Towards the Decent Inn

VII

By Michael Arram

It was soon the end of November, and term was in its last weeks. A notice appeared announcing the traditional nine-a-side football staff-student game. Andy said he thought he'd sign up. Andy and Paul liked to kick around in the park of an afternoon, while Matt, who, for all his fine physique, had the co-ordination of a spider with palsy, kept goal between their coats and daydreamed until they shouted at him for letting the ball in. So far as he could judge, which wasn't saying much, Andy was quite a good player. He had played for his school first team, which he reckoned was pretty good even though his was principally a rugby school. So Andy signed his name and turned up for the training evening.

The match on the University sports fields was a big event, even the girls turned out in gloves and scarves on the touch line. Andy trotted on the field with the rest of the team, men mostly a lot bigger and heavier than he was. The staff who were able to play were bigger, and also wider. Matt stood with Dave Evans. He was affable, but a little distant. Matt could see that he and Andy had already acquired a reputation of being friends a bit too close to be just good mates, and he knew why Dave would resent it. But he also knew that Dave was a sucker for his charm, and he soon had him smiling and even laughing, even if there was a persistent sadness in the Welsh boy's dark eyes when he looked at him.

Steve was on the touchline nearby, with a couple of males in baseball caps who smoked, and spat on the ground when they weren't smoking. Matt noticed the difference in Steve. His face was pouchy and flushed. Drinking too much, Matt guessed. He hoped it was because of sexual frustration.

The match went reasonably well, the students had speed and stamina which the staff could only offset by hard physicality. Andy, on the other hand, was light and very fast, dancing round most trouble and demonstrating a lot of coordination and control. He seemed to be in the middle of most of what caused the staff side trouble. Matt was feeling proud of him, especially in the second half when he zipped between two overweight doctoral students and put his side ahead. He got clapped on the back and ran back down the field with a grin across at Matt: 'Go Andy go!' he shouted, and Katy and the girls picked it up like a chant. But after that, Andy was watched closely and a challenge off the ball hacked him brutally down. He took his time getting up. 'On your feet, y' little queer!' shouted a voice in his ear, and Matt spun round and caught Steve's eye, getting a defiant sneer in return.

'Just fuck off, Steve,' he mouthed.

'Piss off yourself, bum-boy!'

Matt lunged and had the satisfaction of landing a foot in Steve's groin. His dad had said it was always wise to take out the big one first any way you could. At his side, Dave swung wildly and – much to his evident delight and surprise – connected with one of Steve's friends who had gone for Matt, the lad went down in the mud. But Dave's glasses came off and he had to scrabble after them. The girls shrieked, and Katy slapped hard in the face another lad who had grabbed hold of Matt. He reeled away, letting Matt go as he clutched his head. Steve was out of it, curled up on the ground and gasping with pain as his mates looked defeated and helpless, as more lads ran to back up Matt.

Andy was up and running by the time Matt had cooled down and was sure that the incident was over. His mates had picked up Steve and dragged him away, breathing heavily. Not only was Andy up, he was chasing the ball down the wing, and scored a dazzling second goal, the ball soaring past the goalkeeper from the touch line. This time the team hugged him and ruffled his hair. He was quite the hero as the whistle went. The staff had lost the game for the first time in six years.

Matt waited around the changing rooms for him. He came out in a huddle of big, smiling lads talking animatedly. Andy smiled in his direction and nodded towards the local pub. Matt gave a thumbs up.

The student pub was crowded and there was no getting near Andy, whose golden head was lost amongst a pack of bigger men. Whatever Andy's reputation, football was a passport to social success. He suddenly had a lot of friends, and Matt was pleased, if a little rueful. This was an area where he could not follow Andy. He joined Dave, Katy Amphlett and some other old friends in a corner of the bar, who were talking about anything other than soccer, which suited Matt. Dave was telling the story of his physical prowess to anyone who would listen. Katy eventually shut him up by observing that Steve's mates were probably waiting outside for him. He went quiet and pale.

Katy looked at Matt archly, when he handed her a drink he'd bought. She had always had a special interest in Matt. She was also from Northampton, and although Andy had not known her before university, they shared some common acquaintances. She was convinced they were distant cousins, which Matt thought not unlikely, considering the size of the White family. 'So Chalky, now you're out good and proper, and you've disappointed all the girls.'

'Some of the boys too, perhaps.'

'Oh, you mean Steve?'

'You know about him then?'

'We all know he's gay, yeah!'

'That'll piss him off. He thought it was such a big secret.'

'If you want to keep a secret like that, you shouldn't get so hammered you blab out your maudlin infatuations to half the bar. He was swearing blue murder against you to my flatmate Annie Freedman when you blew him out. The only people who don't know about him are his thick mates. Besides, he tried to hit on Alex Johnson in Sociology a couple of weeks after you told him to get lost... remember Alex? He was on our floor in hall last year. Alex was so shocked he told everybody in the rowing club, which is how it got back to me cos I know Megan, who's the first crew cox.'

'A fortnight after he tried it on with me... well that makes sense.' Steve must have come straight from his failure with Alex to his place, drunk and desperate. That was the day Steve had attacked Andy.

'Makes sense...?'

'Oh, nothing,'

Katy looked at him speculatively. 'He's nice, is Andy. But I can see how he would have fallen for you.'

'How's that then?'

'It's something about him. He's like a plant which needs a trellis; not that he's weedy or effeminate or anything, but emotional dependency's not a quality attractive to most girls. Now you are attractive to girls, and it's not just your looks, not even principally your looks, in fact. There's a strength in you, Matt... you're your own man. You come across as someone who'll do things.'

'No, Katy. You've got it wrong. Andy's the stronger of the two of us, the one who knows what to do. He's the sporting hero, believe me. I was born to be the spectator.'

'If you say so, I'm sure you know him a lot better than I do. But sporting heroes aren't necessarily heroes off the field, now take David Beckham. Oops...!'

Andy pushed past them both, 'Scuse me, gotta...' he disappeared with a clatter into the loo, and the faint sound of retching came through the door. Katy pulled Matt back when he made a move to go and help. 'Don't nanny him, Matt. He's the strong one, remember.'

It turned into a classic late student night. Matt watched the drinking games happening round the team table with some alarm. He knew Andy was not a great drinker, but he seemed to be still upright and laughing most of the time. Matt shrugged, it would not be his headache in the morning. Alex Johnson, who had always been friendly with Matt, turned up at nine and came grinning towards him.. He was a sturdy boy a little taller than Matt. He had blue eyes and a snub nose set in a round, cheerful face framed by a bob of black hair. Matt would not have thought that he was Steve's type, but who was he to say; with Steve it was probably not looks but need and opportunity that counted. But then, why did he pick on Alex? Matt couldn't work it out. He couldn't pick up any signals that Alex would be responsive to a pass. He was just a friendly student famous only for an inappropriate sense of humour and his rowing abilities, a man of not unpleasing looks, and a perpetual grin. Perhaps it was the muscles.

He and Alex compared Evil Steve seduction stories, and laughed rather cruelly about it. Alex was an easy-going and friendly sort. He gave a regretful look, but still had a twinkle in his eyes, 'Shouldn't laugh, it's cruel.'

'I have to say, you're taking it well, Alex.' Matt said. 'Some people would have been freaked out. He's a big bloke and he certainly intimidated me,'

'Nah. Steve's not a bully, and never was. If he wasn't so drunk half the time, and if he was a bit more willing to confront what he is, he'd even be a nice guy. He certainly shocked me a bit though. He took me by surprise, and he even tried to grope me between the legs. Fortunately he was so pissed he just ended up knocking my pint over me. By the way, I really admire you for what you and Andy are doing.'

'Doing? We're not doing anything. We've just come out in the open, that's all. It's not as if it's such a big deal in universities nowadays. Gaysoc is one of the biggest societies in the Union.'

'It's a big enough deal for you two as individuals. You take a risk with other people's prejudices. That takes real nerve.'

'People have been mostly OK. Me and Andy are hardly all over each other in public; we don't outrage public decency and frighten the horses, do we? You're pretty cool about it, and it's people like you whose opinions mean something to us, Alex.'

'Yeah I am cool aren't I? I'm really impressed with my modern attitudes.' He paused significantly, 'What's it like being gay?'

'Er... it's a pain in the arse a lot of the time.'

Alex guffawed, 'Don't be flip, it was a serious question, Matt.'

'It's not a question with an easy answer. I'm glad it's all out in the open is all I can say. The concealment and the denial isn't good for anyone. I'm happier now I can be myself and sod the rest of the world. It's just that I'm not looking forward to coming out to the family. That's the really hard one. Why d'you ask, anyway?'

'I'm a modern guy who wants to be fully informed of current social trends, why else?' Alex grinned happily and got Matt another drink.

It was a really good night, the best he'd had for weeks. He felt like his old circle of friends had reformed around him, which did wonders for his confidence. It seemed that he was to them still their mate Chalky from Northampton, even if he was now openly gay and living with another man.

Matt asked Katy, 'So how long have you known? I knew you knew, Katy, even though you didn't say.'

Katy looked impressed, 'And that's another reason why you're so special, Matt. You're very sensitive for a guy. I think you'd be sensitive to people if you were straight or gay. But it was pretty obvious to me from the moment you settled into hall last year. I can tell when a nice guy is never going to be more than friendly to girls. In your case, it was pretty obvious to all of us well before the end of the first year.'

'How's that?'

'Matt, do you ever look in a mirror?'

'Yeah, when I shave.'

'You really don't know do you? Matt, when you dress up decently instead of in that shabby crap you always put on, you are the hottest guy I have ever seen in my life, and I include telly here. It would be obvious to even more people if you did something about your clothes. But when you aren't wearing much at all, that's just... wow. Believe me, you could have walked to the showers in the morning on a carpet of girl's tongues. We used to timetable our days to catch sight of you in the corridor in your boxers. And what did we get back? A celestial smile and a nice "Mornin' Katy, cold innit?", as if you were some sort of polite, student seraph on an exchange programme from the University of Heaven.'

'Come on, you exaggerate. I'm nothing special. Steve is the looker, the big guy with muscles and stuff.'

'Not bloody much I don't exaggerate. By the final term the baffled lust in Stenton Hall had almost taken corporeal form it was so bad. We finally had to agree that you were gay just so as to save our sanity. You're the worst sort of gay. You're kind and sweet and interesting, and we just end up kidding ourselves that we could turn you straight given half a chance and have your babies.'

Matt was not convinced by the flattery. He had a different ideal of male beauty, which was for him defined by his fantasy of the lost Peter Day. He did however realise something that he had not been willing to acknowledge.

'Sorry, Katy.'

'Sorry? What do you mean, sorry?'

'Sorry that I made you have feelings for me, and was too stupid to realise what I was doing.'

Katy stood quiet for all of thirty seconds, which was something of a record for her. 'And still the boy surprises me,' she mused half to herself. 'Matt, I... oh, nothing. Andy is the luckiest little puppy the world has ever known. I hope he realises quite how lucky he is. I shall take him apart sinew by sinew if ever he hurts you, I swear to God.' Matt thought he saw a tear as she turned away to get another drink.

Andy fulfilled all Matt's fears and had to be carried back home by him and Alex. Paul had waited up and was very amused; he helped get Andy to bed, which was no easy job after he passed out in the kitchen. They put a bucket by his side of the bed.

The next morning Andy was breathing the scent of beer and sick into his face when Matt woke up. Their clothes on the floor next the bed reeked of tobacco. Matt slipped out from under the duvet, feeling pretty queazy himself as he reached down to pick up his underpants. Coffee didn't make him feel any better, and he ran a bath. Paul would not surface till midday. It was Saturday and he wasn't working for once. Just as Matt sank into the hot water, the door pushed open – it still did not lock - and Andy staggered to the toilet and vomited spectacularly, kneeling on the tiles and looking genuinely green as his head came up between retches.

'You poor kid,' said Matt sitting up, leaning out of the bath and stroking the dishevelled blond head. Andy's blue eyes had lost their sparkle.

'Let me die.'

'Sorry, Andy, couldn't live without you.'

The stink from the bowl was awful. But as soon as it was flushed, Andy was head down retching again. Matt could not work out where Andy was finding stuff to vomit up. Soon there was only horrible, dry retching left.

He slumped full length next to the toilet, groaning weakly. 'Do something Matt, you said you loved me.'

'Andy, if I could take your headache from you, you know I would. But you did, er, embrace the alcohol poisoning last night.'

'I can't remember.'

'Come in with me.'

Andy struggled up, dropped his pants and lay in the bath under the hot water between Matt's thighs. He clasped his arms round him in what he hoped was a soothing way. He made Andy hold up his legs so he could examine bad bruising on his thigh from yesterday's tackle. Andy burped and groaned. Matt blenched at the whiff of his morning-after breath.

'So what was the changing room like?'

'Not quite the fantasy you might imagine. Everyone was taking care to change under towels with their backs to me.' Matt snickered.

'They were a lot friendlier after the game, though. But soon as I went in the showers, I was suddenly alone. But, yes - be fair to them - the guys were more OK than I had a right to expect. I think that we can stop being so nervous round the department. Most of them don't seem to care too much.'

'From what I heard last night in the bar, you may be right, although there was one big exception.'

'Mmm, so I saw from the pitch. You planted a good one in the bastard's crutch didn't you? Yay my Matt!' He winced at the effort of enthusiasm, 'God, my head. Did you know that Steve and his mates got roughed up by the team after the match?'

'No, really?'

'Yeah, Morgan, the captain, said he'd rather have a good winger who takes it up the arse than a supporter whose only talent was talking through his. There was a serious difference of opinion. Cool, uh?'

Matt kissed his shoulders and hair, which smelt of cigarettes. 'Steve is in the shit right across the university from what Katy was telling me.'

Andy groaned and stirred. 'Oh no, sorry mate.' He struggled out of the bath, water cascading everywhere, and parked himself on the toilet, a pool of water forming round his feet. 'I gotta go, can't stop myself.' He defecated noisily. The smell was foul beyond description. Matt got out quickly and found some towels as Andy sat with his pounding head in his hands.

'Scuse me, I need to go back to bed and die in agony, if that's OK.'

'I could keep your corpse in the back bedroom, y'know like in that film, with Norman Bates and his mum.'

'Jeez. You can only think of stuffing me ... O God.' His bowels moved loudly again, and Matt got out fast.

Andy dozed and groaned his way through the morning in their darkened bedroom, while Paul and Matt read the papers and made as little noise as possible. He rejoined the human race late in the afternoon. He ate dry toast and drank black coffee. Then he laboriously dressed in his short blue corduroy jacket and grey scarf. It was his Saturday ritual. He and Matt went down to the phonebox and he rang his mother. It saved on money, the mobile being so expensive, and the house phone was paid for by Matt's father.

Matt didn't know much more about Andy's parents than he had learned in the first week of their relationship. He had worked out that Andy's father had remarried and he had several younger half-siblings he rarely saw. He had checked out Andy's mum's website and was impressed at the extent of the obsessional lunacy behind it. He did not think he wanted to meet the mind that put it together.

The call was a long one, so Matt went for a walk round the block rather than eavesdrop. He returned as Andy put the phone down with a moody expression on his face.

'They're at it again. Dad's wanting me to join him for Christmas.'

'Isn't that good?'

'No. It's just strategy. He wants mum to be on her own over the holidays, and so he makes a fuss about having me over. She'll just be stuck with gran in Stockport. He's a bastard.'

Matt shrugged internally, it wasn't his fight. 'Do you always go back to mum, then?'

'I went to his place Christmas two years ago, year before university. It was OK, but I couldn't get the picture out of my head of mum and gran sitting silent watching telly, wearing paper hats from crackers. I couldn't enjoy the trip, and Dad didn't appreciate the moodiness.'

'So what're you going to do?' He did feel an interest in this question, as he was suddenly and chillingly aware that he was not going to see Andy, let alone Paul, for a whole month.

'I'm getting fed up of being a Christmas cracker myself, pulled between the two of them. Maybe I'll stay here and sod the both of them.'

Matt's heart leaped. If Andy stayed, so would he, but then guilt intervened. 'Then nobody's happy.' Andy heaved a sigh. He still looked a bit peaky from last night.

They walked disconsolately along the road, Matt kicking up the piles of leaves. A couple of passing students waved and called, and they waved back.

'I think I'll go to Dad,' Andy finally announced. 'To tell the truth, with all that's happened this term, I'm not the man I was, and even my mum is certain to notice. I don't want her on my case right now. You and me are too big a thing at the moment and I can't get you out of my head. Yes, don't grin, you're all I can think of all day long and you know it. If I go to Dad, he don't know anything much about me, and I can be as preoccupied as I like.'

On Sunday, Andy disappeared to the telephone box in late afternoon with a pocketful of change, saying he could get his dad to take a collect call if he could reach him. In view of Andy's stonewalling on the subject, Matt had never asked where it was that Andy's dad lived, but the timing of the call seemed to indicate that it was not on this side of the Atlantic. Andy came back tense with suppressed excitement. But he wouldn't say anything until they were cleaning up after supper and Paul was watching the telly in the lounge.

'Matt?'

'Yes?'

Andy was talking with the sort of control and deliberation that makes people sit up. 'I've got a suggestion, and I don't want you to get angry with me for being selfish.'

'Go on.'

'I want you to come with me to Dad's this Christmas. He's happy for me to bring a friend.'

Matt was a little stunned. He wondered what his family would say if he announced he was off abroad for the holiday season. Christmas for him was different, his home was filled with family, grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts. He would be missed, he knew, although not the way Andy was. But he reflected that he too was a bit wary of how his new life would affect his behaviour around family. Andy brightened as he explained this, and with much frowning and calculation they agreed on the plan.

'But what about Paulie?' Matt wondered.

'Well I doubt he's going home, and we always expected he'd mind the flat and amuse himself with as much telly and reading as he can cram in. We can leave him what spare cash we've got. We can trust him to keep the place tidy.'

'But can we trust him not to redecorate in our absence?'

'Is it sorted then?' He looked like a little dog whose master had reached for the lead and put his coat on.

'Sorted, I suppose ... uh, where does your father live, and how do we get there?'

'Oh, I didn't say ... well, he's in America.'

'Wow.'

'In California'

'Double wow.'

'A place up from Los Angeles called Santa Barbara.'

'Oh jeez, look I can't afford ...'

'And ... er, he'll fly us over.'

'Oh right, well that's decent. Which airline?'

Andy took his time about answering, looking apprehensively at Matt, 'Uh, no, he has his own jet, which he'll send.'

Matt's jaw literally dropped. There'd been no warning of this. The anxious look in Andy's eyes indicated that he knew Matt was going to be upset now some of the blanks were about to be filled in. 'Jesus and Mary, what does he do?'

Andy's uneasiness increased. 'Makes obscene amounts of money ... which makes his treatment of mum all the more obscene.' Matt was being invited to understand that Andy had sided with his mother in the family civil war, and that his father was excluded from his life.

Richard Peacher, he explained, had been a research engineer, who'd got in on the ground floor of the computer design boom. He had designed and patented the key codes of common operating systems, and netted a vast fortune which seemed to double every two years, 'Every time you log on to a web page you pay him a tiny fraction of a penny. But it mounts up.' But on top of that he had invested his great wealth very profitably in a range of industries, and it had multiplied twenty-fold. This was after he'd left Andy's mum and gone to take up a research post in UCLA.

'Hang on,' said Matt, 'I remember the name.' He disappeared to a stack of Sunday supplements that Paul had not yet recycled. Three weeks down he found the issue: 'The World's Richest'. He scanned the glossy pages and thumbnail portraits. He'd subconsciously noted the Peacher name, because it wasn't common, and because he felt it was now his property. But at the time no possibility of a connection with his Andy had even occurred to him. 'Here he is. Holy Mother of God! He's No. 12. He's before Speilberg. Midlands born ... US Citizen ... three children.'

'Three! Let me see that! Well would you believe it. That's just the twins and Peter. I've been counted out! Out of sight, out of mind.'

Matt scanned the photo, but it was nothing more than a hasty paparazzo snap of a stout man in a tuxedo at what might have been a White House reception, since there was a full dress US marine in the background.

Matt began to get to grips with the situation; a process that seemed to involve continual repetition. 'So, let me get this right. I am sitting in a grotty half-finished kitchen in a shabby terraced house in a provincial British city, talking to the eldest son of possibly the twelfth-richest man in the world. A boy who is, incidentally, my lover; a fact of which his father is totally unaware.'

'I knew you'd understand.' Andy looked more sheepish than amused.

'How could you conceal this from me?'

'People like us are good at concealment,' he responded, looking at his feet. There was a very uncomfortable pause. 'Besides, it's us that's important. We've got by for months without the subject of my dad coming up ... it hardly matters. When do I ever see him? When does he ever get in touch? He's just a theoretical father.'

It was Matt's turn to feel sad, 'But it does matter. He may be theoretical to you, but he's real enough to everyone else. What happens if people make a connection?'

'I'm not going to mention it, and quite honestly, I don't think you should either,'

'So will we lie to Paul?'

'Why is it necessary to lie when half the truth will do? My dad's a Yank and we're going there for Christmas.'

'No. I don't like it. We should be fair to the kid.'

There was another long silence. Andy's gaze stayed on the floor.

'Anyway ...,' he eventually continued, 'we pick up one of his jets at Birmingham the Saturday after the end of term. He's having them drop us off at New York for a few days, and then it'll be back to fly us on to Santa Barbara. Oh hell ... have you got a passport?'

Matt's heart lurched. No he didn't.

'It's alright, I 'spect we can get an emergency one. I think they have a passport office in Swansea. We can get there by train next week.'

'What about you?'

'Both of mine are up to date.'

'Both?'

'My dad took out dual citizenship for me when I was fourteen and he became a US citizen.' Andy flourished a blue booklet, 'God bless America.'

They told Paul something about the plans, and he did seem a little hurt that they didn't include him. But he brightened a bit when he realised that he had the place to himself for a month, and that they'd be able to leave him comfortable.

'You'll bring me back prezzies?' He asked hopefully. They nodded. 'You can go then.'

Matt's mother and father were clearly a bit disappointed at his plans, but his mum said that she had expected that university would widen his horizons and couldn't complain now they had. His father was more anxious about the cost of his flying to America, but relieved when he said that the expenses were to be picked up by Andy's dad.

'Rich then is he, Matty?'

Matt crossed his fingers and said casually, 'Oh, I think he's one of these frequent flyers with lots of air miles to get rid of in cheap tickets. I 'spect it's all charged up to his business.'

'What's that, then?'

'Andy said he was in computers.'

'Aah, right.' His father was the sort for whom being in computers explained almost any excess.

Matt got his application form and one of his lecturers obligingly countersigned it. A tedious day in a grey and overcast Swansea after a grim train ride got him his passport.

'The picture doesn't look a bit like you,' said Andy. 'In fact it looks like Evil Steve after Morgan thumped him. You're normally so photogenic. Why did you leave your mouth hanging open like that?'

'The machine took me by surprise.'

'I suppose it won't be so bad. Have you got summer clothes, trunks, Hawaian shirts, Bermuda shorts, sort of thing?'

'I've got some, but not a lot. I came equipped for winter, this being autumn term and all.'

'Perhaps Paulie can lend you some.'

'They'll be threadbare then.' Paul's tattered wardrobe was getting to be a real concern to them. They'd started lending him underpants and socks.

The last week came and their last Friday night. Their friends were already gone home. Paul, Andy and Matt had a good evening out and came back merry but not drunk. They lay all together on Matt and Andy's double bed, and they talked till they fell asleep.

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