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The International Writers Magazine: 1980's

Richard's Story
Claire Holland

I am at home when the call finally comes. I have been marking papers for two hours though my mind has not been on the task and I will probably have to re-do them. I am suddenly reluctant to pick up the phone because I know that I am not going to like what I hear.

There have been too many calls from hospital corridors recently, too many friends suddenly sick, too many coffins.
Perhaps it will be me next time. I have no way of knowing; it seems to be able to strike out of the blue. I am beginning to think of it as some sort of monster, the kind that haunts children’s dreams, lurking in dark alleyways, leaping out to devour the unlucky.

Of course, I feel fine; have never been fitter in fact. They do say happiness is good for you and I have never been happier than in the last year, since I met Gerry. Love has given me a vitality that I didn’t have before: I am bursting with energy; I race up the five flights to the science lab like a teenager; I laugh at the boys’ jokes, even the awful ones they know I’ve heard before; I smile into the stupid faces of the simpering mothers rattling on about Johnny’s prospects for a scholarship because I know that when I leave it all behind and go home my real life begins.

My one regret is that I cannot share my happiness. Not if I want to keep my job. There are still people who, even in these apparently enlightened 80s, would be horrified to think they had been alone in a room with me, or worse, left me in charge of their children, if they knew the truth about the dashing bachelor about town.

I wonder what they will call this decade in years to come. There’s been the first Royal wedding in years: Diana will become an icon, I’m sure; maybe they’ll be the Adoring Eighties. Although I can think of other titles: the Alarming Eighties, the Appalling Eighties, the I-wish-it-would-all-go-away Eighties: the AIDS Eighties.

There used to be a slimming product called Aids, they’ve taken it off the shelves now. Not surprising really, I can imagine the shop assistant’s face if you marched up to the counter in Boots and asked for some Aids: there would be a stampede of terrified heterosexuals trampling over each other to get to the door.

They called it GRID at first: Gay Related Immune Deficiency, though now they’re realising it can get anyone, straight or gay, so it has been renamed. Four little letters that sound so innocuous, but spell out catastrophe. A I D S: All Inclusive Death Sentence.

I sat in a bar in Earl’s Court the other night, with Gerry. The place was full, the Village People were booming out over the stereo, people were dancing and the room was heaving with hot, sweating, straining bodies. Suddenly I felt as though I was looking out on a vision of the doomed, the desperate trying to pack in as much living as possible. I felt sick. We went home and just lay in bed together, not speaking, not even touching, just being close.

They’ve opened a new charity, the Terence Higgins Trust. I phoned their help line but didn’t give my name. In fact, I didn’t actually say anything at all: just sat there with my mouth open, realising I didn’t know how to begin to ask the question I most need the answer to, namely: Am I okay? Is Gerry okay? Are we killing each other? There is no way of knowing, no test to tell me if I’ve got the virus already in my blood. We just have to wait and see.

So I live my life as normally as possible: I go to work, I shop for food and clothes, I ring my mother and even, occasionally, my aunt. I avoid my siblings, though we’ve been all been doing that for years, so nothing different there. I guess we all look at our lives and can hardly believe the way they’ve turned out. It is almost unbearable to think back to our childhoods and the promise they seemed to hold: to those golden days when no problem was too difficult for four precocious kids and a dog to deal with. I laugh now at our naivety, our pomposity, our utter certainty in the world and our place in it. Oh God, how it has changed.

And so tonight, I sit at home, going through the motions, marking test papers, my eye constantly on the clock, waiting for the phone to ring and dreading that it will. He went to the doctor this morning; he’s had a cold for three weeks now and a cough that won’t get better. When he didn’t come home after work, I knew something was wrong. I wanted to ring, but until someone invents a walk-around phone, there’s no way of contacting someone if they decide to disappear for the day.

I missed supper, just sat at my desk as the sky darkened and pretended to work. When, finally, it rang and I reached over to pick up the phone, I knew it was him.
"Dick." His voice is shaking, he is crying.
"Gerry. Where are you?"
"I don’t know. I’ve been walking for hours. You don’t want me near you."
I am crying too, now. " Yes I do. We’ll face it together. Just come home."

Claire Holland Jan 2008

Claire is studying for her Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

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