Cup of tea

Photo: The hills are alive (Taking time off….)

Roger Chapman was a squat, broad man in his early 50s and known for a loud booming laugh that reverberated around the hall of the Gentleman’s Club. Despite his outward vulgarity, he seemed to have no trouble keeping a collection of compatriots loudly joining in. This was possibly because of his position at Regency Oil as Vice-President of offshore development.

Roger had overseen a number of drilling projects in the North Sea, and highly lucrative ones at that. This had gained him something of a reputation as a man who could get things done, often barreling his way through in order to do so. He was amiable to his friends, yet slightly cruel as well. His outward appearance was that of an adventurer for which no challenge was too daunting. He ruled his corner of the club, holding court after rounds of racquetball, beaded in sweat that no post­­­-match shower could eliminate. His booming laughter that was recognizable from anywhere within the building, and not a short distance without it. His squat yet egg-like head was a bright shade of pink, with his blue eyes bulging with determination. In good moods, his attention was like the gaze of the sun itself. In blacker moods, that same gaze was rarely challenged. Those who surrounded him awaited the sound of that laughter as a sign that they too should begin laughing immediately, half a beat behind Chapman’s own. It was much safer this way.

Nathan Blake was a new member of the club, after having moved from Belfast to London. Blake was a quiet man, thirty-five and unmarried, and the opposite of what one might call gregarious. He was thought to be bookish by those who observed him, and with a prominent adam’s apple, slightly awkward too. And yet, Blake had a reputation as well as someone with his own measure of success as Chief Editor for a prominent publishing firm that had recently opened up an office in Soho Square. Nigel Broome, a long-time club member and prominent MP, had vouched for Blake. The two had been chums at Cambridge. So, Blake had an in right away for membership at the Club. Broome was an infrequent member himself. And being new to the Smoke, Blake often sat alone with his copy of the Guardian, reading the news in quiet contemplation at one end of the wood paneled room. His reading glasses drooped on the end of his nose. He took intermittent sips of milky tea. He moved his long-fingered hand often, and without thinking, through his thinning black hair. His eyes were a deep brown, like twin corridors leading into the interior of a thoughtful mind. He spoke in accents that showed hints of his Northern Irish heritage, and although he’d learned to speak the language of the privileged, he had known another life before he had done so.

Roger Chapman hadn’t noticed Blake outside of his circle of associates.  At his own usual table in the Club bar, Chapman spun the threads of every conversation like a master at the loom, weaving tributes to his own ego using the voices of his immediate circle to do so.  Diverging opinions were rare, with those infrequent and conversationally unsightly frayed edges quickly, and often savagely trimmed by Chapman, although always in the guise of good sportsmanship. Yet, it was less like the work of an artisan. It was more like that of a herdsman, with crooked staff in hand, prodding and corralling his flock this way and that, with the herd in perfect formation. Quincey Burkett, Tarquin Ramsey, and Oliver Lethbridge in particular, Fleet Street denizens all, had been coming to the Club for a half-decade. Roger Chapman was the fulcrum around their life there. They knew their place well, although not consciously. They simply fell in line. They didn’t even know they were doing it.

But, one rainy Wednesday in October, Roger Chapman noticed Nathan Blake.

“I say, Blake,” said, Chapman. “It is Blake, isn’t it?”

Nathan Blake looked up from the pages of his Guardian, and with a measure of surprise. He took off his reading glasses and laid them on the table.

“Can I help you?” answered Blake.

Chapman let out a peal of laughter, half-mocking, yet with just enough mirth to dispel any impulses Blake might have had of taking offence, while also planting seeds of doubt as to the purity of Chapman’s intentions. “Yes, Blake. I believe you can.  I should very much like it if you could settle an argument that the chaps and I have had.”

Burkett, Ramsey, and Lethbridge turned at once in formation, smiling a similar smile. Their eyes were glassy with drink, docile, yet in a way that Blake knew would be ignited at a single word from Chapman. Blake remained at this table, adrift in the sea of the cavernous hall, and with a yawning expanse between himself and the continent of Chapman’s own pint glass-strewn nation state.

“And what argument is that, Mr. Chapman?”

“Please!” roared Chapman. “Call me Roger.”

“Roger, then …”

“I wonder what you think of all these Nancy boys, Blake. I wonder what you think of them marrying each other, and the like. Burkett here thinks you to be a Guardian-reading simpleton …”

Burkett flushed, and slurred: “I never used the word …”

“BOLLOCKS!” Exclaimed Chapman, with a booming dragon-like roar of a guffaw. “That’s EXACTLY the word you used, Burkie! And you used another word, too, as I recall.

Burkett flushed again, and then smiled, turning to gulp his pint conspiratorially.

Blake placed his newspaper on the table, accidentally brushing the pages against his cup of tea. The cup rattled in the saucer. He smiled and looked at the disturbance on the tawny surface of the tea, and immediately drew a literary parallel. That was how his mind worked. He thought of the angel disturbing the waters at Bethesda. It was an old reference, a memory of childhood, and of Sunday Mass. He felt a rush of shame that he suppressed immediately; an old reflex. Word traveled fast, thought Blake. Not nearly as fast as a sense of enlightenment for all, it seemed.

Blake knew that Chapman had the subtlety of a rhino in a phone box, particularly when he’d downed a few pints. And he knew too that his flock of sheep could easily turn out to be proverbial wolves in woolen frocks. So, Blake chose his response carefully.

“Maybe you can be more specific. Which aspects of same-sex marriage are you debating?”

“Well, Blake. Burkie seems to think that the shirtlifters are genetically flawed. Whereas, I feel that it’s because their fathers didn’t set them an example of manhood when they were boys. It’s a classic nature versus nurture question, Blake. If’ I’m right, two of them marrying is simply a recipe for disaster in raising other boys, if you get my meaning. Speaking as one yourself, Blake, I wonder if you could give us a definitive answer. The loser buys the next round. Well, he would if the drinks weren’t free.”

The table boomed with laughter at Chapman’s joke. A rush of heat rose to Blake’s face. It had been a while since he’d been assaulted so directly; since school in fact. ‘

“Very interesting, Mr. Chapman. But, instead of talking about shirtlifters, turd burglars, pillow-biters, and the like, let’s talk about marriages in general. This would be your area of expertise, of course.  And I believe this is really what’s at the heart of your question. Now, I’m not talking about the marriages you good gentlemen have with your wives. I’m talking  more about the one you all share with each other.”

Chapman’s congenial smugness fled from his reddening face. He went to speak, but found he was too overwhelmed with surprise. He was legitimately confused at Blake’s response.

“What’s he on about?” said Ramsey with a gust of nervous titter at the end.

“Marriages, Mr. Ramsey. Like you and you friends, I’m also talking about marriages, and of course the idea that men can, in fact, be married, and not even know it. For instance, all of you are married, and to each other in just that way. Not in any legal sense of course. But, you are. You are married in your responses; in every facial movement, and in the very way you conduct yourselves at that usual table of yours when you’re together. And Mr. Chapman – oh, forgive me: Roger – you are the husband, and indisputably so. And I mean husband in the oldest sense of the word as well as the more popular one; husband as in husbandry, Roger.  There is no man around your table now who is not totally devoted to you, and to the control you have over them. That must be very intoxicating to you, Roger. It must seem almost sexual in its perfection, with your lumbering ego having such sway over every bleated response. Do you think about them all when they’re not around Roger? You know that they simply must think about you. Does your own wife know, Roger? Does she know that she has rivals?”

Chapman bolted up and skirted around the table, toward Blake. The pint glasses rattled dischordantly. Blake rose to meet him, staring his assailant in the face.  When Blake’s eyes locked on his, Chapman stopped. The other three got up and whirled around. Lethbridge, grabbed Chapman by the arm.

“Don’t, Roger,” said, Lethbridge.

“You limp-wristed bastard!” Bellowed Chapman.

Blake’s eyes narrowed, and suddenly in the broad Norn Iron tones of his Belfast youth:

“And if I ever hear word of your disgusting talk again, against me or any other member of this club, my response will not be to you, it will be to the press. A public figure like you, Roger, would have a lot of explaining to do in 2013 around the issues of bigotry at businessmen’s clubs.”

“Your word against mine , you … Blake.”

“Somehow, I don’t think it will matter, Roger. The very suggestion that you might be a raving homophobic Neanderthal might be enough to be very inconvenient to your career whether I’m believed or not. As you can tell, I am not here because of my belief in fraternity at any cost. In fact, after what I’ve heard today, I’d enjoy the press conference you’d have to call to refute the accusations. I would bring my own bag of popcorn and sit in the front row.”

“Blackmail then? I’ve been blackmailed by men greater than you …”

“Then call my bluff, Roger. And think about how the board of directors of Regency Oil react when you do.”

Chapman’s face blanched. The pinkish blush that characterized it faded.

There was an agonizing beat of silence. Then Blake broke it.

“I come to the club on Monday mornings, and Saturday mornings, Roger.  I come straight into this room, and read my paper. I leave just before noon. I trust I won’t see you or your … friends here in this room ever again.”

One by one, Chapman’s three compatriots filed out. Blake remained standing, his fists clenched on either side of him.

Then Roger Chapman left as well, turning out of the room while trying to carry himself as he always had, and failing. When he was gone, Blake sat again. He was alone.

The milky tea was placid in his cup on the table.


4 thoughts on “Marriages

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