Goodmans Hotel by Alan Keslian - HTML preview
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People hardly ever come to the hotel without having made a booking, but expensive bags and new leather jackets gave the impression that the two men had money. My little dial-up unit for checking credit cards had cleared the one they proffered as valid. Nothing about them made me suspicious. The police would no doubt check and discover that the credit card had been stolen, and that the names and addresses they gave were false. A few hundred pounds’ worth of damage was unlikely to merit much of an investigation. Like the men who had abused Darren, they would go unpunished, free to gloat over their actions.
Two officers arrived an hour and a half later, a man and a woman. They spent about twenty minutes in the hotel examining the wreckage and making a few notes. Having a police car outside and officers in the hotel was not likely to encourage business, and at first they put me on edge by looking at the rack of leaflets and cards for gay clubs and organisations in the hall. The female officer asked with what looked to be a forced smile how many people had been staying last night, and if the hotel guests were exclusively male. At first I feared prejudice and was expecting hostile questions about the nature of the business, but she reassured me by saying that the hotel was in the right area, in easy reach of quite a few gay pubs and clubs.
The male officer used his radio to check the credit card number and the address the two vandals had given, and minutes later received confirmation that they were fraudulent. They asked me not to clean any glass surfaces, cups or similar objects until the fingerprint specialist had come, and said they would send me a letter with an incident number for my insurers as proof that the crime had been reported.
After the police left, the prospect of going back up to the vandalised room for a fourth time that day was too unpleasant. The best thing would have been for me to have gone out for an hour to walk in the park or do some shopping, but as the fingerprint expert was on his way I had to wait in. As the cleaner was off duty his chores fell to me, but unable to face doing the rooms I moped around in the kitchen.
The fingerprint specialist arrived shortly before mid-day with his little case of equipment, but he found no prints that could definitely be identified as belonging to the wreckers. Presumably thinking already of another more important case, as he was leaving he asked if any cars had been stolen in the area recently, giving me the impression there was little chance of my pair of vandals ever being caught.
Tom came over at lunchtime as soon as he picked up my message, and ran ahead of me up the stairs to see the damage. The earlier overpowering stench had gone, but even with the windows open the room smelt of urine. He carefully inspected the wreckage, asking rhetorically several times, ‘How on earth could anyone do something like this?’ He hugged me protectively and said, ‘You must feel as if you’ve been punched in the face. If I get hold of them I’ll tie them to the back of the van and drag them round the streets.’
Although the room looked a complete wreck, he thought most things could probably be repaired or replaced reasonably quickly, and pointed out that the effects could have been worse if they had ripped out bathroom fittings and caused a flood, or smashed the windows or knocked holes in the partition walls. He suggested fixing the things that could be done quickly first, and then when he had worked for about an hour would break for a cup of tea and assess what remained to be done.
Leaving him to repair the damage, I found the energy to make a start on the hotel rooms, having to skimp because there was so little of the day left. After an energetic hour I went down to the kitchen, switched on the kettle and put some raspberries with vanilla ice-cream into three little glass dishes.
When Darren came back from work he joined Tom and me for this little treat, after which we all went up to the vandalised room. It already looked much better than before. Tom had removed the pieces of broken mirror and righted the dressing table so that its angles were square again. He had put the beds back in place and rehung the door. The remaining obvious signs of damage were the graffiti, still obscenely prominent, and a light fitting which was too twisted out of shape to repair. He had removed the broken television to a cupboard on the landing.
‘I’ll paint over that obscenity on the wall, but I’m not sure what to do about the carpet.’ ‘I suppose I’ll have throw it out.’
Darren offered to try to clean it. ‘It’s only a bit of weewee. If we get it down into the
‘You’re an expert on cleaning carpets now are you?’ I asked. ‘How long do you think it’s going to take to dry?’
‘It’s worth trying.’
He and Tom rolled it up while I went for two black plastic sacks to put over the ends so they would be able to carry it without getting urine on their clothes. On my way back to the room I noticed the window on the stairs was open. ‘I hope you’re not intending to put it out through there.’
‘No, of course we’re not. We wanted some fresh air.’
They slid the bags into place and began to manoeuvre the carpet down the first flight of steps, Tom going first, having to walk down backwards. Darren followed him looking as though he might collapse under the weight. Seeing him struggle I tried to help by supporting the middle. When Tom reached the open window he said: ‘Right, one, two, three, now!’
He heaved his end up and out, while Darren ran towards me shouting, ‘Look out Mark.’ Tom energetically shoved the carpet through the window until the force of gravity took over and it plummeted out of sight, hitting the ground with a loud thud. I looked down at the two of them in exasperation as they leaned out to see how it had landed.
Tom turned to look at me. ‘Wonder how that happened,’ he said in mock innocence.
‘What if it hit something, or someone, on the way down?’
‘I made sure the area was clear before we let it go. If we pushed hard enough it was bound to fall clear of the house. It’s flattened a bit of grass on the lawn, that’s all.’
Darren ran off down the stairs, and we watched him unroll the carpet onto the concrete outside the kitchen. He uncoiled the garden hose and began drenching it thoroughly. In the room Tom showed me where he had glued together the split wood of the door frame, explaining that he had used longer screws than before to make sure the hinges would hold. Then he tested the door to show that it would open and close properly. ‘You try it,’ he suggested.
I stepped forward, turned the handle, opened the door wide, then gently shut it again, letting my hand rest on the handle. ‘Seems to be okay.’ He was standing directly behind me, very close, smelling faintly of aftershave or cologne. He reached forward and put his hand over mine, pressing downwards until the latch clicked; in concert we opened and closed the door again. Our shoulders touched, and the side of his chin brushed against my cheek as he leaned against me. I turned round in his arms to see that his face, like mine, was full of smiles. There was something we could do together to purge the room of the desecration it had suffered. We locked the door in case Darren came upstairs looking for us.
Darren and I were to meet Lizetta at a Belgian-style mussels and chips restaurant near Blackfriars Bridge. To make a good impression on her he wore the new suit Andrew had bought him and a shirt and tie. He did not have to dress up for lunch with Lizetta, but this was his first opportunity to show off his new clothes.
He looked different; his long bones did not seem nearly as knobbly as they did in his usual jeans and T-shirt. Nobody seeing him now would assume he was doomed to a lifetime of clearing tables in a fast food outlet; the impression he gave was of being a young man with prospects.
He was nervous, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, evidence that he was taking this opportunity seriously. I glanced at him now and again as we waited for the bus to Blackfriars, trying to accustom myself to his changed appearance. ‘Do I look all right?’ he asked.
‘Yes. You look good in that packaging.’
‘Is my hair all right?’
‘You’re fine. We’re going for a friendly chat over lunch. It won’t be like an interview. You
can relax – well don’t be too relaxed – you know what I mean.’
‘What is she going to ask me?’
‘The things that we’ve talked about. She’ll need to know what subjects you were doing at
During the past few weeks Andrew had been pressing him ever more strongly to return to his studies. He had been over to Biddulph Mansions half a dozen times to talk about catching up on the exams he had missed and what kind of career in horticulture he should aim for. The possibility of giving up the burger bar to work part-time at the hotel had yet to be mentioned to him, but as Andrew anticipated my reluctance had dwindled away and I began to think it might work out quite well, making me less dependant on casual staff and freeing me from some of the routine work. Andrew gently nudged us into a closer friendship, asking for my opinion about how his future might develop, and deflecting some of the questions Darren asked him, for instance about how long a college course was likely to last, onto me. The boy became more anxious to please me than ever. When he was not on morning shift at the burger bar he would help clear up in the breakfast room and kitchen, and he had begun learning how to key in data for the hotel’s accounts. There was no doubt that, working for me part-time, he would be a great help.
We travelled into central London on the upper floor of a bus, something I had not done for years and years, although it would have been quicker to ask Andrew to have one of his staff drive us up. The presence of other passengers made it difficult to talk, and a drab day made London’s streets look their least attractive, but in those early months of being indoors in the hotel for so much of my time any opportunity to get out and do something different was enjoyable.
Lizetta was sitting at the restaurant bar sipping a Campari. She smiled warmly when I introduced her to Darren, and when we took our places for the meal I sat beside her so that they were facing each other. ‘Have you been to this type of restaurant before?’ she asked.
‘No. First time.’ His voice wavered slightly and for a few moments I was worried that he would panic and, struggling to find something to say, would launch into one of his revolting tales from work about hypodermic needles being found in a staff locker or maggots wriggling around in the rubbish bins. His brow furrowed as he looked at the menu. I asked, ‘See anything that appeals to you?’‘I don’t really know what to choose.’
Lizetta said, ‘Have the Moules Marinière with chips. I love them. You’ll be able to say you’ve eaten the classic Belgian mussels dish once, even if you never come here again.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I’ll have. Will it be all right if I have mineral water to drink?’ He looked up; his face, far from showing panic, was full of youthful innocence, as though to drink anything other than mother’s milk was an adventure for him. I gave him a reassuring smile and hoped Lizetta would not think he was putting on an act.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘I think we deserve a glass of wine each. We’ll have a bottle of water too. I’m sorry, Mark, I ought to let you decide.’
As she was doing me a favour by seeing him, the meal was to be my treat. A waitress keyed our order into a little hand-held unit and pointed it towards an infra-red receiver in the ceiling, sending the details electronically to the kitchen. While we waited for our food Lizetta explained a little about her job as personnel manager, saying that she quite often arranged courses for new recruits in the firm.
She mentioned West London Tertiary College, where she knew some of the staff, and thought some of the courses might suit him. As though everything was settled he said, ‘Yeah, is it fairly easy to get to? Would I be able to cycle there?’
‘Possibly, but first of all we need to look at the prospectus to see if it’s right for you. They have a selection procedure you would have to go through. We may need to consider other colleges as well. WLTC do run a course approved by the Royal Horticultural Society, that was partly why I mentioned them. You would have to finish your school exams and get good grades to get a place on it though. You’re interested in gardening, Mark tells me?’
‘Yes. At the hotel I planted out the gardens and some containers for the porch. Andrew, who runs the local garden centre, has taught me loads. He lends me his books, he’s got hundreds of them.’
‘Have you had practical experience apart from the gardens and containers at the hotel?’
He said he had learned at home from his father, where they had grown vegetables as well as ornamental plants. Our waitress interrupted with three large bowls of mussels in their shells and golden chips on side plates, leaving hardly any space for glasses of water or wine on our compact table. As we began to eat, to impress us he told us the two palm trees in tubs on either side of the restaurant entrance had the botanical name Trachycarpus fortunei, that they were hardy outdoors in sheltered places in England, and that the palm tree whose name he liked even more was Phoenix dactylifera, the date palm, but it could not withstand frost and needed to be grown in a greenhouse. He spoke of work being done at the Buckinghamshire nursery on crossbreeding plants to produce new hybrids with a bigger range of flower colours and to improve disease resistance.
When he and Andrew lapsed into discussions about plants my mind tended to switch to other things, but listening to him in the restaurant articulating multi-syllabic botanical terms he seemed to be really knowledgeable. Lizetta asked him about house plants, which ones would be best in bright positions and which in shade. He thought for a few moments before answering, recommended half a dozen for each situation, and offered to photocopy a list from one of Andrew’s books for her. ‘Thank you, that would be really useful. Would you like to go into the same line of work as Andrew?’
‘Andrew might give me a start, but there are botanical gardens with full-time employees doing scientific work. They may not pay all that well, but if something interests you, that’s more important, isn’t it?’
All the while the ill-constructed pile of empty mussel shells on his plate was growing and beginning to look as though it might collapse over the table. Lizetta, who had been neatly sliding one empty shell into another as she ate, rescued him by scooping the top of his stack onto her own plate. He looked towards me for reassurance, and as he was a slow eater and might start to worry about falling behind I said, ‘You seem to be getting on well with those, Darren. Take your time, we’re not in any hurry.’
For dessert we ordered ice cream, and he informed us that vanilla flavouring comes from the dried seed pods of the orchid Vanilla planifolia, a native of Mexico.
Lizetta said, ‘Many people find it hard to get a start in their chosen career. You think Andrew might take you on at the garden centre when you finish your course? That might be a good way to start.’
‘He would employ me now if I really wanted, but if you want to be a botanist you need qualifications. Working in the garden centre would be all right, but I’d like to do something more scientific if it’s possible. Andrew told me not to expect too much in case things didn’t work out, but that I had to try.’
‘That’s good advice.’
She promised to send him a prospectus from WLTC, and for the last quarter of an hour we let him relax while she brought me up to date with news of Peter’s impending return from the US. She feared he had not forgiven the old codgers for excluding him from their inner circle, and was worried he would return intent on making trouble. Again she spoke of being unhappy with Lindler & Haliburton, saying that the ever increasing demand for cost-cutting left people feeling that their best was never good enough.
My image of the firm had changed completely over the last few years. More than six months had passed since my escape. My eight years work there had provided money and management skills which were essential to me in setting up the hotel, but there was nothing from that world that I missed, and that so much of my life had passed in that environment now seemed strange.
We left the restaurant and walked across Blackfriars Bridge to the underground station, where Lizetta caught a train back to the building that was once so familiar to me. Darren and I caught the bus home. He asked me if I thought he had made a good impression. ‘You presented yourself very well. I’ve been under-estimating you. What made you ask about cycling to college?’
‘I won’t have much money if I’m only working part time. I could pick up a second-hand bike and save on bus or train fares.’
‘That’s good thinking.’ The price of the meal the three of us had eaten would probably be enough to pay for a second-hand bike. If he started at WLTC, I could give him a bike as a present. Tom would be able to find out what sort to get him, and for once I would have arranged something for him without having to be prompted by Andrew. ‘Did you have a bike when you were at home?’
‘Yeah. It was my brother’s really; he let me have it for ages, but he sold it eventually because he needed the money.’
‘I didn’t even know you had a brother. You ought to go back home, one day; let everyone see that you’re all right.’
‘I have written to them. Maybe I’ll go if I pass my exams, if I’m doing well, I’ll go to see them for tea or something, just to show them. You know why I had to leave, don’t you?’
‘Not really. Tom said something about a school friend making trouble for you.’
He confirmed, giving a lot more detail, what Tom had told me. The other boy had been his best friend, who he often sat next to in school, their shoulders or legs lightly touching. Some of his friends had talked about secretively ‘doing things’ together, and when Darren was invited to his best friend’s house to watch a film on television and stay overnight, he was expecting them to experiment. However when he put his arms around his friend in the bedroom the boy pulled away and caused an uproar.
The lad’s father had rung Darren’s home and he was taken back in shame. His parents made his life unbearable. They would not let him go out on his own except to school and made him go to their Evangelical meetings, which he hated. The minister there told him to pray for forgiveness, and when he refused his father asked the family doctor to make an appointment for him with a psychiatrist. His friend told other lads at school what had happened, and on his way home one evening a group of three bullies lay in wait, pinned him to the ground for half an hour, punched him in the face, blacked his eyes and cut his lip.
His parents did not even ask how his injuries had come about. A concerned teacher did, but Darren was too ashamed to tell the truth and said he had been walking along the top of a wall by the railway and fallen off. The bruises from the attack had not fully healed when a row with his father escalated into a fight. He was knocked to the floor and his father, having won this contest, gave him an ultimatum: see the psychiatrist or leave the house. A few days later he packed a bag, withdrew what little savings he had and left for London.
He stayed in a cheap bed and breakfast place for a few days, saw an advert for the room at Goodmans Villa in the estate agent’s window and took it because it was the cheapest he could find. A day or two later he passed the hamburger bar and saw their notice advertising for staff, went inside and started work straight away. Until he met Andrew, Tom and me, coincidence and misadventure had become the determining influences in his life.
Lizetta rang me the day after the meal to say she had spoken to one of the lecturers at West London Tertiary College and had arranged an interview for him. ‘He’s lovely, isn’t he?’ she said. ‘You’re so lucky. The gorgeous Tom and him, it isn’t fair.’
‘My relationship with Tom and my relationship with Darren are completely different.’ ‘I know that, silly. He adores you though, doesn’t he?’
‘Of course he does. He was glancing across at you hoping for signs of approval all the time.
He worships you.’
‘It’s cupboard love. How’s Vincent?’
‘He’s fine. We manage to see each other almost every week. Only for lunch sometimes, but
we see each other.’
‘He doesn’t deserve you.’
‘I wish you’d tell him that.’
When Vincent and I last spoke he mentioned the possibility of me advising him about
upgrading his company’s computer system. That had been weeks ago, but what with the hotel being busy and sorting out Darren’s future I had not been in touch with him since. With Darren helping at the hotel fitting in a few days at his offices might be practicable, and I suggested she bring Vincent to the hotel for a meal one day.‘Thanks, that would be nice, but you know how difficult things are, when we have an opportunity to be together we need to take full advantage of it.’
‘You’ve never actually seen the hotel, have you? You could retire to one of the hotel rooms after we’ve eaten.’ The thought of making love to Vincent in one of Goodmans Hotel’s rooms appealed to her, and she agreed to speak to him.
They came a couple of weeks later, and as I was hoping he asked again about upgrading his office systems, and rang a few days later to fix a date for me to come to assess what would be entailed. Indirectly their visit to the hotel led to something else that was less welcome. Not only did Vincent book me to look at his company’s systems, but he also asked Tom if he would do some work on his family home in Amersham. He had a builder putting up an extension, and wanted Tom to keep an eye on the work at the same time as boarding the floor of the loft and repairing some dilapidated fences.
At first Tom balked at the long journey, but Vincent talked him round. ‘Come up and have a look. It’s all a question of money, isn’t it? All we need to do is agree a price that makes it worth your while to put up with the travelling.’
Their arrangement brought about the first significant disruption to my new pattern of life at Goodmans Hotel. One of the labourers working on Vincent’s extension told Tom about a major building project in Portsmouth town centre. As when he had gone to work in Manchester, electricians were wanted urgently and premium rates of pay were offered. The lure of extra money was difficult for him to resist, but for me his absence would be hard, not only because he would not be around when something needed fixing in the hotel, but because being with him meant so much to me.
Hoping that Andrew would sympathise and might be able to talk him out of going, I arranged to call at Biddulph Mansions on the pretext of discussing the arrangements we were making for Darren, who by this time was working for me at the hotel and shortly to begin his studies at WLTC.
The flat had been redecorated since my last visit, and in place of an illuminated glass showcase of orchids at one side of the chimney breast was a Victorian bureau with marquetry decorations and inlaid brass borders. ‘Something of an impulse buy,’ he said. ‘It fills the space nicely.’
‘What happened to the orchids?’
‘Oh, they’re up at the nursery. A display like that needs a certain amount of looking after, and I’m supposed to be easing up. The hospital have decided my priorities now are a low fat diet and light exercise.’
We talked about how Darren would cope with being in a classroom after such a long break, and how to organise his time so that he could tackle the curriculum. The plan was that he would relieve me by taking on hotel chores for twenty hours a week, as well as providing cover at reception during some quiet periods. In return he would be paid the going hourly rate for the twenty hours, and for the rest would have his room and food provided free. If this proved too demanding for him, Andrew would reimburse me the cost of bringing in staff from Housmans Hotel or other local part-timers to take over some of the work.
Before I was able to turn the conversation to Tom’s impending departure, Andrew surprised me with a completely unexpected announcement: ‘I had another reason for asking you to come over. This is bad timing, but putting it off won’t make things any easier. The doctor is insisting that I cut my activities drastically, reduce my workload to the bare essentials. The trouble is while I’m here with the garden centre on my doorstep, staff ring me up all the time. Whenever a gardening magazine or a seed catalogue comes through the letter box I can’t resist comparing products and prices. Passing an office block makes me wonder if there might be a chance of business for Ferns and Foliage. I need to get away, to take a long holiday, without a mobile ’phone bringing me queries about some special offer or other from one of the wholesalers. What I wanted to ask is this: would you be able to keep an eye on things for me, much as you did while I was in hospital that time?’
‘There wasn’t much for me to do except bring you a few papers, and presumably you won’t want that. Without meaning to be rude, I’m sure your businesses will run well enough if you go away on a week or a fortnight’s holiday.’
‘I’m thinking of taking quite a long break. I’ve relatives in New Zealand on my mother’s side. There was a cousin – elderly now of course – who I saw quite a lot of when I was a child. She has heart trouble, has been quite ill. It would be nice for me to see her again, while there is still time. You can get airline tickets that allow you to make intermediate stops, and I may as well use it as an opportunity to see a bit more of the world.’
‘So how long are we talking about, a month or more?’
‘Hard for me to say at the moment. I’ve never even met some of the younger family members, they were born out there. Depends how we all get on. You might need to give, say, one day a week on average to my affairs. You won’t have to do any of the day-to-day management, there are competent people doing all of that. What I need is someone to keep a check on everything, make sure the takings are going into the bank and the stock is not going missing, that sort of thing. We can come to a similar financial arrangement to the one we agreed for Darren. You can charge me for the cost of any staff you have to bring in because my interests are keeping you from the hotel, and I expect to pay you something for your services, of course.’
His intention to be away at the same time as Tom worried me much more than the financial arrangements. He was my main source of advice about all kinds of things connected with the hotel and my personal life. This was the first time, as far as I could remember, that he had ever mentioned any family, and definitely never relatives in New Zealand.
‘If it will do you good, of course you should go. Not a good time from my viewpoint, but nobody could argue that you don’t deserve a really good break. I’m honoured you’ve asked me to look after things while you’re away. Of course I will help out. Delighted to.’
‘Sleep on it. Let me know if you feel it’s too much to take on.’
‘How have you been lately? You’ve been looking okay.’
‘Not bad. My blood pressure’s still high, but nothing that can’t be managed if I’m sensible – by which they seem to mean eating dull food and accepting retirement. I can’t sit around doing nothing. Maybe this trip will be the answer, for a while.’ My guess was that he was holding something back, and if he was seriously ill to whine to him about Tom’s planned absence would be inconsiderate.
Tom was the first to leave. He said he would miss me, promised to keep in touch at least once a week, and we talked about him returning to London for a few days if the work lasted for more than a fortnight, and of me travelling down to Portsmouth if the hotel allowed. Leaving Darren in charge, I went to Waterloo Station to see him onto his train, and waved to him through the window while walking along the platform to keep him in sight for as long as possible as the train pulled out.
On the evening before Andrew was due to set off on his trip he took me to a fashionable new restaurant in a converted building which had previously been a fire station. In the enormous room where the fire engines had once been garaged, dozens of miniature spotlights now shone from chrome fittings suspended below the dark ceiling, the white table cloths and cutlery gleaming brilliantly under their light. Waiters in maroon waistcoats and white aprons scurried back and forth between the tables and the long marble topped bar, behind which could be glimpsed the bright fluorescent lights of the kitchen.
We were shown to a table beside a wall of half-mirrored glass installed where the old fire station doors must have been. All of this fashionable restaurant’s waiters were good-looking young men, two of whom took turns at attending to us, pulling our chairs out, unfolding and handing us our napkins, and opening out the menu folders before us with an open palmed gesture of encouragement as though, otherwise, we might have sat staring blankly into space.
In my previous life at Lindler & Haliburton the ostentation might have impressed me, but that evening I could not relax. The sparseness of the room with its scrubbed brick walls and bright pinpoint spotlights, and the ritual created around the simple acts of sitting down and ordering dinner, were too contrived. A traditional Sunday afternoon meal with Tom, Darren, and Andrew around our ‘family’ table at Goodmans Hotel would have been far more enjoyable.
Andrew’s manner did not help: his voice was low and tense, as though he was afraid his words would echo from the high ceiling of the cavernous room and reach the ears of strangers. We talked at first about business, going over the arrangements he had made with the managers of the garden centre and nursery, with the bank and his solicitors, all of whom had been informed in writing of the role I was to play during his absence. He proposed to keep in regular contact with a weekly ’phone call, but said he would be happy to leave all necessary decisions to me. He wanted to concentrate on making the most of his holiday. As well as New Zealand he spoke of possible visits on his way back to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, and perhaps Egypt and parts of Europe.
As our meal progressed the waiters pampered us, replenished our glasses whenever they were half empty, asked more than once during each course whether everything was to our liking, and twice swept the table linen with a little silver device for collecting crumbs. They walked straight-backed, bending forwards to put dishes down on our table with a flourish as though making a presentation of them. The whole performance was annoyingly pretentious. Tom was right to be uncomfortable in such places.
‘You’ll be away forever if you’re going to visit all those countries.’
‘Who knows? A couple of weeks away may turn out to be enough for me and I’ll cut the whole thing short. Nothing’s booked except the flight out and a night’s hotel accommodation in Wellington. Everything else will have to be arranged as I go. My airline ticket gives me freedom to roam.’
After a dessert of pancakes and ice cream flavoured with chocolate and coconut our two waiters brought us coffee and cognacs with a sliver of bitter chocolate each. When they had gone Andrew stared at me, his eyes sharp, his face very flushed. He coughed to clear his throat, straightened himself up in his chair and grasped the edge of the table with both hands.
‘It’s no use putting this off for any longer. It is the most difficult thing I have ever had to say to anyone. There’s something I simply have to tell you. It’s about Tom. I don’t know how to start, this is bound to come as a shock. We should have told you ages ago. There was never any intention on my part or his to deceive you, but there seemed to be no easy way, and as time went by you and he seemed to be getting on so well – why should something from the past be allowed to ruin it all?’
One of the waiters approached, probably intending to ask if we were enjoying our coffee; with a sudden shake of my head I sent him away.
‘I’d better come right out with it. The main reason he went to Portsmouth was because he saw someone he recognised at the hotel.’ He stopped and looked at me, waiting for a reaction. What could he possibly have to tell me that I did not already know about Tom? Had some previous lover turned up threatening to make trouble? I swallowed my cognac, paused, and took a sip of coffee. ‘Tell me.’
‘Did you ever think it odd that Tom should work for me when people in his line are usually self-employed? The fact is I took him on because he had been in prison. He needed a bit of help to get started when he came out.’
‘Prison? He was in prison?’
‘He stole cars. Over a period of time, a number of cars. Believe me, I hadn’t the least idea of what happened to your parents until long after you and he were – had become a couple. The first you told me of it was at the hospital, do you remember? I was quite ill at the time; hearing about it almost made me have a relapse. Otherwise perhaps I would have handled the situation better, but what good would it have done to have told you at that stage? Why should you ever have to know? If we all knew the worst about each other, could we ever bear to be in the same room with another human being? The two of you were so good together, why risk spoiling it?’
‘He was a car thief, is that what you’re telling me?’
‘Before you met him. Years ago.’
I was so badly shaken for a while I could not speak. Eventually I said, ‘You say he recognised someone at the hotel?’
‘One of your guests had a son who was in the same jail.’
‘So a client at my hotel was a heterosexual ex-convict, is that what you’re saying?’
‘Some gay men do have children. It was his son who was in jail. I had to tell you because of the worry that you might learn of it in some other way. He might have said something to you about having seen Tom before. We couldn’t risk you hearing about all this from a stranger.’
‘Why didn’t Tom have the guts to tell me himself?’
‘This hasn’t been easy for him. When he went up to Manchester that time it was because he felt guilty, but he couldn’t bring himself to confess to you, he thought you would end the relationship if you knew. Of course he could not really run away from the problem. He couldn’t stay up there forever and forget about you. He came back and your feelings had not changed, you still wanted each other. He’s been terrified that you would find out. I’m sorry. We were wrong to keep it from you, badly wrong, but we never intended you any harm.’
‘What do you expect me to do? You know what happened to my parents. You only get one set of them, and when they’re gone they’re gone. You bastards.’
‘Tom has never killed anyone. He had nothing to do with what happened to your parents. You’ve every right to be upset but don’t to be too harsh.’
‘Does he know that you’re telling me now? That you’re sitting there admitting everything has been a deception right from the start?’
‘There was no intention to deceive, never. The situation is hard for us as well, for Tom particularly. We spoke on the ’phone before I came out tonight. He was so miserable; he was talking about disappearing for good, whatever that may mean. This has been an awful shock for you. Give it some time.’
‘You’re always telling me to give things time. What difference will time make? Will it make Tom any less of a bastard?’ Andrew’s face was very flushed, and concern about his health helped me hold my feelings back. ‘Let’s not say any more. You go and get ready for your holiday, and I’ll go back to the hotel. We’ll just finish it there and talk about business in a week’s time by ’phone as we planned.’
‘The three of us, you, he and I, we’ve come so far together. We’ve meant such a lot to each other. We’re all prone to error, anyone can fall...’
‘Please stop, or I’m going to say things I’ll regret. The situation is bad enough without you making it worse with excuses. Leave it there, please. If you don’t mind, Andrew, I’d like to go back to the hotel.’
He called for the bill. An hour seemed to pass before we were able to leave the table. We found a taxi, but did not speak to each other until it drew up outside Goodmans Hotel. ‘I could cancel the holiday, if you think that would be best. The flight tomorrow is booked but I could miss it; I’ve been selfish, the timing, the way this has come out, I’ve made a complete mess of it.’
‘No. Go ahead with your trip. Depriving you of your break won’t change anything, will it? You’ve made all the arrangements, you’d lose your money if you cancel now. Let’s not discuss this any more tonight, let’s do what we planned.’
‘A final word. Tom looked to me for advice; he did what I told him was best. If anyone is to blame it’s me.’
‘I’m going, Andrew. I don’t want to hear this. We’ll stick to what we planned. That’s as much as I can do. Leave it there, please.’
I climbed out of the cab, shut the door and walked up to the hotel without looking back. Darren sat at the kitchen table making notes from one of his text books and eating a bacon sandwich. He must have read in my face that something was wrong; he put his sandwich down and stood up. How was I to tell him that Tom, one of the people he had relied on and trusted, was in reality someone from whom he should have been protected?
‘I’m back. Any problems?’
‘No. The people you were expecting have all turned up. I took two telephone bookings; one is a regular so I said be sure to let us know if you change your plans, the other was someone new who will confirm by letter. How about you? Are you okay?’
‘Yes – why shouldn’t I be?’ I looked at him, standing in front of me, shifting his weight from one leg to the other, his face full of concern. ‘You know, don’t you?’
‘Only since yesterday. Andrew made me promise not to say anything. It wasn’t my place to anyway, was it?’
‘No, it wasn’t. Looks like I’ll be relying on you more than ever.’
‘Can I make you a coffee or anything?’
‘I think I’ll go straight downstairs. You’ll be going up to bed soon, I take it?’
I went down to my flat, poured myself a large vodka and put on the television, switching from channel to channel, unable to find anything to engage my attention. After ten minutes I turned it off and tried to read a magazine, but couldn’t concentrate. Thoughts about how Tom and Andrew must have conspired to keep the truth from me kept going around and around in my mind; I could picture them whispering together, deciding on what lies to tell me if I asked awkward questions.
At times Tom had boasted about working for well-to-do clients who went out leaving him on his own in their houses and flats; if they had known the truth about him they would not have let him through the door. If Tom alone were at fault that would be bad enough, but Andrew, who had been the major influence on me in setting up the hotel, who had encouraged me to give up my career for a new more open and honest life as a gay businessman, had been party to the deception.
At least he had done me a favour by persuading me to let Darren stay on in the attic and work for me part-time. All his other actions now seemed suspect. Had he been manipulating me all along to suit his own purposes? Even the meal we had eaten earlier that evening was in a way part of the conspiracy, timed immediately before his departure so it would be difficult for me to withdraw my promise to look after his business interests. How could I ever believe anything he said to me again?
Memories of Tom’s actions and words crowded into my mind. The long history of our relationship was rewritten as incident after incident had to be re-evaluated in the light of what I now knew. So that was why he reacted so awkwardly when he first saw the Mercedes. What was that expression he had used? Crated for the Costa, that was it! He had slipped unintentionally into the language of a car thief. His disappearance up to Manchester, for which he gave the touching explanation that he wanted to give me a chance to find someone ‘who would be more like my sort of people’, was in fact an attempt to break things off with me before I found out about him.
My thoughts grew wilder and wilder. In the restaurant I had already drunk far more than usual, but in desperation I poured myself another large vodka and drank it while undressing and getting into bed. The alcohol did not send me to sleep but muddled my thoughts even more. A miscellany of loosely connected memories paraded through my mind: a conversation I once happened to overhear in a second-hand market in which a trader said that half of the stuff on the stalls was probably stolen; Tom’s flat and his odd collection of second-hand furniture – what luxury it must have seemed after a prison cell; a horrible story Andrew had once told me about someone he used to work with forging orders from a pharmacy for controlled drugs, who was caught and had hanged himself at the police station. Endless unconnected thoughts and impressions tumbled through my consciousness, a kind of mental landslip crashing through my brain.
After an hour I still could not sleep or even lie still. I opened my eyes, watched the luminous dial of the clock for ten minutes and got up again. I felt thirsty and made myself a cup of tea. Taking it over to the window I pulled back the curtain to look out into the street. It was deserted. What did I expect to see out there in the middle of the night? Tom breaking into one of the parked cars?
Then I remembered once before gazing out into the darkness of an empty road. After my parents died, from the bedroom window of my uncle’s house, night after night I had stared out into the shadows, wishing that some mysterious means of escape from my unhappiness lay hidden in the darkness, or that a miraculous saviour might somehow materialize in the eerie glow of the street lights.
Then, as now, my inability to sleep would not excuse me from the demands that the next day would bring. I went back to bed, and some time after five o’clock the need for slumber finally quietened my turbulent thoughts.
Andrew’s revelation about Tom’s past demolished the illusion that I had escaped from the ruthless culture of City opportunism into a new sunlit world of honesty and fraternity with other gay men. All the warmth and colour my new life appeared to contain had existed in my imagination; the reality was as cold and grey as concrete. Rather than being a place of openness and honesty, concealed motives and deception were as pervasive at Goodmans Hotel as they had been in the ‘straight’ world I had left behind. Those life-changing decisions to accept redundancy and buy the lease on Goodmans Villa were not, as they had seemed, informed judgements made from sound knowledge and understanding, but reckless gambles based on false information.
However foolish the change might have been, it could not be reversed. The hotel had to be run, as did Andrew’s businesses. Hard work would provide me with a diversion from selfpity and constant suspicious thoughts about everyone and everything around me.
Even to speak to Tom on the ’phone was unbearable, and when he rang the day after that dreadful meal with Andrew, in a calm deep voice I said ‘I have nothing at all to say to you,’ and when he began to plead I repeated the words and hung up.
Andrew’s first call from New Zealand came over a week later. With a determined effort to avoid making accusations, I asked politely about his journey and we discussed his plans for the week. My good opinion of him had been shaken, but his personal qualities and achievements in life had to be balanced against the way he had misled me about Tom. His failing health and the need to ensure his staff would continue to have jobs to go to were good reasons for moderating my antagonism towards him. If only for their sake, I would fulfil my promise to check that his businesses were run properly.
Darren made allowances for my low spirits. He did not take offence at my constant grumpiness. I suspect he had warned Cheung about my state of mind, because although I was as curt with him as I was with everyone, he always greeted me with a smile and tried to make conversation, asking after my health or whether the hotel was busy. They avoided displays of affection for each other in front of me, perhaps afraid of reminding me of my own freshly acquired solo status, but passing the lounge one day I saw Cheung affectionately pat Darren’s backside as he reached up for a book from a high shelf. Well, enjoy the fascination with one another before it fades, I thought cynically.
My general disillusion was such that even the hotel guests appeared in a different more suspect light. What secret anxieties and guilty yearnings lay hidden behind their masks of cheerful greeting and warm words? This jaundiced outlook lasted for a week or more, but some inner mental process gradually drew me back towards equilibrium; something in my make-up seemed to refuse to allow me to be permanently miserable.
The arrival of an attractive couple from South Wales, one dark and one fair, helped along my progress towards a less negative frame of mind. As soon as I saw them I could tell they were having an affair. The way they stood side by side, their arms almost but not quite touching and the way they glanced lovingly at each other made it evident that they doted on one another. My first reaction was to think they were making fools of themselves by openly showing their infatuation, and to wonder how long it would take for the unpleasant side of their natures to spoil their illusions about each other, but for three days their obvious affection did not waver. My envy of their happiness grew stronger and stronger, until my sourness towards them seemed unreasonable even to me, since they had done nothing to deserve my sneering thoughts. Then I felt ashamed of my attitude; my feelings of misery and frustration were, after all, not of their making.
On the last morning of their stay they had not come down by the time breakfast was over, presumably tired by sight-seeing during the days and late nights in the clubs. The cleaner reported that he had left their room untouched as the door was locked and they did not respond to his knock.
At two o’clock they had not emerged and I went up to check. The door was still locked and there was no answer to my gentle tapping. I used my pass key to let myself in. In the semidarkness, covered by a sheet, they lay together in the twin bed nearest the window, their limbs wrapped around each other. One of them was breathing slowly and heavily. Only their heads and one foot protruded from the sheet, a corner being wrapped around the ankle.
Neither of them stirred. I could not resist gazing down on their unconscious figures, working out to whom the exposed foot belonged from the way they lay beneath the contorted sheet. How fortunate they were, sleeping contentedly in each other’s arms. If they could lie so happily together, so clearly a couple even in sleep, what was wrong with me?
A growing sense of guilt about spying on them broke the spell cast by their sleeping forms. What was I doing there, sneaking around in their room while they lay clasped together in sleep? What if one of them woke, discovered me and thought I was there to steal from them? I crept out, shutting the door with hardly a sound, and stole away the mental image of them lying together under the crumpled white sheet.
They came down a couple of hours later and looked in at the little office to pay their bill, completely unaware of my intrusion. We shook hands and with genuine warmth I wished them a good journey home and hoped they would come back to the hotel the next time they visited London. If Goodmans Hotel provided a comfortable and welcoming place for men like them, surely it was an enterprise I could feel pleased about.
Relentless sexual frustration was a daily reminder of my return to single status. After the long period of regular love-making with Tom my appetite was strong. Irrepressible urges began twisting my thoughts, imbuing everyday social and business contacts with lewd sexual connotations. My mind constantly saw in others the persistent lust that was swamping me, and almost any vaguely attractive man in almost any circumstances became, to my imagination, a potential debauchee.
For a time I thought that an outlet for my desires might be found among the hotel guests, but any kind of sexual involvement with them threatened to cause awkward complications. How could the commercial part of the arrangement be kept separate from the sex? Might a man refuse to pay for his room after having slept with me, hoping that embarrassment and fear of being accused of selling sex would prevent me pursuing the debt or calling the police?
Even if nobody tried to get out of paying for his stay, word would surely spread. In gay bars when Goodmans Hotel was mentioned people might say, ‘Oh yeah, stayed there, had the manager.’ What if Darren realised what was going on and followed my example? My intention was to run a clean comfortable hotel, not a brothel.
One Friday night, when Darren was at the club with Cheung, I ventured out to a bar in the West End to look for a pick-up, leaving a note with the number of my mobile ’phone pinned to the office door in case of emergency. There were three or four men drinking on their own among the crowd, and after conversation developed with one of them I brought him back to the hotel. Reluctant to let him know anything about myself, rather than going down to the basement flat I pretended to be one of the guests and took him up to a vacant second floor room.
As we were unaccustomed to each other physically the sex was rather clumsy, but becoming intimate with a stranger again after so long was exciting, and the pretence of being a hotel guest added an element of adventure to what might otherwise have been a fairly uninspiring one night stand.
Had he wanted a telephone number, my mobile ’phone would have allowed me to keep any subsequent meetings from Darren, but we parted without either of us expressing any interest in meeting again. I wondered what he thought of our night together, whether he was simply content with having sex with me once, or if he had found I was not at all what he wanted and gone away disappointed.
That one night apart there never seemed to be time for me to go out looking for pick-ups. The only aids easily available to assuage my desires were magazine pictures of naked men and my own hands. The satisfaction was meagre compared to holding a lover in my arms. Sometimes alone in bed at night I imagined the hotel rooms above me writhing with acts of love, while I lay alone in the basement like a wretched doorkeeper, not permitted to share in the pleasures of the house above.
Of all the gay men around me, the one who might have been my choice for starting a new relationship was the manager of the garden centre. He was seven or eight years older than I, and not ‘with’ anyone as far as I knew. Darren had been over to his small terraced house to see the long narrow garden almost completely taken up by a series of ponds where he grew aquatic and marsh plants. He was fit, even-tempered, intelligent, and had the great advantage of not looking at all like Tom.
Andrew sometimes described him as an excellent employee, praise which contained the implied criticism that, however well he did his job, he was unwilling to commit himself beyond his contracted hours or show the broader interest that might have made him a potential business partner. To a lover this characteristic might have been welcome – workaholics do not have much time to devote to relationships.
Unfortunately my ignorance of gardening irritated him and he had never been very friendly towards me. Whenever he and Darren talked they would litter their conversation with multisyllabic horticultural terms and discuss esoteric subjects such as biological methods of pest control. My attempts to contribute to discussions of this kind only made me seem stupid. Once he forced me to admit that never in my life had I planted seeds, waited for them to germinate, and watched the plants go on to develop flowers or bear fruit.
Darren, in contrast, never criticised me and was my constant support. As he gained experience he took on more and more responsibility for the hotel. He had settled in well at West London Tertiary College, took Cheung up to his room for the night once or twice a week, and helped me get out for an hour in the evening now and again by arranging for me to meet them both in the Beckford Arms.
He was fond of telling me horrible stories about people treating one another dreadfully or about human cruelty to animals. One story was about a group of lads at the seaside who caught crabs and mutilated them by poking them with iron rods, breaking off a leg or a claw, and another was of a rabbit-hunting expedition he was persuaded to go on when he was about twelve years old to a warren not far from Twyford. He thought they were going to look at the rabbits, not to kill the poor things. To his horror the boys he was with lit petrol soaked rags in front of some of the burrows and tried to blow or waft the smoke down into them. This attempt to drive the rabbits out of the safety of their earthworks failed, but they caught one that ran straight towards them when fire from their rags spread through the long grass where it was hiding. He watched as the others surrounded it and battered it to death with lumps of wood.
He passed on to me other grim stories that originated with Andrew or Cheung, probably thinking that they would comfort me. In a curious sort of way they did. However bitter my feelings about Tom, and however sad the evaporation of my imagined wonderful new life at Goodmans Hotel, my misfortunes were not nearly as bad as being set alight or beaten to death with sticks.
The work on Vincent’s computer network, arranged when he came to the hotel with Lizetta, also helped divert me from gloom. The project engaged my mind for one day a week with new people and brought some of my old technical expertise back into use. His staff were all ‘straight’, but none of them was put off when he introduced me by saying that I used to be the computer manager in a big accountancy firm and now ran a gay hotel.
By doing this he saved me from worries about ‘coming out’. His staff were used to meeting gay men when they were out on consultancy assignments in the hotel and tourist industry, and were far more interested in asking me questions about my business than they were in talking to me about their own computer system. They were not particularly interested in specifics about Goodmans Hotel, but liked to speculate on the extent of the market for hotel rooms for gay men in London, how many of the guests were business visitors and how many were holiday makers, whether demand was growing, and if there was potential to develop package tours to London for gay visitors from the provinces and abroad.
They gave me copies of a few reports they had produced for owners of small hotels to show me how they advised on ways to increase profit or reposition a business in the market, and talking to them gave me a wider view of the tourist industry and made me feel less trapped by my circumstances. Andrew had begun with one modest shop. Why should Goodmans Hotel not become a base from which to expand?
After my work on enhancements to the computer network was finished Vincent asked me to help for one day a week on a large contract with a US tour operator. The corporation was introducing a range of ‘themed’ holidays in Europe aimed at middle America, and one of these, to be called ‘The Essential Scotland’, was to be based in a large Victorian hotel in Dunblane. Vincent’s company had been hired to produce ideas and costed plans to make this ‘Essential’ experience a success.
The project’s objective did not appeal to me greatly. The ‘Essential Scotland’ the US citizens from middle America were to experience was to consist of coach trips to Loch Lomond, excursions during the day to castles and other historic or quaint places, and evening entertainment with bagpipes and Scottish dancing. However, helping to plan the activities did not mean I had to like them, and when the two full-time consultants assigned to the project spoke to me about it with an irreverence that would have horrified the US client, it seemed as though it might be fun.
We held meetings to develop our proposals and present them to the corporation’s European representatives, but the work was interspersed with scurrilous suggestions, such as providing tartan baseball caps decorated with haggis feathers, or putting items such as Texas style grouse-burger with French fries on the dinner menu.
At the third of the meetings I attended we were joined by the group bookings manager from the hotel in Dunblane. He had a high-pitched voice for a man and rather camp mannerisms, but made it clear he was not gay by pointedly mentioning a girlfriend several times. Since he was someone I could never imagine myself having more to do with than necessary, I hoped he was not going out of his way to announce his heterosexuality because of some curious notion about me being interested in him.
The lampooning of the US visitors and Scottish customs might have been inhibited by his presence, but we tested his ability to take a joke by asking him during a coffee break if he thought it would be possible for a baseball match to be included in the Highland Games to help the US visitors feel at home.
‘They can have a day’s cattle rustling included if they’re willing to pay for it,’ he answered. ‘You’d do well to give some attention to indoor events and entertainments. A wet day will spoil any outdoor excursion, no matter how fine the views when the weather’s clear. Have you considered movies with a Scottish theme? Give the Yanks a bunch of heather, plenty of photo opportunities and a tin of shortbread and they’ll probably be happy enough, as long as we can keep them entertained.’
His sense of humour was fine, but at times he tended to be hectoring and argumentative. Vincent’s two consultants went up to Scotland several times to see the Dunblane hotel and discuss local arrangements with him, and they said he was domineering towards his staff. My commitments in London made the trip impossible for me, but they brought back photographs which gave a fair impression of the place, inside and out, and of some of the nearby attractions, a golf course, a local salmon stream and a distillery.
As long as the hotel and Andrew’s businesses were trouble free, working a day a week for Vincent was manageable. However, tiredness after a couple of months of this workload was inevitable, and a few weeks after the turn of the year an incident at the garden centre put me under real pressure.
The manager rang me late one afternoon to tell me that a member of his staff had run off with the day’s takings. Leaving the hotel unattended I hurried over to find him talking to two heavily built men near the cash desk. They looked unlikely customers for winter flowering plants. They stopped talking as I approached and stood glaring at the manager across the counter. Since I’d gone over straight away his casual dismissive greeting, ‘I’ll join you upstairs in a second,’ annoyed me.
I went up to the little staff room to wait. When he came up I asked, ‘Who on earth were they?’
‘They came in by mistake. Seem to have been given the wrong address. Anyway, about the theft, sorry to drag you over here. He’s got away with the best part of the day’s takings. Fortunately I’m always taking money out of the cash drawer and putting it away in the safe, but he timed his move well.’
There was a self-contradiction in these statements. If he frequently removed money from the cash drawer the best part of a day’s takings would not have been there to be stolen, but this was not a good time to query the inconsistency. ‘Who did you say took the money?’
‘You always were straight to the point! You’ve probably guessed already. It was Jamie.’
My question was an obvious one to ask, hardly ‘straight to the point’, and why should he think I had guessed Jamie was the thief? ‘Have the police been in yet?’
‘How long is it since you called them?’
‘What’s the point in bringing them into it? We won’t be seeing that money again. We’d only be making unnecessary trouble.’
‘We can’t pretend that nothing has happened. The insurers will want to know that we’ve notified the police. Unless he’s spent it all already we may be able to get back what’s left.’
‘We won’t see any of the money again, you can forget about that.’
‘It isn’t our money to forget about. The insurers will want details, the loss will have to be shown as a debit in the accounts.’ This was standard practice, and my tone was not provocative, but he lost his temper.
‘Don’t make things harder for me than they are already. I’ll make the money up out of my own pocket if you’re that fussed about it.’
‘I’m not "fussed" about anything. This is Andrew’s money. What do you think we should do? Let people steal whatever they want from him and do nothing about it?’
‘What Andrew said to me was that you would be keeping an eye on the books. He didn’t say you’d be coming in interfering with how I run the place.’
‘You asked me to come over because of a theft. If you’re running a business and someone steals a significant amount of money, why would you not inform the police?’
He looked at me contemptuously. ‘You don’t know anything about this business. You were just some sort of computerised accountant before Andrew helped you set up that hotel.’
His mouth, which had never shaped itself into a smile in my direction, was spitting at me now. Had he always disliked me? I could overrule him and call in the police myself, but doing that would antagonise him more, and if he walked out the effect on the business would be far worse than the loss of a day’s takings.
‘Thanks for telling me what you think of me.’ I said. ‘All right, you’re the one who knows all about the business, you decide what to do. We can’t pretend the money is still in the till. Somehow or other the loss has to be covered for the accounts. Other than that do whatever you like.’
‘I told you. I’ll make the money up out of my own pocket. Forget it.’
‘What did you call me over for if you intended to cover it up?’
‘I don’t know.’
We were silent for a minute or so, searching for a way to discontinue hostilities. Tentatively I asked, ‘Do we have a home address for Jamie, maybe someone should call to see if...?’
‘Yes, he lives in one of Andrew’s flats. Let me deal with it. You’re acting for Andrew, so you had to know what happened. It’s best for me to sort it out. Thanks for coming over, but you don’t need to do anything.’
‘If that’s how you want it.’ I left the shop insulted and offended. Evidently his occasional critical comments, for example that I did not know my daisies from my dandelions, had not been mildly humorous reproofs but were signs of serious dislike. How totally misconceived my earlier thoughts had been about us perhaps being compatible in a relationship.
The next morning he had recovered his temper and rang in a conciliatory mood wanting to tell me more about the theft. When he called I was about to set off for Vincent’s offices and had to put him off until the evening. He was locking up when I arrived at the garden centre, and he took me upstairs where he made a pot of tea. We found it difficult to know how to start, and uncomfortably I asked, ‘Have there been any developments?’
Ignoring my question he said, ‘I know what you’re thinking, but there’s been nothing between Jamie and me for a few months.’
‘There was something between you, earlier?’
‘Everyone knows there was.’
‘Everyone who works here, maybe. I didn’t. If Jamie was around we said hello, that was about it. No one ever said anything to me about... you and him.’
He looked at me doubtfully. ‘You’d better hear the whole story. Andrew will have to know sometime, one way or another.’ He had grey shadows around his eyes and looked miserable. Knowing nothing of my problems, as well as resenting having to report to me while Andrew was away, he probably imagined me having a contented comfortable life, smugly looking down on those who were less happy.
‘Talk to me then. Andrew always speaks well of you. We’ll do the best we can, he can’t expect more than that.’
‘I’m sorry for dragging you into all this. You really didn’t know about Jamie and me?’
‘I shouldn’t have spoken the way I did yesterday, the situation is driving me nuts. You remember the two men who were downstairs when you came into the shop? They were trying to make trouble. The whole mess had got beyond me by the time I came up here to see you. All of this is my own stupid fault. You knew Jamie – enough to say hello to, you said?’
‘He was an old flame. We hadn’t seen each other for years and years, and one night we bumped into each other in a club, and... things started up between us again. He was out of work. I took him on as favour.’
‘And he’s let you down rather badly?’
‘Yes. A couple of months is about the longest my boyfriends ever last. The sexual interest waned, but we hadn’t fallen out or rowed. We carried on being friends and his work was okay. The first signs of a problem came a few weeks ago when he began to slip out more and more frequently to the betting shop.
He worked in a betting shop before I took him on. People in that line usually stay in it. I should have suspected something. If we hadn’t been sleeping together maybe I would have made a few ’phone calls and checked him out more. Suppose that’s what happens when it’s not your brain that’s making the decisions.’
‘We all fall into that trap. A winning smile robs us of all our powers of judgement.’
A little more relaxed now, he nodded. ‘Thanks for saying that. It’s the sort of thing Andrew would have said. There’s more. Jamie ran up gambling debts, and the two men who came into the shop yesterday were looking for him. They were threatening to make trouble unless I gave them his address or paid what he owed.’
‘He’s the one who got himself into a mess; if he came to us, told us he was in trouble... we might be able to help... but as things are...’
‘The two men who are after him came back to the shop today, asking where they could find him, talking about him owing money. They stood staring at the till.’
‘What did you do?’
‘Told them if he owed money it was nothing to do with the business, that he’d disappeared.’
‘Is there much cash here now – if they tried to break in?’
‘No, not even in the safe. I took everything down to the bank last minute. We’ve got a good alarm system, with an automatic dial up to the police. It’s not like a jewellers, there isn’t a lot of small high value stuff on the shelves. You don’t get dodgy people in the pub coming up to you and asking if you’d like to buy a nice garden trowel or a bag of potting compost, do you?’
‘Actually, no one has ever offered to sell me anything in a pub. Must be something about me.’
‘Or the pubs you go to. What will you say to Andrew?’
‘Probably nothing. The loss of part of a day’s takings won’t ruin the business, why detract from his holiday by worrying him about it?’
For a while we chatted about Andrew’s holiday and speculated about how much longer he was likely to be away. We were interrupted by the sound of someone banging on the shop door and the display windows below us. Downstairs through the glass of the door we saw the two thugs, who even if we were hidden by the darkness of the shop would have seen the upstairs light and deduced that someone was in. We opened the door a few inches, each of us keeping a foot planted firmly against it. They glared at us through the gap.
‘You know why we’re here. This is our third call. Your time’s up. The cash, or the address of the man who owes it, now.’ They leaned hard against the door; we pushed back, barely able to resist.
‘Like I told you this afternoon, the man you’re looking for has left. He used to work here, but not any more.’
The taller of the men tried to force his boot into the space between door and doorframe. They were likely to win the struggle eventually because of their greater weight. In a drawer under the counter was a remote control unit for the shop’s alarm system, but it was impossible to reach it without giving up our defence of the door. I had my mobile ’phone with me, pulled it from my pocket, and held it up high where they could see it.
‘You’re making threats and demanding money. Fuck off, or it’s the police, now.’
One of them took a step back, then threw all his weight against the door, but we held it firm. ‘You fucking queers,’ he snarled. They backed off and walked to their car, parked across the road. We watched them drive off, then locked up, turned off the upstairs lights, and from the first floor windows checked again they had gone. The garden centre manager’s car was parked at the back, and after double checking all the doors and windows we set the alarm system and he drove me the short distance back to the hotel.
‘Will we get out of this alive?’ I asked.
‘Good job you were there. From my point of view that is, not from yours. During opening hours there’s always two or three of us on the premises, so it’s not that easy for them to make trouble. Thanks for backing me up tonight. Don’t worry about it, it’s my problem.’
Had I not been so tired, anxiety over what had happened might have kept me awake, but in fact I slept deeply and hated having to get up early to help with the breakfasts. A week or a fortnight in Sitges or Mykonos would have done me good. Casual sex with another tourist or a local man wanting a good time would have refreshed me and made me feel less sexually frustrated. Perhaps those few days, which now seemed an age ago, with Georges at the Hotel des Amis were the best that life would ever offer me by way of a relationship. If only other people were as straightforward and good natured as he and his mother had been. Maybe holiday affairs were a sort of fertile terrain between the frost-hardened wilderness of casual sex and the treacherous precipices of long term relationships.
A chance for a break did come, albeit in a rather unpleasant way, and only for a weekend. At one of the meetings about the Dunblane project that the Scottish hotel manager attended we discussed itineraries for coach trips, some of which were to include lunch near Inverness. He said that the waitresses at a particular restaurant were ‘fine Highland girls in traditional dress’ and were sure to cheer up the menfolk.
‘Well, not all of the menfolk,’ I remarked humorously.
‘Oh now,’ he said loudly, ‘I’ve been forewarned about you; some of us would prefer not to hear about certain kinds of behaviour, thank you very much.’
One of Vincent’s consultants said, ‘Mark’s a good colleague, we all know he’s gay, do you have some kind of problem with that?’
‘Excuse me, it isn’t me who has the problem. I think you’ll find your US client, who is footing your bill, would be none too pleased to hear an avowed homosexual is working on their project. Organisations that provide family holidays for middle America support traditional conservative values, and quite rightly so in my opinion.’
With difficulty we returned to the business of the meeting, but the incident reminded me of all the past consternation and confusion over ‘coming out’ at Lindler & Haliburton. Even here, with colleagues who were gay friendly, prejudice had infiltrated. Whatever my problems at Goodmans Hotel, having my own business had saved me from being plagued by discrimination.
I mentioned his outburst to Vincent later in the day. ‘He’s completely wrong about the client. Our contract with them has an equal opportunities clause which covers sexual orientation. The subject was specifically raised by them in discussions, and they asked for assurances that our policy matched theirs. He is the one who is out of line, not you. You’re not going be put off by him, are you? Do you want me to speak to him?’
‘No, but Lizetta often says that companies are usually quite happy to adopt equal opportunities policies, but whether their doing so has any real effect is difficult to determine....’
‘Don’t give up on account of this. That bigot will have won if you do. Give it another month or so. Look, for god’s sake don’t say a word about this to anyone here – my wife meets me at the office sometimes – but Lizetta and I are hiring a cottage up in Scotland in February. Why don’t you come and stay with us for the weekend?’
Vincent’s support did make me feel better. Nothing might come of his hoped-for weekend away with Lizetta, but the invitation to join them was kind. ‘A break would be nice, but wouldn’t I be rather in the way?’
‘Nonsense. You’ve played host to us at the hotel, if you spend a weekend with us we’ll be taking our turn, that’s all. My main problem is coming up with a good excuse for the wife.’
On the occasions when he and Lizetta had come to the hotel for Sunday dinner he told her that he was meeting a business associate at the airport, but a convincing excuse for a whole weekend away would be far more difficult. The affair sometimes seemed terribly precarious. At the hotel they ate Sunday dinner with Darren and me, and then spent a few hours together between hotel sheets, twice in one of the guest rooms and once, when all the rooms were taken, on the futon in my flat downstairs, like a couple of teenagers with strict parents making love at a friend’s house.
Lizetta rang me at the hotel to confirm Vincent’s tentative invitation. He had a project meeting at Dunblane arranged for a Thursday in mid-February, and despite the likelihood of colder weather in the North had hired a cottage near Perth. She planned to fly up to Edinburgh Airport where he was to collect her in a hired car. They hoped to have the rare luxury of four nights and three whole days together, returning to London on Monday morning.
She dismissed my concern about being a nuisance. ‘The cottage has three bedrooms and two rooms downstairs, so we won’t be sitting on each other’s laps. If you come up it will be the first time Vincent and I will have been staying together somewhere and been able to have guests. You can bring your own transport, or hire a car up there, you won’t have to spend more time with us than you want to. Why don’t you ask Darren to come? Vincent likes him. He’s so sweet. You can’t possibly be bored if he’s around.’
‘Who’s going to look after the hotel?’
‘Close it for the weekend.’
That was out of the question. Half the rooms were already booked, and except for dire
emergencies closing was something that had to be planned months in advance. If we were to go, staff would have to be brought in from Housmans Hotel or the garden centre to provide cover. However my last real holiday had been over a year ago, and Darren had not left London since the summer when he had a day’s outing to Brighton with Cheung; a weekend away would hardly be an extravagance.
We set off before daylight on Friday morning in the newest of the Ferns and Foliage vans, the garden centre manager having filled the fuel tank for us the previous day. By the time we arrived Lizetta and Vincent would have had the cottage to themselves for twenty-four hours. We were comfortable and warm in the front of the van, and early enough to avoid the rush hour traffic on our way out of London. As the early morning light strengthened, seeing the motorway stretching into the Chiltern hills ahead of us, with Darren sitting beside me listening to music on his personal stereo, my hopes of an enjoyable trip were good. Even if the weather prevented us from going out much we would surely find enough to do for a few days in the cottage or in Perth. The escape from the constant demands of the hotel would alone make the expedition worthwhile.
We stopped for lunch at a motorway service station, two men, one nineteen and the other in his mid-thirties, descending from a white van with Ferns and Foliage painted on the sides. Darren looked good in his yellow padded coat and white jeans. He mattered to me now. The qualities Andrew had seen in him straight away, his independent nature, his fresh inquisitive mind, his loyalty and honesty, had become precious to me. Even watching him eat, seeing his bony jaw move rhythmically as he chewed his food, now gave me pleasure. He was a slow eater. During meals I would pause now and again and wait to avoid him having to rush to catch up at the end. He always stirred the sugar in his tea or coffee with excessive thoroughness, the spoon tinkling against the side of the cup for nearly a minute, an oddity of behaviour that made me smile.
Three more hours of driving took us into Scotland and we paused once more, relieved to step out of the van, straighten our backs and exercise our legs. We bought hot drinks in the café, where a noisy group of half a dozen boys and girls of his age who loitered around a couple of tables looked across at Darren a number of times. He used the toilets before we left and one of the girls stopped him with some query or other on his way back.
‘An admirer?’ I asked as he climbed back into the van.
‘After something you wouldn’t approve of. What kind of place have you brought me to, women accosting me for drugs outside the toilets?’ They were probably bored local kids who had driven up to the café in some battered old car or cadged a lift and were hanging around in the hope that something exciting would happen.
Wanting to talk I said, ‘She might have been after something else. How do we know you’re not bisexual?’
‘How do we know you’re not?’ He had become good at turning questions back on people.
‘No, tried it. Women don’t do it for me. The attraction isn’t there.’ He grinned and put his earpieces in again and went back to his music.
We drove on for another couple of hours, crossed the Forth Bridge, and followed the motorway all the way to Perth, arriving in darkness at the cottage. Vincent was ready for us with a humorous greeting at the door. He raised a hand and said, ‘One minute,’ then turning his head called inside: ‘Were you expecting two gay boys this evening, Zetta?’
‘Are they nice looking?’
‘Well let them in then.’
The ‘cottage’ was actually a gaunt three bedroom house at the end of a short terrace on the outskirts of the town. What happened next rather countered the effect of Vincent’s warm welcome. He took us upstairs while Lizetta prepared the evening meal. They had taken the largest bedroom at the front, and he showed us into the one at the back, a reasonable size, furnished with an old fashioned chest of drawers, a fitted wardrobe and a double bed. ‘Not up to your standards at the hotel, but will it do for a couple of nights?’
‘Bed looks comfortable. This do you, Darren?’
‘Yeah, it’s fine.’
Still carrying my bag I left Darren to settle into the room and paused near the top of the stairs, waiting for Vincent to show me the third bedroom. He followed, looked at me and smiled uncertainly, confused by my actions. He had evidently been expecting us to sleep together.
‘Is there another room? Lizetta did say there was plenty of space.’
He blushed and stumbling over his words said, ‘Yes, erm, wasn’t sure what you’d... should’ve asked Zetta, didn’t think, through here...’ He took me into the box room, as small as that little room in the attic of Goodmans Hotel where Darren had been living when we first found him.
‘This will be okay for me.’
‘Bit small, really ought to have...’ He coughed and went to fetch sheets and blankets from the airing cupboard before hurrying away downstairs.
Darren came in, saw me holding the bedding and tried to take it from me. ‘You should take the bigger room. You’ll feel claustrophobic in here.’
‘No. Claustrophobia is not one of my problems. For once you have the bridal suite. Really – it’s not worth arguing about. We’ve only been here five minutes and we’ve already embarrassed Vincent. Don’t say anything when we go downstairs.’
After unpacking we went down and found him sprawled on the sofa, arms stretched out and legs wide apart, watching rugby on the television. ‘Sit down,’ he said, nodding towards the one armchair. ‘Come and sit over here, Darren.’ He straightened himself up on the sofa to make room and handed him the TV remote control. ‘You’re probably not interested in this, find yourself something you like. I’m sure there’ll be at least one gardening programme on.’
Darren, instead of changing channels, muted the sound and asked, ‘How do people get to make gardening programmes? Do you have any idea? They may be all right as entertainment, but most of them tell you hardly anything, and what they do tell you is stuff you know already, like sprinkle some seeds on the soil and cover them up. Do they make a lot of money out of it, those presenters?’
Vincent at first tried to dodge the question by saying that careers advice was Lizetta’s field, but quickly recovered his credibility by suggesting Darren ask one of the lecturers at the college about contacting the BBC or one of the TV companies. The exercise might, he thought, be made into a project that could be marked as part of his course work.
Seeing that Lizetta had begun laying the table, I went to help. Our meal consisted of a traditional broth followed by sole bought from a fishmonger in Perth that day. Vincent repeatedly topped up everyone’s wine glass, opening a third bottle as we helped ourselves to pudding, with the result that when Darren stood up from the table he was slightly drunk and staggered backwards. He offered to help me clear away, but worried about breakages I persuaded him to sit and relax with Lizetta and Vincent.
When I went to join them in the lounge, Darren was perched on an arm of the sofa holding a glass of whisky.
‘You’ll have a hangover in the morning.’
‘No I won’t.’
Vincent said, ‘My fault, for encouraging him, a glass of malt whisky on his first ever night in Scotland... was it the wrong thing to do?’
‘No, of course not. I’m tired after the drive. Take no notice of me.’
Darren held the glass out towards me with a quarter of an inch of whisky remaining. ‘Do you want to finish it? It’s too much for me really.’
‘No, you deserve a glass... well, let me taste it.’ After I had taken a sip Vincent coaxed me into accepting a glass of my own, dribbling into it such a tiny quantity of malt whisky that to refuse would have been rude. We watched TV and saw a late weather forecast that threatened overnight snow, then went up to bed. Darren thumped up the stairs in front of me and crashed into his room.
In the morning he had a definite aura of wanting to be left to nurse his headache, but Lizetta helped him recover by giving him fruit juice and a cooked breakfast. He helped her clear up in the kitchen afterwards, whilst Vincent continued his policy of letting others do the housework. A couple of times Lizetta called on him to do something for her, to empty the kitchen waste bin and to lift a heavy bag of potatoes, and I realized that they were enjoying playing the traditional roles of man and wife. To an extent Darren and I found ourselves acting the roles of the children, two good boys who offered to help lay the table, clear away and wash up. They referred to us as boys, as in: ‘You boys go off on your own if you want to. You’re welcome to join us for a look around the town, but do whatever you boys feel like doing.’
Three or four inches of snow had fallen during the night. I was not particularly keen to take the van into Perth after so many hours at the wheel yesterday, and we all travelled into town in Vincent’s hired car. We stopped first at some gardens which Darren said were famous for rhododendrons and varieties of heather, but hardly anything of the plants could be seen under the snow. Vincent had one of those expensive cameras with all sorts of settings and attachments and took photographs of us beside an ornamental shelter, and asked Darren to photograph Lizetta and himself together.
Later we stopped the car near the sea so that Vincent could photograph a couple of men fishing from a pier in defiance of the icy wind. A little further down from where they sat waves crashed violently against the curved arm of the harbour. Vincent took ages finding a viewpoint which would enable him to picture the fishermen with a cascade of surf in the background; he showed Darren the camera’s features and let him take half a dozen or more shots, while Lizetta and I watched from the warmth of the car. Despite having children of his own, Vincent was clearly unable to resist Darren’s appeal; it was as though he gave off some kind of pheromone that made us all want to play at being a parent to him.
We wandered around the town looking at restaurants and going in and out of various shops. Lizetta bought a tartan scarf for herself and a doll in traditional Scottish dress for a niece, and I bought an attractive glass jar of wrapped sweets that would look nice on the hall table back at the hotel.
We went back to the cottage with our purchases, and in the evening returned to town for dinner in a restaurant where mounted heads of deer stared down at us from the walls. After the meal Lizetta and Vincent drove straight back to the cottage, probably intending to make full use of their double bed, and Darren and I walked around the frozen streets until we found a pub that looked comfortable and not overcrowded. Having brought the van down for the evening I had to restrict myself to soft drinks because of driving back. The other customers were regulars with pints of ale who watched football on the large screen TV and took little notice of us. After an hour we had had enough of the place and went back to the cottage, letting ourselves in quietly so as not to disturb Vincent and Lizetta. For the same reason we were reluctant to turn on the television or listen to music, but we made ourselves coffee and chatted in the kitchen.
‘Do you think they’re about the same age?’ Darren asked.
‘I don’t know exactly. Lizetta must be nearly forty. He’s probably a bit older.’
‘Do you think it matters, people being a similar age?’
‘Some women seem to be happy with men a lot older than themselves. The same doesn’t hold true for most gay men, unfortunately. Youth counts for so much; however well you take care of yourself you slip down the league table as you get older.’
‘That’s true for being picked up in a bar. But in a relationship, could it work between men of different ages?’
‘A long term relationship? Anything’s possible, but the bigger the age gap the harder it becomes. A man who looks good for forty-five will quite likely be losing his hair, have wrinkles and be putting on weight at fifty-five. What do you think his chances are of holding on to someone ten or twenty years younger?’
‘You don’t think it would work out, then?’
‘Everyone’s different. How would I know? Boyfriends let you down, one way or another. Casual sex after the nth time makes you feel like a sexual automaton. With your interest in plants a relationship with a tree might not be a bad idea. A big strong oak would never let you down.’
‘You can’t have sex with a tree.’
‘Don’t be too sure. Some people probably manage it. Things are different for “straights”. They produce children, the next generation, and that creates the need to stay together and excuses all their shortcomings.’
‘Gay men can have children, through an arrangement with a lesbian couple, say.’
‘Yes, but that’s much more difficult than being a “straight” at a party and falling into bed with someone of the opposite sex while drunk. How did we get onto this?’
‘We were talking about age differences. In a relationship.’
‘Oh yes. What about Andrew and you?’
‘You know he wasn’t interested in me in that way. Because he took me to all sorts of places some people might have thought he was, but he never expected sex as a pay-back. He wasn’t like that.’
‘He took you to Paris once. Most people would assume you were...’
‘They’d be wrong. We shared a twin-bedded room and he saw me coming out of the shower naked. He just smiled and looked away. He told me he liked treating me. I gave him a reason to see places he’d not visited for years and years and would never have gone to on his own. Getting away from business did him good.’
After finishing our coffee we went up to our separate rooms. Randiness made going off to sleep difficult. How easy it would have been to quietly slip across the landing, gently open Darren’s door and whisper the words ‘Are you awake?’ into the darkness. Could we not, this one night, so far away from our familiar surroundings, extend our friendship by giving one another a little sexual relief? In asking about age differences in relationships, had he been hinting that he would be receptive? Yet, if we did go to bed together, would we be content with one night only? What if he expected a new phase in our relationship to begin, while my feelings towards him remained unchanged, as they surely would. He did not arouse in me that overwhelming mix of intense emotion and physical desire that gives rise to a love affair. Cheung was probably a much better boyfriend for him than I could ever be. To have him sexually, feeling as I did, would be to take advantage of him; the bedroom door remained closed.
On Sunday morning, undeterred by more snow, Vincent was keen to head inland to a little town called Pitlochry, and if the road was clear enough to continue up to the mountain pass of Killiecrankie. Part of his reason for wanting to go there was to investigate the area as a potential stopping point for coach excursions from Dunblane, and we were all in favour of an outing of some kind. Snow lay on the roadside verges and surrounding fields, thickening as we drove on towards the mountains, Darren and I following Vincent’s hired car in the van. The sky was clear and the forecast promised a sunny day, but at the Killiecrankie Visitor Centre a keen wind made us shiver as we left the safety and warmth of the vehicles.
From the car park a footpath, lightly covered with snow, led uphill through some woods. Lizetta and Darren wanted to walk, but on the assumption we would not venture far on foot in such cold weather I had brought only my town shoes and would have to stay behind. In his usual helpful way Vincent offered to keep me company and suggested that he and I take the van to a pub we had passed on the edge of the town, leaving them the car to drive down later. ‘A lot of these country places won’t serve food after two, so we’ll be able to make sure of having a few sandwiches for you when you turn up,’ he suggested.
Feeling had already gone from my feet by the time we reached the van, and I jiggled them up and down on the floor to restore the circulation before setting off. As Vincent had foreseen the pub did not serve food after two, but the landlady willingly wrapped plates of sandwiches in cling-film for us to eat when we were ready. We settled at a table near the radiator. ‘It is cold,’ he commented. ‘You’re not the outdoor type really, are you?’‘Something of a city boy, that’s true. I’m not that bad, my shoes were the problem, not an aversion to exercise.’
‘Walking is a hobby of mine, but I have to confess to an ulterior motive. It gives me an excuse to get away from the family for a few days. For years I’ve met up with a group of old school friends, six or seven of us, to go walking in the countryside. Several of us invent additional outings from time to time and provide each other with alibis so we can get away from home for other purposes. That’s how this weekend was possible. Not that I’m proud of the deception. Things at home have not been easy since my boy with Downs Syndrome was born. My wife has to do most of what’s necessary for him. Her outlook on life has changed; she lost interest in the physical side of our relationship after he was born.’
‘Must be very difficult.’
‘Zetta’s been marvellous. She never complains about the problem of finding time to be together. I’m sorry about the misunderstanding over the bedroom when you arrived. She left it to me to sort out the upstairs for you. Were you offended?’
‘You weren’t to know. You did the sensible thing really. If we were in the habit of sleeping together it would have been pointless to have made up both beds.’
‘Thanks. Seeing you and him together I can’t help being envious. My lad can be quite sweet in his own way, but the scientific names of plants will never come tripping off his tongue like they do off Darren’s. You must be very proud of him. He worships you, doesn’t he?’
‘He means a lot to me. At least you have children of your own. Thanks for letting him have a go with your camera yesterday. I hope he didn’t use up all the film.’
‘He’s welcome to use as much film as he wants. He knew all about shutter speeds and lens apertures already; he’s a bright lad. All of that roll of film has to be used this weekend, or it will have to go into the developer’s partly blank. My wife would start asking awkward questions if she saw any of the shots taken up here. I’m supposed to be in the Lake District.’
Ten minutes later a call on Vincent’s mobile ’phone interrupted our conversation. Despite his well prepared alibi, he was not to have an uninterrupted break from family responsibilities. His wife was calling to ask him to go back early because one of his daughters was feverish and had to be taken to hospital. He could not expect her to look after a sick daughter and their son on her own. He had to go back. His usual optimistic outlook on life momentarily faltered. He had wanted so much for Lizetta and himself to enjoy a weekend away like any ordinary couple, and felt guilty about letting her down. ‘How much more of this can Zetta be expected to stand? You won’t let this spoil things for you and Darren as well, will you?’
‘No, don’t say that. It’s been a good break for us. It has for you, you’ve only lost part of today, you’ve been with Lizetta for the best part of four days. You’re disappointed, naturally.’ We discussed whether she would want to return to London with him, but thought if she was willing it would be best for the three of us to stay on at the cottage for another night. When she and Darren joined us in the pub half an hour later, looking extremely cold, he did not mention the problem until after we had eaten. She was calm, betrayed no sign of jealousy, and said sincerely that she was sorry his little girl was ill and hoped she would be better soon.
As we drove back the traffic increased, the clear weather bringing people out for the afternoon. He rang the airport from the house to rearrange his flight, packed hurriedly, and left us after holding Lizetta in his arms for several minutes. She hid her disappointment, smiling and laughing as we whiled away the rest of the afternoon talking and playing Scrabble. Between games she asked Darren about how he was doing at West London Tertiary College, and if he had joined the Gay Soc.
‘The Gay Soc. is useless. The two people who run it hold a meeting once a month that nobody else goes to. Anyway, I have a boyfriend. Cheung.’
‘Oh yes, I remember. Are you in love?’ He blushed and hid his face behind his hands, laughing and embarrassed at the same time.
‘They’ve lasted about six months now, so there must be something to it. They see each other – what – a couple of times a week?’
She could not prise anything more out of him about Cheung, and the conversation drifted onto office politics at Lindler & Haliburton. She was becoming more and more unhappy there, and told me I had been lucky to get out when I did. A kind of civil war had broken out, with Peter and his supporters battling to break the old codgers’ grip on the firm. Staying aloof from the dispute was almost impossible. Antagonism was so deep that simply using the lift had become hazardous: at every stop there was a risk of someone from the opposing side getting in, and people who had known each other for years stood inches away from one another in hostile silence. Sick absences and resignations had more than doubled, putting yet more pressure on those still at work.
She was thinking of moving on, and had been discussing with Vincent the possibility of working for him. His company was not big enough to need a full-time personnel manager and she would have to take on other consultancy or administrative work as well. ‘At least I’d see a bit more of him. Do you think I’d make a consultant? You got on all right, didn’t you?’
‘Except for that incident with the homophobic Scot. No reason why you shouldn’t. I’ve found it a very worthwhile experience. I’m only there one day a week on the Dunblane project, which is probably bigger than most. I think a lot of the assignments are much smaller scale, a few weeks on projects in modest hotels. Full-time, the pace may be wearing, but a mix of consultancy and personnel work might be a good combination for you.’
For dinner we finished up the odds and ends of food that had accumulated in the fridge, and after watching TV for an hour and a half went upstairs, each of us to our own rooms, all of us probably wishing we did not have to sleep alone.
Cheerful as ever the next morning Lizetta sat between us in the front of the van on the drive to Edinburgh Airport. She hugged and kissed us both at the boarding gate when we said goodbye, and Darren and I returned to the van to begin our long drive down to London. ‘She really loves him, doesn’t she?’ he said, as we picked up speed to take our place amid the stream of vehicles on the motorway.
‘Hard to say. What is all this about being in love?’
‘Was the firm like that when you were there?’
‘Not as bad. There were clashes – it was a competitive place – people don’t leave their bad
habits and problems behind them at the reception desk when they come into work. In any organisation where hundreds of people are thrown together day after day you get little cliques forming, trying to outmanoeuvre each other. Some people seem to thrive on it. Perhaps I did. I’ve changed.’
Traffic reports on the radio told us that roads south of Edinburgh were clear of snow, and we escaped the motorway for a while by driving down on the A7 to Carlisle. On a quiet stretch I let Darren, who had yet to pass his driving test, take the wheel for about twenty minutes, but traffic built up and when light drizzle near Langholm made visibility difficult, I thought it best to take over from him again.
In the Midlands we were caught for miles in a long crawling tailback caused by a serious accident. We knew we were close to it when we saw cars in front being directed onto the hard shoulder to pass the blocked carriageways. We turned our heads, as everyone does, to see what we could of the crash. There were three mangled cars, one of them lying on its roof, and a van very similar to our own lying on its side near the central barrier. Fragments of glass, plastic and unrecognisable bits of vehicle littered the tarmac. Paramedics were putting a stretcher covered in a dark red blanket into the rear of an ambulance.
A few seconds later the carnage was behind us and the road ahead fairly clear. Darren twiddled the controls of the radio, switching from station to station until he found a news report, the announcer saying in a voice of practised concern that a man and a woman were thought to have been killed and a number of people seriously injured. We sped on south, keeping our place in the long lines of traffic stretching ahead and behind, glad to be with the fortunate majority whose journey had not been violently cut short. Darren put in the earpieces from his portable stereo and became absorbed in his music, leaving me to concentrate on the drive.
My absence from Goodmans Hotel for four days proved that it could operate perfectly well without me. The deputy manager of Housmans Hotel, except for a few hours off during the quiet periods of early afternoon and late evening, had lived in on duty the whole time. He brought me up to date with which rooms were occupied, and showed me a substantial amount of cash that had accumulated in the desk drawer. After we counted this together he said he had one last thing to report, that someone had called to see me, had not wanted to leave his name but said he would call back. He ended his long stint of being on duty with the words: ‘Not complaining, but it will be a relief to be able to go out with a few friends for a quiet drink tonight.’
On Tuesday morning, as I put out the rubbish for collection, a sweet scent from one of the winter flowering shrubs planted by Darren perfumed the air around the gate. Looking back at the hotel, the paintwork on the facade still fresh, the business again seemed to me to be all that I could have wished it to be.
This feeling of self-satisfaction lasted until Tom’s brother came up to me outside the newsagent’s a few hours later. He had had his hair cut shorter than ever and I was not sure who he was until he started to speak. ‘Oh good,’ he shouted, ‘lucky I saw you, I called in at the hotel the other day but you was out.’
‘Yes. What’s happened to Tom? What’s he doing down in Portsmouth?’
‘Working, so far as I know.’
‘There’s plenty of work for him round here. What’s he doing down there?’ ‘Don’t know. We’re not seeing each other.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean, not seeing each other?’
‘If your brother hasn’t told you, why do you expect me to?’
He frowned and looked down. ‘You’ve always been a stuck-up bastard. I never had nothing
‘What’s happened? Don’t you two like taking each other’s pants down no more?’ With that aggravating remark he turned and swaggered off down the street.
I paid the paper bill, but the amount of cash still in the desk drawer made a trip to the bank essential. All of the garden centre’s vans were in use that afternoon, and despite a light drizzle I set off hurriedly on foot, with just enough time to get there before the doors closed. The money was clutched under my arm in an old portfolio too tattered and scruffy to look as though it contained anything worth stealing. The quickest route, about twelve minutes’ walk, was to turn left out of the hotel, across the road and through a mews, then along a tree lined avenue leading to the High Street.
I was striding along beneath the trees when one of the two thugs who had been harassing the garden centre manager crossed over from the other side, moving rapidly towards me. His appearance in the road ahead might conceivably have been a coincidence, and I turned to cross to the other side in the hope he had not recognised me, but the second man was coming up from the opposite direction. Unless someone came out of one of the houses or the parked cars my situation was hopeless. Having reached the opposite pavement I walked close to the house railings and looked at the ground. They ran towards me, and the taller of them pushed me against the railings and grabbed the portfolio whilst the other kept look-out.
‘I’ll take that, you fucking queer.’
Clutching the bag to my side with my left arm I gripped it tightly with both hands. Twisting round with all my strength I succeeded in wrenching myself and the portfolio free, but the second man saw me break loose and ran over, grasped the collar of my coat and punched me in the face. My legs gave way and they dragged me back to the railings, but my grip on the money did not loosen. The first man put his hands around my neck and tightened his fingers until I could hardly breathe.
‘I’ve got the bag, there’s money in it, let’s fuck off out of it.’
‘He might have something else on him.’
‘He won’t have piss all. Smack him and dump him.’ A final blow to my face sent me reeling through a gate and down the steps to a sunken area in front of the house. An excruciating pain shot through my right leg when I tried to get up; my jaw hurt, and when I tried to call for help all that emerged was an incoherent bellow. Light rain continued to fall, wetting me and the unswept concrete on which I lay. After some minutes a red umbrella appeared high above me, and a woman’s face peered down over the railings. ‘Are you all right?’
Raising myself on one arm, I uttered a desperate groan. ‘Shall I come down?’ She made her way to the steps and was soon kneeling beside me, protecting me from the drizzle with her red umbrella. Dirt on the concrete where I lay was turning to a thin layer of mud. ‘Should I call an ambulance? Or I’ve got my car here, I could drive you to the hospital. What’s the best thing to do? I’ll take you, if you’re up to it.’
‘My leg hurts.’
‘Can you move your toes?’ She touched my ankle as I wiggled them inside my shoe. ‘Your leg’s not broken, you’ve probably sprained a muscle.’ Taking my arm at first gently, then pulling more firmly she helped me to my feet. She was quite strong, but my lack of coordination made it difficult for me to keep upright. ‘You can walk on that leg but keep your weight off it,’ she said, evidently not aware that walking involves shifting your weight from one leg to the other. I wiped my face with my free hand and saw fresh blood on my fingers. ‘Don’t do that,’ she ordered. ‘You’ll make yourself filthy.’
Somehow she hauled me up the twelve steps, pausing for a second or two on each of them. ‘That’s it. Keep your weight off that leg.’ We were both exhausted when we reached the top, where she propped me up against the railings. ‘Wait here, I’ll fetch the car over.’
She tried to hand me the umbrella, but somehow it slipped out of my fingers and she took it with her; the cold rain helped to clear my head and I breathed deeply several times. Parked vehicles prevented her from driving right up to the kerb, but she steered me between them to reach the passenger door. She had spread a sheet of polythene over the seat to protect the upholstery. ‘I’m a carer,’ she said as she released the handbrake. ‘Must have been a terrible fall you had, or were you mugged? Use some of those tissues to dab your face.’
’Mugged. Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much for helping me. Need to get the police.’ Blood and dirt from my face soaked into two of her fancy lilac tissues.
‘Getting you fixed up is the most important thing. Best to get the hospital to ring the police. Afraid I didn’t see anything. Happened to hear you groaning as I walked by. I’ll leave you my telephone number all the same. Did they take much?’
‘Some cash. Quite a bit of cash.’
At the hospital a doctor, having satisfied himself that my pulse was strong and that nothing was burst or broken, a nurse cleaned and dressed my wounds, lent me a crutch and sent me to sit down to wait for the police. Keeping my pact with the garden centre manager, when they arrived I said nothing about Jamie and his gambling debts, and told them only that I had seen the two men hanging around in the neighbourhood and that they might have noticed me coming and going from the hotel. The two officers were obviously pressed for time, and after contacting Darren to arrange for him to collect me they left, promising someone would be in touch.
When he arrived Darren looked around the room at the dozen or more patients but did not immediately recognise me. Cautiously, discovering how to stand and move with the aid of the crutch, I made my way towards him. Twice he surveyed the room without spotting me, at last identifying me as I hobbled closer. Tactlessly he said, ‘God, you look terrible.’
A taxi took us back to the hotel. My face was horrific. The flesh around my right eye was badly marked, blood had flooded the white of the cornea, my lower lip was swollen, and a dark grey bruise covered most of the left side of my face. A thin white dressing of some kind had been stuck over a cut under my chin. I would have to keep myself out of sight of the hotel guests as far as possible.
Anxiety was as much a problem as my physical condition. What if the two men returned? They had not been to the garden centre since that night when they tried to force their way in after it had closed. They might have come upon me in the avenue by coincidence, or they might have found out that I ran the hotel and been looking for me. They might be outside in the street at that moment watching and waiting. Suppose that, flushed with success after tackling me on my way to the bank, they were to come into the hotel demanding money?
When the second floor room had been vandalised, awful though the incident had seemed at the time, nobody was physically injured, and Tom had turned up after a few hours to sort out the mess. Now only Darren was around to help. What if the thugs attacked him?
Needing to rest I hobbled down to the basement where I made myself a hot drink and lay down, cautiously trying to avoid the most sensitive of my sore spots. My thoughts returned again and again to Tom. Had he been there, how much less desperate things would seem. Putting the receiver down on him like that when he rang from Portsmouth had been so final; it had been unfair after we had been together for so long. By nature he was completely different to the thugs who had attacked me. He might once have stolen cars, but he would never have deliberately hurt anyone. On the few occasions when he had been verbally aggressive, he had apologised freely afterwards. How hard the confinement of prison must have been for him, accustomed to moving from site to site for his work. Whatever he might have done in the past, what was the sense in our being apart now? Judging him so harshly had rebounded on me. The result was that I had made my own life a misery.
Yet to call him up because I was in a mess and needed his help would be humiliating. Later, after I had recovered, we would be able to talk on equal terms. Would he want to talk to me? He might have come to think of himself as the injured party in our relationship. He had had nothing to do with my parents’ death; he had never done me any harm. All I had against him was that he should have told me about his conviction, that was all. He had served a prison sentence for what he had done; what gave me the right to punish him a second time?
If we were to get together again, surely being honest with each other was the way, not for me to start out by concealing my vulnerability and weakness from him. The sooner he knew what had happened to me, the better my chance of getting him back. At last I did what I should have done that evening when Andrew had revealed their secret in the restaurant: I called Tom on his mobile ’phone. When the ringing tone stopped I heard his voice for the first time in months.
‘Hello Tom, it’s me.’
‘How are you doing?’
‘Something terrible’s happened.’
‘I heard. You’ve been mugged. Darren’s just been on the ’phone. Is there someone there to look after you? I’m sorry, Mark, this is all my fault.’
‘Of course it’s not your fault. Darren rang you?’
‘There wasn’t any harm in it, Mark. He’s rung me a couple of times to keep me in touch with things, that’s all. He wasn’t being disloyal to you or nothing. Thank god you’ve rung anyway. Shall I catch the train? Only take me a few hours to get back to London.’
‘No, you don’t have to do that, your work down there...’
‘Doesn’t matter. I’ll tell them it’s an emergency. If you’d like me to come.’
‘Yes, I really would like you to come, but you don’t have to rush, don’t cause yourself problems. I look ghastly. Horrific.’
‘You shouldn’t talk about yourself like that. I’ll go down to the station and call you from there. Won’t be long mate.’
Bringing him back was as easy as that. An hour later I struggled upstairs and sat in the office reading the newspaper, waiting for him to arrive. A dozen times I heard the front door open and looked up full of hope, only to be disappointed by the sound of one of the guests making his way upstairs. At last there was a loud knock and his voice called down the hall: ‘Darren, Mark, anyone about?’
Darren answered from the kitchen: ‘He’s in the office.’
Tom came and stood in the doorway. ‘What are you doing in here?’
‘Ooorph, look at you. You should be in bed.’
‘How have you been?’
‘Don’t worry about me.’ He helped me to my feet. ‘Can you walk all right?’
‘Hobble. I can hobble.’ We each put an arm around the other, and moved in a four-legged shuffle to the top of the basement stairs.
‘All right, you can hang on to me but stay behind me, we don’t want you falling down stairs.’
One effect of the assault was that my work on the Dunblane Spa project came to an end. Some figure work already in hand could be finished on the computer at Goodmans Hotel and relayed via the internet to Vincent’s office. My multicoloured wounds were a good excuse to drop out of the face to face meetings arranged for the coming weeks with the US client. Vincent, typically, was kind and considerate. He said he hoped we might work together on another project in the future, that anyway we would be seeing each other socially before long, and that if I needed help he could send one of his people down to the hotel for an hour or two, though with Darren, Tom and the garden centre staff nearby there was no need for me to take up the offer.
The ugliness of my injuries was not the sole reason for quitting the project. With the end of the tax year looming there was plenty of paperwork for me to do at the hotel, and I wanted time with Tom to re-establish the old feeling of closeness we had known before our break-up. I skulked around in the background keeping out of sight of the guests as far as possible, and at the garden centre everyone followed the manager’s lead in making a fuss of me. He felt responsible for the mugging, and sent over three huge flower arrangements for the hotel with a card signed by all the staff. A well intentioned lady from the local Victim Support Group rang to offer sympathy and asked if she could do anything, but of Jamie and the two thugs who had attacked me we heard nothing more.
Tom rang his employer in Portsmouth with a story about having to stay at home because his mother was seriously ill. Within a few days he was working for local householders again. The old reassuring routines of our lives reasserted themselves, although having come so close to permanent break-up we were very careful to be considerate towards one other. My sense of having been wronged by him had completely gone. If he had hurt me by keeping his past a secret, my putting the ’phone down on him when he rang from Portsmouth with those pompous dismissive words ‘I have nothing at all to say to you’ must have hurt him; and on my part the hurt had been intentional.
He showed no sign of resentment, and was as helpful as ever with fixing things in the hotel. When Darren mentioned a patch of damp in the little bathroom under the roof, he went up to investigate and concluded that rain-water was seeping in. The pain in my leg had more or less gone by then and we took a step ladder and some tools up so that he could look for the leak from inside the loft. He hauled himself up through the hatch and I handed up a torch, trying to protect my eyes from the falling smuts. A trap door led out onto the flat roof above the bathroom and when he opened it daylight came streaming into the roof space. ‘Come and have a look,’ he called down.
Always nervous of ladders, I climbed another step up and peered into the loft. A layer of black dust coated the fibre-glass insulation between the joists. ‘Shouldn’t you be wearing a face mask?’
‘Come on,’ he said, ignoring my question, forcefully grasping my left arm and pulling me upwards, giving me no choice but to scramble after him, using my free hand to grab joists and rafters to steady myself. ‘What about my leg?’‘You’ll be all right.’ He gripped my hand firmly to help steady me and guided me towards the hatch. ‘Come and look over here, you can see for miles. Stand on the joists, not the insulation, otherwise you’ll make a hole in the ceiling.’
‘I have been inside a loft before. All this dust is awful.’ The trap door was set in the slope of the roof, about a yard above the flat metal-covered area above the bathroom. He stepped out backwards, holding onto the sides of the hatchway as he lowered himself down over the slope. Balancing with difficulty on the joists I began to follow, but when I backed out of the opening my foot did not reach down far enough for me to stand on the flat surface below, and fear of falling made me freeze. He grabbed my legs. ‘Come on, I’ve got you, let yourself slide down, you won’t fall.’
Somehow or other I slithered down. He left me kneeling terrified by the hatch and went to the edge of the roof, where he stood like a mountaineer looking out from a rocky crag. Recovering my nerve with a few deep breaths, I stood up and took cautious steps towards him, and looked down into the Mews and the row of long thin gardens behind the terraced houses. We were no more than four or five feet higher up than if we had been in Darren’s room, but that extra height was enough for us to see over the top of the nearby roofs. Row upon row of grey slate showed the extent of the Victorian suburb, and in the distance we could see the dome of the Royal Albert Hall and the Imperial College Tower.
This panorama, not visible from any of the windows of the rooms below, was completely new to me. The view was not one of London’s finest, the City’s office towers being hidden by a block of flats. Expanses of grey slate roof predominated in other directions, but the escapade of climbing out there was a good example of how much fun life could be when Tom was around. Without him I would probably never have gone up there to look.
Had anyone at street level seen us, standing with our arms around one another, they would have thought us oddly affectionate for two workmen up on a roof. A car turned under the arch at the end of the mews; it stopped at a doorway and a couple emerged to unload shopping from the back, absorbed in what they were doing, unaware of us watching from above.
He turned to examine the roof. ‘You can see where the water’s been coming in. Over here, look.’ He pointed to where the edge of a metal sheet covering the flat roof on which we stood had lifted to make a small gap.‘Doesn’t look much. Are you sure that’s it?’
‘Pretty sure. Can’t see anything else that might be causing the leak. I’ll flatten it, stick it down, and we’ll see if that sorts it.’
We had yet to talk about his car thefts, but we both knew that the subject was too important to ignore. In the early days of our relationship, in the pub, over meals, lying together after sex, we had told each other all the significant events of our lives. Now whenever we passed a Mercedes, a Jaguar or another expensive car in the street we were reminded that part of his life remained secret from me. We would glance sideways at one another, knowing that we could not put off discussing the subject for much longer. However difficult talking might be for him, until we did my not knowing would remain a barrier between us.
Understanding one another completely, absorbing everything we possibly could about each other, was essential. More than once, after listening to part of my life story, he had said, ‘I know how that must have made you feel. Sometimes it’s as though what’s happened to you has happened to me.’ I felt the same about his experiences; sharing our pasts was as important as the physical pleasure of making love. How could we be truly close, think of ourselves as a couple, or expect to know what the other would want even when we were physically apart, until the gap was closed?
The subject raised itself when the hotel guest Andrew had told me about, the one who had visited his son in the same prison as Tom, reserved a room again. In a quiet voice I mentioned the booking to him. He was silent for perhaps half a minute. ‘Probably turn out he won’t even recognise me. Just coincidence that he saw me at all in the visiting room, we never spoke.’
‘If you’d rather, I could cancel, say we’ve had a flood or something and suggest he tries Housmans Hotel. If you’re unhappy about him coming.’
‘No, there’s no reason to do that. Wasn’t exactly my finest hour, you can understand me not wanting to be reminded of it.’
‘You don’t want to tell me about it?’
‘It might have been worse than you think. You’ve probably got enough of an idea of what that kind of life is about from what you read in the papers. ’
‘It’s part of you. But if talking about it is too difficult...’
‘All right.’ We took beers into the empty breakfast room and sat opposite each other in the bright light of the bay window. We were committed now, but for perhaps a minute he sighed and shuffled in his chair.
‘We’re not talking about a one-off mistake here. There’s things I’ve done that even Andrew doesn’t know about.’
‘The start of it all was way back, when I was still at school. I haven’t spent all my life thieving, and what there was is all behind me. It was another life.’
‘You got into trouble when you were a kid?’
‘We got away with it. Maybe it would have been better if we hadn’t – might have put us off.’ He and a school friend had begun stealing when he was fourteen. They used to go out trying the door handles of parked cars and taking things from inside any that had been left unlocked. They took cigarettes, sweets, and small change which they spent in amusement arcades. One day they saw a leather jacket on the back seat of a car and broke a side window to get it; it was too big for either of them and they sold it for a few pounds to a friend’s brother. They became more determined, made forays into new areas, and by smashing car windows greatly increased their haul. The first time a car alarm went off they ran off in opposite directions, but after triggering two or three they realised that nobody took much notice and that the best way to avoid attracting attention was to cross the street and walk calmly away.
Later they began joy riding, forcing or breaking windows to get into older cars that were less well secured, driving them for a few miles, and ripping out the car stereo systems. They went out at night, wore dark clothing and gloves to make themselves less noticeable and varied the times and the places they targeted. They were twice spotted by someone who gave chase, but they ran fast enough not to be caught.
‘Didn’t your parents ask what you were doing?’
‘They thought I was out with my mates. In a way I suppose I was. Why should they worry? I wasn’t pestering them.’
‘They must have wondered where your money was coming from.’
‘A couple of times I said I was doing jobs for a friend’s uncle, someone they didn’t know, clearing out the garage or helping in the garden.’
‘They should have taken more of an interest in what you were getting up to.’
‘I ain’t blaming them for what happened. They brought me up to know the difference between right and wrong. What I did was down to me. They don’t even know I was sent down. My Mum and Dad never had any trouble with the law, nor has my brother. They’d be ashamed if they ever found out.’
‘You kept everything to yourself, even from your brother?’
‘He may have suspected something, but he’s the last one to tell about anything like that. You’d never hear the end of it. He might look like a hard case, but he’s completely straight. In some ways you’ve got lot in common with him.’
‘Thanks a lot.’ The comparison was, I guessed, meant to be teasing. It lightened the mood, and I was glad he felt comfortable enough for a little humour. What I wanted was an understanding of that part of his life, not some sort of confession. ‘I meant to tell you about him coming up to me outside the newsagent’s a week or so ago asking what you were doing in Portsmouth. I just told him that we’d split up, nothing else.’
‘Good, thanks for keeping it quiet. Anyway to account to my family for my time inside I made up a story about finding some work up north. Because Andrew helped me by letting me have the flat above the garden centre and giving me work when I got out I didn’t have to go crawling back to them for help.’
‘So, you were stealing from cars and joy riding when you were a kid.’
‘We weren’t that bad, not compared to some kids who smash up cars and set fire to them. Me and my mate never did serious damage. Joy riding was a fantastic thrill. When the most you’d ever done is drive a few hundred yards round the back of some flats in the family motor, jump-starting one that you’d broken into and whizzing it round the streets was terrific. We never went far in them, the owners would’ve got their car back in a day or two. All they had to do was replace the glass and fix the wires back in the ignition. We were kids, we were just messing about.’
He and his friend fell out a couple of times over money, but want of cash and hunger for excitement brought them back together again. When they left school Tom found a job as a trainee electrician and his adolescent spate of law breaking came to an end. He took driving lessons, saved up enough to buy his own car and lost touch with the boy he used to go stealing with. Gay pubs, clubs, and sex provided him with thrills of a different kind.
He had shown me photographs taken after he first started work, including images of him with his first boyfriend, a lad as thin as Darren who worked in a department store. Tom told his family he was gay and took the boy home several times, but after four or five months they split up. His parents and brother tried put pressure on him, saying that he was not really gay and would forget about men if he made a proper effort with a steady girlfriend. Dejected and mistrusting his own feelings, he followed their advice and found a girl whose company he enjoyed, but in bed he could perform only by imagining he was with a man. In a supermarket where he had gone alone one day an attractive man looked at him a few times as they passed in the aisles. He responded, they spoke and went back to the man’s flat. Holding a male body in his arms again made it obvious to him that with the girl he was merely pretending. He told her he had found someone else and escaped his family’s influence by moving out to a flat of his own.
For a while he indulged in a life of one-night stands. One of his pick-ups took him home to an enormous room packed with all sorts of goods: cameras, laptop computers, portable phones, records and stereo equipment. The property was stuffed into bags and suitcases, piled up on the floor and poking out from under the furniture. The explanation given, that all these goods had been bought cheap from car boot sales and charity shops for resale at a profit, was not convincing and Tom rightly assumed they were stolen. He saw the man again by chance; this time was with friends, in a gay pub in the West End. They were guarded in what they said initially, but more alcohol made them incautious and they soon revealed that they were all living outside the law – thieving, buying and selling stolen property, or supplying drugs.
Through them Tom met a car thief who was heterosexual but who used the group to help dispose of property he had stolen from cars. Tom told him about his schoolboy activities, was impressed by the man’s tales of stealing cars to order for wealthy villains, and fascinated to hear about new gadgets for overcoming the latest locks and alarms. He learned about falsifying documents, and of a garage workshop under a railway arch where number plates were changed, chassis numbers removed, and vehicles re-sprayed. Wiring houses seemed dull in comparison, and when the man invited him to go along one night to see him in action Tom could not resist. New cars might come with better locks and security devices than before, but inventive thieves quickly developed ways to overcome them.
‘But you didn’t go only the once?’
‘You get sucked into these things. Eventually I gave in my notice at work. That little crowd of thieves thought doing a regular job was pathetic, that slaving away day after day made you a loser. They were full of excuses for themselves. The truth was most of them didn’t have the mentality to hold down a job. Looking back the thing that attracted me was not that they lived by thieving, but that they were fun to go out with. If I’d stuck to having a drink and a laugh with them, no harm would have come out of it.’
‘Why didn’t you?’ I asked softly.
‘If you’ve developed a knack of some kind you like to make use of it, especially if you get a thrill out of doing it. There was one day we went out looking for a particular motor, and we found one in this pub car park, no surveillance, no one about. My mate asked me to try to open it, first one I’d tried since I was a kid. I was into it and driving away in about two minutes. The alarm went off, but the music in the pub was so loud they wouldn’t have heard it. The adrenaline was pumping, the old excitement was back. It was as though that motor wanted me to have it.’
A bragging edge had come into his voice, but hindsight reminded him of reality. ‘After I was nicked, the police talked about reducing the charges against me to “being an accessory” if I told them who we’d been supplying the cars to, but I couldn’t turn in people who’d trusted me. Anyway, my share from that first motor was more than I could earn in a month at work, even with maximum overtime. Things went on from there. What happens is once you start thieving you want to save all your energy and concentration for the next time you go out after a motor. A straight job gets in the way. How much more do you want to hear?’
‘I’m not sure. Was there anything particularly important? Any highlights?’
‘Highlights! Low lights and low life, more like. There was one that stood out, since you ask. Once we were looking for a Jaguar and spotted the right model being driven into a large car park near a shopping centre. Two attendants in a hut were collecting parking fees and raising and lowering the barriers as cars came in and out. I jumped out of the van, followed the driver of the Jaguar on foot into the shopping centre, and saw him join up with a group of people at a pub for lunch.
Meanwhile my mate parked the van in a street about half a mile away, found an old car nearby that was easy to steal and drove it into the car park, collecting a timed ticket on his way in. He joined me in the shopping centre, we checked that the owner of the Jaguar had sat down to his meal, and made sure there were no police or other security to worry about. We returned to the car park and my mate gave me the ticket he had collected when he parked the old car. Next, as a diversion, we set off two car alarms on the other side of the attendants’ hut to where the Jaguar was. My mate walked out of the car park and back to the van. While the attendants were still busy on the other side of the car park, I cracked the electronic code for the Jaguar’s locking system and got the car started. A few minutes later when one of the attendants returned to the hut I drove up to the barrier, showed the parking ticket, paid the fee and drove out.’
The exhilaration of exploits like this came to an end when he was caught with stolen property. When the demand from the garage for cars dried up, as it did from time to time, Tom and his partner resorted to taking goods from vehicles. They once raided a beauty spot in the Yorkshire Dales where ramblers parked before setting off on a popular country walk. Twenty or thirty cars stood on a wide grass verge, and left behind in them absent-mindedly or because the walkers decided they had too much to carry, were items of clothing, camping equipment, tools, maps, books, and in the boot of one car, a holdall full of erotic women’s underwear.
They sold off this loot to people who ran car boot stalls, friends of friends, anyone they thought they could trust, usually for about a tenth of what the items would have cost to buy new. Despite shifting all they could through their contacts and giving away or dumping unsaleable items, the volume of goods grew and grew until two lock-up garages they rented were cluttered with male and female clothing in all sizes, with luggage, stereos, records, a comprehensive collection of road atlases, and all sorts of junk.
His associate was caught in a BMW he stole from outside an empty office block in Ealing, unaware that it had been stolen four days earlier by another thief who abandoned it when he realised it was running out of petrol. Searching the flat where Tom’s associate lived, the police found an old receipt for rent for the two lock-up garages and decided to have a look at them. They found Tom packing a video camera, a dozen Ordnance Survey maps and several items of clothing into a holdall. They took him to the police station, questioned him and charged him.
‘You could have said you didn’t know where the stuff came from, that all you did was help to sell it second-hand.’
‘Who knows what he might have told them about me? The best thing you can do at the police station is to keep quiet. Looking back on it, lifting all that gear was a mistake. If they hadn’t found the lock-ups all they could have done him for was taking and driving away one motor. They wouldn’t have had nothing on me. The money we got for all that stuff was hardly anything, and finding buyers for it was a lot of hassle. Our real money came from the cars. All that bloody junk made it obvious how much thieving we’d been doing. They made it sound as bad as they could at the trial, said we were habitual criminals, had refused to co-operate with the police, made us out to be a couple of real villains. Basically that is the job of the prosecution isn’t it, to paint you as black as they can? We were guilty after all. We both got sent down. He came off worse because of previous convictions.’
‘Is he out yet?’
‘He must be out by now. He wrote to me once from prison. I wrote back, said I was working again and was going completely straight... permanently. Wished him all the best obviously. The one good thing to come out of the whole bloody mess was that the police brought Andrew to the station to see if he’d recognise either of us. His car had been stolen a couple of days earlier and he’d seen someone hanging around at Biddulph Mansions. We weren’t responsible, but Andrew did recognise me, we’d met a couple of times in the Beckford Arms. He asked the police about my trial and wrote to me in prison suggesting I got in touch with him when I came out if I needed any help. After all he did for me I wouldn’t ever do anything bent again. It would be like throwing it all back in his face. I wouldn’t want to anyway, it’s not part of my life that I’m proud of.’ He stopped and sat back in his chair.
‘Is there any more?’ I asked.
‘Details, if you want if you want to hear them. That friend of mine from school I told you about has been in loads of trouble since. I’ve told you how it was. You’re shocked, aren’t you?’
‘A bit. By how much and how long... No, that isn’t what I wanted to say. I’m glad you’ve told me. Thanks for making yourself go over it all again. What matters is that you’re here. I missed you, you know, really missed you.’ I went over to his side of the table, leant over him, stroked his head and kissed him, reassuring him that my feelings for him had not weakened.
Telling Andrew of my reconciliation with Tom when he next rang was so great a pleasure that, after putting down the ’phone, I was a little saddened by the thought that such intense feelings of happiness could not be sustained for ever. Not wanting to detract from the good news I said nothing about the mugging. A comment he made, that the spell in prison had completely demoralised Tom, did not affect my elation at the time, but remembering it later made me aware there was still one corner of Tom’s life he had kept from me. Eager still for complete disclosure of everything, I raised it the next time we were alone together. At first he tried to laugh the subject off by saying the trouble with Wormwood Scrubs was that it was full of villains, but I persisted: ‘Would you simply rather not talk about it?’
‘You might have something there. Prisons are places where all sorts of horrible things go on, Mark. You don’t want to hear about all that.’
‘Not if you find it too difficult to talk about.’
He looked at my expectant face and shook his head. ‘All right, if you must know, I was banged up on this wing with hundreds of men, two to a cell, with a lot more experience of being inside than I had. There’s all sorts in there, but not many you’d choose as friends. Don’t know why but for some reason this screw decided to give me a job mopping a landing and staircase. If you’re lucky you get rewarded with a little bit of money you can spend in the prison shop, extra underwear and socks, and a chance to take a shower when the bathroom’s not crowded. Little things, like being able to use the pay ’phone and buy tobacco, are really important in there, when all you’ve got day after day is the same faces, the same walls, the same horrible cheap food, your limited little routines week after week. A lot of the other cons don’t like it though, they think you’re collaborating with the screws doing a job like that, demeaning yourself, becoming part of the system, so you get snide little remarks from them as you pass by.
You have to put up with that, but there was a lot of drug dealing going on in the jail. I kept clear of it, but there was an evil bastard called Stomper. Stomper was his nickname, he had a reputation for using his boots on anyone who crossed him. To him ordinary cons like me were there to be used. First of all he tried to pressure me into having stuff brought in by a visitor, threatened to put me in the hospital wing otherwise. I faced him out. He threatened all sorts of things, planting stuff on me and tipping off the screws, having me beaten up, having someone with AIDS stab me with a hypodermic. He was determined to get something out of me, one way or another, probably more to show his own importance than anything else.
One day he cornered me in this quiet little area in front of the bedding store where there was no surveillance. He had one of his gang with him holding a broom handle sharpened at the end. They looked like a couple of overgrown school kids, pair of fucking twats. People like him are evil, they could do any sort of damage to you and walk away happy, whistling to themselves. He gave me three choices, have my eyes and god knows what gouged out with the fucking sawn-off broom handle, get him some drugs, or suck him off.
To some extent I felt it didn’t matter what happened to me any more, and part of me was shit scared. So I sucked him off. Three times he cornered me, the fucking cunt. Anything else you want to know?’
The intensity of his voice told how bitter these memories were. I gently patted his lips with two of my fingers, and lightly kissed the corners of his mouth. ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t have...’
‘Maybe I should have taken the beating. Humiliating myself like that.’
‘Whatever you did it would have been awful. At least you still have two eyes to see the world with. Did he know you were gay?’
‘It’s hard to keep secrets when you’re with other cons who are watching you twenty-four hours a day. They notice how you react when a big pair of boobs turns up on the TV. There’s such a close atmosphere in there. Everyone is looking for some way of scoring little advantages over everyone else, sometimes you get the impression people are talking about you, but maybe they’re not. They probably all thought of me as another small time con doing his bird, another loser. Trouble is if you cross someone like Stomper, you’re the one who’s going to end up worse off. He’s got too many people who owe him favours or are scared of him. If you want full remission you have to keep yourself away from trouble and put up with being treated like dirt.’
‘Sorry, I didn’t want to make you relive the worst moments of your life.’
‘You’re the only person I’ve ever told about Stomper. For a while I used to dream about tracking him down and causing him serious injury, but something like that will take over your life and ruin you if you let it. In the end the best thing to do is to force yourself to forget about it.’
His experience of the criminal ‘justice’ system appalled me. What right had a judge or magistrate at his trial to inflict punishment of that kind on him? Was being forced to have sex with a man like Stomper regarded as fair redress for the crime of stealing cars? If I had known him then, been to visit him in jail, and he had told me what was going on perhaps I could have done something to stop it, or more likely like Tom himself would have been powerless against a system governed by rules and customs that were strange to me.
What purpose had been served by delving into that awful time in his life? What we needed to do was to forget old miseries and think about future happiness. The hotel would soon have been open for business for a full year, and a party to celebrate would give us a positive event to plan for and look forward to.
When the boisterous Newcastle group who had come down to London last May rang to make another booking, the Saturday night of their stay seemed a good time to hold it. Their last visit might have ended awkwardly, but they had intended no harm, and with the six of them present a party would never be dull. Andrew, having at last decided he had spent enough time looking up family members in New Zealand, was due back. He would probably not want to stay to the end of the kind of party I had in mind, but was certain to enjoy getting together with all his friends for the first hour or so. His return journey was to begin with a flight to Thailand, not so much because of the country’s sexual enticements, but with the intention of visiting some of the famous temples.
The sort of party I wanted was one that would fill the house with clamour, a huge mêlée of people all talking energetically, drinking, dancing, attacking the food like a flock of starlings, flirting, acting the fool, and being found in dark corners in the embrace of someone they had met only half an hour before; the sort of gathering at which people forget who was drinking from which glass, mislay items of clothing, and when they want to leave have difficulty locating whoever they came with; the sort of Saturday night party from which it takes most of Sunday to recover.
Tom and Darren were keen, and we compiled an invitation list, including everyone working at Ferns and Foliage, friends from the Beckford Arms, and a few of Darren and Cheung’s friends from the club. Assuming that some of those invited would not come, but that others would bring a partner or a friend, we planned to cater for around fifty people. Coping with a hotel full of guests at the same time would have been difficult and I turned down further requests for bookings for that weekend.
Darren suggested making the Far East a theme for the evening, and Cheung offered to borrow Chinese lanterns and other decorations from his family and friends. A week before the party, he and Tom went off to the West End together and returned with a van full of coloured paper lanterns, decorative banners and film posters depicting martial arts stars flying through the air. Cheung also knew of a wholesaler where we could buy South-East Asian food and drink, and with his help we stocked the hotel freezers with satay, pancake rolls and stir-fries to enable us to provide everyone with hot food from the hotel kitchen. He took all three of us to a shop in Soho where we bought richly coloured silk shirts and trousers of lightweight cotton in a style that was fashionable in Hong Kong at the time.
On the Thursday we began to prepare the ground floor and basement, which would provide ample space for fifty or so guests to mix freely without being cramped. To avoid trouble developing behind locked doors and the risk of damage to the hotel rooms Tom constructed a temporary barrier at the top of the stairs to the first floor with an improvised chipboard door allowing only those with a key to reach the rooms above.
Unwanted chairs, tables and breakables were carried up to safety beyond this barrier, and the hotel lounge was cleared for dancing; a sound system for the evening was put together by combining some of Darren’s stereo equipment with some of mine, enabling him to switch seamlessly from one music track to another. An eight-foot long banner depicting a monstrous serpent-like dragon hung down into the hall from the bannisters at the top of the stairs. Four enormous waist-high pots with lids, decorated with an elaborate floral pattern in soft pink on a white background, stood in the hall, looking alarmingly fragile but actually fakes made of tough plastic, so light they could be picked up in one hand. Cheung took the lid off one, lifted it up to reveal that it had no bottom, put it over his head and pretended it was stuck. Darren, of course, had to follow his example, and the two of them staggered around calling, ‘Let me out! Let me out!’
The Newcastle visitors arrived on time on Friday afternoon, and as on their last visit created a rumpus in the hall by bolting for the table where the hotel register lay. They defaced a page and a half with comments such as: Open a whole year and still a virgin; I hope you’ve changed the sheets this time; and Full massage available in basement, cheap rates. In revenge, instead of showing them to their first floor-rooms I took them up to the second floor, stacked with furnishings from downstairs, and pretended they were to sleep there, only relenting after they began reorganising some of the clutter so they could get to the beds.
Later in a more sensible mood they asked how business was doing and about Darren, and one of the quietest of the group told me he had been offered a better job at his firm’s warehouse near Heathrow Airport and might be moving to London. He came down to the office while the others settled in upstairs wanting to talk about finding somewhere to live. I had a software package with detailed street maps and printed out some pages for areas near Heathrow, and accessed some internet sites advertising property for sale and to rent, showing him how much higher prices were in Chiswick and Richmond than in districts closer to the airport. He thought his employer would help with the cost of his move, but not with the cost of accommodation, and was worried that high prices would leave him worse off than he was in Newcastle. He was uncertain too about how he would fit in at the Heathrow warehouse.
I printed out several pages of property details for him, and for a few minutes we chatted about his firm. Then he said, ‘By the way, thanks for sending on to us that letter from the Chinese lad last year. I was the culprit who fobbed him off with a mini-cab firm’s telephone number. Bit of a mean trick, I admit. Can’t speak for the others, but with me it’s not just the sex. I really liked him. The others have been teasing me about it ever since. I would have written back to him if I’d known there was a prospect of me moving down here, but at the time there seemed no point in encouraging him. You can make your life a misery, pining away in Newcastle for someone who’s living down South. The others take the piss out of me for being too romantic. It is stupid, when you think about it.’
‘Don’t you have Chinese men in Newcastle?’
‘Yes, but none that are interested in me.’
‘When Cheung came to the hotel after your last visit I wasn’t sure who it was he wanted to get in touch with, but he was obviously smitten by one of you. He’s Darren’s boyfriend now, has been for quite a while.’
‘Missed my chance then.’
‘Seems like it.’
An e-mail from Southern France arrived with the disappointing information that Andrew, who the last time he rang had progressed as far as Tunisia, would not after all be back for the party. He was not a fan of e-mail, and must have persuaded someone at his hotel in France to send it for him.
On Saturday afternoon and evening we prepared the food, covered it, and laid it out in the dining room. We put out wine, spirits and cans of beer and cleared the few remaining furnishings from the lounge to make it ready for dancing. Breakables and my personal papers from downstairs were locked away or moved to the second floor for safety, making the basement rooms a quiet area for people to escape to or use as a route to the garden and fresh air.
Cheung took Darren off to visit one of his female cousins who made him look amazingly Chinese by dying his hair jet black and making up his face with mascara, eye shadow and gentle touches of colour. By seven o’clock everything in the hotel was ready and the four of us hung around in the kitchen waiting for the first guests to arrive. Fascinated by Darren’s changed appearance, Tom and I could not stop looking at him.
The Geordies came down wearing oriental-style straw hats in the shape of flattened cones, each of a different colour. This was a fairly minimal amount of fancy dress, but seeing all six of them together the effect was striking. When they saw Darren in his make-up, wearing his silk shirt, they could not resist the urge to touch him and he had to slip behind Tom and me to escape.
The first party guests came shortly after eight, and at around ten o’clock they were arriving in numbers. While Tom and I cooked the hot food, the Geordies, wanting to help, volunteered to answer the front door bell. Unfortunately they had not previously met most of the people on our list of guests and let everyone in. Tom and I tackled several little groups neither of us recognised who were helping themselves to food from the dining room, but the first lot claimed to be friends of Darren and Cheung from the club and the others said they had been invited by someone they knew at the Beckford Arms. The impression seemed to have gone around both places that everyone who turned up would be welcome.
A quick head count revealed that about seventy people were there, and more were arriving. To try to get the intruders to leave would probably have caused mayhem, and a lot of people had brought food or drink with them; rather than get into arguments about who had a valid invitation and who did not, we decided to do our best to cope with all comers.
The dining room, kitchen and lounge were soon congested and the din grew louder and louder as everyone competed to be heard over the voices of those around them. People standing in the hall were constantly being jostled this way and that by others who were passing through. We encouraged them to go downstairs where there was more space. By half past twelve more than a hundred people must have been present. Fortunately no more were arriving, and one or two who planned to be up the next morning had left. The food had all gone, and the manager of the garden centre volunteered to go to an all-night supermarket to buy more. Tom and I raided the hotel’s stocks of bacon and sausages, and when the bread, crisps and cheese from the supermarket arrived we put everything out on trays and were mobbed when we carried them through to the dining room.
On the ground floor the air had become heavy with a complex and suffocating odour, a mixture of cooking smells, sweat, deodorants, cigarette smoke and a hint of cannabis. Going into the lounge to open a window I saw that a couple of dancers had lowered two of the big imitation Chinese pots from the hall over their heads and shoulders. My guess was that a couple of Cheung and Darren’s friends from the club were playing this prank. Unable to see where they were going they were inevitably bumping into one another and into others on the dance floor. The decorative surface of the pots was almost certain to be scratched, but even if I had to pay for them the sight of two enormous rose-on-white pots dancing together was probably worth the money.
After opening the window I noticed Darren standing beside the stereo equipment looking intently through the dancers to the back of the room. Following his gaze I saw Cheung and the Geordie who was thinking of moving down to London wrapped around each other. Darren saw me looking and hurried from the room. I followed him into the hall, down the basement stairs and out into the garden. The air was cool and fresh after the pungent smells of the house. Breathing deeply I walked down the path looking for him. The flower borders and the grass of the lawn were easily visible in the lights of the side street, but I could not see him anywhere. A sweet smell of oranges was coming from the white flowers of one of the shrubs he had planted. An area at the side of the garage lay in deep shade; was he hiding from me there in the gloom, wanting to be left alone?
The tinkle of breaking glass made me look back towards the house. Someone leant out of the kitchen window to look at the broken fragments of a wine glass on the concrete below, then turned back inside. I made my way over to pick up the shards. As I was about to go in to get a dustpan and brush I heard Darren’s voice coming from above me on the metal fire escape. ‘I’m up here.’ He hurried down the steps. ‘Well, you saw.’
Not sure how to respond, I said: ‘I wanted a breath of air. The room was so stuffy.’
‘We both saw who Cheung was having sex with.’
‘They weren’t “having sex”.’
‘I don’t care. He can have all six of them, if that’s what he wants.’
‘Things aren’t as bad as that. Maybe it’s my fault. I thought the Geordies would help to liven up the party, I shouldn’t have let them book...’
‘What are you talking about? You accepting a booking from the Geordies is not the problem. If you’re serious about someone, you don’t abandon them when you’re out together because you see someone else you fancy, do you? He’s not serious about me. He’s never introduced me to his parents, not even as a friend. We see each other here or at the club, never on his home territory.’
‘He helped us with all the decorations for the party. He got his cousin to make up your face. You need to make allowances, you have to give it a chance to come good.’
‘“Give it a chance to come good”, you’re starting to talk like Tom. It’s up to Cheung, isn’t it? You saw in the lounge how much he thinks of me.’
‘What do you want?’
‘What I can’t have. Let’s go back inside. This is a celebration of the hotel’s first year, remember? Many happy returns. Sincerely, I’m not being ironic, many well deserved happy returns.’
‘Thanks. Shame that Andrew’s not here.’
‘He wouldn’t have stayed long, not with the place packed out and all the noise.’
When we re-entered the house there was no sign of Cheung or the Geordie. Darren and I joined the dancers, but his energy made me feel lumbering, and when a friend nearer his age from the Beckford Arms came over I left them to dance together. A little later Tom found me putting empty bottles into a rubbish sack in the kitchen, and putting an arm around my shoulders said, ‘Come on, you’re wanted in the dining room.’
‘No, but be ready for anything.’ We squeezed through the crush of people in the hall, and as we entered the room, which was dimly lit by a single table lamp, I was met by all six of the Geordies who were standing just inside the room. ‘Here you are at last, pet. We’ve a little treat for you.’
They switched the dining room lights full on. The remains of the food had been cleared away and the tables rearranged into a block in the centre. The party goers, rounded up by the Geordies, lined up in rows three deep at one side of the room, and when everyone had found a place two young men of about Darren’s age emerged from behind an improvised curtain at the far end, completely naked, each holding a roll of coloured paper. They began their performance by lodging the rolls of coloured paper between their buttocks and carefully setting light to the opposite ends with a cigarette lighter. Once the flames had caught they dropped the lighter and ran around the tables, flames and smoke trailing after them. They had to run fast enough to prevent the flames singing their flesh whilst maintaining a grip on the end of the roll of paper, but managed this feat without apparent difficulty. They laughed and called out to each other, ‘Help, my bum’s on fire.’
I was handed a bucket of water with which to chase after them, and I played my part as well as I could, splashing at their backs to put out the flames and occasionally flinging a few drops of water at people in the audience. The crowd cheered, whistled and shouted as cameras flashed all around us. After five or six circuits of the tables the boys slowed down, allowing me to catch them and extinguish the smouldering paper. We discarded the charred remnants and they embraced and caressed me, sandwiching me between them, while the audience clapped, whistled and called for an encore. Seeing Darren watching from the doorway, I broke away from them and pulled him into their embraces. After a few moments I waved Tom over, and we kissed and held each other, leaving the two boys with Darren.
After that climax the party slowly wound down. At half past three we began to ask people if they would like to share taxis home with other guests, and arranged cabs for those who did. Others took the hint that the time had come to leave, and by half past four less than a dozen determined revellers remained. We stopped the music. The garden centre manager volunteered to stay until the last of the hangers on departed, allowing Tom and me to go to bed, and we tiptoed up past the Geordies’ rooms to the second floor for a few hours’ sleep among the clutter of furniture, too exhausted to make love.
Two weeks after the party a letter arrived from France with the news that Andrew’s travels had been curtailed by another subarachnoid haemorrhage. He had been admitted to hospital in Montpelier and, following treatment, transferred to the Grand Hotel de Luzenac in the Pyrenees, one of those French spa establishments that is a mixture of hotel, nursing home and medical centre.
When, on my fourth attempt, the staff allowed me to speak to him by ’phone, in a frail voice he told me he was feeling much better but was not fit to travel. The hotel had a fine conservatory where he spent much of the day, and he said he would love to see us if there was any possibility of our getting away.
Arranging cover at the hotel for a few days was not too difficult, but flights to Toulouse were fully booked and we had to fly to Marseille, where we would have to hire a car to drive to the Grand Hotel de Luzenac.
After we landed, going through the airport checks and picking up the car took over an hour and a half. I drove us out of the airport, but Tom was soon keen to experience the novelty of driving on the right and going anti-clockwise around roundabouts and took over the driving.
Our plan was to break the journey with an overnight stay in Montpelier, and on the way passed vineyards and shallow expanses of water where pink flamingoes waded. When we arrived we found a regional trade fair in progress and most of the hotels were full. The Tourist Information Office eventually located a large room with three beds in a hotel three kilometres from the centre, and we let ourselves be persuaded that three of us sharing a hotel room for one night would not be too great a hardship.
After freshening up we drove the three kilometres back into town, parked the car in an underground car park and joined the crowd strolling around, absorbing the atmosphere of Montpellier’s busy streets and admiring attractive well-made goods in shop windows. We sat down for a drink at a café with a great block of tables spreading out into the main square. Smartly dressed people, strolling or hurrying, made their way across in all directions, and we slipped briefly into a holiday mood. Neither Tom nor I wanted to abstain from alcohol that evening and in order to have aperitifs and drink wine with our meal we drove back to the hotel to eat.
Madame made a fuss about us not having reserved a table for dinner, having said nothing about the need to do so when we took the room. When I shrugged and said we would go back into town her attitude changed immediately and she showed us to one of two unoccupied tables at the far end of the restaurant. Another table remained vacant all evening; she must have been one of those people who enjoys being difficult.
Our waiter was an elegant young Latin type. Darren was keen to try out his school French, and asked me to confirm that it was right to say c’était trés bon to him when he took our plates away after the starter. Subsequently he said merci beaucoup at every opportunity, and the waiter began smiling and paying him unnecessary attention. We all had cheese after the main course, and after having hurriedly served Tom and me, he took great trouble over serving Darren, saying a little about each of the half dozen different cheeses available. Darren could not understand him and I had to translate, but they continued to smile at each other, hardly noticing Tom or me.‘He’s gorgeous,’ Darren said when the waiter had finally served him. ‘Never mind “He’s gorgeous,” have you forgotten why we’re...?’ I stopped short because
Tom gripped my right leg forcibly just behind the knee, causing a sharp pain. ‘You be careful,’ he said to Darren softly. ‘We don’t want you catching no French diseases.’ ‘I’m not stupid.’
There were more meaningful little smiles when the waiter returned with coffee. Strong though it was, Darren downed his in two gulps and left us to go to look at a map of France on the wall near the restaurant door. After a minute or two our waiter went over to him and began pointing to places on the map, casually resting a hand on his shoulder. ‘That’s my boy,’ Tom said.
Andrew, not to sample the local talent.’
‘What about you leaving him with those two nude lads at the party?’
‘That was all part of their act. It didn’t lead to anything.’ ‘Let him have his chance. He ain’t
He was, of course, right. Darren must have been undergoing that torment of sexual frustration that comes from being suddenly deprived of a regular lover. He and the waiter arranged to meet after the restaurant closed at a café nearby called Le Sportif, and when he returned to the table to tell us where he was going all I could do was to repeat Tom’s advice to be careful, and to make sure he had enough money to pay for a couple of drinks.
Tom and I had beers in the hotel bar before going up to the room. After some rather uninspired sex, he fell asleep immediately, but I lay awake worrying about Darren. A couple of hours later he crept in and undressed, scarcely making a sound, while I pretended to be asleep. Over breakfast Tom was certain to ask him how he had got on, and I would sit there squirming with embarrassment, hoping Darren would answer as briefly and vaguely as possible, wanting to give him all kinds of advice about the dangers, muddle and disappointments of life, but having to keep my paternalistic thoughts to myself.
In the morning, to my relief, when Tom asked, ‘Get on all right last night?’ he answered ‘Okay,’ with a shy smile, and that was all that was said. After breakfast I telephoned the Grand Hotel de Luzenac to confirm that we were on our way. They left me holding the line for more than five minutes, then asked me to report to the medical reception desk at exactly two o’clock. Irritated at being required to keep to such a precise time I asked what would happen if we arrived on our visit after two, only to be told that we could visit at any time but an appointment had been made for us at two with a doctor who spoke very good English.
We drove through vineyards in hilly terrain for an hour, staying with the motorway which took us up towards the Pyrenees until we turned off near the town of Carcassonne to climb into the mountains. As we followed the directions given to me earlier, the territory looked increasingly unpopulated and remote, until suddenly the imposing facade of the Grand Hotel appeared as we swung round a steep bend, the road continuing up to Luzenac to the right. To the left of the hotel an energetic river rushed down a narrow gorge.
The doctor was mainly concerned that we should not try to persuade Andrew to travel back with us. She said that his last seizure had been severe, causing paralysis on his left side, and that although out of hospital he was still in need of special care. In time he might improve sufficiently to return to London, but given his age we should not expect too much. The best thing for the present was for him to stay where he was; they understood his medical needs and were able to call in specialists if they were needed.
At last we were shown into the salon, a large communal sitting room on the first floor, where Andrew was waiting for us. He sat in a wheel chair and looked terribly thin and fragile. A broad smile reassured us that the illness had not left him dispirited. He put out his hands towards us in greeting. ‘You all look so well! How good to see you!’
We went over to him, touched his hands, and kissed him very gently on his cheeks. Tom rather clumsily asked, ‘How are you Andrew?’
‘How am I?’ He paused, shook his head, and said, ‘I’m like an old wreck held together by lengths of thin twine. Not beaten yet though. How was the drive up here?’
He told us to help ourselves to soft drinks from a sideboard. Behind the hotel, in the extensive gardens, the river had been dammed and diverted to form pools for bathing. ‘After we’ve had our drinks perhaps we could take a walk,’ he suggested, ‘if you don’t mind pushing my chair. The native flora is interesting, you probably saw something of it from the car, and of course there is the river. The water has a high mineral content and is supposed to contain a special type of algae that cures skin diseases. Nothing that will do me any good, unfortunately. Having the conservatory and the gardens to sit in is the great benefit of this place for me.’
We showed him photographs from the party, and he asked us about his staff and friends from the Beckford Arms. We said nothing of Jamie or about me being mugged, and noticing that we avoided mentioning any problems he said doubtfully, ‘Wonderful how smoothly everything runs when I’m not there.’
‘There’s nothing that’s worth worrying you about, really. They miss you at the garden centre, naturally, but they’ve got used to me and my naivety about horticulture. They didn’t have much option. The garden centre manager was a bit resentful of my interference at first, but we’re friends now.’
After we had talked for perhaps an hour we all went outside for some air. I wheeled Andrew to the lift, through the conservatory, down a ramp and into the gardens. Tom and Darren went off to look at a tributary stream that tumbled over rocks down a gully under the road, leaving Andrew and me on the broad central path. ‘Sit down here for a while,’ he said as we approached a bench. ‘Let’s talk now we have a few minutes to ourselves.’
The gardens were quiet and deserted. ‘Do they still use these pools?’
‘Yes, they have two or three sessions a week when little groups come to immerse themselves in the water. You must tell me honestly now, how do you feel about the hotel? Are you sorry you left your career in the City?’
‘No, I never belonged there. If the hotel had not provided a way out, something else would. The only question was when and how.’
‘And you and Tom?’
‘We’re fine. We know the worst about each other now, and we’ve never been better.’
‘The relationship has survived, then, despite everything, you’re still a couple. Not having known that kind of closeness to someone is one of the things in life I regret. That and not having children maybe.’ He spoke softly, his eyes sharp and clear under his fine white hair.
‘You would have made a terrific father.’
‘Families are just the result of basic animal instinct, aren’t they, dressed up as some kind of morally sound purpose in life? Of all the family groups you’ve encountered, how many would you volunteer to join, assuming that you could? Not many, I’m sure. Better like this, with friends with whom you have things in common, not stuck with people you don’t get on with because you happen to be related. Tom was always so sure you were exactly what he wanted. I’m enormously glad that you’re together again.’
‘And he’s what I want. Our being so different is part of the attraction. Our personalities complement one another.’
‘Good. That’s how it should be.’
‘You must have felt drawn to him, to have helped him when he came out of prison.’
‘There’s a sort of honesty about Tom, despite the car thefts. He’s practical, suspicious of things that seem too clever or too good to be true. He sees the quality of the joinery when we’re admiring our own reflections in the gloss paint.’
‘Yes. Doesn’t stop him picking up other men from time to time though, does it?’ ‘Does that make you unhappy?’
‘No. It’s part of his nature. I don’t think about it. Actually I am a bit worried about Darren. You know he’s split up with Cheung. Last night he picked up the waiter in the hotel. I’m not saying he shouldn’t have, but...’
‘Difficult time for him, you’re right. Not sure what you or I can do about it though.’
‘He might listen to you.’
‘But what is there I can say? He’s grown up so much since I last saw him, not that many months ago, but he has grown up. It may have been selfish of me to get you to bring him here. This isn’t a place for someone of his age. I wanted to see him, once more. If you and Tom were able to come again that would be nice, but maybe choose a date when he’s otherwise engaged, sitting his exams or something.’
‘Of course we’ll come. What’s it like for you here? Can you talk to anyone?’
‘Oh I have a phrase book, and quite a few of the people speak some English, one or two are very good. We get by. I watch the gardeners from the conservatory and exchange the occasional word with them. There’s even a male nurse who flirts with me a little, at least, that’s what I like to think he’s doing. In one way my luck has held out, the holiday insurance is paying for all this. Everything I need is here. Take my advice, if your going to be ill, come to France. I’ve been lucky in life really – yes it would’ve been nice to see through another expansion of the business, but you have to let go at some stage. Remembering all the good people I’ve worked with at the garden centre and Ferns and Foliage gives me a lot of satisfaction, and for the future you and Tom will be there to steady things and keep the businesses running properly.’ He looked away from me, back towards the conservatory. ‘You know what I tell my fellow patients here when they brag about their relatives? I tell them I have good people in London to take over from me, that’s what I say to them.’
We talked about his travels until Darren and Tom joined us, when all four of us set off again down the path, Tom pushing Andrew this time, while Darren and I hung back to let them talk privately. At the end of the garden Tom and Andrew stopped to wait for us; when we caught up Darren produced his camera and had us pose for photographs, balancing it on a rock and using the time delay to take one with himself standing behind Andrew, and Tom and me at either side of his chair.
We took a more winding path back, and by the time we were approaching the conservatory Andrew was beginning to look tired. We passed a round pond with a raised stone edge where golden carp swam among water lilies. ‘This is one of the places I like to sit during the afternoons, here or in the conservatory, depending on the weather. There’s a little patch of waste ground over there covered in wild flowers that I’d like to show Darren, if you wouldn’t mind waiting for us for a few minutes in the salon on the first floor.’
Tom and I did as he asked. In the salon we watched a nurse help an old lady with a stick make her way very slowly, careful step by careful step, to a chair by a window. We had spent little more than two hours with Andrew, but we sensed that our intrusion into the quiet closed world of the Grand Hotel de Luzenac was drawing to an end. The major purpose of the place was obvious. The reason we had seen so few of the patients was that frailty kept them to their rooms. No doubt, as Andrew had said, a few people came in the belief that the waters had curative powers, and a few perhaps came for a period of convalescence, but when the time for the majority of patients to leave the establishment came, they would not be going because their health had been restored.
Tom and I went to the window at the other end of the room and looked out over the roof of the conservatory. Darren was wheeling Andrew back from the patch of wild flowers, and they stopped near the pond. He positioned Andrew’s chair so that when he sat on the stone edge they faced each other. They talked, unaware of us looking down on them. Tom put an arm across my shoulders and pulled me closer. In the garden below us Andrew was saying goodbye to his protégé for the last time.