Mark was woken from a warm and comfortable dream by the distant sounds of Ben in the kitchen. Once recognised, the vague noises that resolved into the clatter of cutlery and plates ceased to disturb him and he shifted position slightly as if stretching out, letting his toes curl over the foot of the mattress and half-smothering his face in the crook of an arm, would allow him to slip more easily back into sleep. He was held back, however, by a dense and grey emotion, a deep, almost painful regret which hovered like a low dark cloud that threatened to become at any moment damp and unwelcome rain.
For a few minutes Mark lay, his thoughts as motionless as his body, knowing that even the slightest effort to recapture sleep would only frighten it away. The world receded; sounds became fainter. Light faded into dark and touch melted but his consciousness, instead of dissipating, focused on the cloud, saw it slowly take shape, resolve into Robert's features, his look of hurt and accusation, his words of disappointment, his refusal to be kissed or even touched by Mark as he walked away.
As if to sweep away the memory, Mark turned over and opened his eyes for no longer than was necessary to read the bedside clock. In doing so he saw that he had not only woken disagreeably early for a Saturday morning but that his room was filled with a summer light that London, and Mark, seldom knew. The attraction of sunshine, warmth and clear skies on a day when he did not have to teach, however, was weaker than that of sleep, and he turned onto his side, withdrew his head beneath the covers and hugged the pillow as he would have hugged Robert, as he had hugged Carl and Gene and others before them. The action was as momentarily satisfactory as a reflex, but the pillow's softness, its smallness, its lack of smell and resistance, soon irritated and he pushed it away.
Surrendering, Mark reached out a hand and switched on the radio. The bright and jaunty music dragged him gently awake while the cheerful voice of the presenter conveying a bland message of love from one unknown listener to another was reassuring, as if hidden in his words or tone was the promise of a prosperous and propitious future. Mark felt life and strength return to his body and limbs and he opened his eyes to acknowledge that he was at last fully awake. Pushing himself up to a half-sitting position he looked round as if almost expecting a knock on the door and a bell-hop to enter, carrying a silver tray with orange juice, coffee and the other trappings of breakfast.
With consciousness, however, came memory and as the images and words of the previous evening flowed back, so the sunshine which had saturated the room with optimism seemed suddenly dull, colourless, a pledge of joy and happiness that would never be fulfilled. It was as if he had awoken not only from the previous night's sleep but from the last three months, and the growing happiness he had felt had been no more real than the morning's dream which had already faded from his mind. He would, he knew, see Robert again; they would go out together, perhaps even sleep together as before, but he was no longer sure, as he had been twelve hours earlier, that their relationship would continue to develop, that their love would broaden and deepen.
He pushed back the duvet, stood up and went over to pick up one by one the pile of clothes that lay on the chair, less conscious of his actions than of the conversation of the previous night. As he pulled on underwear and jeans and searched through a drawer for a clean tee-shirt, he tried to understand why his initial and righteous feelings of hurt had diminished into guilt and sifted through Robert's words for any indication that the cut was not deep, that it was only Robert's vanity and not his self-respect that had been wounded. The only conclusion Mark came to, however, was that his ineptitude and self-centredness had all but destroyed everything that he was eager and impatient to build.
He could remember every word, not of the earlier part of the evening, their banter as they walked up Tottenham Court Road to the Indian restaurant behind Euston Station, nor later their intensity as they talked for what seemed like hours over the puri, dhosa and kulfi, but the end, when it had all begun to fall apart, when Robert had asked in the occasionally formal manner that in others would have seemed ridiculous but in him appeared perfectly natural, 'Can I ask you something?' And Mark had known what the 'thing' was, had, foolishly, he now realised, thought it buried and forgotten, unaware that it had merely stood patiently aside, waiting for the moment when, undisturbed by pressures of time and place, it could reappear.
'Sure,' he said, his expression and tone suggesting a confidence and ease he did not feel.
'Why did you take back that tape?' The tape that Mark had made of his songs, the tape that he hoped would take him out of teaching with its indifferent pupils and its petty politics and disputes and into the music world, into the world itself, the tape he had taken back three days before, lifting it from Robert's bag in a moment of anger and wounded pride.
'Because I didn't think you were interested in it.'
Robert looked at him for a moment as if he had not understood what Mark had said. 'But I asked you for it. I've been waiting for weeks to listen to it. And you just took it away before I had a chance. Without even telling me. Why? Don't you trust me?'
He stared at Mark, his dark eyes cold beneath the mass of black hair that covered his brow, his lips straight, sealed, almost bitter.
'Of course I trust you,' Mark said, 'but after Tuesday night I thought you'd lost interest in me. I didn't want you to hear the tape; it was too personal, too private.'
'Tuesday? When I went out with the Merrivales? What about it?'
'You didn't invite me.' In the coldness of their conversation, the accusation sounded ridiculous, childish, an excess of pride, of amour propre.
'You'd said you were busy. You had exams or something to correct. Anyway, you don't know them; you've hardly ever likely to meet them again. Why should I invite you?'
It seemed so obvious to Mark that he wondered for a moment if Robert was being wilfully blind. 'Because we see so little of each other. Time is precious. And I'd like to get to know your friends.'
'I saw you the same day. When you took back the tape. Without telling me. Before I had a chance to listen to it.' They had met upstairs in McDonald's in Oxford Street; Robert had casually mentioned going out the evening before. Later, he had gone to the toilet and Mark, afer watching him disappear as he always watched Robert, every moment, every action he made, had leaned over and searched in his bag, pushing aside the towels and sweat-ridden leotards, finding the tape, stuffing it into his jacket pocket before Robert could return. He said nothing, sure that that night, after looking for the tape in his turn and discovering it missing, Robert would be shamed into understanding the pain Mark had felt.
'That was only for half an hour. Anyway, you'd had the tape for three days and hadn't listened to it.'
'Because I hadn't had time. I wanted to sit down with plenty of time to listen to it carefully, to understand what you're trying to do. Now there's no point - it seems you don't trust me.'
'Of course I do.' Mark's heart sank. He had imagined the scene differently, imagined Robert admitting his thoughtlessness, his guilt, apologising for hurting Mark's feelings as Mark generously brushed the incident aside and handed back the tape in a gesture of reconciliation. Now all the reasons that had seemed at the time so important, so meaningful, so justified, were little more than excuses, weak attempts to cover the fact that he had behaved stupidly and selfishly. The positions were reversed and Mark's just punishment was now seen as the crime. 'I was just upset by Tuesday night.'
'And I've explained. I saw no reason for you to come along. I thought you'd be bored.'
'I'm never bored with you.' He sounded insincere or, just as bad, naive.
Robert said nothing and yet that was surely the point - they should never be bored with each other, never assume that one would rather be alone. Mark was in the right - at least about Tuesday - but he had not been able to make himself understood. Now, as a result of that failure they were staring at each other over the remains of their meal, the half-drunk coffee, the empty wine glasses, Robert's expression unchanged, almost hostile, devoid of all the warmth and enthusiasm of the earlier part of the evening.
This is only the beginning of the story . . .
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