James was lying on his bed, turning the page of a thriller he’d picked up the other day.His phone buzzed but he carried on reading as he reached across to the bedside chest.At the end of the page he paused, opened the text message, read it twice, and grinned.
He jumped up and raced through to the lounge.
Adam was lying on the sofa, his head resting in the lap of Ryan, this new guy he was dating.Adam’s cheeks were a little flushed, like they might have just been up to something, but he ignored the thought.
“You’re not gonna believe it.” James said excitedly.
Adam half sat up.
“I got a couple of free tickets for the Innoculators, tonight.”
Adam sat up further.
“Who?” Ryan asked.
Adam gave him a look.“The band…”
Ryan’s face was blank.
“Anyway, amazing, how come?”
“Oh, there’s this girl I used to work with.She bought them ages back, but now has to head to London tonight.”
“Cool.But, just two tickets right?”
“Yeah”.James looked a little apologetically across at Ryan and back to Adam.
Adam looked round to his boyfriend who rolled his eyes and waved it away.“It’s cool”
Adam’s eyes lit up and he turned back to James.
“It’s some venue at an old brewery” James said, slightly uncertainly.
“Right.”He looked at Adam for a moment, unsure if he was confirming he knew the place, but deciding that must be what he meant.
Adam’s phone started to ring, and he picked it up and looked at the dial screen.
“It’s Simon, I’d better get it.Might be about Paul.”
“Have you got hold of him yet?” James asked.
“Nothing yet.I wrote to his mum like a week ago.” Adam said, starting to head for the door so he could take the call privately.“But no response yet”.
He disappeared and James turned and smiled at Ryan.He had struggled to find common ground for idle conversation with Adam’s new boyfriend.
Ryan didn’t return the smile.He gave James a shifty look.
“I know what you’re doing” he said quietly, his mouth making strange shapes as he overexpressed the words with camp malice.
James raised an eyebrow, and a half smile crept onto his face.Ryan seemed liked an odd character, but not one to be taken too seriously.
“You do?” he asked.
“Just keep your hands off him, you bloody Yank.He’s mine.”
James tried to come up with a witty retort to assert his real nationality, but before he could find it, Adam returned.Instead he shot a withering look at Ryan.
“Nothing to report” Adam confirmed, and rejoined Ryan on the sofa.
“I’m heading into town” James said, directly to Adam.“You want anything?”
“No, I’m good man.So what do we need to be there about 7.30?”
“So we can head off about seven?”
“Sounds good.I’ll see you later” James said, heading back to his room to get ready.
James returned to the flat later and was glad to find Ryan gone.Adam was typing away at something on his laptop, and James got a beer and slumped in front of the TV.
He whiled away a lazy afternoon, watching the box, downing a few beers and playing a few albums to get them in the mood.
Before they knew, it was 6.30, and they were both slumped lethargically on the sofa.
“It’s 7.30 doors right?” Adam asked.
“Yeah, I think”.
Adam gave him a look that seemed to demand more certainty than was possible from their current position.James lifted himself reluctantly from the horizontal position, emitted a sound like a disgruntled elephant seal, and got to his feet.He wandered through to his room and re-emerged.
“Yep, 7.30 at the Brewery” he said, passing the tickets to Adam.
“And this place is in town right?”
“I’ve no idea man.I thought you said you knew where it was?”
Adam half sat up.“No.Didn’t you say it was in town?”
“I thought you said that?”
Confusion spread across both of their faces.
James grabbed his laptop and searched for the venue.
“Shit.No, it’s not.It’s way out.”
Adam checked his watch.“Fuck.We’ll have to drive.”
James looked at the can in his hand and back to Adam.
“I’ve had quite a few, I don’t think I can.”
“It’s cool, I can drive.If you don’t mind me driving your car?”
James looked uncertain for a second.He wasn’t a big fan of sharing his car.But this was an emergency.
“We can leave the car there.Get it in the morning.”
He definitely wasn’t a fan of leaving his car overnight in a dodgy part of the city.But it was an emergency.
They both stood for another couple of seconds, looking impotent in the face of a need for sudden action.
“Shit.We’d better get ready then” Adam concluded.
James put down the half-drunk can, and they both went into speedy prep mode.Adam walked quickly to his bedroom and without even closing the door peeled off his t-shirt and jumper as if they were one item, unbuckled his belt and ripped his jeans down and off.James went to his room and pulled off his t-shirt, throwing it on the bed.He saw Adam race through into the bathroom in just his boxers and heard the spray of anti-perspirant and the brief sound of his electric toothbrush.James came in with only his jeans on, waving the fumes out of his face and grabbed the after shave, applying it liberally to his face and neck.Adam grabbed his own and did the same.James raced back and rooted in the wardrobe for that awesome tshirt with the surfer girl on, Adam went back and emerged in his now favourite jeans, the ones Nancy commented on, and a tight polo shirt.Both returned to the sofa and pulled on their trainers.And ten minutes after it started, they were done.
“Ready?” James asked, handing Adam the car key.
They raced down to the car, started it up quickly and got onto the inner ring road.It was gone 7.00pm, and there could be traffic, so Adam was driving as quickly as he could.At the red light James could he see him getting distracted by a broad-shouldered strikingly blond guy driving the car in front.He was slightly late seeing the lights change, then not wanting to lose any time, Adam revved hard and the car flew forward.They turned a corner, and found a queue of traffic at a standstill almost immediately upon them.He was going too fast round the corner, so had to slam the brakes hard.
“Brad, fucking stop” James yelled, seeing the oncoming collision.
His mind was a cloud.He felt like a deer frozen in the headlights.He was 17 again.
The car stopped just in time, but James couldn’t get his breath back.
A little steam came up from the tyres and the guy in front had turned fully around and was gesturing to check that they were ok.Adam gave the signal to say that they were and the guy started to move away.James stared at the superman bumper sticker in the back window as it slowly disappeared.
James opened his eyes.“Let’s just get there man”.
They got to the venue and could hear the warm up act already starting.Adam parked the car and navigated them quickly inside.James got control of his breathing again but couldn’t find the words to say, and Adam seemed to understand that.Instead they stood and enjoyed the music, gradually edging their way further forward in the crowd until it started to get uncomfortable. James felt his body start to relax, and fall in with the music.The electric guitar rang through his body, and all of the other thoughts in his head faded out.He became absorbed in the sound and the feeling through his chest, and the five illuminated guys on stage.
At the end of the warm-up act, the lights went up, and the crowd opened out, spreading back to the bar.James and Adam followed the tide, then fought their way through to get a beer, before moving away to the least crowded area they could find.
James could tell this was the moment.
“So come on then, what was the whole Brad thing about?”Adam asked.
James took a deep breath.How could he explain what he’d done? He knew this could be the end of the friendship, but Adam deserved the truth.
“Ok. Brad was like my best friend at high school.In fact, from about age five” he shouted over the background noise.“We grew up together, did, like, everything together”.
He looked at Adam, whose eyes were like glassy pebbles on a beach, calm, unmoving.James was happy with the silence between them.Despite the expectation in the air, saying nothing at all seemed easier than saying this.He swallowed something inside though and leaned in closer.
“We were in a car crash”.
Adam nodded solemnly.
This was the worst place to have this conversation.As they couldn’t talk easily with all the noise, half the conversation was going on between their eyes.But now he’d started, he had to carry on.
“What happened to him?” Adam asked, leaning in again.
“We were at a party.Some guy in our grade opened up his parents house in the summer while they were away, and everyone from school went.Of course, everyone got pretty wrecked.We were like 17.Brad offered to drive us home.Said he felt ok.”
He leaned back to check Adam had heard this.Adam nodded again.
“So, did he survive…”
“He was paralysed.He’s been trapped in a fucking wheelchair for seven years now”.
James grabbed their empty bottles and put them back on the bar.The lights were starting to dim a little.The band were coming back. He still hadn’t told Adam that it was all his fault.
“Come on” he said.“Sometimes I need to forget for a bit.”
They squeezed their way forward and reached about the same spot as before.The band were on within ten minutes, after the noise from the crowd built and built.The set they played was awesome.They were a gawky but kick-ass kind of goth band and the songs embraced outsider-ness, self-obsession and casual sex to paper over the cracks in your life. All things he could relate to.But they were so alive and defiant and androgynously beautiful, you couldn’t help but be swept up in it.
James emerged ninety minutes later feeling strangely calm. Like things didn’t matter anymore.Like he wasn’t on his own in feeling his life was a total mess.
They went and got another drink from the bar, and the music was quieter now so they could talk more easily.
“Brad wasn’t the only other person in the car” James said, without prompting.
Adam stopped drinking.“Ok”
“The thing was, Brad and me, we had this big stupid argument before we got in the car.I was sure he was trying to come onto my girlfriend, Carly, which of course he wasn’t.He was just winding me up, like he’d always done.
“I was so mad at him though, I’d pushed him back against the car at one point.And he was pretty mad with me, but he was too good a friend just to leave me there.So then the atmosphere in the car was so tense, and he couldn’t concentrate properly.”
Adam watched with sad eyes as he spoke.“So what about Carly?”
“Carly was my total high school crush.It took me like three years to finally make her interested in me.We were in a band together”.He smiled as he thought about it.
“She was the most beautiful girl you’d ever seen.Anyone that saw the band went away only remembering one person in it.Seriously, she was incredible”
He could see Adam picked up on the past tense.
“She was in the back, sitting in the middle seat.She’d taken out her guitar and was playing the latest track we’d written together to try and lighten the air.It was such a stupid song as well, total cliché teenage lust stuff”.
He trailed off, and pictured the moments in his mind.
“We were heading down the hill to some lights, looked like we’d sail through them, but I guess we were further away than we thought.They started to change, and I guess Brad thought he could make it. We were going too fast to stop anyway.Then this massive 4x4 van thing came out from the road on the right, turning into us, and didn’t see us coming.Brad tried to stop, but he couldn’t.She wasn’t belted in.She flew through the air, and her scream just filled the car.Never had a chance”.
“We ended up smashed into a lamppost.She was lying there on the bonnet.Brad was mangled up around the steering wheel.But I was still conscious.I looked round and saw the pieces of broken guitar smashed up on the back seat”.
The venue staff started to circle the room and demand people move on.
“Hold on here a second” Adam said.
He went across to another group with drinks who were gathering their coats and seemed to be making plans, then returned to James a minute later.
“Ok, there’s a place round the corner that’s open late”.
They followed behind the group, walking for a few minutes before entering a doorway with a sign painted out front onto a whitewashed brick wall.They passed along a corridor, dimly lit with a green light, and could see a bar at the end.Picking their way through a group of students sitting on the floor on either side of the dark corridor, like it might be a drug den, they made their way into the bar area.It was a small room and the bar took up about a third of the space, with the rest filled by ramshackle wooden tables and chairs, mostly occupied.They got a drink and went up a wooden staircase to a landing with three more rooms coming off it.One of them was empty and had a couple of tables and free chairs inside.The room had big windows looking out over the canal and was chilly.
“I should never have drunk” James said, picking the conversation straight up again.“And I should never have laid into Brad like I did. Or I should’ve said no to the lift. It was impossible for him to drive properly after me pushing him round and shouting at him. At the least I should’ve made sure she was strapped in. She was my girlfriend”.He could feel the tears in his eyes.“I did everything wrong, I caused everything that happened, and the worst thing was, they let me off scot free”.
Adam’s face looked harrowed, but he couldn’t find any words to say. At least now he knew who he was sharing a flat with.
“Her family never liked me, and I guess they were right.The day of her funeral, they wouldn’t let me help carry her”, he paused, and swallowed, “you know, in the…box.
“I told them if I could press a button so that it was me that died and her that walked away…” he swallowed hard, and struggled to say the words, “…i’d do it in a flash.
“Her mum looked at me like I was, I don’t know, dirt or something.She didn’t even hesitate.She just said ‘Not as quickly as I’d press it’.
“Fucking hell.How can anyone…” Adam had tears in his eyes too.
James shook his head.“Why wouldn’t she.I killed her only daughter.”
He saw Adam’s eyes open wide.
“James, you didn’t kill anyone”, his voice was raised.“No-one chooses to be in a car accident.Just thank fuck that any of you made it.”
“I could’ve stopped it.”
“So could any of you.You all went equally into that car.”
“But we didn’t all walk out equally.”
He could hear her mum in his head as he spoke the words.
Adam touched his forearm.“You can’t blame yourself for being alive.”
James was quiet, and they looked out at the dark sky.The stars were out, and you could see them better from here that you would from the centre of town.
“I’ve never been the same since.I went to a psychologist for ages.He told me I needed to talk about it.Then when I couldn’t talk about it, and I couldn’t deal with it, he started searching for all these other issues.”
He paused again and Adam waited.
“At one point he made me think I was gay, because I couldn’t develop relationships with girls.”
James looked at him, and for a second a tiny smile crept onto his face.
“I’m not.Just to clarify”.
Adam smiled back.
“Does it get any easier with time?” he asked.
“Honestly, no. Everything about me is fucked up.Like, I’m so fucking horny all the time.And with Nancy, man, I wanna explode just thinking about her.I wanna do so much stuff with her.But my body just…doesn’t respond.It reacts, it shies away, it…fuck man, it won’t perform.I’m such a fuck-up”.
“Do you still see a psychologist?” Adam asked.
James shook his head.“Not regularly.I think they figured I was a lost cause, and so did I.It wasn’t going anywhere.”
“So, am I the first non-medical person you’ve told all this to?”
James looked at him.This weird sex-crazed gay guy, he realised, was already the closest friend he had in the world.He smiled faintly and nodded.
“Step one then” Adam concluded.
They sat and looked out at the stars some more.
“James?” Adam asked after a couple of minutes.
“Can I ask one question?”
“As many as you want tonight bud.”
“It’s just…what was up between you and Paul.You met one time for coffee”.
James was confused.How could he know that – unless Paul had told him?Not that it mattered.Adam deserved to know.He deserved to know it all.
“He knew about it” James said finally.“I didn’t tell him, but he knew.I think one time I must have checked my emails on your laptop and left them open.He must have looked back through.He must have combed everything looking for something to hold over me.Then he left an email in my inbox before he signed out.Letting me know what he’d discovered, and telling me to meet him.So I did.He guessed obviously that nobody knew, and that I didn’t want people to find out.So he asked me for £50 a month to keep quiet.”
Adam shook his head, at the further twist.
“That wasn’t all.He wanted me to let him know if you confided anything in me that he could find useful.”
Adam laughed.“This is so messed up.”
“Adam, I’m so sorry.I wanted to tell you and help you.I don’t know what I was thinking…”
“What? No, i’m sorry.”
“I let you down.”
“Come on, it’s my fault your paths ever crossed.”
“If I wasn’t so pathetic, you might have known about him sooner though”.
Adam laughed.“Come on.It doesn’t matter.Nothing matters.Tell me you didn’t pay him?”
James shook his head.“I probably would have paid the money, but then he never followed up.I figured he forgot about it or something better came along. At your birthday, when he was with that new guy, I figured maybe he had mellowed him or something. I don’t know.I wouldn’t have told him anything about you though.I promise.”
“You don’t deserve what’s happened to you” Adam said.
James shrugged.“I don’t know if I believe that or not”
“I’m going to make you” Adam said, slapping his arm.
They both took a few drinks of their beer and stared out some more at the black urban landscape beyond the window.
“You know that first night, you asked me what made me come here, and then stay here so long?” James asked.
“Yeah” Adam said, as if to say, I understand it all now.
“I was running away”.He took another swig of beer.“I’ve always been running away.”
“Well no better place than a big faceless city” Adam replied.
James took another swig of beer and looked thoughtful.
“You know the other week at the flat-warming, when we were all sitting round at the end.I remember looking from face to face, and thinking, wow, aren’t we all running away from something?”
Adam looked thoughtful.“What am I running away from?”
James gave him a look.“Come on.You’re running away from commitment.Pretending for a while that you never want it again and that you’re all about random sex.”
“I’m serious, I’m over relationships.”
James nodded but he knew this was crap.“Ok, but you were running away from the last guy, and from your life before.”
Adam nodded again thoughtfully.“I guess you’re right.
“What about Daniel then?”
“Daniel?He’s the most obvious.He grew up in some small community I assume, a place where he was never going to be able to explore his full sexuality.He came here to escape the small-minded community”
“And Ali?” Adam asked.
James shrugged.“I’m not sure exactly.The big family maybe?Escaping from just being a cog in the family machine.Wanting to be something in her own right?”
They both sat and drank, not saying anything for another minute or so.
“I guess maybe you’re right” Adam said eventually.He looked up and caught James’ eye.“What do you think happens when we stop running?”