“Merlin,” Arthur inquired hopefully as he pulled the keys to their flat out of his pocket, found the correct one and put it in the lock, “you did clean up before we left, right?”
Merlin, who was ruffling his hair in a mirror, looked up sheepishly.
“Well…no…but I’ve got a good reason!”
Sighing, Arthur rammed his shoulder against the door to get it open before walking in and closing it behind Merlin as his friend also stepped in, looking around at the mess they’d both let accumulate over recent days. There was a weeks worth of dirty washing lying in a basket near the corner, a stack of plates in the kitchen, a few empty beer bottles sitting near the fireplace and crumbs all over the sofa. The floor was unmentionable…
“Yeah?” Arthur said, gesturing at the mess. “Well, what’s your excuse, then?”
“I was graduating today, remember?” Merlin said wryly. “I’ll get the vacuum cleaner…”
“Well, hurry. My dad will be here any minute!” Arthur called after him as he vanished into a cupboard and emerged again with an armful of cleaning equipment, which he dumped on the floor and nudged half of towards Arthur with a toe.
“Get started, then. I’m not doing anything in these,” he gestured down at his graduation robes as he made his way into another room to get changed, the bundle of jeans and T-shirt in his arms.
Grumbling half-heartedly, Arthur set to work on the crumbs that were scattered all over the sofa, probably from the previous night when they’d stayed up to watch a movie extravaganza.
Arthur smiled to himself as he remembered Merlin groping around for more crisps in his packet, too engrossed with the film to bother looking down. Then the Tele had issued a loud bang that sent the remainders of the crisps flying into the air and Merlin hiding behind a cushion.
Arthur chuckled and brushed the crumbs off the chair. After Merlin reappeared, the lounge was soon set back to rights, and it was just as his friend was making a move for the dishes; Arthur heard an obnoxious rapping on the door.
Exchanging a glance with Merlin who had frozen in the kitchen doorway, Arthur squared his shoulders and marched over to open the door. He looked through the peephole, beforehand.
“Who is it?” Merlin hissed.
“It’s Old Man Simmons…” Arthur replied, referring to their grouchy old neighbour who – for some reason that eluded them both – had it in for Merlin.
Merlin squeaked something and hid in the kitchen as the door suddenly swung open and a fat man, wearing a grubby used-to-be-white vest, strolled in. Old Man Simmons was renowned for being the most cantankerous, grumpy, ill-tempered and frankly angry man in the entire block. Unfortunately, he also owned all the flats in the building and was forever barging in, demanding the rent, which Merlin and Arthur could very easily pay but never did, seeing as the first time they’d met the old bloke, his wife had attacked Merlin with an umbrella and left him – as Arthur said – scarred for life…
“RENT!” the grisly man barked, sending flecks of spit into Arthur’s face.
“It’s in the post,” Arthur replied as he always did, wiping his face with the back of his sleeve as Simmons made his way further into the room, sniffing as if he could smell something disgusting.
“I smell that…creature,” he hissed, narrowing his eyes. “He’s still ‘ere, ain’t he?”
“If you mean Merlin…” Arthur said, drawing himself to his full height to protect his friend.
“Nasty, unnatural beast…” Simmons went on, both ignoring and thoroughly vexing Arthur. “Should be locked away…never to see the light of day…” he continued to sniff, edging closer and closer towards the kitchen door. “I’ll find him, I will. Call the police I will…have him done for murder, I will…”
“Since when has Merlin ever – ” Arthur began but was cut off as the old man suddenly flung open the kitchen door, which almost fell off its hinges when it hit the opposite wall with a loud thud.
Poor Merlin, who had been hiding under the table, yelped as Simmons grabbed his ear – Arthur always knew they’d be the death of him – and dragged him out from under the table. However, Merlin was saved from whatever fate the old man had in store for him by a cough and commanding presence at the door.
“Ah…” Simmons dropped Merlin in an instant and the poor boy fell to the floor before Arthur helped him up and brushed him down, glaring at Old Man Simmons who was mumbling some sort of an apology to Uther. Arthur’s father looked uninterested and just leaned out of the way as the grouchy brute beat a hasty retreat.
“So,” Uther said as though nothing had happened, coming forward to embrace his son, “what have I missed?”
Confused by this rather pleasant greeting, Arthur hugged his father back and cast Merlin a ‘what’s-up-with-him?’ type of look before standing back and tousling his floppy fringe with a hand.
“Well, not much really,” he said. “But you said you wanted to talk?”
“Indeed, I did…” Uther pulled a chair out from the table and sat down. “Its about the business.”
All Arthur’s hopes of a nice father-to-son chat flew out the window, and he dubiously took a seat opposite Uther who leant forward on the table and clasped his hands together in a formal manner. Merlin, sensing this was a private conversation, slipped out the door.
“You’ll be taking management of it any day now, and I need to know your ready,” Uther said, looking Arthur sharply in the eye.
“Oh, Dad, c’mon…” Arthur groaned. “I know its up to me and all, but you’ve been saying ‘its any day now’ for years…”
“Well, you never know when I might decide to retire,” Uther said, leaning back in his chair. Arthur continued to look doubtful. “Look, it can be that bad, can it? I mean; you’re going to run a media empire, Arthur! You’ll be famous!”
“I don’t want to be famous,” Arthur muttered, staring at his folded arms.
Uther was about to say more when one of the many personal organizers on his belt went off. Letting out a frustrated sigh, Uther quickly pulled it out and analysed it for a moment before re-attaching it to his belt and standing up.
“I’ve got to go,” he said, looking down at his son with what could possibly be a hint of disapproval regarding the conversation.
“When will you be back?” Arthur asked.
“A week or two,” Uther said, avoiding Arthur’s gaze as he made for the door. “I’ve got to go to Cambridge on business, didn’t I tell you?”
“No,” Arthur said, “you didn’t.”
“Well…I’ll see you in a few weeks, then,” Uther was heading straight for the door now, clearly not wanting to stay any longer, but Arthur abruptly stood up.
“Why do you always do this?” he demanded, his voice several times louder than before.
“Just leave all the time. I never get to see you…” Arthur said, a lump forming in his throat. “The only person who’s ever really been there for me is Merlin. Not even you can bother to spend five minuets with me, ever since…ever since mother died…”
Uther’s eyes may have widened ever so slightly for a moment, but if they did, they soon returned to their usual size, and he turned around before speaking to Arthur over his shoulder.
“Its not my fault if I’ve got a business to run, Arthur,” he said in a hard voice. “I’ll see you in a few weeks.”
Angrily, Arthur watched as he made his way out of the flat without saying another word. From where had been reclining on the sofa, trying not to overhear the conversation, Merlin stood up and went over to his friend, gingerly putting a hand on his shoulder to try and calm him down.
“Yes, I’m fine…” Arthur said dismissively. “When’s the match on?”Staying silent, Merlin handed him the TV page and returned to the sofa, knowing that when Arthur was in one of his ‘yes, I’m fine’ moods, it was best to leave him alone.