They were sitting on the grass outside the pub, watching the river slip by at their feet. It was a soft, warm September evening, the last gasp of summer, when the world still clung on to the vain hope that the sun would stay high and the leaves might linger in the trees. It was a time of endings, James supposed, sipping at his pint.
They had been talking over the end of Lewis’s relationship with Laura Hobson, that on-and-off romance that had kept the nick guessing for years. It was really over now, Lewis had told him, looking more exhausted than sad. They’d tried it properly, and it hadn’t worked.
‘Maybe it was the retirement thing as well. The two coming together, like. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be.’
‘I’m sorry. You both deserve to be happy.’
‘Thanks, but we’ll be happier as friends than as lovers. No need to be sorry. Sometimes you just have to try things on to see if they fit. And this one didn’t.’
‘Like hats,’ James mused.
‘Something like that, yeah.’
They stared into the glittering surface of the river. A fish was lingering amongst the weeds. James could see the grey-brown sliver of its body amidst the golden shimmer of the evening light’s reflections. A pair of couples came out of the pub and sat down at the picnic table nearby, chatting together.
‘Tried on any new hats lately?’ Lewis asked after a while.
‘Hats don’t really suit me, sir,’ James said. ‘You know that.’
They were quiet again. James liked that, the way they could be silent together and for it not to mean anything bad. With Lewis, he felt no need to fill the gaps. They said so much without words anyway, and sometimes, just being together, sitting like this, was sharing more than a whole library-full. But then, words began to well up inside him, and it seemed the right time to finally say them.
‘You asked me once – do you remember? After Will died? You asked me if I was gay.’
Lewis sighed. ‘I was out of order there, lad. It’s none of my business.’
‘It’s a reasonable question to ask a friend. I didn’t answer you because I couldn’t, not because I didn’t want to. I just didn’t know. That’s the thing about you, though. You give me to time to think, time to work things out. It’s taken a while, and a lot of thinking, but I know the answer now.’
‘You don’t have to tell me, you know. It’s alright.’
‘I know, but I want to. I’m not gay. I’m asexual.’
He could tell Lewis had no idea what he meant.
‘Basically, it means I’m just not interested in sex. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but in essence, that’s it.’
He let the idea sink in, and let his own mind wander whilst Lewis’s was occupied with this new puzzle.
This is weird, he thought. Here we are, two blokes, two mates, sitting on a bench in a pub garden, talking about asexuality. And this is Lewis too. After everything we’ve been through together. Me talking about sexual relationships with Lewis. Life is full of surprises.
‘So, what does that mean? I mean, as far as relationships go?’ Lewis asked after a while.
James shrugged. ‘I’ll always be on my own, I suppose. I think that was one of the attractions of the priesthood really. The vows make the issue null and void. You can be in a lifelong relationship without sex and nobody thinks anything of it.’
‘You mean, a lifelong relationship with God?’
‘Doesn’t sound very satisfying to me.’
‘Faith never sounds satisfying to you.’
‘True.’ Lewis tilted his head on one side, watching the gnats dancing over the water. ‘But you aren’t a priest now, so where does that leave you?’
‘In the words of the immortal Gilbert O’Sullivan, ‘Alone again, naturally.’’ James smiled, wistful
‘And that doesn’t bother you?’
‘Of course it bothers me,’ he answered, but without much heat. ‘But it can’t be helped. I don’t want to be alone. I want to be loved like anybody else. I like to hold hands and cuddle and kiss like anybody else. I want to share my life with someone. It’s just that I can’t expect anyone who isn’t asexual to enter into a lifelong relationship without sex. It’d be a deal-breaker for pretty much everyone, and it’s unlikely that I would meet another asexual person who I’d be happy to settle with, even with the help of the internet. I’m just too picky. And weird.’
‘You’re not picky.’
James laughed. ‘But I am weird?’
Lewis grinned. ‘Well, maybe a bit. Not to me, though. I’m used to you.’
They sat for a while, smiling to themselves, until Lewis said, ‘Seems a shame though. You’re a nice bloke. Nice looking. Kind. Bit of a waste. I mean, don’t you want kids and that?’
‘Never felt the urge,’ James admitted.
Lewis nodded. That was something he had come across before and could to some extent understand. But the asexuality was obviously bothering him.
‘You really don’t like it?’
‘I just – it’s a bit complicated to explain.’
‘Yeah, right, sorry.’
‘It’s not that I can’t do it, in case you were wondering.’
‘Not wondering in the slightest.’ But Lewis’s cheeks held a tell-tale pinkness that belied his assertion.
Lewis frowned. ‘No, I get it, I think. I mean, I’m not much bothered these days meself, to be honest. Not since Val. S’pose that was one of the things that didn’t gel with Laura, the physical side.’
That seemed to still them both into a new, contemplative silence. James wondered about the memories that must be flooding back for Lewis, wondered what it would feel like to have had so much intimacy, so much love, taken away. Then he had to force himself not to think about what he would do when Lewis died. Even now, with Lewis retired, he spent every empty day reminded of the closeness they had shared, and of the feelings he had for the man sitting beside him, feelings he could never share.
‘So,’ Lewis said suddenly, breaking him from his reverie. ‘If you did meet someone, you know, who was willing, you might consider it?’
James frowned. He couldn’t quite work out what Lewis was getting at, but he could see his old boss was thinking hard. There was some gnarly plot forming inside his head – James knew that look – but what it was he couldn’t fathom.
‘It’s not going to happen,’ he said, and took another mouthful of beer.
‘But, you know, if there was someone, someone who cared about you, and that person wasn’t interested in the physical side-‘
‘Oh, give over!’ Lewis huffed in exasperation. ‘Yes, alright, the rumpy-pumpy or whatever you want to call it. If they were willing to give all that a miss, if they maybe weren’t interested in it anymore, then would you think about it? Try on the hat, like?’
What on earth was he talking about? James couldn’t see it. Not interested anymore? But he’d just said-
Suddenly James’s heart was racing. He couldn’t quite believe it. Was this really what he thought it was? He had no idea. Better be neutral, keep calm, keep a clear head.
‘If that person cared for me as much as I cared for them,’ he said carefully. ‘If that person were willing to accept my feelings.’
‘Then I think it might be a hat worth trying on, yes.’
‘Hmm.’ :Lewis sounded very non-committal. James didn’t dare to look at him, partly for fear of giving himself away, and partly because he was terrified he might have misinterpreted Lewis’s meaning.
‘I mean, that person would obviously understand that I’m a demonstrative person,’ he tried.
‘And you like the holding hands and cuddling bit just as much as the next man,’ Lewis agreed, and out of the corner of his eye James could see he was nodding. ‘That’s part of the intimacy of a relationship isn’t it? You don’t have to have sex to be close that way, do you?’
A pensive tension settled between them. James felt like he might explode.
And then Lewis reached out and gently took his hand in his own big paw, stroking his thumb along James’s knobbly knuckles. James closed his eyes. He couldn’t stop the huge sigh of relief from forcing its way out.
‘Think I might be in the mood to try on a new hat,’ Lewis said quietly.