My heart is beating so fast it’s going to trip over itself and stop. Everything is hot and dark. I’ve been buried alive. I’m already dead.
I have just enough grip on reality to discard these notions, but it doesn’t quell my horror. My mouth is dry, strange and sour, my tongue thick as carpet. Alcohol-heavy breath drags itself out of my throat, the scent of it churning my stomach. I’m pickled in sweat. And there’s an arm across my chest, a leg across my legs. I am manacled in flesh.
god, god, fuck, god, fuck
My body is far too loud. Blood roaring, heart thundering, breath screaming, stomach raging, head pounding.
I’m going to have a full-blown panic attack.
The first in a long time. Not much consolation.
Where am I? What have I . . .
out, fuck, have to get out
I twist away from the arm and the leg, rolling off a bare mattress onto the bare floorboards. Maybe my first instinct was right. I am dead and this is hell. The darkness scrapes against my eyes. Where are the rest of my clothes?
And breathe, I need to breathe more. Or breathe less. Stop the light show in my head. My vision sheets red and black, like a roulette wheel spinning too fast, never stopping.
god, fuck, clothes
Scattered somewhere in the void. Trousers, shirt, waistcoat, jacket, a single sock. My fingers close over my phone. A cool, calming talisman.
Half-dressed, everything else bundled in my arms, I ease open the door, dark spilling into dark and, like Orpheus, I’m looking back. The shadows move across his face, but he doesn’t stir. He sleeps the perfect, heedless sleep of children, drunkards, and fools.
My footsteps creak along a narrow hallway of peeling paintwork and I let myself out onto a wholly unfamiliar street.
Breathe, just keep breathing. Keep breathing, and get away.
I stumbled down the pavement, the awfulness of this—this and everything—hanging off my shoulders like a rucksack full of rocks.
Still no idea where I was. Suburbia spiralling away in all directions. And, at the horizon, a haze of pale light where the distant sea met the distant sky. I fumbled for my phone. 3:41.
god, fuck, god
There was a single blip of battery left. I called Niall. He didn’t answer. So I called again. And this time he did. I didn’t wait for him to speak.
“I don’t know where I am.” My voice rang too high even in my own ears.
“Ash?” Niall sounded strange. “What do you mean? Where are you?”
“I just said. I don’t know. I . . . I’ve been stupid. I need to get home.”
My breathing was going wrong again.
“Can’t you call a cab?”
“Yes . . . no . . . I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know the number. What if it doesn’t come? I don’t know.” Anxieties were swimming around inside me like jellyfish, but I was usually better at not confessing them aloud.
It hadn’t occurred to me to get a taxi, but even the idea of it seemed overwhelming in its magnitude. A quagmire of potential disaster that was utterly terrifying.
“Can you come and get me?” I asked.
Later I would see how pathetic it was, my desperate pleading, the weasel thread of manipulative weakness running through my words. Later, I would remember that calling for a taxi was an everyday event, not an ordeal beyond reckoning. Later, yes, later I would drown in shame and hate myself.
A hollow sigh gusted over the line. “Oh God, Ash, can’t you—”
“No, no, I can’t. Please, I need to go home.”
“Okay, okay, I’m coming. Can you at least find a street sign? Give me some idea where you are?”
Phone clutched in my sweat-slick hand, I ran haphazard along the houses. The curtains were shut as tight as eyes.
“Marlborough Street,” I said. “Marlborough Street.”
“All right. I’ll be there. Just . . . I’ll be there.”
I sat down on a wall to wait, irrational panic eventually giving way to a dull pounding weariness. There was a packet of cigarettes in my jacket pocket. I wasn’t supposed to have cigarettes, but I was already so fucked that I lit one, grey smoke curling lazily into the grey night.
Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t forget to take your medication, don’t break your routine. Nobody had ever explicitly said, “Don’t have casual sex with strange men in unfamiliar cities,” but it was probably covered in the “Don’t have any fun ever” clause. The truth was, casual sex was about the only sex I could stand these days. On my own terms, when I could control everything. And myself.
But tonight I’d broken all the rules and I was going to pay the price. I could feel it, the slow beat of water against the crumbling cliffs of my sanity. I was going to crash. I was going to crash so hard and deep it would feel as though there was nothing inside me but despair. The cigarette, at least, might hold it off until I got home.
I lost track of time, my nerves deadened with nicotine and my skin shivering with cold. But, eventually, Niall pulled up, and leaned across the seats to thrust open the passenger door.
“Come on,” he said.
He was shirtless and tousled, a pattern of dark red bruise-kisses running from elbow to shoulder.
“I’m sorry.” I stamped out my cigarette (how many had I smoked?) and climbed in.
He didn’t reply, just shifted gears abruptly and drove off. I rested my head against the window, watching the streets of Brighton blurring at the corners of my eyes. The motorway, when we came to it, was nothing but a streak of moving darkness.
Niall’s fingers were tapping a tense rhythm against the steering wheel. He’d known me since university, back when I was different. We’d been friends, lovers, partners, and now this. Pilgrim and burden.
“I’m sorry,” I tried again.
Silence filled up the car, mingling with the darkness.
“You can’t keep doing this to me,” Niall said, finally. “You’re . . . it’s . . . ruining my life.”
“You seem to be doing a pretty good job of ruining your own.” I turned away from the window. Touched a piece of shadow on his upper arm that might have been a mark. “I suppose you were with Max.”
I’d never meant to hurt to Niall, but it had been inevitable that I would. In some ways, that only made it worse, as though I’d been careless with something precious. The truth was, sometimes I found it hard to even like him anymore. He’d seen me at my worst, but that only made me feel resentful and ashamed, as if the memories of a thousand mortifications were lurking behind his eyes like a swarm of silver fish.
“So what if I was?” he said.
“He’s going to be married.”
It had made a certain amount of sense that Niall and I would get together when they let me out of hospital after my first manic episode. He had made me feel something close to human again, and it had been easy enough for me to confuse gratitude with love. I didn’t know what Niall had been looking for. Absolution, perhaps. Of course, he was still in love with Max. He always had been. I was supposed to have been his consolation prize, but I turned out to be a poor bargain.
“He can still change his mind.” There was an ironic twist to Niall’s mouth as he spoke, but I could tell he half believed it was a possibility.
“He’s not going to change his mind. He wants to be with Amy.”
“Filthy bisexuals,” he muttered. Like all our jokes, it was an old one, and it had stopped being funny a long time ago.
I tried to smile, but it felt like too much effort and my mouth refused to cooperate. Niall and Max had slept with each other intermittently at university as part of a general culture of everyone sleeping with everyone, but Max’s liberality with his cock protected a heart that loved only cautiously.
“You need to stop waiting for him,” I said.
There didn’t seem much else I could say to that.
“If you love someone, then you fight for them.” Niall’s eyes were locked on the road.
“Or you let them go before you fuck up their life.”
Niall laughed, sharp as knives. “That’s fucking hilarious coming from you.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, searching for the peace of a private darkness.
“You can’t get through a night out without phoning me,” he said.
I couldn’t do this now, but a sour sense of injustice filled the back of my throat like vomit. “I didn’t want to come.”
“Can’t you think about somebody else for half a fucking second? Max wanted you here.”
“Ah, yes, Max. Always back to Max.” I had no idea why I said that.
The needle on the speedometer was trembling. Eighty. Ninety. I didn’t think Niall had even noticed. The engine thrummed heavy through the fresh silence.
“So when you went completely batshit,” Niall said, conversationally. “And I visited you in the fucking loony bin nearly every day. That was about Max, was it? And when I found you in the hallway unconscious and covered in blood. That was about Max? And all the times you’ve been too depressed to eat or leave the fucking house and I’ve come to take care of you. That was about Max? Every time I’ve stopped you hurting yourself. Max. Making sure you didn’t get institutionalised again. Max. Picking up your medication for you when you can’t. Max. Getting you to counselling. Max.”
“God,” I said, petulant as a child, “if I’m such a horrendous waste of your time, why do you bother?”
Once upon a time he might have said: Because I love you.
Once upon a time he might have said: Because I care about you.
“Because I feel guilty all the fucking time,” he snapped. “And because the last time I didn’t bother, you tried to kill yourself.”
The words echoed through my head. I tugged at my cuffs, pulling them down until they hung over the heels of my hand. One of the unadvertised advantages of bespoke tailoring. All my shirts were cut this way.
“That had nothing to do with you,” I said quietly.
He didn’t answer.
And now there really was nothing left to say.
The night ebbed slowly away, fading into a silver-grey London dawn. The rising sun gleamed dully from behind a sheet of heavy cloud, casting vague-shaped shadows across the sky like images from a magic lantern.
Niall dropped me off outside my flat and drove away like a man determined not to look back. I let myself inside and climbed the stairs. I’d always found something comforting in repetitive physical action. It provided an anchor point when all other certainties were uncertain. I felt sodden with exhaustion, weighed down by my own flesh and at the same time insubstantial, as though my fingers would unravel into mist if I stopped concentrating on being alive.
I carefully fit my key to the lock, turned it, heard it click. Pushed open the door. Stepped inside. Let the door swing closed behind me. The familiarity of walls.
Normal people didn’t sit in their hallways. But I couldn’t find the energy to go further. I lay down on the floor, stretched my fingers over the stripped wooden floorboards, rough and smooth, knots and whorls, the occasional deep gash like a scar. I was terrified of thinking. Terrified of memory. I wanted to cry, but I had long ago run out of tears.
In the past, we are drinking tea in my oak-panelled rooms, where the wisteria creeps beneath the arched windows, filling the air with scent.
In the past, Max and Niall are dancing at the centre of a sea of flesh beneath multicoloured lights.
In the past, I walk between green lawns, surrounded by golden stone.
In the past, I am brilliant and I am happy and my every tomorrow is madness.
In the past, words shimmer around me on silver threads and I pluck them like summer peaches.
In the past, the universe is a glitterball I hold in the palm of my hand. I am the axis of the world.
In the past, I am soaring, and falling, and breaking, and lost.
Then there are grey walls all around, a sullen haze of medication where minutes and months lose all their meaning.
Afterwards, I performed the halting ceremony of betterness in a crawl of grey days. Somehow, I started writing again, laying words out like cutlery. Niall moved in. And then out again.
And now there was this. And yesterday.
It was Max’s stag night, and I’d failed to get out of it. I’d had a lot of practice in letting my friends down, but unfortunately, Niall knew all my stratagems. My usual technique involved accepting invitations with a convincing display of pleasure and gratitude, then demonstrating my commitment to attend by buying tickets, confirming bookings, and pretending to read all the emails (I didn’t see this as a waste of time and money, so much as an investment in my future comfort), and finally pulling out—with great regret—at the very last minute. Everyone always understood. They had no other choice.
I left Niall a message about half an hour after I should have departed for Brighton, explaining that I didn’t feel up to going out tonight. It wasn’t even a lie. The only thing I’d misrepresented was the likelihood of me ever feeling up to going out.
But then Niall turned up at the flat, let himself in with the key I still hadn’t taken back, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He called it a last hurrah. For who, or what, I wasn’t sure. The people we used to be, perhaps.
And that was how, against my wishes and my better judgement, I ended up in Brighton. In a gay bar. At a stag party. Arranged for the groom by his best friend. Who was in love with him. And I thought I knew hell.
It was a Friday night, so the whole place was packed. Dancers had over-spilled the dance floor, their pressed-together bodies pulsating into all the empty spaces of the club, and the LEDs on the ceiling streamed overhead like a million multicoloured stars, falling and dying and shattering in fleeting, stained glass fragments on the bodies below. A twist of electric blue glinted on an upraised wrist. A smear of wild green across a throat. Cracks of pink and purple spilled with a glitter of perspiration down someone’s bare chest. Synaesthetic chiaroscuro. An impossible entangling of space and skin, light and shadow.
They were playing the sort of deep, delirious electro-house I hadn’t sought out in years. A thumping heartbeat of sex and sound, the drug to unite all drugs, the music of my mania. Even now, watching the grace of strangers from an endless distance, I felt a faint and faraway echo of something like pleasure, as though some long-lost, once-loved visitor was knocking on a door that no longer opened.
“Do I know you?” A voice from beside me broke through the music.
I didn’t even turn. “No, I don’t think so.”
We had the VIP area upstairs, away from the crush, and in easy reach of the cocktail bar. Niall had assembled us all here for drinks and drunken jokes, but by now, most of the party had dispersed into the crowd like waves lost in the sea. I was standing half in the shadows, my elbows folded on the railing, watching without interest what was happening below. I could just about make out Max and Niall dancing together and, in another corner, a couple of Max’s merchant banker friends enthusiastically getting off.
“Are you sure? You look familiar. How do you know Max?”
Hints, it seemed, were not going to be taken any time soon. I cast a quick, grudging glance at my relentless interlocutor. Brown hair, brown eyes, a whimsical bracket to his wide mouth. Good arms. My type, once upon a time. And now? Nothing.
“We were at university together,” I said.
“So was I!” He sounded genuinely thrilled about it. “Oh, I’m Hugh, by the way, Hugh Hastings.”
I performed a sort of half-arsed wave to discourage any handshaking and volunteered nothing further. Conversations are like fires; they tend to sputter out if you deprive them of air.
“Sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” he said.
“Wait,” he cried, “I do remember! I read your book. What was it called? The smoke and the something?”
He gazed at me expectantly.
“The Smoke Is Briars.”
“Yes! It was wonderful. I loved it. It was quite weird though, no offence. Is that what they call magic realism? Like that Spanish bloke.”
Columbian. “Yes,” I said. “Just like that.”
I felt unspeakably tired, but he was still talking, his interest flattening me like a cartoon steamroller.
“What else have you written? Won the Booker yet? Hah.”
“I don’t write anymore,” I lied.
“Oh, no, really? But you were so talented. You should take it up again.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why not? It’s not often that queer literature finds a mainstream audience. Your team needs you.”
“I have nothing to say.”
Hugh gave me the familiar blank, bewildered look that told me I’d finally succeeded in putting the conversation out of its misery.
“Want a drink?” he asked.
Alcohol played merry hell with my medication. “God, yes.”
He grinned. “Actually, I’ve got something even better, if you like?”
I raised my eyebrows. “I hope that’s not a pickup line.”
He blushed. He was my age at least but he seemed centuries younger. “Well, we can if you like. I mean, I’d be up for it. But it’s kind of one or the other.”
He opened his palm and I caught a flash of a familiar, chalky-white pill.
“I’ll take that,” I said.
Maybe he looked disappointed. I didn’t care.
“Catch you on the dance floor.” He slipped me the E and wandered off.
Drugs were even worse for me than alcohol but, in some ways, so much better. What I held between my fingers was a little piece of happiness. Artificial, yes. Fleeting, yes. But then I wasn’t sure if there was any other kind. And beggars can’t be choosers.
I was playing games with myself, putting up a show of resistance, as if I could take it or leave it. But the truth was, whatever the price, I would gladly pay it just to feel . . . better. Connected. Human. Alive. Anything at all.
A hand closed hard around my wrist.
“What the fuck are you doing?” roared Niall. “Are you fucking insane?”
He was probably hurting me, but I was too far from myself for it to breach the numbness of my skin. “Well, yes. I have a note from my doctor.”
“You can’t fucking take drugs. You know what’ll happen.”
I flicked the tablet from one hand to the other, snatching it from the air before Niall could intercept. His body was behind mine, so it felt almost like it did when he used to hold me, his arms tight around me as if an embrace could circumscribe a world, define a reality. I half turned my head so I could look up at him.
“It’s just this once.” My voice was a wavering chord of desperation. “It’ll be fine.”
“It’s not up to you.”
His hand caught my other wrist. “I’m not going to let you hurt yourself.”
“That’s not up to you either.”
But Niall pinned me and twisted my fingers open. For a moment, the little round tablet seemed to cling to my skin, as though it wanted me as much as I wanted it, and then it slipped and fell. It pinged off the railing and bounced away into the writhing crowd. Such a pathetic, bathetic tragedy, it should have been comical. Disappointment drowned me in a grey flood, bitter as ashes and sharp as briars.
Mission accomplished, Niall let me go so abruptly it felt as though he’d detached me from the entire world. I had a brief, intense sensation of falling and clutched for the sweaty brass of the railing.
“You’re such a prick,” I muttered, but it was the defiance of the defeated.
“So are you,” he said without any particular rancour.
For a moment or two, he stood next to me, resting against the railing. Broken rainbows skittered over the lightly curling hair of his forearms. His attention landed on Max, who was by the bar below us, laughing with one of his friends. His T-shirt clung to him, sweat defining the strong, beautiful planes of his back.
Amy made him happy. It was something Niall should have easily understood, but the heart rejects the lostness of things. And I was grieving, not for my friend, not for the past, but, selfishly, for a piece of fake white happiness. Well, I pick my battles. Once you’ve lost your mind, you’re on a non-stop superhighway to dispossession of the self: trust, pride, control, dignity, respect, the right to fuck yourself up when you damn well please.
“I’m going to get a drink,” I said.
“Are you going to stop me?”
Niall shook his head.
Ten minutes and half a cocktail later, I was wankered in a completely disorientating, pleasureless way. All the physical effects of being drunk hit me like a train, but it was accompanied only by the escalating sense of foreboding that tends to signal incoming depression. I overpaid for a bottle of water and went slowly back to my railing. The dancers below blurred with the lights, the music seemed only distant noise.
All the counselling in the world couldn’t teach me how to think rationally about my episodes, so I feared them. I feared them with a pure and primal instinct, like dreading the dark or flinching from fire. In all these years, this is all I have learned: Depression simply is. It has no beginning and no end, no boundaries and no world outside itself. It is the first, the last, the only, the alpha and the omega. Memories of better times die upon its desolate shores. Voices drown in its seas. The mind becomes its own prisoner.
I pulled out my phone and checked the time. It was close to midnight, an entirely reasonable hour to slip away and fall apart in the safety of my own home. I leaned over the railing, looking for Niall, only to be arrested by a dazzle of silver through the haze of colour-shifting shadows, bright like clean water. It took me a moment to realise it was the light catching on the epaulettes of a man dancing just below me.
Fuck knew what I was doing staring at someone who thought sparkly epaulettes were any sort of fashion statement but, God help me, I was. Maybe it was the way he was dancing, eyes half closed, a half-smile on his lips, as though he honestly couldn’t think of anything better to do in the world than wriggle his hips to music. To be fair, he wriggled them most effectively, showing off the lines of a spare and slender, lightly muscled body.
He was a ridiculous creature. A vulgar, glittering pirate of a man, all jewellery and fake tan, gold glinting in his ears, on his fingers and round his wrists. His dark hair gleamed with product and had been painstakingly teased into a quiff that defied taste, reason, and gravity. And I couldn’t stop looking at him. It was horrifying but the truth was there, undeniable, like some faint sonic echo deep within my skin, the thin batsqueak of sexuality. I wanted him.
What remained of me these days was a muted thing, a patchwork of broken pieces. My loved ones had all slipped away from me, disappearing into their future happiness, and still I felt nothing. Niall had not been, by any means, my only lover since the institution. But that my hollow flesh should answer the brazen alarum of a man who was practically orange and wearing beneath his jacket a shirt that read “Sexy and I know it,” could only have been the sick joke of a universe that despised me.
Suddenly he looked up at me and grinned. An absurd, wide, endless grin filled with artificially white teeth. And I forgot how to breathe. I expected him to go back to dancing, but instead he climbed onto one of the floor speakers beneath my balcony, pulling himself almost up to my eye level, like the world’s most ill-suited Romeo in pursuit of the world’s least convincing Juliet.
“I gotta say, babes,” he said in a nasal Essex whine, “you’re giving me sutcha bedroom look.”
I stared down into his face, so close to mine. Babes? And, dear God, that accent.
“Well,” I heard myself say, “play your cards right and I might consent to do more than look.”
“Omigod, you talk like the Queen.”
I blinked. “Pardon?”
“Are you in parliament?”
I had the feeling I’d lost control of the conversation. “What? No. I’m a writer.”
“Omigod, really?” He sounded both impressed and bewildered, as if I’d said I went fishing on the moon. “What do you write?”
I gave my standard answer. “Books.”
He threw back his head and laughed, as if I’d been genuinely funny. “You donut. What’s your name?”
“What, that’s your name?”
“Yes,” I said impatiently, “that’s my name.”
“That’s what people call you?”
“Like in bed, or whatever? They call you A.A. Winters?”
I met his eyes. “No, in bed they call me God.”
He laughed again, the same uninhibited cackle. “Like it,” he said, except he drew out the syllables until the two words were barely recognisable as themselves: lie-kit. “But, seriously, babes, what’s your name? My nan told me not to go wif a geeza what won’t tell you ’is name.”
“You’re going to . . . go with me?”
“I’m finking abaht it,” he said, a trifle coyly for a man negotiating a one-night stand.
“Well, all right. I suppose you can call me Ash.”
He told me his name but I didn’t bother to remember it.
“Come on then, Essex,” I said. “Get your coat. You’ve pulled.”
His grin flashed through the gloom. “I’m already wearing it.”
To my surprise, he reached up his hand, as though he expected me to jump the railing. “I’ll go round,” I said firmly.
“It’s ahwight, babes, I’ll catch you.”
“I’m not going to throw myself off a VIP balcony on the off chance a complete stranger won’t drop me.”
“We could’ve been ’ome, the amanta time you’ve spent talking abaht it.”
“Fine,” I snapped. “Fine.”
I leaned over the railing and took his hand. His nails were painted silver to match his epaulettes. This could only end badly. I scrambled gracelessly over the balcony and onto the speaker, which rocked under the impact of my landing and made me clutch at Essex like an utter fool. His laughter curled against my ear, the heat of his body enfolding me in an embrace. I shuddered. It was awful and lovely at the same time but before I could really begin to deal with the contradictions of my response, he had swung off the speaker and was pulling me down after him.
“There you go, babes. That was ahwight, wunit?”
I was beginning to think he had a vocabulary of about a hundred words, and fifty of them weren’t English. I must have been beyond hammered to be thinking about sleeping with him. Of course, it was possible he didn’t exist, but I doubted even the extremity of my psychosis could have conjured such a man.
He took my hand, actually took my hand, and led me outside.
I cast a glance over my shoulder, looking for Niall out of long habit. Putting aside the possibility Essex was a hallucination, there was always the serial killer option.
“I’m not really from arand ’ere,” he volunteered. No shit. Brighton was the gay capital of England. No one here was from around here. Besides, with the spray tan and the accent, he might as well have been wearing a sticker that read I’m from Essex, ask me how. “I’m staying wif a mate.”
He seemed to know where we were going, at least. We crossed the road and cut through a park, Brighton’s pale Georgian buildings gleaming on all sides.
“You don’t say a lot,” he observed.
“I have nothing to say.”
“Pity, you sahnd well nice.” Oh, that glottal stop. Pih-e.
“You said I sounded like the Queen ten minutes ago.”
“Yeah, but like,” a thoughtful pause, “sexy wif it.”
That should have been enough to quell any further exchanges but, somehow, he was still speaking.
“I love talking, me. I’ll talk to anyone. I’ll even talk to myself. Oh no, that makes me sound like a right mental.”
“It’s fine.” I chose not to share the fact I actually was a right mental.
“I just run on and on. It’s ’ard to get me to shuh up, to be ’onest wif you.”
“I’m sure I’ll think of something.”
He gave a melodramatic gasp. “Ah, you’re so rude, babes.”
It seemed, however, to have done the trick and, to my relief, we continued in silence. I didn’t want to have to think about what I was doing and I resented his clumsy attempts to have a conversation with me. We both knew how this worked. If I had to endure any more of his banal confidences, it would surely extinguish the faint flare of desire I (inexplicably) harboured for his body. It had been so long since I’d felt anything like it that I couldn’t bear the thought of losing it. Like a piece of broken glass worn smooth by the tide, it was a bright trinket washed up onto my monochrome shores.
We’d been walking less than ten minutes and I had no idea where we were. But we seemed to be in the middle of the shopping district, which slightly reassured me on the murderer front, unless he wanted to off me behind Superdrug. My phone bleeped. It was Niall, of course, wanting to know if I was all right. I closed down the message and silenced my phone.
“That your mates?” asked Essex.
“It’s not important.”
“You should tell ’em where you’re going. What if I’m like a axe murderer or summin?”
“Then,” I shrugged, “you’ll have axe murdered me before anybody has a chance to stop you.”
“Oh, yeah, didn’t fink of that.” He brightened. “But they’d be able to tell the police who done it.”
“I’ll take my chances.” That was the point at which I should have left it but, out of nowhere, some spirit of mischief (or masochism) seized me, and I added, “Besides, I could be the axe murderer.”
“Omigod, I didn’t fink of that eeva.”
He stopped walking, chewing his lower lip as though he were wrestling with an intense, private dilemma. Or maybe it was just the effort of cogitation, I couldn’t tell. Fuck, what had I done? He was going to change his mind, and where would that leave me? Alone, without even the smouldering ashes of this incomprehensible wanting.
“I’m not an axe murderer,” I said, urgently.
“That’s what you’d say if you was a axe murderer.”
“But . . . but I’m not.”
His raucous laugh exploded through the still night. “I didn’t really fink you was, babes. And, anyway, where’d you get the axe this time of night?”
That . . . that . . . wanker. What was he trying to do to me? I glared at him and that only made him laugh harder, his teeth flashing and his jewellery jingling.
“Your face!” he said happily.
He gave another one of his theatrical gasps, eyes flying wide in a flurry of artificially lengthened lashes. Then he nudged me in the arm, as though he were inviting me to share the terrific joke at my own expense. I pulled away impatiently. Whereupon the most oblivious man in Brighton hustled after me, leaned in, and—of all things—kissed me on the cheek. It was so utterly unexpected that I didn’t have time to avoid it, and then he sauntered off like nothing had happened. My skin burned with the memory of his lips, as though he had branded me with his smile.
We kept walking. Around us the city glittered in shades of orange and silver, like a paste jewel in a tinfoil crown. The sky was a bruised swirl of blue and indigo, the air sharp-edged with salt. We passed a Waterstones advertising my forthcoming book. My gaze recoiled and landed, instead, on the street sign above: Dyke Road.
“I know I shouldn’t,” said Essex, as though he’d read my mind, “but it always makes me laff.”
I didn’t dignify that with an answer.
He prodded me in the arm. “You didn’t say what books you wrote.”
He’d noticed? He’d remembered? Urgh.
“No, I didn’t.”
“What, is it like porn?”
“No,” I snapped, “it is not porn!”
Oh, God help me, he was laughing again.
“I write, sort of . . . crime,” I said, to shut him up.
“That’s well sahnd. Like that geeza . . . wassisname . . . Derren Brown. Ah, wait no, ’e’s on the telly. The uvver one. Dan Brown.”
The last forlorn relic of my pride shattered on a street in Brighton.
“Not like Dan Brown,” I said.
“I read one of ’is coming back from Ibiza.” Of course, he pronounced it Ibeefa. “I fought it was brilliant. To fink ’e made all that up in his ’ead.”
“That’s his job.”
“Yeah, ’e’s well good at it.” He paused and then offered, a little sheepishly, “I’m trying to get into modlin, me.”
I cast a sideways glance at his manicured beard, glossed lips, and painted eyes. “You do surprise me.”
“Really?” he said, startled. “Cos it’s the first fing people say to me: ‘You should be a model, mate.’ I reckon it’s important to look nice. There’s lots of fings you can’t change, but if you make an effort wif ’ow you look, then you’ll do ahwight, janarwhatamean?”
I did not, in fact, know what he meant, but I made a noncommittal noise in the hope it would discourage further insights into the human condition.
“Some people fink it’s a bit shallow, but what I fink is that if you really like fink ’ard abaht it, then y’know . . . that’s ahwight.”
“Please stop talking.”
“Sorry, babes, I do run on.” Five seconds later: “D’you wanna see my catwalk walk?”
“Will you be quiet while you do it?”
He sashayed off, starlight catching at his epaulettes. My gaze slid down his spine in a caress as fervent as a sigh.
“Well, whadyafink?” He stopped a few feet away and spun round to face me.
My eyes—which had been riveted to his hips—flicked reluctantly back up. He smiled, a touch shyly, one side of his mouth quirking up a split second before the other.
“I’m honestly no judge, but I could watch you walk up and down all day.”
“Awww, babes, that’s proper sweet.”
I stared at the ground, flustered.
“As a special reward, I’ll show you my pose.”
I looked up in time to see him draping himself over one of the industrial wheelie bins standing nearby. He arched his back, sending a ripple of motion through his body like energy down a Slinky. His jacket slipped from one shoulder to reveal the bare skin and sleek muscles of his upper arm.
My stomach twisted with pure and painful longing.
“You look very . . . very . . .” My lips were dry. “Sinuous.”
“Well.” God, I could barely speak. I swallowed lust. “It has the word sin in it.”
He wriggled his hips. “And you, babes.”
“And us for that matter.”
He grinned. “I can totally tell you’re a writer.”
I couldn’t have said what fresh madness possessed me at that moment, but I pulled my phone out of my pocket and aimed the camera at him. He came to life beneath its harsh, silver-flashing eye, his body twisting to the music of the shutter. He was shameless in his skin. Ridiculous. And beautiful. I watched the light as it slid down his bared throat.
My hands were shaking so hard I had to stop.
“Let’s ’ave a look,” he said.
He ambled back to me and peered over my shoulder. He smelled sticky-sweet: cosmetics, cologne, and the faintest suggestion of sweat.
“They’re ahwight. Send ’em to me.”
I didn’t think it was worth reminding him I didn’t actually know where to send them.
“The wheelie bin,” I said, “is a particularly classy touch.”
“I fought it was ahwight actually. Sorta urban. Not like black urban. Just urban urban.”
“I think you mean grunge.”
“Oh, you’re so clever, babes.”
“Can we just go somewhere now and fuck? Without talking.”
“Calm dahn.” He grinned at me. “It’s just rand the corner.”
We went round the corner onto a residential street that rose steeply along one of Brighton’s sudden, illogical hills. It was lined by prissy white-fronted cottages, the sort of self-consciously quaint dwellings that came with window boxes, balconettes, and jauntily painted shutters. It was not an auspicious location for a filthy, anonymous, homosexual liaison, and I entertained the horrifying thought that he might be taking me home to meet his nan before I remembered he was staying with friends. At last, we came to a huddled-over house with a wonky To Let sign and pile of bulging bin liners sitting outside it. Chez Essex.
“Ah, where’s my key?” he said, trying unsuccessfully to insinuate a finger into the pocket of his skinny jeans.
Oh, for God’s sake. Surely not.
He caught sight of the look on my face and started howling with laughter, staggering about on the pavement, almost doubled over with hilarity. Instead of putting all his clearly abundant energy into finding his fucking door key.
“It’s ahwight, babes, it’s ahwight,” he said, gasping for breath and hooking the key from a string around his neck. “Fahnd it.”
He battled with the door for a moment or two, finally bashing it open with his shoulder. I followed him into a narrow hallway, washed briefly and unprepossessingly orange from the street outside. A click signalled his attempt to turn on a light.
“D’you want summin?” he said. “Like a tea or some water or summin?”
“No, thank you.”
He opened one of the doors leading from the entrance hall and flicked on the light inside. A bare bulb hung from a pockmarked ceiling, illuminating knobbly, mismatched furniture and a bare mattress pushed against the peeling wall. There was an open, mostly empty suitcase on the floor, but its contents had been arranged with surprising care about the room. Lined up on the desk was an extensive arrangement of male grooming products. And hanging in plastic covers on a metal rail was a collection of clothing, amongst which sparkly epaulettes represented the epitome of restrained elegance.
I turned the light off.
He turned it back on.
And I turned it off again. My body had too many secrets for me to share them with strangers. And there were too many questions I didn’t like having to answer.
“Ahwight, babes,” he said gently, for once getting a fucking clue.
The darkness came between us, sealing me safe inside my skin with the too-rapid rhythm of my heart. The thin curtains admitted only a faint glow from the street outside, enough to see the shape but not the certainty of things. Essex was just a shadow in the room, the shadow of a thing I wanted, which was itself a shadow of wanting. But it was unspeakably sweet to feel even that, and terrifying to know how quickly it would pass. A moment inscribed on water, a memory that would fade to grey. I was nothing but a ghost hunter, chasing the wraith of the man I used to be. A beachcomber of my own detritus.
I closed my eyes, adding dark to dark, and the wanting unfurled like the sails of a phantom ship. This could be my universe. This nowhere world, circumscribed by skin and breath, where nothing mattered but two bodies moving together. The past and the future rendered irrelevant by the beauty of the now, the sum of the self transmuted into a moment. Oh, was there ever a more seductive definition of madness? Behind my eyelids, I saw him dancing in spirals of coloured light, emerald, blue, and brilliant purple, enfolding him like the wings of an electric angel.
His hand brushed against my cheek. When had he moved close enough to touch me? I caught his wrist and pulled his hand roughly up so I could kiss his fingertips. I half imagined I could taste the silver on his nails, as sharp as glitter in my mouth. Maybe when he touched me, colour would spill from his hands like heat. I ran my tongue between his fingers and over the creases of his palm, drinking the pure, clean nothing of his skin. I came to his wrist, pushing against the sleeve of his jacket, my lips catching on the delicate, jutting bones beneath the base of his thumb. Against my opening mouth, his pulse thudded like a bass line. Heat swirled through me and I leaned against the wall, clutching his hand and dizzy.
I felt him move and turned my head to deflect his kiss so that it landed on the side of my jaw instead of my mouth. It shimmered there briefly like some iridescent, impossible butterfly. I dragged his hand to my hardening cock.
“I ’aven’t even got my coat off,” he said, but he still rubbed me through my trousers, clumsy friction that sent shivers of frantic pleasure racing through my body. I made a strange, desperate sound, my nails sinking into his wrist.
“Just . . . touch me.” It came out somewhere between directive and supplication. But what did it matter? What did any of it matter? I’d never see him again. Nobody would ever know. All sense, all judgement, overthrown by an h-dropping, glottal-stopping glitter pirate, and I didn’t have to care. And he could think whatever he wanted, as long as he kept his hand moving against my cock.
Suddenly, he caught my chin and turned me to face him.
“S’ahwight to kiss me,” he said. “I ’aven’t got nuffin wrong wif me.” I didn’t need to see him to hear the smile in his voice, rich as honey.
I had just enough time for a sound of protest before he kissed me. Oh God. It was beautiful, the softness of his beard and the rasp of the stubble that had gathered beneath his jaw. My mouth opened under his, inviting the flood of heat that followed, the sweet-slick entanglement of tongues and breath. I reached up to pull him closer, my hands sinking into his hair. Which was rather akin to sticking them into a swamp, he had so much product in it. My eyes snapped open at the damp crackle of gel beneath my fingers, my startled cry half smothered by the kiss.
“Careful wif that, babes.”
The dim light gleamed on his cheekbones. Up close like this, it was distractingly easy to lose myself in the mysteries of his face. I shut my eyes and tried to find something to do with my sticky hands. But then he was kissing me again, driving me back against the wall. His arm was still pressed awkwardly between our bodies, my cock bumping arhythmically against his palm and against the wrist whose pristine, tender skin I had tasted.
I could feel his heart beating over mine, just as quick and hard.
“Your hands,” I muttered into his mouth. “Touch me with your hands.”
He made a soft sound I couldn’t interpret and couldn’t be bothered to think about, and his fingers fumbled at my trousers. I bit at his mouth in heedless impatience and then bit him again when he got his hand partially round me. Cool skin to burning, his palm as soft as falling snow, his grip exactly as hard as I needed, it was the sort of relief that becomes its own torture. It was so unbearably exquisite that I had to pull away from his mouth. I pressed my face into his neck, shuddered and moaned. And when that wasn’t enough, I dug my fingers into his biceps, hard enough that I felt the flesh yield even through his jacket.
It was a helpless free fall into pleasure. But he held me up, his other arm wound about my waist. And I let him, and I didn’t care. I could have come like this, thrusting myself into his hand, my every breath sobbing out its ugly symphony into his oblivious skin. I lifted my head, eyes opening long enough to see the way his lashes cast shadows over his cheeks, his pale, kiss-swollen lips.
“Fuck me,” I said, grabbing his wrist.
In the sudden stillness of our bodies, I realised the heat against my hip was the outline of his cock pressing against his jeans. It couldn’t have been comfortable.
“Oh . . . err . . .” he said, unsteadily. “Yeah, ahwight.”
Tearing at our clothes, we tumbled onto the mattress, sending it into a wild skid across the floor. Essex landed on me, cackling breathlessly like we were at the fairground. Irritating. But the pressure of his body against mine was bliss itself. He pushed himself to his knees and threw the jacket off his shoulders, followed by his T-shirt. I gazed up at the thick bands of shadow that streaked his torso as he moved. It was like looking at him through the bars of a prison cell and I suddenly regretted the lack of light. I reached up and stroked my hands over his shoulders, curving my palms about his shoulder blades. His skin was as smooth as the hidden interior of a shell and as supple as velvet as it flowed over the taut muscles of his back.
He made another of his soft, uncertain noises and then clambered to his feet. In tantalising silhouette, I watched him yank off his boots and wriggle out of his jeans. I peeled off my jacket and waistcoat and threw them aside.
“You always wear all that?” he asked, tugging off my trousers and, with them, thankfully, my boxers—which I’d just remembered were silk, with a garish pattern of peacock feathers. They’d been a joke gift from Niall, back when we had jokes. A poor laundry ethic, and a conviction that nobody would see them, had been the only factors that had induced me to wear them tonight.
“Yes,” I said, plucking at the buttons on my shirt. “All the time. Even in the bath.”
He was laughing again, as his hands covered mine and finished the job for me. I didn’t like being naked with strangers, which was awkward because I rather liked fucking them, but the darkness felt as cool and light as another layer of skin, keeping me safe from his eyes. I flung a leg over his hip and pulled him down on top of me. The naked heat of his body against mine was nothing short of rapturous. Sinuous had been entirely correct. He was a silken serpent of a man. Oh, God. Arching up, I rubbed myself against him with all the finesse of a rutting hog, sparks of light dancing across my vision.
“Wow,” he said, in the hushed voice most people reserved for art galleries or churches, “you really wannit, babes.”
“Yes,” I said, not caring and clinging to him. “Yes. I really want it. Now fuck me.”
“Lemme get summin.”
Forgetting his earlier warning, I twisted my fingers through his hair, ruining whatever was left of his quiff. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Gotta be safe, babes.”
I spread my legs under him and thrust my cock against his, making him gasp. “Don’t let me go.”
He kissed me. I don’t know what he was aiming for but, in the gloom and the confused tangle of our bodies, it landed on my nose. “I won’t,” he whispered, dragging himself out of my arms. A pathetic noise clawed out my throat. “I’m just over ’ere.”
I shivered, cold without him, newly lost.
I heard his feet scampering urgently across the room and then, from somewhere off to the right, there came the sort of sound a six-foot man might make falling over a pair of shoes. “Oh, no,” he said. “What am I like?”
And then something very strange happened.
It was like a piece of me snapped into, or out of, alignment.
An awful, rusty noise that made me cover my mouth in shock.
“Shuh up!” protested Essex from somewhere on the floor, but he didn’t sound as if he minded.
Except I couldn’t seem to stop. I curled into a ball on the mattress, shaking and laughing.
“I said shuh up.” He was back, his body curving round mine, his breath warm against my neck. “Or I won’t.”
“What you said.”
“You can say it, you know. You won’t get arrested.”
“My nan would ’ave a fit if I went on like that. It don’t cost nuffin to be polite. Oh, no, I’m talking about my nan in like . . . when we’re . . . like . . . y’know. That ain’t right.”
I twisted my upper body towards him and hooked an arm around his neck, pulling his mouth onto mine for a damp, ungainly kiss. “Essex,” I said, against his lips, “would you please, and grandmother permitting, be so very kind as to fuck me senseless?”
I felt his shuddery exhale against my lips. “Hunjed pahcent.”
I flipped onto my stomach, and he covered me like sunlight in a rush of warm skin. There was enough strength in his lean body for me to feel it as his weight pressed me down. The springs in the mattress dug into my chest. His lips ghosted over the tops of my shoulders, sprinkling pleasure as ephemeral as stardust over my skin, and I squirmed back against him, grinding my arse against his cock.
“God, fuck, do it.”
He drew back a little. Then came the sound of tearing foil, the snap-snap of a bottle. Lubed fingers stroked me lightly and I thrust myself onto them. Not enough, not nearly enough.
“For fuck’s sake,” I snarled.
The flat of his hand between my shoulder blades shoved me back down.
“Don’t wanna hurt you, babes.”
“But—” At that moment, he twisted his fingers sharply inside me and whatever I had been intending to say was lost in a harsh gasp of pleasure. He withdrew and did it again, and this time I cried out in exquisite frustration. It was so close to what I wanted. My hands clenched and unclenched against the mattress. “Oh, God, Essex, please.”
His fingers vanished, replaced by the head of his cock, pushing into me. He was careful, excruciatingly careful, but it had been long enough that even the stretch and burn of this slow penetration made me shudder and moan with the sweet intensity of violation. I lifted my hips to force him deeper.
“Yorite?” he muttered. A few drops of skin-warmed sweat landed on my spine. I felt each one as clearly as if it were a diamond.
I opened my mouth to tell him to get on with it and babbled instead. “Yes, fuck, yes, oh yes, fuck, please.”
He eased himself out again and I sobbed out some more ecstatic nonsense, then lost even the power to do that when his returning thrust hit my prostate almost perfectly.
And he did, in long, steady strokes, his hands curled about my hips to anchor me. Coloured lights splintered behind my eyes. For a few brief, blissful moments, all thought, all memory, dissolved like sugar in water. I was free. There was nothing but sweat and skin, hot harsh breath against my neck, a cock driving into me. Raw, undeserved pleasure stolen from a stranger in a dark room.
And then it was over. Like lightning from a clear sky. A moment of glorious, shuddering oblivion, a pure glittering hopefulness, and then the grim, inevitable return. To a puddle of cooling ejaculate trapped beneath my rapidly wilting cock and a man whose name I didn’t care to remember labouring behind me. A wild disgust rolled through me. And a strange, inexpressible sorrow for the shining moment that is never more than a moment. Then Essex pulled me to him, his mouth open against the back of my neck, and came with a muffled, self-conscious murmur, his body streaming with sweat and shaking with strain.
We fell apart, Safetyboy Essex keeping a tight hold on the condom as he eased himself out of my body. I collapsed onto my back and threw an arm over my face as my breathing steadied. I wanted to move, to gather my clothes and get out of there, but neither my body nor my mind were quite cooperating. I heard Essex moving about the room, presumably cleaning up. After a moment, the mattress squeaked, heralding his return. Something cool and damp tenderly enclosed my cock, and I jackknifed into a sitting position.
“What the fuck?”
“Wet wipe, babes.”
“God, don’t you have tissues like a normal person?”
“It’s Olay. Wif aloe vera.”
“Oh, well, in that case.” I had to get out of here.
He scrunched up the wipe and flopped down next to me. “You totally trashed my ’air.”
“Are you always, y’know . . . like that?”
I opened my mouth and closed it again. There was a long silence. “No,” I said, finally.
He gave an immense yawn. “That was proper special.” Then he rolled right up close, tossed an arm and a leg over me, and fell almost immediately asleep.
I lay there in frozen horror, watching the pattern of shadows and cracks on the ceiling. This had all been a terrible mistake. And I had no idea where I was. How was I going to get away? What was going to happen? What had I done? What had made me think this would ever be all right? The image of my medication, sitting on the kitchen countertop, vivid to the tiniest detail of the prescription on the label, flashed across my mind. Fuck, oh fuck. My heart started racing. Anxiety shook itself like a wolf leaving its lair. I told myself it was psychosomatic. I was going to be fine. Yes, I’d broken all my routines, but at least I hadn’t taken any drugs. Though I resented having to feel grateful to Niall for that. But how much had I drunk? Enough to dilute the carefully modulated biochemical sanity sloshing around inside me? Oh, God, was I going to go mad? How would I tell? When I found myself in hospital, that’s how I’d know. Except, by then, I wouldn’t believe it. Please, please, I don’t want to go back to hospital. I’d rather kill myself. Wait. No, I don’t mean that. I don’t mean that.
Maybe I’d just feel shitty for a while. Crash in depression, rather than soar into mania. That would be okay, wouldn’t it? I could endure it. I’d be strong. And it would be a fair price for that split second of physical happiness. My eyes burned as I bargained desperately and silently with a God I didn’t believe in. Ah, the pitiful prayers of a rational man. If the mad can so be called.
I twisted under Essex’s arm, and his deep, even breathing gusted over my skin. The unexpected warmth raised a prickle of goose bumps across my arm and shoulder. And, slowly, impossibly, my thoughts ceased their frantic churning. My heart rate dropped. I . . . relaxed. My body felt heavy, sore but—in some distant way—satisfied. It was an unusual sensation. Anxiety and depression have conspired to render me a lifetime member of Insomniacs R Us. But, somehow, on a bare mattress, in a strange house, with a strange man sprawled over me, I was slipping into sleep.
Maybe it was going to be all right.