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.’

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