A New Direction

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My life was at a low ebb in the middle of last year. My marriage had just broken up – I didn’t really even understand why, my wife seemed to just lose interest in the whole thing – I was sick of my job, and I couldn’t see a future for myself. At 28 I felt totally useless and washed up. On a whim I walked into work one day and told my boss to shove his job, and my 82-grand salary, up his arse. Fortunately I’d managed to make my own stake in savings and investments. Joanna and I didn’t have kids and she was earning almost as much as me, so I didn’t need to worry about funding her. We’d agreed to sell the house – she was moving back into her parents’ sprawling place in Hampstead; and an estate agent mate of mine put me onto a cheap flat (they do exist, even in London, if you know where to look). Although I needed to work, I decided I could afford to take a job I actually might enjoy.

I’d always liked books, I mean quality ones, and I fell on my feet. I was meandering down Charing Cross Road one day – the place is world famous for its bookshops – and got talking to the owner of one particular place. It was actually down a rather quaint alleyway just off the main road, and typical of many such establishments around there – small, a bit dark, overcrowded with books, a bit dusty and with a pleasantly musty smell. The guy’s name was Richard, and we chatted about some of the beautiful leather bound antiquarian editions he kept behind leaded glass in an old cabinet. When I mentioned in passing that I was between jobs, he raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Well John, I don’t suppose you’d like to work with me would you?” He laughed softly at my look of amazement. “After all, you obviously know a bit about books, and I’ve been on my own here for a few months now, a second pair of hands would be quite handy. I couldn’t pay you a fortune, but I’m sure we could work something out. Seriously, think about it.” He pushed a business card into my hand.

Slightly dazed by the offer I nodded and said I would. I went for a pub lunch in Covent Garden and, midway through my sandwich, I thought, “Well, why not? I think I’d like that sort of work, and Richard seems a nice enough bloke. He’s obviously gay, but that doesn’t bother me. And anyway, I can always see how I like it for a couple of weeks and chuck it if it’s not my thing.” I phoned Richard there and then, and we agreed I’d go back and discuss it with him. Half an hour after the little bell over his shop door tinkled, it was all signed, sealed and agreed. I started my new job the next day.

Richard was in his late 40s, well over six feet tall (I’m just under six, myself), thin but wiry. He had blond hair that was just beginning to turn to silver, an aristocratic sort of face, and an accent which suggested an education at Eton and Oxford, or something similar. He was very easygoing, and dressed casually in a baggy shirt, a moth-eaten cardigan and brown corduroy trousers. I wondered about my initial judgement of his sexuality when I saw the photo of his daughter he kept on this desk – a beautiful girl, proudly wearing mortarboard and gown and clutching her degree certificate – but not for long. He wasn’t in the least bit camp, but there were just little things about his manner, and certain clients and friends who visited the shop, that convinced me I was right about him.

My duties were wide and varied: greeting customers, selling and, in time, buying books, humping piles of the things up and down the basement stairs, cataloguing stock, and dealing on the phone with business contacts all over the world. I liked my new working environment, and I quickly grew to like Richard. When I started getting involved in a bit of financial accounting, I couldn’t see how he could possibly be making a profit out of the place, but that wasn’t the point. I gathered he had independent wealth, and the business was simply a labour of love – and he really did love it.

It was after I’d been there perhaps a couple of months that I started to realise that Richard was, well, attracted to me. Again, it was small things that suggested it: the frequency with which he would touch my shoulder or my back, a certain softness in the way he smiled at me, the way his hand lingered if our fingers touched when one of us passed something to the other. Another bloke might just have thought that the older man was taking a fatherly interest in him; but, somehow, I knew. The thing that surprised me, when I thought about it, was that it didn’t really bother me. I mean I wasn’t that way inclined, I’d had plenty of girlfriends before I got married, and I’d never thought about another man like that. And yes, if I’m honest, if I’d been told six months earlier that I’d be working in close proximity with a guy who fancied me, I probably would have felt a little uncomfortable.

Instead, I suppose I felt rather flattered. Although I’ve got a sturdy body, I’ve always had a delicate face, which girls seemed to moon over in my youth, a fact of which I took maximum advantage. When I first met Joanna, she dubbed me ‘pretty boy’. So, in a vain sort of way, I could understand Richard’s interest güvenilir bahis in me. And I was genuinely growing fond of him – as a friend, and an employer. After the emotional turmoil I’d been going through for months, it felt nice to be settled in a tranquil, satisfying work situation, and, I’ll be honest, it felt nice too to feel that someone cared for me, about me.

The day things really started to change was the Friday when Joanna phoned me. I was sitting cataloguing a set of old manuscripts that Richard had bought as a job lot at a book fair. Most of them were hardly worth a glance, but in among them were one or two gems. I felt my mobile buzzing against my thigh, and answered to hear the voice that used made my heart lift not so very long before. Now, it immediately sounded waspish and nasty. She quickly got down to business – she had changed her mind about the house, she wanted to keep it, and she wanted me to accept only a quarter of its worth in settlement. If I kicked up the slightest problem, her bitch of a solicitor would do her best to screw me for every penny I had. Joanna’s ‘daddy’ could easily afford the huge legal costs which would result from a battle, but both the time and the expense involved would hit me hard.

I was stunned. It was like an emotional whirlwind engulfing me, out of a clear blue sky. I had no idea where it was coming from. The more I tried to argue, to make her be reasonable, the nastier and more vindictive she got. By the time she hung up on me I was pale and trembling. I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. Richard had caught the tail end of the conversation, and came over to me with a look of concern on his face. “Are you all right Johnno?” I swung my chair round to try to tell him what had just happened – and I couldn’t. My throat was constricted, and the more I tried to fight back the emotion the more it welled up in me. Suddenly, to my own horror, I took a deep gulp of breath, and burst into wracking sobs, huge tears erupting from my eyes. God I felt embarrassed! I hadn’t cried since I was a kid, and I just couldn’t stem the flow. Joanna had never told me why she’d simply had enough of our marriage after what I had thought were four happy years, and I think I had been bottling up my emotions for months. Now they all came tumbling out at once.

Richard wasn’t embarrassed though. Without a second thought he took two steps to close the gap between us, put his arms around my shoulders and pulled me to him. Totally wracked with misery, I buried my head in his chest and howled like a baby, my shoulders heaving. Richard just held me, murmuring, “Shh, shh, that’s it John, let it all out, it’s doing you the world of good. I’ve been there, I know what it’s like.” I don’t know how long we stayed in that position, me crying and Richard standing over me with his arms around me. I think we actually lost a customer – I was sure I heard the shop bell go, and the poor sod probably took one look at us and fled. I was aware of what I was doing, but I didn’t feel in the least bit self-conscious about it. It was the first real human contact I’d had since weeks before my marriage imploded, and it felt so warm and comforting I just let myself submerge in it.

As my sobs started to subside, Richard released me for a moment. Almost instantly he was back, having wheeled his chair across to mine. He wedged a handkerchief into my fist, then he reached out to me and placed his hands on my shoulders, from in front of me. I stiffened for a moment, but then he started to work his long, strong fingers into my muscles. The effect was amazing; as he kneaded my tense shoulders I began to feel myself relax, and I felt the warmth of his hands channel down my back. I even edged my chair a little closer to him, to give him a better hold. After five minutes of his massage I actually felt calm, more so than I would have imagined was possible.

Richard gradually released my shoulders and withdrew his hands. Then, with one finger, he wiped a tear from my cheek – a tender gesture. Giving me a sympathetic smile, he half-whispered, “That’s better, old feller. I’m sure you feel much the better for that.” I wasn’t sure if he meant my emotional breakdown or his remedial treatment, but I nodded and did my best to smile back. He tried to suggest I take the rest of the day off, but I refused. Apart from the fact that he was paying me, the thought of returning to my lonely little flat after the day I was having chilled me. I did move my work into a storeroom at the back of the shop though, and tried to bury myself in it for the rest of the day.

As I was leaving that evening, Richard put a hand on my shoulder. “I wondered if you fancied coming for a drink John? You certainly look as if you need one.”

I was very tempted, but I shook my head. “Thanks Richard, but I think what I need is the cool night air to clear my head. Another time, maybe?” He smiled and nodded.

In fact I did go for a drink – a maudlin, self-pitying solo binge, the sort where your only aim is to get as pissed as possible as quickly as possible. I didn’t even remember getting home, but I woke up türkçe bahis at lunchtime on Saturday, slouched in an uncomfortable position on my couch. I sat up, my head aching, my stomach aching with hunger, my arm sore from having been trapped under me during the night. After I’d stood under the shower for abut 40 minutes and forced myself to eat a plate of scrambled eggs, I decided I needed to get out of the flat before it started to feel like a prison cell. I called various of my friends, but they were all busy with their wives, children, girlfriends…eventually I went for a miserable walk on my own in the local park. All I saw was happy young couples walking arm in arm, laughing, fathers playing on the swings with their children, as I had once expected to, and so on. By the time I got home I felt even more depressed than before, and did the stupidest thing I could think of, cracked open a half empty bottle of whisky I’d had for ages and proceeded to finish the job on it.

When I ambled into the shop on Monday, Richard looked up at me from The Times over his half-moon spectacles. Laying the paper down, his face full of concern, he said, “Are you sure you should be here, old son? You look awful.” I told him I was fine, I’d just had a bit of a rough weekend. He sat me down, rested his hand on my shoulder sympathetically, then made me a mug of coffee, and told me to just sit there and get myself together until I was ready to start my day. It had been a long time since I’d appreciated anyone as much as I appreciated him over the next couple of days. He was so kind, so understanding and sympathetic, so caring. When I had to have several conversations with my own legal advisor in a single day, Richard simply dismissed my profuse apologies with a wave of his hand, a warm smile and a murmured, “Just do what you have to do Johnno.” When I went into the shop on the Wednesday, depressed by a snotty letter I’d received from Joanna’s solicitor, he was there for me. I just felt so incredibly warm towards him.

At lunchtime that day, I was surprised to see Richard hanging a notice on the door which said ‘back at 2 o’clock’. We normally went to lunch back-to-back so we didn’t have to close up at lunchtime. When I questioned his action he perched his backside on the corner of my desk and smiled. “You look as if you need a drink old feller; and a sympathetic ear. Come on.” I didn’t argue with either observation, and we made our way to my favourite Covent Garden pub. I didn’t want to get sloshed during my lunch break, so I just ordered a lager shandy; Richard opted for a port and lemon. We sat in the tiny bar, dating from Tudor times with its low ceilings, sloping walls and dark corners, and over a plate of sandwiches I poured out my heart to him: how badly Joanna was treating me, how miserable I was, how trapped and lonely I felt in my little flat, and how uncared for by humanity in general.

Richard listened quietly, nodding occasionally, chuckling at the rare appropriate points. By the time I finished he actually seemed to have tears forming in his eyes. He cupped his hand over mine on the table. “Oh, you poor old love. If there’s anything I can do to help you” – the hand squeezed mine momentarily then relaxed, still resting on mine – “anything at all, just let me know. I mean it John. Anything.” Our eyes locked for a moment. There was a time when I would have withdrawn my hand from another man’s touch. Now, it just felt so comforting, and I felt so cared for by this sweet guy, that I enjoyed the feel of his warm flesh against mine, and smiled gratefully.

That afternoon we were quite busy with customers, and I soon worked off the small amount of alcohol I’d consumed. Late in the day, Richard was stocking some shelves at the back when I needed to check something with him. The rush of clientele had eased, and the shop was wonderfully quiet, the traffic along Charing Cross Road a distant buzz. As I turned into the row of shelves where Richard was working he said, “Ah Johnno, pass me that Blake will you?” I lifted the volume of poetry, but as I passed it over it slipped between our hands and fell to the floor.

We both crouched at the same moment to retrieve it and our heads clashed lightly together. Our eyes met, and we rose slowly, neither of us breaking the eye contact. Suddenly, I was incredibly aware of how close Richard was to me. Our faces were inches apart – I could actually feel his breath on my cheek, smell his expensive, subtle aftershave. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears. Then he cupped a hand to my cheek, leant in and kissed me. I felt numb, entirely unsure how to react, or how I wanted to react. But my body reacted. My heart continued to pound, my eyes closed, and I could feel my cock beginning to stiffen.

After perhaps three seconds Richard pulled away with a small gasp. I opened my eyes to see his face frozen in a look of shock and embarrassment. He stepped back hurriedly and, tumbling over his words, blurted, “Oh God John, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to do that. God, I don’t know what came over me, please forgive me old chap, I’m so, so sorry.”

He güvenilir bahis siteleri seemed more upset than I was; in fact, I didn’t know how I felt about what had just happened. I said quietly, “It’s okay Richard, really, just…just forget it, okay?” He nodded, still looking haunted by his action. For the remaining hour or so before we closed we worked at opposite ends of the shop, not looking at each other, not speaking. As I pulled on my jacket we exchanged a muted goodbye. In the few months I’d known him, I’d never seen Richard look miserable – he did then. Sighing, I turned back to him. “Richard, really, it’s not a big issue, it just happened. Just forget about it. I’ll see you tomorrow. Cheerio.” He smiled weakly and nodded.

But on the bus home I couldn’t forget about it. I had never felt more confused in my entire life. I wasn’t gay, I knew that; I mean, I’d never so much as held a bloke’s hand before, let alone let him snog me. I could still smell his aftershave though; still feel his soft lips on mine. I had missed human warmth for so long, and now it seemed it was there for the taking, if I wanted it. As I re-lived that astonishing moment again in my mind, over and over, I felt an uncomfortable sensation wash over me, as I realised I was getting a hard-on again.

It was at about 2 a.m. that I came to a decision. I really wasn’t gay. I was sure of it. But Richard had simply made a mistake, probably fuelled by an unwise port and lemon, and one mistake was no reason to give up a job I liked, with a man I liked, and respected, and who had been so kind to me, miserable bastard that I was. I would simply go into work tomorrow – well, today at that point – and act as if nothing had happened. Richard wasn’t stupid, and he wasn’t crude, he’d get the hint.

The atmosphere between us was brittle on the Thursday. Richard still seemed upset by what he’d done and, without actually saying the word, every action of his towards me, every word he did say, screamed apology. I tried to act entirely normally, although I don’t suppose I did. By mid-afternoon I felt genuine sympathy for Richard over the pain he was inflicting on himself, and a strange sort of guilt, as if I was the real cause of it, even though I had been entirely passive in what had happened. When I made him a cup of tea, in the tiny kitchen behind the shop, he seemed effusively grateful. Wanting to reassure him, I rested my hand on his shoulder, and mumbled, “That’s all right Richard. Everything’s all right, really.” He smiled up at me with puppy dog eyes.

On Friday he seemed more his usual self, and greeted me cheerily. It was a quiet day, and we both spent a fair amount of time sitting at our desks poring over ledgers. I kept finding myself distracted though. Without realising it, I would sit staring towards Richard, taking in his fine cornflower hair, the noble lines of his face, his long, slim, artistic fingers. He seemed to notice my scrutiny a couple of times, and glanced up and smiled at me. Sitting on the bus that evening I felt totally, utterly confused over how I felt about him. I was fond of him, of that there was no doubt – but in what way? What were my true feelings, and how deep did they run? Was I gay after all? Did just admiring another man, and recognising his inherent attractiveness, his easy charm, did that make me a queer? I decided I really needed to get out a bit more, start trying to find a few casual one-night stands with the opposite sex, give my libido a shot in the arm. But I just couldn’t raise the enthusiasm for the idea. I got home profoundly wishing I hadn’t finished that bottle of whisky so recklessly.

I didn’t usually work on Saturdays, but we had agreed a couple of weeks earlier that we would close up for the day and work on a stock inventory and valuation. We both arrived early, dressed in our shabbiest clothes, and bought bacon rolls from a local coffee bar before we got started. Richard seemed quite cheerful, chirpy even. I was glad, and it buoyed me up. The work was hot and sweaty, dirty and tiring, as we humped books from one place to another, and made notes on increasingly grubby scrap pads. Our throats quickly became clogged from the clouds of dust we were raising, and we didn’t say much, just exchanged the odd comment about what to do next, smiled at each other across the stock piles, and helped ourselves liberally to cups of tea and coffee.

Mid-afternoon, over one such cup, we had our first real conversation of the day. Richard chuckled wearily, casting his eyes over the mayhem which still ruled about us. Then he turned to me. “Thanks for doing this Johnno, you’re working like a demon. Above and beyond the call of duty, I’d say.” I shook my head and raised my hands in protest. Richard continued. “Look, I was thinking. I was going to give you a bonus for this; and I still will, of course. But how about, I treat you to dinner, then we go back to my place, put on some good jazz and get good and drunk?” Before I could respond, he added quickly, “The spare room’s made up anyway, and you’d be more than welcome to stay. I mean it John, it’s just dinner, I’m not suggesting anything else.” He stood, his face quite serious and just a little concerned. “Really. I’d like you to regard me as a friend, not just a work colleague, and you seem as if you could do with a few genuine friends at the moment.”

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