Partygoers prowling the streets of Manchester's gay village that night, looking for some cheap amusement, might have found it in the snippet of by-play that took place in a dimly lit alley nearby. But the only audience available in those shadowy reaches was a scruffy urban cat, watching with curiosity and disdain as a tall, striking woman with a raven crop emerged in rather a hurry from around the corner, a petite, prettyish blonde following closely on her heels. After a few harried looks behind them, seemingly to check for pursuers, both sidled up to the main road to join the chattering flow of after-dark pedestrians.
"Wow...that's one way to get out of a party!" Hissed the smaller woman breathlessly, as they slowed to a more unobtrusive pace.
Her companion gave her a sheepish nod.
"I know. I hope you didn't mind leaving...but I hate it when Al and her friends start getting inebriated. It's never pretty. And once Kim left, I didn't really see any point in us staying."
"Well, I can understand that...but why the Bond-esque exit?"
Jake laughed easily, shifting her gaze over the top of Nia's head to settle on the steady stream of passers-by. "I didn't really want to deal with Al begging me to stay - this way, I'm pretty sure she was too far gone to notice us leave, and tomorrow I can tell her we were there 'till the end."
"You naughty boy. I admire your cunning, although I'll warn you that trying to deceive your friends might land you in hot water." Responded Nia, with a wink.
In fact, the blonde had been secretly relieved when Jake had grabbed her by the hand with the terse statement, "We're leaving." Although she was a little puzzled by the abruptness of the cut-and-run, she found it far preferable to the outcome she was fearing - that Jake would get into her stride, and become inclined to socialise. She'd been pleasantly impressed by Kim, finding her infinitely more sincere than others with her natural advantages, but had quickly decided that Al and her friends were...well, frankly...quite obnoxious. As the champagne - and cocaine - began to flow freely, the short spells of time she'd spent away from Jake had turned into a quest to find anyone who was capable of stringing two sensible words together.
Fighting through the crowds who were queuing to get in to one of Manchester's seedier queer nightspots, the pair stepped out to cross a road still teeming with traffic, although rush hour had long passed. As they did so, Nia found her hand being gently taken and wound around a strong, leather clad arm - a tender, protective gesture that she found as startling as it was charming.
"Thanks for coming with me." Said Jake softly, as they reached the other side.
"You're welcome." Replied the blonde. "Thanks for taking me."
"Did you enjoy yourself?"
Nia stifled a sigh. She'd been half-dreading this question.
"I had a great time." She said, mustering up a good deal more enthusiasm than she actually felt and hoping desperately that it was convincing, for it suddenly struck her that her new friend was looking surprisingly earnest.
Well...it's not a total lie. She thought.
I wanted to spend some time with her, and I did. To give her credit, she didn't leave my side all night. And despite her scandalous good looks, I enjoyed meeting Kim, too.
And I certainly didn't expect her to ask me to dance...let alone hold me so close in front of all those people. In fact, I was half anticipating she'd be dancing with other women all night, to make sure I knew my place in the pecking order. Women like her usually like you to be aware of the fact that they've bedded every girl in the room.
A frown graced the pale brow, as Nia brought to mind the partner who had played those vicious games to hurt her. And as the recollection eliminated her cosier sentiments, her thoughts of the woman who was walking the kerb, putting herself between Nia and the oncoming traffic, began to cool.
But if she's planning to take me to many of those gatherings, I can't see this little relationship lasting too long. Honestly - I'd rather spend the evening with those bloody gangsters than with the lot I was subjected to tonight.
Drink, drugs and superficial people...It's probably been the story of her life. Why would she give it up now?
Had she known that her character was being sketched so unceremoniously without any request for clarification or input from her, Jake would probably have clammed up tight without further ado. Judgement without discussion was particularly abhorrent to someone who tended to keep her more endearing qualities...or as she would call them, weaknesses...far too close to her chest.
As it was, in blissful ignorance of Nia's pronouncements on her ability to wean herself from a lifestyle of delinquency, she failed to prickle. Instead, she paused under a bright street lamp to give her date a grateful look.
"Listen, Nia...you're being very polite, but I know this probably wouldn't have been your evening of choice. I was glad you got a chance to say hi to Kim, but the rest of those guys are a waste of space on a good day, and plain embarrassing on nights like tonight."
Noticing that the blonde was looking at her a little strangely, she went on, "I just want to say thanks for being such a good sport. I won't ever put you through that again, if I can help it."
Still unaware that her statements were causing her small friend to shamefacedly revise a hasty verdict, she finished,
"And thanks for sticking up for me in the Ladies' room, too. You really didn't have to do that, you know."
At this, Nia's face assumed a look of quiet compassion that the self-sufficient butch would normally have found patronising in the extreme. But, bewildered, she instead found herself wrestling with a delicate warmth that began to spread in response to the empathy that seemed too frank to give offence.
"I know." Replied the blonde, giving Jake's arm an almost imperceptible, feather-light squeeze.
"And I probably shouldn't have gotten involved. But I couldn't just stand there while she abused you like that."
"She was pretty poisonous, I suppose. I've seen worse, though."
Jake attempted to shrug off the daintily offered affection and appear blasé about the episode. But her efforts did not entirely manage to mask the starved look that crept upon her shuttered features and spoke to Nia's heart...and her sense of apt and inappropriate moments...in a way that thousands of words could not.
The blonde's beautiful, candid green eyes glistened as she hesitated for a second or two...before making the effort to grin and crack one of the jokes that Jake was beginning to realise were as functional as they were amusing.
"To say the least! If you'd found a scorpion behind the cistern I dare say we'd have encountered less venom."
Laughter ensued to disperse the rising discomfort, causing more than one person to turn and stare at the two figures, day and night in harmonious disparity, as they covered the pavement with the same confident stride and remembered standing side by side to face this first minor battle.
Briefly separated from her date, Nia had decided to visit the bathroom...mainly to check whether or not the warm, smoky atmosphere was making her look as hot and sweaty as she felt. The WC's had obviously been furnished by the same hand as the bar's camp interior - with velvet-covered walls and a leopard-print chair strategically placed for the first in the queue.
Luckily, there was no queue in evidence - most of the punters being well-oiled by that point, enough to try their luck on the dancefloor - so Nia took a quick look in the mirror and prepared to head back out.
But she was pulled up short by a shrill, censorious voice.
"Excuse me, young man - I believe you'll find these facilities are for ladies."
Nia whirled around just in time to see Jake emerge from one of the cubicles, straight into the warpath of the middle-aged woman who'd been the only other occupant of the bathroom when she came in. Lost for words, the butch teetered at the door, and Nia was astonished to see that a person she'd assumed would be afraid of nothing was on the verge of diving down the toilet in a bid to escape.
Automatically, the blonde spoke up.
"Yes, it is the Ladies'. And I don't see any men in here - do you, Jake?"
At Nia's reference to the brunette, their antagonist shot several rapid glances from one woman to the other - but made no reply. Jake remained where she stood, stoically silent and obviously still shocked - but the slight lift of her powerful chin showed that her courage was fast returning, fortified by Nia's intervention.
"Perhaps you ought to look a little more closely before making judgements about whether a person belongs here or not." Suggested the blonde, gently but firmly, unaware of the amazement and increasing respect she was inspiring in her dark friend.
Their adversary said no more, but departed in a hurry, her high dudgeon resumed to hide her embarrassment - leaving Nia feeling relieved that the fight had been brief, but wondering whether she'd done the right thing.
Shit. Anyone can tell that she's terribly proud...she's probably furious that I stepped in.
I think you might have trodden on some toes here, Nia.
You're such an idiot.
But Jake, still quiet, had taken her hand and kissed it, astounding her with the small gallantry before leading the way back to the bar and fetching her a drink. The scene was not mentioned, but Nia was satisfied that her interference had been forgiven.
In fact, the blonde's impetuosity had for once been well placed. Caught out on her own, Jake probably wouldn't have even bothered to argue, knowing that it was more likely to lead to her own untimely eviction from the party, than to any intellectual victory. But Nia, with her appearance approximating that of a "normal" girl - and a nice, innocent one at that - was much more likely to be able to stage an effective face-off against the voices of intolerance and prejudice.
And the dark woman had been touched beyond words that Nia had used...even risked...this greater acceptability in her defence. She'd known women to be explicitly attracted to her masculinity before, and even some who were prepared to own it in public - but none who'd stuck their neck out to protect it, allying themselves with her regardless of the consequences. Even the strongest advocates had so far had proven to be fair-weather friends.
But it seemed that Nia was different - more loyal, or perhaps just gutsier than other women she'd come across. Her attraction to the butch seemed to spur her to action, rather than being a flattering but temporary fascination that would abate as soon as there was a sniff of danger or disapproval.
The episode put Jake in a good mood for the rest of the evening. It wasn't as though she'd been in mortal danger - but that wasn't the point. The support itself was wonderful - and extraordinary - and the feeling of being precious enough to warrant such a rescue was brand new to her experience.
However, while pacing Manchester's bustling streets Jake had been forgetting her gratitude, as the bright night-lights animated her humiliation at being so efficiently "looked after". Fragments of vanity also arose, arrogant but ignominious, to swell her bravado.
"I'm used to being thrown out of public loos, though." She said, rather brusquely. "Once an old woman even started beating me around the head and shoulders with her handbag, yelling for the police - it wasn't pretty."
But the combination of amusement and distress that crossed Nia's face at this comment made the butch feel cruel, and unable to stay miffed, she finished a little more gently.
"It didn't hurt, don't worry. The only thing that suffered was my pride. Thanks for sticking up for me, really. Nobody's ever done that before."
"It was nothing."
"No, it wasn't." Jake managed, in response to the blonde's uncharacteristic shrug.
"As you can probably tell, most people think I'm odd - you don't, and you were perfectly willing to say so and damn the consequences. That's pretty unusual." Said the butch, a little shyly.
And as they walked the rest of the way to the taxi rank, both mulling over the little exchange, Nia made up her mind that if this woman ever needed a champion, she was going to be it.
A pensive silence fell as the two women waited for a cab, sheltering from the rain in a litter-strewn recess just behind the main road. Millions of stars were pricking holes in the night sky, and both lost themselves in its vastness - and in their own thoughts.
Partly to lighten the mood, and partly to take her mind off the miasma of lager and vomit that permeated their surroundings, Nia cleared her throat and spoke.
"I've never been beaten with a handbag in a public toilet, but I've been thrown out of a gay bar, if it's any consolation to you." She said, trying to seem offhand.
"Why on earth...?" Her companion sounded suitably shocked.
"Because of the way I look."
Jake's eyebrows almost disappeared under her thick dark hair.
"Your appearance doesn't make you any friends in the straight world, but mine earns me a lot of distrust outside it." Nia explained. "Apparently I'm not a 'real' lesbian, in some peoples' eyes."
The butch continued to look puzzled, as Nia continued.
"Remember when you came out, Jake? When you had to pluck up your courage and defend your sexuality against people who found it shocking?"
The dark woman nodded.
"Well, I have to do that every single day." Nia finished, a little bitterly.
She forced a valiant grin, trying not to hold her breath as she waited for Jake's reaction.
If she pats me on the head, and smiles, and tells me she's sure people don't mean anything by it, I think I might cry.
Too many of the dykes Nia met refused to take her seriously. Some viewed her with patronising indulgence, convinced she was just "going through a phase", but charmed enough by her blonde hair and good nature to tolerate it. Others despised her femininity while it appealed to them, treating her as an insignificant or even reviled species, resentful of the power she wielded over their physical desires and unwilling to admit that someone like her could light the fire in their loins. Her resemblance to "normal" heterosexual womanhood was too threatening to their sense of self - it made them feel as though they were endorsing a world that they normally related to with mutual abhorrence. Most of the gay community walked by the frustrated blonde without a second glance, not realising she was family - and the other tiny percentage recognised but refused to acknowledge her presence. Yet in the straight world the attractive, personable woman found it easy to make friends - which had the effect of making her feel as though she was telling a lie she could not control.
The femme and the butch shifted their gazes from the heavens to their feet, Jake for the first and Nia for the umpteenth time contemplating and despairing of the small-mindedness that often pervades communities who themselves ask for acceptance, the exclusion that accompanies definition, and the denunciations that are necessary to facilitate solidarity.
"Not a "real" lesbian..." Jake thoughtfully repeated.
"Yep. That's what people tell me."
Sapphire eyes flashed.
"Shower of idiots." Muttered the butch, under her breath. But Nia heard, and laughed in delight at her companion's righteous anger on her behalf.
Encouraged, she continued.
"It drives me mad. Don't get me wrong - I understand that every community has a 'dress code'. Otherwise, how would we recognise each other?"
"Yes, you've got a point there." Agreed the dark woman, thinking about just how blatantly her own attire tended to announce her sexual preferences. Nobody confronted with the black-cropped, leather-clad figure could think her anything other than a lesbian...a dyke...or if they were clued up, a butch. The presentation came naturally to her - but she realised now that the totality of her appearance made a carefully constructed statement, none the less. A proclamation that she was proud to make - but one she had hitherto been barely conscious of making.
"And I realise that the majority of lesbians are more comfortable presenting themselves as butch or androgynous than being overtly feminine."
Nia went on, unconscious of the effect she was having on the butch's perceptions. Jake usually took little notice of the reactions provoked by her presence on the street, knowing that they were generally extreme, and negative, more often than not. The blonde's quiet analysis caused the other woman to examine her own exterior for the first time, and prompted her to consider how others might construe it, and identify her as either friend or foe.
The bar manager chuckled and shivered at the same time.
"Hell, I can even understand it - I have reservations myself about an image that's normally associated with trying to catch a man. But this is the way I am - the way I'm supposed to look. I've tried to do the butch thing, and I can't pull it off."
"I can imagine!" Came the laughing reply. "I can't see you looking at home in steel-toed boots and leather."
The blonde giggled again.
"I look pretty funny. And although wearing all that stuff felt like a banner for my sexuality, it didn't say anything about the person I am. It was a shocking lie - at least the untruths I tell with my appearance now are based on other people's interpretation of it."
Jake nodded in agreement, at the same time noticing that the blonde was pulling her coat tighter to ward off the pervading cold. Without a word, she removed her own leather jacket and slung it around Nia's shoulders. The bar manager opened her mouth to protest - but clearly thought better of it, contenting herself with a grateful look that, for the butch, would have made a far bigger sacrifice worthwhile.
"You're welcome." The dark woman replied, and as she continued with her tirade, Nia could have sworn the butch was blushing.
"You know, I don't want to have to change my appearance so I can belong, but most people run scared when someone's identity doesn't conform to what they define as the norm, without bothering to check whether they're reading it right. I've been denied entry to more gay bars than I can count - when a few simple questions would have made it obvious that I had a perfect right to be there. And that quickness to judge comes from prejudice, pure and simple."
"It's not always as simple as that, though."
Nia's incipient diatribe was pulled up short by this unexpected dissent. Taken aback, she blinked a couple of times, inviting the brunette to explain.
"I sometimes make those snap judgements myself, Nia." Jake owned. "It's almost like a mental shortcut - we read people by the visual markers they put out, and sometimes those symbols can be misleading. But we all do it."
Blue eyes met green, and a spark of challenge passed between them.
If there was one thing Nia hated, it was losing an argument. She'd been known to take her views to ridiculous lengths, tying herself up in knots and outrageous statements because of her reluctance to back down - winding up with egg on her face, more often than not. And it looked as though this was going to be another one of those occasions, but for the genuine interest and respect she saw reflected in the face of her new friend - which made her pause for a moment, seeing the conversation, rather than the competition, with a gracious smile and a soft indrawn breath.
"Yes, you're right."
She smiled more widely, inspiring an answering grin from her new friend as the friction began to clear.
"When we name ourselves, we also name everyone else. We work out what we're not as well as what we are. And for most queers, I fall outside the boundary. Hell, I probably even demarcate it. You're absolutely right, Jake."
She repeated, with a sigh.
"That's no excuse for the way I'm treated, though." She finished, quietly.
"No, it's not."
The conversation had become pretty serious, both realised, as they consciously tried to relax their postures. But the femme and butch were also tempted to rejoice in this connection on a deeper level than chitchat and small-talk, even though they knew that self-protection demanded they slow the pace. Nia especially, was revelling in the discovery that her date so obviously knew how to listen. The small blonde often had conversations that wound up with the other participant pushing their 'transmit' button, reciprocity forgotten - which was highly irritating, even though she knew that her willingness to ask questions and her talent for empathising with the answers made it inevitable. More than one budding relationship had suffered an untimely death, as the bar manager ceased to feel able to speak for - or about - herself. But Jake appeared to be able to resist the temptation to take advantage of the blonde's generous conversational habits and talk her ear off, a skill that Nia knew was as uncommon as it was enchanting.
"So what exactly is the problem with the way you look?" Asked the brunette, lightly. "You look pretty good to me."
Nia secretly thrilled at the comment as she carefully replied, "I suppose it's the confusion between gender and sexuality that people can't deal with - they think that femmes are less gay than other lesbians, because their appearance doesn't fit."
"So other lesbians don't trust you because they think you have a choice about your sexuality?"
"Yes. A biologically determined sexual preference has to go hand in hand with gender dysphoria, in some people's minds."
"And why does that matter?"
"Well...I think there's a belief that when the going gets tough, someone who looks like me is going to take the easier road and go back to being with men."
"Because I can."
Jake didn't have a reply to that. Shaking her dark head, she could only slide an arm around Nia's shoulders.
"You know what I think?"
"Go on." Whispered Nia, resisting the urge to bury her face in the folds of Jake's shirt and relax against the sturdy chest.
"I think it's terribly sad, that as a culture, we don't love ourselves enough to love each other."
Well, I really hope you don't include yourself in that judgement...thought Nia, as their cab drew up.
The sub-woofer was booming in the boot of the taxi as it pulled up and the driver wound down the window.
"Aiiiie." Grunted the cabbie, by way of a greeting.
The women grinned at each other. Manchester's cab drivers were notorious for having interests that extended beyond the boundaries of their routes - and the law. The ear-shattering music that normally accompanied any journey was a critical component of the lifestyle and an aural pennant for the image.
"Yeh?" The driver asked Jake, obviously pegging her as the decision-maker of the couple.
The butch turned to her date, eyebrows raised in question.
"Do you want to try Vanilla?" Suggested the blonde.
Jake's lips quivered in amusement at the comment. Well, that'll be a new experience.
"May as well." She managed to reply nonchalantly. "Vanilla, please." She added to the driver.
"Safe." Came a gruff mumble, as the door-locks were released.
As Nia seated herself in the back and watched Jake shut the door behind her, she inwardly debated whether to continue the conversation on the serious turn it had taken. Deciding against it, she had her next comment all rehearsed and ready by the time Jake was seated and belted up next to her.
"I'm glad to be rescued from the karaoke, at any rate. When Al tried her hand at Mustang Sally I thought my eardrums were going to burst."
"Yeah." admitted the butch, with a shrug.
"That kind of thing is like torture for me. I just don't have the urge to expose myself like that, or watch other people do it, you know? Especially Al and her crowd...they're all frustrated divas minus the voices."
Nia snorted in reply, and after a whispered confab with the clipboarded Rasta outside the office of the taxi company, the driver shoved the vehicle into first gear, and rather jerkily, they were off. Hardstep blared from all four windows, which were open wide, despite the bitter cold. Jake tried and failed to shut the one nearest the blonde, shrugging with resignation and a little amusement when she found that the switch had been disconnected.
"I mean", the brunette continued the conversation, to take her mind off the freezing wind and thumping tunes.
"If it's rehearsed, then I love watching a performance. I might even take part. But these impromptu affairs attract the wrong crowd, especially when the show's mixed with alcohol and charlie. If it hadn't been Al's birthday today, I would have stayed well away."
The femme nodded her agreement while vainly trying to stop her teeth from chattering. Noticing her date's discomfiture, Jake started to ponder the risk of unclipping the seatbelts and putting her arms about the blonde to keep her warm. But before she could manage it Nia spoke again, in a tone mingling mirth and ill-concealed disapproval,
"Well, the birthday girl certainly seemed to be enjoying herself. Does she always "hold court" like that?"
"She does." Assented the dark woman, raising her voice slightly in competition with the breakbeats and rising bass.
"All that effort must be tiring, though. Doesn't she ever feel the pressure of being the centre of attention all the time?" Asked Nia, amazed.
"Wow. She must really care what people think of her."
Jake sighed a little, shifting lower in the back seat in an attempt to accommodate her long legs, which felt as though they were wrapped around her shoulders. But the exercise only caused her to get one foot jammed underneath the seat in front. Tutting under her breath, she violently tried to extricate herself.
"Al lives in a small world, Nia. Her social group is really tight - and she works with most of them too. She isn't interested in what's going on in the world or even what's going on with anyone else, unless she can gossip about it." The butch shook her head. "So as a result, little things..."
"Such as who's attracted to her, or her status within her own sphere..."
"...exactly! ...Become inordinately important. Anyone can convince themselves they're the centre of attention, if they need the attention enough."
"That's SO sad."
Groaned the bar manager, while reaching over with nimble fingers to gently disengage Jake's right trouser leg from the back of the passenger seat. Foot freed, the butch sat back with a more comfortable expression.
"It is. And deep down, Al's a decent person with a good heart - she just lets it get taken up with trivial crap. Emotions even exist inside her somewhere - but they'll probably die eventually, from lack of exposure."
"Sounds like she's got her priorities all wrong." Said the blonde.
"She has. And it's a real shame...she comes across as being a bit of a plonker, but there's more to her than the ego on legs she seems to be."
"Well, there's more to everyone than meets the eye." Nia offered.
"Yes, there is."
There was a short lull in the conversation at this, as both women stared out of their respective windows, contemplating the familiar maxim and wondering just how much it rang true in their present circumstance.
After a moment, the butch spoke again. "Al's ego was certainly in evidence tonight!" She said, with a wicked grin.
"Well, it did remind me of a tacky variety show. Talk about loving the stage." The blonde responded, amiably.
"I was actually talking about her cracking on to you while I was talking to Kim." Returned the dark woman. "But you're right - they do make a brouhaha about these things. They're like the kids from Fame at the best of times - they're even worse on special occasions."
"Aren't they all in the media, though?" Nia enquired, trying to detract her companion's attention from her blush. "If that's the case, their exhibitionism isn't that surprising."
Jake gave vent to a hearty guffaw.
"You don't miss a thing, do you?" She laughed. "They're entertainment journalists, most of them. So I guess they're used to performing to strangers. It's too bad that most of them are less entertaining than a bunch of performing seals." She finished, with a wink.
"I take it you don't, then." Murmured Nia, half to herself. "Perform to strangers, I mean."
Catching the faint whisper, the butch shook her head emphatically.
A short silence fell as the cab rounded a corner beside Manchester's Palace Theatre. The hush was relaxed after a dialogue that had been more intimate than previous exchanges, and both women stared at the posters for the interminable - and abominable - seasonal pantomime. And when they turned into the small back street leading to the bar that was their next stop, Nia was shocked to find that her cold little hand had neatly been taken possession of, and was being warmed inside Jake's large one.
"What does Kim do for a living?" She asked, carefully, to hide her surprise.
"Kim works in fashion. She used to be a model..."
"...but she got a little bit tired of just being a clothes-horse. She wanted to use her brain - she's a bright girl, and she was tired of people assuming that she was thick because she was beautiful."
"That must've been pretty annoying." Said the Bar Manager, thoughtfully.
"Yeah. But at least she wasn't the butt of any blonde jokes...hey!" The dark woman laughed as Nia cuffed her on the shoulder.
"Only joking. Anyone can see you've got a brain in your head - It's obvious from the moment you open your mouth. Kim's not quite as intelligent as you - but she's definitely quick."
A small part of Nia was still walking on air after their talk at Al's party, during which they'd discussed Jake's beautiful friend and she'd made the incredulous discovery that in the butch's eyes, she was more attractive. The blonde had been gratified beyond measure to find that her new friend was a person who could use her imagination to define this phenomenon rather than feebly following the catwalk parades and absorbing the images in glossy magazines. But at this second comment, her face glowed even more brightly. The Bar Manager enjoyed receiving compliments as much as any other young girl - but she had sense enough to realise that those attached to her appearance, while the most pleasant, were the least durable of any. She knew only too well that physical beauty was a temporary phenomenon, and that the sort that was not strictly in the eye of the beholder said as little about the intrinsic value of its possessor as the colour of their shoes. Jake's obvious respect for her intellect, she knew, would serve both of them well if the relationship were to progress.
But while appreciating the butch's stark honesty, the blonde also found herself wondering if it could be tempered by tact and sensitivity when the statements were not so flattering. Nia was a kind sort, who would rather say nothing at all if she could muster no positive comment, and she expected the same courtesy from all her close associates - unless criticism was absolutely necessary, in which case she tried to accept it with grace. Being the target of more than one judiciously truthful acquaintance had made her suspicious of those who were habitually negative about others' traits and abilities, no matter how helpfully the comments were meant. Brutal honesty was not a good quality, in her opinion - since, contrary to the protestations of those who bandied it about, it was not normally without motive. She doubted whether someone who could so easily compare their best friend in an unfavourable light with a new acquaintance could be relied upon to show any discretion when it came to pronouncements on anyone else.
"Thanks", she replied, a little absently.
"Anyway, so now Kim is a dresser to the stars. That's how she met Al - she was wardrobe-mistress for the presenter of an entertainment show that Al was working on."
"That must be an interesting job! She's obviously suited to it, too, judging from her exquisite taste."
"She is indeed. Here's Vanilla, Nia."
As the taxi pulled up outside the small lesbian bar that was their next port of call, Nia could see that it was already heaving. In fact, patrons were beginning to spill out on to the streetside patio, despite the biting cold. While she alighted on the pavement a reckless combination of the gin and tonics she'd consumed and the butch's own intriguing, intoxicating personality made her feel bold, killing her earlier resolution to play hard to get.
"It looks pretty busy in there. Do you want to come back to my apartment instead? I don't have any beer, but I have a good bottle of red wine that's waiting to be opened."
Having paid the driver, the butch didn't hesitate.
"Great. It's not too far to walk from here."
The speakers blared, as the cab sped shakily away.
Nia took Jake's hand again as she led the way to her small flat, winding through the backstreets with the silent step of a wood-nymph and the sure sense of direction that only belongs to those who enjoy the intimacy of a city-dweller's blueprint. The butch followed as best she could, taking in nothing but the blonde's easy, graceful gait as she turned left, then right, then left again with alarming rapidity.
Passing a small row of newsagents and cafes, shutters closed against the night's embrace, the pair came across a tramp wrapped in a sparse, moth-eaten blanket - just one of Manchester's abundant community of homeless. The melancholic sight of the man slumped over in a doorway, either inebriated or asleep, should have been no less affecting because it was so commonplace in the grey, gloomy atmosphere of the city. But absorbed in one another, their burgeoning understanding and the promise of Nia's warm, waiting apartment, the women might have marched straight past had he not roused himself.
"Spare a little change, gels?"
Releasing Jake's hand, Nia immediately began to fish in her purse. Unlike most of Manchester's citizens, the Bar Manager had not experienced a hardening of her attitudes as her residence lengthened in the North's haven for the dispossessed. She'd long ago ceased to care what family and friends said about charity money being good for nothing but funding the drug habits that had probably got these people in trouble in the first place. And her conviction that everybody deserved the benefit of the doubt had grown in response to the hard-hitting lessons that city life dealt her. Streetwise she certainly was not - but she knew a great deal more about the struggle for survival than would ever be revealed by her innocent green eyes. And if she could do her bit to ease some of the shocking social discrepancies that paraded before her and made her wonder just how the powerful nations managed to proclaim themselves "civilised" in front of all and sundry, then so much the better.
She wondered whether Jake would think she was impossibly idealistic and susceptible, as other friends and lovers, who lacked her social conscience and hopeful spirit, had done in the past. Sticking out her small chin as far as she could, she regarded her date with a little enmity, determined to start off on the right foot this time and defend her action if necessary. But the proposed barricade was pulled up short by signs of recognition in the dark woman's eyes.
"How are you, Pete?" Jake asked, her apprehension partly due to Nia's quickly masked, incredulous stare.
The man's eyes, heavily bagged and just discernible beneath a thick woolly hat, began to gain some lustre and spread a gentle brightness across the unhealthy, dirty grey of his skin.
"Alright, chief. Wikkid, wikkid..." He replied in a gravelly voice, pausing for a racking cough that made his whole body shake. "Can't complain."
"Sick teh death of t'ut cold." He coughed and spluttered again, so violently that Nia started back a step, for fear that he would knock himself unconscious.
Since her earliest years, the Bar Manager had always laboured under a strong impulse to heal, to improve the lot of her fellow man. It was what had drawn her to academic politics in the first place - the belief that perhaps the world could be changed, if only the people in power cared enough to do it. This initial optimism had rapidly been squashed by to the carnival of bigots that staffed most public arenas, but her altruistic instincts were still alive and kicking - and needed no more summons to awaken them than the spectacle of this cold, hungry chap. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she blinked them angrily away, determined not to lose her self-control as she removed the Burberry scarf from around her neck and wrapped it about his, saying compassionately,
"This might keep some of the cold out."
Although ailing and exhausted, the man's manners were obviously still intact, as he struggled with his thanks while regarding the blonde with gratitude and disbelief.
"Very kind. Very kind." He repeated, half to himself, overwhelmed and clearly bewildered.
"Much appreciated. Much appreciated. Most people don't notice old Pete no more...he don't matter to them"
His own eyes began to fill now, as he turned the ends of the scarf over a few times between knarled fingers, stroking them as if to make a closer acquaintance with the garment, lest Nia ask for it back.
"Well, I thought it was a bit unfair, since I'm wearing two coats, for me not to share my warmth."
The femme quipped, her diplomatic instincts deployed just in time to save the tramp's self-respect from the imminent and potentially embarrassing breakdown.
"And yeh did share it. Very, very warm." He repeated, a little more steadily, smiling now into the sympathetic face so near his own.
"That's a precious little friend." His next comment was addressed to Jake, who had been silent throughout the brief exchange. "Look after 'er."
"I'll try my best to keep her safe." The dark woman spoke softly, almost as if loath to break a spell. "I promise."
And again Jake's down-and-out acquaintance was ignored, as two pairs of eyes met, green melting into blue, and the wall between them began to develop another infinitesimal crack.
Eventually the butch began the conversation again, with a whisper that sounded as choked as Nia was feeling.
"Have you eaten today, Pete?"
Still staring at the Bar Manager's scarf, the man did not look up. But a tiny furrow appeared between his eyebrows as he shook his head slightly in dissent.
"I'll buy you dinner." Jake put her hand across Nia's shoulders, an intimate gesture that was noted by the blonde and the vagrant alike.
"Do you want to come with me?"
Reluctant as she was to be parted from her escort at this point, Nia's empathy was beginning to kick in.
"Thanks, but I think I'll stay put." She said.
As Jake crossed the busy road, covering the distance with a few lopes of her long, leather-clad legs, Pete turned to the blonde, who was regarding him with renewed shyness. Nia wasn't regretting her resolution to stay and keep the beggar company - but deprived of the relative security of her dark friend, she was wondering how on earth she was going to get him to talk. Luckily, Pete did not feel quite so intimidated.
"What do yeh do, dear?" He asked.
"I manage a bar in town...Fire and Ice." Nia replied.
She wondered if she'd said the wrong thing, as the expression on Pete's face underwent a transition from genuine interest to absolute shock. Struck dumb, she waited for a moment while he regained his composure, and leaned forward again to catch his next question.
"Oxford Road...red doors?" He stammered.
Clueless as to where these enquiries were headed, Nia decided it was best to answer them as briefly as possible and then attempt to change the subject, as Jake's friend was obviously disturbed by something. She idly wondered whether he knew the place - perhaps he'd been a regular customer before he started living on the streets, perhaps when the previous manager had been in charge.
Looking as though he'd seen a ghost, Pete expelled a heavy sigh, but seemed to have lost the desire to delve. Instead, he pulled a cigarette out of his pocket, and Nia flinched as he lit it and the end began to crackle.
"Well...tell Jake to look out. Runnin' them places can be a dangerous business." He whispered.
He patted Nia's hand, slurring slightly as his pupils started to dilate.
"I ran one, y'know...'fore I got in a mess."
Nia felt a chill go down her spine at Pete's words. She wondered whether his establishment had gone bankrupt and left him destitute. She was also starting to doubt whether she was doing him a favour by trying to engage him in conversation, after all.
Perhaps I should have gone to the take-away with Jake. What am I going to say now?
But luckily for her, the misgivings were dissipated before they began to take hold by the reappearance of the dark woman, with hands full of paper bags and a broad, cheerful smile on her face. Nia heaved an inward sigh of relief while the butch spoke to her friend.
"It's pancakes tonight, Pete - from the Dutch Pancake House."
Although the blonde was glad that the bad memories she'd awakened for him had clearly been forgotten, the man was now quite out of it, and he slid down even further against the shop door as he reached for the bundle Jake held out to him.
The dark butch turned to the blonde with a wry smile.
"I like to vary his menu, so he doesn't get bored. And a diet of hamburgers and those horrible thin chips is no good for anyone."
Pete was already busy eating, and seemed quite unaware of their presence as he devoured his pancakes with the frantic hunger that is only known by those who have known starvation. Nia shied away mechanically much as an intruder would, wishing to preserve the tramp's dignity - and half turned her back as the butch stepped forward.
"Got this for you, too." She muttered.
Crouching down, Jake slipped into Pete's pocket a small piece of card that Nia recognised as being a weekly pass for Manchester's buses. Although a pretty overpriced invention, most commuters used these to get around the city, as they were valid on any service, at any time.
"Come on, Nia, let's get you home." The brunette said, taking Nia's hand. "Pete, take care of yourself."
Although still engrossed in his food, Jake's vagrant friend looked up to wave at the two women as they walked away.
As soon as they were out of earshot behind a nearby skip, Nia asked the question that was burning on her lips.
"Not that it wasn't a sweet gesture, but why did you give Pete a bus pass? He didn't really look as though he was planning to take a trip anywhere."
Jake answered her a little shortly. "He likes to ride the buses in the winter. They're warmer than the streets."
Nia could have kicked herself for her own stupidity.
Of course he does. Of course they are. What a question.
"Oh." She said.
"I book him into a hostel for a night or two every couple of weeks, as well. He gets some decent sleep, and gets cleaned up. That way, people don't complain about him using the bus service. And the bus rides break up the day a bit, too. He gets bored, and that's when he starts looking for smack."
"That's a good scheme."
Was the only reply Nia could come up with, as she regarded her companion with renewed respect. Almost immediately upon meeting the dark woman she'd had the feeling that Jake didn't expose the tender side of her character too often, and resolving to make the most of this disclosure, she motioned with her eyebrows for the butch to carry on.
"I bought him a train ticket to Penzance once. He was so chuffed - he just went down the line and came straight back, but I think it was one of the cosiest days he's ever had."
"And how did he end up on the streets?" Asked Nia, a little fearfully.
"He got involved with the gangs." Was the grim answer.
"They turned him into a junkie, made him completely dependent on them for his supplies, and used him like a puppet."
Shit. Apart from the drugs, that sounds awfully familiar. No wonder he was concerned when I said I managed a bar. He must think I'm in danger. What a sweet guy.
I dread to think of the gangsters that must have terrorised his bar. I don't think even Matt and his cronies would stoop that low, to get someone hooked on drugs so they could control them.
"And how do you know him?" She asked her companion.
"He's an old friend." Replied the dark woman.
She was smiling, but her inflexible tone of voice definitely told the femme that the conversation was over. Nia wasn't satisfied with the answer by a long stretch, but knew better than to push. And in accordance with her earlier resolution to let no unfounded suspicions spoil their first evening together, she decided to leave the next question unasked.
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