The Value of Marks
The boy came in on a rainy Tuesday evening. At least the clock said it was evening—the pub’s windows betrayed only the muck and grime of the street outside.
Oh, he wasn’t really a boy, I knew that. Probably wasn’t much younger than me. The way he moved, as if something lurked around every corner, gave it away. Maybe there was. Odd things hid in the shadows sometimes. You only realized that if you’d been around the block a few times.
Still, I didn’t get many pretty little things dropping by, especially on nights like the ones Noah must have seen in the flood.
He hunched in a grey, damp overcoat, stranded in the no-man’s-land between the door and the bar. He wasn’t even a silhouette against the weak trickle of light through the colored-glass panels of the door, he was just another shadow. Nothing but dark hair and dark eyes that were just smudges, like charcoal drawings across the paleness of his face.
My regulars were old soldiers, old sailors, men from the docks and the factories. There were young ones sometimes, whelps that were still wet behind the ears—they’d been too young to sign up, right till the day before VE Day, and five years on still wished they’d been old enough. But they had a swagger, a cockiness, spit and vinegar and grit. They swore with the sailors and drank with the dockworkers and came without so much as a peep, pressed up against the alley wall behind the pub with me.
No one talked. It was just me and the rats and the crates and boys too tough to say a word.
This one looked like the door slamming too loud behind him would shatter him to bits.
He shuffled to the bar, sitting on one of the stools with their upholstery seeping out of the side in dirty tangled fluff. He wasn’t paying me much mind, glancing at the door instead.
“Not expecting bother are you?” I finished drying a pint glass. “Don’t put up with that sort of nonsense, if you get me meaning.”
His gaze snapped up to me, eyes wide, as doe-like as a girl’s, and I felt like a right bastard for the tone I’d taken.
“Are you in trouble or something?”
The pub was always dark. It was stuck between the megalithic shadow of the local bank and the offices across the street. The day I’d opened, the girls from the office had chattered so loudly as they passed I thought I was back in those French trenches looking at the flocks of squawking geese flying south.
Even so, when his hair fell into his eyes as he shook his head, they were as unfathomably dark as anything I’d ever seen.
“Right then.” I set the clean glass down and pretended I hadn’t heard that tiny inflection to his word. “What can I get you?”
“Right-oh.” It was harder now there were more words, less space for that accent to hide.
I watched him as I poured his pint. His hands were just fingers poking out of the gaping mouths of his sleeves, white and narrow as bones. Was he death in disguise? Seemed a bit of a let down really, that this pretty little wraith of a creature could do what Hitler hadn’t managed.
Besides, death didn’t shiver like that. There was a fireplace in the corner, but it hadn’t been used since last Christmas when more smoke came into the pub than went up the chimney.
“Should take that coat off.” I set the pint in front of him. “You’ll catch your death.”
He peered at me, and I wondered for a minute if he’d understood a word. Then, after glancing around again, he nodded slightly and did as he was told.
The workshirt under it wasn’t even a color—it was a grain, rough and worn and about four sizes too big. He’d rolled up the sleeves several times over and they still reached his wrists. He looked smaller now, less swallowed up by that coat.
“There’s a heater in the back,” I said. “I could take it in there to dry up a bit if you want. If you aren’t in a hurry.”
He hesitated, looking at the coat as if he was about to hand over a puppy to a butcher. Then he nodded slightly again, smiled a small smile.
Taking the coat into the back room, I wondered how long he must have been out there in the rain if the old wool overcoat was probably heavier than he was. It would take days to dry properly, and the back room was fighting the encroachment of damp in the corners, just like the coat. I felt better for trying.
I didn’t care to stop and ask why.
I came back into the pub just in time to see him reach for the beer. If he wasn’t so pale, if I wasn’t so bloody fascinated with watching his hands, I might never have noticed the blue-black numbers against the parchment of his skin, like someone had spilled ink on him.
He looked up, catching me staring and yanked his hand back as if my gaze was as painful as the brand had been when it was fresh.
I stepped forward, arm outstretched, about to beg with him for something I hadn’t even thought of yet. He bolted, scrabbling back off the stool so fast it clattered to the floor. He didn’t seem bothered that he was leaving without his coat as he stumbled towards the door.
“Wait!” It would have been easier on me if I let him go. He’d been trouble brewing ever since he walked in. “Please, wait. Don’t go yet. Please.”
He must have been as surprised at my tone as I was. He hesitated, one hand on the door.
I shrugged. “At least wait for your coat to dry, eh?”
He wasn’t buying any of it. Smart boy. There was a belligerence in the set of his shoulders, a stubbornness in his eyes. I bet he’d been a catch for them; he must have been someone’s trophy, someone’s notch on the proverbial bedpost. After all, there wasn’t much point in breaking the weak.
“What’s your name?”
I laughed. Peter. A nice name, something anyone who couldn’t quite place his accent would pass off as harmless. He’d even learned to pronounce it right.
He stared at me. “Why is it funny?”
He spoke in a whisper, and I supposed the soft, modulated voice wasn’t just shyness. Likely there was a fair bit of fear in there too. Likely he had good reason. People weren’t going to check the facts with him first. People round here were still too sore about his kind for that.
“It isn’t, really.” I shook my head. “I’m Stanley. Nice to meet you, Peter.” I smiled a little. “Come back and finish your drink.”
Step by wary step, he crept closer to the bar. I matched every other move with an inch back, giving him the illusion of space. Wasn’t easy in a place where the walls were so dark and murky they closed in on you anyway, but I tried.
Righting the upset stool, he sat back down. He kept his hands wrung into the cuffs of his shirt. It was probably just as well. It kept me from reaching out for them, just to see if they were as fragile and cold as they seemed.
Bloody hell, he was pretty. Looked like he had a bit of gypsy in him. Maybe that was why they got him. Or maybe they just got him because they could.
He sipped at his drink. I watched him for a moment before leaning a hip against the bar and rolling up each sleeve in turn.
“Got this one before I shipped out.” I pointed to the Britannia tattoo on my left forearm. “Hurt all to buggery, but I was eighteen and all me mates were getting one. ‘Course, they had theirs done with the names of their lasses on them.” I smiled ruefully. “And I didn’t have a girl waiting at home, so I thought this lady would do.”
He stared at the image, still sharp in faint relief. I had him now, had him curious.
“She’d have looked better if I’d been able to sit still.” I wondered about him, what he thought of the slightly juddery lines. If I looked at his arm, I was sure the numbers would be perfectly crisp.
I rolled the sleeve higher. “This one was done by one of the other lads. It was our squadron badge,” I explained, even though it only looked like a messy, rough-edged star. Not art, but it’d meant much more at the time. The lad who’d done it for each of us took half a dozen bullets at Normandy.
He glanced at the other forearm, a smile twitching his lips.
I sneered at the badly drawn pin-up girl straddling a bomb. “That was from a night when I was rat-arsed drunk on the harbor at Algiers. I didn’t ask for it. I’m not sure what I asked for, but not this. I was so drunk they couldn’t understand me. They probably thought I was a Yank.”
She looked grotesque from my upside-down vantage point, all garish bright yellow hair and tits like missiles, the bomb poking out between cartoonish thighs.
The lads had practically wanted to lick her off my arm, suck out the very ink that made her.
He stifled a laugh against his sleeve. “Your ... Fraulein, doesn’t like her?”
“No,” I answered too quickly. “No Fraulein. No girlfriend.”
He looked at me and nodded slowly.
I didn’t know if he’d understood. I didn’t really care. Those doe-eyes looked at me like they understood why I hated the tattoo of an ugly blonde girl riding a big dick of a bomb. No one else had, which was for the best, but then I’d always been good at playing a part. I was always the one they’d send in to test the waters with the natives. I got away with it because I was everything they wanted—young, tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed. Still was, only not so much of the young part, not inside.
One finger, fluttery as a skinny white bird, reached out, tracing a feathery touch against the garish curves of the blonde.
I wanted to grab that pale wrist tight and demand to know where he’d come from, who he was. Why me? Why tonight?
“It’s a shilling and thrupence,” I said instead, pointing to the beer.
His fingertips didn’t move from the tip of the bomb. My muscles twitched like a countdown clock under his touch.
“I don’t have any money.”
“I know,” I said. I’d known from the minute he walked in.
Maybe he’d thought the place would be busier, that he could sit in a corner and fade into the background to dry off for an hour or two. Maybe he just fancied a pint, and stuff the consequences. Didn’t matter much to me.
I could’ve hissed at the loss of contact when I took a step back. It was as if his fingers were burning into me, altering the tattoo, drawing out and moving the inks beneath the skin, turning it into something better. Something beautiful.
He watched me as I crossed the bar, pausing at the door to throw the deadbolt. I wouldn’t lose more than a couple of disgruntled patrons who’d arrive to find the place closed up early. It was a price I was willing to pay.
I stayed there for a moment, braced against the door, heart hammering in a way that it never did with the boys from the docks. For all their denials, for all the times they’d pushed me away when they were done and closing their trousers, I knew their sort. I understood their sort.
Those huge eyes were calm and impassive when I turned around, fixing on a smile.
“I’ll go check on your coat.”
I left the door separating the bar and the back room open. There wasn’t much watery light coming from either end of the hallway that separated both rooms, just angles and shadow. I tried shifting a few of the awkwardly protruding crates and boxes out of the way.
I almost didn’t see him standing in the doorway, as grey and insubstantial as a ghost. I certainly hadn’t heard him approach down the hallway. I finished rearranging his coat, draped over the back of an old mismatched dining chair, and pretended he hadn’t startled me. It wasn’t any drier now than it had been when he arrived, even with the wisps and tendrils of steam rising from the thick fabric. It made the narrow, newspaper-insulated windows steam up too, obscuring the view of the alley outside.
“Is it okay?” he asked, and I didn’t know whether he meant the coat or whatever was going on between us.
“Yeah,” I said, answering both, “it’s fine.”
He nodded, stepping a little further into the room, skirting the walls. Even in the bleak light, he was still more beautiful than any of the girls my mates had brought back to barracks or camps, when we’d had the luxury of either.
We’d had camps better than the back room too. But the warmth of the heater was at my back, the rain-bitter scent of the coat and the prevailing damp, and the Sunday afternoon sweetness of the beer was making my thoughts light.
His gaze met mine, doe-eyes solemn, as he began opening his shirt, thin fingers iridescently pale against the fabric. He stared at me, a bit blank, a bit curious, when I shook my head, walking up to him. He let me push his hands away and finish the task he started, moving from the roughness of the shirt to the waist of too-big trousers that were cinched tight by a cheap belt.
He wasn’t as thin as I’d thought. Just frail, and he’d never be anything else, not really. The body, once it got used to conserving itself against appalling conditions, never quite regained its ability to fill out.
I almost expected him to flinch when I touched him, but he just watched my hand as I touched the centre of his chest, fingertips sliding down to the near-concave planes of his stomach. He was softer and warmer than I’d thought too.
I wanted to worship him, fall to my knees and imprint myself on him, more surely than ink and needles and blood.
He whimpered when I did just that, taking his mostly limp cock in my mouth, feeling it twitch and strain as I sucked, lapping wetly at him, letting the taste and scent of him fill my senses. The trousers pooled around his ankles with a shush, and I ran my hands up the backs of his legs, feeling skin and muscle shiver, noting the points where the soft flesh turned into the rougher edges of old scars.
Usually this was enough, the bitter, angry taste of the lads I had up against the alley wall was plenty. But he was sweeter, cleaner, and I wanted him under me, twisted up with pleasure while I got under his skin.
The only appropriate thing in the room—besides his coat, but it was too wet, too sacrilegious to consider that—was a rough tarpaulin blanket folded and musty on top of a crate of bottles well past their prime. I kept them for mixing with drinks now and then, to make things go further.
I murmured, “Wait,” just to make sure he’d stay on his feet when I moved back. He was swaying a bit, as if in a trance, cock flushed and dark against the paleness of his body.
He blinked sleepily at me when I shook out the sheet. It wasn’t much better than the floor, but he looked delicate enough to bruise anyway, and I didn’t want to make it worse. It was hard enough to keep from pushing him down to the floor by the scruff and losing myself in him, fucking him so hard he could taste it.
Branding him. Marking him.
Gentle as I could manage, I encouraged him down to the sheet. His shirt fell off one shoulder, and he made to pull it up just as I reached out to pull it down.
“It’s okay,” I said, not sure what I was talking about, just that I didn’t like that skittish look in his eyes.
The numbers on his arm seemed starker than the first time I’d seen them, as if they were getting fresher. If I watched long enough, I might see them come undone.
He sucked in a breath when I leaned down, fingers curled around his wrist, dragging a slow lick against the tattoo, like a salve, like a benediction. I could feel the minute raised grooves of the black scars against my tongue, and I could almost feel the ugly blonde twitching in response, the missile between her legs throbbing and pulsing in time with mine.
I kneeled over him, opening my trousers, cock springing out without much help from me, already eager for him. Moisture beaded at the tip like a diamond. He reached out, one finger swiping it away, and I swore under my breath. Now. Wanted him now.
It had been so long since I risked more than a quick one in the alley, and I had him on his knees, cock sliding slickly along his crease when I stopped. He looked so small, and I looked too big against him. He hadn’t said a word, but that just made it worse.
He watched me, neither curious nor disappointed, as I got up, half tripping on my trousers. “Hang on,” I said, and he nodded like he didn’t care what I was planning. Lucky for him, I was only going to the little nook in the corridor where a cold draft came in through a crack in the wall, and I kept things that tended to go off—half a pint of milk, and some butter.
I held up the butter with a rueful smile as I returned to him.
“It’ll make things easier, eh?”
He smiled, and that alone was worth wasting a week’s rations. Twisting around, he kissed me with velvet lips before lowering himself, braced on one thin forearm, bottom raised, one hand reaching back to spread himself, show me where he wanted me.
The butter wasn’t very cold, but he moaned anyway when I smeared some of it against that rosy puckered skin. One finger slipped in almost accidentally, and the moan turned into a lower, softer noise, like a plea.
I fisted some of the oily stuff along my shaft, twisting my finger to the knuckle, loosening him as much as I could stand. Replacing the finger with the tip of my cock, I pushed in so hard and fast that his knees nearly lifted off the ground, drew back and did it again just as quick.
He stayed quiet for most of it. The sheet rustled, our bodies made a soft wet slapping sound, and I was so lost in him I was making noises even the tomcats in the alley wouldn’t make, moaning and whimpering. Would’ve thought he was a lover from the stupid things I called him. ‘Pet’ and ‘love’ and things I couldn’t even hear past the roar of my blood in my head as I came. He wrung it out of me like wringing water from the sleeve of his coat, leaving me just as rumpled and spent. Probably even called him by the name he pretended was his.
He turned his head, cheek nuzzling the blonde tattoo, as I heard him come against the tarpaulin, a spattering sound like rain.
I think I dozed then. When I woke up, the room was cold, the sheet had creased under me, and Peter and his coat were gone. The dining chair still had damp marks along the back; rain seeped into the grain.
Rolling over, I thought I should probably go and check the till, check that he’d even closed the door properly after him, but I was too sated to care. If he’d taken any money, if it meant he stayed alive, then it was worthwhile. He’d certainly made me feel more alive than I had in a long time.
I raised my arm, silhouetted against the damp-speckled ceiling, and looked at the blonde and her bomb. I smiled, still feeling his touch.
I wouldn’t mind if getting rid of him was just as difficult.
Copyright © 2007 by Cat Kane. All rights reserved.
Cat Kane is a Creative Writing graduate, currently pursuing her Masters in the same field, and has been writing for as long as she can remember. One of her earliest memories is typing up a story at the dinner table about a little plastic cow. These days the little plastic cow has been replaced by the exploits of gorgeous boys and their myriad loves, and she’s had several stories published by Torquere Press. Cat’s other fiction can be found at http://www.morethanfiction.com/
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