'Course, you lecturers have fucking huge fucking holidays... and they complain about schoolteachers.'
Phil wanted to beat his head against the flock wallpaper of the curry house. He had been stuck in a corner of the tandoori restaurant for ninety minutes with one of Karen's colleagues, a jerk called Alistair who taught Year 5 in her school. Like more than a few of his colleagues, Alistair had a chip on his shoulder.
Alistair was dim and insecure and, to that extent, Phil was willing to make allowances. But he saw no reason why Alistair's hang-ups should be focussed on academics in general and him in particular. The trend of the conversation so far had been that lecturers worked a two-hour day, had not a clue about how to teach, were useless for all practical purposes, and their job was money for old rope. This was accompanied by a string of spurious statistics and Alistair's personal reminiscences about the uselessness of university types.
Phil had gone through a purgatory of poverty and debt to fund his PhD studies. He was an assiduous and capable teacher and tutor who had, against the odds, published a monograph and four articles. Understandably, he was pissed off at being patronised by this drunken mediocrity. There was no escape either. He was jammed in the corner with Alistair, while Karen had moved away to talk to one of her female colleagues.
Alistair had a sparse beard covering his weak chin, which was looking like an increasingly tempting target as Phil tried to dull the pain of the fool's braying voice with a bigger intake of alcohol. What was worse, the occasional internal smile from neighbouring tables revealed that the baiting he was getting was being surreptitiously enjoyed by Karen's colleagues. At last Phil stood up and said, 'Scuse me, need to pee.'
When he returned, he pointedly sat down at an unoccupied chair on the other side of Karen, away from Alistair the Arsehole. But Karen was now talking to Alistair, and none of the other neighbouring school staff seemed willing to make conversation. He sat there feeling exposed. Finally, he found a kindred spirit in another staff partner who came and sat next to him, a firefighter who was as bemused at the dynamic as he was.
'All they want to do is talk shop... as if they don't do enough of it when they're at work. Don't know why they bring us along. It's fucking unsocial. It's always this way. It's like some sort of punishment for us not being teachers. We don't do this at brigade social nights.'
Since the meal was finished and no one wanted to talk to them, Phil and the firefighter adjourned to the small bar, which made the rest of the evening rather more enjoyable. It was helped by the fact that the firefighter was an attractive and humorous guy in his late twenties who fuelled Phil's fantasies about getting off with him. He was also well read, especially in the field of mystery and thrillers - all those long shifts, Phil imagined.
They had an intelligent and very specialised discussion about Clive Dressner's plot techniques, to the point that, when Karen finally was ready to go, Phil was talking the man into a part-time degree in English at Stevenage. They did a handshake and exchanged mobile numbers before Phil followed Karen out of the humid restaurant into the sharp night air.
Karen rounded on him as soon as they were in the taxi. 'Why can't you make more of an effort? I don't know what poor Alistair thought of you!'
Phil was stunned. Although he and Karen had had their arguments over the years, of late things had quieted down. He swallowed hard and exclaimed, 'Poor Alistair!'
'Walking away from him like that. He was quite upset. I never knew you could be rude. I have to work with these people daily. I was so embarrassed.'
'The man was appalling! I had to put up with over an hour of belittling and abuse from him. He's lucky I didn't smack him one.'
'What sort of argument is that? Alistair can be really sweet. He took my class out for an extra PE lesson so I could have a free period yesterday. The fact is that you can be snooty with people now you're a lecturer. I don't think you realise how you affect others.'
Phil's mouth sagged. How did this get to be about him? But all he could say was, 'That's just not true!' And counter-assertion was no argument.
They simmered next to each other all the way home, and slept in separate beds.
Ben stared at the screen. So this was Phil. Correction: this purported to be Phil. Good God, he was gorgeous. Too beautiful - it had to be a borrowed image. And still there were no personal details: where he lived, whether he lived with anyone, where he worked. Phil was perhaps being cautious, yet Ben was more and more convinced he had a background he did not want to share.
This disappointed Ben. There could be no true friendship without openness, and he wanted to be friends with this disembodied personality. Phil's liveliness and humour had attracted him from the first. They were on the same wavelength. The more they talked, the more Ben recognised his own lack of an intellectual connection with Alex. The evidence had been increasingly clear even before the bombshell dropped. Ben simply had not wanted to register it. Now he did.
Phil maybe was fat, old and bald, though he expressed himself as a man of Ben's own age, a child of the late seventies. Still, such things could be faked, Ben knew. The only solution was to ask for a face-to-face meeting. That would sort things out once and for all. But not tonight, for he was off to the concert.
He had undertaken to meet Clive Dressner outside the Albert Hall, on the Hyde Park side. Ben made his own way there, despite the offer of a lift from Matt and Andy. He was precisely on time, as ever, despite a delay on the Circle Line. Dressner, however, was late.
Ben fretted. He disliked unpunctuality. It was within ten minutes of the start of the performance that the man made his appearance through the evening crowd, smiling unconcernedly.
'Sorry I'm late, Ben. It's Tuscany. The place is so timeless, it erodes your ability to keep to appointments.'
'I'd just about given you up.' Ben was nettled, and a furrow between his eyes marked his discontent. But if Dressner registered the annoyance, he didn't betray it.
They walked briskly inside and found the entrance for the middle level of boxes. When they reached theirs, Ben was disconcerted to find the makings of a rather handsome buffet laid out on a table in the curtained section behind the seats. The cutlery was solid silver and the napery crisp. Clive had gone to town. To what end? Ben's newly suspicious mind asked.
Ben slipped through the curtains, out into the box and the great hall, taken by surprise as ever by the huge spaces and the absurd acoustic mushrooms hanging from the dome. There were surreptitious stares from neighbouring boxes. The performance began just after they took their seats.
Ben loved the music of the late nineteenth century. He was soon immersed in the seventh symphony, which he found soothing to his bruised soul. Between movements he craned to see where Matt and Andy were. He knew they were somewhere on the upper level of boxes, and decided they must be immediately above where he was.
An intermission followed the conclusion of the symphony. A white-jacketed waiter appeared to heat and serve food, and to pour the drinks.
After a few remarks about the music and performance, on which Dressner seemed well informed, Ben mentioned that he had friends in the hall he'd like to visit during the next intermission. Dressner gave a tight smile and inclined his head. That was fine by him, but he would rather not join them. He did not like meeting strangers.
Ben smiled back. 'I'm not normally one for company myself, Clive, but these guys are more family than friends. Please don't let me push you. I don't mind.'
After the audience had risen to applaud the Mass in F Minor and the chorus was filing out, Ben made his apologies to his host. Dressner sat back with a flute of champagne - a little discontentedly, it seemed, but Ben wasn't going to let it bother him.
He found Matt and Andy's box almost directly over Dressner's. They were with Matt's friend Rhiannon and some others Ben did not know. He was welcomed with a hug from Andy and introduced generally. Without Alex to offer him a social barrier to retire behind, Ben found he had to talk.
Andy gave his characteristic little grin. 'So where is he?'
'He wouldn't come.'
Matt explained to the others, 'Ben's here with Clive Dressner, the writer.' There were stares of interest.
'Told you he was a recluse,' pursued Andy.
Rhiannon nodded. 'We were at a house party with our prof of art history in Tuscany last May. Dressner lives in a castle on a hilltop on the other side of the town. There's heavy security on the estate, and visitors aren't encouraged, though he does entertain the odd influential guest. When we were there, the Italian minister of justice was with him and caused a big security flutter in the town. So are you and he...?'
Ben flushed. 'No, I certainly am not.'
Unabashed, Rhiannon went on, 'What's he like?'
Ben shrugged. 'For once, the jacket photos aren't too inaccurate. He's well put together and doesn't show his age, which is forty. I think he trains.'
Rhiannon nodded. 'His estate is pretty near self-sufficient. They say it has every facility you might need, even a generator plant and an airstrip.'
Andy laughed. 'Bit of a Howard Hughes, your guy.'
Ben rolled his eyes. 'If you call him "my guy" once more, Andy, I'll start rumours about Matt and J.K. Rowling. Don't forget I'm in publishing. I can do that.'
Andy stared at him a moment before bursting into delighted laughter, rather more than the crack was worth. But as Matt later said, you didn't expect Ben to make quips when he was normal, and certainly not in his present state of mind.
Ben returned to his host. Dressner was determined not to show his evident discontent, and refused to express any interest in exactly who Ben's friends might be.
There was a tap on Phil's office door. A holler brought Jerry in smirking. 'Got a mo?'
Phil was getting fed up of jumping when Jerry felt like some moments of sexual release. 'Not if you want what I think you want. Sorry. I've got a job to do.'
Frustration was quickly evident on Jerry's face. 'Aw come on... I've worked in this place long enough to know that lecturers are a law to themselves when it comes to work.'
'Some maybe, but not me. This is a stack of essays which needs to get marked, not knocked all over the floor like last time we used this table.'
'Hey! Said I was sorry!'
'Look, Jerry. If you need it as badly as all that, why not get on your mobile? I know you make hook-ups on the Orange site.' Phil was learning a lot about how casual sex between men was organised in Hertfordshire. He wanted no more part of it.
'You seeing someone else?'
Good God! He was surely not jealous. 'Jerry? What's it to you?'
'Nothing. Course. Just that I thought you liked it.'
'I do... did. But I want something different.'
Jerry took on a shifty air. 'Well... look, normally I don't take it, but... just this once, if you wanna.'
'You'd really let me take you up the arse?' Phil was impressed.
Jerry looked sullen. 'Don't make such a big deal about it. I said just the once.'
'S'only fair, I suppose... and... well... I like it with you. You make such great noises.'
'Er, thanks. I'll take that as a vote of confidence. I'm sorry, Jerry, but no. This has got to stop.'
'Fraid people'll find out, innya.'
'The possibility doesn't make me feel comfortable.'
'Fuckin' closet cases. All the fuckin' same.'
It suddenly occurred to Phil that Jerry had a point of sorts. So he didn't reply. The man was giving off some very mixed messages: resentment, desire, irritation, bargaining... oh my God, surely not!
'People know, mate, believe me. They see you eyeing up the boys... I spotted you a mile off. You can't hide it. When the shit hits the fan, mate, you'll be singing a different tune.'
But I won't be mixing my metaphors, Phil observed to himself. 'Sorry, no'.
'Then fuck you.'
Jerry let the door slam to and stomped off down the corridor, leaving Phil alarmed and intrigued in about equal measure. Was it true? Had his gayness been observed by others? Had he outed himself and had Jerry helped the process along? Damn it, the bloke had fallen for him. He had made a man fall in love - or at least lust - with him. He felt an unworthy elation that he could seduce someone, and especially a hardened cruiser like Jerry.
It was a while before his mind could settle. To distract himself, he summoned up his inbox. There was a message from Ben Craven waiting.
<Hi Phil. Thanks for your picture... it was something. Look, I've been thinking for a while, even before the thing with Alex, that we should meet in person. I don't know how far you are from London, but I'd like to get together for lunch maybe. How are you fixed for the weekend after next? If not, just pick your time. I've not got much on socially. Ben. XXXX>
Rather more than Jerry's insinuations, the e-mail knocked the legs out from under Phil. This was an encounter he really wanted - desperately wanted - but how could he make it real? How could he disappear to London and explain it to Karen?
His mind was already manoeuvring as he picked up his desk diary. A research trip would be the best option. It would give him a certain amount of flexibility as to time and location: the British Library it was, then.
Karen was home late, and still simmering at him. They had a monosyllabic exchange, so there was no chance to discuss his planned visit to London. Phil slept again in the guest room, which he admitted to himself he preferred in any case.
The next day was Saturday. He booted up his laptop and commenced the critical e-mail.
<Hi Ben. I would really love to meet you. I'll be at the British Library next Saturday. I live in Stevenage, which is not so far to come. I lecture in the university here. Would you like to meet at the BL, or shall I come out to meet you at Highgate? I'm fine with either. Hugs, Phil.>
Phil thought long and hard about the gay sign-off 'hugs', but then Ben did the kisses thing, so why not. And the hell with it, I am gay, he said to himself fiercely. Let's start living the life.
Overall, Ben decided, he had enjoyed his night out with Clive Dressner. The man was charming, informed and informative. Their interests coincided on so many levels. What was puzzling Ben was why he continued to feel diffident to any further intimacy with the man.
Eventually, Ben concluded that it was because there was too much control in the man's conduct. His riotous night out with Davey and Terry in Cranwell had reminded him of his and Alex's younger days, when they had chattered away and laughed at nothing, a time when their souls had met and meshed with neither secrets nor agendas. Then had come the distancing and, yes, Alex's growing abstraction and manipulation had slowly smothered what they once had. If Ben was to have a boyfriend, he wanted again that sympathy and laughter. He wanted a man with no agenda.
On Saturday evening he opened his e-mail and wham! Phil wanted to see him. His heart pulsed. That could only mean the picture had been no fake, because he was going to have the chance to meet the original. He went straight to www.stevenage.ac.uk and the English department site. There was the same photo on his page. Phil was genuine after all. What's more, he was familiar in some way which lingered at the edge of Ben's memory. Had he encountered this man in another context? How was that possible?
Ben trotted downstairs to the lounge. Andy and Matt were dozing together on the sofa, the TV muted. Ben was both touched and amused: touched because the two men were cuddled close, unselfconscious in their physical affection; amused because Matt's mouth was open and noticeably drooling, yet he still looked sexy and beautiful.
The light was on down the path in Dave's cottage. Suddenly feeling the need to talk, Ben ambled out through the garden. Despite a distinct chill in the air, the evening was pleasant, with the sky that profound blue it gets to be as the first stars open.
A knock on the door brought Dave. 'Oh! 'Lo!'
'Fancy a drink, Evans?'
Dave stared. 'Wouldn't say no. But you don't usually...'
'Maybe I should make more of an effort with my mates, and we go way back, don't we.'
A ghost of a smile crossed Dave's face. 'Yeah, we do. I'll get me coat, hang on a mo.'
They sauntered down to Highgate Village, to a quiet pub Dave occasionally frequented. Ben got the drinks.
'So... er, good health, mate,' said Dave. Ben clinked his glass. 'How you coping, Benny?'
'It's not been easy, but Matt and Andy are great and make me feel I'm cared about.'
'Yeah, they did that for me too. Andy comes down here with me some nights when he's around. They're so good.'
'The other thing is that Alex is behaving like a complete shit, which makes it easier in some ways. He's just not the guy I met in Cranwell. The old Alex would never have deliberately hurt anyone, especially me. It's hard, but I have to admit the boy I fell in love with is dead and gone. This Alex is someone else. What I feel now is more like bereavement than heartbreak... how odd is that?'
'Not so odd. Now, me and Steve broke up painlessly, apart from the actual break. He was never nasty. I don't think the lump has a bad bone in his body, he just wanted out. It makes it harder in some ways. I see him from time to time, and it's like meeting a friend. Now that's hard, cos we're never far from the point where friendship could tip into something else. I just dream that one day he'll take me in those arms of his again and crush me like he did. But he never has.'
'How love fucks you up.'
'And some. But Matt says you've got this blokey on the go, a writer.'
'I'll be very annoyed with him if he keeps on about that. Not all his kindness will save him. Clive and I are not an item, and never will be.'
'Bet he wants to be.' Dave gave him a shy smile, an unusual expression for his face.
'He's not the sort of guy I could ever be comfortable with. It's too soon after Alex.'
'Nice to be wanted though.' Dave's gloom was back.
Ben thought he was at least not short of suitors, but it was hardly a thing to observe in present company.
'There is another guy...'
'I met him on line.'
'Oh come on, Benny. That's where all the nightmare relationships start. God knows, I've had my own fingers burned there.'
'Christ, yeah. There was this guy I thought was a really hot kid, said he was eighteen in sixth form in Norwich. Used to make me laugh my nuts off, and we were so in tune. Sent me pictures and all, one with no... well you don't wanna hear about that. Complete fake. I found the same pictures on a teen site. When I confronted him on IM, he still tried to bluff it out. Turned out he was a married bloke in his forties in Eversholt. It made me so angry.'
'Cos it was all one fucking lie from top to bottom, and I'd invested so much in him. It was just after Steve left me too. But there he was, living his own fantasy at my expense.'
Ben meditated on this. 'Part of it must have been genuine... the personality can't be faked.'
'Maybe... but there's more to people than a talent to amuse, for Crissake. You know this. You gotta know and love the whole man, or it's just blind romanticism. We've both been there, we know this for true.'
Ben stared, quite impressed. 'You're right, Dave. I'm not denying it. But this guy, he really is who he says he is. A gay lecturer in Hertfordshire, and he and I hit it off on so many levels.'
'Good luck to you then. But sharing a table with a guy is not the same as chatting through electrons. Hell with it. Let's talk about something else. Did you know Katy's pregnant? Matt's gonna be an uncle...'
'She can't be pregnant, she's my lawyer! That's unprofessional, that is!'
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