He stroked his thumb over it. He remembered this from childhood. Pale shades of orange with a down. It was years since he’d had a fresh peach like this. None in the trenches. Tinned peaches had been an occasional luxury. They’d blown the French orchards to bits and fresh fruit was too soft to travel from home. You’d have been presented with a ruined mash by the postal corps. Not that there’d ever been anyone who might have wanted to post him a treat anyway.
He’d bought it off a market stall. Just this. Nothing else. He’d been so surprised to see it existing again after so long. It must have grown on a tree somewhere quiet while he was shooting down Dubliners. And before that, when shells and men were exploding around him in France, there’d been soft fruit silently ripening in orchards all over England. And there’d been market stalls standing upright on clean cobbles, while he crouched in wet boots.
He rubbed the peach harder, down the crack. The same feel as skin. Just like a lad’s arse. Flesh firm as young muscle. No boy ever smelled so sweet, though. He chuckled to himself and sniffed his thumb. He rubbed it down the crack again. The skin pulled away, exposing bare fruit flesh, glinting wet and smooth.
He had a gift which could make him money. It would have been a sin not to use it. He knew which lads would appeal to fairies. Dirty old pansies. Made him sick. Of course. He spat down onto tram tracks as he crossed the road. But a lot of those queers had money which they were willing to part with for the right boy. He could spot the lads the rich old sods would want to use. He knew how to get them to do what the fairies would pay for, too, because they were poor and scared and willing to be pushed.
It had been easy in the army where he’d had control over every second of his Tommies’ lives, and they’d been used to taking orders. Just because the war was over now, that didn’t mean the opportunities would be. It was time to relocate his business. That was all. This city would do as well as any. There were pansies everywhere if you knew how to look. He could scout around, stock up on product, seek out customers.
There was no risk to him in this racket. Who would tell tales on him? They all had more to lose than he did. If a peeler walked in on one of those filthy old bastards while he was pushing into the soft peach of a lad’s arse, then both the buyer and the sold would end up in court. But not him. He just made the arrangements.
He’d run girls if he could, of course, he would. That was natural. But that market was all sewn up and, besides, he didn’t have the gift with girls or their customers. He’d developed his nose in the war, with no girls around. He had this instinct now with the other type.
Some customers wanted their lad silent while they poked him, some wanted noises like the whore was enjoying it, others like they weren’t. He could tell within five minutes which sort of pansy he was selling to.
He pushed his thumb into the flesh of the peach. Juice dribbled out round it. He pushed it in and out a few times.
On leave from the war, in his uniform, girls had been all over him. They looked away now when he smiled at them. Heads ducked, paces quickened. He was going to need to learn softer manners or earn more money. He’d have to make do until.
Sure, he took the odd liberty. Who wouldn’t? It was there to be taken. Testing out the product didn’t make him one of them. Sometimes he had to show his workers who was boss and what to expect for insubordination. Sometimes he had to check whether a boy could still pass as a virgin. More money for virgins. That didn’t make him a pansy. A fruit.
He pulled out his thumb and put his tongue into the hole he’d made. Juice dripped into his stubble.
He had forgotten this taste. Not the same as tinned peaches. Almost perfumed, it was. He wasn’t sure that he liked it. He thrust his tongue in and out a few more times. Not sure about it at all. Too sweet. He’d rather lick a lad’s arse.
He’d never touch one of the customers, those flabby older men as mottled and wrinkled as crab apples. You’d have to be proper queer to want that. Or hard-up. Or pushed into it by someone as clever as him. He knew how to leave a potential high earner with no other choice. There would be ways here, the same as there had been in France and Ireland.
His chin had dried, but it was sticky. He ought to get back to his lodging room and wash his face. When things got going, he’d rent a whole house. His operation would run better that way. What landlords were charging now, though! Could charge what they liked. He’d done well to get anything. It was down to all the soldiers coming back. Not enough homes for them all. Even after they’d left so many rotting in the French mud.
The same with jobs. Not enough to go round and nobody wanted to hire soldiers. Too rough. No nice manners like the cowards who’d stayed safe at home. No point him even looking for one. Made no odds. He had his own line of work.
He broke the peach open and bit hard into it. The stone – as wrinkled as a testicle – fell into his palm. He closed his fist round it and squeezed.