The news came quickly - that is before it got into the media. It was Monday evening - early on, about six - and I was alone in the flat waiting for Tom to return with a take-away – Chinese, I think – when the phone rang. It was my mother.
We exchanged the usual pleasantries, the usual platitudes, but I could tell from the tone of her voice and her hesitant sentences that something was wrong; I could even see her empty hand toying with the flex, twisting the beige plastic around her thin, dry fingers.
“Alex,” she said after a pause that for her was a summoning up of strength. “It’s Jason. He’s been killed. In a road accident.”
Across the street the setting sun was gilding the windows and blushing the stucco. Through the open window the sounds of London - passing traffic and voices and the ever-present hum of the city - flooded the sitting room in waves.
“Alex?” I became aware of my mother’s voice in my right ear. “Alex, are you still there?”
I murmured something, a response of sorts. I really didn’t want to be bothered with her at that moment, what with her questions and her concern. Not satisfied, she asked me is I was ‘all right’. I gave her some feeble, clichéd answer I can’t recall now but which seemed to satisfy her. Then, as if in response to my fears, as though she could for once read my mind, she told me what happened.
“He was coming back from Stannington early Sunday morning with some friends. They’d gone out for the evening, to a birthday party, I think. I don’t know if you knew them?”
She reeled off a trio of names, only two of whom I casually knew. I didn’t care for his friends and avoided them.
“Apparently Jason was in the front passenger seat. His father said he didn’t stand a chance. He was dead on the scene; it hit a telegraph pole. I’m sorry.”
A car, I thought, a car was fine. It was a relief.
“Mr Roberts came round this morning to tell us, on the way to the Coroners. I was about to go shopping. I do think it was good of Mr Roberts to think of you at time like this, don’t you agree?”
“Jason and I were close,” I answered blandly, trying not to show the relief – a car, nothing would be said about that.
“He was a good friend to you.”
We both let a long, awkward silence spool out between us like slack cable. Eventually I asked her when the funeral was.
“Mr Roberts said something about next Monday, a week today,” she answered cautiously. “It depends when they release Jason’s body. Anyway there’ll be a notice in Friday’s paper apparently. I’ll check and phone you.”
The entry phone rang. As we said ‘goodbye’ I decided to go home on Friday. She sounded surprised, momentarily confused, by this, but the phone rang again - you could hear the impatience - and before she had time to gather her thoughts I apologised and hung up.
It was Tom at the front door; he’d forgotten to take my keys with him. I let him in and waited for him, pacing the length of the meagre, grey hall - Jason’s cold body being carried on a stretcher by two ambulance men, his face covered with a blanket – Tom’s footsteps echoed on the empty staircase - the ambulance drove off into the night, without lights or siren - there was no need, he was dead - my hand hung on the latch ready until Tom’s shadow appeared on the ribbed glass of the door. I let him in. He carried twin carrier bags of thick brown paper - there were Chinese characters scrawled on one of them in black felt tip, I remember - and he had a sheepish, embarrassed-looking home-boy grin that instantly evaporated when we spoke. I can’t remember now what he did with the bags only that suddenly his hands were drawing me close into the dark, shadowy orbit of his body, and he was asking ‘what was wrong’.
“I’ve just had my Mum on the phone,” I heard myself say. “It’s this friend of mine. Jason….you know, I’ve told you about him” I added after a pause that for me too was a summoning of strength, and then I quoted to him her bald statement of his death almost verbatim. He murmured a few oddly hesitant words of consolation, the sort I’d heard before on TV, but then who does have the self-awareness to be eloquent at a moment like that? And kissing me, and with his hand still on my shoulder, he led me through to the kitchen.
It was a small, crowded sort of room; the air glutinous with heat. There was washing up drying beside the sink. Sunlight filtered through the Venetian blind dropping lines of powdery light on to the blue and cream floor. The table itself was only half set, abandoned when the phone rang – knives and forks sat in a heap waiting to be assigned a place. I fumbled blindly with the cutlery, trying to lay the table, but he stopped me. Taking my hands in his sat me down and then quietly, without asking, he filled my plate and we began to eat.
We were quiet at first – awkward really. Outside though there was bird song, and children playing in back gardens. I kept my head down over my plate intent only on the food, neither of us knowing how to deal with what had happened - until a little way into the meal Tom remembered the wine, his contribution to dinner, cooling in the fridge. I watched him, as though from behind glass, as he uncorked the bottle and poured the wine. He slid the glass across the uneven tabletop towards me, its pale contents swirling and glinting, and he flashed me the slightest of smiles. I drank it down it like water but, like the food, the wine carried no pleasure, no taste.
“I’ve never lost a friend,” he said. “Or even a close family member for that matter, I guess I’ve been lucky in that respect.”
“Me too,” I said. “Until now. I wasn’t prepared; but then I don’t suppose you ever can be.”
Jason had sat at this table once - used these same knives, forks, spoons, just like Tom, just like all of my boyfriends had at some time. The last time he was here, about six months ago now – one of the last times I ever saw him in fact - he stood by the window, drinking lager from a green bottle and looking like a premiership footballer - sharp suit and spiked hair, silver jewellery and mid-winter tan – the premature emblems of his success. There was even a hint of foundation on his face. He had been at a studio in Soho that afternoon doing some publicity shots, he said. The press were already talking about him as the ‘next Beckham’.
He took me out that night. He talked incessantly in the taxi; he told me ‘life was good’. We went to two bars and a restaurant, places that featured in the colour supplements, where he showed off his hard and gleaming sophistication.
Tom pushed away his empty plate. “That wasn’t too bad” he said, stretching a little in his chair with satisfaction. “Perhaps not the best I’ve ever eaten but not bad. And you’re looking better for something to eat; you’ve regained your colour. You looked so pale when I came back. Soon as I saw I knew there was something wrong.”
It was true. Nourished by the food and relaxed by the wine I felt calmer; my hands had ceased their mild shaking.
“It was a hell of a shock for you.”
I agreed, but felt there was little more I could say.
He drained the last of his wine before refilling both our glasses, muttering something about it being a crap day for both of us. Another drink was what we deserved, he said: ‘and a further couple of bottles’. And all the time as he spoke I played with the remaining food on my plate, drawing the last of the pale yellow rice up into a neat little pile with my fork.
Tom stood up, scraping his chair over the lino, and began to clear away the dinner things.
“I know that this isn’t really the time to ask, but I gotta go to Zurich in three weeks’ time. There’s this pan-European conference. It’s a three day job; Wednesday through Friday. Thankfully I don’t have to give a presentation this time. We could spend the weekend together. Think about it. I’ll pay; it’s not a problem.”
He was scraping the leftovers into the bin, and I was wiping the table, when suddenly music started from below us - jazz, by the sound of it. My neighbours were having a party.
“Hell, we were meant to be going out this evening, weren’t we? I’d forgotten all about it. Alex, you still wanna go?”
It was my night off – my first since Pride, two days before. At the time I was continuing with my shifts at a bar in the village until I started my new job in an advertising agency in three weeks. It was only to pay the rent and keep me in petrol. We were planning to go to the party whose conversation now drifted intermittently up with the music, on the hot, still air, and then on to meet two of my flat mates - Jamie and Rob - at ‘The Yard’.
“Sorry Tom, it doesn’t seem….how’s it put?….Appropriate. It doesn’t seem appropriate.” It was the sort of word my father used with his clients.
Tom nodded and filled the sink to do the washing up. He looked relieved, really. He was looking rather tired.
It was getting gloomy in the kitchen now. I went over to the window, pulled up the blind and looked out over the back gardens: down there to my left were random flashes of white and colour between the dark leaves as guests moved about the party. There was laughter, great peels of it, and Ella Fitzgerald singing ‘Mac the Knife’. No, not really appropriate at all, I thought.
The sun was edging down towards eye level, pale and dull in the dirt grey sky. Perhaps there would be a storm. Soon the sun would clip the roof of the terrace across the gardens and the evening steal up the wall and into the kitchen; it was already about, edging forward from its hiding places, creeping out over the gardens and smothering the lawns in its darkness.
“My brothers and I had to take it in turns to do the washing up when we were younger. It was one of those tasks Dad set us to make sure we earned our allowance. It’s alright - it wasn’t as onerous as it sounds. We had a dish washer. All any of us had to do was load and unload it. And press the right button.”
He let the water out of the sink. There was a sort of relief in the banality of his story.
“It was one of those things he insisted upon,” he continued. It was better for us, so he said. He didn’t want the family affluence to go to our heads.”
He was smiling a little as he spoke, showing those even, perfect teeth of his. And I forgot Jason.
Alone in the sitting room, while Tom made coffee, I remembered the photographs. They lay unordered in a cardboard box (decorated with architectural prints and tiny gold stars) that sat out of the way of the sun on the chest of the drawers in my bedroom.
“I thought you might want to see some pictures of Jason,” I said when Tom came into the room with the tray.
The ones I could remember were there, and several I had forgotten about. Most of them were no good, not fit for the purpose; either Jason was too small in the frame, or out of focus. But I knew there were about half a dozen that showed him in close up, and it was those I showed Tom as we sat on the sofa drinking coffee.
The two of them had never met, and I wanted in Tom handling something - something beyond mere cutlery - that Jason had touched to be some kind of physical link between them; a continuity, like a baton passed between athletes, that was neither just my body nor my memories. It was a stupid idea really, a thin excuse to do something for my own benefit; I needed a fixative for my memories of Jason and some act of remembrance, I now understand, something almost penitential to appease my guilt for having forgotten him so easily.
Five photographs - five meagre fragments of a life - without any order or meaning but for my interpretation; not enough for a stranger to construct a biography, but from them I could map out our friendship.
“That’s him.” I said.
Tom took a closer look; his body pressing close into mine as he did so, tilting the photo, and the others in turn, toward the window to catch the evening light.
There was an immediacy to that first image that was startling and that I hadn’t quite got over since I found it. Although it was really a portrait of us both – him and I standing together, a head and torso shot, his arm across my shoulder pulling me protectively into him - Jason dominated; his smile radiated out from the picture. Stripped of the superfluous - he was wearing a bright orange shirt that hugged his hard, assertive body like it was his own skin, his hair was shaved down to almost nothing, a pair of sunglasses sat pushed up on to his forehead - he was looking directly at the camera cockily demanding attention, like some imagined East End wide boy. And there was more; seeing this image after so long I detected something new, something proprietorial in his attitude to me, something challenging to the viewer, or perhaps, the photographer
“He was a fine looking guy. Where was it taken?” Tom asked. “Pride?”
I had to laugh.
“It’s my parents’ back garden. We were at one of their barbeques. Mum and dad hold a couple each summer, just for family and friends. They’re quite a social thing. That guy in the white shirt - standing there to the right, over my shoulder – yes him. That’s Scott, my brother. My mum took it; that’s why it’s in focus. I’m not much of a photographer, I’m afraid.”
I handed Tom the next photo: “See what I mean”
Dressed in a white cotton T-shirt and blue denims - ‘boot cut’, he always wore boot cut jeans - Jason sat alone on a bench in his back garden. The details were out of focus; his grin smeared, his eyes dark impenetrable smudges, but it was just possible, even then, to detect that ease he had before the camera.
Tom passed the image by.
“This one here….his mum took this one. She didn’t want it in the end so I had it. That’s his Dad there, behind him.”
The photo had been taken from several feet away and the two men, working together on Jason’s bike, were unaware of the camera. Jason, in a pair of dirty grey overalls, was kneeling beside the engine; his father squatting beside him.
“It must have been taken in January or early February as he had long hair then.”
Tom became animated by the next photograph, at the sight of so much defined skin. It was another summer photograph, taken, I think, within his garden. It was a frugal body in that there was nothing superfluous to it; there was no fat and his skin, like that orange shirt, just sufficient for purpose. It was a body fashioned for action, for speed, and like a well fashioned machine it possessed an austere, utilitarian beauty.
“Hey, that’s some fine looking bod.” And I caught a faint wistfulness in his voice. He said more but by then I wasn’t listening. I reckoned I knew every inch of that hard body, each hollow and crease. It was my territory. I had followed each vein standing out on his strong arms. I knew where the scant hairs on his legs finally petered out at the top of his thighs and I knew the scars and blemishes that gave character to the anonymous smoothness of his skin – the scar on his right calf where he broke his leg, the pock mark on his stomach from chickenpox; his life documented on the soft, pliant parchment of his skin. He was seldom without some scratch or bruise, some nick or scab.
“About earlier. I know it was short notice, but I’d really like it if you came over to Zurich for the weekend with me. There’s this reception, (or is it a dance? – I don’t know), on Friday night. For the wives - ‘partners’. It sounds a real old time sorta thing, but I’d like you to be there with me.”
He had never asked to anything like that before, I mean nothing official. His love so far had had only been declared in camera.
And the final photograph: an evening not unlike this three years ago. Jason stood bare chested, leaning against his bike soaking up the last rays of the dying sun. We were in the woods above the town when I took it. It too was a Monday, but taken later on in the year, though the quality of light seemed just the same. The sun glinted liquid on his black leather jeans. There was that contented smile on his face; it was the end of that time when he claimed he had it all.
Tom, though, wasn’t paying any attention, he had no interest in motorbikes or even leather at that moment; he was making plans for Zurich, for walks beside the Zurich See and dinners out together. I turned the photograph over in my hand.
“We can have fun….” Tom’s hand was on my thigh
I understood it then. What I was then experiencing was what I had felt that September evening nearly four years ago. It was as though two maps one old, one new, had been superimposed upon each other and found to correspond. It was that same sensation, that same sense of the past falling away from me, drifting out of range, beyond my grasp, falling away and becoming unknowable.
“Alex….” And his hand was beneath my t-shirt, ploughing slowly through the dark hairs on my stomach.
And it had been there too, that very same sensation, when I stood in the hall earlier in the evening waiting for the broken rhythm of Tom’s boots, waiting in the silent, abstracted flat, in the stasis of shock, waiting for the present and the future to re-commence and come back into my consciousness; knowing something….something had slipped away from me.
“I’ve waited all fucking day for this.” Tom’s voice was thick and heavy. “…for you….been horny all the time thinking about you…it’s what kept me going through all that shit….”
The first time I took Tom up to my room, seven months ago now, I was slightly ashamed. It was a typical student room: a little scruffy and with an air of impermanence that no matter how hard I tried – filling the room with things from my bedroom at my parents – I couldn’t quite dispel. Books bowed the shelves of the inadequate bookcase; the carpet was beginning to fray by the door and the paint peel from the metal window frames.
“It’s cooler by the window,” he said. Tom, stripped to his white trunks, was sitting on the wide window sill, his big, round kneecaps drawn up to his chest and gazing out over the darkened back gardens.
I walked over, handed him a glass of iced water, and joined him, cooling my face on the plate glass.
“I used to do this as a kid; if it was too hot, or I couldn’t sleep. I’d sit on the window sill in my bedroom and gaze out over the Bay – at the moonlight on the water, or the lights on the opposite shore.” He took a sip of water. “I did a lot of thinking sitting by the window as a teenager – as you can guess.”
I stroked his leg. Tom had never spoken like this before; that great hinterland of his life before London was, until then, Terra Incognita.
“Mom once found me asleep sitting like this. She nearly went mad, but when she told dad the next day he laughed and told her not to fuss – ‘if the boy falls the boy falls, he won’t come to any harm. He won’t do it again.’ There’s a porch below my window with an almost flat roof, you couldn’t fall off it if you tried. He didn’t want any of his boys ‘growing up sissy’.”
He shrugged and turned back to the dark void of the gardens. Below us, at the party, the last guests were leaving.
“I guess that’s why I took more risks than either Dan or Ryan. (His brothers.) It wasn’t enough for me to be just another jock, I had to do more; I went out on the Bay in all weathers, went climbing and scuba diving. I needed to prove to them - and more importantly, I guess, to myself - that I was as tough, if not tougher than them. In any case I liked all that sort of thing; I still do though I don’t get much opportunity. I even considered a career in the military at one stage.”
I thought of the large photograph on Tom’s desk of him and his family together in their garden. A recent one, apparently, so he said, it had all the unreality of an advert from ‘Ralph Lauren’. I couldn’t believe it was spontaneous as Tom claimed. It all seemed far too posed, too contrived for that. His parents sat together on a white painted bench with the family dog between them on the grass; their three large, smiling sons standing behind making a protective barrier between them and the granite grey sea behind. Tom stood on the right, above his mother. Tom’s mother in particular had that clean, easy going assurance of both money and looks. They possessed an oddly homogenous quality, sharing the same dark hair and eyes, as though manufactured on a production line. I was however constantly drawn back to it; by its obvious glamour - and its subtle mutability. I could now pick out the sources of his features in his mother and father (he tended toward the latter); but over the weeks, while his family had remained static, Tom’s smile had grown less assured and more fragile. Beyond that awkwardness he claimed he had in front of a camera and which I couldn’t quite believe in, there was a thoughtful, introspective quality to his coarse face that he didn’t share with the others and seemed to suggest a humanity that was alien to that family; and it was there now in front of me; in a face soften by the glancing light so that it lost some of its hardness.
“I came out to Dad when we were out on the Bay,” Tom continued. “Ryan and I were crewing for him – it was just before the autumn storms set in. There were just the three of us in the boat and we were struggling hard, what with the wind against us, to get back to in port before the tide turned. I was nearly eighteen – I’d just started the final grade; Ryan was home from College for the weekend. I had been out to Mom for about a month by then and I really needed to tell him, I needed his approval. If I had that then everything would be OK. Only I knew I had to choose the right moment. Dad’s this ‘no bull shit’ kinda guy. He tells it as he sees it, only he doesn’t always think first. I didn’t want him to say something stupid we’d both have regretted. And that was the moment. I knew he’d be too busy to say anything immediately – anything ‘stupid’ that is, so I told him. He said nothing. When we got into the marina at and were moored up he told me I had done a ‘fine job out there’. And that was it. That was his acceptance.”
The conversation had reached a natural pause. I stretched, stood up and began to undress, tossing my clothes wearily on to the chair with his. He watched me – a vague benign sort of smile on his face – until I too was stripped to my underwear and he dropped to his feet and drew the curtain behind him.
His hand reached out to me; there was none of the usual hesitation in him tonight – that baffling, sometimes frustrating hiatus as the nature of our intimacy changed between the emotional and the sexual. He gripped my fingers as he pulled me close. I slipped an arm about his soft, warm waist; I wasn’t looking for sex, only a deepening of intimacy - I wanted to bury myself in the nooks and crevices of that body and, like a hibernating animal find safety and rest, but if that was what he wanted….
His skin was smooth, quiet flawless, there were no distinguishing marks except a small scar above his right knee; the tan applied quite evenly. Unlike Jason’s body it communicated little of its past. Beneath the skin the flesh was generous. No fat - he was getting back into shape. There was no six-pack, no sharply defined muscles, though there had been – I’d seen the photographs. It was a body that had once been hard, like his face, and had now been softened by metropolitan affluence. He now had a tendency to run to fat, he confessed, but there was a sturdy pioneer quality to him - a heavy, low centre of gravity body - selected over the centuries to withstand extremes of hard physical work and the North American climate. Ideal, no doubt, for contact sports.
I heard the last guests leaving and the faint clink of used plates and cutlery as they were tidied away.
“He used to tell us that the three of us were different,” Tom said, in the mood to talk again. “That we were something special, because we were his sons. Of course we believed him, you do at that age. I don’t s’pose when he told us we were different he had it in mind about one of us being a ‘goddam faggot’.”
“You know Alex, I look back at my life then - hell, it’s only seven years ago – but I look back at those three or four years when I played for the school and sometimes….sometimes, you know, it’s as though that life belongs to another guy all together. I was a pretty straight up and down sorta teenager from the provinces back then, I guess. A jock.” (It didn’t surprise me.) “A real jock; I lived sport in those days - with a tight arse and a tighter stomach, and this fucking arrogant streak a mile wide I’d picked up from my father. Ironic, I s’pose. There were four or five of us from the ice hockey team who hung out together. We were this little clique of guys and, God! did we fancy ourselves. You know, it was one of those moments in life when everything appears to be handed to you on a plate, and I took it. We all did. And yes there were times, when I found it expedient I guess, that I was as loud and as drunk as the next guy.”
Unexpectedly he gave a snort of laughter and shook his head: “Sorry….just remembering some of the things we used to get up to, the guys and I. There was this one guy at Prep School - shit! - did we take the piss out of him rotten, he was so fucking camp - a real queen. Some of the guys really had it in for him.”
I said nothing. Down in the garden, one by one, somebody was extinguishing the garden flares.
“When’s the funeral?” he asked.
“Monday, I think,” I replied catching his eye. “I’m going home Friday, though.”
His hot, dry hands began to stroke my shoulders.
“Do you want me to go with you?” he asked, his hot breath pouring out over my face, suffocating. “To keep you company. I can get Monday off. It’s no problem; the fuckers owe me. If you want.” And then after a pause: “Please.” He sounded oddly childlike.
I pulled my head back: “I’m sorry, but, well, I’d sooner go on my own, if that’s OK?”
His fingers loosened their grip.
“It’s my parents,” I said hastily. “They don’t want anyone to know I’m gay. I’ve never taken any one home: it’s easier that way. I can’t stand lying. In any case Jason wasn’t out, unless something’s changed. But I doubt it. You see nobody knew about us,” I continued, tightening my hands about his. “Not even our parents. They never did. How many months was it?” I tried to work it out, but failed. “Well, they never found out. God knows how we managed, we were always at it,” I joked. “We were lucky, I suppose. I couldn’t go to the funeral with a stranger like that. It wouldn’t be fair on Jason, or his parents, if people started gossiping about him now.”
I could offer no further explanation beyond the cliché of: “It’s something I feel compelled to do on my own.”
He was silent for a moment: “It’s OK,” he said finally. “I understand.” But he couldn’t disguise his disappointment. It was minute or so before he resumed, and finished, undressing me, brushing his soft, plump hands against me. My body was pumped and cut again after my finals – prepared for the summer, for lazing in Regent’s Park or Soho Square, or displaying on Compton St., or in a club. Jason had even reformed my body in his own image.
“So you like the idea of me being a jock?” His voice was playful now, drawling, slowly caressing the words as they floated from his mouth on the thick air. Already his hand was pushing deep into my pants.
Suddenly his advances stopped. There must have been something, a flinch or a shudder in my body; something reflexive, so slight I didn’t even notice.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t ….”
We lay in the darkness under a single sheet, his hot body curled possessively about mine; his hands held at my chest. I don’t how long we lay like that – ten minutes, maybe more, it was hard to tell. Images of Jason replayed continuously in my mind, blending, merging, distorting, mutating….Jason in his orange shirt….Jason in his leathers….
I shifted to ease the ache in my arm. I felt his lips on my shoulder, and his hands began to trawl my body, looking for sex; his husky voice cajoling me. I turned over and my hand sought his sagging cock, thick and yielding – the skin silky – like a half-inflated balloon, and in the blind dark he kissed my mouth.