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Impatient Both of Delays and Rivals

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The telephone rang just as Angus was putting out his desk lamp. For a moment he stood with his hand at the chain pull, feeling the heat of the bulb warm his skin. He hadn't yet put on his gloves. So late at night, the sound of a telephone was at once unhurried and threatening. One felt that whatever was on the line, it would wait for one to answer. Then it would strike with as bitter a venom as if one had flung one's hand out to the receiver.

Angus turned the lamp on again, and answered. 'McCain,' he said. He stood half-turned, the receiver cradled between his head and his shoulder, as though there were someone impatient behind him. The press office was nearly empty.

'At the desk, are you? I thought you might have been having drinks with Michael Berry or someone.' Adam was not yet drunk. He had the sour, sullen manner of a schoolboy soon to be caned. 'If you haven't anything else to do, why don't you come?'

Adam had known, without once being told, that telephoning the press office was vertiginously risky. He had done it for the express purpose of frightening Angus into acquiescing; he must have thought that Angus would say anything to get him off the line. Adam underestimated Angus' efficiency. If Angus had wanted to escape, he would have rung off the moment he heard Adam's voice.

'I don't seem to be wearing my tails,' said Angus. 'Unfortunately.'

'Oh, it isn't that sort of party. It'll be frightfully intimate. Most of the guests will be wearing less than you.'

Quietly, with an indulgent tone that failed to conceal the coolness underneath, Angus said, 'Then I hope they won't feel I'm overdressed. Good evening, Adam.'

As he put down the receiver, Angus heard the thin, tinny clicks of Adam's voice coming through. He seemed to be laughing. Angus pulled on his gloves, buttoned his topcoat, put on his hat, and went out. He said goodbye to those who were left in the office. They did not ask him where he was going, or what he would do with his night.

 


 

The party was more staid than Adam had made out: the dancing was decorous, all hands were above the waist, and the cocktails were fixed with an absolute adherence to the recipe. No band played; a group of young men sat by the gramophone, putting on one single after another. Angus recognised '(I'm Always Hearing) Wedding Bells', and pursed his lips. The closest thing to bells he heard were chiming glasses.

The first to approach Angus was a friend of Adam's, a once-ambitious artist who had resigned himself to doing illustrations of ladies' shoes and household inventions. Physically, he was Adam's opposite: he was several inches taller, and had fair, curly hair falling over his ears. Because Angus was so little attracted to him, the man was faintly repulsive. He was saying, 'It's a miracle that anyone has managed to drag you out. One does wonder what you are getting in return. It was Adam, wasn't it? Or is that, er…?' Finished, he meant to say. Adam had, after all, gone to a great deal of parties alone.

'Is he here?' Angus asked, stepping back, making a show of looking through the crowd.

'Upstairs,' said the friend. He looked upwards, smiling stiffly, as if there were something over which to be embarrassed. Probably there was. 'He was waiting for somebody. I wasn't sure whether it was you. But here you are. To tell you the truth I'm thankful….'

'Well,' said Angus, 'I shouldn't be too quick to pronounce thankfulness. I'm only dropping in for a moment.' He excused himself, taking a vodka twist from a tray before going in search of the stairs.

Adam's friend must have had rather a low tolerance for Adam's follies. Angus found Adam standing on a balcony which faced the edge of a small square. His arms draped languidly over the marble balustrade; his fingers barely kept hold of a cigarette. It was not at all a bad scene. A half-empty glass was perched on the balustrade next to him. Though the night was cold, the ice in the glass had melted.

Upon hearing Angus' footsteps, Adam glanced over his shoulder and said, 'I'm waiting for someone.' After a pause, and a second glance: 'Oh, it is you. The cat is out of the bag: now you know I have been alone, wasting away, pining for a man who will "drop in" for twenty minutes before running scared. What a fate!' He turned to face Angus, then sank back against the balustrade in a dramatic flourish. Adam was one of those bad actors who compensate for their lack of talent by clinging to the common wisdom that all members of the profession are bound by nature to be false.

'I've a meeting with the Prime Minister early tomorrow.' Angus knew even as he said it that Adam would leap at the opportunity to cause a delay. 'Regarding the trouble in Cyprus. I've prepared my notes in advance, but it isn't bad policy to be punctual.'

Adam tossed his cigarette over the balcony. Taking Angus' forearms, pulling him close, he said, 'Do you think the P.M. knows about you?'

'I should hope he knows about me,' said Angus. 'I've been his press liaison for four years.'

'If you're late,' said Adam, slipping his hands down to Angus' waist, 'you can tell him you were tending to your lover, who is an actor and terribly delicate. If you hadn't danced all night with him, he would have been inconsolable.'

'Good God. I hadn't known there would be dancing. I might have to climb over the railing.'

The light from the room behind them fell across the balcony, illuminating a sliver of the side of Adam's face. Angus' shadow obscured the rest of it. As Angus tilted his head, a sliver more was revealed, pulling into view the vicious quirk of Adam's mouth.

'If you don't dance,' said Adam, 'then kissing is your penance.'

Angus took Adam's face in his hand. He rubbed his thumb over Adam's jaw, feeling the working of the skin and muscle as Adam swallowed. Adam had recently shaved: the skin was smooth, and he smelt of an ostentatiously musky aftershave. That was the scent Angus had come to associate with closeness.

'Why should I pay penance to you?' Angus asked.

To keep Adam from giving an answer, Angus kissed him—carefully, intently, as if he were exacting his own sort of payment. Then they parted. Neither had forgotten that they were out of doors, with the street lamps glowing below.

 


 

If Adam were content with Angus' company, they might have spent the evening in Adam's flat, drinking hot toddies, warming their feet by the electric heater. There had been some of that, early on; Angus had forgotten what it was like. He thought he remembered Adam being restless, pacing from the sofa to the window, shuffling through letters he had read three or four times before. A party gave him an arena in which to demonstrate his feelings as they occurred to him. At the moment he was urgently jovial, and demanded that the guests at the gramophone play something livelier.

Touching Angus' shoulder, Adam said, 'I can't give you the first dance, of course. We might be thought too devoted.'

'In that case,' said Angus, and watched as Adam took the arm of his friend the illustrator.

When not concerned with directing his own limbs, Angus was able to see the degree to which Adam was conscious of his surroundings. He glanced over the shoulder of his partner, or edged himself away from another couple. As others arrived, shedding their coats and taking up glasses, he looked to see whether there was anyone whom he recognised, or who recognised him. Angus thought it a pity that a man whose passion was in doing should be so concerned with knowing.

At the end of the dance, Adam leant forward and whispered into the illustrator's ear. The illustrator flushed and glanced about him, hoping Adam had not been heard. But that was immaterial: they had been seen.

'He's a bore,' Adam later explained. He had taken Angus as his partner only after he had had several martinis, and clutched at Angus' shoulders almost as if he were emphasising a threat. 'He doesn't understand that I'm laughing at him. I always am laughing at him. Everyone is.'

'He wasn't bad at dancing,' said Angus.

'He would have had me.' Adam laughed snidely, seeming to condescend to entertain someone else's sense of humour. 'How many here would, I wonder.'

'I might ask how many here have.'

That, Angus knew, was beyond the limit, at least for this hour of the evening. He had given Adam cause to be vile, recalcitrant. The trouble was that Angus enjoyed himself too much. There was something precious, even vital, in the slow stiffening of someone who had been led unwittingly to the gallows. Angus felt the tactile pleasure of pulling the rope taut.

'I've counted four,' said Adam, 'but it's early yet, isn't it?'

'For you, possibly. I shall be in bed by two o'clock. Alone, and gratefully so.'

'Shall you? You've never been one for optimism. I don't see why you should start now.'

Adam rested his head on Angus' shoulder. The scent of his aftershave was tempered by the gin, which to Angus had become a portent. More ordinary was the acrid scent of cigarettes. The party had gone on for long enough that a layer of smoke hung beneath the ceiling; Angus and Adam moved together through the fog.

 


 

The bath belonging to the lady of the house had the look of a hotel lobby. Black-and-white flooring glittered under dim lamps; the bath itself was set in an alcove backed by turquoise tile. The smallest noise sent echoes to the ceiling. Angus found Adam here, hunched over the sink, his sallow face dripping with cold water. His hair had fallen over his forehead, and he made vain attempts to push it back.

Angus was just drunk enough that his reflection was distasteful to him. Though he felt severe, he looked like a tightly-knit sack threatening to rip and reveal some doleful creature. Adam was drunk, but young enough to look whole and resilient regardless.

'You always find me,' said Adam, turning off the tap. 'Don't you ever think that when I go, I do it to get away from you?'

'If that were your aim,' said Angus, 'you might have left the house.'

'Then you would have come to my flat.'

'You overestimate, my dear.'

'Why is it,' said Adam, becoming suddenly vicious, 'that even when I am in a place like this, with these sorts of people, I always feel I've got to be someone else?'

'Because each of us is a hall of mirrors,' said Angus drily, making light of his own feeling. He took a soft cloth from the cupboard and passed it to Adam. 'Dry your face.'

Adam snatched the cloth from Angus' hand and scraped it over his face, roughly enough that his skin rose into a raw pink. The colour concealed the spots of red that came to his cheeks when he tried very hard to hold back tears.

'You enjoy it,' said Adam. 'You couldn't live if you weren't pretending; everyone would know there was nothing underneath.'

This barb had so little effect on Angus that he had to make a concerted effort to keep from laughing. At the same time he felt pity for Adam, whom he did, in his own way, love: there was only one man in the world whom Adam could trust with these sorry moanings, and that man might have laughed. To assuage his own guilt, Angus plucked the cloth from Adam's hands, placed it on the counter, and took Adam into his arms—gingerly, as though handling china.

'Mm, now you deign to touch me.' Adam groped sloppily at the side of Angus' face, putting fingerprints on his spectacles and ruffling his hair.

'I often do,' said Angus.

Adam swept his thumb across the seam of Angus' lips, for a moment exposing his teeth. 'But do you deign to want me? Will the man who licks the Prime Minister's boots lick mine?'

The faint rustling of their bodies against each other was resoundingly loud. The echoes gave the effect that they were not alone. They were not, after all, even when they were. The eyes and ears of the world had been sewn into their skin, so that when they looked at each other they saw millions of strangers looking back.

'I've brought my car,' said Angus. 'There's no need to phone for a cab; I'll drive you.'

'You do.' Adam leant back against the edge of the counter, clinging still to Angus' lapels, and forced his thigh between Angus' legs. He knew well what he was able to elicit from Angus—what gratification, what anticipation, what terror. 'You do want me, never mind what you deign to do. All that sneering at those who dare to feel pleasure. Look at you now: your lip is quivering.'

There was a knock at the door. Slowly, with a last, cruel pull of body against body, Angus and Adam drew away from each other. Angus adjusted his spectacles; Adam slicked back his fringe. Just as Angus reached for the lock, Adam took him by the shoulders and kissed him. The force of the motion, its grace and its surety, reminded Angus of being struck.

'Soon enough,' said Angus, and placed his finger at Adam's lips. Adam bit him.

 


 

The Metamec clock on Adam's mantel struck two. On the sofa in front of the dark hearth, Angus and Adam were clinging to each other, parting only to make room for the small gestures which enabled the pulling-away of clothing. As the clock chimed the Westminster Quarters, Adam lifted his head from where it had been pressed into Angus' neck.

'Was that two?' asked Adam.

'You must have misheard.'

'I can take a look to make certain.'

'I would rather you didn't,' said Angus, and took hold of Adam's wrist.

Adam, who was weighing Angus into the sofa, felt heavier than he was, and warmer. Angus felt himself trapped beneath a primal heat to which he could not help but respond. This particular eroticism was blunt and imprecise. They rubbed against each other, they cupped and scratched at what flesh they could find. Adam was wearing his trousers still, fastened and held up by braces, so that Angus could do little but rub him through the wool.

Much earlier, Adam had unbuttoned Angus' braces and tore his trousers down his thighs. Now he wrenched his hand from Angus' grip and pulled back his cotton pants. The noise Angus made gave him away: he did seek pleasure, oh yes, he did, he had resigned himself. He had opened up a space into which disaster might enter. He had taken a step off the edge and crossed his fingers in hopes that he would not fall. He was falling. His consolation was that Adam was falling faster.

'I'll do everything you tell me to do.' Adam had parted Angus' legs; he was lying between them, rocking forward. His breath was hot, distinctly gin-scented, against Angus' mouth. 'I'll marry her. I will. I'll suck your cock. Tell me to do it; tell me I need to do it, tell me we'll both be ruined if I don't.'

'Neither of us will be ruined,' said Angus.

'No,' said Adam, 'because I'll do what you've told me.'

'Quite right.' After a quick pat to Adam's cheek, Angus put Adam beneath him, and lowered himself until his head was between Adam's legs. He unfastened Adam's braces and trousers; he bared Adam's small, pale body. As Angus opened his mouth, Adam slipped his fingers through his hair, taking hold.

'Is this worth it?' asked Adam—who quivered, who lifted his hips. 'Ought we really?' Adam had the snarl of a wolf tearing flesh. To mangle, to devour, were pleasures also: Angus knew. When they were finished, they lapped at each other as if lapping up blood.

 


 

Dawn revealed the line of Adam's arm, the plane of his hip, which seemed in the dim light to be a phosphorescent blue. Angus had parted the drapes and found that it was raining. He would take one of Adam's umbrellas to Number 10. Umbrellas were impersonal; Angus' and Adam's were the same sleek black. The keenest eye would not pick out the presence of a lover. In this way their kind moved invisibly through the other.

Adam was asleep, and would remain so until rehearsal at five o'clock. When he woke, Angus wondered, would he have retained Angus' scent? The echo of the weight of Angus' body? More likely, he would wrinkle his nose at the taste in his mouth and stumble up to clean his teeth. Angus was not passionate enough to wish otherwise. It was better, he thought, that they not love too lingeringly; that they not allow the night to impose itself on the day. For this reason, Angus refrained from stopping to press a kiss to Adam's forehead.

'Are you going?' murmured Adam, as Angus let himself out.

'Yes. I'm taking one of your umbrellas. I do hope you don't mind.'

'You'll be indebted, then.' Adam turned to hide his face in the cushion. 'Pounds and pounds of flesh.'

'So I shall.'

With Adam's umbrella in hand, Angus made his way down the street, towards the thoroughfare. Beneath the patter of the rain, he heard footsteps behind him, and turned to find nothing. If he had glanced up, he would have been able to see the dark rectangle of Adam's window; but he had begun to think of other things, and went swiftly.