“So, how many men did you have before me?”
Coming out of the blue, the question startled Simon. He was driving in heavy traffic up the M1 and he judged, rightly, that Oscar had picked his moment to ambush him. “Not many,” he replied noncommittally. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, I had no one before you, apart from Marie that is. Anyway, you know that. So I just wondered… I know I’m not your first. But I just wondered…”
“Okay,” Simon conceded. “You’ve a right to ask. I’ve had a few lovers in my time, although I’ve always been very careful about my health. But I’ve only had one long term relationship.”
“When was that?”
“Oh, soon after I left university. I met Daniel in a club and we found we had similar interests.”
“A shared enthusiasm for stamp collecting, I take it?”
“No, you cheeky devil. If I wasn’t driving I’d do to you what I did so often to Daniel and then you wouldn’t sit down for a week.”
“Did he… did he like you to spank him?”
“Oh yes, but always on his terms.”
“Never on yours?”
“I wouldn’t say that. He could be a damn nuisance at times and I’d turn him over my knee and blister his backside but it never seemed to make much difference. He never learnt from his mistakes.”
“What did he do?” asked Oscar in surprise, unable to understand why anyone would court punishment twice for the same offence.
“Oh, it was more a case of what he didn’t do. He could be great fun but he was utterly disorganised. He seemed to drift through life although, with hindsight, I reckon he just found it easier to leave all the difficult stuff to me.”
“Well, not just the day to day running of our lives like doing the shopping, cleaning the house and doing the washing. You know, the things that you and I share. No, I had to sort out his personal life as well, checking that his work assignments were completed on time, buying birthday presents for members of his family, ensuring that he kept appointments with the dentist and optician. It got to be wearing.”
“Is that why you split up?”
“I think it was more a case of us just drifting apart. When a new job opportunity came up for me it provided a convenient excuse to extricate myself from a relationship I knew would never be for life.”
“Is that what you want then? A relationship for life?”
“Isn’t that what everyone wants?” Simon replied rather enigmatically. Oscar knew what his own answer would be to that question but he didn’t feel confident enough to voice it. Silence fell in the car and they both lost themselves in their own thoughts as the traffic thinned and they began to make better time on the journey.
“Didn’t you grow up around here?” Simon asked eventually when he noticed a sign on the overhead gantry.
“Yes, my mother’s house is about half an hour’s drive from the motorway.”
“Tell me about your family.”
“You know most of it. My half sister is much older than me and she lives in New Zealand with her husband and three children. We exchange Christmas and birthday cards but that’s about it. Our dad died when I was still at primary school so, when I was growing up, it was just my mum and me. We were always close and I talk to her every week, as you know.”
Simon did know. On Friday nights, after work, they always went back to Oscar’s house. There’d been no discussion, it had just become part of their routine and either Oscar rang his mother or she telephoned him. Without deliberately eavesdropping, Simon couldn’t help overhearing the gist of their conversations which seemed to revolve around Mrs Williams’ social life at the church, her activities at keep fit and her problems maintaining the house. Oscar was endlessly patient with her, dispensed good advice, entertained her with accounts of his own activities and was, in every respect, the dutiful son, apart from ever visiting her. The other omission Simon couldn’t help noticing was any mention of a new relationship and the fact that he and Oscar were effectively living together.
It wasn’t necessary for Oscar to tell any lies. Most of the time the conversation seemed to revolve around his mother’s concerns and interests. When he spoke about himself, Simon’s name just never seemed to come up. It was all so natural that Simon even found himself wondering if Oscar had no deliberate intention of concealing his new status but, as time passed, there was no avoiding the conclusion that he hadn’t come out to his mother.
Prior to departure for Marie’s memorial service Simon had asked whether Oscar’s mother would be present and was relieved to learn that she felt the journey and the ceremony would be too much for her. In his view, that removed one complication but he had, nonetheless, warned Oscar that the two of them arriving together at the church would inevitably give rise to speculation. However, Oscar was insistent that he wanted Simon to accompany him throughout the day and intended to introduce his partner as a work colleague who’d been kind enough to drive him to the venue. Simon could only hope that they would both be capable of sustaining the impression Oscar wanted to give to Marie’s family and friends.
After a comfortable night in a local hotel followed by a leisurely breakfast, both men donned sombre suits and made their way to the church. Oscar was warmly greeted in the porch by Marie’s parents and escorted at once to a seat in the front pew. Simon followed and sat beside him without anyone appearing in the slightest bit surprised. It wasn’t until after the memorial service, when family and friends had gathered for drinks before their meal, that Derek Fletcher sought an opportunity to engage his son-in-law in conversation. Simon had gone to the gents and Oscar was standing alone, nursing a glass of white wine, when Derek came over to join him. “So, how have you been keeping, Oscar?” he enquired. “We think of you so often.”
“I’ve been fine. Things are going well at work and I’m keeping busy.”
“You seem happier now,” Derek observed.
Oscar wasn’t sure whether that was a veiled criticism, given that they were all assembled to pay tribute to his widow who was also Derek’s daughter. “I’ve been having counselling,” he blurted out as a way of accounting for his newfound air of contentment. “My therapist has been helping me make some sense of my mixed up emotions.”
“I’m glad,” said Derek sincerely. “June and I were worried about you... afterwards. We wished you had family and friends round you to offer some support.”
“I did think of moving to be closer to my mother but I didn’t want to change jobs. Work was something of a lifeline for me during those first few months on my own.”
“And your new friend, is he someone you met at work?” The question was asked casually but Oscar sensed a deeper curiosity.
“Yes, we’re colleagues,” he explained, deliberately failing to mention the precise nature of their working relationship. He knew it might appear strange to be attending such an intimate family gathering with his boss.
“He seems to take very good care of you,” Derek declared, much to Oscar’s surprise. It wasn’t as though Derek had had much opportunity to observe the two of them together so Oscar had no idea how his father-in-law had reached that conclusion. Oscar was so used to Simon’s proximity, to the supporting hand at his back or elbow and the private smile of understanding and reassurance, that he was incapable of appreciating how their easy intimacy would come over to an observer.
“Well, we do see a lot of each other,” he responded rather lamely.
The admission gave Derek the opening he’d been waiting for but then he was unsure how to proceed. “June told me to speak to you,” he said finally, transferring to his wife all responsibility for what he was about to say. “She thought it would be better coming from me, man to man. We just wondered if you and Mr Carlyle are… are an item.” Oscar’s consternation was immediately apparent and Derek hastened to qualify his enquiry. “I’m sorry. We don’t mean to pry. It’s just that we both want you to be happy and if you’re… well, if you’re living with Mr Carlyle it would make sense of one or two things, that’s all.”
“What things?” asked Oscar suspiciously.
“Look, I don’t want to upset you. We decided not to mention it when Marie… well, when the end was so near. But June thought that maybe now the time was right.” Derek was struggling and Oscar guessed what must be coming.
“What did Marie say about me?” he asked, with a growing sense of unease.
“Oh, she said nothing about you, nothing at all,” Derek hastened to reassure him. “She was worried... at the end, you know. She was worried that she’d manoeuvred you into a marriage that wasn’t right for you, that maybe it wasn’t what you’d really wanted. She hoped that you’d feel free to follow your heart in future and she asked us… she asked us to be there for you, no matter what your choice.”
Oscar gasped with surprise. He’d never had any inkling of Marie’s fears and he felt such a rush of emotion for the woman who’d understood him better than he’d ever known and whose last thoughts had been for his own happiness. And he looked at Derek Fletcher, the man who’d shown him nothing but kindness and who was now struggling to contain his emotions and he knew, in his heart of hearts, that only one response was possible. But a major complication loomed. Simon had returned to the room and, alerted by Oscar’s anguished expression, had moved closer and was hovering, out of Derek’s line of vision, ready to intervene if need be. The choice was stark, to reassure the elderly couple who’d been like second parents to him or to confirm that his relationship with Simon was the one he’d been waiting for all his life.
“Yes, Simon Carlyle and I are a couple,” he acknowledged. It was the admission he’d been hoping he wouldn’t have to make but now it seemed insignificant in the light of what he was about to claim. He took a moment to gather himself; the lie he was about to utter had to sound utterly convincing and he feared it would come as a blow to his partner. “But Marie was my first love and when I was married to her I never gave a thought to anyone else.”
Derek gave him a searching look but Oscar maintained eye contact, mainly because he didn’t want to see shock or disappointment on Simon’s face. Convincing his father-in-law that he was telling the truth had now become a secondary consideration. But whatever Derek Fletcher read in Oscar’s expression, it gave him the reassurance he sought. “June’ll be so relieved. You know what women are like. She kept thinking that maybe Marie’s marriage hadn’t been as happy as we’d always thought.”
“We were very happy together, Derek,” Oscar insisted. “We’d been planning to start a family. My mother was always prattling on about grandchildren.”
“Oh, so it wasn’t just Marie and June who ganged up on you!” It was said with a laugh and defused some of the tension.
Oscar resolutely turned his back on Simon. “I promise you that Marie and I had a happy marriage. Even when she was so ill, we still enjoyed life together. I never even thought of having a male partner until Simon made the first approach.”
“So you’re one of those men they call bi, are you?” Derek asked. “I’m sorry, I’m not too knowledgeable about this type of thing,” he added apologetically, “but June will want to know.”
“I suppose that’s how you could describe me,” Oscar lied. “Perhaps Marie sensed it. It wasn’t something we ever discussed.”
“Perhaps she did. She was always good at reading people. That must have been what she was thinking about when she urged us to support you in the future. I know she was always happy with you. Now I hope you’ll be as happy with Mr Carlyle. He seems to be very taken with you.”
As if to underline the truth of that statement, Simon stepped smoothly into the gap as Derek moved away to rejoin his wife. Oscar raised haunted eyes to Simon’s face, only to encounter a loving look tinged with wonderment and admiration. “I’ve never been so proud of you, Oscar Williams. I don’t know how you did it but that was the kindest and most generous thing to say. Come here.” Simon pulled Oscar into an embrace which didn’t seem to attract too much attention in the crowded room. Oscar rested his head on Simon’s shoulder. There was no need to avoid physical contact when the truth about their relationship would soon be common knowledge. “I know just what you were thinking,” said Simon quietly when Oscar raised his head. “You thought you were denying me before the world.”
The stricken look Oscar cast him was sufficient to confirm the assertion. “I had to, Simon,” he said desperately. “I had to tell him I never thought of anyone but Marie.”
“Of course you did,” agreed Simon calmly. “Did you think I wouldn’t understand that? You said what was necessary to preserve Mr Fletcher’s confidence in his daughter’s marriage and her happiness. And she did have a happy marriage, you told me so yourself. Nothing you’ve said makes one iota of difference to our relationship now and how I feel about you. I don’t think I’ve told you this properly before, Oscar, but I love you and I’ve never loved you as much as I do now.”
“Oh,” gasped Oscar.
“Yes, oh! This isn’t the time or the place I would have chosen for such a declaration but I want to spend the rest of my life with you. You are the most sensitive, caring and loving person I’ve ever known and I’d like to make our relationship official. I don’t think I should get down on one knee in front of this gathering but I really think the time has come for me to meet your mother.”
“Oh, oh… yes…” Oscar stammered, slowly taking in the significance of what he’d just been told. “I suppose… yes, we could drop in on the way home.”
“Before your father-in-law rings up with the news!” suggested Simon.
“It’ll be June,” corrected Oscar, who knew his in-laws well. “But if we leave straight after the meal we should get in first. Especially as I’ll have a very special announcement to make.” He stopped and blushed before making the admission which he naively thought would be news to Simon. “I haven’t told her about you, I’m afraid. I just didn’t know how to introduce the subject over the phone. But it’ll be all right,” he added with confidence. “She’ll be so pleased I’m settling down and she’s going to love you.”
“I’ll try and be on my best behaviour,” Simon solemnly assured him.
“You’re always on your best behaviour,” Oscar pointed out as he recovered his sense of fun. “I don’t know how I’ve managed to end up with such a paragon but I love you too, Simon. I never expected to get a second chance at happiness and now you’ve given me all I ever dreamed of.”
Simon face lit up with pleasure to hear his own declaration of love returned in full measure and he placed a proprietorial arm around Oscar’s shoulders. “I wonder, Oscar Williams, did you ever dream of this?” he enquired conversationally as he steered the young man out of the function room and into the empty corridor. Then, taking Oscar by surprise, he backed him up against the wall and kissed him deeply.
When the young man finally came up for air he whispered, “Stop it, someone’ll see us,” but he made no move to get out of Simon’s embrace.
“Let them see us! You’re mine and I’m still waiting to learn if you ever dreamed of this?”
Oscar raised his face without further protest and surrendered himself to a kiss which surpassed all his previous imaginings because now he truly belonged to the man whose hands cradled his head and whose heart beat in time with his own.