Keith and Jason had finished cleaning up the pub by half past eleven. Once again, Keith invited Jason to come with him to the café next door. It was empty except for Esmé and one overweight oldish man writing furiously on his laptop.
“”Lo, love,” said Keith and gave Esmé a kiss.
“Hi, Esmé,” said Jason, amused at the ironic look she gave Keith.
“Jason.” She smiled at him.
Jason noticed that Esmé’s eyes were a wonderfully soft hazel, beautiful.
“When you’ve finished staring, Jace, would you like a coffee?”
Jason grinned at her, embarrassed. “Sorry. I just….um, I thought your eyes were a lovely colour.”
Esmé just raised her eyebrows quizzically, and a certain hardness edged into her expression.
I know, thought Jason, you don’t get involved with gay men. Was it Keith, I wonder? He was amused at the irony of being rejected by Luigi because he was too straight and by Esmé because he was too gay.
After they’d had their coffees, Esmé shooed out the old man and Keith and he helped her clean up and lock up. Jason waved to Esmé and turned to walk back towards Majorca Flats. He was only a little surprised when Keith fell into step next to him.
“So,” said Keith.
“Quite,” replied Jason, going for crisp English upper class again. He really didn’t want a conversation.
“So was he sexy?”
Jason stopped and looked at Keith, stark and oddly coloured in the orange of the street lamps.
“Yeah. Incredibly hot.” He looked directly into Keith’s eyes. “I’m going to be seeing him again.”
“So some stranger is good enough for you but I’m not?” Keith was hurt and angry.
Some impulse made Jason pull Keith into a hug. “It’s not what you think. It’s a little complicated. It’s not you. It’s … it’s just that something happened to me, and … Keith, I can’t …”
“Yeah, I get the picture!” muttered Keith with cynical bitterness.
“No you fuckin’ don’t!” Angry, Jason pulled away from Keith. “You’re a handsome bloke. You’re hot. You’re nice. But I have had stuff … I don’t want to talk about it right now, but … look, Keith, you’re … Jesus, it’s been so fuckin’ hard,” and to his dismay and everlasting shame, he began to weep.
“Jace!” And Keith took Jason into his arms and held him close and let him weep into his shoulder. “It’s OK, mate. It’ll be OK.”
But Jason muttered through his tears, “No, it will never be OK.” He pulled his head back from Keith’s shoulder and looking into Keith’s kind concerned regard, he felt that there could be nothing wrong with what he was about to do, and he kissed him.
Keith let Jason kiss him for several heartbeats and then pulled away.
“Don’t play with me, Jace.” He spoke gently enough but there was steel underneath.
Jason could feel Keith’s erection hard against his hip. He had one himself, ridiculously, even though only a few hours ago he’d made love to Luigi. He knew if he pushed it, he and Keith could prolly have sex. But Keith was a person, not just a piece of meat. And if they had sex, the job together would become impossible. They had to work together every day.
“I won’t. That’s why I want to talk to you tomorrow.”
“We won’t have time at work. You know how it is when it gets busy.”
“I’ll meet you somewhere.”
“You tell me.”
“The Café Nova, on Brunswick Street, at 4?”
Jason smiled at Keith. “OK.” He watched Keith disappear back the way they’d come, and when he was out of sight, he sighed and set off for home.
Bolt was getting good at welcoming Jason home without making too much noise. At first he had barked frantically. Now he just whimpered and whined. Jason knelt down and caressed him. He was glad of the welcome. Dogs didn’t judge you on how you look or whether you’re witty or interesting. They simply love you for you.
Jason slept badly. Once again the dreadfully realistic dream about Brent came to him, in all its horror. He tossed and turned all night, waking from wild fever dreams, where he was always too late, where he did too little, where he wasn’t there for the man he loved.
His initial optimism and hope when he’d first arrived in Australia (was it just 4 days ago? It seemed as if he’d been here for ever) had been replaced by depression. He wouldn’t be able to give his heart to any guy, not for a long time. Forget your sorrows in the arms of another might be a good motto when you’ve been dumped, though Jason doubted even then that it really worked, not if you loved someone enough. But when the person you loved had died, died horribly, what then?
Getting involved with Keith wasn’t fair on Keith. And despite what had happened with Luigi, he wasn’t ready for casual sex.
The next morning he was making his first cup of tea for the day at ten o’clock when Mrs Cumberledge joined him in the kitchen. It was another glorious day, the summer light thick and yellow, the air already warm; all promising that it would be a scorcher later on.
“It’s a lovely day, isn’t it, Mrs Cumberledge?”
“It’s going to be hot, Jason. Would you like a biscuit?”
She produced a tin of Arnott’s Marie biscuits, and he admired the scarlet and cobalt Rosella painted on its lid.
As they sipped their tea and crunched the milky sweet biscuits, they chatted, not about anything consequential but just small things. He felt easy with her, almost as if he’d known her many years, not just a few days. She had an easy-going non-judgemental manner. He believed that there wouldn’t be many things that shocked her. Underneath her placid demeanour there was also sadness, perhaps even grief, and this seemed to be a link between them.
“Are you going for a swim” she asked.
“That would be a good idea! Where’s the best place”
“South Melbourne beach is easy to get to. It’s not the best beach, by far, but it’s the closest. And you can catch a number 1 tram to get there.”
“Where would I catch that?”
“Take the tram at the end of street into the city and change there. Wait a minute, I have a map of the tram network. I’ll get it.”
With his small backpack containing the towel Mrs Cumberledge had pressed on him, assuring him that he had only to shake the sand out of it afterwards, and she would wash it, in shorts and a T-shirt and his only shoes, his trainers, he set off to the beach.
As he passed through the city, he thought he’d better buy some bathers. He could swim in his shorts, he supposed, but then they’d be wet afterwards and he’d only brought one pair of shorts in his haste to leave England. It had been mid-winter there and stupidly he’d forgotten that it would of course be mid-summer in Australia.
He stopped in the city. The air was warm and magical, smelling of food and coffee and, faintly, of exhaust fumes. Right next to the tram stop was a coffee shop, and he ordered a coffee and a croissant, and sat at the tables outside watching the passers by. Directly opposite was a Target, a down-market department store. When he’d finished his coffee and fed the crumbs of his croissant to the pigeons, he went into the store.
In the menswear section there were board shorts, not famous brand names, but colourful and rather nice. They were $30 each. There was a rack of swim briefs, in black and navy, and they were half the price. Conscious that he had to be careful with money, Jason shrugged and bought a pair of the navy Speedos. $15 saved was money for food and drink, and he was used to wearing swim briefs for his school’s swim team. At the checkout he also bought some suntan lotion. He’d been burnt before, on a holiday to Greece with when he and Brent had gone there on holiday once.
It had been a marvellous holiday. Memories of sun-kissed beaches and translucent seas were intertwined with images of him and Brent at dinner with a bottle of wine, Brent’s eyes filled with laughter and love, his skin glowing from a day in the sun, and then later, making love and Brent tasting of salt and sweat and happiness. Of course, that was where the trouble began, and once again Jason castigated himself for not seeing what was happening sooner. His own blindness, his own assumptions, and then, fatally, his own arrogance. How he wished, with all his heart, that he could do it over, and this time do it better.
These bleak reflections made him want to go home and hide, but there was no home any more, and he had nowhere to hide. So he forced himself to keep going, and went looking for the number 1 tram to the beach.
The number 1 tram ran down Swanston St, one of the main streets in the city, crossing the line he’d just got off, right next to the café where he’d had his coffee and croissant. It couldn’t have been simpler. He had to ask a few times for directions, but people seemed happy to help, and he caught a few glances from both the men and the women, glances which said, you’re nice, or I think you’re cute. But Jason was in no mood to play these games. It was bad enough that he’d already had sex with a total stranger, and enjoyed it, and made all sorts of implicit promises, but he knew now what he wanted. Friendship, and no more. He had given his heart to Brent and he would never do anything like that again. Love was magical and perfect while it lasted but the grief when it ended was intolerable. Never again! he swore to himself. I’ll never give my heart over to someone else’s keeping again. Never.
The sight of a young couple, obviously deeply in love, filled him with a piercing sorrow. I’ll never have that again, he thought. And all at once a grief so deep it close to overwhelmed him filled his heart, and he had to peer out of the tram window to hide his face and his overflowing eyes.
The tram came to its final stop just before the beach. Jason alighted and crossed the esplanade which ran along the foreshore. Mrs Cumberledge had been right. It wasn’t much of a beach. But it would do. There was sea, gold sands, sunshine, and nearby, all the essential paraphernalia of beaches: Cokes, ice-creams, ice lollies, pies. The air was redolent of suntan lotion and coconut oil. Tying Eleanor Cumberledge’s towel round his waist, he changed into his new Speedos underneath it. They were a little snug, but after all, he was gay.
The sea wasn’t clear, but on the other hand it didn’t appear filthy. There were no breakers, he supposed because of the headlands at the mouth of the bay. He dived in to the water, which was deliciously cold, and swam out for a couple of hundred metres. After, he lay on the towel until he became too hot. He decided it was time to apply the suntan lotion. He did as much of his back as he could reach, but there was an area he missed, and he was wondering whether he’d burn just in that spot and how bad it would be when he heard a voice saying, “Do you need any help with that, mate?”
It was a man in his forties, short with tightly curled brown hair, and a slim body. He was wearing a Speedo too, only his was a glorious scarlet. His gaze was direct and unapologetic.
Jason nodded. “Yeah, cool. Thank you! The human body wasn’t made to rub lotion onto its back.”
“Luckily, that’s why we have other human beings,” said the man. “Here. Give that to me, and I’ll finish for you.”
Jason handed over the bottle and turned slightly, hunching forward so that the other man could reach his back more easily.
The man’s hands were firm and curiously comforting. It felt good to have someone rubbing his back, even if he was a stranger. After a few minutes, the man patted Jason’s back and said “All done.”
“You’re welcome.” There was a moment’s silence, then, “I’ll be off now.”
“Well, if you have to … But I’d be delighted if you stayed.”
The man’s smile split his tanned face and his hazel eyes glinted. “Yeah, I’d like that.”
His towel was about five metres away and he stepped over to fetch it. Flicking the sand off – but, thoughtfully, not into Jason’s face – he spread his towel next to Jason’s and sat down on it facing the same way Jason faced, looking out across the scintillating blue of the bay. He produced a pair of Dolce and Gabbana dark glasses and put them on. Jason didn’t have any dark glasses and found himself squinting into the glare.
“You’re going to get a headache,” said the other man.
“I am,” replied Jason. “But I won’t be staying too long, I have to meet someone at four and get showered and get changed for work. And it’s midday now.”
“Here, borrow this hat. It’ll shield your eyes.” The bloke handed over a baseball cap with NYC written on it. “Hey! I suppose we’d better get introduced. What would Miss Manners say?”
Jason grinned at him. He instinctively liked the other man.
“I’m Jason,” he said.
“And I’m Graeme,” said the curly-haired bloke. “You’re English, aren’t you?”
“Only been here 4 days.”
“You studying or an immigrant or what?”
“Just a temporary visitor. Six-months visa. But I’d like to stay if I could.”
“Like half the world. Well, if you need help, I know some immigration lawyers.”
“That would be handy. Give me your phone number, if you wouldn’t mind.”
“Nah. I’d be glad. I suppose you don’t have a mobile, not having been here more than a few days.” He rooted around in his backpack until he found a notebook and pen.
“No, I haven’t got a mobile yet. But you can contact me at The Lord Grey. I have a job there.”
“What did you do in England?”
“Oh. I was a student at Oxford.”
“I always dreamed of going there,” said Graeme.
Jason felt uncomfortable. He was reminded of just how charmed his life had been, once. What he was going through now was payback. He could endure that. He would survive it. He must. He would.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Well, firstly I wasn’t good enough and then I wasn’t in any case rich enough which was just as well, because I met a bloke and we hit it off and I didn’t want to leave him.”
“He got sick.” Graeme looked away out over the bay, his face unreadable, but a pulse throbbed in his neck. “We were together till the end. Ten years of marriage, though the Christianists wouldn’t call it that. They don’t even believe that men can love each other.”
“No,” replied Jason, turning away, his grief returning in full strength.
After a minute, Graeme asked, “Are you all right?”
Jason nodded. But he couldn’t speak.
“I’ll go get us a coke. Nice iced coke. That’ll be good.” And tactfully leaving Jason alone, Graeme rose and made his way to the café.
Graeme was away about ten or fifteen minutes and when he returned he was carrying two diet cokes and a packet of chips. The coke was icy, and it felt wonderful to drink it. The crisps were delicious, and they shared the packet between them in a companionable silence. Jason offered to pay, but Graeme refused point blank.
“You’re the visitor here,” he said.
He let Jason eat most of the chips. “I’ll get fat if I eat too many,” he said, “but you won’t have to worry!”
“Oh, of course!” replied Jason ironically. “Of course you’ll get fat, Mr Slim! And what makes you think I won’t get fat?””
“You’re young. You probably do lots of sports – lemme guess, cricket, rugby, swimming, running? Am I right?”
“You are.” Jason gave the other man a smile.
“It’s hard work, keeping myself from bloating. You know what the scene is like. You have to be young, slim, muscular and perfect.”
“You’re doing pretty well, then,” said Jason with a wink.
“So what are you going to do while you’re here in Oz?” Graeme ignored the flirting, but he smiled a little as he pretended not to hear the comment.
“I dunno.” And it struck Jason suddenly that he could go and see all the sights: Sydney Harbour Bridge, at the least. But first he’d have to earn some money.
He lay down and on his stomach, to give his back a bit of a tan.
“You should go to Sydney if you can,” said Graeme. “And the south coast of New South Wales. It’s lovely. Glorious beaches, clean and empty.”
“Better to go with someone. One would get lonely otherwise.” Graeme noticed that Jason said ‘wonn’ not ‘wunn’.
“You don’t have anyone? Someone as handsome and well-built as you?”
Jason looked away. “No. No one.”
“Ah.” Graeme was tactfully silent.
“Anyway, I must save some money. I don’t have much.” Well, that wasn’t true, was it? he reflected. I have a fortune in my trust account, I have the flat in London, the cottage, my shares. But that was all past, over, done with. He wondered what the trustees would do with the money. Mr Ledwitch, such a desiccated and archetypal family lawyer, the elegant pin-stripes he wore dusty and respectable even when they were new. He’d always been kind to Jason when Jason had been a boy. Jason’s uncle Ted, inclined to bluster and lecture, but also very fond of Jason. Jason’s father.
What would they do?
Not my problem, he thought.
He was thinking back to something which Graeme had said earlier. “I’m not really into the scene,” he said. “I dunno. All those buff blokes, obsessed with how they look. Casual hookups. Not for me.”
“C’mon. You surely have picked up a guy just for a quickie?”
Jason laughed, but softly. “Yeah. Yesterday, as it happens. And I’m not saying it wasn’t very good. It was. But what I really wanted while we were going at it, was …”
He stopped abruptly, his throat tight.
When Jason didn’t answer, he heard Graeme turn to look at him. “You don’t have to talk about it, if it’s too hard. But I’m a good listener.”
Jason, still not looking at the other man, said, “It’s just … I used to have a guy. I loved him so much, And he’s gone.”
“Did he leave you?” Graeme’s tone was kind and Jason knew that if he didn’t want to continue, the other man wouldn’t push him.
“In a way. He … died. That’s why I’m here, I suppose. I just needed to get away.” He still hadn’t looked at Graeme.
“It’s a bitch. You love someone and then they get taken from you.” Graeme’s voice was neutral, dispassionate.
“Yes.” Jason was silent for a moment, then added, “I thought …. I hoped …. it was going to be for ever.”
“Yup.” Graeme’s voice held only a trace of bitterness. “Good old God. Making us love, then taking it away.”
Jason knew that there were various phases of grief, according at any rate to the gurus. First came grief, then anger. He wished he could be angry. It would make it easier. But all he felt was the unbearable loss, the immense pain, the hollow inside him where there used to be a warm loving presence.
“You know,” continued Graeme, just as if there hadn’t been a long and painful silence, “I still miss him. Every day. Sometimes I think to myself, I must tell Pete about this, and then I remember.”
“You’re not making it any easier, “ answered Jason, trying to smile, but failing badly.
“Oh, Jeez. Sorry.” And Graeme reached across and took Jason’s hand and squeezed it.
Sorry to be such a wimp.” Jason was deeply embarrassed, and took his hand away from Graeme’s as soon as he could.
“There’s nothing wimpy about grief, mate. We love someone, they become part of our life, and then …. Don’t apologise. Listen, I know you have to go soon, and so do I, but I’m glad I met you. Would you like to have dinner or something with me? Not a pick-up, or for anything like that. Just for friendship.”
“Yes, I’d like that. But I work at nights mostly. It’ll have to be lunch. I suppose I should get a mobile so I can keep in touch. But I never thought I’d meet so many people.”
“Ozzies are very friendly people. None of your English standoffishness here. If we like people we say so and if we don’t, we make that clear too. Sometimes that offends.” Graeme’s eyes were grave, but Jason could see the smile.
“Well, no one has been unkind to me, yet,” said Jason, only then thinking how nice that was.
“There are so many people so close together in England. It’s like rats squeezed into a cage. They get ratty.” Graeme was grinning.
“Get away! That’s a terrible pun!” Jason was grateful that Graeme wasn’t being all serious, that he was making light of the situation. “Maybe I could get a prepaid mobile. But not right yet. I have no money.”
“Well, I can’t come round tonight or tomorrow but I’ll see you at The Lord Grey on Thursday evening.”
They both stood up, and pulled on their shorts over their Speedos, donned T-shirts and their shoes – Graeme sandals and Jason his trainers – and walked slowly from the beach to the esplanade, both a little reluctant for their encounter to end.
There was a tram waiting at the stop.
“Is that the one I catch?” Jason asked.
“It’s the only one that comes here, the number 1”
“All right. That’s the one I came on.”
At the tram stop, they shyly shook hands.
“See you Thursday,” said Graeme.
Jason nodded and smiled. It was something to look forward to.