I sat flicking sugar at a red sauce container shaped like a tomato when I first saw him. You know the ones they used to have in every cafe? I mean, not that that’s the important part of this story but still, the devils in the detail.
He was absolutely beautiful. Big brown eyes and a mop of shocking ginger hair like a gorgeous muppet, and that smile. A smile that made me deliriously happy and at the same time absolutely terrified because it confirmed once and for all what I was, how I felt, what I wanted but what I’d always been too scared to reach out and take. It was part of the reason I’d picked this cafe, a non descriptor builders, burly men sipping sugary tea and laughing away the aches and pains of life over a fried egg. I stood out in here but not for the reasons I feared. I stood out in here in my suit and with my brown leather suitcase, a gift from my Mother on my first day at the bank. My initials engraved on the handle, a lovely gesture but one that made me feel like she was always watching me , sat on my shoulder and rolling her eyes like a condescending parrot.
I envied him so much that day, how carefree he looked moving from table to table with such effortless grace. Sliding breadcrumbs and misplaced cigarette ash into his hand and making it look like he was on a catwalk. I was transfixed by him as I absent mindedly chewed my beef and mustard sandwich and ordered my third tea of the hour just to stare at him a little longer. My colleagues had long given up on including me on the Friday lunchtime drinks. The boisterous chat about the secretaries that would “get it” and the needling and non stop insistence to prove who had the biggest cock never being a game I excelled at.
So it was twenty to one on a Friday in March in 1989 when my life changed forever. As I slipped on my coat and waited for the crowd of lads to noisily push through the door he caught my eye and caused the skin on my face to burn with an intensity I’d never felt before or since. He smiled as he came over to the table and with a gentle touch reached out with a paper napkin to brush at the side of my mouth.
“Mustard” he said “mucky pup.”
And with that he was gone, towards the back of the cafe and behind the counter before I could workout what had happened. I sat there for about another five minutes, partly to let my erection subside and mainly because I was too stunned to think.
I came back again and again. Sometimes on my lunch but usually at the end of the day as I knew it would just be him there locking up. I was engaged by now to a woman, a nice woman called Rebecca whose Mother played golf with mine. We’d eat Sunday lunch with my parents and I’d think of him, we’d walk around Allied carpets, Tescos or home from the Indian restaurant, watch Sunday night telly, make love with the lights off or drive out to the country and all the time I’d think of him, of Mark.
A dancer, a painter, a poet working in his Grandads cafe, living life on his terms not like me. I never thought of him more than when we were together, in the back of the cafe, in cheap hotels, in the park or in the back of my car, peeling each others clothes off and making each other whole.
The years ticked by and everything changed but not for us. He flourished on the arts scene and dated extensively while Rebecca and I grew more and more haunted and miserable as we tried unsuccessfully for a child that would never come. We never fought Rebecca and I, we didn’t have the passion for it. I was so chewed up internally by the guilt of it all, wasting the best years of both of their lives that I tried to kill myself. Waking up having had my stomach pumped, Rebecca sobbing in my Mother’s arms in the hospital cafe, my Father leant over my bed and sneered
“I know what you are, you disgust me. You cant even off yourself properly.”
Mark came in the quiet of night, a friend of his who worked as a nurse letting him forgoe the usual visiting restrictions, red eyed and with a higher hairline but still every inch the beautiful muppet.
Rebecca left two weeks after I was discharged. I watched her pack up in sadness, no energy left to hate me. She wished me well and left her front door key on the coffee table saying that she didn’t want anything else from me. I saw her in a park years later, throwing a little boy up in the air as he laughed and laughed and it made me happier than I’d been for a longtime.
The happy ever after? Yes, this would be a good place for it to come. I was free wasn’t I? And yet Mark and I still dealt in snatched weekends and cloak and dagger meetings. He was so angry with me, in a long term relationship himself now. His lip would turn up as I packed my suitcase at the end of another night in holiday inn sheets.
“Back to reality now eh Mustard boy? If you’re not careful you’ll feel something one day.”
Because I never told him till it was too late, I couldn’t. How can you express love when you loathe yourself as much as I always have?
But still we didn’t stop. So many times he told me to leave him be, to disappear and never come back but still they came, the phone calls, the texts, the whatsapps. The passing of time enabling me to speak to colleagues in Asia, America and Europe on the same screen but not to tell the only person I’d ever loved,how much he meant to me.
Until a week after I turned 45 we met and I knew straight away that something wasn’t right. The swagger was still there but for the first time he looked vulnerable, dented almost.
Cancer he said. A lump on his neck that wouldn’t go away. A prognosis of six months, this was for a dancer in his prime. I couldn’t take it in and again I retreated like I always had, pushing him away because I didn’t want to feel.
That April it was my turn to sneak in under the darkness to a hospice. A place full of people in their 70’s rasping out their last breaths and him, my Mark, my muppet.
He could barely raise his head the last time I saw him. I shuddered and sobbed and clung to him telling him over and over again what he’d meant to me since that day and forever since
“I know mustard boy” he whispered, the blue veins straining out of his shorn skull, no red hair left now, life leaving him but still he drew me in.
“I’ve always known.”
I took early retirement at 50. I thought about killing myself a lot for the first year but I felt the least I could do in my pathetic life was to live a little longer for him. So now I visit places he talked about as he rested his head on my chest and I played with his curls. I sit on the decks of boats, on hotel balconies and deserted beaches and I think of him. I watch people live and laugh and shout and cry and I miss him. I wish he was still here dancing round everything in his path with grace.
But most of all I wish that I’d had the courage to live.