Saturday, 29 September 2007

The Angel of Your Elbow

The Angel of Your Elbow

Nexis Pas

© 2007. The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the creator of this work.

‘I love the angel of your elbow.’

Dieter was kissing the inside of my right forearm. He had started at the wrist and had slowly worked his way up to the elbow. The kisses were warm and wet and wonderful. From time to time he paused to set me sentences to translate into German. I moaned as he licked the inside of my elbow again. He added extra tongue action this time. It was only with great discipline that I returned to the subject at hand. Dieter’s parents were arriving for a visit in two weeks, and we were practicing German so that I could talk with them and, we hoped, impress them. ‘ “Ich liebe den Engel des Eckstück.” But I can’t imagine any reason I would say that to your parents, either of them.’

‘That is not for my parents, but for me. In any case, this is der Ellbogen. Das Eckstück is the thing under the sink, the turn in the pipes. And why did you say “Engel”?’

‘But that’s what you said. “I love the angel of your elbow.” Angel ist Engel, nicht wahr? Ich liebe den Engel des Ellbogen.’

Dieter pointed to my elbow. ‘This is not called the angel of the elbow?’ He traced the inside curve of my arm from the bicep down to the forearm. I shook my head no in confusion. I couldn’t think what word he might be looking for. He flipped open the German-English dictionary that was lying on my stomach and paged through it. The top corners of the book were becoming dog-eared. We had put it to a lot of use in the two years we had been together, more at first than now. We had made rapid progress in communicating (not that we always needed all that many words, even in the beginning), but there were still times when we needed Das Düdchen/The Little Dude, as we had affectionately christened it.

‘Here, look. The angel.’ He held the book up in front of my face and pointed to a word. I reached for the book. I didn’t have my glasses on and needed to bring it in close to read the entry. Dieter shamelessly took advantage of my predicament to occupy himself elsewhere. He has the most marvellous hands.

‘Winkel. Angel.’ It still didn’t make any sense to me. I read the rest of the entry, and finally the light bulb flashed. ‘Ah, it is a typo. “Angel” should be “angle”. G-l-e, not g-e-l. Like in geometry. But we would not call it an angle in English. It doesn’t really have a name, but some people call it the “crook” of the elbow.’

Dieter stopped what he was doing and grinned at me. ‘Why would you call it a criminal? Do you English do bad things with the angles of your elbows?’ His left eyebrow rose in a beguiling curve.

God, he is so sexy when he smiles. It’s a wonder we find time to talk at all. ‘Not crook, criminal, but crook as in “shepherd’s crook”.’ I traced the line of a crook on his stomach. ‘As in “by hook or by crook”. Like a candy cane, that curved part at the top.’ I drew the shape in the air this time so that he could see it. He rose up on one elbow and looked at me in puzzlement as he worked it out.

‘Ah, der Hirtenstab. So you have taught me a new word. From now on, I will say “I love your criminal elbow”.’ He demonstrated how much he loved it as well as some other parts of my body again.

After I had caught my breath and was able to speak again, I broached a subject that had often occurred to me during our language lessons. ‘Dieter, perhaps we should not get undressed before we practice German. And maybe we should sit at the table instead of lying in bed? We always get distracted.’

‘But this way you remember better. I reward you when you get it right and then you remember your lessons.’ The man has a devilish laugh. He nuzzled my neck and stretched his arm under my neck and around my shoulders. ‘Besides, I love the angel on my elbow.’

After that, one thing led to another, and that was the end of the German lesson that evening.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

The Cinque Ports--Part I

The following series of linked short stories contains adult situations and gay themes. There are twenty separate segments, posted here in four parts.

The Cinque Ports, Part I
Nexis Pas

© 2007 by the author. The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

The Cinque Ports is a gay pub in Brighton. Unlike many such establishments, this one functions more like a traditional neighbourhood place. It’s the ‘local’ of many permanent gay residents of Brighton. It doesn’t put itself out to attract the gay tourists from elsewhere; it doesn’t turn them away, but there are no cabarets to draw them, no troupes of female impersonators lip-synching the words to recorded songs, no leather nights, no bands, no underwear contests. It also refuses entrance to anyone under twenty-one, and that tends to limit its appeal for many. Legally, of course, we could admit anyone eighteen or older, but the man who founded the Cinque Ports preferred to avoid the rowdiness of youngsters learning to drink, and we continue to honour his wishes. So, for a gay pub it’s a relatively quiet spot that provides what we hope is a sociable and comfortable place to get together with friends. This is not to say that it does not fulfil many of the usual functions of a gay pub. People do meet there and leave together, especially, as one might expect, near closing time.

My name is Peter Adamson. I am the current owner and the ‘licensed proprietor’ of this establishment. Not everyone knows that. If pressed, many of our patrons would probably identify Mike Serles as the owner. He’s the manager and the official face of the Cinque Ports. But by and large, the place reflects my tastes and interests. It suits me the way it is, and, to my surprise, a goodly number of others seem to agree.

So, the Cinque Ports is very much a fictional place. And the Brighton described here is a fiction, too. But Brighton is used to that role. ‘Brighton’ has been a fiction for many years, a place in inverted commas, a destination that never quite delivers on the image it so frenetically promotes of itself as a ‘fun spot’, a ‘happening place’, to use a term from my youth. It’s the Christmas box in cheery holiday wrapping with a large red bow that contains an expensive sweater in the wrong size and a colour that would make you look liverish, the long-anticipated family outing at the beach that leaves the parents irritable and the kids unhappy. No one lives in that fictional Brighton. They may visit something like it occasionally, but they soon leave. So if the details given in the stories don’t match up with the ‘real’ Brighton, so be it. It’s a place that exists only to facilitate these anecdotes.

And as for me, I, too, am a fiction. Most of our regulars view me as a fixture of the Cinque Ports. Many ignore me--I’m too old and too far past my prime to interest anyone. Occasionally someone stops to talk with me. I suspect that for many of the younger people I’m a father figure--‘old Peter at the bar’--someone comfortable to talk at when things are not going as well as could be wished or when there is no one else to pass the time with. I listen to them and let them talk. Sometimes I offer advice. I try to avoid that--not always successfully--unless the problem is quite minor. I’m not at all a ‘colourful’ character, quite the opposite in fact. A grey man who quietly nurses his pint while reading his newspapers and magazines. It may appear that I leave alone, but, unbeknownst to those who have been standing nearby or talking to me, I leave with their stories or, more precisely, parts of their stories.

And that, too, suits me. I find the incomplete stories, the tales without neat resolutions, the most interesting ones. I was once travelling on a train that had seats arranged in pairs, so that four travellers could face one another. I was sitting by myself when two elderly women took the bench of seats opposite me. Over the course of the hour the three of us travelled together, I got to hear quite a lot of gossip about their friends while I pretended to be immersed in reading a book. (I had to remind myself to turn a page from time to time so that I wouldn’t appear to be eavesdropping.) Since they knew the details and the people they were talking about, they didn’t always supply enough background or information for me to make sense of their conversation. The hints tantalised me, however. ‘Beryl’ had more than her share of troubles, not the least of which was a terminally ill husband I surmised. And ‘poor Mary’, well I never learned what happened to poor Mary since the train pulled into Brighton at that point and we went our separate ways. But that hour contained some of the best stories I’ve ever heard.

The tales I hear in the Cinque Ports are like that. Since I seldom witness the beginnings or ends of these stories, I get to resolve them in a fashion that satisfies me or to supply the back story that makes sense of the part that I do know. Or not--sometimes life is an interrupted conversation, and we never learn the ending. I’m rather fond of stories that I get to complete, the stories with gaps that I have to fill in. In any case, ‘real life’ isn’t much of a story, is it? The fictions we tell are far more interesting than the haphazard tedium of our days.

So, a fictional pub, a fictional place, a fictional narrator, and temporary encounters and overheard conversations--that’s the brew on tap here.

1. No Experience Needed

Vince was leaning against the bar, occasionally taking a sip from the glass in front of him. The drink was more an acknowledgement of the surroundings than something he enjoyed. The black sweater and grey slacks he wore fit his body tightly, emphasizing his muscular build. He always dressed in combinations of black, grey, or white. He had discovered long ago that when you were as handsome as he was, the most subdued colours accentuated his gracefulness in a way that louder hues would have obscured. He liked to think of them as his signature colours. No one else could pull them off as successfully as he did. Nor did he have to bare his flesh to make the point that he was well built. The way he filled out his clothes made that clear. He knew that in the dim lighting of the Cinque Ports, his neck and his face seemed to float in the darkness between his black sweater and the dark helmet of his cropped, curly hair. If anything, his hair was darker than his sweater. His hands emerged from the sleeves of his sweater, white against its blackness, and the fingers that held the glass so lightly and confidently were strong looking. He had practiced before the mirror until he was satisfied that his grasp of a pint glass promised firm, masculine handling.

Vince kept his eyes on the door, waiting for someone worthy of himself to come in. Two men in their mid-twenties entered, and Sid, who was minding the door that night, nodded them in after barely glancing at their IDs. Vince hardly spared them more attention. They weren’t his type. He had half-decided he would leave as soon as he finished his pint and try the Mastiff. There was nothing of interest at the Cinque Ports tonight. He had chatted briefly with Terry when he arrived, but after ten minutes Terry had claimed he had a hot date and left. Terry always seemed to have a hot date lately whenever Vince tried to talk with him. Vince found his behaviour annoying. He wasn’t trying to pick Terry up. He was just being friendly and making conversation, but Terry appeared to be another ‘friend’ who had found someone else or who was tired of talking with Vince. The reason hardly mattered. Well, the hell with him, the hell with all of them, thought Vince. There were plenty of others.

Sid devoted more time to the next person who entered, carefully checking both sides of his ID and holding it up to the light to match the picture against the real face. Even in the ill-lit room, it was easy to see why. The young man didn’t look as if he met the Cinque Ports’ minimum age requirement of twenty-one. Sid must have had his doubts about the ID. He tapped it against the podium at the door and then said something. The newcomer stepped to one side. Sid flipped open his phone and spoke briefly into it. The pub continued to fill as more people pushed in. The rain must have started again. A noisy group came in and stood at the door stamping their feet and shaking their coats like dogs ridding their fur of water. They laughed at Sid’s mock protests as he theatrically brushed drops of water off the sleeves of his shirt. Vince could see the kid surreptitiously checking them out, as if he were making notes on how to behave in a gay pub. The mini-drama at the door had Vince’s full attention now.

The door at the rear of the bar opened, and Mike Serles, the manager, threaded his way past the bartenders, his eyes automatically checking their speed and the number of customers lined up trying to get a drink. Mike pushed his way slowly through the crowd, stopping frequently to greet someone and say a few words. Some of the customers got a slap on the shoulder, others a hug or a finger poke. For business purposes, Mike was friendly and matey. It was considered a mark of distinction in the Cinque Ports to be noticed by him, and he dispensed his attentions carefully, hoarding that capital as if it were a precious metal. Anyone who did not meet Mike’s standards and dared to speak to him risked getting only a perfunctory nod of dismissal. Vince took some pride in the fact that he always received an effusive greeting from Mike. Vince knew that he was the type of patron Mike wanted to see in the Cinque Ports. His looks and his style lent a certain cachet to any establishment he entered. Mike’s recognition was no more than well-deserved homage.

It took the manager at least five minutes of bonhomie to navigate his way to the front door. Sid handed him the young man’s ID, and Mike motioned him to step over. Mike examined the ID and then the face behind the picture on the ID. For a second Vince thought Mike would deny him entrance. A stray flash of light illuminated Mike’s face briefly, and Vince could see the expression of amused disdain on the manager’s face as he handed back the ID. The new guy said something to Mike. The manager half-turned to face the room and shook his head in exasperation. He shrugged and held up two fingers. The lad could have two drinks, and then he had to leave. Mike immediately turned his back on the kid and said something to Sid and to a man who had just entered. He had done his good deed for the day. He had devoted enough of his valuable time to charity that night.

The young man sidled into the bar as unobtrusively as he could. Vince had the impression that he was trying to avoid further attention from Mike and Sid. Vince watched as he found a spot about ten feet into the room and stood there with his back to the wall about as far from the action as it was possible to get in the Cinque Ports. The crowd pushed him further against the wall and shut him out. Again Vince had an impression that he was studying the others, trying to figure out how one behaved in places like this. Truth be told, he didn’t fit the mould for the Cinque Ports. He was thin, dressed in a grey windcheater with the zipper pulled almost up to his throat. His hair hung in wet lanks from the rain and needed to be cut. Anyone in that crowded room who bothered to look in his direction would dismiss him as a shy university student who had finally gathered enough nerve to enter a gay pub.

The lad looked at the crowd of people trying to attract a bartender’s attention and get a drink. He smiled in resignation at his ill luck and obviously gave up any notion of fighting his way through that mob for one of the two drinks he was permitted. His hands played with the pull tab on the zipper, restlessly moving it up and down. The shiny metal caught the light. Some oddity of the lighting in the room made it flicker and wink at Vince. I probably am the only person positioned to see it, he thought. The brief smile and the flashing zipper were the signs Vince needed. He motioned to Eddie and held up two fingers in a V. Eddie nodded and swiftly pulled two pints for him, barely pausing in his work to toss the money Vince left on the counter into the till. Vince picked up the glasses and deserted his seat at the bar. It was taken before he had moved two steps.

As he manoeuvred his way through the crowd, holding the beer up to avoid sloshing it on anyone, he conjured up his favourite mental image of himself. The lithe, sleek jungle cat stalking his prey, his eyes gleaming through the undergrowth, a dark, fluid shadow invisible to his chosen victim until the last second before he struck and pinned the hapless quarry beneath his body. Vince was on the prowl, and he had his next meal in sight. Virgin meat, by the look of it. Just the type I like, thought Vince. Naïve, innocent, ready to be used and then discarded. Vince didn’t want one of the ‘desirables,’ the ‘10s’ that thought they were doing you a favour by speaking to you. If he wanted a 10, he could look in the mirror. No, he wanted a guy who even in his wildest fantasy would never imagine that a god like Vince would stop in front of him and say, ‘Here, you look like you could use a drink’.

The newcomer stared at the glass of ale and then looked up into Vince’s face. His eyes widened in a manner Vince found highly gratifying as he took in Vince’s good looks. Vince raised the glass an inch and tilted it toward the kid in the ‘here, take this, it’s for you’ gesture. The kid complied. ‘Thanks.’ He glanced down, trying to disguise his survey of Vince’s body as a casual and momentary flicker of his eyes. He seemed almost embarrassed by his interest in it and attempted to shift his eyes elsewhere. But Vince had positioned himself to cut off the kid’s view of the rest of the room. Vince was easily three-four inches taller and much broader through the chest and shoulders. The kid couldn’t see around him or over him unless he bent down and peered around Vince’s narrow hips, and somehow Vince knew he wouldn’t do that. Vince moved closer and clinked his glass against the one the new kid was holding. ‘Cheers.’

The kid mouthed ‘cheers’ in return. Over the noise in the room, Vince couldn’t hear the actual words, but the kid’s lips formed the right shapes. Up close he was cuter than Vince had first thought. He had that fresh, unused look that Vince liked. Vince could see why Mike had relented and admitted him. With the right clothes and a better haircut, he would fit right in. A few visits to the bars and he would know how to dress. The daily workouts at the gym would follow. He would ‘clean up good’, as gran used to say. For tonight, however, he belongs to me, thought Vince. The kid didn’t know it yet, but he did.

There were several dozen people in the Cinque Ports who could have warned the newcomer what that meant, but Vince wasn’t going to give them a chance to tell him. Vince didn’t doubt that several of his former chosen ones had noticed him cross across the room and understood what it meant when he stopped to talk to the young man leaning against the wall. If the room had been quieter, he was sure that he would have been able to hear them gossiping about him. The thought of others focussing on him and discussing him brought a flash of pleasure to Vince. Probably some of them were already jealous of tonight’s lucky selection.

Others, Vince imagined, were taking pleasure in anticipating the not too distant day when Vince had ensnared the newcomer and then dropped him and moved on. It was, Vince had once explained to one of his discards, all part of the service he performed for the new guys. He taught them the hard lesson everyone had to learn, a lesson he had had to learn himself. That it didn’t matter how nice you were. Nobody stayed. Nobody was interested in you, just in the quick relief of sex. Nobody wanted you, just the image of someone who was a credit to them. Nobody wanted the real you, the guy with worries and problems, the guy who sometimes had a headache. His behaviour was, he admitted to himself in the rare moments he let himself think about it, his revenge on a world that didn’t quite accept him, that valued his looks and his body and his dancing and bedroom skills and his charm and that grew impatient with confronted with the real Vince. Well, he had learned to use his looks and his charm to take what he wanted. And the Vincent who had once hoped to be somebody’s Mr Right--well, no one wanted to talk with that person. Except in the early morning hours when he lay in bed and daydreamed for a few minutes before he had to get up, he had discarded that person years ago. The panther, he had to remember that he was the panther.

And now, it was time for the old charm, the animal magnetism. ‘My name’s Vince.’

‘Christopher Williamson.’

First point to me, thought Vince. Christopher Williamson was so new that he didn’t know enough to give only his first name. Vince pretended he hadn’t been able to hear over the noise and moved closer, leaning down and turning his head slightly so that ‘Chris’--he had already decided to shorten the name--could speak into his ear. Chris repeated his name, and Vince smiled directly into his face. The kid’s eyes darted away, and he raised his drink to his mouth to cover his confusion. Vince was pleased to see that he was having his customary effect. He was standing so close that Chris’s arm brushed against his chest as he lifted his glass. Let the kid have a feel of what he would soon be experiencing. Chris jerked back and apologized for the contact. Good, thought Vince, a quick learner. Second point to me.

Chris reminded Vince of a little puppy. This seduction was going to be fun. He started the process of making conversation, relaxing Chris and getting him to lower his barriers. Chris’s ears soon got used to the muddle of shouted conversations, and he begin to treat it as so much background noise. Vince lowered his voice and isolated the two of them. Chris would soon cease to be aware of his surroundings. It is only a matter of time and my skills, Vince thought. He murmured on, the gentle enquiries into Chris’s life, the nods of understanding, the sage hints from the slightly older and more experienced mentor, a few remarks in that ironic tone of his to insinuate that the two of them stood apart from the others. He soon had Chris relaxed enough to laugh and begin enjoying himself. Oh, I am smooth, so smooth, thought Vince.

In a way, Chris reminded Vince of how he had been when he first started frequenting the gay pubs. Nervous, anxious, unsure how to behave or of what would happen if he did leave with someone. I was so green, thought Vince. Well, it didn’t take long for me to get my education. Let’s see how quickly Chris catches on. It was too bad, but that’s life. I let my heart be broken. It’s someone else’s turn. Maybe if he had been lucky and started with someone nice, they would have grown together and been one of those couples who lasted for a lifetime, like that old man who owned the Cinque Ports or like Mike and Sid. Worse luck that he had fallen for a string of guys who were just using him and quickly grew bored with him and moved on.

Chris had a nervous habit of fiddling with the tab on his windcheater’s zipper. It was as if his free hand had to have something to occupy it. Vince was beginning to find it a bit annoying. In any case it was time to move things a step further. The next time Chris let go of the zipper, he reached over and pulled it down, making sure that the knuckles of his hand brushed down Chris’s chest and across his stomach. The shocked intake of breath assured him that Chris’s reactions were proceeding in the right direction. He let his hand rest on Chris’s belt and flattened his fingers against Chris’s stomach. Chris’s flesh was firmer than he had expected. ‘Nice’, he said. ‘Very nice.’ Even the newest kid on the block would not mistake his meaning.

It was then that he saw the flash of light around Chris’s neck. Oho, the kid is wearing a chain, he thought. It was the perfect opportunity to let Chris know that Vince had arrived in his territory and was taking over. ‘What’s this?’ Vince grasped the chain and pulled it out from beneath Chris’s shirt. The chain was a thin braid, intricately woven of silver threads. Attached to it was a small medal of some sort.

Chris tried to step away, but he was backed against the wall, and Vince wouldn’t let go of the chain. ‘It belonged to my mother’s great-grandfather. He was a colonel with the army in India, and he brought it back with him. I was named after him. It’s the only thing of his I have. For now anyway. I’ll get more when my grandfather dies.’ He paused and then added quickly, ‘Of course, I hope that won’t happen for many years yet.’

Vince held the medal closer to his face so that he could examine it in the dim light. The chain was so short that Chris had no choice but to step closer to Vince. Vince spared him a quick smile. It was just a cheap copper coin, Vince saw. The head of some forgotten ruler was barely visible on one side. The other side had some writing in a script he couldn’t read and an odd device that made no sense to him. It looked like a upright stone pillar of some sort. Nothing of any value, but Chris kept it so brightly polished that it was a wonder he hadn’t worn it down to bare metal. Vince was puzzled, reluctant to let the medal go. He kept turning it over and over, as if it held a clue to why it meant so much to Christopher. What could be the value in this bit of scrap?

‘My great-granddad was in the Second World War. In Africa. With Montgomery and that lot. He left some medals. My grandfather has them and promised once that they would come to me some day. But now I don’t know.’

‘Why not?’

Vince shrugged. ‘He doesn’t approve of my life now. He won’t talk to me much anymore. It’s not like when I was a kid and he had plenty of time for me. Now he just says “hello” and then turns away and finds somebody else to talk to. He’s always quick to find something on the telly when I walk into the room’

‘That’s too bad, Vince.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s life. You have to make your own way, don’t you. What about you, your family know?’

‘No. I haven’t told them yet. At least I don’t think they know. Mother’s always on about this new girl at her office, and so-and-so from my school is getting married, and Mrs Vassey says that Sarah is coming down for the holidays and maybe I should I invite her out.’

‘And she doesn’t suspect that the person you really want is Mrs Vassey’s Thomas. My mum was like that for a while, but then I told her that it wasn’t her friend Marsha at the Sainsbury’s she works at that interested me but James the assistant manager, and that shut her up.’

‘Sometimes I think mother does know, and that all these hints are just her way of hoping it’s not true.’

Vince stared at Christopher. The conversation was not going the way he had planned. He had already revealed more of his private life than he wanted others to know. It was time to pull himself together and to take Mr Williamson’s education a step further. ‘It’s hot.’ The coin was oddly warm in Vince’s hands. ‘You have a hot body.’ Vince tried to put as much heat into his voice as he could muster, but the sound came out choked. The stale air in the room was getting to him. He touched Chris’s neck as he lowered the chain back under Chris’s shirt. Chris’s skin was unexpectedly smooth and fresh. He stroked Chris’s neck just for the pleasure of feeling the warm skin beneath his fingertips. Vince could see the outline of the coin beneath the fabric, and he touched it briefly. Even through the cloth he could feel the heat of the metal. Chris really has a hot body, he thought. And he’s polite. Not everybody will listen to you talk about your family. Most people would have just nodded and changed the subject. But Chris--Christopher was nice, more like a regular person than . . . than like what, he thought. The answer came swiftly enough. Like someone who worries about wearing the right clothes and knowing the right things. Like someone whose life centres around nights in gay pubs. Someone like the person I’ve become.

‘Are you ok, Vince? You look flushed.’

‘I’m fine. Just getting a bit close in here.’ Vince did feel overheated. He tried to remember the last time anyone in a gay pub had looked at him with as much concern as Christopher was doing.

‘Do you want to get some fresh air? Cool off?’

‘Yeah, let’s get out of here.’ He placed his hand on the small of Christopher’s back and guided him toward the door. That idiot Geoff greeted him as they passed and lifted an eyebrow to let Vince know that he found Vince’s taste questionable. Well, he’s always been dense, thought Vince. Christopher is worth a dozen of those losers he’s with. Geoff made some remark behind his back. Vince couldn’t hear what was said, but there was a definite note of satisfaction in the laughter that followed.

The wind was off the ocean that night. The rain had cleared the air. After the fug and heat of the Cinque Ports, the strong scent of sea came as a shock. The moon had come out once the clouds had cleared off. As they crossed Paston Place, he could see down the road to the sliver of the Channel visible between the buildings. A cool breeze flowed up the street. ‘Ah, that feels good. Let’s walk down to the front. I like to watch the waves. Maybe walk along the beach.’ Mother Nature, my aide in seduction, thought Vince as he made the suggestion. A pity there was no sunlit meadow of flowery grasses to run through, but the council kept the municipal lawns closely cropped and the sun wasn’t shining. The thought made him laugh.

‘Something funny?’

‘Just happy to be with you, Christopher.’ The pleasantry rose readily to his lips. The fresh air had revived him. Well, it wasn’t healthy to spend so much time in bars. The heat, the crowds, all the colognes and scents at war with one another. At least, smoking was no longer allowed in pubs, that would have made it unbearable. And, to his surprise, he discovered that he really was happy to be with Christopher, happier than he had been for a long time. Vince stopped at the railing above the beach and leaned on it, looking out over the Channel. The lights of several ships were visible. To their right, the pier stretched out into the Channel, its strings of bright lights dancing in the waves and promising fun and entertainment.

Christopher stood several steps away from Vince and slightly behind him. ‘I haven’t been down here for a long time. It hasn’t improved since the last time I was here. It just gets seedier and seedier, doesn’t it?’ He turned away from Vince and looked back the way they had come, in the direction of the Cinque Ports.

Vince didn’t notice. He was staring at the waterline. The streetlights illuminated the waves as they broke. The white foam lifted out of the oily darkness and surged up the beach and then ebbed back into the night. ‘I remember my first visit here. I must have been three or so. My mum brought me down. I think it was one of the bank holidays early in the year. Anyway, it was a cold, rainy day, and there weren’t many people around. She asked if I wanted to walk along the beach, but the waves were running high that day, and I was afraid that they would drag me out to sea. Someone had told me that if I got too near the water, the waves would grab me and pull me out, and I would drown. I told her that. And she said that the waves began in some faraway place that was always sunny and filled with music and where the ocean was a deep blue colour instead of grey and dirty, and that some day a ship would come for me and I would go to where the waves started. That’s what I always think about when I watch the waves. I want to take an ocean voyage some day. I’ve always liked the sound of that. “An ocean voyage.” To some place where it’s warm all year, and there is always sunlight and music, and the ocean is blue and clear. The Caribbean, maybe. Anywhere away from Brighton.’

‘We went to a Greek island called Samathos last Christmas. It’s not been discovered, so not many people go there yet and it wasn’t at all crowded. Two years ago we went to the Dutch Antilles. That was lots of fun. You’ll like them if you ever have an opportunity to visit.’

‘Yeah, well. It’s just a silly dream, but sometimes . . .’


‘I don’t know. I’m not good at talking about such things. About dreams and such, silly stuff, kid stuff.’

‘You know what I want? You’ll laugh, but I want what my parents have. I want the house, and the acre of lawn with the old trees and the walled garden, and the neighbours to golf with, and the good job, and the dog. That’s what I dream about. It’s just that I don’t want the Sarah Vassey that everyone seems to think goes with it.’ Christopher paused. His next comment was an afterthought, spoken almost to himself. ‘I didn’t think it would be like this.’

‘What would be like what?’

Christopher took a few steps closer to Vince. ‘I mean I thought guys just went to places like that to pick someone up and have quick sex and then leave. I didn’t know people talked.’

‘Sometimes it’s all about quick sex. Sometimes we talk. Sometimes there’s not even sex, just talk. Is that what you wanted tonight? Just quick sex?’

‘To be honest, yes. That’s why I came in. I decided that today was the day I would finally go to a gay pub and find another guy and have sex. I just felt this morning that I was going to explode unless I had sex with another guy soon. Any guy. And I decided that tonight I just had to be brave. I must have walked past that pub five or six times before I worked up the courage to actually push the door open. To get it over with. And when I finally went in, I thought that man at the door wasn’t going to let me in. And I felt almost relieved. I would have considered that a sign from fate. I was so worried that someone who knows me or my family would see me and tell my parents.’

‘So I’m just a sex object to you, Christopher?’ Vince tried to keep his voice light and smiled to take the edge out of the comment, to hide the surge of disappointment he suddenly felt. So Christopher would be just another night’s conquest, and he was just a cipher, interchangeable with any other cipher. Chris would have been satisfied with anyone that night. Another greet and meat and go.

‘No, I didn’t mean that. Well, at first, maybe. When you started chatting me up, I thought well here he is. The first guy. You just seemed like such a, I don’t know, so aggressive, when you first came over. You were so slick and sure of yourself. I felt you were trying to intimidate me. It was like you were trying to push me into a corner. But I thought ok, this is it. This is what you came here to get. It doesn’t really matter what he’s like as long as he’s male and willing. But I didn’t think you would talk so much. You’re more than I expected. It’s not what I’m planned for tonight.’

‘I was just trying to be nice. You were standing there all alone, by yourself, nobody to talk to, and I thought maybe you needed someone to talk to. Everybody’s needs somebody to talk to. Otherwise you’re all alone, and everybody else is with somebody.’ Even as he spoke, Vince’s image of himself was shifting--the friendliest guy at the Cinque Ports, the official greeter to make new guys welcome.

‘You’re not interested in me? I thought you were hitting on me. I was making mental notes on your technique for the next time I go to a bar.’ Christopher turned away again. He pulled back his left sleeve and looked at his watch as if he were wondering if he still had time to run back to the Cinque Ports and find someone.

‘Ok, maybe I was trying to hit on you--a little. But that was before I started talking with you. You’re nicer than most guys. You listen when they talk to you.’

Chris shivered as a sudden gust of damp wind fanned his hair and ballooned his jacket. He muttered something to himself. Vince thought he heard Chris say, ‘Talk isn’t what I had in mind for tonight.’

‘Ah, you’re cold. I wasn’t thinking. Where do you live? I’ll walk you back. We can do it, if that’s what you want.’

‘I live out northeast, in Kent, in the country. I left my car in the park by the station in Hove and took a bus here. I have to catch the bus at the Marina. I hope I can find the right one. I’m not familiar with the routes.’

‘You’ll want the N7. It will take about half an hour to reach Hove station. My place is only a few minutes’ walk. Come back with me. We can warm you up there while you wait.’

Even as he said it, he knew that it was a mistake. He seldom invited anyone to his place. That was his sanctuary. He didn’t want other people in it. It was the place where Vincent lived. Vince went to other people’s places. But he and Chris were already walking towards his door. It was too late to take the invitation back. ‘Uh, Chris, you do understand what is going to happen, that is, what might happen, don’t you?’

‘I think so, Vince.’

‘Have you really never . . . ?’

‘No, this will be the first time. I have no experience.’

‘It’s one of those “no experience needed” type of things. The bits and pieces just sort of fall in place.’

Chris laughed. ‘I’ve been reading up on the subject. I’ve learned about as much as one can from the Internet. I could probably pass the A levels in the subject as long as the examiners didn’t ask for a demonstration of my skills. It’s like the driving exam. I had no trouble with the written test, but the road test with the examiner had me worried. But I passed. I got the license. That’s all that counts.’

So I’m naught but a road test, thought Vince. I wonder if he will want me to certify that he passed. ‘It’s through here and up the stairs.’ Vince unlocked the gate to the passage that led to his flat. When he closed the door behind them and turned the lock, Chris jumped at the sound. He was visibly becoming more and more nervous.

‘The place is a mess. I wasn’t expecting to bring anyone here tonight.’ Vince picked several days’ newspapers off the floor and placed them in the bin in the kitchen. ‘I have some colas in the fridge, I think. Would you like one?’

Chris was examining Vince’s flat closely, apparently unaware of the disdain on his face. Through an open door Chris could look into the bedroom. Vince could see Chris registering that it was small and cramped and messy as he took in the blanket hastily pulled over the single bed, the half-open door on the wardrobe and the clutter of clothes hanging inside it, the briefs that hadn’t quite made it all the way into the dirty clothes hamper, his breakfast cup of tea with the string from the tea bag draped over the edge resting on the table next to his computer. Chris even sniffed the air in the room and twisted his mouth at it. ‘No, I’m fine.’ A brief, polite smile flitted across his face. ‘Who’s this?’ He picked up a framed picture.

‘That’s my mum and dad. He’s gone. He cleared out years ago. So there’s just my mum and granddad.’ Vince took the photograph from Chris and restored it to its place on the shelf. Chris had no right to intrude, he shouldn’t have violated Vince’s privacy that way. He ought to know that family was personal business. No matter how inexperienced he was, he should know you didn’t ask questions and embarrass the other guy by bringing up stuff about his family. Everybody had a family. Maybe his wasn’t the suburban middle-class type like Chris’s, but they were what he had. It wasn’t his fault that his father had left. He wasn’t responsible for his family.

He looked around the room and tried to see it with Chris’s eyes. ‘It’s not what you thought it would be, is it?’

‘No, it’s not quite what I envisioned.’ Chris tried to be polite, but he couldn’t keep the pity out of his voice. ‘Should I take all my clothes off or just my jeans? It’s cold in here. I’d like to stay warm. Anyway you probably wouldn’t find gooseflesh sexy.’

‘Two guys running toward each other through a sunlit field of golden barley or rye, whatever that stuff is. That’s what you expected.’


‘Like in the movies. Romance. Violins playing.’

‘No, nothing like that. I just thought it would be more impersonal, to be honest. I don’t want to get involved with anyone’s life. Just the dirty deed, not the person. Get it over with and get out.’

‘Well, the person sort of comes with the deed. What time does your bus leave? You don’t want to miss it. It’s getting late.’

‘I thought we were going to have sex.’

‘Well, I guess you thought wrong then. Changed my mind, haven’t I? I’ll walk you down to the Marina.’ Vince suddenly felt tired, tired of all of it.

‘I think I can find my own way.’

‘Yeah, everybody thinks that.’

2. A Perpetual Canon in a Minor Key

‘He’s got weird eyes.’

‘Jamie, Pavel’s got beautiful eyes. They’re the first thing you notice when you meet him.’

‘That’s what I mean. Don’t you find that weird? He has this incredible body, but the only thing people remember about him are those pale blue eyes with the dark rings around the irises.’

‘I noticed the body. Believe me, I noticed the body. But since when did you decide he has weird eyes? You’ve been dating him for six months.’

‘His eyes have always been weird. It’s just that lately they’ve begun to bother me.’

‘Oh, oh. We’ve had this conversation before. Is this the start of “discard the current boyfriend” sequence? Remember Paul? After a year, you decide that it bothers you that he doesn’t know how to knot a tie properly. Or Davie--what was his fault now? Oh, yeah. He made a mess when he ate. Let me see. Then there was Xander--too sweet. Andrew, too funny. Rupert, too sexy. I could go on, but I can’t remember them all. You’ve rejected a whole regiment of guys most people would sell their grandmother to have as lovers. Now, weird eyes. You can’t dump someone just because you think his eyes are weird.’

‘I don’t see why I should settle for less than perfection. I mean, I can tolerate small faults when I’m just dating the guy. But when he starts talking about finding a place together, then you have to take a closer look and see if there are things about him that would really bother you if you had to deal with them 24 hours a day.’

‘Ah, so that’s the problem. Feeling a wee bit threatened by the dangers of intimacy, are you? Is that the real story here?’

‘That’s nonsense. I am not frightened by intimacy. I’ve been intimate with a lot of guys. I’m just not like you and David. I can’t live with someone with a lot of faults.’

‘Oh, well, thank you very much, I’m sure. I know David has to put up with a lot from me, but we talk about the things that I do that bother him and work them out. And vice versa.’

‘I wasn’t talking about you. I was talking about David. How can you live with that silly giggle? Really, any jury would acquit you of strangling him if your lawyer played a tape of that nervous laugh of his.’

‘Hey, me, you can criticise. David is out of bounds to you. One more remark about my David, and I’ll strangle you.’

‘Ouch. That hurt. Stop pinching me. Ok, ok. I shouldn’t have said that. I’m sorry. But you know what I mean.’

‘No, I don’t. I don’t expect David to be perfect. He doesn’t expect me to be perfect. And neither one of us disappoints the other. Relationships are about compromises. Nobody’s perfect. We all have faults. If you want a relationship, then you have to make adjustments.’

‘Oh, stop lecturing me. I’ve heard all this before. If having a relationship means having to apologise all the time for the way I am and putting up with someone else’s faults just so that we can eat breakfast together in the morning, then I don’t want a relationship. What’s that old line? Love means never having to say you’re sorry? It seems to me that love means always having to say that you’re sorry. I’m sorry I don’t like muesli. I’m sorry I wear roomy comfortable boxer shorts instead of some ridiculous piece of string. I’m sorry I throw the newspaper on the floor. I’m sorry my mother calls every Sunday morning. I’m sorry I don’t like pickled herring. I’m sorry that I find lying about on a beach a bore. It never ends. Nothing I can do will ever satisfy anyone.’

‘Jamie, I’ve known you for what, ten years now? Every six months or so you announce that you’ve met Mr Right. You spend every waking hour with him, probably a lot of nonwaking hours as well. Your friends hardly see you. You disappear off the face of the earth because you’re so involved with this guy. Then a few months later you show up at our doors and start complaining about the guy. Suddenly he has this habit that irritates you. Then you dump him and a month later the whole process begins again. Why don’t you give it up and just have one-night stands? It would save you all the trouble of finding an excuse to get rid of the guy.’

‘Now you’re being frivolous. You know I’m not that kind of person. ‘

‘Yeah, you’re a serial monogamist who doesn’t want to eat his lover’s favourite cereal in the morning. You want the good stuff but not the bad.’

‘I thought you at least would understand.’

‘Oh, Jamie, I understand. Believe me, I understand a lot more than you give me credit for.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Oh, Jamie. . . . Look, let’s just change the subject. This is pointless.’

‘No, I want to know. What is it that you understand about me?’

‘Muesli is gruesome stuff. You’re right to dump anyone who wants you to eat that muck.’

‘Now, you’re patronising me.’

‘Yes, I’m trying to patronise you. I plead guilty as charged. . . . Ok, let’s start over. What’s all this about having to be sorry.’

‘He’s trying to change me. Pavel’s become very critical of me. Everything was fine until a few weeks ago, and then he started criticising everything I do. It seems I can’t do anything right.’

‘Maybe he’s the one who’s afraid of intimacy? Maybe this is his way of pushing you away. Have you talked with him about it?’

‘I’m scared.’

‘Of what?’

‘I’m afraid that if I talk with him, he’ll leave me. I tried talking with the others. I really did. But then they got angry and said I was just being selfish and that I was so self-centred that I couldn’t care about other people. There were always these big fights, and they ended up leaving. They dumped me. But this time, I want it to work out. I think, well, maybe Pavel’s right. Maybe I should change and be what he wants me to be. It’s not such a big thing. I could change this or that, and then he’ll like me again, and everything will be all right.’

‘Oh, Jamie love, come here. Move closer and tell me all about it. But blow your nose first. I don’t want you dripping all over my sweater. I just had this cleaned.’

‘That’s a disgusting image.’

‘Yeah, isn’t it? So blow your nose.’

‘David will get jealous if he sees you hugging me.’

‘No, he won’t. He’ll probably want to join in. He likes three-ways.’


‘No, not really. Now, you know a secret of our love life. A boring old married couple. The cat’s the only one who joins us in bed, and he finds plenty of room to sleep between us.’

‘Well, David wouldn’t want me anyway.’

‘No, he wouldn’t. Nor do I at the moment. Your nose is all red.’

‘Your cat doesn’t like me either.’

‘Lester doesn’t like anyone.’

‘I’m jealous, you know.’

‘Of the cat? How sweet. Lester will definitely approve of that sentiment.’

‘No, of David. He’s a lucky guy.’

‘Yes, I keep telling him that. After the thousandth time, he decided to pretend and let me think he believes me. So, do you want to talk about Pavel?’

‘If you don’t mind.’

‘I don’t mind. Now, tell uncle all about the tribulations of Jamie.’

‘My older and wiser uncle?’

‘Oo, what a rotten little bitch it is, claws and all. That didn’t quite come out right for me, did it? And stop smirking or I will send you away, far away. Let me rephrase that. So, tell your incredibly intelligent and slightly older brother, who is known throughout the width and breadth of this fair city as being the handsomest stud you will never go to bed with, not to mention a man of great modesty and humility, a genuine genius at giving advice, and an inveterate helper of little old laddies to cross busy streets, is this a new thing for you? Being so much in love that you would even consider eating the dreadèd, loathèd muesli for the SHWE.’


‘The Slavic Hunk with the Weird Eyes.’

‘Yes, I’m in love with the Slavic Hunk. I think. Maybe’

‘Except for the weird eyes.’

‘Forget the weird eyes. He has beautiful eyes.’

‘Yes, he does. But he’s changed toward you?’

‘He’s just so possessive anymore. I’m mean he’s always been possessive, but lately it’s like he thinks I’m his property and have to do what he wants. And when I protest, he gets angry and says that I don’t love him. That if I loved him, I would do what he wants instead of always trying to have everything my way. He always seems to want me to prove to him that I love him by doing what he wants.’

‘Jamie, have you ever thought that he might be afraid that you don’t love him? ‘

‘But I tell him that all the time.’

‘Maybe telling him isn’t enough for him. Maybe he wants something more. Jamie, you have to talk with him and find out what’s behind all this. Maybe it’s some queer Latvian hang-up.’

‘Ukrainian. He’s Ukrainian. Maybe you right. He’s trying to dump me. He’s making all these demands on me in the hope that I will reach my limits and leave.’

‘Maybe. But if you don’t talk with him, you’ll never know, will you?’

‘But we’ll have a fight.’

‘So have a fight. There are worse things.’

‘That’s easy for you to say. You and David never fight.’

‘We fight all the time. Well, not so much any more, but at first we fought a lot.’

‘About what?’

‘Money mostly. Independence and not being swallowed up in the relationship. The worry that the other person was too independent and wasn’t being swallowed up in the relationship. It turned out that we both wanted the same things and were worried that the other person didn’t. So we talked and worked things out--for the most part anyway. There’s still that annoying nervous giggle of his. There are days I could strangle him for that.’

‘I know a good lawyer.’

‘Do you? Give me his name. Do you want another pint?’

‘No, I’d better be on my way. David will be here soon, and I’m not in the mood for demonstrations of domestic bliss. I think I will stop at the Mastiff and check out who’s there. It’s been a while since I went there. I should get back in touch with my friends.’

3. Brighton Rock

‘Mr Adamson, may I sit here?’ Even though my back was turned to the speaker, his hesitancy and the timid, tentative nature of the request made him immediately identifiable. Henry Colson always pronounces everyone’s name as if he is unsure of his welcome and is prepared to apologise and flee at the smallest hint that his presence is unwanted. He is, moreover, the only person who frequents the Cinque Ports who addresses me by my surname. I imagine that in his youth his parents impressed upon him that it was impolite for a child to use an adult’s given name, and Henry resolutely observes that rule, even now that he has reached his mid-twenties.

His shyness is even more surprising given his size. Henry is easily 6 feet 6 tall and about a yard wide through the shoulders. The first time the captain of the Sink Sports, the amateur rugby sevens team that the bar sponsors in the Brighton Gay Athletic League (B-GAL), saw Henry, he rushed over and asked Henry how fast he could run. I couldn’t hear the answer Henry made, but he didn’t join the team. That’s probably for the best. If Henry were ever to develop the temerity to tackle another player, the game would come to a halt as he tried to convince the referee and judges to call a penalty on him.

When he first began frequenting the Cinque Ports, I was about the only person he would talk with. And it took me considerable patience and persistence to overcome his bashfulness. His size naturally attracted attention from that extremely small group of gay men interested in big, muscular guys, but he met the many hundreds of overtures with polite bafflement. I wasn’t sure at first that Henry understood that the Cinque Ports was a gay establishment, or even what the word ‘gay’ implied about others’ interest in him.

Everyone was thus quite astonished to learn that this gentle giant was none other the HC responsible for Brighton Rock, a cartoon in one of the local gay newspapers, The Official Brighton Knitters’ and Tatters’ Guide. That paper appears twice a week, and soon after Henry’s cartoon strip began, its circulation more than doubled because of interest in Henry’s saga of a gay crime-fighting superhero known as The Brighton Rock and his wonderfully cynical sidekick, Bert, ‘Just Plain Bert’. Other papers soon began running the strip, and Brighton Rock quickly became a fixture of gay life in Britain. To date, two book-length collections of the strips have been published. Last year, Henry signed a contract to produce a full-length comic book four times a year. The first number in the series has appeared, and the sales were, I gather, quite large. The Brighton Rock and Bert have attracted a large audience of fans, many of them straight. Henry’s success owes much to his drawing skills and his ability to create wonderful stories, not to mention the sly humour with which he tells them. Often I find myself realising after I’ve read on that something funny appeared in a previous panel.

The revelation that Henry was responsible for Brighton Rock ended any misprision that he was ignorant of gay life. The Brighton Rock and Bert, ‘Just Plain Bert,’ are quite joyously and exuberantly gay. So are the villains and menaces they confront and, following numerous threats to the pair’s physical wellbeing and to their continuing ability to function as males, eventually defeat.

The appearance of the strip in the comic book format has also made one thing very apparent. The version that appears in the paper is done in the usual black-and-white style of newspaper cartoon drawings with lines and areas blocked in in black or shaded with stippling or hatching. The Rock in the newspaper is, like Henry, big and muscular, but then most comic book heroes tend toward that build. Bert is smaller but well built and well dressed, but he could be any attractive male. The colour version now available in the comic book, however, leaves no doubt that the model for The Rock is Henry himself. With the extensive palette available to him on his computer drawing program, Henry has moved toward more realism in his drawing style, and The Rock now has Henry’s features. Bert has similarly gained in definition and individuality. And I think I know who serves as the inspiration for Bert. I hope no one else has spotted the resemblance, least of all the young man in question.

Acclaim has not, however, made Henry any less diffident. If anything, celebrity has tested, and overwhelmed, his social skills much more than obscurity did.

‘Henry, how nice to see you. This is a surprise. I haven’t seen you in here in a long time. I thought you had deserted your friends.’ As I turned to face Henry, I could see around him to the crowded table behind him. I didn’t know any of the people at the table, and I would guess they were visitors from outside Brighton. Several of them were openly staring at Henry, and the ones sitting with their backs to us had turned around in their chairs to get a better look at him. Henry seems to be the only person oblivious to the impact he has on others.

‘No, no, it’s not like that, Mr Adamson. I wasn’t staying away. It’s just that I had to meet a deadline for the next issue of Brighton Rock and was working overtime. I’ve got something for you. I hope you don’t think I’m being forward. I know you don’t read comic books, but you were such a help with the story for this issue that . . . I don’t know, I thought maybe you would like a copy.’ Henry alternated between moving the copy a few inches toward me and then pulling it back. I had to physically take the magazine in both hands and tug it away from him before he would surrender it to me.

‘Henry, it’s so thoughtful of you to remember me. And you’ve inscribed it. . . . Oh, Henry, now that is sweet and entirely unmerited on my part. I must admit that I am touched by your sentiments. I may not read many comics, but I make an exception for Brighton Rock. I’m especially fond of Bert. Seriously, Henry, they are very well written and entertaining. I hope this issue has someone as villainous as the EMG. I shall miss his congenial nastiness now that the Rock and Bert have reformed him.’

‘There will always be villains, Mr Adamson. Look at the bottom panel on the second page.’

‘Is that me standing at the end of the bar? That’s hilarious. You’ve put us all in there. There’s Eddie and Sid, and Mike lurking in the doorway. And that looks like Jeff and Phillip. Who’s the handsome man standing beside me?’

‘That’s the villain in this issue, the Dauphin. He’s French. I hope you don’t mind that I included you.’

‘No, no, I’m flattered. And no one except a few people here will know that it’s me. Maybe in a future issue I can be the villain. I rather fancy that idea. Peter the Prat. How does that sound?’

‘Oh, no, Mr Adamson, you could never be a villain.’

‘Henry, good to see you again.’ Mike Serles punched Henry’s upper arm with hearty camaraderie.

‘Oh, Mr Serles.’ Henry paused as if trying to remember what one is supposed to say on such occasions. His face registered his relief as he settled for what he had just heard. ‘It’s good to see you.’

‘Mike, it’s Mike, Henry.’

One could see Henry struggling between his engrained need to observe ‘proper’ manners and his desire not to offend. ‘M-m-m-ike, it’s good to see you.’ It was an effort, but he managed to pronounce the name.

‘World treating you all right, Henry? Let me get you something to drink. You’re an ale drinker, aren’t you? Eddie, bring a pint of ale for Henry on me.’

‘Oh, no, Mr Serles . . . Mike, I can’t let you do that. You and Mr Adamson would go out of business if you give away free pints.’

‘True enough, Henry. You’re probably the only person in here to worry about such things. Anyway the owner can afford it, and I have an ulterior motive this time. I’m trying to bribe you. You know about Gay Pride Week--it starts at the end of July this year, runs into August?’ Mike paused. If he was waiting for Henry to reply, he was in for a disappointment. After a few seconds, it dawned on Henry that the silence was a cue for him to make some form of acknowledgement. As is frequently his wont, he settled for a non-verbal means and nodded his head. Mike wisely took that for an answer. Conversation with Henry was proving more of a challenge than he had expected. ‘The Brighton LG Pub Owners Association is holding a contest for the best poster for Pride Week to promote safe sex, and I was hoping that you might agree to produce the Cinque Ports’ official entry. I was thinking of The Rock and Bert sitting at one of our tables and . . .’

As often happens when Henry envisions The Rock and Bert, he was immediately transported out of himself and forgot his shyness. It is only then that he speaks with enthusiasm and confidence. ‘They could be examining packages of condoms in Brighton Rock stripes and The Rock could be saying that Bert needed a bigger size, that it was important to make sure that the condom fit securely but wasn’t so tight that it burst when they were fu . . . . Oooh, excuse me, Mr Adamson, I got carried away and was thinking out loud. I meant no offence.’

The blush that swiftly mounted Henry’s face was visible even in the low lighting of the Cinque Ports. The eager delight with which Henry had tackled his idea for the poster was replaced with dismay that he might be uttering a vulgarity in front of someone of my age.

‘Well, Peter,’ said Mike, ‘it appears that Henry’s got your number. They’ll be carting you off to the assisted living soon.’

‘I’m flattered that Henry thinks that my virtue still needs to be protected.’

‘He appears certain that mine isn’t worth worrying about.’

Henry took a drink to hide his confusion. ‘I’m really sorry, Mr Adamson, Mr Serles, I didn’t mean, I wasn’t intending to . . .’

‘It’s fine, Henry, don’t worry about it. I’ve heard the word before. I even have a vague memory of the activity from my long-ago youth. So, I take it that you will do the poster?’ Henry nodded yes. ‘That’s great. I’m sure it will be the winner. And Bert can say ‘f, asterisk, asterisk, k’ if he likes. The people who see the poster won’t be upset by the word.’

‘Then you’ll do it, Henry?’ Mike squeezed Henry’s bicep.

‘Yes, I can get it done in a couple of days. The idea is already clear in my mind.’

“Terrific. We want to begin displaying the posters by the first of July, and the judging will take place the next week. The Association will have copies of the winning entry printed up and distributed before the start of Pride Week. We’ll keep them up until the end of August, and we’re going to run full-page ads using the poster in all the local papers.” Mike patted Henry on the back and then gave him a copy of the contest rules and instructions. ‘Eddie, make sure Henry gets another pint when he finishes this one.’ Mike signalled to the bartender and then walked away. Behind Henry’s back, he shook his head from side to side.

‘I won’t be able to drink another pint, Mr Adamson.’

‘Don’t worry about it, Henry. Eddie won’t bring you another one as long as you’re holding that pint and don’t signal him that you want more.’

‘That’s the sort of thing Bert knows.’

‘Bert’s a smart guy.’

‘Yeah. The Rock would be helpless without Bert. The Rock supplies the muscle, and Bert has the brains.’

‘Don’t sell The Rock short, Henry. He also has the heart and the moral compass. Will Bert ever realise that The Rock’s in love with him?’

‘Oh he knows that, Mr. Adamson. I mean he probably knows it, but he doesn’t want to think about it. He’s too busy having fun now. If he thought about it, then he might have to deal with it and settle down and . . . No, it won’t happen. In any case, readers wouldn’t like it if Bert, if Bert . . .’ Henry buried his face in his glass again. ‘I don’t know, Mr Adamson. You’re the only one who wants a love story. Everyone else just wants them to have sex together.’

‘Oh, I think other people want a love story as well, Henry.’

‘Well, Bert isn’t one of them. He doesn’t want to know that I exist.’

Sometimes Henry says more than he realises. Some of his thoughts bubble up to audibility apparently without any conscious intent. I’m not sure that he even knows that he is speaking. Perhaps he talks to himself when he is alone, and the habit surfaces when he is with someone like me whom he trusts. He somehow never learned to dissemble to protect himself. He stood there looking so miserable that I felt I had to change the subject.

‘What took you so long to produce the latest issue? The last time we talked, you had the entire story laid out in your mind.’

Henry greeted the change of subject with relief. He was on more comfortable ground now. ‘Oh, it wasn’t the story and the drawing. The printer of the comic books wants me to use a certain programme to prepare the final files, and it confuses me. I get the drawing all ready, and I try to follow the instructions to make the printer’s file, and error messages keep popping up on the screen. I can’t get the fonts to embed, and I keep losing the layers in the drawing, and none of the files will pass what the printer calls the pre-flight test. It’s a major aggravation. I finally had to hire someone to help me get it right, and I barely made the printer’s deadline. I was up most of the night uploading the files to the printer’s FTP site. I wouldn’t be here except I promised myself a day off.’

‘You must realise that I understand none of that, Henry.’

‘Well, you’re lucky. You don’t need to know it.’ Henry shook his head at the wonderment of my good fortune. ‘I should get back and start on the poster for Mr Serles before I forget my idea.’ He abruptly set his pint on the bar and started walking away.

‘Thank you again, Henry, for this.’ I held up the comic book as he turned his head to look at me. ‘I will treasure it.’

‘Oh, it’s nothing, Mr Adamson. Use it to line the Magnificat’s litter box when you’ve read it.’ And he ambled off, his head bent down, smiling shyly and mumbling something when a group stopped him to tell him how much they liked The Rock and Bert.

4. Noises Off

‘Martin, come and join us.’

‘Yes, Martin, bring your drink over here and sit down. Where’s Simon?’

‘He and one of his clients drove up to Gatwick to meet someone flying in from Amsterdam. They have the final details to work out on a business deal. He’ll be back around eight, and we arranged to meet here and then go to dinner. I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Martin Huxton.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you must know each other. This is Reuben Green. He does something in a bank. I’m sure it’s important, or he wouldn’t be sitting with us. This is Martin. Six months ago, he was snared by the wily Simon Stevens, who is an even more incredible hunk than he is.’

‘Nice to meet you, Reuben. Pay no attention to Phillip. He exaggerates as usual. Simon is nowhere near as incredible as I. You should be ashamed of yourself, Phillip, for telling such obvious untruths.’

‘My effrontery always astounds me. I blush. I truly blush.’ The four men at the table broke into laughter. ‘We don’t see enough of you anymore, Martin, now that you’ve taken up with Simon. Tell us, what is it like to live with the fabulous Simon?’

‘It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.’

‘No, no, no. Not good enough, Martin. Not good enough by half. No clichés. We want details. Preferably lurid and salacious details. Make us all jealous of your good fortune. It’s bad enough that you have looks and charm, but removing Simon from the pool of available dreams was sinful. You will suffer in hell for that, Martin.’

‘Jeffrey, I would not have expected that from you. You’ve been spending too much time with Phillip. Tell me, Reuben, how did an upstanding, sober young man like yourself come to be in the company of these two louts?’

‘Don’t change the subject, Martin. Details. We want details. How did you spend last night for instance? Tell us.’

‘I’m trying to impress young Reuben here, and you want me to bore him with the details of my life with Simon?’

‘Actually, I’m interested in the details myself.’

‘You’ve corrupted him already. You two are incredible. The Virgin Mary would not be secure from temptation around the two of you.’


‘All right, all right. Let me think. Last night. . . . Last night it was Simon’s turn to quote cook unquote. He stopped at a tandoori place on the way home and bought take-out. I met him at the door and took the packages from his strong muscular hands. As I did so, I noticed once again the fine dark hair on his wrists curling out from under the sleeve of his coat. Luckily I am made of sterner stuff than most. I did not give into temptation and rip Simon’s clothes off his luscious body, wrestle him to the floor, and engage in a rapturous coupling on the convenient, if scratchy, coconut matting in the entryway. Instead, I kissed the man I love chastely on the cheek, batted my eyelashes at him, and told him I would put dinner on the table while he changed. Oh, the things we do for love. I decanted the food from those little white boxes into serving bowls. With my customary verve, I positioned sprigs of parsley around the edges. I then placed the bowls on the table so that they were within reach of each of us and poured two ales--Kingfishers since we were having Indian. I prefer to serve the brew du pays. Tsingtao with Chinese. Old Peculier with Yorkshire pudding. Simon got his own drink when he came downstairs.

‘While Simon was stuffing his face, I made elegant conversation and entertained him with a witty account of my day. When he finally put his fork down, he reciprocated with a tedious, boring recital of life in a law office. In the interests of domestic harmony, I pretended to be fascinated with the intricacies of tarts and contracts.’

‘Torts. You mean torts.’

‘Shut up, Phillip. This is my story. In any case, there was something in Simon’s account about several thousand custard tarts and delivery of same in an inedible condition and a suit against a transport firm because it failed to ship the goods in a refrigerated lorry as per contractual arrangements, etcetera. Etcetera. There were riots by hungry customers in bakers’ shops in Manchester and Glaswegians storming Edinburgh Castle demanding custard tartans. It was a national crisis, and into that breach steps my hero, Simon Stevens, the Sexy Solicitor. He will see the miscreants brought to justice and restore truth, honour, and goodness and make us all proud to be British and citizens of a country that delivers custard tarts safely to everyone. Now, if I might continue, Phillip? . . .

‘Thank you. Our domestic arrangements are as follows. To wit, he who “makes” dinner does not have to do the washing up. So while I was stowing the uneaten food in the refrigerator and loading the dishwasher, Simon poured himself a cup of tea and went into the sitting room. After I had finished cleaning up, I, too, went into the sitting room. If you have been paying attention, you know that both of us, that is, both Simon and I, are now in the sitting room. Oddly enough, any intruder would have discovered both of us sitting. In the sitting room.

‘I was on the sofa, reading a book. Simon was seated behind me, working at the desk against the wall, preparing a brief on the transport of tarts, the aforementioned inedible ones, not the immoral kind, although I imagine most people in this establishment would find the immoral kind inedible as well. But I digress. I could hear the tapping of the keys on his laptop. Every few minutes he would turn the pages in some law book he was consulting. Occasionally there would be the clink of his teacup against the saucer as he took a drink. It was very quiet, and I could hear every noise that he made. Once he got up and went into the kitchen and poured himself another cup of tea. As he passed behind me, he asked if I wanted anything from the kitchen. I thanked him and told him I was fine.

‘Simon worked for about two hours. Then he shut his computer down and put it into his case along with the papers and the books. He stretched and yawned. Then he came over and sat beside me on the sofa.’

‘Ah, finally, we get to the physical part.’

‘Indeed. Simon sat next to me and leaned against me. We were in full contact along the length of our upper arms. I love it when he does that. He picked up the Times and began doing the crossword--in ink. In that annoying fashion of his, he completed it in about twenty minutes, never once asking me for help with a clue. Finally he put the paper down and then put his head on my shoulder.

‘I could see that he was tired, and I asked him if he wanted to go to bed. He said, no, he was too comfortable to move. I should just go on reading while he used me as a pillow. He insinuated an arm behind my back and then sighed with contentment. I sighed with contentment, too. We do that a lot. I read for another half-hour, and then the two of us went off to bed.’

‘About time. I hope the two of you were not totally exhausted by the evening’s exertions.’

‘Well, we brushed teeth, washed faces, what is that phrase?--performed ablutions--and changed into what you would probably regard as improperly modest bed attire. We assumed our usual positions.’

‘Ah, “usual positions”--that sounds more promising.’

‘Simon lay on his back. I laid my head on his incredibly firm and well-rounded left pec. He placed a muscular arm around my shoulders. I could feel the biceps flex and the pec rise as he pulled me closer and kissed me on the forehead. I purred. We both nestled down into the bed. I fell asleep listening the sound of Simon’s heart beating. It was a very romantic evening.’

‘That was your evening?’

‘Um hmm. It was our usual romantic evening together.’

‘You’ve got to be kidding. You live with Simon, and all you do is listen to the sounds of him working and watch him do the crossword?’

‘Yes, I look forward to coming home to that every day. When we get old, we shall reminisce about our early years together. How we used to sit in the sitting room and just revel in being with each other. I can’t tell you how satisfying that is. Of course, yesterday we may have been too exhausted from our extraordinary acrobatics of the night before. The satisfactions of our lovemaking usually leave both of us sated for at least a day, sometimes more.’

‘Now this we’ve got to hear. After you bore us with this mind-numbing tale of domestic torpor, the least you can do is tell us about the night before.’

‘Phillip, you are insatiable. Remember what happened to the curious kitty.’


‘Tell me, Jeffrey, when you scratch him on the spot along the backbone just before his tail, does he arch his back and lift his arse like a cat does?’

‘Let me get another round and then I’ll tell you, but only after you tell us about the night before last.’

‘Yes, let’s get him drunk. In vino, vitia.’

‘I’m sure that’s not right. Isn’t it veritas that’s delivered a vino?’

‘My classics education was far better than yours. It’s correct.’

‘Ah, yes, all those years at Roedean.’

‘Very funny, Martin.’

‘Here, Martin, drink up. And continue your story.’

‘I’m not sure I should. I think there is a law against purveying pornography in public to minors such as Reuben here.’

‘Perhaps if you made it edifying and socially significant, it would qualify as a cautionary tale. In any case, I am over sixteen.’

‘Yes, Martin, edify us. Be socially significant.’

‘I suspect I will regret this, but it all started with a shower.’

‘Ah, you mean during that rainstorm two nights ago? Simon loosing bolts of lightning on your tender but no longer virginal flesh, searing you with the hot tempests of his bestial passion?’

‘No, no, not that kind of shower. In the bathroom, hot water, steam, suds, soapy hands, Simon and me.’

‘Lubricious lust in the lavatory?’

‘Good lord, the lad loves alliteration. Wherever did you find him, Phillip?’


‘You don’t need to shout. And when did all the rest of you gather around? This fairy tale seems to be attracting a crowd. And here comes Mike. Probably to put an end to this unseemly disturbance you are causing, Phillip.’

‘No, I just want to hear what you and Simon got up to in the shower. Sid and I are always looking for new ideas. It’s good to see you in here again, Martin.’

‘Hello, Mike. Sorry to be such a stranger lately. Simon and I were saying just the other evening that we have to get out more.’

‘The shower, Martin, the shower.’

‘Simon will never forgive me if I tell you.’

‘Tell them what, love? Hello everyone. . . . Oops, did I interrupt something? Why all the guilty looks?’

‘Martin was just describing a typical night chez vous.’

‘Was he? That explains the smile on his face. I trust you didn’t mention that special thing you do, you know . . .’

‘Hey, you two. No whispering.’

‘I didn’t want to brag, Simon.’

‘My love, so incredible and yet so modest.’

‘All right you two, break it up. This is a family place.’

‘Martin and I are family, Mike.’

‘Martin was just describing the exciting evening you had last night as he sat on the sofa and listened to you writing up a brief.’

‘Yes, he likes to do that. Occasionally I rustle a sheet of paper to let him know I’m still there. . . . Or sometimes I just watch the back of his head for a while. And stare at the knob of the first vertebra jutting out above the collar of your shirt. Or the sharp line of your hair against your neck where the barber used the razor. I like it when you sit so still and let me look at you. I don’t think I will ever tire of that.’

‘Awwwww. That is so sweet. Everyone together now. Ewwwwwwwww.’

‘Enough with you guys. M and I are going to dinner.’

‘Stay and have a drink, Simon. We haven’t seen you in ages.’

‘Umm. We have to go. My man needs protein to fuel his high-energy life. Sorry to run, lads. Reuben, nice to meet you. Phillip, Jeff, Mike, the rest of you lot. I’ll have to finish the story of the shower later.’


‘I’ll tell you as soon as we get outside. Bye everyone. Keep it clean.’

‘Oh my god, you weren’t going to tell them about that shower? I wouldn’t be able to face them again.’

‘No, not that shower. Some memories are private.’

The Cinque Ports--Part II

The Cinque Ports, Part II
Nexis Pas

© 2007 by the author. The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

5. Past Tenses

I leaned against the stone wall and looked down the quiet hillside toward the Channel in the hazy distance. The day was late enough in the spring to be warm but not yet hot with summer. A few feet in front of me a column of gnats danced in the sun. Their mysterious ritual of rising and falling and darting forward and back absorbed my attention for a few minutes. Occasionally a shadow from a cloud would sweep up the hill and block the sun for a moment, swiftly chilling the air until the shadow passed. Here and there the green countryside was alight with the reds and purples of azaleas and rhododendrons. A good portion of West Sussex was visible from that vantage point. Had it not been for a recently built development of “ye olde country manors” with its half-timbered houses poking up from a wooded area a mile or so distant, it could almost have been the English countryside of myth and legend.

To my back came the sound of clippers as Mike cleared the grasses away around the tombstone, as he done for many years on his annual visit to this small cemetery beside a boarded-up and shuttered church. For him, I suspect it was more in the nature of a pilgrimage to a shrine. For the past five years he had asked me to bring him here. The visit always leaves him depressed, and he does not trust himself enough to drive the road back to Brighton. I knew from previous visits that he preferred to tend the grave alone. A caretaker visits the churchyard occasionally and chops the weeds back and hacks at the shrubberies, but he never cleans the mosses off the stones or cuts the grasses that grow close around them. Even this early in the year, clumps of nettles were already overreaching the top of the wall in many places. Mike was one of the few people who still stopped to visit the cemetery. Most of the burials had taken place so long ago that no one living in this neighbourhood remembered these dead. When Mike finished each year, his grave stood out as a neat patch in the otherwise overgrown and ill-tended grounds. ‘Jonathan Crowley, 1962-1981.’ That was all that was carved on Mike’s grave. Just the bare facts. No ‘in loving memory’. No ‘always in our hearts.’ No ‘taken too soon’. A short life with a long impact, at least on Mike.

Behind me, the snickering of the clippers stopped. I turned halfway around. Mike was standing with bent head before the grave. To the casual passer-by, it would have looked as if he were praying. Perhaps he was. As he straightened up, I turned away to give him some privacy. He dumped his tools into the carryall he had brought with him and walked over to join me.

‘I don’t think they ever visit.’

‘Who?’ I knew the answer. Mike and I have much the same conversation every year. But he likes to talk about his dead friend.

‘His parents. They must still be alive. They would only be in their sixties or early seventies now. That’s not old these days. Most people that age are still alive. And he had sisters.’

I made a sympathetic noise in my throat. Mike was so wrapped up in his own thoughts that it didn’t matter if I spoke or not.

‘I think I’m the only one who still remembers him. His family just dumped him here. They didn’t want to know why he did what he did. They didn’t want to think about what he was becoming. They didn’t even live in this area. His mother was from around here, and this was a place where they could lay claim to a spot in a cemetery and could bury him and forget about him. You know, they wouldn’t let any of us from school attend the funeral. They said it was too far, and the ceremony would be too traumatic. They wouldn’t even tell us where he was buried. It was four years before I found out where they had put him away and could visit him.’

‘He must have been very special, Mike, for you to remember him this way. It’s lucky you work nearby.’

‘He was the best. He could make me feel so good just by smiling at me. That’s all it took. A smile when he saw me approaching. He’d look up and see me coming, and he would smile and jump to his feet. If there were others around, he would grab my hand and shake it and tap me on the shoulder, just to let me know he was happy to see me and that I meant something special to him. If we were alone, he would hug me. He was the first person I ever kissed. The first person I ever made . . .’ Mike started crying at that point, the tears sliding from his eyes. He wiped them away as he weren’t aware they were there. ‘People would think I’m that daft to come up here year after year. Mike the jovial pub manager still grieving for his first love after twenty-six years. But he was special. I’ll never forget. He’s why I moved to Brighton. To be closer. He’s more real to me here. You must feel the same way about Charles. Don’t you visit his grave?’

Mike knew that I didn’t. ‘Charles was cremated. His sister and I were his only relations. She took the ashes with her back to Donegal and put them in the family crypt. I’ve never visited. It wouldn’t seem like he was there to me. But I know what you mean. Some days it’s as if he’s just around a corner. I feel that if I walk into the kitchen, he’ll be there. Or I’ll be half asleep in the morning and think that I’ll get up when I hear him turn off the shower. And then I remember that he’s dead.’

‘He was a nice man.’

‘Yes, he was that.’

‘Thanks for coming with me, Peter. You’re the only one who understands what it means to lose someone. Sid thinks I should put it all behind me and forget. Well, a lot of people think I should forget Jonathan. But I can’t, you know. Sometimes I think that everything that I’ve become in life is because of Jonathan.’

‘How so?’ Again, I knew the answer, but Mike needed to rehearse it once more, this morning, in this place.

‘I couldn’t take my A-levels I was so upset. I would have passed enough of them to get into Cambridge, but I never went back to school after that weekend. I just collapsed. For months I couldn’t do anything. I could barely get out of bed. And then when I did, nothing seemed worth it, you know? And I couldn’t feel anymore. I was just on the margin. Finally I couldn’t stay at home anymore and listen to the arguments and the concern. I didn’t want to be around anyone who knew me. Everyone was nagging me to keep a stiff upper lip and to be brave and get up and get on with my life. To make something of myself. To honour Jonathan’s memory by making a success of myself. The “life goes on” crew--that’s what I called them to myself. “Life goes on.” That’s a laugh. Those people who don’t understand that sometimes your life just stops and won’t go on. I even thought about killing myself. But in the end I couldn’t do it. And one day I couldn’t take it any longer. So I went to London. The only job I could find was working as a waiter in a pub. Then I started working behind the bar. When I learned where Jonathan was buried, I moved to Brighton to be closer. Well, the rest you know. I met Sid, and he helped me a lot. Not to feel so cold.’

‘You never talk about what happened, Mike. After all these years, I only know that your friend died.’

‘I went away that weekend. It was an aunt’s birthday. I looked out the window and saw my father driving up. I reached over and hugged Jonathan and we kissed. Someone saw us and reported it. Jonathan got called to the headmaster’s office. I don’t know what was said, but he left the dorm that night and went out to the woods beyond the playing fields and killed himself. That’s all I know. By the time I returned on Sunday night, his parents had already come and taken him away. I never got to see him again. The last time I saw him was that furtive embrace before I picked up my bag and ran down the stairs and out the door. When my father was driving off, I looked back at our window, but the sun was shining on it and I couldn’t see in. I didn’t know if he was standing there watching or not. So I just waved on the off chance he was there and then rolled up the car window. Maybe he saw me, maybe he didn’t. I hope that was his last memory of me. I got back to school late on Sunday night. I ran up the stairs to our rooms. I can still feel my bag hitting my leg as I take the steps two or three at a time. There are people in the hall, and they’re laughing and smiling at me in an odd way. I throw open the door and expect to find him hunched over his table studying. Instead I find a bed that has been stripped bare. There’s an envelope on the table with my name on it and a note from matron saying would I stop by her rooms when I get in. That’s how I found out. She sits there in an armchair drinking a cup of tea and tells me that Jonathan killed himself and I should go back upstairs and be a good lad and forget about him. That it was best to get on with life. That’s how I learned that he was dead. A plump satisfied woman slurping tea and petting a dog on her lap tells me to be a good lad and get on with it. I know it was hard on you when Charles was dying, but at least you got to say good-bye.’

‘Oh, I got to say that, I got to say that many times. Every night when I left his bedside, I got to say good-bye. It seemed that for six months all I did was say good-bye to Charles. And you know, the night he died, it wasn’t any different. The sister came in to chase me out because visiting hours were over. It was the nice sister, not the one who treated us like dirt because Charles and I were gay, and Charles was only getting what he deserved. So she let me stay a few extra seconds, and she just smiled when I kissed him. There was a tube taped to his mouth, and I had to kiss him on the forehead. It was the only spot that was open. I had to brush his hair aside so I could kiss him. I think he knew that I was there. So I said good-bye and left. I didn’t think it was any different from any other night. I thought I would be back the next night, sitting by his bed and reading to him or watching television with him and hoping that he was aware of what was happening around him. And the next morning, I get a call from someone in the hospital administration. Charles had died in his sleep during the night. He died all alone. No one was there. They discovered it in the morning when someone went in to check on him. The body had already been moved to the mortuary, and I was down on the card as the person to notify when he died, and could I come in and sign the papers and pick up his belongings? That was it, a neutral bureaucratic voice going through her daily task of clearing up the paperwork.

‘And everyone is saying, “It’s a blessing. Now he won’t have to suffer anymore.” And I want to scream at them that we just wanted more time together. That it’s never enough time. And people kept coming up to say they were sorry to hear that he had died, and if there was anything they could do. But you know, there’s nothing they can do. All the words in the world won’t bring the dead back, and that’s what you want. Just another day, another hour, one more useless evening of sitting by a hospital bed and watching someone you love struggle to live through another minute.

‘And everyone expects you to be brave and put up a good front. And you can’t explain why you’re shopping in Tesco’s and you suddenly abandon your basket in the middle of the aisle and run out just because you turn a corner and see a bin of beetroots. And you don’t even like beetroots, but Charles did and the sight of them makes him too real again. Or why you take a back route home so that you don’t have to pass that Indian place he always insisted on going to and why you can’t eat Chicken Tikka now because it was his favourite. And thousands of things more that conspire to remind you that you’re alone now, and the one person who kept you from feeling alone isn’t there any more.’

So we stand there, leaning on a stone wall surrounding an ancient cemetery on a hillside in West Sussex. Two men, one old man in his sixties, one middle-aged man in his forties. Employer and employee. Acquaintances rather than friends. But participants in an annual ritual of remembrance. We stand there and have a good cry. Perhaps Jonathan and Charles weren’t as we recall them. No one is ever as perfect as the remembered dead, the friends and lovers who become even better in recollection than they were in life. But it’s not the dead we mourn. It’s the living that might have been that brings the tears, the necessity of our inadequate and traitorous memories that we regret.
And then both of us wipe away the last tears and blow our noses for the final time. Mike picks up his carryall and puts it in the boot of my car. We take one final look around at that fine late spring morning and the newly cleared space around Jonathan’s grave and then drive away, down a hill of green memories.

6. Reflections

‘Ok, Jule, you lost the bet. Drink up, buy us another round, and then pay the forfeit.’

‘I’m sure you cheated, Cormac. I demand another throw.’

‘The result would be the same. You’re lousy at this game. You should never bet. That’s a pint of Old Peculier, two pints of brown ale, a glass of whatever you’re drinking, and a package of nuts.’

‘Nuts? Aren’t there enough nuts already at this table?’

‘Yeah, but the ones at the table now are too hairy to eat. I want the roasted and salted kind that grows on trees.’

‘And they let you teach at the university. Aye, well, it was a sad day for education in this country when you began moulding young minds.’

‘Our students arrive with mouldy minds. All we do is attempt to spread a little fungicide. Now get the drinks. And call Niall and tell him to hurry up. Go, go.’

‘All right. The hint is taken already.’ . . .

‘Julian does have a nice arse, doesn’t he? Always a pleasure to see his backside.’

‘In more ways than one. I know he’s your friend, Daniel. But he’s so bloody boring. I wish Niall would get here. He’s a bit more fun, and he’s got an even nicer arse.’

‘It would be hard to judge between them and decide which is best. Imagine those as a pair of bookends. They would keep the books nice and upright and straight. Well, not straight perhaps.’

‘So you’d like to get between their arses and judge? For shame, Alan. And we were having such a nice uplifting conversation until you lowered it to arse level.’

‘Which one of us was talking about hairy nuts?’

‘You aren’t old enough to have hair on your balls. I wasn’t alluding to yours.’

‘As if you would know.’

‘Ah, you two, stow it. We’re supposed to be celebrating Julian and Niall’s engagement to maybe commit to living together someday soon. Try to keep it pleasant.’

‘Yes, Mummy. We’ll leave the bitchy remarks to you then.’

‘Be nice, Cormac, or it’s no kibble for you tonight.’

‘Arf arf.’

‘He does sit up and beg nicely, doesn’t he, Alan?’

‘Hmm. I’ve noticed. Took him to obedience school, did you?’

‘Yes, the instructor said he was the slowest learner he’d seen. Took ever so many flicks of the crop before he got it right.’

‘Have you had him fixed yet, Daniel? You know, it’s your responsibility as a pet owner to prevent further reproduction of this breed.’

‘Well, let’s just say that I am a responsible pet owner. I can guarantee that he will never reproduce.’

‘So, talk about me as if I weren’t here. Go ahead. Pay me no nevermind.’

‘If only it were that easy. Come here, let me scratch you behind the ears.’

‘I’d much rather you’d scratch me tail. You know--that spot that makes me leg twitch.’

‘Later. After you’ve been fed. Ah, here’s the drinks lad.’

‘Niall says that he’s almost finished. He’ll be along in half an hour at most.’

‘So we can expect an hour’s wait, then.’

‘Something like that, with a bit of luck.’

‘Ok, your forfeit.’

‘I was hoping you had forgotten. Here’s your nuts.’

‘Oh good, those Spanish almonds. God, they do seal these packages tightly. I never can get these open.’

‘Oh, give it here.’

‘Ooooo, what a luverly man. Did you see the way his biceps bulged when he ripped that package open? And did you notice how his nostrils flared? Same thing happens when he opens the Durex foil. Gets me all steamed up, it does. Nut, Alan?’

‘No thanks. One nut is more than enough for any evening. Speaking of condoms, did you see the poster that big cartoonist drew, at the back of the bar there?’

‘He’s lucky that “Bert” doesn’t come here anymore.’

‘What’s happened to him? It has to be at least four or five months since I last saw him.’

‘Don’t try to change the subject, Jule. Enough of this chitchat. It’s time for your forfeit. Don’t groan. It’s quite simple really. Nothing that involves public humiliation or embarrassment. You simply have to tell us you favourite kind of pornography. It’s so we’ll know what sort of pictures to get you to hang on the walls of your love nest.’

‘Don’t you think Julian and Niall have enough hanging already?’

‘Alan, Alan, Alan. You really should leave the double-entendres to me. I’m much better at them. Now, Julie, your favourite type of pornography. Please. Feel free to embroider and add lewd details. You will have our undivided attention.’

‘I’d rather you ignored me.’

‘My dear Julian, no one will ever ignore you. Just tell him what he wants to know. He won’t rest until he hears.’

‘Yes, I won’t rest. So tell. All. Now.’

‘Ok, my favourite pornography. You know, I so seldom look at pornography, I’m not sure I have a favourite type.’

‘Julian, your computer is full of pictures. You showed me several.’

‘Oh, you traitor. You didn’t need to tell Cormac that, Alan.’

‘I can tell you what Jule likes. Most of the picture are of guys wearing shiny sunglasses. Our Jule has a mirrored shades fetish.’

‘Ooo, a fetish. Do tell us, Jule. This is a new dimension to your shapely but otherwise bland personality.’

‘Cormac, no kibble tonight.’

‘Cormac whinges and stares at his lover with adorable look on his face and wags his tail. What sort of beast could resist so much cuteness in one package?’

‘I love it when you wag your tail.’

‘So I get some kibble tonight?’

‘We’ll see.’

‘Tail wagging, Jule. It’s a technique that never fails. I recommend it. Try it on Niall. He appears to like dogs.’

‘Niall prefers sheep, I think. I have to baa and bleat at him and go all woolly to get his attention.’

‘Oh, does he? That can be the subject of your next forfeit. So, we were talking about this most titillating penchant of yours for mirrored glasses.’

‘Well, if I must.’

‘Needs must, laddie. Confessss. And maybe we’ll allow you to do pendance--pedance--pen--ance, there I knew I’d get it right eventually. Penance on your knees before Father Cormac.’

‘Ok, here goes. Once upon a time, I was locked indoors on a dreary rainy night and had nothing to do. So, out of boredom, I switched on my computer to check my email. There, lurking among the many offers to make me rich and big and longer lasting, was a letter promising that ineffable pleasures from Oliver Cumwell were but a simple click of the mouse away.’

‘Oliver Cromwell? The Lord Protector is communicating with you now?’

‘No, Cumwell. Oliver Cumwell. Even now, my voice fails me as I recall his perfection. Pardon me, if I stumble in my recital. Some memories are too sacred. One feels too full. The words fight to emerge, too feeble to convey to you the beauty of this man. The raging of my heart as it attempts to tear itself from my breast, the churning of my bile, the roaring in my bowels--who could blame me if they cause me to yowl in pain frequently? O, Oliver, Oliver, Oliver--how can our meagre tongues describe you? An angelic devil with a swelling, sweltering symphony of large, well-defined muscles, no body hair except a tantalising growth of curls above his cock, an even tan, teeth whiter than the driven snow, thick black lustrous hair, wearing only a pair of sunglasses with a mirror finish. Surely he was no mortal. He could only be a god from California, nursed on unfiltered, unpasteurised goat’s milk and raised on organic seaweed. A friend of the dolphin and the giant condor and the green-eyed three-toed sloth. A runner with wolves. A consumer of tofu.

‘As my eyes lingered for a briefest faction of a second on Oliver, I noticed that reflected on the lenses of the eyeglasses was another image. Driven by curiosity, I saved Oliver’s picture to my computer and reopened it in Ye Olde Photoshoppe. I enlarged it, and there in the middle of the glasses I discovered an image of the photographer, his camera obscuring his face, his clothing and his body visible in great detail. Imagine it, Cormac, a perfect hunk reflecting your image. You are making love, and there in his glasses you see your image imprinted on his face. Could there be anything more arousing?

‘I became obsessed. I had to have more. I searched every male nude site I could find, looking for more images within images. I became addicted. I tried every twelve-step program I could find to cure this rage, this insanity. But, alas, to no avail. Ah, you are laughing. The cruel laughter of the sane, the normal. How can I expect you to understand the search for perfection that drove me? Endless nights of surfing the web until my head crashed into my keyboard and I could snatch a few hours of sleep from that fickle fiend Morpheus. For months the image of the keyboard was impressed into my forehead. I forsook friends, family, food, in the frenzy of my fury to find photos of fractionated facsimiles of reflected figures.

‘And I found them, by the hundreds. Reflections in glasses, in rubber, in latex, in lycra, in metal, reflections everywhere. But regrettably, none that came close to duplicating the delights of Oliver. The demon drove me. On and on, I searched. Sometimes my searches met with partial success. I could almost recover the images of those reflected on these idols. Once in a tear, an idol’s tear, I found the distorted upside-down image of the photographer. I know not whence he cammed. But more often than not, my attempts to enlarge the reflected image resolved it into indistinct pixels. Squares of light without meaning. I almost despaired. But I was driven onward by the realisation that Oliver could not be an isolated phenomenon. The gods would not be so unkind.

‘And then, barely two weeks ago, I found him. He was not even wearing glasses or reflective clothing. Instead his body was luminous with a coating of oil. His skin absolutely glistened. And there in the centre of a large, flat pec was a perfect, sharp-edged rectangle of light. Within the rectangle was a human-shaped figure. I barely breathed as I downloaded the image onto my computer. My hand trembled as I clicked on the image and opened it. I dared not look. I clicked once to enlarge the area. Twice. Thrice. Expecting to meet with disappointment once again, I slowly opened my eyes. And there it was. A man standing in front of a window was reflected in utter perfection on the body of the model. My quest was at a end. The dragon had been slain. I knew peace. I could rest.’

‘Oh, bravo, Julian, bravo.’

‘Thank you, thank you. I do pride myself on my ability to weave words.’

‘That was terrific. Drink up, Julian. You must be thirsty after that speech. So now do you know what to get Niall and Julian for their new flat, Cormac?’

‘To someone with my powers to anal, to analyse literature, is sobvious. I read this whole fairy tale as an estended hint for a mirror so he can look at himself and keep an eye on Niall at the shame, the same, the same time.’

‘I don’t have to look in a mirror to see Niall.’

‘Yet curiously, it is indeed very curious, if you sould, if you, if you, Julesie, should look at Niall, what would you see? I’ll tell you what you would shee. You would see, you would see a mirror image of yourself.’

‘Cormac, I’ve had too much to drink to figure out that conundrum.’

‘Well, they always say that the longer a whatchamacallit, a couple, the longer a couple is married, the more they re . . . semble each other. But you and Niall already ’semble each other. In a few months you’ll look so much alike that you’ll need to sign wears so that we can tell you aparts.’


‘I meant to say, “wear signs”. Wear signs. You two will have to wear shigns.’

‘Could it be that our Cormac has had too much to drink?’

‘Never get enough to drink. Shame on you, same on you, Daniel, for shay, for saying that.’

‘All right, Cormac. Let’s get you home and to bed.’

‘Always wanting me to put in bed. That’s all the man thinks about. Me in bed. We came here to drink to Niall and Jule. I have nothing to drink, and Niall is not here. But the evening has not been wasted. Daniel wants me in bed. Another glorious evening in bed. By myself. Shleeping it off.’

‘Ok, Cormac. Let’s get you stood up. Now, say good-bye to Julian and Alan.’

‘Good-bye lads. I am being sshanghaid. I bid you adieu, you big me dood night. Sleep well. Chinsh up. Cheerios and Wheetabishkies.’

‘Do you need help, Daniel?’

‘No, I’m getting lots of practice with this, but thanks for offering, Alan. Julian, my best to Niall. I know you two will be happy together.’

‘Yeah, look at Daniel and me, we’re so happy, aren’t we, Danny? Sooo sappy. That’s us, Danny and Cormie, so happy. A happy happy happy couple.’

‘Ok, we’ve entertained everyone enough tonight. Thanks, Sid. My car’s just down the street. If you could just hold Cormac up while I get the doors unlocked and help me get him strapped in, I’d appreciate it. Night, everyone.’

. . . . . . .

‘Poor Daniel. He is willy-nilly becoming a saint.’

‘It just gets worse and worse. That’s why Niall isn’t here. He refused to come because of Cormac. Daniel’s my oldest friend. I didn’t feel I could say no, but I had to force myself to show up. I’ve been dreading this evening. And, I must say, it was worse than I thought it would be.’

‘Things aren’t going well for Cormac. The drinking is beginning to interfere with his work, and he gets lectures from the department head. So he drinks to forget them, and then his work deteriorates even further. Plus, I don’t think he and Daniel are sleeping together now.’

‘Yeah, I wondered about that remark about sleeping alone again.’

‘Well, you know what bad housekeepers they are. I was over there last week and went upstairs to use the facilities. Both beds were unmade, and both bedrooms were being used. Daniel’s stuff in one. Cormac’s in the other. Before the second bedroom was more like a guest room. You know that unused look of the spare bedroom--the coverlet without a wrinkle. No stuff lying on chairs or on the floor. Now, Daniel’s obviously moved into it. You know it will do Cormac in if Daniel leaves him.’

‘Well, if there’s no improvement, he may have to do just that.’

‘Yes, it’s sad. . . . But, on a brighter note, now that Cormac has departed, do you think Niall would pop by? There is a new flat that’s going to be put on the market on Thursday. I’ve got the information and pictures here. I can show them to you. It meets all of your general requirements, and it’s absolutely “redolent with charm” to indulge in agentspeak. The right location. Sunny, well ventilated, a fireplace, almost a view of the Channel if you’re a contortionist and lean out the window far enough. Oh, and there’s a large mirror above the fireplace. So you won’t have to fear Cormac bearing gifts.’

7. Bert, Just Plain Bert

‘But what will I say, Mr Adamson? They told me I have to say something if I win the contest.’

‘Well, Henry, what would The Rock say? Or Bert?’

‘Well, The Rock would say thanks and that he hoped everyone would practice safe sex. And then he would get all embarrassed and blush and look around, not daring to meet anyone’s eyes, because he had mentioned the word “sex” in public. Bert would push him aside and say, “That’s my Brighton Rock for you. He’s never out without protection. Nor am I, and I hope all of you lads will follow our lead when you are out and about. You don’t want AIDS. You don’t want to get it. You don’t want to give it. So take a friend with you. Maybe you don’t need the extra large size, specially reinforced condoms that The Rock and I use. After all, not everyone can be a super . . . hero like us. But condoms came in all shapes, sizes, and colours. The important thing is always to have one with you in case something comes up. You never know when you might run into a bit of luck. Remember--don’t leave home without one.” ’

‘That’s it, Henry. Just say exactly that. People will remember that.’

‘But Mr Adamson, I can’t. I can’t get up in front of a crowd and say things like that.’

‘But The Rock and Bert can. Just think to yourself as you step up to the microphone, I am The Rock. I am Bert. And just let the words come out as they did now. It’ll work. Trust me on that, Henry. Everyone will think it’s just the right thing to say. Just be The Rock and Bert.’

Henry nodded in polite agreement, but he looked doubtful. His poster to promote safe sex hung behind the bar. In the foreground, the Brighton Rock and his sidekick, Bert, Just Plain Bert, sat at a table in a pub that was recognizably the Cinque Ports. Caricatures of Mike and Eddie stood behind the bar dispensing drinks. I was seated at one end of the U-shaped bar. Other patrons visible in the background bore strong resemblances to several of our regulars.

The Brighton Rock was holding up a condom wrapped in a large, square plastic envelope decorated to match the candy stripes on his and Bert’s costumes. Other, similar envelopes spilled from an open box on the table. On the side of the box was visible EXTRA LARGE and the slogan ‘Recommended by the Ministry of Superheroes.’ A balloon above The Rock’s head indicated he was speaking: ‘But these aren’t large enough, Bert. You’re going to need a bigger size than this. These would tear if you put them on. A condom has to fit securely, but we don’t want it to be so tight that it bursts when we’re practicing our special villain-quelling moves.’ A thought balloon above Bert’s head contained a picture of the two of them wrestling a suggestively shaped villain wearing a shirt with a pattern of aces of spades to the ground and encasing him in a condom. A banner at the top of the picture read ‘Always Practice Safe Sex. Use a Condom.’

Henry had learned earlier that afternoon that the artist who drew the winning poster was expected to make a speech at the awards ceremony during Gay Pride Week. After it became known that Henry had supplied a poster based on the Brighton Rock series, one of the other pubs had withdrawn its entry, and several people had told Henry that his was the best and should win. Given the number of people who attend Gay Pride Week in Brighton, the awards ceremony could be expected to attract at least a thousand people. Anyone else would have been elated at the prospect of winning the contest, but Henry was overcome with trepidation at the thought that in a few weeks he might have to stand up in public to receive a reward and make a few remarks. It was that concern that had brought him to the Cinque Ports that afternoon. He wanted to talk to me. He had been ready to withdraw his entry when he came in. I had talked him out of that, but that didn’t solve his problem with the dreaded speech. There was one other problem, however, that I don’t think he foresaw.

‘Henry, those are marvellous drawings of all of us. At least I think I can identify all the people you used as models. The Rock is obviously based on you. But does the model for Bert recognise himself?’

‘Oh, yeah, he’s known for years.’ Henry shifted his weight from foot to foot and looked away from me as he spoke. The question had made him visibly uneasy.

‘I didn’t know you two knew each other.’

‘Since we were small. Both of us grew up here in Brighton. Our mothers are friends. Our families live about a block apart. We went to the same primary school and were always in the same classes until we transferred to the comprehensive. We spent a lot of time together.’

‘I’ve never seen the two of you together.’

‘Well, we’re not close any more, but we were together a lot when we were young. I started drawing cartoons years ago, when we were kids. I was just drawing for fun. He helped me make up the stories. We were always the heroes. Silly stuff, you know. Whatever was in the paper or on the news on television. I’d draw the two of us as the heroes, and he would make up the words. We were always saving the world. Then when we got older, well, I got big and clumsy. He became--well, you know how handsome he is. Even as a teenager, he stood out. The best-looking guy in the school. He was the guy that everyone admired. He was so popular. And I didn’t fit in with his new group of friends. I wasn’t cool or popular. So he stopped being interested in me, embarrassed to be seen with me, he was. I drew some cartoons like before and showed them to him, and he said that cartoons were for children and that he was too old for that now. So we didn’t see so much of each other after that. If we met when none of his friends was around, he’d say hello and chat a bit, but if there were other people around, he would just nod at me and not say anything.

‘One day I heard one of his friends ask him how he knew “that big oaf.” He didn’t bother to defend me or say that I wasn’t a big oaf. He just said that our families knew each other. And, well, his friend was right. I was a big oaf. Always tripping over my own feet and dropping stuff and running into walls and doors. And I didn’t fit in. Everyone wanted me to play games, to be on the sports teams, and I was just interested in drawing and helping my dad in the garden. It doesn’t make you popular when all the other lads want to talk about sports and cars and girls and going to concerts and girls and sneaking cigs and beer and girls, and the only thing you can do is draw well and the only thing you know much about is how to grow flowers and vegetables.’

‘So you haven’t talked with him in years?’

Henry hunched forward and bent his body over his glass, as if he were protecting it. He stared at the wooden top of the bar. ‘No. Except for a few weeks three years ago. I started going to the Mastiff. I didn’t do anything except sit there and drink. I was too nervous even to look around or talk with anyone. Most nights I’d order a pint and drink it in fifteen minutes and leave. I wouldn’t talk with anyone. If anyone spoke to me, I’d say something about meeting someone and leave.’

‘Like the first few times you came in here.’

‘No, even worse. You wouldn’t let me sit by myself. You made me talk and included me in your groups. I know I don’t fit in here, but it’s better than any other place I could go to.’

‘There’s nothing to fit into here, Henry. That’s the secret of our success, such as it is. Charles wanted a place where everyone felt comfortable being himself. So all sorts of people come into the Cinque Ports. No types, just lots of different people, and you’re one of them. You fit in as well as any of us does. Now, would you tell me what happened three years ago? If I’m prying--well, I am prying, but I would like to know.’

‘People are always telling me it helps to talk about things. Maybe it will help to talk about it. I don’t know. . . . Yeah, well, I’m sitting in the Mastiff, with my head down, trying to be invisible and hoping that someone will finally notice me. And someone stops beside me and says, “Henry, what are you doing in here? Don’t you know this is a gay pub?” And I look up, and there’s Ross. And we suddenly realise that both of us are gay. So we talked for a while, catching up like, and he asks what I’m doing now. I tell him about the cartoon strip I’ve started. He wants to see it, so I take him to my place. Bert didn’t look like him then. He was joking about the old days, when I always drew the two of us as the heroes. And I said, well, I could do that. And I picked up a pencil and changed Bert so that he looks like Ross. And he said, that’s better, much better. Make Bert look like that, like him. So I did.’


‘That’s his middle name. He and his father had the same first name, so his family called him “Ross” to tell them apart, and that’s the name I knew for him. When we went to school, the teachers called him “Vincent”. So he started using that name.’

‘And that was the last time you spoke with him?’

‘Oh, no. We dated, I guess you could call it that. We dated for about a month. It was like it was when we were kids at first, we were friends again, but it was different because we . . . I mean we were adults now, and, well, we went to bed. It was my first time. I thought it meant the same thing to him that it did to me. But he said, no, it was just fun, just recreation. Nothing serious. Just part of the game, he said. It’s just gay life. You have as much fun as you can, and when it’s not fun anymore, you move on and find someone else. And then he couldn’t see me one night because he was going out with someone else. And so we drifted apart again.’

‘I’m sorry, Henry. I shouldn’t have asked.’

‘No, it’s all right, Mr Adamson. But I don’t think it helps to talk about things. Still hurts just as much.’ Henry glanced at me, and a sad smile quickly came and went from his lips. ‘I know that people say I’m living a fantasy with the Brighton Rock. Maybe I am. I don’t know. It’s just my way of dealing with things. But I do know the difference between the cartoons and life.’

‘I know you do, Henry. But don’t be so hard on yourself. Henry has a lot more to offer the world than The Rock. And he has the benefit of being real.’

‘I don’t know, Mr Adamson. Real’s not always as good as the cartoons. Not for me, anyway. Not for the likes of me. I don’t really fit in anywhere. Except in a world where I can dress up in a costume and pretend to be something I’m not. You write books. You know what it’s like to live through your characters. I’d better go now. Thanks for listening to me. I’ll think about what you said about the speech. But I don’t think I can do that.’ He stood up and began walking away. After a few steps, he turned around to look at the poster. ‘Maybe I should change Bert so that he doesn’t look so much like Ross. Work it into the story line that he has to have plastic surgery or something to repair the damage done to him by the bad guys. And when the bandages are removed, he’ll look different. That would be a good story. Maybe it’s time for that.’

8. There is in Truth no Beauty

‘Oh, hello, Sid, you’re in early today.’

‘Hello, Peter. Mike’s under the weather today, and Eddie’s got a dentist’s appointment and won’t be in until after 2:00. So it’s up to me to get things ready to open. I called Phil, and he’ll come in at 5:00 and fill in for Mike tonight. You doing the accounts?’ Sid walked behind the bar and into the back room. When he came out, he had taken his coat off and was tying one of our green towels around his waist.

‘Yes. I figured I’d better tackle them before I get even further behind. I made that pot of coffee about half an hour ago. It should still be drinkable, if you want a cup. What’s wrong with Mike?’

Sid reached under the counter and pulled out a mug. He filled it about halfway with coffee and then topped it off with an equal amount of milk. The sugar was on the table where I was working, and he walked over and added three packets of it to his cup. He pulled out a chair and sat down opposite me. That in itself was unusual. Usually Sid doesn’t talk much, at least to me. My face must have betrayed some of my surprise and astonishment.

‘Don’t worry. It’s two hours until we open. I’ll get what needs doing done before then.’

‘I don’t worry about you doing your work, Sid. I was just wondering what’s up.’

He nodded. He sat there and stirred his coffee for about half a minute before speaking.

‘Mike went on his annual binge last night over the visit to the cemetery.’

‘Oh, I thought we had avoided that this year. It’s been over a week since the visit.’

‘Yeah, well, it just took him a bit longer to get around to it this year. He’s been getting sadder and sadder all week. Last night after closing, we went home, and he sat down and poured himself a whiskey. He said he’d be up to bed in a while, but this morning he was asleep on the couch. He must have drunk about a third of the bottle. He’ll be all right by tonight. He never does more than the one binge. At least not so far.’

‘It seems to be part of the tradition.’

Sid took a long sip of his coffee and made a face. ‘I don’t know why I drink this stuff. Never could stand coffee.’ He shoved the cup aside. The milk must have been getting old. It was already beginning to curdle. ‘It’s one part of the tradition I could do without. In fact, I’m getting tired of the whole tradition. It’s been what now, twenty-five, thirty years since this Jonathan offed himself. Mike needs to put it behind him and get on with life.’

‘That’s seems to be the one thing he can’t do. I don’t understand why.’

‘He talks to you about it, doesn’t he?’

‘I’ve heard some of the story. I don’t know if it’s all of it.’

‘Story--that’s a good word for it.’ Sid looked at me expectantly. Obviously this was a remark supposed to elicit further interest. Sometimes my reputation for being a good listener invites confidences. I’d be the first to admit that I don’t discourage them.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Mike and I have been together almost twelve years now. The first time he told me about it, he didn’t mention a name. Just this kid in his school who committed suicide, and how much it had upset him and how it changed his life. Then one day Mike goes out for a drive in the country on his day off. He used to do that a lot. Just drive around. When he gets back, he announces he’s found “Jonathan’s grave” and guess what, it’s not so far from here. I’ve been wondering for several years if he just went out in the countryside and found a grave with the right dates. Most of those old churches that have been closed have graveyards around them, and they’re not kept up. There’s not even a village near that church. I hunted it up on one of my days off just to see what Sid was looking at. Nobody ever comes around that place. And all the houses in that area are new. The people who live in them aren’t related to the people in the graveyard. So Sid doesn’t have to worry about a family member driving past and stopping to ask what he’s doing mucking about their boy’s grave.’

‘Sid, I do think something happened in Mike’s past.’

‘Oh, something happened. I’m just not sure that it’s what he says it is. Over the years, the story has gotten more and more detailed. We only have Mike’s word that he even went to that school.’

‘He has the right accent, and you can tell he had the sort of education St Luke provides.’

‘You’d know more about that than me. But he never gets any mail from them. Don’t schools like that write to their former students? Asking for money and such like. Bragging about the successes of their old boys.’

‘Mine does. I wish I could get off their appeals list.’

‘That’s what I mean. Plus he has no family. At least he’s never in contact with anyone that I know of. He’s met my family. I’ve even met some of yours and Charles’s brothers and sisters. It’s not natural to have no family. But Mike’s family is all in his past. To hear him tell it, they threw him out twenty years ago and haven’t bothered to look him up. So there’s no one I can ask. If a person called this St Luke’s, would they tell you if Mike went there and if someone in his class committed suicide?’

‘I doubt they would. They might confirm that Mike had been a student there, but a suicide is not something they would admit to readily. But there might have been a report in the local newspapers.’

‘I could go up there and ask on one of my days off. It’s not that far. Or I bet Julian can help me find out. He knows a lot about computers. There’s all sorts of information available now on the internet. He could help me look.’

‘Why this sudden interest?’

‘Because I’m getting tired of it. That dead boy means more to Mike than I do. Aren’t I enough? Why do I have to take second place to someone who died years ago? The only way I’ll ever get that much attention from Mike is to kill myself.’

‘Well, don’t do anything that extreme. But why would Mike make up such a story?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe he just likes the lie. It’s a big romantic story. He’s the glad-handed bartender with a sad past. Bravely hiding his sorrows under a smile. Plus he’s got a reason for being a failure. You know he thinks of himself as a failure. Didn’t accomplish what someone with his background and education should. So now he has this reason not to succeed. The big love of his life kills himself, and Mike goes to pieces and his life is wrecked. He hits bottom and then pulls himself together and makes something of himself. But it’s so sad, isn’t it, that he has to settle for being the manager of a pub in Brighton, when he could have done so much? And then there’s me. He gets all the advantages of having a lover but he doesn’t have to commit himself fully to me. There’s this awful event in his past, see, and it prevents him from being able to love me back as much as I love him.’

‘Do you love him?’

‘Yes, how can you ask that? We’ve been working for Charles and then you for the past ten years. You’ve seen us together. What did you think we were, just good friends? Would I be this upset if I didn’t love him?’

‘Then forget about this. Accept the story and live with it. You’ve been living with it for years now. If it’s not the truth, Mike isn’t going to give it up. It would be too important to him now to give it up. Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves become so much a part of us that we can’t face life without them. And if it is the truth, then Mike won’t forgive you for checking up on him.’

‘I just want to know what happened. Haven’t I got a right to the truth? If the story’s true, then I can live with it. It’s something I can help Mike to get over. If I find it’s a lie, then I’ll decide what to do. Aren’t relationship supposed to be built on the truth? How can Mike and I go forward if he’s lying about this?’

‘A great many divorces are built on truth. A successful relationship depends on lies, lots of little lies. Even when you know it’s a lie, you accept it as the truth.’

‘That’s very clever, I’m sure. But this isn’t a little lie. It’s a big one. If Mike doesn’t trust me enough to tell me the truth, then everything’s a lie.’

‘Oh, not everything, Sid. I’m sorry, Sid, if I sound like I’m belittling your feelings and taking Mike’s side. I’m not. Please just listen to me for a few minutes. I know you’re angry about this, but Mike wouldn’t have stayed with you for twelve years if he didn’t have strong feelings for you. You can see that he loves you. This story, if it is a story, is not about you and him, but about Mike and something that did or did not happen in his life. It’s not whether the story is true or not that important, but what it means to Mike and how it helps him cope with his life.’

‘But aren’t I enough to help him cope with his life? Why does he need someone else? Particularly someone who’s dead. I can’t fight someone who’s dead. If this Jonathan were alive and sniffing around Mike, I could punch him out and send him packing. But I’m supposed to be sympathetic and understanding, poor Mike and his poor dead lover and his ruined life. It’s a beautiful story, but what if it isn’t true? Why do I have to play second place to a dead man?’

‘Perhaps that’s your answer. The story’s so beautiful that Mike wants it to be true.’

‘You know what your trouble is, Peter. You sit here and people talk to you. They tell you all sorts of stories. They talk to you and you listen. But just because people talk to you doesn’t mean they’re telling you the truth. Or you sit here and eavesdrop on their conversations. I’ve watched you. You sit there pretending to read your newspaper, but you’re really listening to what they’re saying. But they’re all trying to impress themselves. Everybody who comes in here is pretending to be something he’s not. Not one of them is a real person. This is a gay pub, and they all claim to be trying to find Mr Right. And they don’t see Mr Right when he’s standing before them and cleaning up their messes and holding their hand and hugging them tight when they’re trembling. Mr Right’s never what they really want. They’re all chasing some dream that doesn’t exist.’

‘I know that, Sid. And not all of them are lying, not all the time. And even when we’re lying, we’re telling the truth about ourselves in another way. What our worries are, what we’re afraid of. What we would like to be. Our lies are an argument we’re conducting with ourselves. We’re the main audience for our own lies.’

Sid looked around in disgust. If he had been a violent man, I’m sure he would have already taken a swing at me. ‘You can put it in fancy dress, but it’s still a lie. The truth would be better.’

‘Perhaps. A poet once wrote: “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant. Success in circuit lies. Too bright for our infirm delight, the Truth’s superb surprise. As Lightning to the Children eased with explanation kind, The Truth must dazzle gradually, Or every man be blind.” Don’t you see, Sid--most of us can’t really handle the truth. Or, rather, our lies are our means of handling what we really know deep down to be the truth. We’re not brave enough to face the unvarnished truth.’

‘More poetry. I don’t even know what that means. It’s just more lies. Mike’s always quoting poetry. It’s all nonsense. Why do people with educations always quote poetry? As if some dead poet had all the answers.’

‘Some of them did. Or at least they got close to it and came back and distilled it into words for us.’

‘That’s what you’d like to believe. The truth is sitting before you, and you push at it till it fits some shape, some words that somebody wrote years ago. It’s your way of avoiding the truth.’

‘Yes. It can be a way of doing that.’

Sid sneered at me. ‘See. All that education and what good does it do you? I left school as soon as I could and I see things you don’t. You and Mike are so proud of being educated that you don’t realise other people aren’t stupid because they didn’t have your advantages.’

‘Oh, Sid, I’ve never thought you were stupid. Don’t charge me with that. There’s a difference between being intelligent and being educated. Intelligence is why you man the door instead of pulling drinks behind the bar like Eddie. And don’t comfort yourself with the thought that Mike and I are stupid because we’re educated. We’re not stupid either.’

Sid smiled. ‘Yeah, I know. I like to pretend sometimes. The help putting one over on the bosses.’ There was a pause. ‘It’s a story that helps me get on with things.’

I nodded. ‘So what do you think you’ll do?’

‘About Mike? I’m going to think about it. I want to know the truth about what happened. Maybe I can deal with Mike better if I know the truth. Oh, don’t worry, Peter. If it’s a lie, I’m not going to force him to face up to it directly. But I’ll be able to help him if I know what’s the truth and what’s not. I know I will. Maybe I’ll make up my own story. Show Mike that he’s not the only one with a tragic past. I’m a fighter, Peter. I am not going to lose this battle to Jonathan.’

9. Do we have enough gay friends?

‘Good evening, Peter.’

‘Max! And Kevin. How are you? Isn’t this rather late for you? We usually see you in here much earlier. And why are you dressed like that?’

‘We stopped in for a dose of sanity. Kevin’s boss invited us to his place in Kent for an day of tennis and an early supper. We fled as soon as decency allowed because “of the long drive back.” Two whiskeys, Eddie, thank you.’

‘Was it that bad?’

‘It was gruesome. We were the gay couple. Anne--that my boss’s wife--said to me, “Well, I’ve been wanting to meet the two of you for ever so long. Richard and I were watching this program on Channel 4, and they were interviewing a gay couple. And I said to Richard, Do we have enough gay friends? And he told me about the two of you, and I just knew I had to have you over to meet you and introduce you to our friends.” The friends being two straight couples from their neighbourhood who clearly thought they were being daring.’

‘Anne’s one of those women whose “a’s” shade over into “e’s”--Oh, thank you, Eddie--At one point she said to me, “Oh Meks, Meks, Meks, you’re such eh medkyep.” She also likes to touch the people she’s speaking to. I would have taken it personally and wondered what she was trying on except that she did the same to everyone.’


‘I think she meant “madcap”.’

‘What had you been doing to be called that?’

‘Nothing. As soon as I saw what we were in for, I became as straight and boring as I could. I did my best imitation of a dignified broker on the silver exchange. I explained what I do in the most tedious way I could devise. But she wanted me to be frivolous. I suppose she was hoping that if she called me that, I would take it as a signal that I could lighten up and start behaving in what she undoubtedly thinks is a typical “gay” way.’

‘Max was the perfect gentleman. Much to everyone’s disappointment. I think they were waiting for the two of us to disappear into the shrubberies, make interesting noises while the bushes wiggled suggestively for a half hour, and then reappear dishevelled and brushing crushed vegetation off our now-soiled clothes.’

‘Half an hour? You have a greater . . . tolerance for nature than most of us. It sounds as if Kevin owes you for this, Max.’

‘Indeed, he does. I am even now plotting how to take revenge.’

‘No, this makes us even for all those visits from your sister. She always comes alone, Peter. The husband and the two boys are just distant rumours. I’ve never met them, and Max is only allowed a brief visit with them while he’s staying at his parents. Max and I evidently are not to be trusted near the males in her life. She spends about a half-hour each time she comes. She sits on the edge of her chair, like this. Won’t relax and lean back. Never rests her arms on the arms of the chair. I think she is trying to minimize contact with anything of ours. She will never accept a drink or any food for fear that she’ll catch something from us. I’m sure she disinfects her shoes and throws the clothes she’s wearing into the washer as soon as she gets home.’

‘Hmm, I wonder if that explains Anne’s choice of dinnerware and cutlery. She, as she put it, “just threw together a petite collation al fresco”--the food was as mixed as that expression, Peter. I’m sure she spends her afternoons watching cooking shows and learning how to make expensive ingredients inedible. Anyway, since it was “just a group of friends” and she was sure we wouldn’t mind an “informal repast”, she had plastic plates and forks for us to use.’

‘Don’t forget the paper tablecloth. Come to think of it, she did have a bin with a liner for us to place the refuse in. She didn’t even have to touch the plates we had used.’

‘Perhaps even some of those disinfectant wipes to sanitise the chairs you used after you left?’

‘Do you know her, Peter?’

‘I’ve met the type.’

‘Well, I think we disappointed them immensely, Max. We drew lots to determine the doubles teams, and I got one of the neighbour husbands. He assured me several times that he was only there because his wife was a friend of Anne’s, but he seemed disappointed I didn’t make a pass at him. I think he was looking forward to being affronted and pissed.’

‘Kevin was the lucky one. Since I don’t play tennis, I got to chat with Anne and another woman. They kept asking me for shopping and clothing hints. I had to confess that I run into the closest Marks and Spencer, grab something in my size, pay for it, and then rush out again. Is there a class we can take so we can learn to be gay? We both seem rather hapless at it. Ah well. It’s over. Maybe someday we’ll be able to look back at this afternoon and laugh about it.’

‘I suppose they locked all the children away.’

‘There are just two of those. Their daughter works in Manchester. The son is preparing to start at London University later this year. He was there but not particularly present. About half an hour after we arrived, Anne went into the house and pulled him out. He sat in a chair at the edge of the group and slowly edged it away until he wasn’t quite sitting with the rest of us. He only spoke if someone said something to him. Typical sullen teenager bent on showing the adults how much he disdains them and everything they stand for.’

‘Anne kept trying to draw him into the conversation, especially with us, but he wasn’t having any part of it. She obviously wanted me to talk with him, and I tried but all I got out of him was grunts and mumbles.’

‘I caught him watching the two of us, though. Every time I looked in his direction, his eyes would slide away. And he spent a good deal of time studying you. I think he was much more interested in us that he let on.’

‘Wouldn’t that be a laugh? The boss’s son is gay.’

‘Well, that would certainly put a different slant on the day. We’re invited over there so that we could show their gay son that it’s possible to be gay and a responsible couple.’

‘Two staid, middle-aged professionals. Upright, polite, well-mannered.’

‘Oh my god, Max. I bet that’s it. We were there on display to show their son a stable gay couple. Oh no, Meks, we’ve become role models.’

10. Lost Without Me

‘The man at the door said I should speak to you about putting a notice on your board.’

The person who had just tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention was an occasional patron of the Cinque Ports. Perhaps two or three times a month he would arrive alone. He always came in early and took a table by himself. I had never spoken with him. He usually wore a wrinkled grey suit or a tweed jacket. If asked, I would have guessed that he worked in an office, a senior clerk or junior-level manager, someone at that level, who was stopping by after work for a drink before going home. He would stay for a half-hour, sometimes a bit longer, while he drank a half pint. Never more than that. As far as I knew, he never spoke with anyone. Most of the time he just stared into his glass, although occasionally he would look around the room. He tried to be casual about it, but it was apparent that he was curious about our other customers. Sometimes his gaze would linger on a young man. But as far as I know, he never approached anyone. I suppose every pub has someone like that, someone in his late thirties or early forties who has resigned himself to visiting a pub occasionally for a bit of companionship, no matter how indirect. It is rare to see someone so totally without friends or acquaintances in the Cinque Ports, however. We tend to have few solitary drinkers.

‘We don’t allow advertising, just announcements of community events, that sort of thing. I’m Peter Adamson, by the way.’ He had to shift the stack of leaflets to his left hand to shake hands with me.

‘DJ Watson. It’s nothing like that. It’s just a lost pet notice.’ He pulled the top sheet off the stack and handed it to me. A blurred, grainy picture of a small dog occupied the top of the page. Beneath it ran the legend: ‘Lost dog. Named Kip. Small, terrier mix. Gray and white. Last seen March 12 on Faversham Terrace Road, Hove.’ This was followed by a phone number and the promise of a reward.

‘He looks like a very friendly dog.’ I handed the sheet back to him. ‘Of course, Mr Watson, please feel free to post it. I don’t think many of our customers live out that way, but you never know if someone might see Kip. Dogs can wander a good distance once they get loose.’

‘Kip’s curious. He’d be so excited about being out that he wouldn’t notice where he’s going. I had a delivery and I didn’t see that the man had left the gate open. When I let Kip out into the garden, he must have wandered off. I’ve asked all around the neighbourhood, but no one has seen him. He’s so friendly that he would go with anyone. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to pull him out of other people’s cars. He loves to take rides. He’d jump right in someone’s car if they held the door open for him.’

‘I suppose you’ve checked with the animal shelters.’

‘First thing, but no luck there. I’ve left my number and Kip’s picture at all of them. They’ve promised to call if he’s brought in. Are you a dog owner?’

‘I’m a cat person. A large feline named Magnificat allows me to share his house and open tins for him.’

‘Oh, then, you don’t know. I mean cats are fine for them that like them, but they’re not the companions that dogs are. Unless you’ve lost someone like Kip, then you won’t understand. It’s only been two days, but I’m so worried. Kip won’t be able to survive without me. He depends on me for everything. He’s not even used to sleeping alone. He always gets up on the bed with me at night. I even have a footstool next to the bed so that he climb up and down easily.’

‘I’m sure you’ll find him. Did you put tags on his collar?’

‘Oh, Kip’s that proud of his medals. That’s what we call them--“his medals”. He’s always polishing them. We take his collar off when he’s having his bath, and he is always glad to get it back on. First thing he does is clean his medals with his tongue. Always licking them so they’re nice and shiny.’

‘Terriers are smart dogs. He’ll be back.’

‘Kip’s even smarter than most. He’s the best judge of character. Won’t let me near anyone he doesn’t trust or approve of. The last time I brought someone home with me, Kip barked at him and nipped at this legs. Turned out that Kip saw something I didn’t. The man wasn’t to be trusted. He didn’t like dogs. I was getting him a drink, and I saw his reflection in the window over the drinks cabinet. He shoved Kip away with his foot. Well, Kip and I didn’t stand for that. We showed him the door right now.’

‘Must make it hard to have a private life.’

As soon as I said that, I realised that sarcasm and amusement were not the proper responses to Kip’s supervision of DJ Watson’s personal life. Whatever points I had gained by sympathising with his problem had disappeared. I should have long since learned not to argue with pet owners. I decided it was best to help him put the notice up. ‘Let me get some pins. I’m afraid we can only let the notice stay up a month at most. As you can see, we don’t have much room.’ I removed a couple of announcements of events that had already happened. He moved a poster that was in the centre of the board to one of the spaces I had cleared and tacked his notice up in the middle, carefully pinning each corner down and smoothing the paper.

‘I’d best get on, then. I have to put the rest of these up. I hope someone finds him soon. I don’t know what he’ll do without me. He’ll be lost without me.’

That conversation took place almost a year ago. Every time DJ Watson came in, he would check to make sure that the poster was still in place. If we removed it, another one would appear in its place. Occasionally someone would draw a moustache on Kip’s nose. Once there was a rude suggestion about the line of work Kip had taken up after he had run away. Luckily Sid spotted it and was able to remove the ‘Rent Pup’ ad before DJ Watson saw it. Other than to nod to DJ Watson and greet him, I had no further chance to speak with him until tonight, when a decidedly aggrieved man confronted me.

‘I thought at least you would understand what it means to lose someone, Mr Adams.’

‘Adamson, it’s Adamson. It’s Mr Watson, isn’t it.’

‘I want to know why my notice about Kip is removed as soon as I put it up.’

‘Mr Watson, it has been over a year since Kip ran off. As I explained to you, we have only limited space, and we remove the old notices. The board is a service to our patrons. I’m sorry, but it’s not a perpetual right.’

‘He didn’t run off. He had no reason to run away from me. I know that someone stole him and is keeping him a prisoner. That’s why I want to keep the posters up. The kidnappers have to take him out for a walk sometime, and someone will see Kip and then arrest these people.’

‘Mr Watson, dogs do wander off. The best thing is to hope that Kip found a good home.’

‘No one could give Kip as good a home as I can. Kip wants for nothing.’

‘I’m sure that’s true, Mr Watson, but . . .’

‘Kip didn’t run off. Dogs are loyal. They’re not like human beings, always leaving you, always running away. Dogs don’t do that. Kip wouldn’t do that to me. He loves me. When he walks in the door, his tail will be wagging and he’ll be all excited to see me again. It’s not like a person who can’t even be bothered to look up from the telly or the newspaper. Dogs aren’t like that. They’re not cruel like people. They don’t ignore you or say nasty things to you.’

‘Mr Watson, perhaps it’s time to consider getting another dog.’

‘Never! Never! How can you suggest such a thing? You lost your lover, this Charles everyone’s always going on about. I overheard some people talking about it, and how you’ve never been with anyone since. You haven’t replaced him. How can you think I would replace Kip? Kip isn’t just any dog. He’s my friend.’

‘Peter, is everything all right here?’

‘Oh, yes, Sid, thanks, it’s fine. I can handle it. Mr Watson, let’s sit down over there. Sid, could you bring two pints for us? Thanks.’

DJ Watson allowed himself--grudgingly--to be guided to a table and seated. He was so lost in his own misery that I don’t think he noticed how much attention he had attracted. With some rolling of eyes, the customers at the nearest tables ostentatiously ignored us. Occasionally one would glance our way and catch my eye and shrug in sympathy. When Sid sat the drink in front of DJ Watson, he stared at it for a few seconds and then pushed it away. He wasn’t about to be placated with a free drink or to find solace in it.

‘Mr Watson, look, I realise that Kip meant a lot to you. We all grow attached to our pets.’

‘Kip is more than a pet. He’s my friend.’

‘Mr Watson, all of us lose our friends. They move away, they leave, they grow distant, they die. That’s part of life. We have to learn, somehow, to survive without them and go on and make new friends.’

‘But I’m all that Kip has. He hasn’t got anyone else. No one could mean as much as I do to him. He won’t be able to live without me. I’m all he’s got.’

‘I’m sure that’s true, but . . .’ I didn’t know how to finish that sentence. I still don’t. How do you tell someone who has no one to forget the only being who made a difference in his life? Who was always happy to see him, even if it was only a cupboard love for the person who fed him? DJ Watson didn’t want to hear whatever platitudes might have finished that sentence. In the event, it didn’t matter, because he stood up abruptly and left. I suspect it will be his final visit to the Cinque Ports.