This was an unexpected encounter, though I have a habit of talking to strangers.
He walked over from Warren Street station. I’d just finished my Big Mac and was ready to leave. The seats on the street were empty apart from mine. He sat down next to me and made his large frame comfortable.
A tall man in his fifties, heavy-set. Shaven headed. Black leather boots, white-laced up to his knees, tight bleached jeans, a shiny green bomber jacket. I wanted to look away, to get away. He frightened me.
Then I glanced at the badges, the patches on his jacket. A rainbow flag, an anti-racist slogan. I relaxed but it was still time to move on. So I stood up and walked off towards my next appointment. And then I stopped. Why had I been scared? Why did I feel different now? I walked back to him.
“Hello,” I said. “I just wanted to say that a few minutes ago I was scared even to look at you because forty years ago a skinhead plastered my nose across my face with a head butt.” A ‘but’ hung in the air, waiting to be said. He smiled and replied, “But I’m a gay skinhead.”
Apart from his kind, smiling eyes, what struck me was the softness of his accent, the calm in his voice. He started to tell me about the different kinds of skinhead, gay and straight, British and from other countries, how they all met up and had a grudging fraternal respect for one another. He’d been a city lawyer before he became too ill to work. Now his skinhead identity was full-time. He talked dismissively about the skinheads who’d turn up at clubs with their identities in their rucksacks. He felt that he was authentic. He felt that being yourself, being true to yourself was important.
Somewhere along the way through the story of his life, he told me about coming out in Ireland. His mother and father had thrown him out and had never spoken to him again. Only his oldest sister had contacted him after he’d left; she had travelled to see him. “That meant so much. She gets it.” His mother didn’t, even though she went out of her way to help a couple of gay men who lived locally. Not her son. “The night of my mother’s funeral, someone threatened my life. Told me I’d brought shame on my family. Held a knife to me and threatened to push it right in.” He gestured to his heart. “I came straight back to England.” Then, on Millennium eve, he stood on one of central London’s bridges, watching the new year arrive along the Thames. “And no one said Happy New Year. Not a single person.” He decided he didn’t want to be alone.
Soon after, he met his husband. “I met him seventeen years ago. He had the most gorgeous arse.” They shared the same interests and it just seemed right. “And then he told me he was HIV positive. I was devastated. I spoke to my friends. They said I should listen to my heart and listen to my head and follow whichever seemed best. As you can guess, I listened to my heart. Back then, being HIV positive seemed hopeless. His partner had died, riddled with cancer.” He smiled. “But I fed him back to health. He was eating junk; now he’s been healthy for all these years.” The smile dropped a little. “They’ve found cancer. He’s had a biopsy. He doesn’t want treatment because it’ll weaken his immune system. If he dies, it’ll break my heart,” he said. “It’ll break my heart.”
He had to go; I wanted the conversation to carry on indefinitely. “I have an appointment at the hospital,” he told me. He pulled out a small, slim case, opened it, then took out and lit a cigarette.
Just then, a stranger walked over from the station and stood beside us. “Excuse me,” he said, “but do I know you from somewhere?” The skinhead laughed, “Two meetings in one day.” The stranger had a long thick beard. His lower lip was tattooed and pierced. The sides of his head were shaved and tattooed. His ears were pierced in various places. He smiled. They went through all the different sites and scenes they might have shared – rubber, BDSM, Manchester, London pubs. “What do you do?” the skinhead asked. The stranger said he was a nurse, working in the community. Together, they narrowed it down to one place and one interest and accepted the likelihood that they had indeed met before. “What’s your name?” asked the skinhead. “Jeremy,” the stranger replied, “and what’s yours?” “I’m James,” said my companion.
I stood; James stood. I reached out my hand to shake his; he opened his arms to me and we hugged, a long, hard hug. “Goodbye. I hope I’ll see you again.”