It was the day my head exploded.
At least, that had been my first assumption in the initial, painful moments of consciousness, my bladder’s insistence that I attend to its needs outweighing the desire of the rest of my body to continue to sleep.
Christ. vho. nsg.
Slowly, gingerly moving the pillow I’d pulled over my head back off again, I opened my eyes just enough to confirm I was in Mrs Ippot’s inordinately large four-poster, and that Ash had got up. I closed them again, certain that the day could only get better from here.
“I fucking love you, man.”
Prentice McHoan was fucked. Well and truly fucked. Not that Darren was surprised; he’d seen enough folk drop their first pill to know the first time was always the best, the most intense. It was one of his favourite things, truth be told – taking some innocent out and debauching them just a little. Not that Prent was all that innocent right enough; they’d smoked plenty of joints up in Gallanach after all.
“I love you too, pal,” Darren replied, and smiled as Prentice whooped and birled round, spinning a laughing Karen by the arm.
The music throbbed, like it was in Darren’s very bones.
Eyes still shut, I attempted to piece together the night’s events. Our celebratory drinks on Byres Road had turned into a proper session, which in turn led to some party in a flat somewhere off Great Western Road. I remembered we’d met Darren’s old flatmate Karen there.
I also remembered a lot of Export. And maybe some Bell’s. Maybe a lot of Bell’s. Christ.
And sometime later, much later, a circuitous walk home through Kelvingrove Park in the crisp – and, for June, surprisingly chilly – light of dawn.
The city had seemed really still, just the sound of the Kelvin and the breeze rustling through the beech trees – a beautiful tranquillity disturbed only, as I recall, by my heartfelt, somewhat off-key and not entirely accurate rendition of Shiny Happy People, accompanied by Ash’s equally heartfelt pleas for me to, “shut the fuck up.”
Needless to say she had declined to perform the Kate Pierson part.
“Sure you dinnae fancy a few j’s?”
Karen shook her head, and squeezed the arm of her new friend, Gary. “Naw, I’m off, I’ve promised this one some special cuddles.”
Darren raised an eyebrow. She winked at him, sly smile on her face. “See you back at the flat the morra, doll.”
“Aye, awright. Take care.”
They’d barely gone out of earshot when Prentice let out a groan. “How come I don’t get any special cuddles?”
Darren threw an arm around his shoulders. “Well, in this case, ‘cause you don’t look like a brickie. Karen likes a bit o’ rough.”
This didn’t appear to mollify him. “Come on, we’ve still got one pill left, the night’s yet young. We want to be sure your allowance hasnae been spent in vain.”
That made him smile. “I fucking love you, Darren.”
I half slid, half abseiled out of the four-poster, knocking over a pile of history textbooks that, to my great relief, I’d likely never have to read ever again. The aforementioned celebrations had been in honour of my last exam; Ash had made a surprise visit from Canada to commemorate this momentous occasion, and a romantic meal at the Anarkali – of course – had kicked off the festivities.
The floorboards were cold underfoot and I crept across the hallway like a thief. A hungover, naked thief. In Mrs Ippot’s cavernous and ornate bathroom, I found a more primal but equally satisfying form of relief, eyes shut partly out of sheer pleasure but more so I could avoid the sight of my reflection in the stupendously large mirror that graced, more or less inevitably, one high wall.
In the kitchen Ash – beautiful, wonderful woman that she was – had left a glass of water and a packet of Andrew’s salts. I emptied the packet into the glass, the hiss of dissolution sounding to me at that moment not entirely unlike the drums of a massed military band; that swell of noise when they start up, just before the pipes kick in.
I had just downed the chalky liquid and gently settled my buttocks against the cold surface of the cupboard in order to give myself a moment’s rest following such exertions, when Ash came into the kitchen. She had a predatory look on her face and what looked like a blue school jotter in her hand.
“So Prentice,” she said brightly, the sort of bright that threatened to burn, “when were you going to tell me I was the second Watt you’ve slept with?”
The rush of that last half was fading now, the tingle in Darren’s palms subsiding. Sweet Dreams was on the stereo (in Darren’s opinion, listening to that track, along with I Feel Love, was practically mandatory when taking E). Prentice was still flying though, dancing around the living room, laughing and breathless, whilst Darren knelt, rifling through his box of records for the next track and grinning simultaneously at Prentice and at nothing in particular.
Darren finally found Blue Monday and pulled it out of its sleeve, setting it down for a moment until Annie Lennox finished singing, leaning back on his heels to stare at the ceiling. He lived in a tenement flat, so on the plus side the rooms were all huge, with high ceilings and rococo coving, uncovered floorboards and ironic-cool flock wallpaper.
The downside was the flat was bloody cold, his landlord too stingy to install double-glazing or central heating, and so a small electric fire was doing its best to warm them both. Prentice was still in his t-shirt; apparently he didn’t feel the chill just yet.
It was also dark in the room: the bulbs had gone in the ceiling lamp and they didn’t have a ladder, but the table lamps were better mood lighting anyway.
Darren was changing the record when he head Prentice ask, “what’s this meant to be about?”
Around the room were hung two dozen artworks created by Darren and his flatmates, the modern art clashing somewhat with traditional interior design. Prentice was staring, a little unsteadily, at one of Darren’s pieces, a dark piece both literal and metaphorical, swirling red and black paint. Abstract and all that.
It was shit really, Darren knew, but he was fond of it.
“Aw, I went through this Classical allegory phase when I started at the Art School. That’s The Death of Orpheus.”
“Death,” Prentice repeated, nodding, then wheeled away from the wall as New Order started up. Darren got to his feet and they danced together, hands raised in the air, Prentice staring into Darren’s eyes, chewing on his bottom lip, looking somehow mischievous.
By the time the next record was playing Darren decided it was time for some Mary-J and went to fetch the supply he had stashed in his room. When he returned, Prentice was cross-legged on the battered sofa, still bobbing to the beat. He’d picked up a sketchpad and a pencil from the pile of art materials that sat in one corner of the room and was busy scribbling on the paper.
“You taking up drawing now?” Darren asked.
“Only in the sense I’m drawing up a list,” Prentice said. “Things I want to do before I graduate.”
He looked up at Darren, all serious. “You only get four years as a student, I’m supposed to have all these formative experiences and I’ve hardly done any. Fuck, I could die tomorrow at the hands of the cooks in my halls given the quality of the cuisine. So: carpe diem.”
Darren shrugged. “Aye, I suppose so.”
He sat down next to Prentice and started to assemble a j, waiting for a moment whilst Prentice continued to scribble before asking, “So what’s on your list then?”
Prentice took a breath, glancing at Darren, then read aloud, “One: take ecstasy. Tick. Two: put a cone on Wellington’s heid in Royal Exchange Square. Three: Get a tattoo. Four: Have sex with a man…”
Putting down his tin of baccy, Darren leaned back and looked at Prentice, who had stopped reading his list, apparently awaiting Darren’s reaction to his fourth objective.
“Are you taking the total piss, Prent?”
A vigorous shake of the head. “Absolutely not. For one thing, the whole Clause 28 shite is an outrage and I figure what better way to fuck off Thatcher than experiment? And although I’m fairly secure in my heterosexuality, do you ever really know if you haven’t tried? I could be denying a part of me I don’t even realise is there. Besides, I don’t want to die a Kinsey zero, how fucking dull would that be? Figure I should at least achieve a one.”
Darren rolled his eyes, certain Prentice wasn’t as sincere as he made out. “Very enlightened. Alas, I’ll never achieve my perfect six thanks to a lassie called Aileen from high school and a game of spin the bottle I’d rather not remember, but I’m happy to help others along their way. If that’s really what you want I could oil you up and take you down the Waterloo. Believe me, you’d no’ be short of admirers.”
“That’s not exactly what I had in mind.”
Prentice put the pad down and leaned in to Darren, who realised then that Prentice’s arms were covered in goosebumps, and he was trembling. The boy had to be freezing.
“Darren, have you ever had sex on E?”
The jotter was a record, a personal history. Specifically, a description of all the men Darren Watt had ever had carnal relations with, and what they’d done together, in varying levels of intermittently illustrated detail.
I appeared about two-thirds of the way in, with almost a full page devoted to me, seemingly quite the honour when some other encounters barely merited more than a couple of lines. On the opposing page to this entry a slightly rusted paper clip held in place a pencil sketch of me asleep in bed, presumably in the aftermath of the events described in prose. In soft grey lines he’d drawn my head and bare shoulders, with the edge of the bedsheet positioned with Hollywood-style precision just under my nipples. Conceptual art was more Darren’s passion, but he was reasonably talented at illustration and the evident care he’d taken was touching. Indeed, the fact I’d been drawn at all was pretty flattering; there didn’t seem to be many other examples elsewhere in the book.
The thin, angular script was more straightforward: for all that his art was abstract and esoteric, he was clearly no fan of poetic euphemism when it came to recounting the crash course in the many-faceted world of gay sex he’d delivered on that occasion, and there was certainly no possibility that I could convince Ashley that our liaison was little more than a fumble. And even had the picture not been an accurate likeness, nor with a name like Prentice McHoan could I claim this was simply a case of mistaken identity.
Still, it was hard not to feel a little pride in seeing: “dick – abv av (lgth & grth)” in reference to your own physical characteristics, even if that was immediately followed by: “no arse tho – shame”.
“Well?” Ashley asked, when she decided I’d had enough time to review the evidence.
“Ash, how much do you know know about the theories of Alfred Kinsey?”
Prentice McHoan was fucked. He slumped back on the bed, looking dazed, a red flush on his damp chest and perspiration beading his forehead. Naked, he was smoother and skinnier than Darren had expected, not the sort of guy he’d normally go for. Truth be told, he’d always fancied Lewis more than his little brother.
Not that it seemed likely Lewis would ever be found in Prentice’s current position, immediately post-coital, legs still wrapped tight around Darren’s waist, so the laddie had his own attractions.
Darren leaned down, chest so close to Prentice’s own he could feel the heat rising from it. He used one hand to cup Prentice’s face, pulling it forward so he could kiss Prentice gently on the lips. With their heads still together he murmured, “Fuck you Thatcher, you old cow.”
He felt Prentice smile.
It transpired that the previous night’s party had been held at Karen’s flat, and halfway through the evening she’d remembered some belongings of Darren’s they’d found in a drawer, a few bits and pieces that had been missed that dark day about a week after his death that the Watts had travelled to Glasgow to clear out his room. She’d always meant to send them on but had never quite got around to it. So, as we’d left she’d given Ash a carrier bag containing these stray mementoes, including a school jotter filled with Darren’s handwriting, along with her sincerest apologies. Ash thought she’d have a read whilst I was still asleep.
Evidently, there was some Lochgair tradition that required family secrets to be written down in various formats and then hidden in a fashion that enabled them to surface years later and when they can cause maximum melodrama. I didn’t know why I was even a little surprised this had happened.
I couldn’t really explain things to Ash’s satisfaction; it probably wasn’t possible. After all, and even though this had happened long before we got together, I knew only too well the feelings of jealousy that can be engendered when you discover your elder brother has slept with a long-standing object of your desire.
Of course, the fact that Darren was a brother and not a sister made it all the more confusing for her, liberal about such matters as she otherwise was. I couldn’t explain that either, just that Darren was an exception to the usual rule. Him and possibly Michael Hutchence.
It was too painful to attempt to explain that my crush on Darren was, like the crush on Verity, more intense than I understood at the time and though nothing like what I felt for Ash herself, still real in its way – any more than I could have explained to my father that day on the loch what I was really feeling after Darren died.
Instead, I settled for a few jokes about Kinsey and Section 28 and, in effect, blamed it all on the drugs.
“Are you saying E makes you gay?” Ash responded, sounding not a little incredulous.
“That appears to be my thesis.”
“Stick to historical analysis, Prentice.”
Suddenly aware of how naked and vulnerable one could feel under Ash’s gaze, especially when one was in fact quite naked and likely just as vulnerable, I avoided her eyes through the subsequent awkward silence, until she shook her head and sighed. “Aye well, whatever happened that night, it happened. As long as you don’t elope with Gavin next time you drop a tab...”
I grimaced at the very thought.
“Now for fuck’s sake go put some clothes on and take me to lunch.”
With that she took the jotter back and returned to the living room. After a moment’s further contemplation I made my way to the bedroom, and started to look amongst the piles of clothes that towered on most of the chairs for something to wear that had known the inside of a washing machine since the last time it was worn, or at the very least had only been worn the once in that time.
In amongst a bundle of t-shirts I found a scarf, some silk thing I’d bought to replace a Möbius version I’d lost on a train a few years before, one that had belonged to Darren until he gave it to me. It was a pale imitation and, angry for a moment, I threw this usurper across the room, and then found myself blinking rapidly and hoping Ash didn’t come in right at that moment.
By the time I’d done dressing, and found notes enough to pay for lunch, I’d made a decision: I would ask Ashley if I could keep Darren’s sketch. Just to have something I could remember him by. This time, she could be assured that I’d keep it safe.