SPOILER ALERT: This missing chapter of "Commitment Issues" takes place between the chapters 'Release' and 'Everything's Great' in Part Three of the book. A major plot development is explored here, so make sure you've read that far before reading this!

FRANKIE'S DATE

It looked like a bomb had gone off in Frankie's bedroom. Every item of clothing he owned lay strewn across the bed or the easy chair - that's if he hadn't thrown them onto the landing, destined for the charity shop. With less than an hour to go it was far too late to run into town and buy something new. He liked to think he had a dapper style, but after trying on countless ensembles Frankie now feared what others saw was a dated old queen: one who'd picked a look in 1975 and never thought to modernise. In desperation he flipped through the latest copies of the gay lifestyle magazines he bought, more in solidarity than with any real interest in their youth-oriented content, to see what fashion trends he could discern. Of course, all the models were prepubescent and stick thin, covered by a couple of pieces of skin-tight fabric at most. Thankfully, the weather was mild, so Frankie chose a plain white dress shirt with translucent blue buttons, navy blue trousers, and a royal blue blazer with a lavender pocket square. He left the collar button undone as he couldn't recall when he'd last seen anyone other than a schoolboy wearing a tie.

The hall clock chimed the half-hour, he had a little while before he had to leave. The walk to the Grand Hotel was only about ten minutes, but he was allowing twenty so he didn't arrive all sweaty. He had a quick tidy, just in case he should have a visitor later. He wouldn't usually hold with any shenanigans on a first date, but at his time of life he'd decided it was futile postponing pleasure; better to grab one's chances than watch them ebb away on the tide of lost possibilities.

Frankie took a final glance in the mirror and headed for the front door. 'Come on, old chap. Let's show those youngsters what a proper romance looks like.'

*****

The Victoria Terrace of the Grand Hotel in Brighton had been recently refurbished to echo its original nineteenth century architecture. It was like stepping back in time as Frankie sat down in one of the plush green velvet chairs. He admired the botanical mural that took up the end wall of the terrace, which along with the profusion of windows gave the impression of sitting in a Victorian greenhouse. The summer sunlight was diffused by the slatted wooden blinds, but Frankie still had to shade his eyes as he scanned the horizon for his date. It didn't surprise him that peals of laughter heralded the arrival, rendering a lookout redundant.

Derek appeared around the corner arm-in-arm with a waitress, both in a fit of giggles. Frankie couldn't help but smile: that man could make friends in an empty room. Every eye in the busy dining area fixed on Derek as he made his way to the table; even out of drag he had a magnetic aura. The waitress pulled out Derek's seat and he sat down with all the daintiness of a debutante.

'Thank you, Yvonne, you are a sweetheart,' Derek said. 'And this is Frankie, he's my date. Quite the dish, don't you agree?'

Yvonne looked at Frankie and grinned. 'Proper handsome. I'll return shortly with your refreshments.'

Frankie blushed. 'Too kind,' he called after her. 'You're looking lovely too, dear,' he said to Derek, who was wearing a pale green chemise that perfectly complemented the decor, untucked, over some khaki chinos.

Derek placed the small tan leather clutch he was carrying beside his chair. 'This old thing? I look like I'm ready to go on safari, never mind high tea at The Grand.'

'Is this OK? I wanted to take you somewhere nice and I know you've got to work later.'

Derek surveyed the room as if he was considering whether it was up to his standards. 'It's divine, darling. I've been meaning to come since they did it up. Quite posh, Krystle would love it.'

Frankie fluttered at the mention of Derek's drag alter ego, the formidable Krystle Klarity. 'I did wonder for a moment if she might try to crash the date.'

'I considered it, Krystle's much braver than I am.' Derek placed his palms on the table and turned his head towards the sea.

Frankie reached across and stroked Derek's hand. 'What is there to be scared of? It's only me.'

Derek threw him a sceptic's smile. 'Let's see... losing a friend, making a bloody big fool of myself. That's just for starters.'

'Whatever happens, we will always be friends. We're too old and too worldly wise to let something as trivial as sex come between a friendship, aren't we?'

An image of mock horror crossed Derek's face. His mouth formed an exaggerated mime of the word 'sex'. 'Here I am, expecting a light finger buffet and there's you, throwing carnal relations onto the table.'

A flash of shame took hold before Frankie caught the twinkle in Derek's eye. 'Please forgive me, my dear. It's just when presented with a picture of such pulchritude, one's mind automatically goes to pleasures of the flesh.'

Derek picked up his napkin and waved it at his face. 'With fancy talk like that, you'll have my knickers off before you can say "lemon meringue tart".'

Yvonne appeared with a couple of colleagues in tow and they festooned the table with plates of quiche, a serving platter chock-full of finger sandwiches, pastries and scones and a large pot of tea. 'There you are, gentlemen. Do you require anything else?'

'A second stomach would be handy,' Derek said, 'or a pair of Spanx.'

Yvonne tittered. 'I'll see what I can arrange. Enjoy.'

'This is some feast,' Frankie said. 'I'm glad I skipped breakfast.'

'I'll need a crowbar to get into my frock tonight if I eat all this.' Derek cut a sliver of quiche and popped it into his mouth. 'Mmmm... it melts on the tongue.'

'Tuck in, spoil yourself. I could always help you into your dress... and out of it again.' Frankie arched an eyebrow.

'My, you are frisky. And there was me thinking you'd wake up this morning, recall what happened last night and be on the first flight to Timbuktu.'

Frankie took a sip of Darjeeling. 'Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything I thought I might end up having tea for one, once you realised what a terrible mistake you'd made, kissing an old fool like me.'

Derek teased another piece of quiche loose with his fork. 'We are a pair, aren't we? Neither one believing we're worthy to be the object of another's desire. I don't know about you, Frankie dear, but it's not my mind that makes me feel that way; that's still as randy as ever. But then you go and catch sight of yourself, expecting a virile buck and instead some saggy old doe is looking back at you.'

'Nonsense, you are stunning. Didn't you clock every head turn when you walked in?'

'Yes, I'm sure they were stunned, but more in dread than desire, don't you think?'

'All I know is that I was ready to run up, sweep you off your feet and drag you to the nearest bedroom.' Frankie leaned in. 'Most people can never appreciate their own beauty, it eludes one because we have become conditioned to expect some fictional form of perfection. Trust me when I tell you, you are beautiful.' Frankie saw Derek's eyes brim.

'I've always had a thing for you, but that's hardly news.' Derek squeezed his eyes to block the tears.

'Really? You hid that well, you gave me quite the opposite impression.'

'A defence strategy, I knew you never looked at me like that. Before, I mean.'

Frankie cast his mind back over their long friendship. It was true he'd never seen Derek as a romantic prospect, but that was largely because ninety per cent of the time he'd been dressed as a rather fearsome woman. Had he missed any signals in all those bitchy comments and cutting put downs? It was hard to spot a thing when you never even thought to look for it. 'It appears we've wasted a lot of years.'

Derek smiled. 'No. Some romances catch alight then dwindle in days, the truly epic loves need a slow burn.'

Frankie was standing on the brink of passion, his toes dangling on the edge, a whisper in his ear daring him to leap over. 'Perhaps you're right, but let's not waste another moment.'

*****

An hour later, both Frankie and Derek were stuffed full of delicious delicacies and had drunk enough tea to float an armada. Frankie had even undone a few more buttons on his shirt, despite worrying he might appear to be some gauche lothario.

Once they had gotten over their initial nerves and concerns about the mutuality of it all, they were free to enjoy the thrill of being on an actual date. The conversation had been so easy: they had so much shorthand, they quickly read each other's thoughts. Their years of friendship now seemed like training for an Olympic event: all the fumbles, awkward falls and costly errors had been made and forgotten, allowing them to claim the gold when it mattered. Frankie realised he'd come up with a sports analogy: how satisfyingly butch.

'I wish I didn't have to work tonight,' Derek said. 'I'd much rather spend it with you.'

'Then we shall.' Frankie looked at his watch. 'We've got a few hours, how about we pop over to yours, get you Krystified and grab you an overnight bag? Then, after we're finished at Trickys, you can come home to mine and stay the night.'

Derek pressed the tips of his fingers together as he considered the offer. 'I finish at 2am, you won't want to be hanging around there till all hours.'

'Like I said, we're not wasting a moment. So is that a plan?'

'All right, you're on. I was going to do my Vogue-era Madonna tonight, but after eating all that I'll just throw on a muumuu and say I'm Mama Cass. Plus it means it won't take me as long to get ready, so...'

Frankie tingled. 'So... maybe we could have a little afternoon siesta?' He felt a foot brush the inside of his calf and travel slowly all the way up his leg.

'Honey, I wouldn't plan on getting any shuteye.'

The typical demons tried their hardest to prick Frankie's balloon - it had been a while since he'd last taken a lover - but he banished them from his mind. He and Derek would be spectacular together. Today would be their first pas de deux, maybe only the entrée. Never mind sports, a ballet analogy is much more apposite when romance is involved.

'Have you lost something?' Frankie grabbed Derek's foot just as it reached his delicate area. He held it firm and tickled.

Derek's eyes flared and he held on to the table as his body shook, causing the crockery to rattle. 'Mercy!'

Frankie laughed and let go. 'Let's get out of here. I want to find out where else you're ticklish.'

Copyright © Bradley Brady 2018