Towards the Decent Inn

XI

By Michael Arram

Something like siege conditions descended on their home. Andy got into the habit of staring round the curtains at the street. Matt was determined to keep up normality, shopping and going to the library, and thought Andy was being a bit excessive in his reactions. But then, he reflected, it was Andy who was at the storm centre, not him.

Matt dragged Andy out for their usual Friday with Leo and the gang. As usual they met up for pool at the Union. It was probably only his imagination that a lot of students were looking curiously round the door to catch sight of Andy. As usual, Andy lost to Katy. It was a misjudgement on her part to offer him a rematch for a million pounds. He certainly wasn't amused, and was on edge all evening.

In the end Andy disappeared on Saturday for a week to his mum's. Matt suspected that he just wanted to enjoy a joint hate session over his dad with someone who he knew would sympathise thoroughly. But Mrs Peacher unfortunately did not confine herself to running down her ex-husband; her anger broke over the university. She savagely attacked the vice-chancellor in the local press for his indiscretion and the consequent lack of privacy for her son. The university certainly looked foolish, but as damage limitation the strategy was a big failure. The national press picked it up. The tabloids ignored it for the moment, but the quality dailies and the educational supplements ran quite lengthy features on the issue. Matt had the frisson of seeing Andy's face in a run of photos of celebrity students. He thought Andy looked quite nice next to the undergraduate royal princes, and cut the feature out.

Matt's phone hummed with calls from relatives ... was his friend Andy, that Andy. His mum was particularly charmed; what a nice boy he had been when he'd come and stayed after Carol had died, no airs and graces at all, quite happy to sleep on a camp bed. Feel free to bring him back anytime. His dad wanted him to put up Andy's rent.

Matt was a historian born. His mind instinctively ran on chains of cause and effect, and at present it was working feverishly in overdrive. The photo in the national papers had not been the one in the local paper, or one of Andy he had otherwise seen. It had been taken since his last haircut, when Andy had started gelling out his fringe. It had been snapped while he was out walking in a park, but not one he knew. He texted Andy and warned him that he thought he was being watched by freelance photographers, and began watching his own road from behind the curtains. He didn't see anything, but then, Andy was still in Nuneaton.

The next appalling step his logic warned him about was that the tabloids had been alerted to a potential target in Andy. The news buzzards were circling and he had seen enough of their methods in his short lifetime to know what would follow. The bitter and frightening conclusion was one that he did not dare to avoid. A few questions round the university and his big secret would be public property. It would be terrible if his parents learned the truth about him and Andy from the papers. He agonised and agonised, pacing the lounge nervously for the best part of a day. But the conclusion was unavoidable. It was time to be a grown-up at last.

Matt went home, fretting and nervous on the long bus ride. His dad was waiting for him at the station. They hugged and went back home, with Matt silent at his side. There he sat them down and told his parents what had to be told. He told them what had happened, how he had fallen in love with Andy, that they slept together and suggested what the tabloids were likely to make of their relationship. They took it all well, although his dad kept asking in his confusion whether he was sure he was a homosexual. It was heartbreaking, and Matt cried about it in his bedroom, something he had not done about anything for several years. But it was done, and although he could not look at his mother and say he was glad it was done, still, in the long run, it had closed off a terrible possibility.

He came back depressed, and an even more depressed Andy returned the next day.

'Andy, I understand now why you were so secretive. I'm sorry I resented it. You're a wise person.'

'Not that wise. Mum has really blown it this time, hasn't she? I jumped from the frying pan into the crematorium furnace, didn't I? So typical. She's really quite pleased with her contribution to my miseries. She thinks she's sorted out the vice-chancellor and begun a productive national debate. Oh, and just in case you were interested she just passed the milestone of 5,000th in line for the throne, who is, you will be very interested to know - and gosh, I was - the 13th Earl of Stirling.'

Matt sighed. It seemed there was no refuge anywhere, a reflection that gave him a premonitory chill, although he was not sure why.

They went back to university, but to a different world. Eyes followed both of them. Katy and most of the gang were really good and kind about it all, but one or two former friends seemed reluctant to talk to them in fear of being seen to be celebrity groupies; while strangers seemed all too keen on getting to know them. These they avoided. Only Leo was completely unmoved by the whole business. This would have reassured Matt more if he hadn't known that a nuclear bomb going off next to Leo would only have caused him to be mildly interested in the colour effects of the mushroom cloud. Andy was only happy on the soccer field and in Matt's arms. 'You make me feel safe,' he said again and again.

In March the real horror finally commenced. Non-stories began to appear in the press. The redtops reported the wild lifestyle of public school billionaire Andrew Peacher - 'England's Richest Student', 'Randy Andy', 'Party Peacher'. Unnamed female students reported his bizarre appetites. The university was apparently investigating rumours of booze and drug-fuelled parties. Former schoolfriends (named this time) added colour about arrogant and spoiled Andrew, maladjusted product of a bitter divorce battle.

'Arrogant? You're the nicest and mildest person I've ever met!' protested Matt, and Paul vigorously agreed.

'It's in the eye of the beholder. I was withdrawn and standoffish at school; but then, they knew who I was there. I didn't like the attention. Still, it's horrible to find how much some of them hated me. One of the sources was a guy I quite liked.'

Then the next generation of stories began surfacing as the tabloid journalists began to get to serious grips with their lives. Andy apparently swung both ways. At last a photo appeared of 'good-looking boyfriend of Randy Andy', Matthew Anthony White (20), of Northampton. Comprehensive-educated White was known to be his local 'bit of rough'. The source this time was student Stephen Wharton (21) of Thetford. White, he said, was a well-known predatory and promiscuous gay, and Andy and Matt were apparently queens of the local scene, hosting fiestas in city gay clubs. Police were investigating but had no comment. The vice-chancellor had launched an inquiry in the Faculty of Arts.

Actually the vice-chancellor sent the dean to Andy to ask him please to stay out of the limelight for a bit, if he possibly could, as the university's reputation was beginning to suffer. Andy was speechless.

'So, when did they get that photo of me?' Matt asked, holding up the one of him that was plastered over several tabloids.

'Thank God you told your parents when you did.'

'Yeah. My mum was actually quite funny about the “Good-looking” description. She said that I could get some modelling on the strength of it. She belted the bloke who doorstepped her about the story. She gave him predatory and promiscuous. And you might be interested to know that she also thumped him again for all the nasty things they'd said about you. She told him that you were a lovely lad. It's not a bad photo, though. I think I look ...'

'Scared shitless, worried ...'

'Dashing, energetic and very gay. Thank God it was after my last haircut. I think it was when we left the pub three days ago. Evil Steve must have tipped them off. That's your blue top I borrowed.' Matt continued hesitantly, 'So how about Santa Barbara? Do you think they know yet?'

'Not a word, Matt. But you can be sure they know. The press will have been on to the Peacher Foundation, and the web will be alive with all of it. What will dad say? Scares me.'

'And your mum?'

'I had that phonecall yesterday. Apparently my great-great uncle Alfred was sentenced to hard labour in 1899 for buggery.'

'So it's alright with your mum, then?'

'Seems so.'

Matt paused, and then asked, 'Is your dad going to do the Victorian thing and cut you off without a penny?'

'Since I don't want his cash, that might be hard for him. But I never wanted to hurt him, and this will hurt him. He's very conventional, you know. I guess that there'll be enemies in the American establishment who will try to get at him through my... indiscretions.'

'You must have known it would come out sooner or later.'

'Yeah, I knew. But I thought we'd have a couple of years to ourselves first. I wanted to put the big scene off till I'd finished university and was more in control of my life. If only he'd kept his nose out of things for just a bit longer. I just can't work out why he suddenly decided to barge into my life here.' Andy sighed heavily, then looked up and gave a brave grin, 'OK, my bit of rough, how about a kiss?'

'Not till I've checked the road for men on ladders with telephoto lenses.'

That was about the last cheerful day they spent. The house came under fitful siege and Andy stopped going to lectures and seminars, though Matt kept on toughing it out. They were doorstepped daily over the next week, and Matt was often pursued down the road. It was embarrassing. Paul started leaving over the back wall, through an obliging neighbour's side gate after one reporter had offered him an obscene amount of money to wire the house for him; he laughed in the man's face. 'I would have spat on him, but he was beneath that sort of notice.' He said he was very much envied at school, and even the teachers tried to pump him for details.

When they left the house, Matt and Andy brushed past the journalists with no comment. These were generally in their forties, pudgy and balding. A different approach was from Gay Universe, which pushed a letter under their door offering them a chance to model (mostly) naked and tell their story about their gay awakenings. It was willing to offer a surprisingly large amount of money.

At the end of the week Andy was clearly sinking deeper and deeper into depression. There was nothing Matt could do about it. He was taking bad hits himself. An e-mail from Zav had reached him, and had left him in no doubt that Zav thought he had betrayed the family and humiliated them. He had lost one of his oldest and closest friends and allies, and the shock of Zav's letter had made him physically sick. He actually threw up in the loo, much to Paul and Andy's concern. The world was not as liberal as he had hoped, and not all his family had rallied to him.

'I think we're handling this quite well, all in all.' Matt observed hopefully after they'd spent all Friday under cover. They hadn't swum in a fortnight.

'We're not handling it; we're surviving it ... just. And it isn't going away. There doesn't seem any escape from it. I had an approach from a consultant, would you believe. A motorbike messenger arrived this morning with brochures about his media management package. Here, take a look.' He tossed the packet to Matt.

Matt marvelled, 'Look at the prices! Look at his client list ... phew!'

'Yeah, the prices. How much have we got?'

'Between us? About 5,000 quid left I think.'

'That should buy thirty minutes of his time. It's money you need to get protection. Money hires consultants, lawyers and pitbulls. Unfortunately “England's Richest Student” hasn't got any. Only his dad's got that sort of cash.'

Matt's heart sagged. He knew what was coming. Andy had been on the phone in the back room a long time the day before.

'Dad was finally on the phone last night. After we'd got past the gay bombshell, he was actually quite kind. He's had this sort of treatment himself off and on, although it's not so common in the USA. And it was his suggestion that I go to him.'

'And you're going to take up his offer?'

'He's got a big umbrella, Matt. No one can protect me here.'

Tears started in Matt's eyes, 'I can!' It sounded plaintive even to him.

'I wish it was as easy as you standing up and punching journalists, but the royal family's tried that, and it didn't work. Look at you. You're gibbetted across the national press as a sleazy coke-sniffing giggolo when they should be composing tributes on stone to you because of your brilliant talents. But these people, they're not interested in humanity or truth. They are lice.' He gave a sad little smile, 'I would have said cockroaches... but I know you're quite fond of them.'

Matt made a strange sound, half sob and half laugh. There was a very long silence, during which tears brimmed in Matt's eyes and slowly began to trickle down his cheeks. He blew his nose. He felt like he was ten again. He pulled himself together.

'So ... so you've decided.'

'It's me that's to blame for all this, Matt. And only I can make it go away. You'll have no future if I stay here. I'm leaving tomorrow.'

'What! That soon!'

'It's been time to go for a long while now, since the day the idiot dean patted me on the shoulder.'

Tears were no longer sufficient relief. Matt choked with grief. He had no words for this sort of pain. Andy sat looking through the net curtains at the suburban roofs and chimneys. Matt wanted to say anything to make him stay, and had no words or arguments. They sat silent for a long, long time, Matt watching the shining lines of tears running down his lover's face.

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