By the age of seven Danny had wiped from his mind the catholic doctrine of original sin, rejecting the responsibility for the actions of others. He was not a precocious child, but had just assumed that, like the bogeyman in his picture book, the characters in the bible didn't really exist at all. By the age of eight he was doing things considered unnatural and strange for a child of his age and upbringing to even contemplate. When he refused to participate in either sacrament of confession or communion his parents, in their anguish, paid large sums of money to a child psychologist. He had asked Danny questions, couched in juvenile terminology, about his parents' sex life. He could reach only one conclusion, that the child wanted to tell god to leave everyone alone. His parents soundproofed the bedrooms and dragged him to church. When he refused, kicking and screaming, they locked him in his room for the entire duration of each Sunday.
So it continued till the child relented. Released from his captivity, Danny Marsh went to church and prayed that he would grow up soon. On his sixteenth birthday he told his parents that he was gay, fulfilling their hopes they they would ultimately be prooved blameless for the cuckoo they had found in their nest. He ran away two hundred miles to his grandmother, who took him in, called him Copperfield, and warned him about all "those bastards out there". She paid for his education and died, quite unexpectedly, at the wheel of her MG the day after he graduated from University. He was left nothing in her will but a letter. Its contents informed him that he already had everything he needed, and she did not wish to leave him an inheritance which would be nothing but a burden. The P.S. at the end of the letter stated that if he did not like what he read, to "go out and get laid". That way, things would seem a lot better.
Danny had not minded what he read. He and his grandmother had always shared a tacit understanding of what the world had to offer them. He respected the last words of her letter for their own sake and spent the evening after her funeral in bed with a stranger.
In the years following his grandmother's death, he found himself having, more often than not, only the smile on his face to call his own. It was the complete expression of his being, condensing all his better qualities into one huge definition which had, in its simplicity, no need for words. It was his greatest possession. It could make people do things. It could make his friends, while reproving him in secret, distract their thoughts sufficiently to forget their anger and put their arms around his neck in subliminal praise. It could get him better jobs than he was otherwise capable of doing, persuade a waiter the best seats were available after all, excuse himself from unwanted admirers without causing offence. It could not, however, lie. Like the animals, who cannot even smile at all, Danny Marsh was incapable of concealing an actuality.
Danny sometimes wished he could lie as easily and effortlessly as other people. His friends, often swept completely into sharing the vicariousness of his lifestyle, could at least elasticate the truth. Their lies on his behalf had, on occasion, bought him time; they had saved his face in awkward situations when even his famous smile had failed him. The best he could do was to avoid the truth by keeping his mouth shut. His friends knew this. Most of them were wise enough to stop asking questions when he fell silent. It was always better, where the volatile and usually outspoken Danny Marsh was concerned, to possess a crude approximation and know the truth, plus or minus ten percent, than to demand it exactly and not know it at all.
So it was with Chris Jones. Having found himself in a personal and professional crisis within three years of graduating, he had been forced to choose among alternative courses of action. In his one great moment of recklessness, brought on by an almost hysterical desperation for change, he had chosen to throw his lot in with Danny Marsh. He had been amused by Danny's accounts, via irregular letters, of life in London and other places, and had joined him. It had been a sudden decision, almost a whim. Yet he could never decide if he was in love with Danny or not, but knew life could never possibly be boring with him. That had been six weeks ago and now, as he studied Danny's silent face from a distance of two yards, he pondered on the wisdom of his decision. Looking up at the near derelict block of flats which was to be their new home, he came to the conclusion that Danny's crude approximations could well be getting cruder and more approximate.
"It didn't look like this in the brochure." He said, his voice heavy with irony. Danny turned to face him, and attempted a half-hearted grin. "It could be worse, I suppose." he replied, looking upwards. Chris grunted, and stamped a foot on the wet pavement, covering the bottom of Danny's jeans with a fine spray of black water.
"Oh, come on Chris. This isn't going to do either of us any good." He spoke like a mother to a sulking child. Chris said nothing for a moment. When he verbalised his thoughts, it was with a forced calmness.
"Fuck it, Danny, what the hell did you expect?"
They remained motionless side by side, both staring at the pavement, neither daring to look the other in the eye. The rain, Danny realised, was not doing much for his friend's steadily darkening mood. Neither were their surroundings, a small council estate of dismally uniform blandness in the heart of north London. He raised a hand,, and placed it on Chris's shoulder.
"Look." He said, "We can't do much about it today, can we? Let's get in out of the rain. At least then you'll be able to get into some dry clothes."
Chris nodded his assent. They picked up their rucksacks, abandoned at their sides for the duration of the argument. Chris swung his around his back, giving a jump to secure the two straps onto his shoulders. He prodded Danny a little too firmly in the chest.
"This is another fine mess you've got me into, Stanley." he said, only half joking. Danny dared a wide grin.
"Just another one of life's little adventures." He pointed to a sign in front of them. It read, in hardly discernable letters: `WELCOME TO JOHN KEATS HOUSE, NEW HOMES FOR A NEW ERA`.
"Well, you have to believe what you read, don't you."
Chris flinched at what was obviously a mercenary tug at his heart strings. Whenever they talked about the power of the press,, it was always this statement which ended, tongue in cheek, the discussion. It was part of their own secret langauge, possessed in all forms of diversity by any two individuals bound together by friendship, or love. It said `I know you so well, I sometimes am you.` When Danny used it like this it loosened, rather than tightened the bond which kept them together. It became redundant through misuse.
They walked slowly over toward the entrance of the flats, and peered in through the glass-windowed door. They could see a narrow hallway, apparently empty, and a sign pointing in the direction of the lifts. Everything beyond that was out of the range of their vision. The hall, little more than a corridor, was lit by two rows of bright fluorescent lights. They made the interior seem somehow more than three dimensional, but terribly distant, like an image on a cinema screen. Chris's heart stood thumping in his mouth. He was terrified.
"What if someone sees us?" he asked in a barely audible whisper.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it." answered Danny, his nose touching the glass, misting up the window with his breath.
"But what if we get caught?" Chris insisted.
Danny turned to face him, his eyes wide, enjoying every moment. He grinned again, and shrugged lightheartedly.
"Look as if you own the place. It's not as if they won't have seen squatters before, anyway."
"I'm not convinced, Danny."
"Just remember then, that an ounce of image is worth a pound of performance." Chris indicated their clothes, threadbare dungarees and dirty jumpers.
"That doesn't exactly make sense in these."
Danny eyed him from head to foot.
"Oh yeah." he said, apologetically. He looked round furtively, then grabbed the door handle.
"Come on." he said, "No time to chicken out now!" With that, he lunged forward, disappearing from sight into the hallway, leaving Chris standing alone on the pavement.
"Hey! Wait for me!" he cried, suddenly feeling extremely foolish. Before he could move he heard a deep thud from inside, followed by a muffled scream from Danny. Chris felt a sudden, almight urge to run in the opposite direction. He closed his eyes momentarily and steeled himself, clenching both fists. Swallowing a huge gulp of air, he ran after his friend into the unknown territory of John Keats House.
"What happened?" asked Chris, a broad grin appearing on his face despite the fact that only a few seconds beore he thought he was going to lose his best friend, his only friend in London, in some sort of frenzied inner-city blood bath. The two men on the floor looked at him with what amounted to incredulity at the question and Chris at once felt a complete idiot for asking it and moreover, somehow responsible for the situation as a whole. He fumbled with the toggles on his rucksack nervously, willing one of them to at least say something.
The rasta turned his attention towards Danny, and smiled. Danny tentatively returned the smile and picked himself up off the floor, dusting himself down as he did so. He extended an arm.
"You look as if you need a hand!" he said. The rasta shook his head, signifying that he was quite happy to remain where he was by reclining backwards against the wall and placing both hands behind his head. Without a word he closed his eyes and became quite still. Danny shrugged, and made his way further along the hallway towards the lifts, motioning the dumbfounded Chris to follow on behind him.
They reached the lifts. Danny studied them both and pressed the down button on the one which served the odd-numbered floors. the lift was already at the ground floor. The double-doors opened immediately with a grinding noise setting Chris's teeth on edge. a strong smell of urine hit them both in the face. "Oh shit!" groaned Chris. Danny looked into the lift and shook his head.
"Just about everything but by the looks."
"Ha fucking ha."
"Come on. Get in and mind your feet!"
Chris pointed, his voice hardly a squeak.
"I'm not getting in there!"
Danny was already inside, his feet angled to avoid the puddles.
"Well, you can walk all the way up if you want, but I'll be buggered if I am!"
Danny pressd the button for the eleventh floor, and gave Chris a fuck-you smile, averting his eyes as the doors began to close. Chris weighed up the alternatives. He could take the stairs, but Danny was the kind of person who could never be trusted to be waiting at the top. By the time he reached the eleventh floor Danny could no doubt have found something better to do, and someone better to do it with. He let out a small yell and threw up an arm halting the movement of one of the doors. It stopped and gave a heave before it drew itself back. Danny looked at him, arms crossed, as he tip-toed gingerly into the lift.
"Make your mind up, won't you?" he said, attempting to hide his irritation. Danny pressed the button for the eleventh floor once again, and watched the doors close shut. The lift jolted into movement, and they felt themselves beginning their ascent. Chris held his nose.
"God Danny, what sort of animals live here?" he gasped.
"Who knows," replied Danny matter of factly, "but we're part of the menagerie ourselves now, like it or not."
"But this is disgusting!" Chris pointed to the floor. Danny looked down, then in a sudden, almost violent mvement turned his head so his eyes were at a level with Chris's, their nosed almost touching.
"You taking the piss?" he asked, the tone of his voice low and threatening. He gesticulated towards the floor, then threw his head back in a silent agony of laughter.
"Taking the piss! Geddit!"
Danny knocked on the door of number sixty nine. There was no answer.
"John told me there would be somebody waiting for us here." he said impatiently. Chris was making a barely audible tutting noise as he paced a distance of two yards back and forth, virtually ignoring his friend. His fear of the place was unconscious but overwhelming, so much so that he had distanced himself mentally from the course of events.
"Well, we got the number right." he said absently
"We could hardly forget that now, could we!"
"I suppose not. Doesn't look as if there's anyone in though." There was a small hint of triumph in his voice, which irked Danny.
"Well, if you will trust almost complete strangers..." Chris's voice trailed of as he saw the expression on Danny's face.
"John is not a complete stranger. I've known him almost two years now."
"And when was the last time you saw him?"
Danny looked glum.
"Almost two years ago" he replied.
"So someone who you haven't seen for two years told you, once upon a time about a mystical squat, and you reckon it's still here?"
"Have you got any better ideas, smart arse?"
Chris's voice rose.
"Well, for a start..." He was interrupted by the sound of a different voice, coming from the direction of the door. They both jumped, startled by the intrusion.
"I said - who's there?" came the voice of an old woman. The door remained closed, but they could tell from the slight movement of the letterbox that the owner of the voice was kneeling directly behing it. Chris looked at Danny in mock horror."
"God, we must be real monsters." he whispered. Danny held a finger up to his lips, and removed his rucksack.
"Shut up." he said, "I've got to get this right."
He knelt down in front of the letterbox.
"Hello Maude." he began softly. "Johnny sent us for some keys."
There was no reply for a few seconds. Chris looked down unbelievingly at Danny. there was little wonder, he thought,, that Danny had been so reticent on the subject of this mysterious John. Not only had he been dragged to a place which on first inspection seemed little better than a zoo, to cap it all it doubled up as a loony bin.
"What did he tell you to say?" asked the voice indistinctly.
Danny looked up at Chris and winced, sighing audibly as he turned back to the letter box. He coughed, and leant his mouth as close to the box as possible.
"Maudie had a little lamb, it's fleece was white as snow,, and everywhere that Maudie went, the sheep were sure to go." he said quickly, running the words into each other. Chris let out a quickly suppressed gurgling noise as Danny rose up. He covered his mouth with his hands, shrugging his apologies.
"Not a bloody word." said Danny. Chris laughed out loud, and leant against the wall opposite the door. He wiped his eyes.
"Oh God, I'm sorry Danny. I can't help it." By now his shoulders were heaving up and down uncontrollably. Danny was about to round on him when he heard a faint click of metal. A set of keys fell from the letterbox onto the floor."
"Number eighty" said the voice. "Now bugger off."
With an extravagant gesture, danny swept the keys up from the floor, and dangled them in front of Chris's eyes.
"Eh Voila!" he announced. "Home James!"
"What about her?" Chris pointed to the door. Danny shook his head.
"Just call her the concierge. Come on we can walk from here." He picked up his rucksack and began to walk towards the stairway at the end of the corridor. Chris followed on behind.
"Baaaa!" he imitated a sheep, giggling furiously. Danny continued without turning round.
"BAAAAA!" Chris insisted.
"Come on" shouted Danny, breaking into a brisk run, "I'll race you up the stairs!"
Chris made a lunge for Danny's rucksack as he turned the corner of the first set and grabbed a strap, using Danny's weight to swing himself around and take the lead. Danny staggered backwards and grasped frantically onto the metal hand rail.
"Bastard!" he cried, "I'll dangle your balls in the lift shaft when I catch you!" Chris had already reached the next flight. He halted momentarily and lookd down, victorious.
"You've got to catch me first!" he yelled before disappearing out of sight. In a second, all Danny could hear was the stamp of his boots on the concrete stairs. His friend's desire for success baffled him.
He remembered something his grandmother had once told him as they sat together in the only gay bar in her home town. He had failed to attract the attention of a particularly beautiful youth, and was dismally recounting a catalogue of his own shortcomings to her. She had patted his knee and said "Child, the secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made. That is, of course, if you want it so badly." At the time he thought it was an intimation that she believed he didn't really want the boy at all. He was only now beginning to put the words into their own context. Chris's own sincerity could certainly not be doubted, it was almost violent in its honesty. Yet it involved little or no self-penetration. His desire for success was simply for its own sake, not for his own or anybody else's for that matter. It was the basic primaeval urge to reach the top of the pecking order, become the king of whichever jungle. Perhaps that was why, Danny thought with a shrug, that Chris had enjoyed so little of it. It would certainly explain why he was such a miserable bastard at timed.
"Oi!" he shouted, "I've got the keys, so you can't get in before me anyway!"
He found Chris seated outside the lift on the fourteenth floor.
"Well, this is it." he said, gasping for breath.
"Doesn't look any different to any of the other floors."
"What did you expect, five star service?"
"Well, I suppose we could get mad Maudie down there to bring a tray up in the morning, sing a few nursery rhymes, rool her eyes a bit..."
Danny slapped him roundly on the top of the head.
"Come on." he said, "Let's get this over with."
There were two glass fronted doors, one on each side, seperating the liftway from the flats. Danny pointed to the one on their left.
"That way, methinks." he said. He helped Chris up and they walked through into a single, badly lit corridor. They could see three doors, one close to them, the other two opposite each other at the end of the corridor. Chris approached the nearest and studied it.
"This is number 79" he whispered. "So, logically, one of those down there is number 80."
"The deuce, Holmes, I think you've got it!" replied Danny, too loudly for Chris's comfort.
"Will you be quiet!" Chris hissed.
"Why? We live here, don't we?"
"Yes, but we don't know who else does yet. Come on!"
They walked to the end of the corridor. Neither of the doors had a number.
"Ah!" said Chris and Danny together.
"Which one?" asked Danny. They looked. The first was a red door of hardwood with a brass letterbox and a spy hole at its centre. The second, on their right was plain, unpainted wood with a split for its letterbox. There was a slight crack extending from its top to a third of the way down its length. Chris pointed towards it.
"How do you know?"
"Because when things are going well, something always goes wrong. When things just can't get any worse, they will. It's got to be the crappy door, let's face it."
"Your right!" said Danny as he turned the key in the lock and pushed the door forward. The crack folded inwards slightly as the door was opened, filling the corridor with a terrible screech as the wood buckled together.
"We'll have to get that seen to." said Chris. He looked with half closed eyes through the door into the flat. He could see nothing but what was lit by the strength of the lighting from the hallway. Beyond that everything was enveloped in a total darkness. A sudden draught of stale air blew over him.
"It's like opening a tomb or something!" He exclaimed.
Danny grasped his shoulder.
"Don't spook me out, Chris. I have an odd feeling about this place." They tentatively entered the flat, holding each others hand. Once inside, Danny closed the door behind them, and they stood facing each other in the dark. Then, instinctively, they threw themselves together in a hug. Chris could feel Danny trembling.
"Now" he said, as their eyes slowly became adjusted to the dark, "Where's the bloody light switch?"
"Obviously the previous occupants were well prepared."
"This is the limit, Danny, it really is."
Danny shrugged, and holding the candle below his chin, smiled menacingly. "Well, I'll see what can be done about it in the morning, master." he lisped. Chris sighed loudly, and turned away.
"You've been saying that all night."
"So, I'll say it again."
They fell silent, both afraid to carry on the conversation. They had positioned themselves in the end room of the flat, farthest away from the door, as in an unconscious attempt to distance themselves from the remainder of the block. Structurally, it seemed in good condition; Chris's anxiety had been partly relieved by the fact that, even in the dim light thrown off by the candle, there seemed to be no fallen masonry or rubble. The windows too, were all intact albeit stained. The floors, however, were strewn with refuse, which gave the room the air of a council skip. Empty wine bottles were dotted about, makeshift candlesticks with wax distorting their shapes. Newspapers and magazines were scattered throughout, reminding Chris of the straw in his father's barn. There was little furniture; a small wooden table with one leg broken at the top so that it leant inwards, useless. Two chairs, one straight backed and wooden, lying on its back, the other plastic with a metal frame like those in a doctor's waiting room, and finally a small cupboard and two mattresses leant together like drunken lovers against the far wall.
"What a tip!" exclaimed Danny finally.
"It looks pretty superficial to me." replied Chris airily, "A solid day's work and it might look alright. Like a prison cell, but alright."
Danny regarded Chris suspiciously, surprised at the levity of his words. "So you don't mind the lack of electricity?"
"I'm pissed off in the extreme." He waved a hand. "but, like you say, there's not a lot we can do about it. Events are well and truly out of our control. It's not worth taking it out on you."
Danny smiled, and took Chris's arm, leading him through the refuse to the window.
"I'm glad you think like that." he said, still a little unsure about Chris's sudden change of attitude.
"Ask me again in the morning when I want a shave." replied chris rubbing his chin, rough already with the growth of the last forty eight hours. Danny, he thought wryly, was the lucky one in that respect. At the age of twenty five Danny had shaved only once on his life, and then only to see what it was like to feel a razor cutting close to his face. He had the skin of a child; a fine down of light hair, barely visible, covered the softness of his cheeks. Chris was jealous of this skin which never grew stubble, never produced spots, seemed always to be in immaculate condition. Yet it was a natural form of jealousy, one which arises unconsciously in the sight of beauty and so not malign, a kind of nagging at the back of his mind that he did not possess that beauty himself, that perhaps he should if it was considered better than his own by others. Yet Chris knew that he would not be happy with the same kind of skin. It was far too feminine; he liked feeling rugged and preferred the feel of rugged men. In this case, he thought, even if Danny's prettiness was preferable in the eyes of the world, he would stick to what he liked, and be happy about it.
"Well, well, I think we even have a balcony in our penthouse suite!" said Danny, abruptly interrupting Chris's train of thought. He pointed to a heavily stained curtain on a rail directly adjacent to the windows. When lifted it revealed a glass door leading on to what amounted to not much more than a small ledge capable perhaps of holding three people, railed off rather precariously by a single piece of metal with a small wooden sill.
"Mega!" cried Danny, and opened the door. The wind from outside swept in, extinguishing the candle in an instant. A picture flashed through Chris's mind of Danny madly abseiling in fast-forward down the side of the block of flats, arms flapping like a bird in flight. He leapt after his friend onto the balcony. The view made him catch his breath.
"Wow! Is that all you can say? This is pure brilliance!"
Alexandra Palace* rose upon hill directly in front of them, its glass frame reflecting the thousands of lights below and sending them rebounding deep into the hazy blackness of nightfall. It shone, even through the slight drizzle that was still falling, like some majestic iron beast looking down over its domain, worshipped by the thousands of tiny, glistening ants below.
"I feel so small!" said Danny, his voice hardly louder than a whisper. Without taking his eyes off the vision before him, he felt in his pocket and took out his packet of cigarettes. Offering the packet to Chris, he placed a cigarette in his mouth and lit them both, cupping the match in his hands to protect it from the wind. They leant over, their elbows on the wooden sill of the balcony, letting the ash from their cigarettes fall, like dying mayfly, to the ground. The flat behind them disappeared as their sense of sight, overloaded like electrical wiring, prioritised the most immediate and powerful impression. It was as if they were suspended in the air, nothing but empty space down and ahead of them, tiny, minsicule little dots of life overwhelmed by the vastness of existence. They could hear only the faint humming of car engines; besides that a silence as great and as submerging as the view kicked a second sense into touch.
They were woken from their reverie by the sound of a door opening. Chris's whole body jolted with the shock of the sudden, unexpected noise. "There's someone in the flat!" he whispered, his voice strained and urgent, frightened by the prospect of intrusion. Danny shook his head, and pointed downwards.
"I think it's coming from maybe a floor or two below from us. The height of the building is doing strange things to sound. Come to think of it, it's doing strange things to my head."
There was another noise now, this time a shuffling of feet.
"Yes, it's definitely coming from down below." he reiterated. "Obviously someone else likes the view as well."
Suddenly, a terrible moaning commenced. It was a woman's voice, low and hurting, almost familiar. The sound was gutteral, a long, painful lament without words, with a sad, haunting musical quality. It ended in a sudden change of pitch, to a high, anguished scream of hatred spat out into the night. Then, as abruptly as it began, it ceased, and they heard the sound of retreating footsteps and a door closing . Danny and Chris looked at each other, completely nonplussed.
"I don't think it was the view she was interested in." said Chris. "She sounded like she was in pain or something."
"Mmmmmm." Danny had his chin in his hands, staring pensively into space.
Chris prodded him, and attempted a small laugh which sounded hollow. "She's like that Mrs Rochester in Jane Eyre." he said, "Except, in this case she's downstairs and we're upstairs."
Don't Chris." said Danny, turning his eyes away from his friend.
"What's the matter?"
"I think I know who that was."
Chris was incredulous.
"Maude - the woman we got the keys from."
"What? Mad Maudie downstairs? Well, I suppose that would make sense."
Danny pushed his way past, back into the flat. As he opened the door, he turned to Chris. His face was set hard.
"I really don't think you should call her that anymore." he said.
He groaned and turned over to lie on his back, yawning and scratching his head simultaneously. It was far too early in the morning for sentient thought. He should get up and meet this John. Why bother? Even Danny's life in London was still very much an unknown quantity to him. There were nine million other people in and around London, all but one of them strangers. Why kill himself with curiosity about someone in the next room?
He began the process of getting up. His sleeping bag, a heavily quilted green cocoon, was restricting his movements. Having slept in it for over five weeks, Chris had perfected his own system for escaping its confines. He pulled it down from his chest in a single, almost involuntary movement, jerking the whole of the top part of his body upwards, then reclined back onto the mattress with a force that left him almost breathless. He strained his neck, doubling his chin to examine his torso from a horizontal position, and felt a slight shiver of pleasure run its course down his spine. He stretched his arms outwards like a butterfly released from its pupae, drying its wings before attempting flight, and felt the comfortable hardness of his deltoids. He loved his body; it was of the type that adapted well to exercise, loose-limbed and responsive, so that the maximum effect was achieved by the smallest of efforts, much to the disgust and envy of his friends.
He was not over-developed; when fully clothed he gave the appearance of being broad shouldered and slim hipped, rather than taking on the squatness and unintentional rotundity of serious bodybuilders. The almost perfect proportions of his body were never noticed till he was naked. This was to Chris's liking. He had slept with five men in his life, and their open-mouthed appreciation at the sight of his nakedness was a source of peculiar stimulation to him. It was, he thought, like pulling a christmas cracker and finding a diamond inside. Yet a conscious terror of the virus had rendered him a virtual celibate. His fantasies surrounding the use of his body by dark, anonymous men sustained him. He had replaced his physical urges with mental stimulation.
His own beauty captivated him, yet it was self-deprecation rather than narcissism which led him to the gym. When people complimented him on his physique his mind almost burst with a satisfaction and pride he otherwise never felt. It was always a matter of relief, each morning, for him to acknowledge that his body had not somehow sagged overnight. This particular daily inspection had become a ritual of almost religious quality; a subliminal act of worship.
He looked around him. The room looked worse in the light of day than it had by candlelight, but he refused to allow his eventual optimism to fade away. He had no money, no job, but this was something he could work on. The squat would be their preservation and refuge. Even the chaos surrounding him seemed to take on an imperceptible importance. The squat was the physical representation of their future; what they did with it was what they would become. As he lay on the mattress his thoughts gathered momentum, and coalesced to a compactness which for an instant overwhelmed him. He pointed a finger to the ceiling.
"Eureka" he said flatly, as they dissipated through it.
"Oh, you're awake." The door was open and Danny had marched brusquely in.
"Yes, you woke me up" replied Chris. Danny ignored him and carried on. He clapped his hands, and adopted the mannerisms of an outrageous television game show host.
"I have someone to introduce you to" he announced.
Chris leant up, and folded his arms, a look of weariness on his face.
"Well, I didn't hear you talking to yourself, I hope."
It suddenly struck him that their visitor was Maud Maude, who had, after all, brought him tea and toast on a tray. He rejected the idea, and waved Danny to get on with it.
"Ladies and gentlemen.."
The interruption had cost Danny his timing. The visitor was across the threshold. Chris stared in astonishment. At once completely awake, he jumped from the mattress with a cry, holding his sleeping bag around his waist to conceal his nudity. He stood next to Danny, his face crimson. Danny and the visitor looked at each other. Chris looked at Danny. No one spoke. Chris heard in the distance the sound of a train blowing its whistle, and wanted to be on it. Danny's face became serious.
"This is John." he said, gritting his teeth. "Say hello to John, Chris." "Hello John." repeated Chris obediently, his soft welsh accent rising to accentuate the last syllable.
"How do you do." said John. "Excuse the outfit, won't you. Only, I'm on the job in an hour or two."
Chris gave Danny his best `what the fuck is going on?' look.
"Oh." said Danny, turning away from Chris to hide the smirk he could no longer restrain. "Perhaps more formal introductions are appropriate at this moment." He paused dramatically for a second, then.
"Chris, may I introduce you to the Chairman of Haringey Squatter's Association: Police Constable John Race."
Two hours later, Chris and Danny found themselves in the local Safeway. "You could really have told me he was a policeman before, you know." said Chris.
"What, and spoil the surprise?" replied Danny, closely examining a five pound bad of King Edward potatoes. He picked up the bag and dangled it in fornt of Chris.
"How about some of these?" he asked.
"Not unless you want to make a bonfire in the middle of the living room, no. No electricity, remember?"
Danny pondered on this for asecond, before placing the potatoes back on the display.
"You're right. Their taste would be completely ruined."
Chris winced. Danny had revelled in his embaressment, and his good humour now only served to heighten Chris's sense of outraged pride. He pushed Danny in the direction of the fresh fruit section. There he proceeded to pile high the wire basket he was carrying with an assortment of apples, oranges and bananas.
"What are you doing?" asked Danny, incredulously. "You don't expect me to eat that rubbish, do you?"
"What else, may I ask, without electricity?"
"I'll die without my E numbers!"
"Bechod" replied Chris bluntly, indicating in welsh that he couldn't care less. He reached for a large melon.
"There!" he said "Better than the stuff you usually eat, any day of the week."
"I'm gonna die!" groaned Danny, turning to pull his tongue out at a child being pushed around the supermarket in a trolley by its mother.
"It serves you right. You almost gave me a heart attack with your antics this morning." Danny leant forward and cupped Chris's left pectoral with his right hand, pushing its solid bulk upwards.
"Mmm, I don't think so." he said, and waggled his tongue salaciously. A middle aged woman next to him scowled, and discarded a bunch of seedless black grapes. Danny popped one in his mouth and threw his arms up in the air.
"I'm sorry!" he shouted after her as she hurried away to Household Goods, inate homophobia intact and reinforced, "But I just get carried away at the Safeway!"
They walked back towards John Keats House, a carrier bag in each hand. Chris noticed a dozen or so children, white and afro-caribean, playing in in front of a doctor's surgery.
"I didn't think the races mixed unless they had to." he said, surpised. "It sort of looks odd in a way. Like little black and white spots bumping into each other, touching, and then rebounding."
"Welsh and English mix in Wales, despite their little squabbles." "Yes, but colour and culture are quite different things, Danny." "Do you think so?" Danny stopped and placed his bags on the pavement, stretching his fingers. The palms of his hands were red where the plastic had dug into them. He extended his hand.
"Look" he said. Chris watched as the red streaks lightened and Danny's hand returned to virtually its normal colour. Yet there was still a noticeable band of red across the width of his palm.
"My hands are red because the weight of the bags is greater than my hand's ability to absorb it. It'll ache for a while, but then it'll be ok. It's inevitable."
"You don't see, do you?"
Chris looked perplexed and shook his head. Danny picked up the carrier bags with a sigh, and they continued their walk.
"What I'd really like to do." he said after ten yards or so, "is to come back in five hundred years. Then there may only be little brown dots playing outside the surgery. There might not be so much bumping going on then, and I reckon that would be nice."
"I reckon that would be awful."
Danny ignored him.
"Well, there's one thing for sure." he said airily. "John Keats House won't be there to see that day."
"And neither will we." Chris sounded relieved.
They turned the corner onto Commerce Road, where John Keats House became completely visible, defying the world with its ugliness.
"So, how does a policeman get to be involved in squatting?" asked Chris. "I thought it would be more in his line to be chucking us out, rather than letting us in."
"Don't know. Just goes to show, it's a funny old world, eh?"
"I guess so." There was a pause, then Danny turned his eyes to Chris.
"You seem pretty interested in knowing more about John." he said slyly, arching an eyebrow.
"Got the hots for him, have you?"
"Do me a favour, Danny."
"Go on, tell me. I'll fix you up."
"Jesus Christ, you're like an old woaman trying to match make for her daughter!"
Danny put on a Jewish momma accent.
"But, I think of you as my own daughter."
"I sometimes worry about you, Daniel."
"Ok, ok," said Danny, almost squealing with pleasure, skipping along the pavement despite the weight of his bags. "Yes or no! Tell me!"
"No." Chris sounded emphatic.
"But, then again." said Chris with a smirk, "The seemingly unattainable always seems better than the attainable, don't you think?"
"Apart from the fact that it's unattainable."
"Like love, and.. marriage!" Chris rolled his eys dramatically.
"I wouldn't say the first was unattainable. I say fuck the second though."
Chris nodded, and laughed.
"There are only two things to be careful of."
"And what are those?"
"The first is never to fall in love with a complete bastard."
"Never to become one."
They both laughed.
"But if there's one thing my old grandmother was right about," continued Danny, "it was this; most people deserve each other anyway."
Chris pressed the button for the lift, and heard the click as it began its descent.
"Look," said Danny, "I've got to go into town for a while."
"Leaving me to clean that mess upstairs on my own, I suppose."
"I'll give you a hand when I get back later."
"Why are you even going in?" Chris had no desire to be left on his own.
"I'm going to try and get my job back. Has it occurred to you that we're going to run out of money soon?"
Chris thought for a second. Danny was right. If Danny could retrieve his job, at least they could continue to eat.
"Ok" he said, "I'll see you later."
Danny patted him on the back as he entered the lift, dodging the puddles on the floor. He turned.
"I'll see you later then.." he said, but it was too late. The lift doors had closed in front of him and Danny was gone.
Chris had drunk quickly and unhappily. The people seemed strange and foreign to him, unused as he was to the language and mannerisms of north Londoners. He had sensed an unwelcoming indifference to him as he had ordered his pint. When seated he had wondered if this was what unwary english tourists felt like when they complained of cool receptions in various areas of the `cefn gwlad' of Wales, the real back country where little had changed for centuries. Danny had always insisted that the `unwelcome in the hillsides' as he put it was a figment of imaginations made nervous by a radically different environment. Whatever it was, Chris had not enjoyed his drink, and had retreated back to the squat with an alacrity that plunged him into a fear for his life.
And where was Danny? He had said he would return within a few hours, but had stayed away all night. Chris stamped a foot on the floor as he turned to pace back toward the kitchen, thinking longingly about kettles. When Danny said something he meant it, and Chris's fears increased as the hours went by. Something must have have happened. Had he managed to get his job back. Christ they needed the money. But his chances were slim. Before he had left Danny had laid all his proverbial cards on the proverbial table, and had been told exactly what to do, proverbially. Where the hell was he? So, he had friends in London, but he wouldn't stay out all night leaving him on his own. Perhaps he had stayed away deliberately, just to avoid tidying up. That would be just like him. But he had promised to come back. There were plenty of things he could say about Marsh, but he wasn't a liar. Could tea be brewed in cold water?
Something had happened! Danny was lying in a gutter somewhere in this horrendous city, blood gushing out of his head. He was being strangled by a huge enormous man with a piece of twine. he was being pushed in front of a tube train by a jealous lover...
He was probably lying in a bed sipping hot tea, surrounded by gorgeous naked men, enjoying all the benefits electricity could offer, the bastard! So fucking thirsty. No, he was dead, or worse. And the squat so tidy! What was going to happen? Where was he? He was in trouble, banged up in some paddy wagon, being charged for unspeakable and covert activities in a park. He was half way across the world in the private jet of a new-found sugar daddy. He was enlisting for the french Foreign Legion to forget an impossibly doomed love affair with a younger member of the aristocracy. No, scrub that. He was on his way home. He had to be on his way home. He would be back any minute. There was the knock on the door.
There was the knock on the door! Chris ran down the hallway and tugged violently at the handle, forgetting the crack in the wood. The door screamed its protest as it was opened, and a thin slither of wood shot from the crack in its middle.
"Careful! Doors cost money, honey!"
It was John.
"Oh, hello." said Chris awkwardly, holding the door and unconsciously denying John entry. John narrowed his eyes in slight confusion.
"Expecting someone else were you? You look disappointed to see me."
"No, oh, no, only.." Chris stammered.
"Well, in that case, can I come in please?" asked John. Chris, dumfounded for a second, stood completely still.
"You've only been here a day and you're having orgies already? Well, really!" said John, and delicately slid under Chris's arm.
"I'm going to have words with the association about this." he laughed as he turned into the Harlem Suite, "It's share and share alike around here you know!"
"So where is he?"
"Danny?" asked Chris.
"No, the queen of Sheba!"
"I was rather hoping you'd be able to tell me actually."
Chris sat down on his mattress despondently and gazed out of the window. He was comfortable with John, but the still absent Danny was irking him. "Out on his travels, eh? I must say, though, this place looks a lot better. The last tenant didn't really look after the place."
"No, really. A few net curtains, and it'll be home."
John surveyed the room. He had not maintained much hope that Danny or his new companion (lover? Typical Marsh picking a right corker) would make much of the place. Now he felt a twinge of guilt; he had underestimated the young welsh lad. The place looked good. Crummy, but good.
"I'll bring a few things along to help you brighten the place up."
"Thanks" repeated Chris dully.
John looked at him.
"What's the matter?" he asked sitting down beside him, so that Chris could feel the light pressure of his knee against his own. Chris breathed in deeply, and bit his lip as he felt his head lighten. Typical Marsh, he always knew how to make friends with the good looking ones.
"It's Danny." he said. He moved his knee by two inches. It was shaking. "He went into London yesterday afternoon, and hasn't been back since. I'm worried sick."
"That's odd." replied John, scratching his head. "Danny called me last night and invited me for a few drinks. I said I'd be over around seven, but something came up and I couldn't make it. That's why I came round now really, to apologise."
"He did what!!" Chris was incredulous. John grimaced.
"I think you may be right." he said, "Something is wrong. I mean, he said he was just about to get the tube back.."
Chris had a sudden revelation. He folded his arms and collapsed back onto the mattress, letting out a long groan.
"Don't worry. I know exactly why he didn't come back."
"I'll tell you after I throttle him!"
"Secrets, secrets! It's no good to have secrets!" cajoled John, poking Chris in the ribs.
"I want to get my facts straight first, and at the moment, our Hymen is missing."
"Well," laughed John, "I'm sure it'll be the first straight thing about you in years."
"Ok, ok." said John, "But as you obviously know he's alive and well, how would you like a potted guide tour of London?"
"Great. I'll just get ready." Chris rummaged through his rucksack for a warm jumper. He found one, and pushed it over his head.
"Ready!" he said, and made his way toward the door of the flat. John followed after him, and as they reached the entrance, he tapped Chris on the shoulder.
"By the way." he said, "Men don't have hymens."
He looked over the top of the newspaper at John and exhaled deeply. The man was definately the horniest thing he had seen since his arrival. John was squeezed into a pair of 501's with a "Free Nelson Mandela" T-shirt under his leather jacket. A few whisps of his blond fringe had fallen loosely over his forehead and Chris felt an urge to sweep them back over his eyes, an urge he found both difficult and easy to resist. He reminded Chris of a man he had once seen, for no more than a second or two, climbing up a set of stairs to exit from a railway station. He had day dreamed about that man for years afterwards as the single, most beautiful person he had ever seen.
He dared a furtive glance at the area between John's legs. This wasn't the same man, but the attraction, here and now, was identical. Chris felt his pulse quicken.
"John," he breathed hoarsely, coughing to clear his throat, "You remind me of someone I knew a few years ago."
The policeman looked up from his own newspaper and laughed.
"I bet you say that to all the boys!"
A man in a dark suit and a bowler hat eyed John suspiciously. John immediately smiled broadly, a toothy, overtly friendly grin directly in his face. The man turned away at once. John winked slyly at Chris.
"This is where we get off." he said, getting up.
"Where are we?" asked Chris, peering through the train's grubby windows. "Leicester Square." replied John, pointing to a metal plaque screwed into the wall of the station.
"Oh. Isn't this where a nightingale sang or something?" he asked. John turned his eyes skyward.
"I can see we're going to have to start at the beginning." he said as they made their way towards the escalators.
"Soho!" exclaimed John, lifting his arms and turning a full circle as they entered Compton Street, "Happy hunting ground of a million homosexuals." "Ever thought of doing this guided tour business professionally?"
"All part of the job," said John, affecting the clipped accent of the archetypal bobby. "Yes sir, the House of Commons? Just turn left, walk straight on past the sign announcing this week's jobless figures, left again, two rights, cross by the kebab shop and you're there!"
"This is Soho?" Chris asked incredulously, "So where are all the sex shops this place is supposed to be famous for then?"
"Wouldn't you like to know, you little squirt," answered John, still in character. He waved a hand dismissively.
"They're being closed down, slowly but surely; and I can't say that I think it's a bad thing"
"Why's that?" asked Chris warily. He had been deliberating over whether to ask John if they could go into one. His curiousity was aroused not so much by the thought of naked female flesh, but rather by its public availability.
"They're a rip off." said John emphatically, "Besides, I've got better things to do with my time."
The tone of his voice suggested that the subject was closed.
The barman looked tartly at Chris, and leant over to give John a peck on the lips.
"Long time no see" he said in a smooth highland brogue.
"Been busy, have you?" A sharp nod in Chris's direction signified his meaning.
John gave a short grunt of a laugh.
"Just give us our drinks, bitch!"
They chose a table next to the wall and sat down.
"Why didn't you tell him you were just showing me around?" asked Chris, his lower lip protruding slightly as if he had just been told off. John looked at him quizically.
"One of the tricks of the trade. Never admit it, never, ever deny it!" "Yes, but now he thinks..."
Lean over and kiss his cheek.
"He doesn't think anything. Clive's a nice enough lad, but when you work in a place like this it's in one ear and out the other. He must say that ten times a day."
"He fancies you."
Or his lips. Kiss his lips!
"Rubbish". John folded his arms and crossed his legs delicately.
"I'm not butch enough for him." he said, pulling in his cheeks. Chris laughed.
Kiss him! Lean over and fucking kiss him!
Now! Go on, now!
"The barman, he's Scottish isn't he?"
Just lean over! Kiss the bastard!
"No, he's from Hackney. He just puts the accent on because it's sexy. You watch, next week he'll be Irish."
Lean over! Now! Go on! Just One Kiss!
"Hello John." said a voice.
Chris turned to see a tall, rather pale young man of about his own age smiling down at his companion. John leapt from his seat and embraced the stranger in a bear hug, rocked back and forward, then held him firmly at arms length.
"You look great!" he exclaimed, kissing him. "When did you get out?" "Two days ago. It's good to be out."
Chris excused himself and went to the toilet. By the time he came back John was once more sitting on his own.
"Who was that?" he asked as he sat down, "It sounded like he'd just been released from prison."
John grimaced, and regarded Chris seriously.
"Of sorts", he said at last. "Hospital, actually."
"What's wrong with him then?" Chris's voice faded away as he realised the stupidity of the question, then with urgency.
"But you kissed him!"
"Do you kiss your mother?"
"Well, she's going to die sooner or later as well."
"There's a difference" countered Chris defensively.
John placed both hands on the table, palms upward. A look of weariness came over his face, the sort of weariness that comes with repetition. When he spoke his voice was toneless.
"There is no difference."
Chris did not reply.
They stood next to a cart. Behind it, a slightly bedraggled middle-aged woman urged passers by to part with their money for her flowers. Besides this, there was no real evidence of the original purpose of the garden. Chris was a little disappointed; he had expected to see, however naively, a bustling vegetable market replete with east-end characters vying for business. He saw instead row upon row of tiny, expensive looking shops selling items of no more value than their novelty. Looking around himself, he suddenly felt very poor. He decided that was really not the thing to be in London. John caught the resentment in his eye.
"Never mind," he said. "This place caters for a very much captive audience."
"I don't think I'd mind the captivity bit if I thought I had the money to afford anything here." replied Chris, looking murderously in the direction of a group of well-groomed Italian youths busy comparing new clothes and trinkets. John supressed a snigger.
"Well, that's life after all."
"The continual progression from one sort of captivity to another. Would you like a bon-bon?"
Chris turned down the offer of the sweet.
"That's a strange sort of philosophy to have on life."
"Well, what happened to your optimism?"
"It opted out." laughed John.
Chris was not amused, and frowned heavily.
"You don't seem too bothered by the fact."
"That's another trick of the trade. Take no notice of it and it might go away!"
"We're talking about life here, John, not men."
John put a hand to his forehead and pouted.
"But darling, my men ARE my life!"
Chris was determined not to smile. The urge was too great.
"Jesus!" he said "And they put you in the Met!"
They turned down towards the Strand. As they passed the Catholic church on the corner of Maiden Lane, John siezed Chris's elbow.
"Look!" he whispered loudly. Chris followed his stare to where he could see a young woman, small and dark, coming out of the church. She was dressed, head to toe, in black leather. A white silk scarf draped around her neck served to hide what appeared to Chris to be a diamond studded leather choker. She made her way up the pavement in the direction of Bedford Street, walking slowly and with a hardly determinable swagger around her tiny hips. But for her clothing, she would have given the appearence of a small child.
"Angelina." said John softly, taking care over every syllable.
"How interesting." said Chris, disinterestedly. John whistled.
"One of the few prostitutes I know of who can earn more in an evening than I can in a year."
"She's a prostitute?"
John nodded and adopted his policeman's voice again.
"I had the dubious pleasure of escorting the young lady out of a hotel one evening, when a gentleman of royal arabian blood took umbridge to the size of her fee."
"You arrested her, in other words."
"Oh God, no. She gave me a thousand quid, cash mind you, and I reported it as a mild domestic fracas." He looked at the expression on Chris's face. "Oh dear, I've shocked you, haven't I?"
"No," gasped Chris in reply, blushing deeply, "there are just times I wish I was a policeman!"
John clapped him on the back.
"Well then, this can be our litle secret. I think Oscar Wilde or somebody once said that all close friends should share at least one dark secret, but never more than three."
Friends, not lovers. Fine. Good job that kiss never happened.
Chris turned to him.
"OK" he said, "But for God's sake, please just leave it at one secret with me!"
Following the course of The Strand down towards Charing Cross station, they reached the river. They sat down on the nearest bench outside the Embankment tube station. To his right, Chris could make out the form of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, and away to his left stood Cleopatra's needle. He was still a little unsure of the geography of the place, particularly how far they had walked, but had been surprised at the size of central London. It was so small. What had seemed to him just a few hours earlier to be a place of untold magnitude, had shrunk in his estimation to be something only a little larger than some of the cities he had visited in the north of England. He told John as much.
"What you've seen today is only the tip of the iceberg." said John with a smile. "There's a lot more than just this, believe me."
"Well, in that case, you certainly know how to give a potted guide tour, I'll give you that."
"Comes with being in the force, I suppose. My beat is up Oxford Street, so I know West One like the back of my hand."
Chris squeezed John's arm in thanks.
"I think it may take me quite a while to get to know it then."
"You know the old maxim, if you want directions then ask a policeman?"
"It should be changed. People should say `ask a gay man' instead!"
"I'm not kidding. There are so many pubs and clubs around these days that your average gay man on the scene spends a lot of time on the tube. If not that, wandering around areas he had heard there was a bar and wondering where the hell it is. It's amazing how well you get to know the city that way!"
"The eternal tourists!" excalimed Chris. John shook his head with a smirk. "The eternal hunter-gatherers perhaps, but certainly not tourists. We're not aimless enough to be tourists!"
They became silent for a minute or so, looking out over the river to the National Theatre and beyond.
"That river's a cess pit." said Chris eventually, pointing to the brown water rolling interminably past. Since his outburst in the pub he had determined not to criticise another thing. Yet the sight of the Thames was such a contrast to his still recent memories of the sparkling Conwy in Wales that he felt he could at least tragedise its condition without seeming over critical. To his immediate regret, his words sounded more like a condemnation than an elegy. John however seemed unperturbed.
"You should have seen it a few years ago." He said. "It looks like spring water in comparison now. Believe it or not there are salmon in there."
"Jesus, haven't they got anywhere else to go?"
"I suppose they're brought here by instinct. Or maybe they're drawn by the bright light, like everyone else. They don't do too badly on the whole."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, they do better than him for a start." said John, nodding to his left. Chris turned and looked.
"Oh fuck." he gasped, and hurriedly averted his gaze. Shuffling towards them was a middle-aged man, dishevelled and limping badly. Both his feet were bound in rags, a Safeway bag on each tied at the ankle with filthy string. The string was digging into his legs, making them bleed. He paused hesitantly at the bench, only half aware of where he was and blinked at them, like a mole blinded by the brightness of the sun. Chris smelt the mixture of grime and alcohol which hung around the man like an almost invisible halo and shuddered, involuntarily pressing himself as far as he could into the back of the bench. The man tentatively outstretched a hand, then let it fall back to his side. With a grunt he moved away towards the tube station. Chris looked after him, horrified.
"How do people let themselves go like that?" he asked, looking at John. "It's not by choice." John replied. He looked close to tears. "They're like the salmon, you know. Once they get a certain way upstream, they can't ever go back."
"No, I suppose not." Chris was puzzled at John's depth of feeling on ths subject. Why should he feel so strongly about just another tramp? There was another silence, so strained this time that neither dared to speak. A half hour passed before John finally stood up. A light rain was falling. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket.
"Come on." he said. "I need a drink."
He turned the key in the lock of number eighty and the door jerked open with its customary squeal. Adjusting his eyes from the neon glare of the corridor to the dimness within, he caught sight of Danny in the kitchen at the end of the corridor. Danny, a towel around his bare shoulders was poring over the sink, the tap running a cold stream of water over his head.
"Hi!" he shouted, his voice echoing oddly from its aluminium confines.
"What ya doin', sexy?" asked Chris, affecting an affro-carribean accent. He placed a cold hand on Danny's back. Danny screamed and lifted his head, hitting it on the tap.
"What does it look like? Washing." he said, pulling himself back from the sink and wrapping the towel around his wet hair.
"That hurt!" he exclaimed.
"Sorry." replied Chris blandly. "Maybe it'll knock some sense into you."
"What's up with you?" asked Danny, following him into the Harlem Suite.
"Oh, I think you have a good idea."
"I had a visit from P.C. Race."
Danny looked surprised.
"What did John want?" he asked innocently. Chris ignored him, and smiled broadly.
Danny looked even more surprised.
"Oh." he said.
"Oh" repeated Chris, his voice intentionally flat.
"Ah" said Danny.
"Yes, ah." replied Chris.
"Well...." began Danny.
"Well?" asked Chris.
"Oh god," said Danny, throwing his arms in the air. He sat down on the nearest mattress. "I thought I'd be doing you a favour."
"As it turned out you did."
Danny looked up. There was a wicked glint in his eye.
"You mean you?" he gesticulated with his hands. Chris shook his head and turned towards the window to light a candle.
"No, I most certainly didn't." He tried to sound vaguely offended by the inference.
"The favour you did me was to make me sure that I won't ever let you try any of your matchmaking tricks again."
Danny looked hang dog, then lifted himself up from the mattress.
"Oh well." he said, "I was only trying to help."
"More like helping to try - my patience!"
They looked at each other then smiled and hugged.
"And I was worried about you." said Chris.
Danny made for the kitchen again to retireve his shirt.
"Do you fancy a drink, then?" he asked on his way out, "To celebrate my safe return."
"Yes, alright." shouted Chris after him, but his attention was suddenly diverted to the place on the mattress where Danny had been sitting. A small cylindrical shape about the length of Chris's forefinger lay where Danny's left buttock had been just a few moments before. Perplexed he knelt down beside the mattress and picked it up, turning it round in his fingers to let the candlelight play off its gold metallic shininess. A swift turn at its base through ninety degrees and the top slid off, confirming Chris's fears. He groaned silently to himself. Hearing Danny's footsteps returning from the kitchen he quickly replaced the top and positioned the object back on the mattress. They bumped into each other at the door.
"Just pop to the loo before we go out." he said, breathing heavily in the fear of discovery. Danny looked at him oddly.
"Sprung a leak all of a sudden?"
Chris stayed a full five minutes in the toilet, and flushed the chain twice. On his return to the Harlem Suite he found that Danny had retreated to the balcony and was smoking a cigarette.
"Are you ready to go?" he called. He glanced down onto the mattress. The tube of lipstick had disappeared.
They found a quiet corner of The Queen Alexandra and sat down.
"This place freaks me out." whispered chris into Danny's ear.
"Well, it's hardly full of local colour," replied Danny, sipping on his pint of lager, "but it seems friendly enough."
Chris tutted. Bloody typical.
"I don't like the way they look at us."
"Bloody impolite if you ask me."
Danny whistled a few bars of "Welcome in the Hillside".
"Alright, point proven." Chris stared at his cider.
"So, where did you get to last night?" he asked nonchalantly.
"A friend's house."
Chris raised an eyebrow.
"A girl friend's house, if you must know."
"Thank god for that!" Chris's relief was obvious by the volume at which he spoke his words.
"What do you mean?"
"Well, that lipstick..." he stuttered. Danny smiled wryly.
"Ah, I'd rather hoped you hadn't seen that."
"So did I for a while, I can tell you!"
Danny managed a small laugh, and turned his face away. Chris lowered his voice again to a barely audible level.
"I mean, I knew you were gay, but I didn't think you were queer."
"Chris, I think I.."
"I'm just glad it was hers, that's all."
"Well, I thought for a while that you'd been wearing it!"
Danny took a swig of his lager. He was blushing.
"Don't worry," he said, his lips curling up into a half-smile, "it's not my colour anyway."
"Here, have a fag." he said.
"Well, that's the best offer I've had all day." said Danny wryly, taking a cigarette and lighting it. They lay back in their sleeeping bags, flicking ash into empty McDonalds boxes, vestiges of the previous occupant. Despite himself, Chris enjoyed his cigarette; smoking was one of the few concessions he made to any corporeal risk in an otherwise brutally healthy regime. He usually, however, found it difficult to light up under any circumstances without at least a small recognition of the fact that he was depriving himself of another five minutes of precious life. This evening, he accepted this little death of sorts willingly. Five minutes, after all was nothing, and it had been several weeks since he had regarded anything cumulatively. He did not surprise himself when he lit a second cigarette with the burning remains of the first.
Danny regarded him silently. Chris might sometimes get through four cigarettes in a day. He had never before seen him chain smoke.
"You haven't asked me if I got my job back yet." he said eventually. Chris raised his eyes to the ceiling.
"Oh god, I'm sorry." he said, stretching an arm out to nudge Danny's shoulder, "I completely forgot to ask."
Danny sat upright and folded his arms.
"Nothing" he replied.
"Either you don't have a care in the world, or something's bothering you. Which is it?"
Chris thought for a second.
"I don't know." he said slowly. "Both, yet neither."
"I hope we're not in for a session of celtic cryptology here!"
They laughed, the sound of their voices knocking hollowly off the walls.
"No. " said Chris. "I was just thinking about something John told me."
"Well, really that all we ever hope for will never amount to much. I guess what he meant we have to be happy with what we have." He leant over suddenly, and clutched Danny's arm.
"But I can't! I can't abandon hope, just like that! For once in my life I feel I can make something work. Then he toddles along and tells me to forget it. Oh shit, Danny. I need at least to be able to feel that I'm free!" His voice was urgent, questioning. Danny had never seen him like this. He sighed, and looked down.
"Perhaps you never have been."
"How do you mean?"
Danny looked up, and smiled.
"When I was four years old my parents took me up to Chester to visit my grandmother."
"The one you lived with before going to University."
"That's right. They took me to the zoo, and on the way they told me it was world famous for being `the zoo without cages'. I got really excited because I thought we were going to be walking around a great plain. And there we would be surrounded by all sorts of wild animals just, you know, roaming. When we got there I discovered that instead of cages, the animals were kept in pits. I howled my head off until they took me home. I was utterly inconsolable."
"But they were only animals! They couldn't possibly have had the intelligence to appreciate that their lives could have been any different."
"You don't think so?"
"Oh, cut the animal right's crap, Danny." Chris's voice rose angrily.
" They had no choice. We have!"
"There's a big difference between free will and free choice."
"Bullshit! You've been talking to our policeman friend too much."
"Don't get upset because you know I'm right Chris. You don't know London." Danny's voice was annoyingly calm. Chris bridled. He felt the hair on the back of his neck rise.
"I can't see that makes any bloody difference."
"Down here you get a simple choice. If you get a choice at all. Like in the zoo - a cage or a pit. What you do inside it is up to you."
"Where did you get that load of bollocks from, twll-din!"
"Now don't start swearing at me in Welsh, Chris. You know I can't answer you back."
"Make a bloody change then, wouldn't it."
Chris dropped down onto his mattress and looked up to the ceiling, silent.
"Yes." said Danny quietly, "I suppose it would."
"I'll talk to you in the morning. I'm sorry if I upset you by shouting."
"Go to sleep, I'm tired." replied Chris, turning over to sleep on his belly. He closed his eyes, and felt a draft of warm air from the window tease lightly from his forehead down to his exposed shoulders. His father had told him these winds were the lips of sould caught in purgatory. they would kiss the flesh of the living in a desperate supplication for prayer, and in sorrow for what they had lost. He saw his own lips kiss those of John Race.
Danny blew out the candle burning angrily in an empty wine bottle next to his mattress.
"I'm sorry too, Chris."
"Shawight, g'night." he replied, already foundering between consciousness and sleep. He could say no more. Danny folded his arms behind his head and listened to Chris's breathing slowly deepen.
Half an hour later, Danny heard footsteps from the flat below. Then the wailing began again. He sat up, and crossed his arms over his shoulders, perplexed and a little frightened. Maudie for surely he thought, it had to be her, was screaming more violently than the previous evening before. They were so intense, so powerful in their intention that they seemed to become elemental. Danny felt enveloped, suffocated by them, deprived of all his senses. He held his hands to his ears and willed her to stop. Then, just as suddenly as before, they did just that, and earth and fire and water and air were four once more.
Danny sighed deeply, relieved it was over. He leant back and looked over to where Chris was sleeping, oblivious to all but his dreams. Danny smiled thinly.
"By the way." he whispered. "I didn't tell you, did I? I got my job back. Both of them."
"What do you expect if you insist on reading such crap?" he said before returning his attention to The Observer.
Danny pulled his tongue out, then lay back on his mattress and extended his body to its full length. He yawned loudly and stretched his fingers out to touch the wall, pulling lazily at a few loose strips of wallpaper. "I'm bored." he announced at last. He yawned again.
"Mmmm..." Chris didn't look up.
Danny flopped over on to his side.
"Anything interesting in the paper?"
He tutted. It was no use. Chris held his Sundays sacred. It was a day for lounging around, reading newspapers and doing as little as possible. Every Sunday he would even abandon his interminable daily round of sit ups, press ups and various jerks for an even more interminable assortment of non-activities. Danny scoured the room for a source of conversation. "I wonder who lived here before us." he said, looking up to the ceiling. Its polystyrene tiles were nicotine yellow.
"Dunno." mumbled Chris absently. Danny placed his index finger in front of his eyes. It was the same colour as the ceiling.
"Someone with a smoking problem by the looks." He reached for his own packet and took out a cigarette.
"Ho hum." he said, lighting it.
Chris heard the strike of Danny's match.
"That's your fourth cigarette in half an hour." he said pointedly. Danny threw the lit match in the air.
"So what?" he asked, watching it hit the floor extinguished.
"So, it won't be doing your lungs any good."
"Tell me news, not history. Besides, if I remember rightly, you weren't doing your own lungs any favours last night."
"Ok, point taken." he said. Danny growled under his breath. Chris would let nothing irk him on his day of rest. Even their rather heated exchange of the previous evening had been forgotten, simply because today was Sunday. No doubt, Danny considered, it would be resurrected by Monday. Chris never had shown any sense of timing when it came to religious irony.
"Why don't we go somewhere?" he asked lightly. Chris folded the newspaper and placed it at his side.
"I thought we agreed earlier." he said, "that we couldn't afford to do anything, so we'd just have a quiet day in."
"Yes, but this is so boring!" Danny placed the emphasis on the final word, extending it by several syllables. "I just feel penned in here. I mean, we can't even have casual sex to relieve the boredom."
"No, we can't really, can we."
"I just don't usually spend my Sundays like this."
"Well, how then?"
Danny hesitated. He looked down.
"I just do other things."
"So do some other things here."
"Like clean one of the other rooms up for a start."
"No thank you. We only need this room, and I'm not thinking of taking in lodgers juust yet."
"Please yourself." Chris shrugged and picked up the paper, laying it on his knees. He looked blankly at the headlines, then closed his eyes. Danny, he admitted, had a point; being stuck on the twelth floor of a block of flats couldn't be construed as anything vaguely approximating to interesting. "It looks like we might have taken some lodgers on without knowing it." said Danny.
Chris opened his eyes instantly and looked around, bemused. Danny was kneeling against the door which led onto the balcony, both hands on its glass frame. He was peering intently through, mouth open in wonder. Chris jumped up and was in an instant by his friend's side.
"What are you going on about now?" he asked, tousling Danny's hair. Danny pointed.
"Look!" he breathed delightedly.
Chris obeyed and looked through the window. Amongst the debris on the balcony a pigeon had made a nest. There it sat, on a concoction of twigs, string and paper laid in a disorderly fashion on top of a Safeway carrier bag regarding the two with a mixture of curiosity and alarm.
"Are there any eggs yet?" asked Chris. Danny nodded.
"Yes." he replied, "The pigeon moved a second ago. I could see two eggs."
"She must have been here before we moved in." siad Chris. "Out of the way, I want a closer look." He grasped the door handle. Danny leapt up and grabbed his hand.
"No! You'll disturb Petula."
Chris shook his head blankly.
"Petula the pigeon. If you go out, she might get scared and fly away. Then the eggs will never hatch."
"Danny, sometimes your such a kid."
"Kid, schmid. There's no point in being grown up if you can't be a kid occasionally. Besides, I'm not a country bumpkin like you. I've never had much of a chance to see nature in action."
"Ok, the balcony is out of bounds. Who knows, maybe you'll be able to be there at the hatching."
Danny eagerly nodded his assent before registering the sarcastic tone of Chris's voice. He stood up, and grapsed Chris's cheeks with both hands, planting a kiss on his forehead.
"Darling!" he exclaimed "We're going to be fathers!"
Danny soon become tired of bird watching and became determined to do something. Chris had decided that this something necessarily had to be useful. He had laden Danny down with all the dirty washing he could dig out of their rucksacks and had pointed him gently in the direction of a launderette. Danny left the squat disconsolately, not convinced by Chris's argument that two hours in a launderette was better spent than a similar period dozing on his back. He had been finally won over when it was pointed out to him that there was a chance, however slim, that a beautiful young man might walk in, strip off and do his washing while Danny, goggle-eyed, watched.
He turned out of the corridor and pushed open the double- swing doors leading to the lift. The lights indicated that it was at ground level. This meant little; Danny had not seen it change position since their arrival. He pressed the button and dropped the large carrier bag full of washing to the floor, kicking it as it descended. It landed open end up and spilled out half its contents.
Danny tutted, and crouched down to pick up the clothing. As he did so he heard the click of a door opening several floors below. He could not be sure where the noise originated; the cast iron and concrete frame of the stairwell distorted sound so completely that it could have come from any of the other thirteen floors. He hoped, momentarily, that it was Maudie. He imagined her a wizened Juliet, weeping each evening for a Romeo never able to scale the impossible heights of her lonely emprisonment. He longed to meet her. He would put an end to her unhappiness with gifts of hot chocolate and mars bars. He wondered how he would introduce himself to her. He could think of nothing.
It was not Maudie. The liquid tones of an affro-caribbean filtered through the indiscernible distance to where Danny remained crouched, clutching his underwear.
"Good shit! The bro, he gonna be pleased."
Danny heard the slapping of hands and a low cackle before the door closed. Then footsteps, their sound slowly increasing in volume as they ascended the stairs, jolted Danny into a sense of urgency.
"Oh shit," he muttered. "Fucking drugs and I'm here with my dirty knickers."
The footsteps were now even closer. Danny grabbed his fallen clothes and held them tightly to his chest, his temples throbbing, determined not to look behind. The lift door opened, and he thrust himself in, then around to reach the button which would take him to the ground. As he lifted his arm, a shadow fell across his face, blocking the light from the hallway. He made out the shape of an immense set of shoulders, upon which cascaded a mass of rastafarian locks.
"I...." he began, about to insist that he had heard nothing.
The man lifted a fist. Danny pulled himself as far back into the lift as he could. He splashed into a puddle of urine and felt its cold wetness sink into his skin. Closing his eyes, he prepared himself for the blow, and tightened his grasp on the Safeway carrier bag in his hands, ready to fling it into the man's face. The blow did not come.
"What ch'o doin'?"
Danny opened one eye, tentatively, incredulously. The rasta shook his fist. Dangling from it was a sock.
"I tink you forgot this."
Despite the jocularity of the man, the descent to the ground floor was one of the most unpleasant journeys Danny had ever experienced. His whole body visibly shook, so much so that the rasta asked Danny if he was ill. Danny shook his head, then realised he had seen the man before.
"Are you the man I fell over a few nights ago?" he asked, a little courage returning. The rasta nodded and laughed.
"I was out ma head, man."
Danny attempted a smile and look down. He could see his face in the urine. The rasta elbowed him lightly.
"You want some?" He held out a small plastic sachet. Danny regarded it for a second and gulped hard. He lamely pushed the man's hand away.
"No. Thank you."
The rasta guffawed.
"Clever kid not fucking yoself. When yo want some, you go asking for Rufus. This whole block they know me."
Rufus slapped him on the back. Danny turned his shoulders down and felt very small.
"Watcha doin' here anyway?"
Danny pointed to the bag.
"I'm going to do my laundry."
Rufus cackled loudly, and held his hand to his mouth.
"You," he said, waving a finger in front of Danny's nose, "Is a smart kid."
The lift halted and the door slid open. Rufus winked at Danny and sauntered out, leaving Danny standing quite still, nonplussesd.
"Well," demanded a voice, "Are you getting out or what?"
A heavily pregnant woman stood in front of him. Danny jumped, startled.
He virtually fell out of the lift.
"Sorry." he mumbled as he passed her, "I was in another world."
The woman patted her stomach.
"Wishful thinking love." she called after him.
Danny turned out of John Keats House and walked past the Queen Alexandra, his spirits a little lightened. The laundrette was a hundred yards or so ahead of him, part of a row of half a dozen delapidated shops. He noticed Rufus beyond them, leaning on a lampost where the estate led out onto Commercial Road. A car drew up beside him and Rufus climbed in. Danny screwed his eyes to see what was happening. Rufus was leaning forward heavily, blocking Danny's view of the driver. There was an exchange of words, then Rufus handed over what looked like an envelope. Danny concentrated his vision on the driver's hands which were now visible. The man took a smaller packet from the envelope, opened it, then raised it upwards. Rufus drew his head back, his mouth open in laughter. Danny looked on, fascinated.
"Mugs game." he announced, with not a little jealousy at the prospect of the money Rufus was about to earn.
The driver's face became visible for a second. He was sniffing the open packet, and laughing. His blond hair and broad, open features were unmistakeable. Danny's jaw slackened.
"Oh shit no," he moaned. "John Race. Police fucking Constable John Race."
"I haven't forgotten anything." a voice yelled back. Chris started. The voice did not belong to Danny, at least not unless his friend had undergone a sex-change in the last five minutes. This was not likely, not even for Danny. He edged nearer the door and looked through the makeshift spyhole.
"Who is it?" he demanded.
"It's Morgan." the voice shouted. The accent was not British. Chris shrugged.
"That doesn't explain much."
There was a pause.
"I'm a neighbour. Open up."
Chris reached up for the latch, then hesitated.
"How would I know?"
He heard a distinct tut.
"If that's the way you want to play it, I'll see you around."
"Ok," he said, assured by her dismissiveness, "Just a second."
Chris tentatively opened the door, and looked down. Beaming up at him was a woman, small, bronzed and almost nine months pregnant. She laughed and shook her head so that her shoulder length black hair waved around her cheeks. Chris was dazzled.
"The size of you - afraid of a little thing like me!" she exclaimed. Chris stood erect and looked askance.
"I wasn't afraid", he said, flushing brightly, "I was just being careful." Morgan roared, and pointed at her stomach.
"I wish I had been!"
Chris let out a nervous laugh in a pitch two octaves higher than usual. "Well, enough of that." she said. "I just came to see if you were alright. John asked me to keep an eye on you."
Chris immediately relaxed as the reason for the woman's visit became obvious.
"You know John then?" he asked.
Morgan looked at him wide-eyed.
"Know him? I should think so love. I'm his wife!"
Chris followed Morgan down the stairs dumbfounded.
"I didn't have any idea.." he began. "I thought John was.."
Morgan threw her head around and winked.
She noticed Chris's perplexed look and halted, taking his arm.
"You like him, huh?"
Chris nodded his head.
"Where do you think I'm from?" she asked. Her tone suggested that this was a game she liked to play.
"Not from these parts, certainly. Canada?"
"Close enough I guess."
"Where are you from then?"
"You been there?"
"No." he replied, "In fact you're the first American I've ever met."
"I'm not American, hon."
"I became a British citizen just over two years ago."
Chris pondered on this for a second. He looked at her with a mixture of surprise and hope.
"When you married John?" he asked.
"Go to the top of the class." she replied wryly.
They reached the landing of the tenth floor. Morgan stopped abruptly. Her left hand gripping the iron rail, she tilted her head upwards and held her right hand against her back pushing inwards.
"Jesus, if this kid isn't going to kill me."
Chris moved towards her.
"Have your waters broken?" he asked. She gave him a look which said: don't try it.
"No." she replied tersely, "My waters have not broken."
"How long have you got?" His relief was obvious. Morgan glared at him.
"You make it sound terminal."
She sighed, her head still tilted upwards.
"That's ok. I get a little crabby."
She poked him playfully in the stomach. "You know, one of the problems about the english is that they apologise far too often, far too easily. It makes people wonder about their intentions."
"I'm not english, I'm welsh."
"Oh. I'm sorry."
They looked at each other and burst out laughing.
Morgan opened the door of number 56 and held out an arm proudly. "A naturalised englishwoman's home is her castle!" she announced, indicating to Chris to lead the way in. Her flat was, in structure, identical to his own. Yet she had transformed it so that any comparison was purely academic.
"This is amazing!" He exclaimed. Morgan giggled, and held her hand up to her mouth.
"I hoped you would like it." she said quietly, swinging a leg back and forth.
The walls of the corridor were covered from ceiling to floor with pictures and photographs, interspersed with headlines from newspapers or periodicals. Each image interracted with the next, so that the wall took on the impression of one huge illustrated conversation. Jackie Onassis shook hands with Dennis Nielson under the banner "Pope John Paul II reunited with first love"; Reagan and Gaddafi stood shoulder to shoulder while "Lost twins meet again after thirty years" screamed in red above them; Shirley Temple calmly announced "Fuck dancing, let's fuck" to a distraught looking Mary Whitehouse.
"I call that part `Good Neighbours'" said Morgan.
Chris shook his head, slightly bewildered.
"But what does it mean?" he asked.
"Be damned if I know." She admitted after a pause.
"Interesting? Yeah, that's what most people say. Ever heard of a guy called Kenneth Halliwell?"
"No, sorry. I mean, no."
"No matter. He used to do things similar to this in the sixties. I view this as a natural extension of his work. More or less."
"More or less?"
"He went about it in a rather more cultured way. Sold one piece in his entire life. These go like hot cakes."
Chris blinked incredulously.
"You mean you sell these?"
"Got to make a living somehow hon." She sounded vaguely offended. "Of course, they're framed when they're sold. That makes a difference."
Chris mumbled an apology and continued to study the mural. He eye landed upon Margaret Thatcher's face on Jeff Stryker's body. She straddled a map of Scotland, wanking furiously. Underneath, the caption read "One in the eye for home rule". He collapsed against the opposite wall.
"Oh Christ." he laughed, "I think I like them after all."
"Don't you think they're just a tab derivative?" asked a new voice, that of a man. He had entered the hallway silently from the kitchen.
"I..." he began, falteringly. The man smiled, and Chris felt suddenly hot and cold at the same time.
"I thought you were out." snapped Morgan.
"On my way." he said nonchalantly. "But aren't you going to introduce us first?"
"This is my brother Karl." said Morgan reluctantly. "He's staying with me till the baby is born."
"Hi." said Karl, extending his palm. "Nice to meet you."
"You too." returned Chris, his mouth open. He had already spotted the enamelled pink triangle on Karl's sweater.
Karl was several inches smaller than Chris, with the same dark hair and complexion as his sister. He had a head, slightly too big a match for his body, in which there were eyes which looked directly into Chris's with an expression that said: let's make friends and go to bed. Chris could feel his cock agreeing, but Morgan distracted him.
"He doesn't appreciate my art much, I'm afraid." she said, pulling her tongue out in Karl's direction. He smiled.
"I just think you could do better, sis."
"He thinks, he thinks! More original! What the hell does that mean?" "Halliwell is hardly a good one to use for artistic inspiration."
"Listen, bud." said Morgan, prodding his chest, "Talent borrows, genius steals."
"Fine, but stealing from a non-entity like Halliwell? Karl's voice was clipped, perfunctory. Chris was irritated by his casual dismissal of his sister's work. He thought, momentarily, to ask him if he himself had anything better to show off. His natural resraint stopped him from doing so, as did his heightening excitement.
"Halliwell was misunderstood!" exclaimed Morgan.
"Misunderstood? Misunderstood!" Karl countered. He turned on Chris.
"You know how Halliwell died?" he asked.
Chris shook his head resignedly. He was sure that Karl was about to tell him.
"Kenneth Halliwell died by his own hand." Karl announced. "He took an overdose. Shortly before he had bludgeoned his male lover to death with a hammer. Kabbang!" His hand gripped an imaginary hammer which came down upon Morgan's head with a surprising swiftness. It stopped a fraction of an inch above her, where it remained, waivering.
"And she thinks he was misunderstood!" His tone was exclamatory, excited. "It works for me!" thundered Morgan, crossing her arms and resting them on her swollen stomach.
"Well, fuck you sister!"
"Out!" yelled Morgan, pointing to the doorway. "Now!"
"I'm going!" her brother yelled back, swinging his jacket over his shoulder and heading for the door.
"And don't bother coming back, bastard!"
"Up yours, whore!" his voice shouted from the floor below.
Morgan stood on tip toe and lifted both hands to her mouth, cupping them. "Faggot arse!" she screamed. She leant back against the wall and smiled demurely at Chris.
"Now, howsabout a nice cup of tea, huh?" she asked, and swaggered as sure- footedly as she could into the kitchen.
Chris followed her. He was in truth rather disappointed that her brother had left. Despite his abruptness and overbearing attitude, Karl had instantly endeared himself to Chris. In more ways than one. He cupped both hands lightly over his groin to conceal his penis, hesitant though it was to progress from excited to downright aroused, and blessed the day he had bought his baggy dungarees.
"Your brother is a strange one, isn't he?" he asked rhetorically.
Morgan gave him a piercing look.
"He's my brother. I love him very much." She sensed his confusion.
"Don't worry about the fireworks" she added, "That's just his way of saying the same thing."
"Funny way of saying it. If you don't mind me saying so."
She turned from the sink where she had been filling the kettle.
"I like the way you speak." she said, "Kind of sing song, up and down."
She obviously had no more to say about her brother. Chris persisted.
"Do you often argue?" he asked.
"Sure. Don't you?"
"I suppose so."
"Well either you do or you don't."
"I suppose I do."
Morgan lit the stove and sighed exasperatedly.
"I suppose you take milk in your tea?" she asked, holding up a carton.
Chris nodded. "And supposing so, sugar sweety?" She laughed abruptly.
"I'm sorry. I just think you're funny."
"Thanks." he replied blandly.
"No, no. I don't mean you personally. I mean the British."
Chris was more than a little annoyed.
"Surely you should have got over our more hilarious aspects by now?"
"I can't afford to. It's my bread and butter."
Morgan laughed again, and ran her hands through her hair, pulling it tightly back.
"You think I'd be able to sell any of that in the States?"
"If you sell it here.."
"No. One thing I learned. A prophet is never accepted in her home town."
"Like that Halliwell bloke?"
"I guess. Except he was British to start off with. Hey!" she eyed him keenly, "I think we're running round in circles here!"
"Would you ever do something like that?"
"Bash my lover's head in with a hammer? No. Well at least I don't think so. He was a pretty special case anyhow. He never achieved success, his lover did. So what, you say. Good for Joe, tough titty Ken. But Ken was his mentor, no, that's an exaggeration; his teacher. Taught him everything he knew. Ken gave him everything and then found out he'd done it rather too literally. He hadn't left anything for himself. Somewhere along the line he went from being the one in charge to someone completely subverted by another individual. There was no escaping that; the awful truth that his life was being led not by him, but by someone who was, eventually, to become a complete stranger. He couldn't regain his own life so he killed himself. Like Karl said, Kabang! But to do that, he had to kill his lover who in a way had already killed him anyway. Sheeesh,, that's a paradox, ain't it! Soooo," she extenuated the word, pondering, "I'll never do that, because I'll never be in a position to. That's just the way with me, I guess."
"Thank you. That explained things nicely."
His irony was not lost on her.
"Talk too much?"
He didn't answer, just smiled.
"It is an accusation levelled at me more often than not." she admitted, "But most people find it worthwhile in the end. As will you."
"Hpw do you mean?" he asked.
"A little favour John asked me to do for you. You'll see."
Morgan knelt swiftly and opened the cupboard underneath the sink. She pulled out two large cylindrical orange objects. From each hung a plug, like a snail poking its head out of its shell. Chris recognised their use immediately.
"Extension cabling!" he gasped.
"Yes!" she cried, "I am Morgan, bringer of light to the huddled masses!" She thrust them into his arms.
"And now." she concluded, "I do hope you have a good head for heights."
"Hello!" Morgan's voice carried up from her own small balcony two floors below. Chris jumped up and leaned heavily against the railing. It jerked outwards under the strain of his weight and sent a cascade of plaster falling.
"Hey!" she cried upwards, alarmed, "what the fuck are you playing at?" Chris caught his breath and peered over, both hands on his chest to avoid any more contact with the railing.
" Sorry about that! I don't think it's too safe up here." he yelled down.
"I'll accept your apology this time, crap head. You've just ruined my Sassoon."
"I'll get you another one if you like." he shouted, without the slightest idea to what she was referring.
"Never mind. Have you got the rope?"
Chris pulled the length of cord from his pocket.
"Pass it down then."
Chris looked around him. The balcony measured approximately four by two, and was sheltered from the elements by nothing more than the unsteady ledge. This extended from knee to just below chest level, and was topped by an iron rail with a wooden support, six inches wide and painted grey. A smaller slat of aluminium, two inches high, ran along the floor. Between this and the ledge construction was a gap of about four inches, through which Chris, in his kneeling position, could make out the Alexandra Palace. "I'm passing it through the gap between the floor and the support." he cried, "I think it's safer that way."
He untied the string and let it drop, one hand poking through the gap. As he pulled his end through, he caught his thumb on the lower slat. The sharp aluminium cut cleanly through his flesh and a drop of blood appeared on the ridge of the cut.
"Shit." he gasped. He popped his thumb quickly in and out of his mouth and yanked the string.
"Hey! Hold on a second." came Morgan's voice. There was a pause, then, "Ok, you can pull it up now."
Chris pulled. Seconds later, the round orange head of the extension
cabling appeared, and he took it in both hands. Lifting it slowly upwards, he kissed it gently, then rolled over onto his back.
"Tea!" he yelled, delightedly, "Coffee! Bacon and fucking eggs!"
Morgan patted Chris on the back.
"Hey! Good job! No draughts!"
Chris smiled, pleased with his handiwork.
"It wasn't too difficult. The wood on the doorframe was half rotten anyway. All I had to do was pull the wire across to the bit that looked the most rotten, and then force a hole through. The door opens and closes as if the wire isn't even there."
"I'm a bit concerned, though."
"The people in the flat below. Won't they wonder what a piece of orange cable is doing floating outside their balcony?"
"Nah. No one lives there"
"What about the authorities?"
"They have more to worry about than people fiddling electricity in this area, hon."
Chris put his arm around Morgan's shoulder.
"Then, thank you." he said.
"Sure. I've left you a kettle in the corridor."
He kissed her on the top of her head. She looked up and dazzled him. She had the same eyes as her brother. Chris suddenly felt uncomfortable and detached himself from her.
"I.." he began, when they were both startled by the sounds of hurried footsteps in the hallway. Danny, red faced and breathing heavily, stood in the doorway, gripping the wall.
"Chris!" he gasped excitedly, catching his breath. "You're not going to believe this."
"You could have told me she was John's wife, you know." said Danny glumly, lighting a cigarette. Chris smirked.
"What, and spoil the surprise?" He replied, fondly examining the extension cabling. he picked up the adaptor and dangled it in front of Danny. "How about a cup of tea?" he asked.
Chris made his way to the kitchen, picking up the kettle in the corridor on the way. He ran the tap into the kettle.
"There's no use sulking, you know." he said.
"I'm not sulking." said Danny.
"What are you doing, then?"
Danny glared out of the window onto the balcony. Petula was back on her eggs.
"Oh." he said lightly, "hatching thoughts."
"She was right, you know. You could have been mistaken."
Danny shook his head vehemently.
"No. It was John in that car, honest. Besides, she didn't have to swear quite so much."
"And you didn't have to call her names."
"She was calling me a liar!"
"Well, she shouldn't have called me an assehole."
Chris returned from the kitchen, and plugged the kettle into the socket.
"Come on, Danny. That was in response to being called a fat bitch."
"I didn't mean fat in a derogatory sense." His voice took on an upper class accent. "It was, in fact, an allusion to her heavy state of pregnancy." Chris shook his head.
"Look!" cried Danny, lifting up his T shirt. He squeezed a roll of stomach flesh between two fingers. "I can pinch more than an inch myself!" His eyes widened innocently. Chris did not look convinced.
"So." Danny continued. "Who are you all of a sudden? My moral guardian?"
"Then." He left his sentence unfinished. "I fucked up, didn't I?" Chris smiled.
"This time, Danny, you really fucked up."
Chris leant back and raised his eyes to the ceiling.
"Why this time?" he asked resignedly. Danny placed his hands on his hips.
"Well, if I'm to go to work tomorrow, I'm going to have to have some decent clothes."
This hadn't occurred to Chris.
"I see." he said blankly, "So you have to go and pick them up."
"That's right." He had no idea what else to say.
"Oh well." Chris rose and turned his back to Danny. He looked at the Alexandra Palace. A slight rain was falling. This made him feel a little better. At least Danny would get wet. He strode over to his friend, and put an arm around his shoulder.
"My own clothes should arrive soon." He said. "But we can't have you going to work looking like a tramp, now can we." He darted out of the room, and returned a moment later with the Safeway carrier bag around his ankle. Shuffling forward, he held out his hand in mock beggary.
"Spare me a tenner for a cup of tea, mate." he announced. Danny grimaced.
"Don't give up your day job, Chris."
Chris straightened his back, somewhat crestfallen.
"I've got to get one yet."
Danny picked up his coat.
"Yeah. I guess. Anyway, the quicker you go, the quicker you get back. Maybe we can go for a quick pint later."
Danny said nothing. Chris knew what this meant. He pulled the carrier bag off his foot and flung it to the ground.
"You're not coming back tonight, are you?" he asked quietly.
"It'll be easier to get to.." Danny began. Chris waved him to stop.
"That's alright." he said, with more than a hint of sarcasm, "I didn't expect you to hold my hand all the time." Though, he thought, it would be nice to see you for something longer than eight hours at any one time, you bastard. Chris turned again to the window. He felt a dull ache in his chest, channelled quickly to his eyes. No tears, he thought, please no tears.
"Are you going to be alright here?" asked Danny.
"I've done it before." replied Chris keeping his back to him.
"Maybe I'll go see Morgan." He half turned to face Danny.
Chris breathed deeply in, and thrust both hands into his pockets. To his surprise, he was getting an erection.
"So." he said, attempting a smile, "You're clothes are at that woman's house then?"
Danny bridled a little.
"She's not *that* woman." he said calmly, inwardly fearing a confrontation.
"Well, you've never even told me her name."
"Bit of an odd name for a woman."
"She's not your common or garden woman. She helped me a lot when I first came down here."
There was no intimation in the tone of Danny's voice to indicate that he was now doing the same for Chris. Nevertheless, that was how Chris read it.
"Showed you a nice squat, did she?" he asked.
"That's not fair."
"There's just as much you don't know about me Chris as you do. Don't start making value judgements."
"There's a lot you don't know about me too."
"So there's a lot that both of us don't know about both of us!" cried Danny exasperatedly. He flung his coat on and headed for the door.
"I'll see you tomorrow!" he shouted back. Chris heard the door open and close.
"Yeah." he said. "See you tomorrow."
He leant backwards on the mattress and closed his eyes. His hands roamed the flatness of his stomach, and he let them slip through through the sides of his dungarees.
He cupped his balls lightly in one hand.
He stroked the soft hair at the top of his legs with another.
He felt a vague, delicious feeling of well-being flush its way from his groin to his head.
He felt good.
John stands next to a river. He signals Chris with a wave. He is naked.
"Hello." he says.
Chris touches his chest.
"Shall we fish for salmon?" asks John.
His cock jerked to the left.
He gasped lightly, and pressed it into the warm softness of his balls.
He pulled out a hand and unfastened the buttons of his dungarees.
The straps fell forward onto his knees and he jerked his t-shirt over his head, exposing his chest.
He touches his chest.
He caressed a nipple, and felt its hardness on the palm of his hand.
John lies down with Chris. The grass feels pleasant against their skin. They mould themselves together.
"Shall we swim, like the fish?" asks John.
"Let us swim." says Chris.
He slowly fingered the cavities of his midsection, and traced the sharp lines between his abdominals.
His dungarees fell to his knees in one quick movement.
His shorts came down.
His back arched. He felt his stomach contract.
He licked his index finger and gently found the hole.
His mouth fell open.
"Yes!" he shouted. "Yes!"
They swim through the water. They are always touching, stroking, rubbing. The salmon glides and darts. They glide and dart.
He came. A rainbow, swung through the rain over Alexandra Palace caught his attention. He let his head fall to the pillow.
The salmon jumps the river. It dashes its head against the rocks.
Chris sat up. He pulled his t-shirt completely off and wiped himself down. There was another smaller rainbow now, underneath the first. He laughed. "Jesus." he said. "What a cliche. What a *fucking* cliche!"
Chris answered the door.
"Good evening." It was Karl.
"Hello." He paused a little. "I thought you were out."
"Yeah, I guessed. I came back to make it up with Morgan." He shook his hand as if it was burnt.
"Jeez. Someone sure put her out of turn."
"I think I could possibly explain that." he said. "It was probably Danny."
"Uhu. Who's Danny?"
"Oh, he's the guy I live with here. They had a slight difference of opinion."
"So, Chris, it's like this. She's in one hell of a mood. I thought perhaps..." His voice trailed off. He pulled a bottle of whiskey out of his coat pocket.
"I thought perhaps we could have a few drinks together. Your friend Danny in?"
"Great! All the more for us I guess." He pushed his way past Chris and walked up the hall.
"You like scotch?" he asked.
"Yes. Sure." replied Chris. He placed a hand on his head, bewildered.
"Shouldn't you try and make it up with Morgan first?"
Karl halted in his tracks, and walked back to where Chris was standing. He moved his head as close as he could without touching to Chris's own.
"I just thought we could get to know each other a little better first." he said. A smile, huge and knowing appeared on his face. "Dont ya think that woud be nice?"
Oh shit Danny Marsh, thought Chris, panicking. Where the hell are you when I need you?
Danny Marsh sat in a room he had sat in many times before. It was dully lit, but turning towards the mirror he could see his face clearly. Tonight, he had to look beautiful. There was a quiet knock on the door.
"Come in," he shouted.
A dark woman, tall, with an aquiline nose entered.
"How are they tonight, Smithy?" he asked faintly.
She placed a hand on his shoulder.
"A pack of wolves. What else is new?"
"More important, lovey, how are you?"
Danny sighed. He unscrewed a tube of lipstick.
"What do you think, Smithy?"
He pinned his hair back, then applied the lipstick.
"How's about this then, Smithy? Shall it be scarlet tonight?"
"You don't have to do this, you know."
Danny smiled up to her from the mirror, averting his eyes after a second.
"Yes. I know." he said, "I know."
From Wood Green to Leicester Square Chris had leafed through a discarded copy of "Ms London", a free weekly magazine containing little journalism but immense volumes of job vacancies - all available through agencies. He had quickly chosen Fairchild's as his first port of call. Their advertisment was large and glossy, and pictured a man of around the his own age in a beautifully ironed white shirt, loudly patterned tie and slacks. He was grinning broadly, showing a set of perfectly straight gleaming white teeth, made whiter by his walnut complexion. He looked happy, successful and highly sexed. Chris's admiration of this image extended beyond consumerism; not only did he want to be like this young man, he wanted to *be* him.
It had taken Chris an hour to find the branch of Fairchild's advertised in the mgazine. He vaguely remembered the instructions Danny had given him. Attempting a winning smile, he strode up to the reception desk.
"Hello." he said cheerfully, repeating his carefully rehearsed lines, "I'd like to register with you for employment."
There was no response for a few seconds, and then the receptionist looked up, half frowning. Chris noticed she had a brown pear shaped mole on the side of her left cheek, from which several dark thick hairs protruded. He felt at an immediate advantage. He was unblemished as the man in the advertisment.
"Do you have a resume?" she asked, her accent indicating that she had lived in London all her life. Chris faltered. His smile disappeared. Suddenly, Quasimodo advertised for Fairchild's.
"No, I'm afraid not." he said, opening his hand out towards her. Her frown became a grimace. She took out a form from the first draw of her desk. "Here." she said, handing it to him. "Please fill this in."
Chris pointed to the pen she still held in her hand.
"Do you mind..." he began. The almost silent noise that came from her throat could have been a growl. She handed him the pen.
"If you would like to take a seat." she said, pointing to a row of hard backed chairs. He turned and made his way towards them.
"Oh, by the way." she called out after him. "Do you have a recent passport sized photo of yourself?"
Chris shook his head.
"If we find you suitable for registration." she intoned, as if reciting a litany, "We can provide a passport sized photograph for a charge of one pound." She smiled for an instant, and looked down to her papers. A picture of the man in the advertisment appeared momentarily in Chris's mind.
"How thoughtful," he thought, "How fucking thoughtful."
He waited patiently for ten minutes after completing his form, occasionally coughing in an attempt to attract the receptionist's attention. Then, he walked up to the desk and placed his form directly over the paper she was scribbling on.
"Excuse me." he said. "I've finished."
She rose, and slid the form from the desk. With a curt nod she walked through into the main ofice adjacent to the reception area, leaving Chris on his own. He leant forward, and glanced at her paperwork. On the top leaf of a yellow post-it was a half finshed sketch of an erect penis. He sniggered quietly and returned to his seat.
"So!" he exclaimed as she reappeared. "You must get run off your feet here."
"Mr Jones?" A woman's voice recalled him to life.
"Yes. Good morning." He rose and shook hands with her.
"Fatima Faversham-Smythe." Her grin was broad and toothy. He immediately liked her.
"Ho do you do." he responded, and it was as if he had known her forever. She relieved her grip on his hand and took a pace backwards.
"How long have you been in London, Mr Jones?" she asked, he grin becoming wider. Although her accent was impeccable, Chris considered her to be undoubtedly of foreign extract. He features were rather too pronounced to be British, her skin to dark to be european at all. He guessed that didn't matter. If she could get him a job.
"Oh, just few days." he answered. She suddenly tilted her head so that the bridge of her sharp, aquiline nose was virtually parallel to he shoulder, and gave him a cursory inspection. She pursed her lips tightly together.
It was ten minutes before Chris realised exactly what Fatima Faversham-Smythe reminded him of; his mother's budgerigar, forever ruffling its feathers and turning its view of the world upside down with a single twitch of the head. He had come to the conclusion that it had been the only way for the bird to come to terms with its captivity. Locked up in its cage it would view its restricted world from as many different angles as possible, and therefore add the only variety it could to its otherwise meaningless existence. If the bird had ever spoken, he would have expected a torrent of vitriol aimed at its captors. It had, however, remained mute throughout the ten years of its life and had expired half way through an episode of "Coronation Street", his mother's favourite viewing. It was stiff before it had been taken out and buried, its head turned grotesquely through virtually two right angles, eyes popping. The last thing it would have seen was the rising mound of its own shit on the perch, albeit from a very interesting perspective.
"I'm sorry." said Fatima, who seemed to be intently studying Chris's form, "but I can't really send you to any interviews at the moment." She cocked her head to one side. "No, really, I can't."
Chris decided that perhaps he didn't like her after all.
"Why not?" he asked, "I have all the relevant qualifications."
"Yes, love, and they're excellent. But, quite honestly, dungarees *are* considered a little outre for interviews."
Chris's jaw went slack. Danny had warned him of this.
"I see what you mean." he said, "But that's a highly prejudiced.." Fatima leant over and smiled sympathetically.
"This city is built on prejudice, dear. You have to toe the line I'm afraid. It may not be quite like..." she glanced at his form. "Where are you from again?"
"North Wales" he answered glumly.
"Ah yes. Look, it's the only way. Come back with some nice clothes on your back and you'll be fine." She winked at him. "Just right."
"Ok, I'll do that." Chris said, quietly despairing. He got up and shook her hand once more.
"Don't let it get you down." she said,, as he turned to exit. Chris nodded and smiled wanly. Fatima opened her filofax and turned to her telephone index.
"You are such a hypocrite, Fatima" she said under her breath as he reached the door. She adjusted the tilt of her head and placed the receiver under her chin, dialling with one hand and lighting a cigarette with another. The receptionist came through and placed another completed form on her desk.
"There's another one outside." she said with a sigh. "Jesus, that last one was a complete prat, wasn't he?" She let out a small titter. Fatima regarded her for a second and inhaled deeply on her cigarette.
"Do me a favour, will you Julia? Piss off." she said, and turned her attention once more to the telephone.
"Financial Admin staff are easy to find, Marshy." he replied, and lifted his cigareet to his mouth in an exaggerated movement. He turned his eyes, one by one, to the other four people in the office. "But I have always had a soft spot for you."
Danny grimaced. Physically, Dario represented a walking ideal for him; medium build,, mediteranean, a face beautifully and subtly constructed and rich. But *Straight*! And *married*! However meaningless he felt the words to be, they reminded him of the impotence of his sitution. Yet he knew that even if Dario had been gay, an perhaps physically interested in him, there would always be one insurmountable obstacle. They hated each other's guts.
Though that, he thought wryly, had never stopped him before. He looked up.
"Thank you very much, Dario, for your kind words. But there's a hell of a lot of work to be done here. It doesn't look as if my client base has been touched in almost two months."
Dario smiled for second, revealing a row of brilliantly white, tazor sharp teeth.
"I knew you would be back." he said with a shrug. His intonation betrayed his Sicilian heritage, his tongue lingering a little longer than necessary on the final consonant of every second word. His words suggested that Danny's motives for returning consisted of something more than just the love of the job. Danny hesitated for a second, biting his tongue, and for a moment Dario Dadona was drowning in a giant vat of wholewheat pasta.
He knew that restrictions on his behaviour would necessarily be enforced on his return to "Lloyd Grantley" merchant bank, and that included any remark, however casual, which might be construed as insolence. His appearance in the office the previous Friday had caused astonishment and delight amongst his co-workers, but only a series of satirical comments and wry grins from Dario. Previously, Danny had been able to combat his office manager's terse observations and daily, veiled threats of redundancy with a salvo of pointed witticisms and remarks which gave him an almost sexual satisfaction. Dario himself, when the rumour had reached him of Danny's orientation, had correctly assessed the situation and taken advantage of his new knowledge. He would lean over Danny's desk a little too closely, so that his chest would lightly touch Danny's shoulder, and at times he would stare a little too deeply into Danny's eyes.
At first this had taken Danny completely off guard. Yet he quickly adapted to his office manager's intimidatory new technique, and had responded as before but with greater force and effect than ever. If Danny had not been the best financial administrator withing the group, this would not have been possible. But to that point their working relationship had been interdependent, if separate, based solely on Dario's constant intimidation of the office staff and Danny's ability to flag up sagging morale. Though neither had ever admitted it, the combination worked. Yet the tension between them had become, over the space of two years, and extreme and dangerous form of destructive symbiosis. It had come to a climax, Danny felt, just before his abrupt and unexpected resignation and departure. There seemed to remain a choice of only two courses available to them. Firstly, they could each frenziedly rip the clothes from the other and fuck on the floor until they were sore, exhausted but satiated. That optiion was not open. Dario would remain loyally heterosexual to the end. Alternatively, they could kill each other.
This, Danny thought, was far more likely.
However, a prerequisite of Danny's return had been a toning down of his *attitude*, and if not a public acknowledgement of exactly who was in charge, then at least an indication, through his silence, that there was only one scale of power in "Lloyd Grantley." The morale boosting could continue,, but only by way of back patting and coffee making. There was no longer any question of verbal sparing with the unquestionable figure of authority.
Danny had accepted this reluctantly, but with some relief. A return to the previous scenario terrified him, and there was no reason why Dario, under the circumstances, should allow him to return unless in a virtually mute position. And they needed the money. Chris was about as unemployable as any provincial naif he had encountered, so there was little chance of him procuring any work for at least a few weeks. He had no desire to return to "Lloyd Grantley", but they were already in desperate need for money. He would just have to get on with it. If he could.
"I'm glad to be back." he lied, his voice deliberately monotone. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Sharon, the girl at the next desk to his own, look the other way and cover her mouth with her hand. Dario turned on her. "Would you like to shre the joke with the rest of us?" he asked sharply. Sharon looked up.
"No, Dario." she said quietly, her eyes widening as she shook her head. Sharon was an albino. There was no variation in the uniform whiteness of her face, save for the few dyed pink streaks in her hair. These, she had explained once to Danny, helped in the colour coordination of her wardrobe. This consisted entirely of two colours; white and pink. The white, she said,, was to match her skin, the pink to match her eyes. The hair dye was the finishing touch, the overall effect startling.
"Thank you." said Dario. He turned once more towards Danny.
"OK," he said, gesturing in a mock supplicative manner, "everyone's had their chance to welcome you back. The phone is in front of you. Or would you rather go back to Amsterdam?" He stared directly into Danny's eyes, victorious, teasing, excuisite.
Danny felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand erect. He picked up the portfolio in front of him, and set it down next to the telephone. Hesitating a little, he picked up the receiver and dialled slowly and deliberately. His four colleagues studied him intently, astonished and dismayed that Danny had given into Dario so easily. The heard a slight click as the receiver was picked up at the other end, and a woman's voice answered.
"Oh, hi mum," said Danny, raising two fingers as violently as he could in the direction of his manager, "I'm back home."
Chris looked up from the classified section of "The Evening Standard" and smiled nervously. The benign seediness of the "Brief Encounter" at once became threatening. He shuffled uncomfortably on the bar stool.
"No thanks." he said, "I already have one." He nodded towards the glass of water on the table, topped up with ice in an attempt to disguise it as a vodka and tonic. This was rather more a reflection on his state of impecunity than his desire not to consume alcohol. He returned to his newspaper and pretended to read it.
"Ah, well." the voice persisted. "I took the liberty anyway, I'm afraid. Vodka, isn't it?" A second glass appeared next to his own, then a third as the owner of the voice took the seat next to him. Chris kept his eyes to the ground and wriggled in embarassment, wishing he had gone anywhere but "Brief Encounter" to drown his sorrows. Besides, he loathed vodka.
"Thanks." he said quietly, feeling a glow come to his cheeks, "But.."
"No buts!" said the man. "You look like you need cheering up."
Cheering up! Chris resigned himself to the fact that he wasn't going to get rid of this unwelcome intrusion. Ever since the advent of AIDS, he thought, gay men have been cheering each other up as if there was no tomorrow. He would simply have to suffer in silence.
"I saw you from over at the bar." said the man, pointing to where he had bought the drinks. Chris nodded mutely. He knew what was coming next. "And I thought to myself, `he needs a bit of cheering up'."
The conversation had repeated itself within the space of twenty seconds. There was a strained silence. Chris prepared to excuse himself, walk coolly through the bar, slowly upstairs to the exit, out of the side door, pause for a second to inhale, then run a two minute mile in any direction whatsoever. Suddenly, the man grasped his arm.
"You don't remember me, do you?" he asked, leaning forward so that their noses almost touched. Chris slowly pulled himself back, and stared, shocked, into the man's face.
"I haven't ever seen you before!" he exclaimed indignantly. His thoughts raced. The face did seem familiar. Could the man be a past indiscretion? Impossible. He had never had any. An old friend from University? University College of North Wales had been more like a large high school than a university; everybody knew everybody, or if they didn't had at least heard of them or their reputation. Chris studied the man, squinting as he attempted to remember the face. He was in his twenties, perhaps a year or two older than him, but his face was pale and the dark rings under his eyes gave him a doleful, weary expression. Moreover, the bright fluorescent lights of the bar made him look ethereal, almost ghostly. Yet the jauntiness of his speech and the elaborate, lively movement of his hands seemed to contradict his appearance. Chris felt he had seen him before, but could not place him. "No, I don't know..." he began, just as a cloud ascended from his memory. His jaw dropped.
"You're the bloke John met." he stammered, "The other day, the one.."
"With AIDS?" The man smiled. Chris was taken aback.
"He told you?"
"About your little altercation? Yes." He extended a hand. "I'm Tom, by the way. And if you don't mind, I'd like to put you straight on a few things, forgive the pun."
"You know," said Chris as he finished his seventh large vodka and tonic, "I could quite grow to like these. Thanks."
"I didn't think you looked like a vodka drinker." laughed Tom. "So why were you drinking it today?"
Chris coloured a little.
"I just fancied a change I guess."
"A change is as good as a rest, so they say."
"You look far too much of a tough nut to drink vodka."
"Now look who's jumping to conclusions!"
"Well! Look at you dear!" Tom squeezed Chris's arm appreciatively. "You're built like a brick shit house." Chris felt his heart jump. He loved to be admired. He looked Tom up and down.
"You could do with an hour or two in the gym, though." he countered. "You seem a bit out of shape."
Tom looked crestfallen.
"But you're looking damn good!" Chris added hurriedly. There was more vodka at stake, after all. The inherent flattery involved in receiving drink after drink from a virtual stranger made him feel all good inside.
"Thanks." said Tom, and leant backwards in his chair. "Even if you don't mean it."
"But I do!" insisted Chris. Tom shook his head, waving Chris's words aside with a sweep of his hand.
"I know I look like I've been dragged through a hedge backwards." he said. "At least for the moment. I got pretty ill last month. It'll take a while for things to get back to normal."
Chris wanted to ask how he could be so sure that things *would* get back to normal, but hesitated. Tom read the unspoken question in Chris's eyes. He laughed.
"Don't worry." he said, "I'll tell you when I'm going to conk out. And it's not going to be for a long while yet, I can tell you."
"I'm sure it won't be!"
"The thing is, you see." continued Tom without acknowledging Chris's words, "to make sure of that, you do have to be a bit bolshy about it. Bolshy to the authorities for not giving us enough bleeding money to live on, and bolshy with the man in the street. And I'm a bloody bolshy queen when I want to be. Chris, you're my own kind and your ignorance was phenomenal! Think what it's like with the rest of the world! You've made you're bed, they say, now go ahead and fucking lie in it. I say, yes, I'll lie in it - I have to lie in it, but I'll make bleedin' well sure I have a good mattress and a goose down quilt to lie on. This is one queer that ain't for quitting."
Chris leant over and patted Tom on the back. He let out a long burp.
"Oops, sorry it's the tonic." He rubbed his stomach. "It's giving me wind."
"I think you're a bit pissed dear." Tom laughed and held a hand up to his mouth. He swept back his hair with a single movement. "But then I wanted to get you a bit sozzled."
"Why's that then?" Chris took a large swig from his glass.
"So I could seduce you, of course!"
It took Chris several seconds to realise that Tom was joking. "No, go on, why?"
Tom shook his head.
"If anything, to prove that I'm not a leper, nor should be treated as one. I've found that alcohol sometimes works when even the most logical arguments don't. Ignorance may be bliss, but being pissed is better."
"But I know.."
"That wasn't always the case, was it sweetie?" Tom interjected, pointing a finger at Chris.
"Maybe." Chris bowed his head a little, "but now we're both drunk, and it's only three o'clock in the afternoon." He burped again.
"No, *you're* drunk." replied Tom, "But I've been drinking straight tonic water. I've been told to knock off the booze. Sorry, didn't I tell you?" His face took on an innocent expression. "I did mean to."
"Would I lie to you?"
There was a pause. Their eyes made contact. Both looked down. It was Tom who renewed the conversation.
"Well, enough of me. What about you Chris? John tells me you're new in London."
"Yeah. Haven't been here a week yet."
"And already you've discovered the nefarious delights of the Brief Encounter. Not bad going."
"Danny, he's my flatmate, told me where to find it."
"So you fancied a change from Wales then?"
"That would be an understatement. We came via Amsterdam."
Tom smiled. His eyes glinted mischevously.
"Amsterdam? Really! Tell me more!"
"Danny Marsh speaking," A pause, then, "Yes, right away." He raised himself from his chair and stretched his arms out nonchalantly.
"Dario wants to see me." he said to Sharon. She had her head in her hands at the neighbouring desk, having guessed the nature of the call.
"The shits the fan." she muttered and lifted her hands to the nape of her neck, as if to avoid it. Danny ignored the comment.
"Tell anyone who calls that I'm currently indisposed."
Sharon looked up and smiled sympathetically.
"Good luck," she said, "It was nice knowing you."
"This isn't anything to do with luck." he replied, winking at her. Sharon didn't look convinced, and the others looked on in silent acknowledgement of the certain fact that the next morning there would be someone else seated at his desk.
"Well! Thanks for the encouragement, folks."
"Are you religious at all Danny?" asked Sharon, as he began his walk towards Dario's office.
"Why? Are you thinking of performing the last right on me?"
"No, I was just thinking. Daniel, in the lion's den!"
"Go dance around your handbag, Sharon."
Dario Dadona's office was a room which nobody at "Lloyd Grantley" would contemplate entering, unless specifically asked to do so by the man himself. Even then, they did so with the greatest reluctance. It was windowless, being constructed circularly around the building support at the centre of the open plan office, and visible from any point therein. It served as a continual reminder to those who worked there of the invisible, but omnipotent presence of their employer. Danny knocked at the door nd entered.
At the far side of the room Dario Dadona sat behind a huge mahogany desk. Upon it was a telephone and a computer, two of the few concessions he made to office furniture. Only one object served a decorative purpose; a large tank of tropical fish kept at eye level just behind the desk, supported by a shelf attached to the wall. The shelf itself was the same matt grey colour as the walls, which gave the impression that the tank was floating stationary in the air. Besides these, the office was completely bare. As there was no chair for him to sit on, Danny stood before the desk, his hands behind his back. The blank grey walls reminded him of the Circle of Death he had seen at fun fairs. for a fleeting moment, Danny whizzed around them on a motorbike, dodging the tank every full circle and taking vicious, gratuitous swipes at his cowering boss.
Dario showed his teeth and leaned forward in an unexpectedly rapid movement, making Danny totter backwards.
"What are you thinking about, Marshy?" he asked. The question sounded more like innuendo, and was accompanied by a slight licking of the lips.
"Nothing, really." replied Danny, trying to regain his composure. Dario relaxed back in his seat and lit a Moore.
"Let's find something to talk about, then," he said. His eyes wandered hungrily around the room, as if in search of a subject. "How is your mother today?"
"She's fine, thank you."
"Is she proud of her little boy?" This time his words were full of inference. Danny did not reply, but looked on helplessly, like a wounded animal facing its predator. Dario Dadona leant forward again.
"Does she know what he gets up to in the evening time?" The question was spoken lightly, like a casual greeting, or someone asking the time. Danny remained silent, shaken to the the core. He could not understand what Dario was driving at, and so was unable in his confusion to combat the man with any of his usual witticisms. Without his tongue he felt defenceless.
"What would that be to you?" he asked, damning himself for his inability to respond with even the smallest amount of bravado. Dario's eyes narrowed. He bared his teeth once more and rose from his chair.
"It means less than nothing to me," he replied. "And I'm sure your mother has.." he hesitated, choosing his words carefully, "become accustomed to it." He pause again, and placed both hands flat on the cool mahogany of his desk. "But certain habits of yours mus cause her a great deal of pain."
Danny felt his eyes widen as the blood rushed to his head. He felt a single drop of sweat fall from his armpit and trickle down his rib cage.
"What's this all about, Dario?" he asked faintly.
"Nothing Marshy, absolutely nothing at all. Don't get cross with me please. I have only your best interests at heart. You know that." The tone of his voice was unashamedly sarcastic. He raised finger towards the tank on the wall.
"Do you like tropical fish?" he asked, gesturing to Danny to come closer.
"No, not particularly," said Danny, "I've never had much time for fish on the whole."
Dario Dadona peered through the glass of the tank and opened and shut his mouth several times, imitating a large black fish, floating stationary near the surface. It turned quickly and dived to the bottom of the tank. He laughed.
"They're afraid of me."
Danny studied the fish, not quite disbelieving the statement. The tank was like a microcosm of the room. There was an inch or so of gravel along the bottom, but besides this it contained only its inhabitants and the water which sustained them. There were at least thirty fish in the tank, of various colours and sizes, some excuisitely beautiful, in slithers of reflected light darting around, others large taking on monstrous proportions to their smaller neighbours. He could just about make out a layer of almost transparent strips of flesh and bone slowly waving on the gravel as the fish swam past them. He shuddered involuntarily.
"It's the real world in there, Marshy," said Dario. "Big fish, little fish.."
"Quite so. Do you think I wouldn't get bored looking at one or two fish swimming about aimlessly all day? I like to see a struggle going on."
"There are far too many in there for such a small tank. It's no wonder that some die."
"They don't die. Quite simply they are killed , and eaten. If they are not strong enough to survive, they don't. Most of the time, it is left to fate. Sometimes it is big fish, swallowed piece by piece by crowds of smaller ones. Other time it is a smaller fish that just happens to get in the way. Look at that one now." He pointed to where a small yellow fish was constantly jabbing another at the base of the spine. "He knows exactly where the weakest spot is and soon there will be one less mouth to feed. Don't you find it entertaining Marshy?"
"I don't think so." Danny was still reeling.
"I'm sure you do." he insisted.
"No, Dario, I don't." Danny felt his confidence returning, encouraged by a sense of outrage. He tried to keep his voice steady. "It's not natural keeping them in such a confined space." Dario Dadona snorted.
"You talk about natural," he said, the faintest sneer across his face.
"I don't believe that it is."
"When you go out of this office, take a look out of the window. You will see then who is right."
Dario sat down and turned his attention towards his computer screen. Danny remained rooted to the spot, his fists clenched.
"Oh, you may go now," said Dario with a wave of his hand. "I may have some additional work for you over the next few weeks, so be ready to work evenings. Don't mention this to the others."
"You mean?" Danny was not sure he heard correctly.
"Yes. Go now."
Danny made bolt for the door, determined to ge out of the room before Dario could change his mind.
He turned around.
"Have you checked in with personnel yet?"
"No, not yet."
"Do so this morning. Have you changed your address since your return?"
"No." Danny lied.
"Good. Don't forget to give my love to your mother. Tell her I think her son will be invaluable to me in the future."
Danny closed the door and tilted his head to one side, bombarded by conflicting thought. He was grateful and surprised that he had retained his job, but did not quite understand why. Dario's threats were real enough, of that he was sure, but why risk a form of blackmail to keep someone on their toes from nine to five? There were, as had been pointed out to him with no uncertain emphasis, plenty more from where he came from, yet if anything the promise of additional work had singled him out for particular, special attention.
It was perplexing. The man didn't even like him for God's sake. He had even contradicted his own little philosophy and given him a another chance, had allowed a little fish to swim away. Then again, that little fish was still swimming around in the same tank, ready to be swallowed up at any moment. Danny shrugged unconciously. He recalled how, during his final year at University, his personal tutor had accused him of going along with the flow, of avoiding making his own decisions. There had followed an extremely boring and long-winded monologue on the theories of existentialism, at the end of which Danny had informed him that as far as his own thoughts on the subject went, it sucked. He would never be completely, he had declared, a free and responsible agent determining his own development as long as there were people on the planet more than willing to do it for him. To whatever end. The tutor had concluded by saying that as he became a more mature adult, he would see he was in error. Danny made a mental note to drop him a line sometime.
For now, he would push the subject to the back of his mind. This little fishy needed its ant eggs.
"How did you get on?" It was Sharon, a worried expression on her face. He ignored her and at down at his desk, arms folded and looked at his shoes. There was silence throughout the office. Danny could feel the stare of six pairs of eyes.
"How do you think?" he replied, and tossed his papers into the first draw of the desk. Sharon reclined.
"Oh, you poor love," she said. "Was he really horrible to you then?"
Danny looked up and viewed the office. Did they care? he asked himself. Did they really care less? He conceded that perhaps they did, though their own fates were so intertwined with his own that collective worrying over any matter of importance concerning something in the office was something they all took for granted. He turned his face towards Sharon. She looked at him eagerly, awaiting the outcome. Her face was full of expectation, the knowledge that he had been fired written through her very expression. Her eyes showed the glassiness that comes with self-conscious distraction, betraying her relief that she herself had escaped the ritual sacrifice.
Danny took a pen from his jacket pocket and scribbled a line on a piece of paper, then handed it to her. She scanned the words, looked back towards Danny, then read them aloud to the office as a whole.
"A piece of cake!" she announced gleefully, before crumpling up the paper and throwing it at Danny's head with a delighted whoop.