Woolf Beats Wolf, for Adrian

From the life of Adrian

By Martin Clarke

Saturday morning, a little after eleven. Late October. Warnings of sub-zero temperatures and snow, as other parts of the country have already seen. Adrian, a man in his early fifties, lies naked in bed inside his Bethnal Green house, one hand holding his iPhone directly out in front of him while the other closes firmly around his erection, safe in the knowledge that the rest of the family are tucked away in their respective rooms as the light, a valiant autumn, breaks the gap between the curtains, and the patches where the material is wearing thin. He thumbs through the catalogue of boys and scrolls all the way to the top, where he refreshes the page once more.

Before the popularity of Grindr, rarely were there opportunities for Adrian to pursue young and slim and twinky boys, like the one he spots now. Not in the same way, at least. Congress never used to be so instant. The ones who are interested will generally respond quite quickly, those who aren’t won’t say anything, anyone who’s closed the app is soon replaced by someone nearer and looking to chat or more, and the pursuit can take place twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It used to be that Adrian would have to make a particular trip at a particular time to some appropriate club, swimming pool or sauna before he could even browse. The boy in question, who he messages now, has the headline “Give Me Virginia Woolf” on his profile page, and the photo of him shows a sweeping, floppy fringe down to his lips. The large and bright eyes are a turn on for Adrian; give him a piggy little eye, and he runs a mile. Twenty-one years old and blond: a specimen of fuckable youth, he thinks. He’s hopeful for a reply, his own profile picture being that of his naked self, cropped to reveal his brown chest and stomach, round as a barrel, but warm-looking.

Weekends in London often find themselves filling up with visiting boys. Adrian organises them into categories: it makes it easier for him to arrange appointments around Vanessa and the children. They are sorted as follows:

  1. Local boy who can accommodate.
  2. Visiting boy who can accommodate.
  3. Local boy who doesn’t mind fucking in the car.
  4. Visiting boy who doesn’t mind fucking in the car.
  5. Visiting boy who’s now going home.

The last category is always the most problematic, seeing as it usually means that Adrian has missed his window of opportunity, if ever there was one. Only that’s not the point: if he’s bored and the boy has yet to travel outside the radius of the nearest one hundred profiles – it’s worth having a go. And then he hears it: the four rapidly ascending notes of a xylophone, like a robot farting. The sound of a new message. And it’s from the boy.

Adrian learns that the boy comes from Norwich, works full-time in Asda, studies Literature part-time with the Open University, and continues to live with the man with whom he recently ended a two year relationship. A classic case of category five, and usually a complete waste of time. Typically the profile and conversation in these instances is lost when the boy returns home, except it seems that both have favourited one another’s profiles: it means that communication continues despite the fact that hundreds of profiles fill the space between their corresponding locations. To Adrian, this is not the unusual part. Rather, it is when he adds the boy on MSN Messenger and the portrait of Virginia Woolf appears in the boy’s display icon. Clearly Virginia is the way into this boy’s pants.

Adrian is not a huge Virginia Woolf fan, but he doesn’t reveal this to the boy. Instead he helps him with his own writing, with what might be potential if there was something to read other than scraps and fragments. The most accomplished work so far barely spans a page, a truly sentimental and not at all heartbreaking piece called ‘Brogues by the Door’, where the boy laments the decline of his relationship with his ex lover and his inability to write like his beloved Virginia, whose collected letters are under the bed. The boy has said to Adrian before about how he now spends as much time as possible in his bedroom, reading. There’s a reference to A Room of One’s Own in his story.

Writing is not the only thing that Adrian helps the boy with; the Open University plays a large part. The boy often sends over an essay he’s written. Adrian reads one now, due in eight hours, and is freeing up the word count by cutting out the verbiage. It is three o’clock in the morning, and Adrian rubs his eyes as he squints harder at the computer screen. He would like to go to bed and wonders, just for a moment, whether he’d be up this late if the boy wasn’t beautiful. Then he shakes the thought. True, he enjoys the boy’s profile pictures as they change from one day to the next, but he also enjoys the conversations they have about the books he’s studying, and the ones he’s reading for pleasure. Their shared love of literature is a redeeming feature for the both of them: the boy, from domestic disquietude, menial work, and working class life; Adrian, from being a dirty old man.

In a dim corner at the back of Waterstones, Adrian sits in one of the leather armchairs, weighing up a book in each hand: The Time Traveller’s Wife and Kafka on the Shore. A quick glance at his watch tells him that it’s just after half past ten. He has an appointment at eleven with the boy, who’s in London to celebrate his twenty-second birthday and staying in a hotel near Liverpool Street. Adrian knows it’s true: ever since the boy arrived yesterday morning, his Grindr profile has at times shown him to be as little as a few miles away. Apparently the boy and his friend have to check out at twelve, after which he’ll be returning home.

For a Saturday, Westfield doesn’t feel so busy. As soon as Adrian has paid for his book and left the shop, he takes it out of the plastic carrier bag. Curling back the cover, he retrieves a pen from his inside pocket, holds the lid between his teeth and scrawls “Something for the weekend” on the first page. Not this weekend, Adrian thinks, as he walks towards the Underground. He wonders what it is that made him choose Kafka on the Shore in the end. Something about the boy’s quest is all about literature changing his life. He supposes it must be the way it had moved him when he read it. Books, after all, are very close. The boy will read it and they will have shared the experience; they will have been intimate. He knows by now he won’t be fucking him.

When he takes the seat directly opposite him, Adrian is surprised to learn that the boy just isn’t as cool as he thought he would be. He has that look: boy in a club, probably somewhere like G-A-Y, immediately placed drunk among the wash of gay clones. The boy looks tired, but he smiles nevertheless. Something about the encounter is strange for Adrian: here he is having coffee with this queer lothario, and sex is off the agenda.

A sharp burst of steam, then a loud click. Two bangs on the side as the barista shakes the ground beans loose. They sit in the Caffé Nero that stands beside the station, at a small table that has yet to have the remnant stained napkins, empty sugar sachets and wooden stirrers cleared away, the place gradually getting busier as a long queue of mostly luggage-laden tourists forms at the counter, some with their backpacks on back-to-front. Yet Adrian scarcely notices any of this, for his eyes never leave the boy’s while they’re talking: he doesn’t realise that more boys are coming in as this one is about to leave.

“Happy Birthday,” Adrian says, handing the package over to the boy. He takes it from him, peels back the cover and, reading Adrian’s words, smiles once more. Closing the book, he looks at Adrian with an almost shy smirk.

“I have something for you, too,” the boy says.

From underneath their table, the boy pulls something out from his striped canvas bag. A black folder, which he slides across the table towards Adrian, who reads the title ‘S/He’ and the boy’s name underneath. A book of his own. They have now exchanged gifts, Adrian thinks, opening it up: stories in place of bodily fluids. Each clear plastic sleeve has been delicately inserted with a crisp, white sheet of A5 paper, smothered in words. The boy’s words. He wants to hold it tightly at his chest, for nothing else he finds as moving as the two words on the inside page, perfectly centred in an italic type with capital letters reading, ‘FOR ADRIAN’.