Searching the streets around Gamborini's central station for a suitable
hotel was stressful enough for Francis without having to deal with the
dark-haired urchin following ten paces behind him. He was a scruffy
looking thing, wearing shorts, sandals and a shirt that had once been
bright yellow. He could just drop his bags and scare him off, but it
probably wouldn't work and besides more than anything he wanted to be
in a hotel, standing under a hot shower, a beer in his hand. It was
what he deserved.
The first three places were too expensive. The fourth, in a more down
market side street, had its prices displayed in the porch. He
calculated the rate of exchange. The urchin rushed up to him.
'Mister, Mister, is lovely hotel, very comfortable, double bed, oh yes.
I carry bags, no trouble, no trouble.'
The boy reached for a bag but Francis pushed him away and ran into the
hotel. He was determined to be in control. There would be no free
loaders. He would decide how he spent his money. It was his trip. It
was going to be perfect and if he knew anything it was that dreadfully
picturesque urchins should plague other, richer, tourists.
The manager showed him a room on the first floor. It was bright and
clean, with a balcony and indeed a double bed.
'This is a quiet time in Gamborini,' she said, as if pleased to see
him, 'once the festival is over the tourists don't come.'
'Oh,' Francis said and there was silence.
'How long will you stay?' she asked.
'Two weeks perhaps.'
He was staying six nights, but he thought the lie would get him better
treatment. She talked about the festival, how he should have been in
the city then. He ignored her right hand which kept opening and closing
as if to remind him where to put the tip. He had found he was treated
better if people thought him eccentric. He cultivated looking blank;
which they could take to mean he was gullible or other worldly, just as
they pleased. She would go through his baggage when he was out, but
there were no secrets there.
When he was alone the room grew smaller and musty and he opened the
doors to the balcony. He looked over the railing, back along the
footpath towards the station. In another less grey city there would
have been tables and chairs and people drinking wine and laughing. But
in Gamborini the people only laughed during the festival, according to
his guidebook. And even then the laughter was restrained. Revellers
confined themselves to thanking God for the non-appearance of the
Virgin, which they took to mean another year of peace.
He hung his three changes of jeans, shirts and underwear in the
wardrobe and the white cotton socks on the back of a chair. He put his
second pair of trainers to air by the open balcony doors.
He was beginning to strip for the shower when he heard; 'Mister,
Mister.' It was the urchin on the balcony, crouching like a cat, ready
Francis moved towards him, wondering if he should throw the boy over
the railings or just close the doors.
'Please,' he said, 'I want to be your friend. I help you have nice
holiday. I not thief. I find nice lady-friend for you.'
Francis opened his mouth to tell him to go away when he said
plaintively, 'or nice boy-friend?'
'No thank you,' he said, trying to think of a put down to make him go
'Screwing urchins is not my idea of a holiday.' He said and closed the
door, but the voice followed him.
'Oh Mister, excuse me, not me, you are much mistaken, not me. I your
guide. We hunt together. I friend, you cannot hunt me, mistake.'
All this was said in a pleading way, which made Francis want to go out
and push him off the balcony.
He closed the curtains, took a beer from the fridge and brought it into
the shower. He drank another while he sat drying; the towel draped over
his shoulders. But he was still tense and was beginning to feel tired.
It would be best if he went to bed, had a long sleep and left in the
morning. The urchin was an omen. It was not going to be a good
But he was hungry. He hadn't eaten since breakfast on the overnight
train. He longed to be served plates of new and challenging
He dressed and left the hotel, encouraging himself to have a good time.
Wasn't that what he needed? To have a complete change. To be someone
else for a few days. To get a glimpse of what a new, freer life might
be like? Maybe. But perhaps without the steel hoops of his regular life
to contain him, the best he could hope for was to hold on to his sanity
for the six days. Maybe suspension would be better. A coma-like state
until he was ready to resume.
The urchin re-appeared almost instantly. He'd been foolish to forget
'Mister, Mister Francis,' he shouted, rushing towards him, 'wait for
me. You hungry, I find nice place for you, Mister Francis.'
The brat knew his name. This was frightening. He looked at him for some
clue as to what was happening. He had exchanged his rags for long
trousers and a sweatshirt that was almost new.
'Look,' he said, grabbing the boy's arm, squeezing as hard as he could,
and trying to release his own fear and anger, 'stay away from me. I
have no money. I don't want sex with you. Leeches like you disgust me.'
He dug his nails into the boy's arm in the hope of seeing pain in his
face; a sign that he would leave him alone.
'Come,' he said, dragging Francis along with him, 'I show you nice
place to eat.' The face grinned on and Francis released him and walked,
stunned at the boy's tolerance to pain and his own inability to know
how to escape.
He watched the way they went, vowing not to go down any side street.
And yet, a small threadbare area of his resistance wanted to let go. It
urged him to let himself be feted or exploited or even annihilated. But
the stronger part of him drew back, making him record the route, and
remember the guidebook instructions to get a feel for the city.
The tourist map showed this post war part of Gamborini as laid out in a
massive grid of concrete and water. Long straight roads intersecting in
a regular pattern with equally straight canals. The text described the
massive uniform buildings as: "all are six stories high and constructed
from cut grey stone. The centre of each block curves slightly, allowing
room for an arc of short grass in front." He could see no pattern to
the distribution of the metal balconies, but thought that the
bedclothes hanging from them on this fine evening humanised the
otherwise perfect symmetry.
The footpaths to the steep bridges over the canals were covered with
metal studs, like a carpet of bell pushes; difficult to walk on and
giving way as each foot pressed down on them. It reminded him of a
giant version of the amusement arcade machines of his childhood that
read his fortune from the shape his hand made on a grid of tiny
buttons, and printed out a card for him to keep. But this was more
sophisticated, sending vital information to some computer to be stored
for later use.
He lost his balance and slipped as soon as he stepped onto the first
bridge. Two people caught him and helped him all the way across. He
tried to thank them but they turned and went back the way they'd
'What's going on? What are those buttons for and why have they turned
back? he asked.
The boy laughed at him. 'All good people walk on the buttons.' he
A sensible person would take a taxi to the hotel and ask the manager to
make him a sandwich. But he allowed himself to be dragged along,
slipping at each bridge, and being helped by people who promptly turned
and walked back the way they'd come. It was completely bizarre, but all
the boy would say was: 'Good people walk on the buttons.'
It was a religious ceremony, he decided. Back and forth, repeating the
same task, building up a store of indulgences. An angel or even God
himself keeping tally, marking each crossing in a big ledger, to be
totalled on the day of judgement.
They stopped at an arc of grass crowded with groups of plain grey
people talking and gesturing loudly to each other. The boy pointed to a
shop visible through a gap between two distinct groups.
'In there,' he said, 'go eat,' and walked away to be absorbed into some
people near the water's edge. Francis felt elated at being free and
angry at being abandoned.
The woman in the restaurant looked ready to courtesy, leaving it up to
him. She said something and he told her he spoke only English. 'Follow
me,' She said, and walked to a table near in the middle of the room.
She was as tall as Francis but slimmer. She seemed to glide as though
her feet were on rollers. She gestured to him to sit down and went to
sit between two doors at the back of the room.
A waiter placed a drink in front of him and walked away. It tasted like
a dry aromatic wine. A few minutes later he appeared again with a plate
of pasta and a glass of red wine.
The room was square and on two levels. The timber floor was highly
polished, but plain green lino covered the principle walkways. When he
was seated his feet rested on a furry mat which absorbed all the sound
of his tapping feet. The wall opposite him was covered in hundreds of
tiny framed photographs. He was too far away to be sure, but they
appeared to represent a progression of some sort of the subjects. He
imagined the restaurateur, during the war, thinking he was buying
sardines or caviar on the black market, and getting the boxes home only
to find hundreds of cheap plastic frames. Humiliated, he vowed to
photograph his children every week until they were used up, and to
force the patrons to look at them when they were eating.
More food followed and his glass was refilled when it was empty. Was
there a set menu or did someone know what was best for him? What would
happen if he stopped eating? Would the waiter and the woman tap their
feet like angry parents with a naughty child or would the dish be
exchanged for another and then another, until he was happy? But he ate
with haste, anxious for the next delight.
Being presented with a bill was reassuring. Here was something he
understood, which together with the wine, made him feel less hostile
towards the urchin. If he were sitting opposite him now he could ask
for the logic of it all to be explained. He stepped out of the
restaurant vowing to be friendly and to ask him his name.
The boy was pointing him out to another, an older man. Then they
parted, the older one towards Francis and the urchin away over the
bridge, without a wave to him.
'Wait,' Francis shouted, 'wait.' He had been abandoned, how would he
get back to the hotel? He started to run, but by then the man was
'Hello,' he said. 'My name is Peter. Tomas say you like to meet
someone. I like to go to bed with you. Come'
He knew the boy's name now but there was no time to think about it.
Peter had grabbed his hand and was guiding him across the grass. All
about them people in groups were busy talking and laughing. He had been
fed and now he was going to be killed and yet it was the realisation
that his hand was being held by another man that filled him with most
fear. People would see, they would ... what? He didn't know. And the
man wanted sex with him. Did Francis want sex with this man or indeed
with anyone? He looked at Peter, trying to think of something casual to
say. But his brain would no make words.
Peter was about his own age and height. In this dusking light he might
even look like Francis, his Gamborinian equivalent. The bed clothes
were gone from the balconies and it was getting cold.
Peter lived at the other end of the grass arc. He had a small apartment
on the second floor, and he walked them up the stairs in silence, his
fingers squeezing Francis's reassuringly every few moments. Inside the
apartment, he took him straight to bed. Francis enjoyed himself, in
spite of wondering how often he did sort of thing. But the instant the
quiet snuggling down began, he started to cry. Huge sobbing tears of
release rolled down his face. He could understand none of it and begged
quietly for explanations.
Peter seemed to know him. It was as if they were brothers or had been
lovers for years. He knew his vulnerable places and understood his
Francis fell asleep still sobbing and woke when Peter was dressing. The
dawn was half over and the curtains were open.
'I'm going to work,' Peter said, 'you sleep. I leave breakfast for
But sleeping alone in a stranger's bed was impossible. He stood naked
by the bed and Peter pointed towards the shower.
Drying himself he could hear Peter in the kitchen, singing along with
the radio. Francis couldn't understand the words but it sounded like a
love song. And then the kettle boiled and its shrill whistle drowned
The kitchen had barely enough room for one person. Peter pointed to a
bench covered with cushions and Francis sat down.
'Where do you work?' he asked.
'Then I will go with you. You can show me how to get back to my
'Tomas will be here, nine o'clock.'
'But I would like to see where you work.' It was a lie. It was the
alienation coming back. It had been suspended while he was in Peter's
bed, but he could feel it getting ready to take over again. It was all
to do with that urchin. He must avoid him, and if he left now he
Peter left the room and returned wearing his coat and carrying
'Please drink your coffee. I must hurry,' he said.
Francis took the jacket and followed him out onto the landing. He began
to walk down the stairs and the voice came after him.
'Not that way, up, up. You don't know Gamborini.' He took Francis's
'We will walk to work like lovers. Come.'
They were joined on the stairs by a man and then by two women and
another further on. Each in turn greeted Peter, and he answered.
Francis felt awkward parading up the stairs. No one over-taking,
everyone in step. Peter was silent until they reached the last
'Everyone works upstairs,' Peter said, looking pleased like a child
with a secret. Francis shook his head and looked puzzled.
'On the roof, you will see,' he said, smiling.
Francis was tired of mysteries, and of not being in charge of his life.
There'd been too many new situations in the few hours he'd spent in
Gamborini. He should have stayed in the hotel, had a sandwich and gone
to bed instead of being forced out. As soon as he said goodbye he would
rush back to the room and start again, perhaps going back to bed for a
The door to the roof was pushed open and they stepped out into a grey
but mild morning. Francis had seen the block from the street but he had
never imagined that it would share one huge roof. It was like coming
out of a dug-out onto a vast football pitch twenty metres up in the
air. Other stair wells were located round the edge; the whole enclosed
by a wire fence. There were even banks of spotlights on steel
People were emerging and walking towards the centre of the roof. Peter
tugged at Francis's hand and joined the stream heading for what looked
like a larger stair entrance. He should leave now. It was sinister.
They were worker ants going down into a hive and he was frightened. It
was a factory making awful murdering germs. And why was he there?
That's what the guards would want to know when they surrounded him any
Peter stopped and took his other hand in his. He kissed him lightly on
the lips and said: 'have a good day.' And then he was gone and the
questions were backing up and he had to swallow them all and make sure
he escaped. He smiled at the people he passed on his way back, trying
to look as if it was ok for him to be there. On the stairs he was
afraid to rush in case he would draw attention to himself. Tomas was at
the front door.
'Good morning,' he said, 'did you sleep well?'
Francis heard a sarcastic tone and it reinforced his determination to
take charge of his day.
'I'm going back to my hotel,' he said.
'Yes,' the boy said, 'that is a good idea. You need breakfast. Peter is
such a miser. I have bicycle for you. We can go quickly. Then I show
you my city: Gamborini.'
Francis got on the bicycle and was surprised that he could ride it
quite well. He peddled ahead over the bridges suddenly strong and
independent and not caring about Tomas or Peter or the stupid place he
was working. He looked with contempt at the people walking back and
forth on the bridges. They were trapped, stuck to their task like
slaves in a treadmill. He was soaring. Cycling was the way to travel,
surely he must have always known. Tomas shouted the way to go.
They stopped in front of the hotel and the boy said he would wait.
Francis felt almost strong enough to invite him in. But still he
couldn't see the rules of their relationship. Where had the bikes come
from? Why was he devoting himself to him? Tomas was grinning, his face
scorning Francis's grown-up difficulties.
'I'll have breakfast in my room,' he announced to the manager.
'Of course, of course,' she said, smiling at him.
'This Tomas person hanging round the door; what does he want?' He said,
regretting it instantly.
'You mean that boy, holding the bicycle?' She asked. He nodded, perhaps
he was her son. Had he been too aggressive?
'I'm sorry,' she smiled, 'I thought he was a friend of yours ... But he
seems a clean boy. You may bring him, if you like.'
'A clean boy', what could she mean? She was lying. She must know him.
They were plotting something ... But he was so bored of being paranoid.
He wanted his breakfast and to get on with his holiday. If he could
force himself to have a leisurely shave; maybe the urchin would get fed
up waiting and just go.
The day was spent cycling round the city after Tomas. They stopped when
there was something he was to be shown, and then they moved on. At
mid-day the boy produced sandwiches and a bottle of wine and shared it
with him. Late in the evening they stopped outside the same restaurant
as the night before.
'You eat now,' he was told and a hand was held out for the
'Eat with me,' Francis said not knowing if he wanted company or was
scared to be alone again without explanation.
'You will see me later,' Tomas said, and walked away steering both
The same woman brought him to his table. Dinner was delightful and
again served without ordering. He checked for a menu, but there wasn't
one. Six other diners, all men, sat near him. He wondered if they were
tourists with their own guides waiting outside with bicycles; all
planning the activities for the next day.
'Does anyone speak English?' He said loudly. The other diners looked at
him and then continued to eat. The woman stopped picking her nail for a
few seconds and then resumed without taking her eyes off it. He felt
like a kidnapped child who discovers his smuggled out rescue note being
read by the kidnappers.
Peter was with Tomas when he left the restaurant. He walked towards
Francis, took his hand and led him back to the apartment. They went
straight to bed again, but this time Francis did not cry or fall
asleep. Peter held him as if waiting for the right moment to say
'I would like to live in the middle of a forest,' he said, 'and if men
were passing through they could come into my house and I would make
love to them.'
Francis said nothing and when he thought he was asleep, Peter asked if
he wished to make love again.
'I would like to go for a walk,' Francis said.
'Out, in the dark?'
'On the roof,' Francis said. The novelty filling him with energy. 'We
could see the city and watch the cars.'
'It is not usual to go walking at night-time,' Peter said. 'Night-time
is for home, for talking, making love and sleeping.'
Francis imagined himself on the roof walking in the floodlight space
and drifted to sleep.
In the morning, Peter described a dream as he got out of bed.
'Tomas and you were sailing in a little boat. You were laughing. Do you
know him a long time?'
Francis spluttered in surprise.
'It is my first visit to Gamborini. He's your friend.'
'You are mistaken,' he said very softly, but looking intently at
Francis, 'He was a stranger to me until two days ago. He said his old
friend wished to make love with me.'
'Oh,' was all Francis could manage as he watched the naked Peter take
his towel and go into the shower.
The rest of the week followed the pattern of Tomas bringing him to
interesting places during the day and Peter taking him to bed
immediately after dinner. It was a holiday. A bizarre and perhaps
More than once he had asked Peter about going out to a bar and was told
he was free to do as he pleased but he himself never went out after
'Perhaps you would prefer not to sleep with me anymore,' he said one
night when Francis insisted. But living by Peter and Tomas's design was
comfortable and he didn't wish to change it. All too soon the holiday
would be finished and he would have to take over his life again.
But who was enjoying themselves the most? If it was Francis would he
have to pay for all the pleasure, for Tomas's time, the wine and
lunches, the bicycles? How was it to be paid for? And Peter, sharing
his apartment and his body and his dreams, what did he want in
On his last night Francis was very restless. For a week he'd been
comfortable and soon it would be gone. He liked sharing Peter's safe
existence even if they never went out. The sense of life suspended was
demanding to continue.
'You leaving tomorrow,' Peter said when they had finished making love.
The surprise caught him, and he'd said 'yes' before he could stop
'You come again eh,' he said, 'you lovely fuck.'
Francis lay in his arms and said nothing. Peter's penis, still in its
condom, pressed gently against his thigh and moved slightly as he
breathed. He waited for the movement within each cycle, noticing how
some breaths were longer than others, and the anticipation was
Eventually he told Peter that he was nice also and whispered that he
would like to go up on the roof for a walk.
The other man wrenched his arm away and sat up.
'I have never been on the roof at night,' he said. 'When I was little
my Mother told me I would fall off.'
'Now is the time to change,' Francis said, wanting to laugh.
'I think I am very happy as I am,' he said, leaving a pause between
each word as if he was wagging his finger at himself. But suddenly he
smiled, his face was enthusiastic and he pointed to the door.
'You will go. Go, you will see.'
Francis wanted to walk in the artificial light, to be picked out on the
massive flat surface. To be out in the open, bathed by the intrusive
light, with the infinity of crushing darkness just a few feet above and
beyond. But he just lay in bed and imagined it. It was bright as day
and he was shocked at the massive waste of energy. Perhaps he was a
patient on a giant operating table. Any second now huge hands would
emerge from beyond the lights and do things to him.
Between each stair entrance and the perimeter fence was a patch where
no light reached, and he could see down to the street below. There was
just enough room for a thin person to squeeze through. The excitement
of running from dark space to dark space all round the edge seized him.
Perhaps there was another person on the other side leaping in the
opposite direction and they would bump into each other and either fall
against the electric fence and be shrivelled or instantly understand
and rescue each other.
He slept badly, waking regularly with a feeling that something was
about to happen. He had to be on his guard. It was just a few more
He was up and dressed when Peter woke. 'I won't walk with you to work,'
'Ok,' Peter said, 'You will wait here for your friend.'
'Are you sure he's not your friend?' Francis said watching the other's
'You are a funny man,' he said, 'I will kiss you goodbye'
There was warmth and kindness in Peter's hug and several kisses, but
Francis held back.
'You will write, maybe?' Peter asked and he said 'yes.'
Francis broke away and said he was going. He left Peter drinking his
There was a slight mist on the street. He rushed back to the hotel
thinking of Tomas turning up to find him gone. He'd forget him quickly
and find his next tourist, who would be richer and perhaps less
The manager said good morning and asked if he wished to have his
breakfast in his room.
'No thank you,' he said, 'I'd like my bill. I have to leave
immediately. I will miss my train.'
'You have plenty of time,' she said looking at him. Her eyes were very
like Peter's. Was she his sister?
'I have some shopping to do,' he lied and walked up the stairs.
She brought a cup of coffee to his room, along with the bill.
'You can drink it while you pack,' she said. 'I have given you some
discount because you have not used the bed at all.'
He walked to the station and sat in the restaurant and ordered
breakfast. He was buttering his second slice of toast when Tomas sat
'I have a present for you,' he said, 'to say goodbye.'
It was a photograph showing the three of them. Francis was in the
middle holding Peter's hand and his other arm was around Tomas grinning
cheekily up at him. He had not posed for this photograph.
'Where did you get this?' he demanded, steeling himself for some awful
'I make it for you. For you to remember. You and me, hunting. Maybe you
come again, hey?'
He wanted to go, to be alone, and to feel safe but he couldn't leave
until he was on the train. When would the demand for money come? He was
not going to offer that was for sure.
Tomas had a cup of coffee and a slice of toast. Every few minutes he
picked up the picture, nodding and smiling.
When it was time to go, Francis stood up and said, 'good-bye.'
Tomas held out his hand.
'Thank you for visiting my city,' he said, 'Please come again.'
Francis watched him, waiting for the moment when he would have to send
him away empty handed. But the boy just grinned and walked away. He
picked up his bags and went towards the platform, leaving the picture
on the table.
Even when the train was speeding through the countryside he expected
Peter or Tomas or the manager at the hotel to appear beside him.
The woman sitting opposite smiled and told him it was her first time to
leave her country. It was a retirement holiday. She was going to miss
her job as an engineer in the water department.
'What about those bridges with the buttons on them? What are they for?'
She laughed, looking round to see if anyone was listening and leaned
near to him.
'Our country is very flat. The water in our canal system does not move
and smells if we do not oxygenate and filter it. We have machines to do
it. But in the old days the buttons used to pump little bits of oxygen
into the water. Good citizens were expected to play their part. The
buttons do nothing now, but people still like it." She smiled. "People
can be a great burden to the state.'
Francis smiled back. It was frightening to think of those people
walking back and forth in their pointless civic duty.
'Why doesn't the government just take the buttons away?' he asked,
already afraid of the answer.
'I live with my brother and his wife,' she said after a few moments,
'every day he and I visit a bridge. Recently we brought his eldest son
with us. On Sundays we pack a lunch and visit ten bridges. We each have
Francis watched the flat countryside rush by and tried to rub the
stinging tiredness from his eyes. Eventually he closed them and slept.
His diary, which had not been opened since he'd arrived in Gamborini,
could be brought up to date when he woke up.