Marcus was standing on Bangor pier watching the fishermen. He could hear the clink of the mooring hooks in the wind. One of the fishermen, his oilskins torn at the crotch, smiled at him, showing teeth like boulders, the veins roping through his arms like fishing lines as he lifted a heavy crate out of the hold, his biceps bearing the blurred tidemark between pale and weathered skin. Just as the fisherman turned away, the boom went swinging into his head, boom, boom, BOOM. In that instant of bizarre violence, Marcus realised he was in a dream and swam up slowly from its wavering images.
He was sweating, semi-naked under his duvet, the sound of a Lambeg drum shaking the window in its frame. He hopped out of bed and peeped through the blinds. It was the kids again. Every frigging afternoon it was now. That wee seven-year-old boy with a mini-Lambeg strapped to his back, strong as a bull calf, while the other kids marched along, playing whistles, recorders, toy drums and crashing cymbals. Their band leader was an angry, bossy martinet of a 13-year-old girl, a Madison or a Chelsea if ever there was one. They were practising feverishly for the Twelfth of July, making sure they paraded down Castlereagh Street for the benefit of the Catholics in the Short Strand.
Marcus padded through to the bathroom, yawning, and washed his face with water. He looked tired, though his tan helped conceal it. His skin was so fine it was marked by the crease in the pillow. It almost matched the scar on his brow from the time that young hood had hit him.
13:37, his mobile informed him. He’d arrived home from his Dublin gig at six that morning, so it tallied up to just seven hours sleep. There was no point in going back to bed either as the Lambeg-lambaster was sure to do a circuit and return within the hour.
He put on his chinos with the Gucci belt and a white shirt, topping it off with a grey waistcoat that held his stomach in as tight as a corset. Not that he needed it as he was always slim in the summer.
His mobile rang. It was Conor, wanting to know how the show had gone in Dublin.
‘Fab,’ Marcus said, ‘but I’m wrecked. The kids just woke me up. Junior Blood and Thunder.’
‘See?’ said Conor, sounding irked. ‘I told you to come and move in with me. You mustn’t be there for the Twelfth.’
‘Oh, but it’s all fine,’ said Marcus, trying to smooth everything over. Conor was a West Belfast Catholic and didn’t like visiting the loyalist east, even though Marcus lied and insisted it was cool, so long as you didn’t camp it up too much. It was sweet Conor inviting him to move in, but they’d only been going out two months and, besides, there was no room at Conor’s for all his things.
‘Look, it’s grand here as long as you keep your head down,’ Marcus insisted. ‘And I love to keep my head down on you, gorgeous,’ he added, making Conor laugh.
They’d met on a night out at the Kremlin. Conor was there with a group of hetties, while Marcus was doing a brief set as Regina Grande and had sensed Conor’s eyes on his body. Conor looked like the poet he was with his white shirt and long hanging cuffs, topped off with a baseball cap – an odd hybrid of beats and Keats, urban yet romantic. He sent conflicting signals to Marcus because he was vaguely femme in feature yet masculine in gesture. From his seat in the alcove, he crossed his leg in a masculine way, ankle across the knee.
After the show he’d come up to tell Regina how wonderful she was, then shyly turned away.
‘Who’s that little chicken?’ asked another drag queen.
‘I don’t know,’ Marcus said.
Marcus impulsively went over to Conor. He didn’t know why because all his life he was the queen bee who waited to be attended on, circled by worker drones bringing honeyed compliments, but he somehow intuited that Conor was too different to let go.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Poleglass,’ said Conor.
‘Where’s that near? The Virgin Islands?’ Marcus joked, still in full Regina innuendo mode, but the more they talked, the more he cooled down on the shtick. He found out that Conor was bisexual, although his experiences with men sounded more like skirmishes than anything full-on.
‘What is that?’ Marcus asked of a small slab of what seemed to be ivory hanging round Conor’s neck.
‘It’s bone. Scratch it with your nail and see.’
‘Took me an age to do these,’ said Marcus, showing his glittery fake nails, but he moved his fingers towards Conor’s throat, feeling a tremor.
The surface of the soft bone come off on the tip of his nail, leaving a fresh white trail.
‘Wow. It’s not from the hip of your last lover, is it?’
‘No, no,’ laughed Conor. ‘It’s whale bone. I bought it in Morocco.’
At the end of the night, as everyone left, Trixie Dix said to Marcus, ‘he’s a cutie. You better keep an eye on him.’
Marcus licked his finger, drawing it down Conor’s face and onto his neck. When he saw Conor’s shocked expression, he regretted it, but Regina could be a bit OTT sometimes.
‘He’s all mine,’ Marcus said, for Trixie’s benefit, and he’d never been so sure of anything in his life.
Marcus headed out to the shop. It was the 10th of July, the day before bonfire night, and there was a distinct smell of burning in the air, signifying that arsonists had got to a bonfire ahead of time. A few rosettes of smoke were frilling the blue sky and a tiny dot of a helicopter danced through the plumes. He couldn’t help noticing that the passersby were all rushing towards the smoke, further into the east. It was strange how the kerbs were sprouting yellow grass, as if in the bright sunshine they were bursting into flames.
He shrugged and walked on. He was thinking of the show he was MCing that night in the Sunflower. It was called Viva la Diva and there was burlesque, a circus act, a dance act... He ran through his inventory of risqué jokes. What do you call a group of male dancers who all go on the piss? A dance droop. It wasn’t great, but with the right delivery… He was also planning his grand entrance, singing Rizzo’s song in Grease. His voice gave him the edge over most of the other queens who lip-synched.
In the local shop, the radio was on and the tills fell silent, as everyone listened in:
A second bonfire is currently being removed in east Belfast under police guard. Contractors wearing masks to protect their identity are dismantling the bonfire in Cluan Place. The police have just issued a statement that the pyre is posing ‘a significant risk to people and property in the area…’
‘Unsafe my arse,’ interrupted a customer. ‘That bonefire has been there for years. Four weeks to build and the bastards pull it down in four hours.’
‘Destroying our culture,’ said one of the workers, Leanne, popping her head over the crisp section where she was busy restocking. ‘Giving the Protestant people a hard time, eh, Marcus?’
Marcus made a faint murmur of sympathy to show he was in support, then went up to the till with milk, wheaten bread and sweets. He picked up an Aero on the way that said ‘For Sharing’. Share? I’ll have that scarfed in two seconds, Marcus laughed to himself. It was strange how Conor had no taste for the sweet and loved savoury. A sensation ran through his head of Conor’s tangy body.
Outside, another helicopter was heading eastwards like a flashing firefly. The air rocked with the sound of a blast bomb, making Marcus’s chest jolt. It was far enough away not to worry him, but there was bound to be trouble on the streets tonight. Christ, it was hard to get taxis at the best of times on a Friday, but with mad-ass loyalists losing the run of themselves there would be little chance. Taxis wouldn’t risk a brick through the windscreen, or even worse getting hijacked and burnt out.
‘I’ll leave the flat early,’ Marcus decided. Cool it, he told himself, feeling the sun on his face. It was so bright he even had to squint through his sunglasses.
Turning into his street, the overgrown bush on the corner thrust out its roses as though presenting him with a bouquet. He couldn’t help feeling he’d give a great show that night. He was almost home when his neighbour, Robert, stepped out, beckoning him into his flat.
‘Marcus, Marcus,’ he was calling croakily from his quivering chins. He was a pitiful sight with his greying whiskers and yellow-tinged eyes.
‘Hi Robert. Everything ok?’ Marcus said, coming through Robert’s door.
‘Could you put these numbers in?’ Robert asked. ‘My hands are gone.’
The receipt was shaking like a petal in his fingers. The DTs again, thought Marcus, going into the bottle-strewn living room, bending over and punching the numbers into the electric meter. The dogs were leaping up onto his back, frantic from being locked in all day.
‘How’s the form with you? Any shows on the go?’ Robert was asking. Ever since Marcus had moved in, he’d been fascinated by Regina.
‘Yep, a big show on tonight, Robert.’
‘There’ll be a big show here too,’ winked Robert.
‘I know. I heard there’s trouble.’
Robert was university-educated but the drinking had dragged him down to this ground-floor flat. It smelt of dog’s urine and cigarette smoke, and the wallpaper was peeling into scrolls. The layer of dust and fag ash on everything was as bad as Pompeii. The skirting boards were covered in dog hair like they were trying to self-insulate from the coldness of the walls. There was a rumour going round that Robert hid guns in here for the UDA.
‘I’d better go,’ said Marcus.
‘Aye, I imagine it takes some time, all that exfoliating and that,’ said Robert.
‘More plucked than a turkey, me,’ laughed Marcus, hurrying out.
He headed up to his own flat, taking a moment to luxuriate in its cleanliness. He noticed the tall thin cactus in the pot by the wall and recalled how Conor had pointed it out the morning after their first night together. The implication was that Marcus didn’t have a nurturing soul and couldn’t be bothered to look after anyone but himself. A little wooden bird was hanging from one of the cactus spikes. No more than a cutout reflecting his own make-believe, fake world, mused Marcus. It was funny how being viewed through someone else’s eyes made you question yourself.
He went into the bathroom and started lathering the acrid-smelling Immac onto his legs. He’d done his legs two days ago but even the faintest of hair growth bothered him. There had been that one time in bed years ago when a Czech man had raised his face from Marcus’s balls and stuck his tongue out in displeasure as if he’d licked sandpaper. It was true that the memory of one single flinch could scar you.
He started to sing. Maybe he’d strut on instead to I’m Gorgeous from The Apple Tree. Maybe he’d start the second half with I Don’t Know How to Love Him from Jesus Christ Superstar – now that would get them eating out of his hand. As a kid he used to love sitting with his sister watching the old musicals while his brother killed soldiers on some computer game. That was when he knew beyond doubt that he was different, some crossbreed, some boy-girl fusion. He’d been so glad to leave his family home in the village, the gospels written in giant letters on the gable end of barns, the stifling whin, broom and vetch of the country roads. The only time his father had ever mentioned his ‘act’, he’d paused heavily before uttering the word.
At eight years old at school in Bangor, he’d had his first crush on a boy. Tyler Girvan. Tyler Girvan had blond hair and wore a leather jacket. After lunch, when the teacher shouted for them to get in line, Marcus would race across the playground just so he could stand behind Tyler Girvan and breathe in his leather musk, the sweet scent of his blond hair. As blond as Conor. It seemed that his earliest sexual fantasy had infused his whole life.
I don’t know how to love him
What to do, how to move him
I’ve been changed, yes really changed
In these past few days, when I’ve seen myself
I seem like someone else.
With every word he kept thinking of Conor.
He opened his Aero in the bath, ate a few cubes and felt decadent – bubbles in bubbles. A glass of Prosecco and he’d be well sorted. His skin felt so soft and feminine in the water. He would have felt ultra-relaxed but for the clash of cutlery from the open kitchen windows. It was teatime, but he was always too keyed up before a show to eat more than a sweet or two.
He finally got out of the bath, dried himself and put on his bra and thong. It was an industrial-strength thong to keep his bits in place. He remembered the time Conor had put on his red spangly dress for fun and how he’d bulged through it.
‘God, I need to be strapped down,’ Conor had grinned.
‘I’ll strap you down any day, Con,’ Marcus had said, kissing him.
Shouts from the street cut through his thoughts. He slung on his dressing gown and hurried down to the front door. A gang of about a dozen teens was heading towards the bonfire, all on the balls of their toes, weaving with the anger of wasps. Some wore hoodies and scarves, others balaclavas, resembling black insect heads. One of the teens was looking straight at him through the slits of the balaclava and made a chopping motion at his throat just as Marcus drew back and slammed the door shut. Marcus immediately berated himself for not staying inside; he should never have shown his face. Teens here were paranoid about neighbours touting on them. Sure on nearly every street corner there were slogans about so-and-so being a tout.
He told his beating heart not to be so scared. He was just up to high doh about the show, that was all. But it was mad how he’d always had a nose for strolling into trouble. That night a few years ago when, as Regina, he’d got out of the taxi on his road only to get a punch in the side of the temple that burst his skin.
The punch was the real reason he didn’t want to move in with Conor, why he insisted on staying in his flat over the Twelfth. He didn’t want to admit to his fear and, if he moved out, the boy who punched him would win, but by staying he could change things. Sure they all accepted him now in the shop, the likes of Robert loved him. If he left, it would throw up the old memories of how he had to leave home, how he had had to suppress his true self for years. If only he could talk to Conor, but Conor’s hatred of the Twelfth was inbred, and he would never understand Marcus’s desire to reconcile himself with the culture around him. It sounded mad but there was something that had always thrilled Marcus about the rhythm and colour of parades, the swagger and strut of the drum major, twirling his baton like a dancer from a musical with a cane…
He slipped the falsies into his bra. Born-again breasts, he liked to call them. He sat down at his makeup table and opened the huge slabs of concealer, powder, liners, lippies, brushes bigger than you’d paint your house with… Each layer he applied was as thick as an epidermis, transforming him completely.
He’d been born from a caesarean. He came from a cut. It always struck him that he’d scarred his mother from the get-go. Sometimes, he’d joke he’d never even been out of a vagina, let alone inside one. Up to the age of four, he was coldrife and he’d sneak into his mum’s bed for warmth while his father was off doing night shift. One night, when he was lying on top of his mother’s body, she told him to stop rubbing himself. Her words had become lodged in his mind and, at times, he wondered if it was her disapproval that had put him off women forever.
He put on his dress, smoothed his body into it, the heat of his hands almost ironing the fabric. Then put on his honey-brown wig. In the mirror, she looked wonderful, chimeric. Up above, he could hear the whirr of rotor blades. Ah, my private helicopter’s arrived, he smiled, but he guessed it heralded trouble. He quickly booked a taxi. It was nine thirty and the evening had run away with itself. The last of the slanting sunlight was squeezing itself between the tight seams of the buildings.
As soon as the taxi arrived, he looked out through the window to check the street was clear. He pulled on his raincoat to cover up his dress and ran out. Each time he left the house as Regina he double-checked there were no groups of young men walking past. His neighbours were cool but he still had to take care.
The taxi sped away, the eyes of the driver wide as he sussed out Marcus in his rearview mirror. The sky was glazed with a soft rosy nacre as the night pushed down the pearl of the sun onto the horizon.
‘There’ll be murder on tonight,’ said the taxi driver darkly.
‘The next act, ladies, ladyboys and gentlemen, is a brand new and exceedingly muscular group. They’re all brawn and no brain. Did I say prawn? No, I know prawn’s no good, hon, I meant brawn. So please give it up for the amazing and fantabulous Flawless!’
As he stepped back into the wings, the dance act running past him, he thought he could see Conor come in through the low lighting, half crouching to find himself a seat. He looked again just to make sure; it was definitely him. It was the first night since they’d met that Conor had come to one of his shows.
Once the act was over, Marcus threw himself into his valedictory number. He sang it to Conor, praying that they’d make it, that they’d stay together.
I could hurt someone like me
Out of spite or jealousy
I don’t steal and I don’t lie
But I can feel and I can cry
A fact I’ll bet you never knew
But to cry in front of you
That’s the worst thing I could do-oo.
‘Oh my god, I can’t believe you’re here!’ Marcus cried out, bouncing over to Conor once the applause had died away.
‘I heard about the riots. I thought I’d better take you home with me.’
Trixie Dix loomed into vision, planting a huge kiss on Marcus’s cheek.
‘Honey, you were amazing,’ Trixie Dix enthused. She glanced down at the bouquet in Marcus’s arms and quipped, ‘what’s better than flowers on the grand piano? Tulips on your organ. Gettit? Two lips!’
‘If shit was wit you’d be Oscar Wilde,’ one of the other queens sneered.
Marcus was caught up in a festoon of congratulations. At one point he glanced over at Conor to see him chatting to some girls. It gave him a jealous pang, knowing Conor was bisexual. But yet he, Marcus/Regina, was bi-imaged, one part man, one part woman, so surely he was more than enough for him.
‘Keep your eye on that one,’ came Trixie’s bitchy whisper. ‘A good shepherdess always looks after her cock, I mean flock.’
‘Oh, don’t worry, he’s looking after me. Making sure I don’t get caught up in the riots.’
‘Here, Conor, you better look after Regina tonight. She goes wild for helicopters. Everyone knows she loves a big chopper.’
‘Trixie, your routine is as stale as your breath, honey,’ one of the queens sighed.
‘C’mon, lover,’ said Marcus, interlocking arms with Conor. ‘Let’s go to yours.’
He tripped out of the Sunflower on a high. He was vaguely aware he towered above Conor in his heels, but what did it matter?
In Conor’s car, Marcus kept envisioning the teenage boy in the balaclava like a bad dream.
‘Conor, do you mind if we pop home to mine first?’
‘But it’s dangerous.’
‘My street isn’t next to the bonfire. Don’t fret, honey. I’ll direct you. I just need to check that no one’s put a brick through the window.’
He wanted to tell Conor about the boy giving him the throat sign, but was scared to give voice to his own paranoia. As they drove down past the Big Fish, they could see the flashes of helicopters circling above the east.
They turned into the Woodstock Road and carried on up towards the Mount. The mephitic fumes of arson tainted the air. Cars were parking on the roadside, disgorging young loyalists chattering excitedly, carryouts in hand as if they were heading to a street festival. The moon hung low and large and orange from the glow of the city lights.
As Conor drove into Marcus’s street, he slammed on the brakes. Fifty metres away was a crowd facing a line of riot police decked out in their baggie blues. It was a Mexican standoff, both parties waiting for the other to attack.
‘Fuck, fuck, fuck,’ panicked Conor, trying to reverse, crunching the gears.
‘Wait, Conor, stop,’ said Marcus. ‘Let me out here.’
Marcus shoved open the door. Amidst the shudder of the copter blades, random shouts rang out from the crowd. An emergency vehicle wailed.
Marcus hurried towards his flat and saw, to his relief, there was no damage to the windows. Straight ahead, he could hear music blaring from the riot; behind him, Conor had managed to park the car. Laughter pealed out above the music. On an impulse, he walked on.
‘Marcus!’ Conor called after him, but he didn’t turn. He stumbled over some bricks, rocks and bottles littering the road. He cursed as a brick scuffed his heel. Weaving his way through the crowd, he could see a drunken guy doing some sort of impromptu breakdance in the middle of the road, birling round on his scoliotic back like a fat-limbed tortoise, while everyone clapped and egged him on. As someone switched off the music, the man staggered off dizzily. Regina, sensing the opening, stepped forward into the empty semicircle. The staccato clip of her own heels thrilled her. The lights of the police land rovers and the water cannon were trained on her.
Don’t tell me not to live
Just sit and putter
Life’s candy and the sun’s
A ball of butter
Don’t bring around a cloud
To rain on my parade.
He could hear the gasps around him. ‘What the fuck?’ growled a deep voice behind him. There was ugliness, sourness in the air but he ignored it and carried on singing. He didn’t care any more. Let them beat him to death if they wanted. He was going to be who he was in this community. Some titters began to take hold.
He felt a hand grabbing his bum, but he spun out of the way, without breaking beat with the song. Someone threw a punch at him, but it skimmed him and he sang on, sensing his aggressor being dragged back into the crowd.
He could see Robert, drink in hand, lumber over, shouting, ‘go on there, girl. Give it some rice!’ Leanne was looking on bright-eyed from the shadows.
A drunk girl in a short skirt was dancing next to him, showing her bum to the crowd.
‘Yeoh!’ the men shouted.
I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid, I’m not afraid, went the backing group within Marcus’s head. His voice soared. The spotlights of the vehicles went on full beam. He could hear the riot police flip back their visors, drawn in, spellbound.
Get ready for me, love
‘Cause I’m a comer
I simply gotta march
My heart’s a drummer
Nobody, no, nobody
Is gonna rain on my parade.
Marching Season by Rosemary Jenkinson is published by Doire Press