“NO?” My stomach fell to my knees as I parroted back the rejection.
The manager for Wellington’s Tory Street Theatre shook her head, red hair swaying, emphasizing her response. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said with a heavy Kiwi accent, “but it doesn’t matter that you have the funds to afford a booking fee.”
I gripped the hard-earned cash, knuckles whitening. “I remember talking to someone a few years back, and they seemed to think it was possible.”
Okay, it was far out to argue with such old information—but it was that possibility that had made Gristle and I save any and all extra cash we had.
The manager smiled and pushed thick-framed glasses higher up on her nose. I could tell she held herself back, forcing herself to keep her tone neutral and polite. She probably rolled her eyes, trying hard not to remind me that Tory Street was one of New Zealand’s premier theaters. That was the feeling I got, anyhow.
“That may have been the case then,” she answered, “but now this establishment is rarely available for independent theater productions. If you’re looking for a venue to show your production, why not see if you can hire a school hall? It’d be much cheaper, and some schools let you use their lighting equipment.” She glanced at the hole in the knee of my jeans and shrugged. “Could save money that way.”
My jaw tightened before I could stop it. Who was she to judge me? Sure I was poor, but we’d saved hard for this, and our money was the same as anyone’s. Besides, we’d already gone the school auditorium route; this was meant to be more.
Gristle would be devastated.
“You said there are rare cases, though. What would I have to do—”
She cut me off. “Not in your case. Sorry.”
I left Tory Street with heavy steps, only to be slapped by one of windy Wellington’s finest gusts. How would I tell Gristle? For a moment, I imagined myself going back inside and trying again. Maybe trying a different tactic.
I sighed. It wasn’t going to happen. I looked back at the main doors. How many times had Gristle and I come here, planning for our days in the spotlight? Waiting to fill the missing keystone in our archway of performances? Too many to count. The dream we’d worked so hard for seemed to hang above me like a water balloon about to be dropped.
How could I stop it? Catch it without breaking it? Without shattering our dream?
The nearest lamppost, choked with posters, flyers, and notices, called out to my frustration. I ripped the fluttering paper off and trashed it in the bin on my way toward the waterfront.
After five minutes, I hit Oriental Parade. Salty breezes whipped through my untamable brown hair, but breathing in the air didn’t calm me. The thick warmth of the sun didn’t help either. I was going to let down my best friend, my brother.
Music sailed over to me. Upbeat, jolly. It had a distinctive flavor to it that had me changing my pace to accommodate the stuttering notes and rhythm.
A male busker stood on the concrete wall dividing the beach and pavement. He wore sandals, light-brown shorts to his knees, and a sky-blue hoodie. How could he wear a hoodie in this heat? It puzzled me, but the thought disappeared as his music increased in tempo.
The joyous melody sliced up the air around him, his foot tapping with the beat. His hips twisted as the notes rose higher, and his fingers slid over the keyboard of the accordion and commanded the bellows, stretching and shrinking. I never noticed these details on buskers before, but this musician held a grace that surprised me.
I found a spot against a pylon a few meters away and leaned against it as I watched and listened. The music suddenly dropped into a sad, slower movement, but only briefly as it warped its way into an upbeat tempo again.
Gristle would have loved this. He would’ve cheered the musician on and dragged me into the middle of the path to dance.
The scene was perfect, all the way down to the backdrop against the bays. The fountain out in the sea was on, and, from this angle, it looked like the water curved up and spilled out at the command of the bellows. The only irritation was the damn hood he wore. So large, it fell around his head, layering his face in shadows.
I stared at the hood, willing him to look in my direction and hoping for a breeze to whip it back or something. As if hearing my wish, the busker swung around. It was only a second, but I caught a glimpse of blond hair and a scar splitting one brow.
I smiled at him. A thank you, really, because his music inspired me. It gave me hope that all wasn’t lost. Maybe I could change the manager’s mind—make our Tory Street dream come true.
AT HOME, a.k.a. the hovel, I breathed in a vile lungful of urine-and-spunk-tainted air. “Plumber still not shown up?” I asked Gristle, handing him a paper cup of lemonade I’d bought from kids outside.
He stretched and arranged himself in a sitting position on my bed, his back against the peeling floral wallpaper, a red-and-white silk kite dangling above him. “The earliest he can get here is tomorrow afternoon.”
“How’d it go at Tory Street?” he asked, and I downed the rest of my sugary lemonade.
“Haven’t been in yet. Will go tomorrow.”
“Sweet as, bro,” he said. “This is going to be the best. Ever.”
I swallowed hard and trashed the cup in the bin, then sauntered to the windows and swung one window back and forth to exchange the air.
Gristle sprung out of bed, shooting his empty cup into the bin. As I opened the window wide, he vaulted over the sill in nothing more than his boxer briefs. He had to have rubber soles not to bark out at the gravelly landing.
“I almost smacked you then,” I said. “You could’ve ended up through the glass.”
He snorted. “Hardly. But I really have to piss.” The dull tinkling came over the bush hedging us from the neighbors.
“Could go to the public loo down by the park.”
“Bro, those toilets are worse than ours. But don’t worry. I won’t shit in our backyard.”
“That was an image I really didn’t need.”
Grinning, Gristle climbed back through the window, his koru tattoos appearing to dance around his right pectoral muscle and up the right side of his neck as he moved. Grabbing me in a headlock, he noogied the crap out of me, messing up my locks. Not that it made a difference from how it usually looked.
“God, Jay, you think this place’s a stink bomb? That shirt’s about to walk off you.” He tugged at the buttons, ripped the shirt off me, and chucked it out into the backyard.
I scowled at him.
“Believe me, that probably isn’t far enough,” he said. “Get your lanky ass in the shower and scrub up. It’s my night off. I got a surprise for us.” He waggled his brows, and at each rise, it tugged at a thread of anxiety.
Just what did he have planned? Please not another death mission. I would not bike train tracks. I would not hitchhike to the middle of the North Island wop wops again without anything but one bun and drink bottle to share between us. Nor would I—
“No middle of the night bush hikes.”
He poked my belly and when I turned, swatted my ass. “Not telling. But it’s not far.”
Before I jumped in the bathtub for a piddle-weak shower, I showed him a pohutukawa twig I’d found on my walk back from the bus stop. “For our Christmas tree.”
“Bro, that’s not a twig. It’s a branch.” He wrapped me up in a large Gristle-hug, attempting, as always, to squeeze all the air out of me until I gasped. “It’s perfect. Where should we set it up?”
“Your room,” I said. “It’s more festive.”
“Mine isn’t the room with a sky of kites.”
“But you have the arch.”
Gristle grabbed a beer glass, placed the end of the branch in it, and led the way into his room. I cut to the six-foot arch made of theater postcards and tickets plastered to the wall—all of them plays we’d seen together.
Gristle centered our Christmas tree. “It needs something,” he said. “Wait a tick.”
I shuffled back, noting how the red flower petals picked out the reds in the postcards. It would be perfect if the top of the arch was completed. However, there was a “V” of unfilled space—our missing keystone, saved for Tory Street. I hauled in a breath over the knot in my throat and tried to feel the music from earlier. The hope.
Gristle bumped his hip against my side, shoving me over, grinning. He laid a small gold-wrapped box under our tree.
“You’ve got your Christmas shopping done already?” I asked. That seemed suspiciously organized.
“Wipe the disbelief off your face this instant. I saw this”—he pointed to the box—“a while back, and it was on sale then. It’s going to be awesome. It might take you a bit of getting used to. No worries, though, trust me. I’ll make sure you totally fall in love with it.”
“Why do I feel the need to groan?”
Gristle smacked me on the back of the head. “That’s not the Christmas spirit. Have I ever got you anything you didn’t like, Jayden Walker?”
I began a list, though it was mostly in jest. I didn’t care what he got me as long as he was there to open them with me on the day. But what I was meant to do with a car jack when I didn’t have a car always boggled my mind.
He shook his head and slapped my ass. “Enough. You’ll like it this year. Now scrub up, lanky boy.”
After I showered in the moldy bathroom, I jumped into some fresh clothes, opting for something airy to avoid as much sticky heat as possible. I opened a second window and heard the chipper melody of an ice-cream truck singing its way down the street. The neighbors’ kids started shouting, and their front door slammed. Off to the truck, no doubt. Lucky kids. God, for something cold right now.
After a few minutes, Gristle burst into my room, dressed, holding two cones. “Really?” I grabbed one. Boysenberry. “My favorite too.” I frowned after a winding lick. “It’s a bit extravagant, isn’t it? These must be ’round four dollars each.”
Gristle sat on the bed I’d just straightened. The one he shared with me since the springs in his mattress had exploded out of the covering. Just my luck of course—the hottest guy I know sleeps next to me, and he is straight. Not only that, he was my best mate, my family. Even more than family. Brother of my soul.
“That’s part of the surprise I have for you,” Gristle said.
I sat on my wheeled desk chair that no longer swiveled. “Tell me more.”
“I got a new job.”
I straightened at the news. Why hadn’t he told me he was looking?
As if he read my last thought, he shook his head. “Look. Thing is, I don’t know you’ll entirely approve.”
Anxiety was back. “What is it?”
His gaze skimmed past mine to fix onto the windows. “I want us to move out of this shithole hovel, Jay. And I want us to do this Tory Street gig right. Proper costumes, the best lighting, everything.”
He lifted his side to reach into his back pocket and pulled out a wad of money held together with an elastic band.
One part of me wanted to jump up and down, whip the money off him, and shower us with it. The other part had a lump forming in my throat. “What’s the job?”
“I accompany ladies to dinners or other… events.”
“Shit, Gristle. No!” I whipped my head from side to side. “Don’t do this. Look, if we want to make more money, I’ll look into getting a night job too. Please, man, please just don’t—”
“Bro. Calm. It’s quick cash.” He met my gaze for a second but couldn’t hold it and looked toward the curtains swaying in the open window. “The point is, you’re working too much as it is. You barely get time to write, and I need you writing our play. Also, you know I love you, right? But this isn’t up for discussion.”
I dropped my ice cream into an empty cup on my desk and held my throbbing head in my hands. My Gristle. What could I do so he’d stop doing stupid things? Stop risking himself? “Are you… I mean, do you….” I struggled to spit out the words I was thinking. Do you have intercourse with them? Just the thought had my stomach clenching. “Do you sleep with them?” I asked. My voice came out a shadow of its usual richness.
Gristle took a moment. He shook his head. “No, bro. Just display stuff.”
I wished I didn’t know him as well as I did. But we’d been best mates for twelve years. He was lying to me.
I crawled over to him, gripped his waist, almost making him lose his chocolate cone. I didn’t care. “God, Gristle. I’d do anything for you to stop, you know?” When he didn’t say anything, I squeezed him tighter. “Be safe.”
He brought his forehead to mine, the tips of our noses touching, and closed his eyes. I did the same. It was what we did whenever we disagreed on something. It meant that it was nothing personal. We still loved each other. It was our sign of respect. Only, right now, I was battling the urge to pull away.
Could I really agree to disagree? This was serious. Gristle could get hurt. He must have felt my hesitation because he brought one hand to the back of my head and held it there.
“It’s not up for discussion.”
“But, why this?”
“It’s not such a big deal to me.”
“I wish it were.”
“Sometimes I do too.” Gristle sighed, his breath brushing my neck. “But I know better.”
We stayed in this position until Gristle’s ice cream started plopping onto his jeans. He licked his sticky fingers, and I cleaned up my own boysenberry puddle that’d dripped down the sides of the cup and onto the edges of my notebook.
“Right,” Gristle said, rubbing at the chocolate stain. “The other part of the surprise we’ll do tonight. It’ll be better when it’s dark.”
I LIFTED the back flap to our purple letterbox. “No junk male” had been painted on the front by the last tenants, and we’d never bothered to repaint it. Actually, I found it sort of funny. And maybe—just a little—agreed with it. Only quality males for me, please.
I snapped out of my wandering thoughts and focused on the mail. Groaning, I leafed through the letters. Electricity bill, phone bill… shit, a reminder of overdue books and library fines. Gristle had better find those two he’d misplaced. I shook my head and walked back to the house.
“Yup,” came a dulled response.
“Go to your closet right now.”
Through the wall, I heard him shuffling across his room. “What am I doing here?”
“Now open up and search through the pile on the bottom and find those theater books you borrowed from the library.”
Satisfied once I heard rummaging, I dropped the bills onto my desk and dared to enter our damp, moldy bathroom at the far end of the kitchen. With two fingers pegged to my nose the whole time, I found a bar of soap and quickly resealed the hazardous zone with a firm shut of the door. Still, I didn’t start breathing again until I darted through the kitchen and stepped out of the house.
After a good couple of breaths, I reentered the house to grab a plastic bag for the soap. Gristle exited his room as I was stuffing the wrapped soap in my pocket. He held two books, fanning me with them as if he were bowing to me.
“Oh, thee, wise, all-knowing, bro. Here offer I—”
Laughing, I snatched the books out of his grip and placed them in my room. I’d make a trip past the library tomorrow en route to work.
Gristle sneaked into my pocket, and before I had a chance to stop him, he whipped out my plastic bag. “What’s this for?”
“I need to go pee.”
His head moved from side to side as he chuckled. “Seriously, you’re going to all this effort for a whiz?” He slipped the soap back into my pocket and then braced my shoulder. “Jay, you never cease to crack me up. Now, what do you think if while you went that way”—he pointed in the direction of the public loos—“I went that way”—he swung his arm ninety degrees toward the Newtown shops—“and got us some fish ’n’ chips for dinner?”
My stomach almost rumbled at the idea of salty, greasy chips. The last time we’d splurged on takeaways had been over a month ago. “Yeah,” I said, “and I want—”
“A corn fritter instead of the fish, I know.”
Gristle and I parted ways at the gate. I stuck to the footpath this time, trotting past magnolia trees as I headed toward the bus stop. Across from it, cordoning off an area from the traffic of the main streets, was a street island, thick with shadows from the many Pohutukawa trees there. In the middle sat the graffiti-covered concrete slab that was the public loos.
I darted inside. Yep, Gristle was right. The place didn’t smell much better than ours, and it was dark with God knew how many spiders in the corners. But it did flush. I finished my business, cleaned my hands, shook them dry, and left the loo.
A reviving breeze rushed through the trees, and I circled the street island—ten times the size of our place—enjoying the cooler air. Looking into the center of the island, at its darkest spot, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gristle’s plans for tonight. What would it be this time? Not knowing made it really hard to pack a bag. (After our last adventure, I’ll never go without one.)
A sudden short and sharp cry rang out in the distance followed by heavy barking. Ears on alert, I rounded the side of the island opposite the bus stop. On the bank behind the shelter, a dog pranced alone, dragging its leash behind him.
Moving into a brisk walk, I headed in the direction the dog had come from. Scanning the car park left and right, I didn’t see anyone. Who had yelled?
A swing, swaying on the zoo playground above the parking lot, caught my eye. I looked past it to the crest of the hill. Something was happening behind the trees up there. The large pines limited my view, but considering this was the first sign of life I’d seen, it was worth a shot to check it out.
Halfway up the hill, a rage-filled curse made me look up. A middle-aged man stood shaking a younger guy. I hesitated. Father and son arguing? Perhaps I shouldn’t interfere.
Still, I couldn’t stop watching them. The older man was bulky and intimidating, his face red with anger. Little bits of spittle flew out of his mouth as he spoke words I didn’t catch.
The younger blond guy claimed more of my attention because I recognized him. He was the busker from the beach. He calmly listened to everything thrown his way. I waited to see if he’d say anything back or retaliate, but he didn’t. He didn’t look down in shame as if he’d done something wrong. His smooth complexion and steady expression seemed patient, as if this was something he was used to.
I shifted my weight, shuffling a little, and a littered salt ’n’ vinegar chips wrapper crunched underfoot. I picked it up, heading for the closest bin, watching them out of the corner of my eye, concentrating on the blond wearing baggy cargo pants and that blue hoodie.
About to drop the rubbish into its proper place, I braked to a halt, and my breathing hitched as the older man curled one hand into a fist and threw it at the young guy.