This is a further instalment of my long running series of sagas about Matt White and his partner Andy Peacher, and the circle of their friends. This particular story concerns a marginal character in the previous stories, Ben Craven. It chronicles the end of his relationship with Alex Johnson, and the new start in life which he went on to find. It starts gloomy, but gets better. I've tried to keep down the cross references to other episodes in the saga... but not too hard. I hope you'll tolerate those that do creep in. I can't easily let old friends go in life, or in literature.
When Ben thought about it later, it all seemed pretty obvious. First there was the sudden interest in the gym.
'Well, Benny, you can laugh, but I gotta get rid of all this gut. It's OK for you, you never put weight on, you still got the bod you had when we were students, but me, there's nearly twice as much of me now as there was then.'
'That's an exaggeration, Alex. Besides, I like you chunky.'
'You grunt a bit when I get on your back.'
'That's not because of your weight.'
Ben could remember the young Alex, the one he had fallen in love with: the university oarsman, his powerful arms and thighs, his muscular chest. He had to admit that years of business lunches had taken their toll. Alex still had the arms and thighs, but his stomach now hung over his belt. So Ben undertook a revision of their diet, and Alex signed up with a gym.
They lived in a two-bed flat of phenomenal market value in Clerkenwell, not far from Smithfield Market. They had moved back to London from the States five years previously, to discover that property values had gone past the boundary of nonsensical into the land of bizarre fantasy. If it had not been for Alex's stunning new salary as foreign editor of a major national newspaper, they would never have dared even think of taking out a mortgage.
Ben's own contribution to their finances was limited. He had been in publishing since leaving university, yet his own career had not matched Alex's rapid rise to prominence. When Alex had been assigned to Reuter's Washington desk, Ben had been able to engineer a transfer within his firm to its Baltimore office. Unfortunately, the firm had seen no reason to be so obliging when Alex returned to Britain. So Ben began applying for new jobs in London. Eventually he had found something, although it had forced him to take a step back, from commissioning editor to productions editor. He had never caught up.
Ben was good at what he did - methodical and hard-working, a perfect editor. What he lacked was what Alex had in abundance: personality. He was more comfortable in conversation as a listener. He was also a homebody, happier around the place and entertaining friends than in the pub or club. He rarely accompanied Alex on his social engagements.
Alex often came home late and was frequently away. Ben could put up with that simply because all his soul was fixed on the man he had come to love fully and trustingly.
The second thing Ben recognised in hindsight as a warning was Alex's increasingly late-night browsing online. Ben would go to bed at eleven, and it became all too frequent for Alex not to join him till much later. Since he was often asleep by then, Ben would have no idea when that familiar body tilted the bed.
Ben and Alex's sex life had run the usual course. They rutted endlessly in the heat of their first love, sometimes never leaving the bed for days. Alex's stamina had been awesome. As time passed they settled down, occasionally experimenting but steadily fucking away through their mid-twenties. Then things had slowed. The attraction of an early night was occasionally more seductive than getting all sweaty and sticky. Or perhaps they were out late and too tired. And, of course, Alex was often away.
Ben Craven should have seen it coming.
Alex really got into the gym. He acquired a trainer and, between the regime and the new diet, watched his weight fall away. His face took on its old firmness and he went back to clothes he hadn't been able to wear in the past five years. Maybe he would never again have a six-pack as Ben still did, but Alex's belly had regained definition. Despite the renewed physique, however, he seemed no more interested in sex with Ben than their usual once a week. Ben was a little hurt, but he was trusting and believed that, if there was an issue, Alex would eventually talk about it.
Ben took to the Internet when Alex was out, as often happened. He tried chat rooms, but found them confusing. Besides, the codes and the aggression of the users made him nervous.
Browsing gay sites one day, he came across a forum on gay books and writers. He couldn't resist checking out the threads and found a lot to read and amuse, especially as his firm published one or two of the authors who were being discussed. When he started chipping in, he soon found himself in deep discussion with several other members. As weeks passed, a couple of them became e-friends who exchanged mails off the forum and directly with him.
He began to wonder if he should suggest they meet up. Still, Max was in Boston and Phil was sufficiently evasive about his home that Ben did not want to push a sensitive topic. Why should these guys trust him anyway?
Ben was lonely and anxious, and getting lonelier and more anxious. He dropped hints to Alex about taking a holiday. He was even willing to go somewhere sunny, which he knew his lover preferred. Alex smiled and said it was to think about, but the subject was not renewed.
They talked less at home. There had been a time when Ben would cuddle into Alex on their sofa and they would chat endlessly about nothing in a way that would have surprised those who thought they knew Ben. Now when Ben found Alex flicking through the channels on their TV and took the seat by him, Alex would often as not get up and go off to do something else.
That treatment only added to Ben's confusion and hurt. He was desperate to unburden himself to someone, yet there was no one at work who would listen. Alone in the flat again that night, he cast around to think of which friend he could trust to talk it through.
Such was Ben's dependence on Alex for his social life that he had few real friends of his own, the sort you know would not be embarrassed to deal with things of the heart. Ben sat ticking them through, and in the end could only come up with one name: Matthew.
This was unfortunate. Ben had had a student crush on Matt, and had never grown out of the fixation. Matt was beautiful, gay, and totally untouchable. He was also difficult to get hold of, running a substantial independent media company and travelling incessantly. But Ben did at least have one secret weapon. He had also been at university with Matt's PA, Dave Evans.
Ben picked up the phone and dialled. A Welsh accent lilted at him. ''Lo, Matt White's office.'
'Oh... er, Dave?'
'Yeah, who's this?'
'It's me... Ben Craven.'
'Oh... Benny boy. Bit late innit? Don't hear much from you. How you doin'?'
'Fine, er... I was wanting to contact Matt.'
'Our Matt is somewhere in Aussieland at the moment, mate, between Melbourne and Sydney on a promo tour. Is it an emergency or something?'
'No, I just wanted to fix up to meet.'
'You and Alex looking for a dinner date, or something?'
'No, no... just me. I, er... wanted to talk.'
The silence on the other end of the line made Ben acutely aware of how his last evasion must have sounded. He also remembered that Dave had split up from his own relationship two years before.
'I can pencil you in when Matt gets back next week, Benny. Tuesday evening after work, alright?'
'Yeah, sure,' Ben mumbled.
'But if you'd rather, I'm on my own here in this bloody big house, and up for a pint... if you'd like.'
'That's, er ... kind... thanks. Some other time, Dave, OK?'
There was what sounded to Ben like a disappointed sigh, followed by, 'That'll be good. You got my number, anytime, yeah?'
Philip Maddox logged off his favourite forum and closed his laptop. He took a deep breath. This was getting compulsive. What was he doing?
He started sorting his worktable, putting books back in their proper places on the shelves. He checked his desk diary: Second week of term and four lectures to give next week, as well as six seminars. He was still a junior member of his department, and got dumped on for teaching and administration. But there was nonetheless a thrill in having an academic job in a reasonably good department, being able to talk about 'my students,' and 'my modules'. Then there was the relief of a monthly paycheque. Stability. He had it at last, along with the career he wanted.
He called downstairs, 'Coffee, love?'
Karen shouted back from in front of the TV, 'Coffee'll be great.'
With Karen's new job in a primary school, things were looking up financially. Last summer there had been a foreign holiday, the first time they had been able to afford it. Even if it was only a budget break in Eastern Europe, it involved flights, hotels and hired cars.
He clinked mugs around their small kitchen while gazing absently out on to their tiny back garden. They had finally got on the property ladder with a decent little semi on a Barratt estate in a Hertfordshire commuter town. For over a year now, Phil and Karen had been a proper middle-class couple. She took the Clio to school. He commuted by rail to his job at the University of Stevenage (formerly Stevenage Polytechnic, as his envious and as yet unemployed friends invariably said).
He should have been happy. His parents were finally seeing a return on their tolerance and subsidies, and could boast that Philip was a university lecturer.
But Phil was not happy. There was the sex thing. Karen had never been hugely keen on intercourse. They found no passion in their coupling and never had. They did sex because it was what a couple did. Once she had her job, they did it with increasing infrequency.
Phil found he did not care that much. And this was the big thing. He had always known he had an attraction to men, but he had put himself down as bisexual, able to choose to operate with either sex. Of course, he'd never had the nerve to make a pass at a man, even when he was drunk.
Then one night, more than usually frustrated, he had ventured on to the Net looking for the sites he knew were there. Searching for 'gay sex' produced a stunning number of hits and bombarded him with an entirely new vocabulary, the significance of which took him several weeks to work out.
Phil also learned that some sites were astoundingly dangerous to open. He made sure his firewall was heavily reinforced against adware and spyware, after the first disaster could only be retrieved with a system restore.
It was the story sites that he gravitated to in the end, not surprisingly, as he was a lecturer in English. The quality was patchy, to say the least, but he was intrigued to find some quite serious and accomplished writers posting - when he thought about it, where else would they publish? Gay stories were too small a niche for mainstream publishers to make money out of. There was little point in building up a specialised list.
What hooked Phil were a number of chat sites and message boards where he could talk about these stories to guys who he imagined were gay... like he was, he was beginning to say in his head. For it was increasingly clear to him that it was men alone now who stirred him.
Perhaps they always had. He remembered as a boy how the smooth marble buttocks of male nude classical statues had caught his attention. He remembered staring covertly at other boys and young men on the beach and in the pool. All those things had been tugging at his libido, but he had resisted and joined with the heterosexual majority.
Now things were rebounding on him with a vengeance. The more he chatted openly about gay desires and gay subjects, the more he found himself staring at other men and wondering what it would be like to couple with them - and the gay fiction he was reading told him precisely how to do it. On those rare occasions when he had sex with Karen, he only got off by imagining he was covering a male body, his penis buried in that hot, tight place the stories mentioned.
He wished he could discuss it all with his correspondents on the Web, but he was very cautious about revealing personal details. Besides, they were supposed to talk about stories, not themselves.
There was an increasing head of steam in Phil to want to do something about his urges. He knew there was one particular website where you could arrange sex. But how could he dare to lose his gay virginity in such a way? To tell a cruiser that 'this is my first time' would be so feeble. Perhaps he should join a gym. Maybe some guy would give him the eye and they would hook up... maybe.
Then his head lurched again. He was scheming about cheating on Karen. This was bad. Where had his sense of morality gone? He should be thinking about ways to revitalise their relationship, not sidestep it.
The crisis broke before Tuesday, and in a particularly old-fashioned way. Ben was tidying Alex's discarded clothes. He had picked up from the floor Alex's personal organiser: 'The most disorganised organiser in the known galaxy,' Alex liked to call it. The strap popped as he held it and several cards dropped out. They were all from Alex's gym. They had male names and mobile numbers scribbled on the backs in a variety of handwritings and colours. Ben was suddenly aware that he was looking at the end of his relationship, or at least his relationship as he knew it.
Alex had been in the shower and entered towelling his hair just as Ben was staring at the cards. Ben looked up mutely to see shock, guilt and - worst of all - determination chase fleetingly in turn across his lover's face.
'We gotta talk, Benny. Sit down. I'll get some pants on.'
So, still mute, Ben sat on their sofa. He was acutely aware of noises outside their flat: the rumbling of a lorry, the shouting of early Saturday revellers, the overhead moan of passenger jets, all those London noises he was so used to he never heard them.
Alex had always been the leader in their relationship. It looked as if he was going to be the first out of it as well. 'Yes, Benny, it's what you think.'
'You've been cruising the gym... and these men ...'
'It happens, Benny. It happens.'
'Cos I've found that I can't keep it in my pants, baby. I need to get it off with other blokes. It's not you, it's the way I am.'
'When did it begin?'
'Once the weight came off. I started getting the eye and blokes made passes... I found I couldn't resist the thrill. It made me feel good to be lusted after.'
Ben looked at the powerful body next to him, and realised what was being said to him. 'You want us to carry on... with you having sex with these other men, as if it doesn't matter?'
'It doesn't, baby. It's just sex. There's only one Benny.'
'But we've been having unprotected sex!' A spot of red appeared on Ben's pale cheeks.
'Hey! I've been careful. Always worn condoms.'
'When were you going to tell me this?' Ben was coming out of shock and heading into new territory for him: resentment.
'I'm telling you now. I was going to... it was just too difficult.'
'Well that should have given you a clue. You knew it would hurt me.'
'Yeah, well I guess. Let's put it on hold for a day or two.'
Ben was confused, hurt and, deep below, experiencing a build-up of anger like magma seeping into a chamber under a volcano. He had to get out. He slipped on his shoes while Alex sat and watched, grabbed his coat and left without a word, though he heard something that sounded like pleading behind him. He headed towards the market and wandered down to Farringdon. Fortunately, his Oyster card was in his wallet, so tube travel was an option.
He sat on an evening train north to King's Cross, alternately blaming himself and Alex, and on the verge of tears. One or two late commuters eyed him oddly. He found his way to the Northern line and got out, naturally enough, at Highgate.
The streets were darkening now as he walked slowly up to Matt's house. Ben knew to take a side lane round the back where a light was on in the converted garage which was Dave's office and small flat. Once it had been Dave and Steve's, but Steve had moved on and now lived in South London. Ben had never known why.
He pressed the outside door buzzer.
Dave answered, looking surprised and, when he saw the expression on Ben's face, a little apprehensive. 'So the worst happened, did it, Benny?'
Ben nodded, suddenly aware that there were tears on his cheeks.
Dave took him by the arm and sat him in the downstairs office. 'Get you a coffee, OK? Or something stronger, maybe?'
At university, Ben had never been particularly close to Dave, with whom he had only talked fitfully since. At the moment, though, it seemed Dave was the only sounding board available.
Dave placed a cup in front of Ben, where it was ignored. Looking through the steam at Ben, he commented, 'So he's been cheating on you, yeah?'
Ben nodded silently.
'Won't be the first or the last, Benny. What you gonna do?'
'I have no idea... none at all. He says he wants us to carry on. But how can I? He says the sex with other guys means nothing... but I think it does. I always supposed he wanted to be mine and I could be his.'
'Steve did much the same, though being Steve, he told me he was going to do it before he started.'
Ben looked up. 'Really?'
'He said he couldn't get enough of it with me... funny, cos my arse always used to satisfy him, but I suppose he got hit on a lot, and - well - I'm nobody's dreamboat, am I?'
Dave was slim, dark and bespectacled, and, as he said, nothing special physically.
'Now you, Benny, you're quite another case. There'd be lots of guys out there pretty keen to get in your pants. You're as good-looking now as you were when you were twenty. Alex is a nutter to let someone like you go. You'll have no trouble finding a guy.'
Ben sighed. 'Dave, I'm not looking for someone. I don't want to lose Alex at all!'
'Point is, butty boy, he wants to lose you. This isn't going to go away. It's his conscience that's keeping you together... that and maybe the mortgage.'
Ben began to remember why he had never been terribly fond of Dave Evans. Dave always had to say what was on his mind, with little beating about the bush. Unfortunately it rang true. 'When's Matt back?'
'Tuesday morning. You can stay here tonight, Benny. Mrs Atkinson's already got the house warmed up and ready for guests.'
'No, I'll go back home. I've got to face this.'
'I'm so sorry, Benny, I really am.'
Ben nodded mutely, and left.
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