A Hotel in Mayfair

The Sunday Tribune - Shortlisted for Hennessy Literary Awards 2008

A Hotel in Mayfair

Adam sat in his usual position at the end of the bar counter from eight till ten-thirty. It was turning into another night of non-adventure. Earlier, a drunken queen had threatened to disturb his solitude, but fortunately was indulged by an older gentleman who had seized the opportunity of buying the young queen drinks. They left about a half-hour ago. He wasn’t unsociable; it was just that he didn’t really fit in with the various London cliques. It was mostly a fashion conscious scene, guys discussing their latest purchases as if they superseded everything else. To Adam they were shallow, vacant individuals who were avoiding the realities of life, ensconced as they were in their ‘fabulous’ gay bubble. He figured it was insecurity: if the world was going to deny them a place in it, they were going to deny the world a place in their ultra-chic existence. Adam couldn’t see any difference between gay and straight people, sexuality just being a quirk of personality, and probably best left to the intimacy between individuals. He would never become gay in that overwhelming sense. He just was gay; he didn’t have to display it.

Outside throngs of the party-hungry pranced down the street in a ‘got to have it’ manner. This was Old Compton Street after all, Mecca of the British gay world. And ‘gay’ guys loved to party. All seemed to be wearing white T-shirts that defined their worked-out torsos and the latest designer denims that draped their behinds in a provocative fitting. All looked gay. There was an unwritten dress code. It started with the hair, cropped tight; the face, clean-shaven; clothes, tight and simple; shoes or sandals, plain coloured, comfortable. If one was being cruel, or sharply observant depending on one’s sympathetic levels, one might say there was an absence of identity, that they had almost stripped themselves away to become invisible. They stood out only in their unremarkableness. To Adam, through the window, they all looked the same.

He’d never been in a relationship. His romantic history had involved some seedy escapades in his hometown, where he was really testing the gay waters. These proved highly enjoyable, in the sense he could distinguish them from his heterosexual experiences, which he didn’t enjoy. He was gay, and of course to admit this to himself was a freeing of his soul. He did fall for his best friend; and after a drinking session, and some unexpected groping, he made the mistake of declaring his feelings. His straight friend balked, and an iciness formed between them that became glacial. He had to get away.

Away first was to Manchester where he secured work in an Internet company and was really only finding his feet when the opportunity arose to transfer to London. That was a year and a half ago and since then he’d switched to running a small business centre in a Hotel. He wasn’t going to go to university, his family wasn’t of that class; in fact, he was something of a hero to them, wearing a suit and tie and living in London — ‘Oh, our Adam’s in the big time.’ In truth, it was only his own desire to escape his roots that had pushed him out and on in the world. But in many ways he seemed to be facing a brick wall. He had to integrate in some way to advance himself socially and career wise, and though he was willing he now didn’t fit in with the straight boys — it was just tribal — but the gay scene wasn’t offering a port of call either. He was in a sexual limbo where the straight world was a heaven without the sex and the gay world a hell with the sex. He just wanted to be normal. ¬

There had been a chink of romance at the hotel. Adam hadn’t instigated it; he just became a hapless victim of the charms of Paul, the exuberant, slightly effeminate concierge. He was hard to resist. At first there were jokes, then teasing, then more serious conversations. Then an opening up of personal habits of the ‘What did you do last night?’ variety. Then a moment of tenderness in the franking room, when a letter fell on the floor and both reached down to pick it up, their eyes meeting and Paul chanced a kiss, which Adam returned. Then he pulled away, and then further and further away, because he didn’t want to get involved in anything too serious, and he hadn’t started it, and anyway Paul was a bit queeny. Paul got the message and became angry and bitchy because he felt he’d been led up the garden path, which he had, if only by default. But in a master stroke didn’t let it last and made the effort to be just as kind and cordial to Adam as he had been, just to show that that’s the kind of person he was — which disturbed Adam greatly.

‘Last call’ saw a trickle of customers heading for the exit, the buzz needing to be continued elsewhere. In the ripple of uncertainty and fluctuation Adam didn’t notice the lean, well-dressed figure moving in beside him; until, in a forthright manner, waking Adam from a vacant stare, he inquired: ‘Can I get you another?’ There was no introduction; it was getting late, the world was shifting on to new destinations where the lonely would be forgotten. He’d have a lager please! Gary had just flown in from Indiana. There was a communication seminar tomorrow, he was guest speaker at, and then he’d be whisked off to Birmingham for another the day after. He didn’t look gay, more like a businessman in his casual clothes, hair a little ruffled, shirt and pants of that American collegiate style, his shoes something Adam’s father might wear. He was just straight up, straightforward, straight-laced. They could talk about ordinary, simple, everyday things, and in the mix of throbbing dance beats, disoriented décor and loud cackling queens, provided an oasis of sensitivity.

The conversation turned on the usual not too personal, get to know you questions: where Adam was from, what he did for a living, how often he came to the bar. And in return inquired as to Gary’s reason for being in London, the length of his stay, and what life was like in Indiana. Adam had spoken to quite a few American’s in the hotel, and always found them easy to converse with, their temperament laced with an eagerness to get on in the world, unlike Europeans who enjoyed a good sulk. He didn’t find himself drawn to Gary in a sexual way, yet didn’t find himself repelled. One word in either direction could swing the balance, but for the moment fun was to be had in determining what words would ultimately be successful. Gradually their voices became louder as the competition for air space decreased, and when the bouncer approached to hurry them up, he could address them in conversational tones. They were the last ones left. In an embarrassed way, with the eyes of the bar staff on them, they stumbled through the exit. It looked like they were together. Were they? Adam barely had the heart for it. He’d been in the situation enough to know the routine. And the sex was all right, in fact, sometimes fantastic, but the prospect of the morning after and the cold goodbye filled him with an emotional nausea that the city’s anonymous comings and goings seemed to echo.

They could go to a club — more loud music. They could go to a coffee shop — had they really that much to talk about? They could go to another bar — it would be like starting the night over. They could separate — they’d never meet again. They could go to bed.

In the confusion, and in the absence of forcing any issue, they began walking. Conversation was now drying a little. They weren’t friends, there wasn’t a natural cosiness; it would take time to build that kind on warmth, which wasn’t the same as goodwill. When they reached the main thoroughfare of Charing Cross Road and London swept before them as a parade, it was clear they’d reached the end of their own particular foreplay. They stopped on a street corner, and stood, motionless. Adam needed to advance. The only option open to him was the lightly tanned, genteel American opposite him. It was hopeless really, but to take the underground back to his bed-sit was, on this, the night when he stood at the crossroads, a step backwards. In his mind he wished a bomb would go off, or someone he knew formally would recognise him and whisk him off, or his mobile would ring with the news that someone close to him had died. Anything, just something to change his life. ‘Oh, in Mayfair, alright then.’

Down Shaftsbury Avenue the theatres had already closed their doors, and a sort of unreality hung in the air, like maybe all that happened between them was a performance of sorts, and the billboards now glowing in anticipation of tomorrow’s performance wouldn’t be shining for theirs. Glimpses of Chinatown, street portrait artists and lager louts about Trafalgar, filled Adam’s senses like scenes from a movie he was in but hadn’t written the script for. He was glad he’d someone to share them with. Was he any less of a foreigner here than his companion? Suddenly they seemed to be alone. The cafes and bars and piazza parlours had interchanged with expensive men’s clothing stores and upscale jewellery outlets. The only sign of decadent life being the lights of the Ritz-Carlton that flashed in a haunting perversity, as if they were available to all, a candle in the window to welcome a weary traveller, the weary rich traveller, that is. Gary pulled them up outside a smallish looking five-story building and asked Adam to wait for five minutes while he tidied the room. It was one of those details that would always take from the romance of the situation, akin to chasing down every late-opening corner shop for a condom. He dreaded the faces of both members of staff, who were still on duty. From experience, he knew that nothing goes unnoticed in a hotel. So what, he reasoned, all criticism was hypocritical; and yet did they not stand in some way as guards to the better part of his soul? He was lonely. He missed his family. He wanted to go home.

The room was of Mayfair standards, decorative in that English sort of way that would appeal to Americans. Gary instead of taking control of the situation slumped into a chair. He was either wary of pushing Adam into the sack too fast, as if that might turn him off, or he was nervous himself; Adam couldn’t make it out, but he hadn’t come up for coffee and a chat. In an unselfconscious manner, he stood before Gary, and stripped off. The love making process became quite intense, alternating fiercely between animal passion and human tenderness. After what seemed like a long time for two strangers to be intimate, and their bodies released the fluids they do on these occasions, they fell into an embrace that was both wholesome and repellent, in that it was a moment in time that was beautiful, but in isolation was inadequate to the sum of the parts that make time beautiful. Adam felt the tears falling on his muscled forearm. Three kids, 7, 4 and 2. It was a cliché: guy meets girl in college, marries young, has children, but there was always something. Then he gets older, bolder, and indulges his secret desires. And now he’s trapped. Adam, though not insensitive to the situation, could only care in the way of a neighbour who’d fallen under a bus, but what he did notice was this awful, the only way he could describe it was, this metallic pain across the upper part of Gary’s face and forehead. He took Gary’s head in his hands, as a doctor would a sick patient.

Adam wasn’t staying over. It wasn’t like it was someone’s apartment and they had the run of the place, and anyway Gary had an early start. He offered to pay for Adam’s taxi, almost, Adam felt, as payment for his listening services. He refused, and the fact he was younger added a Daddy flavour to the encounter, which offended Adam’s sensibilities. There was no doubt that Gary was moving a lot freer around the room, finding a fluency in his muscles that had tightened with secrecy. Finally, when all the questions were satisfied as to Adam’s travel arrangements, they found themselves in the doorway - unable to part. They kissed, and kissed again, and Gary removed Adams shirt and began kissing his chest, and then he drew suddenly back, his face covered in that metallic pain again. He bid Adam to leave him - ‘please, please’ - and buttoned up Adam’s shirt, who was confused and bewildered, taken as he was from the throes of ecstasy and stitched up, almost silenced with the agonies of centuries.

He was somewhat relieved to be back on street level. The smoothness of the empty sidewalk and the linear angles of the buildings offered him a sense of stability and order he found reassuring after the complicated encounter. No, life wasn’t supposed to be so bumpy, so layered. It was difficult enough to find one’s way without going out of one’s way to be so lost. What had he got? Not much. But he knew he was on the right road, that he had placed himself in a position that if a window opened or a door he could be beckoned through it. Sleep? No, he was wide awake, just like the city, its gutters, chimneys and letterboxes inhaling the night air and exhaling a strange mixture of fixture and impermanence that wrapped around him like a blanket. He took a last look back at the hotel, where he’d seen something of the suffering of the world, and noticed a light being extinguished, but he couldn’t be sure it was the same room he was just in.