Back in October 1994, I was working in London, in the City, on the third floor of an office in Cheapside, and I still remember what happened as if it was only yesterday – everything coming to a head on the day after Black Tuesday, when Russia’s faltering market economy went into meltdown and Liam, the Deals Clerk, made an announcement that caused our office to go into meltdown too.
At the time, I worked in Accounts, which was lucky, for when it came to office gossip, Lucy, the section head, was as up-to-date as our Bloomberg screens – and all I knew was that I needed to get the lowdown quick.
I got in as usual just before nine. Lucy was by the filing cabinets, holding an emergency meeting with the girls from Admin, Debbie and Rachel, her chief correspondents. Seeing me enter, she rushed across and intercepted me before I reached my desk.
“Is it true that Liam made a pass at you in the toilets?” she asked me, breathlessly.
“No, of course it isn’t,” I said, taken aback.
Lucy looked over at Debbie and Rachel and shook her head. I sighed and rolled my eyes. Typical, I thought. I had a feeling this would happen. The night before, both Lucy and I were at Bar La Spezia near London Bridge for Sue’s birthday bash when Liam, on being asked if he was still on the look out for a girlfriend, blurted out that he was gay.
“And always have been,” he added, as if to clarify that it wasn’t just some sudden conversion.
At any rate, I remembered there being, initially, a stunned silence – then Lucy being first to give Liam a hug and praise his courage in coming out.
“…and I’ll always be there for you if you need someone to talk to, I promise.”
I was the only male among a large group of girls who were all now hugging Liam, some of them crying – including Lucy – so I ended up giving Liam a hug as well, albeit with a couple of matey slaps on the back.
“He hasn’t arrived yet,” said Lucy, turning back to me. “Maybe he’s not going to turn up. Though you can hardly blame him, can you? I’d be too ashamed to ever show my face again.”
Mark, the Returns Clerk, passing by, came up to me and said in a low voice: “I heard Liam went for you in the loo. Is that right?”
“No, it isn’t. Nothing happened.”
Mark shook his head.
“I can’t believe he’s one of them. Who’d have thought it? Liam, of all people. I used to think he was alright, and now it turns out he’s a poof! The world’s gone mad.”
I didn’t reply, but already had the distinct feeling the previous night’s event was something I’d soon have cause to regret. I’d known from the start that letting Lucy cajole me into going to a bash that essentially was a girls’ night out was a bad idea, but Lucy had the knack of talking anyone into anything.
“It’s boring when it’s just girls, and it won’t be just you – Liam’s going too.”
Well, Liam had certainly made it a memorable night. Sue – who wasn’t in today as she’d booked a day’s leave – had not been happy at seeing her event get hijacked: “It’s supposed to be my night, Liam, not yours!” But what she was most unhappy about was knowing she was going to miss out on “all the goss” the following day.
It wasn’t even nine o’clock, and Lucy already had first and second-hand reports on initial reactions of most of the staff in the office.
She was even able to tell me about the management meeting Derek and Steve, the department bosses, had as usual at eight o’clock. The financial situation in Russia had changed considerably overnight, but it seemed, from what Lucy was saying, that the top agenda item was the changed situation regarding Liam’s sexuality – which apparently was an even bigger surprise to them both than the shock devaluation of the rouble.
Certainly, in Steve’s eyes, Liam had now devalued himself, but Derek, it seemed, didn’t care that Liam was gay so long as it didn’t affect his work.
“That’s all Derek ever cares about: the work,” I said, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible, but actually impressed that Derek, despite being a slave driver and generally obnoxious human being, was at least looking at Liam’s situation in a practical rather than moral sense…
…which was useful to know – but, all the same, it was slightly depressing how things were turning out, with Derek, of all people, being rated much more highly now in my estimations than Lucy.
I’d responded with a smile when Lucy said that, if she was Liam, she’d be far too ashamed to show her face, though only to stop me betraying my disappointment. In fact, I was surprised how much that comment hurt. It was the way Lucy said it, with such disdain. Maybe I’d been naïve, but I’d always expected more from someone as supposedly broad-minded as her.
And why was there a rumour going round that Liam had been hitting on me in the toilets? I wondered if this was being put round to gauge my reaction, in an attempt to suss me out. Feeling paranoid, I glanced round the office to see if any of my colleagues were looking at me strangely, but people instead were huddled together mainly in groups of three or four, and I could tell by the occasional flash of excitement on certain faces here and there, and the shaking of heads as others spoke in feverish tones, that Liam’s announcement was the sole topic of conversation round the office…
…but for how long? All I’d been able to think about, on my way into work, was how Liam had made things much more difficult now for me. Let’s face it, it wasn’t just him who was going to be seen in a brand new light but, potentially, me as well. Like Liam, I never talked about having girlfriends, never talked about football or other sports, and if I was having a conversation with a colleague about some beautiful female singer, for instance, I’d talk about her songs and never about how fit she was. OK, so I wasn’t someone who obviously looked or sounded gay, but then nor did Liam, and now he was out, it was surely only a matter of time before people would start to put two and two together and realise I was the same.
“Bill didn’t like it at all,” said Lucy, giggling, as we both sat down at our adjoining desks. Bill, the Chief Reconciliations Clerk, was the office’s token religious zealot.
“Well, what else can anyone expect from a born-again Christian?” I said, shrugging my shoulders.
“You should have seen the look on his face though when I told him. I think he’s taken it badly.”
“Him and Liam got on well together, didn’t they?”
“I know. You’d think Bill had been told that all along he’d been friends with the Devil.”
I looked over at Bill, sat at his desk by the water cooler, his head down and cracking on with his work, presumably to take his mind off what he’d been told just moments before.
It was the person though sat next to Bill who Liam would have to worry about the most.
“How did Andrew take it?”
Andrew was Liam’s supervisor and, like Bill, wasn’t talking to anyone at that moment but, unlike Bill, wasn’t cracking on with his work: Instead, he was simply sat bolt upright at his desk, with a dazed look on his face, as if in shock.
“Well, Andrew’s racist, sexist…” said Lucy, rolling her eyes. “…so it’s hardly surprising he’s homophobic too.”
“What did he say?”
“He said it was disgusting. That’s all he said, then seemed to go into shock.”
“I can see that he has.”
“It’s funny, isn’t it, that out of everyone in the office, Liam’s stuck in a corner with them two.”
I didn’t envy Liam at all. His desk was opposite Andrew’s and flanked by Bill’s. Sat by the window, he was effectively surrounded. And now that they knew, there was no going back. Maybe if Liam hadn’t got so drunk, or there’d been other male colleagues as well as me at Sue’s bash, he’d have thought twice.
But whereas no-one else, it seemed, had realised Liam was gay before his announcement, I’d known from the start – and Liam, in turn, had known about me. Last night, though, at the bar, with the girls demanding his attention, we didn’t get much of a chance to speak, and I wondered did he regret it now. He was drunk from early on in the evening, so maybe he hadn’t remembered a thing. He’d certainly have one hell of a hangover, though, and maybe that was the reason he was late.
“Karen can’t believe it,” said Lucy. Karen, head of Payments, was sat at the other end of the office and, at that moment, talking very animatedly with her neighbour, Ayesha. “She’s probably saying the same thing to Ayesha as she said to me: that Liam being gay is such a waste, as no woman now will ever get to use his cock.”
“She said that?”
“I know – look at her: Even if Liam was straight, he’d hardly go for that.”
Then Lucy remembered something someone else had said.
“Jason said that whenever he saw Liam come into the loos he always went into a cubicle, he never used the urinals.”
She paused for my reaction to the Debt Clerk’s observation, and when I didn’t reply, she prompted me: “Was that something you ever noticed yourself?”
“I never thought about it,” I said.
“Well, apparently nor did Jason, till today.”
Kelly, from Securities, on her way back from the water cooler, stopped by Lucy’s desk to say she couldn’t believe the news. She’d been there at the wine bar too, and I remembered her getting up and running round our table to give Liam a big hug, and being especially gushing in her praise for him, but now she had a disgusted look on her face.
“It’s so gross the way gay men have sex with each other. I don’t know how they can do it. It makes me want to heave, just thinking about it.”
The phone rang. It was Geoff, the Insurance Clerk, from the other side of the office. He had a fax that concerned our section and requested I come and collect it.
“Have you heard about Liam?” he asked, when I reached his desk.
“I have, yeah.” I couldn’t be bothered to say I was there at the wine bar.
“I can’t believe it. To think, I used to talk to him about girls, thinking he was a straight-up guy, when all the time he’s a raging bender. He didn’t even come across as one of them. He seemed so normal, like everyone else. I’m telling you, they’re everywhere. I’ll have to watch myself from now on. Make sure I’m never bending over the desk, and always keeping my back to the wall, you know what I mean?” Geoff laughed and shook his head. “It’s true, though, init?”
I smiled. That’s the problem with acting straight, I thought to myself. You end up hearing the uncensored views of homophobes like Geoff, and can never retort for fear of revealing who you really are.
On the way back to my desk, I overheard the typists discussing Liam’s weight.
“Do you think he’s thinner than he used to be?” said Sarah.
“Maybe he’s got AIDS,” suggested Vicky.
Their raucous laughter was still ringing in my ears as I sat back down at my desk. I was surrounded by enemies, even though many of them at that moment would have described me as a friend as well as a colleague. The problem was, they weren’t really friends with me: They were friends with the person I was pretending to be.
And Lucy – one of them – right now had an excited look on her face.
“Liam’s in the building. Karen says she saw him.”
“Did she speak to him?” I asked.
I got no answer. Lucy was already out of her chair and on her way across to Debbie and Rachel, who were still by the filing cabinets.
The main door opened and in walked Liam. I could tell by the sheepish look on his face that he obviously hadn’t forgotten what he’d said the night before. Still, most people had to settle down to work by this time, and I wondered if that was the reason Liam had left it till now to come in. Already, though, as he walked to his desk, there were people looking up and saying hello and smiling, including Kelly – who’d been disgusted just moments before – and there was Lucy giving him a friendly wave, and I knew then that everyone in this office (including even Bill and Andrew) would end up being, on the surface, at least, just as pleasant as they’d always been to Liam, and that, of course, was just as well. There was little point in making things more awkward than they were. Maybe Liam would ask me about what people had been saying, and though I wasn’t sure yet what I’d tell him, it almost certainly wasn’t going to be the truth.
Thomas McColl lives in London, and has had stories and poetry published in magazines such as Bare Fiction, Prole, Fictive Dream, Iota and Envoi. His first full collection of flash fiction and poetry, Being With Me Will Help You Learn, is published by Listen Softly London Press.