After the Flaming Creatures broke up, Ray was kind enough to let Arthur live with him for a while. They were good together. Arthur wasn’t in love exactly, but he liked Ray, liked the frequent sex when they were in the flat at the same time and the familiarity of being together, and admired Ray’s mad, grand ideas about fronting his own band someday.
Then Ray found himself a backup performer from a West End theatre and Arthur knew his luck had run out.
“Sorry, love,” Ray had said, the first time he brought his serious new boyfriend round, “do you mind?”
Arthur took the hint. Ray may have wanted him gone for the night, but Arthur realized that they were done, and that he would only get in the way if he stayed. Apparently getting kicked out was the story of his life.
The end hurt more than he expected, since he wasn’t even in love. He had never lost himself thinking about Ray at the record store where he worked, the way he could lose himself daydreaming about Curt Wild, or used to do with Brian Slade before that. He should have seen the rejection coming: that was all. He’d been an idiot to think that anything decent might last.
Still, part of him hoped that having fewer distractions would give him time to plan his own mad and not very grand idea of somehow getting his A-levels. The record store was starting to bore him. It was a dead end, and a dead end that made him feel older and even more lost than he was. There were so many new singers and bands he didn’t really know and who didn’t interest him when he tried to listen to them, and so few customers who asked for anything he cared about anymore. Jack Fairy was still making music, but it was too weird to get into in the listening booth of the shop or surrounded by flatmates in the dodgy, cheap flat he’d found for himself. Brian had disappeared completely. Curt, meanwhile, was back in America, where he was making headlines not for his music but for a series of drug-related arrests and hospitalizations. Every headline about him made Arthur’s stomach sink and left him distracted and anxious for the rest of the day. He knew he shouldn’t be. After all, he’d known what he was getting into with Curt. What did he expect? That if Curt were sober, he’d come back to England, find Arthur, and date him? Impossible. He must have forgotten Arthur the day after they met. Arthur wished he could do the same.
So really, it wasn’t surprising that the record store had started to depress him. Even the pay was shit. The manager cut his hours soon after Ray ended things, when Arthur’s rent was due, which meant a few days in which he nearly starved and nearly drove himself mad with worry that they’d sack him altogether. He’d thought about selling some of his records and memorabilia, which was a little scary. They meant too much too him, though he didn't know why anymore. Anyway, who’d want anything of his when they could find the same things in every charity shop in London? That had led him to wonder if he would end up a rent boy, except he couldn't imagine anyone paying to sleep with him.
Then he realized that he was being stupid and melodramatic and hysterical, when all he needed was to find a job that would pay him, if the record store wouldn't. He'd been wrong to stick it out as long as he had. Maybe he'd been wrong to rent a flat, too, instead of finding a squat somewhere like most kids did, only, wasn’t that illegal? (Yeah - and so's being a rent boy, you idiot.) Every instinct of Arthur’s had told him to keep his head down instead of looking for more trouble.
He was thrilled when he got the job in the tea shop instead. Not that it was a thrilling job, of course; the work was as mind-numbingly dull as tidying shelves or unloading boxes of stock had been, and he dreaded asking people to leave for sitting down with their takeaway drinks or pastries when they thought he wouldn’t notice. But the money was decent, and he could take home anything that got too stale to sell, which solved the problem of starving.
Stale scones and surprisingly decent sandwiches made him more valuable to his flatmates, too, although Arthur still wouldn’t call them mates: he was too busy keeping his head down to make friends. But now that he had food and lodging, he was trying to think about his future. He’d once had a mad idea to become a writer, although he’d never told anyone, and had mostly lost interest as a teenager when he realized that music was much sexier. He tried to start writing again now. Making things up in his head helped his boredom at work, though all his stories seemed to feature one character who was just like him, and a fearless, beautiful rocker who was just like Curt, with maybe a bit of Brian thrown in.
Stop it, he’d tell himself, his face warming when he realized he was getting too ridiculous to be allowed, even in his own head. No one would ever read that. Everyone's forgotten them…
It was pathetic. He was pathetic. He desperately needed some new friends or better yet, a new boyfriend, someone who wouldn’t remind him of the dead glam scene. The dry spell he’d hit was also making him feel much older than his nineteen years. Arthur could go days without speaking to anyone except customers and his manager at the tea shop and maybe, maybe, one of his flatmates if he had leftovers for them. What had happened to him? He’d always been quiet, but as little as six months ago, he’d had friends and lovers and wonderful, amazing concerts and places to go to. Now he thought he might go mad from loneliness. Several times he’d shut himself in a phone box to call his mum, just to hear her voice, before hesitating and putting the phone back in its cradle out of fear that his father or his brother would answer instead. He didn’t think his pride would hold out for much longer, though. Something had to give.
Arthur was standing at the counter biting his lip, his mind miles away from the tea shop. He wished he could get home to check his mail, of all things. He might have a letter back from the Department of Education about his A-levels, if he was really lucky. He needed to see what they’d said, if they had gotten back to him at all: so far he’d heard nothing. The matter had dragged for so long that he was wondering if they’d laughed him off. Maybe he should have written to his old school in Manchester instead - or maybe there was nothing anyone could do to help him. Maybe he'd only begun to realize how bad a turn his father had done him by throwing him out.
He imagined himself working in a shop forever, too stupid and unqualified for any publisher or editor to take seriously. Then again, even if he could go back to school and become a writer or a journalist or something, he wouldn’t be writing about glam rock. No one would read the things he wanted to say. He’d probably be writing about heat waves and power cuts instead, which made him wonder if the meaninglessness and the boredom just followed you wherever you went or whatever you did after a certain age. There might be nothing for it - no revolution in art or anything that would ever make a damned difference, which could be why people with talent and dreams either sold out or burned up eventually. And if there was so little hope for people with actual talent, then what was there for someone like Arthur? Even if he could finish his schooling and get a proper job, what then? He’d begun to suspect that pure meaninglessness was the nasty secret behind adult life, with all its cynicism and repression. God, he hoped not.
He’d worked himself into such a state that he couldn’t even write stories in his head (the shop boy and the rock god, pathetic), and was scowling down at the counter when something about the tone in his latest customer’s voice made him look up.
“My usual,” the man opposite Arthur was saying, leaning in so close that Arthur could almost feel the warmth of his breath. Arthur blinked in surprise, tensing. He thought he saw attraction in the older man’s face, which was unexpected and made him look around, furtively, in case this man was flirting with him.
Then he realized that he was standing there without answering, like an idiot.
“I - I don’t know what you usually have,” Arthur stammered. “Sorry.”
The older man’s mouth opened, but he didn’t say anything, either. He’s shy, too, Arthur realized - unless, of course, he was wrong about the whole thing. It wouldn’t be the first time.
“One of those ham sandwiches,” the other man said, after a long pause. Arthur looked him over and smiled in spite of everything. He looked like some sort of bank clerk or office worker, which was likely in this neighbourhood, and his reddish hair looked like it might start receding any minute, though he couldn’t have been more than ten years older than Arthur. But when their eyes met again, he held Arthur’s gaze long enough to make Arthur’s pulse quicken. He didn’t think he was wrong.
“Sure,” Arthur said. “That’ll be 50p. Have I seen you before?”
“Well - ” the other man hesitated - “I’ve seen you .”
He kept his voice low. He had to: there were a few other people in the shop, two housewives taking their lunch by the window, and a frail, grey old lady standing in the queue with her equally grey poodle beside her. Arthur didn’t think they’d notice anything, but his palms had gone damp over the cash machine just the same. He’s not worth it, he thought. He’s nothing special, not like the blokes I’ve been with. He bit his lip, praying no one in the shop would realize he was queer and complain to his manager to try to get him sacked. He almost wished he could be angry at this bloke, whoever he was, for exposing him. He couldn't, though. He was too desperate, and besides, they hadn't said anything obvious, had they?
“I don't think you saw me,” the older man added. He made an odd, pinched expression for a moment, probably trying not to smile, before giving up and breaking into a grin. “You were sort of - pouting at the counter top. Like you were now.”
Arthur’s cheeks flushed. His flatmates also gave him a hard time about how he never smiled, which he resented: they were almost as fucked up as he was, and had nothing to smile about, either. They should know better. “I’m sorry -”
“No, never mind; that was - extremely rude of me,” the other man said, flustered. “I’m sorry.”
Well, you weren’t wrong, Arthur thought. He looked around again. The women by the window were too busy talking to notice him, but the old lady with the poodle was looking a little confused, or impatient at best. Please let her be hard of hearing.
“What’s your name?” Arthur asked, turning his gaze back to the man before him, and speaking as quietly as he could. “I’m sorry I didn’t know you, since you’re a regular here.”
Oh, God, he thought, his cheeks burning. No wonder I can never get a shag.
“Paul,” the older man replied, and gestured toward the window, as if that would tell Arthur anything. “I work in the bank on the corner.”
Paul. It even sounded like a banker’s name, which should have been beneath Arthur, but wasn’t. He could use someone who wasn’t living hand to mouth like he was. Yeah, because leeching off friends and boyfriends has worked out so well for me before. He looked down. The fringe of his hair fell over his eyes, partly covering them, which was just as well. I’ll still whore for something to eat that’s not stale, and then when you chuck me out like everyone does, I’ll be well on my way to becoming a fucking rent boy. He didn’t know when he’d gotten so bitter. Then again, he had little reason to be anything else, and less reason to snub the first man who’d flirted with him in weeks. Ray had dropped him completely. Arthur couldn’t blame him; why would he keep in touch with his former sort-of boyfriend? He didn't know where Malcolm or the rest of the band were, either. And it wasn’t like Curt Wild was about to come looking for him in some shop - not that Arthur hadn’t imagined it a hundred times, idiot that he was - Curt recognizing Arthur before taking him home, fucking his brains out, and then asking Arthur to go to America with him. A right pornographic Cinderella story. Those daydreams had been slightly less stupid when he worked at the record store. They might have had someone like Curt come in to do a signing, if he had any new music to promote and wasn’t too busy destroying himself overseas. But Arthur's days in the record store were gone and not coming back now. I shouldn’t care, he thought. We don’t know each other; it was a long time ago.
It took a few seconds, and Paul’s nervous, jerky backward glance at the poodle lady, for Arthur to hear the silence that had fallen. The burning in his face crept all the way up to his ears.
“Um - That’ll be 50p,” he stammered.
Paul turned back to him, his smile gone.
“Yes,” he said, “you said that already. May I have my sandwich, please?”
Shit, Arthur thought, his throat tightening. Now he was certain that one of the other customers had noticed and was figuring him out, like his father had.
Then the poodle lady’s dog started barking. She stooped to quiet it, bending slowly, painfully, and Arthur saw the two women by the window shaking their heads at the dog and its owner. He reached below the counter for a ham sandwich and put it in a paper bag. As he handed it to Paul, he felt the other man’s fingers brush against his wrist before withdrawing.
“You didn’t tell me your name,” Paul said.
Arthur thought it was a good thing the dog was making such a fuss, because if it wasn’t, everyone around might hear his heart knocking against his ribs. Am I really that desperate? he wondered.
“Arthur,” he replied, swallowing hard. Then he screwed up his nerve. “Anyway, it’s usually empty here around half eleven, if you can manage that. In case…” He lowered his voice further, though he doubted that anyone could hear him over the poodle barking and the old lady telling it to hush, like a mother scolding a baby. “In case you’d want to come in when it’s quieter.”
Paul’s mouth twisted again. He had a wide, kind smile that lit up his face and made him look quite handsome, though he was no Curt Wild and no Brian Slade. He would do, if he would have Arthur. Arthur wondered which of them would top during sex. Suddenly he was imagining a regular relationship, maybe sharing a warm, tidy, middle class flat someday and learning about grownup things, decent pubs and better restaurants, as long as Arthur wasn’t paying. Regular and frequent sex in that shared flat. Someone to talk to. Inexplicably, he pictured Paul with a rather fat pet cat, as ginger as he was, like the one Arthur’s mum had had for a few years when he was a kid. Oh, God, he thought. There he was, careening between paranoid distrust and sentimental daydreams. The former had to be more realistic. Paul probably just wanted a shag, and liked his boys sort of young and shy and vulnerable, with no standards. Like me. Arthur put a hand to his face to brush the hair from his eyes.
“Half eleven, then,” Paul said. “I’ll see you.”
Arthur wondered what he should say. He could think of nothing, so he offered Paul a tight smile and hoped that would be enough. Paul took the sandwich from Arthur’s hand and paid for it. Arthur watched him. He expected Paul to sit down somewhere, which would be weird, but not entirely unwelcome. Instead he hurried to the door, then stopped to give Arthur one more backward glance before dashing out into the street. Arthur blinked in surprise. Shit: I charged him enough to stay, he thought. It might be for the best, though - too, well, weird to have him sitting there looking at Arthur, or trying not to look at him.
The poodle lady came up to the counter, holding her dog in her arms now. It had finally stopped barking.
“Friend of yours, love?” the woman asked.
Arthur’s blood ran cold. She couldn’t know, could she? She’d been too busy with her stupid dog…
“He - Um - He thought he recognized me,” he lied. He had to put his hand on the counter to keep it from shaking, and it took him a dangerous while to find some way to change the subject. The dog, he realized. Ask about it - or mention the prices in decimals on the sign or something. Old people hate decimalisation.
“What’ll you be having? And - is your dog all right?”
That worked. The old woman tightened her grip on the poodle and nodded.
“Yes, thanks. She’s usually ever so quiet; I don’t know what got into her…”
She went on like that for a while. Arthur tuned it out, and wondered if he would see Paul again and, even if he did, if he wasn’t better off alone with his daydreams and his memories.