Soho Athletic gym.
7:15pm. There’s hardly anyone around. The café bar is empty. The only sound, the receptionist washing glasses, the manager ringing up till receipts and the distant sound of club music floating through the gym. I try to catch the receptionist’s eye. He’s slim, toned, hair perfectly parted, obligatory beard. In his late twenties. Probably from Shoreditch. He looks over. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Can I have a towel please?’
‘Sure,’ he smiles. ‘That’ll be a pound.’
I hand over a coin, sign in and head toward the changing room, passing a tall, well-defined woman pounding away on the Stairmaster, the Brazilian trainer ‘spotting’ for a client and a face I know from some club or other. I’m feeling strangely nervous, as if something weird is about to happen.
The changing room is busy, some guys dressing, some undressing, a smattering of bears and suited businessmen. A surreptitious glance here, a lingering look there. The usual casual cruising that you find in a gay gym. I find a locker. At the back. Near the showers (my usual spot). Then I unzip my gym bag. Inside is an empty bottle of medication, a black Moleskine, a pair of Adidas tracksuit bottoms and a grey teeshirt with ‘Muscle’ written across the chest, both items of clothing in complete contrast to the designer gym gear that most guys here wear (my gym etiquette is to always be unobtrusive as possible).
I’m about to close my locker when I remember my iPhone. I fish it out of my bag and as I do it vibrates. It’s a push notification. From Grindr. I enter my passcode, tap the application and the sender’s profile. The pic is slightly grainy, although it looks familiar. Like a gym. I tap Chat. The message reads, Howdy! How’s ur evening going? There’s no name on the profile, just a quote, ‘Life is short, so enjoy.’ I contemplate what to do. Then a third message. Don’t block me!
Actually, I wasn’t going to. Blocking always seems such a passive/aggressive act. I have an aversion to it. But equally, if I don’t block him, he sounds like the type that will plague me with messages. Fuck. Why did I even download this app? It’s not as if I intend to meet anyone on here. What was it my friend Paul said, ‘Why don’t you just put ‘Timewaster’ as your profile name?’
Another message pops up, Enjoy ur workout!
I swivel round. Startled. To my left is a Latino guy, blow-drying his armpit hair, while sitting on the bench nearby, an older guy, bearded again, in fatigues and a tight white vest, untying his bootlaces. Neither of them is using a phone. The profile says: Online. 10 meters away. Ten meters!
I type: Where r u?
Closer than u think
I glance across at the toilets. There’s no one there. That means he’s in the gym. He must’ve spotted me coming in. I head back outside.
There’s a bench in the corner and I carry it to the Shoulder Press. Sit down. Wipe my hands on my tee-shirt and stare straight ahead into the mirror, taking in my surroundings. There are five guys in here. Three working out and two chatting by the far window. None of them looking in my direction. This makes me feel both safe and uneasy. Safe, because as I’ve said, I like to blend in. Uneasy because I remember a time when I’d walk into the gym and everyone would check me out. Now no one does.
I stare at my scuffed trainers, thinking about my fading looks. I quickly shake the thought away. Clasp the bar bell with both hands. Take a deep breath and push it upwards in one dynamic thrust. I work out briskly, concentrating, not wanting to get wrapped up in negative feelings. Three sets later, I’m about to take the weights off the bar when I feel my phone vibrating.
Not doing a 4th set then?
I scan the room. Everyone is either lifting weights or on a machine. I check the profile: 10 meters away. Where the hell is this guy?
Come on! Where r you?
U’ll find out
I grin. But at the same time I’m mildly irritated. Now I can’t block him. Wherever he is, he can see me and blocking him will just make me come across as uptight. I type, Give me a clue? Then survey the oblong-shaped room again, at a tattooed guy doing press-ups on a yoga mat and a stocky bear training his biceps. The bear’s face is familiar. But then so many guys on the scene are, having seen them out and about for thirty odd years, or having viewed them online. And now with this bear look, everyone has become one. Then another vibration. I’m not that bear if that’s what u think!
I press the Power Off button. Okay, I’ve had enough of this. I’ve got to finish this work out and get out of here. I’ve got work to do at home. Chores to be done. Plus I’m knackered. I really need an early night. What was it my boss said? ‘Clay, you’ve been looking really tired lately. Are you okay?’ I felt like saying, ‘Look, I’m just a bit run down, alright! Give me a break!’ But of course, you can’t say that. Not to your boss. You just have to smile sweetly and say, ‘No everything’s fine. But thank you for asking.’
Twenty minutes later, I’m dressed again, standing in front of the mirror, applying Dax Wax to my salt and pepper hair (more salt now I admit). My skin, although unlined, is starting to sag. I open my mouth, wide. Then close it, watching the flesh fall back into place. The phase I went through a few years ago of having Botox, well, I thought it’d passed, that I was finally accepting the aging process. Now I’m not so sure.
There’s another vibration in my pocket. U’re getting older. Soon no one’s going to want u
Who the fuck does he think he is? I clench my teeth and press Block, shove my phone back in my pocket and march out of the changing room, the gym, down the stairway, onto Macklin Street, a self-satisfied smirk on my face. Vile queen. Well that put a stop to his stupid little game. And I make my way to Soho.
Old Compton Street is a cosmopolitan melting pot. A Hogarth painting come to life. I pass a posse of G.A.Y twinks, East End lads in Hackett tops, a group of bleached-blonde girls with pink rabbit ears, rickshaws parked outside the Prince Edward theatre. Then arrive at my favourite coffee shop, number 34B, on the corner of Frith Street. I take a seat inside, tucked up by the window and order a small black coffee. It’s from this vantage point that I do all my thinking. My window to the world. The place I come to when I want to ponder life, my career, mortality. There’re a stack of magazines in the corner. I pick one up. It’s The Clarion. The local mag. It always has an interesting historical section and I’m engrossed in an article about Soho Square when I feel a movement in my pocket. I reach for my coffee. Take another sip. Not in any particular hurry to answer it. I give it a few seconds, then reach into my jeans pocket. It’s another Grindr message.
In ur favourite spot I see…34B
I thought I’d blocked him! I press Block again. Turn off my phone and scour the crossroads. It’s busy; people laughing, singing, arguing, like Gay Pride night. I exchange glances with a few guys. It could be any one of them. And they all seem to be looking at me, knowingly, as if they’re all somehow in on it.
Normally I’d be here for at least an hour, writing in my notebook, trying to make the night last longer, before it’s time to face the drudgery of home and preparing for work the next day. But tonight my spell has been broken. My little oasis has been defiled. So I take a last mouthful of the now lukewarm coffee, thank the Hungarian assistant and leave.
I weave in out of the crowds, down Brewer Street, past the neon-lit bookshop, peep shows, the NCP car park, a health food shop, Third Space, the Piccadilly Theatre, and then the tube. Then it’s down the stairs, the escalator, past the busker murdering The Final Countdown, until I’m at the end of the platform. Out of sight.
It’s 9:15pm and the train ride is uneventful. Fortunately I’m an hour ahead of the drunken passengers, with their out-of-tune singing and excessively loud voices, all breaking that Golden Tube Rule: Thou Must Not Speak. I get off at Earls Court. Take the rear exit, away from the throng.
By the time I’m above ground it’s dark. I walk down Warwick Road toward Holland Road, thinking about what I have to do when I get in while the evening traffic roars past. I’m almost at Tesco when my phone vibrates. It’s a Grindr notification. The profile pic is of a building. I tap it. Then tap Chat.
Thought u’d lost me did ya?
Online. 10 meters away
I spin round. Panicking. There’s no one there. And no one in front either. I tap on the profile pic, enlarging it with my thumb and forefinger. It’s a pic of…Homebase. Just a hundred feet ahead! Oh God. He’s probably hiding behind that wall! Now what? I could press the Report button, but what am I going to say? That I’m being stalked on an app? That’s what Grindr’s for, isn’t it? My mind’s racing now. What should I do? Double back? Take another route home? The questions hit me like a stream of arrows. I’m aware too that I’m breathing much faster now and that my right eyelid is twitching. Wait a minute. This is ridiculous. Just jump a cab. What’s he going to do? Run after it?
I wait until the traffic has subsided, then run across the road, doubling back on myself, turning left onto Cromwell Road, checking behind intermittently that I’m not being followed. A few seconds later I spot a black cab with a yellow ‘vacant’ sign. I stick my hand out. It hurtles toward me and pulls over.
‘Holland Road please!’ I say, diving into the back. ‘The High Street Ken end.’
I quickly turn in my seat, looking out the back window, breathing heavily. The street’s deserted. I sigh and sink back in my seat.
‘Just past the pub please. Wherever you can find a space. Yes. Just here’s fine. Thanks.’ I hand the driver a tenner. ‘Keep the change.’ He looks at me in disbelief, as the tip is more than the fare. But I’m not really thinking straight. I just want to get inside my flat. I slam the cab door. Run the few yards up the street, down the checkered tiled steps, into the basement. It takes me a few seconds to find my keys. I can hear them jangling in my bag somewhere…Here they are! I’m about to put the key in the lock when I feel my phone vibrating. I hesitate. Then take it out. It’s another message. I tap on the profile. The pic is of a bedroom. A painting above a bed. My bed! That’s my Jean Cocteau lithograph. He’s inside my flat!
I back away from the front door. Rush back up the stairway. A short, red-headed woman is about to enter the main building with a young man.
‘Please! Can you help me!’
She stops, key in the door and turns her head. The young man whispers to her. Then walks toward me. ‘What’s the matter?’ he says politely.
‘I know this sounds weird. But there’s someone in my flat. He just sent me photo on my phone. Of my bedroom! He’s in there!’ I point down to the basement.
‘Do you know this person?
‘No! I haven’t a clue who it is.’
Now the woman walks toward me. ‘Calm down a bit Clay,’ she says, as she strokes my arm. ‘Ian’ll go down and check.’
I hand him the key. Once he’s in the basement I turn to the woman. ‘Thank you. You’re very kind. And I’m, err, I’m sorry for being such an idiot. It’s just that-’
‘-Don’t worry Clay,’ consoles the woman. ‘Everything’s going to be alright.’ She looks down into the basement area. ‘Maybe we should go down too.’
‘No! I err, don’t want to.’
‘Perhaps you should call the police.’
At that moment Ian walks back up the basement steps. He frowns and scratches the back of his head. ‘There’s no one in there.’ He looks embarrassed. ‘Whoever it was must’ve left.’
‘Ian, don’t be silly. We’ve been standing here the whole time and we would’ve seen…’ she stops abruptly, for Ian’s glance is sharp. He nods at her when he thinks I’m not looking.
‘I searched everywhere,’ he says. ‘In every room. And there’s no one there. Nobody.’ He says it with finality. And then the woman, as if delivering her verdict, says. ‘Oh well, that’ll be that then…’
The key goes in the lock in one swift movement. I push the door open. Step inside. Shut it. Locking it again behind me at the top and bottom. I throw my gym bag on the sofa. Walk into the bedroom, shut the door and collapse on the bed. Within seconds, I’m in that world which is half dream, half sleep. NREM sleep I think my doctor calls it. I’m vaguely aware of a sensation in my pocket. But now I’m drifting, drifting. There it goes again. I think it’s a vibration. It is a vibration! I jump up. Switch on my phone.
Took ur time getting here didn’t ya?
Online. 1 meter away