Authors: Avery Cockburn
“I dunno where Robert’s head is at these days,” Liam said. “He seemed okay when he and Danielle first broke up last month, but lately he’s…gone off life and all.” He turned to Fergus, his face lighting up. “I know! I’ll get him a wee gift to cheer him up.” He jabbed his thumb toward Robert and John, who were heading toward them now, doughnuts in hand. “Let’s ditch them so it can be a surprise.”
Fergus agreed, then took John aside to explain the plan. John simply nodded and smiled, mouth too stuffed with doughnut to reply with words.
“So what brings you to the Barras today?” Liam asked Fergus as they entered the market’s indoor section. “Your latest salvage-art project?”
“I’m making us a new headboard.” Fergus had been itching to start another piece of furniture or decor ever since John moved in. He wanted something in the flat that would be
, that would somehow reflect where they’d been and where he hoped they were going. “We sort of broke the one we’ve got.”
Liam barked out a laugh, drawing the attention of the counterfeit-Coach-bag peddler to their left. “Belter, mate. Glad to hear married life hasnae taken the spark out of your sex life.”
Fergus let the “married” dig pass without comment, like all of Liam’s remarks about him and John living together. A champion player in every sense of the word, Liam didn’t believe in monogamy.
“So which of you Hulks out during sex?” Liam asked, surfing his palm over stacks of used paperbacks as they passed a bookseller’s stall. “My guess is John, based on those biceps and pecs.”
“Why are you looking at my boyfriend’s pecs?”
Liam snorted. “Cos I’m human.”
Fergus tried to smile as he and Liam approached the fabric peddler’s stall. But he couldn’t forget the relief in John’s eyes as he’d turned away just now. Things had been tense at home since Thursday morning’s condom discussion. John hadn’t mentioned it again, but his usual broad smile had turned thin and tight, and the few times Fergus caught his gaze, it would flicker, then dart away, his eyes turning down at the corners in what looked like sadness.
It ripped Fergus apart knowing he’d put that sadness there. John was right—Fergus didn’t trust men, which meant he couldn’t trust John. Not yet, at least. One day, Fergus knew, he’d find the courage to risk everything in the name of faith.
The question was, would John find the patience to wait for that day?
= = =
“Need a new Rangers shirt?”
John felt an elbow nudge his side. He looked up where Robert was pointing, to the children’s football jerseys arranged in a row above the nearest stall.
“Looks like they only come in Small these days,” Robert added.
“Very funny.” John was trying to be a good sport about his beloved team’s recent poor form. “One day, mate, the wheel of fortune will turn again, and it’ll be Celtic disgraced.” He picked up a pair of Rangers and Celtic troll dolls. “And on that day I shall simply smile quietly to myself, whilst you and Liam and Fergus wallow in gloom without benefit of my commentary.”
Robert laughed, then took a selfie of the two of them pretending to bite off their rival troll’s head. Then they wandered on, finishing their last pair of doughnuts and discussing their fantasy Premier League teams, debating which overpriced striker to transfer out and which surprise young star to bring into their squads.
Football was usually John’s favorite conversation topic, but today it gave him a bitter taste, bringing up memories of yesterday’s Warriors match. Seeing Fergus and Evan on the pitch together—helping each other off the ground, exchanging back-pats and high-fives—had nearly driven John round the bend. He’d thought he’d grown accustomed to Evan and Fergus’s continued association, but ever since the condom argument, John wanted to strangle his boyfriend’s ex more than ever.
Yet every time he tried to shift blame onto Evan, John remembered how he himself had hurt Fergus in the past. John’s secrets and lies were long over, but surely the pain they’d caused still lingered in Fergus’s heart. John couldn’t expect to be trusted until he’d truly earned it.
“Och!” Robert stopped in his tracks beside a toy seller’s stall. “I used to collect these,” he said as he hurried over to a tub of rubber duckies. Ignoring the ones with cute designs like pirates and devils and snowboarders, he picked up a plain yellow duck sitting beside the tub, then turned it over to show John a pair of metal nubs on the bottom. “Watch, it’s got an LED inside.”
He placed the duck in the water, where it began to flash, first red, then blue, then going full rave, strobing through every color of the rainbow. “So cool,” Robert whispered.
John dared not laugh at the sight of this six-foot-three, fourteen-stone footballer enthralled by a rubber ducky. “Buy it.”
“What, for myself?”
“Why not?” John turned to the elderly toy peddler, sitting in the corner of the stall, her lap overflowing with tangled pink yarn. “How much for the flashy ducks?”
She appeared to consider the matter. “Two quid.”
“Are you mad?” Robert asked her. “They’re barely worth a pound.”
The peddler shrugged. “Cost three-fifty in the shops,” she said, returning to her knitting.
In case Robert was planning to haggle, John stayed put and pretended to browse the jigsaw puzzles. The top puzzle featured a photo of the rolling hills of Perthshire, Fergus’s home.
John ached at the memory of their first trip there this summer, how they’d made love in what seemed a magical glade. The thought of anything coming between them cut him to the core. He needed advice. Robert wasn’t gay, but he’d had more relationships than John, which was to say he’d had more than one.
“How long were you and Danielle together?” John asked him.
Robert froze, looking caught out, perhaps because he’d been admiring the tobacco products arrayed on a canvas sheet at the next stall. “Erm…” He turned away from the stacks of cigarette cartons, smoothing his dark, windblown hair as he thought. “Several months, why?”
“Before you broke up, were you, erm…”
“Were we what?” Robert snapped.
“Still using condoms?”
“Oh.” Robert blinked rapidly, as though he’d expected a different question. “Aye, we were. I wanted to stop once we were exclusive, but she vetoed that idea.” He picked up a cardboard box containing the game Operation, then turned to John. “Huh. I wonder if it was because she’d no intention of being exclusive?”
John’s face heated in embarrassment. “Sorry. I didn’t realize—”
“Neither did I. Obviously.” Robert frowned down at the Operation game’s cover, where a pair of sadistic-looking surgeons were taking electrified scalpels to a man who looked only half-anesthetized. “So why’d you ask about condoms?”
John spread his hands. “Why do you think?”
“Ah.” Robert set down the game and returned to the rubber-ducky tub. “‘Fergus and John Bareback.’ Sounds like the new hit porno from Dakota Wyatt studios.”
“Except production’s been scuttled on account of Fergus saying no.”
Instead of voicing surprise like John had expected, Robert simply nodded. “I can understand that, considering what Evan did.”
“But Fergus knows I’m not Evan. The fact I’m not tall, blond, and gorgeous should be a dead giveaway.”
“Fergus knows it up here.” Robert pointed to his own head. “It’s his gut doesn’t know it yet.” He lifted his chin and looked past John. “Talking of gut feelings, our man there looks ready to do a runner.”
John turned to see the tobacco seller standing in front of his table now, glancing back and forth toward the market’s entrances. “Probably never paid duties on those cigarettes.” A good portion of Barras merchandise was illegal in one way or another. Half the fun of being here was guessing which sellers would get raided by the police.
He turned back to Robert, who was now transfixed by the pale pink flashy duck sitting on his outstretched palm. “Fergus’s gut is wrong,” John said. “I’d never cheat on him. I love him.”
“Love is temporary.” Robert stared at the duck, the LED light reflecting in his eyes. “Fergus cannae tell himself Evan never loved him, cos that’d be a lie. They were good together when I first met them. But then…” He shook his head. “Things went bad, as things do.”
John often felt like Scotland’s only optimist. “Sometimes things stay good if two people are meant to be together, if they work at it, if they don’t let anything keep them apart.”
Robert’s eyes turned sadder still. “Sometimes apart is better.” He set the rubber ducky in the tub and walked on, leaving it flashing in his wake, unsold but unforgotten.
= = =
“Why do you need a softer headboard?” Liam asked Fergus as they browsed a fabric dealer’s stall. “Is this part of some new concussion protocol, like we’ve got in football?”
Fergus smiled at the image of being taken away in a stretcher after particularly rambunctious sex. “We need a softer headboard because John sometimes sits up in bed working or studying.”
“That’s a shame.”
“Byproduct of living in a small flat.” Fergus ran his hand over a pair of faux-suede samples, searching for the perfect texture. “Sometimes bed is the only quiet place to be.”
“In that case I take back what I said about your sparky sex life.” Liam peered at him, telescope-like, through a roll of scarlet muslin. “Can’t he just study in the living room?”
“The TV is in there. Even with it off, it’s a distraction, he says, which I totally get. Plus he says he wants to be near me, especially now it’s so cold at night.”
“That it is. Oh!” Liam dumped the muslin into the bin of fabric rolls. “I’ve got it. Instead of a padded headboard—which will make you look eighty years old—why not make up a spot in your bedroom for him to work in? Put up something he can hide behind.”
“A room divider.” Fergus shoved the samples back into place. “That’s brilliant. Come on.”
As they hurried toward his favorite used furniture dealer at the other end of the indoor market, Fergus started thinking aloud. “I could get a dressing screen, and maybe one of those old school desks, the sort with the chair built in and the wee shelf beneath?” His mood soared as his artist’s brain began firing on all cylinders. “A surface like that’d be just enough room for a laptop.”
As they passed a nervous-looking tobacconist, Liam slowed down and took a deep inhale. “Och, that smells amazing.”
Fergus noticed the dreamy smile on his friend’s face. “It doesn’t bother you, now you’ve quit?”
“Nope. Is that weird? People tell me it’s w—oh my God!” Liam stopped in his tracks in front of a toy seller. “Rabbie used to love these.” He darted over to a small tub filled with floating rubber duckies. Two of them were blinking lights of every color.
Fergus was confused for a moment. Liam had so many younger siblings, it was hard to keep track of their names. “Our Rabbie? As in McKenzie?”
Rabbie,” Liam said with a growl. “You know he hates anyone else calling him that.” He reached out for the yellow flashing duck.
Just then, Fergus was knocked from behind. He stumbled forward, barely regaining his balance before hitting the shelf of jigsaw puzzles, then quickly felt for his wallet to ensure he’d not been pickpocketed.
“Sorry, mate!” said the tobacco seller who’d just bumped into him. Fergus turned to see the man grab the corners of the canvas sheet to gather up his products. With a practiced twist, he formed a large bundle with his wares and cash box inside. Then he spun on his heel and sprinted off, dodging passersby with the grace and speed of a man half his age.
A large group of police officers barreled past Fergus, one shouting into his radio. Mouth agape, he watched them go, then turned back to Liam, who’d barely spared a glance for the fracas. The toy seller also ignored the commotion, frowning at the rosy-pink baby hat she was knitting.
Fergus sighed, wondering how anything in Glasgow could still surprise him.
“Did you fuck up John’s twenty-first birthday?” Liam asked him.
Liam picked up one of the flashing ducks. “It was a couple weeks ago, aye?”
“It was, but why do—”
“You’re so keen to do nice things for him today. The new headboard, a room divider so he can study—it’s a lot, even for a nice guy in love such as yourself.”
Was that what this was all about? Was Fergus trying to make up for being a coward? “The thing is…” He stepped closer, then glanced around to ensure no one could hear. “John wants to stop using condoms.”
“I’m not ready.”
Liam looked up from the duck. “Not ready for what? Better sex?”
“Not ready to make that commitment. So are you buying anything or can we go and see the furniture seller?” He went to step past his friend, eager to end the conversation. “On second thought, you stay here and I’ll—”
“Wait.” Liam put a hand to Fergus’s chest to stop him. “Please tell me you didn’t say no.”
“I didn’t say no.”
“I also didn’t say yes.”
“Fuck’s sake.” Liam punched Fergus’s arm. “Now John probably thinks you don’t trust him.”
Fergus rubbed the spot where Liam had hit him. “Unsafe sex isn’t a sign of trust. It’s a sign of stupidity.”
“In some cases, aye. Like if it’s a spontaneous thing in the heat of passion.” Liam’s voice rose, drawing the attention of the elderly toy seller, who brushed a wisp of slate-blue hair behind a cocked ear. “If one guy’s like, ‘Let’s do it raw. I’m clean. You?’ and the other guy’s like, ‘Aye, sure, I’m clean. Let’s do it.’ It’s stupid because the second guy cannae come back with, ‘Errrm, I don’t know if I’m clean,’ or ‘Errrm, I don’t know if
clean.’ If he does, it totally kills the mood and maybe the relationship.” Liam kept going, despite the fact the old lady was now listening intently, much to Fergus’s embarrassment. “I assume John wants to do this after youse both get tested, right?”
“Then what could be less stupid?” Before Fergus could answer, Liam’s eyes popped wide. “Ooh, you should go to the Club 212 sauna. They’ve got a testing center there now.”
“Club 212?” Fergus asked, hoping he’d misheard. “The bathhouse?”
“‘Bathhouse’?” Liam made a face of mock offense. “Mate, it’s a men’s health and leisure center,” he said with emphasis. “It’s a place where lads go to relax with one another in whatever way they fancy.”