Paul knew that he possessed none of the characteristics of the gay male stereotype. And in all probability that was equally true of Richard. Not that he knew Richard, the man he was about to meet, the man who had placed the gay ad to which he had replied. Their contact to date had been limited to a single, quite short, telephone conversation. Yet Paul felt able already to build up a picture in his mind because the name announced on the telephone had not been unfamiliar. Quite the contrary, in fact, for this stranger was a figure from the past. He had been noted for his involvement in gay liberation a decade ago, long before Paul had started to come to terms with his own sexuality.
The prospect of meeting such a man would be daunting to some. Paul, however, merely regarded it as an intriguing prospect. There was nothing strange in this, for, if he had been late in identifying himself as gay, his eventual acceptance had been without reservations. This made him very positive in outlook and strong in manner. The history of Richard’s achievements suggested he might well be Paul’s equal in these respects, and this was appealing to Paul who had long ago dismissed the idea that gay lovers had to be respectively active and passive for sex to go well. The challenge of like to like had been part of his experience; but not lately, and the possibility of sparking off a new relationship of this kind could not have been more welcome. As he travelled to Richard’s house to keep their appointment, he realized to his pleasure that he felt decidedly randy.
Richard opened the door and within moments had destroyed all of Paul’s expectations. Not only the way he looked but even the way he stood seemed to deny the strength, the command, which Paul had ascribed to him. When he started to speak the revision of the portrait was taken even further. Hesitancy and uncertainty emerged at once as the joint keynotes of his character, unless he were displaying instead shyness elevated to power – the power that is to conceal the real person. But to discover the real Richard was no easy task. On other occasions when Paul had found himself confronting reticence, he had been able in time to encourage conversation. The flow might still be lacking, but, after a while, the shyness usually slackened and yielded, allowing some impression of the true personality to emerge.
But not so with Richard. All avenues were quickly blocked, even the most obvious.
“Let’s not talk about the Gay Liberation Front; those days are long since past.” As for more general topics of conversation, the hesitancy and uncertainty remained, but now transformed into a whole sentence. “I’m never sure what I think. As soon as I express an opinion I want to qualify it. Half of what I say seems untrue the moment I have actually said it.” Such remarks might have been calculated to discourage all further talk and at that moment Paul, disheartened yet decidedly curious about Richard, would have been surprised had be known that he would shortly stumble upon a clue, one which would unexpectedly open up Richard in his mind’s eye and lead him to an essential truth about this man.
With nothing to hint at such a possibility, Paul was reduced to searching for some new subject to resuscitate the conversation. On entering the house, he had noticed the extensive presence of photographs on the walls, enlargements which were of a size and character to suggest that they were more than just chance decoration. And so it proved, for when Paul mentioned them Richard became more animated at last.
“I’ve taken up photography quite recently,” he declared. “I am sure it should be regarded as a major art form and I hoped to create photographs which would capture the essence of landscape.” Those which Paul had seen were evidence that the photographer had travelled widely in Britain in his attempt to achieve this. Whether or not the results justified the endeavour, it was clear from Richard’s comments that he had started out with fuelled enthusiasm. But soon the spirit so suddenly established in the conversation began to fade; the old tone was returning when he added limply: “But I am not sure what more I can do now.” He sounded like a traveller who had reached the end of a road only to find it was a cul-de-sac.
Taken on their own, his comments might have been tedious. But Paul was fascinated by the puzzle of trying to relate the man who sat opposite him to the activist of the past who had seemed to possess the aura of a leader. He began to wonder if Richard had ever matched up to this vision, or if the colleague with whom he had been closely associated in those bygone days had been so much the commanding figure that he had swept up Richard and implanted on him by association an image which was all his own and which had never represented any part of the man before him. Or was it possible that there was more humour in Richard than met the eye and that some kind of game was being played? For Paul could not fail to notice that Richard was fond of putting forward views about the arts which, according to one’s viewpoint, were either off-beat or eccentric.
“But why take account of what an author says about his book?” he said, dismissing a criticism of Paul’s concerning a novel which failed to live up to the writer’s declared intentions. “Why should his view of it be more reliable than one’s own?”
Nor was there in Richard any wish to earn acceptance by approving ideas put forward by Paul. When his visitor expressed reservations over the harsh judgement passed by some on the gay painter who had remained in the closet all his life, Richard perkily remarked that the contemptuous verdict was one which be thoroughly endorsed.
All told, then, Paul was pleased to be offered the respite which came with Richard’s suggestion that the two of them should go out and eat in a nearby Italian restaurant. But it was just before setting out that an incident, as yet of unclear meaning, occurred. Passing again through the hall, custodian of those studied photographs, Paul felt called upon to make some comment upon them.
“They really are striking,” he said, and if to his own ears the phrase sounded desperately banal it was probably because he did not mean it. Yet the words were hardly out when his eye was taken by a photograph which did possess quality.
“Are these also your work?” he asked, for what stood out was no landscape but one of three photographs of male nudes. The other two avoided the impression of being a gay artist’s private pornography, but they were unexceptional nevertheless. The one which mattered was extraordinary because the man portrayed was deformed, or such was the deduction one was encouraged to make. The man himself, secure behind dark glasses, revealed none of his secrets and what might well be a club-foot was hidden from sight by the photographer’s choice of composition. Yet he had also chosen to show the crutch which the man needed in order to walk and, furthermore, to show it boldly and directly, not as an object which could be detected in the margin of the photograph by the seeking eye but as a dominant feature. It drew attention as strongly as the firm, attractive male body which, so far as could be seen, seemed to deny that mutilation or blemish could have anything to do with it. But the crutch told one otherwise.
“Do you find it,” Richard asked, “disturbing?”
Paul understood what Richard meant, yet disturbing was not the word he would have used. Thought-provoking was a valid adjective because the picture broke a rule, the requirement that in art of this kind nudes should be beautiful and remote from any uncomfortable reality. Puzzling would have been a valid description too, for one felt that the body, no abstract object after all, ought to give some sign of the deformity implied. Yet that face, partially concealed by the glasses, revealed nothing of suffering and thus contributed to the unacknowledged conspiracy to refute the relevance of the crutch. Surely that link had to be admitted if the photograph was to make sense? Or might that be too obvious, seeing that the contrast heightened the impact made? For the moment, the essence of what was present remained elusive.
In the restaurant over the shared meal the fits and starts of conversation served only to confirm Paul’s earlier impressions of his host. But there was one additional piece of evidence; it was not what Richard said but what he did. Watching the unconscious nervous gestures of the hands, Paul put away all thoughts of the surface impression being misleading. Whatever he might be, Richard assuredly was not the strong, forceful, self-reliant figure which Paul had created in his own mind as epitomizing a leader of the Gay Liberation Front. Paul regretfully admitted to himself that, merely as a matter of sexual preference, Richard’s manner made him much less appealing physically than if the man had been true to the image. He was aware too that sympathy, which he might have felt, had been put to flight by those statements of Richard’s such as the one about the painter, which revealed that the two of them possessed radically different attitudes from one another. Paul, musing to himself, wondered if Richard was having reservations, different but no less strong, about him. Certainly Paul regarded the prospect of sex as fading away; but he wondered if this was not for the best in the circumstances. Then, breaking into these thoughts, came Richard’s voice: “Let’s go now,” he said. “You could come back to my place for a coffee.”
It was not that sentence, however, but another one, again spoken by Richard, which strongly suggested that he was not averse to making love with Paul despite their differences. They were back in Richard’s house when he said to Paul: “I like your belt; it’s very like mine.” Paul, comparing the two belts which each helped to hold jeans close in to the genitals, was acutely aware that in actuality the design of the belts was quite different. But this specific reference to the area of the crotch still left him, implications duly considered, in two minds. Paul, who had never taken to cruising and who favoured a personal quality in all of his sexual couplings, believed that to encourage Richard when he felt so distant from him as a person would be to use him as a sex object. Experiencing these doubts, Paul even started to explain to him why it would be better to go no further; ironically, it was his bungling way of saying this – his feeling that Richard might be hurt or insulted by his remarks when he did not mean them to sound critical – which caused him to cancel out any such reaction by offering his body after all.
So, unexpectedly, the sexual involvement which Paul had hoped for on setting out came about; even more surprisingly, the sexual pleasure proved to be what he had imagined. Richard led him into his bedroom and lit candles at some distance from the bed. That was to be their light. In all other respects darkness prevailed and, as they stripped one another of their clothes, they each discovered not by sight but by touch, by hand and then by tongue, the body of the other. Here in the darkness Paul found that his partner was a splendid lover, as positive and as ardent as he was himself, and as vocal in his cries of delight. When Paul left Richard’s house it was late, very late, but that did not matter.
Each had been appreciative of the other in bed, but when next day Paul came to look back on their meeting he was doubtful if the relationship could be built into something meaningful. His doubts centred on what he had felt about Richard as a person, Richard being the man who had talked to him and taken him out for a meal. As for the man in the dark, the man who strangely enough answered to the name of Richard, he could not decide who he was. What was self-evident was that the lover he had discovered existed only in that private darkness, for only there did the doubts and fears, the anxieties and tribulations of the person known to the world as Richard disappear. They were shed totally, but only for the time that the room was in darkness. To say that a chrysalis was discarded yielding a butterfly was not quite the right comparison. It was more accurate to say that the man in the dark was the man Richard would have been had he not felt so pressured by society for being gay.
These thoughts developed in Paul’s mind the day after the meeting. But it was not until another twenty-four hours had passed that the moment of knowledge came to him. He was not even pondering the puzzle of Richard when the realization occurred: whoever had posed for that one impressive photograph in Richard’s collection, it was in truth a self-portrait of the artist.
Mansel Stimpson is a writer and film critic based in London. In 2014 he published his memoir, No Drum to Beat, detailing his life as a gay man in the late 1970s and early 1980s.