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Out Stack

a short story

by Gary Couzens

We stand on the deck as the ferry inches into its berth in Lerwick harbour. Madeleine and I exchange glances. We haven't said a word for the best part of an hour while the ferry rounded Sumburgh Head and travelled north up the darkening Shetland coastline. I watch the waves break in all the little inlets chipped into the rocks.

We've come a long way. Further to go.

I press my palms against the rails, gripping hard, the cold entering my flesh. I lean over, gazing at the water, grey liquid metal flecked with white.

A hand pressed against a window, slow starfish...

I think of Patrick again. This place, so far away that it's contained in its own separate box on most maps, is where he came from. And as I think of Patrick, tears sting my eyes. There's a tightness in my chest as if I've swallowed a fishbone.

Madeleine rests her hand briefly on my forearm. "Adrian." She hurts too, but hides it better.

As we get ready to disembark, I hoist my rucksack further up my back. Madeleine turns on her Walkman again. I hear Beth Orton, faint and tinny, leaking from her earphones, the opening strings of "She Cries Your Name". Her auburn hair, grown longer lately, is gathered up into a knot, exposing the white of her neck, as if baring it for an axeblow. Her glasses begin to slide down her narrow nose; she pushes them back up again.


I travelled a long way too, when I left home for University. I grew up in a dull Hampshire commuter town and by my late teens I knew very clearly that I had to get away from there.

I grew into a body made for the rough and tumble of sport, but I had no interest in it. I much preferred to read a book. In hindsight, of course, my being gay would be a reason why I felt that I didn't belong. But I didn't know that then, didn't think of myself that way. If someone had called me a poof, I'd have reacted angrily. I certainly didn't know any other gay men -- or lesbians, for that matter -- though, in hindsight again, there must have been several others at school. The friends I had were close ones, many of them outsiders too: the plain, the odd, the eccentric ones. Some of them were girls: maybe they sensed something, that there was no sexual interest in me for them, however much I tried to persuade myself otherwise, and so no threat.

So when universities offered their services, it was time to cut my losses and leave.

Scotland appealed, particularly as I'm part Scottish. Aberdeen was certainly far enough away. But when I visited, I spent much of my nine-hour train journey wondering if I'd made a mistake. I pictured bitter cold -- the city is on a latitude north of Moscow -- and driving rain.

But when I arrived, I knew I felt comfortable there. The solid grey granite architecture, that glistened silver when it did rain, the flowerbeds and parks, places to go in the evening. Yes, I knew this was somewhere I could call home.

One night, in bed, Patrick asked me, "When did you know you were gay, Adrian?"

"I -- I sort of knew..."

"Yeah, you do. Perhaps we should ask some straight guy when he found out he was straight."

Patrick lay prone on the bed, disturbed sheets about his legs, his buttocks, smooth and hairless, like marble in the pale light, bare to the cool air from the open fanlight. Rain smeared the window.

Patrick had long black hair, which he normally wore in a ponytail. Now it was loose, a spillage of ink over his white shoulders. "I took one look at you," said Patrick, "and I said to myself, 'He's gay. Whether he knows it or not, he's gay. And I want him.' My gaydar has never failed me yet."

I kissed him again, my hand travelling down under him to his crotch. He ran his hands through the hairs on my chest. My heart was beating very fast.

Shortly after I arrived, I joined the film society. One evening, at a loose end, I went to see a Greek film called Ulysses' Gaze. It lasted a long and heavy-going three hours; I'm sure I didn't stay awake all the way through. Most of what I remember were some very long tracking shots: the programme notes said something about travel across distances equating to travel in time and memory. Or something like that.

I went to the Union Bar afterwards. As I stood waiting to catch the barman's eye, Patrick leaned across to me and said, "You were watching the film, weren't you? What did you think of it?" He had an accent I couldn't quite place: certainly Scottish, but different from those I'd become accustomed to hearing. Green-hazel eyes set in a thin, sharp-featured, almost feline face.

"Pretty boring. About half the audience walked out."

"Oh well. Angelopoulos can be pretty heavy. I can't say I enjoy his work -- appreciate it, more like. All those soul-searching characters going on journeys to find themselves. I saw Landscape in the Mist on Channel 4." He extended his hand. "I'm Patrick."

He bought me my next pint, and we carried on talking and drinking; he introduced me to some of his friends. When the bar closed, we all went to his room for coffee and a bottle of whisky. By then I'd learned he was a native Shetlander in his third year studying English, the same course as me.

Patrick and the others were friendly to me. As an Englishman, one from the Home Counties at that, I suspect I was a curiosity. If they resented my being there, they kept it to themselves. In Aberdeen, a "Southerner" was someone from Glasgow or Edinburgh.

As midnight passed, two of the men, sitting on the floor and holding hands, turned to each other and kissed. Shortly afterwards, they made their excuses and left, leaving Patrick and me on our own.

"Are they...?" I said.

"Gay? Absolutely." Patrick laughed. "Why, are you shocked?" he said archly.

"No," I said, too hurriedly. I'd guessed as soon as I'd seen them: they were both very camp. Well, I was shocked in a way. Had this been my home town, two men kissing as openly as that would have been taking their lives into their hands. I admired them for that. And envied them too.

It took another drink for Patrick to rest his hand on my thigh. When he reached for the zip of my jeans I didn't resist.

"What would you have done if I'd objected?" I asked him once.

"But you didn't," he said.

Over the next few weeks we spent all our spare time together. One long weekend, we took the train up to Thurso, followed by the ferry to Stromness, in Orkney, a quiet town that felt as if it had stepped out of a time warp. We stayed in a B & B overnight, a twin room. We made love that night, laughing into our hands, trying not to make too much noise. We weren't certain the landlady would approve.

Back in Aberdeen, we often went out in the evening to pubs and bars. Once Patrick suggested I go with him to a cruising-spot he knew, out of town, up in the cliffs. I wouldn't go with him: it seemed too anonymous, and that wasn't for me. I just wanted to be with Patrick.

"You know, I slept with a lesbian once," he said on another occasion.

There was just him, me and Madeleine in his room. We'd only recently met Madeleine, and I think Patrick was testing her by saying things like that. His attempts at outrage had no effect on her. I could tell that she was attracted to him, and part of me wanted to warn her off -- he's gay he's mine. By that time in the evening we were quite tipsy, and the conversation had got round to sex.

"Doesn't that make her bisexual?" she said.

"Oh Christ," Patrick said. "Everyone turns when they've had enough to drink."

I don't know if he and Madeleine had slept together by that time, but if they hadn't they soon would.

It was after another of those evenings in the bar that Patrick disappeared. Madeleine was there too; she commented that he seemed out of sorts. He shrugged off her concern. But he left early. I did nothing to dissuade him: we'd had an argument earlier that evening. After the bar closed, we went our separate ways, myself to bed.

The following morning I had lectures, so it wasn't until the afternoon that I heard the news. I bumped into Madeleine on Union Street. "Have you seen Patrick today?" she said. "He wasn't in lectures today. He's not in his room."

"Maybe he's gone away for a while."

"You'd think he'd tell me, wouldn't you? Inconsiderate bastard."

He wasn't in the bar that night. Madeleine and I got fed up of waiting, so we went into town and watched a film at the Odeon. Afterwards, we went to a club. It wasn't a gay venue: I guess everyone there assumed we were a couple. We weren't there to pick anyone up, just dance and drink and forget ourselves for a while.

We got back to Madeleine's room after two o'clock, where I fell asleep in the chair, waking up to find the light off and Madeleine asleep in the bed. I lay on the floor and tried to sleep. She woke up shortly afterwards and said: "Och, I feel really guilty now -- come up and share my bed." So we lay side by side, and as she drifted back to sleep, she rested her arm across me. There was nothing sexual to it: she was a warm body next to mine, a comfort. Despite the evening, we were beginning to worry about Patrick.

The following evening, Madeleine called the police.

We never saw Patrick again.

Madeleine and I wait for a taxi at the ferryport. It's only a mile and a half to Patrick's parents' house in the centre of Lerwick, so we could walk if I didn't think we'd get lost in an unfamiliar town. But tiredness has won out: neither of us slept well on the ferry. In the middle of the night I stood on deck and watched the sea, moonlit, black and limitless.

The taxi takes us into the centre. Reminders of the islands' Norse heritage pass us in the street names: St Olaf, St Erik, King Harald. And oases of modernity I didn't expect in somewhere so remote: a shopping centre, Italian and Indian restaurants, a Chinese takeaway.

And now we're here, standing outside the door. I'm almost afraid to ring the bell. An address is an abstract thing, but is now solidified in stone and wood and glass. Madeleine knocks on the door.

To Patrick's parents, Madeleine is his girlfriend. That's certainly true, but it gives me pause. I am a "friend". A white lie, to protect his parents from the knowledge of their vanished son's sexual orientation. But it seems a betrayal of the man I once loved -- and still do.

Patrick's parents. Alasdair and Frieda, as they insist we call them. When I last saw them, called to Aberdeen at the first news of Patrick's disappearance, they seemed diminished, out of place. Here, in the brightness of day, in their homeland, a strong wind blowing and rain hurtling in from the sea, they seem larger, more intimidating. At first I wondered how this man and this woman produced Patrick, their only child -- as if he were visited upon them rather than conceived. Now it all makes much more sense.

"Did you have a good journey?" Frieda asks, taking our coats. Madeleine is to have the spare room; I will be sleeping on the sofa in the front. As Madeleine unpacks, I go into the bathroom.

I put my rucksack down and sit on the toilet seat for a long time, gazing at the tiled floor. My clothes, worn yesterday and all night, feel damp and gritty. But I have no energy as I slowly change out of them.

Later, once we've changed and freshened up, Frieda shows us Patrick's room. "We've left it just as it was," Frieda says. In the grey light from the window I can see that her face is more lined than I remember. She has aged a lot in the last few months.

It's as if Patrick has only recently slept here. There's a bookshelf with much of its space taken up with first- and second-year coursebooks. A view out the window, down the hill to the harbour, streaked with rain. A bed, freshly made. As if Patrick might come back one day and ask What's the problem, I've only been away for a while...

There's a stinging behind my eyes. Madeleine glances up at me. Her hand tightens about mine.

We stand on the landing, watching Frieda's broad back as she walks slowly down the stairs. Madeleine gives my hand another squeeze.

"I'm not comfortable here," I say, low enough so that only Madeleine would hear. "There's too much Patrick."

She nods, touches my arm. "Come into my room. Let's have a wee chat."

Patrick climbed out of bed naked. I watched as he stood at the window, his hands spread out on the glass. I don't know what would have happened if someone had seen him. He saw no risk, or else none occurred to him.


"Come on, Patrick. It's cold. Come back to bed. Let's have some fun."

He leaned forward, resting his head against the windowpane. "Adrian... I -- I like you a lot, but I don't want you to get too attached to me. I -- I couldn't reciprocate."

"What do you mean?"

He turned round. I couldn't take my eyes off him: his gym-tautened hairless chest, his long-skinned penis hanging between his legs.

He climbed back into bed and slowly ran his hand down my side. "You do know I'm bi, don't you, Adrian?"

"You never told me."

"I thought everyone knew. I have sex with women as well as men. I'm in a relationship with a man now -- you -- but next time it could well be with a woman."

"Patrick, you can't tell me you're not gay."

"I'm telling you now. I'm attracted to a person -- not their gender, that's irrelevant. I like you a lot, Adrian; I'm trying to let you down gently. Don't expect too much of me, I can't live up to it."

He lay down beside me, and kissed me on the cheek. We lay entwined; then I moved down his body and took his penis into my mouth.

He laughed, ruffling my hair as I sucked him. "Oh Adrian, what am I going to do with you?"

At first I hated Madeleine. Not her personally -- she was always pleasant -- but the idea of her. I resented her place in Patrick's life. But we were cordial. And Patrick's disappearance made us closer.

Like Patrick and myself, she was an English student; like me, she was a first-year. I'd seen her at lectures, but I first met her properly one night at the bar. She was sitting next to Patrick.

She was a classic endomorph in build: short, only an inch or so above five feet, with broad shoulders, big bones, thick stubby fingers and heavy breasts. Full-moon glasses framed alert intelligent brown eyes and a strong-featured face. She had a sweet tooth, which caused struggles with her weight. She giggled a lot when she'd drunk too many rum and cokes.

I wouldn't call her particularly pretty, or overtly feminine in manner. Instead, she was the sort of woman cursed to go through life as sensible, somehow oddly sexless as a result.

At first I assumed she and Patrick were just close friends, the way straight women often are with gay men. But then Patrick told me their relationship wasn't platonic.

He met up with me in the English Department. There were glances, surreptitious smiles, as I followed him out; everyone knew we were lovers, so I could guess what was going through their minds.

We sat in a corner of the Union Bar, almost empty at this time, just after lunch. He bought me a pint, then sat down opposite me. "Adrian, I suspect you're wondering why I brought you here." I nodded, sensing that bad news was imminent. "I've got something to tell you. It's not going to be easy, and I tried letting you down gently. I -- I like you a lot, but -- " He paused, drew a breath. "We're going to have to stop being lovers. We can still be friends."


"I'm in a relationship with someone else. Madeleine."

"You're joking."

"We're not married to each other, Adrian. There shouldn't be any ties, you know that. That was the first thing I said to you: we could have sex with someone else if it happened. We wouldn't mind."

"But Madeleine's a woman."

"What that got to do with anything?"

"Patrick, you can't do that -- you're gay."

"I'm bisexual, Adrian. I've never said anything different. You're like all the rest, you just conveniently ignored that." He glanced away. "I've really not handled this well, have I? I hate scenes. I'd better go."

I said nothing, all but deprived of the power of speech.

He stood up, resting his hand on my shoulder. "See you." He walked out of the Bar. As soon as he'd gone, I hurried to the nearest Gents, so that no-one could see the tears stinging my eyes.

Over the next few days, I deliberately avoided Patrick. Once I saw him crossing the campus, hand in hand with Madeleine. I stood back, in the shade of the Maths Building, out of their sight. Patrick bent down to say something in her ear, and she laughed. No-one seemed to find it strange that Patrick was with a woman. Maybe that said more about me and how blind I'd been.

A few days later I came back to my room to find Madeleine standing outside, direct from a tutorial, her rain-spotted coat open over a white top and a royal-blue skirt, a ringbinder clutched to her chest as if to hold me at bay. Her short hair was spiked by the rain, sticking to her forehead like damp copper.

"Adrian? Hi, how are you?" She was clearly nervous. "Patrick's told me what's happened. I'd really like us to be friends."

"I don't think Patrick realises the effect he has on people," Madeleine said later. "If someone fell for him, really fell for him like you did, that got to him and he backed away. I don't doubt he was sexually attracted to both men and women, but if men got too demanding, he could always go with a woman. And vice versa, I suppose."

We were sitting in the canteen, having met up for lunch.

"I've always liked gay men," she went on, stirring her coffee. "They make good company. The first one was my brother. He was always very protective of me -- dunno why, as I was always the annoying little sister who got all the attention and always wanted to play with his toys. Anyway, he came out to me when I was seventeen and he was twenty. I hadn't guessed -- och, he had no girlfriend but it didn't click that he might be gay, you know, and I'm his bloody sister? We're closer now than we ever were."

On the first day, Alasdair and Frieda take Madeleine and me on a tour of Lerwick. The next day, we go out into the West Mainland as far as Walls.

Once we leave Lerwick, a small but busy town faced on both sides by the sea, we go into a landscape unlike any I've seen before. It's as if the land hasn't yet been wholly prised away from nature's grip. There's an incomplete, undeveloped feel to it, as grass clings to hills and sheep nuzzle in the face of the wind. One sea inlet, or voe, looks as if it's been scooped out by a gigantic spoon, so regular are the slopes of the hills on either side. Houses dotted here and there, sometimes close enough together to form a village, claim back a small area for humanity, but it's a fierce battle. Something elemental charges the landscape and at times I sense its throb.

We return home, our lungs filled with raw Shetland air, faces reddened from the wind. We sleep soundly.

On the third morning, Madeleine and I sit on a bench cut into the stone wall of the bus station, our luggage at our feet, ready for our journey north, as far as we can go. The journey we were always going to make with Patrick.

I'd certainly heard of Shetland, but had had little concept of the place before I met Patrick. The island group was, I knew, so remote that it's nearer Norway than the Scottish mainland, and it reaches a latitude equal to Southern Greenland and north of Newfoundland.

As a Shetlander who'd ventured south, Patrick was quite a curiosity to many people. I'm sure he liked the attention, because he was fond of talking about his homeland. I felt I knew Lerwick without having been there, from his descriptions. (Of course, the reality is inevitably different.) He told us about the mainland: the Sullom Voe oil terminal, the largest in Europe, where his father worked. We heard about the three larger northern islands: Yell, mostly covered in peat, green and fertile Fetlar, and finally the northernmost island of Unst. The British Isles end at the Muckle Flugga lighthouse and, just beyond that, the rock of Out Stack.

Somehow I knew that, one day, I would see that with my own eyes. And Patrick would be there with me.

After buses and two ferries, Madeleine and I finally reach Baltasound, on Unst, where we'll spend the night. Madeleine and I booked ahead at the tourist office: single rooms weren't available, so we'll have a twin room.

It's late afternoon when we're shown into our room. It'll stay light for much longer; this far north, the "simmer dim" (which I'd thought was a misprint when I first saw it written down) makes the days long and the nights short.

Baltasound is the largest village in Unst, but still seems like a collection of buildings that happen to be nearer together than usual, than a fully integrated village. The fields, the sheep, the low stone walls and the single-track roads still claim it for the countryside. Madeleine and I spend time looking round the leisure centre and have a drink, soup and sandwiches at the hotel, Britain's most northerly pub. As Scotland is noticeably colder than the South of England, so Lerwick was colder and windier than mainland Scotland. Unst is colder and windier still. The further north we go, the more we need to eat; we're certainly hungry.

We sit in our room the rest of the evening, watching the small portable TV. The news seems to come from another planet, it's so completely lacking in any relevance now. Even Aberdeen seems distant; the national news, much of it from London and the Home Counties, recedes into infinity. It's hard to credit that I come from there. It's as if the ancients were right: the world is a flat disc, and I'm nearly at its edge.

When she gets bored, Madeleine turns away from the TV and picks up her book, a Stephen King novel long enough to keep her going throughout our Shetland journey. After a while I switch off the TV and leaf through my guidebook. Madeleine and I don't say much this evening; we don't need to. Finally she yawns and says: "I'm going to my bed." She goes out to the bathroom to change. When she comes back, I do likewise. When I return to the room, she's in bed, the blankets pulled up to her neck. I climb into bed and turn out the light.

At first I can't sleep. The bed's strange, not comfortable. I can hear the wind from outside, rattling the window. "Madeleine?" I whisper. "Are you awake?" There's no reply.

"Shhhh," Patrick says. "She's asleep. Don't disturb her."

"Patrick...?" "You go to sleep too. You've got a long walk ahead of you tomorrow."


"You've come a long way. There's just a wee bit more to go."

"I don't understand."

"You will. Shhhh. Sleep now."

Early in the evening, just before Patrick disappeared, he and I were in my room. Madeleine had gone home to her family in Glasgow for a few days, and was due to return that night. My parents had bought me a small portable TV for my birthday and we'd been watching it. Patrick had a bottle of whisky with him and we were slowly drinking our way through it; in retrospect, that alcohol might have had something to do with what followed. And, at the end of the afternoon, I made a pass at Patrick, resting my hand on his thigh.

"Adrian, no," he said. "That's over between us."

"Well, I don't want it to be over."

"Don't be stupid. I'm with Madeleine now."

"And what happens when you get tired of her? You'll chuck her like you did me?"

"Adrian, I didn't do that. I did try to let you down gently. I don't know what'll happen between Madeleine and me, but we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

"I can't believe you're saying this. You're saying you're not gay after all? That's nice for you."

"Adrian, for fuck's sake, you're just like all the rest! Why can't people accept I'm not straight, I'm not gay, I'm bisexual. Why does everything have to be either/or? Why can't it be and? Why do I have to make a choice? Adrian, face it, it's over between us. We can't start it up again."

"Patrick, I love you."

"No you don't. I'm your first real relationship and it had a big impact on you. I'm flattered that it did, really I am. But it's over now."

"You fucking bastard."

"I think I'd better go. We're both pissed. We'll be calmer in the morning."

I'm not clear why I did what I did next. I swung a punch at him; he easily caught my fist. But I twisted his arm back and pushed him face down on the bed. Bigger and heavier, I overcame him easily. I tugged at the belt of his jeans, pulled them down to his knees.

"Okay, if you want it that way," he said. He didn't resist as I fucked him, my thrusts fuelled by anger.

Afterwards, spent, I moved away from him. He pushed me aside, with more strength than I thought he possessed. He drew his fist back and hit me hard on the chin. I fell back onto the bed, suddenly sober again, stunned, gasping, the pain in the bones of my face giving the scene a hard, shocking clarity.

"Don't you ever come near me again, Adrian."

I said nothing. Could say nothing.

He left the room, slamming the door behind him.

I lay there shaking.

In 1849 -- Patrick told me one evening -- Lady Jane Franklin came to Unst. She questioned whalers returning from the Arctic if they had heard word of her husband. He had led an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean, four years before, and had not returned. She sailed out to Out Stack and landed on the rock, and she prayed for the safe return of the man she loved.

Madeleine says: "Did you dream at all, Adrian?" Her eyes, without her glasses, are unfocused; she has the duvet pulled up to her chin, exposing her small pale feet. "I dreamed of Patrick again," she says. "He told me not to worry about him. And to look after you."

I smile ruefully. "I dreamed he spoke to me too. He said we'd come a long way, but there's a while to go yet."

After breakfast, we take the road through Haroldswick, a huddle of houses and an incongruous council estate. Then along the road, up a hill and round the outside of the radar station. It's a five-mile walk all told, but we're used to walking now. The day is clear, the cloud-mottled sky a vast inverted bowl, the wind fresh.

In front of us is the grey-blue mass of the Atlantic. A mile from the coast rise a cluster of brown rocks, on top of which is the white tower of the Muckle Flugga lighthouse. Madeleine takes my hand and we walk forward, leaving the track and across the water-saturated muddy field, just enough so that the rounded rock of Out Stack comes into view.

This is where the British Isles end. Draw a line from where we stand now, north through the Stack, and the next land you'll hit will be the Arctic icecap.

As I look over the sea, standing in what was one of Patrick's favourite spots, I feel a trembling in my stomach, and a tightness behind my eyes. Madeleine loops her arm through mine.

"I wish Patrick was here to see this," I say.

"So do I. More than ever."

Silent again, we watch as seagulls wheel in the sky and rain comes rapidly into land.

I knew then that Patrick was dead. I'd known it before then, even if I'd tried to deny it, but now I feel certainty harden inside myself. I glance at Madeleine beside me, gazing out across the water to the Stack, and I sense that she knows too.

Finally, she turns to me, looking up, her features twisting into a rueful smile. She gives my arm a reassuring squeeze. "Let's go back now," she says.

Lady Franklin prayed, and finally she returned home. Shortly afterwards, the news arrived that her husband had died during his expedition.

We arrive back in Lerwick in the evening and stay the night at Alasdair and Frieda's house, going to bed early. At seven the following morning, they drive us to Sumburgh Airport, at the southern tip of the Mainland. It would have been cheaper to take the overnight ferry, but Madeleine and I are both exhausted. Our visit over, we both want to go home as quickly as possible. Our clothes are wet and dirty, and I haven't shaved for a couple of days.

We're back in Aberdeen by lunchtime. We eat in a café and then go to my room, which is nearer than hers. Madeleine dumps her bags onto the floor and slumps in a chair. "I could sleep all afternoon," she sighs. She's almost too small for the chair she's sitting in. "I need a shower though."

"There's one across the corridor."

"Great. See you in a wee while."

I lie on the bed. I'm very tired, due to all that walking and insufficient sleep, but somehow I don't quite succumb. A hard rapping on the door restores me to wakefulness with a start. Madeleine is at the door, in a white T shirt and blue tracksuit bottoms, her hair wet, barefoot.

"Your turn. I'll keep your room warm for you."

As I shower, I feel dirt and grime slip away from me, but a deep ache in my muscles remains. I can't bear the thought of stepping into my jeans again before washing them, so I hurry back across the corridor in my T shirt and underpants, suddenly conscious that someone might see me.

Madeleine is sitting on the bed, her now-dry hair loose to her shoulders, legs folded underneath her, presenting her bare feet to me. She's browsing through a book from my shelf. She turns and says, "Hi Adrian," in a soft voice, barely more than a whisper. Light from the window catches the ends of her hair. In this moment, I think she looks beautiful. Was this what Patrick saw, only a few months ago but a lifetime away?

There's a lump in my throat. I step up to her, sit beside her. She looks up at me, rests one arm about my shoulders. She has a fresh smell, clean: scented soap.

And she kisses me.

I return the kiss; and she returns mine, with surprising force. Her hands tighten behind my neck.

Our lips part. I gently lift her glasses to rest them on the bedside table. She makes a little chuckle, deep in her throat: I sense she's as nervous as I am.

Slowly, we undress each other. I've never seen a naked woman so close before. Somehow, Madeleine seems larger, more imposing, without her clothes; in the midday light, her breasts and pubic hair have the over-vividness of a waking dream. She lets me kiss her on each nipple, on the navel, between the legs. She takes my penis into her mouth. Then, finally, astride me and pressing me down into the bed with one hand on my breastbone, she guides me inside her.

We lie in bed all afternoon, holding hands and chatting, until the talk gives way to a companionable silence. I sleep for a while, and I'm sure she does too. I wake to see her sitting on the end of the bed, fastening her bra.

I make her a cup of coffee and then walk her down to the railway station. She's going back home to her parents'. I won't see her again until the new academic year. We kiss goodbye on the platform, hug, then wave at each other until the train goes out of sight.

No doubt I'll make my own, much longer, journey home, but not yet. I may go out tonight, pick up a man, any willing man will do. It will be just sex, just to prove to myself that I can feel something, anything, that my responses aren't dead. But at the moment I feel too raw, as if I've scrubbed off one layer of skin too many. After this afternoon, after an encounter with a woman no less, I'm unsure what "just sex" means. No doubt this confusion will fade sometime, maybe even tomorrow, and then I'll feel the urge to go out and fuck myself into something approaching peace.

But not tonight. I sit in a state of semi-wakefulness, watching the TV. I switch it off at ten o'clock and wake at nine in the morning.

On the noticeboard, there's a message for me to call Alasdair urgently. So I do.

"Hello, Adrian." His voice is tight, small at the other end of the line. "I called yesterday afternoon, but I guess you and Madeleine were out."

"Er -- yes, we were."

"We had a phonecall yesterday morning. They found Patrick's body. It was washed up on the shore."

He continues and my mind fills in the details: Patrick had been killed from several blows to the head. No-one was sure how long he'd been in the sea -- there wasn't much left of him -- but it was doubtful there'd be much evidence to find whoever had done this.

Maybe this one time, Patrick had made a fatal error, and the man he'd tried to pick up hadn't been what he'd seemed.

I'm unable to swallow. I can't say anything.

There's a short pause, then Alasdair continues. "Is Madeleine there?" "No, she's gone back to Glasgow. Her parents. I'll tell her."

"Thank you, Adrian. I don't have her number." Another pause. "Adrian, I know you loved my son."

A jolt inside me, like an electric shock. "How ... ?"

"I've been around, Adrian, and I've seen a lot of things in my time. I'm not blind. I'm just saying thanks to you, and to Madeleine. Patrick always spoke highly of you both, and now I know he was right."

"Thank you." Somehow I can't bring myself to say his name. Tears are running down my cheeks.

"Goodbye now." Barely more than a whisper.

And he hangs up. I stand for several minutes, the receiver in my hand, the disconnection tone loud in my ear.

for Marion Arnott

© Gary Couzens 2004, 2006.
This story was first published in Midnight Street #1 (winter/spring 2004) and was subsequently recommended for Best Short Story Award in the British Fantasy Awards.

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