Part 1 – Liam Livings
I stumbled back through the unfamiliar roads of Canal Street in Manchester. I leant against a lamp post while a drag queen handed me a light for the pink pastel gold tipped cigarette I’d just begged off her.
I raised my eyebrows as I cupped my hand around the cigarette.
She replied, wobbling slightly on her six inch red stilettos, ‘I smoke like I dress. Can you imagine me using rolling tobacco and papers darling?’
‘Fair enough,’ I replied then kissed her cheeks, thanked her for seeing me safely from the bar where my friend had deserted me, to the road where allegedly my hotel lay only a short walk away. ‘Five minutes you say?’ I turned to face the drag queen – bright red PVC dress with white hearts, a cleavage anyone would kill for topped with a pile of blonde hair so high she’d had to duck when leaving the bar.
‘Straight along there, sweetheart. Stick to the main road and you can’t miss it.’ And she was gone.
I arrived at the hotel. Surprised I’d made it, and surprised how posh it looked inside. My best friend had booked it for a ‘I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair’ weekend for me. My best friend Nigel – or Anton to everyone else. I knew he was Nigel, cos I’d known him before he had laser surgery on his eyes, and a few little nips and tucks and the odd little prick on his forehead. Since then plain old Nigel was well gone, replaced by shiny browed twenty twenty vision Anton.
When I’d told Anton, over a few too many vodka and cokes, that my boyfriend still didn’t want to move in with me, and still wanted to keep seeing some other guy ‘For a bit of fun, now and again,’ Nigel slapped my face, handed me a drink and said, ‘For the love of God, Darren. Grow a backbone. All you do is whinge about him. He doesn’t do this with me, he won’t commit to me, he’s seeing someone else behind my back. Why are you still with him?’
And at that moment, wiping sticky coke from my eyes, tasting the vodka, and staring at Anton’s shiny face, I couldn’t think of one real reason. I shrugged, downed Anton’s drink, before he bought me another, and another, and another. Then I went home chucked all my boyfriend’s stuff he’d left at mine, into bin bags then out the window of my little first floor flat. I left a message on his phone, words to the effect of: go away, I don’t want to see you again. Your stuff is outside my flat. Only it was a bit more colourful than that, as you can probably imagine, after a good seven or eight double vodkas with Anton egging me on.
Now, I took in the hotel’s foyer: a min water fall feature flanked the main reception which resembled the bough of a boat; walls in shiny black and white marble; lifts with art deco doors and a floor indicator which went to fifteen.
A bell boy in red uniform appeared. ‘Can I help you sir?’
Sir? I looked to either side before realising he was talking to me. I caught my reflection in one of the mirrored lift doors. I felt like I’d stepped into a Baz Lurhman musical. I half expected Ewan McGregor to start singing about how love lifts you up. I wish.
I was miles away.
The bell boy tapped my shoulder. ‘Which floor do you require sir? Have you got your room key, sir?’
Again with the sir? I slapped my face and reassembled my thoughts. I pulled a plastic card from my pocket and tried to focus. ‘Eleven two two. What floor’s that?’ It was all I could do to read the room number.
‘That’s the eleventh floor, sir. The lift’s here.’ He tidied me away from my shambolic display in the entrance into the lift and pressed the button.
I sat on the seat in the corner of the lift. A seat, in a lift. Anton really had splashed out when I’d told him to book the hotel to forget all about my ex. ‘We’ll go to Manchester, I hear Canal Street’s pretty wild on a Saturday night. Those northern lads, they know how to party!’ Anton had said. Then he realised the weekend we booked coincided with the award for the best cross dresser in Manchester. ‘As long as they don’t out dress me, I’m not fussed,’ Anton said, smoothing his perfect arched eyebrows in turn.
I wobbled as the lift stopped and a man in his thirties, wearing a pair of snugly fitting black trousers and a short sleeved white shirt, got in. He smiled at me and put his hands in his pockets. I enjoyed the view of his perfect abs, then lingered on his groin area for a bit too long. I stared intensely at the floor.
‘Alright, mate?’ he said, his accent strong with a Manchester twang.
I looked up at him.
‘Had a good night, have you?’
‘Yeah.’ I nodded, making more eye contact than I’d anticipated at this early stage.
‘Me too. Been in the bar downstairs for hours. I’m well pissed.’ He wobbled side to side in an exaggerated gesture to illustrate his point.
I smiled. ‘Me too.’ I gestured to the seat.
‘What you had?’
‘Vodka. Lots of vodka.’ I smiled. ‘And coke. You?’ Get me, being all forthright and talkative.
‘I’ve left me girlfriend and mates in the bar. Going back to my room if you wanna come.’ He folded his arms across his chest and I stared at them in front of my eyes, his abs and chest all on full beam. ‘I’ve got some vodka and that in my room.’ He sniffed then smiled at me.
Part 2 – Charlie Cochrane www.charliecochrane.co.uk
“I’m in the wrong fucking hotel!” I said, as the name on the displays—the Grand—swam into focus. I was staying at the Majestic.
I looked at Matey’s abs again, tossing a mental coin about taking a punt with him. A loud, beery belch from his direction made the decision for me.
“Sorry, my floor I think,” I said, barging out of the lift, and sending a couple of pensioners flying, as the door opened at the next floor. I caught sight of beer-boy’s face as the door closed—hell he was ugly, I realised now, with sudden sobriety kick-starting my good taste. Lucky escape.
I looked around me, trying to locate the stairs. I’d rather risk trotting down them than risk seeing beer-boy again. Time to concentrate on small, achievable tasks, rather than the big, seemingly unachievable one of getting laid by somebody worth looking at in the morning.
Get down the stairs in one piece. Done.
Find the loo. Done.
Double check flies zipped up. Done.
Get directions to Majestic from nice looking but clearly straight bloke at reception desk. Done.
Out onto the pavement.
Whoa. I’d stepped out of the hotel and onto one of those moving pavements from the crazy house at the fun fair.
I’d forgotten what cold air could do to you when you’re one over the eight. Or nine over the eight, in my case. I clung to the railing by the hotel steps and waited until the world had stopped spinning.
I’d heard something like that already this evening. Couldn’t Manchester totty come up with anything original? At least this enquirer after my health had a bit more class.
“Yeah. Just...just an old injury playing up,” I lied, rubbing my thigh.
“Football?” He asked. He was six foot four at least, build like a brick outhouse and everything about him just screamed “rugby player”.
“No. Rugby.”Lying was becoming worryingly habitual.
“Want me to call you a taxi?”
“No. It’ll pass. I’m only going along the road. To the Majestic.”
“I’m going there, too. I’ll make sure you get home in one piece.”
By the time we’d reached the hotel, I knew that he was called Rob and he played for an amateur rugby team called the Mild Cheese, only it couldn’t have been that, could it? Maybe my hearing hadn’t sobered up yet. He was in Manchester for his mate Ben’s wedding. He’d had a bit of a fling with Ben a while back but the bloke hadn’t seen the light, so Rob was looking for someone to mend his broken heart.
I may have imagined that last bit. Wishful thinking.
What I think he’d actually said was that the “post-match” party was still going on but he was feeling like a third wheel with all the couples around, so he’d called it a night.
“I could murder a coffee,” I said, as we dithered in the foyer. “Want to join me? I hate drinking alone.”
“Yeah. Could do. Better than the stuff we’d get up in my room.”
I don’t think I imagined the “we” or the “my”.
We ordered the coffee, found a table with comfy chairs, smiled a bit awkwardly—always a good sign—and both started talking at once.
“No, you first.” I said, trying my most seductive smile.
“I just wondered if your leg’s okay.”
“Yeah. Walked it off,” I said, rubbing both thighs because I couldn’t remember which one was supposed to be sore.
“I did my adductor last season. Bloody painful,” he said, running his finger down from his groin, as if I didn’t know where the adductor was. And hadn’t already noticed his groin.
“They can be awful. Better now?” I had no idea whether—or how—it might affect somebody’s off pitch performance, but it was a worry.
“Yeah. Not as bad as when Jonny Wilkinson ripped his. Still, they don’t expect flankers to kick.”
“Just as well.” I tried to look like I knew what I was talking about. “Did you enjoy the wedding?” I wasn’t sure why I’d asked that. Maybe I was hoping I’d get the “him and Ben and the broken heart” story.
“Yeah. It was nice. Good speeches. Nothing too embarrassing. He’s been a good mate to me, Ben.”
I wondered if he was about to slip into slobbery, maudlin drunk mode, but he just sniffed and carried on.
“Ben’s always the first one to stick up for you on the pitch. Heart of gold. She’s a nice girl, too. Supports Saracens.”
“Of course she would,” I said, nodding. Like I knew the front end of a Saracen from the front end of a...
“He keeps trying to fix me up, but he’s not got a good eye. Not for suiting me, anyway.”
“Ah. Yeah.” Should I ask what the women were like, and whether the problem was the fact they were women? “No go?”
“They were okay. Couple of Tim nice but dims...”
I tried to look mature and sympathetic when he said “Tim” but I really wanted to run around the foyer pulling my shirt open and shouting, “Result!”
“...and one solicitor built like an ox—all over.”
“Blimey. What was wrong with him?” Brains and brawn and...all the rest. What more could a boy want?
“Too self centred. He didn’t need a boyfriend, just a mirror.”
There was a mental image I had to shake off quickly, especially as the coffee was on its way.
“So,” I said, when the waiter, night porter, whatever he was with the trim backside, had left us. “No nice ushers at the wedding to get off with? Sort of modern take on bridesmaid and best man?”
“No.” Rob shook his head and stirred his coffee. “Only seen one decent bloke today, and that was the vicar.”
“Oh.” Not me?
“At the wedding, I mean,” he said, pulling me out of the slough of disappointment. “Things have looked up since I left.”
We shared a look--that look, you know the one—over our cups.
“Do you really want this coffee, or was it any excuse?” he asked.
“Nah. What I want is...”
Part 3 – Clare London www.clarelondon.com
“Nah. What I want is a different kind of refreshment.” He leaned forward in his chair and put his hand rather tentatively on my knee. It was a large hand, with thick, strong fingers. Fingers that had only just a moment before been stroking his groin and … well, his other, muscular thing. The refreshment came out with rather too much emphasis on the eshhhh – bless him – implying both of us had already had our share of booze tonight, and probably a couple of other blokes’ too. Something made me think he might not have had the nerve to touch me up in a hotel lounge otherwise.
Hooray for hooch and happy disinhibitions! I restrained myself from leaping up and into his lap. Playing it cool, eh? “You said you only had crap in your room.”
“Ah, but that was the coffee. I have my own secret supply of post-match tequila.” Rob tapped a large, strong finger against the side of his nose. Well, he would have done if he hadn’t missed by a couple of millimetres and poked himself in the eye. I felt like one of those Regency heroines in Aunty Clarice’s books, handing him my hanky to mop up the startled tears. “Darren, will you join me?”
We shared another of those looks – you know the one, we’ve established that – and I ran a hand casually through my hair. Why? Because I’m worth it? No, because I liked the way Rob’s eyes followed the languid movement with something like hunger.
Gotcha. My heart gave a hop, skip and jump and leapt the full nine feet. Wasn’t this gorgeous hunk of a man just the right rebound medicine for my battered heart and self-esteem?
“I think I could be persuaded,” I said. “Just for a small nightcap. Though tequila isn’t my drink of choice.”
His face fell. “It’s all I’ve got. Ben’s brothers took the sambuca.”
I gave a tiny shudder. That would have been even worse. I could remember a night when my lips touched way too many of those warm coffee beans, and swallowed way too much of the viscous, aniseed liqueur – well, actually, I couldn’t remember that night and that was the problem. And the reason I had a rather colourful hospital record.
I found myself leaning forward, too, our breath almost mingling over the arms of our chairs. “Yes, Rob?”
“You’re…” He peered at me as if I were a dot on the Welsh horizon five miles away, and could have been sheep or man. “You’re not the kind of bloke I usually fancy.”
Figures. “You go for the beefy teammate? With thighs of steel, shoulders of an ox, and those ridiculous towelling head bands that keep their ears pinned to their head?”
He wasn’t remotely insulted by my ignorant tease. “But I’d really like a drink with you,” he continued. “So that’s why I’m asking. The only pain in rugby is regret, you know.”
I blinked twice. Was that something from a song? One of those filthy things they sang together on the showers? The thought of Rob soaping the mud from his biceps made my vision blur. “Let’s go,” I said.
His room was only a few floors up, but it still seemed to take us a really long time to get there. Maybe because he initially tried to open the soft drink machine with his pass card, and then misread the number on every single door along the corridor, until I took control of navigation.
Once inside, we sat on the bed and toasted the wedding, the sport of kings, the merits of cross-dressing (did Rob blush just a little too heavily at that?), a farewell to bastard ex-boyfriends, the good, the bad and the ugly of life itself. We had far more in common than I’d first thought! The tequila was warm and smooth, and not remotely like sambuca. Maybe because we were already half-pissed. Maybe because we were drinking it out of tooth mugs. Maybe because when Rob leaned across the bed and filled up my mug for the who’s counting-est time, he planted his soft, sticky lips on mine and kissed me very soundly.
Well, one thing followed another. And then a couple more. You know how it goes, right? And if you don’t, I’m sure I’m devastated for you but I can’t waste time weeping when my life had taken such a glorious turn for the better. We stripped down to our underwear, cast off our socks, and rolled about in a mini scrum of our own. Rob was big, warm and strong just about everywhere. It took my breath away. But he was also surprisingly tender with me. I mean, he didn’t crush me when we rolled over, kissing, but we still shared a very satisfying series of tackles. I seemed to be absorbing the lingo of his sport rather well. And they do say, never too pretty to play rugby. I opened my mouth to share this epiphany with my new, enthusiastic beau …
And then I heard the rattle of the door knob. What class of hotel had the cleaners coming around at that time of night?
“Rob?” We were both under the sheets by now, my voice muffled against Rob’s bare shoulder. “Did you forget to tell me this is a room share?”
“Huh?” His voice was equally muffled, but I wasn’t about to pull his face away from its warm, whimpering investigation of my best briefs – and what was inside. “No way.”
“Have you ordered room service?”
The door catch clicked. The door started to open with a soft hiss on the carpet.
What the hell were we meant to do? Rob made a strange gargled sound in the back of his throat and tried to slide further down the bed under the sheet. Unfortunately that dragged it away from me, exposing me in all my half-naked glory, or should I say sweaty tangle of glory. I oiked the sheet back, but then Rob’s calves and feet popped into view at the bottom of the bed. He snatched at it again: I hung on for grim life like some virginal beauty surprised in her bedchamber. There was a loud tearing sound. We both froze and stared at each other, shocked.
The visitor gave a long – and what sounded like long-suffering – sigh.
Rob swivelled his head around to stare at the open door. “Darren,” he said, his voice strangely meek for such a strapping lad. “I’d like you to meet…”
Part 4 – J L Merrow www.jlmerrow.com
“... the Reverend Josiah Netherbottom.”
I goggled at the bulky, dog-collared shape whose shoulders filled the doorway. The sheet wasn’t the only thing that was ripped around here. I’d always thought of vicars as being a bit weedy, the sort of bookish types whose only form of exercise was turning the other cheek, and if they did too much of that they’d have to go and have a cup of milky tea and a lie down. But bloody hell, this bloke was the Rottweiler of Reverends. Any lost sheep from this man’s flock probably got served up with mint sauce for next Sunday lunch. And here I was, leading one of them astray. Shit, was he about to get out the carving knives?
I opened my mouth to say something suave, confident and assertive, that would show my complete mastery of the situation. What came out was, “Netherbottom?”
“Fine old Yorkshire name,” snapped out in an accent so thick it probably owned its own flat cap and walked its whippet down to the Snug at the Rover’s for a pint of Theakston’s Old Peculiar every Saturday. The vicar’s bushy black brows lowered at me, fluttering a bit at the edges like the devil’s own homing pigeons as he stepped into the room and closed the door behind him with the finality of a shut coffin lid. “You got a problem with my name, lad?”
I cowered under my entirely too flimsy half-a-sheet as fists the size of York Minster clenched by his sides. The only plus point was that if he was planning to rip my balls off for my sins, he’d have a bugger of a job finding them. They’d just shrivelled to the approximate dimensions of sambuca coffee beans.
I hoped they weren’t about to get toasted. “No, no,” I stammered, my sheet all a-tremble. “Absolutely not.”
The Rev rolled his eyes. “Bloody ’ell, Rob, where’d you pick up this soft Southern nance?”
I frowned. That didn’t sound entirely complimentary.
Rob was blushing redder than Man U’s home kit. “Sorry, Josiah. I met him on the street and we just got talking.”
“Aye, and then you got doing summat else, didn’t you?” Josiah stared at our mostly-naked forms with a curiously enthusiastic glint in his eye. I hoped he wasn’t about to bring out his Bible and give us a lecture on Leviticus.
“Er, yeah. Pretty much.” Rob gave him an apologetic—and entirely too appreciative—smile. “So, um, what brings you here?”
I’d been wondering that myself.
The Rev snorted, sounding like a champion bull about to gore the opposition with its mighty horns. “You left t’pub before they were halfway through the second chorus of Father Abraham. Ben and Cheryl were that mithered about you. Thought you’d wandered off to get yourself a kicking in t’ ginnel. ”
I winced. I wasn’t sure exactly where on the body the ginnel was, but it sounded painful. The warm glow from the tequila had been replaced by the chill winds of Ilkley Moor. And right now, I was as baht’at as they came.
What was worse, I might be about to be baht bollocks.
“And here I find you,” the Rev went on, “nancying about with some pretty-boy Southern Jessie.” Beefy hands met sturdy hips, incidentally drawing attention to a package that was, well, very much in proportion to the rest of him. Vague memories of my old Sunday School classes sprang to mind, something about Aaron’s rod having magical powers over serpents. I reckoned Josiah’s rod could beat it, hands down.
“Have you no shame, lad?” Josiah continued.
“Well, a bit,” Rob admitted. “But I’ve found if I drink enough alcohol it usually goes away.”
Josiah nodded sternly. “As the Good Book says,” he began, his face solemn. I braced for the Bible bashing—then suddenly, he grinned. It had a worryingly lecherous look to it. “You should take a little wine. For your health’s sake, of course.”
“We’re all out of wine,” Rob told him, fluttering his eyelashes. Which really shouldn’t have looked quite so seductive on a strapping great rugby player. Unfortunately, it wasn’t directed at me. “But I think there’s a bit of tequila left.”
Bitterly, I wondered how much alcohol it would take to make the vicar go away. Judging from the way his reverend eyes were widening as they roamed over all the naked male flesh on display, I’d probably have to bash him over the head with the bottle. His eyes weren’t the only things that were getting bigger, either. I’d been right about the Rev having a mighty horn.
And I had a nasty suspicion Rob was only too willing to be gored. “Doesn’t it also say something about Sodom and Gomorrah?” I babbled, as the Rev started taking off his coat.
“Aye, lad, that it does. And what it says—to the true scholar, any road—is that the people of Sodom were condemned for their lack of hospitality. So, Rob, are you and Gary going to show me a bit of hospitality?” He licked his lips and advanced upon us.
Rob’s eyes lit up. “It’s Darrell,” he said, not looking at me.
“It’s Darren, actually.” I gathered the shreds of my dignity—and Rob’s sheet. “And I’m not really into threesomes.” Particularly when I had a strong feeling I was the one making the crowd. I clambered out of bed, swaying slightly.
Josiah, not looking quite so reverend now with his dog-collar unbuttoned and his trousers at half mast, stared at me in amazement. “Not into threesomes? A lusty young man like you? Well, go to the foot of our stairs!”
I frowned, and hissed at Rob, “Is he trying to put me on the naughty step? Or, you know, the not-naughty-enough step?”
Rob didn’t answer. He seemed mesmerised by the sight of Josiah’s Rod poking through the opening in his y-fronts.
The Rev leered at me. “Don’t ’old with that new-fangled rubbish—spare the strap and spoil the child is what I always say—but if it’s a spanking you’re after, you’ve come to the right place.” He rubbed his massive, bony hands together.
A spanking? It’d be like being walloped by a glove full of nails. I’d never sit down again even if I didn’t allow the Rev’s rod to ransack my holy of holies. I legged it to the door, grabbing articles of clothing from the floor en route.
“Don’t go,” Rob pleaded insincerely. Too late. My feet half in my shoes and my legs not remotely in my trousers—which, I noticed vaguely, weren’t even mine; I’d picked up Rob’s by mistake—I closed the door behind me and leaned against it, breathing heavily, my eyes tight shut in despair.
I’d really thought Rob and me had had a connection. Was I ever going to find true love again?
I opened my eyes—and found myself looking at the last person I’d expected to see here.
Part 5 – Elin Gregory www.elingregory.com
"Well, don't you look like the good time that was had by all?" With one fist planted on a glossy PVC clad hip, my nicotine-enabler from earlier in the evening swung her handbag. "I thought you said you were going to the Grand?"
"I – er - I sort of did, but there was this bloke, see."
"Darling, there always is." Her smile was bright even if her mascara had run a little. "Well, I NEED to get these shoes off so unless you need more directions… What's your room number?"
I pawed at the pockets of my trousers for my key card, stared at an unfamiliar smart phone and swore. "This isn't mine. I must've left … Oh God, I don't want to go back in there."
Her chuckle cut off abruptly and she scowled. "Why not? Sweetheart, what happened? Tell Anna."
"Anna Phlactic. Shocking, isn't it? Now, give."
It was mortifying but I managed to choke out the story – wrong hotel, beery-guy, Rob, tequila, then the odious Reverend. "I know I'm drunk," I said, "and I can't honestly say that I've been that selective this evening, but I do have standards and the Reverend Josiah Netherbottom is off the bottom of even my scale. He's fucking scary."
"Scarier than me?" Anna said, red lips pursed. "I don't think so," and she hammered on the door with a scarlet clawed fist.
"Hah! Changed your mind – Well, hellohhhhhh! Another one for the party. Look what Gary brought us, Rob." The Reverend, whose Netherbottom was now fully displayed, grinned, his eyes lighting up like the fires of hell as he took in my companion's finery. Those bony hands lifted to grab then stilled abruptly as Anna's arm jerked forward. Her tricep bulged and Netherbottom made a glurk sound.
"We're just going to stand like this a moment while Darren gets his trousers and stuff," Anna said. "Darren, get weaving."
I darted for the scatter of clothing, ignoring Rob, who was staring at Anna with a horrified expression that made me glad I couldn't see what she was doing. I threw his trousers at him, grabbed mine, and checked for wallet, phone and key card. All the while the Reverend was making a breathy sound part way between a whine and a moan.
"Ready?" Anna said. With an expression of utter disdain she wiped her hand on the Reverend's chest and followed me to the door, closing it with a quiet click. "Eww," she said holding her hand out from her side. "Now I really need a shower."
"You're wonderful." I meant it too. All that pizzazz and in your face courage. Not to mention, from the noises Josiah had made, a vice like grip.
"I bet you say that to all the drag queens," she said, but she looked pleased. "Look, my room is a few doors down. Come inside and get dressed properly."
I followed her, head swimming and feeling a bit sick, into a room that looked as though Milan Fashion Week had exploded in it.
"Excuse the mess. Hotel wardrobes are never big enough. Here." Anna pushed a bottle of water into my hand. "You drink that. I'm going to take my slap off and have a shower while you make up your mind what you're going to do. And, since I reckon you owe me, while I'm in the shower you can make me a nice cup of tea. Milk, no sugar, all right? Make one for yourself, too, if you like." Anna smiled. "But if you decide you need to leave before I come out, just put my tea on the bedside table, okay? Cheer up, sweetheart. You're safe now."
"Tea sounds good," I said, eyeing Anna's broad shoulders and neat arse as she sashayed into the bathroom.
I drank some water, clinked the tea cups, boiled the kettle, checked my phone for texts [nothing from Nigel but I could get laser eye surgery for a very decent price] and tried to ignore the running water, the sounds of movement beyond the bathroom door.
I should go back to my room. I should get a good night's sleep and try to put this evening behind me. I shouldn't tempt fate by staying here. The way my luck was running Anna would burst out of the bathroom naked with a chainsaw. But I couldn’t help feeling that she was the only person for months – years – that had been there for me when I'd needed help. Even Nigel – Anton—was in Manchester because he had fancied the trip, rather than because he'd wanted to cheer me up. I didn't want to leave. It was nice to be looked after, nice to look after someone else. I missed that. On the other hand there was the possibility that I was on the rebound from Rob. Oh dear God, I was a mess. But the water had settled my stomach and my head had stopped swimming. Time to make up my mind.
What did I really want?
The bathroom door opened emitting a gust of lemon and Anna. No, not Anna. An unremarkable-looking, medium sized bloke, clean and damp from the top of his closely cut brown hair to his bare feet.
"Still here, then," he said, hitching his towel more tightly around his hips. "Aww tea! You're a star." He made a beeline for the cup and picked it up then smiled at me through the steam. His eyes crinkled at the corners, his lips parted in a multi-megawatt grin that made Anna's look dim in comparison and made the adjective 'unremarkable' completely inaccurate.
"So have you decided what you're going to do yet?"
Part 6 – Liam Livings
I sipped my tea and pondered. ‘Fancy going out again, hitting the bars together. Few more ciggies, few more drinks, how does that sound?’
He rubbed his calves and then reached into a toiletries bag which made my weekend packing look like a set of Barbie’s luggage. He started rubbing lavender and mint cream into his feet. ‘Wrong answer, sweetheart. I’m not standing until tomorrow morning at least. I’m saying on this bed, feet up, and putting a face mask on. Gotta unblock my pores see, all that slap gives me spots. Come on, what do you really want to do?’
‘Did you win?’
‘What’s that, darling?’ He looked at his shaved smooth chest and picked off a few bits of towel.
‘The best cross dresser in Manchester. How did you get on?’
His megawatt grin returned for an encore. ‘Came second. Knew I wouldn’t win. I used to live with one of the judges, until he found out I was sleeping with the guy who set up the whole competition. That was a cat fight I can assure you. I never could wear that wig afterwards, ruined it was. No, I knew second was the best I could expect, he still holds a grudge. Bitter old queen. Still, there’s always next year.’
‘Yeah, suppose there is.’ I thought back to the original reason for this weekend, to forget the ex. ‘Are you still with the guy who set it all up?’
He held his hand for me to shake. ‘Ian. So, what’s next for you?’ The back of his hands were completely hairless.
I shook Ian’s hand and continued to think about the answer to his question. ‘Suppose I ought to give Anton a call, let him know I’m not arse end up in a gutter somewhere. Not that he’s been in touch. Not that he’s given a second thought to me. Not that anyone really cares.’ I began to wonder down a little cul de sac of melancholy all on my own.
‘You sure?’ Ian shook me.
‘My phone’s not rung. Not since we got here.’ I pulled my phone from my pocket, noticing it was on silent. Looking at the screen I’d had thirty four missed calls and twelve voicemail messages. All from Anton. ‘Oh. I suppose with all the tequila, vodka, rugby players, vicars and sex, I didn’t notice it ringing.’
‘Hmmm, and having it on silent won’t have helped either.’ Ian leant across to the toiletries bag and started slathering on a grey mud mixture on his face. ‘Want some?’
I nodded and turned my phone off silent.
‘Go and wash your face, there’s some oatmeal scrub in the bathroom. Pat your face, don’t rub it, then meet me back here on the bed.’ He patted the bed next to where he was sitting.
I followed his instructions, knowing that was the right answer to his question. Knowing that really what I needed to have done this weekend was to think about why the ex was so bloody useless, and why I’d let him be, and that no matter how much alcohol, or sex I had, unless I worked that out, it would all be for nothing, because I knew I’d go and walk into another relationship and repeat it all again.
So, after my shower, we sat on his double bed, our faces stiff with face mask, and cucumber slices on our eyes – another thing from his never-ending toiletries bag – and we talked and talked and talked, until the sun came up and the birds started tweeting.
I told him I thought I’d made a mistake splitting up with my ex, that I wasn’t sure I could carry on without him. ‘I don’t think I can go on. I feel like part of me is coming unstuck, like your tits with the tit tape.’ I squeezed his wobbly fake breasts as they rested in the bra on the bed.
‘He isn’t you, you aren’t him, you’ll carry on without him. Trust me.’ Ian took his fake breasts and bra from me. ‘Don’t touch what you can’t afford. They cost me a fortune, and I’m not having you bugger them up cos you’re feeling a bit wobbly.’
‘Don’t mention it, just don’t do it again. Go on - you’re coming unstuck are you?’
I nodded. ‘So much for this gonna wash that man right out of my hair weekend of Anton’s, all I’ve done is talk about that man, who’s still in my hair. I must have really bored you with him.’
‘Tell me about this, Anton.’ Ian picked up a face mirror from the bed and started searching for spots.
So I told him how Anton had told me to grow a backbone, how all along he’d told me the warning signs of serious emotional fuckwittage from my ex, but I’d ignored him. How Anton had paid for the whole weekend, which when I thought about it, was why we’d ended up in Manchester. I hadn’t been bothered, it was just about getting away for me. ‘Ages ago, when I told Anton my ex had engineered a threesome so I hadn’t any choice but to join in, he’d raised one eyebrow – which is a feat for him – and told me there was always a choice, there’s always a door you can walk out of.’
Ian listened, as I spilled my guts to an almost complete stranger. ‘No spots, not bad.’ He gave me the mirror. ‘Sometimes you think you’ve got to have a boyfriend because that’s the person who will stand by you, whatever you go through. Only some boyfriends are just not those people, they don’t want to be, even if they could. Sometimes that person who sticks with you through bad hair cuts, surgery, illness, everything, might just be your best friend.’ He paused to look at me. ‘You going to use the mirror or what?’
I handed him the mirror. I felt as if I should have taken notes, written something down. At that moment, it felt like he’d just told me the secret to live, the universe and everything. Except it was pretty simple, when I reflected on what he’d said, it was just that I’d never really thought of it like that before.
‘You alright, Darren?’ He touched my arm.
I came back to the here and now and nodded.
‘You will carry on, people always do. That’s the thing about humans, we’re pretty tough when it comes down to it. I’ve gone through enough shit you could teach a three year degree in psychodynamic counselling about it, and I’m still here, still standing. Because that’s what we do, we carry on.’
Amid endless cups of tea and a supply of beauty products most health spas would have given their eye teeth for, Ian told me that one of the reasons the best cross dresser in Manchester competition continued, was in memory of the organiser, Terry, who had passed away. ‘We never really were together, me and Terry. Once it wasn’t an affair, it just sort of fizzled out. We used to do everything together, me and Tel. I always thought he was the sensible one, that it was me who was spreading it about all the time. This new boyfriend of Terry’s, turns out he was spreading it about, even more than I ever was, and taking even less care of himself.’ He paused and slathered some eye cream around both eyes, dabbing them with a tissue afterwards. ‘And poor, happy Terry was none the wiser. He smiled, even when he told me, sat in the hospital bed in that special ward, with the cleaners on strike because they didn’t want to bring it home with them. Tel just smiled and said to make sure I didn’t forget him. He said it would be worse for people he left behind. Worse than him, cos it’d be over for him, but not us, we’d have to carry on living, without him.’
‘And was it?’
‘Eye cream?’ He offered me about a hundred quid’s worth on his finger.
I waved it away.
‘Was it what, darling?’
‘Worse for you and his parents?’
‘What do you think? We didn’t die did we? He told his parents he moved to Spain. Terry couldn’t face them knowing why he got ill. That was a right laugh, keeping the funeral from them.’
‘Did you ever tell them what happened to him?’
‘Course I did. A few years ago. For years I got a mutual friend to post Tel’s parents a postcard, from Tel, every time he was in Spain. That’s true love that is. He made me swear on my life I wouldn’t tell them he wasn’t in Spain. I promised him I wouldn’t forget him, and that’s why we carried on doing the competition every year since he died. Doesn’t stop me missing him every year though.’
And that was the last thing I remember Ian saying to me until I fell asleep as the light broke through the slatted blinds in the hotel, warming my face as I lay on the bed, leaning against Ian’s shoulder.
My phone rang. I woke with a jump. It was Anton, asking me where I’d been and why hadn’t I called him back, and what had I been up to, ‘You’re not going to believe the night I’ve had.’ I could hear the mischievous tone in his voice. ‘Now that I know you’re OK, I want to tell you it all, blow by blow. If that doesn’t help you forget your ex, nothing will. Which room are you in again?’
I looked to my side at Ian still snoring, and smelt the mix of lavender, mint, and expensive forty quid a squirt hand cream which filled the air. ‘I’ll meet you in your room. You’re not going to believe what happened after you deserted me in that bar.’
‘Fuck off, I did not desert you. You told me to go, said you fancied your chances with the men of Manchester.’
I kissed Ian on his forehead, left a thank you note where I had been laying and walked to Anton’s room, yawning slightly. I knew I’d tell Anton everything, just as it had happened. And I also knew he wasn’t going to believe a fucking word of it.