The Leigh Delamere Services on the M4 motorway is not a great place to spend a Friday afternoon; Kulvinder had been hanging around there for over an hour and was on the verge of giving up and going home when finally he spotted a possibility. He had been browsing magazines in the shop, trying to be inconspicuous in blue jeans, a navy jersey that helped to hide his stomach, and a blue baseball cap which made him feel uncomfortable but he hoped well-disguised. There was a steady trickle of men who came in, picked up a magazine, usually about cars, or motorcycles, or sport, and flicked through it before replacing it in the rack and moving on. They were just passing time, perhaps while their womenfolk were using the facilities.
Trying to look absorbed in the magazine in his hand, which he'd hardly registered was called Time, out of the corner of his eye he was watching the actions of a man who'd just entered the shop. He marked him down as a little older than himself, dressed in a business suit, white shirt with the top button undone, tie slightly loosened, scuffed shoes. His greying and receding hair contrasted with a smooth unwrinkled complexion. Kulvinder's own grey was limited to his temples; he flattered himself it looked distinguished and always took care to comb his hair to keep it looking neat, with a perfect parting and a neat wave of glossy black hair across the top of his head, now hidden under the awful cap.
The man strode purposefully up to the magazine rack, scanned along the top shelf until his eye settled on Attitude magazine, between Gay Times and the long line of wrapped porn magazines that took up the rest of the top shelf. Kulvinder willed him to take a copy, plucked up courage and himself took down a copy of GT, but the other man stared at Attitude for a moment and then walked away and out of the shop. Another false hope. Kulvinder slid the GT magazine under the other in his hands and went back to staring at the close-typed text of Time, unseeing.
Ten minutes later he was still at his post. There had been one or two men – it was always men – who came, browsed a magazine and then left. No-one had touched Attitude or GT all afternoon although occasionally someone carried one of the wrapped magazines off to the paypoint. Kulvinder took no interest in the wrapped magazines, had no curiosity about the contents, hidden behind the semi-opaque polythene. You could just make out the image on the front cover which in most cases consisted of a pair of breasts. He did wonder about the men who were able to carry such material to the girl at the checkout and brazenly meet her eye as they paid for their purchase. He had never yet plucked up courage to take a copy of GT and pay for it. Once he had shop-lifted one but the guilt that wracked him afterwards prevented him from repeating the experiment. It didn't stop him from reading the magazine cover to cover and re-reading most of it before putting it in the car park waste bin, though.
He told himself that GT magazine was not pornography, but a lifestyle magazine and that it was legitimately on display so that homosexuals, who were now respectable members of society here in the UK, could purchase it and keep up to date with the goings on in the gay community. He knew such reasoning would never work with his wife, though, and as for his mother... ay, ay, ay. He could not bring himself to make such a purchase, despite the anonymity offered by this shop many miles from his home.
To his surprise, the man who'd looked as though he might be about to purchase Attitude returned, just as purposefully as before, and without hesitation reached for and took down a copy of Attitude magazine. He glanced for no more than an instant at Kulvinder and at the two magazines in his hand before striding off to the checkout.
Kulvinder stood frozen to the spot for several long moments before shaking himself and, galvanized into action, he began walking after the other man. Glancing down he realised he was still carrying Time as well as GT. He hesitated, intending to turn back and replace Time on the rack, but then thought better of it. He could use Time to hide the cover of GT from prying eyes. He would be paying for a magazine whose only use to him was as disguise, but he thought that money well spent.
There was a queue, two customers between him and the purchaser of Attitude. The other man was making no attempt to hide his magazine and even held a light conversation with the shop assistant while he paid.
“Would you like a bag for that?”
“No, thanks, the car's just outside.”
“Well it would have to be, otherwise you'd have had difficulty getting here!”
“Well, yes...” Grins exchanged, Attitude man walked off towards the exit door. Panicking, Kulvinder almost called out to him as he disappeared into the concourse.
The queue moved agonisingly slowly and Kulvinder stood nervously bouncing from one leg to the other but eventually he faced the young girl at the checkout, gritted his teeth and handed over both magazines. She scanned each in turn and in a bored voice shifted her gum into her cheek so that she could announce “Seven pounds twenty-five and do you want a crème egg for a pound?”
No, he didn't, but handed her the exact money and bolted for the door. There was no sign of Attitude man anywhere in the concourse that he could see so he went out into the car park.
Hurrying around the corner of the building he almost bumped into the back of the man he was looking for and had to compose himself a moment before calling out to him.
At first the other man did not react, perhaps assuming the call was not addressed to him. Kulvinder called out again. “Excuse me? What did you buy? What magazine?”
Attitude man turned, puzzled, but his face cleared when he recognized Kulvinder. He must have been more observant at the magazine rack than he had appeared. He turned the cover of his magazine towards Kulvinder, who, boldened, showed his GT magazine. Pointing at the cover Kulvinder tried to ensure the other man registered what it was he had purchased. He made the point clearer: “I prefer this one.”
The other man grinned tolerantly. “Well, I prefer this one. I'll fight you over it!” - and he smiled engagingly to clarify that he was speaking lightly. But then he walked off and Kulvinder couldn't think of any way to keep him. After a moment's indecision he ran after him and fell into step with him. The other man glanced at him, smirked, and, still walking, gestured ahead.
“My car's just here. Get in.”
Warning bells rang in Kulvinder's head but he ignored them, and when the man triggered the remote unlock of a black VW Passat and got into the driver's seat, Kulvinder pulled open the passenger door and slid in beside him. Sweat broke out on his forehead. The other man extended a hand to be shaken.
“My name's Ryan, what's yours?”
“K... Ashok.” said Kulvinder, wiping his palm on his trouser leg before holding it out in return.
“Well, Ashok, do you do this often?” - and after shaking Kulvinder's hand, Ryan let his own hand drop into Kulvinder's lap, where it squeezed his inner thigh gently. Kulvinder yelped, flinched, and picked up the errant hand and replaced it in its owner's lap.
“Wh... What are you doing?” he stammered.
Ryan frowned, taken aback. “Doing? Just a bit of fun, isn't that what you're here for?”
“I... I don't know why I'm here, not really. Not that. I need someone to talk to.”
“Talk!” Ryan snorted. “Bloody Nora, I don't half pick 'em.”
“I'm sorry. I'll just go. It's okay.” - and Kulvinder reached for the door handle.
“Hold on. It's not okay. Talk. Tell me what made you accost me like that.”
So Kulvinder sat back in the seat and talked. Ryan listened attentively, making little encouraging noises when he floundered, so he told him all about his life, the family business, his overbearing mother, his unhappy childless wife, his own inability to feel for her what he was supposed to feel, and his dawning realisation at the advanced age of thirty-eight that his sexual orientation was the other way and that he had no idea how to deal with that. He told how he had become depressed, making his wife in turn more and more unhappy, and how recently he had come to the conclusion that there was probably no solution to his problem and that his best course might be to end his own life. At this point in his story his voice was shaking badly but he kept going. He explained how as a last desperate attempt at coming to terms with himself he was trying to make gay friends, or at least one gay friend. Not knowing how to go about that, he had hit on the plan of watching to see who bought a gay lifestyle magazine, and then approaching them.
Kulvinder, at the end of his story, fell silent, and it was a while before Ryan said anything in response. Eventually what he said took Kulvinder by surprise.
“Give me your magazine.”
“Huh?” Kulvinder hesitated.
“Come on, hand it over.”
He passed the Gay Times across the handbrake and Ryan took it from him, and began leafing through the pages at the back of the magazine with a pen in his hand. Eventually he returned it to Kulvinder, opened at a page where he had circled two small adverts. Kulvinder saw that one was for Samaritans, and the other was GayWest, which described itself as a social group for gay men with a regular coffee morning meeting. There was also an e-mail address Ryan had written in the margin of the magazine.
“Phone GayWest and go along to one of their meetings. You'll find gay friends there I'm sure. And if you get to the point where life doesn't seem worth living, phone Samaritans – that's what they're there for. I've put my e-mail address there too, you're welcome to e-mail me any time, my e-mail is private. Now, hoppit, I've got an appointment to get to. You going to be okay?”
Kulvinder nodded dumbly and the water in his eyes began to leak out in earnest when Ryan leaned across and hugged him tight. He held on as long as he thought he could get away with, because something profound had happened – the sensation of being held in the embrace of another man felt so good, like coming home after a long absence. Suddenly life seemed bearable once more.
One day he would make a gay friend. He'd just have to keep trying.
© Bruin Fisher June 2014