I didn’t mean for it to go down the way it did, but shit happens. I mean, who in the world wouldn’t want their best friend to be happy? And when someone you care about is free-falling from the 44th floor of trouble tower, you do something about it. So I decided to rescue her. Nail me up.
It all began with a chance meeting...a last minute decision to go out on the town one night about two years ago. It was my favourite kind of impromptu night out, involving lots of visiting sailors, who had just berthed at the naval base, ready to party. I’ve been known to admit more than once to a penchant for a man in uniform, but Sally wasn’t too keen to begin with.
When I suggested it, she tossed her magnificent mane of just washed, coconut-shampoo-smelling coppery hair
‘I couldn’t be arsed Francis. Honestly, I’d rather curl up and watch Seven Samurais tonight and slurp on some 2-minute noodles. You go ahead and do what you’d normally do with a drunken sailor...put him in the scuppers with your hose pipe on him or something.’
She went back to towelling her hair.
‘Very funny. Aw, come on Sal. You know I hate to trawl alone. When was the last time we were out together?’
She tapped a finger on her pursed her lips, and pretended to think hard.
‘Um, wait, let me see. Oh yeah, karaoke night at the Pistol and Parchment last Friday. If I recall correctly, you left me stranded with some guy who could have doubled for Hellboy, trying to get into my Apple Bottoms.’
‘Well, sweetie, no self respecting man on the face of the earth would be able to live with himself if he hadn’t at least tried to get into those cute Apple Bottoms. But I shouldn’t have left you – and if it’s any consolation, it wasn’t worth it.’
And it wasn’t. You know when you find an awesome outfit and after you try it on, you realise it looks better on the rack? The cutie I picked up turned out to be too small, and definitely not my colour. Oh well.
Sally shrugged, ‘You broke the golden rule of best friends, Francis. And I’m not ready to forgive you yet. Besides, I’m tired – I’ve had a shit of a day.’
Sal and I have been best friends for a long time, and I can always detect the slightest shift towards concession, undiscernible to most, but I recognise it in the way the colour of her eyes flicker ever so slightly from piss off grey, to tell me more teal. I knew I almost had her, so I persevered. Of course, thinking back on it now of course - I wish I hadn’t. My favourite Cher video clip of all time springs to mind - you know the one where she’s singing If I Could Turn Back Time on that boat full of sailors?
‘Look. How about this. We go out for one hour. Have a drink, check the scenery, circumnavigate the sailor situation, so to speak. If you start yawning, we leave. And we leave together...I swear on my life. No, I swear on Cher’s life! It could be fun. There are hundreds of ‘em in town. Thousands even. Just think Sal, those guys have been messing about in boats for God knows how long. They’ll be keen for the company of a couple of hotties like us.’
She puffed out a dramatic sigh and crossed her arms - and I knew my work was done. It was as easy as...well, being wise after the event.
‘One hour,’ she said, ‘and if you leave my side even once, I promise I will personally hack your iTunes account and wipe out your life. No more Kylie, Madonna, Cyndi, Cher – or Janet. You will be in musical purgatory and I know that’ll hurt worse than having your chest waxed.’
I did a mock swoon and kissed her forehead.
‘You’ve got a deal. Now go get dressed. Wear those tight black Calvin Kleins and your come fuck me boots. Hair out, gold hoop earrings and I think the red satin blouse – you know, the one with missing top button.’
‘Jesus on a bike Francis! You must be the only gay guy on the planet with absolutely no dress sense whatsoever. The prostitute look is so yesterday. You’re a disgrace your species!’
She tromped off then, and came back about 10 minutes later looking stunning as always in a short denim mini which exposed her lovely long tanned legs, and a white off-the-shoulder peasant blouse. With her flaming auburn locks now dry and shiny, the package made an undeniable statement. Understated, yet eye-catching. The only female I know who can pull it off with such little effort.
Not sure if you know much about Portsmouth. As far as chav towns go, we’re in and out of the top five - that’s if you believe what the sodding media has to say. But it’s not the stabbings and muggings that puts us on the map. We lay claim to the biggest pubs-per-head-of-pisspot ratios in the country, with a staggering 150 drinking establishments to choose from. Spoilt for choice is the term I like to use, and luckily I have a good insider’s idea of what’s hot and what’s not.
On this occasion we tossed up between the Nell Gwynne, and the Leopold. Sal has a habit of automatically choosing the opposite to what I suggest, so I did a reverse psycho on her and chose the Leopold - because I knew she would go for the Nell Gwynne, which is where I wanted to go in the first place.
I pretended to protest, moaned a bit, did a little tanty-dance with my hand on my hip and finished with a triple somersault, half twist and a perfect have-it-your-way dismount.
The pub was packed to the rafters with uniformed merry makers. It was a veritable sea of navy blue and white. A smorgasbord of hierarchy, striped and non-striped, from the lowest to the highest. Cute virgin recruits took up the back of the bar. In varying states of undress, they’d abandoned caps, tossed jackets, rolled sleeves and were downing pints of cider and draft beer, endlessly clinking glasses with rowdy outbursts, punctuating the glee of being on solid ground. In the lounge at the front of the bar, a group of variously multi-striped officers were barely at the stage of taking their hats off. Their voluntary segregation from the lowly subordinates was glaringly obvious. They reminded me of a bunch of weary mums gathering in a group at the park while their children enjoyed a raucous play date.
Sally’s eyes scanned the room as we made our way to the bar. She ordered a pint of cider and a vodka and cranberry for me, then we leaned against the bar to get the lay of the land, so to speak.
Sally took a long swig of her cider and leaned in close to me.
‘Hey Francis – there’s a lot of seamen in this bar.’ She burped out a stream of giggles and thrust her elbow into my ribs. ‘Get it? Seeee-men? And look, I’ve spotted someone perfect for you,’ she jerked her head sideways towards the group of officers, ‘I bet there’s even a REAR admiral in that lot!’ She slapped my shoulder and continued to titter.
I rewarded her with a fake laugh. ‘Obviously your gay-dar is malfunctioning darling, but nice try.’
Sally has always been the perfect companion for a night on the town. She’s fun to be with, people are drawn to her, and there’s never any danger of guys thinking we’re a couple or anything. If you saw me, you’d know why. I’m what Sally likes to refer to as ‘lacy’. I don’t deny it. I do prefer to date masculine gay guys - but I don’t want to be one. Although, I do draw the line at certain shades of pink.
We finished our drinks a little quicker than we’d expected to. The vibe in the bar was good, and the herd of officers were starting to loosen up a little. One of them stood up and took off his jacket, folded it carefully and placed it on the back of his seat.
From experience, I know that military officers are like cops, or any likewise costumed individual. Once you strip away the uniform, it’s like removing the outer layer of an onion. What’s underneath is completely different, and often not easy on the eyes. And the other thing I’ve noticed is that the more important they think they are...the more reluctant they are to shed their layers.
I could see this one guy was solidly built, and stupidly tall. His feet looked like flippers and his hands seemed weirdly too large even for his tree trunk body. And when he took off his cap exposing an unattractive bald head, he reminded me of Dolph Lundgren – but even uglier.
From where I was standing, I couldn’t detect any eyebrows, which gave his square face a curiously thug-like malevolent look. He fit my onion theory perfectly. With the hat and jacket on, I could see why someone would think he was almost dashing in an authoritarian sort of way, but without the full uniform, he was plain scary in a trainspotting sort of way. I shuddered.
I glanced at Sally, who was staring at him with an expression I’d become quite familiar with over the years. It was her pre-I’m-going-in-for-the-kill look. I could pretty much predict what was to come next.
We ordered another drink each. She took a couple of hefty swigs from hers, grabbed my arm, and dragged me towards a table about four feet from the officers.
In the Book of Entrapment according to Sally, that was step one - Proximity.
We clambered onto our stools, Sal making sure that she was in direct line of sight with Dolph, and fixed her gaze in his direction. We pretended to be engaged in meaningful conversation, while she cast him a few measured smiles, which she carefully targeted like a lethal cruise missile.
That’s step two. Suggestion.
I knew that if she hadn’t managed to get his full attention by the end of her current drink, she would dispense with all covert courting activity, just walk right on up to him, and dazzle him with her personality.
Step three. Capture. Sally never has been a woman of patience, and it’s probably one of her sweetest qualities.
‘So what are you thinking Sal? Are you diving right in, or are you going to make him come to you?’
Sally smiled sweetly, but she wasn’t looking at me. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about.’
I had my back to the officers and I was not surprised when in the next moment, Dolph appeared at my side...all six foot 6 of him. He looked like a tower of menace. His dimpled grin didn’t exactly match the severity of his features, and I tried to reconcile why the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end.
Maybe it was the besotted look on Sal’s face - I don’t know, but I felt uncomfortable then, and the first words they exchanged were to herald an ensuing period of much unease and downright raw worry for me.
His deep voice fit his brutish looks perfectly, and it only took a moment to detect that his rich twangy accent was Australian. He spoke directly to Sally, ignoring me altogether.
‘G’day Red – aren’t you a sight for sore eyes!’
Yeah, I thought. And the sight of you would make anyone’s eyes sore!
He reached directly over my left shoulder from behind, and held out his hand.
‘Name’s Gavin. Howzit going?’
Sally’s face lit up like sawdust in a bonfire as she shook his hand.
‘I’m Sally. This is my best friend Francis.’
He didn’t acknowledge me – not even a nod. He just swept Sal up in his gaze, and locked her in.
He glanced at me and my half empty vodka and cranberry, and returned his gaze to Sally.
‘I’d like to buy you a drink – and see if you want to come over and sit with me and the boys?’
I tried to flash her a look, which, under normal circumstances she would have interpreted as no, let’s not get bogged down so early in the night, but she was mesmerised.
He asked, ‘What’s your poison?’
She looked into his eyes, and for a moment I swear she was going to say YOU.
But she didn’t.
She said ‘Pear Cider’.
He gave her a small salute and headed for the bar. The moment he left her the force field was broken and I jumped in. I leaned in close.
‘Sal...what the FUCK? You can’t be serious. This guy is ...so not your type’
She just gave me a dreamy smile.
‘Francis...give me a break. I’m just playin’. You need to play too. Go for a wander...see what’s going. Cruise around...remember, this was all your idea. Don’t worry about me.’
I remembered her ultimatum about me not leaving her alone, and I intended to make good on it. Yet somehow I felt that the chances of us leaving this place together were as slim as me waking up as a heterosexual rugby player.
The Hulk arrived back with drinks for himself and Sal. As he brushed past me, I felt the fleeting breeze of his connection ever so slightly. She slid fluidly off her stool as he walked around towards her - then she drifted off with him. She didn’t even give me a backwards glance. But he did. He shot me a glare that pissed me off more than if he’d flipped the bird.
I was incredibly annoyed. He didn’t acknowledge me, she was ignoring me, he didn’t ask if I wanted a drink, and I became extremely sensitised to the situation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m normally not really bothered when heteros give me the cold shoulder. I’m used to it. But if the truth be known, and in case you hadn’t gathered, I hated him on sight. But more than that, I was troubled by the way he had just swept in like one of those fucking Australian sharks and carried off my best friend.
Sure I’d seen her seen her work fast before. She’d been captivated and had gone off with guys plenty of times, but always with me in tow, watching her back. I’d never seen this sort of doe-eyed abandon before. And it worried me.
THINGS GET UGLY
I was no longer in the mood to cruise. Something about this guy had made me feel weird. And I was certain that he didn’t like the look of me either.
That night, Sally and I didn’t leave the bar together. She and the man-mountain went to a hotel room, and according to her post mortem over lunch the next day, his coital prowess had been nothing short of spectacular. She giggled about feeling red raw and still randy, to which I replied,
‘Yeah that’s fine, but is there a brain inside that spectacularly ugly skull? Can Popeye actually string two sentences together that don’t include words like fair dinkum mate or gidday or whatever those clueless Aussies say when murdering the English language?’
I wanted to bludgeon the guy with verbal spitefulness, and give Sal a good shake at the same time. I knew his type. I’m a gay guy, and gay guys are super-sensitive to homophobic bullies. It’s what had made my skin crawl about this guy in the bar the night before. The signs were as clear to me as the fact that Kylie and Olivier were doomed from the get-go.
His complete lack of acknowledgement that I was even there. The menace I’d felt in his glare. And I’m not even being a drama queen, I’ve encountered fag-bashers plenty of times. I just never imagined that Sally would lose her tits over one so quickly.
‘So...are you seeing the meat-head again?’ I asked. I crossed my fingers and held them up in front of her. ‘Please say no...please say no.’
‘Francis what the hell? He’s actually really, really nice. And he’s not a meat-head. He’s smart. Are you jealous or something? Okay I know I left you alone last night, but now we’re even. And yes, I’m seeing Gavin again – as a matter of fact,’ she flashed a dazzling smile, grabbed hold of my hand and squeezed my crossed fingers so hard it hurt, ‘he’s taking me out for dinner tonight.’
I knew it wasn’t jealousy. Of course it wasn’t. Sally had gone out with plenty of guys before. She’d even fallen for some of them, and for the periods when she was ‘madly in love’, I took a back seat and I was always okay with that. As best friends, she had always valued my opinion - my sense of knowing. And that was just as well, because her ability to judge character quite often left a lot to be desired. She had a beautiful soul and an open heart, which is sometimes the perfect environment for predators. I wished I could have injected her with a big dose of the putrefying cynicism that always lurks like an annoying party pooper in my life. But Sally didn’t do cynicism. I wished I could have loaned her my protective coat of love-proof armour. Hell, I would have wrapped her in it like a strait jacket.
‘He goes on leave in a few days, Francis. He wants to spend his remaining time here with me...and I’m going to make the most of it.’ Her beaming smile should have made me feel warm and fuzzy. Instead, I had an uncanny feeling that part of her was sliding away, and I felt like there was nothing I could do about it.
ME AND SALLY
Sally and I had been friends since the beginning of high school. She was never part of the stereotypical A-list popular girls. She loathed the mean girl mentality and the fit-in-or-die class systems that always seem to define teenagers. Sal was Sal. Down to earth, generous with her personality, and openly sympathetic to the underdog types.
I guess I could have been classed as an underdog back then. Not that being gay makes you an underdog...it was nothing to do with that.
At home was where I first encountered the quintessential homophobic bully, in the form of my father. He was a hard, angry man with an outer shell like an armadillo. An army officer, he had served in Yemen in the 1960’s and had never let it go. His ever rigid backbone would not bend or stoop, not even to show affection to his children. His imposing body never yielding, even in sleep. He pushed my mother away when he got back from Yemen, and he kept pushing till she reached the brink. My father is the reason I developed the onion theory.
The only time I ever saw one of his layers come off was when my twin brother died. We were thirteen. I was well aware of my sexuality and had embraced it. My brother on the other hand, could not. He couldn’t bear to ‘disappoint’ my father, the hard military man, whose only sons had turned out to be nancy-boys.
Evan wouldn’t accept it about himself. He did everything he could to prove himself to dad. He took up martial arts, boxing, played rugby and nipped at our father’s heels like a puppy looking for a pat. I was never quite sure whether he did this to deny and reject who he was, or to gain dad’s love and respect. Perhaps it was a desperate attempt to achieve both.
Either way, he succeeded in neither because he ran out of time. He died in a car accident. Mum was driving and she was as drunk as you could possibly get before the human body can take no more alcohol. They hit a tree and both my mother and my brother disintegrated on impact.
I would have been in that car too, if it wasn’t for the fact that that day, instead of going home from school with Evan, I’d elected to walk to the shops with a cheeky red-haired girl called Sally, who had wanted some help to find an outfit for the school dance.
So, me being an underdog in high school was all about living under a shroud of pity. Some people avoided me because they couldn’t deal with the ‘poor kid who’s alcoholic mum had killed herself and his brother’. Others stayed away from me because of the hostility that gaped from me like an open wound. Sally just loved me for me. And if it wasn’t for her, I’d be dead, like my mother and brother.
Sally kept squeezing my hand. ‘Francissss...be happy. I really like this guy. Why are you being so negative?’
I decided to stop torturing her with my cynicism, but I still couldn’t ignore the bad gut feeling.
‘Oh sweetie, take no notice of me. I’m sure he’s a great guy. You go and enjoy yourself...after all, he’ll be gone soon and you’re right. You should make the most of it while he’s here.’
I pasted a fake smile on my face, but if you could have seen it, I’m sure you’d have picked it easier than spotting a Muslim at a Jewish wedding.
We finished lunch, hugged and she left.
The next day, and the next, I didn’t hear from her. But then I didn’t expect to. I held out hope that she’d realise this guy was just a transient user, and pass off the dalliance as just another used condom littering the road to life’s fulfilment.
On the third day after our lunch, I decided to call her. When she answered, it felt as though I was speaking to someone else.
‘Sal? Is that you?’
‘Oh, Francis? Hi. Um, can I call you back? It’s not a good time, I promise I’ll give you a call later, okay?’
And with that, she hung up.
Sally didn’t call me back like she’d promised. But she did come to my flat the next morning, her face ablaze with excitement.
‘Francis, guess what. Now promise you won’t judge...just be happy for me.’
The blank look on my face extinguished the glow on hers. I braced myself for what I knew would be bad news.
‘Gavin has a month’s leave and he wants me to travel with him before he goes back to Australia. Oh my god Francis, he’s taking me to The Caribbean. Isn’t that amazing? Tell me it’s amazing! We’re going to all the places I’ve only ever dreamed of...Martinique, Montserrat and Barbados...I think I’ve died and gone to heaven!’
She jumped up and down, the way Sally does when she’s excited, then threw her arms around my neck.
I held her tight. It was all I could think of to do.
‘It’s amazing darling.’
WHAT ARE FRIENDS FOR...
The day after she left, I decided I had two choices. I could be a non-judgemental friend, supporting my beloved Sal’s decision to sail off on a dream holiday with someone she hardly knew, trusting her judgement and sharing in her happiness. Or, I could be the suspicious, non-trusting friend whose skin had been crawling ever since she met this guy.
There was no debate in my mind. First, I Googled him. And it seemed that Popeye didn’t Google up worth shit, but that didn’t surprise me, with him being in the navy and all. Secrecy, security, or whatever makes military people immune to the Google machine. There was nothing at all about a Gavin Stephenson that seemed to match him.
So the next thing I did was call on the help of my friend Giorgio, an IT genius I’d met online (and later at The Leopold).
All I knew about this Gavin guy was that he was a Master Chief Petty Officer. I had his surname and his nationality, and I guessed his age. But that was enough for Giorgio to find out in no time at all that the douche bag was married, with a wife and two daughters in Perth, Australia. Giorgio even managed to dig up a picture of him with his wife and kids, one of whom hung around her stoic, non smiling daddy’s neck like a monkey. I guessed the kids’ ages to be about four and six, and the photo had been taken, according the accompanying article in the town’s local rag, about two years earlier. It seemed that Popeye was a small town icon. A celebrity by default thanks to the fancy uniform and title.
I squeezed the information like a victory trophy, but only briefly. What was I to do with it? Should I call Sally on her holiday and break the bad news? Everything inside me wanted to. I just wanted to sever this guy’s hold on her and shake her back into reality. But somehow, I didn’t think a phone call from me, even with that newsflash, would do it. So I didn’t call. I lived in hope that she would call me, in tears, having discovered that the prick was a womanising cad and that she would be back on the next plane.
But that didn’t happen.
The next time I saw Sally was the day after they arrived back at Portsmouth.
She looked tanned and bubbly, but to my utter horror, she had cut her beautiful mane of red hair and dyed it blonde! I thought it looked very...wrong. And the other troubling thing was that when I hugged her, I could feel her hip bones. Sally was never a big girl, but she had lost a noticeable amount of weight, and it troubled me. A lot.
‘Oh God Francis, we had the best time ever...did you see the photos I put on your timeline on Facebook? You didn’t respond.’
No, I didn’t.
‘Gavin is amazing. I can’t believe my luck. He is SO into me, honestly I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone adore me so much...’ She twirled around a few times, grinning as she flipped her new hair, ‘You like the new me? I was really ready for a change.’
I was saved from having to answer her honestly, because she hardly drew breath, gushing about their trip, babbling about the shopping, rambling about the hot sunny days snorkelling and swimming. So I let her go on until she’d exhausted most of her news. Then I went in for the kill.
‘So...did you guys get to know each other really well while you were away? And I don’t mean in the biblical sense! Like...do you really know much about his life and stuff? You know, in Australia? His family, and all that?’
Sally looked directly at me. The bright smile faded from her face and she answered me nervously.
‘Well, yes, we talked about everything. It’s like...we’ve known each other all our lives. There’s such chemistry, I’ve never felt it before with anyone.’
That stung. In just a short month, she’d elevated a complete stranger to idol status, inserted him into her life, knocking me off my perfect perch without so much as a second thought. I felt like Jennifer Aniston must have felt when Angelina first invaded her perfectly idyllic life. Then she lowered her eyes.
‘And he’s married.’
So she knew. My face reddened in anger.
‘And that doesn’t bother you?’
‘Yes of course it bothers me. But they haven’t been happy for years, and they’re in the process of getting a divorce’
When she spoke, it sounded like a narrative from some trashy B-grade movie.
At that point I couldn’t think of anything encouraging to say. I felt deflated, and full of doubt as to whether anything I could ever say to Sally would even matter from that point.
I gave up hope that this was just a casual fling. She seemed besotted - and I was becoming more and more worried.
I gave her my concerned best friend speech. I didn’t really believe it would work, but I had to give it a shot.
‘Sal my darling girl. You know I want nothing but the best for you. And I will support you unconditionally, no matter what you do on this earth and beyond. Should you choose to date Rasputin himself, I would undoubtedly have some reservations, but still I would put those aside as long as you were happy. But I wouldn’t be doing my job as a nagging fag if I didn’t point out the potential pitfalls of this union.’
She held up her hand as if stopping traffic.
‘I know what you’re going to say, and I know you mean well Francis. But it’s okay. I’m a big girl, and I can take care of myself. He really is getting a divorce you know, it’s been coming for years. They haven’t been together for ages, and the only reason he goes near her is to see his children. He’s got two little girls in Perth.’
And then it slipped out. I didn’t mean it to.
‘Yes I know.’
And now it was Sally’s face that reddened
‘What do you mean, I know? How could you know!’
I admitted to her that I’d done a little ‘fact checking’, then proceeded to defend myself, with both hands on my hips for emphasis, and the best indignant pitch that my voice could produce.
‘I just wanted to make sure that he wasn’t actually Rasputin! I was only looking out for you darling, you know I love you and I was just worried. You would have done the same thing if it was me who’d gone off to a remote island with a complete stranger I’d met only days earlier!’
Instead of yelling at me, Sally slipped her arms around my neck.
‘Oh stop whining. I know you care about me and I appreciate it. Just butt out, okay? I promise he’s not Rasputin. He’s sweet and gentle and I really, really like him.’
She hugged me hard, and I knew there wasn’t much more I could say. So in a last ditch effort to keep any possible glimmer of doubt alive in her mind, I pulled out the wounded-member-of-a-minority-group card.
‘Well I guess if he hasn’t tried to sever your head by now, he’s not going to. But I still have to get something off my chest. And you have to let me.’
Sally slipped her hand in under my open necked shirt and gave my newly smooth chest a playful rub.
‘Go for it,’ she smiled.
‘Well, to be honest Sal, I’m a bit scared about us. You know...our relationship. I would just die if anything happened between us. I love you too much.’
‘What do you mean Francis? Nothing will ever happen between us. You and I are for life.’
‘Well, it’s just that Popeye makes me a bit uneasy. My homophobe-alert went haywire the first night we met, and I just have a bad feeling that he doesn’t...you know...approve of people like me. And I’m not imagining things. He completely ignored me, which I think is the height of rudeness from anyone, seeing as I’m impossible to ignore, but it’s more than that. I got this weird, sort of feeling of...I dunno...a threatening vibe from him.’
Sally laughed out loud.
‘Oh God Francis you have the most vivid imagination of anyone I know. You’re way too sensitive at the best of times, but this is just not true. He’s not a bigot of any kind. And he knows how important your friendship is to me...I told him all about you. Anyway, I wouldn’t even consider being with a guy who practised any kind of discrimination. I mean look at his position...he’s a Master Chief Petty Officer and that’s a pretty important rank in the navy.’
The way I saw it, the higher the rank, the bigger the arsehole. And I had first-hand experience with such things. I knew that being an officer in the military offered many individuals free rein to intimidate, manipulate and undermine, but always in secrecy, never in the open. At least schoolyard bullies would come right out and kick the shit out of you in the middle of the playground – and the bigger the audience the better. It’s the quiet loathing, bubbling away at a slow simmer that’s far more lethal. And I’d become incredibly adept at sensing it.
However, I had no wish to take the conversation any further. I didn’t want to upset Sally, and her assurance that she could never date a fag-basher was going to have to be good enough. And her next announcement suggested that she was about to put that assurance to the test.
‘So, just to prove he doesn’t have a problem with you, I want you to come out to the pub with us tonight. He’ll be leaving in a few days and I want you to get to know each other a bit better.’
Her words were music to my ears. Not about getting to know him...but about him leaving.
I agreed, but in no way could I muster any excitement about meeting up with them.
I arrived at The Gosport at 7pm. I’d decided to dress a little less flamboyantly than usual, not for his benefit, mind you, but because I wanted my attire to reflect my sombre mood. I was misery...and I needed a suitable outfit. So I went with my blue knee-ripped Armani skinny jeans, royal blue galaxy-patterned dress shirt, tan two-toned bowling shoes and mid length Hugo Boss trench coat. Every gay chic thread was a testament to my personal sadness. Well at least that’s how I saw it.
Popeye and Sally were sitting at a table already. Him with a pint of lager in his paw, and Sally nursing a glass of white wine. It was a small thing, but I noticed it right away. Only once in the years I’d known her had I ever seen Sally drink white wine, and it was a memorable event. It had rendered her bedridden the next day, vomiting violently, and with a dreadful headache, which was later proven to be an allergic reaction. Sure it was probably the cheap goon, but she had avoided the grape ever since.
I approached them, announcing my arrival with a small wave. Sally flashed me a wide grin, then stood up and gave me a hug.
‘Gavin, this is my best friend Francis...I think you met him that first night...? Francis this is Gavin.’
The man-mountain nodded in my direction and without smiling, or rearranging his facial expression in any way, he held out his hand.
‘Mate. Howzit goin’
It was of course a rhetorical question, the Australian equivalent of heya, y’right?
I don’t usually like to shake hands. And that’s not a gay thing...it’s just that I’m a hugger. However I knew that the chance of me and Popeye making that kind of contact was as slim as Madonna missing a workout. So for Sal’s benefit only, I shook his hand as firmly as I could and told him it was nice to meet him officially.
Formalities over, I noticed that he wasn’t about to get up or offer me a drink. I wasn’t sure if he was being purposefully rude, or if it was an Aussie thing, so I made my way to the bar and bought my own.
Already I was wishing I was somewhere else.
I seated myself as close to Sally as possible and addressed him directly across the table.
‘So...Sal tells me you guys had a fabulous time in The Caribbean. I’ve never been.’
He took a long swig of his beer and smirked.
‘Yeah, it was good mate.’
An awkward silence hung in the air like a surreptitious fart. There was no way I was going to the effort of digging a conversation out of him. If he wanted to communicate in monosyllabic grunts, then I’d finish my drink and leave. But I tried again.
‘So, how long you been in the navy Gavin?’
‘Comin’ up for twenty years next month.’
I feigned interest.
‘Oh, wow. What exactly does a Master Chief Petty Officer do?’
He stared at me as though he thought I was a moron.
‘Different things mate, but my job is mostly to train and oversee the new junior officers.’
‘Oh, I see. It sounds like an important position.’
I was running out of small-talk topics and began to shift uncomfortably in my seat. Then he took the reins and came right out with it.
‘So how long you been gay?’
My mouth fell open. I wasn’t sure if he was taking the piss or if he was actually serious. Maybe he’d asked me a moronic question in response to my moronic question. Just to see if he could out-moron me. I couldn’t detect a smile anywhere on his face, so I figured he was being serious. I glanced at Sally for some sign of a reaction to his question, but there was no horrified gasp or even the tilting of an eyebrow. She cleared her throat and took a sip of her wine. I felt as though I was drowning, and she wasn’t even going to throw me a lifesaver. So I decided to be smug-Francis.
‘Well, I’ve known all my life. Gay men don’t, as a rule ‘become’ gay. It’s not a virus you pick up like the measles, or a conscious decision you make. It’s not like I had a choice in the matter, it’s just the way I was made. Same as how you weren’t made gay.’
To my horror, smug-Francis was becoming defensive-Francis. And surprisingly, he laughed.
‘So you reckon it’s nature over nurture? I’m not convinced about that, mate. In fact I don’t believe it for a minute. I reckon anyone can be trained or re-trained to be anything they want. I’ve seen it happen.’
Now there was no doubt in my mind that my initial gut feelings had been absolutely spot on. This fuckwit was a raging homophobe, and I was incensed.
‘So I’m guessing that any unfortunate gay men and women under your command for example, would be in for a really hard time of it. What are your methods of ‘re-training them? Do you beat it out of them, attach electrodes to their genitals, or just use mind altering drugs?’
Then Sally jumped in. But not how I’d hoped.
‘Francis! Gavin was just trying to understand...there’s no need to talk like that.’
What the fuck? No need to...? I jumped up out of my seat.
‘You know what mate...you’re an ignorant arsehole. And I hope this beautiful woman here realises it before it’s too late.’ Then I turned to Sally, ‘And what’s with the fucking wine? You can’t drink it, you’re allergic, remember? First he’s brainwashed you into turning your back on your gay best friend, and now he’s got you sipping fucking full bodied Chardonnay like some kind of goon-snob. Wake up to yourself Sally. This prick is a fag-bashing, adulterer...and in my books, Rasputin might have been a better choice after all!’
I spat the words out as though I’d just eaten a bad oyster. And for good measure I added, ‘And your hair looks ridiculous and you’re too thin. You’re not a skinny blonde, you were beautiful the way you were. Was that his fucking idea too? To re-train you be anything he wants?’
I strode out of the pub and into the fresh night air. I gulped down deep breaths, trying to extinguish my anger.
I knew I’d been right all along. But what was happening to Sally? She was going through some kind of weird metamorphosis and I couldn’t understand it. I knew I had to do something or I’d lose her forever.
When I got back to my flat, I called Giorgio and told him what had just gone down in the pub. I accepted his offer of consolation and half an hour later he arrived at mine...with his computer.
My temples were still throbbing from anger and I needed to calm down. I made us some drinks, and when I stopped feeling like a volcano about to erupt, we went to work.
Given that we already knew of Popeye’s home town in Perth, Australia, it took no time at all to track down the bastard’s wife. Her home phone number was even listed in the Australian white pages. From there, Giorgio found her on Facebook. Once we had all her details, I went into my own Facebook account and copied the photographs that Sally had sent me from their Caribbean trip. Romantic selfies of them kissing on beaches, holding hands by swimming pools, drinking in bars and plenty more...all of which were totally repulsive to me.
But there was something else about the photos that didn’t seem right to me. Perhaps it was my imagination and my bias towards the jerk, but in almost every shot, his hold on Sally was obvious. I mean his physical hold as much as the emotional one. His gargantuan arms seem to envelop her from every angle...as though he could squeeze the very life out of her without any effort at all - if that’s what he chose to do. He seemed to dwarf her with his persona, almost negating her with the crushing supremacy of his presence. And for a fleeting moment, I could almost understand how she had been swept up by the power that emanated from him.
I wanted to hijack Popeye’s spinach supply. I wanted to be the kryptonite to his Superman. I wanted to seriously fuck this guy over. Now all I had to do was see if I’d be firing blanks.
The next morning, Sally called me. Her tone was sombre.
‘Francis I don’t know what’s going on.’
Then her sobs filled the space between us. I didn’t speak, I just let her cry into the phone. I didn’t know what to say, because I was as upset as she was.
An hour later, I arrived at her flat with a tin of her favourite Scottish shortbread and two Lattes from the coffee shop.
Her swollen eyes punctuated her anguish and my heart melted at the sight of her.
‘Everything was so perfect Francis. He really seemed to adore me. On our last night on the trip...he told me he loved me. I was gobsmacked, I couldn’t believe it, but I wanted to ...and I told him I loved him too. I know it’s only been a short time, but I’ve heard about things like this happening. You know...about finding your soul mate and all that. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before.’
A fresh bout of tears sprang from deep inside her. She blew into a tissue.
‘He promised me that there was nothing between him and his wife any more...it was all over. We were even talking about me going back to Australia with him. We were actually making plans for a future together! It all seemed so...so...right.’
So far, she hadn’t mentioned anything about our ‘meeting’ at the pub. She neither berated me about my outburst, nor offered any explanation for his abhorrent comments. She was upset about something much bigger.
I held her hand across the table.
‘Tell me exactly what happened sweetie.’
‘Last night. We were lying in bed, and his phone kept going off. Text messages, calls. At first he ignored it but they kept coming, and then after a while he turned it off. I asked him who was calling and texting him so late and he said it was one of the guys from the base, drunk or something. I thought that was weird right away. Then he went into the bathroom, and took the phone with him. He was in there for ages. When he came out, he was sort of...different.’
I didn’t need to, but I asked her what she meant.
‘Well, he told me that he’d have to leave right away, and that there was a big problem with work. He stood to lose his position, or maybe even have to leave the navy altogether, but he wouldn’t tell me why, or give me any details. He packed his stuff and left on the first flight out this morning. Oh Francis...I just know he’s gone back to her. He was lying to me all along.’
Another rash of heartbreaking sobs erupted, and her body shook.
‘He said he might not be able to see me again. You were right and I should have known. He was just a user. But why did he take me away with him? Why did he tell me he loved me? It was all so real. I don’t understand any of it...it’s just completely fucked...’
Yes. It was. Completely fucked.
To this day, Sally still doesn’t know what went down. And Popeye, true to his word didn’t, or probably couldn’t contact her again. That outcome was my ultimate joy. I could never, not ever bring myself to tell her what I’d done.
But I can tell you.
It seems that for quite a while, Master Chief Petty Officer Gavin Wayne Stephenson had been stowing some skeletons in his berth. I was able to unearth their rickety bones with the help of his jaded soon-to-be-ex wife.
I’d taken a chance and called her the night before. I’ve always been a firm believer in acting on impulse, particularly when someone has majorly pissed me off. Make tea while the kettle boils, and all that. Don’t worry, it’s not a bitchy gay thing...under the circumstances, you would have done the same yourself, I’m sure.
Anyway, Sharon, Popeye’s wife, turned out to be an absolute sweetheart. And at least Popeye hadn’t lied about one thing...they hadn’t been together for ages. She loathed the bastard. She had disconnected from him two years earlier after allegations of sexual misconduct with young women officers, as well as racial and sexual discrimination against both men and women under his command. These allegations had finally been filed due to numerous complaints, and a case was building against him. He would have to answer to these charges when he returned to Australia, and if they were proven, he’d certainly be dishonourably discharged from the navy, and probably indicted on criminal charges.
It was Sharon who had sent him the text messages and called the previous evening, although I can admit that the texts were prompted a little by me, and fed by the story I’d told her.
The messages were something along the lines of ‘Gavin I’ve just been informed that you’re about to be brought up on all charges. I wanted to let you know while you’re still in England. They’ll extradite you to Australia in the next day or so. I don’t want to put the kids through the shame of all this. I’m sorry for whoever you’re shacked up with this time, but I suggest that if you have an escape route, you should use it’
To this day, I don’t know if Popeye ever was indicted, or if he ever went back to Australia to face up to the things he’d done...and I don’t care. I’d taken his fucking spinach and he was left powerless. That was good enough for me. In my neck of the woods, that’s how we handle bullies.
I nursed my darling Sally back to emotional health, even though it took a few months. We never spoke about the incident at the pub. I had no desire to bring that scummy fuck into any of our conversations if I could avoid it, and I have long forgiven her for not jumping to my defence that night.
Sally had been in a certain vulnerable place at a certain vulnerable time. She was starstruck... ready to embrace happiness – unable to see that happiness really was misery wearing a convincing disguise. Lucky I was there to spot it. And from now on, I’ll be extra vigilant. I mean, what are friends for, right?