Chapter 1

 

Snow at Christmas is magical, especially in London where department store windows glow, each street alight and festive. At least that’s what the TV ads all promise—snow flurries around Big Ben’s clock face, and crowds of pink-cheeked, cheerful shoppers exchanging season’s greetings. And cameras don’t lie, do they?

Of course, they bloody do.

I’m a photographer. Making cameras lie is my literal job definition.

Or it was until Lito fired me and then withheld my reference so none of the top agencies will hire me. Now I'm faced with a stark choice. A heartbreaking one. Sell the camera with the best resale value and tough out one last month here, hoping for a big break, or accept a job offer I know I'm lucky to have waiting in my email inbox. It's a decent job, if short-term, working as a photography-degree technician for my old dissertation supervisor. But…

It means moving back to Cornwall.

I’m not ready to leave London. Not yet. Not when I’m still a romantic at heart, hoping for a happy ending.

It’s why I stalk Westminster tube station entrance while still torn, waiting for my best camera’s lucky new owner.

He’s late, maybe caught in the clash I watch, tides of home-bound commuters held up by tourists surprised by snowfall. A third tide filters through the chaos. London’s night shift of restaurant servers and office cleaners leaves the station, their already-weary faces painted by Christmas streetlights as they exit. I’d photograph that switch from dull to decorated if unpacking my Nikon wouldn’t break my heart all over again.

I settle for killing time by counting bankers on their way home to the suburbs. More of them wearing bowler hats pass me than the entire population of the village I grew up in, but for all their bonuses and stock options, not a single banker looks as jolly about the snow as those TV ads all promised.

For a solid thirty seconds, I wish I never came here—that I never left Cornwall where snow’s so rare and special.

I need to be careful what I wish for. I’ll see home soon enough at Christmas. That’s less than a month from now. Twenty-five days left to try to make it.

Another thought also tickles, icy like the Thames breeze.

If this guy doesn’t show up, I might as well get on the Megabus to Penzance tonight. Call it quits and accept that Lito was right—I won’t ever make it here. Not without his connections.

Big Ben tolls another unwelcome reminder—my Nikon’s potential new owner isn’t only late, the rent will be too if I don’t get lucky. I don’t want my flatmates to cover the gap between my share and what I’ve scraped together from temp jobs. Not again. Seb and Patrick have done enough for me already but it turns out that freelancing is exactly as tough as Lito threatened before I left him.

 

Fucking, fucking Lito.

I’d score something permanent if he’d give me a reference.

I hold my camera case tighter even though it’s no shield from the real truth: I’ve already sold off lenses and lighting equipment. I’ll have even less chance of scoring decent work if I sell my very best equipment.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, half of me hopes for a no-show. The rest of me prays I’ll go back to our flat with enough cash to catch my breath. Even one deep inhale would do to fill my lungs with hope instead of this ever-present, rising panic.

I am in the right place, aren’t I? And I don’t only mean am I in the right location to meet this guy.

Is London the right place for me at all? How can it be if I’m about to sell the graduation present Mum worked God knows how many hours to pay for?

And that makes my decision for me.

I back away from the station entrance even though London’s sunk her hooks into me. Because she has, well and truly. I’d stay in a heartbeat if I could find a way to swing it. Stay for all her hustle and bustle contrasting with secretly quiet corners. For all her sharp, unforgiving edges hiding soft surprises. For the passion around every corner that gets my heart thumping and also shatters it, like now.

I shift away from the shelter of a pillar to pull out my phone, ready to cancel this meetup only for snow to find a gap my scarf would cover if I hadn't rushed out without it. More flurries dust the Houses of Parliament across the road too. It softens the outline of the building, the traffic as well, black cabs and scarlet double-deckers speckled with white and, for a fleeting, magical moment, I'm under her spell all over again because London in the snow is magic.

 

A little kid leaving the station must agree. He shouts, “Snow!” like he’s never seen it, and I remember the same spellbound moment, only on a beach not in this crowded and soul-crushing city I must be mad to want to sink my claws into as well, desperate to stay for longer.

"Snow!" he shouts again and I'd catch his wonder with my Nikon if I could. His sheer bloody joy and Christmas spirit. Then I'd send it to Lito, reminding him that I do have talent despite his years of gaslighting. Instead, I spot someone else staring at the sky as if they've never seen snow fall from it, and this time, I take action.

I bite the fingertip of one of my gloves, pulling it off so I can thumb a quick message on my phone to Patrick.

Ian: What’s your boyfriend doing in SW1?

Three dots wave, Patrick typing a reply, but I get busy snapping a pic with my phone camera of our third flatmate whose cheeks bulge like a hamster’s as he stares up at the sky, his mouth full, probably with a Yum Yum. He’s addicted to those long stick doughnuts. To anything sweet and deep-fried, which is ironic once I read Patrick’s answer.

Patrick: Seb picked up a shift at a fancy fine-dining place. Still not my boyfriend tho.

Sure, he isn’t. I smile for the first time since packing up my camera, glove still caught between my teeth until I shove it in my pocket. How many times have I watched Seb and Patrick orbit each other in what amounts to flatmate foreplay?

Shame I won’t get to see them finally realise they’re it for each other.

I focus on calling out, “Sebastian! Seb!” rather than yelling that truth at him.

Seb looks my way, cheeks still bulging, and I was right, a Yum Yum pokes from a bag he holds, his coat sprinkled with flakes of sugar that could pass for a dusting of snow. I take another photo, only I swipe a few more times first, changing my phone settings so London becomes a festive blur around him, the city in motion while he sparkles as if frozen. He’s an elf dusted with magic instead of a student lawyer moonlighting as a fine-dining waiter. A sprite with a snub nose and wary eyes who’s way too slim to be a Yum Yum repeat offender.

I send it to Patrick and get a hearts-in-eye emoji response just as another message hovers at the top of my screen. Perhaps my face tells its own story as I read that my camera’s purchaser isn’t coming. I’d already made my mind up not to sell it, but losing the choice is still gutting. Another rejection.

Seb weaves through the foot traffic, swallowing his huge mouthful. “Ian? What’s wrong?” There’s no bullshit with Seb. He’s a straight talker. “Don’t tell me Lito’s trying to get back in your pants.”

“Lito? No. No chance.” I already learned that don’t-mix-work-and-pleasure lesson.

“You sure?” He eyes me, Christmas lights illuminating a face too sweet for what spills from his mouth. “Because he’s a weeping sore on a syphilitic dick and you deserve so much better.” He checks his watch. “Listen. I can’t stop. I’ve—”

“Got to get to a fancy-pants fine-dining gig? Your boyfriend told me.”

He smiles then, and it’s better than anything those TV ads promised. Better than any department store’s glowing window. Better even than snow at Christmas. “Not my boyfriend,” he says, uncharacteristically quietly after I show him Patrick’s hearts-in-eyes response. Seb takes the phone, cradling it while buffeted by passersby. Then he rallies as I take it back. Or as I try to, because give Seb an inch and he’ll always take more than a mile. He darts ahead, my phone still in hand, heading for Westminster Bridge.

Being taller, I see what he does as he picks up speed, touching the screen and scrolling.

“Hey! Get out of my messages.”

He doesn’t, scuttling away faster now, still scrolling as he slips between nose-to-tail vehicles, making it onto the bridge before I catch up.

“I told you, stop.”

Seb doesn’t even aim for apologetic. “I’m checking you really aren’t banging that bastard again.” He sobers. “I am sorry about you not getting the cash for your camera though. But you know you don’t have to sell it for your share of the rent, don’t you? We’ve got you, me and Patrick. You’ll get a job. Or something freelance and brilliant will turn up. Your big break, at last. And uni’s over for me until the new year so I can pick up more shifts.” His breath puffs, fierce like a dragon. “Don’t try to sell any more of your kit, Ian. Don’t, yeah?”

He surrenders my phone, which I pocket, nodding but not confessing that I already made that decision. I won’t sell anything else but I won’t stay here either. I’ll accept that job and go home, which means saying goodbye to this dick who’s become a good friend—a best friend, along with his not-boyfriend. The reality of that must colour my tone. I can’t make myself say it. Not yet. But I do manage to grit out one clear statement. “I’m really not banging Lito.”

Seb puffs out a misty laugh. “Don’t sound so sad about it. Lucky fucking escape, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t ask.” And that’s not what sprinkles me with sadness like the snow the wind blows in our faces. I search for my glove in my pocket as we walk, my unlucky streak continuing because it’s gone. I look behind us, no sign of it, the bridge crowded with commuters. “Besides, we weren’t ever really together.” I know that now, two years too late maybe, but I never said I was the fastest at giving up on people.

"I knew that," Seb huffs. "Lito knew it. The whole agency knew you weren't really together. The only one who didn't was you, but did he ever think to tell you he was banging every new intern?" He pulls up his collar against the wind carrying more snow flurries. "No, he fucking well didn't. He saw your potential at your dissertation exhibition and swept you here from Cornwall, promising you a big break and seducing you with all that swoony, chin-length Poldark hair of his." He flicks his head in a fair approximation of a move that had first caught my attention. "So, I'm going to keep reminding you that his hair was the one and only nice thing about him. No amount of PrEP could have saved you if you'd stayed working for him. The man's an STI waiting to happen. You're well rid of him and his coke habit."

He thrusts his bakery bag at me offering me a Yum Yum that’s his own version of crack. I decline as Seb waves one like a baton, conducting our conversation as we hurry. “He wants to have his cake and eat it. That’s why he dangles that reference he owes you like a carrot whenever he needs a favour. That’s him holding all the cards, Ian. Extortion.” He raises his voice over the traffic. “Obtaining benefit via coercion.”

"Careful, your two-thirds of a law degree is showing."

“Huh,” Seb chuffs. “I don’t need to be fully qualified to know what he does is immoral. He made out he was doing you all the favours but who ended up virtually running his agency while he banged every intern? You did, and for what? For a hand up in the business he never came through with? For a reference he always wants one more favour before giving? It’s some kind of weird emotional blackmail, Ian, only saying, ‘emotional,’ suggests he’s capable of having actual feelings.”

No.

I was the only fool who caught those.

I'm glad then that I didn't accept Seb's offer of a Yum Yum. Doughnuts should be sweet but they would taste like ashes. I settle for grumbling, "Won't all this relationship advice make you late for work?"

"Shit. Yes. Yes, it will." Seb walks faster, taking two steps to each of my longer strides, but I'm the one who falters as he casts a surprisingly emotional glance up at me. "Something good will come up for you, Ian,” he promises. “You’re so—” He stretches for a descriptor, settling on one I’m starting to think is the root of all my problems. “—nice.”

How far has being nice got me? Almost all the way back to Cornwall for good. Someone sharp would have realised that sooner. But at least Lito taught me one lesson I won’t forget in a hurry: nice guys don’t ever prosper in this city.

We get to the end of the bridge and Seb gestures at an imposing hotel on the Embankment. “This is me. See you later.” He heads for the entrance before doubling back to stand on tiptoes, his kiss on my cheek as warm as the bakery bag he presses into my ungloved hand. “I mean it, Ian. Something good is gonna come up for you, and I don’t mean Lito’s weepy penis.” He backs away, but as if summoned, my phone rings, Britney singing Toxic.

Lito calling.

“Don’t answer that,” Seb warns, torn, I can tell, between staying and going. “And for fuck sake, please don’t bang him again.”

"Go," I tell him, deciding for him by starting to leave, but I hold my phone up first so he can see me decline the call. "I won't do Lito any more favours, I promise. Definitely won't bang him either." It's been so many months, I'm not going back now.

"Promise you won't bang any bastards at all, yeah?" Seb suggests. "You deserve so much better." He searches my face until I nod, snow falling between us, and then he goes, the hotel door closing behind him.

My phone rings for a second time, Britney warning me again about poisonous people, and maybe it’s because I can see Big Ben’s clock from here, bright against an almost-night sky like in those TV ads I grew up believing, but I’m so done with liars.

Anger rises. My hand does as well, phone held to my ear as I bark, “What do you want?”

"Ian, gorgeous!" Lito slurs. "How are you? Long time no see," he says as if he isn't the sole reason for that. I hear noise in the background, so I press a hand over my free ear. The sound of a party becomes clearer. There's music, and glasses clinking, which accounts for his slurring. "Can you do me a favour, lover?"

Lover?

Never again.

Do him a favour?

He can fuck off.

Frankly, if Lito was on fire, I’d have trouble summoning the piss to save him. I don’t trust him as far as I could throw him, which reminds me to swipe to another app and press it.

“What do you want, Lito?” I repeat once the audio recorder’s running, and I find a sheltering doorway.

“Go and take a few food shots for me, will you?” he asks as if that’s my specialism instead of human-interest stories. “It’s a high-profile client,” Lito tells me. “I’d go myself, but something came up—” I hear a familiar snort and can picture what he’s sniffing. Then someone who sounds too young to be left unattended with him laughs, and that’s followed by the stomach-churning sound of lips smacking before he returns to the phone call.

"You know Guy Parsons? Restaurant critic? He's an arsehole," Lito says although I'm none the wiser and I don't care either because I have no intention of being Lito's stand-in. He continues as if I already agreed to take the assignment. "It'll be quick. He won't want you to stay or eat with him. Just as well—he thinks he's really something special, as if food critics aren't all wannabe chefs who can't cook for toffee. Go for me?"

“No. I’m busy.”

It takes a while, but the shock of my refusal finally registers. Big Ben chimes three times before Lito says, “Busy?” as if he can’t believe it. “Doing what?” He doesn’t wait for an answer. The coke must kick in because he gabbles. “What will it take for you to be un-busy for me?” Then he croons, “You’re the only one I trust, Ian,” as if he knows what that word means. “Cover for me and I’ll make it worthwhile for you, baby.”

He hasn’t got anything I want. Not a single thing. Nada. I go to end the call, then stop, raising the phone to my ear once more. “Where’s my reference?”

“Reference?” For once, Lito hesitates. “Didn’t I email it to you already? I definitely wrote a glowing one for you.”

I check the recorder app. Still running. Good. “Because I was an excellent employee, right?”

"Yes," Lito says, sounding solemn. Pompous too. "You learned so much from me."

I did, but only life lessons that hurt. “Press send and I’ll think about standing in for you. Also, my rate doubled. No, tripled. Payment in advance.”

He must be desperate. I hear the huff of his breathing, and I count passing double-deckers, my coat pulled tighter against me until my email pings. I scan the few lines confirming my work dates and that I’m a safe pair of hands with a camera. It’s about all I could hope for, enough to fill the gap in my CV that’s caused my hiring problems. My banking app also looks more cheerful when I check it. “Go ahead. Give me the assignment details.”

Lito brightens. “Messaging you the address right now. It’s not much of a challenge, Ian. Even a novice like you can handle it. Guy Parsons only ever wants the same shots. Zero imagination. Take a couple of his plates before and after he’s eaten, and a headshot of him looking intelligent and moody. Good luck with the intelligent part.”

He cackles, and I’d forgotten his booze-and-blow lack of filter. Can’t say I missed it either.

“He fancies himself as a bit of a looker. Intense and Byronic,” Lito offers. “Maybe, a decade ago. Byronic?” He cackles again. “More like moronic. Looks a bit tragic these days, if you ask me. Longer hair can be so ageing on the wrong person, can’t it?”

I picture Lito shoving back his own glossy black hair that, now I think about it, is his only redeeming feature, a personal kryptonite that got my motor running but in no way excuses him for being an arsehole.

Lito makes one more request. "For the love of mud, Ian, avoid his left side. I had a hell of a job getting a decent headshot for his website. I mean, I'm the best of the best, but there's only so much photoshop can make up for." There's that cackle again. "Got a nose Captain Hook would envy. He got touchy when I pointed it out, which is funny given his literal job is being a bastard who dishes out criticism, but can he take it? No, he fucking cannot. When you're finished, email the shoot to me, not to him. I’ll pick out the best ones in the morning. Doctor them to make him prettier, but hurry, will you?”

“When’s he expecting you?” I check the address, already summoning an Uber.

“Twenty minutes ago.” Lito rings off, expecting me to save his bacon without even a simple thank you.

Because only nice guys have good manners.

I remember that a half hour later, getting out of my ride in an unfamiliar part of town. My quick googling of Guy Parsons on the way here suggests that, like Lito, he's also a stranger to good manners, his reputation built on sniping about food and taking no prisoners in his write-ups. His reviews are described as career-ending. Business-crushing. Knife-through-the-heart brutal, leaving chefs and servers weeping.

I picture Seb, working an extra shift to help cover my rent, facing someone like him. I picture Lito’s new interns too. They won’t know that all the career help he promises will come to nothing more than him cornering them in a darkroom.

I’m so over wankers who take and take without giving.

Without caring.

I’m so incredibly over the lot of them, their bad manners included.

My chest aches with it as I stand outside the restaurant, no snow falling to soften the reality of this part of the city. It’s slushy underfoot now, grey and gritty like my inner voice that whispers,

Walk away. Keep the reference, send back the cash, and get on the bus home to Cornwall.

I almost do. The restaurant window reflects my conflict, a nice guy who usually does what he’s asked. The first person to offer help to friends. Someone brought up to see the best in people. All of that wars with a worm that’s slowly but surely turning.

I shove a hand through my hair, thinking.

The same movement catches my eye from inside the restaurant.

Guy Parsons pushes back hair much longer than mine. His shines, chin-length black strands winding around his fingers while he listens to a waitress. And yes, he does look intense, but he’s also compelling as he discards a menu to listen, his head cocked and beetle-black eyes lively at whatever the waitress tells him. I’d describe that smouldering attention as warm and genuine if I didn’t also see those dark eyes narrow as if thinking about how to trash this business as she leaves his table. It reminds me of what Lito mentioned.

He’s a bastard. Even my brief googling agrees with that viewpoint. One who fancies himself as a bit of a looker. Byronic.

 

He is that too.

 

To be fair, he’s exactly my type, from his hair to the way he looks down his nose at the menu. Order from it? He looks as if he’s more likely to spank someone with it.

 

I swallow, watching a repeat of that broad hand shoving through the kind of hair I used to wish would spill across my pillow until I finally woke up next to Lito.

 

 Seb’s voice also echoes.

 

Don’t bang another bastard.

 

A nice guy might keep that promise.

 

Turns out I’m all out of good manners.

 

 

 

 

 

Con Riley © 2022

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