Sixth 'Ross' story.
Michael Gouda

Everything in the garden was fucking marvellous.

I was feeling quite pleased with myself. My life was going well. My relationship with my boyfriend, Peter Curtis, soon to be my civil partner, couldn't have been better. Miss Blagstock, the rabid Head Librarian where I worked, had been moved onwards and upwards into County Records and I had taken her old position. I liked to think that the whole Library now worked in a much more relaxed and happy style – though just as efficiently. Peter's little Art Gallery in Camden High Street, after he had discovered the current 'in-artist' of the moment, was much in demand by the cognoscenti of the art world. God was in his Heaven and all's right with the world, as Robert Browning wrote ironically in his verse drama, 'Pippa Passes', a tale of corruption and abuse which makes a mockery of poor Pippa's innocent and optimistic philosophy.

They say that 'Pride goeth before a fall' In fact that's an abridgement of the actual saying (I know because I looked it up on Google). The actual saying from the Book of Proverbs 16:18 is: 'Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall'. I don't think I was suffering from 'pride' but I might have been from 'an haughty spirit'.

The only fly in the ointment, or flaw in the circumstances was of course the death of Split, the artist in question, together with others, who had been poisoned by a batch of contaminated drugs supplied by his dealer, Hank Palmer. This villain was now in prison having been found guilty of various drugs charges and manslaughter (unfortunately not murder). At least his sentence was seven years which meant presumably that he'd be out of circulation for at least four of them – our prison system being what it is, and good behaviour allowing time off, or at least an assessment by the parole board.

So, there we were, Peter and me, an old, almost married couple – we'd been together for more than three years now – on Thursday evening deciding what Sky TV channel – yes, we'd given into constant harassment by the Government and gone digital – to watch. I favoured something educational, like the Discovery channel, while Peter argued for the cartoons – sometimes my Peter has rather trivial tastes, but I love him for it. Eventually we ended up watching Channel 4 documentary about gay lifestyles when the telephone rang.

When that happens we have a habit of trying to guess who's phoning. So Peter said, "Eddie" and I said, "Brian". These are two gay friends of ours whom we often meet to gossip and flirt with in the West End clubs. Then both of us together said, "Ross". Ross is another friend. Mr Mystery, Peter once called him as he seems to have little background, or none that we really knew about. All we do know for sure is that he loves 'rough trade' and knows, or can find out, almost everything.

I got up to answer. It was the landline and we haven't got one of those smart new ones that tell you who's calling, so I just lifted the receiver and said, "Hello".

"Mr Clarke?" asked a voice, curiously high-pitched so that, for a moment, I couldn't tell whether it was male or female.

"Yes," I said seeing no reason to deny it.

"Kevin Clarke?"

"Yes," I said. It was after all my name. "Who is that?"

I heard the click as the receiver at the other end was replaced and the dial tone start. "Hello," I said, stupidly as I knew we'd been disconnected. "Hello." (I think I do this because in old films, when something like this happens, the person being called always jiggles the rest and shouts 'Hello' several times.) Anyway, I soon realised the futility and put down the receiver.

"Wrong number?" asked Peter.

"I suppose so," I said, "though whoever it was asked for me by name."

The Channel 4 gay lifestyle documentary didn't show anything resembling ours consisting as it apparently did of a constant sequence of clubbing, pubbing, trolling, fashion and sex, so we eventually opened a bottle of wine, started a snogging foray on the sofa which eventually developed into a fully-fledged love session – so perhaps ours wasn't altogether different except we had stayed in.

"Mind my designer shirt," said Peter, as I struggled to remove it – and the resemblance was as good as complete.

It had been after one of these sexual marathons, in a state of post-coital lassitude and gentle affection that we'd finally decided on becoming civil partners. Since then, we'd had various discussions, occasionally arguments about the wisdom of the decision. We'd scoured Google for information and found out as much as we could about the legal position, about the advantages (many) and the drawbacks (few). We'd even found out how, if it all went terribly wrong, we could get a 'divorce' or rather a dissolution of the partnership after a year. That was of course looking on the pessimistic side.

Having talked it through, we went into the practical details, like finding a licensed place – Peter favoured a stately home, while I preferred somewhere outdoors like the top of a mountain or a beach in Cornwall. Peter pointed out the impracticability of the great outdoors where bad weather could ruin the whole thing and I saw his point.

Then there was the decision about whom to invite. Obviously we'd ask our gay friends, Eddie and Brian, Ross, Peter's gay cousin, Douglas. Then there were the straights, Peter's assistant at the gallery, Maureen, who was gay friendly, and my couple of assistants from the library who knew about us and were quite happy with it.

After that we came across problems. My parents were fine about the whole thing. "About time too," said my father when I told him. "I'm so pleased," said my mother, "and Peter is such a sweetie." (I always knew they preferred Peter to me.)

Peter's parents were another matter though. They hated the idea that their blue-eyed, raven-haired, beautiful boy was gay – and blamed me for it. Douglas' parents were anti gay too though perhaps not as homophobic as Peter's. We put them on the 'possible' list.

"We could always do it by ourselves with just a couple of witnesses from the street and the registrar," said Peter. "That's the legal minimum." It would indeed have made everything much simpler but not have made such a significant occasion in our lives.

We fell asleep that night still with the date undecided and various questions still unresolved but certain that, in the near future, there would be clothes to choose, vows to write and presents of toasters to discourage.

I woke up next morning and obviously my subconscious or unconscious had been working overtime. "We've spent too long faffing around," I said to Peter while he was still in that blissful state between sleep and wakefulness when he was completely at my mercy. Usually I used this time to work on his sexual appetites but today I had other things in mind. "We must give notice to register our intention to make a civil partnership."

"Yes, honey," he said. "I love you when you are masterful."

"Then we have to wait fifteen days before we can actually do it."

"I know, honey."

"We will do it today."

"Ummm," he said, snuggling up, all warm and compliant.

We put the next half an hour to good use before getting up and finding we had to rush so as to avoid being late for work.

* * * * * *

Mr Oliphant, the registrar, was elderly, grey and world-weary. He had grey hair, a grey moustache and greyish skin. He didn't even have a twinkle in his grey eyes. He peered at us through thick framed glasses.

"Are you the prospective partners?" he asked, and I swear the words came out with a sort of grey miasma surrounding them.

"Peter Curtis," said Peter.

"Kevin Clarke," I said.

We gave our age or rather our dates of birth and our address, confirmed that we were British citizens and that we were both male and had lived at our present address for at least seven days.

"We're hoping to move soon, get a bigger place," said Peter chattily, but Mr Oliphant didn't seem prone to chat. I wasn't sure whether he was a grumpy person or if he disapproved basically of civil partnerships between same sex couples.

"You can't register for fifteen days after this order is granted," he said with what seemed to be a slight air of triumph in his tone. We knew this, of course, but I suppose he had to tell us. He needn't have sounded so pleased about it though.

"After that period of waiting, during which objections can be made – " he paused as if he expected to hear a spectral voice from one of the cupboards make such an objection. I waited, like Jane Eyre for a Mrs Rochester to come flying between us screeching grounds for disapproval. Perhaps Peter was already married, perhaps I was, maybe we were consanguineously related and didn't know about it. . .

After what seemed a long time, he finished "You may register as civil partners in any approved place as long as there are at least two witnesses." He filled in a form and held it out in our direction. Both Peter and I made a grab at it. He got there first.

Mr Oliphant gave us his blessing in the form of another stricture. "You may not register in any place which is either designed for or is in use mainly or solely for religious purposes." He paused. "Except in Scotland."

"Thank you," I said and we went out.

At the door, I think I heard him say, "Good Luck" but I couldn't be sure.

We went down the steps into the bright sunlight, Peter clutching our piece of paper as if it were a treasure map. I looked at him and was almost tempted to give him a kiss but there were quite a few people around and I didn't want to cause a riot. We walked together, close, our shoulders almost touching and I grabbed hold of his hand. So we went home hand in hand. No one seemed to notice except a scruffy-haired, guy in baggy cargo shorts and a filthy T-shirt.

"Fucking queers," he said as we passed.

But there were two of us and only one of him.

"Fucking breeder," I said. "If anyone would want to."

But nothing could really depress us that morning.

I went into work, late, but who cared? I was the boss and my staff were competent enough to carry on without my overseeing them. In fact, freed from the constant surveillance of La Blagstock, they worked better than ever.

I sailed in looking like a proud bridegroom (or bride – Peter and I weren't particularly fussy about positions) and waved the piece of paper. Peter had wanted to take it to show his assistant, Maureen, in the Gallery but I insisted by right of primogeniture (I was seven months older than him) that I should have it first.

I beckoned Simon and Pamela, my assistant librarians, over in their coffee break and showed them the order. To be honest it didn't look particularly impressive, no gold-deckled edge, no fancy font and just a scrawled signature at the bottom which looked something like 'Elephant' (Mr Oliphant, grey to the last). But both Simon and Pamela expressed pleasure, because they could see how excited I was.

"So when is it to be?" asked Pamela,

"And where?" asked Simon. I used to fancy Simon in a vague sort of way but when I found out he was obviously attracted to Pamela, my feelings melted away.

"Well, it can't be for at least fifteen days," I said. "That's how the law stands unless there are exceptional circumstances."

"Exceptional circumstances?"

"Yes, the first same sex civil partnership in this country was carried out a day after the order was issued because one of the partners was terminally ill. He died a day later."

"That's so sad," said Pamela, always tender hearted.

"So, we wait for a fortnight and then the revels begin," said Simon. "You gays are noted for your exquisite taste in decoration. It'll be a grand affair, no doubt."

I think he was taking the piss but I was too buoyed up to care.

"Flowers everywhere, a three piece chamber orchestra, lots of yummy food," suggested Pamela. She drank her coffee from the Styrofoam cup and made a face.

"In your dreams," I said. "Sandwiches and a glass of sparkling wine."

"Tight wad," said Simon. "Well, there'll be a crowd."

"Just a few close friends and relatives. Not Peter's of course."

Pamela pricked up her ears at that. "They won't be coming?"

"No way," I said. "They'd be more likely to try to bugger up the whole thing. We won't even be telling them about it. Perhaps until it's all over."

"If your mother is coming, I won't be the only female there."

"Of course not," I said. "There's Maureen from the Gallery, and Eddie and Brian."

Pamela gazed at me, not sure if I was joking.

"And I'm thinking of asking La Blagstock," I added.

They hurled their empty cups at me and I took refuge in my office.

* * * * * *

It was one of Mrs Craven's days, our treasure, who comes twice a week to sort out our mess. The flat, therefore, smelled of her usual antiseptic cleaner, a sort of mixture of lavender and something else. Peter said it was Old Spice and I told him he was too young to remember that particular after shave. He said it was still being manufactured and I said it wasn't so we argued a bit but only in a very friendly way.

Over supper Peter raised the matter of Mrs Craven. "Should we invite her?"

"She'd be very upset of she found out afterwards and hadn't been."

"But does she know about us?"

"You don't think a single double bed with, more often than not, sheets which look as if they've done service in a Portuguese bordello wouldn't have given her a hint? Anyway you're her favourite and whatever you do, murder, treason, arson, she'd forgive."

"By the way," he said afterwards, " I looked up venues for our civil partnership ceremony. On one site I found one hundred and seventy six places on offer."

"An embarrass de richesse," I said.

"Show off! Just because you work in a Library, there's no need to talk like a book."

We looked at the site and couldn't decide between West Ham United Football Club (Douglas' dad was a football supporter and we thought that might win him round), the Hilton Watford (which offered a wedding co-ordinator who would 'plan our day to perfection') and the London Canal Museum (where we could arrive by boat).

"Think of the cost at the Hilton," I said.

"Think how Eddie and Brian would love it," said Peter.

"Just tell me who it is that are getting married?"

"We are."

In the end we put off making a decision and, cuddled together on the sofa, we watched an old black and white movie. It wasn't 'Brief Encounter' but it was nearly as sentimental and sad.

In the middle Peter suddenly said, "You know that phone call you had last night?"

I was dozing off, secure in Peter's arms, warmed by his body. "No," I said dreamily.

"Yes you do. You said someone asked for your name then when you said, yes, he rang off."

I nodded and kissed Peter's neck in the dip just above his shoulder blade.

"Well, I got one today. Exactly the same. 'Is that Peter? Peter Curtis?' Then when I said yes, he rang off."

"Was there anything strange about his voice?"

"An accent?"

"No, just anything odd."

Peter thought. "Yes he did. It was very high-pitched – certainly something strange."

"Same bloke," I said. "Let's go to bed."

Peter, though, wasn't to be put off. "Are we being stalked?"

"I'll phone Ross tomorrow and see what he says." Then I added "And tell him that Polly is invited."

Peter had been looking at our guest list. "There's a problem. If Douglas' parents come, that makes thirteen guests."

"And if they don't. It seems extremely unlikely that they will. You know how your uncle and aunt reacted when Douglas was in hospital."

"If they don't come, that means there will be thirteen people there including you and me. Either way it's unlucky."

I looked at him, his blue eyes staring seriously from under that thatch of curly black hair. "You're not superstitious," I said. "You've never been superstitious."

"No. But even so. It's not a good thing to tempt fate at the start of something so important."

I sighed. "Come to bed, honey."

"The way you harp on 'bed', it sounds as if that's the only thing on your mind."

"It is at the moment," I said – and proved it.

* * * * * *

As promised, I contacted Ross the next morning. It was such a relief being able to phone him from work without the fear that La Blagstock would come roaring down like one of the Eumenides to tell me how wrong it was to make private phone calls during work hours.

I told him about the mysterious phone calls, two exactly the same, one to each of us, must be more than a coincidence, and Ross said he'd look into it. He seemed much quieter these days after Split's death and there weren't the raunchy tales of relentless pursuit and conquest of blue collar workers as before. I knew he and Split had been close but hadn't realised how much his death had affected him. Ross always said that he didn't 'do commitment' but I suspected he and Split had been more than just casual fuck buddies.

I also told him about our plans for civil partnership and was about to discuss the projected venues when he said, "And about time you got hitched too. Have you decided on the Football Club or the Canal Museum?"

"How did you know?" I said without thinking.

"Peter mentioned them yesterday." This was a novelty too. At one time Ross would never have divulged his sources. People were changing, perhaps growing up. I wondered if I was different too. Surely being in charge at the Library had given me added responsibility. Then I realised I was using work time for private matters and started to say good-bye.

But before I rang off I remembered to ask, "Can Polly come to the – " what to call it? Marriage? Wedding? I compromised. " – fun day?"

"I'm sure she'd love to but she's in Australia at the moment visiting the family."

I breathed an inaudible sigh of relief. At least Peter's worry about the number of guests would be solved. There'd either be twelve (if you counted us) or ten (if you didn't). After I'd rung off I realised that this was the first time Ross had ever mentioned a family in Australia or divulged anything about his private life. Certainly he was changing. And I wondered about that. I'd got used to the old Ross, the Ross that panted after every guy in oily overalls or work-soiled jeans, the Ross that was a mine of information from whatever source.

Still he had promised to look into the odd phone calls.

I went back to my task of tapping in requests for new books for my clients. OK I could have delegated but what would I have done then? Made the coffee? And Simon made it so much better.

Over lunch, filled pitta bread from the neighbouring delicatessen and apple juice. Each day we took it in turns to decide on the food. Today was Pamela's choice and I approved. Of course I broached the three options Peter and I had reduced the choice down to and we looked at the site.

"The Hilton sounds good," said Simon.

"But much too expensive," said Pamela.

"And look, they want a minimum of eighty guests."

I hadn't noticed this but it was true. "I've whittled the guest list up to ten, possibly a dozen."

"Can you whittle something 'up'?" asked Simon pedantically

I ignored him. "Arriving by water is original."

"Sort of Tudor period. We could all dress up in 16th century gear," said Pamela.

Simon looked aghast and I suspect I looked the same. "I'll see what Peter has to say," I said, neatly evading the issue.

Everything was going according to plan and I guess I was developing 'an haughty spirit'. We had decided on the water option (though not the Tudor drag). The venue was available for the date we wanted and had been booked accordingly.

Now that our gay West End club, 'Brownies', was out of action, its owner being in prison (not for nearly long enough we decided), we had invited Eddie, Brian and Ross round to our flat for a meal, discussion and general camp around. Douglas had said he might drop in later though he was doing some journalistic task earlier on. He also said he'd make sure that our 'wedding' would be commemorated in his paper (probably I thought as an adjunct to the Hank Palmer trial and verdict). It never does harm to reinforce the idea that crime does not pay. Listen to me, sinking into conventional middle age!

"Brian and I can be bridesmaids," said Eddie.

We were drinking Chateau Plonk (red), all except Ross who had insisted on coffee. I told you he had changed. On the other hand he did say it was so that he could give Eddie and Brian a lift back to their respective homes in Chiswick and Putney.

"That means we can have it off with the best man afterwards," said Brian. "By the way who is the best man?"

I looked at Peter. I don't think we had foreseen things going quite this far. With the company present, and without upsetting everyone else, it could only be Ross or Douglas. In a straight marriage of course it's the groom who chooses the best man but with Peter and I things weren't quite so clear cut.

I looked at him and he looked at me.

The potential embarrassment was saved when the telephone rang. The six of us (Brian had by this time arrived) were sitting comfortably on the settee (four slightly but pleasantly squashed) and on the two easy chairs. As our nearest and dearest were already present, the phone call couldn't be from anyone important and, as Ross was closest to the phone I nodded to him to answer.

"Hello," he said. "No, this isn't Kevin. Do you want to speak to him?"

The answer was an indignant squawk which all of us could hear and then a string of high-pitched squeaks. Ross held the phone away from his ear. He looked at Peter. "It's for you. I think it's your mother."

Peter rolled his eyes. "Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "In the words of Captain Oates, I may be some time."

Not for the first time I wished we'd had an extension in the bedroom, but I shepherded our guests into the kitchen and set about preparing some food.

"Do you think Peter's parents have heard about the wedding?" asked Brian.

"Impossible," I said stoutly, but I had a twinge of doubt. It wasn't usual for them to ring at this time of the evening. Usually by eight o'clock they were getting ready for bed, or at least brewing the cocoa.

I set the guys to work. I thought a Spanish paella would be an idea. We had leftovers, onions, tomatoes, ham, some prawns and lots of rice (I know hardly traditional ingredients), and they buckled to with enthusiasm. I could hear the sound of Peter's voice occasionally raised in what sounded like protest. Then I heard him clearly. "No, mother you can't."

At that I flipped and went into the room. Peter looked forlorn and white-faced. He stared at me. "They've found out," he said. "They're going to stop it."

"Oh no, they're not," I said and took the receiver from his hand.

Mrs Curtis' voice was continuing, sharp and insistent like a electric saw. "You are not to do anything as stupid as this, Peter." She was saying. "That awful person, Kevin, has got you in his grip. We're coming up to put a stop to the unnatural nonsense."

"Mrs Curtis," I said, and heard a gasp as she recognised my voice. "Peter is twenty-eight years old. He's quite competent enough to know his own mind. There's no way you will be able to stop us. He and I are going to enter into a civil partnership, and there's nothing you can do about it. I'm sorry you feel like this and if you want to celebrate with us then you will be welcome. Otherwise just butt out."

I'd never succeeded in stopping her flow of speech before, but I did this time. Before she could recover her breath I put down the phone, then after a couple of seconds I lifted the receiver again, heard the dial tone and laid it on the table. She wasn't going to be able to ring a second time that evening. Nor was anyone else of course but that was a small price to pay.

Peter looked pinched and weary, so different from the happy laughing boy he had been ten minutes before. His blue eyes were watery and I stopped the tears with kisses four (like Keats' knight in 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci').

I hugged him. "She's not going to spoil our day," I said. I hugged him. "Now, we're going to eat some horrid paella as prepared lovingly by our friends, and drink lots of wine. Then after they've gone we're going to make love and sleep together in each other's arms. And if that isn't the most awful sentimentality, I don't know what is."

Peter gave me a tear-washed grin and we joined the others.

Over the paella and lots more red wine, Peter asked, "How could she have heard about it?"

I hadn't thought of that but there was sense in what he said. The only people who had been told so far were those sitting here around the kitchen table, Maureen at the gallery and Simon and Pamela at the Library. None of those would have had any contact with Peter's parents. Another mystery. Though no doubt if asked, she would have been only too pleased to tell – along the lines of – another of our so-called perverted friends though this one with at least a twinge of conscience. I only hoped she hadn't been told where and when it was to be held.

"I'll make some enquiries," said Ross. "Are you inviting Wallace?" Detective Sergeant Wallace had been a great help to us in times past. It seemed the least we could do. Unfortunately if he accepted we'd be back in the 'thirteen' area which we'd just escaped because of Polly's overseas trip.

"Of course," said Peter who obviously hadn't worked out the numerical permutations.

Mrs Craven, when we asked her on her next cleaning day, was overjoyed. "I'm so pleased you've decided to make it legal," she said, "though I'd never have made any comment on your lifestyle." What a treasure! Then she asked, "Do I need to wear something special?"

I wasn't sure how to answer that, a teddy and jump suit didn't seem appropriate.

"Just what you'll feel comfortable in," said Peter leaping to the rescue. "It won't be too grand. We'll be arriving by water, then the ceremony and a sit down meal afterwards."

"I'm not a very good sailor," she said, suddenly looking a little apprehensive.

"It's only up the Regents canal in Little Venice," I assured her. "There will be nothing in the nature of choppiness."

* * * * * *

Practically everything was decided. We found 'A Ceremony for Civil Partnerships' (compiled in conjunction with the Society of Registration Officers) and, though it wasn't King James' prayer book language it did include the words 'I Peter James Curtis pledge to share my life openly with you, Kevin Michael Clarke. I promise to cherish and tenderly care for you, to honour and encourage you. l will respect you as an individual and be true to you through good times and bad. To these things I give my word.' and then I say it the other way round. We thought this was quite nice, especially the 'cherish and tenderly care' bit – in spite of the split infinitive.

Douglas was in touch with his parents and it seemed that they were warming to the idea of attending or at least taking the chill off so my uncle and aunt in law (if there is such a relationship) would also be coming.

I felt quite proud of our achievements. So much to do and with so comparatively little trouble. No further word from Peter's parents and no more strange phone calls from emasculated strangers. And that, of course, was where the 'haughty spirit' kicks in, or rather the punishment for having one.

The day was Wednesday. Our big day the following Saturday. As I think I've said before, everything in the garden was fucking marvellous. I walked up Rosslyn Hill from our flat in Chalk Farm to the Library in Belsize Park, my feet floated on air (another dreadful cliché but perhaps just forgivable in the circumstances). I reached the tube station and was about to cross the road when I noticed a man (not in an attractive way, of course – and this one was far from attractive). What made me notice him was that he was staring fixedly at me.

The egregious gorilla of a man stood in the exit from the tube, all muscles under a dark blue suit which looked as if it could scarcely contain them. He was wearing a white shirt and a tie which – just – held together the collar around that bull-like neck. For some reason he looked strangely familiar though I couldn't remember where I'd seen him before.

He stepped out from under the station entrance and moved towards me. For such a big man he moved very lightly, walking on the balls of his feet.

"Mr Curtis," he said. The tone was high pitched almost refined and I could scarcely believe it came from the same guy, but his lips seemed to be operating in sync with the words. Perhaps the tie was constricting his larynx.

"Er, no," I said, uneasily aware that, if he wanted to, it wouldn't take much from him to rearrange even a familiar face into something completely unrecognisable.

"Then you must be Mr Clarke," he said in the same prissy voice. Suddenly it clicked. Or at least I knew where I'd heard the voice before. It was surely the man who had phoned me, and later Peter, but who had refused to give his name.

In front of me the man moved slightly so that looking down I could see his shoes, small feet, small shoes, but with all that power of a gorilla behind them. In my mind's eye, I could see the man kicking away at a head, cracking the bone, forcing the shattered pieces into the brain. Yes, I do have a powerful imagination.

I made a noncommittal sound in answer to his question. He must have taken it to be the affirmative because he said, "I have a message for you."

I hoped it wasn't going to be of the physical sort. Sometimes in films, where the villain says something like that, it means a going over, though I could scarcely see him beating me up this busy morning with people walking past all the time. Though I have heard of punch-ups going ahead and passers-by stepping over the prostrate bodies of the victims – but in Hampstead (even the poor end), surely not.

"I hear a couple of poofs are getting married this weekend," the sibilant voice went on. "This may not be a good idea. You've upset someone in a big way, you know."

The man turned on his heel and with a whisk and a twirl and a double chassis he was out of sight into the station almost before I could take in what he had said.

I must confess I arrived at the library in a bit of a state. It isn't every day that you have gorillas threatening you on account of your plans for marriage. I scoured my brains as to who might have been upset by our union – apart from Peter's parents. Was it possible that this Conservative (with a capital 'C') couple from the better end of genteel Cheltenham Spa could have hired a massive 'threatener' to spoil my peace of mind (and Peter's too when I got around to telling him)?

Briefly I thought of Miss Blagstock but dismissed that almost immediately. I wasn't her favourite person but I'd never ousted her from her position in the library and the one she had at County Headquarters was much better paid and of greater status. Anyway how could she have found out about it? Unless there was a spy in the Library. Simon or Pamela? Never. I couldn't believe it of them. They were obviously much too keen on coming to the shenanigans to feel any malice. Unless (mind working overtime) Simon WAS gay, had harboured a secret longing for me all the time and was now bitterly jealous when I seemed to be making Peter's and my union permanent.

I was getting paranoid.

Should I tell Peter? Wasn't it better for him to remain in ignorance? But then the gorilla had already been in contact with him via the phone. What if he leaped out at him in Camden Town? Peter must be warned, but preferable not frightened.

Peter, though, took it in an entirely unexpected way. My description of the man did the opposite of frightening him. In fact Peter fastened on one aspect of the man which was least likely to menace. "Twinkletoes," he said. "What fun."

"No, he's a BIG man," I stressed.

"With little feet."

"Take a taxi home tonight," I ordered. "I'm going to get onto Ross. See if he has any ideas."

"Interesting," Ross said, after I'd explained what had happened.

"You don't understand," I said. "He was big and threatening. What if he attacks Peter?"

"If he didn't attack you this morning, why should he attack Peter?"

I couldn't answer that but I worried all day, and occasionally snapped at the staff.

"Pre-wedding nerves," said Simon.

"Better than post natal depression." It wasn't even funny.

I only breathed more easily when Peter and I were safely at home and noshing into a plate of Irish stew, kindly prepared and left by the inestimable Mrs Craven.

"Did you see anyone?" I asked. "Big man, shaped like a gorilla?"

"I know! With little feet. No, I didn't. I looked and there was no one like that I could see. No one followed me. No one jumped out on me. There's no need to fuss."

"Remember," I said, "you were kidnapped before."

"How could I forget – in the great Canaletto mystery."

We ate in silence. I pondered the time when Peter had disappeared and I had nearly gone out of my mind with worry. And the indescribably awful feeling when a body had turned up with Peter's wallet in the coat pocket and I had been asked to identify him.

To change the subject I asked Peter if he'd heard from his parents. He grimaced and shook his head. "But I can't see them hiring a heavy to scare you out of our wedding." It was as if he'd read my mind.

"You never know how far they'll go," I said.

The telephone rang and I jumped so that I spilled some stew on the table. "It's him," I said.

"Ross," said Peter.

And he was right.

"So," I said. "Have you found out who our gorilla friend is?"

"Not yet. Have a little patience. I have a theory."

"Care to share?" I tried to take the sarcasm out of my voice but I guess some of it crept in.

"Not until I'm absolutely certain," he said annoyingly.

"Peer's very worried." I spoke softly because I didn't want him to hear. Unfortunately he did.

"No I'm not," he said loudly from the kitchen.

"Well, I am, for his sake," I said. "Those parents of his would stop at nothing." I had by now decided who the villains were.

"They're not likely to want to harm Peter." Ross' argument was reasonable which made me more cantankerous than ever. "Now you're a different matter, of course."

"Thanks for cheering me up."

Peter came up behind me and kissed the back of my neck.

"So, what did you ring for?" I asked.

"Just to make sure you were safe," he said and rang off.

* * * * * *

Thursday dawned bright and clear. Oh gosh I'm even writing in clichés now. It was though a pleasant, sunny morning and my fears of yesterday seemed less ominous. There was no hulking horror lurking in the station entrance, no sibilant voice fluting at me from amongst the passers-by. I approached the library with a jaunty air.

Then I looked round.

A large man had just turned the corner and was heading in my direction. He was a good way back and I couldn't make out exactly who he was but the general resemblance to yesterday's gorilla was there. I quickened my pace. Looking back I could see he had too. Then he gave a shout and broke into a lumbering trot. I broke out in a sweat and into a run, fishing for the library key as I did so.

For a large man, he had an astonishing turn of speed and I was only a few yards ahead when I reached the library. When you're in a hurry, of course the key doesn't slip smoothly into place and I fumbled in a panic to get it into the keyhole and turn it. As he turned the corner and started up the steps, the door opened. I rushed in and slammed the door behind me.

Just in time.

There was the sound of a thumping fist outside and the fluting voice. "Mr Clarke, I want to talk to you."

The high-pitched voice seemed to me much more menacing than a gruff tone, and I collapsed against the library counter breathing heavily, wondering whether I should phone the police.

Then the pounding suddenly stopped. There was silence for a few moments and then I heard voices – Pamela and Simon. Pamela had a key so I wasn't surprised to see the door open and they came in, looking astonished to see me in there cowering against the shelves.

"Has he gone?" I asked.


"The gorilla."

"The eager customer?" said Simon. "I explained we wouldn't be open for half an hour and he went off."

"He was going to kill me," I said, always the drama queen.

They looked at me as if I'd completely flipped. "He didn't look as if he had murder in mind," said Pamela. "In fact he was very polite. Apologised and went off. Quite a nice man."

"A nice man! He's a killer. Or at least a potential killer."

I told them the whole story and they saw I was upset. Simon made some coffee and gradually I calmed down.

"He hasn't actually done anything," said Simon. "I'm not sure the police would be interested."

"Ross will know what to do," I said. "Why hasn't he rung me?"

I knew why immediately I looked at my mobile; it wasn't switched on. Perhaps Peter had been trying to get me. I rang him and told him about the latest turn of events and the pursuit by the gorilla. "Perhaps he was trying to apologise for yesterday," said Peter.

"Why won't anyone take this seriously?" I moaned and rang off.

Then I rang Ross. "I've been trying to get in touch all morning," he said. "You really should have your mobile switched on."

"The gorilla's been chasing me," I babbled. "I had to hide in the library."

"Cedric," said Ross.

"See dick?" In my confusion I wondered whether Ross was at his usual trolling activity and had just spied a likely conquest.

"Cedric," he repeated, and then spelled out the word. "That's his name."

"You know him?"

"When you described him, I immediately thought of Hank Palmer's bouncer. Went to see him and found out that Hank had been instructing him to fuck up everything connected with the guys who'd helped put Hank in prison."

"You, me, Peter, Eddie, Brian and Doug?"

"Correct. They'd all been receiving similar phone calls from a guy with a high-pitched voice."

"You too?"

"No. I keep my identity hidden as far as possible." This from a guy who passed out his phone number to all and sundry in the blue collar arena. I didn't say anything, though.

"So I sent to see the bouncer, explained the position as to what he was doing to your (and others) peace of mind and he felt really sorry."

"The gorilla!"

"He's no gorilla," said Ross. "He's a pussy cat. Nice guy really, and self conscious about his voice and feet. You wait till you get to know him."

"I don't think that will happen. I'd prefer not to see him ever again."

"Oh dear," said Ross. "And I've invited him to be security guard at the wedding on Saturday."

I gasped. "But . . ." gasped again, then tried once again. "But . . ." The third time I made it. "But he was chasing me this morning, shouting and banging on the door."

"He just wanted to apologise. I told him he ought to – and he agreed."

I remembered Peter had said that and I'd thought he was just being foolish.

"Won't Hank the Wank be absolutely furious with him?"

"At the end of seven years, he'll probably have forgotten all about it. Anyway, if pushed, Cedric can take care of himself."

"I'm sure he can," I said.

* * * * * *

Surely nothing could go wrong now!

The world of course continued on its own erratic way. There were assassinations, suicide bombers, accidents on the M5, a beached whale on the River Orwell which had to be put down (this upset the tender-hearted Pamela) and on the Saturday a rail strike which resulted in enormous hold-ups on all Western region trains.

None of this could possible dampen Peter's and my day. We had arranged to meet the guests at Camden Lock, board the narrow boat, auspiciously named 'Fair Outlook', sail (or rather motor) up to the Museum and there disembark in all our finery for the ceremony. Mrs Craven had done us proud. She led the way in some sort of white dress printed with large red roses, a white floppy hat, and to top it all a parasol. She had a fixed smile on her face as she boarded.

I noticed that she'd taken a couple of pills before she actually stepped on deck. "She's not ill is she?" I asked Peter. "What is she taking?'

"Hyoscine hydrobromide."

"Sea sick pills? But . . ."

"Don't ask."

The rest of us were dressed more conventionally, the men in suits and the women in hats. What is it about weddings that brings out a spate of floppy hats on women? Peter and I had discussed whether to wear formal dress but I said it made me look and feel like a penguin.

To be honest I was so nervous that I nearly begged a tablet from Mrs Craven. Peter though looked absolutely beautiful with his bright blue eyes, black hair which shone in the sunshine and a bewitching smile that made me wonder why I was so lucky as to be his partner.

"I quite fancy Peter this morning," said Eddie.

"So do I," said Douglas.

"Incest," shrieked Brian.

"It's all right between cousins."

"It isn't in this case," I said firmly.

No accidents occurred on the journey. There were no tempests, the boat didn't founder on a hidden rock and Mrs Craven wasn't sick. Peter looked into my eyes when he made his vows and I could barely stop myself from kissing him before being given permission by the celebrant. We signed the form and were legally a pair.

Ross gave a scurrilous speech which was often only just this side of indecent but that's in the nature of these sorts of events and I noticed that even Mr and Mrs Patterson were laughing.

Cedric behaved impeccably and it was only later that we learned that he'd had to turn away a couple who were not on the guest list. "Claimed to be relatives of Mr Peter here, but they wasn't on the list so I didn't let them in."

They were of course Peter's mother and father who'd been held up by the rail strike. In a way I felt sorry that we hadn't let them in but when Cedric told us, "They was in a right state. Said they'd come to put a stop to the whole bloody (beg your pardon) 'charade', I think they called it," we realised that we'd been saved from a very uncomfortable scene.

"Perhaps they'll come round to accepting us in time," I said to Peter.

It was interesting to see Detective Sergeant Wallace and Cedric, both big men from opposite sides of the law getting on so well and convivially quaffing pints of bitter together.

Eddie and Brian saw themselves as bridesmaids and made a great thing of it, eventually going off with Douglas. Whether they spent the night together either separately or as a threesome, I don't know, though no doubt we shall hear lurid accounts of it if they did. What sluts our friends are!

We made our escape out of the back way, in case the Curtis parents were waiting out the front and went home via water in true Tudor style. We hadn't planned on a honeymoon anywhere in particular so we made do in the marital bed which had seen so many celebrations of our love.

It saw an extra special one that night and we made good use of it.

I shall draw a veil over the actual proceedings as what went on was private, personal and very, very enjoyable.

No doubt the future would bring its problems but I was optimistic that Peter and I would be able to cope with life's vicissitudes (or is that just another example of 'an haughty spirit'?)


© Michael Gouda 2007

Date started: Thursday, June 21, 2007
Date Finished: Sunday, July 29, 2007
Words: 7,824
Page number: #

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