A revelation, startling in itself, but somehow taken on board and dealt with, easily, lovingly.
On the way to Bagshott’s, the next morning, we chatted easily, as if we had known each other for years. It was another fine, clear, sun-baked day, warmer than the previous morning, but not uncomfortable. Ben was cool in shorts and short-sleeved shirt, his strong calves shaved smooth, lightly tanned, etched with fine muscles. I admired them openly, as we ambled along, and he grinned at this.
“Are you searching for anything?” he said, suddenly, as we drew closer to the ramshackle shop.
“Well …” I began, hesitantly. “I do have one long standing target, but …”
He pressed me to explain.
I told him about THE book: the smooth, purple cover, the name like Meredith, the unknown topic or style. “It was probably just a product of my derangement back then,” I admitted. “I’m confused. That’s all. I don’t really believe that it exists.”
Ben was silent for a few moments, then said quietly, “I’ll keep my eyes peeled.”
I wasn’t really expecting to find the fabled book, but I was looking forward to our morning together at Bagshott’s. I thought we could have some browsing fun and chat some more, before Lionel arrived to cramp our style. It was just gone nine thirty when we arrived at the little, inspiring porch, where I pointed out the notice to Ben.
“That is beautiful, really, isn’t it?” he said.
The owner, serene and accepting, opened the door for us and welcomed us in like old friends. “Julie,” she said, offering us her hand. “I won’t bother you boys, don’t worry,” she added. “But you just looked like my kind of customer yesterday.”
Ben introduced us both and encouraged her to chat awhile. The shop had been her father’s for many years. He was almost religious about not disturbing its randomness, and Julie had been loyal to his wishes during the few years she had been in charge since his death. “I don’t depend on it for a living,” she said mildly. “I love the place as it is, I guess.”
She stood and took us in, looked us up and down. “You make a fine pair,” she said, confidently, putting both her hands on her hips and confronting us with her unforced loveliness, her lithe, gentle, tempered ease of body and manner, her deep writ beauty, settled as it was into comfortable, natural middle age. She looked the part: the clever, sensitive, thinking woman. We were both simply attracted to her, and felt easy in showing this.
“You’re a marvel, I’d say,” I told her.
“It’s a grand thing you do,” Ben said, smiling at his own pompousness.
“Well, you two go exploring, eh?” she said, busily. “I have an intriguing package to open. Give me a shout when you’re ready for a brew.” I loved the Scottish burr with which she said this final word. I felt transported into a bygone age by its purposeful energy, its raw difference, its easy intimacy of tone.
So Ben and I clambered up the rickety stairs, pausing occasionally to examine some of the paperbacks that were piled up against the wall on every step. Instinctively, we kept climbing, until we reached a thinner, uncarpeted, winding stairway, with several broken boards and a baluster that was about to give way altogether. Ben, pointed upwards, so we climbed, gingerly, feeling the creaking, wavering stairway shake beneath us and wondering if we might be about to bring the whole thing crashing down. At the top, we found a low ceilinged hallway, packed with unopened cardboard boxes, which effectively barred the way to the room beyond. With a little effort, we pushed them aside, and exposed a small door, with cracked, dirty panes of glass in it, a Formica handle that turned loosely and uselessly when I tried it. Ben gave the door a careful shove, and it bounced and jerked open, until its way was stopped by a poorly positioned stack of three wooden tea chests. Finally, we pushed our way into the attic room. It looked as if it had few visitors over the years. The floor titled at a mad angle; the ceiling plaster was hanging off in a big blister; the two skylights were clouded and rotten. Ben found a light switch, and we were both surprised when the bare bulb lit up when he flicked it. The room was lined with unvarnished, home-made shelves, on which were kept volumes of mostly nineteenth century popular fiction – leftovers from the public libraries of the era. Nothing surprising, but charming in their way. Towards the back of the room I noticed another, lone tea chest, brimming over with random volumes, mostly early Penguins, but none of the visible ones particularly collectible. The chest stood in front of a low hatch, which, upon an instinct, I pushed against: it juddered a little, gave, started to open, but seemed to be blocked. I bent down to investigate and saw that this miniature door led to a chamber beyond, a dark, windowless space, which was stacked high with more books, though I could see nothing to tell me what kind of books they were.
Ben bent down beside me. He used his phone as a torch and peered into the squat space beyond – a loft, a storage hole, somewhere that had been undisturbed, perhaps, for decades.
Ben and I exchanged a look. We understood each other instantly.
“We’re not that different from old Lionel, really, are we?” Ben said.
Wearily, we made our careful way back down the stairs to speak to Julie.
She was at a desk in the first room, and looked up in surprise as we returned so quickly. Her gentle, enquiring look made me feel something like guilt.
Ben took charge. “Julie, did you know that there’s a loft space up there, looks like it’s not been opened for years?”
Julie smiled, reached for some scissors in her desk drawer, and said, blithely, “If you can get in, go for your life. But … the floor may be about to collapse, so … at your peril, OK?”
“Are you sure?” Ben said, hesitating on the stairs.
Julie looked up, pushed a stray strand of her neat, grey hair away from her eyes and said, “I’d be curious to know what’s in there too. Just take care, right?”
Then she reached into another drawer, produced a large torch and threw it over to Ben, who, of course, caught it firmly and casually, before spinning it round in his hand, as if it were his trusty Colt and he was about to use it to run the rustlers out of town.
“So what’s behind the door?” he said, as he mounted the stairs again, me in front, him behind.
“The magic kingdom of Narnia?” I suggested, glancing back at him.
He laughed in approval.
“Did you …” I began.
“Find the bit with the witch and the Turkish Delight sexy? Yes, of course I did. Everyone does, Shenton,” he replied, faking a heavy sigh. Then he gave me a playful tap on the behind, and I skip-stepped up to the bottom of the attic steps.
“You go first, torch-bearer,” I said, and felt as if I might just lean over and kiss him as he passed, but I refrained.
So there we were, squatting before the half-door to the loft space, Ben scanning the darkness beyond with the big torch’s powerful beam: piles of books; hard backs; leather bindings perhaps; twenty or more stacks, like a miniaturised city of experimental skyscrapers, all overhangs and jutting storeys. Ben examined the floor surface carefully.
“Very old boards, not really designed for holding up any weight, gnawed away at by something, I think. Shall we? Dare we?”
He did not stay for an answer, but instead pushed firmly at the little door and crawled inside the secret space. I put my head in after him, then, seeing that the boards had not given way, I followed him through into the cubby hole.
Ben was standing, but bent over, because of the low ceiling. He was not looking at anything, just waiting for me. He wanted to share the discovery: I liked that. Once I was up on my feet, he shone the torch on the first stack of books.
Ben lifted the top book off, carefully. It was Volume Two of Roland Cabot’s Ordeals, Triumphs and Tensions in the Life of Roderick Thousand illustrated by Frederick Holland, a part of a first edition set, published in the mid 1850s, uncut.
“Recognise this?” Ben said.
I gave him chapter and verse.
Ben turned the torch beam back to the stack, then muttered mildly, “Good boy. Would fetch between 20 and 25 dollars in most sales, if the first volume’s here, I’d say. Though I once saw a pair go for 50 at a charity auction.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I think I must be turning into Lionel, bit by bit.”
“Yep, Volume One here too,” Ben said, then scanned the torch down the rest of the pile. “Similar, I’d say. Care to look?”
He rolled the torch beam rapidly over the majority of the stacks: it looked to be more of this kind of thing, old forgotten fiction from a century or more ago.
“You just want there to be one wonder, here, don’t you?” I said, leaning into Ben to get a better look. “One find, you know? Just one stunning rarity. I mean, if not here, where?”
“An unknown Shakespeare play, Leonardo cartoon, a Shelley manuscript, eh?” Ben teased.
“Or just a plum-coloured paperback by somebody Meredith,” I sighed.
“What’s that?” Ben said, sending the beam over a pile at the far end of the little space and lingering on a strangely misshapen pile of papers. “An Aspern original, perhaps!” he cried, momentarily turning the torch to his wide, grinning face, for silly, dramatic effect.
We hobbled over to the pile in question, feeling the boards beneath us shift unnervingly. Ben held the torch steady. Bound by some ancient string was a gathering of differently sized papers, manuscripts, certainly, and old ones at that. We peered at the top page of the upper-most bundle. It looked like some sort of scientific record, journal or notebook, written in an elaborate copper-plate on paper that was browned and crusted with age.
“What do you think?” Ben said.
I had no clear answer to give.
“I’d guess,” Ben began, hesitantly, “if it’s OK …”
I urged him on with a playful nudge to the thigh.
“I’d say that this might be some private papers, local, possible as early as … the seventeenth century … maybe a natural scientist, you know, an amateur note-taker, collector, curious type … Fascinating in its own way. We should drag them out for a good look, don’t you think?”
I laughed to myself. I’d actually underestimated Ben; and that when I’d been delighting in everything he did since we first met a day ago!
So we dragged the papers out of the loft, scanned the remaining piles one last time, decided that we had the most interesting prize already, and took the booty down to show Julie. Ben carried the bundle on his own, heavy as it was. I walked behind, ready to make a grab for him if he stumbled, though any such action would have been worse than useless.
“What have you got, darlings?” Julie said, as we arrived back on the ground floor. “Oh, let me have a look … I … yes, my father used to go on about something like this … Ha! And you boys have found it. I believe …” she said, examining the manuscripts where Ben had set them down, on a chair before her desk, “ … that these are the papers of … Yes, must be … Alan Nicol, Nicolson … What was it? He was a bit of a borders celebrity, restoration times, a philosopher, inventor, you know the sort, nose into everything, never made his name though, never published … And these would be some of his jottings, I’d guess. The National Archive holds some of his more finished pieces, but these … Hmm, I’m not sure that I’m really qualified to judge, but … What do you think?”
Ben replied, “It would be worth contacting someone, have them examined before we do any damage, don’t you think?”
I was, perhaps, a little disappointed, but I had to agree. We had found something, but it really was not our place to do anything about what we had discovered. The papers were Julie’s, and they needed a more expert eye than ours to assess their interest and worth. “We would be best not to disturb them at all,” I agreed.
Julie stood back and looked at us with wise, happy, warm eyes. “Boys, you’ve made my day and more. I’ve got a contact in Edinburgh. I’ll give him a bell. He’ll be down like a flash, I’m sure. You’ll have that cup now, eh?”
We found somewhere to sit amongst the clutter and waited for Julie to return with our teas.
“Well, it’s something,” I said, shrugging.
“And nothing,” Ben replied, glancing distractedly round the book-filled room. “I like the idea of the guy watching the stars and making his notes, building up his cabinet of curiosities, presiding over discussions about the weather or a rare bird, but …”
“It’s all out of our reach, isn’t it?” I said. “It’ll take somebody years of patient study to unravel it all, and even then it won’t be important, probably won’t even be publishable. It’s negligible on a macro scale. I mean, if we had found it in our own house, and had the guts to pore over it, uncover its odd little quirks …”
“It would have been fun,” Ben agreed. “Ha, I like the idea …”
“In our house, you said …” Ben replied, and beamed at me, winningly, daftly, raising his eyebrows in a clowning manner.
So we drank out tea, chatted lightly with Julie, really enjoyed her calm authority, her easy intelligence. But this was not the climax I had been hoping for, not the event, the adventure I had vaguely imagined when I first looked into the shop or when Ben had arranged for us to have our morning here together.
I think Ben sensed my unease. “We have another place to check out, Julie,” he said, “but we’ll be back at about midday. You probably know Lionel …”
Julie grimaced. “I heard he was in town. You’re meeting him here?”
“He suspects we might find something,” I said, chuckling.
“He’ll be less than impressed with these papers,” Julie replied. “Not his sort of thing at all.”
“I sort of feel sorry for him,” Ben put in, “rudeness and all … He’s lost, really, isn’t he?”
Julie considered this. “He’s best taken in small doses, I’d say. He’s up here every year about this time …” she said, taking the tea things into her back room. “So, I’ll see you about noon, then?” she called from the kitchen.
We left Julie making her call to her university friend, and set out into the hot, fine morning.
“Let’s go somewhere and talk,” Ben suggested.
I remembered a little park, at the end of the avenue, and after a couple of wrong turns we found it. In the shade of a huge Lime tree, we settled on a bench and looked out over the open expanse of grass and the formal beds in its centre, which were bursting with colour and life at this time of year. In the distance, the children’s playground was buzzing mildly with a little activity. Blackbirds and thrushes sang in the trees; the hum of traffic provided the ground bass to the music of the peaceful scene. I felt at ease, easy.
“Take three, then. My life …” Ben began.
It was now, here, at this moment, on the park bench, that I really began to wonder: “What am I doing here? Why am I drawn to this guy so thoroughly? How gay am I? Why has this tendency only now come bursting out of me? What do I expect to happen here? What does Ben expect? Are we starting some sort of relationship here? Am I to be Ben’s holiday romance?” Suddenly, I was aware of the oddity of the whole situation, and I wanted to know what was going on, where we were heading. But then Ben said something that completely threw me.
“The thing is, Shenton, when I was a kid, a teenager, even at college, I was different. That was before my … transition. You see the thing is, to put it bluntly … I used to be a girl, physically, at least.”
This got my attention. I probably gaped, rudely, ignorantly.
Ben looked away, as if nervous of my reaction. “I’m not sure what you will think or feel about this, Shenton, but I want you to know that I have not, definitely not being trying to trick you or conceal anything. I just needed the right moment. I mean, I feel that we are becoming friends, aren’t we? I just want to be honest with you.”
Silence. The birds nattering; the kids playing; the traffic moaning.
So Ben just ploughed on. “It’s a little odd, I know. I was not just a man trapped in a woman’s body. I was a gay man trapped in a female form. So now, I am who I always felt I was: a gay man, right? I mean, not that we’re having any sort of big romance here, I know, but just so you know, yes, I am attracted to men … to … you.”
It was not that I was shocked by the idea of a sex change. It was just that the news was so unexpected. I was trying to process the whole thing, casting around for the right words, the right reaction, the true reaction. I got nowhere, felt empty, lost.
“I’m going to tell you right up what I think about this,” I said, uncertainly. “I’m just going to let my first thoughts blurt out, OK?”
“I’d like that,” said Ben, nudging me playfully.
“I don’t know what they are yet. Let me just … go for it …” I said, breathed in deeply and continued. “The thought that you were once a woman, and are now a man, a gay man … What does that do to me? It … turns me on …” I said, finally, almost as if it were a question, but not quite. Then, more surely, turning to Ben and fixing him with my earnest, ironic gaze, I repeated, “It turns me on, Ben. The whole thing is a massive turn on. How about that? What does that mean?”
Ben gave me a fine, satisfied, rather amazed look, then he touched my cheek, tenderly, leaned forward and kissed me on the forehead. “Thank you,” he said.
For a while, we just sat there, staring off across the park, saying nothing.
“So, you were a girl,” I said, at last. “How did that go?”
“It was irritating, mostly,” Ben said, lightly. “I just did not want to do the whole girlie girl thing, you know.”
“Not really, but …”
“You would have …” Ben began, then stopped short.
“I used to get into huge rows with my folks about wearing dresses, you know, dressing nicely. I just knew it wasn’t me.”
I tried to press him again. “What were you going to say, Benny?”
“Uh?” He feigned ignorance. “I … I think I was going to say that you might have fancied me, or something like that, but it suddenly seemed silly, so …”
I was not convinced, but I let the matter drop. “It’s a brave thing to do, isn’t it? Especially when you were … well, a gay man … I mean you were attracted to men, but you wanted to become one. It must have seemed a little weird, even to you … I’m guessing.”
“Well, I understood that it was all somewhat … unconventional, but I just knew it was the right thing to do … I knew it. Uh, anyhow, tell me more about being turned on, why don’t you?”
I laughed. “It was my most honest response,” I replied. “I don’t really know where it came from. It’s not really like me to say such things, but … These last couple of days have been all very new for me, I guess.”
“Are you scared, worried, bothered by … any of this?”
I took that in. “I’m not at all scared, no. I feel good. I have from the moment I first saw you … So … I feel like it’s all going to work out beautifully, but I don’t know what I mean by that …”
Ben had it all under control – or that was what I was beginning to think. He suggested now that we go back to Bagshott’s, and it was another perfect move. He knew that I needed time to digest things, that we were not ready for anything more, anything too intense. So back we went to get distracted.
Julie was excited to see us. Her Edinburgh contact had guided her to inspect the manuscripts a little and he’d been thrilled by what she reported. “He’s driving down, right away,” she said. “He wants to talk to us all, decide on how to proceed.”
Ben and I were bemused. “It’s not our place …” Ben began.
Julie interrupted, gently but firmly, “You deserve some credit; you deserve a say in things. You found these documents, and it looks likely that they are going to be important, really important …”
This was more than I had bargained for. Interesting as the find was, it was actually not particularly my kind of thing – I like books. I looked at Ben and sensed that he felt something similar. But we were caught up in the thing and had to go along with it, when really we wanted to drive our day in other ways, to control things in terms of our developing relationship, to be together and be able to talk more when we felt ready.
But we had to, felt we had to do what the situation demanded. We joined Julie in some of her internet and catalogue searches; we explained the situation to Lionel when he arrived – he showed a little interest, then demanded that Ben take him off to the loft space so that he could check whether we had missed anything more interesting.
I liked Julie. She was clever, thoughtful, sensuously, smoothly, comfortably sexy. Slim, slightly masculine, but soft, forgiving, easy. She took me into her talk, as we sat there together in her ground floor room. She made me feel wanted, liked, understood. But our talk was not what I wanted. I wanted Ben’s silence, Ben’s nearness, Ben’s understanding. Soon, I wanted Ben to tell me all. Julie was lovely, but she was in the way right now, in our way.
She was filling me in about Alan Nicol. I sipped on my tea, looked at nothing, anything, squeezed out a smile or two, tried to sound and look interested.
Julie must have sensed my unease. “So,” she said suddenly, lilting into a more tender Scottish burr than before, “Tell me about you and Benjamin, there. How long have you been together now?”
I nearly spilled my drink: I jolted, stared, stammered a little: “Us, us … We, well, we … Julie, we only met yesterday … Ben and me, I mean, we only met yesterday morning.”
Julie grinned, ripplingly. “Amazing. You look like an old married couple,” she said, twinkling brightly, sweetly. “So, what’s the deal then?”
“I’ve no idea,” I admitted simply. “I like the guy, but I don’t know what that means. I don’t know what we’re doing really. We seem to have made a connection, but I hardly know anything … I don’t even know when he goes back to the good old U S of A.”
Suddenly, Julie was on her feet, rifling through a pile of books beside her desk. “There,” she said, at last, handing me a book, Guided Walks in Border Country. She helped me turn to a particular page: The Percys. Three, low, grassy, mild-looking hills, rolling countryside all around. Then she reached inside her trouser pocket and produced her car keys. “Now, take my little old banger, drive up there. Walk, talk, sit, talk, talk, talk. Do it now. I’ll look after Lionel and the good doctor from Auld Reekie, for you. No, don’t object, just do it. No, you don’t need insurance; don’t worry; don’t crash. Drive, walk, talk. You have to …Trust me, eh?”
So, soon enough, I was driving a battered old mini through narrow country lanes, whilst Ben attempted to navigate us to the recommended parking spot. I was wearing a pair of Ben’s trainers, which we’d stopped off at the guest house to collect, along with a little knapsack, which Ben had filled with goodies he’d snaffled from the garage on the edge of town.
When I put Ben’s trainers on – I have to admit – I felt a sudden surge of emotion, a connection, a daft sort of eroticism. To be sharing this with him, to he inhabiting his space, to be dressing in his things, even if it were only a pair of battered old running shoes, seemed to me to be an intimate, exchanging, involving event. I felt like I was becoming him, his.
Now, low to the ground, rattling along dangerously through the bright afternoon, I felt somehow secure, right, good. Ben and I were there, united in our little adventure. “What a person,” Ben said.
“She really is, isn’t she?” I agreed, before making sharp right, down into an old green lane with banked hedges on either side.
“I guess you’re going to tell me you just love hiking, aren’t you?” I said, grinning.
“As it goes, yep, I do, Shenty boy. How about you?”
“Well, I’m not so down to earth as you, I’d guess. I’m more the pale and wan type: less of the athleticism for me.”
“You’ll be fine; you’ll be fine,” Ben said, putting a hand on my knee, in a manner that somehow managed to be at once ironic and sincere. “Besides, I like pale and interesting, more than anything.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Right here is it? Yeah? Julie said it’s a gorgeous area – and pretty quiet, cos it’s so tucked away.”
“You drive … interestingly,” Ben laughed, as I swerved round a sharp corner, jolting him weirdly out of position in the process.
“I think I’m excited,” I said, trying to give him a caring look.
“Just keep your eyes on the road, hun, huh?”
That did something – “hun”. I felt the need of that kind of closeness, that kind of sweetness.
There was something beautifully quaint about the little run of hills known as the Percys – three small humps set in rolling agricultural land, a neat, red-soiled path running the length of them, through scruffy grass, tatty little fences and neat, five-bar gates. It seemed miniature, made, simple – a garden display rather than a wilderness. But it was also still, detached, isolated. Only with Julie’s annotations on the guide book and Ben’s instinctive skill for navigation had we been able to find the spot to park in – a little lay-by at the end of a tiny, rutted, overgrown lane. We took in the scene, as we got out of the car: the afternoon sun, high and blazing in a lush, broad sky; the little copses dotted here and there; the sheep safely grazing; the hills rising neatly in the background – we felt alone, alone together.
Ben led the way through a kissing gate and up a little steep path towards a line of beech and oak trees, which marked the way towards the foot of the first main rise – the first of the Percys. Once we reached the trees, the path widened, and we were able to walk side by side.
“So,” I began, uncertainly. “What do you think is happening here?”
“Destiny?” Ben joked, looking across at me to test my reaction.
I grimaced, absurdly. “I’m a bit wary of that sort of thing, Ben. I don’t want to go leaping into the whole bipolar thing again, you know?”
I guess Ben sensed that I was trying to be light about a genuine fear. “I’m sure you have nothing to worry about there, Shenton, really. I mean you’ve coped with this rather weird situation perfectly so far, not a hint of any disturbance. I don’t see you going manic on me any time soon, really. I can tell. I’ve known sufferers, real sufferers in the past – they get that glimmer, that starry-eyed look. You can see it brewing in them for days. No, you’re not like that …”
“I don’t know what I am,” I replied.
“You’re an interesting, cute, gentle, lovely sort of guy, Shenton, that’s what.”
“Well, right back at you, there, Ben,” I said, playing at being youthful. “Although I still feel that there’s a lot more to know about you, whereas you just about know all there is to tell about me.”
Ben laughed. “Well, shall I tell the worst now? Even though it will probably mean an end to our friendship?”
I urged him on, enjoying his comfortable banter.
“It’s what I do … for a living … Uh, I’m afraid, I’m a lawyer!”
“Ha,” I said, “I thought for one dreadful minute you were going to say something like investment banker … Though lawyer is pretty shameful …”
“To be fair,” he added. “I actually work for a charity, a human rights group, so I am actually one of the good guys, you could say.”
I liked what I was hearing, more and more.
“So how long are you in Britain for?” I said, suddenly keen to clarify things.
“I have a couple more weekends – uh, a fortnight, you’d say, huh?”
“I might,” I smirked. “It’s just a vacation, is it?”
“Pleasure, yep. I was at a conference in Leeds, but extended my trip for … Yep, for pleasure.”
“And am I destined … there’s that word again … Am I destined to be your holiday romance, eh?”
“Aw, heck, Shenton, I don’t think like that, really. I … We should talk a bit before we get too carried away, don’t you think?”
The path was starting to bend upwards to take in the first hill, with a slightly winding, but pretty steep course to the summit. “We’ll take a break at the top, eh?” I said, feeling a little hot and breathless. “Talk then.”
Even Ben, who was much fitter than me, was puffing a little as we took the final ascent to the top of The Prime Percy, as this first hill was known. “Crumbs!” he complained. “It looks so friendly from the bottom. I’m blowing hard here.”
There was a bench at the summit. We sat together, surveying the other two little peaks, one winking cheekily behind the other, that lay before us.
“So … “ said Ben, easily. “I’m a collector, for sure. That’s one thing that unites us, huh? I love books, history, libraries …”
“But the thing is, Ben,” I said, bluntly, “the first moment I saw you, I was drawn to you, before I knew anything about you, really. I mean, I knew you were interested in books, from what the landlady had said, but, for all I knew, you could have been another Lionel …”
“Thanks,” Ben put in.
“But that’s just it … I knew, I knew that you weren’t.”
“I made a careful entrance, Shenton. I wanted to make an impression.”
“Really? Why? I mean, how …?” I was unclear, uncertain.
“Tell me about that book,” Ben said suddenly.
“THE book, my book?” I wondered.
“What do you remember about it?”
“I’ve told you all. I really think it’s a figment, a conflation, a mistake. There is no book, Ben.”
“Maybe,” he replied, fiddling with the rucksack to take out juice, crisps, packets of sandwiches. “But maybe there was a book that spoke to you, that spoke about who you are on some kind of deep, secret, fantastic level, huh? Maybe the book just meant too much to you; it was too true to you. Maybe it revealed a part of you that you didn’t want to deal with …”
I considered this. “My queer side?”
“Queer … I love that word,” Ben said, in between bites of his chicken sandwich, “transverse, across, at an odd angle – you know?”
“I don’t,” I said, laughing, “I really don’t.”
We ate and drank without speaking for a minute or two.
I heard the light breeze ruffle the trees; I heard a distant whirr of a small aeroplane; I heard a blackbird, and then, early in the day for it, but very welcome, the whispering weep of a curlew’s cry. I felt rippled.
“Look,” Ben said at last, “I don’t want to push you into anything or confuse you at all. I get the sense that I might have awoken something in you, which is beautiful, and I have some idea why it might have happened, but … yeah … I’m only over here for a couple of weeks. I’m not trying to seduce you, really. I love to flirt but … hey, who doesn’t? I like you, as a friend, and you’re cute too, but I don’t do holiday flings, and I don’t mess people about, really.”
“I’m not much of a romancer, Ben. Not much good at relationships of any kind really. So I … I don’t know why I’ve been so drawn to you so suddenly, but I guess these things happen, don’t they? I mean, I don’t even know what has happened, what is happening. Do you?”
“I have an idea,” Ben said, almost to himself.
“I’m not saying that it’s a great surprise to find myself attracted to a man, and, hey, you have something else to add to that anyhow … I guess, I mean … Uh, I’m suddenly conscious that I might so easily offend you here. I don’t want to suggest anything that would cast doubt on who you are. I understand, I think, that someone who has made a change like yours does not feel that they are anything but what they have become …”
“That’s sweet of you,” Ben said. “But you don’t have to try to understand me. I don’t expect anyone to do or say anything in particular, really. Everyone has a right to respond to me how they want, don’t they?”
“Well, in so far as anyone has any rights whatever,” I began, suddenly caught up in an idea. “I mean, who says we have any rights anyhow?”
Ben laughed. “You remind me of my ethics seminars in college. Don’t.” He was looking at me, smiling all across his healthful, lightly tanned, broad, easy face.
“Shall we just say what we think, what we feel?” I said, trying on a new mode for size.
“Let’s,” Ben replied, mildly, ironically, playfully. His tone was so decisively, joyfully, daftly certain. I loved how he got the game, loved his finesse, his élan.
“Well, that would be interesting to me, because it is never, it has never been something I have been able to do … apart from during that little madness at college …”
“So, try it,” Ben said, before sipping, with extraordinary delicacy, from his little bottle of juice.
“Right. So something about the idea of transition, transgenderism really speaks to me. That’s new; that’s weird. And I have this feeling that I wish you would kiss me.”
“Cute, cute, cute …” Ben said, then he leaned towards me, asked me if I really wanted this with a fine, tender glance, then kissed me gently, purposefully on the lips.
The kiss was a well-aimed one, but might have been like any other, except that I knew that it was new, epoch-making, transgressive, queer. And so my soul kicked, leapt, flung itself outwards joyously, vibrantly, triumphantly. The kiss released me.
Slowly, he pulled back and smirked at me. “So, you see …” he began.
“That’s the moment,” I said. “That’s it.”
He touched my face with his hand, tendered me, tended to me, took me into his care. That was enough for now. We knew enough.
We talked after that – Ben mostly. He told delicious tales about himself: the arguments about dresses; the day she first “packed”, long before transition; the slinky boyfriend she had in college, who turned out to like to wear her panties; the bondage aficionado she shared a house with for a while; the cute boy he took under his wing and helped in his male to female change; the neighbour who seemed like a bigot but turned out to be a closet case with a active secret life; the forest where he lost himself; the trail he mapped out with a dear friend; the manic school friend who still sometimes would emerge back into his life, out of nowhere; the longest day he could recall; the gift that he stumbled upon.
The afternoon drifted lazily across the empty sky. We sat and talked and found all things simple and easy and right.
“I don’t know about destiny,” Ben said after an untroubled silent pause, “but I think there are moments when you just know, when a small hint, a little bit of evidence is enough. I mean … Let me give you an example: a few years ago I saw this magazine in a store. It was called Curious, which I liked as a title – curious as in a cabinet of curiosities, you know. It’s an eclectic, varied, weird collection of interesting ideas and images, a real mixture of all kinds of queer and arty matters. Well, I didn’t know anything about it then. So I just opened it at random and read the first line that I saw: it was from an article about Saladin – as a cultural icon – and I hit upon a quotation, a comment from one of his enemies about one of his entourage. “His existence itself is a satire of existence,” it said. That did it. I knew at once, knew I had to get the magazine, had to get it every quarter. It was for me, and it only took one sentence to show that. Is that destiny or something else?”
I just laughed.
“What?” Ben wondered, half-laughing himself. “Am I talking rubbish, is that it?”
“I read that magazine,” I said, eventually. “I love it. I subscribe. And I remember the Saladin piece, loved it, loved it.”
Ben leaned close and whispered in my ear, seriously but hilariously, in his husky, deep, Leonard Cohen voice: “Here I am; I’m your man.”
We held hands then, looked away into the blue distance.
A bird of prey, a buzzard perhaps, was hanging on the air, circling slowly, spiralling round the updraft. It was still but moving, fierce but beautiful.
“I had a boyfriend, not long after transition,” Ben said. “He used to play the piano, my piano. He always played the same thing, just one piece. It was a piece by Couperin, very gentle, very lapping. When I first heard it, I thought it was modern, a bit of minimalism. No, it was Couperin, just spinning, circling, winding its way. So we broke up, not well, not nice. He turned on me, who I was, my transition self, called me a twink. I was not impressed. And … just a few weeks later, on my own, I went to a movie, and they used that same piece, featured it beautifully throughout the movie. Forgiveness was the movie. I thought of my ex. And as I left the theatre, in an unaccustomed part of town, who should be there, just hanging around on the street corner?”
“Your ex?” I said, agreeing with him, with everything.
“Na,” said Ben, starting to laugh. “A really hot naval officer on shore leave. We went off to a cheap hotel and did stuff. It was great.”