The internet had worn Billy down. That and sheer loneliness.
So despite having spent years arguing with his friends, years insisting that sex was not a pastime like kite-flying or roller-blading, that sex was somehow “sacred”; years insisting that he still believed in love and relationships, he had finally caved in. Two years without so much as a single kiss had left him desperate for physical contact with another human being: he had agreed, for the first time in ten years, to meet someone for a “no-strings” sex date.
He finishes cleaning the bathroom, then glances at his phone. Midday. His “activity” partner will be here in less than an hour – he had better get his skates on.
He moved to this remote country village in the peak district three years ago. He had been with Pete back then, and their first year together here had been heavenly. They had spent the summer growing veg, walking the peaks with the new dog, and the winter snuggling in front of the open fire. He had never been happier.
In winter the roads were often bad, and sometimes Pete had to stay over in Manchester for a couple of nights until the snow cleared. It had been after one of these forced separations that Pete had announced he had met someone. He was, he informed Billy, moving back out. Billy’s boyfriend: taken by the snow.
The house doesn’t feel the same since he left. The vegetable patch has gone fallow, and when Billy can find the energy to clean out and light the log fire, the resulting flames no longer feel cosy and safe, but melancholy and hopeless.
He strips the bed and puts on clean sheets fighting sweatily for ten minutes with the quilt cover, then, wondering what it will be like when Tristan arrives, wondering specifically how quickly he will want to get down to “business” and whether all of this will, as he suspects, turn out to be a mistake.
Yes, the guy’s name is Tristan, and Billy has only ever had a single Gaydar conversation with him, a conversation that all too quickly got down to the nitty-gritty: “I’m driving past yours on thursday. So do you fancy a shag, or not?” These are precisely the kind of words that would have been guaranteed to turn Billy off in the past. He knows his gay friends don’t see things in the same way, but such business-like transactions have always make him feel cheap and hollow – made him feel like a prostitute, or, even worse somehow, like an unpaid prostitute. If he has never needed to be married per se, to have sex, he has always needed to be able to pretend, at least, that that might be a possibility somewhere down the line. So why now? Why Tristan?
Billy isn’t sure.
Partly, of course, it’s just physical. Tristan’s photos on Gaydar are stunning, are clichés of the kind of person that Billy has always suspected doesn’t really exist outside the porn industry: deep brown eyes, jet black stubble, swathes of hair rippling in a river that vanishes into the waistband of his Aussie Bums.
Partly, this is an exercise in self exploration, too. Billy has spent years limiting himself, years insisting that his dates meet his own very specific set of criteria designed to ensure that each meeting might lead to a relationship, at least theoretically. But these pickings have become increasingly rare in Britain in 2012, and Billy’s friends have been unanimously urging him to “get with the program”, insisting that unless he accepts that the world has moved on from that oh-so-twentieth century concept of binary coupledom, he may never have sex again.
So Tristan is also a brave experiment to see if he really does feel as sad and dreadful and guilty afterwards as he suspects he will.
The bedroom finished, condom and lube supplies verified (half of the condoms were out of date and had to be binned), Billy goes downstairs and constructs a fire in the hearth. It is cold outside – below zero – and even if the central heating system does a pretty good job of keeping the house warm, a real fire seems somehow more welcoming. As he lights the touch-paper beneath the kindling, Billy sighs at his realisation that he is also doing something else here. Even now, he is trying to gild this most basic of transactions with a sheen of romance.
The fire lit, he showers and dresses, as requested in his grey Adidas tracksuit (Tristan had been very specific about this), and then sits down in the window seat to watch for his guest’s arrival. A few flakes of snow are drifting gently downwards from the grey sky but not enough, thankfully, to cause transport problems.
Just after one, Billy’s phone rings.
“Tris’ here. Your place is in the middle of fucking nowhere.”
“I know. I warned you.”
“I can’t find your lane.”
“Well nearby. I think. Maybe.”
“Did you see Whistall Farm? With the big green sign?”
“Yeah. About a mile back.”
“Was it on your right or your left?”
“So you must be pretty much here. Carry on until you see a tractor…”
“A rusty heap of tractor?”
“I can see it.”
“The entrance is just after that.”
“Hang on. Let me move forward a bit… Ah OK. See you in a second.”
“You just dr–”
But the line has gone dead.
Billy glances at himself in the mirror. He raises one eyebrow. Tristan’s voice is smooth and deep. He’s not that keen on camp shrieky voices, so that’s one less thing to worry about at least.
A movement outside catches Billy’s eye, and he turns to see a shiny Mercedes pull up outside. Billy doesn’t care much about material wealth, but even he can see that the car is expensive. He’s surprised and despite himself, not unimpressed.
Tristan emerges, impeccably suited, from the driver’s seat. He stretches, then slams the door and crosses to the front door. Billy feels suddenly nervous.
Tristan looks exactly like his photos on Gaydar. In fact, suited, he looks even better. Billy grins. It’s a bit like having Tom Ford come to play.
“Why the fuck would anyone live here?” These are Tristan’s first words.
“I know,” Billy says, ushering him in and closing the door behind him. “Remote, huh?”
“I mean, it’s cute. But…”
Billy shrugs. “It was my boyfriend’s idea initially,” he says. “He wanted to grow veg’ and stuff.”
“We split up,” Billy explains. “He moved back to Manchester. Just me and the dog now. The dog’s at the vets, by the way. He’s having an op on his paw. He stuck his leg in a trap. They’re not sure if they can save it.”
Tristan nods. “That’s horrible.”
“I know. Your job’s to cheer me up.”
“Right,” Tristan says with meaning, giving Billy the once-over.
“You look great. That’s a nice suit.”
“Thanks,” Tristan says with a tight smile. “Actually I hate wearing a suit. Meetings…” He loosens his tie and fiddles to release his top button.
“What was the meeting?”
“Oh, some investor. I want to open a new restaurant in Buxton. But I need a local partner.”
Billy nods, and after a few uncomfortable seconds of silence, he asks, “So, tea? Coffee? Something to eat?”
Tristan shakes his head. “No, you’re OK,” he says. “I just had lunch.”
“Glass of wine maybe?”
Tristan wrinkles his nose. “I have to drive afterwards, so…”
The mention of “afterwards” sends a shiver down Billy’s spine. They’re barely at the beginning here, and the end is already in view.
Tristan moves so that he is mere inches from Billy. He looks him up and down and says, “Nice trackie.”
“You still wanna do this then?”
Billy coughs and nods nervously. “I think so. You?”
Tristan nods and slides one hand behind Billy’s back and rests it on his arse. “Of course,” he says. “I didn’t drive all of this way to look at the countryside.”
The kiss, when it happens, is a surprise. Kissing is, of all of the sexual acts, the one that Billy most associates with love. But here he is, kissing a complete stranger, and it feels amazing. Tristan’s lips are broad but firm, his stubble: prickly and exciting, his tongue: huge and probing. His hand slips inside Billy’s track-suit bottoms. “Hum,” Tristan says, when they eventually come up for air. “Nice arse. Can I fuck you?”
They move upstairs to the bedroom. Tristan confidently removes his clothes and hangs them over the back of a chair. Even though there isn’t another house for miles, Billy closes the curtains, then nervously takes off his sweatshirt. When he moves to take off his joggers, Tristan protests. “Just keep them on, would you? It’s, you know, a fetish of mine.”
Tristan’s body is a revelation: a sea of heat and muscle and fur that Billy simply can’t get enough of. He feels like Father Christmas has paid him an early visit as he runs his hands over every inch, then kisses and licks and sucks every spot. And then, Tristan puts on a condom, flips him like a pancake, pulls down his joggers just far enough, and slowly, amazingly, fucks him.
Afterwards, Tristan lies on his back with Billy nestled against his chest, stroking the waves of chest hair rising from his belly button. They chat the quiet easy talk of those who have shared flesh: Tristan telling of his holiday in France this summer, Billy about his job teaching guitar, about the dog, about their favourite TV series. Billy hadn’t been expecting this slow intimacy, and it makes him lower his guard, it makes him start to feel feelings that he’s scared will hurt when this ends. And then Billy notices that Tristan is hard again, and then so is he, and so they fuck, more abruptly this time, all over again.
By the time Tristan has showered and slipped back into his Armani suit, it is four. “Cup of tea or something?” Billy asks.
“Nah, I need to get going,” Tristan says.
“Oh. Can I see you again, though?”
Tristan laughs. “You know how this works,” he says, which Billy takes to be a “no”.
Billy is the first to get downstairs, the first to notice the transformation of the landscape outside. “Snow!” he says, simply.
“Fuck!” Tristan declares, pacing to the window.
The outside world looks like a snowglobe, and three inches of white are already blanketing the garden, the bench chairs, the car.
“Fucking hell,” Tristan says
“I hope you have snow tyres on your Mercedes.”
“Then I think you may have a bit of trouble getting back up the hill.”
“Nah,” Tristan says. “It’ll be fine.”
Tristan’s faith in his beautiful car is entirely misplaced: it’s utterly useless in the snow. The sheer weight combined with rear-wheel drive means that even with Billy pushing it won’t even advance in a straight line towardsthe hill, let alone climb it.
“So what now?” Tristan asks once they have abandoned the chilly attempt at departure and returned inside.
“Do you need to be somewhere?”
“Well of course I fucking do,” Tristan says, irritated as much by the failure of his brand new Merc’ to perform this most basic of tasks as anything else. “Bob will be expecting me by six.”
“I can take you somewhere in mine if you want,” Billy offers.
“In the Fiesta?” Tristan asks, his tone dismissive.
Billy shrugs. “It’s front wheel drive and it’s got snow tyres on it. It’ll be fine.”
“And what? I just leave the Merc’ here?”
“You might not have much choice.”
“And drive me where, anyway?”
Billy shrugs. “Train station maybe?” he offers.
Tristan shakes his head. “Nah,” he says. “The trains will be fucked too. I’m gonna call the AA. See what they say.”
While Tristan waits to get through, Billy makes mugs of tea.
“No go,” Tristan declares when he returns. “The weather’s bad all over. The AA are chock-a-block. Unless I’m stuck on a main road they wont’t do anything ’till tomorrow morning.”
“You can stay here,” Billy offers, handing him the tea.
Tristan stares him in the eye as he sips his tea. “You sure?”
Billy nods. “Totally.”
Tristan frowns. “It looks like I might have to.”
Once Tristan has phoned Bob to explain that he’s stuck in the “middle of nowhere” and is going to stay “in a pub” Billy adds fresh logs to the fire.
Billy lies lengthways on the sofa with his head on Tristan’s lap, and Tristan slowly strokes his hair and stares into the fire, seemingly lost in thought.
“This is nice actually,” he says, after a few minutes silence.
“So you don’t have a boyfriend?”
Billy swallows and shakes his head.
“You’re cute. How come?”
“We split up. He met someone else.” On a snowy night like tonight, Billy thinks. He couldn’t get home.
“The stupid thing,” Billy continues, “is that this was all his idea. Living in the country. Getting a dog…”
“So why don’t you move back to Manchester or wherever?”
Billy shrugs. “I might. But I’m a bit torn. I kind of like it here too. The fire and the walks and the countryside.”
“Sure. I can understand that.”
“It’s just not that easy to find a boyfriend here.”
“You have internet,” Tristan says.
“Yeah. But when the nearest guy is twenty miles away…”
“Well, there are about five guys in Buxton…”
“But you’ve had them all, huh?” Tristan laughs.
“No, I haven’t had any of them,” Billy says.
“So what do you do? For sex, I mean.”
Billy looks up at Tristan’s upside-down features, and smiles. “You’re the first guy I’ve slept with in two years.”
“I guess I’m a bit of a romantic.”
“Aren’t we all?”
Billy shakes his head. “No, I don’t think we are. Most guys don’t seem to be able to think much further than getting their dicks sucked. That’s as romantic as it gets these days. That’s all anyone wants.”
“It’s all they think they want,” Tristan says.
“Getting off is what guys think they want,” Tristan says. “It’s like, you know, consumerism. I’ll be happy if I just have a new TV, a new iPhone, a bigger car, another dick.”
“But it doesn’t work. It doesn’t make anyone happy.”
“Exactly. So what do we really want? What do we need to be really happy?” Billy asks.
“All anyone really wants is that all consuming love that will make their hearts explode,” Tristan says.
Billy nods. “I think you’re right.”
“But that takes time,” Tristan says. “And that’s the one thing no one has enough of these days.”
“We’re all too busy consuming.”
About once an hour, Tristan lifts Billy’s head from his lap and moves to the window to check the weather. “Still snowing,” he says each time.
At seven, visibly appalled by Billy’s offer to reheat a pizza, Tristan peers into the refrigerator, freezer, and cupboards, and then rolling up his sleeves, declares, “Looks like I’m cooking dinner then.”
Billy watches in surprise as Tristan takes over his kitchen and throws together tagliatelli with spinach, walnuts and cream.
They have sex one last time that night, and though Tristan still refers to it as “fucking”, for Billy it has become something more. Now he knows that in addition to being good looking, Tristan is funny and clever and a good cook, it is tending towards “making love.” And as Tristan, nestled against him, small spoon into big spoon, starts to snore, a lump forms in Billy’s throat at how wonderful and easy and simple this is, and how transient and pointless too.
The tow truck arrives early – before they have even finished breakfast – and they are forced into an abrupt end game of shovels and chains and winches in the cold morning snow.
“God I feel so butch,” Tristan declares, as he finally climbs up into the tow truck, and then the door slams and the truck lurches away.
Once the roar of the engine has faded into the distance, the snowy silence is total. Billy stands staring at the black stain where Tristan’s car once stood, and then, when a shiver snaps him from his reverie, he heads back indoors.
He sits on the sofa where Tristan sat last night, and stares at the grey embers in the grate. He feels lost and hopeless, as if someone has ripped out his soul and trampled on it. All over again.
Yes, he realises: this is the feeling that he had struggled to recall. This gnawing emptiness left behind once happiness has been glimpsed. Unbearable. It makes him want to die. It really does.
He checks his phone. It’s still only nine-thirty. Five hours to go before he has to pick Sausage up from the vets. At least he’ll be happy to see him.
He thinks, How can life be this hard? and a single tear slips from the corner of his eye. And then, brave, as ever, he swipes the tear away, coughs with embarassment, and heads upstairs to shower.
By the time he has dressed he is feeling better: still somehow hollowed out by it all, but a little better all the same.
He phones his friend Jennifer who lives close to the vets and arranges to meet her for lunch. Dissecting his Tristan adventure over a bowl of soup, will, he knows from experience, help. It will start to turn these events into fiction, and that will take some of the pain away.
When he has finished his call, his phone beeps to tell him that he has a message.
Expecting it to be the vet calling, he dials voicemail.
“Hey there,” the message runs. “Tris’ here. I, um… Look. I’m sorry about the way I left. It felt kind of rude, but what with the AA guy there, well… there was no way to say goodbye properly. So thanks. … I, um, really enjoyed last night. More than I expected to, actually. And I didn’t tell you this because I didn’t want you to, you know… But actually, Bill and I are in the process of separating. So I guess what I’m saying is, if you did fancy getting together again, then that would be nice. I’m in London tomorrow and Friday, but then I’m back for the weekend. Anyway, this is probably all stupid, but, at least you know now. So it’s up to you. Bye. And thanks again. You’re a lovely guy, and I had a brilliant time. Oh, and I hope the dog’s alright. Let me know if his paw’s OK.”
The message over, Billy lowers his phone and stares at the screen until it dims.
The snow taketh away, but apparently, the snow also giveth, he thinks.
He clutches the phone to his chest and starts to grin.