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Love from A to Z

by Charles Lacey

Chapter 6

Ash surveyed the young man across the table. A little taller than I remembered? And definitely not as pudgy as he used to be, and much healthier looking. But he still had the fair hair, the cornflower blue eyes and the sweet smile. Ash wanted to push the table aside and take him in his arms.

But it won't do, he thought. Instead he asked Zak how he had been getting on.

"Alright," said Zak, "I'm working at Neville and Hargreaves, living with my father at the moment, but I'm engaged to be married and when that happens we'll be moving to our own house."

There was a moment's silence. When Zak mentioned marriage, Ash's heart sank. "Well," he said, "if you're going to be married, then I'm very happy for you. Who's the lucky girl?"

"You saw her in the office this afternoon. Her name's Emily."

Ash tried desperately to think of something to say, but failed. He looked at Zak, but his face was unreadable.

There was another, longer, silence. Then Zak said, "Ash, why did you come up here?"

"To find you, of course."

"But... why? I'm no-one special."

There was another silence. Then Ash spoke, slowly and quietly.

"Zak, you were my first love. I've had others, I am sure you have too. But you were... you are... the special one. But now..."

"Now... Oh, God" said Zak. "Oh, God, Ash, I've missed you. I've wanted to get in touch so many times, but I didn't think you'd want to see me after what I did. What are you doing now?"

"Oh, what I wrote to your Dad is all quite true. I'm a third year student. I'm not sure what I will do when I graduate. I quite fancy the idea of going into journalism."

Zak looked at Ash, the slender, handsome young man he had become. He looked briefly into his eyes, and all his plans, his forthcoming marriage, a house of his own, a better paid job, all seemed like cobwebs, flimsy, unsubstantial things.

But then his habits of thought re-asserted themselves, and he shook his head. "I'm sorry, Ash... you'll have to go home. I'd be no good to you now. Go, and find someone else to love. I must get back, Father will be wondering where I am."

Ash looked at him mutely, his face expressionless. He felt in his pocket and fished out a slip of paper. "Here's my address and phone number. If you every change your mind..."

"Is this your university number?"

"No, it's my parents' home number."

"Wouldn't they be ... wouldn't they want to know who was ringing?"

"Of course they would. They always like to meet my crushes."

"Do they know?..."

"Of course they do. I'm totally open with them."

There was a long pause.

"I'm sorry, Ash, I have to go now. We probably won't meet again. I hope everything works out for you."

There was just time to catch the last train, and Ash managed it. He didn't feel that he could bear to remain in Yorkshire a moment longer. He sat on the train, numb and silent, but with his brain working at top speed, going over and over every detail of their meeting.

Zak got back to his father's house, his mind also mulling frantically over the encounter with Ash. The more he thought about Emily, about a house, a better job, the more Ash's beautiful, kind face came before him.

The next morning, he arrived at the office exhausted after a sleepless night. HIs father came in and saw him yawning.

"What's wrong with you, boy? Get on with the job. No room for slackers here."

Zak looked at his father's red, demanding face, and again Ash's lovely face came to his mind. He reflected that Ash had treated him with respect as well as affection, that he had given him space to make up his own mind. Unbidden, tears came to his eyes.

"Bloody hell, boy, are you a man or a chit of a girl? Pull yourself together..."

"I'm sorry, father, I'm not well. I'll have to go outside for a few minutes."

He rose from his desk and went outside. His one thought was to get to the moorland which he loved, to the clean, fresh air, the open skies and the distant hills. Not caring that he was wearing his office shoes, he set a brisk pace and walked for mile after mile. His mind was in turmoil but the vigorous physical activity helped, little by little, to clarify his thoughts. He thought of some of the houses he had looked at with Emily; they seemed to him pretentious. He thought of Emily herself. Yes, she was a nice girl, but utterly conventional with no thought in her mind beyond a house and children. He thought of his father, his ugly, red face, his harsh voice and his bullying manner. He thought of Ash's parents; they were evidently accepting of Ash being gay.

He paused at a pub for a pint of beer and a sandwich. Then he walked on, not caring where he went. One thing was clear, he had to make a decision. From that decision there would be no going back.

On the one hand, there was the security of a conventional marriage, probably a job for life. On the other hand, there was Ash. On the one hand, there was Emily, and a life of comfort. How long he would be able to cope with marital sex he didn't know, but probably Emily would want more than he could give.

On the other hand, there was Ash. Sex with him would be exciting. God knew what he'd do for a job. Ash might get fed up with him and throw him out after five years. Or five weeks.

No, he knew Ash better than that.

God, why did I have to be like this? he wondered. Why couldn't I have been like other men? Why did it have to choose me?

The light was changing now, the sky clouding over. He saw a signpost to a village, two and a half miles. He followed that road, and just as he turned a light, drizzly rain began. He went on, making the best speed he could, though his shoes were pinching horribly by now. The rain grew steadily heavier. Ahead of him he saw lights, an inn. He went in and ordered a drink and a meal. Through the window he saw pouring rain and heard a rumble of thunder. Clearly, he thought, there's be no going on - or going back - tonight. He booked a room for the night; the landlord insisted on payment in advance as he had arrived unexpectedly with no luggage.

The room was small and low ceilinged, but warm and welcoming. He undressed, putting his clothes to dry, and towelled himself down. Zak had had almost no sleep the night before, and had walked many miles since. He slept the sleep of utter physical and mental exhaustion.

In the morning, he enquired of the landlord as to the nearest station. It seemed Skipton was a few miles away, but the landlord said that he had to go into town and would be happy to give Mr Neville a lift.

It was an awkward journey, with changes at Leeds and Manchester, but by mid-afternoon Zak reached Birmingham. He hoped he'd remembered Ash's parents' address correctly. At New Street station he bought a city map and identified the street. A bus took him reasonably near, and then he saw the house. It was a modest semi-detached, neat and tidy with its little square of garden.

His heart beating hard and fast, Zak rang the doorbell. A pleasant-looking, middle-aged woman answered it.

"I'm looking for Ashley..." Zak began, but the woman interrupted him. "Of course you are. You're Zak Neville, aren't you?"

"Yes, but..."

"Ash told us he was going to Yorkshire to try to find you. I thought we might be seeing you. He'll be in soon, he always comes home on Friday night and stays for the weekend. But you look as if you are in need of a cup of tea. "

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