OTHER BOYS - Luke Kennard
Daniel laughed too much. He laughed when the young woman gave him his drinks, laughed when he spilled some transferring them to a tray with the slice of cake and the sugar bowl and then laughed after thanking her for the cloth. Children told him that he laughed too much. Children were tactless and perceptive in equal measure. So was Dominic, Tab’s older brother. ‘You laugh too much. It’s weak, ’ Dominic had said within five minutes of meeting him.
From the counter he could see the way the light hit the side of the clock tower and the budding branches of the maple tree: there was probably a very good sunset happening just out of shot. He put Tabitha’s latte on the wobbly table in front of her and sat down with his flat white. The latte was in a very tall glass and came with a very long spoon.
‘Thanks, babe,’ said Tabitha. ‘Dom’s maybe a bit autistic. I’ve always thought that. He offends a lot of people.’
‘I really like him,’ said Daniel. ‘You like everyone,’ said Tabitha.
There was a note of exasperation in her voice, and Daniel wondered if he’d depreciated the value of his good opinion by flooding the market. ‘Anyway, he likes you too,’ said Tabitha. ‘I can tell.’
This gave Daniel the same glimmer of excitement as collecting a power-up in a computer game. He appreciated the match-stick taste of his coffee as if his senses were heightened. Dominic was fourteen years older than Tabitha – she was the youngest of six – and he was staying on their sofa for a few of days: rehearsals for a play he was directing. Too tight to stay in a hotel, Tabitha explained.
‘But he’d have stayed somewhere else if he didn’t like you.’
Daniel was a recently qualified English teacher and it was the last Saturday of half term. He was distracted by the impending end of the holiday, as he had been for days. He had been anxious about its ending at the beginning of the week because it seemed likely that he was going to waste his break worrying about exactly that inevitability. The sense of dread at returning to work – a feeling somewhere between homesickness and bereavement – had mounted steadily with every passing day. Tomorrow was a write-off; he would pace up and down the hallway like a condemned man, too preoccupied to mark or read or talk to anyone or watch a film, and Sundays were always a bit like that, but the Sunday at the end of a holiday was sharper, somehow, such that the anticipation ruined Saturday, which spoiled Friday. The light on the clock tower had reduced to a low blush.
‘Are you all right?’ ‘Yep.’
He sipped his coffee. Tabitha was wearing the grey embroidered scarf he’d bought her from the gallery she worked in. She always wore it when she was trying to be nice to him. He had better start a conversation about something.
‘People are so down on chain coffee houses,’ he said, ‘but before we were, like, eighteen, you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee in this country at all.’
‘I didn’t really drink coffee before I was eighteen,’ said Tabitha. ‘But you remember when coffee houses started opening, right?’ said Daniel. ‘With the big menus behind the counter and the sound of milk being steamed, and the froth and the syrups. It was about the same time as the internet.’
‘Suddenly we were all emailing each other: let’s go out for coffee!’ said Tabitha, in a fake-dreamy voice.
‘Our class,’ said Daniel, ‘the lower-middle class, we were never supposed to taste real coffee. We were supposed to drink very weak instant coffee out of Styrofoam cups.’
‘Our clarse,’ said Tabitha. ‘Right, Daniel.’
Tabitha was from Manchester and her family saw Daniel as very posh, because of his accent, and while she knew this wasn’t the case, she tended to play along.
‘The chain coffee house,’ said Daniel, ‘was the great leveller. As seismic a shift as the internet.’
‘But, except,’ said Daniel, ‘what it’s actually done is fucked us. That and the chain restaurant. All of our money goes on coffee and pizzas.’
‘We’re the lost generation,’ said Tabs.
Tabitha, Tabs, had a posh sounding name, but that’s because she was Catholic and had to be named after a saint. St Tabitha, the widow, raised from the dead by the Apostle Peter. Sometimes called Dorcas. Daniel tried to imagine going out with a girl named Dorcas. No. Tabitha was a lovely name, and it was traditional and unusual at the same time.
One of the staff was wearing a black vest top – it was the one who had served Daniel a moment ago. He stared at her cleavage as she leaned over to wipe a table, stared down her top, between her breasts, the darkness. A moth is actually drawn to the little halo of darkness that surrounds the lightbulb. Maybe devils had halos of darkness. He stared so avidly that Tabitha glanced over her shoulder and then looked at Daniel and laughed.
‘What?’ said Daniel, making eye-contact with Tabitha and then gazing pointedly out of the window, a little to the left of the woman he had been staring at, who was still cleaning the table.
‘It’s okay,’ said Tabitha. ‘Don’t look so worried.’
‘I’m not worried,’ said Daniel, and smiled unconvincingly. ‘You do it all the time. It doesn’t really bother me. You’re
Daniel finished his coffee. It took a little while for his temples to stop pulsing.
As they were walking home he caught an overgrown piece of wild grass, wrapped it around his hand and snapped it, then said he was sorry. He wondered if it really didn’t bother Tabitha or if she was resigned to it. Being resigned to something was rather too close to disappointment, and he hated the thought of Tabitha being disappointed in him: it called for full disclosure.
‘I’m sorry for staring down the waitress’s top.’
‘It’s okay,’ said Tabitha. ‘You’re a man. You’re visually stimulated. Almost every magazine says so.’
‘I think,’ said Daniel, carefully, ‘I think you should expect more from me. I think you deserve better.’
‘Well that’s very chivalrous,’ said Tabitha.
‘You said I do it all the time. Do I do it all the time?’ ‘Oh, babe, honestly,’ said Tabitha.
‘It’s an ugly thing to do,’ said Daniel.
‘I wish I hadn’t said anything,’ said Tabitha. ‘I’ll get better.’
‘It’s just the way you are. It’s the way most men are.’ ‘I don’t like the way I am.’
But then he wasn’t sure. Maybe he didn’t mind the way he was – he just didn’t want anyone else to know about it. As they reached their road a muscular white tom cat poured himself off a low wall and crossed the road. Daniel watched the cat. He liked cats, and he felt happy, for a second, that the cat had caused him to stare as much as the waitress.
They shared a house with two lawyers, Steph and Bryony. Daniel made a conscious effort not to objectify Steph or Bryony, although he found both of them very attractive. He liked living with women. Brightly coloured underwear all over the radiators like a species of wildflower. When Tabitha was working late at the gallery he would make them all a lasagne and listen to Steph and Bryony talk about their work and take great satisfaction in being told that he wasn’t like other boys. They used the word boys.
In just two days Tabitha’s older brother had underlined this opinion. Dominic was surly and barely responded when you said good morning; he left stubble all over the bathroom sink; he sat watching Formula 1 cars going round and round and round, filling the house with hornets. How could someone like that be a theatre director?
When they got home they found Dominic reading a newspaper on the kitchen counter while Bryony did the washing up.
‘It’s like having the world’s worst dad staying,’ she hissed to Daniel as he passed.
Nobody wanted to cook, so they ordered a Chinese takeaway and Steph talked about her plans to move to New Zealand after the summer. For good, maybe. Tabitha said it was wonderful, and brave. Steph talked about visas.
‘So what you running away from?’ said Dominic, inserting a whole prawn cracker into his mouth and grinning.
‘I beg your pardon?’ said Steph.
‘There’s usually something,’ said Dominic. ‘Sick parent?’ ‘What?’ Steph leaned forward.
‘Dominic,’ said Tabitha.
‘Or do you just fancy a change of scene?’ said Dominic and chuckled.
Daniel exchanged a worried glance with Bryony, but they were both waiting for Tabitha to deal with the situation. Dominic held a second prawn cracker before his mouth.
‘You just fancy a change of scene for the rest of your life?’
Steph, whose mother had recently been diagnosed with early onset dementia, excused herself and hurried upstairs.
‘You don’t say things like that to people,’ said Tabitha.
‘No,’ said Dominic, and sighed as he spooned the rest of the kung pao chicken onto his plate. ‘We can only say things that aren’t true. I know, I know.’
That night Daniel was brushing his teeth. He was wearing black boxer shorts with the word AUTHENTIC embroidered on a little label on the waist-band. He had five other pairs with the same label – they were from a supermarket. Tabitha laughed. ‘Authentic what?’ she
‘It’s just the label.’
‘But what’s authentic? The pants?’
‘I’ve had these for years,’ said Daniel. ‘Why are you only commenting on it now?’
‘Authentic,’ said Tabitha, and laughed.
They shared the three-quarter sized bed in Tabitha’s room, so what was nominally Daniel’s bedroom had become a study. Daniel said that he had to stay up to finish some lesson plans, but instead he was watching a two minute video of a group of young women skinny dipping in a dark ocean, their bodies picked out by the camera light as they emerged from the water, laughing and covering themselves. After this entrée he searched for videos of group sex, but found them joyless and tawdry – until he happened upon a young woman with shiny, straightened hair, sitting naked on a clean white bed, administering two simultaneous hand jobs to the men standing either side of her with an expression of pure amusement and self- consciousness. Nine times out of ten ‘Amateur’ was a category full of horrible studio pornography shot with a shakier camera, as if the makers thought their audience completely undiscerning, hence even more fake and depressing than the really stagey stuff, which was at least honest. But this woman was wonderful – she seemed to have wandered in after work. She seemed real. He wanted more of her. The whole activity filled him with a mixture of elation and shame. His pupils dilated and his endorphins surged and, while he mined this particular seam for the greater part of an hour, he conducted a moral itinerary:
His habits were deeply rooted and were growing out of control. According to the Sermon on the Mount, he should put out his eyes.
He had a girlfriend, who he loved, or who he professed to love, but looking at women, looking for women to look at, occupied his every waking moment. This made him a hypocrite.
Staring longingly at a woman, if the woman became aware that you were staring at her, made her feel uncomfortable. Bryony told him about a man on a train staring at her on the way to work, at 8am, which she found really upsetting. It was a creepy thing to do and possibly a threatening thing to do. Even though, as Bryony was speaking, he glanced repeatedly at the shape of her legs, crossed and then folded as she tried to get comfortable in the marshmallow of an armchair. Bryony had a wonderfully natural way of sitting. Maybe he only cared that coming across as creepy made him unattractive to the women he stared at. But there was something there: an honest desire not to make other people feel uncomfortable or scared which, while a pretty minor stroke, seemed nonetheless a noble one. So there was that.
Because he had been at university during the second literary theory boom, he was aware that his male gaze, his scopophilia, was, in a sense, an act of violence, an act of ownership, an exercise of power. Worse, being well-versed in feminist theory had, in fact, functioned primarily as a way of impressing girls.
(In a new window on his laptop the same woman, who he had named Cathy, reclined in an arm chair gasping while a man with a really nice haircut enthusiastically went down on her.)
He still seemed to have the libido of a teenager. His parents’ generation would have had children by his age. In fact several people he went to school with – the ones who had taken a skilled trade like plumbing and owned their own houses and cars – already had families, their own kids at primary school. If Daniel had children, if he had girls, this would change the way he thought about women. It would have to, wouldn’t it? He would feel fiercely protective. It would give him the motivation he needed to sort himself out.
“Sorting himself out”, whatever that might entail, would free him of his destructive urges and allow him to focus his energies on whatever else he had to contribute to the world.
He was a teacher. He taught children aged 11 to 18. At the very least, he was capable of not objectifying his own students. Was he affecting not to notice? Maybe. Or maybe it just wasn’t relevant to him: plenty of his students were pretty. So what? He was their teacher. So clearly there was something decent in him, a modicum of self-control he could build on.
Alternatively, he was completely unfit to be a teacher. The six windows of Cathy by no means constituted an unusual evening. He never talked about it, barely acknowledged it, looked at it online in between answering a few work emails and reading a couple of music reviews. But it was there, hiding. His relationship with Tabitha was essentially chaste, was the thing.
It was possible, of course, that his own sense of guilt was creating a feedback loop, and perhaps he was getting hung up on something universal, maybe he was demonising his own sexuality. Was there such a thing as feminist pornography?
A brief web search revealed that there was. He closed Cathy down, six times. There were contextual interviews with the actors before and after. Daniel spent the next couple of hours watching clips, saving his favourites in a hidden file on the computer.
The moonlight was visible through a crack in the curtain. There was a light knock on the door. Daniel tensed and snapped the laptop shut.
‘Are you coming to bed?’ said Tabitha. ‘Sure,’ said Daniel. ‘Five minutes.’
He couldn’t remember doing it in the morning, but Daniel was delighted to find that he had bothered to wash up the caffetiere last night – a tedious process that involved finding your shoes and wandering into back garden with a spoon to scrape out the grounds so as not to clog the sink. There it was, shimmering like a caffetiere in a catalogue.
While he waited for the coffee he read a scary article about peak oil and listened to a radio item about the history of carbon dating, pausing to marvel at his ability to take in two difficult subjects at the same time, which third mental activity made him lose track of both. He could hear Dominic snoring in the living room.
‘You know you could talk to Father Daniel about it,’ said Tabitha. She sat down on the kitchen floor to pull on her high heels, which reminded him it was Sunday.
‘If you don’t like the way you are. You could talk to him.’
The priest at the Blessed Sacrament, Father Daniel, had always treated him like a long-lost friend on the rare occasions Daniel accompanied Tabitha to church. Daniel had no idea why, except for they had the same name.
‘Why would I talk to him?’
‘Because that’s the point of priests,’ said Tabitha. ‘And he likes
Daniel could see no reason to jeopardise that.
‘Maybe I could come with you next week.’ ‘Sure.’
‘I’ve got marking. I should have done it earlier. Sorry.’ ‘It’s fine.’
She kissed him once on the lips and he licked off the sweet, plasticky taste of her lipstick as she left the house. He liked that she got dressed up for church – it was a habit from another era, and Daniel liked things that were out of step. The swollen front door honked in its frame as it closed. Tabitha never pushed his church-going. Her parents were so astounded that they were both Catholic that they didn’t even mind their cohabitation, which, Daniel pointed out, was just as well because living in sin was pretty much an economic imperative, rent being what it was.
He sat on the landing with his coffee. Bryony and Steph were sleeping, and would be until midday. Their presence gave the first floor a charged atmosphere; the house felt bigger than it would have if he lived there alone. Sharing gave you a different mental map of a house; the walls signified more; there were places you never, ever went.
In the study he began preparing Monday’s lessons, but was seized with such a dismal sense of the week ahead that his limbs felt heavy. He knew other people who had gone into teaching. The ones who were still there in their thirties: it was because they loved teaching. Maybe they cared about their subjects, too, but what they really loved was teaching. The ones who went into it because they loved music, or history or mathematics, they didn’t last a year. But Daniel wasn’t even terribly keen on English, let alone teaching, so what was he doing?
He cleared the desk – it didn’t feel right having work stuff around him, as if one world could pollute the other – and looked up some more feminist pornography. The whole genre was predicated on the idea that it was okay to have violent fantasies, that it was part of sexuality and as long as there was complete consent and understanding, on the part of the audience as much as the participants, it was fine to be kind of rough – why not explore and celebrate that? This struck Daniel as morally acceptable, as far as decent, thoughtful men like him went. Men who dutifully watched the prefix interviews and debriefings.
But what of the rest?
Two days into the working week Daniel was considerably calmer – there was no holiday to dread the end of, just a gradual slog towards the blissful conclusion of each day.
‘How about a pint?’ said Dominic, who had promised Tabitha he would leave the following morning. He stretched and put the TV on standby. ‘Notes,’ he added, ominously.
‘Notes?’ said Daniel.
Returning from the bar with two pints of stagnant ale lapping the sides, he felt the need to communicate something more to Dominic, some semblance of character, but all he found himself with was an overwhelming message: I’m so, so sorry I’m going out with your sister. Was that universal? Daniel had two sisters and he wasn’t sure if he felt protective of them, exactly. But they were older. The dynamic was all different. Daniel put two pints down on the table.
‘What?’ said Dominic. ‘Sorry?’
‘Daniel, did you just say sorry when you put my pint down?’ said Dominic.
‘Um,’ said Daniel, his mind reeling for a masculine response. ‘You apologised for the beer you just bought me.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Daniel.
‘No, no, I can see why you did it: you felt that you were invading my personal space: that putting the glass down in front of me involved reaching over my shoulder. You see any form of interaction between you and your environment as something to apologise for.’
‘I don’t know about that,’ said Daniel.
‘This is a problem,’ said Dominic. ‘You need to work on it. You’re not laughing as much as you were yesterday, so that’s good.’
Daniel laughed nervously.
Dominic took a mighty swig from his pint and squinted at Daniel. ‘I’ve changed my mind,’ he said. ‘It’s not so much weakness as displacement. You laugh, you’re nice, you apologise. It keeps everyone skimming across the surface. That’s fine. I understand that.’
‘Okay,’ said Daniel.
‘I’m the same,’ said Dominic. ‘I’m like you. Have you considered, though, that you might achieve the same ends by being very rude to everyone instead? And that you might be much, much happier?’
‘It’s never really crossed my mind,’ said Daniel, trying to match Dominic’s half-pint sip.
‘Give it a try, why don’t you?’ said Dominic. ‘Same again?’
They had reached the corner of Daniel’s road when the strapping white cat pounced off its wall and meowed at them.
‘Ha!’ said Dominic and stamped his foot. The cat panicked and bolted for a service gate.
‘Vermin,’ said Dominic. ‘I hate cats. Look,’ he put a big hand on Daniel’s shoulder. ‘I’m glad you’re with my sister. Feels important to say that.’
‘That means a lot,’ said Daniel. ‘Thanks.’
Tabitha was sitting cross-legged in the middle of their bed. Her parents’ old wooden frame with an IKEA mattress they put on Daniel’s credit card. She didn’t say anything as Daniel changed into his yellow Belle and Sebastian t-shirt and running shorts. Even under the anaesthetic of five pints this felt ominous, so he said, ‘I had a nice night with Dom.’
‘That’s good,’ said Tabs. ‘What’s up?’
‘I was using your laptop,’ said Tabs. ‘I should have asked, but.’ ‘You don’t have to ask.’
‘I really want you to get the help you need,’ said Tabitha. Daniel laughed.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘I’m not a prude, Daniel,’ said Tabs. ‘What? I know. Tabs. What’s wrong?’
‘There were women tied up. There were women being, like, slapped really hard in the face and then flipped over and just pounded from behind, there were… Is this something you like?’
He stood in front of her, swaying. He felt a little close to tears and a little aroused. Should he fake a fit? A gulf was opening and he felt sure that it could possibly swallow them both. He hoped that his face wasn’t letting him down, hoped that it looked as implacable and supremely prepared as the face of a politician asked an awkward question. Could he chance a slight eye-roll?
‘I let your brother use the computer the other night,’ said Daniel.
His voice sounded weak. Were he rehearsing a speech in front of his own propaganda officer he might be asked to take it again, from the top. Try to actually believe your own words. Your own mother wouldn’t believe you. ‘You remember?’ he said. ‘After dinner.’
Tabs fell backwards on the bed and flopped her arms to the side.
‘Ha haa!’ she said. ‘That arsehole. I should have known. Oh, Daniel, I’ve just been sitting here in the dark for, like, an hour. Like something out of Tinker Tailor Solder Spy. Fuck.’
Daniel wasn’t sure he had ever seen Tabs this happy. ‘I’m so sorry, baby,’ she said to the ceiling. ‘That’s… No, that’s okay, that’s fine,’ said Daniel.
‘Can you imagine?’ said Tabs. ‘Can you even imagine?’
Luke Kennard is the author of 4 collections of poetry and a novella. He lectures at the University of Birmingham.