d been a gentlemen instead of an arse. “Well. That’s not me.”
“I know. You were sweet to share.”
Peter’s ears burned. He buried his nose in his cup of tea rather than look at her. “Was nothing,” he said, around the tea.
“Won’t forget it,” Jenna said.
Peter swallowed. Hot. The roof of his mouth was burned, damn it. “Hey. Should we meet some time to put on some final touches?”
“Yeah, sounds great.”
“How will I find you?”
“Hand over your phone.”
Peter handed it over obediently. Jenna frowned at it and handed it back.
“Unlock it first, dimwit,” she said. Peter stared, then said, “Oh!” He unlocked his phone and handed it over. She poked at it. “There. Now you have my number. Text me.”
“Okay,” he said, and grinned. “Tonight? You free tonight?”
“Maybe. Ask me again later.”
And with that she was out the door and running down the street toward the uni. Peter watched her around the corner, then got himself back inside, rubbing his bare arms against the cold. Jenna. He’d painted a wall with Jenna. She was annoying. She was bossy. She was ridiculously short. If he kissed her he’d have to stoop down or she’d have to stand on a box. Now where had that thought come from? He wouldn’t be doing any kissing. He disliked her art, her cold mathematical geometric approach that had looked so dead fantastic on the wall. Yeah. He had to get his head sorted out.
Peter showered and found clean clothes in the pile on the floor of his room. Today’s skull t-shirt was one of his own cartoons, which a mate had silk-screened onto a shirt for him. One of his better pieces, in his opinion, more witty than grotesque. Maybe Jenna would like it. Be impressed by it, rather.
He made his way to the uni and detoured over to the wall. Not ruined, not tagged, not cleaned up. Just about dry. It looked much brighter in daylight than it had under the street lamps last night. The colors popped out beautifully It wasn’t bad, to be honest. It looked like the cover of a scifi book, or like scenery from Doctor Who, with those figures on a geometric background. He liked it. He liked it a lot.
He took a picture of it and, on a whim, texted it to Jenna. An answer came back a couple minutes later: Brilliant! But we botched the lower right. They had, not that it ruined the piece in any major way. It was just something on a wall that the school caretaker would paint over soon enough. It would live on only in the photographs. Speaking of which-- Peter snapped another set, this time using his proper camera, the 35mm SLR he’d found in a pawn shop. People ditched the most amazing things. Sure and it would be a bastard to get it developed, but that’s what friends in the photography lab were for. Come to think of it, Jenna should have an in with the lab.
He ran off up the stairs to his renaissance painting class, a lot of boring stuff when he’d rather be doing his own work. He had an idea for another series of drawings, featuring a boy and a girl doing daredevil stunts in a twisted cityscape at night. He also wanted to get to the library to look up that word for what she’d been drawing, tessellations or whatever. Or those giant wall paintings that American had done, by rules with string and nails and big areas of color. He’d always liked those.
Jenna texted him later in the day: not tonight tomorrow breakfast? Peter grinned, despite himself, and sent back an enthusiastic yes. They met for brunch the next morning. They both ordered omelets with chips, and Peter thought it was some kind of a sign. He ate his own chips then poached about half of hers off her plate, which she didn’t seem to mind in the least.
It turned out she was seeing somebody. Not exclusively, she said, not a serious thing, except maybe it was, she wasn’t sure. But it wasn’t the kind of thing that would get in the way of painting walls together. Or hanging out with friends. On which word she poked him in the arm, and that made Peter grin. Friends? Yeah, he liked that idea. He liked talking to her. She was smart and witty and fast and enthusiastic and she was kind in a way that made him embarrassed for himself. She knew more about photography than he did. He wanted to hang out with her more. A lot more. She made him feel strange and think strange things and have about a hundred ideas every minute.
“You free tonight?”
“Pub crawl, if you wanted to go with your Danny. My mate Craig organized it. Six pubs, one night.”
“Not my thing.”
“Do you not drink, then?”
“I don’t mind drinking. I mind drinking that much.”
Peter wriggled his shoulders. He had a name for what he was feeling and it was maybe shame. “Yeah. Point taken. Okay. No pub crawl. Hey.”
“There’s another wall. The one near the archway. Covered with tags and obscenities right now.”
“What about it?”
“Let’s design another one. A proper one, where we plan it all out.”
“You mean not just slapping one of yours on one of mine.”
“That’s what I mean.”
Jenna gazed at him steadily. A smile crept out on her face. “I like the way you think, Mr Capaldi.”
“And I like the way you use color, Ms Coleman.”
“And I can photograph it properly. Let’s do it!”
It was, of course, far more work than he hoped it would be. It was a lot of work over several nights in the next week. A lot of brainstorming and sketching and critiquing until they hit on something that united their disparate strengths beautifully. Peter had a nose for motion and the dynamic; Jenna understood color in a way that made him want to cry. Together they came up with a series of designs showing a eerie tessellated alien landscape with a pair of figures doing mysterious things across it. Peter stayed up all night with a torch and a book, phone handy, noting when the caretaker made his sweeps past the spot. When they were ready, they got their gear together and stayed up all night spraying the wall near the archway, only having to run and hide once from passersby.
They came back the next day, in watery winter daylight, to look what they’d done. It was fantastic. It was twenty times better than the first one and he was almost proud of it. Peter picked Jenna up and spun her around. She shrieked and giggled and it was the most adorable thing ever so he spun her again. When he put her down she wrapped her arms around his waist and squeezed him.
He’d met her boyfriend Danny a few times during this. Danny didn’t like him, but Peter didn’t care much one way or the other. He was polite to Danny because that’s what gentlemanly people did, they were polite to everybody, even people who didn’t have the time of day for them. Jenna met Craig who was not completely sober at the time, and that didn’t go very well. The second time was better, because Craig was too broke to drink. Peter couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Craig in funds and sober anyway.
Beer hadn’t been interesting in weeks, if he was honest with himself. He liked his lager as much as the next man, but if you were insensible with it your painting was likely to be shite. And Peter’s painting had begun to matter to him. Quite a lot. And his photography. And his illustration. He’d remembered why he was in art school and it wasn’t to drink every night. It was to get better at his art.
Art school definitely was about planning out a series of stencils of a little alien bursting out of a hole in a pavement, however. That was what he lived for. Also for helping Jenna do her tessellations on any wall large enough to make them interesting. They had a lot of projects together, suddenly, and his days and nights were full. If he wasn’t hanging around with Jenna, he was texting her photos of his latest drawings and looking at her latest work in turn.
He’d developed a bizarre new habit of getting out of bed early, sometimes as early as seven in the morning, which was amazingly industrious of him. This morning he was up, showered and shiny and dressed in his second-best print t-shirt. Mrs McCrimmon was in the kitchen, as she often was at this hour. She had a cup of tea ready for him.
“You’re out and about early today.”
“Meeting Jenna,” Peter said. He buried his nose in his tea, because she was smiling and he couldn’t work out why. Painting wasn’t funny.
Painting in the morning, studying in the afternoon, and a bit of partying tonight. That was his plan. Craig had a new band, and it was opening for another more popular band. No cover, cheap beer. Craig was a better drummer than this band deserved, of course, but Peter was bound and determined to support him. And to have a good time. Craig had, with some justification, complained that Peter hadn’t been much of a mate to him recently. The least he could do was buy a few pints so the bar felt like having them back to play. He’d done more work in the last month than in the entire year of school previous. He’d call himself dull but he didn’t feel dull. His life had turned brilliant when Jenna had come into it. But all work and no play, after all. He could take a night off and relax.
He coaxed Jenna into bringing Danny along. She’d been working too much as well, and to his surprise Danny agreed with his argument on this point.
Craig’s band was terrible. Beyond terrible, if Peter were honest. The crowd certainly thought so and said so at top volume. Craig was okay, though, as always, steady when they needed it and when their guitarist was all over the place, showy to distract when the singer forgot the words. Which he did a lot. The next band, thankfully, played a lot of covers of seventies hits, so the ugly crowd lightened up and started dancing instead of threatening to throw beer at the stage.
Peter had a pint waiting for Craig when he got back from lugging his kit into the band van. He was red in the face and still dripping with sweat from his set. The pint went down the hatch immediately. Peter lined up another one for him.
“Love you,” Craig said.
Peter bumped his shoulder. “Love the brass in my pocket, you mean. That was-- well, you were brilliant.”
Craig made a face at him. “You don’t have to lie. We just sacked the singer.”
“Good. He was bad. Beyond bad. He was a world of shit.”
“You should be his replacement.”
Peter lit up for a second, then shook his head vigorously. “No, not me. Haven’t the time.”
“What have you been doing anyway?”
Peter shrugged. “Painting.”
Craig smirk. “Painting. Doing the pavements, you mean. I was putting a cone on the Duke the other night and there it was, one of yours, right under him.”
Peter grinned. “We admit nothing.”
“We? Oh. You and Jenna. Where is she?”
“Dancing. With Danny.” Peter looked over at the dance floor and yes, there she was. In a clinch, her head against Danny’s broad chest. He was well fit. Ran, lifted weights, brilliant maths student at the real uni. Hard to compete with. Not that he was competing. He wanted only the best for Jenna. Danny was it. Some body was in front of him, waving at him. Peter grimaced, turned away, looked back at Jenna, who now had her back to Danny and her hands over her head.
Craig poked him. “That girl just made a pass at you.”
“And you didn’t even notice.”
“Pull the other one.”
“No joke, mate. You were too busy watching Jenna get felt up by her bloke.”
“I wasn’t watching that.”
“You were watching that.”
Craig bought him another pint and Peter drank it in one go, because he didn’t feel very happy for reasons he couldn’t explain. Jenna was happy, so he ought to have been happy too. And he was. He truly was. He let Craig drag him onto the dance floor to let that girl have another shot at him. Jenna was grinding over there with Danny. She looked like she was having a great time. Danny didn’t tower a foot over her head the way he did. Peter didn’t have to worry about her. He could find his most charming smile for this girl whose name he hadn’t caught and hold her close and let her suck at his throat and let her take him home.
He woke in the morning in a strange bed, hungover, with a bite mark on his neck, and feeling smug with himself. He had forgotten the girl’s name, which was bad, but she’d forgotten his too, so it was okay in the end. They had sex again and he made her come twice, which meant he was getting better at it. Not bad for a geeky boy who wore specs and was rubbish at sport. She gave him her number and he gave her his.
He wandered home with his hands in his pockets, whistling, thinking hard. He’d been working too much, that was what was wrong with him. Too much work, not enough drinking. Jenna was great, he admitted that, and she was good for him. This term was going well for him. But what good was it if he didn’t have fun now and then? Drinking was fine. He was fine. Spending the night off on his own was fine. He should go out crawling with Craig more. Craig drank a little too much for Peter, now that he thought about it. Maybe he’d do it on weekends only. Or maybe this girl would like to go drinking. He’d forgotten her name again. Brown-haired, tall, sharp nose, liked Motown and Taylor Swift. Name started with M, he was half-sure of that. Well, his phone would remember her number.
Peter wandered his way up his front step. Key in the door, in from the cold, rubbing at his nose. He followed the smell of tea and toast into the kitchen, where his landlady was washing up. Tea was under the cozy.
“Nice night?” she said. She handed him a cup of tea.
Peter blushed. “Yeah.”
His landlady looked him over and nodded. Peter could discern no judgment in it, which was a relief. She wasn’t his mother. “Why didn’t you bring Jenna here? You know I love chatting with her.”
“Jenna? I-- she’s off with Danny.”
Now that surprised her. Peter gulped down his tea and fled back to his room, because now he felt obscurely guilty about something that he shouldn’t feel guilty about, because Jenna had her own bloke and wasn’t into him, which was fine, because while he thought she was the best, he didn’t think about her that way. The thought of her in bed with Danny was upsetting, which meant she was definitely his sister or something like.
He didn’t see her for a week, though, because he was spending all of his time with the girl, Michelle or something, whose name he did manage to learn eventually. He put Jenna off with texts for a while, feeling obscurely more and more bad about it, until he finally had to take a night off from being in bed. He was finally a little tired of the constant sex, which was not something he would admit except on pain of death. He missed painting.
It was clear and not raining, so it was not a night to waste. Jenna summoned him to head out to paint another few spots in the city with a text that was so to the point he felt terrible abou thte last week. It was the last clear night forecast for simply ages. That meant tonight was their only chance to finish the pavements in time for Jenna to get her photographs in a student show.
They met in the studio space where Peter did his painting. Jenna was there already, all set up. She was happy to see him and gave him a hug. He hugged her right back. Then she teased him unmercifully about his new squeeze.
“Are you taking time off to eat?”
“What? Oh. Yes, oh don’t look at me like that!”
“You serious about her? Wedding bells on the way?”
“Why?” Peter said, and he glowered at the idea.
“Only reason I can think for you to miss our painting dates. Has to be serious.”
“No, she’s just, she’s just-- we’re having some fun.”
“Oh,” Jenna said, and she flipped her hair away from her face.
“What does that mean?” Peter said.
“What does what mean?”
“You flipping your hair like that.”
“Nothing. It means okay, great, you’re seeing a girl you can’t remember the name of.”
“Yeah, I can remember her name. It’s Missy.”
“Last time you told me it was Michelle.”
“Remembered it began with M.” Peter let his hair fall down over his face and turned away to stare at the stencils he’d been cutting. They were done. He didn’t know what there was to stare at. He shuffled them around, pretending to inspect the corners.
Jenna touched his elbow. “Look, let’s not fight, okay?”
“We’re not fightin’. We’re good. Right?”
“It’s okay by me. That is, it’s none of my business. You can date whoever you want. If she makes you happy she makes me happy. Okay?” And Jenna bumped her shoulder into his arm, which he understood to be an apology.
Peter smiled. “Yeah. Okay.” She wasn’t making him happy though, that was the thing he’d just realized. He liked drinking. He liked having sex. He also liked talking, and he didn’t like Missy all that much to talk to. He liked talking to Jenna more. Did that have to mean anything? Probably not. Except-- well, leading Missy on was no good.
“Dammit,” Jenna said.
“What?” But he saw it as soon as he went to the window. The weather report had been wrong, as per usual, and the gray clouds of the day had decided to empty themselves on the city in the night.
“No painting tonight,” Peter said. He felt completely and utterly gloomy. If death could take him now, he’d be all for it. He’d ruined her shot at the show.
“Look, it’s not a big deal. There’s another one next month. Don’t look like that.”
“Stop saying that. Hey. You want to work some more or are you going out with Missy?”
“Blew her off earlier.”
“Aw, so I ruined your night too.”
“No! Not in the least. Hey.”
“Come back to mine and watch some telly? I torrented City of Death and haven’t watched it yet.”
“Seriously? What’s that? You really don’t know?”
“I really seriously don’t know.”
“You seriously don’t know about the script Douglas Adams wrote for the Fourth Doctor. The one that has John Cleese in it.”
“Well, come on, then. Got a treat for you.”
He took her hand and they ran the three streets over to his place, jumping over the water running down the streets and gurgling in drains. Up the familiar stairs, into his room. Which was, he was proud to note, much neater than it had been. The walls were still covered in his drawings, but they were all better than they’d been. His style was developing nicely.
They sat on his broken-down rat-chewed sofa, huddled together over his second-hand laptop, and they watched the Fourth Doctor run around Paris holding Romana’s hand, giggling. John Cleese mistook the TARDIS for modern art and Jenna found this so funny that she giggled into his shoulder until she was nearly sick.
Afterward Jenna fell asleep on his broken-down sofa again. Peter wrapped her up in half his blankets and climbed into his own bed still dressed, so as to be polite. He felt warm all over anyway, despite the rain on the windows, safe in his own bedroom, with Jenna in the room with him.
He spent the next month religiously dedicated to making up for his sloth the month before. If Jenna summoned him, he was off with her, holding stencils, spraying, setting up tripods for her camera, or mixing photochemicals. He skipped out on more nights with Missy than a gentleman like him ought to, and she was getting testy. He apologized, but he had his priorities straight now. Work first, drinking with Craig second, sex third. It was good this way. Better.
Jenna’s project for the show was looking good, and she’d even talked him into doing a set of photos of his pavement aliens. He wanted to get one or two more down before he called it truly finished. Tonight was a clear night, cold. His phone said chance of rain, but when he went out and looked at the sky he saw stars. Peter texted Jenna: Now?
He got back the answer he wanted, packed his satchel, and headed out into the cold night. Prince Albert needed an alien coming out of his plinth to greet him and they were going to make it happen. They had the stencils. They had the paint. They had the black clothes for stealth when the police tried to catch them, or when one of their new fans around the city tried to be the first to tweet photos of their latest project.
They met up, hugged, and got to work with the efficiency they’d developed over the last few months. Peter had just finished spraying the dark blue layer. His pocket buzzed. He pulled out his phone. Text from Missy. He stared at the text. Finally he tapped out a reply: don’t feel like drinking.
M: come here
P: don’t feel like that either
M: what do u feel like
P: hanging with Jenna
There was a delay of a few minutes, long enough for Peter to put his phone back in his pocket and tape down the next stencil. Then:
M: c u around maybe some day
And that was that. He stuck the phone in his jeans pocket. He’d been dumped. He felt relieved not sad. Okay, he’d miss the sex. He’d liked that part. But if she was going to get shirty about him hanging with his best mate, he was going to have to move on.
Jenna was also staring at her phone, he noticed. “Everything okay?” he said.
“Yeah, yeah, it’s all good.”
And then she was shaking the can of silver and aiming at the mask he’d taped down. Last layer, and then they were done with it, and he was packing his satchel with paints and they were off, racing down the street together, giggling madly. Down the hill and up, over the river, running the whole way, until they reached his room and collapsed together on his rubbish sofa.
“Paint on your face,” Peter said to Jenna.
“Yours too, silly boy,” said Jenna.
And that was it, they were giggling again, holding onto each other and laughing themselves sick. Jenna’s head rested on his shoulder and Peter snugged his arm around her tight. She was a lovely human being. She was his best friend. She was his salvation as an artist. He wondered if he could find a way to tell her that, or if he should just press his lips into her hair again and hope she understood what he meant by it.
“Let’s celebrate,” he said to her. “A pint. Just one, mind. And then home.”
One pint, that was okay. One pint each at his local, and a bit of dinner, and noses together over his latest set of drawings. They didn’t have a wall in mind yet, but it was best to plan ahead, in Peter’s view. Plan ahead, leading over his sketchbook together, discussing ideas. Brainstorming. His hair kept falling into his face, and Peter’s left hand was occupied holding it back. With his right, he snatched the charcoal stick from Jenna and slashed out a running pair of figures on the paper.
“Like that,” he said. “Needs to be dynamic. Like they’re bursting out of the hole in the wall. Like it’s, it’s a portal to another dimension.” He shoved his hair back again in irritation.
Jenna giggled at him.
“You have a lot of hair.”
“What about my hair?”
“There’s just a lot of it.”
Peter shook his head and Jenna grinned at him. “I was thinking about cutting it. Or doing an undercut.”
“An undercut?” She reached up and held back the hair on the sides of his head and stared at him critically. His heart was pounding. Was he dying? What was this going on in his chest? Because if he wasn’t dying it meant he was in love and he couldn’t be in love, not with Jenna. Not with her. She was his best friend. “No,” she was saying, “Don’t cut it. I like it when it’s all long and standing up like this.”
Peter immediately swore never to cut his hair again, not ever. What he said out loud was, “Going to need a hairband when I paint.”
“Or a hat.”
“I look ridiculous in hats.”
“Have you ever tried?”
Peter mock-glowered at her then had another swig of his pint. He wasn’t thirsty for it tonight, but it was okay. “Where’s Danny anyway?” he said.
“Oh. Yeah. Him. He dumped me earlier tonight. Remember that text I got when we were painting?” Peter nodded. “That was a dump-o-gram.”
“Fucking wanker,” his mouth said, but there were far more confusing things happening in his stomach just then. He looked at his glass of lager suspiciously but he knew it wasn’t that. He knew.
“Yeah, no. Can’t blame him. I’d just stood him up for the third time in a row.”
“Stood him up?”
“To do something with you instead. He got this idea in his head about you and me. You know, after I spent the night at yours the other day.”
Peter blinked. “What, that we’re–”
“Except we’re not.”
“I was going to tell him you were with that M girl, Missy or whoever, but then I thought, well, I’m tired of this. It’s been over. Might as well make it official.”
Peter sat back in the booth and fidgeted with the coaster. BrewDog, it said. What did that mean? Whatever. He had to confess now. He felt strange.
He said, “Yeah. About Missy.”
“She dumped me tonight too. I told her I’d rather chill with you. And.”
Peter had a healthy gulp of lager, because he hadn’t the faintest what to do with his hands or his face just then. Jenna looked like she was thinking hard.
She said, “Ever wonder if they have it right?”
Peter set down his glass and wiped his mouth. “What, our exes?”
“That we’re-- we’re–”
“Aren’t we? I mean, think about it.”
“This is mad.”
“I know, right?”
Peter’s heart started doing that thing again, where he was either dying or in love and this time he was sure which it was. He smiled at Jenna and put his hand over hers, because that was settled, then. She scooted right up next to him on the bench. He put his arm around her. He should probably kiss her next. He’d work himself up to it. He would. Yeah, there it was, he was kissing her, nothing too mad or deep because they were in a pub, but it was a proper kiss. His beer wasn’t interesting to him any more. Press his forehead to hers, rub his nose against hers, then let his lips find her again. Oh, nice. Tingling, nice. His heart was going so fast, it was if he’d run a mile.
He broke away from her to see if she was okay with being kissed, but she was smiling at him. She turned away and fiddled with her rings, still smiling. Okay. All right. She was-- she liked him too. Maybe she would come home with him tonight. Maybe she would stay with him. Maybe she’d let him make love to her. Peter gnawed on his thumb. Now that he’d thought about that, he couldn’t think about anything else.
“Come home with me?” he said, blurting.
Jenna narrowed her eyes at him. “That was awfully fast of you, Mr Suave.”
“Sorry, I just thought, maybe we could talk-- I didn’t mean–”
Then she grinned at him and he understood she’d been teasing him. “Yeah, I’ll come home with you,” she said. She laced her fingers with his, and flicked a glance over to the bar door. Peter grinned, and they were off.
Outside, into the cold night, under the flickering stars. They ran, hand in hand, through the streets, around and up the steps to his front door. Peter fumbled for the key with his off hand, because he didn’t want to let go of Jenna’s hand. The door popped open and they ran giggling past her, up the stairs, to his room. Door on the latch, Jenna switched on the light by his drawing table, and then they were falling onto his rubbish sofa together. Peter got his arms around her properly at last, held her close enough to him at last. Oh, this, this was what he’d been wanting all that time, her nose rubbing against his, her mouth opening under his, the touch of her tongue against his. Kisses and sighs and her fingers tugging his t-shirt out of his waistband, tugging it up so she could slide her hand over his bare back and make him shiver. Dared he? Oh yes, he dared. Jenna, pressed against him. Jenna making a happy sound as he wound his fingers into her hair. Jenna, nibbling on his earring and driving him crazy.
They did it three times, which was some kind of a record for him, not that he cared, except that if she’d wanted to do it a fourth time he’d have been ready and willing to do whatever she wanted because God! he was head over heels and all she had to do was smile and he was out of his mind over the moon mad. And then he had to do the usual uni things the next day, go to class and paint and talk to people who weren’t her, when all he could think about was how she’d felt when she’d shuddered underneath him and the sounds she’d made and the way she’d said his name as if it were the most precious thing ever.
Somehow he got through it, and then he was on the staircase again, that special staircase, rattling down the steps to look at it again, their first project. The night with the green spray paint. And she was there already, standing with her fingers over her lips, thinking. Peter ran down the last few steps and stumbled and landed at her feet, satchel sliding out away from him, elbow skinned. Jenna laughed and helped him up. He looked at his ripped shirt and bleeding elbow and laughed right back.
He kissed her because she was smiling at him and that was what you did when you were together with someone. He kissed her and did not collapse into a heap on the floor, which was something he should draw, shouldn’t he? He could see it. A grotesque scarecrow of a boy, all hair and bleeding elbows, disintegrating after a pretty girl touched him.
“Overheard the caretaker talking,” Jenna said. “They’re going to paint it over soon. You got photos?”
“Oh.” And, “Lots.” He couldn’t help but feel sad. The reason they were together, painted over.
“We knew this wouldn’t last. But I was thinking–”
Peter saw the smile on her face and felt himself burst out with his own grin. “Same thing I’m thinking?”
“Yeah. This time–”
“This time we do the whole wall.”
“One night to put the background up–”
“Second night to do the main work–”
“And then a third for some fine detail.”
“I’ll photograph the whole thing.”
“We’ll both get something for our portfolios.”
Jenna stretched her hand out for his and Peter laced his fingers through it. Their wall. The best wall ever.