The first time Matthew saw Gareth, it was at university, of course. Gareth stood behind the podium in the lecture hall, fanning himself with his notes, scanning his future students like prized poodles. Matthew was fifth in that day – a fresh-faced first-year, more than ready to sink his immature but willing teeth into the world of 19th Century Drama.
Later on, the irony never escaped them, of course, and Gareth had erected a small, yet titillating monument to it above their mantle, in the figurine of a small boy pissing holy water on bronze lily petals.
Before the mantel, however, there was Matthew, third row from the front, at the edge of the aisle, dropping his pen – only to have a ready hand give it right back to him as he leaned down to retrieve it. Charles looked younger, even, than Matthew, all shy smile and thick-rimmed glasses and hair that got caught in the frames for its length. In retrospect, it really should have been Charles to have caused the thunder and lightning in Matthew’s belly, but fate had interfered.
“Are we all settled in, boys? And – oh, yes, I see you – three giggling girls in the back corner?” An amused voice, not particularly powerful, yet it caught Matthew’s attention. He gave his professor a second look.
Gareth had only aged in the last few years of his life – and that hadn’t been that long to begin with. Back then, his beard glistened black, and the curly mane gave his head an appearance of a giant brain attempting to escape an even more giant ego. He did have all those attributes, of course – but what attracted Matthew the most, as the lecture begun and the class had gone silent, was the amusement with which Gareth appeared to behold all of life. Perhaps that had not been as apparent back then – perhaps his perceptions of Gareth were being colored by the years of love that Matthew had held for him afterwards – but something about Gareth had stayed with Matthew for the entire following week, and the weeks that followed.
A diligent and curious student, Matthew attended every lecture. Even Charlie, for all of his dedication to studies, began slipping as the term continued. First it’d been Katherine, then – Charlotte, and even Lisa. But since Matthew was not, in fact, interested in Katherine, or Charlotte, or Lisa, or even Thomas from the Classics lecture, he most looked forward to Gareth’s lectures, largely focusing on Wilde – to give clichés their proper dues.
“An excellent bugger,” Gareth would say, eyes twinkling, as the entire class would rumble in amusement. Matthew laughed along, happy to be in on the joke, and even happier to see that, more often than not, Gareth’s eyes would slide inevitably back to him, even if for a mere moment. Matthew felt no true intentions – not really. But he found himself sitting first in the third row, then second, until he was facing Gareth fully from the first row, his pen constantly moving to the cadences of Gareth’s speech.
They corresponded after Matthew’s graduation, all through Gareth’s third publication, and Matthew’s despondency with the world’s refusal to be at all like university had been.
My dear, Gareth would write. This, of course, is the entire reason that I became an academic – and urge you to do the same. The world does not deserve your brain – let them all rot in their boring, wage-earning ways. Come back and earn your doctorate in entirely useless subjects, like yours truly. Convince yourself that all you ever need in life, in the whole world, is more education – books, papers, and fat old fart bags who have tea for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and never once mention the current affairs for fear of it ruining their complexions.
Matthew hoarded those letters, quietly, in love, unable to make that first move, no matter how increasingly longer and lovelier Gareth’s letters would grow.
But, of course, the first move was made. Gareth was in London visiting his sister (“of all the mundane visitations, my dear!”) and insisted on taking Matthew out for a spot of drink. A spot turned into two and three and then the dance floor opened up as Gareth threw himself into the fray (“Marvelous music, truly, masterpieces all!”) and Matthew barely noticed their first kiss trying not to fall over laughing. And then the skies thundered, and lightning struck for the second time. Gareth took him back to his hotel room and promised that he could only do this while drunk, “for I am not entirely certain I’d have had the nerve otherwise.”
Matthew stayed with him for nine whole years.
His simple flat was not up to Gareth’s standards. After having been offered a more prestigious position at a different university, he refused to be cowed by Matthew’s meager earnings. Their house was moderate in size, but large in scope. All winding staircases and lofty ceilings, it stood apart from its close neighbors. Potted plants reached for their limits in Gareth’s presence, constructing arches over the doorways, brushing the bookcases, and frightening the mice. Gareth’s sofas were velvet throwbacks to “the Golden age,” according to him, when men were, in fact, not merely allowed, but encouraged to wear poncy tights with emeralds and fuck boys, as long as they cleaned up after themselves afterwards. Their bedroom was small, yet a statement of a certain prowess, Gareth would note. However, between the inordinate amount of classic literature on the shelves and the peeing bronze boy on the mantel, Matthew never quite figured out a prowess of what, exactly.
They all met at weddings. Years and years of weddings, and parties, and gatherings, with occasional cards thrown in between.
Hey there Matthew! Is old Gareth keeping up with your dancing feet still? Charlie would write, knowing full well that Matthew wasn’t the dancer of the two.
Matthew, darling, will you please tell Gareth to stop harassing the housekeeper about the wine? 1945 is a perfectly respectable year for Reds, and you can tell him my mother had once been a maid, and thus his words hold no power over me. Love, Fiona.
All right, boys? Just read the cleverest book, thought you might enjoy! Scarlett scrawled on top of her trademark pink and red hearted wrapping paper. The copy of Understanding Yourself and Your Animal Impulses took up the prized top-left corner of the living room book shelves for years, only to be replaced later by Tom’s gift of The Complete Works of Charles Dickens, emblazoned in real gold.
Gareth cooked the kind of food that could kill a healthy ox, Matthew chose the dinner music. Every now and then, they would go out.
Matthew was young, but he was never stupid. He saw the looks, he watched for Gareth’s reactions. They were careful, of course, and if Gareth ever drew attention to himself, it was not for his sexually deviant ways, but his antics on the dance floor, or his ability to simultaneously piss off and amuse everybody around him. Matthew learned to stay back and merely observe, always ready to gather him at the end of the night and take him home. And if he held on a little bit tighter than necessary, staggering out, or rubbed his cheek ever-so-slightly on Gareth’s beard, he always had the drink to blame it on. Nobody had to be the wiser.
As for friends, Gareth’s professorial queens sent him envious looks over the dinner spread, while Matthew allowed himself to relax and play up the kept boy veneer they had perfected over the years. Later in bed, Gareth would laugh loudly over old Neville’s “buggered old eyes, like saucers” as he watched Matthew serve Gareth tea while sitting nearly in his lap. In their house, the decade was timeless. In their house, Matthew smiled freely.
He was young, but he wasn’t stupid. When Charlie crowded up next to him, smelling of wine, dust, and something like guilt, Matthew had almost expected it. Perhaps, he had been for a while.
Gareth had died just like he’d lived – large, loud, obnoxious, and entirely expected.
Matthew could never remember the funeral. Images, maybe, he saw in his mind’s eyes, or perhaps sounds. Sobs, he did remember. Gareth’s mother. She’d outlived her son, Matthew thought, when he saw her pale face that morning. Of course, he remembered the rain. The poem – the hollow echoes of it clanging all around the church.
He couldn’t remember the coffin being carried out. If pressed, he could barely remember the coffin at all.
What he did remember, later, was waking up on a train – the rattle of it shaking him to awareness, rhythmically bringing it all back. Back in Glasgow, he walked around, for days, maybe. Maybe it had been hours. Long, arduous hours, in which all he could do was speak the words in his mind, over and over and over again.
He was in the North, but his East had forgotten to rise that day. He looked to his South, but his West awaited with no purpose. He did not work; he did not rest. One day flowed into the next, and Sunday went by without notice. He’d look at the skies, and the stars would look back. He did not want them anymore. He’d look at the ground, the streets, and the sun – and the words would scatter, one by one, until even the clanging, echoing, silencing sounds would disappear from his mind for good.
The rain kept him constant; the rain, and the silence. The months of waiting for the house to sell were largely quiet, devoid of much of anything else. The flowers he had all thrown out. Gareth would have balked at the garishness of them – pink, and white, and orange, and red. The rain rendered everything dimmer; greyer. Matthew sat with his books, and he sipped at his wine, and he slept on the couch, with the windows closed.
Meeting Michael had been an accident. Nearly literally, as Matthew stumbled over him at the book shop. As he told it, Michael had been reaching for the second edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, after his friend had tipped him to its existence at the second-hand shop.
“Are you certain your friend hadn’t lied to you?” Matthew then asked, flipping through the page with the enumerated edition numbers. “I believe this is the twelfth, not the second.”
Michael’s face fell then, and he asked, in a somewhat shocking Irish accent, “Are you sure? I could have sworn…”
“I’m afraid so,” Matthew answered and smiled sadly, as he handed back the disappointing volume. “And I do apologize about tripping over you, as well. Perhaps I should have lied about the edition?”
Michael, the grey-eyed stranger with a strange love of American poetry, told him it was quite all right, and oh, would he – would he mind joining him for lunch? Now that his money wasn’t going to be put to better use.
For want of anything better to do, Matthew said yes.
Yes, he’d said, and out they’d walked, once the rain had stopped, into the street, to a café, for a lunch, and maybe a coffee.
Because Matthew was young, but he was learning, and he’d learned that you couldn’t repeat history – not again; not as it had been. But perhaps, if you were lucky, you could recreate an alternative – a future of sorts; an entirely different path that, perhaps, once examined, was not quite so different after all.