The boxing hall's so much worse since the end of the strike, and not just because the ballet's moved back downstairs. Anyone not punching someone's head in just stands around looking exhausted and defeated, sometimes still with coal grimed under their fingernails like some lousy reminder of the only choice you've got in a place like here. It's either that or they're thrumming with rage, jumpy and restless while they're waiting their turn then going at the punchbags and each other's faces with blows so heavy they make Michael flinch, even from behind the wire fence.
He comes to watch the adults sometimes. If anybody asks, he tells them he's trying to pick up some tips and techniques so he can join the kids' lessons without getting smashed to a pulp, but that's not why. He's not really sure why. He's kneeling on the bench now, the first windy Saturday morning since Billy moved to London, fingers curled around the interlocked mesh of wire and cold nose resting on the bottom corner of one of the links. He's watching Tony in the ring, and his mates clustered around the edge cheering him on. Tony's wearing the ancient gloves Billy used to wear and they look ridiculously small on his hands, faded and frayed from three generations of battering people in the name of sport.
"Give it some welly, man!" someone shouts. Tony's face is set solid like a mask, punching furiously at the cowering man opposite him who's not bothering to hit back at all, only trying to shield his head. He's probably never concentrated so much on anything in his life, Michael thinks. He's working so hard at fighting that he probably can't even hear what's going on around him. He writes that in his letter to Billy later on, and Billy replies well wasnt that always the problem with Tony and for a second it's almost like he's still around.
"Is that your boyfriend, then?"
He looks round at the chirpy voice, and finds Debbie and Susan from school sitting either side of him. They've got their normal clothes on but their hair's pulled up tight into little knots at the back of their heads. Almost time for ballet, then, which means it's almost time for kids' boxing too, but he's glad he won't have to be the one to tell Tony to get out of the ring when he's in a mood like this.
"Is he fuck. I'm learning."
Susan giggles into her splayed fingers and Debbie gives him that look she's got, like she thinks she knows something.
"Why don't you come to ballet? We'll let you wear a tutu."
Michael sighs at that and twists round to sit properly on the bench between the girls, rubbing absently at his reddened, dusty knees. The tutu thing last Christmas spread round like the plague but twice as quick and he still doesn't know who told. He knows it wasn't Billy. It's just one of those stupid things that suddenly everyone in the world seems to know all at once.
"I'm not going to ballet."
"What's the point?"
"You might be good at it," Debbie says. He glances at her sideways, but she's watching her feet on the floor tapping out awkward positions in her blocky black school shoes: third, fourth, fifth. "You might get to go to school with Billy."
He doesn't ask for a tutu in the end, but he gets some satiny white shoes to wear, grey on the bottoms and the insides from somebody else's feet, with elastic across the insteps and ribbons stitched crookedly at the ankles. He tried Billy's shoes on once when he was staying over, and felt irrationally sick and guilty doing it. It was like trying on his pants or something, it seemed like that sort of private; then while he was trying to fight off this persistent idea that Billy would be angry if he woke up, Michael accidentally pulled the loop of the bow he'd tied instead of the tail and make such a tight knot that he had to creep downstairs like a terrified little mouse, treading carefully on the creaky floorboards outside Billy's dad's room, and dig it loose with the sharp prongs of a fork. Now, in the dim ballet room that still smells faintly of old cabbage from the soup kitchen, Mrs. Wilkinson tries to show him how to tie the shoes on properly and he thinks he must be going red in the face from the shame of the memory.
"I know how."
"So I've heard," Mrs. Wilkinson says, eyeing him up and down while he ties the ribbons until the inch of ash clinging to the end of her cigarette drops onto her clothes. She swears under her breath and brushes it off, then turns her back on Michael like he's stopped existing. "Alright, girls, you're only wasting your own time, let's get a move on..."
For weeks he doesn't tell Billy he's started going to lessons, and then it turns into months and he can't really say anything now. It's been too long. When it happens, it happens in person. Billy comes home for the Christmas holidays, and for the first half an hour they're shy and strange around each other like they've never met before, like they're from different countries and don't speak the same language. They sit on Billy's outhouse roof making awkward small talk about school and family, huddled down in their coats against the biting December wind that's shrieking in from the sea, holding sweet cigarettes and pretending they're real because Billy's dad's in the house and he'll wallop them both if he catches them smoking.
The words come up quickly, like vomit. "I started doing ballet, you know." Then he waits for a reaction, but Billy just stays as he is, cross-legged with four inches of skinny ankles in football socks showing in the gaps between his jeans and his trainers. He's holding his sweet between his thumb and first finger, the way his dad smokes, sucking on the end so the melting sugar leaves smears of white at the corners of his mouth.
"You're crap at ballet." He grips the cigarette between his lips so he can push back the hood of his parka and give Michael a funny sideways look, amusement crinkling the corners of his eyes. "What you doing that for, then?"
Michael shrugs, because he can't really tell the truth. Debbie asked me. It reminds me of you. It makes my dad laugh and nothing makes my dad laugh any more. "Just something to do, like. And it's better than fucking boxing."
"It's tougher than boxing. Like in boxing you bleed when you get hit and that. In ballet, sometimes you bleed just from standing up in the morning."
"Fucking hell. It's as bad as that and you're still there? You must be mental."
"Not for me, like. Some of the girls, though, like the fifth years, they're always saying it's torture."
"Oh." And very casually, as casually as he can manage it, Michael asks: "Are the girls nice at your school, then?"
"What do you care, you poof?"
"It's my roof. You piss off."
"Come inside. I borrowed some music from school, we can practise if you want."
"Won't your dad mind, like?"
Billy shrugs, I don't care, and gets to his feet, offering Michael a hand. "He's just gonna have to get used to it, isn't he?"
"I can't hardly hear you, the line's shit. Where are you?"
"New York. It's mental."
"Don't you wanna ask where I am?"
"You're in Everington, you twat, I rung your home phone number."
"I been ringing for ages, you weren't picking up."
"No, I was out in Newcastle, it's Debbie's eighteenth."
"That nutter. What do you hang round with her so much for, anyway?"
"Well, she is my best mate."
There's nothing on the line then but static and breathing, and Michael's stomach lurches like he's missed a step at the very top of an escalator.
"Best mate who's a girl," he amends quickly, and at the other end of the phone, over thousands of miles of ocean, Billy sort of laughs, but not like anything's funny.
"I'll send you a postcard. See you, Michael."
It's late summer when Sandra dies, and her funeral takes place on one of those hazy, sticky, itchy sort of mornings that's full of dust and flies. You want to wear shorts on a day like this. You want to wander round someone's back garden with no shirt on and a sweating can of Coke in your hand while music streams out the open windows with the curtains. Michael squints into the sun, trying not to fidget. A drop of perspiration rolls slowly down the full length of his spine and he wriggles carefully until his shirt blots away the maddening tickle, until Billy elbows him gently. By then he's stopped moving anyway, so they stand there together in silence, arms just touching, until everybody starts to leave.
It's cooler back in the house. Michael gets rid of his jacket as soon as he politely can, rolls his shirt sleeves up to his elbows and starts making himself useful in the dining room, stripping ragged clingfilm off the plates of egg sandwiches he helped Debbie make earlier while Billy lurks by the front window, weirdly awkward. He keeps his hands in his pockets for a while, studying the pictures on the walls and glancing at Michael every now and then as if he's not sure whether he should offer to help until Michael takes pity on him, which seems a strange role-reversal.
"I've got it," he says, pressing the last square of clingfilm onto the crumpled ball in his hands and throwing it so it bounces off Billy's shoulder and rolls behind the sofa. "Just sit down. I do this every day, I don't need you mucking with my routine."
"You're like a machine."
"A buffet-unwrapping machine'd make my job a fucking lot easier."
"Where's the button to make you bring me a drink?"
"Here." He sticks up his middle finger and Billy laughs, then he looks horrified and covers his mouth.
"Fuck off, you. It's meant to be a fucking funeral."
There are cars arriving now, a couple of people walking up the garden path in their black suits and veiled hats. The front door is open, partly so Debbie doesn't have to get up every five seconds to let people in and partly to help with the heat, but everyone heads straight into the kitchen for drinks so for now at least they're alone. They're never alone any more, not since they finished school. Billy's always on tour or in rehearsals and Michael's wasting his time at that soul-sucking hotel doing a job he can only bear because night shifts pay better and he's saving up to escape. They've not even seen each other in almost two years, and fuck knows how much longer it would have been if Sandra hadn't got so ill.
"It's really good to see you," Billy says quietly, like he's reading Michael's mind, and Michael almost winces. It's not a Billy thing to say, although the sentiment is there for both of them. London is changing him, or his new friends, or his job, or maybe it's just the passing of time and Michael would start to change too if he could only get away. Everington is like a ghost town now, where nothing ever happens and people never change.
"Shut up, you poof," he says back lightly, pinching Billy's bum and darting out the door to fetch him a drink before he can retaliate. He follows, of course, but there are too many people in the kitchen so they end up sitting two steps apart halfway up the staircase, drinking rum and Coke from red paper cups, not speaking for ages. It's not an awkward silence, not exactly. It's just weird and sad.
"That's you," Billy says suddenly. He gestures up at the wall of the stairs, one of the clustered little framed pictures, and stands for a better look. "Fucking hell. I never saw this before, when was this?"
"Easter show, we was thirteen." Michael knows the house so well that he doesn't even have to study the photo to remember which one it is: it's the last show he took part in before he stopped going to lessons for good and got a paper round instead.
"Look how young you look. And Mrs. Wilkinson, she looks happy."
"Sandra," Michael says automatically, and Billy turns round with his eyebrows raised like a question. "She wouldn't let me call her Mrs. Wilkinson after I stopped going, she said it's a teacher's name."
"Oh." Billy looks thoughtful and slumps down on the stairs again, tapping his empty paper cup against his mouth. "So why did you stop going, then? I thought you liked it."
"I was rubbish." Kicked in at school, relentlessly and repeatedly, as if they needed another excuse. "You know you're a lot to live up to?"
Billy mutters a vaguely awkward shut up and gives him a little shove in the shoulder. They fall silent again then, sharing their staircase hideout the way they used to huddle together in Michael's tiny bedroom or on Billy's outhouse roof and only moving when people need to get past for the loo.
"Michael? Jesus Christ, where are you?"
Finger in the opposite ear, Michael presses his phone as close as possible and shouts over the noise of the club. "I'm at a party, where do you think?"
"How's it going?"
"You copped off yet?"
"Working on it. How's Kate?"
"I dunno, we broke up."
"Ah, shit. What happened?"
"She went to Moscow?"
"She went where?"
"MOSCOW," Billy yells. "She's working."
"Billy, man, I can't hardly hear you. I'm gonna go and ring you back tomorrow, yeah?"
"Happy Millennium. Wish you were here."
"No thanks, I seen the places you go partying."
"Look after yourself, alright? Come and stay when you get a break."
"Yeah, I will. Have a good night. Remember, no glove no love."
"Cover my stump before I hump."
"Michael, fucking hell! I'm going to bed. Have a drink for me."
Michael ends the call while Billy's still laughing, because he's tired of all the goodbyes.
Michael swears in a hissing stage whisper, staggering slightly as he knocks himself off-balance with another mouthful of wine from the bottle he's clutching until his free hand finds the safety of the wall and, there, a light switch. The illumination from the unshaded bulb dangling above their heads is a dim, dirty sort of yellow; the bulb is dusty, a relic leftover from the last owners of the flat, like the chipped mug in the bathroom cabinet and the chewing gum pressed into disgusting little multicoloured mosaics in the corners of the living room windowsill. Three steps behind him, Billy is snorting laugher as he swings the door shut and slides home the bolt.
"You can talk!"
Billy's cheeks are dark, flushed with vodka and chapped with cold. He tugs off his gloves with his teeth and spits them neatly onto the hall table, rubbing his face briskly with his warm palms. "Fucking freezing. Get the kettle on, I'm busting for a wee."
The kitchen is tiny, like a little girl's Wendy house. Already it looks like Billy's home, and he's only been moved in a week. There's a tea towel draped over the handle of the oven door, black and white Newcastle stripes, and a cactus on top of the microwave wearing a red plastic sombrero. Fixed to the fridge with magnetic letters are photos: Billy's mum and dad, Tony and his daughter with his ex-wife carefully torn away from the right edge, a picture of Michael with a stripe of sunburn across his nose, shading his eyes and smiling dazedly for the camera from a beach he can't remember. There are faces he doesn't know, too; a group photo of people in cut-off jeans and vest tops and oversized sunglasses, Billy in the middle of them, all licking ice lollies in front of the Palais Garnier, and another of Billy laughing as one of the girls pretends to squash the distant Eiffel Tower between her thumb and forefinger. Michael thinks about his fridge at home, how boring it is. There's a magnet shaped like Italy from a holiday four years ago and a little whiteboard fixed on with sticky pads, which always falls off if you close the door too hard. His photos all live in albums, catalogued neatly and hidden away in boxes. The pictures framed on the walls of his flat up in Manchester, he's just realising now, are all people he doesn't know: Marilyn, Madonna, Kylie, Dita. Women who don't need surnames, whom he's never ever going to meet, plus the anonymous bodies on the firemen calender Billy bought him for a joke last Christmas, which has never yet had the pages turned past Mr. April.
"Are you making that cuppa tea or what?" Billy says, edging into the kitchen and making Michael jump. He turns hastily, though there's barely room for the two of them in there, and starts looking for mugs after he tops the kettle up from the tap.
"Just looking at your photos."
"Cupboard nearest the window." Billy reaches into a biscuit tin on the counter and flicks a couple of teabags out, managing to miss both of the mugs Michael sets down. "I like having my people around me."
"Your people? Alright, your majesty."
"Fuck off. I'm hardly living in a palace, am I?"
"Aren't you minted, like?" He shoos Billy ahead of him, carrying both mugs of tea and following him into a living room about the size of a matchbox. There's just enough room for a little two-seat sofa, the telly, and a tiny coffee table with a wobbly leg. Beneath the gum-speckled windowsill, the wall is almost completely hidden by unpacked cardboard boxes full of stuff that doesn’t have a home yet.
"Do I look minted?"
Billy's got his eyes closed and his head resting against the top of the back cushion on his side of the sofa. Michael steps carefully over his knees and sits next to him, tucking his fingers up into his sleeves so he can hold his mug of tea and warm his hands without it hurting. "You look knackered," he says truthfully, and Billy's face spreads into a brilliant smile. He cracks an eye open and tries to fake a glare.
"Thanks very much."
"I was just saying."
"Anyway, it's central London. In Everington I could probably buy like some fifteen bedroom mansion for this price. It took bloody years of scrimping just to save up for the deposit." He doesn't mention how much of his money goes to looking after his dad, or to helping out with Tony's rent and maintenance payments. He's never really mentioned it, except some throwaway comments like it's really no big deal that he's been the one to hold his family together through all these years.
"You're famous, though."
He settles back against the cushion. "Not really."
"You were on the Royal Variety, that's more famous than anyone else I know."
"Can we not talk about fucking work?"
After a moment, Michael asks cautiously, "But you still like it, right?"
Billy nods, still with his eyes closed, and this time Michael lets the silence stay. It's the comfortable kind, it always is now. They've known each other thirty-one years, since their mums brought them home to opposite sides of the same steep street only four days apart, and that's a long enough time to sort out your silences. Michael just sips his cooling tea and listens to Billy breathe, and when Billy shifts his hand half an hour later, Michael lifts his finger to let him closer and starts to gently stroke the fine hairs on the back of his wrist.
"Dancing boy," he murmurs, just to see that smile again, and Billy laughs into the darkness of his closed eyes and turns his hand over beneath Michael's, letting him curl their fingers together without an argument or a flinch.