Sunday, 23 September 2007

The Cinque Ports--Part III

The Cinque Ports, Part III
Nexis Pas

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

11. Bert Redux

‘Hello, Peter.’

‘Why, Vince, I haven’t seen you in a long time. It must be six months. What have you been doing?’

I hope my face wasn’t registering the surprise I felt. Vince had always been careful about his looks and appearance, always well groomed and dressed in a way to display his muscular body. The man who stood beside me at my table needed a haircut and was badly shaved (as opposed to being carefully unshaved). His clothes had been chosen for comfort rather than style, and his body looked softer, as if he weren’t visiting the gym as much. He was still better looking than most of the people who came into the Cinque Ports, but the old Vince would not have allowed the present version out in public.

‘I’ve been concentrating on my work. I decided if I was going to make a go of my company, I had to pay more attention to it. I ran into Geoff Atwood in the street, and he told me I should stop by and see the poster that Henry drew.’

‘Tendrils of mischief.’


‘Tendrils of mischief. That’s how I always think of Geoff. He’s like a plant that reaches out and snares passers-by and does them a hurt. He always seems to be saying something to cause trouble or upset people.’ Vince smiled at the description. I turned around in my chair and pointed. ‘The poster’s there, at the back of the bar, behind Eddie.’

Vince walked across the room to get a better look. It was late afternoon, but the after-work crowd was just beginning to arrive and the place wasn’t busy yet. The dozen or so people in the bar turned to watch Vince, both because he was worth a look and because it was all too obvious that Vince was the model for the Brighton Rock’s sidekick, Just Plain Bert. Eddie was pulling a pint for Vince even before he left my table and placed it on the bar just as Vince arrived. Vince smiled and said something to him I couldn’t hear. Eddie stepped to one side and with a sweep of an outstretched arm half-turned to indicate the poster. Vince picked up his pint and sipped from it as he looked at the poster. His back was to me, and I couldn’t see his face, but he said something to Eddie and both of them laughed. If Vince was at all dismayed by finding himself the inspiration for a cartoon character, he was hiding it behind his usual insouciance. It took him only a minute or so to become Vince the cocksure again.

Mike came out of the back at that point and did a theatrical double-take upon seeing Vince. ‘Hey, stranger, where have you been?’ Mike’s hearty voice boomed throughout the pub. Vince gave him much the same answer he had given me. As more people came in, the two of them were soon surrounded by a noisy group welcoming Vince back. Each newcomer seemed to feel it necessary to draw Vince’s attention to the poster. He greeted each comment with a shrug and a quip. I was relieved to see that Vince didn’t appear to be upset. Judging from the gestures, there must have been some remarks about the two superheroes’ need for extra-large-size condoms. I spent a few moments pondering the change in Vince. When he glanced in my direction and caught me turned around in my chair watching him, I decided I had best leave well enough alone and returned to reading my paper. Sometimes--well, tell the truth, quite often--people astonish me.

I was occupied by a story about our local MP’s decision not to stand for Parliament again at the next elections. I had known him for many years and had begun mentally composing a letter to him expressing my regrets at his decision when Vince pulled out the other chair at the table and smiled at me, ‘May I?’

I nodded and gestured a welcome with my hand. ‘Daniel Burton is retiring. That will make for a change in Brighton politics.’

‘I don’t think I can remember a time when he wasn’t our MP. He must have held the seat for over 30 years.’

‘Since 1979.’

‘The year before I was born, then.’

Somehow I didn’t think Vince was there to discuss politics and elections. We had never said much to each other besides greetings and general polite enquiries after our respective healths. I’m not even sure that I much like Vince. He’s always seemed to me to be a rather shallow person intent on his own pleasures and careless of others’ feelings. He hasn’t ever travelled very far from himself, and there is little reason to think that he ever will. Plus I knew that he had somehow hurt Henry, and I held that against him. If he thought of me at all, it could only be as the old guy who owned a pub he sometimes patronised. ‘I wonder if he will be able to stay away from public life. Perhaps like you he will return to his public. It is good to see you again, Vince.’

‘Oh, aye, well I had to come in and see Henry’s poster. I don’t know as how I will be back often, though. Nothing against you or the Cinque Ports, Peter. It’s just that I have to get on with my life.’

I nodded to show that I understood and shrugged my shoulders to show that it was of no importance to me. ‘I’d always wondered if you were the source for Bert. He has come to look more like you over the past couple of years.’

‘Well, I am that. Henry and I have known each other since we were tots, even before we started school. We’re both from Brighton, you know. My mum and his are great friends, and they’re always going out together now that Henry’s father is dead. Henry started drawing cartoons when we were in primary school, and he put me in them. The adventures of Henry and Vince.’ Vince smiled at some memory and paused to take a reflective drink from his pint. I waited, but he didn’t resume talking.

‘I didn’t know the two of you were so close,’ I prompted

‘Well, we grew apart later. It started when we moved up to the comprehensive. Henry has always been shy, and when he was confronted with this pack of new people he didn’t know, he drew in on himself. I tried to include him in my group, but he didn’t take to them. He just wasn’t interested in the things that interested us, and he didn’t fit in. Plus he really grew the first year. He must have gained a foot in six months. He couldn’t handle the change in his body. He was always tripping and running into things because he hadn’t adjusted to his new size. So people started calling him an oaf, and that made him even more unwilling to draw attention to himself. I tried to help him out, but he didn’t seem to want any part of me suddenly.’ Vince stared pensively at the tabletop.

‘Were you surprised when you discovered that Henry was the person behind the Brighton Rock?’

‘Oh, no. I recognized that it was Henry’s work right away. It was his style. . . . In fact, I ran into him just after it started appearing in that paper--The Knitters’ Guide, or whatever it’s called. He showed me some of the upcoming strips, and I said something about remember how when we were kids, he would draw cartoons of the two of us, and now he was still drawing himself but I wasn’t in the cartoons any more. And he said, he could fix that. And that’s when Bert started to look like me.’

‘Then you don’t mind?’

‘No, why would I mind that? I mind more that people think I should mind. Henry and I are . . .’ He searched for a word. ‘friends. At least we used to be friends. I don’t know what Henry thinks of me now.’

There was another long pause as Vince sipped at his beer. He drew a finger down the side of the glass, tracing the slanted side. Finally he looked up and stared over my shoulder and spoke with a casual lack of interest. ‘I’ve heard that Henry talks to you.’

‘Henry listens to me talk. Sometimes he answers. I’m not sure we can be said to be having a conversation.’

Vince shot me a sardonic glance and grinned. ‘It’s hard to tell with Henry, isn’t it?’

I smiled back. ‘Is there something you want to know about Henry? I can’t claim to be an expert.’

‘Do you read his comic strip?’ I nodded. ‘Then you know this latest story--about the accident Bert had, and how his head is covered with bandages and there’s all this talk about him needing plastic surgery and how he might look different after.’

‘Yes, well the two of them do get rather banged up in the course of ridding Brighton of evildoers.’

‘I just wondered if you know what’s going on.’

‘I don’t know more than anyone else who reads the strip. Bert was injured, his face was damaged, he may have to have plastic surgery. I don’t know what will happen to him.’

‘Henry shouldn’t change Bert’s looks. His fans won’t like it.’

‘Oh, I doubt they will mind much. Henry’s building a basis for the change and leading up to it gradually. Readers will probably accept whatever happens. It may take them a day or two to get used to the difference in Bert’s looks, but they’ll soon forget what Bert used to look like.’ Vince was visibly hurt by that remark. Perhaps that had been my intent, to wound him and needle his pride. A bit of payback for whatever he had done to Henry (and perhaps just payback in general for being too handsome and too confident). ‘It’s what happens, Vince. I think Henry is changing, and the Rock and Bert are going to change along with him. It’s taken Henry longer than most to grow up, but you can’t expect him to remain the Henry you used to know forever.’

‘I suppose. It’s just that I thought Henry would never change. That I could always count on him to be Henry. Someone who thought of me as, well, as his friend and who knew me, the real me, not the Vince I played at being in here and the other pubs. As someone who could be his friend. As long as Bert was me, I thought it meant that Henry still liked me, and I could go back and undo . . . well, that I could make it up to him. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, how to make it up to Henry.’ Vince suddenly looked lost and forlorn. ‘Yeah, well, people change. I should get used to that. I learned that lesson years ago. You can’t count on anyone but yourself.’

‘I think that’s unfair to Henry. If you feel that you have an “it” to make up to Henry, then perhaps that’s a reason for Henry’s feelings toward you.’

‘Then he has talked to you?’

‘I don’t know what happened between the two of you, and I don’t want to know.’ That, of course, was a lie. I was extremely curious by this point. ‘But I surmise from something Henry said and from you’ve said just now that something happened and that the two of you have a history. If that’s so, then it’s something for the two of you to discuss and work out.’

‘Does Henry come in here every night?’

‘No. Maybe just once or twice a week, and then mostly around noon. He stops by for a sandwich or whatever’s on. We don’t often see him at night.’

‘Does he still live with his mum?’

‘I don’t know that sort of detail about our customers, Vince. If your mothers are friends, wouldn’t your mother know that?’

‘That’s right. I can ask her. Mum will know, or she can find out.’ Vince was clearly relieved. ‘I can work this out with Henry.’ My face must have betrayed my misgivings. ‘I know you don’t like me, Peter. I’ve never given you any reason to think well of me. But I’m trying to change. I really am.’

‘If that’s what you want, Vince, then I wish you luck. I don’t think you will find it easy to escape the past, however.’

‘Oh, I’m not trying to escape my past, Peter. I’m trying to recover it, or at least part of it. Before I became Vince. Thanks for the chat. You’ve been a great help. More than you might know. And don’t worry. I’m not going to hurt Henry again.’

12. Dost thou know Dover?

‘When do you leave for Dover?’

‘I’m driving over in the morning. Do you know Dover?’

‘Not really. I haven’t been there for years. The last time was when Charles and I took the car ferry over to Calais on the way to Strasbourg. That must be fifteen years ago. Haven’t been there since.’

‘Derrick lives east of it, along the coast, closer to Deal than to Dover.’

‘He seems like a nice man. I guess I am just behind the times. Meeting people online would not have occurred to me.’

‘You should try it, Peter. There are groups and sites where you can talk with a person, get to know them before you meet. Derrick and I met in a discussion group. It’s not even a dating site. We just fell into a habit of chatting with each other, and over time we discovered that we had many common interests and then arranged to meet. We hit it off, and that’s how it started.’

‘I’m a bit past the dating stage, Lewis. Anyway, I don’t know that I should have the courage to meet someone I had chatted with online. Too suspicious, I guess. I’ve tried this chat and exchange of emails, but the few people that interest me always seem to live on the other side of the globe. That may be why I find them interesting. They’re quite safely far away. I’ve not met anyone close to here whom I would like to meet. Perhaps I’m just not attuned to these new methods of finding people.’

‘Well, I was lucky. Derrick is the only person in several years of chatting that I wanted to meet. I wish we were closer together, but still it doesn’t take that long to get there.’

‘What is this site where you met? Perhaps I should try it.’

‘It’s a group for gay hikers. Like all these sites, it’s rather a mixed bag. Some people do talk about hiking. Others want to let you know where they got it off with someone else. If you believe half the stories, the Cotswolds are filled with randy lads lying in wait for the willing male to walk past. Never mind that at any given point, half a hundred people are going to walk past in an hour on a summer day. More wishful thinking than anything else, these stories.’

‘Well, I don’t think that site would be proper for me.’

‘Not gay, are you?’

‘Well, gay enough, but I walk too slowly these days to be called a hiker. Now if there were a site for gay people who get about with canes, that would be for me.’

‘I think there are gay caning sites, Peter, if you fancy a flutter at someone’s arse.’

‘Oh dear, I shall have to be careful, then. I do occasionally run into a lad who confuses me with his old schoolmaster, but I’ve never been tempted along those lines.’

‘A pity. You could fill that role well enough. All that white hair and the stern looks. You’d have all sorts of lads dropping their trousers and pants and bending over your desk.’

‘Well, there are many aspects of gay life that I’ve never explored and never will. In any case, I understand that there are plenty of people willing to do that sort of thing. I suppose there would be websites that cater to them.’

‘Oh, there are plenty of those.’

‘I visited a website for older gays for a while. But then I got tired of it. There were a lot of rude people. I suppose they felt it was safe to be bad-mannered because they were anonymous. A few people always wanted to argue. There was one man who was on every time I had a look, and he was always correcting people’s spelling and grammar or their facts. He spent most of his time trying to convince himself that he was superior to everyone else.’

‘Oh, there’s someone like that on every site. On the gay hikers’ site, there’s a man who’s always picking a fight with someone. He comments on everything. Seems to feel that unless he gives an opinion, the subject hasn’t been discussed. He’s totally unreasonable, but he won’t let a subject go until the other person gives up. Usually the other person fails to respond to one of his screeds, and then he takes their silence as proof that he’s won the argument. He doesn’t realise that most people come to understand that it’s a waste of time to try to reason with him and so they just shut up. All the regulars ignore him, and the newcomers soon learn to avoid him.’

‘Well, you meet enough people like that in person. You don’t need the internet to run into that kind. Anyway, tell me more about Derrick and you. How are the two of you going to handle the distance and the separation?’

‘That’s the main problem, isn’t it? We can’t either of us leave our jobs now. Derrick has such a nice place that he can’t give it up. His place is much better than mine, but it’s too far for me to drive every day. So for now, we’ll meet on the weekends and holidays. Luckily, I have plenty of time off between terms. We’ve already made plans to fly to Spain, to Majorca, over the winter break. We’re renting a condo there for a week. Derrick’s been there before, and he says it’s a super place to stay.’

‘Well, it will take work to sustain the relationship. Of course, it always does, but not being able to see each other every day will pose a hardship.’

‘So far we’ve been able to see each other almost every weekend. The only time we had to skip a weekend was when Derrick had business in Amsterdam. But I called him at his hotel, and we talked for half an hour or so. I call him practically every day. Sometimes he’s away on business and I can’t reach him by phone, but I email him. I just feel that this is the best chance I’ve had so far. I have to make it work, even it means some inconvenience to me. My life is less busy and programmed than his is, and I’ve had to make adjustments to fit his schedule, but so far we’ve been able to work things out.’

‘I hope we get to see more of him in Brighton.’

‘I suppose it’s selfish of me, but when he has time free, I want to have him all to myself. We have so little time together that I save it for us and plan for it. Plus, he has to deal with a lot of people in his work. When he relaxes, he doesn’t want to be in a crowd. He likes to go for solitary walks or read. So I have to be careful. He liked meeting all of you, but he’s not really a person who needs a lot of friends. He’s comfortable with himself and his own life.’

‘Well, I think everyone liked him.’

‘I hope you didn’t mind his comment about not reading your books.’

‘I would rather have someone say that than tell me that they had bought a copy but haven’t found time to read it yet.’ (Actually, Derrick had announced with great satisfaction that he didn’t read novels, let alone mine. He obviously felt that was something that reflected well on him. But I wasn’t about to give my true opinion of Derrick to Lewis.) ‘It sounds as if you’re the one making all the adjustments.’

‘I don’t want to crowd him. I haven’t wanted to ask, but I have the impression that he’s never had any long relationships. I know he’s never lived with anyone before. So he is used to things being done a certain way. He needs time to grow accustomed to living with me. I think if we see each other only on weekends, it will allow him to become used to me and to having me in his life. He often just assumes that we’re going to do what he wants in the way he wants and doesn’t consult me. But he’s learning. I just don’t want to be a clingy, needy person who’s always pestering him for attention. So I ration myself and hold back. I let him know that I’m there when he wants me, but I don’t push myself on him.’

‘He’s fortunate he found you, then.’

‘I hope Derrick thinks that. I suppose for him it was easier when we were just chatting on the internet. I wasn’t an imposition on him then. And he could always claim that he was tired or that he had work to do and log off when he grew bored. Now that I’m around for longer periods, he has to find ways of dealing with me. So I’m trying to respect his “space”, as they say, and allow him to realise that sometimes couples just sit in the same room, reading or working. That he doesn’t have to entertain me. That it isn’t necessary to be occupied with each other every moment.’

‘Well, I wish you all the best.’ I lifted my glass and clinked it against his. We both took a sip. Lewis looked around and examined the room carefully.

‘Mind you, I should miss the Cinque Ports if I left Brighton.’

‘I hope it doesn’t come to that, Lewis. But if it does, there are surely gay pubs in the Dover area.’

‘There probably are. But Derrick doesn’t like the gay scene. He said that his visit to the Cinque Ports was the first time he had been in a gay pub in ten years.’

‘Are you planning on moving, then?’

‘Eventually. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense to meet Mr Right finally and then be separated.’

‘He could move to Brighton. We hardly lack for satisfactory places in Sussex.’

‘He lives in his family’s home. They’ve occupied it for several generations now. He can’t leave it. I would have to move there. But I’m willing to do that, for him.’ I nodded. Lewis paused for a minute and then carefully not looking at me, said, ‘Peter, can I ask your advice? It’s rather personal.’

‘Of course, Lewis. I will be discreet. I promise to tell only the next ten people I meet.’

‘Well, as long as you restrict yourself to next ten.’ He took a long drink and faced away from me. ‘There is one thing that bothers me. Derrick is rather passive when we’re . . . together. I don’t mean that he’s the bottom, just the opposite in fact, but he tends to lie there and expect me to make love to him. He seldom reciprocates, and then it’s more like he’s remembered that he should do something for me rather than being something he wants to do. It’s more like a favour he’s doing me.’

‘Have you talked with him about this? Perhaps he doesn’t have much experience.’

‘I think he’s had plenty of experience. I don’t know much about his past sex life, but I wasn’t the first, or the second or third for that matter. And after all, how much experience does it take? He was more active at first, but lately he’s fallen into a habit of just lying there and letting me do all the work. That sounds awful, doesn’t it? “Work.” It took me a while to realise that this was becoming a pattern. And I don’t want it to be the pattern of our life together.’

‘The only advice I can give you, Lewis, is to talk this out with him.’

‘I know I should. But I’m afraid of driving him away, if I become too demanding.’

‘Perhaps you could point out to him that if he excites you, your reaction may excite him all the more, and that you are more likely to respond in kind.’

‘I’m not sure he wants excitement. It’s more that he’s looking for relief.’

‘Talk to him. It may be just a small thing that can be easily fixed.’

‘I’m still not sure how he would react to such a discussion.’

‘That might be a good thing to find out before you go much further.’

‘Well, you’re right, I know. I will have to think about it. Now that I’ve found Mr Right, I have to weigh my actions more carefully. Don’t want to lose him. I just have to decide what the important things are and what things I can do without. I shouldn’t have mentioned this, Peter. It’s nothing to worry about, really. Derrick and I will work this out.’

‘Another pint, Peter?’

‘No thanks, Eddie. I’ve had enough for tonight.’

‘Did that man, I don’t know his name, say something to upset you? You look so sad. Nothing wrong, is there?’

‘Oh, no, it’s nothing serious. I was just thinking of one of those cynical French sayings: Un qui aime, et un qui se laisse aimer.’

‘What’s that mean, then?’

‘It’s a definition of one sort of relationship--one who loves, and one who allows himself to be loved.’

13. A Cup of Tea

Sometimes a mystery presents itself--

Item 1: Business was rather slow. For once that summer, the day had been sunny and the temperature warmer than usual. It was such a change that I think people were anxious not to lose the chance to be outside. The weather report predicted a return to rain and unseasonably cold temperatures tomorrow, however; if the report was accurate, we would be packed the next day. I was sitting at the bar, attempting to do the crossword. Mike came out of the inner room and got a mug from beneath the bar, unwrapped a tea bag, placed it in the mug, and then filled it about halfway with hot water. He stood there, lifting and dunking the tea bag until he was satisfied with the result. Then he filled the cup up with milk and stirred in a copious amount of sugar.

This caught my attention for several reasons. First, Mike is a coffee drinker. And when he drinks tea, he uses only lemon. He is fastidious about his diet. Unlike Sid, he does not frequent the gym, but also unlike Sid, he avoids sugar and other current dietary no-nos. Second, pubs are in business to sell drinks. We have tea and coffee available, but a customer asking for either would get only a mug of hot water and a tea bag or a cup of coffee that more than likely has been sitting in the pot for hours. People seldom ask twice. We make coffee for ourselves when we arrive in the morning, and Sid heats up water for his tea, but during business hours, we drink either beer or soda water coloured with a few drops of a cola drink so that it looks like a whiskey and soda. It’s generally considered a good business practice not to suggest to customers that non-alcoholic beverages are available.

What happened next surprised me even more. Mike raised the flap on the bar, and carefully carried the brimming mug over to Sid, who was occupying his usual place on a stool beside the door. To my knowledge, this was the first time Mike had ever done that. Sid looked up and bobbed his head sadly in thanks. Sid had been rather subdued all day. He hadn’t said much to me or Eddie other than hello. Instead of jollying the customers as they came in, he had more often than not just nodded at them.

Mike and Sid had been together a dozen years or so. They were already living together when Charles hired them, and they made it apparent that they were a package deal. Hire one, hire the other. It had been a wise decision. The two are a team in many ways, and both are affable with the customers. Each has the knack of keeping the place orderly and pleasant without offending the customers or coming across as heavies. The success of the Cinque Ports owes much to them. Occasionally, however, their being a couple causes problems.

As Mike handed Sid the mug of tea, he bent over and whispered something in Sid’s ear. Sid smiled wanly and nodded again. Mike gave him a fond look and then rubbed Sid across the shoulders. That, again, was unusual. Everyone knows they are a couple. Somewhat oddly matched, but there are matches that strike one as odder. They are seldom physically demonstrative towards each other in public, however, not even inside the Cinque Ports. Sid briefly tilted his head and laid it against Mike’s chest. Mike’s hand slid upward, and he pulled Sid’s head closer to him and then leaned over and kissed the top of Sid’s head. Sid looked up at Mike, and his lips quivered. He put an arm around Mike’s body and embraced him. For another couple it might have been no more than customary behaviour, but for Sid and Mike, it was quite an emotional display. Mike pointed toward the mug of tea. He was obviously urging Sid to drink it. Sid obliged him. Despite the distance, I could read his lips saying ‘Thanks, mate.’ Mike patted him on the shoulders and walked back to the bar. I would swear that Sid smiled to himself as Mike left. But before Mike got back to the bar and turned around so that he could see Sid, Sid’s shoulders drooped and he bent forward. It impressed me as a very theatrical exhibition of misery.

Item 2: ‘Peter, I need to talk with you.’ I was seated at a table going over the accounts again before we opened. Mike pulled out a chair and sat across from me. He seemed somewhat nervous and hesitant for him.

‘Yes, Mike, what is it?’

‘I want to buy a teas maid machine. And buy tea leaves rather than tea bags for the bar.’

‘Do we need one of those? We must not get more than four or five orders for a cup of tea a month, and then only at lunch. And brewing a cup of tea rather than giving someone a cup of hot water and a bag is a lot of work. Who’s going to tend the machine and clean up after?’

‘We might get more customers at lunch if they could get a cup of tea with their meal. Lots of people don’t want to drink alcohol at lunch.’

‘I think more people drink coffee with lunch. In any case, they can order a soft drink if they don’t want a beer or liquor. And we don’t really offer a lunch service anyway. If we’re going to start offering freshly brewed tea, we need to improve the food, and we don’t have the facilities to do much more than sandwiches and microwave a frozen dinner. We’ve never been about the food.’

‘It would also be for us. You drink tea occasionally.’

‘Hot water and a tea bag are good enough for me. If I want more, there’s that tea shop down the road.’

‘Well, you see, it’s for Sid really. He likes tea.’

‘Sid’s been working here for ten years. He’s never said anything about wanting real tea.’

‘Sid doesn’t like to complain and push himself forward, but he likes his tea. And he works hard. He deserves a little consideration.’

‘I just find it strange to be having this conversation after this much time. Has Sid been complaining to you about this all these years?’

‘No, he’s not one to complain, but Sid’s had a hard life, harder than you know. I want to make it up to him. He deserves a reward for all his work here. That’s all I’m thinking about. You take him too much for granted, Peter. You need to consider his feelings once in a while.’ Mike was becoming decidedly obstreperous.

‘I’m sorry if I haven’t been paying enough attention to Sid’s welfare, Mike, but I don’t think I deserved that comment. If a tea maker will keep Sid happy, then by all means get one.’

‘I mean we can easily afford one. With the amount of business we do, we earn more than enough to buy a machine to make Sid tea.’

‘Fine. Get one. But you have to be the one to tell Eddie that he has to make tea for Sid and any customer who wants a cup.’

‘A machine won’t cost that much. There’s no reason for you to be so cheap.’

‘Mike, I’ll tell you for the third time, get one. You have my permission to buy a tea maker.’

‘Well, you don’t need to get all shirty about it.’

‘Mike, just buy the machine already.’

‘And loose tea leaves and fresh milk. Sid likes whole milk and China tea. That Lapsang souchong stuff.’

‘Whatever will keep Sid happy.’

‘I’m just trying to help you do the right thing here, Peter. It’s part of my job to present the employees’ concerns to you. Sid will work better if he’s happier.’

‘I don’t think of you and Sid or Eddie as employees, Mike. The three of you are more like friends and family.’

‘That’s what all bosses say. It’s paternalism, that’s what it is. Rank paternalism.’

‘Oh, Mother of God. When do you become a shop steward? You can’t really pull that off with your accent.’

Mike had the grace to look sheepish. ‘Got a bit carried away there.’

Both of us started laughing. ‘Ok, you can buy the machine and the tea leaves and the milk. Does Sid really like Lapsang souchong? That tastes like tar.’

‘I know. It’s awful. Smells up the house every time he makes it. But he says he likes “full-flavoured” tea. And he lets it stew too long. The only way it’s drinkable is to add lots of milk and sugar.’

‘Why is this so important now, Mike?’

‘It’s important to me to keep Sid happy. Sorry if I came on too strong. I just need to do something for Sid to show him that we care about him.’

‘Why? What happened?’

‘Can’t tell you that, Peter. That would be violating a confidence.’

Item 3: ‘I had no idea these machines had become so high tech. The one my mother had had flowers on it and was pink. There was this pocket on the side covered with clear plastic where you could insert a photograph.’

‘This one had the highest rating on the cooking gear website I consulted.’

Mike had just installed the tea maker next to the coffee pot on the back shelf behind the bar. He, Sid, Eddie, and I stood there looking at it with the same speculative devotion with which in the 1950s my father and the men in the surrounding houses examined the engine of a new car in the neighbourhood. The machine gleamed with chrome. Every surface reflected a distorted image of the bar and of us. The shape was futuristic and exhibited the stylish whimsy I associate with Italian design. The top curved around the cup holders and the bottom panel presented a daunting choice of buttons and switches. Two stainless steel cups sat in the holders. The machine could brew one or two cups at a time and could be programmed to produce a cup of tea at a preset time for a specific user’s taste. Sid had input his particular choices and saved them under his name. Two tea caddies and a large plastic bottle of water stood beside the machine. The water had been purchased because it was ‘purer’ than water from the tap and ‘better’ for tea. One caddy held Sid’s Lapsang souchong, the other a cheaper variety to be used if a customer ordered tea. Sid carefully measured out the amount needed to make a cup and then poured in the water. He called up his name on a menu and pressed the start button. Several lights flashed red and then blinked on and off. ‘That’s what it does when it’s heating the water.’ Shortly all the lights turned green and stayed on while a stream of liquid poured into the cup. When all but one light went out, Sid removed the cup and inhaled the steam. He held the cup out so that we could peer into it. We did. It was tea, all right.

‘How does it taste?’

Sid took a sip and considered it for a moment. ‘It’s fine. It tastes fine. Thanks, Mike, . . . and you, too, Peter.’

‘Does this machine receive text messages and play videos as well?’ I tried not to sound too sarcastic.

‘No, that’s the more expensive model. All of us but you, Peter, already have mobile phones with those capacities. And you won’t use one. So I didn’t think we needed that.’

‘I was just joking. You mean there are machines that can do that?’

Mike and Eddie had a laugh at my expense. Even Sid briefly broke into a smile. ‘No, Peter, not yet. You really do have to join the twenty-first century soon. Get a mobile to start.’

‘If it were possible, I would install a machine in here that prevented the use of those dark satanic devices.’

‘We’d lose half our customers.’

‘Perhaps. But maybe when it became known, we’d be mobbed by people anxious to have a respite from one-sided conversations intruding into their private lives.’

While Mike and I were talking, Eddie had picked up the directions and programmed the machine for his tastes. He opened the container of Lapsang souchong and sniffed at its contents cautiously. He wrinkled his nose and put the lid back on. The container of cheap tea didn’t receive his approval either, but he made a cup with it. ‘I like this China tea called Keemun best. Can I buy a tin of that for myself? That Chinese grocery in Hove Centre stocks it. It’s only a three pounds plus per tin. It will last me two months or so.’

I sighed inwardly but nodded my head yes. ‘Buy yourself a tin, and we’ll reimburse you.’

Mike grinned at me impishly. ‘You see what you started, Peter. Next you’ll be buying pink cloths for the tables and little lamps with beaded shades. We’ll have to hire a cook to make cakes and pastries. What will we call the place, I wonder? Les Cinque Pots?’

‘Wait till you see what I have in mind for the matching outfits for the lot of you.’

Item 4: ‘Thanks for letting me buy my favourite tea, Peter.’

‘Sure, Eddie. I hadn’t realised that everyone like tea so much. If I had known, we would have done this a long time ago.’

‘We should get some green tea too. It supposed to be healthy for you and clean up your blood.’

Eddie set his mug of tea on the bar across from me and leaned conspiratorially towards me. ‘What’s worrying Sid? He’s not been hisself all week,’ he whispered as he tilted his head back to draw my attention to Sid sitting in his usual perch by the door. Sid was showing his new stainless steel mug to two people who had walked in the door a minute earlier. The three of them appeared to be discussing the new tea maker.

‘I don’t know. I asked Mike, but he wouldn’t say. Said it was private. When did you first notice he was feeling down?’

‘He was off on Monday and Tuesday like usual. Wednesday when he came in, he was all quiet like. I didn’t notice at first because I was busy. It just came to me later that he wasn’t saying much.’

‘That’s the first day I noticed too. Did anything happen Sunday evening?’

‘Not that I saw. It was just a normal Sunday. After we closed up, he asked for the television listings from the paper, like he always does. He checks what will be on during the day on Monday and Tuesday. The only thing that was different was that he borrowed a piece of paper and a pen from me and wrote down the times for some show.’

‘Do you know which one?’

‘No, I asked what he had found. And he just said there was a chat show on a subject he was interested in.’

‘Do you still have the guide?’

Eddie reached under the counter and handed it to me. A customer came over to the bar, and Eddie went to help him. I read down the listings for Monday. It seemed like a normal day of shows. Tuesday proved much more interesting. One item had been underlined. At 2:00 BBC Four had broadcast a panel discussion of a government study of adults who had been sexually abused as children.

Item 5: I stayed late that night and was picking up the last round of used glasses and bringing them over to the bar. Sid had locked the front door and turned off the outside lights. He picked up a cloth and was polishing the tea maker. The glasses I was carrying clinked against the bar as I sat them down. Sid turned at the sound and caught my eye. I’m not quite sure--it was the end of a long day and I was tired, perhaps I just imagined this--but I would swear that his left eyelid fluttered. It was almost a wink.

14. Waives and Strays

‘Pardon me. May I sit here?’

I looked up from the newspaper I had been reading and indicated the chair opposite me. ‘No, please.’ I picked the paper up from the table and folded it so that it took less space.

‘I hope you don’t mind sharing a table. It’s so busy in here. This is my first time here. Do you come here often? It seems like a nice place.’

‘Thank you. We try to make it an agreeable place for our customers.’

As intended, that remark elicited a raised eyebrow and an enquiring look. ‘I’m the owner. My name’s Peter Adamson.’ I held out my right hand.

‘Andrew Wade. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know that you were the owner. If this is your private table, please say so. I’ll find another place to sit.’ Andrew Wade’s handshake was firm and dry. And he made no move to stand up and leave.

‘No, please sit. It’s quite all right. I enjoy talking with people. Although I may have to desert you from time to time to take care of business.’

Andrew Wade was a pleasant-looking man, not gorgeous or drop-dead handsome like Vince or Martin and Simon, but presentable, easy to look at. I guessed him to be in his late thirties or early forties, around there. His chestnut hair had been cropped close, and it covered his head like a helmet. He wore one of the standard uniforms--jeans and a polo shirt in a pastel colour (a lime green in his case). I couldn’t see his feet, but I could probably safely bet that he was wearing either trainers or loafers.

Andrew smiled at me, and that transformed his face. He was one of those people who smiles with his whole face. ‘Someone told me that this was the best gay pub in Brighton--not for picking people up, but for meeting people, if you understand me. Actually he said that this was the best place in Brighton to meet people you might want to take home to introduce to your parents.’

‘We have a seal of approval from British League of Parents Concerned That Their Gay Children Might Meet Someone They Couldn’t Introduce to Their Parents. You can assure your parents that you will meet only the highest calibre of gentlemen here.’

He laughed and smiled again. ‘Why is it called the Cinque Ports? What’s the story behind that?’

Andrew carefully gave the name the pronunciation it would have in proper French. ‘My former partner started this place. It was his private joke. And the five harbours in question were here on the south coast of England, and the usual pronunciation is “sink ports”. It’s one of those terms you English feel the French mispronounce. In exchange for providing ships to the king, the original five ports were granted a great degree of self-government. The rights they gained are listed on the sign.’ I pointed to a nearby wall. The light was too dim for Andrew to read it, but I quoted it to him from memory. ‘ “Exemption from tax and tallage. Right of soc and sac, tol and team, blodwit and fledwit, pillory and tumbril, infangentheof and outfangentheof, mundbryce, waives and strays, flotsam and jetsam and ligan.” All of which they quickly exploited to became safe havens for smugglers and other criminals. The safe haven is the aspect that inspired the name of this establishment.’

Andrew laughed and filed the information away. ‘Did you buy your former partner out?’

‘No, I inherited the place from him. We were life partners, not business partners.’

It took Andrew a few seconds to understand the implications of that remark. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have asked. I’m too curious. People always say that I’m too nosey.’

‘It’s all right. People often say the same of me.’

Andrew gave me a complicit smile. ‘And why did you say “you English mispronounce”--aren’t you English?’

‘Irish, actually. I was educated in England, though, and learned how to speak “properly”. I can manage an Irish accent, if you would prefer.’

‘It’s more important which one you prefer, isn’t it?’

‘It’s not always a matter of preference. I seem to do what linguists call “code-switching”--I match the accent of the person I’m speaking with. An Irish accent with my relatives and Irish friends; an English accent with the English. It happens so automatically that I’m not even aware of doing it most of the time. Although those of my family who still live in Ireland accuse me of having a British accent.’

‘We all do that, don’t we? We adjust ourselves to the situation. We talk straight on the job and on the street. And gay when we’re in places like this.’

‘So we do. And what brings you to Brighton, Mr Wade?’

‘Andrew, please call me Andrew. My company transferred me here from Bristol. I’m in property management. We own several commercial properties in Sussex. I think our personnel officer thought I might be more at home in Brighton and that I might be able to relate better with what he called the “mixed population” of Brighton-Hove.’

‘Your employer knows that you’re gay? That’s one thing that’s changed for the better since I was your age. When I still worked in an office, some people knew I was gay, but they didn’t “know” it officially. But it wouldn’t have done to be openly gay.’

‘What did you do?’

‘Boss, can I get you another drink? Or your guest?’ Eddie suddenly materialised beside the table on one of his rare appearances out from behind the bar. I can’t recall ever being called ‘boss’ before. He lifted the towel off his shoulder and wiped the table top, also an unprecedented act by him. He took the opportunity to examine Andrew carefully.

‘No, Eddie, I’m fine, thank you. You, Andrew?’

Andrew indicated his nearly full glass and shook his head no. ‘You gents let me know if you need anything.’ I was wondering if waiting on tables had been added to Eddie’s duties. The world was shortly restored to its usual course, however. On Eddie’s route back to the bar, a table of customers tried to place an order with him and was told curtly that they had to step to the bar to get their drinks.

‘Are all your employees that friendly? The two men at the door greet everyone so warmly. It impressed me when I came in.’

I turned around in my chair to see whom he was talking about. As I did, I caught sight of Sid’s and Mike’s eyes sliding away from me. I had the impression that they had been watching Andrew and myself a second earlier. Both of them were at the door tonight for some reason. Most of the members of the Sink Sports rugby team were gathered around them. The occasional word that could be distinguished over the boisterous discussion led me to believe that afternoon’s game was being replayed. I made a mental note to remember to ask who had won. Sid was holding one of the mugs that came with the new tea maker, and Mike’s hand was resting on his shoulder.

‘They seem so affectionate toward each other. Are they a couple?’

‘Yes, they’ve been together for almost fifteen years now, I think. Something like that.’ I made another mental note to have individual conversations with the two of them. Something had altered the relationship between the two of them, and I wanted to find out what had happened. Maybe Eddie knew something.

‘A long time. How long were you and your partner together, if you don’t mind my asking?’

I had to drag my attention away from Sid and Mike and back to Andrew. He was looking at me with a mixture of sympathy and curiosity. I wasn’t particularly in the mood for either, at least as they were directed towards me. I’ve never liked being quizzed about my life. I didn’t like it as a child when my parents questioned me when I came home from school between terms, and I don’t like it now. And lately, I find myself more and more possessive about my memories of Charles. I hoard him for myself and don’t want to share him with others. I try to remember the smallest details about him. There are certain scenes and conversations that I replay over and over in my mind. I don’t want them to fade. It’s just delusional I know, but I believe that if I talk about him, if I share my memories with someone else, the details will grow fainter and become attenuated like ripples in water.

When Charles died, his sister and I had his suits and shirts cleaned and then gave them to Oxfam. The clothes we couldn’t donate, we threw out. She took some of the possessions that he had brought from their family home. I still have the rest of his things, his books and his CDs, and the things we had bought together for the house. There are memories buried in each of them, and as long as I hold on to them, I feel that at least part of Charles is still with me. Sometimes I fear that I am becoming obsessive about him and my memories of him, that I’m turning our house into a museum of Charles memorabilia. I should donate his things to some charity. The upholstery on ‘his’ chair was already threadbare when he died. It’s grown even more tattered in the five years since then as I’ve taken it over and made it my usual chair. I should either have it replaced or toss the chair out and buy another. I should have done that right away. The longer I wait, the harder it seems to become. But if I don’t do it, my niece will do it after I die. Or maybe I will drift into senility, and she will have to sell up the house to pay for my stay in a care facility. It’s hell to grow old. Try to avoid it if you can.

Andrew Wade was gazing at me with a look of growing concern. I suddenly realised that I had drifted off into my own thoughts and hadn’t answered his question. I pulled myself together and made the minimally polite response--‘A long time’--and then changed the subject. ‘What about you? Do you have a partner?’

‘Not any more. He died of a heart attack last year. We’d been together for just under ten years. That’s part of the reason I accepted the transfer to Brighton--to get away from the memories and start a new life.’

‘It’s unusual for so young a man to have a heart attack.’

‘Oh, he wasn’t young. He was 73.’

A hearty hand clapped me on the shoulder and gave it an affectionate squeeze. ‘Hello. We haven’t met. I’m Mike Serles.’ Mike leaned past me and held out his hand for Andrew to shake. ‘I manage this place for Peter. Is he treating you all right? Can I refill that for you? What are you drinking?’ Mike gestured to Eddie to bring drinks for the two of us. They arrived with suspicious speed. Eddie has for many years refused to represent the Cinque Pubs in the annual gay bartenders’ drink-serving contest on the grounds that he wasn’t about to be subjected to a time trial. His argument was that it took effort and skill to put a proper head of foam on a glass of beer. Seconds did matter, but not in the way a speed contest could capture. The fastest time did not lead to a better drink. He would have won the contest that night.

Eddie lingered at the table as Andrew and Mike chatted briefly. Andrew explained again that he had just moved to Brighton. Mike expressed the hope that Andrew would become a regular. Eddie seconded that. Mike told Andrew that I was a fine man, and he would enjoy talking with me. Eddie also seconded that. I pointed out that there were customers waiting in line at the bar. The two of them turned around to check the accuracy of my claim and then reluctantly moved off, though not without final assurances to Andrew that he would always be welcome in the Cinque Ports.

‘Are they always so protective of you?’

‘No, this is new behaviour.’

‘Does it bother you?’

‘I would find it annoying if it were to continue. I think they are just curious about you, since you’re new here.’

‘Trying to find out if my intentions toward their “boss” are honourable?’

‘Are they?’

‘Matters have not yet reached the stage where that question would be relevant. It’s not impossible that they might. But not yet. I’m not ready for dating yet.’

‘Nor am I. I doubt that I will ever be ready again.’

‘Oh, you mustn’t say that. In any case, would you mind if I chat with you occasionally? Are you here every night?’

‘Most nights. Sometimes I go to a concert or a movie. A few times a year to a play.’

‘Perhaps we could go together some night. Or to a restaurant.’

‘Perhaps.’ We left it at that. Andrew and I talked while he finished his second drink. About the weather, his work, life in Brighton. We didn’t revert to the subjects of our dead loves or the possibility of a date. It was as if subjects had been broached that neither of us wanted to explore. After he left, I sat at the table alone until closing time. When Sid chased the last person out, I helped him lock up.

‘So I saw you and that new man chatting.’

‘Yes, his name is Andrew something. I’ve forgotten his last name. Mike will remember. He just moved to Brighton.’

‘It’s Wade, Andrew Wade. He’s been in here a few times. He stopped and talked with me last night. He asked me who was the distinguished white-haired guy at the bar. I told him your name, and he wanted to know if you were the Peter Adamson who wrote the books. He had all sorts of questions about you. I said he should go over and talk with you. That you like to talk with people, but you were with Martin and Simon, and he said you were busy and he would catch you some other time.’

‘But he said . . .’


‘Oh, nothing. Perhaps I just misunderstood.’

‘So did you find Wade interesting?’

‘No, not particularly, at least not when I was talking with him. But in retrospect he’s more complex than I thought. He has suddenly piqued my curiosity.’

15. Sensitivity training

‘Give me a pint.’

‘You’ve had enough, Cormac.’

Everyone instinctively turned to face the shouting. Cormac’s bellow and Mike’s raised voice stopped all conversation in the Cinque Ports. Cormac was wearing a badly stained T-shirt, and he appeared not to have shaved or combed his hair that day. His clothes looked as if they had been taken out of the hamper or picked up off the floor. He had arrived alone and already drunk. His progress toward the bar had been marked by a stream of slurred apologies as he bumped into a person standing to his right, tried to straighten his walk, and then ran into a person to his left. His path could be traced in clothes stained by sloshed drinks. He was so intent on reaching the bar and getting another drink that he didn’t notice the angry looks and the curses directed his way. His shambles had attracted attention even before he shouted his order at Mike. At the moment, his face was red with rage. As soon as Mike spoke, Sid had leaped off his stool by the door and was pushing his way through the crowd.

‘I’ll get me own drink, then.’ The two customers on either side of Cormac had leaned away when the shouting started. Cormac looked at their drinks and grabbed the fuller one and downed most of it in two swallows. He tossed the glass behind him. Sid caught it but not in time to prevent most of the remaining contents from hitting him in the face and running down his coat and shirt. Sid slammed the glass on the bar, spun Cormac around, and grabbed one of his wrists. Before Cormac could react, Sid had twisted his arm behind his back and was frogmarching him toward the door. Cormac’s screams cleared a path as customers scrambled out of the way. One of them rushed to open the door for Sid. Cormac’s ejection was greeted with a loud round of applause. From outside the door came the sound of Cormac continuing to yell at Sid. Even before Sid reached the door, Mike was already phoning the police, and Eddie had wiped the bar and replaced the drink of the man whose glass Cormac had taken. I apologized to them and told Eddie to give them and those whose drinks Cormac had spilled a drink on the house. I offered to pay the cleaner’s bills of those whose clothes had been soiled, but most of the damage was minor. More often than not, my offer was greeted with a shrug and “It happens.’

Cormac’s brief rampage would fuel gossip for a day or two. Just as abruptly as conversation had halted when Cormac had demanded a drink, it resumed, even louder than before. A dozen voices were volunteering explanations of who Cormac was to those who didn’t know him and claiming foreknowledge of Cormac’s fall into drunkenness based on his recent behaviour. Countless variations of ‘Didn’t I tell you it would come to this?’ were offered. A pity none of them thought to warn us.

‘It’s unusual for me to be investigating a complaint from the Cinque Ports, Peter. You don’t usually attract the rowdies.’

‘We hope to keep it that way.’ I was seated at a table with two policemen. DS Twombley was often assigned to crimes and other matters involving gays. He occasionally came into the Cinque Ports. Since he played for one of the other rugby teams in B-GAL, he tended to patronise the bar that sponsored his team. Our customers were attempting valiantly to appear uninterested in what was going on at our table, but most of them just happened to be facing our way. Every newcomer was quickly informed about events earlier in the evening. Cormac’s invasion and ejection had soon escalated into a berserker’s rage. Those who hadn’t seen it in person must have wondered how the damage had been repaired so quickly.

Every time the PC accompanying Twombley looked up from his notebook, he met a dozen pairs of eyes staring at him. He was clearly unnerved by the attention he was garnering. I found it hard to decide if our customer’s interest owed more to curiosity or to the PC Ferne’s good looks. He must have only recently passed the probationer stage. He obviously believed in keeping fit, and his uniform might have been specially tailored to fit his body.

‘What will happen to Cormac?’

‘He’ll spend the night locked up. In the morning, he’ll be taken to magistrate’s court. For now, he will probably just be fined for being drunk and disorderly. But he did a lot of damage at the Mastiff, and he may face more serious charges--assault, vandalism, malicious destruction. He got drunk there and then ran out during the aggro before they could stop him. You’ll and the others may have to give evidence later. But I think we’ll have enough from the Mastiff to charge him. The CPS will decide tomorrow.’

‘I wonder what set him off.’

‘We’re trying to locate his friend.’ Twombley consulted his own notebook. ‘Daniel James, is it?’ I nodded. ‘He’s not at the house they share. One of the neighbours thought he may have moved out.’

‘Oh that’s too bad. They had been together for several years. But the gossip is that they are headed for a break-up because of Cormac’s drinking.’

‘Any idea where he might go?’

‘Don’t have a clue. You know who might know? They have a friend named Alan something. Mike or Sid can probably give you his full name. Can I offer either of you something to drink? Sid will allow us to use his tea maker if you don’t want anything alcoholic.’

‘Is that what that thing is? Never saw one like that before. But, no, thank you, Peter, we had better get back to the station and try to locate Mr James.’

‘I hope you will come in for a drink now and then, Sergeant Twombley. We’re always glad to see you. And you, PC Ferne, now that you know where we are, please stop by. We try to run a trouble-free place here. And if you’re interested in playing rugby against your sergeant, we do have a sports team. I understand the games are very friendly. Isn’t that so, Sergeant?’

‘Oh, aye, your lot are right friendly. We always say that the Sink Sports give the friendliest tackles in the league. But I’m afraid PC Ferne plays in another league.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that. Such a waste. But even so, Constable, we are a friendly group, and you don’t have to be gay to drink here.’ PC Ferne was looking nonplussed. He mumbled something I couldn’t hear.

‘PC Ferne, would you ask Mr Serles if he has a last name and perhaps an address for this Alan who’s a friend of Mr James.’ Twombley waited until the constable had left before turning to me again. ‘You’re being naughty, Peter. Leave the PC alone. He’s my responsibility. He’s been assigned to me for sensitivity training. I’m supposed to introduce him to what our DI refers to as “a significant subgroup in the Brighton-Hove Unitary Authority”. He has a way to go yet.’

‘Who? PC Ferne or your DI?’

Twombley chuckled. ‘Good question. I think PC Ferne may get there before the DI.’

‘Bring the constable back then. We’ll help him along. We aren’t the worst crowd he’ll encounter in a gay pub.’

‘Your lot talk too much for him. A man of few words is our Kev.’ Both of us turned to look at PC Ferne and Mike. They, or more precisely PC Ferne, were being watched closely by many of our customers. ‘Mind you, he does look good in his jogging kit.’

‘I can see that he might.’

Mike read something out from his address book and the constable jotted it down. He closed his notebook, nodded his thanks to Mike, and then looked around for Sergeant Twombley. ‘We appear to be ready to leave, Peter. Thanks again for your help. I’ll be in touch if we have any more questions.’

‘Mr Adamson, I wonder if I might have a word.’

I was seated at the bar and swivelled around to face PC Ferne. It was just before noon on the morning after Cormac’s arrest. ‘Of course, Constable. Do sit down. Would you like something to drink? Or we can make you a cup of tea or there’s soda, if you prefer. We can also offer you lunch, if you’d like. It’s nothing fancy, sandwiches mostly.’

‘Just plain soda water, then. My lunch is in my locker at work.’ Eddie, who had been listening to the conversation, filled a glass from the soda dispenser and placed it in front of the constable. A bag of crisps appeared as if by magic. PC Ferne took a drink, more out of politeness than anything else, I thought. He looked askance at the crisps and left the packet unopened. The amenities out of the way, he cleared his throat and consulted his notebook. ‘Sergeant Twombley just wanted to confirm that you didn’t serve Mr MacKinnon a drink, that the only alcohol he consumed on these premises was the drink he took from the other customer.’ PC Ferne consulted his notebook. ‘From Mr Asher, is that right?’

‘Yes, that’s right. Mike stepped forward to serve Cormac, and when he saw that he was already drunk, he refused to serve him. That’s when Cormac grabbed the drink of the man sitting beside him.’

‘Do you know what this Mr Asher was drinking?’

‘He had a pint of brown ale. He always drinks brown ale.’ Eddie broke into the conversation. ‘I pulled it for him about fifteen minutes before Cormac arrived. There must have been two-thirds of it left. That man is a slow drinker. He always takes a seat at the bar and then he never orders much.’ Eddie shook his head at the waste of space. To his mind, seating at the bar was reserved for serious drinkers.

‘And Mr MacKinnon drank most of what remained in the glass?’

‘All but what hit Sid in the face. There must have been an inch or so left in the glass.’

Constable Ferne jotted several notes in his book and then put it back in his pocket. ‘Thank you. That’s what DS Twombley wanted to know.’ He picked up his glass and took a long drink. As he did, he casually looked around. ‘This isn’t like other gay pubs. Not as loud, for starters.’

‘We try to keep it pleasant. We’re not one of the pubs for gay tourists. This is more for people who live here and want a place to meet their friends and have a quiet drink. Cormac, Mr MacKinnon, was an unusual event for us.’

PC Ferne continued his slow inspection of the room. ‘What’s that?’

‘Oh, there’s a contest for Pride Week among the gay pubs for the best poster promoting safe sex. That will be our entry. It’s drawn by one of our regulars. He does a comic strip called . . .’

‘Brighton Rock. That’s Bert and The Rock. I know them. It’s great. I never miss an episode in the Tatters’ News. I even bought the books and the comic books. And the man who draws it, he comes in here?’

‘Yes. Henry Colson.’

‘Oh, I’d like to meet him.’ The constable’s demeanour had changed completely, from serious, straight-faced guardian of the law to an excited fan. It suddenly became apparent how young he was.

‘He may not be what you expect. Henry keeps his wildness for his strip. In person he’s rather shy and retiring.’

Eddie snorted. ‘He’s a blooming wallflower, is what he is. A virgin has had more sex than Henry.’

‘I doubt that, Eddie. I suspect Henry has had a more active life than we realise. He couldn’t have drawn the last few instalments without some previous “carnal knowledge”. Would you like to meet him, Constable? He’s eating lunch at that table against the wall.’ I pointed to Henry and motioned for PC Ferne to follow me.

Constable Ferne turned around. He gasped and muttered, ‘But he’s so big.’

‘Henry, I’d like to introduce a fan. Henry Colson, This is PC Ferne. I’m sorry, Constable, I don’t know your given name.’

‘Kevin, Kev. I’m Kev Ferne. I really enjoy Brighton Rock. I’m that anxious about Bert. How’s that going to turn out? Is he going to have a new face once the bandages come off?’

The contrast between the two was striking. Henry was much taller and much wider through the body and much more unkempt looking. The constable was compact but powerful looking. His arms and wrists were almost as large as Henry’s. His hair was neatly trimmed, and every strand was in place. His clothes were unwrinkled, and the creases down the front of his trouser legs and along the outside edges of his shirt sleeves were sharp and straight. He thrust his right hand out at Henry with unabashed eagerness and delight.

What happened next was unexpected, even for those of us familiar with Henry’s ways. He ignored the constable’s hand and looked about wildly. For a second I thought he was about to make a break for freedom and flee from the law. Instead he grabbed the paper he had been reading and whipped a pen from his shirt pocket. He popped the cap off the pen with his thumb. It flew through the air and disappeared under a table. Then he began drawing. In the space of a few seconds, a face that was recognizably Constable Ferne’s appeared on the front page of the paper. Henry paused only long enough to remove the front sheet. A second view of the constable’s face began taking shape on the next page. Henry didn’t stop until he had drawn the constable from a third angle. He spread the sheets out on the table and began saying over and over. ‘That’s it. That’s the face.’ He was panting with excitement.

‘But that’s incredible. How did you do that?’ Kevin Ferne had a stunned look on his face. ‘Can I keep one of these? Me mum would love one of these.’ In truth they were excellent likenesses.

Henry looked up at the sound of Constable Ferne’s voice. Now it was his turn to look stunned. It was as if he suddenly realised that a real person was standing there and not a character from his imagination. He stood up and embraced the constable in a great hug. ‘Thank you. Your face is just what I wanted. I been trying out so many ideas and none of them worked. But this will be perfect.’ Still embracing Kevin Ferne, he did a jig of happiness. The constable looked like a boy in Henry’s arms.

Unfortunately Henry still had the pen in his hand. I was able to remove it before it did much damage to PC Ferne’s shirt. But the movement broke through Henry’s exhilaration. He set the constable back on the floor and took another look at him. ‘But you’re a policeman. Oh my god, no. I’m so sorry. I got too excited. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to grab you like that.’ Henry’s wail of despair startled the constable even more than Henry’s enthusiasm had.

‘No, it’s all right. I know what you’re feeling. I play the piano, and when I’m trying a new piece, things usually don’t come out right at first. You try this and that, and nothing works and suddenly everything falls into place, and it’s wonderful. You feel on top of the world. It’s like great sex.’

Both Henry and I gawped at PC Ferne. Henry, I think, because he was astonished to find someone who understood him, and me, because I had misjudged the constable and hadn’t thought him capable of any comprehension at all.

‘Can I have one of these? Please, it will mean so much to me to have one of these pictures.’

‘But they’re just sketches. I can draw a better picture of you. This paper isn’t right for drawing. Can you wait a few minutes? I’ve got some good paper in my car and some drawing pencils. I can do much better. Please wait. It will just take me a minute to get my things. Have lunch with me, and I’ll draw a good picture of you.’ Henry didn’t wait for the constable to answer. He was speeding out the door before Ferne could react.

‘I’ve never seen Henry so excited. I hope you will take him up on his offer of lunch, Constable.’

Kevin Ferne nodded yes. He picked up the pages from the newspaper and spread them out carefully, almost reverently, on the table and sat down. With a finger, he traced the lines of one of the drawings. He seemed fascinated by what Henry had seen in his face. ‘It’s so simple, isn’t it? Just a few lines, and it’s all there. Isn’t this wonderful?’ He smiled at me in astonishment.

‘Henry’s having his usual ham-and-cheese sandwich and a cola. Would you like the same? Or we have . . .’ I squinted at the menu on the board, ‘vegetable soup, green salad, lasagne.’

‘I’ll have what Henry’s having.’ Kevin barely withdrew his attention from the drawings long enough to reply. I wondered if he had even registered what I had said. I walked back to the bar to give Eddie the order for the Constable’s lunch. When I brought his sandwich and drink, Henry had returned and was drawing Kevin’s face. I had never watched anyone with Henry’s skills draw before. He was using pencils--I found out later that they are called graphite pencils, a special type of pencil for artists. The lines seemed to be emerging from the paper rather than coming off the pencil tip. He began by outlining all the major parts with long strokes--the shape of the head, the eyes, the nose, the mouth, the ears. Then he went back and began defining the structures with smaller strokes. The drawing came alive and took on volume and the illusion of space as he worked. What was even more amazing was that Kevin got Henry to talk as he worked.

‘I do both the stories and the drawings. That gives me more control over the results. Some cartoonists hire people to draw the strips or to touch up their sketches, but I like to do everything myself.’

‘How do you get your ideas?’

‘Well, The Rock and Bert are fixed characters by now. They’re the good guys, and they’re going to win at the end. I can’t change that. So the stories depend on the villains. Basically it’s the same plot each time. A new villain starts causing mayhem in Brighton. The Rock and Bert track him down. He entraps them, and they get in an awful fix. But, of course, they’re not really in danger because they have to survive for the series to go on. Eventually they overpower him and bring him to justice. So I have to start with the new villain. I try to get a detailed picture of him in my mind and what he’s like, what powers he has, and what his personality is, and then I let the story develop from that. I have to have the story all worked out in my mind before I start, and then the rest follows, the drawings and dialogue and such like. It doesn’t take long once I know what I’m going to do.’

Henry held up the drawing pad and took a critical look at his work. He picked up a pencil again and made a few minute strokes. Then he turned the pad so that Kevin Ferne could see the result. Kevin stared at the picture for a few seconds and then his face lit up with an enormous grin.

‘I don’t have any fixative spray with me. I’ll have to take it back to my place and spray it before I give it to you. Otherwise the lines will smudge. I think I have a frame to put it in, too.’ Henry had a crafty little smile on his face. He wrote his address and phone number on a piece of paper and pushed it across the table. ‘What time do you get off work? I just want to make sure I’m there.’

‘Work?’ Constable Ferne glanced at his watch. ‘Oh my god. I’m late. I shouldn’t be sitting here.’ He grabbed his hat off the table and snatched up the piece of paper on which Henry had written his address. ‘I usually get off at 4:00, but sometimes we have to stay later if there’s something on. I’ll call you if I can’t make it around 4:30.’ Ferne turned to leave and took a few steps. Then he halted and looked back rather shyly at Henry. ‘Thank you, Henry. You’re a nice man. Thank you for drawing the picture for me and talking with me.’

Both hesitated on the verge of speech and gave the impression that they would have said more if they hadn’t been in public. They smiled at each other and nodded as if a decision had been reached. Henry gave a satisfied shrug. For once he was trying to be modest and not succeeding. ‘I’ll see you around 4:30, then.’ As Ferne left, Henry picked up his sandwich and took a big bite. As he was chewing, his eyes met mine. He was happy, happier than I had ever seen him.

‘May I?’ I pointed to his drawing pad.

He carefully manoeuvred the pad around with his fingertips so that the drawing faced me. ‘It is best not to touch it. It can smudge. That was the truth.’

‘Henry, are you becoming devious? Did you trick the Constable into stopping by your place?’

Henry giggled contentedly and took another bite of his sandwich. His portrait of Constable Ferne wasn’t quite as realistic as the quick sketches he had done. It was hard to say exactly where it veered from accuracy. It was recognizably Kevin Ferne, but the face was slightly better looking, slightly more masculine, and, in an odd way, slightly kinder than the Constable’s face. Henry, either consciously or not, had flattered the Constable. If intentional, had he hoped to bias Kevin toward him? If unconscious, did the drawing reveal what Henry wanted Ferne to be? Henry continued chewing placidly, his eyes focused on the middle distance, at nothing in particular.

‘Henry, what did you mean earlier when you said that these sketches’--I indicated the sheets of the newspaper--‘when you said that this was the face you had been searching for?’

Henry looked up at me and indicated that his mouth was too full to answer. I waited while he chewed and then swallowed. He was holding the remains of his sandwich in his hands and was looking at it as if undecided whether to take another bite or to answer me.

‘You can’t tell anyone.’

‘You can trust me, Henry.’

He nodded and then took another bite of his sandwich. I waited him out. Finally he swallowed and then took a drink of his cola. ‘It’s for Bert. I’ve been trying to find a new face for Bert. I must have drawn a hundred faces this past week, and none of them worked. Until just now. Kev’s face is perfect.’

‘Henry, you can’t use Constable Ferne’s face in your strip without his permission.’

Henry stopped eating while he considered what I had said. One of his cheeks bulged with uneaten food. ‘But you didn’t mind when you appeared in the strip. None of the real people has minded.’

‘It’s a bit different for the Constable, Henry. He is a policeman, and Sergeant Twombley says that he’s not gay. His mates might taunt him about it if he appears in your comic strip, and then they would start to wonder if he really was gay. It might make it hard for him to remain on the force.’

‘No, you’re wrong, Mr Adamson. He’s gay. And he didn’t say naught earlier when I said his face was the one I’d been looking for. I’ll explain to him what I am going to do, and he’ll let me. I’ll talk with him this afternoon when he comes to pick up the drawing. Besides it doesn’t matter so much any more. There are lots of gay policemen. It’s probably why Kevin was assigned to Brighton. He’s a nice man. He’ll let me make him into Bert.’ Henry looked at me with serene bovine assurance as he chewed the last of his sandwich.

‘Well, Henry, I do think you should be prepared for Constable Ferne to say no. He may not want you to do it. Just be careful.’

‘Oh, I’m always careful. As Bert says,’ Henry hooked a thumb toward his poster, ‘we’re never out without protection.’ This time Henry was grinning. ‘You mustn’t worry about me, Peter. I can take care of myself.’

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