He reached the café where he was meeting Keith with ten minutes to spare, and ordered himself a latte. Only as he was sipping it did he wonder why Keith had chosen this venue to meet, rather than the place where Esmé worked. He guessed it was because he didn’t want Esmé to see the interaction between the two of them.
When Keith arrived it was obvious he’d taken some care with his appearance, and Jason’s heart sank. He’d had a haircut, a good one, was wearing designer label jeans instead of the Target cheapies he usually wore, and the waistband of his Ginch Gonch undies was strategically displayed. He was also wearing an expensive aftershave.
“G’day!” Keith said, with a broad grin. “How are ya?”
“Good! Now I can say to you that you’re looking very chirpy!”
Keith stuck his tongue out. “You’re full of shit, aren’t you?” He ordered a latte. “The coffee’s good here,” he commented.
“Yes. Seems to be everywhere I’ve gone.”
“Only in the southern corner of Oz. You can’t get decent coffee in Brizzie or Perth.”
“Why so different?”
“I dunno. It’s a big country. In some ways, when I go to Sydney I feel that I’m in another country, not part of Australia. Everything is different. But at least you can find decent coffee there.”
Jason decided to tell Keith what he’d told Graeme about why he was here in Australia.
“I’m sorry about last night …” he began, before Keith interrupted him.
“ …. no, it was my fault. I shouldn’t have pushed you. I was wrong.”
“No, you couldn’t have known. Keith, I came to Australian to get away from something. I … I had a lover.” He had to stop for a moment to bring his voice under control. “He was killed.” He didn’t tell the truth and he was ashamed that he hadn’t. But he could not. The guilt, the grief, the loss were too great. He simply couldn’t bring himself to say “he shot himself.” But naturally, Keith asked.
“I can’t talk about it. I’m sorry.” His tone and expression must have made what he said compelling because Keith didn’t press him for more details. He rather had the impression that Keith didn’t deal in subtleties and hints. He would ask and keep on asking till he was satisfied he knew all there was to know. “I couldn’t stay in England. I had to leave.”
“And Keith, about yesterday, look this guy picked me up. He … it wasn’t … I didn’t know him. He … um … well, we had sex … but … you see …” By now Jason’s face was scarlet. “You see …. I can’t with someone I might like, see?”
Keith just smiled. “Yeah. I get it.”
Grateful that Keith understood, Jason smiled back, and said, “I like you Keith, and I have to work with you, and I don’t want us to be enemies. And … you know … if we … well, afterwards ….”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s no biggie.” Keith reached across the table and patted Jason’s hand. “I never meant to push. It’s just … sometimes …. I get lonely.” He looked away and then self-consciously took a sip of his coffee.
“Yes. Yeah, I get lonely too. And I’m sorry now that I had sex with that guy. He was a nice bloke, but so sad. I think he’d had some loss or his guy had turned out straight or something and so after, we had a long heart-to-heart. He chucked me out because he thought I was straight!”
“You?” Keith gave a great shout of laughter.
“What dya mean, me?” replied Jason, grinning, but pretending to be angry. “I’m not so obvious.”
“Yeah, true. Maybe I just have a very sensitive gaydar. I could tell at once. I mean, even if you hadn’t come into The Lord Grey for a job, I would’ve known.”
“Actually,” Jason drawled, leaning back in his chair and putting his hands behind his head, “I didn’t even know that it was a gay pub. And when Tom told me not to fuck the customers I was …. shocked.”
“Yeah, right! Anyway, he’s a fine one to talk!”
“Oh?” Jason had learned to use just that tone when he was a prefect at his school, the kind of tone which asked a question and expected an answer, but left it up to the person being questioned just how much misbehaviour was revealed. He’d always found that more came out that way than if he asked a direct question. The expectant pause after the question was also very useful.
Keith coloured. “Yeah, well. We were an item for a while.”
“Tom?” Jason was incredulous.
“He’s nicer than he seems,” said Keith defensively. “And he’s a fantastic top.”
Jason just stared.
“No need to look like that,” grumbled Keith. “While you’re waiting around for the right man you might as well enjoy the men along the way.”
“Enjoy?” Jason was trying not to laugh.
“Yeah, OK, he’s no painting. But he makes you feel special.”
“I understand. I do, really. My guy did that for me.
“Yeah, but Tom makes everyone feel special. If he takes a fancy to you, that is. Give it time: he’ll be patting your arse.”
“Well, when that happens I’ll start looking for another job.”
“That’s what happens all the time. He hits on the staff and they leave.”
“Why did you stay?”
“I dunno. Laziness. And I’m fond of him. He was famous once.”
“He was a rock star. Tom Falloway.”
“That is Tom Falloway? You’re joking?”
“No. All those drugs, all that high living, all that money … it fucks you up.”
“And now he manages a gay pub. And has lost all his hair.”
“That’ll happen to all of us, one day.”
“Well, that’s as maybe, but I can tell you, I wouldn’t have a comb-over! Or shoulder-length strands with a bald pate on top!”
Keith grinned. “You’re right. You’d look much better with a buzz cut of what’s left, stubble, and loads of studs.”
“Why doesn’t Tom do that?”
“I dunno. The Rock Star look I suppose. But he just looks dodgy instead.”
“So … are you still sleeping with him?”
Keith coloured crimson. He looked away. He mumbled something.
Jason just went on looking at him.
Keith looked up from the table and met Jason’s eyes. “It’s all very well for you. You’re a stunningly handsome, incredibly sexy man. Blue eyes, blond hair, sportsman’s body, straight-acting. You can probably get anyone you want.”
It was Jason’s turn to colour. “C’mon!” he muttered, turning away.
“Well, you are. Jeez, Jace, just admit it!”
Jason turned to Keith and stared directly into his eyes. “Keith, you are a handsome, sexy, lovely bloke. Look at you now!” And he touched Keith’s chin with his finger then turned his head to one side and then the other. “You’re handsome, you scrub up nice – don’t think I didn’t notice – and you have a kind heart. You have lovely eyes.”
“But you don’t want me.”
“I don’t want anybody.” He paused for many heartbeats. Then he said “Keith, my dear, you are not a nothing. Being gay doesn’t make you worthless whatever the bigots say.”
Keith stared down at the linen table-cloth and the shining “hotel silver” cutlery. Then he looked at the array of liquor bottles stored on the shelves behind the counter.
Jason waited patiently,
At last, Keith muttered, “Have you ever wished you weren’t gay?”
Jason thought about it. “Well, at the beginning I had a relationship with a bloke at school. It didn’t seem such a big deal, in a way. I read this book called The Charioteer which starts with a scene in a boys’ boarding school. It’s written by, um, …..”
“…. Mary Renault. Yeah, I know it. What gay guy doesn’t?”
“ … anyway, in it she says something like ‘some people are like cattle, which will lick up salt wherever they can find it if they are deprived of it. What she was saying is that with us 15, 16, 17 year olds, we wanted sex, and since we couldn’t have girls, being in a boys’ boarding school and all, we were attracted to each other. And it was half expected but by the same token totally expected that after school we would get over it and get married, and most of the men did, eventually.”
“But you didn’t?”
“No. But it never seemed ‘gay’ to me, if you know what I mean. My guy,” and here Jason had to stop and swallow the lump in his throat, “my guy,” he went on, his voice strained, “ he was so straight-acting. He was just a regular bloke who loved me. We didn’t go to gay pubs, we didn’t sleep around, he had lots of straight friends who knew about us. It was so … ordinary. So I’ve never felt ‘gay’. I mean, I am, but ….” And he thought of Luigi, and decided that he had to see him again, just to tell him the truth about himself.
“What about your parents?”
“They made a bit of a fuss.” Jason thought back to his father’s disdain and anger. But that seemed to be as much because Brent was the ‘wrong’ class as for the fact that Jason was taking it up the bum. His mother had been worse, in a way, coldly disregarding Jason’s feelings and wishes and continually harping on marriage and kids and all the stuff which would have made her able to say with pride at the dinner and cocktail parties she was always attending, “my son’s wife, my grandchildren.” Only his granny had been easy with it. “Pudding,” she’d said, “if he makes you happy, then I’m happy,” and afterwards she’d asked about Brent as if she cared and had invited them over for tea and dinner and had fallen for Brent’s charm as easily as Jason had. “It’s odd.”
“My parents made me feel more of an outcast than anybody else. They struggled to accept what I was, what I am.”
“My dad threw me out of the house. I lived on the street for a while.”
“Jesus. Was it hard?”
“That’s a fucking stupid thing to say.” Keith seemed quite calm, but his tone and demeanour were very intense – stiff and cold.
“Jeez, yes, you’re right. It was a naff thing to say. Sorry.”
“’Sokay. And yes it was hard. I … I was a rent boy for a while. And …” Keith looked away, unable to meet Jason’s gaze, “ … it was Tom who took me in.” He looked directly at Jason, daring him to make something of it.
“Tom’s kind, then?” Jason felt like a fool. He couldn’t think of anything intelligent or useful to say.
“Yes. He is. His manner, sometimes, you know, people think he’s rude and off-hand, but he gets a lot of wankers in there and they treat him badly, so …”
“ … so he’s developed a way to deal with them?”
Jason was intrigued at this insight into Tom’s character.
“So he has a heart of gold?” His grin was a little mocking.
“W-e-l-l … not quite. But he can be kind and generous. And as I said, he’s a fantastic top. Hits the spot every time.” Keith winked at him.
“I’ll take your word for it.”
“I hope you stay, Jace.” Keith’s naked hope and longing were uncomfortable.
“I know. I know.”
“Friends, right?” Jason smiled as he spoke. But he promised nothing. At least, that’s what he told himself. “What’s the scene with Esmé?”
“I got a slight impression that you two had once been an item.”
Keith looked away. “Yeah. We’ve been friends for a while. And … I’m very close to her.”
“I saw that.”
“So … well … I … we … one night. Look, I don’t really want to talk about it.”
Jason was taken aback. Keith was quite comfortable talking about sex with Tom, about his feelings for Tom. Yet he felt protective of Esmé. And that was intriguing.
“Have you had any other girlfriends?”
“I suppose …”
“Nothing.” Jason had been thinking that if you’d had to survive on the streets selling your arse, perhaps it was too hard to believe that you could have a normal life with a wife and kids – or a husband and kids – making your house a home. And maybe that’s why Keith was so needy.
“Go on. You were going to say something.”
“Just that … we live in a society which is het dominated. So everything we believe in is irrelevant to other people, And whereas they wouldn’t try man on man stuff, because it would never enter their heads, we see all these symbols of a happy hetero life around us. You know … marriages, happy het couples, babies, the whole thing of life passages, of watching your kids growing up. So we end up trying it, trying to fit in, be like everyone else.”
“Yeah.” Keith looked forlorn. He added, “I think I might have hurt Esmé.”
“She knew about you, right?”
“Oh, yeah. But all the same, I think she had hopes.”
“Don’t we all?”
It was time to go a few doors down the road and start work. On impulse, as they were leaving the café, Jason pulled Keith into a fierce hug.
“And that?” But Keith looked pleased.
“Friends,” said Jason, emphasising the word. “We need to look after each other. I think we both need it.”
Café Università, Melbourne
I’m sorry I left without saying goodbye. I don’t know whether they told you what happened. Brent shot himself and it was because of me. I felt I just had to get away.
Anyway, here I am. In Australia. I’ve got a job at a bar, I’m staying with a nice old lady who reminds me of you, and I’m trying to start a new life.
Please don’t tell mum and dad or anyone where I am. It’s my fault Brent killed himself, and I just couldn’t bear dad’s indifference or mum’s spite. You know how they are, and they never accepted that I loved him or even that he was a real person. I hoped that we would be together always, like marriage is supposed to be, but that isn’t going to happen now.
This is my new email address:__________ I don’t know how long I’ll be at the address where I am now, but the email will move around with me wherever I go. I used an internet café near where I live to set up this account, and that’s where I’ll go to access my emails.
I’ve only got a six-month’s visa, and I’m not supposed to be working. Maybe when my Ozzie visa expires, I’ll go to New Zealand. I’ve always wanted to go there, ever since I read that Mary Stewart book you lent me – you remember, what was it called? About the telepathic woman and her lover? – anyway, it seemed wonderfully romantic and far away, and I’ve been longing to see it ever since.
Ozzies are very friendly and likable. I’m starting to make friends. No one from “society” – mum would have a fit! – but they’re all genuine and sincere people.
I haven’t your email address, so please email me soon, and I’ll write back and let you know what’s happening.
I miss you a lot, and Mr Minim too. I can’t send him an email, so give him a kiss for me, and one of those biscuits he likes so much.
Jason was paid by the day, directly from the till. He paid no taxes, no Medicare levy, but his pay was reduced accordingly. He had accumulated a few hundred dollars and felt good about that. It felt like real money, not some magical credit to his bank account from dividends or bond coupons. He’d had jobs before, but more because he was supposed to than because he’d had to. Even then, though, the job at the pub in England hadn’t lasted that long. He realised that he might have to go on working for the rest of his life. And though he found it hard to imagine ‘the rest of his life’, he had found to his surprise that he enjoyed the job. True, there were the occasional arseholes, and there was always the tedium of wiping down surfaces, stacking the dishwashers, sweeping and tidying. But there was also Keith, who was funny and tough, and could easily humiliate a difficult patron with a few well-chosen words and a tough mien which kept all but the drunkest or most aggressive patrons in check. If “take your sodding wankiness outside, sister” didn’t work, Keith would fetch Tom, who would reach under the counter for his baseball bat, and stride forth like a leather-and-chain-clad bikie, ruthless, tough and foul-mouthed. The best times, though, were after The Lord Grey had closed, and he and Keith and Esmé were sitting over a coffee (and sometimes a brandy) talking about life and their part in it.
But the other part of the day he’d come to cherish was the morning tea he would often have with Mrs Cumberledge. The strong summer light would wake him up earlier than he in truth preferred, at ten or so. He often only got to bed at two, and so that was the regulation eight hours of sleep, but it always felt that he could go on lying there, dreaming about stuff, and the need to get up and wee always annoyed him because it meant he couldn’t go back to sleep. So, dragging on some jeans over his boxers, and yesterday’s T-shirt, he would saunter down to the kitchen and start his morning tea and toast. As often as not Eleanor Cumberledge would be there, pottering around the kitchen, or watering the pot plants on the back veranda. Her back veranda was a green haven, with geraniums, impatience, fuchsia, ferns, and growing on the fence, a carpet of Boston ivy which was still grass green but which Jason guessed would soon be turning the rich claret, orange, crimson and scarlet of its autumn dress.
She was a tranquil person, with an absent-minded kindness and the manners of a well-bred duchess, and she always made Jason feel at peace. She made him feel welcome. He wondered just how well she and his grandmother would get on. Though they were not at all like each other, yet they did have something in common. Their intelligence, which women of their generation were meant to dissemble, because the poor unfortunate men couldn’t stand their women being brighter than them. His gran hid her intelligence under a misleading scatterbrained, gossipy inconsequential prattle. Mrs Cumberledge pretended to be vague but her eyes were razor-sharp, and she had a nasty habit of asking penetrating to-the-point questions when you least expected it.
Or of making embarrassing to-the-point comments.
“Jason, you do know that you can bring a boyfriend home to spend the night if you want?”
Jason was so astonished his mouth dropped open and he gaped like a fish. His discombobulation must have shown in his face, because Mrs Cumberledge laughed.
“I’m not completely green you know,” she said. “As long as you don’t make a racket in the wee hours.”
Jason looked at her then bowed his head in thanks. “Thank you. Actually, as it happens, I don’t, um, have a boyfriend at the moment.”
“Well, when you do,” she replied placidly.
All at once, Jason felt he could tell her everything about himself and Brent.
So he did.
Halfway through Jason’s tearful recitation of what had happened, Mrs Cumberledge went through to the the kitchen and returned with a box of tissues.
“The kettle’s on, she said,” and we can have a nice cup of tea.”
“I’m so sorry I’m making such a fuss,” choked out Jason, wiping his eyes.
“Love is important. And so is grief. I don’t mind in the least.”
She listened quietly to Jason’s tale, and at the end sighed, and said, “You know, every one of us has done something we’re ashamed of. But if we give ourselves to self-disgust and self-blame, we won’t make things any better. All we can do is learn from our mistakes so that we don’t repeat them.”
“But what I did was so wrong, Mrs Cumberledge.
“Do call me Eleanor, Jason. Yes, by your standards it was. But perhaps others might not have thought so?”
Jason thought of his parents and how they would have responded to the revelations about Brent’s behaviour. “No, that’s true, but …”
“… You set yourself high standards. Not that I disapprove, and of course, if you do set high standards, well, you must keep them. Jason, I am an old woman now, and I have seen much of he world. I can’t insist that what I think is right and wrong. For starters, I have learnt to think differently about things than I used to when I was young. The young are so judgemental, even of themselves”—and she looked at Jason as she said this—“but when you get older you realise just how fallible we all are. Of course, there are some people who never make that realisation. They remain idiots their whole lives.”
“If I’d been there for him, he’d be alive today.”
“I don’t doubt it. But you’re only human. As long as you learn from your mistakes ….”
“It’s too late.” Jason stared away across the tiny garden and tried hard not to break down again.
“It was for me too,” replied Eleanor Cumberledge, quietly and very sadly.
Jason turned his head and stared at her.
She nodded her head and looked away, just as Jason had done a moment before.
“My son was … gay. We didn’t call it that then. We called it homo or queer. I suppose I always knew in my heart he was … He was a dear little boy, so bright and sparky and full of beans. He loved dressing up, acting, playing the fool. He had so much energy and zest. He brightened the room. Whenever he appeared, people would smile.
“The first few years at school were fine. Little boys haven’t learnt to be the critical creatures they become when they get to the late teen years. He was happy, did a lot of smiling and laughing and still had that wicked sense of humour and joie de vivre which made him so lovable. Of course, a mother loves her children anyway. And certainly I loved him.
“The trouble started when he was 14 or so. I think it was then that he realise he was … gay. The other boys realised it too. How cruel people are! They made his life a misery; bullying him; mocking him; cruelly, horribly taunting him. My little boy went from being funny, clever, kind … to a sullen, silent, angry young man.
“I should have intervened then. I should have taken him out of the school. I should have talked to the school. Instead I said to myself that he had to toughen up, that this was making a man out of him, and that he had to endure this because worse might happen in life.”
She looked away, her mouth hard, her eyes wet.
Jason couldn’t bring himself to speak. Instead, he took her hand and held it, and she squeezed it back.
When at last she did speak, her voice was ragged. “He … took his own life. I’d been out, and when I came home he had … he was … he’d hanged himself. He …” but here she was unable to continue, and, now crying freely, she rested her head on one hand and vigorously scrubbed her eyes with a wad of bundled-up tissues held in the other.
Jason couldn’t speak either, his own loss and grief mirrored in hers. Together, they wept, joined in grief, joined in regrets.
At last, Eleanor stopped. “We’re a fine pair,” she said forlornly. She sat in silence a while longer, then added, as an afterthought, “So you see why I blame myself.”
“Oh but Mrs Cum … Eleanor … it wasn’t you who are to blame. It’s the bullies. They’re to blame, not you. They were the ones who drove him to his death. Not you!”
“But I might have saved him. See, I thought it was perfectly fine for a boy to be like he was, but not a man. Men should be manly. Not quirky or funny of effeminate. That’s what I thought. So he never got to be a man, because of my stupidity, my prejudice. I worked it all out afterwards. I should have done something, but deep down, I was afraid, I was reluctant to let him grow up the way he was, to be what he was. How very stupid I was!” There was a long silence. At last, she said, so quietly Jason almost didn’t hear, “Well, I’ve had twenty years to reflect on my folly.”
“I’m not being very helpful, am I?” she said. “Well never mind, I believe we both need another cup of tea and I have some special biscuits which will cheer us up a little.”
She went into the kitchen and when she returned with the tea, she was carnying a worn hard-cover exercise book. “This was his diary,” she said.
The diary of Bart Cumberledge, 9B, TOP SECRET, was written in a faded ink on the inside cover. Jason started reading. At first, the diary was just an uninspired catalogue of things done, a schoolboy’s idea of the sort of things you should write in a diary: went to swimming today, saw Batman and Dead Poets Society (lied about my age, but worth it), tore shorts (mum was cross); but when Jason flipped ahead, he saw that the texts had morphed into something else, an open and sincere record of Bart’s emotional life, descriptions of guys he’d developed a crush on, things he wished, and the first stirring of the horrible school bullying which in the end killed him. When Jason read an entry, I WISH I WAS NOT GAY he snapped the diary closed and said to Eleanor, “May I keep this for a while? I’d like to read it properly.” Mrs Cumberledge merely nodded.
Jason took the diary up to his room and put it next to his bed. He would read it when he felt up to it. Not yet, not now. He had much to think about, and he spent the day oppressed and filled with sorrows.
The next night was the night that Graeme was supposed to come to The Lord Grey to meet Jason.
It was ten o’clock when Jason, who’d been watching the door all evening, saw Graeme standing at the door, looking a little shy and peering short-sightedly into the dimness of the bar. Jason went over, and when Graeme smiled at him he couldn’t help grinning back.
Back at the bar counter, as he was pulling a pint of draft Victoria Bitter for a customer, Keith, who was next to him mixing a cocktail, said “Who’s he?”
“I met him at the beach.”
“Yeah?” Keith’s tone was aggressive and angry.
“He’s just someone I met, Keith. Not a trick.”
Keith wouldn’t look at him.
“Jeez, Keith! C’mon, then, come and meet him. Maybe he’ll fancy you!”
He dragged a reluctant Keith over to where Graeme was sitting.
“Hey, Graeme, this is my friend Keith. He works here too.”
“G’day,” mumbled Keith, red with embarrassment, unable to meet either Graeme’s or Jason’s eyes. Jason grinned to himself.
“Pleased to meet you,” said Graeme.
“We finish tonight at about eleven, maybe eleven thirty,” said Jason. “Would you like to join us for a coffee afterwards?”
Every so often, he would pop by Graeme’s table and chat for a moment or two. He was conscious that every time he did this, Keith’s gaze would fix upon them.