Helen put her knife and fork down. She was the last out of the four of them to do so. She'd always been a slow eater.
“Sorry, guys. It was just too good to be rushed.” She smiled in Tony's direction. “That was a great start, chef. Loved the goat's cheese.”
“Yeah, it was fantastic.” Zoe was scraping every last piece of onion off her plate.
“I guessed you liked it from the way you were wolfing it down, seconds and all.” He received a mulish look in return. Tony sat back in his seat. “I thought maybe the onions were over-cooked?”
“Nope. They were fine.” Zoe put her knife down, satisfied there was nothing more to be found.
Helen looked across the table. Geoff had yet to say very much. Not that the conversation had exactly been flowing – they'd been concentrating too much on the food. He didn't seem ill at ease, just content for the moment to let others carry the responsibility. He was looking really handsome in that shirt.
“That's the shirt I made you buy, isn't it?”
“Can't remember why, though.”
“You were threatening to drag me to Giselle's party.”
“Oh, god. Yes, that's right. You didn't go in the end. No surprise there. Still, are you glad you've got it now?”
Geoff blushed slightly. “Yes, Tony loves it.”
“Err … not entirely convinced.” Geoff peered at the pattern once more.
“You should be. It looks great on you.”
“You don't usually dress like that then, Geoff?”
Zoe's question was out of curiosity rather than anything else, Helen thought.
“Ehm … No. I don't spend much time on my clothes.”
“Geoff looks great in whatever he wears. But he's especially good in that shirt.”
Protective boyfriend coming to the rescue. Helen smiled. Tony stood up and started to collect the dirty plates.
Zoe was still looking in Geoff's direction. Another question?
“So, Geoff. How did my brother and you meet? He's never really said. Was it at one of those gay nightclubs with … rooms available, or a gay gym?”
Helen couldn't quite believe what she was hearing.
“Zoe!” Tony stopped gathering in the used crockery. “That was completely out of order.” He glared at his sister.
Geoff was staring down at his wine glass.
“Why?” Zoe appeared genuinely puzzled. “When I was at Manchester studying, there were two gay lads in my classes. I got to know them and they were forever talking about their favourite cruising spots. Where the best ones were, who they met there, and what they got up to. God, they went into far too much detail on the last one.”
“Just take a moment to rewind, will you? Would you ask a straight couple that kind of question? The 'Did you meet at a sex party?' line …”
“No … I thought you gay guys approach the whole dating thing differently? Those two certainly did.”
“Zo, engage brain. Is this Manchester? Are we two horny students following our dicks? Do either Geoff or I look like habitués of the club scene?”
Helen continued to watch and listen from the sidelines. It wasn't an argument – more a frank exchange of views. Geoff's head was still lowered.
“No, but …” Zoe was interrupted before she could get any further.
“The nearest gay club is twenty miles away, and as far I'm aware it has no 'rooms' for use. Geoff, you ever been there?” His boyfriend shook his head. “As for a gay gym … I wish.”
Geoff looked up. His glance over to Tony was full of love. “Ehm … if Tony had been going to a gym, any gym, in search of a boyfriend, he would never have met me.” He blushed. “Gyms and me aren't exactly well acquainted.”
Tony put down the heap of plates he'd only just picked up again. He moved round the table. Helen watched as he embraced Geoff, standing behind his seat and wrapping his arms round his boyfriend. It was clear they were deeply in love. Geoff tipped his head up to receive a kiss, which he got. Tony then moved slightly to whisper something into his ear. Geoff turned a deeper shade of pink, but still looked indecently happy. Helen was pleased. Really, it was no more than he deserved.
She decided a little gentle teasing was in order. “OK … So what's the big secret we girls can't be allowed to hear?”
“Yeah … Do tell.”
Geoff opened his mouth. “Err … Ehm, Tony …”
Tony interrupted him. “Geoff asked last week why we were planning on having this meal at home. My answer was, so I could treat my boyfriend as just that, and not have to hide or deny anything.”
This took Helen by surprise. She thought for a moment. Restrictions like that hadn't really occurred to her. Yes, she was prepared to defend her friends against homophobic comments from individuals, but she'd not previously had any reason to consider how they felt out in the wider world.
“You didn't feel able to have it even at Gianni's?”
Tony shrugged. “I imagine they know we're a couple by now. But, no, I wouldn't feel able to stand like this, or to kiss Geoff. As for other places in town? I don't know. We wanted to enjoy this meal without having to filter what we did, or said.”
Helen felt a need to apologise, though she wasn't certain what for precisely.
“I'm sorry you …”
“Don't be, Helen.” Geoff leant across the table. “You have nothing to apologise for. Your unstinting friendship has supported me through such a lot.”
Tony was nodding in agreement as he moved away from his boyfriend to pick up the dishes.
Helen smirked. “You mean even getting you two back together again?”
Tony started cackling in amusement. “Oh, dear … Yes, Helen. … You were an excellent go-between.”
He left to go and serve out the next course.
At her end of the table, Zoe was feeling left out. Yes, she'd put her foot in it earlier, but she still wanted an answer to her original question. Helen and Geoff were still talking, reminiscencing about something or other.
The others turned to look at her.
“Geoff, you haven't answered my question yet?”
Geoff blinked at her. Zoe rolled her eyes and flicked her hair back.
“How did you and Tony meet?”
“Oh … Yeah. It was last November. I was late for a concert given by Tony's choir …”
“So you were part of the audience?”
“No, I was late for the rehearsal. Or rather, I missed it. Car trouble.”
Zoe frowned. “Tony's never mentioned you as another singer.” She was impatient for the full answer.
To her left, Helen snorted. “Zoe! Give the man a chance. He'll get there quicker if you don't keep on interrupting him.”
Zoe felt herself bristling, but didn't say anything. The older woman did have a point.
Geoff was now rather pink in the face from being the centre of attention. He'd opened his mouth to continue, when Tony's call from the kitchen caught them unawares.
“I could do with some help in here, please.”
Geoff took the opportunity to make his escape to kitchen. Zoe sighed in frustration.
While they were waiting for the next course, Helen used the time to stretch her legs. She wandered round the room, going first to try out the piano, then she strolled over to the back window. Using the last of the daylight, she looked out into the garden. Geoff often mentioned how much it meant to him. What she could see of it appeared pretty and colourful. Being in a flat, Helen had no space for a garden of any kind. She had a very small balcony, but once she put out a chair or two, there was no room left at all. Killing off the occasional pot plant hardly counted.
“Haven't you been here before?”
Helen turned around. Zoe was inspecting the unlit fireplace, one of several period features still in evidence.
“No … Geoff and I usually meet up in town. … Shall we turn on one of the table lamps? It's getting a little dark in here.”
“Yeah. I want to see the food in all its glory.”
Helen smiled. Zoe appeared to share Geoff's interest in eating food, if not cooking it.
“It's only been a couple of years since his mum moved out, I think.”
“So he doesn't, like, own the place?”
Helen snorted. “You've got to be joking. No, I doubt whether Tony and Geoff together could raise enough to get a mortgage on a place this size. It's in quite a desirable area. You know Geoff works for the local authority?”
“Yeah. Tony said. That's why I couldn't get my head round how Geoff could afford to live here.”
Helen grimaced. “As far as I know, it's still his mum's. Geoff said the mortgage was cleared some time ago.”
Zoe sighed. She looked wistfully round the room while absentmindedly playing with her nose ring.
“You know, just this fucking room is twice the size of the one I'm living in. Can't help being jealous.”
Helen felt sympathetic. In this at least, she felt a strong connection with the younger woman.
“Yeah. I get where you're coming from. I like my flat, but 'spacious' isn't a word I would use to describe it.”
They were exchanging sympathetic grimaces when Geoff came back through from the kitchen, bearing two plates laden with food. Helen suspected his pinkness didn't come just from the heat in the kitchen. He had one of those smiles. She smirked to herself.
Geoff put both plates down on the table carefully. “Tony's sorry he's had to plate everything, but it was getting rather hectic in there. It seemed easier.”
Helen shrugged. “It's fine.”
Zoe eyed her plateful. “He's not going to be long, is he? I'm drooling already. Lamb's one of my favourites.”
Helen leaned over hers, inhaling the fragrant, meaty aromas. “Bliss. Those potatoes smell great.”
“Never fear, sister dear.” Tony appeared, bearing the other two platefuls. “Your wish is my command.”
Helen caught Geoff's expression as she sat down. They both had to try hard not to snigger.
Further conversation was postponed indefinitely as they all attacked their food with relish.
Finally, they were getting to the end of the main course. Apart from Zoe, who had helped herself to seconds again. Sensing a smirk from the opposite end of the table, she scowled.
“Think of it as a compliment to your cooking, dear brother.”
“I do, and the fact that you're a poor, starving, would-be designer.”
“Hnh … Anyway … Geoff, please, please tell me how you and Tony met.”
Geoff had finished and his plate was clear, but Zoe noticed him looking at her heaped plate of seconds with resignation.
“I'll be quiet and listen. Promise.”
“Impossible. Don't listen to her, Geoff.”
Zoe gave her brother the finger which made Helen grin.
“Ehm … Well, I was very late, stressed out, and hungry. I hadn't even had lunch by that point. Your brother calmed me down, and very kindly offered me some of his food. We spent what remained of the break together. I suppose it all followed on from then.”
Geoff looked sideways to his boyfriend. They exchanged loving smiles.
“What do you play?”
“Percussion. Timpani. And occasionally, orchestral keyboard.”
Zoe's jaw dropped. “Wow! I had you down as a viola player or something.”
Helen had a sudden fit of sniggering. After a moment or two, she recovered.
“Sorry, that was priceless.”
Geoff mock-glared in Helen's direction.
“I'm a percussionist as well, Zoe.”
“OK … Two of you? Now, you …” Zoe took another look at the other woman. Confident, but not in the way she was. At ease where she was. “I'm not sure what instrument I would've given you.”
“I'll take that as a compliment. Viola player …” Helen started laughing again. She pointed at Geoff. “I won't let you forget this.”
He rolled his eyes. “Don't think that's the first time.”
Zoe was continuing to eat her way through her food while the other two were talking. She looked at her brother who seemed content to take a backseat for the moment. She thought of another question.
“Don't you find it difficult to play something like that? Tony keeps on saying how shy you are.”
Tony leaned forward, wanting to join in now. “Yes, that's occurred to me several times.”
Geoff looked across at him. “You've never asked me.”
“I know. Suppose it's because it comes to mind when I thinking of you. And that usually means you're not around. Then when you are, I forget to ask.”
The two men spent a second or two gazing into each others eyes.
Zoe sighed noisily. “God, what a pair of lovebirds you are.”
Geoff hastily dragged his gaze back to his plate.
“Tone, haven't you got some plates to clear away or something? Then I might get an answer out of Geoff.”
“I'll start to clear away when you've finished eating.” Her brother stared in her direction.
Zoe turned to Geoff. “I'm all ears. Don't mind me eating – I just can't let all this free food go to waste. I mean, it's only barely edible, but … ” She grinned at Tony before immediately getting stuck in again.
Geoff waited a moment before speaking. Getting his thoughts in order, perhaps? Zoe started chewing the lamb bones to get the last of the meat off them.
“Being on stage is different somehow. Yes, I get nervous. Sometimes very nervous. But that's about the technicalities of the music. It's not about me as an individual. When I'm playing, I'm concentrating too hard on the music to be taking much notice of the audience, or what they might think.”
“Aren't you conscious of how visible you are? You're raised up at the back of the stage, aren't you?” Zoe mopped up the last of the juices with the remaining few potatoes.
“Yes, but again it's different.”
Helen chipped in. “Sometimes you have to play something with flair. Panache. Or it's an important solo or featured instrument. But it's not you as an individual. As far as many of the audience are concerned, Geoff or I are just one musician in amongst many others.”
Geoff was nodding in agreement. “It does mean your mishaps are more prominent though.”
Zoe's eyes widened at the thought. Helen suddenly started coughing after taking a gulp of wine. Zoe looked at the others. Should they do something to help?
Geoff leaned over the table. “You OK, Helen?”
Red in the face, Helen nodded. “God … Sorry …” A couple more coughs. “It was remembering that time you split your jacket open that did this.”
Geoff blinked, then flushed red.
Tony's jaw dropped. “Why haven't I heard about this famous occasion? Right, we'll have to hold more of these dinners if I'm going to hear snippets like this every time.”
Zoe snorted in derision. “Yeah, we should. Geoff, if you ever want to hear the dirt on my dear brother, I'll be happy to help.” She stared at Tony, daring him to object.
Which he did. “Excuse me! Is this the thanks I get for preparing tonight's feast in your honour?”
“Maybe. Anyway, I thought it was in Geoff's honour.” Zoe loved jousting with her brother. “We'll see.”
Helen and Geoff were both giggling by this point and Zoe very soon joined them.
“OK, OK …” Tony rolled his eyes in mock-defeat. “Geoff, love, at least tell us the story so I can treasure it when my harridan of a sister takes her revenge.”
“Love you too, Tone.” Zoe frowned. “'Harridan' is a new one. I'll bear that in mind.”
“Oooh. … Geoff, love, please?”
Geoff took a deep breath and launched in. “It was one of those wretched film music programmes which seem to require everything I own and then some. I can't remember why, but I was running late …”
“Hmm … Do I detect a theme here?”
Helen tried not to smirk at Tony's comment.
Zoe frowned. “Now who's interrupting? Carry on, Geoff, please. Just ignore him.”
“Anyway, I grabbed my clothes bag without checking it first, and threw it in the car along with everything else. When all the kit had been unloaded, I picked up the bag and realised it felt lighter than it should've done. When I looked inside, I realised I'd left my dinner jacket behind. It wouldn't have been too bad if we'd been playing in our usual venue, but of course, we weren't. Another two hour round trip just wasn't on, so I had to find something that might do.”
“Why do amateur orchestral players …”
“Shh!” Zoe glared at her brother.
Helen grinned. It was an understandable question. Maybe they'd have a go at answering it later.
Geoff looked round the table before continuing. “Actually, it was all Helen's fault …”
“What was?!” Helen couldn't help herself. She frowned at Geoff. He smirked back. She could hear sniggering from either end of the table.
“I was perfectly happy to play in my shirtsleeves, but you wouldn't have it.”
“Only because you wouldn't have been allowed on the stage otherwise. You know the dress code.”
Geoff shook his head. “Anyway, it became a search for anyone who might have a spare DJ. One guy on the venue's organising committee volunteered his. Which was great, except it was a relic from the 1970s and I could barely get into it. Black velvet, and lapels the size of I dunno what. I was careful – I took time to make sure I could do everything I needed to, and it was fine. Until we got to the music from Star Wars …”
“Ooh … I love that.”
Helen looked sideways. Zoe didn't look like a John Williams fan. Something her brother also believed.
“Zo? You feeling OK? You gone off She Wants Revenge or whatever they're called?”
“No. Doesn't mean I can't like other stuff.”
“Indeed. I'm just pleasantly surprised …”
Zoe's narrowed eyes and lowered brow made Helen bite her lip. Brother and sister made a fascinating pair. She suspected underneath the facade was a deep, abiding love.
“To continue …” Geoff was calling them to order. Helen gazed at him with affection. Tony would be the making of him – giving Geoff the confidence and support he needed to be truly himself. Would they marry? To think Geoff might be tying the knot before her …
“Anyway, it was the music from the original film which has several stand-out cymbal clashes. I got myself psyched up and just went for them. Glorious, wonderful sound. Arms stretched out.” Geoff demonstrated. “And of course, the jacket decided it'd had enough and split down the back seam. Embarrassing or what?”
Tony was sniggering non-stop, and wiped a tear away. “Oh, god. What did the owner say?”
“He didn't hand it back, I did.” Helen winced as she recalled the owner's face when she returned the jacket with profuse apologies. “Coward.”
Geoff squirmed in his seat. “Yeah, I know. I just couldn't face it.” He looked a little ashamed of himself. “Sorry.”
“I've forgiven you. Just don't do it again. OK?”
Geoff nodded like a schoolboy receiving a dressing down.
Still chuckling to himself, Tony stood up and gestured for the dirty plates and cutlery to be passed in his direction.
“Coffee and cupcakes OK for dessert?”
“Tea for me, thanks. Which you should know anyway.”
“Well, hey. My sister's being awkward again. Ah … do we have any tea, love?”
Geoff looked startled. “Err … Yeah. Nothing exciting though – Ceylon or Darjeeling. Maybe some Assam?”
Helen fancied a change from coffee. Caffeine late at night wasn't a good idea as far as she was concerned.
“I'll join Zoe, if I may?”
“OK … two for tea. I'll have a look. Sorry, both. We seem to spend most of our time together at my place. Though Geoff's new bed might change that once it's been delivered.”
As his face flushed a deep red, Geoff glanced sideways at his boyfriend. Helen smiled.
Zoe kept up the pressure. “Wow, you've finally been making progress on that front then?”
Helen stole a glance. Bloody hell, she was fearless. Or rude.
Tony sighed loudly. “Whatever Geoff and I may or may not get up to in the privacy of our own homes is still none of your business, sister dear.”
A petulant moue appeared, but Zoe didn't reply. Fortunately for Geoff, Helen thought.
“Come and give me a hand, Helen. You're probably going to be better at handling those cupcakes than I am. You can arrange them while I rediscover the tea.”
Helen was keen to see more of the house, so she got up and followed Tony into the kitchen.
Zoe and Geoff sat in silence for some moments. Zoe was casting around for a comparatively safe topic of conversation, when Geoff beat her to it.
“I think you're very brave to wear what you do.”
“What? These?” She fingered her ear stretchers. “They're fake.”
“Not those so much. Just … everything.”
Zoe looked at herself. “It's what I usually look like at the weekends. I'd wear it all the time if those fucking clothes fascists and their rules didn't exist where I work.”
Geoff raised his eyebows in a question. Zoe named the law firm in question. Geoff chuckled.
“Oh, dear. God, they are stick-in-the-muds there. Not sure how they keep their clients with all the new firms springing up. Tony said something about you being a designer?”
“Applied design. When I can get a job.” Zoe shrugged, then flicked her hair back again.
“It took me two, no, best part of three years to get a decent job. English Lit. isn't exactly a passport to a great career. Don't worry, you'll get there if you really want to.”
“You ambitious?” Zoe was curious.
“Me? God, no. I'm happy enough where I am. With Tony in my life, I've never felt better.”
Geoff's transparent happiness eliminated the last remaining shards of Zoe's suspicions. Perhaps they were made for each other? The thought made her feel strangely happy herself.
They could hear laughter coming from the kitchen. Tony was able to turn on the charm for most people. They were chatting away as if no-one else was around..
Zoe rolled her eyes. She grinned at Geoff as she took a deep breath, the better to make herself heard. “When you've quite finished in there, I'm starving.”
Geoff chuckled. “You've got a good pair of lungs.”
“Yeah, I have, haven't I?”
Tony appeared a few seconds later, carrying a teapot in one hand, and a French press coffee pot in the other.
“I'm sure Geoff's next door neighbours enjoyed your contribution to their evening's entertainment.”
“Sorry, Geoff. I wasn't thinking.”
“Nothing to worry about.”
Helen followed with a large plate of highly-decorated cupcakes. Zoe stared at them in disbelief. They were nothing like the cellophane-wrapped cakes on offer at her local supermarket. They were almost miniature works of art. Her brother removed the one which was by far the plainest.
“Right. You lot can fight over the rest.”
Zoe joined Geoff and Helen in staring at the selection. After an initial hesitation, they managed to make their choices without too much negotiation needed. Once settled with drinks, the conversation moved to more general topics – films, music, the housing market, jobs. Life.
Tony and Geoff were sprawled together on the sofa in the front room. They had the place to themselves again. It was late, and they needed to make a move, but neither of them wanted to be the first.
Geoff was resting his head on Tony's shoulder. “That was great. I really enjoyed it. And meeting your sister.”
“Yeah?” Tony ruffled his hair. “Good. Zoe can be … startling sometimes, but it's mostly a front.”
“I like her, I think. She takes no prisoners.”
“Yep, that's my sister. … We'll make a social animal out of you yet, love.”
“Only if you're there with me.”
“Hmm …? Planning on me sticking around? That's good to hear.”
“Of course, I am.”
Geoff turned on his side slightly. He was about to continue speaking when Tony pulled him closer and gave him a long, passionate kiss.
Finally, they separated. Tony gave him a quick kiss on the nose. “Happy now?”
Tony chuckled wryly. “Don't get too lost in your pink, fluffy clouds. You've still got to talk to your mum. And I've got to sort out Stuart somehow.”
“Yeah. But it doesn't alter the fact we're together. A couple.”
They cuddled closer. Geoff felt he could stay like that forever. Finally, Tony stirred.
“Come on, you. Unless you want us to share a single, we need to be moving.” He got up.
Geoff stretched with reluctance. “God … I wish the new bed was here already.”
Tony held a hand out. “Well, the sooner you get moving, the sooner we'll be back at mine. Then there'll be time for a little fun, I think.”
Geoff let himself be pulled to his feet and into another loving kiss.