Excerpt from Dressing Down

© Clare London


“Happy birthday to me!” Chris threw open the door to us with a cry of welcome and a flourish of a huge shepherd’s crook.

I gripped my gift bottle of wine very tightly and stared at him. “Good God, what did you come as? Bo Peep?”

Chris’s baby-blue eyes narrowed. His frown created a furrow above the bridge of his nose. Combined with the mess of blond curls over his forehead and his petulant look, he was the image of a cherub who–despite the pretty gift tag–had just clambered out of a slightly-soiled Lucky Dip bran tub to hunt down the person who put him there in the first place. He was probably trying for an imperious look, but I wasn’t too sure he pulled it off.

“Don’t take the name of my boss in vain,” he snapped, and swept over his shoulder what looked like his mother’s curtains, though rather more luridly decorated with tinfoil and overcoat buttons sprayed gold. “I’m an archbishop, Joey. Can’t you tell?”

I shook my head, trying to keep a straight face. “I thought you said “Tarts and Vicars” for the party, Chris, not an open choice of whatever member of church hierarchy takes your fancy.”

“It’s my bloody party.” Chris glowered, obviously already a little the worse for his infamous rum punch. “I’ll wear whatever damned denomination I choose.”

“Okay, okay, I get the gist.” We were still all clustered in the doorway. I heard a throat being cleared discreetly behind me but I didn’t turn around.

“Jackets and bags upstairs in the guest room at the back, no one’s staying there tonight.” Chris waved the crook about in a dangerous-looking fashion, then was momentarily distracted by Bren’s hand on his shoulder.

Bren nodded at me, a tight look around his mouth. I didn’t miss the firm grip he had on his boyfriend. “Had some trouble persuading him not to impersonate God Almighty, Joey, so in my opinion, an archbishop is a bloody good compromise. Think yourself lucky.”

“Religious epiphany, or delusions of grandeur?” I handed my jacket to another guest, already on their way upstairs with a pile of them.

“Just Chris being Chris.” Bren rolled his eyes and winked at me. I grinned.

“I see you made the supreme effort, Joey.” Chris ran his eyes up and down my modest black evening jacket and a white collar made from a strip of cereal packet. “It’s a fancy dress party, you know.”

“Oh, really?” I saw Bren’s eyes start the rolling thing again, so I smiled at Chris, not wanting to provoke an argument. “Of course I know, but we were a bit short on funds this year. And I’m not big on dressing up, you know that.”

Bren smirked. “No National Elf Service this year?”

“Definitely not.” Last year’s Trick or Treating expedition dressed as Legolas with a quiver full of sticks of Brighton rock hadn’t been my finest fashion hour. “If you feel the need to mention that costume again, it’ll be the last thing you do tonight.”

“Yeah? Bring it on!” Bren squared his shoulders instinctively, as if relishing the chance of a fight. Seemed like the rum punch had been doing the rounds of all the guests. It was a pretty odd stance for a man dressed as a Franciscan monk, as Bren was. He and his boyfriend had apparently both interpreted the “Vicars” rather loosely.

I raised my hands in surrender. Chris peered at us both, suspicious of any trouble, but when he realized we were both smiling, he grinned as well. And then hiccupped. It was an odd combination but, from the fond way Bren was gazing at him, cute if you liked that kind of thing.

“Yeah, tonight it’s make love, not war,” Bren murmured. His head dipped to rest at Chris’s neck and his hand brushed Chris’s hip under the heavy fabric of his cape. “I’m sure I read online I’m meant to kiss his ring.”

I winced. “Too much information, guys. But bravo on the costumes. Chris–very high church. And you look…monkish, Bren.”

Bren preened, no other word for it. Another odd look on a religious brother. “It was the only damned thing we could find that’d fit my build.” Chris’s eyes ran over Bren’s stocky build as his boyfriend spoke, nodding enthusiastically. He ran a hand slowly down Bren’s arm, a very muscled limb under the shapeless brown fabric. They glanced at each other. Chris flushed even more.

Good God. I was way behind on the rum punch. “I’ll go through to the drinks, shall I?” It was a rhetorical question, apparently, because neither of them took a blind bit of notice of me.  Peering over Chris’s shoulder, I could see the open door of the kitchen and party guests milling about, laughing, holding glasses of punch. Many of them were young men, wearing clerical white collars and dark suits, most of which looked far more professional than mine. A fewer number of young women were there too, in low-cut dresses and high heels. I raised a hand, waving to some of the people I knew, and stepped into the hallway.

Chris gave a sharp cry. His head snapped around like it was on a spring, and he stared behind me.

“What the fuck?” That was Bren, never one to mince words.

I didn’t rise to the bait, but I smiled to myself. Obviously the man who’d accompanied me tonight was now in full view. Gaz, my boyfriend. He’d stepped forward out of the shadows from the dim streetlight into the bright illumination of the hallway.

“Gaz?” came Chris’s strangled moan.

“Gaz?” I murmured, just checking he was okay. A touch on my arm told me he was. I didn’t need anything more than that.

“Let’s get this party started,” I said, cheerily.