IT WAS the usual fierce Saturday night debate. Not the one on TV where the studio audience harasses the politician about fraudulent expense claims or there’s a juicy sex scandal with a reality show celebrity. No, this was the one in real life, in the flat where I was living, where the bossy gay landlords try to persuade the equally gay but far less social houseguest to go clubbing with them.
“For God’s sake! If you could only see the look on your face.” Louis stood opposite me in the living room, his hands on his hips, his black trousers clinging low on his slim waist. “You’d think we were asking you to eat your own flesh. It’s just one night out, Max, one night among all the others you’ve wasted since you moved in. We’re in Brighton, the south coast’s center of gay nightlife, right? You’ll have a great time.”
“Sure,” I said. It was never worth raising your voice to Louis. “Another time.”
He rolled his kohl-lined eyes. “No. This time. They’ve got the new lights working on the stage at Compulsion tonight, and I want us all to be there for the show. I want you to be there.”
“You’re pouting, love.” Jack stepped beside him, smiling. “Not that it isn’t cute, but you’re more than a few years off teenager by now.” He put his arm around Louis’s waist at the same time and squeezed him affectionately.
Louis flushed, but his expression was determined. “So you tell him, Jack. Tell him he needs to enjoy himself, he needs to loosen up a bit and get back into life. He needs—”
“To get out more.” I spoke quickly and, despite my smile, a little wearily. “Yeah, you’ve said that before.” I caught Jack’s sympathetic gaze over Louis’s shoulder. His watchful eyes saw far more of me than I liked. His dark-brown fingers rested comfortably against Louis’s pale skin where his lover’s satin shirt failed to meet the waistband of his trousers. They were a committed couple and very relaxed together, at least at home. Louis would have been happy to demonstrate their relationship a lot more in public, but Jack remained fairly discreet. Part of that was his own character, and part of it was caution because he worked at a forensic science service company that didn’t seem to like its employees having a social life at all, let alone an alternative one. Tonight Jack’s hands tightened on Louis and the blond smiled slyly, just for Jack. Yeah, part of it was just that Jack disliked sharing.
I tried my usual excuses. “I’m dog-tired, that’s all. I did extra shifts at the site this week and I need some sleep. Plus, those places just remind me I’m not really drinking at the moment. And it’s not like I can dance.”
Louis lifted his elegantly shaped eyebrows. “Dear God, next he’s going to say he has nothing to wear.”
My turn to roll my eyes. “Look, guys, you know how grateful I am you put me up, but you don’t have to sort out a social life for me as well. I’m good just as I am.”
There was a moment’s silence as they both looked at me.
“Yes, of course,” Louis said in a tone that implied the complete opposite.
“Max, he has a point,” Jack said. “You’ve been a social hermit for months. You never used to be so quiet. You enjoyed clubbing and parties.”
“And men—” Louis winced as Jack pinched him. “Well, you did! I haven’t seen you date anyone more than once for months.”
“It’s not a crime.” Louis didn’t notice my sharp tone, but Jack did, and his eyes narrowed.
“Just come out for an hour or so, okay? We’ll catch a cheap pizza at Luigi’s on the promenade, then go and see what they’ve done with the décor at Compulsion. It’s not that seedy old place we used to scam our way into after school. No more sticking to the spilled beer on the carpet, no cracked glasses, no broken urinals and that hideous yellow lighting. It’s been bought out by a national chain and gone seriously upmarket.” Louis was wheedling. On him, it had a certain naïve charm. “You can leave straight afterwards. You don’t have to dance. You don’t even have to stay for the show.”
“But Louis is dancing,” Jack added quickly. “Just a couple of places below top billing this time. It’s a real opportunity for him. You’ll want to see that, won’t you?” His eyes shone with pride, making it obvious he couldn’t imagine anyone would want to miss it.
I sighed and smiled. “Is that a condition of my tenancy agreement?”
Jack frowned. “You know there’s nothing like that, Max. Shit, I wouldn’t even charge you rent if you didn’t make such a bloody fuss—”
“Joke!” I held up a hand in surrender. Dammit, I couldn’t even pitch my humor right nowadays. “Jack, Louis, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t offered me the room, if you hadn’t coped with me turning up on your doorstep at some godforsaken hour of the night with nothing but a bag of clothes and a couple of quid left over from the bus ticket.”
“So?” Louis made a show of looking at his watch.
“I’ll go and get changed,” I said, grinning.
They lived in a small house in Kemptown, built in the 1950s and now converted into two flats. They had the upper floor, which included a small attic. That’s where my room was, in the eaves of the building, up a short flight of stairs from the other rooms. There was just enough space for a single bed, a chest of drawers for my clothes, and a small sink against one wall. Since it wasn’t really big enough for a guest bedroom, they’d been using it as Jack’s home office, I think. The night after I arrived, I caught him shifting a pile of boxes that were full of files and papers, but he insisted it was just a room they used for storage: I was ostensibly doing him a favor by occupying it. In those days, the only furniture was a desk, a chair, and an old couch with ripped covers, but they cleared it all out and brought in a bed shortly after. Louis said it was a friend’s castoff, but it looked suspiciously new. I bought myself a small secondhand TV and DVD player, and I’d stayed there ever since. Occasionally I talked about looking for my own place, but they always changed the subject and served up something particularly good for supper that night. To tell you the truth—and nothing to do with the food—I didn’t have much appetite to go out on my own.
I was shrugging into my shirt when there was a quiet knock from the landing outside. That was Jack. I zipped up my jeans and opened the door to him.
His eyes flickered up and down. “Purple suits you.”
I grimaced. “It’s not like I have a lot of smart stuff to choose from.” Working on a construction site didn’t call for formal clothing, and as for going out on the town—well, I’d just been through that with the guys, hadn’t I?
Jack nodded. He was a couple of inches taller than me and far more stockily built. He leaned toward me, his eyes fixed on mine. “If I say you look good, you do.”
“Sure.” I laughed. “I know you’re not coming on to me when you already have your own pretty boy.”
Jack didn’t laugh back, though we often teased each other that way. Or at least, we used to. But he wasn’t angry either. He just looked… concerned. “Give it up, Max.”
“Making everything a joke, like you’re hiding from anything serious. We’re your friends, remember? We know you from way back, we know you’re a good bloke. You don’t have to keep excusing everything you do. And there’s nothing to be scared of here.”
My mouth was suddenly dry. “I’m not scared. Look, Jack, I’m not keen on getting heavy at the moment. Let’s just go out for the meal, right?”
Louis’s voice floated up from the bottom of my stairs. “Has anyone seen my black jacket? With the silver buttons?”
Jack smiled, but I knew it was an expression of his fondness for Louis rather than a response to anything I said.
Impulsively, I reached over and took Jack’s arm. “I meant it, you know. About being grateful. You’re the best.”
He nodded, his smile for me now. “It’s nothing. Really, it is. We like having you here. We want you to be happy, Max.”
Louis came running up the stairs to stand behind Jack. “Ready, gentlemen? Let’s get going. I want to be there early enough to get a table by the dance floor for when the club music starts.” He leaned up and nuzzled at Jack’s ear, slid a hand around Jack’s waist, and fondled the front of his trousers.
“We haven’t even got out the front door yet,” I grumbled. “If you’re going to jump each other in my doorway, at least move to the side so I can go on ahead and get my food.”
Louis smirked. “We all go together. I don’t trust you not to slide away straight after the pizza.”
“Just an hour or so, you said. I’ll be sociable, I promise you. But then I get a taxi back, okay?”
Louis caught my arm as I wriggled past him. We’d all been laughing, but now he sounded serious too. Seemed they’d launched some kind of pincer attack on me tonight. “Max, we want you to be with us tonight. You don’t have enough fun. You always used to.”
I bit back the instinctively sharp reply. It’d be unfair when it was nothing to do with them. “I’m fine. Honestly. I thought you were the one wanted to get going?”
He grinned, and we made our way down the stairs and out of the flat together. It was a pleasant walk into Brighton and only a mile or so into the town center. My attic room looked out over the road—a steep incline down to the promenade—and on weekend nights, there was plenty of bustle from visitors to the guesthouses up the street. It had been especially busy over the May bank holiday weekend just passed. During the week was a quieter time, with the distant whine of workday traffic passing along the sea front and the occasional bark from a neighbor’s dog. I loved the area—I grew up in foster homes in Hove and Rottingdean. The smell of the sea was in my blood.
Jack and Louis linked arms, and we started the walk down toward the clubs and bars. We’d only get a taxi back if we didn’t feel up to walking at the end of the evening, exactly as we’d always done all through our teenage years. Tonight the sea air was salty and slightly damp, the low breeze tickling the ends of my hair on my shoulders. The weather had been largely rain free for the last week or so, with that pale mistiness over the sun that kept the evenings cooler. The horizon was lit by an early evening rose-gold glow, and the sea was settling into low tide. I could hear waves lapping the stones of the beach and the sharp cries of seagulls swooping down to forage. It had been a busy Saturday for tourists, and there were always plenty of pickings. Eventually the birds would become nothing more than familiar silhouettes against the indigo night sky, their cries dying down until morning.
Louis and Jack spoke in low voices, Louis laughing now and then when Jack obviously teased him. They weren’t excluding me, but the pavement was too narrow for three to walk abreast, and I fell back a few steps quite naturally. My heart was beating too fast and I was stupidly nervous. What the hell was all that about? It was only a club, after all, and I’d been in plenty of them over the years. Yeah, my memories prodded me. You certainly did that.
But now things were different. I wanted control over my life, and that was how things had to be. It wasn’t an option to go back to those days, was it? To that wild, excessive lifestyle—that limbo time between first growing up and finally getting smart. I paused on the pavement for just one second, wondering whether I’d get away with turning back tonight. I knew I wouldn’t.
Maybe, like Jack said, I was scared. But there was no way I could tell my best friends why.