“DO YOU need some help?”
Michael stopped in the middle of trying to haul two suitcases, several boxes, and a guitar up the front steps of his new student accommodation and looked at the speaker. At the ornate front door of the Victorian house stood a slim young man with long, wild chestnut-brown curls and clear green eyes, a polite smile on his face. Michael took a deep breath, glanced around him at the chaos, and opted for a Gene Wilder line from one of his favorite films, Blazing Saddles.
“Oh… all I can get!”
The young man’s smile suddenly became more genuine, and his eyes sparkled with amusement. “Hey, not a Mel Brooks fan, are we?”
Now, what were the odds on that happening, Michael thought. “Too right!” he replied, smiling back. “Some help would really be appreciated, although you might regret asking when you find out where my room is!”
The young man smiled again. “Too late—as you’re the last of us to arrive, you must be Michael, and in which case, you’re at the top of the house, and you’re sharing with me! Drew the short straw, huh?”
Ah, so this was his new roommate, Sean. They were the only two students in the large house to be sharing—the other three had their own rooms. Fortunately, having visited the house a few weeks ago and seen his bedroom, Michael knew that there was plenty of room. In fact, its design meant that he and the other occupant had a short wall separating them, so there would be some privacy, at least.
“Yep, seems like it,” Michael said, smiling again to show that he was joking.
Sean came down the steps and lifted up one large packing box. He grunted at the weight of it. “God, Michael, what have you got in here? It weighs a ton!”
A guilty look stole over Michael’s face. “Books—lots of them!” His book collection was the despair of his mother, who hit the roof every time he came home with yet more books, claiming that, at this rate, she would make him go to IKEA to buy the next set of bookcases.
Sean’s eyes narrowed, and he affected a Deep South accent. “Looks like we got ourselves a reader!”
Now this is getting freaky, Michael thought. It was a line from his comedy hero, the late Bill Hicks.
“You a Bill Hicks fan too?”
Sean’s smile notched up even higher. “Oh, man, you and I are really going to get along!”
THAT was it, Michael had had enough! Somehow, he’d managed to find space for all his stuff, and now he was hot and sweating profusely. Although it was late September, it was a really warm day, and it had taken him and Sean a while to lug everything up the two flights of stairs, both of them struggling with the narrower staircase that led up to the attic room they shared. It was really a U-shaped room, with Michael’s half nearest the door and Sean’s half behind the purpose-built partition wall. Fortunately, the beds were large, and there was even room for a small couch. The huge windows were a bonus, offering expansive views of the blue sky above. Storage wasn’t that plentiful, however, and Michael had already made a mental note to go to some junk shops and see if he could pick up another chest of drawers.
Sean paused at the doorway, leaning against the frame. “You about finished?”
Michael looked up from his final attempt at sorting stuff. “Yeah, why?”
“Well, the others thought that it might be a good idea for all of us to go out for a drink together tonight in Manchester… you know, get to know each other a bit? What do you think?”
Michael grinned. “Oh, count me in!” He had briefly met Julia, Evan, and Adam earlier, but they hadn’t had much of a chat. “How are we getting there?” He didn’t really want to take his battered VW Beetle into the center of Manchester on a Saturday night. He was actually relieved that it had made it from the outskirts of Oxford to the suburbs of Manchester without breaking down.
“Julia suggested that we take the bus in, and maybe club together for a taxi back… or the late bus, depending on how late it gets!” Then Sean grinned. “Although we might have a few arguments about where exactly to have a drink!”
“Why?” replied Michael. “There must be loads of bars and pubs in the city center to choose from!”
“Yeah, but then Evan said he wanted to go to Canal Street!” The blank look on Michael’s face must have given him away, because Sean continued, patiently, “Canal Street is in the Gay Village.”
“The Gay Village! Did you never see Queer as Folk? Not the US version, the British original!” Michael’s expression was still blank. “Queer as Folk was about these gay blokes in Manchester—it was directed by Russell T. Davies. You know, the guy who did Doctor Who! The Gay Village is this bit in the city center, full of gay bars and clubs.”
“Is us going there going to present a problem, then?” Michael asked. It wouldn’t bother him if they went to a gay bar, as he wasn’t in the least bit homophobic—his mother had raised all her three children to accept everyone, regardless of race, color, or sexual orientation.
Sean grimaced. “For me, no, I couldn’t care less. Not gay myself, and gay bars are something of a rarity where I come from, but apparently for Adam, yes. And I quote, ‘You won’t find me going into a bar full of homos! And I’m not walking down Canal Street—someone might see me who knows me!’” Well, that gave Michael a bit more information about the occupant of Room 1, and he wasn’t that thrilled about it. He was all for a pleasant, stress-free existence, and there was no room in his life for bigotry and those who spouted it.
“Well, I don’t care where we go, as long as I have time to take a shower first, because believe me, I need one after all this effort!” said Michael.
Sean smiled cheekily. “Oh, is that where the smell is coming from?” He was rewarded with a well-aimed towel thrown at his shoulder, which he was unable to avoid. “Careful—you could take out someone’s eye with the corner of a towel, you know!” Both young men were laughing now. “We’ll meet in the hall at seven—that sound okay for you?”
“Great. I’ll tell the others. Although Evan will be disappointed!”
Michael laughed. Even with a very brief introduction, it had been obvious that Evan was gay and had no qualms about everyone knowing it. To be honest, Michael was looking forward to getting to know his housemates. Usually, first-year students were given accommodation in a hall of residence, but he had opted for a shared house, preferring the privacy that wouldn’t be possible in a block of student flats. Of course, it was a gamble—they all had to get along with one another for a year, but he was easygoing enough to feel that he could get on with anyone—even Adam.
COULD they have found a noisier bar? Sean looked around at the five of them huddled around a corner table in the pub Moon on the Water, which was heaving with students that night. They had been there for an hour, and Sean already had a good take on the differing personalities of his housemates.
Julia was the quietest of them all, a slight, pretty, pale girl with long black hair and blue eyes. She didn’t seem bothered to be the only girl, and had already shown herself to be quick-witted and amusing when she did choose to speak. She was studying maths, which always went right over Sean’s head anyway, so she obviously had a good brain, he concluded. Adam, on the other hand, was tall, muscular, and laughed loudly, sometimes too loudly, at every remotely funny utterance—although notably whenever Evan spoke, the laughter was conspicuously absent, accompanied by a narrowing of his lips. Oh dear, the end of the first day and Sean could already see problems arising there. Evan was a real scream, though, and Sean liked him immediately, as it was obvious from the start that Evan was a very genuine person. If Sean had to describe him, he supposed that the first word out of his mouth might be “pretty:” a slim young man with short blond hair that swept onto his face, framing blue eyes that always seemed to hold amusement.
Michael was good-looking, Sean supposed, with black curls that were a lot shorter than his own, and hazel eyes. As first impressions went, Sean was optimistic. Michael gave off some solid, steady vibes, as far as he was concerned, and upon glancing through the extensive DVD collection Michael had brought from home—another really heavy box!—Sean realized that they had very similar tastes, which boded well. Truth be told, when Michael had come out with the Blazing Saddles line, then recognized his Hicks quote, Sean had relaxed quite a bit. He had been rather apprehensive about sharing a room, but Michael had allayed those fears within an hour of meeting him.
Sean suddenly realized that he had been daydreaming, when Evan prodded him. “What?”
“I asked you where you come from and what you’re studying. What planet were you on just now, Sean?” Evan was smirking.
“Oh, sorry, I was miles away. Foreign languages—French and Spanish to be exact—and I’m from a small village on the Isle of Wight,” Sean replied, reaching for his beer.
Adam frowned. “Is that the one with the funny cats?” he asked.
Sean cracked up laughing. “No, you’re thinking of the Isle of Man. The Isle of Wight is off the south coast—not the most expensive ferry crossing in the world, but bloody close!”
“Okay,” continued Evan, “so anyone got a significant other back home? Or are we all young, free, and single?”
Sean tried not to notice Adam’s sneer, but the guy wasn’t exactly trying to hide it. He sighed internally.
“Well, I’m unattached,” said Julia, “but to be honest, I haven’t got time for romance. It’s really hard for me to keep focused on my studies and have a love life at the same time. I tried that in the sixth form for a while, but don’t go there, okay?”
Evan smiled at her and briefly touched her hand on the table next to him.
“What about you, Adam?” he asked the blond.
Adam gave a tight smile to the others. “That’s all part of being a student, isn’t it?” he said. “Being away from home, having freedom, lots of parties, lots of alcohol, lots of sex….” He leered at Julia, whose smile in return was merely stretching the corners of her mouth. “And I suppose you’ve got loads of different fellas, Evan.”
“Sweetie, why would you think that? Gay doesn’t mean promiscuous, you know—although it does describe some of my friends very accurately, come to think of it!” Evan gave a wink at Sean, who laughed. “No,” he said, shaking his head, “I’m single, though not by choice. I’ve had the occasional one-night stand, but I want more than that.”
“Waiting for your prince to sweep you off your feet, eh, Evan?” said Michael, smiling. Sean watched as an emotion registered on Evan’s face—something akin to longing, just for a moment. He suddenly had this urge to defend his new housemate.
“There’s nothing wrong in wanting to be swept off your feet, and I for one still believe in true love. Imagine that, in this cynical day and age!” Sean said, smiling as he grasped Evan’s hand in support. Evan’s glance at him was warm and grateful, and he suddenly felt really pleased that he had spoken up. “But I’ve never even had a girlfriend.”
“Me neither,” said Michael. “No one has really caught my eye yet.”
“Well, give it time—and a few parties with loads of booze—and all that will change!” Adam said, draining the last of his pint. “Another, anyone?” After receiving some nods, he wandered off toward the bar. Evan took advantage of his momentary absence to sidle up to Michael and Sean, seated next to each other.
“So, I take it that neither of you bats for my team?” he asked, looking at them flirtatiously through long black lashes. Michael burst out laughing, Sean joining him. “Well!” Evan said, “My gaydar must definitely be out of order, ’cause I could’ve sworn…. Oh well! Nothing ventured, as they say!”
Julia laughed. “I think that the so-called gaydar is a myth,” she said. “You can’t really tell just by looking at someone if he’s gay or not!”
Unfortunately, Adam chose this moment to return to the group, laden with a tray of drinks, and he overheard the comment.
“’Course you can!” he retorted. “I mean, it’s obvious!”
Evan suddenly had a mischievous gleam in his eyes. “Really? Shall we put it to the test, then?”
Adam looked uncomfortable but thrust his chin out and nodded, albeit somewhat reluctantly.
Evan glanced toward the bar for a minute and then said, “What about the bloke standing over there, in the dark-brown leather jacket?”
Everyone followed his gaze, seeing a very well-built, muscular man standing at the bar, talking quietly with another man. They stood apart, and the conversation was obviously amusing, as both were smiling.
Adam smiled. “Now he is straight—just look at him!”
Evan nodded thoughtfully, then got up and walked toward the man, glancing back at the others and winking.
“What is he doing?” said Sean, concern etched on his face. “He could end up getting his face smashed in! Anything’s possible!” They watched as Evan spoke quietly to the man. Then everyone gasped as the man took Evan’s face in his hands and kissed him thoroughly on the lips, oblivious to the people standing around them at the bar, who couldn’t help but notice them. The kiss continued for at least five seconds, and when Evan finally surfaced, he was blushing and smiling. He took the man by the hand and led him to their table.
“Housemates, allow me to introduce my friend Oscar. And by the way, the other guy over there laughing his ass off is Oscar’s husband, Peter.” The group looked in Peter’s direction, to see him with tears of laughter rolling down his face.
“You mean… you already knew Oscar was gay?” said Michael. “I mean, he really is a friend of yours?”
Evan laughed. “Oscar and I first met a few months ago in Via Fossa, a fantastic gay bar on Canal Street—might take you there one night! Anyway, he and Peter were out on the town, and we got chatting.” He looked at Oscar. “Thanks, sweetie—you did really well!” Oscar leaned across and kissed Evan, this time on his cheek.
“You’re welcome, honey,” he replied in a deep voice. “Anything to help out.” He nodded to the others and returned to his husband. Evan smiled innocently at Adam, who was trying hard not to scowl and failing miserably. It was too much for Julia, Sean, and Michael, who doubled over, laughing.
“Okay, time to go home now,” said Adam shortly, getting up and reaching for his jacket. The others looked at each other, realizing that for Adam, the night out was apparently over, his mood having changed for the worse. They watched as he strode out of the bar.
Evan shrugged. “Another drink, anyone?”
“ARE you asleep?” Michael whispered across their room.
“Well, not now!” came back Sean’s equally quiet reply. “Only kidding. What’s up?”
Michael got out of bed, wearing his pajama trousers and T-shirt, and padded silently around the wall to Sean’s side. Sean was lying on his back, staring up at the skylight window above his bed, through which stars could be seen, like diamond dust on black velvet.
“Are you okay?” he asked Michael.
“Just have trouble getting to sleep. Can we chat for a bit?” Michael asked.
“Sure,” replied Sean, “seeing as I’m having the same problem. What do you want to chat about?”
“Tell me about the Isle of Wight—I’ve never been there.” Michael sat in the armchair next to Sean’s bed, curling his legs under him and hugging a cushion against his chest.
Sean smiled up at the window and sighed. His favorite subject. The two young men talked quietly into the early hours, sharing details about their families and lives back home. Michael learned that Sean’s father was a farmer, his mother worked too hard, and that he had a brother, David, who was two years younger. Sean had only been able to afford the university fees because of the money left to him by his grandmother, who had wanted Sean to pursue his love of languages, rather than follow his father into farming. Sean already knew that he and Michael were studying the same languages, French and Spanish. He learned that Michael’s father had died when Michael was seven, leaving his mother to bring up a boy and two little girls on her own. It was evident from Michael’s tone that he simply adored his family, and that they were very close. Sean envied him that, as the relationship between Sean and his father was strained most of the time, Sean always feeling as if he were a disappointment to his father. But Sean obviously loved the sixteen-year-old David, and was missing him already. For both eighteen-year-olds, it was their first time away from home, and both were grateful that at least they got on well with each other, and looked likely to become good friends.