3 May 1996
The weather report said it would be fine. It’s not. It’s late evening, the light dimming, and I’m huddled as the wind and rain ride through the railway station, their sound the beat of bass and rhythm on the arching roof, the glass and steel edifice magnifying every sound.
Not that speech is common here among we polite, somnambulist commuters, save for the loudspeakers’ occasional harsh blasts. But no, I hear these words clearly, they hit me like stones.
“Fuckin’ pouf. Oi, you, fuckin’ pouf.”
I turn, look, turn the look into a stare.
The first one – he’s small, swarthy, about 23 or 24, wearing a dark blue blazer with a high polyester count – turns to his mate (taller, around the same age, red-headed, in natty grey) and says, loudly, close to a shout, “Told you he was a pouf.” Then he laughs.
The small crowd on the platform stirs, feet shifting, like an animal herd scenting predators.
I should be feeling the adrenaline rush now. That’s what invariably happens: adrenaline pumps, flooding the system, heart beat accelerates to deal with the threat of imminent physical danger, partnered by a feeling of utter powerlessness for a split second as you become what the words declare you to be. This filthy, less than human thing. Queer boy. Jew boy. Nigger boy. Freak. Worm. Whatever.
Your body prepares itself. Your mind tears itself apart.
Practice lets you put it back together again. I can do it in record time. Groups of Eton-educated louts, gangs of giggly girls, drunken computer operators having a fun night out, Muslim fundamentalists ranting on street corners, hard men killing time in cars borrowed from their dads . . . Up and down the social scale, advantaged and disadvantaged, across the ethnic and religious divides, age and gender immaterial. Always the same fever burning in the face, the same savage, excited glint in the eye.
I put down my bag. He’s still laughing. It stops when I walk over and position himself smack dab in front of him. He’s genuinely taken aback. Aren’t they always. His friend, the red head, is about to go into shock. The people on the platform tense, become stick figures. The man now closest to us, barely a foot distant from the hunters and their prey, is stock still, brown leather briefcase clenched tightly in hand, eyes straight ahead, a City gent standing to attention.
I tell myself I’m shivering because of the cold.
I’m polite. That disturbs them, too: “Yes?” A quick look is exchanged, a mixture of confusion and defiance. Neither one knows who is to lead. The smaller one makes a stab. He sneers: “Yeah. I wanted to know if you’re queer.”
I take a step closer, because the last time this happened there were six against one, and I was paralysed by the odds, had to swallow the humiliation. Only I promised myself that next time, I would... I would... My memory bank downloads the image of Clyde in his hospital bed, his head cracked open, like an egg dropped by a careless cook. Purple and yellow and black, a riot of bruised colour painted in flesh, his shattered skull lying beneath. The policeman said the gang had shoved him to the ground and started kicking. Kept kicking. Yes, it was outside a busy bar, and, no, no witnesses had come forward.
I shake the picture off. I say, “It takes one to know one.” The red head smothers a laugh. The smaller, dark one is infuriated. Perfectly logical reaction. It’s not as if I’m playing ball.
“Like it up the back, then?” he damn near shouts. I point to his friend: “Not as much as your pal does.” The red head freezes. I can hear the City gent’s quick, shallow breathing. “Homo,” the red head croaks. “Hetero,” I return, childishly. “What did you say?” the red head snaps, his face glowing with blood. I am the calm before the storm.
“Hetero. As in heterosexual.” The red head glances at his mate, swivels back to me: “I’m no heterosexual.”
I’m stunned. Really. He knows the word – the words – for me, or for a part of me – but not the word for himself. Is that confidence bordering on arrogance, or ignorance? I opt for ignorance, because a secure man would surely not need to expose himself in his attempts to expose others.
The small dark one reaches out with both arms, pushes me in the chest, almost gently. I push back, hard. He staggers a little. “Fuck off,” I say. He moves forward, halts. We all three know that whatever might have happened is not about to happen. Some peak has passed. They mutter and move, but not too far, for that might signal concession, or worse, defeat. We’ve settled for a stand-off.
The train pulls in. I return for my bag. No one on the platform says anything as we board. My tormentors choose the carriage in front. The City gent, though, brushes by, and manages a smile, a pretend, stuck-on thing presumably thought encouraging.
It doesn’t work. I’m both weepy and weary; for that smile is also an apology. It tells me that had the moment not passed, if it had occurred, it would have had no witnesses, and I would have had no help.
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