The flat was empty when Ben returned. He made up the bed in the guest room, and with tears again springing in his eyes moved his personal items from the side of what had been their bed for so many years. He sat down in the lounge to run through a mental list of things he would have to do, if worse came to worst.
His job would keep him in London, so somehow he’d have to find accommodation. He couldn’t stay in the Clerkenwell flat, as most of the cash to pay the mortgage came from Alex. Maybe the separation settlement would bring him enough for a down payment on something smaller in the outskirts, or in one of the outer commuter towns. His many books would need to be packed and stored for the time being.
He could cope no more. He needed sleep and his body was so much in shock that it co-operated. He was asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow. He surfaced briefly at perhaps three to a subdued noise next door. Alex had returned and found the bedroom empty.
Ben awoke early, feeling like hell. Seeing the lounge empty, he tidied up Alex’s discarded coat, as he always did. There was a poignancy in the action that brought on the waterworks yet again.
When he cracked the other bedroom door, his heart collapsed in on itself. Two bodies were closely entangled in the bed. So this was it. Alex had laid down the ultimatum: accept what I’m doing, because this is the future of our relationship, such as it is. Well, Ben would not accept it. The anger bubbled and ran over.
He pulled out the largest case from the hall cupboard and began throwing in clothes from the closet and the laundry area. He unplugged and cased his laptop. He would deal with his books later. After one last look, he left the flat that had been his home for five years, closing the door behind him.
Outside in the narrow streets of Clerkenwell he paused for a moment, a lost boy. It was a cold and bleak September morning. He remembered he could not even retreat to Keighley, because his father had thrown him out of the house when he had come home from university to announce that he was gay. There had been no contact since. As he trundled the case along behind him down to Farringdon, the bells of St Paul’s reached him across the roofs. They sounded like the tolling for a funeral.
Phil clicked on www.gayfiction.review.com – listed, naturally, amongst his favourite sites. There were five members and three guests online. He was disappointed; there was no bennyboy30, and hadn’t been now for several days. He hadn’t received an e-mail from Ben for the same period. Funny, the guy had told him in the past when he was taking a holiday, but had said nothing this time.
He liked Ben’s style. They read the same sort of thing, and he guessed the man was an English graduate employed in publishing. They argued their points with a certain amount of delight in the argument and very often took the debate off board when they really got into it. It was not just gay fiction they debated by any means, but a very wide range of contemporary writing.
Phil knew that online personalities were not entirely to be trusted. People could be very selective about how they showed themselves, and what they revealed. He could guess a few things about Ben, but he had no idea really how old he was, what he looked like, where he lived, or even if he was in a relationship. But still there was a particular gentleness and sweetness in the way the man expressed himself, which must arise from something genuine in his personality. He also admired Ben’s excellent grammar and command of English, so rare amongst Phil’s own students.
He batted some ideas around regarding the current work the board was criticising – a laborious and ambitious e-novel someone had found on the Nifty site, the ‘blue jungle’ as Ben like to call it, in a many-barbed metaphor. Then he signed off. He next clicked on www.gaycruising.org; he had steeled himself the day before to register for access. He shifted in his study chair and listened carefully for any movement from downstairs.
Well-buffed torsos and pretty male faces stared out at him. He swallowed, and clicked on Hertfordshire. A stream of identities and links appeared. Totaltop54 was looking for a bottom in the Stevenage area to fuck in the next hour. Was Phil a bottom? He had no idea. But if he clicked on that link he could arrange to find out. Totaltop54 was 32, 6’2”, slim and blonde. He liked rimming and fucking and had an eight-inch dick. Phil’s cursor hovered over the link. He was shaking. God, do I dare do this? He couldn’t and wouldn’t. He shut down his laptop.
‘So you’re back.’ Dave looked sadly at Ben. ‘I think I can guess why.’
‘He brought a man home, a stranger, and slept with him. I couldn’t cope with it, I couldn’t.’
‘It’s okay, Benny. I had Matt on the phone earlier. He wants you to stay with him. It’s not as if he’s short of room.’
They trundled Ben and most of his worldly goods up the garden path to the house. It was another crisp and sunny September day, the Thames Basin blue in the distance.
Mrs Atkinson, the housekeeper, met him with a kindly look and showed him where to put his stuff.
‘Are there guests expected?’ Ben asked, a bit anxiously. His kind of misery did not love company.
‘Andy’s in the States for the next week,’ Dave told him. ‘Then I think they’re both going to head down to Suffolk to see the family. No one’s coming to stay for a while; but you know how they pop in and out, especially them Rothenians. Always bloody freeloading.’
‘Can I use the phone? I didn’t recharge my mobile last night. Too much on my mind.’
‘Sure, er … is it himself you’re gonna call, Benny? Want me to hold your hand?’
Ben gave a small smile, the first for a while. Dave Evans trying to be gentle and sympathetic was a novel experience for him.
He took up the phone as Dave left. It rang and a familiar rough voice answered.
‘It’s me,’ Ben told him.
‘Where are you, Benny?’
‘At Matt’s in Highgate. I … I’m not coming back, Alex. It’s over.’
‘We should talk.’
‘We did talk, Alex, and you told me you’d fuck whom you like when you like. That’s your life. It’s not mine. I’ll arrange for the rest of my stuff to be shipped out when I find somewhere.’
Alex’s voice took an aggressive edge. ‘I’m not selling up this flat.’
‘Then you’ll have to buy me out. We will talk about it, but it can wait a week or so, can’t it?’
‘Yes, I guess. Benny … I … I’m sorry.’
‘But not repentant.’
‘I suppose not.’
‘Send on my mail, you know the address. Bye.’
Ben rang off, his heart pulsing, as was his head. He went to the kitchen to beg aspirin off the housekeeper. They went up to Ben’s room in the dormer floor and she made him comfortable. There was a wireless connection in the house and a call to Dave got Ben’s laptop on line.
He surveyed his address book and made the melancholy decision to send round a letter to all his friends telling them the news. He felt a curious mixture of emotions: sadness, embarrassment, even humiliation. He put in all the usual things: Alex and he had grown apart. No animosity on either side. Ben would let them know his new address when he was settled. That about said it all, apart from the fact his heart was broken; life was a black tunnel with no light at the end; the world had gone grey and the sun would never rise again.
He threw himself back on the bed, not noticing that by accident one of the names on the list he had copied his grim little message to was firstname.lastname@example.org.
Students were getting to be a problem for Phil, male ones obviously. There was something about the twink which he found particularly moving, a combination of slimness, bright eyes and naïvety. Not that most of his students were worth a second look, but one or two of them, well, they were something.
A particular magnet at the moment was Max Jamroziak, one of his tutor group. The boy had it all: thick and long blond hair, a clear triangular face and large hazel eyes. The rear view in his tight jeans was exceptional.
Max was a sociable, happy young man who had no fear of his lecturers, as some students did. At least once a week he would stop off in Phil’s office for a long chat, which could get quite hilarious. Max came visiting that Monday morning, the first week of term. Phil just loved the experience of talking with this fantasy of young male beauty. He didn’t think the boy was gay, quite the opposite in fact. But the way his face and body moved as he talked was flirtatious to say the least.
Today he was not looking so bright and amused. ‘What’s up, Max?’
‘Oh … is it obvious?’
‘You’re not your usual sparkling self. Work problems?’
Max pouted to himself, causing a major movement in the region of Phil’s crotch. ‘No, it’s the girlfriend. She’s in Manchester, and last weekend we had a major row. She doesn’t trust me, she says. Possessive and half of England away … doesn’t make her life easy for her, does it?’
‘Maybe not, Max. But there’s being reasonable and being unreasonable – and women … well, we both know that reason and femininity are not necessarily matching concepts.’ That was the closest Phil could get to Max, being blokes together.
‘My gay mates have it so much easier.’
There were gays in Max’s circle? That would hardly be surprising; they would home in on him. ‘Oh yeah?’
‘Christ yeah … they seem to fuck away with none of this bloody emotional blackmail. Down to the pub, pick up a bloke and wham!’
‘Well, there’s your solution then. Pick up a guy.’ Bloody hell, did I just say that? Phil asked himself.
Max smiled confidentially. ‘Been there, done that. I had my bisexual phase last year. It was … right interesting.’
‘One of our students?’
‘No, guy in marketing. Really gay. Begging for it and one day I thought, What the hell, let’s see where it goes.’
‘Where did it go?’
Max gave an embarrassed smile. ‘Couple of blowjobs … not bad actually, but I didn’t want to get my kit off and do the whole thing … ‘sides, he wanted me to go up his … y’know. Just couldn’t do that. Know what I mean?’
Phil did, and was close to fainting at the thought. He was relieved when Max smiled and made his apologies.
Phil booted up his laptop and opened his e-mail account. There was only one message, from ‘Ben Craven’. Who was Ben Craven? Phil was about to consign it to the bulk folder when he had second thoughts. The subject bar said, ‘Alex and Me’. It didn’t sound like the usual spam. He clicked it.
<Hi guys. Sorry, this is a bit of sad and bad news. Alex and I have split up. We’ve been growing apart for quite a while now, and this last week has seen the end of it. We’re trying to keep it friendly. He’ll stay on in the flat in Clerkenwell, while I’m staying with Matt for now in Highgate. You can reach me there or at work for the next few weeks until I find my own place. Ben. XXXX.>
Ben? Ben Craven? It must be bennyboy30’s real identity. He must have included Phil in the group e-mail by accident. Wow. So he was a gay bloke after all, just broken up from his boyfriend, and he was a Londoner too.
What to do about the e-mail? He could ignore it, of course, but Phil was moved by the brief and poignant message, so he clicked reply.
<Hi Ben. I expect you sent this to me accidentally. No problem. I just wanted to say how sorry I am about you and your boyfriend splitting. It must be painful, especially if you’ve been together a while: sad songs taking on a whole new meaning, that sort of thing. I hope it’ll get better for you, however hard it is at the moment. I’ll always be happy to talk if you need it. Phil Maddox.>
There. Now we’re equal. I know his name and he knows mine. He thought about it, then daringly added his mobile number. Before thinking twice he sent the reply on its way. Phil googled ‘Ben Craven’ and ‘publishers’ just to see if he could get some more details about the man, but the metasearch produced nothing positively attributable. He sat back and pondered what the complications of life as a gay must be like.
Wardour Publishing Ltd (a division of Magnamedia Inc) had its offices on Long Acre, and for such a large firm, it made little of itself. An anonymous door with a discreet plate led into a small foyer with a lift. Ben took it to the second floor and made his way to his desk in the open-plan office.
The first thing that struck him – forcibly – was Alex’s face grinning out at him from several framed photos. He quickly gathered them up and shoved them in the bottom desk drawer, the one where he stored the plant food and plastic watering can. Then he sat down and put his head in his hands.
He was early, as usual. He booted up his machine and reviewed his day. An editorial conference at ten, a team production meeting at eleven and a marketing seminar most of the afternoon. Dismal day, and a Monday too. How could he make it to the end?
He unpacked a new manuscript and started working on it. By the time he had scanned as far as page ten, he realised he had not taken in a word. His concentration was shot to hell. He sat dully through the conference and the production meeting. If someone noticed, they didn’t say anything.
His desk phone buzzed at half twelve. He had a visitor and could he come down to reception? For one mad moment he thought it might be Alex and his fickle heart pulsed. Alex had come to say it was all a mistake, he had thought about it, he was sorry and all he wanted was his Bennyboy. But he knew deep down it couldn’t be that.
Instead it was Terry O’Brien, in a dark, expensive wool coat, looking very much the success story he was. The receptionist, wise to the signs of wealth, was staring at Terry covertly like a mouse marvelling at a ton of cheese.
Terry stood and gathered Ben into a hug. ‘Got your e-mail, sweet babe. Near broke my heart, and I had to come. I was just round the corner with my Davey at his club. Let’s go get a drink and a sandwich.’
Ben was guided out and down to the lift. They turned towards Covent Garden. Terry took him to a corner joint opposite his new club, Orton’s.
‘Where’s Davey?’ Ben asked.
‘Counting the profits across the road, sweetness. Never mind me and never mind Davey, what about you?’
‘End of the world.’
‘I can imagine, sweet babe. I have to say, of all of us, I thought you and Alex were gonna go the distance – apart from Andy and Matt of course. What happened?’
Ben explained what he thought had happened, while Terry listened. Ben quickly realised this was not so hard to do the second time and talking helped, just as people said it did. Drinks and sandwiches arrived, and Terry took a stiff shot of gin and tonic.
Ben liked being with Terry, though it didn’t happen very often. They had first met when Terry was only nineteen and very much a street gay on the prowl, while Ben was a hesitant and shy graduate publishing assistant, with very little to say for himself. Yet somehow they had hit it off. Ben had watched with pleasure as Terry rose to success, first in the world of security consultancy and now in the urban club scene, gay and straight. He knew that, of all their friends, Terry would stick with him.
Terry and Alex did not get on. They’d had issues after a couple of Alex’s news stories compromised some of Terry’s customers. Ben had to admit to himself that most of the rest of their joint friends would gravitate to Alex.
It ended up being a more cheerful lunch than Ben had expected. He half gave in to Terry’s insistence that he should go down to Cranwell with Terry for the weekend. ‘Just to get away, sweet babe. You need perspective. Talk it over with Matt when he gets in tomorrow.’
Terry saw him back to his office. When Ben reached his desk, he found his colleague Amanda looking carefully around his space to see what was missing. She drew her conclusion.
‘Something’s changed … the boyfriend?’
Ben nodded mutely. It had to be gotten through. Work would have to know.
‘Cheating on you?’
Ben sighed. Somehow, those words made him feel bad, as if he had some responsibility for Alex’s betrayal of their relationship.
‘Men are bastards, Ben. I’ll take you for a drink after work. We can swap adultery stories. Anger likes to be shared.’
Ben was surprised. He and Amanda did not normally get on, so the sympathy caught him unprepared. It seemed there was a freemasonry of the betrayed that he never would have expected. Anger liked to be shared, maybe. But was he angry?
Ben evaded the invitation, pleading a need to sort out his new accommodation. He slumped behind his computer screen, checked his e-mail, and noted with surprise one from philm22 in the inbox. How did that get there?