NOT THIS TIME
by Susan Oke
I can feel their eyes: flicking from clasped hands to clenched jaws and back, and then cutting away. And that’s almost harder to bear, that looking away—it gouges, leaves me less than I was.
I never thought that this would be the place: the Tottenham Court Road platform of the Northern Line—hot and sweaty and crammed with commuters. He'd grabbed my hand and we'd half-ran down the stairs; he had his don’t-mess-with-me face on, so I moved in-step with him, my own brand of hell-fire and damnation kindling my neckline: white to pink to red. Like an admission.
His hand feels strong, fingers wrapped tight around mine. I lift my head, look along the platform, determined to brazen it out. On the right by the seats, an old guy in a white shirt, fabric stretched over his belly, buttons about to pop, is staring straight at me.
He doesn’t fight when I grab hold of his hand; side-by-side we clatter down the steps into the claustrophobic heat. I pretend I can’t see the sudden flush on his skin, can’t feel the way his hand clutches at mine: desperate, not knowing whether to stick or run. He sticks, and I love him for that.
The platform’s packed. Didn’t expect it to be this busy this late. He lags behind; I give his hand a squeeze. Shouldn’t have pulled this on him, I suppose. But he’s mine and I want the world to know. This time it’s right. I can feel it. OK, I want to punch him sometimes; he’s too quick with his mouth, talks a load of crap about things he doesn’t understand, especially when it comes to religion. The boy hasn’t lived. But he makes me laugh. So I forgive him, slap him down gentle like.
The crowd is easing up, or maybe we’ve been granted our own pariah space. I scowl and push on. Who cares, anyway? He is a reluctant weight; I turn to snap at him and see that he’s got that look on his face—like he’s bench-pressed beyond his weight, and any second it’s all going to come crashing down on him. He gets like that sometimes: wide-eyed and wild, daring me to do my worst. Later, I hold him while he sobs. I just can’t figure the why of it. Every time it tears something inside me.
Maybe now he’ll see that I’m serious; that I can take care of him. I need him to believe that.
The crowd bunches up and I can feel him warm against my back. We thread our way past a skinny guy huddled over a pram, grasping a squirming kid, and a woman—the mother, I guess—busy fussing with bags. There’s a whole I-told-you-so conversation flashing between them, all dark looks and sharp movements. An old fat guy glares at us, looks like he’s just let rip and can’t believe his own stink. I give him the eye and he turns away.
Don’t look. Don’t make eye contact. Snatch a breath, another. That’s it. Focus on his shoulders, the bunch and flex of muscles, the crew-cut line of his hair, the half-glimpsed lobe of his ear that, only this morning I bit into, making him shout and then laugh, pinning me to the bed and teaching me the pleasure-pain of snapping Italian teeth. And I remember thinking: I want this summer to last forever.
I read somewhere that the tube has wall-to-wall surveillance to stop twats screwing everyone’s day by throwing themselves under trains. I get a sudden image of Dad watching a news flash, muttering under his breath about the low moral fibre of young people these days. And then Mum glancing up from her laptop with that ‘what now?’ look on her face. Their faces go slack, and then harden in disgust. There I am, freeze-framed on the screen, hand-in-hand with one of them. My guts twist, and with it my fingers, trying to squirm from his grasp. I stop myself and grab hold tighter.
I can do what I want: it’s my body, my life.
Under the faint pine splash of ‘Homme’ there’s an earthy musk that’s all him. I can’t get enough of it. That’s just one of the things that make him so fucking hot. I remember the salt and sharpness of his sweat, the feel of smooth olive skin pricked with coarse black hair. I practically lived at the gym until I’d figured out his routine. He noticed. Came over to help when I tried to deadlift more than I could handle. There I was trying to impress and ended up looking like an idiot. He just grinned, adjusted the weights and told me that he knew exactly how to get those knots out of my sore muscles.
I don’t have to look to know that he's chewing his bottom lip. He used to do that when he watched me in the gym—when he thought he was being so careful—blue eyes half-hidden by a fringe of blond. He’ll never know how much I ached to push that hair out of his eyes and kiss him, right there, in the middle of the gym. He has a smile that makes my chest hurt; plenty of muscle on him too, especially since I took over his training. It’s been six weeks since I let him catch me. Six glorious weeks of training and fucking and laughing and, well, just looking at him.
He can match me in weights now, makes it look easy.
He's coming back to my flat tonight, no arguments. I keep hinting that there’s plenty of room at my place, and that isn’t it time he moved out of his parents’ house? But he just shrugs and makes a joke about free room and board, or looks away mumbling ‘yeah, yeah, I know.’ So I back off, there’s time, I’ll win him round. But snatched afternoons and the occasional weekend just isn’t enough. I offered to front him for a couple of weeks until he found his feet, but he stormed off, slamming his way out of the flat. Got a call from Lucius a few hours later, said I’d best come pick up my boy. I got to The Village just in time to warn off a pack of bears, sniffing round fresh meat, and my boy so drunk he could barely stand.
The letter came last week: the unconditional offer to study Industrial Design at Glasgow University, one of the best in the country. Dad wants me to go to Brunel, arguing we’d save thousands in accommodation costs. It’s what Paul would’ve wanted, he said, using my brother’s name like a whip.
Dad can’t stop me. Not this time.
A shoulder slams into mine, the words ‘fucking queer’ spat in my face in the instant of passing. I stagger sideways, sweat-slicked fingers slipping. My saviour pulls me upright, his face full of thunder. I want to say it wasn’t my fault; I want to point at the retreating suit and scream: it was that twat. But he doesn’t like whining, doesn’t like excuses. So I grit my teeth and make an effort to walk in the comforting backwash of his scent.
That’s when I see Paul, just a glimpse of dark blond hair tied back in a ponytail, his face half in shadow. He looks back once before the crowd snatches him away. My heart’s beating so hard it hurts. It can’t be Paul. I know that. Still, I crane my neck hoping for another sighting, if only to prove to myself that I’m being stupid. And then I get what I want: the stranger has the same slim build and there’s something about the square line of his jaw… but it’s not Paul. Suddenly I’m cold; my chest aches. I think I’m going to throw up.
And I remember: shouting and the stink of beer and shit, and a man, curled up on the street, arms over his head; the man’s shouting, but I can’t make out the words. Paul grabs my arm, slurs in my face, ‘he’s a fucking paedo’, and so I stick the boot in too. Paul’s mates said I was one of the boys and shared a six-pack with me. I managed to get away before I spewed my guts up.
A week later Paul was dead—mashed up by one of those White Vans as he crossed Station Road. I walk blind through the crowd, Dad's voice whispering that Paul will always be watching over me.
It’s started for real now: the looks, the tight faces, the pretending they haven’t noticed, or like we’re not even here. Some have the balls to look me in the face, not many, and not for long. Well good, look at us, look at him, see how gorgeous he is. Yes, you too ladies. Have a good look at what you can never have. He chose me, and I’m never letting him go. Not this one. Not this time.
He jerks away, almost falls onto the tracks. What the fuck…? I yank him back onto his feet. Glare into his face: his blue eyes wide with shock and fear. I want to shout watch yourself; I want to shout don’t scare me like that. And then I see the suit, glancing back, face twisted with hate. So I say nothing. My boy moves close; I can feel his breath on the back of my neck.
His hand is sweating now, and I know why. I can hear them over the rumble of the approaching train. The shouts and laughter of a pack on the hunt. Too loud, too urgent. Bright t-shirts and flushed faces appearing through the thinning crowd: four, no, five men—a couple handsome and gym-toned, the others the usual hangers on—out on the piss, and looking for trouble.
I expect him to let go of my hand, to square his shoulders and turn away, to pretend that we’re not together. But no, he pulls me closer, hand gripping mine so tight my knuckles ache.
That’s when I hear them. Hyena laughter—giving the crowd something else to cringe away from. I turn back. Almost. Hot bile rises, burns my throat. Its heat settles in my chest, flashes out to every muscle. I tighten my grip on his hand; it’s the only thing that’s stopping the shakes. The leader of the pack turns to face us, square jaw set, blond hair tied back in a tight ponytail. And that’s when my boy jerks his hand free of mine and steps away.
I watch him fish the crucifix from under his t-shirt and press the blessed and broken body to his lips. He pushes in front of me—all coiled muscle and clenched fists. Warm, stale air gusts along the platform. Blondie is smirking, his cronies bunching at his back, their jeers lost in the rumble and screech of the breaking train.
I reach out to my boy. He turns, cups my face in his hands and kisses me hard. The jeers turn into groans and shouts of disgust. But he doesn’t stop. He curls a hand behind my neck, wraps the other around my waist and pulls me close. My body responds before my mind has a chance to catch up.
All I want to do is punch the bastards. And then I feel his touch. In that instant I know exactly what I want. This time I take the lead. My lover curves his body to fit mine, and I barely feel the jabs and kicks as the pack push past to board the train. Something sharp, there and gone, leaving an expanding circle of heat in the small of my back. My knees buckle. I can taste blood. Someone is shouting my name. And all I can think is: looks like we’ll make the news after all.
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