It was like walking into an amplifier when I opened the door of the Feathers. The place was heaving, absolutely stuffed. If I hadn’t come so far, I would have turned round and come straight out again, but I simply couldn’t be bothered. I wanted a drink, and I had thought I wanted somewhere quiet to sit and think, but somewhere so loud that thought was impossible might do just as well. It took me nearly ten minutes to attract any attention at the bar, and rather to my surprise, it was Callum who eventually came to serve me.
“What’s going on, Callum? Even for a Saturday, this seems busy. And what are you doing here? You haven’t. . . um. . .”
He grinned engagingly at me. “No, I haven’t been made redundant again. Sharon’s in Barbados on her honeymoon, so I’m doing evenings for Carl to help out. And there’s a band tonight, upstairs. Local jazz band. Quite good, apparently, if you like that sort of thing. Give it fifteen minutes, and it’ll be back to normal down here. Are you on your own tonight? That’s not like you.”
I winced, and he saw it. “Something wrong?”
“Everything,” I said sourly, but he was called down the bar before he could push me any further. I wasn’t sorry. I wouldn’t want to be the man trying to hide a fractured relationship from Callum: he sees further through a brick wall than most. I took my pint and shifted to the end of the bar, and set about drinking myself into a stupor. Not, perhaps, the smartest thing I’ve ever done, but I was. . . what was I? Angry. Frustrated. Ashamed. Offended. Apprehensive. All of the above.
Callum had been right about the crowd, though. Carl touched the bell and announced that the band was starting, and that everybody who had tickets should go up, and that the bar upstairs was also open, and three-quarters of the people cleared away, leaving the place busy but tolerable. Callum came back through.
“Tell me all, then. What’s happened to. . . hell, sorry, I’ll be back in a minute.” And he went to serve a Guinness and a lager-top at the far end. He was half-way back to me when there was a call from the lounge, and then a large dry white wine and a vodka-and-orange and a packet of cigarettes, and back to the lounge. And I saw him stare into the lounge – it’s the usual arrangement, a right-angled serving area through a public bar and a lounge – but I couldn’t see what at.
He didn’t come back to me; he stayed and served somebody I couldn’t see in the lounge, and then he wiped the bar, and put away a rack of glasses, and served two Bacardi Breezers and occasionally, he looked through at me, and then back at whatever was going on in the lounge, and his face was very thoughtful. Eventually, I managed to catch his eye, and tipped my empty glass at him, and he came back to me.
“Another pint, Callum, and have one yourself.”
“I’ll have a half, thanks. Any more and I won’t make it to closing time, I’ll be asleep. There’s only me on down here, and it’s a bit busier than is quite comfortable for one.”
There was a slight lull, and he brought his drink up to my end of the bar, and leaned on the polished wood beside me. “Going to tell me about it? You know I’m a good listener. . . hell, hang on,” and he was off to serve a gin-and-lime and a dry cider.
He didn’t come back for about ten minutes, and then he hurried round on my side of the bar, and caught me by the arm.
“This is ridiculous. I can’t do this over the bar on a Saturday. Come through here and we’ll improvise. Bring your drink.”
I followed him, rather limply. The thought of talking to Callum had ceased to be scary and become comforting; Callum would know what I ought to do. Except that Callum had other ideas. He led me across the lounge to a table in the corner, and put his hand on the shoulder of the man sitting there who looked up into my face and opened his mouth as if to speak. Callum got in first.
“I’ve got one of you in each bar, both plainly wearing the ‘quarrelled with the other half’ expression, and I know that as barman it’s my job to hear all about it, offer sensible and sensitive advice, and get each of you out of here sober at closing time going home to kiss and make up. But I’m the only one on tonight, and I can’t manage it for both of you, not since half the crowd upstairs will come down here in ten minutes at the interval. So I’m telling you: when you can’t unburden to the barman, the next best thing is to unburden to an absolute stranger, and I suggest you do that. Roy, this is Geoffrey. Geoffrey, Roy.”
I looked at him for a moment, and then down at the man in the corner. Callum had lost his marbles, obviously. Unburden to a stranger?
The other man was watching him with his head slightly on one side, and a look of faint amusement. “Am I that obvious, Callum? The ‘quarrelled with the other half’ expression?”
“You might as well have a neon sign above your head. Big fight and don’t know what to do about it. So I suggest you talk to Geoff, and tell him everything. And then he can tell you his troubles, and see if talking it through makes it come right for him. And I will guarantee that each of you is as discreet as you could possibly want. You can tell each other everything and anything, and I suggest you do, starting at the very beginning. You know, ‘no prior knowledge assumed’, like it says on the exam courses.”
We all hesitated for a moment, and then the man courteously pushed a chair towards me. “Will you sit down? It’s rarely worth arguing with Callum. He’s too big and far too accustomed to getting his own way.”
I sat, helplessly, and Callum drifted back towards the bar, and I leaned over the table and peered into my pint, in some embarrassment.
“Do you think his suggestion would work? Talking to a stranger?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Talking to Callum would, it always does.”
He smiled. “He does have that reputation,” he agreed, softly. “And he’s quite right. I have quarrelled with my partner, although I’m not very sure why. One of those rows that just escalates from ‘I wish you wouldn’t’ to ‘and another thing!’ in fifteen minutes. I do want to make it up, but I don’t know how. What about you?”
I hunched over my pint still further. “Quarrel. And the trouble is, it was my fault.”
“Ah. Well then, if you know more about how you got to where you are than I do, would you like to start? Was it a one-off irritation, or something that had been brewing for a while?”
“Both. Stupid. It was something I thought I could do, and then I bottled it, and then I took it out on. . . my partner.”
I took another mouthful of beer, and a deep breath, and thought: you got in this mess because you bottled what you wanted to say. If you can’t even say it in here to him, you’ll never be able to say it anywhere else. Nobody is listening. Nobody is interested.
“Him. I took it out on him.”
I didn’t look up.
“Go on. I’m a stranger, remember? You’re going to tell me all of it. ”
“We’ve been living together. We’re. . . we’re a couple. Long-term. Permanent. At least. . . I hope we are. If we can get over this. If I can.”
“Are you intending to leave him?” Just the faintest emphasis on the ‘him’. Just the slightest hint that he was not wholly easy about the question.
“No. Never. Not if he’ll have me back. Only we’ve got to sort this out. I’ve got to sort it out.” Defiantly.
“So tell me.”
It had been such a shambles. We had gone to a party. His friends, not mine, but I knew quite a lot of them, one way or another. I had been enjoying myself, until I went to get myself another drink, and met my cousin Oliver. I don’t like him much. He’s an investment banker, and a very successful one. God only knows what he was doing at that party, I wouldn’t have thought it his sort of thing at all, but there he was, and Phoebe his wife with him.
“And he spoke to me, quite civilly, for Oliver, and my partner came up beside me, and Oliver turned slightly towards him, you know, with that look of ‘he’ll introduce us in a minute’, and I opened my mouth to say ‘this is my partner’ and it didn’t happen.”
“No words. Oliver doesn’t know I’m gay. Didn’t know. I suspect he knows now. It was just like I opened my mouth and nothing came out.”
“What did you actually mean to say?”
“Oh, God. I wanted to say: he’s with me. I wanted to say it all. I just. . . I didn’t want to make a big deal of it, you know? Not the full fireworks and trumpets and: look, everybody, see what I’ve got. Just: oh, sorry, you haven’t met my partner, this is him. And I bloody bottled it!”
“I see. What did your partner think?”
“He must have thought me such an idiot. He’s out, you see. And I want to be and I bottle it every time. I don’t know how many times I’ve tried to do it and I can’t and it’s such a disappointment for him, and it isn’t bloody fair, because he can’t admit to the relationship if I won’t.”
“Do you think it troubles him?”
“What, that I don’t love him enough to say so in public? How could it not trouble him?”
“I always understood that for any gay couple the decision about being jointly out or not was made at the level of the less out one. So if he is and you aren’t, then as a couple you aren’t. Full stop, end of discussion.”
I wrinkled my nose. “I suppose so, but I haven’t got any reason not to be. I’m self-employed so I haven’t got an employer to be unhappy about. My immediate family knows and they’re O.K. about it. Some of my friends know and some don’t and I’ve had the usual selection of responses, from ‘now tell me something I didn’t know’ to dropping the acquaintance.”
“But your cousin and his wife didn’t know.”
“Don’t think so. Bet they’ve worked it out now.”
“What sort of reaction are you likely to get from them?”
“I haven’t the least idea. It doesn’t really matter, anyway, I see them about three times a year. If I miss that, I won’t care much.”
He lifted his glass and frowned a little, thinking. “I’m missing the point then,” he said apologetically. “It’s not your cousin knowing which is bothering you, obviously. And where does your partner come into it?”
He was missing the point. “What bothers me is that I can’t say, at a private party, to a member of my own family, ‘the man at your left hand is my partner’. I can’t; I actually cannot get the words out. I try and I gag. And my partner doesn’t help me.”
“How could he help you? If you aren’t ready to do it, what can he do?”
I looked sullenly into my beer. Damfool idea of Callum’s, this. Presently he leaned forward to get my attention again. “That’s not a ‘trying to make you see you’re wrong’ question. I’m quite serious. What did your partner do that wasn’t what you expected or wanted? What is it you want him to say or think or do? Remember, I know nothing about the background to this, so I can’t deduce anything.”
My mouth worked a little while I tried to get together a coherent explanation. I’d already had the shouting and the accusations and the screaming queen scene. Now I was calm enough that I ought to be able to make myself understood. And. . . all right, it wasn’t a damfool idea. Having to explain it absolutely all, with none of the preliminary stuff taken as read and perhaps not taken the same way by both of us, was very clearing to the head. I had to sort out precisely why I was so angry.
“I want to do it, and it annoys me when I can’t. I’m not angry with him; I’m angry with me. And then I want to tell him I’m sorry, and all he says is ‘it doesn’t matter’.”
Look, even I could tell that sounded wimpy and pathetic.
“Well, now, I would have thought that was meant to sound reassuring, but you plainly don’t find it so.”
I snapped at him. “No, I bloody don’t! It does matter, of course it matters, how can it not matter? But he doesn’t take me seriously. It IS a problem, and he won’t see it.”
He nodded thoughtfully again. “So when he says ‘it doesn’t matter’, you think he’s patronising.”
Well, put it like that. . . “I suppose so.” I sounded like a sulky eight year old.
“Does he normally patronise you?”
No. No, he didn’t, I had to admit that, even though I’m no good at all the things he’s good at. He seems to think that doesn’t matter and that the things I can do are just as important, just as valuable. “You think I’m over-reacting.” I still sounded sulky.
“I. . . think maybe your reactions are as bewildering to him as his are to you. Do you think that might be possible?”
I opened my mouth to say no, and his eyebrows went up. Something about the expression inclined me to shut up for a moment and actually think about what he had asked. “It might be possible,” I conceded, sullenly.
“O.K. Explain to me what it is that upsets you. Why is it a problem that you are less out than he is? Whose problem is it?”
“Oh, it’s mine, I suppose.” I must have sounded flat and despondent, because he leaned across the table. “Look, I’m sure it can be sorted. Let’s have another drink and see what we can do.”
Callum appeared as we hit the bar, eyed us both up and down, and shook his head. “How did you get here? I’m not giving either of you any more unless you give me your keys.” I’ve done that before at this pub; it’s miles from civilisation and the local cop shop has found it a profitable place to send a man with a breathalyser. Carl’s response was to do a deal with a taxi firm: you lodge your keys behind the bar with a tag on them, and when you’re ready to go, he gives your keys to the taxi driver who takes you home cut rate and gives you your keys when you get there, and who will bring you back the next day at the same cut rate. We both gave them up cheerfully enough – I knew I at least wouldn’t be safe on the road until the morning. And I wanted that other drink.
“Right. Why does it bother you that you couldn’t say to your cousin: this is my partner?”
“Because I don’t want him to think I’m ashamed of him.” There. That was it, said at last.
“But you don’t want to tell people.”
“That’s exactly it!” I exploded, and then caught the eye of the woman at the next table, and lowered my tone. “I don’t want to tell them, I just want them to know. I want not to have to face up to telling them. I don’t mind them knowing, but I – don’t – want – to – tell – them. I’m embarrassed to do the telling and I don’t know why. And that’s the problem.”
“Aaaaaaaahhh, I see,” he breathed, and leaned back in his chair to think. “Right. Is it absolutely necessary to your self-esteem that you should be the one who tells people?”
My turn to frown. “I don’t follow.”
“Suppose your partner had held out his hand to your cousin, and introduced himself, and said ‘I’m his partner,’ would that have bothered you? No, don’t give me a snap answer; think about it.”
I thought about it half a pint’s worth. “No. No, that wouldn’t bother me at all. Well, I would have been a bit embarrassed, but not – not incapacitatingly so. I’m happy for people to know, but I choke up trying to tell them. It’s so stupid. . .”
“It’s not stupid unless you make it so,” he said firmly. “I think you – well, perhaps your partner’s wrong to say it wasn’t important, but I think maybe you were making too much of it too. Think of it like. . . I don’t know, like being scared of spiders. If you are, you are and there’s precious little you can do about it. Do you despise somebody for not being able to pick up a spider and put it outside? It’s not even as if there are poisonous spiders in this country, but I can’t pick one up. I can catch it under a glass and get a book underneath and put it out that way, but I can’t lift one.”
I didn’t quite see what he was getting at.
“I’ve got a small problem with meeting a spider in the house, and I’ve worked a way round it. Do the same here. Your problem is that you can’t out yourself; your solution is that you allow your partner to do it. Maybe you have a signal? If he thinks it’s the right thing to say, he has a means of checking with you, a code word or something, so that if you really want him not to, you can stop him. Would that work? Because there will probably be times you genuinely don’t want to say it, or have it said. Rich elderly relatives. The vicar.”
I gave a snort of laughter, and a knot of tension untied itself in my gut. “You think that would work?”
“I don’t see why it wouldn’t. The detail might need some fine tuning, but I don’t see why you couldn’t start with it. Worth a try?”
“Worth a try,” I conceded, and stood up. “Another drink?”
“A half, please, and I’m just going to get rid of that last one, and then it’s my turn. Because I’ve screwed up too, and I need to sort out what I’m going to do about it.”
He didn’t seem to know where to start any more than I had. I helped a little. “You wanted to make up your quarrel and you didn’t know how. What’s wrong with going home and saying ‘let’s not quarrel any more’?”
He glanced sideways at the next table to make sure nobody was raptly following the conversation. “That’s not what we do. When we’ve had a quarrel and my partner has said something particularly hurtful, or done something particularly stupid, I put him over my knee. Only I think that this time he won’t be willing.”
Well, he had listened to me without any appearance of surprise at anything I said, so I could do the same. “What’s bothering you, hurtful remarks or stupid actions?”
“Both. He said some things. . . I don’t suppose he really meant them, the thing about a quarrel is that you both say things, and then afterwards. . . Well, you know.”
I nodded. “The things that are true but exaggerated. And the best thing is usually just to ignore them later.”
“Exactly. Some of them hurt, but we’ll get over that. But then he stamped out in a temper, and. . . well, we’ve had trouble with that before. I wouldn’t argue about it, because we both needed a bit of space to calm down, and, you know, we all do it, don’t we? Slam out muttering, and walk it off, and go home in a better frame of mind. We needed to be apart for a bit, and if he hadn't gone, I might have done. But he didn’t walk and I don’t think a really serious loss of temper combines well with roadcraft any more than alcohol does, and I was really scared that he would have an accident. Mobile phone turned off, and I didn’t know where he had gone or anything.”
I considered. “So you’re pissed off with him.”
“Not as much as I was, but yes, I thought that was dangerous. And I don’t think there’s likely to be any doubt that when he calmed down he would know that, and know what would be the likely consequence of it. And I’m afraid that he might be scared to come home.”
“You think he’s afraid of you?”
“I – think he might be. He’s never gone for so long before.”
“Then why would he live with you? Has he got somewhere else to go?”
“Sure. The house is half his, and he’s got friends who would take him in short term if he left me. Family further afield. But he doesn’t deal well with emotional upset: he’s a worrier. You know, one of those people who can see five ways for whatever he’s doing to go wrong. And he’s – well, he’s a lot brighter than me. He’s got all the brains in our house, but he doesn’t see that. He’s got a galloping inferiority complex and when something really does go wrong, he has trouble moving past it. That’s in part why we do. . . what we do. Left to his own devices, he worries at a crisis like a dog with a bone, and gets it all out of proportion; that’s how we came on. . . what we do, you see. He got twisted up about something gone wrong and it was taking over his life, and I walloped him out of sheer frustration, and it was like it flipped him out of wherever he was stuck and he could get far enough away to have a proper look and make a decent assessment of what to do. He thinks he can’t deal with emotional stuff, but when he stops thinking of it as an ‘I can’t do this’ thing, and applies his brain, he can cope as well as anybody else. He’s not an empath like Callum over there but he’s a perfectly competent human being.”
I absorbed this. “So he’s going to know that he’s got a. . .” my turn to glance over at the next table, “that you’re not going to be pleased. But it’s not anything new, and he’s got the option of going to friends and saying ‘I don’t want to go home’. And if he’s as sensible as you say, he knows that.”
“I hope so. I wouldn’t ever do it if he really objected. Actually, I’m not sure that I could: he’s not as big as me, but he’s as tall, and I think I could hold him still or” (glance) “do it but not both.”
“So why do you think he’s likely to be afraid of you?”
“Because it’s so out of character for him to be gone so long and not call me, or text me or let me know somehow that he’s O.K. I can’t see any other reason for him not having come home.”
“And that is. . . hurtful. I can see that. What about the original quarrel?”
“Isn’t important any more. It was a misunderstanding and it can be sorted out. It wasn’t really anybody’s fault, we just weren’t communicating well, but I’m not happy about him simply vanishing. I could cope with ‘I’m going home to my mother’, or ‘I’m going out with John and I don’t want to see you until I’ve calmed down’, but I’m not happy about not hearing anything at all.”
“That’s the only issue, then. And – well, it doesn’t seem to me that it would be a terribly big deal. Specially since it has happened before, even if not to that extent. I’d have thought it wouldn’t be a good enough reason for an intelligent man not to go home.”
“Well, then, why do you think he wouldn’t call me?”
“The original fight, more like. I mean, if he was angry enough to storm out, it was obviously something important to him, and more important than what your reaction to him going would be. I think if you sit tight, he’ll come home when his temper improves. I don’t think you need to worry about. . . what you said. If you haven’t given him cause to be afraid of you before – did you ever think he was afraid of you?”
“He doesn’t like it.”
“But he lets you do it; doesn’t give you in charge or smack you in the mouth. So it can’t be that big a problem, can it? Maybe he knows he gets something out of it. Maybe you’re wrong in thinking he doesn’t like it.”
He shook his head. “He doesn’t ‘like it’ like it. Not in a kinky way. I know that.”
“No, I didn’t mean that. But there are other things he might like.”
He cocked his head again. “Like what?”
“Like the feeling that the crisis is over, dealt with? Like knowing somebody cares enough to see when he’s got into an emotional trap and to. . . what did you call it? Flip him out of it. If he’s smart, like you say, like knowing that he doesn’t have to be smart all the time. Doesn’t have to be the main man himself.”
“All right, then.” He grinned at me. “You’re the expert. What should I do?”
“Go home and wait.”
“Until he comes in?”
“Yes. And then sort out the original quarrel.”
“And just ignore the walking out stuff? Let it go?”
I hesitated. My first reaction was to say: yes, let it go. It all arose from something else, it isn’t that big a deal, let it pass. Only it wouldn’t do.
“That’s really for you to decide, but if you’ve got a means of dealing, I don’t think the middle of an argument is a good time to change the rules. You said you did it when he’d been hurtful or when he did something dangerous; what do you both get out of it?”
“I get the knowledge that he knows I was hurt or frightened.”
“What does he get?”
“I’m guessing. . . we’ve never really talked about it. I think he gets the knowledge that we’re done with it. That I won’t bring it up next time.”
“Then do it.”
“And what if I’m wrong? What if he really objects?”
“If you’re listening, you’ll know.”
He dropped his head onto his folded arms for a moment, and I sat back. We both jumped at the sound of the bell from the bar.
“Last orders, please, ladies and gentlemen! Last orders!”
Callum came over, picking up glasses and clearing tables. “Hi, guys. How are you getting on?”
We looked at each other. “Quite well, thanks,” I said, in vague surprise.
“Do you want more drinks, or shall I ring the taxi people? Are you sharing one?”
We went outside together, and walked over to the car park wall. Five minutes, Callum had said, for a taxi to get out here.
“If. . . if I get into a mess with my partner another time, can we talk like this again? It helped. Like Callum said, talking to a stranger. Spelling everything out and not having to be defensive.”
“Sounds good to me. Roy and Geoff, Agony Uncles Extraordinaire. Callum’s bloody brilliant, isn’t he? I would never have thought of that, of talking to you as if I had never seen you before and never would again. Actually, I was beginning to be afraid that you never would talk to me again, and I wasn’t even very sure what I’d done. Once I realised you were in here, I couldn’t work out a way to come over without starting you off again; I must have been half an hour inside trying to think of how to get to sit down with you without having a pint dumped over my head, before Callum brought you round.”
I laughed. “I thought he’d gone mad. Leads me to my own partner and says: here’s a stranger.” It was dark behind the wall, and presently I felt his hand slide round my waist. I turned into his embrace.
“Ross? Am I going to get a spanking?”
“Damn right you are. And it’s going to be the clothes brush too, because you scared me half to death. I didn’t know where you were. It was only by chance that I spotted the bike in the car park, I was going to the Red Lion, I thought you were more likely to be there. You will be going to bed with a very sore bottom indeed.”
“Oh well,” I said, philosophically, and rested my head on his shoulder.
“Jerry? Why didn’t I meet Oliver and Phoebe at your grandmother’s party? Why weren’t they there? Family rift?”
I gave it some surprised consideration. “No, I don’t think so. You’re right, they weren’t there, were they? Was it spring half term or something? No, it was March, wasn’t it? I don’t know where they were.”
“Well, you can just think about this. The whole of that afternoon, you held my hand. Every member of your family who was there saw you; I would be very surprised if Oliver didn’t hear about it later.”
I was speechless for a moment. “Do you mean that all this was for nothing? All of it?”
“Not for nothing, love. If we’ve worked out a way to stop you obsessing about being out, then we’ve made progress.”
“Suppose so. And if you finally believe that I’m not afraid of you spanking me, then that’s progress too. I don’t like it, you’re right about that, but I was serious, I know it’s a means of stopping me going on and on about something bad that’s happened to me. And it’s rather nice, knowing I don’t have to be in charge.”
His arms tightened on me. “Shall I thump my chest and bellow?”
“Not in a pub car park,” I said primly. “Macho can be overdone. And there’s the taxi.”
He let me go, and tapped me lightly on the bum as I stepped forward. I didn’t wince. Yet. I would, before the day was over; I knew what was coming and I wasn’t looking forward to it; Ross spanks dreadfully hard anyway, and when he’s really got something to be annoyed about. . . I would still be able to feel it in the morning.
But I would have to buy Callum a bottle of wine.
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