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Craig imagines that if Max hears him from the bedroom next door, at most, he’ll hear his shuffling movements. Turning to lie on his chest, Craig is reminded of the song that he sang to Max when he was still a kid.
Raindrops are falling on my head
And just like the guy whose feet are too big for his bed
Nothing seems to fit…
His godson won’t hear the sound of rustling leaves, the sound that Craig hears when he grazes his abraded skin. Humming the tune in his head, he remembers Max’s father trying to fuck him on Guy Fawkes Night, a mile from here on Christ’s Pieces, and how that first time, nothing seemed to fit. He ponders Max, what he’s even been told.
Craig lifts his arms to remove his Blur t-shirt, the one Graeme, Max’s Dad, gifted him when they went to see the band play as teens. He opens the window but it lets in too forceful a February chill. He imagines Max and his girlfriend encamped in a single bed the same size as his. “They won’t be paying any attention to me,” he thinks. “It’s the two of them, like it was when it was his Dad and me when we were at college, the summer when there was a heatwave, and we always sang Girls & Boys.”
Craig had enjoyed a good enough day, but even as the three of him, Max, and his girlfriend, punted, his hidden bites – if that’s what they were – compelled him to scratch. Eczema would be a helpful diagnosis, but his itch defies easy diagnosis. A rash made sense that time he’d been to the Ponds, but the dermatologist he consulted was dismissive. He was told the GUM clinic might be more appropriate, or “possibly a psychologist.” When he and Max went later in the afternoon to Fitzbillies for a cinnamon bun, he couldn’t resist checking whether he had lice in visits to the passcode-entry toilet.
“How are you enjoying being a Fresher?” Craig at last asked Max, his eyes fixed on a tall guy sitting nearby their table. The guy, possibly part Polynesian, had a hockey stick in his hand, and evaded Craig’s gaze.
“I don’t know. Okay, really,” Max said. “I knew it wouldn’t be like Nottingham or any of those other ones on my list. We can concentrate on our studies.”
“But is that what you do? I mean, all day long? I remember they had other things going on–”
“I’ve got Paula. She’s into Fenners like me, and Chapel. We go to Evensong. And there’s UCAC.” Max spooned his hot chocolate, and shrugged.
“UCAC? What’s that?”
“The University Christian Association of Cambridge,” Max replied.
“Sorry, you’re probably not in the mood for your Godfather to ask all these questions.”
“And Paula, where’s she from again?” Craig noticed the part-Polynesian guy walking toward the gents. He was wearing a navy and pink striped jersey. Craig recognised Emmanuel College’s lion emblem, and then he remembered studying Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in the college’s Old Library – he wished away the memories of that period, after Graeme first left.
“Her father’s Colombian,” Max said. “She grew up in Worcestershire.”
“You okay, C? You seem a little on edge.” Max leaned in.
“You know me, all good.”
Craig gets out of Max’s sofa bed and boils some milk on the stove. He knows Max sees him as reliable, so he stuck to this diary commitment, the one commitment he forces himself to fulfil in any given week. He’s taken old programmes for plays to the recycle centre in Islington. He’s fetched his neighbour’s shopping and waited in line to pick up their prescription. A structure is what he needs. That’s what the therapist said after they buried Graeme.
Against the hum of the fridge, he hears distant traffic and senses his galloping heartbeat. Skylights from the cloisters outside prevent him from returning to sleep. He switches on Grindr, pats his pillow, and decides to upgrade. It’ll cost £78 for the year for a Full Grindr XXXTra subscription.
It’s been a few months since he last logged in. Scroll right. There’s a new function. This seems better, Craig thinks. First, though, he sees the pink-jerseyed hockey player in the “local” tab, dressed in a checked blue and green lumberjack, with a vest underneath and some chest hairs tingling from under that. Fuck, he’s got a little poo icon on his profile, or is it the brand logo for Santander bank? Neither of those can be right, Craig thinks to himself. He “pings” him.
There. He’s done it. Where would he get the ointment he scrubs into his groin? He guesses there’s a Boots chemist at the Grafton Centre. Whenever six hours have elapsed after he’s got someone to suck him off, he applies an over-the-counter lotion. Waiting for the Cambridge student to respond or block him, he scrolls across – two tabs to the right – and enters a foreign location. “Colombia.”
A dot illustrated like a pin for a poster board locates a town somewhere in the region of Boyacá. He whispers in his mind. “Distract. Your. Fucking. Self.” He can’t, not easily. He’s back. Here: where he had to drop out, in the city he matriculated, together with Graeme, who met that girl. He’s in the city where he first had to visit a psychiatrist.
Profiles tumble into view like coins cascading over the edge of a casino slot machine. The hockey player responds. An image of a red dot, a pimple, flashes from within the inbox icon. Spots, acne, dirt, bacteria: images collide like fairground cars. “I can’t have sex,” Craig tells himself, “not with someone local.” The caseload figures for Monkeypox had reached the thousands the last time he was on the app. He takes a long draw of breath in, and then he exhales the thought. Back to the Colombians.
He hears a few students outside and a bottle rolling down the path to the freshers’ digs. Lights shine on the patio area outside. It’s neighbours; they’re singing. That’s what Max should be doing, Craig thinks, not getting domesticated with a devout Christian girl, but it’s safety he seeks, someone he imagines isn’t as capricious as Graeme, and the Mum he understands he sees only once or twice a year.
Here are a few bottom boys that he can send messages to. There won’t be any risk of STIs. It’s all fantasy – scrolling through the profiles of smooth-skinned twenty-somethings, many thousands of miles away. Here’s Fernando, there are a few Camilos. By the fourth conversation, he tires of the young men’s questions. A fifth guy responds to Craig’s opener.
“Hello, I’m Sebastián. What time is it in Great Britain?”
“Hey. Late. Love your pics.” Craig scrolls through Sebastián’s photos. He’s geeky, with his horn-rim spectacles, but he looks like he knows what he’s doing, posing with his Colgate-white grin and his tousled satchel-brown hair.
“Thanks, mate. ‘Mate.’ I like using Cockney slang. I used to study at Queen Mary and Westfield.”
“Cool, what are you into? I love your smooth body. I don’t know much Spanish, but I do understand what Morbosos are.”
“Are we on to sex already? No chat first?”
Craig sends Sebastián nude photos.
“You’re handsome, but seriously, let’s chat,” Sebastián says. “Everyone here just sends nudes. I want something else. What brings you to this site?”
“Come on, from your profile description you seem smarter than that. I liked how you said you weren’t into ‘half conversations.’ I can tell in your eyes that you’re not just a twat. Don’t they say ‘twat’ in London?”
“I guess it’s–” Craig begins texting. “It’s complicated.”
“Anything worth talking about is,” Sebastián responds. He sends two more messages. Now Craig receives a third. “I used to take a psychology minor at Columbia. By the way, I suppose you know but that’s Columbia, NY, in the States, not my country. But that’s fine. I studied Sexual Cultures at Queen Mary. So, tell me. I mean, if you want to. What’s complicated?”
“To be direct, I’m super fucking tired, and horny. I don’t like admitting it here, but I’m exhausted. I don’t mean right now. I’m tired of everything.”
“That’s a lot. But that’s fine. Funnily enough, I know a bit about this subject.”
“You do? You know about incessant itching? When someone sees lice, in their hair, but they’re imagining it? You know all about that?” Craig adjusts his pillow. “There. That’s what’s complicated. Now you can block me,” he adds.
“I’ve got Obsessive Compulsions. The disorder.”
“I guess you didn’t always have this?”
“There’s usually a trigger? Seriously, you can talk.”
“And there I was thinking I could talk to you about all the dirty things I wanted to do to you–”
“Humour’s important. Got it. The OCD may link back to some pre-adolescent history.”
“I lost my boyfriend, messed me up.”
“Oh, man. At uni?”
“No, that was much later.”
“So when did you develop OCD?”
“It was anaphylaxis. Graeme, I mean. How he died. After a bee sting. Crazy. I had no idea he was even allergic.”
“Craig, I’m getting a bit confused here.”
“I don’t want to talk about it all now. Stuff started when I was around twenty, but I’m forty-seven, so it hardly matters.”
“I think I can help.”
“Why?” Craig asks.
“I know how men can be lonely.”
It’s 03.44. Craig reaches for a Kleenex from the back pocket of his pair of Levis.
The next morning he hears the bells from the college chapel. He notices a cum stain on the underside of the faded blue, yellow and black duvet. It’s shaped like Colombia, he smirks to himself.
Opening the app, he sees that overnight Sebastián sent him links that mentioned psychological concepts, one to do with the nervous system and one linking to a podcast about a Dutch psychologist and his work on “somatic messages.”
Craig reads Sebastián’s final messages.
“Symptoms can repeat themselves. Our bodies can – get this, ‘bear witness to the pain history didn’t quite extinguish.’ But as much as you can learn pain, you can also un-learn it. And it’s how you behave – how you act – that points to what you really need, or fear. Let’s chat more when you’re ready. By the way, Bogotá’s cool if you ever fancy comin’!”
Damn. It’s 10:37. Craig knows he’s meant to be taking Max and his girlfriend to brunch at Brown’s in an hour, but he suspects they’re still in the college chapel for the Sunday service. He’s not even sure Max likes him. Opening the window, he hears the Dean of the College, giving a sermon on remembrance.
“An attempted transfer of cash occurred at 04.02 last night.”Craig reads a text from his bank.“We cancelled the payment because we suspected it could be fraudulent. Do you recognise the payment below? Text ‘Y’ if you do recognise the payment, otherwise please Text ‘N’ if you do not.”
London · Sun, 29 May
Bogotá · Mon, 30 May
For a few seconds, Craig’s attention switches to an exercise Sebastián mentioned on Youtube. It features a Neuro-Linguistic guru in California and is all about letting your “heart’s language speak for you.” He remembers listening to the video before he fell asleep. There was something about locating your “bodily intelligence,” “hearing your skin,” and being “guided” by what it “wants to tell you.”
Craig looks again at his phone and scans the message from the bank.
There’s another rumination, but this time it’s one he doesn’t want to weaken. Sebastián’s head on his chest. Looking across to the chapel, he sees Max exiting. He embraces Paula. Out stretches Craig’s finger. It’s a decisive touch. “Y” he texts. “Yes,” he thinks, “my body wants this.”