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by Jay Mandal 

Posted: 16 March 2004
Word Count: 3373

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by Jay Mandal
Word count 3367

“You’re going to lose him if you’re not careful,” said Nancy, as she unpacked the new titles that had just arrived. She was a short woman, with tight grey curls and boundless energy.
John looked up warily. “What makes you say that?”
“I don’t think he can take much more. One day you’ll push him away just once too often, and it’ll be too late.”
“I’m sure you’re wrong. About him being interested, I mean. What have I to offer? I’m fifty-two - far too old. Everything I have is tied up in this bookshop, and you know how precarious things are for small businesses nowadays. Even the supermarkets sell books, and at a discounted price I can’t compete with.”
“You get plenty of customers.”
“Plenty of browsers. They come in here to choose what they want, then go off and buy it somewhere else. And there’s the Internet now, don’t forget.”
“And don’t you try to change the subject.”
John sighed. He was a tall, thin man who stooped slightly, and had bright blue eyes that showed both intelligence and sympathy. “Has he said something?”
“Maybe. He talks to me.”
“And you talk about us?”
Nancy didn’t answer.
“It wouldn’t work. We have too little in common.”
“You have books.”
“And that’s enough?”
“You should be having this conversation with him.”
“I can’t. Every time I try ...”
“... You realize how much he means to you?”
John nodded.
“So what’s the problem?” She handed the new John Grisham to John. They had a customer who’d requested a copy as soon as it came in.
“Everything. Everything’s the problem. Age. Gender. Upbringing.”
“I was married, for God’s sake!”
“I know. But Helen’s dead. She’d have liked the boy.”
“As a son, maybe. Not as her husband’s lover.”
“So you do think about it?”
“Of course I do. It’s just not possible. Not now.”
“So you’re going to give up? Sink into your dotage just like that? I thought you were a fighter. You never gave up with Helen.”
“That was different, we couldn’t give up. We had to believe things would be all right. Anything else was unthinkable.”
“And yet you won’t fight for Matthew?”
“It’s not the same.”
“No. This time you can win if you try. But if you don’t care ...”
“Of course I care.”
“But you’d prefer to grow into a bitter, lonely old man? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. You do realize how selfish you’re being?” They’d known each other long enough for her to be able to speak her mind.
“Selfish? I don’t see how letting him go is selfish. Anyway, he’s young, he’ll get over it.”
“Will he? Have you asked him what he thinks of your selflessness? To him, it’ll seem like rejection.”
“It’s not that. It’s just that there’s no future in it.”
“Sometimes I think you don’t want your cosy life disrupted, that you’re not prepared to make sacrifices. Which is a pity, because you could have it all.”
“The modern myth: you can have everything now. I’m just afraid I’ll have to pay for it later.”
“It’s all right to be afraid. Better that than a lifetime of regrets. You’ve got only one life, you mustn’t waste it.”
“Don’t you see, that’s how I feel about Matthew - that he’d be wasting his life with me.”
“And if Helen had said that - if she’d known she was going to die in her forties - would you have done anything differently?”
“No. No, I wouldn’t.”
“Come on, John. Helen would have wanted you to live life to the full.”
“Sometimes I can’t believe it. It just seems too good to be true. And I feel guilty.”
“That you care about someone else?”
John nodded.
“It doesn’t wipe out all those years you and Helen had together, you know.”
“There were times when I wondered ...”
“Wondered what?”
“Whether I should have got married. Even then there was the attraction ... Sometimes I thought that’s why we never had children. That I was being punished.”
“Oh, John, you couldn’t help your feelings. You and Helen were the closest couple I’ve known. Anyone could see you loved each other. You practically knew what the other was thinking.”
“I used to wonder if she’d guessed - about the feelings I’d had for other men before we were married. We just never spoke about it. But I did love her. It hurt so much when she died.”
“I know.”
“And I’m frightened Matthew will leave me one day.”
“So frightened you won’t even take the chance of happiness?”
“I know it’s stupid, I’m the one who’s older, after all. But I’m afraid of the gossip. I don’t want him hurt.”
“He’s not a child, he doesn’t need protecting. But he does need you.”
“And that’s all?”
“Oh, he loves you, too. Why d’you think he’s here so often?”
“He came to browse.”
“But he stayed.”
“He comes when it’s just you here.”
“He comes to talk. Mostly about you. Which is where this conversation started. John, you’ve got to decide. He won’t wait forever.”

“I don’t know where I stand,” Matthew said to Nancy. She’d just made them both coffee, and they were taking a break from dusting the shelves. “Sometimes I think we’re getting really close, and then he mentions his wife or makes a joke about how old he is, and I feel like we’re back to square one. It’s not that I’m jealous of his wife, or mind that he’s older than me, don’t think that. It’s that I feel he’s using it as an excuse to keep me at arm’s length, and I don’t know why.”
“Perhaps he thinks things are going too fast.”
“We’ve known each other a year now. He must know I love him.”
“What about the age gap? You’re over twenty years younger than him.”
“I know. But when I’m with him, it doesn’t seem to matter.”
“You don’t see him as some sort of father-figure, then?”
“I used to think perhaps that was it - you know, someone who would accept me for what I am - but then I realized my feelings weren’t those of a son.”
“What about your parents? Have you told them?”
“About us?” He sighed. “Not yet. There’s nothing I can really tell them at the moment.”
“How d’you think they’d take it?”
“They’d try to talk me out of it like they did when I told them I was gay. They’d convince themselves it was just a phase, and they needn’t worry. I’d marry some nice girl, and it would all be forgotten. Sometimes I wished they’d get angry, it would have been easier for me to deal with. Anyway, as I said, there’s nothing to tell.”
“He might be afraid. John.”
“What of? Commitment? Sex?”
“Those, too.” She looked at his unlined face, the fair hair that was still thick and his clear brown eyes - an unusual combination but a pleasing one, she always thought - and sighed.
“What else?”
“That you’re too young. It wouldn’t be easy. People would make assumptions. Either that you were father and son, or that-” She stopped, embarrassed.
“He was cradle-snatching?”
She looked away.
“That he was paying for my services?” Matthew said softly.
She nodded unhappily. “John’s friends might not understand. They’d try to make John see sense. They might even think you’d taken advantage of him while he was still grieving for Helen.”
“I’ve met her mother, did John tell you?”
“How did it go?”
“Fine. John introduced me as a friend. We’d been working in the garden when she arrived, and we were both filthy. We all had lunch together. She asked if I had a boyfriend.”
“The old bat! What did you say?”
“Nothing. I was too busy mopping up the wine I’d spilt. John told her to mind her own business.”
“Which was tantamount to admitting there was something going on between you.”
“Exactly. And she’s not an old bat. I thought she was very nice.”
“Helen used to say her mother could charm the birds from the trees if she put her mind to it. You’re sure she doesn’t have an ulterior motive?”
“Like what?”
“Warning you off, perhaps? Kate hadn’t wanted her daughter to marry John, but, on that occasion at least, she didn’t get her own way. So maybe now she’s switched her allegiance to her son-in-law, and is seeing whether you’re suitable.”
“I did get the impression I was being sized up, but the odd thing was she didn’t seem surprised at my presence. It was as if she’d been proved right.”
“You mean that’s why she’d had doubts about John marrying her daughter? She knew?”
“Possibly. Maybe I should ask her on Saturday. She’s invited me round for tea.”

“Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit,” said Matthew.
“So I understand.”
“Do you?”
John nodded.
“I want to know how you feel. I need to know how you feel.”
“I feel alive.”
And Helen was dead. Matthew turned away, trying to hide his shock.
“Matthew, I didn’t mean- I put it badly. What I was trying to say, and failing so abysmally to, was that I feel alive when you’re with me. Emotions I’d given up hope of ever experiencing again go racing through me. Feelings I’d always tried to pretend weren’t there come to the surface. I feel whole, complete.”
“So why do I get the impression there’s a but?”
“Matthew, you’re half my age. It’s not fair on you.”
“You’re right: it’s not fair on me. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and you’re pushing me away.”
“Because it wouldn’t be the rest of your life.”
“Who gave you the right to decide what’s good for me? Don’t I get a say?”
“Matthew, please ...”
“No, I won’t listen. Not when you’re talking such rubbish. I love you, and I want to be with you. Tell me you don’t feel the same, and I’ll won’t mention the subject again.”
“I can’t. You know I can’t.”
“So we go on as before?” Matthew asked tiredly. He wondered how long they could keep going round in circles like this.
“If that’s what you want.”
“Do you?”
“I can’t see any other option.”
“I’ll sort out those books that arrived yesterday,” Matthew said, and turned away.

“What was she like - Helen?” With John out of the shop, Matthew was able to question Nancy.
“Full of life, energetic, enthusiastic. That made what happened even more tragic. But she had her faults. She was stubborn. She’d set her mind on marrying John, and she did, despite her mother’s objections. I’m beginning to think you can be stubborn, too. And you love books.”
“It doesn’t sound a very exciting pastime.”
“Passion comes in many guises”
Matthew sighed. “I’m not sure passion comes into it at all.”
“Have you talked ... about sex?”
“A little, generally. Not about what he wants.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know. Just because he’s older doesn’t mean he’s more experienced. And with Helen being ill ...”
“I’m not exactly an authority on the subject myself,” Matthew admitted wryly.
“There’s bound to be a book in the shop.”
“I couldn’t find anything. I checked every section I could think of. There was just the usual: Isherwood, Maupin, Forster. He’s read them all, you know.”
“So he knows the theory?”
Matthew smiled. “Mmm.”
“Maybe he just needs a bit of a push to get to the practice.”
“More like a shove!”

“You’re a fool, John. Always have been.”
“Of course it’s me. Or do you have people queuing up to berate you over the telephone?”
“Hello, Kate. How are you?” Kate was a woman who would stand no nonsense. Her daughter, Helen, had been much more like her father, although she’d inherited her mother’s beauty.
“So I gather. What is it this time?”
“Matthew. What have you done to upset him?”
“Why, what’s he said?”
“Nothing. He just looks like a little boy whose pet hamster has died. You’ve lost Helen, and now you seem intent on driving Matthew away. What’s the matter with you?”
“It’s really none of your business, Kate.”
“Of course it’s my business, you’re my son-in-law. I held my tongue when Helen wanted to marry you, but I’m damned-”
“Held your tongue! You did everything you could to stop her.”
“You were lucky it turned out as well as it did. Anyway, that’s all water under the bridge now. You know Matthew’s thinking of leaving, I suppose?”
“You thought he’d just stick around, and things would stay the same. He’d help you in the shop, he’d lend a hand in the garden, and once a week you’d cook him chicken with avocado.”
“How do you know about that?”
“You used to cook it for Helen. No, Matthew didn’t tell me, he’s very loyal. You’d have to go a long way to find someone like him.”
“I know.”
“So why are you so determined to put him off? You’re not getting any younger.”
“That’s the whole point, Kate. I’m not getting any younger. I’m too old for Matthew. He needs someone more his own age.”
“Nonsense! You’ll be saying I’m too old next! Opportunities don’t come along every day. Don’t waste this one.”
“I thought you of all people would understand. It would be like betraying Helen.”
“Stop being so melodramatic. You’re not one of those women who throw themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. Don’t you understand? You’re being given another chance. One you’ve always hankered after, if you ask my opinion. And, if we could ask Helen, she’d say the same: go for it. That is the right expression, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s the right expression,” John said wearily.
“So what are you going to do? You can’t let him go just because you’re too defeatist to speak out.”
“Why does everyone think they know what’s good for me?”
“Stop shouting, I’m not deaf yet. Someone has to tell you because you patently can’t see the wood for the trees.”
“And what d’you think your bridge cronies will have to say about it?”
“They’ll be absolutely thrilled - they won’t have had so much excitement since Hetty Armstrong’s wig blew off on the cross channel ferry last year.”
“Well, if that’s all it’ll be - a topic of conversation while you’re playing cards - I’m not-”
“John, you can’t have been listening to a word I’ve said. Forget about the bridge club - they’ll find something else to gossip about, they always do. No, it’s you I’m worried about. I care about you. You were a good husband, and you’d have been an excellent father if things had been different. But they weren’t, and you don’t have any children or grandchildren. I’m not going to be here forever, and I want to see you settled. All I see at the moment is that you’re looking a gift horse in the mouth.”
“I’m sure Matthew doesn’t want to spend the best years of his life wheeling me up and down the seafront.”
“Poppycock! You’ve got years left. Bother, that’s the doorbell. It must be the meals-on-wheels lady.”
“I didn’t realize-”
“Not for me! I’ve offered to help. Now promise me you’ll think about what I’ve said.”

“You didn’t come to the shop today.”
“I thought you might be ill. I didn’t have any grapes so I brought a bottle of wine. Can I come in?”
“Yes, of course. Excuse the mess.” Matthew indicated the piles of old clothes and magazines ready to be taken to the recycling centre. “I’ve been having a clear-out. It’s amazing how much junk you accumulate.”
“Wait till you’re as old as me!”
Matthew turned away.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean ... It’s true, then: you’re leaving?”
“I haven’t decided.”
“I’d miss you.”
“Would you like a coffee?” Matthew asked, changing the subject.
They drank their coffee in silence. Eventually John looked up. “But it is true - you do accumulate a lot of junk as you go through life. No, hear me out,” he said desperately as Matthew stood up intending to take his cup back to the kitchen. “Not just material things though, God knows, I’ve enough of those. No, I meant assumptions, preconceptions, inflexibility. And fear and guilt. Sometimes it’s difficult to see past them, to believe that something could possibly be more important. Like love, companionship, hope.”
“I’ve got out of the habit of thinking it, let alone saying it. But I do love you. Without you, I feel empty. And the last week or two have made me realize that I don’t want to feel like that, but I ...” He ground to a halt.
“I can’t offer you much. A shop that takes all my time and money. A body that’s already creaking and sagging like an old sofa. An outlook that’s so blinkered I may already have lost the one thing I should have fought for at all costs.”
“I don’t want much,” said Matthew at last. “The shop’s fine, I feel at home when I’m there. And old sofas are far more comfortable than brand new ones.”
“You still haven’t said if you’re staying.”
“Is that what you want?”
“I want us to be together. A couple. I want to meet your parents, I want to get to know your friends. Hell, I even want Kate’s bridge chums to gossip about us!”
“Did she speak to you?”
John nodded.
“She spoke to me, too. How you were stubborn and pig-headed and obstinate, and how we deserved each other.”
“And Nancy kept on at me. She kept warning me I’d lose you if I wasn’t careful.” John paused. “Have I left it too late?”
“I didn’t really want to go. I want us to be together, too, although I’m not so sure about wanting Kate’s friends to talk about us.”
“She’ll be insufferable. She’ll believe it’s all her doing.”
“I was going to leave last week. She talked me out of it.”
“I didn’t know.”
“She didn’t want you to think she was interfering again. I think she still feels guilty.”
“Guilty? Why on earth should she feel guilty?”
“Well, she admits she tried to persuade Helen not to marry you. She knows she was wrong - you and Helen had a good marriage, and she’s said she couldn’t have wished for a better son-in-law. She needs to make it up to you somehow.”
“I always liked her.”
“Shall I open that bottle of wine now?”
“Just a small glass. I’ve got to drive.”
“You don’t have to,” said Matthew slowly.
“No, I suppose I don’t. All the more reason not to drink too much. I passed out on my wedding night. Helen had to put me to bed. Sorry, I shouldn’t have mentioned-”
“No, it’s all right. I threw up the first time - food poisoning. I spent the rest of the night in my boyfriend’s bathroom being sick. He was very nice about it actually.”

“Who on earth is phoning at this time of night?” John said sleepily.
“I’d better answer it. Good job it wasn’t half an hour ago.” Matthew picked up the receiver.
“Who is it?” John whispered after a while.
“Shhh!” Matthew grinned at something the caller said, then put the phone down. “That was your mother-in-law.”
“And yours in a way. I don’t know if there’s a word for the mother-in-law of a partner.”
“Is that what we are?”
“Partners, lovers, whatever you want. Shall we tell Kate tomorrow?”
“She’ll want all the details.”
“She can mind her own business for once!”
“And pigs might fly.”
“You’re right. We might as well issue a press release.”
“More expensive, though.”
“And not so effective. I owe her a lot.”
“So I do. By the way, she’s cooking lunch tomorrow. She told me to tell you you’re invited, too.” He grinned at John. “She knew you were here.”
“She must have the ears of a- Perhaps Nancy’s right, after all.”
“What d’you mean?”
“Maybe Kate really is an old bat!”

The End
Copyright Jay Mandal

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Comments by other Members

Nell at 08:30 on 16 March 2004  Report this post
Hello Jay, it's a revelation to read a sensitive and tender romance from the perspective of a gay man. I've read one of your stories on the Bewrite site; you have a gift for writing about love and placing it above lust, which makes your stories accessible to women as well as gay men. Beautifully written too, and with the ring of truth about it.

Best, Nell.


I see on the sidebar that you're a new member - I thought you'd been here for ages. Welcome to WW!

Jay Mandal at 02:51 on 17 March 2004  Report this post
Hi, Nell.

I'm glad you liked the piece. It's one of the short stories in 'The Loss of Innocence' collection which has just been released by BeWrite.

Thanks for the welcome.

(I hope this reaches you - I have an odd feeling I'm sending this comment to myself!)


Nell at 08:24 on 17 March 2004  Report this post
Hi Jay,

No, you're not talking to yourself, good luck with the collection.


anisoara at 10:22 on 17 March 2004  Report this post
Jay --

Enjoyed this. Very resonant, I especially liked the selflessness - rejection: it depends on where you're standing, doesn't it? You have captured a man at a confusing crossroads, incorporating many strands with humour and feeling. Oh, and Kate's character comes across strong and clear.

I see you have three collections of short stories in print. That's wonderful!


Jubbly at 10:26 on 17 March 2004  Report this post
Hello Jay, this really is very intimate writing, I felt as though I was eavesdropping on strangers conversations. It's very moving in parts and the resolution is so uplifting. At first I thought the constant dialogue was going to put me off, but I'm very used toreading scripts so it wasn't a problem at all, I just didn't expect so much in a short story. Having said that, it worked very well, all the characters were so believable and easy to visulise. I look forward to more of your work.



Ralph at 12:07 on 17 March 2004  Report this post
Hi Jay, and welcome to WW.

This is superb. Some wonderful characters, especially Kate. I cheered out loud over the bit about Meals on Wheels, and her (belated) acceptance of John and her need to get him on the right track was a joy to read about.

I, too, wondered about the dialogue. Your writing is strong and vivid enough to hold it, it didn't disturb the reading for me at all, but it somehow made John more open than I'd expect him to be. It gave me two very conflicting sides to his character - one that held back, considered all things carefully, and one that opened his mind very freely to the people around him. It builds an extremely interesting character, so it worked for me...

The only real glitch I came across was at the end. Following the dialogue, I thought it was John who said "Perhaps Nancy's right, after all." But it was to Matthew that Nancy made her comment about Kate being an "old bat"... or maybe she's just always calling Kate that?

Either way, this was such a heart-warming tale, told with a kind of love for the foibles of humanity that is all too rare these days, and I look forward to reading more from you.

All the very best



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