Gerald Matthews had been waiting for over three minutes on the firm's front-door steps when, a shade breathless, Michael eventually arrived on the scene. "Ah, there you are!" he reproachfully exclaimed, evidently somewhat relieved. "I wondered where you'd got to!"

"I was just taking a leisurely wash-break," said Michael by way of an excuse. "Unfortunately, I got rather carried away by my reflections."

"Nothing lewd, I trust?" rejoined a smirking Gerald, as they set off in the general direction of their chosen restaurant.

"Rather prosaic, I'm afraid," chuckled Michael. "Certainly nothing worth recounting."

"How disappointing! And I was under the impression that you were a poet."

"Did I tell you that?"

"No, not exactly. But I was given to understand that you had literary aspirations and, consequently, knew a thing or two about poetry."

"Well, I probably do know a thing or two about it," said Michael as, crossing the road together, they bore left down a side street, "but I'm no modern poet, I can tell you that! In fact, I haven't written anything remotely resembling poetry for over a year now, because there's a world of difference between being a clerk who writes something resembling poetry in his spare time and actually being a poet. So when I eventually realized that I was only a clerk and not a poet, ah! that was when I gave-up trying to write poetry."

Gerald Matthews blushed slightly in regard to his own artistic pretensions. "My humble apologies, Mike," he said. "I suppose poetry isn't exactly the most lucrative of occupations anyway, since a majority of people appear to take no great interest in it."

"Highly understandable," declared young Savage, his gaze firmly to the ground. "These days there's so much obfuscation involved with its production that it would hardly appear to be worth their while. Besides, a majority of people are either too stupid to appreciate great poetry or become so philistine in consequence of their daily chores and jobs, that the serious perusal of anything beyond the popular newspapers would seem to them a complete and utter waste of time! No, the proper appreciation of genuine poetry has always been confined to a comparatively small minority of people, which, like it or not, is nothing to be wondered at. However, these days I'm too preoccupied with the study and practice of prose to have much or, indeed, any time to spare on verse."

"Really?" Gerald responded in a slightly disillusioned tone-of-voice. "Yet, to return to what you said a moment ago about not writing poetry because you're a clerk, isn't it the same with prose; that even though you write prose in your spare time, you're not really a writer but a clerk who amuses himself by attempting to write prose?"

Michael Savage's eyes shone with unspoken admiration for his fellow-clerk's perception. "Absolutely!" he replied, without the slightest trace of embarrassment. "But, you see, the prose I now write is only done as an exercise, a means of keeping my hand in, so to speak, and therefore it isn't something I take very seriously. I don't think I would want to offer it to a publisher when it's merely the work of a dilettante rather than a genuinely professional author. No, if after today I subsequently acquire more time in which to write, I shall be either obliged to ignore it altogether or, assuming that's impossible, revise it extensively. The point is, one has to have the psychology of an author, not the psychology of a humble drudge-ridden clerk who imagines he's an author. Do you see what I mean?"

"Perfectly," Gerald averred.

"But that was no easy lesson to learn," said Michael gravely. "For a long time I was like a drowning man clutching at straws. I chose, in my capacity of full-time clerk and spare-time scribbler, to be incredibly optimistic concerning my prospects of producing work of an acceptably professional quality. From which fact you can probably deduce how dissatisfied I was with my clerical role at the time."

On arriving at the restaurant, they quickly spotted three empty tables near the door and, Michael leading the way, elected to sit opposite each other at a small circular one.

"Well, it's not as busy as I had expected it to be at this time of day," observed Gerald, as he peered into the restaurant's Spartan interior before casting his eyes over the menu. "Now then ... yes, I'll settle for cod, chips, peas, and a coffee" he went on, largely for the benefit of the short, dark-haired waitress who, to their mutual satisfaction, had lost no time in offering them her professional services. "And a doner kebab for me, please," requested Michael without bothering to consult the menu.

"As you like," the waitress responded in a politely matter-of-fact tone, writing out and handing them their respective bills on the spot. "Oh, and I'll have a tea as well," added Michael rather belatedly.

"And one tea," she echoed, amending his bill accordingly. Then she crisply turned on her high-heeled feet and shouted: "Cod, doner, coffee, and a tea!" at an old man with a bald patch and a fat middle-aged woman who were stationed behind the counter in working proximity of the food. "And is that salad ready yet?" she asked impatiently. "That customer's been waiting over ten minutes down there!"

"Salad coming up," replied the old man, suddenly producing a copiously stocked plate of assorted vegetables from behind the counter. The waitress snatched it from his shaky hand and briskly descended upon the customer concerned, a rather pompous-looking fellow with a thin moustache and thick eyebrows who sat, elbows on table, at the far end of the room.

"She evidently rules the roost in this place," opined Gerald, leaning across the small table in a confidential manner. "Knows what she's about, by the sound of it."

"Yes, she's pretty quick-witted," Michael conceded. "French actually. Maria somebody."

"Well, she certainly has some body," joked Gerald, his eyes on her perambulating form. "Not one of nature's prosaic types, by any means."

'It wouldn't surprise me if he was gay,' thought Michael, instinctively leaning back in his chair. 'I don't want him to get too close to me if he is. Bad enough my being celibate, without running the risk of becoming gay as well!'

Slightly disappointed that he hadn't amused Michael by his slight show of wit, Gerald turned the focus of conversation back to his colleague by saying: "I expect you're looking forward to the count-down of being propelled into freedom this afternoon."

"Yes, I might well celibate, I mean celebrate, the occasion later on today."

"That's the spirit! Take your friends for a merry drink somewhere."

'I'd like to inform him that I don't have any friends, but it would only complicate matters,' thought Michael. 'After all, this is supposed to be a friendly get-together. Change the subject!' - "Are you teaching tonight?" he asked.

"Yes, but just the one pupil fortunately, assuming she turns up," Gerald replied. "She had to cancel last week's lesson because of a cold, but I expect she'll be alright now. A very good pupil actually, much better than any of the others."

"That must be quite a relief for you," said Michael, who was quite relieved, himself, that Mr Matthews would be engaged all evening. "From what you've told me about some of them, it seems that you'd be better off teaching full-time in either a school or a college again."

Gerald offered his colleague the benefit of a sceptical smile, but was not altogether devoid of positive feelings on the subject. "Well, I have actually been thinking along such lines in recent weeks," he confessed, "considering there's a vacancy, this summer, for an Assistant Director of Music in a pretty good West Country college. But I'll have to wait and see what sort of response my application receives before committing myself to any high hopes on that score. I don't want to build castles in the air right now, as I'm sure you can appreciate."

"One tea for you, and a coffee for you, sir," the waitress suddenly interposed, positioning their respective cups on the table.

"Thank you," responded Michael, who repositioned his cup closer to-hand, before removing the two sugar cubes from its saucer. He only took sugar in coffee, as a rule. 'Now I don't want him to start going on about that public-school trip again, what with its bigoted scientologists or something,' he mused. 'I'd rather he ...'

"Incidentally," rejoined Gerald, "you'll have to show me that short story you told me about last week, the one concerning a music teacher's amorous relationship with his favourite pupil. It sounds rather fun."

"Oh that, I'm afraid it's only a sketch at present," declared Michael blushingly. "I'll have to touch it up a bit before it could be considered worth your while."

"I'm sure you will," said Gerald, a childishly ironic smile in swift accompaniment. "I can assure you, however, that there's nothing I won't believe if it really sounds convincing."

Michael sipped some tea and gently shrugged his shoulders. "Hmm, I'm not sure it will," he drawled. "But I'll mail it to you, all the same. You live at Forty-Eight something or other, don't you?" he conjectured.

"Eighty-four," Gerald corrected.

"Ah yes," confirmed Michael, peeping into his tiny red address book, which had been in his possession for longer than he cared or indeed was able to remember. "You're the only tenant, eh?"

"Fortunately for me, otherwise my piano lessons would probably constitute an unpardonable indiscretion, and I'd either be thrown out of my lodgings or compelled to hire a hall somewhere," Gerald averred.

"But doesn't your landlord ever complain about the noise?" asked Michael incredulously.

Gerald's pale pink face turned a deeper shade of pink, as though at a slight but, thinking better of taking exception to the word 'noise', which was doubtless innocently intended on Michael's part, he merely replied: "Well, now you mention it, he has occasionally hinted at being disturbed, especially when he's had a few too many drinks somewhere. But he's generally fairly level-headed and no enemy of music, so, for the most part, he doesn't mind what I get up to in the evenings. In fact, he's usually out of audible range when he confines himself to his study at the rear of the house - a thing he doesn't always do, however, when inebriated."

"And thus of the peripatetic school of Aristotle," Michael ventured to speculate.

Gerald exploded with peremptory laughter. "Yes, effectively. Call it irritated itinerancy, if you like. Anyway, I don't have to bang the piano to pieces every night, thank goodness."

"Presumably in order to vent your spleen on it," conjectured Michael.

"Or split my seams on it," chuckled Gerald, most of whose attention was now focused on the two plates which were steadily approaching them by way of Maria's capable arms. "Our luncheons are about to be served!" he gleefully observed.

"Cod, chips, and peas for you, sir, and a doner for you," Maria's deep-throated and more than faintly-seductive voice boomed across the table.

'Hmm, that smells good!' thought Michael. 'Looks like a fairly decent-sized helping, too. Not like the few crumbs one gets in so many of these places.'

"Getting back to what I was saying," said Gerald in a muffled voice, his mouth stuffed with fish, "it's just as well that my landlord is a keen music-lover, otherwise I wouldn't be able to live there."

"Quite understandably," averred Michael. "You can't live with just anybody. I know how it feels, having to contend with a houseful of incompatible and often hostile neighbours every day. It's one of the least acceptable aspects of single-room accommodation." - 'Yes, life too often becomes a kind of diabolical farce,' he thought. 'By Christ, you have to laugh at it sometimes! It makes you wonder why-the-devil you were born in the first place, when it's so often like that. You feel you may even have to ask permission to smile in public. Too much dead meat for dinner, is it? Too many walking cadavers around? Well, I've certainly got more self-respect than to turn myself into a fully-fledged psychological masochist, woman or no woman!'

"Yes, I've been very fortunate in that respect," confessed Gerald, respecting the symposium. "My neighbours have generally been fairly congenial people, some of them quite charming, in fact. Mind you, I did have a spot of trouble with a few fellow borders while teaching at Darksdale."

"Really?" responded Michael casually. "And what was the outcome?"

"Oh, nothing dramatic. I just felt my teaching abilities weren't being properly appreciated, in view of the fact that I didn't subscribe to their religious persuasion. Had I been a scientologist, I would doubtless have had a more successful career there. But it was rather a closed shop, so to speak." Here he paused for breath, in order to chew some more fish, while Michael, swallowing the chewed-over pulp of a large slice of succulent lamb, unleashed a question to the effect that if what Gerald had said was true, why had he bothered to teach there in the first place, it being evident that the authorities were of sectarian inclination and unlikely, in consequence, to make allowances for black sheep like him. "But I had no idea whatsoever, initially, that my career prospects would ultimately be jeopardized because of my professed scepticism concerning their beliefs," retorted Gerald angrily.

"Ah, I see," sighed Michael, regretting his mistake. "So you gradually fell out of countenance, if that's the right word, with the status quo. Tell me, do you profess to any Christian beliefs?"

"Well, there's certainly a lot I admire about Christianity," admitted Gerald, scooping up a forkful of peas and then appearing to deliberate over exactly what he next wanted to say before committing himself to an opinion. "Now, I'm no expert on theology ..."

"I shouldn't think one would have to be to answer that question, interposed Michael impatiently.

"Well, I won't have someone who probably knows as little about it as me lay down the law, as if those who've studied theology are simply anachronistic fools," rejoined Gerald, "because I do know that there's some good in it, irrespective of my ultimate beliefs."

'Ironical bastard!' thought Michael. 'As if a thorough study of the subject would necessarily lead one to greater enlightenment! Apparently, you're only good once you've got the faith. - Emerson shouldn't have advocated things that concur with Christianity if he wasn't a Christian, Ernie Brock said to me the other day in response to a volume of Ralph Waldo's essays I had lent him, quite overlooking the fact that people can theorize and arrive at similar conclusions from completely different standpoints. As if one couldn't know how to differentiate between good and evil unless one was a Christian, i.e. a person on what they take to be the only true path through life. The ignorant pricks! Unacknowledged goodness wells up in me, prevents me from throwing myself at someone - possibly Gerald Matthews - and slashing his throat with this knife. My kindness is spurious compared with the overwhelming authenticity of theirs. It lacks the faith. I ought to join the fold and acquire a certificate enabling me to practise genuine kindness.' - "Of course there's some good in it," he at length responded, not a little annoyed. "There are always elements of right thinking in theological doctrines, national or international. But I think it has to be conceded that the converse is also the case, and I don't for one moment believe their upholders can carry on plugging the logical gaps which continue to appear in them, in relation to modern life, with quite the same 'right thinking' as has evidently been the case for some considerable period of time now, however much certain people may like to believe that they're invariably doing the world a power of good."

Gerald was more than a shade surprised by the vehemence of Michael's denunciation. "Well, I don't think you'll ever find a system of dogma that's entirely perfect," he rejoined, "not even among the latest sects, who evidently strive to worship in a manner they regard as representative of their ideals."

'Oh, but haven't I heard all this before somewhere?' thought Michael. 'Wasn't the better part of my childhood psychologically poisoned by people who strove to worship in a manner they evidently regarded as representative of their ideals? Don't I still suffer from regular relapses into self-deprecation, self-abnegation, the jaws of Christian humility bearing down on me, like some vast whale? Haven't I had enough of people accosting me in the street, handing me religious pamphlets, inviting me to meetings, free tests, lectures - to just about everywhere but where I really want to go - under the cult-sanctioned vice of disrespect for individual freedom, because someone higher up has put it into their gullible heads that they're the links through which my salvation can become a reality? Am I not he who, in the interests of charitable trustees, was subjected to such an overdose of Christian asceticism, in his youth, that he constantly suffered from psychological withdrawal pains in later years? Yes, they evidently strive to worship, these humble souls, but who or what it is they're actually worshipping affords a wide solution, if you ask me. I wonder what his reaction would be if I told him that, to my mind, true believers are all fundamentally mad. Try it anyway. It's about time someone said something again.' - "Personally, Gerald, I think a large proportion of so-called true believers are either simpleminded, psychologically vain, or virtually mad," I said. "They don't realize they're deceiving themselves, because they've taken their habitual inculcations so much for granted as to end-up being duped by them. It's rather like that POW who feigned madness as a strategy for getting himself discharged on medical grounds - a novel idea all right, but one with the unforeseen consequence that he was obliged to maintain his deception so persistently and to such a credible degree that he gradually became enslaved to it and ended-up actually going mad. I mean, we're all mad to some extent, Gerry. It's just that most people don't realize the fact."

"Oh, I quite agree," coughed an embarrassed Gerald Matthews, pushing his empty dinner plate to one side and then nervously lighting himself a mild cigarette with the aid of a silver lighter. "Most people are perfectly aware of the fact that there are religious maniacs in the world, and not just in places like Iran or Ireland either. Yet even if a significant number of genuine believers are mad or, at the very least, self-deceiving, I can't pretend it's a fact which has detracted from my enjoyment of playing the organ at Sunday-evening services. On the contrary, it has probably enhanced my enjoyment!"

'Naturally, mutual preoccupation,' thought Michael, wincing slightly. 'Madness in your favour. After all, he'd be something of a protagonist there, wouldn't he? A big wheel, a sort of sophisticated sheepdog vis--vis the participating flock. It makes you wonder, though, why people so often say irrelevant things when you talk to them, never quite understanding how your mind works in relation to the subject of discussion. All these anachronistic concepts we're obliged to put-up with every day! By Christ, an atheist winds-up subsidizing the clergy, a non-Christian ends-up supporting Christians! - Yes, but you're Christian, one person says, if you were born in a Christian country. - No, you're not a real Christian, another says, because you don't go to church regularly and believe in Christ as the Son of God Who ascended from the grave on the Third Day and will return to earth during the time of the Antichrist in order to restore order throughout His Kingdom by calling upon the forces of Light to defend His Dominion to the End of the World and Last Judgement. I doubt, myself, that the Messiah will literally be called Jesus Christ when next He appears on earth. That wouldn't go down too well with peoples of non-Christian descent for one thing, whether they were born inside or outside so-called Christian countries!'

Meantime, Michael having lost the thread of his interlocutor's argument, Gerald was saying: "Of course, it is rather difficult to believe in a Son of God Who was separated from the Father and sent to earth via a Virgin Mother, a woman, in other words, who had never taken seed save divinely, if one lacks faith in miracles, in God's omnipotence and ..."

"But what you're saying," interposed Michael, "suggests to me that Jesus was somehow preconceived by the Father and subsequently dropped, as it were, into the Virgin's lap without the necessity of having to undergo foetal life, which strikes me as even more preposterous than the theory concerning Mary's virginity vis--vis St Joseph, whose role as her husband would appear somewhat suspect, not to say gratuitous, in consequence!"

Gerald's face darkened perceptibly in the turbulent wake of his colleague's rational thrust. "Now don't take what I'm saying so literally," he responded. "For if you had listened properly and allowed me to continue, you'd have heard my justification for alluding to such a theory. Now what I am saying is that, according to Scripture, Mary was endowed with the ability to conceive a child without the necessity of her husband fertilizing her, and that, whether you like it or not, is the whole crux of the Immaculate Conception."

"Well, it still strikes me as preposterous," confessed the rationalistic Michael Savage, suddenly feeling self-consciously embarrassed about getting carried away by such a juvenile argument in what had by now become a crowded restaurant, and, with so many businessmen present, one overly heathen in character at that! "I mean, surely a virgin would be in some considerable difficulty forcing a baby through her birth canal, to cite medical terminology, when no-one, not excepting her legal husband, had previously copulated with her and thus 'broken her in', as the saying goes? Now if St Joseph had copulated with Mary, she wouldn't have been a virgin and therefore the concept of a virgin birth would be a misnomer. But if St Joseph hadn't copulated with his wife prior to the virgin birth, then what the blazes had he done to justify being her husband in the first place?"

Gerald's face became momentarily ponderous as, petulantly exhaling cigarette smoke, he gave Michael's questions, which struck him as somehow overly rhetorical, some lightweight consideration. "Yes, that's an interesting remark," he reluctantly averred, blushing slightly, "and one that seems to tie-in with the, er, fact that we aren't told anything much about the circumstances surrounding the actual birth of Christ, apart from, you know, a few terse references to a bed in a manger, as though the matter were a sort of soft underbelly of theology that didn't warrant closer scrutiny. But I suppose all this is really beside-the-point from the strictly theological point-of-view, which is less concerned with reason than divine credibility."

"Well, when one considers the miraculous side of things, it appears to warrant more attention than the Evangelists were evidently prepared to grant it," said an unrepentant Michael Savage. "Incidentally, the celebration of Christ's birth ties-in with the visitation of the Three Kings which, if scholarly memory serves me well, wasn't actually on the day of his birth at all but some weeks or even months afterwards, and therefore anything but a reliable source of information concerning the events preceding it."

"Yes, that appears to be the case," conceded Gerald wearily. "And quite understandably, when one bears in mind the primitive nature of both communication and transportation in those times. However, returning to what you were saying about the alleged madness of true believers, and considering the fact that there are so many unreasonable people in the world these days, what, tell me, would you propose to replace Christianity with if, by some near-miraculous transformation in the existing state-of-affairs, you were given the opportunity?"

"A species of Zarathustrianism," replied Michael, alluding to Nietzsche. "Either that or reason. For the more I think about Christianity, the less Christian I become. I see little or no difference between a man who believes himself to be a reincarnation of Napoleon Bonaparte and one who believes in the Virgin Birth. To me, they're equally mad. So either Zarathustra or reason!"

"Tell that to a fool," chuckled Gerald before beckoning to the waitress. "Tell that to someone who, besides not knowing anything about Zarathustra, doesn't realize his dilemma. Like me, for instance."

"That will be 4.75p for you, sir, and for you ... 4.50," Maria declared, picking up and reading them their respective bills.

'Hmm, not a bad-looking woman, all in all,' observed Michael to himself. 'Eight-out-of-ten, I'd say. Wonder who her husband is, assuming that isn't an engagement ring she's wearing. Not a bad pair of calf-muscles under those sexy black stockings, either. Nice little arse on her, too. It could bring out the beast in me, rejuvenate my Old Adam, as it were.'

"By the way, to what madness do you profess, if that's not an impertinent question?" asked Gerald, once the waitress was safely out of earshot again.

"Well now, that would be telling," smirked Michael, reluctantly responding to his colleague's curiosity. "I've passed through quite a few distressing states-of-mind in recent years. However, the most distressing one entailed a kind of savage neurosis induced by unrequited love, which lasted about three-and-a-half years. It resulted from the fact that I'd fallen helplessly in love with someone else's woman and, being unable to obtain her in the flesh, could only carry her image around with me in consequence. She was a student who only worked at the firm during vacation time, meaning, effectively, that I didn't get to see her very often. In actual fact, I was so infatuated with her that the two attempts I made to leave the firm during those years completely failed, with a result that I ended-up going back there again, getting myself re-employed - a disconcerting, not to say humiliating, experience - and subsequently taken advantage of and landed in deeper clerical water, so to speak, because I just couldn't have worked anywhere else in the knowledge that she would probably continue to reappear there, from time to time, in my absence. I was effectively chained to the spot. Though what I found most humiliating was the way she would greet me cordially, when she reappeared on the scene for the first time on each occasion, and then inquire of me why I hadn't left the firm by then, as I had previously if fatuously intimated doing in an attempt to bluff her as to my true position."

"Poor you," Gerald sympathized. "And so you returned to the fold just for the opportunity of being near her during those weeks in the year when she was on vacation from college. And then, presumably, without your having any physical contact with her?"

"That's love," averred Michael, who felt what he had taken to be the long-dormant pain of this old wound momentarily awakening itself afresh, as though once again he was being cast out from the centre of life and left to suffer on the periphery in a terrible fall from emotional grace. "One does many strange things under the influence of such a powerful master, or perhaps I should say mistress," he continued. "I mean, the fact that I remained so long in a job I didn't like all that much, simply because I'd fallen so desperately in love with this young woman, meant I was constantly exposed to a variety of conflicting emotions: those, on the one hand, which bid me stay there because of her and seemed to lend the place a strong sentimental value in my eyes, and those, on the other hand, which bid me leave it because I didn't much care for the work and had budding literary ambitions anyway, the grand result of these conflicting emotions ultimately being the rather savage neurosis, no pun intended, from which I've only comparatively recently recovered. But it's certainly a major setback in life to have things go against you like that, to be trapped for a number of years in a prison of unrequited love with no prospect of emotional bail, no genuine sex whatsoever, and then to find yourself ignoring other women because they absolutely fail to match up to the one who emotionally enslaved you in the first place!"

"I know it only too well," admitted Gerald, feeling slightly ashamed of the fact. "Unmerciful life, isn't it?"

"Well, it's women who rule this world, to judge by the number of poor bastards currently in it," young Michael Savage truculently averred. "That's doubtless why we've got the popular notion to the contrary!"

Gerald Matthews had begun to blush fiercely now and: "So it would seem, so it would seem," was all, in mumbling fashion, he could bring himself to say.

'That time a female acquaintance told me the firm's manager, old Welsh, had one day asked her, my beloved, if she would like to attend a classical concert with him the following evening,' thought Michael. 'My God, I nearly passed out! We were sitting in a kind of pub cellar, I recall, with a rock band playing only a few yards away, people dancing all around us, contented couples blissfully wallowing in one-another's funky sweat, the bar fairly seething with drink-crazed bodies, men shouting across the smoke-filled dance floor or frantically jabbering into nearby ears, everyone appearing to buzz with excitement as the music rose in intensity, goading them all into greater feats of participation - an orgy of sound and movement. Then suddenly that ill-timed and cutting allusion by Trudy to the manager's sexist intention which completely poisoned everything there and then, driving me back upon myself to such an extent that I had to physically withdraw from her, find another seat, endeavour to regain my equilibrium, and attempt to console myself in the knowledge that Julie had made excuses to him, had told him she was fully engaged all week, that nothing had come of it and I was still in with a chance of securing her love, even if only an extremely slender one. Indeed, whenever I met Trudy, who was probably jealous of me, I knew in advance that she could be relied upon to drag up the past and, wittingly or unwittingly, inflict some such mental torment on me. I ended-up going out of my way to avoid her.'

"Incidentally, what do you think of all this latent feminism we've got nowadays?" Gerald was asking, in an attempt to escape from the all-too-formal reality of his embarrassment as quickly as possible.

"Frankly, I think you'll find enough information on that at the office," replied Michael offhandedly. "Female authority in virtually all the senior clerical and secretarial positions having had, it seems to me, a noticeably detrimental effect on the dwindling amount of male initiative that's still to be found there. For what do you suppose happens when, through some such arrangement, the male becomes unaccustomed to dominating the female?"

Gerald shrugged his shoulders. "You tell me," he said.

"Bugger all, old boy!" quipped Michael. "For a majority of the male staff currently employed there are either effete or effeminate, think what you will! Naturally, it makes a certain amount of sense that women who aren't also mothers of young children should be given employment, paid a fair wage for their work, given ample opportunity for advancement within their chosen careers, allowed to express themselves as they want, et cetera. All credit to sexual and social emancipation! But I, personally, would rather work under a man than under a woman any day. For, in the final analysis, it seems to me that women should exist in the service of men, not vice versa, no matter how liberated from domestic servitude some of them may consider themselves to be. However, the overwhelming amount of female authority at the office makes it virtually inevitable that the only males who can tolerate the place for any length of time tend, as I've said, to be either effete or effeminate, and probably gay as well!"

Gerald deliberated a moment or two before deciding to commit himself to any overt corroboration of this rather disturbing and possibly chauvinistic assessment on Michael's part which, to be sure, struck a painful discord within him, having confirmed an intuition he had formulated (though subsequently dismissed as arid subjectivity) shortly after joining the firm. Indeed, he wondered whether the time had not come for him to divulge a secret which had been gnawing at his peace-of-mind that very morning, causing his concentration to wander from time to time, with the unfortunate consequence that, unbeknown to himself, there were now more than a few serious clerical blunders to his name! In regard to the young man opposite, Gerald sensed he was a potentially sympathetic confidant, a person who had evidently experienced his fair share of life's misfortunes and consequently developed an understanding, not to say forbearing, nature. Yes, he would swallow his pride, that virtue of the unthinking strong. "Whilst on the subject of gayness," he commenced, in an uncharacteristically subdued tone-of-voice as they rose from the table, "and in view of the fact that you're leaving today, I'd like to let you in on a little secret of mine concerning a male friend who, I regret to say, claims to have fallen deeply in love with me."

Michael raised his eyebrows in apparent concern but said nothing as they made their way to the door and out into the sunny street again, where the crowds were now thicker on the ground than before and the women correspondingly more plentiful. 'That's the worst of having a talkative bloke with you when you're in the mood to ogle women,' he thought, as they hurried along as best they could, already fifteen minutes over the lunch hour. 'I find it difficult enough to concentrate on most of what he says anyway, not having listened to steady conversation for so long. It reminds me of that harrowing experience I had at the chief clerk's flat last year when, largely on account of her ugliness, I couldn't focus my mental attention upon her properly, kept losing the thread of her monologue, and wound-up feeling thoroughly vertiginous. I remember giving her some of my poems to read as a sort of vengeance for all the inconvenience she had inflicted upon me both then and previously. I regretted it afterwards, though. She realized, from then on, there was more to me than first met the eye!'

"Are you still listening, Michael?" Gerald was asking rather petulantly, as they turned the corner into the street which led to the office.

"Carry on, Gerry, I'm all frigging ears," lied Michael obligingly.

"Well, as you can imagine, I'm somewhat loathe to disappoint the poor fellow, since we've known each other for several months now, the occasional drink and casual encounter gradually developing our relationship along ever-more congenial lines. But now that he's sprung this profession of love on me, well, I feel sort of imposed upon. It's a rather tricky situation."

Michael's first impulse was to laugh out loud, since he could never quite take declarations of love between men seriously, but he endeavoured to sound sympathetic as he merely said: "So it seems, Gerry. The fact is, you'll just have to break ties with him if homosexuality isn't your thing. I mean, what's the sense in making a sodding martyr of yourself if you lack the faith? You'll only succeed in making things worse than they already are."

"As I fully appreciate," sighed Gerald, with more than a hint of bitterness in his voice. "Indeed, how often does one fall in love with someone who doesn't care a damn about one, only to discover, in one's turn, that someone else has made a similar mistake with regard to oneself! Now what kind of a world is that?" It would have been evident to even the least attentive of people that, by now, Gerald Matthews was well-nigh exasperated.

"Yes, it does seem rather paradoxical," replied Michael, as they crossed over the road. "Fortunately, however, one doesn't fall in love too often - at least not in my experience. But so many of our failings to reach a mutual arrangement with other people only constitute an aspect of what a famous French poet called 'universal misunderstanding', if you know anything about that."

Gerald didn't really, but he pretended, for appearances sake, to the contrary, before quickly going on to say: "I'd much rather lavish my amorous attentions upon the young girl I may be in with a chance of - you know, the one I told you about earlier - than waste time on this fellow whose claim to be so deeply in love with me is positively indecent, no matter how sincere he may appear."

"I'm sure you would," smiled Michael as they reached the foot of the office steps, now some thirty minutes late back from lunch.



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