It wasn't the only pub in the area, but it was the only one he remembered. Not that he had been old enough to drink then, of course. But he found it unsatisfactory, filled with grumbling old men in flat caps playing dominoes. The music was muted as if to apologise for its existence — and maybe it should, he thought, when he realised that it was some dull and dreary choir singing in the background. He sat alone at a small, dark table; the painted black beams above him seemed to make him want to keep his head down. Eventually, the claustrophobia got to him, and he left the pub, having had way too many brandies. But he had needed a strong drink after the day, and it was easy to get drunk in a place like that. Maybe that was the point.
He had driven up here at the last minute. All the way from London. The letter he had received some days before. It had been from his aunt, sounding gentle and weary as always, informing him that his father had died peacefully in the night. Was it possible to die peacefully? Gavin suspected not. Like all things it was a matter of perspective. And his perspective had been simple. He didn't care.
For years there had been a cold silence between them, and nothing anyone in the family did alleviated it. His father had thrown him out of the house as a teenager. He had been just nineteen. Ironically not because he had found out that his son was gay, but because he had upset his mother. Gavin had laughed at his reasons bitterly, and the old man (he had been an old man even then) had just dismissed him.
In time he and his mother had grown close again, and when she left his father, Gavin had supported her for a while. She had been a lot younger than his father had when they married, and he supposed he understood her suddenly needing to get away in her forties. His father had gained his sympathy though at that time and he found himself wanting to see him, to offer whatever comfort he could. But the old man had dismissed him again in a letter so cold and impersonal it had hurt. It was the last time he would allow his father to hurt him.
And that had turned out to be true. Gavin had decided with little time to spare that he should perhaps attend the funeral. There would never be forgiveness now, but he hardened his heart against it as the service drew to a close. The relatives he hadn't seen in so many years filed past him outside the crematorium, offering their condolences. He didn't remember half of them.
It had been a grey day from beginning to end. He had left London when it was still dark, the glittering lights of the city were easily a rival for the stars above, but they had both faded with the early morning light, and the further north he drove, the greyer the sky became. The clouds had gathered like spectators, pressing down upon him and his car, making him realise what the day was bound to be. Oppressive.
Now he felt warmer, and he considered the offer of a bed at his aunt's house. He should take it; he shouldn't drive now. But instead he found himself wandering the streets; his feet somehow remembering the ups and downs of the hills, the twists and turns in between the red bricked terraced houses. He walked past familiar things, and newer buildings, feeling the changes like insults. He supposed he was not alone in that. An old man passed him with an elderly dog, and muttered a quiet 'good evening.' Something about the old man embodied his feelings. Alone with his memories in what was really a new place. A different place. He almost wanted to ask the man if he remembered what it had been like ten years ago, but stopped himself with a self-mocking smirk. The man probably remembered what it had been like sixty years ago.
He gave his fate to his feet, walking past places he hadn't thought of for years. The entrance to the woods looked dark and forbidding, but he wondered if youths still gathered there. Soon he found himself walking a steep hill. He passed a paper shop. The lights were still on and he called in for a packet of cigarettes, giving in to the need for something to ease what was definitely not grief.
At the top of the hill was a church. One of the streetlights was out, and he found himself gladdened for that. It wouldn't be right somehow to see the glaring orange light on the headstones in the small cemetery. He walked through the gate and among the stones. Suddenly he realised that there was a fence all around the church. He frowned. The grey steel spoilt it somehow. He wanted to see the church all of a sudden. The blackened stones that hadn't changed in all this time were somewhat comforting.
This had been his father's church. Gavin had sung in the choir until he was sixteen, and then helped with the upkeep until eighteen. He had even been to Sunday school at the parish hall across the road. He smiled at that. But now it was shut. Why? He walked around until he came to a sign that was attached to the fence carelessly with plastic ties. The congregation had moved down into the small town, it said, and everyone was welcome to join them there. Gavin read further, and found that the structure had become dangerous due to subsidence. He thought with a little smile that it was about right — the entire community was going downhill.
Then he noticed the flickering golden light coming through the gap in the door. It was very faint, but it was obvious someone was in there. Probably the place had turned into a squat, he thought with a shrug, but something stopped him turning away, made him want to investigate. It was so quiet. Silently he climbed over the useless fence and made his way to the door.
He saw nothing, and so, rather recklessly, he let himself in. This could be a den of some kind, and he wondered at his own foolishness. The city boy comes back to his hometown, only to be mugged and beaten up by a couple of druggies. He looked around carefully in the light of the few candles that were lit. There was no sign of drug use. No foil littered the old stone floor. No needles or spoons could be seen between the pews that had once been used by the faithful and penitent. Despite his relief, he began to wonder why.
It wasn't difficult to see what had happened to his home. A man would have to be blind not to see it. He had noticed the scrawled graffiti that covered spare pieces of wall, the teenagers that seemed to roam in bigger gangs than when he was young. Some of them had seemed too thin in the daylight, their clothes hanging off their skeletal bodies. He knew very well what it meant. That too seemed like an insult to this place. However much he bitterly hated it for what it was — a closed community with little tolerance — he couldn't deny that in a part of himself, he would always think of this place as home.
Perhaps this building had more claim on him than most, and he felt unnaturally glad that it had survived so far without being defaced or ruined. Not that he had any strong religious feelings. He didn't. When he had reached puberty and found out what his inclinations were, he hadn't been able to reconcile God and himself, and after a brief struggle, he had won and let go of his faith. God didn't exist, and if He did then there were plenty of things for Gavin to accuse Him of.
But despite his resentment towards God, that didn't mean he hated this place. In fact, Gavin quite liked churches. You didn't need a belief in God to appreciate architecture and the beauty of light shining on stained glass — whatever it represented. Churches tended to have a welcoming, comforting, quiet atmosphere, as if the attitude of prayer and supplication had left their imprint on the stones. And sometimes, if he was honest, Gavin missed that.
There was another memory, desperate to announce itself to him, but before he could pay attention to it, there was a noise behind him. Gavin whirled around at the sound of a man clearing his throat, wondering if he would face a drug addict, or a drunk. It was neither.
He stared for a moment before breaking into a broad grin. "Paul!" he exclaimed. The memory that had been due to surface was back now in all its glory. How many years had it been? He walked forward quickly to close the distance between them, thinking that he would pull Paul into his arms, but instead he surprised himself by shaking the other man's hand. It was appropriate. They weren't the foolish youths they had once been. The day he had made that quite clear. He smiled warmly.
"Well..." he began when Paul didn't speak, the warmth in his eyes saying more than words could. "How are you?" He dimly realised through his returned sense of drunkenness that this was the last place he expected to bump into his old friend, even if it was the most fitting. "What are doing here?"
"Gavin," Paul said softly, and it seemed he had been waiting for years to hear his name spoken like that again. The memories couldn't be stopped now. For years they had been friends, even as children. They attended the same school, and the same church. They had both been in the choir here, and as they got older, and their bodies awoke, they found something else together too. Gavin smiled secretly, remembering their first fumbling kisses. And later, how Paul had been mortified to have Gavin steal touches and kisses from him in the darkened, quiet shadows of this very place. Something about his panic had been so appealing, and yet his whispered protests meant he wasn't really protesting at all...
Paul smiled a little nervously, still managing to blush after all this time. "Do you remember..." he began, and then let his words drift into silence as their eyes met. For a moment it was the same as it had been all those years ago. Gavin didn't know how he came to be embracing his old friend when barely a word had been spoken, but it seemed so right. And he claimed a kiss in the same way as he had all those years ago, holding Paul's hands behind his back — only this time Paul didn't fight him at all.
When he drew back he laughed a little. Paul's eyes were closed, and he leaned in again to place a small kiss on his neck. "Yes," he whispered in answer, feeling Paul tremble a little.
It had been so wonderful! Forbidden and dangerous. What would happen if they were caught? But he hadn't been able to stop. Although they had never consummated their relationship back then, they had come pretty damn close to it. He remembered more than kisses now. The period of time after they were both too old for the choir, but not old enough to be legal, hiding in the little rooms off the main church to tease each other silly with lips and tongue. He smiled with real pleasure, remembering the first love bite he had given Paul, just before they were due to take their place with the congregation, and Paul's terror and panic as he tried to cover it up with his collar.
That last summer. He had planned to do what they had both wanted for so long. They had arranged to meet here, at night, to give themselves to each other in sight of the God who didn't believe in them. But Gavin had never showed for that meeting. His father and mother had found out earlier that week, and by the time the meeting should have taken place, Gavin was on the streets of London, alone.
Goodbye would have been such a painful thing, and he hadn't wanted to face it. Besides which, his anger at his father had made him leave before he could stop to think. And by the time he did, it was too late to go back.
Now was a different time and place, he reminded himself regretfully, but then he was made aware of it. Paul began pushing him back, so that he stumbled a little before finding himself pressed against the smooth wood of the lectern. "I waited for you!" he accused with a raised eyebrow. Gavin could think of nothing to say, shocked at the sudden turn in events. How could he explain? But then it didn't matter, because Paul was kissing him — and it was different.
This wasn't at all like memory, this almost violent urgency and hardness. The roughness of stubble grazed against his skin, and the warmth and scent surrounded him. The kiss wasn't soft or yielding — it was a punishment, and Gavin found himself submitting to it. He didn't fight when Paul invaded his mouth with his insistent tongue, and he didn't say a word when it was over. He had nothing to say.
"I waited," Paul reminded him again, in that familiar deep, warm voice. They looked at each other, staring intensely. Gavin shook his head.
"I'm sorry," he said at last, meaning it with everything he had. They should have left together, and instead he had run away alone. But he had been young and angry. Truly he had thought he would be back — but the days and weeks had passed. He had found himself a job, and a place to live. By the time he had been away a few months, he had known he would never willingly go back. "I'm sorry," he said again, as if it would make ten years vanish and give them back what they had. And maybe it did, because Paul smiled at him.
"You're here now," he said with a suggestive smile, and Gavin couldn't help but answer it. They looked at each other, long and assessing. Paul hadn't changed so much. Of course there was something older in his eyes, something indefinable, but otherwise he was more or less exactly the same. Paul had hardly aged a day. He felt the old desire beginning to burn in him, and he remembered their plan. It still seemed like a good idea, and from the amused expression he knew that Paul felt the same way.
Lovers had come and gone in his life. There had been a couple of serious ones. Currently he was involved with Christian, but their relationship had been stormy lately, and Gavin found that the idea of unfaithfulness wasn't unappealing. They removed each other's clothes as if unwrapping a long awaited present. Everything was perfect. From the sound of skin when he ran his palms over Paul's exposed chest and stomach, to the feel of Paul's teeth when he bit Gavin's neck. Paul laughed lowly at the moan Gavin gave to that, and continued until it actually hurt.
Maybe it was revenge. Gavin liked that idea, and found himself grinning when it became obvious that Paul would take him. He thanked his lucky stars that he had the presence of mind to always carry something when he searched through his pockets for a condom. They even turned that into a game, and Gavin found himself smiling up at Paul in complete trust, even when the younger man used a piece of cloth to bind his hands. Revenge then. Gavin found he didn't mind a bit...
Gavin awoke cramped and uncomfortable on one of the pews in front of the lectern. He jumped up, wondering where he was, then it all came back. He smiled. Where was Paul? He looked around, and was slightly nonplussed when he found the church empty. Not only was Paul not here... but there was no sign of him having been here. Gavin groaned when he realised the pounding in his head was not going to lessen, and when he walked out of the church into strong sunlight, he almost ducked back into the comfortable semi-darkness.
Fishing out the packet of cigarettes he had bought the night before, he lit one and inhaled deeply, feeling the smoke curling in his lungs. Nicotine was a dangerous lover, but like a lover, addictive and pleasurable. Feeling better, Gavin began walking, reliving the night before in his mind, and wondering why Paul had left without waking him. The last he remembered they had been snuggled together on the floor, sharing the warmth of their bodies. How had he ended up on one of the pews?
Shrugging, he let his feet remember the way once more, and found himself following a familiar route. Paul's parents would know where he could be found now, because he wouldn't have just this and nothing else. It had been something new, and now Gavin only wanted more.
He stopped abruptly when he reached the house, staring in surprise. Where their house had been, there was now nothing. Just an overgrown piece of land and a peeling sign from the council that said 'No Trespassing.' He looked up and down the street in confusion, and wondered what to do next. He wasn't leaving here without seeing him again. An old man was walking his dog down the street. Perhaps it was the same old man who wished him â€˜good evening' the night before. Gavin came to a decision, and approached him.
"Excuse me," he said in a hangover-roughened voice, wincing. He sounded like a drunk. The man looked up just as he was trying to finger comb his hair into some kind of order, suddenly realising that he must look a little the worse for wear. "Can you tell me what happened here?" He gestured to the place where Paul's house had stood vaguely. "An old friend used to live here," he continued by way of explanation, as if it might jog the man's memory.
"Well, he would be an old friend if he used to live there," the man said slowly, and looked at the patch of land. "There hasn't been a house standing there for around ten years," he said, and looked back at Gavin. He removed the flat cap and scratched his head while the dog sniffed interestedly at Gavin's shoes. "Are you sure you have the right place?" Gavin nodded speechlessly, his mouth having gone dry, and yet he had no idea why. Perhaps it was something in the man's tone. He waited for the explanation.
"Well," the old man heaved in a breath. "From what I remember there was a fire one night, and that house burnt to the ground. Never touched its neighbours, just that one house. It had the fire fighters completely stumped. They never found out how it was started."
"They didn't?" Gavin asked, wanting to ask something completely different, like where the hell was Paul now? He began to feel impatient, and yet he allowed the man to take his time. He would get to the truth eventually.
"No, although they thought it might be deliberate, what with it being confined to that one house. Thing is, no one knew why anyone would have done it. There were no survivors. Three bodies they pulled out, and not an enemy among them from what I heard." Gavin felt his heart beating faster suddenly, and he had to light another cigarette. No survivors. He shook his head in denial.
"But there was a man — I mean a boy — living there... what happened to him?" He didn't understand this at all. Paul hadn't any brothers or sisters. He had been an only child. Another thing they'd had in common. He looked at the old man. His eyes were wrinkled and heavy, almost incapable of expression, yet he saw pity in them.
"I'm sorry, lad," he said slowly, shaking his head. "There were no survivors. This boy you're on about... Paul, wasn't it?" Gavin nodded lifelessly, remembering last night, and not understanding even now what it meant. "Aren't you Brian's lad?" the man asked suddenly, and Gavin nodded again. "Oh, I'm right sorry about your father. Right sorry. It's been some time though. I'm surprised your Dad never told you. Used to be thick as thieves, didn't you?"
Gavin nodded again dumbly. He was certain he knew the man from somewhere now, but he didn't have it in him to pursue it. He needed some time to think about this. It didn't make any sense. "Thanks," he muttered, and then turned quickly and walked away. When he reached his car he slid into the driver's seat and started the engine. He sat for a while, massaging his neck. It was then that he felt it, and he remembered how it had felt when Paul bit his neck.
Almost angrily, he turned off the engine and left the car again to walk swiftly up the steep hill to the church. He didn't hang around, but just climbed the fence and walked straight in. Now he saw things he hadn't noticed the night before. And more importantly, things he hadn't noticed earlier this morning. There was the usual rubbish on the floor. Not only foil and needles, but also beer cans and bottles. The place was a complete mess. He stalked around, and noticed that there were no candles. Had his mind been playing tricks on him? He imagined himself in his drunken state, stumbling around in the dark, seeing things that weren't there.