David doesn't quite put it together in his head what he's done until it's far too late. More than a year later, in fact, and when he finally does get what's going on he can't believe he hadn't noticed that this is when it begins.
Rob comes back from his honeymoon looking smug – well, more smug – and like he's happy. Not that they both haven't been relatively pleased about how things are going, but there's the satisfaction of not fucking up your life, and then there's happy, and Rob is definitely the latter. Seeing Rob like this makes David feel a bit strange, so he mostly tries not to think about it too much.
Somewhere in his first year at university David had begun dividing life into two categories – things that were worth thinking about (comedy, where to get cheap drinks, occasionally turning up to things so that he'd be allowed to stay on) and things he can't afford to think about (essays he ought to be writing, how he's going to make a living in comedy after finishing university, whether it's socially acceptable for a nineteen year old to carry a satchel). Later he'd added a third category – things that he's allowed to think about only insofar as they contribute to the comedy (catastrophic global tragedies, religion, the social lives of other people).
He sometimes thinks it's weird that there are things about his relationship with Rob that go into category #3, and other things that go into category #2. He can write sketches about their reviews, or about the way Rob's happy to get his kit off in front of the camera, or even about being the best man at Rob's wedding, and none of that bothers him; it's all just grist for the comedy mill. And yet thinking about how happy Rob is makes David so confused that he doesn't dare examine the idea too closely. It's bothersome. But the fact that it's bothersome also makes him feel a bit dodgy, so David just shoves the whole pile of it into the "can't afford to think about this" box, and gets on with things.
Occasionally he wonders if he ought to work his whole system into a sketch, something about obsessive writers of comedy sketches. Except that he can't figure out how to make it go, not really, and anyway he tells himself it's too self-referential.
After Rob gets back a week passes – a week in which they work more or less as normal. Rob turns up at the usual slothful time each morning. David makes tea. They sit at the desk watching telly and talking bollocks. Rob puts his feet up onto the handle of the lowest desk drawer, leaning back in his chair in that way he often does that makes David feel like any minute Rob is going to topple over and bash his brains out, and David is going to have to struggle not to laugh as he calls the ambulance. They write eight and a half good sketches (and twenty four shit ones).
Then, halfway through a rather excruciating episode of Bargain Hunt and in the middle of a writing lull, David says, "We should write a book." Once the words are out he realizes he's been thinking them for a while.
Rob turns to look at him, head cocked to one side. "What, like, our sordid tell-all memoirs about life in Cambridge, doing lines of coke off the thighs of freshers?"
David grins. "No— something in that, mind you – but no, I was thinking, you know, comedy tie-in and all that. Pull out some of the stuff we haven't figured out how to use, stuff that's more textual."
"The Little Book of Rage?" Rob says, dropping his feet and tilting his chair forward again.
"Yes, exactly," says David. "I really want to use what we have on that, but it's just not working in sketch form."
Rob nods, humming thoughtfully. "We could do some newspaper parodies." He shoves David's laptop over, so David opens a new document and starts typing. "Like," Rob says, smirking, "one of those asinine opinion columns."
"Oi," David says, but then a moment later he forgives the slight and starts thinking about the possibilities. "Done by someone who never would," he says. "Tolstoy? Shakespeare?" Rob leans in to read over his shoulder, and for a moment David is acutely aware of the warmth of Rob's leg against his own.
Then Rob says, "Alan Bennett!" and David grins, feeling that indefinable comedy something spark between them, and then they're off and running with the idea, and he's not thinking about anything except the words and the images and the laughs.
The pitch goes easily, and before David really gets his head around what's happening they have a book deal. Actually, they have a two book deal, which is a bit frightening, as they don't remotely have enough material even for one.
They walk out of the publisher's office side by side, both silent as they always are when something goes unexpectedly well. David doesn't think he'll ever get used to the fact that people are willing to give them money to do what they love, and he knows that Rob feels the same.
They get halfway down the block before David says, "Shit." The magnitude of what he's signed on for is beginning to register. It's not that doing television seems less, but somehow that making a book seems more. More weighty. More permanent. More like the sort of thing his parents would like to see him do, to show he's a respectable adult. It's entirely irrational, and yet the pressure is suddenly bearing down on him like a particularly speedy freight train.
What if we can't do it? What if it's shit? What if we want to kill each other by the time it's done and then it comes out and no one even buys it and it's all for nothing?
"Shit," he says again.
"What?" says Rob.
"Now we have to actually write it!" says David. Rob starts to laugh. David crosses his arms over his chest, annoyed. "Rob!" But Rob just laughs harder. David sourly thinks that if he could provoke this kind of reaction in a way that was controllable, then he'd have a lot more free time.
Still chuckling, Rob slings an arm over David's shoulders, hauls him in close and tips their foreheads together. Reluctantly David drops his arms to his sides. He can smell the mints Rob chews when he's nervous.
David's eyes are drawn to the laugh lines at the corners of Rob's mouth. We're getting older, he thinks. Rob shakes him, but gently.
Suddenly David becomes aware of just how close they are. He lifts his head, takes a step back.
"I'm relaxed!" he says, but with an exaggerated flap of the hands and a self-conscious grimace on his face. Rob laughs again, but dutifully. He slaps David on the shoulder.
"We can do this. It's going to be brilliant, I promise you."
"All right," says David, relaxing honestly this time.
Then Rob says, "Of course, if it sucks then just remember it was your idea in the first place."
In some ways writing a book is very different to what they've done before. With the show they're always thinking about movement, about finding ways to make the action essential to the comedy. Often one or the other of them will get up and sketch out a scene bodily. Or else they'll sound things out, try different character voices until they find one that's funnier than the others, or try variations on lines until they're satisfied with the wording.
Whereas with book material obviously they spend more time just writing, trying to figure out whether they've captured just the right tone for Rob, or whether a particular section is too long or too short. They draw things out, too, and after the first time Rob destroys one of David's takeout menus by scrawling all over it David goes out and buys a couple of reams of blank paper and some thick-tipped markers for the purpose. Over time, the stack of drawings grows ever larger, until it earns its own corner of David's desk for its permanent home.
It's different, too, because they don't have the budgetary concerns for the book that they do for the show. Television, David thinks, is something where you need 35 people and lots of vans. They've always had to combine locations where possible, to balance their ideal setting and costumes with the money that they've had available. With the book, though, they can come up with almost anything, knowing there will be a capable graphic designer to make the visuals come together in the end.
And yet in all the essential ways it's exactly the same, writing side by side, the two of them finishing each other's sentences, David typing as fast as either of them can speak. They still procrastinate by watching telly and pretending it's research. Rob still has slightly more discipline than David does, though whenever he tries to get them back on track he disguises it as being bored of whatever is on.
David sometimes thinks that it ought to be more different than it is. He wants writing a book to feel different, wants the experience to somehow match the growing feeling in the back of his mind that this is important.
He just doesn't know why, isn't sure if he wants to know.
The book is mostly done from a writing angle when Rob drops the bombshell on him.
"I have to tell you something," Rob says as soon as David answers the door. He's bouncing on the balls of his feet in the hallway, and when David steps back Rob brushes past him, hurrying to get inside. He looks more rumpled than usual, too – not hungover, because he doesn't have the right look for that, but like he hasn't slept.
Shit, David thinks. Shit, this must be bad. Is he breaking up the partnership? Maybe he's got cancer.
By the time David gets the door shut and turns, Rob is looking down, running a hand over his hair nervously.
"What?" David asks. "What is it?"
Rob looks up, eyes wide. "Abby's pregnant."
Whatever David might have been expecting, that isn't it. He has no idea what to say. "That's great. Fuck, that's... that's brilliant!" It comes out stilted, and David thinks, I could make this so much more convincing if I had a script, and then, Well, that's fucked up, isn't it? He tries to smile, and knows it's coming out strange.
But Rob doesn't seem to notice. His own expression is strained. "How can we have a baby?" he asks. "I've no idea what I'm doing."
Perversely this makes it easier, having a reminder that Rob isn't "the normal one," that he only looks normal when paired against David's more obvious neuroses. David knows that, always has, but lately it's been difficult to remember, given that Rob's been practically wandering around with a white picket fence and an adorable puppy at his heels. But the truth is that Rob's just as much of an outsider as David, always has been, and this isn't going to change that.
David steps closer, puts his hands on Rob's shoulders and shakes him, gently. "Relax," he says. "Rob, relax." Rob stares at him blankly. David says, "Look, millions of chavs have babies every day."
The bow-string tension goes out of Rob all in a rush as he begins to giggle, and then he's pulling away and wiping a hand over his face.
"Thanks, mate," he says, muffled. David takes a step back. "Thanks," Rob says again, dropping his hand. He looks more awake, now, more like himself. "Right. To the book, then." He claps his hands in an exaggeratedly-cheerful manner, making like one of those godawful management types. "Got to have both my babies ready for delivery at the same time."
This is the moment when David actually does realize what he's done. A surge of something that's not quite satisfaction goes through him, followed almost immediately by horror, and he only just manages to mask both emotions with sarcasm.
"You'll need to keep your strength up, then," he says dryly. "I'll make tea." He turns for the kitchen, hears Rob disappear into the bedroom and then the sound of his computer booting up.
As soon as he gets the kitchen door shut behind him David sags against it, suddenly weary. A good time for emotional revelations would have been before I committed to this, he thinks. And now it's too late. We're having a baby together. The fact that it's metaphorical doesn't make it any less the truth. David loathes himself even more than usual right now, for being so emotionally stunted, for the way he'd suggested they write a book together in what, it has become clear, was a subliminal attempt to stake his claim on Rob, a claim he'd really rather not admit to wanting. Category #2, David thinks. This is a category #2 issue, and I seriously can't afford to think about this anymore. It's not happening. But he knows he won't be able to forget.
"Shit," he says, low and with feeling. "Fuck shitting shit!" Then he hauls himself up and grabs for the kettle.
Two days later, in the midst of trying to demonstrate an idea for a sketch that involves Rob falling over, he wrenches his back.
"And then you'd go-- Ow!"
"I don't think that's really going to-- David?" A second later Rob's out of his chair, helping David from his twisted half-standing position over to the bed.
"Fuck!" David says, one hand pressed to his back. "Fuck, that hurts." He tries to sit, but pain radiates outwards from the muscle all the way up to his shoulder.
"Are you all right?" Rob sounds worried. David concentrates on breathing for a moment before he tries to answer.
"Yeah. I'm okay."
"Good job you wanted me to do that sketch," Rob tries to joke, and David conjures up a tired smile. Now that he's sitting down the pain fades a little, and he can feel the warmth of Rob's hands on his arms, the calluses of Rob's fingers pressed against cold skin. David Mitchell, you are fucked, he thinks.
"Are you seriously all right?" Rob asks, and David nods.
"Fine. Christ, this is embarrassing."
Rob laughs. "Worse than that time I told James he was comforting because he looked like Pippi Longstocking?"
"Okay, no, definitely not worse than that," says David. "But to be fair, you at least had the benefit of being drunk for that." The pain's easing now, the way it always does, and he flexes from side to side to work out the kink in the muscle. "Better now. Sorry."
"Forget it," Rob says. He's still half-crouched by the side of the bed, holding on to David's shoulders. For a moment he looks like he's going to say something else, and then he doesn't, just lets go and stands up.
"You'll have to try typing for a bit," David says.
Rob thumps back into his chair, pulls the laptop over. "Fine. But don't blame me when you go back later and can't read a word of it."
He goes to the doctor in the morning, because this isn't the first time his back has done something stupid, and it's starting to get in the way of things. The doctor recommends a daily walk, and even though it's the most fatuous advice David's ever heard in his life, he figures it can't actually do any harm, other than boring him to death.
To his surprise he finds that he enjoys it. Kilburn isn't exactly the most beautiful area of London, but it's got a sort of unique charm that David begins to appreciate after a while. He listens to a lot of books that he'd been meaning to get to, and to Mark and James' radio play, and, very occasionally, to some music, just to see if maybe this time it will excite him (it doesn't). Once the walk becomes part of his daily routine it stops being an inconvenience and starts being just one of those things. It's peaceful, and it does actually make his back feel better.
The only downside is that it leaves him far too much time to think, and the thing he ends up thinking about is Rob: his smile, his eyes, the way he makes David laugh, but then also the way his hands shook when he asked David to be his best man, the way Abby's presence changes something indefinable in his posture. The way they'd agreed not to hang out together so much anymore.
The baby's born, the real one. David leaves a congratulatory voicemail, gets a text from Rob a few hours later saying "Thanks" and with a picture of the baby attached. He thinks maybe he should do something more, like bring the happy couple a casserole or something, but then again given his cooking they'd probably rather he didn't. David sends the obligatory gushing reply, files "baby" firmly into Category #2, and gets on with writing his column. He'll see Rob soon enough.
The book isn't scheduled to be released for another two weeks, but it's done, finished, printed. There's a box that's come in the mail, heavy enough that he'd had to get his flatmate to help him bring it up earlier, and now it's sitting in the middle of his bedroom, looking a bit menacing.
He picks up his phone, dials.
"David," says Rob, sounding relieved. "How are you?"
"I'm good. How are you?"
"Knackered. Bored. Desperate for adult conversation that isn't my mother-in-law going 'oojee woojee woojee.' What's up?"
"Box of books came. Want to have a look?"
"Yes!" Rob says. "Have you opened it?"
"Not yet." It wouldn't have been right, David thinks, and then rolls his eyes at himself.
"Brilliant. I think I should be able to escape. Be over in a few."
By the time Rob knocks, David is as near to twitching as he's ever been. There's been a disconnect between them these last couple of months, despite the fact that they've spent a lot of time together, finalizing the book and filming Peep Show and writing more sketches. David doesn't want to spoil things by being weird, but he's also well-aware that he wants this moment to be a moment, to mean something. It's a bit of a relief to open the door and see that Rob looks nervous, too.
The two of them go into the bedroom and stare at it for a minute.
"Scissors?" Rob says finally.
"Oh, er, right," says David. He scratches his head and hunts through his desk before finding them and holding them up triumphantly. Rob tilts his head at the box.
"Go on, then," he says.
David slits the tape down the sides of the box and then across the top. He sets the scissors aside and pulls back the flaps, then pulls out the packing material on top to reveal a neat stack of sleek, red hardbacks.
"Wow," says Rob. David nods. Rob reaches in and runs his fingers along the cover of one of them. "Holy shit," he says. "We made a fucking book, David."
David laughs. Rob looks up, grinning.
He doesn't know which of them moves first, and when he thinks about it later he decides he doesn't care. All that matters is that suddenly they're kissing, hot and urgent.
Quite without being told to, David's hands go to Rob's waist, feeling the flex of muscles beneath the thin fabric of his tee shirt. Rob's hands are on David's shoulders, gripping tightly as their mouths slide roughly together. It's a great kiss, because their instincts with each other are as good in this as in anything else. It's as if Rob knows that David is going to gasp, and even as it's happening he takes the opportunity to deepen the kiss, to suck on David's bottom lip, coaxing, and fuck, it feels amazing.
Then David pulls away, and they stand, still touching, just breathing hard and looking at each other for a long moment. David surprises himself by being the one to say what he knows they're both thinking.
"We can't actually do this."
Everything that makes sense tells him that he ought to be the one saying yes and Rob ought to be the one saying no. David wants this, has wanted it for years now even if he's only known it for a few months. And he has less to lose by going for it – mainly because he's always had less, if he's honest. Yet somehow it's Rob that looks wrecked, like he's going to argue against the inevitable ending to this moment.
Perhaps it's because David's always known that the comedy is the most important thing, that he's never, ever, not even in his stifled fantasies, let himself think otherwise.
When we're fifty, he thinks, when we've stopped being funny together, then we can do this. Except that when they've stopped being funny together they probably won't want to do this anymore.
Rob's face has gone from crushed to angry. He takes his hands away, stuffing them into his pockets with a quick, sharp movement. David drops his own hands to his sides, opens his mouth to say something, then shuts it again, because if Rob doesn't get why this is a bad idea, then David doesn't know how to make him get it.
But then Rob says, "You're right," and David breathes out. Rob's eyes flick away, and then back. "You're right," he says again. "But that doesn't mean I have to like it."
"I know," David says. "Jesus, Rob, I know."
"All right, then," Rob says.
They stare at each other for a moment longer, then David breaks first and turns away. "Better clear some shelf space for these," he mutters. "Since I'm sure I'll have trouble giving them away."
Rob snorts, and it's almost like normal. "But first," he says, "we have to show the internet." He pulls out his phone and snaps a picture, then turns the phone sideways and starts typing awkwardly with his thumbs.
"Oh, god, you're tweeting," David moans. "You've become one of those people, haven't you?"
"I hate to break it to you," Rob says with exaggerated sweetness, "but you're one of those people, too."
"Next thing you know I'll be drinking alcopops and gushing about the wonders of emu, or whatever it's called. I might as well roll over and die," David says, which makes Rob laugh. He taps one last thing into his phone and then slips it into his pocket.
"Listen, I'd better get back," he says. "All that baby talk's probably making Abby bleed from the ears by now."
David nods. "Yeah."
There's a moment of silence. Rob says, "Dave--" His eyes go dark, intense, and then he's crossing the room, cupping David's face in one hand, drawing him into a kiss that's even more desperate than the last. It's demanding, forceful, Rob's tongue fucking hotly into David's mouth, and in that moment all of David's good intentions are completely forgotten. Finally Rob tears himself away. He says, "You're still right. Which is why I'm going now."
"Right," says David, dazed, feeling half-burnt by the aftertaste of Rob's mouth.
Rob lets go, crosses back to the door and pulls it open.
David says, "Rob. See you for filming next week?"
"Absolutely," says Rob, and then he's gone.
David sits down into his chair with a thump, reaches up to run an incredulous hand over his mouth. God, those kisses had been so good, so much better than he'd ever imagined. He's actually shaking now.
Maybe he's just made the biggest mistake of his life.
On autopilot he turns on his computer, checks his Twitter account to see what Rob's just posted.
Taken delivery of 2nd bundle of joy this year... And then, just after, This one shits itself less often and can be left on a shelf.
David laughs until he chokes.