When I first arrived in Manchester, I lived in a shared house with two gay men. One, the owner, Dennis, was a likeable oddball – with interesting habits. His bedroom was stacked high with newspapers with a single pathway left clear for him to reach the bed. I only knew this because I sneaked a look when he was out doing his regular late night shopping on a Thursday evening where he invariably bought expensive coffee (“Smell it,” he’d say, shoving it under my nose. “It’s coffee,” I’d say, smiling. He did the same routine with fresh baked bread. “It’s not ordinary bread, it’s a quality product.” Over the week it would grow mouldy.) I never socialised with Dennis – he kept very odd hours, and wasn’t a party animal. He looked like a member of the Sylvanian Family. We rubbed along together and fell out only once when he disapproved of me putting one of his glass tumblers over a cockroach in the kitchen. I thought this a reasonable response.
The other man was Little Chris – a lovely gay man who hailed from Brighton and struggled with his weight: ballooning and dieting by turns. I have an abiding memory of Chris walking up and down the living room, with the phone extension trailing behind him, speaking. Chris loved to talk. He absolutely loved to talk. He also loved comics and Dungeons and Dragons, things that still remain something of a mystery to me. In a very short time, he had surrounded himself with a group of lovely friends. Those I can remember were Alan, Norman, Big Chris and Billy. I never met Big Chris, but I did get to meet the rest on numerous memorable occasions.
The most memorable was in Dennis’ house (although Dennis was not present – he was the antithesis of Billy) playing Host House to Murder. This was the first time I met Billy. I’d heard about him, and his madness from Little Chris, and although this had gone some way to prepare me, the evening surpassed my expectations.
Host House to Murder is a box set game that is the basis for a murder mystery party, each person taking on a designated role and, we played that night. The set up of the game is that everyone can be guilty through each of the rounds, and the participants’ role is to try to work out whodunnit it? by asking sharp, insightful, thoughtful questions.
He arrived (along with Norman who had a rather lovely beard) dressed as a woman. I forget which role specifically, and it hardly mattered. Billy asked only one question all evening… Little Chris bravely battled to keep the game on track, reading out each of the clues, and instructions but Billy would not deviate from his interrogation technique. Whoever it was, and whatever they had done, he only asked, “did they shag?” or as a variation, “did you shag?”
The evening descended into repeated hysteria, the anticipation of the question building in each round, against the delightful earnestness of Little Chris trying to keep the whole shebang on track. The evening ended with a big reveal and I learnt plenty in the process: firstly that most gay men look better in frocks than I could ever hope to and that secondly, hanging out with these guys was definitely a way to blow away the blues of the working week.
As time passed I gathered more and more stories about Billy and the vividness of his life – the bobbing down to the communal bin in his stilettos, his very cool dancing, his collection of sex toys (that Little Chris was instructed to remove in the event of his death), his zest for life, his wit and general bonkersness…
But this was 1991 and the world was not a kind place for gay men. This was the year that Freddie Mercury died (I remember driving to the centre of Buxton and reading every single news item I could find about his death). We volunteered to be part of something called the Village Charity, shocked that this disease could be taking young men from us, wanting to do our bit.
I don’t remember when we found out that Billy was HIV positive, but I know that it was something that he wasn’t going to let get in the way of his party lifestyle. And he didn’t.
Big Chris apparently was HIV+ too, but he took the advice of health professionals and reigned himself in.
By this time, Big Chris and Billy were no longer together, and Billy met Steve. It fell to Steve to look after him as his health deteriorated.
The last time I saw Billy alive was in the least glamorous place on earth. Sainsbury’s. I attempted to keep my face still and not give away what I felt but Billy had shrunk – his face tight like leather across his bones, and I knew that he was not long for the world. He was wearing his death mask.
And it was not Billy.
He did not say outrageous things. He did not raise a laugh with some piece of wit or wisdom. He did not have anything much to say at all. He spoke about his medication, the difficulties he faced with his frail body and how he couldn’t make it behave in a way he expected, in a way he wanted. Steve was shrill beside him: the kindest of men but not clever or funny or naughty, a caring, decent man. I said goodbye to Billy and I knew it would be the last time. He had been reduced – and he was dying.
We got word that Billy had requested that we did not wear black for his funeral – so we dressed in bright colours to honour this final wish. We were the only ones who did, most wore black. Some of those men: Alan and Norman and Chris had been to funeral after funeral, losing friends on a monthly basis. There was a kind of strange resignation in the air: a sense of hideous inevitability. That was what Aids did to the gay community: it ripped out some of its finest souls, each one lost before their time.
And there was a kind of tension in the air as he was laid to rest: something between the family and Steve, something between Steve and Billy’s former life. Something not said. A hollow, empty space he’d left behind that no-one could fill.