Billy has an announcement to make. Colin tells an impressed Whitehead about the discovery of Colin's diary - but his moment of praise is short lived.
“What on earth are you doing home on a Friday evening?”
On arriving home at six-thirty, I pass by one of the arches leading into the den and stop when I notice Billy propped up on cushions in his usual spot on the u-shaped sofa. Mr Waldorf sits at the other end from him, a feline back leg in the air licking his nether regions. Billy’s knees are pulled up and he has flopped a copy of a glossy gossip magazine over them while a television cooking programme plays quietly in the background. Discarded next to him is the house phone. He glances up briefly as I stop to speak.
“Having a quiet one tonight,” he says quietly, his head back in the magazine. Something about his tone warns me not to be too jovial with him tonight, one of his so-called gay male PMS days
“Heavens. You’re not turning into me, are you?“ I say, feeling a tinge of disappointment. I would normally welcome Billy’s company of an evening but now all I can think about is finding an excuse to text Whitehead, in case he is considering a non-sleepover.
“If Marcus calls later I might go clubbing.”
Although I have never met Marcus, more than anything else I hope he will call Billy tonight.
“I bought food. Smoked salmon, pesto, fresh pasta. Do you want a plate?” I hold up my plastic bag of supermarket goodies. On hearing the rustle, Mr Waldorf sits up, jumps off the sofa and perches himself between my legs. “One should never go clubbing on an empty stomach.”
“Ta muchly,” murmurs Billy, before raising his nose from his magazine and straightening his back up. “I forgot to ask. Did PC Shitehead give you a hard time the other night?”
“No,” I reply, looking away. “Usual nonsense. But at least I got a free ride out of him.”
More than one, as luck would have it.
“Look, don’t freak out, but I think he lives around here somewhere. Either that or he has a shag close by. I noticed his BMW parked on Benson Road in the early hours of Friday morning when I staggered home. Definitely his. I remember the numberplate.”
“Is that so?” I say flatly, lowering the shopping and trying to sound nonchalant. “Good for him.”
“Yeah, but bad news for some poor bitch. Imagine having to suffer that Neanderthal panting away on top of you?”
I had thought of little else all day.
“Let me go start dinner.”
“Before you go,” he says, returning his gaze to the mag. “I picked up the laundry. Sorry it’s taken so long. Completely forgot. Put yours on your bed. You owe me fifteen quid. For your rather snazzy but now puke-free cashmere coat.”
Oddly enough his words stop me. I had barely thought about Denny since Ben drove past his house in the morning, but am now transported back to the night exactly two weeks ago when he vomited on my coat. And the fact that he was murdered hours later. I mutter my thanks, before turning around and following Mr Waldorf’s lead to the kitchen.
“And you didn’t thank me,” he calls out, “for digging out that lipstick from the coat pocket. Hot pink? Definitely not your colour, darling. Trust me, those things don’t dry clean well. I left it next to your computer.”
While Mr Waldorf dances a circle around his empty bowl, I turn on my heel and head back to the den.
“The flash drive? I thought that was yours.”
“Nope, love. Although, I’ve got one almost identical. Along with my severed finger, Bart Simpson and rainbow flag thumb drive collection. From Camden Market. But my lipstick’s sexy scarlet. Found that one in your overcoat pocket when I was at the dry cleaners. Not more jolly japes from the little darlings?”
Billy knows about certain boys taking delight in playing jokes on me. One of the downsides of being an openly gay teacher. I once arrived home to find a G I Joe doll stuffed in my briefcase, dressed in a pink latex Barbie workout leotard. Another time they filled my essay file with gold and silver glitter that spilled out all over the floorboards of my study and took forever to vacuum away. All harmless and more puerile than threatening, I laughed them off rather than report them to Dorothy. If that is the case, no doubt this prank will contain something equally juvenile.
“Maybe. More likely someone’s homework I forgot to mark.”
“Look, Colin,” says Billy, becoming serious. “While we’re both here. It’s probably not a good time to mention this, but there doesn’t seem to be one these days. My friend Marcus is renting a two-bed apartment in Vauxhall. He needs a flatmate to help with the rent. And he’s giving me first refusal.”
Nausea creeps into my guts. More castle walls begin to crumble around me. The world that I have taken great pains to build, first with Uncle Dom, and then with Vaughan and Billy as my proxy family, is falling apart around me. Why can I never seem to hold anything together? Perhaps the stars are aligning and Buenos Aires is truly beckoning.
“And?” I ask, looking down to see my cat’s head poking up from between my feet and staring up at me in judgement. Et tu, Mr Waldorf?
“We haven’t really talked detail yet. But it’d be a lot closer to work. And to the bars and clubs.”
“Okay, well let me know. I’m happy with whatever you decide.”
No point in trying to negotiate with him. One thing about Billy is his independence and once he makes up his mind, there is no persuading him. To take my mind off thinking about the big old house without Billy, I head upstairs and begin carefully packing a case for the weekend. An hour later back in the kitchen, while tossing pasta and butter in the colander, the house phone rings. Billy promptly takes the call and I wonder if it could be his friend. But a moment later he appears in the kitchen, holding out the phone to me. Something is not right with him, his mood is rarely this lacklustre.
“Who is it?”
“Are you okay?”
“Yes,” he replies, his previously impassive gaze now glaring at me. He realises then, softens and shakes his head.
“Not having problems with Mr Big, are you?” I venture.
Turning his head away he sighs, shrugs and places the telephone on the counter top.
“Has he been stalking you, by any chance?”
“I wish,” he replies, a gentle smirk twisting his lips. “Big’s still in Glasgow visiting his folks. Been there since before Christmas.”
I nod and am about to mention Bob Grant’s observation about the possible motorist stalker, but he is already through the door. I wipe my hands on the tea towel and pick up the phone.
No response. Sounds like a long distance line, and I wonder if it might be Vaughan again. If so, I will give him a piece of my mind for forcing legal help on me where none was requested nor needed.
Through the constant fizzle and crackle on the line, I hear the intermittent sound of an older female voice.
“…calling to let you…trying…last minute…hello?….hello!”
The line goes dead. The voice sounds distantly familiar. Surely not my mother? Perhaps Janine has told her about my troubles. But my mother would rather hammer out an email than spend money using the telephone system. As far as I know, she has no landline in her home in Cyprus. Whatever, I can always call Janine tomorrow and check.
Back in the den, Billy and I enjoy a dinner together in front of the television watching the nine o’clock action movie. While he half listens, I tell him about my planned trip to Dorset and he agrees to take care of Mr Waldorf as long as he can use my desktop computer. He is still subdued, and I wonder vaguely if should have questioned his motives more or even objected to his announcement to move on. After sharing the meal without speaking further, Billy promptly takes himself off to his bedroom, locks the door, and after a few moment I hear the electronic bass thud of dance music.
Sucking in a couple of deep breaths, I decide to take the initiative and phone Ben about the diary. I have been itching to hear his voice since the morning. I take Billy’s empty plate—always a good sign, Billy not being the most prolific of eaters—and head for the kitchen. Inside, with the door closed, I use my special cell phone to call him.
“Whitehead,” comes the deep, professional tone of Dragon Man. From the rumbling sounds of traffic, I assume he is answering from inside his BMW.
“Isn’t it illegal to take calls while you’re driving?”
“Well, well. If it isn’t my favourite murder suspect,” he says, his tone brightening with humour and sending a tingle all the way down to my groin. “What can I do for you, sunshine?”
My mind reels with a list of coital activities I would love to try out with him. Reflexively, I almost give a suggestive smart-mouth response. Fortunately my common sense reminds me that he has already had his one and only sleepover.
“Struck lucky with a friend of Tony. Managed to get hold of his diary with a list of numbers.”
“Good work, Miss Marple,” he says. “Give me fifteen minutes.”
“I assume you want me to take a look. Be there in fifteen.”
Even though I knew I would see him again at some time—most of the day I have yearned to hear his voice—the thought of him coming over now sends my emotions into a tailspin. For the next fifteen minutes, I keep reminding myself that Ben Whitehead was a one night only performance. He said as much that morning. We lead very different lives. Should our individual credentials be plugged into a gay dating system, we would undoubtedly come up as a mismatch. And yet when the doorbell rings, I can feel the pulse in my neck throbbing.
“Are we alone?” he asks, grinning at me briefly as he steps confidently across the threshold. My mind runs a replay of last night and I have to shake myself into action as he strides ahead of me. Without waiting for an invite he heads towards the kitchen.
“Billy’s upstairs. In his room.”
“Ah, okay,” he says glancing at the ceiling, picking up on the bass beat vibrating through the floorboards. Do I hear a trace of disappointment in his voice? Or is that just wishful thinking?
On the way, I pick up Tony’s diary from the den. When I reach the kitchen, he has already perched his bulk on the same stool he took that very morning, his back to me. Sliding the kitchen door closed, I take a moment to appraise him. Still in the hugging black jeans and black jacket he had worn that morning, he exudes sex and it is all I can do as I pass not to press my body up against his back and throw my arms around his waist. As I have already made a pot of tea I offer him some. He opts for a glass of water instead. In the time it takes me to fill a tumbler from the faucet and turn, he has removed his jacket, and leans his large arms on the counter top. I also spot him flinch his gaze away from my thighs. In fairness though, I have trouble not staring at the tattoo poking out from beneath the left sleeve of his tight white tee that I am sure I can trace through the thin translucent fabric. Involuntarily, I feel my face flush and my hand tremble slightly when I place the glass down in front of him.
“See anything you fancy?” he asks, grinning at the glass.
“In London. Weren’t you shopping for books?”
“I was. And no, nothing interesting,” I say, and for some reason feel the need to justify myself. “Bit of a wasted journey actually. Until I got the call from Tony’s friend. Managed to meet up with him. Just so happened he was in town too.”
“What a stroke of luck.”
I glance over to see if he is annoyed but his gaze remains good humoured. Ironic to think that we were naked and rolling around together last night. Now we sit opposite each other, conversing like colleagues. I decide to be civilised and hold out an olive branch.
“Ben, I made dinner earlier. Plenty left. More than happy to share with you, if you’re hungry.”
“Can’t,” he says, and appears a little uncomfortable. “Somewhere I need to be.”
“Hot date?” I ask with a chuckle, and then feel heat climbing my neck again when he does not respond.
“Tell me about the diary,” he says, after a short pause.
“So I had a look through,” I say, pushing the book across to him. I decide not to disclose that I have taken a copy of the main pages, in case something comes to me. Nor the fact that I spent the day checking on Tony’s place of casual work. “It’s a bit of a mess. Some of the writing is illegible. And a lot of entries have been scratched out. But there are telephone numbers with names in the same code he used on his mobile. I recognised Denny’s home number and the reference is DTa.”
I watch him flick through the pages, his dark brow crinkling, noticing the way he screws those beautiful lips to one side and bites the inside of his mouth when concentrating.
“Who’s the contact? That gave you this?”
“He wouldn’t give me his name,” I say, which is partly true. I only know him as Roland and that is most likely an adopted name. Ben eyes me then, levelly, the way he does without giving anything away. “I think he’s running scared, Ben. Didn’t want to get involved. Can’t you say you found it in Tony’s room?”
“If this proves significant, Colin, I’m going to need a name and a phone number?”
“Agreed,” I say, nodding. Ben goes back to studying the diary.
“Do you recognise any of the other numbers,” he asks, without looking up.
“No. And I’m not in there. In case you were going to ask.”
“I should hope not,” he says, with a soft chuckle.
“Is it useful?”
“Are you kidding?” he says, finally meeting my gaze. “This is brilliant work, Colin. Telephone numbers can be checked through our national database. Even though he doesn’t have contact names, I’m sure we can find them. If not, we’ll simply call the numbers. Great work, sunshine.”
“For you, anything,” I reply, grinning broadly. I scour his chiseled face then as he flicks through the pages again, feeling unashamedly happy to bathe in his approval. In spite of his rule setting, the past few days have been unexpected and to have done something to impress him feels ineffable. I notice his eyes meet mine and then drop to my mouth.
“Oh God,” he says, breathing out a tired sigh as his smile drains away. While shaking his head slowly, he places the diary carefully down on the surface and smooths a hand over the cover. “I knew this would happen.”
“Whatever it is you want from me Colin, I can’t give it to you.”
“I don’t remember asking for anything,” I say, a hollowness filling my chest.
“We’re different people you and I.”
“You’re a copper. I’m a teacher.”
“You know what I mean”
“You’re happy with all this,” he says, his eyes critically assessing the kitchen. “Pink wine glasses, flowery tea pots, rainbow flag mugs.”
“They’re just things, Ben.”
“What about long term relationships? Monogamy? Probably even a big gay wedding one day?”
“Now you’ve lost me,” I say, calmly, although I cannot help but notice the lines of disgust around his mouth when he rattles off the list.
“What I’m saying is that I’m not like you and your friends. You might be comfortable wallowing in this whole gay lifestyle thing, but it’s not for me. Even your tutu-wearing Asian lodger can see that. Gay bars, pride marches, commitment ceremonies. To be honest I’m sick of hearing about them. Never going to be my thing.”
“I see,” I say, and I do, even though the realisation leaves me unearthed. Ben Whitehead is your ultimate Cro-Magnon stray. Buried in secrets and lies. Probably out to neither his folks nor any of his work colleagues. And even though he intimated otherwise, I still wonder if he is bisexual. With a little woman as the smokescreen and men on the side. He obviously sees my expression because he quickly follows up.
“Some of us prefer discretion. Without the need to flaunt what we are.”
I want to say something about double standards, or the misery and self-hatred of lifelong closet cases, but apart from not wanting to waste my breath, his expression stays me. Instead, I go to the fridge and yank out the fittingly half empty bottle of white wine. After slamming the fridge door closed, I grab a tumbler from the draining board and splosh in a generous measure, ignoring his critical stare.
“So how does that work for you?” I enquire eventually, after letting out breath of exasperation. While he responds, I return the bottle to the fridge, my back still to him.
“There are people in my life who feel the same way. Online and offline friends with benefits, so to speak. A mutually convenient physical arrangement enjoyed with anonymity—without the need to make a fuss. We’re there for each other when a shared need arises.”
After swallowing a good mouthful, I swing back to confront him, my arms folded, the glass cradled in the crook of my arm.
Billy’s terminology, not mine. Even though I hate the sound of the expletive on my tongue, I feel some degree of satisfaction when his face darkens.
“Pick and mix? Or exclusively male?”
“Exclusively male,” he says, throwing himself back in the bar stool and raising his eyes to the heavens.
“So what? You visit each others places, fornicate in silence, clean up, shake hands and then leave? Like a—what?—hit and run?” I say, and then something comes to me. “That’s your hot date tonight, isn’t it? A hook-up.”
“I like to think of it as the benefits of sex without the drama. Or guilt,” he says, glaring unflinchingly but choosing to ignore my comment, and essentially confirming my suspicions.
“Or commitment,” I say, moving back to the kitchen island.
“Or commitment,” he repeats nodding.
His jawline remains firm but his expression has bruised noticeably and his eyes narrow dangerously on me. Best not to prod him any further. Experience of his foul temper this past week is enough, thank you very much. And this goes some way to explaining his ignorance of and prudery at elements of gay culture, anything more hardcore than a roll in the gay hay. During the frosty silence, I sip my wine and try to ignore the level gaze glowering back at me. What the hell, anyway. I have a grown up friend, Kit Hansen, who might even be interested. Do I really need a convoluted relationship with this emotional lightweight?
“To each his own closet,” I mutter eventually, with a casual shrug, placing the cool tumbler against my hot cheek. “Fuck buddies have never been my thing. Forgive me if I don’t subscribe.”
“Don’t fucking judge me, McCann,” he explodes, his sudden flash of temper catching me off guard and tipping my own barely suppressed temper over the line.
“If anyone’s doing any judging here, it’s not me,” I hit back, slamming my glass down onto the table and desperately trying to keep my voice from shaking. “Tutu-wearing Asian? Billy’s absolutely right. Some men can be queer and still be homophobes.”
“I am not fucking homophobic.”
“Don’t swear, Ben. It’s cheap and it doesn’t become you,” I counter, deciding to adopt the same quietly castigating tone I use on the boys at school when they step out of line. “Nor does it make you any less gay.”
With that remark he stands angrily, scraping his stool away from the counter. Leaning threateningly across towards me, he thrusts his enraged face towards mine.
Despite the volume and intensity of his anger, I meet his gaze full on. Upstairs, I hear the music in Billy’s room quieten and, conscious that he might have tuned into our heated discourse, lower my voice.
“You already did. Remember?”
“You see. This is exactly what I mean,” he says, lowering his voice as well. An accusation, he holds one hand palm up towards me, his head shaking in disbelief. “One night and you think you own me. We fucked, Colin. That’s all it was. Consensual sex between two adult males. Great sex actually. But that’s all it was. Not a proposal of marriage. And if I’m going to be completely honest, I thought that maybe we could—”
“Wha-at?” I laugh cruelly at him then, still quiet, and push away from the table. “Add me to your list of favourites? Click and add a fuck buddy? Sorry Ben. Never going to be my thing.”
Realising I have just handed his own words back to him, Whitehead steps back from the stool and stands for a moment, staring at me as though I am an alien.
“You’re a self righteous prick, McCann.”
“And you’re a coward.”
After a moment of silence, both of us glowering at each other, Whitehead snatches up the diary and stomps off towards the front door. On my part, I remain glaring at the tumbler of wine until the inevitable door slam makes me flinch.
Not in all the time I spent with Vaughan have I felt as miserable as I do right then.
Nice going, McCann.
When half an hour later, a text message from Kit pings on my phone trying to entice me to join the teachers for a night out, I am almost tempted to accept. But knowing my foul mood will follow me around like a stray dog, I decline his offer.
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