‘Time’s Quick-Colored Fuel’
(c) by the author
Dev was gone again when I awoke. That happens frequently now. As we have gotten older, he has become more of a morning person. When both of us were still working, the world’s demands imposed similar schedules on us. But now that we have retired and are free to observe our own hours, he tends to rise even before the first light and I to sleep in.
I seldom register that he is gone until I awake. He is careful not to disturb me. Of course, I don’t wear my hearing aids in bed, and my increasing deafness makes it easy for him to move about without waking me. We are both so familiar with the spartan furnishings of our retirement cottage that we need no light to find our way about in the dark.
Occasionally he has completed his morning walk and returned before I get up. The coffee is made and he is waiting for me when I come downstairs to resume our decades-long conversation. Usually, however, he rambles further afield. Some days, especially when the weather is good, he is gone for three or four hours and doesn’t return till mid-morning. He doesn’t walk far, but he pauses and sits often, lost in his own thoughts. I can see the road from my chair in the front room. Even at a distance, Dev is recognisable. His tall thin figure, slightly stooped now, appears on the crest of the hill and meanders slowly toward our home. He stops often to examine things beside the road, poking at them with his walking stick, or to gaze into the distance.
Eventually he opens the door to the cottage. He hangs his hat and coat on the pegs in the front hall and leans his stick in the corner. He appears in the doorway to the front room and inevitably makes some remark along the lines of ‘You’re finally up. You missed a good walk.’ He says much the same thing every day. I nod and reply, ‘Coffee’s in the carafe.’ He ambles into the kitchen. The chink of his mug being set on the counter will be followed by the sounds of coffee being poured and the spoon against the cup as he adds milk. Then he comes into the front room and takes his seat opposite me and tells me what he saw on his walk or thoughts that occurred to him.
He left the photographs on the table. They were there when I came downstairs. I don’t think I had seen them before. I don’t even remember the occasion on which they were taken. There are three of them, and he had arranged them in a neat row to form a panorama. The remains of what must have been a feast, or what we would have considered a feast in our student days, clutters the top of the table. To judge from our dress, it was an informal dinner outside college. The photos would have been taken in 1961. In the one in the middle, I am the last person on the left. I am talking with someone outside the frame of the picture to my right and smiling and gesturing broadly. Paul is seated to my left. Immediately to his left is Claire Magnuson, the third person in that particular picture. She has pushed her plate out of the way and is leaning forward with her elbows on the table to support her upper body and is speaking animatedly to someone across the table.
Paul has turned in his chair and is leaning backward to see past Claire so that he can talk with the person seated to Claire’s left. His right hand rests on the back of my chair. We were no longer sleeping together by that point, but Paul was still possessive toward me. He always insisted on sitting next to me and was not shy about touching me to let others know he had a claim on me.
The photo on the right is badly framed. A woman’s upper arm is visible on the left side. I know it is Claire’s arm because the sleeve matches the sweater she is wearing in the middle picture. To her left is Jeremy, who is apparently the person Paul is talking to over Claire’s back.
The photo on the left reveals that I was sitting beside Mark. Our heads are tilted toward each other. We are laughing at something and seem oblivious to anyone else. The photographer must have stepped back from the table for this shot. A row of heads and shoulders has appeared on the opposite side of the table, their backs toward the camera. This shot has many more people in it. Beyond me, Paul has turned toward me and has a startled look on his face as if surprised by our laughter. Claire is still leaning forward, but Jeremy has also turned in our direction.
We are so young. If I have identified the time correctly, we would have been 20, 21. It has been decades since I last saw any of the people in the pictures, other than myself, of course. The face in the picture bears so little resemblance to my current face that I hesitate to lay claim to it as mine. Did I really look like that, or is the identification just wishful thinking on my part? Would anyone who knows me now be able to identify which of these young people I once was?
And what of the happy young lad in the picture? Did he ever imagine that the unruly blond hair cascading over his forehead would shrink to a narrow horseshoe of sparse white hair above his ears, that his fair skin would become mottled with brown spots, that his taut jaw line would sag in dewlaps over his throat? And what of the future he was so blithely positive was his as he sat there laughing with Mark?
I’m not sure I want to see these pictures. I don’t understand why Dev left them for me. He has never owned a camera and seldom greets the prospect of a picture with anything but impatience. One of his sisters insists on taking a photograph every time they meet. Now that she can use her mobile to do so, she records every occasion assiduously and emails the results unbidden to everyone. She even belongs to a photo-sharing website, and pictures of her family and friends are available to anyone who cares to look. Dev, on the other hand, usually greets her offers of pictures with ‘If I can’t remember what someone looks like, then they can’t be important to me. And having a photo won’t change that.’
Years ago, when the people in these photos were important to me, I might have liked something to remember them by. But gradually over the years I have put all those people away. We slipped apart, and I ceased to care about them. My memories of them are like photographs at the bottom of a dusty box.
Except for Mark. Mark, the joy of my youth. I would like that laughter back again. Perhaps that’s why Dev left these pictures for me to see. For the laughter. Does he suspect how much I long for that?
‘Why are you sitting out here? Aren’t you cold?’
‘Here’ was a bench in the back quadrangle of our college. The night sky was heavily overcast, and it felt as if it the rain that had been forecast for early the next morning might fall as sleet or even snow. I turned around to face the speaker. ‘I wanted some fresh air. And I don’t mind the cold.’
The person who had spoken to me apparently did mind it. He wore a heavy coat and had a muffler wrapped around his face and throat. Unusually for that era, he wore a wide-brimmed hat, and his face was in shadow. Another person, similarly dressed, stood about ten feet back. The lighting was bad in that area, and the curtains had been pulled in most of the rooms to shut out the cold and the draughts, making it even darker.
‘It’s Patrick Bateman, isn’t it?’
I still had no idea who was speaking to me. ‘No, my name’s Bernard Lisle,’ I corrected. ‘Patrick Bateman is that very tall man reading chemistry.’
‘Oh, I’m so sorry. You sit at the same table, and I once asked someone who the handsome man was, meaning you. He answered “Patrick Bateman”, obviously thinking it was the other handsome man that interested me. An understandable confusion, since you insist upon sitting together.’ This was said in a light tone and apparently meant to be humorous.
‘Jeremy, I’m going inside. It’s too cold to talk out here.’ The speaker’s companion brushed passed us and headed toward one of the staircases that opened onto the quadrangle.
‘Ah, my master calls. We’re about to have some wine. Could I offer you a glass to make up for my mistake?’
I shook my head. ‘Thanks, but no. I have to get back to work.’
‘Another time, then.’ The speaker, who I had learned was named Jeremy, put his hand to the crown of his hat and lifted it a bare quarter of an inch. ‘Good night.’
And that was the first time I spoke with Jeremy. The second time occurred several days later. I was browsing in a bookstore when someone clapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Ah, the fresh-air enthusiast. We owe you a drink.’
My face must have betrayed my bewilderment. I recognised the speaker as someone I had seen before in the crowd of faces in hall, but I had no idea who he was. ‘We spoke last week. You were sitting outside in the middle of the night in the cold.’
‘Jeremy, Mr Lisle obviously has no idea who you are and apparently doesn’t care. You will have to forgive Jeremy.’ The last was said to me. ‘He has trouble understanding that not everyone knows who he is or wants to know. Now, could we go, Jeremy? Leave Mr Lisle alone.’ The second man didn’t wait for an answer. He walked over to a display of new books on a table and turned his back on us.
‘Oh, I remember.’ The other man’s abruptness jogged my memory. ‘You were wearing a thick scarf and a hat that night. I didn’t see your face.’
‘Well, now that you can see it, what do you think? I’m nowhere near as handsome as you, but still passable, don’t you think? Definitely not the type you would kick out of your bed?’
‘It hardly seems necessary for me to have an opinion since you are supplying them already.’
‘You could confirm them and relieve me of my anxieties.’
‘Yes, I could. But I believe your friend is becoming restless. Perhaps you should attend to him before he tears that book apart.’
‘Oh, Paul? He behaves that way whenever I flirt with anyone. He’s just jealous of you because you are receiving my undivided lust.’ Jeremy was speaking loudly, and several people turned to look at him and then at me.
I lost patience with his silliness, not the least because I felt embarrassed by his all too public attentions, and I spoke more sharply than was my habit in those days. ‘You can assure him that he has no reason to be jealous, none at all. Now I must leave. I have a tutorial.’ As I walked past Paul, he winked at me and snorted.
‘I hope you weren’t too annoyed with Jeremy.’ The man called Paul stopped me outside the entrance to the porter’s room. ‘He lives his life on a stage of his own making surrounded by applause that only he hears. He can’t understand that others might not wish to bask in the limelight reflecting off him.’ Paul smiled at me sardonically, inviting me to share the joke.
At that moment, I associated him strongly with Jeremy and had no wish to know either of them better. Nor did Paul’s willingness to criticise a friend commend him to me. I had no desire to speak with him on any subject, let alone to discuss his annoying companion. I nodded curtly and then started to walk past him.
‘Jeremy is right about one thing.’ Paul stepped in front of me and blocked my path. ‘You are handsome. He has a good eye for that sort of thing. I should warn you that he has a good track record of getting those he wants.’
‘Does he? Then I must confess that I look forward to spoiling his record.’
‘Don’t underestimate him. I can assure you from personal experience that the rewards of being bedded by him are substantial.’
‘My interests lie elsewhere.’ I stepped around Paul and continued on my way toward the main gate.
‘Oh, I think not.’ Paul confident laughter followed me down the hall.
None of which explains why two weeks later I ended up in bed with Paul. It isn’t that Paul chased me or I, him. On the few occasions our paths crossed, he was ironically polite, tipping his hat to me and making some trivial remark about the weather. ‘Lovely weather, Mr Lisle.’ It could be pouring rain, and the weather would be ‘lovely’. And always ‘Mr Lisle’ as if making light of the distance between us. Until one day, he added, ‘Come up to my room.’ And I did.
I’ve always told myself that it was lust, pure and simple. But ‘lust’ isn’t correct. That would imply that I wanted Paul. What I wanted was to get off. I was horny, he was willing. End of story. Except it wasn’t. I think I can honestly say that I didn’t have much interest in Paul personally. I don’t think he had much interest in me either. His reasons, I came to suspect, were much more complicated and owed more to his feelings for Jeremy than anything else. It wasn’t that he was using me to get at Jeremy. That’s too simplistic. More than anything I was a message between the combatants in that long-standing competition. He knew Jeremy well enough to send a signal that would be understood.
‘You’ve known him for a long time, then?’ I was lying on Paul’s bed, my feet propped up on the bedclothes piled up against the footboard, where we had pushed them in our haste. I was still naked. Paul had pulled on trousers and an old sweater after we had finished. He sat on the windowsill smoking a cigarette and blowing the smoke out the open window. I felt cocky enough to quiz Paul about his friendship with Jeremy. We had just had sex, for the fourth or fifth time, and I thought that implied a certain amount of intimacy and good feeling.
‘Oh, yes, since childhood. Our mothers thought Jeremy and I made suitable playmates for each other. I don’t think they expected us to get on quite in the fashion that we did, but they are at least happy that we have not lowered ourselves to cavorting beneath our class.’
‘You always stuck with your schoolmates from the same class then? But now that I think about it, I’m a year behind you, aren’t I?’
‘Don’t try to be witty, Bernard. And you’re never going to be behind me, always beneath me. That’s your role. Even Jeremy’s never been behind me.’
‘Why don’t you go to bed with Jeremy then?’
‘He gets bored easily and then he gets boring. Jeremy always wants someone new. When he finds someone, he uses him a few times and then he passes him on to me if I want him.’
‘And what do you do with your conquests?’
‘Why are you asking? I didn’t think you were interested in Jeremy. If you like, I can ask him if he still wants you. Now that you’re used goods, however, I suspect that your desirability has dimmed in his eyes. But to answer your question, I don’t get bored as easily as Jeremy. I keep my “conquests” around a bit longer than he does. And you’re the first person he’s wanted and hasn’t had before me. He’s quite entranced by what has happened. He can’t stop talking about it. It’s a novelty for him. So I think I’ll keep you if for no reason other than to keep him fascinated.’
‘You’ve talked about me with him? That’s—’
‘Rude and disgusting. I know. But don’t expect an apology. I went to his room to boast as soon as you left the first time. I told him to look out his window at the bloke who was limping across the quad in pain, trying to keep his sore arse cheeks tight and hoping that he wasn’t bleeding and shitting his pants. He was fascinated by the details of your naiveté. But I assured him that you were a bright lad and a fast study, and that I would soon have you trained and ready for the public loos.’
‘That’s it. I’m leaving. God, you are a pig.’
‘Oh, are its feelings hurt? You didn’t think I allowed you in here because of your personality and intellect, did you? It’s the reputation of having you that I want. My stock’s risen immeasurably since I’ve been seen with you. Fifty points for being sucked by the handsome Bernie Lisle, another hundred for taking his virginity. And, yes, I have told people about that. Your other sock is under the chair, if that’s what you’re hunting for. And don’t forget your book. Maybe someone will see you carrying it and believe we were studying in here. And try to leave quietly. I don’t want the neighbours complaining. Drop by at the same time tomorrow. I’m sure I can find a use for you then.’
I stayed away for three days. Paul’s self-assured assumption that I would tolerate his behaviour had something to do with my return. I wanted him to want me—want me more than he wanted Jeremy at least. I wanted his respect and his desire. That was part of it. I also think I felt that Paul’s contempt was the appropriate punishment for what I was doing. It was easier to have sex with someone who made it clear that sex was all that was involved and that it was a meaningless scratching of an itch. Once I accepted the role he had cast me in, it became much easier to let it become a habit.
I think I was also hoping that Jeremy would become jealous. But he never did. If anything, he regarded the association with amusement. One night he even stayed in the room while Paul took me to his bed. He remained immersed in his book and apparently unaware of what was happening a few feet away. When the three of us were together, Paul and Jeremy usually talked to each other and ignored me. I was a pet, there when wanted and expected to stay out of the way when not. They were my introduction to gay sex and gay life. I assumed that their behaviour was normal.
Paul and I had sex two or three times a week for the rest of the year. The night before he left for the summer break, he told me he would not need me when college resumed in the fall. We still continued to see each other socially, however. Once he stopped having sex with me, he began to treat me with less contempt. It was as if, having discarded me, he felt no further imperative to demonstrate my inferiority to himself and to me. Contempt would have given me more importance than I deserved.
I met Mark when we returned for our second year. He had to switch rooms for some reason and ended up on the same staircase as me. Mark stood out for many reasons that attracted my attention. Mostly because he and Dev were always together. And they were always happy. They could sit in the midst of a crowd, and it would be as if no one else were there. Their focus on each other was that strong. I once sat near them and was surprised to find that the subjects they spoke of were so inconsequential. They were so intent that one suspected the problems of the world were being solved.
I was envious of their relationship. They were such good friends, and one sensed the intimacy of their lives. It quickly became what I wanted—to have a friend like that. I didn’t know if they were physically intimate. I found out only much later that they had been. But that didn’t matter to me. It was the ideal of a perfect friendship that attracted me.
Of the two of them, Mark was the more lively one and much more outgoing. Dev was so staid and reserved. I suppose that’s why I singled Mark out. When we were together, he seemed the only person in the world. But it was a very one-sided relationship. I didn’t at all figure in his life with the same intensity and hope that he figured in mine.
It’s odd. I want to forget Paul and Jeremy and wish all that happened undone, but so many episodes involving the two of them remain fresh in my memory. They erupt without apparent cause into my mind in a searing geyser of embarrassment and shame. Yet, I have trouble remembering specific details about Mark. I can’t recall his voice, or anything he ever said to me. At times I can’t even recover his face. He starts to turn towards me and then slips away again. An ideal that won’t survive contact with reality. Colours in the dark. The silence at the end of the song.
The photographs had to have been taken that second year. Paul and Jeremy graduated the following spring and never reappeared. And Mark never returned for our third year.
‘I see that you found the pictures.’ Dev stopped by the table. I had disarranged the pictures when I had picked them up to examine them, and he placed them again in the right order, aligning the edges carefully.
‘I was meant to, wasn’t I? Where did you find them?’
He chuckled in amusement and nodded to confirm that he had left them there for me to see. ‘I was going through a box of old records yesterday, and I found a folder with college papers in it. I must have tossed them in there with the rest of my stuff from the second year as I was packing up and forgot about them.’
‘Do you remember the occasion? I can’t recall why all of us were together. And why aren’t you there?’
‘It was towards the end of the year. I don’t think there was any special reason. We just wanted to be somewhere other than college for a few hours.’
‘We all look so young.’
Dev turned away from me. He walked over to the window and looked out. The light outside was so bright that he was silhouetted against it, and his shadow darkened the room. He paused for a minute before speaking again. ‘Do you think about him much?’
Not ‘Do you ever think about him?’ but ‘Do you think about him much?’ I knew who he was talking about. And Dev knew that I thought about him. It had been a shock to see this picture of Mark. That party must have taken place only a few weeks before the accident. ‘Not as much as I used to. It’s strange, but I haven’t thought about Claire or Paul or Jeremy for years, but Mark—he comes to mind quite often. Something happens, and he pops into my mind. But unlike the rest of us, he’s never grown old.’
‘Yes, it’s hard to imagine him grown old. He was always so vibrant. Not like me. I was so serious that I was rushing headlong into middle age already. But then Mark never had a chance to grow old. I suppose that’s why we never think of him that way. You seemed that way to me then, too. Destined to be an eternal youth.’
‘Time has given the lie to that notion. Those photographs made me realise how old I’ve become.’ I gave what was intended to be rueful sigh that simultaneously hoped for a denial of what I was admitting.
Dev turned to face me again but he didn’t say anything. He often does that when he feels the truth would hurt. He can never bring himself to utter the emollient lie, and the most he is willing to do is to remain silent. It took me a long time to learn, not to like, but to respect that habit. Still, there are times when I would prefer the lie.
As usual, Dev’s silence forced me to continue, to fill the voids that so often opened in our conversations. ‘Mark was so alive, and he enjoyed being alive so much. That’s what attracted me. He had found some way to be both gay and happy. After my experiences with Paul, I didn’t think that possible.’
‘Yes, he was happy.’
‘Because of you.’ I remain convinced of that truth. Dev made Mark happy. I’m sure of that.
‘Perhaps. I would like to think that.’ He is even harder on himself than on others. I think that’s one reason that makes his truthfulness, spoken or tacit, bearable—the knowledge that he is even more unforgiving of himself.
‘You know at first I had the impression that he didn’t quite approve of me. It made me try harder to win his regard.’
‘Oh, he didn’t. He didn’t like you at all. He assumed that you would be vain because of your looks, and he thought since you associated with Paul and Jeremy that you would as shallow and insensitive as they were. Then he heard you arguing about some government policy and decided there was more substance to you than he had thought. He told me that he had misjudged you.’
‘I suspected that, but I was never certain.’ I wasn’t quite sure that I welcomed confirmation of my suspicions even after so many years. ‘And what did you think?’
‘I was happy to accept his evaluation. I never thought that someone like you would pay me a moment’s notice. So it didn’t matter what I thought of you. I didn’t think it worth the time and effort to get to know you. Then, too, it was clear that you were interested in Mark, and I was half worried that you would prove attractive to him. So I was watchful and on guard against you and your “schemes”. I said something disparaging about you to Mark one day, trying to turn him against you. He didn’t say anything for a moment, and then he told me not to be silly. I had no reason to be jealous. I didn’t realise until he spoke how transparent my feelings were. At least to him.’
‘I was quite jealous of you. I couldn’t understand what he saw in you. I asked him about it, and he told me that he had won the lottery the first time he played. That he had found the person he was going to spend the rest of life with. Perhaps that was why he was so happy.’
‘It would be a comfort to believe that. Right after he was killed, I had to cling to thoughts like that. That I had made him happy.’
‘Do you ever feel …?’ Once I had broached the subject, I hesitated to discuss it openly. I had wondered about it for years but never found the courage to discuss it with Dev.
‘In the early years, I used to feel him between us. As if he was keeping us from being completely together.’
‘He was. Isn’t that why we went to bed together the first time? Because of him?’
‘That first time I found myself thinking, “These are the lips that once he kissed,/the body that once he held.” I was making love to a ghost. There was always a third person in bed with us. You must have felt it. I hope you didn’t, but you know me too well not to have suspected.’
‘Yes I knew. I also knew when you stopped making love to both of us and began making love to me alone.’
‘Sometimes I still think of him when we’re together. But it’s more a matter of speculating what might have happened to me if he had lived. Where I would be. What I might be doing. I assume the two of you would have remained together, and that I would have never seen you again. I would have had a very different life. A much worse one. I probably would have grown more like Paul and Jeremy and ended up unhappy and wasted.’
‘Mine would have been very different too. Far less rewarding than it’s turned out to be.’
‘I hope you mean that. Why are we having this conversation now? We’ve spoken of Mark before, but never like this.’
‘It’s the pictures. They stirred up thoughts.’
‘It’s odd to see them after all this time. Why did you show them to me now? I would have been happy to remain ignorant of them.’
‘Mark gave them to me at the last minute. You remember, his parents picked him early so that they could make the flight. He asked me to show them to you. I promised him I would. Then when the news came that the plane had gone down, I was in such a hurry to leave that I shoved them into a folder along with everything else. And by the time we next spoke, I had forgotten these three. So I’m fulfilling a promise. That’s one reason.’
‘And the other reasons?’
‘I felt that finally I was ready to know.’
‘My feelings toward Mark, you mean?’ I walked over to him and took one of his hands in mine, interlacing my fingers between his. ‘I loved him. I love you.’ What more need one say if one can truthfully say that? I stared at Dev for a few seconds and then changed the subject. ‘You still haven’t told me where you were. Were you the photographer?’
‘No. I was sitting on the other side of Mark.’
‘A pity there’s no picture of that.’
‘Oh there was. It showed the three of us. Both of us were turned towards you, looking at you and laughing at something you’d just said.’
‘What happened to it? I would love to see it.’
‘After Mark died, I carried it with me everywhere. It was the last picture of him. I looked at it so much that it became creased and the edges were ragged. Even after we started living together, I kept it. I took it out every day. And then one day, I realised that it was only an image. That the reality behind the image no longer existed. So I burned it.’
I had to stop myself from telling Dev that I wished he hadn’t done that. But that would have served no purpose. He had burned the photo, and there was no going back on that. There had been enough truth for one morning. I pointed at the row on the table. ‘Should we do that with the rest of these? Finally put paid to the remnants of our youth?’
‘That would be too dramatic. It would give them more meaning than they deserve. They’re just tokens. No more meaningful than a seashell you find on the beach and bring home hoping that it will remind you of a pleasant hour.’
‘You’re right. As always. They’re just mementos of another life. It would be cowardly to burn them. If we truly felt the need to destroy them, it would as good as admitting that they do hold some power over us yet. Put them back where you found them.’ I picked the photographs up and arranged them in a stack and handed them to Dev.
Dev turned the topmost one over so that it faced the one below it and then carried them into the little room that he uses as a work space. I heard a drawer opening and then, after a few seconds, closing. He has only a small desk now. I know where he put them. I shall try not to look at them again.
(The title is taken from a line from Babette Deutsch’s poem ‘Pity’: ‘The young whose lips and limbs are time’s quick-colored fuel.’)