Life on the dole in a dying town is defined by drinking when you can, smoking to pass the time, and, if you’re gay, going down to the barracks at the old port to get some. Iwan’s got the cigarettes and the booze down pat, but he lacks experience, so he sticks to online porn and watching the lads portside.
Everyone else seems to have learned how to get what they want, yet Iwan can't get past everything that could go wrong. He knows who he is, regardless of labels. But no matter how often his best friend tells him to just go for it, he doesn’t trust others to see past his mismatched body.
Paying for what he’s afraid to get for free may seem absurd, but it’s better than just watching, and it’s better than porn. It may not change the world he lives in, but with luck, it will change him.
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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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The red paint on the barrack’s foundation had been new once, but it was peeling off now, specks of it swimming in the oily rain puddle collecting at the corner of the building and seeping wet into the weathering cement. The clouds rolled in from the Channel, past the cranes in the docks and the cawing gulls, and pushed the water against the rusting metal sheets of the quay.
Iwan pulled his hood tighter over his head to keep the wind from crawling through the short hair at the back of his neck and down under his shirt. His beanie plastered his hair to his forehead and he wiped at the sea-damp, tickling strands. He wished he hadn’t left his smokes on his desk, if only to keep his fingers busy. Instead he had to settle on pushing his hands deeper into the pockets of his jeans as he glanced at the open door of the abandoned building. He toed the pebbles and pretended having just chanced upon this place, a mere accident, truly, as his heart beat high in his throat and too fucking hard in his crotch.
The town had been thriving eighty years ago, those were the stories in the pub. Workers had shifted coal onto ships and off to the whole world. They’d gone home tired and fathered children who’d left school at fourteen and went to work shifting coal onto ships. Now the barren buildings of the former port let them play hide-and-seek as children and suck-and-fuck a few years later, passing the time between useless job applications and letters to the council.
The idea of the whole world in the days of the coal trade had shrunk to postcards in the corner shop, smokes, some alcohol, and your cock in someone’s mouth if you were lucky. It wasn’t a worse world so much as a different one.
The barracks were the only thing that remained amidst the rusting cranes and quays, the few pontoons that were breaking up in the saltwater, and the gulls. The town emptied out more with every year, leaving houses with rooms full of children’s toys or the odd piece of furniture someone didn’t think they’d need in whatever golden new future they were going for.
Iwan glanced over his shoulder to the incline up into town. Two old blokes stood at the low fence, gesturing out at the water in the setting dusk. Iwan looked back towards the barrack, hands getting clammy when he saw Jonah leaning against the outside wall.
Jonah was a few years older, a few years more cynical, and a few years cockier—all innuendos intended—than Iwan. He was one of the blokes half the town spoke about in whispers when they mentioned the barracks, Jonah and the lads like him, right down and dirty poofters they were, they said.
“What do you want?” Jonah called. His cigarette hung from the corner of his mouth. The wind dragged at his dark brown hair, pushing the strands into his face. He pulled a hand from his pocket to palm the cigarette and flick the ash aside. His plaid shirt was unbuttoned halfway down his chest, jeans tight on his waist, belt studded and thick, nipples pebbled, crotch prominent, and he looked like he had no care in the world, was amused even by Iwan staring at him like an idiot.
“Nothing.” The wind dragged the word from Iwan’s mouth.
Jonah looked him up and down, eyes squinting. Iwan ducked his head. It was obvious Jonah didn’t recognise him, not from around town or anything else. He huffed out a breath, relief followed by a whole different type of nerves.
“Piss off then,” Jonah said. “Or come in?” He laughed and winked.
Iwan wavered. He could take the plunge right this moment and step forward into the inviting V of Jonah’s thighs, press tight to his front, crotch to crotch, but before he’d quite made a decision either way, the pebbles crunched under the thin soles of his trainers, Jonah’s laughter and the wind at his back. Fingers balled to fists in his pockets, he didn’t turn around.
Days like this it felt like he’d never stop playing hide-and-seek like one of the snotty-nosed six-year-olds for the sole reason of being a coward about it all. Even with the low curl of arousal mixed with fear and downright humiliation, he was still walking away, when he knew he’d beat himself up over it in a few hours.
He stopped by the corner shop on the way into town and shelled out for a few cans of Strongbow. A few children pedalled past him on bicycles on the way up from the docks. They shouted about something one of them had to see, then disappeared around the corner of another grey building, accompanied by the cry of a gull.
Iwan looked over his shoulder. Down at the docks Jonah still leaned against the outside of the barrack, face tilted to the sea until he turned his head and seemed to look right at Iwan. He was merely a dark blob against the backdrop of the jagged edges of the quays, but Iwan ducked into the town proper anyway, feeling too caught out with his proverbial dick in his hands, wanking away.
Back at home, the TV was running in the living room, his mum and Rhys parked in front of it. Each had a sogging portion of chips in their laps. Iwan stole past the doorway.
“Where’ve you been?” his mum called over the laugh track on the telly.
“Out!” Iwan didn’t wait for a reply, only hurried up the steps to his room. “Shush, go away,” he told the cat that had curled on his bed. He closed the door behind it and picked up his phone. “Slag, you free?”
“Piss off.” Lyn’s voice sounded tinny, music blotching out most of it. She listened to all the latest shit, hip hop and dubstep, that made the windows vibrate with the bass and her neighbours bang on the walls to make her shut up. “I’m free. What do you have?”
She huffed. “In the park, yeah?” Then she hung up.
The weather looked like drizzle, so Iwan switched his hoodie for a jacket and grabbed the smokes from his drawer. The postcards he’d tacked to the side of the mirror of Berlin, Prague, and New York fucking City were everything this wasn’t. Some of his mates had gone and done a gap year after school, come back for a while and then gone off to uni, working in the cities now in jobs that lasted longer than a few days and weren’t paid in cash. Some nights, when he was feeling low, he closed his eyes and imagined walking those streets and not the broken roads here, can dangling from his fingers, breathing freedom.
Lyn was leaning against one of the trees in the park, eyeing him up as he approached. Her skirt was ripped along her thigh, her top cut low and bright red. Playing a bit dangerous, she called it.
“You’re not freezing?” Iwan said, and let her have the Strongbow as he settled on the back of the closest bench, feet on the seat, and thumbed out a cigarette.
Lyn shrugged and gulped the cider. A few crows took flight nearby, rustling the leaves. The weather was playing at that awkward last stage of autumn, a few weeks before it’d be too cold to sit about outside, and too rainy, too.
“I’ve been down by the docks.” Iwan took a drag from his cigarette.
Lyn sang off-tune, one of the current pop songs blaring thinly from her headphones. She swayed back and forth, then plopped down on the bench next to Iwan’s legs. “Suck anyone?”
“I wish.” Iwan snorted and remembered Jonah’s eyes tracking over every bit of his body, catching him out with his fantasies. “I didn’t go in.” He paused, then added, “Jonah was there.”
Lyn reached up and plucked the cigarette from Iwan’s hand. He took the cider from her in turn and gulped it down. The alcohol prickled down his throat and numbed the rest of the world, including his inept fucked-up sexuality.
“You could’ve just walked in and sucked one of them,” Lyn said. “You could have sucked him. Fucker won’t live up to your wet dreams anyway.”
“Piss off,” Iwan replied with little heat. A car crawled past the park, its headlights brushing over them. “You busy tonight?”
“Aye.” She leaned back against the bench. “Tim has stuff.”
“Sounds great.” He sipped at more of the cider, envisioned his night with porn online and more alcohol if he could swipe some from the kitchen without his mum throwing a fit.
“Will be.” Lyn finished the cigarette and smoothed down her skirt. She stretched up and pulled at Iwan’s beanie until he swatted her hand away. “Dafydd’s been kicking off.”
“Hmm?” Iwan lit another cigarette.
“He’s been making up shit at school, cussed out the teachers, took a knife in. They called mum. He said he’s gonna slit his throat if she tries to do anything.”
“Yeah.” Lyn pulled another can of Strongbow from Iwan’s bag and opened it. “As shit as it all is round here, what’s new?”
He watched her drink, lips tight and lipstick red on the metal, bags under her brightly made-up eyes, shivering without a jacket. He slid down to sit on the bench proper and pulled her in close, despite her spitting choice words at him and nearly upending the cider in a mess of limbs. He held her against his chest, her face pressed to the crook of his neck.
“He’ll straighten out,” he said and took a pull from his cigarette, blew the smoke out over the errant strands of her hair.
He snorted. “Yeah.”
The town fucked them all over, the ones who didn’t get out when they could. There were maybe two handfuls from their year left over, living off the dole for the most part.
“When you gonna go suck his dick then?” Lyn asked after a few minutes of quiet, both of them freezing on the bench and drifting in thoughts.
Iwan shrugged. “It’ll happen.”
“Bet you all it’s tiny.” Lyn laughed, loud and already drunk and high on whatever she’d had before.
Iwan smirked into the side of her face and stole the can of cider for a sip before he let her have it again. Tiny might work to his advantage. It’d make Jonah’s cock closer in size to his practice dildos than the cocks in every other porn vid.
“You could just get a boyfriend,” Lyn said when she’d quieted down. “That’s what people do.”
“On the telly they do.”
Lyn nodded and leaned back against Iwan’s chest. “They’re fucking pretty on the telly, too.” She sipped from the cider, lip piercing clinking softly against the rim.
“You’re pretty,” Iwan said.
She laughed, though, and slapped Iwan’s thigh before she pushed away and stood, drinking down the last of the can and tossing it behind the bench. She fumbled for her smokes and lit another one while Iwan watched her, the impatient tap of her foot and the way she listened to laughter down the road.
Lyn leaned in, one knee between his spread thighs, and smudged her thumb over Iwan’s lips. “These deserve to be fucked.” She pressed a kiss, dry and full of lipstick, to his mouth and then pushed off to walk away. “I mean it,” she said as she turned to walk backwards for a few steps. “Find your balls and suck his dick, mate.”
Iwan flipped her off. She flipped him off in return and began to run back into town, high heels clacking on the path. Iwan dropped his head back to the bench. Fucked if he didn’t want that, a cock pushing into his mouth and down his throat, gagging him and making him take it and he’d love it.
He sucked on his cigarette and blew out the smoke.
Fucked if he knew how to go about getting it without screwing up everything else in the process.
I am so blown away . . . Elyan Smith has written one of the tightest and most vivid books I've come across. Thank you Mr. Smith . . . I will be seeking out more of your work, to be sure.
. . . [Portside] worked with a certain sort of somber beauty.
[A] very gritty coming-of-age tale.
[B]eautifully written, full of pathos and understanding . . . I would recommend it.
Dark and distant and desperate, but in a good way.