Cesare's Cabinet

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Higher Learning.

"What do you mean, you're not going to university?" Stuart asked.

"I'm just not, all right?" Vince fidgeted uncomfortably, undoing then redoing the second button on his snug wine red shirt. "I don't think I should've worn this. It's too tight. I look like a twat."

"Everyone dresses like that down here," Stuart said as they rounded the corner and hit Canal Street. "It's practically compulsory."

"Yeah, but some people can pull it off. Exhibit A," Vince said, nodding toward a gorgeous dark-haired man whose clinging grey jumper showed off a slim well-muscled frame. "And some people can't. Exhibit B." He gestured at a pudgy older bloke whose bulging belly tested the structural integrity of his white t-shirt.

Stuart paused, eye definitely caught by the bloke in the grey jumper. "Yeah, well, we're young. We're Exhibit As, Vince, all the way."

"You're an Exhibit A," Vince answered morosely. "Me, I'm not for display purposes. Inadmissable in a court of law."

"Fuck!" Stuart swore. The grey jumper bloke met up with another man and linked arms with him in the unmistakeable clinch of a couple. "Look at that! It's a crime. They ought to have signs on them. Off the market, you know? So you'd know not to waste your time."

"Like you'd let that stop you," Vince said. "How many blokes've you pulled, had wedding rings?"

"That's different," Stuart said shortly. "That's bollocks. Married guy out cruising, he's a liar, he deserves the lot."

"And what punishment," Vince muttered, "copping off with you."

"Fuck off. How can you not be going to school, Vince? What're you going to do, work at the record store for tuppence the rest of your life?" Stuart demanded.

"I'm lucky to have that job," his friend protested.

"Manning the till all hours for next to nothing at a crap music shop, yeah, you're the luckiest man alive," Stuart jibed. "You could make more money with a paper round."

"Pay's not that bad. Anyway, it's a great place, I mean, Don's got all those obscure singles and that, he's always getting these total music fanatics who drive hours and hours to come sort through it all. One of those guys who did Sniffin' Glue, that punk zine, he came in yesterday looking for a rare 7-inch--"

Stuart grinned. "Oh yeah? Did you show him yours?"

"Piss off." Vince hated being thwarted when he was trying to tell a story, though knowing that never stopped Stuart from throwing a spanner in the works sometimes just for the hell of it.

"Records only come in two sizes, Vince, seven and twelve inches; you trying to tell me you're an LP?"

"I'm a bloody double album, all right?" Vince snapped. "I'm Tommy by the Who. Let's get inside someplace, I'm freezing my arse off."

Stuart was too busy laughing his head off, half doubled over, to do much more than follow an exasperated Vince into the Union.

"Not just a double album, a concept album as well," Stuart teased when he recovered. "Length and depth. And you wasted it all on the guy who did Sniffin' Glue?"

"He wasn't the guy, he was just one of the guys, and I didn't do anything but help him find his stupid punk single that sounded like every other punk single ever made," Vince sniped. "I don't know why I try to talk to you at all, it's so bloody useless."

"Fine, then. Shut up and get the drinks."

"You do it, they never ask you your age."

"There's the real reason you need to go to university right there," Stuart said. "There's got to be some kind of class or something you can take, drama or something, so you can learn to tell a lie."

"Fucking shut up about university," Vince said seriously, his voice dropping suddenly and strangely a full octave down. "I'm sick of hearing about it."

Stuart stopped and looked at Vince, really looked at him. His friend was genuinely put off, his usually guileless features set in a mulish closed-off expression. "You can go," he said. "If you just apply. I know you can. Your marks are as good as mine. You're doing all right on your A-levels."

"That's cos we always study together."

"We couldn't study together if you weren't smart, Vince," Stuart said impatiently. "I know you could get in."

"I never said I couldn't, I'm just not bothering."

"But why wouldn't you--"

"I can't go, I can't afford it," Vince interrupted, losing his combative stance, his shoulders slumping as he propped his elbows on the table. "So can you shut up about it now finally, please?"

"What do you mean, you can't afford it?" Stuart asked. "It's practically free."

"I wouldn't have enough to live on," Vince said. "The money you get for school, it's not enough. You know my mum hasn't been able to keep a job since the car wreck and that. She's still having back trouble and it's been a year and more. Since I've been working, we finally got the back taxes paid off, but there's still a lot of bills--" He shook his head. "If I stop working full-time to go to school, how's she gonna manage? She could lose the house."

Stuart frowned fiercely, torn. Finally he shook his head. "I'll get us some drinks," he said. "Right back."

The trip to the bar and back gave him a bit of time to think. When he returned, pints in hand, he asked, "What about scholarships? If you got money to pay your own bills, Hazel could probably keep it together long enough for you to go to school."

"Not enough extracurricular activities," Vince answered leadenly, accepting the mug. "They all want participation in sports and that. You could probably get them, you did track and field."

"Only for the one year," Stuart said. "Following around that Casey Black. Took ages to get a shag out of him, that twat. You were in band, doesn't that count for anything? Or what about a loan? It can't be that much."

"How would I ever pay it back?"

"Once you get out of school you'll get a good job, and then you'll have the money--"

"But I won't," Vince said. "It'd be different if there was anything I was good at. Or if I had something in mind, you know, like if I wanted to be a doctor or something, but I don't. Honestly, I'm not bothered. I don't mind not going. I just want a job where I can work days, and come out nights and have a laugh. I don't need school for that."

"Well, there's millions of jobs like that," Stuart said, "but they all pay a lot better if you've been to university. Come on, Vince, there's got to be a way. If you don't go, why should I go? I don't know what I'm going to do yet."

"You've got to go," Vince said. "Everyone's always said how smart you are. The teachers are practically lining up to write you recommendations."

"That's such bullshit, too," Stuart glowered into his beer. "They wouldn't one of them give a shit about my future if they knew I was queer. I hate it. We ought to go together to the senior dance or something, just to fuck with them. We're on our way out anyway."

"No way. I still have to live in this town," Vince said.

"So? So do I."

"And, your parents still don't know. Hell of a way for them to find out."

Stuart rolled his eyes, but said nothing and went back to his drink.

Vince sighed, looking around the club without much enthusiasm. He took another slow swallow and looked at Stuart speculatively for a moment. "I thought about the army," he said with an air of confession. "They pay for school if you enlist. And I'm not, you know... super obvious or anything. I could pass. Gerald Tichenor's older brother Robby signed on, and he came back all muscles and confident, had his teeth fixed and everything. Said it changed his life."

"No way," Stuart said vehemently. "You'll get yourself killed. Your luck, they'll send you to the Falklands on the front lines or something. Or you'll look a little too long at some corporal's tight arse and next thing you know you're a fucking patch on a quilt."

"Yeah, I know," Vince murmured glumly. "It was just a thought."

"Did you talk to Hazel about it?"

"She said if I wanted to try she'd do what she could. Said she might try one of those ads in the paper where you can work from home. But I don't see that paying too well, do you?"


Vince stared at him. "You're going, though," he said. "You're good at school. You always ace your exams. Be a waste if you didn't go on with it."

"Yeah, I'm going," Stuart decided aloud. "My parents said they'd loan me whatever I needed. Said it was only fair since they paid for Marie's wedding and all. It would be stupid not to go."

"Yeah," Vince said. "Just, you know. Give us a call now and then, yeah?"

"I wouldn't be going off to a desert island," Stuart said impatiently. "I'll still be around."

"It wouldn't be the same, coming down here without you," Vince said tentatively. "Seems like I might as well stay home."

Stuart looked around. "Whole club full of great-looking men, and you might as well stay home?" His gaze snagged on one great-looking man in particular, a tall bloke with quite a few earrings in one ear and long hair past his shoulders, but fairly butch for all that. The man looked back, looked him over, looked away.

"I don't have much luck anyway," said Vince.

The bloke with the earrings shot another look at Stuart; he gnawed on his lower lip, suppressing a smile. "You have to make your own luck," he replied.

"It's sort of weird, is all," Vince said. "I guess I just don't feel like I really belong here. I don't fit in, you know?"

"Vince," he opened his hands, indicating the whole of the Union, "it's a gay club. If you don't belong here, where do you belong?"

"I dunno," Vince said fretfully. "Nowhere. The exo-space time continuum. Mars, maybe."

Stuart smirked. "Stranger in a strange land?"

"You remember," Vince smiled, pleased.

"I remember that Gerald," Stuart chuckled. "Had him in the back of the concession stand at the football game. Fantastic. Mad ruckus everywhere around us. People jumping up and down on the bleachers, making the walls shake. All the referees shouting 'Yes-- yes-- yes'... the crowd going wild..."

"You make it sound like they were cheering for you," laughed Vince.

Stuart grinned. "Don't be so sure they weren't."

He stood up, circled back of Vince, and slipped his arms around his friend. "And don't worry so much. You're not from Mars," he murmured into Vince's ear, squeezing him. "You belong here."

Vince relaxed against him, leaned his head back, and said quietly, "Thanks."

"Mm-hm," Stuart answered. "And as for me... right now I belong over there," he said, pointing toward the bloke with the earrings, "so I'll see you tomorrow. Call me."

"Right," Vince sighed, "tomorrow," as Stuart walked away.


Next Story: Breaking & Entering.

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