The newest member of staff is a young guy, a typically brash salesman, and in the accounts office I don't have too much to do with him except when he comes in asking for an invoice. So I was considerably surprised when one day he put his head around my door during his tea-break and asked me if I'd do him a favour.
I'm known as a bit of a soft touch but I wasn't going to agree to anything blind so I just looked a question at him. He came right into the room and closed the door behind him, which awoke my interest fully. I sat up, he came up to the desk. “I want a picture taken” he said.
Everyone knows I'm into photography. It's been my hobby since forever and I have some good kit and I know how to use it. Nevertheless, I asked: “Why me?”
“Well, I asked Alan but he wouldn't do it, and he said you are good at it. That's right, isn't it?”
That was a cheap salesman's trick – I said yes, and somehow I'd said yes to taking the picture for him.
“What do you want a picture of?”
“Me. I want a portrait.”
“No, nothing like that. I want a proper portrait.”
“Head and shoulders?”
“Er, no, no - Full length, I think.”
“Okay, I don't really do portraits, wouldn't you do better to go to a professional?”
“No, I don't want that. Look, can you keep this quiet? I really don't want it to get out.”
“You already asked Alan, he'll have discussed it with everyone else by now!”
“I didn't tell Alan anything I want kept quiet.”
I couldn't see that he'd said anything to me that he wouldn't have had to say to Alan. So I found myself at a loss – didn't know what he was on about. He came to my rescue. “It's to be a nude portrait.”
I couldn't prevent the smirk from creeping across my face. I did resist calling him a perv because I was aware of the hypocrisy that would entail. James – that's his name – has a great body, and I've been known to stare at his butt, or at the pelt that's visible at his throat when his shirt is open at the top button. Actually his butt annoys me. He clearly has a great, trim, nicely shaped bottom, but he carries his wallet in his back pocket and it makes him look deformed. I wish he wouldn't do that.
He is smallish, wiry, long legs, short torso, he's an ex-soldier and he looks it. His face, under spiked hair dyed blond at the ends, would be handsome if it wasn't for the line of his mouth, which is hard and sour, a little turned down at the corners, and spoils the whole effect. It's not his personality, he's upbeat and a bit of a joker, but his face would fit on Scrooge. Nevertheless I found myself pondering the possibility of seeing that body unclothed. It would be interesting, to say the least, to find out if it lived up to the promise.
By this time my mind was awash with hormones and it was a foregone conclusion I would agree to do it. But I made an effort to retain a semblance of decorum. “You'll have to tell me more about this. Why on earth do you want a nude photo of yourself?”
“It's a website. A dating service. They want a photo.”
“That's not a dating service, that's a hook-up service.”
“Whatever. Look, can I trust you? Alan says you're okay.”
I sighed. “You can trust me. Are you sure you know what you're getting into?”
“Actually, it's not what you might think. Maybe I'll explain more later. Will you do it?”
“I'll do it. Where do you want it done? Your place? Can't do it at my house, I'm afraid.”
He shuddered. “Nor mine. No way. Isn't there somewhere here?”
We tried an empty office, and the boardroom, but neither could be locked and, quite understandably, he firmly refused to strip in a room where anyone could barge in at any time. So we thought about alternatives, including a hotel room, but neither of us could deal with the implications of 'getting a room'. I suggested the woods and after he'd thrown up the obvious objection about it being public, and I'd countered with the fact that the woods are extensive and people rarely stray from the paths, we decided to try there.
“When do you want to do this?”
“Now. It's got to be now.”
I looked at him. “Why?”
“I need to get my profile up on the site. Look, it just does, okay?” He was flustered; he'd been jumpy all through the conversation and while it had puzzled me at first I was beginning to see why he was nervous.
“Okay, we do it now. But I don't have my camera with me, or any of my equipment. Couldn't you at least wait until tomorrow? I'll bring my...” - but he interrupted “Here. I've brought a camera. Use that.”
He handed me a tiny compact digital point-and-shoot thing. I took it and turned it over and over. It was hopeless.
“I can't take a decent portrait with this – the lens isn't good enough, the sensor's too small, I can't use external flash. It'd be much better to wait until tomorrow.”
“It's today or nothing. Will you do it?”
“Well of course I'll do it, I just don't think you'll be pleased with the result. You haven't told me why you're advertising yourself on a website. I thought you were married?”
“Well, yes, more or less. Marie and I are not actually married but we've been together nine years and we've got two children.”
“Then why this? Does she know what you're doing?”
“No and she's not going to. You promised to keep it a secret. You're not going to shit on me are you?”
“I don't remember promising anything of the sort, actually. But I won't break your confidence if you don't give me reason to. Let's get going?”
He nodded and we headed out the door to the car park and to his car, a smart new Audi A3. On the way up to the woods I asked him about the website but I didn't get much out of him. Perhaps he was being cagey, perhaps he was just concentrating on his driving.
We left the car at the end of a cul-de-sac where there's a pathway that leads up into the trees and once under the canopy we veered off the path and into the thicket. I was looking for an area I thought might suit our purpose. Well away from the frequented paths, there's a glade where the canopy overhead is broken a little, and in the right weather, sunbeams dapple the luminous green forest floor. Away from the light the floor is brown leaf mould and pine needles, nothing green grows at ground level under beech trees. But in the little glade there's a break in the canopy sufficient to allow sunlight down to the ground and the result is a riot of greenery. Not just grass but ferns too, giving the area the feel of a grotto without the shape of one.
We arrived at the spot and it looked as suitable as I remembered it. I began to investigate the settings on the little camera. Set the exposure lock on and the auto focus to one shot. Turn the flash off in case the camera decides it wants to use it in the subdued light. Adjust the ISO setting and the file size. Check anything else that might derail my intentions. As I did, James began undressing. This'll be interesting, I thought. I wondered if he'd chicken out at the last minute, but he kept going, briskly removing his shoes, trousers, socks, tie, shirt, and, after just a momentary hesitation to look and listen for anyone in sight, his underpants. He stood there, the picture of manly beauty, long tanned legs lightly furred with brown hairs, narrow waist, flat stomach below an impressive chest, the whole marred only by that mouth and the elastic marks around his waist and ankles. I pointed out the half inch reddish band around his waist, carefully ignoring, or pretending to ignore, the nicely dangling bits below it – uncut and nicely shaped and with a neat nest of dark hair.
I worked out that his determination to go through with it was competing with his considerable embarrassment about standing nude in front of me. His face and neck had blushed bright pink. I decided to try to put him a little at ease.
“If we did this another day you could come in looser clothes and you'd look a lot better without that mark. It'll take so long to fade today we'll have run out of lunch hour.”
He looked down in some surprise, and rubbed, prodded and pinched the area, which of course made it look worse.
“It is a bit gross, isn't it? Can you hide it somehow?”
“You could try a pose with your forearm across there but it might look a bit odd. We'll see what we can do. Come here and stand in the middle of the clearing where the light's best. Can you give me a military 'at ease' pose? That's it – we'll start with that. Look this way, now look about ten feet above my head.”
His blush had faded and I started firing the shutter. I tried about ten different poses, and I took a picture each time I caught an expression that I interpreted to be erotic. I hoped the women on the website would agree. Eventually I was pretty sure I'd got the one he would go for. I had him leaning back against a tree trunk, one leg bent and the foot against the trunk behind him. His hands down and pressed back against the trunk and his head looking upwards into the forest canopy. The picture worked, I thought, because I had climbed into the higher branches of the tree and took the picture from that high viewpoint. His face looked better from that angle, his lovely hairy chest was accentuated, the underwear marks couldn't really be seen, and his legs were long enough to avoid him looking severely out of proportion. The light dappled across his body giving an extra dimension of interest to the picture. So long as the lens and sensor didn't let me down I thought I would be satisfied with the picture. I told him to get dressed.
On the way back to the office I tried again to find out his motivation. I couldn't understand the apparently sudden need to cheat on his partner – and that he felt he needed to advertise on the internet to do it. In my book he needed only to go down to the nearest pub and bat his eyelids and he'd have the girls falling at his feet.
He didn't want to talk about it. I wasn't surprised – it's a pretty shitty thing to be planning. He's got kids with his partner too. So we got back to the office without any further explanation forthcoming. I printed the best of the pics I'd taken on the office printer for him, and e-mailed the files to his mailbox, before deleting them from the camera's memory card and returning it to him. I didn't think he'd want anyone else stumbling across them.
He e-mailed his thanks. I was right – he liked the one with him leaning against the tree, taken from up in the branches. It looks inviting without being slutty. A neat balance.
During the afternoon I had a few visitors to my office but I didn't see anything more of James until the end of the day. I was packing up to go home, the backup was just about to complete and I was gathering my things to go home when he put his head around the door and asked for a lift home.
Well, that was a ruse of some kind – he doesn't live particularly near me, but he does live nearer to two other staff members and could have asked either of them. And anyway, he'd driven his car to work; why did he need a lift home?
It turns out he wanted to talk. I must admit that as we got to my car I was looking forward to doing a little talking myself. It seemed to me that he was heading for disaster. He had a family and a life and seemed to be trying to ruin it. And I was all fired up to lay into him with both barrels. So when he spoke up as soon as we were safely in the car with the doors closed and before I'd even put the key in the ignition, he floored me completely.
“I think I need to explain to you what I'm doing. It's not quite what you will think. You see, I'm gay. Homosexual.”
So much for gaydar. I'd never have guessed, not in a million years.
At this point I could have helped him along a bit by coming out to him. But I'm not out at work and I didn't think I had any reason to trust him that far, although he was trusting me similarly. So I just nodded and waited for him to continue. It was a while before he did.
“You won't understand, I know, but it's hard for a gay person to accept you're not like other people, and for years I didn't. I've lived in denial, if you like. In the army it would have been impossible to be gay, and I just convinced myself I wasn't. And I met Marie, and I love her, really, and I love the boys to bits. But I've finally reached the end of my leash. I can't deny my nature any more. I need to explore what it's like to be gay. So I need to meet some gay people. People who will understand me and who I am. Is that so awful?”
I turned off our route onto the road that leads to a quiet stretch of beach you can drive onto. I stopped the car facing the tideline and turned off the engine.
“Don't assume I won't understand. You want to meet gay friends? Fine. That shouldn't be too hard to do. Posting a nude photo of yourself on a hook-up site is not the way to do it, though. You won't get friends that way, just fuck buddies.”
I don't use language like that usually, and I think it shocked him a little – which is the effect I was hoping for.
While he was thinking about what I'd said, I had an idea, which involved changing my mind about trusting him. I started the engine and moved off the beach. I guess he realised I wasn't just taking him home because he said “Where are we going?”
“I'm going to buy you a drink.”
That seemed to satisfy him, he sank back into his seat and we didn't talk again until I found a parking space just around the corner from the pub I had in mind and pulled into it.
The pub, The Queen's Shilling, was mostly empty, not surprising before six. I perched on a stool at the bar and asked James what he wanted. There was no barman in sight but we didn't have long to wait and a mostly unlikely barman approached with a welcoming smile and the usual “what can I get for you gents?”
He was big and burly, with a round face and grizzled beard neatly trimmed, and a black leather cap on his bald head. He wore black leather motorcycle trousers and a black cotton t-shirt with the slogan “I'm not gay but my boyfriend is” across the chest.
While James dealt with the apparition, I ordered him a pint of John Smith's and a bottle of Beck's for me. Directing his conversation at James, the barman asked “I haven't seen you in here before, are you new to these parts?”
When James was unable to make his mouth work in reply, I stepped in. “He's not new to these parts, just new to this pub. Nice to see you, Charlie. How have you been?”
“Gradely, thanks, Peter. Just back from the Isle of Man. Last week was TT week. Pat and I have been every year since 1977! This year the weather was wonderful, but the racing's not what it was. The bikes are too powerful now and they have to tie them down with rules to keep the riders alive. It's taken the heart out of it. I guess we'll stop going one of these years. It's a pity, though.”
James was quite lost now so I decided to help him out.
“I'm almost a regular here. Charlie and I are old friends.”
“But he's.... so does that mean you're... oh shit!”
Charlie burst out laughing and I joined him, to James' discomfort.
Once he had control of himself, Charlie did his Grisly Bear impression for James. He frowned at him and growled out “I've been with my man, Pat, for over thirty years and we're as happy together now as when we first moved in together. Is that a problem for you?” Quite a good Grisly impression, but I know our Charlie well enough and I saw the twinkle in his eye.
James blanched – he'd missed the twinkle, evidently.
“No, no problem at all. I'm very happy for you both.”
His big smile back in place, Charlie reached over the bar and grasped poor James by the shoulder and gave it a pat. “If that's so, you're very welcome here. Come back a bit later of an evening and meet the crowd. We're a big happy family here and you'll come to no harm.” James' relief was palpable.
“Thanks. Thanks very much. I will. My name's Christopher, by the way.” I looked across in surprise, but then I realised it made some sense for him to go under a pseudonym.
“Pleased to meet you, Christopher. I look forward to seeing you around!” Charlie wandered off to serve another customer and I turned to James.
“You want to make gay friends? There's no better place to do that, safely, than here. Charlie's wonderful and his partner Patrick is just the same. Pop in here tomorrow night, about eight, and I'll meet you here and introduce you to a few guys.”
Looking around, the place was still mostly empty, just a group of four youngsters playing snooker at the table at the back of the room, and George and Ray, the elderly couple who often come in early, sat at a table by the window nursing their drinks in companionable silence.
“I've got to get home now. Do you want me to take you home or would you rather I took you back to the office to get your car?”
James grinned sheepishly. “Yes, I should have known you'd wonder about me asking for a lift. Can we go back for the car? Marie would ask questions if I turn up without the car.”
So we went back for his car and eventually I got home and after a quick meal I took a bath and went to bed. I was emotionally drained.
The next day at work I was nervous. I wondered if James was planning on coming out at work and if in the process he would involve me. I wasn't at all sure he knew the rules. He did come into my office mid morning, just to tell me he'd changed his mind about the website, and I wasn't at all surprised but I told him how pleased I was. And he asked me to go for a pint at lunch time with him.
He drove, straight to The Queen's Shilling, and we sat at a table in an alcove and talked. Pat was serving behind the bar and came over to introduce himself, and later a couple of friends of mine joined us and I introduced James as Christopher. But mostly we talked, James wanted to know all about me, and for his sake I gritted my teeth and told him what he wanted to know. It would have been nice to say I'd met the man of my dreams fifteen years ago and that we'd lived together ever since and that life was perfect. But I told him the truth instead. That I live alone and that I've never been in a long-term relationship and that I dream of reaching the end of my life with a loving partner by my side and have nightmares of dying alone. Maybe the alcohol loosened my tongue a little. I don't usually bare my soul like that. I did think he needed to do a little soul-baring himself, and I thought if I set the example he might follow. Nothing was forthcoming on that day, though.
The story does have a happy ending. It took a while but Christopher gradually became part of the younger social circle at The Queen's Shilling and he got a lot of support from some of the guys. Eventually he talked to Marie and they separated. They're still good friends and he still sees the boys a lot. He took them camping with two other guys from The Queens who also have boys about the same age and it was a great success.
And the latest I've heard is that he's moved in with a guy he met through one of the lads he went camping with. At work I notice he's got a new spring in his step.
Is it very bad that I've got a photo stuck to the edge of the mirror in my bathroom, of him leaning back against a tree trunk and looking up into the camera lens as though he's hoping for something?
© Bruin Fisher 2008