OLIVER SMITH SEEN FILMING WITH GAY PARTNER IN DEVON
I wasn’t quite sure what I expected when I picked up The Times the next morning. I’d settled down at the table, orange juice poised halfway between my mouth and the table, fully expecting to be greeted by yet another story about dead children or genocide, when the title of the headline jumped out and began to sadistically and gleefully strangle me.
I had a moment of utter paralysis. My hand froze in the air, and my eyelids ceased to blink over my eyes. My heart probably stopped beating, too. Only one word reverberated in my head: Joan.
This was her evil, twisted idea of revenge. This single act could ruin two lives, and Joan would only see it as fit payback for my white lie and continued existence.
Well, at least it wasn’t true. Maybe Oliver could simply point out the truth, and the media would leave both of us alone. I nodded to myself, already congratulating my brain on such a wonderful thought.
Casting the paper aside, already knowing perfectly well what lies would be concocted in the article, I crossed the threshold into the shop and threw open the curtains.
I was blinded by the flashing that followed. White lights assaulted my eyes, forcing my arm up to shield them in vain. I stumbled backwards, a gasp of shock escaping me. Still blinking rainbow dots from my vision, I crawled behind my desk and curled there, rubbing my eyelids furiously.
Okay, so maybe the effect of this might be more substantial than I anticipated. Oh, Edmund, Edmund, Edmund. You’re in trouble now.
I did a barrel roll to the curtains once more and pulled them firmly across the windows, feeling slightly Bond-esque. The combined effect of the flashing and my curtains produced an eerie green light that washed through the shop like neon paint. That done, I could stand and rifle around in my trouser pocket. The card I’d tucked in there yesterday pricked my fingers, and I pulled it out thankfully.
Time to call Oliver. If I could just get him to announce the fact that we weren’t together, I was positive nothing especially bad would come of this. All I needed to do was call him.
I strode over to my phone. My father had bought it in 1940, and handed it down to me as a treasured heirloom. I wasn’t entirely sure it worked, but I’d never had anyone to call to test it on. Not even potential customers called me—I’m not the proud owner of the most uninviting shop in England for nothing. No one I knew had a phone—compared to the other inhabitants of this village, I was forward in technology.
I held Oliver’s card in one hand and dialled with the other. It was painfully slow, the little round dial almost taunting me as it turned, throwing tiny moving shadows on the receiver. Should I pick it up, or leave it on the black square bit?
Ring. Wait—was it supposed to ring my end? I hadn’t even finished dialling.
I picked up the handset with a thumb and forefinger, holding it a few inches from my head as though it might explode.
“O—no, that’s too cliché. I was just about to call you—”
“Yes, I know. Look, don’t argue, just go outside and get in the car.”
“What if you’re a paedophile?”
There was a silence on the other end of the line. “You’re not ten?”
“Point taken.” I put the receiver down with a satisfying click. I didn’t particularly want to go outside—in fact, I’d rather not read for a week than go outside right now, but the thought that Oliver might be there spurred me on somehow. I crossed to my door and flung it open dramatically. Not pausing to look, I ran faster than I’d even known I could run down the steps, across the pavement, and into the awaiting car.
Two elderly ladies and one small daschund turned around from the front seats and gave me quizzical looks.
“Sorry. Wrong car.”
I ran faster than I’d ever known I could run out the door, across the pavement, and into the correct awaiting car.
“Oh, sorry, Oliver.” I’d landed on top of him. He pulled away with a slight grunt, before straightening up and calling out to his driver some address that sounded as though it was so posh that had it been human it would have described cake as being moist and had a dog called Monty.
I straightened too, and tried to catch Oliver’s eye, but he seemed too absorbed in The Article to look at me.
“Oliver, I’m sorry about this, but I’m sure if you just tell everyone that we’re not…you know… then everything will be fine.”
Oliver gave me an incredulous look. “Are you actually serious? You actually think that’s going to work? Edmund, there’s nothing they want to believe more than that I’m gay, and if they want to believe it, then it’s real. There’s nothing either of us can do except wait.”
“The release of death.” Oliver was beginning to sound decidedly melancholy.
I refused to be anything but optimistic. “Or a solution?”
Oliver gave me such a scathing look I almost winced. We rode in relative silence, until Oliver’s phone rang with an insistent beeping noise. He answered it with a look of apprehension on his face.
“Oh, hey, Melissa. No—no, it’s not what you think—no! I’m not gay! You know what the media is like! Melissa—wait, what? You’re wha—why? Why!? Melissa, I’m not gay!” There was the beep of someone hanging up on the other end. Oliver still held the phone to his ear. “Melissa?”
I almost felt sorry for him.
He put his phone back in his pocket with such an expression of sadness and disbelief that if I’d snapped it, I would have bagged first prize in all photography competitions from here to Mars.
“Was that…your girlfriend?”
He buried his head in his hands. “Yeah.”
“Did she, uh…?”
“Sorry.” I shifted uncomfortably. “Well, at least…no, there’s nothing here I can look at optimistically.”
Oliver let his head fall back onto the seat behind him. The car—no, limo—that we were in whirred quietly in the near silence, relaxing me for the first time since I’d opened my curtains to a crowd of insane paparazzi trying to prove that Oliver was gay. Well, and me, although I didn’t matter much in the scheme of things.
Oliver’s eyes were closed, and his chest rose and fell hypnotically. For the first time since he’d dashed into my shop, I could look at him properly. Scrutinise, as it were.
Face—perfectly sculpted, strangely pale. He stood out from his fellow actors like a star in a sky of fake tan and tooth whitening fluid. His nose was slightly crooked—sports accident? Maybe he’d been reading in bed with a book above his face like I did and it had fallen and attacked him. That had happened to me once. I still had the scar. (Hardcovers—brutal.) His body, of course, was the kind of perfection that I saw on film posters that hung in town whenever I deemed it necessary to visit. (About once a month, to scout out other bookshops.) How did one achieve these…muscles? I had no idea. My body was about as muscled as a dead stoat.
His eyes, though they were closed now, I knew to be blue. A pretty, bright blue, framed by eyelashes like the ones I imagined on Jane Austen’s characters. (All except Mr Collins, as that sleazy rat bag doesn’t have them. Common knowledge.) They made him look constantly alert, as opposed to mine, which make me look bored to death.
I seriously needed to stop staring, as I sensed it was becoming slightly weird. Yes, Edmund. Focus on something that doesn’t make you seem insane, although I doubt there’d be anything that’d achieve that.
I cleared my throat. “So…Oliver? Where are we going?”
“My apartment—the film company’s renting it for me while I’m in England. It’s safe there. I can figure out what I’m going to do.”
I felt a wash of guilt that was entirely unnecessary. I hadn’t gotten Oliver into this hullabaloo. That had been Joan. Demon, like I’d always known. “Oliver?”
“What’s going to happen to me?”
Oliver sat up and looked at me properly for the first time since I’d been in the limo. “What do you mean?”
“Well, when you go back to America, what do you think will happen to my business?”
“I hadn’t really thought about it.”
I felt a sudden and unexpected rush of anger. “Well, you should, because without that shop I have no income, and unlike some people I could mention, I’m not a millionaire. I could become homeless. I could be begging on the streets dressed in a bin bag with a black Labrador, smoking a cigarette and begging passers-by for money which I would then blow on beer.” Cue pause for effect. Oliver blinked and looked at the floor, as though the pristine white carpet would provide answers he didn’t have.
“It’ll probably just go back to normal…I guess. It might even bring a bit of tourism.”
“What, tourists come to gape at the maybe-boyfriend of a maybe-gay actor ‘outed’ in one newspaper article?”
“Look, Edmund.” He put a hand on my shoulder. It pressed into my shoulder in a strangely comforting way. His eyes met mine at last, and when he spoke, he sounded sincere. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. My career might suffer or it might not. This might affect you—”
“But it might not.”
“Yeah. I don’t know what to do, or… I mean, Melissa—” His voice cracked.
I shifted closer to him and slid an arm around his shoulder, ignoring my inner squashed Haphephobia. He leant into me and we stayed that way, listening to silence that covered the chaos awaiting us.