From Both Sides By Sam Saxton

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He was crossing the road onto Trafalgar Square just like everyone else around him. They were tourists, for the most part, people who had come here deliberately. It was going to be an evening for it. The clouds, if they could even be called that, had floated off again, leaving no doubt about the weather. People here were all waiting for a summer evening. There was, of course, the background chant of the cars, and the smoke, and somewhere nearby, now, the tick-tock of heels, the thrum of purpose that never quite escaped you in the city. But there was also, unmistakeably, the sound of quiet leisure. The expectant voices of children could be heard now and then from some distant group; a busker, somewhere, was chancing it; somebody was laughing stupidly. He kept his head down. There was comfort in the anonymity of a square. There were so many exits. But no one was really going anywhere.

He was, though. He knew that now, though he hadn’t known for sure when he left the park. The park where he’d been for so long he could hardly remember when he’d arrived.

It was Joni Mitchell coming from the busker, he realised now he was getting closer. It was A Case of You. It was as terrible as he’d have expected, but that line about the blue TV screen light still got him somewhere, took him back to Canada, which might as well have been a decade ago now. How did people do that: creating beauty out of something fraught? That summer had been a source of every kind of pain to him, but what had he done with it? Had he fed it into anything, grown anything from it?

But this was exactly the kind of thinking the therapist had been trying to intervene in. Observe the negative thought, watch it float by, start again – that’s what she’d have said. And wasn’t it a beautiful day, a day which had given him just the right variables to sit in the park with the birds, and really think about what to do next? He hadn’t thought about that though, he’d decided to let his feet carry him for a while, instead of his brain, and it was obvious now where he was going.

But he would stop for a while, and listen to the busker. She wasn’t so bad. She wasn’t overdoing it on the holy wine bit. He perched on the edge of one of the lions, pretending to look for something in his bag, facing the wrong way, so no one would think he was listening to the music. He did find something in his bag. It was a drink, but there was nothing wrong with that. In fact, he was going to need it where he was going.

And as he drank, he thought again about the busker, who was not so different from him, and had a good voice, and understood Joni Mitchell, and so he turned to face her, made it plain that he was listening to her, and fished for a coin, which he would deposit in her guitar case. It was only fair.

The counsellor he’d been sent to, Sarah, was a Buddhist. He didn’t know what he thought about that, but she’d taught him that there was a sort of magic in stopping to look or to listen. She was right, of course, but there was more magic in it for her because she was a busy woman, who had too much to do. He didn’t have anything to do. And yet, maybe there was a magic in this moment, listening to “I would still be on my feet”.

He timed it just right, so he was on his feet as she finished. He looked her in the eye and she smiled. It was worth 50 pence, he thought, to feel like he was a person who had 50 pence to give away.

Then, as he began walking again, she started singing Both Sides Now. Did she only do Joni Mitchell? Was she some sort of imitation act? What a shame if she was, because she clearly wasn’t good enough to imitate Joni Mitchell. He was embarrassed now, that he’d paid for this. Would people think he had requested it? He put his head back down.

Sarah would like those lyrics. Looking at clouds from both sides – that was her message. Or would she? “It’s life’s illusions I recall” – wasn’t that how it ended? He wouldn’t stay to find out. He was already heading up Charing Cross Road.

Though he didn’t need to, he crossed the road, and, with it, a kind of Rubicon. The Square was a place for stopping, but the street was a place for going, especially this side. Theatregoing, and shopping going, even churchgoing. He was going now, just like all the goers. Though he had nowhere to go. Did he reserve a special gait for this type of going? One that chimed with the city and its tempo? Had he unconsciously slowed it for the weather, or was that his mood?

He crossed the road again, back towards Leicester Square, though he definitely wasn’t going there. Sometimes his feet seemed to know what he was doing before he did. What would Sarah have to say about that? He had a vague idea there was something about Freud and the subconscious (or was it the unconscious?) and that Sarah would be interested in that. He didn’t know much about that, but what he did know was that he often seemed to find himself doing things he couldn’t explain, or rather that he could very easily explain with a bit of hindsight.

He was passing through China Town now, with its brash crimson and its bells, and its vague sad feeling of never quite being at capacity. The smells carried on the sinking air reminded him how hungry he was, but he couldn’t afford to think about that. Instead, he distracted himself looking at the details on the lanterns overhead. It was a marvel that this place just went on existing all year round. It wasn’t there for special occasions, or novelty value. Some of them would have lived there, probably in grim overcrowded flats above the restaurants. Probably they had much worse lives, objectively speaking, than his. How did they motivate themselves every day, to get up, usually in the dark and the cold, and go to their over-lit kitchens, with no air and no space, and nothing to look forward to? He ought to be grateful. But perhaps it was all about expectations. Maybe they’d fled something much worse than what he’d fled. Maybe their grandparents had told them about living through the Great Leap Forward, which he’d learned about once, with its mass starvation, and terror, and that awful ruler.

Weren’t all the world’s problems created by men? Were there any famous women who had caused mayhem and terror? Margaret Thatcher was terrible, but she hadn’t started any wars. Oh but she had. Over some tiny islands. Maybe the world’s women just hadn’t had the opportunities to be so disastrous yet. Would we look back in thousands of years, when equality had been worked out, and say yes, that was the century when women started taking power back, and we learned that they can be just as awful as men. Unlikely. We’d all be fried before that happened.

And here he was, now, in Soho. Land of men. It was their Promised Land. They gathered here in groups and celebrations. They gaggled like birds, clucking and peacocking, waiting to be seen. The evening air was pressing down now, thick with sex. Everyone here was either young or old. There was no in-between. The men at this bar were young and warm and alive. The men at that bar were old and their space was sanctified for sitting and looking. The youngsters gathered on one side, shrieking and flapping their arms and cooing at passers-by like him. One or two even looked at him, briefly, tried to get caught looking like they didn’t want to get caught looking. But mostly they pretended not to be interested at all, because they were The Young. Down the other end of the street was that bar, and it was for those who were older, and bigger, and who’d seen it all already. They had a name. They had a type. But youth is its own type, and some couldn’t help themselves as he approached, couldn’t look anywhere else, because what else was there to see?

‘You coming in?

‘Yes.’

‘ID?’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, darling.’

‘Ok.’

‘Ok. Behave yourself.’

He needed to behave now. To behave like what they wanted him to be. Coy, but open. Available, but discerning. Sharp.

‘The cider, please.’

‘That’ll be five fifty.’

‘Thanks. Can you put it on a tab.’

A brief narrowing of the eyes. But it was a sensible calculation.

It took only a few minutes before he arrived. The worst of it was that he wasn’t unattractive. He was close to being bearable.

‘Hello chap. You on your own?’

‘Yeah, my mate’s supposed to be coming later, but he’s… work is busy…’

He’d had this line ready but he still couldn’t deliver it with conviction.

‘Ha same.’

Yeah, right.

‘Sorry to hear it,’ and a dry smile.

The older man nudged himself onto the stool next to him. No one would try to unseat him now. He might have been one of the least unattractive men in the room – the seat was his to take.

‘You local?’

It was an odd question, here. But he supposed some people had to be local.

‘No, I’m living… well I’m staying with a friend at the moment. He lives in Clerkenwell.’

‘Close enough. I’m on Greek Street.’

‘Oh wow. So this is your local?’

‘Sort of, yeah. I come here a lot.’

‘It’s a nice place.’

‘It’s alright. Beers are cheap.’

‘Are they? My cider was five fifty.’

‘Oh yeah, well you should have gone for the bitter.’

‘Already bitter enough,’ he said, and the older man laughed. He was pleased with himself for thinking of that line.

‘I’m Will,’ the older man said.

‘Jack, Nice to meet you,’ but he deliberately kept his hand on his pint. Didn’t want the other patrons to see them shaking hands, like they were already sealing a deal.

‘You’re a handsome young man, Jack.’

‘Thanks. You’re handsome too.’

‘But not young!’

‘No, I didn’t – ‘

‘Ha, I’m kidding. But it’s true, I’m old enough to be your father.’

‘No.’ But the damage was done. He was. And now they’d acknowledged it, the gap felt wider.

‘How old are you?’ he asked, and then winced.

‘41,’ Will said, and Jack tried to work out if he was lying. If he was, it was a funny age to choose. He could have got away with 39, which was the fuckable side of 40.

‘You don’t look it,’ he lied.

‘Thanks. And how old are you? 18?’ and he chuckled.

‘27,’ Jack said, wishing he’d planned a more plausible number, but if Will thought he was lying he didn’t let on.

He said, ‘well I would have thought even younger,’ but of course he had to say something like that.

Jack thanked him, as though he was flattered.

They talked. Not about much, but about the football, and the weather, and the tendency of summer to make you stay out later than you’d intended. Eventually Will, getting impatient, mentioned another drink. Jack was quick:

‘To be honest, I can’t afford another one. I’m totally skint.’

‘Oh well in that case they’re on me. I’m feeling flush, cos I’ve just been paid.’

‘Lucky you.’

‘Lucky you!’

‘Lucky me.’

‘Same again?’

‘Well, what are you having?’

‘I’m on the G&Ts’

‘I’ll have the same then.’

‘Great. Double?’

‘Go on then.’

‘Rock n roll.’

They talked more. But he still managed to say very little. As the second drink hit, he began to get a proper look at Will, and to think about what he was doing.

He was a peculiar shape. Broad, but with narrow, sloping shoulders. His head was wider at the top than it was at the bottom. He had a tuft of hairs poking out of the top of his polo neck. Jack didn’t like body hair.

‘…so then I moved here, and honestly I’ve never looked back. It’s such a nice place.’

‘I’d love to see it.’

‘What, now?’

‘Fuck it, why not? I don’t think either of our mates are gonna show up are they?’

‘Great, yeah, I mean no, he just texted me actually. And yeah I mean I love to show off my place. Alright.’

‘Maybe one quick one for the road?’

‘Yeah, great, course. My treat. Whiskey?’

‘Perfect.’

The man couldn’t hide his delight. This would be the highlight of his year.

They walked slowly along Old Compton Street. Neither of them wanted to seem to be in a hurry. The night was alive now, as only a Soho night could be. Darkness was just settling in, and electricity was everywhere. People came at them from every direction, but they were all heading elsewhere. Then a fellow youngster came straight at them.

‘Gents!’

They nodded, smiled weakly, tried to let him pass. But he wasn’t passing.

‘Sup guys!’

They tried to continue their conversation, but he was walking alongside them now. He was not poorly dressed, not destitute. He was no worse than Jack. But there was only room for one Jack in this situation, and tonight he’d got there first.

‘Either of you got a cigarette by any chance?’

‘No, sorry, don’t smoke.’

‘Sorry mate.’

‘No worries pal, where are you guys heading anyway? I’ve lost my mates and the night’s young innit.’

Jack looked at his face. His pupils were so dilated he looked something like a cartoon character. Still, he had a rough-edged charm. He was a definite threat.

‘We’re just off home actually.’

‘Sweet, ok. I’m off out. The night’s young.’

‘Yeah you said that,’ Will said, smiling.

‘Alright mate, no need to be aggressive.’

‘I’m not being aggressive!’

‘Yes, you are mate, I was just trying to be fucking friendly. Jesus, Londoners are a bunch of stuck up tossers…’ and he tumbled indecisively into side alley. Will and Jack quickened their pace slightly.

‘God, he was a mess,’ Will said.

‘Yeah, high as a kite.’ The phrase was old-fashioned sounding, but he felt like it was the kind of thing Will would have been impressed to hear.

‘Ah we’ve all been there I suppose.’

‘Ha. I suppose.’

‘You indulge yourself occasionally?’

Jack paused. ‘Well. You can hardly avoid it on the scene these days, can you?’

‘Ha. No. Half the people on the apps these days are HnH.’

‘Yeah.’

‘I do a teeny bit every now and again.’

‘Yeh? It can be a laugh.’

‘Yeh exactly. Not often, you know. But usually when I’m pissed.’

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. He was trying to tread a precarious line between shy and circumspect.

‘This is my place.’

‘Cool.’

It was unprepossessing from the exterior, but he knew there could be anything on the other side of that door. Will unlocked and they crept up a flight of creaking carpeted stairs, towards a front door. Jack couldn’t help but think about how he might escape if he had to.

‘Voila. Home, sweet homo.’

‘Oh wow, it’s really nice.’

‘Thanks. I try.’

‘What did you say you do again?’

‘PR. But I inherited this place.’

‘Lucky you.’

‘Yeah. Another drink?’

‘Yeah, thanks.’

‘Another G&T?’

‘Great.’

Jack moved round the living space, picking up ornaments and looking at pictures, while Will made the drinks. He tried his best to look uninterested in the process. The older man took a lemon, and cut it with a ceramic knife. He took ice from a dispenser in the front of the fridge.

Jack wondered whether he smelled, tried to remember when he’d last washed.

‘There you go.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Cheers.’

‘Cheers.’

There was a moment’s pause, before Will asked, ‘So you do do chemsex sometimes?’

‘Yeah, I guess I’ve dabbled in that scene,’

‘Me too. Maybe a bit more than I mean to.’

They would both have known how common this line was. Everyone on the scene did it more than they intended to. It was the constant theme of the think-pieces in queer magazines, the chats on the dating apps. Young gays were getting sucked in by casual drug-taking, finding themselves at sex parties for days, egged on by the community, and the chems, and the insecurities brought on by constant exposure to perfect bodies on social media and in unrealistic porn, which would play in the background on TVs at the parties, in the aspirational homes of the older queens who hosted them. Queens like Will, in homes like this one.

‘You always tell yourself you won’t do it again, when you’re coming down,’ Will was saying, ‘but then a couple of weeks goes by, and you have a few drinks on a Friday night…’

‘Yeah.’

‘I try not to do it too often though.’

Jack had no choice but to ask. Best to be the first to get the question in anyway.

‘How often’s not too often?’

‘I dunno. I always tell myself I won’t do it more than once a month…’

Jack knew what that meant. For so long he’d managed to keep it to alternate weekends. Maintaining his resolve on the weekends off was always a struggle, but it helped that it always followed a week’s comedown.

‘…how about you?’

Jack looked into his eyes, and thought, briefly, about the possibility of being honest. Of telling him everything, as a kind of experiment. Maybe he could see him again, become a regular lover. Maybe he could tolerate being fucked repeatedly by this man, stop noticing his misshapen head, grow accustomed to putting his swollen penis in his mouth, start to know him, maybe even to like him.

But the gap was too big. He knew it. They both knew.

‘Oh ya know. Just every now and then. If friends are doing it.’

‘Good lad. Keep it that way. It’s dangerous stuff, especially meph and G – they’re so addictive. I’ve seen so many people get addicted. And their lives just fall apart.’

‘Mmm. Yeah.’

‘I wish I’d never touched it really. But it’s just so fun isn’t it. And you just crave it after a few drinks.’

‘Yeah, I know.’

A forced, ironic smirk appeared on Will’s face. ‘I do have the day off tomorrow though.’

Jack gave him an impassive half-smile. ‘Oh really?’

‘Yeah. I have a teeny bit, if you like, otherwise I might fall asleep, all this booze.’

Jack let the idea sit in the air for just a moment, tried to look nonchalant.

‘Ok.’

‘Cool.’

Will reached his hand into his pocket, pulled out a respectable looking leather wallet. From behind a gold credit card he took a small baggy. The powder inside was yellowed and crumbly, like sand.

‘It’s not as good as the pre-ban stuff, but it does the job if you take a bit more,’ he said.

‘Sure it’ll hit the spot.’

Will pulled a black square plate from a cupboard and sprinkled the powder liberally, then he took a card from his wallet and began scraping it across the plate, crushing the powder into a finer, whiter dust. He lined it up in four small piles.

The ritual set off an unstoppable chain reaction in Jack. He felt his heart racing. Maybe his pupils were already dilating.

Will pulled out a twenty and rolled a makeshift straw.

‘After you.’

‘Thanks.’

This was the moment, he supposed, when the decision was final. At this point he could still have left, still have walked back out of the door he’d come in through, back through Soho, back to somewhere else.

But the impossibility of that course of action. He had fished around in bins at parties, he had stolen from the pockets of friends, he had begged perfect strangers for cash.

‘Mind if I go out for a minute, for a fag?’ Jack asked

‘No, course. I don’t have any though, sorry.’

‘That’s cool, I’ve got one left. We can share it if you like.’

‘No, thanks, I don’t smoke.’

Of course he didn’t smoke. He probably didn’t go out either. They were just different people.

On the balcony, he remembered again how warm it was outside now. Wasn’t this the time everyone had been waiting for? It filled him with a kind of dread. Because if summer was the beginning of something, wasn’t it also the end of everything else? If it was what everyone had been waiting for, what else was left? And wasn’t the solstice only the start of the nights drawing in? The shadows cast in summer made only a sharper contrast between light and the dark. The cloudless nights were the coldest.

But nothing could hold back the surge of chemicals now. Facts, and fears, didn’t matter. There were only sensations now. And the light of the evening was wide and golden in the sky, and the nicotine of the cigarette still wrung out yet more dopamine, a short, sharp buzz every time, even now. And if the cooler air was lifting on something like a breeze it was only to encourage him back into the flat, with its softness and warmth.

They chatted for a few minutes. Those few glorious minutes, when every part of the body commended you. His breaths had grown shallower, his senses at once sharper and duller. He’d almost forgotten what he had to do.

Then Will put a hand on his thigh, and he sat upright. He looked at him again. There was no going back. And it wouldn’t take long. He played through every exit strategy, as he did every time. It was no good. Joni Mitchell was floating through his mind. I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now…

He breathed in and out a few times, then he kissed Will. It was wetter and warmer than he’d expected.

‘You’re so hot,’ Will said breathlessly.

‘Thanks.’ He tried to sound sheepish.

Will sat on him, and pressed himself against him. He stiffened involuntarily, tried not to squirm. Will started kissing his neck.

‘Don’t give me a hickey.’

‘No.’

Will pulled down his pants, began playing with his balls, with his cock. Jack racked his brain for stimuli, held his breath, eventually began to swell slightly. Will at least had the persistence of a man with low self-esteem. Jack tried to make some of the right noises. They liked that.

In the fog of the high he was able, briefly, to forget, to feel.

‘Is that good?’

‘Yeh.’

‘He seems to be enjoying it.’

Sure enough, he was plausibly hard. He tried not to think of the tongue around his cock, of the mouth it sat in.

‘Another line?’

‘Sure.’

When the fucking began it was a relief. He wouldn’t take long now. He was beside himself. Jack kept up the noises, and, with his face down into the bed, he was able to make it work. He thought of scenes he’d been a part of with younger, more handsome men. He thought of sex parties that had worked out, been less sordid or tense than most of them ended up. He thought of the sculpted bodies of the men in the pornography he watched when he could. It took longer than he’d hoped, but eventually Will came.

‘Oh wow. That was great.’

‘Thanks,’ Jack said ambiguously, and he gave him a quick peck on the lips, so he couldn’t get there first. ‘I might have a quick shower if that’s ok?’

‘Course.’

The water was glorious. Warm and soft and buzzing. Was there any greater pleasure than this, in this life? Washing off the dirt and the cold. The neurons still firing.

He rehearsed his lines in his head as he towelled himself off, and finished the drink he’d brought in with him.

Will was darting around, picking up clothes and smoothing sheets. He supposed a home like this took constant maintenance.

Jack tensed the muscles in his stomach as he spoke, put one thumb in the top of the jeans he’d just pulled back on. Important to look as masculine as possible at this moment.

‘How do you want to pay? I can take bank transfer if it’s easier.’ He reached to the floor, casually, took back his T-shirt, didn’t look at Will.

Will looked up. ‘What?’

‘I can take bank transfer. Most people prefer it these days.’

Will took a second, blinked, then looked back at the bed, as if for clues.

Jack had all his things on him. Had a clear line back to the door he’d come in from.

‘Mate…’ Will said, imploringly, and then trailed off.

Jack didn’t feel anything like guilt. He was winning right now, but tomorrow morning he’d be losing again. The door would close and he’d be back in Soho, on the street, darker now, colder. The high would wear, slowly, frustrations, paranoia creeping in. There would be another sleepless night, and another unpredictable summer’s day. There would be clouds. There might be rain.

Will made a surprisingly quick turnaround, very little fuss. He kept a dignified silence. He didn’t pretend not to have cash, or try to get away with much less. He did wait until the last second, though, and shake his head slowly as Jack made the mistake of looking back.

‘Dick,’ he said, quietly, but more to himself than to Jack, and Jack was able to close the door behind him gently, and feel the rush of the last line peaking now as he headed back down the stairs, towards the street, and maybe the square, where the busker would be gone, and the night would have taken over from the day, so different, so much more hostile, but quieter, more predictable, more a place he could reasonably call his home.

#

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Sam Saxton

Sam Saxton is a writer, TV producer, climber, and queer. They live in East London with their partner and far too many books. Their stories have been published in various journals, including Litro and Short Fiction. They are currently working on a novel, which will almost definitely be available in all good bookshops soon.

Image by StockSnap on Pixabay

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