Fiction. Dances, by Robin Harker. Image: in silhouette, a man sits in a chair with one leg crossed over the other. At his feet, a young boy reads a book with a toy aeroplane next to him. Behind the man, like a shadow, are two men standing intimately close. One of the men is the same as the man in the chair.


Reading time:

He had always known the line of his life: to be as other men of his like and station.  How that was to be achieved was far less important than the fact that it was achieved; that he had maintained what needed to be maintained until early middle age was to him a source of great pride and security, not least that it had been done in spite of a central and sometimes overbearing matter.  And though the issue in question possessed him with far less urgency and frequency as it had when he was a young man, it would still on occasion take hold, and at such times there was nothing he could do to ignore it.  The reins simply seemed to slip free, and there was only one way he knew to take hold of them once more.  


He had felt the demand on him that morning; by the afternoon he knew he must act.  Shortly before leaving work, he made a brief, deceptive phone call home, then crossed town to the square near the church and the public lavatory where he knew the attendant often finished his day early.  As always, he had his explanations at the ready.  


His story, if one was needed, would be that he had run into an old friend from the air force, and after a quick drink while catching up he’d been caught short on the way home.  It was a vague yet ordinary enough tale to have a ring of truth about it, and it had always provided him with a certain resolve.   


He made his way down the stairs to the sound of dripping water.  Once inside he felt a certain security.  He knew anyone else he saw would most likely comprise one of two discrete sets: either a genuine visitor to all intents blind to the parallel world of activity around him, or there for the same reason as himself, and therefore no threat to his safety.  There was a third option, that of a police presence, but he steeled himself from considering it to any significant degree. 


He could see two men already present; he read the details of them as he would skim the headlines in the morning paper.  A broad man in a donkey jacket stood at the stalls; another washed his hands at the sink, brown leather briefcase next to the basin.  As he walked towards the urinals the second man looked upwards, and briefly, directly at him.  He positioned himself within a finely cracked porcelain curve.  The first man finished what he was doing, then left, whistling his way back up to the evening.   


A strip of dark green tiling banded the wall at eye level. It reflected everything that was behind him, and he watched as the remaining man dried his hands with a dark pink paper towel, then returned to the sink to turn on the taps for a second time.   


Gordon assumed he would have an hour at his disposal before he imagined his absence might arouse suspicion, perhaps of some indiscretion, with a secretary, or the wife of one of his friends.  There had been terrible times when he had made a visit, and there simply had not been anyone around for him, and he had left disappointed, and it all would impact him greatly over the days that followed.  All that effort of decision and arrangement, and nothing would have happened to address what was going on inside of him at all.  And then it would be weeks before he’d dare try again, and by that point he would be dominated by his inner workings.  It would feel like he had lost control of things, and it would be almost more than he could bear. 


He looked over his right shoulder.  As if in response to a call, he saw the man pick up his briefcase and enter the cubicle furthest on the right.  As Gordon hoped, the door remained open.  He felt an unstoppable reality begin to burst forth.  He stepped away from the urinal, and the man, with a sharp, short head movement to the right, invited him inside.   


The two men began to touch each other in a manner that seemed to break all convention and possibility. They embraced and kissed, then removed their jackets to hang them on the back of the door.  


The man was unremarkable in appearance.  He had a face on which Gordon’s eyes would not have lingered had they passed in the street.  And yet he felt an affinity between them.  The man’s clothing was of noticeable quality; it was well made and pleasant to the touch; it suggested professional employment. He appeared around Gordon’s own age, and Gordon sensed a silent kinship that elevated what the two of them were doing from isolated act to something more, although what that might turn out to be he was not yet fully conscious.   


In the past he had told himself that his behaviour was just something that a particular portion of the population did, those who were like him, that had lives of some standing to maintain, and that became possible to maintain by certain behaviours that lay very far from those lives.  It was a practical act more than anything.  One man helping another out so they could carry on within the otherwise perfectly manageable situation they found themselves in.  In that it was an utterly excusable event, and one he knew the pattern of exactly. Gordon imagined the men he met appreciated the efficiency of the approach as much as he did himself.  They would do what needed to be done and then move on.  He expected the events that day to proceed in the manner they always had before.  They did not, and it affected him as much as if everything he worked to keep so close to himself broke free. 


What happened was the lightest and briefest of things.  The man paused, and leant inwards to Gordon’s ear, and did something that had not happened on any of Gordon’s previous encounters.  He asked Gordon his name. 


Without thinking, Gordon replied in the manner he had learnt throughout his life when being addressed by other men, first at school, and then in the forces, and most recently, at the insurance offices where he worked.  He gave the man his surname.  Then, feeling as if that might have been a little impersonal, he spoke his name in full.  


They finished, then dressed.  The man put a hand up to his ear to indicate he was listening for the sound of anyone around, then opened the door slightly to look outside.  He began to leave but, before he was fully aware what he was doing, Gordon stopped him.  Usually such moments involved nothing more than a friendly nod of acknowledgement, and often not even that, but Gordon found himself kissing the man briefly, in the manner he had his wife so many times before as he left work for the day.  The move came from somewhere beyond rationality, one of appropriateness over convention, and, perhaps surprised, the man smiled. 


‘I’m Patrick,’ he said.  Then, he took his moment and left.   


On the street the world appeared as much as ever, apparently unaware that anything significant had happened to any of its inhabitants. Gordon knew that all he had to do to re-enter his life in the manner he had left it was to assume the mantle of a man of his line and station who had unexpectedly run into an old friend, and that diversion over, was finally on his way home.  It was a part he had played many times, and admirably so, not least to himself.  He would put on the face until the face fit again.  And yet this time he felt preoccupied, as if things were not entirely the same as before; the clothes had been put back on, but now they no longer seemed his own. 


On arriving home he found his wife Jean in the sitting room.  She was knitting something small and blue as the radio played a piano instrumental.  Gordon kissed her on the top of her head before pouring himself a scotch that was large enough for the purpose he wanted, but not so much of a size that it might draw attention.   


‘Moment to yourself?’ he asked. 


‘They’re occupied. Lawrence has homework.  He has to think about what he wants to be when he grows up.  Julia’s talking him through the options in the garden. Or that’s what they told me as they headed out.’ 


‘Thought that was all settled. Pilot wasn’t it? I was rather flattered by that.’ 


‘Don’t let it go to your head. That’s just the kind of thing all the boys say when they’re barely past ‘vroom, vroom’. I don’t think it’s so clear cut now.’ 


Jean held up a half-finished sky-blue baby jacket that looked more decorative than practical. 


‘It’s the Spring Fair at St Joseph’s a week on Saturday.  Baby things always sell well.  There’s a place still set at the table.  Shall I bring your dinner through?’ 


Gordon told her there was no need. Using a tea towel to protect his fingers, he took a plate of grilled lamb chops from the oven and into the dining room where alone, he began to eat.   


Gordon knew he didn’t love his wife.  But he also suspected she was as much satisfied with their situation as he was.  She had the children and the church.  Gordon believed that a large part of why their relationship worked was that her mind would generally be on them rather than him.  He had never asked how she truly felt about how things were between them of course but, based on the relative absence of friction between them, simply took their situation to be as he imagined it to be.  Their marriage had grown into what he presumed most marriages do over time: a serviceable compromise that had as many benefits for the both of them as it had restrictions.   


He had all but finished eating when his son came in from the garden to greet him. Lawrence told him that he had an important decision to make, and that he was thinking very hard before he made it.  He asked Gordon what he did for a living.  Gordon said that Lawrence already knew, that he was in charge of a branch of underwriters, and attempted to explain to the boy exactly what that meant in terms that he would understand.  


‘I thought you were a pilot,’ Lawrence said, after Gordon had finished. 


‘I was. In the war. But that’s over now.’ 


‘Oh, I see. Do you like what you do now?’ 


Gordon found himself smiling.  ‘I’m not sure I’ve thought of it like that.  It’s a very sensible thing for a man to do with his life.’ 


‘That’s important, isn’t it?’ 


 He put his arms up into wings and ran around the table. 


‘Perhaps I could fly planes at the weekend.’ 


Gordon laughed.  He said that perhaps Lawrence well could.  Briefly, he had been distracted from his mood, but soon after he returned to it like a tongue to a broken tooth.  


The next day he worked without real concentration or interest.  He found himself preoccupied in a way he hadn’t been since his youth; it was not an unenjoyable distraction.  There was a feeling as if the man’s body was still on him, as if he carried it in an invisible embrace as he went around his daily duties, a weight and a warmth that he couldn’t shake off, and neither was he entirely sure that he wanted to.  He allowed several days to pass in a dreamlike manner until the following Tuesday when, feeling he could no longer hold off taking action, he told his secretary Miss Berwick that he had an appointment he had forgotten to let her know about.  He had to leave the office immediately, he said, but hoped to be back not long after lunch.   


What was happening was an impulse far removed from the one that would end up with him in a public lavatory, that for all its disruptive qualities was known and largely containable; it was a sensation that was new and strong, and that he knew nothing at all what to do about except that he could no longer stay in his office being the person he had been in his life up to that point.   


What that meant in actuality he had absolutely no idea.  He had taken the morning off in a brazenly deceitful manner.  There seemed an infinite number of things he could do with his time; that he couldn’t quite pinpoint what any of them were didn’t seem to matter.  He thought briefly of what Freddy Dyer, his immediate superior, would think if he found out.  Or Jean?  He had no idea what he would say to them to explain himself apart from it not being the truth, and that in itself delighted him.  There were no consequences anymore; whatever he did, however aimless and reckless it was, would turn out the best for all involved.  He had no doubt of that.  And for what reason? He knew a man’s name and that man knew his.  What a spectacularly thrilling thing that appeared to be! It was the exact point at which two beings had somehow managed to overcome the vast gulf existing between all similar beings, and finally, gloriously connect in a manner that surely couldn’t have happened before. It was a desire that had become transcendent; Gordon felt he was no more, and that Patrick too was no more; there was simply a bright, burning moment of two individuals in perfect connection.  No pallid office room could contain that. 


Outside the day was the blue grey of a fading bruise that suggested more November than April.  The wind bullied its contents down the street, and Gordon felt himself at one with it.  He was a natural force, independent and insistent: a man who could go against whatever grain he came across.  


The sensation lasted until a dry steak and potato pie lunch at Nicholson’s cafe made him feel tired and ready again for the more familiar structures of an afternoon at his desk.  Once more back at work, he found that his absence had not been noticed at all, and by Thursday he had completely settled.   He found himself simply calming into who he was before, like a wayward curl of hair being brushed back into place.  The process happened without effort; the sensation of Patrick’s body simply faded, and once it had finally gone he felt glad of it. 


One evening not long after, Jean surprised him during dinner. One of the women from church had seen him out, she said, in town in the afternoon, and at Nicholson’s of all places.  For the life of her she couldn’t think what on earth he had been doing there at that time, and she’d told a fib that the lining on his suit had become unstitched, and he had just popped in the cafe for lunch while waiting on a repair to stop it from becoming any worse. 


None of what she said was accusatory.  There was, in Jean’s recounting, an unspoken certainty that all would be explained away simply and satisfactorily.  To her, Gordon didn’t have shocks in him.  She spoke, most of her focus still on her meal than on what Gordon was about to say, and Gordon was momentarily thrown back to the exact point when they had first met.  It was at a dance in the war for his regiment and the women’s auxiliary; they had both been in uniform.  It was one of those awful moments at dances where the women form a circle in the middle of the room, and the men form one around them while the band play a silly piece of music, a nursery rhyme or some novelty song that a comedian might end his act with, and everyone would move round until the music would suddenly stopped, and whoever it was who stood in front of you would be the person with whom you would dance the next dance.  And that night the band had played ‘Once I Saw A Little Bird’, and he remembered how Dougie Hallsworth had kept bumping into him in an effort to move the circle round quicker so he could try to dance with the girl he wanted to, and how the whole thing seemed so false and frustrating, and not something he wanted to be involved in at all.  And then the music had stopped, and Dougie pressed on him suddenly and swore, because they hadn’t moved round far enough, and despite himself and everything that was going on, Gordon had found himself smiling.  And as he looked up he saw that the woman in front of him wasn’t even looking to see who would be dancing with her, but at a girl who had been drinking too much and had tripped over her own feet when everyone had stopped moving, and now had two officers, one at each elbow, helping her up.  Gordon had suddenly felt a tremendous force upon him; he perceived there was a brilliant structure to his life and how he could fit within all of it, and he knew exactly what pose should come next.  It was more than thought or desire, this thing; if he could only echo it to the right degree he knew it would be enough to see him through.  And he and Jean had danced, and all through the dance she had talked about the girl who had fallen, and how foolish she was to get in such a state.  That was the beginning of it; eleven years on now here they still were somehow, still moving so close to each other, somehow still hand in hand, despite everything that worked to push them apart. 


Gordon told Jean that he’d just wanted to get out of the office for a while.  He’d had a headache, he said, and the place just felt so stuffy, and he just wanted to get a little air, and then it was lunchtime, and the nearest place to eat had been where he had ended up.  He knew it was hardly the Ritz, but it seemed a practical choice at the time.  He hadn’t told her about it because it hadn’t really seemed worth telling.  Jean moved on immediately, and Gordon relented once more to that brightly shining thing that was more than either of them, or of anyone.  There had been a name, a man’s name; he was someone else, now, from the person who had thought it so important. 


He heard the children call him into the garden; their voices were indistinct, but he went out to them all the same.

Robin harker

Robin Harker is a graduate of the University of Manchester Novel Writing MA.


His journalism has featured in Gay Times and Flux, his short stories in ‘The Gay Times Book of Short Stories’ and the ‘City Secrets’ anthology, and his poetry in ‘Best of Manchester Poets’.


He is returning to writing after a short break that turned into a long one. 

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter

Read next: