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Walking in my shoes

Free online fiction by Alex Draven

Ben stared at the ceiling and tried, unsuccessfully, to tune out the regular flickering of the neon lights outside his window and the drunken conversations conducted at top volume in the car park below. The club had small laminated notices in the lobby asking their clients to please respect the sleep of the local residents, to leave quietly. They also had signs behind the bar advising the punters that no credit would be offered and that they were only licensed to sell alcohol for consumption on the premises. No one paid any attention to those, either.

He shifted on the uncomfortable futon, scrunching up the thin pillow to see if maybe that would help. It was three fifteen am on a wet November night, he'd been here less than a month, and it was perhaps the millionth time he asked himself what he was doing here. Here, two hundred miles from what used to be home, here in this cluttered room, here in gay bar, here in his head.

It wasn't so bad when he was working. Day shift - the one that came with a room - meant cleaning and hauling deliveries and keeping the cellar shipshape and doing the banking and all that stuff was pretty much the same wherever you are, whoever the bar serves. With the office radio tuned to a golden oldies station and the fire doors open to let the daylight in he could almost forget sometimes that he wasn't back in Belford, at the Minister's Arms. When the first shift tumbled in, though, all young, all male, all gossip and bleach and casual affection, it was impossible to forget why it was he couldn't go back.

It was the off hours, when he'd no where to go, and nothing to do but think. Nights like this when the rain hit the windows hard and the sign flashed red, pink, blue, making patterns with the damp marks on the ceiling, and he couldn't sleep and he couldn't stop thinking.

He thought about Kelly sometimes, blond and sad, all the anger bled out of her with time. She'd known for years. By the time she finally left him all the rows were long in the past, and she had helped him carry his boxes up the stairs to the two-bed over the florists in Paton Street. They had parted with a dazed hug, and a ‘see you around, then.'

No, it wasn't Kelly he was running from. Kelly's mother, yes. The heavy gold rings loose on her fingers and the way her eyes narrowed, nothing but venom and vodka left in her system, as she spat lies and truths and the twisted remains of his history at whoever would listen, clinging to her spot at the end of the bar, watching him and hating him and all his kind.

Kelly's mother, and Derrick, and Mark, and Dave, and all the Minister's regulars who wanted Lisa to serve them, even when he was standing right there, ready, and the way their eyes hardened when they saw him, and the way Mr Benton wouldn't meet his eye when Ben was called into the back office, in the quiet hours between lunchtime and evening. He'd worked there nine years, gone from part time barman to deputy manager, and Jen Calver and her evil tongue had got rid of him in less than three months, running him off with things he'd never even had the chance to do. And he'd run rather than face seeing people who though they knew all about him, day in day out...

The part of himself that had nodded and accepted the judgement and gone back out to the bar and worked the rest of his final shift without protesting. That he still had to face in the mirror, and late at night when he couldn't sleep.

Thinking about it turned his stomach to acid. Ben pushed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets until he saw flashes of light, and, finally, eventually, decided that even trying to sleep was futile. The red lights on the clock radio blinked balefully. 3.47.


Tat slammed the washer door shut on the last tray of empties, and put his hands on Dai's hips to squeeze past to go collect up the rest of the ashtrays, grinning when the lad wriggled back at him and then responded to the playful smack with mock outrage. Tat grinned and stuck his tongue out as he danced off to the tables.

"Yeah, yeah - don't stick that thing at me unless you're going to use it!" Dai teased over the music they'd cranked up to help the clean-up go faster.

"That an offer?" Tat grinned over his shoulder, enjoying the flirtation. Dai was cute - short and slight with his dark hair artfully over one eye and a shirt tight enough to show his nipple rings. Cute and really taken, but it's always fun to play.

"You wish. You get the tables and I'll do the mop, is it?"

"Works for me."

"Fair enough - put the chairs up as you go, though, yeah?"

"Sure you're not going to want one to hand when Steve comes to pick you up?"

"Sure you're not going to trip over your tongue if we do?"

"So you would let me watch - I wondered."

Dai just rolled his eyes, ducking under the bar to go fetch the water works.

"For serious, Dai, - I got good tips tonight …"

"For serious, I wouldn't let Steve hear you offering to pay to watch - he'll fucking take you up on it."

"And that would be bad, how?"

"Fuck off and get your own, Tat." Dai's slap stung for a second, even through Tat's jeans, but the tone was still teasing, laughing.

"Oh but, Dai … " he whined, theatrically, flinging his arms around Dai's waist, landing on his knees on the sticky floor, laughter catching on the edges of his words, which is exactly when he registered Ben standing in the shadows of the hall door watching them. Dai must have noticed a split second later, because he suddenly stiffened, the laughter dying out to leave just the beat of the cd. The day manager didn't look pissed, but something about the guy just didn't invite you to play with him.

"Shit, Ben, we didn't wake you up did we?"

"Wasn't sleeping. Thought you might have some coffee on."

"'Course. Milk and one, right?" Ben nodded, and Tat pulled himself up, a little self conscious. "Dai - can you stick these in the washer, and I'll get us all some, yeah?" Tat gestured to the stack of ashtrays on the bar, and skidaddled to the cramped staff kitchen.

The dark syrupy coffee in the percolator was always rank by the end of the night, so Tat followed his usual routine, flipping on the electric kettle before setting out tall chipped mugs and stretching up for the top shelf of the single cupboard to drag down the jar of Nescafe, then tipping a jug full of water into the empty coffee machine to clean it out for the morning. By the time the kettle bubbled to a crescendo Tat was dolloping dark granules into the mugs, and he bumped the fridge door shut with his hip, using both hands to open the milk.

"Thanks." Ben's soft low voice behind him startled Tat enough that he splashed milk on the counter. He spun round, hand on chest.

"Jeeze - didn't hear you coming." Tat waved in a gesture of dismissal. "And it's nothing." He wasn't sure how to read Ben's expression, and the tall guy didn't seem overly inclined to say anything further, which left Tat babbling to fill the silence.

"Although, un, Simon left some of his birthday cake, if you really want someone to thank - you want some? It's Battenberg - not bad, really"

Ben shrugged in a kind of ‘yeah, ok' way, and Tat busied himself pouring out water and milk, and slicing the cake. He could feel Ben watching him, and it was quiet enough out back that he could hear the way Ben drew in a sharp breath when he bent right over to find a couple of paper plates in the bottom drawer. It confirmed a suspicion he'd had for a few days now, and it made him smile a little.

"Here you go." Tat broke the silence, offering both mug and cake to Ben, who took them only to perch the mug on the top of the fridge. "I'll just run this through the Dai, shall I?"

When he came back, Ben had hardly moved. Tat hadn't completely figured him out yet, but he had some ideas. He was a quiet guy, soft spoken and calm, probably not that much older than Tat, for all he seemed it sometimes. Soap-and-a-razor grooming, with his hair getting long enough to curl against the collar of his shirts - and always shirts, not t-shirts or anything casual, - white shirts with a t-shirt underneath and well worn jeans and desert boots. Although tonight : bare feet. Pale, bony, startlingly naked feet.

Tat crumbled a bit of marzipan between his fingers, and wondered how best to get the ball rolling. Licking the sticky sweet residue of almond from the index finger of his right hand he couldn't help but notice the way Ben watched and, uncommonly for an adept flirt like himself, he felt the flutter of nerves in his stomach.

"So, how come you're still up?"

"Bad night, is all."

Tat looked at him, head cocked, but he didn't elaborate.

Tat drew his fingers through the puddle of milk, drawing abstract cold white patterns on the fake plastic wood, and decided to abandon subtlety.

"Can I ask you something?"

Ben looked a little wary, but he nodded, slowly.

"What's stopping you from making a move?"

Those dark eyes dropped abruptly, gazing fixedly at his hands wrapped white-knuckle tight around the mug.

"Ben?" Tat prompted, hoping desperately he hadn't just screwed things up.

"It's not that easy." Ben didn't look up.

"What if it could be?"

He just shook his head. The kitchen was small enough that Tat could give in to his instinct and reach out, a gentle unthreatening hand on Ben's tense shoulder without moving.

"OK. Just - well, ok. But if you change your mind, or you want someone to talk to, you know? I'll be around, ok?"

Ben's smile was a sorry broken thing. "It's not. But, you know, thanks."

*** end ***

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Author's note : written for my Sensory Overload ficathon, 2005

Sight - stains [x ]
Sound - shouting [x]
Scent - cumin [ ]
Touch - liquid [ x]
Taste - almond [ x]

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Walking in my shoes by Alex Draven is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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