© Clare London
“You’re here again,” says the woman from behind the café counter. Her apron’s crooked and she clutches the large teapot with two hands. The queue for breakfast has died down, the workmen returning to the construction site nearby, the students on their reluctant way to classes. The only customers remaining are a couple of jobless lads, looking to pass a few hours in the warm.
I clear my throat. “Coffee, please.”
She nods. I always have coffee, sometimes a toasted bun. Depends what I can afford. I take the steaming mug and weave my way through the plastic chairs to reach the table in the far corner. It’s unoccupied, as usual. I sit in one of the chairs with my back to the door, facing the other chair that’s behind the table, pushed up against the wall. It’s unoccupied, too.
Not for long.
“You need a hair cut,” Mum says. “I hope you’re not going for interviews in that hoodie. You look like a bloody tramp.” She leans her arms on the table, looking tired and annoyed. “I’m missing half the rent money. Have you been going through my purse again?”
“You need to get a proper job,” says my brother Tim, with a scowl. “Face up to life like the rest of us.”
“He’s different,” Mum says. It’s not said with pride or empathy.
Tom sneers at me. “Try harder, then. Try and be normal.” He’s standing beside her, a hand on the back of the chair: his black eye is fading, but he glares at me through the puffy, yellowing skin. He doesn’t seem to weigh up the bruises he gives me against my rare, return hit.
I cup the mug between my hands and huff on the coffee until it’s cool enough to sip. It’s strong and bitter, and I add more sugar.
“You’ve lost weight,” Allan says. “Your eyes look weird.” He’s in one of his business suits, his tie tight and precise against the top shirt button. He looks at me and my grubby hands, and his nose crinkles in an expression of distaste. “Brian, you’re not still using, are you?” As lovers, we were never going anywhere, except to his bed. His enthusiasm there never extended into the rest of his life. He wasn’t comfortable with me: I saw that in the eyes of all of my ex-boyfriends.
“Why are you hanging around here, son?” asks the copper. “You’d better tell me your business.” He leans over the table to stare down at me. He doesn’t believe I have any business at all, I can see it in his expression. He’s from the local nick, but there’s only suspicion in his eyes, no recognition. Maybe we all look the same to him. “Turn out your pockets.”
I shift in my seat and take another gulp of coffee.
“We can’t keep you on,” says Malcolm. He takes his position as site foreman very seriously, which makes him sound far more pompous than sympathetic. “It was only ever a short term contract, right? Maybe if the building trade picks up, we’ll call you.” He won’t meet my eyes: instead, his gaze runs up and down my body. I’m not brawny like his son, who works on the same site as me, but hasn’t been called into the office to be let go. “You make the guys nervous, Brian. You’re…” He shrugs, already turning away. “You know. Different.”
The coffee’s lukewarm now, but I keep sipping it. Someone taps me on the shoulder and I turn in surprise. There’s been no touch so far, no contact other than to eyes and ears.
Ned is there, smiling at me. “Sorry I’m late.” He pauses, his gaze darting to the chair on the far side of the table, then back to my face. He pulls another chair over from a nearby table and sits beside me. “Do you see them?” He looks round. “Here?”
He puts a hand over mine and squeezes. My skin is warm from hugging my mug, but Ned’s is warm in a very different and startlingly good way. My dick stirs gently, less with lust than the familiar memory of shared desire.
“Things are getting better, Brian. You’ll make it through. We’ll do it together.” He’s got his usual cup of morning tea. He meets me on his way to college, and often walks with me to work. When I have some. “What… who did you see?”
“My past,” I say.
He nods. His pupils flicker with worry. “Remember, it’s not your present, or your future. The therapy’s been so good for you.”
“You’ve been better,” I say, abruptly. “You’re perfect.”
He laughs, shocked but pleased. He wants me to move in with him but I’ve been waiting. The sex is good, as always. But the other feelings with Ned are… deeper. Different. He’s reality.
Suddenly, that makes me smile.
He takes my hand as we get up to leave. The woman behind the counter is watching us. She’s not bothered by our affection: she’s seen all of life pass through here. We’re harmless compared to the customers who smash up the fittings, or draw a knife on each other, or are caught making out in the poky toilet. Maybe I was like that, in the past. Not here, but in another place, in another life.
Ned leans to avoid a chair leg and his body nudges mine. I feel suddenly warm all over. I’m connected to him. I feel part of it all: I belong. Yes, that was another life, indeed.
I take my empty mug to the counter. The woman nods and yawns, forgetting to put a hand up in front of her mouth.
“The devil will jump in,” I say to her, still smiling.
She frowns, confused. She’s obviously never heard that phrase.
Ned slides his hand around my waist and rests his chin on my shoulder. “And sometimes right back out again,” he whispers into my ear.