It was a strangely warm day – late March giving way to April. The trees beside the football pitch had begun to bud, promising the first spring leaves. Overhead the sun appeared and then disappeared behind sparse, slow-moving clouds, and for the first time that season Daniel hadn’t had to wear a heavy coat and hat to watch a match.
Your boyfriend is here, the team captain, said to Max, pointing over his shoulder, loud enough for everyone to hear.
Daniel felt the eyes of the people near him looking at him. He had just arrived, late after rushing from a rehearsal, and he was still finding a place to stand in the small crowd at the side of the pitch. Max looked up from readjusting his shoelaces and, seeing him standing there, grinned and waved.
It was halftime and the score was still nil-nil. Not much happening was, as far as he could tell, totally normal in football. He watched Max as he waited for the game to start again, noticing the small signs of his impatience, his need to just get on with it.
The pace of the second half was quick – both teams desperate to score. Max burst across the field over and over, covering much of its length in seconds, hoping to receive the ball at just the right moment. When he ran he carried the full force of himself forward without hesitation, his hair flying everywhere, longer now that he had started growing it out.
And when, finally, the ball landed exactly at his feet, he held it there for a moment before pivoting toward the goal and sending it flying past the outstretched hands of the goalkeeper. He turned around to look back at his teammates, astonished as what he had done. As they hugged him in a group he looked out toward the small crowd of supporters, to his father and Daniel.
Max’s dad clapped Daniel on the shoulder, Now that, Danny boy, was a good goal. And, beaming, he turned to look back at the pitch and his son taking his position once more.
They were so similar, Daniel thought. The straightforwardness, the way their faces could break into a grin instantly – zero to 60 in a split second – the way they used their hands to reassure you that they were still there, thinking of you. As the sun broke free of the final bank of clouds, he had to unwind his scarf from around his neck.
When he’d first come to one of Max’s games it had been a grey and blustery day in January. Breath came from the mouths of the players in great streams of fog, or was blown through cold, red hands as they stood waiting for the kick-off whistle to be blown again. Later, sleet formed in the stratosphere had howled down from the heavens at that wet and muddy patch of ground, slamming into the faces of the boys who ran across it, and at the tiny group of people who stood huddled and watching on the side.
But now there were daffodils in the park next door, the sun was warm on his face, and Daniel began to feel slightly sweaty underneath his layers of clothing. His mind wandered, drifting away from the game in front of him, from the two teams of school boys in shorts and t-shirts, as they ran back and forth, like gulls on a beach, or like a flock of long-legged egrets dashing in white across the green of the field.
The final whistle startled him from his thoughts just as Max disappeared beneath a crush of his teammates.
And then suddenly he was standing in front of him – sweaty, dirty, his white football shirt streaked with grass stains where he had fallen.
Hello, Max said, panting.
Hello to you.
We won, did you see me score?
Of course I saw. I was watching you.
Couldn’t take your eyes off me, huh? Max said, pushing his hand up through the mass of his dark hair, his face splitting into a grin.
Something like that.
He was trying to sound nonchalant, trying to tease Max with feigned indifference, but the effect was ruined by the big stupid smile he failed to keep off his own face and the blush he could feel growing in intensity.
Right, Max’s dad said. Let’s go home.
In the car, as they drove with the radio on full blast, Daniel thought about the first time he’d gone back to Max’s house, the first time he’d met Max’s dad and stepmother. He’d felt a real panic, a need to run away. Being officially introduced as the boyfriend was different to sneaking a kiss in the school locker rooms, or pretending to be playing video games upstairs in a boy’s room while you were actually peeling his clothes off one item at a time.
Standing in their kitchen for the first time, shaking Max’s dad’s hand, meeting the twins, sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, words had come to his rescue again, flowing from his mouth without him having to think about it.
Daniel knew that when some people felt nervous they found talking difficult, they retreated into themselves – he’d seen it happen with Max loads – but the opposite seemed to happen with him.
And my God had he talked: answered every question, babbled, showing off and blushing when he realised what he was doing. And Max had sat across the table, his leg just brushing his own, beaming like a bloody idiot, refusing to come to his rescue.
The small brown moles on Max’s back formed scattered constellations across his pale skin. Daniel sat on Max’s bed and watched each brown dot emerge as the other boy pulled his muddy football shirt off, as the hem rode higher until the shirt was pulled over his head and tossed aside. He had spent time mapping those moles, looking for patterns, connecting them together. He felt he knew them by heart.
It was still a strange thing to be allowed to stare at a boy so openly, to take note, one by one, of the things that made him attractive: the dip and curve of his back, the sharp blades of his shoulders, the curl of his dark hair on the nape of his neck.
He felt like he had had to learn how he loved each of these things one at a time, as small separate parts, individual bits and pieces that had to then be bound together. It seemed to be something you had to learn by looking. It felt a little like when he was getting into a part for a play, learning his lines one by one to create a complete whole.
What? Max said turning around. What are you looking at?
It’s never nothing. Your brain is always whirring away in there.
I was just thinking how beautiful you are.
Shut up, Max said. And without warning he tackled Daniel, sitting on his chest, pinning his hands to the bed above his head, grinning madly.
You need a shower, Daniel said.
Tell me. No lies. Tell me when did you first fall in love with me?
Ha. No. That’s a trick question.
Tell me, Max said, and started tickling him, digging fingers into his armpits.
Thrashing to get free, desperately trying not to dissolve into a fit of giggles Daniel shouted, No! Never!
The gruff noise of a man clearing his throat made them both turn to see Max’s dad standing in the doorway holding a basket of laundry. They lay there frozen still, with Max’s hands burning on him where they lay pressed against the bare skin of his sides, pushed up under his t-shirt.
I’m putting on a wash. Just came to pick up your kit, Max. I think you should probably go shower.
I agree, Daniel said. I was just thinking that. You smell.
Liar. That is not what you were thinking at all, Max said looking back down at him, catching his eye, an animal smile creeping across his face.
And there was a slow beat, a pause, a couple of seconds of time, a moment stretching out infinitely in which they looked at each other.
Max’s dad cleared his throat again from the doorway.
Yes dad, Max said.
And he leant down and kissed Daniel quickly before leaping off him, grabbing his towel from a hook behind the door, squeezing past his dad and running out of the room.
Daniel sat up on the bed, pulling his t-shirt down, running a hand through his hair, trying to make himself more presentable. Max’s room was messy, but carefully so – everything had its place. On the small desk by the window schoolbooks were stacked at right angles to a careful pile of National Geographic magazines; a mug full of pens and a jar of small pebbles kept a row of popular science books in order.
He knew that in Max’s wardrobe the t-shirts were sorted by colour, and that each one was paired with a specific jumper and a specific pair of socks. He’d once tried to convince him to try a different combination, but just the thought of it had made Max feel so uncomfortable he’d never mentioned it again.
The walls were covered in posters – maps of the world, maps of the extent of the Roman Empire, maps of the Milky Way, alongside hand-drawn charts Max had made of species classifications in the animal and plant kingdoms. Across one wall stretched an enormous map of the night sky filled with stars and galaxies. Daniel got up from the bed and stood in front of it, trying to read it the way Max had shown him. He thought of how Max had said the stars are positioned without design, but are still there in place by understandable forces.
You found what you’re looking for? Max asked as he walked back into the room, newly showered, steaming, towel around his waist, wet hair hanging in his face.
The theatre’s bar was rammed. Condensation gathered on the large windows that looked out onto a dark street. A crowd stood five deep at the bar trying to get their interval drinks from the harried young staff behind the counter.
Daniel was standing crammed into a corner with the other kids from the drama group, excitedly discussing the first act of the play they had just seen. He had to almost shout to be heard over the noise of people talking and laughing, pressed tightly together.
Choosing what to wear had taken some time, but he’d decided on the dark blue velvet blazer he’d bought in a vintage clothing shop in east London. It was tight and fit him perfectly over the shoulders and around the waist. Its colour was like brushed sapphire.
He felt that the blazer made him both stand out from and fit in with the crowd around him. Still, he couldn’t help worrying at the material as he talked, running the edge of one sleeve between thumb and forefinger. He could hear himself talking, hear the words just flowing from his mouth and knew that later on, in the quiet of his bedroom, he would run through these conversations and pick over his every line.
Sometimes, when he lay awake at night, in his darkened room at the top of the house, he could feel a sort of rising panic creeping up over him. It was as if his bedroom was slowly filling with cold water, wetting the floorboards, rising inch by inch until it had smothered the plug points, soaked the first and then the second shelves of his book case, rising until it came over the bed slowly, stinging his skin with cold. As he lay there he could almost feel the water rise until it covered him where he lay fixed to the bed, until it began pouring out of the open window.
In the darkness, alone, he felt all the things that he hoped to conquer during the day rise up again, worries he told no one about, not even Max. He lay there with his world reduced to the patterns of streetlight across his bedroom ceiling, and felt himself drowning.
He thought, then, for some reason, of the trip to the Planetarium. He and Max had sat next to each other in expectant darkness, while younger kids shuffled impatiently around them. The dark felt universal – as if this particular pool of it were the same as the infinite blackness that stretched out into the universe.
And then, as if from nowhere, there were stars overhead. Stars all around them that blazed with an intensity his sheltered city eyes hardly ever saw. He had breathed out in astonishment, and then felt Max’s hand slip into his own. He could hear him counting under his breath. Was he counting the stars? Was he just trying to relax? He gave his hand a squeeze while above them the heaven’s wheeled.
For a moment, standing in the theatre bar, he felt dizzy. Around him, the noise of the crowd grew louder, while outside the cold dark night filled with rain.
Daniel, James said, arriving with three drinks clutched in his hands. Here’s your Diet Coke. Now, whose is the Orangina? Stacey? George?
James was Georgina’s brother who seemed barely older than them even though he was already at uni. All the others were slightly in awe of him – a theatre nerd like them who had got into a prestigious art school, who lived in student housing in the centre of London, and played trombone in a band on the weekends. As he drank a soft drink with them, and talked to the girls about the two opening scenes in the play, Daniel watched him and hated him just a little.
Hated him and fancied him. He was cute, in a way: tall and gangly, an open, handsome face framed by a short buzz cut, a close-cropped beard, and tortoise shell glasses. Daniel couldn’t decide if he liked the glasses or not.
He wasn’t concentrating on the conversation when James turned to him and said, What about you, Dan, what do you want to do?
After school, you know, life and such.
I don’t know.
Don’t lie, Stacy said. Daniel is going to be an actor or a director or something.
Really? James said. Are you any good?
He’s amazing. He went to big auditions in January.
That’s great, James said. You should totally be applying for stuff already. It’s never too early to get everything lined up.
Just then, thankfully, the bell rang for the beginning of the second act and they trooped back in to the large studio space with everyone else. And there in the dark, as the lights went down, as the actors came out once more, he felt the world outside dissolve away, felt that whirring in his own brain flooded out by what came to life in front of him.
He felt two separate halves of himself watching at the same time – part of him immersed in the emotion of the drama, but another part of him assessing, learning, marking up the mechanics of what was happening in front of him, working out how things were done, and what he might have done differently. And it was this that excited him, the almost addictive feeling of the puzzle of how to build such an illusion. He could feel small sparks of recognition and inspiration firing through his brain as he felt his way through what he was watching.
At the end, all the actors lay dead on the stage. A moment stretched out seemingly into infinity; holding its breath the world stood still, held still for endless seconds, before the audience started clapping, the actors stood up and the lights came back on.
Afterwards, as they made their way to the tube station, he could still feel the play rattling through him, like a wonderful drug through his veins, a fog on the brain, masking the world around him.
Sitting on the train as it rushed under the river, as it erupted into station after station, he thought about what James had said. Sometimes his destiny felt inevitable, the life that had to be waiting for him, and yet it also felt impossible. The millions of things that he would have to get right, that he would have to somehow engineer into place, welded to just dumb luck, felt like an impossible puzzle to complete.
The house was in a slightly nicer part of west London – a double fronted Victorian beauty. They stood outside the front door on the stone flagged porch, waiting after ringing the doorbell.
I shouldn’t have worn the blazer, he said. It’s too much.
Don’t be silly, Max said.
He wanted to argue the point, but instead he looked up and said, This is an amazing house. It has wisteria and everything.
You’re so gay.
So are you.
Max was about to reply, but then the door opened and light spilled out into the early evening air.
Max! You came. Most of us didn’t think you would. We were taking bets.
This was Oliver, the football team captain. Daniel almost didn’t recognise him in jeans and a collared shirt, his hair neatly parted and slicked to the side. He was holding a bottle of beer in his hand and gestured behind him into the house, from where noise of a party reached them.
Come in, he said. Everyone else is already here, except Malcolm. But you know what he’s like, could turn up at any moment off his tits.
They followed him into the house and he led them down a long corridor past a wide staircase and several closed doors.
I love your house, Daniel said.
Oh, Oliver said over his shoulder, yes, mum and dad have spent years doing it up. They bought it as a wreck when property round here was cheaper.
Daniel could tell he was echoing things he’d probably heard his parents say. Talk of property had replaced polite conversation about the weather in many parts of London.
I can’t believe you came to almost every game, Oliver said to him as Max put his backpack down by the coat rack. My girlfriend only managed like two games all season.
I am dedicated, Daniel said.
Ha. Maybe boys just make better girlfriends, Oliver said as he led them through an archway into an enormous kitchen.
Loud pop music rang from the speakers imbedded in the ceiling. A small group of kids stood leaning against the stone worktops, each of them holding a plastic cup. Daniel recognised some of them from school.
Right, drinks are in here, Oliver said. Pizzas will be arriving in a minute. A bunch of people are outside in the garden by the fire pit.
He handed a cup to each of them and then grabbed a bottle of vodka and poured a generous measure into Daniel’s cup.
Just juice thanks, Max said.
What? Come on. I mean, don’t worry, my parents are cool with us having a few drinks, if you’re worried about that.
Max doesn’t drink, Daniel said.
Not at all?
Nope, Max said. Sorry.
There was a short moment of silence before Daniel said, I think we should go see this fire pit.
And he touched Max’s elbow and half-led him out through the big glass sliding doors.
Gathered on the terrace in the garden behind the house was a large group of kids, their faces lit by the fire and the fairy lights strung along the garden wall.
Max! someone said, Over here!
They found a small wooden stool and the two of them perched on it, forced to face slightly away from each other, their hips pressed together, their shoulders bumping.
Max started talking to this boy about their football match earlier that day. Out here the music from the kitchen sounded filtered, strained, all bass notes and thumping, as if coming through a body of water. Daniel looked at the fire in the wide metal disc in front of him, and then up at the sky.
It was a clear evening, the first night without heavy cloud for days and days. Overhead the night sky glowed with the light of the city; an airplane began its blinking descent to Heathrow. If you looked very carefully you could see one or two stars.
He took a sip of his drink, grimacing slightly at the strong taste of vodka. He tried not to listen to the small panicky voice in his head telling him that he would probably have to sit here in silence for the rest of the evening while Max, somehow the sociable one here, gossiped about football.
He didn’t notice Max’s hand on his knee until the girl sitting next to him said, Oh my God, are you the gay guys?
What? Daniel said, still deep in his own thoughts, his mind drawn to the fire.
You know, she said, leaning in as if it were a conspiracy, the boys caught snogging in the science lab supply cupboard last week?
He wanted to laugh, but her face was very serious so he said, No, that wasn’t us, sorry.
It wasn’t? she laughed. No way. When Ollie said a guy on his team was bringing his boyfriend I just assumed it was you.
She was very pretty. Her hair hung halfway down to her waist, straightened within an inch of its life; her small skirt rode up her legs as she sat on the edge of a camping chair.
Nope, he said shrugging his shoulders helplessly. I think they are in the year below us actually.
Sorry, she said. I didn’t mean…no offense, yeah? Then, rushing on, she said, I’m Beth, this is Gemma. She’s Ollie’s sister. She loves football almost as much as I hate it. You two are so cute, by the way. I love it when boys get together.
Um thanks, he said, trying not to laugh when he saw Gemma rolling her eyes behind Beth’s back.
How long have you been boyfriends? Beth asked.
Like, four months, I think, he said. A while.
And how did that happen? Tell me everything.
Jesus, Beth, Gemma said. You’ll be interrogating him about their sex life next.
Beth giggled. Sorry, she said. I get really nosey when I’m nervous. I just keep asking questions. My mum says I should be a spy or something.
It’s cool, he said, really. I don’t mind.
And he told them the story of Christmas and how Max had fallen into his life and had stubbornly refused to leave again. How they’d agreed to start dating, how they’d had to tell their parents because Max hated lying. Talking about it to someone Daniel felt again the old comfort of putting events into words, of laying things out in a logical pattern, and he began to relax.
And they sat by the fire as the evening cooled, as the music in the kitchen got louder, and more people came out to the terrace to gather in the garden in groups. Somebody refilled his cup with vodka and juice.
They talked about school, about A Level exams, about what universities they were hoping to go to. They talked about their favourite TV shows and whether Taylor Swift was deeply uncool again. They talked about the future.
Gemma loved his blazer – It’s such a great colour, she said – and he blushed, feeling a little flushed from the booze and the chat. He’d lost track of time. He’d lost track of Max.
He realised he needed the toilet and asked Beth for directions. He got up, slightly too quickly, and felt dizzy. He had drunk alcohol before. He’d had a glass of wine or two with his parents at dinner on holiday in France, he’d snuck a beer at last year’s New Year’s Eve party, but he’d never had this much to drink, never felt quite this tipsy. He walked a little unsteadily through the kitchen. He felt suddenly out of control and very much wanted to find Max and lie down somewhere.
In the darkened hallway beyond the kitchen he stopped briefly to lean against a wall, his balance leaving him for the briefest of moments.
And it was then, as he stood half-hidden by a rack full of coats, that he heard two boys from the football team talking while waiting to use the downstairs loo.
The thing is, one of them said, I get being gay and everything. I mean, fine, you wanna fuck dudes, whatever. I get that.
Daniel realised that was Oliver talking.
Yeah? The other boy said. You get that?
Sure. But, why would you fuck a dude like that? You know all really gay and that, all girly and artsy and all…theatre?
I don’t know man. I guess he likes them that way.
From his hiding place Daniel could feel the blush rising from his belly, up his chest, up his neck and across his face. He could feel shame bursting from his soul in burning horror. He could feel it like bile in his stomach, like a wave of nausea that flooded through him. He clutched his stomach, wanting to cry.
Did you see his stupid jacket? Oliver said. He looks like such a fag.
And then, without meaning to, Daniel stepped forward into view and, bent double, he vomited all over the polished hard wood floor.
He ran. He ran down the corridor, shoved his way past the two boys and ignored their shouting, and ran. He pulled the front door open and ran down the short garden path and then out onto the street.
The cooler air on his face and in his lungs felt good, and with his stomach now empty the nausea receded.
He turned right and ran down the street. He wasn’t thinking. He wasn’t making decisions. He just knew that nothing mattered other than getting away from that house. In his pocket his phone started buzzing, but he ignored it. He couldn’t stop. He had to carry on running until he physically couldn’t anymore, until his legs gave out and he collapsed somewhere by the side of the road.
As he turned a corner into another, even longer road, he heard the pounding of feet on the concrete paving slabs behind him.
He had to keep going, but his left side started to ache; he had to keep going, but breathing was becoming painful as he struggled to suck enough air into his burning lungs. He slowed down to a jog, slowed down and then stopped, leaning down with his hands on his hips, retching, bringing up yellow bile and spitting it onto the pavement between his feet. He heard his pursuer stop, heard his deep breathing and then felt his hand rest gently on his back.
Are you okay? Max asked.
And it was that sincere question that made Daniel start crying. At first it was only a few sniffles, but soon his body was wracked with sobs and he had to sit down on the ground, leaning against a brick wall.
He felt suddenly adrift, as if the world had shifted and tossed him overboard, as if he now floated, treading water, in an endless ocean. He felt stupid for crying, but unable to stop.
And Max sat down next to him, sliding slowly down to sit on the pavement until his legs stretched out in front of him and their shoulders touched. Max said nothing, but it was this touch, this small connection that began to anchor him again. His sobs subsided. He took a few deep breaths. He wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his blazer, the blue velvet shining with tears and snot in the street lamp light.
His phone buzzed in his pocket. He struggled to pull it from his jeans. He slid his finger over the scanner and the phone lit up, and there, waiting for him, was a message from Max.
You okay? it said.
He looked at Max, sitting there right next to him, holding his phone.
He began typing a series of replies, sending one after the other: Yes. No. I don’t know. Just some wankers.
He waited as Max read them.
What wankers? Did someone say something? Are you hurt? Max asked out loud.
No, it’s fine, he said. Just some stupid stuff they said. I don’t know why it upset me so much. I’ve heard worse.
You have to explain what happened to me. You know I sometimes miss stuff.
You didn’t miss anything, I promise. I overreacted. I should have just ignored them, or told them to go fuck themselves. I shouldn’t have run away like that. Got a bit drunk, I’m afraid. I’m sorry I embarrassed you so much.
What do you mean? You haven’t.
I just threw up in your team captain’s house and then ran away.
There was a moment of astonished silence. And then Max started laughing. He threw his head back and laughed, his shoulder shaking against Daniel’s.
Really? he said, You vomited? I didn’t even see that. I just saw you running and came after you. You scared the shit out of me.
Yes, I vomited. I did.
Bloody hell Dan, that is a bit mad.
Somewhere, several blocks away, an ambulance screamed through the night on the way to the nearby hospital. Max shifted next to Daniel and let his head fall onto his shoulder.
Do you remember, in January, I went for those auditions? Daniel said.
I didn’t get in, he said, and before Max could speak he went on, I found out ages ago, but I just couldn’t tell you. I haven’t even told my parents. I just…everyone thinks I’m this brilliant actor or theatre person, right? And maybe I’m not. Maybe I’m just not very good. And I just couldn’t tell you because you’d be so disappointed and I was still trying to impress you. I am still trying to impress you.
You could have told me, Max said sitting up and looking at him, looking hurt. You should have.
Daniel didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know how to explain that he’d felt a slow building of pressure, that he had been struggling to sleep, that the onslaught of auditions and exams, and looming A Levels next year, and the social pressure of being out, properly out, had all fallen down on him in one big heap and he hadn’t coped at all.
Do you ever feel like the future is sort of coming to crush you? he said. You know, like, there is this giant wheel coming towards you and it’s going to grind down over you and leave you behind, all broken?
Um. I mean, not exactly like that, but I think I know what you mean.
Everyone keeps telling us how difficult it is going to be, how hard we have to work. And I want to freak out sometimes, but I don’t, I just keep going instead. I feel like I’m a skater on new ice, you know, moving as quickly as possible to avoid the cracks I leave behind. And the ice is breaking apart behind me and I’m going to just slip beneath the surface and drown.
Sorry, I’m just being dramatic.
No, you’re not. I get it. I mean, remember who you’re talking to. I am supposed to have this problem, right, where I have to live in routines and within boundaries otherwise I freak out. My dad tells this story about how, when I was six, I discovered this song on one of his old CDs, by this band called Radiohead. Anyway, I listened to this song, this really repetitive song, on repeat for weeks, months, and he couldn’t stop me. If he tried I’d go bloody mental.
What I’m saying is, I have to try and learn not to control everything, try to not keep everything in its place so hard. I have to try not to hold on tight to everything so that I crush it.
Daniel looked at him then properly, for what felt like the first time, studying his face in the dim streetlight.
When did you get so clever? he asked.
I’ve been hanging around you for months, remember?
Ha, yes, true, Daniel said. And then, he leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek softly and then leant his forehead on his shoulder and said quietly, Can we go home now?
Spring came – like a sudden opening, a sudden loosening of the bonds of winter. Like a great easing, spring came – and the trees unfurled their leaves and the first warm days brought the first pale human bodies out into the parks of the city to lie prone and shirtless on the grass. It brought the first small groups of shirtless boys playing kick-about, the first sniffs on the air of backyard barbeques.
Here they sat on the top deck of a bus as it passed through the city in the sunshine. Here they lay on the grass in the park nearest Max’s house, their arms outstretched, their fingertips only just touching.
Here they walked past each other in the corridors at school and Daniel felt a sudden flush across his face when Max’s shoulder just brushed his.
Here they both stood on the Shepherds Bush Overground station platform waiting for a northbound train.
The sign above promised a three-minute wait. Sunlight streamed in from overhead, bathing the platform and the people on it in the promise of a warm day in May.
It’s their course for sixteen to eighteen-year-olds, in July, Daniel said as they stood waiting. It’s at the actual drama school and like, professionals teach you. I mean, I don’t think my parents are going to let me go to drama school instead of uni first, but it’s still cool.
And you’re going to do the course? Max said.
I want to. I just have to convince my parents to pay the money!
You’re pretty good at convincing people to do stuff, Max said.
Before Daniel could think of a reply the train arrived. It took ages for all the passengers to disembark, and they had to rush to get on, the doors pinging furiously at them as they dashed between them. In the ensuing crush, Max grabbed his hand and squeezed.
Most of the seats were already taken so Max put his backpack down between his feet and they stood together, as the train began to move, leaning against a window, holding on to an orange bar. It was only then Daniel realised they were still holding hands. He carefully disentangled his fingers, blushing. How had Max become so forward?
The train was filled with weekend travellers – a middle-aged couple with their bicycles, a young mother and her three children, two girls both dressed in tiny denim shorts and strappy tops, staring at their phones. A tall and muscled man in running gear stood near them and Daniel let his eyes rake up his body and then looked back at Max quickly, only to see that he had been doing the same. They both grinned at each other and had to look away to avoid bursting into giggles. Max’s face flushed bright red and Daniel leaned into him a little, desperately wanting to rest his head on his chest and close his eyes.
The train flew across northwest London, leaving Willesden Junction as quickly as most people did, turning right and heading east. More people got on the train at each stop, and the two boys were forced to stand closer together in a corner.
You’ve got this audition at the end of the month, right? Max said.
Well, that will be fine then, he said, and reached out to push a strand of Daniel’s hair from his face.
Across the carriage a man with an open book in his hand caught his eye at that exact moment and smiled at him, before looking down to start reading again. Daniel felt a prickle of recognition race across his skin. Had he seen Max touching him? Had more people seen?
He felt a familiar panic, a worry that he had been seen, had been found out, that their secret world had been exposed. He felt this feeling rising in him and, determined to stop it, he lent forward and kissed Max softly. Then less softly.
Finally, the train pulled into Hampstead Heath station and they got off along with half of the passengers. They walked through the barriers and crossed the road into the green shade of the trees.
Ahead of them the Heath opened up on the left and on the right. It was the first truly hot day of the summer and people lay scattered on blankets and towels. They turned right and started on a path through the trees.
I can’t believe you’ve never been up here at all? You’ve lived in London your whole life.
I know, Max said. There are lots of things I’ve never done. I did go on the London Eye once with my mum, years ago. She was a bit, um, out of it. It was one of the worst times when she was drinking. I got a bit overwhelmed sealed in a glass bubble while she shouted at people to stop staring at me. I think they were actually staring at her, but, you know.
They were now climbing a sloping path that rose up through open meadow, new growth pushed through the longer winter grass. It was steeper than it looked.
Jesus, Daniel said, puffing a little as they walked, that sounds typically awful. I mean, I like your mum, but…bloody hell. And where else have you been?
Well, Max said, I think we used to go to the Planetarium a lot when I was little, when it was still at Baker Street. Dad said it used to calm me down, you know. Like for an hour or whatever it was, I would just sit staring up at the stars.
We should go again.
And then they crested the hill and suddenly all of London was spread out before them. In the distance the Shard glinted in the early summer sunlight and St Paul’s stood near it – a smaller monument to a different god.
Can you ever know a city like this entirely, he wondered? You could live here your whole life and it would remain a mystery. It was the same with Max, he thought. You could look at him, study him for hours and know no more than before. He’d once told him he was like a closed box, but maybe it was the same for everyone. Maybe everyone is unknowable.
I forget how fucking huge this place is sometimes, Daniel said. Like, I know that it is, but when you’re living in it, part of it, you can only see your little patch of it and you forget.
I like how it’s like a giant machine, Max said, you know? And all the people have their place and do their thing, and without thinking, keep it all going. I don’t ever want to be anywhere else.
No, he said, is that a weird thing to say?
Daniel looked up at him. No, don’t be silly, it’s a lovely thing to say. I don’t really want things to change either.
They stood then in silence, the two of them together, looking down at their city, thinking about the future, and also trying not to think about it. And Daniel was sure he could feel the city looking back at them. Thousands, no, millions of pairs of eyes looked up at them then where they stood. And these eyes coalesced into the one singular eye of the city, and it turned to consider them for a few moments, pausing to take them in before looking away and shattering into its million constituent parts.
They stood for five minutes before they walked down the hill, consulting Google Maps on Daniel’s phone, heading north and walking across open grassland.
Why did you want to come here? Max said as they approached the men’s bathing pond.
It’s a part of gay history.
Yes, men used to meet each other here. You know, like at the bathhouses, but in the summer and outside. I’ve been reading about it.
None of it sounds very clean. We’re not going to swim are we?
No, I think the water is still too cold.
They stood then, looking across the water towards the grassy bank on the other side where a few men in swimming trunks lay basking in the sun.
It’s weird, isn’t it, Daniel said, to think that this was one of the ways you could meet other guys. Like, one of the safer ways out here. That you had to play a kind of elaborate guessing game, even here, and if you got it wrong you’d go to jail and your life would be ruined.
I don’t like thinking about it, Max said. We can come back and swim another time though, if you want to?
Maybe, he said. Let’s eat the sandwiches.
Max pulled the sandwiches his mother had made from the backpack. They sat on a bench, side by side, and looked out over the water to where the winter-pale bodies lay on the green grass.
After taking a deep slug from the water bottle Daniel handed it to Max and watched him drink. He really had let his hair grow out – the anonymous short-back-and-sides look was gone and a mop of thick dark hair had taken its place. He’d begun to look like a professional footballer.
What’s next? Daniel said, gesturing at Max. An Alice band? A Gareth Bale topknot?
He reached over and dug both of his hands into Max’s hair, holding it up on top of his head in his fists, trying to make a ponytail.
You don’t know who Gareth Bale is, Max said, laughing.
Ha! I do too know who he is, he said. I’ve done research. He’s hot.
He is hot, Max said, and then looked away, blushing slightly, his hair now a mess.
Daniel sat back down and, cocking his head, holding his chin in his hand, he pretended to consider the other boy carefully. You don’t quite have enough hair yet, he said, it’s not quite long enough, but a man bun would suit you.
And then as his furiously blushing boyfriend tried to straighten his hair again, running his hands through it, patting it down, Daniel felt a kind of bursting feeling of love for Max.
Ask me again, he said.
Ask me again when I first fell in love with you.
And as he waited for Max to ask the question he thought of the times it had happened before, this sudden feeling of being in love. Sometimes it bubbled up unexpectedly from the depths and erupted violently – like a submarine breaching the surface.
But then, on other days, like right now, sitting there on that bench with him, it felt organic, slow-moving, half-hidden and just out of sight, alive and solid – as massive as the solemn hump of a whale just breaking the surface to breathe, running the length of its back up through the air, shining and wet.