INCIDENTS CROWDED WITH LIFE
‘THE OTHER SIDE OF TOWN’
One Monday morning, in the early Summer of 1971, I was sitting in my work area, eating a cheese sandwich my mum had packed for me. The strains of the amazing new Roy Harper album, Stormcock, which I’d bought that weekend and brought in to play to everyone, sailed gloriously around the room. Over Roy’s and Jimmy Page’s astonishing guitar playing, I heard the heavy tread of Doc Martin boots thudding past. Not used to such definite footfall here, I peered out around my screen and saw a stocky short-haired chap in a billowing white cotton shirt, walking purposefully to the far end of the art room. His red braces held up white baggy trousers over the black boots.
Sitting down with his back to us, he began setting out his paints, brushes and pencils with great consideration. ‘What a lovely back that man has,’ I thought as he began sketching away at what looked like a Hockney-esque line drawing.
“That’s Anthony,” Anita in the next work area said, emphasising the ‘th’ in his name.
“Anthony?” I asked, trying to feign nonchalance.
She wandered into my area with a coffee, a knowing look, and sat down.
“Never Antony, and whatever you do, do not call him Tony.”
“So who is he, this Anthony?”
Looking behind her to make sure he wasn’t listening, she said, “He was here a couple of years ago.”
“Why is he here now?”
Anita took out a banana from her bag and munched away happily on it.
“He didn’t like it at Liverpool,” she said, lowering her voice even more. “So they let him come back and study for his diploma here.”
I peered again and watched his creation developing, as he drew another sweeping line across the paper.
“What’s he like?” I asked, wondering how she always knew everything about everybody before anyone else.
She stopped munching and grimaced, “Weird.” She drained her coffee cup and got up. “He’s weird.”
I had another look and smiled at Anita, who widened her eyes and mouthed ‘Really weird’ like a warning. She wandered back to continue what had been a three-day exercise in drawing an orchid. Anita specialised in orchids. Careful, unexciting pastel drawings of orchids.
“Ah, another drawing of another orchid,” Mr Bownass would say wandering by her work area.
Later that morning Bownass walked in, glanced at Anita’s orchid with sagging shoulders then, seeing Anthony, bucked up and went to greet him warmly. Bizarrely clapping his hands as though calling for silence at the beginning of a meeting, he introduced his new arrival to us all. Nodding at each one of us meaningfully he said,
“I think Anthony may act as an inspiration for you.”
The more he went on, the more embarrassed his hero became, flushing up and waving weakly to a room full of curious onlookers. Finally, cutting Bownass off in mid-gush, Anthony excused himself and rushed out, mumbling angrily to himself.
“Well, that was fun!” Anita said to a downcast Bownass as he left the room.
Taking advantage of the moment, I ran down to Anthony’s easel for a quick peek.
“What are you doing?” Anita squeaked.
The line drawing was now a pencil and gouache study of what looked like naked blokes lying round the place, bleeding from various orifices. A tiny window was roughly sketched above them, the only light source on a grim setting. It wasn’t erotic, it wasn’t even particularly disturbing, but it was intriguing. The returning clump of boots announced that Anthony was back. I put on my best smile and turned round.
With a quizzical look and, pointing his bottle of lemonade rather threateningly in my direction, he said,
“Hi!” I said. Then pointing at his drawing, “I kind of like this.”
He sat down and narrowed his eyes:
“Yes. Kind of.”
He took a swig of his lemonade, picked up his pencil and continued to draw. He might just as well have said, ‘Dismissed.’
For the next couple of weeks, Anthony would wander in at different times, sit at his easel and begin another homo-semi-erotic study. He wouldn’t speak to anyone and always sat with his back to us. The only time I saw him come to life was when a former student from the previous year, Paul, turned up. There was an immediate empathy between them. At one point, Paul said something which sent them both into fits of giggles then, just as unexpectedly, their laughter stopped. Paul bid him a quick goodbye, and nodding to the room, left. Anthony went back to drawing in silence.
The detached aura surrounding him fascinated me. It wasn’t the benignly pervading containedness which I’d experienced from the older students in my first year. This was a man who clearly wished to be left alone and, for some reason I still don’t fully understand, I was determined to break into his isolation. I guess I found him rather sexy. He wasn’t a handsome man, far from it, but he had a physical presence which I found alluring. I was the only one there who did. All the other students completely avoided making any contact with our unwelcoming visitor.
I’d try to strike up conversations with him, all my attempts being met with a gruff “Mmm.” I’d put on various L.P.s lying round the room and see if there was a reaction. There never was. Then, one evening, when everyone had gone home or to the pub across the road, I was dipping an etching in the acid, situated conveniently near Anthony’s work area, when he put down his pencil, turned round and watched me. He didn’t speak, he just watched me. I smiled and he continued to look at me.
“Alright?” I asked in a friendly casual way.
He just nodded and carried on looking.
“Nearly finished,” I said, pointing to the acid tray. “Are you going across to the pub?”
“Maybe,” he said. “Are you?”
“Then, yes. I am.”
“OK,” I said nonchalantly as my heart thudded in my chest. “See you later!”
Dylan’s ‘Lay Lady Lay’ was playing on the juke box when Anthony walked in, pushed past everyone and wedged himself into the seat next to me.
“Don’t mind us!” one of the girls said.
“I do, actually,” Anthony replied. Then to me, “OK?”
“Yes. Fine.” I smiled at everyone as though apologising for my companion’s bad manners.
Anita mouthed “So-o-o-o weird!” at me but I was enjoying myself. Anthony’s warm leg squeezed next to mine felt very good.
He didn’t engage with anyone, even as I chatted to people on our table there was no attempt to join in. He’d occasionally go to the bar for another pint, buying me one each time but no-one else, then settled back down next to me and supped his beer, staring straight ahead. As last orders were called and everyone drank up and left, Anthony walked me out onto the street. I’d come to college that sunny morning with a flimsy jacket but the night air still felt cold. I shivered and, without any preamble, he put his arms round me and hugged me tightly.
“Better?” he said.
“Come and stay for the weekend at my house.”
Bloody hell, I thought. “Thank you, yes, that would be nice.”
“Well, yes, it would.”
“Nothing worthwhile is ‘nice’.”
I smiled at him and said, “Whatever, I’ll look forward to it.”
On the Friday evening, my heart fluttering like a captive bird, we sat together on the bus to Oswaldtwistle. He didn’t speak for the whole journey but that was fine. I rather enjoyed our silences together. Getting off at the Terminus, we walked up a road of newly built semis, past perfectly clipped hedges and tidy flowerbeds. As we reached a small exclusive-looking cul-de-sac, he pointed to a large detached house at the end, surrounded by a sizeable lawned garden which spread down to the pavement, like the houses I’d seen in American TV series.
“That’s where I live,” he said in a strangely dismissive way.
“My God, it’s huge.”
“Mum’s dream house which Dad built for her. Now a fucking nightmare.”
After taking off our shoes in the boot-room, we entered through a side door into an impressive kitchen, all fitted units in light blue and cream, with a state-of-the-art oven and a huge American style fridge. I noticed a distinctly sickly sweet aroma.
“You can smell it?” he said as I lifted my head and breathed in.
“It’s pretty strong.”
He opened one of the cupboards. It was full to bursting with jars of sarsaparilla sweets. Another cupboard was equally packed with them. His face broke into a huge smile:
“My mum’s addicted to them. She has them delivered.”
“What does your dad think?”
“He’s too busy wanking off over gay magazines in his bedroom.”
I let that one hang in the air and followed him into the enormous sitting-room. Floor-length heavily braided cream curtains swept down to wall-to-wall chocolate brown shag pile. Crimson and cream Regency design wallpaper, over which hung large gilt-framed mirrors, acted as the backcloth for repro antique furniture. Two candelabras stood atop a long highly polished sideboard, which Anthony opened to reveal the largest TV I’d ever seen housed inside a piece of furniture. The plush heavy sofas and chairs were arranged in a semi-circle, around a red-brick and brass-surround farmhouse style fireplace. Above it hung numerous reproduction masters in fussy ornate frames, a Matisse, a Van Gogh, a Durer, a Monet.
“Woolworth’s,” Anthony said, watching me take them in. “Mum’s always had an eye for shit. That’s why she married my dad. Do you want a cup of tea?”
We sipped our Darjeeling as Leonard Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’ droned around the room. I was a big Cohen fan and liked this new raw sound he had come up with for Songs Of Love And Hate, his third Top 20 album. The poet turned successful recording artist had become the singing bedsit Lothario. His songs spoke to thousands of doomily romantic teenage souls. They offered widescape tales of exotic women he had bedded or lusted after, or of nights in the desert fighting long-gone wars, with only a good woman’s company as his medicine. They appealed to our generation’s wounded sense of battling against a system, with only love and erudition for weapons.
“I wouldn’t have seen you as a Cohen fan,” I said.
“So – why-?”
“I like to play stuff I hate. It makes me angry, which makes me paint.”
“And the stuff we play in the art room…?”
“So, what do you like?”
He got up and put on a Jacques Brel album, handing me the sleeve. I hadn’t heard him before but recognised the song:
“Scott Walker did this, ‘Jackie’,” I said as Anthony sat down.
“Unfortunately, yes, he did.”
“I bought that single.”
He nodded and smiled to himself.
“It’s brilliant,” I protested.
“No. This is brilliant.”
I liked what I heard. It had much more light and shade than Walker’s version. I had loved the frenetic sweeping strings and crashing cymbals of Scott’s hit, but Brel’s French language original had many more subtle layers of sound and instrumentation. The arrangement was one minute blasting out in oompah-pah Sunday bandstand fashion, the next an intimate accordion-backed thought piece wove its way into your soul. It never let you rest or relax, you were constantly challenged as to where the song might go next. It scurried by and fondled you, rushed away and then returned in a different form. I found it fascinating.
Walker had used the Mort Shuman English translation, ‘authentic queers and phoney virgins’ being the line I loved the most. But sung by Brel, as he spat words out like a curse, then just as unexpectedly murmured them into your ear like an attentive lover, the song drew me in even more. It was as though he was letting me into a secret, only me. Looking at the sleeve photo of his gaunt figure sitting at a table in a bar, cigarette in hand, I could imagine him wringing out every line to a gripped group of enthralled fans.
“I loved that,” I said as it ended, waiting for the next track. But instead, Anthony jumped up and put on The Velvet Underground’s ‘Waiting For The Man’. He threw the Warhol Banana sleeve at me and laughed. I was about to say something gauche like “That’s a big one!” when I heard movement in the kitchen behind us. Anthony’s face fell.
“Fuck!” he said as the sitting room door behind us opened.
I turned and saw a very small skinny lady walk in, her cigarette holder dangling from scrawny ringed fingers. Swaying slightly, she shut the door very slowly and gently behind her, as if thinking very hard about what she was doing. She put her hand on her hip Bette Davis style and smiled at us. A huge fur coat slipped off her tiny shoulders and fell to the floor. With heels too high for her, she tottered towards us, a drunken leer on her face the whole time. Anthony rushed to the radiogram and yanked the stylus off the record with a loud scratch.
Flinching just slightly, she continued to slowly approach us, never taking her eyes off me:
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Vivienne. Not Vivien. Never Viv! Vi-vi-enne!” She pronounced the last ‘n’ with a grand twitch of her head.
Anthony’s face had reddened and his lips were tight.
“What do you want, mum?” he said, shaking his head.
“I want to meet your friend,” she purred.
She leant over the back of the sofa and, sounding like a Lancashire Eartha Kitt but smelling like a sarsaparilla brewery, said,
“What’s his name, Anthony?”
“Ooooh! Hello, Howard! Aren’t you lovely?”
I was just about to say hello back when she fell into a heap behind the sofa. I heard a kind of gurgle and a hissed ‘Shit!’ and waited for Anthony to go and help her up. But he just stood, arms folded, breathing heavily. From the back of the settee, a clawed hand appeared. Like a spider suspended, it floated over my head then landed, thin bony fingers scraping their way through my hair, huge diamond rings scratching my scalp.
“Oooh!” a muffled voice cooed. “He has such lovely hair, Anthony! Have you felt it yet?”
“Can I have him?”
“No. Now fuck off!”
With a sigh, Vivienne heaved herself up and teetered back towards the door. She slid round it like an aging pole dancer and, eyes swimming, slurred:
“The clean bedding is in the airing cupboard. Goodnight!”
She blew a kiss into the room and shut the door.
Anthony put the record back on even louder and sat next to me.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “Do you want to play cards?”
“Hey white boy,” Lou Reed snarled, “what you doin’ uptown?”
By one-thirty we were on our umpteenth game of Snap – the only card game I’ve ever been able to play – a Francoise Hardy album shimmying out of the radiogram. After several brandies I was ready for bed, though beginning to think that, after all, I would be kipping on the sofa on my own. I was just about to suggest that we retire for the night when there was a loud crash from the kitchen, cutlery fell to the floor and a bloke swore very loudly.
“Dad’s home,” Anthony said with a sigh, turning off the record again.
We listened in silence as more mumbled effing and blinding went on next door. A clump of feet began ascending the stairs, accompanied by grunts and curses. I was reminded of those table-top Papier Mache landscape constructions, the ones Michael Bentine had used on his weekly TV shows. I’d loved his small unseen creatures, bumbling and squeaking their way around their tiny world. This, though, was less endearing. As the clumping stopped, there was a loud banging on a door and a man hollered,
“Are you in there, bitch?”
“Yes I am! So fucking what?” a woman’s voice yelled back, Eartha Kitt having now turned into Elsie Tanner.
“I wanna fuck ya!”
“You?! Fuck me?! Don’t make me laugh, you fucking bum stuffer!”
“Yeah? Well, I’m gonna stuff your arse tonight, you old slag!!”
“Go and toss yourself off over your dirty magazines!! Fucking pervert!!”
More banging on the bedroom door followed. Something was thrown and smashed against the wall. I wasn’t sure if it came from inside or outside the room.
Then there was a scream.
“You fucking idiot! That was my mother’s vase!!”
“Yeah, well, I wish I’d thrown it at her fucking head!! She was more of a bitch than you!”
The row continued to rage for another five minutes, until, finally, with a last “Bitch!” and “Bastard” hurled across the landing, doors slammed shut and silence returned.
“Dream house, eh?” Anthony said, and cleared away our glasses. “Time for bed.”
I followed him up the stairs and he stopped on the lower landing, pointing to one of several doors:
“That’s the spare room,” he murmured quietly. “You can sleep in there…”
He pointed to another door on the next level:
“Or you can sleep in there with me.”
When I awoke in Anthony’s arms the next morning, I was very pleased I’d chosen the second option.
On the bus home, I felt very surreal, as though I’d crossed a threshold. I’d finally Done It. Watching the Rossendale countryside floating by, I noticed an old bloke opposite staring at me. I looked back at him and thought, ‘Have I got the word ‘Fucked’ on my forehead, or something?’. But it was the usual 1970s old Northern bloke thing, ‘Is that a boy or a girl?’. I nodded at him and he immediately turned away, feigning fascination with some sheep in a field.
I didn’t care. I had much pleasanter things on my mind. I remembered how, during a brief rest from rolling me around his surprisingly spacious single bed, Anthony had lain on his back and studied me.
“What?” I’d asked him.
“You’re dead ’ot, you.”
‘Yes, I am rather,’ I’d thought, seeing myself in the mirror astride my big man. Shaking my mane of long hair I’d smiled at my reflection.
The following Friday night we went to a pub in Blackburn, The Merchants. It was the first gay pub I’d ever been into. Old and rather run-down, it boasted signed photos of long-dead ‘celebrities’ on the nicotine-stained walls, recalling its former days as a Variety artists’ after-theatre haunt. Now, instead of raucous laughter ringing out from visiting showbiz turns, the juke box blasted out The Supremes’ ‘Stoned Love’ to little groups of elderly men. They shyly eyed up the younger talent draped along the bar, arses squeezed into torn jeans on full display for their admiring elders.
‘God,’ I thought as one of the prettiest boys winked at me, ‘if I looked like that, I wouldn’t be standing in a dump like this.’
Anthony made his way to the bar and asked for two pints of bitter. The barman was dressed in a kind of half-drag, garishly made-up like a seaside landlady on a night out, long dangly earrings clacking as he pulled our pints. Nipple clips hung across his bare tattooed chest and handcuffs dangled at his waist. He clicked his fingers in time to the record as he took Anthony’s money, not looking at him but checking his own reflection in the glass-tiled wall opposite. He caught me looking at him and licked his lips salaciously. As he went off to serve another customer, someone at the other end of the bar dropped a glass on the floor. Everyone cheered and somebody shouted out, “Another earring gone, Shirley!”.
I followed Anthony into a huge room next door, completely empty except for two old ladies sitting closely together near the stage. I wasn’t sure if they expected cabaret but certainly nobody else did. We sat at a table long in need of a good wipe with a clean cloth and drank our pints in silence. ‘Stoned Love’ had been followed by Lynn Anderson’s ‘Rose Garden’ and I could hear the queens in the bar happily singing along. Anthony looked at me and we both smiled just as the two old dears came and sat with us.
“Hello, me loves!” one of them, wearing a rather large knitted pink hat, said brightly. “Do you mind if we join you?”
Neither of us responded.
“It’s a bit lonely over there!” the other lady said, her fox fur having seen better days. “We thought it would be busier than this, didn’t we, Norma?”
Norma nodded, her hat wobbling away atop a tight perm.
“Yes, Lizzie and I thought, well, Friday night, bound to be busy.”
“It is next door,” Anthony said.
“Yes, but we wouldn’t fit in there would we?”
“It is rather full,” I said, which made them smile, and then realising what they actually meant I smiled too.
“This your girlfriend?” Norma asked, settling down and nodding at me as she sipped her Double Diamond.
Anthony burst out giggling. The two old ladies stared at him then back at me. Lizzie nudged Norma and pulled a face at her.
“Oh! Sorry love!” Norma said, blushing up, “I thought you were a girl!”
Anthony was now in fits of laughter.
“He’s very happy!” Lizzie said.
“That’s ’cos he’s gay!” Norma cried, and then hooted with laughter.
Anthony shut up immediately and glared at them both.
Taking our empty glasses, I escaped to the bar and asked for two more pints. This time the barman took off one of his nipple clips and waved it at me invitingly. Leaning over the bar, he sang along to Lynn, flicking his tongue like a lizard on all the ‘L’s, ‘Smile to yourself and let’s be jolly, love shouldn’t be so melancholy’. One of the young queens next to me nudged his friend and they waited to see what I would do. Just then I felt a heavy prod in my ribs and heard Anthony saying, “We’re going.”
I turned around to see him rushing through the crowd for the door.
‘Sorry’ I mouthed to the barman. He pouted, and flinched as he put his clip back on a very red nipple.
As I ran towards the door, one of the old blokes, surprisingly nimbly, jumped in front of me and said, “Hello, love. I’m Barry. I love your hair!”
“So does his mum,” I replied, pointing to my retreating friend.
Just then a harridanesque screech came from behind us:
“Hey! That bloke tried to strangle my friend!”
I turned and it was Lizzie from the large empty room, jumping up and down and pointing. Anthony had gone, so I made a similar speedy exit.
Out on the street he was running for our bus which had thankfully just arrived. I ran after him and just managed to jump on the platform as the bus was pulling away. I saw the old dear running out of the pub as we whisked by. She shouted something like “Loony!” as we ran upstairs.
Settling down on the empty top deck and sorting out my change for the fare, I asked him,
“Did you really try to strangle that woman?”
“No. I just made her think I was trying to strangle her,” he replied.
“Because she called you gay?”
The bus conductor had arrived and Anthony gave me a look which said ‘drop it’.
Walking towards his house and, breaking a ten minute silence, I asked him why he’d not liked Liverpool Art College:
“They thought I was a poof because I sound all my S’s and T’s.”
I looked at him quizzically:
“I say ‘Yes’ instead of ‘Yeah’,” he explained.
“But – ” then I got that look again and decided I didn’t want to be his next fake strangler victim.
Anthony was much more aggressive in bed that night, wanting to get it over and done with, and fell asleep very quickly afterwards. I lay in the dark, wondering what his problem was, when, right on cue, the marital ritual of banging and cursing started on the landing. For ten minutes, various objects were thrown against walls, threats were screamed at each other, until, with their sign-off “Bitch!”, “Bastard!” flung across the landing, doors were finally slammed shut and the storm subsided once more. Their son slept fitfully through it all, just once turning over and saying in his sleep ‘Oh fuck off’, and then going back into a deep slumber.
I was woken by the sound of the dustmen outside at around 6 a.m., quietly got up, dressed and left for the early bus home.
At college on the Monday morning, Anthony walked past my work area and went straight to his easel and began to draw. I’d noticed in his bedroom that he was building up a large portfolio of sketches and gouache studies and I took the opportunity of collaring Bownass as he wandered in:
“What are Anthony’s plans?” I asked him quietly.
Bownass looked a little askance at my question but said, “He’s applying to Sheffield Art College, to carry on his diploma there.”
“He’s not happy here?”
“Anthony’s not happy anywhere, Howard. That’s what makes him a potentially great artist.”
I was about to disagree with his ‘Genius is Pain’ rot when there was a commotion at the far end of the room. Anita screamed and we ran out to find Anthony with his hands round her throat, laughing manically as she gasped for breath. Bownass pulled Anthony off her as Anita fell to the floor.
“Your fucking boyfriend tried to kill me!” she rasped at me but pointing at Anthony, who was dusting himself off and bright red in the face. Bownass held him off from attacking her again as other students rushed in to see what all the fuss was about.
“Anthony!” Bownass shouted, “Go and get some air, go on. Now!”
Anthony dropped his head and, without looking at anyone, trudged out. I wasn’t sure whether to follow him or stay and comfort the weeping Anita. I chose the latter and she fell into my arms sobbing.
“What happened?” I asked.
Through sobs and little throttled gasps she said, “I just asked him if he’d had a nice weekend with you, and how you two were getting on together.”
“Just that?” I asked, unconvinced.
“Well, I did say how pleased I was he’d finally found a nice boyfriend.”
“And I told him that he didn’t need to hide the fact that he was gay. I was trying to be nice!”
I remembered his words to me before our first weekend together, ‘Nothing worthwhile is nice’ and patted Anita’s head as she rested it on my shoulder and wept.
“He’s fucking crazy and shouldn’t be here!” she wailed.
“He won’t be much longer,” Bownass said and left.
We didn’t see Anthony at college for the rest of the week and he didn’t call me to arrange a weekend together. I didn’t have his phone number, he’d never offered it. Then, about ten days later, I noticed him sitting at the back of the Maths Room during one of my lunchtime concerts. I hadn’t seen him arrive so he’d obviously slipped in when I was sorting my lyrics out or chatting to those arriving. I watched his reaction at the end of the songs and he clapped and even smiled at some of my stories but, as he’d arrived, he left when I wasn’t looking. He wasn’t in the art room later and no-one knew where he’d gone.
“He’s not back, is he?” Anita asked, panic in her eyes.
“No,” I replied, “He’s not.”
Maybe this was his odd way of saying goodbye?
That Friday evening, I was lying on my bed listening to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Ladies of The Canyon’ when the phone rang downstairs. With that odd feeling that you know who’s calling, I let my mum answer it:
“Ramsbottom 2502…Yes, he’s here. Who’s calling?…Ok, wait a minute…Howard, it’s Antony for you.”
“OK,” I said as nonchalantly as I could muster, and went down to get it.
Taking the phone off mum I covered up the receiver and said, “It’s Anthony, not Antony.”
“Oh excuse me!” Mum said and disappeared.
“Hello?” I sat on the stairs which, being in an old terraced cottage with its original boxed-in staircase, hid me from the rest of the house.
“It’s me,” he said quietly.
“I know,” I said. “How are you?”
My heart did a little leap but I kept my cool:
“That’s nice,” I said purposely. No rebuke came.
“Can I see you this weekend?”
“No, tonight, soon as you can get here.”
“Sure. I’ll get there soon as I can,” I replied, but as I replaced the receiver said ‘Idiot’ to myself.
When he opened the door Anthony looked odd, odder than usual that is. He had shaved his head rather badly, leaving longer tufts of hair sticking up. He resembled a rescued puppy and I brushed his head with my hand.
“That’s different,” I said. He looked embarrassed, mumbled something, and opened the door to let me in.
The familiar sarsaparilla smell wasn’t as strong as usual and, as though reading my mind, he said,
“Mum and Dad are away for the weekend.” He led me into the sitting room. “Majorca.”
I had visions of their fellow sunseekers’ horrified faces as they lay in bed each evening, listening to effings, blindings and smashed hotel vases in the room across the hall. Maybe one of the other holidaymakers had told Anthony’s dad to keep the noise down, and there’d been a fight. Maybe they’d been thrown out of the hotel. Lordy, I thought, they may be on their way back already! So, with this scenario playing out in my mind, the fact they were away didn’t really have the calming effect it should have done. I realised how uneasy I felt in the house, and he seemed to sense it:
“I’m sorry about all the mess up the other week. It’s all a mess really.”
“I hear you’ve applied to Sheffield?”
“Oh! Yes. Did Bone Arse tell you?”
“I asked him not to tell anyone.”
“When’s your interview?”
“You’ll have no problem getting in.”
“Paul said that as well.”
I remembered that Paul was at Sheffield and smiled.
“Are you coming to bed?” Anthony asked.
He was very tender and caring that night and, as I fell asleep in his arms, I thought that maybe I’d done the right thing coming back after all. But, waking out of a recurring dream about large derelict rooms leading up rickety stairs, I became aware of Anthony’s voice saying, “Wake up.” I looked at the bedside clock, it was 3.15.
“Get up,” Anthony said. “We’re going for a walk.”
“What do you mean? A walk? It’s the middle of the night.”
“Come on.” He was already dressed and, picking up his camera, marched out of the room.
Like a fool but oddly intrigued, I quickly put on my clothes and followed him out. It was late Spring but still quite chilly. I shivered but got no hug this time. He walked so quickly he was almost running and it was hard to keep up, especially as I had no idea where we were going. Finally, after trekking for ten minutes he turned into a graveyard and stood by one of the stones. It was rather a large thing, with the statue of an angel looking down sadly and praying.
Turning on the camera flash Anthony took a picture of it.
“Lie down,” he said.
Thinking this was probably for one of his gouache studies, I did as he said. But instead of taking a photo he lay next to me. The camera round his neck clattered on the stone beneath us as he kissed me and fumbled with my clothes, trying to pull my trousers off.
“What the fuck?” I said, jumping up.
Anthony looked bewildered as I did my trousers up and stared down at him. He moved his head and I saw the name on the gravestone.
“Yes, it’s my grandma’s grave,” he said. “Always hated her. I thought we’d fuck on top of her, that’d teach the old bag.”
He giggled and snapped a picture of me as I fastened my belt and marched off.
I arrived back at the house before Anthony did, but, once he’d let us in I made for the airing cupboard, got some bedding out and settled myself on the sofa.
“Oh, by the way,” I said as he came into the sitting room, “I didn’t ask you what you thought of my songs the other day?”
“Oh, yes, they were shit.”
“I don’t think anyone else there thought that.”
“Yes, well, they’re stupid, with no taste.”
He shrugged, turned off the light and went upstairs. The early morning bus home was cold and gloomy, matching my mood. I was determined never to go there again.
I slotted back into ‘normal’ college life fairly easily, chatting with the other students about everything but the elephant no longer in the room. Weeks went by, I sailed through my Mock Art ‘A’ Levels, actually thrilling Bownass with a life class painting of our very ancient model, Nina.
“If you paint like that in the actual exam, Howard,” he said, “You’ll get a Grade 1.”
I did consider asking him what had happened to Anthony but decided against it. Not mentioning him sort of made the unsettling previous few weeks disappear. Only his empty easel and chair waited for him to return.
The summer came, exams taken, the long break at home ahead until I started next term at Rochdale Pre-Dip college. The fact was, I could have applied to go straight to a Dip AD course at one of the larger colleges further from home, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to that yet. My music was now taking up so much of my life, filling my thoughts and ambitions, that I wanted to hold off making any decisions. I was still convinced that someone was going to see me performing and offer me a deal, or at least an exciting proposition. Waiting while painting seemed a good option.
One sunny July afternoon, I was enjoying a John Newcombe/Roger Taylor tennis match on the telly, when the phone rang. Mum and Dad were out so I went to answer it.
The familiar dulcet-toned “’ello” made my heart sink.
“Oh, hello,” I said, as coolly as I could.
“Will you come over this evening?”
I hesitated and was about to say “I don’t think so,” when Anthony said ,
I hesitated again, and said, “Oh, Anthony…”.
It was the opening he needed:
“Please come over. I’m leaving for Sheffield next week, and would like to see you before I go.”
I sighed and, wondering what the hell I was thinking, said, “OK, see you later.”
Anthony wasted no time in getting me upstairs and in bed. Love-making was much more adventurous than before, and a couple of times I thought, ‘Who taught him this one?’. During one of the breathers, as he lay on his back smiling at the ceiling, he said,
“I actually quite liked one of the songs you sang. ‘I’m Dead Again’.”
I realised he meant the college lunchtime show he’d come to weeks earlier, and tapped him on the chest playfully:
“Oh! So you did like something then?”
As I was floating off to sleep, I heard Anthony mumble “I’m hungry”, the sound of padding feet and a door closing. I wasn’t prepared at all for what followed…
…The sound of someone eating and banging a spoon against a bowl woke me up. Sitting on the edge of the bed, Anthony was tucking into what I thought at first was a huge helping of cereal in a cake mixing bowl. But closer inspection revealed a disgusting mixture of what looked like melted strawberry ice cream, currants, cornflakes and lumps of meat. It all swam in a congealed brown gravy and he was slurping it down as though he hadn’t eaten for days.
“That looks foul,” I said, as he swallowed down the last piece of ice cream-covered meat.
“It was,” he said, obviously delighted nonetheless.
Too tired to ask any questions, I lay back down and left him to it. I was just nodding off again when I heard a loud retching noise above me. I looked up just as the whole of his revolting snack cascaded out of his mouth, all over my head and face. As I was spitting and coughing it out frantically, I could hear him laughing like a maniac. I wiped the goo out of my eyes and saw him lying on his back, kicking his legs in the air with delight.
“You bastard!” I yelled and, rather ridiculously, hit him extremely hard on the legs, like mothers used to scold children in the street. It was the only part of him I could get to as he rolled around cackling. “That’s it! No more!” I shouted, as more bits of vomit trickled into my mouth. I spat it out in his direction and ran out onto the landing.
As I was making for the shower room, Anthony’s mum came out to see what the noise was. She was naked except for a pair of scanty panties and curlers bobbing around on top of her tiny head.
“Yeugh!” she said, covering her mouth, as bits of meat and corn flakes dripped off my head onto the floor.
I flew into the bathroom and slammed the door shut.
Anthony’s father called out from his bedroom next door , “Keep the fucking noise down!”
“Oh go fuck yourself !” I screamed, locking the door just in case.
I stood in the hot shower and scrubbed away at my face and hair, poured oodles of pine-scented shampoo on my head, rinsing and re-washing it, washing and re-rinsing it. I let the clean fresh warm water run down my face for what seemed ages, a sense of calm returning as the pink and brown juice around my feet finally cleared. I found a very large bath towel in the airing cupboard and wrapped myself in its comforting hugeness. Inspecting myself in the full-length wall mirror, to make sure all remnants of vomit had gone, I crept out. The house had fallen eerily quiet as I tiptoed downstairs and settled myself on the sofa.
I dreamt of crossing wide highways with a large group of friends, all hanging onto my every word of wisdom as we made our way to the other side. Everyone was laughing and having a great time. Suddenly, we were all in a packed bar sitting cross-legged on the floor, the flickering light from wall candles reflecting off my friends’ faces. There was a bloke I couldn’t make out by the door and he was mumbling something at us. I was just about to ask him what he was saying when I started to wake up. As I came to, I heard Anthony reading what sounded like poetry to someone.
I gingerly lifted myself up and there, at the corner telephone table, he sat, as ever with his back to the room. He was stark bollock naked, and I wondered what his mother would make of his sweaty arse on her prized mock Chippendale. Clutching what looked like handwritten verses, he was reading them down the phone in a monotone murmur. I had to strain to hear what he was saying but caught the occasional line.
“I want to feel your dick in my mouth and suck your life south, into mine,” he droned. It was hardly Keats.
He did an odd little chuckle, like a child does when it’s pleased with itself.
“These were written especially for you, my darling Paul,” he cooed.
I had an image of the round-shouldered recipient of this foul stuff, gurgling with pleasure in his Sheffield bedsit. When Anthony asked lasciviously,
“You are naked aren’t you, Paul? I want you to be naked when I read these to you, Paul, my love,” that image suddenly got much worse.
I must have shifted slightly because he stopped reading, sat stock still, put down his ‘poem’ and turned round. He stared at me, so I stared right back at him.
“I won’t be a moment, my darling,” he sighed into the phone.
Putting it down remarkably gently, as though it were Paul himself he’d been holding, he stood up and glared at me. His full erection bobbing up and down was almost as red as his face.
“Stop looking at me!” he growled.
I widened my eyes and stared even more intensely.
“OK,” he said to himself and rushed into the kitchen. I heard him frantically searching in the cutlery drawer. Seconds later, like a warrior in battle, he ran back in brandishing a huge carving knife, hurling it and himself at me. Whether he wasn’t as strong as he looked, or I had more strength than I could have imagined, I managed to hold him off. His cock was now disturbingly engorged as he pushed himself onto me, the knife inches from my chest. I had the bizarre thought that he was going to come all over me. Somehow, the idea wasn’t turning me on right then. I screamed at the top of my voice,
There was a noise upstairs, then the sound of running on the landing.
Anthony stood up and looked furiously at me, as if to say, ‘What have you done?’
There was a crash, several heavy thuds down the stairs, and a final bang against the wall as someone fell in a heap at the bottom of the staircase.
I heard Anthony’s father moan “Fucking hell.”
“What the fuck’s going on?” Vivienne yelled as she ran downstairs, then screamed, “William! Don’t move!”
“I can’t,” he groaned back at her.
“Fuck!” Anthony shouted as his mother rushed into the room.
“Anthony!” she screamed, ran towards him and whacked him very hard on the arse with a loud slap. He yelped, leapt backwards and fell against the wall, looking terrified of this tiny overtanned lady in curlers.
“Put that away!” she yelled at him. I wasn’t sure if she meant the knife or the erection, but, in both cases, it worked. The knife dangled from his hand, the subsiding erection hung beside it. He crumpled down the wall and put up his hands as if protecting himself. Vivienne took the knife from him and shook it at him angrily.
“What are you doing with this, you stupid boy?”
He uncovered his face and pointed at her accusingly.
“Oh go fuck yourself!” he screamed.
Jumping up and sprinting to the door, he turned round and yelled, “ALL of you!!” and ran out of the room. Cursing his father – “Get up, you cunt!” – as he flew upstairs, he slammed his door shut.
Vivienne took a deep breath and wrapped her dressing gown around her tightly. As she sucked on a sarsaparilla sweet her curlers twitched up and down, like little rag-roll creatures on her head. Seeing the phone off the hook, she went and picked it up, listened for a moment and said,
“I think they’ve gone.”
Placing it back on the receiver, she turned to me and beamed:
“Are you alright, Howard?”
“Would you like a nice cup of tea?”
I shook my head.
Flicking off the light, she whispered “Sweet dreams!” and closed the door.
“You’ll be alright, my love,” I heard her murmur gently to her groaning husband in the hallway. “Let’s get you back into bed, shall we? My poor poor William baby boy.”
Manly sobbing progressed up the stairs, a door shut above me – but only one – and silence, like a forgotten friend, reigned once more.
Mum was dusting when I got home.
“Did you have a nice time?” she asked, picking up and polishing one of her many Toby Jugs which sat on the piano.
Wanting to cry my eyes out and tell her everything, I just said,
“Er – Anthony and I have had a falling out.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. You were such good pals.”
“Yes, well, if he rings, could you tell him I’m not in?”
“What if he keeps ringing?”
And he didn’t, in fact I never heard from him again…except…
…One evening, in the late Spring of 1975, I was standing at the bar of The Bolton’s Pub. Situated on the corner of Earl’s Court Road and Old Brompton Road in West London, it was then one of the most popular gay pubs in the area. There was a bustling large bar, where one could ‘vada’ the assembled talent, and an adjacent quieter ‘Snug’ where you could take your pick-up for a more intimate chat. Victorian Bohemia in style, stained-glass windowed screens lined the back of the bar, and ornately sculpted steel light fittings hung from high yellowing ceilings. I rather enjoyed its decaying grandeur, and my flat was just a two-minute walk away. Extremely handy.
I had just come back from a recording session at Nova Sound Studios in Marble Arch, completing a track for my second CBS album, Can You Hear Me OK?. The song was ‘You Keep Me Steady’ and the session had gone well. Pip Williams had scored a gorgeous string arrangement and Biddu, the producer, was knocked out with the track. Life felt good as I sipped my vodka and lime. The new Peter Fonda film I’d written the theme song for, ‘Open Season’, had just been released into cinemas. On the way from Leicester Square tube station that evening, I’d noticed my name on a poster for the movie – ‘Casting Shadows performed by CBS Artiste John Howard’ it read along the bottom. If I’d had a mobile phone back in those days it would now be in my photo collection.
I was mulling over the song I would be recording the following day, ‘You’re Mine Tonight’, when I noticed two blokes looking at me from their table in the Snug. With sinking heart, I realised it was Anthony and Paul. They whispered something to each other and, thrusting his hands into his pockets, Paul got up and came over.
“Hi!” he said, smiling amiably amidst shoulders that looked even more rounded than I remembered.
“Hello, Paul,” I said, as non-committal as I could.
“You look great!” he said brightly.
Unable to honestly return the compliment, I just thanked him and sipped my drink.
“Er – would you mind if Anthony came and spoke to you? He has something he wants to say.”
I clapped my hand to my face in mock horror,
“Oh God! He doesn’t want to read me a poem, does he?”
A reluctantly withheld giggle made Paul’s shoulders bob up and down, like a broken down jack-in-the-box.
“No, he’s stopped writing those, thank God.”
“Well, as long as he doesn’t vomit on me, try to stab or strangle me, I don’t see why not.”
He looked over and waved at Anthony, mouthing ‘Come on!’.
As I watched the man, who’d meant so much to me four years earlier, shuffle towards me like a beaten dog, I thought, ‘My word, life has not been kind to you, my dear.’
“Hi,” he said. “You look really great.”
Ditto Paul’s compliment, I just said, “Thanks.”
He looked strangely smaller than I remembered and, with an irony only I was aware of, he said,
“You look taller.”
“Are you here for the weekend?” I asked him.
“No,” he took a swig of his drink. “We live here.”
I tried to hide the expression on my face, but as though he’d read it, he said,
“We live in the East End, Shoreditch. We don’t usually come this side of London.”
“Right,” I said. ‘Thank God for that,’ I thought.
“Do you live near here?” Paul asked.
I wasn’t about to tell them that my flat was just three doors down the road.
“Quite near,” I said.
“So, what are you up to now?”
I took great pleasure in going into a lot of detail. I’d got to the point in my story where I’d just been told that I was going to be performing my new single, on a BBC TV show starring Johnny Mathis and Lynsey de Paul, when Paul checked his watch:
“That’s really good to hear, Howard,” he said with a frozen smile, “but we have to get back.” Anthony looked at him meaningfully. “But I’ll leave you two to chat for a few minutes.”
Anthony waited for us to be alone then moved closer in. I automatically stepped back.
‘Just you dare,’ I thought.
“I just want to say…” Anthony began nervously.
“That I am really sorry for the way I treated you.”
So you should be, I thought, but said, “Thank you.”
“You’re a really good person and I was very bad to you. I was a very fucked up person back then.”
“Indeed you were, on both counts.”
“Yes, well, I’m sorry.”
“Did Paul tell you to say this?”
He flushed up, and I momentarily thought he was going to have one of his strops and throw his beer over my head. Instead, he smiled rather sadly and said, “No. I’ve been wanting to apologise ever since that night. You know, when I – ”.
“There he is!” a familiar voice shouted behind me. I turned round to see my boyfriend, Jason, coming in. The difference between the two men could not have been greater. Blonde, rugged and tanned from the Jo’burg sun he lived under, Jason made Anthony look oddly parochial and even smaller.
“Hi gorgeous!” he said, hugging me. Then, looking at Anthony, “Who’s your friend?”
“Jason, this is Anthony. We were at art college together.”
Jason extended his hand and said, “Nice to meet you, Antony!” – I didn’t correct him – “You must be very proud of this guy. Not only gorgeous but talented as well!”
Jason’s pride was Anthony’s discomfort. He sort of sidled on the spot and giggled out a weak, “Yes. He is. OK then…” he waved over at Paul who was getting up to leave, “it was nice seeing you, Howard. ‘Bye!”
He scurried back to his table and picked up a couple of carrier bags. He and Paul nodded at us and left.
“Weird bloke!” Jason said laughing. “What did you see in him?”
“How did you know?”
“The way he looked at you. That ‘why did I let this one go?’ look.”
“It’s a long story,” I replied.
“I’m all ears…over dinner.”
As we left the pub, Anthony and Paul were standing at a bus stop. Jason hailed a cab and, as we got in, I smiled over at them. Anthony watched as we sped by.
“Missing him already?” Jason asked.
Author’s Note: The names of some people in this chapter have been changed