After Alex

VII

By Michael Arram

Karen's rage at Phil evaporated early the next week. Phil couldn't resist the thought that she had more cause for anger with him than she knew. He felt guilty, particularly in view of his impending meeting with Ben. He was hesitant about mentioning his trip to London to her, but she accepted it well. Overwhelmed with teaching commitments, he had not taken many research trips of late.

Deciding he might as well get on with some real research while he was at it, Phil pulled up his Dressner notes on his laptop. He reviewed his stored e-mail correspondence with Dressner's publishers. It had been long and involved.

As he scrolled down the screen, a name leaped out at him. He scrolled back up and did a double take. It had been four years ago, when he was finishing up his book on twentieth-century thriller fiction. At the time, he had made a dogged attempt to penetrate Dressner's background. The book-sleeve biography he'd found in the earlier hardback editions of the man's works had been uninformative: born and educated in Essex; graduate in English of the University of Bedford; trained there as a schoolteacher; quit teaching after his first major book contract.

Then he had found an inconsistency. Oddly enough, it had been Karen who tipped him off to it. 'That's a mistake,' she had commented.

'What is?'

'Says he trained for teaching at Bedford.'

'So?'

'Well you can do that now, but he would have been there, what... fifteen years ago? They only started teacher training at Bedford eight years ago. That's why it's so well-known. Really innovative programme grown up from nothing, but only a few years old. Everyone wanted to get on it. They turned me down.'

So Phil had written to Wardour's publicity officer, then to its chief editor, who had referred him to one of their production editors, a Mr B.M. Craven. He had exchanged e-mails with Ben four years before. How weird was that? It had not been a productive correspondence, but at least he had not been given the brush-off. Ben had written:

<Dear Dr Maddox. Your request for information about Mr Dressner has been passed on to me. You will understand that we do not communicate any personal details about our authors beyond what they have agreed with the publicity office. I have checked the sleeve notes where you found the inconsistency you have mentioned. The relevant production file has disappeared, unfortunately, but it is perfectly possible that Mr Dressner's original information was garbled by our clerical staff. It would not be the first time. Sorry I cannot be any further help. B.M. Craven. Production Editor. Wardour Publishing Ltd.>

Phil had noticed with interest that later personal details about Dressner on his books had been changed to edit out mention of his graduate career other than to say that he had at one time been a school teacher. Ben had clearly got on the case. Phil smiled to himself. That's my Bennyboy, he found himself thinking, before blushing at his own presumption.

***

Clive Dressner was persistent, if nothing else, but Ben could not quite resent him.

'It's my last week in London,' he had explained when he phoned Ben at the office on Monday. 'I have to say, Ben, you've made it a lot less bleak than it usually is.'

'Well thank you,' Ben had replied. 'Now it's my turn to ask you out. There's this little bistro I know on Highgate Hill. I'd like it if you'd let me pay for dinner this time.'

Dressner graciously agreed. It was only good manners, as he had paid for their previous three excursions. Despite being secretly glad that Dressner would soon get back being productive behind his desk in his Tuscan retreat, Ben felt a connection with the man nonetheless. He was good company, and then there was the fact that his titles were so important to Ben's firm.

Ben selected a neat light-blue jacket he had bought in Paris. He sighed. He remembered the debate over the expense of it with Alex, which had been solved when Alex decided to buy it as a birthday present. They had kissed outside the changing booth, he recalled.

Andy saw him straightening his collar in the hall mirror. 'You look nice, Benny. Another night out? I'm glad you're finding distractions, even if it's only Clive Dressner. I'm off to Suffolk tomorrow, to see dad and the boys, and Matt's joining me for the weekend. We should be back on Monday. Will you be alright on your own? Mrs Atkinson'll take care of you.'

'I'll be alright thanks. I'm meeting a guy on Saturday. He's an English lecturer at Stevenage.'

'Stevenage has a university?'

'One of the new ones.'

'You using a dating agency?'

'No! Honestly, Andy. I met him some time ago online, and I think that he... y'know.'

Andy gave his little smile. 'Go for it Benny. If anyone deserves to be happy, it's you.'

'Thanks, Andy. Gotta go.'

Ben walked down to the village. The Bistro on the Hill was a quaint little place. It was on a narrow site, but went quite far back from the road, with odd corners and tables squeezed in everywhere. Done out in farmhouse chintz, with lots of straw dolls and needlework, it was apparently run by a collective of middle-aged French ladies. The food was fantastic, the service good. It was decidedly not fashionable, but always crowded and hot, and Ben liked it.

He took his seat. He was not in the least surprised that Dressner did not turn up on time. He ordered a drink and perused the menu. When Dressner was half an hour late, Ben began to get cross. This was not friendly, and he was feeling embarrassed. The place had filled up and he imagined he was being stared at. The furrow between his brows was deep enough to be unmissable even by Dressner when the man finally did arrive forty minutes after he should have done.

'Benny, what can I say? I'm sorry. The car didn't turn up on time, and then the traffic... I'm not used to timing my moves round this city.'

Ben was even less happy after that remark. Where did Dressner get the right to call him Benny? And how did Dressner think it was an endearing feature of his character to turn up when he liked? What did that say about his respect for people in general and Ben in particular?

Dressner had subsided, and Ben was not in any shape for an argument. 'Look, Clive, let's just forget it and go on with the meal. Better make your order quick, though; the ladies don't like being kept waiting.'

After they ordered, Dressner began his charm offensive. Ben on the other hand was not going to be easily softened. He already had noticed that Clive was uncomfortable talking about his life and background, so Ben retaliated by doing just that.

Over the main course he said, 'Your name really is Clive, isn't it?'

Dressner got a strangely hunted look, as when Ben had asked him on an earlier occasion about his family. 'Er, yes it is.'

'But not Dressner.'

'No.' The answer was monosyllabic and abrupt, discouraging further probing.

'Is there a reason you don't use your real name?'

'Yes. I reinvented myself when I became a writer. I preferred what I had created to what I had grown up as.'

Ben remembered something from his early days with Wardour. 'What part of the country are you from?'

'Essex.' Essex was a big county, so that was not much to go on.

'And you went to the University of Bedford.'

'Yes.'

'And you studied...?'

'Look, can we just let it go? Why are you asking all this?'

'Sorry, I thought you wanted to be friends. Don't friends get to know each other? You've already found out a fair amount about me, Clive. But it suddenly occurs to me how little I know of you.'

'And your mother told you not to talk to strange men?' A pale smile lingered on Dressner's lips.

'I haven't talked to my mother in ten years, since my family threw me out of the house when I went home to tell them I was gay and wanted to live with another man. It didn't go down too well in Keighley.'

Dressner looked uncomfortable at that bald statement. 'I didn't mean to...'

'How could you know?'

Dressner's hunted look was even more marked, but he had determined on a resolve, or so it seemed. 'You're right of course, Ben. How can a friend be as reticent as I have been? I do want to be your friend, believe me. I'm from Basildon - father a drunk and mother a bitch. You were tossed out on your ear when you were twenty-one, me when I was fifteen and put in care.

'But I survived, I got my A Levels and escaped my background into university. After that, teaching, and I put all my tensions and inadequacies into creating Clive Dressner the writer. You can see why he would want to forget Clive Dawson, an unhappy and solitary kid loved by no one.'

At last Ben had seen the real Dressner, and felt a little ashamed for having driven him out of his shell. The assured and confident man on the surface was an act, one with which Ben could not sympathise, but this inner man, hurt by life and trembling a little with suppressed passion, this was one for whom Ben could feel something. Unconsciously his hand went out towards Clive, who grasped his in return while giving a sad smile that was on the verge of shyness.

'I had no idea. I'm glad you told me this. I didn't mean to hurt you.'

'Oh it's alright, Ben. That's all behind me now. You can get over these things with willpower and hard work. That's what my life has been all about since I was fifteen.' He looked intently into Ben's eyes. 'But maybe now I want more.'

Ben could not help the blush that flooded his face. He looked down at his plate. 'I hope you find the right guy... or woman.'

Dressner gave a light chuckle. 'I wonder if I haven't already.'

Ben looked up again. 'Please don't...'

Dressner had continued to hold Ben's hand, and now he gripped it hard. 'I'm not pushing this, Ben, but you know how I feel. If you can feel the same way too... I'd be so happy.'

'Please don't, Clive... I'm not ready for this. You're making too much of a few dates.'

Dressner released his hand and sat back in his chair. 'We have time. I'll be back in London in another month. You'll have had a chance to think more by then. Now, coffees?'

***

By Thursday Phil's nerves had him in their grip. He caught himself pulling up Ben's picture on his laptop every spare moment. I might as well make it my wallpaper, he said to himself. Then he thought, God, I wish I could.

Max Jamroziak turned up in his office that afternoon. 'Alright?' he greeted the boy.

'Yeah, thanks. Could you do me a favour, Phil? I need a reference for bar work at the union.'

'Sure, no problem.'

Then it happened. 'Er... Phil?'

'Hmm?'

'This'll make you laugh. I heard some of the guys talking. They said, "What's the name of that gay bloke in English? Maddox innit?"' Max was smiling, but there was a question in his eyes.

Phil was aware that his pulse was trip-hammering, and that there was a sudden cold sweat on his forehead. 'You don't say,' he began. Then into his mind danced the vision of Ben, who had been strong enough to come out and live his life openly as a gay man. How could Phil not do the same, if he were to be worthy of Ben's friendship? The decision was made. 'Well, eventually people work it out.'

Max's eyes widened. 'You are gay?'

'Yup.'

'Thought you were married.'

'I am. Still gay, though.'

'Wow! Er... I appreciate your trusting me with that. Wow! See ya, then. Thanks for the reference.' Max left the office, and Phil didn't expect to see him there again.

He slumped back in his chair. So the blue touch paper had been lit. This was it. He was an out gay. It would get round, and he rather thought Jerry had been helping it along in any case.

Nothing would be said to his face. Universities were relatively safe havens to come out in. But he would have to make decisions, the first of them regarding Karen. It was unfair to continue their marriage with this brewing. It was time to break it off. The question was, when and how?

Then there were his parents. They were about to lose their illusions about their only son. How would they cope? Of course, his mother had always hated Karen, so she wouldn't care too much about the divorce. But the gay thing would distance him further from his father.

He went home deeply abstracted, although such was the state of their marriage that Karen didn't notice. He fired up his laptop and was delighted to find Bennyboy30.

<Hi Ben!>

<Hullo Phil! Good day?>

<Interesting. But I shall say no more for now.>

<Intriguing. Phil, I have your mobile number, but you don't have mine. I've sent an e-mail with it in case one of us gets delayed or something.>

<Good thinking. Ben, I've been meaning to ask you this for a while. We can discuss it more on Saturday, but I found that you and I have been in touch before.>

<I have no memory of it. What wild party was that?>

<RFLMAO. No, I mean professionally.>

<Tell me more.>

<I wrote to your company four years ago asking for biographical details about Clive Dressner. It was for my book - did I mention I'd published a book of my own?>

<No, you hadn't. Pulls impressed face.>

<Lol. It's an academic study of postmodernist thriller writers, including Dressner. It only sold 2000 copies, so I'd be surprised had you read it.>

<Hold on... I remember this. You wanted to know about his university career. It was you! This is weird.>

<Bit of a coincidence, it's true.>

<No. It's even weirder than that. I'll tell you Saturday.>

<Er... OK. Anyway, your firm publishes Dressner and I'm thinking of a new book on the hero in thriller literature. I was wondering if you'd have an ethical problem talking to me about him and his work.>

<Umm - probably. Depends what you ask, I suppose. I can't talk about his personal life for several reasons. I could talk about his novels.>

<That's what I want... Ben, I'm really looking forward to Saturday, I can't tell you how much.>

<Me too. I hope it goes OK. I'm a bit nervous.>

<And me.>

<I'm a withdrawn sort of guy. I never make good first impressions.>

<But Benny, we're not strangers. We've known each other for years!>

<Lol. Yeah. BTW. You called me Benny.>

<I did. Sorry. That was presumptuous.>

<No. Don't apologise. It's what my friends call me.>

<I am your friend.>

<I think you are. See you at the BL. How about we meet at the book bench at 11:30?>

<That'll be great.>

Both men signed off, neither having a clue what was preying on the other's mind. But Ben went trotting down the stairs at Highgate feeling cheerful. This man whom he had never met made him funny and happy. Now that was truly weird. He hoped the effect would survive their meeting in the flesh.

Phil on the other hand swung meditatively in his study chair, looking round at the little room that had been the centre of his intellectual life, his refuge, which soon he must leave. He began an inventory in his head of the possessions he wanted to take with him. Anything rather than face the dread of breaking the news to Karen.

***

The longed-for Saturday came. Phil was up early. He had to go through the pretence of a day's study, so he needed to be at the station for eight-thirty. He was going to take the car into Stevenage, because Karen was proposing to spend the day around the house. He had promised to do the Tesco run on his return.

She surprised him by being up before he went, entering the bathroom as he left it. She yawned in passing 'Have a good day.'

'You too,' he replied. He had his laptop in its bag ready with his files. He also had set out the latest Dressner, the one about military cover-ups in Iraq. He could read it on the train and think up some questions for Ben. He checked his watch. Damn! He'd better get a move on if he was to find somewhere to park to catch the 8:45.

Pulling his little car out of the small cul-de-sac where they lived, he left the estate and was on the dual carriageway pretty quickly. It was as he entered Stevenage that Phil realised the depth of his stupidity. He had his computer, his files and the latest Dressner. What he did not have was his wallet with the British Library reading-room pass. He had left it in the jacket he had worn yesterday.

He had to return, something not easily done on the dual carriageway. Eventually he made the A1 intersection and turned round for home. It was too late for the 8:45, so he had to resign himself to the next train, which would be in a further hour's time.

It was already past nine when he arrived back to the close where he lived. The road had somehow got parked up since he left. The Taylors next door had their camper van blocking their drive, two strange cars were parked along the kerb, a learner driver was practising parallel parking and his own drive was blocked by a Parcelforce van. Phil left his car down the road and hastened to his door.

He slipped inside, ready to shout out his return. But at the foot of the stairs he paused, his key still in his hand. He registered that a coat which did not belong to him was draped over the banisters, and assorted male clothing was scattered on the stairs.

There was a sound of groaning and giggling from their bedroom. Phil knew instantly what he would find if he went there. While he had no intention of looking inside, he did need to know who was fucking his wife. He checked the stranger's coat pocket and fished out a wallet. Well, that was humiliating. The car licence ID was in the name of Alistair Longthorpe, and the picture did the man's weak chin and feeble beard no favours. Alistair the Year 5 teacher, the complete pillock, although not such a pillock he couldn't find his way between Karen's legs.

Phil quietly weighed the man's wallet and pondered his course. On one level he was outraged and shocked, yet on another he was relieved. It seemed it was not just he who wanted out of the marriage. How to handle this? He restored the wallet, then quietly gathered up all of Alistair's clothing except his jacket and stuck it in the kitchen oven, which he put on medium heat. He calculated that the polyester sweater should eventually melt nicely; it would take a good half hour before the smell of singeing cloth reached the bedroom. He didn't want to be a spoilsport.

Phil remembered to take his own wallet and slipped quietly out of the house again. His mind was humming and his hand trembled on the wheel as he headed back into Stevenage. Strange emotions rushed through his heart. He and Karen were finished, which brought a huge surge of relief; he had been cuckolded by that prat Alistair, and that at least was humiliating. Yet on the other hand, he had done the same to Karen with a security guard, so he was not pretending to any moral superiority here. He was almost dizzy with relief and trepidation. It was hardly surprising that when a car braked in front of him on the station approach he should drive right into the back of it.

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