This piece was originally published in The Gaysi Zine Issue 03. This is the beginning of a story serialised in three parts. It is a precious jewel among the many stories published in The Gaysi Zine. We hope you enjoy it; and when you do – do let us know.
It’s not that we never met Roy. He would emerge every once in a while, looking dapper in khaki trousers, white linen shirt, bathed and cologned, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth like Bogart. His stories took us back to the books we had read and thought we would live out.
“In Vienna I saw The Third Man sites; they have actually marked them out! Though Greene only sees Vienna as crumbling and destroyed… You can see the patina of loss held together with such precision, with such terrible beauty. Toby, my Viennese friend; his mother is the adopted daughter of Ezra Pound. For me, meeting her was like having tea with history. Toby does nothing, when does royalty do anything but waste? Ha! Ha! He is a hundred and thirty pounds and reads to live. Vienna is where I shall marry a bar girl and be a father to her brood, but really, it is London, always London for me!”
“So boys,” he would say, “who is paying for my booze tonight?” One of us would invariably pay his cab fare. The last bus back home would have gone by the time we could tear ourselves away from him, still asking him to tell us more about us, what we did, what we said, how we looked, when we were young. He remembered our past for us; the details adding up to exactly what we would have wished our past to be.
With me, he liked to have conversations in the morning over coffee. On his way to the hills he would stop by, sometimes even stay a day or two every few years. Those were not like conversations men have. Those talks were oblique, quieter, almost real… At night he liked to be left alone. When I would get up to go to the bathroom way past midnight, I would steal a peek into the guest room and see him play the piano in the air or write notes on scraps of paper he kept in the front pocket of his old black sling bag. Sometimes, I would find him looking at himself in the mirror, ruffling his thinning hair to a flick, walking up and down the room, turning back and front, sucking in his widening girth, holding his ass up to a perk.
The morning would show no trace of the previous night’s ardour, the hours spent in preparation for a life to begin. “You have a good life, old chap, all so wonderfully arranged. The sun hits your study with such predictable punctuality; one has no need for a clock. How did you do it, how do you do it,” he would ask, half with scorn, but half with anxious seeking.
“Till I was ten, Mum was very particular. There was no forgiveness for weakness, no excuses for laxity. The old bidi, poor thing, now she forgets everything, except very old things. She liked you best among the lot. When you are in town next, do look her up. But only if you wish to, no pressure, pal, none at all.”
There were books he had been planning to write. Stories fermenting through years of disenchantment, a life aspiring only to be literature. They made your puny success pale in the glamour of failure. For every mood he had a tale, for every small little thing an imagination.
“I was wondering which story to start with”. There’s one called “Tea for Two”- it’s about a boy who goes to the hills alone but imagines the whole trip as one where his girlfriend is with him. So, when he goes to a restaurant, he orders tea for two, with an empty chair in front of him. It’s only in the end that the reader will know that the trip was a solo one. And then there is the one about ‘bandh’, a total shut down of a city. There are five characters in the story- it will be a metaphysical thriller; part dystopic, part rip-roaringly funny. All work is suspended, even a suicide is postponed because the shops are all shut and the man cannot buy any rope or poison.”
That one made me laugh and revisit a moment that I had till then, only remembered with horror. Roy had the ability to do that. He could make a suck in the bathroom change orientations, a sleep-over the only desire you would ever know. But when we were alone, he and I; we never talked about the past. The promise of future propelled all our discussions over endless coffee and cigarettes. With Roy, I temporarily forgot that I was in those years when keeping up needed regular morning walks and lusts ran thin in my veins. He was always on the verge of beginning- planning the set and the setting, orchestrating the perfect moment, the overwhelming culmination.
The boredom set in quietly and with it a gradual slipping. The old frayed shirts would be neatly packed in his bag. He counted them every day, arranged them in sets, matching their fade with his three trousers. In the evenings, he would be ready, all tucked in, walking to the same corner shops to catch them young with the same stories. In hotel rooms he asked the bell boys to share his dinner, the last dregs of the fourth half bottle.
“They lose it so easily- all that beauty, the leanness, the shadow of the lashes lost in the maze of hardening, darkening stubble. If F had remained, I wouldn’t have known what do with his manliness. Plus he had such poor taste in music that boy, to hear Bach’s first cello suite and not be moved! How utterly wasteful those evenings were!” he told me in a mood of detached regret. “But that’s the beauty my friend, the inevitable doom and the charm of discrepancy”.
He began to forget that these were repetitions. The same stories- improvised with synonyms, old words pretending to pose new dangers to ensnare the first-time listeners. I bore his wearniness. It has been many years.
This time he asked about F. He was on his way to the foothills after two years. Only two days on this trip. He had only two days for me after two years. I had tried to fill the gap with distractions. It has been a lifetime of distractions.
“Did F call you after last March, what day was it, the 8th? Did he ask about me?”, he asked tentatively, inhaling the cigarette smoke deep into his lungs.
“Only once. He said he was leaving for Pittsburg. It was a short call “, I said quietly.
“What happened, my friend? Where are they, your lovelies? I don’t find any pink underwear under my pillows anymore,” he said, changing the melancholic tone of the last question to a deliberate, mirthless jest. “I hope you don’t mind my asking, don’t think it improper. Every time I visit you, I live in dread, thinking if I am violating your privacy, interrupting something.”
My laughter eased his disquiet, my pretence matched his perfectly. It is a short walk to Connaught Place from my flat. The day was dying. Volga was waiting.