Towards the Decent Inn

XII

By Michael Arram

Because he was a history student, Matt knew a lot about symbolism. He knew that ancient tragic actors cast their cloaks over their faces so as to portray the deepest sorrow. He knew that Augustan tombs portray the face of Grief veiled. But it was only now that he truly knew why. All the sorrowful songs he had ever heard made a new sort of sense. He was learning about pain.

Andy went without sharing his bed again, hopping with a single bag into a taxi as the sun rose, a flash of cameras firing a final salute to their love affair and motorbikes tearing off in pursuit. Matt and he had embraced and kissed one last time in the hall, Paul sitting shattered and silent on the stairs. And then Matt's heart broke. For him, it was no longer a figure of speech.

He sat alone for days in the lounge watching the sunlight cross the wall. Paul was quiet and a little scared, bringing cups of tea and sandwiches, and taking them away congealing and mostly untouched. No message or call came from beyond the Atlantic and none had been promised. His mood varied. Sometimes – remembering the promises Andy had made about loving him and staying with him for ever – he was angry. But then he was ashamed of his anger, and even more depressed.

The press hung round for a bit, but news spread that Randy Andy had been run out of England, and Matt was not newsworthy without him. The qualities had some sanctimonious things to say about privacy issues and the rich. Andy's dad's lawyers had become active in the corridors of the Press Complaints Commission. Two very serious lawsuits had startled the worst of the tabloids. Settlements were offered, very heavy ones. But Andy did not return. He formally withdrew from his course, and the university found itself deep in a legal dispute for its lack of care.

A week passed. Routine took over, and the blackness inevitably became grey. Friends tried to help. Katy came and sat with him several times, and on the second day after Andy had gone she just held his hand for the best part of two hours. She said not a word, which was eloquent testimony as to quite how moved she was. Dave Evans too came, and looked very unhappy, so much so he was tongue-tied as to what he could say. Alex Johnson brought some of his cheerfulness into the mausoleum of grief that 25 Finkle Road had become. It didn't help Matt, but he cheered up Paul no end, and the two struck up quite a friendship: they had a common interest in card games.

Yet healing came. Long before Easter, Matt's mind had decided it hated inactivity even though his heart had different ideas. He discovered the last great bastion of the soul, the sublimation of sorrow. He took cover behind it and worked; he worked with manic intensity. His second year results were spoken of with awe amongst the lecturers. The three external examiners sent him a personal letter of congratulation. The department awarded a prize. None of which raised so much as a smile on his face. It was his blankness which was a terror to his friends. His e-mail inbox remained empty of the only messages he wanted to read. The phone was mute.

'Y'know I said I'd tear Andy apart if ever he hurt you?' Katy said to him after they'd finished one of their exams, and were drifting out from the hall on to the campus. Matt gave her a look so fierce that she recoiled from him. 'It's OK, I was just going to say how stupid I was to have said that. There's no rights and wrongs here, just two kids in pain...' she looked at him unhappily, '... terrible pain. I'm so sorry Matt, so very sorry.' He took her in his arms, and after a moment's stiffness, she melted into him and they stood for a long time rocking gently together in the sunshine. 'I love you, you know.'

'I know. You're a wonderful woman, Katy. But you don't half pick 'em.' He laughed gently, and she pulled away from him so as to see that rare and beautiful smile, that did so much unintentional damage. She thought he had never looked so truly angelic as he did at that moment, his crown of raven hair lit up by the sunlight behind him, sad with all the bleakness of hurt humanity and yet still obviously possessed by a very great and pure love. It was the most moving thing she had ever seen, and her heart all but broke.

Sometimes Matt's humanity revolted against the deadening blanket of emptiness that had descended on him. Sometimes he noticed that Paul was suffering too, and suffering alongside him. After all, Andy meant almost as much to Paul as he had meant to Matt. Andy had been the foundation of that perilous little plateau of tranquillity that Paul had enjoyed for all too brief a time. When he had left, the happiness of the little house in Finkle Road had crumbled away. Matt had a home and loving parents. Paul had never had that, and never would; now he had lost the nearest thing to it that he had ever experienced.

So for a while Matt would fight the grief, go out to the pubs and clubs, and make a determined effort to manage the house, but it didn't last. As May went by, Paul's need for support through his own exams did get through to Matt. He tested Paul on his revision, and waited up with him the night before the exams. When it was all over Paul's school year had an expensive prom, and Andy's abandoned stash funded a dinner suit and tickets so that he could go.

'My, you do clean up good, Paulie. I could fancy you, looking like that.' He placed a flower in Paul's buttonhole and did what Andy would have done, and kissed him gently on the mouth. Paul surprised him by blushing scarlet and looking momentarily tearful. He disappeared with two girls on his arms and reappeared a bit dishevelled late the next afternoon, but did not say where he'd been.

Matt would not go home that summer. His parents said they understood, although his mother was distressed. He worked now on his publishing project. Paul noticed he slept with Andy's discarded clothing beside him. It was the only way he could sleep, he said. He resumed attending mass on Sundays. It somehow helped, and Paul came with him.

It was Paul who eventually triggered his recovery. Matt's Catholic sensibilities were later to be moved by that reflection. Through it all Paul had kept the house in order, and had provided food which often went untasted (which, he reflected, was as well, considering his culinary abilities). Paul had washed clothes, paid bills and emptied bins. And on 18th August he got his results: straight As. He put the letter on the table in front of Matt.

'If you ever think you and Andy were a story that came to nothing in the end, that says better.'

Matt swallowed a huge lump in his throat, stood up and smiled unsteadily. He struggled briefly and bitterly with the essential selfishness of sorrow. The cloud lifted from him and he was a different man.

'I'm so happy for you Paulie. You did so good. You did better than good. You beat all the odds. Come here.'

They held each other for ages and Matt found that his shoulder was wet through when they separated. The next morning some of the weight had lifted from Matt. It was not so much that he was over his love for Andy, it was just that he had been reminded that there were more people in the world that depended on him. It was not necessarily gain. He would never again be quite so innocently dependent on another; his boyhood was ended for ever. But emotion and life pulsed through his young veins again and he could think of things other than his unhappiness. The next day they sent a xerox of Paul's results and the university confirmation letter to Andy at his father's Santa Barbara address. 'He'd like to know, I'm sure'.

Matt had got a job at the end of June packing shelves at the same supermarket where Paul was still working; he had hoped it would take his mind off his troubles. Once he had got his head together over Andy the two began having quite a good time, especially on the late shift. It avoided having to live on the money Andy had left. The staff canteen also saved a lot on food.

'Matt,' Paul said, 'you're amazing, you can even make this crappy uniform look cool when you wear it. It flatters your bum.' A lot of the girls on the tills thought so too. But they transferred their affections back to Paul when the truth about Matt's sexuality was whispered round. There was trouble with a couple of lads on the butcher's counter, who began making suggestive gestures and comments behind Matt's back. That ended when Matt and Paul met them silently and purposefully round the back of the loading bays and left them sitting bruised and intimidated in an oily puddle.

Afterwards, as he buried his scuffed knuckles in a freezer full of packets of frozen peas, Matt said, 'D'you know, this is the best I've felt for quite a while. A bit of adrenalin certainly puts things in proportion.'

'Yeah,' said Paul, 'let's go and beat the crap out of the duty manager.'

Browsing the celebrity mags as he was setting them out on the racks one hot late August morning, Matt caught sight of a very familiar blond head. His heart leaped wildly. He sneaked copies off to Paul, who was taking refuge in the cold storage area.

'What you got there, Matt me mate?'

'The celebrity life of Andy Peacher, apparently.'

Paul gave Matt a troubled look, 'Let's see it then.'

Andy featured in several spreads. They were all taken in the Caribbean, either on board a big yacht or in a luxurious beach house amongst steep forested hills. He was offering an arm to a rising female Hollywood star in the centre spread; he looked fantastic in a tailored white tux and crimson cummerbund and he seemed to be enjoying himself a lot. His hair had changed, the old heavy fringe was back, hanging over his eyes like an Old English sheepdog. Matt felt a terrible pang of baffled lust for the boy with whom he had fallen in love. In another picture he was on a family table with his father and Ellie, holding a glass of wine and apparently making a joke.

Paul ventured, 'Nice to know he's pulled hisself together, at least. C'mon Matt you can't be pissed off because he's happy and wiv his family.'

'I don't suppose they'd publish a picture of him looking depressed, would they?'

'No, course not. Anyway it's all artificial, deep down all those pretty people are miserable and are hidin' the fact that they've got sciatica, athlete's foot and piles.'

Matt laughed, 'Poor Andy. At least his spots have cleared up.'

'Nah, the editors airbrush them out. He's still got 'em.' Paul looked speculatively at Matt. He took one magazine and opened it out, 'But this is the one that bothers you innit?' It was a picture of Andy in a group of other young people. He was sitting in a swimsuit on a sunbed under a big umbrella next to another reclining young man, dark and very attractive. They were both laughing at some joke or comment. The caption identified him as the Hon. Edward Roedenbeck, son of the ninth Viscount Tuschet.

'Read me like a book don't you, Paulie?'

'It's the green-eyed monster, Matt. I know our Andy. He's not forgotten you. I don't think he's the sort who can switch affections just like that.'

Matt sighed and nodded. He could not avoid the irony in their respective situations. Andy had fled into a world of privilege, glamour and celebrity, while he had taken refuge tidying boxes of tampons and bottles of bleach in a provincial supermarket in the south Midlands. The wild difference in their expectations and circumstances finally came home to him. He reflected bitterly as to how he could ever have dreamed that he and Andy might have had a prospect of staying together. But yet, he could not let his love go. He nursed it like a sick pet.

And then one day at the end of August, out of the blue, a message arrived in Matt's inbox from an unnamed and unfamiliar address: awp32@burnett.edu. His heart beat high. The message filled four screens. He printed it off at the university library and headed back into work for the afternoon shift. He found Paul collecting and parking trolleys from the car park.

'So he's at Burnett University ... sounds nice. Where is it?' Paul crashed a long train of wire baskets into its proper park and took off his thick protective gloves.

'Haven't a clue. I expect it's one of those Ivy League places on the East Coast. There's a lot here for you, Paul. He's seriously considering getting his dad to take a contract out on you if you blow it at university next year.'

'But why no word? Why did he just leave us cold like that?' Paul was betraying something like resentment, as Matt noticed for the first time

'Don't forget the stress he was under, poor kid. He's been on a boat in the Caribbean and in his dad's beach house on St Kitts recovering all summer – well we knew that. He says he's peeling like an orange. Kids are fine. Ellie sends her love. He says it wasn't easy to get a line out as they're all used by his dad. And he's so sorry, but he thought we hated him anyway. But now he knows we don't, and he says he wishes we could be together, but we all know that's not possible.'

Paul looked unconvinced, as he threw the gloves at Matt, 'Hmph. Here, my son, it's your turn. There's some strays over by the recycling bins. And for God's sake put a fluorescent jacket on before the manager sees you.'

Matt burbled on, 'He's a sophomore, whatever that is. They've let him skip the freshman year, so I suppose that means he's in year two. Says the place is very hilly and windy. Here's a clue; it's near Salonica in Upper New York State. Have we got an atlas? Make a note: get an atlas tomorrow, or better still, let's promise ourselves to get access to the web. My laptop's got a modem. Says Americans are crap at soccer, and that all the soccer scholars are Brits and Russians. He's got his name down for a trial for the B team again and he's a history major. Oh and listen to this ... he's going to take his test and he's already got a car of his own. Wow, our Andy on the freeway. He's a character in a road movie. The glamour!'

'Well it's a relief to know his dad's sorted things out, but I can't help wondering why it had to be like this. He must have had contacts and money enough to protect Andy here, if he'd wanted. And if it was so big a thing about his dad being homophobic, what's wiv all the generosity to the prodigal queer.'

'Andy said it was because of his mum. The western hemisphere was too small for the both of them; his dad wouldn't intervene on this side of the Atlantic. Apparently she and he had a huge row with him blaming her for the way Andy turned out. He claimed Andy's gayness as a moral victory.'

'Yeah, that's not quite what I meant, I ...' Paul shrugged, 'Oh skip it. Now will you come down off your cloud and go and get those bloody trolleys by the bins!'

Contact with Andy was more or less daily for the rest of the holiday. The big day came when Paul commenced his university study, and Matt waved him off at the front door as he headed for registration. He settled in very quickly, and loved his English course. He began by being a bit sniffy about his year group, but looked sheepish when Matt reminded him he was not a third year, even if he knew more about university life than was normal for first years.

It didn't take long for Paul to make many friends, male and female. In fact his social life became quite hectic. Matt saw him less and less at home, and more often round and about the Union, where Paul drew a lot of attention. There were rapid changes. His strong south Midlands accent evaporated fast, and on three separate occasions in October Matt found strange and rather attractive girls in the kitchen early in the morning, who disappeared back upstairs after a shy smile and morning greeting. He wondered if he should be giving Paul a lecture about sexual continence, but concluded that it would sound like hypocrisy coming from him. The third girl, who stayed over several times in October and November, was as vocal in her lovemaking as he and Andy had been. Paul joined in enthusiastically. Matt thought it was a bit petty of him, all in all, but refused to take any notice of it.

So Matt became lonelier and more dependent on web chat with his distant Andy. Only his Fridays with Leo, Alex and Katy survived from his former life.

Had he noticed it, he would have seen that he had many more friends than he realised. Boys and girls alike in his year regarded him affectionately, as a persecuted and romantic hero. He just put this sudden wash of kindness down to the fact that the third years were maturing. But now he often found himself chatting pleasantly with people to whom he had formerly said little, and getting to like them. One student in particular sought him out, a quiet and very good-looking Yorkshireman called Ben Craven doing History and French.

Ben had caught his attention in the first year, and it seems that it had been mutual. He had long and thick fair hair, streaked blond, and a skin that tanned easily. He looked like a long-legged Californian surfer, but Matt found his soft and gorgeous Yorkshire accent the most sexy thing about him. Matt as a first year had caught himself staring at Ben, and often got stared at back, but neither had ever pursued the other. They had always chatted, although Matt found Ben a bit short of small talk, and definitely lacking in the humour department, but now the trend of the conversations led him to realise that Ben was ready to push open the closet door. So he just talked about his feelings, particularly for Andy. It helped both of them.

'What's sex like between men?' Ben asked bluntly one day in his direct Yorkshire way.

'Umm. I suppose it depends on the men. My experience is very limited. Limited only to Andy in fact. Between us it was... difficult to put in words. It was making love. The physical side was sometimes pretty amazing, and not what I expected at all, but it was the fact I was doing it with a man I love that sent me into orbit. Andy is so gentle and so sweet, but so enthusiastic, so mad and... to be honest, shameless. There's nowhere he won't put his fingers or his tongue, and there's nothing he won't contemplate doing and nowhere he won't contemplate doing it. Naked sex in the departmental loos with the door jammed shut by a chair was the least of his little adventures, believe me. The mad little sod stuck a handwritten out of order sign on the door with blu-tack, threw off his clothes and thought that'd be enough. But it was really sexy. I did not resist the moment.'

Ben was blushing hard, but still persisted. 'I've heard that gay couples sort of take on male and female roles when they have sex.'

'I couldn't say. Andy really likes my cock inside his butt... God, did I just say that... and likes me best to take him face to face; it excites both of us. I guess that makes him a "bottom" by preference, but we swop around. I quite like him inside me too. I like him any way I can get him, to be truthful. And I miss him so much.' They both fell silent.

Finally Ben said in a small voice, 'I'd really like it if you'd sleep with me. Damn. There, it's out. Please Matt, I know you don't love me, but I'm desperate to lose it with someone I care about. Would you – please – sleep with me tonight.'

Matt was taken aback. He paid Ben the compliment of thinking about it. 'That was the nicest I've ever been propositioned. But I can't, Ben. It's not that you aren't attractive, it's just that I'm Andy's. We're bound by promises and experiences just too deep to get round. You'll meet a guy one day you can love and sleep with. But I couldn't live with myself if I slept with anyone but Andy, even for a one night stand.'

Ben looked dashed, and Matt could only guess at the struggle he had had with himself to ask him in the first place. Ben gave a sad smile and said he was sorry. But they went on talking, especially about men that Ben fancied. It turned out that Alex Johnson was his particular fantasy object.

'We've been friends since hall. I go watch him rowing sometimes from the riverbank. He's got this physique. I really love the way his arm muscles ripple. He waves at me and seems to like it when I'm there. He's always coming round to see me and laugh at me. Do you think he might possibly be...'

'No idea, Ben. He's always joking round, and I can't make him out. There were several girls he hung out with in the first year. There was Kirsty, before she moved on to Adam, then Kim and the last one was Karen...'

'Pity my name's not Ken, then, isn't it.' Ben looked woeful.

Matt did a doubletake as he registered Ben's first known witticism; the boy must really be getting desperate, he thought. He gave the remark the homage of a smile and continued, 'I suppose he could be bisexual. He's never hit on me, and I'm not as good as Andy at spotting gayness. All I can suggest is that you keep your eye on him; you may pick up hints. Did I tell you how long it took for me and Andy to work it out?' But Matt still remembered how Steve had made a pass at Alex, and Steve had read Matt correctly when he made a pass at him.

Matt's publication project was already completed by October, and submitted to a major academic journal, which snapped it up. Dr Faber, his adviser, tried to make him take a sherry in celebration. Matt politely refused. They made plans. Matt submitted his postgraduate grant application to the Arts and Humanities Research Board. Dr Faber was beyond optimism: 'Believe me, Matthew, they don't get many that come with a bibliography!' With his dissertation already complete he had some time to spare, and used it to expand his reading and begin, under guidance, a survey of sources for a potential doctoral thesis.

'What do you think of "The Death of Kings" as a theme, Dr Faber?' Matt had begun to think seriously about death culture not long after his aunt's funeral, and it all seemed to match up with the discovery he had made.

'There's quite a bit published on it in various places, but it'll lead on from your article. We're talking about the long seventeenth century here, I assume? You must read Ariès, Houlbrooke, Porter. You've got those. How's your French? GCSE is a start, but you'd better get on one of the Language Centre courses next semester. A lot of the best new work is in French. Latin? No, it's only a few graduates who have it nowadays, but it's essential if you're to progress beyond the text book level. There's a local history course which has basic Latin classes, but you'll best wait till next academic year for that.'

Matt left his office his head reeling, but full of excitement. He had discovered the vocation to which he had been born. He was flattered that he was already treated by lecturers and professors alike with more respect than his peers. He even had an invitation to the staff seminar. Academe was accepting him under its shade, and he was finding it a cool and pleasant place, especially as he had so recently been exposed to one of the harshest wildernesses of the world outside, the land of celebrity where vast egos ruled and debased journalistic jackals slunk after them.

He ran off to a networked computer and began typing it all out for Andy in America.

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