March 13, 2021

I Am Not a Template

Not Quite A Prologue, Not Quite An Epilogue.

I am distinctly not dead.

All my body parts work. I have hands that have found themselves quite adept at holding onto a pen
for dear life. They’re just as nimble with a hand-me-down, heirloom tennis racquet, or a
loved-one’s fingers, slippery though they may be, or the hopes that are now a little worn from
years of being gripped tightly by these lifelined palms.

I’ve a heart that pumps, even though its rhythm is sometimes attuned to another’s song. Not all of
its ventricles turn up for the beat, either. They’ve been spread thinly over various one-
two-steps. I’ve imprisoned arteries that work so hard they’re one arrest away from a cardiac. I’ve
veins that have been complimented on by medical professionals world-over. They stand out on my skin
because they’re fit to burst. I’ve eyes that inherited the luminous and untrustworthy blue of a
grandfather on my Mother’s side. I’ve a stomach which has had to be strong because there are people
who’ve turned away from me mercilessly. And I’ve genitalia that quite frankly need a vacation as
some mornings it distinctly wishes it were dead.

Still, all parts can be found working; if not extraordinarily then certainly to a satisfactory
standard. At this precise crossroads moment in time I find myself in some of them are struggling,
yes, but some of them have been pinched into acuity. Most especially functioning right now are my
ears.

“HIV. Isn’t that a thing gay men get and then they die?”

My mouth, I have to admit, is misbehaving slightly. It’s actually me who’s asking that question.
Strange, as I am an HIV-positive man who’s decidedly homosexual but who’s also, as I told you in
the immediate, very much alive. Stood where I find myself, slightly aloft from others, I wonder
whether I’m just being brazen, mostly because it’s a word I rarely get the chance to label myself
with. I actually feel more alive than usual, having just posed that leaden question to a crowd of
hundreds. And while I am a poser, true, it’s fairer to say that I’m really just repeating the
question. I’ve never asked it out loud before, even though the younger me may have conjured it up
quietly in the occasional dark and still nights of my youth.

The question had been uttered by me but they weren’t my words.

I’d wobbled towards the dais I now stand at, unable to feel anything save the swooning in my blood
and expectancy in the air. I needed to clear my throat, wanting to repeat the question for dramatic
effect. It sounded like a pronouncement from God’s own messenger, as if my time were up, though I
was – as per usual – very much alive. It’s a theme with me and one my nerve endings were
proclaiming, their cylinders firing so hard the ground was shifting underfoot. This was all
happening in the eagerest of silences. And while I didn’t have a pin to drop, I did have a mic. It
was bulbous, eyeing me up with such salacious intent I nearly climaxed before the speech even
began. All eyes out there in ascending rows were entering my personal space, as they had a right to
do. I’d invited them, after all.

“HIV. Isn’t that a thing gay men get and then they die?”

I could hear a pre-pubescent crack in my voice thanks to my nerves working their magic.
I’d been asked that doozy many, many times before and had always answered it with a rapid-fire
response. A ‘no’ would only ever be the tip of the iceberg. The bulk of my argument lay under the
waterline but close enough to the surface for me to drag it out for an airing. And I didn’t care
who asked me: a colleague, a distant family member, a one-nighter, or even the man I loved, now sat
in the front row amongst this crowd of over-a-hundred but looking so very alone. I could see it in
those scarab-shell eyes of his.

Later, the semi-breve in his voice would back that worry up.

Having him sat there watching me with those kind, desert eyes brought tears to my own. The kind
that aren’t quite strong enough to prevent you from holding them in. There he was, a boyfriend
who’d pinned a red ribbon on his jumper just for me, despite being uncomfortable at being mistaken;
that people would think it’s him who’s got it. But he didn’t have it. I did. The question echoed in
my throat like my larynx was Alpine in dimensions, willing another ask: HIV. Isn’t that a thing gay
men get and then they die?

I never tire of the question. It still rings as fresh as a bell tolling for a new death. All eyes
and ears and heartbeats and adrenal glands waited for my response.

World AIDS Day is the Academy Awards of our calendar and this year I was their Bob Hope. I know
what it’s like to be too scared to speak. We’ve been avatars for too long now. Some still are. I
was their hope and I was chomping at every bit of it. That’s not to say I wasn’t scared. I’d been
as anxious about stepping up to the podium as I had been introducing William to my parents. It was
a first. Thankfully my synapses were distracted by the excitement lurking underneath the generic
animal-print shirt I wore. I was ready to pounce and I was ready to wow. I was going to enjoy the
year’s highlight.

I smoothed the front of my big-cat armour down. My breathing started to purr. I had some attention
to catch and surely a predator has a better chance of snagging something when they fall upon a
herd? Even better if the masses are squeezed stock-still into the cheap seats a venue’s hired for
the night.

I tried to cluck-cluck the dryness in my mouth away by drawing up some saliva.

You can have a fixed idea of how an evening will go, but it’s those objects in life you’ve fixed
rigidly that topple the easiest once a quake starts giving out its tremors. The schism I so
desperately didn’t want to happen was about to be rent on World AIDS Day, which as the activist I
am is a level beyond and above the ironic.

Except maybe it wasn’t.

A friend would call me out on this, on dropping casual references to irony during my everyday
existence. It would be told in a tone laced with just the right volume of barb.

“Whatever this schism is, it ain’t irony. If you’re about to split up because you’d infected
William on World AIDS Day with a virus that is – in your case, I believe – impossible to transmit;
then irony it could be. But you didn’t.”

No, we didn’t. We seemed headed for the split because of good, old-fashioned fear, pride and
cowardice. Those three fates, those three witches. Three colours on a traffic-light and none of
them said ‘go’. They said ‘watch out’.

Except…

Except, maybe it was ironic. For these times, that is.

It is inarguable that the meaning of irony has transmuted over the ages. It isn’t what it once was,
which could be said about a lot of things. Irony had a change of heart when the ten-thousand spoons
you didn’t need became a knife. In reality, that’s just inconvenient. Meanings change though,
that’s the nature of progression. A favourite word of mine has always been ‘archipelago’, not
because it’s like Chaplin’s breadrolls to the ears but because it means the opposite of what it
means. Ouch, what a headfuck.

In Greek, archipelago is rifted into arkhi– and pelagos, meaning chief and sea. The big sea.
You can see why the Greeks used this word for a mottle of island outcrops. It was their ocean, more
blue than greenery, remnants of land that had been split up from too many years of myth and
manhandling. But when we came to look at Greece through the eyes of an alien interloper their
archipelago looked like nothing more than a few rocky breadcrumbs, a collection of them.

Was this November the 30ᵗʰ to be ironic or not then? I tried to think of something that indubitably
was and my activist’s bent reminded me of a story from the battlefield of Africa in the early ‘90s.
Children who had been exposed to modern medicine were twice as likely to become sick with AIDS than
those who’d been too poor to receive routine childhood vaccinations. This was due to a combination
of medical professionals unwittingly exacerbating transmissions through shoddy equipment and that
very equipment itself. Needles were over-used to the point where they had to be sharpened on
whetstones, as if medieval craftsmanship was alive, well and fashionable to shoot. That was an
internationally-recognised irony and one that had killed more people than I’d probably ever met.
Comparison can bring the shiver of embarrassment at one’s own unimportance.

I am important to myself, however. And so the trickle of events that made up a love story
culminating in the World AIDS Day celebrations of 2019 might have been ironic after all. They might
be construed as an archipelago of memories both pleasurable and painful. They might even come to be
breadcrumbs dropped in the hope that we’ll follow them home one day. For now, you’re just going to
have to see it through the lens I’ve given it. I’m taking my skiff out into that topsy-turvy
archipelago so either get on board already, or remain treading the same water I was.

The truth is I don’t even know the word for what came to happen. An even simpler truth might be
that there is no word for it. Not ‘til I coin one later. However it’s minted, it’s fair to say that
the universe was certainly playing at mischievous buggers that weekend. An event I’d been looking
forward to for twelve months was monstering in front of my eyes into an evening that bit back. I’d
prodded that monster for months now, so it was only a matter of time ‘til teeth were bared.

For that evening on November the 30ᵗʰ I’d been asked to speak for The Brigstowe Project, an HIV
charity who operate in the South-West. It was an absolute honour. I’d been playing the activist in
a half-hearted, slightly petrified guise for years now. One half of the ol’ bloodpumper would
always stone itself hard whenever that mic saw me coming. It’s never easy having that organ as your
primary mouthpiece. Now, I was all open with tubes dilated and words hanging off my lips like
lemmings whose end would be glorious and memorable. I’d even planned a visual gag for the finale,
which I suspect was influenced as much by RuPaul as it was by the childhood memory of Buck’s Fizz
at the Eurovision.

World AIDS Day is actually the 1ˢᵗ of December, but this year it fell on a Sunday and in deference
to pulling in a crowd for ticket-sales the celebrations had been forwarded to a Saturday. People
are much likelier to leave their home for a good cause if it’s not the day of rest, be it the
Lord’s or lover’s. The Lord would make an appearance alright, always keen to attend the opening of
a covenant, but my lover was right by my side from the off. We made a day of it.
That last day of November had started green-for-go.

William turned up late because he’d pulled in at three service stations to find the perfect bouquet
for me. Sunshining petals greeted me as I opened the door. I was always slightly anxious at his
arrival, sometimes unable to meet his gaze in case I revealed too much. The perfume- counter clout
of the flowers was followed by a kiss. It was 11:11am, a time we’d made our own long before it
became a meme.

We caught up once our clothes had been Jackson Pollock’d over my bedroom floor, our toes holding
onto each other for dear life under the sheets. I could tell he wanted to nap but I was keeping him
from nodding off by the sheer force of my nuzzling into the back of his scented neck. It was the
safest of places, lying parenthesised against his spine like a mitt having caught a pitch from the
universe perfectly. I was looking over the world of his bald, pulsating head as his attention
wandered around the four walls I was calling my own.

“You’re wearing the shirt from my fortieth? It’s perfect.”

It was hanging on my wardrobe door like a hunter hangs a skinned hide.

I think we tried to get dressed another triptych of times, but ended up fucking like animals before
anyone’s socks could be made into a pair. Those toothsome bites into each other’s necks and nipples
and upper thighs must have been the inspiration for my top’s bestial motif. That feels a little
cock-and-egg but I knew how our day was going to start even while he was fretting over floral
arrangements somewhere off the M32. Even once he’d gotten his white briefs on I still tried to get
my tongue under the fabric and close to his recently-showered backside. Weeks apart had left us
starved without any sexual carcass to pick at. Such was the nature of a long-distance relationship.
Such was the reason it always took us no time to disrobe but too much time to redress.

It was early in the day to be attired so formally. Even taking an Über at 2pm felt anachronistic
with the sun blaring so brightly outside, as cold as it was bright. Townsfolk were going about
their business in drab, workaday outfits. Meal-deals from homogenous supermarkets were held by
fingers wishing they’d been given gloves in the morning. I spotted a former work colleague wheeling
a rusty ATM machine down a steep Montpelier sidestreet. I knew him well enough to know he thought
it’d be full of cash-dollar. He was the kind of man who found objects that were destined for the
incongruous snapshot. I hollered out of the window but William brought my gaze back to inside the
taxi by squeezing a kneecap in such a tender manner it could only have been demonstrating how proud
he was of me.

My heart rumbled like thunder about to live up to its promise.

We lunched in the afternoon, at a tapas bar big on sustainability and quick-bleached furniture. I’d
pre-ordered all the food so that the rigmarole of having to sift the vegans out from the carnivores
wouldn’t interrupt our merry-making. I thought it would be a good idea to bring us together and
catch-up over molluscs and gossip, and I wanted maximum conversation and minimal decisions. Us
comprised of my boyfriend and my makeshift Bristol family. I was sat opposite William and next to
Chelsea, five-foot short but with a New Jersey stature. Here were some of my finest and strongest
of loved ones, all at a long table like my very own disciples. We were thirteen in total. Who knew
I’d end up playing the Judas? But then and there, waiting for small plates while sharing big news,

I was happy.

I was also behaving by staying away from the drink and therefore downing ersatz mojitos like mint
had just been declared an endangered species. I only employ a decent dose of metonymy when alcohol
pours itself into the situation. Metonymy: a word I’ve loved and thrown about casually before I
ever knew what it meant. There must be a way to describe that, as a trait?

“Arsehole” quipped William, giving me an eye that challenged childhood parts I hadn’t outgrown. We
sat centre-stage at the banqueting table, feeding each other oysters garnished with beetroot pickle
like little droplets of imperial blood. We had an east wing of friends to one side, a west repeated
on the other. It felt like a wedding. It felt like this was the man I’d marry, too. It’s amazing
how hard a spanner can hit once it’s been thrown into the works.

“It’s unbearable, just look at ‘em,” said Chelsea. She was watching William prise himself from the
wall and slinky his way under the table to emerge next to me, almost over me, kissing me on a mouth
full of balsamic and leaf before trotting off to the toilets.

“I am inspired and depressed by them in equal measure.” She turned her attention back to a
dating-app on her phone. I was suddenly glad I wasn’t single. Like a shadow passing, the table lost
its lustre with William being in the bog. I’m sure it was just the sun moving beyond the
conservatory-styled roof and away to another part of the globe. William was a biologically
expressive toilet-goer, but I still nearly followed him there. That must be a kind of worship to
your loved one. I’d leave the genuflection to others. I wasn’t desperately unhappy at the next destination looming either, aware that it was the kind of brick-and-mortar William could breathe
out in. So, knowing full well I’d be paying no deference to the Lord and turning my eyes away from
any sculpted stigmata, I shepherded my cohort – post-tapas, post-catch-up, pre-revelation – down to
St James’ Priory.

It’s an ancient church in Bristol, parts of it holding onto their vestiges since 1129. Most of it
crumbling with the speed of an epoch. It was a little-celebrated building, Bristolians walking past
it only on the way into the bus station, which, like most transport hubs, merely wore a vestige of
the forlorn. The charity I was speaking on behalf of had chosen the priory as the first
port-of-call. The march would begin from here and head to the Watershed, an arts venue overlooking
the city’s docks. We would begin in the past and walk towards a hopeful future. We had come to pray
and give remembrance to the victims AIDS had taken in that bloodied swathe cut so tenderly all
those years ago.

It was as quiet as a virus in the blood, the inside of that church.

There were no pins dropping here, either. They were all unanimously keeping scraps of red fabric
affixed firmly to people’s costumes. Ribbons make a sound as cutting as prayers, both as loud as
snowflakes. I couldn’t describe the nave as being like an echo-chamber because solemnity took too
much space up for anything to bounce off it. I didn’t offer up any psalms but satisfied myself with
a soul’s susurration. I had a lot to remember and a lot to be thankful for. Upon diagnosis, years
back, my numbers had been so low a mere feather would have knocked me over into oblivion. My
father, a boxer when young, had always joked I was the featherweight of the family.

Glitterweight, more like.

But I was alive and I thinking about the truth of all this and the fight I’d put up to get here. It
was simple. I had survived, by the skin of my bloodied teeth. I had thanks to give now, though they
were aimed at me and mine. I didn’t have a religious bone in my recovered body. The ones I did have
tingled at the blasphemy of where I was sat. William had guided me into the church, knowing I felt
like a charlatan here but aware that I had to be a part of this ceremony. It was all a part of
telling our truth. Truths that we, the positive masses, had outgrown. We’ve shucked off a leprosy
we never had in the first place. One it was now impossible for me to transmit. This is a truth I’ve
been shouting into the wings east, west and any other compass point that’d have me. It frequently
echoed back, unheard.

And there was another truth. That of the love I’d found in tandem with living with such a demonic
entity.

(I mean the virus, not myself.)

People filled up the church like fingers hidden underneath playful hands.

I’m pretty sure this was not on my friends’ to-do list that Saturday, not their usual weekend
entertainment. They were nightclubbers and party-goers and pill-poppers. We all are sometimes. I
was slightly overwhelmed that there’d been such enthusiastic interest in supporting me at this
event, that they would sacrifice a rare weekend night to be a part of my plus-how-ever-many. But
friends stick to friends, otherwise they’re not deserving of the accolade. And that night, they
came through with colours that flew.

And colours that flummoxed, too.

It was utterly unexpected when all-of-a-sudden three of my friends were in the priory aisles: Noo
Joisey Chelsea; Gemma, from the less glamorous Yate and looking like the clean-shaven girlfriend of
Gizmo, being a little gremlin of a woman; and the illegally-voluptuous Holly, who would come to
play chalice-bearer later. They were no longer sat on the pews and willing this earnestness to be
over quickly, but in the aisles on foot. Holly was handing out mince pies that had come from whence
knew not. Gemma was following devotedly with two-ply Yuletide serviettes. Chelsea hung around behind them doing nothing but creeping people out. Quite how they’d been roped into this onerous duty and by whom remains satisfyingly unknown. Years of catering work had seemingly drawn them into the role.

The mince pies were received gladly.

I lost grip of my boyfriend’s hand. William had gone up to light a votive candle. I could never
compete with that guy. He was the only one I ever saw William flirt with. My boyfriend’s
relationship with God was always, in my eyes, on the coquettish side. I didn’t see it as a
full-time commitment. They felt like business acquaintances to me. God never had a kind word to say
about us homosexuals, so it mystified me what he – sorry, He – and William could possibly be
discussing. I might never know what my boyfriend said up there after the candle was triggered,
what was whispered into the unanswering walls. It might remain one of the great unknowns,
information privy only to the same individual that had been handing out confectionery-duties to my
friends. I can only hope William’s prayer was for us and I can only admit my own disappoint that I
wasn’t the answer to it.

When the medieval doors opened to allow our escape, a holy gust blew half of the candles out. The
last of the sun beyond was set in amber resin. The evening was getting ready.

I barely had time to adjust my emotional reflexives before a foot was put down on the adrenalised
joy I’d been relishing. I went from the highlight of the year to, less than twelve hours later,
being pushed off a precipice.

A Sunday afternoon, William and I feeling flattened by the weight of too many emotions, all the
emotions. Sat in The Greenbank and crying over a shared single chicken roast. Neither of us had the
heart to lay claim to the cut-through, roasted garlic bulb. I had a Guinness, hoping the ancestry
would support me as I cried the continual cataract of somebody who has no social obligations left
to worry about saving face. William played with the food using one item of cutlery at a time,
knowing once the last bite had been taken somebody would be leaving. We were sat at the bar itself,
where the nudge-nudge, wink-wink barman – Heath Ledger resurrected for the edgy Easton crowd – only
made me angry. Angry that he was flirting with me when I was losing the love of my life. Angrier
that he was flirting at William, to whom I snapped:

“You’re back on the market now, so why not go for it?”

“Don’t be like that.”

How are you supposed to be when the taste of chicken and garlic and congealed gravy has been
eclipsed by sour terror? My mouth cloyed up into silence. It was now burdened with too much
moisture. Not a single one of my tears made a sound though I could just about see through the
eyewash that they were landing on the ugly dinner-plate with enough force to keep the discs of
carrot afloat of their own accord.

We went home. It was neither my home, playing lodger for some friends, or his. His home and his
safety lay hundreds of miles westward in London. He had one eye on it. He had another on my
untimely erection. How was I finding the emotional pain of all this erotic? It was an unspoken
agreement when our clothes came off. We were tearing away the smell of disappointment and replacing
it with sweat and spunk. I couldn’t look at him while he thrust away with admirable regularity. He
had never been one to meet my eye when we had sex, so maybe he took this opportunity to clock the
moment he made me climax. Finally. I wish my sense of smell had been better so I could’ve inhaled
that horse-chestnut whiff, to keep it for the day when I’d come unstuck completely.

He took a long time in the shower, having a lot to wash off.

Then an hour later, William was sat in his car on my street. He’d been there for ten
minutes. I stood on the doorstep, my red ribbon drooping. Yesterday’s animal-print shirt had soiled
itself. I must have put it back on to show how tough my hide could be.

What was he doing? It appeared he was looking down at the phone in his lap but it could’ve been
that he just didn’t want any leisurely pedestrians to see him crying. I came out of the empty house
with pre-programmed steps, as if to confront him on his static predicament, but in reality just
wanting to see his face before he turned the engine on. A farmer’s cap was shading his forehead and
I almost smiled to see a Sudanese-born man in the garb of a Yorkshire barnboy. Almost, were it not
for the fact that his wide, grinworthy mouth was lined tight and his Nefertiti eyes were sharpened
for further treachery.

“Yes, sorry. Sorry, sorry. I’m going…”

It was the last thing I wanted him to do.

There were no traffic lights above him. I willed for a red light to appear, to keep him parked
there. William turned the ignition key.

The engine sounded like parts clapping. The car’s body was determined to take him out of here. It
looked like everything worked fine. William tensed. Last night, he had put his hands together for
me after the speech. I never knew that when applause was rapturous it did indeed sound like angels
flocking around you, feathering up the air with a whoomp.

William stretched his wings, floored a pedal and left me standing in the middle of a one- way
street unaware that there was traffic approaching behind me.