Suspended casually from the rear door pole of a rattling tram, college day over, cigarette in one hand, leaning into the open air by the other – I let the westerly wind lift my chestnut curtains and breathe through a daring lilac vest before I leapt onto the promenade, jumping from the tram ahead of its predicable tourist halt outside of the iconic Blackpool Tower, on this daily commute home somewhere, aged nineteen, in February 1998.
It was time to see my gypsy boy. He was all I could think of, and now that I had escaped Darlington, clean of dance chemicals in my blood, I carried myself with a new vanity and hope, and as I inhaled the optimism of spring rising in the salt air – I was certain it was love, I had fallen, deeply in love with a beautiful gypsy.
I made the quick jaunt from promenade, to my parent’s latest runaway venture, to which I was not entirely welcome. They were now landlord and landlady of a typically eiderdown B&B, and unless I lived with them, I couldn’t have afforded to be a full time Media Student – but they were giving me serious cabin fever.
Arriving at their four-story Victorian terrace townhouse, I was light in mood and stopped to take out a document from my collage bag – I got an A+ for a dissertation on Edward Scissorhands and I couldn’t wait to show my mother. She never stopped calling my media studies ‘pie in the sky’ and that a ‘real’ trade or a ‘real’ profession was what I needed to get out of her hair. Looking at the hotel from the street and the glowing neon signs of ‘Vacancies’. It hit me – the gypsy and I should live, together.
It was a good property and its light green signage washed the pebble dashed white exterior in a calmness that had certainly escaped my mother, what with all her urgencies, dramas and turmoil’s. No, it was time escape her, I thought, as I watched her bobbing up and down in a Mayan inspired silk blouse with a bright red piny that matched her auburn hair dye, hurriedly polishing in the bay window her stained glass Tiffany lamps and titivating her sashes with a cordless phone glued to her lug. Bigger than her head, whatever she be on the verge of – that antenna, stretched to its full twenty inches, was part of her. She would chain smoke, take bookings, orchestrate people, vent her spleen and preside over all incoming information without ever removing it from her ear to spare me just a moment of her time – unless it was to sneer at me with utmost disappointment.
‘Mam. Mam…’ I called hopefully through the window. She cupped the mouthpiece upon sight of my approaching her, rolling her eyes at the document I outstretched, her upper lip curling into the snarl I had become accustomed to normalizing in the cognitive isolation I was so used to. ‘Mam…’ I called, waving my collage paper as she gestured not to interrupt her.
‘Ya sisters upstairs… go and show ‘er.’ She snapped, waving her hand all vexed and shooing me away, confiding to the other end, ‘it’s nowt, just our David.’
I had fielded mother’s furious resistance undaunted, making the move from Darlington, knowing that in a gay friendly resort I should never look back. Certainly, college was going well, even if she could not see it. Enabled entirely by my working evenings at a trendy bar known for its House and Techno Music. I used my bar skills and eye for the slick to find my way through this town on my own merit; leaving behind the ordeals of the North East a year gone, and separated from the traumas of my hometown by the mighty Pennine Hills. Granted a new start at life, in the kinder, more diverse and eventful embrace of the North West of England. Fuck her, I thought!
Blackpool; an English seaside town known for its wide LGBT acceptance, transient inhabitants and ‘live for the weekend’ working-class visitors, was home to an annual calendar of events bringing all walks of life into town, and to The Barron Hotel.
Some of the strangest people I ever met; magicians, ballroom dancers, mystics, ice skaters, politicians, actors, variety performers, lookie-likie acts, and sometimes, the real celebrities themselves. Overnight, I could bury my demons here, deep – disassociate into any role of my choosing, in a town that was as chameleon as my own nature had had to become.
As a blindly confident, cute young thing – I was set free and undaunted, and now lived in a place where no one knew me, nor my sordid past. Straight venues – where I would drink neat spirits in leather trousers, sucking on a Marlborough Red as I ached coolly over live rock bands and rooftop concerts, alone with all the masculine men I could not have – who were as accepting of me as gay bars were. With just as much ease as I would mince into any of the bars with my Alexis walk – holding them to account as she might, if I was not impressed. You know – putting cigarettes out in food, appalled by florescent straws, offended by cheap stirrers with plastic parrots atop, throwing them back at the drag queens who served me, as though I was part of their act, all taken in great humor, and with their full encouragement.
My thirsty intellect had found direction and ambition in the student I was by day, but night-time saw another hunger in me entirely and in this new playground I rarely spent a night in with mother, at The Barron’s Hotel. Free of shame, my sexuality had now found an outlet – frequenting the neon anonymity of gay bathhouses, where the quiet hunt appealed to my sense of elicit excitement and new discoveries. My wide-eyed enthusiasm, youthful appeal and willingness to engage proved a busy affair, and I was seemingly as tempting as honeydew, to all of the worse sorts, in all of the wrong ways. That was of course, before I fell completely, madly and tragically – for a gypsy that had just blown into town.
We had become an inseparable and dynamic couple. We spent long days in bed just eating toast, drinking tea and cuddling. The world outside could wait. In fact, I had started to skip college on the odd day because we had bonded with what felt like a magnetic force. It was as though we were two sympathetic elements, which had sought one another out. We were wildly different, yet quite the same. We both grew up in tough male-dominated surroundings, whilst being slightly effeminate and inherently afraid of machismo and fighting. We had faced fear, beatings and bullies. We had both yearned for that place to belong, as many young harassed ‘different’ boys do – and he consumed me entirely.
Growing up knowing, instinctively feeling, that you are different from other boys is the universal problem that many gay men face. Some can easily hide it and others, like he and I, could simply open our mouths to speak and it put pay to any doubt. Actions too, could involuntarily give the game away and display a slightly less than masculine quality to a very stout-hearted activity before we were even old enough to have any notion, of these differences. Differences which would push us into an alternative lifestyle.
However, it seemed much harder for him, as this wouldn’t just push him into an alternative lifestyle but an entirely alternative culture, with no family to support him. He was soaking up this new environment like a sponge though, and seemed as happy as could be. We spent hours in the Disney store, ‘Basil’s on the Strand’ (Blackpool’s original gay bar) and ‘Funny Girls’, the towns famous drag act, cabaret bar. Although dated now, cheap and quite tacky, at our tender age this was the most glamorous thing he had ever seen. He was transfixed by Miss Bette Legs Diamond, the comical and talented star of the show.
I had an annoying habit of tapping him when I was speaking to him but he wouldn’t look anyway from the stage, or even blink it seemed. Simply batting my hand away as though I were a fly. He was utterly captivated by the camp renditions of ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as he soaked up the atmosphere.
Here we were, in this magical place where gay and straight people mixed and I had a boyfriend to stand proud with. Some looked on with fondness, other straight people, with pity and condolence but I didn’t care. I didn’t care because here we belonged. Here, we were happy and proud to be gay for the first time in our lives.
By now I was very familiar with his story. How he came to a decision, hatched a plan and ran away from the travelling community just before his eighteenth birthday, leaving his family and his strict father far behind. How he was helped by his first boyfriend ‘Caleb’, who had orchestrated the getaway plan and dropped him off with enough money for a B&B for a week. He also arranged him a job, at Blackpool’s Super Bowl and Diner.
Something wasn’t quite right though. His mind was always seemed elsewhere, probably with this ‘Caleb but certainly never truly with me, never truly open. His ‘love affair’ with ‘Caleb’ was short-lived. ‘Caleb’ wanted to help out this young and beautiful gypsy boy, but couldn’t see a future together. Some gay men are notoriously fickle when it comes to other peoples ‘baggage’ as I well knew – but he was thoroughly decent enough to help him out all that he could – but ultimately, the gypsy was left alone in Blackpool, on the rebound, on the lookout for a chance, and well, don’t we all love a challenge at that age?
He always described the moment when they were driving away with such affected but entertaining pomp. I admit that I was jealous and hurt every time he lamented about this man, and every day he would tell me how they blasted out Tracy Chapman’s ‘Fast Car’ and how he felt particular relief and confidence in the lyrics ‘I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, and be someone’.
Yes, he was on the run, with a plan, and had found a canvas to project all of his drives and his desires onto – and his story, through my own, he filled in the cracks. He seemed irked that I had lived so much. This is where he really paid attention to me, and to my story – my childhood and teenage years fascinated him.
It seemed that my past held all the elements he wished he had had… of my childhood antics up in Errington Woods, in the tiny hamlet where I spent four years of uninterrupted continuity – with horses, stables, and a gang of friends. How I, always with my She-Ra dolls, caused delightful unselfconscious mayhem to the scary man who ran the neighboring farm. Or how afraid I first was about the ‘fright zone’ (chemical plant) until I was taken to the funfairs that flanked it. The soaring imaginations of a boy not yet aware of his abuse, neglect and sexual molestation – yet all he saw was what he had lacked – not my own personal horrors of what I had endured, what I hid and longed to escape.
So because of Caleb dumping him, the gypsy’s heart was probably closed off from me from the off, and although he was with me on a rebound, it really didn’t stop him telling me that he loved me on the first day. He wanted, needed, and saw in me, fruits that he thought were his to take – he acted as though we were a unit that could face the world together, because I had all of the tools he didn’t, and so on he forged, whilst concealing his true feelings – which was that he enjoyed being inspired by me, but resented me at the same time.
My journal entries, photograph albums, scrapbook and media study files were enough to bare fruits in his own personality, because he was that thirsty to catch up to speed, but this resentment for me, for having such a richly colored childhood history really got to him.
Throwaway anecdotes, as one does when meeting new folk – can often be glib, flippant or entertaining but rarely are people aware that seeded in our jovial anecdotes, can be great sadness, trauma or loss. Example would be how amusing he found the time I was forced to dress as a clown by my mother one New Years Eve aged 10 – when all I wanted to be was a witch with my Aunt Lilly, or She-Ra with my sister boots and a wig. The humiliation I was enduring he didn’t see, all he saw, was how he would have loved all that.
It really stuck with him, my anecdotes, not only as he ended up with one of my diaries, took it from me as I took it from me in the night, but because he didn’t have those freedoms in any way shape for form – not even to paint a face. What a bore it must have been, until he met me, and became privy to the constant creative process that was working though my own life’s many many layers of trauma.
ABOVE: The Gypsy. On the run with a plan to be somebody.
Covertly, he wanted somebody to make his life temporarily more comfortable now that Caleb had left him to fend for himself, and I practically fell into his lap gift-wrapped, waving a baton and screaming, use me, use me. It was a cold, cunning and calculated advancement of his story that he was after… but, on we went, and denial is a master when we are in love.
I didn’t want to acknowledge or admit this to myself. So retrospect, yes, denial can be breathtakingly effective when we want it to be, and I had suffered so much disassociation the previous few years, that I couldn’t recognize the danger in other people’s eyes.
I was totally head over heels in love with him. The inflections in his voice, the way he would talk but trail the sentence off into a drawn-out high pitched laugh just as I did, the colorful language he peppered his sentences with, like the C-word, was totally shocking and new, and his exotic smell, and his touch, made it a labour for me, when we were apart.
I missed him with a physical force. This is why I was sure living together would be the answer. He was omnipresent in my mind at college and in my dreams at night. For the first time in my life, I felt the physical force of grown-up emotions, of love. Any notion I may have had, of things not being what they seemed, were very effectively pushed to the recesses of my mind because I was such a lost and damaged boy.
Yet here I was now, with a media dream and a boyfriend to boot. It couldn’t be anything but perfect, this is what I told myself – it was too wonderful and right and he does love me, he will love me, I told myself it over and over and it was meant to be. That’s it!
“It’s alright for you” was his constant adage. “You’ve got everything,” he would say.
Indeed, it was alright for me, on the surface. I only worked 16 hours a week at the club and lived rent-free in my parent’s hotel, where meals and laundry were provided and shamefully I didn’t even have to make my own bed. I had a good life (seemingly) and was doing very well at college, but that in itself was a miracle to me that was not respected by him
I wanted it to be alright for him too. I did love him, I really did – and I wanted we two, to be the best us that we could be. I wanted to share the burdens he and limitations he now faced alone and I wanted him to be happy, settled and to belong.
Very quickly upon deciding that we should move in together, I went to see him and pitched my notions. He would immediately have all of his bills slashed in half; better amenities, more space, electrical appliances (He didn’t even have a television or an iron) and the benefit of my entire life collecting videos, music, magazines and the whole works of gay culture thrown down at his feet in our shared flat – a crash course for him in popular culture that he could now call ours, and that was so much better than the current position he was in, by light years – working at that down-market diner, reeking of chip fat and living in that god awful bedsit room. So he didn’t have to give it much thought at all, it was a yes.
My mother always let me make my own mistakes of course – in fact, she just wanted to be rid of me and I would never have listened to anyone that said it was a bad idea anyway.
So the basement flat below my older sisters apartment had become vacant and she arranged with the landlady and my mother, for us to move in.
This too was rather chintzy for two young ‘with it’ lads, but it was an upmarket place for Blackpool that is for sure, and it felt like my very own Barbary Lane.
We likened it to the cabin of a ship, this basement flat in a stone brick townhouse, kitted out entirely in wooden panels and clean plaster-work. We had our own kitchen and bathroom, hallway and spacious bedroom and sitting area. There wasn’t a piece of cheap Artex or wood chip in sight, and it was a place that he would never have been able to afford on his own – a world away from where he had started his Blackpool adventure on the run.
THEN: CATASTROPHE STRUCK IN WEEK ONE OF LIVING TOGETHER
It was a Friday afternoon. The Gypsy was at work at the diner and I was getting ready for a half-day at college. We had lived there for a full week. I was beaming with pride. The place was immaculate and I planned on inviting people back for dinner that evening. It would have been our first dinner party. Back then I could cook two dishes, Spaghetti Bolognese and Lasagne, but I felt incredibly grown up and independent here in my own flat, with a boyfriend that I was so proud of. I took one last look around at the immaculate flat and noticed that the ashtray was full. It’s hard for me to even imagine myself smoking indoors now but it seemed like everyone did it back then, and I was no different. I took the ashtray and emptied it into a wicker bin, and off I went on my way to college.
When I arrived my tutor had that look, the look that makes you think somebody has died. He took me to a room where the police were already on the phone line with the incomprehensible words, “Mr Barron, there has been a fire at your home”.
I was taken back to the flat by police. The shock of it all was an out of body experience. I simply could not get my head around it, and my mind revolted its possibility until I arrived to witness it for myself. There were two fire engines, a sea of spectators, police and my poor sister in her dressing gown, being held up by two elderly ladies as thick black smoke flooded out of our basement windows. There was no breeze and it hung in the air around us. It was a horrifying, creeping fear and doom…
Directly above the basement fire, my sister had been very ill in bed with a fever and only stirred because of an unusual, roaring noise beneath her. She had initially thought that the heat was a symptom of the fever and was quite inconsolable as she had laid in bed a long time before she realized her danger, and alerted the emergency services.
I don’t know how I got through the hours that followed but my boyfriend and my mother would make damn sure I paid the price.