Chapter 1 – Journey
“Oh my god, they’ve written about your arse. I can’t believe they mentioned your arse. Look!”
While grabbing the paper from the barman, Danny Johnson’s eyes instantly focused on the title of the publication. London’ Bears.
Sensing the wide-opened eyes of the barman on him, a big grin appeared across Danny’s face. He knew that his body’s best feature was his bottom, and here it was now being confirmed in a publication. And, more recently, it had been confirmed by Nick, Danny’s boyfriend.
Standing at five feet ten inches tall, Danny Johnson may have had the best bottom in the world, but he disliked his pale complexion. He always had to cover up during hot summer’ days, which meant no going shirtless with all the other guys. Freckles dotted his arms, and his red hair would have been very wavy if he’d let it grow. But he never allowed it to grow, always getting it cut at least once every three weeks. Danny disliked long hair on men. It just made them look feminine.
He always felt on top of the world after a haircut. It made him feel clean and confident, but most of all, Danny believed it made him stand out in a crowd.
His confidence would dwindle as his hair grew. It was as if the confidence was sand in an egg timer which would fill up again the moment his hair got cut.
Whenever he needed a confidence boost, Danny would get the hair clippers out. As he clipped his hair to the number one setting on the clippers, the confidence would come flooding back. There would be occasions when he would find himself cutting his hair at three o’clock in the morning. It tended to happen after miserable nights out where he had played at being a wallflower all evening without anybody attempting to chat him up.
Today, though, Danny’s hair wasn’t his primary concern, because his life was turning a corner.
Life had given Danny many exciting and memorable moments, but it hadn’t finished with him yet. It had many more situations planned for him.
On the last day of his life, Danny looked back on this part of his life journey and felt confident that he had lived it to the fullest.
The tearful faces looking down at him didn’t help, though. He wished they were celebrating with him; not crying the final moments of this part of his journey away.
On closing his eyes for yet another interlude, Danny wondered what next would be in store for him. Life never ended. You simply moved on to the next chapter.
What lay ahead for Danny was something he had often dreamt about ever since the first time he’d stepped off the train at Paddington station. Seven years earlier had been his first trip to London. Now on his fourth trip, his romance with the city was about to get serious.
Climbing the three steps to board the coach in Middlesborough station, Danny came face to face with the driver whom he acknowledged with a smile.
“Ticket please”, demanded the driver with a cheeky smile.
Blushing, Danny placed his bag on the floor. Thinking how ridiculous he must seem to all the other passengers, he fumbled around for his ticket. Although he disliked large groups of people starring at him, he still craved being the centre of attention.
He remembered how exiting he’d felt the day he’d purchased the ticket to London. The prospect of starting a new chapter in his life had stayed with him right up until this moment. Now, however, doubt was setting in. Was he doing the right thing by moving to London?
“Sorry,” announced Danny, looking up and noticing the badge on the driver’s shirt. ‘Dougie Marsh.’
“No problem,” responded Dougie. “Take your time. I’m guessing you’ve packed in a hurry. Running away from something or to something?” he chuckled.
“Both,” replied Danny, hoping that the other passengers could not overhear the conversation. “I’ve lived here for six years and have decided to get away from it all.”
“Oh, come on, driver,” shouted a voice from the far end of the coach, “I kinda need to get to London today, not next week! Stop flirting with the cute guy and get on with getting us there.”
Blushing again, Danny wondered if Dougie Marsh was flirting with him. Surely not? Anyway, even if he was, he wasn’t Danny’s type.
“Ah, here it is,” announced a delighted Danny, pulling the ticket from the inside of his wallet. “I’ve hardly let this ticket out of my sight since I purchased it. It’s become as important as having a best friend.” Handing the ticket to Dougie, he noticed how bitten down Dougie’s nails were. Maybe he was an ex-smoker who had just quit or perhaps he was going through a tense time in his life?
“A best friend?” commented Dougie. “I remember having one of those.”
A loud cough from the back of the coach interrupted the conversation. The young man who had earlier accused Dougie of flirting gave him a piercing look.
Picking up his bag, Danny made his way down the coach not realising the eyes of the driver were admiring a perfect backside in the rearview mirror of the coach.
Although he was the last passenger to board the coach, Danny managed to find a row of unoccupied seats.
As Dougie revved up the engine, Danny sat down. A woman in the opposite row sighed relief and looked over at him.
“Air conditioning,” she declared while finishing fanning her face with a magazine. “I just hate being so hot!”
She had short brown hair with a slight curl to it and a gorgeous doll-like face with large brown eyes. Danny thought she reminded him of his grandmother’s porcelain doll collection. She looked about the same age as Danny and wore a long, white dress decorated with a large, red floral print. Danny recalled seeing a similar character on a children’s TV show, and he nicknamed her ‘Hamble.’
Smiling back at her, he could have taken what she’d just said one of two ways. Either Hamble was saying she hated the heat, or that she had a problem with so many men she encountered because she considered herself so sexy.
“Not been a bad summer so far, but don’t you hate it being so hot that the news features those stupid stories of people claiming to have fried an egg on the pavement? Why would anyone want to fry an egg on the pavement? It’s not as if you can eat it afterwards,” giggled Hamble.
Out of politeness, Danny nodded his head.
“Then again”, she said, “maybe they’re making a point?”
“Yes,” replied Danny. “I’m not too fond of the heat either. I’d rather be too cold than too hot. At least you can wrap up warm.”
Danny’s mind began to wander again. It was as if he had sat in the row of seats named ‘daydream alley’, but why was last Christmas on his mind? As usual, he’d spent it with Nick. Ah, yes, Nick. Where was Nick? He’d driven him to the coach station. He hoped Nick had stayed to wave him off to London.
The noise of Hamble fumbling around some items in a plastic carrier bag broke his thinking. Taking out a giant chocolate bar and unwrapping it carefully, she took a large bite out of it, even though it was on the verge of melt-down.
“I couldn’t live without air conditioning or chocolate,” Hamble announced while savouring the day’s first taste of chocolate. “Unless it’s chocolate in a cake or a biscuit. I once worked with a girl who ate two large chocolate chip cookies and drunk a can of diet cola for breakfast. We nicknamed her ‘Fat Nat’,” she laughed.
Danny asked if Nat ate salad for lunch.
While Hamble carried on talking, her voice became a dwindling echo in Danny’s head. Panic set in again, and he could feel his heart pounding.
As the coach turned out of Middlesbrough station, Danny realised he’d not waved to Nick. Quickly peering out of the window, his eyes searched for him, but Nick was nowhere in sight.
How disappointing. He could have at least seen me safely off, thought Danny. Seven years of life together and he can’t even be bothered to wave me off out of his life.
Earlier, the journey in the car to the station had been silent and tense. Danny was excited by the prospect of beginning a new life in London while Nick had thought about the future with the new love of his life, Shaun.
Shaun was younger than Danny. His blond curls, deep-blue eyes, six-pack and boyish good looks were something Nick couldn’t resist. He instantly fell for him.
A few years after splitting up with Danny, Nick would regret the moment he first set eyes on Shaun, wishing instead he had agreed with Danny to have a night at home. But the thought of spending another night watching horror movies and eating Chinese takeaway sent Nick into lust for the pub filled with younger gay men. It was where he first set eyes on Shaun.
It wasn’t long before Danny got suspicious. Nick was hiding someone or something. He set a trap to confirm his suspicions. On the night the trap was set, Danny’s worst fears came true. Not only had Nick admitted that he had affections for somebody else, but that he had also shared their bed with the new love of his life. It was a moment in the lives of all three men that none of them would forget.
For Danny, months of heartbreak followed. However, an advertisement in the local newspaper advertising for staff to live and work in London would eventually turn the heartbreak into something exciting.
For Nick, the rekindling of lust led to a slippery slide on life’s helter-skelter. As he hit the end of the ride, his final thought would be of the July day he drove Danny to the station and watched the only true love of his life set off on a journey which would not include him. But, thankfully, that wasn’t the end of being in Danny’s life.
For Shaun, life with Nick wasn’t all that Nick had promised. He soon found himself continuing another campaign of chaos and destruction that affected the lives of those he came into contact with.
Think positive, Danny told himself. Ahead, lay an unknown but exciting future. Behind, life had been tremendous, but the recent events had left a bitter reminder that everything happened for a reason. What was the point of dwelling on the past, and what might have been? The past was gone, and he was now on the verge of something completely new.
Nick was a thing of the past and had a new life with Shaun. Shaun had probably already taken Danny’s place, by moving in and waiting in bed for Nick.
Feeling slightly jealous, Danny closed his eyes. He couldn’t help but think about what had happened between Nick and him. Had it been cruel, setting a trap which Nick fell into headfirst?
Setting the trap had been straightforward.
Just before Danny went out for the evening, Nick told him that he’d be spending the evening catching up on some business at home. As a trade unionist, Nick cared deeply about his fellow workers. He saw it as a way of showing how he minded for others without actually having to say anything. Unyielding with management, Nick ensured none of his fellow workers were ever bullied or sacked for no good reason. He organised strike action, and the workforce respected him for what he did. Even though some suspected Nick was gay, none of the men he worked with tolerated any homophobic remarks about him. Those that tried got dealt with quickly.
Danny marked a half-empty bottle of vodka at level remaining and headed out for his work evening out. It hadn’t mattered where he was going. If the venue played music, Danny could forget about everything and, for a time, dance the problems away.
Upon his arrival home, Danny noticed how untidy Nick’s usually clean and tidy desk looked. Union papers covered the entire surface. Had they been placed there to make it look like lots of hard work had taken place? It didn’t fool Danny. The vodka bottle held the truth, but it would have to wait until morning. All Danny wanted to do right now was cuddle up to Nick before they officially split up. He still loved him.
Surprisingly, he slept well.
‘Friday, at five past nine, but the evening, not the morning.’ Was that his Grandmother’s voice he could hear? Upon opening his eyes, Danny focused on the clock on the bedside cabinet. Five minutes past nine was the exact time he had been born. How odd that he’d just heard his Grandmother’s voice telling him the time. But she was wrong. It was morning, not evening. Given that she lived hundreds of miles away, he must have been dreaming about her.
He needed a drink of water but realised he’d forgotten to bring any with him to bed. A sudden noise of cutlery and dinner-plates from downstairs startled him. Turning over, he saw Nick’s side of the bed was empty.
One more minute, thought Danny, give me one more minute before I go downstairs and face being a single man again.
But the minute turned into two, which turned into five and then ten. Finally, Danny’s overfilled bladder forced him up and out of bed.
“Coffee, Danny?” called out Nick from the bottom of the stairs as Danny tipped-toed to the bathroom.
Danny didn’t want to reply.
“Danny! Do you want coffee?” Nick yelled.
An awkward pause followed, before any response.
“Ah, yes. Ah, better, yes, better make it black, please.”
Pausing again, Danny wondered if he should shower first or just put on a pair of shorts and go and face Nick straight away.
Don’t put it off, a voice in his head said. Go down and face him. Put it off, and you’re fooling yourself.
As a small tear rolled down Danny’s face, he knew this was the beginning of the end of his first-ever relationship with somebody he still deeply loved.
Grabbing his dressing gown, he fastened it tightly, as if he was about to answer a knock at the front door from a stranger. Trembling, he began the journey downstairs.
Entering the kitchen, Danny’s eyes focused on Nick, who was leaning, crossed legged, against the kitchen sink. Smiling, he had one hand in the top pocket of his jeans while the other held a mug of steaming coffee. He looked as handsome as he had when Danny first met him at Paddington Station. His stocky 6-foot frame and jet black hair had always made him attracted to Danny.
“Coffee’s over there,” said Nick while nodding the top of his head towards one of the kitchen worktops. “Did you have a good night out?”
“No, thank you,” replied Danny.
Nick looked puzzled by the response. “Don’t you have a hangover? Surely a black coffee would help?”
“Yes, I do,” answered Danny, “but I rather fancy a vodka.”
Danny watched as Nick’s jaw dropped. I bet he’s asking himself why I’m asking for vodka at nine-thirty on a Saturday morning.
“But you don’t drink vodka,” came a concerned response. “Why would you be asking for vodka?” A false smile appeared across Nick’s face. “You’re still drunk, aren’t you? You are, aren’t you?” Nick laughed.
Smerking, Danny watched as the laughter tapered off, and Nick’s face changed into one of concern and discomfort. Danny had an inkling that he was about to hear something he didn’t want to hear.
“Was Shaun here last night?”
“No!” came a quick reply. Nick became more and more uncomfortable with the question. “Why on earth are you asking me that?”
Danny watched as Nick’s neck blushed. That only ever happened when Nick lied.
“I’ve noticed you acting differently recently. Acting as I have only ever seen you act once before,” responded Danny.
A long pause followed. Danny knew that Nick was probably trying to think of an excuse. “So, you going to get me that vodka?” demanded Danny.
“What do you mean…like you have only ever seen once before? I don’t understand. What are you getting at, Danny? Come on. You’re kidding, yeah? A vodka at–“, looking at his wristwatch, “nine-thirty on a Saturday morning? You don’t even drink vodka–“
“TRY ME,” Danny yelled back.
A look of horror crossed Nick’s face.
“Cat got your tongue?” asked Danny. “Tell me the truth. Was Shaun here last night?”
“No, he wasn’t!” Nick shouted back.
For a moment, Danny felt relieved. Perhaps Shaun hadn’t been here.
A stony silence formed.
“Don’t lie to me Nick, for seven years, I was the most important person in your life,” tears trickled down Danny’s face, “or so I thought.”
Another awkward pause followed before Nick spoke.
“You know, don’t you? How do you know? Have you been checking up on me? I never thought anybody would come between us, Danny. I am so sorry. I never wanted this to happen.”
“But you allowed it to happen.”
Danny wondered if the stocky man in front of him was also on the verge of tears. Another developing silence in the house became something neither of them wanted to break. It was only interrupted by the sudden rush of Nick leaving the kitchen and the heavy thud of his footsteps climbing the stairs.
The loud noise of a door being slammed startled Danny. For a moment, the house was at peace again. Then the sound of gentle sobbing broke the air, making Danny feel guilty.
Wiping away the remains of the dried-up tears on his face, Danny tried to make sense of what had just happened. Did Nick just admit that another man had come between them? Had another man stolen Nick’s feelings? Was Nick now a man who would no longer have any significance in Danny’s life?
Briefly, echoes of laughter and joy tried to invade Danny’s head, but they were quickly beaten back by a dark cloud that strangled the happiness out of the last seven years.
Then he remembered the vodka bottle. Did it matter that he’d not checked if the trap had worked? Did he need to see if the bottle held the confirmation he so much did not want to witness?
Walking out of the kitchen with his head bent, Danny entered the showroom-like living room where everything was neatly in its place.
When he looked up again, the first thing he saw was the mobile-drinks bar Nick had so passionately wanted when they had first seen it in the department store.
Danny loved him so much that it never mattered to him that Nick had spent the whole holiday fund on buying it. After all, it made the man of his life happy, and that was far more important than any holiday.
Crossing his fingers, he walked towards the bar and hoped that the trap had not gone off.
Danny knelt down to grab the bottle and checked the mark he’d left on it last night, then set it on the bar. For a moment, he thought the alcohol he had consumed the night before was playing tricks with his eyes. Wide-eyed, he moved his head towards the bottle and stood, shocked, with disbelief.
The vodka was at precisely the same place as the mark on the bottle. Nick had admitted everything to him without having set off the trap.
With the bottle in his hand, Danny walked to the kitchen and poured the vodka down the sink. As the last drops vanished, he opened the kitchen waste bin, but something red to the right of a packet of snacks caught his eye. Moving the empty pack aside, he found five small empty bottles of vodka – the type found in minibars. The type Shaun would have access to as an airline steward.
It wasn’t the trap that had caused Nick to tell the truth, but honesty itself. But that didn’t make what had happened any better. Vodka was the only alcoholic drink Shaun drunk, but how foolish Nick and Shaun had been at not covering their tracks.
As tears began to trickle down Danny’s face again, the sobs from upstairs continued to gently break the silence.
A sudden jerk of his body brought Danny back to the present. How long had he been in deep thought about what had happened a few weeks ago?
Then, Dougie’s voice making an announcement made the past disappear entirely.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are all on our way. London is the next stop. We will not be calling at any other stations on route, although we will stop for the occasional comfort break. So, this is your semi-non-stop service to London Victoria. Please respect your fellow passengers by not playing loud music or eating odorous food on the journey…”
Looking down the aisle, Danny chuckled to himself as he watched Dougie enjoying the sound of his own voice while occasionally glancing at the passengers in the rear-view mirror. Danny decided to also check out who was on board the coach.
An older couple sat in front of him had their arms so tightly linked, it looked as if they’d been glued together. Danny’s mind went into overdrive with questions. Where, when and how had they met? Were they childhood sweethearts who had stayed loyal to each other, or had they only just entered each other’s lives? Were they having an affair with each other or with anybody else? Why were they going to London?
Along with a voice from his left, the couple suddenly kissing stopped the questioning.
“Hellooooooo. Earth too–. Hey, I’ve just realised I don’t know your name. I’m Jane, Jane Evans. And you are?”
With a glazed look on his face, Danny turned towards the woman he’d nicknamed Hamble.
“So,” announced Jane, who had been talking non-stop to Danny while he’d been thinking about the past. “Did I tell you about the worst thing I ever did to another human being?”
Although not really interested in what Jane had to say, Danny tried to look attentive.
“Don’t worry, it’ll only take a few minutes,” she laughed. “A few minutes to take away the coach sickness I suffer with.”
Fumbling around the plastic carrier bag again, she produced another bar of chocolate and offered it to Danny.
“Fruit and nut? That’s my favourite. How did you know?”
“Oh, good. You and I are going to get on so well,” replied Jane as she extended her hand to Danny. “Did I introduce myself?”
“Yes, you did,” answered Danny, leaning across and hardly able to reach her outstretched hand.
“How nice,” came a female voice from the seats in front of Danny. Jane and Danny looked towards the voice. “This coach should be called the Love Coach, Jack,” giggled the woman at the man beside her, as she stood up.
Raising his eyebrows, Danny responded.
“The Love Coach?” he blurted out. If only you knew that I’d probably rather sleep with your husband than Jane, he thought.
Smiling, Danny thought it funny how she assumed he was straight. Not a bad thing when faced with some situations, but not this one. She obviously had no idea, but then probably neither did most of the passengers on the coach.
“We’re celebrating our ruby wedding anniversary,” announced the woman. “40 years of marriage, look,” she said, holding up a greetings card. It immediately answered some of the questions Danny had about the couple.
“This is my husband, Jack,” declared the woman as she looked down at the man next to her. “Stand up, Jack and introduce yourself to the young couple.”
“Do I have to, Gwen? Leave them alone,” came a muffled voice.
“Yes, you do! Stand up and say hello.”
Watching, Danny saw a rather rugged and handsome man stand up. Despite his age and signs of grey hair, Jack’s moustache showed no signs of ageing. Had he taken more notice of the couple on his way to his seat, he’d probably had tried making eye contact with Jack. He’d done it before, often with much success, and had always preferred older men.
Gwen, on the other hand, looked much older than her husband, with a typical blue-rinse hairstyle and a face covered with crow’s feet from too much sun. The light-blue dress meant for women younger than her was nice, but it was the string of pearls and matching earrings that made her look more her age.
“Nice to meet you,” said Jack, before quickly sitting down again.
“He’s a little shy,” laughed Gwen. You’d never have guessed that he’s usually the life and soul of the party.”
Trying not to laugh, Danny and Jane looked at each other before offering Gwen some chocolate.
For the next six hours, some of the passengers got to know each other, while others slept or kept to themselves. For some, including Danny, Jane, Jack and Gwen, life-changing chapters were already developing.
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28 short stories and pieces of flash fiction take the reader on a rollercoaster of twists and turns.
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