Tom: I've been thinking about you and when we met. After that first time. You'd called a couple of times and I wasn't in. I'd meant to phone back but kept putting it off. Then one evening you rang while I was in and we talked for half an hour. Mostly you asking questions. Where I worked, what pubs I went to, did I go to the cinema. I thought you were a nosy bugger, but I didn't mind. I didn't want you to hang up. You had this quiet, calm voice and you really wanted to talk to me. You told me afterwards you had to keep asking questions because otherwise I wouldn't say anything. I did ask you what you did for a living, but it didn't mean anything to me. Project Development for World Aid, you said. I'd never heard of it. When you said it was a charity, I thought it meant you sent out medicines and sacks of rice and flour, but you said it was more like organising teachers and community workers.
There was a kind of pause and I thought you'd decided you didn't want to meet me after all. Then you asked if you could meet me at the cafe the next Saturday afternoon, at the end of my shift. I didn't realise how nervous I was that day until I looked at the time and saw you'd be there in quarter of an hour. It had been one of these days when time flies past and I hadn't had time to think about you. I squeezed into the toilet and sniffed under my arms and tried to wipe away the sweat with toilet paper. I'd brought a spare t-shirt to put on and I was in the middle of changing when Mark knocked on the door and said a handsome stranger was asking for me.
You stood there on the other side of the counter in a check shirt and old leather jacket. Had no-one told you the clone look had been out of date for years? To tell the truth, I was a bit disappointed. You looked better than you had in the pub, but not as good as I'd imagined on the phone. You had this cold expression, stand-offish. I think like me you were shy. We both kind of smiled stiffly and I said goodbye to the others and we stood in the middle of Soho wondering where to go.
Soho hadn't yet gone gay, so the only place we could have a drink was at the Brief. Then we went to the cinema and saw that film about the useless lawyer. I was laughing away when I felt your hand on my knee; I turned and saw your face in the darkness. You weren't a pin-up, but you weren't bad looking; you were just quiet and strong and serious and masculine. Almost without thinking, I put my hand on yours. And in a way I forgot about you for the rest of the film; it was just enough that we were touching each other.
We drove back to your place to eat. I sat at the kitchen table watching you boil pasta and make a salad. I offered to help, but you said I'd had enough serving food all day. We talked about this and that and you told me about university and work and living in Brazil. I didn't understand a lot you were saying. There were things that were obvious to you that I knew nothing about. I knew there was famine in various places, but I couldn't point to a map and say where each country was and I had no idea whether it had mountains and monsoons or deserts and diarrhoea. I'd never even known that diarrhoea was such a problem. But I was interested because I wanted to know about you, what made you tick. I could see how important it was to you to do things for other people. You went on about how World Aid wasn't enough. You wanted to change your job to do something bigger and better, but you weren't sure what.
All through dinner I was half eating, half listening to you and half wanting to push everything aside and reach out and kiss you. It wasn't just your eyes but your lips and the fact that your shirt was open, just waiting for me to reach inside and feel your warmth. I didn't even think about what would happen next; it was enough just fantasising holding you. Of course we ended up in bed together, although I don't remember the details-just waking up late in the morning from the deepest sleep I'd had in months. I looked round the room, saw all the books, the pile of dirty clothes on the floor and loved it; it was welcoming, like home. We got up and had breakfast and there we were in the kitchen sitting stark naked when Keith came in, after you'd sworn he'd gone away for the weekend. You were cool, I was embarrassed and he just laughed.
It was stupid, but right from the start I was in love. I hadn't learnt anything from John or Alex. Not true; I'd learnt a little. I was afraid you might not be in love with me, but I trusted you not to hurt me, not to lie to me. I could have been wrong. You could have been a bastard but I suppose it was third time lucky. That first morning I didn't say what I felt; I didn't want to frighten you off. I just left about two o'clock saying I had a whole lot of housework to do. It was bollocks, of course; I'd done my share the day before.
You don't know how much that first evening meant to me. I was twenty-six years old, everything had gone wrong in my life. I'd wanted to end it all and suddenly you appeared. To think I'd almost told you to fuck off! It would have been the stupidest thing I'd ever have done. The last five years have been the best in my life. Well, not the last year, but it's been better knowing you were there than being totally alone. It hasn't always been easy - particularly when you were working overtime or were off on one of your trips. But it's always been good. It's always been wonderful just being in love with you.
Andy: That first trip remains in greater clarity than many of those which followed. From Cuzco to Bolivia - a colder land and a quieter people. From Bolivia to Brazil. I took buses from town to town in Mato Grosso, looking for the exotic and finding only dusty streets of bare one-roomed bars and overstocked shops selling groceries, agricultural implements and fashionless clothes. In Diamantino I met an Englishman in his late twenties in a half-empty restaurant. He had spent the previous night in a convent, having knocked on its door in the darkness thinking it might be a hotel. The sisters ran a girls' school but had no-one to teach English. There was a job for someone there; he, meanwhile, was heading for brighter lights and bigger opportunities.
I had been looking for an excuse to neither go home nor travel on. I had not found Conrad country but I was in Greene land - a solitary Brit in a hot muggy town in the middle of a jungle, hundreds of miles from home. I wanted to see if I could survive in a community where I knew no-one, where I scarcely spoke the language, where the days were featureless and the heat never-ending. This was life beckoning me from the other side, offering to reveal its secrets and my own weaknesses and strengths. I could not refuse. With directions from my compatriot, I headed for the outskirts of town.
I was young enough not to realise what I was letting myself in for, and young enough that if I had known I would not have cared. I walked into the courtyard in shorts and a crumpled shirt open almost to the waist, a battered rucksack on my shoulders. My Portuguese was rudimentary and heavily influenced by Spanish; it took time for the two young nuns I met to understand why I wanted to see the Mother Superior. I was finally shown into a cool dark room lined with dusty books and old icons, where I waited for quarter of an hour, doubting the wisdom of my decision. A short elderly woman entered and addressed me in a French whose accent I found difficult to follow. Slowly, we managed to communicate. I had heard she might need an English teacher; perhaps I could take the job.
She looked at me warily, asked questions and listened sceptically to my answers. My qualifications were poor, she pointed out. Speaking a language was not the same as teaching it; grammar had to be explained and curricula followed. The pupils came from deprived backgrounds; some were deficient in their native tongue. Nor was she sure about a young man teaching adolescent girls. If she was to take me on, the timetable would have to be changed, which she did not want to do if I were to leave after a week. I only half-heard these objections. The longer I sat in that old-fashioned office, aware of the heat, the dust, distant voices, the more I wanted to stay. There would be no salary, the Mother Superior added, her final defence, only room and board, although I might earn money by giving tuition in town. Fine, I said, determined to stay, and she nodded her reluctant agreement.
My room was one of the whitewashed cells on the far side of the yard allocated to men attached to the convent - gardeners, a handyman and visiting priests. There I prepared lessons, read the devotional books that I found in the small library and wrote letters and a brief and uneventful diary. Three or four times a day I entered one of the long class-rooms where thirty or more shy and well-disciplined girls sat in rows of blue uniforms and white collars. Most were of the mixed race scattered across the Brazilian hinterland, two or three were pure Indian. Despite my inexperience and their lack of interest in English, as the only male teacher, little older than they were and with near-Scandinavian looks, I easily held their attention. My first lessons depended on repetition, rote, spelling and arcane grammar; through trial and error and advice from my fellow teachers, I began to elicit answers rather than supply them, to encourage rather than suppress spontaneity. I began to enjoy teaching, until it dawned on me that English would be of little use to the farm labourers, factory workers, shop assistants and mothers that most of them would become.
It was only at lunchtimes, when nuns, pupils and hangers-on sat down together, that I entered the life of the convent. Breakfast and supper were taken in a side room with the other men. I attended mass, the devotion of the congregation occasionally tempting me away from my atheism. In the evenings I walked into town to eat or drink in one of the handful of bars and restaurants or see a faded kung fu film or witless sex comedy in a fleapit cinema. I spoke with few of the nuns, becoming friendly only with one in her thirties who helped me with my Portuguese and the elderly mathematics teacher from Milan whose accent I always found difficult to understand. With the men I did little more than exchange greetings. They were labourers with limited vocabulary and inpenetrable accents; I was too young to understand that they were also individuals whose experience I might welcome and whose company I might enjoy. What they thought of the tall foreigner who barely acknowledged their presence, I could not imagine.
Time passed. My walks into town became less frequent as I realised that whatever I sought there I would not find. A few locals were curious and friendly, but for me no easier to get on with than the convent gardeners. It was to be several years until I grew out of the unease with strangers that Edinburgh had bred into me. I half-heartedly looked for sex, but was too naive to recognise other men's signals and too uncertain to offer signals in return. All that was left was the jungle, that mythical place of giant trees and creepers, alive with jaguars and parakeets, snakes and monkeys, through which Indians stalked their prey. More than once I stood at the edge of town, gazing at the road and the razed land that stretched to the horizon. Wherever the jungle was, it could not be reached on a Sunday trek by a European in walking shoes. I asked others how to find it, but for them the
selva was no more than an abstraction, beyond their interest or reach.
After three months term ended and my visa was about to expire. On leaving I was surprised to hear from the Mother Superior how much my company and dedication had been welcomed. She would have liked me to stay, but understood I could not. The only thanks she could give was a letter of introduction to the other convents of her order. It was in Portuguese, but if I translated it into English, she would sign it. In addition, she held out a Bible, a present from all the nuns. The book in my hand, I looked down at the old woman and realised that I would miss this quiet life, the perpetual heat and humidity, the rumour of voices from the classrooms, the clatter of lunch and even her stern expression. I thanked her, aware for the first time that I was growing old, that a portion of my life had passed and would never return.
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