New Short Stories

Home, Street Scene, Friday Night, The Gay Myth

HOME

The walk from the terminal to the arrival gates was interminable. It gave him time, however, to reacclimatise himself with the spirit of the country as depicted in various advertisements: the Irish rugby team flogging an energy drink; a heterosexual couple against a sunset promoting a rival airline; grandparents taking a selfie with their grandchild on a Samsung. When he finally reached the arrival gates, they had installed new electric doors that revealed your presence to the waiting throng as if walking onto the set of a game show. Instead of being gathered up into the arms of loved ones, Alan made an instinctive face-saving expression of the ‘I’m not sure where I really am’ variety, as if he was possibly at the wrong gate and elsewhere in the vast airport there may have been a group of his nearest and dearest equally baffled as to his whereabouts.

He told himself that he didn’t mind that none of his family were available to pick him up because he didn’t want to admit what it signified: none of his heterosexual brothers and sisters wanted him back in their midst. He excused them on account of their demanding children, jobs, social commitments; and he’d chosen to fly in on a Wednesday afternoon, which was inconvenient by anyone’s standards. In fairness, he’d also provoked their ire by his failure to attend his father’s funeral the previous autumn. He’d had a knee operation scheduled two days after his father’s fatal heart attack and, instead of rescheduling it, decided to go ahead and deliver the final snub to a father who had refused to have a meaningful relationship with him. No doubt his siblings had had a lot of explaining to do at the funeral.

Fortunately there was a bus that ran directly from the airport to his hometown and he crowded on with a small group of immigrants, returning from visiting family members in Poland and Nigeria. The Irish bus driver treated them brusquely, snorting his disapproval at those who flashed Social Welfare travel passes. When Alan enquired about the fare, the driver’s whole demeanour brightened on hearing his Irish accent and he exchanged a good-natured quip about the weather. Alan took a seat on the upper deck and tried to prepare himself mentally for the reality of what he was about to experience. Up till this point, returning had been an idea, a patchwork of people and places that would form in his mind as a hazy cloud extracted from the embers of memory. Though he’d been back on holiday in the intervening years, he’d never been forced to contemplate returning to live in a country he’d wanted to leave from an early age.

There was the gay issue for sure, and when he left there was still a tendency for gay people to flee Ireland and huddle for protection in foreign gay city ghettos. But his flight was also driven by his career ambitions. Having spent three happy years in the National College of Art and Design, he then worked for a summer dressing the windows of a supposedly fashion-forward department store. It was a shock to be confronted with the tastes of the general public, which didn’t resemble in the slightest the avant-garde designs he’d studied in textbooks. It was a symptom of the predominantly patriarchal culture, where the men worked hard to spend their money at racetracks and the women spent the men’s money to look good on their arms there. It was imperative for him to find a place where people loved fashion for its own sake, and Paris seemed the obvious destination.

As the bus weaved its way through a series of urban industrial estates, Alan was reminded of the Celtic Tiger influence on the landscape with the addition of American-style shopping malls. Brand names rose up in colourful Calibri script like crosses of a new religion dominating the lives of the inhabitants. It appeared the antitheses of the multitude of family-owned specialist shops that lined the street where he lived in Paris, not to mention the weekly farmer’s market a couple of streets away, where earth still clung to fruit and vegetables freshly plucked from Mother Nature’s clutches in fertile outer regions. But maybe that was a cheap shot: the influence of multinational corporations was far-reaching and urban France was no less susceptible. The homogenisation of people’s tastes was the real danger because it was the enemy of creativity, the fear being that the truly original wouldn’t make it to the assembly line to begin with.

These musings were interrupted by a text from his older sister. She hoped that he’d had a good flight and said she was looking forward to seeing him. She didn’t say when exactly, which probably meant not today, but at her convenience, somewhere between dropping off her kids at swimming or Irish dancing lessons. The nine words she used were the least needed to convey her message and he figured it was sent to assuage her guilt for not collecting him. It also unnerved him because they didn’t get on. She was the socially conservative square in the family who pursued an aggressively heterosexual agenda: pedicures and cocktails for the girls, Gaelic football training and pints for the boys. If he was inclined to analyse these things, he might have said that the Queen Bee was marking out her territory by letting him know that, in these parts at least, the men belonged to her.

As he approached his hometown he was confronted with a series of posters about the upcoming gay marriage referendum. He had to do a double take because he was so shocked by their contents. One showed a heterosexual couple doting over their small child with a caption about a child needing a mother and a father. Another showed a small child with a caption about the child needing a mother for life and not just for nine months — as surrogacy implied. How nasty, he thought, to present gay marriage as a threat to children, especially as many detractors associated homosexuality with paedophilia. He’d been through a similar turbulent campaign for gay marriage in France, when gay people and businesses were physically attacked. What was even more shocking, however, was the prominence of the issue. When he was growing up homosexuality was shrouded in secrecy, a subject referred to in snide asides or dirty looks; and here it was being brandished, for better or for worse, on public roads.

A few boys were kicking a football on the green area outside his old primary school, which was run by an army of mostly sadistic nuns. He’d been something of a star pupil in those early years, but around the time of his Confirmation, he suddenly went quiet, no longer eager to raise his hand in class and be the first with the correct answer. What had changed then? Was it the onset of puberty and the terrors associated with his own waking desires that caused him to withdraw, or more precisely, to hide himself? One nun, a rebel in the order who didn’t wear a habit, may have noticed the change in him because she pulled him aside one day and asked him was everything okay? He didn’t dare tell her his deepest fears but gained some solace from her taking a special interest in him. Soon after, she left for some far-flung part of Africa, where she could be as free as a bird outside the watchful eyes of her order.

The main street looked as it always looked, a mixture of businesses such as newsagents and boutiques facilitating people’s functional lives and more secretive establishments such as pubs and bookie offices doling out relief from them. Several groups of women were huddled around prams at various intervals like Roman senators harnessing their power by fostering consensus. The public toilets, where Alan had had his first homosexual encounter, were now boarded-up and a new Portaloo installed in front of them, which didn’t offer the same opportunities. Such covert meeting places for gays were fast becoming obsolete as most hook-ups could now be arranged online, without fear of arrest. Granted, there was something to be said for the danger element adding an extra frisson of excitement.

Fortunately the bus stopped close to his house and he made his way hesitantly through the remaining streets. He didn’t want to bump into any of his neighbours because he wasn’t arriving home in a blaze of glory. Since his Egyptian boyfriend dumped him about eighteen months ago, his life seemed to spiral out of control. He’d been depressed, understandably, for about six months; but just as he was coming out of it, the fashion house he worked for gave him the chop. They were bought by an American conglomerate that halved the staff and replaced them with a slew of American interns dying to ‘experience Paris’. This landed him in another depression, an even deeper one, and he started drinking heavily, which only exacerbated his problems. When he came down with a mysterious viral illness, his doctor advised that he might be better off getting out of Paris for a while to rebuild his strength.

The house had undergone a paint job, a number of improvements his mother had initiated, with the help of his older brother (who was to inherit it). She had detailed these for Alan’s benefit during their weekly Sunday night phone calls. It was, as if, she was waiting for his father to vacate the premises before she made any attempt to spruce it up, not in his memory but as a celebration of his exit. They had been living separate lives for a number of years after his father had an affair. While they maintained cordial relations, they had secretly gone to war, inflicting underhanded blows to thwart the other’s happiness. Alan had been his mother’s confidant during that difficult period, absorbing the emotional pain of her anger and betrayal. And now, wasn’t he doing the same thing, coming back to alleviate her loneliness and solitude?

The gate was only partially open and Alan’s case rattled the hinges. For the first time he became aware of its heaviness as he dragged it along the gravel path, the scrapping sound piercing the air in a distressed protest at the irregular surface. Alerted by the noise, the next door neighbour’s dog — that never liked him — started barking furiously and a couple of alarmed pigeons deserted their perch on the garage roof. He rested his case against one of two flower pots in the style of Grecian urns and straightened his jacket. He imagined his mother sitting in her armchair, engrossed in some black and white movie where the actors spoke in very correct English that masked an underlying helplessness.

STREET SCENE

He would end with a ‘street scene’. It seemed apt to paint a panoramic view of a world from which he would shortly be removed. It occurred to him that this was the ultimate artistic expression: the ability to remove himself from the work. His vision would no longer be clouded by his own petty dreams, fears, bitterness. He would give the world back to itself and let it dance with its own relentless rhythm, without the need to make an unchoreographed entrance or exit.

The nurses had helped him erect his easel in the window of his front room. Below him, fruit sellers, fish mongers and florists lined the boulevard, while butchers, bakeries and cafés vied for attention in their shadows. You couldn’t pick a scene more teeming with life — and yet curiously lifeless, as he didn’t know any of the participants. He would be as anonymous to them in death as he’d been in life: the artist, an outsider.

The morphine patches had been making him a little drowsy, which was affecting the work. Sometimes he would find himself nodding off and then waking up, unaware of which section of the canvas he’d been working on. As a consequence he found himself having to constantly re-evaluate the whole, in a sense continually starting again. It made sense that his last painting would somehow be unfinished, and he imagined himself nodding off terminally while nearing the end — though not if he could help it.

He was waking from one of these unintentional naps when a boy appeared at the window of the apartment opposite. He had to adjust his eyes to make sure it wasn’t a drug-inspired illusion, but then, as if to silence the doubt, the boy opened the window and leaned out over the ledge. Tossing his blond curls from his forehead, the boy inhaled the street, indeed the city, as if presented with a delicate new rose species. Without digesting the information he’d acquired, the boy abruptly closed the window and disappeared from view.

It was a sleepless night for the artist. He was dogged by one those metaphysical questions that was likely to surface with a new work: what colour is death? It was only when the first rays of light broke over the city that it occurred to the artist that death had no particular colour; it was in every colour, a pigment of mortality that seeped into the brightest yellow or the deepest purple, deepening the hue and fixing it more firmly to the canvas. This knowledge freed him to set about his day’s work with renewed vigour, having set in place the last piece in the artistic theoretical jigsaw puzzle he’d been solving all his professional life.

At lunchtime, the boy emerged with the owner of the apartment and two other women, the artist didn’t recognise. From the interactions and physical likeness between the older women, he surmised they were probably sisters. The younger woman, who appeared a miniature of them, was probably one of their daughters. It would naturally follow that the boy was the nephew, son and brother; and yet he looked detached from the group as if inhabiting a different universe. He was the prettiest of the bunch and appeared more genteel, as if carved from a finer grain. The boy looked directly up at the artist’s window sensing the admiration — or maybe to confront it — and the artist dived behind his easel, caught out as a Peeping Tom. He consoled himself afterwards that this was the primary function of the artist after all.

The little episode affected him so much that he decided to suspend his work for the afternoon. He’d been seen again, noticed; that boy had the ability to see right into his soul. All his friends, family, nurses and doctors milling around him only saw an image of what they wanted to see, keeping the parts they liked or disliked, and abandoning what they couldn’t deal with. But that boy knew who he was, what he was about. He could deal with his awfulness and beauty equally. It was a shock to his system.

Against medical advice he returned to his easel in the evening, hoping for another glimpse of the boy. He wasn’t rewarded for his efforts, however, which weren’t helped by dozing off intermittingly. In one dream he passed over into the afterlife, which appeared as an anodyne landscape littered with different scenes: children in a playground, a group of girls fussing over a wedding dress, a funeral procession. While he felt his usual artistic distance, he was completely at peace with his observer status — a first. The boy then appeared from a white mist in a silver tunic and was about to lead the artist to his own personal paradise — somewhere beyond the mist — when the artist was awoken by a jolt of pain shooting down his spine, reminding him that he was still, painfully, very much alive.

The following afternoon, after an exhaustive morning he had spent with a couple of close friends whose lives he felt he was delaying, he observed the boy emerging from the apartment with a football. As far as the artist was concerned the only place he could be heading was the little park at the end of the street. He immediately bribed his nurse to take him there, reasoning that a little fresh air couldn’t do him any harm: he was dying of cancer, for Christ’s sake!

By the time he reached the sculpted gardens the boy had already enlisted a couple of local youths in a game. The artist nestled close to the action and produced a book to make his presence there look benign. The boys played with all the passion their teenage hearts could muster, their shouts and cries echoing the artist’s own youth. This didn’t upset him, but made him feel whole, rounded, as if his life had a natural cycle, no matter that it would end for him at thirty-five. At one point the ball landed close to the artist and the boy flashed him a smile while retrieving it, as if receiving the admiration he’d been given.

He’d come to Paris to lay his brushes alongside the great artists who’d lived there before him. He was saying, ‘I am coming to the home of great art because I am a great artist, and I want to be compared to the great artists who have lived here before me.’ Also, by submerging his background in his new art-centred surroundings, he wanted to create art that was free from provincial constraints, in effect art for art’s sake. In doing this, he believed he would have more control over the creative process, using ‘pure’ theory as a foundation for his technique rather than drawing on theory devised in a society where art’s stature was diminished. It was also a homecoming of sorts as he had lived for his art and believed he would die in art. He imagined himself dissolving into a pigment of paint and being splashed on to some greater canvas hovering above the boulevards of Montmartre.

Sadly, the fresh air did do him harm, and he was rushed to hospital during the night with a crippling pain that could only be eased by injecting large doses of morphine. As he lay in his hospital bed, holding the hand of a sister he didn’t like, he could only think of the young boy’s lean and sturdy legs moving around the park, free, sure, grounded. He must have borrowed something from their spirit as he defied predictions and lasted the night, even raising himself to greet the morning — his favourite part of the day. He was sent home to die once more.

He made directly for the canvas, sensing his time was running short. It was going to be another unsettling piece. He had a problem painting anything in a straightforward manner. His first paintings that had made a splash in Dublin were a series of domestic scenes — his dad painting his car; the family cat napping in front of a fire; his mother ironing — that were so unsettling one critic commented that ‘one expected a bomb to blow up the participants at any moment’. Then there was the series of satirical sketches that caused a stir in London where he inserted male nudes in classic works, such as Rubens’ Judgement of Paris and Velazquez’s Rokeby Venus, instead of the female nudes in the originals. They were described in one art journal as ‘sacrilegious’. Also, by referencing the greats, he was putting himself on a par with them, which added to the outrage.

And even this, his final work, which he felt would be a nostalgic farewell to the world, was proving an uneasy departure. The piece seemed to hang on his ability, or inability, to reconcile modern Paris street life with the austere historical buildings surrounding. How did the glories of the past compare with the mediocrities of the present? Was the world changing for the better or the worse? What value was his own contribution? Was this last and final work a testament to the excellence of his generation? Was that asking too much of himself?

As night fell, he sensed the work was reaching a conclusion. He wouldn’t be able to say for sure until he could review the work in the cold morning sunlight as the dusk held too many secrets that distracted from cold analysis. He could almost believe that, as he often felt when he finished a work, he was making a new start of some sort, as if he had purged some deep uneasiness and could now move in freer dimensions.

He was about to retire for the night when the boy appeared at his window. Without warning, the boy removed his dressing gown and revealed his naked charms as the shadows of the night wove an intergalactic pattern on his silken flesh. It was a defiant move and a sharp jolt of pain shot through the artist’s heart. Not for the first time he was struck by the limitations of art when compared with the awe-inspiring beauty of real life — something he could never capture on the canvas, or in life either. With what little strength he had left, he hurled the almost finished masterpiece against the wall, then passed out.

The early morning traffic moved slowly up the boulevard. A group of labourers stood outside a café waiting for it to open. A fruit seller was putting the finishing touches to his display while chatting with his florist neighbour. Several schoolchildren hurried along the footpath, passing two youths of North African extraction involved in a dodgy deal on a street corner. A policeman stood on the other side of the road, ignoring the youths but suspiciously eyeing a cyclist riding by.

FRIDAY NIGHT

The unglamorous watering hole was, hopefully, the last stop on a pub crawl that had begun across the road in the oldest gay bar in London, which was apt because these days he felt like the oldest gay man in London. Mark had moved on to another dump afterwards, where there was a drag show, and it gave him some solace to listen to the host drag queen abusing several regulars. It was the kind of bar where guys could go on their own, buy a pint and hold up the wall for the night, on a perpetual cruise that usually ended in a cul-de-sac. Mark realised he’d reached his own dead end when a guy he’d started a conversation with unexpectedly disappeared, on the pretence of visiting the bathroom. Mark didn’t want to run into him again and risk a double rejection, so he vacated the premises and made his way to this last chance saloon.

The crowd looked grotesque, or perhaps a more kindly description would be to say they were over-animated, the effect of desperation mixed with alcohol. He actually found the scene comforting as the hopeless and helpless were his friends, not those who appeared to be on top of things. He wasn’t sure when he flipped from the status of champion swimmer to that of drowning and in distress, but certainly in the last five years he’d developed a negative or, more poetically, a wry outlook on life. Maybe it was inevitable, and was probably a survival mechanism, for if he couldn’t laugh at, or possibly embrace, the tsunamis one is invariably confronted with, he would be overwhelmed. He was drowning, yes, but he was still buoyant.

It was always an effort to get a drink in these kind of crowded dives and he attempted to barge through a couple of guys hogging the bar counter, but they wouldn’t budge. He was left with the option of trying to shout over their heads or to lean around them, contorting his body into a shape that wouldn’t appear dignified. He decided to cut his losses and walk to the far end of the bar counter where there was a space, but where it would be doubly difficult to get the bartender’s attention. When he finally arrived there, having ploughed through a few more bodies reluctant to move, the hot young bartender unexpectedly appeared, but, on seeing Mark, abruptly turned on his heel and went swanning back down the other end. Five minutes later, having let Mark know that he was at the very bottom of his list of priorities, he reluctantly took his order. Finally, with drink in hand, and the feeling that he was about as welcome in the bar as a Muslim cleric, he retreated to the dark shadows at the rear of the establishment, where the other dregs congregated.

The first tsunami to consume him was the death of his mother in his late twenties. He’d been doing quite well up till then. He’d come out pretty early and headed to London to escape the tiny, incestuous Dublin scene. He met Harry at 6am one morning outside a club in Vauxhall and the restaurant they’d opened afforded them a comfortable living. He could see now, from the wreckage his life had become, that her death was the first in a series of events that could be described as a downward spiral. His mother had been the backbone of his life and, when she died, he felt like the ground had become a little unsteady under his feet, making him more vulnerable to something else knocking him for six.

A few familiar faces greeted him on his arrival in the undergrowth. One had been in a bar he’d just come from, and though they hadn’t spoken to each other, and wouldn’t in a million years, they slyly acknowledged their guilt: they hadn’t just left a circle of friends and found themselves alone at the witching hour by some freak of nature occurrence, but had been alone all evening trudging the depths of their loneliness. As he was want to do, he immediately compared his paunch with the other dregs surrounding. He’d had a good run a couple of months ago where, through diet and the taking of brisk walks, he’d managed to lose five pounds, which wasn’t going to make any serious inroads into its removal, but he had felt considerably lighter. Sadly, another three pounds had been put back on over the last couple of weeks due to general laziness and inertia in the kitchen area, and he knew he was flirting with being seen as ‘fat and undesirable’. It was funny because he didn’t look much different with five pounds on or off, but it was in how it made him feel that radiated his attractiveness or not. He had a frenemy in work the same age as him who possessed the body of a twenty-year-old. To maintain this, he ate like a supermodel and ran himself into the ground in a gym four times a week. While his body was fit, his drawn and haggard face showed the strain of keeping up this kind of regime. And for what, so some young guy would go for him in a dark room, mistaking him for someone half his age, and he could feel young again as if he’d cheated the corrosive effects of ageing?

The second tsunami was the death of his boyfriend from prostate cancer. In the latter stages of their relationship they’d tired of each other sexually and had both got a little out of shape, so they decided to have an open relationship. They never discussed the specifics of these occasional infidelities, except on one occasion when they agreed that if one of them fell in love with someone else, they’d own up to it. That happened a week before the diagnosis, when Mark received the news that his boyfriend had met someone else on the Web and they were getting serious. After the diagnosis, his boyfriend’s Web lover ran for cover, and it was left to Mark to nurse a boyfriend who didn’t love him anymore. And if he was completely honest, that was what hurt the most, more devastating even than his boyfriend’s demise and eventual death.

When he settled into his overly-casual pose to mask his desperation, he scoped the room for potential lovers. He was, of course, drawn to a few young beauties whose freshness was even more accentuated in the dingy surroundings. It irked him slightly that he still desired guys who wouldn’t give him the time of day. He knew that the only way to get any of these chickens into bed was to flash a wallet stuffed with twenties. Despite himself, he couldn’t help trying to catch the eye of one or two to see if they might be genuinely interested in an older man and whether they might see down into his soul to the person he really was, which was loveable and cuddly and adorable.

He should’ve had more money. He had to admit that when his boyfriend died, the restaurant may as well had died with him. The whole energy had been sucked out of the place, devoid of the care and attention his boyfriend showered on everything from the smallest detail of the décor to customers’ idiosyncratic demands. It was something he became only too well aware of: people liked his boyfriend more than him. It wasn’t that he was particularly unpleasant, but he lacked the ability to give the customers the impression that his happiness was wrapped up in theirs; his boyfriend acted like his life depended on them having a good time and reaped the benefits of their mutual affection. The restaurant was just chugging along now, barely paying a living wage.

Catching the eye of a rather dishy specimen in a pink t-shirt, he offered an apologetic smile that was met with a look of ‘Why are you looking at me?’ morphing into a ‘Do I know you?’ enquiry. Mark would have to rise to this and admit that he didn’t, so instead he looked away and pretended to disappear. Deflated, but used to the deflation, he decided he’d turn his attention elsewhere and picked up one of the scene magazines, thrown carelessly across a nearby table, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to be standing in a bar in central London on his own at midnight having a read. If he was looking for comfort it wasn’t here either, as the pages were packed with hot shirtless young men dancing in clubs, hot shirtless young men selling underwear and hot shirtless young men selling themselves. The only sobering section was the one that advised on protection from various sexual diseases, which served as an antidote to the rest of the contents. When he felt he had overcome the put-down of the pink-shirted bitch, he decided to try for another drink, taking in a visit to the bathroom en route.

This was always treacherous when he’d consumed a fair amount and when hope was waning. There were usually a couple of lads lined up at the urinals wanking and, if he wasn’t careful, given a little encouragement, he might join in. The couple of times this happened he had regretted it later because, while he wasn’t prudish, there was something utterly degrading about degrading yourself in a public place. He was, in effect, completely disrespecting social decorum and dragging everyone else down along with him. Tonight there was the usual three or four sleazebags waiting for him, but he managed to do the business and deflect any straying hands. It angered him that he was vulnerable to these situations now, situations where he was grateful for any attention, regardless of the source.

He approached the bar for a second time as the barman sounded the call for ‘Last orders!’ This was tricky for Mark as he would happily have bought another drink and drank it quietly in his corner, hoping for a miracle hook-up; but now he would be consciously entering the category of the ‘hopelessly desperate’, those who were still searching for a hook-up while most were putting on their coats. There was also the risk of him, as usual, being ignored by the bartender and then finally being acknowledged with the information that they were no longer serving. He glanced briefly around the bar to assess his chances of a hook-up and, failing to catch anyone’s eye, just waited there awhile.

THE GAY MYTH

There was never going to be a good time to tell them. He’d been cruising some gay dating websites, the profiles filled with happy, confident faces — waiting for him. He had thought of constructing his own profile but was overcome with the fear that his friends and classmates might see it. He didn’t know if he was ready for that type of exposure; and yet, the alternative was existing in his own private dream world, a place where dreams could never come true. He had intended waiting till he started college next year to deal with the issue, escape being the obvious remedy. But why should he have to run away to be who he was?

He’d already made a gay friend on a school trip to an adventure centre in Scotland, when several schools had converged on the Highland location for skiing, hiking and canoeing. They’d had sex a couple of times during that week, and Sean had made a couple of secret trips to Dublin since. But it was difficult to engineer these meetings, and he knew he was keeping his friend at bay romantically, fearful of the intensity of the feeling between them. He could imagine himself running away with him to England or France or somewhere. But again, that seemed liked the easy option.

It wasn’t like he was going to be stoned or tarred and feathered. There was practically a gay cabal in his school, led by an out and proud classmate whose company he assiduously avoided. While the lads were generally tolerant, sometimes even indulgent to this guy’s face, many mocked him mercilessly behind his back. In fact Sean had been forced to join in on occasion to save face. It would be tricky dealing with the guys on the football team, who would probably think he was lusting after them. He didn’t know how he was going to handle that, but he was getting to the point where he didn’t care. He just couldn’t go on with the lies and the misery and the silence.

Through his bedroom window he could see the back gardens of two rows of houses and a green area, usually populated by the neighbourhood children, but today strangely empty. It was a tranquil scene, ordered, the only eyesore being several large trees that looked out of place in small gardens. He didn’t want it to change, but he knew that he’d no longer be the same person that people knew and loved, that they could easily situate in the landscape as a natural element. He’d be a sticking-out bit, a blob, something people would have difficulty accounting for, something they’d have to make allowances for.

As he made his way downstairs, his sister’s shrill voice rose up to meet him. She tended to visit more regularly since she’d become pregnant, aware that her parents might be vital to her childcare arrangements. Eight years older, she’d been bossing him around for as long as he could remember, never having forgiven him for dethroning her as the only child commanding her parent’s undivided attention. And he was a boy after all, born with the privileges of his sex, which she also resented. Still, she would be supportive, whatever his parent’s reaction, though she might be put out that she hadn’t been let into his confidence before them.

No one noticed as he entered the kitchen, where he boiled the kettle. His parents were engrossed in the exploits of their daughter in pre-natal classes, which they could enjoy by osmosis. He took his coffee and joined his sister on the main sofa, while his parents faced them in opposing armchairs. This was unusual as, when his sister visited, he tended to stay in his room because she would monopolise her parent’s attention and he would feel surplus to requirements. As the conversation rattled on, his hands began to shake and he laid his mug on the coffee table. His mother picked up on his anxiety and interrupted the flow of conversation to ask him if everything was alright.

It was now or never and he leaned forward in his chair and joined his hands as if in prayer. He had prepared a speech: ‘There comes a time in every man’s life when he has to tell the truth. I love you all and I feel it’s my duty to tell you the truth about myself…’

Everyone suspected what was coming, but like witnesses at a crucifixion they had to wait out his speech to the bitter end — hoping for a last minute reprieve.

‘I’m gayyyyy…’ The word seemed to trail off into its own chain of signification, evoking a myriad of associations.

His mother thought of Rena, the butch lesbian who served with her on the committee of the Pro-choice campaign in college. For about six months they were inseparable and, though they only slept together a dozen times or so, she wanted nobody else during that period. His Commandant father remembered the peace keeping mission in the Congo, when several local teenage boys would pitch up to the barracks to service the soldiers on Saturday nights. Most were effeminate and were seen by the soldiers as a local delicacy, the kind they were denied at home. His sister returned to the fetish party where she made out with another girl in an S&M scenario while her future husband looked on. They had toned down the fetish side of the relationship but still enjoyed the occasional swingers’ party.

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