Since I first became sexually active, fourteen years ago when only seventeen, the month rule has shaped and guided my love-life. I learned it from my first ever conquest, who found me walking my dog in the big London patch of suburban woodland around Ruislip Lido. My thoughts were concentrated, as they so often were at that time, on what was becoming an undeniable fact: that a powerful sexual urge drove me not to the opposite sex, but towards other men. My first ever lover was sitting on a fallen tree trunk beside the path, watching my approach with a friendly gaze, and when I was within a few yards asked if I agreed that it was good to get away from busy streets into a wood with large mature trees. With an amiable manner and an ease that even now, when I think back, surprises me, he progressed from pleasantries to having me sit beside him, putting an arm around me, and taking me back to his car, where I shared sexual pleasure with another human being for the first time, while my poor old dog called Wooffs - I know, I know, but I was only a kid when I called him that - had to wait nearby tied to a fence on a long lead.

My first lover worked in building construction, and about eight months later when the new supermarket he was engaged on was complete he had to move on to find work elsewhere. Despite his repeated warnings that his line of work meant he could never settle in one place and therefore I must not become too fond of him, I pined desperately after he went. He had assured me that, with my looks, someone else would soon come along, but that I should be wary of highly promiscuous gay men. He said that for him one simple rule had been his constant and sure guide to avoiding the emotional and physical problems that plague so many. This rule requires that, in any period of thirty days, you restrict yourself to one sexual partner. The rule has no precise logical or mathematical basis, for there is no clear reason why a month should be the period rather than say, three weeks, or a lunar month, or six weeks. At times its application can seem arbitrary. What do you do if you meet someone you are strongly attracted to, but the thirty day period since you last held someone in your arms is not yet up? You can hardly say: `Would you mind meeting again in a day or two, I can't go with you today because of my month rule.'

Such situations can make the rule, though simple enough to state, sometimes difficult to apply. Fortunately, if you want to, you can devise ways around some of the drawbacks. For instance, if you have gone without for a complete month, you could allow yourself to carry forward one entitlement to a sexual encounter, permitting yourself two in the following thirty day period. Similarly, whilst strict observance might appear to forbid threesomes altogether, you could decide that, if you had one regular partner for a period of two months, you and he would be entitled to participate once in a threesome. Not that I am saying I frequently indulge myself, I do not, but you get the idea. However if you make this type of exception you must avoid allowing so much leeway that you end up in the situation you are trying to avoid: that your sex life makes you feel as though you are serving in a fast food store, - you become trapped into having sex once with so many strangers that you never get to know or care for any of them.

Though libertines might scoff, the month rule is not as restrictive as all that. One partner a month is twelve a year, or over a ten year period -- well, you don't need Maths GCSE to work it out. Whilst the very promiscuous may boast ten times that number, or even more, how many of these so numerous gratifications can they actually remember? Of a thousand of their casual shags, how many would they recognise a year or two later if they passed them in the street? Besides, if you wish to make sheer numbers your yardstick, the month rule has not really been the limiting factor in my case. Averaging out my love-making, from one night stands to relationships which have lasted for some months, I reckon to have had less than four partners a year. Ideally would like that number to be fewer, with a higher preponderance of strong relationships, not larger with very many more opportunistic shaftings. Of course not everyone has to do the same, but if you are anything like me in wanting a boyfriend, the month rule will not rob you of the pleasure and fulfilment of having an active and varied sex life.

Given my outlook, a week's holiday in the West Country with my long-standing friend Jason, who is highly promiscuous, may seem a rather uncertain venture. He had some years ago been my permitted quota of sexual experience for a month, but he was unable to resist lusting after any passing male in close fitting jeans, and whenever possible trying his luck. We became good friends, and though he had to take second place during periods when a lover had first claim on me, when I was between affairs I would fall back on him for company, though these days never between the sheets. Hiding his satisfaction at hearing about my latest break-up, he would try to entice me into visiting this club or that cruising ground in the hope of tempting me to breach my month rule.

His consistency in our friendship is important to me. When I am low after a losing yet another boyfriend he cheers me up, amuses me with tales of his escapades, teases me about my month rule, and gently persuades me that my world is not about to come to an end. Our friendship has, after all, lasted longer than any of my sexual relationships. Perhaps our different sex lives makes comparing our experiences more interesting; certainly the contrast gives us plenty to argue about, sometimes heatedly.

Our West Country holiday together took in Devon and Cornwall. To avoid the tedium of a long motorway drive we took the train to Exeter and hired a car there. His main interest was in visiting the gay beaches, and over a few days we took in Berrow beach on the North Coast and Petitter beach near Torquay. He mocked my abstemiousness. Not wanting to use up my month's entitlement unless someone really special came along, I mostly sat minding his clothes while he went off searching for fun.

He would come back eager to tell me of his conquests in great detail, and was particularly pleased to have joined an orgy he came across concealed in some steep sided sand dunes. Later, heading into Cornwall, he wanted to got to a beach near Truro. We looked at the map, and seeing the town of St Austell he said, in an irritating attempt at a West Country accent: `Ooh aargh, we must stay there, St 'ostel, the patron saint o' cheap lodgings.'

`Okay, but please don't crack that joke or talk like that while we're there.'

`No, course not, oi bain't stupid, ee know.'

We found a pub with a few rooms in the middle of town, the Queens Head, and booked in for the night. When we sat down for our evening meal, on a table in the window we found place mats that had been specially printed with a little legend about the inn. Instead of showing pictures of little fishing harbours such as is common in these hotels, our mats gave the following information:

The Queens Head, dating back to the seventeenth century, was at its height a substantial establishment with thirty bedrooms and a large function room (still available). In the cellar can be seen the entrance to a tunnel, said to have run beneath the town and as far as the coast, and to have been used by smugglers.

The pub is believed to be haunted by Betsy, a chamber maid in the early nineteenth century, who became pregnant by the landlord and hanged herself on the premises. Her friendly ghost is said to appear sometimes to travellers at night, offering them the comfort of her charms.

`A bit of Cornish folklore thrown in with the cost of the meal,' I commented.

`Secret tunnels and ghosts, a lot of bamboozle. Betsy will get short shrift if she comes anywhere near me, ee can bet oor loif on thart.'

`After her experience with the landlord, she may now have turned to the charms of other women.'

`A lesbian ghost? At least that would be a fresh angle on the old old story of the haunted inn."

Jason and I shared a twin bedded room, and in the middle of the night his loud snoring woke me. Opening my eyes I saw that the scene was lit by moonlight, a bright shaft of it coming through the gap where the curtains did not fully meet. The illumination made a bright patch on the floor near the door. As I peered at this it seemed to take on a more distinct shape, and focussing hard in the gloom I found myself looking at a young man in old-fashioned calf length breeches, his shape becoming more concrete as I watched. Though an icy terror gripped me I could not help noticing how good looking he was. He put a finger to his lips and beckoned me towards him. An intense compulsion to go to him wrestled with my horror. Finally, desire and curiosity won. When I stood beside him he seemed as real as Jason, who lay still snoring in bed.

He opened the door and took my arm, drawing me after him, his touch as firm and warm as if I were to reach out an touch you now. Outside in the corridor he said: `Why don't you and I take advantage of one of those empty rooms to enjoy a little time together?'

He was nice looking, but I was not sure that using up my month's opportunity on what could only be a one night stand was sensible. Seeing me hesitate, he dropped his eyes to look towards my lower parts and said: `Don't you worry now, being a cellarman -- bartender and cellarman by trade -- I know how to look after what's down there.' This light-hearted invitation, and the lure of physical pleasure, were difficult to resist, so I nodded and followed him into one of the inn's other rooms, where we made love tenderly and hungrily for about an hour. When we were sated he got up and said: `Sorry, but I can't stay longer with you, much as I'd like to. Got to go. House rules, I suppose you might say.' He stepped out into the corridor before I could answer, and when I went after him he had vanished. Afraid and full of uncertainty I silently tried the other doors along the corridor. They were locked, and I crept down the staircase to find the bar and restaurant empty and in darkness. I returned cold, mystified and bemused to my own bed. Jason was still asleep, although mercifully he had stopped snoring.

When we had breakfast the next morning he asked `Sleep all roight?' .

`Yes, fine.' I did not want to tell him about the cellarman, in fact I could hardly believe the experience had been real myself. `How about you?'

`Afraid oi just couldn't drop orf, somehow. Often can't get orf to sleep when oi'm away from 'ome.' He clearly believed he had spent a sleepless night, and it did not seem worth arguing with him.

Before we left the Queens Head I asked the landlord if there had been any other people staying that night, but he assured me there was no-one except him and his wife. `What makes you ask?' he said.

`Oh nothing really, just I thought I might have heard someone.'

`Wasn't our resident ghost Betsy, was it? She didn't pay you a visit? Might have to charge you extra if she offered you her services.'

I smiled. `Given her age, presumably that would be a nominal sum.'

We settled the bill. Jason was keen to buy a picnic and set off for the beach nearby, where he had been told the "action" was plentiful. I was perfectly happy to sit and mind his clothes while he went off to explore a promising looking area hidden by a line of large boulders and half submerged rocks. I fell asleep, to be awakened by something cold and wet touching my ear. `Come here Betsy, that's enough of that,' a deep male voice shouted. As I came round I heard a dog panting, and saw it running towards its owner. I looked up, and if my eyes were to be believed, a short distance away was the cellarman from the previous night. I smiled in recognition.

He called over: `Hello there, haven't seen you round here before.'

`No, first time. Really good last night up at the Queens Head.'

`Queens Head St Austell, that where you're staying? Now that is a coincidence. Haven't been in myself for years, but one of my forbears, generations ago, used to work there. My great grandparents used to say I was the spitting image of him. Came to an unfortunate end, fell down some steps on the way to the cellar and bashed his head in.'

`How awful, I am sorry...'

`We are talking about a very long time ago, ages before I was born, don't know why I mentioned it really. Hope I haven't put you off! Be all right if I sit down beside you for a bit?'

`Yes, please do,' He sent Betsy off to chase some sea-gulls.

`Not on your own, though, are you,' he said looking at Jason's clothes.

`No, he's a friend, gone over behind those rocks over there to see what he can find.'

`Want's to watch where he puts his feet. They're covered a barnacles, sharp as a bacon slicer; there's many a one comes back from there in need of first aid.'

Of course it was not long before, to test my reaction, he put a hand on my arm. I brushed my hand against his thigh. `That your car over there under the trees? What d'you think? Should we enjoy a little time together in it? If your friend wouldn't mind.'

`I don't see why he should, but...' Attractive though he was, my mind was struggling to make sense of what had happened the previous night, and to work out the implications for the month rule. If the experience in the inn had been entirely in my imagination, then going with this stranger now was allowed. On the other hand if I really had made love to his ancestor's ghost, could it be disregarded on the grounds that the rule applied only to the living? And what if, unlikely though it was, this man who had appeared on the beach had a double living in St Austell who had somehow sneaked into the Queens Head after hours that night?

Seeing me hesitate, he dropped his eyes to look at my swimming trunks and said: `Don't you worry now, being a diver, scuba diving instructor in the season, I know how to look after what's down there.' He was too persuasive to resist, so I nodded approvingly and led him to the car where we made love tenderly and hungrily for about an hour. When we were sated my mind began struggling again with the implications of all this for the month rule. The harshest interpretation would mean that I had used up both this month's allocation, and also the month that followed. Would I really have to abstain for so long?

`What's wrong?' he asked. `Aren't you happy with what we've just done?'

`Oh yes, it's not that, you were terrific, really good. I mean it.'

`Good, `cos I was wondering how you would feel about meeting me for a drink next time I come to London. I've got relatives in Balham. Due to visit them in a couple of weeks.'

`I'd love to,' I said, delighted at the prospect of seeing him again and at his having, unknowingly, resolved my dilemma over the month rule. We exchanged telephone numbers. `I'll definitely ring you in a couple of weeks.'

`And I'll ring you if you haven't rung me first. You can count on it. Sorry, but I can't stay longer with you, much as I'd like to. Got to be back for my evening meal. House rules, I suppose you might say.'

Again I decided to say nothing to Jason. He was sure to press me for more details than I would feel comfortable giving, and would go on to subject me to a lecture about the necessity, as he saw it, of taking advantage of every opportunity and living life to the full, redoubling his exhortations to adopt the promiscuous style of behaviour of which he was so proud. Besides, other events might get in the way of my meeting the diver in London, and telling Jason would give him endless scope to chip away at my hopes and dreams of a lasting relationship. Any mention of the month rule and he would dismiss it, as he always did, as absolute madness.

When he returned from the rocks he was limping slightly. `Hurt your foot?'

`Those damn rocks are as sharp as harpoons. They should put up a warning sign.'

`Oh dear, let's have a look. Any luck over there?'

`A couple of guys hard at it. Full sex. Weren't interested in me though.'

`Pity. Your foots not too bad. I'll go back to the car and get a plaster.' When I stood up, as well as the trail of disturbed sand leading to the car park, I could see my diver's footprints and those of his dog, leading up to where I had been snoozing, and stretching back again in the direction from which he had come. Fortunately Jason, intently examining his injured foot, had not noticed them.

`Well, at least I've tried,' he said when I returned with the plasters, `not like you, lying there letting life pass you by. You only get so long on this earth, that's what I always say. This beach is not so much a cruising ground as a snoozing ground, as far as you're concerned. When you get old and it's too late you'll never forgive yourself for missing out. Ooh aargh.'

copyright Alan Keslian 2001