I stare at the square photo on my phone and imagine it’s not me. I imagine I am sat idly on the tube with my thighs apart because it’s leg day, rugby socks ruffled halfway down my calves, although I don’t play. I would be looking like I’d been to the gym, hair at strategic right angles like modern architecture. It will show that I don’t care. Maybe I’m looking nonchalant as I scroll a hashtag. #instaguys. Or #menwithbeards. And then I would come across my picture. I try to imagine what I would think of the person staring back at me, in front of a dirty gym mirror, shirtless, tensed, phone deliberately angled in selfie mode like I’ve been taught.
Would I like me?
My go-to filter doesn’t work with the gym lighting. It makes my abs pop but I look washed out. Unless I could make that a thing in the text? Like ‘waiting for summer vibez’. I could just post that pic of me in a pool in Ibiza clinging on to a pink flamingo, living my best life. But it’s Mykonos this summer, not Ibiza. I scroll through more filters. Juno accentuates the bags under my eyes, whilst Aden and Perpetua do the opposite job and make me look like I have jaundice. I imagine these filters are my friends, busy fussing around me with their own specific skill, removing a line here and replacing with a lie there, glowing me up. Aden would be my serious friend, giving me tough love when I needed it. Solid, dependable Aden. Whereas Perpetua sounds like a posh girly girl in a flowery dress she’d pair with white plimsolls, drinking something exciting from a straw. I opt for Valencia. Yes. Valencia never lets you down. She can be relied upon to give you what you need, safe in most social situations. The Xanax of Instagram filters.
I’m happy with the photo now. It should perform well. But the text is always the hard part.
I try out:
No. Too forced. It would make me look happy, which isn’t an option. Dedicated, yes. Contented certainly, with the caveat that we are always striving for more. But never just happy. Happy is so basic. It’s something a nine-year-old girl would write. You can only do that if you’re being ironic. Like in a ‘hey gurl, here she comes’ kind of way. Ironic in a faux sassy way.
Not real irony.
I try another.
Pre-weekend pump #fridaymotivation
A bit too obvious. I want to get across that this is just another day. This is what I do. No worries. No hassle. I try a third time.
The struggle is real #fridaypump
Too lazy. Although it doesn’t make it any less truthful.
Eventually I opt for:
I didn’t choose the gym lyfe, the gym lyfe chose me #fridaymotivation
I stole it from a post I saw last week, but it fits. I deliberate for a few minutes over whether to include a full stop, and then decide punctuation looks prissy and overthought. I want it to look like I don’t have the time to punctuate. Yes, I dashed this off between gym sessions and Peloton, and an important presentation to the Californian team, before joining my co-workers on a roof terrace for an Aperol Spritz. I live a pressurised but amazing life, so full stops will just have to wait.
‘Always post like it’s the last post you’ll ever send,’ Niall says. I worry that I might be hit by a Just Eat scooter and this post will come to define me, preserved as a time capsule. ‘He left us doing what he loved,’ people would say. I look at it again. Does this sum up where I am in my life, in this month, on this Friday, in this precise minute of my existence? I think back to the goals I set myself in January, documented by a post of the view on Primrose Hill with the caption ‘Never stop exploring, never stop growing’ #blessed. Is this really brand me? I force myself to not to overthink.
I am buying chicken in Stockwell Tesco Metro when Niall messages me. He’s my brother from another mother, and now he feels like he is part of me, like my left arm, or my phone. We have each other’s backs. He is trying out a new pronunciation of his name. ‘It’s Niall as in the river’ he tells people. It makes him sound like he might be Irish, which could be cool, even though he’s from Berkhamstead. Whereas I am just Ben. If anyone asks, I tell them I am a Benjamin, which sounds better than the nerdier Benedict that I really am. But no one asks.
I can’t complain. I’ve been lucky to have been given a hot name. Only Jacks and Dans are hotter. Maybe an outlying Luke, or Lucas if you’re particularly fortunate. And then you get non-descript names that are made hot by the bodies that inhabit them, like a Kyle. Or a Nathan. Nathan. Always Nathan.
The only thing to top it would be something mysteriously European, like Nikos, or ethnic. Maybe an Amir or an Eli. Ethnicity is positively encouraged. Niall went to Tel Aviv last year to hook up with a guy and posted pictures on the beach with the hashtag #keeploveoutofpolitics. They broke up a few weeks later. We choose what issues to acknowledge, because you can’t support everything can you? Mental health. Body shaming. These are all important topics. I’m not saying Israel is not problematic, but it’s too complicated to get across in a post. And we all want an Israeli boyfriend.
I look back at my post. The comments have started to roll in.
- Heart emoji
- Heart emoji. Heart emoji. Heart emoji. Heart emoji.
- Marry me Daddy!!!
- Fire emoji. Fire emoji.
- I am London two weeks. You are nice I would like to meet. I am Carl.
- OMG, literally cannot breathe right now
- Aubergine emoji. Raindrops emoji.
- Hey Ben, dig your style. DM for collab
- So freakin hot!
- Dat ass tho. Peach emoji
- Aubergine emoji. Aubergine emoji
- Do you want to see how to turn $1000 dollars into a five-fold investment strategy? Visit zorboinvestment.com
- Looking thiccckkkk buddy
I hate ‘buddy’. ‘Buddy’ is the absolute worst. It’s even worse than ‘fella’.
Where are you, Niall messages.
This is how Niall starts every interaction with me, even if we haven’t arranged to meet. There is no accusation or demanding question mark. No stress on the middle word. That is how our friendship works. We expect nothing from each other, and so we give each other everything.
Tesco’s in Stockwell. You? I reply
Vauxhall. Will be with you in twenty. Can walk through the park with you. Still on for tonight?
Yeah. Who’s going again?
I knew exactly who was going.
There was a pause to the flow of the conversation before something flashed up on Messenger. Niall had a habit of flitting between channels. He kept everything open and sometimes forgot which conversation he was in. He once pinged me a LinkedIn to see if I wanted a Nando’s. On more than one occasion he’s sent me a picture that really wasn’t meant for me.
No one ever phones each other though. It’s too intrusive somehow
Ross. Johnny. The Toms. Dmitri. That Welsh friend of Adam’s. Adam. And Nathan Yates.
And Nathan Yates is added as a deliberate flourish. I imagine him typing the letters self-consciously, just as he will imagine my studied blankness on reading his name.
Nathan Yates hangs over us like a cooking smell. We all follow him. We have elevated him to a different social stratosphere through no fault of his own, and now he breathes a different kind of air. He has 82k followers and yet remains a mystery. Like the amateur social media sleuths we are, we’ve all tried to trace his life. He leaves us virtual crumbs scattered around the channels we inhabit, but we can’t quite piece them together to create something fully-formed. We know the Gymbox he works out in. We know that he had drinks at Shoreditch House last week. We know he eats eggs benedict on a Sunday. And he was in Malta when all the gays were at circuit parties in Madrid. So we know he does important, noble things. He plays actual sports, unlike the rest of us who just buy the kit. Niall describes his physique as ‘just ridiculous’. It’s rumoured that he once had sex with Russell Tovey. But as Niall remarked “haven’t we all had sex with Russell Tovey?”
And yet we’ve never met Nathan Yates. He keeps one daring, tantalising step away from us, his disciples, taunting us with his sculpted beard and his blue eyes that hurt me.
I am both fascinated and jealous of Nathan Yates. These two feelings used to compete, but have now melded together to create something entirely new. Sometimes I think I hate him, but I only hate the fact that he’s unreachable. He’s like a summit made that we’re all trying to reach, inch by cramponed inch. So no, I don’t hate him. Hate is a useless emotion. I think I read that somewhere, and I must remember to use it. I open Instagram every morning with a creeping dread, because I know that when I view his post, when the inevitable happens and I linger over and click the red heart, I am just blackening my own. His posts are like staring at the sun. I advise myself not to do it, and yet I can’t look away. I want to know everything about Nathan Yates, for the precise reason that I know nothing. There is an empty ‘Nathan Yates’ file ready to be filled. I want to consume every detail of his life. I want to live inside his skin. And when I know these details, when my appetite has been sated, I know – like a Five Guys on cheat day – I’ll end up feeling nothing at all.
Niall grasps my hand in his and we bump together. Our chests almost touch. Our faces barely react. To strangers, we must look like tired lovers going through the motions for the benefit of the kids. He is an inch or two taller than me, naturally broader. He tells everyone that he played rugby until he broke his collar-bone when he was fifteen, although I think that’s the same level of honesty as me saying I went to school with Jonathan Bailey. Whatever grain of truth once existed has been polished like tourmaline until it had been replaced as something shiny and new.
Physically, we both play to our strengths. His traps are his best feature, whilst mine are my oblique’s. If you melded us together as one, we would be perfection. We fucked the night we met, more to get it out of the way than anything else. We had since evolved into a different zone where we didn’t have to worry about fucking ever again.
Niall is wearing a pair of black shorts and a grey hoodie. They are short shorts because legs are now a thing. The hoodie is tight enough to hint at slabs of muscle or a veiny bicep, without giving the game away completely. The look is sportswear luxe. It says ‘I might have come from the gym. Or I might have been in a co-working space with blonde wood trestle tables and exposed brick, drinking coffee on a Teams call. You decide.’
We walk through Stockwell towards Brixton, the Portuguese cafés taunting us with custard tarts and pastries we aren’t allowed. The late April air has an unwashed grubbiness to it. London can never get clean.
“I think I need a dog,” Niall says. “Posts with dogs get so much more interaction. I need to do something new. I’m boring myself, so I must be boring my audience.”
“You know you can hire them,” I tell him. “There’s a site for it. ‘Borrow My Doggy.’ I mean, you have to actually walk it. You can’t just take a photo in the park and leave.”
“I’ll look into it,” he says with absent conviction, in the way people say they will start Spanish lessons or take up paddle boarding. In a way that I know will never happen.
“Dogs are such an obvious gay accessory,” I tell him. “What you need are nephews or nieces. Everyone loves a Guncle.”
“I take it there isn’t a site for that?”
He raises an eyebrow and I assume he is joking.
Niall has more followers than me. 32k to my 21k, although I don’t begrudge him that fact, because I feel I curate my feed more thoughtfully. When he reached 30 at the end of last year, we baked him a cake with candles and had prosecco on my balcony.
We round the corner. Across the road, there is a couple screaming at each other in a way that suggest they have only a passing relationship with sanity. Their words compete with the sound of workmen drilling, but they impressively hold their own. “This isn’t about her,” the woman screeches. “It’s always about her, isn’t it?” the guy shouts back. Maybe it is an argument they have rehearsed many times before and have decided to try it out in public. The man is wearing a cheap black Nike t shirt that you might buy from a sports warehouse, and a thick silver chain that looks like it comes from a joke shop. His vascular arm tapers up into an impressive bicep and he has that grafted, sinewy look of someone who might go to a boxing gym in Streatham. We both nervously look the other way, careful to avoid eye contact.
“Do you want a coffee?” Niall asks.
Coffee and red wine help with the shred. Water only bloats you. Nobody talks about how thirsty you feel. No one tells you the important things.
We cross over and enter Starbucks. The queue winds ahead of us, a river of Monzo cards and air-pods. When we get to the front of the queue I order a Black Americano and double shot Espresso. I’m not doing dairy this month.
“Is that everything?” the server sings back at us in a high-pitched Eastern European accent. She smiles at us in a way that she assumes is friendly but resigned, but it comes across as sarcastic and impatient.
“Yes,” I reply.
Three minutes later, the same server shouts unnecessarily loudly at us. “Niall! Ben!” She manages to incorporate all the vowels when she says my name, as if she’s signing an Adele song. I take my drink and look at the scrawled, indecipherable letters on my cup, and I wonder who this could possibly be.
We arrive at the party too early, even though we think we’re late. It’s one of the Toms’ birthday, although I’m not sure which one. The Toms are the only couple in our group. No one else has a boyfriend. No one wants to commit. Something by Ariana starts coming out of the speakers and somebody whoops. Every decade of gay has its own cultural soundtrack. A guiding hand to show us the way. For twenty somethings, it’s Ariana. Then you graduate to Mariah or Kylie. Beyond that, I wouldn’t know. But we all support Britney, no matter what age we are. Love and respect to Britney.
I look around the living room/kitchen/dining area/modular living space. Every surface is aggressively polished. Everything is at right angles. The laminate gloss kitchen cupboards gleam blankly at me, handle less, as if they’re embarrassed to be part of something so mundane as a kitchen at all. Try me, they coyly suggest. I might be a dishwasher. Everything is frighteningly white.
There’s no clutter, apart from some white roses arranged in a glass vase, and a neat row of expectant champagne flutes awaiting their anointment. I wonder if the Toms actually live here, or if they hire it for hosting purposes. The only hint at their real life is a framed photograph of them on top of Scarfell Pike that time they went hill-walking. One Tom is kissing the other Tom on the cheek, and they pass off the outdoors look plausibly enough in North Face and Rab.
One of the Toms hands me a glass of Prosecco.
“Come through to the balcon,” he instructs us in a disappointingly camp voice that doesn’t fit with his beard. We follow him through the open glass door to a balcony that’s bisected by a sharp line of light, a reflection off the neighbouring building. I squint at two figures obscured by the brightness and I imagine one of them is Nathan, bathed in celestial light. The figures move into the shadow and it’s just Adam and Adam’s Welsh friend. Adam’s Welsh friend has a moustache and I register that this is starting to become a thing.
“Boys. Always a pleasure,” Adam says and we clink glasses like we’re doing a deal. Adam has his own Uber driver and a blue-tick although, “he just verified himself, you know,” Niall told me. “You can do that. Anyone can be an influencer. It just means you get free stuff you don’t want.”
I’m irritated that Nathan Yates isn’t here. Although also strangely relieved.
“How’s the app?” I ask Adam. No one has yet introduced Adam’s Welsh friend, and he seems fine with that.
“Oh, fantastic,” Adam replies. “We’re on to our second round of funding. You can become a Patreon if you want? Early subscribers get a discount. I’ll drop box you the deets.”
Never one to miss an opportunity, Adam whips his phone out and seconds later mine vibrates. I take it out, click on the link and it takes me through to Adam’s Patreon site. In the ‘About’ section, there is a quote.
‘You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start, to be great.’
Adam is the king of start-ups. This year’s is an App called ‘Reach’. It’s a male suicide prevention app, connecting people to other people if you need to ‘reach out’. It’s free to subscribe, or £3.99 a month for added features.
“He’s a regular Good Samaritan, isn’t he?” Niall mused on our way over.
“It’s starting to be adopted by the trans community, which is so interesting,” Adam continues. He says ‘so interesting’ in the most uninterested way imaginable. “It opens us up to so many communities. It’s at a really exciting stage.”
“That reminds me, I need to post something about transphobia,” Niall says, his voice lowering to concerned sympathy. I think it’s directed just to me, although Adam picks it up.
“What are you going to say?” Adam asks.
“Just…you know. That I support it.”
I look across the corner of the balcony and a guy we know called Ross is taking a selfie with some mixed-race guy as the sun moves behind the opposite block of steel and glass. They look lost in a moment of temporary happiness, and I wonder if you can capture that fleeting feeling. And then they do. We would be proper friends with Ross but he does OnlyFans, so he’s more of an arms-length acquaintance we say ‘hey’ to.
“There’s a guy who’s coming tonight who I need to meet,” Adam says. “Apparently he works for an investment bank and can introduce me to some important people. He’s also hot. As. Fuck. His arms are chef’s kiss.”
Adam doesn’t even do the action with his mouth and fingers as he says this, and I decide that Niall is right and Adam is an idiot.
He takes out his phone and gets his profile up.
“His name’s Matt…Matt…something or other.” He pretends to not know the guy’s surname, which amuses me. “Matt Broady,” he says eventually.
He proudly shows off Matt Broady’s profile as if he’s a new father, and I freeze.
“Wait.” I grab Adam’s phone. “This guy’s called Nathan. Nathan Yates. Yeah. This isn’t…you’ve been cat fished mate.”
I want some form of confirmation and I glance at Niall. He gives the slightest nod, almost imperceptible.
Still with the phone in my hand, I scroll through the pictures on Matt Broady’s profile. Some of them are the same ones I’ve committed to memory from Nathan’s profile. Some are new. But then I look at his numbers. 26k followers. That’s a dedicated, professional cat fish. And a sense of prickling unease travels down my arm, like a pulse of electricity. It’s a feeling I used to find alarming, but now I get with increasing regularity. I bite the inside of my cheek and sweat forms in between my fingers.
One of the Toms comes by to top up the prosecco, idly looking down at our phones.
“Ah, I see you’ve found our new friend? Some guy called Will, just moved here from Dublin. He’s popping by in a bit. We need to introduce him. Get him involved.”
That’s what everyone says. You have to get involved. But what if you don’t want to? What if you’d rather sit at home watching YouTube videos of Dr. Pimple Popper?
He continues to pour, the bubbles fizzing up the length of my glass.
“But this guy’s Matt/Nathan,” Adam and I say in unison. The three of us, myself, Niall and Adam all have our phones out now, barely disguising a frantic panic, peering at the Instagram profiles, comparing, scrawling through pictures and comments and followers, looking for clues. Same, same but different. And I realise a second before anyone else does that Nathan Yates and Matt Broady and Will from Dublin who’s about to get involved, don’t exist. Or one of them does, or none of them do. Or maybe parts of their lives are true but I don’t know which parts, and my head starts to pound. I have barely eaten anything all day and the Prosecco is doing its job. I look back around the balcony and I can no longer identify anyone’s faces. The reflection of the sun has enveloped everyone in a white light and I tell myself I am having a mini panic attack. There is a silence between myself, Niall and Adam that no one wants to acknowledge, let alone break. Whoever this person is will not be coming. We will never meet him, and there is a kinetic surge that runs through us, a connecting thought that this is for the best.
We quietly put our phones back in our pockets, careful to not look at each other. I want to crawl up in this silence, into a tight ball, and let it smother me. Like a cat scratching at a door, I let in the thought that we never allow ourselves to have. The thought that scares us all. That we will never reach the summit because the cliff-face is made of sheet ice and there is nothing to hold on to. All surface, no feeling.
My head hurts. It might be the dehydration. I decide to have more Prosecco. Tomorrow is cheat day.
Tim Bisset lives in Edinburgh (via Yorkshire), works in marketing and writes short fiction and a blog about great pop music. He is an alumni of the Write Here creative writing course and has recently finished his first novel.
Unlike many other Arts & Entertainment Magazines, STORGY is not Arts Council funded or subsidised by external grants or contributions. The content we provide takes a lot of time, money and hard work to produce, and relies on the talented authors we publish and the dedication of a devoted team of staff writers. If you enjoy reading our Magazine, help to secure our future and enable us to continue publishing the words of our writers. Please make a donation or subscribe to STORGY Magazine with a monthly fee of your choice. Your support, as always, continues to inspire.