After Alex

III

By Michael Arram

Somehow the imminent arrival of Matthew White put Ben on edge. There was no real reason why it should, but it did. In part, Ben knew that it was because part of him was still starry-eyed and in love with the man. He had followed Matt around like a puppy when he was twenty, and Matt had been the first person he had confessed his gayness to.

Then there was the matter of the beauty. Ben had retained his youthful good looks. His long and tangled blond hair framed a regular and fine oval face, pale but definitely interesting. His hesitancy and natural reserve alone stood in the way of Ben being undeniably hot.

But Matthew had been seraphically beautiful as a student, adored by all who came into contact with him, and he had moved even beyond that in beauty as he matured. His was one of those faces which defied time. He had been perfectly unaware of his looks as a teenager, and though fame and a media career had long ago brought his beauty to his own attention, still there was a quality of unregarding ordinariness about Matt which endeared him to those he talked to, even if his intelligence and perfect looks kept people at a distance.

Matt dropped his bags in the hall and shouted out as soon as he got through the door. Ben emerged from the downstairs rear lounge and was enveloped straight away in his friend's strong embrace. God, it felt good, and Ben melted into Matt's arms, clasping him back hard. He felt a kiss on his cheek, and then was being rocked. 'Poor baby,' he heard whispered in his ears, and didn't feel patronised, only loved.

Snuggled into Matt on the sofa, with the TV muted, and his arm round Ben's shoulder, Matt drew the story out of him.

'Oh Ben,' he said when it was over, 'what a crap way to end it all. You remember graduation day, when Alex came out as a gay, and confessed he loved you?'

'How could I ever forget it.'

'It was a great day. We were young and happy and the whole world was in front of us. You two were gorgeous together. Why do we have to change?'

'You and Andy haven't.'

'Oh, we have. We're not now what we were then. But we grew together, while you two have grown apart. Are you angry at Alex?'

Ben thought about it. 'No... I'd like to be, but I'm just too empty. Will it help?'

'In the short run maybe, but anger's something else you'll need to get over. If you ever get into it that is. But you've never been an anger person, have you?'

'Well... no, not really.' Ben wondered if Matt, like Amanda, was trying to tell him something. Ben was a quiet and reserved man, some might even say repressed. Alex was noisy, humorous and florid. People always said of them that opposites attract, and the more salacious hinted that Ben must be something in bed to keep Alex's attention. Their sex life had been good, Ben knew that to be true, but maybe he had not given Alex the mental spark he needed, maybe that's why he had lost interest.

There I go, he thought, blaming myself. But I was not the cheater, I was the cheated on. Yet Ben had that sort of remorseless mind which pursued questions endlessly. It was what made him a good editor. It was never going to make him a happy man. He was beginning to be tired of himself.

'Terry's asked me to go down to Cranwell with him on Saturday.'

'If it'll take your mind off things, you should go. When were you last there?'

'Only once since graduation, and then just passing through.'

'Terry keeps up a nice flat there, so he can visit his mum and dad but not have to stay with them. It means he can roger his Davey without thinking about the noise they make.'

'They're an interesting couple.'

Matt laughed. 'You mean an unlikely one. Davey's seven years younger than Terry, but they work together well. They're as much a business partnership as a couple, and the boy is very beautiful, queen of the London scene. He's running three clubs for Terry now, one gay and two straight, or straightish. He's also managing a couple of the new Brit bands: he discovered Live Action when he was with them at university. Terry's empire continues to grow, where will it all end?'

'And you, Matt? What about your empire?'

Matt laughed again. 'Mine's more like a cosy paternalistic dukedom by comparison. But you know the media business, Benny. It's all about intellectual fashions and watching the market. At the moment we're doing alright, and we've got a reputation for quality. Unlike Terry, I don't want to go as far as I can. I do what I like, and as long as I like what I do, I'll keep going.'

'Then there's the modelling...'

'It's been months since the last shoot. I don't go looking for it.'

'... and the media fame.'

'That's just the boyfriend thing, you know that.'

'How is Andy?'

The gentle angelic smile took possession of Matt's face. Probably he didn't even know he was smiling. It was simply that the name of his partner just triggered it off. 'He'll be back at the weekend. He sends his love.'

Andy and Ben had both lusted after Matt at university, but Andy had never resented Ben's interest. But then, said Ben to himself, I'm not the type who would make you alarmed for your boyfriend, am I?

***

Early morning in the city streets always struck Ben as a romantic time. He'd left Highgate early for work and got off the tube at Leicester Square. It was only eight and the streets were not full as yet. There was a certain chilly edge to the air which always took him back to first term of a new year at school or university. Changes and possibilities; that was his life at the moment, and briefly there was a warm spark at the back of his mind, which was at war with the misery of losing Alex.

He stopped off for a coffee in a Starbucks on Long Acre. This Wednesday was going to be a different one at least. It was not often that he met one of his authors face to face, but today was going to be one of those occasions. Wardour Publishing Ltd had discovered a few big names, and those few had pushed its profitability well beyond the average for a London literary house, which was why the American giant, Magnamedia, had taken it over at a price which sent its former owners, the Wardour family, into the British top 300 list.

The author was Clive Dressner. Dressner manufactured one book a year and perpetually filled the shelves of airport bookshops. They were all legal thrillers, a genre Dressner had made his own. His 'Rupert Enderby' series, featuring the eponymous aristocratic barrister, had gone to TV adaptations, and a film was now under production.

The film was why Dressner was in England, as it was being produced in Pinewood Studios. Normally the man lived an ex-patriot life in Tuscany, though he had a house in Kensington and another in Boston.

Ben looked over the paperwork for the lunch meeting. It was a first chapter in another 'Enderby' mystery, which he had been asked to review and comment upon. Fortunately he had dealt with it last week, before the tsunami of Alex's infidelity had washed away his life. He refreshed his memory.

Amanda came past his desk and asked how he was. 'Surviving,' was his answer. She made a sympathetic noise, and asked him about his day. He explained his meeting. She raised her eyebrows.

'Ben, honey,' she confided, 'don't stay on for dessert.'

'What do you mean?'

'Just keep to business and get out fast.'

'You mean...'

'A predatory bi-sexual. You might just be his scene, you're quite a looker on the quiet.'

'Oh God, that's all I need.'

'Sympathies.'

At twelve - depression had not affected his compulsive punctuality - Ben was looking for the entrance to Brown's, a private Soho dining club in Dean Street. It was apparently necessary to enter through the basement. Ben stumbled over a step as he went through into the cellar entrance, where a chef and some functionaries were sitting.

'Bloody hell,' he burst out.

'Mind the step,' said the chef.

'I'm looking for Clive Dressner.'

'Clive's upstairs, back room.'

The décor was consciously eighteenth-century. Boarded, polished floors, panelling and shuttered windows gave a spartan look to the place. Candles were in pewter sticks on the tables. The dining rooms were quite full. Ben hesitated in a doorway. An unattached man looked up at him. Ben went over, 'Are you Clive Dressner?'

The man stood and smiled, quite a pleasant smile. He was tall and spare, clean shaven with greying hair. He did not look much like the man on the book covers. Ben knew Dressner was forty, but he could have passed for younger; the preservative effect of wealth.

Ben introduced himself and took the seat opposite the man. He had his file out and open. He was aware that he was being given the once-over. Though Ben laid claim to no facility with gaydar, there was a definite tingle in the air between them.

'So Ben, tell me about yourself,' was the request when the drinks arrived. Ben gave a very abbreviated history of himself, sticking to education and career. Dressner seemed to listen and to want eye contact. Ben did not like that too much, he found himself consciously looking away from the stare.

They looked at the menu and then looked at the chapter. Ben sketched out his opinion of the plot line and development. He found that Dressner was not in the least defensive about his writing. 'I'm a journeyman, Ben. I make good narratives, not great writing. I'm a mason not a sculptor. I'm perfectly well aware that in thirty years time, my books will all be forgotten. But I enjoy writing them, seriously I do. And you have to admit, I'm workmanlike.'

'Your use of English is good, that's true. You understand grammar better than most writers. It's quite a pleasure to edit your work.'

'Now that's the sort of compliment I appreciate, not the technicolour gush that I get dowsed with at awards ceremonies. I lay claim to no art in my stories, but I do take a pride in telling them well.'

The meal was excellent, with a very obliging table staff, whose greatest pleasure in life, it seemed, was to serve you food and listen to your views on it. Ben was charmed to find his choice of dessert being commended by the lady who presided over the dining rooms. That had last happened when he was living and working in Baltimore. He took a second glass of wine as well.

Ben was feeling quite elevated as he stumbled over the step leaving the club, and climbed up to Dean Street. Dressner suggested walking with him, and they carried on talking about the projected novel. The wine seemed to have restored Ben's ability to concentrate.

They turned on to Old Compton Street and as they passed the pink and blue-lit cavern of the Admiral Duncan, Dressner suggested another drink.

Ben did not like Old Compton Street or its vicinity. He had been living a quiet and contained gay life for ten years and he did not have the extroversion necessary to be as up-front a gay as, for instance, Terry O'Brien. He was more like Andy and Matt. But he was in a quandary; he couldn't say no to one of his company's biggest names.

'So you spotted that I was gay,' he observed. 'People do. But are you gay, Clive?'

The author smiled, 'A lot of the time. It depends on my company. Do you have a partner?'

Ben heaved a sigh. 'I've just finished a long-term relationship.'

'Then, there you are. You're not cheating on anyone.'

'How does cheating come into it?'

'I do find you attractive, Ben. Let's have a drink, and maybe we can discuss things.'

Ben felt the need to be assertive, though it went against the grain for him. 'Look Mr Dressner, I'm feeling pretty vulnerable at the moment. Only last week, my boyfriend and I split after ten years. I just can't cope with being... hit on. I'm sorry. I've got to get back to my office.'

It came out rather more sharply than Ben had intended. The men sitting on the outside tables looked up at them curiously. Dressner seemed taken aback.

'I didn't mean to....,' he began. But Ben had at last found his anger.

'This is a bad time for me, Mr Dressner, and you're making it worse. I have to go. Goodbye.' He turned on his heel and stalked away down the street, leaving behind him the abashed and probably mortally offended chief client of his company.

What the fuck, he said to himself. My lover's jacked me in. I might as well get fired, what's left to screw up?

***

It was Wednesday evening, Philip Maddox pulled into the layby on the A602. The streetlights were coming on in the surrounding towns. He breathed deeply. A white Audi was already parked off the layby and under the trees. Totaltop54 was waiting.

He had used the dating site and had done all he could to prepare himself for the result. He knew anal sex might well be required so he had done what he could to loosen his entry. He had lube and condoms as well as a desperate need.

Totaltop54 got out. He seemed just as advertised, tall and broadshouldered, and the face was square, if not handsome. He was wearing a short suede jacket, and seemed very fit. Phil got out too. The man looked him over then smiled. He seemed to like what he saw. 'Evening. Name's Jerry. Not seen you around, mate.'

'Hi, I'm Phil. Look, er... I've not done this before.'

Jerry the top nodded, 'Married too, aren't you.'

'How did you know?'

'More than half the guys I screw are. I don't mind, honest. You're quite a looker too, kid. I only top... you know what that means?'

'Er... yeah. You're gonna fuck me.'

'And you'll love it.'

Maybe it was the darkening evening, but there was something familiar about this man. Phil just could not get to grips with it. But then, his stomach was fluttering and he was burning with lust for male sexual contact. 'What do you want me to do?'

They climbed in the back of the Audi, Phil found a hand at his zip and sighed as his erection was gripped and stroked. This was it. Sod heterosexuality. This was the real thing.

He fumbled to find Jerry's penis, and discovered the site had not exaggerated. He found it a real handful, hot and velvety but very hard, the first penis other than his own he had ever touched. 'I don't kiss,' Jerry said. Phil nodded. He would have been up for it, but he was not disappointed.

'On your hands and knees, mate. Let's see the goods.' Phil turned to the window, and the next thing he knew, he could feel free air round his buttocks and thighs. He had not worn underpants. A finger was at his hole. He willed to let it in, and groaned as the finger pushed inward. He felt a tingling in his hanging genitals, his prostate was being rubbed, or so he guessed.

There was a rip of a condom packet and then a big male body was over him. He steeled himself. Did he really want this? Too late now. He was going to get it. There was a probing at his anus and then he yelped as his head hit the car door. 'Aaaah! Fuck! No!'

'Relax, Phil,' the man panted in his ear. 'Relax!'

'Take it out!'

'Relax. I'm only a little in. I'll just hold it steady for a bit. You'll adjust.'

Phil was breathing heavily, there was snot dripping from his nose and tears from his eyes. This was not what he had expected. He wiped his face with the back of his hand.

'Is it easing?'

'A bit.' Jerry kept pushing his length into him. God, it hurt. He gritted his teeth. Finally the pushing stopped, if not the pain. But he had a man's dick deep inside him. This was what he had wanted.

The voice soothed him. 'You're a good kid. Well done.'

Now Jerry was moving in him. There was something new. Not pleasure, but a sort of excitement, and a wonderful feeling of being full. The tingling in his own dick was stronger as his prostate was stimulated by the pressure, he was seeing stars.

Jerry began grunting and swearing as he moved in Phil. Phil too began groaning and encouraging the man thrusting away at him. Jerry's hand reached under and grabbed his dick; he began roughly jerking him. Phil came quickly, spurting down on the car seat beneath him. Then the man pulled him up and Phil yelled as he was impaled on Jerry's lap. With an ecstatic groan Jerry heaved up and reached orgasm, so that Phil's head hit the car's ceiling. Headlights swept past as they both sat there, still connected, panting.

'How was it?' Jerry asked, with a touching anxiety.

'Not what I expected at all,' Phil confessed, as he crumpled back on the man.

'Look mate... I'm sure I know you, don't I? The university? You're a lecturer.'

'Oh fuck,' thought Phil.

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