Ollie Always

an excerpt



Chapter One

Having watched all the new funny cat videos he could find, Ollie flicked back to his open document--ideas_for_the_book.doc. It was still depressingly blank. Had he honestly hoped some inspiration would hit him whilst perusing cats sitting in circles or standing on their hind legs? No, he'd prayed the page might magically fill itself rather than nagging him, a tiny blue and white source of pain at the bottom of his screen.

But it was almost eleven...Ollie checked his watch again. Almost time to stop procrastinating with cats to a much more profitable and absorbing diversion--watching the runner.

He had first noticed this man a week ago. Ollie's traditional Kiwi villa sat on a slight curve of the road--a single-lane, rarely used highway, which ran for over twenty miles along a stretch of New Zealand coastline from the city to a remote, almost uninhabited fishing village that was his nearest neighbour. From his back bedroom window--or, more specifically, from his writing desk--he could see for miles in both directions, and thus he had spotted the runner.

He'd materialised one morning out of a sea fog, so his first appearance had created an air of mystery around something, which, in itself--legs moving fast in a forward motion--was rather mundane. Ollie had glanced up from a cat seeing off a bear, which was hilarious, to observe a florescent yellow jacket emerge from nowhere, run past, and then disappear again. Tall, male, and running. Intriguing. In Ollie's experience, despite New Zealand being promoted as the lifestyle capital of the world, Kiwis, by and large, didn't run. They occasionally walked with intent. But here was one--tall, running, and...male. That seemed a much more interesting order to catalogue this apparition's attributes.

Ollie hadn't given the runner much thought for the rest of that day, because he was already busy procrastinating, and that took up a lot of mental energy. The bathroom was beginning to show signs of mould, so that had to be tackled. Wood needed to be chopped and stacked. Then he'd felt obliged to update his website, check his Twitter feed and compose some lies for his blog. All this took time and a great deal of concentration, so he didn't think again about the yellow jacket and what it contained until that night, lying alone in bed.

Where had the man come from? The obvious explanation that he'd parked somewhere further up the highway was too dull to contemplate, so Ollie initially had him run all the way from the city, but this didn't seem all that likely--or fascinating. No, much more alluring was the thought that the apparition in the fog had come from the old farmhouse on the other side of the hill. It had been on the market for about a hundred years--a short time in New Zealand house sale terms--and Ollie had been pondering who'd bought it since he'd seen the sold sticker across the agent's board the previous week. Within a very short space of time after climbing into bed, therefore, Ollie had decided he had a new neighbour. A tall neighbour who liked running. And who was male.

The next morning, Ollie had stationed himself at his desk with a mug of tea and a piece of shortbread half an hour before the runner had appeared the day before. In the morning light, it hadn't seemed all that credible that one lone figure in a bright jacket could, by such unlikely coincidence, be the buyer of his neighbour's house. Ollie had convinced himself that the man had parked his car by the ocean, despite the lack of visibility, and decided to get some exercise. In which case, it was highly unlikely he'd see him again.

He'd not spotted him before, and he'd been sitting by the window for weeks now not writing his novel.

It hadn't been foggy that second day--quite the opposite. It was one of those ozone-depleted, blue-sky days that looked so good on New Zealand postcards. A deceptive blue that drew you out of your comfortable house to sample the sun and the warmth--until you scurried back inside, muttering about the equivalent temperatures in space. So, Ollie had seen the runner from a very long way away. As far as his eyes could see down the road, in fact. Initially a tiny yellow speck like a minute rapeseed flower, it had grown to be the discernable figure of a tall man in running shorts. Ollie had shot to his feet, wishing he had a second floor he could nip up to and examine the figure better. He would have about five minutes to watch as the man thumped closer, and then he'd have a brief flick of time when he went past the hedge, and then he'd be able to study the retreating...form...for another five minutes.

Perverted possibly, but perfect procrastination.

***

So the week had gone very quickly for Ollie, his long stretches of deliberate inactivity punctuated each morning by the vision in yellow and black. He'd added some very salient facts to his observations. The man had longish dark hair; he was tanned (although this could have been a flush from running), and he had immaculate timekeeping. Ollie could have set his watch by the regularity of the appearances. This boded well in Ollie's opinion for his living-over-the-hill theory. It was much more likely that a man leaving from somewhere close could keep to an accurate schedule than someone who had to drive out of the city to park and run. Much more likely.

The frustrating thing was that Ollie couldn't get a good look at the man's face. His initial impression of a strong jaw, straight nose and shaggy hair was very likely to be his overactive imagination, as he only had about two seconds of surveillance along the hedge, and some of those precious moments were obscured by the spiky things growing up along the post and wire fence that served as the boundary of his section with the road. The triffids, as he called them, these favourite Kiwi monstrosities, which produced alien purple stalks with mouth-like protuberances. He'd always meant to uproot them and plant something civilized and English and wished now he'd gotten around to it. Damn it. The man had passed by and was gone for another day. It was beyond frustrating.

Ollie spent a pleasant hour with his feet up on the desk, a couple of bottles of wine, and lost in a world of imaginary interactions with the intriguing neighbour. They clearly had a lot in common. Well, they lived in the same country, which was always a start. They both had dark hair, which was not something that usually sparked a conversation between men, Ollie had to admit. "Hey, love your hair, dude. Is that...wow, exactly the same shade as mine?" Nope, not the hair then. But they did both live in New Zealand. That had to be a topic of shared interest. Except, of course, the man probably was a Kiwi, and therefore that conversation too was destined to be a little short. Ollie had already discovered, despite only living in the country full time for a year, that discussing anything to do with God's Own Bit of Paradise with a Kiwi could be fraught with difficulties....No, Ollie applied his don't-criticise-New-Zealand-even-in-my-head rules, and turned back instead to his heart-to-heart with the runner.

But how was this little chat going to be engineered? For a while, Ollie pondered the hope that the man might trip and stumble right by his fence and thereby require immediate medical assistance. Was there anything sticking out, maybe, which could be made to...? Perhaps if he were out in the garden the guy might stop to say hi. As a new neighbour. Maybe he could be lying in need of urgent medical assistance...Ollie flushed as he envisaged the scenario where the man saw him collapsed there and...ran on past.

Anyway, who would want to be seen on a first introduction as a...casualty? No, far better to initiate this chat over...well...running.

Now, there was a slightly worrying thought to provide perfect procrastination for yet another day. Running. Ollie had run once or twice. At school, he'd run a lot, usually away from the much older boys who'd been chasing him. He'd become quite fleet of foot, he remembered. Physical activity, done in the cold with pimpled, frozen legs poking out from shorts, had been a compulsory part of every day's timetable. Then there had been the mandatory weekend activities--orienteering, climbing, sailing. He vividly recalled a long weekend in Wales at an army adventurous training camp where they'd been bounced awake at five every morning for a quick sprint up to the top of Pen y Fan and back before breakfast. The instructors, all army PTIs with shaven heads and starched white vests, even in the bitterest of winds, had been, surprisingly, some of the most professional and kindest men he'd ever encountered in his short life. But then, Ollie knew his experiences with men, even aged eighteen, were highly unusual.

But such memories, once he'd thankfully left the vicious institution that had grandly called itself a public school, had put him off even attempting sport as an adult. In fact, most physical activity, now that he came to think about it, evoked the smell of gymnasium floors and the shouts of insane PE masters, who'd made his life miserable since he was seven.

But in this instance, he didn't actually need to run--he merely had to look as if he'd been running. Then the meeting and very interesting conversation would be entirely spontaneous.

The next day, Ollie observed the runner, planning his ambush. Meeting.

He needed to be coming back from his run, facing toward the man and thus no gauge could be made of his speed...the thought of the guy overtaking him and sprinting away was as embarrassing as his initial plan to be lying, groaning in the garden. No, he needed the advantage of approach to make it at least credible that he was actually running. But how to do this...He wasn't fit enough to run toward the fishing community out of sight and then turn around and run back to engineer this meeting. Then Ollie had a brainwave. Just because this guy slogged along the road every day with no variation, didn't mean he had to! Didn't most runners like to run off road? Ollie certainly did. Or he did now that he'd realised he could use the beach to suddenly appear on the road right in front of the runner, giving the impression he was in fact a very keen off-roader. Trail runner? Something or other quite impressive anyway.

Ollie's villa had steps from the living room down to the beach. He lived with the sound of the ocean rolling and uncurling in his dreams, its pristine turquoise and white perfection with him day and night. He sometimes blogged about living on the Pacific, knowing quite well the jealousy it would provoke for city dwellers in places far away. He never mentioned the resuscitation unit he'd need if he so much as put a foot in the water. Even in summer, there were icebergs floating past. And if there weren't, and this was merely an exaggeration he amused himself with, there were penguins on the beach. Who the hell didn't know what temperatures penguins preferred?

So, shoes.

This was something of a dilemma. Although he lived in New Zealand now, and occasionally tried to fit into the culture, going barefoot was a step too far. It was a step too far in any civilization in his opinion, and certainly unwise whilst moving swiftly on ones feet in a pretend running motion. The runner, Ollie was very glad to note, had proper shoes. He did not, unfortunately. But he had some Converse knock-offs from China and reckoned these would have to do. He had shorts and a T-shirt, of course. Fitting into the culture and all that...

Five minutes before he knew the runner would arrive, that tiny yellow speck on the horizon, Ollie slipped out of his living room, jogged down the steps and onto the soft white sand at the back of the beach, where the crashing ocean never reached. It was hard going, so he slowed to a walk, and made his way carefully along until he could see a suitable gap in the bush bank that divided the beach from the road. It wasn't that easy. The triffids dominated the landscape, and where they hadn't taken up an aggressive stance barring his way, gorse bushes stuck up with their unpleasant and impassable scratchy branches.

Very gingerly, aware his window of opportunity was slipping by, Ollie parted the shrubs and tried to force his way toward the road.

He checked his watch. The man would be at his house by now. Ollie quickened his pace, thrusting through the spiky fronds, almost getting into a jog, when with a soft crump the sandy ground beneath him fell away. One leg went with the falling bank, one stayed on the top. Something tore, and it wasn't only his T-shirt caught in the wicked, vicious-edged shrubs. An agonising burn shot up from his inner thigh to his groin, and he grabbed at himself, moaning softly.

It was double-PE first thing Monday morning all over again!

"Hey, you okay?"

Ollie closed his eyes for a brief moment. It was inevitable. What had he expected? He should have gone with the medical emergency in the garden option. At least then he'd have been able to drape himself elegantly, tragically, while he waited.

He sighed inwardly and opened his eyes.

Christ.

The runner was utterly...Ollie's pulse quickened, as if he had actually been running, and he wasn't entirely acting when he stuttered, "Yeah, I...sand...leg."

The stunning man smiled broadly and came closer, peering over the edge where Ollie's leg still dangled.

Ollie began to pull himself together and made to rise from his inelegant sprawl. He glanced down at his hand. Before he could stop himself, he screamed--an inarticulate, cursing, high-pitched sound that made the other man swear too and step rapidly away.

"Oh my God, oh my God, shit!" Ollie's cries turned into a wail of genuine and total distress. "I've put my hand in dog shit!"

He was too revolted to see what the other man thought of this but couldn't help but hear an amused, "I'm not sure that is specifically dog shit."

Ollie's mouth dropped open. He looked up, and the man shrugged and added helpfully, "Freedom campers were here the other day..."

Oh, God, the man was English--a too-much-to-hope-for coincidence now utterly wasted. Ollie simply wanted him gone, so he could restore a tiny shred of his dignity. Actually, he wanted to crawl home and wash.

His mouth still open in distress, the inevitable happened, and his chin began wobbling. He swallowed deeply and pushed himself to his feet, holding his offending hand as far away as something attached by an arm physically could be held.

He'd completely forgotten about his leg until it did its tearing thing again--a sudden hot stab right into his groin, which made him hiss.

Still extending his arm to its maximum stretch, leaning over in pain, he decided there was only one thing to do--fall back on the Englishman's innate ability to be superciliously, icily polite, and retreat.

"Anyway, thank you so much for stopping. I expect you want to get on." He took a step, felt sweat break out on his brow and doubled over, breathing deeply.

"Where's your car?"

Ollie straightened and nodded vaguely toward his house, the roof of which was just visible over the triffids. "I live there, actually."

"Oh, long run then."

Ollie gave a brittle smile at the man's natural wit and hoped the sarcastic git he was thinking came over loud and clear. By the man's twitch of a smirk in reply it did.

"You gonna be able to walk that far?"

Ollie graciously assured him that he could. He took another step and stopped again, biting his lip.

"Okay. Let's go." Suddenly, Ollie was seized around the waist and flung over the complete stranger's shoulder.

He knew he should protest about the presumption, the position...but to his utter horror he only heard himself whine, "But I'm all shitty..."

"Yeah, I noticed. Keep that hand away from me. Do you have a shower?"

"What?"

They were emerging onto the road. Ollie pictured the scene from the point of view of someone passing in a car. Not good.

"A shower? A thing to wash in?"

"Of course!"

"Okay." The man actually jogged slightly.

"Uhgh."

"Sorry."

It wasn't easy being courteous to someone's bum while upside down, so Ollie figured his best defence was silence.

They entered the house. The runner took a swift look around and marched Ollie down the hallway, easing open doors with his toe until Ollie mumbled, "One at the end."

Deposited into his own bathroom and eased down onto the edge of the bathtub, Ollie slumped with his one hand still stuck as far away as possible. He shuddered theatrically. "Thank you. I can manage now." He hobbled to the sink and began scrubbing viciously, wincing and holding his breath.

"I'd guess you've strained your adductor muscle."

He peered up into the mirror to see the stranger watching him. "What? My what? Where?" More furious scrubbing.

"In your leg. Does it still hurt? It can be a difficult injury to recover from."

"What!" Ollie glanced down and tentatively probed his groin with his spare hand. Three minutes! He'd done three minutes of exercise in the last eight years and look where he was now! More furious scrubbing and rinsing.

"You got a kettle?"

"What is your obsession with my possessions? Yes, I have a kettle. I have a washing machine and a toaster and a computer. Happy?"

The man chuckled. "I was going to offer to make you a cup of tea."

Ollie slumped again. "Oh. Thank you. I think I'll have a shower. I feel..."

"Dirty?"

Ollie looked back up into the mirror. He considered the man observing him. "Yes."

The man smirked. "Yep, shit will do that to you every time." He strolled out and apparently went to find the kitchen.

When Ollie emerged, pink and so sanitised his skin was almost raw, he could walk relatively normally. He wasn't about to attempt the splits or anything, but then he wouldn't have tried that in normal circumstances.

The stranger was sitting at his kitchen table, drinking from one of Ollie's favourite mugs, and he waved at a second alongside him on the table. "Feeling better?"

Ollie nodded and eased himself down into a chair across from the man. "I think we'd better be introduced. Ollie." He held out his hand.

The man shook it. "Skint."

"Skint?" Was that a faint blush? Intriguing.

"It's a nickname. Everyone calls me Skint. So, I guess we're neighbours, Oliver."

Yesss. "Ollie. It's Ollie. Always. So, have you bought the old place over the hill?" God, he was good.

Skint made a small noise, which Ollie took to be assent, and asked in reply, "How long have you been here?"

"New Zealand? About a year. Three hundred and thirty-one days, in point of fact."

Skint raised his brows. Ollie shrugged and changed the subject back to the interesting topic of the man called Skint. "You?"

"Six weeks."

"You bought a house within six weeks of arriving! Bloody hell, what if you didn't like it here?"

"What's not to like?"

Oh, let me count the ways.

"Besides, I guess I'd just sell again if I wanted to leave."

Ollie almost spluttered at this naivety about the facts of life in New Zealand but covered by taking a sip of his tea. "Biscuit?"

Skint shook his head. "I don't eat sugar."

Ollie's lip curled of its own accord, so he glanced away and tried not to think about the delicious shortbread in the cupboard.

Skint was looking around the place with what appeared to be a practised eye, which was confirmed when he said admiringly, "This is an original villa. Have you had it long?"

This was a bit tricky. Ollie didn't want to get into the hows and whys of him living in this particular house, so he answered the first part to distract his guest from the second. While he rambled on about architectural features, he studied this man, who was by any reckoning exceedingly distracting himself. He'd been right about Skint's hair being long, but it wasn't shaggy at all. It was well cut and hung at exactly the length that made Ollie want to run it off the broad forehead and slick it back. His nose was straight. This latter feature beautifully balanced a pair of wide-set brown eyes, and the tan wasn't flush at all, as Ollie could see tan lines around the man's collarbone. All this perfection was topped off by heavy, designer stubble, which only emphasised a manly jaw. Ollie wasn't very good at judging people's ages, but he put the guy at a few years older than he was--possibly thirty. Something was vaguely familiar about him, especially around the eyes, and Ollie tried to place him in the various worlds he'd inhabited--parties in London, or Cambridge...possibly even school--Devon?--but could not make the insubstantial recognition solid.

He finished his nice distraction about the villa and, keeping the momentum of the conversation away from himself, added, "What do you do?" Then he quickly apologised and muttered, "Sorry, I've been here too long. Ignore me."

"Is that something I'm likely to get asked a lot?"

"Absolutely. Everyone will ask. It's like we might say...bit chilly today. I think it's required. They train them in primary school. By high school they learn to add in a question about how much land you have, and then by the time they're adults they can ferret out how much money you earn, too. Sorry. It's a bit chilly today, isn't it?"

Skint laughed and nodded. "Not when you're running--as you'd know, obviously."

This was provoking, so Ollie ignored it. His mind drifted back to his shortbread tin. How could anyone drink tea without a biscuit? It defied belief. It was really the only point to making tea in the first place.

"So, Ollie-Always, what do you do? See? I'm assimilating."

Ollie lifted his gaze to the man's face at the seemingly innocuous use of the nickname. He could not detect anything other than friendliness in the expression. It was only his heartrate, then, that had ratcheted up a notch...The man's brows rose, clearly prompting him to reply, but it was an even trickier question than the house one. Ollie wrinkled his nose. He'd tried out his, "I'm a writer," once or twice on strangers already, and each time, he'd been met with, "Anything I'd know?" How the bloody hell was he supposed to know what they knew or didn't know, and, besides, other than the fact that he hadn't written anything yet, he was planning to write under a pseudonym. Which was something else he didn't want to get into: house, job, name. Which were all one and the same problem really, when he thought about it.

He had to say something. It was a Tuesday, and he was sitting in his kitchen at eleven o'clock in the morning. "I'm a writer." He winced, waiting for the inevitable.

Skint only nodded thoughtfully. "Good place for it. Amazing view." His eyes were scanning the empty beach with the never-ending crash of waves. "Very peaceful. I look out over the valley and the mountains, but I can hear the sea at night."

Nice cue. "Do you have family with you?"

"My wife's staying in England for a while more."

Ollie got up carefully and fetched his shortbread.

It was very comforting.