Rocky Road of Love…in Heels
Liam Livings © 2018
All Rights Reserved
Still no sign of Kieran. He was in Australia with Jo, living it up in the sun, enjoying the fun with the surfers and costumes and whatever else they had planned. And where was I? I was still in the same little village just outside Salisbury, with Mum. Who was better now. On the mend the doctors said. Making a full recovery, was another phrase they used at her review meeting.
I knew my luck was going to change because it was my birthday. Nineteen. I was in the final part of those teenaged days. This time next year, I’d be twenty. A proper adult. Probably.
Anyway, that’s a year away.
I was at the bar, of the Sailor’s Arms pub, in Southampton, getting Tony and Donna a drink.
Tony said, flicking his fringe from his eye, “One round, and then it’s back to us paying. This is your night. I told you how it was going to work, didn’t I?”
Donna sipped her lime and soda, the designated driver for the night. “Same again. Stack ’em up baby and I’ll glug ’em down.” She slapped her thigh. “If half as much has happened to you as he’s told me, you should be selling the rights to your story to a film company, love. Get back sharpish I want to hear all about your last gig. He said everyone stood and clapped at the end and asked for an encore.” She turned to Tony.
He nodded, flicking his fringe again.
So, in preparation for regaling them with the story of my past glories, I went to the bar for my one round of the night.
No Jo and Kieran because, oh yes, I told you that. The bar was three deep and I stood politely, waiting my turn, trying to catch the eyes of the bar staff with a smile. Much better than waving money at them. Oh no, never do that.
I wore a very understated and normal pair of flared jeans, platform trainers and a grey T-shirt with three-quarter length sleeves, Chinese wording across the front. Goodness only knew what it said, but its bright yellow and white had caught my eye in the shop. It had been a busy week of performing, lots of different costume changes, sets to learn, so tonight I wanted a night off from all that. And a night off from looking after Mum—not that I begrudged her it, not at all, but I wanted a night of not having to worry or think about her and taking her to appointments, picking her up, having to slip off work early to collect her, fitting eighty minutes of things into an hour. All that. And the Plan. I definitely wanted a night off from the Plan. And aren’t they always the nights when something unexpected happens? Like when you’re really gagging for it, and really on a manhunt, it’s a barren desert, but when you’ve sworn off men, it’s like a real-life underwear catalogue for Calvin Klein.
Well, this was one of those nights, this was the night, he came along.
And there in front of me, all six feet six and a bit of him, dark blond hair, dark jeans and a red and white plaid shirt, was a man who reminded me of He-Man.
“What have you done to mean you’re getting all the drinks?” He smiled, and his teeth were almost as white as He-Man’s too.
I smiled at him weakly. Now was not the time for men. Now was the time for friends, that was what we’d agreed a while ago, since my run of terrible luck with boyfriends over the past year.
He held his hand for me to shake. “Aaron.”
Another weak smile. I really wanted him to leave me alone, but part of me, and I was well aware which part, wanted to see if he still looked like He-Man under the plaid shirt, or whether he was wearing one of those fake muscle stomachs I’d read about in Gay Times. I caught the eye of a barman, shouted my order and thanked him.
Aaron’s hand hung in the air between us, not quite limp, he didn’t look like the sort of man who’d have anything limp about him, no, it was more in anticipation. He had a light dusting of mousy blond hair on the back of his hand, and his nails were perfectly clean and trimmed. “Why are you here tonight? Look, if it’s with friends, I’m just making conversation, I’ll leave you alone once I’ve got my drinks. I’m only having one, and then I’m off. I’m here on my lonesome.” And he did the smile thing again, and this time his blue eyes did something too, a sort of smile with the eyes, and I knew he wasn’t lying.
My stomach fluttered with butterflies. Shit, I think he might be my next mistake. I shook his hand. His handshake was firm. A good pump up and down. Smooth hand. It smelt of hand cream. He didn’t roof houses or shift pianos for a living. I looked up to his face. “It’s my birthday.” I was still holding his hand and found myself smiling back at him, staring into his greeny-blue eyes.
“How come you’re buying the drinks?”
“They’ve already got me a few, and I don’t want to take the piss. They did say it was my night, I could do anything I wanted, I didn’t have to pay for a thing. But I don’t want to freeload off them. Not with friends. You know?”
“I’ve just left an old friend’s twenty-first. Not that old. He wanted a pub crawl in the city centre, so we started at Above Bar and worked our way down towards St. Mary’s street.” He paused, told the barman what drink he wanted, then returned to staring at me. “He’s not that old, this friend. Twenty-one’s not old, is it?”
I laughed. “I’m nineteen, so you’re an old man as far as I’m concerned. Once you’re in your twenties, it’s downhill all the way. So I’ve heard.”
He knocked my shoulder playfully. “Cheeky. Anyway, after all that beer swilling in the sports bars. We ended up at the one by the river. They all wanted to go, so I followed alone.”
I knew of it well. It had a TV to rival the cinema and was always full of men in brightly coloured sports shirts, shouting at the TV and drinking pints of lager. I usually avoided it. “So you thought you’d grab yourself a bit of gay before going home.”
He laughed, his white teeth flashed. “No, nothing like that. I’m not on the pull. I just wanted to be. Without having to think about where I was.”
I looked him up and down. “Wouldn’t think you’d have too much problem blending in those places.”
“You’re hardly Julian Clarey yourself.”
Little did he know. I smiled, handed over my money as my drinks had arrived. “Still, better get back. My friends’ll be wondering what’s happened to me.” I started to leave.
He put his hand on my shoulder. “Wait until my drink’s here, eh? Keep me company a bit longer. I was enjoying talking to you.”
Is he really? Or is that just a line. “Five minutes.” I put the drinks back on the bar and sipped mine. I peered through the crowd to try and catch a glimpse of Tony’s lopsided black haircut but couldn’t see anything.
“What do you do?”
I rolled my eyes, internally, at his wonderfully original question and told him about TK Max and some singing work too, leaving out the dressing up part.
“I love coming here for the cabaret. That’s why I came here. Needed something to balance all the sport in the other pub. I hoped there’d be one of the drag acts on. I enjoy them. The put-downs, the songs. I’m a fan of it all.” He leant forward and whispered, like he was going to say something illegal. “It’s a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine as it goes. Do you like all that stuff?”
I smelt his aftershave. A sweet musky scent. His cheek had brushed against my ear as he’d whispered to me. The finest dusting of a weekend beard grazed my ear. Maybe I’ll stay with him just another five minutes, just until I’m a third through my drink. “Funny you should say that, I do actually. You know the singing I told you about?”
He nodded, accepting his drink and paying, taking a sip and listening to me as I told him about the Plan, and performing at that pub, and others in I’d visited on the circuit.
He asked me how I’d got into it, and how did I know I could perform.
“I’ve been performing all my life really,” I said with a smile. “Always loved karaoke, so singing on stage was pretty obvious for me.”
He chinked his now almost empty glass against mine, which was almost finished too.
“So, what do you do for a living? Since we’re doing all that.”
He started to tell me about his job as a salesman at Southampton Glass, a double glazing and conservatories company he’d worked at from sixteen after doing his GCSEs and starting as an apprentice.
Right in the middle of telling me about a woman customer who’d wanted a special conservatory so her house cats didn’t climb out the windows, but they could feel the breeze, and how he’d worked with the designers to give her “The conservatory of dreams” as she’d described it, Tony arrived, arms folded, hair covering half his face.
Shit. “Sorry. I’m just coming,” I said with a half smile.
He smirked at me, then Aaron. “I’ve just come to see what happened to our drinks. Thought you’d got stuck in the queue, or been attacked by a pack of bears. Do bears go in packs? I don’t know. But it seems you’re getting on well. If you don’t mind—” He took two drinks. “—I’ll just grab these. We’ll be over there when you’re ready.” He turned and winked at me over his shoulder. And he was gone.
Our drinks were finished, but he was still in the middle of his, now I thought about it, pretty interesting story. What is a boy to do? “Go on, the conservatory of dreams. Sounds very Titanic to me.”
“Eh?” He furrowed his brow.
“Ship of dreams, from the film Titanic. Conservatory of dreams. It’s a joke.”
“We have so much work to do I see.”
He smiled at me. “Do we? What’s that mean?”
“Nothing, continue with your story before Tony comes back.”
“Anyway, when it was finished, she sent in pictures of her and her cats in the conservatory, with a thank-you letter for me and the designer.”
“So, it’s more than just selling stuff to people.” I was very surprised at this, having always thought salesmen, were just that. Men who sold stuff.
“Oh no, it’s about giving the customer a solution to a problem they’ve presented you with. If you find out exactly what they want, and they’re happy with the price they have to pay, you’ve really done them a favour. Done properly, sales should feel like helping a friend.”
“Is that from a salesman’s course you’ve been on?”
He looked over my shoulder, then back to my eyes. “Is it that obvious?”
I nodded. “But I almost bought it. And to be fair, if I did want a conservatory for my cats, so they could feel the breeze, but not escape, and you sorted it for me, I would be pleased you’d helped me.” A slightly awkward pause while I thought about him sorting me in other ways.
“Hold that thought.” He put his index finger in the air and disappeared to the bar, reappearing shortly after with a bottle of almost champagne in a silver ice bucket and two champagne flutes.
I waved them away. “Oh, I can’t stay. This is too much. I said to my friends I’d be back.”
He was opening the bottle with a pop, he was pouring the almost champagne to the top of our glasses, he was slurping to prevent anything from dripping on the table, and he was handing me my glass, and then I was chinking it back with a smile.
So of course, I was helpless to resist. A few sips later, after we’d stopped laughing about something that had seemed hilarious at the time, but I couldn’t remember it afterwards, I said, “What else were you looking for here? Apart from the cabaret, which was well over by the time you got here by the way. Long gone.”
He looked from side to side, then turned back to me with a smile, licked his lips and said, “Friends, cabaret, that’s it.” He shrugged.
“You said cabaret before. You’d just left your friends, said you knew you’d be here alone. Come on, admit it, you’re on the pull, aren’t you? I can spot a smooth operator a mile off. Don’t try to kid a kidder, trust me, I’ve done it all before.” Or had it all done to me before. My mind flitted back to Suave Charles, and I stopped it dead in its tracks and returned to the here and now. I leant forward and whispered in his ear, this time deliberately allowing my lips to graze his earlobe. “You’re not married, are you?”
He pulled back, screwing his face up at me. “What makes you say that? Just because I’m not in a Steps crop top and I don’t bleach my hair, doesn’t mean I’m not gay.”
“Lots of different ways to be gay you know. We’re not all hairdressers and flower arrangers. I’ve been the best salesman for three consecutive quarters. I’ve got a Bimmer three series and an expenses account, and I work bloody hard for it. And my own flat. But that’s a bit complicated at the moment.”
I reached to his hand and held it on the table. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to hit a raw nerve. It’s just… I’ve been drawn in before by someone like you, and he turned out to be married.”
“I’m not someone like me, I’m me. And I used to live with my ex—a man, until we split up. We’d bought the apartment together—one of the new ones near the university in Southampton, at the bottom of The Avenue.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out his wallet, showing me a picture of him and another man—blond highlights, big smile, brown eyes, arms round each other in swimming shorts with a pool in the background. “Mikonos, last year. We’d been in the flat a while.” He put it back in his wallet.
“I’ve never been to Mikonos, is it nice? I hear it’s very windy and you have to make sure you don’t burn in the sun because it’s deceptively cool. The pesky wind.” I tried to lighten the mood after we’d unwittingly ended up on Ex-Boyfriend Island via Closeted Ex-Boyfriend Airways.
“Yes. He’s moved out now. So, it’s a bit simpler. Simpler than it was before.”
Bloody hell, I hadn’t been expecting this, just a quick yes, I’m gay, and a snog would have done, and now look at what I’d gone and done!
So, while we drank the rest of the champagne, Aaron told me how he and his ex had split up but carried on living together for nine months while they’d disentangled the mortgage and bank accounts, and the ex had found somewhere else to live. Aaron had kept the apartment because he could afford it on his own, and after reaching a settlement in which the ex got their car and some savings, Aaron had been left in the flat alone. And this was the first weekend when it would be his home all alone. And he was a bit horny and had fancied some oats, was the undertone, and honestly, who could have blamed him, after not being able to bring people back since the ex was sleeping in the second bedroom. And after one time when the ex had brought someone back, Aaron had left to find someone for himself, just as a stupid bit of one-upmanship; the evening had ended in an awkward face-off in the bathroom with all four of them, until the two bits of trade had realised they were really a prop in some weird theatre of cruelty Aaron and his ex were playing out with one another, and had both left.
He sighed. “I thought I’d come and see. I wasn’t going to meet anyone in the pub crawl with my friends, in the sport bar, well it was unlikely, so I was going to have a quickie here and then….”
“Hopefully have a quickie back at the flat!” I winked. “You walked into that one.”
He smiled. “And a dance.”
“What about it?”
“That’s why I came here, so I could have a proper dance without anyone looking at me. No one danced in the other pubs. Well, not unless they were absolutely pissed. So, I thought I’d have a little boogie, even if it was on my own, and then get off home.” He nodded his head in the direction of the dance floor next to the slightly raised area where the acts had performed earlier.
“Barbie Girl” by Aqua was playing. I looked at my watch, I’d been gone three-quarters of an hour. Poor Tony and Donna. I was a shit friend. But then again they had said it was my night to do with what I wanted, and I’d wanted to talk to Aaron. Because, as Kieran had told me, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to meet your prince charming. “Not too gay, is it?” I smirked at Aaron, motioning to the air as Aqua squeaked into the chorus.
He shook his head, took my hand and led me to the dance floor, where he danced like he really meant it, eyes closed, head moving side to side, fists pumping, arms waving in the air.
It was the most uncoordinated display of dancing I’d ever seen from a gay man, but because he was so unself-conscious, and clearly enjoying himself, it was beautiful. He was beautiful. I danced opposite him, and his hand brushed against my forearm where my sleeve ended.
The music stopped and quietly the intro to “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper began.
Aaron stood still, a stern look on his face.
I shrugged to myself. Oh well, can’t say fairer than that. It’s been a nice evening. “Best get back to my friends.” I gave a little wave by my face, wagging each finger in turn, and started walking across the room to where I’d spotted Tony and Donna from the dance floor.
Aaron fell to one knee and grabbed my hand.
I stopped walking and turned to face him.
“Would you give me this dance? And then I’ll leave you to get to your friends.” He smiled up at me.
I caught Tony and Donna from the corner of my eye both shrugging at me. I shrugged back to them, what am I meant to do, this is a proper fairy tale scene, am I really going to walk away from this? I turned to Aaron, grabbed his hand.
He whispered in my ear, this time a slight bite of my earlobe, “Just like in that film, Romy and Michelle.” And we danced a mix of ballroom dancing, slow dancing, and free-form ballet I suppose you’d call it. It was like the dance scene at the end of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.
As the music ended, we stopped dancing, stood next to one another, arms around each other’s backs, squeezing tightly.
He turned to me and kissed me, moving his tongue around, licking my lips, his face just the perfect side of shaven.
Automatically, I gave him my phone number.
He said he’d call me and waved from the middle of the dance floor.
Leaving him there, I walked to Tony’s table, tapped my watch at him and Donna as they both yawned loudly.
“I’ll never hear from him again,” I said. “You mark my words. It’s all far too perfect for any more to come of it than what you just saw.”
Tony pursed his lips. “Us and the rest of the pub, love. Quite a little show you put on for us all.”
“What can I say, I’m an attention whore.” I put my hands on my hips. “As if you didn’t know that.”
Donna yawned. “I know I said I’d drive, but don’t take the piss all right. What do you wanna do now?”
Tony zipped his lips and pointed to me, unzipped them and said, “It’s birthday boy’s decision. We did say whatever he wanted to do, didn’t we?”
Donna nodded solemnly.
I nodded in time with them both. “I don’t think I’ll be able to top that tonight, do you? It’s probably best we just go. Sorry I’m a terrible friend. I know this. I’ll make it up next time. Next time one of you finds yourself in some rom-com fairy tale when you’re on a night out with friends. Next time that happens, you have permission to be just as crap as I’ve been.” I raised my eyebrows and my hands, palms upwards in front of me. “Fair enough?”
A barman arrived at our table with a silver tray, an ice bucket with a bottle of opened champagne and three champagne flutes.
Tony held the barman’s arm. “I think there’s been some mistake. None of us ordered this. In fact, we’re just about to leave, so if you wouldn’t mind taking it back.” He turned to us. “I’m not paying for it, even if it is open. It’s their mistake.” He shuddered slightly at the thought.
The barman pointed to where Aaron sat at the bar. “It’s from the man over there. Free to you. Would you like me to pour?”
“We’ll manage, love.” Tony waved him away. “What was it you were saying about not being able to top that?”
I grabbed a glass. “Come on then big boy, fill me right up!” I giggled childishly.
Donna grabbed herself a glass. “I’m not sitting here like a fucking lemon watching you two polish off the whole bottle. I’m having at least half a glass. The amount of lime and soda I’ve drunk, this won’t touch the bloody sides.” As she lifted the bottle to pour herself a glass, a piece of paper fell from the bottom of the bottle onto the tray. “Ere, there’s a note and everything. This is like some murder mystery weekend or something innit?”
Tony took the note, checked we all had a glass of bubbles, opened the envelope, smoothed his eyebrows with a spit-wetted index finger, then read: “You made my night. Off to bed now, thinking of you!”
I grabbed the note from him. “No kisses. What’s that all about?”
“You said you’d never hear from him again. This is just another sign that it’s all doomed.” He took the note from me and started to re-examine it.
Donna jumped in, “You two, behave. Play nicely. Free champagne and Kev got a kiss. You did get a snog, didn’t you?”
I nodded. Did I get a snog? I had been replaying it in my head since then, over and over on a loop.
“Well then, let’s be happy. Here’s a toast to free champagne from kind strangers, Kev getting a birthday snog….”
“I’d forgotten it was my birthday.” I giggled. I was now approaching disastrously pissed, certainly circling its orbit by this point, so was relieved Aaron had gone, and it was just me, my friends, and the champagne.
Tony sipped his drink. “Why else do you think we’ve cut you so much bloody slack tonight?” He paused. “And because we love you, obviously.”
Donna said, “Obviously.”
Tony and I finished the bottle, with a half glass of help from Donna. We pored over the wording of the note, whether it was Aaron’s handwriting, and if it was, what that said about him, and if it wasn’t what that said about him, and if that, in fact, said more about him than if it wasn’t his handwriting. Tony asked if I’d got a chance to cop a feel when he’d snogged me and I, by now very much in the midst of being disastrously pissed, had laughed so hard that champagne frothed out of my nose, onto my T-shirt and onto the table, then said, “A bit of a squeeze around the back and once, during the slow dance.” I paused, trying to focus on them, as now there seemed to be at least two Tonys and two Donnas. “Do you remember the slow dance?”
In unison, they said they did and told me to get a bloody move on with the point of my story.
“He stood next to me and his groin pushed into my hip. And there was a definite shape within. So, we know what that means.” I tapped the side of my nose like I’d just discovered the secret to life, the universe, and everything and not in fact just copped a feel from a man as he’d pressed up against me earlier.
And at that, noticing the bottle was empty, Tony and I were barely upright, Donna proclaimed we were going home, “That’s my patience used up. Come on you two reprobates. We’re off.”
We looped arms, Donna in the middle, lifting us from our chairs and wobbled and swayed to her car a short walk from the pub.
Donna did our seatbelts up then started the car.
“I’ll never hear from him again. You watch. He’s too good to be true. No kisses on the note, what do you suspose that means?”
Tony’s head rolled back and knocked the car window. He opened his mouth to say something, but then everything went black.