Towards the Decent Inn

I

By Michael Arram

This was my first piece of gay erotica, and the most personal in the sense that quite a few incidents in it happened to me. It appeared on the Nifty site in 2004. The unnamed university in it is not modelled on any actual English university, and any resemblances to any real university are simply generic. In a later story it appears as 'Cranwell University' which is of course not a real one, and nothing to do with Cranfield. Burnett University in New York State does not exist either, although it is modelled on a genuine campus, and you are very welcome to guess which one: there are enough clues. The beautiful Huntington Library in San Marino CA is a real place, however, though the characers depicted as inhabiting it are (mostly) fictional.

The usual disclaimers apply to this story. If it is illegal for you to view stories involving male on male sex in your place of residence please do not do so, and if you are under the legal age to read such things, please leave the site.

Matt had naturally assumed that seminars involved intense intellectual debate, a search for truth, the meeting of minds. University was teaching him different. It was beginning to seem to him that they involved uneasy silence, as students avoided the tutor's eye when he asked the group a direct question. Boys generally did not want to be seen to be too keen. Girls did not want to be put in a place where they could be knocked down. Most of them hadn't done the preparation they were supposed to have done in any case. So silence fell, and some tutors generally took the easy option of turning the period into a monologue, an extra lecture, and so you could drift off, uneasily. Matt knew that things should ideally be different; that he was missing a chance to engage with his peers and learn from them, to hone his mind. Today was just such a seminar. He wished he could find the courage not to turn up for the next one, but the tutor took a register.

He looked around the group covertly. All twelve had adopted the seminar slump. He was very friendly with one of his fellow-sufferers, a lad called Leo at the end of the table who had been in hall with him in the first year. They exchanged a faint grin as the wash of words droned on over them. Then there was Dave, another Welshman, a bright and nervous lad with glasses, who he knew was interested in him, judging by the looks he kept shooting at him whenever they met. Opposite him was the only one of the students in the group he did not know by name: a boy he'd seen round the department, a short pale blond. He looked on the verge of sleep. Matt stared from under his lashes at the delicate boyish face which clearly didn't demand much from a razor: a boyishness emphasised by the fading remnants of his childhood freckles, his slightly overlarge front teeth and something of a snub nose. The face was framed by a thick head of pale gold hair hanging in whisps low over his eyes, and mottled red round the mouth with an unattractive rash which had scabbed in places. A sudden halt in the flow of words jerked everyone awake and there was a rustle. The boy opposite sat up guiltily. His blue eyes caught Matt's stare and held it briefly, and then they both looked away.

At the end of what had seemed like an endless hour, the stunned group picked up books and bags and shuffled out, with a scraping of chairs and subdued whispers. Leo nodded at him and made the signal for coffee. Outside they compared intellectual malaise as they contemplated a whole term's acute boredom ahead. It was too late to change now. The course title had looked interesting on paper, but Matt was learning that it was best to choose the tutor, not the course. They got to the nearest snack bar.

'Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!' Leo's head was on the table, and he was pounding it, more than a little theatrically, making the plastic coffee cups jump. 'I thought the lecture was bad, but this was hell, unadulterated brimstone. Maybe this really is hell, and I'm finally being punished for my sins.'

'What sin would deserve this?' asked Matt. 'Why did I sign up for this course?'

'Cos I talked you into it, Chalky. I have led you astray from the straight and narrow path of historical righteousness and we've gone down the primrose path to hell's mouth... it was too horrible to have been purgatory. You get out of purgatory after a million years or so. There is hope for souls in purgatory, but none for us.'

Leo sat for a while exhausted with the torment of boredom as Matt unhappily sipped his hot and flavourless coffee. Eventually Leo stirred, 'Want to escape into town?'

'No, I gotta get started on my notes.'

'You are a worker, aren't you, Chalky?'

'I did OK last year. This year every course counts towards the final degree grade, and I mean to do as well as I possibly can.' Matt put on his serious face, 'I wasted six years at school and sixth form college; I really can't afford to screw up here. Come on Leo, let's get over to the library. That's a work of grace, you may yet be saved.'

As they left the snack bar, Matt noticed the blond boy sitting alone with his drink, and again he caught his eyes. He felt a faint longing ache as he looked away from the boy. It was not an unfamiliar sensation. Matt knew he was more interested in boys than girls. But he had that sensation several times a day on average and he thought he was beginning to get the better of it. He shrugged internally and headed onwards to the library.

Matt had long escaped his doubts and fears by being a dedicated daydreamer, which, he thought, accounted for his friendship with Leo, a man for whom dream and reality had no frontier. His affinity for the study of history was part of his escapism. It did the quality of his mind some credit that he had recognised this long ago. Escape into the distant past, or into internal fantasy was all the same to him. And he was a systematic fantasist, just as he was a dedicated student of history. Daydreaming was a skill he had been cultivating for several years at the back of desolate comprehensive school classrooms. Lottery wins, inheritances from unknown wealthy relatives, the sudden acquisition of mysterious super powers: his mind sought out all the usual escape valves.

Matt's other perpetual daydreams were in the direction which you might expect of a nineteen-year-old still awash with hormones. He had not been sure about girls, but he had tried to give them a go. At sixteen the girl he'd been going out with, and was getting quite comfortable with, got pregnant. Not only was it scary, it was also humiliating. He had not been the father, as he had every reason to know. It was not a memory to which he liked to return. It had got round, and his peer group had been relentless. When he left for sixth form college the effect had lingered. He was friendly with girls, but avoided the social scene, and indeed the college premises when he could, which partly accounted for his mediocre A levels. They had disappointed his teachers, although they were adequate to get him into the red brick end of the university world.

The point was, as he freely admitted to himself, it was boys who aroused him sexually. He did not at least hide from the fact, although his honesty with himself did not help all that much. He had been happy to talk to girls until they got interested in things other than talk, and then he seized up socially. He could chat happily with most lads too. In fact, he was and always had been a cheerful and self-assured young man. He had been a quietly popular boy in school and he was popular amongst his circle at university. But when he was faced by a boy who stirred his libido his tongue was paralysed and his body language became incoherent. It would have astonished his admirers to know that at nineteen he remained a virgin, and a very frustrated one at that.

Body language was part of his problem. Matt had never been an unattractive lad in personality or looks, but even at eighteen he had still been a little gawky and unmemorable. At nineteen he was not someone you would ordinarily have noticed in a crowd until, that is, you got close. He was just about average height and he made a point of deliberately dressing in a nondescript way: cheap jeans and trainers, plain hoodies, cargo pants or sweats, faded tee shirts and baggy, nondescript jackets. He had found it a good defence through a prolonged and awkward adolescence.

But that adolescence was now ended, which was a fact that he himself had not yet noticed, although others had. For if you avoided the defences and got close, you would see that his face and body had filled out in their adult proportions and there had been unveiled in him, quite of a sudden, exceptional beauty. His face was classically cut, his forehead broad and his nose straight. His body was perfectly proportioned and also well-developed, due to holidays and weekends working in his father's building yard. Despite his bookishness, he had not yet needed glasses or contact lenses. His eyes were very dark, a rich and mesmerising brown shading almost to black.

His skin was clear and fine-grained; he had avoided the curse of acne almost completely, much to his friends' envy. He could still remember the ironic party thrown for him by his scrofulous Year 10 mates when he had at last come into school with an angry whitehead prominent on his nose. Matt had called it his 'zit of passage'. There had been a fight when his friend Jonno had run a raffle with the prize of squeezing it. It had led to his one and only detention when he finally lost his temper and swore at his tormenters in the hearing of the deputy head. His contained but passionate nature was hinted at by his lips: they were full and dark, almost crimson. He had a cloud of black hair, which in defiance of current fashion he still wore cut above his ears. In short, he looked like a Pre-Raphaelite Lancelot of the Lake, in jeans.

He was not vain - he was not yet aware of his beauty at all - but his mother (who was vain for him) had told him that his small ears and long neck looked better uncovered. She had decided that he had inherited the looks of his Irish grandfather, whose adventures amongst the opposite sex in post-war County Cork was a matter of family legend. Matt knew he had several uncles in Ireland who didn't share the family name.

This was the self-effacing and perfectly unselfconscious Adonis who walked with Leo up the library path, unaware of heads turning as he passed. On that warm day, for once, he was wearing the tight clothes that revealed and complemented his perfect physique. But his mind was elsewhere.

Leo was telling him that he was in love, and Matt was barely listening. Leo was frequently in love, always with a girl who either could not stand him, or would soon learn. He had a Celtic passion and a talent for self-delusion which undoubtedly qualified him to be a bad poet, and Matt knew that he had notebooks full of highly coloured poems going back to his early teens. Leo frequently forced them on him, asking for an enthusiastic admiration which he called 'criticism'.

'So what do you think of Kirsty... great girl, uh?'

'Kirsty, that's the long haired blonde who's always sitting close to her friends. They're always giggling together, as if they're joined at the head, or doing some weird ritual over a wax doll.'

'She's very cheerful yes, but I'd hardly say she giggles.'

Matt digested that remark, 'Mm... I suppose she might be cheerful, smiling deep inside, sort of thing.'

'Yes, Matt, yes. Like the bliss of the Blessed Virgin herself, it radiates from her like the warmth of the summer sun.'

Giggles like a sausage in a pan, Matt thought defiantly, quoting one of his mother's favourite phrases. Criticising Leo's weekly love affair was as big a waste of toil and trouble as criticising his poetry.

'So have you been talking with her?'

'Well, no. Not as such. I've been awaiting the right moment. She's always around Ruth, which is a bit awkward.' Ruth was last year's concluding romance, and Leo's over-enthusiastic obsession with her had led to a police caution for harassment. He had camped outside Ruth's flat over two nights and worried the neighbours. Leo, in short, was just the sort of friend that Matt would make, as Matt himself acknowledged. He did not fancy Leo at all, and so Leo didn't paralyse his speech faculties.

Male students came in three varieties, Matt had decided. There were the cool sort: unemotional, confident and controlled, sporty or well-heeled, and sometimes both. They usually had new cars, bought by their dad when they passed their test. This sort scared Matt, they made him feel like a kid in a group of unapproachable and slightly malevolent adults. Unfortunately, not only did they scare him, they tended to provide the more fanciable portion of the male sex as far as he was concerned.

Then, he thought, there were the strange ones: with shiny chrome studs in accessible and inaccessible areas, badly dyed hair, clothes from a Transylvanian boutique and erratic personal hygiene. This lot generally turned out to be quite nice on closer acquaintance, as if the weirdness was a safety valve which vented the tensions in their personalities. The problem with them was that you never quite knew where an evening with them would end up, or precisely what substances they might offer. Matt was still in shock from being shown precisely where one of them had a pin inserted; he thought of it every time he took a pee.

And the third group was what Matt regarded as his sort: men wearing safe, clean clothes and liking safe mainstream music, because the world was a mystery and they seemed otherwise unable to control their lives. He wasn't sure he liked this group either, but he couldn't escape them.

For all his good intentions, the library was a dead loss. He was uncomfortable with himself, and couldn't even lose himself in his lottery fantasy. But he settled on a table with Dave and Leo and tried to apply himself. Dave had already acquired the key books. He abstracted them from the shelves as soon as the module lists were out and then hid them round the library in inaccessible places. But if you knew this, he was a gold mine of references. He was always eager to open his treasury for Matt. Matt knew why too, for it was pretty obvious that there were other things Dave would have been keen on opening up for him. However, Dave Evans was firmly of the third sort, and although Matt admitted to himself that Dave was quite nice looking and had a reasonably desirable butt, he could not fancy him seriously. But he was getting to the point where a certain score with Dave was getting to be an attractive prospect, even if there could be no love. This was Matt's other problem. He wanted to be in love with the boy he took to bed.

Any chance of serious work evaporated after half an hour, when they were joined by their mutual friend, Katy Amphlett, a small and dynamic woman, whose energy was barely contained by the denim jacket into which she was tightly buttoned. Scary or not, Matt had a real soft spot for her, and he knew that she was fond of him. She sidled silently into a seat next to Leo, and stared at him until he became uncomfortable.

'What you looking at?' he whispered.

'I'm still working on that. I come with a message.'

'What?'

'From Kirsty.'

'Oh.'

'I quote. Tell that weird-git friend of yours, that if he keeps on looking like that at me, I'll allow Ruth's boyfriend to rip out his intestines and strangle him with them like he's been wanting to do since last year.'

'Ah.'

'Leo, will you come down to earth for Chrissake. Love is a mutual thing between man and woman, not an arbitrary decision you may choose to make on a series of bizarre criteria, ranging from the Burne-Jones highlights in one girl's hair to the resonance of another one's voice reminding you of the tumble of a waterfall near Pontardulais. This is not NORMAL!'

Everyone in the history section turned and looked at them. Katy really seemed not to care less. It was a quality in her which Matt deeply admired.

Dave looked daggers at her, but she stared him down, 'And don't you look at me like that, Evans. If you were his friend you'd have said something to Leo long before now.'

Matt was half-amused and half-embarrassed, but also relieved that Katy had finally had enough and was doing what she did best: telling things the way they were. She pointed at Leo.

'Stop bloody fantasising and do women the favour of believing that they have minds and preferences of their own. Fall in love with someone who has given you some reason to believe that she actually cares about you. You Welsh loony!'

She left like a small but intense storm cloud before a strong wind. Leo sat red-faced with his mouth hanging open. Finally he rallied, 'Well I think that was quite uncalled for. Really.'

Dave polished his glasses nervously, 'The woman ought to be locked up.'

Matt realised something at this point. It was that Katy's anger was not as straightforward a defence of womanhood as it seemed. There was more than a hint of frustration there, and frustration with what Leo was. He was beginning to wonder quite what her feelings were towards the hopeless Welshman. But in order to be helpful to the cause of sanity he leaned close to Leo and said, 'Listen to her, Leo. She's right. Save yourself a lot of pain. I'll see you two later.' He swung his bag over his shoulder and left too.

He decided to kill some time on a wander round the campus. The arts library was on the very fringe, where a railway line provided a natural boundary. He crossed a busy city artery to the original campus core, set along a tree-lined avenue. Here there was a group of fine Edwardian buildings in Queen Anne brick or Classical limestone, and a statue or two of university fathers in gowns and mutton chop whiskers. Most of the academic departments had long been moved out of these and into decaying glass and concrete seventies blocks further north, and the administration had now appropriated them as signs of power and status. But many students still hung around Old College, as it was called, sitting on the lawns and benches. History was the last academic foothold left in Old College, crammed into the least attractive of the buildings, a former town house at the edge of the city's memorial gardens.

He climbed up the lino-covered and creaking main stairs, and went to the departmental notice boards to check the seminar lists. The university's publicity stated that it communicated and taught through a sophisticated American intranet facility. It failed to mention that it had not properly invested in hardware to serve it and staff to service it. So technical problems meant that students generally failed to get access till halfway through the term. They ended up like Matt, staring at the notices pinned by desperate staff and secretaries on to the old technology of the notice board and picking up handouts from boxes outside tutors' doors.

The department was on the second floor, and at the head of the stairs was a round table and a few old easy chairs. Next to it was a men's loo, and Matt disappeared inside to answer a pressing call of nature. When he re-emerged he was surprised to see that the blond boy from the seminar was seated in one of the chairs. He could now see that he was dressed in faded jeans and a hooded grey sweatshirt which proclaimed misleadingly that he was affiliated to Georgetown University. The boy was staring fixedly out the big stair windows on to the sunlit lawns and avenue below. He didn't look up when Matt nodded at him. His bag was at his side, and a book was on the table in front of him, but he was not reading it. Matt passed on into the empty corridor.

'Hello young White,' said Dr Faber, as he passed his open door.

'Hello, sir,' replied Matt, taken off guard and falling back into the deference owed schoolteachers. Dr Faber was a lecturer in early modern history, and Matt had loved his first year introductory course on radicalism and rebellion in the seventeenth century. He had scored highly in his assessment, and had worked out that Dr Faber had a soft spot for him, not least because he could remember his name, a rare thing in university staff, as Matt was learning.

'How's the new term going?'

'OK.'

'OK?' Dr Faber smiled a little wickedly, 'So, are you enjoying Dr Littlejohn's excursion through the rise of the Third Reich?'

'Uhh... the lectures are sort of interesting, much more detail than we did in school.'

'Staying awake then, are you Matthew?' Matt looked sheepish and shrugged. Dr Faber smiled, 'Sometimes going back to the familiar is not always the best idea, at least, for an enquiring mind.'

'I guess not. See you later, er... Dr Faber.' When Matt came out of the departmental corridor twenty minutes later the unknown blond boy was no longer there, but by then Matt knew his name. By a process of elimination he had worked out from the seminar list that he had been looking at A.W. Peacher. He shouldered his bag and thumped down the creaking stairs. It was time to go and hire a video, and head home.

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