I’m sitting outside Costa coffee shop in Soho and there’s a man nearby. He’s been here for at least an hour; his chair facing in my direction, sipping his coffee, coffee that must have gone cold long ago. He’s chatting with a friend, his head turned to one side as he chats and his legs are spread, the way men’s legs are when they sit. Even at this distance his crotch appears to be on the large side. Bunched up. The fold in his jeans standing up in a peak, creases stemming from the mound, illuminating it, like a sundial.
I stare at his crotch, and as I stare my mind drifts back, back in time, until it’s not really his crotch I’m staring at anymore, it’s a memory.
I’m eight years old. It’s the school fancy dress party and my mum’s dressed me up as Mick Jagger: harlequin tights, a white frilly shirt hanging loose, my hair, long and tousled. Cherry red lipstick. My face powered. Even at this young age I’m aware that I’m different. I look at the other kids dressed up as firemen, soldiers, sailors, then look down at my own outfit. I don’t want to wear it anymore. I’m not sure why.
Then I see the music teacher, Mr Brock. Big, tall Mr Brock. With his dark closely cropped hair, bushy moustache, black, tight-fitting trousers. And his big crotch, at eye level, walking towards me. I can see the folds. The creases. The mound. And as he nears I want to reach out and touch it. The feeling, so clear, so vivid. But I daren’t touch it. Something tells me it’s not right.
Now he’s walking past. Big, tall Mr Brock. It’s now or never. I’m excited. I clear my throat. I gaze up.
“Excuse me Sir. Can you, er…”
He looks down. “What do you want?” he says. His face is stern.
“Can you, er…can you help me take my lipstick off?”
“Do it yourself boy,” he says, raising an eyebrow.
“I, I, er, I don’t know where it is.”
“It’s on your lips. Where do you think it is?” and he brushes past.
Then it hits me. I’ve hinted at something that’s not right. I’m about to cry. This feeling of rejection, it hurts. Even though I’m not sure what it was I want – it still hurts. I reach into my tights, pull out a paper hanky and wipe my face. I don’t want to be Mick Jagger anymore.
And as I stand there, wondering what to do, wondering where to turn, watching Mr Brock gradually fade away into the crowd, the man sipping coffee outside Costa coffee shop stands and waves goodbye to his friend, and then the memory, the memory that just seconds ago was so vivid and so clear, it gradually fades away too.
But then another memory emerges … another crush. Three years after the first. On twins. Robert and Bert Hedges.
The Hedges twins were big, strong and handsome, with legs like sturdy trees and hair that parted in the middle like David Cassidy; and being an ugly duckling, they were everything I wanted to be.
For the first year at school I was fortunate. My love remained unrequited, and I was able to mix with them, hiding my secret behind a mask of rugby playing and bike rides, trying to assimilate, trying to blend in. Until one day I opened my big mouth.
At the time it seemed just a normal off the cuff remark. But within seconds I realised the impact it’d had; the repercussions of which would reverberate around me for the next four years.
I was 11, still in the first year of secondary school, and attracting unwanted attention from girls. Looking back, it was probably my, “I’m not interested” attitude that was attractive. It was certainly a turn-on for a very tall girl called Karen.
Karen was not blessed with beauty, made worse by the fact that she surrounded herself with a gaggle of very pretty girls. I can picture her now. So very tall, with the gait of a galloping camel and a body to boot. On a clear day you could spot Karen from the other side of the school playing field. Like an electricity pylon in a hockey skirt. And wherever I went, Karen followed.
I’d be at the Tuck Shop buying sweets, and there she’d be. Unlocking my bike, she’d be unlocking hers. Walking home, she’d be walking the same route. I was being stalked before the word was invented and what freaked me out was that Karen was pushing for something that, for some reason, seemed at odds with the person I was. Then one day, Karen and her posse cornered me. I’d fended off Karen’s cow’s eyes for months. But enough was enough. The courtship had now reached a critical phase. Today they wanted action.
“Why won’t you kiss Karen?”
“Karen loves you. Just give her a kiss.”
“Will you take Karen to the cinema?”
They were incessant. Like rabid dogs. Surrounding me. Pushing me toward Karen as she cooed and fawned nearby, in her big blue socks, big blue skirt and, no doubt, big blue knickers. Suddenly it all got too much. I had to put an end to the on heat Karen and her camel-like udders.
”I’ll never kiss Karen. Why would I want to kiss her when I’m already in love with Robert and Bert Hedges?’”
Immediately, everything stopped. The jeering stopped. The laughter stopped. Everyone stared at me, wide-eyed, mouths open, looking back and forth as if trying to comprehend what I’d just said. I giggled nervously. Took a step back. Karen started to cry, galloped off. Then the whispering started. And it became louder. And louder.
“You can’t love the Hedges twins. They’re boys!”
“How can you love them?”
“You can’t love boys!”
“I know,” I squeaked nervously, near to tears, signing my own death warrant with every word. “But I do.”
That was it. The genie was out the bottle and within minutes it was flying round the school. Everyone ran in different directions, spreading the word. And by lunchtime the whole school knew. Dinner ladies too. I’d become famous for doing nothing. I was also dead meat.
When I sat down for lunch, people moved away. When I walked into a class, everyone stopped talking. When I lined up for the rugby team, no one picked me. Even the school weakling turned his nose up when I walked by. I had to regroup, and quickly, especially as I’d heard through corridor gossip that the school bully, Russell Palmer, was looking for me. Russell was huge. He was the first boy in school to sprout pubic hair, a powerhouse on the rugby field, with a back so broad his school uniform could barely contain his body. If Russell had you in his sights, well, you might as well change schools, because your life would never be safe again.
The strange thing was though, despite what I had said, there were boys playing with each other all over school. Schoolboy wanks in the showers. Jack-off competitions in the bike sheds. Kissing in chemistry lab. But me, who never got a nod from a donkey, my “I love the Hedges twins” revelation, broke a golden rule. I’d acknowledged something people had little knowledge of. Defined something not yet understood.
So, I started a media blitz of the school corridors, batting the whole thing off as a joke. “Oh you didn’t believe that did you? Me fall in love with a boy? No, I’m in love with the art teacher Miss Kelly.” But it was too late. No one was convinced. My plan had failed. From being one of the loudest, wildest and most popular kids in school, I became one of the most withdrawn, one of its outcasts. A complete personality change overnight.
Fortunately however, although I was ostracised, I wasn’t bullied, and, for a couple of years, I managed to dodge the threats of extreme violence, despite getting pushed on the playing field, tripped up in the corridor, staying one step ahead of my tormentors, a deflective witticism saving me on more than one occasion; secretly proud of how I’d manage to survive the controversy. Until one evening …
“Oi. You. Clayton!”
I turn round. There are five of them standing outside the school gates. Russell Palmer and his gang. Russell towering over them. His face set in a grimace as if preparing for battle. I start to run. Luckily I’m already 50 yards ahead of them before they decide to chase.
“Wait,” one of them shouts. “We wanna word with you!”
I look behind again. They’re still there. Three of them pushing ahead. Russell in the lead. A deadly triangle. I run faster. Down Winterstoke Road. I’m near the railway bridge. Halfway home. If I just cut through the council estate, I’ll be safe. But wait. What if I duck into the woods? They’ll never find me in there.
So, in I go.
It’s dark inside. Blackberry bushes on the outskirts. Mud mounds that have been used as bike jumps. A little stream tinkering through the middle. Sunlight filtering its way through tree branches that hang low on the muddy, leaf strewn floor.
I run toward the back and hide behind a huge oak tree, my heart thumping, trying to contain my breathing, waiting for the sound of Russell and his gang.
A minute passes. I wipe the sweat from my brow onto my school grey trousers. Pick a piece of bark off the tree and dig it under my nails. Adrenaline gradually subsiding. I’ve done it. I’ve escaped. Only the sound of the gang storming past doesn’t come. Just the sound of branches, breaking.
Oh shit. They’re here.
I peer around the tree. Sure enough, three of them are inside the woods. Two standing by the entrance, keeping guard.
“Clayton, we know you’re in here,” someone calls. “Come on out.”
I duck back. Now what? If they spot me they’ll tear me apart. But if I stay here they’re gonna find me anyway.
“Clayyyyyyttttoooonnnn! Where are yoooooooou?”
I bite down on my bottom lip, hardly aware of the pain. This next decision will decide my fate. Shall I be brave and make myself known? Or spend the rest of my schooldays in fear? Even as I’m thinking this my feet are edging forward. It’s the only way.
I step out from behind the oak tree. “Here I am.”
Three boys are facing me. Russell in the middle. Sly smiles on each of my enemies.
“Why did you run?” Russell says.
“Why did you chase me?” I reply, attempting to match his blunt tone.
Russell’s fists are bunched, a bead of sweat snakes its way down his temple, glistening in the half light. His gigantic body is silhouetted. Like a gorilla in a jungle preparing to attack.
“Hit him,” one of the boys says taking a step closer.
Russell holds a hand out, holding him back. “So … you like the Hedges twins, do ya”?’
“Oh that old story. That was just a joke.” My voice quavers.
“I don’t think it was a joke,” Russell sneers. “I think you fancy ‘em.”
“What … what makes you think that?”
“Because you’re a poof?”
My throat’s dry. I’m about to throw up. But I manage to say, “How can I be a poof? I’ve never done anything with a boy.”
“Yeah, but you wanna do something, doncha ya?” Russell says. His voice aggressive, words spat out in disgust.
He steps closer. One step. Two steps. I need to think of something. And quickly. If ever my mouth was going to save me, it’s now.
“I think you want to touch me,” Russell says. His face is now dappled in sunlight. Sinister. Threatening. His handsome chiselled face so contorted with rage, it’s turned ugly.
He takes another step.
Come on, Clay. Show him you’re not scared. He won’t know you’re acting. It’s OK. This feeling about boys is just a phase. You read it in that book. It said, all boys go through this. It won’t last forever. So face it. Face him.
“Yeah. I do wanna touch you,” I fire back. “Didn’t you know? It wasn’t the Hedges twins I wanted. It was you.”
I’ve surprised myself. Where did that come from?
Russell stops. “You think that’s funny?”
“I’m not trying to be funny. It’s just that if I’m gonna get accused of something then …” My voice trails off and my act of defiance peters out.
Russell stares at me and nods his head, slowly, a malicious grin indicating he’s about to hit me, any second now.
Then a strange thing happens. I look at him. I mean I really look at him. My eyes directly into his. It’s only for a couple of seconds, but it’s as if there’s a glint of something. A recognition. A shared feeling. A feeling I’m still trying to figure out. But it’s like he’s trying to figure it out too. Like we’re both in this together.
He tears his eyes away. The thread is broken. “Come on,” he says to his friends. “Let’s get out of here.”
Out he went. And we never spoke again.
Clayton Littlewood’s book, Dirty White Boy: Tales of Soho was published in 2008 by Cleis Press. Dirty White Boy began life as a blog with a cult following that later became a popular column in The London Paper, and was based on Clayton’s experiences running the Dirty White Boy clothes store with his partner, Jorge Betancourt in, London’s Soho.
Dirty White Boy captured a memorable moment in Soho’s history and found humour and affection for Soho’s prostitutes, street cleaners, transsexuals, bag ladies and shoplifters.
Reviewers compared it to the diaries of Samuel Pepys, Virginia Woolf and Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. It was named Gay Times Book of the Year and was endorsed by Elton John and Stephen Fry.
In 2009, Clayton turned it into a play. It premiered in London’s West End and starred Clayton and the actor David Benson. It sold out. The play returned a year later for an extended run. The sequel, published in 2012, is called Goodbye to Soho.