7am - Australian time

Things are finally back on track. With my connecting flight ready for departure, Wang had realised I couldn’t possibly be a threat to national security if I wasn’t in the country, so I had my camera returned and I was released from my confinement. I was frog-marched right up to my seat on the plane, and I was more than a little put out to find the girls buckled up and ready to go without me.

“What happened to you?” Rachel had asked, mildly curious as Wang stored my hand-luggage above my head.

“Did you not see the three armed-policemen marching me off for questioning?” I snapped.

Bev had almost dropped her mobile. “Woah! The police here have three arms?”

Rachel tells me I smell of fear and incarceration, whilst Bev thinks I should be paying extra for the ‘excess baggage’ I’m carrying under my eyes. The two of them look rested and relaxed, which is more than can be said for the other passengers onboard who watched with obvious concern as I was bundled onto the plane. They probably think I’m a big bent terrorist. Can you imagine?

“EVERYONE, GET YOUR HANDS IN THE AIR NOW! So I can slip onto them a pair of these gorgeous cashmere-lined leather gloves I found at duty free. Aren’t they just FABULOUS?”

Ooooh, we’re landing!

8.30am – Taxi rank, Melbourne airport

Phew, what a scorcher! Which is a particularly weird thing to say at this time of the morning, especially considering it was the middle of the night an hour ago and yesterday lunchtime a few hours before that. Time zones are weird and we’ve crossed all of them. Bev and Rachel have now changed into low-cut tops to try to distract passing men from the fright that their hair has become, and are now both on their mobiles, calling, texting, and updating Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and God-knows-whatsapp. I don’t think they’ve even looked up yet to appreciate that WE’RE ACTUALLY HERE.

“According to my weather app,” Bev said, squinting at her screen, “Melbourne is meant to be really sunny until about 10pm today, and then it’s going to get really moony.”

Rachel was too busy ‘checking-in’ to the country to hear her.

“Oi! Ladies!”

They looked at me blankly.

“We’re actually in AUSTRALIA!”

All three of us broke into wide smiles. Bev tried to pull us together for a group hug, but all our rucksacks collided above our heads and bounced us off in different directions, so we settled on high-fives instead.

“What’s the plan now, then?” I asked.

They looked at each other, then looked back at me and shrugged in unison.

 

10.45am – ‘The Friendly Backpacker’, Melbourne CBD (Central Business District)

We’ve checked into ‘The Friendly Backpacker’, a hostel that I chose from a list at the airport in the hopes that it would live up to its name. We’re all a little anxious about meeting new people. Actually, scratch that. I’m a little anxious. Neither of the girls could give two shits.

As hostels go it seems perfectly adequate, but having never stayed in one in my life I really have no idea. It certainly ain’t no Hilton. We have a set of bunk beds each (one bed for us, one for our bags) and a room to ourselves, but I suspect this isn’t normal and probably won’t last. Bev and Rachel, fragile young things that they are, have retired straight to their bunks fully-clothed, blaming jet-lag. I’m still wide awake and am eager to get exploring, but to be honest I’m actually quite glad to have some time alone. The pair of them made the flight from Hong Kong almost unbearable.

Having been held under armed-guard for seven hours or so, and let’s not forget the intimate probing that I’m forgetting about, the last thing I wanted to hear was how much fun they’d had without me in Hong Kong. At the time I’d been held at gun-point and worn like an Asian glove puppet, they’d been squeezing in a few quick rides at Disneyland China thanks to an express shuttle service from the airport. They decided to help me practise some chat-up lines in an effort to ‘cheer me the fuck up’.

“I got one! How about, ‘Those are nice legs. What time do they open?’ It worked on me once,” laughed Rachel.

“I think Kev’s a bit more… classic,” said Bev politely. “Something more like, um… ‘Did it hurt when you fell from heaven? Because you must be an angel.’ Ha!”

Cue vomit noises from all three of us.

“I walked up to a guy once, downed his drink, looked him dead in the eye and said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ And then I fucked off. It was HILARE!”

I joined in for a bit because I do actually need the practise, but then they called the campest steward over and it stopped being funny.

“Hiya luv! This is Kev, and he has something he’d like to say to you.”

Three pairs of eyes looked at me expectantly, four if you count the lady across the way that was pretending not to listen, and my brain went blank. It’s been so long since I even made eye contact with a man I didn’t know, and I opened and closed my mouth for a bit as he stared at me with a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes. Then, out of shear panic, “NICE TIE!” burst from my mouth followed by some slightly hysterical giggling, and the look I was given from the trolley-dolly only made me want the ground to swallow me up, rather than him.

“That was totally HILARE!” Bev had laughed, once he’d left me red-faced.

Finding my humiliation thoroughly entertaining, Rachel then decided to “take things up a notch”, and the next time he passed by she whipped my ‘Gay Times’ from my hand-luggage and flung it at his feet. I was mortified! Presumably the idea was that he’d pick it up, see the glossy topless man on the cover, our eyes would meet and he’d become so spontaneously horny that he’d forget all his training and pull me straight into the toilets for a bit of a mile-high seeing to. Because as everyone knows, all gays have no standards and are permanently horny. All it actually earned me was an outraged hair flick and a smile so fake it gave Rachel’s cleavage a run for its money.

Still not satisfied, they decided to do it again a few hours later, tearing the magazine from my unwilling hands as the other steward passed by with the drinks trolley. Incredibly, this one winked as he handed it back, and slipped me a free vodka for good measure. RESULT! The girls were most put out. The steward was a butch, hairy guy with a Russian accent and his badge said his name was ‘Yogi’. He was a bear in every sense of the word, and if we had done anything kinky it would’ve resulted in me coughing up hair balls.

 
2.45pm - Batman Park (no, really!)

Well, this is a new experience. Sun-bathing. And not the reluctant, fully-clothed, sweating-in-a-jumper-and-jeans kind of sun-bathing I might be forced into at home either.

I can’t get over how familiar everything is here. Ever-so-slightly-different mammals climb the branches of ever-so-slightly-different trees, whilst flocks of brightly coloured birds gather at the edge of the river. Birds I’m very familiar with, but should clearly be in a zoo. But whilst the world around me feels unexpectedly samey, I feel completely different. I left England feeling lost and rejected, and have arrived here feeling hopeful and relaxed. It seems the light at the end of the tunnel is Australia.

With the girls still sleeping, I’ve been out investigating Melbourne on my own, and almost immediately I realised something unexpected. It has been years since I’ve had to make any decisions for myself.
Where shall I go first?
 What should I have for lunch?
 Which shops should I visit?
 Do these clothes look good on me?
 Should I say something to that cute assistant?
Question followed question, and they were all mine to answer. It was a bit bewildering at first because for so long someone else has answered them all for me and I hadn’t even realised.
 Let’s go here.
 Eating that will make you fatter.
 Why would you want to go there?
 That’s not flattering on you at all.
 Were you flirting with that guy?
I’ve let Phil call the shots for so long; firstly to be nice, then out of habit, and then finally out of some kind of subservience, but over here I have no choice but to think for myself. It’s actually a little scary. As I walked the streets, staring up open-mouthed at the sky-scrapers and soaring glass structures and apologising to barely-missed pedestrians, something else occurred to me too. Something really obvious, but that I hadn’t properly considered. No one here knows me.

No one.

Other than Bev and Rachel, everyone in the entire country is a total stranger! Let’s review the full impact of that, shall we? There is no chance of seeing people I used to know from my hetero days whispering about me behind my back. No chance of getting stink-eye from a total stranger because I’m with a man. No chance of bumping into an old school friend and being asked those three most awkward questions – “Girlfriend? Married? Kids?” No friends to disappoint. No boyfriend to give me grief. No mother to fret over. No family to embarrass. No reputation to consider. No expectations to meet. I can be me without worrying about the consequences, and the sense of freedom that washed over me was so strong it made the hairs stand up on my arms.

I realised I was hot and I took off my jumper. I didn’t give it a second thought. Yet back at home this would risk ridicule, because without a second layer what would disguise my fat rolls, or hide my bingo wings and sweat patches? Then, as I walked into the park, air shimmering in the heat, I did something so completely out of character, so entirely unexpected, that I shocked even myself.

I took my t-shirt off.

I’m sure no one else would understand how massive a deal this is, how huge a personal milestone, but the fact is I would never even dream of going topless at home. The thought of someone I know catching sight of my white hulking mass and hairy moobs is too much to bear. But here, with the anonymity of Oz, my wobbly man-tits are live and unleashed upon an unsuspecting nation, and despite being in the vicinity of athletic men (with smaller waists than me) and sporty women (with smaller breasts than me), I feel at ease. No one is staring!

Well… Except me.

Up until now, I’ve been paying close attention to what the Australian men are wearing. I need fashion guidance and fast, because if this is the kind of heat I can expect I’m going to have to completely rethink my wardrobe. Maybe buy some shorts that are actually short and don’t end just above my ankles. But now, as I stretch out, a breeze around my pits and grass tickling at my nips, I can’t help but pay closer attention to what the guys here aren’t wearing. The warmth of the sun on my naked back is such an alien sensation that it’s making me feel… a little naughty. I don’t know if it’s just my imagination but the very air here seems charged somehow, like it’s buzzing with new possibilities, and just breathing in its warmth makes my heart race a bit. All the flesh on display isn’t helping either. There is a team of rowers not ten metres away doing warm-up exercises by the river. The afternoon sun is reflecting off their tight tanned chests, toned arms glistening, water trailing down sculpted bodies… tiny swim-shorts stretched over muscular thighs… clinging fabric hinting at the bulging contents beneath… Phwoar! There’s not a coxless pair amongst them, that’s for damn sure, and the sight of them doing their lunges is stirring up feelings I’d all but forgotten. They don’t even seem to mind me staring, although admittedly I am wearing mirrored sunglasses and pretending to look the other way.

1am

The end of a looong day, but I’m still not tired. Does jet lag even exist? Bev and Rachel have done nothing but sleep all day, but I’m wide awake. Maybe it is all in the mind and it’s not affecting me because I have one?

To avoid lurking in dark corners on my own like some kind of weirdo, I’ve had to face my fears and start up conversations with total strangers. Not something I was expecting to do on my first day. One poncho-wearing nut job from High Wycombe insisted I referred to him as “The Raggerman” when I know for a fact his name is Timothy. He kept moaning about all his “haterz” and how they “dinnit unnerstan me bruv, ya git me” and his faux-gangster attitude wound me up so much I couldn’t help but point out it was unlikely he had ‘haterz’ per se, and more likely people just thought him a twat, which is the kind of thing I’d normally only think. I ran and hid when he was distracted by a twisted dreadlock, and found myself out on the fire-escape blagging a cigarette from an Irish girl called Karen. Not because Australia has suddenly turned me into a smoker, but because there was no one to tell me I couldn’t. It was menthol so it doesn’t count anyway. Karen, who somehow refrained from laughing at my pathetic attempts to inhale, introduced me to her friend, a timid Ginger fella called Hamish, who was the entire reason I’d approached her in the first place. Hamish has a strong Scottish accent, a stammer, and is setting off my Gaydar big time.

And there was me thinking it didn’t even work anymore.

 

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