Adam was drinking by himself again. It was Friday night, and the bar in which he found himself, painted pink and newly stuccoed, was the colour and texture of fresh vomit. He was starting to think about going home when someone tapped him on the shoulder.
Noah, cold and stark in the artificial light, was leaning up against the bar. He hadn’t changed much since Adam had last seen him, except that his hair – brushed into a small, frothy quiff – had been dyed a soft shade of blue, giving him the appearance of an ice cream cone. This was contrasted with his thick beard and eyebrows, both of which had been left their natural ginger-tipped black. He wore a baby pink vest that accentuated his biceps, and his collarbones, irrepressibly sharp, stuck out from a thatch of curly chest hair. His green eyes were like those of a cat. They even seemed to refract the light.
“I wouldn’t have expected to see you here,” he said, climbing up onto the barstool beside him. “I didn’t think this place was really your style.”
“It’s not. I just came in for a quick drink. I’m heading off soon.”
“Oh, don’t go,” he said, his vowels drawing out into a low purr. “You can’t leave me here all by myself. Come on, I’ll get us drinks.”
He half-thought, half-imagined that Noah was flirting with him, except Noah was clearly out of his league; he knew it was merely wishful thinking.
He accepted the offer and waited as he ordered two purple cocktails, each one containing a slice of passionfruit as gelatinous as frogspawn. Adam wondered if he had picked them for the way they seemed to compliment his new hair colour – not because he was vain, but because he was a self-proclaimed aesthete. He was a human confection, dressed entirely in pastels. Adam suddenly felt self-conscious.
But this was how he always felt when they spent time together. Though they had known each other for years, Adam’s feelings for him were complicated. He thought Noah was beautiful, and he often found himself trying to impress him in conversation, making desperate attempts to seem more interesting than he really was. But Adam had a lot of resentment for him too, and would always come away from him feeling tired and dispirited. He told himself it was because Noah demanded attention, that he tended to dominate the conversation. In reality, he was only jealous of the way he looked.
They talked mechanically for a while, asking about their jobs, about the friends they had in common. It wasn’t long before the conversation turned to the politics of the gay scene.
“The thing I really hate,” Noah said conspiratorially, “is how much racism and homophobia there is. You see it all the time on Grindr. I mean, we’re constantly referred to as a community, but after sex, I don’t think any of us can really stand each other.”
“You’re right, but I don’t think that’s limited to the gay scene. Just look at politics right now. We’re more divided than ever, even though everyone likes to pretend that it’s not the case. I can’t even watch the news anymore. It’s too fucking depressing.”
“Yeah, but that’s what they want. The media needs us to be misinformed so they can tell us how to feel. We have to engage with what’s going on out there.”
Adam sighed. “It’s just hard to know who to trust sometimes. All the news channels are so biased. Maybe I need to meet people I can talk about this stuff with.”
Noah shot him a funny look, as though he was scrutinising his words. Adam thought he might have said something wrong, but when he cleared his throat to explain, Noah put his hand on Adam’s shoulder. “What are you doing next Wednesday?” he said.
“Wednesday? I don’t know. Nothing?”
“Good. You can come along to our meeting then.”
Adam looked at him in silence as if waiting for an explanation. Noah, taking another sip of his cocktail, fluttered his eyelashes at him coyly, an expression designed to make it impossible for him to refuse. Adam asked him what he was talking about.
“A group of us meet on Wednesday nights. It was my idea. We get together and talk about politics, and we share our thoughts on what we should do to get our voices heard.”
“Like protests, you mean?”
“Sometimes, but not exclusively.” He paused a moment, taking another sip of his drink. His eyes glittered. “There are lots of things we do,” he said.
A wordless tension appeared between them then, mainly because Adam had no idea what he was insinuating. Noah’s voice, which had always been oddly accented, seemed suddenly distant and faraway, but perhaps he was reading too much into it. He had always longed to be closer to Noah, and pushing the thought from his mind, said he would come along if he thought he could contribute. He didn’t want to cause a fuss.
“Perfect!” said Noah, handing him a business card from his back pocket. “The others will be so pleased. We’re always looking for people to join us.”
Adam took the card and turned it over in his hands. It was printed on thick ivory card-stock, with a black lightning bolt embossed on one side. The address was on the reverse, some place in Leytonstone he had never heard of before. When he turned back to Noah, he was smiling roguishly in the half-light. His cocktail, a deep vibrating purple, had stained his mouth a vivid red. He looked suddenly carnivorous. It was as if he’d been drinking blood.
By the next morning, Adam had already decided that he wouldn’t attend the meeting. Noah was just being polite when he had invited him, and he would only be a nuisance if he actually came along. But while he was at work on Wednesday, Adam began to have second thoughts. Even though he still wasn’t convinced he had anything to say to Noah’s friends, he suddenly realised how sorry his life must seem from the outside. He was thirty-two and living in a flat share with six other people; he spent most of his nights watching Netflix and eating Super Noodles; and worst of all, to Adam’s mind anyway, was that he had never had a serious relationship. He’d had flings and one-night stands, but nobody had ever liked him enough to see him again, to want him for anything more than sex. On the phone, his mother – who possessed a vatic intuition when it came to her son – was constantly telling him to go out of his comfort zone and meet new people. Maybe this was his opportunity.
Once he was done with his shift, Adam got changed in the office toilets. He was wearing a red jumper and blue chinos – not as bohemian as he might have liked – and after styling his hair in the mirror, left the building to get the Tube. Since his office was in Liverpool Street, the journey was an easy one. He found a seat on the half-empty carriage, but every time it stopped, he wondered if he was making a mistake, if he should get off and head back home. Somehow he managed to resist, and reminding himself of just how sad and pathetic his life had become, alighted at Leytonstone, just as Noah had instructed.
The meeting was being held above an old pub called The Clustered Vine. The name evoked images of plenty and excess which were quite at odds with the exterior of the building. Baskets of limp geraniums, brown and dripping, hung from the roof-tree; the paintwork was as flaky as an eczematous rash; and there were boards at most of the windows, crusted with a layer of dead flies. Adam inspected these things curiously. He wondered if he had somehow come to the wrong place, but when he consulted Noah’s card, the name of the pub was clearly printed: The Clustered Vine, Leytonstone, E11 4BC. Underneath, in a smaller typeface, there were directions to enter through the back of the building, next to an old-fashioned telephone box. He was starting to feel nervous.
When he found the door, he stepped into a hallway that was carpeted with brown and yellow moquette. It was darker than it had looked from the outside, but at the end of the hall, he saw a staircase leading up to the second floor. As he started to ascend, he heard a noise – a slow drumbeat, and somewhere beneath it, a kind of low, tuneless singing. Adam paused. He realised, suddenly, that the room had probably been hired by another group – a local choir or yoga class perhaps – and that the meeting would inevitably start once they had finished. He wanted to text or call Noah but realised he didn’t have his number.
Adam carried on up the stairs until he came to a white door. A group of people were singing a sort of folksong from the other side, something about Zeus and Dionysus, about a woman named Semele. He waited for the song to end and then pushed open the door.
“Welcome home, brother,” said Noah.
He was standing in the middle of the room, completely naked except for a slip of white chiffon. He was wearing a long brown wig and a tiara made of stars, and a silver lightning bolt hung from a chain about his neck. Around him, completely covering the parquet floor, was a mass of naked bodies, all of whom were writhing about like snakes. There were men kissing men, girls kissing girls; people of all ages, colours, sizes. Incense billowed out from twin censers at either side of the room. Adam’s head swam.
“What are you…what are you doing?” he managed.
“It’s time to act,” said Noah coolly. “The world is falling apart and we can no longer ignore it. We need to mobilise, come together. We need to start a revolution.”
The people on the floor, clutching to each other like frogs, began shouting through mouthfuls of flesh. “To the lightning’s bride!” they said.
Noah gestured gracefully, performing a low curtsey to those around him. The room – lit only by candles – made him look tragic, almost holy; he resembled a saint in a classical painting. At his throat, the lightning bolt shone through the dark like a flame.
“I know you’ve seen it too,” he said, adjusting his wig. “You said it yourself the other day. The media spreads fear and hate, and we propose to put a stop to it.”
“But…how? How are you going to do that?”
Noah’s eyes flashed. “By any means possible,” he said.
Feeling unnerved, Adam gazed around the room. Beside the window, a naked man covered in tattoos was playing a djembe, drumming out a slow, insistent rhythm. He thought he might be the butt of an elaborate joke, but then he looked at Noah’s face, at his half-erect penis beneath the chiffon. He was about to speak when Noah stopped him.
“We believe in free love and communal living,” he volunteered. “We think humans should live in harmony with nature, but also, that those who worship greed and power ought to be punished. Sacrifices must be made. It is a necessary evil.”
Adam winced. “You’re not serious,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t I be? We have to take a stand, Adam. We must strike down those who oppose us, just as they would do to us.”
“Okay, but that doesn’t mean…”
“And we aren’t afraid to die either, if it comes to that.”
The people on the parquet cried out suddenly, leaving Adam completely speechless. What Noah was talking about was a form of extremism, killing anyone who didn’t agree with them, killing themselves to gain attention. But at the same time, was there not a grain of truth in what he was preaching? As a gay man, Adam knew that none of the political parties really supported him – most of the world still considered homosexuality a sin – but surely he couldn’t be serious in wanting to kill those who believed it.
“Look, I know you’re upset,” said Adam, taking half a step towards him, “but all you’re doing is inciting violence.”
“So what makes you any different from the people you hate?”
“Our intentions are pure.”
“But that doesn’t make you right.”
“It’s not about that,” said Noah. “The world is becoming more racist, misogynistic and homophobic every day. We have to be radical if we want to change anything, if we want to move humanity forwards.” He stepped towards him, extending both his arms in supplication. “We can create our own utopia, Adam. Won’t you join us?”
Before Adam could reply, the others started singing once again, repeating the song he had heard through the door. Adam listened in stunned silence. The song told the story of Semele from Greek mythology, who had burned alive in a lightning storm, sacrificing herself for Dionysus. He assumed that this was who Noah was supposed to represent, though he had no idea what this could mean. He was about to leave the room when he looked at them more closely, kissing and touching one another, having sex; a sea of mouths and tongues and fingers. But this was different to the type of intercourse he had experienced with men from Grindr. This was loving and tender. He had never seen anything like it.
Then, without warning, Adam thought about his mother. He thought about how she had always wanted him to make friends, had urged him to take part and to contribute, had longed for him to have a sense of purpose. He breathed deeply, shook his head, and made his way across the parquet. The man with the drum stopped playing and silence suddenly filled the room. Adam grabbed Noah by the arms, digging his nails into his flesh. They stared at each other, smiled, and after that, they kissed.