Andrew’s ‘blackout’ had been caused by a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a leakage of blood from one of the small arteries which supply the brain. He had been helping to lift a large container of plants at Ferns and Foliage when he collapsed. The garden centre’s manager was summoned and, unable to bring him back to consciousness, called an ambulance. Andrew had come round to some extent by the time the ambulance arrived, but was dazed and unable to stand, and was taken into hospital for tests and observation.
On Saturday morning Tom took him a few personal things from Biddulph Mansions and some business papers, while I spent the morning in Chiswick looking after domestic essentials. In the late afternoon I went to the hospital, finding my way to Andrew’s ward under the many signs for medical departments such as paediatrics and haematology. I looked nervously at the beds on either side in the open part of the ward but could not spot him and began to wonder if he had been moved; then I found him in a partitioned corner at the far end where he had a little more privacy than most. He looked weak and vulnerable, but showed no other signs of illness or injury. Hearing my deliberate cough he looked up, and after saying hello made me smile at my own awkwardness by asking me how I was.
‘Sorry, I’m not used to these places. Tom told me a bit about what happened – you had a blackout.’
‘They’ve diagnosed a subarachnoid haemorrhage. I had one before, a couple of years ago. A small blood vessel here,’ he pointed to the back of his head, ‘has burst. It’s not something that’s associated with age particularly, they’re puzzled by it. Bring that chair over. Sit down.’ His eyes were clear but he was slurring his words slightly.
‘Are they looking after you in here?’
‘I think so. They’re busy all the time, but no doubt they give me as much attention as my case requires.’
Two hospital consultants had talked to him about the possibility of an operation to close off the small artery which had haemorrhaged. They were waiting for test results before deciding whether to go ahead. ‘Perhaps my age will make them decide against it. Take my advice, Mark, never be ill. Tell me, how is everything? You look tired.’
‘Tough day at work yesterday.’ This was hardly the time to tell him my troubles. On his bedside table was a card with the message Hope You Are Feeling Better Soon, and beside it a small amber bottle with a fancy label. ‘You’ve had a card already.’
‘Yes, have a look.’
The picture showed a thatched cottage with a front garden full of flowers, a little over cute, and inside written with a green felt tip pen was the message: Rub in a little of the sandalwood oil from time to time and think of me - or someone better!
‘The bottle came with it?’
‘Aromatherapy oil. Smell it.’
I carefully unscrewed the cap and sniffed the contents. ‘That is nice, a lovely smell. I’m afraid I haven’t brought anything. Who sent you this? A secret lover?’
‘If only. You’re not so very far out though – why shouldn’t you know. I’ve had a regular weekly appointment with a masseur for quite a while. He does offer aromatherapy, but my motives for seeing him were rather more basic. Don’t look so shocked.’
‘I wasn’t. Surprised, that’s all, you’ve never mentioned him.’
‘Perhaps not, but I wasn’t intending to make a secret of it. Paying for sex... but what are the options, at my age, if you still have the urge? Any sort of outlet, let alone a relationship, involves time, effort, and money. The arrangement was honest and straightforward, more so than a lot of supposedly respectable marriages are. It suited us both, there was mutual respect. I rang him to say that I would miss this week’s appointment and that the illness was likely to prevent me seeing him for some time. So he came to visit and brought the card and the bottle of oil. Tell me what’s wrong with that.’
‘Nothing. You assume I’m prudish. I’m not. I’ve done things I wouldn’t boast about, far more dubious than going to a masseur. What counts is how you thought of each other. Such a nice gift, he must like you a lot. Have you tried the oil?’
‘No, you’re supposed to dilute it. Bit awkward in here.’
I put the card and phial back on the cabinet. ‘Is there anything you want me to do at Ferns and Foliage?’
‘You’re busy already. My staff will cope, they’ll probably do better with me out of the way. Perhaps one thing, if you can find the time.’
‘As a precaution, could you get a form from the bank so that you can become one of the signatories for cheques? Be an idea to make Tom one too.’
‘You’re beginning to worry me now.’
‘I’m not in any danger, no more than we all are, but we have to be sensible. Cheques require two signatures. At the moment there’s me, the garden centre manager, and the chap who keeps an eye on the flats for me and helps me with paperwork. Another couple of signatories will make sure we’re not caught out. If you don’t mind doing it, that is. I shouldn’t ask; you’re under pressure at work already.’
‘I’m honoured to be asked. What’s the best way of arranging it? If you gave the bank a ring on Monday to let them know, I could pick the form up on Tuesday lunchtime and we can sort out the signatures in the evening. You’re sure there’s nothing else?’
‘No, Tom gets me everything I need, don’t you worry.’ He smiled and pushed himself a little higher onto the pillows. Only fifteen minutes had passed and already we seemed to have run out of conversation. Unable to think of something better I said, ‘This is quite a novel experience for me. I’ve only been into hospitals two or three times in my whole life.’
‘You’ve never been seriously ill? You’re lucky. Another advantage in life?’ He sometimes liked to remind me that, whilst he had been born into a poor family, my circumstances had cushioned me from hardship.
‘No. Sprained my ankle once, but they didn’t keep me in. Other than that, been to visit someone in hospital a couple of times.’ To make my good health seem less exceptional I added, ‘Tom has never been seriously ill either.’
‘Your parents, you mentioned a car crash...?’
‘My sister and I were taken to the hospital, but they’d been killed outright; they had no need for visitors.’
‘I’m sorry, don’t mean to...’
‘It was so long ago. I was still at school at the time, studying A-levels. An aunt and uncle on my mother’s side took us in. They did their best for us, but they had a child of their own. We had a miserable couple of years. You can imagine how we felt. Their little girl put up with us and we put up with her, treading carefully all the time, avoiding arguments, being artificially nice to each other. I suppose she didn’t want us in her house any more than we wanted to be there. The alternative, had they not taken us in, would probably have been a children’s home of some kind, so we had reason to be grateful.’
‘But not like being with your own Mum and Dad. Quite a setback at the age of what – seventeen?’
‘Fortunately money wasn’t a problem. My father worked for an insurance company and had taken out maximum cover. They were tough times for us even so; my life has not been all ice cream and expensive toys. I don’t think I stopped feeling miserable until I went to university. In a way life started for me again there.’ Andrew was looking towards me, but although his eyes were fully open they seemed unfocused, giving the impression that he was no longer listening but engaged on some other theme or memory of his own. ‘Sorry, I must have told you all this before.’
For about a minute he did not move, as though he had forgotten I was sitting by his bed. He returned from his reverie and said, ‘You did tell me once before that you lost your parents in a car accident. Must have been very hard. Unhappy memories – not always a good thing to go back over them.’
This was the wrong time for me to be talking about a fatal accident. ‘That one disaster apart I have to own up to a good start in life, middle-class parents, no major accidents or major illnesses. Although actually I did have a bump in the car yesterday.’
‘In that priceless Mercedes? Was anyone hurt?’
‘No, a stupid low speed collision. My fault.’
The clinking of cutlery and crockery at the other end of the ward told us that food was on the way. ‘I’d better go. Sounds like supper.’
‘Don’t let that worry you. You may get a cup of tea if you’re lucky, although I can’t promise it, they watch the pennies on food. I’ve never taken out private health cover. I suppose that firm of yours has fixed something up for you.’
‘Well... yes. You might be able to get a private room here, the charge may not be all that much.’ The smell of onions and gravy drifted into the cubicle. ‘What were we talking about?’
‘The accident – the collision. The other driver was all right?’
I mistakenly assumed he was asking about my parents’ accident, not my bump in the Mercedes. ‘Cuts and bruises. That was what seemed so terribly unfair, he killed my mother and father and got away with minor injuries.’
‘Ah – I meant your collision yesterday.’
‘Oh that, sorry. No, a bit of damage to the cars, not much.’
‘You never told me your parents’ accident had been so... traumatic.’
Desirable as a subject or not, my parents’ deaths had cropped up again. ‘Yes, it got on the front page of the local paper. A stolen car with the police in chase went through a set of red lights straight into them. My parents’ car was pushed off the road, bounced down an embankment, turned over, and smashed into a garden wall. The bodywork was mangled. We were told they wouldn’t have suffered. The car thief who killed them is probably out of jail by now, the bastard.’
When I looked back at Andrew his eyes were wide open and he was staring up at the ceiling. ‘Sorry Andrew, are you OK? Shouldn’t have been talking to you about all that, not here.’ He continued gazing fixedly upwards. ‘Andrew, Andrew,’ I said more loudly, worried that he might be having another attack. He seemed not to hear me, and in a panic I hurried over to the auxiliary nurse who had brought supper. She scurried away to the office at the other end of the ward to seek help.
A stocky nursing sister came out to examine Andrew, her white tunic stretching over her substantial bosom. She leant over the side of the bed, her chest pressing down on the bedspread. In a high pitched coquettish voice she asked: ‘And how are you feeling now my darling?’
His lips moved slightly as he whispered something to her. She took his pulse, concentrating on her watch for the required minute, then released his wrist. ‘Food is on its way. Try and manage some, even if you are tired.’ She looked up at me and said, ‘Shall I leave you to say your goodbyes?’
Hastily doing as she suggested I followed her down the ward until she stopped at the door of the office. ‘Will he be all right?’
‘He seems a bit tense; he’s had several visitors today, probably been very tiring for him.’
‘Something seemed to happen, he was all right, we were talking normally... then he seemed much worse.’
‘Ups and downs, you have to expect it. We are checking him every half hour for observation, so we will know if anything is wrong. His pulse was a little bit fast, that’s all. I expect the last time you saw him he was fit and active. Sometimes simply being in a hospital bed makes people seem very poorly. Bit of a shock for you seeing him like that?’
‘Yes, that may be it.’
‘Maybe do you good to have a cup of tea or something. There is a visitors’ refreshment room on the ground floor. Are you a relative?’
‘No, a friend, the family is not close.’
‘How long will it take you to reach home?’
‘An hour perhaps.’
‘If you like you can ring to ask how he is when you get back. There’s no need, as I say, we are checking him every half hour, but ring up and ask for me if you’re still worried about him.’
Tom and I went to the hospital together the next day. In contrast to me he was relaxed and talked easily with Andrew about his friends and staff at Ferns and Foliage. He teased him about being examined by attractive young doctors and being lifted out of bed by muscular male nurses. The place seemed to stifle my ability to make conversation. Andrew asked Tom to put off whatever work he had planned for the coming week to run errands for him, bringing him paperwork and doing miscellaneous jobs for Ferns and Foliage.
Towards the end of his week in hospital for observation he was conducting business from his bed using a mobile ’phone. He was forced to stop when the senior consultant recommended surgery, and booked the operation for the next day. Arrangements were made for him to recuperate in a nursing home near Eastbourne in the hope that getting him away from London would force him to rest, but after a couple of days he had Tom driving up and down to the south coast with correspondence and was ringing his staff several times a day with queries and to ask for progress reports.
At Ferns and Foliage the manager, whilst knowledgeable and competent, insisted on sticking rigidly to his contracted hours. Except for essential cover for sick absences and unforeseen crises, Andrew disliked paying overtime, believing that bonuses based on profits were the best way of rewarding staff for good work and flexibility, whereas regular overtime encouraged people to work slowly and take unnecessary time off sick. He was worried that the manager would use his absence to change working practices, and persuaded me to go in a couple of times a week on the excuse that he wanted me to ensure the paperwork was well maintained and check on stock levels.
The manager knew about the new arrangements for signing cheques and understandably resented my interference. He occasionally made mildly critical remarks, for instance when I rather stupidly asked why it was necessary to stock a dozen different types of fertilizer, he said contemptuously, ‘Your trouble is you don’t know your chrysanthemums from your dahlias.’ The criticism was largely justified, and for him to voice his irritation was better than letting it fester into a grudge. Even Tom knew more about plants and the uses of the various packets and bottles of stuff on the shelves than I, and sensibly explained that whether so many different types of fertilizer were necessary did not matter much; the garden centre, like shops of all kinds, stocked whatever would sell.
Andrew’s illness, or rather the lack of his company, exposed a weakness in our relationship. From my very first visit to the Beckford Arms, Andrew and I had been the great talkers, discussing everything from the price of crisps to the dangers of global climatic change, while Tom put in a few comments here and there. Since Andrew no longer came to the pub regularly Tom and I were spending more time on our own together. Some of his habits of speech began to irk me: his use of ‘ain’t’ instead of ‘haven’t’, usually followed with another negative as in ‘ain’t got no time for them’ or ‘ain’t never been there’; his ‘going for a quiet drink’ in the Beckford Arms even though the pub was often noisy and overcrowded; and the way he called his clients ‘gov’ on the ’phone as though trying to ingratiate himself by being obsequious.
When he wanted he could be surprisingly articulate. In the early days when we were getting to know each other he told me about his childhood, for instance how he, his brother and a couple of friends used to play at tying each other up with bits of rope they found in an uncle’s garage. They would take it in turns to be the ‘captive’, submit to being tied up and left for five minutes alone in the pitch dark to try to struggle free, sometimes succeeding before the others came to release them, sometimes not. Their escapades sounded imaginative and exciting compared to the games my sister and I used to play in the back garden, never far from parental eyes.
Telling one another the interesting bits from our past lives could not sustain conversation between us forever, and new topics became harder and harder to find. We shared our friendship with Andrew, our visits to the swimming pool, and the sexual side of our relationship, but had little else in common. Looking back, that we should have made the effort to find new interests we could enjoy together is obvious, but what happened was if nobody came over to talk to us in the Beckford Arms we would more often than not run out of things to say. When we were apart I often thought of him with affection, but much the same was true of Andrew, and at times it seemed to me that my sexual relationship with Tom and my friendship with Andrew were not separate things but a sort of combined ‘affair’, the physical part of it being with Tom and the meeting of minds being with Andrew.
After he returned from convalescence Andrew worked much as before on weekdays, and we resumed our practice of meeting for dinner on Sundays, all three of us taking our turn to be host, but he rarely joined us in the Beckford Arms. Most evenings in the pub other regulars chatted to Tom and me and helped prevent too many long silences, but in Andrew’s absence the time often seemed to pass very slowly. Annoyingly, if Tom fancied someone new who turned up in the bar he would unashamedly liven up. ‘Look at that one,’ he would say admiringly, pointedly lusting after another man in front of me. What might go on when we were apart did not bother me. Going into the homes of gay men to do work, and living so conveniently near the Beckford Arms, he must have had many opportunities for casual sex. Having him as my boyfriend left me with no hunger for anyone else, but it would not have been a great surprise to me if he did not feel the same and picked up someone now and again. Monogamy is not common among gay men, and attempts to force anyone into it are bound to fail. Tom was not foolhardy, and if he was having casual sex would take precautions. If he occasionally went with someone for fun, the less I knew about it the better.
On a Friday night a few weeks after Andrew’s return from Eastbourne the entire gay population of London seemed to have invaded the Beckford Arms. When we arrived all the tables were occupied and the crowd at the bar was four deep. The barman explained while serving us that another gay pub a couple of miles away had closed for refurbishment.
The din of music and conversation was so great that we had to shout to be heard. Even to stand in one place was impossible, as we were constantly jostled by other customers fighting their way to the bar or the toilets. Hot and uncomfortable, I was about to suggest we finish our drinks quickly and leave when a black man I had never seen before shoved himself between Tom and me, confidently put an arm around him and kissed him full on the lips. Tom pulled away, shook his head and said, ‘This is not a good time.’ The man looked round at me, then back at Tom who half nodded, and went off to the other end of the pub.I turned to face Tom, waiting for an explanation.
‘What can I say? You saw what you saw. It wasn’t anything. Let it go, Mark, something made me go for it that one time, maybe I shouldn’t have but I did. The thing was a one-off.’
‘A handsome man. How long has this been going on?’
‘There’s nothing going on. That once, I admit to; let’s say I made a mistake. He would have to turn up here. I sort of let myself fall for it the once, wasn’t like we even spent a night together.’
‘You expect me to believe that?’
‘Because it’s true. If something is true, you should believe it. Give me a chance.’
The intense rush of anger and jealousy made me want to march out of the pub without another word and go back alone to Chiswick, but to give way to this surge of emotion might damage our relationship permanently. Given a little time my feelings would moderate. Then, after thinking calmly, I would decide what to do. If this incident, and all the other trivial annoyances and disappointments of the past, outweighed my positive feelings, clearly the time had come to bring our affair to an end. We stood silently in the congested bar avoiding each other’s eyes. A friend came over to chat, unaware or pretending to be unaware that anything was wrong.
When the pub closed we went back to Tom’s flat and climbed into bed together, knowing the sex would be spoiled by my restrained anger and his guilt. For the rest of the weekend we were polite towards one another but far from happy, avoiding a row but not really wanting each other’s company. At dinner on Sunday we tried to appear friendly to avoid embarrassing Andrew, and somehow maintaining the semblance of normality completely neutralised my feelings of resentment. The incident had confirmed my suspicions about Tom having casual encounters, but nothing important between us had changed.
Ironically since he was at fault, the incident led him to decide to break off with me. A few days later, when I hoped that we would be able to put the tiff behind us, he told me a friend had persuaded him to go up to Manchester to work on the construction of a new shopping centre. Top rates of pay were on offer because the project was behind schedule. Guessing that this was an excuse to finish the relationship, and hoping to make him tell me so unambiguously I asked directly, ‘Are you going because of what happened in the pub on Friday night?’
‘No, it ain’t that. This is my chance to make some real money. With some savings behind me maybe I could be somebody, build up a business for myself even.’
‘Will you be back at weekends?’
‘Sundays is when they pay the best overtime rates. There should be a good few weeks’ work up there. Won’t know exactly until I get there.’
If not goodbye forever, it was goodbye for an indefinite period. ‘When are you going?’
‘Probably go up tomorrow. Might as well get started.’
Although we brought each other to perfunctory orgasm in bed that night, we gave each other little pleasure. Two days later I tried his portable ’phone number, but one of Andrew’s staff at the garden centre answered. Tom had used that ’phone since we first met, but now had left it behind because it belonged to Ferns and Foliage. He had denied me even the pleasure of wishing him well and saying that if we bumped into each other we should say hello and be friends.
Andrew invited me to a restaurant for dinner the following Saturday, saving me the misery of not knowing what to do on my first Saturday night without Tom for over a year. He told me that Tom had travelled up to Manchester by train, had kept on the flat above the garden centre, but he had heard nothing more from him.
The next weekend I went to visit my sister and stayed overnight. Of my previous social life, prior to my affair with Tom, there was little to go back to. Old friends had, not surprisingly, found others to have meals with or go with to concerts or the theatre, and I reconciled myself to being on my own much more. In gay pubs and clubs picking anyone up somehow proved impossible for me, and my expeditions ended, however late the hour, with my return to Chiswick alone.
My friendship with Andrew survived; he and I occasionally went together to see a film or a play, and we continued to have Sunday dinners together. Neither of us mentioned Tom.
Some time ago he had talked about everyone’s life having ‘compartments’, for instance home and work being largely separate, and that division being a good thing because if events in one compartment went badly wrong one could still be happier in the others. Yet despite the fat salary, the high-flown job title and the Mercedes, aside from my friendship with Lizetta, work at Lindler & Haliburton gave me little satisfaction. The technical role, which had engaged my mind with system innovations and new user demands, was largely behind me and my days were now mainly taken up with trying to match budgets and expenditure, with staff issues, endless paperwork and interminable meetings. An unsettling prospect loomed ahead: that my career would end the way my old boss’s had, and after decades of resentment I would take early retirement, thankful to escape the pressures of the job and the patronizing attitudes of the partners, to be replaced by someone younger, keener, and more up to date.
A family man, assuring himself that such a sacrifice at work was worthwhile for the benefit of his offspring, could perhaps accept life on these terms, but for a gay man – childless – it would lead to a growing sense of dissatisfaction, of having expended all those years to gain material wealth but no happiness. Were not the newspapers endlessly running stories of rich show business stars and heirs to fortunes driven, despite their money, to self-destruction?
If I was no longer with Lindler & Haliburton for money and the conceit of working for an established City firm, then what was I there for? What were the rich rewards for? To keep me miserably alive? And the more the years crept by and my abilities were worn away in the firm’s service, the harder it would be for me to switch to something new.
The daily onslaught at work prevented me from brooding, but the true nature of the change from being half of a couple to being what might optimistically be called unattached or available became clear within a week. The word desperate might be a better one for my state of mind. Tom, evidently, had tired of me, but my notions before his departure that I might be tiring of him had been delusions.
At Lindler & Haliburton a myriad of technical and staffing issues filled my days and left me tired in the evening and at weekends. Peter’s absence in the US made work more predictable, probably less stressful, but less interesting too. He was anxious to keep up with office politics and retain as much influence in the firm as possible, and we exchanged e-mails every couple of weeks.
He flew back to London for the quarterly meetings, and on the first of these return visits invited Lizetta and me for lunch. Caroline and Vincent, a new client he had recruited at the last Hotel and Catering Exhibition where the firm now had a small stand, joined us at the restaurant. At first Vincent’s presence puzzled me, business lunches with clients usually being separate events from social meals with colleagues or friends. Momentary but very expressive eye contact between him and Lizetta after we had ordered our meal revealed that to her he was more than a business client with us to be entertained. He was not a handsome man, balding and a bit overweight, but he had a warm friendly smile and an easy confident manner.
Later, when we were on our own, she pretended that their affair was my responsibility, saying that they would never have met had I not encouraged Peter to involve the firm in the Exhibitions. They lunched together a couple of times and arranged to meet for dinner a couple of weeks later, and after it she took him back to her flat. He ran a management consultancy specialising in work for the tourist industry and was married, but not – according to Lizetta – happily.
Caroline, wearing a charcoal business suit tailored perfectly to her figure, sat next to me on my right. Events at the Hotel des Amis, now over a year ago, were clearly forgotten. After the first course she took my hand in hers for a few moments and said she thought it was unfair that so many good-looking men were gay, blatantly teasing Peter by making up to me in front of him. Pleased to be able to make a fresh start with her I made ambiguous comments about not wanting to be stereotyped and saying that, like a lot of gay men, I found some women very attractive. For a while Peter ignored us.
As usual he dominated the conversation. He pressed Lizetta for information about the old codgers and whether any of them was planning retirement. He had heard that one of them was going to hospital every week for outpatient treatment. ‘Anything serious?’ he enquired, obviously hoping that it was.
‘That’s not for me to say, or for you to ask,’ Lizetta answered.
‘Oh come on, what’s ailing him? Gout, heart condition?’
‘None of those things.’
‘What is it then? Bladder?’
‘You won’t get anything out of me. You may as well drop the subject.’
‘We’ve eliminated a few things. What’s left? Cancer? Come on, we’re all dying to hear the
‘Bah! All right, let’s hear from one of you then. Mark, sitting there flirting with my wife, what’s happening to you in that fast moving high-tech world of yours?’
‘For some unknown reason the IT Unit’s work has been remarkably stable for the past month or two,’ I said, daring to hint that his absence might be the cause.
‘You sure? In the States change, not stability, is normal. Except for the very biggest partnerships which have their own IT consultancy arms, the middle-rankers are shutting down their own IT Units and contracting the work out. Could be the new trend, saves employing a gang of expensive technical experts who claim they have to be there for reasons nobody else understands. If it’s happening in the States, won’t be long befo