Luigi woke first. Cody was lying facing away from him. Carefully, so as not to wake the other man, he slipped out from under the covers. As he lifted them off Cody’s body he caught sight of the small square of flesh cut from the other man’s buttocks. His heart ached inside him. It was clear and visible evidence of how much Cody had suffered. Luigi had understood—he had thought that he understood—what Cody had gone through. But understanding another’s pain always involves the imagination. We have to somehow get inside the other person’s head. For the first time, seeing the physical evidence of the horrors Cody had endured, he really grasped just how horrible it must have been.
Luigi only realised he was weeping when he felt the tickle of tears on his cheek. And it came to him all at once that he might fail; that Cody was too damaged in his heart and soul to recover, to love again properly, to ever again be happy.
Fuck that! he thought, suddenly furious. He would do his fucking best. And he would use Keith and Jason as well. Cody would be surrounded with love. He, Luigi d’Alardino, would fight. And he would win. He thought then of his grandmother and knew she would also be an ally. He was not alone. And Cody wasn’t alone either.
He went through nude into the kitchen and put on the kettle. Tea. And food. They always helped.
Normally, Luigi preferred coffee, but if he drank coffee it had to be of the best. And he couldn’t make it as well as the cafés on the street. Tea was different. Too many cafés used tea-bags instead of leaf tea, and he could make tea with tea-bags just as well and more cheaply at home. And, anyway, he knew Cody preferred tea. He took the mugs of tea and a plate of toast with butter through to the bedroom, and set it down on the bedside table.
Cody was still sleeping. He kissed him on his shoulder.
“Tea?” he asked.
Cody rolled over to face him and opened sleep-drugged eyes. For an instant fear filled his eyes and then he relaxed. He smiled.
“There’s hot buttered toast, too.”
“My favourite,” murmured Cody, stretching and yawning at the same time.
Luigi climbed into bed again. It was chilly. Winter was on the way.
After they had sipped their tea and eaten the toast, Cody said, “You know what’s wrong with eating toast in bed?”
“Nothing?” suggested Luigi, moulding himself more closely to Cody’s body.
“Crumbs,” disagreed Cody. “They go everywhere.”
“I’m sure I can lick you clean,” offered Luigi, his eyes shining black.
“Insatiable!” Luigi could see that Cody was making a determined effort to be happy, and he felt again melancholic. He’d been through enough depression himself, and he knew how often one could rise out of the swamp only to be sucked back again. It struck him that he had so often wished for Cody to return, and now he had, yet he still wasn’t happy, for new problems had arisen.
Trying not to show his sadness, he pulled Cody closer. They would worry about tomorrow when tomorrow arrived.
Jason closed the door after Cody and Luigi had left.
“When have you got to go to work tonight, Key?”
“I start at one pm, today. Tom said I could start later if I wanted, to spend some toime with you. But I knaow he naids my work. He hasn’t got anybody else.”
“He’s a nice bloke. His bark is worse that his bite.”
“Yeah. He a top blaoke.” Keith met Jason’s eyes and didn’t look away.
Jason took Keith’s hand in his. “I don’t mind that you love him or that you fuck,” he said softly.
“I know,” answered Keith, his brown eyes warm with love and affection.
Jason leaned in and kissed him on his cheek. As he was doing it, over Jason’s shoulder Keith saw Lucasta come round the corner from the kitchen. He startled, but Lucasta just smiled and swept off round the next corner.
Jason felt Keith tense, and looked round just in time to see his grandmother disappear.
“That’ll teach you,” he grinned, lightly punching Keith’s shoulder. “You perve!”
“You kissed me! Will she …. Will it be a problem?”
“No. She’s grand in more than one way.”
“Good!” And Keith pulled Jason into a tight embrace and kissed him.
And so, when Lucasta came out of the toilet on her way back to the sunny veranda, she was treated to the sight of two young men kissing.
So intense young love it’s good that Jason has found somebody— somebodies—to love but I wonder whether it will all last it did with Harold and me despite the secretary poor creature I was the one who kept him in the end until the end but how will these young men sort out their affairs so complicated all these alliances but I do think Jason looks happier that he did before he left England poor dear boy.
“So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Maybe go to the Healesville sanctuary wildlife park. Grandam hasn’t seen kangaroos.”
“Or platypuses. They have a huge pond with glass walls so you can see them swimming underwater.”
“Do you know how to get there?”
“No, but I ‘spect Eleanor does. But maybe grandam is still too tired for an outing.”
“Well, you could drive to the Dandenongs. They’re before Healesville, and they’re beautiful. ‘Specially at this time of the year.”
“I’ll talk to them. See what they suggest. Will you need me at the pub tonight?”
“It would be handy between 9 and 11. You knaow how busy it gets then.”
“OK. I’ll see you at nine.”
“Noine it is.”
He kissed Jason again, with tongue. They drew apart, both of them aroused. They simultaneously grinned in sheer delight.
“And of course, you’ll come back here afterwards.” Jason’s eyes glinted.
“Naow. I think I’ll laive ya to stew!”
“A sadist as well as a perve,” mocked Jason.
“That’s me,” agreed Keith placidly and went off to say goodbye to Lucasta and Eleanor.
Lucasta and Eleanor agreed that a visit to the Healesville Animal Sanctuary would be interesting.
“Are you over your jetlag, grandam?”
“Such an interesting thing as if your soul is left behind no wonder primitive people mistrust lifts and cameras though the earth travels through space much faster than a jet doesn’t it and yet we don’t feel jetlagged but maybe we have a bond to the place we are like that Dr Thingumtight with his rituals and bright green turban so unflattering to his skin colour though lovely on an Indian or African I saw a few like that in Malaya lovely.”
“Is that a yes, grandam?” asked Jason, smiling slyly.
“Oh well yes of course I had such a lovely sleep and now I feel almost young again so nice but I want to write a letter to Parker though when she’ll get it is another question as she’s gone down to Cornwall with Mr Minim and I know it’s silly but I do worry about spring gales but I can write later so why not what fun.”
“The Domaine Chandon estate is on the way. Perhaps we can have lunch there,” suggested Eleanor placidly. “I’ll book, shall I?”
It was a perfect sunny autumn day, not too hot, with the trees in the countryside on the way to Healesville just beginning to turn, and leaves strewing the dry late summer grasses with splashes of colour.
Jason and his grandmother found the animal sanctuary fascinating. There were kangaroos, stretched out on the grass, from the largest, the grey roo, through to small wallabies. In a vast aviary, built outdoors out of chicken wire mesh and steel poles, they caught sight of wedge-tailed eagles, and in the darkened aquarium, though there weren’t many platypuses visible, they did see one or two darting across from one hidey-hole in the mud banks to another.
Jason could tell that his grandmother was starting to tire, so he was pleased when Eleanor announced that lunch was booked for 12.30 and they had better head off to the estate.
“So remarkable, animals quite unlike anything in the rest of the world it does make you wonder about God’s plan and all those fundamentalists who believe things should be the way they think and everybody else must conform I’m surprised they haven’t seen fit to declare platypuses and abomination laying eggs and with bills like ducks but still mammals Canon Green would find it most intriguing I must remember to write to him such a dear man but a little absent minded.”
On the way back to the car, Eleanor was looking pensive and a little sad. Jason slipped his arm through hers.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s an old pain, my dear, but it never goes away. The last time I came here was with Bart. Not long before …. he died. And what your grandmother said made me think about how we keep on trying to force people to conform. At such cost.”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m sorry. We shouldn’t have come.”
“Oh no, not at all. Bart would have been glad we came. I often wonder whether he would have got on with you. I would have liked that.”
Jason remembered Bart’s diary, which, with all the dramas of the last few days, he had not read recently. He resolved to read some more when they got home later. It had been painful reading about Bart’s horrible life at school. About his loneliness, about the relentless mockery and bullying, knowing all the time what was going to happen. But he owed it to Eleanor to read on, onto the end. He owed it to himself too, because it was his own arrogance which had led him to desert Brent just when he was needed most. And he would never be able to undo that. What he had to do was to try harder to be more genuinely compassionate and to care about his friends instead of seeing everything through a self-centred prism. And Eleanor was his friend.
“Yes, it would.” Impulsively he put his other arm round her and hugged her.
At the vineyard’s restaurant, they talked about neutral simple things until they had all ordered and had a couple of sips of champagne.
Lucasta had seen the hug Jason had given Eleanor, and she’d wondered. She was too polite to quiz either of them about it. And Jason didn’t want to say anything—it was Eleanor’s secret.
“I’ve offered to work for a couple of hours at the bar tonight,” he said looking from one face to the other. “Between nine and eleven. That’s when it’s busiest and Keith could do with my help.”
“Oh, my dear, I expect we’ll both be in bed when you get back.”
“Well, I’ll try not to wake you up!” Turning to his grandmother he said, “When I first started to stay at Majorca Flats, Bolt would bark when I came home. He has such acute hearing, it didn’t matter how quiet I was, he always heard me and would get so excited. But I managed to train him not to bark. He’s very intelligent.”
“Fox terriers are,” said his grandmother, “such clever nervy little dogs, almost like people really. I have some friends who are less intelligent than my own dog.”
Eleanor laughed. “What sort of dog do you have?”
“A little Pekingese. I used to have a Siamese cat called Ahasuerus but he died. Such a dignified and intelligent animal.”
“I remember,” said Jason. He’d loved Ahasuerus, but Parker had adored the cat, even more than his grandmother. “Why didn’t you get another cat, grandam?”
“You can’t just go out and buy a new kitten or puppy when you lose the one you’ve got. They’re not interchangeable, dear. And anyway I’m old. I don’t want them to grieve for me when I’m gone.”
“Yes, I feel that about Bolt, too.”
“I’ll look after him, Eleanor. You don’t have to worry.”
Eleanor gave him a sad smile. She had been put into a melancholy mood by the memories which crowded into her head.
“Well, one day you’ll go back to England,” she said.
“No. Not to live. To visit grandam and my sister. Yes. But … no. I want to stay here. People here … people have made me welcome. I’ve made some true friends. Eleanor, I feel at home here. As if I have a new family. Who love me for what I am, or anyway, despite what I am, without judging. You, and Key and Lou and Esmé. Australians have been so welcoming and kind.” He looked at his grandmother. “You know what mum’s like, grandam.”
“So fussed about status and who you know and who you are but in the end what matters is who loves you and who is your friend your real friend. I loved your grandfather very much but that was more because we were thrown together and I loved him though he could be tiresome but the basis was always love though it helped that we were from the same circles but with you and Brent I could see how much you loved it other and I just wish …”
Jason couldn’t speak. He smiled at her, his eyes wet.
They all looked at each other, and then smiled simultaneously.
“We are a silly bunch of plonkers aren’t we?” observed Eleanor. “Going on an outing and talking of our sorrows.”
“I always mistrusted people who only talk about happy things life is so full of sorrow and what are friends for but to share our losses who else is there?” Lucasta’s comment was so like her, so elliptical and wandering and yet to the point that Jason couldn’t help smiling at her.
“Don’t die yet, grandam.”
“I’ll try not to,” replied Lucasta drily.
“This visit here brought back memories of my son Bart. We used to come here often.”
Lucasta looked at Eleanor and her eyes were so kind and wise that Eleanor found herself telling the other woman the whole story.
“He’s was such a dear lad. So funny and clever and wise. But he was, well, sensitive. No, let me be truthful. He was a little effeminate. But such a joy to be with, so bright and lovely. And then he started to lose his sparkle. At first, you know, I didn’t worry. Teenagers can be so moody. It’s such a difficult and awkward time. But it got worse. I guessed he was being bullied at school. I asked him about it but I … I didn’t think I should intervene. I thought he should be toughened up. Which is another way of saying, “made more manly”. May God forgive me!” She stopped and stared out over the peaceful vineyards. Very quietly, she said, “ One day he hanged himself.”
“My dear!” said Lucasta softly and put her hand on the other woman’s.
Jason watched the two old ladies in silence, wanting, as he had the first time he’d heard the story, to weep, to howl at the universe, to strike and thump the haters.
The waiter arrived with more champagne, and topped up their glasses.
There was a long silence. At last, Jason said, “Well you both know about me and Brent.” “My own selfish stupidity!”
Jason didn’t expect either woman to disagree with him. His grandmother wasn’t the kind of woman not to face facts, and nor was Eleanor. For all their kindness and compassion there was a bleak resolution at the heart of their characters, the kind of character strength that comes from loss faced with courage.
His grandmother said, “We all make mistakes, Jason my dear, mistakes which we wish with all our hearts we could undo.”
He smiled at her. “I don’t believe you ever made a mistake in your life, grandam!”
She just smiled at him.
“Come!” she said. “Let us toast something and be happy. To friends and family!”
They raised their glasses and echoed her toast. The champagne was pale gold in the flutes, and caught the afternoon sun which slanted through the French doors nearby.
“You are both, to me,” said Jason, looking in turn at the two women. Very moved, they both raised their glasses to him, but didn’t speak.
After, they talked of less fraught topics—the perfect autumn weather, the beauty of the scenery, the food and the wine.
On the way home, Lucasta dozed. Eleanor drove. She had been careful to have only two glasses of champagne over lunch, so that she was still safe to drive.
“I should get an Ozzie driving licence,” Jason observed.
“Do you have a UK licence?”
“Yes, but it’s not valid here.”
“Yes it is. For a while, anyway, as far as I know. Until it expires or until you change citizenship.”
“I didn’t know. It’s valid for another five years, then. That’s good news. I thought I would have to take my driving test again. All that palaver.”
“Well, you will, but not for the next few years.”
“I’ll be able to borrow Keith’s car. He doesn’t use it that much because he lives near to the pub.”
“You could borrow this car.”
Jason turned to look at Eleanor.
“You’ve been very kind to me already,” he murmured.
“Nonsense. It’s a pleasure having you.”
Jason knew she was lonely, and often oppressed by thoughts of Bart and his suicide. She thinks of me as her son, he thought. Why not? She means more to me than my real mother.
He smiled at her. “Well, when you’re not using it. But public transport here is so good, like London, I don’t feel the lack of a car. It’s just that one of these days, I’d like to go and see the countryside, drive up to Sydney.”
“You must take the route along the coast. It’s quite lovely. All those deserted beaches.”
When Jason got there, The Lord Grey was busy, as it almost always was at that time of the evening. He started work immediately.
In a lull, he and Keith rested on the counter, side by side, their bodies touching. It was comforting to be close to each other, a natural intimacy and companionship.
“D’ya think Cody and Lou will work it out?” asked Keith.
“I dunno. Cody is bi. He’ll need women. Or anyway, lust after them.”
“Well, I like women too. I dunno. I kinda think that if my dad hadn’t chucked me out, I’d still be there, straight.”
“I thought he threw you out because you were gay?” asked Jason, close enough to Keith to feel the warmth of his body, to smell his body, fresh and older sweat after a day of work, Keith’s own essence. Being there with him at that time seemed exactly right. Perfect.
“There is that,” conceded Keith.
Their conversation was interrupted by several blokes coming up at the same time to the bar for drinks. Jason wondered why it always happened like that, like starlings or pigeons.
In the next quiet patch, Keith said to Jason,
“Ya’d girlfriends too, didn’t ya?”
“Yeah. And a boyfriend at school.”
“Ya did? What happened?”
“I think he was just randy. I don’t know truly. But he just moved on when he went to varsity. As if all our intimacy and closeness was nothing. When we met by chance again … he was …. There was nothing between us. I think I was starting to dislike that upper class stuff even then. He was married and plump and obsessed with all that—you know, holidays in the right place, the right wife, the right suit, shoes from Church’s.”
“They make bespoke brogues. Two or three thousand pounds a pair.”
“And because of that … shit … I lost Brent.” Jason was silent for a while. Keith put his hand on Jason’s back. It radiated warmth and comfort.
“We all make mistakes,” Keith said.
“That what grandam said when we talked about it at lunch. But she never made mistakes.”
“OK, mate. We might not all make mistakes, but we all have regrets, roight?”
“Yes. True. Mr Wisdom. Even you?”
Jason waited for Keith to speak.
After what seemed like forever, Keith sighed and said, “Esmé.”
“You regret being … lovers?”
“Well, no. Not at all. Not in that way. But I do regret hurting her.”
He was silent for a little while. Just as he was about to speak, another crowd of men came up to the bar demanding drinks and food. Keith leaned over towards Jason and whispered “I’ll tell you later,” squeezing Jason’s bum at the same time. Jason got an instant erection.
“Hey, can I have one of those too?” It was one of the crowd at the bar, a handsome blond man with a ripped t-shirt.
:Fuggeddit, sista,” said Keith, flipping his hands. “Way beyond ya proice range, swaitie.”
“Yeah? What does it cost?”
“Very, very expensive. You havta be moi friend.”
“How can I do that?” asked the customer, grinning suggestively.
“You can start by shuttin’ the fuck up,” said Keith, compressing his lips and slitting his eyes. “But we do naid somebody to work here. Prove your ability by clainin’ the toilets. The claining’ stuff’s in the cupboard.” He pointed.
The other man just grinned again, raised his beer bottle in salute, and went away.
“Two things,” said Jason, when they had another moment of relative quietness.
“One. You’re going to get beaten up one day.”
“Not if I have big macho you here, to put the frighteners on them.”
Jason’s eyes glinted. “Aren’t you going to ask what the second thing is?”
Keith put his head on one side and stuck out his tongue.
“Two,” continued Jason firmly, “you’ve given me a hard-on.”
“Just as well wai’ll be able to solve that problem later, then, isn’t it?”
“You mean I must wait?” Jason’s tone was incredulous.
“Yeah. My appointment book is full. Lemme look.” He flipped open an imaginary diary. “Well fuck me sideways, it’s got some bloke Jason in here. Who the fuck is he, I wonder.” He winked.
At eleven, when Jason started making time-to-go noises, Keith said,
“Hang on a tick. I’ll come with you. It’s not very busy. I’ll just go and talk to Tom.”
Jason stayed at the bar while Keith went out the back to Tom.
Tom came out with Keith.
“Look after Keitho, Jace. With this murderer around.” From which Jason gathered that Keith had told Tom all about Luigi and Cody and what had happened.
“With my life,” he replied, holding Tom’s gaze, no hint of a smile.
Tom’s eyes glinted.
“Good.” He shook Jason’s hand, the first time he’d done so, and then he kissed Keith deeply on the mouth in front of the whole bar. It should have looked odd, a 50-plus man passionately kissing someone half his age, but instead Jason was absurdly touched. We blokes think a lot about sex, he thought, but it’s love that connects us. And then, but we do have complicated love lives.
On the pavement outside, Keith said,
“You want to go to my place instead of yours? It’s closer. And more private.”
“Well, yeah, normally, but now that grandam is here, I’d like to see her for breakfast.”
“What about me? Us? Won’t she … you knaow?”
Jason stopped and turned to look at him. He brushed his finger across Keith’s lips.
“She’s happy for me,” he said. “She really truly accepts me. She and my sister were the only people who understood about Brent and me. It’ll be OK.”
Bolt was waiting for them, and so were the two old ladies. They were in the drawing room and for the first time since Jason had come to Australia there was a fire lit in the fireplace. It was chilly out, a still night with a slight southerly off the Antarctic seas. The fire was mostly ash and embers but the room was warm. Both women nursed glasses of wine, and there was an open bottle of red on the table.
“Oh, how nice you’re home early!” exclaimed Eleanor.
“How nice you’re still up!” answered Jason, smiling at her in pleasure.
“When you’re old you don’t sleep as much which is as if God wants you to make the best of your time on earth though I expect Canon Green would denounce that as untheological though I’ve always thought that we should interpret the Bible and all that stuff our own way because each of us sees the world differently but I’m sure he Canon Green I mean would be very gentle because he’s such a good man and far nicer than that bishop who’s some connexion of your mother so pedantic and full of himself and so unctuous and orotund like a badly made vase with moth-eaten hair.”
Eleanor placidly listened to this confused effusion and as soon as a small gap emerged in the conversation said,
“There are some glasses in that sideboard over there, Jason. Do have a glass—you too Keith—if you would like one.”
The wine was delicious, and felt just right for a chilly autumn night.
Jason wondered what the two women had been talking about. It was obvious they had become friends, close friends. He envied that. Women seemed to be able to do that, to drop the barriers to intimacy, so much easier than men. It had taken weeks for him and Keith to become friends. And maybe, if he hadn’t been grieving about Brent’s suicide, he himself might never have let his barriers down and so got close to Keith. The sex helped. But only if you already liked each other. Well. Maybe not. He and Luigi were friends. And lovers.
They talked about neutral subjects and then both women rose and headed off to bed.
As she bade them goodnight, Eleanor said, with a slight quirk in her eyebrows, that there were more bottles of wine in the pantry in the kitchen and they were welcome to it if they wanted.
“Thank you!” replied Jason. “Good night. See you in the morning.”
“Good night Jason dear so nice to be here and now at last I will be able to sleep properly this jet lag business so barbarous bring back the Queen Mary I say.”
After this surprisingly short speech, Lucasta too headed off up the stairs to the bedroom.
Jason fetched another bottle and the wine bottle opener. He topped up their glasses from the open bottle, and took off his shoes, sitting on the other end of the sofa Keith was sitting on, and put his socked feet into Keith’s lap.
“So,” he said. “Esmé?”
“Yeah, well, I loiked her. I found her sexy, actually, if ya mus’ knaow.” He looked at Jason half defiantly, half guiltily. Jason opened his hands in a what-would-you gesture, his lifted eyebrows inviting Keith to keep going.
“Yeah, well, some gay blaokes have a fit if ya’re, ya knaow, bi.”
“Well, maybe they’re afraid you’ll leave them and go straight.” Jason didn’t add that that was his own secret fear. But even though he was worried, he had faith that he and Keith and Luigi and Cody, and Esmé, too, would be able to sort it out.
“Oh nao, Oi would never do that. And that was the problem with Esmé. I main, she knew I was gay …”
“ … somewhat gay …”
“… yeah. I taold her roight at the beginning. But … shay fell in love with mai. And shay’s so vulnerable, Jace, so wounded. And so fuckin’ noice. We had a hard toime of it. And Oi hurt her, aiven though Oi didn’t main to.”
Esmé and Keith met again that night, after the café and the bar had closed. They went back to his flat and made love. And again the night after. But the night after that, Esmé wasn’t working. She wished she worked every night at the café, so that she could meet Keith every night. She knew she shouldn’t monopolise him but she couldn’t help herself. He made her happy. She knew somewhere inside that he was gay. But he was so loving to her that she thought he’d changed, that he loved her so much that he’d set aside his gayness to be with her. That he was no longer interested in men.
Even though she wasn’t working, she decided she’d go down to the bar and surprise him. She normally cycled to work, but she decided to take the tram. It took her a little longer than she’d thought. As she stepped down from the tram at the stop just before The Lord Grey, she caught sight of Keith. He had his back to her. He was pressed up against another man, kissing him, his hands gripping the other bloke’s buttocks, his groin grinding against the other man’s.
She turned quickly and walked away from the bar. She didn’t want Keith to see her shame. Her humiliation was complete.
She caught the tram home and let herself in as quietly as she could. She did not want Luke to see her like this. In the privacy of her room, she took the razor and cut deeply into her arms. Stupid! she said to herself, angry, as she did it. Stupid! You knew you could never be happy. You knew that it would all be taken from you. You knew that. But still you hoped. Fool! Cretin! Idiot!