‘So, Rothenia?’ Peter was intrigued. ‘You don’t look especially foreign.’
‘I’m Maxim Josep Wladislaw Jamroziak … bit of a giveaway, wouldnya say?’
Gavin pursued the point. ‘His mum and dad left during the Communist years, and he was born in Harpenden. His Uncle Lucasz still lives back in Rothenia.’
‘I’ve got lots and lots of Rothenian cousins.’
‘And they all look like him, boys and girls … cute and curly, ‘cept they actually speak the language.’
‘I can say hello and goodbye and ask where’s the loo. What more can you need?’
‘I can think of one or two things.’
‘Who needs to speak it when I’ve got you, Gavness? You can babble away like a native.’
‘Really?’ asked Peter. ‘How’s that, then?’
‘I have friends there, and I’ve visited a bit. I sorta just picked it up.’
‘Talent for languages, my Gav.’
‘Is that how you two got together?’
‘No. We met here in Stevie. Gav came for … a … a sorta open-day visit. We bumped into each other in the bar.’
‘It was in his post-Miles period. It couldn’t have been better arranged.’
‘This Miles. People have mixed views on him.’
Max topped up Peter’s wine glass. ‘I’m not the best person to ask. He can be fun, and he’s certainly a good-looking guy ...’
‘I wouldn’t trust him as far as I could pee.’
‘Just who would you trust?’
‘Out of the Stevie gays? Dunno. What you looking for?’
Peter took a big, appreciative gulp of Tavelner red, Sainsbury’s best. He was beginning to exhibit a certain freedom from inhibitions. ‘S like this. I want to find a man for me. I don’t care about age or looks. I’ve always daydreamed of a decent, funny blokey who’ll be devoted to me, a guy with whom I can spend my life. I know it can happen. I want it to happen to me.’ Peter surveyed Max and Gavin pointedly as they sat side by side, Gavin’s arm round his lover’s waist.
Gavin unloosed his arm from Max and reached across the table to take Peter’s hand in both his, squeezing it earnestly. ‘It can happen. I hope it does for you, Pete.’
Max continued, ‘But there’s not much raw material here in Stevie. And I’ve done enough of the scene to know you won’t find it there either, babe. The scene’s about gratification and escape. All the friends I value I’ve found elsewhere.’
‘Way of the world, Pete. But patience pays off, believe me.’
‘I want this, really, though you might think me a hopeless romantic.’ Peter brooded for a short while, then perked up. ‘By the way, I had a lecture from a great guy in English today.’
Max smiled, ‘Phil Maddox?’
‘Dr Maddox, yes. He was really good: funny, and he spoke slow enough so I could take notes.’
‘Phil’s the best.’
‘He’s a friend. He’s gay, y’know.’
Peter was startled. ‘What … you and he?’
‘Wash your mouth! Phil’s not like that. He’d never do it with a student, he’s far too ethical a guy. Sides, he’s got his Benny.’
Peter sighed. ‘Another jackpot winner then?’
Gavin laughed a little. ‘Life’s not a conspiracy to make you feel cheated, Pete.’ He was heartened when Peter returned the chuckle.
Max continued, ‘There’s a lesson for you. Although Phil met Benny in a chat-room, instead of being the usual disaster, it turned into true love.’
‘You suggesting a dating site?’
‘Up to you, baby. Their adverts say they work. Still, they would say that, wouldn’t they?’
‘I’ll think about it. I think about very little else.’
Chris ambled through the campus. Near the Union he came upon Rupert sitting on a bench, looking abstracted. He thought of passing by, but there was something odd about the fresher. Settling on the bench he commented, ‘Morning, Rupe. You alright?’
Rupert came back into focus, apparently noticing Chris for the first time. ‘Sorry, what? Oh, it’s Christopher, isn’t it?’
‘Chris. You alright?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘You don’t seem your usual … er … focused self.’
‘I don’t? I slept badly; perhaps that’s it.’
‘You left with that American and Miles. Thought you were going to the club.’
‘Have a good time?’
‘I’m not sure. Miles and Billy danced a lot, and I drank far too much. Parts of last night are rather vague in my memory as a result.’
‘It’s what first-years do, mate. You’ll grow out of it. Most people survive.’
There was no reply. Rupert had retired into himself again.
Chris gave up and shambled off to the campus shop to buy an appropriately obscene birthday card for his younger sister. When he returned by the same route, Rupert had disappeared.
‘It’s like a school outfitters back there.’ Max looked bemused at the piles of serge and Terylene stacked on their bed.
Gavin glanced up from his sociology textbook. ‘Tommy and Neil brought it this afternoon. Tommy said he’s managed to find some uniforms that’ll fit six-footers.’
Max held up a pair of blond plaits. ‘He’s really gone to town on this one. It must be his personal fantasy … all the boys in Stevie go tranny! The hockey and lacrosse sticks are a nice touch.’
‘I thought so too.’
‘Have you tried on yours?’
‘You want me to?’
Max grinned. Gavin raised his eyes. He shrugged off his clothes down to his underpants and went over to a small pile on the sofa. He pulled on white blouse, skirt, school tie and panty hose, found a wig and a hat and then struck a pose.
Max erupted. ‘Gawd! You look so sexy, sweets! No, really! Can I fuck you like that?’
‘You sick boy. We can’t get … stuff on the clothes. Tommy would get into trouble.’
‘Well, just keep the hat and wig on.’
‘Rein yourself in, Max. The gang will be here in an hour. Afterwards maybe.’ They kissed. ‘Now how about you trying these?’
Max grinned and was soon in an identical getup.
‘Who’s a big girl, then? You should shave your legs.’
‘That’s going too far. I don’t actually want to convince anyone that I’m a slutty schoolgirl high on estrogen.’
‘Oh look! Tommy’s given us the necessary padding to counterfeit breasts.’
‘Urgh. No way!’
‘You could try to get more into the swing of things.’
‘Oh, ha ha! Here’re the guys.’
A dozen students of various sexualities rapidly took over the small flat, which very soon was liberally carpeted in discarded male clothing. The air was filled with laughter and some very poor jokes. Beers began circulating from the fridge, and the party shifted into high gear.
Neil shouted, ‘Where’s Tommy?’
‘He said he’d be along later. I’m willing to bet he’s got something really special sorted … probably a prom dress. He never disappoints.’
Liam organised a catwalk for the most convincing girl. With music thumping out, the boys strutted the lounge carpet in turn. To his embarrassment, Gavin won hands down. ‘You’re very petite, sweets, and – be fair – you never have much on your chin to shave in the morning. You sashay nicely too. You been practising?’
‘Am I allowed to tell the man I love to sod off?’
‘Only if you do it charmingly.’
The door opened at that point on Tommy Entwhistle, and all fell silent. ‘You bastard!’ exclaimed Neil.
Tommy was immaculate in boy’s school blazer, white shirt, tie and grey flannels. There was not a trace of makeup or nail paint. His thick blond hair was neatly-barbered and short. He looked like a sixth-former from a public school.
Max was deeply amused. ‘So this is Tommy getting into the spirit of things.’
‘Exactly, Maxxie baby. If you’re all in drag, what else can I do but straighten up as far as nature allows?’
‘You look beautiful,’ Gavin affirmed.
‘You too, Gav. Love the pigtails. Just you. Now where are the falsies up your blouse? Come on, sweetheart, open up for Tommy. Now the lacy bra. There, that wasn’t so hard was it? Look at Liam, he’s stuck a pair of balloons up his front. A bit overdone, but what do you expect from a rugby player’s perception of femininity?’
Taxis arrived as mobile cameras went off, with Tommy hugely enjoying the poses. It was nine by the time they made their way into the crush bar, which was full of male students in drag, and women looking confused.
Gavin and Max moved to the corner. Gavin sipped his coke. ‘Big night! Look at everyone! Peter’s over there. He seems cheerful, and he’s talking to Tommy. That’s nice. But where’s Rupert? No sign of Alasdair, which isn’t surprising.’
‘What is surprising is that Chrissie’s come by himself. That is unusual. His costume stinks … just a tinsel wig and a skirt. Hey! That Yank’s with Miles again. Do ya think something's going on there?’
‘They were pretty close the other night. That’s naff. Neither of them has made an effort. They’re just in casuals.’
‘Well, Billy is new to British universities and student life. He may be unaware quite how much male heterosexuals here just love cross-dressing.’
‘Doesn’t excuse Miles, though, but he never was a team player. Too much up his own arse.’
‘Want another drink?’
‘I see you’re on coke, Gav. There’s something sexy about that drink, know what I mean?’
Gavin and Max convulsed with laughter at a shared intimate memory. Gavin went off and navigated his way through the animated, chattering throng to the bar. He ended up on the other side of Billy from Miles.
‘Hey, little dude-chick!’
‘Er … hi!’
‘You look really cool, Gavin. Nice to see how you Brits get so into these pantomime gigs. Never took y’all for party people, but look at this! Damn shame I left my collection of ball gowns back in Thomasville.’
‘Thomasville? North Carolina? Is that where you’re from?’
Billy surveyed the small man curiously. ‘Yah know the old place?’
‘I know of it, certainly. There’s a Baptist megachurch there, isn’t that right? Wasn’t there a problem with the pastor? Guy called Williams?’
Billy’s stare became concentrated, even a little fierce, and for some reason the back of Gavin’s neck prickled. ‘My dad was … is, an elder there.’ The subject was changed abruptly. ‘You and Max solid?’
‘Do either of you two guys ever play away from home?’ The big American was quite openly looking for sex. Gavin was not used to being hit on, and didn’t like it. He especially didn’t care for the insinuating and sensual grin on Miles’s face as he eavesdropped on the exchange.
Gavin bridled, his voice deepening as he replied with deliberation, ‘We’re committed to each other. Our relationship is an exclusive one.’ The words felt pompous to Gavin when he said them, but there was a hard edge to his voice that couldn’t be missed by either of the pair, though Billy seemed unapologetic and his smile broadened if anything.
‘Sure dude! No offence. But you can’t tell if you don’t ask!’
‘You can’t?’ Gavin collected his drinks and walked back to Max, brooding as he went. There was something odd happening, and Gavin was an authority on oddness. More than that, the exchange had taken him back to his first fresher year and the squalid seduction his inexperience and desire for love had led him into. He was no longer that boy, but it didn't mean he could not be reached by painful memories.
Gavin’s quietness was overlooked by Max, who was having a hilarious time with his straight mates and a party of girls wearing teachers’ gowns and false moustaches. Needing to think, Gavin moved over to Peter and Tommy’s table.
Tommy’s arm pulled him close. ‘Come here, little Gav.’
Gavin sniffed deeply. ‘Ooh, you smell nice!’
‘Well thank you. Pete was saying the same thing only a minute ago. It’s nothing special, just something I stole from my sister’s dressing table.’
‘You have a sister?’
‘She’s twenty-five with twins. I’ve been stealing from her since I dressed up in her skirts and tights when I was nine. She’s pretty sweet about it, usually. But this was something her partner brought back from Dubai, so she was a bit catty with me when she realised.’
Peter’s eye was roving round the big bar. He drew attention to the posters. ‘What’s “The Cage with DJ Pat”?’
‘Before they built the club on campus, student night used to be Thursday at a club in town called “The Cage”. It folded, but DJ Pat moved the event here. Great dance music if you like that sort of thing: Garage-house mostly. Not to everyone’s taste of course.
‘Now me, I prefer electro. You can really move on the floor, and dancing’s so much easier in a dress – men just don’t realise that, y’know. Electro’s usually alternate Saturdays, except when there’s a big event like this gig. There should be something for everyone tonight. But it’ll be a mosh pit in there once the rugby guys get jumping … sweat dripping off the ceiling. They never use enough antiperspirant, poor barbarians.’
‘In that case I may stay out here,’ Peter commented, clearly grossed out.
‘Not a bad decision, Pete, if I may say so. I’m inclined to stay here too. What about you, Gav?’
‘Depends on what Max does. He’s itching to get me on the floor, he says.’
‘But you don’t like dancing much, do you, baby?’
Gavin shook his head. ‘My feet and the music don’t really have much sympathy with each other. Henry was the same.’
‘My former boyfriend.’
‘In school, was it?’
‘No … er, in my last crack at uni. Cranwell.’
‘What? Just a mo, sweetie. Exactly how old are you?’
‘Umm … twenty-seven.’
The other two stared at him, mouths open. ‘Christ! You’re older than my sister! But you look seventeen and that’s on a bad day!’
‘Er … thanks. I think. Must be my genes.’
‘Sweetheart, you can lend me some of them, that’s for sure. I’ve already got wrinkles round my eyes at twenty, despite all the moisturiser.’
Peter was distracted, however. ‘Look at that!’
He pointed across the bar. Billy was leaning against the wall next to Chris, talking close to his ear. Even at that distance, they could see Chris was flustered, his pale face unaccustomedly flushed.
‘What do you think’s going on there?’
Tommy shrugged. ‘Just Chrissie being wound up by the Yank. Or maybe he feels sorry for him.’
Gavin stared hard. To him it seemed Billy was chatting up Chris. Charitable though Gavin tried to be, he couldn’t admire Billy’s taste.
‘That’s not right,’ Peter frowned.
‘Chris does look like a horse’s rear end, that’s for sure. But don’t bother yourself, he’s not cheating on Alasdair. They’re not an item, they just share a flat.’
Peter snapped, ‘That’s not what I meant.’
He got up and left. Tommy and Gavin stared at each other. ‘What was all that about?’
The plague descended in the second week. The first LGBT Tuesday quiz night at the Carne Arms had only second- and third-years present. Apart from Gavin, every first-year had gone down with what Max called ‘fresher’s flu’.
‘See Gav, thing is, they all come to uni stressed out and away from their mums for the first time in their lives, poor dears. They eat badly, drink too much, have sex and exchange germs. The end result is two weeks of runny noses and coughs.’
Tommy, Gavin and Max made up a team. The place was quite full despite the lack of freshers. Ted at the bar was startled to find a dozen students in his lounge. He seemed suspicious, though Gavin had given him some warning.
‘These are all friends of yours, right?’
‘Yes, Ted.’ Gavin had lost his nervousness around his employer. He was even making allowances for the man. There was a certain amount of amusement to be got from conversation with him.
Ted indicated Tommy, who was dressed in quite a restrained fashion for him. ‘That lad there, he’s wearing a girl’s frilly blouse … and is that makeup?’
‘It’s the fashion, Ted, retro-romantic.’
‘If he’s not careful, people’ll think he’s a poof.’
‘I’ll warn him about that.’
‘And those two girls are holding hands.’
‘They do that nowadays. It’s very twenty-first century. Lesbian chic.’
‘That’s what they call it.’
‘Ah well. They’ve bought the quiz sheet and their drinks. They could be real lesbians for all I care.’
As Gavin and his team were puzzling hopelessly over who might have been the winner of the 1970 World Cup, Max observed, ‘Anyone seen Rupert recently?’
‘Not for a week,’ Tommy replied. ‘Rumour round the halls was that he was having it off with a bloke.’
‘Yeah. Making a lot of noise about it in Brinkley, too. The girls on his stair were complaining.’
Tommy called across to Chris and Alasdair, who, with Liam, were having very little problem with questions about eighties pop music, and were revoltingly smug about it. Alasdair acknowledged the rumour. ‘No one knows who, though; they do it late at night, and Rupert won’t talk about it.’
‘How’s Peter?’ asked Chris, a little shiftily, Gavin thought.
‘Red nose and a handful of wet hankies, like all the rest of the first year,’ Gavin replied. ‘I went around with sympathies and apologies for being healthy.’
‘You were talking to that American guy on the St Trinians night disco,’ Chris observed to Gavin.
‘Well … what part of the States is he from?’
‘Didn’t he mention it?’
‘Well … er, no.’
‘You were talking to him for quite a while yourself.’
Chris blushed. ‘It was just stuff he was saying. Telling me about gay life in America. Really hot … incredible, at least in the cities.’
‘He goes to a big university in the north, but he’s from down south.’
Max chipped in. ‘The south? Which part?’
‘North Carolina … Thomasville.’
Max’s eyes narrowed. ‘Thomasville?’
Chris stared from one to the other. ‘What’s up with Thomasville? You been there?’
Gavin exchanged glances with Max. ‘Nothing much. It’s a pretty average city. And yes, I have been there.’
Chris gave a confidential leer. ‘Guys are saying you dropped out of Cranwell when you were eighteen, Gavin. So, er … you did a lot of travelling after that?’
‘You could say. I had a job that took me to places.’
Chris surveyed Gavin. ‘There’s a lot more to you than people guess, mate. You should tell me about it sometime.’
Max shook his head. ‘Chrissie, you wouldn’t believe even a quarter of it.’