For our second date I took Paul to The King’s Repose, the only Indian restaurant within walking distance of my house on the outskirts of Wolverhampton.
I was guaranteed a warm greeting each visit, my hand shaken enthusiastically by the owner and assorted waiters.
Paul found this strange. ‘Do you come here every week?’ he asked, maybe thinking that this was the regular haunt for a whole series of second dates.
‘No, I haven’t been here for about six months, but I did have my thirtieth birthday meal here years ago, and they remember me from that,’ I replied, trying to reassure him. As we perused the menu, I told Paul as much as I felt he could cope with on this, our second time of meeting.
I told him how my thirtieth was going to be the big one, my big ‘coming out’ party to friends. At that point there had never been a special someone in my life. I had known since I was a teenager that the special person was going to be a man, though it had been a long, long journey for me to associate the words ‘gay’ with the feelings that I had. This had continued until my late twenties, when bolstered by a generally greater acceptance of homosexuality in Britain, I felt that I could start ‘coming out’ to friends, though not to family.
‘So, you weren’t out to your parents…’ Paul interrupted.
‘I’m still not. It’s not been an issue for me,’ I lied, taking a larger than usual gulp of my Cobra beer. Little did we know that even ten years later, I would still not be out to my parents, and as Paul made plans to move in with me, it would increasingly become an issue for both of us.
Back then, my plan was simple, I’d book a table for twenty of my best friends at my favourite restaurant. At an appropriate point I would proudly declare that I was gay, would receive a polite round of applause from everyone, then carry on eating my poppadom and mango chutney. Looking back this was naïve. But I booked the table (months in advance) and invitations were sent out. As frequently happens, the event seems to have gathered its own momentum.
As my birthday drew closer though, what started as a faint niggle became a deep unease, as I wondered what the reaction would be of my friends, and work colleagues (I had invited both my assistant and the student on summer placement).
This was only three months after the bomb attack at the Admiral Duncan, a gay pub in London where three people had been killed, and nearly seventy people injured. I still wanted the meal to go ahead – there would have been too many questions otherwise – but I did have a genuine concern about a friend taking real offence at my ‘outing’ and ruining my birthday. There seemed a fairly simple answer to all this.
‘Tell everyone before the meal?’ Paul queried. We were now upstairs in the main part of the restaurant, fussing with the large linen napkins, and peering over each other’s shoulders to see if anyone had seen us playing footsie under the table.
‘I wish I’d known you then,’ I said. ‘Yes, that’s what I planned to do. That way, if anyone had problems, then they could politely decline, or punch me in the face.’
‘Did anyone hit you?’ Paul looked concerned, and I noticed for the first time his quirk of putting his head on one side, to the right, as if concentrating to hear everything through his left ear.
‘No, but you’re getting ahead in the story.’ I replied.
The easiest people to tell were those that were travelling a long way, friends met on holidays and kept in touch with through email, phone and text message. I wrote them each a personal letter. I posted them all on the same day, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. I then started to bring it closer to home, and for those who I wouldn’t see before my birthday, I asked if I could see them.
‘Didn’t you want to just phone them?’
‘No, you’ll find that I don’t like using the phone much. I’d rather take the time and visit people or send them an email.’ To this day Paul will generally be the one to initiate a phone call.
‘Were there any bad reactions?’
‘Only one really… Matt and Claire. I used to work with them, and I’d known them for years. They kept asking me if I was sure I was gay, and how did I know I hadn’t just met the right girl’.
‘What did you say?’
‘I was a bit confrontational I’m afraid. Maybe they caught me at a bad time. I asked them how they knew they were straight!’
In reality, the meeting with Matt and Claire hadn’t been as cordial as this. The build-up meant they were clearly expecting some confession of a terrible illness, and they were quite angry when I finally blurted it out. Even five years later I blushed a little at the memory, and the loss of two good friends.
‘So, what happened on your birthday?’
‘It was a great day,’ I said, and it really was.
Friends had been arriving all afternoon and congregating in my small home. Gifts had been presented, and plenty of drink consumed. Whilst never exactly acting ‘camp’, it was a very liberating feeling to be able to be with friends and not have to pretend any more. At about seven o’clock, all twenty of us marched up to the restaurant, orders were taken, and more drink was consumed.
After the main course, there was a lull as the dessert menus were handed out. I could sense that something was being planned by the group; there were knowing looks and people were reaching for their pockets. My first thought was that they were planning on releasing party poppers – which wouldn’t have been popular with the rest of the restaurant customers or the staff.
‘What did they do?’
‘They all sang “Happy Birthday”.’ I replied, focusing on the main course just delivered by the waiter.
‘That’s not so bad.’
‘That’s not all.’
As I was sitting there, all my friends pulled out little gay pride flags from pockets and bags and waved them in time to the song. I scanned the faces to identify who could have organised such a stunt, and there was Gavin, grinning a little more manically than the others, and with two flags in his hand – culprit spotted! Customers seated at other tables joined in the singing and applauded at the end, though it’s unclear whether they had spotted the flags. The waiters had though, and were smiling at my discomfort. I ended up leaving a huge tip for them as we left the restaurant and made our unsteady way back home, partly because of my drunken state, and partly because of the embarrassment I was feeling.
‘Fifty pounds.’ Paul was stunned.
‘So here we are, five years later, and as out and proud as I’m likely to be,’ I said, finishing off the last of my coffee and smiling at the waiter to bring me the bill. I was feeling good, maybe a little drunk but also pleased that this new person in my life knew a lot more about me, and how I worked.
And as we walked down the dark lanes on the way home, I slipped my hand into his for the first time.
Andy Hollyhead is an academic and writer of fiction. He studied creative writing with the Open University and has been published most recently by Manifold Press, who specialse in LGBT+ romantic fiction. He has dabbled in many forms of writing over the last ten years. Andy’s partner of fourteen years is amazingly tolerant of him disappearing for hours upon end to his study. Their cat is less so.