Jason felt quite proud of being able to introduce Graeme to Esmé when they all went next door for coffee. Graeme had a distinguished air. He’d dressed conservatively, rather than in the worn grunge that so many of the clients of The Lord Grey affected, in a tasteful sports jacket and expensive designer-label jeans, and Jason was startled to realise just how attractive he was. No one would have said he was handsome, not in a world where images of male models plaster every surface and fill every screen. Yet he had an indefinable air about him. He had class. He was sexy and desirable, even with grey streaks in his hair, lines on his forehead and the absence of a washboard stomach.
Keith was still bristling somewhat at Graeme, and Jason was amused at his possessiveness. After all, he’d only known Jason a few days more than Graeme had! But Graeme remained polite and Jason saw the moment when he began to charm Keith, and watched as Keith responded. Yet Graeme didn’t ignore Esmé either, and his low-key appeal and obvious niceness soon melted her reserve.
By the end of the evening, it was obvious that Graeme was well-liked by both of them, and Keith had even started to flirt with him.
As they were leaving, Graeme said quietly to Jason, “Shall we have lunch tomorrow? When do you start work?”
“I’m on the evening shift. I start at six p.m. Yes, I’d be delighted.” Immediately after he’d made this reply, Jason cursed himself for sounding so upper-class, so damn English.
They’d arranged to meet a couple of streets away from The Lord Grey and Majorca Flats, and Jason had to walk. In this part of the city, the tram lines ran north-south, and there were none going east-west. But it was only a kilometre or so, at least according to the map Eleanor Cumberledge had lent him. He walked past nineteenth century factory buildings, so much more elegant than modern factories; tiny Victorian terrace houses, which must have once housed the factory workers and their families; grander Victorian or Edwardian mansions (probably for the factory workers’ bosses); through streets lined with venerable elms, oaks and planes. Creepers (Honeysuckle, jasmine, and some he couldn’t identify) grew in profusion over fences, and most of the minuscule front gardens were little forests, with Japanese maples, miniature palm trees, laurels, cotinus, Pride of India, and most of all, roses, in every conceivable colour except blue. From open doorways or windows there came music: rock; classical; jazz; some of it from recordings, but a few times it was live. He passed a window where he heard someone singing a solo from Rigoletto. If he hadn’t heard her stop and repeat a section, he would have assumed it was a record, so perfect was the singing.
Graeme’s house was one of the grander ones in the street. It was double storeyed, with a two metre wall out the front, covered with climbing roses and jasmine, and a wonderful wooden gate, carved with Celtic designs. Inside there was a small patch of lawn with narrow flowerbeds filled with thickly-massed and pruned lavender, penstemons, irises and other flowers Jason didn’t recognise. There’d been a buzzer at the gate, and Graeme was waiting for him, his face solemn but his eyes smiling.
The house was filled with the smells of garlic, tomatoes, onion and other savoury odours Jason couldn’t separate from each other.
“A glass of wine?”
“I’d love that. Thank you!” Jason felt suddenly a little uncomfortable. He didn’t want to have sex with Graeme. He felt a strong bond to the other man, but he couldn’t set aside his grief, his memories like that. It was almost as if he could have anonymous sex, but not loving sex, and he knew in his heart that anonymous sex would just make him feel hollow and dissatisfied afterwards and so he couldn’t do it. And loving sex was out of the question.
“White or red?” asked Graeme, turning away from Jason towards an antique table where there were glasses set out along with a few bottles of wine and liqueurs.
“I prefer red, but at this time of the day …” Jason replied.
“Yeah, I’m like that too.” Graeme smiled. He went to the fridge, took out a bottle of white, and poured two glasses. He gave one to Jason, and turned and walked through the house towards the back, taking the bottle with him. Jason saw double French doors opened to the tiny garden beyond. An ornate garden table with four chairs was set out on a small brick patio, sheltering under a thick canopy of wisteria, and Jason was immediately taken back to the first day he met Brent. A wave of sorrow swept him, and he was hard pressed not to start weeping. Graeme must have seen something on his face, for he took Jason’s arm and gently led him to the table. The warmth of Graeme’s hand felt good. When they reached the table he let go of Jason’s arm and gestured to the chairs.
Graeme, whose manners Jason had decided were perfect, immediately asked after Keith and Esmé, and listened with apparent interest as Jason talked about them.
The he changed the subject.
“So, what did you decide to do after you left Oxford?”
“Actually I was still a student when I decided to come out to Australia.” That was another thing his parents would lecture him about. As well as him and Brent … Too bad. They’d be wasting their breath. Because that part of his life was over now. “When Brent …. died, I just couldn’t take it any longer … I suppose I should write to my college, let them know. I’d just started the new term, so I suppose that’s a write-off.”
“Will you go back to finish your degree?”
For the first time since he’d come to Australia, Jason thought about going back to England. He thought about his parents’ reaction, about how they would nag and pester him, about how they would try and get his trust fund money cut off so that they could force him to do what they wanted, which was to get married and have kids and “settle down” into a well-paid, glamorous job in the city.
“No!” he said, and it came out louder and much more emphatically than he’d intended.
Embarrassed, Jason cast around for a change of subject. He’d wondered how Graeme managed to do no apparent work, yet could afford a house like this in an expensive inner-city suburb.
“This is a lovely house,”he said, attacking the subject obliquely.
“Courtesy of Amantha Masterton.”
“Who?” Jason immediately regretted his rudeness. “I mean, um, I’ve never heard of her. Sorry.”
Graeme’s eyes were sparkling with amusement.
Jason felt a little foolish.
“If you promise not to laugh …”
“I promise,” said Jason, beginning to smile too.
“Hang on a tick. I’ll be back in a moment.” Graeme got up and went inside. When he returned he was carrying a few books.
They were large paperbacks with glossy embossed covers and the titles in eighteenth century italic script. The author’s name — in large gilt letters — was Amantha Masterton.
Jason looked as Graeme, enlightenment dawning.
“Oh!” he said.
“I’ll just get the food, said Graeme, leaving Jason to inspect the books on his own, politely giving him time to make up his own mind and his own reactions in private.
Graeme came out of the house carrying a flat casserole dish of what looked like pasta, and a glass bowl of salad. He set them down on the table and said, “Back in a tick,” and went back inside. This time he returned with plates and cutlery.
The pasta smelled delicious, and Jason was suddenly conscious that he hadn’t had any home cooking for weeks. Brent had been a good cook, and had delighted in preparing meals for Jason. He shook his head, Once again his thoughts had turned to the past, to memories, and that would not do. He had to learn to live again, no matter how impossible that seemed, and dwelling on the past, dwelling on what might have been, on what he had lost — that would just lead to self-pity and despair.
“Where did you get the name?” he asked.
“It was Pete’s idea. We’d started writing it before he got sick, and he insisted I continue while it … while it was all happening. And then … after …. it was a distraction. It took my mind off losing Pete. I worked like a demon, all day, all hours, and before I knew it, I’d written the first three novels starring Lord Jedediah de Balencourt. Het romance with a bit of explicit hot stuff thrown in. The first was a moderate success, the second went even better, and now they are all best sellers.”
He paused for a moment and sipped his wine. “Help yourself, by the way. I can rattle on for hours, and you’d starve to death meanwhile.”
“I’ve never met a successful author before,” said Jason helping himself to some pasta and some of the salad.
Jason snorted. “Author? I suppose, technically. But really it’s a job, like any other. I know what sells, I churn out one Lord Balencourt novel a year, and I have lots of free time once I’ve finished the latest.”
“Author seems like the right word to me!” said Jason, It seems like something I could never do. Everybody at school and Oxford was talking about the great novel they were going to write, and I knew I couldn’t do that.”
“Well, you never know! But what will you do?”
“My parents wanted me to do law. But I found it so boring, and so immoral — making the wrong side appear right. And then … I met Brent. And everything else became unimportant, really. He was my … he was everything … and I just, well, I stopped thinking about my career and what I would do when I’d finished university.” Jason didn’t want to mention the money he would get when he turned twenty-five, so much money it seemed disgusting and immoral. Especially now, especially after the way Brent had died.
“These things have a way of sorting themselves out. Who would’ve thought that I would make a living — a good living — from writing? Though I admit, it is a job. I don’t get much fun out of it.”
“Is it the writing itself or what you write?”
“What I write. I would love to write something more … in line with my life. Actually, I have. But though it sells, it certainly won’t make me rich. No chance.”
“What did you write?”
Graeme mentioned the names of a couple of gay novels.
“You wrote those?” Jason was astounded. “They’re fantastic!”
“Thank you! A fan!” Graeme’s eyes were sparkling with amusement.
“I loved them. When Jonathan dives off the cliff … Wow!” Jason thought for several seconds. “But hang on a minute! The novels were set in America. How did you manage that? They sound so authentic.”
“Pete was American. From the mid-west. A horrid town full of homophobes and Bible-bashers. He was much happier here, in Melbourne. We were happy, so happy together.” Graeme looked away. Then looked back, with a forced smile.
“Life has a way of taking away the people and the things you love. But I always tell myself, we had ten years of bliss, of a happiness some people only dream about. I mean, every day in Africa, or the slums of India or Mexico or Rio de Janeiro, some poor bugger wakes up hungry and dies. Every day. And I have all this. So much!”
“Yes … but …”
“I know. It’s like that novel — or is it a short story? — by J D Salinger, where one of the characters says a Buddhist prayer over and over again, in the belief that if you keep on saying it, eventually one will become one with God.”
“And does he?”
“She. No. She faints!” Graeme smiled ironically at Jason. “But still — the same principle is supposed to apply. Keep on reminding yourself about your blessings and you’ll feel happier. After all, we take them for granted, and get our knickers in a twist about what we don’t have. Which — when you look at it objectively — is silly, isn’t it?”
“I suppose so. Yet … somehow I just don’t believe it’ll help with what I feel about Brent.”
“No. When your grief is that profound, there is little which will make you feel better.” Graeme was silent for a moment or two, then said, hesitantly, “That’s partly why I asked you around. I hoped it would help take your mind off your grief. I’ve been there, and I know what it feels like.”
“Thank you.” Jason had to speak past the lump in his throat. He felt like weeping at Graeme’s kindness. “There hasn’t really been anybody I could talk to. My sister was totally accepting … my brother didn’t say too much … though even he was ambivalent. But my parents always thought Brent was … a working class git. I think that was worse for them than his being gay. They would probably have tolerated an upper-class twink from Eton.” Jason stopped and looked away at the little garden, perfect and neat and rich, where every spare inch had been used for something beautiful, Japanese in its intensity and purity, but still somehow reminding him of English gardens from villages in the Cotswolds. Simultaneously home and yet not-home, too.
“Have you finished?” Graeme was looking pointedly at Jason’s untouched meal.
“Oh! Not in the least! It’s delicious!” And Jason grabbed his fork and started eating. Graeme just grinned.
Determined to change the subject, Jason asked the first thing which came into his head: “Did you find it hard to write the straight sex in your novels?”
“Nah. It’s pretty much the same, you know …”
“ … and anyway, I was married, for six years.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. I … it was none of my business.”
“No worries, Jason. It’s OK. It was a long time ago. Actually, it was she who pointed out to me that I was gay. We’re still friends. Close friends. Perhaps, she’s my best friend, really. Married again, to a really nice bloke, who’s straight. He’s made her happy, and I would have made her miserable. I did. Make her miserable, I mean.”
“Thing is, me, I didn’t really know much about gay ’til Brent. And even then. We didn’t go clubbing or anything. We were just two guys — two people — who were in love. My folks had lots of labels to apply and things to say, but I never felt gay. D’you know what I mean?”
“It’s a label. But … you’re you, not some exemplar of the classic gay man. You’re an individual. Of course, as you say, others may not see you that way. To the bigots, you aren’t a person. You’re a cipher. But you can’t let yourself feel that, in yourself. You have to be you.”
Graeme had become quite passionate, for him.
“Some people criticised us. They were disappointed that we didn’t do what they wanted.”
Graeme nodded. “There’s always someone, you know that.”
“Some more wine?”
“Thank you. Yes. It’s a lovely wine.”
“So it is. The grapes are grown just outside Melbourne, on the Mornington Peninsula, down near the sea, where the climate is mild and cool.”
It was three before they’d finished talking and eating and drinking. As he left, Jason gave Graeme a hug. “I’m getting a mobile, Gray. I’ll be in touch. Thank you for a wonderful lunch. Thank you for everything.”
He didn’t want to let Graeme go, but he felt him start to tense up, and he turned abruptly and strode off, his gait a little uneven with all the wine.
Half way down the street he turned and Graeme was still standing at the gate, looking after him. Jason waved, and Graeme waved back.
He hadn’t forgotten Brent, and he honestly didn’t think he ever could or would, but within his grief and loss he felt a kind of peace settle over him, a gossamer cloth of thin and fragile acceptance.
A couple of nights later, Jason was serving in The Lord Grey. It was a very busy Saturday night, and he scarcely had a moment to notice how the time was passing until he suddenly realised, not long after midnight, that it was quiet again. The room was half empty, the crush against the bar gone.
He went round clearing away empty and half-filled glasses, plates, bits of paper. As he reached the door to the street, he felt someone’s eyes on him.
He turned. It was Luigi.
He felt the blood rush to his cheeks. Luigi looked so forlorn and lost that Jason’s first instinctive smile faded. They stared at each for for many, many heartbeats. Finally, he took Luigi’s hand in his.
“Luigi, I’ve got something to tell you,” he said, to the wall behind Luigi, for he was quite unable to meet his eyes. “I’m glad you came.” Only then could he look at the other man. The loneliness in Luigi’s eyes made him take his other hand too, and for what seemed like forever they looked deeply into each other’s souls.
My darling Jason,
You know how I am with computers. Anyway I battled and battled (see? I’ve even worked out how to use underlining!) and I lost two whole emails before I worked out what I was doing wrong. I’m hoping this one actually reaches you. It seems so strange sending off a missive like this which will get to you instantly whereas in the old days it took weeks and weeks to get to Australia.
You are a very naughty boy going off like that and giving me such a scare. At first they wouldn’t tell me what happened but your dad phoned in a flap and asked me where you were! As if I’d know! Though I suppose it’s a vote of confidence. So I had to worm it out of your sister. I thought I was being very cunning. I invited her to Hampstead on the pretext of taking her to the opera (there’s a lovely La Bohème on with that new tenor whose name sounds so Italian, Dolce or something), anyway, when she arrived she started quizzing me about what happened, so I played the ingénue, but she wasn’t fooled for a minute (I don’t know where she or you, for that matter, get your brains from – it certainly isn’t from either of your parents!) and in the end I wormed it out of her. She’s was terribly upset by what happened. I haven’t mentioned that I got a letter from you, but I know she misses you desperately. I won’t tell her unless you say so, but she knows how to keep a secret.
Why do you blame yourself for Brent’s death, dear? He was such a lovely young man, I was so fond of him. Your mother never understood that all the outside stuff doesn’t matter, it’s what’s in your heart and soul that’s important. My dearest Jasie, if you don’t want to talk about it, don’t. Just remember I’m here if you need me. In fact, I’d love to come out and visit you. Even at my age.
Mr Minim looked around when I told him your name. I know there are some foolish old women who believe their dog is human, but really, he shows so much more alertness than many people, and far more than that new prime minister, well, good grief, the man has as much personality as a Tesco’s teapot. All slick and breakable and cheap. It is said that he went to Eton. I hae me doots, as my old Scottish nanny would say, God bless her.
Write soon. I miss you. The book by the way was Mary Stewart’s Touch not the Cat. (More underlining! I am so with it! I feel so madly technic. Or maybe I mean technological.) It’s such a nice romance and an exciting thriller too. The book I mean not my technical thingy.
Jason read his grandmother’s email in the internet café, his eyes brimming, trying to stifle his tears. He had a moment’s sardonic amusement – he would never have cried for a mere injury in rugby or running. Those were to be endured in silence, without complaint. But the grief of having a piece of himself wrenched out and thrown away was unendurable. He knew that the members of his rugby or running teams would have been—not dismissive, nor contemptuous, neither of those—but puzzled and alarmed that he should show his grief like this.
Jason was past caring. His grandmother’s words showed him just how much he was missing and was missed, and yet he knew he couldn’t go home. Not yet, not while the memories were still fresh. For the first time he understood what a broken heart was. It felt exactly like that, as if his heart had been snapped in two. The ache was almost physical it was so strong.
Yet despite all this, he had been prepared to fuck a complete stranger. OK, the stranger had strongly encouraged the whole thing, but Jason was no mere automaton. He’d read somewhere that people rutted like crazed weasels when they thought they were going to die, and maybe it worked like that with grief too.
“Tcha!” he muttered, knowing he was just making excuses. It was his own fault Brent was dead. What can’t be cured must be endured. Who was it who first shared this infuriating little aphorism with him? His first nanny, maybe. He dimly remembered a sweet-smelling plump, very kind young woman, who he now realised had adored him. He wondered what had happened to her. He supposed she’d got married, and had her own children. And it suddenly struck him that these surrogate mothers must have got fond of their charges, have grown to love them, and it saddened him that they always moved on.
The nanny after her, Madeleine, had been French and had stayed with them all their childhood. Because of her, Jason could speak an idiomatic dialect French as well as the correct public school version. It had amused him that when he went to visit her at her home village in France after he’d finished at Oxford, the locals who didn’t know him took him for another local. Perhaps, he thought, I should have gone there. And then he remembered that eventually they would have looked there for him. Even his parents might have thought about it in the end. Madeleine would never have given him away, but …. Well, if he couldn’t stay here in Oz, maybe he could go to France. He’d have no visa problems there because of the EC. And yet, much though he loved France, he felt –oddly – at home here in Australia.
As you see, your email arrived. I am so impressed! Underlining too! Next thing you’ll be getting a pilot’s licence. Oops! I shouldn’t have said that, should I? I’ll read about you in the paper, flying out to Oz in your single-engined Piper cub. Don’t do it, gran! You might get arrested in Afghanistan or Iran. You know what’s it’s like there. Mind you, they might not quite realise what’s hit them when you’ve finished with them! And then I’ll have to come and rescue you!
As they say here, so placidly it’s very funny: “it’s a worry.” 🙂 That means a smile, by the way, gran, this 😉 means a wink, and this :_) is a lopsided grin. Now you know all about email ‘smileys’!
Yes, you can give Amanda my email address, but please ask her to keep it from the others. I know I should give Mark my address too, but he was never really comfortable with me and Brent. I really do not want an email from mum or dad. It’ll just be how ungrateful I am and how selfish and why can’t I come home and go back to my studies and marry some nice girl. I just can’t do it, gran. I feel so down and sad. I miss Brent so much. I miss you and Amanda too, but, just now, gran, I can’t.
Yesterday I went to lunch with a famous author! You’ll never guess who he is. Amantha Masterton! And yes she is a he, a very manly he too. Have you read any of her (his) books? He says he’s a best seller, and certainly he obviously has money, judging by his house. He invited me to lunch because he lost his husband years ago and he felt sorry for me. Normally, when people feel sorry for me I get annoyed or embarrassed, but he was so unobtrusive and careful and discreet about it.
Give my love to Mr Minim. My landlady has a wonderful little fox terrier called Bolt (‘cos that’s what he does if you open the door!) and he seems to have decided I’m his best friend. I think I’ll tell him about Mr Minim. Though explaining all the character traits and intricacies of that dog will be hard.
I love you, Gran. Write soon.
“Luigi, first … look, it’s been worrying me a lot since we … Look … I’m not straight. I know I pretended, but …” Jason paused for a minute, still keeping a tight grip on Luigi’s hands. “I have had girlfriends, but I’m gay. I lived with a man. I was in love with him. His name was Brent.” Then, to his shame and chagrin he found himself unable to speak. He wiped his eyes on his sleeve.
“What the fuck are ya doin’ to Jace?” Keith loomed over them, big, angry, protective.
Jason let go of one of Luigi’s hands and grabbed Keith by the other. “Siddown,” he growled past the lump in his throat. “Just siddown and fucking listen!”
He looked at the other men, one after the other, and when he was sure they were ready to listen, he began.
“I met Brent at a cricket game. It was lust at first sight. And love too. Oh jeez, so much love. He was playing for the other team, and afterwards we went for a beer which became two and then three. And it was as if there was electricity between us. We couldn’t stop looking at each other. He was so sexy in his cricket whites, smelling of sweat and earth and him. I wanted him so much. I hadn’t really thought about being ‘gay’. There’d been a guy at school and I’d thought I loved him, but it wasn’t like I felt gay or anything. I’d had girlfriends and it was good, the sex, and …” and Jason struggled to be honest, to explain it all properly, “… and being close to them. I mean, Lou,” and he turned to look at Luigi, “I could have got married and probably the marriage would have worked, because … well, because I can have a relationship with a woman. But then I met Brent.”