Thomas stared into the long mirror, hanging over the sink in the dimly lit Town Hall washroom.The thick wooden door was closed behind him and the chamber reverbated with an ominous hum that rang through his ears, suffocating the rest of the world outside.
His face was as blank as whitewashed brick, but behind it the cogs were whirring.All of them trying to answer one question.
What the fuck am I supposed to do now?
He closed his eyes and reopened them 11 days earlier.
It was a fresh spring day.Sunny, but not especially warm, as the city often was.The trams were bustling around Piccadilly gardens, chugging and clacking their way through the centre of town.A guy with dreadlocks offered them a paper, and they simultaneously raised their right hands to decline it, without interrupting the conversation.
“So tell me you didn’t fly all the way across the world because Jenny told you I needed cheering up?”
“Well…” he said, pausing, as if wondering what it was that did make him return.He shrugged, “I was due a visit to the folks anyway.”
“But you came on your own right?”
Thomas wanted to ask about the Australian guy, but he couldn’t find the words.
They reached the bar they were heading for and slipped inside.It was early in the afternoon so the bar was quiet.Ciaran had been shattered the previous night, so they agreed he would go and sleep and have a lie in, and they would save all of their catching up for a long afternoon today.
They got a seat and whiled away the first couple of hours catching up on all the niceties, the friends and families, what everybody was doing, the births and deaths.Only after they had exhausted this did they move onto the real topic of conversation.
“So what did Jenny say to you then?”
Ciaran looked deep into his old friend’s eyes.
“She told me you were down.Like how you used to get at Uni sometimes. Except she said it had been going on a while now.”
Thomas made a half laughing pffft sound and waved his hand, suggesting that this was an exaggeration, but Ciaran was unfooled.
“I don’t get it Thom?You’ve always been the guy who has everything.The looks, the brains, the charisma.You can do anything.”
Thomas turned his face a little, shying away from the words.
“What’s more, you’re a bloody politician.You’ve got the pedestal. If something makes you angry, you can do something about it.”
“What does it change though?” Thomas said.“It all seems so pointless”.
Ciaran sat back in his chair as if he’d been slapped.
“You ever heard about Australia?”
“What?” Thomas asked, not sure what he was getting at.
“In an age where every civilised country in the world recognises same sex unions, Australia is still living in the dark ages.And their stupid bloody macho culture and legal denial of what is a normal and natural human condition means millions of people over there think homophobia is completely fine.”
Thomas remained quiet.
“And you want to know why it’s so much worse over there?It’s because there aren’t enough bloody heroes out there fighting these battles.The stonewall rioters and the Harvey Milks and Peter Tatchells and Ian McKellans of the world.Those people that campaigned and fought and made change happen.People like you”.
“Shut up” he said gently.“I’m not a hero.I’m a jobsworth.”
“I remember that day you stood up in full Council and accused the deputy leader of the Council of homophobia when he was pushing to cut Pride week down to a single weekend.The whole of the village knew that day they had someone out there watching their backs.”
Thomas smiled at the memory.
“I heard about what happened with the group.Well, with it all”.
Thomas nodded.“I’m going to lose my seat to Labour.”
“You don’t know that.You were rocking that hall last night”
Thomas smiled.“It was my last hurrah.It’s time to move onto other things.”
Ciaran sat back, had a drink and smiled.
“Look, I want whatever will make you happy boyo” he said.“If politics isn’t working for you, then that’s fine.Time for a new chapter. But don’t ever think by being brave and standing up for what you believe in, that you’re not making a difference.You always made me believe.”
Back in the dimly lit bathroom, Thomas turned to the left a little to look at the side of his head in the mirror.He spotted a bit of wax that he hadn’t rubbed in properly and dealt with it.
It was strange looking back.How his life that afternoon had lain so much in the hands of somebody else.If Ciaran had said then and there that he wanted them to be together in Australia, he would have dropped everything and followed him back across the world.No question.
Ciaran didn’t though.And there was no way Thomas could have asked.
He closed his eyes and opened them again ten days ago.
Jenny was sitting in his apartment on the edge of the sofa, chattering away excitedly about the event from two days earlier, as he nursed his thumping head and sipped at an aspirin and Berocca mix.He didn’t even remember where he and Ciaran had ended up last night.
“So if nothing else, it shows that you’ve still got it.You can light up a hall of people when you talk.I mean fifty people signed up to support us.Fifty!”
Thomas made a grunting sound.
“What?” Jenny asked.
Thomas cleared his throat.“50 votes won’t stop me getting booted out though.”
“No, but it’s a good start.”
“I’m not going to win Jenny. Not nearly.”
“You could try.We can still finish what we started.All you have to do is scrape through, then with a reduced party group, assuming it goes as everyone’s predicting, there’ll be enough chaos and unrest for you to step in and say…”
“Jenny” he said quite firmly.“I just don’t think I want it any more.”
She stopped dead in her tracks.
“But tell me the other night didn’t feel amazing.”
He smiled.“It was unbelievable” he said, then looked into her eyes, “Thankyou”.
She stood up.“I don’t want your thanks Thom.I want you to give a shit”.She picked up her coat, turned and left.
He looked into those 35-year old eyes reflecting back at him.It felt like a long time since he’d known what he wanted.How long?At 16 he could remember wanting to be an architect, that dream of building something big and fantastic.Something that would live longer than he did.At about 20 he knew he wanted to be a politician.University opened his eyes to the world, and there was so much he wanted to make better, and politics was the way to do it.By 24 he was well on his way with those ambitions, and more of his attention turned to men and getting all the action he possibly could. Canal Street became a hunting ground for him. Everything seemed within such easy reach a decade ago.There was nothing he couldn’t do.
But then somehow, at some point over the last few years, the men had started to drop away, then the career had seemed less interesting, and finally the politics had become a futile way of whiling away his days.He had stopped believing in everything he’d ever wanted.
He shut his eyes and it was six days ago.He was sitting in the bar at the Cornerhouse arts cinema, sipping a cappuccino and reading through the evening news.
Page four showed an awful picture of Helena Hodge, standing uncomfortably in front of the foundations of some new building with a construction hat on, attempting to smile for the camera.She looked like a poster girl for a trapped wind remedy.The story asked whether hers was perhaps the most vulnerable seat for the Lib Dems at the upcoming election.
The story anticipated that around half of the Lib Dems standing would lose their seats.Of those standing Thomas’ was one of the more marginal, and in the table of candidates shown in the article, his seat was marked red. An expected loss to Labour.
It was hard not to take it personally, but he was coming to terms with it.Whether he wanted it or not, his political career was into its final hours.
His eyes opened at the sound of somebody trying to open the washroom door behind him.
“Busy” he shouted, and he heard a muffled sound, followed by feet trudging away.
His mind ticked back to 45 minutes earlier.The returning officer had begun to read aloud the results ward by ward.32 councillors were up for election, of which 12 were Liberal Democrats.Amongst the first five wards, they had already lost three councillors, including Helena.Her face looked like agony as the result was read.Thomas almost felt sorry for her.
But this was the moment to restore a bit of party confidence.All eyes were on Gordon Stead, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group, and holder of that seat for the last 32 years.He looked a model of confidence and calm as the result came through.
Then, like the fall of a guillotine blade, the officer read aloud that with a majority of 632 votes, the elected councillor for Didsbury East was Alison Newton, Labour.
Thomas’ jaw dropped with those all around the room. If Thomas’ coffin was not yet fully sealed up, then this was surely the final nail.If the leader of the group couldn’t win, then nobody could.
His mind wandered back to eight days earlier, Ciaran was round at the flat, as Thomas made dinner for the two of them.This was Ciaran’s last day in Manchester before heading back to Wales to visit his family.They’d seen a lot of each other over the last few days, but somehow neither had broached the subject of Lucas, the Australian boyfriend.
Ciaran was staring at the photo of them that sat on Thomas’ shelves when he came through, tasting the edge of a roast potato that was straight out of the oven.
“You remember that night?” Thomas asked, with a little trepidation.
Ciaran smiled gently.“Sure.The night I told you I was buggering off to the other side of the planet.”
Thomas didn’t answer him.He finally summoned the courage to ask.
“So are you and Lucas still…going well?”
Ciaran looked up and caught his eye, and then nodded.
Thomas put down the potato.
“Jesus, I’m sorry I didn’t ask before.I’m such an idiot.It’s just, you know…”
“I know” Ciaran said quickly.
“I guess I always thought…”
“Me too” he said, confirming what neither of them had ever said.
“I suppose I was hoping you’d say…”
Ciaran smiled again.“Yeah, I guessed maybe so.That’s why I didn’t say anything these last few days either”.
Thomas nodded.“The roasties are ready.”
He went and served up, returning a few minutes later with the food, and they both sat down in silence and took a mouthful.Thomas poured them each a glass of wine.
“I care about you a whole lot you know?” Thomas said, finally.
Ciaran nodded and put down his cutlery.“Thom, i’m always going to love you, it’s just that…”
Thomas held up a hand.“You don’t have to say it.I wasn’t asking.I just needed to say that out loud.When I think back, I wonder if I never did tell you.”
Ciaran shook his head.“You never had to boyo.Some things you don’t have to say out loud”.
“But I think back to the mixed signals I used to give.The way I’d always end up going home with someone else”.
“But that’s who you were then.And I couldn’t have loved you any more for being that person.Thom, those were the most magical days.I think they always will be.But then life moved on, and I needed it.Moving out there has been amazing for me.”
Ciaran beamed.“I really am.It’s not at all what we had, but it’s different and exciting and it feels like I have control in my own life”.
Thomas took a big glug of wine.
“So it’s time for me to put down this candle and move on?”
Ciaran locked eyes with him.
“Come on.You’ll never get away from me.We can have all the boyfriends and husbands we want, but I’m always with you.”
Thomas gulped down the lump in his throat and nodded.“Me too” he said softly.
“Anyway, you and me, we’re way bigger than that boyfriend nonsense.No arguments about the ironing are going to bring us down. We’re forever men boyo”.There was a tear in his eye.
Thomas raised a glass and a clink sealed their promise.
A telephone was ringing as his mind moved forward to just five days ago.The final Saturday before the election.
“Jenny.What’s with the early call?” It wasn’t even 8am.
“Ok Thom, don’t be mad, but we have 28 students converging outside the student union at 10am today in Liberal Democrat colours, ready to spend the day campaigning.For you.”
“Look, I know what you said, but how can you turn down… wait, was that an ok?”
“Yeah.I’ll be there”
“You’re not just saying it to get rid of me?”
“I’ll be there”
“Wow, ok.Listen, you need to be inspiring.Channel MLK, you know”.
That afternoon Oxford road became a sea of yellow.Over 40 students turned up in the end and lined right the way along the strip from the city centre, down past the BBC building, past the University, past the takeaway with the Lemn Sissay poem about the rain in Manchester, right down to Whitworth Park.Armed with flyers and enthusiasm unbounded by reality, they talked about a better city changing the world. The yellow army went to work promoting a new vision of what the city could be, and one man that could make it happen.
Thomas rested his arms on the washbasin.He turned on the tap and splashed some water over his face, reliving in his mind the moment ten minutes ago.
There had been a recount in his ward, and so the returning officer had held it back to report at the end.They had been waiting a few minutes for the result of the recount, the losses of the party weighing heavy in the hearts of the gathered Liberal Democrats.Every one of the candidates standing had lost today.11 councillors wiped out. He was surely heading the same way.
But then what was a successful outcome for him?He was ready to let life decide.And so he stood there, just as last time, unafraid of the outcome, lacking the nerves that had dogged the faces of other candidates.He needed a decision about what to do with the next years of his life, and this was it.If he was released from this duty, he marvelled at all the new interests and campaigns he could take up.He was ready for that outcome.More than ready.
“And now the final result of the day, for the Hulme ward.With a majority of 49 votes, the councillor for Hulme ward is Thomas Delaney, Liberal Democrats.”
Jenny, by his side let out a screaming cheer and was joined by shouts of the previously distraught Liberal Democrat contingent.
Thomas stood there stunned, nodded to the returning officer, who moved to wrap up proceedings.A procession of the party faithful crowded him, hugged him and shared words of kindness and desperate relief.
As quickly as he could, he found his way to the bathroom stall, along a quiet corridor of the building, and locked the wooden door behind him.He stood and looked into the mirror.He realised how little he had expected this.How little he was prepared for this outcome.But maybe how much he had needed it.
A second knock came at the door.
“Councillor Delaney” came the sounds of a smug Jenny.“There’s a bottle of champagne out here with your name on it.Now can you shift your arse.We’ve got a city to sort out.”