Ben arrived at work on Thursday expecting a summons to see the CEO. But his inbox was empty of such a command, his desk had not been cleared and his possessions had not been boxed up. He watered his plants meditatively.
Finally he shrugged and got to work. For some reason, he had regained his ability to concentrate. His paperwork was gradually diminishing when, at eleven, there was a stir at the office door.
‘Delivery for Mr Craven,’ announced a young woman carrying a large bouquet. She was grinning widely.
Everyone was staring at Ben, whose ears had gone red. The bouquet was expensive and elegant. The card said, Dear Ben. I am an insensitive oaf and can only apologise for my behaviour. Please forgive me. Clive.
Ben looked around as people looked away. He dropped the bouquet in the bin.
‘Hey, don’t do that!’ shouted Amanda. ‘If you don’t want them, they’ll brighten up my desk no end. None of the chiselling bastards I sleep with are so generous.’
‘I did not sleep with him.’
‘No? Then why the flowers?’
‘I bit his head off when he made a pass at me. Apparently he found that erotic.’
‘And I thought straight men were complicated.’
At twelve he had a call. It was Alex. ‘We gotta talk.’
Ben’s heart sank. He knew that tone. Alex wanted something from him.
‘I’ve seen a lawyer, and we’ve worked out a compensation deal for you. If you pull out of the mortgage and transfer your interest in it to me, I’ll offer £30,000.’
‘How much? That’s nothing compared to the value of the flat! It’s worth at least half a million. I remember you telling me.’
‘You personally have only put in £30,000 through payments. Remember? You couldn’t contribute to the deposit. I had to raise that.’
‘But the value of the place has nearly doubled since we bought it. You can’t seriously think you’re going to get me to ignore that.’
‘That’s the deal.’
‘Then I’ll see another lawyer.’
‘It’ll cost you. And when you gonna clear your books out of here?’
Oh, God, thought Ben. Has it got to this already? ‘I’ll get a van round to collect my stuff over the weekend. Will that suit you?’
‘I can use that room for a home entertainment unit.’
‘Why are you telling me this? Why do you think I care?’ Again the flare of anger surprised Ben. He was not himself.
Apparently it also surprised Alex, who went quiet for a while.
Ben mastered his feelings. ‘I’ll text you with the time and day when I get a van.’ He did not add, ‘… just so I won’t walk in and disturb you and your latest whore fucking,’ which made Ben think he had regained control.
He went back to his inbox. There was the note from Phil Maddox to answer. He stared at it. It was sympathetically worded and deserved a prompt response. He typed:
<Hello Phil. Nice to know whom we’re talking to, isn’t it? Thank you for your note. It was very kind of you. Since we’re now introduced, I think I should tell you a bit about myself. I’m a production editor working in London. You’ll find my page at www.wardour.co.uk. I broke up with my boyfriend of ten years last week. I’m 31, so you can see I’ve been a faithful sort of body, but that wasn’t enough for Alex in the end. It looks as though it’s going to be final. We’re already arguing about property. I’m surprising myself by coping. People do, after they’ve lost a limb, don’t they? My friends help a lot, and I hope you’ll let me count you as one of them. Thanks again. Your note meant a lot. Ben. XXXX.>
Karen was in front of the TV with a set of progress reports, but tuned into the endless soaps she watched. Her addiction used to be amusing, and they would joke about it. Now it seemed to be the best part of her life. Phil sat with her for once.
His backside was puffy and painful from Jerry’s hammering. But for all the mixed emotions charging through his head, he was glad he had done it. He knew now he was gay, without any doubt. Yes, there was some bisexual part of him, but the gay side was clearly the reality of what he was.
The question of his orientation was settled, that was for sure. What still needed thinking about was the question of Jerry. After they had fucked, Jerry had held on to him and talked, saying that he had quite an arse and was a real looker. Although Jerry preferred casual sex with no ties, a piece of tail like Phil did not come along too often.
‘You should see some of the guys I screw, Phil. You’d wonder how I can keep my lunch down. But now and then you get the guys who make it really worthwhile, clean, sexy guys who love getting fucked. You loved it, didn’t ya?’
Phil confessed he did. There was something of a bottom in him, it seemed, though he was just as eager to give as to take.
‘I’ll drop you a text, mate. Then we can get it together again. Maybe do it in a bed, yeah? Cleaning up after is always messy out here.’
‘Er … okay.’
‘I’ll be seeing ya around uni too, won’t I?’ Phil had already identified Jerry as a day security guard in his faculty of Arts and Humanities. Being a friendly sort, Phil had in the past swapped greetings with the man. It appeared they would be exchanging more than the time of day in future.
There was a chill in his abdomen. This stranger now knew his secret. Would he share it or not? But maybe Jerry kept his gay cruising to himself at work and had his own private life to protect, even though he was a single man. Or again, maybe he spread it around at work too. Phil mentally shrugged. There was no way of knowing. He had cast his future adrift and would have to live with the consequences of where the tide of events took it.
Karen grunted in response.
‘You’ve got to come out tonight, Benny,’ insisted David Skipper. ‘You must see what we’ve done with the King’s Cross. Weren’t you a student here too once?’
Davey was lounging on one of the designer armchairs in Terry’s impeccable flat in Cranwell’s Brewery district. He was elegant in a grey silk shirt and tight trousers which showed off his long legs and shapely behind. He was an incitement to a gay riot, and did he ever know it.
But there was more to Davey than clothes and sexiness, as Ben knew perfectly well. David Skipper was an astute and imaginative young businessman, quite a match for his partner in that area. He was also kind and very sensitive, perhaps too much so, as Ben was still in the reclusive phase of his grieving and had no desire to be pestered about being social.
‘I’d rather just go for a wander through the town to see the old sites.’
Terry stirred himself. He’d had a doze after the drive down. ‘Benny wasn’t one for pubs and clubs when he wuz here, were you sweetness?’
Davey smiled. ‘It’s fine. Here’s a key.’
Ben took the key and then made his way down to High Street. There was something comfortingly familiar about the old place. The good thing about Cranwell was that, though he and Alex had been students together, their joint life had only begun after they’d left. There weren’t too many places where he would get weepy.
One such was the old towpath, where he’d watched Alex training with the university boat crew. Another was the hall of residence where he had surreptitiously stared at Alex’s bare chest and muscular arse whenever he could get an eyeful of it. But most places were either neutral or, like the Union Bar, had been re-decorated several times since he’d left.
Ben browsed the familiar shops of High Street and Swindon Road, marvelling at the sudden huge growth in coffee bars in the place. He gazed at the current generation of students roaming the streets and thought they looked like school kids. He sat on a bench in the Memorial Gardens and meditated on the university buildings.
He did make one symbolic pilgrimage. He walked to City Hall and into the crush area where, in the bar, Alex had come out as gay and proposed to him. He found the very bench and sat where he had ten years previously. This was where it had begun, and now, without tears, he could sit in the same place and acknowledge that it had ended. It was a moment of epiphany for Ben. When he stood again, he was a different man: a sadder and less hopeful one, perhaps, but his head was clearer.
Back in Terry’s flat, he smiled at his friends and said that yes, he would like a drink and a dance afterwards. Since he’d never been in the King’s, he feared no associations with its past.
The King’s Cross was a trendy city-centre pub, the only gay venue in Cranwell. Terry, who as a teenager had once worked the bar there, had bought it to save it from going under to a brewery redevelopment. Like most successful provincial gay pubs, it had its share of adventurous straight customers, so Ben saw a few couples around the place who were not single-sex.
Terry went to the bar, where his appearance led to a state of mild panic amongst the student bartenders. He had not announced his visit.
The King’s looked pretty plush to Ben. He took his usual vodka and orange over to a side table with Davey, while Terry went to find and harass his manager.
‘Frank is a legend amongst pub managers; you know, the sort of legend which is repeated in the full moon at dark of night, when landlords gather round campfires.’ Davey gave his fetching and boyish grin.
‘You make him sound like a monster!’
‘That’s a good word for him, “monster”. He’s a miserable so-and-so who never has a kind word for anyone and has never done anything for anyone – apart from his son, that is, a poisonous tranny called Tina Morris. My mates Henry and Gavin worked the bar here when we were first years. Frank made their lives a misery, the old bastard.’
‘Henry … you mean …?’
‘Henry Atwood. Did you ever meet him?’
‘No. Alex did. Said he was a tough little sod, sharp as a knife.’
‘Well, that says something about Alex. Henry is as sweet and kindly a guy as you’ll ever meet. God, did I have a crush on him when we were in school.’
Eventually Terry finished his business at the bar. Coming back to their table with more drinks, he declared, ‘Now Benny boy, I got an idea. We need to try out some therapy on yer, and I got in mind therapy and tonic, followed by getting-down therapy on the dance floor. I remembers yer can dance up a storm when the mood takes yer, and that should be tonight. You and Davey can show ‘em a thing or two next door.’
The alcohol was having a loosening effect on Ben’s numerous inhibitions, assisted by being together with two very hot gay men who were his friends. ‘Don’t you want to dance, Terry? You can really do it.’
‘Oh, I’ll have my chances, but I think you and Davey will be pretty compatible to begin with.’
After a few more drinks, Ben’s head was beginning to float free. He did not resist when he was tugged next door into the club, where the DJ was warming up on his podium. Men were already dancing, and with David smiling encouragingly, Ben found himself among the press of moving bodies.
The night, the drink, the music and the mood swamped him in what was for him an unusual way. Perhaps it was a reaction to all the uncertainty and trauma in his current life that cut him free from the concerns that normally anchored him in his colourless existence.
David was a handsome and co-ordinated partner. With his inhibitions collapsing, Ben began moving and circling on the floor in ways he had not done for years. He focussed on Davey’s sultry eyes in front of him, and was aroused. Soon they had attracted the attention of the entire club. They were moving sensuously in a world of their own.
The pulsing beat drummed away all Ben’s anxieties and depression. He was the music and he barely noticed when Terry took Davey’s place. The floor was soon cheering them on, and their sweat-soaked tops flew off. Ben’s tangled hair was dripping in his eyes. It might have been hours until Terry pulled him close and kissed him for a long, long time, his hands moving across Ben’s bare back. There were whoops from the watching man-pack. Terry grinned and hauled him off the floor.
Davey pushed a cold bottle at him. ‘Better now?’ He handed back Ben’s polo sweater.
‘Wow!’ gasped Ben, his head spinning. ‘So that’s why people dance.’
As they were sitting together back at the flat after leaving the King’s, Ben’s mobile buzzed. Ben was in the middle of a laugh as he said, ‘Hello!’
It was Alex. ‘Where are you?’
‘Er … Cranwell.’
There was unmistakable suppressed anger in Alex’s voice, something Ben had not heard there before. ‘You were supposed to move your … books this weekend.’
Ben guessed an expletive had been strangled at birth. ‘Oh, sorry. Forgot. Look I’ll do it next week, OK? But I had a …’
He was cut off. ‘If they’re not out by next Sunday, they go in a skip. Get it?’ Alex rang off, leaving Ben staring at Terry and Davey.
Terry raised an eyebrow. ‘He pissed at you?’
‘Yes, but I can’t see why he’s so angry.’
Terry frowned. ‘It’s cos you’re coping, sweet babe. It suits him deep down to think you’re weeping over the end of your relationship and missing him. But he caught you having a good time. Selfish of him, but that’s people for you.’
Ben’s elation at the night’s dancing evaporated. He’d had a reminder of the gloom that was his life. The depression was back, and this time he resented it. He resented Alex in particular. The man who had laid waste his life now seemed determined to throw down even the refugee shelter Terry had built for him.
Terry and David exchanged glances. ‘Bed then?’ Terry suggested.
Ben gave them a doleful look, then a pale smile. ‘Thanks for a great night.’
They hugged him and went off to their room.
Ben finished his mineral water before following on to bed. Despite the exhaustion of an unaccustomed night of dancing, it took him a while to compose himself. He was in a strange bed in a different city. His head was still thumping with the club music and his heart was still sore at the skirmish with Alex. Would he ever have peace of mind again?
Phil lay awake, staring at the ceiling of their bedroom. He’d been on campus on Friday and, needless to say, had run into Jerry almost straight away. They were in an empty corridor.
The man had smiled broadly at him. ‘Hey Phil, how’s your arse?’
Phil had smiled back, not that he had a choice. ‘Good. I mean, it hurt like nobody’s business for a day or two, but it seems fine now. Er … thanks.’
Jerry smirked confidentially. ‘Maybe I’ll stop off at your office and my dick and your arse can get it on again … nah! Just kidding!’ Phil could not stop a brief spasm of panic crossing his face, and it had been noted. Jerry continued. ‘But seriously, there’s usually time for a BJ round the place.’
He took Phil round the shoulder briefly, with a proprietary air that Phil did not entirely like. Nonetheless, he gave a light laugh. ‘Yeah, well … see the departmental secretary, she’ll pencil BJ in on the timetable.’
Jerry laughed. ‘Hah! Good one, Phil. But sometime soon, OK?’
‘Of course,’ agreed Phil, half reluctantly, but half aroused. ‘Sometime soon.’
He lay in bed, his penis thickening at the thought of what had been done to him in the back of Jerry’s Audi. Karen was snoring next to him. He slid out of bed quietly and sought relief in the loo. Before he did, he texted Jerry. <I’ll b in work 2moro at 10. if u r there c u in my office. bring a condom or 2.>