Towards the Decent Inn
The sea was very blue off La Rochelle; a steady and cool Atlantic wind was whipping up the white-tops outside the harbour. But the June sun was warm on the golden houses and towers of the ancient town, and shone off the cutlery on the table of their quayside restaurant beside the Vieux Port, under the lime trees. They were glad they had sunglasses. The promenade was thronged with holidaymakers, and all the tables were taken. Their restaurant's tables were full of French families and chattering parties of local students, which made them feel all the more awkward while they awaited the arrival of the waiter. They had not yet mastered French cuisine.
'Um, entrecote looks safe,' suggested Matt.
'This is long overdue caution, Matt. Especially after the squid you ordered accidentally yesterday. It was disgusting; like salty rubber. Why didn't you send it back?'
'Calmar sounded nice, and when it came it was a point of pride to eat it.' Andy was his Andy again. The bruises were gone, his skin was clear and his blue eyes were bright and quite often merry. He was sitting looking very low key for such a very rich boy, Matt thought, in old jeans, white tee-shirt and a dark V-necked sweater. The expensive designer wardrobe had been mostly left in America, packed up and sent to the Peacher residence in Santa Barbara, where his father had now allotted Andy a suite of his own. Their lost intimacy had been restored, they joked and laughed together once more, and could enjoy being very silly. But Matt was also aware that this Andy was not quite the one who'd left him to seek an illusory safety in America. The once boyish round cheeks were now slightly hollowed; there were dark smudges under his eyes. He slept badly.
'Did you pass GCSE French?' Matt asked.
'No, it was the only one I failed. Terrible teacher, or that's my excuse. I did get Latin and German though. How about you?'
'I passed it, just. Explain to me therefore why we are here in France.'
'It's a holiday,' said Andy, 'We had to move on, n'est-ce pas? We can freeload on the Peacher Foundation while we're in France, and it doesn't cost us a thing. Not that money matters any more, but once you've been poor economy becomes a virtue. As for the travel and all the rest, we now have the Andrew Peacher Trust, whose resources I think are quite considerable, but noone has yet been able to explain to me what precisely they are. But we have Mrs O'Shaugnessy in New York who understands it all and who settles all the bills.'
'God bless Mrs O'Shaugnessy. But you're supposed to be worth more than a half a million a year, you think?'
'Oh yes, a lot more; that I know. We can go anywhere and we can do anything, so there was no point staying in England, after we were sussed.'
Matt sipped his mineral water and pondered their fortnight in England. Andy had begun healing there, in all sorts of ways. They'd stayed long enough for Matt to get his result: an awe-inspiring but not unexpected first class degree. He also had four letters offering a post-graduate future, but he was still sitting on them. He needed to talk to Andy about it.
Andy had really loved being back in their little house in Finkle Road. The damp smell, the unfinished improvements, the wreck of a backyard, the park down the road. It was all still the same, and spoke of safety and old happiness. And they made some new happiness out of it. Paul hadn't in the end come back with them. So far as they knew, he travelling slowly across the American Mid-west with Rachel in her car, hoping, as she said, to find Chuck hitch-hiking on a lonely road, so she could run him down.
It had not been entirely easy. For the first six days back home Matt could not leave Andy. He had come off pain-killers and anti-depressants, and for three days he lay sweating and shaking in bed. He was in renewed pain from his injuries, but more seriously, in an agony of withdrawal.
Matt had taken advice from the doctors. He had filled the fridge, closed and locked the outside door and kept Andy in his room, lying next to him, holding him and arguing with him when he had to. It may have been that only Matt could have kept him curbed, not so much through love, perhaps, as through Andy's profound guilt over what had happened in Salonica. After three days it got less painful. Andy woke up on the fourth morning, his eyes less troubled and clearer, and it had been better since. He was not cured, maybe, but he was in remission. One unforgettable sunny morning six days after they had come back, Matt woke to hear Andy singing about the house downstairs as he was making them coffee and toast, and he lay back in bed feeling delighted and relieved. That was the old signal. It was progress.
When Andy was stronger and his bruises had shifted from red, to purple and then a fading green, they had wandered round the city; swum at the pool for old time's sake, and coupled insatiably and unprotected in Matt's old bed, just as they had in their first days together. The tests run in Burnett had proved to be clear.
Andy had been in tears after the first time they had made love, and Matt thought he could guess why. He held Andy and reassured him in every way he could. So they lay together till late in the mornings, sat together over breakfast, watched daytime TV sitting on the greasy sofa, and generally lazed about.
Without Paul, the place rapidly became a mess. Then one night, for the hell of it, they went for the first and only time for a drink in the King's Cross, where Dusty Springfield songs were blasting out from the sound system. 'It would be my mum's favourite, wouldn't it? How alternative can you get?' said Matt. It seemed quiet, indeed it was so tame the place was a major disappointment. 'I was definitely expecting Sodom, and possibly even Gomorrah,' complained Andy. They went to the bar.
'Hullo you two,' said the barman. They did a double take. It was Steve, although his image had changed a bit since they'd last seen him. He had lost weight, shaved his head, he was sporting piercings and wore a slashed T shirt. 'Back from the States then, Andy?'
'Yeah. Flying visit. I see you've come out pretty thoroughly nowadays.'
'It was my last year. I got fed up of living the lie. Maybe you two impressed me, so I came out of the closet.'
'Better late than never,' said Matt.
'I know one guy round here who'll be chuffed to know you're back.'
'Him.' Steve pointed as a dark figure emerged from the loos.
'Dave?' Matt and Andy registered simultaneously.
'Heya, lads.' Dave was looking a little sheepish.
'Well, bloody hell,' said Matt in unconscious imitation of Leo.
'Come on, you always knew I was queer. Why the surprise?'
'Fair enough. I just hadn't expected to see you here, that's all.'
Dave jerked a thumb at Steve. 'That's his fault. I found him in the gutter one evening in Finkle Road...'
Steve interrupted, 'Not in the gutter, Evans. I was just a bit... relaxed that's all.'
'Yeah, he was relaxed, in the gutter at six o'clock. Old ladies and kids were staring at him, he was so relaxed. I picked him up anyway - not easy with a bloke his size - and took him into no. 63, where his mate Will lived, and we sobered him up, eventually. I stayed and waited till he recovered the power of speech, and all he would talk about when he did was... well you can guess.'
'Me?' asked Matt.
'You, naturally. But then I had a similar fixation, so it was a subject on which I could hold my own even with Steve.'
'Yeah, for once I was talked into silence, by taffie here.'
'So I fell asleep on the bed next to him and we woke in the morning and looked at each other and completely creased at what a sad pair of bastards we actually were. We were laughing and then, I dunno, something at last clicked for both of us, and we were kissing and he'd pulled down my pants. Next thing I know I'm naked on my stomach being shagged up the arse by the most monstrous tool I could ever have imagined and loving every second of it, though I thought he was gonna come out my mouth. And I've been getting it regular ever since. Fantastic.'
Steve smiled and for the first time Matt recognised what Alex had told him long before, that there was indeed a nice guy deep inside Steve, 'He's quite something is Dave, he sorted me out. Drinking is in the past, and I'm going to redo my final year and get it right this time. All that and brilliant sex too. What a bum he's got, you could lose a regiment up there.'
'Amazing,' was all Matt could think of to say, as Dave gave him a lopsided grin. 'I think it's pints all round then... but you have an orange juice, Steve,' Matt added. They sat at the bar, chatting and friendly. For the first time Dave and Andy were getting on, comparing the experience of anal sex with men with large cocks, so far as Matt could work it out. He was concentrating on what Steve had to say.
Steve was looking a little unhappy. 'You know I set you up last year with the press? First can I say how sorry I was, but please just remember just how fucked up I was.'
'Let's move on from that,' Matt said.
'Thanks,' said Steve quietly. 'But the thing is this. One of the tabloid hacks who was on Andy's case last year was back in town yesterday, the one I talked to about you guys. It seems that they know he's here, and they're already watching the house in Finkle Road. So it may be time to move on, know what I mean. He's going to be in here later, he thinks I know something, and what I'll do is feed him a big line. Something like you're at a gay orgy in Reading and I'll be able to set up shots for him. That'll leave you clear to make your move.'
Matt raised his eyebrows, 'I'll tell Andy later.'
'Good. It's been great to see you, Matt. Gives me a chance to say how sorry I am at what I did. I hope you forgive me.'
'Yes, Steve, I do. It was only yourself you were hurting in the end. It does my heart good to know you and Dave are finding healing together; apart from his arse, I suspect.'
Walking back through town to Finkle Road after several drinks, Matt filled Andy in on Steve's intelligence.
'Hmm,' said Andy, 'We might tough it out. It is possible that he's only freelancing. My dad saw his paper off with a vengeance. But on the other hand, I'm not necessarily keen to wait to find out. Are you ready to move on Matt?'
'No problem, but first we go to Northampton to see my parents, OK?'
'Fair enough, and you come with me to see my mother in Nuneaton afterwards.'
As might have been predicted, they had a more comfortable time with Matt's family. Mrs White found Andy irresistible in his woeful and still battered state. She couldn't help herself mothering him again, which involved stacking tea and sandwiches in front of him at regular intervals. Soon they were sitting on the same sofa, chattering endlessly about nothing and everything, but always coming back to Matt.
'I have to say that Matty's not always been such an angel, Andy love,' she said. 'Even when he was seventeen he would still be telling on poor little Carl, five years younger than he was. Always arguing those two. Drove me quite mad.'
'He's never once lost his temper with me, Mrs White.'
'Nor me. He was always a sweet-natured boy, happy to run down the shops on errands. Just never ask him to tidy his room. But I expect he's grown out of that now.'
Andy coughed, 'Very tidy. Embarrassingly so. Quite shows me up.'
'Now just let me get some photos of him... you'll love these.'
She hugged and kissed Andy when they eventually left. He relished it: 'My first real mum.'
The night they stayed there, Matt was choked that he and Andy were still put in the same room, his old room and this time no camp bed. His bed was a tight fit for them both, not that they complained. His father smiled ruefully when he mentioned the new sleeping arrangements: 'It's a new world, and I've got to get used to it.'
Carl had brightened up, now that he had finished comprehensive school and was on his way to a sports college in the north. He was due for a trial for the national Olympic swimming team. Andy was very impressed. Carl was chirpier than Matt could ever remember, and had grown to a very athletic six foot. His resemblance to Matt was still pronounced, although he lacked the fineness of his elder brother's features. He was wary around Andy, but not obviously hostile, which encouraged Matt. His mother had whispered to Andy that Carl was working hard among the female population of Northampton to prove that he was not his brother. Matt spluttered when it got back to him.
The second day, early in the morning before they left, Matt went down the yard to find his father. They had talked little since all this had begun, not indeed that they had ever talked much before. His father was not a great man for long conversations, but he had other ways of communicating. Matt had always somehow known that his father loved him and was proud of him, if a little puzzled as to how he had turned out. But since his bombshell, he had withdrawn into himself, and Matt needed some reassurance.
He found him shifting sacks of cement and he looked surprised to see his son there, but Matt silently picked up the sacks and helped him load the truck (Tony White and Sons, General Contractors) the way he had done so many times before.
'Thanks son,' said his dad, 'Carl's never been so willing a hand as you.'
'He's afraid of putting his back out dad, it'd interfere with his training.'
'Spect you're right, Matty.' He rarely called him Matty, and it was touching and troubling that he did so now. It took him back to his boyhood, playing ball in the park and shrieking as his father pushed him high on the swings.
Matt launched quickly into what he had to say. 'Dad, I'm sorry about all this. I know you're disappointed in me, and I wish, I really wish it could have turned out differently.'
His father stood quiet for a long moment, and then spoke with deliberation, the obvious result of much thinking, 'Matty, son, I don't know what you want me to say to you. All my life gays, queers, poofdahs, whatever you call them, have been creatures from another planet. Apart from these characters you see on telly, I've never met one, so far as I know. They were disgusting, effeminate characters in jokes the lads tell down the pub, that's all. Yet you came and told me that you're in love with this Andy, and you're sleeping with him and all, and suddenly my little smiling Matty turns out to have been one all along. Son, I could never hate you. You've always been such a sweet, good boy, and if you are what you say you are, then I've got to learn to live with it, even if I can't understand it. And I know you're a good man, and from what mother's been telling me about what you did in America, you've been very good to your... boyfriend, and more or less saved his life. It's just that now you live on another planet from me, and I don't know how to reach you. It's as though I've lost you, and it don't make me happy.'
This was the longest speech he's ever heard his father make, and Matt was left deeply saddened by it. He reached for his dad and embraced him hard: 'Dad, I could try to say things to make it better. But all I ever need to know is that you're still happy to be my dad, even if I've changed. Kids grow up, we can't help it. Please remember I'm always your son, and thankful you're my dad.'
His father smiled gently as they separated, but said nothing more on the subject. But as he was getting in the van he asked when he was going to enrol for his PhD programme.
'You'll be Dr White when you finish,'
'Yup. If I finish it.'
'You'll finish. More radio work? Perhaps the telly?'
'Who knows? Definitely a book.'
'Proud of you, son.' Matt choked again. He thumped the side of the van, waved his father off, and closed the yard gate behind him.
The Peacher home in Nuneaton was a big red-brick villa in a tree-lined avenue. It was far too big for one person, or two for that matter. It was designed for days when middle class people employed servants. 'It was my dad's parents' house. He abandoned it to her when they divorced,' said Andy.
The garden hadn't been tidied the previous winter. An old-fashioned bicycle with a basket under the handlebars was leaning by the front door. Andy had his door key still. The house smelt of boiled vegetables and accumulated dust. There were no carpets, mostly just painted boards and odd mats. Their footsteps made hollow echoes in the hall. Victorian political prints and funeral cards in heavy black frames were hung on the dun-coloured walls. The furniture seemed to belong between the world wars. There were not enough lights in the house to lift the gloom. Higher up in the house there was the faint sound of a radio news programme.
Andy gave him a lop-sided look. 'Imagine bringing your school mates home to this mausoleum.' Matt suddenly attained to a new level of knowledge of his lover. The vision of the lonely boy on the stairs came back again to haunt him. Andy called up the stairs, 'Mum!'
A short, thin woman with big glasses on chains, wearing a fawn cardigan and tartan skirt, appeared from an upstairs room. 'Andrew dear. You should have rung.'
'I did. Two days ago, mum.'
'Just like your father, all so last minute. And this is ...?'
'Matthew ... Matt. You remember.'
'Oh yes, the boyfriend. How could I forget.' She offered Matt a limp hand. He shook it affably.
'It's very nice to meet you, Mrs Peacher.'
She nodded, 'I expect you'd like a tea or something.' She led the way into an antiquated kitchen that desperately needed a thorough clean out, with a lot of disinfectant. The tea was Earl Grey, without the choice. Some Rich Tea biscuits were put on a saucer. They were rather on the soft side.
Mrs Peacher sat at what be imagined was her customary end of the kitchen table, while Andy had taken the other end. Matt sat in the middle.
'You look a bit bruised around your face.'
'I was in an accident, mum. I told you. But I look a lot better than I did.'
'Good. You saw your father?'
'And that thin Californian woman, the trophy wife.'
'Yes, she was there.' Neither of them felt like defending Ellie in the face of her predecessor's sneering.
'So you've left yet another university without staying the course. Your grandfather would not have been amused. Will you ever finish do you think? What are you going to do now?'
'I'm thinking about it. Matt and I are on our way to France for a little holiday. We'll work it out there. Matt's going to do a doctorate in history.'
This sparked a certain sardonic interest. 'I never have much time for so-called professional historians. They never check their facts, and they're all Marxists. Can you remember one readable history book that's come out of a university in the past fifty years? I'm sure I can't. Now I am a prosopographer - or what you would call a genealogist. That's what I would call a true intellectual discipline.'
They managed to escape without too long a lecture on the current state of her succession project. Mostly she just talked, dryly and contemptuously about anyone and anything. She became passionate only when describing the tedious and pointless arguments in web chat-rooms which she had with her fellow genealogists, who seemed to be people who had brought the art of intellectual feud and pettiness to remarkable new heights. Matt wondered if she had always been like that. Surely not. Andy's dad would have murdered her and buried her in the overgrown back garden. He was pretty near doing it himself by the time they made their getaway.
Matt was driving his silver Rover down the M40. Andy looked at him as if he was reading his mind. 'So now you truly know me, don't you.'
Matt smiled gravely, 'She is an odd woman. She loves you, though.'
'Yes, I'm in her heart somewhere alongside the complete contents of the Peerage and Baronetage.'
'What a childhood you must have had.'
'The divorce came as a relief, almost. The rows were ... very literate; the prolonged cold wars were the worst. They were neither of them innocent, I know. Still, I ended up with mum, where I was needed most, or so I thought. Now I'm not so sure.'
'Really?' Had Andy begun to thaw towards his father?
'Frankly, I just got in her way. She had neither time or understanding for a boy in puberty and adolescence. I wanted to board at school, but she wouldn't let me; I guess she thought it would have been like giving in to dad. So I more or less brought myself up. I had no local friends, as I'd never gone to a local state school. In holidays I went for long walks or just hung round the garden. She wasn't neglectful, poor woman, just absent-minded. She just about remembered my birthdays. It was always a book. Meanwhile I was upstairs wanking in a mirror, wondering what the hell was happening to me.'
Matt was deeply moved by Andy's picture of his solitary boyhood, and suddenly thankful for his irritating brother and regiment of cousins. But he did Andy justice, 'You didn't do too bad, Andy. Wherever you got it from, you've got a wonderful capacity for fun and for love. All you need is the ability to go easy on yourself too.'
Half an hour later, as they were reaching Newbury and flashing past a perimeter mall of classy BMW and Daimler showrooms, Andy said, 'Fancy a new car? Anything you want, just ask.'
'I've got all this cash, Matt. It needs to be spent, and if you have a dream car, I'll buy it for you, no sweat.'
Matt thought about it for a minute. He knew Andy had been set up with a trust by his father, and that he now controlled a very great deal of money. But this was the first time that the consequences of this for him had come home to him. They had not discussed money and they had made no ground rules about how Matt fitted into Andy's new world. Perhaps this was Andy's way of starting the necessary discussion.
There was pride and a stubborn streak in Matt, and he did not want to give anybody cause to think that he was a freeloader on Andy's fortune, although he also knew that people would still think that. He knew his Andy, and that Andy would happily give him anything he asked for. He was also afraid that if he turned Andy down flat when he was being his naturally generous self, it would hurt him, even if he understood why.
Eventually he collected his thoughts. 'Andy love, I've got to say that I'm not one of those people who have a love affair with cars. I got this one 'cos my father and Uncle Dan, who works in a garage, said it was sweet little number that was never going to give me any trouble and had barely anything on the clock. And it is a good car. I don't want to upset it by talking about getting another one; it might get uncooperative and stroppy. But I appreciate the thought.'
'S'OK, just a suggestion.'
'I know. Look, Andy, about your money, we need to talk. You live in a different universe to me so far as that's concerned. We both know that. It was always going to be like this, because of whose son you are. Now, I don't want your money and I've got to say that it makes me uncomfortable thinking about quite how wealthy you are, and what people think about me for living with you... and I don't just mean because we're lovers.'
Andy nodded but said nothing. Matt continued, 'But we are lovers. We live together and I want to live with you for the rest of my life. I hate it when we're apart. So far as it goes, then, I'd be a fool if I tried to ignore who you are. So let's say this. Money is part of your world, and so am I; I've got to cohabit with your wallet as well as your perky little person. So buy me what you want, I'll always be grateful because I know it's through love. I'll live in your house, eat your food and share your bed with a clear conscience. I'll surf your cards because it's part of our life together. Just don't give me actual cash, and don't give me anything just because you think it'll make me love you more than I already do, because that's impossible.'
Andy smiled, 'That's nicely put my Matt. Those are the rules?'
Matt laughed, 'Yes. You're not annoyed?'
'With you? Not possible.' He leaned over, kissed Matt's cheek and laid his head happily on his shoulder.
They reached Portsmouth and booked a double cabin on the overnight ferry. Andy could have bought the ship, a thought which produced in Matt a strangely liberating feeling. Sliding out of the harbour and sailing out on to the dark sea was a solemn and suggestive experience. They stood together at the rails, the cold wind ruffling their hair as the lights of England disappeared behind them and the black sea rushed and foamed beneath the ferry's keel. They failed to sleep at all on the crossing, what with the engines and the perpetual sound of the plumbing. In the early morning they were marshalled off the ferry at St-Malo and found themselves on the roads of France. It was a cool morning with a breeze off the Atlantic whipping out the tricolours on the masthead and flagpoles. Andy took over the driving, which was an awkward moment. This was the first time he had been at the wheel of a car since the fatal accident.
'It's OK, really. The French drive on the proper side of the road, so our chances of survival are better with me at the wheel than if it was you. Anyway, here goes.'
He drove well, with perhaps an exaggerated degree of care so as to reassure Matt. The empty roads and small villages of Brittany sped past, and they both began to relax. Matt read French phrases out loud from a handbook until it made him car-sick. They had lunch outside Nantes, a really nice plat du jour in a small restaurant which lured them inside with the assurance that English was spoken there. There Andy rang ahead with his mobile to alert the housekeeper at Courçon that he was about to arrive. They drove up to the gates of the Domaine Peacher late in the afternoon. The house was a small and elegant château in immaculate grounds at the edge of the Forest of Benon. The shutters of the tall windows were a freshly painted green. A straight gravel drive led up between a long line of pollarded trees to the pedimented frontage, where Andy parked. A lady in a black dress was waiting on the steps, and an elderly man in a waistcoat, perhaps her husband, took their bags.
'Bienvenu Monsieur Pesh-ay!' she managed, 'Entrez! C'est un plaisir, un grand plaisir, à vous voir ici en Courçon. J'ai... pardon...' she suddenly noticed their total incomprehension, and she recommenced, 'I 'ave a room ready for you and Monsieur ... Vwit.'
Andy was not beating round the bush. He had long ceased caring what people thought of him. The whole village could know he was sharing his bed with another man. Apparently Madame Cirier, the housekeeper, didn't feel so scandalised that she would give in her notice. 'When would you like your dinner, messieurs?'
They walked hand-in-hand out the windows at the back of the house and into a dream-like garden in the English style with a long reflecting pond with carp, and a fountain at the end further from the house, spilling into a wide and moss-encrusted bowl. There were extensive borders and formal parterres and at the end of the garden a terrace overlooked a view of Courçon and the flatlands of the great Marais of the Sèvre beyond, golden in the afternoon sunlight.
'So this is serious wealth.' said Matt.
'This is me now... a trustafarian, they call it. It's us too. You'll get used to it; you have to, you've married into money, which is all very historical and Victorian. I'm glad you aren't going to get silly about it, like Paul.'
'No. I'm not. So you've reconciled yourself to your dad and his world at last.'
'Yes. I know he's not the bastard I thought he was, that my mother told me he was.'
'Good. He loves you, Andy, even if he can't show it easily. He went through hell for you and forgave you everything.'
'Pity about the fact that he is in thrall to the witch-queen, though. Why can't we tell him the things she's done to us, and to him? It's not right.'
'Two things. Firstly, it's not actually our business what goes on between him and her. He's a powerful man, and he's not her slave. The fact that she has to go round his back, spy and manipulate makes me think that he's not naïve or entirely besotted concerning her. I'm guessing that he knows some things about her that we don't. There's been battles in the past and she's been defeated. He just doesn't know how far she went to destroy you.'
'And the second thing?'
'The second thing is that she is a mother to three kids that your dad loves just as much as he loves you. For all the provocation, do you want to put them through what you went through? Do you want to precipitate that, even if you could?'
'But she's dangerous.'
'To you maybe, and to me too. We'd be pretty thick if we didn't always remember that. And maybe yes, she's not yet finished with us. We should certainly stay on our toes. But she thinks we've got something that would destroy her marriage, and she's not going to forget it because her marriage is the source of all her power. I can still see the fear and fury on her face. So let's seize the moment, and be like victorious heroes of Antiquity at peace in Elysium, just for a little while.'
'I'll never forget that you took on the Medusa for my sake, Matt. You'll always be my Perseus. You are a true hero. It's up to me to be worthy of it. Give me time, and I will.'
'I don't doubt it for a moment, love.'
'And if you want to walk around wearing nothing but a plumed helmet, I just want you to know that I could cope with that.' Andy grinned his cheeky grin, almost to himself.
The waiter brought their steaks and frites. Andy made a comment about at least being able to eat today. The yachts bobbed on the twinkling waters of the Vieux Port. The students on the tables next to them chattered amiably, and one or two of the girls eyed up Matt appreciatively; he smiled back. They had been in France now for three weeks and Andy had healed of his visible injuries. They loved La Rochelle. After their lunch, eaten at the leisurely French pace, they wandered up into the city through the medieval gate, strolling in the shade of the ancient pillared and vaulted pavements, stopping off at the bookshops.
Matt wanted to see the cathedral of St Louis. He had a digital camera he wanted to use, and it was a good a time as any for him to commence his own future as a historian.
'So why's this place important?' asked Andy as they stood at the end of the nave of the white limestone basilica surveying the great vaulted space before them.
'You remember the Three Musketeers, don't you? I know you do. You were pissing yourself over it on afternoon TV a few weeks ago. Well Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain and - what's 'is name, the one you fancied rotten, D'Artagnan ..'
'Michael York, a god amongst blonds; we worship him.'
'... yes, him. They were in the royal army besieging La Rochelle, which was full of rebel Calvinists making a last stand against Louis XIII and Cardinal Charlton Heston. La Rochelle was the Geneva of France, a Protestant theocracy, and they laid the Catholic churches waste in the city. So when it finally fell ...'
'Yes because that tedious duke of Buckingham got assassinated, I remember.'
'... when it finally fell, King Louis wanted a restored Catholic city as a symbol of the success of his modern Crusade. So this big church was erected as a major statement of seventeenth-century royal power, and what am I studying?'
'Precisely, my dear Andrew. St Louis - Louis IX - was the medieval name saint of the king, and was himself in his day a great Catholic king of France and crusader. It's all part of the symbolic scheme.'
Andy grinned, 'I love it when you talk academic.'
They paced under the high vaults of the wide aisles and marvelled at the baroque magnificence. Matt's camera flashed and flashed as he recorded aspects of the symbolism of Bourbon monarchy. Andy had paused in a side aisle, struck by a vast and macabre nineteenth-century canvas of St Louis recovering the bodies of dead crusaders at Gaza.
'Bit homoerotic, isn't it. Hugging a naked man? And in a church too.'
'Necrophiliac, I'd call it. He's gone green. And that bishop's throwing up. I must get a postcard. What do you think about the place, Andy?'
'It makes a lot more sense with you here. What was that you did just then? You sort of bobbed.'
'I genuflected. That red light over there is where they keep the consecrated Host.'
'And when we came in you dipped your hand in that bowl of water and crossed yourself.'
'It's my Catholic upbringing, Andy, I'm on autopilot in a church.'
'It's nice. No, really. I can feel something special here. It's not a place where you should behave normally.'
'Well, I'm gonna come to pour assister à la messe pontificale here on Sunday. I want to thank God for your recovery and all you mean to me. Come with me.'
'Woah, would they let me in? I dunno. I'll think about it. I don't know much about religion. Neither of my parents have any time for it. I'm not even baptised, so far as I know. The only religious people I know are you and the Stepmom, and she isn't much of an advertisement for faith.'
'There's also Paulie. He's one of my lot. I can't account for the Stepmom. But the fact that she thinks she has faith may at least account for the way that she was haunted by the fear of being found out, which was her undoing. Somewhere she must have a conscience.
There was this Catholic writer in the last century - can't remember his name now, but Fr Allenby back home made a big thing of him in one of his sermons. He was a horrid old snob, always putting people down. One day a woman friend of his asked him how he could say the things he did and still consider himself a Christian. "Ah," he said, "imagine how much worse I'd be if I wasn't one". Yet he was also the writer who said, "to know and love another human being is the root of all wisdom". It stuck in my mind, especially as I heard it just after you'd just left me last year. It helped me. But this is all to say that people are not consistent. The best you can hope is that the ideals they acknowledge will have some influence on their behaviour. And if not, then at least they can be brought to say sorry one day.'
Andy looked impressed, 'Guarantee a sermon like that, and I'll come.'
'Unfortunately, it'll be in French on Sunday. I doubt they'll have simultaneous translation facilities.'
Matt thought that now was as good a time as any to talk about the future. He led Andy to a side chapel and they sat down on some rickety wooden chairs, He told him that he had something else to talk about. Andy looked serious. Matt pulled out four letters from an inner pocket.
'Andy, these are my possible futures, and I have to choose which one. I want you to help me. This letter is from the Arts and Humanities Research Board, approving my funded place at the university for a PhD. This letter is from the department accepting me on to the course as of October. But this one is from the University of Cambridge, also offering me a place on its PhD programme. While there is also this.' He flourished the last envelope. 'This is from the Mellon Foundation offering an award of a year's scholarship at the Huntington Library in San Marino, just outside Los Angeles. Dr Faber said it was worth trying for because they have huge collections of seventeenth-century manuscripts and books. It would be a brilliant place to start my research. I could get more done there than two years in Britain. My article swung this one.'
'Amazing! Take it. Go for it. As for the university. Cambridge is a lot more prestigious than our alma mater, but somehow I think that my Matt is a bit beyond the status game. You've been tried and tested in that department. Dr Faber's been good to you, and he likes you. I'd trust him. Besides, it means we can keep an eye on Paulie for the next two years. By the way, what's your dad going to do about the house? Paul needs it to live in. He won't take any of my money, although God knows I owe him everything I have.'
'I talked it over with dad. He'll move down there in August and finish the project off, especially Paul's bedroom. He's going to clear out the old furniture and put in new stuff. By the time he's finished the loft conversion there'll be four study bedrooms. Dad's agreed that Paul's going to be house manager rent-free - all the hoovering and drain clearances he could possibly wish for - we can keep our old room if we want, and he gets in two of his mates to pay a proper rent. Also, Dad says he won't sell the place until Paul's finished. I said you'd buy it if he changed his mind.'
'I would too!'
Matt continued, 'So the way it goes is that I take up the fellowship in the library in September, dodge back to enrol at home in October, and then back to Los Angeles. Seems a good deal to me. Will you come with me?'
'Will I ever. It'll be close enough to my dad to start working on our relationship. I can see the twins, and give the leathery old cow heartburn by reminding her that I exist, despite everything she could do to me.'
Language difficulties notwithstanding, the boys loved France, and decided to stay at Courçon through the summer. Madame Cirier seemed forbidding at first, but Matt's Catholic devotion caused a rapid thaw. She began smiling at them, and proved to be a magnificent cook. They stopped eating out unless they were being tourists. Each evening in the tapestried dining room they were presented with a culinary marvel.
'Gosh,' wondered Matt aloud, 'I wonder what she'd do with egg and chips?'
'Dare you to ask,' laughed Andy, although he looked cautiously behind him.
They sat long over the table, enjoying the food and sampling the riches of the château's wine cellars, which M. Cirier was happy to explain to them in halting English. Matt started jogging round the Domaine in case he was putting on weight. He forced Andy to join him by pretending he had detected the beginnings of a pot belly. It was a brilliant summer, the Atlantic weather brought clear air and cool breezes, but the sun shone almost every day.
They found a secluded sun spot in the dunes north of La Rochelle, and spent a fortnight in the sunshine, swimming in the sea, cooking themselves gently and reading under a beach umbrella. Matt had a large stack of literature to get through, and he lay out on a big towel in the sun chewing a pencil and making notes on study texts of Becon's Sick Man's Salve, Bishop Taylor's Holy Living and Holy Dying, and the Eikon Basilikon.
'You look like a rather academic satyr,' admired Andy, as he lay next to him translating chunks of Latin in the text for Matt.
'Is that a reflection on my hairy legs? You, it has to be said, look pretty good too, a bit like lightly browned toast.'
Andy was smug, and looked down at his brown forearm, 'I do, don't I? Best tan I've ever had, and I barely peeled at all. Look at my hair, it's gone white. I hope it was the sun, not the worry.'
Matt reached over and massaged Andy's warm shoulder: 'LA, we're ready for you now.' He looked round, saw no one, closed for a deep kiss, but then could not stop, unfortunately.
'Why don't they tell you that sex in the sand is so uncomfortable?' complained Andy grumpily, looking like a sulky child, kneeling up and rubbing frantically between his legs and buttocks. 'You shoved half the beach up my bum; it's really itchy. Matt and his amazing sandpaper dick.' Sweat had plastered sand to his back and sides.
Matt felt a bit foolish, 'I expect that's why they put the sea so close by. C'mon, I'll race you, once my excitement's not so evident.'
'The hell with that, you look hilarious when your hard-on's wagging in front of you.' He was off, running naked across the open and empty beach into the gleaming sea, sporting like a dolphin.
The Peacher Foundation had bought the château with the intention of turning it into a cultural centre, and a base for small IT conferences and sabbaticals. It was still a work in progress, but the communications facilities were already in place, and they were formidable.
So Matt found it easy to organise his transit to the USA, although he had to make one expedition to London to sort out his student visa in person. Andy came too. They combined the visit to the consulate with Matt's graduation.
London was sultry and thundery in the heat of July. They had left the car in France, taken the TGV to Paris from Poitiers, and crossed the Channel by Eurotunnel. They decided to stay at the Dorchester, for the hell of it. Matt really wanted to use the British Library, but was still wary of leaving Andy for days at a time, so he compromised by some more academic tourism, of an unusual sort. They found themselves one morning descending stone steps taking them deep below Westminster abbey.
'This really is macabre, y'know.' Andy was complaining, looking around nervously. 'It's like being in a really bad horror film. I don't know how you can want to do this.'
'Tombs aren't macabre, they're just sculpture.'
'You think? What about those skulls, scythes and hour-glasses then? And the damp and the cold stench of these vaults? Not macabre?'
'Think of it as just an aspect of culture, an important aspect. But Death, as they say, is nothing at all.'
'Matt, you're creeping me out. When did I shack up with Dr Death? Why doesn't this bother you, you sick puppy.' In fact it was bothering Matt a little, but he wasn't going to show it. He was the professional here. They had reached the bottom of the stairs and were led out into a black space. Andy drew a hissing breath, 'Oh shit. Those are real coffins with dead people in them. I want my mum.'
They had explored the royal tombs in the choir and Henry VII chapel, but Dr Faber had arranged with the abbey archivist, an old friend of his, for Matt to get access to the concealed royal burials in the abbey vaults. There was little parade and pomp of death down there. Royal dukes, kings and queens lay in their coffins set flat on the white dust of the crypt. Matt was astonished to find Henry VII and James I in their decaying lead body-hugging coffins, casually placed side by side in a simple cellar. No state and no pomp; the first Tudor and the first Stuart awaiting the end of eternity like strangers side-by-side in a bus queue.
After he had recovered some of his poise, Andy began making himself very useful. His command of Latin was really very good, and he could translate the inscriptions, providing they weren't too flowery.
Matt checked the battery in his camera, and paused at the end of a tunnel vault. 'Hey, Andy, look! I've read about this one. This is George II and his queen, Caroline. He loved her very much, although he regularly cheated on her. He never got over it when she died. It gave him the horrors. He woke up in a sweat one night; he called his servants and ordered the abbey opened. He rode down from Kensington Palace escorted by his lifeguard with flaming torches. He got here, where we're standing, and ordered the queen's tomb and coffin opened, and when it was he spent twenty minutes contemplating her dead face in the flickering torchlight, then he sadly left.'
'What a good story. And what a place to tell it.' The verger who was with them agreed with a smile, saying he'd remember that for the next party he brought down. He wandered off to change a light bulb.
Matt continued, 'If we could open the lid, we'd see their coffins side by side. And we'd see what he ordered in his last will, that the boards separating their bodies should be removed, so that their dust would one day fall together and mingle.'
'Now that's love.'
'Yes it was love,' said Matt. 'But also it was a bit desperate'.
Andy pressed his lips together, then said, 'You mean that he just could not accept separation? Couldn't accept that she was dead? Couldn't give up on something that belonged only in this world.'
'I guess that's what I mean, yes.'
'It's a sombre code to live by, Matt. I want to believe that love conquers all, even death. I'd like to think that if there is a life after death we'll meet there and love each other the way we do now, in a place where nobody can tell us it's wrong.'
'And I thought I was the romantic. But maybe the rules change after death, and love there is not what it is here. Had you thought of that? But myself I don't want to be austere. You might think I'm inconsistent, but deep down I too want to believe that our story won't be over in this world. I hope that's so, just as much as King George did. And it's not just us. Hang on, listen to this.' Matt riffled through his notebook, found a particular page and declaimed slowly, in words emphasised by the echoes of the funerary vault and the solemn audience of royal coffins:
'Two graves must hide thine and my corse;
If one might, death were no divorce.
Alas! As well as other princes, we -
Who prince enough in another be -
Must leave at last in death these eyes and ears,
Oft fed with true oaths, and with sweet salt tears;
But souls where nothing dwells but love -
All other thoughts being inmates - then shall prove
This or a love increasèd there above,
When bodies to their grave, souls from their graves remove.'
Andy looked astonished at him. Matt added a little smugly, 'John Donne, dean of St Pauls. It seemed appropriate to us, and I can't get it out of my head now.'
After a long silence, barely troubled by the distant hum of the traffic in the streets above, Andy said, 'Even Paulie couldn't do better than that... Matt, that was beautiful: "souls where nothing dwells but love". That's the answer maybe. I want that on my tombstone.'
'Our tombstone, my Andy. We'll sleep together at the end and never be parted. Of that I'm sure. I want our dust to fall together. I want eternity with you.' It was dim under the abbey, but Matt knew there were tears on Andy's cheeks, because they were running down his own. Andy's hand grabbed, caressed and lifted his hand to his lips. Matt stroked Andy's cheeks and wiped off those sweet salt tears. He leaned in and kissed his prince. Andy broke off the kiss, and hiccoughed, 'What a place to get all romantic in.'
The verger eventually returned and led them out. He did not notice that they followed him hand in hand. Once upstairs they went to the museum where they had a private viewing of the extraordinary collection of royal funeral effigies: replicas of dead monarchs dressed in their state robes which were laid on their coffins and carried in their funerals, and then stored in the abbey with the painted hatchments and funerary armour.
'So that's Charles II,' said Andy, in awe, 'he really was tall'.
'The face and hands were cast from his dead body.'
'He died in some pain, then. Poor man.' Andy seemed moved.
'You wouldn't believe the horrible things his doctors did to him, and he apologised for taking his time about dying.'
Andy pondered the upright effigy, with its ancient Garter robes and high feathered hat. 'He died a Catholic didn't he?'
'Yes, he did, although it was hushed up at the time. Otherwise they could never have buried him here.'
'What an odd thing to do, right at the end of your life.'
'Odd yes. But don't forget his mother was Catholic, and he admired the Catholic court of Louis XIV, which set the style for his age. It's not so strange in light of that.'
'I'll never understand faith, Matt.'
Matt shrugged, 'I think it conquers all, in the end.'
Next day they were idly walking the King's Road on a sunny midmorning. They had got Matt's hair cut early at Errol Douglas in Knightsbridge, and were looking for a pair of jeans, when a shout and a waving figure drew their attention across the street.
'Hey! Hey, Andy!' Andy stared, then brightened and waved back.
'Hey, Ed!' A slim and elegant young man dodged through the traffic and stopped in front of Andy, grinning all over his rather handsome face. He gripped Andy's hand, and then embraced him affectionately.
'Lovely to see you, Andy! And what a surprise, right here in the middle of the big wen.'
Andy turned to Matt, 'Matt, this is Ed Roedenbeck. We were at school together. Only he liked it.'
'Tsk Andy, you always make out what a horrible time you had there, but you seemed happy enough to me most of the time - and aren't you the Andrew Peacher who got full colours in the lower sixth - hockey, cricket and soccer - and had his name on the soccer captain's board? Anyway, pardon my rudeness. You must be - indeed you can only be - no other than Matt White.'
Matt smiled and admitted it. They shook hands cordially. He looked over the young aristocrat. He seemed very pleasant, dressed Sloane fashion in light cords and a blue long-sleeved shirt even on a hot morning. His hair was short and immaculately trimmed, he was shaved to perfection.
'I won't ask how you know me,' Matt laughed.
'Well, as it happens, I read history at Cambridge and your article on the regicide helped me get a richly deserved first in my final year. So I'm happy to be able to say thank you in person; you are a very clever man. But of course Andy's told me all about you, and the dear gentlemen of the press are always happy to help out my curiosity about the progress of your relationship. Why didn't you let me know you were up in town?'
'I didn't know you were here, Ed.'
'So what's up, Andy?'
'Matt's doing some... dare I call it, research? It involves poking about amongst coffins and giving me the creeps. Still, you meet a very good class of corpse; I was introduced to five crowned heads yesterday, or they would have been crowned but they had probably rotted quite away.' Ed looked intrigued, and shot an amused glance at Matt.
'We were at Westminster looking at royal burial arrangements for my thesis. We're heading on for my graduation in a couple of days, and then back to France.'
'So what are you doing now, Ed?' asked Andy.
'Taking a year out, my dear. I'm thinking of going to work on father's estate in Cape Province after Christmas... it looks like Walter (that's my elder brother, the tenth viscount-to-be you know; you'll remember him from school, Andy) is not going to settle down into the role for which nature intended him, and maintain the Tuschet inheritance, so it'll be me carrying the family can, alas.'
'Tough deal, Ed. Is that a pub I see? Have you time?' Andy's ability to take the colour from his current company was already subtly modifying his mode of speech back to what Matt imagined was the slightly effete drawl of the public school sixth former he had once been. Matt wondered if Andy's speech and behaviour took on an echo of suburban Northampton when he was with him. He guessed that it probably did.
They settled into the small lounge of a quiet corner pub. Andy ordered. Matt just asked for an orange juice, but the others took pints of London Pride. He listened to the two of them exchange news about former acquaintances and the recent history of Andrew Peacher, on which Edward was very well informed.
'It must have been hard, you poor dear. You seem to have fallen in with a very bad crowd in the States. Let me guess, it was the charming Ellie's not so charming nephew Rosso? Hmm?'
'You know the guy?' asked Matt.
'Oh my yes. The Marquesas and the Rossos like going to St Kitts, providing they don't have to pay for it. I met him in June at father's house party on Nevis, where the boy James was skulking in the background in his father's entourage. A stupid hulking oaf, with shifty eyes.'
'Good description,' approved Matt.
'Thank you. He's clearly into drugs, I'd bet there's not much septum left to his nose. What the adorable Ellie saw in the boy I do not know, but blood is thicker than water, as they say. But there seems to have been some sort of dust-up even there, and she was freezing him out of St Kitts, which was why they were on Nevis this year. I think your father had forbidden him the house, although noone knew why. Anyway he had been sent down from Burnett, or whatever it is the Americans do to get rid of unwanted students, and he was tailing his father around, as there was nowhere else for him to go. I bumped into him later at a seedy bar in Basseterre, where he was engaged with some very rum characters: the sort who might very well run drugs to Florida in fast boats. He has the look of a man who'll come to no good in the end. I rather doubt his daddy will want him back in Minnesota, where he'll frighten the voters. So you shared a house with him, I hear?'
'The biggest mistake of my life, Ed. I should have taken your advice last year and gone back to England.'
Ed smiled indulgently at the both of them. 'Well my dear Andy, you know why I said it. There are so few people in this life you can really count on for good or ill, and you'd been lucky enough to have found him already. Matt, once I'd got him respectably drunk, all he could talk about last year was you. Yet he had no reasonable argument as to why he was abandoning you. I gave him a really serious talking to, you know. I'm glad to see he finally saw sense. The ineffable joy of being able to say I told you so. You make a glowing couple, I rejoice to be in your light, my dears. Cheers.' He lifted his pint in salute. 'Remember the Eton College game, Andy?'
'Do I ever.' Matt was more than a little bemused to be sitting in a Chelsea pub listening to the public school reminiscences of the son of a viscount and the son of one of the richest men in the world. At seventeen he had spent his time between his dad's yard and taking refuge on his playstation and between headphones in his bedroom, venturing into college only when absolutely necessary.
Andy was looking faraway, 'They did take it awful serious when they began losing, didn't they? '
'That was their weakness, the snobs, fear of losing.'
'That and the fact that they selected for size not agility; all that shouting "House!" "House!", quite exhausted me, never mind them. How many did you score?'
'Two, I believe,' Ed was looking modest. 'Their keeper was my cousin Arthur, he's still cutting me dead. It started a family feud.'
'That's because he let three of mine in too, and he got dropped for good afterwards.'
'Not really fair, he was a reasonable keeper, just not up to our standard.'
'Then you got fouled by HRH.'
Matt pricked up his ears. 'You mean that one of the royal princes...?'
Ed grinned, 'Lousy player; far too big a lad for soccer. Should stick to polo. They just played him to show off.'
'That scar on my right shin is in fact the result of an assassination bid on me by the third in line to the throne. I had to go off for the last ten minutes.' Matt shook his head. What sort of circles was he moving in?
They didn't leave the pub till closing time at three, and Andy eventually made a very dubious decision about a pair of jeans as a result.
Matt had succumbed to temptation and had several pints. He'd really liked Ed, and it seemed to be mutual. He had to ask, 'Is he gay?'
'Ed! About as far from gay as you can get. He's had a string of society girlfriends already. You should read more of those celebrity mags. But he was a really good friend to me at school, and he was my vice-captain of soccer. I miss him dreadfully. But that's not the question you wanted to ask was it?'
'Come on Matt, out with it.'
'OK. Damn. You know me so well. I'll ask it. Did you have a crush on him?'
Andy was amused. 'Yes, I did. I admit it. I used to have fantasies about him and me in the showers. But there was never a chance. He is just not interested in other men. Are you happy now?'
'Guess so. Sorry Andy, I've been discovering I have a real jealous streak where you're concerned. I'll fight it. Anyway, it was nice of him to ask us to join him on Nevis next summer. I'm looking forward to it. I like him; for such an affected character, he's very genuine.'
They stayed on in England for a few days, because it was graduation day at the university, and Matt wanted to enjoy it with his parents. So they turned up outside the city hall one fine morning amongst a press of chattering friends all in suits and frocks, with parents and families. Andy and Matt were heading slowly through the crowd to the robing room, stopping to greet old friends, shake hands, kiss and hug. Suddenly a small figure in a dark suit and black robe cannoned into Andy and hugged him passionately.
'Lemme breathe, please Katy!'
She hugged and kissed him again. She had been drinking, 'Ooh you don't know how much I've missed you, my favourite miniature billionaire. It was so nice being taller than someone in my year.'
'It's only because you're wearing high heels, Katy.'
'And what about me?'
She squealed again and hugged Matt too. He hugged her back and kissed her affectionately, 'Love you, Katy. You seen mum and dad?'
'Yes, they're up on the gallery. Look, there's your dad in the grey suit. See you inside.' They smiled and waved and ascended a grand municipal staircase lined with portraits of robed and chained Edwardian aldermen. Matt was shouting above the hubbub to his parents. Carl grinned down over their heads at him, looking very fetching in a black suit and blue shirt. Matt was relieved when his dad smiled at Andy and shook his hand. His mum kissed them both with real affection, and held Andy's arm tightly. He was going to sit with them. Andy deliberately offered his hand to Carl, who grabbed it and gave him a crushing grip in return. But it was not malicious, just teenage ebullience. Carl smiled at Andy for the first time and said, 'Hi, bruv-in-law.' Andy laughed and gave a sidelong look at Matt. It seemed that the name had actually pleased more than bugged him.
His mum pulled him to one side, as Carl began chatting with Andy.
'You notice Carl's a lot happier round you and Andy, love?'
'I did mum, and I'm a lot happier now too.'
'Well, he bumped into Dan's boy, Xavier, last week. They had a terrible row about you. Xavier was being deliberately loud and nasty in a pub in town, and Carl wouldn't stand for it. He went over and had a real upper and downer with him. He said that you'd only ever been Zav's friend and had always stood up for him, and that Zav had no reason to say the things he did. It wasn't loyal and it wasn't fair. And if you'd let the family down by being gay, what Zav was doing was far worse. They didn't fight, thank heavens, but it sorted Carl's head out about it all. He loves you, Matty, he always has, despite all your squabbling, and he's decided he likes Andy.'
'That's some good news at least, mum. Still, I'd rather Zav hadn't taken it hard like that. It's as if he took it as a personal insult.'
'Oh Matty, just remember how close you two were when you were younger. I think he was scared people would think he was like you, and that you two had been... well, sleeping together. It doesn't say a lot for him. I know. I would have expected better of the boy, but he's been angry with you because he's scared of what people might think about him.'
Matt sighed deeply and hugged his mum hard. Then with a complaisant smile at the four people he loved most in the world he disappeared to find his gown, hood and mortar board. They went off to find their seats, Matt's mum now chatting at full blast in Andy's left ear.
He was at the very back of the graduating class, his usual alphabetical fate. He was one of the very last to climb on to the stage but he got to shake the chancellor's hand, a privilege given him as the highest-ranked graduating student in his faculty. As he turned, he was stunned to be hit by a wave of cheering and applause as his many friends stamped and shouted and threw their caps in the air with shouts of 'Chalky! Chalky!'. His eyes filled with tears as he took off his own cap and made a small bow to the hall to great acclaim. He left the stage, slightly sobered by the cold and hostile glare he encountered as he passed the vice-chancellor.
After the ritual photographs, Andy and he entered the temporary bar to be greeted by all the old faces, gathered together for one last time. Andy was hugged and passed round the group with delight. He had been missed by his friends, and it did him good to discover how much. Finally he came back to Matt who could not help giving him a lingering kiss in front of the whole bar. Most cheered and clapped, although one or two looked blank. Ben Craven clapped and cheered the loudest. They went over and sat beside him.
'Wassup, Ben? This is Andy. I don't think you two've ever talked.'
'Hi Ben. Matt told me all about you.'
Ben blushed scarlet, 'Did he tell you I...'
'Yes he did. I think it's a tribute to your good taste.'
'You don't mind?'
'No. He said you've come out.'
'Gay yes, but not too happy,' said Ben. Then the bench bounced as Alex Johnson parked himself heavily next to Ben, he was fairly merry.
'Brilliant to see you guys together, innit Ben?' He draped an arm over Ben's shoulder; the boy looked uncomfortable. 'I'd fancy a snog too, but I dunno whether I'd like a frenchie with Matt or Andy most.'
Ben frowned, 'Alex, it's not nice. It's like you're making fun of us for being gay. Why are you always so facetious? You're such a clever guy and you hide it by playing the idiot.' They looked at him, and he looked defiantly back, 'This is the last time we're going to be together, and maybe it's time for some home truth.'
Something certainly got through to Alex. He looked at Ben closely, and then deliberately took his arm from his shoulder. Matt was a bit worried at what was going on. But then Alex moved his arm down and this time he took Ben round the waist, and pulled him close. The cheerful grin disappeared and suddenly a very different Alex appeared in its place, one that was barely recognisable to his friends: a man of intensity, decision and passion.
He locked eyes with Ben, 'You should know me better. I'd never make fun of you, Ben... at least not in public. Never. Truth-telling, eh? Well let's go with this one, then. I've known you were gay since the second year, and I know what your feelings are about me too... all that following me round. Oh yes, I'm not blind. Do you think I don't know you care about me? You're right, people always think I'm dull, just because I like a laugh. But maybe you're as guilty as anyone else. So, how about this for honesty...'
His mouth closed on Ben's, a brief shocked hesitation and then the two lost any inhibitions they might have had. The room went quiet, and when Alex came up for air he looked around him with a half-grin on his face.
'Wassa matter? Andy and Matt gotta monopoly on homosexuality have they?' Ben stared at him half in shock and half in joyous disbelief.
'Why now?' asked Ben when he regained his voice.
'Because I've liked being round you for three years, Benny. Why do you think I kept turning up at your place all the time? You're beautiful and you're gentle and you don't have two jokes to rub together. You're no competition for my imperialistic sense of humour. And suddenly the thought of you not being there is more than I can cope with. I've always liked you. Now I'm ready to admit that I like you more than is normal. I've had two months without you and it's nearly broken me up. I'm not fighting it any more. I don't really know if I'm ready for this, but I'm certainly ready for you. I've been wanting to say this for months: Benny my love, you and me are an item as of now.' The grin returned, 'Let's have sex.'
'My God,' was all that Ben could manage before the tears began. The two were very soon deep in a conversation that necessarily excluded Matt and Andy, who turned to carry on their goodbyes, but Matt continually looked back at the two young men smiling shyly at each other as they talked rapidly in the corner; they were now holding hands. He wished them well with all his heart.
Later, before they all dispersed with their families to pubs and restaurants, Matt found himself in a corner next to his oldest university friends, Leo and Katy. Katy had sat herself on Matt's lap and was holding him round his neck. He was hugging her back.
'Still no erection when I rotate my bum on your crotch,' she complained.
'Well that's it. I'm gay. It's official,' said Matt.
Andy was in the middle of a group on the other side of the bar exchanging numbers and contact details. Leo was looking a little despondent.
'I don't like endings, Matt. Us Celts get very emotional at times like this.'
'Feel a poem coming on, do you Leo?'
'Now don't mock, Chalky boy. Poetry helps us get to the truth of ourselves... and you could say the same about history. Now I think about it, that's probably why I took it in the first place. Our brief time together is over, and I'll miss you butty, more than you can know. You've been a good mate to me, even after you took up with little Andy.'
Matt felt the sadness too, even though he was from Northampton. 'But we'll still see each other, Leo. I don't intend to lose touch with you.'
Leo smiled, 'That's nice to know. But you may find it harder than you think. You and Andy are off into a very different world from the rest of us.'
Katy chipped in, 'Be fair. We're all off to different worlds, and you may have found the weirdest of them all, Leo. Are you sure about this teaching? I remember what I was like at fifteen, and I wouldn't have wanted to be the sucker who had to teach me.'
'It's a vocation, Katy,' Leo replied ponderously, 'A calling, and a noble one at that.'
'Oh God, you're worrying me now.'
'Besides, many of our greatest poets were schoolteachers.'
'Yes,' said Katy the apprentice barrister, 'But does it follow from the fact that some teachers have been great poets that all poets need to be teachers?'
'That's not what I was saying, Miss Amphlett, and you know it.' Katy was the only person who could get under Leo's skin, and she was doing it now.
Katy shrugged, a difficult thing to do while hanging around a man's neck, 'Let's not argue about it, Leo. I hope it goes alright for you. Just don't take any crap from kids, and don't make the mistake that they have a decent side to appeal to.'
Matt thought about their impending separation, 'I see your point Leo mate, but surely it's up to us if we lose touch or not, isn't it? If we are determined, there's nothing that'll keep me and Andy away from you and Katy and the rest.'
Carl appeared at his shoulder, 'Time to move, bruv. Paul's turned up and Mum's getting nervous about the table booking.' He smiled down at Katy, who looked up at him with some interest. 'Does Andy know you're cheating on him?'
'Ha ha. OK, I'm nearly ready.' Katy hopped off his lap. He pulled Leo into a close hug, knocking off his cap, 'I'll miss you, you Welsh loony. But I know where you live. Best of luck with the life and death struggle to educate the next generation in Leeds... And you, Miss Amphlett, what can I say to you?'
Katy grabbed him round his waist, her eyes brimming. 'Just don't say goodbye, you celestial, handsome hunk. Look me up when you and Andy get back. I'll keep a candle in my window for you, just like... just like I'll always have a candle in my heart too.'
Leo's eyebrows arched in surprise, 'Katy, that was poetic!'
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