After a decade together, death took Daniel’s lover away in an instant. A year of grieving kept him from thinking about the future. But now fearing loneliness, fearing aging and its effects, he’s ready to find someone new before it’s too late. Filled with good intentions, Daniel joins a gym. He plans to work hard to keep what time is all too quickly taking away from him. But are good intentions enough against the many distractions and temptations of life? Is he really prepared to make the sacrifices required? Meeting gym owner Chris may be the extra boost his motivation needs -- if only he could figure out why Chris keeps blowing hot and cold on him.
Death claimed Chris’s lover too, but took much longer about it. The memory of watching the man he loved suffer has left Chris terrified of getting close to anyone again. He likes Daniel a lot, but there’s a problem and Chris can’t fix it, only Daniel can. If he’s serious about being with Chris. It’s a straightforward ultimatum. Daniel smokes and Chris will not date a smoker. Daniel has a choice. It’s Chris or the cigarettes.
Daniel has to prove to Chris that he’s ready to make changes and he’s not all mouth. But can he do it? Are the sacrifices he’ll have to make worth it? Should he even be changing himself to suit a man who’s made him no promises and who might still back off later? Chris has to learn to accept Daniel’s imperfections and mortality. Only once he gets past the grief and fear can he take a risk on loving Daniel, even knowing he could be hurt again.
Daniel takes on the biggest physical challenge he’s ever faced to prove he’s serious about Chris. But in the end, he has to decide if he wants to make the changes for himself and his own future, whether Chris is part of that or not.
I am such a liar to myself. Chris was still on my mind a few days later. What was his problem anyway? Had he had a bad breakup with a chain smoking boyfriend or something? Smoking wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe I’d give it up, if he gave me a reason to.
I knew where I’d find out what his problem was. The Queen’s Head was information central around here. Like GCHQ, if GCHQ smelled of spilled beer and sexual frustration. It was quiet in the afternoon—isn’t everywhere these days? But Jess was behind the bar when I came in and I knew she’d have the low down on Chris.
“Hey,” I said, after ordering a pint. “Got a minute for a chat?”
“I’ve told you, David Bailey, I’m not doing those nudey pictures and that’s final.”
I shook my head, chuckling. I didn’t think Jess had taken her top off for a man for a long long time. “I’ll have to up the fee. No, ah, I was just wondering ...” I was just failing entirely to sound convincingly casual. “Do you know Chris Bennett? Guy who owns the gym?”
She shrugged, picked up a glass to polish in classic bar-tending fashion. “Aye, a bit. Canny lad. What about him?”
“He, um, so, what’s his story? He is single, right?”
“Well, yes. Don’t you know? I thought everyone around here knew.”
“I was kind of out of the loop for a while.” Head always too busy with Bill and trying to figure him out. And this last year ... head still busy with him. “So, what happened?”
“The same thing as happened to you, Daniel.”
I went a bit cold at that, since there really was only one thing worth mentioning that happened to me recently.
“He lost someone?”
She glanced around the bar. Nobody after drinks right then. She leaned closer to me. “His partner, Tom. About the same time as your Bill, actually. They’d been together must have been getting on ten years. They were civil partnered. Had their reception upstairs here. I don’t know how you --”
“How did he die?” Had it been sudden? Bill had been sudden. He’d had a couple of health issues for a few years, stomach ulcers, bad back. Nothing life threatening. But the stroke took him from me in a second. Mid-sentence.
“Cancer,” Jess said. “Took less than a year from when they found out. He was only forty seven. No age, is it? Poor guy just withered away to nothing.”
I knew then, why Chris had reacted to the cigarettes the way he did. I mentally kicked myself for even thinking about a bad breakup with a smoker boyfriend.
“What kind,” I asked, voice strained. “What kind of cancer?” I knew the answer before she answered. Before I asked.
“Lung cancer,” she replied. “Though it spread like wildfire from what I’ve heard. Was everywhere before he ...” She stopped. “Well, you know.”
“He was a smoker.”
It wasn’t a question, but Jess answered it anyway. “Both of them were. Chris gave up after that, of course. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?” She looked narrowly at me. “Are you still on the tabs? I never know any more since the smoking ban.”
“Yeah,” I said hoarsely, thinking about the times I’d stood outside in the cold in the last few years, braving frostbite or getting wet, for the sake of a drag. Fucking idiot.
The doors opened and couple of customers came in, so I left Jess to her work and took my pint to a table. It wasn’t the same one where I’d sat with Chris last night, but it had a view of that table, which was empty. A couple of beer mats adorned its surface. No ashtray.
I couldn’t blame Chris, could I? The sight of the things must have been bad enough. He’d bolted before I had time to light up, because what the hell would the smell of the smoke have done to him? I couldn't stand anything that reminded me too much of the day Bill died and scents were the worst. We’d been about to have lunch when Bill collapsed, and the house was full of the aroma of lamb. As the paramedics worked on him, as they shocked him with the defibrillator while I watched helplessly, the aroma gradually turned to the stench of burning. A neighbour who’d come in when she saw the commotion turned the oven off. It would probably have burned the house down otherwise.
I haven’t eaten lamb since. And my mother doesn’t serve it any more when I’m there. Not since a time three months ago when I went round for a meal with the family and the scent of it made me break down crying. I’d thought all my crying was done by then. But maybe it’s never done.