|references to m/m sex, prostitution, some strong language
|It’s been three years since Tanya made her escape. Now Johnny is back on the street. Will she be able to get him back this time or is he still lost to her?
“Yes? Tanya speaking. Who is this? I have a 6 o clock deadline so you’d better make it fast.”
“This is Rachel.”
“You remember me, Tanya, dear. I know you do.”
“I really don’t have time for this. Whoever you are -”
“Fine. We never liked each other, and I’m not going to start pretending now. But we have one thing in common. Or shall I say one person?”
“Dad isn’t ill. I would have known.”
“This isn’t about your father.”
“Now, listen to me. We’re going on the air in less than two hours, and I have a show to put together. Pleasant as it is to reminisce -”
“With all your advantages, everything I never had, you’re still that rude little girl. Alright, I’ll get to the point. Johnny. I assume you still care about him?”
“Fine. I’m listening.”
“Omar dumped him.”
“How come I’m not surprised? Is that all? That’s good news, right? What Johnny could see in that leech I’ll never understand.”
“Really? That’s not what I heard.”
“I don’t care what you think you’ve heard. What about Johnny? The last time I saw him, he did his best to push me away.”
“Can you blame him for that? You know how Omar treated him and Johnny let him. There were all those things he wanted to make up for. Compensate Omar for the past and so on.”
“Oh? He never told me anything about that. Won’t you get to the point? I really do need to get back to work.”
“Alright. As we both know, Omar did his best to break Johnny’s spirit, to treat him like a possession, not a human being. The worst part is that Johnny thought that was fine. That he deserved it. Why else do you think he would have accepted such a relationship? I saw him grow up, don’t forget. He’s not a homosexual. Mind you, I think his self esteem was low even to begin with. That was his father’s doing. Not a nice man at all.”
“Whose father is?”
“You’re right there, Tanya, but if you’re referring to your father, I don’t quite agree.”
“I don’t suppose it matters anymore. You do know he married off my sisters, don’t you?”
“Yes, but they are still in England, the last I heard.”
“What difference does that make? Those old men won’t treat them any better just because of that. Now, what about Johnny -?”
“Johnny’s back on the street. I’ve tried to get him to come and live with me, but he won’t listen. It seems he’s determined to punish himself even more. Omar’s gone and got himself involved with some crime lord, in the city. I think Johnny blames himself for some mad reason.”
“Yes. He would. I really don’t see what I can do, though. I made him an offer three years ago. He wouldn’t accept it, and I might say he offended me turning it down. A simple no thanks would have been enough.”
“You really haven’t learned anything in all this time, have you? Why do you think he had to do that? Use your brains for once. This isn’t a tv show.”
“Speaking of tv shows -”
“He wanted to go with you so badly he had to hurt your feelings. If you hadn’t left when you did, he would have come with you.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Tanya. I suppose there are things expensive schools don’t teach you, after all.”
“Alright. What is it you want me to do?”
“Come back here. The train ride from Birmingham surely won’t take you that long. Can’t you give him a few days? Maybe you can reach him where I can’t.”
There was a long, calculating silence. Rachel almost gave up hope the selfish cold-hearted young woman would respond to her plea. However, eventually, Tanya drew in breath to reply. Rachel held hers, expectantly.
“Why not? I won’t visit my parents. They’d send me round the bend. Does he still remember me?”
“Find out for yourself. I can tell you this: He watched each and every one of your shows, unless Omar was at home.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I don’t suppose you remember, but his mother and I were very good friends. We were at school together. That kind of thing means something even to people like us.”
“I know I’m going to regret this, but alright. Would Thursday be ok? I don’t have to be back until Monday morning. I’ll catch a flight. Saves time. Are you still at the old place? The one my father paid for?”
Tanya’s tone implied exactly how she felt about that. The contempt had ceased to bother Rachel. She knew that it was only an attempt to protect the insecure little girl inside Tanya. It had taken Rachel the better part of the three years to get over the girl’s father, and to see through her cynical facade.
Girls like Tanya, without the financial benefits, worked in the shop Rachel managed. She knew it was tough growing up in an immigrant family. The luxurious lifestyle had blinded Rachel to that insight, but now that she was on her own again, she had seen through it.
“No. I’ll give you the new address. A much nicer place. No furniture moving about, and you’ll be pleased to know that my rash cleared up, as soon as your aunts came to visit your mother.”
There was a touch of malice in Rachel’s voice. Apparently she wasn’t quite over the humiliation of the painful breakup. To her astonishment, it seemed Tanya accepted the snub in good spirits. Could it be that the self-absorbed girl really had grown up in the years she’d spent on her own? She obviously could be counted on to give as good as she got.
When Rachel hung up, she was feeling a little more hopeful, but she still worried about Johnny. That poor boy had been in such a self-destructive mood the last time she saw him. Surely he wouldn’t try to do himself any harm?
She knew that he had burned his bridges with his old friends. By siding with the Asians, not to mention the wealthy, he had lost all chance of recociliation with the group of people he belonged with. Or perhaps he didn’t.
Perhaps there really was a way of raising yourself above your origins. Rachel had always liked Johnny, but that wasn’t all. The boy had promise, and she had hated the way that Omar’s father had condescendingly sponsored the street urchin.
Knowing far too well what it was like to be a rich man’s plaything, even though Tanya’s father had treated Rachel herself with far more respect than Omar had ever shown Johnny, she could sympathise with the poor young man. Just as she had, he had been forced to move to a new part of town.
Whether that was wise or not, she didn’t know. For her own part, quite possibly it wasn’t, but she had been unable to bear the sight of the old neighbourhood. As far as Johnny was concerned, there really had been no choice. His old friends were after his blood. Whatever part of town he was in, his lifestyle hadn’t changed.
Rachel wouldn’t be too surprised if she learned that he was back on the game. She knew he had done that in the past. His poor mother had been distraught when a so-called friend had informed her about her son’s degradation. Living with Omar had fully qualified him for the role, she had no doubts about that. Perhaps he had even been able to find other rich men to befriend, through Omar and his family.
Tanya’s plane arrived a little late on Thursday night. She got in a cab and went to her hotel room. They had agreed that Rachel would come and pick her up Friday morning. In the meantime, Tanya intended to make the most of her night in London.
It had been three years since her last visit, and back then she had still been forced to abide by her family’s old rules. This time, she would see the nightlife. Nothing would stop her. She had made herself familiar with the clubs and bars in her new home town, but naturally this would be something else. In her years working on the tv station, she had learned to get by with very little sleep.
Until Rachel’s unexpected call she had given Johnny very little thought. His refusal to come with her had hurt more than she had expected. Her offer had been genuine, if made on an impulse. It had been a total surprise how much his words had cut her. But Tanya had a thick skin, or at least she had developed one in her new life.
As always, she kept herself under strict control. This wasn’t a time when she could afford to let some man turn her head. She kept her drinks down to a minimum too.
When Rachel picked her up bright and early, she wouldn’t give that woman the satisfaction of seeing her hung over or in any other way displaying signs of weakness. Tanya’s opinion of women living off men hadn’t changed, but by now her own conscience was totally clear. No one would be allowed to stake a claim to her. No one.
By now she even thought she might be in a position to keep a man. That might be amusing, but no man she knew would accept those terms. In any case, it was merely a hypothetical mind exercise. She had no intention of doing any such thing. Any man she got herself permanently involved with would have to live his own life.
Her ride showed up on the agreed hour, and Tanya reluctantly got into the cab. She could see Rachel studying her intently, as if evaluating her. Tanya returned her gaze every bit as unashamedly.
To her satisfaction, she noted that the years hadn’t treated the older woman kindly. In her own opinion Tanya herself would compare favourably. She had lost weight, found a hairdresser that styled her hair to perfection and in general learned to display an image of herself to the world that could pass the cruel eye of the camera, and be plastered all over the tv screens nationwide.
To begin with, Tanya had taped her own appearances. She had watched them over and over again, until she had managed to control every aspect of her appearance, every single move, every inch of her face. No, she didn’t think Rachel would be able to find fault with her exterior. If that was what the woman was trying to assess.
By now the silence was getting oppressive. That might be Rachel’s intention. To unnerve her enough to lose the battle of wills, and open her mouth first? On the other hand, she had no reason not to speak out.
“Well? Do you know where he is? I don’t suppose you’ve lured him into your flat?”
“No. I just thought we could discuss our strategy. If you prefer, we could go to a cafe, or some other place.”
“No. That’s alright. We might be better off discussing this in private.”
“That’s what I thought. It’s not that much further now.”
“Well, well, well. You’ve certainly come up in life. Another man?”
Rachel’s face showed no signs of emotion at that dig. In fact she smiled deceptively sweetly back at the younger woman.
“No. No man. I’ve paid for it myself.”
“Good for you. There’s nothing like it, you know.”
“I know. On the other hand, there’s nothing like love either.”
Tanya waved her hand dismissively. Love was the furthest thing from her mind. Independence had tasted far more sweetly on the day she had managed to outrun her past.
Rachel paid the cab driver, and they got out. They were standing outside a pleasant looking building. Pleasant looking for inner city London. As they rode up in the lift, Tanya began to wonder what Rachel would tell her about Johnny.
At this point, Tanya was even beginning to question her decision to return. What could she possibly do? She had only known this man for a very short time. Most of that time they had been at odds for one reason or another. Now three years had gone by.
There was no telling how Johnny had fared under Omar’s treatment. Tanya could barely suppress a shudder. If her father and Omar’s had had their way, she might have been the victim of that oppression. Had she been naive enough not to see what she was destined for, that might very well have happened.
Rachel had been right about one thing. Very briefly, she had been extremely taken with her dashing young cousin. Omar could be charming when he chose to. Perhaps it was no mystery why Johnny had felt compelled to compensate his old friend for his betrayal.
Later, while they were sitting upstairs over a cup of tea, Tanya slowly began to relax. Although visiting this woman wouldn’t have been part of her plans, she was actually pleased that she had dared to return. One day she would be working for the BBC. It had always been part of her strategy, and now she felt the time was right.
She was glad she had changed her name when she fled her family. Now all the qualificatons she had gathered in these years would be to the new Tanya’s credit. Unless her family had changed their ways, she very much doubted anyone would be watching her type of show. Even if she lived mere miles away from them, there was no reason to suppose that they would discover her whereabouts.
This wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Somewhere deep inside she knew she would want to at least try to do something for Johnny. Johnny at Omar’s mercy wasn’t pleasant to comtemplate.
As they put down their cups, Rachel cleared her throat.
“Omar found this new occupation about three months ago.”
“Is he involved with the syndicate, or some crime lord?”
“I see what you mean. Perhaps a bit of both. I don’t really know. The main thing is that he considers this an upward move. For whatever reason he didn’t want to be burdened with Johnny.”
“Touching. He simply threw him out?”
“You know Omar. Yes, I believe that’s exactly what happened. Johnny, of course, would have no other place to go than back to the street. Though not in the same neighbourhood. As you can imagine, his old friends don’t have any love for him, for a number of reasons.”
“Yes. I know all that. What about his mother, though? I thought his father was dead?”
“No, he isn’t dead. He’s simply left Johnny’s mother. ”
“Was she too closely associated with his father for him to want to face her again?”
“Very good, Tanya. I suppose you’ve learned something in these years. Another reason might be shame. She knows all about what he’s been doing in these last few years. Before Omar and after.”
“Before? Oh, I see. So that’s what you think he’s doing now?”
“Yes. What else would he do? It’s not as if his years with Omar has prepared him for any other work.”
“What about the management of that launderette? Surely that would be some qualification. All that work he did for Hussein -”
“If I know your family, they never gave him any references.”
“Even so -”
“I think the real reason is how he feels.”
“He took the breakup really hard, I suppose.”
“From what I’ve heard, he was distraught. I do believe he tried really hard to convince himself that they loved each other. Wouldn’t you have?”
“I don’t know. You tell me. Alright. I see what you mean. My family has a lot to answer for. Just think of my sisters. The worst part is that I think I brought this on them. If I hadn’t disgraced the family, I doubt if dad would have had them married this soon. But there was no way I could have brought them along with me. It was hard enough to make ends meet to begin with. Besides, I doubt if I could have made them come with me.”
“I’m sure you did what you had to do.”
Tanya stared at her father’s former mistress. Was Rachel serious? Or was this her way of getting back at Tanya for her wounding remark from a few minutes ago. No. She was serious.
That in no way helped to diminish Tanya’s feelings of guilt. Her own sisters were no better than slaves to some disgusting old men. How could she ever forget or get over that? She decided to change the subject, or rather to bring it back to their original topic.
“Do you know where he is now?”
“Vaguely. As to exactly where, I’m afraid I can’t say.”
“So how do we find him?”
“I know which places to start looking. Not the kind of places where you would want to be seen, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, well. It can’t be helped.”
“He does keep in touch from time to time.”
“Surely you’re not suggesting I stay here until he rings you again?”
“No, of course not. I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask around in those bars.”
“Oh, great. Let’s hope they don’t think I’m applying for a job as a stripper.”
“You will have to make that clear, that’s all.”
“Oh, alright. If that’s the only way, I suppose I shall have to do it.”
She had been right. It was every bit as humiliating as she had expected. They had decided Rachel wouldn’t come with her. Johnny hadn’t responded to her pleas. Now it was Tanya’s turn to try.
By now she felt sure word would have got around that someone was looking for Johnny. Or wouldn’t his friends think it important enough to report to him that a young Asian woman was looking for him?
Perhaps he didn’t have any friends. Yet another thing on Omar’s conscience. Somehow she doubted her cousin would even have given it a second thought.
Finally she ran into a slimy character who would at last tell her where she might find Johnny. The young man was wearing the sort of outfit Tanya associated with pimps. Tawdry, garish clothes, complete with the obligatory gold chain. He didn’t even bother to pretend he was a friend of Johnny’s. Instead, he went on to give her directions to the street where he thought Johnny might be at this hour of the night.
“Oh, I think you’ll find ‘im over in Church Street. Just don’t expect to run into any churchgoers.”
The raucous laughter grated on Tanya’s nerves and she was about to snap, but controlled herself with an effort. No matter what that creep thought, she already had some idea of what she would find. So she merely thanked the man for his information and turned to go. The street wasn’t far. Her cab would take her there within minutes.
“I hope ye brought yer Barclay card, love. Prepare yerself for a wait. Our Johnny’s quite popular these days.”
Tanya pretended she hadn’t heard the offensive remark. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. In any case, she very much doubted that Johnny would accept credit cards.
The street in question was seemingly empty when she got there, but when she looked closer, she spotted several young men standing around, leaning against the wall behind them, or talking to one another. Cars were cruising by slowly, just like her cab.
She was glad it was one of the more discreet cars. The cab driver gave her a look that would have made her colour soar three years ago. Now she just returned it squarely. Her meaning was clear. Mind your own business.
She told the cheeky driver to pull over at the end of the street, where a building had been torn down. The ragged remains could have been the set of a horror movie. If she listened carefully, would she hear the screams of the undead? Or the howl of a werewolf? No. All she could hear were the sounds of the city. Distant police sirens. The rythmic boom boom of a stereo played too loud.
Another cold stare at the cab driver froze his hand in mid-air as he was about to turn the radio on. Five minutes later he was about to light a cigarette, but that too was stopped before he had time to reach his lighter. He sighed theatrically.
“Listen, dearie. I can’t be waiting ‘ere all night. If you don’t find ‘oever it is yer looking for, I’ll drop ye off. Find yer own way back to the West End, or Docklands or wherever it is yer coming from.”
“I’m paying you to wait, so I expect you do just that.”
“‘e isn’t coming, is ‘e?”
“‘oever it is yer waiting for.”
“I’ll let you know when we’re giving up.”
That bloody-minded cab driver had distracted her. What if Johnny had come and gone again while they were arguing? Tanya looked around, and it finally seemed her luck had changed. There he was, getting out of a big German car. Mercedes, or BMW. She couldn’t be sure, the light was that poor.
“There he is. Drive by slowly.”
“I know the drill.”
“Good. Then you should have no problem getting it right.”
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Approaching Johnny out here. Would he even want to face her in such a degrading situation? But she was running out of time. Where else would she be able to find him? She wouldn’t be able to find his squat.
Now they were right next to Johnny, and she could see that she hadn’t been mistaken. It was him, alright. But the changes the three years had worked in him were frightening. He had always been wiry and thin, but now his face seemed to be sculpted in some smooth plastic rock. The bone structure was covered by a tight layer of skin, and his eyes were lost in the deep shadows of his face.
Not surprisingly, he knew the drill too. He was approaching the car, slowly, not too eagerly. Tanya knew that posture far too well, but she hadn’t been prepared for the quick leap her heart made in her chest.
He ducked down to look in through the window, and for a second she didn’t think he recognized her. There was a blank look on his face until quite suddenly he pulled back. For a second, she was afraid he was going to turn and disappear in the night.
To her relief he didn’t move. Perhaps he wanted to know what had brought her here. She didn’t dare to hope that he was happy to see her. In her own mind she wasn’t sure whether she was pleased or not. The whole situation was painful. Come to think of it, that was typical of anything related to Johnny.
“Oh. It’s you. Never thought I’d see ye again. Aren’t ye in the wrong street, though? Girls over in Charles Street. Never mind, eh? I know this bloke who’ll pay good money for a chocolate and vanilla show. Or is that coffee and cream?”
Tanya gave him a look that never failed to freeze men in their footsteps. It didn’t seem to work quite as well with Johnny. Even so, there really seemed to be some kind of reaction.
“Silly of me. Should ‘ave known. Buying, not selling. Like the rest of yer kind.”
“Alright. Here I am. Please come with me.”
“I dunno. Alright. I’ll give ye a special price, seeing that yer not exactly equipped like the average punter. It would make a nice change. Twenty quids, since it is you.”
“I’ll pay you 50 or a 100 if you just agree to speak with me for a while.”
With a sinking feeling she realized that the offer of money had been a mistake. Now she had hurt his feelings. What if she had ruined everything?
“I’m talking to ye right now. Save yer money. I’m sure there’s lots of people ye’d rather talk to than me. Now if ye’ll excuse me, I’ve work to do. Some of us aren’t afraid to get our hands dirty.”
She hated herself for the weak, pleading note in her voice, but for a second it really seemed as if he was relenting.
His eyes softened a little, and she was sure he was about to say something. The moment passed and he straightened up, and after one last look that she couldn’t read, he backed off again.
The message was clear. He was once again available for some other customer. It was no use. She thought she knew him well enough to be able to tell that he wouldn’t listen to anything she had to say.
But she couldn’t just go without making one last effort. It was foolish of her, but she had to risk it. Somehow she didn’t think Johnny would let any harm come to her even in this neighbourhood. She opened the door and stepped out on the concrete. With one last look at the driver, admonishing him to stay put, she followed Johnny over to the wall.
The look of surprise on his face told her he hadn’t expected this.
She followed up on her advantage by backing him up against the wall. Her eyes tried to nail him to the spot, as if she could will him to give in to her demand. If he could let Omar do it to him, why not her? But this was not the time or the place to try. If this didn’t work –
“Here. This is the number to where you’ll reach me for the next couple of days. Please, call me, or come and see me. Please.”
His arms stayed by his side. He wasn’t even going to take the card. For a second she was wondering if there was anything else she could do or say to sway him, but she couldn’t think of anything.
Finally, she merely took his hand, and pressed the card into it. He snatched his hand back, as if her touch had burned his skin. For a second she thought he was going to let her card fall, then his fingers closed around the piece of paper. He looked away from her. As far as he was concerned, the audience was over.
Tanya decided to call it a night. She had done all she could now. The rest was up to Johnny.
She hadn’t expected him to show up the same night, so she wasn’t disappointed when she didn’t hear from him the next day either. It wasn’t until Sunday morning stretched into afternoon, that she was beginning to despair. Rachel had rung several times, anxiously asking about any progress. Finally she had given up. Tanya had had nothing much to tell her. Now that the day was drawing to a close, she was beginning to think she had failed. He might be in too much pain to ever come back to them.
By the time she’d been forced to resign herself to her failure, finally there was a call from reception, informing her that a man was calling on her. There was a bit of a sneer in the voice, but Tanya ignored it. It was none of her business who Tanya admitted to her room. For a second she felt a stab of excitement at the pit of her stomach. Perhaps it wouldn’t be too late to get him back, one way or another.
The faint knock on the door brought her to her feet in an instant. As the door swung open, she caught sight of him, standing in the doorway. He looked exactly as he had the other night. It occurred to her that he might not own more than one set of clothes. Not that it mattered one way or another.
“I don’t know why I came.”
“Alright, but I’m really glad you did.”
Johnny sauntered in, and began to pace back and forth, as if sizing up the room, and her.
What was going on inside his mind? Why had he decided to come after all? Tanya wished she knew the answers to those questions, but for now, she was content to wait until he had figured them out for himself.
“Nice place yer got ‘ere. Classy. Just like you. It suits ya.”
“Thanks, but this is just a hotel room. You should see my own place.”
“Should I? Why did yer come here?”
“Rachel rang me.”
“I see. She’s a very nice woman, but she doesn’t understand.”
“Yes, she does. She’s just worried about you.”
“No need. I’ll always get by.”
“The way you did the other night?”
“That’s right. Any objections?”
“Yes. Whatever debt you think you owed Omar is paid back now, with interest. So why can’t you -”
“Is that what ye think? How could I ever pay him back for what I did to him and his family?”
“You didn’t have anything to do with what happened to his mother. I can see you have no idea what it’s like, being a woman in our culture. My old culture I should say. Omar’s father did it to her. No one else.”
“I helped though.”
“You were just a kid, and you didn’t have any idea what effect it might have on them. Of course, I’m not surprised Omar made you think you were to blame. It must have suited him perfectly.”
“That’s what you think.”
“I know so.”
“What can I do for ye?”
“You can leave the street. Come with me, like I asked you once before.”
“Because I can’t bear to see you punish yourself like this.”
“Is that how ye see it?”
“Isn’t that how it is?”
“Wouldn’t know. Never went to any schools.”
“Don’t do that.”
“Don’t do what?”
“Hiding. Shutting me out.”
“Alright, I’m listening.”
“That’s it. I’m asking you again. Come with me.”
“To wherever it is ye live?”
“Yes. Why not? What’s keeping you here now?”
“What would I do over there? Where is it anyway?”
“What would I do in Birmingham? I won’t have any other skills when I get up there.”
“Sure you do.”
“Are ye saying yer going to pay for everything, just like that? How am I going to pay yer back?”
“When you get a job – ”
A provocative look crept into his eyes and his posture changed.
“I could pay ye in kind. How would yer like that?”
“Johnny, don’t. This isn’t like before. I’m not Omar. Why can’t you just accept the hospitality of an old friend?”
“I need ter know why yer doing this. What it is that yer want from me. It always pays to know that up front, I always say.”
“If I had been foolish enough to agree to marrying Omar, I would have been just the same as you. When I asked you to come with me, I meant it. It wasn’t just because I was after your body, if that’s what you think.”
That crooked smile got to her every time. It seemed to hint to her that he thought she didn’t find him attractive. Perhaps there was a question in it. Tell me. I want to know.
“Not that I wouldn’t want to – I just meant it was a genuine offer. I knew how Omar was treating you. That’s the way he would have treated me, if he could have made himself agree to that.”
“No fear of that. Omar isn’t all that keen on women.”
“You’d be surprised how many of our men aren’t. That doesn’t stop them. After all, they need to breed sons.”
“Oh, well, that’s something I couldn’t help ‘im with.”
He was actually smiling and Tanya found herself smiling back.
“Hardly. Not unless he got you to impregnate his wife for him. Of course, that wouldn’t fool anyone once the baby was born. I certainly wouldn’t help him out, either.”
“Good on ye. Alright. I’ll go with yer. For a while, to see how things turn out. If yer really sure yer can find me a real job.”
“Don’t worry about that. I know some people who’ll give you a shot.”
“Because yer sent me?”
“They won’t give you a job just for my sake, but they’ll give you a chance. The rest is up to you. From what I remember, you’re a very resourceful guy.”
“Right. That’s me. Resourceful. Can I use yer shower?”
“Of course. Do you have anything you need to pick up?”
“No. I brought it with me.”
“Did you plan on accepting my offer all along?”
“No. Just thought ye’d let me use the shower.”
“Alright. I could send your clothes to the laundry, while you’re taking that shower.”
“I don’t know. I’ll just call room service. They can do what they like. If you’ll let me, I’ll buy you some new clothes.”
“How am I going to pay for that?”
“You’ll pay me back when you get your first paycheck.”
“Alright. Send them out to the laundry. I’ll buy something later. If you can stand to see these.”
“If you can, I certainly can.”
“Good, see yer in a minute. Unless you’d like ter join me?”
“Why? Do I look as if I could use a shower?”
“That’s not what I meant. You look bloody fantastic.”
Not sure how to interpret his sudden vehemence, Tanya pretended she hadn’t heard those last few words.
“I see. Let’s just deal with your laundry first. Oh – speaking of room service – are you hungry?”
“I could eat.”
“Good. It’ll be ready for you when you’re done.”
Half an hour later, Johnny was sitting next to her at the table, having chips and a shake. His change of clothes weren’t much of an improvement on his other outfit, but she would handle that later.
“If you don’t mind, I’ll call Rachel and let her know.”
“Why should I mind? I’ll say hello.”
“Great. I’m sure she’ll love to hear your voice.”
Rachel really did sound relieved. There was something in her voice that led Tanya to believe Rachel expected more to come of this than simply getting Johnny off the street. Tanya refused to acknowledge that, and merely assured Rachel that things were fine, and that she would call her from Birmingham once they got there.
Johnny didn’t say much either. He just thanked Rachel for her kindness, and asked her to let his mother know he would be leaving town.
That surprised Tanya just a little. The way he seemed to feel about his mother she had been sure he didn’t care whether she worried or not. Perhaps she ought to give her own mother a call. It had been far too long since she had kept in touch. At this time she wasn’t sure if her mother would be alone, so she decided not to. If her father picked up, she knew she would hang up again, and if he had the call traced, that would lead to far too many complications. It was enough that she called from time to time when she was at home.
“I’ll call and change my reservation now.”
“Are we going by train?”
“Cor. That’s a first.”
“I hope you don’t suffer from motion sickness.”
“That’s what we’ll have ter find out.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
There was no problem booking another seat on the plane, fortunately. If there had been, Tanya knew she would have had to go by a later plane or take the train after all.
“Now that’s taken care of, would you like to go somewhere? To have dinner?”
“Why not? If yer don’t mind being seen out with the likes of me?”
“Why would I mind? A great looking fellow like you?”
“If ye’re going to take the mickey -.”
“I’m not. You should know better than that.”
“Oh. I see. Yer don’t look so bad yerself.”
“But I’m serious. Where d’yer think they’ll let me in, dressed like this?”
“We’ll find someplace. Leave that to me.”
If they had had more time, Tanya would have loved to go to a play or a musical, but that would have to wait for later. Still, they spent a nice enough evening. As long as they knew which topics to avoid. Knowing they would have to get up early the next morning, they were back at the hotel just after ten.
“I think you’ll be comfortable on the sofa. Is there anything you need?”
“How about some company?”
Tanya stared at him in astonishment. Was he serious? Yes, he really seemed to be. Apparently he was still full of surprises.
“What? First you’re ever so suspicious about my intentions, and now you’re acting as if I’m not interested enough? Which is it going to be?”
“Yer think I’m sick or something?”
“I hadn’t given it much thought. Are you?”
“You’re sure about that?”
“Yes, I am. Not if Omar didn’t give me something, and I don’t think so.”
“Oh. I see. No, he wouldn’t.”
“So how about it?”
“Johnny, I really don’t think this is such a good idea. We have plenty of time for this kind of thing later.”
“I see. So that’s how it’s going to be? It’s the punters.”
“No. I was thinking about you.”
“How d’yer mean? Yer think I don’t know how?”
“That’s not what -”
“I’ve been with more women than yer been with men, I’m willing ter bet. Had my first girlfriend when I was 14. Yer won’t have anything to complain about.”
“Then you’ve certainly got the advantage over me. There was never anyone for me until I left. I wasn’t likely to be allowed to do anything like that while I was still at home. That’s the only reason I ever considered Omar in the first place. It’s just that – are you sure?”
“‘course I’m sure. I know what I want.”
Tanya couldn’t quite stop the smile this brought to her face. She began to speak quickly to cover up her discomfort.
“You know, I’m really glad you’re here. I didn’t expect to see you again. When Rachel called I didn’t have time to think. I just got on the plane and came looking for you. So, Johnny – how do you feel about me?”
He hadn’t seen that one coming, she could read him enough to know that. Perhaps he was beginning to regret ever opening the topic at all, but he had to tell her, otherwise there was no way she could make up her mind about him.
She had been telling the truth. His health had never occurred to her. Perhaps it should have. In any case, she felt she had to take his word for it. He had sounded very sure of himself when he had made that declaration, so he had to know he was alright.
“Yes. I guess ye have the right to ask. I haven’t given yer much to go on, have I? I don’t know how I felt to begin with. Back then I was far too happy to have found a way of repaying Omar for what I did to him and his family. That’s how I feel about it. No matter what yer say. But I’m sorry I let yer go off without me. Yer right about everything yer said about Omar. When yer came to find me the other night, I couldn’t believe it was you.”
“I’m sorry that I had to come after you out there, but I didn’t know where else to go.”
“Did yer know what to expect? I hope yer weren’t too shocked.”
“No. Rachel gave me some idea of what I’d find.”
“Oh, I see. Well, me mum certainly knew. Broke ‘er ‘eart, I did, but in a way I didn’t even care. She should’ve known -”
“About your father?”
“What d’yer know about ‘im?”
“I’ll just quote Rachel: Not a nice man at all.”
“No. Yer right about that. Both of yer. Me mum should’ve know something was wrong, and I know she did.”
“Even if she did, what could she have done? Think about it. Could she have done anything?”
Johnny seemed to be thinking it over, then he nodded thoughtfully.
“No. Yer right. Well, all I can say is that I was really glad to see yer, even if I didn’t show it.”
“Don’t worry about it. I think I understand.”
“I think so. Alright. You’ve been honest about how you feel. It’s only fair I tell you something about how I feel. Omar – that was just a way of getting away from home. He could be charming when he wanted, but I didn’t have any illusions about him. I knew exactly what kind of guy he was. Except for his taste for men. My cousin Aziz was just like him. He had an English girlfriend, but when his dad sent for a bride from the old country, he married her without protest. And still went on seeing Linda, though she knew about his marriage. Fatma of course never had any idea.”
“I know the type. Me dad for one. ‘ad a tart set up in a place not far from home. Me mum probably knew about ‘er but d’yer think she ever said anything about it?”
“I suppose for your mother and mine, marriage is a career, not anything to do with love.”
“Yes. I think yer right about that.”
“Anyway, I wanted to tell you that with you it wasn’t the same as with Omar. I – liked you right away.”
His expression softened, and she could tell her words meant something to him.
“I’m sorry I treated yer the way I did.”
“Oh, that. Forget it. I blame Omar, not you.”
“Thanks. That’s more than I deserve. And the other night, I just didn’t want yer to see me like that, so I had to get rid of yer even if I had ter hurt yer feelings.”
“I expected something like that. I’m just glad you took my card. Like I told you earlier, I couldn’t bear to think of you out on the street. Was that more punishment?”
“Dunno. Maybe. There wasn’t much else I could do. Not if I wanted to eat. ”
“Omar didn’t deserve all that consideration.”
“I don’t know. ‘e was me best mate in school.”
“Was he? Or was he after something else even back then?”
“Of course ‘e was. ‘im and the other pakis. Sorry. Didn’t mean you.”
“No, don’t apologize. You’re right, of course, but I hope in my case, you won’t mind. I see. Did his dad know, do you think?”
“Of course ‘e did. I know. When we opened the launderette, he came over in the middle of the night. Just before yer showed up again. Said ‘e wanted me ter ‘use my influence’ to get Omo to go back to college in the autumn.”
“You see. Just like the rest of them. I’m so glad I’m out of all that. Just look at my dad and Rachel.”
“Yes. I’m sure it’s exactly the same thing.”
“So you knew what Omar was after when you ran into him again?”
“‘course I did. I remember the way he was looking at me in the shower after P.E, and he hadn’t changed a bit when we met again. It wasn’t just that I wanted to repay him for his mother. I was too tired of living in the street. Anything would be better. Omar was just one person. ‘course he did make me earn every penny he spent on me, but I was glad to do it. Some regular work for a change.”
“But that’s not all, right? I don’t mean the obvious.”
“No. Yer right there. Got me beaten up protecting that scum Hussein, and lost me all me mates too. They’ll never forgive me now. Made me go back to breaking into people’s houses too, not ter mention the drug dealing.”
“That’s what I meant. I didn’t know about the drugs. Oh, well. Nothing to be done about that now. You’re not wanted by the police, I hope?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Yer far more generous ter me than I deserve.”
“No. That’s alright. We’ve both done things we regret. Why not just leave it at that?”
“I’d like that. Alright, I’ll try. As long as yer can do the same.”
Still, he showed no signs of wanting to go to bed. He kept staring at her so intently, Tanya couldn’t help smiling a little. He was so touchingly pleased to be here with her, and she was just as happy about getting him back. It was time Omar’s influence over his life ended, and wasn’t it fitting that a member of his family would be the one to make it up to Johnny?
She couldn’t resist holding him for just a little while. She had waited so long for this but she was still not sure what she felt about him. He held her for so long, she was beginning to think he never wanted to let go. When he finally did, he kept looking at her face as if he wanted to commit it to memory. It occurred to her that he was noting the differences between her and Omar. She was hoping she compared favourably.
“Well? Do I pass?”
“You know, in comparison to Omar.”
“Ye know yer do. Just the way I like it.”
“I’m glad I wasn’t a disappointment to you.”
“Yer wouldn’t. I hope I don’t have ter say this, but I will anyway. Yer didn’t think I was like Omar?”
“I don’t know. Are you? I mean, I know you’re not such a bastard, but -”
“Don’t be too sure. Ask me old mates. About that other thing – I’m not. Never was. No matter what me old man was saying about me.”
“Good. Just so you know: it wouldn’t have changed anything. The offer would still have been standing. As long as you’re not like Omar in other ways as well.”
“I’d never treat yer that way. I hope ye trust me on that.”
“Of course I do. Now go on. Go to bed. We have to be up by 5 tomorrow.”
“No problem. I’ll sleep like a baby in a place like this. Can’t remember the last time I was in such a nice place. There was Omar’s flat, but I didn’t have me own bed there. Not like this.”
“Oh, stop that. It’s just a sofa. Or are you trying to get me to switch places with you?”
“No. But ye haven’t changed yer mind about sharing, have ye?”
“I don’t know. It depends.”
“On what you want to do.”
The look he cast her would have made her blush, if she hadn’t had herself under such tight control. Then he dropped the act and smiled more guilelessly than she’d ever seen him.
“Nothing. It’s fine. For tonight. I won’t make any promises for later. Can’t blame me for trying though, can yer?”
This time she didn’t bother hiding her smile.
“Go on then. We’d better get some sleep.”
“I need it. Never been on a plane before.”
“You’re not nervous?”
“No. Not me.”
The bed was large enough and they stretched out on it, not quite as carefree as they were trying to seem.
Tanya couldn’t quite let go of what they’d been discussing earlier.
“If Omar ever changes his mind about you, and comes looking, he won’t find you. How do you feel about that?”
“That’s just fine with me. I’ve ‘ad it with him, and all the rest of it.”
“Good. I’d hate to think you were still pining for him.”
“Pining? Me? Not likely. I was pining a bit for you, though. Of course, I couldn’t let Omo find that out.”
“Rachel said you were watching my shows.”
“She told yer that? I see. Must’ve been me mum told her. Yes, I loved them. Great work. Yer don’t think ye could find me something ter do in the studio?”
“I hope so. If you want. There’s always something to do. Don’t worry about it. I promise I’ll find you a nice job. Cross my heart.”
“Thanks. I really appreciate it.”
Johnny was only wearing his shorts, and Tanya couldn’t help letting her eyes linger on his body. No matter how thin he was, he was also very well built.
No, she couldn’t blame Omar for staring at Johnny in the shower. If she had been in his place she knew she would have. What a relief it was to know that Johnny was finally safe. It was satisfying knowing she had snatched Omar’s prize away from him. His rejection of her had stung more than she cared to admit even to herself. Now the score was even.
Omar, you’ve made your bed and you have to lie in it. If you’re in over your head, see if Hussein or my father will bail you out.
On that comforting thought, Tanya fell asleep, content in the knowledge that once more she had beaten her past. In some way she felt that that she had pulled Johnny away from his past as well.
It took Johnny a little longer to doze off. He wasn’t used to such a comfortable environment, and he couldn’t stop thinking about how he’d been found and brought back by the person he most wished to meet again. That was something he had never expected, and hardly dared to dream about. He even thought that he would be able to let go of the guilt that had been weighing on his conscience.
Tanya had forgiven him, and she was right. Whatever debt he owed Omar and his family was paid back. Finally he could begin to live for himself. He could hardly believe it, but he knew it was true. Ttomorrow he and Tanya would start over again. He’d had his second chance and he wouldn’t waste it.