My fiction comes from voices; voices that I hear, and then do my best to transcribe.

The voice that follows, which comes from the second story in Address Book, turned out to be a really tricky one to get down. Basically, that’s because going back to the 1980s is still very hard for me. There were too many funerals, and there’s still too much rage. Also, when I wrote, I could hear other voices in my head, voices that tried to block me. They asked politely if I was quite sure I wasn’t making some of these things up, because surely homophobia in this country can’t ever really have been a fact of life – and if it was, then surely nobody was really to blame; they advised me to focus on the happy stuff, to rejoice that the bad old days are over, and just be glad that I’m not twenty-seven any more. So I guess in one sense the story is an act of retaliation; it’s my fightback against all the forgetting. Once I’d put the doubting voices back where they belonged, the story was drafted in the course of one long night, and I scribbled it longhand. I changed the names, but just about everything else is as true as I can make it.

This passage comes about halfway through. It’s 1987; a young gay man has just got his first council flat, and the flat is unfurnished. So he goes to buy a mattress, and of all the places, ends up in a big posh furniture store on Tottenham Court Road.

Miss Roberta is a queen he regularly travels home with from Heaven nightclub on the number 15 night bus.

Those were the days, eh ?

JUST THE ONE OF YOU IS IT, SIR, the shop-woman said – and in that voice – you know? The one with loathing sprinkled on top of every single syllable. Plus the eyes were already up and down you like a rake. Just the one of you, is it, sir, she said, leaning on that last word like she really wanted to spit. And I mean, I was on my own, right? It’s not like I was with Miss Roberta or anything, and we were letting our hair down. Or like I was wearing anything particularly noisy that morning, because just your basic 501s and a checked shirt, it was. And my face was pretty much clean. Well alright, maybe a touch of eyeliner from the night before, but still, that shop-woman’s mouth was puckering the minute she saw me. Like she really wanted to see some saliva on my face, you know? Like she’d been trained to spot one.

Well let’s face it, they probably are.

We only have quite a modest selection of single mattresses in stock at the moment I’m afraid, she said, pecking at me already with that fucking metal voice of hers – and that was it. That was the word that really flicked your switch. We only have quite a modest selection of single mattresses in stock. Like she was assuming straight away that nobody who looks like me ever went shopping for a double, right? Like she was assuming straight away that nobody who looks like me would ever want to wake up lying next to somebody else. And straight away, there was that voice inside your head again, the rant that seems to be always on the tip of your fucking tongue these days, straight away saying oh sorry, lady, but before you carry on talking to me in that tone of voice, would you maybe like to hear some of our side of the story for a change? Would you maybe like to hear what life is like on the animal’s side of the chain-link fencing just for once? Would you like to know about some of the funerals, for instance – or how about the ward visits? Or I tell you what, perhaps I could tell you all about how many times Miss Roberta’s been slammed up against a wall already this year, slammed up against a wall by a total stranger and had her eyes punched out just for how she walks down the fucking street? And now that I’ve got your attention, perhaps you’d do me the courtesy of looking me in the eye while you wish me off the face of the earth, you cow. You complete, fucking, absolute cow.

Sorry. Well at least I only said it to her in my head. And she asked for it.

Shit, I need a fag now.

Maybe it’s really just the thought of us being skin to skin all night that makes them go so cross-eyed and mental and step away from the kiddies you disease-carrying freak.”

Actually, maybe the way that Tottenham Court Road shop-woman looked at you is the key to this whole fucking nightmare. I mean; maybe that’s what people really can’t stand. Not so much the disease itself, just the thought of two of us being on the same mattress at the same time. People give so many reasons for the hate, don’t they, so many excuses, but maybe what they really can’t stand is simply the thought of two bodies lying side by side. I mean, maybe they don’t really give a toss what we actually get up to while we’re there. Maybe it’s really just the thought of us being skin to skin all night that makes them go so cross-eyed and mental and step away from the kiddies you disease-carrying freak.

Sometimes, I wish they’d just say it to your face. Just spray it all out, like the shit it is. Just be honest for fucking once, you know?

So you interrupted her. You interrupted her, and you said out loud, excuse me, but I was hoping to look at some doubles. I’ve just got this flat, you see – you said. From the Council. I’ve been sleeping around all over the place for the last three and half years – sofas, squats, you name it darling, I’ve lain on top of it – but last week – you said – they told me I’d finally got to the top of the list. Now, it is on the Clerkenwell Road, this new place of mine, and so yes, it is a bit rundown. In fact, Victorian, this block is, according to that very nice lady in the housing office, so who wouldn’t be – but the thing is – you said – the bedroom may be small, but it’s perfectly big enough for a double mattress. And buggers can’t be choosers, can they?

Well, you may as well give as good as you get, as Miss Roberta always says.

from Address Book (Inkandescent, £9.99)

 

Neil Bartlett is a theatre director, performer and writer. His first novel, Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, was written in a council flat on the Isle of Dogs, published in 1990, translated into five European languages – and was recently re-issued in paperback for its thirtieth anniversary. His second novel, Mr Clive and Mr Page, was nominated for the Whitbread Prize in 1996; his third, Skin Lane, was shortlisted for the Costa Award in 2007; his fourth, The Disappearance Boy, earned him a nomination as Stonewall Author of the Year alongside Sarah Waters and Armistead Maupin in 2014. He lives in London with his partner, the author and archivist James Gardiner. Address Book is published in paperback by Inkandescent.
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