If someone had asked Merab to describe London in one word he would have said “loud”.
And it stank.
Not that Tbilisi was quiet and smelled of roses but at home Merab knew the sounds and scents. They were familiar, he could distinguish them, sort and evaluate them. Bringing order to the chaos.
But in London it overwhelmed him all at once: fumes, the hammering of heavy construction machines everywhere, at night the drunks shouting incomprehensible slurs in his gloomy street that smelled of piss, sick, mold and fried onions.
That smell especially made Merab gag.
Because it clung to him, his hair, his clothes. It came with the job and surrounded him for eight hours a day – the time he spent at the greasy stove in the greasy kitchen of a greasy McDonald's, frying deep-frozen disks of minced meat for minimum wage.
It had been the only job he could get.
“Qualifications?” The manager, a spotty guy in his mid-twenties, had asked.
“Dance.” Merab had stuttered.
“Well, not much use for that here, mate, but I'm sure you can turn a burger just fine.” He'd shoved a silly paper hat and an ugly brown polyamide shirt at Merab, and since that day he slaved for the fast food giant about whose fries and burgers he'd dreamt as a kid back in Georgia six days a week.
Yet he soon discovered that even if he did work double shifts and just ate the stuff customers left on their trays it was impossible to survive on 6.15 an hour in a city as expensive as London.
The hostel he was staying at alone charged him ten pounds a night in a dorm. Yet they didn't ask any questions and never wanted to see a passport.
When someone asked him where he came from he'd quickly learned to say Romania, as it was an EU country. Saying Georgia only got him questioning looks and remarks why on earth an American spoke such bad English. When he told them 'No, not that Georgia, I'm from Georgia in Caucasus' they thought him a Muslim and potential ISIS terrorist and backed off.
Merab lacked the words to explain that he was in fact a member of the Apostolic Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
Not that he was especially proud of it. In fact, coming to England had been a move to free himself from the constraints of Georgian society and especially the church.
But being gay in London was only marginally better than being gay in Tbilisi.
True, here were clubs and bars – but Merab couldn't afford visiting them. Sometimes he saw men holding hands in the street or even kiss. But he also saw the way other people looked at them. And often they even shouted something in their unintelligible dialect. And once or twice they didn't leave it at shouting.
How was this better than the discrimination he had suffered at home? At least there he had understood the codes and insults, the ways to hide and drop hints. He'd even started to discover the small scene.
In London, being gay might be legal but that didn't mean it was more widely accepted than it was in Tbilisi.
He sometimes thought of Irakli when despair overcame him. Was he now sitting in his tiny mountain village, watching his young wife feed their first-born son, sadness weighing his broad shoulders down?
Was he missing dance?
Was he missing Merab?
Fuck, Merab wouldn't back down! He wouldn't betray who he really was for a little bit of peace and quiet.
It were these thoughts that made him get out of bed every morning, washing in the grimy communal showers down the corridor, brushing his teeth at the broken sink before shuffling of to eight hours of cooking processed meat.
His life here might be shit but at least he was trying; while Irakli had chosen not to even bother anymore, living in some sort of coma.
David texted from time to time. About his marriage. About mama and grandma. About his daughter But never about Irakli. And never about dance.
As much as Merab had hated the routine of training and rehearsal – being deprived of it now felt worse. He missed dancing, missed the focus, the concentration, the strain of muscles moving just the way they learned to do, of body and mind coming together, melting motions and movements centuries old, laden with tradition.
There was a ballet studio two floors up from the McDonald's, he'd discovered, and sometimes he hung around there after work, staring through the glass, watching bodies twist and turn.
They weren't very good. It was mostly rich white girls with neither talent nor determination trying not hard enough, even those who might have had the potential to be at least average. And the trainers were way too soft on them, there was no shouting and no slapping; no one grabbed their calves and pulled their legs higher, or leaned on their shoulders to make them split wider. It was all kind voices, friendly encouragement and laughs.
How on earth were they ever going beyond their limits like this?
Merab was sitting outside the studio now, tired, smelling of onions, absent-mindedly rubbing his ankle, when the door opened and a woman with huge glasses and a thick blond ponytail stared at him.
'Shit, she'll think I'm a pervert ogling her pupils and call the police.'
Merab was shuffling to his feet, ready to leave when she spoke to him: “You here for the job?”
A job? Instinctively, Merab nodded.
“Well, did you bring anything? A CV?”
Fuck, of course he didn't. So he shook his head and tried to smile.
The woman shrugged. “Doesn't really matter, does it? Come in, they'll be finished soon.” Merab followed her through the door and down a corridor, its walls painted in soft pink like the whole studio.
The woman stopped after rounding a corner and opened a broom cupboard. “You'll have to wipe all the floors with this special detergent for wood.” She held up a bottle. “Then you'll vacuum the carpets. Should you find any left clothes or shoes, put them in my office.” She pointed at another door opposite then handed Merab a bunch of keys. “Switch the lights off and lock up when you leave. I'm not expecting you to turn up every day at six sharp but I expect my studio cleaned in the morning when I come in for training. Understood?”
Merab nodded again, the keys dangling between his fingers.
“I'll pay you ten pounds for each evening in cash. How long you take is up to you. When you're fast it's a good wage. But don't be sloppy.”
Suddenly, voices filled the corridor.
“Okay, they've finished. Do you have any questions?”
“Great.” She turned and left, having not even asked for Merab's name.
And that's how he got access to a dance studio.
He made the most of it.
After dutifully mopping and hoovering the rooms and making sure everyone had left, he went into the largest studio, used his phone to put some music on, and slowly started stretching.
In the office of the boss he'd found a crate filled with dance clothes pupils must have forgotten, and from it he fished a pair of gray tights. Now he stared at his reflection in the huge spotless mirror he'd wiped ten minutes ago: his legs still looked good, yet they screamed when he pulled them apart, flexing his bare calloused feet. He'd tied his black t-shirt around the waist he now bend to bring his upper body down on the wooden floor smelling of that special polish.
Every night, he practiced. Miraculously, his ankle didn't play up. Maybe the months of forced rest had done it some good?
Soon, he left the traditional moves he'd been taught since he was a boy behind and moved more freely. He'd studied dance videos in his hostel bed many nights, yearning to be able to try if he could exercise these motions himself. They were fluent but also rather jerky, high jumps contrasted with rolling around on the floor.
Merab didn't dare to shower at the studio so he went home sweaty every night long after his work at McDonald's was finished, climbing into bed hurting all over and happy.
After his first week, an envelope with 60 pounds was waiting for him on the office desk. He smiled, clutching it to his chest.
The next day, he bought proper dance shoes, sending the rest of the money to his mama via Western Union.
Merab lived for the evenings he spent dancing, losing himself in these hours filled with music and training until his t-shirt clung to his skin and his muscled felt sore.
Yet he should have known that his secret life wouldn't stay hidden forever.
After three months, he'd just finished a complicated routine, his body lying on the floor in a heap of heaving flesh, when he heard someone clap.
He froze a moment, then forced himself to raise his head and look around.
His boss was standing in the doorway, slowly applauding him.
He quickly scrambled to his feet. “Sorry... I...” He was once again lost for words and just tried to push past her.
But she grabbed his arm. “Hey, where you think you're going?”
“Sorry. Must leave. Did not want to-”
Those three words made him stop in his tracks.
His boss released his arm, pointing to the middle of the floor. “Show me.”
And he did, a little insecure at first but then just forgetting about her, giving himself over to the music and his body's reactions to it.
When he was finished he dared to look at his boss now sitting on a stool in front of the mirror, chin in palm.
She was nodding, a strange expression on her face.
Her next question surprised him.
“What's your name?”
“I'm Dana. I'm giving a party on Saturday evening. I want you to come and meet someone. After you've finished here, of course. Now go shower.”
She walked out without another word, the door closing softly behind her.
“A party?!” Mary sounded excited when Merab told her about it as they met at her place for breakfast on Friday. She shared a house with three other students in Crouch End – her room literally as large as a shoe box – as she was by now studying at LSE. Dance had always only been a hobby of her and after finishing school her father had insisted she got a degree in economics to eventually take over the family business.
As wealthy as her father was in Georgia, in London his daughter had to struggle like every student. So right now it was jam on toast and black instant coffee in her untidy kitchen, a half-eaten bowl of Ramen from one of her flatmates still sitting on the table.
“And?” Mary asked, leaning closer.
“And what?” Merab played dumb.
“Any idea who she wants you to meet?”
“I don't know. Maybe it's just for another cleaning job.”
“Sure.” Mary rolled her eyes as she stirred another spoonful of sugar into her coffee. Now that she'd quit dancing she didn't have to watch her weight any longer.
Merab watched her, smiling a little.
“What?” She asked, looking up.
“Oh, come on. Do you have something to tell me? If so, spit it out. I have class in an hour.”
“No, it's nothing...” He turned and looked out of the window into the small yard.
“Merab!” Mary kicked him under the table and he winced. “Come on. I know you. What is it? Did you meet someone?”
He couldn't suppress the grin spreading on his face.
“Oh, you! Who is he?”
The fact that the male pronoun came so easily over Mary's lips made Merab love her even more.
“He moved in yesterday. His name's Mo. He's... gorgeous.”
“Tell me more.” Mary blew on her coffee as she moved her chair closer.
“He's tall. So tall. At least 1,90 meter. He's a bricklayer, I think. I'm not sure I got it right. He comes from Birmingham and is now looking for work in London. He's got the bunk next to me in the dorm-”
“How does he look?” Mary interrupted.
“Broad shoulders. Muscles, but not too beefy. Dreadlocks. And his smile...” Merab sighed as he rested his forehead on his folded arms on the table.
He'd moved in last evening, sitting cross-legged in the bunk next to Merab's when he'd come back from work.
“Hey, I'm Mo.” A fist offered for Merab to bump while the guy had pulled off his headphones.
“Merab.” He'd been acutely aware of how sweaty he'd been. “Sorry, need a shower.” He'd opened his locker and got his soap and a towel out.
“Yeah, me too, actually. You can show me the facilities.”
And like that, they'd both ended up in the showers together. Merab had made a grant gesture at the rather drab communal bathroom with its broken tiles and mold on the ceiling while Mo had looked around, putting his towel over one of the hooks.
“Well, it is just ten quid a night so this is what I expected.” He'd turned back to Merab. “Almost. But it has its perks.” That grin...
Had he been flirting?
Merab had quickly pulled his hoodie and t-shirt over his head, shed his sweat pants and trainers and had gotten under the lukewarm spray. A lifetime spend in male locker rooms had exorcised any shyness when it came to getting naked around men.
“That one broken, only cold.” He'd gestured over to the shower-head in the left corner, so Mo had chosen the one right next to him.
When Merab had turned to look at him from under the spray, he'd almost choked. Because sweet mother of Christ was that guy packing. White foam was glistening all over his ebony skin and Merab had thought should God strike him down at this moments for his sins he could die a happy man.
When he'd raised his eyes towards Mo's face he'd become aware that he'd been watching him, a strange smile on his face.
“Like what you see?”
Merab had turned away so fast he'd almost slipped on the tiles.
“Hey, sorry, bro, I didn't want to-”
A huge hand had touched Merab's shoulder, making him glance over.
“No. Me sorry. It's just...” How was he to explain that he'd never seen a black man naked before? And that he felt silly that apparently all those rumors were true? Wasn't that incredibly racist? Fuck, why wasn't his English better?
Instead of getting his point across Merab just shrugged, making an impatient gesture.
“Where are you from?” Mo's hand was still on his shoulder, now sliding up his neck.
“Georgia.” Merab had even forgotten to lie.
“That's far from home, mate.” Mo had removed his hand and had started to shampoo his hair with a concoction that smelled of coconut.
“Yes.” Merab had had trouble swallowing.
“Why did you leave.”
“There is nothing for me back home.” Why had he been so honest with this stranger? “It is not good country for men like me.”
Suddenly, Mo had squealed, turning away from under the spray. “Fuck!” The water must have gotten cold. English plumbing was notoriously unpredictable, Merab had discovered.
“Come here.” He'd gestured Mo over and they'd shared his hot water until they'd both washed the shampoo out of their hair. Mo's dreadlocks hadn't even looked wet while Merab's ginger curls had been plastered to his forehead, quite unflattering as he'd presumed.
Drying off, he'd been aware that Mo had been openly staring at him.
“Wanna talk about it?” He'd eventually asked.
“My English not good.” Merab had shaken his head.
“Nevermind. I've been working with enough guys from Eastern Europe... just, let me buy you a drink, okay?”
They'd ended up getting cans of John Smith's from the off-license round the corner of their hostel, sitting in the deserted backyard, drinking and smoking, while Merab had tried as best he could to tell his story: Tbilisi, dancing, Irakli... the impossible situation for gay men in Georgia.
“Well, believe me, being black and gay in Birmingham isn't much fun either.”
When they both had emptied three cans Mo had leaned forward and said, his speech only a little slurred: “Show me how you dance.”
And Merab had done, arms raised above his head, back straight, legs flexing as he'd jumped and turned, the chipped concrete floor not worse than the studio floor back in Tbilisi.
When he'd finished Mo had clapped, slowly, his eyes gazing into Merab's.
“Wow. I had no idea...” Then he'd gotten up and taken Merab's face between his rough palms, leaned in and kissed him...
“Merab!” Mary's voice brought him back to the here and now. He shrugged, smiling sheepishly. “Oh shit, you got it bad.”
“He's just... he's fun. And smart. And he looks so good.”
“How far did it go?”
“We kissed. And then we went to bed.”
“No! He's not like that.”
“Oh, I'm sure he's the perfect gentleman.” Mary grinned, making a rude gesture with her hand. “Come on, drink up, I have Uni and you have to grill some meat.”