Another bank holiday Monday
By bonnie meekums
It was a typical bank holiday Monday; damp, drizzly and overcast. But the four of us were determined to make it to the coast. Ginger, whose hair was black, had just passed his test and offered to let me ride pillion. Sensing that he was hoping his magnanimous gesture would make be grateful, I resolved not to hold his waist, no matter how scared I felt. Sandy, who really was ginger, was still learning, and so Rachel had to cadge a lift from her Dad, persuading him that he really should call in on his uncle tony in Broadstairs. We all arranged to meet at a pub by the harbour in Whitstable, for 12 noon.
The journey down was torture. The A2 was busy, which gave Ginger the opportunity to show off his moves, swerving in and out of the traffic while my arms ached from holding on behind me. When we eventually arrived I dismounted, shivering with cold and fear, and made for the bar. I eagerly gulped a pint of beer, and even the obligatory oysters slid down a treat.
The four of us had been friends for about three years, which as 16 ½ felt like an age. We had met at a church youth club which, in 1965, was considered hip. The rector gave his young curates free rein to be creative. Before long, we had painted the crypt black, the vast church had had part of its high roof converted into offices and a coffee bar, and services included guitar music and drama performances on a regular basis. The curates, Geoff and Mike, encouraged us to think deeply about the issues of the day, discussing abortion and mixed marriage in grave tones while sipping instant coffee made with boiled milk.
I remember feeling a sense of bonhomie as the beer slid into my stomach, and the grey day seemed to brighten a little. Sandy broke into my reverie: ‘Holy shit!’ Rachel immediately chided him for blaspheming. ‘What?’ I asked, wondering what could have moved a regular communicant like Sandy to swear so spectacularly. We all followed his eyes. There, across the crowded bar, we could clearly see Geoff and Mike, oblivious to our presence in the same room. They were sitting side by side, both men looking downwards. What made this unusual for the day, was not the pints on the table in front of two vicars – we had shared many a pint in the Mitre after church – but the fact that Geoff had his hand resting delicately on Mike’s thigh.
‘I think I’m gonna throw up’, said Ginger, his cheeks flushing. The hairs on the back of my neck bristled, but no words would come out of my mouth. All I knew was that we had intruded, unwittingly, on a moment that was not meant to be shared with others. Sandy beat his pint onto the table and declared ‘I’m leaving’. ‘No you’re not’, corrected Rachel. ‘I think we should go over and say hello’. ‘What, you mean pretend we haven’t just seen the two curates from our church being pooftas in a bar in Whitstable, thinking cos they are bloody miles away from Woolwich they won’t get found out?’ Ginger spluttered, his voice cracking. For an instant, I saw the same look in his face I had seen in Mike and Geoff’s, which bewildered me even more. I wished I could say something to ease the tension but once again Sandy broke into my silence: ‘I agree with Rachel’. ‘You poor, hen pecked sod’, said Ginger, spitting beer through clenched teeth. I began to wonder whether I could cadge a lift back with Rachel’s Dad. ‘So what are you saying, Sandy?’ I asked, to detract from Ginger’s venom. ‘I think we should go over there. Say hi.’ ‘I can’t believe I am hearing this’, Ginger said, shaking his head. The last thing I wanted was to side with Ginger, so I pasted a smile on my face, looked straight at Sandy then at Rachel, and said ‘let’s go over, then.’ We left Ginger fuming into his beer.
The two men were by now in earnest conversation and Mike was the first to look up as we approached. He forced a smile onto his face. ‘Hi, where’s Ginger?’ ‘Oh, he’s over there,’ I replied, vaguely. ‘Fancy seeing you lot here’, offered Mike, a tinge of sadness in his voice but without embarrassment. I ventured a question, trying to sound casual: ‘We thought it would be nice to hit the coast, though the weather is miserable. Why are you two hiding away here, then?’ I pulled up a stool, as Mike looked imploringly at Geoff. ‘It’s OK’, Geoff said tenderly, ‘I’ll tell them.’ And then, looking at us with an air of authority: ‘But first, tell that hot-headed Ginger to join us, will you?’ I looked at Rachel, who nodded and swiftly made her way across the sticky floor towards her boyfriend. I could see a brief exchange of words, then Ginger kicked back his stool, picked up his drink and followed her like an obedient puppy to join the family.
When we had all assembled, Geoff breathed deeply, twice, then in a measured tone he told us: ‘I didn’t expect to see you four today, but I am glad now that I have. I came here with Geoff because there is something I needed to tell him.’ Ginger muttered something inaudible, Rachel pressed her foot up against his, and Sandy coughed. ‘I’m afraid I won’t be with you much longer.’ ‘Well, I can’t say I’m surprised,’ blurted Ginger. Geoff looked down, and for a moment I wondered if he would say any more. But then he looked hp, searching for Mike’s eyes. Mike nodded his support, and Geoff turned back to us. ‘I’m dying,’ he said simply. I felt a thud in my chest, my vision went red, and the ground became remote. I gripped the table, and looked at Rachel, whose eyes held the terror I felt. Then I looked at Sandy, holding his head in his hands. But it was Ginger who lunged and fell at Geoff’s feet, sobbing like a baby, his head on Geoff’s knee. Geoff gently stroked Ginger’s thick black mane. ‘It’s alright son, I know. I did that too, when I found out.’