That afternoon, they all returned to the big house at Arundel to prepare for their sailing holiday. John did not tell them, but the main reason was to separate them from most of their luggage, but away from their parents, who might otherwise protest.
‘Right, men. Two pairs of nylon shortsbecause nylon dries quickly, Timtwo polo or t-shirts, toothbrush, passport, wallet, one novel to read and swap. One pair of boat shoes, one pair of trousers and one smart shirt for eating out, or going to church, or whatever. That’s absolutely all that is allowed! You can wear one pair of shorts and a shirt on the plane, and then all the rest fits easily into hand luggage, so there’s no hanging around at the airport.’
‘Er… what about underwear, socks and things?’ said Tim.
‘No way!’ said John, Justin and Chris in unison.
‘What?’ said Tom and Tim, horrified.
Chris officiously inspected Tom and Tim’s shorts, and found that some pairs had inner briefs. Those had to go. So, over their owners’ protests, and not a little tussling, they were torn out. Tom and Tim, laughing, vowed revenge to come on the holiday.
‘Just when you think you’re safest……’
That evening, over dinner, again in Justin and Tom’s honour, there was a serious discussion to be had.
‘Look, Tom and Tim,’ began John, ‘there is something you need to know before we spend three weeks living very closely together, and if either of you are not comfortable with it, you need to say so now before you’re trapped into a situation that makes you unhappy.’
Both Tom and Tim looked apprehensive.
‘Simply, you should know that Justin, Chris and I are gay, and that Tony has his moments, too.’
Chris spoke then, ‘and I think you should know that Justin and I are, I suppose you’d call it, going steady.’
Seeing the suprise on Tom’s facehe was, no doubt, thinking of all the times that he and Justin had shaved one another’s ballsJustin said; ‘Look, there’s no reason for either of you to be nervous about it. I mean, we all know each other really well, and if we were going to be perving on you, or anything, you’d have known it long before now. We just thought it was fair to let you know what the score was before we leave, in case you saw me and Chris kissing, or anything, and were shocked. Apart from that, we’re just six guys going on holiday, and we’re going to have a fantastic time!’
Tom and Tim were somewhat taken abackneither had had any clue from Justin or Chris’s behaviourbut were quick to reassure the others that they had no problem with it. So all was settled happily.
The following morning, queueing at the check-in desk at Gatwick Airport, Tom and Tim felt very selfconscious as they stood in line. They felt every little breeze blowing up the legs of their shorts and thought that everyone in the airport could see that they were going commando. But, they had to admit, it did feel sexy and rather exciting. As they sat on the plane, they self-consciously tugged down the shorts legs as far as they would go. Justin, next to them, had little sympathy for their shyness until Chris leant across and loudly reminded him that the first few times he had gone commando he had been wearing trousers, and not brief and thin nylon shorts! This only too audible broadcast to all those sitting around of what all the young men were wearing, or rather not wearing, made Tom and Tim even more embarrassed; Tony, however, hooted with laughter, and soon got everyone doing the same.
The young men were thrilled when they saw the boat; only Tony, John and Justin had seen her in the water before. There was a little good-natured fighting over the six bunks in the bed cabin, but soon everything was settled amicably. They were all anxious to get going straight away, but John wanted to make sure that everyone was familiar with how the boat worked, since there were to be no mere passengers on this particular voyage. Everyone was assigned a duty, and made sure that they had all the equipment and knowledge to carry it out.
Over dinner everyone agreed that they would like to go to the Greek Islands; John had a certain sense of deja vu, but he agreed happily. He wanted to exorcise the demons that had haunted the last trip he had made in that directionit was extraordinary how much had happened since he took had taken Linda, Tony and Chris on the start of that journey, not even a year ago. His entire life had changed, and become so very much happier. Justin, too, was happy; he had been to Rhodes with his parents, but never toured around at all. He could even remember a little Greek, which might well come in handy, since John, though fluent in French and Italian was not much use in anything else. And then it turned out that Tim’s mother was Greek, and that he spoke Greek easily and well. So they happily set out at dawn.
Chris in particular was overjoyed. The last time he had properly sailed, he had been many stones heavier in weight, and unwieldy. Now he found that he could scamper over the boat like a monkey, and the change was thrilling. He enjoyed showing off in front of Tom and Tim, who were still rather nervous and confused.
With all the young men dressed now only in shorts and boat shoesand the shoes would disappear once their feet had got used to the heat of the deckingthe Douglas Smith eased her way out of Nice Harbour, the engine thrumming discreetly under the decks; such a change from the snorting of the Saucy Mrs Trusspott’s engine. As they passed the last buoy, they stilled the engine and began to set sail; no half-measures today; every inch of sailcloth was run up. John then spun the wheel, and the yacht caught the stiff breeze, heeled over and began to pick up speed. All the crew felt a great surge of adrenaline as they felt the power of the boat and the wind, and heard the roaring of the waters under the hull.
‘Fair winds for Leghorn, Mister Mate’ called out John to Tony from the wheel.
‘Aye aye, Cap’n. I reckon Leghorn we'll do, sir. Where’s the ship’s navigator?’
‘Exfoliating, or plucking his eyebrows or something, sir’ called Justin, with a wicked smile.
‘I am not, you bastard! You’re supposed to be the model: I’m not the vain one around here!’ shouted Chris from inside the cabin.
‘Oh no?’ said Justin diving down the steps, and reappearing holding a bottle which he had snatched from Chris’ hand. ‘What’s this, then? “Body Shop Fake Tanning Lotion”. Not vain, eh? Here, Tom, catch!’ Tom was at the prow of the boat, and caught the bottle neatly.
‘You bastard!’ Give that back! I’ve only done half of me!’
Holding tightly to the rail, Chris scooted as fast as he could after Tom, but just before he got hold of him, Tom threw the bottle to Tim, standing with John at the wheel. His aim was not very good, perhaps because the boat was leaning into the wind, and so instead of flying into Tim’s grasp, the bottle hit John square in the forehead, startling him into releasing the wheel for a moment. It was enough; the yacht righted herself and the boom swung over suddenly, pitching Tony to the deck with a yell of warning to the others. Nobody was hurt, fortunately, but the bottle of fake tan lotion could not be found; it had presumably rolled off the deck into the sea. With a bleat of panic, Chris ran for the shower to wash off as best he could the lotion he had applied to only half his chest. It was too late. Half an hour later, a piebald and embarrassed Chris, now christened Dobbin by the unsympathetic others, was wearing a t-shirt over his half-brown, half-pale chest and savagely trying to plan the voyage to what John whimsically called Leghorn, its old English name, better known to the Italians as Livorno.
The weather was absolutely perfect for their sail, and they made good speed; for a time they were followed by a school of dolphins who leapt and played in their wake.
Tim gripped the rail and leant forward, his hair blowing out around his face which bore an expression of ecstasy. He was thrilled to the marrow with the whole experience.
‘We must be going sixty miles an hour at least…’
John laughed. ‘Any advance on sixty? Anyone?’
All the newcomers hazarded wild guesses, between fifty and a hundred miles an hour.
‘Well, tell us, then, John!’
‘Okay, we’re going about six or seven knots.’
‘That means bugger all to me.’
‘A knot is one nautical mile an hour.’
‘That’s only useful if we know how long a nautical mile is.’
‘It’s a minute of longitude.’ John was enjoying himself, blinding them with science.
‘Fuck it, John, will you bloody well tell us how many milesland milesan hour we are doing!’
‘Okay, okay. One nautical mile is just a tiny bit shorter than one land mile.’
‘So you mean……shit…I don’t believe it!’
‘Yes’ said Chris, who had enjoyed the whole exchange, getting revenge on his tormentors, ‘we have been tearing along at the rate of almost seven miles an hour. That’s about as fast as a sailing boat can go.’
‘You’re enjoying this, Dobbin!’
‘Payback’s a bitch!’
The Douglas Smith drew into port just as the sun was going down behind them, its rays falling onto the ancient red walls of the old fortress, the Fortezza Vecchia, built to defend this once important harbour against raiders. When all the formalities had been completed, they found a berth and tied up. Tim and Tom were exhausted by the unaccustomed constant exhileration, and so Justin and Chris cooked the dinner, Chris still covering up his bi-coloured torso as much as possible, and pretending to be angry with Justin.
The mock quarrel continued over dinner, which was delicious, since Chris was now as good a cook as John who had taught him, and Justin was learning fast.
‘You’re supposed to be my brothers and my friends,’ Chris sniffed. ‘I wish I’d stayed with Jules and Sandy. They’d never have played a trick like that.’
‘Trick like what?’ said John, innocently.
So Chris told the story of the fake tanning lotion with great pathos, showing signs of terrible suffering on his face, to the amusement of the whole party.
At the end, John shook his head sadly, not a trace of a smile on his face. ‘Poor lamb; how you’ve suffered!’
Chris looked at him curiously, but John went on.
‘This wouldn’t be what you’re looking for, by any chance?’ And he produced from the pocket of his shorts a bottle of self-tanning lotion. Tony let out a huge shout of laughter; ‘You’re learning, John, you’re learning!’
Chris yelled with rage; ‘You bastard! You had it all the time!’
‘Well, it sort of fell into my pocket; what else could I do?’
‘Well the least you can do, all of you, is to put it on my back tomorrow. It’s too late tonight, since I don’t want it on my sheets. On the other hand, perhaps I’ll use John’s bed……’
‘Don’t you dare!’
There was another tussle for the bottle, and the wine was nearly knocked over.
‘Priorities, priorities, gentlemen,’ said Tony, adeptly snatching the tanning lotion. ‘I think I’ll take care of this until tomorrow.’
They all took a walk around night-time Livorno after they had cleared away. The town was still buzzing with life; it was a little late for the passegiata, when everyone appears as if by magic to stroll around the streets, but the young folk were out in force on their buzzing motor scooters, hanging round the ice cream stalls and cafes, chatting, laughing and above all courting. They were all dressed to kill in the most fashionable clothes; it was important, clearly, to see and be seen.
‘Its just like in Greece,’ said Tim.
‘And Spain’, said Tom. ‘In Madrid they call it the movida.’
In the town centre the six friends sat at table outside a cafe and had ice cream and a cold beer. This was the boys’ first taste of real Italian ice cream, and they were transported by the flavours that really tasted of the fruit they were supposed to contain. At about midnight, though the buzz of young people showed not the slightest sign of abating, and there were still even parents with young children eating in restaurants, the company decided to return to the Douglas Smith and bed; it had been a long and exhilerating day.
Since there were so many famous and beautiful places within easy reach, the decision was quickly made to stay a few days in Livorno. So Tony hired a couple of cars, and they visited first Pisa, where they took photographs of each other against the famous leaning tower, including the usual perspective ones of each other trying to prop it up, or leaning one way or another, and then they went to Florence, where Justin was utterly transported by the frescoes in the Brancacci chapel; up to this point, the graphic arts had rather left him cold, but the faces in the pictures were, he said,
‘…real people! These aren’t just generic faces, they’re real people, full of character. Look at that beautiful young man with the long black curly hair; he’s just like the waiter we saw in the cafe this morning.’
Chris looked at Justin, his jaw hanging down. ‘Wow, Justin,’
‘I never knew you knew any words as big as “generic”’.
‘Fuck you too’ said Justin, a little angry, then suddenly went red as he remembered he was in a church.
In the convent of San Marco, the frescoes of Blessed Fra Angelico entranced him even more; they inspired in him a sort of holy awe that took him utterly out of himself, and he simply stood in amazement, gazing intently at the superlative art which seemed to carry him into another rapturous dimension; almost to heaven itself, he was to say afterwards. Tom, who was being revelealed as a very competent amateur photographer was suddenly inspired to pull out his camera and start snapping. Justin never noticed; he was so wrapped up in Fra Angelico’s representation of the Annunciation, following the curves and lines, looking hungrily into the faces of the angel and the Blessed Virgin, almost hearing their conversation. When Tom’s photographs were eventually seen, the combination of Fra Angelico and Justin’s extraordinary, almost unearthly, beauty, caught in a moment of transcendence, was breathtaking. Justin incorporated the pictures into his portfolio, and Tom later used them to kickstart his career in photography. He and Justin were to work together a lot more in the coming years and make each other’s reputations in their chosen field.
Justin and Chris wanted to stay in Florence; they had both been utterly won over by the city, so they took a room in a small hotel, and arranged to return to Livorno by train the following evening, resolving to get up early and tour the Uffizi gallery. Tom and Tim were anxious to see Siena, so they took a car and went ahead. John tried to persuade Justin and Chris not to miss Siena, saying that they had the rest of their lives to see the Uffizi, and that it was best seen in winter when there were fewer crowds, but Chris just answered that for that matter they had the rest of their lives to see Siena. What he wasn’t saying, of course, was that it wasn’t so much that he wanted more time in Florence, but he simply wanted some time to be alone with Justin.
John and Tony took the other car; they, too, wanted some time simply to be together alone, though their excuse was finding a good Chianti Classico wine for the boat. They drove that late afternoon through the beautiful Tuscan countryside and eventually found their way to San Gimignano where they took a room for the night.
They found a small family restuarant for dinner, where the traditional Tuscan food turned out to be superlatively good, and the wineChianti Classico of courseso fine that they made a note of the label to purchase it in quantity for the boat. As they ate, their eyes constantly met, and they began to realize once more just what they meant to each other.
‘You know, John, even though we live together, we’ve hardly spoken for months. Really spoken, I mean. I’ve been wrapped up in my business, and you’ve been wrapped up in Justin and Chris……’
‘Oh Tony, I suppose I have been neglecting you. Justin and Chris are simply so needy, both of them, or at least have been so needy that I have given them all I think I can, Justin especially. He still hurts so badly inside from the loss of his parents, and his brother’s rejection, but he doesn’t want to burden us, and so he hides it, and pretends a cheerfulness that he doesn’t really feel. I suppose it’s all part of what makes him so beautifulthat air of tragedy nobly bornehe is a beautiful person, inside and outside, soul and body; he would never consider that he was putting us first, though that is what he does all the time. So because he won’t look out for himself, I have to look out for him because Chris…, well, look, you know what Chris means to me. But he’s still pretty immature, for all his intelligence, and he’s fond of making Justin look stupid. A result of his own insecurity I suppose. Justin has enough maturity for them both, so I don’t worry when they’re together, but Chris lacks prudence. I’m always terrified he’ll do something really stupid, and Justin will get hurt. So I’m constantly trying to keep an eye on them both, because I love them both so much.’
‘I need you, too,’ said Tony, quietly. ‘I think you know I love you; I know you don’t return my love……’
‘That’s not true, Tony. You are absolutely my dearest friend. I would die for you, but you’re right that I’m not “in love” with you. What I feel is great trust and affection for you, and I suppose that I have been taking you for granted. You are low-maintenance, I suppose, and always there. I don’t know why I didn’t fall for you in return; I mean you’re everything I would want in a lover, in abstract; you’re good-looking, witty, intelligent, independent. But I think that’s the point; you don’t need me, Tony, and perhaps I need to be needed. The lads spark something else in me; perhaps it’s a sort of parenting instinct. I think I’d have been a good father.’
‘You would. Superb. But you have needs, too, and you never let anyone come close. Perhaps all this parenting is simply hiding from your own pain, John. It’s classic counsellor stuff; people with deep unexpressed pain of their own turn to counselling others, projecting their own pain onto their clients……’
‘Is that what I am doing to Chris and Justin?’
‘A bit. But you’re too much a good man to let them carry your burdens. You simply add theirs to your own. No-one can do that forever, John. One day, you’ll go pop. Someone will burden you too much, and you’ll break.’
‘Oh, I think I’m tougher than that.’
‘Let’s see. But you didn’t hear me. I do need you; I’m not self-sufficient. It’s been eight months now since Mike dumped me and trashed my house; this has been the longest since I was sixteen that I have been without sex; I’m not like you, I can’t live without intimacy. Parenting isn’t my thing, I don’t get off on it like you do……
‘That’s unfair, Tony. I have nothing sexual going with either Chris or Justin, and never have. You have been the only one I have ever done anything with in my life.’
‘No, I didn’t mean it like that; I mean that it fulfils something deep in you. But I don’t want you as a parent or a son; I want you as an equal, John. Why can’t you accept my love? Why can’t you grow up? And, for that matter, we only had sex once. In fact, you can hardly call it sex, we simply romped about a bit. I’m not “in your life” as you call it, that way at all. Are you actually capable of what I would call being “in love” at all?’
‘Yes. Oh yes.’ It was said quietly, but with such passion, and Tony immediately understood.
‘Oh God! You mean there’s someone else?’
John hung his head and nodded.
There was silence. Around them, the sounds of the restaurant continued unabated; families chattered, waiters waited, cooks cooked and because of the noise nobody could hear Tony’s heart breaking.
But John caught the look in his eye and understood. He reached his hand over the table and brushed Tony’s cheek as a stray tear escaped his eye and rolled down, dropping onto the tablecloth.
‘Oh Tony, I’m so sorry. I wish it could be otherwise……’
‘Who…… who is it?’
‘I can’t tell you. He doesn’t know himself.’
‘Does he love you?’
‘That’s a stupid question!’ John, hit on the raw, spoke more sharply than he intended. ‘If he loved me, we’d be…we’d be at it like rabbits by now, and the whole world would know.’
The look on Tony’s face was so tragic that John felt tears come into his own eyes.
‘I’m sorry, Tony. Your question was entirely justified under the circumstances; it just struck a raw nerve. No, I think he feels nothing but ordinary affection for me.’
‘Do I know him?’
‘I’m sorry, I can’t answer that.’
‘So I do, then.’ It was a statement of fact, not a question. ‘Johnny, do be careful. Love ought to be a relationship between equals; there is all the world of difference between a six year old and a seven year old, but between forty and forty five, there is nearly nothing.’
‘What do you mean by that?’
‘It’s clearly either Chris or Justin; the only other real contenders are Jules or Sandy. Unless it’s Father Smith?’
Tony’s irrepressible humour came to the surface once more and defused a little of the tension.
‘No, it’s not Father Smith!’
‘So it’s Chris or Justin; I can see only too well that though you love Jules and Sandy, it’s not in that way. Okay, what I mean is that the lads will only stay gauche boys for so long. All of a sudden, they will be as mature as you, they will know as much or more than you, and perhaps even be better people than you, and then you will no longer be able to mother them; you will have to relate to them on a new level; as equals, John. The way I want to relate to you, in other words. Are you capable of that?’
John looked with sudden panic into Tony’s pain-filled eyes. ‘I don’t know!’
Tim and Tom sped down the autostrada towards Siena. They too were glad to get away from the others for a short while; not because they had tired of their company, or had anything going between themselves, but simply because they wanted to swap notes; they had not been alone together since the others had come out to them at Arundel, and they wanted to discuss everything privately. Over their proteststhey were both nice boysJohn had given them each enough money to cover all their expenses, and so they were able to get a room in a nice hotel a short distance from the curiously black-and-white-striped Cathedral. Neither of them spoke any Italian, however, and though the hotel owner knew enough English to book them in, they were unable to communicate that they wanted single beds. So, given what they wanted to talk about, they were amused to discover that their room contained one none-too-large double bed.
As soon as they had showered and changed out of shorts and t-shirts into trousers and shirts, they headed out to see the town, instantly charmed by its medieval atmosphere that seemed as if almost nothing had changed in the last six hundred years. They found a back-street Pizzeria with paper tablecloths and formica surfaces, and with the help of a phrase book ordered what turned out to be the most delicious pizzas they had ever eaten, with a jug of rough wine that complemented the food perfectly. As they ate, their conversation naturally turned to the others. Tim began:
‘You know, Tom, if I’d known in advance that everyone except you and me on this trip would be gay, I don’t think I’d have come at all; but in the event, it seems to have worked out fine.’
‘Yeah; it was a bit of a shock, wasn’t it? I never would have guessed that old Justers batted for the other side; I mean, we’ve done all sorts of stuff together…’
‘Yeah, well, you know, the sort of things mates do.’
‘No, what sort of things?’
Tom cleared his throat, embarrassed; ‘Well, never mind. But he never came on to me, or anything, and I thought that gay blokes were supposed to shaft anything that moved, and a good number of things that don’t.’
‘Perhaps Justin isn’t like other gay blokes.’
‘But I don’t see Chris or John rutting like minks either. In fact, they all seem refreshingly normal. The only one who seems a horny bastard is Tony, and he’s straight.’
‘Whatever. But the important thing is that I’m glad I didn’t know in advance, because I might have dropped Justin as a friend, just because I’d assumed things would be totally different. And that would have been awful, because… because I really love him.’
‘What, love, as in…’
‘No, you fool, not love “as in”. He’s just a wonderful bloke. Don’t you think so? Don’t you love him?’
Tim thought a bit, and then said, cautiously,
‘Yeah, I suppose everyone loves Justin. It’d be really hard not to. But wanting to stick my cock up his bum is a different matter.’
‘Exactly. But he doesn’t seem to want us to, anyway, so I reckon nothing’s changed. But, changing the subject, another thing I don’t get is this religion thing.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean I just don’t get it. We have chapel at school, don’t we, but one of the best things about having left school is not having to go to chapel again. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to do it voluntarily, even just on Sundays. John, Chris and Justin like to go even on weekdays.’
‘Well, I can understand it; I think it’s because they’re Catholics, and Catholics look at these things differently to Anglicans. I’m Greek Orthodox…’
‘Yeah, I told you, my mother’s Greek, so I was brought up Orthodox. I thought chapel was really dull at school, but it’s nothing like that when I go to the Liturgy.’
‘It’s what Catholics call Mass. There’s a lot more to see and experience, and it helps you really pray, not just say words and sing things. I guess John and the others get that sort of a thing out of it. Orthodoxy, and I suppose Catholicism, is not so much something you do as something you are; it’s a way of life that isn’t confined to church on Sunday.’
‘Oh’, said Tom, not understanding at all. ‘I don’t think I was ever even baptized; I’m adopted, and I know my new parents never did anything like that to me. We’re not religious at all, so perhaps it makes sense that it’s all Greek to me. As it were!’
As the evening went on, and Tim and Tom chatted, their friendship deepened. They ordered another jug of wine, and their inhibitions began to relax. Tim said
‘Look, going back to this gay thing; do you get it at all?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, I look at a girl; at her face, her breasts, at her bum and her legs, and I get an erection. It’s natural, isn’t it? Automatic. It’s about babies, I suppose, in nature. Reproduction of the species. I couldn’t imagine looking at a bloke in the same way. I mean, what weird way is a bloke wired to want to do the same thing with another bloke? He can’t have babies; there can’t be anything natural in it at all.’
‘I can’t explain it; like you, I’m straight. But can’t you see that, for instance, Justin is beautiful?’
‘Yeah; I suppose. I certainly wish I looked like he did. I could have the pick of any girl I wanted then. Chris is pretty handsome, too.’
‘But don’t you see that their beauty is beautiful in itself; I mean apart from the bird-magnet aspect?’
‘What are you saying? Are you saying that Justin makes you randy?’
Tom shifted in his chair. ‘Well no…… and then again, yes, a bit.’
‘So you’re gay too?’
‘NO! not at all.’
‘No! Look: blokes don’t do it for me, the way girls do. I want to marry and have kids some day, but I can’t deny that certain men in certain circumstances make me horny too. Don’t you find the same thing?’
‘Wow! Well, no, not really. But what sort of circumstances are you talking about?’
‘Well, er…, Justers and I used to shave each others’ balls.’
‘My, er, brother showed meit feels really cooland I showed Justers. Then we used to do each other. We both used to get hard; it’s totally different with a girl doing it, not as good, actually, perhaps because a bloke knows how things feel and how things work.’
‘I wouldn’t know. About a woman, I mean. Or about a man, for that matter.’
‘Yeah, and sometimes with Justers things got a bit more… well, steamy.’
‘You mean you wanked each other off?’
‘And did you kiss?’
‘No, man! This wasn’t about love, it was about getting our rocks off!’
‘But you said you loved Justin.’
‘Yeah, but not in that way.’
‘Would you have done it with someone you didn’t love? Me, for instance?’
‘Oh man! No, I wouldn’t have done it with someone I didn’t love. But yes I would do it with you.’
‘Of course I love you, you bloody idiot! And in case you’ve forgotten, I’ve already rubbed my hands all over your naked body.’
‘Yeah, well, I was unconscious at the time, and suffering from hypothermia. That tends to cloud a guy’s judgement.’
But Tim was smiling, and moved at Tom’s affection. They finished off their wine, talking of inconsequential things until it was time to pay the bill and go. As they left, Tim said quietly in Tom’s ear
‘And I love you too, mate.’
But back in the bedroom, sober, and faced with the reality of the bed, things were a little different. In order to change into his shorts, Tim scooted into the bathroom and locked the door. He had never been that modest before; Tom was a little hurt, and waited for Tim to come out. He stripped off his shoes, shirt and trousers, and then deliberately remained completely naked until Tim emerged. Tim noticed, of course, and blushed. He looked anywhere in the room except at Tom. Tom sighed, exasperated.
‘Look, Tim, we can’t let what we’ve talked about dictate who we are. We’ve not changed; I’m not gay, and I’m not going to rape you, for God’s sake. Look at me! Look at me, Tim! Look, it’s the same bloke you’ve seen naked hundreds of times, and we’re about to get into bed together, though……’
‘Oh no we’re not! I’m sleeping on the floor.’
‘Oh fuck! Look, you just told me you loved me…’
‘Not like that!’
‘I didn’t mean like that! If you’ll just let me fucking finish… I mean that if we stop behaving normally it’ll actually destroy our love. All right, if you prefer it, destroy our friendship. And I don’t want that.’
‘You call getting into bed with another bloke normal?’
‘Yeah, I do. If we hadn’t had that conversation, that’s exactly what we would have done without a qualm. It’s normal, Tim.’
‘Yeah, but what if you get a hard on?’
‘So what? Haven’t you ever had a hard on in bed, whether or not you’re in bed with another bloke? Look if I get hard, it’s because I’ve got hard, not because I want to stick it up your bum. And the same goes for you. For God’s sake, Tim we’re just two straight blokes who have to share a bed because the hotel cocked it up. End of story. Get into bed!’
‘Put your shorts on first.’
‘Okay, okay. Honestly, you’re behaving like a virgin on her prom night.’
‘Well, that’s perhaps because I am a virgin, and even if this isn’t a ‘prom night’whatever that iswell, I haven’t shared a bed with a bloke before. Even my best friend. Or a girl, for that matter.’
Tom could see that Tim was nervous as anything, so he didn’t argue any further, but pulled on his shorts and got into bed. Tim hesitantly did the same on the other side. The bed was small for a double, so there was no way that their bodies would not touch; Tom could feel Tim’s shoulder, hip and thigh against his own, rigid with fear. He sighed; Tim wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight.
On the other hand, in his own case the wine had made him sleepy, so he was nearly in a doze when Tim said timidly
‘Tom, I’m hard.’
He answered sleepily,
‘Yeah? So am I. I told you, it doesn’t mean anything.’
There was silence for half a minute.
‘Yeah, but it does.’
‘You’re making me hard. Lying next to you with our skin touching is making me hard.’
‘Oh for God’s sake, Tim; go to the bathroom and have a wank, then let’s get some sleep.’
The bed started shaking; at first Tom thought that Tim was setting out on giving himself relief in the bed, and was about to tell him to get out, when he realized that Tim was crying. Tom reached out and turned the light on, and looked at his friend, his head on the pillow next to him. Tim said, brokenly,
‘I’m sorry, Tom. I didn’t realize… I don’t want to be gay!’
‘Look; this doesn’t make you gay! Lying next to someone nearly naked is really sexy, almost whoever they are, and if it’s sexy, you’ll get hard. Okay?’
‘Good isn’t it?’
‘No, not really; I’m scared!’
‘What’s to be scared of? I’m only another bloke. Feel this.’ He took Tim’s hand in his own and pulled it onto his erect penis and balls. He had slipped his shorts down in the bed.
‘There; just like yours.’
‘No; your balls are all smooth.’
‘I told you; I shave them.’
‘Would you like me to do yours?’
‘Whoa, whoa, one thing at a time, mate! I’ve never even touched another bloke’s equipment before.’
‘Well, what do you think?’
‘It’s making me even harder. This is so fucking humiliating.’
‘Why? It’s perfectly normal, as I keep saying. You just haven’t done it before. Look, go to the bathroom, have a wank, and let’s get some sleep. We can talk about it in the morning.’
As soon as the others left, Justin and Chris felt an immense sense of freedom. Not that they didn’t love the others, but it was nice to be on their own. They spent the afternoon wandering around the various churches and museums that littered Florence; Chris remembered that St Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratory was born in Florence, and baptized in the famous baptistery next to the Cathedral, so he insisted on a visit there. He and Justin had an enjoyable early evening meal in a charming restaurant, and retired to their hotel room to renew their acquaintance.
The room was beautiful, with a view of Brunelleschi’s famous Dome, and Fiesole beyond on the skyline.
‘A room with a view’ said Chris. ‘How romantic!’
Justin looked puzzled.
‘It’s a film, darling, set in Florencewell, the start is, anyway. And a song by Noel Coward, I think.’
Chris stood in the window, looking out at the view, and Justin came up behind him, and wrapped his arms around him, laying his chin on Chris’ shoulder.
‘Mm, that’s nice.’ said Chris. ‘You haven’t done anything romantic for a while now.’
Justin immediately began to feel guilty, so he nuzzled Chris’ ear. ‘Yeah, Chris, I suppose you’re right. I’m sorry; but let’s make up for it tonight. We could start by ordering some champagne from room service…’
Chris giggled. ‘Jus! What will the hotel think; we’re two guys! We’ll get thrown out.’
‘I sincerely doubt it; this is the twenty-first century. Oh bugger it, perhaps you’re right. There’s no point in risking trouble, is there? I’ll slip out and get some instead.’
Justin jogged out, and had to run for some time before he found a late-opening shop where he hesitated over a bottle of Veuve Cliquot before settling for the very much cheaper but ready-chilled Prosecco. He spent the difference in price on some roses which he found in a bucket by the door. The shopkeeper clearly caught the romantic moment clearly, and though Justin understood not a word, blushed as he was wished ‘Tanti auguri…… aah! Amore’. He understood the last bit, all right, and blushed deeper. The shopkeeper laughed at him and gave him a small box of chocolates ‘per la signorina’. Justin, scarlet, muttered ‘grazie tante’ and fled.
He jogged back the to hotel, trying to keep the wine as steady as possible, fairly successfully. In the room, Chris had been busy, and had pushed the twin beds together, and dimmed the lighting. He was wearing a smart, snug-fitting pair of shiny black trousers and a shirt he had bought earlier and looked absolutely beautiful.
Justin caught his breath, and his love for John was for the first time in months pushed to the back of his mind. He felt that he loved Chris without the need for the dissimulation that had so tormented his conscience for so long.
Chris saw the flowers and his heart melted,
‘Oh Jus! Roses!’
‘And these are from the shopkeeper,’ said Justin, giving him the chocolates.
‘You didn’t come out to him?’
‘He thought you were a “signorina”.’
‘And aren’t you glad I’m not?’
‘Oh yes!’ and Justin drew Chris into a deep embrace.
‘Bloody hell!’ said Chris. ‘Jus, you stink of sweat! Did you run all the way?’
‘Yeah’ said Justin sheepishly. ‘Perhaps I’d better have a shower.’
‘Well there’s an idea’ said Chris, a glint in his eye. ‘We do a pretty good line in showers together, I seem to remember……’
A couple of hours later, when the Prosecco (‘so much nicer than champagne’ they both thought) was finished, and the boys were lying together on the bed naked and pleasantly tipsy, Chris spoke thoughtfully to his lover.
‘I’ve been thinking.’
‘Isn’t it time we went a bit further?’
‘Look, don’t just grunt. I’m serious. Wake up, Jus.’
‘Okay, okay. I’m awake. What do you mean “further”?’
‘Well, where’s our relationship going?’
Justin shifted uncomfortably, thinking of John. ‘Going?’ he echoed stupidly.
‘Honestly, Jus, sometimes I think you’re not there any more.’
‘Look, Chris, it really hasn’t been an easy few months for me; my parents’ death…’
Chris interrupted, ‘Look, I know about all that, and I’m really sorry about it all, but we’re still hereus, I meanand there’s no point in killing off something that’s supposed to be good in your life just because something shitty happened.’
‘Isn’t that just a bit heartless?’
‘No, just honest.’
But, though Chris was probably right, Justin was very hurt, though as usual he did not show it. However, his love for Chris died a little more. He thought again of how much more considerate John had been.
‘Well, what do you suggest? I can’t just block all that out of my mind, though I do honestly try not to worry anyone else with it.’
‘No, my love, I know. But instead of dwelling on it, I think we should affirm what is good; our relationship, in other words. Life is beautiful!’
‘Aren’t we? Don’t we? We had a lot of fun in the shower earlier on.’
‘Well, yes……’ Chris sounded doubtful.
‘Look spit it out. You’ve obviously got something on your mind.’
‘Okay. Here goes! Justin, would you let me fuck you, please?’
Justin suddenly went cold and shuddered involuntarily. ‘I’ve never… er, I…’
‘I should bloody well hope you haven’t! Nor have I. You’re the first man I’ve ever wanted to do this with.’
But Chris could see Justin’s horror and was shocked. He had suspected there might be reluctance, but was not prepared for revulsion. What was that all about?
‘Look,’ he continued. ‘No big deal; if you don’t want me to fuck you, that’s cool. I can understand that. I’m more inclined to top, too, but I want us to do this more. Look Jus, will you top me, then?’
‘What the hell does that mean?’ Justin was feeling both defensive and guilty now.
‘It means, oh wise one, that you get to fuck me. I’ve got lube and condoms here in my toilet bag. We’re all ready to go.’
It was all too much for Justin, who started to cry. All the accumulated emotion that he had suppressed for the last months suddely welled up in him and he began to sob.
Chris had not the slightest idea what was going on, but knew that he had awakened something unwittingly that was beyond his control. He reached out to take Justin his arms, no thought of sex now, just wanting to comfort, but Justin misunderstood him and pushed him away.
‘No! Chris. That’s your answer, No!’
And Justin got up from the bed, still sobbing, and pulled on the first garment he could find, which happened to be Chris’ new trousers, pushed his feet into his own boat shoes, and ran out of the room, then out of the hotel, barechested into the night.
Chris was too shocked to react at first. By the time he could move, it was too late to follow Justin, so he just sat up on the bed and tried to work out what had happened to their beautiful romantic evening. He looked at his watch; quarter past eleven. He badly needed someone to talk to, and he had begun to punch in the number of John’s mobile phone before he paused and considered. The last time he and Justin had quarrelled, John had hit him; somehow, for some reason, on the subject of Justin, John became irrational……
Oh my God. Was that it? Were Justin and John………? Think, Chris, think! It was with a certain amount of relief that Chris rejected this theory; there was little or no evidence at all to support it. But there was no doubt at all that John thought the world of Justin and was not likely to be objective in this matter. Whom else could he talk to?
He punched in another number, and was comforted to hear the characteristic double ring of a British telephone. He was even more comforted to hear the motherly tones of Jules answering.
‘Chris, darling, how lovely to hear from you… No, we’re just having a quiet evening in with the television, you haven’t disturbed us at all… Oh, I’m so sorry. Well, tell Auntie Jules all about it, heart-face, and we’ll see what we can do.’
Chris poured out the whole sorry story of the evening, and as he listened, Jules gave thanks that Chris had phoned him and not John, because he, unlike most, could see clearly the burgeoning bond between John and Justin, and John would not have been likely to have reacted well at all. When Chris had finished, Jules said to him
‘Well, petal, you poor darling, you’ve had a horrid evening; I’m so sorry. You ask whether you were at fault, and that is a good question to ask, and shows that you are getting more mature. And I think that the answer is both yes and no. I think you were right to encourage Justin to make up his mind whether he loves you in that way or not. But your timing sucks, sweetheart! Poor Justin has had such emotional overload these last few weeks, that I think you simply tripped the switch. You know that his parents have died, his brother threw him out, he flunked his exams as a result, he has come to terms with himself being gay, he has become a Catholic, he has lost his home and found another, he has had a relationship with you, all within the space of a few months, and that is simply what you know. There is a lot more going on which he has never told anyone, not even me, and I can only see it because I, darling, am as perceptive as Mystic Meg. You may not think it, my dove, but asking for anal intercourse with someone is a very big deal, even if you love them, particularly if they are not comfortable with it, and for all that he is gay, Justin is quite a macho young man. It’s not just about love, but about perceptions of one’s body, inhibitions, religion and so much else. It’s a big taboo you asked Justin to break, Chris, and my guess is that he simply wasn’t ready, and went into overload.’
‘What can I do?’
‘Wait for him to come back, sweetheart, apologize to him for pushing him, even if you didn’t very much, and then don’t bring the subject up until he does himself.’
‘Will he come back?’
‘Oh Chris, do you even need to ask? How well do you know Justin? Of course that wonderful boy will come back, the moment he realizes that he’s upset you. He’s just sorting a few things out himself, and calming himself down. Anyway, where would he go with only a pair of trousers on? He’d have to come back even just to get his passport.’
‘Thanks Jules, you’ve been wonderful, as always.’
‘Good night, baby. Frank sends his love too.’
Justin ran and ran frantically into the night until he was completely lost. When he finally slowed up, he found himself jogging among modern blocks of flats, one looking just like another, and he was beginning to tire. The long run had done him good; he had missed his accustomed exercise for a few days, and his mind was clearing. But there were so many issues flying around, that a clear mind was not necessarily a better state of affairs. He stopped and took a number of deep breaths, trying to force his breathing and his heart to return to normal. Now what to do?
Two lads, either of whom could have been a character in the Brancacci chapel frescoes, were sitting side by side on a motorbike seat parked by the side of the road, companionably sharing a cigarette. Justin approached them, and they looked curiously at him, sizing him up. His tight shiny black trousers were good, fashionable even, but this stranger was barechested; bare chests, even ones in such good shape as Justin’s was, were simply not bella figura in Italy, away from the beach, at any rate. He must be English or German, they thought.
‘Er, scusi…’ Justin began, nervously.
‘Er… dov’é il centro, per favore?’
This was too complicated for Justin, who shrugged apologetically. The lads tried to explain the way to Justin, but he could not follow their directions at all. Then one of the boys stubbed out his cigarette and patted the motorbike seat.
‘Vieni con noi’
Justin looked puzzled at this, so the lad said in broken English,
‘Come. We go you to centro.’ and got onto the bike, starting the engine, which broke into an enormous roar. He grinned at Justin, and patted the seat behind him again. Justin worried for a moment that there were no helmets, but if the lads thought this was ok, he was not going to quarrel, so he lifted his leg over the seat and looked for somewhere to hold on. The lad at the handlebars reached behind and took Justin’s hands and pulled them around his own slim waist.Then Justin was suprised again when the other lad got on the bike behind himit was a tight squeezeand put his arms around Justin’s waist. The lad in front gunned the engine a few times, then with a screech of tyres and a smell of rubber, the three of them shot off into the night.
It was a wild ride; Justin had not realized that he had run so far; he must have been really sprinting most of the way, because it was now only a little after midnight. The long hair of the driver blew back sensuously into Justin’s face and he began to enjoy himself, being actually sorry when the bike drew up outside the Cathedral, Brunelleschi’s famous dome looming above him in the floodlights.
‘Ecco, il centro!’
Justin expressed his gratitude fervently, and then felt in his pockets, finding Chris’ wallet there. He wanted to give the guys something, but they refused, a little stiffly.
‘Una birra?’ Justin tried. A beer?
‘Si, perche no?’ they agreed cheerfully. Why not? But Justin’s bare chest was a problem; the lads made signs that they would not get served in a bar with him like that, and so one of them pulled off his leather jacket and gave it to Justin to wear, since he was wearing a t-shirt underneath. Now Justin would simply look fashionable. The three of them chatted away in pidgin English and halting Italian, and communicated much better than any of them would have thought possible. After a couple of beers, Justin thanked them again effusively, returned the lad his jacket, and they roared away into the night.
Now what? Justin felt his melancholy mood return as he saw the floodlighting on the Cathedral being switched off. He began to wander around the streets; fortunately the night was warm and the lack of a shirt did not bother him, though it earned him a number of strange looks from those whom he passed. He found his way to the square outside St Mark’s Convent where he had been so transported by the Fra Angelico pictureswas it only a few hours ago? It seemed like centuries. On one side of the piazza there was a most beautiful portico, which Justin vaguely remembered as being important; some sort of an orphanage, he thought.
‘Well, that fits; I’m an orphan,’ he said out loud, and went to the wall at the back of the portico, and squatted down, his bare back against the wall. He started to cry again, his head buried in his hands, as he thought of his parents and his brother, and of his unrequited love for John. Chris hardly entered his thoughts at all; he had almost forgotten the incident that had brought all this on.
When he had cried himself out, he pulled his face out of his hands to find that an old nun had been sitting beside him on a bench, quietly saying her rosary. At this time of night? he thought. How long had she been there? He pulled himself stiffly up out of his squat, and smiled shyly at the nun. She gave him a broad smile back, then stood up, all four foot six of her, took out her handkerchief and wiped his cheeks. She put her hanky to his lips and said
It was clear enough; he spat on her hanky shyly and she cleaned up his face. She then rattled something off rapidly at him in Italian, so he stammered back
‘Scusi; ma non parlo Italiano.’
‘Engl, er… Inglese.’
‘No, er, Catholic.’
She reached up and took hold of his cheek, pinching it hard.
‘Che bello ragazzo!’ Justin understood that. What a handsome boy! Bit cheeky for a nun, he thought, but he grinned shyly at her. She took his head in her hands, and pulled it down to herself, and gave him a big kiss on his forehead, then pinched his cheek.
‘Coraggio, ragazzo! La vita é bella.’ He understood that, too; it had been the name of a film. Life is beautiful. It was what Chris had said.
She pressed her rosary into his hands, and over his protests of thanks, she said,
‘Vai via a casa, ragazzo. Buona notte, bello.’ and swatted his bottom.
‘Buona notte, er… sister. Grazie tante.’
She waved at him as she tottered off into the night. He felt hugely better, for some reason.
Justin wandered around the streets again; the stupendous works of beauty all around him, wrapped in the eerie light of the street lamps. He began to cheer up now, the acts of unexpected kindness restoring him, and eventually found himself in a street that looked familiar. It was where he had bought the prosecco and roses only a little earlier.
His mind returned to Chris again, and his eyes filled once again with tears. Oh shit, not again, he thought. As he rounded a corner, he found the shop he had visited earlier, and the shopkeeper packing away his display of vegetables on the street. Closing times are clearly different in Italy, thought Justin. He tried to slip past unnoticed on the other side of the street, but the shopkeeper saw and recognized him, and beckoned him over.
A glance at Justin’s red eyes and his strange dress, or lack of it, was all that was needed for the shopkeeper to see that the boy’s romantic evening had not gone at all well. He reached up and clapped a companionable hand on Justin’s bare shoulder. He gestured to the boxes, clearly asking for a hand, and Justin thought, why not? and picked up a stack. They were joined in a moment by a handsome lad with black curly hair, about Justin’s ageclearly the shopkeeper’s sonand the three of them worked together until the street was cleared. The shopkeeper took Justin’s arm and drew him into the shop, shutting the door behind him and locking it. They all went into a room behind the shop, and Justin was sat down at a table and was joined by the others. A woman brought in bread, salame sausage and cheese, and placed it on the table with a bottle of rough wine, looking curiously at Justin’s bare torso. She said something to the other lad, who sprinted off, and reappeared with a blue polo shirt, which he gave to Justin with a shy smile. Justin thanked him and pulled the shirt on, feeling a little less self-conscious, though the shirt was rather tight. The shopkeeper frowned at the wine and, giving Justin an appraising look, went into the shop, reappearing with a bottle of clear liquid.
‘Grappa?’ he said, looking at Justin enquiringly.
Justin hadn’t a clue what that meant, but nodded encouragingly. So the man poured a large measure for each of the three of themthe woman had disappeared now and did not returnand lifted his glass to Justin.
‘Cin cin’ he said, and took a large gulp. Justin said back, ‘er, chin chin’ and did likewise. It burnt like fire, and in a New York second Justin was choking and coughing violently. His two companions laughed uproariously, and banged him on the back. The lad cut a slice of cheese and gave it to Justin, who crammed it into his mouth. The fire subsided quickly then, and Justin started to laugh also. Finally all his woes seemed to melt away as he laughed and laughed, then cried for a bit, then laughed again, cried again, laughed again.
It turned out that the handsome lad had quite good English, and when Justin had recovered himself, they all chatted away quite happily. It did not seem to worry the shopkeeper that Justin could not understand a word he said, nor could he understand a word that Justin said; the grappa did a very good job of simultaneous translation, and the three of them had made fast friends. The lad, whose name was Franco, was keen to improve his English and so Justin invited him to come and visit Arundel; Franco was delighted, and explained this to his father, Giuseppe, who solemnly shook hands with Justin and made a formal speech of thanks, along the lines of ‘my family is your family.’ It is, perhaps, necessary to add that they were on their second bottle of grappa by this stage, which Justin had insisted, despite protests, on paying for. It was, he reflected amusedly, Chris’s money anyway.
They chatted and put the world to rights, and it seemed no time at all when the cold light of dawn began to creep in the windows. Giuseppe got up stiffly from the table and began to make coffee; unbelievably strong coffee that put new life and heart into Justin, who had just begun to realize that he was going to have to go back and talk to Chris. Giuseppe said something to Franco, who offered to give Justin a bed
‘my bed, actually, we can partage…eh…share it’ he said.
‘Tempting’, thought Justin, ‘you have no idea how tempting, but I must get back to Chris’. So he declined. Giuseppe was already starting to open the shop (‘What hours do these people work?’), and both Franco and Justin gave him a hand. Then Franco said he was off to bed before he fell down; his father would take the first shift, and then go to sleep himself while Franco ran the shop. Justin hugged them both warmly, and was kissed on both cheeks by each of them. These were going to be friends for life, he thought.
‘Come again soon’ said Franco.
‘I will; and when I return, I will speak fluent Italian!’
Justin started to pull off Franco’s shirt to return it, but Franco stopped him.
‘No, no! It is, eh… brutta figura… to go in the town with no shirt. You keep.’
Justin hugged them both again and went into the street.
‘Eh, ragazzo, Jasteen!’, called Giuseppe. ‘Ricordi sempre; la vita é bella!’
And Justin, going into the street, began to think that he was right, that perhaps life was beautiful, after all.
Back at the hotel, Chris was asleep, the beds having been moved apart again. Justin pulled off Chris’ trousers and Franco’s shirt and got into bed naked. He fell asleep almost immediately, despite the coffee he had drunk. A couple of hours later, Chris stirred, and saw with relief that Justin had returned. He got up quietly and went to have his shower. Returning to the room, he accidentally knocked over an empty glass which woke Justin with a start.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, Jus. Fuck, not just for waking you; for the whole thing last night. I spoiled something really good, baby, and I’m sorry.’
‘Chris, I’m sorry too. But I’m feeling much, much better now. I’ll tell you all about it later.’
‘Let’s say no more, darling, but put it behind us. I won’t press you again.’
‘And I won’t run out on you again.’
‘It’s a deal. And now, are you coming to breakfast?’
‘Actually, do you mind if I sleep a little longer? I only got in a short while ago, and it’s been a bit of a night.’
‘You sleep all you want, baby. I’ll put the “do not disturb” notice on the door.’
Chris pulled on the trousers he had bought yesterday, and which Justin had worn all night; Chris was surprised to find they were a little creased and dusty, but he knew that it would not be a good idea to wear shorts to do some of the visits he had in mind, to churches and museums. He found a strange rosary in the pocket. ‘Funny, that isn’t mine or Justin’s’, and left it on the bedside cabinet, beside Justin’s sleeping head.
And Justin slept until about ten o’clock, at which time Chris was in the Uffizi gallery and was seeing enough to know that in the time available he would be seeing almost nothing of what was actually there.
Tim woke first, and was shocked to discover that in the night his body had spooned into Tom’s, and his erection was pushing at Tom’s backside. He gently got out of bed, and went to the bathroom to relieve himself, but his erection was no softer afterwards.
‘Fuck’ he said gently.
He looked at the clock by his bedside, and found that it was only a quarter to five; the light was just beginning to appear outside, and it was far too early to get up. Tom had not moved, and so Tim got gently back into bed, and after a brief internal tussle, moved back behind Tom in the same position he was in when he woke.
Tom was in fact awake, and he smiled gently to himself as he felt Tim’s erection once more behind him. Within a couple of minutes, the two of them were asleep again.
They woke again at about seven; some workmen in the street were erecting scaffolding, and neither of them could sleep through that. So Tom turned in the bed, and looked Tim in the face. There was no denying that both of them had erections, and were hugely enjoying each other’s proximity.
‘Come on,’ said Tom; ‘let’s shower.’
‘Why waste water?’
And in the shower, they each shaved each other’s faces, and then Tom shaved Tim’s scrotum and trimmed his pubic hair; Tim returned the favour for Tom. Finally they wanked each other and kissed gently.
Tim was overwhelmed by what had happened over the last twelve hours; ‘Am I gay now?’
‘I don’t know. Who’s your fantasy girl?’
Tim went scarlet.
‘Okay; I won’t ask. Just think of her naked.’
Tim immediately grew erect again.
‘Does that answer you?’ Tom continued: ‘Look, Tim. Only about ten per cent of the population are 100% gay, and only ten percent are absolutely 100% straight. The vast majority are in between somewhere. Eighty per cent can get it up for either sex if the circumstances are right. I didn’t know whether or not you were one of the ten per cent who are 100% until last night. Now I know you’re like me; mostly straight, and certainly straight by decision, but not unsusceptible to a good-looking bloke in the right circumstances, especially when he’s a good mate. You could be 80 or 90 per cent straight, and still find that a particular bloke in a particular situation gets you hot. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and don’t you think it’s going to make things easier with the others now?’
‘I suppose. But I never in a million years would have guessed that I would one day actually enjoy fooling around with another guy.’
‘Well, there you go. You live and learn. Now gimme a kiss and show me you love me, you great butch thing, you.’
Tom was teasing, and so was surprised when Tim did exactly that.
John woke about seven also, in their twin beds. John was sad that the first thing he should see in the morning was Tony looking with infinite sorrow and a sort of hungry passion into his own sleeping face.
John padded out to the bathroom for his shower, and deliberately left the door unlocked. He was not trying to tempt Tony, but to prevent him feeling rejected. While in the shower, he heard Tony come into the bathroom and use the lavatory. Then he heard him pouring water into the basin to shave.
‘Tony; come here; I’ll shave you. It’s sort of the family speciality.’
‘No; don’t worry John, I’ve been managing on my own for a long time. I think I’ll cope now.’
John heard the little undercurrent of bitterness. He opened the shower door, and saw Tony already in his trousers, at the basin. Although dripping with water, he got out of the shower, and pulled Tony’s back against his dripping chest. He slid Tony’s trousers over his hips without undoing them, and pulled Tony, unresisting into the shower, where he kissed him and hugged him. Then he shaved his chin with his own razor, and finally pressed his forehead against Tony’s; they stood together for a good five minutes until some tears started from Tony’s eyes. John kissed them away, and said:
‘Tony, I love you so very much. You are so incredibly dear to me. To see you in pain really tears me up, and to know that I am partially, at least, responsible for this kills me.’
‘Johnny, I know it’s not deliberate, that you would love me if you could. But you can’t, and that means that I’ve got to get over this if I can. This really isn’t helping, and much as I love being here with you in the shower, the best way you can help me is by not doing this sort of thing, putting me in the position where I can’t help myself. Oh fuck, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s true. If you can’t love me as my lover, then please keep your distance, John, and let me get back on my feet.
John was distressed, but saw the point immediately. He pulled Tony’s forehead down to him and kissed it.
‘As you think best, Tony, but please don’t stop being my best friend!’
‘Never that’ said Tony, ambiguously.
When Justin woke, it was too late for breakfast in the hotel, so he wandered out in search of a cafe. He heard a bell ring in the vicinity, and thought that perhaps he might go to Mass first, so he followed the sound, and was surprised to find himself not in one of the glorious Florentine churches, but in a little convent chapel in a side street.
Mass was prayerful, and though it was in Italian, Justin managed to follow it in the same spirit as he followed a Mass in Latin; in other words, he found it much more approachable and atmospheric than an English Mass. He was suprised to be one of only five or so worshippers, though it was not a Sunday, and even more surprised when a great volume of singing greeted the priest as he approached the altar. Clearly the nuns were hidden in some way from his sight, but there were a lot of them. As Mass progressed, his eyes wandered round their baroque church, and his eyes alighted on a little display in a side chapel. There were a few pictures and some literature about a nun who looked somehow familiar. With a shock, he realized that the picture was of the sister he had met the night before, the one who had washed his face with her handkerchief.
When Mass was over, he rushed over and examined the display. He could not understand most of the words, but what he did understand rocked him to his core. In particular the words, Serva di Dio, Madre Maria Maddalena Gonzella, 1895-1981 which were blazoned across the display. He rushed to the convent door, and in pidgin Italian demanded to speak to a sister who could speak English. This was not easy as the sister who was serving as Porteress clearly spoke no English at all. But she gestured to him to be calm, and disappeared.
A few minutes later, another nun came to the door.
‘Ee, coom in, lad’ she said, in a broad Yorkshire accent. Justin sighed with relief and followed her in.
She took him to a little room, austerely furnished, with a photograph of “his” nun in the corner. ‘Now, lad,’ she began, ‘’ave you ’ad breakfast yet? They don’t serve anything like a good breakfast in this bloody country! I saw you at Mass, and I guess you ’aven’t!’
Justin was taken aback at this; broad Yorkshire vernacular was the last thing he had expected in Florence.
‘Oh, shut your cake-’ole, lad, t’flies’ll get in!’ and she laughed with all her body. ‘Ee, it’s good to talk English again! Stay ’ere a moment, and I’ll get us summat t’eat. I’m glad of the excuse, me.’
And she bustled off, in a whirl of habit and veil, to reappear a few minutes later with a large pot of tea and a plate of bacon and eggs with toast and marmalade. More than enough for two.
‘Now lad, let me tell you that your coming is a godsend to me. I’ve managed to convince our Reverend Mother that this is all that English people eat, and she says that if in the unlikely event English people come, I can entertain them here with English food. Thank God you’re ’ere, is what I say. So let’s both tuck in, and come back as often as you can! For my sake, if for nothing else.’
Sister Edmund was huge fun, and Justin soon relaxed in her company. He had wanted to talk about his strange companion of the night before, and indeed did so, but he ended up telling her absolutely everything, about Chris and John in particular. There was something strangely inviting about this nun’s homely acceptance and approachability.
‘Well, Justin, that’s quite a tale, and I think that you have undoubtedly met our Mother Maddalena. She was still alive but very old when I came to this convent more than twenty years ago, but she always had a real soft spot for lads in distress, and worked quite a few miracles on the quiet; we still have quite a few of the locals who come to us when they are in trouble. You say she gave you a rosary?
‘Yes, Sister.’ said Justin, fumbling for a pocket. It was only then he realized that he was wearing his nylon boat shorts which had no pockets, and the rosary must still be in Chris’ trousers. ‘I’ll bring it later.’
‘Okay lad, don’t break your neck, but it would be good to see it. Mother Maddalena died, as I think you know, about twenty years ago, but you are not the only one to have seen her. She tends to appear to lads in all sorts of trouble or upset in Florence; I’m told that she’s often seen in the local juvenile prison, for instance. You may be interested to know that she is due to be beatifiedthat’s the stage before being made a saint‚by the Holy Father in Rome next spring. I’d really like to write your story down, if you’re happy with that, and add it to the other stories we keep here.
‘Of course, sister.’
‘Perhaps you’d like to come to the beatification ceremony? I think she’d like you to be there. She seems to have taken a shine to you, so we’ll get you a good seat.’
‘I’d be honoured.’
‘Come and visit us here first; we’ve got a guest house, in fact, so you could stay here. Something tells me the sisters would enjoy having you stay with us.’ Sister Edmund had a wicked glint in her eye as she took in the good-looking lad before her.
‘I’d love to. Can I bring you anything from England?’
‘Oh, now you’re talking, lad. Some Newcastle Brown Ale would go down an absolute treat! And some real tea; the stuff that passes for tea here is muck. And some marmalade.’
‘It’s a deal, sister!’ and Justin gave her a big kiss on the cheek. They had made fast friends, and would correspond for many years.
Before they left, Justin took Chris to visit the convent, and the rosary was shown to all the sisters, with much clucking and kissing. The boys were then taken inside the convent to see Madre Maria Maddalena’s room, now kept as a shrine, where there were various little things that had belonged to her, including a rosary which was identical with the one that Justin had been given. The sisters all beamed, and kissed Justin and Chris over and over again.
Well,’ said Chris when they finally left to catch their train, ‘we know where we can stay in Florence in future; with your twenty-seven girlfriends!’
The six friends met back on the Douglas Smith that evening. It was clear to them all that they all had changed significantly; everyone was more relaxed though in some sense the dynamics of their relationships were very different. After an initial period of awkwardness as everyone got used to the new way of things, they all relaxed considerably, as everyone felt released to make friends with the others on the boat. What was particularly helpful was the reaction of Tim and Tom.
Tim stood up when they had all had supper that evening, and said, to Tom’s surprise,
‘Tom and I have something to say to you.’
‘We have?’ said Tom.
‘Yes; stand up, Tom.’ So Tom did, and Tim hugged him and planted a big kiss on his lips. Everyone, especially Tom, was surprised, but the other four applauded and cheered loudly. So Tim said,
‘That’s just to let you guys know that whatever you do, whatever you are, is cool with us. No, we’re not gay, but we love you all, and we love each other as mates, so we do understand.’
Which speech endeared them to everyone, even if overt gay behaviour from the others was far less likely after their visit to Tuscany than it had been before.
The boat set sail early the following morning, and there had been some discussion about pulling in at Ostia to let those go to Rome who wanted to. Almost everyone was keen to do so except, curiously, John.
‘Look, guys, I love Rome. In fact, I think I’m the only one of you who has ever been there, and I can tell you that it’s the most wonderful city in the world. But, and it’s a big but, I can guarantee that the moment we set foot there, we can bid goodbye to the Greek islands. You cannot adequately do Rome even in a month, still less in a couple of days! If we go there, you will all want to stay there. If that’s what you want, fine, but then we may as well not be sailing at all. We can all come back another time, and see Rome, but for now, lets get going to Greece. It’s already quite a way into our holiday, and we’re hardly any way there!’
So Ostia was by-passed, and the next stop was Naples. The new dynamic between the three couples on the boat was a little strained, and Tony had been thinking about this. So as soon as they berthed in Naples, in the early afternoon, he announced that he was off to do a little specialized shopping. Everyone was puzzled by this, but as his Italian was as fluent as John’s, nobody was worried.
Tony returned about four o’clock with several large heavy bags. He said nothing beyond commanding that dinner that evening would be early; at seven at the latest. He and Tim cooked that evening, and the meal was light, with very little alcohol. This had not been their tradition in the evenings, and everyone looked at him curiously.
At eight o’clock, he revealed his plan. We’re going clubbing, everyone. It’s time we chilled out a bit and started enjoying ourselves! Chris panicked and said ‘I’ve got nothing to wear for a night club!’ Tom growled ‘Typical bloody queen!’ and everyone laughed.
‘Don’t worry, Chris,’ said Tony: ‘it’s all sorted’ and he went and got the bags he had brought earlier. Inside the bags were six pairs of shiny black leather boots, six pairs of black leather trousers and six black silk shirts.
‘Wow’ said Tim and Chris together.
The tight clothes fitted everyone perfectlyTony had clearly been planning this for some timeand since everyone had good looks and a muscular build, they looked amazing. In every club they entered, they drew appreciative stares, but the greatest welcome was given them in a gay club down near the harbour where they were cheered and whistled the moment they entered the door. The atmosphere was so electric that they decided to stay the rest of the evening there. Initially they hung around together, but as the press of the crowd increased, they became split up. Chris fell into conversation with a couple of handsome American lads who were also on holiday, and Tony was very taken with a beautiful young woman who turned out to be a beautiful young man. Tim and Tom stuck together like glue, for safety, and were taken for a couple, so nobody would try to hit on them, in which enterprise they were entirely successful; they even found themselves dancing together and enjoying the experience. Therefore nobody noticed John and Justin that night. In the press of the crowd, they were pushed together, and somehow found themselves on the dance floor with their shirts off gyrating and swinging with their whole sweating and shining muscular bodies, utterly lost in each other’s eyes. Time lost all meaning as they gazed at each other hungrily, drinking each other in, and memorizing every detail of the other’s body, every curve and plane, every crevice and muscle. Fortunately it was Tom who found them, and not Chris or Tony, and brought them back to earth when it was time to go.
The following day, they all filled up the boat with everything they would need for several days’ sailing: John decreed that if they were going to make the Greek islands any time that century, they would need to sail solidly for three days and nights. Besides, he was anxious to try out the automatic pilot, and thought that a good run straight across to Greece would be the best way to do that. Chris, who was turning into quite a wine buff, was sent to stock up with some good white wines to complement the Chianti that had already been bought as, said John,
‘Sorry, Tim, but Greek wine is bloody awful!’
‘No it isn’t! It’s the best in the world!’
‘Okay; the rest of us will drink the Italian wine, Tim, you can have the retsina all for yourself.’
‘Perhaps, on second thoughts……’
The Greek islands were wonderful, though they spent very little time on any one in particular. Tim had begged to be taken to Mount Athos, which he had always wanted to visit, and that was right up in the north of Greece, John and Chris, who had heard of Athos, were just as anxious to see it. They were welcomed warmly in monastery after monastery; Tim as an Orthodox, and Greek-speaking, managed to do all the talking, thus the monks never realized that most of the others were Roman Catholics, since they had the reputation of being rather anti-Catholic on Athos.
Tony came up with a wonderful way for Tom to practice his photography; in a bookshop in Athens (to which they paid a short visit, having moored at Piraeus) he found a book full of photographs from the famous Abercrombie and Fitch catalogues. He knew that John would love the book, but he had an idea for a wonderful memento of their holiday. Over the next fortnight, the six friends, who were all so good-looking and in such good condition, recreated as many of the A&F poses as they could, and in their own estimation even surpassed some of the originals. Particularly good were the twin photographs, which John and Chris, who seemed to be more and more alike each day, executed superbly. Justin was the most successful solo model, and Tony, unknown to him, sent via the internet on the boat’s computer several of the photographs to some of the top modelling agencies; on the final day of the holiday, as the Douglas Smith was lying once more in Nice harbour, Tony revealed to Justin that no fewer than four of the most prestigious agencies were fighting each other to get him onto their books. In short, he had a job. Several agencies had also expressed interest in Tom’s photography, and were asking to see some of his original work; it was likely that he, too would not have to go job hunting, and he would be able to easily finance his University career when he went to take up his place at Merton College, Oxford, that October.