Every author needs to get to know his or her characters well, discovering things about their background that may not be revealed directly in the narrative he or she is creating. The piece that follows is an early exploration of the relationship between the principle protagonist of my novel Transgression and his gay partner. It is written in first person and the partner’s point of view. Those of my followers who have read the book will know that I later changed this character’s surname. And the couple’s pet, in the book, is a cat, not the dog featured here. I should warn you that, whilst I have cut out some material, it is still rather long for a standard blog post. I hope you’ll agree that it’s worth the effort of reading all the way to the end.
There are times when being alone is the most pleasant of things. And I shall always be grateful that there are still places where it is possible to be alone. That’s what I was thinking as I strode along the sand this morning. The tide was out and I could just about hear the sound of the waves coming from my right. On my left a line of dunes concealed the coast road. Somewhere above the dunes I could hear the song of a skylark as it soared invisibly into the clouds.
I had been walking for some twenty minutes when I came to the bank of the river. Here I became aware that the dunes had protected me from the wind which now declared its hand by whipping a fine dry powder in soft clouds close to the ground to highlight the ripples in the hard wet surface of the sand.
A swallow swooped low, skimming the ground in front of me as it looped around my legs several times. I had never seen such behaviour before and wondered where its nest could be, so far from human habitation. As I walked, sand flies skittered away and I concluded that the swallow found in them a ready source of food.
Vinny bounded ahead as soon as I released the lead. I’m not sure if Van Gough ever painted a dog, but if he had it would have looked just like Vinny, all lines and wrinkles around his face and fine golden curls under his belly. Seeing him in the pound, Roger and I both recognised it at once and immediately christened him Vincent, which we soon shortened to Vinny. That synchronicity of thought is what makes us so good together most of the time, the knowledge of it adding to the distress I feel at the way things have turned out between us in the past few weeks. This holiday is supposed to help us over it so that we can continue our lives together as always.
That’s why I wanted to be alone this morning; why I offered to take Vinny for his exercise, leaving Roger to prepare our breakfast, a task I usually perform. I needed space to think about recent events, and work out a way back from the frustrations that had begun to appear since he retired. The truth is the poor man misses work. We are not used to being together in the house on a daily basis. At first retirement had seemed like a long holiday. But there came a time when all the jobs that needed doing about the house and garden were done, and there was nothing left to fill his days.
Neither of us feels old enough yet to spend hours watching day time TV. I, always having been the one who keeps the house clean and tidy, can keep myself busy dusting, hoovering and washing and ironing our clothes. Roger has taken on some of that, and claims he enjoys it, although I suspect he says so only to appease me. As a nurse, I am in the fortunate position of being able, even after retirement, to take on the occasional shift filling in for absentees from the regular staff. It keeps me in touch with former colleagues and gives me something to do outside the home still.
I think that Roger needs something like that. I thought perhaps he might have been tempted to write a novel but that did not appeal. Too used to dealing with facts in his job as a journalist he claims. Making things up is not his cup of tea, not when real life is so much more interesting, or so he says. Anyway, it means that our relationship is going through a torrid time just now, each of us sniping at the other about the smallest things. Last night it was about the choice of TV programme: he decided he wanted to watch football. I was all for Master Chef, a programme we both like, both of us being enthusiastic cooks.
“We never watch football,” I pointed out. “Why the sudden interest?”
“I just fancied a change. I’m getting a bit tired of Greg and John and their staged debates about which contestant is going to be eliminated, when it is always obvious which of them can’t boil an egg.”
“Stop exaggerating,” I said. “You know it’s always between two who are equally incompetent. Anyway, it’s the insights into the workings of professional kitchens that makes the programme interesting. You always said that; or were you just saying it to please me?”
“I bet that’s staged, too. A star-rated chef would never let a bunch of amateurs loose in his kitchen like that. They are only in it for the publicity.”
“Oh go on then! Watch your football. You’re obviously in one of your stews.”
And that’s what we did. Sat there stiffly, neither of us really watching the game – I couldn’t even tell you who was playing whom – both of us in a bit of a sulk, wondering what had soured our relationship.
By the time the match was over we had both cooled down and we laughed at our stupidity. But I layed awake for ages worrying about where we will be if this carries on much longer. Things should be easier for us now that public opinion is generally less hostile to relationships like ours. I have seen young gays walking hand in hand on the street, something we still wouldn’t dare to do. But it’s reassuring to know we could if we wished. It’s all so much different from the days when we had to hide our sexuality or face the jeers and sneers of a society conditioned to believe we were a threat to them and their children.
In school my name provided the bullies with an easy epithet to add to the everyday ones of “poof” and “queer”. The initials C.C. – for Conrad Clarkson – all too easily became “sissy”. Back then “Connie” was equally a name I abhored because it almost always carried the same connotation of contempt, as though I was in some way a lesser being. Now it is spoken with affection by most of those who know me and I am comfortable with it. Perhaps being comfortable is part of our problem, mine and Roger’s: we’ve been together for so many years now and been through so much together.
When we first met it was at the height of the AIDS crisis. That gave the homophobes another stick with which to beat us. The Gay Plague it was called. I lost so many friends then, between the straight ones that were scared to be near me, and the gay friends who contracted the disease and died a lingering death. Roger was my rock back then, and I can’t imagine what would become of me if we were to part now.
Anyway, to cut a long story short so to speak – not boring you am I? – I needn’t have worried. When we got back to the holiday cottage Roger was full of excitement. Vinny sensed it and that’s how I got scrambled egg all over my face and everything – in my hair, down my shirt front. I was a right mess, I can tell you. Roger came to the door to greet us carrying the bowl in which he was mixing eggs and milk for our breakfast. Vinny, with that sixth sense dogs have, must have felt his excitement and bounded up, sending the bowl flying out of Roger’s hands and straight into my face. The egg everywhere wasn’t the worst of it. The edge of the bowl caught the bridge of my nose and left a nasty bruise. Whilst we were chastising poor Vinny and trying to clear up the mess the toast burned and set off the smoke alarm. For a while it was like something out of Brian Rix but without the double entendres.
When it was all over and we finally got to talk about something else, Roger explained that Madge Morris – you know, the woman that plays the part of landlady at the Red Hart pub in the eponimous soap – she comes from the same town as Roger. Well, she’s only asked him to help her write her autobiography. So now he has something to keep him occupied and we are going to be OK. I am so happy for him.