A Place of Safety ~ Chapter 1: Finding a Friend

The view from the office window was everything Dominic McAvinchey had ever dreamed of before he moved to the capital. The Thames glittered a metallic grey through gaps in the high rise office blocks, and round the bend in the river the pods of the London Eye could be seen slowly rotating. It had taken years of study to land a job in such an exciting location. Dominic gazed out at the familiar panorama with unseeing eyes and pondered his future with the company.

He was coming to the end of his first year working for Semdar plc at its head office in the City of London. He’d been so proud to be taken on as a trainee IT manager straight out of university. For a young man from the provinces, the opportunity to work in central London, and for such a prestigious company, was a dream come true. He could still remember his elation when shown his desk in the open plan office which was on the fifteenth floor of the glass fronted building. The views were breathtaking and he thought he’d never tire of the vista which colleagues seemed to take for granted. He’d even taken his camera into work to surreptitiously photograph his desk with the distant view of the Thames behind. He’d then printed off a copy for his mother which she’d shown to all her friends. Her son, Dominic, the IT graduate, now a top executive, working for a blue chip company with an office in the City of London. Such pride in his achievements which, in her loving eyes, seemed limitless and which, to Dominic himself, now seemed so empty and devoid of worth.

He was beginning to realise the extent to which home, school and university had provided structure, support and direction in his life. Now that he’d branched out on his own, he was disappointed to find that independent living did not provide the excitement and liberation he had fondly imagined. He found himself consciously limiting the number of weekends he spent travelling to and from his childhood home in Salisbury. Quite apart from the cost, he didn’t want his mother to guess how lonely he was in his tiny, rented flat in south London. He implied that he lived the life of a young man about town but, in reality, he spent his evenings and weekends alone, hoping for the invitations from work colleagues which never materialised.

A pleasure boat, working its way slowly downstream, caught Dominic’s eye. It seemed to be full of tourists with their cameras trained first on St Paul’s Cathedral and then on the South Bank. All those happy people, travelling in family and friendship groups. The vision just served to emphasise Dominic’s sense of alienation and separation from the lives of ordinary people.

It hadn’t always been so. He’d had a couple of close friends as a child, and even at school there had been a number of other boys who shared his fascination with computers. Dominic and his friends may have been branded geeks by the more sporting fraternity but they had commanded a certain respect for their ability to sort out problems with internet connections, mobile phones and computer games.

University had proved more of a challenge. Dominic had been very homesick at first, missing his mother. As the only son of a single parent, he was very close to his mother. If asked, he would have conceded, with an unusual degree of self awareness, that she was his best friend and closest confidante. When other new students were joining societies and taking part in the social events of Freshers’ Week, Dominic had hung back, texting reassuring messages to his mother and occasionally slinking back to his study bedroom to shed a few tears which left him feeling bitterly ashamed.

Gradually the strangeness of living away from home began to diminish and by the end of his first term Dominic was getting used to university life. He immersed himself in his computing studies and fellow students were always happy to be paired with such a focused and knowledgeable individual when projects were assigned, even if they had to contend with occasional outbursts of temper when they failed to stick to Dominic’s rigid timetable for completion.

Most of the undergraduates in the computing department were male but that placed no particular constraint on Dominic’s socialising. He’d finally accepted that he was never going to be attracted to the opposite sex. While he nurtured some undefined fantasies about meeting a handsome, confident and powerful man who would sweep him off his feet and take charge of his life, in reality his ambitions stretched no further than establishing a few firm friendships. But somehow close companionship always eluded him while he was at university.

There were the people who would share a coffee and a chat about software in the computing department but they never asked him to join in their social activities. There were the housemates who invited him to make up the numbers in a student property during his second year but they all seemed to have a readymade circle of friends which didn’t include him. In his final year, Dominic moved back into the university halls of residence and concentrated on his studies. Knowing that he would soon have a job, he placed all his hopes on establishing a better social life with colleagues from work. The hours of study paid off with a first class degree and a good job in the City but somehow his social life still failed to take off.

Dominic reluctantly shifted his gaze from the outside world and bent his head to study the spreadsheet on the screen in front of him with only half his mind on the job. He was trying to remember whether he needed to stop off at the supermarket on the way home from work or whether he had enough food in his small fridge to provide himself with an evening meal and something for breakfast. He sighed as he contemplated the mundane trivialities of his solitary lifestyle, a far cry from all he had once imagined to be the lot of the young urban professional.

His sigh caught the attention of Sarah Powell, another young graduate who had been recruited a year before Dominic. She worked for the Human Resources Department and her desk was not far from his in the open plan office. She quietly pushed her chair back so she could watch him over the partition without drawing attention to herself. To her eye he appeared unsettled, distracted or possibly unhappy. She found his expression difficult to read, despite having spent a fair bit of time covertly studying him. There was something about the way his thick, brown hair fell across his face when he worked and the way his wide hazel eyes focused on her when she addressed him that made her go weak at the knees. She hadn’t told any of her friends that she fancied the new young man in IT. They would probably tease her for her eccentric taste in men. She looked at him more critically; he could hardly be described as a snappy dresser. His trousers were unfashionably baggy and his collar and tie were askew but if you could get over the lack of dress sense then the discerning woman could focus on the long legs and firm thighs, the broad shoulders and narrow hips, the high cheekbones and square chin.

Sarah gave herself a mental shake. There was work to be done and that did not include making a mental list of all Dominic McAvinchey’s best features. After all, it wasn’t as though he’d responded to any of her tentative overtures. He seemed to be something of a loner, happy in his own company. Yet she felt there was a little boy vulnerability about him too, something which grabbed at all her maternal instincts. She stood up and walked over to his desk. “Fancy a cup of coffee, Dominic?” she asked casually. “I’m just going to make one.”

“Okay, thanks,” he replied without looking up from his computer screen.

“Milk and sugar?”

“Just milk, please.”

Sarah waited a moment to see if he would make eye contact when he finished entering the current row of figures on his spreadsheet but he appeared engrossed in his work. She turned and walked over to the hot drinks machine which always dispensed palatable coffee and filled two cups.

“There you go. I hope that’s enough milk.”

This time he did look up from his work to accept the proffered cup and glance at its mocha coloured contents. “That looks fine. Thank you.”

Sarah pressed her advantage. She put her own cup down on Dominic’s desk and pulled up a chair. “It’s good to take a break from the figures now and again,” she observed as she sat down beside him with the clear intention of sharing her coffee break with him.

“I prefer to concentrate on a task until it’s complete,” he said repressively. “I find I make fewer mistakes that way.”

It wasn’t an encouraging start to the conversation but Sarah refused to be put off. “Most people would say that they need to take regular breaks to keep their minds sharp.”

“Well, I’m not most people.”

“So how do you keep your mind sharp? How do you relax? What have you got planned for tonight, Dominic? Will you be out clubbing?” The last question was posed with a laugh which was intended to convey irony.

Dominic took the question seriously and answered crossly, “That’s not my thing at all.”

Sarah feared he may have interpreted her question as mockery. She hastened to reassure him. “It’s not my thing either,” she said calmly. “I like my music at a comfortable volume and I like to spend my down time in places where you can hear your companion speak.”

Dominic finally realised that Sarah was just trying to be sociable. He wasn’t good at recognising friendly overtures and tended to discourage conversation out of habit. He took a sip of coffee to give himself time to come up with a response. He could only think to ask, “What sort of music do you like?” But it seemed to give Sarah something to get her teeth into.

“Not the sort of music they play in the clubs,” she replied emphatically. “Actually, I’m a classical music fan. My friends are always having a go at me about the stuff I listen to. It’s not their taste at all. I don’t know what they’re complaining about though. It’s my iPod; they don’t have to listen to it. Although I sometimes listen to Classic FM when they’re with me in the car. I suppose they’re entitled to complain then. What about you?”

“I like classical music too. I play the violin,” Dominic added a trifle uncertainly. It wasn’t something he normally admitted to. “I suppose that’s why I enjoy orchestral pieces, especially violin concertos.”

“Hey, I saw they’re doing a series at the Barbican. The Bach violin concertos. Would you fancy coming if I got tickets?”

“Yes, please,” Dominic replied at once, his enthusiasm overcoming his customary reticence. “The A Minor is my favourite but I love the Double Violin Concerto as well. Do you think you could get tickets for one or the other?”

“I’ll look online in a moment. They may both be on the same concert programme. You never know your luck.”

At that moment Dominic’s luck ran out. His boss, Jude Merrow, came striding into the office and his gaze swept around the carrels where employees were diligently working until he spotted his trainee IT manager drinking coffee. There was, of course, no reason why Dominic should not be taking a coffee break but somehow the sight of him relaxing did nothing to improve Mr Merrow’s temper. He fixed Dominic with a steely look and uttered a single curt instruction, “My office, now, Mr McAvinchey.” He then turned and headed rapidly towards his private office, never doubting for one moment that Dominic would follow close on his heels.

Dominic put his coffee cup down at once and, with an apologetic glance at Sarah, pushed back his chair and jumped to his feet. As he scurried to keep up with his long legged boss a few sympathetic glances were cast in his direction. No one in that office relished the thought of getting on the wrong side of Jude Merrow and they were all glad not to be the one in the hot seat.

In fact, Dominic didn’t get to take a seat at all. He stood rather awkwardly in front of the desk and watched as Mr Merrow walked over to the conference table, took off his jacket and hung it carefully over one of the high backed chairs. There was a flash of blue silk lining as the high quality, lightweight fabric fell into stylish shape without a hint of a crease. Mr Merrow’s finely striped shirt also exuded the understated elegance of Jermyn Street tailoring, fitting perfectly across his broad shoulders. Dominic found himself tugging down the slightly grubby cuffs of his Marks and Spencer shirt and trying, unsuccessfully, to straighten his tie.

Jude Merrow took his time getting settled. He pulled out the heavy leather chair from behind his desk, sat down, placed his elbows on the table and folded his hands under his chin. In this posture he was able to study the young man in front of him who grew more and more uncomfortable under the intense scrutiny. In reality, Mr Merrow was taking time to calm down, to think about the conversation he had just had with the office manager in Glasgow, and to consider how he was going to deal with Dominic McAvinchey.

The young man had tried to hold his gaze but there was no mistaking the alarm in his eyes or the agitation in his body language. Now his head was bowed and his shoulders slumped in dejection. He knew he was in trouble but he didn’t know the nature of the problem. At least, Mr Merrow was assuming Dominic was, as yet, ignorant of his fault. If it turned out that he already knew what he’d done wrong and had taken no steps to remedy his mistake then it really would be a serious matter.

“I’ve just been speaking to the office manager at our Glasgow centre,” Mr Merrow finally announced.

Dominic’s head reared up at that piece of information. He had recently been on a site visit to Glasgow and was in the process of planning an IT upgrade for the whole of the regional office. It was the first major project he’d handled on his own and, as it involved substantial capital expenditure, Jude Merrow, his line manager, had ultimate control of the budget. Dominic had only just submitted his preliminary proposals and it appeared they had not found favour with Mr Merrow who continued speaking to Dominic in a steely tone. “They’re pretty angry up there to see that your specifications make no provision for the annexe.”

“What… What do you mean?” Dominic’s incomprehension was unfeigned. It was quite clear that he hadn’t been covering up his mistake.

Mr Merrow couldn’t quite fathom how Dominic had come to make such a basic error. “Your brief was to upgrade their entire network,” he explained. “The staff can’t work if one section is left with old operating systems. They all need to be on the one network, using the same software. Maybe I didn’t make that as clear to you as I should have done but I must say I thought it would be self evident.”

“Of course, sir. My figures cover a complete upgrade for the regional office. I don’t understand why there’s a problem.”

“You went to Glasgow to assess their precise requirements, didn’t you? That’s the whole purpose of a site visit. We’re providing an upgrade for the main office suite and for the annexe in the adjoining building.” Jude Merrow began to grasp what must have gone wrong as he witnessed Dominic’s wide eyed incomprehension. “Surely you checked the annexe,” he demanded.

“No… no, sir. I didn’t know there was an annexe. Nobody told me. I never saw any additional office space.” Dominic suddenly realised what must have happened. He hadn’t found the office manager in Glasgow particularly friendly or accommodating. There seemed to be no enthusiasm for the planned upgrade and Dominic had been left very much to his own devices during the couple of days he had spent in Scotland. Information had not been freely offered and he’d had to ask repeatedly to gain the most basic understanding of working practices and operating requirements. Dominic began to get angry and his anger was directed against those who had failed to pass on the essential information required for his project. He felt he’d been set up and he had no difficulty in apportioning blame.

Jude Merrow was rapidly coming to a similar conclusion. The office manager in Glasgow would soon be hearing, in no uncertain terms, how his lack of cooperation was viewed at head office. However, Mr Merrow’s emotions were firmly under control and not a flicker of irritation showed on his face. The same could not be said of Dominic McAvinchey who was struggling to master his fury, his agitation evident in the tightening of his jaw and the clenching of his fists. Mr Merrow regarded him with wry understanding but with a determination not to let his sympathies stand in the way of teaching his trainee an important lesson.

“Did you ask, Mr McAvinchey? Did you make any effort to ensure that you had done a complete survey of the facilities?”

“Of course I didn’t ask,” Dominic replied bitterly, anger overcoming his usual respectful manner towards his boss. “How was I supposed to know I needed to ask if they had any office space they hadn’t shown me?”

“This job is about people, Mr McAvinchey, not just about machines and cabling. If you’re going to be successful at Semdar you need to build a relationship with our personnel. You need to get to know how they work and what they need to enable them to do their jobs well. We provide a support service for this operation; we’re not in the business of buying the latest gizmos with all the bells and whistles just for our own entertainment.”

“I didn’t… I wasn’t…” The argumentative words died on his lips at the look his boss was giving him and he managed to utter a formal, “No, sir.”

Mr Merrow appreciated the effort it had taken for Dominic to control himself and he continued more gently. “You’ll have to start the whole tendering process over again. It’ll set the timeframe back a bit and you’re going to have to work within the agreed budget. I can’t go back to the directors for further funding at this stage. You’re just going to have to make savings on your specifications to cover the shortfall.”

“Do I need to go back to Glasgow to do a second site survey?” Dominic asked tentatively, dreading the idea of having his incompetence exposed to everyone in the regional office.

“Not unless you want to deduct the cost of the flight and accommodation from your budget. We need to be saving time and money now. See what you can achieve with videoconferencing. I’ll speak to the office manager first and get him to start preparing a full report on the number of computers in the annexe and the nature of the network. I’m sure there’s cabling running between the two buildings. I remember when we expanded the Glasgow office the purchase of an adjoining building enabled all the workstations to be connected to one server. Of course, we’re all using the virtual private network now but I expect the essential layout won’t have changed.”

“Okay,” said Dominic, trying to come to terms with the amount of extra work it would all entail. “I’ll get on it at once.”

He took his boss’s nod as dismissal and turned to leave the office but Mr Merrow had one more thing to say, “Thank you, Mr McAvinchey. This mess wasn’t entirely of your making and you can learn from your mistakes. Sort it out and we’ll say no more about it.”

That made things a little better. Dominic held his head a fraction higher and squared his shoulders as he opened the door to walk back into the open plan office area. One or two people glanced furtively towards him, no doubt to check that he was still in one piece. Sarah Powell, who was dying to tell him that she had booked tickets for them both at the Barbican, took one look at his face and decided that the good news could wait.

Dominic sat down at his desk, took care to save his spreadsheet and closed the document. He then opened the folder containing all his work for the Glasgow project. It contained a list of Word and Excel files covering technical specifications, tenders and recommendations. He had finished the work just a couple of days earlier and submitted it with relief to his boss and to the Glasgow office for consideration and comment. The thought that he was effectively back to square one with much less time in which to produce a totally new proposal was dispiriting in the extreme. He sank his head in his hands and was only saved from despair by his reawakening anger.

‘It’s not my fault, not my fault,’ he repeated to himself and yet his anger was turning inwards. He was becoming furious with himself for making such an elementary mistake. He hated being in the wrong and getting into trouble. He tried to blame the office manager in Glasgow but couldn’t delude himself about his failure to communicate with a man he’d taken against from the first. He tried to turn his anger on his boss who’d given him such a hard time but he was forced to acknowledge the justice of what had been said. He knew that Mr Merrow was right to insist on the importance of communication but he knew communication wasn’t his strong point. He was better with machines and cabling than dealing with people; no one had ever called him a team player. Perhaps he should find a job which played to his strengths, a backroom job where he’d never have to speak to anyone.

Yet that wasn’t really what he wanted. He yearned for friendship and respect at work. He pulled himself together. He’d been given a chance to rectify his mistake. There’d been no suggestion of anyone else taking over the project. Mr Merrow seemed to believe that he had the ability to sort the mess out. There was still a chance to make a success of his first major undertaking for the company. He could still try and earn his boss’s praise and respect. It was that thought which gave him the strength to sit upright, open the first file in the folder and set to work.

He was so focused on the task that he failed to notice the office emptying as staff finished work for the day and headed home. It was the gnawing pangs of hunger which alerted him to the lateness of the hour and he got up and headed over to the coffee machine to make himself a drink and help himself to a chocolate biscuit. One of the secretaries kept the biscuit tin topped up from funds deposited in the honesty box so he rummaged in his pocket for a coin, reflecting wryly that he had at least been spared a trip to the supermarket on the way home. He would have to stay for the rest of the evening and try to work out some options before speaking with the Glasgow office in the morning.

The next time he looked at the clock it was nearing ten o’clock at night. He didn’t want to stay much longer. The office cleaners had already come and gone. He wanted to travel home in comfort and didn’t want to get mixed up with the theatre goers and revellers who would flock to the station for the last train back. He carefully saved his work and began gathering up the paperwork on his desk as his computer shut down. A distant jangling of keys alerted him to the imminent arrival of the caretaker who never appreciated having to wait in order to lock up.

The door swung open and a tall, powerfully built man strode quickly into the room, coming to a halt when he spotted Dominic.

“You in detention tonight then?” he asked laughingly.

“It certainly feels like it,” Dominic responded, rather despondently.

“Been a naughty boy, have you?”

“No,” answered Dominic rather too forcefully. And then, because the glint in the caretaker’s eye drew a reluctant smile from him, Dominic added, “But my boss might not agree with that. I’ve certainly got a lot of work to catch up on.”

The caretaker, Chris Wilkins, came over to the adjoining desk, parked his backside on the polished surface, folded his arms across his broad chest and stretched his long legs out in front of him. He seemed more ready to chat than to send Dominic on his way. “So what you working on then?”

“Oh, I’m trying to put together a plan to upgrade the IT provision at our Glasgow office. It’s turned into a bigger project than I was expecting but I haven’t been given any additional funding so I’ve been trying to work out areas where I can cut costs.”

“Any luck with that?”

“Well, I suppose I’d originally budgeted for top of the range specifications. Not quite all the bells and whistles,” he added thinking of his boss’s biting comment, “but I reckon I can downgrade without significant loss of performance.”

“So they’ll be getting the 1 Series and no Z4s in Glasgow then?”

Dominic looked baffled.

“Don’t you get it? I’m a BMW driver, although mine was bought second hand, of course. The 1 Series is the basic model. The Z4 is a top of the range sports car.”

“Oh,” said Dominic, catching on. “I’m a bit clueless about cars. I drive a Ford Focus so your 1 Series would feel like the height of luxury to me. I bet it’s fast.”

“Too right. My car moves like shit off a stick – which is what I’d better be doing if I’m going to check the rest of the building and lock up before morning. I’ll leave this floor to last so you can take your time packing up.”

Chris got to his feet and strode back towards the stairwell leaving Dominic to admire his rear view. Dressed all in black, his short sleeved tee shirt displayed his muscular biceps to perfection and the tight fitting cargo pants emphasised the pronounced curve of his firm backside. Dominic’s appreciative stare was interrupted by Chris turning to utter one final comment, “Actually, I drive a Z4, not a 1 Series. See you, kid.”

The next morning Dominic put off ringing the Glasgow office until nervousness about speaking to the office manager was eclipsed by worry that Mr Merrow would come and ask what progress he’d made. But when he finally plucked up courage and picked up the phone, he was surprised to find the Glaswegian uncharacteristically soft spoken and accommodating. The man seemed anxious to minimise the extent of the problem and he provided precise and clear information about the additional computers and cabling which would be required. Dominic thanked him and then found himself apologising for the incomplete proposals which he had initially submitted.

In view of the fact that Dominic still considered that he wasn’t really at fault in the matter, he surprised himself when he started saying sorry. He was even more surprised at how well his apology was received. Not only that, the office manager seemed more than ready to take his share of the blame, admitting that he should have taken greater care to ensure that Dominic left the Glasgow office with a complete understanding of all their requirements. When the conversation ended, Dominic sat puzzling over the exchange.

He decided that something must have happened to change the office manager’s attitude but he couldn’t fathom what it might be, other than a desire to get the project back on track. Dominic knew that his interpersonal skills were weak and that he didn’t always read people well. He suspected that his own manner in Scotland might have caused some antipathy, possibly directed towards a young Englishman who appeared to know all the answers.

Dominic was indeed formidably intelligent and his intelligence enabled him, when faced with a new situation, to apply skills learnt in another context. He mulled over the miraculous effect of an unforced apology and mentally filed away his conclusions for future reference. Clearly it was possible to win people over by saying sorry, even if you weren’t to blame. There was even a chance that they would be shamed into admitting their own faults if you made the first move.

Cheered by his positive dealings with the Glasgow office, Dominic turned his attention to the provisional changes he had made the night before and began working on new costings. He was so immersed in the task that he didn’t notice Jude Merrow approach his workstation until a shadow fell across his desk and a deep voice asked, “How’s it going?”

“Oh, oh… fine, sir. I’ve spoken to them in Glasgow. The office manager didn’t seem so cut up about things as I was expecting.”

“I trust not,” Mr Merrow observed rather grimly.

Dominic misinterpreted his boss’s frown as a sign of displeasure directed at him, and agitation caused him to stumble over his explanation. “I stayed and worked up a provisional plan last night. I wasn’t sure… I didn’t know what might be needed but I looked at areas where we could make changes… save money. Now I have a clearer idea of the layout I think I’ll be able to come up with an acceptable compromise, sir.”

“I’m sure you will, Dominic,” Mr Merrow said approvingly. “Just remember, we’re on a tight schedule with this now and I’m going to need a complete set of proposals for the budget meeting on Thursday.”

However slow on the uptake Dominic might be in social situations, he didn’t miss the use of his first name which made him feel he was no longer in disgrace. “I should have something provisional to show you by tomorrow morning,” he announced confidently.

“That would be good but there’s no need to stay up all night working on it. You don’t have to put yourself under such pressure. In fact, I just came over to say that I actually need the spreadsheet you were working on yesterday more urgently. Is that complete yet?”

“No. I’m sorry. I didn’t know…”

“Of course you didn’t know I wanted it so quickly,” Mr Merrow interjected. “I didn’t give you a time limit and now I find I need the figures so I can work on some of my own projections. Would you mind putting the Glasgow work to one side for an hour or two and finishing the spreadsheet for me? Can you get it done in a couple of hours?”

“There isn’t much left to do. It shouldn’t take that long. I’ll have it to you by lunchtime.”

“Thank you, Dominic.”

Mr Merrow headed back to his office and Dominic switched tasks, privately resolving that he’d put in however long was needed that night to bring the Glasgow project to a state of readiness. There was something about gaining Mr Merrow’s approbation which he found greatly motivating.

He was still at his desk as the office began to empty at the end of the day. Around six o’clock, when he was taking a break for coffee, he was surprised to see the caretaker stroll into the office.

“Not pulling another all nighter, are you?” Chris asked.

“I didn’t work all night yesterday,” Dominic replied rather crossly. “I packed up and went home just after you left.”

“Okay, okay,” said Chris, holding up his hands, palms outwards, in a placatory gesture. “Don’t go getting all aerated. I was just being friendly.”

“Sorry,” said Dominic. “I didn’t mean to be rude. It’s just that I’m under a bit of pressure at the moment.”

“Then you need to relax, forget about work for a bit and try and get a good night’s sleep.”

“Possibly. I certainly won’t have to work much longer tonight. I’ve made really good progress with the project in the last couple of hours.”

“That’s great news. Look, I’ve got a suggestion. Why don’t I go and do my rounds now and then you and I could go for a drink before you get your train home.”

“I don’t know. I’m not much of a drinker.”

“I’m not suggesting you go home the worse for wear, lad. I’m just suggesting a drink, a chat, some sociable company and a bit of fun. I reckon you could do with something like that.”

“Where would we go? I can’t afford to miss my last train.”

“Where do you travel from?”

“Charing Cross.”

“Perfect. I know a great little pub just across the road from Charing Cross Station. If I’m not mistaken, you’ll feel very much at home there.”

By half past seven Dominic and Chris were walking past St Paul’s Cathedral and down the hill into Fleet Street. It was a journey Dominic often did on foot, preferring the exercise to travelling on a crowded circle line train. He had to admit that it was a pleasant change to be walking with a companion. Chris Wilkins was still wearing his black tee shirt displaying the company logo but, as they left the office building, he’d put on a black leather jacket which gave him an added air of sophistication with just a hint of menace. Dominic judged Chris to be in his late thirties, early forties, but he was so toned and fit it was difficult to make an accurate estimate of his age. Dominic was having to stride out in order to keep up with the brisk pace set by his companion.

“Hey, slow down a bit,” Dominic finally gasped. “You must have longer legs than me; I can’t keep up.”

“I’m just fitter than you, lad. You should join a gym and do some stamina work.”

“Is that what you do?”

“I belong to a gym, yes. I used to box and I still keep up the weight training.”

“That explains the biceps.”

Chris laughed. “Yeah. I always found it helpful to have an intimidating physique when I worked as a bouncer.”

“I didn’t know you’d been a bouncer... and you certainly don’t look like a boxer.”

“No broken nose or cauliflower ears, you mean.”

“Well you’ve kept your looks,” Dominic said without thinking and then blushed, fearing he’d spoken out of turn in commenting on Chris’s chiselled features.

Chris didn’t seem to notice the compliment though, merely observing, “I never let my opponents get close enough to do any damage.”

Dominic could well believe that. He couldn’t imagine anyone getting the better of Chris Wilkins. They walked the length of The Strand with Chris telling Dominic about his hair raising experiences as a bouncer, experiences in which badly behaved clubbers always finished up out on the street. As Charing Cross station came into view, Chris made a right turn down a side street and stopped at a pub called Halfway to Heaven. With tables and chairs on the pavement, it looked more like a restaurant than a traditional English pub but all the men standing outside were drinking. Dominic and Chris had to pass through a laughing group of leather clad customers to get through the door. Dominic assumed at first they were bikers but then wondered where they would park their machines, so close to Trafalgar Square.

The barman wore a tight white tee shirt and his shock of blond hair was cut asymmetrically to fall across one eye and half his face. He seemed to be practising for his next photo shoot, prancing and posing whenever the opportunity presented itself. He appeared to know Chris though, addressing him as ‘sweetie’, offering to serve ‘the usual’ and demanding to be introduced to his friend.

When the drinks were served, Chris guided Dominic to a free table in the corner, steering him through the throng with a firm hand on his shoulder. Usually wary of physical contact, Dominic was grateful for Chris’s protective grasp in what struck him as a very crowded and noisy pub. He was relieved to find a seat and he took a long pull on his beer, finding himself very thirsty after completing his usual walk from the City to Charing Cross in record time. Only when he had quenched his thirst did he begin to look closely at his surroundings and his eyes were drawn to the large framed pictures on the wall. They were photographs of shirtless young men, some wearing sailor hats and all of them impossibly good looking. He turned to observe the clientele more carefully and realisation dawned. He hastened to suppress his shocked reaction which he feared must be all too obvious as Chris was watching him with barely concealed amusement.

“So you’ve worked out where you are now, eh, lad?”

“Yeah… yeah, I have.” Dominic cast a rather apprehensive glance towards the nearest group of laughing, gesticulating men and whispered, “I’ve never been in a gay pub before.”

“Well, there’s nothing to worry about. No one’s going to abduct you and have their wicked way with you. You’re quite safe with me.”

“Do you come here often?” Dominic asked, genuinely curious to know if he had correctly interpreted the barman’s welcome as an indication that Chris was a regular.

“Ah, the old chat up lines; old but still the best! And there was me thinking I’d already pulled.”

Dominic’s cheeks flamed with embarrassment. He didn’t know which was worse. The suggestion that he’d been making a pass at the caretaker or the realisation that Chris already regarded their outing as a date. Chris laughed and leaned forward to run a thumb possessively down the side of Dominic face before cupping his chin in a powerful hand. He turned Dominic’s face up to look him in the eye as he said, “Hey, there’s no need to be embarrassed; I was just teasing. We’re two guys having a drink together, getting to know one another, just relaxing after work. And yes, I do come here often. It’s a friendly place and I feel comfortable in this pub. I thought it would be your sort of place too. Was I wrong about that?”

“No. Well, I’m not much of a one for pubs. But yes, yes, I suppose... you’re right...” Dominic hesitated.

“I am right, you’re gay like me,” Chris finished the sentence for him.

Dominic just nodded.

“So perhaps we could get to know one another a little better, maybe come down here again after work. They do fantastic karaoke nights, if that’s something you’d enjoy. On second thoughts, the quiz nights might be more up your street. What do you say?”

Dominic gave it a few moments’ thought. Now that his initial panic was subsiding he was able to focus on the instant attraction he’d felt towards this assured and good looking man. His limited experience of personal relationships had been confined to one or two sexual encounters with other male students at university. Those relationships had been brief and unsatisfactory, missing some element for which Dominic was unconsciously searching. Chris Wilkins might not be Dominic’s intellectual equal but what he lacked in academic qualifications he more than made up for with his competence in social situations and his natural air of command. Dominic decided that the age difference didn’t matter; it might even be an advantage as the older man possessed the experience, the confidence and authority for which he always yearned.

“Okay. I’ll come out with you again. Just to get to know one another. Nothing more… not yet… I do like pub quizzes, although I’m no good on the sporting questions… or the popular music. But please don’t expect me to perform in the karaoke.”

“Don’t worry. I’m a hopeless singer myself but some of the guys here are brilliant. I always try and drop in on karaoke night. It’s great fun. And there are always people willing to make up a quiz team. You’ll enjoy yourself. I tell you what, how about we come down here for a drink after work on Friday to celebrate the start of the weekend. Are you up for that?”

“All right. If I don’t have to stay late to catch up with my work, I’ll come out with you again on Friday.”

Chris’s hand closed over Dominic’s where it lay on the table. He gave it a brief squeeze to thank Dominic for committing to their next date. Dominic looked shyly into the older man’s eyes and his smile placed a seal on their newfound understanding.