There are only two reasons a man visits a bathhouse. The first is to bathe. The second is to watch other men bathing.
The bathhouse was Theodore’s preferred venue for meeting men of a similar persuasion. There were certain public lavatories that served a similar function, but aside from the risk of interruption, you had to make do with whatever you were given. Theodore’s palette was rather more refined.
The bohemian bars were better. The more open-minded establishments even took care to seat like-minded individuals in the same section. But one too many evenings had been wasted when it turned out the chap he’d been buying drinks for just thought he was friendly.
Bathhouses didn’t have this problem. While, yes, the space was shared between men with ulterior motives and men without, it was simple to pick out who was who. You could tell by the eyes. Specifically, where they were pointing. And if you found a pair of eyes that were aimed at you, without a word spoken, both parties knew they shared a common interest.
The Hammam at Jermyn Street was Theodore’s most frequent haunt. It was the most famous of London’s bathhouses, as well as the most expensive. Nevertheless, the entry fee permitted you to stay all day if you wished. A little extra and you could stay the night too. After dark there were fewer people around and fewer staff on duty. Anything could happen.
It wasn’t dark yet, though the sky was streaked with orange. This was Theodore’s preferred time of day to visit, though it was hardly the most cost effective. He’d be charged a full night’s stay, despite rarely staying longer than a few hours. Nevertheless, the bathhouse was best just on the border between night and day. There were more of his sort about but not so many who were overeager. And he liked having the option to stay if things developed in that direction. The Hammam offered private chambers for a fee, but there were also divan beds in the changing cubicles which were somewhat more communal.
The facade of the Hammam was grand, though unremarkable. There was no sign above the door and no large shopfront windows to tempt you in. Once inside, Theodore was cheerfully greeted by a number of the Hammam’s many attendants, all of them Arab men in dark robes and turbans. He gave his name, paid his six shillings and handed over his hat, his boots, his watch and his purse for safe-keeping. In return, he was given two towels.
An attendant led him downstairs into the bathhouse. The double doors opened onto the meshlakh, the cool room which doubled as a changing room. If you squinted, you could just about see the stable block the room had been fashioned from. The vaulted ceiling was supported by a series of exposed beams, decorated with ornate, geometric patterns in the spaces. The stables themselves now formed the changing cubicles—or mustabahs—, hung with curtains and furnished with beds. In the centre of the room was a grand fountain, letting a trickle of water into the plunge pool, a long, thin bath in the floor that ran to the far end of the meshlakh.
Theodore padded across the varnished wood in his socks to one of the cubicles. Once there, the attendant offered, in his charming eastern lilt, to help him fasten his towels securely. Theodore thanked him, but insisted he was quite familiar with the procedure.
There was a curtain for the more bashful of changers, but that was not Theodore. As he undressed, he became aware that he was being watched. There was a man, sitting with his legs in the plunge pool, looking into Theodore’s cubicle. Theodore pretended not to notice, but spent a long time folding his clothes before fixing his towel around his waist. Theodore was tall, which went a long way, and still rather fit from his school rugby days. He’d also recently grown a fetching, red moustache which he was certain would make him popular. Nevertheless, when he looked again, the man had turned away.
Theodore felt a sting of indignation, but dismissed it. The man was plain-looking anyway.
He threw the second towel over his shoulders. It was more customary to hold the second towel over your arm or, for the more skilled, on your head as a turban. Over one’s shoulders made for a feminine appearance, which other men would prefer to avoid.
At the end of the meshlakh, the plunge pool passed through an ornate, stone arch into the hararah, the hot room. Theodore entered through one of the doorways either side, passing under a beaded curtain. The heat hit him instantly. The hararah was a tall, domed chamber built of sandy marble. Narrow shafts of light filtered in through small, star-shaped windows in the ceiling. The atmosphere was something like a church. The slightest noise was magnified by the echo and nobody dared speak much higher than a whisper.
Thankfully, Theodore’s usual spot was free. In the middle of the chamber was a raised, marble platform where one could lay out their towel and lounge. From here, Theodore had the best view. He could see into the large alcoves on each wall of the hararah, where men bathed in the warm air. He caught scant glimpses through the beaded curtains that barricaded the smaller adjoining hot rooms and washrooms. He could see the end of the plunge pool and through the great arch that led back into the meshlakh, where men were changing and refreshing themselves from the heat. He could even see the plain-looking gentleman, still sitting on the edge of the plunge pool. The man was staring at his own feet.
Theodore lay down and clapped his hands. One of the attendants rushed over at once and Theodore negotiated a massage. He lay on his front while the young Turk proceeded to beat and pummel Theodore’s ribs and back. Theodore always seemed to forget how punishing this was, but after a few minutes the attendant lathered his hands with shampoo and moved on to washing, which was much more pleasant.
Theodore looked up. ‘Art!’
Arthur Greenwood—or ‘Art’ to his friends—was a fellow Literature student at the University of London. As a rower in the university’s boat club, he had a supple figure which Theodore hardly minded seeing draped in only a towel. He had dark hair, a pale complexion and, like Theodore, was wearing facial hair, though Art’s neat pencil moustache was no match for Theodore’s bushy handlebars.
Art sat down beside the raised platform, so he and Theodore’s shared an eyeline. ‘You’ve not had me round in ages.’
‘Sorry, dear,’ said Theodore, soothingly. ‘Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour.’.
‘What good is variety when everyone else is such a dreadful bore?’ Art made a disgruntled sigh.
‘There are plenty of chaps just as interesting as I am,’ said Theodore. Grinning, he added, ‘Or half as much, at least.’
Art scowled, though his face, too, broke into a grin ‘Very well, then. Who will you spend the night with if not me?’
Art gestured to the men around the room. Theodore glanced back at the attendant, who was now shampooing Theodore’s legs. If he was listening to their conversation, he didn’t seem concerned by it. Theodore doubted the staff were oblivious to what went on.
‘What about this one?’ said Art. He nodded at a man sat on one of the alcove chairs. ‘You like blondes, don’t you?’
‘He’s not one of ours.’
‘‘Course he is. He’s ogling.’
‘He’s only looking at people who walk through the door,’ said Theodore with a shrug. ‘My guess is he’s waiting for a friend to arrive.’
‘Hm, good spot,’ said Art with a bored tone. ‘All right, then. What about him? A nice shape and he’s definitely on our team.’
Theodore followed Art’s eye to a broad-shouldered man laid on one of the stone benches, who smiled when he saw he was being watched.
‘He’d do very nicely,’ agreed Theodore.
‘What do you think? Rugby? Boxing? Greco-roman wrestling?’
Theodore sniggered. ‘He’s not a sportsman. He gets his physique from his profession.’
‘How on earth do you know his profession?’ Art snorted. ‘He’s not even dressed for Christ’s sake.’
‘I don’t,’ said Theodore. ‘But the way he keeps flexing his shoulders suggests back pain. And his towel is fixed incorrectly, so he’s not a regular. My guess is he works manual labour.’
Art turned up his nose. ‘Working class?’
‘Hey, now. Variety, remember? If one only mixes with his own class, one finds himself with a very limited perspective on life.’
‘I should write down the things you say and put them in a book.’
‘If you read any books, you’d know most of what I say is already in them.’
The attendant finished rinsing Theodore’s legs. Theodore thanked him, he bowed and swept off to assist the next person who clapped.
‘What about him?’ There was a note of amusement in Art’s tone.
It was a moment before Theodore figured out who Art meant. He was looking through the great arch at the plain-looking man, who had still not moved from the edge of the plunge pool. Theodore caught him looking their way before quickly averting his eye.
‘That’s the third time I’ve seen him looking over at you,’ Art teased.
‘He’s not so old.’
‘Not my type,’ said Theodore, curtly.
Art had a habit of saying things just to be provocative. This time, he must have realised he’d touched a nerve. After a few moments, he sighed and got to his feet.
‘I’m off to the Criterion,’ he said. ‘If you strike out here, perhaps you’ll spend the night with me?’
‘If not tonight, soon, I promise,’ said Theodore.
‘Good enough,’ said Art. Theodore admired the view as he swaggered away.
Theodore stayed for another hour or so. He approached the broad-shouldered man at one point and they had a pleasant conversation. Theodore learned he owned a construction firm, but had begun his career as a labourer so Theodore’s guess was pretty close. But while he seemed keen, he confessed he had an early train to catch the next morning and didn’t want to stay out too late. Another time, they agreed, though Theodore didn’t ask for his telephone number.
The crowd thinned. The old regulars came out of the woodwork. In the end, Theodore resigned himself to spending the night with Art, which would be pleasant enough, if familiar.
He left the hararah and went for a quick rinse in the plunge pool. To his irritation, the plain-looking man was still there. But Theodore could hardly get dressed with his skin so sweaty, so, paying the man no mind, he dropped his towel and took a dip.
He swam one length and dipped his head underwater. When he surfaced, he couldn’t resist a glance at the plain-looking man. At long last, he’d moved, having lifted his feet from the pool and wandered aimlessly away, focusing intently on the ceiling.
Theodore couldn’t help it. ‘It’s your first time, is it?’
The man looked at Theodore, but not lower than his eyes. ‘No,’ he said, simply.
‘But this is the first time you’ve come with the intention of meeting men.’
The man looked around the hararah. They were alone aside from the odd patrolling attendant, who paid them no notice. It was a difficult to read what the man was thinking.
Theodore continued. ‘You’ve been here for, what, two hours now and you’ve done nothing but sit and ogle. You’re nervous, I expect. I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but nothing’s going to happen unless you show some initiative, sweetheart.’
The man found Theodore’s eyes again and held them. ‘I wanted to,’ he said, ‘but I don’t know what to do.’
Theodore sighed. This man seemed like the sort of person who read the manual cover to cover before he attempted anything. It was just his own misfortune that there were no books about this. On a second look, the man wasn’t bad looking. He was short and slim, a far cry from the burly construction worker but not hard to look at. He had bright, blue eyes, though Theodore recognised the pinch-marks in his nose left by a pair of absent spectacles.
Art was right, he was not so old, perhaps five years older than Theodore himself. That said, Theodore would expect this sort of inexperience of a boy of eighteen. He did not want to babysit a fully grown man. On the other hand, he thought his heart might break if he came to the bathhouse again to find the man still sitting by the side of the plunge pool.
‘Very well,’ said Theodore. He lifted himself out of the pool and strode to door of his cubicle. Clutching the curtain in one hand, he gestured inside with the other.
The man stared. For the slightest instant, his eyes flickered downwards. Then he looked away.
‘No, thank you.’
Theodore was hurt. ‘You don’t like me?’
‘I like you,’ the man shrugged. He seemed unconcerned whether Theodore knew it or even returned the sentiment.
‘So what’s the problem?’
The man thought for a moment. ‘I didn’t come here because I want to go to bed with a man. I do want to, but that’s not why I came.’
‘Why, then?’ asked Theodore. What other reasons were there?
The man let out a long, heavy breath. ‘When I fully realised the way I felt, I was in an army training camp, waiting to be shipped out to the front line. I knew that if I uttered a word of it, to anyone, I’d be court-marshalled. I’ve kept quiet for years, hoping it would go away.’
‘But it didn’t,’ said Theodore, knowingly.
The man nodded. ‘If I don’t talk about it to somebody I think I might go mad.’
Theodore hesitated. He had his night all planned. He would meet Art at the Criterion, they’d get tipsy, stumble back to his and he’d wake up in the morning feeling sober and satisfied. And here was this man who was plain-looking and didn’t know anything and no matter what happened there was no chance of he and Theodore sharing a bed that night.
Theodore walked back to the plunge pool and picked up his towel. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Hugo Fox,’ said the man.
‘I’m Theodore,’ said Theodore. ‘Would you like to have dinner with me?’
The man thought. ‘And talk?’
‘And nothing else, if that’s all you want.’
The man nodded. ‘I’d like that.’