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I sat in our sunlit kitchen. A cup of coffee in one hand, and my mobile phone in the other. It’s true what they say about it being ‘the only constant thing’ in life. I realise that it’s necessary for growth and moving forward, but I don’t like how it makes me feel.
It reminds me of when I was thirteen, and my parents announced that we were moving to a new house across town. The news shook my world. I felt confused and angry at the loss of my friends, school, and neighbourhood. Who cares about garages or that your younger brother, and sister share a bedroom when you’re thirteen? For a whole summer, I hated my parents vowed never to trust grown-ups again.
Twenty years on, I now have my own home. The kitchen in our Camden flat is my favourite room. I struggle now to remember how it looked when I first moved in. Before the Leicht design and cabinets in rich slate grey and teak. And before Alex created the island connected by a breakfast bar and bespoke open shelving.
Alex won’t remember, but behind the fridge freezer, before we painted the walls in ‘fossil,’ we drew a love heart and wrote Justin and Alex forever! It was passionate, but that’s how we were before Alex became a man on a mission.
Alex ripped the old kitchen out himself; any excuse to play with power tools. He also sanded and varnished all the wooden floors. The wooded Venetian blinds were my idea, along with the choice of cooker, washing machine, dishwasher, and everything else in the kitchen that didn’t require drilling, hammering or ripping up.
I’d spent a lot of time, money, and effort on the flat. But when Alex moved in, he helped me transform it into a home. Our trials and tribulations had made our relationship strong, so I thought, until that constant thing crept in and created space between us.
There were a few ‘Sorry You’re Leaving’ cards on the kitchen table that were trying to entice me into conversation. My rational brain knew that they were here because there were so many in the lounge that Alex had moved these to the kitchen. But another part of my brain said that he’d placed them here, deliberately, knowing that the kitchen was where I like to sit and gather my thoughts. I hastily stuck the cards in a drawer, so that I could hear myself think.
I was supposed to be packing but knew that I would end up doing what I did last week, and the week before. Sure, I would make a pile of things that needed to be thrown out. Then, I would convince myself that we might need them and unpack them again. I would make another pile of things that could be given away.
Then, I would convince myself that the people I had in mind didn’t really need them. Or, that the things weren’t good enough to be given away to people who didn’t really need them. I’d end up making a list of the lists of things I needed to do. Then screw it up and start sorting out a pile of things that needed to be thrown out.
Just then, my grandmother appeared. I caught her by the corner of my eye. She was standing by the sink with her back to me. It looked like she was washing up some breakfast things. I studied her simple cotton dress and matching headscarf. She stood very still as if concentrating on what she was going to say to me. When my grandmother spoke, it was always with her eyes. They were warm words of comfort and encouragement.
I waited an age for her to turn around. She shifted her weight onto one-foot while attempting to undo and retie her head scarf. I knew at times like this to remain very still, to almost stop breathing in case my breathing disturbed her vibration. What words of support had she come to say? Using my full concentration, I stared at her back, willing her to turn around. My breathing and the world in the kitchen stood still, and my eyes started to lose focus. Then as soon as she had appeared, she was gone. Her not speaking was not good. It made me feel even more lost.
The situation had come to a head after Alex punched his boss in the face. The team’s second football player to ‘come out,’ scored the winning goal during the old firm derby. To which Alex’s boss, shouted; “I bet those catholic faggots will be fucking in the streets”.
Alex said that he broke the jaw, but it turned out that after 5 hours in A&E, it was only a fracture. With disciplinary or possible dismissal looming, his journalist colleagues told Alex to strike a counter move by reporting the boss’s homophobic behaviour to the union. I agreed, to which Alex replied, “Are you kidding? He can stick his job where the sun don’t shine!”.
And with that, the final piece in the jigsaw puzzle locked into place. Alex was now free, and there was nothing to stop us from being bound for Gayville. The fact that I was still happy in my job was a mere detail.
“They’re crying out for teachers like you,” he said.
Which was true, I’d read that the City Council were desperately seeking openly gay teachers. They had a special recruitment drive to find ‘heads of departments’, with enticing London sized salaries being offered. Without my knowledge, Alex made enquiries, and before the week was out, I’d been offered three positions. One of them at the prestigious ‘Daniel Stewart & Melville College’ in Edinburgh.
“It will mean getting up an hour earlier and making a forty-five-minute train journey. But I know you can do it” smiled Alex.
The constant thing brought out the best in him. He had the uncanny ability to be completely grown up and focus himself. He instinctively knew what to do, where to research, and who to contact.
At the newspaper where he worked, he was always writing articles about how LGBTQ celebrities from around the world were suddenly taking an interest in, talking about, and moving to Gayville! Not San Francisco, Amsterdam, Sydney or even Brighton. It was Gayville that seemingly overnight had become a gay mecca.
So much has happened so quickly. I can’t quite remember why the press called the city Gayville, and not by its real name. Alex and I had many long into the night conversations about the pros and cons of us moving.
“Half of our friends are already there. We don’t want to be the last to arrive.” He spoke as if it was some kind of goldrush and we’d miss the best locations.
I needed to phone my friend Des but couldn’t quite summon up the energy. Des, and Kenny, his partner of six years, sold their flat and moved to Gayville two years ago. Within the year, Kenny, met Arlander, a hotel manager from Atlanta, who wanted them to set up a ‘Guest House’ together. The abrupt end to his relationship left Des devastated, resulting in a tailspin into depression.
“See…?” I said to Alex, using this as another reason for my reluctance.
“What….? Everyone knows that Kenny’s a tart” He sneered.
He then proceeded to tell me about the time Kenny made a drunken pass at him during Des’s 30th birthday party. I quickly tried to calculate how many years had passed since Des turned 30, and why he’d only now decided to tell me the drunken pass story?
The kitchen’s morning sun was dying, and I debated whether to make myself another coffee when my mobile rang. This made me jump, and I smiled at myself for being jumpy. I looked down at my phone. It was Des, I sighed, and pressed answer.
“Justin, Justin, is that you?” His voice sounded distant as if he was down a well. “I’ve found them, I know where they’re staying.”
“Who?” I said.
It was a stupid thing to say because it was obvious who he was talking about. He continued as if he didn’t hear the question.
“I’ve seen the place they want to turn into a Guest House.”
There was something strange about his voice. I then suddenly realised that he was probably on uppers or downers or whatever it was they gave people suffering from depression.
“Des are you still on medication?” Again, he ignored the question, and his voice quickened in pace.
“It won’t work,” he said. “It’s in the wrong part of town, and anyway what does Kenny know about running a Guest House? He can barely run himself! Who do you think kept our relationship going all these years?”
“Des, you shouldn’t…” He spoke right across me.
“Me that’s who! I was the one who took care of everything.
“If he wanted to set up a Guest House, why didn’t he tell me? It’s not fair, Justin, why is he doing this? When are you coming? You said that you would be here in March, and we’re now halfway through October. If you were a true friend, you would be here supporting me?”
His last comment stung. Since sitting next to each other on the first day of Secondary school, we’ve been the best of friends. His friendship has been a constant source of comfort, support and encouragement. Before I could say something, he carried on.
“Oh, what’s the use, who cares.”
“I care,” I said, raising my voice so as not to have him talk over me.
“No, you don’t” he snapped. “If you did, you’d be here.”
And with that, the phone went dead. I stared into my mobile as if I could see through it and into Des’s eyes. I wished it was twelve years ago when we were both carefree students sharing a flat. Back then, I could just go over and comfort him. We have always been there for each other, but now Des was hurting, and four hundred miles away. I wanted to call him back, but not before I’d cleared my head.
The change had been so gradual that no one really saw the full effect coming. Three gay politicians from three different political parties decided to break away and set up an entirely new party together. I would have discussions with Alex about how something like this happened. Did someone randomly come up with the idea on a drunken night out? Was it always part of a plan? Or was some secret billionaire backer pulling the strings?
Alex wrote columns about the ‘All People’s Party’ (APP), and how their very presence sent an electric shock through the LGBTQ community. A growing community who suddenly sat up to the fact that what was happening could mean real change. The religious right called it ‘end of days’ which helped fuel a backlash that saw large numbers of straight people exit the city, similar to ‘white flight.’
But still, the APP, whose slogan was ‘New thinking on old Issues’ continued to gain momentum. They were now the second largest political party. APP cleverly outplayed their rivals by agreeing with all their policies but pushing them further and promising more. They spoke to women against patriarchy, the youth against the establishment, and to the nationalists about independence for all regardless of religion, sexuality or colour.
The change in my relationship with Alex began when he started talking about Frenchie. Frenchie’s real name was Jacque Arpin. I would call him Jack Hairpin, but Alex never laughed.
Frenchie had moved to Alex’s department where he started writing a twentieth-anniversary feature on the death of Justin Fashanu. Justin was the first million-pound black, gay, footballer, and a personal hero of mine. I was 13 when he died, and just coming to terms with being gay myself. I was excited to see how Frenchie would approach his story.
It wasn’t long before the name Frenchie would drop regularly into our conversations. How Frenchie did this or Frenchie did that. Over the next couple of months, Frenchie became Jacque. How funny Jacque was or how Jacque stood up to the boss or how Jacque could drink them all under the table. Then one day, Jacque became Jay. Alex used to call me Jay when we first met.
Over this time, our lovemaking began to lack intimacy and switched to automatic. A bit like dancers performing in a long-running West-end musical. I was aware that we no longer French kissed and would greet each other with grandmother-like pecks on the cheek.
Meeting Frenchie confirmed my worst fears. At no time had Alex ever mentioned his brown ‘come to bed’ eyes, the jet black, curtain style hair surrounding his handsome features. Or the perfect French teeth, and cherry red lips. Frenchie had one of those swimmer bodies that didn’t look much in clothes but that you just knew was perfect when naked. Even though his accent was cute. It made him seem vulnerable so that you wanted to protect him.
Before I was ready to face my suspicions, I got the proof I needed. One of Alex’s colleagues was leaving, and they were having a night out for him. I had met him a few times and really liked him. He and Alex were the only black journalists in the whole department. I said that I would go for one drink, say goodbye, then leave.
When Alex, and I entered the bar, over Alex’s shoulder, I could see Frenchie’s excitement at seeing Alex. He beamed and rose out of his seat to greet him. All this before he saw me, and the guilty look on his face told me exactly what I needed to know. It all happened in a heartbeat, but I’ve replayed the moment in my mind a thousand times.
Then one day I realised that I hadn’t heard a Frenchie story in a while. I didn’t want to confront Alex or deal with the pain of lies. Instead, I phoned his department and disguising my voice asked to speak to Mr Airpin.
“I’m sorry,” said the breezy secretary, “Mr Airpin no longer works here. He’s moved to our office in Scotland.”
I quickly hung up the phone feeling a mixture of joy and dread.
My Grandmother has appeared many times over my life. The first time when I was crying on my bed about us having to move. Another time when I had that bad trip on ecstasy. Again, after I’d failed my A level’s and thought I’d never become a teacher. Then there was the time when my first love Scott; said that he just wanted us to be friends. I remember the first time she appeared. I ran to tell my mother. She was sat hunched over her sewing machine. I told her everything Grandmother said.
“But that’s impossible, you must have dreamt it” She replied, whilst trying to thread the needle.
“It’s the truth!” I said boldly. “I caught her out the corner of my eye. She was wearing a light blue dress and a headscarf.”
“Justin will you stop annoying me I need to finish these curtains.”
“Mum, I swear! I thought it was Candice and I was going to chase her out but….”
“Now I know you’re lying,” she said, taking off her sewing glasses.
“You know your sister would never enter your room without knocking.” Then she laughed.
“You’re being ridiculous. You never even knew your grandmother she died before you were born.”
I never mentioned my Grandmother again. Not to her not to anybody, not even to Alex.
Grandmother always told me that I would be alright. That I would get through. So why wouldn’t she speak about Gayville? Where are the words of comfort and support? Maybe there is nothing to say? Maybe she knows that deep down, I’m no longer confused or angry. We both know that it’s time that I stop lying to myself.
Alex can go to Gayville, he can go with my blessing. Sometimes the failure is not the fear of having to tell everyone that your relationship has failed. The failure is staying in a relationship that’s failed. Des always said that Alex would make a great partner. But for someone else, not me. Des, like my Grandmother, always knew what was right for me. What happened to Des’s relationship with Kenny is a sign. Falling out of love with Alex is okay. It’s okay because they’re my feelings, and I’m entitled to them. I’m no longer thirteen anymore, and no one can tell me that I’m acting up.
Gayville is rarely out of the news. The mainstream media are having a field day.
- ‘Glasgow supports the Gays!’ Wrote The Guardian.
- ‘Sodom and Glasmora’ trumpeted The Sun.
- Time Magazine even featured a picture of ‘Glasgow Pride’ on its front cover with a four-page article inside calling Glasgow the gayest city in the world. Macho Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland with its near 6 million population.
I opened the kitchen draw and took out the ‘Sorry You’re Leaving’ cards. They were silent now that they knew my mind was made up. I took them over to the dustbin and slowly tore them up. Watching the pieces fall from my hands felt good.
I picked up my mobile and dialled.
“Hi Des, it’s me. You’re going to be fine. We both are. Come and live with me. It will be like old times.”
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