The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

Friday, 31 December 2010

Chapter Five: Duct Tape Is Silver (Part VII)

Ponyboy was crawling around in the rain and the muck in the alley behind the pub. I helped him to his feet, put his left arm around my shoulders, and with some effort got him to tell me where he lived. Fortunately it wasn’t very far.
All the way I revelled in the warmth of his body as he leaned, shivering, on me, and the feeling of his rain-slick, greasy, clammy skin against my palms, in brushing against the barbells piercing his nipples and only too visible under his wet My Little Pony tank top, andi n the smell of puke, and sweat, and cigarettes, and pot, and some medicinal stink that I assumed was from his smack addiction.
I realized suddenly that it had been over a year that I ad quit my own H addiction, and that I’d gone completely without since. Being a thief had completely replaced my libido. Sure, I had wanked, quite obsessively at times, but the last time I’d gotten any of the real stuff had been that time Hendrik had made wear his girlfriend’s clothes and the screwed me, calling me by her name all through, and demanding of me to answer in a ridiculous falsetto and pretending to be this horrible caricature of her.
Amına kodum, was I ever in need of a good fuck.
But nothing of the sort happened that night: I finally got Ponyboy into his flat, a dank, one-room affair that smelled as if it hadn’t been aired out, like, ever, while for the last two years every weekend two unwashed teams of rugby players had had wild orgies in there, and on weekdays the place had been used alternately as a meth kitchen and a field hospital. The grey sheets of his bed felt greasy to the touch. I dumped the near comatose boy onto it an lay down next to him.
Ponyboy said something that sounded like “A’ll be back in a moment” and started snoring. I lay next to him for a while. We were both still fully clothed (well, I was, he was wearing his stage outfit), and soaking wet from the heavy rain. When I started to shiver, I took his bed covers that were lying – I swear, I am not exaggerating here one bit – in a heap on the floor, on top of loads of unwashed clothes, an overflowing ashtray, and several half eaten, already partially mouldering and mostly tipped over cups of instant noodles. Hence it too was wet in places and extremely nasty all around. The only way to ever get it clean again would have been to burn it. I think I have slept cleaner under bridges and supermarket loading docks.
That night, though, it was the perfect cover for me. I put it over myself and Ponyboy, higged him tight, and just lay there in all that grime, and wetness, and soaked in his presence. After a while I got too horny to bear it, unbuttoned my jeans, and wanked until I blew a load into my boxers. For a brief while I fell asleep.
Very early that morning I stole out of Ponyboy’s cellar flat, and rang a very annoyed Charley out of his bed. I pestered him until he connected me with an ethically challenged locksmith who made me a copy of Ponyboy’s front door key without asking any questions. (He did take a heft fee, but what was I really going to do with all the money Charley and I were making?)
That done, I sneaked back into Ponyboy’s place, crept under the cover with him, and woke him with a blow job.
What can I tell you about Ponyboy? We didn’t rally talk about much. He was somewhere in his early 20s and enrolled in something artsy and futureless at Edinburgh University. He was from Gretna, in the very South-East of Scotland, near the English border, and claimed he had been conceived in the shadow of the Lochmaben Stone. My favourite tattoo on his boy was the phoenix rising from his crotch, and the three symbols on his back, one on each shoulder blade and one on the nape of his neck. I suppose they were the letters “G” (or perhaps “C”), “Z”, and “J”  (or maybe “I”). Each was about the size of my palm and heavily ornamented in skills, bones, blades, screaming faces, hangman’s nooses, hourglasses, and other symbols of death. At the time I sort of assumed they were his initials, though I never asked him for his name.
He asked me, once. I was lying on his bed, on my side, hogtied, and trousers around my ankles. He had lit a fag and put it between my lips. I watched crumbs of still glowing ash fall and burn tiny holes into his rumpled, grey sheets. He was sitting next to me, naked, glowing in fresh, post-orgasm sweat, and folding little fighter jets from his huge stacks of sheet music – his rents had once made him learn the piano, but he had since sold his instrument for H. He tried to knock the fag from my mouth with his paper planes, but all he could hit was my belly and shoulders and the top of my head.
“What’s yer name, ma wee sluagh?”
“What does it matter to you?” I tried to growl around the cigarette, but if fell from my mouth. Fascinated we both watched it burn a big, smouldering hole into the sheets and mattress, but eventually it winked out and nothing really caught fire.
“No’in,” he admitted, and rolled me onto my belly.
For the most part my routine that second week in Edinburgh was to be woken by nightmares and sneak out hours before Morpheus relinquished his hold on Ponyboy. If it was early enough that the city was still mostly asleep I’d walk to Holyrood Park, go for a run, and practice Aikido in the valley between Arthur’s Seat and the Salisbury Crags. Then I’d return to Curtis’s, Matt’s, and Marci’s flat for a shower and maybe a change of clothes, and go to a Laundromat neaby to wash what I’d worn the day before. In the Laundromat I’d read books I picked up either at the flat or at Ponyboy’s: a Hinton, a Welsh, and my first Dennis Cooper. Around noon I’d meet with Charley, who’ usually make me eat something, and we’d decide what games to play that day.
Eventually we’d end up in some pub, get pissed, and I’d bid him good night. Then I’d walk over to Ponyboy’s and peek through the window. When he wasn’t home, I’d just let myself in and nap on his bed or read till he arrived. When he was there, I’d watch him through his window until there was a good moment to sneak in and sort of just materialise out of thin air next to him. He must have figured out that I a copy of his key, but I think I managed to startle him at least a bit every day.
I really liked my time there, and in a way Charley and Ponyboy become very close friends, probably the closest I ever had aside from Leo. But after two week – two weeks of increasingly unbearable nightmares at that, I started to suffocate.
So I invested some money in new equipment like waterproof clothes and lovely 10 eye oxblood Doc Marten’s boots to replace the Chucks I had worn to tatters. And sometime in the afternoon of Thursday, 21 August 2008, without ever saying good-bye to either Charley or Ponyboy I walked to where Telford Road becomes the A90 and truck out my thumb.
And that was my Edinburgh episode. I’ve never been back, and I left nothing but a long line of hurt marks and two blokes who didn’t know anything about me. I thought that with leaving Charley I had finally turned my back on Leeds for good, too. Never in a million years had I thought that Edinburgh could ever come to haunt me. It would be half a year before I would figure out how wrong I was.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Chapter Five: Duct Tape Is Silver (Part VI)

Charley’s heart was in the art of the confidence game, but he got his regular income from peddling drugs, anything from dope and shrooms to speed and smack. Don’t ask me how that is connected to Bryan or Leeds. I’m guessing there as much as you, but it’s hard to avoid that conclusion, innit? On the other hand, jumping to conclusions can be a dangerous thing. As I later figured out, Charley probably was involved in other rackets, blackmail, and corruption, and who knows what. Mostly he networked, I think, brought peeps together to wreck more havoc than they could on their own.
Back then I thought none of that mattered to me. I had nothing to do with his other jobs, all we had in common were the games we played and the marks we shook down.
Sometimes when we were together he’d meet some peeps on some corner, in some park, or some pub. Sometimes little folded pieces of paper changed hands, sometimes little plastic bags, sometimes thumb-drives or just a few words. That was what lead us into that bar in Leith, near the harbour, that one night at the end of my first week in Edinburgh.
Outside it was pouring cats and dogs, and so I went inside as well. The bar – I have forgotten the name – was narrow, dark, and crowded, and smelled of wet wool and spilt beer. Charley was making his round, having a gab here and there, shaking hands, handing out merchandise and palming folded bills in return.
I trailed behind him and passed the time studying his techniques. He had some sweet moves, and I thought I ought to trade a couple of handshakes with him, and practice that passing off routine, but on the whole I decided I was the better sleight-of-hand artist. Of course, I would never be able to charm peeps as easily nd effectively as he could. Deceive them, yes. Manipulate them, sometimes. Charm – not a chance.
Usually Charley got out of these places as soon as he was done. That night, though, he bought a pint of stout for each of us instead.
“Here you go, Bobby,” he shouted over the general din.
“Ta!” I shouted back. “We’re not leaving?”
“Nah. You don’t want to miss this.”
“Give’em a minute. They’ll be on soon.”
He pointed at a set of drums a heavily tattooed bloke was setting up in one corner. Another in torn jeans, faded t-shirts, and wearing a studded black leather belt, bracelets, and a dog collars was messing around with dodgy looking cables and an old set of amps and loudspeakers.
“Who are they?”
“Ah, the finest crappy band you’ll ever hear.”
“What do the play?”
At that Charley had to laugh. “Ponyboy is one of my regulars. Junkie. Fag like you.”
Just as an aside: As far as I could tell, Charley was pretty straight. Blokes just didn’t rattle his cattle was how he once put it. But he was about the least homophobic straight bloke I ever met. He had no problem embracing me, or walking around with an arm over my shoulder. He didn’t mind playing queer for our games, either, and when he did never camped it up. No floppy wrists or falsetto voice. When he played queer he was simply himself, only that he allowed the same possessive greed to creep into his eyes when checking out blokes that he usually reserved for ladies – especially those with a tramp stamp peeking above low slung jeans, boobs straining against the top, and about a pound of war paint concealing their faces.
He played it well, too. The way his eyes undressed and nearly devoured me each time we played the Teen Ticket – the way disdain mixed with raw, physical desire in his gaze – even after all that has happened since, even after Charley’s eventual betrayal and all that it cost me, I still shiver to think of it.
So when he called me a fag, in a fucked up way that was meant as a compliment. You know: “I’m so cool with you, I can use the bad word, cuz we’re brothers.”
The pub had no stage or anything. When the bloke was done with the amps, he simply climbed on the bar and took up a battered Ibanez electric guitar. He was joined by another bloke with a handheld mike. Their man at the drums started in with, well, I suppose it was a solo, or maybe just a noisy wake up call. The Ibanez followed, screeching scratchily, and finally the singer jumped in.
He was too drunk to be able to stand properly on the narrow bar, so for the most part he knelt on it, using his free hand to steady himself, while he screamed into the mike. It was absolutely atrocious. The crows loved it and cheered them on in their drunken and stoned inaptness. And whenever the singer’s knees or palm slipped on the beer-slick bar and he crashed with his crotch or chin onto the hard, wooden top, everybody hooted and jeered.
“Aren’t they great?” Charley shouted when the singer accidentally tore the cable from the guitar and the guitarist kicked him hard into the shoulder with heavy combat boots, almost knocking the singer from the bar, and finally stomped hard on his hand.
“Which one is Ponyboy?”
I was hoping for the drummer – he was stocky, with a square forehead, a square jaw, and a fleshy face, but with intense, stormy eyes that blazed as he pounded way at this drums – as if he was chopping enemies with a hatchet.
“Him.” Charley pointed at the singer. Just then the guitarist had plugged his instrument back in, and the continued, Ponyboy cradling his stomped on hand, and screaming through split and bleeding lips.
He was a tall, lanky bloke. He wore hi-top basketball boots, black patent leather with neon green Nike arrow and neon pink laces, skin tight, black patent leather trousers, and a black tank top with a glittering picture of Teddy the Little Pony “riding” Kitty White. His arms, shoulders, and neck were heavily tattooed, and a half dozen piercings gleamed in his face. His hair was short, wet, and died a very artificial black. But the best were his eyes: laughing crazily white at the same time crying in quiet despair.
Just then he threw up. Without warning he puked al over himself, the bar, the draft levers, and the patrons in the front row. And he didn’t stop singing, ust continued with oatmeal cloured puke hanging in glistening strings from his chin.
But the pub owner started shouting at him. Ponyboy ignored it. Still screaming profanities into the mike he just kicked backwards – like a pony – at the annoying voice behind him. The pub owner fended off his foot, grabbed him by the ankle, and dragged him from the bar. Ponyboy’s head thumped against the bar and the steel counter behind the bar. I had to think of Winni-the-Pooh, and Christopher Robin dragging him down the stairs.
“No way, you sick pup!” Charley shouted at me, grinning wildly.
Ponyboy’s band-mates just went on playing as if nothing had happened.
“What?” I shouted back.
Instead of answering, Charley grabbed me between my legs, making me only too aware of my hard on.
“You really dug this sick shite, eh?”
I half started to bristle, but then instead simply grinned at Charley, half embarrassed, half defiant. It felt great not to deny it.
“Go ahead,” Charley nodded towards the back door, through which the owner had dragged Ponyboy. “Go to him, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I hesitated for a moment. I hadn’t actually considered doing anything that daring, but now that Charley had said it, I understood that I wanted to, very much. Well, it’s the confidence artist’s job to know his mark’s hidden desires better than the mark does himself, innit? As I said, Charley was a confidence artist at hear.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Chapter Five: Duct Tape Is Silver (Part V)

In Edinburgh I finally returned to my webspace. You didn’t think I learned to write such stunning prose in school, did you? Nah, I had a nice space on Yahoo, the old 360 that they eventually got rid of, where I had virtual friends, and where I could write the stuff nobody in my real life could give a flying fuck about. In fact, a lot of what I’m telling you hear first appeared on Y360 and, when that was gone, on multiply.
I had established my online presence in early ’07, mostly putting up Neil Gaiman quotes, taking the piss in the comments on other blokes’s pages, and chatting with dirty old men.
Amongst my regulars were JD, an Asian-Australian Christian, who had begun by wanting pics of my naked chest but ended talking with me mainly about literature and films, “Uncle Ed”, the obese, insecure shoe salesman from New Jersey, who wanked while telling me to mend my ways, Jim, the retired analyst living in a cabin in the Michigan wilderness and tending his vegetable patch, who couldn’t for the life of him admit that he was into young blokes, and who believed that we were all “God’s DNA”. And then there was Master Daddy Matt, the black father of two teenage daughters, who dreamed of having a white boy slave.
Not all of the were naughty, mind you. Queer, positive, ex-speedhead Shawn, for example, busily working on his budding career as playwrite and off-broadway director, made it clear that he wouldn’t talk with me about anything sexual until at least my 18th birthday. We had begun chatting when I was 14, so if that had been his aim, he certainly had been in it for the long haul. We were just pen pals and mutual blog commentators, and a great source of advice both on the seedy and the artistic side of life.
I hadn’t blogged, mailed, or chatted with anyone for over a month when I went back online from the ESCape Internet Café on London Road in the New Town of Edinburgh on August 13, four days after I had left Leeds. My online friends were suitably impressed about my daring, or dutifully admonished me to be sensible and return to my mum, though I suspect most of them didn’t believe a word of what I told them. Only Jim actually figured out a way to follow my IP addresses and reluctantly agreed that I wasn’t fibbing after all. He also became an increasing pain in the arse about me stopping this nonsense.
The other thing I returned to in Edinburgh was regular training. When I had been nine years old my unacceptably frequent and violent fights got me sent to a kiddie shrink and to Ergotherapy. After I had made it absolutely clear that I’d rather die a thousand death than suffer through rhythmic dancing, the therapist proposed Aikido. And once I started going to the Dojo my fights really did seem to abate. Of course, then my dad up and left, and two years later after a fashion so did ‘Nette. That was when things became really bad, rozzers and all.
But ever since then I trained martial arts almost religiously. I always liked how it complemented football. Football was about interacting with the external world, about strategy, and friendship, and fighting the enemy. Martial arts was about the internal enemy, about discipline.
Some people have raised eyebrows and commented that it was really stupid to teach a troubled, violent kid how to dish out hurt more efficiently. But I am certain, if it hadn’t been for Aikido and for my sensei, I would have become a killer a long time ago. It really helped, you know.
Anyway, a while ago my sensei had kicked me out of the Dojo for dishonourable behaviour. But I continued to train on my own, mostly up on the roofs above Berlin. I even did it while locked up in juvie. It helped calm my nerves. But when I got back out, I stopped. The internal enemy had won, so it seemed. What was the point of continuing to fight?
In Edinburgh I returned to training. I went for regular runs in Holyrood Park. Those two weeks in spent in Edinburgh it was raining almost constantly. Seriously. Even by British standards it must have been the wettest August in ages. Once it got so ba the sewers backed up all the way into the flat where I was crashing. I woke to screams of disgust and the stink of sewage soaking into the carpets.
I learned to love running up and down Arthur’s Seat in the pouring rain. The sweat and rain and mud all would become one and I would almost succeed in dissolving myself in all the grey, brown, and green.
Mostly I ran so I wouldn’t lie awake on the couch, chasing sleep that kept eluding me. There was too much I didn’t want to think about as I lay there and stared up at the ceiling. To avoid that my choices were exhausting myself to the point of collapse or drinking myself into a stupor. On some nights I resorted to the latter, but even I knew I’d feel much better the next day when I did the former.
Of course, after a week of this Charley introduced me to Ponyboy. I continued training, but by then I had other things to distract me during the nights.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Chapter Five: Duct Tape Is Silver (Part IV)

In the two weeks that followed we played a lot of games – though for some reason we never got around to that Badger game he’d originally proposed. Once he learned of my chromosomal preference thought, we developed a vicious house remix of the Spanish Prisoner. The Spanish Prisoner and its most famous modern variant, the Nigerian Mail Scam, is the proverbial free lunch that turns out to be anything but. In its classic form the mark is approached with a tale of woe and injustice. Somewhere some authorities are keeping the roper from access to his rightful wealth. Penniless as he is right now, he desperately needs some funds to pay the bribes and fees necessary to get his treasure to safety – an investment he would pay the mark back a hundredfold, once successful, of course.
Everyone who hears of this game thinks he could never be lured. But the beauty of it is that in truth everyone can be lured – given the right lure. For some that lure may not be money.
The version we developed and the we called The Teen Ticket went roughly like this: The mark encounters me and Charley in some suggestively seedy spot around Union Place, with me practically begging Charley to help me in return for (only shyly and obviously reluctantly hinted at) sexual favours. Charley, although obviously lusting, remains cold-hearted and distant, pointing out the legal risks to him. Eventually he shakes me off and leaves me in some dark corner quietly struggling with tears and read to be approached by the mark.
My legend would always be some variation on this tune: Coming from some backwater continental village with ultra-conservative sexual mores I had followed internet invitation and promises of true love by some lecherous old poofter. Upon arrival here I found that he had been in contact with several youngsters and that a rival had arrived at the same time. The best story to hook the mark turned out to be some lurid tale of how the old man had made my rival and me enter a sort of bidding war of what we would be willing to do in return for bed, board, and affection. As long as I blushed a lot, stumbled over my words, played up my accent – giving it an eastern twist – and obviously almost choking on trying to repeat the offers I had been forced to make and those that had trumped mine, it almost invariably assured the success of the game. I’m not quite certain why, but I think it was the combination of fanning the mark’s hidden desires and at the same time providing him with a way to avoid the guilt by assigning him the role of the good Samaritan.
Anyway, the conclusion of the tale would always be how the old man had kicked me out but not without buying me a ticket back to the motherland. After all, one he had found his perfect loverboy, he wanted to get rid of the worthless runner up. But I had burned my bridges, no place to go, and no money to stay. Being not even 16 I couldn’t easily return the ticket for cash – and that was what I needed help with.
I wouldn’t directly offer sex, and I wouldn’t ask for anything, not money nor a place to stay. All I would ask for is the help of a grown up to get a refund for the ticket – a ticket rightfully mine. But implied was of course that once I had that, I would still be in need of a bed to sleep in and perhaps a companion to warm it. And nearly no matter what they would dream off, they knew they would remain decent folks if compared to the arsehole for who I had left my home and come here.
The cruel genius of the game was that none of this mattered. The entire routine, the sob story, the process of going to the train station and a ticket refunded (a very time consuming process in Edinburgh at the height of the Festival), it all had only one point: To keep the mark occupied. Because as he kept me company in all this, I would relieve him of his flat- or hotel-keys and pass them off on Charley. Charley would then in all leisure loot the place, return the keys to me, and eventually I would ditch the mark under some pretence.
I wish I could tell you that the marks we suckered deserved it, that they were evil paedophiles who only helped me to get into my breeches – though I do think most them were paedophiles (or hebephiles, if you want to get technical) and did want to get into my breeches. But I am not certain many of the would have done so had I given them a chance. Desire is not deed. And with some of them I suppose I wouldn’t even have minded.
But the reality was that none of them deserved it. It was a rotten game, through and through, a cruel, calculating mindfuck, designed to play at one on the best and the worst that exists in everyone of us, and to exploit it shamelessly.
And I loved it, every single time. I loved the guarded, tentative way they approached me. I loved elaborating my story, fine tuning the details to the body language of the marks so to evoke the maximum mix of lust, horror, and compassion. I loved their attention. I loved that through all this I remained untouchable: I was a “child” and they were queer men. And they knew it. As far as I know none of them went to the rozzers.
I loved how I could make them dance on my strings, how I could make them hungry to give, only to then take behind their backs, how – using the subtle alc hemy of the con – I could turn their yearning and generosity into my profit, and their shame and fear into my armour.
And a few precious times I got to see that crazy, anguished flickering of hope for something long given up on in their eyes. And I knew that was the real reward I was playing for.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Chapter Five: Duct Tape Is Silver (Part III)

On our way to Leith I was burning to ask him how he had found me. I didn’t. But as we walked and he told me a bit about the city, the festival, the friends he was going to ask to let me crash, and himself – the last bit all lies, I was convinced – I gave it some thought.
In Newcastle I had thoroughly checked my clothes for any more bugs, but I hadn’t opened the package, so I assumed that Bryan had placed another device inside that. That one probably had been with GPS capability, allowing him (and Charley) to locate me anywhere at least in the UK, probably Europe, or the world. Still, for Charley to be there so quickly, there had to be more to it. After all, I had at best spent maybe 10 minutes on North Bridge.
Charley had probably tracked my approach. He probably had noted my arrival via Maybury and Glasgow Road. He probably had guessed that I was on that bus. There had been other stops I could have gotten off, but the city centre was a logical choice. Perhaps he had been there already, on some other business. Had he seen the T-shirt on display somewhere and just decided on a whim that it would make for a great joke, or had he been prepared? Had he meant to check me out before I got to a phone, to see if I was with anyone, of I posed some sort of danger? Or was it just for a laugh?
There was of course no way for me to know for certain, but like him I could make some good guesses. The fact alone that he was the recipient of the mystery package meant he was some sort of player. And the way he had gone about receiving me smacked of the mind of a confidence artist.
I had learned about the art of confidence game and the frame of mind necessary to play them from Uncle Yalya. Of course wasn’t any uncle of mine, and his name isn’t Valya – or Valentin – and he is not really from Bulgaria as I will claim henceforth. But that is what I called him whenever I told this part of the story, even to Alex and Sim, and that are the lies I will stick to. They are comfortable enough and they serve to protect his real identity.
He really was the uncle of another bloke in Plötzensee, let’s call the nephew Janko. You see, visiting inmates there isn’t like the stuff you see on the telly. No bullet-proof glass, no telephone to speak through, not even any bloody no-touching the prisoners riles or any of that Hollywood stuff. Maybe they do that in real prisons, but where I got sent to it was just a big room with all the false cheer of a hospital cafeteria, and with little square tables, four chairs to each. Twice a month, in the afternoon, you could get a visitor. When they had signed in, you were called from your room, and then you could meet them there. They could bring money (an arbitrary maximum of 13 Euros per visitor, but only in coins) and there were overpriced vending machines where you could buy sweets and coffee.
One week my friend Leo came to visit. Uncle Valya was also there, sitting on the table next to ours, waiting for Janko. I learned later that when the warden went to collect Janko from his room, he had smoked a bit too much weed, too much even for them to turn a blind eye (hey, a stoned inmate is a peaceful inmate), so he took a trip to the infirmary and then to the head warden’s office. Back in the visitors’s lounge, when it became apparent that something had gone wrong, Valya spoke to me, very quietly and in a way that the warden at the door didn’t notice anything.
“Hey there, redhead. Can you deliver a message to Janko?”
Leo wanted to turn his head but I told him: “Don’t look away from me.” And without turning my own face away from Leo, I said to Valya: “Sure thing. Can do.”
Valya nodded and got up, just as a warden entered to tell him that Janko wouldn’t make an appearance that day. As he walked past me, Valya held a folded pieces of paper, wrapped in a folded 20 Euro bill between the fingers of his left hand, hanging relaxed at his side, where the wardens couldn’t see it behind the tables and the other visitors. I plucked from his hand and palmed it calmly without turning away from Leo.
Two weeks later Valya was back, and this time he asked to see me. Life inside was too boring for me to decline. When I sat down next to him, he told me he had liked the way I had handled things. Not just the skill, but the style.
“Still rough,” he said. “You have a lot to learn. But you show more promise than my nephew ever has.”
I blushed at the compliment, the first I ever got for being a thief. It was the best compliment I had gotten so far in my life.
“You don’t do it to get rich, do you?” he asked, peering intently at me. “You do it out of love for the art.”
I blushed even more, and he nodded and asked me if I wanted to be his apprentice.
“I will make you work hard, boy,” he said. “And you will not make money. You work for me. Am I exploiting you? Of course I am. I am a crook. But I will pay you back. Not in money, but in knowledge. You decide.”
And he offered me his hand, gob of spit in the palm and all. He was the one who taught me that sometimes you have to live the cliché. There is purity in clichés.
I spit into my own and shook.
From February to July of 2008 I learned from Uncle Valya. I learned a lot, but the most important lesson he had already given me by directing my awareness to something I had secretly known all along: You don’t do it for the money. You do it for the love of the art.
Charley was like that. I think his magic trick out there, on those ugly 1980s concrete terraces of Waverly Station, amidst the oppressive beauty of Edinburgh, that was his love of the art. He did it because he could, because he couldn’t pass up the chance to play me.
All of that went through my mind as we made superficial chit chat and I did my best not to tell him anything about myself that was real. But I waited for a chance to pick his pocket.
At a busy crossing I got my chance and peeked into his wallet. The Australian driver’s licence bore his picture and the name Steve Randle. As soon as I could, I slipped it back – but into the wrong pocket.
When we reached the run-down Leith tenement building were his lmates lived, he rang the bell.
Casually I said: “Thanks, Steve, for the bother and the hospitality, and stuff.”
His face remained unmoved, only his eyes grew cold and calculating. And he didn’t skip a beat, answering: “Aw, it’s nothing, mate.”
I grinned, as insolently as he had done when I first met him. For a moment, he seemed uncertain how to take this. Than he casually touched the pocket where his wallet had been, and then the one where it was now. Anger darkened his face for a second. I winked just as the buzzer sounded and he pushed into the gloomy staircase.
He introduced me to Curtis, Matthew, and Marcia, who welcomed me easily enough, and assigned me to a stained and sagging couch in the living room. We shared some tea and a joint. They didn’t ask much, and what little I said, I made up. Eventually, Charley got up to leave. He gestured for me to follow him into the hallway.
“You looking for work?”
“Depends,” I said carefully, and without intending to I touched my bandaged shoulder. “I don’t plan on growing roots here.”
“Just for the festival, perhaps?” And when I hesitated, he smiled his sunny smile. “Think about it. Half a million suckers waiting to be bilked. I watched you lie in there.” He nodded towards the room and his mates. “You’re not half bad at it.”
“What do you have in mind?”
“Straight short cons. Pigeon drop, Murphy, maybe a Badger game.”
He flashed the gold filling on one of his teeth and raised an eye-brow.
“What would my role be in that Badger game?”
“Oh, you’ll be the red-haired, irascible Irish kid brother of my wife, who demands I pay you off so you can get the marriage annulled. I don’t have the funds, of course, and when you make to kill me there and then I’ll convince her that she’ll end up in the papers if not worse if she doesn’t help me out.”
In Berlin, with Uncle Valya, I’d mostly played variations on the fiddle game, like where I left a worthless old book in some place, say, a café, and Valya came in, discovered it, claimed to be an antiquarian and that the book was worth oodles of money. He’d leave his card and the promise to buy it for hundreds, if not thousands of Euros. When I returned to get my book, the waiter or whoever had been in contact with Valya would usually offer to buy the book from me for far less than Valya had offered him – but far more than I was actually worth. The fiddle game is so useful because you need hardly any props, it incurs no expenses to speak of, and carries next to no risk. At worst an honest waiter will simply pass on Valya’s card and tell me about my chance to get rich. But believe me, if played right, such honest peeps are few and far between.
“I donnt haff ze Rrrait Ak-tsent,” I said.
“Oh, I’ll teach you, mate,” Charley said. “I’ll teach you.”
So, thinking of Uncle Valya, I spat into my palm and offered it to Charley. He grinned broadly, spat into his own, and shook it.

Chapter Five: Duct Tape Is Silver (Part II)

Cherry or Sheryl or so Valance left the motorway and dropped me off at the Maybury bus stop on Glasgow Road, where I took the 26 line to North Bridge. The plan was to ring up my contact, but he beat me to it.
When I got off the bus, I was astonished how crowded Edinburgh was, crowded and grey and wet and oppressive, with its massive Edwardian houses, as it presented itself to me under the cloud shuttered sky. For a while I stood on that bridge spanning the train station and marvelled at it all: The Scotsman Hotel at one end, and Princes Street at the other, Carlton Hill with its old burial ground yonder, and, when I turned around, beyond the grooved roof of Waverley Station, the park, and looming above on its high, rocky perch, the Castle. Of all cities I’ve been to, I think only Budapest is as immediately awesome.
Finally I decided to walk over to the Princes Street side, around the Balmoral, and then down to the train station. Train stations are fine places to make unobserved phone calls. Way too many CCTV cams, of course, but that’s the point: Who is going to sift that sea of images for something as innocuous as a simple telephone call? Especially given my complex and faintly ridiculous security instructions.
You see, Bryan had made me memorise – but not write down! – a mobile phone number. I was to call it, let it ring twice, hang up, wait 5 minutes, and call again. Someone was supposed to answer then, saying: “Oz here,” to which I was to answer: “It’s Bob.” And then I was to get instructions where to hand over the package.
On my way to the station, on the concrete terraces above the station, leaning against the low walls enclosing the horribly out of place shrubbery, was a bloke of maybe 25, wearing neat blue jeans, tasselled loafers, and a plain navy windbreaker – over an obviously brand new Ozzy Osbourne T-shirt.
He sucked on a fag and then grinned at me insolently.
“Bob, right?”
I halted, hesitated, and asked lamely: “Oz?”
He scrunched up his handsome face, blew out smoke, and said: “Please… call me Charley.” He put the fag back into his mouth and offered me his hand: “Charley Tully.”
We shook.
“You got it?”
I hesitated again. Charley sighed, got out his mobile and speed-dialled someone.
“It’s me,” he said into the phone. “He’s here. Will you please tell him to cut the secret agent crap?” He handed it to me. It was Bryan, who told me it was okay and thanks for everything. Charley took back his phone and held out his hand.
“Here?” I asked.
Charley made a big show of looking around. Exaggeratedly he pointed at a rozzer standing on the other side of Princess Street, opened his eyes wide, and put his hand over his mouth.
He stage-whispered: “Oh no, what if he sees us?”
I sighed, got the packet out of my satchel – pained and laborious, trying to avoid opening the wound on my arm again – and handed it to him. He didn’t even bother to stow it away or anything, just held it relaxed in his hand.
“Where are you stayin?”
“No idea yet.”
At that he raised an eyebrow.
“Mate, it’s the festival, you know?”
And when my face didn’t register understanding, he explained: “The Edinburgh Festival. All of August. It’s the bloody biggest festival of performing arts in the world. There’s about half a million visitors in town, as many as live here normally.”
Charley turned around and walked away from me. When I didn’t move, he turned around.
“Well, come along.”
“Where are we going?”
“Get you a place to stay. You don’t expect you’ll find a hostel or hotel room at the moment, do you?”
I said: “I suppose not,” and followed him.
“So, what do I call you?”
“Bob.” Deadpan.
He gave me a long look.
“Bob Moros.”
At that he laughed and we became friends.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Chapter Five: Duct Tape Is Silver

Feel it break your bones Mr. Jones
taste me as I bleed, taste my need
- Smashing Pumpkins: Spaceboy (1993)

The sales rep that had given me a lift out of Leeds got me as far as a few kilometres past Durham. I had fallen asleep in the stuffy warmth of his Volvo, the constant drone of his voice merged smoothly with the purr of the engine. After what must have been an hour – though it felt like 5 minutes – he shook me awake.
“You’re bleeding.”
Bloody was dripping from my hand onto my lap and the upholstery of the passenger seat. I pushed the jacket from my shoulder and rolled up the soaked sleeve of my T. The bandages had come lose and more blood was trickling down my arm.
The sales rep brought the Volvo to a skidding stop at the side of the motorway.
“Get out,” he snarled.
I looked at him startled. I mean, I was sorry for the stains on his seat cover, but I hadn’t expected this reaction.
“I cannot explain why I had you in my car,” was all of the cryptic answer I got to my puzzled look. “Get out. Now.”
I grabbed my satchel and did as he said. He pulled the door close from within and roared off, leaving me by the side of the M1.
I treated the wound. My next attempt to keep it under wraps and pressure wasn’t  much better, but I’d had enough experience with cuts to the arms to know that it wasn’t all that easy to bleed yourself dry even if you tried. I would live.
I made it to Newcastle that night, and appropriated enough money to stay at another hostel. This time no one wanted papers or a story why I had none. The next day I hitched a ride with a lady who drove a bloody big Japanese SUV and who made me listen to saccharine soft pop and her own sob story all the way to Edinburgh. She told me the story in that wonderful, melodious Scottish sing-song that I would come to cherish like few other sounds in the world.
Her name was Cherry or Sheryl or so Valance. She was moving back in with her aging rents in Perth after she had been fired from a job as some sort of researcher. She’d been accused of fudging some numbers.
“The thing is, I haedna cheated. No’ the way they said I did, anywae. I hae go’en the numbers wrong, tha’ much is correct. Bu’ it must’a been subconsciously. My boyfriend hae just left me when I wrote tha’ paper, and wha’ I wrote, it sorta proved an argument we’d been having. At least, it wid if I’d been right. Tha’ is to say, if I cheated on anybody, it was mostly on him.”
I don’t know what she thought she saw on my face, but she grimaced and said: “Yer right. I only cheated on myself.”
And after a brief, uncomfortable pause: “So, tha’ is my sorry tale. Wan’te tell me yer oon?”
I eyed her wearily. She laughed.
“It’s okay, laddie. Ye don’ hafta. I can tell tha’ it’s no’ a happy one. No noodle salad there either, huh?”
“Excuse me?”
“Never mind. I s’pose, things are tough all over.”
I suppose she was right. On the stereo Paula Cole asked us where had all the cowboy’s gone, but neither of us knew the answer.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Countdown: 5 - Kiss & Tell (Part V)

I might have bettered my lot by blabbing about the harassment. One reason not to might have been The Code. You know the one: Deal with it yourself and don’t run crying to the grown-ups. Is it a stupid code? Of course it is. Is that any help in breaking it? Not much. I happen to believe in that code. Also, do I think peeps would have believed me? Certainly, there were the vids and it probably would have been possible to scrounge up some witnesses, though one never knows with these things. Smarter men than me have noted that the truth is a whore, willing to go to bed with whoever pays her best. And the real question probably rather was, who did I think the relevant peeps – teachers, principle, rents, etc. – would have wanted to believe? Me, or tall, good-looking, well-dressed, well-spoken, promising Samuel Richter? But be that as it may. None of it was the real reason to keep my trap shut anyway.
The real reason was that I would have had to tell them about it. Tell them about the piss and the cat litter. I would have had to show them the vids, those beautiful, shaky-yet-spot-on captures of the redness in my face, the glistening in my eyes, of me trying to blink it all away. And it wouldn’t have been just once, to one teacher. I would have had to tell all of them, over and over again. And I would have had to tell them the reason for it all. I would have to tell them about Tim, about the kiss. I mean, come on. You didn’t really think I would do that, do you?
So I took the punishment in stride. And funnily, when I returned for the remainder of that school year, I discovered that I had become something of a celebrity. Turns out it’s okay to be queer as long as you prove your manliness by violence. Seriously, all you queer boys out there. If you are getting static at school, just go berserk. It might get you into all kinds of hot water with the grown-ups, but it’ll counter most of the homophobia from your mates. As for queer girls, you’re on your own. Butch behaviour isn’t going to earn you any points, I guess. But then, do you want to earn any? I couldn’t make myself like those kids anymore. I couldn’t forget what had happened. I couldn’t forgive.
The other consequence was that I finally had my official coming out in front of my mum. The fight had happened on the Friday before mother’s day, and she was not amused when I told her about the suspension.
My mum must have known I was queer. I mean, I knew ever since I was eight or so. Lukas found out one day when I was nine or ten. He asked me if I was queer, not because he had any reason to question my sexual orientation or anything, but just because it’s something kids say as an insult, meaning soft or wimpy or something of the sort. Too bad it had been mere minutes after I had been wanking to thoughts of my assistant football coach, and when Lukas asked me like that I took the question literally for a second. And the guilt and shame written all over my face was too obvious for him to miss.
He grabbed me by the t-shirt and slammed me against the wall.
“Don’t you ever tell anyone, not while you and I are still living under the same roof, you little shit,” he snarled, his nose almost touching mine. “Or I’ll have to break ever bloody bone in your body. Got that?”
Of course, that same rule of discretion didn’t count for him. He told ‘Nessa the same day. But ‘Nessa never gave a damn. She sometimes made snide remarks – and she didn’t care if mum heard those – when she was feeling mean, but you could tell it was just any damn thing that came to her mind she could use to cut me with. She certainly never minded me looking after little Nicky.
From time to time mum must have noticed how I reacted to some bloke on the telly. (Amına kodum, did I ever have the hots for Harvey Keitel in National Treasure. Wouldn’t have minded him slapping cuffs on me…) She must have noticed that there were never any straight porn mags in my room, not like she found in Lukas’s from time to time, but sometimes well-thumbed, dog-eared girly teen mags with pictures of male emo band singers. And at least one time, almost 2 years before all this, she caught me and Jonas making out on the living room couch. We let go of each other at once, of course, but, I mean, 2 flustered boys, red faces, wet mouths, mussed hair, clothes in disorder, sitting next to each other on a couch, looking up at you decidedly sheepishly, how can you not know what’s going on?
But she had never mentioned it, never commented upon it in the least way. No clumsily probing questions (that wouldn’t have been her style anyway), no quietly sarcastic, knowing remarks (that would have been more what I’d expected from her), not even some hasty channel changing on the telly if homosexuality came up as a topic, or when someone happened across some culture program about dance theatre or so. Nope, she displayed total ignorance, until I came home and had to tell her why I had been suspended from school for 2 weeks.
I mean, at first all I said was that I’d been in a fight, and normally that would have been that. But she was so hurt, hurt that I couldn’t pull myself together that once, that I’d made a mess of things already again, not a quarter year after having been released. I couldn’t stand her wounded, disappointed eyes on me. I mean, my mother has had reasons to be disappointed in me plenty of time, and neither of us really expected much else from each other. But that time, well, I suppose, I could understand the blow this gave her. I wanted her to know how much I had tried not to, how hard I had struggled with myself, what I had endured, before I couldn’t take it any longer.
So I told her. Told her what had happened. Told her I was queer.
She took it with a stony, tired face. She thought about it for a while. And then she asked me, still so tired, so weary: “Can’t you try not to be that way?”
And when I just stared at her, she continued, still too tired to display even any haste in explaining herself, as if it was a bother that she had to clarify this at all: “I know it’s not fair, but people will react that way to you when they know you are, well, homosexual, if we like it or not. And with all your other problems, do you really need this one, too?”
I was that close to asking her how being straight had worked out for her: Almost 50, dumped by her worthless toe-rag of a husband, with four kids, one of whom had gotten herself knocked up at 18, and her oldest apparently hell bent on doing the same to any one of his many flings before long. I didn’t. Maybe I wasn’t pissed off enough. Maybe because following that argument would have lead dangerously close to mentioning ‘Nette. And that was something I knew mustn’t be done. So I didn’t say anything. I just left.
After that, I was back in my old rut. I got into a fight at football and was kicked off a team I had been a member of since I had been six years old. Then I had a bad one with Leo. He forgave me, afterwards, but that fight was what lead to me being on my own that Friday night in early July, when I woke up not knowing where I was, or even, for a delicious few moments, who I was.