The Forever Man

byshabbu©

He watched them carefully, and when they entered a train car, he slipped in behind them. He kept his distance from them in the car and tried not to attract their attention. But he didn't move so far away that he couldn't detrain where they did.

They got out at the Lidcombe Station and entered Rockwood Cemetery in the Catholic area on foot.

Allen fished the directions Sandra had given him out of his pocket and looked at the cemetery map. The two men ahead of him, one limping and leaning heavily on the arm of the other one, who was carrying a bouquet of red roses and a box, hadn't even reached the Anglican section of the cemetery before Allen realized where they were headed.

He laughed quietly at life's unexpected coincidences.

At a grave on a rise with a monument rising higher than the ones around it and with more open space around it than most of the other graves, the younger man handed the older man the roses and he placed them at the base of Shawn Martell's grave. And while he was doing this, the younger man opened the box and took out a bottle of Martell cognac and handed it to the older man, who knelt down and placed it beside the roses—and remained kneeling in meditation as the younger man stood beside him, resting a hand on the old man's shoulder.

Chapter Four: Forever's Assistant

I was looking along The Wall in Kings Cross, looking at the young and not so young guys leaning and standing there waiting for business, when he came into my life. The Forever Man.

I was suddenly homeless after leaving home a couple of weeks before. I had no work and hardly any money and wondered if The Wall was where I'd soon end up.

I stood nearby, nervously pretending I wasn't watching, and saw several men as old as my father, and even older, going up and after some talk walking off with one of the young men. I was sure some were barely old enough to be able to say yes. They were younger than me, and that disturbed me even then. I had quickly decided that for me The Wall was definitely a last resort and one I'd not be taking. I had shuddered as I turned away, and that was when he came into my life. The Forever Man. Two big guys in leather were pushing an old man in a faded coat back and forth between them, and he was staggering and twisting, trying to avoid them. One of the young men from The Wall moved up beside me and said, "He's in trouble tonight," then faded away. No one seemed to want to get involved.

The old man finally fell to the pavement, and the two tough guys kicked him a few times like he was a sack of wheat. Then they wandered off, laughing.

I hesitated. I was a stranger, and like everyone else there, I was reluctant to get involved. He looked like an old drunk, but I had nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, so I went over to him.

"Are you OK?" I asked, putting my backpack down and squatting beside him.

He said nothing but was struggling to get up, and I gave him a hand, noticing that there was no smell of drink or piss about him, like old drunks have. In fact, he smelled fresh and clean, and if there was anything else, it was a soap smell. "Do you need a doctor?" I asked, feeling reassured now that it was good to be helping him, but not sure what to do next and looking around and finding everyone else taken up with their own business.

I found myself helping him to stand, and I steadied him and grabbed up my backpack as he clung to me for support, his hard, old fingers digging into my shoulder as he gripped it.

"Do you live nearby?" I asked, wondering now what I was going to do with an old man attached, and no idea who he was. "My name's Corey," I added.

He mumbled, but if it was his name, I missed it. Then he took a hesitant step off in the direction of the city center, and then another, and was soon shuffling along with one hand clutching his side where he had been kicked and the other gripping my shoulder. I stayed with him. It seemed only right to see him home or onto a train or whatever.

After two blocks he wanted to turn off up a dark narrow side street. "Is it safe here? It's dark and . . ." I asked, hesitating to go on, scared of what might be in there as I had seen enough already that night to know that I was not feeling safe in Kings Cross.

"Not far," he murmured.

It was the first thing he had said really, and I let him lead me up the street, my eyes darting about looking for trouble. We passed half a dozen tiny and cramped, to my eyes, narrow Victorian terrace houses set back just a few feet from the pavement behind low fences, the roofs of their front verandas reaching to the fence line. He suddenly stopped at the gate of one cottage, fumbled in his pockets, and pulled out a key in a shaking hand. He stood there holding it for a while.

"Do you want me to open the door for you?" I asked, keen to get off the dark street.

He struggled up the one step onto the veranda and then released my shoulder and leaned against the door frame. I held out my hand, and he let the key fall into it. I stepped up to the door, inserted the key in the lock, and opened it. It swung in easily. I found the light switch beside it and turned it on to reveal a narrow hallway, clean and freshly painted.

The old man seemed to have lost all his strength now that he was home. I helped him inside and then steadied him as he shuffled along the narrow hallway to the living room at the end of it and on to the kitchen beyond that. It was old-fashioned but very clean and tidy. No dirty dishes in the sink, no packets out, nothing out of place. A row of canisters lined up beside the stove. I was surprised.

He disappeared through a door in one corner, and I caught enough of a glance at what was behind it to see it was the bathroom. "Make yourself a cup of tea," he said as he disappeared. "The kettle's on the stove."

There was a kettle on the gas stove, and I filled it and lit the stove. I found a teapot and the tea in the canister marked "tea" and made a pot of tea. Then I found a set of mugs neatly lined up in a cupboard and took down two of them. I set it all out on the kitchen table ready for him, finding milk in a jug in the fridge and a sugar bowl. The fridge wasn't bare, but there was not much in it: butter, a half box of eggs, a packet from the supermarket still sealed and with two lamb chops in it; not much else. I poured myself a mug of tea and sat there and waited. I had nowhere else to go, but I hadn't been beaten up by anyone, and I had a hot cup of tea in a clean, warm house. What more could I want just then, I thought.

A few weeks before I'd taken the bus to Sydney from Wagga Wagga, a big country town in the southwest of New South Wales, where I'd had one too many fights with the kids at school and with my dad, as well. I was nearly nineteen, lanky, gawky, and knew I was gay and wanted to get out. So I had got out. My older sister was already living in Sydney and shared a small flat with two other girls. When I had arrived on her doorstep with my backpack, she had told me I could stay, but it was fairly obvious from the second day that they didn't want me on their couch long term. The other two girls asked me to leave that night after my sister had gone out. I think my sister went out on purpose so she wouldn't be there when they did that. All I could do was pack my stuff back in my backpack and leave.

I'd already discovered my unemployment check wasn't enough to get me a room of my own any place in Sydney and I hadn't found a job yet, so I thought I was desperate for money. I had heard of The Wall, a place in Darlinghurst where men went for pickups for sex, and I thought I was desperate enough to maybe line up at The Wall and take money for sex.

So many dreams I'd had when I got on the bus to Sydney. Dreams of finding a great job and the perfect boyfriend. One who'd be handsome and loving and faithful, forever. A surfer who lived at Bondi or Manly, on the beach front. That was what I had dreamed. Half dreamed. I had never seen the surf except on TV, and I still didn't know where Bondi was. But it had sounded romantic.

After a while the old man came out, smelling of soap, in a clean pair of pajamas and a dressing gown and collapsed into a chair at the table, a nasty red patch partly visible where it extended out from under his pajama top at the neck.

I poured him a mug of tea and he picked it up and looked at me over the edge of the cup. "What's your name?" he asked.

"Corey Hutchinson," I replied.

"You look like him," he said. "Well, perhaps you more remind me of him."

"Oh, who?" I asked, but he was looking down at the table, now drinking his tea, and didn't answer.

"An unhappy end, that's what most of those young men come to. Sad youngsters," he suddenly said. "Don't go there."

I knew he was talking about The Wall. "I was just looking," I replied, "but I . . . I don't think I could do that, even if I was desperate."

He looked at me and nodded. Then he finished his tea and getting up he shuffled along the passage, and I heard grunts and followed him to find him standing in the open doorway of the first room in the hallway. Inside was as neatly made up single bed, a huge bookcase crammed with books, and a large wardrobe.

"There's worse places," he mumbled, "It's yours while you need it," he added, then shuffled off to the next door in the passage, opened it, went inside, and closed it.

"Yes," I thought, both surprised and grateful, there were worse places. I went in to my room, put my backpack on the bed, and sat down beside it. The bed was surprisingly firm and comfortable. I sat a moment then went back to the kitchen, had another cup of tea, washed everything up, and put it away before I went and laid down and slept.

Sounds strange to have moved in like that, but that is what happened. It just sort of flowed on till everyone took it for granted I was there, living in the Forever Man's house with him.

The next morning he tried giving me money for some food I had gone out and bought, but I pushed it away. I still had almost $50 from my last unemployment payment, and I had my emergency money still. Enough for the bus home. My last resort. "It's nice having someone here again," he said on his way to the bathroom.

The next day he went out and wrote Forever on the pavements in colored chalk while I went to look for work and enrolled at a school nearby to finish my diploma. Life was good. Very good.

Occasionally, he'd look at me and say, "You remind me of him."

I asked him who, and he said, "a very special man. A famous man." Then one day a few weeks later he said, "The man you remind me of, his books are in the bookcase in your room."

That afternoon I opened the bookcase and discovered what it held. I pulled out a small burgundy-covered book titled Poems 1941 to 1955 by Shawn Martell.

I opened it up and read the first poem, though poetry had never interested me much before.

The Jungle

Drip drip, water coasting down my body I'm dragging him off the path panting, blood pounding, hurry, hurry where there's one there will be more right behind him. Covering him with leaves hiding the bloodied pale uniform hiding the slack, smooth features hiding the staring eyes hiding the enemy Collapsing back into the undergrowth too afraid to move again. Alone, cut off where are the men I know Where are my brothers in arms?

It was not the sort of poetry I had heard at school. I dug around some more in the bookcase and found a set of old exercise books and leafed through them. Soon I was too fascinated by what was in them to stop reading.

Chapter Five: Poet's Journal

January 1946

I remember the last night we were together as if it was yesterday, not four years ago. So often now I see him when I go to sleep.

Forever—I wanted him forever.

I buried my head in his throat as I held him close to me. Our legs entwined and our arms embracing each other tightly. And I wondered when, or if, I'd ever lie with him again. "Come with us," I begged him.

I felt him shake his head and then turn it and bring his lips to mine in a deep kiss that allowed me to occupy his mouth as I rehardened. "No more talk," he whispered when our mouths parted.

And we didn't say any more about it, or about anything much apart from what would pleasure us. Instead, we made love under the slowly revolving fan in the large room he occupied behind the surgery at the mission hospital. At some point I kissed slowly down his orange-freckled back to the pale, luminous-white, unfreckled mounds of his arse and ran my lips and tongue over the baby soft skin he had there. He wriggled his hips and lifted them with a sigh of pleasure and a whimper of desire as my kisses moved back up his spine, my tongue darting here and there, teasing the nerve endings on its journey up to his throat, where I buried my face in his hair and breathed in the scent of him as I entered him. I rode him long and deeply, wanting to merge with him, become one, our hearts beating so close we might have been one two-hearted body, pleasuring ourselves alone and fully, oh so fully, in the moonlight that streamed in through the open window.

In the light of the full moon, his skin looked like glowing marble as he writhed on the white sheets of his narrow bed. Against his, my skin was dark, dark from a year in the sun of the tropical island. My work was often outdoors, repairing the aerials, and I didn't have to protect a delicate Scottish redhead's complexion. So I worked shirtless. Meanwhile, Malcolm spent the days working indoors in his surgery or in the small mission hospital, tending to the sick.

As the first light of dawn touched the sky, we had one last kiss and embrace before I quietly snuck out of his room and back to the radio hut barracks. I crawled into my bed but didn't sleep. I couldn't. We were wakened early and packed the last of our things and took them down to the beach to where the nuns and villagers were already mingling nervously saying good-bye. Then I went with two others to blow the charges we had set on the radio masts, and by midday we had brought the four big radio aerials tumbling safely down onto the sand and into the jungle. When we got back to the beach, the evacuation ship was already getting steam up, and they had long ago finished loading up the baggage and all of the radio equipment that could be removed.

Last to leave the island were the nuns and us. The big islander women nuns who were evacuated had to be pushed up the rope ladders hanging down the ship's side, and this was a great embarrassment to the men who had to help them up. Matron called out loudly, "Keep your eyes down men; God will know if you look up." And everyone obeyed her. The big women finally made the railing of the ship and were pulled over to tumble onto the deck, their habits fluttering in the breeze and exposing their bare, honey-brown legs.

Last of them to go up was Matron, and she looked daggers at the man who tried to help her. Unaided, she labouriously climbed the dozen rungs on her own. But even she didn't make it onto the deck without collapsing once she had gotten there.

When I was on board, I looked toward the beach we had been taken from and waved to Malcolm and the islanders who had come to watch us leave. The three novices who hadn't wanted to go had had their habits taken from them and now stood in a huddle in colourful sarongs, obviously crying to see their companions leave and waving wildly to them as the ship got under way.

The next boat they would see arrive we all knew would almost certainly be a Japanese Navy boat.

That night I dreamed of Malcolm. Since the night of his birthday, when we had got drunk on the beach and staggered back to a patch of grass beneath some palm trees and collapsed together, we had been lovers. He claimed he had been charmed that he'd come on to me on the beach, a Martell, drinking Martell cognac, and I told him "what else would a Martell drink?" although the truth of the matter was that it was the only decent liquor we had on the island, left there when a French exporter evacuated at the first opportunity and packed up so fast he missed a case of it. We had literally fallen into each other's arms that night. I was experienced, I knew what I was doing, while Malcolm was a virgin and uncertain what he wanted. But I wanted him desperately. I had ached for him from almost the first time I saw him.

Our lovemaking was never wild, even the first time, and we never cried out in the heat of passion as I had before. It was a small island, and nowhere was far from someone's hut. In the tropical heat the windows were always open, and when we made love in his room, we knew that even small sounds traveled across the mission's compound to the sisters' dormitory and the Matron's room.

I was experienced. But with Malcolm it was different. I was the taker and I wanted him to myself, forever.

"Forever is a long time," he said.

"Not long enough," I whispered back.

* * * *

April 1953

I remember November 1945. I stood at the bar, and, after I was laughed at for hopefully asking if they had Martell cognac, I ordered a schooner of beer, I forget what kind. And then, glass in hand I turned and looked around the room. It was strange to see men not in uniform, not dirty, not sallow faced and sick. Stranger still to see plump, smooth-faced men, young men in suits, middle-aged men, even older men, with hooded eyes and smiles on their faces as they surveyed the room, and I wondered with a surge of anger how they had spent the war. While I . . .

Then there were other young men. Barely men many of them, sitting in pairs or small groups, laughing, smoking, tossing their heads back, darting their eyes about the room and moving their hips seductively even as they sat. Some young men were rougher or scowling, leaning on the bar, perhaps resenting the urge that drove them there, rather than sitting in some other bar with their workmates. One was running his hand up and down his crotch, but not his crotch. Instead, outlining a huge, hard cock. There for the money. And a middle-aged man sipped his beer with his eyes glued to that hand rising and falling. All of us aching for it, all of us animals in heat.

My eyes slipped over them all, not seeing "it." Not seeing what I needed, what I would be drawn to. That is until I saw him at a small table in a corner, on his own, reading the newspaper. He looked so ordinary, so quiet and still, in that place where the sexual heat filled the air and everyone else was seeking attention or some sign of interest. I involuntarily moved toward him, drawn to quietness and peace.

"Is anyone sitting here?" I asked, as I grabbed the back of the chair opposite him.

He looked up silently for a moment, and I saw he could never have been a soldier, which pleased me. He hadn't deliberately stayed safely at home while I had gone away. Then as if he had considered and answered some internal question he said, "No, no one's there. Have a seat; you look tired."

"Thanks," I said, with a laugh at his honesty. I was tired. And I knew I looked ill. "I only left the hospital a few days ago."

"I know," he replied, "I work there. I saw you when you arrived, and later, a couple of times. You were sick for a long time."

I wanted to melt into him right then. He knew me as no other man in that room could ever have.

"What will you do now?" he asked seriously.

"I'm a poet," I said. "That's all I want to do just now. Write. It's the only thing I have ever wanted to do, and now it's about the only thing I am fit enough to do for long."

"A poet? I've never met a poet before," he said and smiled. "You look much better; you'll be fine."

"I don't remember you," I replied; briefly guilty that in the weeks I had been in the hospital I had never noticed him. "Are you a nurse?" I asked, not caring what he answered, aching for intimacy. Aching to feel his warm, clean, healthy skin against mine, his arms about me. "Can we go somewhere? I mean . . . you know what sort of bar this is, don't you?"

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