Friday, 16 April 2010

The Harrowing of Arsonoth

I occasionally write a story that would be inappropriate for this blog because of its content. You can read the latest such story on Nifty. It's called 'The Harrowing of Arsonoth' and entangles yet another innocent in a misadventure involving Lewis. This link should take you to it.

http://nifty.nisusnet.com/nifty/gay/sf-fantasy/harrowing-of-arsonoth


 

The Island 2

Tabulae mundi mihi, The Island




The Island 2

Nexis Pas
(c) 2010 by the author



Between the ages of two and seven, when we moved to Munfrees, I lived with Aunt Alyce and my mother in a flat on Bell Street in Dublin. Until I returned as a university student, the row of shops between the building in which we lived and the primary school I attended was what came to my mind whenever that city was mentioned. Every storefront was a distinct colour—the chemist’s was red, the baker’s a light blue. I suppose the shops may have had names, but they were always referred to in generic terms—the grocer’s, the butcher’s, the chipper—there was only one of each and no further distinction was necessary within the neighbourhood.

That section of the street was always in motion. In the early morning, deliverymen bringing supplies to the shops shouted at one another and at passing schoolboys to get out the way. Later, in the afternoon, it was crowded with shoppers, some of them moving purposefully, other dawdling to look in shop windows or stopping to talk with friends. For the small boy that I was, both the deliverymen and the shoppers were props in a game whose purpose was to move as quickly as possible around them without running into anyone or anything.

The morning trip provided more of interest. I could almost predict what we would have for our evening meal by examining the greengrocer’s long, narrow cart. Most mornings it was parked outside his shop, laden with boxes and baskets of pale green cabbages, darker kale, and white turnips, along with the burlap sacks exuding the earthy smell of potatoes and the sharper scent of onions, waiting to be carried into the store. Carrots often provided the only bright colour.

Usually the offerings on display were the same monotonous dozen or so items. Many fruits and vegetables that we now take for granted were rare treats then, to be had for only a few weeks each year. Whenever oranges were available, the shopkeeper would make a pyramid of them in the window to announce that fact. Every time I saw that, the hope would grow that Aunt Alyce had bought us one for our tea, and that when I arrived home, an orange would be sitting on a plate in the centre of the table. One orange was enough to perfume our small flat. When the time came, Alyce would peel it carefully, her long fingers becoming stained white. She would set the orange back on the plate while she carried the peel away and washed her hands. Then would come the magic moment when she divided it into segments and placed them on our plates. A gift of sunshine, she once called them. She and my mother wove a tale of a grove of orange trees in Portugal and its keeper, an old man who gathered sunlight and put it inside the fruit until each one became radiant with colour, and of a speedy ship, its sails taut with wind and its hold filled with chests of glowing light, that brought the fruit across the sea to Dublin.

Left to my own devices, I was fonder of gore. My favourite morning sight was the unloading of carcasses at the butcher’s. I wasn’t supposed to tarry on the way to school, but I always found an excuse for stopping to watch—a shoe that needed retying or a search through my satchel to make sure that I hadn’t forgotten a pencil. The delivery van stood open while the butcher examined the bodies of pigs and sheep and the sides of beef hanging from hooks fixed to the roof of the van. The butcher and the driver would argue over prices, while the butcher’s boy in his blood-stained smock waited stoically for the moment his boss would motion him forward to carry one of the bloody slabs of meat into the shop. I loved the fluid motion with which the man detached one of the carcasses from the hooks and shouldered it even as he hopped down from the van to the street, his face barely registering his exertions. I hoped one day to be able to duplicate that impressive feat of strength. Later, the head of the pig or the sheep would appear on a tray in the centre of the shop window, surrounded by a ring of sausages. On the few occasions I entered the butcher’s, I didn’t like it, however. The shop oozed a sour, acidic smell.

The walk home was quite different. All the shops were open and their goods spilled out onto the pavement on makeshift shelves and stacks of boxes. But, in contrast to the morning, the goods had become tamed--everyday commodities beyond my reach rather than exotics encountered unexpectedly and offered for free to my view. I had no money and seemingly no hope of ever having any, but I liked to look and to contemplate buying. I picked my imaginary purchases carefully. No one got more value for a pence than I.

My memories of the school are much more indistinct. I remember the excitement of learning to read, but I recall little of the classroom in which I first discovered that the marks on the pages of books could be deciphered and then combined to make other words. The teacher is now only a blur in my mind. She has neither personality nor a name in my memory.

I have stronger memories of our flat on Bell Street. It consisted of two rooms. A toilet and bathroom across the hall were shared with the other flat on the same floor. The front room overlooked the street. It functioned as our sitting room, kitchen, and my bedroom. A gas ring, a sink, and a cupboard in one corner were the kitchen. There was a large circular table in the middle of the room. My mother and Aunt Alyce wrote their books at it, composing and revising the drafts on tablets of paper and then typing the final versions to be sent to the publishers. Later in the day, it would become the table at which they prepared our meal, and still later, the table at which we ate. I did my schoolwork there in the evening, while my mother and aunt read or wrote or talked. A couch beside the window overlooking the street became my bed at night. Blankets and a pillow would be taken from a wardrobe and unfolded. A curtain hung from a rope was pulled across that section of the room when I went to bed. I went to sleep each night listening to the sound of pages being turned in books or to the scratching of pens on paper or the occasional murmured comment. Often noises on the street would wake me in the middle of the night. I would noiselessly raise myself from my makeshift bed and pull back the curtains and watch the neighbourhood.

The inner room was my mother and aunt’s bedroom. I seldom went into it. I don’t recall that there was a specific prohibition against entering it, but the door to it was usually closed. It was always closed at night.

My mother was named Kathryn Brennan. I had been christened Patrick Ross Stephen Michael Brennan and was always called Patrick. Aunt Alyce was Alyce Collins, my mother’s older sister. As far as I knew at the time, I had no other family. My mother was twenty-eight and my aunt thirty-one when we left Dublin for Munfrees.

My mother and Aunt Alyce were writers, mostly of fiction but also of the occasional essay for the papers or magazines. I don’t know if they earned enough then from their writing to support us. We certainly weren’t rich, but there were many far poorer than we were. I would learn later that my mother and aunt received money from their family, and that may have paid for my school fees and other expenses. They also owned a car and knew how to drive it, at a time when it was still uncommon in Ireland for a woman to do so.

*****

“Because your mother needs a place where she can work. There is too much noise here.” Alyce continued packing. When I had arrived home from school, she was filling a suitcase with my clothes. As she picked each piece up, she folded it into a neat square or rectangle before putting it in the suitcase. “We’re leaving tomorrow morning. We now own a house in a village called Munfrees. It belonged to a great-uncle of ours. He died and now it’s ours. Munfrees is in Donegal, along the north-western coast, north of Sligo. I’ll show you where it is on a map as soon as I finish packing. You’ve never been to such a place before. It will be an adventure for you.”

“But school won’t be finished for another month. Why are we leaving now?”

“You have your books. You can read the lessons on your own. If there’s something you don’t understand, your mother and I will teach you.”

“But I don’t want to go. I like it here.”

“Patrick, you must not be selfish. Munfrees will be good for your mother. It will be a much healthier place for all of us, and it will give her the quiet she needs to work.”

“And what about our things? We can’t take the table and our beds in the car.”

“We don’t need them now. We have sold them. A man will be by to pick them up in the morning. We have what we need in Munfrees. Now, gather all your books and paper and put them in that box.”

I had a strong sense of unease that evening. My mother pointed out Munfrees on the map and showed me the route we would take. I had no concept of the distance involved. I had seen a map of Ireland before, of course, but I had spent most of life, at least the years that I could remember, on Bell Street and its environs. We occasionally journeyed to other parts of Dublin, to visit a doctor perhaps, but those trips were rare. I could probably name the counties of Ireland and locate them on a map. We had a globe at school, and I had learned to identify the major countries. I had seen pictures of other parts of Ireland and of the world. But those were things I experienced in books. For me, those things had the same status as the “stories” I read in books. I didn’t distinguish “fact” from “fiction”, indeed wasn’t even aware that there was a distinction to be made.

Of course, as I write this, I am an adult attempting to reconstruct feelings that I had close to sixty years ago. I certainly did not express myself in the vocabulary I am using here, and my thoughts were surely less organized than I am presenting them now. But in 1950, I had never seen television, never seen a film. I had no reason to think that my world would ever be other than the one I knew. Elsewhere and other lives were abstractions I knew from books, not from experience.

The flat on Bell Street was undoubtedly rented, but to me it was my immutable home. The concept that we might leave it and move had never crossed my mind. Similarly, I was unacquainted with the idea that one might dispossess oneself of furniture and acquire other pieces to replace them. The entire enterprise of moving was foreign to me, and I spent a restless night trying to understand it.

Early the next morning, Alyce drove the car around, and mother and she loaded it. While they were doing so, the removal men came for the furniture. Slowly our flat was emptied until only I remained in it, sitting out of the way on the windowsill. Alyce and mother borrowed a broom and a dustpan from the neighbours and swept out. They made one final check to make sure nothing had been left behind. I was left alone in the flat for a moment, while mother and Alyce said good-bye to the neighbours. It was silent. The hooks for the curtain that had cordoned off my bed were the only evidence that we had lived there.

Mother came for me. When I stepped outside, she pulled the door shut and locked it, and then gave the key to the neighbour. We walked down the stairs one final time. When we reached the car, she tilted the front passenger seat forward to allow me to get into the back seat. Then she settled herself in and shut the door. She and Alyce smiled at each other, and then Alyce started the car.

As we drove off, I saw a boy wearing the uniform of the school I attended. I didn’t know him, but seeing him made me aware that I was still wearing my uniform and that I wasn’t headed for school. Alyce had packed all my other clothes, and I literally had nothing but the clothes I had been wearing the previous day. My last memory of our former street was staring at my bony white knees emerging between the grey shorts of my school uniform and the grey knee-length socks. I was wearing the jacket with its school emblem over my heart and the striped cap on my head. The tie was still knotted around my neck. I didn’t know where we were headed, but it seemed clear to me that the tie and cap had become superfluous. I unknotted it and folded it carefully into a neat small bundle and sat it beside me on the seat. I took off my cap. When I looked up again, we were headed down an unfamiliar street.

Today it would take around three hours, more if traffic were heavy, to drive from the area of Bell Street in Dublin to Sligo. The distance is about 220 km, roughly 140 miles. But, of course, now most of the distance is over motorways or dual carriageways. In 1950, the road had only one lane in each direction. It traversed the centre of every town and village rather than skirting them. Especially in the countryside, farm vehicles often slowed traffic to a crawl. We stopped and ate our noon meal in a café, and we did not reach Sligo until mid-afternoon.

Mother gave me a map so that I could trace our journey by ticking off the town names as we passed through them. I tried to keep track of them, but the scenery held too much that was new to me. I had never seen open countryside before, and the expanse of greenery organized by fences and hedgerows into neat parcels astonished me, as did sheep, cows, goats, chickens, ducks, geese. Moreover, I had never eaten in a café before. The idea that I could choose what I would eat was a novelty.

If the journey from Dublin to Sligo was slow, the forty miles from Sligo to Munfrees were even slower. The road was primitive even by the standards of the 1950s. About thirty miles north of Sligo, we turned off the (badly) paved highway for the road to Munfrees. It was gravelled but there were large patches of wet ground that had to be driven slowly. We came over the crest of the hill above Munfrees and began our descent into the village just as the sun was setting. That was my first view of the Atlantic—a red sun disappearing into the ocean. I was so intent on that sight that I didn’t even notice the village until we drove into it and the houses abruptly shut off my view of the ocean.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

Quinn





Quinn

Nexis Pas

© 2010 by the author




The man’s gaze lingered on Owen. He had stopped suddenly on the busy pavement, forcing the office workers streaming out of the nearby buildings to part and walk around him. Several of them glanced in Owen’s direction to see what had attracted the man’s attention. Owen shifted uneasily in the queue and looked down the street to see if the bus was coming. He hoped no one he knew was witnessing the encounter. Owen tried not to look, but his eyes kept shifting toward the man to see if he was still staring. The man wasn’t half-bad looking, Owen decided. Not good enough to go with, but not bad. Certainly presentable enough to make his desire for Owen worth having. The man’s mouth opened slightly, and the tip of his tongue flickered over his lips. He kept his eyes on Owen’s face, willing Owen to make contact, to admit that Owen was as interested in him as he was in Owen.

The man was rocking back and forth on his feet now, his hand smoothing his tie against his chest. He glanced around at the flow of pedestrians as if looking for an opening so that he could close the gap separating him from Owen. He tilted his chin slightly and jerked it in the direction he had been headed when he stopped to look at Owen, inviting Owen to join him. Now he expects me to proposition him, thought Owen. He’s already in mid-fantasy about me, some fantasy about my wanting him. Owen grew suddenly disgusted with the encounter and pointedly turned around, breaking contact with the man.

That happened so often now. Owen would become aware that someone, usually a man, was staring at him. He had been the focus of attention before, the looks that darted his way whenever he was in public. They had simply been a recognition of his appearance. He had received such glances since he had been a child and grown used to them. They were so common that he would have noticed them only if he had not received those brief moments of homage. He was handsome, people looked, that was only natural.

But it was different now. His cool stare challenged passersby from larger-than-life-size posters on the walls of bus shelters and the windows of upscale men’s shops, his muscled body escaping total nudity only by the few square inches of cloth hiding his groin, a few square inches that did nothing to hide the fact that he was male. The same images demanded attention from the pages of glossy magazines. There were even montages of his pictures available on websites devoted to the male body, with quite explicit comments detailing what certain viewers wanted from him or wanted to do to him.

Publicly Owen complained about the attention, but occasionally, to himself, he admitted that he liked it. It was after all a form of flattery, even though there were times when it was an inconvenience to be known as the Quinn Man, the model for Quinn’s new line of underwear. The trademark x-shaped white bands highlighting his groin focused the mind on that part of his body—‘X marks the spot,’ one of the photographer’s assistants had remarked to general groans during one of the photo sessions. There were times when he felt the heat of others’ focus on his crotch now, as if they could see the X through his trousers.

When Owen signed the contracts, he had been elated at being chosen. He hadn’t thought much about the consequences of posing for the pictures, of becoming this season’s Quinn Man. He hadn’t anticipated the loss of privacy that the ad campaign would bring. His pictures saturated public spaces, and everyone seemed to have seen them and to recognise him instantly. The slight smile on his lips and the hint of amused self-mockery in his eyes seemed to invite interest and promise accessibility to those who wanted it. Most people assumed they had as much a right to stare at him personally as they had at his picture. Many thought he owed them more, to be as available physically as he was visually. The attention had become even more blatant in the past month, since the second series of pictures had started to appear.

It had seemed a harmless lark at the time. Connor had told him of a photographer—Jimmy—who had hired him and was looking for another young man, someone who was ‘handsome but didn’t look like a model’ for a series of ads for a new line of casual clothes. Owen had gone for an interview on a whim. He was curious to see how the photographer would respond to his looks and if Jimmy would like him well enough to want him to appear in ads. Jimmy did. He offered Owen 200 pounds for a day’s work. Owen signed the release forms without bothering to read them.

Early one sunny Saturday morning, one of Jimmy’s assistants had picked Connor and Owen up in his van. They spent the day being photographed in the grounds of large house in the Kent countryside. Jimmy posed them together and alone. The day was more tedious than Owen had expected. There were long stretches of time when they stood around trying to remain still so that the clothes wouldn’t get wrinkled or disarranged while Jimmy and the others measured distances and checked gauges and settings. These would be followed by frantic minutes of posing while Jimmy snapped hundreds of shots and shouted out directions. ‘Look over my right shoulder.’ ‘Turn your head slightly to the left.’ ‘Lower your chin just a tad.’ But it had been an easy 200 quid.

Owen’s favourite image was one of himself leaning against a tree. He was looking into the camera, his eyes frankly appraising the viewer, a slight smile on his face. The T-shirt he was wearing hugged his body, and it was clear that he was well muscled. What wasn’t apparent in the picture was that the Jimmy’s assistant had pinned the shirt in the back so that it clung to his torso. The pins were scratching his back when the shots in that sequence were taken.

The photographs had appeared online and in print ads. Several people told him that they had seen them. A friend of his mother’s brought them to her attention and she rang wanting to know why he hadn’t let her know beforehand. She would have bought copies of all the papers. Owen asked Jimmy for copies of the photographs to send her but was told that the company whose clothes he was modelling owned the photos and didn’t permit their distribution. It was only then that Owen realised that he no longer controlled his image.

The attention died as quickly as it had flared. Two months later, Jimmy called again and asked if he would model for another series of shots—this time for underwear. The payment was higher this time, 350 pounds for a day’s work. He also had to have his body shaved and then waxed. To his chagrin, the ‘hair sculptor’ left a carefully trimmed patch just above his cock. He also had to spend several hours over the course of a week in a tanning salon getting an all-over tan.

The morning of the shoot, the hair sculptor had given him a touch-up trim. When she had finished, Jimmy and several of his crew, as well as a representative of the manufacturer and people from the ad agency, had come in and inspected the results. They discussed his body dispassionately as if it were no more than a frame for selling underwear. The few blemishes they found were quickly covered with make-up. The young woman who did it had studied his skin carefully and then selected the concealer from a large case of cosmetics.

The soft bristles of the brush tickled and he giggled, more from embarrassment than anything else. A table piled with underwear in his size was off to one side, out of the range of the set-up for the camera. He soon got used to being naked and changing from one set of underwear to the next in full view of everyone. There were many more people this time. The drawing room of an old house had been rented for the occasion. A dozen other models, both men and women, lounged about on sofas and chairs or stood before a fireplace. The men were wearing evening clothes, and the women formal gowns out of a movie from the 1930s. Owen was the only person less than fully dressed. He wore only underpants in various styles—briefs, bikinis, thongs. He stood in the centre of the group, holding a cocktail glass filled with water and a skewered olive, and pretending to engage in an animated conversation with the others.

Several of the other models were acting students, and they turned the shoot into a game. Each tried to outdo the others in making salacious remarks about Owen’s body while maintaining the charade of an elegant cocktail party and pretending that the nearly naked man in their midst was nothing unusual.

Owen’s body was the subject of constant primping to make it less shiny, to make it more shiny, to add highlights, to tone down highlights. It was hot under the lights, and at one point someone used cotton wool to soak up the sweat on this forehead. The next second another person stepped forward and sprayed his body with water to make it look as if he had been sweating. He smiled, he frowned, he tried to look sexy. Jimmy kept up a steady stream of instructions telling him where to look and what expression to have on his face.

The first few minutes he had felt uneasy about being the only naked person, but once the others turned it into a comedy, he relaxed and started playing the game as well. The day passed quickly. The humorous banter came across in the results. Despite the incongruity of a nearly naked man in the midst of a crowd of fully dressed people, the group looked as if they were enjoying themselves. After the session, some of the other models had invited him to join them for a drink. Owen ended up in bed with one of the men.

Three weeks later Jimmy called and invited him to his studio to meet with the advertising people. They offered him a contract to be the Quinn Man for the next six months. The sum offered was more than double his yearly income, all for a few days' work. The first series of ads were variations on the drawing room scene. Owen appeared clothed in only Quinn underwear amid a throng of fully dressed people. A crowd waiting to cross a street on a rainy day, everyone in raincoats and huddled under umbrellas except for Owen. A queue waiting to buy tickets in a train station, businessmen and -women reading folded newspapers, young tourists with backpacks consulting guidebooks, and Owen wearing nothing but a red bikini brief and an expression of impatience at the slow speed of the line. A crowd in the fruit and vegetable section of a supermarket, harried mothers trying to shop and keep track of toddlers at the same time, as Owen looked askance at the bunch of bananas he was holding in one hand.

There were eighteen such shots in all. In each shot, the background and the other people had been manipulated to appear in only black-and-white. The only colour in the image was Owen and the bold logo beneath the picture. ‘Quinn.’ No other word appeared in the pictures. Just ‘Quinn.’

He was identified as the model within hours of the appearance of the first ads. He finally switched off his mobile to get some peace. The second series of shots brought even more attention. This time he was posed alone, on a bed. In the first of the series the sheets and the pillows were unruffled. Owen’s arms were stretched above his head, his right hand lightly grasping his left wrist. The pose opened his body to the camera, making it totally available to the viewer. He smiled a confident invitation. The man in the picture knew that everyone who saw him would want to join him in bed.

In the succeeding shots, the bedclothes became increasingly disarranged. The photographs caught Owen from different angles, but always with his eyes looking directly at the viewer, except in the last image. In the final shot in the series, one of the pillows had tumbled unnoticed to the floor, and the other had been pushed to the far edge of the bed. Owen’s eyes were lidded, his body relaxed in languorous bliss. A corner of the sheet had been mounded over his crotch, covering the bare minimum needed to avoid charges of indecency. The pair of Quinn briefs he had been wearing in the series lay artfully rumpled next to his exposed hip.

*****

‘Oh, you’re hairy.’ The man who had invited him back to his flat stared at him in dismay. Owen had just unbuttoned his shirt and started pulling it free of his trousers. ‘You’re smooth in the pictures.’

‘Sorry. They remove all my hair for the shoots.’ Owen sighed inwardly. He didn’t have a lot of body hair, just a light fuzz on his chest and stomach. Before the photos had appeared, no one had even mentioned it. Now that he was being compared to the god in the Quinn advertisements, it had become a flaw. ‘I hope it doesn’t bother you.’

Along with the increasing number of bed partners had come an increasing number of complaints that he didn’t live up to the dream in the advertisements. Some were even disappointed to discover he didn’t wear Quinn underwear. His excuse—‘It’s uncomfortable’—offended their image of him. The loose, unfashionable boxer shorts he favoured upset his public.

One man had even noticed that Owen had a small mole on his abdomen that had been airbrushed out of the pictures. Owen found the proof that the man had studied his photographs that carefully both exhilarating and unnerving. Exhilarating because the man had paid so much attention to his body and unnerving because he had been reduced to an object to be studied.

The other man shook his head. ‘No, I don’t mind.’ But it was clear that he did. Owen’s reality had spoiled his Quinn fantasy. The man rushed the sex and then said pointedly, ‘If you want to use the toilet before you leave, Quinn, it’s through there, off the bedroom.’

That was the thing Owen resented most. He had lost his own name. ‘Quinn’. The name followed him down the street. If he stepped into the street or a store, he would be greeted with ‘There’s Quinn’. Strangers came up to him and called him that name, never thinking that he might have a name of his own.

The fame also brought benefits, Owen was honest enough with himself to admit that. It wasn’t just the money. He was also well paid with the coin of admiration. He had had partners before the photos appeared. He was handsome, after all. But the ad campaigns had changed how he was perceived, he found. His looks hadn’t changed, but the publicity had somehow made him more desirable, as if the public validation of his beauty in the ads increased his value. He could walk into the busiest club in London and have his pick of partner for the evening. Owen quickly learned that it wasn’t himself the chosen one wanted. He wanted to be seen with Owen, to be known as someone Owen had chosen, to have the cachet of his own desirability being recognised by someone everyone found desirable.

Owen would circle the club, acknowledging the salutes of the crowd, meeting eyes, and coolly appraising what was on offer that night. ‘That one, I’ll have that one,’ he would think. He would smile at the one and then stop to chat. The two of them might find themselves disappointed later, when they were alone, but for an hour or two in the club, everyone envied them. And the spark of recognition in the chosen one’s eyes, his delight upon being chosen, and the envy of others—those were enough for Owen.

Occasionally he was rebuffed. A famous singer in a boy band had smiled pleasantly and then said, ‘I have a lover.’ He had pulled another man forward and introduced him to Owen. Owen hadn’t believed him at first, he thought the man was joking. The singer could have anyone he wanted. Granted he wasn’t great looking, but with his fame he would have been able to get someone far better looking than himself. Instead he had chosen this nondescript man as his partner. The two lovers weren’t even attracted by the prospect of a threesome when Owen had hinted at the possibility. If anything, they seemed insulted, barely acknowledging the suggestion before moving away. Owen had felt a twinge of envy for the way they looked at each other, the way they were together in that throng. There seemed to be a protective circle around them excluding the crowd from their intimacy and their happiness. There were others like that. Their eyes might linger on Owen, but out of curiosity rather than a desire to possess. Owen wasn’t worth trading for what they already had or what they were waiting for.

Owen decided that he would eventually, when he was old, maybe in his mid-thirties, if his looks had started to fade, find someone to settle down with. But not now. Now there were too many opportunities to play. He would be a fool, he thought, to pass the riches life had to offer for the dull routines of married life and the monotony of the same person. Still, occasionally he found his thoughts drifting to the contentment in the singer’s voice when he had said, ‘I have a lover’.

But there weren’t many public rebuffs. Most of the time, he was successful in getting the partner he wanted. He grew less polite with those who approached him without permission, barely acknowledging their attempts at conversation, his eyes briefly resting on their face before slowly drifting elsewhere. They were not worth even the effort of an explicit refusal, his manner implied. It was, he told himself, what they deserved. The worst were those who had fantasised about him. As soon as they began speaking, it was clear that they had already been with Quinn in their minds. When Owen turned them down, they called him a ‘bitch’ or remarked loudly within his hearing that he was stuck on himself. Even some of the chosen ones got angry when Owen stubbornly resisted becoming the creature they thought they knew. Some waited until after the sex, as they hurriedly dressed, before making their disappointment known. They had wanted the Quinn Man. They didn’t want Owen, and that was increasingly all that he was willing to give them.

*****

‘You could wear dark glasses and a hat and old clothes. I’ve tried that occasionally when I want privacy. If you really want to go unrecognised, I suppose you could grow a beard and get a different haircut, even dye your hair.’ Jason idly turned the pages of a magazine he had picked up from the pile on the coffee table in Owen’s flat. He had listened patiently to Owen’s recital of grievances about the drawbacks of fame. Their friendship dated to their childhood and had survived Jason’s rise to fame as a member of the cast of Brighton Beach and Owen’s apotheosis as the Quinn Man.

‘Does that work?’

‘Not really. Maybe if it’s dark. Sometimes I get away with a disguise, and people don’t recognise me. It’s worse when I’m found out. Then the photos appear in the papers with captions like “Jason tries to hide from his fans”. I end up looking like a fool who’s been caught and exposed.’

‘I don’t want to be the one that has to change. I want them to change and stop thinking of me as the Quinn Man. I started chatting a guy up the other night. We were hitting it off, and then I realised he was talking to Quinn, and I lost interest. I went home by myself.’

‘Well, the ads will be over soon enough, won’t they? What is it, another two months and then there’s a new Quinn Man?’

‘Yes, the photos for that have already been shot.’

‘The problem will solve itself then. I don’t mean to be cruel, chum, but you’ll soon become “what’s-his-name?”. That’s even worse than being hounded by fans.’

‘That can’t happen soon enough for me.’

‘Do you really mean that?’ Jason tossed the magazine back on the table and took the next one in the stack. ‘Won’t you miss the attention?’

‘Not at all.’ Owen looked Jason in the eyes and tried to put as much conviction into his voice as he could.

‘Liar.’ Jason smiled at Owen with affection. ‘Why do you have all these magazines with your photos, then? You like looking at these pictures. And you like thinking about all the people looking at them and admiring you. Wishing they were you.’

Owen shrugged. ‘Yeah, a bit. How did you know that?’

‘I have files full of pictures of myself. I’m not as bad now, but when I first became known, I was obsessive about collecting everything about myself. I eventually had to limit myself to checking just once a day on Google for mentions of my name. Now I try to keep it to once a week. I won’t tell you what I did when YouTube became popular.’

‘I probably do the same thing. All right,’ Owen admitted, ‘I like being noticed. I just don’t like the other stuff. I just wish they liked me instead of my image.’

‘One goes with the other. Face it, people want the image of you. They have fantasies about you wanting them. Oh, this is the best picture of you.’

Owen sat down beside Jason on the sofa. The picture was a cropped version of his favourite shot from the first set that Jimmy had taken, before he had become the Quinn Man. Only his face and the upper part of his body were visible in the picture. On the left side of the picture, a tree trunk cut diagonally across the image, obscuring one side of his face, its bark a rough contrast to the smoothness of his face.

‘Why that one? It’s not revealing.’

‘You say that as if you’re disappointed that I didn’t chose one of your nude shots.’

Owen slid down slightly and rested his head against Jason’s shoulder. The fabric of Jason’s shirt was soft against his cheek. It was warm from Jason’s body. He rubbed his face against it two or three time before coming to rest. ‘Most people like the nudes. They like looking at my body.’

‘They’re okay. Sure I like looking at your body. But I felt I was intruding when I looked at those pictures. I guess I just want a more private view of you. This one, well, I suppose I like it because you look like the Owen I know.’ Jason traced the contour of Owen’s chin in the picture with the tip of a finger. ‘I wish you would look at me like that.’ Jason said that so softly that Owen wasn’t sure that he had heard.

‘What?’

Jason looked away, slightly embarrassed at being found out but equally as glad that he had made his feelings known. ‘Sorry, I have fantasies about you too. Don’t be angry. That’s why I don’t like the nude shots. I was always hoping that I would get to be the only person who saw your body.’

Owen sat up and drew apart from Jason. ‘I’m not angry. Just surprised. You’ve never said anything.’

‘Is it so surprising? I thought . . .’

‘What? What did you think?’

‘That you might know what I feel for you without my having to say anything. I guess I’m afraid that you don’t feel that way about me. That’s why I’ve never said anything. All your boyfriends and dates have always been as good-looking as you, and I thought maybe you feel that I’m not good enough for you.’ Jason finally looked at Owen, the expression on his face willing Owen to deny that statement.

The ache of Jason’s longing hung in the air between them. After a few seconds Owen moved closer again and wrapped his arms around Jason. But he had waited too long. It was a polite embrace when only a passionate one would have answered Jason in the way he wanted to be answered. Owen rubbed his palms up and down Jason’s back in a gesture meant to be comforting rather than arousing. When Jason tried to raise himself up to bring his face level with Owen’s, Owen put a hand on the back of Jason’s head and drew it into his neck. He didn’t want to risk what would follow a kiss. He owed Jason more than what would be at best charity.

A sob escaped Jason’s lips. ‘You’re so beautiful. I love you so much. I’ve wanted you for so long.’ It was, despite the words, an admission of defeat. He pushed himself back from Owen and said, ‘I’d better leave. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have spoken.’ He ran out without looking back.

The magazine had fallen to the floor when Jason stood up. Owen picked it up and looked at his image. ‘You’re so beautiful. I love you.’ A statement of cause and effect. And what if he were not so beautiful, would anyone want him then? There were ugly people who were loved. He had seen them and wondered how they managed to generate such feelings. It was not something he could experience. His looks guaranteed that he was desired for them. Everyone wanted him for his looks, not for what he was inside. Sometimes he wasn’t sure that there was an inside, just the shell that everyone wanted.

‘I wish you would look at me like that,’ Jason had said of this picture. Others read so much into Owen’s all-regarding look of wonderment and pleasure. Some saw Owen’s frank gaze as an invitation for intimacy. Some fantasised an encounter with an understanding friend, the Mr Right everyone wanted. If this were a picture of someone else, Owen speculated, what would I feel? Would I want that person?



‘What do I want?’ he asked himself. Would it be enough to be able to pull Jason forward in answer to someone hitting on him and say, ‘I have a lover’? To say it with pride, the astonishment he felt at his own good fortune apparent to everyone. To have someone, would that be enough to make him happy? Did the acceptance of another’s desire count as desire, of another’s love as love?

Jason was well known, almost famous. He and I would be thought well matched and lucky to have one another, thought Owen. We would become a celebrity couple. Our pictures would appear in the papers and magazines, entering clubs, attending the openings of films and shows, perhaps even shopping together. It was something to consider. It would end the series of disappointed and disappointing partners. And Jason was easy to talk with. Jason would solve a lot of problems.

He picked up his mobile and pressed the keys for Jason’s number. The phone rang several times and then the recording cut in with its automatic invitation to leave a message. Owen thought about leaving a message but then decided he would call again later. Or perhaps he would buy a bottle of champagne—and flowers, flowers would be a nice touch—and then drop by Jason’s flat unannounced. It might even be more effective if Jason were not in and came back to discover him waiting at this door. The repentant lover standing in the cold to apologise to his lover. It would make a nice story for the accounts that would appear later.