We used to read the paper together, Jason and I. Every Saturday over breakfast we would split up the sections over a silent and content coffee and toast around the sunlit breakfast table. He used butter and jam together – something that made me cringe every time I saw it. I'd tell him he was stocking up for heart troubles and he'd ask me if I wanted any coffee with my mug of sugar, because he's always been too smart for his own good. Habitually, I would grab for the arts section as soon as he tore the plastic, while Jason would take the financial pages calmly, folding them out and tutting about the down turn in the market, while I browsed the exhibition reviews with much more genuine interest.
I'd always tell him we should get a less conservative paper, and he'd always tell me that was rubbish – it was a good paper, his parents read that paper. I'd say exactly and he would tut at me as if I was one of his inverted graphs and shake his head on an indulgent smirk. But at some point the indulgent smirk failed to appear. I'd say we should get The Guardian instead and he would snort at me. I'd say I happened to like The Guardian, and to begin with he'd just laugh, but later on he'd roll his eyes. I'd tell him he was a capitalist wage-slave, brainwashed by a consumerist society and too doped up on petty rewards to realise it, and he'd ask if my new ipod gizmo picked up radio broadcasts from the Socialist Worker's Party alright, or if it was a bit static-y? At first it was teasing, but towards the end they were pointed jibes.
Of course, in the beginning I would remain sulky until he poured a second coffee for me without asking if I wanted one, because he already knew that I did. I'd pour milk into his without looking up, stealing his teaspoon when he'd done with it because for some reason we only ever put out one. Then I'd reach for the main section and skim headlines of death, destruction, war, politics and royals, pausing on an article every now and then – manhandling the broadsheet into a manageable size.
He'd let Frank walk all over the table and lick the milk-top before either of us could stop him, but he'd raise his arms up in frustration with a "Your bloody cat wants feeding again," when he started to lick the jam from Jason's smothered toast, whilst trying to sabotage the paper-reading. Frank has only ever been mine when he does something Jason dislikes. The rest of the time, Frank is firmly his. On good days, he was ours. I always liked those days best, but they haven't come around so often recently.
Dutifully, I would scoop Frank off the table and whisk him away to be fed. The cat wouldn't know he liked jam unless Jason had taken to feeding him bits of it on his finger tips. I caught him at it weeks ago when I came in from a late shift. He was lying on the sofa, repeat of Top Gear forgotten because Frank was on his stomach, purring throatily while he licked strawberry Bonne Maman off his fingers. The empty pot was set on the floor next to a plate holding a half eaten, jam-slathered slice of that thick white bread he likes so much, but it wasn't sweet, it wasn't adorable, because he'd only made dinner big enough for one and I'd just come off a ten hour shift, spent two and a half hours getting home because of engineering works and there wasn't even a microwave meal in the freezer ready to nuke, because he'd eaten the last one.
But on the Saturdays we had together, I would shake out cat crunchies and Jason would stretch, putting down his section of the paper finally, finishing his coffee in that satisfied way he has once something's done. He would lean the chair back at a dangerous angle, snagging balance with his sock-clad toes around the table leg as he reached back to grab as much of me as he could. He claimed not to have liked cuddling before he met me. The man's a liar – he likes it more than I do. He used to say it wasn't really cuddling; it was just that he couldn't keep his hands off me and I used to let him get away with that, but lately I've been wanking in the shower because when he rolls into bed I seem to be the last thing he wants to touch. I would snap the lid back onto the box of cat biscuits, slipping it onto the counter before I took a hold of his head with both of my hands, giving him an upside-down kiss as I walked his chair patiently back to it's upright angle so he didn't kill himself. Those days were good.
"Crossword," he would say, wrapping hands around my back and looking up at me in excitement as if he wasn't nearly thirty and supposedly serious.
"Crossword," I'd confirm, picking up the Weekend section from the wreckage we would have made of the rest of the paper.
He would choose a pen from the pen pot by the phone before following me into the sitting room and we would flop down onto the sofa. I would steal the arm and he would crash down next to me, practically hauling me down on top of him until I grumbled that, "This is not comfortable."
He would tell me it was, and I used to find that cute. I would tell that him my elbow did not bend that way. He would say he could make it bend that way, if I wanted it to, and I would tell him if he wanted an S&M partner he needed to look elsewhere. He would say that it was a shame, because he'd already bought the handcuffs and I would think he was joking. I would tell him that his feet smelt, so he would shove them in my face and tell me they smelt lovely. I'd bite his toe and he'd nearly kick me in the face while issuing a surprised yelp. Then he'd mutter that I should have told him I had a foot fetish earlier and I'd quip that he should have told me he had fetid feet, so we were even. He used to let me have the last word as he snatched the paper off me and folded it to the back page but one, and quartered the broadsheet for easier management. I would struggle a bit then, shuffling to free my arm and end up lying with my back against his legs and his head resting on my hip. We were both of us too tall for that on there.
He'd go silent, scanning the clues before he uncapped the pen and wrote in answers without consulting me. Always without consulting me – something that never changed.
I'd grumble, tilting the paper down so I could read the clues too. "No writing yet." But he'd just shrug – always innocent.
"I'm only doing the ones I know."
"They're probably the only ones I know."
He'd smirk at me over the top of the paper. "You don't know very much."
And that would get to me. I'd snatch the paper off him and scan for a particularly difficult one. "Alright smartarse, what's fourteen across?"
Saturday mornings used to drift away with us bickering over the name for the doohickey at the end of your shoelace and the capital of Outer Mongolia. I used to wonder how I ended up living with a banker – a qualified accountant, of all things, but I came to realise I didn't care all that much, because when you took Jason into account, he was more than that. He used to be, anyway, but now he's a company man through to the soles of his pointy, Pierre Cardin shoes. Crosswords used to make everything alright, but there comes a point when that's just not enough, because you've drifted too far apart to want to claw your own way back.
On the first day of the month (a Monday, for once, although they never usually are) they changed the poster at my station advertising the latest zero-fat, wonder chocolate ice cream, for one advertising aftershave. It was about time. If they'd left it up any longer, the curled edges of the paper would have disintegrated completely and it would have become illegible, as opposed to its actual state – grime coated, covered with pigeon shit and falling apart. It wasn't as if, by leaving it up any longer, anyone was going to develop previously unstirred cravings for Nutalicious Fudge Flavour, but someone obviously thought that the extra exposure time was worth it. Indian Summer, they'd been saying and we all had our fingers crossed, despite the end of August being abysmal. Just because it was September, we all expected miracles, even Jason and I.
Apart from the poster, the station was the same. The first Monday of the month queue was large as usual. The floor I stared down at was still made up of mottled rubber bumps, still faded and tacky underfoot like so many pieces of discarded chewing gum. Non-slip, for safety, as if it was a swimming pool rather than a train station (though with the amount of drizzle we get in this city, they make a good point). The instant access ticket machine with touch screen and credit card function told us all, in the most hi-tech way that it possibly could, that it was out of order, just for a change. But a digital screen is better than the old one with a handwritten note taped over the coin slot, right? There was no point complaining though. The guy behind the desk wouldn't do a thing even if he could, except switch to 'go-slow' so that you'd miss your train. Sammy won't be hassled.
The first of the month is always a bad day. It used to be when the season tickets had to be renewed, you see. They changed the system a while ago so you can start a new one on any day of the year, but people are creatures of habit and I am a person just like everybody else. It's a lot simpler for me to know that on the first of the month, I need to turn up half an hour early to stand behind an overweight, sweaty commuter who doesn't know what ticket he wants and doesn't have the right card to let him get it. If I had to do that on the seventeenth, or the twenty first, I simply wouldn't remember.
I got there early because everyone else always has exactly the same idea as me, and so we have to queue. It's what we do best in this country, so I've been told. It's a national institution, been bred into us since birth – the genetically ingrained drive to shut up, stand in line and shuffle meekly forwards, refraining from getting at all wound up by the three people who pushed in front, and the one idiot who hasn't a clue what's going on. The queue is primal and the order must be obeyed. Every third month I stand there patiently, clutching Jason's Thermos mug and sipping coffee, bleary eyed, dragging one foot in front of the other, missing the extra time I could have had in bed, because the money in my bank account is not positive enough to ever let me afford an annual ticket. Jason was a banker, and what did I do? I was working my way up to restaurant manager. To avoid ambiguity, I'll translate – I was hoping for promotion, but in short, I waited tables.
When he first met me, Jason would ask over and over again why on Earth I wanted to do what I did. It wasn't a real job, he'd say and that would wind me up. You want to serve rich people their food in return for a crap wage and antisocial hours, he would ask, because that was all he saw. He never understood the simple fact that as Head Waiter, I enjoyed what I did. I loved the buzz of a busy dining room and service in full flow, knowing that everything was running to clockwork because of me. But, for someone like Jason, waiting tables didn't cut it as a career. In September, he'd been waiting three years for me to grow up and get a real job. He didn't understand that I'd rather deal with irritable and snobby customers end on end, than sit behind a computer, staring at spreadsheets for twelve hours a day. To me, the resulting fast car wasn't worth it.
I was twenty four, five years younger than Jason; I had the rest of my life ahead of me and I didn't want it all now. I'd been happy living in the centre of town in our cramped, overpriced flat, within sight of a tube station, laughing about the hot water tap that didn't really work, but I didn't argue when he moved us out to suburbia. It wasn't easy to do when it was his name on the mortgage and suddenly there was no need to pay rent. I made no objections to the arrival of Frank the cat. I didn't argue with the flashy car, because it was his money, and what man doesn't secretly live to own a Porche 911? There was nothing to be said about the designer suits and ties because he needed them for work and even I'll admit he looked good in them. In the beginning, all the setting up house – the meeting of neighbours – the choosing of coffee tables and bookcases – was fun. It was like playing house – setting out this perfect little life. I convinced myself it was what I wanted, deep down.
But then there were the client meetings, the after work 'do's, the weekend team building exercises and the membership to the gym in the building next to his on the Isle of Dogs, rather than the local one in the park that I could go to too. There were business dinners that he wouldn't bring me to, or if he did, his face would flicker in annoyance at the sight of my off-the-peg Marks and Spencer suit. He would wince at my choice of tie and make me wear one of his instead. And I would be the friend. Our three years together would never come up and his colleagues would always forget to hear the Head part of my job title, because rising banking star Jason Smithson was most certainly not gay. Some bright spark in actuarial would mention their hourly rate and ask with a chortled laugh if my tips were that good and I would bite my tongue instead of asking whether they charged as much for blow jobs because Jason would be looking at me going don't rock the boat.
He would buy me clothes to 'smarten me up' and his friends would joke that I was lucky I bagged myself a banker because his income would tide me through. I would want to hit him for making me feel so kept and so patronized. Any time we ate out, I would sit there and wonder if he'd treat his waiter the way he did if it was me serving him, and he'd think my bitter smile was there because of the price of the food, so he'd pick up the tab and think that made everything alright. His job was always more important than mine. If he had a problem, I couldn't possibly understand because, "It's not as if somebody forgot the mustard Jamie, I'm talking about millions of pounds here!". I think that's all it boiled down to in the end – money. Money, time and attitude to life.
Sammy, the station guy, always used to smile at me as I handed over my electric-shock impression photo-card, with his "Good morning Mr Cooper, sir. Where are you going to today?" and it made me feel a little more human than I did with Jason lately.
Sammy's only had about three teeth in his head and the wizened old man looked nine hundred. He was very paternal about his regular commuters, knew us all by the trains we caught daily. It unnerved me the first time he had my ticket printed before I asked, but by then it almost seemed nice to know someone was paying a little attention.
"Work, unfortunately. How are you today?"
"Very well Mr Cooper. The sun is shining. The Lord is smiling down."
I trailed down the creaking steps onto platform one, expecting hymns across the speaker system once the queue had died down. From anyone else I'd call it religious harassment, but Sammy meant no harm. He didn't preach damnation or try to save our souls, he sings for himself and anyone else who wants to listen. The queue had gone faster than I expected and that's why I ended up on the quarter-to train.
I got into Victoria fifteen minutes earlier than I would have done usually, and so picked up a District and Circle line train I would have never usually made. Notting Hill Gate was my stop and in rush hour if I got a seat at all, it would only be after a few stations worth of passengers had exited the carriage. The line Jason take to work is shiny and new. Jubilee has doors on the platforms that the trains line up with, just like Singapore or Tokyo. It's like the future – beautiful men in suits, shiny surfaces and technology that works. Canada Square has seeped along the tracks and begun to spread its seamless business utopia into the rest of the messy, London sprawl. District and Circle hobbles along through a thick coat of grime.
The first of the month was the first time I saw him, but the next day, I got to the station early enough to catch the same train just to see if he'd be on it as well. He had these stupid sunglasses and at first I was staring at him because he looked like such an idiot. They were yellow wrap-around things that seemed to cover half his face. I'm sure they were fashionable, but I thought he looked like a bug. A very jaundiced bug.
The tube shuttled us sideways, light and dark with dodgy electrics and flashes of sunlight as we ducked in and out of tunnels and I hypnotised myself reading the cover of his magazine. It didn't register at first that it was GT, but at South Ken, when the office girl standing in between us moved, it clicked. Bug man was staring at me over the top of his magazine and I couldn't tell what colour his eyes were. He smiled and I smiled and let my eyes linger down his soft cord jacket to his jeans, all the way down to his scuffed, brown leather trainers that seemed stuck halfway between smart and casual. I got off the train before he did and tried not to look back.
That night, Jason rolled in, sometime after I'd given up waiting, given up glancing at my dented mobile phone and gone to bed numbly, not caring if he was lying in the market below London Bridge station, beaten to a bloody pulp and dying. He woke me up and came on all amorous. He stripped his shirt off while wittering on about how he wanted to get away from the city – take me out in his prized little sailing boat and set us adrift in the middle of the ocean. It might have been romantic, but all I could think was you bastard, I have to work tomorrow. We hadn't had a holiday together since Christmas, and even then, I'd worked on Boxing Day for double pay. The Easter before, he'd taken me out in his little boat and I had hated every minute of it, throwing up copiously with every rocking wave. Jason loved the sea and I did not. What I did love was the sleep I wasn't getting. Eventually, he stopped trying to get a shag and seemed to sober up. The two of us lay there panting, staring up at the ceiling, looking anywhere but at each other. And he said what I hadn't had the balls to say.
"This isn't working out anymore. Is it, Jamie?"
It was a question I couldn't bring myself to answer because it wasn't just us, it was everything and walking away from him would leave me with nothing but the job he thought was too beneath me to be doing. I really didn't know what I'd do when we got around to splitting up. I didn't even have a place to live. Instead of answering him and launching into a stale and overdue conversation that had been looming just out of existence for months, I rolled over and pretended to be asleep.
The next morning, I saw Bug Man in the crush of people waiting on the platform at Victoria. He glanced at me and the two of us scuffled into the same grimy carriage, breathing distance apart. His breath smelt of stale coffee and smoke; mine was probably no better. I tried to act uncomfortable, but I didn't feel it. Jason's hugs had stopped a while ago and despite myself I missed the contact. Chest to chest with this stranger was something that I found I wanted and when the commuters thinned out a little, I was almost annoyed that I had to step back.
It took three days of smiles for me to realise I was pursuing him but when the realisation came, it wasn't a huge shock. Bug Man never wore a suit and his messy spiked hair was not business-casual. I was sure he did not live in suburbia or care what people at the office thought of his unfortunately not-quite-average-enough home life. On the fourth, he pressed his copy of GT into my hands as I made to slip past him onto the platform and inside the front cover, on the top of the first page was his number and his name. Rick.
On the weekend of the thirteenth, Jason left early for what was meant to be a three day conference and I asked Rick to come over. We'd been swapping texts constantly over the past week. He'd come to see me at the restaurant a couple of times in his lunch break and I found out that he worked for a small graphic design company in Paddington, but to be honest I didn't really care what the details were as long as they were new, fresh and exciting. If he was a banker, I would have run a mile.
I met him at the station and Sammy gave me a disappointed smile, though I'm sure my imagination only made it seem that way. I showed him the way up the hill, past the poster of the aftershave model and he made small talk that I felt obliged to echo back. He said the area was very nice and I told him that because of the hills and the dips, it was a bit of a frost trap, which meant you had to be careful of your plants in early spring. He laughed a little and said he hadn't realised I was green fingered. I said, yes, unfortunately I was, but at least I didn't have yellow fever. I don't think he got that entirely the way Jason would have done.
We spent the weekend working out my stresses. We had sex sprawled out on the living room carpet as soon as we got in the door, but later we made it up the stairs and into the bedroom. Rick didn't breathe a word about the clothes in the half of the wardrobe that weren't mine. He didn't ask who it was in the pictures standing next to me and I was glad, because I didn't really know who he was to me either. On the Sunday, we only got out of bed for food, and to shake cat crunchies into Frank's bowl. It wasn't perfect. It wasn't really anything apart from sex.
In the afternoon, it all came tumbling down with the sound of a key in the door and footsteps on the stairs. I'll never know why he came upstairs first when usually he'd dump his briefcase down at the bottom of the stairs and wander languidly into the living room as he kicked off his shoes, aiming for nowhere in particular and getting there in a roundabout way. But, he did. I barely had time to swear before the bedroom door was open.
He almost laughed, I think. "Oh good. You brought someone home to play." And his bag dropped straight out of his hand.
I didn't have the words for anything. All I could do was stare at him, lost in some kind of twisted reverie where reality wouldn't connect, immune to my Bug Man's awkward shuffling as he tried to summon the power of invisibility. Jason tugged his tie off as if this was normality, took his time folding his expensive jacket onto the back of the chair he always used to let me fuck him on.
"Is he for sharing?" he asked, sounding nothing but weary. When I didn't answer, he opened the wardrobe, took down the suitcase we kept on the top shelf and slung it down on the bare mattress. Silent tears came when he unzipped it slowly and opened the lid, but they were mine, not his. "You should have told me you were into threesomes."
Rick was frozen with one leg off the bed, ready to bolt out of the door but unwilling to make the move in case it provoked explosions and Jason finally looked at him with something other than numb calm.
"Do you want me to fuck you, or do you want to get the hell out of my house?"
It wasn't an offer, it was a malice-filled threat. Rick grabbed his jeans and ran. With the bed sheet pulled around me, I watched Jason pile clothes into the empty suitcase and the choking feeling in my throat only multiplied when I realised they weren't mine.
"What – what are you doing? Where are you going?"
He barely looked up as he closed the lid of his suitcase. "I'm going sailing Jamie. On my horrible little boat."
Those were the last words he said to me before he slammed the bedroom door behind him, leaving me crying a river in our bedroom for all the stupid things I'd done. When I came downstairs the next morning and automatically switched the TV on to the breakfast news, I found out that his company had gone bankrupt. All the staff at the Canary Wharf office had been laid off. He'd come back from the conference early because he no longer had a job.
We used to do the crossword, Jason and I; now I'm not sure we'll swap any words at all, cross or otherwise. On the fifteenth of the month, I realised I'm a fool.