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Champagne

I
THE JOB


    It was a strange and exciting place for Sammy. He'd never seen the brightly lit shops and clubs at night. Throughout his daylight searching, he unquestioningly strode past the many girls and boys his own age who congregated about this normally drab, dirty London back street, chip papers and cigarette ends littering the floor and the dust clouds stinging his eyes with the slightest gust of the chill January winds. Mostly, he kept his head down, pausing only to follow a pair of legs up from brown-brogued feet to see if this time it would be his father.
    Sammy wandered on and glanced, unseeing, down each back alley and gateway, where sex occurred in every dark cranny. It was now a month since he had left and Sammy had glimpsed him twice he recalled. Once he was being hauled away from a particularly disgusting passage behind one of the large brick buildings that loomed perpetually dark and uninviting in daylight, and transformed into a kind of huge revolving Ferris Wheel at the onset of dusk, spinning with life, people clamouring for a ride and later staggering away, dazed by the giddy heights they had dared to encounter. The other time, he was standing outside an off licence, and on both occasions, he was draped drunkenly against the shoulder of one of the wasted young girls who populated the doorways of the deserted Soho daytimes.
    Sammy wasn't stupid. He knew about his father and these prostitutes, had heard the accusations his mother screamed bitterly each time he fell through the door at three in the morning, a pre-empt to the bruises and broken ribs, the only show of emotion she ever seemed to receive from him. And now he had gone, but Sammy couldn't let him go.
    Silently, he slipped into an alley to light a cigarette with a damp match, which sparked and flickered, almost died away, then jumped to life, beaming with surprise at its own resilience. He drew in deeply, throwing the empty box to the floor to join the mound of cigarette packets he imagined had been discarded by other boys looking for their straying fathers. He wondered what he would do if he ever did see him face to face again, and started to play the scene through once more, always the same words, always the same expression on his father's face, the one that hurt more than any blow to the jaw ever could. That hate mustered into a twisted gnarling smile: Sammy never did understand why he might despise him so much. In his mind, he would retaliate, grabbing that wrist as it rose, ready to strike. Sammy was slightly built, almost pre-pubescent and never strong enough to fight back; his father was a big man, but in this scene, this imaginary victory, it was always Sammy who won.
    Disturbed momentarily from his dream by the clutter of dustbins, he looked up long enough to see someone clamber to their feet outside a door that had opened not ten yards away. He could just about make out a stocky male silhouette against the tungsten backdrop, before the door slammed and it became dark once again. Sammy watched on, hidden from view by the shadow of a neon sign that hung from the wall, bent, smashed and partly unlit. The man pushed past the dustbins and bags of rubbish and stumbled away. They all looked the same now, all like his father; he screwed up his eyes and strained to see through the icy smog of blackness, but it was no use. He had no idea if it was him or not and he hadn't the energy to follow and find out.
    Sammy inhaled the last from the cigarette and dropped it to the floor, crushing it into the wet paving stone with his worn baseball boot. He rubbed his hands together in an attempt to regain the feeling in his fingers, turning back to walk away. As he stepped onto the street, a tall slim woman seemed to appear from nowhere, and they collided. Sammy peered up long enough to notice her long, black overcoat drawn in tightly at the waist, mumbled some kind of embarrassed apology under his breath, and returned his eyes to the obliterated fag-butts and boxes. She brushed him aside with an elegant wave of her slender, red-taloned hand and swept past him, the strange Eastern scent of her cologne overpowering him, filling his nostrils and making him dizzy. Transfixed, he stared after her, as she twisted the handle, then hammered on the door until it swung open, cascading her in blinding gold and revealing her true beauty. He heard her muttering something to an unseen person as she disappeared inside. The door started to close and he braced himself for the slam, but instead it stopped and hung there, a concentrated shaft of light from within cutting a path across the alley. Sammy was drawn to it, helpless as a moth searching for the moon, and he slipped unnoticed through the doorway and into a parallel existence.

*

    He wasn't sure what hit him first: the beautifully fragrant stench of perspiring bodies, the dreadful thumping music resonating through the floor, his heart pumping in tandem, or the eye-stinging haze that obscured all fine detail. Unaccustomed to the brightness, he hadn't yet been able to focus on anything, and he wondered if he'd fallen over or been hit on the head, so overwhelmed was he by the place in which he found himself. As he slowly regained his sight, he watched on silently, as three girls in little more than red and white feather boas emerged from a room to his right, giggling and chatting excitedly, the way bad actresses do. In front stretched a long dreary corridor, at the end of which was what he assumed correctly to be a nightclub, filled with smoke and heckling, swearing men. He could by now see the beautiful woman whom he had followed into this strange world, standing against a wall, the overcoat hung over her arm to expose a floor-length deep blue satin dress. He had never seen such high heels and she towered over the short, dark, middle-aged man in front of her. He could hear nothing of their conversation and watched on, as she slid her knee up the inside of the man's thigh, resting her stilettoed foot on the wall behind her. The man appeared to become ever more agitated and turned a deeper shade of scarlet with each passing moment. He talked at her angrily whilst she stared nonchalantly into the club, apparently disinterested in what he had to say, shaking her head every so often, her large gold-hooped earrings sparkling with the motion. Sammy edged along the corridor to try and improve his view of the place, and stopped in the dark below an unlit bulb.
    The club was tatty, to say the least. Around the edge of the walls were deep vermilion vinyl benches, any padding they still had hanging from their bellies. The marble effect round tables were placed at irregular intervals about the cigar stub cluttered carpeting and the ashtrays spilled over with ripped beer mats and empty matchbooks. A poorly positioned spotlight lit up every face of the almost exclusively male crowd, the only females dressed in the standard attire of call girl or exotic dancer, uniforms that were, in these parts, as distinctive and commonplace as that of a nurse.
    Sammy couldn't see a bar from where he was, but saw a scruffy waiter take a tray of drinks across to the short dark man and the woman with the overcoat. The man took a drink with one hand and grabbed the woman's arm with the other, trying to pull her towards the corridor, but she drew away from him and continued to stare into the distance, her full, red lips pursed together, as she twisted the loose heavy cluster adorning her "wedding finger" with her other hand. Eventually, he reached inside his jacket and pulled out a wad of notes, holding them out to her. She snatched them from him and strode off into the club, leaving him uncomfortably alone. He straightened his jacket and waddled towards the corridor, the milling Mardi Gras stepping out of his way as he puffed past, grimacing disdainfully. He tripped over a brush that lay across the width of the passage and kicked it hard in profitless revenge.
    "You!" he pointed at Sammy, whose attempt to blend into the crowd had apparently failed. "Don't stand around here all day doing nothing. Get this floor swept. There's glass all over the place and we don't want the girlies cutting their feet now, do we? God knows they do little enough work as it is."
    He pushed Sammy aside, almost lifting him from the ground with the force, plodded off down the corridor and slammed the door on his way out into the now icy back alley. Sammy could do little but look astounded, as the dust and debris flustered by the blast of air settled back to the ground, hardly welcoming the exercise. The performers carried on with their business totally unperturbed by the strangeness of this place and, for whatever reason, Sammy just did as he was told.
    It scared him a little, he decided, as, starting at the back door, he swept about six months worth of litter towards the club. This place was a freak show and yet he felt as if he belonged here, although he'd always thought of himself as an average seventeen year old, nothing special. He glanced into the dressing room to his right as he went by, half expecting to see the bearded lady executing her bizarre ablutions and instead was somewhat disappointed to find only a mixture of men and women, old and young, in various stages of undress. He continued thoughtfully with his task, ignoring the immature giggles coming from behind the door on his left, the word "toilet" scrawled in marker pen denoting its usage.
    There was some kind of intangible allure about this place, but it wasn't because of the strippers, or whoever they were. These women, lithe and topless, the girls on the street corners, held no more than a pitied interest for him, but the beautiful woman in the overcoat, her smell, everything about her, trapped and drew him closer. He reached the end of the corridor and gazed in awe as she manipulated the microphone stand that it should obey her every command, wrapping her long legs around the waists of the middle-aged men sat lone at each table, smoking fat cigars and drinking whisky, every one a clone of his own father but for a moustache or pair of glasses. Sammy turned away, overcome with a strange jealousy.
    He blushed and closed his eyes, for once wishing to be like those customers, that this woman might wrap her long legs about him, such a teenage dream was she. Yet, as she finished her act and swished past him in the doorway, she didn't even see him and that made his rapidly growing infatuation far worse. His eyes followed her every move, as she paraded down the corridor in the manner of a peacock performing a mating dance. Sammy was in love.
    An aging couple dressed in matching flamenco costume pushed their way between two rather effeminate men who had emerged from the toilet just behind Sammy. They laughed cruelly and cast snide remarks at the object of his fascination, making her stumble slightly on her heels. She bumped into the female half of the Spanish dancers, who threw her a leering look before dragging her partner behind her out into the club. The beautiful woman disappeared into the dressing room and Sammy almost followed her, but a firm tap on the shoulder stopped him and broke the trance.
    "'Ere! You shouldn't be in this club—it's over twenty-ones y'know."
    Sammy spun round to see who the owner of this coarse London voice might be, to come chin to nose with a short fat man, immediately recognisable as the waiter he had seen earlier.
    "I, err, I was…" Sammy stuttered, gesturing to the brush, willing it to explain on his behalf.
    "Oh, I see," replied the man, looking a little surprised. "How old are you, lad?"
    "Seventeen—nearly eighteen," replied Sammy.
    "My God, he don't care who he employs that bloke. This is no place for a lively young feller like you, but I s'pose a job's a job, and there's not many of 'em around these days. Mind, I wonder if it's legal? Not that he'd care. Ah, look at ya, too young and bright for 'ere, but as I say, it's a job and you seem all right, so welcome on board. I'm Mike the barman, by the way. I'll see you right in this hole." Mike finally came to a halt and grinned.
    "Actually, I…oh never mind." Sammy had intended to tell him the truth, but the magnetism of that woman muted his protest, as she once again appeared a few yards away, looking tired, but still astounding despite the black rings of mascara that now formed under her lined, grey eyes.
    "Who's that?" he asked.
    "Champagne Royale," Mike said, hardly disguising the note of disapproval in his voice.
    "Champagne Royale," echoed Sammy. "What a fantastic name. Is that her real name?"
    Mike shook his head dolefully. "There's not much real about Champagne, except the love of rich men and gin. Come on. I'll introduce you to the rest of the lunatics."


II
THE CLUB


    Sammy crossed his trembling arms in front of him and gripped the hem of his t-shirt, causing it to rise slowly up his bare back. He felt Champagne's finger nail trace the path of his spine, sending a ripple round his chest and up into his neck. She spun him by the shoulder to face her and brought the nail to rest in the crevice of his navel. He woke with a start and fell onto the carpet.
    The sofa spring he'd spent the night with had finally pushed him off. Rubbing his back, he cautiously lifted himself into a sitting position on the very edge of the cushion and screwed up his eyes to the blinding daylight Mike had let in from behind the tatty brown curtains now haphazardly framing the lounge window.
    "Sleep well?" Mike asked, uninterested in the response.
    "Fine," Sammy replied as a matter of course, although in reality he'd managed about half an hour in the dreamy company of Champagne all night. He snuggled back and let the last lingering feelings wash over him, disappointed they had been suspended at a point so near his expectant groin. The spring gave him a warning nip and he sat bolt upright again and watched, as Mike shoved his clothes along the ringed coffee table and plonked a mug of tea on yellowing newspaper, sloshing it over a half finished crossword.
    "Sorry, no sugar. Don't take it meself, but I'll get some later if you want. Got no bread neither and that's the last of the milk. I bloody hate shopping. Got better things to do, but if you're hangin' around I'll get some stuff in. You're welcome to stay as long as needs be."
    Sammy nodded, not wishing to interrupt Mike's monologue. He'd already observed that he was a man of few words, and when he did speak they all came at once. Nor did he wish to appear ungrateful, but he wasn't convinced he'd survive another night with the man-eating sofa. Mike hadn't judged him when later the night before he had told him the truth; more to the point he hadn't kicked him out of the club, which was what mattered most right now. So, Sammy consoled himself with a quick reminder that it was better than kipping on the street—a thought that gave way to a sudden realisation.
    "D'you mind if I have a bath? It's just that, well…"
    "Sure. Knock yourself out. I didn't like to mention it, but it crossed my mind that you could do with one. Right. See ya later." Mike gulped down his tea, putting his mug on the window sill as he went through to the kitchen and out of the back door. Sammy stifled a chuckle at this forty-something bachelor in his forty-something bachelor pad, complete with last week's socks curled up in the corner. If he'd noticed he needed a bath above the general whiff of undone laundry and leftovers then it was clearly very much the case.
    He pulled his blanket round him and took the vessel of liquid that almost passed for tea to the kitchen sink, taking a moment to appreciate the full glory of his surroundings now they were bathed in wintry semi-daylight. He spied a greasy fronted washing machine in the corner of the kitchen, and hurried back to the lounge for his clothes, picking up Mike's socks at the same time. The washing machine let out a clang of protest against the odious task ahead of it, and Sammy gave it a hopeful pat before going in search of the bathroom.

*

    Mike waited at the bus stop, staring at his shoes and musing over the strange young man he had allowed into his home. For all he knew he could be a burglar, or a drug addict, although somehow he knew Sammy was nothing of the sort. He checked his watch again and rocked on his heels, wondering why a nice kid like that was homeless. He saw them all, every night, cowering where they could in doorways under old coats and cardboard, yet he'd never really thought about it. He wasn't one to be struck by guilt or any sense of duty for the waifs and strays of society. The thought was lost, as a red double decker hurtled around a blunt bend and stopped at the last second almost in front of him. He swapped loose change for a scrap of paper and took his usual place among the women and old folk of the post-commuter rush.

*

    Sammy lay back in the uncomfortably cool water, allowing it to submerge his body until only his head, neck and shoulders protruded. He closed his eyes and delved into his imagination for the sensation of Champagne's finger running up his back and down to his navel. Rubbing his hand along his side he could almost feel her breath, hot on his neck. She let one shoulder-string of her long blue dress drop to her elbow, then the other, bringing him closer and closer to the edge, where he teetered briefly, before falling into a rhythm of panting breath and heavy pulse, back into the cold bath water. Suddenly bashful, he scrubbed hastily at his goose-bumped skin, tugged the plug out of its hole and draped a large damp towel around his waist, chancing a cagey look through a misty finger squiggle on his way past the bathroom mirror to see if he needed to shave yet.

*

    Having stopped at the Queen's for a quick pint, Mike was desperate for a pee and had no time to waste fiddling with the ill-fitting lock at the back of the club, so, key ready in hand, he hastily stepped over the uncollected black sacks and soggy boxes between him and the door. As he did so, he heard another key turn, the door opened and the owner appeared, red and round-faced as ever.
    "Mornin' 'Arry," Mike said joyfully, glad to be only a few yards from his urgent destination. Without the luxury of waiting for Harry to move, he shuffled past him in the doorway. "Long time no see?" It was a figure of speech only, for he had seen him just the night before.
    "That's what I pay you for," Harry Goldberg huffed, stepping into the alley. Mike talked as he walked.
    "Before you go, 'Arry, I want a word about that young bloke, Sammy. You gave him a job last night."
    "I told you. No more employees. I've not the time to discuss it now. And get something done about this rubbish."
    Mike nodded and turned away, the sound of boxes being kicked telling him Harry's little legs hadn't made it. He heard him scuffling off, huffing curses under his breath, and laughed to himself, as he trotted up the corridor, across to the gents', where he stood before the urinal for several moments, let out a long, relieved sigh and zipped up his trousers. Although the performers' toilet was just inside the back door, not even this level of desperation could lead him or anyone else to use it, with two notable exceptions.

*

    Sammy pulled on a pair of Mike's jeans, buttoned them, let go and watched as they slid loosely back down to his ankles. He lifted a few crumpled shirts, t-shirts and slacks, found a belt buried under some y-fronts and made a second attempt with the jeans, this time with some success. His auburn hair was cropped short enough to need only a smoothing hand, and in the absence of a brush or comb that's all it got. He went through to the kitchen to check his washing and watched the last spin as thoughtfully as if it were a harrowing TV news item. The whirr of the machine and the hypnotic tick of the clock on the wall made his eyelids droop, and he blinked them open again.
    "Only five to twelve?" he accused the clock. It seemed much longer since Mike had gone off to the club for the deliveries. It ticked on, unperturbed by its telling off. The washing machine gurgled in apparent sympathy but persisted in its struggle nonetheless.
    "I've got to do something," Sammy said to himself, chewing his lip and eyeing the pile of mugs and plates next to the sink. He turned on the hot tap, ran it for a while, gave up and turned it off, filled the kettle instead, using the time to clear the rubbish. He unstuck a plate of congealed tomato ketchup, week-old chips and a foil pie tray and took it over to the bin, compressing the assortment of take-away containers already housed there to make room.
    Several hours later the flat was almost sparkling from his toils, and Sammy rubbed the tea towel between his hands, satisfied. He lifted his clean dry clothes from the maiden in front of the gas fire, put them on and headed off to the club for his first official night's work.
    Given how he'd been appointed, he had no idea what the job entailed, his hours of work, nor how much he was to be paid, although as soon as he arrived Mike explained, at length, how he had spent the afternoon asking other club managers about cleaners' wages and finally suggested a sum which seemed more than reasonable. It was, in fact, a pittance, but this was Sammy's first job, so he had no means of judging. Perhaps because of this, he took more pride in his work than most, and his efforts had an immediate and appreciable effect.
    The opposite was true when they returned home that evening, for Mike barely noticed how much cleaner the place was, even though it had taken the entire afternoon to instil a basic level of hygiene in the kitchen, and the early part of the evening had been lost to scrubbing stains off the aptly named coffee table. Sammy put it down to them both being exhausted, rather than thoughtlessness on Mike's part, and they drank their tea (from clean, stain-free mugs) in record time before retiring.
    He slept well that night, lying in until late the next morning, despite the sofa's continued efforts to throw him off, and felt much better for food and sleep, with the troubles at home occasionally leaving his mind, if only for a moment. He was still set on finding his father, but it could wait until he felt strong enough to face him without risking losing control. At the moment the desire to kill him with whatever was closest to hand was too overpowering.
    Even so, Champagne was more than a useful distraction from these feelings, and as the days went by, Sammy spent as much time as he could cleaning the corridor outside the dressing room, just to catch a glimpse of her. Mike and some of the others at the club seemed to have realised what he was doing, and did their best to keep him occupied with pointless jobs, like checking all the tables had beer mats, or intermittently flushing the toilets. Sammy found their over-protectiveness both endearing and irritating, and said as much. Mike responded with a muttering of something about him not knowing the half of it before sending him off with beer mats yet again.
    A week later, Sammy received his first wage packet and decided that finding a bedsit would be a good idea. It wasn't through lack of gratitude, as evidenced by the large chunk of his meagre pay he handed straight back, but he got the impression that for all Mike had said about staying as long as he needed, he would be glad when his lodger moved on. Sammy mustered the courage to ask one of the girls in the club whether she knew of anywhere local that was cheap to rent, and after chasing around some very suspect people and buildings, found a bedsit that was just about affordable. It was a dingy room in a dingy house, with mildew on the ceiling and the bed appeared to be a lost relative of Mike's sofa. However, it was his own space and Mike was tactfully relieved to once more have his home to himself.
    Sammy tried to get some sense of routine back into his life, forcing himself into bed as soon as he finished work and staying there for eight hours, whether he was asleep or not. He went shopping on Saturdays, to the launderette on Sundays and joined the library so that he could finish reading the books that they had started in English just before he ran away. He'd always been a good student and could have passed all of his exams. He didn't, of course, but stayed on in sixth form to resit: his tutor knew about the problems at home, so in his absence, the school hadn't chased up his non-attendance, by this time close on three months. Meanwhile, his mother maintained the lie that he was staying with a non-existent aunt up north, for it was easier than admitting the shameful truth that she had no idea where he was.
    Now that he was nearly eighteen and working, it didn't really matter anymore: everyone except Mike and Janice—the make-up girl—assumed he was older and treated him as such. Sammy looked younger, but his confidence and attitude were deceptive. Aside from this, nobody ever asked. This was the nature of the world he now inhabited: a landlord who only wanted his rent and no trouble, a boss who kept out of the way as much as possible, and a woman who hadn't noticed his existence, let alone his age. It all brought a glorious anonymity that afforded him time to grow up. He enrolled at a local college and paid to sit the English and maths exams in the summer, and Mike gave him a pay rise to help fund the classes, hoping that qualifications might lead him to better things, or at least away from the club and Champagne. Sammy was starting to build acquaintances with some of the other performers at the club and for now that would suffice: he had successfully insulated himself against the past and put his parents out of his mind.
    For these reasons, he didn't know his mother had died until a month after it happened, when he finally plucked up the courage to contact his grandma. She had been his lifeline when he was little, and she understood why he had left, even if she did shout at him at first. It was a brief phone call which left Sammy shocked and confused, for much as he loved his mother, he blamed her for never having the strength to leave and making both of them suffer years of physical and mental abuse. Now she had died from breast cancer, no doubt aggravated by his father's brutality, and although Sammy felt bad that he had not been there for her, he also knew that this was the only way it could end. His father had sold the house and left the area, but this was all his grandma was able to tell him. Nonetheless, it implied that it would be safe to visit and Sammy promised to do so as soon as he was paid next.
    Janice had taken to asking how he was on a daily basis, bringing him food that she insisted was left over from the night before, but had obviously been cooked especially. He appreciated it, as cooking for one was a depressing and precarious affair. There was a communal kitchen in the house, but it was always full of dirty nappies and mouse droppings, the alternative being to use the dodgy electric ring in his bedsit. Thus, he never let on to Janice that he knew she too lived alone and this was probably her way of coping with it. She was the only one to notice he was sad, but he wasn't ready to say why aloud and she didn't push him; she just hugged him and cupped his head in her hand as he cried. She wasn't as old as his mother, perhaps only in her mid to late thirties, and non-maternal in most respects. For a start, she always wore make-up and her hair barely moved from its lacquered coiffure. She was also petite, dark-skinned and fanatically fashion conscious, yet she cared for him as well as a mother could during that difficult time.
    As promised, Sammy made the journey "home" after pay day, although he had yet to come to terms with the news of his mother's death, which had resurrected his hatred for his father. He had wanted to work through this before facing his grandma, but he needn't have worried. She had always known her son was a wife-beater; it was just never talked about openly. Now, she told Sammy that she had warned his mother before the wedding, and offered to put them up on several occasions since, when it had become too much to bear. His father had not been seen since Christmas, when she had made it clear that she never wanted to see him again, and so far he had done as he was told. In contrast, she told Sammy he must stay in touch, and he also obeyed, promising to visit every Sunday—the only day the club was closed.
    On the train home, he was so deep in thought that he missed his stop, and had to cross over to the other platform to get the next train back. There he saw Chris, one of the two very camp men he had seen together on that first night at the club and virtually every night since. Today though, Chris wasn't with Leslie. He was standing with another man, at the end of an otherwise deserted platform, seemingly oblivious to the arrival of the train and the people on it, who watched on, repulsed, for they were being far more intimate than is sensible in an underground station. Sammy knew that Chris, like Leslie, was homosexual. Mike had told him as much, with that same disgusted expression as the passengers on the train. Now, as he watched Chris and the stranger kissing, their hands in each other's back pockets, it made him wonder if this really was normal behaviour for "queers", as Mike often suggested.
    The train departed and Sammy left them behind, returning to the argument he was having with himself about continuing the search for his father. Indeed, he completely forgot about what he had seen, until the following week, when the same man was with Chris, this time at the club. Again there was no Leslie, who was at a work colleague's leaving party, perhaps unaware that his boyfriend was cavorting with this Geoff, as it turned out the other man's name was.
    Whether Leslie knew or not, Sammy certainly wasn't going to be the one to tell him. He spent all his time avoiding those two, who only ever had horrible things to say about Champagne. In all of the short time he had been there he had never heard them speak nicely to her, such as she seemed to care about them or anyone else. She was always in her own little world, and Sammy often loitered at the dressing room door, in full view, knowing he could watch her singing to herself, a glass of gin always in her hand, without fear of her taking any notice. Janice would normally be the one to tut loudly and send him on his way, before he got the chance to see her help Champagne into her next stage outfit. Then he would stand and watch enviously as night after night, she paraded around the stage, playing with those men until they went home, leaving only he, Mike and Janice to clear up after them all.
    When it came to celebrating his birthday, Janice made a cake and the three of them shared a meal at Mike's flat. It was the closest to proper family life Sammy had ever experienced, and he finally told them about his mother's death, his father's drinking and subsequent beatings—in fact everything except the true depth of his obsession with Champagne. It should have passed by now, it was only a crush, like the one he had on his history teacher, or at least that's what he told himself night after sleepless night spent thinking about her, or when he wrote imaginary dialogues with her, or was caught fantasising about their first kiss. The truth was she was beginning to fill his every waking thought, and most of his scant dreams too. As in reality, Champagne dominated the action, but in his head, she turned him to face her, undressing him, slowly at first, but then with increasingly passionate speed, until he was naked. Then she would kiss him from head to toes, stopping at all the right places. She never took off her clothes, or her make-up, for this was the object of his fantasy, and Sammy would not try to imagine her any differently.
    So now he was eighteen, legally an adult, allowed to do what he liked, not that his age had ever stopped him before, and he was very proud of himself. He was coping well with living alone, managing his money and keeping himself out of trouble; at least, this was true until the police arrested him on his way home from the club one night. He had stopped to light a cigarette, and was only vaguely aware of a car slowing close to the pavement. He peered into the dark vehicle and caught the profile of a heavy man, who smiled briefly at him and rolled down the window.
    "Hi," said the man, giving him the strangest of looks. Sammy nodded an acknowledgement and began walking again. The car kept apace.
    "Are you doing business?" the man asked. Sammy had no idea what he meant, and quickened his steps. Still the car kept up.
    "How much?" the man persevered. Sammy was beginning to feel a little scared, but had now worked out that this man thought he was a male prostitute, a rent boy.
    "I'm sorry, sir, but you've got it wrong," he said. Heart pounding, he walked in through the next gate, hoping the man would think he lived there and drive on. He did, and waved politely before driving off. However, the owner of the house whose garden he was now trespassing was not so understanding, and had already called the police, who duly arrived and took him to the local station.
    It wasn't so much that they wanted a conviction, but regardless of Sammy's explanations, there was no believable account for him being in a dark garden at three in the morning. Even when Janice came to bail him later, the custody officer remained unconvinced. However, the charge was eventually dropped. Sammy was still astonished that the man and, more to the point the police, thought he was a rent boy, but he was almost flattered too. Admittedly most of the prostitutes he came across, whether male or female, were not all that attractive, but they were confident and able to sell sex, which he chose to interpret as being a sign that he had sex appeal. Now if only Champagne would see it.
    Unfortunately, his landlord could see what Champagne couldn't or wouldn't, and it was enough to render Sammy homeless again. He said he knew other landlords who would turn a blind eye to whores, but Sammy gracefully declined his recommendations. He wanted somewhere respectable to live, not an easy thing to find in this part of London. Thankfully, Janice came to the rescue once more. An old school friend's son was going to university and she suggested to her that renting out a room would give her some company and a bit of extra money. The friend, who Sammy came to know as Mrs. Slade, wasn't sure about this, but when she met him she took to him straight away and decided she would devote the next three years to feeding him up.
    Mrs. Slade's son, Andrew, was a tubby, spotty and spoilt nineteen year old. His mother explained that Mr. Slade had died from a massive heart attack when little Andrew was just eight, an event Sammy put down to the family's fascination with all things edible, as he observed the remaining Slades devour an entire tray of cakes and biscuits. When he reported back to Janice, she laughed until she cried at his impersonation of Andrew, who had sat opposite him throughout the introductory meeting, and had probably broken the world record for the most Viennese whirls eaten in one minute, washed down with tea brewed in a huge china teapot and slurped out of equally significant matching teacups. He was a disgusting boy, but his mother loved him and Sammy admired him, if only for this.
    Sammy moved in towards the end of spring, when the weather was warming up nicely. Mrs. Slade spent many hours in her garden, and it paid off, for it was beautiful. He had never been interested in gardening himself, but it was a wonderful place to unwind on a Sunday evening, and he spent a few, sitting under the large parasol on the patio, revising for his exams. By the end of June, it was all over, for both him and Andrew, who boasted persistently of how well he had done in his A' Levels, which were much harder than O' Levels, as he kept reminding Sammy. His mother was confident he would get what he needed: Sammy wasn't so sure, but couldn't say he'd be disappointed when September finally arrived, and Andrew left, even if for now it diverted some of Mrs. Slade's attention away from him.
    As it was, Sammy's grades far surpassed Andrew's, leaving the spoilt brat with his third choice university and a month-long sulk. It was late August and so unbearably hot and humid that poor Mrs. Slade had turned a leathered red from tending to her fruit trees and flowers. Andrew became increasingly lazy and unhelpful, loudly refusing to assist his mother in any way whatsoever.
    And so it came to be that Sammy, insanely, volunteered to mow the lawn, which meant wearing one of Mrs. Slade's big sun hats and a long sleeved shirt. He would have burned to a crisp, save for the white cotton shirt, which kept his fair skin safe and cool. As he strolled up and down the garden, pushing the mower in front of him, he mused on what Champagne would think if she could see him, in a lady's sun hat that drooped either side of his head and, he envisaged, made him look something like a spaniel. Perhaps she would revere him for his usefulness, before dragging him into the shade and removing the ludicrous hat, followed by the rest of his clothes. He could see her in his mind's eye, sitting on a balcony right now, sipping glamorous martinis, looking very different to frumpy Mrs. Slade, perched uncomfortably at the table on the patio, guzzling back her fifth long glass of white wine and soda.

*

    Champagne awoke mid afternoon, went to the bathroom and ran a deep bath. The man in the bed was a stranger whose name had been lost in the alcoholic oblivion of the previous night. On returning to the bedroom the man was gone. Champagne poured a large measure of gin and heaved a sigh of relief.

*

    For all his efforts, Sammy still caught the sun and by the time he reached the club that evening, it felt like his neck was on fire. He had to wear a loose, cowl-necked t-shirt to avoid any contact with the skin, and Leslie and Chris puckered their lips flirtatiously every time he passed by. The t-shirt being pale peach in colour didn't help much, but it was all Mrs. Slade had that was even remotely suitable for him to borrow, and it was far better than the only top Andrew was prepared to lend—a tatty black thing emblazoned with the name of a rock band.
    "Terrific," he complained to Janice, "now I look like a poof." She frowned at him, but didn't deny it. He tutted loudly and put his jacket on, which was a rather painful experience and made him even more hot and irritable. He'd be glad when it was time to close for the night, for tomorrow was Sunday and he was going to see his grandma. Hopefully by Monday his neck wouldn't be burning quite so much and he'd be able to wear his own clothes again.
    The next day, as he got off the train, he inhaled a deep breath of fresh suburban air. It was deathly quiet in the town centre, but then only London stayed awake for Sundays. Even when the shops were closed, there was always a market somewhere, always a place to buy a cup of coffee. And although this had been his home for seventeen and a half years, Sammy knew then that going to London was the best move he had ever made.

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