I looked out of a dirty hostel window onto the river Clyde, glinting beneath the city lights. The traffic hummed steadily as it passed over a stone bridge, out of place next to the grey and red metal monstrosity leading into Central Station. A couple walked hand-in-hand by the riverside and shared a kiss beneath a lamp. Glasgow was romantic at night. At least it could be. The last time I kissed a man by the river, we were interrupted by a junkie asking for a fag.
My eyes drifted to another couple walking along the pavement. She was stuffing a pillow up her jacket, and he was walking behind her pushing a wheelchair with a cardboard sign and duvet in the seat.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I said.
“What is it?” Ethan said, turning his head away from the square television in the corner of the room. “Is someone being sick outside?”
I turned around, walked over to the iron bed, and climbed inside. My friend Abbie had insisted on taking me out on the first Saturday night I’d had off in years. I’d caught sight of Ethan a few times before we bumped into each other at the bar. He told me he’d been dragged along by an enthusiastic friend too.
Ethan had olive skin and jet black hair. He was well dressed, had just the right amount of stubble, and a perfectly symmetrical face. He also had a tattoo of Aladdin Sane on his lower arm and a silver nose ring. Thankfully, his hair wasn’t long or greasy, and he hadn’t been wearing an Iron Maiden t-shirt or head-butting strangers in a mosh pit. If I’m honest, he was out of my league.
“It’s this couple. I’ve seen them before,” I said, putting half of the thin duvet over me as I tried to find a comfortable position in the rock-hard bed. “She pretends to be pregnant and disabled, and he sits beside her with a sign asking for money. I almost fell for it too. She’s outside stuffing a pillow up her jacket.”
“Only in Glasgow,” Ethan said, looking at a framed picture of the Duke of Wellington statue with a cone on its head and sniggering.
I laughed. “I saw two pregnant women begging one day, and they were obviously genuine, but people won’t help because of the scammers.”
“That’s true,” Ethan said, putting his arm around me and pulling me closer to him, “but it doesn’t matter if it’s only spare change.”
looked around the room we’d payed a grand total of £22 for. There were no
curtains on the window, the walls were painted a sickly shade of hospital green,
and instead of a carpet there was cheap blue plastic flooring. There were also
a few questionable looking stains on the bedsheets that I assumed accounted for
the funny smell. Worst of all, there were no towels or toilet roll in the
I hadn’t been inside the Cathouse since I was seventeen. The smoky, too-loud rock club had seemingly played the same songs on a loop since then. The walls, seats and tables were black. The only place that wasn’t were the bathrooms which were papered with pages from old comic books. The same puggy machines from when I’d last visited were littered around the upstairs and downstairs dance floors. The only difference was that there wasn’t a Rollover hot dog machine on the first floor.
The Voodoo Unders had been the coolest thing in the world to me at the time. I’d thought I was rebellious as I danced around wearing a Lou Reed t-shirt and a tartan mini-skirt with my bright red Ziggy Stardust hair and electric blue eyeshadow. As far as I was concerned, I was going to become a great artist. I exuded confidence that I lost the moment I was rejected from Glasgow School of Art.
Shortly after Ethan and I met at the bar, we began to dance. He had rhythm, and I laughed as he ran his hands over his crotch, lip-synching to the music. I had no idea what I was doing and must have looked ridiculous as I made up dance moves on the spot that resembled an emulation of the robot.
“Are you a student?” he asked, smiling.
“Yeah, I’m training to be a nurse,” I replied.
“Cool,” he said. “I’m studying illustration at the art school.”
I forced a smile, trying not to think about the paintings gathering dust under my bed—the portfolio that hadn’t been good enough.
We made small talk for a while (and I resisted the urge to tell Ethan that I used to be an artist) before he coyly asked, “Can I have a kiss?”
“Yeah,” I giggled leaning in.
Afterwards I told him that if we ended up staying together for the night, it was going to be a one-time thing. He said he didn’t mind, that he was happy someone as “beautiful” as me was willing to spend time with him. I found that hard to believe, but after a few vodka and Red Bulls went along with it.
As Ethan and I danced, I noticed posters on the walls. They advertised after parties to rock concerts and club nights such as “Netflix and Chill” (I have no idea how that worked, but it did involve free popcorn) and “Pokemon vs Superheroes & Villians” (I was glad we hadn’t accidentally turned up to that one).
I didn’t look like I belonged in the Cathouse. Abbie’s arms were covered in floral tattoos, and she was wearing a Placebo t-shirt. Ethan was wearing a purple shirt and waistcoat, and his friend Jay was wearing a red shirt and a long black leather jacket. At first, I felt like an idiot in my blue playsuit. I soon realised it didn’t matter. Everyone was welcome, even if they weren’t as flamboyant as the regulars.
When Abbie realised that Ethan and I were getting along well, she decided to hang out with a few of her other friends (she spent every Saturday in the Cathouse so she knew a lot of people) and let us “bond”. She knew I hadn’t been laid in months. Ethan’s friend Jay was a regular too, and we were soon left alone.
One of the regulars Abbie had told me about was Ladybug Guy. He can be seen most nights in the Cathouse wearing a red corset and ladybug print tutu. I’d have usually admired someone as confident as him from afar, but I was feeling confident myself after Ethan kissed me, so I made a point of befriending him when Ethan went to the bar to get us another drink.
“I’m Ana,” I said, dancing over to him.
“Ladybug,” he replied, taking my hand and twirling me around.
“What pronouns do you prefer?”
“I don’t mind male pronouns for now,” he said and then added, “Most people just think I like to dress as a woman for fun.”
“It was obvious,” I said, smiling.
He gave me a hug, and we stopped dancing to chat beside the dance floor.
“The doctor said he’s going to get me on hormones soon.”
“That’s great news!”
“Have you thought of a name for after your transition?”
“Not yet, but it won’t be Ladybug.”
“I love your outfit,” I said, pointing at his red and black ensemble.
“It’s from Ann Summers.”
I smiled. For the first time in a long time, I liked who I was. I thought of my seventeen-year-old self who’d visited Ann Summers to buy a studded cat collar and lead. I never got the chance to wear it to the Voodoo Unders after my Mum found it in my underwear drawer and binned it. Ethan laughed when he saw Ladybug Guy and I talking on his return from the bar. The fact that Ladybug Guy has never been beaten up puts to shame Glasgow’s rough reputation.
“Do you want to come outside for a smoke?” Ethan asked, taking my hand.
I looked at Ladybug Guy and he winked.
“Sure,” I said.
Ethan led me out into the smoking area on the first floor. The cold air was refreshing compared to the sticky air inside the Cathouse. I didn’t smoke, but the night was already unusual, so I accepted one of Ethan’s cigarettes. I looked up at the spiked metal fence enclosing the smoking area as I took a draw. The nicotine buzz made me jolt. Ethan ran the back of his hand down my shivering arm and my eyes returned to him.
“I’d love to take you on a date,” he said, looking deep into my eyes. “I know you said this is a one-time thing, but yeah.”
“I don’t know you,” I said, trying not to cough. “Maybe.”
“That’s the point of a date. Can I at least have your number?”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling.
I doubted he’d text me once he was sober, but when he handed me his phone, I typed my number into it. He took my hand when we went back inside.
“I’m going to convince you to see me again,” he said.
I kissed him. “We’ll see.”
It was a funny coincidence that Ethan was studying illustration. I used to be a painter, but stopped when I was rejected from GSA, and spent three years telling myself that I’d take it up again, but never did. When I looked in the bathroom mirror and saw my make-up free face and brown hair, I missed my bright red Ziggy Stardust hair and electric blue eye shadow. I looked too plain now. Too ordinary.
Ethan’s attention had returned to the television. His expression was blank. We’d sobered up a few hours ago, and he was watching the news. It was some story about the refugee crisis. David Cameron was being interviewed.
“Everything that can be done will be done to ensure that our borders are secure, and that British holiday makers are able to go on their holidays,” he said.
“Is building fences enough?” the journalist asked. “These people have crossed deserts and seas to get here, to get to Britain. Do you sympathise with them?”
“Well what I have to say is that we have to keep our borders secure.”
I hated Cameron. Before he’d been re-elected, I’d taken it upon myself to bet £5 that he’d become Prime Minister again. I wanted a consolidation prize for having to live under Tory rule for another five years. The £30 I ended up winning eased the blow of having to work on a zero-hours contract whilst I trained as a nurse.
“I don’t understand why people are risking their lives to get into the UK when it’s not exactly the land of milk and honey,” I said, as I continued to shift around in the bed. I couldn’t find a comfortable position.
Ethan didn’t reply at first. “It is to them,” he said, before sitting up in the bed. “I understand.”
“How could you?” I replied, narrowing my eyes.
“You don’t want my life story.”
I was curious and sat up in the bed too. “I want to know.”
“Ana,” he said, “you don’t. It’s not exactly a happy story.”
I paused. “I have a few of those too.”
“Yeah. How about you tell me yours, and then I’ll tell you mine?”
“Okay,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I’ve been in that position before, but my recollection of how, y’know, everything happened isn’t clear at all,” he said, rubbing his head. “All I really know are things my family have told me.”
My eyes widened. “What?”
“I was born in Bosnia. There was a civil war there in the early ‘90s.”
“Oh,” I said, vaguely remembering a geography teacher telling my class that Yugoslavia was no longer a place. “It must have been horrible.”
“Yeah, it was bad, but I understand how it’s easy to detach yourself emotionally from the people you see on TV because it’s not you, you’re not really feeling it,” he said, pointing at the television.
I nodded. I understood more than Ethan knew. Not because I’d experienced anything like it myself, but because during my three years as a carer, I’d worked in a nursing home and saw a lot of things I wish I hadn’t seen.
One morning at the handover, I was told that Walter, a man I liked, had tried to hang himself with a belt that night. I usually went into his bedroom so that I could take his arm to help him into the dining room for breakfast. I did my best to pretend that I didn’t know what had happened. He smiled when I said “Good Morning” and pulled up his sleeve to reveal a faded blue-green tattoo.
“I got this from the Germans during the war,” he said, pointing with a wrinkled and bruised finger. “I don’t think I’ve shown you it before.”
“Oh wow,” I said, looking closely at numbers which had merged into a blob of ink over time. “That must have hurt.”
Walter hadn’t replied.
Ethan was deep in thought. “Go on,” I said. “I’m listening.”
“My earliest memories are like very faint images,” he said. “Small things. Like my first present was a box of toy cars. They were covered in a cheap PVC mould. I was really excited and thrilled about them.”
“Funny how it’s the small things people remember,” I said, thinking of how clearly I could remember what I looked like at the Voodoo Unders.
I moved closer to Ethan, took one of his hands in mine, and rested my head on his shoulder. His body was the most comfortable thing in the room. I continued to compare his story to Walter’s in my mind. Almost as soon as Walter had shown me his tattoo, I was distracted by Archie.
“Where aboots is this ship stoapin’ the day, hen?” he said, sitting at a table eating grapefruit from a silver bowl.
“Have a good breakfast, Walter,” I said and then turned to Archie, “We’re making port in Rome this afternoon.”
I became good at lying when I was a carer. Everyone remembered small things. I did too. Archie had the most prominent green and blue veins on his hands I’d ever seen. His son had told me he’d always wanted to go on a cruise, but had never got the chance to. Who was I to tell him he was wrong?
Ethan waved his other hand in front of my face.
“Sorry,” I said, lifting my head from his shoulder.
“Do you not want to hear my story?”
“I do,” I said, kissing his cheek and squeezing his hand. “It’s just, well, I got all of my sad stories from the same place. I used to work in a nursing home, until last week actually, and I was just thinking that people tend to remember small details about their lives rather than bigger events. Like you and your toy cars.”
“What did the people in the nursing home remember?”
“There was this one man called Walter. He had a Nazi tattoo. I don’t know how he got it. He showed me it once and never mentioned it again.”
“He had pretty bad dementia too, but he was in his late nineties. I didn’t want to bring up the tattoo in case I reminded him of something bad. I mean, he’d tried to kill himself three or four times when I worked there.”
A look of horror passed across Ethan’s face. “Seriously?”
“Yeah, he was sick of life,” I said. “He knew he couldn’t remember his past and it frustrated him because he was relatively fit for his age. He was unlucky though. Dementia is a blessing for some people.”
“How can it ever be good?” Ethan asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Then there was another man, Archie. He thought the nursing home was a cruise ship, but his son told me he’d never even been on a cruise. He was always so happy. As far as he was concerned, he was finally travelling the world.”
Ethan laughed. “That’s brilliant.”
“If I ever live to that age, I hope I end up like Archie.”
“Y’know, this is why I want to take you out on a date. You’re interesting.”
“Anyway, go on,” I said. “I want to hear more about what happened to you.”
Ethan sighed. I felt bad for wanting to know more and for failing to say that I was tempted to go on a date with him now he’d mentioned it sober, but I was genuinely interested. I hadn’t even realised he was foreign. I’d just assumed that he was English because of his accent. He let go of my hand, and shut his eyes.
“Give me a minute,” he said, rubbing his eyes with his hands. “I need to think. I don’t know what to tell you.”
“It’s okay if you don’t want to talk about it.”
He opened his eyes and smiled. “I want to.”
We sat in a comfortable silence. I watched Ethan’s chest slowly rise up and down. He took my hand again, and I began to move my thumb in circles around his skin. The freckles on his arm formed constellations in my mind. I wondered what his art looked like, but I knew that was a question I’d have to ask later.
As I waited for Ethan to speak, I thought of my art. The portfolio that had failed to gain me entry to GSA consisted of a number of paintings inspired by Alice in Wonderland. “The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party” was the focus of the largest one, a still life. Before I’d even started it, I painted smaller studies of teacups, pocket watches and French fancies. I was determined it was going to be brilliant.
But my teacher had insisted on me painting from a picture she’d taken in class. It looked like the sort of tea party you’d expect from a pensioner putting in a little effort to impress their friends: a cake stand with four French fancies, two danishes and a croissant on it, and a single plastic cup. There was nothing mad about it. Half way through, she admitted it wasn’t right and suggested cutting my painting in half, letting me draw the other half from my imagination. I remember sitting at my kitchen table crying as I sat with half a painting and a piece of white paper trying to rectify the situation.
The memory hurt me, and I looked at Ethan to distract myself. I didn’t know much about him, but I knew enough to know that he was a good person. We’d arrived at the hostel drunk, and he’d refused to have sex with me until we were sober. He’d even said that if I didn’t want him there once I’d sobered up, he’d leave and let me get a good night’s sleep. I had a feeling he’d managed to guess that I wasn’t the kind of girl who usually had one-night stands.
“Well,” Ethan eventually said. “There was one particular incident that I only know because my mother told me about it. We were going through Serbia to Croatia. Once you get past Croatia, you have easy access to the border and so you can get out of the region. We were driving along and one of the Militia stopped us.”
“The what?” I asked, narrowing my eyes in confusion.
“The Militia? It’s basically like, eh, civil groups that sort of enforce a strict no Serb law. No Muslims. We had to be devout Catholics.”
“There’s something about that name,” I said. “The Militia. It’s violent.”
“They were,” Ethan said. “One of them put a gun to my mother’s head. They had the full intention of killing us.”
My jaw dropped. I didn’t know what to say or how to react. My hand went limp in Ethan’s. I’d wanted him to open up to me, but I hadn’t contemplated how shocking hearing about his experience was going to be. Unlike Walter, he was a member of my generation. It had happened in the not-too-distant past.
“How did your family get away?”
“My mother had her marriage certificate and it was signed by a Catholic priest. It was proof that we weren’t Muslim and therefore not Serbian. All the while I was crying so hard, and the Militia were threatening my mother, ‘If you don’t shut your son up. He’s going to fucking die. I will kill him.’”
A lump formed at the back of my throat. I knew that what I’d seen in the nursing home was nothing compared to what he’d lived through.
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay,” he replied, turning his head back towards me and looking into my eyes. “I can’t remember it anyway.”
“You still went through it. It must have affected you.”
Ethan turned his gaze away from me and looked out of the window. It had begun to rain heavily. The piercing sound of a police car’s siren was all that could be heard when we stopped talking. The police must have their work cut out for them in Glasgow on a Saturday night. Ethan let go of my hand and raised it to his mouth to bite his nails. It was strange seeing someone who had been so confident become so vulnerable. I moved his hand away from his mouth and kissed him.
Even though I was fascinated by the stories I’d heard in the nursing home, it had its downsides beyond seeing a lot of death and having no free days off (I worked every day I wasn’t in university as well as the weekends). Working with the elderly meant that looking anything other than plain and proper wasn’t an option. My appearance had become more and more conventional after I gave up on my art, but I spent a lot of time admiring another carer, Sarah, who, in spite of the constant insults she received from the residents, had bright orange hair.
I felt like I’d missed out on a normal student’s life. I saw body bags every other morning instead of waking up in strangers’ flats after wild nights out. I’d met all of my friends at school. Shift work exhausted me and made it even easier for me not to start painting again. I felt like I had no choice. Caring for other people seemed like the only worthwhile thing I could do after my dream got shot down.
“I’ve never been able to let go of the possibility that there’s a God,” Ethan said, “but I’ve not been to church in years.”
“I was brought up religious too,” I said, realising that we had yet another thing in common. He turned to face me. “I’ve been an atheist since I was seventeen. I couldn’t believe in anything after seeing so much death.”
“That’s sad. I think it’s comforting to hold onto something.”
I looked away from Ethan and out of the window. I was jealous of him, of his agnosticism and the clichéd sense of comfort it brought him.
“When I stopped believing, I realised just how scary life is,” I said.
“HERE WE—HERE WE—HERE WE FUCKIN’ GO!” a voice shouted from outside our hostel room. I turned my head back towards Ethan. We laughed before hearing the thudding of feet running down the hall.
“It’s not all bad,” he said, determined not to let the subject change.
“I spent months reading books about near-death experiences trying to find answers. I even considered talking to a priest.”
“Woah. Does my story not make you think there’s something? We’d have died if it hadn’t been for my mother’s marriage certificate.”
“Eh,” I said. I didn’t want to offend him, but I didn’t want to lie either. He’d been honest about his past, and I knew I couldn’t insult him like that so I told him the truth. “I think it was a coincidence.”
“Right,” he said, bluntly.
He suddenly moved away from me to the other side of the bed, leaving me in the middle with a few feet between us. For the first time, I realised just how cold the hostel room was and the fact that it didn’t have a radiator in it.
“I used to think I was destined for stuff,” I said, looking into Ethan’s eyes. “I’d wanted to be an artist so badly. I even said the Rosary every night as I waited on GSA getting back to me and it was still a no. I stopped painting after that. I always wanted to take it back up, but life got in the way.”
“An artist?” he said. “Why didn’t you mention this earlier?” He furrowed his brows. “Y’know, you don’t always get what you pray for.”
“It took me four years of trying to get in.”
I felt my eyes begin to water and finally admitted to myself that I hadn’t been in the best position to apply with my cut-up painting. I could have easily started painting again when I worked in the nursing home, instead of thinking that the caring profession was my only option and applying to nursing when I was eighteen.
“I wish I’d had your perseverance.”
“If you’re really an artist, you’ll find your way back to it,” Ethan said. My eyes fell on his tattoo. David Bowie was judging me.
“It’s pointless without a degree. I know how competitive it is.”
“You don’t need to study art to be an artist, I only—”
“How the fuck would I get to work in set design in the West End if I don’t have a bloody art degree?”
“Yeah right, so why the hell are you studying it?”
“Scholarship. £1,000 a year and for the contacts I’ll make.”
“Alright for some.”
“Ana,” he said, trying to speak in a calmer tone, “saying you need a degree to be anything is like saying you need to go on a creative writing course to write a fucking novel. J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter in a café.”
I looked at his tattoo of Aladdin Sane again and burst into tears. David Bowie didn’t have a degree and stayed true to himself his whole life. Ladybug Guy was true to himself. The girl I’d been at seventeen would have been heartbroken if she’d known what she was to become. Ethan gave me a hug.
“Hun,” he said, “it’s not too late. Heck, you’re only what, twenty-one?”
“I’m twenty-five, and I’m only in my first year of art school.”
He pulled away from me, and I wiped my tears away with my hand. I was glad I hadn’t agreed to go on a date with him. I’d saved him the trouble of having cancel because he didn’t want to spend time with someone as fragile as me.
“What are you apologising for?”
“You don’t need this shit. You don’t know me. You’ve been through so much, and you’re not a pathetic, blithering mess like I am.”
He took my hands in his. “It’s not a big deal,” he said. “Life’s thrown a brick at you. It does that sometimes when people are on the wrong path.”
“It really has,” I said, hyperventilating.
“Now, I want you to listen to me. You need to focus on your breathing and grounding yourself in the here and now. You are safe. This will work itself out. Can you take a deep breath in and hold it for seven seconds?”
“Yeah,” I said, breathing in.
“One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” Ethan said. “Okay, and now you need to breathe out for seven seconds too. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.”
I smiled. “Where did you learn that?”
“Qualified life coach. I had to do something to earn money when I was trying to get into the art school,” he laughed.
I led Ethan over to the window and held tightly onto his hand as we looked outside. It was comforting being in such a big city. The skyscrapers and high-rise flats surrounding our hostel made me feel small, but not in a bad way. There was a bigger world out there than the one I’d been stuck in for the past three years.
“I’m such an idiot,” I said, trying to keep my breathing steady. I’d wasted three years I could have spent painting. Three years I was never going to get back.
Ethan pointed at the lights shining from the windows across the river. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven,” he said. I took a deep breath in and thought of the abandoned docks a few miles away, covered in moss and rotting wooden planks. They’d once been grand, and, if restored, could be grand again. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven.”
I imagined the way I’d paint Glasgow at night. I’d combine red and blue acrylic and watercolour paints to drown the city in a purple haze. I’d use a thin, bristly brush to recreate the way the moonlight glinted in the river Clyde and a cotton wool bud to blend the city lights into the night sky. I’d even use a toothpick to impressionistically paint the couple I’d seen kissing.
Drops of rain trickled down the window, turning blue when an ambulance sped along the road. Its blaring siren left my ears ringing. Teenage girls in too-high stilettos and too-short skirts staggered over the stone bridge and out of the city. The fake begging couple were walking back along the pavement eating McDonald’s Happy Meals. I felt Ethan’s warm breath on the side of my face.
“I’m going to take you to the best restaurant in town,” he said.
I turned to kiss him. “We’ll see.”