Back when I lived in Suffolk, I developed a bit of a soft spot for Essex. It’s brash, it’s gaudy, and it knows how to have a good time. I even made the odd evening trip down there to drink with the Essex chapter of Porsche Club GB (whom I suspect the rest of PCGB sometimes prefers to forget about, though they certainly know how to have a good time).
So what else does Essex have? I’m mostly familiar (as of a few years ago now) with Colchester, which has a castle, a musum with lots of Roman stuff, and a big Boudicca connection (Song for a Dark Queen was possibly my favourite Rosemary Sutcliff novel growing up).
In my imagination it also has a rather special LGBT theatre company, home to Jen the leading lady, Ash the genderfluid leading man/principal boy and Colin the comic relief, who sometimes wishes people could take him seriously once in a while.
I’ve written about them twice so far: ‘Prince Charming’s Buttons’ in last year’s British Flash anthology and ‘Charmed by Prince Charming in my collection, A Series of Ordinary Adventures. So here are Ash and Colin walking through their Essex town, which is something of a hybrid of Colchester and Chelmsford:
Ash walked as if the whole world belonged to him. As if he had every right to be who he was, right where he was. Colin felt enveloped in Ash’s confidence, and walked a little more confidently himself.
They walked between the overhanging Tudor houses on Market Street, a crisp packet crackling beneath Colin’s sole and a pile of blankets marking the spot a rough sleeper might yet return to if the hostel was full for the night. They crossed the cobbles of Market Square, still slippery from the previous day’s dropped and forgotten fruit and veg. They turned down the wide pavement on the High Street, empty of people though evidence of their earlier presence remained, past the mixture of medieval, Victorian, and modern shops.
Some shop windows had Christmas displays, some were advertising their mid-autumn sale, and a few hadn’t moved on from their Back to School promotions.
The council had strung lights from every available hook, but none were lit. Some demi-celeb would be switching them on, come the first of December, with fingers crossed that none of the bulbs blew until after they collected their appearance fee. Colin walked alongside Ash past the castle, not yet decorated, but with gaudy
posters advertising holiday events pasted haphazardly across the notice board where its opening times were displayed. They passed the second-hand car dealers—vehicles with one careful owner and several not so careful—and the burger van that no one visited until the end of an evening’s drinking.
Down at this end of town, the street lamps were more widely spaced, and not all worked. Walking alone on this part of the route, Colin would speed up in the patches of darkness, slowing again when he reached the comparative safety of the next pale orange pool of light. With Ash, he felt able to stroll at a steady pace, nothing hurrying them save the need to reach warmth and that promised pint of beer. There was a movement in the shadows. Colin glanced across Ash, just in time to see a hairless tail disappearing inside an overflowing rubbish bin. Even the rats must be feeling the cold tonight, since normally he would have spotted two or three eating in the open by this point on the journey.
Then, there in front of them, lit up like a particularly bad-taste Christmas tree, was the Toast and Marmite in all its tacky, flatroofed, late-1960s splendour. The rainbow flag didn’t so much fly proudly above the door as it hung limply, like a piece of wet washing on a windless, sunless day. The windows hadn’t been washed in years
on the inside, and not since the end of summer on the outside, and the flyer tacked to one of them—facing out onto the street—was advertising the Pride festival that had taken place fifty miles away and five months ago.
All that aside, the pub was Colin’s home away from home. More so than the theatre, more so than Jen’s place—now that she lived with Ash, anyway—more so even than the house Colin shared with Chris, Rick, and Tom. He had first sneaked in, spurred on by a dare from Jen, a few weeks shy of his sixteenth birthday. Once inside, he had skulked in a dark corner until an older bloke—probably not much older than Colin was now—had taken pity on him, and fetched him a Diet Coke from the bar. Colin had accepted it gratefully, drunk it quickly, and then fled before finding out what the bloke might want in return.
Fourteen months later, older, and possibly wiser, Colin had started going there for real. Sometimes he’d gone with Jen, but more often he’d gone there with other members of the Sixth Form College’s Gay Soc. He’d had his first kiss by the pool table, his first grope out back by the bins, and his first semi-public shag in the gents on his eighteenth birthday. His first time going home with someone had come later, and happened elsewhere: partway through Jen’s eighteenth birthday party at her parents’ house. The Toast and Marmite held many fond memories for him, but it felt weird going in there with Ash.
Colchester used to have some interesting shops too, including one where I got some rather splendid logo T-shirts. I wonder if they’re still there.
All of today’s photos came from http://www.123rf.com/