By Paul Burston

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Martin is kind, decent, not bad on the eyes… and look where that’s got him. His boyfriend of four years has run off with a male prostitute, and his friends John and Caroline both have enough excess baggage to fill a Louis Vuitton window display. What’s a nice gay man to do?

With no one to turn to, Martin decides to relive the wild youth he never had and, at the ripe old age of 32, jumps head-first into hedonism. But soon the nights of drugs, muscle-hard bodies, and even harder music take their toll, and Martin, John, and Caroline find that as fun as being absolutely shameless is (and girl, can it be fun!), it also has a price, one which they may not ultimately be able to pay.



The boy serving behind the bar oozed confidence the way most of the predominantly twenty-something crowd oozed CK One or Escape for Men. He was cute in that silky, sulky, vaguely Latin way that promised a career modeling underwear for Calvin Klein, or at the very least a job behind a gay bar in Soho. He was also absurdly, enviably young—certainly no older than twenty. Martin felt attracted and resentful in roughly equal measures. What was it John always said about yesterday's trade becoming tomorrow's competition? Well, there was little danger of that happening in this case. Martin knew from years of experience that boys this young and this pretty rarely performed sexual favors for anyone who couldn't match them in the beauty stakes—pout for pout, muscle for muscle. And at thirty-two, Martin was in rather a different league.

Not that he was looking too bad for his age. He had always been considered fairly handsome (usually by straight women, admittedly), and unlike many gay men on the scene, he didn't run around like some strange teenage impersonator squeezed into outfits designed for someone half his age. He also knew that thirty-two wasn't exactly old—not in real terms. But, as John was also fond of saying, it was practically fifty in gay years. If John's theory was correct, then gay men aged at about the same rate as dogs. In fact, the only people who aged faster were Greek women, which was why John swore blind that in all his years as an air steward he had never once met a Greek woman between the ages of twenty-five and fifty—by the time they reached their mid-twenties, their body clocks switched into fifth gear and suddenly they were swathed in black robes and riding a donkey. According to John, a similar thing happened to gay men, only they swapped the black robes for black leather and the donkey for a dildo.

In his weaker moments, Martin worried that there might actually be some truth in all of this, even though it was exactly the sort of thing a sourpuss like John would say. Theirs was one of those gay friendships that developed quite by accident (they used to frequent the same bar), rather than growing out of some mutual interest or even a one-night stand they both immediately regretted but felt strangely sentimental about. It was a friendship Martin maintained more out of habit than anything else. They'd had some great nights out together, and had even supported each other through some difficult times—when John had his HIV scare for instance, or when Martin's first proper boyfriend revealed six weeks into their relationship that he had a long-term lover in Paris who was about to move back to London. But really, they couldn't have been more different. John was only two years younger than Martin, but in the nine years that they had been friends, he had never held down a relationship for more than a few months. Martin, on the other hand, had been with Christopher for almost four years now. So what if this barboy was the prettiest thing in the room? That didn't make him a better person. He was probably arrogant, not to mention stupid. Boys like that usually were—body by Nautilus, brain by Fisher-Price. Martin had met enough of them over the years to know that. He ordered a Budweiser and felt a tiny pang of guilt when the boy smiled as he placed the chilled can on the bar, together with a saucer containing the change from a five-pound note. He smiled back, hesitated before leaving a small tip, and squeezed through the crowd to a vacant space near the door.

Where did they all come from, these boys who packed the bars night after night? Each time another bar opened, the ruling queens of Old Compton Street shook their perfectly gelled heads and predicted that this would be it, that there wouldn't be enough punters to go around. And each time they were proved wrong. There were at least a dozen gay bars in the heart of Soho now, and not one of them showed signs of going out of business. It never used to be like this. Martin remembered a time, not all that long ago, when the only bars worth visiting in the West End if you weren't a '70s clone or a Northern rent boy with cheap highlights were Compton's or the Brief Encounter—and they were never this busy on a Thursday night. Either every gay man in the country had migrated to London during the past couple of years, or the Soho boys had discovered a way of defying the laws of nature and were multiplying like rabbits. At least that would explain why so many of them looked so similar. Looking around, Martin found himself wondering if maybe there was such a thing as a gay gene after all.

There was a mirror behind the bar, cleverly positioned so that customers could admire the bar staff from every possible angle. The management at the Village were shrewd like that—always looking for new ways of "giving something back to the community." Martin caught a glimpse of his own reflection and ran a hand over his newly cropped hair. It felt strange, prickly, sexy. He had worn his hair in a dozen different styles over the years—slicked back, spiked up, floppy at the front, shaved at the sides, bleached blond, dyed black. He had even sported a footballer's perm once, when his mother ran that hairdressing salon on the outskirts of Cardiff all those years ago. But he'd never had it cut this short before. He wasn't entirely convinced that it suited him, but that was hardly the point. All the boys had their hair cut short these days. Of course for many of them it was simply a way of disguising the fact that they were receding. Still, it was definitely considered sexy. You only had to flick through any of the gay bar rags to see that. Once it was only arty Derek Jarman types and the roughest gay skinheads who went for the severely cropped look. Now even the rent boys who advertised in the back of Boyz were at it. Of course they weren't actually called rent boys anymore—they were all "escorts" now. Each week their photographs were there—all smoldering looks and brutally shorn heads, together with the promise of "Nine Inches Uncut and Thick" and "Satisfaction Guaranteed."

Christopher would like it—Martin was confident of that at least. He'd hinted at it often enough. Barely a week went by without him explaining in his fading West Coast accent how the one thing British guys had over the hunks back home in LA was their sexy haircuts, or how much more practical it was to have short hair because then you didn't have to worry about drying it when you went to the gym. The gym was another of Christopher's passions. It had all started about six months ago when an old high-school friend of his flew in for the weekend and insisted they all go to Trade. Martin had hated every minute of it. The music was too hard, and he could never see the attraction of clubs where everyone was off their face on drugs. If you needed to fry your brain with Ecstasy in order to have a good time, then surely there must be something missing somewhere? Christopher, on the other hand, had loved everything about it—the pounding music, the druggy atmosphere and the seething mass of half-naked, hard-bodied, wide-eyed men. The night ended in a blazing row, with Christopher and his high-school friend disappearing into a sea of bodies and Martin storming off.

A week later Christopher joined the gym. He'd been going regularly ever since. Even Martin was forced to admit that the results were impressive. Christopher had always had fairly beefy legs, which was a definite advantage. Most of the gym queens you saw around had great pumped-up upper bodies supported on tiny twiglet legs. They reminded Martin of the bulldog from Tom and Jerry. Maybe they assumed that nobody would be concentrating on their legs when they stripped off their shirts on the dance floor, but they looked pretty silly anyhow. John said it was the responsibility of every self-respecting gay man to refuse to have sex with any man whose biceps were thicker than his thighs. It just wasn't natural.

Martin had tagged along to the gym with Christopher a couple of times, but he soon lost interest. He tried justifying it to himself by saying that it was better to develop your mind than your body, but secretly he was slightly envious of Christopher's determination. He certainly thought that Christopher had started to get a bit obsessive lately, disappearing off to the gym four, sometimes five times a week. He put this down to the fact that Gay Pride was coming up. There was a part of Christopher that craved constant attention. Being able to strip off at Pride, secure in the knowledge that his body would be admired—that was what this gym thing was all about. Martin told himself that he really shouldn't be too bothered by the idea. After all, having your boyfriend lusted after was a compliment in a way.

He looked at his watch: 7:55 P.M. Christopher was almost half an hour late. Typical. He wouldn't have minded, only it wasn't his idea to meet for a drink in the first place. If it had been up to him, they'd both be at home in Stockwell by now, curled up on the sofa watching EastEnders and eating a low-fat meal (Christopher only ate low-fat these days, ever since his personal trainer told him that the only way to achieve a washboard stomach was to drastically reduce his fat intake). Martin couldn't see the point in hanging around gay bars with your boyfriend—not unless you were looking for a threesome, which he and Christopher certainly were not. They'd tried it once, just over a year ago, but it didn't really work out. Christopher and the guy they picked up took ten minutes to decide that they were quite capable of having a good time on their own, and Martin ended up sitting in the bathroom, crying quietly to himself, and feeling more possessive than he had ever thought possible. It seemed that most gay bars were geared toward cruising these days, unless they were designed for people to actually have sex on the premises. He had no strong moral objections to any of this, but he did find it a bit irritating that there were so few places you could go as a couple without feeling that someone, somewhere in the room, would like nothing better than to see you split up.

He lit a Marlboro Light, took a swig of Budweiser, and scanned the room. There was a guy over in the corner he recognized. He wasn't sure at first from where, until suddenly he remembered that they'd had a one-night stand together five or six years ago. The guy's name was Tom. Or Tim—something like that. They'd met at Substation, one night when Martin was out with John, both of them drunk as skunks. He was a nice guy, Martin seemed to remember. He lived in this amazing flat somewhere off Tottenham Court Road. He worked for an investment bank and was really impressed when Martin told him about his job as a graphic designer. He said he'd never met someone so creative before, which Martin thought was rather sweet considering that the most creative thing he'd done at the time was design a box of tea bags for Sainsbury's. The sex was good, too. They'd even swapped numbers afterward, but of course the guy never rang. The nice ones rarely did. That was why Martin felt lucky to have found someone like Christopher. He wasn't the perfect boyfriend, not by any means. He was moody at times, and he could be extremely selfish. On the other hand, he was the first man Martin had slept with who could still turn him on after four years. And he was dependable—most of the time anyway.

Martin looked at his watch: 8:10 P.M. This was getting ridiculous. Why were some people always so late? Was it something they just couldn't help, like dyslexia? When they looked at their watches, did they see the numbers arranged in a completely different order? Or was it simply arrogance, a way of showing the world that they knew they were worth waiting for? It would serve Christopher right if he arrived to find that Martin had been and gone, or that he was being chatted up by some good-looking guy with a posh flat in the West End. That would teach him not to take people for granted. He looked over to where Tom or Tim was standing, only he wasn't on his own anymore. He was deep in conversation with some muscular young thing in a white ribbed vest and baggy jeans. Something about their body language told Martin that this wasn't the first time they had met. He wondered if this guy had seen the inside of Tom or Tim's posh flat. He wondered if they had swapped numbers afterward. He wondered if Tom or Tim had been the one who had bothered to phone.

Just then, Tom or Tim looked up and caught Martin's eye. He looked at him quizzically for a moment, then broke into a grin. It wasn't a friendly "Nice to see you again" grin. It was a grin that said, "Yes, I remember you. We had one night of meaningless sex a long time ago. I charmed the pants off you by telling you how creative and interesting you were, when really I was only interested in making use of your body for an hour or so. Of course you were too stupid to realize that at the time, too naive to understand that there was never going to be any more to it than that. And now look at you, standing there all alone while I'm being adored by this gorgeous man. Serves you right. That's what you get for not knowing how to play the game."

Martin turned away, gulped down the remains of his Budweiser, and headed toward the bar. One more beer, then he was definitely leaving.

Caroline never knew what to do with her panties during sex. Sometimes she would peel them off slowly, until they ended up in a tiny ball at her ankles. Then she would slide one foot over the other and grasp the little lacy bundle between her toes, like a magician performing a vanishing trick. Other times, usually when she'd had a bit too much to drink, she would just yank them off with both hands and hurl them across the room, where they would land delicately draped on the dressing-table mirror, or dangling from one of the wall lights. Of course there was one major drawback with this technique. Assuming the man didn't know her all that well, he might mistake her for an amateur stripper. Caroline wouldn't have minded being mistaken for a stripper, but she couldn't bear the thought of anyone thinking she was amateurish. She was a professional woman, the only woman in her family to have carved out any kind of decent life for herself, and she had the fat salary, the company car and the platinum American Express card to prove it. She was also the sort of woman for whom "girl talk" invariably meant talking about sex. She had discussed the panties situation with one of the girls at the advertising agency, who advised her that the best solution was to leave them discreetly tucked into the leg of your trousers. But this wasn't much use to Caroline. When she wasn't handling key accounts or attempting to woo potential clients, she never wore trousers.

Thankfully, Caroline's panties hadn't presented quite so much of a problem since she'd met Graham. That first night together, he had insisted on removing them with his teeth. Darling Graham. Not only was he the best-looking man she had dated in a long time—tall and wiry, with a mop of curly brown hair and bright hazel eyes. He was also the kind of man who didn't turn his nose up at cunnilingus. In Caroline's experience, men with that many physical attributes were pretty hard to find. Martin had told her once that he was finally forced to admit that he was gay at the age of fifteen when his girlfriend at the time asked him to go down on her. Try as he might, and desperate as he was to convince himself that he was really straight, he just couldn't go through with it. Caroline had told him that if eating pussy was the only thing that separated straight men from gay men, then there were a hell of a lot of men out there who were gay and just didn't know it yet. Before Graham, she had only ever known one man who knew the first thing about pleasuring a woman this way. The others merely snuffled around a bit, halfheartedly, like dogs sniffing a lamppost. And people wondered why girls like her learned to pleasure themselves from an early age. If she had waited for a man to bring her to orgasm, she would have been dry for twenty-seven years!

Yes, Caroline had had more than her fair share of bad sex. Men who squeezed her breasts so hard it hurt. Men whose idea of foreplay was to stick their tongues so far into her ear they practically burst her eardrum. Men who came so quickly it was all over before she'd even begun to feel any kind of pleasure. Men with dicks so small she could barely tell when the point of penetration occurred. It wasn't their fault, of course. But if they only knew the lengths she had gone to, clenching her vaginal muscles in order to massage their fragile male egos, reassuring them that, oh yeah baby, it felt really good when really, she felt nothing. There was that guy she met at the Met Bar the Christmas before last—gorgeous body, sports car, the works. The only problem was, his penis was no bigger than her little finger. She tried so hard to compensate for it, clenching away for all she was worth. "Oh, it's so big! It's so big! Is it in yet?" That was the difference between gay men and straight women. A gay man would have just dumped him on the spot, or jerked him off in a doorway. Women would lie back and clench for England.

Still, whatever indignities Caroline had suffered in the past, she had certainly made up for it in the past year. Sex with Graham was the best she'd ever known. He was so sensitive, so attentive, so athletic. There wasn't any position they hadn't tried. That boob job had turned out to be a really sound investment. Not having to worry about her tits disappearing under her armpits had freed Caroline up in ways she could never have imagined. There were no inhibitions when she was with Graham, no games she couldn't play, no fantasies she couldn't explore.

Finally, after years of envying gay men for their lack of sexual boundaries, their ability to act out their desires, their appetite for experimentation, Caroline was having the kind of sex her gay friends boasted about. In fact, had she not spent every waking moment being so thoroughly conscious of her own femininity, she might have suspected that Graham was really gay. Which was kind of funny, when she thought about it. And she did—fairly often.

Martin arrived home drunk and lurched angrily into the living room. He was fully expecting to find Christopher sprawled out in front of the television with a slightly bored look on his face and an excuse already prepared. "I was delayed at work." "I sprained my ankle at the gym." "I thought we said the Edge, not the Village." Only the lights were off, and there was no sign of Christopher.

Martin reached for the light switch and stared around the room in disbelief. The sofa had vanished. So had the CD tower. And the video. And that mirror Christopher's mum had given them as a housewarming present, that had gone, too. Martin dimly remembered the girl downstairs telling him she had been burgled a few weeks ago. Apparently, there had been a spate of break-ins recently, all in the Stockwell area. They had taken practically everything, right down to her clothes. He ran into the main bedroom and flung open the wardrobe. All of his clothes were still hanging there—even the more expensive things like his Helmut Lang suit, his Schott combats and his ever-expanding collection of Diesel tops. The only clothes missing were Christopher's, everything down to his underwear. Martin couldn't understand it. What sort of burglar would steal someone's underwear? And why take one person's clothes and leave another's? Something clicked and he hurried into the smaller second bedroom, the one that doubled as a guest room and a space used mainly for storage. Sure enough, everything belonging to Christopher had vanished. And next to the spare bed, propped up against the original '30s deco lamp Martin had discovered one Christmas at Greenwich market and Christopher had never really liked, there was a neatly folded piece of paper with his name written on it. He picked it up and read.

"Dear Martin," the note began. "I guess you'll have worked it out by now that I've moved out. Sorry if this comes as a shock to you, but I can't see the point in dragging this out any longer than necessary. I've made my decision and it's time to move on. I could lie to you and say that it was a case of us wanting different things, but the truth is that I just don't want you. You'll probably think this sounds harsh, but I think it's best to be upfront about these things. I've taken what's mine, plus a few of the things we bought together. Everything else you're welcome to. Try not to think too badly of me. It was fun for a while, but all good things come to an end. Christopher."

Martin sank onto the bed and struggled to hold back the tears. How could Christopher just pack up and leave like this? Things hadn't been going that badly, had they? They hadn't had sex in a while, but lots of couples went through difficult periods, and it wasn't as if he hadn't tried to spice things up a bit. He'd even gone to bed wearing a jockstrap one night, knowing how Christopher used to fantasize about the school jocks as a teenager, but even that had failed to ignite any interest. What was he supposed to do now? They'd been together so long, he'd forgotten what it felt like to be alone. The pain in his chest was so strong, it was almost physical. He'd heard people compare sudden breakups to waking up and discovering that they had a limb missing. Now he knew what they meant. The feelings he had for Christopher were still there, the way people described still feeling a missing arm or leg. Only now there was this terrible pain, too, and the awful realization that a part of him had been removed and that there was nothing he could do about it.

He needed a drink. He went into the kitchen, fixed himself a large vodka and tonic, and stumbled into the bedroom. What time was it? The alarm clock said just past midnight. Caroline would probably be asleep by now. Maybe John would still be awake. Wasn't he due back from Florida tonight or something? Martin reached for the phone next to the bed and dialed the number. The answering machine clicked on immediately, which usually meant that John was at home and was either asleep or didn't want to be disturbed.

"John, it's Martin. . . . Are you there? Christopher has left. I don't know where he is. He's taken his stuff. Can you come over? Call me back."

Martin hung up the phone and stared at his reflection in the bedside mirror. He was such an idiot. He was an idiot to think that Christopher loved him. He was an idiot to think that a friend like John would be there when he needed him. And he was an idiot to think that having his hair cut this short would make him more attractive. It made his ears look enormous.

He felt a lump rise in his throat and realized he couldn't choke back the tears any longer. It was time to let it all out. Then the room started spinning, and he threw up.

A few miles away in Earl's Court (not quite Chelsea but handy for the airport), John heard the phone ring, saw Martin's number flash up, and waited for the answering machine to click on. He'd been expecting this call—if not tonight, then sometime soon. It had been obvious to John from the start that Christopher and Martin would never last. Everyone knew that the gay world was arranged into pecking orders—or, as John preferred to think of it, pec-ing orders. Someone blessed with a face like Christopher's was always going to be out of Martin's league, and once he'd acquired a body to match, it was only a matter of time before the rules of attraction tore them apart. John had never said this to Martin directly, of course. They were friends after all, and it wasn't exactly the sort of thing you said to a friend. Similarly, when John discovered that Christopher was having an affair, he had kept it to himself. Well, unless you counted Shane, one of the gay cabin crew he had started to get friendly with. But Shane hardly even knew Martin anyway, and how else was a boy supposed to pass the time during those long hauls and drunken stopovers? No, all things considered, John had been the soul of discretion.

Which was more than could be said for Christopher. It was bad enough that he was having an affair with a whore. Rent boys weren't exactly the most low-key queens around—these days they were treated like celebrities. But to work out together at the gym? That was tantamount to taking out a full-page ad on the back of Boyz. It was a well-known fact that muscle Marys were the biggest gossips in the world, never happier than when they were hovering around the bench press and ripping some poor queen to shreds. That was how John had learned about Christopher's secret liaison. He'd gone to the gym to work on his abdominals and had overheard two queens gossiping in the changing room. This rent boy (Marco he was called—weren't they all?), well, he wasn't exactly the first. It seemed that Christopher had been putting it about quite a bit. They hadn't all been full-blown affairs. According to these two gym queens, it had mostly been quick tricks in the showers. In fact, John was surprised there wasn't a plaque on the wall in the changing room in recognition of all the men Christopher was reputed to have serviced there.

Martin must have been blind not to have worked it out by now. Poor, stupid queen. For a moment, John considered calling him back, but decided against it. He felt sorry for Martin, he really did. But sympathy was a bit like cocaine—offer someone a little bit and before the night was out they'd be back begging for more. For John, friends came in two varieties. There were the Low-Maintenance Friends, or LMFs—the kind of people who were fun to be around, but who didn't demand much in the way of emotional support, and who were always able to pay for their own drugs. And then there were the High-Maintenance Friends, or HMFs—the kind of people you could enjoy the occasional night out with, but who had a nasty habit of unloading their problems on you, and who were always short of money. For the past couple of years, Martin had been an LMF, which suited John to a T. Now, with Christopher gone, there was a strong possibility that he might suddenly mutate into an HMF. And as much as he liked Martin, John had no intention of becoming a shoulder for him to cry on.

Besides which, he'd had a bitch of a day today. Flights to and from Orlando attracted some of the worst people on earth, people who shouldn't be allowed to set foot outside Croydon, never mind fly to America and back. He could tell that stupid cunt and her meathead husband would be trouble the minute they had turned up with all that extra hand luggage and their shining pink brats in tow—her screaming at the kids to "shut the fuck up," him stinking of lager and complaining about the number of queers on board. John wasn't sure which was worse—the breeders who radiated hostility at any crew member who wasn't wearing a skirt, or the queens who snapped their fingers to gain your attention and assumed that gay cabin crew were all part of the in-flight entertainment. If there was one thing John hated more than being referred to as a "trolley dolly," it was the assumption that he was some sort of flying mattress.

Thank God Shane had been on the same flight today. Shane was always so good at dealing with difficult passengers. He always knew the right thing to say to wind them up without ever being seen to be obviously rude or deliberately unhelpful, thereby giving them grounds for complaint. And when words failed him, he always knew how to get back at them in little subtle ways—the wrong meal here, the spilled drink there. Really, he was a man after John's own heart. It was a pity he only went for Asian types. That was partly why Shane had become an air steward in the first place—all those stopovers in Bangkok. John couldn't see the attraction of Asian boys, and he certainly couldn't understand rice queens with Shane's level of devotion. It just didn't make any sense. Walk into any gay sauna or back room in London and you were guaranteed to find an Asian on their knees. Why fly halfway across the world for a taste of the Orient when there was plenty going begging at home?


On Sale
Sep 3, 2007
Page Count
288 pages

Paul Burston

About the Author

Paul Burston is a Welsh journalist and author. Born in York and raised in South Wales, Burston attended Brynteg Comprehensive School and studied English, Drama and Film Studies at university. He worked for the London gay policing group GALOP and was an activist with ACT-UP before moving into journalism.

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