But most of all he missed Brent. Brent had been the other half of his soul – Jason had studied Ancient Greek at school, and knew Plato’s myth – and he felt as if he was missing a limb. He couldn’t get that last sight of Brent out of his mind. Brent bleeding, asprawl on the floor like a rag doll, his beautiful body ugly and incongruous in death, his liveliness and cheeky humour gone for ever. Jason hadn’t cried much since he’d found the body, but now, all at once here in an alien land, he wept, great tearing sobs shaking his body. There was nowhere private to weep, here far from home. Blinded by his tears, by his deep distress, he ran across the road into the park. A taxi hooted at him, but Jason ignored it, his upset too great. In the park, he tried to hide behind the broad trunk of an elm-tree, his face pressed into the rough bark, his arms cuddling his head.
At last the storm of grief passed. Jason went and sat on the emerald lawns, and wondered what was to become of him. He knew that he had to start thinking coherently about the rest of his life. For a moment he allowed himself to be persuaded that his grief was for mankind as a whole, for everybody, for all their loss and suffering and loneliness. But a new honesty forced him to admit that he was grieving for himself as much as for the world at large.
Luigi leant against the wall of the tiny hallway of his flat. He sighed. Why did he do this? He knew that having sex with straight blokes always left him feeling bitter and bereft. He knew – yet still he went back for more. His weakness disgusted him. What was the point of trying to connect to straight guys? The pattern had repeated itself again and again. He’d find it easy to get a straight guy to have sex with him. But they always walked away afterwards. Once or twice, they’d been hostile immediately after sex, and had left without speaking. Once he’d been beaten up. He’d been off work for a week. He’d told everybody at work that he’d fallen down the stairs at his block of flats. For a while after that he’d been careful. But as the fear wore off and the need to connect grew, he’d gone back to picking up strangers, the straighter the better. He was too intelligent not to see that this was destructive behaviour and that his dislike for other queeny guys was just another aspect of his own self-loathing, but when his emotions took control he couldn’t stop himself. And afterwards he’d do just what he was doing now: he’d beat himself up, castigate his own folly and short-sightedness, and generally feel depressed and a skinny failure.
Jason had been different, though. Maybe it was the English public-school thing, all those straight boys confined to single-sex dormitories. They ended up experimenting with each other and . . . . Holy fuck, what did he know? Only that Jason had been kind and gentle. And he had been – there was no doubt about that! – turned on. Luigi smiled a little. He was far from taking his attractiveness for granted. He knew that many men saw him as beautiful, but his own uncertainties and insecurities made him aware also that he wasn’t a real man like the men he so lusted after, like the men he longed to love and to have love him. He might be beautiful outside but inside he felt disgusting: a failure, a traitor to the race of male-kind, a marginal nothing. He knew – of course he knew – that this was just his own internalised homophobia speaking, but it didn’t help. Deep down he was convinced not only that he was ugly – and no mirror could persuade him otherwise – and, worse, unlovable.
Luigi went into his tiny kitchenette and made himself some tea. While he was sipping it he thought about Cody.
He’d met Cody at a café-bar on Brunswick Street. They’d been sitting next to each other at the counter, sipping a latte, and Cody had grinned at him. After they’d talked for half an hour Luigi realised that Cody was flirting with him. At first he hadn’t believed it. Up till then he’d never had sex with a straight bloke. He’d never even been friendly with straight guys. And all of a sudden there was this macho, muscular, sporty straight man teasing him, flirting with him, making eyes at him. Luigi had no idea how to respond. He’d been just twenty, not sure whether this bonhomie, this arms-slung-around-shoulders, this intimate gaze, these nods and becks and wreathèd smiles were normal among hyper-masculine guys. He was afraid to respond, because he might get beaten up. Yet he was tempted, for Cody was gorgeous.
He was muscular, with a slim waist, broad shoulders and rugby-player thighs. His eyes were a startling grey-blue and his chestnut shoulder-length hair thick and curly. He had the knack of half-closing his eyes when he wanted something which made them glimmer seductively. You never got the feeling with him that he was deliberately charming you, at least not when you were with him, because it all seemed so genuine. Afterwards, you’d ruefully think back on how once again you’d been conned and he’d got what he wanted. While you were with him, he made you believe that you were the only person in the world who mattered. Even though you suspected that he forgot about you as soon as you’d left his presence, it never seemed to matter.
That first night at the bar, Luigi just smiled at Cody. He made no move to respond to Cody’s advances, but he didn’t repulse them either. He didn’t shrug off the arms over his shoulders, and he smiled enough to let Cody know he wasn’t put off. But he was too scared to respond to Cody’s overtures by touching Cody in return.
At the end of the evening Cody had given him one of the charm-filled smiles he specialised in, and asked, “Do you come here often, mate?”
Greatly daring, Luigi had replied, “Only in the mating season. With the right person. .”
Cody gave a shout of laughter and then, his eyes sparkling, he’d pushed his fist gently against Luigi’s forehead, and said, “See you here tomorrow, friend.”
Luigi was entranced. He’d been looking for friendship, he’d been looking for a friend. He’d been so lonely. The idea of a friend undid him. Cody could be his friend. He didn’t need more. Just having a friend would change his whole life. Someone to trust, someone who trusted him, someone to confide in. Someone who didn’t judge him because he was queeny, someone who cared for and about him. Someone who accepted.
A real man. A real man wanted to be his friend! Luigi wandered around in a daze of happiness. At last.
Luigi’d watched the other guys at school, when they teased each other or casually sauntered along the school walkways, shoulders brushing, confident in their maleness, secure in their affection for each other. Trying not to be noticed, he would sneak glances of two or three friends together and wish with all his heart that he too could be part of such a grouping.
But it had never happened.
The next evening he went again to that café-bar.
He nursed several coffees and then a few glasses of wine, but Cody never showed.
He went home, black with despair and sadness and loneliness.
He avoided the café for a week. But, after all, it was his favourite watering hole, and their coffee was superb and their wines good but inexpensive. So the next Saturday, Luigi found himself sitting at the counter, a half-drunk coffee and the local freebie gay news sheet open in front of him. He felt someone take the place on the bench seat next to him, and he looked up and there was Cody. Cody looked at the news sheet and then at him, and smiled a little.
“Haven’t seen you around.”
Luigi didn’t want to seem needy and desperate. “Nah,” he replied. But he couldn’t help smiling.
Cody smiled back. He looked as if he wanted to say something, but then obviously and deliberately suppressed it. There was a silence which seemed to last forever. Then they both spoke simultaneously.
“It’s a good place.” “Can I get you a drink?”
They both stopped at the same time and then they both grinned in pure pleasure.
“Yeah,” said Cody, “you can. I’ll have Campari.”
“A Campari, huh? What will your friends say?” Luigi was determined not to give the impression that he was a lonely loser. And he’d seen a look in Cody’s blue-grey eyes, a look of desire and lust and liking which made him all at once confident and ridiculously happy.
“Fuck them,” said Cody calmly. No, thought Luigi, fuck me, and he had to look away so that the thought didn’t show in his expression.
“I like to be different,” said Cody, his gaze intent.
Luigi couldn’t look away. He felt trapped, and was quite unaware of the effect his soft dark eyes and the sweet shy curve of his lips was having on Cody. They were the only two people in the world. The chatter in the bar, the clang of trams on the street outside, the clink of glasses being collected and cleaned: all of these outside noises were hushed, remote. They were connecting without speech or touch, but with an erotic intimacy and emotional intensity which left them both breathless.
After an age, Cody licked his dry lips, and said without smiling, his eyes burning, “What about that Campari, then? I’m blowing away in dust.”
In silence, Luigi waved the waiter over. “Two Camparis please.” While the waiter was attending to their order, Luigi turned to Cody and said, “I like to be different, too.”
Cody smiled, his eyes glinting. “I know,” he whispered.
Luigi had never been as happy as he was with Cody. Their life soon a cosy intimacy and closeness that he revelled in. They were in love, and Luigi had never had that, never felt that level of belonging. They were indeed friends – and lovers too. Cody would often drop in to Luigi’s flat on the way home. The front door would barely close behind him before they were kissing, and usually it ended with them making love. Sometimes they were so eager to fuck that they never even made it to the bed. And always, their sex ended with Cody holding Luigi in his arms and telling him how much he loved him, sealing their love with kisses quite different to the passionate lustful ones he used when they made love.
Yet there were, right from the beginning, small tokens that all wasn’t right. Cody never invited Luigi to his own house. They always met in a pub or bar or club, or at Luigi’s flat. There would be times when Cody couldn’t or wouldn’t answer his mobile, and he would get moody if quizzed about it. Luigi trusted completely. He only asked once or twice and he quickly learnt his lesson. After that, he would wait for Cody to call him when he couldn’t raise him on his mobile.
One day Luigi went to visit his nonna. She lived two suburbs further out from the city, developed in the 1910s and 1920s and then, because they were so cheap and undesirable at that time, occupied by the post-war wave of immigrants from Italy. Immensely valuable now, his grandmother was (in asset terms) very rich, but she still lived with the neat but worn furniture she’d bought fifty years before, the walls decorated with badly painted prints of Italian scenes, a small shrine to Mary on a sideboard in the sitting room, her own lace tablecloths on the tables and anti-macassars on the armchairs. His grandmother had early on guessed that Luigi was gay. It was hard not to suspect, but his mother and father had chosen to pretend that everything was all right. When the parade of girls had produced no outcome except Luigi skiving off whenever he could, his parents had confronted him, Luigi had let it slip that he was seeing someone from school, and there’d been the inevitable row. His father had hit him repeatedly in the face, and thrown him out of the house. Barely able to see out of his swelling eyes, too stubborn to weep, but giving an occasional dry sob, Luigi had turned up on his grandmother’s doorstep.
When she opened the door and looked at him she’d said only, “Dio mio, Luigi! Che ti è successo?” While she bathed his wounds and fed him sips of too-sweet, too-milky coffee, Luigi told the whole story, keeping nothing back. He could tell la nonna was furious, but not with him. She muttered to herself in dialect, and then took his hand and said, fiercely, in strongly accented English. “You stay here, Lu, with me. And I talk to the fool your father.”
She stomped off to the telephone. Through his misery, Luigi wondered that such a short woman could have so much presence, so much menace, just in the way she walked. There ensued a short, poisonous conversation with his father. He could hear only her side, but it was obvious that she was skelling his father out. She slammed down the phone and stared in silence at it for what seemed an eternity. Then she said, “Bene.” No more than that, but the tone was killing. Then she shook her head and pressed her lips tightly together.
Luigi hadn’t spoken to his parents again since then. And, as far as he could tell, nor had his grandmother. He stayed with her for nearly eighteen months. A year after he’d finished school and got a job, he moved out. He was nineteen. His thoughts were filled with men. With sex with men. And he simply couldn’t bring his tricks home, to the house where his grandmother lived.
He made a point of visiting her at least once a week, and of taking her out to dinner in an Italian resto as often as he could afford it, not just because he loved her, but because now they were the only family each other had.
He was walking back from his grandmother’s house, in a good mood because Cody had just texted him saying, “Luvya, Lu,” when he saw a back he recognised.
But surely . . . that was Cody? The shoulder-length chestnut curls, the broad back, the faintly arrogant swagger . . .
“Co!” yelled Luigi, suddenly more happy than he could bear.
The man turned round. It was Cody. His face turned as cold as stone. He turned back again and kept on walking.
At first Luigi didn’t know what to make of it. He was stunned speechless. He ran to catch up with Cody. Cody’s back remained resolutely turned away, even though he must have heard Luigi’s footsteps.
Just before he caught up with the other man, Luigi noticed the woman walking next to Cody’s side, and the small child holding his hand. He could not believe that he hadn’t seen them before, that he had been so focussed on Cody that he had ignored his companions.
It could be his sister he feverishly told himself. Or a friend.
But he knew. Oh, he knew. Something died in him. His pain made him mad.
“Cody!” he said, an inner bitch coming from he knew not where, “how are ya, mate?”
“Luigi.” Cody spoke colourlessly, his eyes avoiding Luigi’s.
“Hello,” said Luigi to the woman, “I’m Luigi, a friend of Cody’s”. He put maximum macho swagger into his step and speech. There was no way he was going to let this woman know that his world had ended. Oh no! He had his pride. He might not be a real man but he had pride. There was nothing else.
“I’m Phillippa, Cody’s wife.”
“Oh yes!” exclaimed Luigi. “He’s often mentioned you! How nice to meet you at last!”
That night Cody came round to Luigi’s flat, as Luigi had known he would. Cody pressed the intercom button downstairs on the door at the entrance to the block of flats so that Luigi could open it and let him in to the lobby.
“Lu, it’s Co.”
Luigi had been waiting, his heart cracked stone, his soul cut to pieces. He sat in the dark waiting for the man he thought had been his friend, the man he thought had loved him, and he stared in complete silence at the wall. He hadn’t eaten since lunch with his grandmother, he hadn’t drunk or spoken or even gone to the toilet. He’d just sat there, immobile; mirroring, if he’d only known, his ancestors from the rocky plains and slopes of Calabria, people who stoically and unforgivingly faced the facts of life.
He got up and moved to the bay window, and from behind the curtains, he watched Cody press the buzzer again and again, watched in silence, his black-olive eyes opaque and indecipherable, his mouth a thin tight line of pain and anger.
Then Cody did something Luigi never thought he’d see. He started to sob, and then, his feet dragging and his shoulders bent, he went back down the pathway to the street.
Only when Cody’s familiar shape had vanished into the shadows at the far end of the road did Luigi break.
He was in deep depression for months. His grandmother had nursed him through it, making him his favourite food, and trying hard to get him past his grief. In the end, she lost her temper with him and as always, as her accent grew stronger, so his comprehension dwindled. He finally stopped her tirade by kissing her on the cheek and promising to try to get better. He went to see a psychiatrist, who made him feel worse, and decided that only time and his own strength could cure the malaise.
Once, Cody had appeared at the flat, just as Luigi was going out. He’d clearly been waiting to catch him.
“Lu, can we talk?”
Luigi held his head high and ignored him.
“Please, Lu. Please talk to me.”
Luigi turned on him and spat, “Go back to Phillippa!”
“Lu . . . I couldn’t . . . . I’m sorry . . .”
Luigi crossed to the tram stop, just before a tram arrived. He climbed on board, and watched as Cody’s figure diminished as the tram rattled away up Nicholson Street. It was going in the wrong direction but Luigi hadn’t cared. He just had to get away before he gave in. Cody’s tone had been so desperate, so sad, it near broke Luigi’s heart. Or would have, if it hadn’t been broken already.
The next time Luigi saw a handsome manly bloke making eyes at him, he’d turned coldly away and pretended not to see. But it didn’t last, naturally. He needed a man in his life. His own effeminacy turned him off other men like him, and though he knew such feelings were foolish and dysfunctional, it changed little. So, cautiously at first, and then more often, he’d tried picking up straight and straight-acting males. He found himself addicted to the hunt, the exchange of looks, the interpretation of what the other man meant by his expressions. Even the danger added to the spice. Like riding a motorbike too fast.
When he encountered Jason, he’d been visiting the meat-racks and cottaging for so long it almost seemed the whole point of gay relationships. A simple love between two guys seemed both vanilla – and unobtainable. He couldn’t imagine coming home to someone, hearing a greeting from the kitchen or the lounge-room where the man he loved and who loved him would be waiting, welcome on his face and in his words.
The last thing he thought about as he went to sleep that night was not the sex they had nor how good Jason had been at it, nor about Jason’s handsome face and muscular body, but about his smile.
Jason wasn’t due at work until 6 o’clock, and it was barely one p.m.. It was odd being picked up and having sex in the morning. It had always happened to him at parties before, so he would as often as not spend the night and have tea or coffee with his trick in the morning. Sometimes they would make love again, but often he (or perhaps the other bloke) had needed a few beers to be made attractive, and morning hair and morning breath just didn’t cut it.
He couldn’t stop thinking about Luigi. Now that he had had time to think, Luigi’s sending him away had begun to seem courageous, even wise, if he believed Jason was straight. Why get entangled with someone who couldn’t commit to you?
Jason was quite glad in a way. He himself wasn’t ready to give his heart to anyone. He could not help thinking about Brent, about the love that he’d had, and he knew that nothing could ever replace it. No one could ever take Brent’s place in his heart. All the same, when he remembered just how beautiful, just how hot Luigi was, he was torn.
He caught the same number tram back to the stop where he’d boarded it, pleased that he managed to find his way round the city by himself. He decided to explore more of his suburb on foot, because he knew that was the best way to get the feel of a place. He found a gay bookshop and a gay second-hand bookshop and at the latter he bought some paperbacks. At a little café, he sat outside in the sun, and ordered bruschetta with chopped tomato, and a caffè latte. He hadn’t a lot of money, he knew that. And the meal cost him nearly an hour’s pay. But he decided it was important to indulge himself occasionally. And sitting there under a giant parasol, with the passing traffic of people in various shapes and sizes and colours, sipping at his latte and enjoying the rich profusion of flavours and textures in the bruschetta : crisp savoury bread, sweet tomato, rich fresh onion, basil, olive oil and black pepper, he felt rich indeed, and for the first time since he’d seen Brent’s body, for a few minutes the sharp teeth of grief and remorse stopped biting into him.
He got to The Lord Grey just before six p.m.. He and Keith arrived at the same time.
“G’day, sexy!” greeted Keith.
Jason smiled. He punched Keith lightly on the arm.
“Behave!” he snorted. “How do you know I’m not a married man?”
“Ooh, we are chirpy. Did we have a good sleep then?” Keith was being deliberately camp.
Again Jason merely smirked.
“That didn’t take you long, did it?” said Keith, the campiness replaced by a trace of bitterness.
“I have no idea what you mean,” said Jason, colouring.
“Yeah, right. Was he good?”
Jason stared at Keith until the other man looked away. Yeah, he said silently to himself. Yeah. He was good.