He’d heard the whispers most of his life. No one ever said it to his face – you’re more careful than that when the person you’re talking to is captain of the school rugby team, a blindside flanker and handy with his fists when aroused and later, in the adult world, people are more polite, at least on the surface but he knew what they said. “Queer” was the word in those early days – “gay” had not yet come into fashion and the question they asked among themselves (no one ever said it to him) was: is he or isn’t he?
If anyone had summoned up the courage to pose the question directly to him, he’d have said “No”. No, I’m not queer. I’m just like everyone else. Just like you. And he’d lived that life – the life like theirs; he’d dated girls (good-looking girls, girls other boys wanted and couldn’t get, because that’s what happens when you’re a sporting hero) and eventually he’d married one of them, done his duty by her, fathered children and put the necessary effort into raising them.
There had been temptations. A meeting, a social event, a pub or a restaurant or someone’s home and there would be that sense of being appraised. He’d look up and see in the eyes of some man he didn’t know a question, always the same question: are you? Or aren’t you? He’d learned how to blank that look without even thinking about it, sending the message, “No, I’m not. You’ll have to look elsewhere.” And sometimes the message would come back, “You don’t fool me,” but no one ever tried to take it further because what would have been the point? Whatever his inclinations might be, if he didn’t want to he didn’t want to.
When he looked back now, it seemed like an awful waste of so many opportunities. Because however much he’d tried to fool other people he’d never fooled himself. The answer to the question “Are you or aren’t you?” would have been “Yes. I am.”
Had Julie known? They’d certainly never talked about it and if their life together left her unsatisfied she’d never said so. If she knew that sex with a woman was a duty thing for him, she must also know that he did his best. All right, she had divorced him in the end but not until the children were grown and gone into the world; her affair with a younger man she met at work and not doubt about his sexuality had been the catalyst and it had ended in tears. She’d sent out feelers through their daughter: was there any chance he’d take her back? The answer was no, but when their children had married he and Julie had stood together like the best of friends, thick as thieves his sister said, but by that time he’d had so many years of practising a false front it would have been harder to let the truth show.
He’d never hit her, after all – never even thought of it and it came as a surprise when she told him what went on in other marriages. “Eric has battered Pat since the beginning.” He didn’t understand that. To him there was nothing lower a man could do and he was always cold towards Eric after that.
He hadn’t hit the children, either – not once – that was something else that never occurred to him to do.
He didn’t regret those things – in fact it pleased him to know that he’d set the children such a good example, that he left violence on the rugby field and in the playground. When he looked back, there were few things he regretted. Really, just the one.
He thought it would have been different if he’d been born a generation later. Gay Pride marches, civil partnerships, openly gay people in high positions. The best referee in the 2015 rugby World Cup was gay, for heaven’s sake, and everyone knew and nobody minded. What a difference a few decades make. He’d been in his twenties when homosexual acts between consenting adults in private had been made legal, and older than that before the sniggering stopped. If, in some quarters, it ever had.
So that was his regret – that he’d suppressed his inclinations, refused to acknowledge his true nature. When his life ended, he would never have experienced the one thing he longed for: to love and be loved by another man. And when he said loved he meant physically loved. Fucked, if you wanted to be crude about it. Really, by now, the physical aspect should be unimportant but it wasn’t. He wished with all his heart that he had, just once, returned the gaze of one of those men, touched hands, found a room – let’s be frank, a bedroom – and undressed and let what would happen happen. Now that it was so late in the day, the longing was almost too much to bear.
Who could say how much of this was to do with the conversation he had had only three days earlier?
‘How long do I have?’
‘Realistically? Three months. At the most. Maybe less.’
‘There’s no hope?’
‘If we’d found it a year ago, perhaps. As it is…I’m not going to lie to you. There are things we could do but I couldn’t promise that you’d win more than another few weeks and you wouldn’t thank me for them because the treatment would be as bad as the disease. Worse, probably.’
‘Best leave it, then.’
‘You’re not a poor man. The best advice I can give you is to try to enjoy the time that’s left. Take a holiday. Go on a cruise. But do it soon, now in fact because in a month or so you’re going to need a hospice.’
So here he was, lying by the pool in the most expensive resort hotel he’d been able to find in the Maldives. He knew he didn’t look like a dying man – not yet – and he thanked God for that. The time would come soon enough when he’d want to hide away from other people. Just as, in a sense, he’d hidden all his life. Well, it would come when it came; he’d take his regret and his unfinished nature to the grave.
He’d made sure his will was as he wanted it to be. Julie would be well looked after and the children would be grateful for their inheritance. He’d told Julie and she’d wanted to take charge, find another specialist with a more optimistic prognosis, get a second and a third opinion, examine other forms of treatment. He’d said “No”. Then she’d said she’d come on holiday with him, look after him, go on walks together so that he didn’t come to grief on his own. He’d said “No” again. He’d brought with him books he’d always wanted to read and never got round to. He planned to eat the best food he could find and drink wine better than any he’d tasted in the past. He may be about to die with his most cherished longing unsatisfied but he’d be damned if he’d go into eternal darkness regretting wine not drunk and meals not eaten. Speaking of which, it must be about time for lunch. He’d go to his room, swap his swimmies that would probably never get wet for slacks and a casual shirt, and see what the restaurant had to offer.
He was almost at the door into the hotel when the man caught up with him. ‘Sir. You left your book behind.’
It made him so cross when he did something like that. And the book…a paperback ordered off the Web, a collection of stories about men enjoying with other men all those things he had so resolutely denied himself…no-one could look at that without understanding what kind of man would be reading it. He reached out to take it.
Had he imagined that? The fingers that touched his and the way they did it – not accidental and snatched away but a quite intentional contact? He looked up and found himself staring into a pair of brown eyes that were frankly appraising him. Asking the question other eyes had asked so many times before. He looked away quickly. ‘Thank you,’ he said, the words gabbled in his haste to be gone.
But the man did not immediately let go – of book or hand – and he was forced to look again, at a man in his middle years, maybe forty or a little over, in good physical shape with strong arms, a chest you wouldn’t be surprised to see on an athlete and a stomach as flat as a stomach can be without an amount of effort that crosses the border from self-respect into narcissism. Curly hair with the earliest touches of grey. Laughter lines around the eyes – and the man was laughing now, though it didn’t show on his face.
The man shrugged and tilted his head just a little to the side, still asking a question but this time the question was: are you sure?
And he wasn’t. So many invitations turned down, and now he was dying and he had refused the one thing he’d always wanted to know, wanted to do, and why? For a society that no longer existed and a set of rules that no one else now gave a toss for.
He was staring at the man and the man was staring at him and he had no idea who was watching or whether they understood what was going on and nor did he care. Something snapped. If you’d asked him, he couldn’t have said anything other than that – that something snapped. What use is a life that other people see as successful and fulfilled if at the end the person whose lived it feels only regret?
Keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the man’s, with one hand he took the book and with the other he gave the hand that yielded it the gentlest stroke. Then he turned and walked into the hotel. He knew without looking that the man followed him. His heart pounded. He felt more nervous than he had ever been in his life but he walked firmly to his bedroom door, opened it and went in. He turned to see the man hanging the Do Not Disturb sign on the door and turning the security lock. He waited, with only the faintest idea of what it was he waited for.
The man dropped his little leather handbag into a chair and then he was hugging him and he was hugging the man and then the man was kissing him and he was kissing the man. More than forty years of saying no when he had wanted to say yes and now he simply went with the flow. It felt wonderful. The hairs stood up on his arms and his neck. He felt nervous, the way a young athlete – the young athlete he had once been – feels nervous before he takes the field. He was on a path that took him to one place only and while he did not know the place exactly he knew he wanted to be there.
The man placed a last kiss on his throat and leaned back. ‘Is there anything you don’t do?’
‘I don’t know what I do and what I don’t do. This is my first time.’
The same smile in the man’s eyes as he had seen there before. ‘Oh. So that’s… I’m honoured. You’re sure you want this?’
‘I’m in your hands.’
Decades of sadness melted to nothing when he spoke those words. “I’m in your hands.” He was handing over responsibility for what he was and what he did. If it was a mistake, it was a mistake. He should have done what he was going to do a long time ago. What had held him back was fear. What possible point was there now to feeling afraid? What had someone in his position to be afraid of?
When the man said, ‘Shall we take our clothes off?’ he rolled the swimming trunks down his legs and stood naked. The man was wearing more and took longer. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Jimmy.’ He should have been embarrassed, standing waiting with his erect cock quivering, but he simply didn’t care.
‘I’m Carl,’ said the man and it was only then that Jimmy realised that the accent he had been listening to was not English. The man finished undressing, pulled back the sheet, took his hand and guided him onto the bed. He was ready to take charge and Jimmy let him. The man pressed him down, knelt between his thighs, put one hand around the base of his cock while cupping his balls with the fingers of the other and drew Jimmy’s cock into his mouth.
Bliss. The sense that, for the first time in his life, he was being true to who he was. So many years of deceiving himself and others were fading into nothingness. He put his hands on Carl’s head. His hips were moving, he knew that his cries of joy would be heard clearly by anyone passing the room and he simply didn’t care. Too soon, far too soon, he gasped, ‘I’m going to come,’ and Carl took his mouth away and stroked him to a climax better than anything he had ever known. Then Carl wrapped his arms around him and pulled him close. ‘How do you feel?’
‘Wonderful. As though, for the first time in my life, I’ve allowed myself to be me.’
‘None. I don’t know what the form is. Is it all right to kiss?’
Carl’s reply was to press his lips firmly against his. Tongue slid against tongue; his hands were on Carl’s back and Carl’s had moved to his bottom.
After several minutes, Carl detached himself, reached out for his handbag and took out a bottle of oil. He held it up. ‘I’d like to fuck you?’
He gulped. ‘Okay.’
‘It’s bound to hurt a little. Maybe more than a little.’
‘I’ve got this far. If I don’t go all the way I won’t forgive myself.’
It did hurt. At the beginning, it hurt quite a lot. But there was not a moment when he felt regret or wanted to stop or wished he had never begun and when the climax came and he felt the hot flow of Carl’s seed enter him he felt completely fulfilled. This is me, he thought. This is who I am. This is who I should always have been.
He’d booked for two weeks but Carl was leaving three days after their first meeting. For three days and three nights they were inseparable and then he was alone once more. There were other male guests staying in the hotel alone but he looked at none of them and, if any of them gave him that particular questioning look, he chose not to notice. He’d had what he’d had and it was enough. He was complete.
Towards the end of the second week, he detected signs that the hospital specialist had warned him he would see sooner or later. The end was coming quicker than might have been. Entry to the hospice was probably only days away. He should have been sad. He wasn’t. On the day his freedom to go where he pleased was to end, he dropped to his knees and thanked God for His mercy in allowing him to be, if only for three days, the person he was born to be.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this story. If so, you might like to know that there’s another free story here. I put these on my blog so that you can know the kind of writer I am and judge whether you might like my more serious work, details of which you can find here (and you can subscribe there to my newsletter, too).