It was my own fault, I wasn't concentrating. I had a lot on my mind.
Earlier in the day an old lady I know had been taken to the local hospital in an ambulance, in a lot of pain, and her relatives had phoned and told me about it. So I'd gone to see her. I wanted to see that she was okay. She was pretty bad and for a while they thought she was dying. But they did all the tests and now they think she's got gallstones, which is very painful, but not life-threatening.
And after the hospital visit I was driving home and there's a big roundabout and there was a lot of traffic on it. I joined the queue of cars waiting to get onto the roundabout. A neat little family hatchback was in front of me and I waited until he'd set off to merge with the roundabout traffic and then looked to my right, searching for a gap on the roundabout that I could slot into. Almost immediately I saw my chance and began to move forward, until a jolt and a crunching noise snapped my eyes forward and I realised what I'd done. The car ahead of me in the queue had begun to move but then stopped again. And after I saw him move forward I'd just assumed he'd gone, and kept looking to my right until I saw my chance to go. And I was still looking right when I moved. Big mistake.
It wasn't exactly a high-speed shunt, my plastic bumper hit his plastic bumper, buckling both but doing no other damage. I stopped dead, he moved a metre or so forward and stopped.
I'm usually quite good at being efficient and business-like in such situations but today I couldn't get my mind in gear. It's been like that a lot lately. Depression, I guess.
Slowly I gathered my thoughts. Exchange of insurance details. I didn't have my documents with me. No matter, I could take the guy's details and give him my address and phone number. So I opened the glovebox looking for pen and paper. I glanced up through the windscreen to check what the other driver was doing and my heart sank. He'd got out of his car and was walking towards me. A copper, by his uniform. It felt like the last straw and I lost it. My eyes watered and my face wrinkled and I shook myself and forced the tears back and fumbled for a tissue and dried my face, leaning over towards the glovebox to hide my movements. Once I'd done what I could I sat up and wound my window down, just in time for the policeman to face me, stony-faced, and recite in a bored tone:
“Would you get out of the vehicle, please, sir. Turn the ignition off.”
Of course I did as I was told but I'd lost all sense of proportion. As far as I could see my life had ended and the sooner someone put me out of my misery the better. I haven't explained about that yet, have I? Well, it all comes clear quite soon. Bear with me.
He waved me into the space between our two vehicles, and joined me there. He took a quick look at the damage to his little car and an even quicker look for damage to my elderly but enormous estate car. There wasn't much to see. Then he turned to me and asked:
“Have you been drinking, sir?”
“Do you have your documents? Driver's licence, insurance certificate, MOT test certificate?”
“Sorry, no, I don't keep them in the car. They're at home.”
I couldn't raise any expression to my face at all. I should have looked contrite, ashamed, sorry, something but all I felt was numb. He noticed.
“Is there something wrong? You don't look well.”
“I'm okay, officer. I'm sorry about your car. Can we exchange insurance details?”
“No, I'm not satisfied with your responses. I'm going to breathalyse you, sir, and then I want you to accompany me to the station.”
Still the strange copper-speak, the words coming out like a child's poetry recital, sing-song and devoid of all meaning.
He opened the boot of his car. I was vaguely aware of relief that it opened okay despite the slight buckling to the panel beneath the boot catch. And from his boot he brought a machine and one of the tubes you blow into, sealed in polythene. He took the tube from its wrapping, fitted it in the machine and told me what to do. I did as I was told, mechanically, and he got his reading, which I gathered told him I had been telling the truth, there was no alcohol in my bloodstream.
“I want you to get back in your car, sir, and drive to that lay-by,” - pointing ahead just a hundred metres past the roundabout - “and park your car there and wait for me to join you.”
Again, I did as I was told. And his little car drew up behind me and he came over and told me to lock my car and get in the back of his.
In his car, he turned in the driver's seat and looked at me, slumped in the back. After a moment, he spoke:
“What's your name?”
I told him.
“Where do you live?”
I told him that, too. I live just across town, about three miles.
“There is an alternative to a trip to the police station, sir, if you'd care to take it. I can drive you to your house, you can produce your documents and if they are in order I can bring you back here and you can collect your car and drive home. Will we find your documents are in order?”
“Yes, officer, I'm sure they're in order. I'd much rather do it that way.”
So we drove to my home, where I had to explain to my wife why I had showed up in company with a policeman and why I was going out again straight away. But my documents, which took a minute or two to find, were in order and the copper wrote my insurance details in his notebook, and then took me back to my car. When we got there, he stopped behind my car in the lay-by and once again turned to me.
When he spoke, the tone of his voice was different. The copper-speak was gone, and it was a warm, compassionate voice that said:
“Why don't you tell me what's wrong? Maybe I can help!”
Well I couldn't tell him, could I? How can you tell a stranger stuff like that? So I just shut him out with:
“Nothing's wrong. Can I have your insurance details?”
He looked deflated and I felt a little bad about that, I guess he was genuinely being friendly. He took a pack out of his glovebox, found the right sheet and copied some stuff into a fresh page of his notebook, then tore the page out and gave it to me. I thanked him and apologised for the accident, remembering too late that the insurance companies advise never to admit blame at the scene of an accident. I got out of the car and stumped over to mine. As I settled into the driver's seat the policeman pulled up next to me and gestured to me to wind my window down.
“Are you going straight home, now, sir?” He asked, and I noticed the official tone of voice was back.
“Yes, officer, I'm going straight home.”
“Good. Have a nice evening.”
“Thank you. And sorry about the accident.” Now I'd apologised twice.
He drove off and I found myself still clutching the sheet of paper he'd given me. I glanced at it as I put it down in the glove compartment. I noticed he'd written his mobile phone number and a message “Call me if you want to talk” in a box he'd drawn at the bottom of the sheet.
I set off. But I couldn't face going straight home so I turned the car into a narrow lane that leads to a quiet stretch of beach. It's one of my favourite places, somewhere I can go when I feel down to get away from people and be alone with my thoughts.
I stopped the car on the beach and wound the front windows down to get some fresh air, and without warning I found myself crying again. The stretch of beach was deserted and I didn't hold back, I howled. All the misery that had built up over the months came out of me. I leant my forehead against the steering wheel and shook as I cried my heart out.
I was only dimly aware that the passenger door opened and somebody climbed into the car beside me but when a hand appeared under my nose offering a bunch of tissues I took them and began drying my eyes.
“You told me you were going straight home”. The copper again.
“I was but I just had to come here first. Couldn't face my wife feeling like this.”
“Some people would turn to their wives for support when they felt bad.”
“You wouldn't understand. It's complicated.”
I looked at the policeman sat next to me and for the first time noticed his handsome face and his smiling blue eyes.
“Why are you here?”
“Look, I could see something was up, more than just the accident, the first time I saw you. I didn't realise you were this bad, I'm glad I thought to wait to see where you went.”
He'd taken his Kevlar jacket off with its radio, and his tie, and he was wearing just a short-sleeved white shirt and those slightly tight black belted trousers that policemen wear, that show off their bums so well, and Doc Marten's black leather shoes. His shirt was a little tight across his chest and I could see he was well-built, with a broad chest and narrow waist. But his arms weren't overly muscled and I realised for the first time that this was an absolutely gorgeous guy. Short dark hair, a little spiked, and bright blue eyes above a neat straight nose and dazzling smile and then a slightly dimpled chin with a little stubble, just on the chin. I found myself staring at him.
“Nothing, I was wondering what made you take an interest. Do you follow all the motorists you stop?”
“Only the ones I'm worried about.”
I took a moment to digest that. He took the initiative and continued:
“So, do you want to talk about it?”
Well, I didn't, really, but I thought maybe I owed him some sort of explanation for my behaviour.
“I don't know what to say. Things have been bad for me for some time now and it's all come to a head just recently. I'm beginning to feel I can't go on.”
“I don't know very much about you yet. I know your name, I know you have a car, and that although you've just had a minor accident in it, it's insured. And I know you have a home to go to, and a wife. It seems to me there are others who might envy you.”
I was a bit taken aback by this but he had a point.
“I know, I must seem self-pitying, and perhaps I am. I'm badly depressed and I can't handle it. Look at me I'm crying like a child, I gave up crying when I hit puberty and now all of a sudden I burst into tears all the time.”
He reached out towards me, I flinched back a little and he pulled back at the last moment. I wasn't sure what had happened, it felt as though he'd been about to wipe my face with his thumb, but it might have been something else.
“Sorry. Look, I'm not making any judgements about you or about your problems. I'm not accusing you of self-pity, or childishness. I have my own reasons for being non-judgemental about these things. Why don't you try telling me about it, maybe I could help. It can't hurt to talk it through, at least.”
I didn't respond to this, just staring at him dumbly. It bothered me that I was becoming so aware of his beauty. His eyes were so blue and sparkly, and his mouth with its soft lips was smiling wryly at me.
“How about we start by telling a little about ourselves. My name's Mark, by the way. I'm Mark Taylor, I'm thirty-three years old and I'm a policeman, as you know. I live alone in a small flat that I rent on the edge of the park across the road from where we had our accident. Now you tell me about you!”
Okay, I thought. In for a penny, in for a pound.
“I'm Anthony Harris, Tony to my friends. I'm forty, I'm an accountant, married with three children. You know where I live.”
I dried up. I wanted to tell him all about it, I really did, I felt I could tell those blue eyes anything. But the words just wouldn't come out. He waited, and we sat in silence for some seconds. When I still didn't speak, he did.
“And? What has happened to make you so unhappy?”
That was just what I needed to start telling him.
“It's a long story. And it's not all one thing. A year ago I had a bad experience. I do some work for a charity, I'm on a committee that organises it locally. Some of the other members of the committee tried to get me removed as unfit. It was based on untrue allegations, but it was investigated rigorously because of the charity commission rules, and for months I was treated like I was guilty until eventually I was exonerated. But the ones who made the accusation did it maliciously, knowing their story wasn't true, and it was an awful shock to find that people I'd trusted and thought of as friends would do that. It shook my confidence. Although I'm still on the committee I feel sidelined and don't feel able to contribute effectively.
“Straight after the investigation was over I got sick. I had to have an emergency operation that was only partly successful, so I had to have another one which left me in a lot of pain and finally a third one. Now I'm over that, but it was nearly a year of being unwell and I turned forty during it, and it's a traumatic experience to discover you're not as young as you were, or as healthy. I got depressed and my doctor arranged therapy sessions for me.”
The next bit was going to be hard to tell, and I paused to sort it out in my head. And burst into tears again.
He handed me some more tissues, and then patted and stroked my shoulder. From behind the tissues I looked up at him in surprise, and he looked a little sheepish as he pulled his hand back to his lap.
Once I'd recovered a bit, I continued:
“I was a victim of child abuse. After it happened the first time I reported it to my father and the school's headmaster and they both let me down badly. The abuser was not punished, or removed from contact with children. And I was abused repeatedly for the next five years. I've just heard that the man has recently retired having spent his entire career in charge of children. I dread to think how many others have suffered at his hands.
“My therapist helped me to understand that the reason I've not been able to get over the feeling of betrayal after the committee members conspired against me is that it links with the betrayal I still feel from the adults who should have protected me as a child and didn't.
“I've been trying to deal with all that since the therapy finished three months ago. And I thought I was doing all right. I've found out some things about myself that I'd never dealt with before. But I've had to cut back a lot on my commitments because I find I no longer have the energy or confidence to take on extra stuff. I know it wouldn't take much to push me over the edge.
“Some things have happened just this week that have added to my problems. I walked out of my job yesterday after a row with the boss, and today the elderly mother of a close friend has been rushed into hospital and for a while we thought she might not survive.
“And for the first time in twenty years of marriage, I'm cheating on my wife!”
I'd told him everything now, and I gave myself the luxury of crying noisily for a few moments.
Mark Taylor the policeman didn't say anything, he didn't even hand me more tissues. I looked up at him and he showed me the box was empty. I wiped my eyes on my sleeve.
“Now you know why I'm such a mess. I hate my life, I don't know how I can go on.”
At last he spoke up:
“I'm really sorry about your childhood experience. It was very wrong that your attacker wasn't dealt with even though you'd reported him. How old were you?”
“I was thirteen when it started and eighteen when it finished, when I left the school and the area.”
“I can see how that would affect you for the rest of your life. I'm really sorry. And now you've got to look for another job which is always stressful. I was surprised you told me you're having an affair – that doesn't quite seem like the action of someone suffering depression.”
“I'm not having an affair.”
“You said you're cheating on your wife.”
“Not cheating with someone, just cheating.”
“I don't understand.”
“I've realised that I'm gay.” I turned my face away from him, I couldn't bear him to see the shame I was feeling.
“I've been in denial about it all my life. It's one of the things that became clear in therapy. I've never let myself consider the possibility before, but when I got deeply depressed all the barriers came down and I realised what I'd always hidden from myself and everyone else.”
“And you haven't told your wife? That's what you mean by cheating on her?”
We fell silent, sat together in the front of my car staring at the waves at the shoreline reflecting the dramatic orange sunset above the horizon, through the windscreen.
Gradually my sobbing subsided. “Come on,” said Mark, “Lets take a walk along the shoreline.”
Without waiting for my response, he opened his door, swung his legs out and removed his shoes and socks. He rolled his trouser legs up a few inches and stood up, putting his shoes in the footwell before closing the car door. I was still sat in the driver's seat numbly. He walked around to my side, opened my door and swung me round, pointing my feet out of the door. He crouched down, undid my shoes and took them off, and then took my socks off for me. I found it a strangely sensual experience. He cradled my heel in one hand and slid his other hand up the back of my leg under my trouser till he got to the top of my sock. Then he pushed the tips of his fingers into the sock and slid his hand back down my ankle, easing the sock over my heel and off my foot in one smooth gentle movement. And then he did it again with the other foot. And he rolled my trousers up like he'd done with his own.
He stood up and held out a hand to help me out of the car. Holding his hand awoke emotions in me that I wasn't expecting. I looked into his eyes which were twinkling and smiling back at me and I began to smile despite myself. His own smile broadened at the sight and as I came upright he wrapped me in a bear hug which, after a moment of paralysis, I returned. We stood like that for a minute or more and I didn't cry.
The hug came naturally to an end and we stepped apart far enough to see each other's faces. I looked for a reaction from him, but he was still smiling broadly.
I had begun to feel better, and with that had come a question I needed the answer to.
“Why are you doing this?”
He didn't answer so I tried again.
“Why are you taking such an interest in me?”
“I like you. I liked you as soon as I saw you. And I'm sorry for you. But mostly it's because the world isn't so full of gay men that we don't need to make friends where we can find them.”
“You're gay too?”
“Yes, didn't you work that out? Do you get hugged by a lot of straight coppers?” He got a chuckle out of me with that.
He took my hand.
“Come on let's get our feet wet!” He ran towards the water, pulling me along behind him. And when we got to the shoreline we walked comfortably together along it, hand in hand. He talked about inconsequential things, television programmes, weather, holidays, and gradually I felt better. Life didn't seem so bad. I'd made a new friend, someone I could talk to about being gay. I suddenly realised how much I needed a friend like that. Mark.
We walked for nearly an hour and when we got back to my car I was smiling and laughing with him and I'd told him much of my life story and he'd told me some of his. He had his sports bag in the boot of his car, parked some yards behind mine, and he got a towel out of it and dried my feet for me. I put my own shoes and socks back on and then dried his feet for him. Mark has the most beautiful ankles I've ever seen. Neat, trim, the hairs on his legs coming to an end at the narrow ankle with the pronounced tendon running down to the heel. And his feet have beautiful, elegant toes, each with a tiny tuft of hair on top. Very kissable, I found myself thinking, surprising myself since I'd never imagined wanting to kiss another man's feet. I could kiss Mark's any time, though.
We exchanged e-mail addresses and I gave him my mobile phone number, he'd already given me his. Since then we've met up most Mondays, usually at a pub where we have a pint together and talk for an hour or two. He's introduced me to a few gay friends and I don't feel so alone with my problem any more. I think I'm going to get through this.
© Bruin Fisher June 2007