First Place 2021 — ‘Your Call’ by Tony Peake


To begin with, William had liked it that Eric should be so needy. Always calling or texting when they were apart, even if William was only at the shops. It proved surely how much Eric cared; how deeply loved William now was; how lucky to have found his man. But lately – lately this behaviour had begun to make him feel suffocated.

‘No need to ring,’ William said as he gave Eric a departing kiss. ‘Really there isn’t. I’ll ring when I arrive. Promise.’

Darkness had fallen and Eric’s face was largely in shadow, the porch light being a feeble one. But William could still see the inevitable worry in Eric’s eyes.

‘It’s not as if I’ll start speeding or anything foolish like that. Not in this weather. I’d be mad!’

For in addition to the dark, it was raining heavily, there was a wind.

‘No need to check on me, is what I’m saying. I’ll be just fine. Really I will.’

Eric took quick hold of William’s hand and began toying with the gold band of his ring. ‘I don’t want you to go. Already I’m missing you. And on a night like this, of course I worry. Who wouldn’t?’

‘And I love you too!’

‘Really?’

‘Really.’

‘You sure?’

‘Of course I’m sure.’

Giving Eric a final kiss, William dashed for the car and dived inside it, put on his seatbelt, turned the key, switched on the headlights, then wound down his window to shout one last farewell to the good-looking figure on the porch, hand raised in a forlorn wave.

‘I’ll be the one to phone when I get to the hotel. Okay? You watch some telly meanwhile. Or the ironing! You could always do the ironing.’

‘Love you!’ called Eric in return, the ring on his fourth finger glinting in the porch light as his hand moved this way and that through the blustery air, semaphoring affection.

‘Love you too! Silly man.’

Despite the weather, the start of his journey wasn’t difficult. His was one of very few cars on a pretty familiar road. But when he reached the motorway, things changed. A string of lorries in the left-hand lane was throwing up sheet after sheet of water, making the middle lane particularly hazardous. Tempted, as a result, into the outside lane, William then found the cars here too fast and so quickly chose to shelter again among the lorries. Except that the dazzle of their lights in his rear-view mirror made him pull into the middle lane once more – where, after passing just a couple of the hurtling monsters, their overwhelming spume caused him to risk the outside lane for another brief spell before seeking renewed sanctuary on the left, even as the lorries’ aggressive headlights continued to blind him.

Meanwhile his somewhat interrupted thoughts were with the paradox of Eric and a pre-Christmas party that he, William, had once thrown in the damp and dismal flat he’d been renting off the Holloway Road. The last of his salary squandered on drink and snacks and an over-large Christmas tree, which he’d propped precariously in a corner of the living room and hung with specially purchased lights, not as festive in reality as when advertised on their box. A whole morning spent hoovering the stained carpet and buying some flowers and getting in enough ice to keep the wine and the beer cool. An afternoon spent laying out snacks on paper plates and improvising vases for the flowers and discovering at the last minute that he needed to wash all the glasses he’d hired if wanted them not to be sticky.

Sticky! The word had applied generally. He’d invited everyone he’d ever known to the party, including people he’d not seen in years – and with whom he’d found reconnection elusive and difficult. Especially as he was having to dart from group to group without anyone to help him in his duties, or keep an eye for him on the mince pies warming in the oven.

And why was he alone? Because Sue, with whom he’d been in a tepid relationship for the last year or so, had gone on holiday with her oldest friend to Thailand. Which said it all really. If she preferred travelling without him, why were they an item? Never mind his own misgivings, which he’d had from the start, if he was honest. Maybe before the start even.

Increasingly, therefore, as the evening wore on and the wine and the beer took effect, William wondered at the wisdom of throwing the party in the first place. Foolish to imagine that just by gathering all his friends and acquaintances under one roof, he’d be able to see some pattern in his hopeless life. Which is definitely what he’d been hoping for, he now realised. To see a way forward, out of the impasse.

Until, on returning to the kitchen for a bottle of wine, he’d encountered Eric at the fridge, arranging the magnetic letters on its surface into what could have been a poem.

‘Sorry! Do you mind? I’m Eric, by the way. I came with Geoffrey. I’m camping out on his floor for a bit. Hope that’s okay?’

‘What, that you’re sleeping on Geoffrey’s floor?’

‘No,’ said Eric with a sudden, shy smile. ‘That I’ve gate-crashed your party. But Geoffrey said you wouldn’t mind. You’ve invited everyone, he said.’

‘Geoffrey said that?’

‘The more the merrier, I suppose. And why not?’

‘If you’ll excuse me,’ said William, ‘I need to get at the fridge.’

Eric stepped to one side, William moved forward – and immediately saw what Eric had spelled there. It wasn’t a poem at all. Or if it was, it didn’t rhyme. A haiku, maybe? Or were there too many syllables?

William is very handsome

Sexy and very sad

Why?

This is what Eric had written on the fridge door. Shocked, William turned to stare at the young stranger who’d presumed not only to gate-crash his party, but his closely guarded privacy as well.

‘Guilty,’ said Eric softly, the expression in his brown eyes not wavering. ‘Guilty as charged, I’m afraid. Sorry.’

Then he’d reached for William’s face and pulled it towards his own and William had felt, as he dissolved into Eric’s arms, like all his hurt and uncertainty, his confusion and fear, everything that had ever held him back, was dissolving also. Here was a way forward. The looked-for pattern. Handed him on a plate – a plate which, to borrow two of the words deployed by Eric on the fridge, was truly handsome, truly sexy. No doubt about that.

There was a wolf-whistle from the kitchen door, but William didn’t turn. He’d stepped over the threshold into his future and the last thing he wanted was to let that future go.

Deciding to try the middle lane again, he grinned at the memory of what he’d taken to saying when friends – until this point in his life, he’d only ever been with women – had asked about Eric. A case of magnetic attraction. That had been their witty catch phrase. As and when needed. Not that it had come in necessary all that often. Some friends had been surprised, but a greater number had just shrugged, as if they already knew.

The passing cars in the outside lane threw striations of light onto his hands, highlighting the band on his finger. Glinting symbol of how securely he and Eric were now joined. Yet in glancing at the ring, William made the mistake of taking his eyes off the road. A car cut sharply in front of him, causing him to brake and the car behind to flash its lights. The moment was over almost before it began, but even so, it left William feeling horribly shaken. In conditions such as these, with the sweep of the windscreen wipers, granting only intermittent sight of the road ahead, even a momentary lapse of concentration could prove fatal. You couldn’t be too careful.

Back in the relative safety of the left lane, sandwiched between juggernauts, William’s pulse began to settle. His thoughts returned to Eric and how miraculous Eric’s sudden arrival into his life had been. How he’d moved out of that dismal flat. How Eric’s support had galvanized him into changing jobs, thus starting the climb to where he was today. How, at a stroke, confusion and loneliness had become things of the past; things which, as he and Eric spooned together at night, he need no longer fear. In Eric’s arms, he felt safe; in Eric’s arms, he was himself at last. Like with the ring that encircled his finger. So too did Eric encircle him. Though on this occasion, he didn’t risk looking at the ring. This time he kept his eyes strictly on the lorry spume ahead, aware that to do otherwise would be foolish in the extreme.

No, he really must cut Eric some slack. Be more sympathetic. Less withdrawn. More open. Less prickly. Attend to his own behaviour, rather than Eric’s.

Smiling ruefully, and to hell with the poor visibility, William pulled into the middle lane again. The faster he drove, the sooner he’d reach his destination and be able to make good his promise to Eric to call. Tell him all about his hotel room, because naturally Eric would want to know every detail, down to the contents of the mini bar. Were there Pringles? What flavour? How many pillows? How thick? He always did, silly man.

Then he’d reiterate about the people he was due to meet. He’d confirm when his business would end and when exactly he’d be returning home. Everything that Eric, as his protector, would demand to be told.

He was forgetting something, though. Of course! He must also tell Eric how much Eric meant to him. That he couldn’t live without him. Wanted to be back in their marital bed, spooning together. How much he loved Eric. The most important detail of all.

At this moment, William’s mobile, which was in his pocket, began telepathically to vibrate. Eric, no less – it had to be. Unable, of course, to keep his side of the bargain. Now there was a surprise! Unable, as always, to let William out of his sight without then reaching for the damned phone. William frowned. Under the circumstances, it would be madness to answer and anyway – silly Eric, silly, silly Eric! He really should learn.

Learn what though? To love less? Was that what William wanted? Of course he didn’t. Without Eric, he’d still be somewhere off the Holloway Road, marking time, failing to be himself. Which was why, even though he happened to be alongside a particularly dangerous and distracting lorry, William took his eyes off the road in order to fumble in his pocket for his vibrating phone.

About the writer:

As a short story writer, Tony Peake has contributed to four volumes of Winter’s Tales, The Penguin Book of Contemporary South African Short Stories, The Mammoth Book of Gay Short Stories, The Gay Times Book of Short Stories: New Century New Writing, New Writing 13, Yes, I am! Writing by South African Gay Men, Speak my Language and Other Stories, Best British Short Stories 2016, and the forthcoming Queer Life, Queer Love (Muswell Press). He edited (and contributed to) a themed anthology entitled Seduction (Serpent’s Tail, 1994). He is the author of three novels, A Summer Tide (Abacus, 1993), Son to the Father (Little, Brown, 1995) and North Facing (Myriad Editions, 2017), and a biography of Derek Jarman (Little, Brown, 1999). Further details on: www.tonypeake.com

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