Giles thought he’d find a camp-fire of some sort, and was half-prepared to lecture Smutty about the ethics of starting a fire on someone else’s land without permission, but the flickering light came from an entirely different source. Yes, there was a brazier on the ground—what appeared to be an old washing machine drum up on bricks—but the light he’d seen from the house was higher up in the air.
Wheels of fire spun against the night sky, searing their way across Giles’ vision in an endless dance. It took a few moments for his eyes to adjust well enough to see Smutty, standing there below the spinning torches, catching and propelling them up again. Giles stayed back under the cover of the trees, not wanting to alarm the juggler and risk him causing himself an injury with the flaming clubs.
But that wasn’t the only reason he waited and watched. Smutty had stripped down to the waist and his lean torso glowed in the ever changing illumination. His skin gleamed with sweat—he would have seemed a bronzed statue if it weren’t for the constant motion, the rippling play of his muscles catching the light in a mesmerising dance as he juggled.
Giles’ eyes felt like they’d been singed, melted into place as the heat radiated through him, awakening desires long since stowed away in secret places. He made the effort to lift his gaze to concentrate on Smutty’s face. He’d have expected the man to look nervous, worried even, considering how close he was to getting badly burnt, yet the expression on his face was serene. It didn’t even look like he was watching the clubs so much as the space between them, his hands anticipating where each would be without the need for visual confirmation.
The pattern of the juggling changed, and now one club was spinning higher than the others, slowing at the top of its arc before falling back again. Giles couldn’t be sure if it was the same club each time, or if the three were being swapped. Come to think of it, he wasn’t entirely sure how many clubs there were. He tried to follow just one of them, heedless of the way his feet were drawing him closer, right into the circle of light around the brazier.
The club he was following flew high into the sky, and when it came back down again it was caught and held in the same hand as the other two. Giles looked up into Smutty’s smiling face.
“That was incredible,” Giles said, when the silence seemed to have stretched out for too long. “How d’you ever . . . I mean, how on Earth do you learn how to do that? Don’t you get burnt?”
Smutty chuckled, a warm sound, and moved in closer, dunking the flaming torches into a metal bucket. They hissed and a cloud of steam rose out. “I thought I told you earlier, but maybe you weren’t listening. I got the impression you’re not much of a morning person.”
Giles shook his head. “No, I’m not really. Sorry. I think I was probably a bit of an ogre, wasn’t I?”
“No worries, I’m good with ogres. Here, have a seat.” Smutty indicated the battered old camping chair next to the brazier.
“What about you?” Giles couldn’t take the only seat. Couldn’t sit there with his eyes at nipple height, trying not to stare at what he couldn’t have.
“I’ll just get another off the boat. Won’t be a mo.”
While Smutty was gone, Giles sat and attempted to pour them both a glass of wine. It was difficult, what with having no flat surface to rest the glasses on. He’d have been better off bringing tumblers, or maybe even mugs. He ended up gripping the stems of both glasses between his thighs while he poured a small amount into each, and was so occupied in his task that he didn’t notice Smutty’s return until he looked up to see him settling down into a chair just opposite. Giles had a moment’s irritation at the black shirt that was now covering Smutty’s torso, but it was swept away when he raised his gaze.
He hadn’t allowed himself to notice yet, but Smutty was breathtaking. The firelight brought it out—the warm tone of his skin, the generous lips, the exotic, deep brown eyes that seemed to be teasing Giles with some secret knowledge. Suddenly, the crazy dreadlocked hair made sense.
“You’re mixed race, aren’t you?” Giles blurted out before he could stop himself.
Smutty stared at him with wide, inscrutable eyes, and Giles willed the waters of the canal to rise up and sweep him away, just so he could pretend he’d never said something so gauche.
“Is that going to be a problem?” Smutty asked, his voice inflectionless.
“God, no! Of course not. Why would you think— But of course, I’m sorry. You’ve probably had to deal with all sorts of, er, unpleasantness. Racism, that kind of thing.” Giles managed to stop himself before he dug a hole too deep to pull himself out of. It didn’t help that Smutty was staring at him blankly. “I mean, I can sympathise. I’ve had to suffer other people’s prejudice myself. On account of my, er, my being gay,” he finished, his cheeks burning.
Giles risked a quick glance at Smutty. He hated outing himself. Every time he had to do it felt like the first time. That sickening lurch inside as he stumbled through the words, utterly unable to predict what reaction they would cause. He thought by now he’d seen them all: his father’s silent sorrow and reproach; the awkwardness, pity and occasional downright hatred from colleagues; and every now and then, a rare moment of calm acceptance. Right now that was the best he could hope for.
What he wasn’t expecting was laughter.
Offended, Giles watched Smutty trying to calm himself. Eventually the laughter turned into a coughing fit, and he automatically held out a glass of wine. Smutty took it, sipped and then spat it out.
“Gods, what are you trying to do to me? I don’t drink.”
“Sorry,” Giles said, wondering how many more times he was going to end up apologising. Maybe he should just quit now and head back to the house before he put his foot in it again. “I didn’t realise you were teetotal.” Was Smutty a recovered alcoholic? Oh God, what if the taste of wine sent Smutty back to the bottle? Giles didn’t think he could live with that responsibility weighing on him.
“No, well, it’s not like I told you, was it? Hey, Giles, chill out. You look like you’re about to hyperventilate or something.”
“Sorry. No, I’ll be fine.” Giles took a gulp of wine to calm himself. Then he looked at the glass, and before he could think what he was doing, he tipped it onto the grass. Smutty looked on with his eyebrows raised as Giles followed with the other glass and then the bottle. It glugged as it emptied, the sound stirring up Giles’ blood. Maybe he could manage one evening without alcohol’s numbing comfort. At least until he got back to the house and his well-stocked cellar, as the thought of trying to find sleep without any help was terrifying. He wasn’t as strong as Smutty, who could just sit there and watch all that fine wine being wasted without a flicker of emotion.
The scent of Bordeaux wrapped itself around them in their little circle of firelight. Giles looked out over the canal, the water’s surface luminous in the gloaming. There was something magical about this time of evening when the sky still held an echo of daylight, yet the early stars shone bright. He hadn’t been down here at this time of day for years. He’d have to do better in the future.
“Penny for them?” Smutty asked gently. Giles rather liked his voice. It wasn’t cultured, but there was warmth there, as if he were constantly on the brink of joyous laughter. That reminded him…
“Why did you laugh? There I was, baring my soul and you just laughed at me.” It stung, now Giles thought it through properly.
Smutty gave him an enigmatic smile. “Are you sure you want to know?”
Giles nodded. Best to get it over and done with. He didn’t want to find himself sharing any more confidences with a bigot.
“It just reminded me of my own coming out speech to Starlight. I was so bloody awkward, and she just laughed. I suddenly realised why, that’s all.”
Smutty grinned and something inside Giles fluttered. “So you’re gay too? I couldn’t tell. You don’t look gay.” Giles willed himself to shut up before he said something really stupid, but the babbling wouldn’t cease. “Not that I can usually tell by looking anyway. Or maybe you’re bi? I didn’t mean to imply bisexuality isn’t an equally valid…” Finally Giles’ mouth obeyed his brain and he waited to see how much of a prat he’d made of himself.
Smutty chuckled. “I’ve dabbled with women in the past but I always end up coming back to men. I don’t know what that makes me, but I think of myself as gay if that’s any help.”
Giles nodded, not trusting himself to speak. The mysterious fluttering inside him seemed to be gaining in strength as he gazed at Smutty’s open expression. He wasn’t used to honest people and it caught him off guard.
“Now that’s out of the way, can we just relax for a bit?” Smutty asked. “If you promise to keep calm, I’ll tell you all about my dad, all right?”
“Your father? Was he the one you, uh, was he a…” Giles floundered, searching for the politically correct term. Fabian would have said something egregious and outdated like “darkie”, although perhaps not to Smutty’s face. Then it came to him. “A person of colour?”
“I suppose so, but aren’t we all? Right now, you look kind of red.”
Giles flushed further. “You know what I meant,” he muttered.
Smutty grinned. “Yeah, but it’s fun to yank your chain. I’ve never seen anyone turn quite that shade before.”
Giles rose. His instinct was to storm back to the house and open another bottle, but something playful in Smutty’s eyes stayed him. This mockery wasn’t intended to hurt, it seemed. Maybe he did need to unwind. He sat down heavily and stared into the brazier, wondering if he could blame his colouring on the firelight.
“He was Maori. Starlight met him at Byron Bay. That’s in Australia,” Smutty added after Giles frowned. “I think he was a traveller like her. Their paths crossed for that one night and I was conceived on the sand under the stars.” Smutty gave a wry smile. “It’s pretty romantic, the way she tells it, even if she never did find out his full name. Called himself Tan, which is probably short for Tangaroa, but I don’t know anything more about him.”
“You’ve never even met him?” Giles gaped. “I can’t imagine not having known my father.”
“I don’t even know if he’s still alive. I’ve got nothing to go on. But that’s okay, you know. Better to have it that way than to know for sure that he’s a bastard.”
“Couldn’t you try and find him?”
“I go travelling in New Zealand every winter, but without knowing his tribe or a surname – well, he could be anywhere, couldn’t he?” Smutty shrugged and moved his expressive gaze to the fire. “If he had itchy feet he’s probably somewhere completely different. For all I know he could be living in New York or Paris or even the next village.”
“There aren’t any Maoris in Upper Nunney,” Giles said emphatically. “There aren’t even any Pakistanis or Chinese.”
Smutty raised his eyebrows. “Oh, and you’d know would you?” Irritation crept into his voice. “Checked out the exact ethnic make-up of the area before moving here, did you? Tried to find the whitest town in the whole country?”
“That’s not what I meant! And I grew up here, so it’s hardly a choice.” Giles bristled under Smutty’s sceptical gaze. “My ex kept an eye on that sort of thing. Said it affected the property prices. He was only looking after my interests. Financially, I mean.”
“Your ex sounds like a real piece of work.” Bitterness warped Smutty’s voice.
For some reason Giles felt the need to defend Fabian. “He’s just old-fashioned. He has traditional values.”
Smutty snorted. “So that’s what you call it, is it? Traditional values? I suppose that makes it all right to be a racist snob.” He rose from his chair. “I’ve had enough of this conversation. Night Giles. I’ll be out of your hair before long, so you needn’t worry about your property being devalued.”
Giles stood so quickly the chair fell over. “Wait! I’m not racist. Please don’t go off believing that. I don’t think I’m any better than you.”
“And you reckon just saying that makes it true, do you?” Smutty’s lips twisted in a frown, marring his beauty. “Just leave it, Giles. If you’re not capable of opening your mouth without causing offence, you should probably keep it closed.”
Giles stepped in Smutty’s path. He felt reckless, his heart beating wild and fierce like tribal drums. When Smutty made to walk around him, he grabbed two handfuls of the man’s shirt. “If I were racist, would I do this?” he asked, before leaning forward and planting a kiss on Smutty’s lips.