On the way to the Union, they were passing the big signboard at the Hitchin Road entrance when Max grabbed Gavin by his hoodie.
‘Sorry, Gavness, but look!’
‘Events have hit the big time. We’ve never had a band that huge on campus!’
Gavin peered at the poster. SUU ENTS PRESENTS : LIVE ACTION. FULL SUPPORT.
‘They big then?’
‘Big? Where’ve you been for the past seven years? Don’t answer that. They’re up there with Keane and Coldplay. Kings of piano rock. Twice won the Mercury. You must know them, they formed in Cranwell University when they were students. Davey manages them still, I think. You may have lusted over them with Henry before they made a name for themselves! They’re gorgeous. Straight though.
‘I'll bet this is the tour to promote their new album. It’s out next month. They must be doing the unis, and from the tour dates, Stevie’s in there with the big hitters: Leeds, Newcastle and Manchester. Fantastic! Wait till Liam and Neil find out. Better start queuing for tickets. Sorry, can’t make the social.’
‘Relax. Just joking. Tickets go on sale at the box office on Thursday, a day before they're available online. I’ll be there before dawn.’
‘And I’ll make you a thermos. But in the meantime …’
‘Yes, yes! Focus. My scatty brain all over the place again.’
Tuesday was a quiet night at the Union, and it was still early in any case. They took the atrium stairs and found that no one had arrived yet in the room they’d booked. Gavin got promptly to work. He’d made posters to fix on the door with Blu-Tack. SUU LGBTTQ SOC was in business.
Max in the meantime was setting up the wine boxes, stacking the plastic cups and opening the crisps. Indeed, he had his hand deep in the cheese-and-onion packet and was munching like a machine.
‘Er … Max?’
‘Sorry! Bad boy. I have a weakness.’
‘I can see that.’
Chris and Alasdair were the first to arrive. They made the room look occupied, even if there was a danger the crisps would all be gone before anyone else turned up. They were forming words out of SUULGBTTQSOC and speculating on the highest Scrabble score they could achieve from each.
Tommy arrived, looking subdued in flip-flops, jeans, undershirt and tight cardigan. ‘Sorry, guys, boy clothes. Had to walk through town, and I got trashed last time I did it in uniform, so it’s a butch night. Hope you’re not disappointed.’
Gavin thought Tommy looked really cute, but kept his opinion to himself. Max had told him Tommy’s sexuality was a mystery to everyone, other than that he obviously got off big-time on wearing women’s clothes in public.
Gavin hung around the door, becoming more anxious by the minute. He felt like a vicar waiting vainly for a congregation on a wet morning in midwinter.
A group of three second-years he did not recognise arrived. Ignoring him, they brushed past and loudly greeted Chris and Alasdair while eyeing up Max with interest.
Then a pair of lesbian first-years wandered in. They smiled at Gavin and asked if it was all boys, or were women allowed to join the club. When he noticed their identical piercings, he thought it quite sweet. He absently rubbed his right eyebrow as he remembered the bar that used to occupy it, the one he’d had put in because Henry had one. He was smiling gently when he turned to find Peter Lewis approaching.
‘Lo, Gavin,’ the boy from Ton-yr-Nant all but whispered.
‘Hey, Peter,’ Gavin replied.
He would have said more, but another newcomer came up and interrupted. ‘Oh hullo! Is this the Gay Society meeting? I’m sorry, I seem to be a little late. Have I missed anything?’
‘You must be Rupert.’
The boy looked surprised to be remembered. ‘Sorry, have we met?’
‘The guys on the table at the fair described you.’
‘And you are …?’
‘Gavin, and this is Peter. We’re all first-years.’
‘That’s jolly. Well, nice to meet you both.’ And Rupert shook hands seriously with them. ‘Now we’re introduced, perhaps we should get something to drink. I say, what an attractive-looking boy. Wasn’t he on the cover of …?’
‘Attitude. Yes. That’s Max.’
Peter added with some emphasis, ‘He’s Gavin’s boyfriend.’
Rupert caught his breath. ‘Ah! Well. I must go and say hello.’
Peter looked at Gavin. ‘I don’t think he got the message, do you?’
‘No. Probably not.’
‘Yes he is. Still, we shouldn’t hold it against him. I imagine there’s a story there. Fancy some disgusting acidic white, or some vinegary red?’
‘Fruit juice will do fine for me, thanks.’
So Gavin and Peter sidled quietly up to the table where the drinks were laid out and helped themselves. No one spoke to them, and Gavin found he couldn’t break the ice with Peter any further than he already had done. They stood quietly looking around, each on his own ice floe.
Gavin reflected that at least there was a good deal of laughing and joking going on amongst the third- and second-years. The first-years were being ignored, apart from Rupert, who was conversing earnestly with Alasdair about something inconsequential – perhaps the highest numerical value Scrabble allowed for the word CLOUTS.
Eventually, Gavin caught Max's eye on him. His heart lurched. This was the bit he was dreading. He coughed loudly, but no one seemed to notice.
‘Gone down the wrong way?’ Peter asked solicitously.
‘Er … no. Nothing like that. I’m trying to get the meeting started.’
‘Ah, right. You need a bit of volume. EXCUSE ME!’ Peter’s voice suddenly gained great depth and resonance. ‘CAN GAVIN HAVE YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE!’
There was instant silence at the volume of the sudden command. All turned to a stunned Gavin, who cleared his throat, faltered, but soldiered on gamely. ‘Uh, thanks … er, Peter. My name’s Gavin Price. I’m in Year 1, just starting Sociology. I … er, I mean, Max … er, my boyfriend … he said no one was willing to be president of the LGBT Society.’
‘That’s with two “T”s!’ contributed Tommy.
‘Yeah … er, thanks, Tommy. Anyway, I’d like to volunteer to be president, if that’s alright.’
The group of unknown second-years didn’t look too pleased at the announcement, but on the other hand, didn’t seem willing to put up a rival candidate.
‘So who votes for Gavin!’ called out Max, and put his hand up. All the first-years, gay and lesbian, did the same, except Rupert.
‘I’m afraid I’ll have to abstain. No offence, but I really don’t know what Gavin’s platform is on a whole variety of issues. No, I’m sorry.’
Chris and Alasdair looked vaguely hostile but their hands went up. A by-then barefoot Tommy danced around enthusiastically shouting, ‘Gav-in! Gav-in!’ until Max collared him from behind and hugged him to a halt, kissing him on the cheek for good measure. Tommy grinned happily.
‘I reckon that makes a majority in favour of Gavin,’ Max said decidedly, from over Tommy’s shoulder. ‘So what next, Mr President?’
Gavin gave a nervous grin. ‘We need an exec. Max has agreed to be social secretary. I was wondering if anyone would volunteer to be vice-president.’
‘Me! Me! I’m seriously into vice!’ yelled Tommy in delight, throwing Max off balance.
‘I really think there should be some sort of straw poll on this,’ objected Rupert. ‘How precisely do you visualise the duties of a vice-president?’
Gavin had in fact thought that one through. ‘I believe the v-p should have the duty of liaising with local bodies and the Union on gay and lesbian issues.’
‘Fair enough,’ said Mina, one of the lesbians. ‘However, I think it should be reserved for a female, if the president is male. It gives a better image.’
‘Good point,’ agreed Max. ‘But does that mean Tommy can stand?’
Tommy threw him off and scowled furiously, his mood transformed. ‘That’s not funny. I’m not a transsexual. I’m a cross-dresser.’
‘Sorry, mate.’ Max realised too late that he’d overstepped a mark somewhere. Tommy walked moodily over to the drinks and poured a red wine, seeming to have lost interest in the whole business.
Trying to ignore the sudden fall-out with Tommy, Gavin said, ‘The proposal is that the v-p be female in this case. Can I have a show of hands?’
Everyone looked at each other, and slowly hands crept up. Political correctness would not allow any other verdict.
Gavin nodded. ‘I think that means either Mina or Carole is v-p. So … er, which is it?’
Mina looked at Carole. ‘Me, I guess.’
Gavin was finding his stride. ‘Then we have a temporary exec. We’ll meet tomorrow and begin to iron out a programme. I’ll need your mobile number, Mina. So … er, great! That’s it.’
Alasdair grunted. ‘When does the society meet again?’
Max snapped back from staring anxiously after Tommy. ‘Thursday’s student night in Stevie. Don’t want to conflict with that. Friday’s bad cos a lot of us go home to mum. So what about Tuesday for the queer night out? Venue to be announced!’
An American accent with a rich southern twang intervened from the door. ‘Hey! Sorry guys, am I late for the meeting?’
Everyone turned with a subdued gasp. An astonishingly handsome stranger had arrived. He had dark looks, and a face that could have been sculpted by Michelangelo. His body seemed toned and fit. His hairless legs below the board shorts he was wearing were brown and flawless. ‘Wow,’ murmured Peter in Gavin’s ear. ‘Would you look at that!’
Max and Gavin reached home at ten that night. Max was deeply troubled at the way he had inadvertently upset Tommy, and the fact that Tommy had left without a word straight after the meeting had not helped. Although Max had texted his contrition twice now, there was no reply.
Gavin did his best to be comforting, pulling Max down in front of him. ‘Relax, Jamminess. Has Tommy been moody like this before?’
‘Not that I can recall. He bounces all over the place normally … well, you saw him. That’s total Tommy. Happy-go-lucky and irrepressible, like a kid. But maybe, if you’re like him, there's a price to pay. Ups followed by downs. Perhaps I forgot that. People staring at you, insults … isolation.’
Gavin nodded. ‘What triggered it?’
‘I said he might be voted for if a girl was to be v-p.’
‘Had it occurred to you that he isn’t gay?’
‘Well … yes. But he acts so gay, he kisses and hugs men.’
‘Has he ever slept with anyone here in Stevie?’
‘Not that I know of.’
‘Has he ever said he had a boyfriend?’
‘Er … not that I can recall.’
‘Does he ever even talk about sex?’
Max shook his head.
‘He may either be asexual, which I doubt, because he seems to me a very physical man, or there’s something more to it.’
Max looked bewildered. ‘Well, if he’s straight, why doesn’t he get off with girls? He’s a lovely guy, I mean … really lovely! Great looks and body, funny and just plain nice.’
‘He could be bisexual and confused, or it may be something to do with his shopping for knickers in Top Girl and getting pretty vile abuse behind his back from all the macho men on campus. How many women would find that attractive? Well, perhaps some might not be put off by it, but I’m beginning to realise that Stevie’s small and backwoods despite being so close to London. Do you suppose Tommy’s becoming desperate, poor bloke, fed up of being the campus freak but unable to escape his needs?’
‘If that's true, he deserves better.’ Max sighed and gripped Gavin’s hand. ‘Can we do anything?’
Gavin shook his head. ‘I’m not Enoch the Guardian any more. Sometimes I wish I were; there are a few people who could really do with smiting. No, we can only help Tommy in the usual human way, by being his friends. Don’t worry, I’m sure he’ll come round.’
Max put his head in Gavin’s lap, and left it there as his lover ran soothing fingers through his curls. Eventually he felt a kiss on his head. ‘Bedtime, Jamminess. And you can tell me about this American guy who turned up at the end of the evening.’
There was a missed call on Gavin’s mobile when he turned it on Wednesday morning. Depositing a mug of coffee on his bedside table, Max looked a question at him before snuggling in next to him and kissing his warm back.
‘It’s the Carne Arms. They want to know if I can I do a shift from eight to midnight on Friday.’
‘Spose. Getting back won’t be easy. Too late for buses. It’ll have to be a taxi, which’ll wipe out a lot of my pay. I hadn’t thought it through, had I? I got too used to crossing continents by an effort of will.’
‘Maybe you can cadge a ride with someone. Hey, haven’t you got a lecture now or something?’
‘Yeah. Basics of Sociology at eleven. Better get a move on. Any hot water left?’
‘Oh yeah. It’s a good shower, not like the last place. Want me to scrub your cute little butt for you?’
Gavin grinned. ‘That and a few other areas which need attention.’
‘I’ll be right there.’
When they emerged from the bathroom all bright, shiny and flushed, Max’s mobile was quietly demanding his attention. ‘It’s a text from Tommy. Aww! He’s all apologetic and sorry. That’s not right. I’m going round his place straight away. He needs a kiss and a hug. Poor baby.’
‘Let me know how it goes.’
Gavin dressed, shouldered his bag and left. He was in the lecture room on time, and so were most of his thirteen colleagues. The lecturer, however, failed to show. The students looked at each other. After fifteen minutes had passed without the lecturer's appearing, one of the girls piped up, ‘Maybe there’s been some problem with the timetable. Should we go to the department and ask?’
Another girl consented to go with her. The rest sat around for a further twenty minutes. When the two returned, they explained that the teaching assistant who was supposed to take the lectures hadn’t understood the timetable and thought it was tomorrow. So the lecture was cancelled.
A mature student on the course was simmering. ‘What! Aren’t they going to rearrange what we missed? That’s ridiculous. We have rights. We’re paying fees!’
The other students shrugged and had little to say.
Gavin shouldered his bag and crossed to the library, where he surveyed the collection of resources against his course bibliography. Half the books seemed to be missing. He was beginning to think he should have investigated the course more carefully before enrolling.
As he was moodily staring at his course handbook, a familiar voice jerked him back to reality. ‘Oh hello! Gavin isn’t it? Sorry to disturb you and all.’
‘I hope you didn’t mind too much the things I said last night. One likes to be even-handed. That’s what they taught us at the old school, at least.’
‘The old school?’
Rupert settled next to him. He hadn’t moderated his voice, but then none of the other students in the section were refraining from chatting away in any case. ‘Er, yes. I might as well confess that I’m a public-school boy. I’ll just apologise for it right now and get it out of the way.’
‘Oh … Edward VI, Medwardine. Heard of it?’
Gavin grinned slightly to himself. ‘Better than that. A couple of my oldest friends used to go there.’
Rupert looked puzzled. ‘I might know them then.’
‘It was a while back: Henry Atwood and Edward Cornish.’
Rupert’s eyes widened. ‘Surely not. My word! But they left the old place nearly a decade ago. Still remembered, of course. Very well-known in their way. Friends of the king of Rothenia, another old boy of ours.’
‘They’re sorta friends of the family. So … er, how did a Medwardine boy end up in Stevenage.’
Rupert looked undeniably shifty. ‘Oh … a catalogue of accidents. Medwardine’s the family school. I really wanted to go to Oundle where my best friend Wally went.’
‘Wallace, actually. We were very sweet on each other when we were thirteen. But noblesse oblige. My great grandfather, grandfather and father all went to Medwardine, and so I had to go as well when the time came.’
‘He’s the reason I suspect I’m gay. I couldn’t get that boy out of my mind.’
‘But you’ve never … er, I mean, done anything about that sort of thing?’
Rupert shook his head. ‘I can’t get interested in women, but at the same time I can’t find a man I like well enough.’
‘I’m sure one will come along soon.’
Rupert gave a little smile. ‘I shall live in hopes. By the way, did you see that American feller? My word!’
The queue wound round the atrium of the Union, out through the doors and wormed its way across part of the campus. Max, Liam, Neil and Gavin were about halfway along it. They had arrived at seven, only to find the queue already well out of the Union building.
Fortunately, it was a fine Thursday morning in mid-September, the sky blue and the breeze cool, so no one cared too much. Gavin’s friends seemed to know everyone around them, so there was a lot of animated chatter.
Liam gripped his shoulder. ‘Oops! Don’t look, Gav.’
‘Down there coming up the line, dark guy with shades and emo hair.’
‘Well now I am looking!’
‘So that’s Miles.’ Gavin could not help but stare at Max’s ex-boyfriend. Max himself was oblivious, talking to a group of third-year girls behind them. Gavin had to admit to seeing the attraction of Miles. He was shorter than Max, but well-made and athletic. His naturally pale skin complemented the dyed black hair. He dressed with some style too. Gavin guessed his family had money.
What Gavin did not like about Miles was the exaggerated air of self on display. He walked up the line as if it were a catwalk. He seemed to know many of the students he passed, exchanging a cheerful insult with one, a high-five or knuckle-tap with another, and hugging the occasional girl. He was feeding off the self-generated attention. Gavin faintly despised him for it, and then, being Gavin, despised himself for being judgemental.
Miles drew level. Max still had his back to the arrival. Miles gave Liam a playful punch in the shoulder. ‘Hey! Liam, man!’
‘Miles, mate! How was the summer?’
‘Pretty much cool. Parents took a villa in Sardinia.’
Max had turned, looking blank. The two men exchanged stares. Miles broke the silence. ‘Liked you on the cover of Attitude, lover.’
If Max noticed the inappropriate intimacy, he didn’t register it, but just gave a small smile. ‘Miles? How’s you? This is Gavin, my boyfriend.’ He put his arm round Gavin’s shoulder and drew him close.
Miles took off his shades and shot an unreadable glower straight into Gavin’s eyes. Saying nothing, he turned back to Max. ‘I hear you’re running LGBT Soc.’
‘Nah, just social secretary. Gav’s the man. We’re meeting on Tuesdays. Coming?’
‘I’ll see what’s on.’
‘Cool. It’s gonna be a good year. See ya!’
Thus dismissed, Miles moved on up the line, insinuating himself into a group of hockey mates to avoid going right to the back, as Max observed. He hugged Gavin again. ‘He’s a git. Don’t know how I ever fell for him.’
Ever fair-minded, Gavin suggested that good looks and a sense of style might have had something to do with it.
‘Nah. I was young and naive. I know a thing or two about stuff nowadays. Meeting people like Davey and Terry changes ya. Not to mention Henry. Now I can see why ya fell for Henry, Gav. He’s really special … not that you deserve any less.’
‘He wasn’t my first. Before Henry there was this manipulative bastard called Wayne. I kidded myself that I loved him. The thing was, all he wanted was Gavin’s bum. He didn’t really give a toss about Gavin, other than a desire to humiliate him.’
‘You never mentioned him, Gav.’
‘I’ve tried to forget him. But maybe that was a mistake. He’s a reminder of how the desperation to be loved can make fools of us. Henry, Davey and Eddie Peacher all tried to tell me, but I wouldn’t listen. Still, I learned my lesson there, and maybe it was one I had to have pounded into me. By the way, how’s Tommy?’
‘Back to his old bouncy self. He was showing me his new range of black lace underwear.’
‘He showed you?’
‘He was wearing them, high thigh too. It was a bit hot. He knew it was a turn-on for me. He has an all-over tan and shaves himself down there.’
‘He’s a bad boy.’ Gavin laughed, then turned serious. ‘Did you get anywhere with him?’
Max shook his head. ‘You know Tommy, he just joked about it. I did try to get him to open up, but he’s clever. He blocked me.’
‘Queue’s moving. Will I like Live Action?’
‘No idea, Gavness. They look great at least. I like the music. You know I’m a bit of a pop addict.’
‘I loved the Feeling concert we went to in Boston.’
Max laughed. ‘Yeah, but we gate-crashed that one. This gig will cost.’ They passed an advertising pillar close to the Union entrance. Max guffawed. ‘Liam, mate! See what Events has planned for the first big club night?’
‘St Trinians event. Oh fuck. You going?’
‘No way I'd miss the chance of seeing all my straight mates in women’s clothing. Be real! It’ll be a right laugh. Whaddya think, Gav?’
Gavin resisted his first impulse to hide. ‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world,’ he said, almost convincingly
Chris arrived back in the flat as Alasdair was laboriously toiling downstairs to get a coke from the fridge. ‘You been on campus?’
‘Uh-huh. Saw that American guy again. He looks even better in daylight.’
‘He’s a junior-year-abroad exchange student.’
Chris didn’t even bother to speculate how Alasdair had found that out. ‘What’s a junior … thingy?’
‘It means he’s a third-year. Yanks take four years to do a degree; it means their universities make more money out of them. Fortunately, the British government hasn’t cottoned on to that scam yet.’
‘What else do you know?’
‘He’s in hall. The girls are all swooning over him and his four mates. They’re the first batch under a new arrangement we have with Burnett University in New York State. Our International Office sold Stevie to the suckers by pretending it was a London uni.’
‘We have an International Office? What’s Burnett when it’s at home.’
‘It’s Ivy League. I got their website up, wanna look?’
Chris pored over the virtual tour. ‘Jesus! Do you have to be a male model to go there? They’re all fucking hunks.’
‘Chrissie boy, do you do all your thinking with your dick?’
‘Pretty much. It hasn’t got anything else to do.’