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The Question

by Kit

Chapter 10

On the following Tuesday after the dancing lesson, which I grudgingly admitted to myself that I quite enjoyed, Debbie treated me to pizza, fries and salad, buying for herself a slightly more healthy baked potato salad. She, being a very chatty and open person, did most of the talking while we ate. By contrast, I was always very quiet with people I didn't know well, and even with my friends I was never exactly loquacious. Therefore, in the space of just a few minutes I learned a lot more about Debbie than she did about me.

She was an only child, born and brought up on the Sussex coast, her father was a partner in a firm of accountants and her mother, who didn't go out to work, spent much of her spare time involved in the activities of her local church. Her parents were both very loving and supportive but, at least according to Debbie, they tended to be oppressively protective. The fact that Linchester was a long way from Sussex was one of the main reasons she'd chosen this particular university.

After the dance lesson on the following Thursday night, a few members of the class announced that they were going across the road to the Augustus, a local pub that still had a very traditional atmosphere despite being frequented mostly by students. At first I declined the invitation to join them, saying I had to study, but Debbie pointed out that I'd used the same excuse on the Tuesday and said that she hadn't realised I was such a swot. A little stung by her words, I reluctantly agreed to join them.

Crowds of people had always made me uncomfortable and the larger and more closely packed the crowd was, the more uncomfortable I felt. One coping mechanism that I'd developed even before I went to Linchester was to find the person in the crowd that I knew best and with whom I was most at ease, and stay close to them. When I was in the Outdoor Club at school that person was Frank, and with the group of dance students at the Augustus that person was Debbie.

As it turned out, I ended up enjoying my night out in the pub, especially after my third pint of Guinness, by which time I was beginning to relax. About an hour after we arrived at the pub Gail, Adam and a few others from the advanced class joined us. However, Gail and her boyfriend stayed only long enough for one quick drink, so their presence didn't have much impact in the evening.

Debbie was, as usual, a lot more open about herself and her past than I was, so I got to know even more about her that night. By then I already knew she was intelligent, and by helping me out in the chemistry lab she'd shown she was kind and considerate. However, at the Augustus I learned that she could also be very witty and that she took animal welfare very seriously.

The next morning, as I was going into one of the classes I shared with Debbie, she came over to greet me.

"How's the hangover?" she said with a smile.

"Hangover?" I said, puzzled. "I don't have a hangover."

"That's surprising. You had a lot to drink last night and you seemed very merry when you left the pub."

"I rarely get hangovers, probably because after boozing I drink lots of water before going to bed," I said, neglecting to add that what I'd had to drink the previous night was only a fraction of the amount of alcohol I used to imbibe during my nights on Quay Street.

"Well, I'm a bit hungover," she said ruefully, "but I'm sure I'll have recovered by tomorrow night."

I had the impression that she expected me to understand some significance in her reference to the Saturday night, but I had no idea what that might be, so I just smiled sympathetically. My face must have betrayed my lack of comprehension, because she went on to clarify.

"Don't you remember?" she said. "Last night I told you it was Gail's birthday today and that we're going out to celebrate tomorrow night."

Now that she mentioned it, I found I had a hazy recollection of some such announcement.

"Ah, yes," I said vaguely.

"Anyway," she continued, "when I gave her a birthday card this morning she asked if I'd invite you to come along to the party."

"Me?" I said, taken so much by surprise that the word came out almost as a squeak. Taking care to lower my voice a couple of octaves, I added, "Why me? She hardly knows me."

"Well at the moment there are going to be a lot more females than males at the party, and she wants to even up the numbers," she replied. After a brief pause she continued, "And she said you seemed to be a very nice lad."

As far as I could remember, I'd never before been described as a 'very nice lad', and if I had been then it certainly wouldn't have been by any female younger than my mother. Both flattered and embarrassed, I blushed deeply, which brought a smile of amusement to Debbie's face. Despite the boost to my ego, the prospect of spending a night with a bunch of strangers, most of whom were female, was not appealing.

"Erm, well, th-that's very good of her," I stuttered, feeling very flustered, "but I don't think I can make it. I may, erm, probably be busy."

Debbie frowned, probably in disappointment, but possibly also a little hurt by the vagueness of my reason for declining the invitation. For a moment I wondered if she hadn't engineered that invitation and if perhaps my apparent lack of a social life made her feel sorry for me. Maybe she was attempting to rescue me, just as she used to rescue stray and injured animals when she was a child.

"Well," she said, trying to sound as if it were all very unimportant, "if you can manage it we'll be having a drink in the Augustus around eight o'clock before going down to the city centre about nine."

I followed her into the lecture theatre, but when she went to sit with her friends I took a seat on the opposite side of the room.

On Saturday afternoon I was incredibly bored. It had been several months since I'd spoken to either Derek or Frank and several weeks since I'd been down to Quay Street, and my weekends were now socially barren. Despite my best intentions, there was only so much studying I could do before my brain ground to a halt. There was nothing on TV that I wanted to watch, and I'd had a surfeit of computer games and surfing the web. Therefore, I concluded that going to Gail's party might in fact be my least-worst option for the night. Having made that decision, I managed to get to a local newsagent just before they closed for the day and bought the least unsuitable birthday card that I could find.

When I arrived at the Augustus there were, as Debbie had predicted, quite a few more females than males in Gail's group. Around nine o'clock we meandered down to the city centre, and after drinks in two different bars we ended up in a nightclub, by which time our group had somehow gathered in more males, so at least there was a better balance of the sexes. Because I was unfamiliar with the venues and had never met most of the members of the party before, I stayed close to the person I was most comfortable with and, as on the Thursday evening trip to the pub, that person turned out to be Debbie.

Not only was she very entertaining and pleasant to be with, but also she didn't seem to mind the fact that I spent much more time chatting with her than with any of the others. Overall, I had a reasonably enjoyable time, especially after my first couple of drinks. However, by around midnight I'd had enough socialising and more than enough alcohol, and so I bade farewell to Debbie and Gail specifically, and then waved a general good-bye to the group.

"But you're the first to leave," Gail said, pouting.

"Someone has to be the first to leave, and it might as well be me," I pointed out.

In my semi-drunken state my remark seemed to be both logical and witty, so I smiled broadly in self-congratulation. Gail, possibly because she was even more inebriated than I, failed to appreciate my wit, and frowned.

"Ya know," she said drunkenly, looking at Debbie, "he's not very sociable and doesn't say much. Maybe you should find someone else."

I was so irritated by the way she was talking about me as if I wasn't there that I paid very little attention to what she actually said. Annoyed, I turned and headed for the exit, where Debbie caught up with me.

"Thanks for coming," she said. "I'd be leaving now as well, but I promised Gail I'd make sure she'd get home safely."

"S'okay," I responded, not knowing what else to say.

With a smile and a brief wave I went off in search of a taxi.

After the weekend of Gail's party, Debbie either came and sat next to me during our shared classes or waved me over to join her and her friends. Although that was flattering, sitting with her friends initially made a little uncomfortable, but without seeming rude I couldn't avoid it. Our dancing lessons continued, and although I quickly picked up the basics I realised that I could never aspire to anything better than bare competence. More often than not we'd end up going along with the group of students who went to the Augustus after the dancing lessons.

This routine continued for a couple of weeks, at which point I realised that somehow, slowly and insidiously, Debbie and I had gone from being mere acquaintances to being friends. For most people such a situation wouldn't be such a great surprise, but for me it was quite unexpected. Although I got on reasonably well with a few people on a superficial level, there had been few people I regarded as real friends, and there had rarely been more than two of those at the same time. Usually, it took a long time or some extraordinary circumstance for me to form a new friendship. What made the situation with Debbie even more remarkable was that she was the first female whom I'd counted as a real friend.

Our interactions were made all the more enjoyable for me not by what we had in common but by our differences. For example, one of Debbie's main interests was going to the theatre, whereas the only plays I'd seen were those that had been compulsory at school. On the other hand, I was especially fond of classical music, whereas she had listened only to a few pieces by the most famous composers such as Mozart or Beethoven. This difference possibly reflected our different attitudes to social activities in that I could be alone in my room and listen to music, but going to the theatre involved being with lots of other people.

One evening, Debbie took me to a performance of 'Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead' at the city's Arts Theatre. Against all my expectations, I actually enjoyed myself and became completely engaged with the play. The following week I got some cheap student tickets and took her to the Philharmonic Hall, where there was a performance of Rodrigo's Concerto d'Aranjuez followed by Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. She'd never heard either piece before, but she enjoyed both and even appeared to shed an occasional tear during the concert.

Although I sometimes found music to be quite emotive, it had never made me tearful. Indeed, it had been many years since anything had made me cry, and the mere idea of crying in a public place made me cringe. Therefore, it was perhaps strange that I found Debbie's public show of emotion quite endearing, even though it also made me feel a little uncomfortable.

After the performance we both felt the need to unwind before going home, so as the Students Union was close by, we went to the Cellar bar for a couple of drinks. The place was quite busy, but we managed to find a small empty table and sat down facing each other to chat about the concert. After a few minutes she suddenly changed the topic.

"I think we're being stared at," she said, smiling and looking over my shoulder.

I twisted around in my seat and saw a group of four male students sitting at a nearby table. One of them was indeed looking in our general direction, though I wouldn't really have described it as staring. I recognised him as Nick, the obnoxious and intimidating guy from Hall. Just seeing him sent a shiver of apprehension down my spine. When he saw me turn toward him he grinned wolfishly, gave a brief nod of greeting and then turned his attention back to his companions. I turned back toward Debbie and tried to smile reassuringly.

"Oh, that's just a guy from Hall," I said. "His name's Nick, but I don't really know him. I think he's an Engineering student."

That last item of information elicited a look of amused understanding from Debbie, who was well aware of the reputation of Engineering students. A few minutes after that incident, I went to the bar to get more drinks, leaving Debbie to guard our table. While I was waiting for the barman to get my change, Nick also came up to the bar and ordered four pints of bitter. Then he turned to me and spoke, the slight slurring of his words indicating his level of inebriation.

"Nice girlfriend you've got there," he said. "Didn't think you'd have a girl like that."

My response was delayed a little because I was trying to work out whether I should feel flattered or insulted by his remark.

"But she's not..." I began.

At that point I was interrupted by the barman handing me my change, and before I could continue telling Nick that Debbie wasn't my girlfriend, he started saying something to the barman. As Nick was no longer paying any attention to me, I felt rather foolish just standing there with a glass in each hand. Rather than hang around just to clear up his misunderstanding, I made my way back toward Debbie. Then it occurred to me that maybe it was a good thing that I'd not corrected Nick, because as long as he thought I had a girlfriend he would never suspect that I was one of those 'sick queers' he apparently hated so much.

After I returned to Debbie with our drinks, we started chatting about our mutual courses and our plans for the future. She was planning to concentrate on synthetic chemistry and was interested in synthesising new drugs for the pharmaceutical industry.

"What are you doing for your Honours course next year?" she asked.

"Physiology, I hope, though I hear it's tough to get into, and I don't know if I'll get good enough grades this year."

"You know," she said, frowning, "the number of jobs in Physiology is pretty limited. With the courses you're doing this year you could get into Biochemistry. That would give you much better career prospects."

"But I enjoy Physiology," I pointed out, "and I find it much more interesting than Biochemistry."

"Still," she persisted, "you should be thinking more of the long-term future, not just what you enjoy now."

"At the moment I'm more interested in just doing well this year," I said with a wry grin. "After all, if I don't get good results this year I won't need to worry about a long-term future."

"Yes," she replied, looking thoughtful, "and you won't need to decide on your Honours course until you get this year's results. Then maybe you'll reconsider."

I just shrugged my shoulders, mildly irritated by the fact she was questioning my choice of courses, especially as I'd refrained from telling her that I thought that a career in synthetic chemistry would be incredibly boring. I also began to wonder if she took a similar interest in the career choices of all her friends.

Perhaps it was my imagination, but after that incident in the Cellar bar, Nick and his friends in Hall seemed to treat me with more respect. Well, maybe that is something of an overstatement. In fact, instead of more or less ignoring me, they now at least seemed to occasionally acknowledge my existence. At around about that time I also began to notice that several fellow students in the classes I shared with Debbie were being friendlier toward me, and it seemed that perhaps some of her popularity had rubbed off onto me.

In retrospect, it should have been obvious to me from they way that some of our mutual acquaintances behaved that at least a few of them had started regarding Debbie and myself as a 'couple'. Sometimes I did indeed wonder if some of her friends imagined that we were more than just dance partners. However, apart from the visits to the theatre and the concert, our only meetings were always as part of larger social gatherings such as dancing, parties and group trips to the pub, so there was clearly no basis for whatever fanciful ideas they might have had about us.

On the one occasion I really thought about the matter, I quickly put it out of my mind, telling myself that as long as Debbie and I knew the real situation, it didn't matter what other people might think. My own feeling was that we had the sort of semi-detached friendship that I could feel comfortable with, and I assumed that Debbie felt the same way. Neither of us ever mentioned our friendship, and certainly neither of us ever behaved in any way that might indicate that anything more than friendship might exist between us.

The dance classes continued to be enjoyable, and I was not only doing reasonably well with the waltz but I'd also picked up the basics of the quickstep and foxtrot. Therefore, the prospect of the end of term and the final lesson made me just a little sad. The big event of the year for the Ballroom Dancing Club was the Easter Ball, organised to take place on the penultimate Friday of term, the day after the last dance class. The occasion was always very formal, with dinner jacket, bow ties and suchlike, so initially I declined to go, but then allowed Debbie to talk me into escorting her for the night.

Of course, the formal clothes I wore to the Ball were rented, even the bow tie and shirt, and the only items of my own were shoes, socks and underwear. When Debbie had insisted on going down to the hire shop to help me pick the outfit, I became a little irritated, especially as she wouldn't even describe to me in advance what she would be wearing. However, I tried not to show my annoyance even when she justified herself by saying that as I was a male she couldn't trust my taste in clothes but I could rely on her good fashion sense.

The venue for the Ball was one of the large assembly rooms in the Students Union, and when I arrived there I was pleasantly surprised by the way the organising committee had transformed that space. The basically drab institutional room had been transformed by clever lighting and well-executed wall decorations into a formal ballroom, with a live band at one end and a bar at the other end. The general theme of the decor was snowdrops and daffodils, and there were even stands of fresh flowers strategically placed around the room. There was also that visual cliché, the rotating mirrored faceted ball suspended from the ceiling.

Like all the women there, Debbie wore a long gown, and the green colour she'd chosen went well with her hair colour. Although it appeared to be rather a tight fit, it didn't restrict her movement on the dance floor, and I felt rather proud to be seen dancing with her. Both her appearance and behaviour were more feminine than I'd seen before, and that in turn seemed to emphasise my feelings of masculinity. Overall, it was a very strange but not unpleasant feeling.

Even counting people like Gail and Adam from the advanced class, those of us from the dancing classes made up only a small fraction of the total number of people at the Ball. Indeed, I found it hard to believe that there were so many people in the whole of the Ballroom Dancing Society. When I mentioned this to Debbie she told me that although it was organised by the society, the Ball was actually an event for the whole university.

Apart from dancing, we spent much of our time socialising with Gail, Adam and others from our dance class, so during the course of the night we both had quite a few drinks. Although we were never inebriated, it would be fair to say that the standard of our dancing did deteriorate a little. Because we were still beginners, we needed to concentrate on our movements, so it was not our habit to speak much while we were dancing, and that gave me plenty of time to think. Maybe it was the alcohol combined with the overall atmosphere that made some of those thoughts disturbingly unusual for me.

There was no doubt in my mind that I was gay, and I'd long ago ceased to worry that being gay might be 'sick' as Simon had said. I'd eventually come to accept it as a natural and integral part of myself, so I considered it to be normal. However, I realised that many of the people around me that night might very well consider me abnormal if they knew about me. It also occurred to me that although I'd not made any conscious effort to do so, there was no doubt that all that night I'd been playing the role of a straight man. What disturbed me most was how much I was enjoying that role-play and how much I would like everyone to think of me as 'normal'.

Inevitably, the last dance of the night was a slow dance, and there was no reasonable way to avoid having that dance with Debbie, even if I'd wanted to do so. The way she clung so tightly to me as we swayed together was certainly not unpleasant, but I did get rather a shock when she placed her lips on mine and began to kiss me. Surrounded by so many other people there seemed to be no way I could avoid accepting that kiss, even when her tongue entered my mouth.

I'd never kissed a girl before, and this felt very different from kissing a guy. However, although there were absolutely no sexual overtones for me, it was not at all distasteful, so I returned her kiss. Perhaps in retrospect that was a mistake, but even with the benefit of hindsight it's not easy to see what better course of action I could have chosen. As it turned out, she took my actions as an encouragement to cling to me even more tightly and to kiss me more passionately. Fortunately, the music ended before things could go any further, and with a huge feeling of deliverance, I broke off the kiss and removed my arms from around her waist.

"Looks like it's time to go home," I said, trying to hide my relief.

"Yes, I suppose it is," she said regretfully. She'd stopped clinging to me, but as we both moved toward the edge of the room she grasped my hand and leaned closer, speaking quietly and smiling coyly. "You're a good kisser. I bet you've had lots of practice."

"Er, no. Not really," I replied, blushing and avoiding her gaze.

Of course I'd had lots of practice with other guys, but I consoled myself with the thought that my reply wasn't really a lie because she obviously meant practice with girls. Anyway, I thought that after the lacklustre way I'd returned her kiss she must also have been lying when she'd said that I was a good kisser.

"That's probably because you're so shy," she commented and smiled knowingly.

"Shy?" I said, surprised by her accusation. I'd never considered myself to be shy, though I knew I was quite reserved and more self-contained than most people.

"Never mind," she said soothingly. "I knew you just needed someone to coax you out of your shell."

Before I could think of a response to that, and indeed before I could even work out the significance of what she'd said, I realised we were now close to a group of our fellow dancing students. Debbie was still tightly holding my hand, and I was embarrassed by the fact that some members of the group had obviously noticed this and were bestowing knowing smiles upon both of us. One lad, who often went for drinks with us after the dancing lessons, even winked at me. Under such scrutiny it was impossible to indulge my growing desire to disentangle my hand from Debbie's and flee the room. Then, just when it seemed my discomfort and embarrassment couldn't get any worse, Debbie spoke again.

"Shall we share a taxi?" she asked loudly enough for those nearby to hear.

"Okay," I agreed, conscious of our audience.

As Gail and Debbie were in the same Hall, at first I wondered if there would be three or even four of us in the taxi. However, that question was quickly answered when Gail, rather pointedly it seemed to me, announced that she and Adam were sharing a taxi and going back to Adam's flat.

Debbie didn't release my hand until she went to retrieve her wrap from the cloakroom. While she waited in line there, I decided to go and empty my bladder, and by the time I returned she had her wrap and was chatting to Gail. Because I was behind them, at first they didn't notice my approach and I overheard the concluding part of their conversation.

"... was good," Gail was saying. "And at last you got a bit of romance out of him."

Then she looked up and saw me then rapidly changed the subject.

"I'd better go find Adam," she said, sounding a little flustered, "and see if he's got us a taxi yet."

When we got into our taxi, Debbie not only grasped my hand again but she also rested her head on my shoulder. As her Hall was nearer than mine, we dropped her off first, but before she got out of the taxi she kissed me again and then whispered in my ear.

"Do you want to come in for some coffee?" she asked.

"No thanks," I replied, trying to hide my rapidly rising panic. "I'm really tired and need to go home and get some sleep."

"I understand," she said and gave me a little smile.

It wasn't easy to read her expression in the dim light, but as far as I could tell it showed more relief than disappointment at my response.

During the previous few weeks I'd usually looked forward to seeing Debbie in the classes we shared. After all, at that time my chats with her were the nearest thing I had to a social life. However, as I was getting ready for bed that night I found that I was almost dreading seeing her at our next class. She was nice to have as a friend but if, as I now suspected, she was getting romantically attached, then life could get uncomfortably messy and complicated.

Remembering our various interactions and thinking about some of the things Debbie had said and done, I realised that there were many clues that I'd either missed or deliberately ignored. For example, it was hard to believe that Debbie took such a close interest in the career choices and even clothing of all her friends. There were also little things said by Gail that hadn't meant much at the time but which in retrospect might be significant.

Despite my concern about Debbie's intentions, I did manage to sleep well, probably because I really was very tired. In fact, I slept so well that I missed breakfast and was just placating my grumbling stomach with tea and chocolate biscuits when my phone rang. On picking it up I saw that it was Debbie and I greeted her with an unintended wariness.

"Hi, Ian," she said cheerily, apparently not detecting anything negative in my initial greeting. "I was just wondering if you wanted to meet up sometime today."

"Oh, erm," I replied as I quickly tried to think of an excuse. "I'm a bit hungover at the moment, so I'm not feeling very sociable. Sorry."

"I don't think you ever feel very sociable, do you?" she said, emphasising the word 'very'. From the lightly amused tone and the little laugh that followed her words, I deduced that her question was merely rhetorical, so I didn't respond.

"Anyway," she continued, a note of concern entering her voice, "I'm sorry to hear about your hangover. I didn't think you'd had all that much to drink last night and I thought you told me you almost never get hangovers."

"Yes, that's true" I admitted. Then I added rather lamely, "Maybe I'm coming down with a cold or something."

"Oh, I hope not," she said, sounding genuinely concerned. There was a brief silence, during which I couldn't think of anything to say. Eventually, she spoke again, this time a little hesitantly. "You know, I just wanted to say what a gentleman you were last night. Most lads I've been out with would have taken my invitation for coffee as an invitation to go to bed."

"Oh, right." I was unable to think of anything more coherent or appropriate to say because my mind was too busy trying to analyse her words. For example, I wondered if 'other lads I've been with' meant the same as 'other boyfriends', and if so, if that mean she considered me to be a boyfriend.

"Maybe we can meet up tomorrow, then," she said, more as a statement than as a question. "There's something I want to talk to you about, so I'll phone you in the morning to see if you're okay."

"What did you want to talk about?" I said, beginning to get worried. "Why can't you just talk now?"

"Well, if you're unwell you may not want to chat, and in any case I'd rather do it in person," she replied.

"But now you've mentioned it I'll not be able to rest or sleep because I'll be wondering what it is."

There was another brief silence before Debbie responded. "Well, it's really not that important. Just that now that the dancing classes have ended we need to decide what we do with our Tuesday and Thursday evenings."

"Maybe it would be a good idea to do some studying and catching up on course work," I said, feeling trapped and beginning to panic.

"Be serious," she said and gave a little laugh. "That doesn't sound like an enjoyable way of spending time together."

This wasn't a conversation I wanted to have. Certainly I didn't want to discuss it at that particular time, and I would have preferred never to discuss it at all. Therefore, I decided to buy myself some time.

"You were right," I said. "We really should talk about this when I'm feeling better."

"Okay," she agreed. "I'll phone you tomorrow."

After Debbie hung up, I just sat on my bed, staring into space and thinking about the situation. The more I thought about it the more convinced I became that she wanted, maybe even thought we already had, a romantic relationship. Suppressing my feelings of panic, I tried to think calmly enough to find a solution to the problem. Unfortunately, every possible scenario I could think of ended with one or both of us getting hurt.

One of the first things I thought of was just to tell her I was gay and that I'd like to remain friends but that we could never be more than that. Despite the fact that I'd never come out to a heterosexual before, that initially seemed like the least-worst option, and it at least had the benefit of being truthful. Then I thought of the possible consequences. Although there was a reasonable chance that Debbie's reaction wouldn't be too bad and that she'd promise to keep my secret, I was concerned that she might accidentally let it slip out. Gail was her best friend and obviously knew about Debbie's romantic feelings long before I did.

From personal experience, I knew that Gail was nosy and persistent and would want to know about any change in Debbie's interactions with me. Gail was also opinionated and had a big mouth, so if she knew I was gay then sooner or later half of the students at the university would know. More importantly, people like Nick would find out, and if he found out then my life in Hall would become impossible. The mere prospect of that sent shivers of fear along my spine. No, I decided with an absolute finality, Debbie must not find out that I was gay.

As I valued Debbie's friendship and enjoyed her company, I considered just telling her that I wasn't interested in anything romantic. However, I didn't know how she would react, and my gut feeling was that remaining friends would be too uncomfortable for both of us after I made such an announcement. Despite that, I didn't totally discard that possible scenario. Indeed, although I would have liked to keep her friendship, it occurred to me that maybe it would be a good thing if Debbie refused to have anything to do with me. At least then there would be a clean break and we could both move on without months of lingering embarrassment.

With everything running through my mind, it took a while before I realised that I'd missed lunch, but that wasn't a problem because I had no appetite. There was no doubt in my mind that I was in a messy situation, and I couldn't avoid the conclusion that it was at least partly my own fault. I'd blindly walked into the quagmire, but in retrospect I realised that the blindness had been mostly because I hadn't wanted to see.

Of course, I could think of many excuses for myself, and it seemed to me that there were many factors that might mitigate my fault. For example, if Debbie had been interested in more than friendship she really should have said so, and even now the signals she was giving were not totally unambiguous. However, I couldn't convince even myself that I was completely blameless.

I'd enjoyed socialising with Debbie, not only for the considerable pleasure of her company but also for the status it had given me in the eyes of others. Therefore, it had been easy for me to avoid noticing any signs that she felt anything more than friendship toward me. All these things were still going round in my mind when my phone rang. It was Debbie again.

"Hi," she said. "I'm lost. This old Hall of yours is a bit like a rabbit warren."

"Wh-what?" I asked, totally confused. "Where are you?"

"I'm standing at the top of some stairs near some showers, looking for your room," she said, sounding a little frustrated. "The porter told me your room number and gave me directions, but I got lost. I asked some people but they didn't know where your room was, and one even told me he didn't know anyone called Ian Kaye."

"But what are you doing here?" I asked, still in shock.

"I just thought I'd bring you some medicines, see how you are, and maybe keep you company for a while," she replied as if she were just stating the obvious. "So anyway, where are you?"

"Okay," I said and sighed. "If you tell me the number on the room nearest to you I'll come and find you."

As we approached my room, she made several negative comments about the location, the food smells, and the fact that the Hall was so old. When she even suggested that I try transferring to a different Hall the following year, I suppressed my irritation and remained silent. Once inside my room, she gave me a small package of assorted cold medicines, and I boiled some water to make her some tea. To maintain my pretence, I made myself a hot lemon drink from one of the packs she'd brought.

"Well, I can see that this room has some advantages," she said as she sat at my desk sipping her tea. "At least it's big. Huge, actually."

"I like it," I said defensively as I sat on my bed and drank a little of the horrible hot lemon concoction.

"Still, it's a bit bare isn't it?" she said critically. I just frowned, so she continued with her theme, waving her hand vaguely around. "All those bare walls, all this empty space. It's a bit depressing. You need to brighten the place up, get some posters on the wall. That sort of thing."

"It's fine for me," I said, suppressing the urge to tell her to mind her own business. "I like it as it is."

"What you need is a woman's touch," she continued, completely ignoring what I'd said. "Next time I come I'll bring some nice posters and stuff."

In the past I'd occasionally felt that she was trying to take over some aspects of my life, but I'd decided it was just my paranoia. Now she'd invaded my private space and it was obvious that she wanted to control that, too. My irritation was replaced by panic, and I felt a desperate need to get her out of my room. The intensity of my emotions allowed my half-full mug to slip from my hand and fall to the floor. Fortunately, the mug didn't break, though the contents spilled on the carpet.

I stood up immediately, grabbed a handful of paper towels from bedside the sink, and began mopping up the mess. Debbie crouched next to me and tried to help, but she just got in the way, so I waved her away and told her I could manage on my own. She just stood there, hovering, while I continued dabbing at the carpet. Once the carpet was just damp rather than soaking. I raised my eyes to her face.

"Look, Debbie," I said firmly. "I'm really not feeling well. I've got a terrible headache, so why don't you leave now so I can lie down for a while."

She gave me a strange look that I couldn't interpret, and momentarily it appeared as if she was going to say something, but she just nodded her head. In silence, I escorted her to the exit door that I thought of as my private entrance to Hall.

"I'll phone in the morning," she said just before she left. "Hopefully you'll feel better by then."

I returned to my room and lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling. After much thought, I decided that the best way to avoid any future complications and possible emotional upsets was to make a quick, clean, complete break. Maybe the correct way to do that would be to meet her and tell her in person, but I knew I couldn't deal with any resulting emotional scene. Therefore, I decided to use the opportunity of her promised phone call. In a way, I suppose that was a little cowardly, but I convinced myself that it would be better for everyone.

I knew it would be sad to lose her friendship, but with the way she was interfering in my life, it would only be a matter of time before she found out I was gay. Then if she got upset or angry with me after that, there was a possibility she would, willingly or accidentally, reveal my secret. That risk was just too great for me to take.

That night I didn't get much sleep because I was rehearsing various things I might say to Debbie when she phoned. So the next morning I was both tired and nervous as I waited for my phone to ring. As things turned out, when she did call I, never used any of the little speeches I'd rehearsed.

"Hi, Ian!" she greeted me brightly. "Are you feeling better today?"

The cheerfulness of her greeting just made me feel even more miserable, but I tried not to let it show in my voice. I always hated confrontations, and the adrenaline flooding my system made my hands shake and my stomach churn.

"Yes, thanks. I'm much better now."

"That's good," she said, sounding genuinely pleased.

All the things I'd planned to say disappeared from my head, and I couldn't bring myself to say anything at all, so it was Debbie who broke the ensuing silence. "Anyway, do you want to meet later today? We can talk about what we do with our Tuesday and Thursday evenings."

At last I saw an opportunity to say what needed to be said, though I probably did so a little too bluntly. "I was thinking that we shouldn't do anything."

"W-what do you mean?" she asked, obviously taken aback by my words.

"Well, I kept my promise, and I think that now the debt I owed you has been repaid." I paused and took a deep breath before continuing, "So there isn't really any reason now to keep on seeing each other outside of our classes."

Of course, that wasn't the real reason, but after her visit the previous afternoon I just wanted to find any excuse to make a quick, clean break. There was yet another silence, this one being very uncomfortable and seeming to last forever. As I felt that I'd communicated what I'd intended, there was a temptation just to hang up, but I felt that it was only fair to wait and give her a chance to express herself.

"But, but, I thought," she said eventually, stuttering in apparent shock. "But I didn't think you were going out with me just to pay off a debt. I thought, well..."

Her speech just ground to a halt, and as I couldn't just hang up I felt I had to say something, no matter how banal or stupid, just to get the whole uncomfortable situation over with.

"What?" I prompted, keeping my voice as neutral as possible. "What did you think?"

"I thought, well, don't you love me?"

"Of course not," I replied, more coldly than I'd intended.

"So you were just using me," she said.

That completely puzzled me, because I didn't have any idea what she thought I might have been using her for.

"Maybe you were using me," I said, adrenaline making me easily annoyed. "But in any case, I'm sure we won't be using one another any more."

"So that's it?" she said. "You're dumping me just like that? After all I've done for you?"

"You have to be with someone before you can dump them," I said, my voice breaking with emotion. "We were only ever just friends, and you ruined that by trying to take things too far."

I thought I heard her sob just before she hung up. After that, we never spoke to each other again. In our mutual classes she completely ignored my existence, and her friends did likewise except for the occasional glare they directed at me.

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