Claude woke one morning and saw himself for the first time in years. ‘Oh dear.’ he said. He’d forgotten that he’d re-hung the mirror the night before, and thought for a second his father was in the room with him, watching. It was Alice in reverse, he thought; an appalling caricature of himself leaping out of the mirror into the real world. He’d been the first to put away childish things and had always adhered to the motto of ‘acting one’s age’. Still, the gruesome realization that he’d turned forty and looked it brought tears to his eyes.
The forest was heaving. Slick, slim-nosed foxes tore guts from dizzy hares. Angry kestrels collided in a nightly fight for field mice. Ivy tenderly stroked and strangled ancient oaks and, lost in the moonlight, the rich man sought to enter the kingdom of heaven. Gnarled roots grabbed at his ankles and he wrestled his winter coat from the jealous tug of bare-thorned branches. Unrepentant, the rich man cursed the city that had banished him; they had thrown him from the city gates, doomed to wander the forest until he received his first freely-given kiss.
Sitting there in his underpants, Claude replayed the last few years since the end of his relationship. He hadn’t really met anyone in all this time, but had put it down to lack of practice and the internet generation. He had also undoubtedly lost the natural ability of the young to fall in love, and was apt to dwell on the documentary theory that Love is nothing more than the result of pre-programmed hormones and chemical reactions. Having spent much of his adult life single, it was not so much the absence of a partner that troubled him, but the fact that no-one had even flirted with him in two years. He’d unwittingly become a fetish, like skinheads or really hairy guys.
Stumbling onto a narrow footpath, the rich man followed it in the direction of the only visible light. Arriving at the small log cabin of a woodchopper, he had to pause – even in his frustration – to admire the bare muscular torso and the flexing biceps of the occupant, outside, piling logs in the lamplight. He approached, face full of hunger and was greeted with sly grin of recognition.
‘What can you be wanting in the middle of the night?’ the woodchopper teased, his hand slipping casually to his crotch. ‘Tis only old devils be about at this time.’
Without uttering a word, the rich man approached him, reaching out a delicate, possessive hand. The woodchopper grabbed his arm, twisting it gently.
‘Business.’ he said.
The rich man reached into his pocket with his free hand, and produced the six shiny sovereigns he had managed to steal away. The woodchopper, pocketing them swiftly, undid the buttons of his fly, releasing his weighty cock, fully inspired by the sense of its worth. The rich man, remembering his ultimate task, took the matter firmly in hand, and lent towards the woodchopper with pursed lips. The man struck him violently to the ground.
‘You may suck me, you may jerk me, but you will never kiss me!’ he roared and, reaching for his axe, chased the rich man back into the deep dank forest.
A daddy. Claude didn’t have children and wasn’t planning on finding an ersatz. He had had three relationships, and coincidentally all the boys had been twenty-one when they met. The first had been the older man, the second a boy of around the same age, and the last had been his youngest and longest lover ever. Did this mean he was slowly becoming a dirty old man, or did he simply have an affinity with twenty-one year olds? But he himself had only just turned thirty when he met the last boy, who had both looked and was so mature that no-one had even remarked on the disparity of their ages. The only major difference had been that of their respective incomes, as the boy had been a student, yet it had been a temporary inconvenience, not a defining factor. He still found young guys attractive (wasn’t it the nature of youth to be desirable?), but did they really all just see him now as a walking wallet? A father-figure? A competent, professional man, he was ultimately the same silly boy at heart. Had he never really grown up, or was it that your desires, dreams, your sense of self, remain the same throughout your life? Would he still feel young at eighty?
Morning came dimly to the forest. The rich man ate a frugal fill of berries and sought once more to escape his natural prison. Several hours passed, until finally he came across a tiny hamlet. The only sign of life was the chimney smoke from what, on closer inspection, was a blacksmith’s. Upon entering the forge he perceived the blacksmith, leather apron askew, furiously masturbating, the sweat coursing his body in dirty, oily rivulets. For some seconds the blacksmith simply stared at the rich man, his open mouth, the rest of his body, as rigid as his burning cock. Noticing however the direction of the rich man’s gaze, he relaxed and, tossing aside his apron, stood there unabashedly before him.
‘Haven’t had it in years,’ he reasoned, ‘The wife’s at her mother’s, and I could fuck anything!’
The rich man hastily cast off his great coat and, with his trousers around his knees, lay back upon a wooden bench, raising his legs to expose his pale puckered hole. As the meaty blacksmith began to mount him, the rich man grabbed awkwardly at his neck, lowering his face towards him past a tangle of cloth and leg. He could smell the charcoal, then felt fire, as the blacksmith smashed him across the room with a single blow.
‘I may wank with you, I may fuck you, but I shall never kiss you!’ he bellowed, laying hold of his hammer. The rich man rose and, with the surprising energy of shock, fled the house and the hamlet hopping, his trousers still knotted around his knees.
The Peter-Pan syndrome. He thought about his parents and grandparents. They were old and always had been. That was the comforting thing about them. Had they felt this lost at forty, or did the simple act of having children transform you into another, more comfortable, mildly sexless state? And why was the idea of old people having sex so comical? He’d often enjoyed imagining himself as a happily asexual old man in a Prince of Wales check, walking Irish setters and showering his adoring grandchildren with wisdom and pithy anecdotes from a racy yet respectable past. It was nevertheless an idea, like being an olympic athlete or a Nobel prize winner. He’d considered having a relationship once with a guy in his fifties. They got on well. The man was charming and intelligent, and would undoubtedly have also been faithful and honest. He was even attractive, until the first night they touched. What could have been a long and beautiful relationship was nipped in the bud on no more reasonable grounds than the man’s thin skin.
The heat of the day waned and the rich man, robbed of the security of either wealth or warmth, searched furiously for some secure refuge. It was evening when he found the cottage. He almost entered immediately, imagining it to be abandoned, so poor was it’s condition. It was only the sideways glimpse of candle-light, which caused him to knock. The door was opened by a suspicious bearded fellow, whose first remark was ‘I have nothing except myself.’ The rich man, desperate now only for rest, found himself ironically humble in front of the man with nothing. After much doorstep discussion, the rich man’s plea was heard, and he entered to receive the charity of the poor. As the evening was still young and food scarce, they naturally had time to talk. The bearded fellow had been a teacher and a victim of his own philosophy and popularity. He had been forced to recant or resign, and choosing the latter, had defected to the forest to live off the land, to never again rely on another living person (‘The only faithful ones being already dead,’ he acknowledged, with a glance to the bookshelf). The rich man sat there listening to the bearded teacher passionately denounce material wealth until he could take it no more, and thus began the first of many heated arguments. The teacher allowed the rich man to stay on at the cottage, on the grounds that an extra pair of hands would be useful, but ultimately their debates had excited him, and all opinions are useless without anyone to hear them. The rich man was simply content to be out of immediate danger for a while.
Slowly their odd relationship formed routine. They would spend their days searching for food and firewood, their evenings wrapped in discussion and fireside logic. What had begun as a genuine opposition of interests, was slowly turning into a familiar parlour game. The teacher enjoyed this provocation, and often had to smile as the rich man leaped from his chair in frustration, never quite able to win an argument.
One night, as they debated the soul of man under socialism, the rich man stood speechless, rooted to the spot, frowning furiously upon the teacher. The teacher rose and, taking the man in his arms, kissed him gently on the cheek.
Claude had always liked to think of himself as a deep person, but now on the other side of the fence, was shocked by his own hypocrisy. He had openly despised loveless sex and would even parade his abstinence as a moral flag in the face of his less idealistic friends. Yet they at least were honest. He wanted sex as much as they did, but on such demanding terms as were becoming increasingly impossible. Could such love as he had experienced now only be bought? Had he been as superficial throughout his youth as those he now chose to criticize? Was he becoming the man with the thin skin?
The alarm clock shook him out of his thoughts and, rising from the bed, he executed his regimental morning push-ups, showered. As always before leaving the house he paused by the hall mirror. The soft filtered light was as comforting and flattering as it always had been.
Story originally published in ‘Anthony Gayton – Behold the Man’, exhibition catalogue by MiTO, Spain 2009