“Your so-called boyfriend is a fucking arsehole,” Oscar groaned, and Zachary had never been as glad they were not together as he was now. “And you're aware that I've met more arseholes in my lifetime than the average person.”
“Painfully so, dear,” sighed Zachary as he spread the napkin over his lap. The tearoom was half empty and the patrons made as much noise as if it were more than full. He was obviously used to it, but now he would have preferred something quieter, but Manchester is everything but quiet.
“I hated him since the first voicemail you forwarded him, with that accent of his.”
“That's just because you're jealous of everyone around me.”
“I'm not jealous” Oscar let out an affronted high-pitched sound as if Zachary had offended his entire family tree by accusing him of something so pedestrian, “it's just that you know a lot of losers and I'm trying to protect you.”
“Thank you, dear, it's always such a pleasure to hear it from you.”
Zachary dunked his butter biscuit (endearingly small, shaped like a shell) into his cup of tea. He looked out the glass wall and understood why the worker bee is the symbol of Manchester. He didn't like the city that much so far; too rough, construction sites everywhere as if someone had decided to rebuild it from scratch, and people's accent too was rough, closed around their vowels, unlike the more musical way Londoners spoke. He sighed again.
“It's not my fault you're a magnet for that kind of people.”
“And what does it say about you?”
“I knew you before you became a magnet.”
“How convenient for you.”
He cursed under his breath as he realised his hand had frozen and the biscuit is almost completely crumbled on the bottom of the cup. Luckily there are more and the worst possible outcome (having to ask for another biscuit, because he didn't like people to see him as a glutton) vanished. With a spoon, he took out the debris of his absent-mindedness.
“Gabriel could still meet me tomorrow, you know. He knows I'm here until Monday, there's still time.”
“I love how romantic and full of childish hope you are, Zachary, but he cancelled on your first date” how could Oscar modulate his voice to the point one could actually hear his words in italic? “because he said his ex-boyfriend had a car crash. I believe – no, I fucking know that's bullshit but, even if it's true, could you two not meet this evening? Or just a couple of hours after dinner? You planned this weekend for a month,” oh, it was a monologue, he didn't actually want Zachary to reply, he just had to listen, “you've been together for six, he should have the basic decency of even just see you. He should be happy to see you, you're supposed to be his boyfriend. But no! No, he suddenly can't, tell you the oldest lie in the world, or anyway the worst ever, and you believe him as you believe anybody because you're too good.”
“And you don't believe in people enough, Oscar, so I have to work twice as much for the right balance.”
Oscar was an actor, and a very good one, and one who didn't know him could guess his talent by just the dramatic sighs he let out every time he thought the person he was speaking with said something stupid. He didn't really care about how rude he came off as, and Zachary was equally amused and annoyed by his boldness. “You're just lucky you have me, Zee. The world is too cruel for sweet baby cherubim like you.”
“Yes, Oscar, I'm very glad you are my friend,” he chuckled, then took a sip of tea, the first good thing about Manchester. The premises of the tearoom were fit to the city, with its red brick walls and industrial-style lead grey light fixtures, a bit too cold and unwelcoming for him, who appreciated cream and pastel colours, peach and canary yellow, and used to have forgive-me-nots in the breast pocket of his jacket, when he was a pretentious teenager. (he still wore them, from time to time, but without the blunt cockiness of youth.) But the tearoom was the top-rated on TripAdvisor, with stellar reviews, and its tea deserved every little green star, and scones were just the ticket for a bruised heart. “Did you find a nice hotel for me yet?”
“How come you could find a five-stars restaurant in the middle of the Sahara desert but you're completely useless when it comes to anything else?”
“All men should have their special niche on which pour all their passion and ability.”
“It should not mean you can't find anything but food, though.”
He should hate Gabriel. He could not hate Gabriel, and that annoyed the hell out of him. He tried to see the silver lining in everything and he tended to find excuses for everyone around him, especially when they let him down, and it was what he was doing now; Gabriel really wanted to see him, he told Zachary many times, and it was just an accident, a terrible one. Yes, that was it.
“I would have been the most prized man of my tribe, thousands of years ago.”
“You would have also been burned at the stake for sodomy.”
He snorted. It had been so long since the last time he had been active in the sodomy department he was back to be a confused teenager. “You should stop crushing my dreams of glory.”
“I should, but I shan't. There's this one I really like, pretty cheap but recommended by most clients. The rooms are nice and the beds look comfy. Two nights, right?”
Zachary sighed again, a bit heavier than before. Foolish and childish, he said, “If Gabriel doesn't change his mind yes, two nights,” because he did not really believe his own words either. He had been played for a sucker, as Gabriel would say. He felt small, stupid, on the verge of crying. What a silly thing to believe in, that a handsome man like Gabriel would have chosen a plain nobody like him. He sniffled, worrying at his bottom lip.
“Zee, you should come back,” said Oscar with his usual amount of affection for him, with was inhumanly large, warm and darling. They had been loving each other deeply from the first day of primary school, and Zachary was painfully aware that a big part of his life had been made possible by the fact that Oscar was at his side.
“I don't want to, Oscar, I've already told you that. I'm here, I don't see the point of taking an overpriced train just to stay alone in my apartment.”
“But what are you going to do for a whole weekend alone in Manchester? That city is too manly for you.”
He frowned. “What that does even mean? How can a place be too manly – or manly, period? You're talking nonsense.”
“You're too much of a delicate Marylebone boy. Do you remember what Miss Daunt used to say? That Manchester was the Devil's best creation.”
“That's because her ex-husband was from here.”
“Potato, potato. Should I send you the hotel's page or...?”
It should have not been like that. He should have been thinking about what kind of breakfast he could order for Gabriel. “If it has a buffet breakfast you have my complete trust.” For the first time in his entire life, the prospect of a buffet saddened him. The physical, indisputable proof that he had failed. He did not know how, but he did. It was his fault, because it couldn't be anything else's.
Oscar scoffed, a sound that their friends would translate as bitch, please. “I've been looking solely and exclusively at places with buffet, of course.” There was so much eye-rolling in his words it was almost painful to hear. “I'll make the reservation as soon as my hands are free. I'm trying that cured ham from the Italian shop we went last week. I'll save some for you in case it's good, don't worry.”
“I could never doubt you, dear.”
“What are you having? Just tea?”
“And biscuits. And I already ate scones. Just two scones, though, and they were very small. The biscuits are small too, but so cute, they're shaped like shells and stars.”
“Stop justify yourself, you could eat the entire room, patrons included, and it would be all understandable.”
“I think I'll get a Danish too. They look scrumptious.”
“Yo do that, honey.”
It was his fault because he was plain and boring and too sensitive. The pain, the awkwardness of being him had frightened Gabriel.
“Are you working tonight?”
“Yes, and I also have to finish a commission, that portrait I told you about. I'll send you a picture. I'm going to hang up so you can truly start to enjoy a fun weekend in the heart of the industrial revolution.”
“I'm going to find the most amazing places and you're going to drown in your jealousy.”
“Keep dreaming, Zee. Toodle-oo.”
One sip of tea and one bite of biscuit, as he had to finish them almost at the same time, Zachary finished everything that he had on the table. He groaned when he realised that, obviously, he had no plan for the evening, because Gabriel was supposed to organise something pleasant for them, and that just asking Google what to do in Manchester would not bring him anywhere, because Google was not to be trusted in this kind of matter. Funny how he did not trust the Internet now, given that it was the culprit of the entire mess – or maybe that was why he wouldn't use it again just to trick me into some awful situations he could not get away from, maybe some horrid tourist tour about the different kinds of machinery from the Industrial Revolution or – no, he couldn't imagine anything worse than machines.
Ant-sized agitation started nipping at the veins of his wrists. Why was it so simple to trick him? Why just a few crumbles of love and attention were enough to lure him into a bear trap? Gabriel had to just call him pretty (not even beautiful, he couldn't bring himself to so big a lie) a couple of time to have Zachary putty in his hands. Gabriel even had him masturbate on the phone, something he liked at the time because he liked Gabriel's praise, his voice hoarse as he said those pretty words, but now he felt shameful and cheap. He knew that Gabriel would not call him during the weekend and he was also pretty sure he would not hear from him again. (he also knew that, in the remote possibility that it would happen, Zachary would forgive him immediately, no explanations needed. He was just that stupid.) But he didn't want to go back to London yet, surrender to the bitter truth that he was a grown man fallen into a trap a fifteen years old would have recognised from fifty miles.
He looked down at his hands on his lap, the prick of hot tears itching for release. He angrily rubbed his eyes; he was not going to cry in a damn tearoom he didn't like the premises of in a city that felt more foreign every passing second. He focused on the Danish he wanted to get, but that meant that he would have to get up and talk again, and what if his voice crumbled? What if his knees gave up in front of all the customers? The tears kept on pushing and there was only so much he could do against them.
“Here's your Danish, sir.”
Zachary lifted his head up, brows furrowed in confusion: there was a man in front of him, not dressed like the other waiter, with a plate in his hand on which there was the most delicious-looking Danish Zachary had ever seen.
“I – sorry, I think you're mistaken,” he politely said, heart (and stomach) shattering for his foolish honesty, “I didn't ordered anything yet.”
The man (honey eyes, copper hair, freckles like strawberry seeds over his aquiline nose) placed the plate on his table anyway. “Yeah, I know. I just overheard some bits of your call and this was the last Danish they have. They sell like hotcakes, it was something short of a miracle there was still one so late in the day.”
It was too kind a gesture for Zachary to endure in this moment, too much sugar rubbed over his lips and he started crying. Thanks to another miracle he didn't sob, but the man got alarmed anyway. He sat down and asked if he could do something, if he could get him another cup of tea or a hot chocolate, “They make it the Italian way, it's thick and super creamy”, or maybe a glass of water? A glass of apple juice? Zachary shook his head at every offer, blew his nose with his handkerchief, and sniffled a couple of times; he inhaled to self-soothe a little, and it actually worked.
“I'm – I'm so, so sorry, I don't know what got into me, I'm -”
“Wow, you have a handkerchief. A real one, and tartan too, like a grandma.”
That perplexed Zachary so much it prevented him from hiccuping and starting to cry again, the hurt expanding like spilled oil. “Tartan is stylish,” he replied in auto mode, the same response he would give Oscar every time he teased him about his tartan obsession.
“Yeah, no, tartan's terrible, mate.”
Zachary stared at the man in front of him, who was deadly serious about what he was saying, and laughter started vibrating in his throat for the absurdity of the whole ordeal. “Did you bring me the pastry just to get the chance of insult me?”
“Wasn't in my plans, but it seems it was written in the stars,” he smirked, a cocky grin that perfectly matched the cutting sharpness of his cheekbones.
“I don't think you have the right to say anything about other people's fashion tastes given that you're wearing the most atrocious belt I've ever seen.”
“The eyes are real rubies, y'know,” he beamed, somehow proud of the snake head he sported over his black jeans.
“That's even worse, how can you boast about it?”
“I can and I forever will.”
They both laughed at their own silliness, and something dangerously similar to relief ran through Zachary's body. “We're both sinners, then, in the eyes of modern fashion.”
“It surely is a way to put it.”
The man in front of him didn't seem to really have a hold over his own limbs, or maybe it was just that he had no idea how to sit on a chair. Now, after some shuffling throughout their conversation, he had his legs crossed, and was still a bit undulating, as if stillness was a mortal disease he had to do everything in his power to avoid.
“You -” he started, suddenly nervous, “you actually wanted a Danish, right? Or did I get something mixed up?”, he asked, a little crease between his eyebrows (they were the most sculpted eyebrows he had ever seen on a man's face) and Zachary felt like a complete arse.
“Oh, no, dear, you got it right, I was indeed planning on getting one, and this looks absolutely delicious, thank you. You were most kind, let me pay you back, how much was it?”
He dismissively waved a hand (black nail polish, glittering just a little) and, at the same time, scrunched his nose up. It was rather a cute scrunched up nose. “I'm friends with the owners, you owe me nothing.”
“Oh, friends get free food here? I should too be friends with the owners, their bakery is incredible.”
“Well, no, I don't get free stuff, because they're jerks, but you do.”
Zachary frowned. “How come?”
The man straightened a bit up, then shuffled again. “It's – a welcome gift for Londoners. Just for Londoners. Every time one from the wrong side of the Thames is spotted” did he think the Thames was like the Berlin Wall? “one is given a pastry. You coincidentally wanted a Danish, so...”
“What a...” fuming pile of shite “peculiar tradition. This tearoom must have a lot of tourists from London.”
“Yeah, sometimes the gift is half a cookie.”
How could he keep such a straight face? Zachary was amazed. He should call Oscar and they could work together.
“I... see. Maybe it's the best solution, money-wise.”
“Yeah. I personally suggested them the half cookie thing, 'cause they were, like, going bankrupt over the free pastry thing. That's what friends are for.”
“Yes, quite,” he said, more perplexed than he had been in a very long time, even more than by being stood up. (well, he had finally said it: Gabriel stood him up. He didn't find much solace in the truth.)
To avoid awkward silences, Zachary cut the Danish in half, offering the strange, strange man one half.
“I'm not a tourist,” he replied, looking confused as if he really believed in his own mess of bullshit. Were Danish pastries for tourists and tourists only, in that man's head?
“Well, right, but -”
“You don't like it? I swear it's the best Danish in all Manchester. I swear. I've eaten a lot of pastries and this is the absolute best.”
He looked so genuinely concerned about the state of Zachary's stomach it was a bit moving and completely hilarious, so much that Zachary took a full bite of the Danish to avoid bursting into hysterical laughter.
Heaven, but was the man-shaped alien in front of him right about the pastry: flaky and buttery, not overwhelmingly sweet, and the custard, oh! It tasted almost the same as the crème patisserie he would eat in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence before work during his gap year. Oh, Proust!
“I take it you like it, given it seems you're about to ascend like the Mother of God,” the man smirked – oh, Zachary was awfully tired of not knowing his name, as if he were a complete stranger and not the saint that had opened him the Pearly Gates of Pastry Heaven.
“It is absolutely wonderful, it's been so long since I've eaten something this delicious in the baked goods department. I have to really thank you, dear...?”
The soon-someone-with-an-actual-first-name man looked at him with the empty eyes of a bunny frost in the snow, but then it (maybe his last brain cell) clicked. “Anthony. My name's Anthony, sorry. What 'bout yours?”
“Zachary. Awfully nice to make your acquittance.” And with that, he ate the rest of the gift of the angels Anthony had brought to him. The whole trip was worth it so far, it turned out.
“Y'know, I don't think Manchester is manly. She's, like, more of a matronly grandma.”
It took Zachary a couple of seconds, between the afterglow of the pastry and all the astonishingly stupid things he had been subjected to in the last five minute. “Oh, you reckon?”, he smiled politely, already mourning the departure from the new love of his life, screw Gabriel St. Michael, Danish St. Francis was the only he swore to be faithful to.
“Yeah, y'know, she's red and harsh but hard-working and full of hidden gems, like a grandma with candy bars in the pockets of her old coat.”
Their table was next to the glass wall; Zachary, just for a brief moment not to appear impolite, looked out on the street, which was full of people and dull brick buildings. There was no real excitement, not like his London, which would unfold herself at every corner and would change every week under his feet. A thin veil of sadness trickled down his spine; he was in a cold city which was unable to give him anything, alone and as foreign as he would be in Japan.
“Is that right?”, he forced himself to smile, “I don't know a lot about Manchester.”
“Well, you're here to explore, right?”
Anthony was positively chipper, a quality he usually appreciates, but that was now a little demanding. There was a level of energy to Anthony that he was not able to match at the moment.
“Not quite. Well, I had other plans, but it seems my plans had other plans as well.”
“Yeah, I heard.”
“You're quite the spy, aren't you?”, Zachary said, half annoyed half amused. He was in a public space, after all, anybody could hear anybody, and not all eavesdroppers would have fed him baked sweets, and certainly not one that good. (nor had so many pretty freckles. He had a few scattered along the distinct line of his jaw. Freckles were angel's kisses, and called for other kisses.)
“The J in Anthony J. Crowley stands for Jamesbond, all in one word.”
“Do you take a day off every time you have to sign something?”
“Used to, but it pissed me off, so I quit. My job, I mean, not my name. Now I'm... someone.”
“... weren't you someone before too? Or did you just become a real boy?”
“Yeah, let's go with that. Are you still hungry? I can ask for a tuna melt, which would be, I think, almost as good as the Danish.”
He blinked. Anthony was like a pinball, all flickering lights and razor-sharp sounds, his attention span sprayed all over the place in invisible atoms that kept on colliding and sending him tiny sparks. “No, thank you, I'm actually quite full. I should leave, now,” he politely smiled. He had to properly start the misery of his weekend. Maybe there was a cinema somewhere. He hated almost everything that was created after the 1950s, so it could be just the ticket to sour his mood completely. It was just after 1 pm, though, so he would have to wander a bit, uselessly. What a perfect weekend there was in store for him.
“Oh, perfect, I've planned a very good tour for today,” Anthony smiled as he stood up and whipped out his cellphone and a pair of sunglasses, “and I'm working on tomorrow too. A bit harder, since everything closes early, but we could wake up with the sun.”
It took Zachary more than a few second to fully understand what Anthony was saying – and even then it was not much clearer. “Come again?”
“I – that is, if -” Anthony deflated like a hot air balloon, stumbling all over his words, “if you'd like, I thought about a couple of things for you to see – it's just – you said you wanted to find – and I'm a very good Manchester guide, y'know, and - ”
“Oh, dear, it's okay, don't worry, I indeed wanted to find something to do, you just took me by surprise.”
But was it? For all, he knew Anthony could be a serial killer, a rapist, or a comic books reader. What would he do if they got stuck somewhere and Anthony started talking about all the different movies about Batman and every little detail they got wrong? Well, he could always fake a heart attack. That usually shut people up. Besides, there wasn't anything better to do. So fuck it, he sighed to himself, let's go. He hadn't thought this whole ordeal through in the first place (hope, tinged with the numb sadness and it had started terribly, and many things could make it worse. So yeah, fuck it.
“Well, Anthony, where do we start?”
Anthony was, in fact, a comic books reader; Zachary discovered it when they passed by a Forbidden Planet store and he commented it looked quite smaller than the one he'd been in London.
“Yeah, maybe,” Anthony said, “but I grew up in there, reading Iron Man issues and a lot of shoujo manga I'd rather forget about. Well, not all, but a lot of them are pure shit.”
“What's a shoujo manga?”
Anthony's eyes got bigger with outrage, but it got replaced in half a second with shining glee as he launched himself in a fifteen minutes long lecture about the history of Japanese comic books and all the different categories and which authors Anthony liked the most.
“Kaori Yuki is kinda ridiculous now but, like, Angel Sanctuary is still a masterpiece and it changed my life and aesthetic when I was a kid, and Tokyo Babylon too. Uh, I think Tokyo Babylon should be the one that pops your manga cherry. I'll send you the scanlations. Dunno what you like but everyone with a half a brain loves Tokyo Babylon.”
“Well, in that case, I bet I will love it.”
It was... nice, listening to Anthony. He had a rather fascinating way of constructing his sentences, fast-paced and convoluted, but incredibly focused on the subject he wanted to explain, and he was never too self-absorbed, as he asked six times if Zachary was bored about it (or, rather, him, Zachary sensed, but it didn't seem something Anthony would say out loud. Just a feeling, though.) and every time Zachary had shaken his head, encouraging him to talk more, as he loved learning, especially from passionate people. Every time he said that, something in Anthony's eyes shone brighter, and Zachary liked that.
“Now,” Anthony said when they stopped in front of an illegally huge Primark, rather sadly ending his TED Talk about the origins of doujinshi and yaoi, which he had only the time to introduce briefly (but he was really intrigued by that, and hoped Anthony would pick up from there sometime in the evening, as volatile his mind had shown to be) “this is Piccadilly Gardens. There's a Piccadilly in London too, but this is better.”
“Oh. There are...” what was there? Shops. A lot of shops. A minuscule Marks & Spencer near a permanently closed store that was near another permanently closed store. It wasn't a particularly promising landscape. And where were the Gardens one expected from the name Piccadilly Gardens ? Plural. There was just a really disappointing fountain and some grass around it, “a few trees. They don't seem very lively, though, poor things.”
“Yeah, they're more, like, shrubs. I don't like trees. Plant man, me.”
Was there a real difference between trees and plants when it came to like vegetation? “And...” He was trying very hard to find something pretty or nice about the place Anthony had dragged him in, but damn it there was not a single thing. Just only freaking shops. “There sure are a lot of shops.”
“Yeah!” How can he so excited about it? Not even a Waterstones.“ Things are in shops, and things are good, so shops are good. Why are you not excited about shops?”
“Does your tour consists only of shops? I should tell you that we have Marks & Spencer in London too.”
“I know, I just wanted to show you the endless possibilities that start here, on the Metroway rails. 's like a metaphor.”
Anthony looked, despite everything, genuinely happy in the middle of the very heart of what Zachary could not as anything but a grey machine; and that, despite everything, looked promising, slightly sweet. He needed more data to form a real opinion, though. Well, not exactly more data, but more life: what was that Anthony loved so much about Manchester if it was because he was born here or if it was a more recent affair, with which of the stops of their tour he had first fallen in love. He could empathise with passion, romance, using another person's eyes to see something what he, with his own eyes, could not. Romance was the dictionary he understood the world with.
“Oh, thank you, dear,” he smiled his most grateful smile, “We actually don't have two of those in such close proximity to each other.”
“Two of what?”
“Starbucks,” he cheerfully said. Romanticism did not exclude sarcasm. (“You're just a right bastard, Zachary,” Oscar would say.)
Anthony smiled. Zachary wondered if he understood sarcasm. “Well, this is Manchester for you, everything new and exciting starts from here. Now!”, he exclaimed with renewed enthusiasm, “Pick a number between one and seven. Each number will magically transport you somewhere fantastic.”
“Seven,” Zachary instantly said just because seven was a prime number and he had a weird fixation with prime numbers.
“Seven is the Museum of Science!” he said, full of bubbly cheer, and Zachary supposed that science was a subject dear to his heart. “One of my favourite museums which is... the most far away from here, so you've to choose another number.”
Zachary frowned. “May I suggest, for the next time, you just choose another place that would be quick to get to instead?”
A weird, rough sound from Anthony's throat, a deep line between his burrowed eyebrows. He probably had just realised he could have, indeed, done that, instead of making a fool out of himself, and he wasn't particularly pleased with himself for that. “Oh, yeah, near we have Chinatown, where my favourite bakery is, and the Art Gallery.”
“Wonderful. So, let's say 5 is Chinatown and 7 is the Art Gallery. But what if I don't like art?”
“You look like a nerd and nerds love art.”
It should have been an insult, but Anthony said it with such a fond tone of voice Zachary wondered how many nerds he knew and loved. “Can I ask you something, dear?”
“Have you ever had this little tiny thing most people have in their mouth, what's the word..” he mock-wondered for a couple of seconds, as if he had it on the tip of his tongue, “a filter? Just to prevent you to say every little thing that crosses your mind.”
You're being a real bitch , the tiny devil Oscar on his shoulder hissed. Zachary flicked him off. He seems to like that I'm a bitch, so shut up.
Anthony shrugged. “Used to. Useless. And you chose two prime numbers right off the bat, so I know you're a nerd.”
“How do you know I've chosen them because they're prime numbers?”
“Because that's the first thing I thought about. You know, the more logical thing to think about. And you didn't deny.”
“So you're a nerd too.”
“Well, duh.” He had, in all fairness, talked about manga for fifteen minutes straight. “So, for the gallery, we have -”
Oh, there was not Waterstones, but there were books somewhere! He just remembered. He had to see those books now before they disappeared from the face of the Earth, which was a real possibility. “Sorry, may I make a request?”
“You could have in the last five minutes but yes, you may now.”
“Is it possible I might have seen a bookstall between here and the Forbidden Planet store?”
“Yes, there is, but why didn't you tell me to stop there when you saw it?”
Zachary blinked. Why didn't he? It was absolutely out of character for him, there was nothing in the world more distracting and that made him go feral like a bookstall full of second hands and vintage books. He had dragged Oscar to so many obscure bookshops that smelled of mould just because he caught wind about an old copy of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall that Oscar sighed with honest relief when a big, luminous Waterstones was enough for a quiet Saturday.
He realised the answer was rather simple. “I... was too engrossed by your lecture that I didn't want to interrupt. Apologies.”
Anthony laughed, maybe just to distract him from the pinking of his cheeks. “Ain't a thing to apologise about. I know how cool I can be, 's not your fault. Well then, let's go back.”
What a character Anthony was, Zachary thought, and how much Oscar would adore him, mainly because Anthony was so desperate to appear as the coolest kid in town, and Oscar would have so much fun taking the piss out of him. Zachary wasn't keen on tease other people's insecurities, as he himself was choke-full of them, and Anthony was also funny and smart, so he would always stick up for him.
Don't come to cry on my shoulder when your new crush is either heterosexual or just not interested in you, you naïve idio t, mini Oscar hissed, climbing up his back after the fall.
As if there were a chance in Heaven Anthony was straight.
“It sells just second-hand books, though,” Anthony said as they walked, “is that all right for you? I know a few people that are grossed out by the 'unknown people touched that before and that's gross' thing. I'm not and I think it's dumb, by the way.”
“No, not at all, at least not when it comes to books. I'm rather finicky with clothes, though.”
“How can you be? You dress like a grandpa.”
“Because they are actually my paternal grandfather's clothes,” he said, delighted. The bow tie was a recent gift; he had admired it so much that his grandfather surrounded to depart from it for his favourite (in Zachary's mind) nephew. “And what I can't find in my grandparents' wardrobe I commission to my tailor.”
“Are there still tailors?”
“His family has been friends with mine for a long time now.”
“Oh, I get it now, you're a time traveller.”
“And you ought to keep the secret.”
Gabriel didn't really like bantering of any kind, even sarcastic replies were usually shut down with a sharp grunt. Zachary didn't mind, of course; it was hard for him to remember every little thing Gabriel found annoying because they were so many and Zachary was kind of forgetful and absent-minded, as Gabriel liked to say. He didn't mind that too, because it was true. And Gabriel would always make up for his mood and send him pretty tea tins. He never said he was sorry because he wasn't, but Zachary didn't mind, because words were not Gabriel's strong suit. He didn't mind, really.
Except he did.
The bookstalls were wooden boxes full to the brim with books, priced from 1 to 5 pounds, and Zachary gladly threw himself into his research. If only he could find it here, the whole freaking ordeal would be worth it.
“Is there something in particular you're looking for, Zachary?” Anthony asked, flipping through the pages of an old magazine.
“Charles Kingsley The water babies, the 1886 edition. I've looked for it everywhere.”
“Have you tried eBay?”
“I don't trust eBay.”, Zachary grimaced, not able to completely hold back his disgust at the mere idea. eBay was for cowards.
“Like in general or you have a particular beef regarding books? Oh no, you're one of those cunts who sniff books, aren't you? Do e-readers trigger you?”
“I don't sniff books , why did you have to make it sound so disgusting? I just like to buy them in person.” He rummaged through the boxes, quickly scanning the book spines. The copy he was looking for was blue and gold, so it would be something that caught his eyes, but he could stumble into something else he dreamed of. “Besides, what's wrong with book sniffing?”
Anthony burst out laughing as he picked up a copy of The Tale of Peter Rabbit. “And I am the one who made it sound disgusting. Ew, Zachary, ew. And there's nothing wrong, but usually y'all book sniffers are insufferable and pretentious cunts. But you do you until you don't berate me about my Kindle. Second-hand Kindle, I have to point out, 'cause I don't give money to Amazon, never had.”
“That's very virtuous of you,” he smiled and turned back to focus on his hunt. Anthony seemed to understand that and left him alone, which he appreciated a lot. Gabriel found it always annoying when his focus shifted from him to something else in the span of a few seconds, of his attention wandered when they were talking.
He should stop thinking about Gabriel. The day was not about him any more; at the moment was about finding his book and, when he did or did not find it, the meaning of the day would be going whenever Anthony wanted.
Zachary did not find anything, neither what he was looking for nor anything that sparked his interest. He wanted to find meaning, one he could hold to, but now everything was in Anthony's hands to make it better. “We can go to the Art Gallery now,” he grumbled.
“Uh, there's an antique shop we can go to to look for your book,” Anthony said – and it was just magic, as if he had felt (not just heard, but touched) what Zachary lamented, begged. “It sells a lot of strange shit and very very old stuff. Maybe there's a chance?”
“You would be most kind if you could show me.”
Anthony arched an eyebrow. “Why did you think I told you about the shop? Just to say that we won't go and see you cry?”
“I didn't want to demand anything.”
Anthony scrunched his nose up. “You aren't, you're fine. Let's go explore.”
To really enter the dimly lit shop they had to go down a stair, fake animal heads on the wall staring at them alongside a huge Native American with Halloween-esque headpiece on the realistic black wig. The room was packed with books and magazines, newspapers and VHS, pristine DVDs of obscure movies, memorabilia of old Hollywood and old comic books that looked ridiculous now. Behind the counter, the owner was dusting something he couldn't see while talking with a customer, more likely an old friend. They didn't seem to notice them, thankfully.
“C'mon, go wild. I'mma browsing a bit myself, there's a score I'd like to have.”
“... The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain,” Anthony replied sheepishly, but Zachary was not actually sure why, since the title did not ring a bell.
“Oh, I haven't watched it yet.” He always added yet just out of politeness and because it usually discouraged people to pester him with how much of a miracle movie their favourite film was; yet meant a possibility, after all.
“Really? It's good, I'll send you a link so you'll have something to watch tonight.”
Fuck. “Thank you, dear, that's most kind of you.”
Without Anthony noticing, Zachary inhaled the scent of the room, dusty and full in his nose. It would always put him in a good mood; he was already a bit more cheerful than before, but now he was in his habitat. He wouldn't have ever imagined Manchester hid such a pearl.
He found a lot of books he'd like to have but not the one he really wanted. As he weighted if purchasing them or not, Anthony called him.
“Zachary, look!”, he gasped, showing him an old print, stained with coffee and wine at the corners, “it's you! Or, like, your grand-grand-grand-grand-father.”
He was holding a black and white sketch of a depiction of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary and, now that Zachary was paying him attention, he pointed at the angel in the right corner, a plump hand stretched to, maybe, reassure Mary, another delicate one holding a peace offering in the form of a flower. The angel had gentle, calm eyes, as if he understood the weight of his revelation and wanted to console the poor girl, too young for her destiny. (he had always found that the most tragic tale of the New Testament; a fate too heavy for such frail shoulders and the pain of being aware that he was not her son, not really, and she just had to carry him and feed him and dry his tears – just a vessel, a servant, whose heart was destined to be shattered in pieces so minuscule nobody could ever glue them back together.)
“It's your spitting image!”
“I... don't think it is,” he said. The angel looked much younger than him, the nose was not right but yes, they looked kind of similar; it was nice to tease Anthony a bit, though.
“Yeah it is! Same curls, same hands, same eyes. You look like the archangel Gabriel.”
Zachary frowned. He hadn't somehow realised that he was, indeed, looking at the most famous archangel, and hearing that name pinched his heart. He hadn't thought about him for a while, it seemed, and he was glad.
“I don't think so.”
“C'mon, are you blind? You look like a real angel!”
“No I do not, Anthony, and I'd rather you stop saying that.” He stormed out of the store, nervous and irritated with Anthony that, clueless, had dug up Gabriel's whole existence in front of his eyes. It wasn't fair for the poor dear, of course, he couldn't know, but – it stung anyway, in some absurd way. (the skin of his heart still a bit frayed, tender, after the lashing.)
Out in the sun, he felt the need to cross the street and disappear from Anthony's life, as punishment, but he didn't have the heart to. He just sat down on the pavement, waiting.
“Zachary?”, Anthony called, voice crumpled with worry, “What did I say to make you freak out? Whatever I said, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, I swear.”
“Oh, dear, I'm the one who should be sorry,” Zachary said, sorrow interlaced in his letters. “I acted like a child.”
Anthony sit down by his side, crossing his legs. “Is it – something to do with your parents? Because of religion? I just thought it was cute how much you resembled the -”
“It's just the name, Gabriel. I don't like to hear it.”
“I won't say it any more. I'm really sorry.”
Zachary turned his head to his right to meet authentic remorse in Anthony's eyes. He didn't just say it, he was feeling it. “Aren't you going to ask me why?”
“You should've already said if you wanted to. I'm not going to push for something that makes you feel bad, I'm not a sadist.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Still up for the art gallery?”
Zachary sniffed. He wanted to cry, or so he thought. If he stopped to listen, he could not hear the tears screaming for release. So he smiled instead. “Sure, dear.”
They got out of the gallery when the moon was full and bright in the sky. Luckily they had stopped at Anthony's favourite bakery before, so Zachary could confirm it was indeed very good. He thought to ask to come back the next day, maybe to buy a custard bun for breakfast if he shortened the trip to the buffet in the morning.
“Are you hungry, Zachary?”, Anthony asked. He liked his voice when he wondered about the state of his stomach, or when he asked if Zachary was too hot, or too cold. Anthony had a caring side the size of the United States. It was – nice. More than nice, actually.
“A bit peckish, maybe.”
At that, Anthony whipped out a paper bag with three buns inside. “Custard, pork, adzuki,” he explained. That was why Anthony had told him to wait outside while he decided what he wanted.
“Oh, dear, you shouldn't have, but thank you.”
“You can have all of them, I'm not hungry. This way we don't have to stop at the pub.”
“Do you have plans for us?”
Anthony smirked. “I sure do, if you're not tired, of course.” He frowned. “Are you tired? We can head off to your hotel, if you want.”
Was he tired? Yes, absolutely. Did he want to end the day? Hell no. “I'm fine, dear.”
“Are you sure? We still have tomorrow, y'know.”
“I do, but -” a yawn stopped him, and Anthony laughed. “I'm not tired, I swear!”
“Yeah, yeah. Well, let's go, then. Follow me.”
After a bit, away from the city centre, Manchester started to soften; large streets made for angry drivers on biting, deadly cars became welcoming, safe, and Anthony jumped in the middle. Even the bricks and steel that seemed to be the very soul of the city were not dominating the landscape any more; the sky was quiet, lovely and deep, even if the stars were too shy to show themselves. Zachary thought of Oscar, working hard in the pub; he quickly sent him a message, just telling him he was alive and well and that Manchester wasn't so bad at all.
“Do you have stars in London?”, Anthony asked with a grin, walking on a white line as if he were on a tightrope. “Or has the Queen taken 'em all for Buckingham Palace?”
“You're too cocky for a Mancunian. You're still in England, you know.”
Anthony waved a hand dismissively. “At least we don't have tourists wandering around just because they want to go see an old house.”
“At least we have something more than red bricks to see.”
Zachary still walked on the pavement, Anthony in the middle of the road, the rusty sounds of cars not even in the distance; there was a countryside feel to this part of Manchester that Zachary felt rather enchanting. The city grew on him when he understood how to look at it as its own entity, not something to put in endless competition with London. Manchester had a rougher charm, but Zachary had always liked challenges.
“Are you cold, Zachary?” Anthony asked all of a sudden, probably when he had realized he didn't talk for more than two minutes. (in those two minutes, as Anthony walked with his hands buried in his coat's pockets, Zachary had looked at him more intensely, with purpose; the moon, sweet darling as it was, was caressing his cheeks, the sharp line of his nose, gave him the luxury to clearly see the freckles on his forehead. He was not his usual type – a bit too scrawny, bones too thin, but his hands were beautiful, with long and elegant fingers – but, like Manchester, there was something peculiar to him that, unlike Manchester, was sweet on the tongue.) “I have a jumper and a wool coat and I'm freezing my balls off, while you're there in jeans and a flimsy jacket.”
“Some of us have blood in our veins.”
“Sorry, dear, but if you're so cold why don't we go back?”
“Nah, 's all right.”
Anthony, jumping like a bunny, went back to Zachary's side, maybe thinking he could radiate warm. “Can I ask you something? You can ask me something back if you want to.”
“Sure, go on.”
“Why do you call me dear?”
Zachary chuckled. Everyone but Oscar had asked him that at some point; usually not in the first seven hours of their first meeting, but Anthony didn't play like other people. “My grandmother called us all dear. My mother, my father, my brothers, and I got it from her.”
“Oh,” Anthony said as if disappointed. Perhaps hurt, a little. “you sure inherit a lot from your grandparents. Well, your turn.”
Zachary didn't have to think about his question a lot. “Why this? You see a person completely by chance and... what, just decide that it's time to take them for an impromptu tour? How many of these have you already done?”
“Why, you didn't-”
“I'm not saying I don't like it. I just wanted to know why. I think it's the most normal thing we're doing today.”
“Well, it's because...”
Anthony blinked as if he couldn't think of an answer. He didn't speak for about ten seconds; then shrugged. “Dunno? I mean, I heard you without meaning it, and you sounded... sad?” His voice was cautious, as if he were afraid to hurt him. “And I thought I wanted to do something. It's... y'know, empathy.”
“In these cases, empathy usually means a coffee or a pastry.”
“I did give you a pastry.”
“Yes, but usually it's just that.”
Anthony shrugged again. “It's not as funny, just giving you food. And, y'know, you could have bought one yourself. But a city tour is not something you can buy. Well, yes, of course you can, but -”
“Got it, dear, don't worry.”
They walked a bit more, until Anthony suggested they started to get back; it was almost 10, and they had to wake up early the next day for the second part of the tour. “It's all planned, and this time is even more accurate because I remembered to think about streets and distance and stuff. Where are you staying tonight?”
Zachary showed him the address, and of course Anthony knew where it was. “We'll be there in 40 minutes. Is that okay? I can call a cab if you want.”
“I don't think it'll be necessary, but I'll keep your offer in mind, dear.”
Anthony beamed a little as if just few words of basic kindness and gratitude were enough to make him happy. Zachary wondered if he was just not used to that, then told himself that he was reading too much into it, this wasn't some kind of heroic hero with a tragic past but an iron will of making the world a better place precisely because he had it so rough. Anthony did not have the right physics, for one.
“Are you... all right? Are you feeling better?” he asked after the smallest of silence. There must be something about it that made Anthony anxious.
Zachary wanted to smile Yes dear, thank you, but something held the words in his mouth. It didn't seem right; it didn't feel good to lie once again, to suffocate the real words that wanted to feel heard. “Can I tell you why I'm here?”
“Obviously, Zachary, if you feel comfortable.”
“I...” he started, then bit his bottom lip, teeth scraping over it. He wondered what kind of words would feel the right one; he didn't want to whine because he didn't want to humiliate himself all over again, as apparently that was Gabriel's job. But he also wanted to share the pain and the shame he had felt and that, from time to time, still beat a mean, scorching tune under his fingernails. Gabriel had lied – and not just this time, probably for all their relationship, if he could still call it that. All the times he had felt belittled, ignored, teased for things out of his control built up, one over the other; Gabriel just needed someone that loved him to feed his ego. “I met someone through a dating app. Pathetic, I know -”
“It's not! I know two couples who met on Tinder, and one is getting married in June.”
Zachary smiled, a bit saddened by his own misfortune. “Well, we started chatting and we clicked instantly, or so I thought. We were supposed to meet here today for the first time but, as I was getting off the train, he called me to say that he couldn't meet me any more, because one of his exes had a terrible car accident.”
He chuckled again. Oscar would love the hell out of him. “Just what my best friend said.”
“Yeah, you dodged one serious motherfucker, Zachary. I'm sorry for him, he's missing out big time.”
“Thank you, dear.” It was something that Oscar too had said already, nothing new; but coming from Anthony, it was... something else. A bit more comforting, because he wasn't his best friend, he didn't have any obligation to him. “That's why I reacted so poorly when you mentioned the archangel, Gabriel. It... triggered something, it was a stress response, I believe. ”
“I'm so sorry, I meant it as a compliment. 'cause you're both, y'know... blond. And a little bitchy.”
That was certainly a first. “And what, pray tell, was bitchy about the archangel Gabriel?”
“So you're going to argue against Gabriel's bitchiness but not your own?”
“I would be a hypocrite if I did.”
“I like a man that knows himself so well.” Oh . “Well, I never liked Gabriel since the first time I read about the Annunciation. How he went to that poor girl, “Do not be afraid', bitch what? You're this giant human bird and you're telling me I'm pregnant without even the fun that usually precedes the pregnancy? I would have whooped his ass.”
“You sure know a lot of colourful expressions, Anthony.”
“Yeah, too much American Netflix.”
Zachary considered, with a little pout, if he could tease him a bit. “You know, Gabriel is American,” he said with an innocent casualness, watching Anthony out of the corner of his eyes, not meaning anything, really; but Anthony looked affronted, mouth open in horror.
“Blimey, Governor, I shall not watch anything American for the rest of my bloody life,” he said with a terrible cockney accent that made Zachary giggle in delight.
“Thank you, that would mean so much to me,” he chuckled, and Anthony looked so proud of his brave choice.
“Cross my heart and hope to die.” He even crossed over his chest with a finger. It actually moved Zachary a teeny tiny bit. The walk back to the city centre was more pleasant than he should have been.
Manchester was not sleeping any more when they got to the hotel; it was Saturday night already. He thought of Oscar, hoping he was eating fish and chips at the end of his shift. “This is me.” said Zachary in front of the polished red hotel door, not really happy about it; but he was tired and suspected that, if he was to drag their night, even more, he would become fussy and annoying, and he didn't want to ruin anything between them.
(was there already something between them? And what was it?)
“Yeah,” said Anthony, sounding not exactly pleased as well. “Is half-past eight a good time for me to pick you up?” he asked with such hope that Zachary did not have the heart to say to him that it was barbarically early for a Sunday morning. He nodded in agreement.
“Nine's also okay,” Anthony offered. Zachary wondered if he was something of a mind reader.
“Nine is perfect, dear.”
“Deal. Goodnight, angel.”
As soon as the word escaped his mouth, Anthony fled. Zachary didn't have the chance to even say the first letter of his name before he disappeared so quickly Zachary was forced to wonder if he had been some sort of delusion all this time. He didn't dare ask anyone about it. Dumbstruck, he entered the hotel to check into his room, wishing nothing more than to collapse on his bed.
The pillows and duvet under him were soft and smelled faintly of rose. He inhaled the scent and sighed, thanking Oscar once again. He ought to write him again, at least a thank you note, but he didn't have the strength to even take off his clothes, there was no more energy in his body, save for his useless, silly heart. Anthony called him angel; it had been so long since he had a nickname. (a pet name, he dared to dream in the comfort and privacy of his room.) He sighed again and squeezed the pillow as if it was a teddy bear.
He closed his eyes, and Anthony called him angel again.