Sunday, 23 September 2007

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.

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