Towards the Decent Inn

XV

By Michael Arram

England seemed warm by comparison with New York State. Paul and he said their goodbyes. One of his university girlfriends had asked Paul home for Christmas, which eased one of Matt's worries. So they shut up the little house, and left the heating on a low setting. Matt headed back home and passed a difficult holiday. It was not that everybody wasn't pleasant, but there was a completely new family dynamic to get used to. His male cousins and relatives were more distant, and his female relatives were more friendly. He thought he could work out why. His mother was great until his grandmother White, who was a little out of the loop, asked him if was courting. His mother disappeared and Matt found her in tears in the kitchen. She hugged him and told him that she was silly, that he was still her little Matty and she knew that. But he could tell that all she could see at that moment were the pale phantoms of grandchildren who would never now be.

Carl was difficult to read. He was after all, a hormonal adolescent, and developing fast. Mostly he seemed embarrassed to be near his brother, as if afraid his homosexuality would rub off. His dad made things worse for Matt by explaining that Carl had a bad time from his peer group when the news of his and Andy's relationship was spread across the national press. The guilt struck at the region of his heart. The only time he saw Zav, he was decisively snubbed.

At last January came, and he returned with some relief to university. His first major purchase with his new wealth was an internet connection and a big new laptop. He planned to give his old one to Paul. His second was a course of driving lessons for him and Paul. Paul returned after a tour of all his friends and begged for a satellite TV connection, and Matt didn't see why not. They went into campus and for the last time downloaded Andy's e-mails from his university account. He read them carefully. Andy seemed to have had a good holiday season, improving his skiing and having fun with his younger siblings, apart, that is, from the developing civil war with Peter. There had been difficult scenes over Christmas.

Matt stopped off at the departmental office and found several phone messages for him. Mrs Roberts looked conspiratorial, 'It's the media, my love, the BBC.'

Matt wasn't that impressed. Media was a dirty word to him. But he rang the number anyway and was put through to a researcher with the morning radio programme. To his surprise the call was nothing to do with last year's media frenzy.

'Dr White, thanks for calling back,' said a bright young female voice. We're doing a feature on the article you're publishing in the Historical Journal.'

'It's Mr White.'

'Sorry. We'd like you to come in and tape a brief interview, if that's OK. We can pay your expenses.'

Matt talked it over with Dr Faber, who couldn't quite hide his professional jealousy. First the boy makes the discovery of the decade, right under his nose, and then he gets to appear on national radio. But he cleared him to go ahead, and they discussed angles that he might take in the interview.

So early the next morning he surfaced from the tube in Oxford Circus and made his way up to Broadcasting House. He registered at reception and waited till a young lady with a clipboard came and swept him off to an art deco lift.

He was ushered into a small studio that couldn't have changed much since the days of Lord Reith and Somerset Maugham. A senior radio presenter famous enough to be recognisable in the flesh came smiling round the door in his shirtsleeves, holding a mug of coffee with a sheaf of papers under his arm. He stacked them carefully in front of him and shook hands.

'Can I call you Matt, or do you prefer Matthew?

'I'm usually Matt.'

'Fine. What we're doing here is recording a brief feature that'll we play some time over the next day or two. It's not all live as I'm sure you realise. This has the advantages that we can edit it, and do retakes if it's necessary.'

'Now you're not even a graduate student at your university, is that right?' Matt acknowledged that it was. 'Amazing. And you discovered a new source for the regicide of Charles I never previously suspected by historians?'

'They're calling it the Marlowe memoir.'

'OK. I'm going to talk you through the discovery and then the new evidence it gives. That alright? Good, put these headphones on. OK. Deep breath. Excellent'.

The interview was quite relaxed, and Matt didn't get the nerves he expected he would. His interrogator was affable, and if he wasn't knowledgeable, he was at least well briefed. Matt thought he made some quite colourful points, especially about the moment of execution, when John Evelyn had said that there was heard such a groan from the crowd that none would wish to hear ever again. But Evelyn had not been there, much though he enjoyed executions. Marlowe, from his vantage point in the Whitehall palace windows, did hear that gasp and said Cromwell faltered at that point, turned away from the window and momentarily covered his face.

His interviewer ended the session with a smile and told him he'd done very well. He asked him what his plans were. Then he said, 'You were in the press for other reasons last year, if I'm not mistaken.'

'No, you're not mistaken.'

'Would you like to talk about it?'

'No. Not really. A section of the media ruined my life. Nothing's ever going to change that now.'

'Do you still see your partner, Mr Peacher.'

'It's not something I want to talk about.'

'I understand. I don't even blame you. It was the worst example of media harassment I can remember in years. Two innocent lads gibbeted for the prurient amusement of the public: almost seventeenth-century in its nastiness. Now, bear with me for a moment. Your partner's mother is Mrs Eleanor Marquesa Peacher, is that right?'

'No. She's his stepmother. His mother lives in Nuneaton.'

'I've had the great pleasure of meeting the second Mrs Peacher. Charming lady. She's the UNICEF special envoy to children in Bosnia. We interviewed her about the wretched living conditions of children even this long after the war.'

'Yes I remember, it was last March'

'No, actually I think it was the December before that. Anyway, she mentioned then that she had a - yes, she must have said stepson - in university in England. After the interview, she made a comment about Bosnian children sharing houses in conditions even the poorest students would look twice at. I said I imagined that Richard Peacher's child at least would be living in comfortable circumstances. She said that, no, he was independent of his father and living in an ordinary house-share with two other students.'

Matt was puzzled, 'Are you sure that you aren't mistaking the date? She made a visit in March, when I met her.'

'Couldn't say off hand for certain; so many interviews, so little meaningful conversation. Hang on.' He picked up a phone and talked into it, after some seconds waiting he got the information he needed.

'The office can't say for sure. But we've got it on tape still.'

Matt shrugged internally. He couldn't quite remember precisely when it was that he swam into the Stepmom's purview.

They said their farewells, and Matt was warned to listen to morning radio at about 8.15am. The BBC man promised to send a recording.

Matt was on the phone as soon as he got back to every relative he could reach. He typed an account of his day late into the night and sent it off to Andy. It was thrilling to hear himself on the radio, but he didn't quite realise how high and youthful a voice he had until he heard it. He sounded like a little kid. But Paul said he was brilliant, 'Quite moved me. Really.'

'Really?'

'Would I lie?' Matt wasn't always sure how to take Paul's comments.

They went off to their driving lessons. The tests were set for February. Matt failed dismally just before his twenty-first birthday, but Paul sailed through. Matt rang up Andy to tell him all about it, and they talked for an hour at transatlantic rates, exchanging birthday greetings, news and regrets. Andy's twenty-first was going to be quite an occasion, involving a trip back to California, and a huge party at Santa Barbara. Matt wasn't invited, and they both understood why that must be so. Andy said that it would not be tactful for Matt to be in his dad's house. But he e-mailed the guest list to Matt and Paul, who shared it with the old gang sitting round a table in the Union, all temporarily speechless.

'Wow,' said Katy, 'talk about entertaining angels unawares.'

'He'd still rather be here,' insisted Matt.

'Oh, I believe you, Chalky,' agreed Leo, without much enthusiasm. 'So is the prime minister, the lord lieutenant of Northamptonshire, and the chairman of the BBC coming to your twenty-first then?'

Matt felt dashed, 'I just wish Andy could be there,' he said quietly.

Katy clipped Leo round the ear, 'Insensitive brute.'

'Ouch!'

'Who's Edward Roedenbeck?' asked Alex, grabbing the list. Paul caught Matt's eye.

'The son of the Viscount Tuschet,' answered Paul.

'Who? A nob?' Katy said, 'What's his connection with Andy?'

Paul raised an eyebrow at Matt, then gave a grin. 'He was at school with Andy. One of the few people there Andy could stomach, he told me.' Matt smiled ruefully back at Paul feeling a bit silly. He'd never aired his jealousy over the Hon. Edward with Andy.

So Matt, Leo, Katy, Alex and Paul went up to Northampton to celebrate the birthday with all his many relatives, but no national celebrities. The local papers were full of congratulations and silly pictures of him as a little kid: his uncle Darren had found one of him dressed up for an infant school play as a fairy, in tights with wings. It caused a major row between Darren and his dad, which livened up the party no end. But Zav was not there, he had stayed at Warwick despite a warm invitation, and Matt was deeply grieved. There was going to be no reconciliation with his cousin.

The next week, with his dad's help, Matt bought a car, a recent model but second-hand silver Rover, and insured both him and Paul at an exorbitant cost. Paul drove it back down the M1, M25 and M4: a great and scary adventure. With a bit of extra tuition from Paul he passed on his second go, and life became a lot more mobile, if also more expensive. In the meantime, Matt tracked down a whole range of scholarships and grants to finance his future postgraduate work.

There was a stream of e-mails still crossing the Atlantic, but now they could access them conveniently at home. The volume of those from Rachel to Paul began to eclipse those from Andy to Matt. Before Easter, the number from Andy was slackening noticeably, although without them becoming any less affectionate. Nonetheless Matt kept up his own volume of messages. But from daily, by the end of March Andy's had become more or less weekly and Matt was anxious. Paul too was troubled, although he would not say why.

Matt had hoped that Andy would come and see them around Easter, but a visit was referred to increasingly as a distant prospect. Matt was twitching with anxiety to cross back to America, but now it was the time for his final examinations and that was not possible. Too much rested on his results.

Paul however did cross, under his own steam with increasing confidence as an international traveller. He stayed not with Andy but with Rachel at her apartment in Collegetown. They had a blissful week and it became clear that their relationship was becoming rather more than platonic.

'So you and Rachel are, you know, an item.'

'We've graduated to having sex, if that's what you mean,'

'OK, I'm not prying, but there's one thing that puzzles me. You you sort of hinted that you had sex with guys once.'

'I think you're forgetting that I'm a teenager and therefore fact and fantasy merge - especially about sex. But if you must know, me mate Terry has a thing about me, and I lived with it, because he's been my best mate and I've known him since he was four, also I didn't want to upset him after all the help he gave me with the trouble with me mum. It was the price for taking refuge in his bedroom when thing were really bad, but we never actually did much about it apart from a bit of... y'know, oral stuff.'

'Er, sorry. I didn't understand.'

'Matt, for such a cool and alternative guy you're a bit conventional. Pains me to say that, mate. I don't think that things are as simple and straightforward as boy meets boy, boy sleeps with boy. I liked Terry, I still like Terry, although I don't know what he sees in me. And I might just have sex with another guy if I fancied one enough.' His face had gone bright red, and he paused briefly. Matt wondered precisely which man Paul had in mind, and realised with a sudden sense of panic that it might be him. Paul shot a glance at him, before continuing. 'Matt, I think I'm basically straight. I like girls and they like me. Rachel is really hot, and she's exotic and American. I'm still finding out what I am. How confident did you feel at the age of eighteen?'

Matt felt he had been told off. 'Fair point,' he admitted.

Paul was reticent when he talked about Andy, although he said he seemed well, and they had met twice, although at parties, not at his house. Paul did say wryly that the card parties had ended. Matt fretted but was unable to find out more. The sideways glances he thought that he caught from Paul did not reassure him. He suspected that there were things that he was not hearing. The worst fear was that Andy had found another lover.

One morning over breakfast, after a bad night, he burst out, 'Is he seeing someone else? You can tell me. I've got to know.'

Paul surprised him with a look of compassion. He took Matt's hand in his own; it was a warm gesture, and quite characteristic of the sympathetic and gentle man that Paul had become. 'I don't think he's in love with anybody else. Really. It is you he loves, if he loves anyone.'

Matt was not entirely reassured by Paul's frankness. It seemed to leave a certain amount unsaid and unacknowledged. But he had to be content with a scheme to meet Andy for a summer holiday of their own arranging. Andy still seemed very keen on this plan. They talked of Andy returning to Britain to see his mum and then of meeting and going on to the Continent. The old idea of going to Prague and Berlin was resurrected, and in more style.

The finals in May squeezed out everything else. University ended. Friends departed in a haze of alcohol. Leo was going to Leeds to learn to be a teacher. Dave was going to stay at the university and had applied to join the history MA course. 'It's so's I can follow you around hopelessly for yet another year, Matt,' he said. Matt smiled at him. Dave had grown up a lot this last year. He hugged him and Dave hugged back, resting his head on Matt's shoulder. But he was laughing, not sad, when they parted.

Katy was going to the Inns of Court Law School to do a conversion course, she fancied being a barrister, although whether it was the prospect of the money or of inexhaustible arguments that interested her was a moot point. Alex found a rather amazing job with Reuters while Ben had still to find something, and was heading back to West Yorkshire. To Matt both of them seemed a bit depressed, although Ben's depression seemed more accountable. His eyes followed Alex everywhere. Evil Steve just disappeared. Paul got first class marks in his end of year assessments, and Matt was only sorry that Andy was not there to celebrate with them properly.

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