Towards the Decent Inn

XXI

By Michael Arram

'Annaheim'

'Venice Beach'

'Annaheim!'

'Venice Beach!'

Paul wanted to go to Disneyland. Andy wanted to go to the seaside. Matt had to referee.

'OK, Paulie. Give us your reasons.'

'It's simple. Think of my pathetic and neglected childhood. All the kids being whisked off to Florida and Paris by their parents, while I, an abused child, was left haunting the streets in rags, etcetera. Now's my chance to make up for years of deprivation and see the Magic Kingdom. Admittedly this isn't Florida, but at least it's in America. Just the sort of happy ending you like, and you can be the Blue Fairy to my Pinocchio'

'Watch it, you need me as a friend at this point.'

'No offence, Matt,' but Paul was smiling in just the way that people do when they actually want to laugh out loud.

'Pile of shit,' retorted Andy, with a rudeness unusual for him. 'To begin with it wasn't the streets you haunted, it was the bookshops - and you enjoyed it. Second, your mother may be scary, but she wasn't all that bad to you; you totally exaggerate. Thirdly, I want to see how the Californian hunks measure up to my Matt.'

Matt snorted, 'Then it's definitely Annaheim. This is Paulie's last week in the USA, and he gets what he wants. Besides, I've never been to Disneyland either, and for that matter, neither have you.'

'I never saw the humour in Micky Mouse, and anyway I'm not all that keen on the Disneyfication of western culture and the debasement and exploitation of classic children's literature as represented by such gross cartoons as the Little Mermaid.

'Annaheim. And I think Mulan was a classic.'

Andy pouted, 'I hate you people.'

Andy was, all evidence to the contrary, happy and serene. Matt always knew when he was feeling secure, because he either started singing to himself or he got argumentative. Since he and Paul knew this, they were happy too. It was the Friday after the reception which had seen the disarray of Dr Matusiak and the literary mafia. Matusiak had not attempted to talk to him after plumbing the depths of his gaffe, although Matt was distantly aware of a battle within the man to approach him and fawn. The other literary scholars were happier to touch the hem of his garments. They turned out in general to be fairly decent if Matusiak was not there.

Matt had a very entertaining and useful morning with the director, who was an authority on the royal image as portrayed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century engravings. He emerged from the office with his head and notepad stuffed with leads it would have taken him years to find otherwise. The staff now treated him with an almost embarrassing level of deference.

Rumours about him swamped the postgrad community, where he was already a hero. He was heir to a major fortune in Britain; he was a member of the upper end of the aristocracy; he was Richard Peacher's illegitimate son. Rhiannon was generally envied as the one in the best position to find out the truth. But Matt had a way of closing down conversations, and she found out no more than anyone else.

'I told you, my dad's a builder and my mum's a housewife, and I come from Northampton. That, believe it or not, is all there is to me. OK, don't believe me, but that really is it.'

'So you wear Armani and gorgeous Romanelli jackets when it suits you.'

'I saved my pocket money when I was a kid.'

'The fifth richest man in the world called you an old friend.'

'He mistook me for someone else. Sad case of premature dementia. Fancy coming out for a drive with some friends this weekend?'

'Eh?'

'I said, fancy a day out.'

She thought about it briefly, 'OK, I'm free.'

So after the row with Paul and Andy, Matt rang Rhiannon and arranged to pick her up early on Saturday and told her where they were going. She was willing although she had been to Disneyworld in Florida as a kid.

'Tell us about Oregon, Paulie,' said Andy.

'What do you want to know, the forests, the lakes, the mountains?'

'You know what I mean.'

'Yes, I suppose I do. You have a morbid curiosity as to how I, Paul Oscott, disadvantaged street child and cosmopolitan deviant...'

'I never called you a deviant,' Andy objected.

'You certainly did. Anyway... as to how I coped with Rachel's folks, her maw and paw, in their small town American backwoods life.'

'That about sums it up for me,' agreed Matt.

'Rachel's family lives in the town of Madison, just outside Eugene. Her dad is called - and you'd better not laugh - Homer, and her mom is called Martha, and they really couldn't be nicer. Her dad is an ex-Marine colonel, and since he's travelled round the world a lot imposing US military hegemony, he is probably more broad-minded and open to foreigners than most Americans. They've even been to Britain, which they liked. I think they were a bit stunned by me, in the sense that I'm not the sort of stiff upper-lipped Englishman that they might have expected. But they were great. They were a bit taken aback that I was a Catholic, since they're all Presbyterians, and I got the idea that they think that I'm corrupting their little Rachel with papist superstition. But they were too polite to tell me to take my doctrines of the real presence and intercession of the saints and shove them. Rachel's mom even patted me on the arm and told me she thought that John Paul II was a real nice man, right up there with the Dalai Lama and Billy Graham.

The main problem was the fact that Rachel has three crew-cutted brothers, none of whom have much time for soccer. What they called football involved crushing tackles and hurling an oval ball for improbable distances in the high school field where they dragged me several evenings. That was hell. Why couldn't it have been the baseball season? I've at least seen your copy of Field of Dreams, Matt.'

'Love that film.'

'Rachel was very different in Madison. You know how forward and feisty she is, but back home, she was in the kitchen with mom, and I was with dad and the boys on the porch, sipping endless cold beers. The state of my bladder, you wouldn't believe.'

Andy looked thoughtful, 'I'm willing to guess it might have been your absolute difference from the males back at home which attracted her to you at first.'

'She said as much. You can bet that we weren't put in the same room to sleep the fortnight I was there, although her dad must have known we'd been shagging non-stop along the 44th parallel. We had to go into the woods to have a farewell bonk. I kept looking over my shoulder in case a bear wanted to make it a threesome.' Paul looked meditative, 'Was a bit sexy though.'

Matt asked, 'And how about the long trip down the coast? You hear stories about travel on US buses.'

'You bet. Rachel was all for driving me down, she seemed to think that it was a personal slight on her that I should even think about the bus. She thought that they're for the underclass. Don't know why. The people seemed very nice to me. Lots of polite Mexicans, soldiers in transit and old folks. The only problem was that they just wouldn't leave you alone. I had to tell my story over and over, and they always reckoned I was Australian. In the end I gave up and decided I was Shane from Melbourne taking a year out before uni. Wasn't too difficult to be convincing considering the number of Aussie soaps me and Andy used to watch back home. In fact I may well stay with Shane while I'm here, it'll avoid confusion.'

'To everyone but us, twit,' Andy scolded, with an indulgent smile on his face nonetheless.

'G'day, mate.' Andy gave in, lunged at him laughing and hugged him affectionately round the waist.

'Missed you so much, Paulie.' Paul kissed the top of his golden head and hugged him back, with a soft smile round his mouth. Matt watched their playing around, and realised how much he loved the both of them.

Come the Saturday, Rhiannon piled into the car and Matt made the introductions from the driving seat.

'This is Andy, and this is Paul, or possibly Shane.' She sat in the back with Paul, who soon made himself a friend for life. Rhiannon was soon laughing at his explanation.

'So how do you all know each other?'

'We were at university together. Paul's still there, he's on his way back next week. This is a sort of last outing for him.'

'Right. I understand.'

'Now,' ordered Matt, 'can anyone tell me when we get to Slawson Boulevard: this city is a bloody maze, but somehow you always end up on Slawson.'

A little later Rhiannon leaned forward and whispered in Matt's ear. 'The boyfriend's really lovely. I've worked it out. Andy isn't it?'

Matt nodded and smiled, while he patted Andy's knee. Andy grinned happily, and patted him back.

They turned off the freeway into the vast prairie of the Disneyland parking lot.

'Remember, we're in Donald Duck.'

'As if I could ever forget that happy phrase,' scoffed Andy. But he was enjoying himself. As they entered the park in a tide of adults and excited children, he felt moved to pause, jump on a bench and expound his concerns to anyone who would listen. 'Look at it this way, friends. Main Street America is perhaps the defining neurosis of the American psyche. Here there is the longing for happy community and good neighbourhood, but in what context? It's just packaging for predatory marketing and soulless consumerism. American dream turned inside out to produce the American nightmare.'

'Just as well there aren't any Americans here then, innit,' responded Paul. Japanese, Mexicans, Germans, Russians and very many Brits, flooded past them as Andy concluded his little tirade.

'And another thing. This place is about family values, right? Well how come every second guy with his family is on his mobile talking to the office and totally ignoring the missus and the kids? They need to have a notice banning male social indifference.' A family passing by stared at Andy, apart from the father, who was talking into his cell phone.

'Get down off there Andy,' ordered Matt. 'Let's go to Wildwest land and shoot something. Bloody hell. Look at the queues.'

'Remember, I didn't want to come here.'

'Sod. Let's have an early lunch.'

They found quite a pleasant restaurant by the big lake, and had a long and chatty lunch. 'OK, it's not so bad,' admitted Andy, 'providing you can get a seat.' They didn't try to get on any rides, but just sauntered cheerily with the crowds. Paul got his picture taken with every cartoon character he encountered. Rhiannon was thrilled at Sleeping Beauty's castle, 'It's every girl's dream. That and the randy prince who slips into bed with you.'

'I don't remember that bit of the film.'

'Girls have dirty minds too. We all want to be Cinderella, we all want the prince. But nowadays it turns out more often than not that he's gay.'

They resolved to stay on for the parade and the fireworks. As the crowds thinned they managed to get on one or two of the big rides. Andy refused, for reasons that Matt could guess. He stayed with him and left the rides to Paul and Rhiannon.

'I'd need a tape to be sure, but I think Paul just shrieked louder and higher than Rhiannon.'

'I think you're right. You OK, love?' Andy had been looking introspective for a while.

'Oh yes. But the thing is this. You've got your thesis; Paul's got his degree; Ed Roedenbeck's got the future of his dynasty. But what have I got? I'm not unhappy at the moment, but I can see boredom setting in down the line. With boredom will come temptation. I've fallen once, I could fall again, even with you carrying me. Travel helps, seeing my dad helps, you help most of all, but the future is worrying.'

'But it's not one you have to face alone. You've got me, and you've got good friends. I can't say I have any answer for you, and I don't think I ought to have. But we can keep talking and one day I have faith that there will be an answer.'

'You have faith, Matt. That's the difference. How do you account for the fact that I have you, I'm clear of drugs and happy, while poor Phil Esposito is in a hell-hole of a gaol somewhere, still a junkie, and probably being used as a sex toy by any man that can overpower him. Where's the justice in that?'

'I'm not sure justice comes into it. We make choices and we make friends. We're given that freedom. If we follow our worst instincts and choose badly, there are consequences. Poor bloody Phil is a case in point. For everything that had been said to him, he turned to drugs. Once he was hooked he was dragged under. So why did he do it?'

'Peer pressure? Inner unhappiness? Loneliness? Self-loathing? These are a few explanations that arise out of my own experience. How do you avoid them?'

'You recognise them and fight them.'

'Is it as easy as that? I wonder.' Andy went off into a long meditation until they were rejoined by an excited Paul and Rhiannon.

She hissed at Matt, 'Don't tell me he's gay too!'

'No, but don't get your hopes up. He's got a very formidable girlfriend.'

'Oh, for heaven's sake.'

The next Wednesday afternoon found the three young men arrowing in off the Atlantic in the big Peacher jet. Birmingham was soon below.

'That was surely the way to travel,' said Paul, as they exited the terminal 'I could get used to it.'

'Well, now we're back on the ground, let's get really down to earth with trains by Midland Express.' Their train was, as it happened, twenty minutes late and there were no free seats. They stood most of the way home.

The house in Finkle Road was cold, but uncannily complete. Matt's dad had finished. Rightly proud of himself, he'd left them a bottle of champagne on the new pine table in what was now a very attractive and modern kitchen, full of glass and stainless steel. Carpets and tiles were laid, new curtains were up and there were no more trailing cables. Apart from the tip in the garden, the place was unrecognisable.

'This is fantastic!' marvelled Andy.

'Yeah. Dad's done his wonders. But - and you're going to think me stupid - it isn't home any more. The old bath where we, y'know ... and the table on which we ...'

Paul looked intrigued, 'Tell me more.'

'Still a lot of voyeur in you isn't there, Paulie?' Matt frowned. 'Point is, it's great, but a lot of special memories went in dad's skip.'

'One thing though,' said Andy, 'He's left our bedroom alone, apart from painting it and putting down carpet. No change there. And here's your old telly, too. When do the new guys move in?'

'Uh, Saturday afternoon,' said Paul the house-manager.

'Do we need to do anything?'

'Don't think so: they're supposed to bring their own bedding and stuff. Hey look! Your dad's put a modem link in each room. Isn't that cool?'

'OK,' said Matt, 'I'm going into hibernation after that flight. Fourteen hours in a jet, even a private jet, isn't a joke. Come with me, Andy.' Andy thumped up the stairs with him, and soon they were back where it all began: embracing under Matt's duvet. Just as he was dropping off, he heard Andy mutter sleepily, 'When the hell did we wash this duvet cover last? I want Madame Cirier.'

Matt and Andy didn't intend to stay long, and there was a debate whether they should go back to France for a week. But Matt had to have two long sessions with Dr Faber, and then register the next week, so there was no time. At registration he encountered Dave Evans, who was still grinning.

'Everything OK, Dave?'

'Yup. Steve's over at Registry sorting out his third year repeats in Sociology. And I got him to grow his hair again. He looks a lot cooler. Any chance of meeting up later?'

'Every chance, mate. Hang round the stairs in about an hour, and I'll get Andy on the mobile. But first, I need to see Doc Faber.'

Dr Faber was happy to give him the academic dirt on Matusiak, who had no friends in the UK after a sexual harrassment allegation and a plagiarism row had led to his suspension from his fellowship. He was in the USA desperately trying to restart a collapsing career.

'I still don't feel sorry for him. Why is he such a bastard?'

Dr Faber took his time pondering the question. 'Matt, there is such a thing as an academic mentality. We academics tend to be intensely competitive, which is no bad thing since research and publishing soaks up a huge amount of mental effort, and you need anything that gives you edge. The problem for some of my colleagues is that in the end they define themselves entirely by their success against their peers rather than by the quality of their work and their own humanity, so they get to hate their colleagues as competitors; they resent any success but their own, and see it as stolen glory. Basically, like Matusiak, they forget they are human, and morality is eroded along with it.

In his case it was particularly nasty. He was supposed to be presenting a major seminar at the British Academy to justify a grant he had been given. Since he had done nothing about it, he stole the work of a doctoral student he was supposed to be supervising. Unfortunately for him, her boyfriend was present, and he stood up and accused Matusiak to his face. It was a sensation... I wish I'd been there.'

'Matusiak was horrible. He picked on a total nonentity like me, and every woman that came near him was a potential victim.'

'In his case I have to say there wasn't much humanity to lose in the first place. He is driven almost mad by jealousy of any potential rival, leaving not much room in his life for love, so he makes up for it by lust. Sex for him is about power and anxiety. And you may be just a postgraduate student, but one day maybe you'll be a rival academic, so to his fevered mind you are a fair target. Besides in your case, I imagine that your, er, physical charms would have rubbed the salt into the open wounds of his ego. You're young, charming and very good looking, and you must have made him feel especially insecure as you'd already had a major research coup. I have no doubt the female population of the Huntington were full of interest as soon as you put your face round the door, until that is... er.'

'Until they found out I was gay, you mean Dr Faber.'

'Er yes, that.' Although he had known about it long before it became notorious, Dr Faber had never lost his uneasiness about Matt's sexuality. It was for Matt rather like dealing with a rather shy and unworldly curate, even though there was in fact a Mrs Faber and two little Fabers, whose pictures were all over his desk.

He and Andy met Dave and Steve for a liquid lunch, and saw them off happily, getting their contact details.

In the end Matt and Andy stayed to see Paul's friends settle into Finkle Road. It was a little weird to hear strange footsteps and voices round their house, and see the fridge fill up with alien sorts of food.

Paul was in his element, and he'd decided to adopt the garden as a project. His long term aim was a barbecue pit: 'Maybe Rachel'll come over here next year. Make her feel at home.' Andy and Matt were local legends, so Paul's second-year friends were a bit shy around them. Paul said he had offered them a private viewing of their bedroom for a couple of quid, but they didn't take him up on it.

Come Sunday morning, Matt and Paul decided on mass. In the months of desolation after Andy's departure they had both found some comfort in the little church of St Francis of Assisi, and had become familiar to the local congregation. Andy said he'd come too.

'You asked me to come with you at La Rochelle, and I didn't. So I'll come now. Doesn't sound so intimidating as pontifical mass.'

'You've not met Father Allenby,' said Paul.

St Francis was a 1960s housing estate church, with a decaying copper roof and dessicating concrete pillars. Plastic buckets collected rainwater in the aisles. But Fr Allenby, a cheerful white-haired priest well past retirement, preached a good sermon and the Sunday school and youth group were still active. It was not one of the churches where Saturday vigil mass had taken over as the main observance.

The door stewards recognised Matt and Paul and made some jocular comments about term starting and the swallows returning. Other students were scattered through the congregation. The boys stood at the back, Andy fidgetting and trying to counterfeit the others' movements. It wasn't very easy for him as the congregation didn't need to use books, as in an Anglican church. Everything was memorised. Paul communicated, but Matt sat down with Andy.

Andy whispered, 'Aren't you going to take communion?'

Matt whispered back, 'No. I need to confess.'

'But what we do, doesn't that stop you?'

'We haven't been doing a lot of it, till recently. But Fr Allenby's a bit of an individual where homosexuality is concerned. Despite what the Vatican says, he thinks that being a practising homosexual isn't a moral choice, the morality comes in how gays behave in relationships. Which is something we believe too, isn't it? We're not the only gay couple here this Sunday.' He nodded at two men in their thirties with matching moustaches.

At the door after the Angelus, Fr Allenby greeted Matt and Paul like old friends. 'I thought you'd left us for good, Matt.'

'No Father, I'm abroad this year, but I'll be back for the two years after that. And you've still got at least two more years of Paulie.'

'Will I live to see the end of it, I wonder?' he chuckled. 'And who's this now?' His mild blue eyes swept Andy.

'Hi, I'm Andy.'

'Ohoh! Would that be the Andy, now?'

'Yes, Father, ecce homo.'

'Lovely to meet you, my lad. Come again. You're very welcome.'

Andy was struck by the recognition and the welcome, 'He knows about me.'

'Not only that, but he prays for you. And you can't keep anything from Fr Allenby. He sucks it out of you; he remembers everyone and everything you tell him. And you do tell him everything. He's quite amazing.'

Paul asked him, 'What did you make of it?'

'It was OK, I guess. I didn't recognise any of the hymns. They had different ones in chapel at school, but then it was Church of England. But everyone seemed to know what was going on, while it was all confusing to me.'

'We've been going to mass since we were tiny,' said Paul, 'so it's sort of embedded.'

On Monday, Matt registered as a postgraduate and got his final instructions from Dr Faber. On Tuesday, Matt handed over the keys of his Rover to Paul, and told him to look after it. 'Look after it!' Andy scoffed, 'He'll be polishing it every weekend. By the time you get it back he'll have worn the paint down to the bare metal.' They hugged and kissed Paul, as they always did, while his housemates choked into their Cheerios and looked embarrassed. But Paul didn't mind in the least.

'Come to see us after Christmas, Paulie. We know you're going to see Rachel in Oregon. You OK for cash?'

'I've still got the balance of the stash. Oh, and Andy, I did notice that you've sneaked another five grand into it, but I forgive you. I'll be alright. Don't worry about me.'

'Do you think we'll ever come back to this house, Matt?' asked Andy as they got in the taxi.

'I dunno. Probably not. Whatever it once was to us, it isn't any longer. We've changed, and the world's changed too. I'd better tell Paul to let our room out.'

'I was afraid you'd say that. So let's just be grateful for our time here.'

'And move on.'

A lorry moved into the space their taxi left and deposited a skip; phase one of Paul's garden clearance plan was going into operation.

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