Short Story: 50 Reasons for Side Stories

This week I wrote some character studies based on the people Mark met in 50 Reasons. I thought it would be fun to see life through the eyes of Nick, his first gay friend, or Catherine, the homophobic shrink (remember her??), or Jenny.
Writing from Mark’s point of view in first person I never got the chance to reveal the inner working of the other character’s brains. I don’t think these will ever make it into a novel, but just for fun, here they are, in first draft, unpolished form.
If you have the time, let me know what you think!
#1 Nick. 

The love of my life? Well, it would have to be… actually, I suppose it depends whether we’re talking about requited or unrequited love. So I guess there have been two. One of each.
The best relationship I ever had was with a guy called Darren. He was a fireman, and I always thought he looked really sexy in his uniform. He was very gentle, very calm. It was a good match really, oil to calm my own troubled waters. Not that most people would ever realise the turmoil I always felt deep down. Most people would guess that I was the calm one. I was always very good at battening down the hatches to keep trouble out. And in, for that matter. My father used to say, “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.” We all learnt pretty quickly how to keep it all inside.
I’m not sure Darren ever actually knew about Mark… but that, of course, comes at the end, not the beginning.

Darren and I met because my car caught fire. I thought that was dead romantic really, not to have met in a bar or on internet. Of course, Internet didn’t exist in those days but there were those premium phone numbers you could call to hear people saying things like, “Gay white male, swimmer’s body, eight inch dick, looking for similar for fun and friendship and maybe more.”
I was driving home from London when it happened. About a mile from the motorway exit I saw smoke coming from the engine. I didn’t want to stop on the motorway – breakdown recovery costs a fortune if you do, so I limped on to the slip-road – I was pretty skint in those days, which is why I was driving an ancient rusty Golf in the first place.
As soon as I got off the motorway I pulled over into the entrance to a farmer’s field. I peered under the bonnet expecting it all to be a mystery – I was never very good with cars – but in fact it was dead simple. I had left the oil cap off and oil had sprayed all over the engine, and was evaporating in white smelly clouds. I even found the oil cap wedged between a couple of wires. So I got the oil from the boot to top it up (it burnt a lot, so I always had some with me) and started to fill it back up which was a bugger to do because the hole was sunk way down in the engine and I didn’t have a funnel. Anyway, I managed to get most of the oil to go in the hole, but just as I was finishing the wind caught a thread of oil and blew it onto the exhaust pipes where they come out of the engine – the manifold I think it’s called (though god knows how I know that) – and the oil popped, and sizzled, and then burst into flames.
I jumped back in shock. Then – sad-ass that I am – I tried to blow the flames out. I didn’t have a fire extinguisher so, hoping to cut off the oxygen supply I dropped the bonnet down. This had no effect either, and so it was that I stood back and watched as the paint on the front of the car started to brown and blister and pop, as the flames started to spew out at the edges.

About half an hour later Darren turned up in his fire engine, and I would have to say that I didn’t notice him at first. I was pretty stressed by now from watching my car burn, and wondering if it would explode like the cars in films always seem to. Darren assured me that this only happens in movies and American ones at that, and proceeded to put the flames out with a fire extinguisher. Since that incident I always make sure I have a fire extinguisher in the car. Better late than never, as they say.
Darren hung around until we were sure that the car wouldn’t re-ignite, and then he drove me back into town. He took me right to my house, which I remember thinking seemed beyond the call of duty, and then he said, “I come past here every day – maybe I’ll call in for coffee some time,” to which I replied, “Sure, yeah, I mean, anytime.”
But in truth I still hadn’t twigged. My mind was elsewhere, worrying about how I would survive without a car. It was only the next day I wondered what the coffee business was all about and it was the day after that it first crossed my mind that he could have been gay.
About a week later – I remember that the car had been towed to the breaker’s (they gave me thirty pounds) and my mum had leant me her horrible orange Metro – I came out of the flat and he was sitting there in his truck. I somehow plucked up the courage to invite him in for coffee (this made me late for work, but it was worth it) and that was it really.
He came for coffee a few times, and then one night we went out for a drink together, and when we left the pub he jokingly said, “My place or yours,” and I said, “Yours.”
The sex was good. Chris fucked me senseless as I recall, which was a welcome break as my previous tricks and boyfriends had all been bottoms, and he was friendly and calm and gentle, and I loved his uniform. I loved the way the trousers hugged his arse, and I loved his shiny boots. I expect that sounds superficial, but I maintain that this kind of detail is important. If you live with someone and the first thing that happens every day is that you see them get dressed and think, whoar! then the relationship is sorted really. Well, for a while it is.
Chris and I got on great – we lived at his place so much that about six months after we met I gave up my own flat. He had a dog, an old mongrel called Charley. He couldn’t really leave him for long, and he couldn’t stay at my place because Charley would chew the furniture. And the furniture wasn’t mine to be chewed. I always rented furnished in those days.
We never argued, the sex was good, it was all very easy. Maybe a little lacking in passion, or drama or whatever, but nice. A sort of permanent nice surprise, especially for me because I had never dated anyone for more than three weeks up until then.
And then I met this guy called Mark, and somehow, very slowly but very surely, that put a spanner in the works.
Mark was in the process of “coming out” when I met him. He just walked into the Burleigh Arms one day – that was Cambridge’s gay pub. I remember it vividly because he was terrified, sort of red and all trembly. He had been seeing some awful homophobic woman shrink. That time – the day I met him – was possibly the first time he had ever been in a gay pub. I naturally took him under my wing. He needed it, and I liked him, so…
I used to meet up with him and we would talk for hours. I persuaded him to stop seeing the bitch-shrink, and I got him drunk and set him up with his first shag.
But what was really happening, and no one really knows this, was that I was falling in love with him. I don’t think even I realised it at the time.
I still loved Darren of course. Anyone who says that you can’t love two people at once is talking shite. I loved Darren exactly the way I had always loved him. But I fell in love with this Mark guy too. He was clever and funny. He always seemed to be looking for the meaning of life which made a change. Most of my gay friends looked no further than the ends of their dicks.
I don’t think Mark ever had the slightest idea either, which is pretty wild really when you consider how much time we spent together. He only had eyes for this fuck-up American called Dirk. Dirk treated Mark like shit but for some reason Mark just ran around behind him panting and whining for attention, a bit like Charley. It was very irritating to watch.
I never told Darren how I felt about Mark – as I say, for a very long time I didn’t realise myself – but I suppose it leaked out somehow. I remember I used to complain a lot about this Dirk character – I couldn’t bear to see him hurting Mark time after time, and I remember Darren asking why I cared so much. I think Dirk was probably the only subject Darren and I ever argued about.
But even then, I don’t think Darren realised I was in love with Mark. It just somehow, subconsciously, oozed out and polluted everything else.
Three years into our relationship – about a year after I met Mark – the sex faded away between Darren and me. I suppose that might not have had anything to do with Mark at all, maybe it was just normal for a three year relationship. But somehow I think, no. Somehow I know that Mark was the cause. I remember towards the end I used to picture Mark in my mind’s eye when I was with Darren, and even then I knew that wasn’t healthy. And when the sex stopped completely, I didn’t seem to care enough, and I knew that that wasn’t right either. I was really just waiting for Mark to notice me. It seemed inevitable somehow, just a matter of time.
When the dorky American went back home I just assumed that that would be it, that this would be our moment. I remember wondering how I would tell Darren that I was leaving him for Mark. When nothing happened, the only thing that seemed to help was to get drunk. I think I went into some kind of depression.
On my birthday Charley died, so that was a bit of a washout, and the next day Darren came home looking really serious. I thought it was still about Charley but he said he’d met someone else, and asked would I move out. Just like that. The day after my thirtieth birthday.
I hadn’t realised how much my obsession with Mark had destroyed everything else up until that point. It was all stupid and pointless. Embarrassing really.
I moved back into another flat in the same building as the one I had lived in before, only in the meantime the rent had almost doubled.
I decided to tell Mark how I felt about him, but I was pretty slow getting around to it – it never seemed like the right time, and then it seemed harder because I knew him so well, and then because it had taken me so long.
Before I could find the right moment Mark announced that he was moving away. He sold everything, his car, his furniture, the lot – it was mad. I think he was heart-broken himself from the relationship, or rather, the non-relationship he had had with Dirk. He just pissed off to France one morning with a backpack and that was that. I never heard from him again. I would be hard put to say who I missed the most, Darren or Mark. Certainly without either of them it was a pretty grim time in my life.
So those were my two loves. One requited, one not. I suppose at fifty there’s still hope, there’s still the possibility that someone else will come along.
Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with Pete at all. Pete is perfectly fine. He’s easygoing and generous. We are happy together.
But it’s a long time since anyone sent my pulse racing the way Darren did. And it’s been a long time since I loved anyone so much that it put tears in my eyes the way Mark used to.
Maybe I should have told him after all. Maybe you only get so many chances. I wonder where he is now.

#2. Catherine.

The first thing I would tell anyone about my life is that my son died. Strange really, not to start with my two living children (one son, one daughter), or the fact that I’m a retired psycho-therapist. Perhaps our biggest sadnesses define who we are more than our moments of happiness? Perhaps as a psychotherapist I should have more of a handle on that.
His name was Giles and he died of AIDS. Or AZT. We were never quite sure which to be honest. Of course he was ill before he took the drug. He had Kaposi sarcoma all over his body, but I would be lying if I said I thought the AZT helped. It just seemed to make him grow pale and thin and grey and deathlike even faster. Of course perhaps it was just the illness, I suppose we will never know. At any rate the drugs seem to have improved these days, thank God, or rather, thank Science.
It’s hard for me to talk about Giles without sounding hard, or flippant, or homophobic. I have tried many tacks to express the truth of it all but those accusations always come flying at me.
Losing my Giles was the biggest heartbreak of my life. It’s the one event I would say that I never even began to get over. But then I never felt that I wanted to get over it.
I’m not one to rest on the surface of things, not one to hide behind comfortable platitudes. I expect it comes from the job. I expect that’s to do with being a shrink.
The comfortable platitude (or at least, relatively so) would be to say that I lost my son to AIDS. But there is far more to it than that. “Son,” doesn’t begin to describe the relationship a mother has with a child. “Lost,” doesn’t begin to describe the grinding, grueling process of death. And “AIDS” doesn’t begin to identify the ricochets of responsibility.
The relationship with a child has no parallels, not in my experience at any rate. When you look at your child you see the past, the present and the future all rolled into one. When I looked at Giles, emaciated like a concentration camp victim in that hospital bed, I saw all of Giles, past present, and future. Futures.
I saw Giles as a child with chocolate around his mouth, and Giles as an adolescent, seething with rage. I saw Giles who wouldn’t do his homework, Giles eating his first banana, Giles on my breast, Giles in my womb pushing a foot against my belly, Giles as the chance meeting of sperm and egg in a caravan in Spain.
Scientists go on about the relativity of time, but mothers live it every day. A mother knows that the child is all of the past and all of the possible futures all of the time. I could see Giles futures. They all existed. But he threw them away. He chose nothingness instead. And in a way I hate him for that.
Of course I’m not supposed to say that. We are in the era of the innocent victim and victims have much better status these days than those who heap misery upon themselves. Thus everyone is a victim of something – upbringing, parents, the economic downturn, a virus. I would not let anyone else judge my child so harshly, but as his mother, well, Giles is me. Giles was me. Giles choices were my choices. I am no harder on Giles than I am with myself. I smoked twenty a day for thirty years, and I am not a victim of the cigarette companies. Even when I knew, I didn’t stop. My emphysema is entirely my own.

Giles had sex with more men each month than even a randy heterosexual could hope for in a lifetime. He had sex in toilets (cottageing, he called it). He had sex in back-rooms (special squalid sombre rooms at the back of pubs). He had sex in parks and bushes and on beaches. He went to sex parties and sex clubs, and sex marathons called gang bangs.
How do I know all of this? Because he told me. To start with he told me because we were close, because I was his hippy-chick psychotherapist mother. I used to bump into him hanging around the toilets on Parker’s Piece and stand and chat a while until he spotted someone he liked, or “Something good,” as he used to say.
At the end he told me because he hated me. Because in fever and the heightened reality of death, I had become his homophobic judgmental persecutor.
My objections to Giles’ lifestyle choices were never moral though. They were merely practical. I am of a scientific nature. I see action, result. I draw conclusions.
The fact of the matter is that other than a brief period (post 1940’s when Antibiotics had been invented to cure syphilis and pre AIDS) there has never been a moment in history when Giles behaviour would not have killed him. With historical hindsight or biological foresight, anyone of an analytical nature could see that it was not a healthy way to behave. As his mother I could also see that it did not, would not, could not make him happy.
Like my smoking, Giles did not stop. When AIDS came along, Giles just pushed his foot a little harder to the floor and drove as fast as he could straight into a wall. He was already unhappy, you see, and like all junkies, he thought that what he needed was more of what was making him unhappy.
Giles had a future. Many possible futures in fact. I’m not talking about an imagined future, the heartbroken ramblings of an old woman… No, they existed, these futures. Unless you understand the relativity of time or you are a mother, I cannot explain that to you.
They were never heterosexual futures – that I knew from the earliest age. But they were futures where he would find a man, or a few men, like myself, one after the other. There were futures where he would have a single all-consuming love, or perhaps just have to make do with some bloody good friends. But they were all fine, because they were futures where here, now, he would be visiting me, talking about the joys and the sadnesses of a life lived instead of being rotted into the earth twenty years since.
And I blame him for that. For his inability to see that the path he had chosen didn’t make him happy. For his incapacity to choose a different one. And I blame me for that. For being too accepting. Or not accepting enough. For being whatever part of him that was me, and for that part of me-in-him not being strong enough to change his destiny. And I blame homosexual culture, a culture which chose dark-rooms over fun-fairs, gang-bangs over dances, and poppers over perfumes. For a while, when Giles was dying, and for a while afterwards, I did hate homosexuality. I hated it for killing my son. Is that unreasonable?
Maybe I was homophobic for a while. I certainly had to stop taking homosexual clients for a few years – it was all too personal and I always ended up shrieking at the clients. But then understanding came and I came to blame the entire spiral of heterosexual history too for hating homosexuals enough that they in turn could hate themselves enough to make such poor choices.
I still refuse to say gay – Giles always told me off for that, but I saw, see little gay about it. I don’t suppose that is what they call P.C. either. My apologies if that offends. But I’m too old and too hardened by the years of his absence to care.
As ever, I have talked about Giles, only Giles. I talk about the child who is not here rather than Terence or Caroline whose lives have been a pick and mix of good and bad, happy and sad. Terence is divorced but happy with a new girlfriend. Caro is still clinging on to her first marriage and I often think that she might be happier if she let go. I love them to bits of course. And in a parallel universe, in a time and place where Giles made some different choices, I love him, and his choices, and his partners too.
The strange thing is that my love for him, my love for the missing son, has been by far the strongest, most gut-wrenching influence of my life.
I suppose that I’m arguing that Giles missed out, that feeling is superior to not-feeling, loving superior to not-loving, so perhaps all the love and hurt and guilt that Giles’ short life brought me is, in it’s own twisted way, something to be grateful for too.

#3. Jenny.

I would say that I have been quite lucky in love. That would surprise a lot of people who know me. I expect if you asked around, most would say that I was a relationship disaster zone! But no, I think I have had plenty of love in my life, from my parents, right through to Giles, asleep next door right now.
I think there’s this idea that you have to find everything you want in a permanent state that will last your whole life, and that somehow, if you don’t, then that’s a failure. If you have had three or four marriages, then people will talk about your “failed” relationships, but I never saw things that way. The fact that you eventually die doesn’t make your life a failure, and the fact that a relationship eventually dies doesn’t make all that it contained a failure either.
I have always thought that having a series of relationships which are all different in both what they bring, and what is missing (for no matter what anyone says, there’s always something missing) has been the richness of my life, not its failing. Maybe that comes from having spent so much time around gay guys because of Mark. I think it’s quite a gay philosophy.
Mark was one of my early boyfriends – I was in my early twenties. Well, he would have been a boyfriend if he hadn’t turned out to be bent as a nine-bob note. I’m sure some would consider that another thumb tack on my map of relationship nightmares, but knowing Mark brought so much more to my life than it took away. I can’t begin to imagine how things would have turned out without him.
My next major relationship was with Nick. We were married and lived together for four years in Surrey (I’m back there now, living just around the corner to our old place.) Nick was a violent alcoholic, he gave me a black-eye more than once, and for some bizarre reason I put up with it. I saw a shrink for a while and she said it was because of low self esteem, which clearly ticks all the right logic boxes, but to be honest never convinced me. Nick should clearly be another black mark on the road to hell, but Nick took me to France that first time. Nick gave me my wonderful daughter Sarah. And Nick, by kicking me one time too many, unknowingly bonded me back to Mark for one of the best adventures I had in my whole life – the years I spent down in Nice. Mark and Tom his boyfriend in those days literally rescued me from that relationship.
I think people are far too quick to judge things as good or bad. In truth the effects of everything that happens are so complex that you would have to be God to work out whether any one thing is good or bad. But it’s only when you get old and look back that you can see that complexity. Isn’t that what they call that the butterfly effect?
You see if I hadn’t been on holiday with Nick I would never have got pregnant and had Sarah, who truly is the best thing that ever happened to be, the actual cherry on the cake. And if he hadn’t punched me, I would never have run away with Mark and Tom. Even Ricardo, my Colombian fling (the lover Mark actually stole from me – a first if ever there was one) ended up, looking back on it, a positive thing. Without that particularly humiliating disaster, I would never have come home, would never have met Giles. Because had my life not been such a train crash at that time I would never have looked at him.
But a train crash it was, and Giles scraped me off the floor and dusted me down. Why did he get involved? Because he is the most beautiful, generous, loving, empathetic man I have ever known – the kind of man who couldn’t leave a train-crash victim lying on the floor.
So I reckon that if you get to sixty, despite the car crashes and the cancers and the knife crime, then that’s quite a result these days. And if you get to sixty and you have a beautiful successful daughter visiting you later on today (she’s going to tell me all about her trip to see Mark) and a kind, gentle husband asleep next door… If you can look back on your life and remember being in love, and being afraid, and being trapped and being saved, and you can see all of these things as dots making up a huge picture – like one of those pointillist paintings – a picture that feels as varied and exciting as you could ever have hoped for, well, I think you can call that a pretty good deal, no matter how anyone else defines success.

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5 thoughts on “Short Story: 50 Reasons for Side Stories

  1. These are great fun; so glad you’ve posted them! I had often wondered about Nick and his connection to Mark. I also missed that you have the same name…

      • Riiiight. And next you’re going to be saying that the thoughts of a character you’ve written in the first person may not be your own personal thoughts. I just don’t know what to believe anymore. 🙂

  2. Good day! I could have sworn I’ve been to your blog before but after browsing
    through many of the posts I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m definitely happy I discovered it and I’ll be
    bookmarking it and checking back frequently!

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