Fandom: Life on Mars
Word Count: 3850 words.
Notes: Sam/Gene, set 1988. Title from ‘Changes’ by David Bowie. Part seven in the Changes Series. You need to have read never caught a glimpse, time was running wild, the taste was not so sweet, how the others must see the faker, strange fascination, fascinating me and just gonna have to be a different man first for this to make any sense.
Warning: Prior character death.
Summary: Sam was overjoyed when Gene said he was moving to Manchester. Jumped around, even; Gene could hear the clomping over the phone. And they’ve met up consistently since then. Seven times now, each more natural-feeling than the last.
There’s a jackhammer working two doors down, the street’s filthy from the constant construction, and Gene doesn’t think he’s ever seen so many ugly mugged bastards on display before. But this is home. It’s unsettling how right and real it feels, when he goes to the corner shop, and most everyone around sounds just like him, when he’s speeding ‘round corners and knowing all the short-cuts. Like he never left. It hasn’t almost been a decade, has it? He had a weekend down south, that’s all.
It was best to move back to Manchester. Least now there’s the semblance of distance, but so little of the inconvenience. He and Sam meet up about once a week, and Sam regales him with stories of training. He’s learning all about terrorism at the moment, the statistics and the strategies, and he talks about it at length with his eyes all aglitter and his mouth moving a mile a minute. He has views.
“The way I figure, it’s all due to a failure in the system,” he says, tapping his foot against the lino of the café with barely contained energy, all excitement and passion and too much caffeine. “There wouldn’t be terrorism if the institution had any sense of equity and social responsibility.”
“The institution?” Gene mocks. “Might as well have said ‘the man’. There are plenty of ways to deal with life being unfair than blowing up innocent people. You don’t like the world, change it.”
“That’s what they’re trying to do.”
“One poor sod at a time. Why not be constructive, as opposed to destructive, eh?”
“Easy to say. Not so easy to put into practice. An explosion gives a grander effect.”
Gene watches Sam as he reels back in his chair, lazily tossing his arm over the back and drumming a beat on the backrest. He senses Sam’s stopped himself from saying something else, something that’s even less pleasant than the tragedies of humanity’s war on humanity. He doesn’t know whether to be thankful for the self-censorship or not; he can’t guess if it was personally relevant. They’ve done an excellent job of not talking about this thing that they have --- this strange friendship that’s comprised of wide-ranging conversation and heated glances. Sam was overjoyed when Gene said he was moving to Manchester. Jumped around, even; Gene could hear the clomping over the phone. And they’ve met up consistently since then. Seven times now, each more natural-feeling than the last. Still decidedly dangerous, but comfortable too, somehow. Like a job as a steeplejack --- you’ve done it enough times you know what you’re doing, the reward is worthwhile, but there’s always the risk of mutilation and horrible, painful death.
To his credit, Sam has stopped leering and making suggestive remarks. He doesn’t deliberately touch Gene to see his reaction, doesn’t sprawl seductively on purpose. He seems content with things as they stand. So much so that Gene can just about convince himself he’s made the right decision.
“Don’t sympathise with the terrorists too much,” Gene warns. “At the end of the day, no matter the intention, the result’s the same.”
“I know,” Sam says. He fiddles with his coffee cup. “Helps in negotiation, though. Being able to understand the other person’s point of view.”
“Negotiation’s just another way of saying giving up.”
Sam smiles at him, and Gene’s heart skips a beat. “You really believe that, don’t you?” He runs his finger along the top of the cup he refuses to leave alone. “Tell me, Gene, how anyone’s supposed to change the world without compromise?”
Gene goes silent. Sam has an infuriatingly apposite point.
“Hah!” Sam crows. “I won. Did you want cake? I’m gonna get cake.”
“Don’t celebrate too quickly,” Gene says. “Any victory against me is always going to be short lived.”
“Surely that’s all the more reason to celebrate as soon as possible?”
Gene resolutely stares out the window as Sam stands and goes to the counter. He has a horrible habit of always wanting to look at Sam. Whenever they’re in the same room, his eyes automatically search him out, track his movements. It takes willpower and conscious effort to break the inclination. He thinks about Sam’s well-reasoned argument as a distraction. The thing is, his sense of social justice is horribly marred by his sense of killing the dickheads who threaten the city he loves. He can’t care less about far away oppression and vilification, when it’s his own who suffer as a result of the revenge. What’s it to him if some bloke somewhere is plagued by religious persecution? It’s not down the street. He never knew the bloke’s mother. There’s nothing he could do to help. Gene’s never claimed he’s not a hypocrite, but it’s how he feels, and he’s too old to change now. He’s smart enough not to tell Sam, though, who’d never understand. Sam’s no good at prioritising who to care for. His perspective is obviously and irrevocably skewed. He cares for everyone too much, and, when inclined, cares for one person too deeply. Can’t be relied upon at all.
Sam returns a minute later with a slice of cheesecake and a cherry bakewell. He proceeds to cut both in half with precise, efficient strokes, placing a half each on a napkin and sliding it across the table. Gene looks down at the sweets before him, then back up at Sam, who pops half a cherry in his mouth and quirks an eyebrow. Gene frowns, because he refuses to grin.
“You stingy bastard.”
The next weekend, Sam’s ten minutes into rabbiting on animatedly about riot gear before Gene manages to ask him how he got his dark purple and impressive shiner.
“Altercation with a baton-enthusiastic no-thumbed trainee?” Gene asks, unable to stop himself from wincing as he imagines it.
“Not quite,” Sam replies, avoiding Gene’s searching glance. He shrugs his shoulders. “Altercation with a brain-dead fist-wielding trainee.”
Gene studies Sam. He stares pointedly. “Sam.”
“Do you need lessons in appropriate conduct during police training?”
“No. I need lessons in boxing.” Sam feigns another casual shrug. “I was sort of hoping you could help with that.”
Gene finds his gaze settling on the firm press of Sam’s lips. He’s a second away from a pout, Gene can tell.
“I’ll not do anything of the sort unless you tell me what you were fighting about,” Gene says, though really he has no plans whatsoever to weaponise Sam. He’s deadly enough as it is.
“Robert Carlton thinks I’m a soft touch because I’ve thought about the human cost of unquestioned rules and regulations. I decided Carlton should see how entirely not soft I am.”
Unquestioned rules and regulations. Gene can’t say, ‘you never would have thought such things existed ten years ago’, although it is, probably, technically true, no matter his meaning. Sam’s less willing to toe the party line, then. Gene can’t tell if it’s a comfort or a consternation.
“Ahh, right. You thought it’d be grand if Carlton got to experience the hard boniness of your arse as he kicked it two ways to Sunday. Smart.”
“I was doing a good job of fending for myself, kicking back, until he got his mates to pin me,” Sam says bitterly. He leans forward in his chair a touch and Gene finally notices the bruises on his forearms.
“And how are you all still in the course?”
“We hadn’t been fighting each other, officer, honest. It was a role play scenario gone terribly awry. It won’t happen again, Sir. Three bags full, Sir.”
“Why do I get the feeling this isn’t a first for you?”
“Because it’s not.”
Gene’s exasperation can only be contained so far. “Are you made of testosterone or what?”
“Hey, I get my fighting genes from my mother,” Sam says indignantly. He juts his chin forward and tightens his jaw, the look so familiar that Gene’s lips curve reflexively into a smirk.
Gene thinks about Ruth for a second, the cold glint he last saw in her eyes. “I don’t doubt that for a moment.”
“When I was a kid…”
“When you were a kid? Gene interrupts.
“Yeah, when I was a kid, we moved around a lot. I went to four different primary schools, three different secondary schools. I had to prove myself. No one liked me because I knew what we were supposed to know before everyone else, because I found the work easy --- had to teach myself how to do it all before I got to school, really, to survive. I wasn’t gonna let some dickhead walk all over me ‘cause I was the new kid. So I tended to get into a bit of a scrape, every now and then. ”
“What about your mother and her sister, didn’t they keep you in line?”
“Heather? She moved to New Zealand when I was four, calls about once every five months. Anyway, mum all but encouraged me, really. Said I had to be strong.”
The underlying pain in Sam’s expression twists something deep inside Gene.
“Oh,” Gene says. There’s precious little else to respond with.
“If I seem chippy, it’s likely because the chip on my shoulder’s two sizes too big, and I know that. But I can’t and won’t let someone like Carlton push me around.”
“Have you not heard the expression keep your friends close, but your enemies closer?”
“I have, and it’s a meaningless cliché. Friends,” Sam scoffs.
“Did you have no friends?” Gene asks. “What about your band-mates?”
“They were band-mates. I answered an advert in the paper. I auditioned. We’ve been friendly. Not friends. And the police band,” Sam says, “was another open audition.” Sam rubs near his bruised eye. Winces. “I’ve never really had a friend. Not someone I could rely on to have my back. Early on, the moment I’d get along with someone, we’d be off again, so --- I learnt not to expect too much of others, especially if I couldn’t return the favour.”
He says it simply, doesn’t whinge about it, but it’s emotional manipulation all the same. Gene rolls his eyes and sighs.
“If it happens again, I’ll help you, I’ll find someone to give you lessons. But try to make sure it doesn’t happen again, for everyone’s sake.”
“Thanks,” Sam says. He smiles mockingly, though Gene can’t tell if it’s self-directed, or intended for him. “It’s nice to know there’s a heart in there somewhere that responds to sob stories.”
His place is a small semi-detached, on a street that’s thankfully quiet now that the roadworks are finished with. It’s a nice place. Comfortable. Boring. No one ever told him retirement would be one long day of tedium after another, and he’d thought paperwork was bad. You knew it was a sorry state of affairs when you were missing having to read and check off reports. Downright appalling when you longed for obligatory phone calls. He spends an inordinately immense amount of time every week (every day) looking forward to his outings with Sam. It’s pathetically, tragically sad, and after two months of watching telly, reading the classics, going down the shop, pretending to do housework, and making a frankly abysmal attempt at creating a potted plant garden, Gene settles on getting himself a job.
It turns out it’s surprisingly difficult to get a job when you’ve got streaks of grey at your temples, despite your obviously virile strength. No one seems to want to pay him for any kind of labour, so he winds up involved in the local church’s youth outreach programme; strictly voluntary, but time consuming with it. He spends his weekdays talking to thirteen to eighteen year olds with dodgy backgrounds and dodgier rap sheets. So. Not that different from his weekends, then. He organises outings, sports tournaments, arranges a couple of speeches from the more community-minded crims he knows --- ‘don’t screw your life up’ type stuff.
At first, he garners very little respect, not because they know who he is --- no one does, though Jackson Riley informs him early on the stench of pork is unmistakeable --- but because no one’s ever given these children respect to begin with. He tries. It doesn’t come easily. It’s really only listening to their stories he begins to appreciate their resilience and tenacity, and how easy it is to get caught up in the wrong crowd and make mistakes. When he’d been a youth, National Service had sorted him out. As had his desire to become a cop. And to be fair, had he not worn the uniform from the age of nineteen onwards, it would have been hard to distinguish him from the ne’er-do-wells. He’d spent a fair amount of time in the same kinds of places, doing many of the same kinds of things. He’s surprised, but it’s actually easy to relate.
Within another couple of weeks, Gene’s enthusiastically welcomed into the community hall they use as a base every time he rocks up, and staggered by how frequently the likes of Jackson, Marigold, Tyrone, Joshua and Patricia ask for one of his stories. He does get a frown or two from the other volunteers when he gets too grisly, but he doesn’t rightly care. He finds he enjoys this more than he thought he would. He’s not a church-goer, doesn’t believe in God, but Good Works are good works regardless, and it gives him distraction, not to mention purpose.
His phone rings when he’s sitting on his sofa eating a tv dinner, having had a long day of refereeing football matches. It’s Thursday, so no one should be calling, but they are, so he answers.
“Good to see you’re still up,” Sam intones, and Gene can imagine his expression; all bright eyes and hidden smirk. It’s just gone seven. The bloody nerve of it is startling. “I have a favour to ask. Can I kip at yours tonight?”
“What’re you doing in Manchester?”
“I’ve a date. I don’t much relish the idea of attempting to get back into Warrington at three in the morning, half-cut and staggering.”
“Don’t you have training in the morning?”
“Yes I do. Which is why I’d like some decent sleep after a night of dancing. Would it be alright?”
“I suppose so. The key’s under that disgusting little gnome you foistered off on me. You can collapse on the sofa. Make sure you don’t bang about too much.”
“I’ll do my level best.”
Gene settles back into watching telly, but his mind begins a treacherous journey into wondering about Sam’s date. How far it might go. What it might entail. Where, and when, and whether. He’s happy for Sam, really he is. It’s an exceedingly good sign that he’s finally getting over his strange compulsion. Pretty soon he’ll get on with his life like a normal human being. They both will.
Except that Gene also keeps conjuring up scenes of Sam dancing with a fit, faceless bloke, and, against his better judgement, chucks his dinner in the bin and grabs his bottle of Glenlivet.
Gene refuses to say he’s startled, worried or shocked when his front door handle rattles at nine thirty that night --- but he’s mildly put out. He stands in his hallway with one of his new and never-to-be-used golf clubs, and waits for whatever numb-skulled bandit decided this was a good place to break into. But then the door swings open and Sam steps in.
Gene points an accusatory finger. “You’re early.”
“That’s okay, isn’t it?”
“Depends on if you’re planning on bringing your bloke back here for a round of kissy-face,” Gene says immediately, mentally kicking himself in the knackers at letting his mouth talk before his brain’s had time to intervene. He blames the scotch.
“My date was female,” Sam says with a fixed look as he pushes through into the lounge. “And her boyfriend wouldn’t approve of continued kissy-face.”
“It was like that, was it?”
“Apparently.” Sam swings down onto the sofa and pouts. “I really liked her n’all. We connected.”
“Had good tits, did she?”
Sam snorts, rolls his eyes.
“Big, juicy, bouncy ones?” Gene continues.
“You’re such a pig,” Sam says, genuinely horrified. Gene settles next to him on the sofa and pours him a glass of scotch. Sam takes it, has a sip, but clearly hasn’t developed a taste for it yet, because he sets it down on the ground, nudging it away with his foot.
“Once a pig, always a pig. You’ll learn that soon enough,” Gene concedes. “But this isn’t piggish. I have a healthy appreciation of the female form, that’s all.”
“Oh, you do?” Sam asks, genuinely curious.
“I think we’ve both learned a valuable lesson in not jumping to conclusions this evening, haven’t we, Sammy-boy?” Gene taunts.
He’s ashamed by how pleased he is that Sam’s here sitting next to him. Even more mortified by his joy that the one date he’s heard about went disastrously.
“What did she look like, then?”
“Tall, willowy, brown eyes and hair. Classical features, you know the deal.”
“Far too good for you. You must have sensed it was a trap.”
“Well, she had braces,” Sam says, “even though she was twenty-two.”
Gene raises an eyebrow and goads even more. “Not a trap, then. You being overly generous.”
“I liked,” Sam says, carefully, “her personality.”
“I’m sure she’d say the same about you.”
“Oi, whatever happened to drop dead gorgeous?”
“It dropped dead. Now shut your mouth, ‘cause Gary Cooper’s on soon.”
“Isn’t there anything to decent to watch?”
“Yeah. Like I said. Gary Cooper’s on soon.”
Sam talks during The Cowboy and the Lady, voraciously. He keeps up a running commentary.
“This is appalling. Who’d willingly have a hand in creating this dreck? My God, what the fuck is she wearing? Bloody hell, now they’re making goggly eyes at each other. Why are we still watching this, why?”
Gene eventually shuts him up with a hand over his mouth, but Sam starts to lick his palm, so he yanks it away, and half contemplates slapping him.
“Be quiet or I’m kicking you out,” he says. He means it.
For the next two hours, Sam is blissfully silent. He even falls asleep during The Real Glory, his head lolling on Gene’s shoulder. Gene doesn’t have the heart to push him off. He likes the press of Sam’s body against his own, the heat and weight of him. He likes his faint smell of aftershave, the sound of his breathing, how his hair tickles his neck. Within the next twenty minutes, Gene falls asleep himself.
It’s four thirty-six when he finally awakes, for reasons he can’t fathom, and he shifts before thinking of the consequences. Sam stirs, his eyes opening.
“Gene,” he says, sleepily, giving the soppiest, dopiest grin, and reaching up to tug him into a kiss. Gene can tell he realises he’s not dreaming within two seconds. He must register the look of mounting horror on Gene’s face. He doesn’t, however, look altogether contrite. He simply rests his hand back on his chest and moves position, placing his back against the armrest of the sofa, until there’s space between them.
“I’ve something to confess,” Sam says, voice sleep-thick. “I wasn’t too put out by Adriana’s revelations, because my plan was always to come here early and harangue you.”
“You succeeded admirably.”
“You’re not angry with me?”
“I don’t have the energy.”
Sam looks at his watch and wrinkles his nose. “I’ve got to be up in three hours, but now I’m awake, I doubt I’ll be able to get back to sleep in a hurry. Will you stay and talk with me?”
“Is there any other option?”
“You could go to bed and try to sleep as you hear me banging through your kitchen cupboards, looking for a saucepan and cocoa.”
“I’ll stay and talk, then.”
“Good. Because I wanna hear about these kids you’re mentoring.”
“These kids? Some of them are your age.”
“You said the cut-off was eighteen. I’m nineteen,” Sam says with a yawn. “I go out on the beat in three and a half weeks.”
“A truly terrifying thought.”
“And it’s almost entirely thanks to you.”
They chat for another hour, until Sam’s eyelids droop and Gene’s limbs deaden. Gene stumbles to his bed, slipping into catatonia easily. After two hours of deep sleep, Gene’s awoken again by clanging in his kitchen, so he dresses and makes his way there, lazily watching Sam as he dishes up a congealed white monstrosity that looks like it has tentacles.
“I made you breakfast. As a thank you,” Sam says happily.
“What, in Shit’s name, is this?”
“Perfectly edible egg, despite its appearance. I tried to poach it. I didn’t exactly succeed.”
“That much is obvious.”
“Eat up,” Sam orders. He pats Gene’s shoulder. “If you’re a good boy, you’ll get seconds.”
On Tuesday, Sam turns up at his place with a sour expression and a split lip.
“What did you do?”
“Called Carlton a motherfucker. May have simulated the action with a family photo from his desk.”
Gene cradles Sam’s jaw in his hand and inspects the cut. It’s deep, might even need stitches. Sam makes a sound perilously close to a whimper and moves into the touch. Gene doesn’t remove his hand, yet, can’t find a way that’d be natural and unaffected. His mask is slipping.
“He called me a pussy. I didn’t take kindly to it.”
“You’re such a hothead,” Gene says. “You need to learn to contain it.”
“I need to learn how to fight.”
“No. Fighting’s letting the animal in you take control. You need some damn restraint.”
“Would you really want that?” Sam challenges. His eyelashes sweep down and up again, and when he looks at Gene, his expression has changed. “Emotion,” he says. “You told me it was important. You said I shouldn’t go without it. But since then, it’s been a hard line in repression. Well, I don’t want to be suppressed, Gene.”
Sam cranes into his touch again, looks like he’s going to do something rash. Gene drags his hand away, steps back.
“Fine,” Gene says, voice harsh in his throat. “I’ll teach you how to fight. “
“We can use the mock boxing ring at the community hall,” Gene says, “but this is going to be a lesson in discipline. You’re not meant to be fighting your own.”
“I’d agree with you there, but Carlton is not my own.”
“I could go and talk to Ash McIntosh if you’d like? Get him sorted out through official channels?”
Sam looks ready to explode. “Don’t you dare.”
“Alright then. We’ll start on Saturday. For now, you need to see a doctor.”
Gene thinks Sam will refuse, but instead he nods, like he may sometimes be sensible and follow advice. Gene reaches out and cuffs him around the head, playfully.
“Honestly, Sam. You’re nothing but a pain.”
Sam gives him a calculated glance. “But the good kind, right? The kind you never want to go away?”
Gene neither confirms nor denies the allegation.
Part eight: the days float through my eyes
1. never caught a glimpse, 2. time was running wild, 3. the taste was not so sweet, 4. how the others must see the faker, 5. strange fascination, fascinating me, 6. just gonna have to be a different man, 7. i turned myself to face me, 8. the days float through my eyes, 9. grow up and out of it, 10. still don't know what i was waiting for