'Jammy man! 'S been so long!'
'Er... hi, Alasdair. How you doing, mate?'
'Fine, fine. Whaddyu been up to? They said you were back, end of last semester. But you didn't come to the club or anything.'
'No. Never got round to it.'
'You're repeating the third year, according to the lads. What happened?'
'Oh, stuff. Family and things. I had to drop out.'
'I thought it was all to do with the homophobic shit that started happening.'
'That was part of it too,' Max had to admit. 'But it's all back to normal now, or as normal as it can be for a queer in Stevie.'
Alasdair adopted an insinuating air. 'I saw the June issue of Attitude .'
'Er... like it?'
'God yeah! You looked really hot... not the Jammy I know. Nah... just kidding! It was a bit of a surprise, though. How'd it happen?'
'Friend of a friend saw me, that's all. I did a shoot and next I know, I'm the face of gay young Britain.'
'Did yer... y'know?'
'Well, did you pose...?'
Alasdair blushed red as he mumbled, 'Umm... something like that.'
Max was deeply amused, and his smile became confidential. 'Well, providing you don't tell anyone, yeah, kit off and all. But they can't use those pictures without my permission.'
Alasdair grew redder, but stumbled out with, 'You... er... got, like, copies?'
'Oh yeah. I had one blown up, life size. It's framed and on our wall.'
Alasdair's mouth hung loose. 'Oh man... can I sorta come round and see?' He was almost pleading.
'Well, I guess. But it'll cost you.'
'Christ yeah! Fiver each, but seven-fifty for you and Chrissie both, as you're old friends.'
Alasdair looked half inclined to reach for his wallet, then paused. 'You're shitting me!'
'Got a huge erection on in the picture. Amazing how excited a shoot can make you.'
'You are shitting me. Bastard!'
'Get real, Alasdair.'
Alasdair waffled between his resentment and his need to know more. Curiosity won. 'You just said "our wall". Did you bring someone back to Stevie with you?'
'Yeah. Gotta bloke. Lovely guy. I may let you meet him one day, if you promise to be good.'
'Anyone we know? Not Miles again, is it?'
Max's face darkened at Alasdair's riposte. 'I should bloody say not! This guy's worth a million of that shit.'
'Sounds like it's love then, Jammy boy.'
Max shut up. Alasdair had turned the tables and was managing to bait him. Wanting no more of it, he sipped his coffee. Alasdair too seemed at a loss. Eventually Max asked, 'What happened last year with LGBT Soc?'
'Folded. That lesbian - wosser name? Claire - couldn't even bother to turn up for her own exec meetings. She was carrying on like crazy with this other bird in Nottingham. Nothing got done, so in the end it just collapsed. You gonna help me on the desk? I promised the Union president we'd have someone there. I can't do it all on my own. And since you're so famous now...'
Max shrugged. 'Okay then. I'll be round on Tuesday at ten.'
'Yeah and bring your bloke, if he's a student.'
'I'll ask him. In that case, you'd better bring Chrissie and the others. Know any of the girls?'
'No. But there's Tom Entwhistle - Tommy the Tranny. Will he do?'
'Only if he wears those nice leather hot-pants.'
The litany of ritual abuse continued for several minutes till Alasdair got bored with it. He lumbered off, his long ponytail swinging down the back of his coat.
Gavin arrived back on Saturday, later than he should have been. The last train from London had not run because of rail works, so he finished his journey on the bus. As is the way of things, the bus took him right past his flat and dumped him in the Stevenage station forecourt a mile away.
'You waited!' He was promptly surrounded and hugged by Max.
'Course. Once I knew the train had been replaced by a bus, I settled down with a paper. I didn't realise they were so thick on the weekends. I've been looking at houses in the Lifestyle section. Waddya think, sweets?'
Gavin squinted at the picture. 'We could borrow the deposit from Eddie Peacher. The mortgage might be a problem, though... like, three million quid. I'll start saving.'
'I love it you're this positive, sweets. How were mum and dad?'
Gavin gave his little smile. 'Overwhelmed, but very happy. I think they bought the story.'
'Living in a remote village in the Philippines in an unsuitable relationship with a local man?'
'They rather hoped I'd got back with Henry Atwood since I returned. They liked him.'
'So they know about me?'
'I took the Attitude issue. They recognised you from the condom adverts.'
'I said you were very nice.'
'They have no fears I'll pick up anything from you, Latex Boy. They hope you'll come down and see them soon.'
'They seem lovely, Gav.'
'Oh, they are.'
'And the brothers?'
Gavin shook his head and did not answer. He shouldered his backpack and led Max out of the forecourt and north towards the Hitchin Road. Since it was too late for a bus, and they preferred to save the money for a taxi, they had a walk of a mile in front of them. Neither of them minded too much.
'I believe tomorrow you and I should go along to see my mum and dad. They're only in Harpenden. They know about you of course. I never took Miles to meet them, thank God, but I think we both know this is the real thing between us. We're going for the long term, aren't we?'
'You bet,' Gavin replied in a low but intense voice. He squeezed Max's hand. 'It must have been odd, being an only child... though from my point of view, it looks pretty attractive too.'
'I used to dream of having a little brother to play with, yet the thing is, the reality might have been different. I sorta wanted and expected him to be a twin, but always ready to let me beat him at games, and be no rival for my parents' affections. I'm certain I'd have been a crap brother, now I think about it; the classic older child.'
'Bollocks,' Gavin replied decisively. 'You'd have been like me. I always tried to help my mum with my brothers. The little sods just resented me; they formed an alliance against me really early on. There were only fourteen months between them, and they had this ability to wind me up whenever they felt like it. Often as not I'd get the blame for their evil and mischief.'
'So did you meet them in Gloucester?'
'Well no. The first one, Paul, left home to live in Abergavenny with some older divorced woman and her three kids. I was told she's old enough to like the same albums my mum does.
'Morgan's twenty now. He's still at home. He got two A levels but dropped out of college rather than repeat the year to get better grades. He can't find a job, or won't look. He lives in his room. He disappeared off to his mates when I arrived, and didn't return.'
'Not your fault, sweets.'
'No, I suppose not.'
'Anyway, one new thing,' Max added, as they walked into the car park of the 24-hour Tesco Express to buy milk. 'I'm gonna help out on the LGBT table Tuesday. Wanna join me?'
It was Sunday morning. Max booted up his shabby laptop, its lid ringed with the marks of coffee mugs. It wasn't so much that it was old, but Max's possessions naturally took on a battered air. Max himself, for all his handsome face and slim, tight body, was a little on the shabby side. He was not one for fashion. His sweaters sagged, his trainers had holes, his coats needed cleaning and his shredded jeans were odd ragged patches of denim connected by white strings. But, in Davey Skipper's expert opinion, Max would look good even wearing a bin liner.
Nor was he without a certain style of his own. His curly golden head was at that moment confined by a small woollen hat perched at the back, which made him look little-boy cute. It was a wonder to Gavin that it stayed on his head without hairclips.
Once the screen was up and the wireless connection made, Gavin Googled 'gay pub stevenage'. Apart from the advertising sites and the local-council notice board, he didn't get a huge amount. Two pubs proclaimed themselves 'gay friendly'.
'Know 'em?' he asked Max.
'Erk! That one! Gay friendly? It's full of townie slappers with their tits hanging out. They stand round outside the doors in smoking gangs. They only take the ciggies out of their mouths to say "Like whateva!". As if anyone'd care to eye up them or their brain-dead boyfriends in their Ben Shermans. I can't believe that. Gay friendly! The other one... the Carne Arms.' He shook his head. 'Don't know it. None of the guys ever go over there, but it's on the other side of town anyway: long bus ride.
'I mean, thing is, Gav, so far as LGBT's concerned, Stevie has no official gay pubs or bars. We just go where the drinks are on offer, like everyone else. Why's it so important anyway?'
Gavin looked sad momentarily. 'Bar-keeping's my only skill...'
'... apart from saving the world.'
Gavin shook his head but smiled. 'When I was in Cranwell, Henry got me a job in the old King's. It was a bit of a shit-hole and the manager was mental, but I really did like working there. And it was a proper gay pub. I thought I might be able to find a job like that here.'
Max smiled. 'I went to the King's that time last year when I was in Cranwell, before the place got torched. It was really smart by then, and Davey ran it like a proper club too. It had gigs and disco nights, mixed and gay. But thing is, Stevie's too close to London. Gays can just get on a train and be in Soho in less than an hour. So what's the point of clubbing in this hole?'
'I know, I know. But the money situation isn't great, Max. Okay, Davey and Eddie have paid our fees up front for the full course, and that's good. You earned a bit over the summer cos you're beautiful and everyone loves you. But we're on grants and loans for the rest. Every little helps.'
Max gave his small lover a squeeze. 'Fine, Gavness. Give that pub a ring and see if they're hiring.'
Gavin nodded. It was getting on for ten. A call to the Carne Arms led to a stumbling conversation between him and the landlord. The end result was that the disembodied voice said he was sometimes short of help on Thursday and Friday nights, and would ring him. Gavin gave the man his new mobile number, which he could never remember. He had written it in ballpoint pen inside the sleeve of his denim jacket, saying that by the time it was washed out, he would have committed it to memory.
'How did he seem?'
'Difficult to say; like a bloke?'
'You can tell a lot from people's voices, Gavness.'
'Spose. He didn't give me the brush off at least, despite my being so nervous.'
'Great. Maybe he will call. I have a good feeling about it.'
'What, like in the old days? A sorta premonition?'
Max laughed. 'No, the days of magic and prophecies are gone, sweets. We're like everyone else now. We have to rely on weather forecasts, intuition, feelings and guesswork.
'Meanwhile, I need to ring round and see if any of the guys are back. I had a few mates in the second year, and they'll be finalists now.'
Gavin looked curious. 'Straight guys?'
Max nodded. 'Of course. Stevie's not the place you can live a gay life, even if you wanted to. Come on, it must have been the same for you in Cranwell.'
'Well, not really. I wasn't there long enough back then to find out, and I don't make friends easily anyway. On the other hand, Davey Skipper had lots of straight mates in the business school. He used to do the dance clubs with them. He was good with girls.'
'Bet there must have been a lot of disappointed females in Cranwell in those days.'
'Henry was good with girls too. He was in with the chaplaincy crowd.'
'They sound like a riot.'
'I never went. I didn't get religion back then.'
'You do now, though.'
'Oh yeah. Maybe we'd better find a church sometime.'
Max agreed, adding that the Catholic student centre might be the best bet. 'At least it'll be welcoming.'
Max opened his mobile and began searching for numbers. Gavin went to make a tea and listened absently to Max's side of several jovial conversations from the lounge. It seemed Max had a lot of straight friends.
As Gavin brought his lover a mug, Max closed his mobile. 'That's sorted, then. You, me, Liam and Neil out tonight. You okay with that?'
Despite an internal qualm, Gavin gave a firm yes. It was time to build a life.
Gavin looked around the Union bar. Though it was Sunday evening, the bar was full of loud groups of returning students. There were also shy, lost-looking freshers huddling together and peering round cautiously.
It was not the first time Gavin had been there. That was where he and Max had first met. A lot of his memories of the past seven years had become misty and vague, but not that one. While waiting for Lije to finish an interview with Phil, Gavin had found no better place to hang out than the student bar. Perhaps he should not have done, because standing amongst chatting, laughing young people had not eased his deep sense of isolation and loneliness. But he had not been able to keep away.
So he had sat invisible at a table, watching the students enjoy life and company in a way he no longer could, or so it seemed to him. He had sighed. At that point, a tall, handsome blond at the same table had stared straight at him and the impossible had happened. Max had seen him and met his eyes. He shouldn't have been able to, but whether Gavin had dropped his shield through sheer loneliness, or it had been the decision of a higher power, they had talked.
The effect had been instantaneous for both of them. That day there was no reticence or shyness, Gavin's usual social enemies. It was as if they had always known each other and could reach each other's mind. Then Lije had joined them and they'd had to part. As he turned to leave, however, Gavin had sworn he would be with Max again, and so - beyond all hope - it had worked out exactly that way. Now they were human lovers and things just kept getting better. Gavin sighed, but for a different reason this time. It was contentment.
Unfortunately, it did not last. Liam and Neil came in with Max. They were jovial, back-slapping males, both Max's height or taller. Max had hit it off with Liam at a badminton-club event last academic year. That had led to his meeting Neil, with whom Liam shared a flat. They were cheerful and outgoing types, not unlike Max; they were his drinking partners of choice. His coming out as gay in the course of his second year had not bothered them in the least, and since they had neither of them liked Miles much, they took Max's part after the bust-up.
'Evening!' they chorused cheerily at Gavin, who mumbled something back. He was intimidated by the pair, so large, outgoing and socially confident. Suddenly he felt as though he were eighteen and back in Cranwell in his first year, scared at his own shadow, clinging to anyone who might protect him from a frightening world. He retreated even further into himself and adopted a fixed, silent smile despite the repartee bouncing round him.
What made it worse was that he was aware of Max's concern and puzzlement at his silence and withdrawal. Max shifted closer to Gavin, as if he sensed his lover's unease and was trying to show his support. But that only made Gavin more nervous. He thought he detected some criticism in the gesture.
It was Liam who saved the situation, intentionally or not. 'That fucking Miles.'
'What?' Max coughed as he took more beer down than he had been expecting.
Liam grinned, and Gavin almost could have sworn he detected a twinkle in the sidelong glance directed his way. 'Do you know about Manky Miles, Gav?'
Gavin found himself reassured by Liam's adoption of the affectionate name Max had given him. 'Er... yeah. He was Max's last boyfriend, and... er... a bit of a prick tease.'
The two straight boys guffawed. 'You guys have them too! Thought it was just us. You didn't say, Jammy!'
Now it was Max's turn to blush. 'Well... it was sorta embarrassing. You like to think you're irresistible in bed, but Miles... well... he was into jerking my chain.'
Another gale of laughter came from Liam and Neil. 'So that's what you call it!' Liam turned to his roommate. 'Hey Neil! Wanna jerk my chain? It's hot, man. Just go for it.'
'Shut up, you bastards. You're shocking Gav.'
'No we're not, he's pissing himself laughing!'
And indeed, Gavin was in stitches, despite a certain degree of guilt that he was laughing at his boyfriend.
After that the evening went quite a lot better. Gavin relaxed, and if he was hardly the soul of the party, he was his naturally good-humoured self again. He finally realised that Liam and Neil were happy with him the way he was. They were a double act that needed an audience, not competition.
With another drink under his belt, Gavin grew bold enough to ask them questions. 'So what were you saying about Miles?'
Liam grinned. 'Only that he's back.'
'What!' howled Max. 'I thought I'd seen the back of that fucker.'
'You must have jerked his chain, Jammy. He's having to repeat his final year. He got caught for plagiarism on one of his essays. If it had been me, I would have thrown in the towel, but not Miles. 'Sides, his parents aren't exactly deprived. They're probably glad to pay to get him off their hands for another year.'
'Well, he'd better keep away from the LGBT table on Tuesday if I'm on it.'
'Me too,' smiled Gavin. 'I'll scratch his eyes out.'
Liam and Neil dissolved. 'Hey look! It's Tommy! Tommy guy!'
A rather good-looking young man had gravitated into the bar. Apart from stunned and gawping freshers, no one seemed to notice that he was wearing a halter, denim skirt and high heels. Giving a good-natured wave in their direction, he swanned up to the bar.
He brought his drink over and settled into a seat. 'Hi! You're new,' he commented with an appraising glance at Gavin.
Gavin smiled back. He liked this boy. Tommy was dressed as a girl, but didn't do makeup apparently, though his nails were painted. Indeed, he looked very much the man, just in a woman's clothing.
Max made the introduction. 'Gav, this is Tommy Entwhistle.'
'A.K.A. Tommy the Tranny,' he explained unnecessarily, holding out his hand.
'Yeah, I heard Jammy had scored with a really cute guy. Nice to meet you. God, these heels kill! And they cost too.'
He slipped the straps off and heaved a sigh of relief. 'I saw Miles in town last night. It wasn't my imagination, was it?'
'No, he's back alright, we were just telling Jammy.'
'... with some enjoyment,' Max added. 'Why is my life so complicated?'
Sipping his Bacardi and coke, Tommy grinned. 'You're confused? Try being me. By the way, I had a call from Alasdair. He wants me to help on the table at the Freshers' Fair.'
'Delighted. It'll be nice to be alongside you, cover boy.'
'Cover boy?' Liam and Neil looked bemused. Max sighed and explained. Gavin had a laminated reduced copy of the Attitude cover shot that was always in his jacket pocket. He showed it round proudly.
For once, Liam and Neil didn't make a joke of it, but instead were pleased and complimentary. So, thought Gavin to himself, this is what straight friends are like. Momentarily, he felt a renewed pang of loss for his old companion, Lije.
He was hugged by both Liam and Neil as he left at the end of the evening, as well as being kissed by Tommy.
'Well?' Max smiled at him.
'I love your friends. I love Stevie, but most of all...'
'I know, sweets. And I'm proud of my Gavin too.'
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