A BREATHLESS STORY
The other Saturday I got into real trouble at the bike shop. Les, my boss, is not one of those people who has moods or is always trying to put one over on you, but he lost his temper and told me off in front of the customer; it was as bad as in school when some sarky teacher makes you look a complete dumbo in front of the whole class.
I had to fix a wheel with a broken spoke and by mistake I put in one that was too large. The repair seemed OK when I'd done it but on the road the spoke wore through the protective rim tape and punctured the inner tube. The bike belonged to one of the members of the cycle club, really finicky customers who will complain about almost nothing; if you sell them something in a wrapper or a carton with a tiny mark on it they complain even though they're going to throw the wrapper in the bin straight away.
Les had to apologise and promise to fix the wheel properly himself for nothing. When the customer finally stopped moaning and left, he spent twenty minutes telling me about all the different sizes and types of spokes, which I knew all about anyway, I just made a mistake that time and picked out the wrong one. There was only a few millimetres difference so it wasn't as though I'd been a complete dork or anything, but the way Les went on and on I thought he was about to fire me.
Having the Saturday job there has been really good for me because I'm mad about cycling, Les has taught me a lot, and he's letting me ride with him and his mates on the millennium charity ride the Sunday after next. My dad only said I could go because he knows Les will look after me.
My main job that day was servicing this all terrain bike with front and rear suspension. When I finished at three o'clock I asked Les if there was anything he wanted me to do before I left. He said no, so then I went right over to him and looked up into his face and said 'You still fed up with me, Les?'
He said 'No, course I'm not,' then he made a fist with his right hand and just softly touched me on the cheek. 'You know how it is with the club members, they're such perfectionists, I hate it when one of them catches me out like that. I didn't mean to get worked up. Don't do it again though. See you next week.'
The shop is a really good place to work. What Les pays me is more than other kids at school get for their Saturday jobs, and he gives me really expensive gear from the shop. A few months ago he gave me these clipless pedals, the sort where you need shoes with special cleats on the sole to slot into the catches on the pedals. He gave me the shoes as well. In fact with all the stuff he's given me I'm kitted out like a professional cyclist and I ride round everywhere like I'm a sports hero or something.
Les gets lots of sales promotion stuff and he says he might as well give it to me, at least he can see it being used. I was a bit scared my dad would moan, but he's got no idea what cycling gear costs. He only really knows about football and horse racing so what can you expect?
Les also lends me 'Cycling Now' magazine. The latest mag had a feature about Martin Johnson, who is the greatest English cyclist ever. Martin is in the Tour de France year after year, and he has won medals at the Olympics. One reason I'm so keen to go on this charity ride is that he will be there at the end to congratulate riders at the finish. I would have gone just to ride along with Les and his mates, but to see Martin Johnson there would be terrific.
The first page had a small picture of Martin riding a tour bike and details of all the big races he's been in this year and how well he did. When I turned over the page there was a full length portrait of him right across the centre fold wearing pentathlon racing gear, this really flash top and these special pentathlon shorts that look like swimming trunks. He wasn't smiling, he had this really determined look on his face like he wasn't going to let anyone stop him from winning. I sat down for a couple of minutes looking at his picture and reading the article on the next page. Martin Johnson is fantastic, but not everyone has heard of him because not enough people follow cycling as a sport.
I sort of came round to the sound of Les moving about in the front of the shop and singing to himself and I thought I'd better get on with my work. Later on I asked to keep the picture to put up on my bedroom wall. He said he'd been thinking of doing the same thing himself, but he let me keep it anyway.
Les met Martin a couple of times before he turned professional, and last week I heard him talking to one of his mates.
'Nice of Martin Johnson to come all this way for the charity ride.'
'He lives in the West Country, doesn't he? What will he do, travel up the day before, or stay overnight?'
'He's staying overnight. He rang me to talk about those new electronic gear changers that have come out.'
'Friend of yours, is he? Not staying overnight with you by any chance?'
'No, you'd have something to talk about if he did. He's booked into Goodman's Hotel.'
'That's a queers' hotel isn't it?'
'I only know two types of hotel. Clean ones and doss houses.'
'People talk about you anyway Les.'
Some of my mates at school say Les is gay, and he does live on his own above the shop, but he's never tried to touch me, other than his hand on my shoulder or the back of my neck for a couple of seconds. Sometimes I think he looks at me a lot while I'm working, but he's probably just checking that I'm doing my jobs properly. Anyway why shouldn't Les look at me if he wants to, where's the harm in that?
On the day of the charity ride the five of us in Les's team met really early at the bike shop and set off for the start at Richmond Common. There were several hundred cyclists there already and the common looked terrific, everybody in brightly coloured cycling gear with their machines sparkling in the sunshine. We had to wheel the bikes into a marquee, register and pick up our route maps, and then join the queue for the start line. They had put on a few bits of entertainment. A clown on big stilts was striding through the crowd, and we walked out bikes beneath a couple of acrobats hanging over our heads on wires.
We mounted the bikes and set off, steadily overtaking people who had started out before us. There was hardly any traffic at that time of morning so it was not difficult to work our way forwards. The good club cyclists are faster than us, they train twice a week on runs of about fifty miles, but everyone in Les's group had put in some long rides recently and we were in pretty good shape.
The charity ride is not a race, it's just for fun, but we rode like a proper team, each of us taking a little turn on the front of the group before dropping behind into the slipstream of the others where the going is a bit easier. Les had told me not to worry about speed because the important thing was to get to the finish, and he didn't want my dad coming to his shop complaining that I was shagged out afterwards. I'm as tall as some of Les's mates so I didn't see why they should be any faster than me.
We came to a stretch of country lane beside the River Thames with just a few road humps to slow us down, and I thought the ride was going to be a doddle. There were not many other cyclists about now, mainly the keen ones like us who had done some training rides. We were going faster than the one or two cruise boats motoring up the river that we passed. At the end of the lane someone checked behind and said 'I think there's a pack chasing us.' Looking round I could see a group of about a dozen riders from the cycle club gaining on us fast. They caught up after we turned into a busy main road, riding past in tight formation, swinging way out across the road to overtake us, making on-coming drivers blare their horns. They did not even acknowledge us, although they all must have known Les because his is the only decent bike shop for miles. This was supposed to be a friendly charity ride, so what is the point of being like that?
There were four refreshment stops on the ride, one about every six miles or so. We went straight past the first one, stopped for a quick pee at the second, had a look at the food at the third, but when we set out we had stuffed in the pockets of our jerseys with bananas and snack bars so we decided to stick with that.
We turned onto a path crowded with walkers heading to the river bank. Trying to avoid all the people and dogs and children I dropped a few yards behind the others, and then this stupid little kid pulling a bloody great push chair walked backwards right in front of me. I had to slam on the brakes as hard as I could and fell off. There was a piece of broken railing sticking up from the ground and it gouged a hole in my leg and cut my ankle. The brat's mother came up and grabbed it and told it to look where it was going, but she didn't even come over to ask if I was all right.
My leg was hurting like hell and I felt all shaky. Les and the others must have kept on going, they probably thought I was just behind somewhere on the crowded path. I sat for a while watching the blood trickling down my leg, not knowing what to do. In the distance I saw a couple of cyclists from the ride turn onto the start of the path. I thought about stopping them, but what could they do about it? They might have had a plaster, but someone told me if you have a cut the best thing is to let the air get to it.
I decided the only thing was to get back on the bike. At first when I pushed down on the pedal with my injured leg it hurt so much I almost cried out, but if make yourself think about something other than the pain and keep going eventually you go numb. I kept pedalling away and put as much effort in as I could, hoping that the others were not too far in front. After what seemed like a long time I saw Les on the other side of the road coming back for me. He turned round when he saw me and waited for me to come up alongside him. 'Christ, what happened to your leg? You'd better stop and call it a day, your dad'll kill me.'
I did my best to smile and said 'I'm okay. Don't worry about my dad, I won't let him see.'
He wasn't happy at first, but eventually he said if I wouldn't give up I should just follow in his slipstream and take it steady. He kept looking back about fifty times a minute to see if I was still there and ask if I was all right. The pain did stop and I kept really close, so he gently lifted the speed until we caught up with his mates a few hundred yards before the last refreshment stop. I could have done with a proper break, but didn't want to hold everyone else up. One of Les's mates pointed towards a couple of parked vans under some trees on the other side of the field and said 'Do you see what I see?'
We all looked over to where, near the vans, the cycling club members had stopped for some serious eating. They had big insulated boxes for food and what looked like a tea urn. 'Let's go for it, we can leave them behind.' We were all keen to set off. Les offered to stay back with me and finish the ride more slowly while the others went on, but I said, 'No, come on Les, I'm all right. I may not be up to doing my turn on the front, but I'll stick behind you.' Without another word we were off.
They set a really fast pace and I was struggling to keep up. We hit a downhill stretch which I thought might be a bit easier, but the road surface was cracked and pitted and the bike was bouncing around under me so much I could hardly hold on to it; my wrists ached from all the jolts coming through the handlebars. They were clearly going to keep the pace up all the way to the finish in Windsor. When the road levelled again, keeping up made me pant for breath and my leg muscles ached horribly from pedalling so hard; keeping a steady rhythm needed all my strength and concentration.
On the outskirts of Windsor we were on some old smooth tarmac, but no-one eased up. We were going hell for leather. Les kept looking back, partly to see if I was OK, but also he was looking out for the enemy, and suddenly he shouted: 'They're round the corner, they're on top of us.' The pace was forced even more and I felt myself starting to go to pieces. My wound wasn't hurting, but my thigh and calf muscles were screaming with pain and my breathing was completely haywire, I was gasping for oxygen and I could hear myself making a weird groaning sound every time I exhaled. My heart was beating like a pneumatic drill smashing up concrete. Sweat ran down my forehead and the salt in it stung my eyes. Ahead I could just make out a junction with traffic lights at green. The stinging made me screw up my eyes, but I could see the lights beginning to change. I wasn't far behind, oh please let me get through, please let me get through. The light was still amber when Les went through and I saw it go red, but I was going too fast to stop and shot across before there was any danger from the opposing traffic. Les shouted 'Yes, we've done it, they'll be stuck at the lights.' We had only a short distance to go to the entrance to Victoria Park and the finish line.
We stopped at last, and despite the stinging salt I managed to keep my eyes open enough to collect the certificate being thrust at me by one of the organisers, and I noticed that the others were dismounting. I felt so shaky and ill I was scared I might fall over if I tried to get off the bike. I rode a few yards to some bushes and got off by sort of letting the bike fall to the ground under me. The taste of sick was coming into my mouth and I went behind the bushes and threw up. Then I sat on the ground, rested my head on my knees for a while, and felt awful. When the sick feeling had worn off enough I pulled myself together, picked up the bike and walked over to look for the others.
When he spotted me Les shouted 'Hey, you've missed Martin Johnson. Come on, I'll get him to shake hands with you.'
We walked back over towards the finishing line, and there was Martin welcoming riders who had just arrived. He was wearing really flash cycling gear and looking fantastic. This was the first time I'd ever seen him in the flesh, and he looked even better than he does in photographs or on TV. Les called to him 'Hi Martin, this is the lad I told you about.'
I was in heaven when Martin turned, smiled and walked over to us. I ripped off my gloves and put out my hand to be shaken, but then I got worried, I thought the state I was in, all sweaty, congealed blood on my leg, and with having just been sick, he probably wouldn't want to touch me. He noticed my leg. 'Have to clean that up when you get home. You didn't let it stop you. Well done. That's what real cyclists are made of.' He grabbed my hand and pulled me towards him and hugged me.
Somehow I found myself hugging him back, I mean without thinking I'd put my arms right round him and was holding him tight. Realising what I'd done I was scared he would be angry with me and push me away, but he didn't. Instead he held me even tighter and leaned back so that he lifted me right up off the ground. While I was up in the air his hair touched my left ear and this amazing tingle thrilled me like nothing I'd ever felt before in my life. Then he let go and said to Les: 'He's great, you must be really proud of him,' as though Les was my dad or something.
Les and I walked back where his mates were longing on the grass. 'Worth it?' he asked.
I didn't answer. He knew how good I was feeling without me telling him.
One of my boyhood memories of growing up in Liverpool in the nineteen-fifties is of travelling to the holiday resort of New Brighton at the far end of the Wirral peninsula. On some warm summer weekends my father would take my sister and me on the hour and a half journey there from our rented terraced house in Liverpool, crossing the River Mersey by ferry, or taking the local train through the railway tunnel.
In those days New Brighton had a huge lido, through a child’s eyes a vast rectangle of blue water, big enough for hundreds of swimmers. The bath was surrounded by an area of wide steps used for sunbathing, recovering from a dip, or simply sitting and watching others. The lido was enclosed by blindingly white perimeter walls and buildings housing the entrance, changing rooms, a café and so on.
One visit in particular remains strong in my memory. I was trying to swim in the shallow end. I had learned how, when my head plunged beneath the surface, to come up again for air without swallowing too much water, and after many attempts I reached the stage of being able to ‘doggy paddle’ for a few yards before loosing control and going under again.
Once, after I climbed out of the pool exhausted from my efforts, a young girl of about eleven approached me. A couple of years older - and much more confident than me - she probably saw my clumsy attempts to swim and thought she would say a friendly hello to a little boy who, however inelegant, was having a go. I don’t remember what she said, but suppose we would have told each other our names, where we lived, and maybe where we went to school.
Then, unexpectedly, she suggested I go with her to meet her brother. She said he was really nice and that I was sure to like him. Though a bit worried at not going straight back to my father and sister, I followed her around the pool and up the concrete steps to where he sat. He was older, almost a grown-up. He was handsome, his smile engaging, his shoulders strong and square, his body slim and firm. His swimming trunks were smart, white, and very brief. I sat with him and his sister for a little while, but none of us could find much to say to each other, and eventually I told them I ought to rejoin my sister, and made my way alone through through hundreds of groups of bathers before seeing her, with my father sitting next to her.
I was not sure why that eleven year old girl had approached me, or why she had suggested I meet her brother, or why his appearance had made such a lasting impression on me. For their part, probably for the want of anything more interesting to do to pass the time, they were merely being friendly to a little boy she had happened to notice who was struggling hard to learn to swim.
Fifty years after that event, curious to see again places I remembered from my childhood, a world that had come to seem so remote, I returned to New Brighton again. Much of the resort of my childhood had gone. The once busy pier that had stretched out into the River Mersey’s estuary had long been dismantled; the landing stage where, day trippers from Liverpool disembarked from ferry boats was gone; the grand hotel had closed and stood derelict. In place of the fine lido where I had learned to swim, there was only a big hole in the ground. The walls and buildings had been demolished, and coarse seaside grasses waved in the wind where the swimming pool and the concrete steps for sunbathing had been.
I walked to the deserted promenade and looked out across the river estuary towards the Liverpool Docks. Though the morning was a sunny one, a mist obscured the opposite bank from view, and the whole scene from water to sky was suffused with the most delightful blue light. Slowly the haze lifted, and the cranes, gantries and wharves of the container port appeared. Where the land gave way to the open sea, power-generating windmills turned lazily in the breeze.
The once thriving resort of New Brighton had changed utterly, but there was still a fine view across the river, and the golden sands of the beach and the coastline were still the same.
Nearby was an open-sided cast iron shelter, left over from busier times, where promenaders might rest or find protection from a shower. I realised that, despite my decades of experience of life as a gay man, for all the pleasure and heartache that my adult tussles between the sheets had brought, if by chance today I should meet another young man as attractive as that boy in the lido, and if we were to sit down in that shelter to escape the wind, I should still, despite my years of experience, be lost for words, still be puzzled as to why his good looks should have such a strong effect on me, and still not be sure what I ought to do about it all.
AN OFFICIAL VISIT
The clear morning made me glad I had bought an apartment with a sea view. From my two big windows I can look up and down the coastline, whilst closed-circuit cameras enable me to pick out any detail and project an enlarged image of it onto the side wall of my room.
Yesterday afternoon I watched boys diving from a floating platform, and today looking north across miles of steel blue water I could see a line of distant hills bathed in golden sunlight. I lingered, gazing at them for a few minutes before setting the apartment's automatic systems to take care of everything for me until my return in six weeks time.
From everywhere in Gay City you can see the space station's tethers rising up from their ground anchorages, eventually disappearing high in the stratosphere. Long transporter tubes run up beside them carrying the shuttle vehicles for passengers and freight. Far above the point at which the tethers and tubes disappear from sight, the vast geo-stationary satellite is visible as a pinhead of light only when the sun illuminates it. Within the space station complex are the science and astronomy research centre, an advanced materials manufacturing complex, the military installation, and a holiday theme park; it is the hub of the space transport network with services to every international airport on the planet surface.
I was heading for a meeting at the Office for Science which, conveniently, was to take place at the space station. I regularly do six week tours of duty in the research centre, but today's meeting was about something special. Like so many others, I came to Gay City as a refugee. The suggestion had been made by a member of the Supreme Council that I go on an official visit to my country of birth. I was reluctant to return. I am very distantly related to the despised president of my ex-country, and this is I guessed was the real reason for me being asked to go. When I was expelled I was in fear for my life. I am now settled and content in Gay City; and have tried hard to put the past behind me, although perhaps I will never entirely shake off the sense of being a late entrant here who did not, like most, come entirely from choice.
Since my last trip to the space station there has been amazing progress with the construction of the latest extension to the holiday complex, a huge doughnut shaped structure. Everyone in Gay City is encouraged to visit the space station, to gaze from the viewing galleries at our blue planet beneath its white clouds, and to study our solar system and the stars and nebulae beyond. The complex also offers more worldly forms of entertainment, including gambling houses, fairground rides and a red light district. Space tourism has become more and more popular, not just among Gay City's population, but also among people of the friendly hetero states, where armed gangs, pollution and disease are ever more prevalent . The current advertising campaign describes going away from these social problems to the station as 'rising up into the heavens above, to a place that is a real heaven'.
At the meeting the chairman passed around a late additional note which turned out to be a draft itinerary for my proposed trip to my birth place. He apologised for springing it on me and said that, although he was aware of my reluctance, he had been working on the assumption that despite my feelings I could be persuaded to go. My continuing debt to Gay City for providing me with a place of safety and a new chance in life was something that did not have to have spelled out to me.
I made a final show of reluctance. 'There are thousands of exiles from my unhappy country who came to Gay City as refugees during the persecution. I am sure there are others who are more suitable.'
'Yes but how many would you say are more qualified to undertake this visit? As a biophysicist you will have a good understanding of the extensive medical research which has cost the state so much of its wealth. The epidemics which swept it six years ago, spread as sabotage by aggressive hostile neighbours, caused millions of fatalities. Yet the strains of virus responsible were eradicated. I doubt if current medical technology here could resist a similar onslaught.' As before my objections were countered with new reasons why I should be the one to go.
Gay City, its population swollen by recent immigration, prospers through international trade and tourism. Economic relations have been established with many hetero states, the only preconditions being that they do not persecute lesbians and gays, and that there is mutual economic advantage. In recent years the state where I was born had been seeking to become a trading partner, offering also co-operation in research and development projects. The laws which outlawed homosexuals had been rescinded, and a new era of tolerance and equality had, the government claimed, begun.
As economic weakness made the state increasingly vulnerable to its bellicose neighbours, desperation was thought to be behind this apparent change of heart. Gay City's military strength is considerable. Our space station has an arsenal of weapons so powerful that we are a valuable ally to any friendly nation that comes under threat from its neighbours. With the end of legal sanctions against gays in my mother country, the door was now open to friendly relations. Diplomatic contacts had already become warmer, and future business and scientific co-operation was being discussed. More tolerant laws had yet to bring an end to persecution by the auathorities, but unofficial contact had been made with a small group of homosexuals who ran an underground newsletter called 'Otherwise...'.
Memories of my homeland are inevitably bitter. Some years before my expulsion the state made homosexuality a crime, and imprisonment and public humiliation became commonplace. There were frequent reports of ill treatment in custody. My lover was killed by police during a raid on a gay disco. In one of the more vigourous purges I myself was taken from my laboratory, repeatedly beaten during protracted interrogations and, without a trial, to my relief since I feared a worse fate, expelled by order of the security minister.
As head of state my great uncle had authorised the persecution. Now he is old and sick, and increasingly isolated in his palace., The day to day affairs of the state in the hands of appointed ministers. He has not been seen in public for decades, and would have died long ago were it not for the first class medical team he assembled to keep him alive. Reports of the ravages of age occasionally leak out. The last, from someone with access to his secretive circle of courtiers at the palace, was that he survived in some sort of special tank, his body sustained by numerous tubes and electrodes, his voice coming from a hidden electronic source somewhere near his head, but without his lips making the slightest movement.
Despite my unhappy memories, of course I agreed to go. What was being asked of me could be accomplished in a single day. I was to visit several research centres, the main power generation plant, and perhaps briefly meet my great uncle. Everything would be very low key, the trip being just one small step towards a greater level of contact between two nations.
A month later I settled into my seat on the space plane and looked through the briefing material prepared for my visit. There was far more than I could easily take in. Tables of figures showed a decline in population across all age groups as epidemics of viruses, persecution of minorities and emigration had slashed numbers to a fraction of what they were fifty years ago. There were tables of economic statistics; maps showing industrial plant, military installations and other important buildings; and pages and pages of text covering every aspect of the state's domestic and foreign affairs. Enemies were thought to be making plans for invasion, but a footnote assured me that nothing was imminent and that I would be perfectly safe. Half an hour before we were due to land the space plane began to decelerate in thickening atmosphere, and I put my papers away and strapped myself in.
I was met at the airport by a quiet spoken woman who introduced herself as one of my great uncle's personal assistants. She escorted me through airport security and to a waiting limousine. I tried to take in as much as possible of my surroundings through the tinted windows. The outlying area through which we passed was shabby, and on the streets there were few signs of life. In more prosperous states vehicles whiz along, levitated above special tracks, their wheels needing to touch the road surface only in side turnings where the tracks run out; but there was nothing of that sort here, or if there was it was not working. The few vehicles I saw on the road were old fashioned and looked worn.
The journey from the airport can not have been more than fifteen miles. We arrived at the palace gates and stopped. My escort told me: 'There will be a few minutes delay during security checks, then we will go on into the palace.' I looked at the car's control panel, which showed elaborate checks being run. Every scrap of data about the two occupants and the nature of what I had brought with me was being transferred from the car to the palace computer, Every touch of the vehicle's controls during the journey, every sound inside or out, and every passenger movement was assessed and analyzed for anything that might be suspicious. Twenty minutes passed before we were allowed to proceed.
Then, for only the second time in my life, I saw the public rooms of the palace, an art deco masterpiece of elegant angled shapes and sweeping planes. Gilt, stained glass, and hand-dyed fabrics were used to give an air of opulence and comfort. I was allowed to enjoy the period atmosphere for only a few minutes before being ushered through to a new wing of the complex. In a large comfortably furnished room I was introduced to an attractive young man, Rostan, who was to be my official guide. I looked at him in astonishment as his appearance stirred memories and emotions which had long ago been subdued. He was the double of my lover from the days before my expulsion nearly thirty years ago. His face, his figure, his colouring, everything except his age was the same. He looked about twenty, younger than my lover had been when he was killed during the police raid. It must have been obvious that I was staring at him. I looked round, saw that we were alone and said: 'You look amazingly like someone I used to know.'
'I know. He and I are related. People say I look very much like him.'
'You look exactly like him. He would be much older of course. Did you know him?'
'No, I was born after he died. I am sorry seeing me has… caused you distress. It would have been better if they had sent someone else to accompany you.'
'No, not distress, I was so taken aback I can't…' I picked up my papers and jerked my mind back to business. 'My itinerary says that we should start with a tour of the palace's medical centre.'
A big modern extension to the original art deco buildings accommodated my great uncle's personal medical suite. Everywhere the latest sophisticated equipment was in use by staff who were friendly, and eager to answer questions. If the state had economic problems, the presidential palace gave no sign of them. I met specialist medical teams responsible for each aspect of his health, his nervous system, cardiovascular system, organs, and so on. The number of people devoted to looking after him alone would have been enough to staff an entire hospital. I was told that treatments begun in the president's personal facility were transferred to the state medical research centre, where after further work they were made available to anyone who could afford them. The research undertaken to keep him alive was therefore not for his sole benefit, it was for the well being of the whole state, and brought in desperately needed foreign currency in fees earned abroad.
If the palace's medical suite was big, the state medical research centre was vast. Rostan took me through so many treatment rooms, operating theatres and laboratories that I lost count. I was shown new organs being grown from small groups of cells, destined to be surgically implanted. Microscopic tools were being made which when injected would scrape off the deposits from inside constricted blood vessels. In an isolation unit special viruses were being designed which would destroy other types of disease-causing virus and bacteria. On the middle platform of a tall unit housing a massive electron microscope we were able to speak without being overheard. 'The massive electro-magnetic fields right here, where we are now standing mean we can be fairly sure to escape surveillance devices. What do you think of it all?'
'I'm impressed. I can only make comparisons with Gay City's own research facilities, but for medical research this must be among the best on the planet, if not the best.'
Rostan undid the top two buttons of his shirt and pulled back his collar. Inside, written neatly and clearly in black ink, was the name of the gay newspaper I had been told of: 'Otherwise...'. He said: 'In high technology medicine we do lead in some major fields, but the vast majority of people cannot afford these treatments, they are available only to a privileged few. Public health also receives scant resources. Whilst the wealthy elite are living longer and longer, overall the population is in decline.'
'Is that the sort of thing you publish in your newsletter?'
His gentle smile made a pang of remembrance and regret surge through me. He answered calmly: 'No, not at all. The newsletter is described as underground because it does not come from one of the official publishing houses. Generally the contents are not controversial, more about where to go for fun, shopping or whatever, very chatty. I just want to make sure you don't get the impression that everything here is wonderful.'
'Is there a chance of my seeing anything of the city?'
'They won't let you go anywhere outside the approved areas. These are the palace, the airport, this research centre and, specially approved for you, the generating station. It would be a waste of time even to ask permission to go elsewhere. We might be able to look at a few public areas on the surveillance monitors though.'
After the medical research centre, where we had lunch, I was shown the geo-thermal generating station. Developed on the site of a disused mine the station now provides all the electrical energy needs of the state. Through transparent inspection panels I saw boiling water and clouds of steam gushing from a tunnel on their way to drive turbines. This one installation supplied all the power needed by the now shrunken population, but although environmentally sound the technology was outmoded by the standards of more advanced states. Gay City's space station could transmit the same amount of in microwave form to a receiving unit on the ground at a fraction of the cost. Dozens of hetero states are already supplied in this way.
When Rostan took me back into the palace complex I followed him on one of those curious twisty journeys you sometimes experience in old buildings, through some of the grand art deco rooms, down several floors in a lift, along a corridor, through some double doors, and finally into a room with about forty metre-long monitor screens taking up a whole wall. There were only three officers on duty at the time, and none looked up from what they were doing as we walked in. I recognised several landmarks, but most of the screens seemed to be showing fairly nondescript streets. 'Not many people about,' I observed.
'We could look at Republic Square, that's always busy.' Rostan went over to one of the control desks, the top of which showed a map of the city, and he touched some red arrows marking the location of several cameras. As he did so the screens nearest us immediately changed to display pictures of the square, and Rostan showed me how to adjust the direction and field of view so that I could zoom in on anything which caught my eye. Republic Square was dilapidated, the paintwork peeling from the main buildings and half the windows boarded up. Beggars hung around the fountain in the centre. Hundreds of people in small groups meandered around, oddly aimless and dejected. A queue ran from the door of the civic hall to a corner of the square and on out of sight down a side street.
'What's are they queuing for?' I asked.
'Travel documents. People queue for days to get them.' Next he showed me views of the main shopping areas, but the story was much the same, none of the life or vigour of the city which I remembered, just more crumbling buildings, dejected people, queues and beggars. In a second shopping area some old battered cars juddered along, a few people shuffled over littered pavements and children scavenged for food among piles of rubbish.
One of the guards came over. 'Do you have authorisation to be in here?'
Rostan produced his identity card and said: 'I am accompanying a diplomat who is to see the president in person this evening. Of course if special permission is needed, I can obtain it from the president's secretariat.' The bluff worked, and the guard returned to his desk to watch another block of security screens.
Rostan switched over to cameras on a long jetty stretching out into the sea. I recognised it as the disused oil and gas jetty, from the days when the state used to import fuel. He said: 'It might prove a suitable embarkation point if a large number of gay people needed to leave, if there were an invasion, or a return to persecutions. There are no real sea defences nowadays, not so far as I know. '
'Let's hope it won't come to that.'
My final engagement was my first ever meeting with my great uncle. I was due to see him for about an hour, and readily accepted the suggestion that I should freshen up. Rostan took me back to the room where I had first met him and showed me the adjoining private bathroom. I decided I had time to use the electro-mist shower, a recent development equipped with special nozzles that quickly fill the cubicle with a mist of very fine droplets of fluid. The controls look complicated, but I find that if they are all set about half way at the start only small adjustments, if any at all, are needed later. Each droplet of fluid carries a minute electrical charge, much too small to cause a shock, and at first as the mist envelops you all you notice is that your hairs stand on end. Then magnetic fields swirl the mist around you, increasing the collision of the minute droplets with your skin. Your whole skin surface begins to tingle delightfully. Metal studs on the floor prevent any cumulative build up of static, sometimes causing the soles of your feet to tickle or making them itchy; if this happens you scratch your feet on the studs or adjust the shower controls downwards. Jets of ordinary hot water can be turned on when you have had enough of the tingling sensation of want to finish off with an ordinary shower.
When I stepped out from the invigorating pleasures of the shower, Rostan was at my side holding a warm towel. 'How was it?' he asked as he began to pat me dry, gently brushing himself against me.
Gay City's manual for official visits gives very clear instructions on sex. It advises that in most of the hetero states gay sex is totally or partially against the law, and that in some it is punishable by death. 'Total abstention from sexual activities with others is therefore the only course which does not involve risk. If there is a need for occasional relief, use of the small adaptor supplied with the personal communication unit is recommended.' I have tried the adaptor; you position it not against any erogenous zone but at the back of your head and switch on. You experience spasms of intense sexual pleasure, but it is somehow difficult to equate these with any sexual act because you cannot locate exactly where in the body the stimulation is taking place, until at last orgasm brings the promised 'relief.' The adaptors are supplied only for longer trips than my single day's visit.
Rostan proceeded to help dry me in a way which clearly showed he was not following Gay City's instructions on official visits and sex. I did not resist. He was so much the lover I had lost all those years ago, brought back to life. We made love like strangers though, unable to anticipate each other's movements, or the familiar reassurance of long term partner's caresses.
My mood after detumescence, calmer and a little pre-occupied, probably made the eventual meeting with my great uncle less difficult. No formal ritual or elaborate courtesies preceded our discussions. I was ushered into the receiving room by Rostan, who quickly said goodbye and left.
My first impression was of a fairly old man dressed in an oddly designed suit of very heavy cloth. 'How did you find your attendant?' asked a deep disembodied voice coming from somewhere behind his chair, or rather throne. Things must have improved since he was seen some years ago in the tank.
'He was most helpful, excellent company.'
'I am glad you had some time together. He seemed familiar to you?' He was like a ventriloquist, his lips showing an odd trembling movement rather than shaping the sounds when he spoke.
'He is a related to my ex-lover, who was killed.'
'Yes, he believes himself to be related. That is what he has always been told. The truth is that he is a clone, a fact which I and very few others know.' The blotched worn face showed a trace of a smile. His strange eyes, somehow too round and too bright, watched intensely as his words worked their effect on me. Was my lover somehow alive again in the form of Rostan? Clone or relative, to Rostan I was just a stranger he would probably never meet again. I was struggling to find words: 'A clone?'
'Yes, during the persecution of gays, clones of many of those who died were produced. It was part of a research project. Small changes were made to the genes of the parent cells to see if sexual preference would be affected.' After a pause he continued: 'I regret all of that, all that happened. I was badly and deceitfully advised; dreadful things were done and you yourself were forced into exile. I am sorry for what you suffered. I was anxious to show you how much things have changed here.'
He stopped, waiting for me to respond. After the death and ruin of so many, did he really think a simple apology was all that was needed? I said sharply: 'The pasts is the past. I am glad the persecution has ended.'
'A great deal has changed here, as I hope Rostan has proved. Think also of what we have to offer. The medical treatments which have been developed here are far beyond anything which has been achieved elsewhere, even in Gay City. You have seen the research facility. The potential exists to produce entire new species able to survive in other regions of the universe where environmental conditions are very different to those on our own planet. Already life can be prolonged through tissue and organ regrowth, the main procedures which keep me alive. If work to regenerate an individual from a small number of specialised cells is successful, death may soon be a thing of the past. Our advances in these fields are major benefits which we would bring to our relationship with Gay City.'
'Yes Gay City is very interested in your research programmes. Certainly you have made a huge investment in the medical field. There are differences though. You have a declining population and concentrate resources on a few privileged individuals. Gay City's population is growing and there is more emphasis on medicine which will prove of wider benefit.'
'But surely for a few of your people, for the elite, long term preservation of life would be worthwhile. You could maintain access to the talents of your most gifted citizens.' He held his left arm out towards me. 'Look at this hand. Fifteen years ago it was withered by age, useless; but look now, the sense of touch has returned to my skin; there is blood flowing once more through my veins.'
He became very excited as he showed me his renewed hand. His breathing became erratic, speeding up briefly into shallow quick gasps, then faltering into drawn out suckings and blowings. As he moved his arm I glimpsed a series of tubes running beneath the oddly cut jacket, presumably part of his life support system. Behind him I heard a click as concealed doors swung open and one of his doctors appeared.
In his now faltering artificial voice he struggled not to loose his dignity altogether. He apologised for ending the interview so abruptly, and hoped that I would take good reports back to Gay City. He told me that I would always have a second home there, whenever I chose to return. The motorised chair or throne on which he sat began to move under him. It pulled him away from the table, turned him around, and conveyed him through the recently opened doors. At the back of the room or laboratory I could see a large tank like a great green glass coffin resting on a stand. Presumably he was in urgent need of some treatment or life support system not available from his chair. Within a minute the woman who had met me when I arrived at the airport was by my side.
On my way back to the space station I could think only of Rostan. He was a different individual, a different person, from my old lover, and I had no grounds to expect him to have further interest in me. Yet I badly wanted my future to include some form, any form, of contact with him, whether as a lover or as a friend. I wondered how difficult it would be for me to arrange another visit.
Later, when I looked down from the space station to the blue oceans of the planet far below, and later still when I looked out at the sea from my apartment, I could think only of the deserted jetty Rostan had shown me on the security screen, stretching out endlessly into a steel blue sea.
PRATS DE MOLIERE
Monsieur and Madame Hulot, proprietors of the Hotel des Promeneurs in the little town of Prats de Molière in the Pyrenees, have successfully attracted a number of English visitors by advertising in the Ramblers’ Association magazine. Guests are presented with a little booklet in English with maps and directions for walks in the mountains and valleys around the town. There is also a large ruled book intended for the British visitors to record their comments. The following entries were made during the second week of May 2003. Neither Monsieur nor Madame Hulot has more than a few words of English. If they had they might well have carefully cut out these pages, to avoid the curious impression they give of the type of client they attract.
Simon and Jemima Plumb, Purley. – Arrived here on honeymoon at end of a long and not entirely trouble free day. On her way to church, Jemima unfortunately pierced her finger on a rose thorn in her bouquet, necessitating the application of a plaster, which made it very difficult to put on the wedding ring. Regret to say that my efforts to force it over her injury caused her to shriek loudly during the crucial part of the ceremony.
On our way back down the aisle, I accidentally trod on the hem of her dress, pulling free a loop of frilly lace which, later in the bedroom, caught around her neck and almost throttled her as she was changing into her cami-knickers. Whilst these were not major disasters, they were a shame as everyone had worked so hard to try to make it the perfect day.
Glad to report that all went well on the journey down here, but must own up that during the first few days we did not get out of the building to try any of the walks. When we eventually set off we were unfortunately caught in a downpour and decided to try a short cut back to the hotel, though it was described in the booklet as very steep. The path zigzagged perilously downwards over mud, slippery rocks and sodden tree roots, and Jemima slipped over backwards four times (not funny!). Helping her up from the last of these – she had landed with such a thud she squealed – I pulled a muscle in my upper thigh, the last thing you want to happen on a honeymoon. Hotel staff sympathetic and helpful when we returned, and a fellow guest, Mr Lilliman, kindly offered to massage my thigh, but due to the hazardous nature of the recommended short cut can only award the holiday six points out of ten.
Clarice and Toby Pottering, Henley-on-Thames – Hotel comfortable and welcoming, food excellent, lovely countryside and excellent guidance on routes including several over mountain passes. However have to comment that maintenance of footpaths generally is a disgrace. Many are badly overgrown with patches of brambles and nettles. Others have been made hazardous by accumulations of loose stones, and still others eroded by watercourses. Clarice and I are veterans of Mount Kinabalu in Malaya, where the whole route is properly maintained by parties of locals working around the clock to ensure any deterioration is promptly put right. We have also walked the Inca trail in Peru, which rises to an altitude far higher than the Pyrenees, but despite thousands of years of use througout history there is no sign of the negligence of pathways found here in Prats de Molière. If the Malayans and Peruvians, poor countries in comparison, can maintain their footpaths properly, why can’t the French?
PS – from Clarice Patterson. Endorse what Toby has said, but would also mention that the hotel does not cater exclusively for walkers. One couple here are so large they can hardly shuffle from the bar to the dining room!
Also the shower in our room. No doubt all very clever of the French to invent an all in one cubicle where hot water comes from half a dozen different nozzles, with shampoo, shower gel and even hot air to dry you off are all available via the high tech control panel, but I began to wonder if I pressed the wrong button it might turn into an express lift and shoot me up to the next floor!
Hilda and Ron Bartmunster, Harrington – Were planning a week much closer to home but hotels in Scarborough were, surprisingly, all booked up. Especially disappointed that there were no rooms at the Grand, where they have a bowl of prawns on the bar to help yourself to with your pre-lunch drink – you need to get there early, they don’t last long!
Came here to Prats on recommendation of work friend of Ron’s (Instant uPVC Replacement Windows Ltd – top discounts!) who is a fanatic for the countryside. General standard of hotel acceptable but do not know how other people can praise the food. We are not impressed by the much vaunted French cuisine. Portions also very stingy; we have had to compensate by ordering additional courses, for which we find we are to be charged extra. The Coquille St Jaques we had as a starter yesterday was not nearly as yummie as the shellfish we buy at a stall Ron found at the south end of the viaduct in Scarborough. Can’t wait to get home to our usual Indian restaurant.
Tried one of the walks, but had to turn back due to the most enormous stinging nettles we’ve ever seen. We bought Ron’s shorts specifically for this holiday, but just going near the vicious leaves of those plants brought his legs up in horrendous red blotches. I’ve been worried enough about his varicose veins, without him having bright red hives superimposed on top of them. Not a word about this hazard in the hotel’s booklet. Staff had no idea where the path we were complaining about was; kept insisting the field was no more than a few hundred yards away metres as the Frogs call them, when it was obvious to Ron and I that we had walked miles.
Next day decided to drive into nearby town, which the booklet said had more shops and several restaurants; well there were a few more compared to Prats, but that’s not saying much, there was not even a single Indian. Although we drove round the one way system five times there was NOWHERE TO PARK THE CAR!!! Nothing for it but to go back to the boring cuisine of the Hotel des Promeneurs. Tried the sun-beds put out on the lawn so we could lounge and enjoy the panorama of the mountains. Ron had hardly begun to settle himself on his when one of the legs broke – obviously flimsy French manufacture. We propped it up with rocks, but before we had finished our first glasses of Pernod a heavy shower came on. Hotel staff had done absolutely nothing to warn us this was coming. Decided we had had enough of France and cut the holiday short. We will take turns at driving and should get back home in time to take our regular Friday night table at the local Indian, The Bombay Banquet. Really looking forward to our supersize pertions of chicken Vindaloo; we certainly won’t be washing it down with French wine.
Ursula Batty and Gudrun Merryfeather, Hove – Holiday recommended to us by a friend – like us a regular at the Klondyke Bar. Prats has fully lived up to all expectations, if not exceeded them. Found walks quite adventurous, wonderful streams in mountains, even passed a pocket of melting snow on the longest of our treks. Only possible crib, and it is not a crib really, is limited choice of filling available for lunchtime sandwiches, cheese or ham, or both! Luckily on the fifth day Ursula spotted some cute little edible mushrooms in a meadow – she is something of an expert – and we picked and sliced some up to liven up our meal.
Somehow afterwards we must have taken a wrong turning, for we strayed into what appeared to be a weird kind of theme or wildlife park. Thought my eyesight had gone when a Giraffe’s head peered at us through the trees. You don’t realize how big their faces are until you see one staring straight at you a few feet away. Further on we found ourselves in the middle of a herd of rainbow coloured zebra, must have been genetically engineered, or coloured with special dye, I suppose. Next came a long line of armadillos. I must have been standing in one of their regular runs, for they came straight at me so that I had to jump up high as each one came near to prevent it running into my legs.
When at last they stopped, I noticed Ursula was being attacked by a large scrawny crocodile and ran to her aid. Poor love was, not surprisingly, in a state of shock. Obvously confused, she told me later she thought she was being assailed by a rather frisky kangaroo! Then, amazingly, a lovely St Bernard dog turned up waging its tail and determined to give me a drink from the keg of brandy attached to its collar. Funny the things that go through your mind in desperate circumstances – I kept wanting to tickle its tummy. Anyway that ghastly crocodile must have slunk off somewhere, so we sat down under a tree to recuperate. Must have dropped off to sleep, for we woke to find ourselves in a heavy shower, water dripping on us from the leaves above. Made our way back to the hotel by the quickest route – afraid we were too whacked out to help a couple who we recognised from the hotel, slithering about on a steep part of the path – she was wearing some sort of gold flecked sandal, quite unsuitable for rugged terrain. Must have come on their first walking holiday with no idea what to expect. Back at base gave one another a good rubbing down with hot towels, and fortunately were fully recovered in time to enjoy the excellent dinner.
Sebastian Lilliman, Brighton – Been longing to see the local flora in this part of the Med for myself, so when I spotted the hotel’s ad. in the Ramblers’ Association magazine booked a week here a.s.a.p.. Must say expectations have been amply rewarded. Won’t list all the plants identified, there would be pages, but will mention a couple of stars, gentians with their superb intense blue growing in pasture, a tiny mauve cyclamen with petals fully reflexed, and how could I leave out the wild pansies, two delicate blue petals above lovely soft shades of yellow on the lower. Have completed all the walks in the booklet, but there are lots of other little paths I have not had time to explore. Many happy memories to take back – met a local shepherd with his flock. Very lucky, as shortly afterwards there was a heavy shower and he took me into his shelter in the corner of the field, surprisingly comfortable with a table and a couple of chairs, and even a bench seat to lie down on. Like many locals, his mother tongue was Catalan, but we exchanged a few words in French. Did not really need to say much to convey how pleased we were to have met. Looked out after a very enjoyable half hour or more together to see that the rain stopped. What a lucky day!
The following evening there were one or two raised eyebrows when he turned up asking for me at the hotel, but you can either give in to pressure or be determined, so I went right up to him, kissed him on both cheeks, and took him straight up to my room. My hosts at the Hotel des Promeneurs as ever pleasant and friendly when we ate together later – the French are so relaxed and adult in their outlook. Wish I could say the same for the English guests.
Major and Mrs Burnstrap (rtd), Chelmsford – To go directly to the point, have to say that the recent entries in this book present a sorry picture of my fellow countrymen, especially as we are all guests in a foreign clime and ought to be on our best behaviour. Afraid I have to say there is not a man or woman among them I would have chosen to be with me in the regiment during the West Africa campaigns.
Number one, that couple from Purley need to make their minds up whether they’re here on a honeymoon or on a walking holiday. As it is they’re a bit like someone who gets on a bike and then complains it no standing up on its own.
Number two, those Henley ‘veteran walkers’, self-styled. The paths around here are perfectly good natural paths maintained by people walking over them, and public spirited individuals like Gladys (Mrs Burnstrap (rtd)) and myself thwacking away any intruding vegetation with our walking sticks. This is the French Pyrennees; it’s not supposed to be like Mount Kinabalu or the Inca Trail. We come here in the hope of escaping from the noise and never ending building work of town life, we don’t want to come across gangs of coolies embarked on civil engineering projects.
Number three, that Bartmunster pair, they seem to think life should consist of a series of gargantuan over-spiced meals with interludes of heavy drinking. Surprised they can still squeeze themselves into a car, let alone drive it to the nearest town.
Number four, Gladys and I encountered those two womenfolk from Hove on our walk the other day. They were in a terrible state, one of them jumping up and down in a bizarre native dance of some kind, the other rolling around on the ground on a slope of treacherous boulders. My guess is they were suffering from heat stroke - saw some very bad cases of it during the West Africa campaigns. Tried to restrain the one on the ground to prevent her injuring herself, when her companion promptly abandoned her crazy dance and started beating me across the shoulders with her knapsack. Fortunately Gladys grabbed hold of her and managed to get some of the herb tea - she always has a flask of it - down the two of them. She might have wished she had kept clear of them when the balmiest of the pair pulled at her blouse and tried to unbutton it. The tea is a special recipe, something of a cure-all, and when we left they had calmed down and were sitting under a tree.
A little concerned when heavy rain came on an hour afterwards but we saw them both that evening at dinner and they seemed fully recovered. Have some sympathy for them but the long-established rule for expeditions is that each party has to take responsibility for ensuring he or she has adequate covering and sufficient liquids to ward off the effects of unaccustomed sun.
As for that pansy Lilliman with his nosegay of wild flowers, molesting that poor shepherd, the extent of his depravity is revealed by his own account without further remarks from me. Best advice I can offer him for the future is, if circumstances make it absolutely necessary, he should follow the example of the two womenfolk and restrict himself to a healthy rubbing down with hot towels.
In my opinion all this bad behaviour results from inadequate discipline. When I was at Harrow School any signs of whingeing or other namby-pamby tendency would be met with hot strong medicine, vigourously applied, dose to be repeated as necessary until the miscreant was fully cured. All the above disciplinary offences duly recorded by me in this book for action by the proper authorities at an appropriate time, despite a lot of woolly-vested protestations from Gladys - who ought to know better - about live and let live and people can’t help being as they are.
Back to Mummy
Ian was only nineteen and had never broken up with anyone before, but it came as no surprise when Roger said he was leaving. They had not made love for nearly two months, rarely ate together, and except at night when they slept in the same bedroom in the two single beds in the furnished flat they rented in a big old house, they spent hardly any time with each other.
The situation had been very different when they moved in; then they had been full of new found love for each other, and they delighted in spending time together. The change had not come about because of a row, Roger had just drifted away. He became fed up with the quiet pub they used to go, with the music they used to listen to, and with the things they used to do together. Now Roger’s showed every day by his manner that he was fed up with anything that meant spending time with Ian. He had found new places to go where he did not want him tagging along, new friends and, Ian supposed, a new lover.
One evening when there was no food in the flat for dinner they could not agree on whether to buy take-away fish and chips or a kebab, and they both lost their tempers and told each other they could not bear sharing the flat any longer. They divided the household necessities they had bought between them, and Roger hired a van to move his things out. Ian had not asked him where he was going, he preferred not to know. He felt that Roger was being unfair. He had never said what had gone wrong or why he no longer wanted to be Ian’s boyfriend, denying him the chance to put things right, or at least to talk about their situation. All Roger had said was that he wanted have fun, to meet new people, and he went out without Ian until there was nothing left of their relationship except that they still shared the flat.
'You'll soon find someone else,' Roger told him as he was leaving. 'You're easy to live with; anyone could get on with you.'
Anyone, but not you, Ian thought. He seemed to have three choices. He could try to find another flat-mate, but he had been told awful stories from others who had done that. A new flat-mate who had seemed nice at first turned out to be on drugs, or to be a thief. His second option was to could find somewhere cheaper to rent and be on his own, but he would probably be able to afford only a small bed-sitting room. Or he could go back to living with his mother. He was not keen to go back because it would be such an admission of failure, but at her house he would only have to pay for the cost of his keep and he would be able to save some money for the future, perhaps for a fresh start with someone new. When he spoke to her she seemed quite happy with the idea of his going back to her.
He had noticed that she seemed quite happy about most things recently, and he hoped she was at last getting over his father's death. When he explained that he and Roger had fallen out she said at once that, if he wanted to move back, he would find everything in his old room was just the as it was before. 'You're still young, people think they can take advantage of you,’ she added.
On his last day in the flat, while he was packing when the phone rang. He let the answering machine take it and listened to the message as it was being recorded. 'Hi, this is Roger. We are still friends, I hope, no hard feelings? Can we meet and have a drink sometime? Give me a ring.'
Seeing Roger again would only make him feel worse. He was not sure if that meant he had hard feelings, but the boy he had hoped he would be spending his life with had walked out on him. How was he supposed to feel?
At work he had told them only that he was sharing a flat with a friend, not that he was gay and living with a lover, so there were not too many awkward questions when he said he was moving again. Even so the lady in personnel seemed to think it quite funny and said mockingly: 'Oh, so you've gone back to Mummy then?'
Life at home quickly settled into an easy and familiar routine of meal times and shared chores. When he first offered his mother the money for his week’s keep, she said, ‘You don’t have to pay me straight away if you’re short. If you’ve got things still to pay at the flat or anything, we could leave it for a week or two.’ He realised then how glad she was to have him back. When he had first left, she seemed to be in a bad move whenever he went to see her because she always said something critical about the way he looked or in answer to something he told her, but after a few weeks she was more relaxed. He thought she must have got used to not having him at home. He was grateful she did not resent him being in the house again.
He did not feel like socialising much, so he spent his spare time reading, listening to music, watching television, wandering around the neighbourhood, or riding his bike. He was not very happy, and certainly not finding much fun in life. Once when he was in the park, a man of about thirty, who was walking a dog, started chatting to him. Ian stroked the dog as they talked, and after a few minutes the man said he lived not far away, on the other side of the park to Ian. Was he, Ian wondered, simply walking his dog and glad to have a few words with someone, or might he hoping for rather more? The idea would not have come into Ian’s mind before Roger had told him about men ‘cruising’ for each other in parks. However, Ian had decided he needed time on his own to get over the break up with Roger, and he thought it best not to be too friendly with this stranger.
At home he relieved his sexual urges with soft pornography, and comforted himself with his hands so that he could sleep at night. After a few weeks his mother said to him 'You ought not to spend so much time on your own. Don't worry, I'm not going to try to persuade you to try a girlfriend again, I know you don't want that, but you ought to have someone, if its only a friend to go with to the pub or somewhere once a week.'
She had always been so good to him. He was all she had since his father had died. He knew that nothing would please her more than for him to marry and give her grandchildren. He had tried to be straight by going out with a girl, but when the time came for kissing and cuddling he knew that for him it was just a pretence; he could not make his life into a sham, however much he wanted to please his mother.
What he could do for her now that he was living with her again was to fix various things around the house. He unblocked a drain, fixed a dripping tap, screwed back a shelf which had come down, and re-painted two ceilings which had gone rather yellow from cigarette smoke. Once, when he was putting out the rubbish, he noticed she had thrown away a bottle of tablets labelled 'hypericum'. He knew the name, a weird kid at school had tried to sell him some once, they were anti-depressants that you could buy in health food shops. Were they the reason his mother had seemed less irritable a few weeks after he had left to live with Roger? If that was true, then she might become depressed again if he went away a second time.
Ian himself was less miserable than he had been in the last days of the flat share. He had been thinking about his future, and whether to try for a better job, or to go part time so he could study at a college, or even with the Open University. He though it could be quite a long time before he was ready to try to find a boyfriend again.
The next day when he left work to go home, he was startled to see Roger waiting outside in the street for him. 'Hello, how's it going?' he asked. Ian shrugged his shoulders, looked away and walked on towards the station.
'Aren't you speaking to me? We can still be friends. Come and have a drink, just one, there's a pub over there.'
He told Roger that he had to go back home, that his mother would have a meal waiting for him. As the words came out he realised how weak and immature he must have sounded, and he wished he could have made up something clever to say to Roger, or that he had just told him to go away and leave him alone.
'Meet me another night, then, any night, you say when. I got some great stuff in this really cool club I’ve been going to, it gives you a fantastic high. Defadrine, they call it.'
‘”Defadrine”? Doesn’t make you go deaf does it?’
‘Don’t be silly. “Make you go deaf” - what are you like?’
'I expect you're very busy, you won't have time another night.'
Roger hurried ahead and turned to face him so that he had to stop. 'What’s the matter with you? Don’t you want to have a good time? Give me a chance, this is the second time I've waited for you outside work. I hung around for ages yesterday, I must have missed you. Say you'll come for a drink with me, you chose when.'
Ian let himself be persuaded. Roger, who had a car now, said he would call for Ian at his mother's house at half past eight. They went to the same quiet pub they had used sometimes when they shared the flat, and brought each other up to date, though Ian did not have much that he could say. Then Roger brought out a defadrine tablets and offered it to him, moving up very close and putting his hand on Ian's arm. 'I’m really glad to see you again,' he said. 'have one of these. It will soon cheer you up and we’ll have fun just like we used to.’
'But it all finished between us. The last two months we had the flat you didn't even look at me.'
'I know, but moving in together was a mistake, you were too young. If you’re gay the most important thing is to have fun, that’s what being gay means, isn’t it, having fun? Don’t go all serious about things on me.'
Ian wondered if Roger had been different, and spoken to him about wanting - at least - to be a friend, he might have weakened and agreed they could start afresh. The trouble was that if what he wanted was to have fun with aid of a chemical stimulant, he could do that with anyone. The two of them would not be special to each other in the way he wanted. This time he was more experienced, and though he was unhappy to, he turned Roger down and went home.
Later, in his room he finished his bedtime drink, put out the light, and settled down to sleep, knowing that in the morning his mother would give him his breakfast as usual. He wished that he could please her by getting married and having children, so that she would always be happy without having to take pills; and he wished too that he could share a flat with a boyfriend again, and sleep in the same bed with him, and make love to him every night. Would he ever be experienced enough, and strong and clever enough, to do both?
The Month Rule
Since I first became sexually active, fourteen years ago when only seventeen, the month rule has shaped and guided my love-life. I learned it from my first ever conquest, who found me walking my dog in the big London patch of suburban woodland around Ruislip Lido. My thoughts were concentrated, as they so often were at that time, on what was becoming an undeniable fact: that a powerful sexual urge drove me not to the opposite sex, but towards other men. My first ever lover was sitting on a fallen tree trunk beside the path, watching my approach with a friendly gaze, and when I was within a few yards asked if I agreed that it was good to get away from busy streets into a wood with large mature trees. With an amiable manner and an ease that even now, when I think back, surprises me, he progressed from pleasantries to having me sit beside him, putting an arm around me, and taking me back to his car, where I shared sexual pleasure with another human being for the first time, while my poor old dog called Wooffs - I know, I know, but I was only a kid when I called him that - had to wait nearby tied to a fence on a long lead.
My first lover worked in building construction, and about eight months later when the new supermarket he was engaged on was complete he had to move on to find work elsewhere. Despite his repeated warnings that his line of work meant he could never settle in one place and therefore I must not become too fond of him, I pined desperately after he went. He had assured me that, with my looks, someone else would soon come along, but that I should be wary of highly promiscuous gay men. He said that for him one simple rule had been his constant and sure guide to avoiding the emotional and physical problems that plague so many. This rule requires that, in any period of thirty days, you restrict yourself to one sexual partner. The rule has no precise logical or mathematical basis, for there is no clear reason why a month should be the period rather than say, three weeks, or a lunar month, or six weeks. At times its application can seem arbitrary. What do you do if you meet someone you are strongly attracted to, but the thirty day period since you last held someone in your arms is not yet up? You can hardly say: ‘Would you mind meeting again in a day or two, I can’t go with you today because of my month rule.’
Such situations can make the rule, though simple enough to state, sometimes difficult to apply. Fortunately, if you want to, you can devise ways around some of the drawbacks. For instance, if you have gone without for a complete month, you could allow yourself to carry forward one entitlement to a sexual encounter, permitting yourself two in the following thirty day period. Similarly, whilst strict observance might appear to forbid threesomes altogether, you could decide that, if you had one regular partner for a period of two months, you and he would be entitled to participate once in a threesome. Not that I am saying I frequently indulge myself, I do not, but you get the idea. However if you make this type of exception you must avoid allowing so much leeway that you end up in the situation you are trying to avoid: that your sex life makes you feel as though you are serving in a fast food store, - you become trapped into having sex once with so many strangers that you never get to know or care for any of them.
Though libertines might scoff, the month rule is not as restrictive as all that. One partner a month is twelve a year, or over a ten year period – well, you don’t need Maths GCSE to work it out. Whilst the very promiscuous may boast ten times that number, or even more, how many of these so numerous gratifications can they actually remember? Of a thousand of their casual shags, how many would they recognise a year or two later if they passed them in the street? Besides, if you wish to make sheer numbers your yardstick, the month rule has not really been the limiting factor in my case. Averaging out my love-making, from one night stands to relationships which have lasted for some months, I reckon to have had less than four partners a year. Ideally would like that number to be fewer, with a higher preponderance of strong relationships, not larger with very many more opportunistic shaftings. Of course not everyone has to do the same, but if you are anything like me in wanting a boyfriend, the month rule will not rob you of the pleasure and fulfilment of having an active and varied sex life.
Given my outlook, a week’s holiday in the West Country with my long-standing friend Jason, who is highly promiscuous, may seem a rather uncertain venture. He had some years ago been my permitted quota of sexual experience for a month, but he was unable to resist lusting after any passing male in close fitting jeans, and whenever possible trying his luck. We became good friends, and though he had to take second place during periods when a lover had first claim on me, when I was between affairs I would fall back on him for company, though these days never between the sheets. Hiding his satisfaction at hearing about my latest break-up, he would try to entice me into visiting this club or that cruising ground in the hope of tempting me to breach my month rule.
His consistency in our friendship is important to me. When I am low after a losing yet another boyfriend he cheers me up, amuses me with tales of his escapades, teases me about my month rule, and gently persuades me that my world is not about to come to an end. Our friendship has, after all, lasted longer than any of my sexual relationships. Perhaps our different sex lives makes comparing our experiences more interesting; certainly the contrast gives us plenty to argue about, sometimes heatedly.
Our West Country holiday together took in Devon and Cornwall. To avoid the tedium of a long motorway drive we took the train to Exeter and hired a car there. His main interest was in visiting the gay beaches, and over a few days we took in Berrow beach on the North Coast and Petitter beach near Torquay. He mocked my abstemiousness. Not wanting to use up my month’s entitlement unless someone really special came along, I mostly sat minding his clothes while he went off searching for fun.
He would come back eager to tell me of his conquests in great detail, and was particularly pleased to have joined an orgy he came across concealed in some steep sided sand dunes. Later, heading into Cornwall, he wanted to got to a beach near Truro. We looked at the map, and seeing the town of St Austell he said, in an irritating attempt at a West Country accent: ‘Ooh aargh, we must stay there, St ’ostel, the patron saint o’ cheap lodgings.’
‘Okay, but please don’t crack that joke or talk like that while we’re there.’
‘No, course not, oi bain’t stupid, ee know.’
We found a pub with a few rooms in the middle of town, the Queens Head, and booked in for the night. When we sat down for our evening meal, on a table in the window we found place mats that had been specially printed with a little legend about the inn. Instead of showing pictures of little fishing harbours such as is common in these hotels, our mats gave the following information:
The Queens Head, dating back to the seventeenth century, was at its height a substantial establishment with thirty bedrooms and a large function room (still available). In the cellar can be seen the entrance to a tunnel, said to have run beneath the town and as far as the coast, and to have been used by smugglers.
The pub is believed to be haunted by Betsy, a chamber maid in the early nineteenth century, who became pregnant by the landlord and hanged herself on the premises. Her friendly ghost is said to appear sometimes to travellers at night, offering them the comfort of her charms.
‘A bit of Cornish folklore thrown in with the cost of the meal,’ I commented.
‘Secret tunnels and ghosts, a lot of bamboozle. Betsy will get short shrift if she comes anywhere near me, ee can bet oor loif on thart.’
‘After her experience with the landlord, she may now have turned to the charms of other women.’
‘A lesbian ghost? At least that would be a fresh angle on the old old story of the haunted inn.”
Jason and I shared a twin bedded room, and in the middle of the night his loud snoring woke me. Opening my eyes I saw that the scene was lit by moonlight, a bright shaft of it coming through the gap where the curtains did not fully meet. The illumination made a bright patch on the floor near the door. As I peered at this it seemed to take on a more distinct shape, and focussing hard in the gloom I found myself looking at a young man in old-fashioned calf length breeches, his shape becoming more concrete as I watched. Though an icy terror gripped me I could not help noticing how good looking he was. He put a finger to his lips and beckoned me towards him. An intense compulsion to go to him wrestled with my horror. Finally, desire and curiosity won. When I stood beside him he seemed as real as Jason, who lay still snoring in bed.
He opened the door and took my arm, drawing me after him, his touch as firm and warm as if I were to reach out an touch you now. Outside in the corridor he said: ‘Why don’t you and I take advantage of one of those empty rooms to enjoy a little time together?’
He was nice looking, but I was not sure that using up my month’s opportunity on what could only be a one night stand was sensible. Seeing me hesitate, he dropped his eyes to look towards my lower parts and said: ‘Don’t you worry now, being a cellarman – bartender and cellarman by trade – I know how to look after what’s down there.’ This light-hearted invitation, and the lure of physical pleasure, were difficult to resist, so I nodded and followed him into one of the inn’s other rooms, where we made love tenderly and hungrily for about an hour. When we were sated he got up and said: ‘Sorry, but I can’t stay longer with you, much as I’d like to. Got to go. House rules, I suppose you might say.’ He stepped out into the corridor before I could answer, and when I went after him he had vanished. Afraid and full of uncertainty I silently tried the other doors along the corridor. They were locked, and I crept down the staircase to find the bar and restaurant empty and in darkness. I returned cold, mystified and bemused to my own bed. Jason was still asleep, although mercifully he had stopped snoring.
When we had breakfast the next morning he asked ‘Sleep all roight?’ .
‘Yes, fine.’ I did not want to tell him about the cellarman, in fact I could hardly believe the experience had been real myself. ‘How about you?’
‘Afraid oi just couldn’t drop orf, somehow. Often can’t get orf to sleep when oi’m away from ’ome.’ He clearly believed he had spent a sleepless night, and it did not seem worth arguing with him.
Before we left the Queens Head I asked the landlord if there had been any other people staying that night, but he assured me there was no-one except him and his wife. ‘What makes you ask?’ he said.
‘Oh nothing really, just I thought I might have heard someone.’
‘Wasn’t our resident ghost Betsy, was it? She didn’t pay you a visit? Might have to charge you extra if she offered you her services.’
I smiled. ‘Given her age, presumably that would be a nominal sum.’
We settled the bill. Jason was keen to buy a picnic and set off for the beach nearby, where he had been told the “action” was plentiful. I was perfectly happy to sit and mind his clothes while he went off to explore a promising looking area hidden by a line of large boulders and half submerged rocks. I fell asleep, to be awakened by something cold and wet touching my ear. ‘Come here Betsy, that’s enough of that,’ a deep male voice shouted. As I came round I heard a dog panting, and saw it running towards its owner. I looked up, and if my eyes were to be believed, a short distance away was the cellarman from the previous night. I smiled in recognition.
He called over: ‘Hello there, haven’t seen you round here before.’
‘No, first time. Really good last night up at the Queens Head.’
‘Queens Head St Austell, that where you’re staying? Now that is a coincidence. Haven’t been in myself for years, but one of my forbears, generations ago, used to work there. My great grandparents used to say I was the spitting image of him. Came to an unfortunate end, fell down some steps on the way to the cellar and bashed his head in.’
‘How awful, I am sorry...’
‘We are talking about a very long time ago, ages before I was born, don’t know why I mentioned it really. Hope I haven’t put you off! Be all right if I sit down beside you for a bit?’
‘Yes, please do,’ He sent Betsy off to chase some sea-gulls.
‘Not on your own, though, are you,’ he said looking at Jason’s clothes.
‘No, he’s a friend, gone over behind those rocks over there to see what he can find.’
‘Want’s to watch where he puts his feet. They’re covered a barnacles, sharp as a bacon slicer; there’s many a one comes back from there in need of first aid.’
Of course it was not long before, to test my reaction, he put a hand on my arm. I brushed my hand against his thigh. ‘That your car over there under the trees? What d’you think? Should we enjoy a little time together in it? If your friend wouldn’t mind.’
‘I don’t see why he should, but...’ Attractive though he was, my mind was struggling to make sense of what had happened the previous night, and to work out the implications for the month rule. If the experience in the inn had been entirely in my imagination, then going with this stranger now was allowed. On the other hand if I really had made love to his ancestor’s ghost, could it be disregarded on the grounds that the rule applied only to the living? And what if, unlikely though it was, this man who had appeared on the beach had a double living in St Austell who had somehow sneaked into the Queens Head after hours that night?
Seeing me hesitate, he dropped his eyes to look at my swimming trunks and said: ‘Don’t you worry now, being a diver, scuba diving instructor in the season, I know how to look after what’s down there.’ He was too persuasive to resist, so I nodded approvingly and led him to the car where we made love tenderly and hungrily for about an hour. When we were sated my mind began struggling again with the implications of all this for the month rule. The harshest interpretation would mean that I had used up both this month’s allocation, and also the month that followed. Would I really have to abstain for so long?
‘What’s wrong?’ he asked. ‘Aren’t you happy with what we’ve just done?’
‘Oh yes, it’s not that, you were terrific, really good. I mean it.’
‘Good, ‘cos I was wondering how you would feel about meeting me for a drink next time I come to London. I’ve got relatives in Balham. Due to visit them in a couple of weeks.’
‘I’d love to,’ I said, delighted at the prospect of seeing him again and at his having, unknowingly, resolved my dilemma over the month rule. We exchanged telephone numbers. ‘I’ll definitely ring you in a couple of weeks.’
‘And I’ll ring you if you haven’t rung me first. You can count on it. Sorry, but I can’t stay longer with you, much as I’d like to. Got to be back for my evening meal. House rules, I suppose you might say.’
Again I decided to say nothing to Jason. He was sure to press me for more details than I would feel comfortable giving, and would go on to subject me to a lecture about the necessity, as he saw it, of taking advantage of every opportunity and living life to the full, redoubling his exhortations to adopt the promiscuous style of behaviour of which he was so proud. Besides, other events might get in the way of my meeting the diver in London, and telling Jason would give him endless scope to chip away at my hopes and dreams of a lasting relationship. Any mention of the month rule and he would dismiss it, as he always did, as absolute madness.
When he returned from the rocks he was limping slightly. ‘Hurt your foot?’
‘Those damn rocks are as sharp as harpoons. They should put up a warning sign.’
‘Oh dear, let’s have a look. Any luck over there?’
‘A couple of guys hard at it. Full sex. Weren’t interested in me though.’
‘Pity. Your foots not too bad. I’ll go back to the car and get a plaster.’ When I stood up, as well as the trail of disturbed sand leading to the car park, I could see my diver’s footprints and those of his dog, leading up to where I had been snoozing, and stretching back again in the direction from which he had come. Fortunately Jason, intently examining his injured foot, had not noticed them.
‘Well, at least I’ve tried,’ he said when I returned with the plasters, ‘not like you, lying there letting life pass you by. You only get so long on this earth, that’s what I always say. This beach is not so much a cruising ground as a snoozing ground, as far as you’re concerned. When you get old and it’s too late you’ll never forgive yourself for missing out. Ooh aargh.’
The Chairman, to call her by the title she herself prefers, rang to warn me she had given my number to someone seeking nomination to The Committee. A few weeks ago, age and decrepitude had taken one of our members from us, so there was an vacant seat. To learn that anyone should actually seek nomination, rather than agree to join reluctantly after much arm-twisting, was a surprise. The Chairman, however, was not encouraging about the hopeful new member. ‘Frankly I’m not sure that he’s suitable. These days there is no reason why someone who is openly gay should not be a member - that’s not what worries me - of course not. Experience and maturity are perhaps the essential qualities we need. My concern is that
he may simply not be the right sort of person. I’d be interested to hear your opinion.’
Mildly irritated, when she mentioned his name I said, ‘I’ve never heard of him. Why are you putting him on to me?’
‘As a general principle, I try to be impartial, leaving Committee members to take the decisions. As Chairman I think it would be wrong to press my own views all the time. We both have a similar understanding of how The Committee ought to work, and you’re discreet.’
‘Glad that you think me a help,’ I said, concealing my annoyance at being lumbered with the potentially awkward task of putting off the would-be nominee, even though discouraging people from taking an interest in The Committee is not usually a difficult task. Describing it as ‘moribund’, i.e. at the point of death, is usually very effective.
Years ago, when our current Chairman was appointed, she wanted to give The Committee a good shake up, to make us apply ourselves again, but her zeal has been slowly eroded, not to say completely exhausted. Something must have become ingrained into the boards of our panelled meeting room, into the wood of our heavy furniture, something that emits a soporific
influence through the ubiquitous dark varnish, an influence that seems to disable all of us. It has slowly seeped into our bones and rendered us hidebound, fossilized and incapable. Eventually it got to her too.
Because of this I thought that putting the prospective nominee off would be doing him a favour. He arrived at my door precisely on time. In appearance he was all new suit and business case. A senior executive in his early forties, he had made his money converting disused city warehouses and commercial buildings into flats, or to use current estate agent jargon, open plan apartments. I started off with a polite question. ‘How did you hear about the vacancy?’
He gave me an attractive smile. ‘I was afraid you might ask me that. A couple of weeks ago I read in the obituary columns about The Committee’s recent unfortunate loss. I made enquiries, and eventually had a short interview with the Chairman. She suggested I speak to you.’
For a few moments I revisited the phone conversation with her in my mind. As though he had read my thoughts he added: ‘I don’t want to be a nuisance to you, but after all you are the longest serving member of The Committee, and having a few words with you before having my name put forward did seem like a good idea.’
Did she have to tell him that I was the longest serving member? He must have concluded that my bottom was stuck to the seat. Were it not for the malaise of inability and indecisiveness that afflicts all members of The Committee, I would have resigned years ago. The trouble is one antediluvian member going will never be enough to eliminate the torpor currently holding us back. The majority, perhaps all of us, would have to be disposed of.
The time had come for me to be firm with him. I resorted to a sly comment that implicitly questioned his motives. ‘Kind of you to come forward and volunteer to make up the numbers.’
‘Oh, I hope to be altogether more enterprising than that. Now that we gay men and lesbians are widely accepted in society, the time has come for us to be represented on national committees such as this. The pace of social and political change has increased so much, there is a great need for a committee that will initiate moves to integrate and adapt our social institutions. I hope to bring a new viewpoint and propose fresh ideas. As an example, there is much to be done on the legal status of same sex couples, and on exploiting our potential for raising children.’
He reminded me of how The Committee used to be when it was first set up. They were days of rapid social change. Old institutions and habits of thinking were swept away, and new social and political structures were developed to help the nation forward into a happier and more prosperous era. The Committee was tireless. All over the country it began new ventures, resolved disputes, engendered new optimism and dynamism. For many our actions created opportunities for success and happiness - though inevitably, for a few, change was not welcome. As success followed success, the power and influence of The Committee grew until it was acknowledged as a major instigator of reform.
That was a long time ago. Now it lives on its past, respected out of tradition, but in truth completely bogged down, ineffectual, ignored by newspapers except for a rare mention when no more exciting story can be found to fill the columns.
The Committee, even now, has a substantial budget. It has an office building and a dozen administrative staff; its members go on official visits across the country, staying in the best hotels. Receptions are held, inspections are organized, and great, but undeserved, deference is shown. The unnecessary cost is part of what riles me, but more important is that we are setting a bad example, giving the wrong lead, encouraging people to respect our empty show of formality and process, when they should be looking for substance and originality. If his aim was to achieve things in the world, my visitor would do better to look elsewhere.
‘Are there not other organisations more in tune with today’s issues which would be more suitable for you than this, let me be frank, rather geriatric Committee?’
'There are pressure groups aiming to strike a blow against prejudice and discrimination. Some of them I respect, but I do not myself have the personality or the confrontational flare they need. I am a businessman, I absorb facts; I understand figures, Know about administration, and how to get the best out of people. For me, given my nature and abilities, becoming a member of your Committee seems an ideal way for me to make a contribution. And, forgive me, please don’t take this in any sense personally, but the age of the present members surely means that fresh faces are needed.’
He won me over, despite the Chairman’s low opinion of him. In order to join The Committee he would need a majority of existing members to sign his nomination form. If he could obtain enough signatures, the subsequent processes were a formality. I told him how to contact the members who were likely to agree. With my support, and if all of them backed him, he would have a bare majority. I promised to help if anyone needed persuasion. I rang the Chairman at once to confess what I had done, expecting her at the very least to be annoyed.
She revealed that, in her earlier call, she had put on an act of being against him. ‘He made a very strong impression on me, but I wanted you to make up your own mind,’ she said. 'That was why I did not to reveal how was keen I was on him. I may be Chairman, but you are the one who is best at winning over the other members. After five years, most of them still consider me far too much of a new girl to take me seriously.’
She was exaggerating her length of service, which was nearer four and a half years than five, but I let that pass. As for pretending earlier to be against the new nominee, in life you often cannot tell whether people mean what they say, or if they are deliberately making misleading statements as a ploy to gain some undeclared advantage. Whether in reality she was now telling the truth, or might for some reason have changed her mind about the new nominee, did not matter.
Soon I had other concerns. One of my suggested nominators, a man fond of calling himself a liberal, turned out to hate gays. This discovery had me scanning the names of the remaining Committee members to find another backer. Of them, the only one worth trying was the militant feminist member. Opposed on principle to any man, she was not an obvious choice. She seldom missed an opportunity to tell me how much she hated me, but I hoped to play on her keenness to secure any little scrap of power and influence.
‘If you were the last person on earth I wouldn't help you,’ she said when I rang her. ‘You are a Neanderthal, a chauvinist, an atavistic retard, and like all men you are the product of a defective gene.’
‘I admit all that,’ I replied. ‘What I have in mind is a straightforward swap. If you will support my protegé, I will return the favour if ever you wish to nominate someone.’
‘Whosoever I choose?’
Her signature arrived in the post the next day; my new friend's ambition was realised. He attended the dinner at which his appointment was to be announced. Members and their guests sat in allocated seats at long tables, the knives and forks of their place settings geometrically arranged. Wine glasses sparkled under gilded chandeliers. After the meal the guest speaker rose to give the address, as usual a compilation of familiar platitudes and worthless congratulations.
I could stand it no longer, I had to do something. I sought out my new friend and said, ‘It has occurred to me that you are newest member of The Committee, and I am the longest serving. We should have our photograph taken together.'
We presented ourselves to the photographer, and he had us pose in front of a curtain. As he was about to take the shot, I turned rapidly towards my protegé and kissed him fully and firmly on the lips. With age my face has increasingly come to resemble that of an ancient tortoise; the contact cannot have been a pleasant experience for him. For a moment he was too shocked to react. In my most pompous old fool's voice I said: 'That is my blessing.'
Then, infuriatingly, turning back towards the photographer again, I saw that he had abandoned us. At the crucial moment, instead of taking a picture of the outrageous kiss, he was called away to the assistance of an old fool who had dozed off in his chair, allowing his head to fall into his pudding. I turned back to my gay friend, expecting him to accuse me of assault, call for help, or knock me down. Instead he was looking at me with a bemused smile.
‘Sorry, I really wasn’t expecting that kiss. You left me gob-smacked in more ways than one. Don’t think me ungrateful for all your help. I would not be here at all without it. Thank you for everything.’
My mutinous hopes of being the subject of scandal in the morning’s papers evaporated. As for my fellow Committee members, there was no hint of outrage; predictably they seemed not to have noticed. They were too busy gazing blankly into space or retelling the anecdotes they retold at every ceremonial dinner. None of them was likely to inform journalists of my performance. Even my enemies continued to ignore me!
As my protegé and I were returning to our seats the Chairman approached us. ‘I’m glad I’ve found you two together. I’ll be telephoning the two of you tomorrow. I'm setting up a small team to review The Committee’s rules and constitution.’
When she was out of earshot again I said to him: ‘Oh my god, not grinding through the interminable rules and constitution, we’ll suffocate.’
‘Oh come on, it’s an essential first step. Who else could she ask?’
The Gay Bequest Trust
On the day of the funeral Felicity drove down from the West Midlands to London. Her mother, Elaine, had travelled up from Crawley, and they met at Victoria Station. They already knew the contents of the will; they and one or two other relatives would receive a small legacy, with the remainder of the estate going to charity. Elaine expressed her disappointment: 'Of course it doesn't matter to your father and I, we're too old for money to make much difference to us now. But for you – well, he could have put an end to all of your money worries. Fancy him just giving it all away like that!'
Felicity did not agree. She had not been expecting anything from Uncle Benjamin, whom she hardly knew. When she was a child he always sent cards and presents at Christmas and for her birthday, but she had rarely seen him in the flesh, and he seldom visited any of the family. She remembered his cards affectionately. They were always portraits of girls or young women, some of them in old fashioned dress, the models distinctive and beautiful. She had never seen any cards like them in the shops in Birmingham or elsewhere. The presents stopped soon after she started work, and the only contact with her uncle became the Christmas and birthday cards, and the holiday postcards addressed to her mother with “ & family” added above the address. She had invited him to her wedding, but in a brief hand-written letter he said he was very sorry but another commitment prevented him from going. He had included a generous cheque. She thought it kind of him to have thought of her at all when he made his will.
She and her husband worked full time, liked to live well, had a big mortgage on their brand new neo-Georgian house, bank loans for their cars, and were close to the limits on the credit and store cards that they used to pay for almost everything. They were just about keeping their heads above water. Uncle Benjamin's bequest was a godsend, just what they needed right now. She saw nothing wrong with him leaving his money to charity - he must have worked hard for it so he was entitled to do whatever cause he wanted with it.
She knew if she told her mother how she felt it would cause an argument, so she kept quiet. Elaine, who was well liked by family and friends, had shown animosity towards Uncle Benjamin for as long as she could remember. If ever his name came up she always made some derogatory remark, about him not being a family man, not having the same values, and not sharing the same standards, or of being the black sheep. When news came of his death, Elaine had said ‘Well, I knew it would catch up with him in the end. You can’t live like that and expect to get away with it for ever.’ The poor man had died of a heart attack. Surely, Felicity thought, Elaine should have been a little sympathetic.
When they decided to attend his funeral, Elaine had said that Benjamin did not have many friends, ‘well not the sort who would want to show their faces at a funeral’, so the two of them really ought to go, on behalf of the family, to show respect. When they entered the chapel Felicity was surprised to see over twenty people, including a couple of men wearing black leather. She thought it was rather naughty of them to indulge in what looked like a clothing fetish at a funeral, but because their appearance struck her as incongruous, she if looked in their direction she could not help wanting to smile. Heaven knew what her mother must be thinking.
When the dreary recorded music stopped a man in a dark suit stood up, walked straight past the altar table and went over to the lectern to give the address. 'All those who were fortunate enough to be friends - and those who were more than friends - of Benjy, will remember how caring and kind he was. To be called "honest" and "trustworthy" seems old-fashioned and fusty to us nowadays, but in him these were virtues which gleamed brightly, and set a splendid example. I know he would want me to be truthful now, and will not mind me mentioning his occasional sudden tempers, thankfully very rare, but which could be devastating and could shake any of aroused his anger to the core. He was one of the most moral men, to use the word moral in its true sense, I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Even when he vented his rage he would end up blaming himself, and would be desperate for reconciliation, until eventually his victims would find themselves trying to comfort and reassure him that he had not lost their friendship for ever. Fortunately these storms would soon pass and he would again engender that familiar climate of kindness, vivacity and sheer fun which we will all miss so badly.
During the last five years or so of his life he worked unstintingly to establish his charity, the Gay Bequest Trust. This simple idea, that gay people, seldom having children of their own, might be encouraged to leave a bequest to help other gay people in need, will I am sure prove highly successful. Benjy's own considerable estate will ensure that many people, in sickness or adverse circumstances, will in the years to come have somewhere to turn for help. The Gay Bequest Trust will stand as a lasting tribute to a truly wonderful man. Benjy has again set us an example of how to show our concern for one another, and I will be doing as he did in my own will, as probably will many others .'
Felicity noticed that even her mother looked thoughtful after this speech, but on the way back to the car she began complaining again: 'This charity business is all very well, but why couldn't he have left just half to the Trust, and given the rest to his family? It's so unfair that everything is going to strangers, people he didn't even know. Of course he never could do anything normal.'
They went to Uncle Benjamin's flat afterwards for drinks and light refreshments. From the outside the block appeared to be a monolithic brick edifice, so that once inside its luxury came as a surprise. The entrance hall was manned by uniformed security staff; the long thickly carpeted corridors were lit by wall lights under metal shades shaped like cockle shells. The doors were of polished wood with ornate brass numbers and spy-hole fittings. As they found their way to Uncle Benjamin's flat, they passed various junctions and intersections from where yet more corridors seemed to stretch on for miles. 'I couldn't live in a place like this, its all so closed in,' Elaine moaned. Felicity had never been in such an enormous block of luxury flats before, and thought it must be like walking down the long corridors of cabins in one of the grand ocean liners. They found number four hundred and twenty two and rang the polished doorbell. The man who had spoken at the funeral let them in, introduced himself, and explained that he was one of the executors of the will. In a large room of fine furniture, with real oil paintings on the walls, they joined five other people they did not know eating sandwiches and cakes from a buffet.
Felicity wished she could have got to know Uncle Benjamin better. Not simply because he was well off, but because his life must have been so different. Why did everything that was out of the ordinary seem to pass her by?
When everyone had had their fill, the man who had let them in approached them again. 'Benjamin wanted any family and his close friends to be offered a little something from his personal possessions to have as a keep-sake. I've put a few things out in the bedroom on the chest of drawers and side table, if you'd like to come and have a look.'
There were dozens of assorted items, ornaments that might go on a little shelf or window ledge, house plants in decorative pots, some photographs, some pens in a wooden pen holder, and a few finger rings and other small silver items. 'What about the clocks?' asked Felicity's mother. 'He has wonderful clocks in every room.'
'The clocks are quite valuable, they're listed individually on the inventory of his estate. These are just knick-knacks in case you would like a personal memento, something to remind you of him.'
Nothing could have been worth a great deal. Felicity watched embarrassed as her mother picked up various objects, trying to assess their value, and put them down again. She saw her hesitate over a double photograph frame, hinged in the middle, only to reject it in the hope of finding something that would be worth more. Felicity asked the executor: 'Those two photographs in the frame, is one of them my uncle?'
'Yes.' He picked up the frame and handed it to her. 'He's the one on the right. It was quite a few years ago, of course.'
'And the other man?'
'Ah, he and Benjy were very close, for a long time.'
'What happened to him?'
'He died some years ago - he'd been very ill - it was a dreadful thing. It was after that that Benjy devoted himself to setting up the Trust, I think it helped to take his mind off - he was so distressed after his dear friend’s death.'
Looking at the pictures of the two men, taken when they were in their thirties, she imagine what it would have been like to have been friendly with them. She could have visited them in their flat, perhaps gone out with them to a gay pub like the one she and her husband had stumbled upon by accident once. She would have smiled at them and teased them, pretending to flirt with them, knowing all the time that they felt no attraction to her, only to each other. She smiled gently and looked up to see the executor watching her, his face kind but terribly sad. 'Would you like to take that?' he asked.
'Perhaps I should leave it for someone who knew him better.'
'No, if you like it, take it. I'm sure he would have wanted you to have it.'
She had a collection of framed family photographs on some shelves at the side of the fireplace at home. The photograph of Benjy and his lover would go well with them, and at the same time it would be something out of the ordinary. She hoped that she would be, in this small way, be showing at last a little kindness and good will towards her uncle. If only the opportunity had come earlier. She hoped that, if Uncle Benjamin could somehow know about it, he would not mind her putting his picture with those of other family members.
She heard her mother sigh in exasperation, having reconciled herself to nothing better than a small glass vase. 'Oh Felicity, you don't want that surely?'
She had put up with Elaine moaning for long enough. 'Oh yes,' she said, 'its really nice. They were both so handsome. I know exactly where I'm going to put them on show.' She let a broad smile spread over her features, and watched Elaine's face screw up in disgust as her mother realised where the picture was to be be put on display.
After dinner Terry sat down with his wife and two daughters to watch television. Only part of his mind was occupied with what he saw on screen. Foremost in his thoughts was that, when he left the house in the morning, he would be away on a work trip for several days. Half a dozen or more times a year, trips away for work provided a welcome breaks from his life at home.
The hour or so of TV after dinner was a family routine, enabling Terry, his wife and two daughters to spend some undemanding time together. Unfortunately he had, over the years, increasingly found himself in a minority of one in choosing what to watch, and had slowly reconciled himself to being satisfied with whatever his wife and the girls decided to put on.
This was easier with some TV shows than others. On this particular evening he had to endure a quiz show that, were he to set aside his fatherly instincts, he would have called loathsome. A compère introduced several pairs of newly weds who competed for the prize of a beach holiday in the sun. With their spouses out of earshot, one of each duo was required to answer questions such as: 'What would you say is the thing that your partner most likes about you?' or 'Now obviously you must know each other really well, so tell me and all the viewers at home, does your partner like tulips?' – or antiques, or going to the shops, or some other personal trivia. To Terry these details about the lives of complete strangers were of no interest. His wife and daughters, however, clearly found them engrossing.
He sat patiently as the next couple was introduced. 'And how,' the compère Yvette asked, 'Did you two first meet?'
'We met at a night club,' came the response from a terrified contestant, probably alarmed by the enormous smile that that flashed across Yvette's face, the gleaming rows of big bright teeth seeming to crack out beyond the boundaries of her cheeks.
Terry thought about work, where his interests and opinions were not, as at home, judged to be irrelevant. At work one of his colleagues was also the father of daughters, and during beaks they would sometimes share grumbles about the price of girls' shoes, school uniforms and the like.
His firm supplied fire safety equipment, alarm systems, fire extinguishers and, best of all, training sessions for customers' staff who were appointed as fire wardens. He enjoyed meeting customers and discussing their needs for equipment, and most of all he enjoyed giving fire warden training. The trips away, when he taught groups of up to twenty to put out small fires, were his favourite activity. The firm paid the cost of his hotel room and meals in restaurants, as well as a generous allowance for other unspecified expenses, the latter really an incentive to compensate trainers for being away from home. An incentive was hardly needed in Terry's case, but the firm paid it anyway.
The next morning he set off for work in a jaunty mood, knowing it would be three days before he would have to sit down again with his family to watch TV. Calling at the firm's offices, he collected the course materials: the fire extinguishers he would use for demonstrations; the canisters of inflammable liquid; and the paperwork he would hand out to trainees. The mix of age and sex in every group was different, and the trainee fire wardens were always happy to have a change from their routine work, even those who found the practical side of the course frightening. Unless someone was very scared, fort instance visibly shaking with fear, he would get every one of them to put out a controlled fire of some kind that he had carefully set and ignited.
Experience helped him select those who were likely to prove most capable. He would start with paper smouldering in waste bins, progress to a fire in a pan of cooking oil, go on to a larger blaze of inflammable liquid in a shallow tank, and then finish with the most serious fire it was safe for a non- professional fire fighter to tackle, that of a sheet of flame from spilt petrol spreading over tarmac. In setting these fires he had to ensure they could easily be tackled by one person using the right type of extinguisher, and that, should a student panic, he could intervene and extinguish the fire himself.
His first group on this three day trip included three young guys. He guessed they were not much more than twenty, or even younger. They sat together at the back looking at their mobile phones and exchanging whispers and sideways glances. He called one of them to the front and showed him the best way to hold a carbon dioxide fire extinguisher. 'Now read the instructions, and see if you can direct a short burst from it over towards that far corner, no more than a couple of seconds worth.'
The trainee found that when he tried to pull the lever to release the jet of liquid carbon dioxide, a plastic tag prevented it being pulled back. 'You should find all extinguishers have those, it's the way we make sure that they have not already been used and you won't be trying to save lives using an empty extinguisher. If you're strong enough you might be able to break the tag with your fingers, but the best thing is to cut it with a knife or scissors.' After snipping through the tag he directed, 'Now try again.'
This time the jet of carbon dioxide gas shot towards the corner. 'Okay, okay,' Terry said quickly. 'Now lightly touch the body of the extinguisher with your hand. Cold, Isn't it? What you have to remember with carbon dioxide is that, as the contents are released, the extinguisher cools rapidly. If you're touching the cylinder with your bare skin, you'll find yourself firmly stuck to it because, condensation and moisture in your skin freezes, bonding you to the cylinder. That's why I showed you how to hold it firmly by the handle without touching the container.' He took the extinguisher from his assistant. 'Thanks for your help with that little demonstration.'
The young guy returned to his seat. His friends had been watching closely while he was up at the front with Terry, and they all paid attention for the rest of the course. Later, when the time came to spill fuel over the tarmac in a disused car park and set light to it, he chose the same you guy as the one to quell the blazing curtain of orange-red petrol flames by steadily sweeping the hissing jet from the extinguisher from side to side, whilst slowly walking forwards as the flames retreated. When the fire was out his young man relaxed, and as he handed back the cylinder he smiled and nodded respectfully. With a calm serious face he returned to the group of trainees. Terry, pleased with the way he had helped in the demonstrations, felt proud of him.
Happy though he was with that training session, it was not the high point of his trip. He had arranged for a caller to visit him at his hotel that evening. For a long time sex with his wife had been very tame, and was becoming increasingly rare. Their love-making had not really recovered after her second pregnancy, which had been a difficult one. Growing sexual hunger had led him to explore erotic sites on the internet. Almost by accident, one day he happened upon a video clip of two men kissing passionately. Not only was he sexually stimulated, but they filled his mind with wonder, even longing. He easily found many similar images of men kissing, and others too that showed men making love together. He became fascinated to know what it feel like if he held a man in his arms. Looking at sites where 'male masseurs' or 'male escorts' advertised, someone seemed to be offering a sexual massage in every town he visited .
The very first time he 'rented' a guy for sex he had been worried and nervous. There were risks. The photograph might be misleading, or to look at pictures on a screen might stimulate him, but physical contact with a man in the flesh might be a let down. What if his visitor stole his credit cards and scarpered? If he call the police, word might get out to his family or his colleagues. What if he caught a sexually transmitted disease? Even if the sex was fine, his perception of himself as a good husband and father would surely not be the same afterwards.
In fact that he did not suffered any of the imagined potential disasters. Rather, the relief his sexual encounters brought had made them the high spot of his few days away. They eased the burden of family life. In himself he became generally happier than before, and hence surely a better husband and father. The firmness of a male breast pressed against his, the act of exploring male shoulders and hips with his hands, of closely experiencing the strength and straightness of a fit young man's body, brought him an overwhelming sense of release. He felt as he imagined someone would feel who stepped out into fresh air and sunlight after years of being hemmed in by the walls of an institution - a prison or closed mental asylum. After vigorously embracing and caressing his hired visitor for half an hour, Terry was so sexually aroused that no huge effort was needed for him reach orgasm. He had not felt the need to press on to penetrative sex, though he was curious about it.
Once or twice out of his twenty or more encounters, his visitor had wanted to be brought to orgasm too. This latest occasion was one more of those. Terry happily put his right hand to work, and enjoyed the reward of seeing the contented expression on the face of this latest hired lover as he climaxed. That done they dressed, and on impulse Terry asked if the escort would like to join him for dinner. 'If you're hungry, the hotel restaurant has a reasonable choice, and the food's good.'
'Well, I haven't eaten yet. I can't stay with you for more than an hour and a half though. If you're sure you'll be okay with that…'
This was a first for Terry. Since he would be paying for the meal, he was in a sense still buying the escort's time, but he had enjoyed their session in his hotel room so much he loved the idea of the guy's company over a meal. As they ate their conversation was guarded but friendly, their faces full of smiles.
The next day Terry had another class of students to train, and another night in the hotel. This time, though, he would eat and spend his evening alone. The glow from the previous night's encounter would take days to fade, and part of the thrill of his secret encounters was, he knew, that they were infrequent. Had he chosen his second night away for his visitor, he might have appeared so elated when he returned home that his wife would have been suspicious.
As usual, before leaving the hotel, he pocketed a small unused tablet of soap, one of several left by the chambermaid for his use. He drove back home, arriving just in time for dinner. His wife was cooking in the kitchen. She looked up briefly and asked if the trip had gone all right. The girls were at home, but barely acknowledged his presence. After dinner they put on a nature program, and at first he was relieved, thinking they had settled down to watch something he would like. Unfortunately the programme was about a pack of Hyenas, which he learned were a matriarchal society. He became more and more uncomfortable as it progressed. The dominant females made sure that the males behaviour demonstrated their subservient role. A young hyena was shown approaching another in what looked like a friendly way, but the commentary explained that he was not showing the deference due towards his sister from the same litter. The female bared her teeth, snarled, and snapped at her brother. Cowering and whining he retreated. Terry glanced occasionally at his wife and daughters to see they were absorbed. He was thankful when it was over.
When the girls rose to go up to bed, his wife said, 'Remember we've got something to ask daddy before we go up.'
They wanted new costumes for the ballet classes they were starting next month. He was puzzled that his wife made a point of getting them to ask him themselves. The cost was no greater than other outfits they had needed in the past. Guessing wrongly that his wife did not want the girls automatically to expect to be given everything they wanted, he put on a show of reluctance and asked: 'Won't the modern dance costumes they have do?'
He was nonplussed when she said sharply, 'Don't be silly dear, ballet costumes are completely different. Unless you don't want them to go to ballet classes, they have to have new costumes.'
His elder daughter picked up the dismissive tone and said 'Silly daddy.'
'Silly daddy,' echoed his younger daughter.
He forced a smile: 'Well then, of course you must have new costumes. I'm sure you'll look lovely in them.'
He suspected they had deliberately tripped him up by the way the question had been put, but his sense of well-being was not to be so easily challenged. With his fingers hidden in his left hand pocket he felt the wrapper of the small tablet of soap he had brought with him from the hotel. One of the desk draws in his office was cluttered with similar souvenirs from his business trips, little reminders that he would not have so long to wait before the next one.
Copyright Alan Keslian 2010
Publication Date: 07-13-2010
All Rights Reserved