Rana blinked more when he was nervous or tired. Right now, his eyelids were in such a fierce spasm the bar seemed strobe lit.
“Get them out,” Mr Bhatia hissed.
Head hanging, Rana struggled to breath through a choking tide of scent. Jasmine, sandalwood, cedar, rosewater, swirled in the humid air, wrapping around his throat like fingers. One side of the bar was crowed with a chattering flock of exotic birds. Light refracted from jewelled throats, fingerings stabbing his retina.
Weddings were almost unheard of at the hotel, stuck as it was on an industrial swathe of the Clyde riverbank. The current honour was due to Mr Bhatia, the bride’s second-cousin. She was marrying a surgeon from a very good family. There would be several medical professionals in attendance, some bankers, and an Uncle who owned a furniture emporium.
Maa and Dadi were thrilled. They peeled their eyes off Eastenders long enough to exchange significant looks. As the closing music rolled they spoke in low, meant-to-be-heard tones. Rana didn’t need to eavesdrop. The argument was ritual. Maa insisting he just needed a little more time, defending him as a shy, fatherless son. Dadi muttering that it was disrespectful, lazy. They would reconcile, as always, with murmured plans for the inevitable return home.
Many girls there would be happy to marry a hard-working, honest man with a British passport. Not the prettiest, nor the smartest (if only he hadn’t flunked out of university) but someone serviceable, modest, good-natured; not too old to give grandchildren.
Their conversation was a mosquito-whine: faint but implacable.
People put Rana on edge. He felt safe within the broad, gleaming cherry wood oval of the hotel bar but nothing and no one could induce him to enter one socially. His handful of school friendships had dwindled as they aged into pubs and clubs. By the time he failed his engineering course his only friends were online. Gamers hid their real names and stories behind elaborate, ever-evolving characters, which suited him.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like people, he just didn’t like bodies. The insistent physicality of them, their orifices and excretions, churned his stomach. He wondered what others saw that allowed them to embrace, laugh, stand close, casually touch. What he saw was unfinished buildings: gaping pores, loose strands of hair, sweat beads, wet slack mouths, moist protruding eyes, terrible tunnels of ears, and overhanging fingernail cliffs.
On busy nights at the bar his eyes flailed with the effort of suppressing his revulsion. Rana once tried to explain but Maa and Dadi hooted, cut him off with a remark that made him blush.
Tightening the screw on a new razor blade, he reddened with remembered humiliation. Stabbing his brush at the shaving soap with one hand, he reached with the other to raise the volume on a silver radio the size of a Rubik’s cube. The Archers helped bat away the swarming anxieties.
When he finished a second shave – both times carefully skirting the large mole on the left of his chin – Rana called for Maa. He rinsed the razor, automatically counting the slap-slap of her slippered feet. In their old house, when his father was alive, she could surprise him, footsteps muffled by beige shag carpet. Here in Dadi’s sparse walk-up, every move echoed. She passed his shirt, warm from pressing, through the narrowest possible crack in the door, averting her eyes, as did he.
Rana buttoned the white stain-resistant poly-cotton from bottom to top, checking for minute spots or incipient wrinkles. He never found any, but nevertheless took a hand mirror and, back to the sink, craned for evidence of a maternal slip-up. He adored Maa. She was the most selfless person he knew. When his father died she refused to consider remarriage, despite clicks and sighs from her friends. Many of them were divorced and openly envied her good fortune in slipping the bonds of matrimony with such ease. The old man wasn’t even so bad, they complained. No excuse to not try again.
Maa, resisting the cajoling and gossip, moved them to the stark peace of Dadi’s flat. At the time, Rana’s relief was so intense it felt like real happiness. Gradually, as the memories and fears faded, it settled into stale contentment. A scene from the old house flashed in his mind. Grabbing blindly for a towel, he knocked the shaving onto the floor.
Trembling, he pointed to the ceramic fragments and spattered foam.
“You’ll be late.”
Nodding, blinking, he ran to the front room, grabbed his coat and rush out without saying goodbye. Shotgun pellets of rain spattered as he trotted from the bus stop, weaving a course dictated by puddles reflecting the flat orange street lights. The blue-and-green Hydro squatted in the sodden air like a glowing turtle at the bottom of an aquarium. Pink shone between the curves of the Armadillo’s shell. An overspill of young bodies filled the space between the venues: girls in mini-skirts, breasts bulging out of thin vests, held each other’s hands, rolled glittering eyes at boys in skinny jeans and flannel shirts.
Rana cut wide, splashing his trousers as he went beyond the reach of the lights. Wind tore along the river path, flattened his anorak against him and plucked its fur-lined hood.
Gigs meant roadies.
The hotel was the only bar in walking distance of the venues so they came every weekend, late. No matter the event, they looked the same: work trousers or jeans, tee-shirts, hoodies, waterproof jackets, steel-toed boots, all black. Tattoos. Beards. Rings in noses and ears. Calloused hands with dirty nails. Cash stuffed in pockets; laminates, keys, torches, multi-tools clipped to belts.
Mr Bhatia would have banned them if he could have, cleansing his businesslike bar of their varied accents, sweat-crusted clothes, and boisterous laughter.
“Get them out,” he repeated.
Rana, on the verge of panic, could only gasp.
“The roadies,” Mr Bhatia snapped, mistaking his anxiety for incomprehension. “For one night we will have dignity and elegance here. My illustrious family and guests should not have to share…”
A tinkle of shattering glass came from the midst of the flock. Mr Bhatia darted towards the sound. Rana pressed his weight into the top of the glass washer and squeezed his eyes shut.
“When you have a minute, pal.”
There was a hand on the bar – long slender fingers, square nail beds and a scarlet peony blooming on fair skin. Vines trailed up a muscle-grooved forearm. Rana’s head rose, eyes traversing pectoral curve and rounded square of shoulder.
The man’s eyes matched the bluebell tattoo on his neck. His hair, the colour of a struck match, swept back from a high, pale forehead. Cheekbones rose in sharp lines above a flame of beard.
The suffocating tide swept out, leaving cool, placid air between them.
Rana and the man leaned into the clear space.
“Yes.” His voice was low, firm, mellifluous.
Rana knew without knowing how, or why, he know. His fingers sought and found the storeroom key without conscious instruction. Certainty parted the sea. He moved unimpeded, invisible through the sticky, clotted, perfumed, raucous clusters of flesh.
The ancient, untended lock yielded: silent and accommodating.
He snapped the deadbolt: “Rana”.
They appraised each other beneath a naked 40-watt bulb. Rana didn’t blink when Jake cupped his face in both hands, nor when they kissed. He gazed up fearlessly as he knelt, unzipping Jake’s work-worn black jeans. Only when he braced himself against a barrel to let Jake fill his yearning body did Rana’s eyes slowly, luxuriously, slide shut.