A Babe in the Woods

My sleep patterns go haywire when I am off work for long periods. My freelance profession means that I get regular weeks off throughout the year. During these breaks I find myself waking in the early hours and going downstairs to read or watch TV, even sometimes cooking a pre-dawn breakfast, only to then crash on the sofa and sleep until late morning.

During these bouts of insomnia, I often distract myself by scrolling through Grindr and chatting to anyone else that is up. These interactions never lead to night-time hook-ups, as I am unwashed, crusty eyed and have midnight dog breath (Yes, quite the catch!) and besides, my partner is upstairs mumbling to himself in his sleep.

On one occasion though, I received a set of pictures that were irresistible. He had darkly handsome face pics staring with bad boy attitude into the camera, toned body shots of a guy who knew his way around a gym and the other shots were… well, average to be honest, but meticulously well groomed.

We exchanged messages for a while then he said he could accommodate and sent his location. Only a couple of roads away! I was understandably cautious about heading out to meet a stranger at 2am. Although the guy was hot, he exuded an air of brooding danger.

YOU COMING? he messaged.

I hesitated. Was this a good idea? Probably not. I should be sensible and stay safe… but those pecs, … that tough-guy scowl, … that fastidiously shaved scrotum.

YES. GIVE ME 15 MIN

I quickly washed, brushed my teeth and threw on some clothes. I paused to write a note for my partner should he wake up and find me gone, which I left in a prominent spot in the lounge. ‘Gone to meet a Grindr shag. Back soon. Don’t wait up… well, just go back to bed! X’

I really shouldn’t be doing this, I thought as I walked up the silent street. I have heard of incidents of men being lured into an attack or mugging on Grindr!

Moments later, I was back home. I decided to leave my wallet behind, just in case this was a set up and to take my phone instead, so I could call for help if necessary.

By the time I arrived at the guy’s flat, I was a jitter of nerves, having considered numerous unpleasant scenarios that could await me.

This is ridiculous. Anything could happen. Why am I not under a blanket on the sofa, watching Sharknado 3 on the Horror Channel or, even better, asleep in bed… like everyone else? I should turn around and just go back home.

He was stood in the illuminated entrance of the flats beckoning me in.

Shit, too late now, I thought.

Alarm bells really started to ring when he explained that we couldn’t use the flat after all, as he was staying with a friend.

He motioned me towards a doorway under the communal stairs.

Oh my God, I panicked, I am going to end up like one of those missing schoolgirls that spend fifteen years locked in a basement and eventually emerge, blinking into the light, with a litter of children/siblings!

It turned out that my imagination was getting away with me and the door didn’t lead into basement dungeon. It was just a dusty store cupboard containing the gas meter, fuse box and a long-irrelevant copy of the Yellow Pages.

“We can’t have sex in here,” I told him. “There’s no lock… and besides, it has a glass door!”

“My car is outside. We could drive somewhere.”

This could have been my opportunity to backout, but he was menacingly good looking with a rugged beard and… seriously, those biceps.

I suggested a local park.

As we drove there, I introduced myself and made a point of repeating my name several times, as I had heard somewhere that assailants are less inclined to attack if they can relate to you as a person rather than just a victim. I think I had picked that up from watching Silence of the Lambs. He listened to me in ominous silence (just like those lambs) and didn’t smile.

It took little time to navigate the empty roads to where we were going and soon we were stood at the threshold of the ominously pitch-black park.

If he intended me harm, then I had enabled it to happen. I had agreed to meet this risky looking stranger and even suggested we go to this deserted spot in the dead of night. ‘He only had himself to blame,’ my epitaph would read… but those abs were too good to resist.

As I led the way into the darkness, I was suddenly aware of a quick movement behind me. Had he got a knife?!

The guy abruptly called out my name.

I turned to see him stood there with his arm extended towards me, his eyes wide with fear. He was scared of the dark and wanted me to hold his hand and lead him down the uneven path.

Suddenly, there was a flutter above us.

He jumped and whimpered, “What was that?!”

“Just a bird,” I reassured him.

I took his hand.

We walked through the foreboding canopy of trees, like Hansel and Gretel… well, more Hansel and Hansel.

“There’s something over there,” he whispered nervously, at the sound of rustling in the foliage.

“It’s fine, you are safe,” I told him, pulling him close. “It’s just nocturnal animals. We are disturbing them. It is probably just a fox.”

“A FOX!!!” He practically screamed. He looked terrified, “I’m too nervous! I don’t think I can do this.”

I now saw it from his perspective. I was the stranger who had turned up on his doorstep in the dead of night and tempted him to an isolated spot full of eery shadows and wild creatures.

I cupped his face with my free hand, stroked that beard and we kissed.

The Boy with Hearts in His Eyes

Many a middle-aged man in Missing has gazed into his eyes and seen their feelings reflected… then been flicked in the bollocks and called a ‘Dirty Bitch’.

Meet Ruru… the Marmite of the Birmingham gay scene. Love him or hate him, but you can’t ignore him. A beguiling Yemini, capable of going from sweet boy to sassy bitch in just one of his faint heartbeats.

To misquote the Sisters of Nonnberg Abbey from The Sound of Music:

‘Unpredictable as weather

He’s as flighty as a feather

He’s a darling! He’s a demon! He’s a laaaamb!’

I originally met Ruru on… well, I’ll say a popular gay networking app. He came over several times then spent one long sunny afternoon sat in my back garden… and stayed… and stayed… and stayed. He wouldn’t leave. He stayed so long that day that I started wondered if he had moved in, but had just failed to mention it to me.

He chatted occasionally, but mainly spent the time making me ‘go live’ on social media and trying to take selfies with my aging dog.

I had a bottle of wine cooling in the fridge and after the fifth time I had unwillingly featured on MyFace or Twatter (look at me ‘getting down’ wiv da’kids), I really needed a drink. #timetogetpissed

As Ruru was Muslim, I didn’t want to offend him by drinking alcohol, but after a couple of parched hours, I finally gasped, “Would you mind if I had a glass of wine?”

“No, but just a small one,” he replied.

“No, no, no,” I blathered apologetically, “I wouldn’t get drunk in front of you.”

He gave me a coy look, “I meant, I’ll only have a small one.”

“You Drink?!” I spluttered in exasperation, “I’ve been sat here gagging for hours but didn’t want to insult you by drinking in your company.”

We polished off the bottle of wine (admittedly I had most of it, as he was a lightweight) then reached for a bottle of Prosecco. Midway through releasing the cork, I got particularly animated while telling a story and set the bottle on the kitchen counter as I gesticulated. Unexpectedly and dramatically, the bottle erupted in a geyser of sweet effervescence and the cork ricocheted from ceiling, sink and fridge in startling fury. I screamed and Ruru dropped into a lithe Spiderman crouch. Spidey-senses all of a tingle! Ru has subsequently discovered he has a fluttery heart. It could have killed him.

Several weeks later, I was strolling by the expansive windows of Loft Lounge and was attracted by Ruru’s frantic waving. He was sat inside on a sofa (Ah… Those comfortable days when Loft Lounge still had furniture you could sit on without getting splinters! This was before they ditched the Friends inspired Central Perk look for industrial chic) and motioning me to join him.

He had an untouched glass of red wine and three beer bottles in front of him, two of which were empty. It turns out that he had only wanted the wine but had bought a beer to take him over the £5 card limit at the bar. He had never had beer before and necked it. Now having a taste for it, he immediately returned to the bar to buy another, but of course the card limit meant he bought two more to bring him up to the required amount. Why he didn’t just buy a bag of crisps like a normal person I will never know.

By the time I walked in, he was absolutely spannered.

Ruru just sat, consumed by an oversized sofa, gazing around in dazed contentment and occasional blowing out of his mouth, producing a sound like a gently neighing horse.

Whenever his eyes met mine, a dopey smile spread across his face and he emphatically poked me in my chest with a fickle finger, exclaiming a meaningless, “You… You… Yoooooooooou!”

He was in a right pickle.

I had been on my way to meet a friend, so had to leave. It was all a bit of a rush.

“I’ve got to go. Are you going to be OK?”

Ruru rolled his eyes in indignation and harrumphed, “Offff coursssse!”

I left him basking in his newfound love of beer and staring around the bar like a new-born calf trying to make sense of this strange new world it found itself in.

He survived the night (I did text him several times, just to check he wasn’t sprawled in the gutter).

Five years later and he is still an adorable lightweight and complete Muppet. Missing Bar is now his second home, where he regularly flirts with and winds up the other regulars, broadcasts live karaoke on social media and once got so drunk that he came out to his Muslim family in a text message then promptly ran away to Scotland to hide in the heather with a herd of wild haggis… but that is a whole other story.

One night, I was describing Ruru to someone that I assumed must know him.

They asked, “Is he small, really cute… and a nightmare after three pints?”

“That’s him.”

The radiant Ruru! How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

Xxx

Birmingham Pride. Part 3 – Slipping in the Backdoor

These days, I don’t actually get a ticket for the main Pride event. As much fun as it is, there are only a finite number of times you can watch STEPS or Katrina and the Waves in a tent. Instead my friends and I are happy to wander between venues situated on the outskirts of the gay village that are not a part of the official festivities. We alternate between Eden, Boltz, The Fountain Inn, The Wellington (before it closed) and a few straight pubs on Hurst Street, as all bars are gay bars over Pride weekend.

Last year, my partner and I decided to call in briefly at Unit 2 (the gay sauna) to see mates that work there. The sauna is situated just inside the temporary fences that are erected for the duration of Pride weekend, but so as not to affect Unit 2’s business, security are instructed to allow non-ticket holders access, but on the strict understanding that they go straight into the sauna and leave the Pride compound once they have finished their business.

After chatting with the Unit 2 staff for a while, we wished them a ‘Happy Pride’ and departed, but as we re-emerged onto the street, I got the devil in me. I threw a cursory glance in the direction of security, to ensure they were otherwise engaged, grabbed my partner’s hand and dragged him unwillingly in the opposite direction, quickly vanishing into the crowd. In our defence we didn’t take advantage. We just wandered around the street stalls for a short while, had a couple of drinks then left. It was never about executing a major scam, just the juvenile glee of getting away with it, like when you get to see two films at the multiplex on the one ticket. We all do that, right? Right?!

Last summer, my young work colleague Paige and her friends had a far more public experience, when they found themselves accidentally part of Brighton Pride. They had been cruising the streets in their car, trying unsuccessfully to find a parking spot, when they inadvertently drove through a neglected security barrier and found themselves trapped in the parade.

There was nowhere for them to turn off and escape, so they had no choice but to keep driving along the parade route. They had a group of fetish enthusiasts in front of them and a float full of dancing go-go boys directly behind.

Paige and her girlfriend were mortified and just kept their heads down, trying not to make eye contact with the mass of cheering onlookers, but their more flamboyant male friend threw back the sunroof and burst from the car like a jack-in-the-box, basking in the glory.

When they eventually reached the end of the route, the organisers were furious with them for illicitly entering the parade and demanded they pay the participation fee.

The usually mild-mannered Paige lost it, “We didn’t want to be in your fucking parade! We were only stuck there because someone left the gate open!!!”

We should all take a leaf out of my friend’s book. If you want to gain free entry to any Pride, just be in the right place, at the right time, with the right people and get offered free VIP tickets.

I will call my friend Kliff, as he is a huge fan of Cliff Richard and has seen him in concert over one hundred times! It has got to the stage where the UK’s immortal bachelor boy, now recognises my friend in the audience and greets him by (his real) name. Although to be fair, Kliff must stand out, being presumably the only brown male face in a sea of white middleclass women of a certain age that makes up Cliff Richard’s demographic.

Kliff is an inimitable character. He is small of stature, but fills a room with his personality: howling with laughter, gasping in delight, bursting into song and launching himself excitedly into the air from a barstool whenever someone he knows walks in. He is one of the quirkiest people I have ever met. He is a constantly twitching mass of nervous energy, with a pair of glasses that never seem to sit straight on his face, like a kid that has just taken a tumble down a slide. I love him.

One of the first times I ever chatted to Kliff, he told me about his diverse career choices. He had been a gymnast, West End performer, cabaret singer, a holiday entertainments manager, occasional gigolo and worked in nursing.

“You have done nearly every gay job going,” I remarked. “You only need hairdresser and cabin crew to complete the set!”

As I said, Kliff is short, but with a firm physique, the legacy of his days as a gymnast.

He stayed at our house for several weeks last year. When he hung out his diminutive clothes on the washing line, my partner commented, “It looks like G.I. Joe has left his laundry out to dry.”

There is one part of Kliff though that is not small. He is renowned for having one of the biggest cocks on the Birmingham gay scene… probably on any gay scene (Now I’ve got your attention… and no I’m not giving you his number!). His pendulous appendage practically hangs down to his knee, although his legs are quite short, so it could all be relative. No, I’m joking, it’s MASSIVE! When he is stood naked in Boltz on Dare2Bare Sundays, people tend to shake that and not his hand.

Back at Pride, Kliff showed his newly acquired VIP ticket at the checkpoint and was admitted legitimately into the event, but he was pulled aside for a brief random search. The security guard checked his bag and pockets then proceeded to pat down his clothing. When the guard reached Kliff’s inside leg, he encountered something that concerned him.

“Excuse me sir,” the guard asked, grasping and tugging at the offending object though the material of the trousers. “What is this in your pocket?”

Kliff rose grandly to his full ‘action figure’ height and with resolute dignity declared, “That… is my penis!”

The straight security guard staggered back, horrified and muttering, “I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!”

Clearly in this instance, VIP should have stood for ‘Very Impressive Penis’.

So sadly, this year there was no Birmingham Pride and we all missed out on the fun, the friends, the frolics and the fornication, but there will be other years… that will be full of Pride.

To be continued… in 2021.

Birmingham Pride. Part 2 – For the Love of Cock

I own a T-shirt that only comes out once a year for Pride.

This T-shirt features a picture of a hand with index finger pointing to my left and declaring, ‘THIS MAN… LIKES COCK.’ It essentially ‘outs’ anyone stood on the side of me that the fickle finger points… and goes down a storm with Pride revellers. It has proven to be a real asset, giving me the excuse to approach the best-looking guys, far out of my league and cheekily ask, “Are you man enough for a photo with this T-shirt?”

Over Pride weekend, I am constantly approached by strangers, asking to have their photo taken with the T-shirt. Often it is women, who shove their embarrassed looking husbands and boyfriends into position for the photograph. It is great, as I get to have the craic with dozens of inebriated people.

The first year I wore the ‘This Man Likes Cock’ T-shirt, I was skirting around the perimeter of the Pride enclosure (I don’t tend to buy tickets for the main event anymore, choosing instead to troll between the half dozen or so venues that are on the periphery of the scene.), when I was clocked by a group of policemen.

One of the officers nodded in my direction, muttered something to his colleagues and then all four of them headed in my direction.

Oh no, I thought, surely, they aren’t going to tell me to cover it up? Freedom of speech and all that! Besides, it is Pride, anything goes! There are guys walking around with their arses hanging out of their chaps, my humble T-shirt can’t be causing offense.

“Excuse me sir,” said one of the offers, as he approached, “we couldn’t help but notice your T-shirt.”

“Errrrm… yes?”

“Could we have our photos taken with you?”

The next thing, all four of them were taking turns to pose next to me with the accusing finger pointing in their direction.

When it came to the turn of the fourth and final police officer to take position for the photo, his colleague pointed at him and commented, “By the way, just for the record, of the four of us… he actually does like it.”

They all giggled, and the officer stood next to me with his arm slung around my waist, rolled his eyes and nodded that it was true.

From then on it became my mission to have my photo taken wearing that T-shirt with as many official types as possible. I managed to get shots with security guards, vendors, barmen, bouncers, first aiders, some woman off Gogglebox, that fireman with the cute diastema and even got inadvertently ‘papped’ with the Mayor of the West Midlands.

I had the most fun trying to take surreptitious photos with characters, who were the least likely to like cock and were clearly only at Pride to do a job.

At one point, I approached a strapping young armed police officer, decked out in flak jacket and a utility belt that Batman would be envious of. I had my arm casually draped across my chest to hide the print on, which surprisingly worked, and he obliviously agreed to pose.

His colleague offered to do the honours with the camera, but just as he was about to take the photo, he noticed the statement embossed on my clothing and went to point it out to my unaware victim. I quickly and subtly moved my finger to my lips and silenced him. The photographer smirked and proceeded to take the photo. Only once the image was captured, did he gleefully draw his mate’s attention to the wording I was wearing.

The posse of armed police officers burst out laughing and gave me contact details to send the photo to, while my quarry performed a resigned facepalm.

The following day, I attempted the same trick on another armed officer, but even better, this one was stood in front of an impressively armoured police vehicle.

Before I could get close enough to even ask the officer to pose for a photo, he started shaking his head and said, “No, no, no, you are not having your photo taken with me in THAT T-shirt!”

“But why?” I asked, innocently. “You not man enough?!” Which, thinking about it, was an audacious question to ask a man holding a semiautomatic weapon!

“The one you took yesterday is all over social media,” he replied. “They’ve even posted it on the West Midlands Police website!”

Finally, he did agree to have his photo taken with me, but only if I stood on the other side of him, with the offending finger pointing in the wrong direction… which sort of missed the point.

Oh well. The one that got away.

To be continued…

Birmingham Pride: Part 1 – A City Filled with Love

This bank-holiday weekend should have been Birmingham Pride. The city centre would have become one big party celebrating the LGBTQ community and rejoicing in difference and diversity.

If things had been going ahead as planned, my partner and I would have met friends for breakfast at York’s Café then strolled up Pinfold Street to Victoria Square, where we would mingle with the crowds gathering beneath the unamused gaze of the Regina’s bronze statue and watch the opening ceremony.

Last year’s opening speeches had particular resonance, as they focused on the anti-LGBTQ protests that had centred on two Birmingham primary schools (See ‘Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson’ – 10th May 2020).

Andrew Moffat, a senior teacher at one of the schools and creator of the ‘No Outsiders’ programme on inclusivity and tolerance, had been invited to lead the Pride parade. He was welcomed to the stage by a roaring crowd of thousands. The roar of the lions… the head of the pride.

After speeches about streets filled with hate… it was time to bask in a city filled with love.

My friends and I headed off to find a suitable vantage point. As we shuffled along the packed side streets, I had my head turned by a handsome police officer, with dark brown eyes peeking from beneath the dome of his helmet.

“Excuse me.” I approached him, brandishing my camera, “Would you mind if I took a selfie with the hottest copper on the beat?”

“Sure,” grinned Officer Sexy, looking from left to right in an exaggerated manner. “Where is he?”

I re-joined my friends and we found ourselves a prime position on Bennetts Hill.

I love how the inspiring parade represents all tribes of the LGBTQ community in full debauchery and glory: gay parents, with children riding on their shoulders or in buggies, stroll side by side with drag queens and half-dressed stilt walkers; floats of spinning pole dancers follow representatives of the emergency services; leather clad clones march behind the military; same-sex ballroom couples are just one  – quick quick slow – step behind Caribbean steel-drummers and bhangra beats; corporate companies, cashing in on the kudos, are represented alongside political parties and genuine civil rights campaigners. All are represented in the colours of the rainbow.

It always heartens me that the most enthusiastic cheers of the parade tend to be reserved for the gay refugees, an unimaginably brave multi-cultural group who have fled everything and everyone they know to escape prejudice, persecution and in some countries the threat of imprisonment or even death. Well… to be totally honest the ‘most enthusiastic cheers’ are saved for the gay refugees and the fire service. Everyone loves a fireman! Hey, we’re only human. X

One fireman always catches my eye. He is short, buff, with slick hair, a prominent side parting and a cute diastema (the noticeable gap between his two upper front teeth. Google it, I just did.), which just adds to his charms.

I once saw my favourite fireman doing community outreach in Birmingham city centre. The fire department were handing out leaflets and badges to passers-by and inviting people to pose for photos in the cabin of the fire engine.

I strolled over and shook his hand, “You were at Pride this summer, weren’t you?”

“Yes,” he replied, sounding surprised. “You remember me?”

“Of course, … I thought you were hot.”

A female colleague within earshot rolled her eyes, “Oh great, that’s all we need. He’s full enough of himself as it is!”

As if to prove her right, he immediately turned to the male officers and cockily declared, “Hey fellas, this guy thinks I’m hot!”

His workmates greeted the boast with a collective ironic groan.

“Now he’s going to be even more unbearable,” one of them sighed.

Back at the Pride parade, we continued to watch the procession of queers and their allies’ march through the city centre.

As a group of burly men with ample body hair and a distinct lack of shirt buttons came into view, a lad behind me turned to his girlfriend and asked, “Why are those men wearing mouse ears?”

“They are wearing bear ears,” I interjected. “They are bears.”

“What are bears?” The girlfriend asked.

“If you are stocky, hairy and have a beard, then you are a bear.”

The lad indicated his own hairy chest and stroked his trim beard, “Would I be a bear?”

I scrutinised him for a moment then replied, “No. You are too young. You would be a cub.”

The couple beamed. This straight boy now had a whole new, hitherto unknown, gay identity and he and his girlfriend seemed delighted.

I was suddenly aware of a presence at my left shoulder. I glanced down and there was a diminutive old lady trying to squeeze through the crowd. Before I could step aside and grant her a better view, she scuttled around to the other side of me and started to elbow her way between myself and the guy stood on my right. Just as she managed to squeeze her head between us, a large pack of human pups, dressed in their rubber outfits, dog collars and masks (See ‘Puppy Love’ – 8th Feb 2020), walked, crawled (It takes some dedication to do a two hour parade on your hands and knees, even with the kneepads.) and scampered by.

I thought I would try luck with ‘call and response’, so shouted, “WHO LET THE DOGS OUT?!!”

The pack automatically responded with an enthusiastic, “WOOF…WOOF… WOOF… WOOF WOOF!”

I had become a mass pup handler.

The old lady tutted loudly and moaned, in a thick Brummie accent, “All this bother to get to Primark!!!” She then headed off, chuntering to herself, trying to find a more suitable spot to cross the road.

The stranger on my right and myself grinned gleefully at each other.

“Oh my God, that was straight out of Victoria Wood,” I laughed. “In fact, I’m not entirely sure that wasn’t Julie Walters.”

Her timing and delivery were so perfect, that I still suspect that she may have been a professional street performer.

After two colourful hours, the parade trickled to an end. It was time to head to Hurst Street and the awaiting shenanigans in and around the gay village.

To be continued…

Nishant Mallick and the Half-Baked Scheme

Back at the start of January, I opened this blogsite with the touching tale of an international student called Nishant, who had embraced the opportunity to study baking in Birmingham to flee family outrage in India, after he was outed by a bitter ex and how his brother had been protecting his secret for years (See ‘Finding the Gems’ – 4th Jan 2020).

I can see Film4 producing the movie version of Nishant’s story… with that lad from Blinded by the Light in the lead role and Dev Patel as his brother. I think Film4 are obliged to include Patel in every movie they make. I hope so, he’s great!

Every time our paths crossed on the scene, Nishant would tickle me with some yarn about his life or antics at the Birmingham College of Food, all told in his sing-song accent and with an endearing wiggle of the head, so characteristic of South Asia.

One time, he told me how he had arrived unprepared for a seminar, where students were expected to announce their creative concepts for original baking projects. He sat, with mounting apprehension, as each student delivered their brilliant idea to the lecturer but feeling no such inspiration himself.

When his turn inevitably came, he improvised, “I am going to bake… erm… a loaf that contains…. uuuhhh… (then inspiration struck) every meal of the day in each separate slice. (He had an idea and he was off… with gusto!!!) The first slice would contain eggs, bacon and the ingredients of a traditional English breakfast, the second would be a suitable lunch, followed by a full dinner and the last slice would contain some form of dessert.”

A feast in a loaf. A banquet in a bun! Genius.

Nishant and his stories completely charmed me, even though I only met him a handful of times before his course concluded and he returned home, thankfully to much improved circumstances.

I was delighted to learn that his family issues in India had been resolved. His mother had finally accepted her son’s sexuality and they now Skyped several times a week. She was desperate to see him in person, but he had hatched a daft plan to make his homecoming even more of an event. He had kept his impending return a secret, going as far as telling his mother a white lie about how he had secured a job and intended to remain permanently in the UK.

“She was so upset and crying on the phone,” He told me. “She wants me to come home so badly.”

My jaw dropped, “Nishant!!! That’s cruel!”

“No, no, no,” he assured me, his head wobbling excitedly, “It will be sooooooo funny.”

He went on to explain how his mother worked at the same place as her best friend, so this friend and Nishant had colluded on a plan. His mother would be told that there was a delivery for her at reception and when she went to collect it, she would be confronted by a large box. Naturally, Nishant would have concealed his slim frame inside the box and planned to burst out and surprise her.

“She will be so shocked,” he beamed. “She will probably cry all over again!”

“You are a baker,” I pointed out. “You could have baked a cake and jumped out of that.”

Nishant’s expression became momentarily serious, “No. That would have required too many ingredients and been very expensive.”

“Hang on,” I said. “Don’t tell me you actually considered that as an option?”

The wide grin returned, along with a proud wiggly Indian nod.

Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson

I am proud to have Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson’s number in my phone.

The majority are now thinking, Who the hell is Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson? or maybe a softer, Where do I know that name from? Others will be thinking, Was she on TOWIE? or Did she have an affair with Arthur Fowler? But some will recognise her name as the Headmistress of Anderton Park School, one of the two Birmingham schools that found themselves besieged by anti-LGBTQ protests last year.

Sarah is a vibrant, dynamic, caring, progressive, determined woman, with her own striking style. Imagine Mrs McClusky with a dash of Sue Pollard. No, not Sue Pollard that sounds like an insult. Janet Street-Porter? Christ no, that is even worse! Vivian Westwood? Dame Zandra Rhodes? Again, no. Both fabulous, but too extreme. Sarah Jessica Parker? Oooooh, that could work. ‘Mrs McClusky with a dash of Sarah Jessica Parker’. She would love that, and their names even have a similar ring to them.

Last year, two primary schools in Birmingham became the focus of a prolonged campaign protesting their policies of tolerance and equality. Children, as young as three were being educated and nurtured in an environment that recognized difference and diversity. Children were told that there were no outsiders, everyone was respected.

Unfortunately, the strongly religious parents at both schools, located in majority Muslim areas of the city, objected to the fact this policy of tolerance should be extended to the LGBTQ community. The parents did not like the idea that their children were being told, if the subject came up, that there were many different family units out there, including some households where children had two mummies or two daddies.

Parents decided that they didn’t want their children to know that some of their friends may go home to a house where two men or two women shared a bedroom. They would get confused, the parents claimed.

Demonstrations began to take place outside both schools. Every weeknight, crowds would gather (usually several dozen, but culminating in over three hundred on one occasion) to wave banners, chant slogans and call for the Head’s resignation! Parents would holler, “Our children. Our choice”, “Let Kids Be Kids”, “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” and accuse the Headmistress of having a paedophile agenda (May I suggest that, if you don’t want your innocent children to know that queers exist, don’t turn up outside their primary school, just before home time, and start shouting about it through a megaphone!).

Mind you, this was not the first time Sarah had found herself the target of abuse. Several years earlier, she had been involved in exposing, what the national press christened the ‘Trojan Horse’ scandal, which revealed there was an organised attempt to introduce a radical Islamist ethos into several schools in the area.

In retaliation for her involvement, dead cats were slung into the school playground and a dog was slit from throat to groin, splayed and attached to the main gates, like something from a canine version of Hellraiser.

On a more positive note, although to be honest anything would be more positive than an eviscerated dog corpse crucified at the entrance of a primary school, Sir Ian McKellen, movie star and gay activist, has become Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson’s number one fan on Twitter. Gandalf reads her Tweets!

Sarah was even invited to Sir Ian’s surprise 80th birthday party, which was organised by Baron Michael Cashman (Yes, Colin from Eastenders).

Eighty guests had been invited to signify the birthday boy’s age. Sarah and her husband found themselves sat at one of the eight tables of ten, surrounded by the great and the gay. “At my table alone were Derek Jacobi and Graham Norton. I was sat next to Frances Barber!” Sarah told me.

At the end of the night, Ian McKellen (I can’t keep calling him ‘Sir Ian’, it just sounds so pretentious and far too Downton), stood up and told anecdotes about various friends in attendance. He wandered from table to table, incorporating stories about his gathered friends.

He concluded, “There is one person here, whom I have never actually met in person, but I admire greatly.” Turning to Sarah, he introduced her to the room, “This, ladies and gentlemen, is Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, Head of Anderton Park Scho…” but before he could complete the sentence, everyone in the room rose to their feet and gave her a standing ovation.

“I’m getting choked up,” I told Sarah when she told me this.

“You should have seen the state of me,” she replied. “I was sobbing. I had make-up running down my face!”

As the night came to an end and the guests made a move to leave, Sir Ian (I’ve slipped back into that again) made a point of finding Sarah and her husband to thank them for coming.

“If I can do anything to help you and your school, anything at all, then please do not hesitate to get in touch,” he told her.

How lovely.

“Well…”, I said to Sarah, as she reached the conclusion of her story and I wiped a tear from my eye, “if he’s kept the beard from Lord of the Rings, that’s your Christmas Santa sorted.”

Play It Again… Max

There is one regular barfly on the scene who stands out precisely because of his determination to keep to himself.

This reserved customer always sits on his own at the bar, focused on his phone and resolutely refusing to engage with anyone. He gives off clear vibes that he is content and does not want anyone approaching him. It is not until he has consumed enough Dutch courage that he will rise from his stool and head into the dark room in pursuit of company… on his own terms.

I had always thought that he was kind of cute, but he steadfastly ignored any of my attempts at eye contact.

I have only once seen him in the real world. I was shopping in Birmingham city centre and spotted him in the middle of New Street, confidently singing his heart out. He was busking with a guitar and sound system.

I stood and watched, until my partner lost interest and tried to move on.

“Hang on a minute,” I said. “I want to listen to him play it again. I’ve near heard this guy speak, let alone sing.”

Next time I saw him back at the bar, I took a moment to tell him what good a singer I thought he was. He seemed uncomfortable that someone had invaded his space, but still graciously thanked me and I left him smiling in proud silence.

Several weeks later our paths crossed again in the more shadowy corners of a private men-only club, but this time he unexpectedly gave me ‘that’ look and we bolted into an empty cubical.

Afterwards, as we tucked ourselves away, he told me his name and said, “Next time I see you in here, remind me that you are a good fuck and we should do it again.” He intended on staying until closing time and knew that by morning he would have no recollection of the night before.

So, the next time I saw him, I dutifully strolled up and said, “Hello Max.”

As predicted, he did not remember our previous encounter and was startled that I knew his name, although not as surprised as I was. I am usually terrible with names and only recalled his, because it was the same as my dog.

“I have a message for you,” I continued. “I’ve been told to tell you I am a good fuck.”

Max nearly spat out his drink and stared at me in bug-eyed surprise, “Who told you to tell me that?!!”

“Well…,” I paused, teasing out the suspense and feeling like Doc Brown from Back to the Future, “you did. You also told me to tell you that we should do it again and I believe that you should always follow your own advice.”

Several months later, I saw Max again and brought up the subject of our second meeting. Max just looked at me blankly. He had absolutely no memory of this encounter either! He must live his whole life like a goldfish, coasting around the bars of Birmingham with no lasting memory of anything that occurs. He can keep doing the same things, with the same people, over and over again and each time is like the first time. The perpetual virgin.

Mind you, I am just as bad if I watch TV after too many beers. My partner tells me that I can re-watch the very same episode and make identical noises, laughs, gasps and comments, at all the same places I did the first time, as though I have never seen the programme before. Double the enjoyment, worth buying the boxset.

I now make a point of always greeting Max with a friendly hello and gentle hand on his shoulder. I am honoured by the fact that I am one of the few people that he tolerates interrupting his contented solitude. I am treating it as personal challenge to get Max to one day engage in a full conversation with me. I feel like a gardener who is patiently taming a skittish squirrel, wary of not overwhelming him and causing him to bolt.

I should be simply contented that this introvert even remembers me. Come to think of it, maybe he doesn’t?

Last Orders At The Bar, Please

A love Letter to Better Days

I was out on the Birmingham gay scene the evening that the UK was told to close and we were all sent to our rooms.

It had been obvious that a nationwide lockdown was on its way. Some businesses were already closing their doors, parents were selecting to remove their children from school, universities had moved lectures online and bars and restaurants were seeing a marked drop in customers. The writing was on the wall. We were just awaiting the official announcement.

The word was that the UK would be allowed one more weekend of real life before it all closed down, so I called in at Missing Bar for a final post work Friday night drink, but suddenly the goal posts changed. Boris announced that he was calling time that Friday night instead, so I unexpectedly found myself out on the tiles to see the doors close, the shutters come down and the lights go out on Hurst Street.

I visited several favourite haunts over the course of the evening and each had a decent ‘midweek’ sized crowd of customers, all determined to have one last night out and give the scene the send-off it deserved. There were the usual laughs and letchery, but also tears and moments of sombre silence, when an entire bar of people would retreat into their own thoughts and stare, with haunted looks, into their drinks, contemplating the unpredictable days to come. A vibrant venue would suddenly and spontaneously take on a funereal air. We were attending a scene-wide wake, unsure when or even if these places would open again.

I cast an affectionate glance around at the loyal regulars… and what a brilliantly eclectic group we were.

In his favourite corner, sat on a heavy bar stool, was… well, I’ll call him ‘Average Joe’, a down to earth, blue collar, right-wing, Farage loving, Brexiter, with a screeching laugh that blasts into every corner and crevice a bar. His unpalatable political opinions are based on tabloid headlines and half read internet propaganda… and are at odds with the reality of this affable barfly who cheerfully welcomes all into his social circle, no matter their creed or colour.

I remember telling ‘Average Joe’ to his face, “You would be very easy to dislike… if you weren’t such a pleasant fella,” which prompted him to explode into a prolonged burst of that toxic laugh.

This fair weather fascist once proudly told his fellow drinkers that someone had left a review on the website of one gay venue, complaining how an otherwise enjoyable evening had been ruined by the constant and all-pervading noise of the ‘laughing hyena’ at the corner of the bar.

Joe’s drinking buddy, who has the distinction of being the only person I have ever met that can make a Dudley lilt sound sexy, commented, “Weeeeell, they ‘ad a point.”

“Naaaaaah!” Joe replied. “I think ‘e was drinkin’ a Coke,” then shrieked at his own daft joke (a joke that will only make sense to someone familiar with the Black Country accent).

Sat on a long bench was Simeon, someone it is impossible to avoid on the scene… no matter how hard you may try.

Simeon clearly has mental health issues, which can be irritating and endearing in equal measures, depending on where his mood, mind, meds or line of colourful shots takes him, but he is harmless, well-meaning and unfailingly friendly, greeting acquaintances and strangers alike, by swooping into a flamboyant bow and declaring, “Your Majesty!”

He goes through periods of donning a shocking fright wig and regaling anyone that he can corner with rapid fire nonsense about his impending appearance on stage as Tina Turner, “I… I … I am performing soon. I’m going to be Tina. Tina Turner! You get me? I’m singing! I’m singing all her songs. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m singing soon… on a stage. You get me? You… you… you get me? This is my wig. You Like it? Shall I keep it? Shall I keep it?! I’ve got the costume. Tina Turner. I’m going to be great. You get me?”

He has been going on about his impending performance for as long as I can remember, but like Christmas in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, it never seems to materialise. I’m not sure it has happened, was every going to happen or is only happening in his wig covered head.

Simeon is a lithe, feline like, man who looks a lot younger than his 50+ years, something of which he is understandably proud. For a long time, he enjoyed playing a game where he would demand that people guess his true age. He would repeatedly force me to play, until I got wise to his actual aged and would systematically raise my ‘guess’ by a year every time he asked. He stopped asking by the time I was suggesting that he was in his early 70s.

Thank Heavens he finally got over that phase he went through of impersonating a Velociraptor and screaming the theme tune to Jurassic Park into people’s faces! That’s was a trying period and got him suspended from at least one establishment on the scene.

And then… there was Richie, chatting contentedly with friends.

Richie was, by his own admission, a teenage tearaway who turned his life around when he moved to Birmingham in his twenties. This ‘not so rough’ diamond quickly established himself as a cherished figure on the scene. A guy that can be succinctly described as ‘handsome, humble and hung’ (now there is a tagline for his Grindr profile), who has a constantly evolving style that can swing from ‘Groomed Boyband’ to ‘Homeless Chic’ in a matter of days… or sometimes merely hours, depending on how many pints he’s had.

I really got the measure of this man not long after he started working at Unit 2, the gay sauna on Lower Essex Street. I had hurt my back at work and was forced to take some time off, but after a week of convalescing, I foolhardily decided to visit the sauna, half convincing myself that the steam would help. I figured I’d be back on my back in no time. Hey, you can’t keep a good man down.

All went well, until I tried to get dressed in the empty locker room. T-shirt and trousers didn’t pose much of a problem but getting my socks and shoes on proved a lot trickier, requiring all sorts of contortions and resulting in comedy yelps and spasms.

As I was struggling to bend down low enough to tie my laces, Richie came in to collect the used towels.

“Could you help me?” I asked.

“Sure matey,” he responded without hesitation.

As soon as I explained my predicament, Richie dropped to his knees and began to sort out my shoes. It was at this moment that another customer entered the locker room. Bewildered by the unexpected sight that greeted him, the guy froze in the doorway. He clearly thought he was intruding on some deeply intimate moment and began to slowly retreat.

“You can come in,” I reassured the awkward looking guy, then glanced down at Richie crouching at my feet and explained, “It’s OK. He’s my gimp!” Although, it would have been truer to say that he was my shining knight.

Back on that last night before lockdown, it was time to leave.

I collected my coat from behind the bar and headed to the door, pausing at the threshold for one last look around. I didn’t know when or if any of us would be returning and wanted to take in each and every person in that dimly lit bar and remember them at that moment.

I was proud that I stayed to say goodbye and thank you to people and places that have meant so much to me over the decades. It was important, sombre, heart-warming, emotional… and sobering, so let’s hope we can get drunk together again soon.

We fiddled as Rome burned… and believe me there was plenty of fiddling going on! We fiddled like it was the end of the world.

Something Sweet for Easter

Easter Sunday last year, my partner and I popped into our local supermarket to pick up a few things for dinner (Remember those days when you could just casually ‘pop’ into a store without having to stand in a line that resembles the queue for Disneyworld’s Thunder Mountain and when you didn’t perform the panicky ‘dance of avoidance’ if you and another shopper made the mistake of simultaneously reaching for the same item. A world where complete strangers didn’t openly discuss how many sheets of toilet paper they use while stood two meters apart at the checkout. Oh, happy days!).

I immediately headed to the shelves of discounted Easter eggs.

“You don’t need any more chocolate,” my partner chastised my, like a disapproving parent. “Haven’t you got enough eggs at home?”

“OK. I suppose you are right,” I sulked and slowly moved away, casting forlorn glances back at the tempting confectionery.

We meandered up and down the aisles, picked up what we needed, then headed to the checkout.

My favourite member of staff, Curtis, was on duty, so I insisted that we join his line. He had lovely eyelashes and a bright smile, so it was always a pleasure to check out this checkout guy.

Curtis and I had bonded several months earlier during an incident where a coarse mouthy mother had been letting her unruly children run amok in a supermarket trolly.

When approached by security and asked to control her children, as they were in danger of falling out and injuring themselves, she snapped, “That’s ‘ow kids learn, aye it (That’s ‘Isn’t it’ for non-Brummies)?!!”

Curtis looked at me and remarked, “Well, I suppose she does have point.”

I haughtily replied, “There is a difference between climbing a tree and being shoved in an Aldi trolly by a chav!”

Curtis clamped his jaw shut to supress a snigger and mumbled, “As a store employee, I couldn’t possibly comment.”

From that exchange onward, he was always up for friendly banter and a bit of a bitch.

Back in that Easter Sunday checkout queue, I made a spur of the moment decision to dash across to the nearby shelves and grab one of those discounted eggs after all.

My partner rolled his eyes when I returned, “You just couldn’t resist the temptation could you?”

Curtis came to my defence, “You can never have too many Easter eggs.”

“Well, it’s not actually for me,” I explained.

“Then whoever it is for is very lucky,” Curtis commented, as he scanned the egg and placed it in the bagging area.

“I’m glad you think so,” I said as I gave him a coy smile and handed it back to him. “Happy Easter.”

From that day on Curtis would always wave at me to join his line (like I needed any encouragement) and greet me with an even brighter smile. It turned out to be the best £1.49 I ever spent.

Recently, I realised that I hadn’t seen Curtis for a while and asked another member of staff what had happened to him.

“He got a promotion and left,” she told me.

“Oh no!” I wailed. “Who am I going to flirt with now?” Realising my tactlessness, I put a hand on her shoulder and apologised, “No offence.”

I always knew he was destined for more than an Aldi checkout job, but the weekly shop will never be the same again. X