Authors: Josephine Myles
“He threw me out and she didn’t do a thing to stop him.”
Steve didn’t ask who I was talking about, but I felt his whole body tense, sleep-heavy muscles suddenly on the alert.
“Told me he didn’t have a son anymore. I was seventeen, so I stayed with my grandparents for a few months until I’d finished my A-levels, then applied for every loan and grant I could to go to art college. Gran and Granddad, they said I was welcome to stay, but I knew he was punishing them the whole time I was there. Wouldn’t let Mum visit her own parents in case her homo son corrupted her. I think he thought it was catching.” I tried to keep the bitterness out of my voice, but it just wasn’t possible.
Steve gave a deep sigh. “So this is why you never talk about your family?”
“Why didn’t you tell me before?”
Steve sounded confused, and I couldn’t help but imagine that was reproach I heard in his voice. “Maybe I didn’t want you to know what a fuck-up I am.”
“This wasn’t your fuck-up, Jez. You can’t blame yourself for your dad’s prejudice.”
Yeah, but I could blame myself for the way I told him, the way I threw it at him like a weapon, blazing with righteous fury. I could blame myself for not even having made an effort to see Mum while he was out at work. But I didn’t tell Steve any of this.
“You should go and see him, though,” Steve continued. “You’ll never forgive yourself if you miss your last chance.”
“I’m not going to see him. No fucking way.”
“Jez!” Steve sounded exasperated, like a parent who knows what’s best for their misbehaving child. “He might be an arsehole, but he’s your dad, for Christ’s sake.”
Screw that. I wasn’t going to let Steve boss me around. I wasn’t anyone’s child anymore.
“Your family is so bloody perfect,” I said, through the scalding bitterness that threatened to choke me. “Why would you want to be with someone whose dad wouldn’t even let you in his shitty little council house because of where you like to stick your dick?”
Steve raised his head, and I thought for a moment that he was going to lay into me for making assumptions again, but instead he just pressed a soft kiss to my lips.
“Because I love you, stupid.”
It took me a long time to get to sleep, but when I did, Steve was still holding me tight.
I did my best to ignore the letter. I shoved it into the box under the computer table where all my paperwork mingled in an unfiled heap. But every time I walked into the living room I could feel it there, accusing me of being a neglectful son. Steve, to his credit, put up with my stinking moods and did his best to distract me with sex, but I must have been hell to live with. After a week of my monosyllabic replies, he started finding excuses to work late, not coming home until I’d had a chance to chill for a bit and take the edge off my temper. Then, when he was home, he always seemed to be clacking away at his bloody sock knitting. It was full of these pointy needles and I couldn’t even cuddle up to him on the sofa without risking getting stuck with one of them. The bastard thing looked as spiky as I felt.
I decided two could play at that game, and I spent longer at the studio each day, pouring my guilt onto the canvas in a series of stark self-portraits that no one in their right mind would want to display anywhere. Why pay good money to have a pissed off man glare at you from your walls?
I knew I’d overstepped some kind of mark, though, when Kathy called by to take me out for an afternoon beer. We normally went for lunch in a café ‘round the corner from her dance studio, so the pub was an ominous sign. In all the years I’d known her, first as my life model, then my friend, she’d only ever suggested a daytime drink when I’d been dumped by my latest arsehole of a boyfriend. For a long, terrible moment I thought maybe Steve was getting her to do his dirty work. I wouldn’t blame him, but then again, I really didn’t think that was his style. He’d always been honest and direct with me. As far as I knew, anyway.
“So, what’s going on?” Kathy demanded once we were seated in the booth of the Victorian boozer nearest my studio.
I attempted to avoid her question by taking a long draught of beer, but it only bought me a few seconds thinking time. I decided to go for surly denial.
“Dunno what you mean.” I kept my eyes fixed on the stained glass panels above the door, but I just knew Kathy would be rolling her eyes and pulling that exasperated face she does so well.
“Come on, Jez, I’m not stupid. You’ve been walking around with a face like thunder for the last fortnight, and whenever I call your better half to try and arrange a night out, he stalls and tells me I’d better ask you. That’s not like Steve, is it?”
I had to agree that it wasn’t. Since he’d breezed into my life, Steve’d been in charge of my social diary, transforming it overnight from empty to crowded. Not that I’d been complaining. I might not have enjoyed going out much as a single man, but with Steve by my side it was different. He had this effortless way of making people smile and laugh -- even grumpy gits like me.
“So? Are you going to tell me what crawled into your cornflakes and died?”
She must have seen something change in my face with her unfortunate choice of words, because the next thing I knew I had a skinny arm wrapped around me and five foot nothing of bubblegum shampoo-scented woman pressed up to my side. To my surprise I didn’t push her away like I always used to -- no, I pulled her in tight. All that cuddling with Steve must have broken down some of my defenses.
“I’m sorry, hon,” Kathy mumbled into my armpit, “but unless you tell me what’s going on I’ll probably keep putting my foot in it. Please don’t tell me you’re splitting up with Steve. I don’t think I could bear it.”
At least this was one aspect where I could reassure her. “I swear this has nothing to do with me and Steve. This is all my shit. Family shit. Ancient history.” And so I told her the whole sorry story. This was another thing I was getting better at since Steve had come along. Emotional vulnerability -- yeah, I could now spill my guts with the best of them. I should go on the Jeremy fucking Kyle show or something, along with all the other losers.
“Oh sweetie, that’s just awful. What a mean old bastard.”
Here was another surprise, because for some reason I immediately jumped to Dad’s defense. “It wasn’t easy for him. He had such high ambitions for me. He toiled away in that factory so I could go to a decent school and become a doctor. He had this dream of perfect grandchildren living in a big house in a quiet village, me married to some posh bird he’d picked for me. When I told him I was gay and I wanted to study art, it was like...” I let the realization sink in for a moment, feeling the weight of its truth like a smooth pebble on my tongue. He’d wanted all of that for me, and instead I’d ended up a struggling artist in a ramshackle flat in an ethnically diverse part of London with my live-in boyfriend.
I continued quietly. “It was like I’d destroyed his whole reason for living.”
“Are you ashamed of who you are? What you have with Steve?”
I shook my head. Kathy gave me this look that pierced through me like a knife. I couldn’t meet her gaze coz it hurt so bloody much. And I knew what she was going to say before she said it, and the worst thing was I knew she was right.
“Then don’t you think you should go and show him what you’ve done with your life?”
When Steve finally got home that night I was waiting for him. Not glued to the PlayStation or feigning sleep like I had been for the last week, but sitting on the sofa with a couple of beers on the table. I’d even poured them into glasses for a change. What’s more, I’d cleared up some of the junk from the floor and wiped the surfaces. Steve slumped on the sofa next to me and plonked his feet on the coffee table.
“So, what’s the special occasion?” Steve asked, his lips smiling but his eyes weighed down with dark rings.
“I just wanted to treat you after a hard day at the office.”
“Hmm, that’s nice.”
Steve must have been exhausted if he couldn’t see through such a blatant lie, but then again, I did want to look after him. Fuck knows what he was getting out of this relationship after all -- aside from all the shagging -- so the least I could do was try and pull my weight a bit.
I moved around behind the sofa and started to massage his neck. The muscles were stiff and lumpy, but as I worked them with my fingers Steve groaned and let his head flop forward.
“Mmm, feels good.”
I kept at it until I felt the last knot give, and Steve rolled his head back to look up into my eyes.
“I’m sorry I’ve been avoiding you,” Steve said.
“I’m sorry I’ve been such a moody git.”
Steve didn’t argue with me. I went back to his side of the sofa and threw myself down with my head on his lap so he could play with my dreads. He’d always said he found it relaxing. I guess that made two of us.
“You were right.” The words weren’t as difficult to say as I’d imagined.
Steve gave a lopsided smile and tugged gently on a dread. “I usually am. But help me out. Which thing was I right about this time?”
“About Dad. We should visit him. Before it’s too late. I called Mum this afternoon and he’s in a hospice. I thought we could go up tomorrow.”
Steve’s eyes widened but he held my gaze. I could stare into his eyes forever and not get bored. They might be gray, but they’re the brightest things in my world.
“Do you really want me there?” he asked, his voice softer than I’d ever heard it before.
“It’s okay if you can’t hack it. I mean, I wouldn’t blame you, ‘cause he’s a bigoted arsehole and it’s probably going to be really dep--”
Steve stopped me with a finger to my lips. “Of course I want to be there. I’ve been wanting to meet your folks for ages.”
“Even if Dad lays into you for fucking his son?”
Steve grinned. “Even if he does. Speaking of which...” He shifted a little so I could feel the length of his dick against my cheek. It was fattening up nicely. I mouthed him through the wool of his trousers, smelling his arousal growing fast. Moments later, I’d kicked the coffee table out of the way -- heedless of the beer soaking into the carpet -- and was on my knees between his legs. I feasted on Steve like he was a pepperoni pizza and I was famished, doing my best to cram myself full of him and fill up all the empty places inside. And when he was done, when my mouth was full of the salty-sweet taste of him, I climbed up to kiss him hard. It only took a few pumps of my fist before I shot my load all over him, the jizz striping his tie and soaking through his shirt.
Steve slumped there with his eyes still closed, and I thought I was going to have to wake him up. Either that or attempt to carry him through to the bed, and he’s not that much smaller than me. But then he raised his lids and gave a sleepy smile.
“You know there’s nothing your dad can say that will change the way I feel about you, don’t you?”
I nodded, but up until that point I hadn’t known that at all. I let the realization filter through me, easing the residual tension the sex hadn’t been able to deal with.
“Okay, big day tomorrow,” Steve murmured. “Let’s get to bed.”
The taxi ride from the train station took us right through the heart of Slough, and Steve got a good look at the dump I’d grown up in. He didn’t make any rude comments about it, though I was half expecting him to start quoting that famous Betjeman poem about it not being fit for humans now. Instead of invoking “friendly bombs,” to fall on the place, he kept his eyes on me and squeezed my hand.
The hospice itself was in a more salubrious village location outside the town, reminding me of what a fine line there was between the haves and the have-nots. It was no wonder Dad had been obsessed with me getting on in the world, with all these riches so tantalizingly close.
“Wow, nice place for a hospice,” Steve said when we finally uncurled ourselves from the back of the minicab. I handed the driver a twenty before turning to get a proper look.
“Bloody hell,” I agreed. When Mum had told me Dad was in a posh place, courtesy of the National Health Service, I’d never imagined she meant a stately home. I mean, compared to the neighborhood they lived in, pretty much anything was high class in comparison. But this place? This would be posh by anyone’s standards, what with the imposing Georgian facade and landscaped gardens.
Inside, it was obvious that the place had been adapted to its new purpose, although the proliferation of Health and Safety signs and access ramps couldn’t hide the fact we were in a mansion. Then I saw a hunched figure on one of the lobby chairs, and everything else could have blinked out of existence for all the attention I paid it.
She’d sounded old and tired on the phone, but I’d figured that was only to be expected what with all the stress of Dad’s illness, so it still came as a shock to see her. I realized I’d been carrying around a mental image of her that was ten years out of date. Her hair was whiter, her skin lined and sallow, her body thinner and stooped. She didn’t look sixty -- she looked about eighty. The comparison with Steve’s groomed and glamorous mother was stark, and I couldn’t help wondering if he’d notice Mum’s cheap supermarket own-brand clothing and ugly old-lady shoes.
“Jeremy? Oh, my love, you came!” And then I was enveloped in a hug that smelled of roses, and I could have been eight years old again, being comforted after yet another crappy school day fending off the kids who thought scholarship students were easy targets. Except this time, it was me being the grown-up.
Mum cried into my chest, and I held her awkwardly, not knowing quite what to say or do. But then I caught Steve’s gaze and I saw only compassion there. I patted her back, making soothing noises like she used to with me. Eventually she pulled herself together enough to sniffle to a halt.
“Here, Mrs. Smith, please.” Steve held out a handkerchief to her and Mum took it, sniffing loudly and blowing her nose.
“Thank you, my dear. You must be Jeremy’s... flat mate.”
I could see she was trying, but I had been quite clear about our relationship on the phone. There’s no way I was crawling back into the closet again, no matter how much easier it might make things with the folks. They’d have to deal with it.