Alex paid his taxi fare and remained on the pavement for a moment or two, taking in the air. He turned smartly on his heel and walked up a backstreet. The girls were carefully watching in Michelle’s rear view mirror. The street that Alex was walking up was wide and bordered by a large glossy deli on one side, and a gently greened park on the other. Once they felt he was at a safe distance, they crept out of Michelle’s car and began to follow him, Catherine pulling her hat low across her sunglasses and Michelle squinting in the sun. Alex took a right turn a hundred yard up the road, some large bollards set into the pavement just after a gently inclined bridge. He scuttled up the road an sneaked quickly into a shiny looking bar.
Catherine was about to follow him up the road, but paused when she realised Michelle wasn’t with her.
“Hey, Shell, what’s up?” Michelle stood stock still, pointing at the name of the road on a sign that seemed to have been perennially altered to resemble something more humorous.
“Catherine, look at this,” Catherine drew level with Michelle, “Canal St.” she continued “Canal St., I hadn’t been looking where we are cos we were following Alex, but Catherine, we’re in the gay village, and Alex has just taxi’d across town to a gay bar.”
It was with these words that Alex’s secret was spoken to the world. Catherine expected a carnival to suddenly come around the corner, or for a group of men in fishnet t-shirts to spring suddenly from the nearest bar, all drinking pink Martini’s and talking about their boyfriends. Catherine considered herself a woman of the world, as most people who actually aren’t do, but “gay stuff”, as she would have put it, was not something she had ever been involved with to any extent. She knew, and had known, gay people of course, but she had mentally separated any knowledge that she held of their lives into a different world, not one that she would ever have any bearing on.
She gave an involuntary shudder and drew herself closer to Michelle, as if proximity alone would protect her from something she didn’t even realise that she wanted protecting from.
“What the fucking hell are you doing, you soft tart?” came Michelle’s response to having her elbow suddenly held.
“Well, you know…” she waved a finger up the street apparently pointing out all the licentious things that might be happening, even at this very moment.
“Are you kidding me? Bloody Hell Cat!” she shook her head despairingly, dislodging a few wayward curls as she did. “Are you seriously telling me that you’ve never been somewhere like this? Are you seriously telling me that you’ve never even been here?” a few cogs and simple truths linked up in Michelle’s mind, icebergs beneath the surface. Of course she wouldn’t have, Martin would never have let her… And why not? Curiouser and curiouser.
“Well, no, Michelle. I mean… well…. I’m not gay, am I, its not for me.” Michelle watched her as she spoke, they were words that were an admission of something, guilt maybe? Or shame? She wasn’t sure.
“Right. Ok then Cat, it’s time you knew all about all of this, its time to gay you up.” With one movement, she pushed Catherine’s sunglasses back onto her nose, pulled her hat low once again and marched her towards the bar that Alex had so recently scuttled into.
“But don’t we need to, you know, hold hands or something?” Catherine was not so much a fish out of water as a sheep in a volcano – she looked terrified, slightly alone and seemed sure that she was about to die.
Michelle rolled her eyes and marched onwards, leading Catherine by the elbow. They crossed the threshold to the bar, and Michelle was sure she heard Catherine gasp at how much like a ‘normal’ bar it was.
“Gin ‘n’ tonic and a vodka and diet coke please.” She said to the barman, who had been idly playing a game on his phone. A quick, decisive order was best to maintain their inconspicuousness. She might suddenly feel the need to educate Catherine about the gay world as much as she could, but their prime objective was following Alex. The bar was on several levels within, pillars and wooden staircases creating nooks and crannies within which one could see and be seen. The bar was a semi-island and behind it, through some optic distorted glass, she could see Alex sitting down with a modest tumbler of drink in front of him. She noted, carefully, that he showed not the slightest hint of unease, he sipped at his drink, flicked at his phone for a second and looked around himself with a sense of interest rather than nervousness.
Michelle picked up the drinks, nodded Alex’s position to Catherine and manoeuvred the pair of them to a table somewhat behind Alex where Catherine could sit with her back to him and Michelle could keep a beady eye upon.
After 30 seconds, her initial objective quite forgotten, a question spewed from between Catherine’s lips. “But what if someone tries to pick me up?” a single torrent of ejected syllables.
“Then they’ll have an easy job, won’t they? You only weight about 2 stone?” a sour face greeted this reply and Michelle continued. “Look Cat, two things, all the times you’ve ever had unwelcome attention from a bloke, ultimately he’s fucked off when you’ve shown him your wedding ring? Am I right?” a nod that felt like an admission of guilt escaped from Catherine “Well firstly, its like that, if someone does try to get off with you, then tell them no, and that’ll be that. Secondly, it is obvious to anyone with even the most unreliable gaydar that you are not even slightly lesbian.” Michelle’s head tilted on one side, and Catherine ruffled, as if this was some kind of slight on her womanhood, but she quickly recovered and conceded the point.
“What’s he doing now?” she asked in a diversionary way.
“Nothing much, playing with his phone, looking around, he’s just nodded at someone.” Catherine glanced forwards from herself and noticed a mirror that was so placed as to be able to grant her a view of Alex’s profile. She found herself slightly shocked when she saw him smile. A genuine, wide warm smile of greeting, as someone walked past him that he knew. She realised that in all the years she had known him, she had never really seen him smile that much, he was always looking worried or concerned or stressed, but never actually happy.
“So what kind of guy is he Cat?” asked Michelle, swirling her rapidly diminishing drink, apparently reading Catherine’s mind through the frown lines that had formed on her brow.
“Well… he’s in charge of all the money in the company, and he always just seems worried or stressed, I suppose that because of that I don’t really have a very good image of what he’s actually like.” She felt a sprinkle of sadness brim inside.
“Hmm…” said Michelle, trying to read truth from the back of Alex’s head once more.
“Do you think he’s got a boyfriend then?” Catherine almost tittered as she used the word. She knew that people were gay, and she sort of understood that, but to relate that alien concept to a friend of hers, that was a big truth to swallow. In one respect, it was like she had suddenly found out that he was Mexican; she needed time to re-align her ideas before properly accepting that it didn’t make any difference really.
“Erm…” Michelle paused for a moment to think about the question. “I don’t know, but going out on a limb, I’d say no.”
“But surely that’d be what he wants wouldn’t it?” Catherine was confused once again.
“Well, not necessarily.” She tucked a wayward curl behind her ear again and tried hard to suppress her desire to appear to be knowledgeable of the whole world. “Would you describe him as dependable?” Catherine nodded “Loyal? Solid? Trustworthy?” Catherine nodded at all these things.
“Well, yes, Martin trusts him with so much. I think.” She didn’t fully realise it, but holes were opening in her knowledge of her own life.
“Well, that doesn’t sound like the kind of man who’s going to have an affair does it?” Catherine looked blank “Well, its one thing to have an affair, that’s a certain mindset, right? You have to be a certain kind of person, you have to not care about certain things, or at least be able to forget them.” She had a small voiceless idea in the barrel of her hindbrain and wondered if she was currently skating around the lip of a volcano. “But its quite another to have a need of some kind, however deep its buried, and indulge that need. Then it’s a different kind of cheating isn’t it? You could convince yourself that you were just being true to your own nature, but if you were having an affair, that would be a different kind of betrayal.” Catherine was trying to keep up with the kaleidoscopic whirl of ideas tumbling at her.
“Infidelity is infidelity, Shell.” She took a sip of her own drink, desperate to try and hold onto something that she saw as certain.
Michelle was about to launch into her own opinion of how that just wasn’t true, about how infidelity came, not just in shades of grey, but a full spectrum of upset, but the extra wetness ladening Catherine’s eye made her think twice, this was not the time for that conversation.
“Well yeah, ok, but anyway, what I’m saying is, is that from what you’ve told me, I reckon Alex is going to be the kind of person that is more about encounters and one night stands rather than having a secret bloke on the go.” She looked over Catherine’s shoulder and noted that Alex had now moved from his seat and gone back to the bar. She shifted her chair too keep him in her eyeline.
“Well, I suppose that makes sense,” the idea seemed to settle like snowflakes around Catherine. “Aren’t gays a lot more, you know…” she lowered her voice as if about to utter a salacious blasphemy “… promiscuous?” she took another sip of her drink to try and hide her embarrassment.
Michelle supposed that it was a small mercy that she had actually phrased this as a question rather than stating it as fact. “Well, look, I’m no expert, ok? But I don’t think so, I think that’s a bit of a myth.”
“But its not the same as for us, is it?” Michelle quailed inwardly at the use of the word ‘us’. “There’s no worry about pregnancy or whatever is there?”
“And nor should there be any for straight person with access to Boots. Look, it boils down to this, ultimately if you wanted to get a shag tonight you could get one. You might have to lower your standards or whatever, but if a quick bunk up was what you wanted then you could have it, I think that that’s what might be going on here. Now drink up.” She drained her own drink, and moved to the bar where Alex was, even now, chatting animatedly to the barman.
As she got there, she managed to get elbow to elbow with Alex, safe in the presumed knowledge that he would have no idea who she was. He had ordered himself a gin and tonic and seemed interested in remaining at the bar to drink it.
Just after Michelle had placed her next order, the music in the bar changed over from a gentle tinkly lounge-esque piano album to ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’. Michelle swore inwardly. She was not any kind of champion of gay rights, but she did, at the moment feel like an ambassador from this world that Catherine appeared to know so little of. As that ambassador she felt irked at any display of acting up to a stereotype; the gayest song in the world being played upon the bar’s PA would not help her newly adopted cause with Catherine.
She tried to ignore it and instead, began to focus on what Alex was saying. She had assumed that she would find Alex trying to pick up the barman, or even asking if such and such had been in yet tonight, nudging and winking all the while. He wasn’t. They were chatting aimlessly about the weather and current affairs and something they’d both seen on TV. They didn’t even have the decency to be talking about the Wizard of Oz or Sex and the City or something else really gay. These thoughts flashed through her head with electric speed and she cursed herself for having thought them, she realised that she too had been guilty of the same kind of prejudices as Catherine, that no matter how much she intellectually knew about being gay and the gay world, that she still had some hindbrain reactions that made her feel sad about herself. She re-evaluated her proclamation that Alex would only have been hanging out in the bar for sex, maybe it wasn’t even that, maybe he was just hanging out somewhere so that he could just sit and be gay, relax, stretch out and feel the sunshine.
He took his drink back to the table and Michelle followed him soon after, she took a slight detour to walk directly past him, she looked directly at him, looked down at the phone that he was again playing with and at the instant he looked up at her. He looked up and smiled with that kind of light expression that masks someone trying to be polite, but also trying to quickly work out whether they know you.
“Well?” asked Catherine as she accepted her drink “What happened?”
“Erm, nothing much.” She replied, feeling rather lame at her own words. “He was just chatting to the barman.” She shrugged “He looked right at me as I walked past him though. He obviously didn’t recognise me, but I think he might recognise me if he saw me following him again.” She sat down heavily and looked into her drink.
“So, what are we going to do then?” Catherine looked across at Michelle who appeared to rally herself quickly from a semi deflated state.
“Right, ok then, let’s think.” She had flustered herself and took a moment to collect and remember why they were here. “Well, lets stay here for a bit, and keep an eye on him, and if he leaves we’ll try and see where he goes and subtly follow him. I’ll leave my car where it is and if we lose him, then let’s just get pissed.” A visible thrill of forbidden pleasure ran through Catherine and she picked up her phone to contact Martin. The sight of her phone rang a distant bell of something in Michelle’s mind, but the thought slid from her grasp like slippery moonlight. She watched Catherine as she left a voicemail on Martin’s phone and something pinged on her consciousness. It was only when Catherine had hung up and had paused to flick at an app when the mercury took charge.
She wrenched Catherine’s phone from her grasp and hammered the power button. The light of the phone extinguished with a sad little phht and Catherine was frozen in her chair, looking at the gap in her hand where her phone had previously been.
“OnShow.” She said by way of explanation, slightly breathless.
“What?” asked Catherine. OnShow was a social networking site, and Catherine had just flicked a button on her phone so as to bring her own OnShow profile up.
“He was looking at OnShow, it’s only just clicked.” Her eyes were gleaming now as thoughts chased each other round her brain.
“So? Why can’t I look at mine?” Catherine looked bemused, but Michelle reached down to get her own phone.
“Just wait for a moment, I want to try something.” She tapped excitedly at her phone’s screen and a few moments later it showed a list of names, some with twinkling sparkling icons of various shades and hue next to them. “Right, look, I’ve made myself ‘undiscoverable’ and I can see a list of OnShow users that are nearby.” The list of names that Catherine could now see were split between normal, real names, and the kind of cack-handed monikers that only seemed to ping into existence with the birth of the internet. ‘Jizzlord343’ and ‘BigCockflz’ were just two that caught her eye.
There were allegedly 40-50 ‘discoverable’ users within a frustrating 250-500 yard radius of where they were, but between them, Catherine and Michelle started to look carefully through them all.
On the third page of names, Catherine’s observant eye tripped across a user called ‘Norman Stanley’ aged 35. Who had a darkened profile pic, that through a squint could conceivably have been Alex.
“That’s him!” she squealed. “I’m sure it is.”
“What? Norman? That’s a bit of a shit pseudonym isn’t it?” Michelle looked surprised, as she had been eyeing the Jizzlords of the list with rather more scrutiny than the Daves.
“His surname’s Fletch.” a blank look was her only reply. “Like Fletcher? Like Norman Stanley Fletcher? Porridge?” but still no pennies dropped.
“Look, anyway, that’s him.” She could explain the finer points of Ronnie Barker’s career to Michelle later.
“Look at this.” Said Michelle, as she tapped a few more symbols on the screen. One of these symbols was a tiny rainbow coloured flag. “He’s advertising himself as gay on here, look, see that little mouth symbol there, he’s advertising himself as free for chat.” The 21st century tide swept the pair of them up.
“Can we see if he is chatting to anyone?” a quick glance confirmed that Alex was indeed tapping on his phone.
“No, but we can see the last status update he made.” She tapped away and the words came up. “ahem, listen to this Cat.” Catherine leant in closer toward Michelle. “’Waiting in Via Fossa, looking for fun.’ People are either going to think he’s after some cock or he wants to buy some drugs!” Catherine’s eyes goggled and Michelle tapped another couple of buttons that restricted the radial search to those whose profiles bore the same rainbow flag as Norman Stanley’s and found that there were 5 other gay men in the vicinity. They found themselves objectively discussing the merits of each from the tiny icon next to their names, engrossed in the digital near fairytale of seduction that was going on around them, when Catherine looked up with a start.
“Shell. He’s gone.” Alex’s seat was empty, they had probably ignored him for a full five minutes, and at Catherine’s words Michelle flicked her phone once again, and saw that Alex’s last status had been updated. Presumably he had found the fun he had been looking for.