Ben had his head down at his desk when he became aware of a presence behind him.
‘Ben, a moment of your time, please.’ It was the head of production’s voice.
Ben got up and followed into his boss’s side office, where he took the indicated chair. He was as apprehensive as he had been the last time Magnamedia downsized the Wardour operation.
‘Now, Ben, you’re working on the latest Dressner project, right?’
‘Er … yes.’
‘Can you give me a brief rundown of progress and potential?’
‘Mr Dressner was with the CEO at a dinner yesterday and spoke very highly of you … very highly indeed. The CEO wanted me to pass on his thanks for the way you dealt with a – not to put too fine a point on it – difficult but crucially important client. You know his agent is angling for a new contract, and we cannot afford to lose him. But if he is happy with you, he’ll be happy with us.
‘Mr Dressner wants to meet with you again to discuss his further ideas. I have them in this file here. He’s staying at the Dorchester, and will meet you there for lunch at one-thirty. I checked your diary, which confirms you’re free this afternoon. Take a long lunch. Here’s the firm’s card; use it to pay for the meal.
Ben didn’t say he had been planning to spend lunchtime organising the transition of his books out of the Clerkenwell flat and into temporary storage. He sighed and went off to clear his desk of its current files.
At one-thirty he was at the hotel reception. The message left there was for Ben to join Mr Dressner in the penthouse restaurant.
Dressner was waiting already, striking in a well-cut jacket and turtleneck sweater. He rose to shake Ben’s hand and indicated a seat. There was already chilled white wine in a bucket.
Dressner smiled across the table through the central flower arrangement – rather like a tiger in the undergrowth, Ben thought. ‘Ben, I am so glad we could meet again.’
Ben was in no mood to compromise. Besides, he was annoyed at losing an afternoon’s work. ‘I had a choice in the matter?’
Dressner was smiling even more broadly. ‘You really are like a breath of fresh air. All I usually get from publishers is ass-kissing, but you …’ He laughed, seeming genuinely amused. Then his expression became serious. ‘Ben, I must apologise to you. In the circumstances, what I did was quite unforgiveable. I truly do despair of myself at times.’
Ben nodded. ‘I’m happy to accept your apology … Clive. Can we just leave it as bygones now, and allow me get on with my life, such as it is?’
Then Dressner surprised Ben with a look of genuine concern and sympathy. ‘It hurts, huh?’
Ben let out a breath. ‘Yes it hurts, more than I can say. But can we just leave it at that, please? Thank you for your concern.’
‘How long had you and … what is his name?’
‘Did you and Alex meet at university?’
‘And you have been an item ever since?’
‘Yes, here and in the States.’
‘What does he do?’
‘He’s Alex Johnson.’
‘I know that name … foreign editor of the Guardian. He appears on BBC comment programmes, doesn’t he?’
‘Yes, that’s Alex. My ex-partner.’
‘Did you go through a civil partnership?’
‘No. We talked about it, but somehow we were – or rather, he was – always too busy.’
And so the conversation continued, Dressner skilfully and sensitively teasing out Ben’s story. When Ben looked at his watch as the main course was taken away, it had been over an hour. That was an unusually long time for him to have been talking.
Dressner smiled. ‘Dessert?’
‘No thanks. I don’t do desserts ever since I saw what they did to Alex’s waistline.’
‘Then let me get coffees.’
‘Coffee will be fine.’
Dressner looked at him over the rim of his wine glass. ‘You seem more relaxed.’
‘Maybe the theory is correct. Talking helps put things in perspective … so I suppose I should say thank you.’
‘Glad to help. I hope we can do this again sometime.’
‘Apparently we have to. I’m the only one from my firm you’ll talk to.’
‘Where did they get that idea?’
‘I imagine it was when you were with the CEO.’ Ben sat back in his seat and scrutinised the man. ‘Clive, please don’t crowd me.’
‘Does it seem that way? I’m sorry. It’s not easy for me to get to talk to intelligent and attractive men. I have to seize what chances I get.’
‘That sounds almost as sad as my situation.’
‘Probably more so. Poor little rich guy. Look, you think you have problems, try mine. To keep up my punishing writing schedule, I rise at six, work till two, nap if I’m home in Tuscany, then pick up again in the evening. I can’t allow myself more than two weeks off a year. That’s what I’m doing now, this is the middle of my annual fortnight. When do I get the time to find and meet anyone who’s worth talking to? Believe me, if it weren’t you today Ben, it would have been an attractive and articulate escort on the other side of the table. He’d be smiling, charming and wouldn’t give a fuck about me.’
Ben was curious. ‘Always male?’
Dressner raised an eyebrow. ‘What have you heard about me?’
‘That you’re bisexual.’
‘It’s true, but it’s mostly men I sleep with. Anyway, enough of that. Are you interested in a concert? I have tickets for Bruckner at the Albert Hall tomorrow night. Would you come with me?’
Ben thought about it. ‘Yes I will. After all, there’s no one waiting for me at home. I’m a free agent again.’
Phil Maddox developed his secret life. It wasn’t much of one, but he looked forward to his liaisons with Jerry as a real escape from the boredom of his marriage. The frisson of sex bent half-naked over his own office desk, or an opportunity for oral sex seized in a toilet or the back of a car, fulfilled him in some new way.
Of course it was stupid and sometimes it was squalid, but when he went on the web now, it was as a guy who had first-hand experience of gay intercourse – or the submissive half of it, at least. He was adjusting to the idea of being gay in more than just theory. He was often on the Net.
He really needed the intellectual edge of his message board. Jerry could pound his backside with enthusiasm and impressive stamina, but couldn’t talk to him about anything much. Jerry also offered no affection. It was all about the penetration and, Phil thought, domination of another male. There was no more to it than that. Phil was learning about the complexities and disappointments of male-on-male sex.
So he was delighted to encounter Bennyboy30 online once more. They shifted to IM.
<How are you, Ben?>
<Recovering, thanks. My friends have been really good. I appreciated your message, Phil, it was kind. I spent this evening arranging for my books to be put into store till I can find somewhere.>
<Where’re you living at the moment?>
<A friend’s got a big house in Highgate. He says he’ll put me up as long as I like, and I believe him. But I don’t want to impose. I’m going to start searching for my own place as soon as my lawyer has negotiated a deal with Alex’s.>
<Have you been keeping up with your reading?>
<My concentration’s coming back … I just have to find the time. I hope you’re not disappointed in me. Lol.>
<Not a bit. You have every excuse you need. For your sake, I’m happy just to read romances with happy endings for the foreseeable.>
<Haha. See? I can still laugh.>
<I wish. Tell you what. Something that irritated me, and yet at the same time sort of encouraged me, is that one of my clients is hitting on me in a big way. He is charming and quite good-looking, but I don’t care for him particularly and I’ve told him that. Yet it’s done my morale a world of good at least. I agreed to go to a Bruckner concert with him tomorrow night. Do you think that was wise?>
Phil was disconcerted. He was suddenly being asked for gay dating advice, him! How to answer this … how about truthfully?
<Sorry Ben, I’m not the right guy to ask. My love affairs have been too few to have acquired the experience necessary to comment. But if he distracts you, it can only be good. Maybe he’s just trying to be kind.>
<Maybe, though I think he’d jump at the chance of more.>
<Then proceed with caution.> Phil was now also disconcerted by the welling up of envy in him that he could not be at the concert with Ben.
<I will. Thanks, Phil. How are you getting on with that e-novel … the pretentious comic-opera one set in the nineteenth century?>
They chatted for nearly an hour before signing off affectionately. It left Phil disturbed. So Ben was hot-looking, as well as intelligent, sensitive and now unattached. God! Lucky bastard, whoever the guy was who was chasing him.
Ben signed off, more grateful to Phil than Phil would have been comfortable knowing. While they were chatting, Ben’s problems had been relegated to the back of his mind. Now his curiosity about his correspondent was beginning to rekindle. He thought he knew some things about Phil: he was a university lecturer, they had common interests in modern fiction, he was from the north Midlands, and gave the impression of being in a relationship, though he hadn’t mentioned it specifically.
Of all his e-correspondents, Phil was the one Ben most enjoyed talking to. Maybe it was time to get to know him directly. After all, since he no longer had Alex’s friends to associate with, it was time to make his own. He e-mailed Phil a little note with a current picture attached, one Alex had taken of him earlier in the year, when they were in Paris for a book fair.
He closed his laptop and went downstairs.
As he came into the hall, Matt arrived home. He seemed excited. ‘Andy here yet?’
‘I hadn’t realised he was back today.’
‘His flight from Washington landed an hour ago, unless it was delayed. He said not to do the meeting-at-the-barrier thing, so I didn’t. Now I’ll fret. Pour us a white wine, Benny, there’s a love.’
Ben obliged, pouring one for himself as well. ‘How long’s he here for?’
‘Oh, a while. He wants to be off to Suffolk to see his father and the rest of the family fairly soon. But we’re staying up for the end of the Bruckner season at the Albert Hall.’
‘Really! Oddly enough I’m going to the concert tomorrow.’
Matt raised his eyebrows. ‘Er … alone?’
Ben gave a lopsided look. ‘No. And don’t get the wrong idea, Matt. I was harassed into it by a client who’s determined to hit on me.’
‘Not female, I take it.’
‘No.’ He explained the circumstances.
Matt gave a little smile. ‘We’ll be at the concert, so Andy and I can be useful cover to dive behind. I mean, you can’t stop him putting his hand on your thigh during the performance, but we’ll meet up for the interval and put the guy off. In fact, you can drag him into our box. That should slow his ardour. Clive Dressner, eh? I’ve always wanted to meet him. He’s supposed to be a bit of a hermit, isn’t he?’
‘Not enough of one for me, Matt. Still, he was very sweet about Alex and the break up. He was trying to be nice, I think.’
The doorbell rang, and Mrs Atkinson was not quick enough to beat Matt to answer it. He grabbed the slight blond man standing there and hauled him in, spinning him round as he did so, kissing him all the while. This was not for show, Ben knew. This was the real thing. Matt lived for his lover, and it was mutual.
Andy was doing a pantomime of asphyxiation and gasping, ‘Lemme go! Lemme go! Wanna hug Benny!’ Matt let him go with a grin, and Andy came promptly to Ben and folded into him. He put his head up and kissed him murmuring, ‘Love you, Benny.’
‘I know. Love you too, Andy.’ They moved into the lounge and Matt got Andy a stiff whisky. Andy looked fresh, considering he had taken the daytime flight.
While Mrs Atkinson was laying the table for a late dinner, Andy wanted an update on Ben’s situation. ‘It’s sad, Benny, especially after ten years. You invested a lot in each other, and I’m not talking about money. What does Terry say?’
Ben gave a little shrug. ‘Typical Terry, really. He said to me down in Cranwell that he thought Alex had missed out on a phase of gay life – you know, the one Terry is so familiar with, the “shagging phase” he called it. Alex came out of the closet and went straight in again, he said. I think he meant that Alex never had a chance to play the field as a gay man, the way some do. In the end, he couldn’t resist the temptation; there’s so much of it around.’
‘It explains a lot,’ observed Matt. ‘The most important thing is, it means you don’t have to feel so guilty. It wasn’t your fault, Benny. It’s the way things are. HIV notwithstanding, the scene is about shagging whom you want, when you want.’ He pulled Andy to him and kissed his hair. ‘Baby, Benny’s going to be at the concert tomorrow, and he’s going with a … guy!’
Andy looked surprised. ‘Really? Benny, that was quick work!’
Ben rolled his eyes. ‘It’s not what Matt wants you to think. It’s a client.’
‘It’s more than a client. It’s Clive Dressner.’
Andy’s pale eyebrows shot up. He pulled a thick paperback out of the pocket of the jacket he had not yet had time to take off. ‘Finished his last one off on the plane, For Want of a Nail … not a bad read, I have to say, about this aristocratic lawyer involved in military tribunals in Iraq. Very well researched.’
‘Well, Matt wants to meet him tomorrow.’
‘Me? Did I say that?’
Andy looked intrigued. ‘That adds a certain something to the evening’s delights. He’s a man of mystery, is Dressner. He’s supposed to be a recluse. What’s he like?’
Matt laughed. ‘The boy’s as nosy as he ever was. Wait till tomorrow, love. Benny’s uncomfortable talking about him … hadn’t you noticed?’
Mrs Atkinson came in just then to announce dinner, much to Ben’s relief.
Phil sat stunned in front of his laptop. He’d opened the attachment to Ben Craven’s last e-mail and there was the man himself. He was sitting on a bench in the sunny Tuileries Gardens wearing a polo neck, a sweater knotted round his shoulders, squinting at the camera. He had tangled fair hair over his ears, and a sweet, shy smile. The guy was beautiful; he had long limbs and was apparently quite tall, probably taller than Phil, who was no more than 5’9”. God, I hope it’s really him, Phil thought, not some picture harvested off the web.
Phil knew enough about web etiquette to realise that their relationship had gone up a notch. An exchange was expected. He searched around his picture files for one he liked. He found one taken nearly two years before. It had been a hot, sunny day while he was still a postdoctoral fellow at Warwick, he remembered. He had been snapped by his friend Jez as they were nosing round Kenilworth Castle. He liked this particular picture because he thought it made him look romantic, with his dark, curly hair falling in his brooding, blue eyes. The castle keep behind him added to the atmosphere. It was the picture he had chosen for his page on the departmental website. The secretaries liked to joke that it had noticeably increased the numbers of female applicants to the English course at Stevenage.
He sent it on its way to Ben with some misgivings. He must come clean to Ben about his situation sooner or later. How otherwise could they be friends who could trust each other? And he did so want to be friends with this man.
Phil set aside all those fruitless speculations. He had a lot of work to do that weekend. There were two lectures to produce on the second-year course, The Mystery Thriller in a Post-Modern Age. He pulled up the relevant files from his doctoral work: Grisham, Forsyth and Dressner.
He opened the Dressner notes. His research had stalled on that particular author, but he felt there was a lot still to find out. He had written to Dressner’s publishers for contact details but had been stonewalled. He had collected and collated all the available biographical details, which had left him very puzzled. There was a great deal about the man that did not add up, and maybe it was time to get back to work on him. The problem was that, at the moment, time was not something he had very much of.
As if to emphasise the point, a call from downstairs summoned him to Karen. It was her staff social tonight, and partners were expected to attend. It was an unavoidable, once-a-year experience. He shut down his laptop.