"The motion of the planets is at its most apparent in twilight. The earth turns and the stars and moon appear. This is a hint that at such a time the cosmos undergoes something approximating what the human undergoes in breathing”

—Paul Davies: 'Twilight and Universal Vision.'

Night was the worst time.

It came quickly and enclosed him, a chilled, sniggering embrace. Since childhood, night - that unearthly, wondrous black, light drawn up into the sky, sucked into the ground - had held mysterious and mischievous terrors for him he had never been able to explain.

Lying awake, frightened of the darkness of his room, he had shouted out to his parents down the hall, a call for reassurance, Goodnight, Mammy, Goodnight, Daddy, and his father, tired, rising at five in the morning, had run noisily down the hall and beat him as he cowered under the blankets. Don't hit him, his mother would plead feebly in the dark, He's only a child.

Night, with its menace, its marks, its tumbrils of loneliness.

In his younger day, drink had taken the edge off; there had been liaisons, of course, discreet, secret, furtive, illegal. Love under the moon's dark face. Those were the days. But the ache wasn't so bad then. Drink, a friendly face in the bed when you woke up, even for a short while. The illicit sweetness of it all. When you were young.

He wasn't young now. Nothing had to be furtive, tainted, these days, you could meet someone, bring him home, no one cared, the law was clear. But with liberation had come an increased awareness of his loneliness. He couldn't explain it. Perhaps an old queen was an old queen and there was nothing more to be said. Cynicism crept over him with the years. He didn't like to think about that, he'd never been cynical about anything back in the youthful bad old days.

A savage gale of loneliness blew through him from time to time; he locked the door of his flat, stayed in, refused to answer the telephone, days had gone by, he'd called in sick to the office.

Patrick had taken all of that, all the emptiness of growing older in a carnival of freedom and youth, and made it go away. Patrick had returned something to him.

Then Patrick had left.

He'd watched the wearying process of leaving - no love affair ever ends abruptly, there is a gradual accumulation of circumstances, grievances, hurts - and wondered at it, as if he stood outside it all and marvelled at its unstoppable forward motion. Most intriguing was the knowledge, solid as a pain in his heart, that none of their arguments, annoyances or moments of making-up passion meant a thing once the march towards separation had begun.

Patrick was a chef in a hotel. A country boy who, by his own admission, had had a hard time coming out, particularly to himself, he had no love for the town's gay scene, its highly-charged couple of gay bars, its discos. Most of the time when he wasn't working he read serious, high-minded Nineteenth-century novels - never anything by a modern Irish novelist, curiously - and listened to traditional Irish music on their mutually-bought CD player. The country lad in him. His favourite piece was an arrangement of a tune called The King of the Blind, by Micheál O Suilleabháin. He would walk about the rooms of the flat whistling to himself, a tall, thin figure with receding reddish hair, leaving after him a wake of thickly-fragranced aftershave. He enjoyed walking around with almost nothing on. At first, they had made love at all hours of the day and wherever in the flat they felt like it. Caution had been the first symptom of love's fatigue. Patrick had grown shy. Only in the bedroom, only on certain nights, eventually not at all. There was nothing to say about that. At breakfast, the two men ate in a fit of silence.

Then there was nothing to do but argue about silly things, and nothing after that but to say goodbye.

Patrick had not said goodbye. He'd scribbled the words in red ball-point pen in a tactlessly rushed note which he then pinned to the flat's front door. Anyone could have had a read at it.

Without you, Patrick, I am afraid of the dark.

The abandoned rooms had echoed like the bowels of a cavern whose roots descended into the soul of the world. He had cried, a middle-aged man, plump, balding, for hours, dried his face, went out, bought a large bottle of whiskey, put Micheál O Suilleabháin on the CD player and cried in heavy bleats to The King of the Blind. He'd sat on the edge of their bed and rocked back and forth in the grip of a hideous cold grief. Night had come up to meet him. He'd slept, woken as dawn twittered in a tree out in the street, taken a valium, fallen asleep again. His dreams had been black streets, rain, sensations of running, a strange city. Later, he'd called in sick.

Mab had come over, knocked loudly on the door, he'd 'phoned her but couldn't remember doing so. She'd made him something to eat, scrambled egg, toast, sat with him, insisted that he eat. First, he'd thrown up. He'd followed this with gusts of tartly-breathed apologies. The business of grieving continued, Mab visiting on and off, a big gay woman in enormous colourful head-scarves who read him old vigorous letters from her thirty-year-old son and tried to make him laugh.

The days passed. A week went by. Back at work, the office world seemed unreal and threatening. He'd wept, feeling his loneliness penetrate the chatty could'nt-care-lessness of the office. A blonde girl, still in her teens and feeling a teenage tenderness, brought him heavily-sugared coffee. Shaking, he'd counted the minutes, listened to them drag their feet down the corridors of pain.

"Night's the worst."

Mab linked arms with him, they were walking very slowly, almost delicately, along the promenade. It was cold and dark and they were alone. The lamps, high up, shook in a gust. They looked like an elderly married couple out for a bracing walk by the sea. Now and then a heavy swell pushed the waves up over the black rocks in great white foamy splashes over the pavement. The air was full of salt and ammonia.

"It always is," Mab said. "When Charlie left me, the nights were like an added penance, a punishment on top of a punishment."

"I remember her," he said.

"Well, so do I," said Mab. "You just have to come out of it, somehow. God knows how."

"Thinking there's nothing to live for."

"Precisely," Mab said. "I didn't start getting over Charlotte Fleming until I started to get angry. I didn't enjoy being a victim. Fought back. You must do the same. Hard, though. But vital, mark my word. Fuck them all."

The sea rushed out of the blackness, whipping a tongue of water into the air. Out in the bay, the lights of a ship in the roads winked in red and blue. He felt warm where Mab rocked against him, cold where the blacknesses of the sea and the bay were all there was. They walked on, he began to wonder how he might make himself suitably angry against Patrick.

But he thought of Charlotte Fleming instead, Mab's old lover, her small, prim, immaculately tidy figure slouched over Mab's ancient piano; her struggles, childlike and endearing, with Haydn's Sonata in Eb Major, Mab in the background, shuffling wheezily in and out of the kitchen, bearing food like John's head on a platter, bantering lovingly. What had happened to them? Where had the formula for love boiled sourly into a draught of the heart's poison?

"We endure," Mab said. "We endure."

She hugged his overcoated arm.

"It's not knowing where he is, who he's with. He's young."

"None of your business."

"There are wolves out there."

"Worry about yourself, dear. Yourself."

But he knew he could not worry about himself, at least not yet. He wondered whether Patrick had gone in search of the kind of life upon which he had once appeared to turn his back - for his sake? - and whether the clubs and gay hang-outs now shone their devious light upon him.

He would have considered himself enlightened - the terror years were, after all, falling away into the past - and Patrick, he believed, was a sensible person, not one to be lured, in emotional distress, into the arenas of the town's gay circuses. In any case, less and less these days did you feel the need to count back the years, a countdown to panic and sweaty midnight fear; less and less did your gayness feel burdened and your loving chastised. Patrick had grown into a cautious, informed age. People talked about the old dead as if they'd entered an almost mythic history; a rogue spasm, a twitch in time, which had swallowed them up. Even the laws of the land had altered. There was nothing left to be afraid of.

But he feared the old cankerous wolves who haunted the corner twilights of every gay scene, who could smell stale love across a room. He absorbed this and a host of shape-shifting nameless anxieties into the main body of his hurt. We are born lonely, he remembered; we come from a mapless place.

"Even as a child," he said, "I was afraid of the dark."

They were silent for a long time. They moved towards the end of the promenade, a stone wall against which, according to custom, they must touch a foot. They came to the wall, touched it with the toes of their shoes, turned slowly, linked together, a sort of ballet.

"When I was young, there was a donkey in the field behind the wall," said Mab. She squinted into the dark, breezy sky. "Whatever happened to him?" The question was addressed to the sky, the cosmos. It floated off and upwards, evaporating in the damp gloom. He looked up and imagined he could see the words turning, turning, misshapen, dissolving. A man with a ridiculously fluffy dog hurried past them. The dog's panicky breathing padded on the air.

"I met Patrick on a bridge in town," he said. Mab's hair, he noticed, smelled of onions, of fried food. "You could look over the parapet during the summer and see fat big lazy salmon balanced in the water, pointed into the current. Men fished for them further up, water to the waist, lines invisible almost. All that patience, and the fish content to dawdle a hundred yards from them, not fooled for a moment."

Patrick had been leaning halfway over the parapet. On either side of him, giggling tourists in sail-sized shorts fingered cameras and tried to photograph the fish, the dazzle on the green reed-embroidered water making them set and reset all sorts of buttons and dials. Patrick shone among them, full of devilment, young courage, open to the world. Or so it had seemed to him, watching from the far side of the bridge.

"You know how it is," he went on. "Everything's so unsure, frightening, you could make a fool of yourself or worse. But I chatted him up like a schoolboy. He was new in town. He knew no one. I didn't want to take advantage of that."

Mab giggled. She had the tittering throat-bound mirth of a very young girl. Perhaps, he thought, she had been beautiful, once. But late middleage was written all over her friendly, puddingy face, it lay like dust in her eyes. An educated woman, he reminded himself; she had once spent a whole evening over a dinner table discussing the music of the Italian Renaissance and seemed - he couldn't judge, really - to be something of an authority. Charlie had been dim as dishwater beside her, a pretty thing lurking in her shadow.

"I read once that in early times people thought a bridge was a sort of solidified rainbow, or the other way around.”

"I've never heard that," said Mab, "but it sounds lovely."

"Well, I led myself to believe there was something preordained about my meeting Patrick on that bridge. Silly, looking back on it. But there you are."

"It's not silly," said Mab. "It's lovely. You mustn't start whipping yourself, blaming yourself. Ridiculing those little personal fantasies which can be our little angels showing us things is the first step."

But it wasn't a fantasy, he wanted to say. But he let it go. Patrick had shone on the bridge that mystical, magical day, and the salmon had lain under his hand, quiet, almost motionless, their heads pointed towards the great upstream lakes and the foggy mountains and the filling, mysterious streams. Like the old Irish god Lugh, masterful in all the arts, bright and terrible, long and strong of arm. And Lugh's sharp spear had fallen on him and, for a time, had blessed him.

Still, nights were the worst. He sat on the edge of his bed and remembered Mab and their promenade stroll. Against the single big window, rain banged and cracked. An unseasonal storm had moved over the mountains, up the bay. The sky was yellow, trees outside along the street shook writhed and shook in a sort of elemental torment. Car tyres made an irritating sheeshing sound on the black, wet tarmac. It was six o'clock and Angelus bells banged grudgingly all over the town and on somebody's TV nearby. He feared the advance of shadow and darkness. He sat with his hands squeezing each other between his knees.

He shaved himself, daubing the bloodspots with snips of toilet tissue. He washed his hair, what was left of it, combed it back neatly, wondered whether he should purchase something to mask the encroaching grey. He studied his lined, lean face in the bathroom mirror. He stood there with a towel around his waist. It was Saturday, and he feared weekend nights most of all. He splashed stinging aftershave on his cheeks and neck. Had that dark mole grown since he'd last shaved? He pulled at the skin with a finger, a flicker of anxiety washing over his belly, like a feather brushed lightly over the skin.

Reassured - he felt his heart's rush slow and even out - he put on black trousers and a red shirt with a grandfather-style collar and, barefoot, moved into the sitting-room. He put on an old vinyl recording of Shostakovich's Symphony No 5 in D Minor. Nothing Irish, he thought; nothing maudlin or sentimental, nothing full of forgotten glory, the lamenting of ivy on stone.

The garish cover of the old album showed a typical example of rugged Soviet ikonography; Friendship of The Peoples was a painting of half a dozen sturdy men, one stripped to the waist, holding aloft a Soviet flag, an open book, a bushel of wheat. Butch as anything, he told himself, tossing the cover on to the couch.

He found a chopping board, a sharp knife, some garlic. He made himself an omelette and poured himself a glass of inexpensive red wine. The wine soothed him, the symphony's second movement allegretto was much more elegant, lively, listenable, the solo violin and flute towards its finish making him think over his plate of people laughing in a crowded room.

The music moved around the room, filled it like smoke. The record's first side drew to a close. He washed his plate, heard the gentle click as the old needle caught the worn end of the groove. Food and music and the glass of wine had emptied his mind and he was grateful not to have to think. He turned the recording over and settled himself by the window, looking out into the street but not really caring what he looked at. He was passing time. He smoked a cigarette.

When he woke up, the empty glass had tumbled from his hand, a few blood-dark drops of wine on the carpet, and the wheezy boxy record-player had switched itself off. The room was dark and he felt cold. For a short while he lay back on the couch without moving, as if afraid to disturb something in the room. Then he noticed how dark it was and felt a cloying, mushy loneliness move over him. Self-pity would follow. He got up quickly and pulled the curtain over the window. The rain had stopped and the wind had died down. The street was patterned in pools of dirty white light from the street-lamps. He went into the bathroom, threw cold water over his face.

The 'phone rang. It's sound was magnified by the darkness of the sitting room. He was manipulating a light yellow cravat into the open top of his shirt. He thought he didn't look so bad. He would go out, see the town. He'd made up his mind about this when he was making his omelette. It wasn't a question of meeting someone, he had no desire to take someone off the street and home for the night, the loneliness of that sort of thing appalled him. He wanted to touch the world, though, reach out to it again, let it move around him a little; emotional baby-steps, culminating, hopefully, in a reclaiming of his self-confidence. The rooms of his flat were closing in on him; he would have to get out, gently though, taking care where he stepped.

He sketched a map in his head. He would walk around the town, just looking, experiencing shop windows and couples going by and very ordinary things. He was surprised and grateful to feel a quiet but real surge of good feeling; he felt stronger.

He would walk by the mediaeval cathedral, the silence of the old stone quietened something in him; he'd cross the bridge, wash himself in the noise of the hurrying river underneath, feel a lump in his throat as he thought about Patrick leaning over the parapet, the sun over everything like honey; he'd take his time, recall how much he'd once liked this old merchant town with its mischievous dragons and gryphons leering from corner stones and ancient carved windows, its wistful, poignant, marriage-stones, its coats-of-arms of the long-dead, the creeping sense of history not even a dreadful civic refurbishment programme could obliterate: Patrick and he had written a letter to a local newspaper protesting about the recent and ghastly - not to say rapacious and greedy - business of demolishing old buildings with unseemly haste and, often, over the weekend when no one had anyone to protest to. Was this progress? Was this done for the good of the town? Or for the lining of pockets. Together, they had stood in a line of protestors in front of an old Georgian house and carried a placard. What had it said?

He stumbled over the arm of the couch and picked up the receiver. The abrupt descent into stillness was unsettling. He put the receiver to his ear, noticing with surprise how cold it was. The room was cold. The central heating hadn't been turned on. And it was the weekend, too.

At first he didn't recognise the voice. He heard only the background noise, a low persistence of traffic over damp streets and laughter and sporadic talk. The voice called his name again. Recognition slipped under the wire of memory. He couldn't say anything. His mouth was dry. His heart began to beat furiously. Waves of emotion, conflicting, frantic, welled up in him. He was thinking a dozen things at once. Nothing was clear. The dark room tilted on its axis. The voice went on.

"Are you there? Is that you? Will you answer me?"

He needed to answer, needed to bring the voice into the room, be at one with it. But nothing would come out of his throat. He realised he was terribly, childishly afraid, as if dark spirits had been disturbed by the 'phone ringing and now swarmed in the shadows around him, coming closer.

"Are you going to answer? Should I hang up? I've made a mistake."

"No," he replied. The first thing he offers Patrick is a negative. He closed his eyes. Utter darkness. Outside in the street, a girl screamed, then laughed. He opened his eyes and looked down at his bare feet and saw that a piece of toilet-paper had adhered to the big toe of his right foot. He bent down towards the little blurred grey shape of paper, tried to unstick it. He fiddled absurdly until he got it, then he rolled it in a ball between finger and thumb and tossed it into the darkness of the room. All the time he had waited to hear the click as Patrick hung up. It didn't come. He was breathing heavily and no doubt Patrick could hear it.

"How are you, Patrick?"

He didn't really want an answer. He could think of nothing in positive terms, the light of his earlier optimism had been blown out by recurrent gusts of fear. He didn't want to learn that Patrick was in any kind of trouble or danger.

"I'm fine," Patrick said. He cleared his throat. In the background, a motorcycle blared angrily by. "I wasn't sure whether I should call. I wasn't sure how you'd react."

He felt affronted, annoyed. Was there a proper way to act and a way not to? He felt on the defensive.

"Well, here I am. And there you are."

"You are angry with me for calling."

"I am not. It's good to hear from you."

But voices unscrambled themselves in his head and told him, ordered him, to retain his pride, his dignity. He had nothing at all to be defensive about or guarded. Patrick had left him, not the other way round. Of course it wasn't as simple as that. But, nonetheless, the battle had rules, and Patrick was now on the ropes, otherwise he wouldn't have called. He felt ridiculous, sizing up their relationship in schoolyardish terms of who gives in and who remains firm. It was nothing like that, but perhaps the body, perhaps the mind and the heart, had its reasons, threw up ramparts, protected us from our frantic, panicky, fragile selves with necessary strategies.

"What can I do for you?"

Patrick ignored the obviously starchy tone deliberately employed. He cleared his throat again. A door slammed in the monotony of noise behind him.

"I was hoping we might meet. I think we should talk."

"Oh."

Had you not called, he thought, I would have been fine, on the brink of taking a tentative step back in to some sort of life, God knows what. But now you've called and, yes, I do resent it. I resent you intruding, bringing that bagful of hurt, making me uncomfortable.

"How do you feel about that?"

"Are you okay? I mean, you're not in any kind of trouble?"

Patrick laughed. It was a mean, stripped laugh. An actor's rehearsed laugh.

"No, I'm not in any kind of trouble. You think I'd ring so that you could rescue me or something?"

"I'm not suggesting . . ."

"I don't need rescuing. It took a lot for me to make this call."

They allowed a paced breath of silence to calm them down. Blood rushed in his ears. He heard a bicycle being drawn up the stairs outside his door. He heard a girl's voice and a man's rough answer. He glanced at the window, the receiver clinging to his ear like a nasty black alien creature about to gnaw its way into his head. He felt the greasy slip of the earpiece and smelled the bad odour of the mouthpiece; he felt the pulsing living presence of the thing.

"Where are you?"

Patrick mentioned the name of a loud and gaudy gay bar. Saturday night, he thought, I'm not going in there. A zoo. Hot, sweaty, mock-gaiety, yellow light on wood-panelled loneliness. Affairs and gossip. Old men trawling for young men; a place of remorse and bad luck.

"Outside. I'll meet you outside there. Twenty minutes."

They said embarrassed, shuffle-voiced goodbyes. Patrick, he noticed, hung up first. He poured himself a whiskey, drank it quickly, neat. The liquid burned in his throat and at the back of his mouth. A light nudge of nausea followed the whiskey. He breathed deeply and it passed. Pride was nowhere. It was too costly. There, for a moment, he'd almost pushed things too far. Was Patrick as relieved as he was that they hadn't argued peevishly, uselessly, both of them losing in the end?

Whatever happened - however he chose to take Patrick back into his life - the rules, the order, would be changed forever. Nothing would be, as they said, the same. But the same had included silences, emotion-laden evenings of silence and banter, disputes, huffs. So, perhaps that was a good thing. But what of the innocence, the love, the respect? Was all of that gone too? There were, he knew, elements of every relationship that could never be retrieved, which had their place in a particular run of things at a particular time and could never be inserted anywhere else or resurrected to meet new needs at a later date. When a split occurred between two people, their place on the earth shifted a few degrees, they reclaimed new ground.

So it was that, were they to come together again, they would arrive from two places very different from those they'd inhabited when they'd first met; the territory they would forsake, each to build a new home in the land of the other, would have a different, a foreign language, a terrain of unrecognisable possibilities. They were not, therefore, meeting again, they were meeting for the first time.

Lovers, in their grateful panic to reunite, tended not to understand this. It was an error and it widened rather than closed the gap between them.

Dressed and ready, he 'phoned Mab. He wanted her reassurance; no, that wasn't it. He wanted her approval. Mab the All-Wise! He smiled to himself. He just wanted to touch someone else with Patrick's 'phone call, share it. Ridiculous, he thought. He trusted Mab. She wouldn't think him ridiculous.

The double note sounded out into an infinite dark nothingness. He hung up.

All of a sudden, he didn't trust the streets. The blank, black rush of chilled wet air struck him in the face like a blow from a damp cloth. The trees made protesting rustling sounds over his head, he walked slowly down the street, the black-painted iron railings with their arrow-points ticked themselves off one by one as he passed them. On either side of the street, big ostentatious houses from an earlier age stood back a little from the vulgar pavement, protected by dark green patches of trimmed garden and short, fat driveways of stones. He moved slowly, regretting that he hadn't brought an overcoat, resentful of the unseasonal weather.

He felt watched, observed. It was absurd, he told himself, but the feeling, a sort of creeping over the skin, persisted. He passed a church, doors locked against the world, a pinpoint steeple scratching the low, vellum-yellow clouds. He felt the chill of the blind, caged windows. He glanced up, saw the gargoyles with their tonguey leer, heard the drip of water down the face of the church, streaking the grey cut stone.

Warmed by shopfront lights, he straightened himself up, relaxed, took his hands out of his pockets. Young people moved around him, giggling, joking, in and out of pubs advertising traditional Irish music, the scrape, whoop and boomy clatter poured feebly, played too fast and without any discernible tune line, out of high open windows. Here, at least, was life. Fast, arrogant. He wondered what it was like to be young.

He went in to an old-fashioned neighbourhood corner shop and bought a packet of cigarettes. The shop was brightly lit and the arrays of chocolates, potato crisp packets, boxes and bottles and wrapped bits of this and that sparkled with an odd but soothing luminosity, as if somehow they were lighted from within. The man who served him was plump, wearing a tightly-drawn knitted blue jumper over a round, protruding belly; he was bald before his time, not yet thirty, unshaved, fed up. He glanced nervously at the shop door. He handed over the packet of cigarettes furtively, as if they were contraband, as if his being there were illegal. He said nothing at all.

He walked over the bridge, seeing in the far dark waters of the river a white spotting of swans moving very slowly. He did not bother himself to look at the spot where he'd first seen Patrick. It seemed unnecessary now, a bother and more than a little childish. But we keep these small untidy consolations, he reminded himself, and use them when we feel the need. Such is love. A pill of memory now and then when the going gets rough. Around him tourists swayed fatly, cumbersomely, into the town's glaring, coloured night. Their cameras swung back and forth across their chests like metronomes.

Taxis and private cars whooshed past him, windows down, music bantering from turned-up radios, a sliver of heat, a thud-thuddy-thud of ghetto rhythm, what the kids thought music was. A drunk warbled something vague from the shadows of a locked public lavatory, waved a black bottle into the air. Two policemen in shiny plastic yellow jackets, loudly visible, walked over the bridge, one of them laughing, the other almost shouting, Do you think so? Do you see? A young girl in a very short skirt sat propped against a wall, eyes half-closed, skirt riding up showing the tops of her tights and the white glow of her panties; two girls, one on either side of her, told her that she'd feel better if she ate something and were trying to haul her to her feet, tugging painfully at her thin arms. On the young girl's silvery white bare shoulder, spatter of vomit sat like a disfiguring brown growth.

He walked and walked and felt the town breathing. It was a low, scarcely audible murmur, in and out, in and out, but it was there, if you listened carefully. It lay under the rough oversound of traffic, human shouting and laughter, the sounds of musical instruments, of doors opening and closing. A bubble of orange cloud parted at the top of the street and through it a nail-clipping moon balanced itself precariously on the point of a star. Perhaps the town also had a soul.

He knew now that Patrick would not turn up. He did not know how he knew, no process of logic or of hysteria was involved. The knowledge sang upwards from his gut, or some mysterious region deeper still within the fleshy workings of his body. He walked around deserted squares, past loud 'bus queues, felt the distance between himself and other people grow with every step. Under the low dead heavens, he walked in the pulsing mist of the town's Saturday night breath.

He stood outside the pub for a long time, leaning against the window sill of a chemist's. Just over his shoulder, in the shadows of the unlit window, a life-sized woman's face smiled, declaring a real woman's love for a certain brand of sun-lotion.

Across the street, all sorts of well-dressed men entered the pub and left it and lolled about with drinks in their hands outside, glad of fresh wet air around them. Every time the front door opened, a mash of sounds flew out. Singing, shouting, glasses tinkling, a woman's voice, a man's voice. Some women came here because they felt safe. Safe among the queers.

Others came because - this too could never actually be said - they felt cool and chic hanging around gay men. It lent them a certain lustre, a vulture’s glamour. They flirted and guffawed in the company of gays, eyeing each other knowingly: Oh how daring and glamorous and outrageous this is! He'd seen it and he loathed it, the way some gays played up to it, played the camping queer for the ladies, put on a show, turned themselves into a party.

He stood there smoking. There were a lot of people in the street, coming and going nowhere in particular and he didn't stand out. Patrick was nowhere to be seen. A middle-aged man with a whiskey in his hand was eyeing him from behind a small table outside the pub's front door. The table sparkled with globs of rainwater. The man caught his eye and raised his glass gently.

Several times - half an hour, more, went by - he imagined he saw someone who resembled Patrick, either coming out of the place or going in. The man at the table had disappeared. He had a vague, not-quite-acknowledged pang of regret about that. It wasn't - never had been, anyway - his style to dance with anyone who looked twice at him. He wondered whether he looked like some brazen old queen hanging out for a quick pass, stuck there against the chemist's window like a swatted fly. He was mesmerised by the movement around the pub door and outside it on the street. He felt less and less when he thought about Patrick; as if Patrick were diminishing to the size of an afterthought, like leaving an old scarf on the bench in a taxi-office. He had smoked half a dozen cigarettes and the effect on his stomach wasn't good. If he went in to the pub and Patrick was inside, how would he react? Was it a risk, going in? What sort of risk? He hated the place, after all.

He stood against the window of the chemist's, watching. He felt elevated, as if he looked down on everything from a curiously fragile yet definite height. Was he rising roofwards, pushed up into the night on drafts of warm wet air? The street corner, the people, the sounds they made and the sounds of the traffic, seemed increasingly far away.

He leaned back against the window and felt its gentle glassy give. A young man moved in and out the crowds and clusters of men and women, selling single red roses wrapped in cellophane.

"Are you all right?" someone asked him.

"Yes, I'm fine.”

He saw the lights of the pub flicker on and off, like a coded signal into the street; people pushed inside, heading for last drinks. The street was deserted suddenly, even the rose-seller had moved on, bearing his gift of flowers. The lights around the front door and window of the pub framed everything in a strange but soothing beauty, transforming the men who moved into it, crowning their mostly shaved heads with haloes. The sound of the door's lock being rammed shut echoed over the street like a gunshot. Now those within were privileged in a petty way.

All at once he felt conspicuous. He had lost his inward silence, things muttered and whispered in his heart. He moved away from the chemist's window, slowly, as if he might disturb the air around him. He walked to the corner of the street and look at pictures in a gallery window, mediocre works, blues for sky, brown for earth, a school of them. The shabby vibrance of the pictures intrigued him; men and women laboured over these paintings, thought creatively about the world, tried to interpret it and the result was a harshness, a distortion. Patrick had wanted him to go to a movie on the life of Francis Bacon once, and he had refused. Bacon, with his terrible, camp crucifixions.

Patrick was a small figure in his interior landscape now, walking down into a perspective which concluded at a pinpoint. He strolled through the streets like a man satisfied with his lot, feeling, and being surprised at, the rise of something approaching contentment. Patrick's not turning up had been written on the sharp edge of the thin, glimpsed moon.

He was back along his own street, now, and he barely noticed the taxi approaching. It slid into the kerb in front of him, just at the steps to the building where he had his flat. It was like a giant black beetle, its back glistening. He saw Patrick's form climb awkwardly out of the back seats, lean over into the driver's window to pay him. The taxi drew away from the kerb, under cover of a spume of white exhaust smoke.

Why are you here? he thought. He stood against a tree, watching Patrick settle himself, straighten his tie, eye the flight of stone steps in front of him. Then he saw Patrick stagger, just a little, a tilt to one side which he immediately rectified. He watched the younger man place his foot tenderly on the bottom step.

Now came a moment - less than a breath, a heartbeat - when he understood the distance between powerlessness and having power; in which he uttered a word which unlocked, as if by mischievous magic, showed him his kingdom from a great height.

"Patrick!"

The younger man turned, smiled vaguely in the half light of a street lamp. He saw as he got closer that Patrick had a thin red cut over his left eye. It had bled, but the blood had dried. Something that had happened earlier in the evening. Looking at it, he anticipated, crudely, an explanation. Patrick grinned, boyish, silly looking, helpless. The two men stood facing each other.

"I guess I'm a bit late."

"I hadn't expected you to turn up, funnily enough."

"I've had an accident."

"So I see. I suppose you'd better come up."

Hateful, the ease with which he heard himself give in to Patrick, lay down his weapons of resolve in the glory of their new strength. It was an indication of how weak a man he really was, in spite of things he said to himself, promised himself, tried to believe about himself. This wasn't about love, but about a need in him - sex had no place here, it was beyond love and sex and yet less than the sum of both of them - too deeply drilled for simple common sense or logic to fathom. Patrick could look into his face and see scrawled there the hieroglyphics of defeat.

What they would share was the silence of their mutual consent, one soul agreeing to nourish the peevish whim of the other. Perhaps love fashioned its alluring shape out of such arrangements.

He felt nothing at all for the man standing in front of him. Yet he mouthed a formulaic set of words which set the demon of his need free again. Patrick smiled at him again, weakly, but with horrible understanding. He will grow to believe he can do what he likes with me, he thought, stepping ahead of Patrick, going up to the front door. This is what we will become, the old man, the young man. This is what we are now.

He heated soup from a tin, produced bread and cheese. He seated Patrick at a small table which he drew over to the window. They sat opposite each other, the room dark, a street lamp casting a triangle of silver light over the table, the soup in the blue earthenware bowls, the heavy-looking mugs of coffee, the pale yellow slab of cheese on the chipped wooden cheeseboard, the sugar, the mealy bread, the butter in rolls, the spouty jug of milk, the quietly dipping big-faced spoons, the patient single knife. Patrick's face moved in and out of the light, one side of it always in darkness, like a partial eclipse.

They watched each other. The thin wound over Patrick's eye, about an inch in length, sat just above the thick black eyebrow.

The dark of the room, their wordlessness and the cold, insubstantial light of the street lamp through the window suited them both.

(Gilford, Co Armagh)