Monday, 22 July 2013

A bumpy landing?

While making myself emotionally ready for a move to Sydney seemed fairly straightforward, the physical practicalities of the move were more drawn out.
To start with, I needed to save £2000 prior to applying for my visa. This meant continuing in my job at Sainsbury’s. Obviously I didn’t want to let them know I was planning to leave within the year, which meant keeping my plans secret.
I’d checked with friends that I was able to leave my books and CDs in their basement, I went ahead and booked my flight, I let friends and family know of my intentions and with all the boxes checked, settled in for the long wait: Making plans to move is one thing, waiting a year to actually do so is another.
Time dragged on. It was an interesting year: Having previously had no real interest in domesticity, buying furniture, crockery, decorating etc, I suddenly found myself admiring sofas, bowls, paintings, random items I’d never contemplated before. It was as if with my life on hold, sat interminably in the departure lounge, I suddenly craved roots, some semblance of permanence and stability.
I managed to speak to Tom once every ten days or so. We’d email fairly regularly, but it was the long talks into the night that meant the most. When I told him I planned to move out to Sydney for at least a year his initial reaction was ecstatic.
“Aaah Mate that’s great news! How long would you be here for?”
“Well I guess a year at least. I can get a year long working holiday visa, but I shall probably look to get sponsored pretty soon into it so I can stay longer if I want to.”
“And when are you thinking of?”
“May next year.”
“Awesome! I’ll keep an eye out for somewhere for you to stay nearer the time. I can’t believe it – it’s bloody brilliant!”
“I’m glad you think so,” I laughed.
“Of course I do, I can’t wait! May next year, only eleven months to wait then.”

Of course over time the reality of the situation set in. Not that I expected Tom to hang around, or be available, but of course it was what I was hoping would happen and I guess it scared him.
“Look I’m stoked you’re coming, y’know that right?”
“Yeah I know...” I paused sensing the hesitation in his voice, “Why what’s the matter?”
“Well it’s a big move y’know and I just want to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, that you’re doing this because you want to, not because of… well not for me.”
I sat down on the edge of my bed, “Hey don’t worry, I like you, but I’m not crazy honest!” I tried to laugh it off, “To tell you the truth Tom, I’ve been wanting to get out of London the last few years, it’s never really been home for me, and I can only do this now – once I turn 27 I’m no longer eligible for the visa. I wanna do this while I can.”
“I know, I get it. I just don’t wanna put any pressure on us.”
“Of course, I understand and neither do I. I admit, you’re a draw card, but at least 70% of my decision to come has been about exploring another country, living somewhere other than the UK for a while.”
“Good. And we’ll have a great time when you’re here anyway. I miss you y’know?”
It was a theme we returned to often and I should have seen the signs there and then. Instead I convinced myself that I was going to Australia for the experience, that Tom was just an added bonus and that if for whatever reason that part didn’t work out, that it would all be worth it anyway.

And then suddenly I had a month left. I planned to leave in style, a final weekend with the boys down in Cardiff, before moving out of the house I shared with Claire to stay rent free with a friend for the last ten days. My life in London was finally coming to a close.

“Hey Babes, it’s me. I’ve got some great news for ya.”
“Oh yeah? I hope it’s about the weather; I’m sick of the grey skies and bloody rain here. Tell me it’s sunny in Sydney right now.”
“It’s bloody gorgeous mate! You should see the sky here at the moment, bloody lovely… Look, I can’t talk long; I just wanted to let you know I’ve found you a place. A studio in Potts Point, overlooking the water, furnished, it’s perfect. A friend of mine is renting it out, I’ve spoken to him already and he’s happy to let you have it. I’ll pick you up from the airport and we’ll go straight to the estate agents to sign the paperwork and pick up the keys. I can’t believe it, bloody perfect timing… Err are you still there?”
“Sorry I’m just a bit gob smacked. To think in a week I’ll be living in Sydney!”

Kingsford Smith International Airport is the gateway between Sydney and the rest of the world. It’s named after Charles Kingsford Smith; one of Australia’s pioneering aviators. He made the first trans-Pacific flight from the United States to Australia. He also made the first non-stop crossing of the Australian mainland, the first flights between Australia and New Zealand and the first eastward Pacific crossing from Australia to the United States (thanks Wikipedia). Ironically few people outside of Sydney let alone the rest of the world know who he was. And I think Sydneysiders know of him only in reference to their Airport. He was also saved from drowning by a group of bathers at Bondi Beach. This same group of bathers went on to form the world’s first official lifesavers a week later, probably in response to his rescue, so he’s also inadvertently responsible for hot blokes in tiny Speedos (called budgie smugglers by the locals – a budgie being a small bird) running around dragging hapless souls from the water while pulling said Speedos as far up their bums as possible. I’m not sure whether this improves their speed in the water but as the locals say, “it’s a good look”, so who cares.

Unlike so many other aiports, Kingsford Smith seems to spit you out fairly quickly and it was only half an hour between landing and standing nervously at the gate, having  survived immigration, baggage claim and customs; my eyes flitting back and forth hoping to catch a glimpse of Tom amidst the sea of people waiting to greet their loved ones.

“Hey there stranger.”
I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned around to be blinded by the pearly whites of Tom’s beaming smile. I dropped my carry on and threw my arms around his tall, lean frame.
“You look good, you’ve caught the sun.”
“Yeah well we had a long summer, although it seems like years ago, it is May now y’know, I hope you’re not expecting to hit the beach anytime soon.”
“It’s so good to see you!”
“Yeah well and it’s good to have you here too. It’s been a long time coming.” Tom held me at arms length and looked me up and down, wrinkling his nose “You’ve put on weight.”
I must have looked taken aback: It was true I’d put on a few pounds in the year in the UK, nothing extreme though, but as an opener from Tom I was certainly surprised. He saw the look on my face and changed the subject, “C’mon we can catch up in the cab.”

Tom grabbed my large suitcase, leaving me to pull the smaller carry on case and wove his way through the crowd.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Far from my finest moment...

“Door’s open baby.”
I could smell the chicken before I even reached the door. The doorway from the corridor opened up into a small hallway and directly opposite was the kitchen. Terry was standing in front of the oven, wearing a blue, striped butcher’s apron, matching oven mitts on his hands and a pair of maroon rugby shorts.
“Isn’t that a bit dangerous with all your fur?” I nodded to his scant clothing, “I can just see you going up in a woosh of singed hair standing there looking like a plucked turkey!”
He grinned, “I thought you’d like the view”
“Mmmm yeah, oven mitts really get me going”
“I know what gets my baby going,” he pulled me into a bear hug wrapping his big furry arms around me, making me feel small and safe. This was going to be harder than I thought.

I pushed the empty plate away, wiped my mouth on the napkin and sighed, “Y’know you didn’t have to dress for me.”
“Oh I didn’t want to distract you from the food” he teased, his sky blue eyes twinkling, matching the New South Wales rugby shirt I’d brought him back from Sydney.
“That was delicious thank you. I’m stuffed!”
“My pleasure, I like cooking for you.” He held my gaze, studying me, sighed and said, “Why don’t you go sit on the couch and I’ll go crack open another bottle…”
He picked up the empty wine bottle and started stacking the plates.
“Here let me help…”
“No babes, I got it,” he soothed, “you go relax.”
I took the two wine glasses from the table and moved them through into the living room.
A minute later and Terry walked in twisting the cork from a bottle of red.
He poured and handed me a glass before sitting on the couch, slightly apart so he could face me.
“So I think we need to chat, baby. Something’s going on with you and I don’t know what, but I can feel it. So come on hit me,” he paused catching the surprised look on my face, smiled and softly whispered, “are we ok?”

This was it. If I told him the truth it could, it would hurt him. But he deserved the truth didn’t he? This sweet, generous, warm man deserved honesty right? It would be selfish and lazy to offer anything else. Who was I trying to kid, I wasn’t trying to protect him; if I lied it would be to make things easier for me.

“Terry, this is hard, really hard. I dunno how to say it…”
He put his glass down on the coffee table, reached for mine and gently set mine next to it, so close they shared the same coaster, placed one hand at the back of my neck gently kneading it and rested the other hand on my knee, “Baby its ok. Talk to me, you know its fine to tell me anything. I’m big enough and ugly enough to handle it”
I took a deep breath... and lied.
“I’ve been offered a job in Australia. In Sydney.” I swallowed, “HR. Basically mine to take when I’m ready. And y’know, I’ve never had the chance to do this before. I think I wanna do it.” I looked up at him, desperately hoping he wouldn’t sense the lie, that he’d just take it at face value so I didn’t have to push him away, reject him.
“That’s amazing baby,” he breathed, squeezing the back of my neck, “I’m proud of you.”
He paused, letting it sink in. “When?”
“It’s an open offer. If I can be there in six months, great, but I have to be there within a year. They have several vacancies right now and I think it’s pretty much a revolving door.” I stopped. I could see the holes in my story myself. Great, huge gaping holes and if I could see them, so could Terry.
“Well then I guess you have to go and do it baby.”
My eyes were welling up, tears were starting to fall and suddenly I wanted to take it all back. Here was this gentle giant of a man letting me get away with it. Knowing that I couldn’t, wouldn't tell him the truth, but allowing me to ease myself out of it, telling me to go and be happy, to follow my dreams, that this was an opportunity I had to take, convincing me to go, even though his heart was breaking, tears dripping from his square jaw line as I was pushing him away, casting it all aside, ruining everything.
“But if I’m not going for a few months, we can still see each other right? It’s not over yet is it?” I was sobbing, the voice in my head chastising me for doing this, causing this, hurting this man who loved me, who to the last was giving; the impact of my decision, the pain I was causing this beautiful human, weighing down on me.
“Baby we both know it’s not good for us. You need to go and do this. Go explore. Conquer Australia. We’d just be complicating matters if we stay together; making it harder than it needs to be.”
He rocked me in his arms, hugging me so tight I could barely grab my breath between sobs. His tears splashed down onto my head, his hand drying them as he stroked my hair.
Finally, when our emotion was spent, he stood me up, put my coat around my shoulders, and walked me to the door. Having covered my face in kisses and held me to his chest one final time, he closed the door behind me.
I walked the three miles home that night in the rain, a self imposed penance that barely scratched the surface of my guilt. There have been times in my life when I’ve loathed myself more, but they are few and far between.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Take a deep breath and jump right in...

The next couple of weeks hazed into a grey London fog. I’d returned to work and life had returned to normal.
Sat in Mantos with Pedro, I span the oversized Hoegaarden glass around in my hands.
“You know, I just feel like I’m drifting. Not really doing any of this because I want to, more coz I just happened to be in the right place at the right time for it to happen to me.”
“What are we talking about, work?”
“Well everything really. I mean when I split up with James, I moved in with you guys right?”
“Mhmm,” nodded Pedro, the head of his beer caught on the moustache of his goatee.
“Then Claire found the house and I moved in with her, to Walthamstow. Didn’t know the area, but hey it was cool,” I shrugged, “I got the job at Sainsbury’s because someone had passed my resume on and when I got offered it, it seemed like something I could do.”
Pedro held up a hand to stop me, “So good things fall in your lap and you think it’s a problem?”
“I know, I sound like a spoilt brat right?”
“Well babes, a lot of people would give their…” He paused looking for the right phrase.
I raised an eyebrow and leant in towards him, a smile forming as I waited for the next Portuguese pearl of wisdom to come.
Pedro saw the look on my face, pursed his lips and straightened in his seat, “I’m just saying they would give a lot for those opportunities. And you can wipe that grin off your face, I’m serious.”
He sighed and reached a hand over the table, “What’s the matter?”
I took his hand and frowned, “I don’t have a plan. None of it’s been planned. What if this is it, if I just drift through life this is all I get? I mean there’s so much out there I could be doing but if I don’t make it happen, take the bull by the horns, seize the day and all that crap, if I don’t do it for myself I could end up a Personnel Manager in a bloody supermarket for the rest of my days having seen nothing else”
“Bollocks!”
I laughed, bollocks coming from Pedro in his weirdly Russian sounding Portuguese accent was guaranteed to put a smile on my face, “What?”
“That’s not what this is about. You miss Tom. You think you want to go back. You’ve probably already looked into a way of doing it and are now trying to rationalize the situation so it’s not all about him.”
I sat up in my seat, smoothing my tie and dropping my head like a chastened school boy.
“I can get a year’s working holiday visa. I have until I’m 27 to enter the country on it.”
“I knew it! So that’s what this little after work chat is about. You’re going to leave us for a fling down under. Can I remind you, you thought the scene was nothing compared to here. That you thought the men were just men rather than the gorgeous bronzed gods we’d been told to expect and you couldn’t see what the fuss was all about. If I remember rightly, you’re not into the beach and you hate prawns. They’ll never allow you in!”
I snorted, Hoegaarden spurting from my nose and the corners of my mouth, “What have prawns got to do with it?”
“They eat them by the bucket load; you should have seen the barbie at Nicole’s – obscene amounts of prawns, giant things, stinking up the place.”
“Look at you speaking the lingo! We’re home now, it’s Barbecue if you please. And anyway I thought they called them shrimp, y’know – throw another shrimp on the Barbie”
“No that’s an Americanism and they hate it,” his eyes glazed over with a far away look, “Or so Nicole’s Papai said.”
“Were you flirting with Nicole’s Dad?”
Pedro blushed.
“Pedro, shame on you! What would her Mum say, you a guest in her house?”
“She loved my salted cod recipe and she thought I was gorgeous!” He pouted, chin held high.
“And you think the Prawns stank the place out!” I laughed “and you are gorgeous babes, how could she resist?” I drained my glass, stood and nodded to Pedro’s half empty pint. “Another?”
“Nicely done, but I didn’t just arrive from Portugal y’know. Sit back down”
I sighed and dropped back onto my chair. “I knew it was going too easily.”
“Well normally you are the master of the subject change.” He looked me in the eye and quietly said, “When would you go?”
“A year. It means I can save up some cash; I have to have a grand and a half in the bank I think to apply for the visa. Maybe two, I can’t remember. It’s to show I can support myself. You’re not allowed to work the entire time you’re there, it’s supposed to be educational, exploring the country and stuff. And I’ll have been at Sainsbury’s for nearly two years by then so it won’t look so bad resume-wise.”
“And Terry?”
“Terry. Yeah I need to sort that out don’t I. I think he knows something’s up.” I slumped, “Fuck, why do I always do this!”
The lights dimmed suddenly and the music cranked up a couple of notches.
“Ok interrogation over.” Pedro raised a warning finger, “For now! I take it there’s a change of clothes in that bag?”
I nodded.
“Well then, you get yourself to the ladies and change while I get the next round. I’ll meet you downstairs on the dance floor.”
I got up, grabbing my bag and lent in over Pedro’s chair giving him a tight hug.
“I love you y’know. You’re the best.”
“Hmmm, spread the word baby,” He purred.

A week later and I’m pulling up in a cab outside a block of flats in Leytonstone.
Terry and I had met a few months before I’d gone to Sydney and I’d determinedly pursued him both online and at XXL. He was taller than me, older than me and broader than me. My favourite combo. He was also kind and gentle, softly spoken with a deep baritone, a chest and forearms covered in soft grey hair and a pair of dimples framing a permanent smile. His eyes were crystal clear blue and were as open and genuine as he was. All in all, Terry was one of the nicest guys I’d dated.
So why was I telling him it was over? And more importantly, how was I going to tell him without breaking his heart? Or was that just me and my inflated ego; would he be that upset after all?
Terry had been frank when I met him and had told me he was dating several guys at the time, while looking to settle down. We’d dated regularly going from once a week, to three or four nights a week by the time I was due to leave for Australia. The night before I left he’d told me he’d stopped seeing the others guys and that he wanted to give things a go with us.
“Go to Sydney baby and have fun. Go crazy. Sow those wild oats of yours and live it up. Know I’m here waiting for ya and when you get back, it’s me and you, right? Me and you baby.”
And maybe therein lay my problem. Terry was just too nice a guy for me, the boy who dated bad boys and wondered why it never worked out. If I settled down with Terry where would the challenge be? I needed to be challenged not only by the situation, but mentally, to be constantly learning and pushed, driven. Could Terry do that for me? Again, the inflated ego.
And to be honest, none of this really mattered. Sure, whether Terry and I would have worked in the long run was debatable, but the reason I was going to end it had nothing to do with that. I was calling time on it because I was in love with the idea of someone else. Someone who lived overseas and who I barely knew, but then of course that was where the challenge lay. And the drama. And the romance of the situation. And those things were hard, if not impossible for me to resist.


I walked down the cold corridor to Terry’s apartment.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Dancing on Podiums and tearful goodbyes

Shots were ordered and we relaxed into the remainder of the night. Tom decided to give us a tour and we slowly wove our way though Arq’s version of ‘muscle alley’ – practically identical to Trade’s entrance to the dance floor – a corridor of Muscle Marys eyeing one another up and trying their hardest to out-butch one another. Pedro could see me rolling my eyes, “Oh come on Grandad, you can’t pretend that secretly you don’t love looking at a nice pair of disco tits” He dragged me through and after Tom, up the stairs, round the corner and onto a large balcony where Pedro, Tom and I hung over the edge watching the sea of muscle bouncing around on the dance floor. In the centre of the floor was a large podium and right in the middle of it was Zak, owning the space, shimmying up and down, grinding his hips and clapping along to his own internal syncopated rhythm. “You’d never believe Matt used to do that would you?” teased Pedro,
“Not now he’s such a… what is the word… fuddy duddy?" his Portuguese accent making this more 'foody doody' and making me laugh, "He was amazing – a bar manager carved his name into a podium once, said it belonged to him, he’d get up and not come down until the lights came on, used to have someone running to and from the bar, fetching him water…”
“For real?” Tom smiled.
“You should have seen him, it was definitely something…”
“Pedro, don’t exaggerate” I stumbled, tapping a finger to my temple and rolling my eyes at Tom.
“Now that I’d like to see,” Tom teased, licking his lips.
“Your wish is my command” Pedro giggled, grabbing my hand and making for the dance floor.
“Just you wait!” I squeaked as I was dragged back down the stairs, knocking over a squeal of muscleboys comparing dog tags and into the morass of muscle.
Pedro and I joined Zak and took over the now packed podium. The music changed to a bass-heavy, thumping, dirty, moaning track, sweeping us up in its rhythm and taking the already euphoric clubbers to further heights. We shook, wriggled, writhed, gyrated, sweated and shimmied. I hadn’t felt this good in years, this awake, intense, plugged in, turned on and so alive. Track after track poured into one another, the heat rising, my shirt clinging to my back, my heart pounding in my chest; it was time for a rest. I looked down at the crowd and there at my feet was Tom, grinning from ear to ear, face covered in sweat, hair sticking up and with his eyes filled with… lust? Or maybe something more…
I jumped down in front of him.
“Pedro didn’t exaggerate at all, you can really move…”
“I can’t help it once I start, sorry to leave you for so long”
“Not at all. You need a drink?”
“Please”
We moved over to the bar where thankfully the crowd thinned. Tom handed me a water and we turned back to face the dance floor.
“You know, I can’t believe I’ve got to leave all this behind, Sydney and Australia and…” I turned to look at Tom, his eyes were wet and he leaned towards me, pulling me towards him before finally kissing me.
A minute later he pulled away.
“You have no idea how hard it’s been to resist doing that…”
“Resist? Why resist?”
“Well you know; you going and me being here. It’s so impractical and it hurts like this now and… Look can we get some air?”
We stepped out into the growing light, crossed the road and sat in a shop front down the side of an alleyway.
“It’s been amazing having you here.”
“I know. It’s been pretty fantastic being here.”
“I really…like having you around.”
“Well that’s good to know.”
“And if you weren’t going… The past week, seeing you, it’s been great, amazing, but kinda scary too. I just don’t know that I can deal with, no I’ll be honest: I don’t know that I want to deal with how much it will hurt when you go. And if we sleep together it will feel worse. Much worse. And so I’ve avoided it. Does it make sense, you understand right?”
“I do yes. Personally I’m a ‘seize the day’, ‘who knows what might happen’, ‘we could all be dead tomorrow’ kinda guy, but I can understand. I would of course ordinarily try my damnedest to persuade you, but I don’t know, if it means you hurting…”
“Thank you”
A second kiss: I though I might explode.
“What if we just don’t go home – stay awake all night, wander about instead?”
“Sounds good to me. It is 4.30 after all, nearly time to get up.” He smiled that electric smile of his and I forced my heart back into my chest. “What about Pedro and Zak?”
“Oh that’s fixed with a text. Sorry, an ‘SMS’” I teased.
We wandered down Oxford Street, grabbing coffees on the way then on through Hyde Park, past the sandstone Cathedral, into the Domain and on to the Botanical Gardens.
Within an hour we were holding hands, stood under the palms watching the bats come home to roost. We drifted down towards the waters edge to see the sun rising over the harbour, turning the water from a deep sapphire blue to a golden green and the Opera House a flamingo pink. Lying on the grass I snuggled into Tom’s shoulder and gently drifted in and out of sleep.

“Time to wake up sleepy head”
Pushing myself onto hands and knees, I stretched in the sun arching my back like a cat and pushed myself upright.
“Damn look at the time, I’m gonna have to head back to the hotel and get myself into gear”
Tom sighed.
“I’ll understand if you don’t want to see me off…”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I want to. Besides I need to make sure you leave the country” he teased.
We stumbled back through the Gardens down past the Opera house – now its sunlit pearly white - and up to the cab rank. A cab ride, a shower and some last minute adjustments to my suitcase and I’m ready to head to the airport.
“I don’t know which surprises me more, that you travel so light or that you were already packed and ready to go.”
“Well I wanted to have time with you, not be worrying about getting back to pack, so I did it yesterday.”
“Practical and romantic. I like it.” Tom smiled.
A final cab ride and I was checking in.
We wandered through the airport, Tom holding onto my passport and boarding card, pausing to look at piles of books, magazines and shirts emblazoned with Australiana. We sat and ate in the large restaurant area, surrounded by departing tourists, businessmen, cabin crew and families seeing off their teenaged children to the other side of the globe for their traditional rites-of-passage year overseas.
We avoided all topics of me leaving, or coming back, of the UK, of time zones or jet-lag or further contact. Instead talking about the people around us and where they might be headed.
“Well if it’s ok with you, I might head through a little early…”
“No that’s good, I hate hanging around airports waiting to say goodbye, I’d rather get it over with… well y’know what I… It’s just easier than…”
“I know.”
We walked over to the departures area and stood outside the gate that led through to Passport Control.
“Well you have a safe flight”
“I’ll call you and let you know when I land”
I don’t remember who sagged first but before I knew it, we were clinging onto one another, tears running down our cheeks. Then just as suddenly, we were apart, embarrassed by the raw display.
“Goodbye then.”
“Yeah, you take care.”
"Well I guess I should go through."
I picked up the handle to my hand luggage, turned and walked through, turning just after the entrance to see that Tom had already gone.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

One last night on the town

I woke to my mobile ringing.
“Good morning handsome."
"Mmphmnin", I grunted.
"Hmmm sending a signal from Australia, to the UK and back... and on a mobile phone too: Pricey I guess? I’ll be quick. Fancy a day at the beach? Meet you outside yours in half an hour.”
“Err y’know Tom, we eat breakfast in the UK”, I groaned through a large stretch.
“I’ll bring it with me”

It was another gorgeous day – this time stifling. Tom was already waiting outside the hotel, with an "Esky" and a large beach towel.
“You’re prepared; you must have been on your way when you rang. How did you know I’d be free?”
“I didn’t. But you’re worth the gamble” He flagged a cab. “Circular Quay, please”

Getting a ferry from Circular Quay to Manly is a typical thing to do in Sydney for any tourist and with good reason.
The ferry leaves the wharf and on one side you have the surprisingly graceful arc of the Sydney Harbour Bridge while on the other you have the pearlescent shells of the Sydney Opera House. These two icons epitomise Australia: I’ve seen them on postcards, posters, travel shows, documentaries and in the windows and brochures of every single travel agency I’ve ever stepped foot in. They make an instant link to Australia for every overseas visitor and are as Australian as Kangaroos or Koalas. I’d even go so far to say that for a lot of tourists, not pointing any fingers at any specific countries of course, the outline of the Opera House is more readily recognised as Australian, than the outline of the country on a map.
When the Sun shines on the clear blue water and the ferry turns to pass the Opera House, the light dances on the thousands of tiles and you begin to realise you’re actually in Australia.

"What d'ya think?"
"Of the Opera house or the harbour?"
"The Opera house, but both will do."
"It's amazingly beautiful isn't it?"
Tom beamed, "She sure is"
"It's weird I feel like I've been here before, it's all so familiar. Iconic obviously," I nodded.
"And this is the best way to see it."
"On the ferry?"
He rolled his eyes, "From the harbour. Although yes, technically for most people that means on the ferry."
I smiled and dug him in the ribs with an elbow. "Just teasing. It's a brilliant way to see the whole thing, ground level, up close n personal." Tom raised an eyebrow. "No seriously - I love it!"

Tom pulled a box of croissants and pastries, a punnet of strawberries, incidentally the largest, sweetest strawberries on the planet, a tub of diced melon and pineapple, a couple of plastic forks and paper napkins and a large carton of Orange Juice out of his Mary Poppins like bag, declaring breakfast served.
"I hope you brought your appetite."
"I'm starved," I said as I crammed the first strawberry into my mouth.
"So I see," he laughed.

As the ferry pulled away into the harbour, the view lazily changed from city skyline, to sprawling park and then to beach all along the coastline of the harbour itself. Rounding Middle Head, the swell rose and the view changed to that of the ocean and the distant horizon, before the ferry turned in to head for Manly.
We walked along the promenade at Manly round to Shelly Beach, a slightly more secluded beach than the main drag and set up camp; towels laid out, Esky positioned in the shade, sun tan lotion rubbed into pale English skin. Aside from a quick dip in the ocean, the morning was very lazy. We chatted, ate ice cream and drank lots of water, I snoozed a little – catching up on jet-lag and finally as the sun reached its zenith, decided we had fried enough. That afternoon, Tom took me back to his where we sat in the shade next to the pool, occasionally swimming, more often talking until by evening I was ready to head home. Tom was back at work the following morning and needed an early night and I was beginning to feel the serious effects of Jet-Lag and was ready to sleep for a thousand years.

For the next two weeks, while Tom was at work, I hung out with Pedro or explored Sydney’s museum’s, galleries, the zoo and aquarium or hung out at the beach. In the evening Pedro would catch up with Zak and if Tom wasn’t free I’d join them, otherwise Tom and I’d hit Oxford Street or the cinema or grab something to eat, talking into the small hours before going back to our respective beds. While Tom spent every spare moment he had with me, he’d done nothing more than hug me or hold my hand. It made no sense to me; there was an obvious chemistry, he quite frankly blew me away, and yet nothing more serious than a peck on the cheek had happened.

I was due to leave at mid afternoon on Sunday, so my last Saturday night was to be a big-one.
Pedro, Tom and I were to go hit Oxford St, starting out at the Midnight Shift for beer and pool, then Gilligan’s for cocktails before heading to Arq, Sydney’s gay nightclub. The night was busy, although far less hectic than Mardi-Gras as most of the tourists and half of Sydney’s gay population had moved up the coast to Turtle Cove for a week’s further partying.
It had been a whirlwind night, Pedro and I had massacred Tom and Zak on the pool table and we’d downed some outrageously strong cocktails: An Oxford Smash is basically a toxic combination of as many different spirits as the barman can fit into a tall glass. He might throw some orange juice or coke in for good measure if it will fit, if not you get a glass of alcohol. It’s always tasty and often lethal. While one of these might make you slightly less particular about whom you make eyes at, two of these and frankly you’re everybody’s.
After several of these we headed to Arq.

Now I love Australian bars, I really do. They’re always friendly; they serve beer around the clock and there’s almost always someone ready to talk your ear off. It’s quite possibly due to the great licensing laws of Australia that they get bars so very right and nightclubs so very wrong. After all, if the bar’s not closing and you’re not forced to give up your comfy barstool after the sixth beer and go and stand in a smelly, loud, smoke filled box, why would you chose to do so? In Australia, you don’t. ‘Hotels’ – or Pubs to the English - quite often stay open around the clock so Australian’s choose to make their bars friendly and comfortable while their nightclubs are filled with twelve year-olds. Of course in the Gay scene, their actual age may be closer to forty, but believe me after a blast of Crystal, a line of Charlie, or a bag of pills, they’re often acting like twelve year-olds.

Harsh I know, but mostly true. So Arq was a tad disappointing. I’d been through my clubbing scene in London in the mid nineties – many weekends starting on a Friday at the London Apprentice, and ending up at Bang on a Monday having visited, The Fridge, Trade, DTPM and FF in between. I’d taken an assortment of substances to help me believe that I wasn’t in a dirty cave of a nightclub and that my feet weren’t sticking to the floor and it had been electric, exhilarating and mind-alteringly life affirming. Nine years later I was as clean as a whistle and able to indulge my inner self-control-freak by steering clear. Not that I minded other people taking drugs, far from it: Arq was disappointing simply because it was nothing new. I felt like I’d stepped back into Trade circa 1996. The music was the same, the lights the same, the sweat, poppers and smoke smells exactly the same, the men all had their shirts off and their muscles out, carried their obligatory water bottles and wore their smiles frozen in place. I guess looking at it with clear eyes meant I suddenly got a look at what I used to do weekend in, weekend out. It wasn’t pretty.

But this was my last weekend in Sydney and I was going to play.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Of flaming foil birds and expansive views...

It was a warm night so the walk home was an easy one, that and the fact that I was floating along, heels barely grazing the ground.
I staggered back to my hotel room and slept for nine hours solid, dreaming of sequins, feathers, lightshows and tiny pairs of hotpants.
The next morning, I woke to the sun streaming through the window at midday and leapt out of bed refusing to waste the rest of the day. There were two text messages already waiting on my mobile:
Pedro: still up. come 4 beer @ oxford hotel cnr of oxford and taylor sqr. am loved up.
Tom: had a shit night am now officially single, hope yours was better. I want to see you What are you doing 2nite?


The windows of the pub had been peeled right back to let the liquid sunlight flood in, thus allowing people to hang over the veranda and watch the comings and goings of Oxford Street.
Zak swore blind that despite his radiant skin, gleaming white outfit and generally refreshed glow, he hadn’t actually been home, slept or showered and that he was as hardcore as the other sweaty, dishevelled and gurning party-people still vibrating to the music blaring from the speakers. Mardi Gras was clearly still in full swing.
Pedro came back from the bathroom, topless, covered in glitter and with a grin that could have lit up the city.
“Daaaarling!” he sighed.
“I see Zak is rubbing off on you in more ways than one” I said, brushing off the glitter Pedro’s hug had left on my shoulder.
“He’s literally…” his eyes drifted over to where Zak was leaning over the bar, his low riders showing more than a little buttock as his heels came off the floor, “…divine!”
The Angel teetered back over to the window, “You know we’re in a butch bar when the Breezers are on the bottom shelf! So how did you end-up honey?”
“All good. I’ve just risen from the sleep of the dead, I think sensory overload caused it,” I swallowed a mouthful of beer “you know I always wondered why this stuff was so ridiculously fizzy and freezing cold – it’s perfect for a day like today. Talking of which, what’s the plan?”
“Well I don’t know about you, but I think I’ll be remaining here until my shimmy wears off, and then I don’t know, it might be time to try out my Portuguese, what do you say Pedro?”
Pedro blushed and grinned his response.
“Subtle, Zak” I laughed, “Well I might hang out here while you do and then see what Sydney has to offer for an evening’s entertainment.”
I put down my empty glass, “Another?”
The boys raise their half empty glasses and I went to get us a refill.
Several games of pool, too many beers and at least one flirtation later, the boys were ready to depart.
“I think I might be staying in Surry Hills for the next day or two rather than trekking out to the mountains, so you have Zak’s number right?” Pedro blushed.
“Sure, have fun” I winked “and don’t do anything…” “…you wouldn’t do!” Pedro joined in.

I stayed to finish my beer, before stepping out into the warm evening and straight into the path of Tom.
“So here you are!” He smiled. “I hope you’re free, I have something to show you. Have you eaten yet?”

Thai food is to Australia, what Indian food is to the UK; on every second corner and practically the national dish. Not every Thai Restaurant however, is Thai-Nesia.
Draped in red velvet and with large gilt mirrors and displays of ornate fabrics, fans and feathers adorning the walls, this was the campest restaurant I’d ever seen. A graceful woman, long black hair swept tight into an elaborate bun, willowed her way towards us and with a small bow showed us to a table. Tom ordered straight away and proceeded to tell me about his night or rather the lack of it.
"It was just awful from the moment we woke up!" He paused to take a sip of his ice water, "I dunno, I guess he'd got it into his head that Mardi Gras was gonna be our day together. I'd forgotten to mention we were meeting Anthony and Todd for lunch and he wasn't happy about that. Then he wanted to know who else I had in store for him and when I told him I was catching up with you later at the party he just lost it, totally spat the dummy. At one point I thought his head was gonna explode! I've never seen him so angry. Kept going on about how I always put everyone else first, never him. Kept saying how unfair I was being." He ran his hands through his hair and rested his cheeks on his fists, looking thoroughly glum.
"Sounds like he spat the dummy, picked his pram up and threw it out the window."
"I told him he could go to Mardi Gras on his own. That I didn't wanna be part of a scene in front of the whole of Sydney, thanks very much."
"How did he take that?"
"Not good. Told me I could get fucked. If I didn't wanna be seen with him at Mardi Gras, I could forget the whole thing."
I felt guilty for causing so much tension. "Shit, I'm sorry Tom, I didn't mean for this to happen"
"Hey, it's not your fault. I'm sorry it ruined your plans too. I know you were looking forward to hanging out. I dunno..." he sighed, then slapped his hands down onto the table, "It's all too much drama for me and you're here for a holiday not a mercy mission: Let's change the subject."

Dinner arrived – a large tin foil bird, lit with bright blue and orange flames, a bowl of steaming veggies in a shimmering red curry and fish cakes with a sauce of peppers, coriander and cucumber. The food was exquisite and something I’d not been exposed to back home, Chinese yes, Indian of course, but Thai had yet to really hit the UK.
I sat back in my seat, “That was amazing, thanks for showing it to me.”
“Oh that wasn’t what I was going to show you, come on let me get the bill and then we’ll grab a cab.”

The taxi snaked its way through Sydney’s suburbs heading towards the coast. The further we headed, the larger and grander the houses became; large stone monoliths casting shadows over their private jetties; glass edifices set high into the cliff, sunlight bouncing off their angles, the reflection ensuring their privacy; beautifully manicured gardens which at first glance resembled home until you realised that the tree was a large eucalyptus and that the Waratahs would look seriously out of place in Kent. The sun was slowly setting, turning the sky a dusty orange and framing the silhouette of the city skyline behind us.
The car pulled up next to a large park. You could smell the salt in the air and hear the ocean crashing against rocks somewhere near by. We took the path and slowly climbed up to the top of the cliff. There was a large split in the rock face where the ocean came crashing in at high tide sending large plumes of spray twenty feet into the air.
“This is the Gap. The fence is to stop people leaping to their watery graves," he said dramatically, "not that it would really stop you if you had a mind to.”
“You’re such a romantic”, I smiled. I stared out into the distance, “That has to be the widest horizon I have ever seen, we’re on the edge of everything. So far away from everywhere else.”
“You mean far from home? You are, yes." He took my shoulders and turned me around, "Look back at the city.”
I turned to see the sun slip slowly past the horizon, the sky changing from a burnt orange through crimson to purple, a few cotton wool clouds drifting across the vista, their pregnant bellies golden and their shoulders black. Tom pulled me back to lean against him and wrapped his arms around me, “Welcome to Sydney. It’s good to have you here.”

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Mardi Gras

So all in all by the time I’d rocked up to Oxford Street for the Mardi Gras parade, I was flying high on life and not so worried about Tom: I’d decided I was going to have a blast anyway.
It was a pleasant walk from my hotel, through Surry Hills, towards Oxford Street. The noise gradually grew louder and louder, to a low growl of sound punctuated every now and again by the odd roar. I could tell where I was headed from the growing throngs of people on the streets heading in the same direction. An array of people from every background imaginable, people in costume, feathers sticking out of trousers, on headbands, and attached to waving wrists; families, hampers in hands, children on shoulders; squeals of gayboys singing at the top of their lungs, laughing and leaping for the safety of the pavement as a Dyke on her bike revs past and absolutely everyone carrying milk crates. It was to become glaringly obvious what these were for.

I met up with Pedro on the corners of Crown and Oxford Streets and waded through the growing crowd up to Taylor Square. There was a wall of people six feet deep and at least eight feet high, with those at the back teetering on milk crates stacked precariously on top of one another. There was no-way we’d be able to see here unless we knew someone in the crowd.
"Why don't we head back down the hill, the crowd's thinner there?"
"Bugger it," I shrugged, "Let's grab a beer in the... Stonewall, how original, you think it might be a Gay bar? We'll see if it thins out at all, we may even be able to get upstairs and see from the balcony."
"You think?"
"No. But let's have a beer anyway."

Pedro and I entered the dimly lit bar and sat down on barstools watching the stream of people passing the windows get deeper and deeper, until eventually it was one large oozing river, slowly advancing up the street. Suddenly the crowd sags and a translucent skinned, raven haired boy in the tightest white jeans and matching waistcoat crowd-surfs over the crowd to twist in their hands and land perfectly in a shower of glitter, on his three-inch heels; Angel wings, halo and sequin encrusted purse clutched in his perfectly manicured hand.
Jaw to the floor, Pedro gasps “Who is that?”
“That,” I whisper, “is Zak.”
"You met him here already?"
"No, Zak and I go way back in London."

Peeling his Wrap-arounds from his face, Zak steps into the bar to walk straight up to me and plant his lips on my forehead. “Ashby, mine’s Vodka, straight, on ice. I’ll be back in five, I need a slash or I’ll burst. These trousers are sprayed on, two drinks and I’m leaking!”

Zak had worked in the fashion store opposite the one I worked at in Covent Garden. He’d been slim, cherubic and uproariously camp since the day I met him. Armed with an impressive show of quips and asides, he was hilarious at his best, deadly at his worst and always able to get whatever he wanted with a flutter of his perfect, sumptuous eyelashes. It was impossible to tell where a night out with Zak would end and whether the morning would see you loving or loathing him, but a night out with Zak was always guaranteed to be remembered.

Swishing back to the bar, Zak swept up his drink and knocked it straight back.
Zak swirled the remaining ice cube around the inside of his mouth ensuring he had every last drop of vodka, “Ashby you goooorgeous thing you, how long have you been here for?” His eyes moved to Pedro’s, “Tell me you’re here for a while longer yet!
I laughed, “Two days, two weeks and Zak this is Pedro”.
All attention had shifted, “Faaabulous! I think I might have a spot for you with me at the front!”
“Err thanks,” Pedro was spellbound.
I laughed, “I hope you’re including me in your invite”
“But daaaarling, of course I am!” He’d already started his swish towards the crowd “You’ll have to climb through the masses kids, but the view will be diviiiine!”

It took ten minutes of slipping between people, hobbling over milk crates and surreptitiously elbowing people in their sides, to make it to the front. Mercifully, this close to the road we were milk crate free so it was more a case of making space where there was any. We people-watched and caught up on old news.
"I haven't seen you since you left Floral Street. That's what, two years ago?"
"Four."
"God!” Zak gasped, hand flat to his chest. “Four. Really?" I nodded.
"When I think of how many pills I've done since then it's no wonder it's blurred into itself."
I laughed, snorting beer from my nose. "Nice. So if you're not on holiday, what brought you out here?"
"I came out on a Working Holiday Visa. Met a boy, moved in, got my perm res, ditched the boy or rather he ditched me and then realised I didn't want to stay anymore." He raised a perfectly groomed eyebrow and sighed, "It's wonderful Sydney, truly diviiiine, but when you originally see a place through loved up specs, it loses its attraction when you take them off. It's never quite as shiny."
He opened his purse, slipped his hand in and retrieved a silver cigarette case. Removing a thin pale cigarette, he dropped the case back into the purse and swung it over his shoulder behind him and at me as he turned to face Pedro. "Ashby daaaarling, be a dear and hold this for mama," he said over his shoulder and with both hands free to hold and cup the end of the cigarette he pouted and fluttered his eyelashes, "I don't suppose a pretty baby like you has a light, does he?"

Ten minutes later a roar came up from the crowd: The awnings of the pub opposite resembled a platform held up by large metal struts, like those on Saloons in a spaghetti western and strutting up and down on them was the largest, pinkest, loudest looking Drag Queen I’d ever laid eyes on, her stilettos easily seven inches high and like the rest of her, covered in neon pink sequins. The music was pumping loudly from the speakers either side of her as she announced that she would be our host for the evening when suddenly another roar from the other end of the street announced the arrival of the Dykes on bikes.
Big, boyish bull-dykes on hulking Harleys, lipstick lesbians on mopeds, three cowgirls on a bright red three-wheeler, one woman on a stunt bike pulling wheelies and handstands, then zipping back down the line to charge past a second and third time, then a further roar as a second wave approached, some topless, some in leather, a couple - one in top hat and tails and the other a wedding dress, glamorous women all of them, each dressed to kill, slowly cruising past the screaming crowds, rainbow flags waved high in the air, Mothers cheering, straight boys leering, whistle blowing gay teens screaming ‘I love you’ to the wonderful, hedonists, the beautiful, sex-fuelled Dykes on Bikes…
And then just time for a pause for breath, possibly a wee break for Zak and then strap yourself in for the next instalment because we’re off again…
The evening flew by, a rollercoaster-ride of float after float, marching girls, dancing boys, political floats, satirical floats, floats without point, floats without meaning, Bear floats, Dance floats, The Parents of Gay Children, feathers, flags, banners, music, nipples and bums and pouts and flirting and shouting and singing and laughing, and laughing, and laughing…
I was seriously worried I might smile for the rest of my life.
And then just as we thought it was over, Madonna’s ‘Music’ came belting out of a large White Limo driven by a man bearing a distinct resemblance to Ali G. Suddenly he was surrounded by a hundred dancing Madonnas with curly blonde wigs, Stetson hats and cowboy boots, stepping and grinding and writhing in time. Next, her backing dancers boot-scooting, leaping and jumping followed by the largest float of the evening, draped in yet more Madonnas, posing singing, smiling and laughing. 

It was the perfect end to an amazing evening.

But of course it wasn’t over. The legendary Mardi Gras party was yet to begin.

We walked along Flinders Street down to Fox Studios. Previously a film studio with theme park attached, the Studios were now a large retail and entertainment complex made up of shops and bars as well as large halls used for holding concerts and events. Cordoned off was a large street, criss-crossed with laneways carrying stalls selling food and alcohol. A mini village in itself, tonight it was to become a playground.


The crowd poured out of Flinders Street, into the large park opposite the Studios, up to the gates and through the ticket barriers. Music was pumping out of the large halls on either side of the street; hard techno from one, bass laden R&B from the other, both punctuated by lasers flashing through the doorways, the pavements vibrating with compounded rhythms. The densely packed crowd slowly snaked its way further into the Studios, the groups of people pouring into each hall and tent as they passed slowly reducing the numbers of people on the heaving pavement. The circus smells of Hot Dogs and Candy Floss added to the carnival atmosphere as Drag Queens on stilts mixed with Fire Eaters, beautifully ripped Muscle-Marys bumped shoulders with Cat Woman and Wonder Woman arm in arm, Diesel Dykes walked hand in hand with Bear accomplices, Pedro skipped into the throng with his shining White Angel and I was carried off into the horde by the electric energy of my first Sydney Mardi Gras.
I queued for a beer and then made my way into the first dance hall. The hall was easily the length of a football pitch and I’d arrived only just in time. The sea of gyrating bodies was lit by dancing lasers cutting through an airborne sea of smoke above their heads. Although they looked tightly packed, it was just the sheer number of them and I slowly wove my way through them towards the front of the auditorium to the stage. I’d got about half way through when suddenly the music cut, the lights went out and it was pitch black. You could hear a pin drop as the crowd collectively held its breath.
“Hey Mr DJ, put a record on” breathed the speakers and the crowd screamed its hallelujah to the roof. We all knew the rest of the line, but you couldn’t hear it for the roar.
Suddenly, the lights exploded; glitter fell from the sky and all eyes were locked on the stage. The Ali G’s, the Dancing Boys and Girls and the Madonnas were all there, legs spinning, arms twirling, boys grinding, girls swishing, all in perfect motion to the insistent beat. The Madonnas dropped down into the splits, the dancers leapt into the air, legs scissoring as they flew, snapping and writhing and grinding and shaking they looked oh so perfect; glittering and shining and dazzling…
The crowd surged to the front of the stage and I was crushed between the back of a six foot wall of muscle and a gang of biker chicks. It wasn’t exactly unpleasant, but there was only so long I could go without breath and I could no longer see the stage. Wriggling out, it took me ten minutes to make it back to the entrance to turn and see the lights go down on the show. My heat was racing, I could feel the blood pounding in my head and I had the largest smile on my face, I didn’t need to see it, I was part of it.

I ran out into the street. Everywhere I looked there were people holding hands, hugging, laughing, dancing, squealing and breathing in the dizzying, intoxicating atmosphere. I felt like I’d been transported to another world where you could be anything you desired without recrimination and for that night at least I guess I had been. For the first time ever I was somewhere where to be Gay was the norm.

I was tapped on the shoulder and span around to be kissed by the White Angel himself.
“Daaaarling isn’t it divine?”
“I can’t take it all in,” I stammered, “Where’s Pedro?”
“Getting the Vodkas. Oh my, look at you; you look like you’ve woken up in heaven! You’re gonna have a blast methinks. Ordinarily I’d offer you a little pick me up, but you don’t look like you’ll be needing any assistance.”
“Hell no, I never do, but definitely won’t tonight, I wanna be sure tomorrow that what I remember was real, that I felt it all because it really was this wonderful. I mean look at it, it’s so fucking gorgeous, I just can’t believe it”, I gasped for air, “Shit Zak where do all these people come from?”
“Baby Boy, take a breath! Let’s go sit over here”.
Zak walked me to a bench where we sat and took in the view. It really was quite amazing, some of the costumes alone were to die for; there was Wonder Woman again looking stunning, tiny waist cinched into the Stars and Stripes, over there was the obligatory Muscle Mary gang, each one a perfectly sculptured body crammed into a tiny pair of hotpants, tanned, tattooed and clearly flying, while over here two grey haired men in their late sixties, perched on slim stools, serenely drinking champagne while holding one another’s hands.
Pedro returned from the bar and handing Zak a large vodka, sat himself at his feet. Zak stroked a hand through Pedro’s dark wet hair and pulled me into his small frame with a hug. “See boys, this is family”.

Surprises

As it turned out, Pedro delayed in booking his flights after all. He’d had an acrimonious split from Paul and decided to go alone. As a result it meant less cash for him to play with and he decided to stay with friends in Mount Druitt an hour from Central Station rather than get a hotel-room in town. Only when we were both there did we realise that an hour out of London’s city centre is not like an hour out of Sydney’s and Mount Druitt is indeed a lifetime away from everything that happens.
I arranged my flight and with no hotel rooms in my price range left in Sydney - booked a room at the Youth Hostel in the centre of town. It came with a high recommendation from my Mum who'd stayed there the year prior so I knew it had to be ok.

So Mardi Gras in Sydney had gone from Paul, Pedro and I to just me. At least Tom was to meet me from the plane.
We’d been speaking on the phone at least once a fortnight in the four months since he'd left and with increasing frequency once I’d booked my tickets. We’d be on the phone for hours, inevitably with one of us talking into the small hours thanks to the time difference. We'd traded stories and histories and invested in some serious bonding time as well as possible shares in British Telecom.
I thought I was going to be sick as I walked through the terminal looking for him. What if there was nothing there, what if it didn’t work, what if I didn’t fancy him anymore?
With Tom standing at the barrier waiting for me, it took me about two seconds to find out most of my answers. There was definitely a spark still there – more like a bolt of electricity to be honest, I could have jumped on him in front of the Japanese tourists with their video cameras. So yes, I still found him attractive. Nor was it uncomfortable, in fact it felt like I was with someone I'd known for years. He greeted me with a big hug, grabbed my bags and asked where I was staying. "Central Station, wherever that is, at the Youth Hostel." "Oh the new place? Well we might as well take the train rather than a cab, it's right next to the station."
It was on the train to the city that he told me he had a new boyfriend.
"I'm sorry I probably should have said something eh?" He shuffled in his seat. "It was only supposed to be casual and only really got serious in the last month. I didn't think it would and even when I realised it was serious, I just... I dunno, I just didn't want you to change your plans that's all." "Look at me," I lifted his chin up, "It's OK." "You're sure?" "Of course I am. I haven't exactly told you everything that's been going on with me either." "You have a boyfriend too?"
"No. Not exactly. I've been seeing someone, a really nice guy. Nothing serious, just hanging out. It was casual up until I left really, he kinda told me the last night together that he wants to get serious." Tom sighed and gave me a small smile as the tension left his shoulders, "And will it?" "Get serious? I dunno. He's a nice guy, very sweet. But I dunno if sweet is for me, I tend to go for edgy. Trouble. Naughty." "Naughty", he smiled, his eyes glinting mischievously. "Yes." I ignored him and put on my best adult voice, "So the idea is, I'm under orders to have a great holiday, get my philandering ways out of my system and then go back to Terry and see if I want to make a go of it." "And will you?" "Ask me in two weeks’ time." "So we're cool?" "We're very cool. And anyway, you can still show me round, we'll still get to go to Mardi Gras together? You can introduce me to this boyfriend of yours, right?"
Not right. Tom had managed to get me a ticket for Mardi Gras as promised, but would be going with the boyfriend, alone. The boyfriend who incidentally wasn’t very happy with him spending time with me while I was there. That was when the disappointment hit. I’d kind of figured out that he’d been seeing someone – he’d been a little distant the last few times on the phone, but the idea that he wouldn’t be able to hang out was hard. Two weeks on my own in Sydney, me a boy who needs other people around or suffocates, starved of conversation. The only thing to do was to throw myself into it.

I was to catch up with Pedro the following evening – the night of Mardi Gras itself. By this time, I was determined to have been to the top of the AMP tower, to have seen the Opera house and the Harbour Bridge and to have completed the Bondi to Bronte walk. And it was going to be bloody magical or else.
It’s very hard to be disappointed when the sun is streaming down, everything is bathed in a white light, people are smiling as they pass and you don’t have to go to Work. Actually, things are usually pretty good just without Work. Even so, Sydney surpassed expectations: The quality of light in Sydney is amazing, it’s so bright, even on cloudy days you need sunglasses. But the piece-de-resistance had to be the water. It was the clearest water I’d ever seen. Standing at the side of the harbour in the Botanic Gardens, I was amazed that I could see crabs wrestling six feet below the surface. 

The Sydneysiders had a thirst for fresh air. Hanging about the Gardens at lunchtime in Sydney I was amazed to see them jogging, kick-boxing, circuit training, stretching, strolling, picnicking, chatting, sailing, eating, swimming, rowing, laughing, living and working on and around one of the world’s most stunning harbours and all in their lunch-breaks. It made the staff canteen of the UK look a world apart – which of course it is.

Walking through the city I felt warm with the energy of Sydney. Businesspeople going from one building to another were moving through crowds at a pace that would have seen them mowed down by pensioners on London’s Oxford Street. No hustle. No bustle. Rather than the constant screech of London’s polluted rat-race, Sydney hummed with a calm yet energised vibe as if everyone ran on solar power – calmly, efficiently and with little harm done to their environments. Everywhere I went I saw snippets of the harbour serving as a reminder of where I was and how fortunate I was to be there. Sydney was an interwoven dichotomy of the manufactured and the cultivated; of steel, glass, stone and marble, the pristine and the new, the shining, the cold and the deliberate, offset by sky, grass, sand, wind and colour, the surrealist trees, the kaleidoscopic birds, the genteel, the quiet and the serene.

And then there were the people. In London I’d been spat at, punched, laughed at, ridiculed and harassed for ‘looking’ gay. “It’s bad enough you being gay behind closed doors, but when we have to have it rammed down our throats and recognise the fact…” Alright I admit, the skirt might have been a bad idea, and that time with the eyeliner, and maybe the purple hair was a giveaway, but there’d also been times when I was conservatively dressed and minding my own business and still ended up with the footprint of some thug’s boot on the side of my face for a week… Not that I want to debate the tolerance of either nation in detail, but imagine my surprise at this conversation with a staff member in a cafĂ© at Central Station:
Average Joe behind counter: “Wow you’re English?”
Me: “Err yeah…”
Joe “You must be here for Mardi Gras”
Me: Oh My God! How can he tell? Is this gonna get nasty? “Err yeah…”
Joe: “You are gonna have the best time, I took my wife last year”
Me: “Err right”
Joe: “Here’s your change – Happy Mardi Gras!”

Refreshing doesn't do it justice!