He first notices the man when the congregation lines up to accept the Eucharist. It would have been the perfect moment to sneak out unnoticed—slide from his seat on the edge of the back pew and out the doors, back onto the streets of the city with nothing but a funny story to tell when he gets home. Accidentally walked into the middle of a church service in Edinburgh, Sol imagines telling Charlie. For some reason I sat down and I was too awkward to get up and leave until everyone stood up and then I just fuckin’ ran.
The man notices him staring and smiles, and Sol Tozer is clocked by the sudden feeling of conspicuousness. He scoots out of the pew to let the rest of the churchgoers in the back step past him and walk towards the altar, splitting off in an almost choreographed manner to line up for bread and wine. Sol looks around at the high arches and stained glass that he had admired from the outside and had planned to photograph from the inside, promptly remembering when he pushed open the heavy door to the church that such a thing as Saturday night services existed.
His eyes return to the man with the dark brown hair and kind eyes. He has accepted the bread already; now he tips his head back to drink the wine. He’s still wearing a dark blue peacoat despite the warmth of the church, and a black and white wool scarf is wrapped around his neck. Sol feels out of place in his red leather jacket. Is there something in the Bible about not wearing animal products? He tries to remember, despite never having read the Bible in his life. He will feel like an idiot later when he remembers that wool is also an animal product and no, it’s vegans who don’t wear clothes made from animals, not Christians.
The man catches him staring again and nods in his direction. The congregation is returning to their seats, some kneeling in silent prayer, and Sol sits down. He’s lost his chance to run. He’s committed himself to the rest of the service.
He’s not trying to think of a way to escape anymore, so he turns his attention to the service. The priest (Priest? Pastor? Sol doesn’t know what denomination of church it is he walked in on) speaks calmly and leads the congregation in songs they all seem to know by heart. He lets his eyes wander, taking in the faces of the people that surround him, until he finds the man who smiled at him during communion. He’s near the front, standing at one of the diagonal pews. He’s in almost perfect profile to Sol; he can see the straightness of his nose and the bob of his Adam’s apple as he sings passionately, eyes closed and hands gripping the closed hymn book. The sun set hours ago; it’s winter, and it’s cold outside, but the shadows at the edge of the nave don’t touch him. Sol is entranced, and he doesn’t look away until the service ends.
Under the cover of the rising volume of commencing conversation between friendly churchgoers, he makes to leave. Sol figures he can come back another day before he goes back home to Liverpool to take some pictures of the architecture. A hand on his shoulder stops him.
“Hello,” the man from earlier says. “You look a bit lost.”
“Physically or spiritually?” Sol asks. He’s trying to be funny because he doesn’t know what else to say on being approached by the man he’s been awkwardly staring at for the last twenty minutes.
“Both,” the man says, “although you’re in the right place to solve both of these problems.”
“I’m not in the right place, trust me, mate.”
“Everyone’s welcome here,” the man says. “We embrace people of all nationalities, denominations, sexual orientations, and gender identities.” It should sound like a sales pitch, but coming from him, it doesn’t.
“Yeah?” Sol says, despite himself. His views on organized religion are going to need a reassessment after this, he’s sure.
“Of course. Now, can I help?”
There is a tiny café attached to the church that stays open late on Saturdays to accommodate those who like to enjoy a nice cup of tea after church. It’s here that Sol finds himself sitting across from John Irving, a local of Edinburgh who offers to share with him first directions, then his favourite Bible passages, and finally, a cup of tea.
“I’m on vacation,” Sol tells him. “Sort of. I had some vacation time saved up and I wanted to get away for a bit. Had a bit of a falling out with my brother.”
“Family can be difficult,” John says. From the way he aggressively stirs more sugar to his tea, Sol can see that he’s speaking from experience.
“What about you?” Sol asks. He doesn’t want to talk about Charlie right now.
“What about me?” John asks. He has finally unwound his scarf and his peacoat is draped over the back of the chair. He’s wearing a blazer underneath it, and the tiny rainbow flag pin on his lapel doesn’t go unnoticed by Sol.
“Have you always lived here?”
John takes a long sip of his tea. “I only came back a few years ago. I spent some time in the Navy, which I hated, and then some time in Australia, which I hated even more, but it was better to be a disappointment abroad than continue to disappoint my father at home.” John looks down at his teacup and shakes his head. “My apologies, Solomon. You don’t want to hear about my dismal childhood.”
Sol picks up the teapot and refills his and John’s cups. He pushes the sugar towards John, who thanks him quietly.
“Go on,” Sol says. “Your dad sounds like an arse.”
John laughs at this. “He had his troubles, but I know now that it doesn’t excuse the way he treated me.”
Sol leans forward over the table, chin propped up on his right hand. The only other occupied table is across the room, but Sol still lowers his voice when he says, “You’re not what I expected, John Irving.”
A blush creeps over John’s face so quickly Sol almost apologizes. It’s charming, in a way.
“How so?” John scratches at his neck under his scarf, loose around his shoulders.
“Well, you pick a guy out of the crowd—a guy wearing a leather jacket and a footy t-shirt, of all things—take him for tea, and you’re not trying to save his soul or anything.”
“I’m not in the business of soul saving.”
“What are you doing with me, then?”
John picks up his teacup with both hands, though he does not drink. “You looked like you needed a friend.”
They both stare into their tea for a moment.
“I do,” Sol says, finally.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“Yes.” He finds that he does; that he trusts John, despite only having just met him.
John nods and refills their cups, emptying the teapot.
“I have a lot of siblings. Enough that you can pick a favourite and not feel like a wanker over it. Charlie is that for me. He was born one of the middle sisters, just like I’m one of the middle brothers. We’ve always got along grand—he was always one of the boys, y’know? We liked to climb trees and all that, back in the day, and Charlie loves to paint and I’d help out sometimes, yeah?”
John looks excited. “What medium? I prefer watercolours myself, but—“
“Nah, man, like paint houses. We could do an entire living room in one afternoon. Two coats.”
“Ah, of course.”
“Well, a few years ago Charlie comes over and says ‘I’m a lad and I want to live my life as a lad now,’ and I say, ‘That’s grand’ because it was grand, you know? Charlie was way happier after that. Anyways, last week Charlie’s over for a couple drinks and tells me he’s been seeing a lad and I make some stupid comment about how lads are gross because lads shotgun lagers and smell like fish and chips six days out of the week and I tell Charlie he’s not like that and deserves better.”
One of John’s eyebrows skyrockets halfway up his forehead.
“Not you!” Sol adds quickly. “You smell very nice.”
John blushes again.
“Anyways, Charlie gets real offended and asks why I won’t respect him as a man and then leaves and I don’t know what to say.”
“I can see why your brother might be upset.” John’s other eyebrow rises to match the astonishing height of the other one.
“But I mean— I don’t understand.”
“Did you mean to imply you don’t see your brother as a man?”
Sol scoffs. “No, why would I ever think that? I said he wasn’t like a lad because he’s not the typical beer-hocking, football-crazed, aggressive lunatic like most of the lads we know.”
“Are you a ‘beer-hocking, football-crazed, aggressive lunatic’?”
“I cried listening to Three Lions once or twice,” Sol says.
“I think you’re missing the point, Solomon.”
A look of enlightenment crosses Sol’s face. “Is the point that there’s no such thing as objective masculinity?”
“Yes,” John says. He sounds surprised.
“I need to call Charlie right now.”
John chugs his tea to keep from laughing at the intense look on Sol’s face as he scrolls through his contacts and finds his brother’s number.
“Charlie! Hey, so, yeah, Edinburgh is great but I need to talk to you because I know I fucked up big time.”
“That’s a bit of an overstatement,” John whispers from across the table.
“I know it sounded like I was questioning your manliness but bro, I was really just asking why you wanted to be a lad, because all the lads we know smell like lager and fish and can’t pry themselves away from the telly long enough to make a cuppa and think that a perfect first date is a share platter at Nando’s but I just met this guy—John—and he’s explained that being a lad doesn’t mean you’re a lad lad, just that you’re a lad. It’s like when I worked at the salad factory picking frogs out of the lettuce. It didn’t mean anything because I was still me, not a Frog Picker at the Salad Factory. And I guess you can date anyone you want. I still might beat him up, though.
“The frogs are gender? Yeah, the frogs are gender! Exactly. Uh-huh. Yeah. Okay. No! Bro, I’m not going to, I met him in a church. Well, maybe. Whatever, Charlie. Fuck you. No, not fuck you, I love you. Okay. Okay. Bye.”
He hangs up the phone. John gives him a blank look.
“I didn’t understand a word of that,” he admits.
“You were right,” Sol says, scrubbing a hand over his face.
John smiles, knowingly. “You’re not a bad person, Solomon.”
“You can call me Sol.” He drains the last of his tea. The café is empty now; the last couple had left long enough ago that their table has been cleared off and the chairs are flipped up on the table.
“They’ll be closing soon,” John says.
“Too bad,” Sol says. “I’d like another cup of tea.”
John looks conflicted, eyes flicking to the door and then back to Sol, where he fixes his gaze on him like he did hours earlier, when they first noticed each other.
“Unless..,” he says. Sol looks at John, expectantly. He doesn’t expect to see the smile in his eyes. “I’d really love a Nando’s Share Platter right now.”
Sol laughs, and reaches across the table to take John’s hand. “You have to give me directions,” he says. “I get lost easily.”
John is still lying face down on the bed when Sol comes back from the loo with minty-fresh breath, a towel, and a glass of water.
“You okay, man?” he asks, rubbing the warm cloth over the backs of John’s thighs.
“Hrrrgh,” John says eloquently, and Sol chuckles.
“Don’t go getting shy on me, love. I just had my tongue up your arse.”
John squirms against the sheets and hums an approving sound as Sol wipes up the spit and lube that have managed to spread an impressive distance across John’s body.
“You’re not gonna freak on me or anything, right?”
John finally turns onto his side. “What do you mean?”
Sol tosses the washcloth in the direction of John’s laundry hamper. He misses. “I usually know when I’m not welcome to stay but I really have no idea right now, John. You gotta help me out here.”
John reaches for Sol’s hand. Sol moves closer to let him catch it, and John takes a deep, audible breath.
“I want you to stay.”
Sol nods and slides back into bed next to John. They’re both still naked, both sweat-soaked and flushed from the last hour’s passions.
John is staring at the ceiling. One of his hands is still grasping Sol’s, though, so Sol doesn’t think he’s ready to run out of his own flat just yet. Still, he asks.
“Do you feel guilty about what we just did?”
John sighs. “I spent too many years repressing who I am and denying myself what I really want. God wouldn’t have made me who I am if He didn’t believe it was right to feel the way I do about you.”
Sol props himself up on his elbows and leans close enough to John that their shoulders brush each time they breathe in tandem.
“It’s not religious guilt,” John continues, “I just hate it when people leave.”
Sol flips over onto his back and wriggles an arm under the pillows and around John’s shoulders. “Grand. I won’t leave, then.”
John looks over at him and moves an almost imperceptible inch closer. “Why?”
Sol shrugs, as much as he can with an armful of John Irving. “I could do this again. Not just the sex, though that was… yeah, wow, who wouldn’t want to do that again? But I mean the whole thing. The tea, and the talking, and the Nando’s.”
John nods slowly like he’s starting to understand a logic puzzle but hasn’t quite found the trick to answering it yet. He inches closer again until he’s able to lean his head on Sol’s shoulder.
“I didn’t think you’d be a cuddler.”
“Too much?” John asks. He sounds reluctant to move.
Sol snorts. “Nah, I just asked you to be my man. I’m taking this as a strong ‘maybe.’”
“That’s not even close to what you said.”
“It was,” Sol says indignantly.
“You said you’d like to take me to Nando’s again.”
“Yeah but like, as a partner. A boyfriend, if that suits you better.”
“Do you usually ask men to commit after one night?”
“You’re the first.”
John hmms and leans up to kiss Sol’s cheek. “Alright,” he says.
“Alright as in alright, you’ll be my man?”
John nods. Sol whoops and pulls him in, crushing John’s face against his chest. John lets out a strangled “aargh!” but lets himself be squeezed in Sol’s arms. They’re big arms. They’re safe arms.
When he finally lets go, John squeezes his hand and says, “I need to go brush my teeth.”
John gets up and heads to the loo. After a quick appreciation of John’s backside, Sol hears his phone buzz from the pocket of his trousers, and he crawls over the piles of blankets to dig them out of the pile of his and John’s quickly discarded clothing. He ignores the message he just received (it’s something from Cornelius about work gossip) and instead scrolls through his text conversations to find Charlie’s name.
The guy from the church is my boyfriend now, he texts Charlie.
GAY he receives back, almost instantly. He turns his phone off and tosses it in the pile of clothes at the foot of the bed, laughing to himself. When John comes back to bed, Sol opens his arms and John rolls into them. His smile is soft but his hair is softer, and Sol rubs his cheek in it for a moment before deciding that John’s lips are softer than both his smile and his hair so he leans down to kiss him, and John kisses him back.