Awarded third prize at the Cambridge Writers Short Story Competition 2016.
This is a weird experience. A first for me. Never been to such a gathering. Suits, hats and rosettes everywhere. The place bustling with self-delighted busybodies. What did someone call them? The chattering classes? Yeah, love it! What a deadly barb! Still, no one is chattering to me. They know me for a disaffected intruder. It’s the way I sit alone, surveying the hall with a jaundiced eye from the end of a back row.
I see from the programme that Simon is to speak at eleven. His subject? The Need for Integrity in Public Life. How predictable and juicily appropriate. I shall heed and relish every word. But I should have worn a different jacket. These sleeves are not wide enough to laugh up.
Let me ask you something. Have you ever shaken with emotion? I’m not sure that I ever had until last June. So the earthquake, when it came, took me by storm. It was the loss of control: the body acting independently. I thought, if I sit still – very still, listening to late Schubert – the tumult will pass. But here I am, three months later, in a rage of aftershocks that show no sign of letting up.
So how do I know Simon? Good question. How does an obscure insect like me come to know one of the exalted, you mean? Short answer: I met him at the Prince William in Haringey. No, not a queer bar. Simon, a clean-living Protestant lad, avoids such places. The pub is simply my local, and one that he occasionally dropped into on his way home from the gym.
Approaching the table where I was sitting alone, he startled me out of my musing.
‘Mind if I join you?’
‘Not at all. Be my guest.’
We sat smiling at each other. Then, craning forward, he peered closely at me.
‘Family trait,’ I said. ‘We’re long everywhere.’
He didn’t reveal much that night. Or indeed any night; but we’ll come to that. Said he worked for the Government. Tricky as ever, of course. I thought he meant in Whitehall. Not for a moment did I suspect on the benches. He looked too young for an MP, let alone a junior minister.
‘Me? . . . I’m a model.’
Another tricky answer. But excusable at the time: we’d only just met.
An unlikely pickup. I doubt that his looks appeal to everyone. That dark bony face; that deep ridge beneath the nose; that steady gaze, framed by overlarge ears. But I have odd taste in blokes. He bought me a drink, and we talked in a coded way about Berlin, which he’d just visited – I assumed on a pleasure trip, but suspect now on work-related matters. Then, in a lull, he leaned forward with a bold, confiding glint.
‘So, Darren. This is your patch, you say? You’re just around the corner.’
‘Third floor up.’
‘Then it’s got to be your place. I’m way off on the other side of town.’
He was up at the crack of dawn, as if eager to be gone. I watched him hastily draw on his pants. He’s unrestrained in bed, but hates to be seen naked. It’s a mystery to me, because he’s as fit as a whippet from all that squash. I called him back to bed, but he simply planted a farewell kiss on my cheek. He’d see me, same time next week, at the Prince William. He left no address, no phone number, no name beyond Simon.
And so our nine-month affair began. Is that long enough to fall for someone? It’s long enough to spring new life. So yes, more than enough for me; I’m a romantic idiot, for all my cynical posing. He was there every week, same time, same place; and sometimes more frequently, by arrangement. Our routine scarcely changed: we’d drink, often till closing time, and then retire to the flat. Usually we went straight to bed, but sometimes we’d watch TV for a while, giggling at a chat show or making derisive remarks about some horror movie. God knows what else we talked about. Food, I seem to recall. Books, music, news events. Favourite kinds of holiday, species of dog, brands of underwear. We sensed, though, that there were touchy subjects. We never enquired about work, education or background; never spoke about anything that might appear in a profile. It was a weird kind of taboo, and where did it come from? Did we simply read the signals? All I know is that an unspoken agreement took root that began as an intuition and became a kind of code.
Fine for a spell, but funny how imperceptibly life changes, how subtly affection grows, how slyly features and habits coil around the heart. Funny how a routine becomes a need. I didn’t wake to my reliance on those visits until one night he didn’t appear. Only then did I realise the extent of his insinuation. So when he turned up again the following week, I tackled him with some heat.
‘You come into my life and then vanish. I know nothing about you.’
‘Hey, I’m sorry. I was called away.’
‘So why can’t I phone you? Give me a number.’
‘I’d rather you didn’t. I work in a sensitive area.’
I stared at him. Sensitive area? What did that mean? I struggled with the wildest speculation. Anyway, how did it affect the issue? Why couldn’t I phone him? ‘Well, if it comes to that,’ I wanted to quip, ‘I work in a sensitive area. In fact, several.’ But I let it pass. Instead I sulked for a couple of visits. Not too harshly, though, for fear of driving him away. I learned to live with the ache, the insecurity, the curiosity. It’s just a fling, I told myself; it will end soon; the pain will fade; peace will return. But that was the head; the emotions had a different agenda. I found myself longing for each visit with almost obsessive craving. I’d count off the days mentally, and on the appointed night I’d sit alone in the bar, glancing anxiously at my watch, willing him to arrive, eyes glued to the door.
Oh, I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering how I could become so attached to someone who was a near stranger. Fair enough, it’s a puzzle to me too. But what’s the mystery? We know that some people pass a lifetime in ignorance of those to whom they are devoted. The truth is, we know precious little about each other. Indeed, if we believe Freud, we know next to nothing about ourselves.
So we stumbled on. How much life was there in this frail arrangement? I lived for his visits, but came to dread them, expecting each to be the last. Then, as spring turned into summer – as parks burst into leaf, days pulled out and lovers strolled the Embankment – I longed for our meetings to emerge from the shadows and take a turn in the light of day.
‘I love seeing you,’ I said one night, hoping to extend the conversation beyond the casual.
He tapped my nose playfully. ‘I love seeing you.’
‘Couldn’t we meet more often?’
‘Not really. I’m just too busy.’
‘Well, somewhere else then? Go for a meal some place?’
‘Hm. Have to think about that.’
But before he’d done thinking, something happened. Just popped up brazenly, shortly after ten one night, before my bleary eyes. A news reporter on the green outside Parliament was interviewing someone called Stephen Eliot. Don’t ask me what about. I wasn’t listening; I was too busy staring. Well, gaping, actually. At the dark bony face, the deep ridge beneath the nose, the overlarge ears. But in a flash, before I could process the image, it was gone, and the reader had moved to a new topic. I gazed blankly at the screen for the next few minutes, rooted to the spot, the tip of my scalp tingling. Then I poured myself a slug of Scotch.
In one way it was a relief, for it cleared up much that had baffled me; and in the next hour, as I pondered our liaison, all sorts of fragments flew into place and ancient mysteries were resolved. I’d had my suspicions, of course, but I knew now why he always came late and left early, why we never ate out, why he couldn’t risk being seen with me. In every other way, though, it was galling. For it clarified my status. I was his dark secret, his fall from grace, his weekly indiscretion.
We were due to meet the next night. Should I end this charade? I was torn, but decided to say nothing. It would bring matters to a head and probably lead to a break-up – an outcome I could scarcely bear to think about. But I overlooked the power of impulse, didn’t I? The gap between what we decide and what we do. Most behaviour, they say, is involuntary.
He was cheerful when he arrived, full of the usual small talk. He commented that I seemed rather subdued. He rattled on. Something about the shrinking size of his favourite brunch bar.
‘Busy day?’ I blurted out after the second pint.
He peered at me quizzically.
‘You never talk about work,’ I said. ‘Or anything much. What are you keeping from me?’
He scratched his cheek and looked away.
‘I’ve explained,’ he said. ‘Haven’t I?’
I didn’t reply immediately; I was struggling to suppress my tongue. ‘So tell me,’ I said. ‘Who am I? What do I mean to you? What is this thing we have?’
He stood up; drained his pint. ‘Hey, look. I sense a change of atmosphere. Shall we skip tonight?’
And abruptly, with those few blunt words, it was over. As I knew even before he reached the door. I’d simply wanted too much; demanded more than my due; broken the code. Looking back now, I wonder what his thinking was, what he calculated. He knew, must have known, that I’d find him out. Indeed, from the odd way that I’d probed him that night, that I had found him out. But like me, he’d assumed a mere fling. We’d started something that had spun out of control. And it seemed to me that I was the loser. I mean, he simply feared for his reputation; I was guarding my sense of self-worth.
For the next few weeks I drank alone until the barman had a word in my ear. Then grief turned to rage. How dare he use me. Fling me aside for the sake of his grubby career. I determined to have it out; and in a fit, an attack of incandescent spleen, I sat down at the breakfast table, hunched myself over a notepad, and wrote to him at the House of Commons. A long, rambling, incoherent letter. Well, not so much a letter as a scorching harangue. I wrote in a frenzied scrawl for two whole hours and tore up several attempts. I began ‘Dear Stephen’. Nothing came back, of course. So I thought about dropping into his constituency office, but assumed I’d be turned away. I was cut off, barred, beyond the pale.
Then, as my rage grew, I noticed the approach of the conference season.
Which is when I joined the Party.
So here I am again in this seaside town. It feels odd to be back. My last visit was four years ago. I remember it well. I came with my friend Spike for a binge weekend in August. It was all strolling, sunbathing and drinking. I little imagined then the conditions under which I’d return. Last night when I arrived the place felt so different I scarcely recognised it.
I was resolute but nervous, so I fortified myself by leaping into a cab. Cabs are a confidence booster, I find. The Grand Hotel was full, of course, but luckily I caught a late cancellation at the Devonshire. A ruinous expense, but I’m determined to play this out in style. No one’s going to write me off as a guttersnipe.
I made some enquiries and discovered that Simon – as I still call him – was attending a fringe meeting. So I turned up early and took a seat in the front row. He was on stage with several others, and I was told that the woman beside him was Anne, his fiancée. Glamorous, immaculately coiffured, smiling graciously in all directions, she was clearly an asset to a rising politician.
He didn’t spot me right off, but when he did, his face froze to a grey sculpted block. I smiled and winked, but he turned sharply away. The topic for discussion was party finance. I yawned shamelessly throughout, and at the finish got up and approached him as he was leaving the stage. But he slid a protective arm around Anne and swept past me without a glance.
Today, in the main conference hall, where I’m sitting in conspicuous isolation, the line-up of speakers is reportedly impressive. Don’t ask me, though; I don’t have a political bone in my body. Still, it will be fascinating to hear what Mr Pecksniff has to say: what platitudinous homily he’ll serve up. Oily hypocrisy, especially when aired in public, makes for great entertainment, don’t you think?
So now the hour approaches, the high noon of our encounter. To be straight with you, I came here with no clear strategy. I just wanted to be seen: to foil the attempt to rub me out. But overnight it became plain. And I tremble just thinking about it. I’ll be despised, abhorred, reviled. They’ll call me every name under the sun. And let me say, before the devout start to bleat, that I was raised as a Catholic, so I know all about mortal sin. But then I’m queer and haven’t been to church for a decade, so I’m damned anyway. And even if I believed in all that, I couldn’t save myself. The force within is too great. I’m already consumed by fire. What more can they do to me?
I won’t make a move until Simon has spoken, though nothing he says will assuage my fury. On the contrary, his speech is likely to incite me more. And when it’s over, I’ll leave some time for the applause to fade and then approach that hungry group of journalists over there. I’ll choose one carefully – one with a sharp, scandal-sniffing nose – and draw him to one side. And I’ll say, ‘I’ve got a story for you. Would you be interested?’