‘When’s he coming?’ Andy was craning to look down into the street from an upstairs window.
‘Isn’t it me who’s supposed to be on pins to see my boyfriend?’
‘Benny’s got a boyfriend? Wow. I’m so pleased and relieved.’
‘… and surprised?’
‘Not really, we know how sweet you are. God bless the Internet, I say, at least in this case. So when’s he coming?’
‘After ten this morning, he said. He’ll be on his way now.’
‘What does he look like?’
‘He’s really something: dark, sort of standard height, but what a face, and so classic in his proportions, a lot like Matt in many ways, though obviously the comparison has its limits. I think the best thing, though, is that we’re really on the same wavelength when it comes to interests. That was always the problem with Alex: he was into sports, politics, pubs and food, while I was into books, plants and my own company. We loved each other, we really did …’
‘I know, I was there.’
‘But we loved each other for our differences and never found common ground.’
‘That’s a very generous assessment of what went wrong. Phil has taken the pain away, hasn’t he.’
‘Yes he has. I just hope it’s not that famous rebound thing. But I don’t think it is. I knew Phil and the way his mind worked well before Alex and I fell apart. He wasn’t a stranger I picked up in a pub. I do hope you and Matt like him.’
‘Baby, we’ll love him because of what he’s done for you. Never mind the rest.’
A small red car appeared from the north and pulled round the side of the house. Ben was down the stairs like a flash. Andy gave him time to reach and greet his boyfriend in privacy before catching up with them. They were hand in hand in the garden, staring into each other’s eyes, a handsome couple clearly deeply in love. Andy was moved at the sight.
He also instantly sympathised when Phil turned to him with a certain shyness and murmured, ‘Oh, hello. Are you Sir Andrew?’
‘Andy is fine.’ He took Phil’s hand and reached up to kiss his cheek.
Phil was flustered. ‘Do gays do this?’
‘We do here. Come inside and say hullo to the man of the house.’
‘What if I faint?’
‘Happens all the time. He’ll understand.’ Andy admired the way Phil walked with something of a masculine swagger which emphasised his tight and shapely behind.
Matt was in the lounge, just out of bed, in a tee-shirt and boxers. He grinned and rose from the sofa where he had been watching TV. ‘Hey, Phil! If I didn’t have Andy, Benny would have serious competition.’
Phil was stunned by the apparition, but staggered out with, ‘And if it weren’t for Benny, I’d surrender on the spot.’ Matt laughed and took his hand in a strong grip. Phil did not dare to close for a kiss, whatever Andy had said.
Matt indicated the opposite sofa before pulling Andy down on to his lap. The two men sat together grinning at Phil and Benny.
Phil smirked. ‘It’s like meeting the parents.’
‘You may have a point,’ replied Andy with mock sternness. ‘What are your intentions towards our Benny?’
‘Umm … to love him forever and get as much sex with him as I can. Is that a reasonable ambition?’
‘Couldn’t have asked for more honesty at least.’ Matt gave a gentle smile. ‘So how are things?’
Phil shrugged. ‘On one level, I’ve never been more alive and happy. I’m out of the closet at work and I’ve found my dream man. It’s the details. I employed a lawyer on Monday to manage the divorce, and she scared me with all sorts of legal language. Fortunately, she thinks it’ll be reasonably straightforward. Karen isn’t contesting anything. We’ve got no joint savings or funds to divide. The main thing is the value of the house, which has gone up ever since we bought it. The lawyer thinks the other two will kick up at the price we’ll put on my share. It’ll all be negotiation.
‘On Tuesday I went over with a van and moved out my stuff. Mostly books and my office equipment. In the end, I didn’t fancy any of the rest of the furniture, so the lawyer suggested we just bid for a cash settlement to cover whatever my share of it might conceivably have been worth. Karen seemed relieved at that. My stuff is now in store, and I’ve put up in the university guest house till I can find a rental.
‘On Wednesday I rang my mother and told her Karen and I were splitting.’
‘How did it go?’ asked Andy with curiosity.
‘You could hear the fireworks and party poppers down the phone line. So I suppose I should have left it at that, but I had to go and spoil her day by adding the fact that I was gay. She asked me if I was sure. I didn’t go into the details as to how I had made certain of the fact, but I did tell her there was now a man in my life. The reaction was not good. She always wanted grandchildren.’
Andy nodded. ‘Don’t give up on that. The way things worked out with us, we ended up with a kid whether we wanted him or not.’
Matt laughed. ‘Yup, and what a lad Justin was. So we adopted him. Then he turned out eventually to have his own son who made us grandparents overnight. It took us a long time to get used to that idea, believe me.’
Andy grinned. ‘But Christmas is so much more fun, and Damien is a character beyond any normal imagination.’
He turned to Phil. ‘Now then, in our ersatz family, Benny here is a sort of problem little brother. I’m not sure what that makes you, but whatever it is, you’re very welcome to the gang.’
‘Absolutely,’ Matt agreed. ‘Come round anytime. I suppose you and Benny have things you want to say to each other.’ He flexed his eyebrows, making Ben actually blush.
Thanking their hosts with a smile, Phil took Ben by the hand and led him back upstairs. ‘What great guys.’
‘Didn’t I tell you?’
‘You did … and Matt is surreal; pictures just don’t do him justice.’
‘I knew him when he was eighteen. Believe me, he was beyond stunning even then. People used to walk into lampposts staring at him in the street. He never even noticed.’
‘But you are my baby, Bennyboy, and you’re all I can think of. This week without you has been awful. I can’t get you out of my head. I want some shots with the digital camera so I can have you as my screensaver on the laptop.’ By now they were naked and embracing. Phil whispered in his ear, ‘… and I want some of you like this, baby, so I don’t have to guess what sexiness looks like in male form.’
A kiss was followed by a murmured, ‘… and you too, Phil my man. You are so gorgeous, and I want your most beautiful feature in me soooo much.’
On Saturday evening, both couples were lying together in the lounge watching a DVD. Andy was saying, ‘… then, if Benny gets his cash from Alex, and Phil gets his share from his ex, what are you planning to do?’
They did not have a chance to answer. Ben’s mobile throbbed in his pocket. ‘Lo? Oh, hi Clive. … Feeling pretty good actually. I’ve got my boyfriend round. … Yes I did say that. … Just lucky, I guess. … Lunch in a fortnight’s no problem. … That Tuesday’s good. It’s in my diary. See you.’
Phil looked up from his place in Ben’s lap. ‘Was that who I think it was?’
‘Yes, it was the great Clive Dressner. Your man of mystery.’
Matt pricked up his ears. ‘Why man of mystery? What’s up with him?’
Ben gave a quirky little look. ‘Phil long ago – far back before recorded time, when he was doing his doctorate – picked up some errors in Clive’s CV. He wrote to my company for more information. Well, it so happened I was the person they passed Phil’s letter on to. But it was just a clerical mistake about the sequence of his higher education.’
Phil stretched. ‘My super-Benny was as efficient as ever. He sorted it for his firm. Still, there were some other things I could have mentioned but didn’t. Like, he hasn’t ever told us what years he was in the University of Bedford. Then there’s his place of birth, even the year of his birth. Somehow these key facts are ignored in his biography.’
Andy shrugged. ‘I thought writers were allowed pen names and a private life if they wanted it. What was the name of that old guy who wrote Napoleonic naval stories?’
‘You mean Patrick O’Brien.’
‘Yeah … Matt has a shelf full of his books upstairs.’
Phil jumped in. ‘Now he’s a good example. He fed a whole pack of fantasies about himself to various interviewers. When eventually people began putting the accounts together, it was pretty evident he lived in a dream world.’
Matt pondered. ‘So he was a fantasist; a good qualification for a writer of fiction, wouldn’t you say? But it’s not important when you read his work.’
Phil, lecturer in English literature, sat up. ‘I’m glad you said that, Matt. And you’d be right in many if not most cases. A writer can invent himself as much as he does his novels with no one being any the worse off. When his writing and its inspiration are analysed, however, it is important on so many levels, especially if you take a psychological angle on his creativity.
‘Dressner is different. There’s an absence of information which is quite unusual in a man like him, and what information there is, is contentious.’
‘Contentious?’ queried Ben, looking more than a little worried.
‘Well yeah, Benny. This business of his education is only one aspect of it. Take an example. He writes very convincingly about the British legal system, as convincingly as Grisham does about the American. But Grisham was a lawyer and knew the system from the inside. So how does Dressner do it? Did he have legal training? All we know about his career is that he’s a graduate and taught at some time in a secondary school. We’re left to assume that his subject was English.’
Matt chipped in. ‘You shouldn’t underestimate the power of good research skills, Phil. You seem to want to put limits on human originality.’
Not pausing to be intimidated by whom he was talking to, Phil fielded the question. ‘Yes, I’ll admit that, but there’s no learning curve evident in his writing. If he were an outsider to the legal system, you’d expect a growing familiarity with its twists and turns as he gained more experience writing about it. However, though his writing skills do develop, his ability to create an authentic legal scenario is just as evident in his first, Enderby’s Chambers, as in his latest, For Want of a Nail. Exactly like Grisham.’
Andy looked puzzled. ‘So you’re saying he must have been a lawyer – or still is – and this teacher thing is a blind? Bit elaborate for a smoke screen, isn’t it?’
‘I’m just saying there are things about him that don’t add up, and I’m intrigued. There’s this one and only interview he gave. I have a copy. It was to an obscure American magazine, right after his second book became a world bestseller and he moved to Massachusetts. I don’t have it here – it’s with my notes in storage – but there he was in his brand new home in Cambridge, a short walk from Harvard Square, and he actually revealed some things about his background. He must have been feeling pretty full of himself at the time.
‘He said he had grown up in a middle-class background in North London, went to private school and studied at Bedford University because Oxford turned him down. And yes, he also said he was a schoolteacher, not a lawyer.
‘He spoke of his dedication to his pupils, the way he encouraged some of them to write, and the look on his head teacher’s face the day he got a six-figure cheque from his publishers and handed in his notice, which he worked through … and why are you looking oddly at me, Benny?’
Ben did indeed look troubled. ‘Er … this is not the account of himself he gave to me.’
‘What? You mean he let down his guard to you?’
Ben stood up, tense with some inner conflict. ‘I can’t talk about it. It’s confidential. The man was trusting me with information I don’t think he would normally share.’
Phil too was torn, because this was a subject of desperate importance to him professionally. It looked like Ben had some pieces of the puzzle that was Clive Dressner, and Phil had to have them. But he was causing his lover pain by pushing him. Phil looked hesitantly around to see Matt observing him closely.
Phil made his decision. With an assumed nonchalance, he looked up at Ben, smiled and said, ‘It’s OK, Benny mine. There are more interesting things to talk about. In a fortnight it’s our reading week at Stevenage, and if you have holiday owing from Wardour, we could take a few days out. How about going away together as boyfriends?’
Phil sneaked a look at Matt, and was gratified to see a smile of approval on his face. Phil’s heart skipped a little in response.
Phil and Ben murmured together for a while on their sofa about where they could go and what they could afford. As Phil went to get a coffee from the pot Mrs Atkinson kept simmering in the kitchen, he realised Matt had followed him out.
A hand grasped his shoulder. ‘You’re a good man, Philip Maddox.’
‘I’m in your line of work, so I know how much the information Benny has is worth to you, how it could even make your career That didn’t matter when you saw what the conflict was doing to Benny, you just walked away from it. You did the sort of thing that makes the angels sing in heaven. Do you believe in angels?’
‘I hadn’t till I met you,’ Phil blurted.
Matt laughed. ‘You and Benny are pretty angelic yourselves at the moment. What you’ve got going with him is worth far more than any academic scoop. Your choice was the right one, and there will come a time you will be very glad you made it.’
As the next fortnight progressed, Phil began to feel his way deeper into his relationship with Ben, so different from any other he had experienced or ever thought he would have. With no physical or mental reserve, they lived in a state of complete emotional openness which was wonderfully liberating to Phil after his years of concealment. They talked and laughed endlessly. They thought alike on so many different levels, yet they had sufficient differences to make their dialogue interesting to each other.
They were both quiet men who preferred to be together alone rather than with others. Of the pair, Phil was the more outgoing, so he discovered himself taking the lead in social situations where Ben tended to hang back. When they went into shops, it would be Phil who would engage the assistants in conversation, while Ben would murmur his contribution later.
The same was not necessarily true in bed, however. Experience proved that Phil found topping more natural to him, but he enjoyed the exquisite penetration of Ben’s long member too. They shifted to unprotected sex as soon as they knew they were free of infections. Somehow they recognised the mutual faithfulness in their characters.
Phil found he could commute without too much trouble from Highgate to Stevenage, so when he had no early teaching he would spend the previous night with Ben, rather than alone in the small furnished flat he was now renting near the university. This was why one Thursday he was in Highgate when Andy was hosting a rather select charity function on behalf of gay-youth counsellors for London.
‘Sorry, you pair, you’re house guests so you can’t avoid it. It’s not evening dress, just try to look smart.’ Andy had seen the reluctance in both men’s eyes and was vetoing their escape plan to a pub.
Ben whispered in Phil’s ear, ‘We’ll hide in a corner and disappear upstairs when no one’s looking.’
Phil giggled. He found Ben could make him do that.
‘And you can’t hide in a corner either,’ Andy lectured sternly. He knew Ben too well. ‘Circulate. You can both be charming if you want.’
Ben and Phil stuck out their tongues at him before dissolving into laughter. Andy left them, telling them they were not in the least charming and had got very silly since falling in love.
On the night, Ben dressed Phil and fixed his hair in the way he liked. This was another new thing for them both. Alex had had his own style, which Ben called ‘executive rumpled’, and had always rejected Ben’s suggested alternatives. Such taste as Phil had was random, and Karen had never attempted to change him. But Ben’s gifts that way soon made Phil realised that his boyfriend’s judgement about clothes and appearance was to be trusted and was far superior to his own.
‘Benny, how do you do it? You buy a shirt this funny colour and put it with the jacket and trousers I already had, play with my hair, and wham! I look like a model! I love this!’
Ben glowed under the approval and kissed his boyfriend. ‘I don’t know, but take some credit for looking nice yourself. Didn’t men ever hit on you before you came out?’
‘Well, I dunno. How do you recognise it?’
‘Depends. It’s rarely as direct as groping your crotch. You know, you find this guy talking at you, smiling in your face, trying to make links with you, sometimes offering suggestive remarks. Phil, you’re so hot, it has to have happened.’
‘Er … let me think. There was this really fit firefighter bloke at Karen’s staff social who sort of homed in on me. We had a laugh and a few drinks while talking about me and my job. He was really interested, even on the point of signing up for one of the university’s courses. He left me his … oh! He left me his mobile number. Was that a come-on?’
Ben raised his eyes to the ceiling and shook his head.
‘Then there’s Max, a student of mine. He’s always in my office. He even talked about doing gay sex … oh my God!’
‘Darling, you are sooo naïve as well as beautiful, but it’s really sweet. I’ll never have to worry about you being unfaithful. You’ll not notice you’re being hit on.’
Ben and Phil stationed themselves near the door next to the drinks table, not that they drank much. Phil had to be in work early for his lecture the next morning. So they sipped on chilled white wine and watched people circulate.
‘That was a cabinet minister, I’m pretty damn sure …’
‘Y’think, Benny? Now that one looks familiar. He’s an actor, isn’t he?’
‘Famous too. Andy just pulls ‘em in. ‘Scuse me, gotta go for a pee.’
Phil carried on standing where he was, hoping to avoid attention. Thus he was rather surprised when a hot young guy dressed in very expensive leathers sidled up to him. The man’s hair was obviously professionally styled, his watch was Tag Heuer and his necklace was a chunky gold chain. Phil reckoned he must be something to do with the music industry, though the face didn’t look familiar.
Leaning back against the wall next to Phil, he said, ‘You alright, mate?’
‘Fine thanks. Er … you here with anyone?’ When the man’s eyebrow raised, Phil blushed at his inept question. ‘I mean, er … what’s the connection between yourself and Sir Andrew’s charity?’
The man shrugged. ‘Gay in’ I. An’ I know what iss like bein’ gay on the streets.’
‘Oh, but you don’t look as though you were from that sort of background.’
‘Had some luck, din’ I.’
Oh fuck, said Phil to himself, it’s the conversationalist from hell. How long a pee could Benny be taking? ‘So, er … what sort of luck was that?’
‘Got screwed by a gardener’s boy.’
Phil suddenly laughed. This was too mad. ‘I can see that might be lucky. So did he come into a fortune or what?’
‘Nah. He runs a garden centre near Ipswich, an’ I help him out when I’m home.’
‘Nah, Nate pays me nuffin’. I’m his slave labour … slave for love sorta thing.’
‘So how do you afford all this stuff? Hope you don’t mind my asking.’
‘Me real job’s in security: bands and divas and stuff. Just back from a tour of the States wiv Razorlight. Tough gig.’
‘Really? How did you get on with Johnny wassisname?’
‘I don’t talk about clients, sorry mate. Anyway, who’re you here wiv?’
‘Oh … my boyfriend. He’s just stepped out …’
The man grinned. ‘S’OK mate, was’n a pass. Wouldn’t dare wiv me dad here.’
‘Yeah … thass ‘im, short blond bloke.’
‘Sir Andrew? Oh … hang on, you must be …’
‘Justin Peacher-White. An’ Dad said you’re Benny’s new bloke. Nice ter meechya.’
‘Good to meet you too, Justin. You’re a bit famous.’
‘So’re you now, Phil. Matt and Andy have decided you’re part of the clan. By the way, talking of the clan, didya know that Alex Johnson, Benny’s ex, was invited tonight? But he wouldn’t come. I wonder why?’
Ben returned at that point, and closed to hug and kiss Justin.
‘Sorry to hear about you and Alex, Benny. Still … I like the new guy. He’s a star.’
Ben smiled. ‘I can’t believe my luck. Is Nate babysitting at home?’
‘Yeah, as usual. I’ll be back there tomorrer, though. I’ll pick the kid up from school. I managed to winkle Nate out from Haddesley this weekend, and we’re off to a Centerpark Friday night. Nice to see ya both, yer makes a great couple. Look after Benny, Phil. He’s one of the good guys.’
Phil watched him go. ‘Now he is hot. What a looker.’
‘For all his youth, he’s pretty formidable at what he does. He works for my friend Terry O’Brien. Justin’s utterly devoted to his partner, Nathan. One of the great love stories.’
‘Really? Tell me.’
Ben did, well enough so Phil forgot the reception round him and absently swigged three gins without much noticing them.