Someone I knew well went to Oxford as a mature student and I associate getting to know M with him, although we actually met in a betting office where we both had a holiday job; the mutual association through Oxford a happy coincidence. We were the same age; he was, like me, a hard drinking, smoking, eldest child of five, a potential high flyer who spent his undergraduate years in activities outside the curriculum, with the net result - like me - of the "beer drinkers degree” (a third). I loved him like a brother not knowing then how men can despise that sentiment.
Fully aware of M's feelings for me, yet not understanding at all, I treated him as a great mate knowing he wanted more. How or even if we ever said goodbye I cannot recall. I know I heard he was working in public transport, that he married, had daughters, went to work in Malaysia, got divorced.
Many years later, I saw our mutual friend. “M was here last week, he came to stay.” “Why didn’t you tell me, I would have come then, it would have been really great to see him.”
“Oh no, he would never come while you were here. He never really got over it you see.”
I was truly shocked and full of shame that I had never appreciated such depth of feeling. By then, though, I had no real memory of what had ever passed between us, just vague recollections of fun, drinking, laughs and japes. Our shared politics and passion for social justice was acted out in an industrial tribunal we cooked up together. I remembered how he looked - very tall, slim, with disobedient hair and dark brown eyes. Nothing more.
Then at four o clock in the dark, silent morning I looked into his eyes, in an insomniac sensory memory that found us in a cottage in wintry West Oxfordshire, where a boozy party with loud music was happening, though there were few guests remaining. In that memory M's feelings were revealed to me and I responded wordlessly as we danced slow dances together, bare footed on the carpet, bodies barely touching but charged with the closeness, hearts racing, knowing and not knowing.
Back in time I felt that stomach churning electricity, stockinged feet damp with spilt beer, not caring, feeling only wonderful possibility. We did not kiss but we understood.
The next recollection played like slowmo. It was perhaps the following day. We were in the basement where my sister and I had a bedsit. M was hungover, half sitting, half lying, wearing a gorgeous white shirt. He was trying to make his feelings plain. I either turned him down or played innocent, but either way he gave up. I see him again give a frustrated groan and fall back on the pillow.
Did it end there, the thing that had hardly begun? I have no idea. We may have exchanged phone calls and letters but in those days you had to work much harder to stay in touch with people. I think I hurt him. I believe I took his feelings too lightly. I imagine I thought he was too nice - for me.
M was unrehearsed, his offer came unwrapped, revealing a naked need. I on the other hand was caught up in the performance of romantic and sexual encounters, where each side advances, retreats and side steps in a ritual pattern that is like insects engaged in a courtship dance. I was already locked into those habitual behaviours so when M revealed his naked truthfulness I instead looked elsewhere for the safety of artifice. Not ready for honesty in love, I pursued my own path blindly engrossed in the dance of the deadly insects,