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Let me hold you a little, please

The doors to the Richmond Station men’s toilet burst open. Salik ran towards a urinal. In one hand he was holding a new iPhone that wouldn’t stop ringing, and with his other, yanking the zip to his trousers. Finally – glunk and glunk, the piss rushed down the urinal, steaming in the December cold. He tried to turn off the phone’s ringer, but his fingers slid on the screen protector and it dropped, bashing the side of the urinal before crashing onto the floor. He continued to pee, not ready to look down and evaluate the damage. He tried not to think of the toilet’s floor, muddy and wet, or how he’d clean his phone. His body tensed, and some nerves, psychosomatic enzymes, remembered the first time he went to buy chars from the “truckers colony” in Karachi. Long-haul trucks that travelled between Afghanistan and Pakistan, stopping at an encampment where opium, hashish, and heroin were sold on scales in open-air bazaars. How he’d find flats under construction and sneak in at night, shooting up with lizards and night crickets, and the sounds of seawater rippling through the unpainted buildings. How he felt beautiful listening to the silence of the empty corridors, smoking unbranded cigarettes in the dark, drinking juice they couldn’t call juice, but Shezan Apple Drink. The 500-gram thaila of sweet hash laced with heroin that he would divide into smaller bags and draw lewd body parts on. His personal brand: Gonzo Hash.  But in London, he’d left that past behind, nobody knew that by 14 he was carrying a Soviet-era TT pistol and selling drugs to rich kids that drove around in Range Rovers with the Chili Peppers playing on modded stereos. After a series of hospitalisations, and a close friend dying of leukaemia, he decided to go clean and take up his family’s carpet business. 

He closed his eyes. Life was about moments like these. He’d managed to get off the train in time, managed to find a toilet within the station, managed to unzip his trousers and take what felt like the best piss of his life before his phone fell. He had on the screen protector and the Armour-3 case that he’d nabbed from Amazon in a flash sale. Everything would be okay. He was prepared. His phone was protected. He let out a deep breath and continued to piss, this time with more concentration. When he opened his eyes, a poster of Are You Okay? was staring at him. There were two men sitting on chairs facing each other. Male pain is real, have you spoken to someone?  He took it as a sign. 

After cleaning his phone, he called the number. 

***

I’m not sure that the sign said Male pain is real. It probably had some stats about men’s mental health and suicide, and Salik exaggerated the rest. Like he did with his Karachi stories. Sometimes he was an arms dealer or a smuggler, and sometimes he offered off-brand laptop repairs, but it was suss as hell. Salik’s family had been in the carpet business intergenerationally, and a few years after opening the first “Persian Carpets” store in Chelsea, Salik’s uncles were able to finance his trip to London, where he brought his knowledge of neo-classical miniatures to design carpets that felt both rustic and modern. He might have gotten involved in a few things in Karachi, but then, who hadn’t? 

It was a London branding thing.

It was his hands, he had soft hands. They weren’t hands that had ever seen violence. 

My theory is you can always tell with a man’s hands.

*

And so Salik ended up in CBT, and if you know, you know. By his 8th session, he felt he’d elevated to a higher plane of consciousness, identifying negative thoughts, banishing self-doubt, keeping intrusion at bay, maintaining personal boundaries – he’d practically convinced himself that he’d cracked some unwritten code that only brokers know about. When he’d completed the course, he bought his therapist a fake Rolex. 

That’s when he got into cuddling, I kid you not, cuddling.

From Tinder and Hinge to Bumble, that was his thing. Cuddling, carpets, and black and white films. What the hell? Of course, it was suss, a 6”3 South Asian male, that spent his time between the gym and the port collecting deliveries, suddenly into cuddling. By the end of the year, he was married to a girl from Croydon who had learned about Pakistan from EastEnders.

*

I was disappointed that Salik wasn’t a gangster. That he hadn’t killed anyone. That he woke up early, before anyone in his family, and started the day by making everyone breakfast, dusting the carpets, and arranging window displays.  

I wanted more. 

Not just another man wanting cuddles and a successful family business. 

*

I wanted men that wanted other things. 

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