"The last thing on earth that should hold you back is what everyone else thinks."
It sounded so easy when Creamy said it. Like Tucker and Tommy wouldn't rib him mercilessly. But he went out and bought the stupid guitar anyway, and did his best to ignore the look on Uncle Vic's face when he proceeded to actually sit and try to play the thing.
Tucker howled with laughter, as he had known he would, and Tommy acted like the idea of him with a guitar was the most hilarious he had ever encountered. Creamy loitered, and acted like he understood, and didn't waste time attempting to tread on eggshells.
"Come round mine and play along," he suggested, derisively eyeing up the 'Teach Yourself Guitar' book the bloke in the shop had recommended. "You won't put me off, and you'll pick it up easier."
He did, and all. It was just comfortable, easy, and he didn't feel embarrassed every time he hit the wrong note because Creamy was too busy concentrating on the positioning of his own fingers against the fretboard.
It became a regular thing for Alan, going round Creamy's, and he didn't care that more often than not it was just the two of them. They laughed and joked and talked about anything and everything. About their favourite footballers and what their respective schools had been like, and even about Susan and the girls Alan had misguidedly asked out, in an effort to forget about Susi.
They went from mates to friends to what the girls back at Grange Hill might have called best friends, though it wasn't a term Alan would be caught dead voicing.
"I wanted to say thank you," Creamy said one night, after he had told him about the vacancy for a guitarist with the band he was singing for, "for that first day. For taking the time to talk to me."
Alan shrugged, as if the words meant nothing. But he couldn't keep the pleased smile off his face and later, when he had been tentatively accepted as a band member, he thought to himself that any amount of ribbing from the others over his soft heart would have been worth it.
Still, things went on as normal and they got into scrapes, and had their disasters, and one night he watched as Creamy hauled a box across the room and said,
"This new job, I think it agrees with you."
Creamy whistled and waggled an eyebrow and, though Alan hadn't meant it that way, it didn't stop him blushing.
Perhaps that might have been the end of it, just another notch of humiliation on the headboard of his life, but Tommy got himself in too deep, and Creamy got himself beat up, good and proper. It was him and Adie who helped him home and, once they had gotten him up the stairs, Alan told Adie that he'd wait around a while, just until Creamy was settled.
Adie gave him a searching look, and Alan didn't know what the other boy could see in his expression, but eventually he nodded and left them to it. Alan moved to sit beside Creamy's mattress, and when Creamy groaned in pain his stomach twisted, though with what emotion, he couldn't identify.
"It hurts," Creamy complained, jaw clenched and skin too pale, and because he had already taken over the recommended dosage Alan suggested that they talk, to take his mind off it.
They meandered through familiar topics and, somehow, onto parents.
"They never stopped arguing," Creamy said, eyes looking right through him and into some other time. "The Old Bill came round sometimes. They thought my old man must have been hitting her. He wasn't though." Creamy's eyes met his then, pupils blown from the painkillers. "It was the other way round. She hit him. She hit both of us."
Alan didn't need to have it spelt out that this was the first time Creamy had told anyone, and didn't protest when Creamy changed the topic, though he was thinking of how nice his house had been that time he'd gone round to help Creamy get his gear. He finally understood why Creamy had believed sleeping on the streets to be the better option.
Creamy asked about his dad, and he couldn't help but smile. He missed him still, near constantly, and his voice was rough around the edges when he said,
"When I was a kid I thought he could do anything. Like he was some sort of superhero. He wasn't though, he was just an ordinary bloke. Like a million others."
Creamy suggested he lie down then, and though Alan wanted to he hesitated. There was barely enough room for one on the mattress, and the schoolyard taunts of 'Fatty Humphries' rang loudly in his ears. Uncle Vic was right, he thought miserably. He really was nothing but a useless dollop.
He made his mind up to leave, to let Creamy get the rest he needed, but Creamy was having none of it. Fingers curled around his wrist and pulled, albeit weakly.
"S'cold," Creamy said in explanation, and Alan swallowed but gave in. He lay there stiff and rigid, until Creamy squirmed about, finally laying his head on his chest and murmuring, "You're comfier than my pillow."
Alan let the retort die on his lips, and relaxed, the heat seeping back into his joints making him realise he had been freezing.
"What was Susi like?" Creamy asked, out of the blue, the words hot against the thin material of his shirt. Alan stared at the ceiling and told him about it, right from that day down by the stream which had started it all, to seeing her go about with that idiot from the sixth form.
Creamy told him in turn about his girlfriends back at school, and how he liked Susan, but she thought she was out of his league, and he didn't know if he liked her well enough to convince her otherwise. It felt weird, too close and too intimate, but it was like neither of them could stop themselves, and they spilled secret after secret, half wrapped around each other in the darkness.
"I'd like to get back into the judo," Alan said, when both of them were right on the verge of sleep. "Vic would say I was wasting my time though."
"You should," Creamy answered, words slurring together in exhaustion. "You'd come in useful; keep my parents from killing each other."
He couldn't think of anything to say in response, so didn't, and draped an arm around Creamy instead, yawning.
They woke up like that in the morning, curled around each other, and neither of them could move quick enough, cheeks flaming in embarrassment.
"I ought to be off," Alan said as he lumbered to his feet, straightening out his clothing. Creamy nodded, silent, and Alan was halfway down the staircase before he realised he'd have to go back up because he'd forgotten his front door key.
Things went back to normal, pretty much, though he didn't think that either of them was much good at pretending nothing had happened. Tucker came to watch them practice, with the band, and Uncle Vic turned up at the gig, though Alan wished he hadn't. He wanted to keep the part of his life Uncle Vic occupied, separate from the part which was too focussed on Creamy.
He didn't know why exactly that night, didn't bother to over think it. Instead he was too busy taking in how cool Creamy looked all dressed up, like something out of a magazine. In comparison, he felt like a prize idiot. He said as much, spurred on by a flurry of last minute nerves, and Creamy clapped him on the shoulder, and told him that he wouldn't have been there if he wasn't capable. It wasn't until later, much later, that it occurred to him that he might have been afraid of what Uncle Vic would be able to read into the situation.
The truth about Uncle Vic's job outed not long after, and they argued outside in the street, like a couple of schoolchildren. It felt like a betrayal, to know that even if he had scraped the grades, or got a trade, it wouldn't have made any difference. There was no hope for people like him, nothing.
Uncle Vic left, and Alan lolled about on his bed, flitting in and out of sleep. He dreamt that his dad was still alive and he was dressed in a starched shirt, like a right mug, bringing Susi home to meet him though it wasn't as if the two had been strangers. Tucker chose that moment to wake him up, in typical Tucker style, and when he drifted back into the land of nod he picked up where he left off, except that it wasn't Susi sitting awkwardly on their sofa, it was Creamy.
He was wearing his white suit, with his hair sculpted into a quiff, like it had been for their ill-fated gig, and his dad pulled him to one side as he made tea in the kitchen, to say that he hoped he understood what he was doing, because it wasn't going to be easy.
Tommy woke him that time and his stomach was twisted into knots, not that Tommy noticed. He felt weird for days after, and avoided Creamy, not sure whether it would be clear on his face, the confusion. It couldn't last, and they all met up in the café, minus Tucker.
Creamy met his gaze, questioning at his absence, and Alan spent the day wondering what he would say when they were next alone, and how he would act around him. He needn't have worried, in the end, because Creamy was off to tour with some band he'd never met and it felt like a punch to the gut, even as Tucker dragged him to his feet by his arm, and Tommy insisted that they have a farewell knees up.
Alan loitered after everyone else had left for the pub, reeling off some excuse about having left his jumper upstairs. Nobody questioned it, though Aidie's gaze was a moment too lingering. Up in Creamy's room he felt awkward, stupid.
"So that's it then," he said, and shoved his hands in his pockets, trying not to sound so hard done by. It wasn't as if Creamy owed him anything. Creamy turned to face him, leaving off from his packing. They stared at each other, long past the point it could be considered normal, and Creamy had to whet dry lips before handing him his guitar and saying,
"Could you look after this for me? I'm going to be a keyboardist, and it's miles better than yours, you know."
It wasn't an insult, Alan knew, and he nodded dumbly. Because if he was meant to be looking after it then that meant, at some point, Creamy was going to have to come back and collect it from him.
"I'm going to miss you, mate," Creamy said, and clapped him on the shoulder before he left, with all the emotional demonstrativeness Tucker might. But, when he got home, and took the guitar from its case Alan found a handwritten note, with a telephone number and a forwarding c/o address, so Alan felt certain that the last few months must have meant something.
It was strange at first, with Creamy gone, and Tommy nudged him as they all sat around a table down the pub one night, and said,
"Come on, stop holding back on us. Who is she?"
"Yeah, you're moping about something rotten," Tucker added, and Alan sipped at his pint, and sent a silent prayer of thanks for all those years of troublemaking and the practice at lying they had afforded him.
"A gentleman," he told them, knowing it would only wind them up further, "never tells."
Except he did, of course. He wrote it all up in a letter to Creamy, and then had to fight the urge to screw it up in a ball before stuffing it in an envelope and sticking a stamp on it. It was awkward, not knowing what to say, or how to say it. He had never received very good marks for composition.
Creamy, he thought that week as he stood in the dole queue, might not even reply to him. On his way back he ran into Uncle Vic, laden down with shopping bags, and somehow the conversation went from how much of a pain it was keeping enough food in the cupboards, to how much of a tyrant Vic's landlord was, to him sounding his big mouth off about the empty spare room, and how it would make sense if Vic moved back in, wouldn't it?
Tucker found out through the grapevine, and they had one last party, which ended with Tommy bemoaning his lot in life and telling him over and over that he was either going to drown himself or join the merchant navy.
Vic settled back in, and didn't even complain about his practicing the guitar, which meant that he'd either improved, or it really was true that absence made the heart grow fonder.
The letter came when he was least expecting it, full of life on the road, and Junior's witticisms, and Alan was halfway through scribbling his second sheet in reply before he had chance to be surprised at how easy it suddenly seemed to be.
He told Creamy about Vic and their newfound truce, and how they'd talked about it and were going to sell the business, and how he might try the clothing factory in Oldham, or join Doug Harper on the ferries in Devon. Then he wrote about Tucker's dad leaving, and Tommy's decision to join the merchant navy. He even wrote about his disastrous attempt to ask the girl out from the record shop, and how he had lied to Tucker about it, afterwards.
Creamy wrote back faster this time, and told him about his new band mates, and the fans, and all the girls he'd snogged.
'She doesn't know what she's missing,' he wrote in response to his sorry tale of the girl behind the counter. 'And I bet she tells her friends she wants a nice guy! I don't understand girls, I really don't. Sometimes I think we'd all be better off without them.'
That made him think of that night back in Creamy's room, the night they had shared a bed together. He read the passage again, wondering if there was something more to it than what was on the surface. In the end he shook his head and told himself not to be such an idiot, and wrote back about this and that and asked a dozen questions about things he wanted Creamy to elaborate on.
Barry came back, and Darren Phillips landed a job in Oldham, at the clothing factory he had been telling Tucker about. He ran into Justin Bennett in the library, swotting up before he left for university, and read about Benny Green in the local paper, in the athletics section.
It seemed like everyone else was getting on with their lives, but Creamy told him that things would have to pick up soon, and he'd be glad he hadn't busted a gut working for pittance in the garage like Tucker, or got into the wrong kinds of mischief with dodgy girls at discos.
That last made him feel strange, like he had after that dream about his dad, and it must have shown on his face because Vic asked if he was alright when he came in, and suggested that perhaps he ought to lie down for a bit. He wasn't that bad, but followed Vic's advice anyway, wanting to be alone to think about it.
He lay there for hours, working out fantastical scenarios, in which Tucker gawped at first, and teased him, but came around without too much fuss, and Uncle Vic said that it was a modern world, even if he didn't understand it. Tommy would shoot his mouth off, like he always did, but the others would tell him to knock it off, and when Susi found out she would be jealous, and Creamy would smile too innocently at her and sit still closer, just for the fun of it.
It ought to scare him, he thought, that he could dream up these things, but he went still further with it. Imagined what it would be like, between the two of them. Who would make the first move, and what Creamy would taste of. His heart was pounding double time when Vic yelled up to ask if he wanted some supper, and he couldn't write a reply to Creamy that night.
He felt too guilty.
Still life went on, and nothing came crashing down around him. There was no outward sign, nothing to say that he had been thinking about things that could only lead to him getting his face kicked in. He took up weightlifting, because the judo classes were full, and got chatting to Tucker's new mate Matthew, because though he might be doomed to be single, at least he didn't have to be the kind of bloke who had nobody to go around with.
The bailiffs called round, with the tax collector, and he and Vic refused to open the door, because they had rights. He'd read about them in a pamphlet he'd picked up at the library. He told Tucker about it at the garage and, in return, Tucker waxed lyrical about Natalia. He complained about it in yet another letter to Creamy, and Creamy wrote back saying that Tucker was punching above his weight, and included a sheet of hand written chords and a cassette, along with a scrawled note that he should learn to play the song if he wanted more success with the ladies.
Alan waited until Vic went out to play it, though it seemed silly. He was glad he had when Creamy's vocals filled his bedroom, because he could well imagine the look on Vic's face. It would be the same as the look on Tucker's before he asked,
'And why did he send this to you, my son?"
When the song finished he wound the tape back and played it again, and then repeated the process. It was well put together, well played, the kind of love song girls would go ga-ga over. Alan didn't dare to wonder whether Creamy had specifically written it with him in mind.
He had a reply mostly written before he had to go out, and then he saw Tucker who told him, fear in his eyes, that Rhona had gone missing, and everything else had to be put on the back burner. Mrs Jenkins was beside herself, and Natalia was wound up, he could tell, though she acted just as snootily as ever.
"Mix the milk with the coffee first, like this," she told him as he played tea boy, and he wondered, not for the first time, how Tucker put up with it. A thought occurred to him then, and the words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.
"Natalia, can I ask you something? Well, you and Tucker. I bet he's not the sort of bloke you usually go out with."
"What sort of bloke is that, Alan?" She asked, tone laced with amusement.
He sighed, "Oh, I dunno. I just reckon girls like you go for richie types, you know, blokes who are going to be doctors or something. Not dole boys like me and him."
"Maybe I like dole boys."
Alan squirmed, not quite sure what it was he was getting at. "Yeah, well, you've been liking each other quite a bit lately."
"Does that bother you?"
"No, no. I'm just jealous." He pulled a face and shook his head. It was true, too true. He wanted someone to go out with, to sit with and talk to and to take to the pictures. Someone to dance with at discos, and to share private smiles with when they sat in the pub with the others.
He sat with Mrs Jenkins and tried not to be quite so selfish. She was staring at a photo of Rhona, crying, and he swore that if anything had happened to her he'd kill the bloke who did it, if Tucker didn't get there before him.
"I never meant to lose my temper with her," she told him, voice strained. "If only I hadn't!"
Alan thought of his own dad, and how it was never the telling offs he remembered. It was the good times, and the laughter, but he didn't know how to word it, so they all sat around in near silence, pretending that they weren't expecting the worst to have happened.
Even after Rhona was found, safe and sound, he couldn't shake the morbid feelings and went home and chewed on the end of his pen as he picked up his letter. Creamy wouldn't thank him for it, probably, but he was relatively certain that he would see it was the right thing to do in the long run. In the end he just went for it, told Creamy that he should let his parents know where he was, and that he was okay, because though he might not believe it, they were bound to be worried about him. He didn't read it back through when he was finished, and posted it before he could think better of it.
The reply took much longer this time, and he waited on edge, worried that he'd gone too far, and that was it as far as Creamy was concerned. He did a guttering job with Uncle Vic, and tipped the coppers off about Tucker's brother's car. They finally found a buyer for his dad's old business, and he couldn't keep the grin off his face as he told Tucker about it. There would even be a couple of hundred quid left over; they'd be able to rent the house out and go and look for work in Devon.
He was still grinning when he stepped through the front door to find Vic on the phone, motioning him over as he said,
"Ah, here he is now."
Alan frowned in question, but Uncle Vic just shrugged and retreated to the sitting room.
"Alan?" The voice said at the other end of the line, and Alan had to sink down into the chair by the phone table, his knees becoming about as useful as water.
"Creamy?" He asked, and he could hear the grin on the other man's face as he said,
"The one and only, mi amigo."
It turned out that Creamy was in Spain, because the band had gone tits up after the bassist had slept with the drummer's girl, and the drummer had punched his front teeth out. Creamy told him that he had always wanted to go travelling, see the world, and he'd met a bloke who was looking for a piano player for the season.
The line was crackly, and Alan couldn't do much more than nod along, dumbfounded. The only time he'd been outside Britain was on that school trip to Calais, and the less said about that the better.
"I really wanted to say thank you," Creamy said eventually, and Alan thought dimly that the call must have been costing him a fortune. "For telling me to man up and get in touch with the folks. They didn't much care, I thought they wouldn't but – " he hesitated, and Alan gripped the handset tighter, "but I feel better for it. I'd never have done it without your nagging."
"I don't nag," Alan protested, but felt proud all the same. He was useful for something.
"Have you still got my guitar?" Creamy asked, to change the subject. Alan nodded, then realising Creamy couldn't see, said,
"Yeah, been driving Uncle Vic 'round the twist with it. We're moving to Devon next week; Doug Harper's got me a job on the ferries."
There was silence, stilted. He pressed on,
"I got your cassette. It's a great track."
The words were soft, quiet, and he thought that perhaps there had been interference on the line and Creamy hadn't heard them. But then he was speaking, a little too fast like you did when you were in a phone box and your money was about to run out.
"I've already sent you a letter. It's got my address on it. If it doesn't get there before you leave, send it to the one you usually do, and my aunt'll see I get it. I've got to go. And, Alan?"
"Yeah?" He managed, trying to digest it all. But the line cut out then, and Alan just stared at the handset for a long moment before replacing it. He all but ignored Uncle Vic's questions about who had been on the phone, and went upstairs to his room and listened to Creamy's song over and over again, through his headphones.
He couldn't wait to get to Devon, he decided. To make a new start of things.
They went for one last drink, him and Tucker and Matthew, and even Adie and Passmore. 'We're going to miss you,' they all assured, and he tried to force a smile, though he didn't feel like it.
Tucker found him later, leaning against the pub wall and staring out at the darkened streets they had grown up on.
"I hope you find what it is you're looking for," Tucker said, coming over to stand next to him.
Alan sighed, and shoved his hands into his pockets.
"You and me both, Tucker."
Devon wasn't what he had been expecting. The job was over almost as soon as it had started, and he was back to queuing for his dole money, only this time there were none of his old mates about to make it any less soul destroying.
He still went to the weights room, and practiced the guitar, but Vic found a good job brick laying and he didn't want to tell anyone the truth. He was lonely. Perhaps Creamy could tell, because once the season was over and he was making his way across Europe he sent him postcards and fridge magnets, and short notes full of stupid jokes and tales of all the mad things they considered normal in foreign countries.
When he was staying somewhere long enough, he rang him with an address, and Alan suspected his letters were overly long and maudlin, though he tried to come across upbeat, and not bore Creamy enough to put him off of him.
'Do you think you'll ever want to move back to Blighty?' He asked in one letter, because it had been a particularly dreary week, and even the disco he'd been to with Doug Harper had been a complete disaster.
He got back a postcard from Portugal with a few hastily scribbled chords and the line,
'Wherever I lay my hat, that's my home.'
He had to move on, get on with his life, he decided. Sort himself out. He combed his hair down like a prat, poured himself into the suit he had worn to his father's funeral, and went around every business within walking distance, suggesting that even if they didn't have a job going, they might like to offer him work experience.
In the end all he got was an offer to volunteer at the old people's home, because he looked like such a nice young man, and though it wasn't high on his list of things he wanted to do, he turned up at the appointed time, and made a show of nodding in the right places as Mr. Gould recited poetry at him, and reeled off story after story about the 'good old days'.
The week after there was a pretty girl listening to some old dear on the other side of the room, and on the way out Alan gave it his best shot at asking her out to the pictures. He waited outside the cinema for an hour and a half the evening after, before giving in and accepting that she just wasn't interested.
Uncle Vic was still up when he got in, soaked through from a last minute rain shower, and because he couldn't deal with the inevitable lecture he went straight to his room, almost missing the letter waiting for him on the side table. It sent a thrill through him, the sight of Creamy's scruffy handwriting, and he knew then that Devon had been anything but a new start. It was just more of the same, over and over again.
'I bet you're having a great time,' Creamy wrote, 'making new friends, and tell me all the news with the girl situation.'
There were no girls.
Alan just left the letter on his dresser for the first time since they had started their stint as penpals. He had nothing to say for himself.
Christmas came around and Mr. Gould gave him a well thumbed book of poetry he told Uncle Vic he wasn't interested in, though in truth he rather liked it, sky fish and all, because it reminded him of song lyrics. In return he gave Mr. Gould a bottle of something he had to sneak past the nurses. He went back up to London for a couple of days, and heard from the horse's mouth that Tucker was going steady, with Pongo Yates of all people. He supposed he had always known it was inevitable.
Passmore had landed a good job, in security, and Adie was confident he was going to pass his course with flying colours. Tommy was off sailing the seven seas, and he even spied Bullet Baxter while he was wandering aimlessly round the shopping centre, with some bird hanging off his arm. The world really was a mad place.
For his part he wavered between blind hope and black despair. He was too old for the training schemes, and too stupid for the college courses. He said as much to old Mr. Gould when he was back in Devon, and the man wagged a finger and fixed him with a beady gaze befitting of a retired English teacher,
"Nonsense. An intelligent lad like you ought to make something of himself."
Mr. Gould kept on his case, and made him rework his CV, and write a dozen job applications under his supervision. He felt like a right fool, banging on about attributes he was quite sure he didn't possess, but a few days later he got back from the café to find a letter inviting him to interview, and by some miracle he'd never understand, by the end of the week he was finally in gainful employment.
It was in an office, and mind numbing, but he didn't wake up so stiff he could barely move like he had when he'd been labouring for the family business, and he had enough money to pay his share of the rent, and to go out on the weekends.
He took Mr. Gould a box of chocolates to say thank you, and the old man smiled fondly, and kept him for almost three hours with tales about people who Alan knew without being told were all long dead.
On the way home he saw Doug Harper and they went for a drink, reminiscing about Grange Hill and London in general.
"I hear your Uncle Vic's been busy," Doug said eventually, winking along with it.
Alan frowned, not getting his meaning.
Doug grinned, oblivious. "Never too old to be a hit with the ladies, eh?"
He quizzed Vic about it later that evening, and the man had the good grace to squirm, sheepish. It turned out he'd met her months ago, and that they got on like a house on fire.
"What about Gary and Barbara?" Alan asked, because he felt like being stubborn. Uncle Vic told him not to act like such a child, and then, when the anger left the boil, that for all the contact he had with his own children, it would be his opinion of Alice which was far more important.
Alan lay awake until the early hours that night, wishing that he had an up to date address for Creamy, so he could write to him about it.
Instead he worked out his frustration in the gym, and went to a club in town with a group from work, because they offered and it wasn't as if he had anything better to do. It was too loud and too hot, and he leant against the wall getting steadily drunker, until the world was hazy around him and he was staring at a bloke on the dance floor, with lacquered hair and blue eyes, and a certain fluidity to his movements.
Perhaps he looked a little too hard, and for a little too long, but when he went outside to get some air and clear his head, a group of headcases went for him, and if it wasn't for the judo, his workmates would have been scraping him off the pavement.
"Didn't know you could do that," Simmons said, clearly a little awed, and back at the office Debbie from reception confessed to him that there had been rumours going round about him, but they were laying off now, in case he did them over.
He said that it surprised him, because he wasn't usually like that, and it was only later that he realised that him not being the violent type wasn't what Debbie had taken from the conversation. He wondered if it bothered him, because with his dad dead, and his old school mates hundreds of miles away, who was there to be disappointed in him.
The answer came in the form of Uncle Vic's invitation to meet Alice, over dinner. Their usual idea of dinner involved baked beans, or overdone spaghetti, so he was shocked to find himself in a rather nice restaurant, being fussed over and mollycoddled by a woman with lipstick on her teeth and a thick West Country accent, and told him that even though they were moving in together, he'd be welcome any time.
It was news to him, and Vic apologised afterwards for not telling him sooner, sounding so sincere he knew it would be petty and childish to get mad at him.
"You're like a son to me, Alan," Vic said, and Alan had to look away to hide the lump in his throat. "All I want is for you to be happy."
It wasn't approval, not in so many words, but it was close enough and when the day Uncle Vic moved out he received a long letter from Creamy full of rambling that had obviously been written in a state of inebriation, Alan seized at the chance and started writing a response immediately.
'Perhaps you didn't get my last letter?' Creamy had written, barely legible. 'I miss hearing your news. Miss a lot of things actually. Maybe I've just scared you off? Seem to do that all the time. I hope I haven't.'
Alan re-read the letter a few times, because it was nice to know that it wasn't only important to him. And that it wasn't only him who could let their worries get the best of them. It made him think of Mr. Gould, and he went for a long overdue visit, only to find the old man in bed, wheezing with a death rattle.
"You've got to do the things you want to do," he told him, one bony hand reaching for his. "There's nothing worse than regrets, especially when you're my age."
There was only him and the nurses from the old people's home at the funeral, and though he tried to keep it together, he couldn't help but shed a few tears, thinking of his dad, and all the things poor old Mr. Gould never managed to get round to.
It still took him near enough a month to work up the courage, and he went as far away from his flat as the bus would take him, his palms slick with sweat as he walked past the club half a dozen times before finally stepping over the threshold. His heart was hammering in his chest, and he scarcely dared to look around him, just made a beeline for the bar and downed one drink before ordering another one.
He was halfway through gulping down his third when a man sidled up beside him, a moustachioed walking stereotype who raked his gaze over him as he said,
"I've not seen you here before."
The terror must have shown on his face because another voice said,
"Knock it off, Brian, go and get your kicks elsewhere, there's a good lad."
Alan swallowed, and wished the ground would open up beneath him, even as the guy gave him a parting wink and disappeared into the crowd.
"Don't mind him," the owner of the voice said, all bleach blonde hair and friendly smile. "This is your first time here, isn't it?"
He nodded his assent and wondered if he was really that obvious.
"Don't worry," the other bloke, not all that much older than him, said, "we all have to be new some time."
His name was Andrew, and Alan didn't know what he had been expecting, but it wasn't to make a friend who lived only two streets away from him. He wrote to Creamy about it, though made it sound like his being at the club had been less through design and more through accident, because there was less bluff now, and more of what was really happening. In return Creamy told him secrets of his own, about life at home, and the time his last band had played at a less than reputable venue, and he'd ended up on the receiving end of the sort of kiss intelligent blokes didn't brag about.
It made him feel frustrated, restless. He wished the other man could be here, or at least in England. Take him up on his offer to come back and stay with him. Not in some hostel somewhere he didn't even have a hope of pronouncing.
'So it wouldn't bother you?' he wrote instead, keeping it to the purely hypothetical because he hadn't told anyone, and he wasn't entirely certain, anyway.
'Of course not, you should know me better', Creamy wrote back, and Alan didn't know if it was just wishful thinking, or if there was real feeling behind it.
"We're looking for a guitarist," Andrew told him, when they met up for coffee, one of the lads he had worked with on the ferries gawping as they passed him. "We're not looking to hit the big time or anything. It's just a bit of a giggle, you know how it is."
Creamy encouraged him to go for it, in his next letter, after a description of the Swedish coastline, and the following Thursday found him in some dive of a function room, after work, trying to prove that he wasn't completely tone deaf. They accepted him into the fold and news got round like wildfire, so that he nearly came to blows with Martin at work over his constant snide comments.
He had always been too much of a soft touch, too eager to stand up for the minority. His supervisor sent him on an errand to the corner shop to cool down, and even when he got back it was still thrumming in his veins, hot and primitive. The problem was that back at Grange Hill he'd only ever been an ally; they had to see him with Benny or Hughsey to put two and two together. Now he was going to be fighting on his own front. It was a more frightening prospect than he would have credited.
It wasn't much of a surprise to have Tucker on the phone a week later, telling him what he'd heard from a mate of Doug Harper's.
"And what if I am, Tucker?" He asked, though he didn't feel half as confident as he sounded. "It's 1986, it's not illegal."
"No-one said it was," Tucker shot back, obviously irritated. "Does your Uncle Vic know?" He asked after a moment, calmer.
"I haven't said I am," Alan said, thinking of the newspaper headlines, about AIDs and bashings and the moral high ground, and the graffiti in the men's toilets down his local.
Tucker simply sighed, impatient, because he had always been able to read him better than anyone.
"Just promise me you ain't going to do anything stupid."
"I could say the same about you and Trisha," he said in response, and Tucker snorted, amused, and the conversation carried on. It was only when he put the handset down that he realised his hand had been shaking.
Winter blew their way, and the nights drew in, and the band landed a gig as a support act. It was all a bit déjà vu, and he went round Uncle Vic's for dinner, and he knew the rumour mill had reached them too, even if neither he nor Alice said anything.
"Are you being careful?" Vic asked, before he left, and Alan hoped it was as awkward for him to say it as it was for him to hear it.
"I don't know why everyone's suddenly so interested in what I'm doing," he said, instead of answering, and Uncle Vic patted him on the shoulder and said,
"You've turned out alright. Your dad would be proud of you."
He went home and dug out the old photo albums, and played the cassette Creamy had sent him over and over, though he hadn't listened to it in months. He cracked open a beer too many, and finally wrote a letter which made it all a bit too obvious, and his head pounded all through work the following day, his stomach roiling every time he though about how he had been stupid enough to post it.
Martin carried on giving him a hard time, but he kept his mouth shut and his head down, and the boss called him into the office to say that they were going to install a computer system, and that they were going to send him on a course to learn how to use it. In the meantime he found somebody to rent his dad's old house, which covered his own rent, and he got a telly and started putting money aside each week, to save for a motor.
The Christmas lights had already been switched on by the time their gig rolled around. The venue was cramped and grotty, but the main act gave them enough time to do a proper soundcheck and the audience were appreciative. The keyboardist, Kevin, bought them all a round of drinks to celebrate and, because it was Friday and he had no work in the morning, he just kept going until he was having a hard time sitting upright in a booth with Andrew, spilling his guts about Creamy and the letter writing.
They half dragged each other home, and he grappled with his key, the two of them falling through his front door together, pressed so close that it seemed the natural thing to start sharing oxygen. Andrew pressed closer still, hands sloppy but wandering, and Alan couldn't help but kiss harder, because it had been forever and it was a good long moment before common sense pierced the haze of drink strongly enough to make either of them realise that it was a royally bad idea.
"Sorry about that," Andrew slurred, and fell asleep on his sofa. Alan forced himself to drink three mugs of tap water before going to bed, and knew that if he had had any lingering doubts about what did it for him, they had just been addressed rather thoroughly.
It was midday before either of them surfaced, and he acted the gracious host and raided the cupboards before sending Andrew on his way, pretending that the softly spoken "I hope it works out for you" didn't get to him.
The office closed up for the holidays, and Debbie gave him a Christmas card, and though Uncle Vic asked, Alan demurred, and said he'd rather spend the day alone, watching rubbish on the television. It was going to be his second Christmas in Devon and, if somebody had told him this was where he'd be in life the year before, he would never have credited it.
He sat there eating chocolates – Uncle Vic's Christmas present – and staring blankly at the repeats and the soap operas. Christmas Eve. It had always been special as a kid, even with his mum and dad arguing. There were a few ropes of tinsel wound around the place, and a tacky bit of plastic holly on the mantelpiece. It was enough to make any man miserable. He wondered what Creamy was doing. He still hadn't replied to his letter.
Making a start on the Christmas liquor was looking increasingly like the best option when there was a knock at the door. Alan waited a moment, trying to ignore it. Carol singers had been bleeding him dry all week. The knock came again and he sighed; there was nothing to be done in the face of the fact that the rest of the country was full of the festive spirit.
Except when he pulled the door open, the doorstep wasn't full of carol singers. It was Creamy.
His cheeks were flushed with the cold night air, and he looked a right idiot, bundled up in layer upon layer of coat and scarf and woolly hat. Alan couldn't find the words to rib him about it.
"Aren't you going to invite me in then?" Creamy asked, but his tone was nervous, like he wasn't sure he really was welcome, so Alan stood aside and nodded and wished that he'd thought to comb his hair and not wear his rattiest old jumper.
They just stared at each other for a long moment once the door was shut. Alan, because he couldn't believe that he really wasn't in the middle of some boredom induced daydream, and Creamy because. Well, just because, he supposed.
"Your guitar's still in good nick," he said, to try and break the tension, just as Creamy said, altogether more seriously,
"I got your letter."
He wrung his hands together, nervous, and he ended up in the kitchen making tea, while Creamy took his coat off. They sat at opposite ends of the sofa in the sitting room, some ancient film playing in the background. They talked about this and that, anything but about what they were thinking, until finally Creamy said,
"You're braver than I am, just saying it. I tried – I'm trying right now, as a matter of fact," he smiled, shook his head, "but I'm not very good with words."
"You write songs," Alan said, because he was the one who struggled with being eloquent.
"Yeah, but that's different," Creamy countered. "Because even when it's about you, people don't realise."
They had shifted closer, without much conscious input, and Alan swallowed, wishing he didn't feel quite so much like an anxious schoolboy.
"What I'm trying to say, I think," Creamy said, and the words were light but his tone was breathless, "is that I missed you."
It was really happening then, so long after he had first thought about it that it didn't seem quite real. It wasn't quite like kissing a girl, yet it wasn't so terribly different either. Creamy put a tentative hand to the back of his head, perhaps to better the angle, and it felt like something electrifying, so that he couldn't help but pull the other man closer.
It was like they were trying to make up for lost time, and Creamy pushed him down into the cushions, even as his threadbare jumper found a new home behind the sofa. It was alien and familiar ad exhilarating, and his movements became increasingly uncoordinated, his hair clinging to his forehead damply even as Creamy bit down at his lip and clutched at his hips, making enough noise for both of them.
Their movements became frantic, rushed, and afterwards he kept very still, frightened Creamy was going to say it had been a mistake, and that he should never have knocked at his door in the first place. Instead the other man stretched and squirmed, and said something about the terrible programme on the forgotten television, so that they both couldn't help laughing.
He cleaned up a bit, and Creamy made more tea – because it wasn't the same on the continent – and then they left it to go cold anyway, lost in each other all over again.
"I thought you wanted to see the world," Alan said later, as the BBC closed down for the evening, not wanting to sound like a girl but needing to know, all the same. If Creamy was just going to disappear again come New Year's, well, his stomach twisted up just thinking about it.
Creamy met his gaze, searching. He must have been an open book because Creamy grinned, wide and genuine,
"I've seen it. I'm right where I want to be."
For now, at least, it was all the answer he needed.