KISSES IN SATURN'S
by Thomas Hoskyns Leonard
CHAPTER 1: RETURN TO THE SCENE
After the bizarre accident outside the mosque that crippled his leg, and bereft of the blood relatives who'd left him in the hospital without e'er a phone call, the retired electrical engineer Ben Hopkins needed to take regular walks to stop his arthritic knee from creating ever more anguish. But he never did like walking the streets and his impudent, perfectly straight flatmate from Ratho couldn't be arsked to take him anywhere.
During a particularly sultry evening in August 2018, Ben was preparing to leave his spacious ground floor flat on Edinburgh's Huntingdon Place with his bright blue N.H.S. walker, when the brawny twenty-eight-year-old emerged from the tiny back bedroom (the one without the hyperactive four thousand quid bed from Healthy Sleep and the large, haunted wardrobe with glass mirrors for doors) and sprayed the hallway with air freshener.
“I need to take a shower 'cos my girlfriend's arriving in ten minutes,” explained the flat-mate, with a sideways sniff. “We'll probably be eating in the Brass Monkey, though she may feel too worn out to wanna go anywhere.”
“Good timing,” replied Ben, while deciding to lie through his slightly stained incisors. “I'm off to the Windsor to down a dram or two with my pals from Stockbridge, and we may end up slumming it in the Cask and Barrel.”
“The cesspit under Destination Hell, more likely, you smelly old troll!”
Ben suddenly recalled the evocative view of the Fowey from his childhood home in Lostwithiel in faraway Cornwall and groaned incoherently, an aggravating habit.
“You're losing it again,” yelped his flat-mate, a touch abrasively.
What are those wires dangling around Hamish's waist? wondered Ben. It could be some sort of fetish, I suppose, but who knows?
“Sorry,” grunted the slovenly seventy-year-old. “I must have been lost in a fog, what with my diabetes, chronic lymphodema, and whatever.”
The sturdy young man leapt into the power shower, like a hairy bear fit to puke.
“You're almost as bad as my grumpy supervisor at McCrawley's,” he complained, as the fountain of water hit his chest. “That crazy hen's completely full of shit.”
Why is Hamish is always flush with funds even though he only works part-time on minimum wage? deliberated Ben, as he stumbled out of his front door. Maybe he makes his money gambling in the Casino on George St. I should double his rent! And the noises from the video games he plays in the living room are getting really irritating. His 'Saltire Cell Rejuvenates' game is sounding so authentic that it's turning my mind.
Ben cut a gaunt, thin figure as he stumbled across Annandale St., manhandling his shining metal walker at arm's length in front of him, his straggly white hair contrasting with his swarthy, angular face, the hereditary handsomeness of his youth (he was descended from the Hopkins-LeFevres of Helmsley, no less) fast fading into the oblivion of mediocrity.
When he reached Leith Walk, Ben turned right towards John Lewis, and the intrusive backdrop of builders' cranes hovering behind the pagan-esque Catholic Cathedral (the compendium of which seemed to Ben to be ever ready to improve the lot of Edinburgh's rich, without giving a jot about the long-marginalized poor).
As Ben passed Gayfield Square, two women officers rode out on their horses from the vicinity of the police station. The surly officer seemed to recognize Ben from the past, and gave him a terse nod. When one of the horses neighed, Ben almost tripped over a crooked paving stone, but squeezed his walker's handles tightly and recovered his balance.
When Ben reached Khushi's Indian Restaurant, he contemplated the courteous though reticent trio of hunky waiters inside, and wondered whether to return for a late-evening prawn biryani with the pickle tray and two chapati.
But before Ben could develop that fantasy further, the well-groomed, gushing waiter with the baggy trousers bounced out of the Turkish Restaurant next door, flaunting his wares.
“Would you care for a sumptuous bowl of Lentil Corba tonight followed by your usual Fatma's seafood delight?” inquired the impetuous fellow, with a luscious grin.
For some eccentric reason, Ben recalled Laurence Olivier's oblique discussion of oysters and snails in Spartacus, when he was playing the imperious Crassus opposite Tony Curtis's squirming Antoninus.
“No thanks,” replied Ben, with a sardonic glance towards the gay bars opposite. “I far prefer the squashed snails in L'Escargot Bleu, though they're even more tasty over there on Greenside Place.”
The waiter flushed deep beetroot. “Can I tag along?”
“No chance, Antoninus!”
Ben waited cautiously at the temporary crossing over Leith Walk since he was confused by the complicated roadworks. When the light finally turned green, he signalled an over-eager cyclist to stop, and advanced warily to the central reservation while negotiating the pock marks in the road surface. As he did so, a sullen-faced, though colourfully dressed, youth came hurtling out of the notoriously seedy Café Chaps on the ground floor of the Players Theatre to the right, banged Ben's walker's front wheel with his foot, and sped off in disarray towards the relative safety of the high chairs in The Street on Picardy Place.
Undeterred, Ben hurried to the pavement opposite as the light turned red, even though a No.25 bus was fast approaching.
And there on Greenside Place, and wedged between the Theatre Royal bar and C.C. Blooms, appeared the mauve façade and well-varnished quarter-pane windows of Saturn's bar, the macabre portrait of that dissolute Roman God still adorning the sign that swung above the double-arched entrance-way.
Davie Pickles, a brash, manipulative gentlemen, was, in nominal terms, the proprietor of Saturn's, one of the several gay bars in Edinburgh’s Pink Triangle, but he paid his dues to a notorious Glasgow cocaine baron who owned the property. Davie took frequent instructions by voice-mail from Glasgow, which sometimes even overruled the resident DJ's choice of music. This made Davie a touch paranoid, reportedly all the more so because of his chequered past and his propensity for money laundering while working as a high-profile youth for Save the Poor and Vulnerable.
Now in his late twenties, Davie was still popular as a 'top' around the saunas, particularly among the pasty-faced Freemason crowd who'd roamed the basement of the New Town Bar on Dublin St. before its sadly predictable demise. When on duty in Saturn's, Davie wore red pointed shoes and a sleek white suit, and his hair was combed straight and dyed Persil-white to conceal its natural colour. However, he was easily recognisable by his rambling gait, his narrow jaw-bones, and the red fur on his wrists.
Ben struggled with his walker up the ancient stone ramp into Saturn's Rings, only to find the place completely empty. But moments later, Davie Pickles emerged from the silver elevator which rose imposingly from the centre of the dance floor, having descended from the nether regions way above cheek by jowl with a spotty-faced barman with legs like a grasshopper's.
“Speak of the Devil!” exclaimed Davie, with a deft twitch. “It's Benjamin Disraeli! I haven't seen you in a gay bar for fully ten years now, you old miser. What's brought you back to the land of the living dead?”
“I need to exercise my leg,” stuttered Ben. “I used to go to the New Town though, sometimes after relaxing in Sanctum.”
“Yes,” purred Davie, “and I certainly remember the first time you bumped into me in Sanctum.”
“Me too,” replied Ben, with a chuckle, “and you've risen to such great heights since!”
“Suppose,” responded Davie, somewhat nostalgically. “But why did you vanish from the rest of scene all those years ago?”
“That was in 2008,” replied Ben, reticently. “It had something to do, I suppose, with the way they 'disappeared' a much too sanctimonious Czech law student for complaining so vehemently about all the 'bad bad' things they were doing.”
“That was the ubiquitous Kvido, presumably. He danced like Michael Jackson.”
“Sure. He was from Ostrava.”
“And 'they' were up to bad bad things, eh? I understand entirely. But who were 'they'?”
“I d-dunno,” stammered Ben, “but their response to my inquiry wasn't exactly gentlemanly.”
“It sounds like a scene out of a spy-thriller. Hey pretty pretty! Pour Ben a large one. The first is on the house.”
Ben gave the down-trodden barman a slinky look. “Merci beaucoup. I'll take a single house gin and slim-line in a snifter, please.”
The barman pouted, and poured Ben a double Gordon's and soda in a wine glass.
“And here's our esteemed Lib Dem Socio-Economic advisor, no less!”declared Davie, as a
wafer-thin, bald-headed man with a wispy blond beard stalked into the bar. “Hi there, Eric! I hope you're still giving the weak-kneed morons a hearty neo-fascist makeover.”
Eric McVie twisted his untrimmed moustache around his Grecian nose, and spoke with a delightful, Doric brogue. “My experience in the Orange Order is serving me much too well, folk. By next week the pompous twits will be edging to the right of Labour. Then SNP, here we come!”
“Alas,” exclaimed Ben, in amusement. “Maybe the wretched SNP lass's days as MP for Edinburgh North and Leith are finally numbered.”
“In the meantime, our income from Winnie's Vigilantes is keeping us well fed,” announced a bird-like woman with a slightly twisted neck, giving McVie an affectionate stroke. “Last week, St. Leonard's Police sent us on a very delicate mission, and we captured six of the Hibs Casuals while they were attempting to dissect a God-fearing Hearts supporter. The victim survived relatively unscathed.”
Davie licked the tough lady's right ear and gave her a sumptuous kiss. “Good on you! They don't call you Winnie the Mince for nothing.”
Winnie took a peck at Davie's right cheek. “Eric and I can't heat and eat on our PIP, darling. This way we keep all of our chums well-supplied.”
Davie gave the barman a very naughty kiss. “You certainly do, Winnie. You and your sassy mates down at least fifty pints a night, not to forget the White Russians.”
“We are the Knights and Dames of the Sacred Orb,” pronounced Eric McVie, flourishing his hairy hands, “and we are only answerable to Gott in Himmel, his very self.”
“What does your organization do?” inquired Ben, timidly.
McVie wobbled his dark green eyes. “You're not a member of the club,” he retorted.“Yet.”
“Snap!” exclaimed a homely twenty-five year old with crooked teeth, hobbling on his two injured legs towards the bar. “I'm Ken and my lovely new blue walker is identical to yours. Aren't they cute?”
Ben felt a strange fascination for bristly, dark-haired Ken, the likes of whom he'd never met before in his life. “Maybe they should dance the Phoebe ring together. Would you care for a drink?”
“I'd like a vodka and lemonade, s'il vous plait, but I pay my own way. I'm not a pharmaceutical trainee for nothing!”
“Good for you. I was a director of Ferranti before I retired. I was into micro-radar and nuke stuff, but I've changed my political attitudes since.”
Ken collected his drink from the now very busy barman, and took a gulp. “You must have a Ph.D. or something intellectual, darling.”
“From Imperial College, in 1976. More recently, I've developed a liking for the mad-cap philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.”
“Not that pervo! He was a sadist when he was young, before he escaped from Austria.”
“So was his contemporary Freud. He was cruel to women.”
“You shouldn't believe everything you see on social media! But why don't we descend to Purgatory together, and chill out?”
Ben and Ken brooded together in the Meditation Room in Purgatory, before taking their walkers for a spin around the dazzling Rings of Saturn to the tune of Flashdance. When they grew weary, they cuddled together in the Fluffy Toy Room, and hugged a couple of exceedingly polite Bears (big hairy men out for a laugh) from Dalkeith. But when they ascended the silver elevator back to the bar they were greeted by two undefinable individuals collecting for Oxfam, one dressed as a chicken, and the mad-faced, aggressive one wrapped in the Stars and Stripes.
“I remember you both from ten years ago,” howled Ben, “and you're still on the brew.”
“But we gotta eat,” moaned the chicken.
“It's mine, all mine!” shrieked the mad-faced one, clutching his collection bag. “You can't take it away from me.”
At that, Ben seized both bags of money and hurled them over the bar, whereupon the proprietor Davie Pickles picked them up and grinned.
The Lib Dem Socio-Economic advisor Eric McVie and his house-mate Winnie the Mince were drinking and making risqué jokes around a circular table, with a bunch of assorted characters who Ben took to be their vigilante gang. Wishing to avoid the two large friendly dogs, Ben and Ken ensconced themselves on tall stools at the end of the bar, while holding on to their walkers to keep themselves steady.
After a few minutes, a tall, fluffy-haired, studious-looking man in his early twenties staggered up. He was accompanied by a slightly older woman with cropped hair and a slightly cotton dress, in a similar state of inebriation. Ben licked his lips. He thought that she looked like a bit of a tomboy.
“H-hiya folk,” stammered the straight-backed gentleman, slurping his beer. “I saw the black looks you were giving that m-motley crew from the far right, and I th-thought you'd like to know that we're not all T-Trumpists in this bar. Indeed some of us are gr-grass roots activists.”
“How refreshing!” declared Ben, with a dubious sniff. “Does that mean you're to the left or right of centre?”
“W-way to the left,” came the reply. “We're Sl-slotskyists!”
“What the Daffy Duck are they?” inquired Ken, making an almost imperceptible move in a barely legal manner.
“Ouch! We even fight the fascists on the streets. Wow!”
“Perhaps I should explain further,” enjoined the young woman, pulling herself together. “My great grandfather Evgeny Slotsky and his followers left Russia in 1919 when they were disowned by the Trotskyites for behaving too compassionately. They moved to Colombia where they were active in political terms for several decades. Then in 1995, several of their descendants emigrated to Dunfermline where they created the Peaceful Socialist Party of Scotland. All of our PSP members are nowadays referred to as Slotskyists, though we're no longer that peaceful.”
“The Trotskyists here are in SWAMP,” added the other, scatty Slotskyist. “That’s the Scottish Workers and Marxist Party. They’re a pain in the neck.”
“We get on much better with the Anarchists and pro-trans feminists in that centre on Brunswick Street,” added his companion, with an effervescent smile.
An entertaining discussion ensued, after which Ben and Ken invited the stimulating couple to accompany them down three gradually descending escalators to the Hex Mirror Room, where a lively and very comical time was enjoyed by one and all. They all did a shimmy into the Fausta Steam Room, but found it to be too hot to handle. When they left, it was through a tiny back door to Greenside Row, which runs along a valley at the foot of Calton Hill.
The following morning, Ben awoke, with a start, in his luxurious double bed when a heavy human weight plonked itself onto his chest. When he looked up, he saw a sweaty male life-form swaying to and fro, and a somewhat familiar, grinning face.
“Who're you?” asked Ben, reaching for his Lynx.
“I'm Malky, Malky McLachlan,” came the reply. “I'm the taller of the two Slotskyists you met last night.”
“I sort of remember your crass reflection in a mirror. What happened to my buddy Ken?”
“He scarpered. Would you fancy a visit to the Thirsty Pallet for breakfast?”
But Ben was hearing familiar creaking sounds coming through the wall. Not Hamish again! he fumed. He and his girlfriend never know when to stop.
“Let's take a shower,” blurted Ben. “There are some clean towels on that rack.”
However, when they emerged into the hallway, Ben's flatmate Hamish was standing there droopy-kneed with his arm entwined not around his usual girlfriend, but around Malky's tomboy companion of the night before.
“ My name, if you're at all interested, is Dr. Eugenia Slotsky-Pereira,” said the tomboy. “You've been laying my student, no doubt.”
“Eugenia is my new..er.. girlfriend,” announced Hamish. “She's so wonderfully different.”
“Maybe that's because I'm of the third gender,” declared Eugenia, with a smirk. “I sometimes prefer to be called Eugen.”
Malky tilted his slightly oversize head.“Over 1% of humankind are intersex. They’ve been with us since the beginning of time.”
“You must be a statistician,” joked Hamish, “and we all know what Twain and Disraeli said about that damned twaddle.”
“I certainly am. I'm studying for my Ph.D. in Statistics at Edinburgh Uni.”