Saturday night. They were round at Robbie’s getting ready. Paul was doing Robbie’s hair. An hour offloading a full can of hairspray, backcombing his dyed-black mass of candy floss that increased his height six inches and was broader than his shoulders. Mel, sprawled back on the bed, was ready, and had been since Paul started Robbie’s hair. The television, on top of the chest of drawers where his mum kept her extra clothes, was switched on, the volume turned to zero. Mel had his green jeans on, a Bauhaus t-shirt with the arms sawn off and triple-buckled boots. The hour working on Robbie’s hair was double the time Robbie’s mum used to take, but she refused to do it anymore. Robbie had on his mandatory black suit and a purple paisley shirt. His mum was already out somewhere so they had the record playing close to full blast on the turntable. Paul was mid-backcomb on Robbie’s fringe when he jolted forward from him pointing at the television.
‘Turn it up! Turn the music off. It’s coming in this break apparently.’
Paul placed the almost empty can of hairspray on the chest of drawers. He lifted the arm off the record, walked over to the television and turned the volume dial up. Robbie stayed in the chair he’d been in since Paul started his hair. What they’d been waiting for came on.
The advert showed a large block of ice fall off the top of an iceberg and plunge into the freezing water. The sound, along with its slow, ominous synthesiser, was the noise of cold wind blowing. The water around the iceberg bubbled and the words THERE IS NOW A DEADLY VIRUS appeared on the screen. The distant noise of someone breathing came through as the capital letters continued ANYONE CAN CATCH IT FROM SEX WITH AN INFECTED PERSON. Then MAN OR WOMAN. The word MAN was on the top line by itself and the words OR WOMAN started a new line below. The camera panned slowly round to the left of the iceberg. The screen told them IT’S GOING TO GET MUCH WORSE after which the camera went under water. Even below the surface the wind continued to gust. Under the tip of the iceberg the word AIDS was carved into the ice in human-sized letters. The electronic music intensified for a moment. The advert finished with a leaflet resting in the snow telling them DON’T DIE OF IGNORANCE.
‘Now that’s completely stupid. Honestly! A fucking iceberg!’
‘It did say men and women can get it at least.’
‘Get fucking what? Catch a bloody cold? Die of drowning? Completely stupid.’
‘Sorry, Robbie. I don’t know what to say.’
‘It’s not your fault, but that did nothing. Idiots will still think like idiots do.’
Paul reversed his actions of two minutes before, turning down the TV, placing the needle back on the record, retrieving the aerosol and comb, and finishing off Robbie’s hair. They needed to leave in ten minutes to get to the first pub on time.
The walk to The Victoria was quicker than usual, entering exactly at six o’clock for the start of happy hour and the first of ten pubs before DazzlesDisco at eleven. The bar was heaving. It was Paul’s round. Even after the previous week’s session it was never forgotten whose round was first when resuming the following weekend. Robbie and Mel got a four-seater wooden booth by the beer garden door and waited for Paul to bring the pints. As he brought the three lagers to their table, cradling the drinks delicately in his web of spread fingers, he saw Craig Frazer was approaching their booth. Craig had a pristine crew cut and black moustache, grey trousers with a precision ironed crease down each leg, and a zipped, plastic looking jacket. His smile was tight, his biceps tensed. He waved his arm in mock deference to Paul to sit down. Paul slid into the seat next to Robbie.
‘If I get a glass one of you puffs has used, will I get fucking AIDS?’
No one answered. Their heads stayed down fixed on the tabletop. Frazer slammed his palm down.
‘I said, am I going to get AIDS off you fucking queers?’
Robbie looked up and directly into Frazer’s face.
‘You don’t get it from sharing a glass. You get it from sex or blood. We don’t have AIDS. None of us do. And if we did, you’d have no chance of getting it from us. Trust me. You are honestly not my type.’
Frazer opened up the left side of his jacket. Halfway down the lining was a Velcro strap holding a knife. It had a wooden grip, the strap secured it in place either side of the cross-guard, the six-inch long blade pointed plumb downwards.
‘If any of you comes anywhere near me, anywhere near my mates, if any of you touches a thing I’m using, or goes anywhere near anything I’m using, I’ll slice you. You got me? I’ll fucking slice you open. We don’t want no AIDS carriers in this town.’
Frazer let the side of his jacket close. He grinned at them. Their heads were down again. He walked back into the happy hour mass.
The following Saturday Robbie called Paul and Mel to come earlier than usual. His mum would be already out again. When they arrived, before getting ready began, Robbie presented a plastic bag to Paul and Mel.
‘Look inside. I thought it’s time we tried it.’
‘What is it?’
Robbie took out and held up two short crayons.
‘They’re eyeliners. Black, kohl eyeliners from my mum’s salon. Are you up for it?’
He went to the large mirror above the fireplace, took off the clear plastic lid, and with the fingers of his left hand pulled down on his cheek to open the bottom lid of his right eye. He clenched the eyeliner between his thumb and index finger and dabbed and combed the black across the wet line above his lower eyelashes. When finished with his right eye he performed the same process with the left eye. He fixed the lid back onto the pencil, placed it on the mantelpiece and turned to Mel and Paul with a wide grin.
‘What do you think? I think it looks amazing!’
‘Are you sure you want to go to The Victoria with that on?’
‘Does it look amazing, or doesn’t it look amazing?’
‘It does look amazing Robbie.’
‘Then I definitely want to go to The Victoria with this on.’
In between the stages of doing Robbie’s hair, Mel making fresh cups of tea, record changes, they each took turns to apply, reapply, and try out different looks with the eyeliner. Paul put eyeliner across the moist line on his bottom lids as he’d watched Robbie do. Mel drew a line just above his top row of eyelashes. After trying numerous different looks, Robbie decided on a thick row on the top and bottom going to a curled-up Cleopatra point. They went out of the front door and to The Victoria.
They got the same booth as the week before. It was Robbie’s round. Mel and Paul sat up against the wall allowing a vacant seat to their sides. They didn’t notice at first as Craig Frazer seemed to simply appear and sit down next to Mel.
‘Why do you lot think you’re welcome here?’
They didn’t look at Craig Frazer, or speak, keeping their eyes away from his. Robbie came back with the drinks, sat down opposite and gazed straight into Frazer’s stare.
‘Hi, Craig. How’s everything?’
‘I’d rather not Craig. As I said last week, you not being my type and all, but thanks for asking.’
Mel and Paul sunk towards the wall. Frazer glared back at Robbie’s smirk. Frazer’s right hand moved under the left flap of his unfastened jacket, his lips thinned, his arm muscles stiffened. A gust of air snorted from his nostrils. Their eyes continued their lock on each other. Nobody spoke. They heard the fabric rip of Velcro, then the faint squeaking sound of Frazer’s arm sliding under his jacket. Robbie watched him lean forward, and then felt the tip of the blade pressing into the skin on his left inner thigh, as close to the point of puncturing as possible.
‘It has to stop. All this fucking behaving like this. You’ve seen that fucking iceberg on telly. Men, and women, it said in that advert.’
‘It also said don’t die of ignorance you stupid old prick!’
As Frazer started to reply one of his friends came over and tapped his knife-wielding arm.
‘Come on, Craig. Why do you keep bothering these puffs?’
‘I have my reasons, mate’
‘Whatever. It’s your round Craig. Just leave this lot alone, and let’s head to The White Lion.’
Robbie felt the point of the blade release from his skin. He waited for Frazer to go, their stares not leaving one another, before he moved his hand under the table to knead the indented pleat of skin the knife left behind.
Robbie, Paul, and Mel ditched the usual Saturday routine. They went to The Plough, where no one ever went on a Saturday pub crawl. They agreed to have a few drinks there and not bother with the usual places. Walking there, Robbie stopped every minute to rub his leg where he felt a bruise spreading. Mel got three lagers in and they sat in a window seat through the back. They were the only ones in that room.
‘It can’t carry on like this Robbie. He’s a nutter. He’ll seriously hurt one of us.’
‘No, it can carry on like this. We’re not hurting anyone. It has to carry on like this!’
‘Is it really worth it though? Looking like this. Maybe we should calm it down.’
‘You both sound like my own mother! Get a job Robert. Why can’t you like girls, Robert? For fuck’s sake, please, not you two also.’
On the Monday Robbie slept until late morning. He made toast under the grill, lathered it with margarine, had a milky, two-sugar tea, and sat in the living room without switching on the television or putting a record on. He put his used plate and mug into the dry sink next to the knife and teaspoon already in there and headed to the salon his mum worked at.
‘You can’t sit here all day, Robert. I’ve got a customer at half twelve. I don’t want them seeing you lolloping around the place.’
‘I’m only passing by. I’ll just pop to the loo, then go before they come.’
Robbie went through the back, opened the toilet door loudly enough for it to be heard, pulled the cord to turn the light on, then reopened the door gently, and crept out to the store cupboard behind the toilet cubicle. He turned the feeble, silver key hanging in the lock, inched open the door and peered in. He took two blushers, some mascara, powder, a few more eyeliner pencils and slid them into the inside pocket of his jacket. He slinked back into the toilet, flushed, came out, closing the door firmly, and back through to the salon. His mum was wafting out a black and white, polka dot gown in the air, which she wrapped around the arrived customer who was sitting in the chair nearest the till. As she fastened it at the back the person in the chair turned to look at Robbie. It was Craig Frazer.
Robbie stayed in the kitchen until his mum came home. The front door to their flat clicked open at six o’clock and his mum came in. She looked in the sink and sighed.
‘Can’t even wash a few dishes in the whole day? I’m tired of this, Robbie.’
‘Why was he in your shop, mum?’
‘Why was who in my shop? What are you talking about?’
‘Why was Craig Frazer having a haircut in your salon? You don’t do customers like him. Why was he there?’
‘Are you kidding me? You sit on your arse here all day and think you can use that tone of voice on me when I come in! Craig’s a friend of mine. A new friend of mine. I was giving him a quick trim. He’s a good bloke and has helped me out with some stuff recently.’
‘Stuff! What stuff is he helping you with?’
‘Robbie, I do not work all day, come back to a messy flat where you’ve done nothing all day and expect an interrogation from you! What I do in my private life is none of your bloody business!’
‘What stuff is he helping you with?’
‘I just want you to be different, Robert. That’s all it is. Why can’t you be more like someone like Craig? Someone who works hard. Someone normal for god’s sake. Someone who’s not trying to hurt themselves and everyone around them!’
Robbie put on his only Soft Cell album. As the last song came on, he laid on his back on his bed, his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes and lip synched to the chorus, only moving a hand from behind his head to wipe his cheeks as the song played on. When the turntable arm automatically moved back, and the record clicked to a stop, he didn’t put on another. He sat up on the side of the bed, leant over to pick up his jacket from the floor, took the contents from the inside pocket, and lined up the six boxes on the quilt cover. He went to the wardrobe where his clothes were kept on the left and his mum’s on the right. He took off his trousers and shirt, standing there in his underwear and socks. On the top shelf he filtered through items his mum didn’t wear any more. He pulled out a black leotard from when she did dancing. In the drawers he went through her pile of tights and found a pair of black fishnets. He flung them both on the bed, closed the wardrobe door to have the full-length mirror view of his near nakedness. He took the tights and wove his legs into them making sure none of his toenails caught, picked up the leotard from next to his cosmetics haul and held it across his chest to see what it might look like, then lifted his legs into it, pulling it up to slide in his arms and flatten it across his chest. He glanced down at the array of make up again, turned back to the mirror, stepped to the left, put his hands on his hips, and gave himself a broad smile. It was six o’clock. Exactly five more days until The Victoria’s next happy hour.