“What do you think I do for a living?”
The question came out of nowhere. Tony dropped the scourer and plunged his hand into the water to retrieve it, hissing upon finding it scalding.
Alex stood by the door, small body leaning all its weight against the frame. His hands were deep in his pockets, a grey scarf wound tightly around his neck. He played with his keys, slipping the hoop around his finger and spinning them like a carousel.
Tony lowered his gaze, scrubbing aggressively at the pan. “I think you do what you have to.”
Alex grinned, teeth sharp and white in the ill-lit kitchen. Tony finished abusing the pan, running the debris of last night’s enchiladas under the tap before balancing it on the rack.
“Are you going to tell me?” he asked.
Alex shook his head, grin broadening. Tony sighed, wiping his hands on the dishtowel. “Well,” he said. “Have a good day, whatever you do.”
“Thanks, I will.” Alex stuffed his keys in his pocket with some difficulty — the jeans were far too tight for anyone past nineteen – and grabbed his coat. “I’ll be in later. Don’t do the washing up.”
He was out before Tony could retort that the washing up would do itself before Alex got round to it, regardless of what time he got in.
Alex and Tony had been living together for two months. They'd been friends during uni, part of a big group who’d tossed plans for the future about like pub darts, not caring particularly where they landed. It was Alex who’d made it solid — slinging an arm around Tony’s shoulders at graduation right after his parents had taken their picture: “Me and you. What do you say? Keane too if you like, but only because he’s bound to drop out.”
So it was. Keane was enthusiastic, but a year later got cold feet extending the tenancy, like everyone knew he would. Alex and Tony switched his bedroom for a living room, split the cost of rent between them. Due to having parents who were speaking to him, Tony ended up paying slightly more. Despite his initial candidness, he had the distinct feeling Alex had manipulated everything brilliantly.
It worked out. Alex and Tony got on well, despite being vastly different people with contrasting schedules. Tony was out of the house by seven-thirty, back by six o’clock. Meanwhile, Alex wouldn’t leave for work until late into the evening, returning way past midnight. He’d spend most of the day asleep with the blinds resolutely down, clothes stuffed under the door to prevent any crack of light from breaking in. On weekends he was a force of nature, barrelling into Tony’s room to drag him for a game of squash with Will or lunch with Kajal or the pub or the club or to any of their inexhaustible friends’ inexhaustible homes. Tony kept the flat clean, Alex kept their social calendar. Except of course, when he had to work.
Tony still did not know what Alex did.
“He’s working for Russel,” Will told him authoritatively, halfway through a thick bite of salmon bagel. “We were talking the other day how Brexit might affect shipping. Bet the Russians are pissed about the price hike.”
“It isn’t the Russians,” Tony replied. “He speaks Bulgarian on the phone.”
Will shrugged. “So?” he asked, in a way that suggested he didn’t see a difference. “Russel must have expanded the market. Maybe the demography’s different in North.”
Tony didn’t say anything, Will’s tone so assured there seemed little point in raising the obvious: that Alex had never bothered to hide his business with Russel in the past. They’d met while Alex was in his second year of Art History; Russel had cajoled him and a couple of their friends into a side-hustle which largely entailed selling student art to Russian oligarchs. From what Tony understood it sounded highly unethical, and only slightly illegal. Alex had ignored his revulsion, flouncing around with his phone and his iPad, yammering in Russian with wilful and sadistic pleasure.
“Maybe he’s got something new going,” Will added after a while, swiping a globule of cream cheese from his mouth. “You know Alex. He’s always got some mad shit going on.”
Tony did know Alex — although not, it transpired quickly into their tenancy, as well as he’d thought.
“Where do you go at night?” he asked, on one extremely rare occasion that Alex was doing the dishes.
Alex paused, a bottle of Fairy liquid in hand dripping slowly into the sink. “To work,” he replied, coming to and squeezing it properly.
“Sure,” Alex shrugged. “Or, you know. Sometimes I go for a drink with the guys. You should come along, they’re a laugh.”
He said it because he knew, just as Tony knew, that even if these “guys” turned out to exist, this would never happen. In the same way they both knew that when Tony said: “Sure. Tell me next time you go,” it was another kind of lie.
That night, Alex got back in at four am. Tony came down to him cooking puttanesca. His back was turned as he faced the stove, a string of violet bruises hung like a bouquet around his neck.
“Jesus, Alex,” fell out of Tony’s mouth. “What happened to your neck?”
Alex’s hand flew up, flinching, to brush the skin. “Haha, yeah,” he grinned with a roguish flash of canine. “Guess I got lucky last night.”
Tony stared, horror and curiosity curling perversely in his stomach. “You look like you’ve been strangled,” he said, appalled. “Are those…teeth marks?”
“Look, man,” Alex raised an eyebrow. “Not to shock you, but certain people out there are into some very kinky shit. If you want the details, I’m happy to supply. Otherwise, don’t ask what you’re not ready to hear.”
Tony raised his palms. “You’re right,” he grimaced. “I’m not ready to hear.”
“That’s good,” Alex waved the wooden spoon at him gravely. “Know thyself.” He dipped the spoon into the pan, tongue darting out experimentally. “Come taste this. D’you think it needs more garlic?”
After that, Alex took to wearing a scarf when they went out. This did not prompt much questioning, particularly as Alex had always been sensitive to the weather (par example: last lads’ trip to Croatia. Alex had stepped out the hostel for a grand total of three seconds before sprinting back inside for the Factor 50.) Once at home, however, Alex would slink off his scarf to reveal a fresh trail of bruises, mapping across his neck and throat to sink beneath the collar of his t-shirt. There was an element of showmanship to this performance, like he wanted Tony to see. Like he was daring him to ask.
What do you think I do for a living?
Don’t ask what you’re not ready to hear.
October came to a close and with it, the last of the birthdays. Kajal threw a party combining Diwali and turning twenty-four, reminding everyone (specifically, Will) that Indian dress was non-compulsory. Alex and Tony arrived early upon request.
“Evening,” Alex greeted Kajal opening the door. “May we come in?”
Kajal stepped aside to let them pass. “You know you don’t have to ask. You have a key.”
“It’s called manners.” Alex unwound his scarf. He’d used make-up to cover the bruises. Looking closely you could make out the marks struggling through the foundation, like lilacs in the desert.
Kajal put their gift, a scented candle and a bottle of wine, next to the hundred others. An hour later guests began to arrive; soon the flat was thrumming with the sound of their friends, talking loudly about careers in Digital Marketing while balancing paper plates of samosas. Tony kept to the background, speaking low and urgently to Amir about the upcoming election. Alex snooped briefly on the discussion, but discovering it was political threw his hands in the air.
“God! Why all this talk of politics, politics?” He was on his third glass of wine by now, alcohol tended to make him dramatic. “I swear, if I hear another word about Brexit, I’m going to scream.”
“You’d think he’d care,” Amir spoke in an undertone. “A first-gen immigrant with a degree in the arts. No income support. You’d think he’d have something to say about five more years of austerity.”
“He does care,” Tony assured him. “He just doesn’t like it when people bring it up. It reminds him how isolated he is.”
Amir hummed. Alex had successfully derailed the conversation, and was regaling the group with a very funny story about some amateur performance he’d gone to see in Vicky Park.
“Parents still aren’t speaking to him?” Amir muttered.
Tony shook his head. “It’s amazing he can even afford the rent,” he said. “He spent most of second-year sofa-surfing.”
“What does he do, again?”
“Er…” Tony trailed off, trying to think about how he could answer the question without revealing his ignorance regarding his housemate’s nocturnal activities. Fortunately, Keane, who’d been eavesdropping, took the opportunity to swoop in.
“Talking about Alex?” he raised his eyebrows significantly over his glass. “Listen, mate, I wanted to talk to you about that. The stuff with Russel was one thing. But I think you ought to put your foot down.”
“What’re you on about?” Tony frowned. He hadn’t quite forgiven Keane for pulling out the deposit last-minute, and resented him presuming any tone of self-righteousness now.
Keane lowered his voice enough to feign the illusion of secrecy. “Shacks was out in Soho a couple weeks back,” he said, throwing a glance over his shoulder. “He said he saw Alex at a club.”
“Well that’s hardly surprising,” Amir exchanged an eye-roll.
“Well yeah, obviously,” Keane was impatient. “That’s not the point. Alex was with some super shady guys. They were standing out the back and like…recruiting people. And that’s not all,” he added as Tony began to look exasperated. “He’s taken up with this Bulgarian crowd. Gang, I should say. Coke dealers. Russel knows some of them through the grapevine, they’ve been involved in some seriously messed up shit, Tony. I mean really illegal.”
“Bullshit,” Tony called, unimpressed. “Face the facts, and accept that you’re a homophobe.”
“Being a homophobe has nothing to do with it,” Keane flushed. “Which, FYI, I am not. But there’s a difference between that and knowing one of your mates is getting tangled up in dark shit too big for him.”
“Dark shit like a gay club and some Bulgarians,” Amir deadpanned. “Welcome to the post-Brexit mentality.”
“Alright, fuck you guys,” said Keane furiously while Tony snickered. “Ask anyone. I’m not the only one who knows about this.”
“Yeah, okay man,” Tony drawled, lifting his eyes to the ceiling as Keane turned away to bitch to someone else.
The party wore on. Eventually, it got to the point in the evening where people were too sleepy with food and wine to make good conversation, yet too lazy to go home. Will had come in a sherwani. Kajal grimaced at Tony, tottering up to him on feet slightly unstable, and put her head on his shoulder. Tony put an arm around her, combing his fingers through her dark hair.
“You did say non-compulsory instead of prohibited.”
“I know. I shouldn’t have given him the window.” Her lips were slightly parted, eyelashes fluttering as though halfway to falling asleep. “Did you have a good time?”
“Yeah, it was great.” Tony had had a good time, but right now his palms itched to leave. He looked around for Alex, dancing animatedly with Sinead to ‘Promiscuous Girl,’ and exhaled in annoyance.
Kajal followed his gaze. Her mouth pursed meaningfully into an ‘o.’ She patted Tony’s hand, like a matriarch comforting a grandchild. “How’s Alex these days?”
“I worry about him.”
“A fool’s errand.”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t see the marks on his neck,” Kajal accused. “His makeup skills aren’t that good. He looks like he’s been mauled.”
Tony didn’t say anything. For a while Kajal sat pensively, watching Alex and Sinead grind sexlessly against each other.
“He’s always been a hustler,” she spoke after some time.
“Jesus Christ, Kaj.”
“It can’t be easy for him, without any parents,” Kajal persisted. “I know he’s struggling.”
Tony didn’t say anything. They watched silently until the last song faded.
Tony tried not to think about Kajal’s coded implication. Unfortunately, this proved difficult as Alex took to staying out later and later, coming back with more marks. Not just on his neck but all over his body, threading up his arms like train tracks, over his shoulders, even the backs of his thigh. Tony bumped into him coming out of the shower one evening. For a second he stared, unable to comprehend what he was seeing. Then Alex drawled, “Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” and he forced himself back to earth.
It wasn’t just the bruises. Over the next few days, Alex seemed to be growing weaker. His clothes hung off a spindly frame, bony hips jutting above the waistband, collarbones sticking out like the keys of a clavichord. He was pale too and sweaty, skin taking on the greenish hue of fever, yet no matter how high Tony put the heating he was never warm.
He’d stopped eating as well. When Tony tried to combat this by cooking he’d push his plate away, complaining his stomach hurt. What he did force down was bland and unseasoned. Easier to digest, he said, wincing through a shovel of plain rice.
He spent the days holed up in his room. If the tiniest crack of light found its way in, he would stuff the holes with socks, complaining of migraines. Tony brought him water and ibuprofen, which he promptly vomited up.
“You need to go to the hospital,” Tony told Alex, shaking violently on the bed.
“Can’t,” said Alex shortly.
“What is it?” Tony kept up. “Drugs? Poison? Or…” his tongue tripped up, unable to form the acronym.
“Don’t ask what you’re not ready to-” Alex started before promptly dissolving into a violent coughing fit. Tony rushed off to get more blankets.
The hard part was Tony didn’t have any point of reference for Alex’s sickness. The unthinkable was a degenerative illness, and Alex had deteriorated in a matter of weeks. He tried googling Alex’s symptoms: nausea, shakes, chronic fatigue, light sensitivity, insomnia but all that came up was vampire shit.
One night, Tony was woken up by Alex getting in. The click of the key in the door was followed by voices along the hall in urgent, hushed Bulgarian. Scarcely knowing what he was doing, Tony got up. He padded softly into the kitchen under the pretext of getting water, heart beating a hundred miles an hour.
Alex was standing against the counter. A tall, dark-haired stood behind him, hand wrapped around his throat. His mouth was bent against his neck; Tony saw the teeth poised to bite. Alex’s knuckles were white. His face was scrunched up in pain, yet the lines were heavy with resignation.
“What the fuck,” said Tony.
Alex yelped, starting back. At once the man released him with a hiss, flapping from the kitchen like a startled animal. Tony heard the door slam shut, vibrations resounding through the hall.
For a moment he and Alex stared at each other, Tony stupid with shock, Alex rubbing ashamedly at his neck. Tony forced himself to speak.
“Alex,” he said. “Whatever you do is your business. But you…you can’t bring fucking clients here.”
Alex laughed, a high-pitched, desperate sound that was more like a choke. Muttered: “You think I’m a hooker.”
“Obviously I do!” Tony replied, aware he was shouting but unable to stop. “It being what you’ve led me to think for the past few months, since clearly what you do is so much worse!”
“Whatever,” Alex marched to his room, slamming the door behind him.
There comes a point, in these situations, when privacy can no longer be respected. What do you think I do for a living? All these options seemed plausible: 1) A crooked art merchant, whose student side-hustle had somehow spiralled into sex work and association with the Bulgarian mafia 2) Drug-dealer 3) A shareholder in a pyramid scheme which had something to do with enlisting young men from gay bars 4) Vampire hustler 5) Recruitment. Will was right — Alex was a connoisseur in mad shit. Tony had put up with it, for pity as much as respect. Alex was disowned. Alex had no safety-net. If he hadn’t learned early to rely on the kindness of strangers, he would be homeless by now.
And yet, there was another reason. As Tony scrubbed aggressively at the pan, thinking idly it had been a long time since Alex had cooked with garlic, he meditated on the simple truth of the matter. Quite simply, he did not want Alex to move out.
Tony was halfway between awake and dreaming the night Alex tentatively pushed open the door of his room, and sat down on the bed.
Tony cracked open one eye. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Alex chewed on the inside of his mouth. His teeth were so sharp these days, it was a wonder he didn’t draw blood. “I came to tell you. I’m not going to do it anymore. I want out.”
Tony looked at Alex. His lips were pale and bloodless in the dark, his fine-cut profile gleaming silver like the edge of a coin. “Ok,” he breathed.
Alex reached out to touch Tony’s neck. He leaned in. For a moment, Tony froze. Alex’s fingertips grazed his skin, like flakes of melting frost. Then he stood up and left, closing the door softly behind him.
Tony exhaled. He waited until he could no longer hear Alex’s footsteps in the hallway before reaching under the bed, fingers closing around the shaft of a stick. He tested the weight, feeling the sharpened point with the pad of his thumb.
Tony wasn’t ready.