Sunday, 23 September 2007

The Cinque Ports--Part IV

The Cinque Ports, Part IV
Nexis Pas

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

16. All the Kites Are Taken

A short walkway of bricks in a herringbone pattern led to the door of the house. Unlike most such walkways, all the bricks were evenly and closely laid and free of moss and smuts. A garden stretched for eight feet or so on either side of the walk along the front of the house; it was barely three feet deep. It was so crammed with plants that the gardener must have had to stand in the street and reach over the low fence to tend it. A tower of delphiniums against the house radiated dark blue above the level of the windows. Pots of geraniums covered with clusters of flowers stood on both ends of the three steps leading up to the door, which looked as if it had recently been repainted in a bright salmon colour to match the geranium blossoms.

The two-story house behind it was the last one in the terrace and, hence, unlike the other houses in the row, had an open wall along one side. A narrow path, also made of bricks, led alongside the house to the back. Other than that, the house followed the same layout as the other houses in the terrace, which dated from the end of the nineteenth century. The door opened onto a central hallway, which led to a kitchen and a small dining room at the back. To the right of the entrance, a steep, narrow staircase rose to the second floor. Just inside the front door, on the left, was a small sitting room, barely large enough to accommodate the television and the standard three-piece suite. To the right was an even smaller room. In the original house, it would have been the good sitting room reserved for formal occasions such as entertaining guests and laying out corpses for a viewing. It now housed a work table with a chaotic pile of papers and a computer with a large screen. The upper floor held two bedrooms, one to either side of the staircase. The small bedroom at the top of the stairs had been converted into an indoor lavatory in the 1930s. Behind the house, a hexagonal wooden table with a large red canvas umbrella over it and two white plastic chairs took up most of a small flagstone patio. The privy that had once stood at the bottom of the yard had been replaced many years before with a potting shed and small greenhouse. What space remained in the backyard was occupied by another flourishing garden. Here vegetables dominated, but they competed with flowers for every inch of space.

As he swung the front gate open, Vince recognised that even on this street of avid gardeners, the display in the front yard would be seen as special. Henry’s father had devoted most of his spare time to his flowers and vegetables. Henry had been an enthusiastic helper from his early childhood and was now carrying on the family tradition, perhaps even outdoing his father. Vince didn’t know the names of most of the plants, but he had seen enough of his neighbours doing yard work to know that a garden like this required many hours of effort. Still, Henry’s garden was different. Vince couldn’t quite explain why, perhaps it was because the flowers weren’t arranged in neat rows. They grew in groups that seemed to gain lustre from the other plants around them. And the foliage was as important as the flowers. Somehow it was as much about shades and textures of green as it was about the colours of the flowers.

Vince pushed the button beside the front door. The bell sounded deep inside the house. No one came to answer it. He pushed it again and waited. His chin dropped forward, and his mouth twisted into ragged line. He had finally worked up the courage to talk with Henry and no one was at home.

‘Hallo. You’re early. I was working in the back.’ Henry’s voice preceded him as he came forward along the path that led alongside the house to the back. He was pulling off his gloves as he came around the corner. ‘I was tying up my toma . . . Oh, it’s you.’ Henry grimaced.

Vince smiled hesitantly. ‘Hello, Henry. The garden looks nice.’ He gestured toward the first group of flowers that caught his eye. ‘What’s that one called?’

‘Rudbekia.’ Henry folded his arms across his chest. He was dressed in a pair of dirty work overalls. The bib was pulled up and the straps crossed his shoulders, but his arms and much of his chest were bare. A tattered and dirty straw hat shaded his face.

‘Are you expecting someone? I can come back later. I was hoping . . . that is, I haven’t seen you for a while. . . . I was passing and thought I would stop and maybe we could talk.’

‘Someone’s coming by about 4:30 to pick something up.’ Henry must have felt a further explanation was necessary to deflect curiosity and to discourage Vince. ‘It’s business.’

‘Not for another hour then.’

Henry pulled a pair of secateurs from the belt of his overalls and knelt down and began cutting the spent blossoms from the flowers in front of him. ‘I can’t chat now, Vince. Too much to do.’

‘Please, Henry, just a few minutes.’

‘What do you want? It’s been, what, three years since you felt you had to bother with me? Didn’t you say all you wanted then?’ The secateurs closed with a decisive snap, and a blossom flew through the air and landed on the walkway. Vince stepped down and picked it up.

‘It still looks fresh.’ Vince held it up so that Henry could see it. ‘Why did you cut it off?’

‘Sometimes you have to lop them off to encourage new growth. You sacrifice one so that you get ten later.’

‘That seems rather unfair.’

‘Why are you here? You aren’t interested in talking about flowers . . . or even in talking with me, for that matter.’

‘That’s unfair, too. I’m here, aren’t I? It’s why I’m here--to talk with you. I’ve been thinking about you a lot recently and what I did. Henry, will you give me ten minutes? Just ten minutes. I just want to say that I’m sorry and to see if . . . maybe . . . we could try to be friends again.’

Henry didn’t look up. He reached out and grasped a leaf and rubbed it between two fingers. The breeze caught a faint, sharp odour and brought it to Vince. A few houses away the sound of television laughter came through an open window. Henry raised his head a fraction of an inch. ‘This is lemon verbena. It’s supposed to smell like lemons, but I’ve never been able to suss that out. More like tom cat, I think.’

‘Henry, could we go inside and talk? Your neighbour across the street is twitching her curtains and watching us.’

‘She’s always looking.’

‘Mrs Parker.’ Vince named the nosey neighbour who kept track of The Rock’s movements in the cartoon strip.

‘Yeah, Mrs Parker. You read Brighton Rock?’


For the first time since he had rounded the corner, Henry looked at Vince and met his eyes. ‘Faithfully . . .’ He stood up and examined the street carefully for what the word might mean. ‘Not your strongest trait, is it?’ He shrugged. ‘You’d best come around back then and speak your piece.’ Henry turned and headed back down the garden path. Vince stood there uncertain what to do. He had been hoping, though he knew it to be unlikely, for forgiveness and a joyous reunion. More realistically, he had expected to have to deal with Henry’s usual shy incoherence. Instead, since the last time they had spoken, Henry had grown more certain of himself, even truculent. Vince stepped out into the street and then followed Henry down the side path.

‘I’ve got to keep working.’ Henry motioned with the secateurs to one of the chairs. A pile of strips of cloth lay atop the table. It looked as if an old sheet had been torn into ribbons. ‘Sit and say what you’ve come to say.’ Henry grabbed several of the strips and began tying the tomato vines to a wooden frame that ran along both sides of the row and across the top. It was apparently what he had been doing before Vince had interrupted him. He turned his back toward Vince and devoted his attention to the tomatoes.

Vince watched the muscles in Henry’s shoulders and arms bunch and move beneath the smooth, well-tanned skin as he bent to his task. ‘I haven’t been back here in fifteen years at least. You’ve really done a lot since the last time I saw this.’

Henry nodded and went on working. ‘You’re looking good, Henry. You must be exercising now. Going to the gym.’

‘No, I don’t go to the gym. I get enough exercise working in the yard and around the house.’

‘Lucky you, then. Most of us have to work hard to get half the body you have.’ Henry shrugged. He was determined not to let Vince’s compliments touch him.

‘I saw your poster in the Cinque Ports. It’s good, really good, Henry. Everyone noticed how much Bert looks like me. They were joking with me about it.’

Henry stopped what he was doing and knelt motionless. The world became very quiet for both of them. The noise of traffic that was always present in the background was drowned out by the silence in the back yard of the Colson house. The poster predated the most recent episodes of Brighton Rock and the mystery of what would Bert would look like when the bandages came off. Vince wanted to know what would happen, but he dreaded the answer too much to ask the question directly.

Vince waited for an answer. When none came, he cleared his throat and went on nervously. He had thought carefully about what he might say. In his imagination, he had anticipated a favourable response, but now he was less sure of how Henry would receive his prepared speech. ‘Henry, do you remember once we were walking along the beach? It was early in the season, and there weren’t too many people yet. It was a windy day, and there was a group of people flying kites. And we stopped to watch. The kites seemed so impossibly high up in the air. You hardly knew that they were attached to a string. They just seemed to be floating in the air by themselves. Free of the ground. The colours were so bright against the sky and the clouds. And everyone was having so much fun. All the dads showing their children how to make the kites swoop and dip. And everyone was laughing and shouting. I looked over at you and was going to make some comment about how little it took to make a kid happy. But you were so happy yourself, I couldn’t say anything. You were looking up into the sky and laughing to yourself. It was like those kites flying out over the Channel were the most beautiful things you had ever seen. And then you lifted your arm and opened your hand, and it looked like you were reaching for one of the kites, trying to grasp it in your hand. I asked one of the people there where he had bought the kite, and he pointed to one of those stalls that set up every day along the front. And I went over there and tried to buy a kite, but the woman said that they were sold out. All the kites she had brought that day had been taken. Do you remember that?’

‘No. . . . Maybe. . . . I don’t know. That was a long time ago.’ Henry picked up the bundle of strips and moved further away. But he didn’t resume tying up the vines.

‘Sometimes I think that little things like that make a big difference. Maybe if there had been a kite and we could have shared it, we would have stayed together.’

‘No. It wouldn’t have made a difference. A kite wouldn’t have kept you from leaving. That’s silly, and it’s cheap. It’s too easy to say things like that. . . . Anyway, it was the colours. It was the colours that caught my eye. I was thinking of how to paint the motion of those colours. I didn’t care about the kites. It didn’t mean the same thing to us. I didn’t want to fly a kite. I wanted to get back here and capture the motion of the colours before I forgot. How the colours stayed in the air even though the kite had moved on. It had naught to do with the kites. If I was happy, it was because I had a good idea for a painting.’

‘So it had nothing to do with the kites.’

‘No, it was the picture. The way the sky remembers colours.’

‘Did you ever paint it?’

‘Yes. I did a series of them. They’re hanging in my bedroom.’

‘I’d like to see them.’

‘Yeah, well, maybe some other time. I just finished cleaning my room. I don’t want you tracking dirt all over it.’

‘I thought maybe you were happy because you were with me. Or was that just the colours too?’

Henry was still facing away from Vince. He mumbled something.

‘Sorry, I didn’t hear that.’

Henry turned around and stood up. He stalked over to Vince. ‘Nothing’s changed, then. You haven’t heard me for a long time. Any road, you’ve had your ten minutes. I have to get ready. My friend will be here soon.’ He motioned with his hand toward the walkway to the street.

‘I thought you said it was a business appointment.’

‘Why are you here? You said everything you had to say to me three years ago. I’m just getting over you. Finally. And moving on. I met somebody, somebody nice, somebody that likes me and that I like, somebody that thinks I’m special. Why did you have to come back now, today?’

‘I want a second chance, Henry. I made a mistake. I thought I wanted something else. But I was wrong. I thought I had to be someone else. I’m trying to change. I’m trying to be. I don’t know. I’m trying to be better. Like I used to be. ’

‘And what am I supposed to be? The new improved Vincent’s test case?’

‘No, it’s not like that at all. Why do you have to make this so difficult?’

‘Me? If it’s difficult, it’s because of you. It’s still all about you. I don’t figure into it at all.’

‘No. That’s not true. It’s about you. And me. It’s about the both of us. Together again. Like when we were small. Henry and Ross. The Rock and Bert.’

‘You haven’t been Ross for a long time. And The Rock and Bert are just cartoon characters. They’re not real. And Bert’s not you anymore. He’s going to change.’

‘You can’t change Bert. Please, Henry, if you change Bert, then that means I, that we don’t have any future. I won’t have any chance left. As long as Bert has my face, I know I can always come back.’

‘Come back? Come back to what? We can’t go back. We’re not kids anymore. You told me that years ago. We’ve changed. We’re not the same people we were. You can’t use me to recover something you threw away years ago. How long was I suppose to wait around for you to realise you had thrown away something valuable? I tried to be your Mr Right. I really tried, but it didn’t mean anything to you. I thought I had found somebody I could spend the rest of my life with, and for you it was just a few fucks. Some laughs with Henry. Anyway Bert doesn’t belong to you. He’s mine.’

‘Is everything all right, Henry? I heard you shouting and came back. I’m sorry if I’m interrupting.’ Henry and Vince whirled about at the sound of Constable Ferne’s voice. Kevin Ferne had changed into grey shorts and T-shirt. Out of his uniform, he looked even more sturdy and dense. He and Vince were much the same height, but he was much more muscular through the thighs and calves. He looked as if his youth had been spent playing football or rugby, one of the running games. His forearms and calves were covered with black hair, but the rest of his body that was visible was smooth and golden.

Henry and Vince lapsed into an embarrassed silence. Neither of them knew what to say to Kevin Ferne. Kevin looked Vince up and down. ‘But you’re Bert. I recognise you from Brighton Rock. My name’s Kevin Ferne.’ Ferne extended his hand.

‘Vincent White. I’m a friend of Henry’s. At least I used to be.’

Henry ignored the two as they shook hands. He looked off into the mid-distance and spoke to Kevin. ‘I’ve got your picture ready. It’s in my office. Excuse us, Vince. You can show yourself out.’

‘I’ll wait out here, Henry. Maybe Kevin would like to sit out here too. Enjoy your garden. It would be crowded inside with the three of us.’

‘You don’t have to stay, Vince. Kevin and I might be a while.’ Henry gave Vince a surly look.

Kevin’s gaze shifted uncomfortably between the faces of the other two. Henry’s anger was apparent, even if the cause was a mystery to him. And the other man, this Vince, looked determined to hold his ground. ‘No, I can’t stay long, Henry. My, er, my friend is waiting for me. He drove down from Reading today to spend the weekend with me. That’s really why I wanted the picture. It’s a surprise for him. I guess I can tell you since we’re all gay. Mike and I are lovers. This is the first time we’ve been able to be together since I was assigned to Brighton. He’s a policeman too, and he’s trying to get transferred here so we can be together again.’

‘Lovers. You have a lover.’ As the meaning of the words sank in, Henry’s shoulders slumped. He dropped the remaining cloth bands that he had been holding onto the table and walked toward the house without saying another word. At the back door, he stepped out of his rubber sandals.

Vince and Kevin watched the door close behind Henry and stared at the pair of sandals on the top step. The argument that Vince and Henry had been having hung in the air. Vince spoke first: ‘How long have you known Henry?’ Neither man could take his eyes off the sandals by back door to the Colson house. Henry’s presence was a pressure between them.

‘I just met him a few hours ago. In a pub called the Cinque Ports. Do you know it?’ Vince nodded yes. ‘I guess I should tell you that I’m a police constable. I was there to ask some questions of the owner, and he introduced me to Henry. Henry drew a picture of me. He had to bring it back here to do something to it and told me to drop by when my shift ended to pick it up.’ Kevin Ferne checked his watch to reassure himself that his shift had indeed ended. ‘You are Bert, aren’t you?’

‘I was. I don’t know if I’m going to be when the bandages come off.’

‘I hope Henry doesn’t change the face. Won’t be the same without the old Bert. Pardon me for asking, but are you two a couple?’

‘Just friends. We’ve known each other for a long time. My family lives on the next street over.’

‘I was thinking of taking Mike to the Cinque Ports. It seems like a friendly place. Maybe all four of us could meet there and have a drink.’

‘I don’t go out any more. Maybe Henry would join you. But the Cinque Ports is a friendly place. If your lover looks anything like you, both of you will be welcomed.’

‘It’s just that I’m a little nervous about being seen with him. Not that I’m ashamed or anything or trying to hide, but I only joined the force here in Brighton about a month ago, and I haven’t exactly trumpeted it about that I’m gay. But it doesn’t look like that will be a problem. So Mike and I decided . . .’

Henry emerged from the house holding a flat, rectangular package wrapped in shiny silver paper and tied with red ribbon. He had obviously given some thought to making it look special. He slid into the sandals as he stepped out the door, and the sound of the soles flapping against the ground was briefly the only noise. Henry thrust the package at Kevin. ‘Here.’ His voice had reverted to its usual near-inaudible level.

‘Thanks for doing this, Henry. I was asking . . . your friend if the two of you would like to join me and Mike for a drink at the Cinque Ports tonight. I want to buy you a drink to thank you for this.’

‘No, it’s all right. You don’t need to thank me.’ Henry turned away. ‘I’m sorry. I can’t stop and talk. I’ve got to finish tying up my tomatoes. They spoil if they touch the ground.’

Kevin looked uncertain what to do in the face of Henry’s coldness. He was clearly being dismissed. ‘Right. Well, I’ll be going then. Nice to meet you, Vince. Thanks again, Henry.’

Henry just shrugged and walked over to his garden. He didn’t look as Kevin shot him a final, puzzled glance and then left.

Vince waited until Kevin was out of earshot. ‘Are you all right, Henry?’

‘Are you still here? It must have made you happy to see that I’ve made a fool of myself again. Henry, the big oaf. Too stupid to see that he was living in a fantasy world again. Just go away and leave me alone. I don’t need you. I don’t need anyone.’

‘I’ve made a bigger fool of myself than that, Henry. Many times.’

‘Yeah, right. Mr Perfect. A big mistake for Vince is wearing the wrong colour tie.’

‘No, my big mistake was not recognising Mr Right.’

‘I never get anything right, Ross. I never know how to behave. I just don’t understand what I’m supposed to do.’

‘Nobody knows that, Henry. We just try to muddle along.’

‘Yeah, well, that’s a stupid thing to say. Some people muddle along a lot better than others. People like you make all the rules in the game and then won’t tell the rest of us what they are. I thought Kevin liked me. I was hoping maybe we could get together. And now I don’t have anybody again. I’m never going to have anyone but a silly cartoon character.’

‘You could have me.’

Vince had spoken so quietly that Henry didn’t even pause in his fugue of despair. ‘It fits, doesn’t it? I’m just a cartoon character myself. It’s only right that all I should have is a cartoon character. Silly stories by a stupid man who can’t manage to get a life of his own. Everybody thinks I’m stupid. They all talk down to me. Always giving me advice. Telling me what to do. They don’t think I understand what they’re really saying to me. Nobody thinks that I might . . .’

‘Might what, Henry?’

‘That I might hurt.’ Henry knelt on the ground. His shoulders shook. He raised a hand to brush something out of his eye and realised that he was still holding the bundle of cloth strips. He made an angry incoherent noise and tossed them away from himself. The strips separated as they flew through the air and scattered over the tomato plants. Vince watched him for a minute and then walked over and picked up several of the strips. He stopped a few feet away from Henry on the opposite side of the row of plants. He knelt down and tied a tomato vine to the trellis. He shifted a bit and then began tying another branch up. Henry was watching him out of the corner of his eyes. ‘You’re not doing that right. That’s too tight. It will choke that stem. You’ve got to allow space for the plant to grow.’

‘Show me.’ Vince handed Henry one of the strips. ‘Teach me how to do it right.’

‘I can do it myself.’

‘I can’t, Henry. I can’t do it by myself.’

‘Your clothes will get dirty.’

‘A small price to pay if I get it right this time.’


‘Not for several months now. I haven’t been with anyone for five or six months now. I took a look at that Christopher and I could see him becoming “Vince” in a matter of weeks, and that made me look at myself, and I didn’t want to be Vince any more. Suddenly I was so tired of the whole scene. I didn’t want any part of it. So I stopped going out. And I started thinking about what I had become and how it wasn’t what I wanted to be. But I didn’t know how to go back. That’s how I think of it, going back to the time before I started being Vince. Trying to start over and not make the same mistakes.’

‘But we can’t go back. We aren’t kiddies anymore. There’s no let’s pretend button we can push and make the present disappear.’ Vince and Henry were sitting on the patio. The sun had gone down far enough that the shadow of the house covered them. ‘What did you do?’

‘I had been going to the pubs for so long that I didn’t have anything else to do. The only other thing I ever did was work, so I decided I should just devote myself to that and try to develop my business. Then last week someone stopped me in the street and told me about your poster, and I went into the Cinque Ports to have a look. I was looking at it and I realised how important it was to me to be Bert. I was standing there talking to people and I was thinking of you, and I thought Henry’s my last chance. That Peter who owns the place was watching me, and I figured if anyone knew about you, he would. So I went over and talked to him. He told me I couldn’t go back too.’

‘Bert’s my way of going back, or at least of not going forward. Every time I draw him, I think about you. I know it’s just a fantasy, my way of possessing you.’

‘It’s become my link to you. As long as Bert looks like me, I think there is at least one person who knows Ross and likes him. That’s why I don’t want his face to change.’

Henry nodded and thought for a moment. ‘Perhaps we should let him change. Get rid of the fantasy and move on. Just be friends again instead of two superheroes in a cartoon. If we can talk with each other, I won’t need to talk to you through Bert.’

‘Henry, I’m really sorry for walking away. It was stupid and cruel and foolish. I thought it was something I had to do, something Vince had to do. But, you know, you’ve changed. You’re a different person now. More sure of yourself. More adult.’

‘Maybe. Are you?’

‘I don’t know. I’m trying to be. That’s all I can do. So you think we can be friends again? Do you think we could be more maybe?’

‘We can start by being friends. The “maybe more”--we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?’

The two sat watching the shadows rise over the garden. Finally only the tops of the hollyhocks along the back fence jutted up high enough to remain in the sunlight, the yellow stamens circled by the bright red flowers. A few bees were improving the day by buzzing around them. The orange light crept up the walls of the house behind the yard until only the roof was lit. As they watched the light fade, the streetlight beside the Colson house buzzed into life and the lights in the neighbouring houses came on. The sounds of people eating and the noise of televisions could be heard. They sat without speaking, each lost in his own thoughts. It was dark enough along the ground that a glow worm lit up briefly. Finally Henry broke the silence: ‘Why did you come by today? I suppose you knew from your mum that she and my mum were up in London.’

‘I bought them two tickets to a show in London tonight and got them a hotel room so that they didn’t have to take the late train back. I told them to have a girls’ night out in London. It was a treat because my business was doing so well.’

‘So you planned all this. My mum didn’t tell me you had bought the tickets. You knew I would be alone then.’


‘Did it work out like you planned? Did you get what you wanted?’

Vince shook his head. ‘No, I thought it would go differently. Leastways I hoped it would. As for what I want . . . that’s harder, isn’t it? Everybody is always looking for Mr Right. They always want somebody else to be their Mr Right. They never worry about being Mr Right for somebody else. I’ve been telling myself that I should want to learn to be somebody’s Mr Right. Maybe if I tell myself that often enough, I’ll come to believe it. Is that too much to want, Henry? To want to want to be somebody’s Mr Right.’

17. A Slant-Told Truth

‘So are you going to ask that Andrew out for a date?’ We were preparing to open, and Sid was polishing the new tea maker. He had taken to doing that every day. The Cinque Ports contains a lot of highly polished wood and shiny glassware, but nothing gleamed brighter than the chrome on Sid’s tea maker.

‘You’re going to wear the finish off that machine.’

‘I just want Mike to know I appreciate what he did. And you’re changing the subject.’

‘I was trying to,’ I muttered.

‘What’s that?’

‘No, I think not, Sid. I’m too old to start dating. I wouldn’t know how. Charles and I never really dated. We just fell in with each other. We were a couple long before we officially realised we were. I can’t see myself going out to a restaurant and taking in a show or a concert and then seeing “my date” to his door. What’s the drill these days? No more than a handshake on the first date? Or is a kiss on the cheek considered necessary?’

‘This may require more work than we thought. We may have to show you some videos--purely for instructional purposes, of course.’

‘ “Than we thought”? Was all of this planned? What happens if Andrew and I don’t hit it off? Is there a queue of eligibles?’

‘Hmm, we hadn’t thought of that. I’ll talk to Mike and Eddie, see who we can come up with. Maybe a lottery. Win a date with the owner of the Cinque Ports. What do you think? Five quid a chance, proceeds to go to Oxfam?’

While we had been chatting, Sid had made himself a cup of tea. I had had enough of the subject of dating. ‘I’m glad to see that you and Eddie are getting so much use out of the tea maker. It was a good idea of Mike’s. Why didn’t you mention this before?’

Sid regarded me with amusement as he took a long sip. ‘It’s killing you, isn’t it? You want to know what happened, don’t you?’

‘Well, only if you want to tell me.’

‘You’re that obvious, Peter. I can see right through you.’

‘So, tell me, then. Satisfy my curiosity.’

‘I suppose I should. You were the one who gave me the idea. I took your advice. Remember that chat we had the day Mike was out drunk? You quoted some bit of poetry at me, and I took it to heart. I told all the truth, but I told it slant, like you said.’

‘Did this have anything to do with that program on adult survivors of child abuse?’

‘Let’s just say that Mike discovered that both he and I had difficult periods when we were lads. It something we have to share now. I told Mike the whole story. And it was a true story. I didn’t mention Jonathan’s death. But he got the point that sometimes I need him, all of him. He knows something about me that he didn’t know before, and he knows I trust him enough to know that he’ll keep it a secret. And he knows that both of us have something that ties us together even tighter. So we had a long talk and we decided that we should get on with our lives and not let our pasts hobble us. We talked it out and decided we aren’t going to forget our pasts, but we’re going to move forward together and not be crippled by what happened. And if Mike wants to pamper me, who am I to deny him the pleasure? So I thank you for your help, but that’s all I’m going to tell you.’ He took a long drink from his cup and started checking supplies, writing down what was needed on a pad. ‘We shouldn’t be too busy tonight. The Mastiff’s having a Speedo night, and that will draw most of the tourists and a lot of the locals.’ With that, he turned away from me and walked into the storeroom.

‘Peter, got a minute?’

‘Sure, Mike, what’s up?

‘I was wondering if maybe Sid and I could have a week off at the same time. I know it will leave you shorthanded, but we were thinking maybe late September. That’s never a very busy a time of year. Eddie knows the drill and can manage for a week. And we can find someone to help out at the bar and to watch the door. We just want to take a short vacation together.’

‘I’m sure we can make arrangements, Mike. Where are you thinking of going?’

‘We thought the Channel Islands, or maybe over to France, drive through Normandy and Brittany. Nothing special. Just the two of us.’

‘Sounds good.’

‘Yes, we thought it would be a good idea for the two of us to spend some time alone together. We’re together all the time, but we always have things to do, and we end up being near each other without being together, if you see what I mean.’

‘I think I understand. It becomes too easy to take the other person for granted.’

‘Yes, and I don’t want to take Sid for granted. Although, you know, sometimes it’s a comfort to have someone you can take for granted.’

‘I’m always discovering unexpected depths in Sid. I admit that I misjudged him at first. My fault entirely. When Charles was still alive and running the Cinque Ports, I didn’t really know him. But since I inherited the place and have watched him in action, I find myself more and more impressed with him. Sid has a lot of talents.’

‘You don’t have to tell me that.’ Mike let a brief look of annoyance pass across his face. I was trespassing on their relationship. ‘Mind you, he still can surprise me. I’m always finding things out about him that I didn’t know. You live with a person for years, you think you know him, and then all of a sudden one day you find out something, an unexpected dimension. Did you ever find that with Charles?’

‘Oh, yes. I imagine that’s a common experience for couples.’

Mike gave me an inquisitive look as if he were thinking of asking me more, but in the end our history of reticence took over. He nodded at me and looked around the pub. ‘Well, I’d best get back to work. I’ll let you know what arrangements I make for replacements. Maybe Eddie’s friend Jack can come in.’

Mike’s question started a train of thought. It brought to mind an episode when Charles learned something about me. He didn’t much like it. The things we find out about our partners are not always welcome.

Charles was fond of telling me that he knew me. ‘I know you’--that was one of his proudest boasts. It was simultaneously an assertion of intimacy and a statement of possession. He, Charles, was the one person in the world who truly understood me. And he did understand me, or at least he understood a lot of things about me. Perhaps in certain ways he would have wished me other than what I am, but he took comfort in the view that he understood why I behave the way I do and that he could tolerate it, that he could forgive me for being that way.

‘I know you.’ I heard that perhaps once a month. It was Charles’s way of telling me that I was behaving true to form, that something I had done or said was not as surprising or as unusual as I thought. I was just being Peter again. Peter the open book to the one who loved him. And every time I heard that phrase, I resented it. I wanted to protest that I couldn’t be reduced to an easy formula, that I was more complicated than he thought, that I still had secrets and unplumbed depths. That he didn’t know the real me. That the real me was hidden away, that the real me was not something I would ever reveal to someone else, not even the person I loved for thirty years. That as long as I kept that core secret, I was still an individual and not just Charles’s Peter. That I did not need his understanding or his tolerance or his forgiveness.

‘I know you.’ It’s one of those habits one endures in a partner because one understands what is really being said. Understanding, I keep coming back to that word--why I am so certain that I understood Charles and he didn’t understand me?

And then one day, I had had enough. ‘I know you.’ I don’t remember what prompted the remark. I don’t remember why it irked me more than usual that day. Perhaps my writing wasn’t going well, perhaps I had a headache--some annoyance that broke through the habit of acceptance, of greeting that comment with a fond mental grimace. I snapped back, ‘If you really knew me, then you would know how much I hate being told that you know me.’ I can still hear the venom in my voice, the years of pent-up irritation I released in that unguarded statement.

Charles did not respond, at least not in words. But his face betrayed that I had wounded him, wounded him deeply. I was denying a belief that was a cornerstone of his view of our relationship, that we loved each other so much that we understood one another completely and fully, that there were no secrets, no hidden lumber rooms filled with thoughts that the other partner was not allowed to see. I suddenly confronted him with the prospect that I might in some respects want to be a stranger. For Charles, it was acceptable for me to be a stranger to others, to those outside the relationship. Indeed, he found that more than acceptable. It was right and proper and fitting that others not know me and that he alone did. And I had just denied that. I refused to be forgiven for being me.

I seldom lose my temper, but when I do, my anger becomes totally irrational and uncontrolled. Once I had uttered that remark and saw its effect on Charles, I felt completely justified in being angry with him. My anger became an excuse for being angry with him. I did not regret saying what I had said or see a need to apologise. I revelled in my honesty, in hurting Charles, in that assertion of power, in the destruction of what I suddenly had come to see as a façade. If anything, I felt triumphant.

The remark reverberated in the air between us. It took on an almost physical being, as if the sound had not died away but remained there in its full presence. If Charles had responded in kind, we would have had an argument and cleared the air. We could have said things we regretted and then, equality restored, forgave each other for. But he said nothing. And the longer we remained silent, the more impossible I found it to utter the emollient remark. I just could not bring myself to offer him anything that would have allowed him the solace of pretending that I had spoken in jest.

After what seemed like several minutes, he turned away and walked out of the room. For the next few days we were very careful with each other. Remarks were examined before being spoken. It was as if we had an agreement to talk only of trivialities and not to venture into more intimate territory. We nurtured our grievances in silence, but gradually the press of daily life moved us back into the familiar grooves. Eventually we went on as if nothing had been said.

Neither of us ever referred to the incident. And Charles never again said, ‘I know you.’

When I think back on my life with Charles, I don’t recall that I ever told him that I knew him. I wonder if he would have liked me to say that. I think I resented his claim to knowledge so much that it never occurred to me that he might have liked to hear me make a similar declaration.

Now that I think of it, there was one incident when he must have heard me saying that I ‘knew’ him. Charles loved to shop, and he approached it with joyous dedication. Once after I had spent a long afternoon following him on a trek through every store in Brighton, I ended up with a dozen bags dangling from my fingertips and holding several packages braced between my arms and chest while Charles manoeuvred several more packages from hand to hand as he unlocked the car. As he gradually relieved me of the packages I was holding and stowed them on the back seat, I remarked that I thought he felt that every time he went into a store, he entered into an unspoken agreement with the owners to buy something, that he wasn’t allowed to leave until he had purchased something, anything. It was an contractual obligation for a customer. He looked up at me and laughed and then embraced me, right there in the car park. Maybe it’s only my failing memory, but I think he said that I understood him. I made him happy that day.

In the end, however, what I ended up showing him was that I understood him well enough to lash out and injure him. Closeness brings odd sorts of knowledge and power.

Charles didn’t mind the daily irritations of living with someone, the infringements, the intrusions, of the other into one’s life. He saw them as proofs of intimacy. I saw them as the compromises I had to make in order not to be alone, in order to be with him. I wonder if he ever had moments when he resented having to do all the things he did for me. Did he have days when he welcomed my absence, as I sometimes welcomed his? Did he sometimes anticipate with pleasure the approach of 10:00 and his departure for the Cinque Ports and his ‘escape’ from the responsibilities of being a couple?

I can’t have been an easy person for him to live with at times. I don’t know why he put up with me. I asked him once what he saw in me. He just gave me one of his radiant smiles and said, ‘You, I see you.’ As if that were all that was necessary, all that was necessary for him.

I miss Charles, but sometimes a heretical feeling of relief surfaces. I don’t mean that I am relieved that he is dead. Rather, it’s that I’m relieved that I no longer have to make so many adjustments because I live with him. My private life is wholly mine now, not ours. I get to decide what brand of toothpaste to buy. I don’t have to pretend to enthusiasms I don’t share. Some things are easier to deal with as memories than as daily realities.

Yet, there are other memories that I cannot recall without a surge of anguish that paralyses me and stops me in time, unable to go on.

I wonder if anyone ever loves with a whole heart, without selfishness.

18. Running up that hill

Henry and I were seated on the platform for the opening ceremonies of Gay Pride Week. One of the deputy lord lieutenants of East Sussex and the Mayor had made brief speeches proclaiming the opening. It was hot sitting in the sun on the platform, and both must have been sweltering. I know I was damp and sweating, and I was dressed far more comfortably than either of them. The Mayor was wearing her red robes of office, and the Deputy Lord Lieutenant had on a heavy blue suit cut to resemble a military uniform. She was also wearing a gauzy blue hat of stupendous girth that forced any standing or sitting near her to stand back or lean away from her, a sartorial convenience unavailable to the male. I suspect her hat may inspire many a drag outfit. Neither woman must have felt totally at ease being there. But they were brave souls and did their duty. The Mayor attempted a pun that was almost a double-entendre, but she didn’t have quite the panache to pull it off. Perhaps she was distracted by the guard of honour in bathing briefs. Those of us on the platform tittered dutifully. The crowd before the platform simply looked bored.

Henry was unusually calm. I couldn’t decide whether he was exhibiting the benumbed stupor of a man about to be hanged or whether he had found some unsuspected reserve of courage. A large version of his poster was displayed at one side of the stage. Before we had been organized and ushered to our proper seats, he had been standing before it deep in discussion with the Deputy Lord Lieutenant explaining who The Rock and Bert were. Surprisingly he seemed to have little trouble talking with her. It struck me that she must have advanced social skills to be able to put Henry at ease. I was about to walk over and rescue her and him, when the Mayor decided I would do for a photograph. She knew me as a writer, and we had jointly served on a civic committee to promote reading. She is a politician, and I think she felt I was one of the few people on the platform who would reflect well on her in a ‘candid’ photo of the Mayor greeting a gay constituent. By the time she had finished using me, we were being shooed into our seats.

Henry was better dressed than usual. His trousers looked almost as if they had been tailored for him. They certainly fit well. Or rather, Henry filled them out nicely. He wore a knit shirt in dark burgundy colour, which complemented his tan. His hair had been neatly cut for once. He looked almost handsome. And he looked happy. I hadn’t had a chance to talk with him since the day two weeks earlier when he had drawn PC Ferne’s picture. I would have to remember to ask him about his talk with the constable.

After a half-hour of speeches, our part of the program finally arrived. The president of the LG Pub Owners Association was explaining the contest and its purpose. He followed this with a brief introduction of Henry and then gestured Henry forward to the mike. A thousand people must have been standing before the platform, and the applause and whistles that greeted Henry were loud and enthusiastic. I held my breath. I hoped Henry could get through the next minute. As the clapping died down, someone in the audience shouted, ‘Where’s Bert?’ The cry was taken up, and a chant of ‘Bert, Bert, Bert’ quickly rose from the crowd. Henry stood beside the podium. He leaned an elbow on it and waited the crowd out in a stance of bemused relaxation. When the noise died down, he pulled the microphone out of its holder and stepped to one side.

‘The Rock and Bert can’t be here today. They’re on a special mission. But they sent messages for me to read.’ Henry pulled two sheets of yellow paper from a pocket and unfolded them. ‘This one’s from Bert.’ He paused and pretended to read it. ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t read this one. You know the tongue on that man.’

Loud calls of ‘Read it’ greeted this announcement. Henry let the noise swell for a moment and then held out a hand to quiet the audience. Henry turned around halfway to face the other speakers on the platform and located the Deputy Lord Lieutenant. ‘Begging your pardon, Lady Margaret, but perhaps you should cover your ears. Bert’s kind of a straight shooter. Well, he’s not straight, he’s more a gay shooter, but he does use language that . . . well, he didn’t learn to talk like this from the nuns that took him in as a homeless orphan and fed him and taught him to say his rosary.’ Henry’s face was a study in concern for Lady Margaret’s virtue. The crowd was beginning to catch on, and it laughed good-naturedly.

Lady Margaret tilted her head up, pulled her glasses down to the tip of her nose, and regarded Henry over the top of them. She rose to her feet and glided over to Henry’s side. She held out her right hand palm up and wriggled the tips of her fingers to beckon for Bert’s ‘message’. Henry gave it to her. She pretended to read it and then said, ‘Oh my. He is a plain-speaking lad, isn’t he? I’m not sure what all these words mean. What’s this one?’ She pointed to a spot on the page.

Henry bent over and leaned under her hat and took a look. He covered the microphone with one hand and then whispered into the Lord Lieutenant’s ear. She promptly raised a hand to her mouth and gasped in shock. ‘Is that how’s it spelled? This Bert ought to horsewhipped.’ She drew herself up in a parody of affronted matron. ‘Is my daughter safe with this cheepy chappy roaming the streets?’

Henry’s eyes twinkled. ‘Oh, your daughter is quite safe. It’s your son you need to be conce . . .’ A roar of laughter from the crowd drowned out the rest of his remark.

‘Mr Colson, I really do not see how I can allow you to read this message in public. I cannot be responsible for the corruption of all these fine upstanding young men.’ She gestured elegantly toward the crowd. ‘Who knows what might come up if they are exposed to this . . . this prurient, lascivious message?’

More whistles and catcalls greeted this remark. A chant of ‘Read it’ rose from the crowd. Henry turned toward the Lord Lieutenant and raised his arms in supplication. She looked back and forth from the crowd to Henry several times. With a pantomime of reluctance, she finally relented and gave Henry permission. The crowd cheered as she returned to her seat. Henry let her have her applause. She stood up and bowed to the audience and then motioned to Henry to proceed.

Henry cleared his throat and ran a finger between his neck and an imaginary tight collar. ‘This is from Bert. Now remember, I’m just quoting him.’ Henry studied the sheet of paper for a minute and let the crowd’s anticipation build. ‘Dear Henry: The Rock and I don’t like to complain, but that last shipment of rubber johnnies you provided didn’t fit. Much too small. What a cock up. The Rock put one on, and I haven’t heard him screech in pain like that since the EMG took that egg beater thingy and shortened his curlies. He said he would have a bruise for days. After a hard day of walking the streets of Brighton and Hove and protecting all the Brighton piers, The Rock and I want to enjoy ourselves. How can we do that if some berk sends us rubbers that fit his tiny Brighton rock instead of our superheroes? You may not need the extra large size, specially reinforced condoms that The Rock and I use, but that’s no excuse for sending us these midget widgets.’ Henry continued on in that vein for another few minutes. Every burst of laughter spurred him on to ever more outrageous puns. By the end of the ‘message’, he was totally in the character of Bert and sputtering with indignation over Henry’s supposed ineptitude in providing condoms that with every mention shrunk to a smaller and smaller size. He ended with ‘Respectfully yours, Bert, Just . . .’ The crowd joined him in shouting the last two words ‘Plain Bert.’

When the cheering stopped, he read The Rock’s message. It was shorter and much more serious. ‘Dear Henry: I’ll get right to the point. Please remind everyone to practice safe sex. No one wants to get AIDS, no one wants to give it to anyone. We all want Brighton to rock, but never without protection. Sincerely, The Rock. PS: What Bert said.’ Henry sat down to a vast wave of affectionate applause. He was the star of the programme.

When the ceremony came to an end, the Mayor rushed over with her photographer in tow, and a picture of Henry shaking her hand appeared on the front page of the next day’s paper. The caption called him ‘Famed Brighton cartoonist Henry Colson.’ I also overheard her enlisting Henry to serve as a spokesman for the city’s safe sex education campaign. When Henry stepped down from the platform, he was mobbed by a group of fans wanting his autograph and a chance to have a picture taken with him. The friendly feelings spilled over to the Deputy Lord Lieutenant and the Mayor. The last I saw of them, they were sitting behind two leather-clad bikers and riding back to the town hall on motorcycles to the applause of the crowd.

I stood on the steps of the platform waiting for Henry to be free. The crowd around him gradually thinned. It was then that I saw Vince. He was standing a few feet behind Henry and beaming with happiness. When I started down the stairs, the motion caught his eye. When he saw it was me, he smiled and laughed. ‘Wasn’t he great? I told him he could do it. He just had to be himself.’

At the sound of Vince’s voice, Henry turned. ‘I’m still quaking inside. I’ve never been that frightened in my life. I asked Lady Margaret how she did it, and she told me her secret was to imagine that everyone was two years old and being naughty whenever she got up to speak. She also said it was easier to speak to a large crowd than a small group. I should just remember that everyone wanted me to succeed and wanted to laugh. That they would laugh at anything that was even remotely funny. And she was right.’ Then he saw me standing beside Vince. ‘Peter, you don’t have to wait for us. Ross and me can find our own way.’ Henry went back to signing autographs.

I turned to Vince. ‘Maybe Henry told you, but we’re having a party at the Cinque Ports tonight to celebrate his win. It starts at eight. Could you make sure Henry gets there?’

‘Don’t worry, Peter, we will be there before eight. I’ll be sure to remind “Vince” to remind me to arrive on time for my own party. You don’t always need to arrange things for me.’ Henry looked up from signing an autograph and regarded me with exasperation.

‘It was a complete surprise to me. I didn’t know that Henry had that in him. He’s usually so shy. I may have been misjudging him.’ That was the third or fourth variant on that sentiment that I had uttered. I was finding it hard to carry on a conversation with Andrew Wade and kept reverting to the same thought.

‘ “People aren’t always what we think they are. They surprise us because we misjudged them, not because they were misleading us.” ’ Andrew rewarded himself for intoning that sententious remark by taking a sip of wine. He had accosted me as I was walking toward the Cinque Ports after the ceremony and insisted on treating me to a glass of wine. I wanted to get out the sun so badly that I agreed. I was already regretting the impulse and wondering how long before I could decently offer an excuse to get away. I had the beginnings of a headache. Sitting in the sun had started it, and the wine was encouraging it. ‘You had Paul Caine say that in The Quad.’

‘Did I? I don’t remember that. But it sounds in character for Paul. He was prone to pompous statements. I’ve never been satisfied with that work.’ My unspoken thought was that Andrew Wade had evidently been doing his homework. The first time we had met, he hadn’t revealed he knew that I was Peter Adamson the novelist. I doubt that he had had time to read all my works. Perhaps he was taking them in chronological order. The Quad was my third book. It was the first book I completed after I met Charles, and it--deservedly--has been out of print for years. I don’t know how he found a copy.

‘Why not?’ For a brief instant after I had characterised the statement as pompous, Andrew’s lips had tightened. But only for an instant. The mask of bland polite interest resumed almost immediately.

‘I would write it very differently now.’

‘How so?’

‘You should never ask an author to discuss his works. It’s an obsession with most of us and of little interest to anyone else.’ Andrew was becoming irritating. I don’t know whether it was because of his duplicity in dealing with me or because I felt that Sid and Mike and Eddie were pushing me into dating him or just because it had already been a long day. I was once interviewed by a student journalist from my old school. Andrew reminded me of that boy. Too eager. Too ready with compliments. I should liked to have taken Henry back to the Cinque Ports and celebrated his triumph but instead I had been dismissed and sent off so that he could be with Vince. And now I was having to endure a ‘fan’ who was quoting my own works at me.

Brighton was already beginning to fill with visitors and tourists here for the summer and for Gay Pride Week. The place Andrew had chosen had windows at the front that opened and folded back to allow air in on warm days. We were seated by the window, separated by the width of the sill from the crowd jostling one another to get passed on the pavement. Scraps of vapid conversation from passers-by drifted in, and an annoying number of people felt it necessary to remark that we were drinking wine, as if that were one of the sights of Brighton. ‘Oh look, dear, those men are drinking wine and it’s not gone five o’clock yet.’ The traffic and the background noise made it hard for me to hear Andrew, and I had to lean forward to carry on a conversation. Plus the chair was an uncomfortable assemblage of bent wood, with uneven legs that made it rock back and forth every time I moved. I was beginning to get a backache to go with my headache.

‘No, seriously, I am interested. How would you change it?’

Well, I thought, now you’re in for it, Andrew. You asked the question. You can put up with the longwinded answer. Andrew had asked for enlightenment. I decided to let him have it. Perhaps I could bore him into leaving. I suspect he was unacquainted with authors. I learned early on never to ask another author to explain something.

‘You must remember that a very young man wrote that book. A very young and very optimistic lad given to romantic flights. I was in the last throes of the raging hormones stage, and I had just met Charles and I had high hopes for the relationship. I was sure that ours would be one of the great romances of all time, that I had met my soul mate, that the two of us would avoid all the mistakes our parents and everyone else had made, and that we would live happily ever after. I was in love with myself and my talents and with the idea of being in love. A lot of that spilled over into the book.’

‘You know, don’t you, that relationship between you and Charles is one of the happily-ever-after inspirational stories? I’ve heard several different versions of it since coming to Brighton.’

‘No, that I didn’t know. But it was a very successful relationship. Mainly because Charles had his feet on the ground and wouldn’t allow me to overindulge in romance. He taught me not to be disappointed when the impossible proved unobtainable. I was very lucky.’

‘I’m sure he felt that way about you as well.’ Again he rewarded himself for uttering a pompous remark by sipping at his wine. ‘So, tell me, how would an old, pessimistic realist rewrite The Quad?’

‘Do you remember the story of the Chinese zither player I used in the book? The virtuoso who found an equally talented listener? Everything he played, his friend immediately understood. And when his friend died, the musician broke his zither in half and never played again. When he was asked why, he said, “My zhiyin, the one who understood my music, is dead.” And ever since the phrase zhiyin has been used in China to signify the one friend who understands you completely.’

‘Yes, you refer to it throughout.’

‘Well, that is one thing I would change. I would mention it only once. Restraint is a discipline I am still working to acquire. But, if you remember, I used that story to introduce the notion of longing for the person who understands oneself. But now I think that’s too simple. We also try to distance ourselves from the zhiyin.’

‘Yes. We both do and do not want the zhiyin. We both cling to him and resist him. The zhiyin’s knowledge of us threatens our sense of self, and we end up pushing him away in order to preserve our independence. And how many of us would have the strength to destroy the zither, the one thing that makes us special and different?’

‘Precisely.’ Andrew got the point. So few people did. ‘That’s very perceptive. I hadn’t thought that about the zither, but you’re right.’ I suddenly wished for a piece of paper and a pen so that I could make a note of that, but the only paper available was the damp serviette under my wine glass. ‘Anyway, if I were to rewrite the book, I would make the relationship between Paul and Colin much more fissured now.’ I was patting my pockets vainly trying to find something to write on. I knew I didn’t have anything but that didn’t stop me from hoping. Andrew figured out what I was searching for and tore a sheet from a notebook he pulled out of a pocket and handed me a pen.

‘Would you do away with the happy ending?’

‘No. It’s just that they would have to fight harder to achieve it. Excuse me while I jot this down before I forget. . . . I’m sorry. I’ve fallen out of the habit of carrying a notebook. I used to do that so I could make notes of stray thoughts that occurred to me. Anyway to answer your question. It wouldn’t so much be a happy ending as a wise ending. They would understand themselves and each other better by the end, and they would understand the limits to their knowledge of themselves and each other, and they would accept that as sufficient. They would credit themselves with fewer virtues, and credit others with more, and they would be more realistic in their expectations of each other. They would have the courage to forgive themselves and each other for being human. They wouldn’t be so angry that they had failings or work so hard to hide that fact from themselves.’ I was trying to catch my thoughts on paper as they came to me. I was writing as fast as I could. I only hoped that I would be able to decipher my abbreviated scribbles later. ‘I wonder, could I have another sheet of paper? I’m so sorry. I just don’t want to lose this train of thought.’

‘Of course.’ Andrew handed me the notebook. ‘Use as many sheets as you need. It would be more like your recent books then. The characters would be more complete.’

‘I hope that bit about the characters is true. I think my characters have become more complex, more layered. They’re not so one-sided now. Some of them are almost obstreperous in fact. All of them have entertainment lawyers now, and they come with thick contracts specifying how many words they get, etc.’ Andrew had the grace to laugh at my joke. I allowed him to savour it and his appreciation of it for a few seconds. ‘But seriously, I should have waited until I was older to write my first books. I didn’t know what I was talking about then. Well, I still don’t, but now at least I am aware of my ignorance.’

‘Do you want me to deny that statement? Or should I praise your early works as faultless and filled with wisdom? What response are you looking for here?’ Andrew was displaying unexpected signs of insight. I laughed and shrugged. I was trying to appear amused instead of at a loss for words. I took a drink of wine and looked over his shoulder at the crowd passing the window. A young couple happened to catch my eyes as I glanced up. They gazed at each other fondly and then smiled at me. Whatever was making them happy, they were willing to share. When I failed to say more, Andrew asked rather gently, ‘Would you go back and rewrite them, The Quad for instance?’

‘No. I’ve already written that book. I would rather write a new book on the expanded theme. In fact, now that I think about it, I should work up an outline based on this idea. It’s time for me to start writing again.’

‘Aren’t you writing now?’

‘No, I haven’t written anything for five, six years now. Not since Charles became ill. He had cancer, you know. He was sick for a year before he died, and taking care of him absorbed all of my energies. By the end of the day, I often was not capable of writing one word. Then I became responsible for the Cinque Ports, and that takes a lot of my time. Well, to be honest, I let it take a lot of my time. Spending my days there was an easy habit to acquire. I don’t even really need to be there. Mike and Sid ran it when Charles got too sick to do so, and they could do it again. I ought to turn the place over to them. But in the beginning, I needed to get away from the house, and I could pretend that I now had a job that required my presence. Most of the time I enjoy it. I get to talk with different people and see them in action. It’s been an education.’

‘You make yourself sound like an observer, a collector.’

‘Oh, I think every writer is that. We collect bits and pieces and examine them. Then we store them away and bring them out later when a story needs them.’

‘That sounds too cold. You are a much warmer man than that.’

‘No, I lived with a very warm man. I know I am not that. Charles had more generosity of spirit that I do. I realise that now. I was always jealous of his ability to generate friendship. He liked people more than I do, and he tended to accept them as they are. And people responded to his warmth and openness and liked him back. Just as I did. He was the only person I have ever allowed inside my defences. But I sometimes think that that kind of emotional closeness is a foreign language for me. I can speak it, but my accent is quite thick.’

‘Now you are being too harsh on yourself. Every time I have been to the Cinque Ports, you have been surrounded by people who are obviously enjoying their time with you. You are a much more open man than you give yourself credit for.’

‘Perhaps. Perhaps that’s what I want to appear to be. Perhaps that’s what you want me to be.’ I smiled to take the sting out of that remark. ‘I think it’s more that I can be a witty man. People come to me to be amused. That’s not the same as being friendly. They also like the idea of being with someone who has a name. I try to face what I am squarely, Andrew, and not deceive myself. I collect people’s stories. Charles was a participant in them. He enjoyed life. I analyse it and write about it. I learned from him how to mimic warmth. On my own, I developed the ability to use simulacra of warmth to forestall intimacy. Ironically, because of Charles’s death, I ended up being a pub owner and forced to engage in other people’s lives. I am not by temperament a public man.’

‘Then you are either a very good actor or seriously deluding yourself.’ He drew my attention to the menu posted on the wall. ‘They’ve put up the chalkboard with tonight’s offerings. They must be ready to serve. Would you like another glass of wine before we eat or would you rather order now? We can always have more wine while we eat.’

‘If you don’t mind, I think I would rather prolong this discussion. I am finding it enjoyable. Perhaps we can have another glass and put in our orders and ask that the food be brought when we’ve finished the second glass. We’ll have to be at the Cinque Ports around 7:30 for Henry’s celebration, but we should have time for another glass and dinner.’

‘I don’t mind at all, Peter. Do you remember which of those young men was our waiter? I’m afraid I wasn’t paying any attention to him.’

19. Under the ivy, . . .

‘That was a complete surprise. I didn’t know that Henry had that in him. I think that was the funniest speech I’ve ever heard at one of those ceremonies. Usually they’re so boring.’

‘Oh, that feels good. Don’t stop.’

‘You aren’t paying attention to anything I’m saying, Sid.’

‘You’re talking about Henry’s speech. A complete surprise. Didn’t know Henry had that in him. Funniest speech, boring ceremonies.’

‘So you were listening.’

‘I can moan and listen at the same time.’

‘So I see. Can you lift your arm just a second? The sheet got all bunched up beneath me. I want to straighten it out. There, that’s better. I think we’re going to have to buy a new mattress. This one is becoming too lumpy.’

‘I suppose we should get up and go to work.’

‘We’ve got time. The party doesn’t start until 8:00, and Eddie and Peter can handle things. We don’t need to be at the Cinque Ports until 7:00 or so.’

‘You should get some sleep. You were up half the night.’

‘How did you know that? I tried to be very quiet and not wake you.’

‘You didn’t wake me. I just sensed you weren’t in bed anymore. When I opened my eyes, I could see you standing at the window. Just a shadow against the light. You were standing there looking down at the street.’

‘Oh, Sid, I’m sorry I disturbed you.’

‘You didn’t disturb me. It was sort of comforting to see you there. Just standing there so peaceful and quiet. I just lay there for a while watching you until I fell asleep again. I knew all was well.’

‘How did you know it was me? It could have been any of your many admirers.’

‘It was a Mike-shaped shadow. It’s very distinctive. And what would I do with an admirer? I’ve never been a bigamist.’


‘Not since I met you. We’ve talked about this before. What are you doing--checking up on my devotion? Anyway, what were you thinking about that kept you up?’

‘About that discussion we had yesterday about our future. I just woke up and realised I was happy that we had been thinking about our future together and then I couldn’t go back to sleep. And I didn’t want to wake you. So I got out of bed. The street was so still. Nothing was moving out there. I just stood in the window. I think I was waiting for a sign. Nothing happened. And then I thought that maybe the fact that everything was still and calm was the sign, that we had reached a quiet space in our lives. A safe harbour. And one thought led to another, and I was thinking maybe--now don’t laugh--but I was thinking maybe we should open our own place. A place of our own, instead of working for someone else.’

‘Our own place? You mean open a pub somewhere?’

‘Yes. Just our own place. We could make it work, I’m sure of that.’

‘I know we could. But maybe Peter would sell us the Cinque Ports. He doesn’t need the money, and he’s not really interested in running it. He likes to talk with people and be around them, but the work itself doesn’t interest him. He can still talk to people if he’s not the owner.’

‘He does like to talk, doesn’t he?’

‘I wonder if he dictates his books into a machine and then has someone else type them up just so he can hear the sound of his voice. Did you ever read one of his books? I tried reading one of them once. It was filled with people who talk like him--you know, that way he has of pausing and then speaking as if he expected everyone to be amused and knocked off their feet by his brilliance. Every character was like that. Anyway, do you think he would sell us the Cinque Ports? We could do a lot with it. Attract a younger, livelier crowd. Bands and a cabaret. It could hold twice the number of people who are there most nights.’

‘It’s an idea. I don’t know if Peter would sell. He’s still so attached to Charles and everything associated with Charles.’

‘I think he just feels guilty that he wasn’t nicer to Charles when he was alive. He’s trying to make it up to Charles that he’s the one who survived by trying to continue Charles’s life for him. Think about it. How often did he come around to the Cinque Ports when Charles was alive? Maybe once a month, if that. Now he’s there every day, getting in everyone’s way. Won’t let us change anything because “Charles did it that way”. Bores everyone with all that chatter of his.’

‘That’s not fair, Sid. He works. And he doesn’t bore people. Lots of people like to talk with him.’

‘Do you know what Charles told me once? He said that he had never read one of Peter’s books all the way through. That he just skimmed them enough so that he would have something to say if Peter asked him. He didn’t even read that famous one, the one that won that prize. You know, the one that was dedicated to Charles that everybody always talks about.’

‘Unstable Equilibrium? Charles never read that?’

‘Yes, that one. Charles told me he couldn’t get through it.’

‘Well, I don’t know about that, Sid. That might have just been Charles talking. Sometimes I think Charles was jealous of all the attention that Peter got for his books. Sometimes he was proud to be Peter’s partner. Other times, he just got tired of people treating him as if that’s all he was, just Peter’s partner. He wanted to be valued for himself and not because he just happened to live with someone famous.’

‘Ah, who ever knows the truth about other people’s relationships? Anyway, it’s past time for Peter to move on. That Andrew’s chasing him. There are others, but he doesn’t see them. I think we should ask Peter if he would sell us the Cinque Ports, or maybe lease it to us. And the first thing we should do is change the name. I get tired of people asking me what it means.’

‘Mmm. Sid’s Place. How does that sound?’

‘Or Mike’s Fish and Chips. The Best Plaice in Brighton. How about that? Mmm. Old joke but it made you smile. Did I ever tell you you have a nice laugh?’

‘You’ve mentioned it a few times.’

‘Anyway, we should ask around how much a pub like the Cinque Ports sells for and then see if we can raise the money. And then when we get back from the trip, we can start talking to Peter about it. See if we can persuade him.’

‘We can talk about this later. And if you keep doing that, we may never get to work.’

‘I love you.’

‘Oh, say that again, Sid.’

‘I love you.’

‘It makes my toes curl every time you say that. It’s such a wonderful, I don’t know, it’s like this incredible gift that for some reason I’ve been lucky enough to be chosen to receive.’

‘You know what I like--that you don’t say “I love you” right back.’

‘I can say it if you want.”

‘No, no, that’s not what I want. Not at all. I just want to see you smile when I tell you that I love you. It’s more like you treasure it then. If you said it right back, it would just be saying what you’re expected to say, like saying “fine” when someone asks how you are. Anyway, I know you love me. You’re the bloke what stews me char every morning.’

20. . . . there by the white rose

‘I’m so proud of you, Henry. I know I really don’t have the right to share in the credit for what you did, but when you were up on the stage today and making everybody laugh, I couldn’t help myself. I was just so proud.’

‘Well, you were right, weren’t you? You told me I just had to look confident and stride over and grab the microphone. I didn’t think I would have the courage to say anything. But when people started laughing at what I said, then I knew you were right. I could do it, and that made it easier to go on.’

‘You were wonderful. They’ll probably ask you back again next year. You’ll have a whole new career as a comic.’

‘Oh, no, I hope not. It was nice and all, to make people laugh and get all that applause. But I’m not really the person who was up on that stage. That’s why I wanted to come here. Just to get away from all those people who expect me to be funny and fit their idea of who I am. I get tired of trying to be that person. That’s what makes it so hard for me some times. All those people pushing at me. I don’t want to be what they want me to be. And I don’t know how to make them let me be what I want to be, and so I run away.’

‘But I’ve been pushing at you.’

‘That’s different. You were helping me do something I had to do and get past it. And, well, it’s not the same with you. For one thing, you let me push at you. So we’re even. And you listen to me. Like when I was talking about painting and what it means to me to get it right. You took me seriously. Everybody else just says the paintings are nice or pretty, and when’s the next issue of Brighton Rock coming out? But “nice”--that’s not what I want. And “pretty”, I don’t want that at all.’

‘And this is the point where I turn to you hopefully and ask you what you do want.’

‘Lots of things. To make you happy. But that you knew already. And I want the paintings to frighten people. I want them to feel terror--and hope--at the wonder and possibilities of colours and textures and light and shadows and shapes and faces. And I’d like a place like this for us.’

‘Like this?’ Vince raised himself up on his elbows and looked around his flat. ‘But it’s so small. We can afford a bigger place.’

‘Maybe. But we’re used to small. That’s what we grew up with. Those little houses with small rooms. I just feel more comfortable in them. It’s like having a nest. I wouldn’t know what to do with more space. It just feels better to me to have the walls in close, where I can touch them. I fly better when I launch myself from small places. Look at you. You could afford a bigger place, but you chose to live here. It’s what we are, Ross. You can take the lads out of the terrace, but you can’t take the terrace out of the lads. But we may not have to find a place. You know that Mr Turner who lives on your street. My mum has been going out with him. She’s dropping hints that they’re getting serious. And if they get married, we would have the house to ourselves.’

‘Then you could keep your garden.’

‘Our garden. You would have to learn how to garden.’

‘Only if you let me put a rock in the back.’

‘A rock?’

‘Yeah, a big rock.’

‘Why a rock? I don’t get . . . Oh, I see. Oh, ok, we’ll plant a rock for you. But we could put it in the front where other people would see it, and I could put plants around it that showed it off. I could make your rock look like it had been there since the beginning of time and would be there forever.’

‘Not just any rock. A big boulder. And I don’t want to share my rock with anyone. Just you and me. And I want to be the one to do the plantings. I won’t do as good a job as you would, but I want to do it. So every time you look at it, you think of me and what a horrible gardener I am and how much you still have to teach me.’

‘Ok, a big boulder in the back. And you do the landscaping. But no gnomes.’

‘No gnomes. I’ll be the only gnome in our garden.’

‘You’re not a gnome, Ross. Definitely not a gnome.’

‘I’m trying not to be one, Henry. But if I ever start being one, promise me that you’ll tell me. I want this to turn out right.’

‘Why did you say that? We’re going to make it, Ross.’

‘We can’t know the future, Henry. We can only try. That’s all we can do. But I hope we make it. And I hope we go on hoping that.’

‘And what else do you want? Really, I mean it. What do you want? Something special.’

‘You know what I’ve want? An ocean voyage. A boat slicing through the water and skimming over a blue sea with billowing white sails filled taut with the dawn wind. The bow wave spreading out behind us in an enormous V toward the horizon. Stopping at different islands. You wearing a thong. A red thong. Us swimming like sleek porpoises in the sea with brightly coloured schools of fish around us, all of them wheeling about and turning together with us. You standing afire in the sunset. A big golden moon rippling towards us over the water. The two of us drinking out of coconut shells and dancing by ourselves on a beach to music coming out of the dark.’

‘But I can’t dance.’

‘If you can teach me how to garden, I can teach you how to dance.’

‘But I’m such a clumsy oaf.’

‘When you were thirteen, you were an oaf. You’re not an oaf now. You made a thousand people laugh today. You can learn to dance.’

‘Me dancing would make a lot of people laugh.’

‘I won’t be laughing.’

‘No, you’ll be saying “ouch ouch ouch” because I’ve stepped on your feet so many times.’

‘Now none of that. We promised each other we would be brave and take chances and grow. Besides, I’m quick on my feet. I won’t let you step on me.’

‘Can I hold your hand?’

‘Of course. But we can do more than hold hands. There still plenty of time before we have to put our clothes back on and go to your party.’

‘I like to hold your hand. Holding hands, that’s something that couples do, isn’t it?’


‘I don’t get it.’

‘What, Eddie?’

‘Today’s Brighton Rock in the paper.’ Eddie handed me the latest edition of the Knitters’ and Tatters’ Guide folded open to the page with Henry’s strip. The comic had six panels instead of the usual four.

Panel no. 1. The Rock and Bert are standing on the Pebble Beach. Their backs are toward the reader. Their heads are tilted, and they are looking up into the sky over the Channel. They stand slightly apart. Bert’s head is still wrapped in bandages. In front of them right next to the Channel several children are flying kites. Bert is saying: ‘So tomorrow the bandages come off. And then we’ll know.’

Panel no. 2. The Rock has turned toward Bert. We see his face in profile. Bert is still looking up at the kites. The Rock is saying: ‘Wait here. I’ll be right back. Wait.’

Panel no. 3. The Rock is standing in front of one of the beachfront stalls and pointing at a kite hanging on the wall.

Panel no. 4. The Rock has launched the kite, and the wind is tugging it up into the air. He is shown handing the cord to Bert.

Panel no. 5. The two still face outward toward the Channel, but now they are standing next to each other. The Rock has put his right arm across Bert’s shoulders. Bert’s left arm hugs The Rock’s lower back. The kite is speeding aloft.

Panel no. 6. An unoccupied bedroom with a neatly made bed, a very wide and very long bed that takes most of the space in the room. The curtains are pulled shut. The door of a large wardrobe is open. Hanging within it is a row of Brighton Rock and Bert uniforms. The feet of the Brighton Rock outfits trail on the floor of the wardrobe. The Bert costumes are shorter. The sleeves of one pair of the Bert and the Brighton Rock suits are entangled. At the bottom of the panel is a message: ‘The adventures of the Brighton Rock and Bert will resume on September 25, after they return from a well-deserved tropical holiday. A spokeshero for the Ministry of Superheroes declined to reveal their destination and asks the public and the media to respect their privacy.’

The End

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