Towards the Decent Inn

VI

By Michael Arram

The next afternoon they decided to go out for a walk in the brilliant autumn sunshine. It was perfect weather, hot sun but a cool breeze. They didn't say much as they wandered. They were, after all, in the terrestrial paradise; neither would have been surprised if a unicorn had crossed their path. They crossed a main road close by and walked on into an extensive woodland park. There weren't many people around, apart from dog walkers and a solitary kid in a dark coat a long way down the path in the distance.

Andy suddenly looked mischievous, turned off the path and led Matt into a coppice. Once out of sight in a shrub-filled dell, he knelt on the ground in front of Matt, and abruptly yanked down his jeans and pants.

'I always wanted to do this to Cameron.'

Matt was more than a little excited by the movement of cold air around his exposed thighs and crotch. He whispered, 'Isn't this what got George Michael into so much trouble?'

'No, that was something else.'

'What?'

'It involved a public loo and policemen. This is only gross indecency. Now shut up and let me get round this little problem.'

'It's not so little now.' Pretty soon Matt lost any desire for conversation. As he was approaching a climax he was aware of a slight movement in the bushes nearby. The two young men froze. They heard a crackling of dry leaves and knew they were being watched. Matt looked down at Andy who disengaged and looked up at him. Matt quickly pulled up his clothes.

Annoyed at the interruption and always one to act rather than reflect, Matt pushed into the undergrowth towards the source of the noise, where he had glimpsed a dark figure. Andy appeared at his shoulder. None of them knew what to say. The figure rose to reveal a lad younger than themselves.

Matt was the first to recover the use of his voice, 'What the hell are you doing?' he said, a little stupidly.

The boy replied, just as stupidly, 'Nothing'.

'Oh yeah,' said Matt, unimpressed. 'And I'm Elton John.'

The stranger almost looked as though he was going to cry, and said nothing.

'It's alright, Matt,' said Andy, 'he just likes watching. No harm done.'

The boy said apologetically, 'Sorry, honest. But it was you two who decided to... y'know. I was just an... an innocent bystander.'

'With his hand on his dick?' asked Matt, getting aggressive again.

'Why should I tell you?' was the surly reply.

'You were following us, I saw you.'

'No, I bloody wasn't.'

'Yes you bloody were'

Andy intervened, 'Come on Matt. Let's go.'

The teenager shrugged and walked out after them. Just as they were separating, he stopped and asked defiantly. 'Any chance I could, y'know...'

'Watch us finish off... No, not if you paid us.'

'That's not what I was goin' to say. You don't let people finish what they're saying, do you,' the boy looked almost tearful.

Out in the sunlight, he was scrawny. He was maybe seventeen or eighteen. His hair was thick, dyed black and stuck out everywhere; he had a stud in his left ear lobe. He was taller than Matt. He looked shabby and badly taken care of, but he didn't speak like a street kid.

'You're students.' They didn't deny it.

Matt was exasperated. 'Look. Just sod off will you. You've already ruined what was shaping up to be a glorious afternoon.' The boy stuck out his tongue theatrically, and walked off.

Andy looked a little quizzically at Matt. 'Y'know. You were a bit harsh. I think he just wanted to be friends.'

'You serious?'

'Mmm. What was he really after, I wonder? You should have let him talk, Matt.' They walked off deeper into the park.

Matt shrugged and said, 'It's put me right off. Doesn't seem as though it's possible to have oral sex unobserved in a park nowadays. What is the world coming to?' protested Matt.

'You'd think that local government is giving priority to dog walkers and voyeurs, wouldn't you?'

'I may write to my local councillor.' Matt was a little disturbed by the incident, however. For all that Matt had desperate homosexual longings as a boy, he'd never contemplated the idea of looking for sex in public places, and he had rebuffed several attempts by older males to pick him up as a teenager. He had always assumed that such attempts were what every boy had to put up with, but Andy said he never had been approached. It suggested that it was Matt's prettiness as a teenager that had been a magnet for would-be predators, and he may have been lucky to have avoided more trouble from them than he had actually had.

Monday it was back to university. Andy had returned for the last time to his lodgings. Matt woke up alone and felt it odd now not to have the warmth of Andy next to him, to reach out and not to feel a body lying alongside him or nestling into him. He couldn't resist the feeling that normal life had asserted itself. He was aching to see his lover again, so he was out early. He passed a crowd of schoolkids at a bus stop at the end of the road. A taller boy was hunched among a depressed group of his peers. Matt was sure it was the voyeur-kid from Saturday, but the boy didn't show any sign of recognition; hardly surprisingly, perhaps.

It was the early class, and the room was scattered with slumped figures, fitfully taking notes, or scraping words into the desks. Matt felt that everybody was looking at him, and that everyone knew what he had been doing. Concentration on anything was out of the question. He was blissfully happy, and his notes consisted of innumerable decorative renditions of the names Andy and Matt. He refused to be embarrassed about the puerile sentimentality. He was exempt. He was in love.

He teamed up again with Andy in the library. They spent the rest of the morning working hard to catch up on what they had missed. They tried to be just two student mates sharing a table. But Matt could not stop sneaking glances at Andy, finding him irresistible when he was working, tapping his pen on his pale lips. Andy kept catching his eye and giving him small, knowing smiles. His small feet in his battered trainers and neat sports socks caused Matt frequent longing fantasies. Andy looked so serious and boyish in a cable-knit jersey that his gran might have made for him, he felt like crying. They shared coffee and a sandwich for lunch and wandered down to the pool for their swim.

They got back at tea time. They had a new – or rather second hand - video as a celebration of Andy's official moving day, 'Anything with Julia Roberts,' Andy had said. It was Notting Hill. Matt noticed a figure loitering on the tiled path. It was the voyeur-kid in a shabby school uniform, the tie a tattered strip of greasy fabric. He looked vaguely hopeful about something.

'Hi!' he said brightly

'What the hell do you want?' asked Matt coolly.

'Be fair, come on.'

'Haven't you got any homework to do?' asked Andy.

'C'mon, I gotta talk.'

Andy opened the door; he already had his own key. They made no move to go inside, but stood in the small front area, covered with gravel and weeds and scattered with the papers and cans that Matt never got round to picking up.

'Exactly how long have you been in my garden, kid?' Matt demanded.

'Just got off the school bus.'

'And how the hell did you know where I... we lived.'

'Oh, I tailed you back yesterday, when you returned from your walk.'

'Great, not just a voyeur, but a stalker.'

'I really, really hope this is not about you wanting us to get our rocks off for you.' said Andy.

'No, no, nuthink like that, although if you...' He caught the look in Matt's eyes and added hastily, 'Just kiddin', honest.' He paused. 'Look, can we go inside. People might notice.'

Andy shrugged with resignation, 'Looks like we're going to hear your story whether we want to or not, doesn't it? Come on in then.' They led the way into the hall. All three walked into the back kitchen, the boy dropping his school bag in a corner. He leaned against a doorpost and went into an obviously rehearsed spiel, although if so, the script needed some serious improvement.

'It's like this. I like you guys, honest. I'd like to... y'know... I mean I'd be happy if you wanted to... Any time. I'll do anythink you want, really, anythink. But see, if you could give me say, twenty quid for it, it'd help me no end.'

Andy looked blank. 'You're offering to have sex with us, for cash. Is that right?'

'If you have to be so crude.'

Matt glared, 'Crude! Absolutely no way, kid. How old are you anyway?'

'Eighteen in January. I'm in sixth form in Cardinal Hanrahan College. It'll be legal.'

Matt heaved a sigh. The kid was engaging in a rather persistent and annoying way. 'It might be legal, but it's a bit insulting of you to think we'd be interested. Anyway, I thought you knew about students and money? Look sorry, kid. You're worth more than that.'

The kid grimaced, 'I don't need the sermon. But I do need the money. How about fifteen?'

Andy looked puzzled and, unlike Matt, not at all angry, 'So why us?'

'If you must know, I've been watchin' you two. You've been passin' me house for weeks and you're pretty obviously more than just good friends. You seem OK. Nice smiles. Clean too. I thought you'd help me out; and if I have to sleep wiv you for it, I'm OK wiv that, honest. C'mon, me next attempt'll have to be down the loos in the park.'

Andy looked at Matt, who looked at Andy. 'Are you sure you're gay?'

'You never know till you try,' he replied, with a forced grin.

Andy smiled faintly, 'What's your name, kid?'

'If you must know it's Paul, Paul Oscott.'

'Well, Paul,' said Matt, at last beginning to see some humour in the whole business, 'how do you do?'

The kid looked on the verge of tears again, 'Fuckin' awful if you must know.' The other two sat watching the younger boy, waiting for something more. Paul for his part put his head down, and Matt was surprised this time to see that there really were tears streaking his face.

Andy looked distressed but undecided. He looked at Matt as if asking him to do something.

When the boy Paul had collected himself and wiped his eyes, he began an explanation of sorts. They learned that he lived with his mother but she had picked up a new partner, who resented his presence, and the house was torn with rows which he could no longer stand. He was hanging on by his nails to his schoolwork but was just about ready to give it all up and head for London. He dug into his greasy, too-small blazer with a lot of wrist exposed, and pulled out a thin wad of cash.

'I got enough for the bus and maybe a couple of weeks till I get a job. Shouldn't be too difficult. They're always after checkout clerks and shelf stackers. Jobs I've done before. I've even got references. I just need enough to afford a bed and escape the streets.'

Matt looked at Andy, who raised his eyebrows. He indicated the back door and they apologised to Paul, asked him to wait, and walked outside to the unkempt garden, full of junk and plumbing dumped by Matt's father.

Andy said, 'He could be a liar. After drug money or something. They're shocking that way, and very imaginative and persuasive. We had one in my sixth form. He used to lift anything left around the prep room and look at you as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth.'

'You know, I do believe him,' mused Matt.

'Well, he's a bit weird, but he grows on you. But what could we do, other than give him cash? Anyway we'll soon find out if he's worth bothering about.'

'Uh? How?'

Andy looked a little pleased with himself. 'I left twenty quid on the kitchen unit in full view. If he's gone with the money when we get back, he's a lying little shit. If he isn't and the money's still there, he's genuine.'

Matt looked at his lover admiringly 'You're a little bit awesome, do you know that? Not just a pretty face.' Andy smiled, complimented. Matt added thoughtfully, 'Anyway, there is something we can do if he's genuine.'

Paul looked up when they came back in some minutes later. The money was there still, apparently untouched.

Andy patted him on the shoulder, 'You can sleep on the sofa if you want, just for tonight. We've got to think about it. Oh, and we're not interested in your body, you may be disappointed to hear. But won't you be missed?'

Paul looked suddenly hopeful, as if a door to freedom had opened up unexpectedly. 'Doubt it. The two of them are all wrapped up in each other. I ran away from home a fortnight ago, and they hadn't noticed three days later when I came back. Mum said they assumed I was at a friend's. Dan, the man, looked disgusted that I had returned at all.'

Matt and Andy were bemused at the turn of events. They made Paul a tea, but couldn't offer him sugar: 'S'OK, no problem; I was thinking of givin' it up... me weight you know.' He was touchingly determined to be obliging. 'I meant it about going to London.'

'Whatever,' said Matt. 'Just think of this as a breathing space, if you want. We've got a spare room and you're a temporary lodger. I reserve the right to charge you rent.'

The decision made, they began piecing the rest of Paul's background together. His father had died from lung cancer when he was twelve. He didn't want to talk about it much, but they got the idea that his mother's instability began then. He had no brothers and sisters. He was bright, seventeen, and trying hard to hang on in his sixth form, although he was beginning to lose his way.

Talk became more general. Paul brightened up with the attention and sympathy; he was certainly a little bit mad, but he was also a well-disposed lad, though how he had got that way with the recent background he described was a marvel. They found him a duvet, said goodnight, and retired to Matt's bed. They talked late into the night.

Next morning, Paul was awake at eight, dressed in yesterday's clothes and tidying his temporary bed. He did his best not to stare as Matt and Andy stopped and gave each other a lingering and very passionate kiss as they passed each other in the kitchen.

Matt announced that he could stay a bit longer if he wanted. Andy threw him a towel and ordered him into the shower, telling him to use what he found there. Andy's small face radiated determination that if Paul was camping in their house, he must observe some rules. Matt was touched to see him push some money into Paul's hands as he packed him off down the path to the bus. They headed into the campus an hour later, after making some arrangements to accommodate a new housemate.

Paul returned at five with a battered suitcase. He'd been home and stripped his room of clothes and all the possessions he could carry, mostly books – the case was a dead weight, and it was a tribute to his persistence that he had got it to their house. They put him in a back room where Matt had found a kid's camp bed which would just about take him. They'd cleared the rest of the junk out and pushed it into the loft. He was blissfully happy with the bare and modest accommodation; proof enough perhaps of what he had said about the home he had just left.

A week went by. Paul proved a surprisingly sensitive lodger, leaving the other boys their space, and keeping to his own. He was also remarkably tidy for a teenager. They became more than a little self-conscious about their coupling, which was in general very enthusiastic and vocal. They kept checking that he hadn't bored holes in the wall to watch them.

They took him with them to the library in the evenings, passing him off as a fresher and talking him past the security barrier. He was not unhappy for them to help him with his A levels, and he fell in love with the library. He progressed in all directions, and a lot of it was to do with Andy. Some nights he would watch television and talk till late with Paul, joining Matt long after he went to bed himself, for Matt did not like to stay up late. He would hear the murmuring of their conversation downstairs from his bedroom as he was drifting off to sleep. Andy just shrugged when he asked him what they talked about. 'Stuff' was the only answer Matt got. But he guessed that the two boys had some things in common, such as weird mothers for instance, and that meant they could meet each other at a level he could not. Strangely, this exclusion did not concern him, although he knew he was a man capable of jealousy.

The fact was that they had all three formed a ramshackle family unit, almost instantly. They both had taken on Paul deliberately as a responsibility, and did it with all seriousness. Although they did not try to exert any authority over him, Andy had become the intuitive and caring parent-figure, the one who listened, and Matt was the stabilising and moral figure to whom reference was made. If it had ever been necessary, he would have written Paul's sick notes. Paul had embraced the dependent relationship with relief, and become a boy again for a brief while, rather than continue being forced to become a premature adult. Less expected for both Andy and Matt was their feelings for their temporary charge. They realised one day quite soon that not only was Paul lovable, but that they loved him. They discussed this development a lot.

'It's weird, Andy. We're not related to the guy, we've got no responsibility for him, yet I do feel responsible for him, and I want to see him happy.'

Andy thought about it, 'It's because of what he is. He's happy-go-lucky, trusting and funny, and he's had a bad time recently. But more than that he's a gentle, loving soul, and so very deserving of something better. We can't do much for him, but we can at least show him someone cares for him, and wants him to do well, and will praise him when he does. I suppose this is what being a mum or dad is really like. Tugs at your heart strings, doesn't it?'

So it was with satisfaction that they watched him put on weight, and losing the look of the scarecrow. He seemed secure, and looked a lot cleaner too. The black dye grew out of his hair, which turned out to be standard mousy brown. They found the money to send him down the dry-cleaners to get his blazer and the best of his scruffy clothing properly clean. Matt gave him a plain white shirt he had somehow retained in his wardrobe, and Paul began to look quite respectable, apart from his tie. But even that got replaced when Andy found one on sale for 50p in an Oxfam shop.

One day Andy asked him, 'Why're you so happy, Paulie? You got a girlfriend?'

He laughed, 'Nup, not that I couldn't have me choice at the moment, believe me.'

'Why's that?' Matt joined in.

'Well, I am so cool. I've been kicked out by me mum and I share a house in Finkle Road wiv two gay students. You got no idea how much cred that gives me, even wiv the teachers. And everybody wants to know what you guys do in bed.'

Andy sputtered, 'You what!'

'Yeah, odd innit? None of the boys wants to be gay, but the idea of gay sex gets them all fired up. So I sort of improvise; not a lot mind... you two don't leave much to me imagination what wiv the noises you make. And they all want to know whether you make passes at me. And if I have to fight for me virtue.'

Andy was annoyed, 'Do you tell them that it was you who tried to seduce us?'

Paul had hysterics on the sofa, and Matt and Andy had to join in. In the end they jumped him.

'You make me so horny, Paulie,' Matt sniggered lasciviously into Paul's face, as he sat on the squirming and laughing boy's chest unbuttoning his shirt while Andy stripped the trousers off his kicking legs. Paul finally escaped and barricaded himself in his room, wearing nothing but his necklace, his underpants and an embarrassed grin. Matt and Andy sat outside his door panting and laughing, they shook hands.

'That'll teach the boy some discipline,' Matt asserted.

'Yes, he was getting a bit out of hand,' Andy agreed.

Weeks went by. Paul caused them more laughter by taking on a paper round before and after school and he found a Saturday job in a local supermarket. But it brought in a useful bit of cash as well as giving himself some self-respect: 'See, I can pay rent. So I did end up as your rent boy, didn't I Matt?' He was a useless cook, but had an unsuspected gift for effortlessly tidying up after them all. The bath and toilet began to gleam and the carpet lost its hostile ecology. The kitchen surfaces stopped being bacterial playgrounds. They almost considered asking him to tidy their clothes, but thought it made them seem a bit wet. Paul himself had found hangers, and he ironed and folded all his tattered and faded wardrobe.

They sometimes went to pubs after the library had closed, but mostly they stayed in playing cards or electronic games, which cost a lot less. Paul was quite a gamesman, and difficult to beat in any sort of game, except chess. Card games were a speciality. He said that he was working on a system, and would one day hit Las Vegas and clean up. Matt half-believed him. Chess did not interest him. He could never remember the way that knights moved, and called pawns, 'prawns'. Finally Matt realised that he was doing it because he thought it was amusing and quit playing him in disgust. Paul's mother seemed completely unfazed by his disappearance into a flat, an indifference that the other two could hardly believe, knowing their own mothers. She seemed utterly incurious to how he was surviving.

One weekend not long after Paul's arrival, Matt's parents announced their intention to visit. His dad was going to fit two wardrobes and a washing machine at his mother's insistence. He also picked up a new single bed to install in what he believed was Andy's room, but was actually Paul's. There were smiling introductions to his 'housemate' Andy. Paul had disappeared in a hurry to a schoolfriend's house. They had hastily rearranged the bedrooms to disguise the true sleeping arrangements. The parents were charmed by such a quiet, polite young man as this Andy. They gave him quite undeserved credit for the tidiness and relative cleanliness of the place.

He sat and chatted to Mrs White and made her a cup of tea, while Matt and his dad moved things around and put up the new furniture. Andy in turn was fascinated by Matt's little brother, Carl, who looked very much like a miniature fifteen-year-old Matt. He even tried to talk to him, but didn't get far. Carl disappeared outside to help get the washing machine out of the van, and then raced upstairs after his father and brother.

Matt's mum kissed and hugged him at the door when they left. She did not surprise him in the least by giving him her verdict on Andy. She had always been deeply interested in all Matt's friends when he was at school. She arranged them in categories in the descending order of 'nice', 'decent', 'well-meaning' and 'a bit hopeless'.

'That boy Andy is really nice, Matty love,' she said. You always did choose decent friends, as I was telling your dad the other day.' Then she moved on to her other inevitable interest, other mothers. 'Andy was telling me about his mum in Nuneaton. She seems a bit, well... nutty; although I'm sure she loves her boy, and she's certainly brought him up nicely spoken. By the way, don't forget to send your Auntie Carol a get-well card tomorrow.'

'She bad again, mum?'

'The cancer's back and worse than ever. Your Uncle Bob's in a right old state. Bye love.' She kissed him. Bob was Matt's father's eldest brother.

'So that's what a family is like,' Andy said. 'They're seriously lovely. Did you know your brother's like a scale model of you, aged fifteen?'

'Did my dad talk to you?'

'Looks like I'm going to have to pay you rent. It's alright; it's not much more than I was paying in the last place. And look, we have a working washing machine which is going to save us loads on trips to the launderette, providing we can work out what temperature to wash things in. Yes, and Paulie's got a comfy new bed to sleep in, with really nice bedding your mum brought too.'

Paul didn't come back early so they coupled happily on the lounge floor and dozed there, entangled, till nearly midnight amongst a mess of cushions. Paul's key scraping in the lock sent them scrambling for their clothes.

Next week, they contemplated a Union flier on all the bar tables. 'Gaysoc?' asked Matt.

'We might as well think about it. News gets round. I think Steve's been helping it on too, judging by the looks I get. Our secret's out, you know.'

'I'd guessed it once the girls started making a point of hanging out with me in the coffee bar. If that wasn't enough, Katy whispered that she thinks we make a really sweet couple.'

'But Gaysoc?'

'Where are they meeting?'

'Down the, er... the King's Cross'

Matt and Andy caught each other's eyes. The King's Cross was a pub that students tended to avoid, unless they were feeling very adventurous, or had particular needs. It was notorious as the place where the more way out and promiscuous part of the gay community had made its headquarters. The student name for it was the Queen's Cruise.

'Perhaps not, then. It's a bit of a statement going down the Queen's.'

Although it was a little late in the day, and seemed at first sight a forlorn hope, Paul had decided to go to university after he had finished school. 'I'm almost there anyway with you two.'

They agreed that it would have been a terrible waste if Paul didn't try, even though getting through the bureaucracy would be agony. But Paul was now keen to go though with it. So he found the forms and they filled them in with him, reminiscing about personal statements, insurance offers and predicted grades. Paul took the paperwork to school next morning and talked a tutor into processing it.

Paul was revealing himself to be a very determined reader, and he consumed even non-fiction at a surprising rate. His room soon absorbed all their books and they had to go looking for them in the piles next to his bed. He haunted second hand book shops in town, and it was quite instructive to follow him around them. The dealers liked him, and set books aside which they knew he was looking for. He had complicated arrangements about borrowing and exchanging titles, which avoided the need for much money. His most astonishing claim was that he enjoyed reading literary criticism, despite the arched eyebrows of his housemates. Andy's mouth dropped when he heard Paul use the word 'metonymy' correctly.

'No. Iss all interestin'. You know, before I met you and Andy I hadn't a clue about the world of education. I only discovered there was such a fing as A levels when me mates in GCSE started talkin' about what they would be doin' in sixth form. Me mum didn't have a clue. She don't have one single exam to her credit, she was expelled when she got pregnant wiv me when she was fifteen. So I made out that sixth form was compulsory, 'cos if she'd ever realised that I could have left school at sixteen, I would have been out on me ear. Now I've met you two and I discover that there is a world of degrees and universities beyond A levels! It just goes on and on. And it turns out that there are masters' degrees and doctorates too. Is there anyfink after that?'

'No. The conveyor belt comes to end with the PhD. You excited about it?'

'Bet I am.' He waved his student text of Brideshead Revisited. 'I've been readin' just to escape shit since I was ten when me dad got ill. Stuff like this really moves me: all the weirdness and weakness of humanity exposed and taken apart by great minds. Not perhaps this guy so much, maybe. He has a very negative view of the world; yet he was a Catholic. For him the fact that the world changes is somefink to weep about. Now me, I'd rejoice in it. But the prose at least is marvellous, and the plot appeals; not that it could happen nowadays. A posh and epicene nob slumming it with a pretty, lower-class lover in Gothic quadrangles and stately homes. Cinderella for snobs, wiv no happy ending.'

'... Unless you're a Catholic. Paulie, your enthusiasm is a rare tonic. I feel humble. Really. You make me think anything's possible. All the crap and neglect you've had to wade through, and yet you've still got your eyes on the mountains.'

'That's a C.S. Lewis image.'

'Exactly. Just what I mean. You've learned these things, but with the small degree of encouragement you've had, there's no reason why you should have done. Nothing daunts you.'

'I'm goin' to be an academic.'

'The pay's useless, so they say.'

'I don't care. I'll take the vow of poverty if they'll have me. Fancy just being paid to fink.'

'Think, sit on committees, teach and publish. You can't just sit with your feet on a desk and stare out the window.' Matt had already been party to the muted complaints of his lecturers on the modern university.

'I can do it. I'm going to do it.'

'So get on with your English project work then.'

'It's definitely English lit for me.'

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