Thinking back to his King’s Cross days, Gavin had put on black trousers and a white shirt. He even had a black tie in his pocket if it were needed. The manager of the Carne Arms, Ted, didn’t seem to notice the thoughtfulness. In fact, he didn’t seem to notice much at all.
‘See, thing is, Gareth, all yer pubs today gotta be gay friendly.’ He was explaining the rainbow flag hanging behind the bar. ‘People sorta expect it. Yer gay pub’s gotta reputation for being interesting and sorta chatty-like, and people appreciate that.’
He beamed around at his half-empty lounge, mostly populated by solitary regulars and little old married couples in their sixties and seventies. Gavin wondered absently if any of them were little old transvestites.
‘Now course, if any of yer gays came in ‘ere, or even lesbians, we’d make ‘em very welcome.’ Ted did not seem to register that Gavin was in fact a gay man. ‘I think we did have a gay couple last week … well, two sorta smart-looking blokes drinking together anyways. Course they didn’t kiss or hold hands or anything. I mean if they had it would have been a clue. Though I would have had to tell ‘em to get a room like. Can’t have the regulars upset.’
Gavin got on with his job. The pub retail trade seemed to have drifted into the doldrums since he had last worked in it, not that the King’s Cross had been in any way typical. One change he did approve of was that nowadays any smoking was only allowed outside the front door, on a patio protected by big umbrellas and heated by gas burners.
Though smartly done out, the Carne Arms was not hugely busy for a Friday night, which Gavin remembered as being hectic in the old days. When he observed that young people were not in evidence, Ted muttered about them preferring the town-centre ‘dives’. The Carne Arms did a trade in food, however, and that seemed to make some difference. Gavin had to learn the menu and pass orders to the kitchen.
Gavin had a work ethic, and was polite and prompt when someone came to the bar, allowing Ted to gossip interminably with a couple of regulars at the far end. He was not rushed off his feet, although the trade was reasonably steady. He even made attempts to chat to some of the customers, but his evident nervousness seemed to put them off.
He did his shift, washed up and stacked the furniture for the cleaners. It was well past midnight when he left. He decided to walk home, even though it was four miles. Fortunately Gavin was fit and light-framed, so it took him only an hour.
He found the hall light on but Max sound asleep. Gavin stood in the bedroom door, his heart swelling at the sight of Max’s tousled head, curls in his eyes, mouth slightly parted. Gavin stayed there for all of twenty minutes, just gazing at his lover and blessing his luck. Then he shed his clothes and snuggled in, pushing his cold little butt into the warmth of Max’s crotch. Arms crept around him and kisses lightly pressed into his neck, though Max was not really awake. So, surrounded by affection and enjoying a moment of blissful happiness, Gavin joined his lover in sleep.
Chris stumbled out to the Polish corner shop at midday on Saturday. They needed milk, and he couldn’t be bothered trekking to Tesco, no matter milk was cheaper there. As he was heading towards the counter, wondering what SKLEPY GROSIK meant, he found himself confronted by a familiar face. His memory engaged. It was a first-year who had turned up at the LGBT launch meeting. The Welshman. What was his name?
‘Lo,’ the boy whispered, glancing at Chris’s face before looking away hastily.
‘Yeah,’ replied Chris, turning away himself. He joined the short queue, and waited indifferently as an old lady had difficulties with her card. He was aware of the Welsh guy behind him, particularly when bumped by a basket mainly full of pot noodles.
Chris shifted and said, ‘No problem.’ The boy was ordinary-looking and skinny, with mousy hair over his ears. He simply did not want to meet Chris’s eyes. ‘Name’s Chris.’
‘You were at the social.’
‘Er … yeah.’
‘You were talking to Jammy’s little bloke.’
The boy looked deeply puzzled. ‘Er … Jammy? Sorry.’
The penny dropped. ‘Oh, right … yeah … Gavin.’
‘Gavin. That’s his name. Seemed a bit of a prat.’
The Welsh boy stared directly at Chris, his eyes almost flaming with anger. He stalked away without a word, pot noodles and all.
For some reason Chris blushed red with embarrassment, though he was a lordly third-year and the other was a mere insect of a fresher. Why did this always happen? Why couldn’t he make friends with anyone, gay or straight? He trudged miserably back to his flat and Alasdair.
His friendship with his flat-mate puzzled him. The two of them had hit it off in the first year when they met at the foundation meeting of Stevie’s LGBT Society. Perhaps they had realised even then that they were both doomed to loveless and sexless student years. Alasdair had taken refuge in eating while he … Chris knew he had erected his own barriers against disappointment and rejection. He had lost something in life and was beginning dimly to sense it. His fear of what he was becoming half stifled him. He knew it could have been different.
Gavin had no laptop of his own, so he used Max’s. That Saturday morning, they were sitting round the dining-room table staring hopelessly at the screen.
There was a slight edge of panic in Gavin’s voice. ‘My mind’s gone blank. How are we going to fill in this programme?’
Max shook his head. ‘No, this is on me, Gav. I’m social secretary. I’m not thinking this out properly. Tuesdays, right? Hang on, let’s get on the web. This pub you’re working at, what happens there on Tuesday?’
‘Er … pub quiz.’
‘Well there you are. We can fill in at least a couple of evenings with a quiz night at the well-known, gay-friendly Carne Arms.’
‘Ted will be pleased.’
‘That’s irony, right?’
‘Fraid so. The Carne Arms is a bit off the beaten track for Stevie students. It’s a long bus ride.’
‘Just needs organisation. We can use the Union minibus. Liam and Neil have got licences.’
Gavin gave his small smile. ‘I love you.’ He thought a moment, then added, ‘Quiz night’s a good start. We do need a big idea though, something to put LGBT on the map and rally the troops.’
‘Agreed. But what?’ He absently took up and tapped the folder holding their Live Action tickets on the table. Then he paused. ‘Oh my God! I’ve got it.’
‘Hope it’s curable.’
‘Sorry. Got what?’
‘The big idea. Where’s my mobile?’ Max found an address, called it up, then started talking. ‘Yeah s’me! Love you too, babes. He’s great. Aren’t you great, Gav? He’s nodding. You still managing Live Action? Yeah, well they’re playing a gig at Stevie in a fortnight, and you can do me, Gav and the Stevie LGBT a very big favour which won’t cost you a thing.’
Gavin was intrigued. ‘That Davey?’
‘Yeah, and he’s helping!’
‘You’re nervous again.’
‘Can’t help it, Jamminess, it’s my natural state.’
‘I keep on feeling guilty cos I talked you into this.’
‘You didn’t. It was all my own idea. I was a victim of my own sense of being responsible for the universe.’
‘Well okay … did I mention you look like the cutest society president that ever was?’
‘No, but you can if you want.’
‘You’re the cutest society president that ever was.’
‘Thanks. I feel ready for anything now, even Chris and Alasdair.’
‘You may not see Alasdair again. We have no more crisps. So, you start the meeting, Gav, and introduce me, and I’ll run through the programme …’
‘… and ask the members if they have other ideas.’
‘Sure, sure. Be presidential.’ Max stretched and checked his watch, a really nice Fossil with rainbow strap that Gavin had bought him for his birthday. ‘Bet I know who’ll be here first.’
‘No, cos you obviously have fixed this up.’
‘Correct, Gavness mine. And here they are.’
‘Liam! Neil! Is there something you haven’t told me?’
Liam pecked Neil nicely on the cheek. ‘No. You’ve been watching too much Hollyoaks, Gav. Tell him, Neil.’
‘It’s like this, Mr Pres. Jammy suggested our campus form a Pride Alliance for straight students to show solidarity, and so here we are, your first two auxiliaries in the never-ending struggle against prejudice. I’m up for the fight for Tommy to wear whatever he chooses, providing the colours don’t clash. And talking of …’
‘Lo, friends.’ Tommy was in a tee-shirt and ra-ra skirt, which made the most of his hairless, tanned and elegant legs; there was a flash of pink knicker. He had a shoulder bag and for once was wearing lipstick and eye shadow, but no wig.
‘Makeup?’ commented Gavin.
Tommy posed with one hand on hip. ‘I thought someone would notice. Sorry to shock, just checking the effect.’ He shot an unfathomable glance at Max.
‘Perhaps you can put some chairs out, then,’ Gavin suggested.
Rupert came in, followed by a new pair of first-year boys, hand-in-hand and clearly excited to be out and gay. Mina and Carole brought another lesbian pair. When Chris and Alasdair arrived the room looked tolerably full. Still, Gavin was disappointed to see no Peter Lewis.
The meeting began, and Gavin grew in confidence as the other students became engaged with his agenda. The Pride Alliance was approved with enthusiasm, leading Neil and Liam to go round shaking everyone’s hand.
Mina undertook to handle web-page maintenance. Gavin produced the affiliation documents to register as an LGBT branch of the National Union of Students. There was an intense discussion regarding whether someone would have to participate at national level, and who would pay if they did.
At that point there was a stir by the door, and the American appeared again. Had he been alone Gavin would not have cared, but he came in with Miles.
Everyone stared. ‘Hey! Sorry to be late again, guys! My bad.’
Gavin pulled himself together. ‘Hello. Welcome to LGBT Soc. I’m Gavin, and we’ll all get to know each other soon, I’m sure.’
‘Great! The name’s Billy here! Nice ta meet y’all.’ The American’s accent was southern. He took a chair and, though he subsided into smiling silence, his presence somehow troubled the room. Miles sat next to him, grinning straight into Gavin’s face.
Gavin would not be put off. ‘Max, over to you as social secretary.’
‘Hi guys! We want to get everyone together once a week, for which I’ve sketched out a programme. Mina will put it up on our site: that’s www.stevenage.ac.uk/union/lgbt. Check it out. The Union tech guy has already set up the page for us. It’s sorta cool. Anyways, we wanna do a regular pub-quiz night. There’s a place out towards Potters Bar which has a Tuesday quiz and is gay friendly.
‘We gotta viewing of Beautiful Thing in three weeks in the Humanities film suite. Popcorn and hankies laid on. Last Tuesday of October, club night in Covent Garden. We’ve gotta van lined up, and the Pride Alliance – that’s Neil to you – will drive us down. But the big one – pause for fanfare here, people! – the big one is in two weeks on Thursday.’
Miles groaned. ‘That’s Live Action night. Is there anyone on campus who isn’t going?’
Max leaned back and his grin widened. ‘I know that. Point is, LGBT Soc has backstage passes for the concert.’
‘Fuck!’ Half the society had leaped to their feet. Rupert looked around puzzled, as Tommy joyfully embraced and kissed him amidst a cloud of perfume. Miles’s mouth sagged.
‘How did ya …!’ yelled Chris.
Max looked very smug at the reaction. ‘Gavin’s got contacts. We used them.’
Billy chipped in. ‘Is this, like, for everyone in the society? Awesome! You’re one cool dude, Gavin.’ The American’s dark eyes regarded him warmly.
Gavin blushed. ‘Of course, it’s only for LGBT members. The handlers will have a list and you’ll need serious ID. But everyone who signs up tonight will be eligible.’
Alasdair cackled. ‘I foresee a sudden rash of comings-out when this news gets round. Straights’ll wanna be gay for the day!’
Max snorted. ‘Only those people here tonight at our inaugural meeting qualify, and that’s a fact.’
The pride of Stevenage University Student Union was its suite of bars and genuine, fully-fitted night club. Not only did this cut down the inevitable Thursday night incidents between students and Stevenage townies, it also helped with student recruitment and made a tidy profit. After the LGBT Soc meeting broke up in excitement, the members drifted over to the nearest bar, where they filled the sofas and clamoured at the student staff.
Tommy was dancing to the piped music, rather gracefully, Gavin thought. He even stopped to kiss and hug Gavin, and laughingly whirled him a few steps. ‘You’re great!’ he whispered in Gavin’s ear. Gavin’s ready blush flooded his cheeks.
Max brought drinks over to the table Gavin had occupied with Mina and Carole. Squeezing his lover's knee he commented, ‘Great meeting, Gav. LGBT Soc is well and truly launched.’
The girls smiled and agreed. Carole observed that there was a good representative mixture of sexualities already enrolled. Mina produced a digital camera and began snapping shots for the web page. Tommy did some outrageous poses with Alasdair.
‘I wish Peter Lewis had turned up,’ sighed Gavin. ‘He seemed quite keen initially. I hope he’s alright.’
‘Give him a shout, sweets.’
Gavin nodded and rang Peter’s mobile. He got voice mail, and left a hesitant little message. It was all he could do, but it was at least something. He had liked the Welsh boy, and hoped Peter had the makings of a real friend.
Max’s cheerful shout in his ear brought Gavin round. ‘Tommy, come over here!’
Their cross-dressing friend strolled up. Settling down on the proferred knee and draping himself round Max’s neck, he smiled at Gavin. ‘I love your boyfriend.’
Gavin chuckled. ‘I’m quite keen on him myself.’ He rode the moment and took a chance. ‘Tell me, Tommy, is it boys or girls that set you off?’
Tommy frowned. ‘Why do you want to know? Max was at me too.’
Max hugged Tommy tight. ‘It’s cos we love you right back, sweetheart. So come on, baby, we want a straight answer.’
‘Straight? Wish I could oblige. Fact is, I don’t know. Isn’t that odd? I mean, I think about sex a lot, and with all sorts of people.’
‘Men and women both?’
Tommy reluctantly nodded.
‘So er … why don’t you …?’
‘Do something about it? It’s all too complicated, Jammy. Can we leave it out?’
‘Sure, sure, baby. Didn’t want to upset you.’
‘Not upset.’ Tommy pecked Max’s cheek, and left to get a drink. Gavin and Max exchanged shrugs.
Chris and Alasdair had occupied a side table with Rupert. Alasdair was intrigued by the first-year boy. ‘So you went to public school … Medwardine.’
‘And your parents were okay with your coming to Stevie? You’re probably the first toff ever to have registered as a student here.’
‘Toff? Alasdair, I’m just one of you fellows, really.’
‘Pull the other one, mate. Your people must be well off to have put you through Medwardine.’
‘Can we please talk about something else?’
Alasdair noticed the distinct increase of tension in the boy. ‘Sure. What did yer do for A Levels, Rupe?’
‘Rupe? Is that my nickname?’
‘Only if you want … what did they call you in Medwardine?’
‘How unoriginal. So, your subjects?’
‘Latin, Greek, German and Rothenian.’
‘Big on languages, aren’t you?’
‘Yes, and that was the problem. Not wanting to do Classics at degree level, I applied for Slavonic languages at London and Cambridge. But there was a slight disaster with the exams, and I got an E in Rothenian.’
‘It’s a family thing. My grandmother’s people came from there. I like the language and can speak it well enough, but the literature floored me.’
‘So how did you end up in Stevie?’
‘I put all my eggs in one basket, and there were no fall-back plans. So, rather than hang around at home I explored the clearing options. The English department here took me, even though I don’t have an English A Level. It seemed a bit odd to me, but they said I could do catch-up modules. So far they haven’t materialised, however.’
It was Chris’s turn to satisfy his curiosity; it went in an unsurprising direction. ‘So what was it like being gay in a boys’ public school … hot, yeah?’
Rupert gave a look as if he’d found Chris under a stone. ‘I take it you read a lot of Internet fiction?’
‘It was not what you might imagine … Christopher. Besides, to be perfectly honest, I’m not entirely sure I am gay. The label does not quite seem to fit me.’
Chris was mechanically assessing Rupert’s desirability. He was average height, well-proportioned and sandy-haired. His face was a bit pointed and … well, bland. He was certainly fuckable, if he was that way inclined. Unfortunately, Chris had never yet got to the point of edging another man towards bed, so that possibility was very much a non-issue.
The bench creaked beside him. ‘Guys! Y’all must be Chris and Alasdair, yeah? And who’re you, hun?’
Rupert gazed at the vision of masculine desirability which had just settled next to him, and stammered out his name.
Billy gave him a smile that made him feel as if he was being hosed down with warm water. ‘You’re cute, and so-o-o-o British. Let me get you a beer, or whatever. Chris baby, here’s some of your Brit money, go get yourself one too.’
Much to his own surprise, Chris took the twenty-pound note, listened to the orders and trotted off to the bar. He found, as others too would soon discover, that it was difficult to refuse Billy anything.
‘Hey, Peter!’ Gavin called across one of the many campus courtyards.
Peter Lewis turned and smiled shyly. ‘Lo, Gavin.’
‘We missed you at LGBT Soc last night.’
‘Bet you did.’ The boy’s unhappiness was all too evident.
Gavin knew how to offer affirmation, however. ‘We really did. Don’t be silly.’ He took the Welsh boy’s arm and guided him determinedly towards the Humanities coffee bar. ‘There’re things you need to know about this semester, so come along with me.’
Peter gave an encouraging little laugh. ‘Yes, Mr President.’
They got their drinks and found a quiet corner of the shop, away from the wide-screen TV playing sports channels.
Gavin filled Peter in on the arrangements and made him promise to look at the LGBT Soc website. Peter was lukewarm about the big news. ‘Don’t much like ‘em really. Bit too poppy for me. I’m more yer indie type.’
Gavin only had a vague understanding of contemporary music tribalism, so he let it go. ‘How have things been so far?’
Peter shrugged. ‘Alright. It’s not like you expect, is it? It’s hard meeting new people. But at least it’s not Ton-yr-Nant.’
‘Seen anyone you like?’
Peter snuffled a little. ‘A couple. But one was spoken for, and the other turned out to be a total shit.’
Wishing he hadn’t asked, Gavin decided not to go there. ‘Will you be at Events night on Saturday?’
‘The St Trinians night? Geroff! I mean … it’s bad enough being queer. I have to dress as a girl?’
‘We’re all going … even Rupert. Come on, Pete. It’ll be fun, honest. Me and Max will help you with the stuff.’
‘Well … I dunno.’
‘Please come. Some of us are meeting first at Max’s and my place.’
‘Where do you get girls’ clothes?’
‘Tommy’s the expert, needless to say. He’s got a network of girlfriends happy to contribute, and they know other girls outside uni whose wardrobes are full of old uniforms. The main trouble is size, but you and I are smaller than average, so we’re no trouble. Max, on the other hand … The fancy dress shops are a dead loss.’
‘Okay … I suppose.’
‘Good. Come round tonight, me and Max would love to see you. It must be boring in hall.’
Peter’s smile reappeared. ‘I’d like that. What time?’
‘Come for some dinner at six. It’s Max’s Rothenian goulash. It’s surprisingly good. And we can watch Hollyoaks.’
‘I love Hollyoaks.’
‘Somehow I knew you would.’