Okay

Clara has some news for Malcolm. Malcolm takes it in his stride. His penuin-run stride, to be specific.

 

One: Announcements

Malcolm changed into a fresh suit in his office, with the door closed and Sam guarding it. New set of clothes right down to his boxers. Thank God Sam was all business about these things, but he hadn’t been home in three days and the shower (gents only) couldn’t do anything for his half-melted shirts. It had been a hellish streak. Stress, shouting, tense meetings, the PM fighting for his political life, the Party in a shambles, an utter blood-soaked shambles. It was so bad he’d had to put off Clara and the dinner date she desperately wanted for three nights running.

The photograph of Clara on his desk had glass on it. Malcolm maneuvered himself around so he could see his own reflection well enough to knot his tie. Clara’s face smiled up at him behind his own grimace. It made him feel like a tit. He’d make it up to her somehow, though he was fucked if he knew how. He’d had Sam send her several greenhouses of flowers, complete with groveling notes, but he knew that wasn’t enough. Wasn’t the way he wanted it either. She deserved his time and attention and his presence at the quiet moments, doing things like eating breakfast together, going for walks, arguing about which one of them should acquire a cat. Not just tumbling into bed every time he managed to drag himself away, for a few hours of closeness.

Not that either one of them minded the tumbling. Tumbling was great. He’d been a bit desperate the last time, and Clara had been distracted successfully from his absences, and-- Fuck. Fuck. He’d just had a brainstorm, an unwelcome moment of self-insight. He stared at himself in the glass, at Clara’s face behind. He wanted a bit more than that, did he?

Fuck. No time to think this through. Time to get on with his shit-covered morning. He lunged for the door.

“Sam! Sammy!”

He yanked the door open and stopped. Clara, sitting on the edge of Sam’s desk, chatting away with Sam, nineteen to the dozen. They broke off and looked up at him. Sam stood up and automatically took his soiled jacket from him. Malcolm gawped. His mind leaped around from bad explanation to worse; Clara looked a little solemn. She never came to his office except in emergencies. It was not the done thing, trotting girlfriends around to soak their knickers with displays of one’s power. At least not at 10 ack emma. So therefore it was an emergency. Shit. Fuck.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

Clara slid down and came toward him, not looking at him. “Thanks, Sam. Owe you one.”

Now his stomach was really dropping hard and fast. He stroked a hand over his face. “Sam, tell them all to fuck off until I open the door myself, right? Ta.”

Door closed, and he had Clara in his arms pressed up against it, his mouth on hers, just to prove to himself that she wasn’t dumping him like the absentee cock-up he was. Then she was pushing him away, gently enough, but with definite purpose.

“Sorry, darling, I am sorry. About last night. And the night before.”

“Yeah, I know. Been reading the papers.”

“Blood in the fucking water, sharks circling.”

“I get it. Seriously, I do get it. But I can’t let this wait any longer.”

“What? Clara–”

“Just shut up, okay? I have to say this.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket and jabbed a finger at it. “I wrote cue cards, and then I put notes in my phone and rehearsed it. Oh my god, I can’t possibly read all this. What was I thinking?”

Her eyes went wide and she stared at the screen. Malcolm made a grab for the phone, to cut the middleman out, but she swatted his hand down and tucked it back into her jacket pocket.

“Right. Okay. The thing is, and it’s really a thing, not just a hypothetical thing, though it’s a terrifying thing that I haven’t had the courage to tell you for a week now and–” She broke off.

“What, darling? Just say it. Please. You dumping me?”

Her eyes went wide, and she reached out to rest a hand on his chest. “No. No. It’s nothing like that. More the opposite.”

“Then what?”

“I’m pregnant.”

Malcolm slammed his hand over his mouth.

The leap in his heart, fuck him, the leap in his heart was not to be denied. He kept his hand clamped down, to prevent himself from bleating out anything before he knew how she stood, what she wanted. He’d do fucking anything for her. She was waiting for him to react, watching him. He needed to say something. He pulled his hand away cautiously, wiped it on his trouser leg. He looked carefully at Clara, who was now staring at him. He couldn’t read the expression on her face to save his life.

He said, “You sure?”

“Took two tests. And a blood test.”

“How long?”

“Ten weeks, maybe eleven tops.”

“Fuck, when we went to Spain.”

“Yeah, that weekend in Spain. Wine, beach. Too much wine.”

It had been a ridiculous evening and worth the headache the next morning. He turned away because he was smiling at the memory and he felt guilty. He’d done it to her that night, one of those times on the beach or in their house after that, or – fuck, he’d got her pregnant one of those times. Too drunk to remember the condoms.

“Say something, Malcolm. Tell me how you feel about this. It’s kind of a big thing.”

He rubbed his hand over his face. What to say? Oh God yes yes my heart I am dizzy with lust right now. Did she want to hear that? Or did she want sober steady it’s okay darling I’ll back you no matter what?

“Malcolm, I’m really scared right now.”

Her voice was watery. Malcolm spun back around. Tears on her face. Shit! He lunged forward and got his arms around her.

“Okay,” he said.

“Okay?”

“Yeah. Okay. You’re moving in with me, mind. I’ve got the room for it.”

“What?”

“You heard me, darling.”

She shook her head. “What.”

“Whatever you want.”

“Even if it means becoming a father at the age of forty-five?”

“Even that. Whatever the fuck you want. I fucking mean it.”

He rummaged around in his jacket pockets. Handkerchief, not his thing, but sometimes Sam stocked him up. She had. He dabbed Clara’s face dry, careful to avoid the mascara. She took it from him and blew her nose.

It got to him then, the thought of it, of her with him for years and years, not just a fast affair until she got bored with him: kids, a house somewhere in Scotland, nights that were not in a dim musty building fucked full of upper-class twits. Fucking hell. Clara was pregnant. Pregnant. He’d done it. The thought of her up the duff from him, that night, that amazing wild endless warm night, fuck him, he was wild about it. Not right now, though. Maybe tonight. Maybe. If she was in the mood. Right now was she needed was a steady arm around her. He wasn’t so stupid as to not know how this worked. She needed to know he was sticking around.

Malcolm went down on his knees and wrapped his arms around Clara’s waist and tried not to let his own eyes sting. He turned his head and pressed an ear to her belly. “Can’t hear anything.”

She giggled and sniffled. “You idiot. That won’t be for months yet.”

“Any child of yours is bound to start making noise early.”

“Oh yeah? Your kid, so it’ll be shouting from the womb.”

“At least she’ll be gorgeous. Your nose, your dimples. My height.”

Clara ran her fingers through his hair. “Could have my height and your nose.”

“Don’t curse it, darling.”

She laughed. Okay. This was going to be okay.

Two: Jamie

Malcolm kissed Clara at the door of his office, then walked out with her through Sam’s domain to the outer door. He kissed her again there and let her fingers trail out of his as she headed off. He bit at his thumb and turned around to see Sam looking at him speculatively. He yanked his thumb out of his mouth and shoved his hands into his trouser pockets.

“Sam, yeah, look, send more roses to Clara’s flat, would you? Also her classroom. Same message as always. I’ve got to shout at Abbot for a few, then try not to eviscerate Baldy and fuck, there’s no point to it, is there?”

“You need to eat some breakfast,” Sam told him, kindly enough. She handed him a tray with a coffee and a muffin on it. He took it, stared down at it. He was going to be a father, fate willing. He and Clara. A father. There was no way he was going to do that without marrying her first, was there? He was going to make an honest woman of her and an honest man of himself.

“Fuck Abbot,” he said. “Baldy can fuck himself or hire a rentboy to do the fucking, I don’t care which. Get Jamie here as fast as his little legs can carry him. And Sam? Yeah. Thanks, Sam. I’m gonna-- there’s gonna be some things I’ll need your help planning.”

Sam cocked an eyebrow at him. She was considerably more intelligent than most of the politicians that shuffled in shame through his door.

“Yeah,” Malcolm said. “Look, yeah, it’s what you think, but I need to talk to some people first. Lips sealed, yeah?”

Jamie came by about ten minutes later, out of breath.

“What the cunting fuck is going on? Sam said top priority, which she never says.”

Malcolm drew him into the inner office and shut the door.

“Yeah. So. Here’s the thing. Clara’s up the duff.”

“Fuck.” Jamie’s face went dark for a moment, then it cleared of all emotion. “You need it handled quietly?”

“What? No! Fucking going to marry her. Need somebody to stand with me. Get me drunk before and then haul me to the church all green in the face.”

“Malc–” And then Jamie had his arms around him and was pounding his back. Malcolm endured it, let Jamie kiss both his cheeks. “You fucking devil,” he said. “No other way she would have you, huh?”

“Yeah, if she’ll have me. Haven’t fucking popped the question yet. She just agreed to move in, and we’re raising the bairn together, but I haven’t asked her this yet.”

Jamie shoved him away roughly. “Get to it, man. Get out of here and go down on your worthless knee.”

“Need a ring.”

“Go fucking buy one. You’re minted these days.”

“We both are, compared to how it was.”

“Yeah.”

Malcolm looked at his friend, his lieutenant of so many years, and saw him for a moment as he’d been in that newspaper office, bad shoes and worse suit, tie untied, no lines on his face.

Then Jamie said, “Feel a lot better about this one than the last time.”

Malcolm would have winced at that reminder of his first marriage before now. Now he didn’t fucking care. He was with Clara. Clara, who was the breath in his lungs, the blood in his veins. “Yeah,” he said.

“Get the fuck out of here and to a fucking jeweler. Go! I’ll gut Baldy when he shows up.”

Three: Evening sickness

“I thought it was morning sickness,” Malcolm said. “Mornings. Not evenings.” Not during nice dinners he’d cooked for her while half out of his mind with nerves.

Clara’s hair escaped from him when she shook her head, and Malcolm hastily gathered it up again, held it away from her face while she retched. She spat into the sink and said, “Right, that’s it for the caprese you so thoughtfully made.”

“I thought you liked tomatoes.”

“I do. I guess Junior doesn’t. Today. Tomorrow I’ll probably want about five hundred tomatoes.”

Malcolm snagged a wine glass and filled it with fizzy water. Clara drank, swished some around in her mouth, and spat into his kitchen sink again. This was all his fault. He’d done this to her.

“This is normal?”

She sighed. “Apparently it could be a lot worse. I only lose it about half the time I eat.”

“I don’t need to fetch a doctor?”

“No, you idiot. Am I going to have to get you a book on how this all works?”

“Fuck no, darling. I’ve got it under control. Just checking.” Malcolm made a mental note to get Sam to recommend a good book for him so he wouldn’t be caught flat-footed again. He followed at her elbow back to the table, and held her chair for her.

Clara picked up her fork and jabbed it at him. “What?”

“What do you mean, what?”

“You’re hovering. Stop hovering. I don’t need hovering. I’m fine. I’m hungry again, even.”

“Yeah, okay, calm yer tits, darling, I’m not hovering. I just–”

“What?”

Malcolm opened his mouth, shut it, shoved his hands into his trouser pockets. In the right pocket was a little velvet box. He’d had it for days, since Jamie had shooed him out of his office to a jeweler’s. He’d been carrying the damn thing in his pocket for all those days, absolutely unable to do what he needed to do with it. It was supposed to end up on her finger and then he’d have to shell out ungodly amounts of dosh for a lavish wedding. That was how it was supposed to go. But what if she didn’t want him? What if the stone was wrong? How was he supposed to ask? Was he supposed to go to one knee? Both knees? Would Clara want him to do what he was supposed to do or something iconoclastic or should he just do what one of those repressed twats in one of her Austen novels would do?

He took the box out of his pocket. Went down on one knee. Snapped the box open. Held it out to her. His stomach felt about the way it did the first time he got grilled by a panel of MPs, the first time he’d watched a prime minister deliver a speech he’d written, the first time he’d bullied a minister into resigning.

“Malcolm–”

“You’re everything to me. Thought you should fuckin’ know. The world should fuckin’ know. That’s my wee bairn and I– Fuck me.” He snapped his mouth shut before he made it worse, ground his teeth, looked everywhere but at her.

“Okay.”

Malcolm’s heart stopped. “Okay?”

“Yeah, okay.”

Four: His

Sleep was a dim memory. Dreaming was a dim memory. He was wearing a t-shirt and stained track pants. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d put on a tie. Thank fuck for parental leave. He’d have hated trying to terrorize idiot politicians with spit-up on his coat. Malcolm’s life was nappies and walking around the house singing to a tiny thing that would spit up on his shoulder when he least expected it. He paced with wee Dougan on his shoulder so that Clara could sleep. Three weeks old. Couldn’t do a thing but eat, shit, and wail. Malcolm was already wrapped around Dougan’s tiny tiny finger.

The bairn was asleep at last. He tiptoed his way up the stairs and into their bedroom. Cot was by the side of their bed. He laid Dougan down on his back and breathed out a sigh of relief. Still asleep. Sometimes he woke when set down.

Clara sat up in their bed and yawned.

“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to wake you.”

“My turn, Malc,” Clara said. “He’s asleep. You sleep.”

“You sure?”

“I just got in three hours. I’m good.”

Malcolm needed no further invitation. He fell face-down onto the bed. His eyes were closed and he was in REM sleep before he had time to remember he hated sleeping on his stomach.

He woke some time later. Dark out, by the lights in the windows. He stretched, yawned, rolled over. Clara was standing the bed, her shirt open, wee Dougan against her breast. The sight did something to him every time, no matter how many times he’d seen it. His wife, his child. His heart aching in his chest so fiercely it was a wonder no one else could hear it whimpering.

“Come here, darling. Let me hold you. Hold both of you.”

Malcolm sat up against the headboard and opened his arms to her. She scooted around to sit between his thighs. She leaned back against him until she was settled. He slipped his arms around her, found the hand she had braced under Dougan’s bottom and laced his fingers with hers.

Yeah. He was a dad. This was what she’d done to his life. He had a family. He’d thought he’d die without one. No legacy, no children, nobody in his corner, but here he was, watching his son suckle. Murky gray blue eyes open, looking up his wife. His son. His wife. His. They were his. His tears on his face, dripping from the end of his nose. All his.

Five: Father’s Day

Father’s Day, as an institution, was something Malcolm was indifferent to. Or claimed to be, anyway. He’d always taken time for it when his father had been alive, and he still took the time on Mother’s Day every year. Or if he couldn’t take the time, he ensured that something his mum liked was waiting for her on the day. He’d done the same this year, carefully planned so his much-loved mother knew how he felt. But this year, ah, this year he’d had somebody else to fuss over and make much of. This year he’d had Clara, new mother Clara, to dance attendance on, bringing her breakfast in bed and the Buck’s Fizz she could have once more. He’d made the most of Mother’s Day this year.

Father’s Day, though, Father’s Day he hadn’t the time for. He expected nothing to be made of the day for his own sake. Maybe later, once Dougan was old enough to understand it. Maybe once the lad was a teen and had to be reminded his old man existed. Assuming Malcolm had the energy for it; he’d be over sixty by then. Will you still need me, will you still fucking feed me, that sort of thing.

He was a father. He, Malcolm Tucker, was a da. He’d won the genetic game and spawned. He had a wee one of his very own, lying asleep in his arms with a freshly-changed nappy. The little devil had pissed while he’d been changing him, which Malcolm now knew how to cope with. Fucking fiends, those boys and their piss-spigots.

Being a father meant mopping urine off his own face. And carrying out the bag full of soiled nappies. And learning how to use a thermometer that you stuck in their ear, and staying up all night fretting over that fever while giving your wife a shot at sleep.

It meant loving the fuck out of two beings instead of just one. It meant your wife waking you up on the Sunday morning with coffee and your own glass of fizz, kissing your temple and then your lips and complaining about your scratchy chin with a weekend’s growth on it.

“Fuck off, darling. Or better yet, let’s get the lad into his cot and we can do the other sort of fucking.”

Never failed to make her laugh, his silver-fouled tongue, oh yes. Malcolm was a father, and Clara was a mother, and all was right with the world.

Six: Barcelona

In which we learn how the whole accident happened in the first place.

Spain. Barcelona, to be precise. Not full height of the tourist season, which never ended in Barcelona, but it was warm enough. They weren’t in the city itself but east of it, on a private beach, in a house in a cluster of private guest houses. Or so Clara had pitched it to him.

A glorious sunset glowed from the west. He had his eyes turned away from it, though, and turned toward Clara’s backside in a little sundress and bare legs. She turned back to him and stretched out a hand. He took it. She had the blanket; he had the wine bottle. Down the path, onto the beach, right down over onto the white, white sand. Cool under his feet, but the breeze from the Mediterranean was warm. A warm night with a moon just shy of full hovering to the east. Lights and voices and music floated dimly over the hills at the edge of the beach, but faded as they got closer to the water.

He followed Clara further down. No dunes here, just smooth beach, slanting down into the sea. It was dark, save for the moonlight on the water. Tide on the way out, a line of salty wrack at the high water mark, cold wet sand below.

Clara retreated a few feet back up and laid the blanket out. Malcolm stretched himself out next to her and held out the bottle. No glasses. He’d had the forethought to open it while they were back at the cottage.

Clara took it and giggled at him. “To us!” She took a swig and giggled again. It was adorable. “Oh, that’s nice. Try it.” She passed it to him.

“To us,” he said, raising the stem toward the moon. “Fuck, yes, that’s good. Almost sweet, but not too much.”

“Sipping wine.”

“For a moonlit night.”

Another pass of the bottle back and forth, then he screwed it firmly into the sand by their heads. He laid a hand on her hip, leaned in, and kissed her. Wine on her lips, perfume in her hair, oh yes. This was what he’d hoped for when he’d planned this little getaway. No fucking interruptions, nothing to do in the morning but shag some more. It wasn’t a five-star hotel, but it was the next best thing: a fucking gorgeous private Mediterranean beach on a fucking gorgeous evening with the most fucking gorgeous woman he’d ever kissed.

He’d already taken a fat blue pill to ensure best results for the evening-- not that he would ever admit that to her, but he did it so he could keep up-- and he had a threesome of rubbers in his pocket. The pill was good for at least three, he’d learned from previous evenings of excess with her. Clara herself was often good for more than that, but that’s what God had given him a tongue for. That was running ahead of himself, though. Right now it was time to talk, and kiss, and flirt.

They’d been dating for a few months now, but this was their first time away together, and Malcolm was kicking himself for not having taken the time to do it sooner, because it was magic. Talking to her, laughing with her, sharing the bottle with her, looking into her dark eyes in the moonlight: magic. The spin doctor and the school teacher, yeah, that’s what the twat at the Mirror had written, and let them write. The spin doctor’s head was spinning and the school teacher had him schooled. Fuck, he was simple in the head about her.

“Malcolm?”

“Yeah?”

“You okay? You just broke off in the middle of a sentence and went glassy-eyed.”

He blinked, focused on her, and grinned. “You’re fucking gorgeous, you know that? And have as many brains as the entire cabinet smashed together into a single skull.”

“Wow, quite an image there, but thanks.”

“It’s true, though.” He fumbled until he’d found her hand and kissed it. “Fucking crazy about you.”

“I know. I’m crazy about you too.”

“Fuck knows why, but I’ll take it.”

“Seriously, Malcolm? Because of how much you care about everything you care about.”

That made his face flush with emotion, and that wasn’t something he could bear much of. So rather than answer he laid her back on the blanket, hand behind her head, and kissed her deeply. Got a knee between her thighs and settled in for the serious snogging of the evening, the snogging that would end in shagging on the beach. Fucking fantasy life he lived, a Motherwell boy in a place like this with a woman like this who was crazy about him. He was well hard now, and it felt good to press himself against her, to know she appreciated it. Appreciated him.

Clara sat up and wriggled and slid her knickers down her legs. Showed them to him for an instant, then tucked them behind herself. Malcolm lost no time getting his hand up her skirt again, let his middle finger press into her cunt while his thumb rested on her clit. Work her up fully this way, get her near coming, get her open and soft and wet, then ask her if he could fuck her, not that she’d said no to him yet. A long series of enthusiastic yeses starting with that second date. The first date he’d just kissed her at her door, all nerves and questions he wasn’t ready to ask yet. He’d asked most of them now. Could he take her out to dinner again? Would she consent to make love with him? Would she come to see a film with him? Would she allow him to go down on her? Did she like Sunday morning lie-ins with coffee, croissants, and swearing at a stack of newspapers? Could he touch her there? Would she come to this Party event as his plus one? Would she suck him off if he asked nicely? If he begged obscenely? Would she come away with him to Spain for a long weekend together?

Yes, yes, she’d always said yes to him, and he’d always done his best to make sure she never regretted it. And now he was about to make her come in his arms in the open air on a beach. He eased off before she got there, kissed her again, and rubbed his nose against hers.

“Yeah, darling, may I take you? I’d love to take you now. Take you right here, on the fucking beach. Yeah?”

“Mmm, okay. Get your trousers off.”

She fumbled with his zip then abandoned him to it and got her skirt up. Malcolm didn’t take his trousers off, just shoved them down far enough to be out of the way. There was no one about to mind the sight of his pasty white arse, at least. The beach was private, and no one was in sight and Malcolm was as turned on as he ever got. He levered himself up over her and let her guide him home. “Yeah,” he said, “yeah, fuck, that’s good.” A tiny part of his mind might have reminded him that it felt too good, skin on skin, that he had gone into her bare, but he ignored it. He was dizzy with wine, lust, love, and a thousand other emotions. Didn’t have words for any of them, but he didn’t need to. He had her name, which he whispered in her ear. A magic name.

“Love the way you say it,” she said. “The way you almost roll the R but then don’t.”

“You mocking me? Mocking the Weegie?”

“Wouldn’t dream of it. Not when you have me in this position.”

“You like this position.”

“Oh, I do.”

Malcolm rewarded her by biting at her throat, gently, just enough to get her to moan instead of talking. He did love it when she talked. Loved everything she did. Loved the way she was squeezing him then, the way her heels were digging into the backs of his knees, the way she was so slick around him. He told her so, maybe not in the most graceful of phrases, but sincere ones. The filthier he got, the more she moaned, so he let himself wax obscene on the magic of cock in cunt, of Malcolm inside Clara, of what she made him feel and how long he would feel that way and how many kingdoms he would topple for her sake, for the sake of coming inside her, but only after she’d come first for him, would she? would she please? And there she went, shaking for him, throwing her head back for him and baring her neck for another bite. He let her ride it out and then let himself be selfish, let himself drive hard and fast, until he was the one shaking and gasping and digging his fingers into the sand.

Cooling down, still inside her, unmoving, kissing her, licking at the place on her neck he’d bitten. Softer words now, pet names, kisses on the end of her nose, her hand stroking his back. At last he slipped out of her and rolled away. A moment of mourning, because he always wanted that feeling to last forever. Tucking himself back inside his trousers, zipping up. Head back, looking up at the starry sky, an ever-deepening blue. He was in love. Why was she with him? Fucked if he knew.

Malcolm sat up and found the bottle, shook it. Another mouthful of wine for each of them, and then it was dry. Malcolm kissed Clara’s wet lips and ran his fingers over her bare thigh, around and between, where her skin was wet. He brought his fingers to his lips and tasted. Salt, cunt, come. Fucking amazing. He was going to be turned on again if he wasn’t careful. She was watching him lick his fingers, a glint in her eye, so he slowed down and licked his middle finger luxuriously, obscenely, finishing with a flicker of his tongue that he was sure she understood.

She grinned at him and he grinned back.

“Let’s go back to the cottage, Clara, darling. Do this like civilized people.”

“I was enjoying being a pair of teenagers, there.”

Clara poked at his soft midsection. She was laughing at him, and he felt himself blushing. He got his revenge by lunging across her to snag her knickers before she remembered to look for them. He held them up between them, and when she grabbed for them snatched them away. He stuffed them into his trouser pocket. She stuck her tongue out at him.

“Sand in them,” he said. “You don’t want to put ‘em on.’”

“True. I already have sand in places I don’t want to discuss.”

“Cottage has a hot tub,” he said. He picked up the empty bottle. Clara shook sand out of the blanket and folded it.

“And another bottle of wine in a bucket of ice.”

“Now that was pure brilliant, whoever planned ahead like that.”

Clara took his hand and tugged him after her, and they retraced their steps up the beach. It was fully dark now, and the stars were out. The sand was cooling under his bare feet. The air was warm. He was tipsy, and it was marvelous.

“Stop fishing for compliments,” she said.

“Don’t need your fuckin’ compliments. Got better ways to wring them out of you anyway.”

Clara paused and cocked an eyebrow at him. “Oh?”

“I’ll have you begging me to let you compliment me.”

“What does that even mean?”

He ignored that. “Fuckin’ have you begging. On your hands and knees, me behind you, I’m thinking. Best position for fingering and fucking.”

“Sounds complicated.”

“Dead simple. You’ll see what I mean.”

“You’ll have to catch me first. And you run like a penguin.”

And Clara let go of his hand and ran up the walkway to the cottage, laughing ridiculously. Taunting him. Malcolm stared after her, then grinned and chased her through the door.

Seven: Planning

“I’ve got a chart,” Clara was saying. “I’ve been tracking my cycles for a year now, and they’re pretty regular, and so I think I know when ovulation happens. Though I can be completely sure if I correlate with temperature changes.” She waved a day planner at him with one hand and an electronic thermometer at him with the other.

Malcolm had a noisy slurp of his morning coffee. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. And if we’re going to have the next one exactly three years after Dougan, we should start more or less now. Well, on Monday, to be precise.”

“And you are fucking precise.”

“Well, I have the data. Today is probably pointless, if we’re going to be efficient about it.”

Malcolm rubbed his hand through his hair, which was far longer than it had been in years, and very satisfying to rub. Fuck him, why was he nervous? He hadn’t meant to get her stuffed the first time. Pure accident. He loved Dougan with all his being and it was a precious accident, but now that she was talking about it so calmly, as something one planned and charted out and coldly accomplished, it felt dismaying.

He turned back to Clara, who was looking at him with narrowed eyes. “Malc, is it okay? If you don’t want another kid, it’s okay, but you need to tell me.”

“I do! Fuck me, I do. Dougan needs a fuckin’ younger sister. They’re the best. Are you sure? Dougan will be barely out of the fucking pull-ups then.”

“Three years is the ideal gap. Malc. What’s wrong?”

“It’s just, well, I don’t want to be efficient about my fucking, you know? I want it to just happen.”

“Oh.” She smiled at him, and her dimples showed, and Malcolm felt his heart turning into a puddle of fucking embarrassing goo all over again. He was a pussy-whipped cunt, that’s what he was. All she had to do was bat those eyelashes over those huge brown eyes and he was on his knees to her. Figuratively. Literally he had his arm around her and a firm hand on her pert arse pulling her up to meet his lips. Clara. His wife. His fucking wife, Clara, morning coffee on her breath, kissing him as hard as he was kissing her, letting him put his tongue in her mouth. Oh fuck, how he loved her.

He disengaged his mouth from hers with some fucking reluctance. He bent over her and let his nose bump against hers. He said, “What about I just fuck you every day? Get home, go to bed, fuck, wake up in the morning, fuck again?”

“That might work.”

“Fucking will have to work.”

Malcolm picked her up and carried her kicking and giggling into the bedroom. He tossed her onto the bed, flung himself on top of her, and pinned her arms above her head. She sucked in a breath. Oh, how she loved being controlled, his sweet Clara, and how she would never ever admit it.

He thrust his tongue into her mouth, kissed her, pulled back. He said, “Gonna fuck you right now, thermometer be fucking damned. And if it takes more than three months, we’re going to fucking Barcelona, getting well hammered, and fucking on the beach until you’re up the duff again, so help me, Clara–”

She was under him on the bed, warm and curvy, heels tucked in the backs of his knees automatically, because that’s the way they did it when he was on top, which he wasn’t always, but she’d just finishing telling him it was the best position for conception, and okay, fuck him, he was going to be on top for the next little while. On top and biting at the corner of her jaw, just under her ear, while she wriggled out of her knickers. Okay. Yeah. He was hard without worries, no need for anything to help, thank fuck, just the smell of his wife, whatever the fuck it was she used on her hair overlaid on the scent of cunt, of wet horny woman, which was always a fucking turn-on. Malcolm growled into her neck, got his hand down, pulled himself out of his pajama bottoms. Nudged his cock at the right place, pushed in. Yeah, listen to her groan, feel how wet she was, ready for him already, slick for him already, cunt welcoming him in already.

Knocking her up was all about him, not about her. She’d explained it patiently; he knew it perfectly well. He had to come. She didn’t. He’d be damned if he let his wife, his Clara, the love of his life, go without coming. He was going to bring her off and he was going to feel her thrusting her hips up under him, and he was going to feel her shuddering, and that was what was going to bring him off, because he was a fucking gentleman, a fucking decent man, fucking his wife, oh God, there she went under him, and he was there, he was coming, so fast, so hard, fuck fuck fuck, he loved her so much.

Malcolm collapsed onto his wife and breathed. “Clara,” he said.

“I love you, too,” she said to him. “You sentimental string bean.”

“Fuck you too, darling.”

Eight: Spitfires

Coal Hill was the school Nicola Murray had chosen as the launch site for her civic pride program. There was absolutely nothing special about it, other than its location conveniently in Shoreditch. It had the usual selection of grubby uniformed children, the usual selection of bright-eyed Labour-voting teachers. Malcolm couldn’t disapprove of the choice, though he had been scathing on the topic of the Minister’s latest program. Learn to be good little Britons, to vote and participate in local government, earn prizes for essay-writing about the greatness of Britain. The program came complete with little badges that Malcolm had been entirely unable to talk Nicola out of.

“They’re going to call them Murray Youth,” he’d said, gritting his teeth, and then he’d wanted to scream when she’d failed to get the joke but had instead simpered at him and used the name on the website.

They’d chosen one of the Coal Hill teachers as a victim to stand up and explain how the program would solve all of the school’s problems and likely bring about world peace as well. The launch event would feature this teacher and several of her more auspicious students, perhaps an entire class of them, looking studious and well-behaved for the cameras. It was of course going to be a disaster, and Malcolm had to be on hand to contain it.

Malcolm followed the school governor down a series of corridors to the assembly hall where the carnage was scheduled to be staged, emotionally preparing himself to cope with whatever qualified as “exceptional” in Nicola’s assessment. Whoever it was, he had to be braced. Malcolm’s default mode with civilians – by which he meant people who were not politicians, civil servants, or journalists – was to be polite and put them at their ease in what was bound to be at best uncomfortable experience. At worst, of course, it was batshit insane or massively humiliating, but that was only if he’d managed to fail at his job. His job, of course, was to drill Nicola on her speech until it spewed out of her mouth the same way twice in a row and he had thus far failed at it.

Lovely school, really. It had an assembly hall worthy of having terrible productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream put on in it, definitely. Malcolm stalked toward the stage, thinking about lighting and where Nicola would look least awful. There was a short woman with brown hair advancing toward them. She looked a slightly annoyed, which was a state of mind Malcolm could grasp.

“This is Miss Clara Oswald,” said the governor. “One of our most popular teachers.”

“Malcolm Tucker,” he said, and stretched out his hand to her. “I’m in charge of throwing peanuts at the elephants in this circus.”

Miss Oswald had a round face, a cute nose, a firm handshake, and a little bit of fire in those doe eyes.

“Just one question about the circus, Mr Tucker. Murray Youth? Seriously?”

Malcolm covered his face with his hands, as much to hide his feral grin as to signal to her that he knew exactly what she was thinking.

“I just can’t say that with a straight face. Mind if I call them Spitfires? It’s a terrible name, but–”

“But less terrible than fucking Hitler Youth, yes. Feel free. The minister might or might not notice.”

“Going to be like that, is it?”

Malcolm took a second, more careful look at this teacher. She looked alarmingly intelligent at that moment.

“The minister gets nervous. Starts quivering like a mouse in a fucking cathouse.”

Malcolm shrugged at the schoolteacher. What could he do? But he was already feeling more at ease about this particular civilian. This hunch was borne out in the first rehearsal. Miss Oswald seemed to have already memorized her lines and was rolling her eyes at Nicola where she thought no-one could see. Malcolm caught her glance mid-roll and grinned with one side of his mouth. She wrinkled up her nose at him and grinned back. Quick on her feet, quick with her wits, and her seventh form seemed to adore her. Good find on Nicola’s part-- or Glen’s, rather-- and Malcolm stopped worrying entirely about the civilian half of the dog and elephant show. The politician half still needed a taste of the verbal whip, which he was more than ready to provide at top volume.

In the rehearsal Miss Oswald called the team of kids the Spitfires and Nicola giggled and picked up on it. Glen looked at Malcolm, who shrugged.

“Run with it,” he said.

Glen said, “At least there’s nothing printed. Just a web site. No five hundred reams of brochures to pulp like the last time.”

“Clever girl,” Reeder said. “We should hire her.”

Malcolm refrained from pointing out that she looked to be Reeder’s age or older, because there was no point, and besides, she was coaxing one of her kids through reading a speech, and it was rather delightful to see somebody doing a job well. He got that so rarely in his line of work. He gnawed at his fountain pen and started sketching planes in his pocket notebook to distract himself.

Later in the day the real show happened. Live cameras, the BBC, a class of kids who behaved with only a little mischief, a moment where Nicola dropped her cue and Miss Oswald picked it up for her and handed it back gracefully, and on to the photo opportunity. Malcolm watched Miss Oswald dodge Reeder with aplomb and maneuver herself so she was wedged between Nicola and her most adorable-looking student for most of the shooting. In his view this was the capstone of good judgement on top of an excellent performance. She’d made Nicola look almost intelligent, and that was a feat.

A thought came to him. He’d seen no ring on her finger. Would she-- was she-- dared he? Well, there was no harm in asking. He maneuvered himself around near her as the chaos began to dissipate and the journos packed to leave. To his annoyance, he was second in line behind Reeder, who’d been hovering. If there was anything Malcolm hated, it was being in line behind Reeder. At least Reeder had good taste, and this was a chance to see if Miss Oswald did as well. If she was interested in the weasel, it would be a lapful of ice water and therefore useful.

Reeder did that lean and foot-shuffle he did when he was nervous. “Hey, um, Clara–”

“Miss Oswald, thanks.”

“Miss Oswald, right, wanted to congratulate you on a job well done today.” Reeder did his patented side-to-side wriggle, like Axl Rose oozing his way around a microphone.

“Thank you,” she said. She flashed Reeder a tiny smile then looked down at her phone, which had nothing visible on it Malcolm could see.

“Really quite unusual.”

“Oh?” Miss Oswald said, not looking up.

“Yes, um, rather. Most people don’t catch on to the intricacies of policy quite the way you do.”

She looked at Reeder then, and Malcolm smiled to himself. No fears now. “Good to know.”

Reeder said, “Hey, I know a very good little restaurant near here. Comes highly recommended by a pal who should know. Would you be interested in joining me for some dinner later?”

“Sorry, can’t,” the schoolteacher said. “I’ve got to sharpen all my kitchen knives tonight.”

“Oh, yeah, okay, then, maybe some other time? Here’s my number. On my card, there, see? Oliver Reeder, assistant to the minister. Quite important, really, don’t give this card out often.”

“I’m sure you don’t,” Miss Oswald said, and her voice was just dry enough that Malcolm smiled to himself.

Reeder showed no signs of understanding that he’d been dismissed, so Malcolm stepped up and made himself known. Reeder started and flinched away.

“Ensign Ball Crusher, have you fixed up the web site yet? You’ve got a new name for the initiative. Get crushing, yeah? Can’t have the kiddies snapping off Nazi salutes.”

“Right, I’ll just get somebody on that. Delegation, you know, Clara? Right! See you!” He did something with his hands intended to indicate suaveness, and oozed off back to Glen.

Malcolm watched him go, then turned back to Miss Oswald to see her frowning at Ollie’s back.

She said, “He managed to pack a lot of patronizing into a few short sentences.”

“Yeah, takes a Poxbridge man to achieve that, and Ollie is the poxiest.”

“Hmm. What can I do for you, Mr Tucker?”

“Wanted to thank you for your participation in our bizarre exercise today. You gave the little tykes a name and rescued Nic’la at least twice. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. And I wanted to say thank you to you, too.”

Malcolm raised his eyebrows.

“I heard the kind of language you use when you’re talking to the politicians, that poor Minister Murray, and I was all braced and ready to take the hide off you for talking like that in front of my kids. But you didn’t. Not a single word when they were in the hall. I appreciated it.”

“Oh,” Malcolm said, and he felt his ears go red. “They aren’t fucking useless lumps charged with the fate of the nation, right? They’re just kids. No promises about how I talk to them if they go into government.”

“Right, wouldn’t expect you to hold back then. But thanks.”

“Yeah, no problem. Um.”

“Was there something else?”

“Miss Oswald,” he said, “I know you’ve only just met me, but if I can ask–”

“What?” She was smiling, but not at him, and Malcolm suspected she knew exactly what he was going to say next.

“I’d like to ask you out for coffee. If you’re free.”

Her brows scrunched together and her nose wrinkled up. Malcolm bit at his thumb and waited for rejection.

She said, “Coffee. Date or business?”

“Date, sort of,” he said. He extracted his thumb from his teeth and shoved his hand into his trouser pocket. “Bit of caffeine, conversation, no commitment deeper than a skinny muffin if you decide you loathe me fifteen minutes in.”

“That’s-- that’s remarkably thoughtful of you, Mr Tucker.”

“Malcolm, please. Mr Tucker is what cabinet ministers call me.”

“And do you have some insider tip on the best cafe around here?”

Malcolm grinned at her. There was no chance he was taking that bait. “No fucking clue. I was assuming there’s the usual shite Costa around here somewhere if all else fails.”

“Not a coffee connoisseur?”

“Miss Oswald, I drink so much coffee in such dire circumstances that I can’t tell any more. You could feed me ditchwater and I wouldn’t mind so long as it’s caffeinated. Come to think of it–”

“Yeah?”

“I had a cup of tea this morning that tasted a lot like ditchwater. I think my PA might be putting one over on me.”

Miss Oswald laughed at this, a genuine laugh that made that button nose of hers crinkle up again. Malcolm looked into her eyes and felt something shift inside him. If she was as intelligent as she seemed-- well, no sense running ahead of himself.

“Coming for a cup, then, Miss Oswald?”

“Yeah, I’ll get coffee with you. And it’s Clara. Miss Oswald is what my students call me.”

Malcolm smiled with one side of his mouth. One up on Reeder, he was. Several million up on him, actually. “I can go any time you’re free. If you’re not I can sit in the back of your classroom and scream at a few fuckups from Culture over the phone.”

“So long as you scream quietly, that’d be great. I have to do a little paperwork. Maybe half an hour?”

“Done.”

Malcolm swung back over to the clutch of triumphant DoSaC people to collect his coat and messenger bag from Terri.

“I see you were talking to Clara,” Ollie said to him. “You will get nowhere with that bit of totty.”

“Oh?”

“I have already pulled it.”

“Congratulations, fetus boy, on pulling yourself off because that’s the only fucking thing you’ve pulled in years. I’m off.”

“Not coming with us?”

“I’m taking Miss Oswald for coffee.”

Ollie grimaced. “A bit of review of her performance? I thought she did quite well.”

“So did I.”

He turned his back on Ollie without waiting to see what his face did. Was he that petty? Perhaps he was. He joined Clara at the door of the assembly hall. He trailed after her through a maze of school corridor to her classroom. She was stopped often by kids asking her questions, which she answered cheerfully; he observed it all in pleased silence. She was in fact a popular teacher. A pushover, possibly.

Her classroom was a long ways from the assembly hall. She settled at her desk with a pen in hand and waved him toward the rows of desks. Malcolm wedged himself into one of the chairs at the back. They felt a bit smaller than they had the last time he’d sat in one, so many years ago at St Ninian’s. This classroom was a sight cheerier. Lovely posters on the walls, huge windows opening on a play area below. No chalkboards, he noted, just those white things with the odd-smelling markers. He and Jamie had mimed huffing those markers once to make Nicholson flee a room. He grinned to himself. Phone out, look at the messages: nothing in particular. No disasters in the making yet today. List of likely questions to prep Tom for in advance of Wednesday morning, but nothing unusual there. A stream of texts from Nicola that he deleted with half his attention. It hadn’t been a bad day and would rate acceptably even if coffee turned out to be a disaster.

“Okay, ready to get that skinny muffin,” Clara said. She was standing next to his desk, looming over him as much as a woman that short could loom, already wearing her coat. Malcolm smiled up at her. She smelled nice, like some sort of floral sweet thing he decided he liked.

“That was quick,” he said.

“I invented an excuse to get away from the assembly hall. The BBC sound man was hovering behind you and I couldn’t bear to be invited to dinner by another one of you lot.”

He extracted himself from the desk and followed her back out into the hallways, which were considerably quieter than they’d been. Kids all gone home already, saving the delinquents.

He said, “Was Ollie not the first, then?”

“No,” she said shortly.

“Fuck. I’m sorry. It’s a wonder you didn’t clip me round the ear when I asked.”

“You were the only one who treated me like a human being the whole day. By which I mean you only cared about whether I was doing my job, then got out of my way once you realized I was. The rest of them were trying to distract me by flirting.”

“Oh,” Malcolm said. He hadn’t really thought about it while he was doing it. “I call that technique not being a cunt.”

Out onto the streets: a nice spring day, which meant it was gray and spattering rain but the wind wasn’t bollocks-freezing. Malcolm shouldered himself into his coat casually.

“Where to?”

“There’s a new cafe a couple of streets down. Looked nice from the outside. Thought we’d give it a try.”

“And if we decide we loathe it–”

“We’ve wasted only fifteen minutes and a skinny muffin.”

“Fucking clever lass.”

Malcolm followed Clara down the wet pavements, away from the school. A bit of an odd neighborhood, obviously on the way up with what looked like software companies cheek by jowl with strip bars.

While they were waiting for a light to change to let them cross, Clara said, “Mr Tucker-- Malcolm-- you’re a puzzle to me. You behave like a decent person while using the absolute worst language to do it.”

“You haven’t heard the half of what I can do with my tongue. I can sustain a rate of ten fucks per minute indefinitely, and I once got five cunts into a single sentence.”

“I might ask you to prove that.”

“You need to feed me a politician first, yeah? One who’s just come off Andrew Marr and leaked secret trade agreements.”

“I’ll let you know next time I run across one of those.”

Clara touched his arm and pointed toward a doorway with a sign over it: Pressed Coffee. Clever, but not clever enough, in his view. The space was about three times the width of the door, a long room heading straight back into the building, but it was bright and shiny and clean and smelled rather nicely of warm bread. The espresso machine was the requisite red enamel and stainless. There was a bit of a mess behind the bar where somebody was working on the refrigerator. But the fellow with the waxed mustache and the plugs in his ears took their order cheerfully. Lattes and whatever those muffins were.

They sat at the window table, facing each other, and Malcolm felt himself go a little shy. Here they were, on a date-ish thing. He had fifteen minutes, or the duration of a skinny muffin, to convince Clara he was worth a second fifteen minutes. She’d already convinced him she deserved another fifteen, but she knew that, so he was definitely the one who had to do the dancing here.

“Fuck,” he said.

“And what was that one for?”

“I have no idea what to say now.”

“What do you normally say to people when you take them out for coffee?”

“Usually I’m trying to talk them into doing something for me, or for the PM, or for the Party, or for the sake of the fucking nation if all else fails. Or I’m bollocking them.”

“When you go out to coffee with friends, I mean.”

“Oh. Um.” Malcolm cast around for memories of that. Fucking thin on the ground in recent years, they were, and wasn’t that a dismaying thought. “Books, last time. I was reading a dead fascinating history of the North African campaigns that had me fucking riveted, no joke. Good old Monty, you know? Had to explain it in detail to my mate Jamie, who’s no’ much interested in anything beyond American jazz.”

“That’s not bad. You could try me on that, and I could tell you about post-war British novels.”

The man with the mustache set their coffees on the table for them. Malcolm broke off a chunk of his muffin and tossed it into his mouth. Not bad. The coffee, however, the coffee was distinctly odd. Clara seemed to be enjoying hers, however, so he said nothing. Didn’t want to look like he was the fussy sort, especially when he mostly wasn’t. Or was he? He tried the coffee again. Fuck. Where was he? Oh, right, novels and North Africa.

“Naw, I think that’s the wrong topic for us today. We need to get the catechism out of the way.”

“The catechism?”

“The catechism. Are you seeing anybody? What’s your relationship history? Are there kids around to make things exciting? You ask me the same. Run down the checklist, look for the items that would make you run screaming off to the Orkneys to get away from me.”

“Right! Right, of course. The catechism.”

“I’ll start. I’m not currently married. Have no kids.”

“That implies you were married once.”

“Yeah. Four years together. Ended in pure shit show about seven years ago. She took a post in Berlin without talking to me about it. Told me she hadn’t seen me at home for three weeks, so what the fuck did it matter. Had a point. After a year of sulking I admitted she’d been right. You?”

“Not married, but thought about it once. He died. Hit by a car in a zebra crossing.”

“I-- I’m sorry. That’s hard.”

“Yeah. It was a few years ago. I’ve moved on mostly. Sniffle a little on the anniversary, you know? He was a good one, but he’d have wanted me to get on with it, so that’s what I’ve done.”

Yeah, Malcolm would want the same for his partner if he snuffed it. No sense wallowing on. He said, “Any partners since?”

“Done some dating, but haven’t found anybody worth getting serious about yet. You?”

Malcolm shrugged. “Been too busy since we took office to date seriously. Enjoyed a few dalliances. A few madcap romps that lasted the duration of a Party conference, you know? But mostly nothing.”

“So, what we’re both saying is, we’re complete sad sacks who haven’t managed to find anybody even though we seem like perfectly decent people. Assuming we are decent people. Are we?”

“I think that’s the gambit here, yeah? I need to wear a sign that says available but not psychotic, and so do you.”

“One of the DoSaC people today warned me about you, by the way. Said you were psychotic. No sooner were the words out of her mouth than you were informing the minister at top volume that she was a disgrace to all twats everywhere, so you know, I believed her.”

Malcolm felt his face flush. “And yet here you are.”

“Here I am. So, is she? The minister?”

Malcolm had another sip of his coffee and suppressed the urge to make a face at it. He shrugged at the cup. “She’d just muffed her lines again. She’s got a fucking advanced degree, more than one. You’d think she could memorize a few lines of speech, yeah? It’s not exactly Shakespeare.”

“Maybe that’s the problem. If it were, she’d learn it. Meter, rhyme scheme, you know? Easy to learn.”

“You’re saying I need to start writing in iambic pentameter?”

“Yeah, give it a shot.”

Malcolm poked at his muffin, thinking as fast as he could. Then he said, “The website calls them Murray Youth. It fibs. The Whitehall fucks don’t know these Spitfire kids.”

Clara stared at him for a long moment, her face blank, then she broke out laughing. Malcolm laughed with her, then, embarrassed, he attempted to bury his face in his coffee cup. Lovely blue cup, perfect foam, something horribly wrong with it. He declined to taste it again.

“This coffee,” Malcolm said.

“It’s the milk. It’s not milk.”

“Jesus. What the fuck is it?”

“It’s a vegan cafe. This is almond milk.”

“Fuck.”

“Do you want to order something else?”

“Let’s just fuck off somewhere else.”

“Where?”

“No idea. Though I haven’t eaten anything today other than that muffin.”

“Good God,” said Clara. “How do you manage to keep vibrating at that frequency without regular meals?”

“I’m a fucking hummingbird. Stick my nose into sugar and I’m good for at least three bollockings.”

“I see why your nose would do the trick, there.”

“Hey, you don’t know me fucking well enough yet to mock my nose.” But he was grinning, because fucked if this wasn’t the most fun he’d had talking to a woman in years. “Point is, dinner? I’d eat fucking anything that was nearby and not entirely fried.”

“Do you eat ramen?”

“Noodles in a bowl? Lead me to it.”

Dinner was significantly better than the coffee had been, though they had to wait for a table even at that ridiculously early hour. They got huge bowls of noodles in soup and shared a bottle of sake one tiny cup at a time. It was delicious and delightful and de-fucking-refreshing or some other word Malcolm couldn’t quite call to mind. With the catechism out of the way they switched to politics, to history, to those post-war novels, to novels from last year, to television programs they both watched, to the question of how much of a waste of brain cells Strictly Come Dancing was and how invested they each were in the outcome of this round.

They fought briefly over the check. A first date, Clara explained, had to be mutual, and if he was going to make noise about her salary compared with his, he ought to take it up with his employer the Prime Minister. Which was, in Malcolm’s estimation, as fair a sucker punch as he’d ever received. He conceded defeat gracefully and allowed her to pay her half.

They stood outside the restaurant afterward, a little bit awkwardly. Malcolm looked his phone: much later than he’d thought. The time had fucking fucked off, as the proverb did not go. He looked up from the screen at Clara, who was just tucking her own phone into her jacket pocket.

“Hey, Clara, hey.”

“Hey, Malcolm.”

“May I have your number? I’d like to see you again. Assuming you’d like to see me.”

“Tonight was lovely,” she said. “And I think I could go for a repetition.”

He handed her his phone with a text message window open. She typed in her number and he texted her a photograph of a Spitfire. He might be a Scot, but he was still British and male, and that meant he had Spitfire images to hand. And Clara was nothing if not a Spitfire herself. Cacafuego indeed.

He stuck his phone back into his pocket and tried not to fidget. “I’ll need to do a cab home, I think, if I’m to get anything done tonight. Where are you headed?”

“Further east. I usually take a bus.”

“Let me take you home. Don’t fight me on this. I’d be in the cab anyway.”

“Yeah, okay.”

“I will see you to your door, because I’m – well, I’m not a fucking gentleman, that’s a fact.”

“You are something more courteous than a gentleman.”

“To be honest I’m a fucking selfish prick. I’m enjoying this and I want to make it last a little longer.”

“You are,” Clara said solemnly, “an honest man. The last honest man in government.”

He indeed walked her to her door, which was up on the fifth floor. He thought about going for a kiss several times while they rode the unbearably slow elevator, but he hadn’t yet asked her if she would like to be kissed, and he couldn’t work out how, and she might feel fucking trapped in a lift so asking her then was a mistake, and what the fuck had come over him? He felt like a schoolboy taking a girl to a film for the first time ever.

“Clara,” he said. “I’ll call you, okay? We’ll do something if you’re free Wednesday?”

“Yeah, that sounds fun.” She was smiling to herself about something, not anything she was going to tell him about, but something going on inside that he wished could know. Some day maybe she might tell him. If he said the right things to her, maybe. If he kept her smiling.

“Drinks and then a late dinner? I know a place.”

“Seven?”

“Done. I’d like to kiss you goodnight. First date, yeah? May I?”

She tilted her head and considered him for a moment. “Hmm. Yes, you may.”

She reached out and took his hand and tugged him closer. He leaned in, slowly, and brushed his lips against hers. And then he did it again because she’d gone up on tiptoes to meet him and that meant she liked it. Tongue yes or no? was the only thought he could manage to shape in his head. He let his mouth open but didn’t push it with her. It was just a goodnight kiss, just their first kiss, nothing more than that, and he knew he was overthinking it. Kiss her, let himself linger so she knew he was interested, but don’t get pushy. He wasn’t one of those men. He wasn’t a cunt.

Pull back, lean in again, let his forehead touch against hers for a moment, then step back. She was smiling at him still and it was just as mysterious as before. Okay, good, yeah, smile back, fuck, his heart was hammering.

Let go of her hand, watch her through her door, then back down the stairs, moving quickly, light on his feet, head swimming. That had been good. She hadn’t turned out stupid. Schoolteacher, English teacher, books and writing and shite like that. The kind of thing he’d liked once, before journalism. Before politics.

And thus home, and so to bed, and up with his alarm early enough to have breakfast at home instead of in the back of a cab. Breakfast and a cup of tea and the stomach-churning morning email, and a moment spared to check his personal phone and find she’d sent him a photo of a Spitfire in return. Color snap, lovely restoration job, taken at some local airshow.

He texted back: good morning gorgeous xx.

While he was waiting in line to get the usual lattes, her reply arrived. pleasingly ambiguous whether you’re greeting the airplane or me.

the airplane of course xx

And more banter, entirely meaningless, but it made him smile, that lasted until she told him her day was beginning. He was waiting in line at the espresso factory, a comforting American chain that would make comfortingly mediocre coffee for him, and his last message to her was a photo of the cup with the words I have triumphed: straight out of the cow xx.

Malcolm was smiling when he swung into his office, cups in hand. He handed one down to Sam.

“Your coffee, Sam.”

Sam grimaced at him and pointed to the paper cup already sitting on her desk. “There’s another on your desk waiting.”

“I’ll just have to two-fist them, yeah? Oh. Hey.” He handed Sam a card with Clara’s name and address scrawled on it. “VIP. Accept her calls. Also send her flowers. Something fucking nice, I don’t know what. Roses? Roses too eager?”

Sam frowned at him for a moment in thought. “Depends. One rose isn’t too eager. First date?”

“Second already lined up. Tomorrow night, by the way, so please make sure I get out of this fucking pit of hell on time, yeah?”

Sam scribbled something in her notebook. “Right, got it. And I’ve got the flowers covered. Want to write a note?”

“Fuck, yeah, need to do that, don’t I?”

“If you want that second date to come off, I’d recommend it.”

“Cheeky.”

“Indispensable.”

Malcolm took the pen Sam handed him and bent over her desk to scribble a note. On a whim he sketched the swoop of the Spitfire’s pretty wings, round things on the underside, spinning propeller. Sam studied it and smiled at him.

“The teacher from yesterday? Fast work.”

“You terrify me.”

“Only fair. You terrify everybody else.”

“Ta. I’m off to eviscerate somebody. Don’t much care who. See you at the eight-thirty!”

Malcolm vanished into his office to take notes for the meeting and the morning’s spin on whatever national orifice the government was fucking today. Sure enough Sam had staged a paper cup of latte for him already, shot of caramel the way he liked it. The more the merrier. He up-ended his own cup to get the last of the syrup out. No sense wasting caffeine.

His phone buzzed in his pocket. It was a text from Clara that read: what does xx mean?

kisses xx

Then a few long minutes later, her reply: good to know xx

Malcolm grinned, stuck his phone in his jacket pocket, and went off to make disturbingly sexual threats in the direction of the fucks charged with the welfare of the nation.

Nine: Third Kiss

Second date. Sam had, as requested, ably managed his day so Malcolm was out of the office and home in plenty of time to shower, shave, and dress in something more suitable for a date than the office. A suit, yes, but in a cut he wouldn’t wear amongst the civil servants, a tie that was intended to make his eyes look as blue as they could. Or so the woman he’d employed to dress him had said, and he was fretting enough over how he looked to verify this assertion in the mirror. Yes, his eyes looked blue. No, his gray wasn’t truly obvious yet, though if Clara were to, say, run her fingers through his hair while–speculatively speaking–kissing him, she would notice that he was light at the temples.

Fuck it all. A tiny dash of cologne, not a laddish splash but restrained enough to be a bit posh. He wasn’t posh and neither was she, but he was going to do his best for her.

Stage fright, was what he had. He’d been caught up in the moment on their first date, it had been so unexpected. This one was planned. What if it didn’t come off right? What if she’d had time to think, to look him up on wikipedia, to read what the Mail had said about his divorce? Fucking lying hacks, to a one, but if Clara believed it–She was too intelligent to believe the Mail.

Fuck it all, he said again, this time aloud to the mirror. Time to put it to the fucking touch and see if she’d consent to kiss him a second time. He had so loved that first kiss.

And with that thought in his head, driving him on, Malcolm was off to meet Clara at the restaurant he’d named to her. Julius’s suggestion, not that he was comfortable letting that great snob know about his personal life, but Malcolm had asked, and Julius had been delighted to rattle off a list of possibilities. Julius was reliable about food and too flattered to be asked to notice the tip he’d just received about Malcolm’s affairs. He’d made a perfect suggestion, too. It wasn’t a swank restaurant, not anything public, but lovely, trendy, tasty. Italian, in a little corner building, with creaking wooden floors. Just the sort of restaurant you’d take a woman to if you wanted a quiet chat over good food.

Malcolm waited in the entrance for Clara, who was few minutes off the appointed time, just enough that he’d begun to gnaw at his thumb when she ran up the steps. He noticed her shoes first. Heels, legs, fucking lovely calves, little black dress, bare shoulders under the coat, makeup just so–Malcolm was happy he’d fussed over his tie. He took her hand, smiled down at her, and bent down for a fast kiss. Joy, sweet joy, she went up on tiptoes to meet him. A thrill went through his whole body, from his lips right down to his toes.

“Hi,” he said. “Find it okay?”

“Nothing is hard to find in the age of the smartphone,” Clara said. “Thanks for the roses, by the way. They made my students run a little mad speculating.”

Malcolm grinned and thrust his hand into his pocket. Sam was worth her weight. “Shall we?” he said, and he gestured to the headwaiter. They were seated at a window overlooking the street. Bottle of wine on the little table, a decent red, nothing showy because Malcolm liked drinking wine, not wanking about it. Malcolm moved the dish of olive oil and balsamic out of the way, reached across, and let his fingers touch Clara’s. He was interested. He needed to let her know, but casually. Oh so casually. Lean toward her, smile conspiratorially, and touch her ever so gently.

“So,” he said. “I get another fifteen minutes.”

Clara grinned at him. “You get a whole second date, in fact. What do we talk about on this one? Do you have a rule for this conversation?”

Malcolm gestured with the hand that was not resting against hers. “The catechism again, but it goes more personal. You know, we tell each other the fucking idiotic shite we did when we were young, that kind of thing. Stare into each other’s eyes like bleating sheep while we do it.”

“Go more personal, hmm? Right off or do we dip our toes in first?”

Malcolm let his forefinger stroke her thumb. Daring, oh yes, he dared. “Toes in first. Start with something fucking easy, something only a politician could cock up. How’s your week been?”

“Oh, God, now I’m nervous about answering a basic question.” Clara flipped her hair back with the hand that was not currently resting against his on the table, and pursed her lips. “Okay. I got this. My week was not bad. Flurry of journos around the school, interviewing the kids. Or trying to.”

Malcolm flashed a little smile at her. “You told them to go fuck themselves?”

Clara did a thing with her eyes that was not quite rolling them that Malcolm found adorable. “Well, not in those words.”

“So long as that’s the message.”

“I distracted them by allowing them to tape some B roll.”

“Fuckin’ thin end of the wedge, that.”

“I was relentlessly boring and my kids did their best to be boring as well. Well, not Courtney, but she did her own bit to help. The governor told them off pretty firmly after two days of it.”

“Good man, that.”

“You seem to have charmed him, anyway. He saw us walking off from the school together, it seems. He put in a word for you the next day.”

“What?”

Clara shrugged and grinned at him again. “You can be charming when you want.”

“Can’t possibly argue with you, can I? The lady says I’m charming, I must be charming. Even when I’m swearing?”

“Even when you’re swearing. Possibly because you’re swearing.”

The spark of amusement in Clara’s eyes made Malcolm grin right back at her. She wasn’t frightened by him, oh no. She understood him. She’d known him for all of three days and she understood him already. There was something strange going on inside him, right this moment, something that made him feel dizzy and achey. His chest felt odd. His heart was squeezing and his stomach was flipping. Either he was about to keel over in the restaurant and die of flu, or he was falling in love. In love with the schoolteacher he’d met three days ago? Shit. Say nothing, say nothing, don’t give himself away, don’t frighten her off. Sane men didn’t fall in love that fast.

“You’ve gone quiet,” Clara said. “Did I say the wrong thing?”

“No, sorry, was just thinking we ought to look at the menus or something.”

“You ordered the prix fixe for us both five minutes ago.”

“I did?”

“Malcolm,” Clara said, and she was grinning at him. “You are not entirely here, are you.”

“I am! I fucking am. I’m just, you know, nervous, okay? I’m nervous. I’m on a date with a woman I just met who isn’t in politics and I’ve got to impress her without relying on my reputation, okay?”

“Do you date a lot of politicians?”

Malcolm refilled Clara’s glass. He’d been too jittery to drink much of his own yet. He tasted it–not bad–and shrugged. “No’ a lot of dating in my life recently. Brief affairs at best.”

“Do you sleep with a lot of politicians, then?”

“Fuck no. Politicians are fucking disastrous affairs, yeah? Everything’s a negotiation for power. You gotta break through it and convince them that it really is just about feeling good and then coming. Worst case, they’re afraid of being blackmailed and the only way they get past the fear is drinking until they’re almost too numb to fuck. Nah. I go for the journalists. Smarter, usually.”

“I see, you like them smart?”

“Here I am with you, hoping to kiss you again. You tell me.”

“Flatterer.”

“I’ll do what it takes.” He grinned and drank some more wine. He felt a little better now, a little more sure of his footing. Clara was working with him. Clara wanted him to come off well. Clara might just be on his side in this fight. Amazing thought, that.

He leaned forward across the table on the strength of that thought, and twined his fingers with hers. She smiled at him when he did this.

“Bleating sheep mode commences?”

“Baa baa fucking baa.”

“So now we move into personal questions, I take it.”

“Only if you stare into my eyes while you ask.”

“Got it.”

Clara leaned toward him and wrinkled that adorable nose for a moment. Fucking giant doe eyes, she had, and a nose that made him want to rub his own nose against it, and a smile that made him warm all over.

“First time you had sex,” she said, and Malcolm winced.

“Oh, fuck, you really want to know? I was at uni and too fashed to admit I was a virgin to her. Popped about five seconds in. Made it up to her ten minutes later. Wish I was eighteen again sometimes. Then sanity fuckin’ returns.”

Clara giggled at him.

“Yeah, you answer that question. See if you’re laughing.”

“Also at uni, so we both got a late start compared to our peers. And it was with another woman. Dated her for a couple of years, then screwed it up by messing around with a guy. First and last time I ever cheated on anybody.”

“Shit.”

“What?”

“The cunnilingus standard I’ve got to meet here is fierce.”

Clara smacked him in the shoulder and he mimed pain. “Assuming you ever get the chance, that is.”

“I live in hope.”

“You need to earn your chance.”

“Can I earn my chance by demonstrating other linguistic feats?”

“A fucks per minute world record will not improve your chances.”

“Are you sure? You laugh when I do that.”

The waitstaff appeared with their first course, and their focus shifted from conversation to food. Malcolm was hungry; he’d had no time for a proper lunch, and had managed to gulp a cup of tea around four. No bullshit from her about not eating for the sake of her figure. She wasn’t scrawny, thank Christ. She looked like she was about a million times fitter than he was, if he were honest. She could eat food with him and enjoy it, and drink wine with him and enjoy that, and tell him about her ridiculous adventures on holiday bird-watching in Albania while attempting to ruin the day of a party of American bird hunters. Clara had pretended to speak only French, which had driven them mad. It was an absurd and unpredictable story, from an absurd and unpredictable woman. He wasn’t sure he believed it, but that was half the pleasure of it.

She held his hand on the cab on the way back to her flat. Malcolm was silent while she talked, telling him this time about what Blackpool was like in the winters. He watched her talk, listened to that mind at work constructing metaphors for him, allusive and elusive and tantalizing. He knew he wasn’t stupid, but there was a chance Clara Oswald outclassed him by a lot. The thought made his toes curl in his shoes with anticipation, and he suddenly bent and kissed her hand.

“What was that for?” Clara said.

“Because you amaze me,” he said.

“Careful. You could turn my head that way.”

“I fucking hope so.”

“One of the things I like about you–”

“More than one, if I may fucking point it out.”

One of the things I like about you is that I know what your intentions are. You have at every moment been at pains to let me know what you want. First it was don’t fuck up this PR stunt, and then it was see if you can tolerate a cup of coffee with me and now it’s – what is it, at this moment? Oh yes.”

“A second kiss.”

“It would be the third by my count.”

“Yeah? Oh, right, yeah, kiss at the restaurant. Does that even fucking count?”

“Yes, it counts.”

“Okay! A third kiss. I want a third kiss.”

“Since we’re here, would you settle for coming in for a drink?”

Malcolm’s heart did something strange. Adrenaline? Desire? Hope? Some combination of the three. Did it show on his face? But it was a bad night for it. “Just one. I’ve got to–I’ve got an eight-thirty.”

“It’s a school night for me.”

A delicate negotiation, but he thought they’d reached agreement. One drink; he wouldn’t spend the night. They might sit on her sofa and mack, but talking was more likely. In they went to her flat, lights on low, bottle of wine set out on the low table in her little front room, a pair of glasses and a corkscrew at the ready. Snuggling, slumped down on her sofa, his arm around her, his tie loose. Yeah. Malcolm looked at the wine and considered opening it. He’d have to take his arm from around Clara if he did, and he didn’t want to take his arm away from her. He didn’t want wine. He wanted her lips again, that third kiss. Even just one kiss would set him up proper for the rest of the week.

“Clara?”

She had a little smile on her face, as if she knew once again exactly what he was going to ask, and was waiting for him to catch up. “Malcolm?”

“May I kiss you?”

The smile widened. “Yes, you may.”

“Tell me if you want me to stop, okay? School night, so I won’t–”

“You really are ridiculously sweet. Someday you’ll tell me how you learned to be this sweet. But right now–”

Clara took his tie in her hand and tugged him down. She kissed him. She kissed him, and Malcolm let go of himself.

Their third kiss. It went on longer than the first two had, and probably counted as a dozen or so kisses before Malcolm pulled back to rub his nose against hers and see if she was okay. She was. Her eyes were half-closed and she was smiling. Another kiss, mouth open this time, no doubts that this was the right choice, a little flicker of tongue on her lips. He slipped his hand behind her head and closed his eyes.

She smelled good. Her earlobe tasted good. He couldn’t describe it. Yeah, he liked her perfume; yeah, he’d had half a bottle of wine so he was tasting that too. Sure. What the fuck ever. He liked this taste. He was happy to suck at Clara’s earlobe, nuzzle her neck, whisper sweet things to her, make her laugh. Mess up her hair, soothe his hands over her back, salute her shoulders, her throat, the nape of her neck. He didn’t let his hands wander below her waist, not yet. It was a school night, and that meant he held back. That meant he kept it slow.

He let his hand drift down, down, to her waist. Her body, warm against him. His hand against her back. Her lips on his ear, kissing him, sucking at his ear in turn.

Fuck. If he spent another moment touching her he wasn’t going to want to stop, and he’d promised, and that meant he had to back off. So he did, gave her one last kiss with her face cradled in his hands, and touched his forehead to hers.

“School night,” he said, and sighed.

“School night.”

Malcolm sat up and fussed with his tie, which had somehow gone all askew. Clara’s eyes were on him, speculative, measuring. So dark, so lovely. She might–if he asked she might. But not yet, not yet. He didn’t want her to think that he thought she was easy, or fast, or that he didn’t respect her from the top of her head to her ridiculous high heels. Because he did. He wanted more than fucking. He wanted to climb inside her head and know her all the way. He wanted her to climb inside his head. Whatever that meant. His head was a fucking mess, apparently.

Stay on the important topics. Stay on target. He said, “Have I earned another fifteen minutes?”

“Kissing like that?” she said, dreamily. “Yeah, you get another fifteen.”

“Friday? Would you like to go out for drinks Friday? Somebody told me about a place in Hackney. Tapas and cocktails. Fucking trendy.”

“Mmm, sounds good. Dressy?”

“Yeah. Eight, maybe?”

Clara smiled at him. Her lips, oh her lips. He wanted to kiss them again. She was speaking: “Sure. And then, assuming I’m still not loathing you, and if you’re very good–”

“Yeah?”

“I might invite you back here again.”

“Clara.” And he kissed her lips again, gently, because his heart was pounding.

“Hold still a sec before you get up.” And she had a bit of tissue that she was dabbing at his face and lips and he was about to protest then he realized she was wiping her lipstick off him and he grinned like an idiot. A punch-drunk, aroused idiot.

Another kiss at her door, this time all the way deep, open-mouthed. A promise in that kiss, this time, that he’d make good on any time she wanted to accept him. And then she watched him dance his way down the hall to the lift. He summoned a cab for himself with his phone while he rode the lift downward. The thing was slow as an Eton boy in a mosh pit, but it gave him a chance to lean against the wall and luxuriate in this feeling. Fuck him, that had been a lovely evening. He was well hooked, he was. Over the moon. Dizzy with something he hadn’t felt in a long time.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and texted her: Thinking about you xx

You just left xx

Will be thinking about you all night and all day until Friday xxxxxxxx

Don’t drive the nation off a cliff xoxoxoxo

Fuck him sideways up the shitter with a horse cock. He was out of his mind about this woman and for reasons he could not understand, she seemed to like him. She had let him kiss her again. Over and over. He’d asked permission and she’d granted it, and she hadn’t minded. She’d liked it. She liked him.

This thought carried him on air all the way home and all the way to bed. It was ridiculous. He was over forty. He shouldn’t be feeling like this. She was just over thirty. She shouldn’t be letting him even look at her, never mind sigh when he kissed her, as if she were thinking the same wistful thoughts he was about the demands of the morning. If he’d been in his twenties, he’d have just taken her to bed–assuming she wanted–and to hell with the consequences in the morning. Not that he’d have suffered many. Fucking youth, wasted it while he had it. He lay in bed, alone between cool sheets, and wished he were a young man again. Or maybe not. He’d have cocked it up with somebody like Clara. He was steadier now, more likely to pay attention to what she needed, more likely to give the relationship what it deserved. Also more likely to get eaten by his work, because he was at the top just now, but she knew that going in. She didn’t mind angry, so long as it had a target. He’d learned that from their cautious dips into political topics. She minded callousness. She minded indifference.

One thing he knew he wasn’t, and that was indifferent.

With these thoughts chasing themselves around his head, he fell asleep and dreamed of his childhood, and woke up feeling ridiculously happy. He swept into the office arms out, greeting everyone with an effusive joy that sent most of them scattered in terror. Fools. He was sincere! For once.

Sam eyed him and his little pirouette through the door suspiciously. “You didn’t get us both coffee again, did you?”

“No, not this morning. I didn’t want to risk that glare. You’ve got your own bollocking face, you know?”

Sam handed him his cup and studied him for a moment. “Your date went well, I see, but you want me to send even more flowers, no holds barred.”

“How do you figure that?”

“You’re over the moon, but you’re not wearing yesterday’s clothes or looking rushed.”

“Why,” Malcolm said, speculatively, “are you not running the nation?”

“What makes you think I’m not?”

“Darling, I would not bet against that possibility. Could you get fucking John at fucking Culture on the phone for me? I’ve decided to go mental about that Turner Prize faff.”

“He’s already on your schedule at ten, but I can ring him if you want a warm-up.”

“Do it, Sammy.”

Malcolm swept off into his office with coffee cup in hand. Over the moon? Over fuckin’ any planet you cared to mention.