It can’t have been long after Cambridge – perhaps a matter of days – before I started to call him Keets. We were on a walk in Richmond park – me, him and Sab. Keets always had an answer for any question – it was one of his many quirks- be it about physics, geography, the Abyssinia crisis. He loved strange trivia and general knowledge and was always reading gigantic reference books. He was one of those people wary of the rising popularity of the Internet, as well – forsaking it to read atlases and encyclopedias instead, which he would frequently dogear and bookmark into oblivion. On that particular day, the sun hung low in the sky like a lantern and the ground was muddy, squelching beneath our feet as we walked. Sab pointed at one of the gnarled-up oak trees in the distance, squinting hard.
“Is that a fucking parrot?”
Keets and I both looked in the direction she pointed. It was just possible to make out the sharpness of the bird’s tail and the heat of its red beak between the chaos of the tree’s leaves and all of its bark.
“Woah,” I said. “It looks like it. Maybe it’s escaped and it was someone’s pet?”
“Jimi Hendrix,” said Keets.
“What?” We said it in unison, both of us turning to him.
“Jimi Hendrix,” he said again, spinning lightly on his heels and scanning the other trees. “On Carnaby Street, in the sixties. He released a handful and people think they ended up here and started breeding. There’s an entire flock.”
Sab looked dumbstruck. “Those poor bloody birds,” she said. “Expecting the Outback but ending up in west London.”
“Jesus,” I said. “ That’s grim. Luck of the draw, I suppose.”
The three of us stood there on the spot for a minute, squinting at the bird. That was the thing about Keets; everything he said was in some sense whimsical. We didn’t ask him how two parakeets had made it all the way to Richmond Park from Soho and successfully managed to breed an entire flock. Instead we span around in circles, pointing excitedly as we spotted more and more of the birds, and for a while I called him Parakeet, but it was the shortened-down version which eventually stuck.
A layer of scaffolding appeared around Keets’ house one day that winter; there was a nasty leak running directly into his room which they needed to fix. This gave us easy access to the roof – all we had to do was climb out of his window and shuffle along the planks until we reached a platform next to the chimney where we could sit. We were up there one Sunday in early December, reading and smoking, when I first got wind he was properly into Andrew. The sun on our backs was bright but weak, the remnants of work things left by the men restoring the roof scattered at our feet; a rain-soaked copy of The Daily Mail, a rusted tape measure, some work hats.
The London I’d known that summer just past had shrunk in size, so that it seemed somehow less intact, and Mrs Tills’ garden stared back nakedly at me over breakfast each day, a mess of mud, twigs and compost. I missed the expansiveness of summer, the richness of its colours; in winter even the pigeons looked greyer, and the rain made everything shrink. Keets had been sullen and withdrawn since Cambridge, his rejection from A Streetcar Named Desire weighing heavily on his mind. He was sitting in silence with his back against the chimney pot, reading and annotating a battered-up script when he let out a long, dramatic sigh.
“Are you ok?”
He looked up from the script after underlining something with his pencil.
“Why do you ask?”
“You’re just…I don’t know. Being strangely quiet for you.”
He crossed his legs, put down the script and straightened up his back. “I’m just a bit stressed.”
“Because I’m not doing anything with my life, Gold.”
He had started calling me Gold after our trip to Cambridge and the very first time he said it, I almost blushed. It was yet another indication of the way we were creating a life for ourselves apart from everyone else, imbuing the language we shared with our own private tapestry of in-jokes, flavours, and embellishments.
“That’s not true,” I said, “you’re doing lots.”
“Oh, come on. Like what? I haven’t even been to an audition in months.”
He’d been living off his parents’ money, guzzling wine and reading script after script late into every night, his eyes dry and bloodshot.
“I’m twenty-three and I still live at home,” he said, “You’ve got to admit, that’s a bit lame.”
“I thought everyone our age in London did that if they could?”
We sat in silence, listening to the house martins nesting in the eaves of the roof, their half-moon houses stuck to the rafters below like limpets on the edges of rockpools. It was nice to be privy to their warbling gossip as they flew around. They left such excellent flashes of royal white and navy blue each time they swept past.
“I called Andrew,” he said after a while. “That guy from the party in Cambridge.”
“Oh, yeah? What happened?”
“He said he was straight.”
I looked at him, stunned. “Well, he didn’t look it, kissing you. And he gave you his number, for Christ’s sake.”
Keets didn’t say anything. He took a swig of hot chocolate from the thermos we’d brought up instead, shrugged and rolled his eyes, and I was surprised for a second by the pain I saw in them.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. “That’s hard. And he’s definitely at least a little bit gay, if not very. He must be in denial. Not out to his family, or something.”
He was licking his bottom lip and thinking about something, his brows furrowed.
“I always seem to pick the closeted ones,” he said. “The ones that hate themselves. My brain deludes me into thinking I can help.”
“It’s happened before?”
“All the time. My first boyfriend, Domingo – I met him in a chocolate shop near Euston Station, it was all very romantic – we’d been dating for a year when his parents came to visit from Spain. That’s when I found out he hadn’t told them about me; his dad was some hot-shot bishop in Madrid and he’d have skinned him alive if he’d found out, or so Dom said. Wouldn’t let me meet them or anything. He was completely terrified.”
I’d always assumed Keets was immune to feelings of romantic love in some strange, abstract way. He seemed so much bigger, so much bolder than being the kind of person who relied on somebody else. It took me years to realise that what he loved the most was the intoxication of infatuation, the thrill of the chase. The key with Keets, if you wanted him to like you in that way, was to feign disinterest or tell him you were unavailable. It was his Achilles’ heel, his kryptonite, and if he felt he couldn’t have you, it got him hooked on you for life.
He coughed and wrapped his scarf more tightly around his neck before giving me a sideways glance. “Have you ever had someone like that?” he said. “Someone that made you feel mad?”
“Mad as in angry, or mad as in going mad?”
I thought about Grace and the way her face would change when it wasn’t just us together. It was so changeable from the time we spent alone that it made me feel scared; I didn’t like the way her eyes would glaze over and her mouth would go flat when someone else walked into the room.
“Who was it?”
“Just a girl back home.”
I wanted to tell him about Grace’s parents and the way they’d suspected towards the end – and how we’d agreed that she should spend more time with my brother to get them off her back. Or how her whole family – her little brother and sister as well – would pretend I wasn’t there when we were at the dinner table, so that when I spoke they would stare at the fields of yellow rapeseed out the window and not say anything until we left. How it had felt that I actually was a ghost, sometimes, and that the food in front of me was a delusion I’d made up in my head, and that sometimes I would pinch myself hard in the bathroom when I got back to Crom’s house to check.
“It was just bad,” I said. “I don’t really want to talk about it.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janey Street is from Bristol, UK. This is an extract from Au, her novel.