Have you ever been to Edinburgh for New Year? You really should. Edinburgh is beautiful.
The year I go to Edinburgh’s annual street party, usually avoided by the locals, is 1997. I am 22. I have just broken up with my girlfriend. Yes, girlfriend. We weren’t together very long and my tears had dried before we’d even got to the second syllable of goodbye.
My friend and I don’t have tickets for the street party, but we are not-very-reliably informed it is the ‘place to go’, so we buy lots of beer and make sure we are within the boundaries before they are roped off for ticketholders. It is ludicrously easy. But now it is 7.30pm, it’s freezing and I am going to be here for at least five hours.
I light a cigarette in the absence of absolutely anything else to do (this is a very long time ago – I haven’t smoked for over a decade) and as I take a drag, a group of people my age appear before me, one guy and two girls. They are what my grandmother would call “merry”. They ask for a light and we chat for a while.
My friend is very sociable and boisterous, so we soon develop a kind of camaraderie. The guy is warm and friendly and introduces himself as Alex. I’m sorry, girls, but your names escape me all these years later. We get chatting to another group of guys and soon we have a little posse all of our own, swaying as the beers take hold, lighting each other’s cigarettes and talking utter rubbish – each of us pretending it isn’t absolutely freezing. Everybody laughs at all my jokes, even the ones that aren’t funny. Alex laughs longest and loudest of everyone.
The hours crawl by and eventually we resort to the game you can only comfortably play with strangers – Truth or Dare. Various dull revelations are uncovered during the first couple of rounds: weirdest place you’ve had sex, weird celebrity crushes etc. One of the guys we have met, who is freezing his balls off in a kilt, asks Alex if he is gay. Alex says he is, and looks straight at me.
Something happens to me that I don’t quite understand. I want to back away from them all, to run. I’m not homophobic – or at least I don’t think I am – but I don’t want that question to come my way. I shuffle from foot to foot and feign blowing into my hands to keep them warm. They are not cold – my gloves are thicker than axminster. I feel nervous and excited. And yet I drip with dread.
The game continues. A dare. One of the girls, who has been feeling my backside on and off for about half an hour with absolutely zero response from me, dares the man in the kilt to kiss Alex for ten seconds. My stomach churns; I feel sick. Mr Kilt reluctantly accepts this challenge. We all watch and cheer.
I play along and exclaim “Urrrrgh” loudly as they kiss, noticing that Alex tries to slip the other guy his tongue. And just as he does, for the last second, he looks me right in the eye.
Then, it is my turn to be asked. I pick “truth” – I don’t want to be dared the same.
The other girl tries to focus on me and asks my question: “Do you fancy Alex?”
I try not to glare back. I think what my reaction should be. I pull what I think is my best puzzled grimace.
“Me? No, no.” I laugh nervously.
And then I look at Alex and pat his shoulder with a pathetic ‘matey’ stroke.
“Sorry, man. You’re just not my type. Wrong sex and all that.” I am basically chucking out a #NoHomo response.
Alex smiles back at me without even a hint of snide. “Haha, no problem!”
And then it is over. For the moment.
The game fizzles out once everybody else has snogged each other – it is fairly obvious the man in the kilt will be going home with almost every female within a 10-mile radius – and I drain my can of beer and excuse myself to go to the loo. I’m glad to be away from them, but I am not alone for long. I hear my name being called and turn to see Alex bounding up behind me.
“I need the loo too so thought I’d chum you along,” he says.
My stomach lurches and I start to feel light-headed. He chats to me as we queue for a portable loo but I feel awkward and can’t really process what he’s saying. Suddenly, he produces a cigarette for me and lights it. I look at him.
“I thought you didn’t have a light?” I ask.
He looks from my face to the lighter and back again. Busted.
“Ah,” he says. If his cheeks weren’t already rosy from the cold, he’d blush. “That was just a ruse.”
“Yeah, to get to talk to you.”
“What?” I ask. “One of the girls wanted to talk to me?”
“No,” says Alex patiently, gently. “I wanted to talk to you.”
“Oh, why?” I reply, not being deliberately stupid, I promise. I am 22, remember.
He takes a really long drag of his cigarette. “I thought you and your friend were together, a couple,” he chuckles. “I just wanted to check.”
“Because…” he begins, but then a loo becomes free in front of us and a man further back in the queue tells me to “get a fucking move on, pal”, so I leap into it and have a very shaky, anxious piss.
When I come back out, there’s no sign of Alex, so I assume he has gone back to the group. I then feel a hand on my shoulder. It’s him.
“I want to talk to you,” he says, gulping.
“You,” he says, his eyes desperately searching mine. “You’re… you’re gay, aren’t you? I mean–” he scratches his head. “I hope you are. Are you?”
I pull my mouth in tight and attempt to shrug. “No, I’m not.”
Alex leans in closer. “Are you sure?”
I look around to see if anybody from the group is near us. They’re miles away, but I have to make sure. I run my hands over my face and try to think.
Finally, I pull Alex away farther down the street.
“What are you doing?” he smiles drunkenly. I don’t reply. I don’t know what to say. We just keep moving.
We end up on a narrow, dark street, free of Hogmanay drunks. There is an even smaller close just off to the right, and we scoot down it. It is drizzling. There is just one streetlight, glowing bright orange but far from warming. There is a metal fire escape staircase. It’s almost like I know I will never forget this.
Alex clears his throat. “I want to kiss you. But I don’t want you to do anything you don’t want to do.”
My mind explodes over and over again. A supernova of confusion, curiosity and fear. I have been cautious all my life, risk-averse. Tonight, something feels different.
I put my hand round Alex’s waist and pull him to me. I feel the damp chill of the fire escape pressing into my back. I am surprised by the feel of his stubble and the forcefulness of his mouth. Somewhere, on another planet, a crowd starts to count backward from ten. Everything melts away.
When we break apart, it is 1998. And nothing will ever be the same again.
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This post has always been a popular one and – SPOILER ALERT – inspires a key scene in my new novel THE MAGNIFICENT SONS, which is out now, so if you liked this, you will/might LOVE the book.
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Main image: Photograph by Robbie Shade, from Flickr, under Creative Commons – cropped to fit template