IT’S A weird feeling, the first time you really meet someone. Really meet them, you know—not just brush past them, skirt your life briefly around the edge of theirs for the space of a flirt or a fuck or whatever else you might happen to need that day. When you meet someone for real, you know it. I suppose some people go through their whole lives and never know that kind of connection.
It’s this feeling like every bit of you—your past, your hopes, your dreams, and everything in your cells, right down to the mitochondrial DNA—has been introduced to the other person, all at once. Like it’s all been downloaded automatically from the cloud or whatever it’s called these days. Like your brains got hooked up to the same network, neither of you had a chance to check on the permissions, and all the files got jumbled up together.
You don’t notice it at the time. You piece it together after, when it’s too late to say, “We just met. Let’s not stop. Yeah? Let’s actually get to know each other.”
You meet, you realize, and you pay. And you do it all in little bits, because that’s the only way you know how. It’s not big or clever to live beyond your means.
“SOMEONE’S SCRATCHED the C off the Canal Street sign again. You think it’s one of us who keeps doing it as a territorial claim?”
“For all I know, Mike, it’s the bloke who sleeps under the archway with the three-legged Labrador. Or—” Hand still in his pocket, Callum points at the shifty-looking middle-aged virgin on the towpath, who’s encased in a mint-colored raincoat and can’t muster the nerve to come over and ask how much. “—it could be your biggest fan.”
Mike elbows Callum and sniggers anyway. It could be worse. Sometimes it’s not just the C that’s gone. Once upon a memorable evening, they all took drunken selfies in front of the thing when it read, illiterately but amusingly, anal treet.
Callum turns and walks backward down the path, spreading his hands at the worn denim sky to feel the drizzle tickle his palms. “At least it’s a lovely night for it, anyway.”
The first night he heard Callum say that, Mike had just rocked up at the train station with everything he owned in a bag. He shook out his hair as he fed a pound coin into the rickety vending machine on the platform, but the Twix he wanted never materialized, and a punch of the buttons returned nothing but an ERR message.
Mike cursed at the glass, first quietly and then at volume, and Callum materialized behind him. Mike remembered his laugh, as open and bright as starlight.
“It’s a bitch of a thing, that,” he said and offered Mike a swill of vodka. “Lovely night for it, though. Eh?”
The rain ricocheted off the webbed glass roof of the station, and Callum’s sweater looked more hole than wool, but he seemed to mean it. Mike wondered what kind of life you had to live to think a night like that was lovely. He sat on the bench, twirled the cord of his rucksack around and around his hand, and swallowed his nerves down with gulps of booze while Callum talked. And Callum could talk. There was no doubt on that score. He had a lilting accent Mike couldn’t place at first, beyond Irish. The Catholic school Mike had gone to—under duress—was full of Belfast nuns, and Callum sounded nothing like them. His voice was softer and warm even in that weather.
Later, when they were the only creatures there but the pigeons and the night guard, Callum traded Mike a spot on his sofa for a really nice kiss in the dark. The sofa was a piece of shit with the stuffing hanging out, but Callum’s mouth was soft and warm. Afterward, when he asked how far Mike had come, Mike swapped his answer for Callum’s and got to see Callum smile around Killarney. It sounded like the name of a long-lost lover. Callum was Killarney’s long-lost son.
Sometimes he wonders what would have happened if Callum hadn’t appeared, whether he would have sulked the night away over a Twix and slunk home or if he’d still have ended up there, the two of them working different spots and eyeing each other with disdain. He’s not fool enough to think the difference between “okay” and “awful” is anything other than having friends, and Callum has been more than a friend. Mike doesn’t want to contemplate how things might have turned out without that constant.
Instead he eyes the shadows and ticks the regulars off a register he keeps in his mind like an overzealous school teacher: Bilal, Ahmed, Robbie—
“Did you not hear?” Callum pulls the zip of his hoodie up, bites at the collar and tugs the well-bitten end of the toggle between his teeth. Around it, his voice is muffled, but Mike’s known him long and deep enough to make it out all the same. “He went missing on Thursday last. This morning his neighbors are telling the papers he was a good lad, and it’s a crying shame. They can’t understand why anyone would hurt him. His mother’s distraught. Maybe if she’d given a fuck before he was in a body bag he’d—”
Mike swallows. Of course it happens. He and Bilal joked about it once, how the police and press would leave out their occupation and paint them as a promising this or that. Bilal had gone for “street artist” with a draw on his fag and a sarcastic lip curl as he tagged the bus stop with a marker. Mike did a bad impression of his business teacher saying he had the makings of a gifted entrepreneur. They all know any one of them could end up recycled like cans and bottles put out every second Wednesday and prostitutes the week after that. All of them had started out as promising something-or-others, but didn’t everyone? Everything? Hitler had started out as a promising vegetarian artist, for crying out loud. According to that sort of shitty journalist logic, every promising three-volume novel of staggering genius started out as a damn sapling tree.
Still. Mike’s been there long enough to know that too much logic only makes the world they live in feel all the more absurd. It’s better not to think too much about anything. It isn’t exactly their superior brain power that makes them their living.
Mike scuffs his trainers up against the bricks and tips his head back. He eyes the clutch of men staggering down the steps at the bridge. They’re off their faces already, even though it’s barely past eight in the evening. They’ll be a stag night, football team, or work outing, daring each other to do some skinny rent boy in the arse while the others watch. Their shiny suits and insults will chafe equally against whoever’s dumb or desperate enough to let them get him alone in the dark.
Callum edges closer, and part of Mike wants to protect him. There’s nothing worse than a load of blokes unused to the rules and not one of them knowing how much is too much. A moment later the guys fall onto the towpath and barrel under the bridge, and Mike sinks back against the wall, relief flooding his chest. The crowd down there can look after themselves. He’s frightened enough of them himself and wouldn’t want to cross any man jack of them on a dark night.
“You know, I actually thought I’d head into town,” Mike says, releasing his fists, waiting for the sting to die out of the half-moons left on his palms. “There’s some fashion thing on. Come with me? You always make more money picking the lonely ones up in bars. You know that.”
“Make more money when I can pretend to be underage,” Callum counters wryly. It’s depressingly true enough, and Callum, with his baby face and soft mouth, can still pull it off. “Besides—” He glances down the towpath and waves at Simon, who’s leaning against the brick and checking a watch that cost more than either of them will see this year. “—I’m expected. I owe him for the party the other night. Don’t make a face. It was only a couple of grams, and I spilled most of it.” Callum shrugs, not meeting Mike’s eye. Perhaps he doesn’t want to see an expression of displeasure. “I got the two hundred I owe him in my pocket to keep him sweet—”
“Tell me you didn’t take the emergency money out of the fridge?”
“I’ll have it back by the end of the week.” At Mike’s huff, Callum looks up from under his rain-straggled hair. “Aw, come on, Mickey. Don’t be angry with your old mate. I could be charging you double what I do to stay, so I could.”
Mike rolls his eyes. “Just trying to—”
At Simon’s call, Callum turns like a puppy to its master, nervous energy in his spine and his smile edgy and forced.
Just like that, all Mike wants to do is drag him back to their flat, cuddle him on the sofa, and tell him he doesn’t care about the money and just wants Callum to whisper into his hair the stories his gran used to tell him about seals that were really part-time people. Maybe somewhere, in another dimension, there’s a Mike and a Callum who are free to do that every night in their room at some inner-city university, where they’d met as the apples of their parents’ eyes. Sometimes Mike thinks about what might have been if he’d never left home—if he’d stuck long enough to get his own place, get out from under his stepdad’s feet and, most nights, his fist. The fantasy is wistful until it stumbles upon its persistent pitfall. There is no Callum in it, and Callum’s the first real friend Mike’s ever had.
If Mike wants anything, it’s to keep Callum safe, even though the logical part of his mind knows that Callum’s been looking after himself years longer than Mike has, even though he’s six months the younger. Still, Mike itches to clutch at his sleeve and beg him not to go off with this Simon person, this unknown quantity. But work is work, and Mike’s finally getting used to that. Instead he sighs and says, “Be careful. Those guys from before were trouble and—”
“I have done this before, you know. The lads’ll look out for me.” At Mike’s skeptical eyebrow raise, Callum ducks his chin. “All right. I promise to check their nails, ’cause God forbid I let anyone who hasn’t had a manicure fuck me.”
“Serial killers have shitty cuticles, Callum. I saw it on CSI. And text me the license number if you’re getting in a Beemer. They’re the most likely to get violent.”
“It’s true. I read—”
“It was on Wikipedia for fourteen minutes. You probably put it there yourself and forgot.”
Mike laughs and kicks at the ground. There’s a new hole in his trainer, and his stripy red sock pokes through it like a worm. “Still.”
“You’re worse than my mam,” Callum mutters.
They both know Mike’s not.
He pulls Callum in by his hoodie and kisses him, filling his mouth with the taste of the Sugar Puffs he had for breakfast slash dinner.
Callum smiles as he sinks back on his heels. He gazes down the knitted mesh of Mike’s jumper and the T-shirt with its classy print of a guy with his dick out. “You look obscene,” he says. “Go bag yourself someone rich and bored. The rent needs paying.”
Mike turns and walks away with a purposeful wiggle of his skinny-jeaned arse, and Callum shouts after him in the dark, “Call me if you get unlucky.”
MIKE’S USUAL haunt turns out to be a bust—private fashion party he can’t get into—and the next three bars are packed with braying execs in suits too ill-fitting to put them in the income bracket he’s looking for. What he needs is someone older and generous, someone who’ll see him as a treat or a pick-me-up, maybe someone who’s had a row with their significant whatever, who’ll go at it quick and dirty and leave him a tip to take the edge off their guilt.
He dodges a bus and heads to a place with a mixed crowd. Palm readers move between the tables under swathes of orange fabric that cascade from the ceiling like a Bedouin tent. It’s just exotic enough to put a person in the mood to take a risk, but not so much they’ll suspect what he’s up to before they’ve decided they want it. It’s exactly the sort of thing Mike’s been lucky enough to stumble upon two or three times before, and it’s always proven ridiculously lucrative when he’s played his cards right. Perfect.
A circuit reveals the place to be exactly as he thought—an influx of Londoners in new-season haute couture mingling haughtily and eyeing each other. He meets the gaze of a man—all silver hair, fitted tweed, and a wedding ring he’s fiddling with as if it’s burning—but he just sniffs down his nose at Mike and goes back to boring his intern. Mike snorts under his breath. He’s seen those appraising looks too often not to know what the guy was thinking, even if he was too much of a coward to follow through. Closet case. He shouldn’t be so dismissive, given the proportion of his clientele that’s made up of hypocrites, but the flag-waving, table-dancing gay in him just can’t help it, even after all his disillusionment. Prostitution might be low, but hypocrisy is worse.
Squeezing past a group of middle managers who are crowing about the collapse of a high-street chain, he spots a thirtysomething woman with Prada glasses, vampiric lip stain, and a skirt slit up to the thigh. It’s the slit that catches his eye more than anything—the pale skin of her leg alternately appearing and disappearing coyly as she shifts. She meets his gaze, gives him a quick once-over, and smiles a little. But there’s a drink next to hers on the table. Mike loiters to see if a guy will come and claim it or if she’s here with a pal. He chews on his lips as he does the math in his head. Two of them. They might want to make a night of it, take him to dinner to toy with him, work up an appetite. There could be four or five hundred in it if he plays it right. He leans on the wall, keeps his eyes on her until she looks, and then lets his lashes fall as if he’s coy about being caught.
She crosses her legs, hitching the slit higher. It’s a blatant move—the sort no man on earth could fail to take as an invitation.
Flashing her half a grin, Mike pushes off the wall, but before he gets there, a gray-haired woman with a scarf holding up her throat sinks onto the banquette and reaches for the menu. Too old to be the first woman’s mate. Her mother probably. Or boss. Either way not exactly what he is looking for. The lady in the Prada glasses cocks her head, apologetic.
Mike mouths, “Damn,” and grins, playing nice because he might see her around, and good first impressions go a long way to a swift and pain-free sale further down the line. Besides, she’s well-groomed and looks after herself. Women aren’t strictly Mike’s thing, but he’s been around the block enough times to know he’d rather do a pretty middle-aged lady than a man with a beer gut and asthma. Mostly he’s managed to avoid the latter, but sometimes, on certain regrettable occasions…. Well. Needs must. He can’t let Callum down on the rent after all he’s done for Mike.
Before he’s secured himself another target, one of the palm readers touches Mike’s elbow.
“Tell your fortune, pet?” she says. Geordie accent. Unusual in the middle of Manchester, especially in this place, which is swimming with clip-mouthed London executives. Her eyes have curls drawn into their corners. Something about her voice makes Mike lean over when he’d usually be leaning away. Part of him wants to slip into its motherly intonation the way he might slip into a warm bath.
He holds his hand out, palm up, and her fingertips trickle down the middle.
“You’re looking for love. Aren’t you?”
“Gonna find it?”
She looks up, and her mouth refuses to close. He wonders if she does that when she comes.
She’s young and pretty. In another world, where Mike was the boy his mum had hoped for and sex was something he did just for fun, he could have had her knickers off and her back against a wall in ten minutes. He can tell. She’d be up for it. But her mouth is too soft, her body too gently rounded, and she’s working this joint the same way Mike is. There’s no way she could pay for it. Mike’s stomach growls, reminding him of the shelf in the fridge where even the margarine tub stuffed with fivers for a rainy day is empty thanks to fucking Simon.
“See you later?” Mike says, and leaves her with a smile as he goes to the bar. Maybe if he doesn’t meet anyone, she’ll at least take him home. He’s not beyond suggesting, “Hey, you know what’d be fun? Eating Nutella off your stomach. Bit expensive at the corner shop, but a twenty should cover it.” It would take the edge off, and Mike’s pretty sure they do knock-off Nutella at any reputable Happy Shopper. A profit of £19.50 is better than nothing for the night. Still, it’s not too late in the day to hope for more.
God, there’s so little in his wallet he’s going to have to make it last. He orders a whiskey and ginger ale and sits on a stool in the corner, trying not to stare at the cherry he asked for the way cartoon dogs look at steak—eyes bulging hopefully, as if on stalks.
His drink is warm against his love line by the time the next likely candidate walks in. He’s a tall bloke, youngish, flowery shirt, subtle dark blue suit. His bracelets jangle as he rearranges his hair and makes it more erratic than it was before. He checks his phone as if he might be meeting someone but pushes it back into his pocket with a sigh and calls the barman over. He orders without looking at the menu—two of something and the fancy nachos. His voice is not that of the London interloper Mike expected, but as Northern as his own. Not as Northern as the fortune-teller, but few people are. Unexpectedly Welcome Mancunian takes a seat and tugs at his cuff while the barman makes him two orange things with a twist of green rising up from crushed ice in a delicate spiral.
“Look like you need this,” the bartender says as he passes them over, his wrist twisting cleanly as he skims the glasses across to his customer.
“Don’t I always?” Flowery Shirt leans back on his bar stool at an angle that looks dangerous, his long legs hooked around the chrome of the stool. “My mother says I’ve got the eye bags of a boozehound and Decleor doesn’t make a cream for that. I’ve checked. More than once.”
The barman laughs. The guy pays. It’s a shame he’s expecting someone, because rich, witty, and cocktail-medicating for misery is exactly Mike’s target market. This bloke isn’t exactly hard on the eyes either, despite the somewhat poorly considered haircut, which helps.
He looks around for someone else. Short and balding in the corner meets his eye and smiles, but there’s something slippery about it, as if his lips are sliding away from his teeth. His watch says he’s definitely got the money. But yeah mate, not that desperate yet, thank you very much indeed. Back in his early days, when he didn’t know better, Mike went toward that type like a homing pigeon, thinking they were the only kind of bloke likely to be interested. Then Callum took him to a party in some loft full of up-and-coming actors—lines of coke on the side tables and skinny girls vomiting their vodka on the floor of the balcony—and corrected his misapprehension. Everybody at that party was morally repugnant, but at least they weren’t physically disgusting. And they were rich.
Callum was at pains to emphasize that they were what Mike should be looking for. “Rich, Mike, rich. Look at the watch, the shoes, the suit, the haircut, for fuck’s sake. You think a man with a comb-over formulated mostly of decades-old Brylcreem is worth more than fifty?”
Mike learned his lesson. God only knew who had taught Callum his or what he’d had to go through for the benefit. Still, whatever he picked up, he passed on to Mike, no favors asked. Callum didn’t believe in pointless learning curves, especially when Mike was contributing to his rent.
At the bar the bloke in the flowery shirt knocks his drink back, his eyes crinkling up as the ice hits his teeth. He slides the glass away and reaches for the second, pokes at it with his stirrer as his gaze wanders, passes over Mike’s face, stops, and comes back.
Mike fishes the cherry out of the mostly melted ice in his glass and holds it by the stem. In a practiced move, he drapes it on his tongue, but just when he’s about to wrap it up in a suggestive furl, the guy’s phone goes. Instead of looking on with slack-jawed want, he sighs and thumbs through the message, leaving Mike no choice but to either spit the cherry out and start again or eat the damn thing.
He opts for the latter and picks the stone out of his mouth just as the guy swigs at his drink and properly looks over, catching Mike right in the eyes. It’s disarming—hazel irises, heavily lidded, long lashed, freckles all the way up to his hairline. The skin somehow tanned even under the freckles. The guy’s hair is thick and darker than Mike’s own, almost black. Mike has a visceral urge to feel its texture between his fingers. He wonders if Flowery Shirt might like to have it tugged in bed.
Mike thumbs the corner of his mouth and just lets his tongue peek out to nudge the pad. He smiles a little, as if he too hates when people message when he’s out. See? We’re the same. And oh, just casually thinking about blowing you. No big deal.
The guy lifts an eyebrow. His gaze falls off Mike’s chin, rolls down his chest, almost prickling the hair on Mike’s thigh as it passes over his crotch.
Mike shifts in his seat, letting his legs part.
The guy rolls his eyes, shakes his head, and sniffs a laugh.
Mike sighs and drops the cherry stone into his glass. “Great. Juuust great. Will I ever learn to be cool?”
The guy looks back at him.
What the hell. Mike smiles, giving him his last ditch effort, like it’s 3:00 a.m., they’ve drunk themselves sober, and neither of them has gotten off with who they wanted.
Resignation pits the guy’s cheek as he returns the smile, but he raises his glass and shakes it in invitation, little finger out. It’s an affectation, purposeful, self-depreciating. Gay gay gay. How about you? screams that quirked little finger, right along with the look on the guy’s handsome face.
Pinching his lips together so he doesn’t punch the air like he’s on a football terrace, Mike slides off his stool. He takes his drink with him, even though it’s nothing but weak whiskey slush at this point. He sets it on the bar as he hops up, brushing just close enough to bump their arms. “Hi. Your suit is sick.”
“What happened to you? Get lost on your way to Poppers?”
The guy gestures to Mike’s jumper. Or maybe his T-shirt. Hard to say. Possibly because Mike is still too busy mentally parsing the word Poppers and wondering if it’s a food or a sex act or what.
“What’s that?” he asks in the end. He can always plead “I’m not from here”if the bloke takes it upon himself to laugh and Poppers is some local institution Mike just hasn’t been introduced to.
The guy tilts his head and looks stumped for just a second. “Club. Everyone’s got a name like Reece or Sammy, even though they’re probably Bruces and Sharons. Every girl in the place wears a crop top, and the DJ thinks acid house is still happening.”
“Oh. Haven’t been there. We could go, though, if you want. I like to dance. At least I’d like to dance with you, I reckon.”
The laugh takes Mike by surprise, but it’s a nice one, so he joins in, pokes at his glass, and watches the ice make a tide around the cherry stone.
“I think I’ll have to pass on that, thanks. I’m having a bad enough day as it is without some twink in a Vivienne Westwood knockoff trampling all over my toes.”
Curling his foot around the strut of his barstool, Mike whines, “Hey. This, I will have you know, is not a knockoff. I found it in a charity shop.” Switching his face from sulky to flirty, he adds, “How ’bout if I promised to keep all contact strictly knees up?”
Flowery Shirt looks at him in a way that’s almost fond and definitely amused, his mouth pulling up at the corners. “Hmm. Well, that’d be an odd-looking dance, that, but maybe we’d start a craze. I can see it now. It’d be a club thing at first, then go mainstream, and in a year, there’d be a bastardized version on a workout DVD claiming to do amazing things for your core.”
Mike sniggers and sneaks a look while he drinks. There’s a tattoo peeking from the guy’s sleeve. It’s old, sailor style, and in a spot that must’ve hurt. Interesting. Not a lawyer or in finance, unless he’s one of the fashion crowd. Those types don’t have tattoos in places that show, even if Mike’s stumbled upon more than a few in certain other locations. There’s something slightly sad about this man’s expression that makes Mike think maybe he’s a journalist there to do interviews, or back in an old stomping ground full of regrets. Or maybe he just ran out on a lover—a model whom he manages or someone he’s waiting on an apology call from.
Mentally Mike sketches him out as a writer in a turbulent line of work, with a flat high above the city and a significant whoever padding across the floor in a towel. He chews his lip and plots his course of attack. Heavy flirting might do the trick, might manage to boost the guy’s wounded ego or mend his broken heart, whatever the trouble seems to be. Sometimes, when he’s assessing people like this, Mike feels like some sort of mechanic for lovelorn humans, studying them from all angles to find out where the trouble is, trying to work out what needs to be oiled to make things run right again. Mike’s dad was a mechanic. Mike bites the inside of his cheek on a laugh. Somehow he can’t imagine Dad would have approved. But then, if there’d still been a dad in the picture instead of an evil stepfather, Mike probably wouldn’t be there. So the point is moot.
“Can I get you a refresher?” the barman says, setting a plate of nachos down with a clink.
The guy waves at the bar, meeting Mike’s eye. “What are you having, then?”
“Whiskey and ginger?” The smell of melted cheese rises from the plate, curls its fingers around Mike’s stomach, and squeezes. “With a cherry, please.”
“That and another of these, then. Ta.”
The barman nods and swipes the squat glass out from under Mike’s fingers. Mike reaches for the guy’s drink, lifts it, gives it a quick sniff, and winds the cuffs of his jumper down over his hands so he doesn’t snatch a nacho. “Saffron gin? Nice.”
“How’d you know it was—?”
Mike doesn’t tell him drink knowledge is a great conversation starter in nearly every scenario. “If you get a good one, it should taste like you’re swallowing liquid sunshine.”
“Is that so?” The man laughs. “I’ll take your word for it. I only order it ’cause it’s pretty.”
“Well, you’d want something that matches your eyes.”
The guy sniff-laughs and leans back, like you for real?
“Next time, try it with orange peel,” Mike says. “Brings out the flavor better than lime.”
The guy pays for the drinks the barman delivers and passes Mike’s down the bar to him with a smile. “So there’s some flavoring purpose in that cherry, then?”
“Nah,” Mike says, fishing it out by the stem and watching whiskey drip off it. “I just like them because they’re fun to have in your mouth.”
He makes sure the guy’s looking this time and lays the cherry on his tongue, removes it from the stalk with a pop, and curls it back into his mouth. He holds it for a moment before nudging it against his cheek, pulling it back, and doing it again.
The guy rearranges his hair, pulling it up from his scalp. Then he settles his elbow on the bar. “What’s your name, then, porn star?”
“I’m not bothered what you call me.”
The guy snorts. “That’s not an answer. Is it?” He leans in so one of the overhead spotlights is suddenly fuller on his face, showing up the freckles all across his cheekbones. “What I asked was, what’s your name?”
At once he’s warm, insistent, inquisitive. Mike spits the cherry stone into his hand, unable to remember any of the names he normally uses. John, he thinks. Just say your name is John. But then he can’t work out if that’s actually a name or just an old-fashioned exhalation of air, like a dusty cough, and the guy seems like the type who’d spot that. “Mike.”
“Do you fancy a nacho, then, Mike? They look like they could use a good time.”
Unable to think of anything else to do with it, Mike tucks the stone against the condoms and lube in his back pocket and reaches for a nacho. The guy waits until Mike’s got a mouthful of sharp cheese and sour cream before he adds, “How much for you to show them one?”
The nacho almost lodges in Mike’s throat. Even if people think they know what he’s up to, they never usually have the balls to just come out and ask. Shit. Maybe he’s a policeman. Mike meets his eye, trying to see arrest warrants in there. He pictures the phone call to Callum from the cells. Double shit. There’s no money in the emergency tub. Triple shit. Robbie, Bilal, and Ahmed just blew everything they earned in a month on tattoos. Callum’ll have to call his mother. “Hi, I’m a friend of Mike’s. Would you happen to have enough money for his bail? What was he doing? Misunderstanding with a gentleman from the vice squad. All a bit George Michael. You know how it is.”
The guy takes a nacho and dunks it in the salsa. The movement reveals the lining of his jacket and the label—Yves Saint Laurent. Right, moron. Not a policeman. Not in that suit.
“Depends what they want?”