FICTION: The Art of Dying by Graham Kirby

“I have something to tell you.”

It was seven months since the dead years ended. They had been barren but Anthony did not, at first, even notice. One day, he realised that great emotion was beyond him. He could have reacted, but instead he just accepted it and carried on.

It changed at a bus stop near the Albert Embankment, some time before dawn. One word ended it: “Hi.”

Over a decade his life had developed into a routine. He clambered into a sweaty Northern Line tube to get to work. He took his lunch alone in his office. By about 3 o’clock, he was pretty much finished and free to leave. Instead, he worked until 5 then cruised the toilets in the lower cloisters.

Then he was brought before the head of department. He feigned innocence as best as any guilty person could and was let off with a indulgent warning: “In terms of miscreancy, it is pretty minor.” Since then, he explained to prurient friends that he did not shit on his own doorstep. Students, especially his students, were off limits.

His alternative became a private glory hole some guy operated near Covent Garden.

He regarded Thursdays as the unofficial beginning to the weekend. With the advent of Grindr, he did not even have to wait until he was home to start. More often than not, by the time he got home he’d arranged something.

At weekends themselves, he occupied himself with the usual household chores that everyone did, saw the usual friends for drinks, attended birthday parties and other tame social occasions. However, the purpose of the weekend was sex. On Saturday afternoons, he used to pop into Oscars until it closed. Evenings, he went to Chariots or Pleasuredrome, or a sex club in Camden or Vauxhall; during summer, he’d get into his car and drive to the heath. Like the Roman, his motto was “unum e pluribus”. Though, wherever he was, he rarely confined himself to the singular.

The first time Anthony felt grown up was when, rather than accept his mother’s dreary invitation for a Christmas with his family, he used the sufficient funds in his bank account to book a week away in Amsterdam.

It became part of his ritual. A week in Berlin or Amsterdam in winter, then three weeks in Gran Canaria, Ibiza or Mykonos in the summer. Everything was the same. Only the location was different.

He never went with friends. Even the faces he had grown to recognise over the years, he tried to ignore. He knew he was nothing much to look at, but he refused to revisit the past.

As a undergraduate, he loved London’s willingness to envelope him into a crowd so that he was no longer a student but just another anonymous body. Sex was the same. He didn’t want to be anyone.

Anthony grew to be a tribe alone, but he no longer felt anything. He had before. The instant once hid a greater quest. Now it was mechanistic, the pleasure lost in a climax so fleeting he needed it more. He forgot to look. He had forgotten he was looking.

And then, as he sleepily looked at the gleaming buildings against the dim light, he heard the voice behind him. He turned, but at first did not recognise the smiling face.

“Oh. Hi.”

“You kinda ran,” the face said.

“Yeah. Sorry. I presumed you’d – well, you know.”

The face beamed at this point.

“My first time there.”

“Really?” Anthony briefly raised his eyebrows. “And did you like it?”

“Yes and no.”

Anthony cocked his head in curiosity, then noticed that the other was not wearing a jacket.

“Fuck, man. You must be freezing. Do you want this?” He let his jacket slip off his shoulders and half offered it to the stranger in the thin hoodie.

“Oh no. You can’t do that! But I will share it.”

The stranger then nestled himself into Anthony’s jacket. There was something oddly naive and forward about him. It was endearing.

“I’m Gabe by the way.”

“Anthony. Ant, I mean. By god, you’re cold!”

“Sorry!” Gabe went to remove himself from the warmth of the jacket until Ant’s arms stopped him.

“It’s OK. I’ll let you stay this once,” he said. “So what were the bad points and good points?”

Gabe looked at him quizzically.

“Of the sauna.”

“Oh. I’m not really sure they are for me. It’s – I dunno. It’s a fun fantasy.”

“And the good points?” He was fishing now.

“I enjoyed meeting you.”

“Meeting me, eh?” Ant gave a sleazy smile as he remembered what he had whispered earlier into the other’s ear.

Before Gabe could say anything else, the 344 came into view.

“Are you -?” Ant asked.

“Yes. This is my bus.”

“Where are you going?”

“Wimbledon.”

Anthony paused and thought for a split second.

“Do you want to come- ?”

“No. Sorry.”

Something stiffened in Anthony.

“Well, no. Sorry. I mean, I would love to. But I can’t. I have work tomorrow.”

The bus stopped and Ant guided the other through the doors.

“Upstairs.”

“I wasn’t lying when I said I wish I could.”

The top deck was empty but when Ant sat on the back row one behind Gabe, the boy immediately stood up and sat next to him.

In the unnatural light, he noticed that Gabe was older than he first thought when he saw him in the cubicle. Not that that was a problem. Anthony’s religion was ecumenical. He was perhaps 27.

“So what do you do?”

“I work in a cafe. What about you?”

“I work in a university. I mean, I’m a lecturer.”

“Nice. What do you lecture in?”

“English.” He hesitated. “Medieval stuff. What about you? What do you do in your cafe?”

”I’m learning to be a pastry chef.”

As they chatted on, Anthony found that he was actually interested in the answers and the conversation was not part of a necessary preamble to sex. This was unusual.

At Lavender Hill, the bus stopped. The engine revved but the vehicle did not move. As the bus remained stubbornly motionless, Anthony knew that he could get off and walk the final distance but was enjoying talking to the man curled into his chest. He even felt a pang of disappointment when the bus began to move again.

“What about you? Do you have a boyfriend?” Gabe asked.

“No. Not for a long time.”

“Any reason?”

Anthony remembered sitting on the grass on Hoxton Square eleven years before, when he was a finalist, listening to the one person he should have been able to trust turning lies into truth. He was unable to resist at the time but, like a slave released from bondage, accepted his freedom when it came.

“Long story. Look, this is my stop coming up. You are on Grindr?”

“No.”

“Here. Put your number in my ‘phone. I’ll message you.”

“Tomorrow, yes?”

“Promise.”

Anthony started walking towards the staircase.

“Would you like a boyfriend?”

The question was so stark it should not have been asked. It ought not to have been answered either. Before Ant turned to walk down the steps, he heard he himself saying: “Yes. I really think I would.”

The next day, they messaged from when Gabe finished work until bedtime. Ant supposed that would be a one-off but the pattern repeated itself the next evening. It became their rhythm so that he would rarely wake up without there being a message on his phone, nor go to bed without sending one.

Gabe consumed his thoughts. When he got home, he obsessively looked at the clock waiting for his first message of the evening. He day dreamed in idle moments. When Gabe was not around, he thought constantly of the other.

Things that would exasperate him in others did not even irritate him in Gabe. Everything that he first thought about him was wrong. The only thing he got right was that he liked him.

Sometimes they would see each other Tuesday but never Wednesday when Gabe went to help a friend going through a rough patch. Usually, Gabe would turn up on his doorstep on Thursday, and stay until Saturday, occasionally to return on Sunday. Each week was the same but the spontaneity when they were together prevented any boredom.

Anthony was not given to internal examination. He led his life by a series of strict rules. Gabe stripped these away.

It was as he noticed this that his thought was interrupted.

“You look different.”

“Do I, Dr Paulson?”

His rival mocked him with a suspicious look.

“Decidedly so.”

It was Thursday and Anthony was rushing off to let Gabe in.

“Look,” he laughed, “I guess I am, Kate. I’ll tell you on Monday. Lunch, yeah?”

“Sure. Go on then. But I’m watching you.”

She put two fingers to her eyes then towards Anthony but he was already on his way.

When he arrived back at his house, there was no Gabe. Half-an-hour later, he still had not arrived. Anthony messaged him a few times, then rang. Nothing. He gave one final ring then went to bed. He guessed they did not have an arrangement. But they always saw each other on Thursday.

It was not until Saturday that Anthony woke to find a message on his phone. It somehow did not placate him. Then Gabe sent another message: it had been a long time, he needed to hear his voice. They chatted that evening. Ant did not ask any questions about his absence. His anger became a thing of the past. He denied it ever was.

For two weeks, Gabe was mainly absent. He needed some space, he said. And might need more. He messaged a few times a day to check Ant was ok, constantly reassuring him that it was nothing to do with him.

Somehow the messy sincerity eased Ant’s confusion. He had never pushed him too far. From the minute Ant left the bus, he decided two things: he would show himself without game-playing and he would let the other decide the pace.

Then on the third Thursday, he found Gabe on his doorstep. Only afterwards did he talk.

“Look. I’ve got something to tell you. I’m married.”

* * *

Somewhere in between fiction and reality, he looked out of the window.

It was early, but summer dawn had come before the crowds of commuters swarmed towards their workplaces. There were no buses or black cabs hurtling up and down the street. If night time were the witching hour, then this urban desert held a different kind of death.

And none of it struck him as odd.

He turned to look towards St Mary le Strand, he saw the black figure at its gates waiting. The clock chimed. The figure, its face hidden, started walking down the middle of the road. Each step became lighter. Each step become became more dramatic until the figure was almost dancing.

Elaborately, it approached the woman who sat on the wall of the island between the two sides of the street. It placed one leg in front of the other so that its thin form slipped out of its robe, then one arm stretched out until it bowed dramatically before her as in supplication to some monarch. It was both fawning and imposing. It curled its index finger to encourage her.

Come with me, the silent hand said. Come with me.

As if in a dream, she set aside her camera, she looked at the people filming her in apology, and took a place trailing the figure to follow it down the street, her golden hair and red dress flowing in the wind behind her.

On the facing street, a skeleton gave his hand to the banker on the way to his temple the other side of Fleet Street. Decked in a blue suit with a purple pinstripe, wherever he turned the skeleton twisted around to entrance him. This way and that they writhed but, like the grim leader, the man could not resist long before he joined the strange spectacle as it weaved down the street.

One by one, reaper and his servants gathered. As the crowd became bigger, their procession gained a greater melody. They were trapped, yet none seemed anything but accepting.

One skeleton danced up and down the pavement before the darkened windows of closed shops with a large reed pipe as if it were some kind of enchanter, mesmerising those who might resist. Another pranced on the road in a feather hat. Skeletons with harps, with fiddles, with brass horns paraded with others in straw hats, in top hats, with lanterns.

They only broke to collect commuters and pedestrians alike.

Each time they met with less resistance. Two leapt onto a waiting bus and returned with a throng of passengers, ladies, gentlemen, wealthy and poor, to join them. Another gave a beckoning finger to three workmen: astonished by the boney smiles, soon their tools were on the pavement and they joined the mass.

Finally, two skeletons went into the McDonalds by the train station and returned with three workers; a small crowd gathered and the last joined the parade. Then, one skeleton woke the rough sleeper from his poor sleep and guided him towards the lady in the red dress; she took his hand as guide.

To each person and with each gesture they had called the crowd to come with them. And they did. As their grotesque pageant retreated into the distance, he could neither tell the difference between the living, nor between the living and the dead.

A sudden knock banished the scene and he turned into the room.

“It’s my dissertation, Anthony. You said to come and see you.”

Anthony stared at the student poking his head around door without registering any emotion.

“Yes. You are correct. I did.”

* * *

Anthony read enough fiction to have a healthy disrespect for the phrase “his world collapsed around him” and its variants. However, as much as he tried, he could not think of a more appropriate phrase for his own situation. Where before he knew certainty, now he could see only doubt; happiness was substituted with gloom.

He felt a fool. He felt hubristic. He felt like a character in a novel whose arrogance almost begged for a downfall.

On the Monday, he turned to Kate and he poured out the story, his only solace being that he could do so without comparison to his previous loftiness. Kate was beyond sympathetic: the more he explained to her the greater her concern.

That evening they got drunk. The kind of drunk that students indulged in. Professional restraint vanished. It was beyond the pale, she said, to withhold something so big from someone. Totally unacceptable. He jumped to Gabe’s defence but in doing only denied what he had lost.

Little bits and pieces began to make sense: before he never found it strange that they never once went to Gabe’s house and he met few of his friends. He had no desire to take any lover to meet his family, so it did not occur to him that anyone else would. Before he saw Gabe’s disappearances as just part of their relationship; now he understood that it was part of a necessary deception of riding two horses at the same time.

As they messaged, Ant found out more: shame first prevented the younger from saying anything other than that he knew he needed to tell him and that his situation was complicated.

They had split. That was what took Gabe to the sauna. He did not expect, even as they hugged at the bus stop, to like Ant so much. Nor did he expect to get back with his partner. Once the reunited, he knew that the timer was ticking for the day he would have to tell the truth. Yet the fantasy of their existence was the only thing keeping him going as he was forced to plan a wedding he wanted little part of.

Gabe’s relationship itself was not one based around sex and never had been. They rarely even slept in the same bed. They last slept together over two years ago. They were like two close friends wrapped in their own histories: Alan took Gabe in when his parents threw him out; later Gabe comforted Alan when his father was diagnosed with cancer. There were two decades and a little more between them. Their relationship worked for them but it was not working.

Bit by bit it came out. The death of Al’s father and the sudden proposal; it was as if the more they tried to patch their relationship, the more they failed.

Anthony tried not to give in to his baser feelings but eventually broke and went to Facebook to see pictures of the wedding. He tortured himself by running through the pictures again and again. The two of them together, their heads tilted in to touch each other and faint smiles of happiness on their faces.

#HappyCouple. #WeddingoftheYear.

And beneath a host of comments.

It was not jealousy that made Anthony physically sick but the facade. He looked at the date. And remembered. The garbled message. The forgiveness. The phone-sex.

He tried to understand, but the public charade was alien.

Anthony was someone trapped. On the day he told him, Gabe asked him to message before bedtime. Ant did that. He also messaged in the morning. He tried to play everything down. Although he was torn with hurt, he refused to let that show.

Instead, he fussed over Gabe. He made sure he was OK.

Ant was addicted. He wanted him no less. Despite the conflicts, he forgave.

There was a huge part of him that understood the deception. When they met, neither held any claims upon the other; there was no reason why Gabe should tell him of a relationship that might not even exist. Ant had not expected to fall for Gabe, so he could understand how the other expected only fun. There was never the perfect moment to tell something. And the longer it was left, the worse – the harder – it became.

The difference was, what was escape – however grounded in heartfelt emotions – for one was reality for the other. Perversely, the risk was greater with the one who seemed to have least to lose.

Despite the change, they spoke nearly everyday. A few times, Gabe escaped and went to Ant’s house where they managed to eek out time together. Time had altered their rhythm if not their tune.

What Anthony hid was the collapse.

The world now stretched out without end, and – like Prometheus – he was bound, without the protection of strangers.

Six weeks after the revelation, Anthony received a message from Gabe:

“My relationship is falling apart. Are you free?”

Without hesitation, Ant offered his house as a retreat, and later found the teary man sitting, as he once did, on the doorstep. As they walked in, Gabe apologised. He then apologised again as he sat on the sofa. While Anthony made tea, Gabe went through the story. Anthony’s gaze fell to his hands as he listened before retreating back to the distressed man sitting in front of him. He offered platitude after platitude. There seemed nothing else to do.

“I’m so sorry to do this to you,” said Gabe when he had exhausted his story. “You’re such a great guy. I really don’t deserve it.”

“Don’t be silly. It’s fine.” Anthony smiled. “Do you want to stay the night?”

“He texted.”

“I’m pleased.”

Gabe smiled, then spoke:

“May I have a cuddle?”

Anthony stepped down from the sofa’s arms, and wrapped his arms around the shrunken figure. They stayed together like that for some time before, as the time approached ten o’clock, they walked hand in hand in silence to the bedroom.

They carefully undressed each other. Naked they got into bed and curled into each other.

Gabe rested his head upon Anthony’s chest, eyes closed, while Anthony stared beyond him at the deadness of the future.

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Graham Kirby

Graham Kirby Lives

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