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Release Day Review: Downpayment by A.J. Mars

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Book Info

About the Author
AJ Mars is a midtwenties wanderer who’s lived everywhere from New Mexico to New Zealand, via half of Western Europe. Her writing reflects her love of travel, although she’s now fairly settled in the UK with her partner and their cats. AJ has a PhD in a useless subject and a passionate interest in Shakespeare. She teaches creative writing and literature classes and tries her best to practice what she preaches.
Publication Date
February 15, 2016
“SOMEONE’S SCRATCHED the C off the Canal Street sign again. You think it’s one of us who keeps doing it as a territorial claim?”

“For all I know, Mike, it’s the bloke who sleeps under the archway with the three-legged Labrador. Or—” Hand still in his pocket, Callum points at the shifty-looking middle-aged virgin on the towpath, who’s encased in a mint-colored raincoat and can’t muster the nerve to come over and ask how much. “—it could be your biggest fan.”

Mike elbows Callum and sniggers anyway. It could be worse. Sometimes it’s not just the C that’s gone. Once upon a memorable evening, they all took drunken selfies in front of the thing when it read, illiterately but amusingly, anal treet.

Callum turns and walks backward down the path, spreading his hands at the worn denim sky to feel the drizzle tickle his palms. “At least it’s a lovely night for it, anyway.”

The first night he heard Callum say that, Mike had just rocked up at the train station with everything he owned in a bag. He shook out his hair as he fed a pound coin into the rickety vending machine on the platform, but the Twix he wanted never materialized, and a punch of the buttons returned nothing but an ERR message.

Mike cursed at the glass, first quietly and then at volume, and Callum materialized behind him. Mike remembered his laugh, as open and bright as starlight.

“It’s a bitch of a thing, that,” he said and offered Mike a swill of vodka. “Lovely night for it, though. Eh?”

The rain ricocheted off the webbed glass roof of the station, and Callum’s sweater looked more hole than wool, but he seemed to mean it. Mike wondered what kind of life you had to live to think a night like that was lovely. He sat on the bench, twirled the cord of his rucksack around and around his hand, and swallowed his nerves down with gulps of booze while Callum talked. And Callum could talk. There was no doubt on that score. He had a lilting accent Mike couldn’t place at first, beyond Irish. The Catholic school Mike had gone to—under duress—was full of Belfast nuns, and Callum sounded nothing like them. His voice was softer and warm even in that weather.

Later, when they were the only creatures there but the pigeons and the night guard, Callum traded Mike a spot on his sofa for a really nice kiss in the dark. The sofa was a piece of shit with the stuffing hanging out, but Callum’s mouth was soft and warm. Afterward, when he asked how far Mike had come, Mike swapped his answer for Callum’s and got to see Callum smile around Killarney. It sounded like the name of a long-lost lover. Callum was Killarney’s long-lost son.

Sometimes he wonders what would have happened if Callum hadn’t appeared, whether he would have sulked the night away over a Twix and slunk home or if he’d still have ended up there, the two of them working different spots and eyeing each other with disdain. He’s not fool enough to think the difference between “okay” and “awful” is anything other than having friends, and Callum has been more than a friend. Mike doesn’t want to contemplate how things might have turned out without that constant.

Instead he eyes the shadows and ticks the regulars off a register he keeps in his mind like an overzealous school teacher: Bilal, Ahmed, Robbie—

“Where’s Matt?”

“Did you not hear?” Callum pulls the zip of his hoodie up, bites at the collar and tugs the well-bitten end of the toggle between his teeth. Around it, his voice is muffled, but Mike’s known him long and deep enough to make it out all the same. “He went missing on Thursday last. This morning his neighbors are telling the papers he was a good lad, and it’s a crying shame. They can’t understand why anyone would hurt him. His mother’s distraught. Maybe if she’d given a fuck before he was in a body bag he’d—”


Mike swallows. Of course it happens. He and Bilal joked about it once, how the police and press would leave out their occupation and paint them as a promising this or that. Bilal had gone for “street artist” with a draw on his fag and a sarcastic lip curl as he tagged the bus stop with a marker. Mike did a bad impression of his business teacher saying he had the makings of a gifted entrepreneur. They all know any one of them could end up recycled like cans and bottles put out every second Wednesday and prostitutes the week after that. All of them had started out as promising something-or-others, but didn’t everyone? Everything? Hitler had started out as a promising vegetarian artist, for crying out loud. According to that sort of shitty journalist logic, every promising three-volume novel of staggering genius started out as a damn sapling tree.

Still. Mike’s been there long enough to know that too much logic only makes the world they live in feel all the more absurd. It’s better not to think too much about anything. It isn’t exactly their superior brain power that makes them their living.

Mike scuffs his trainers up against the bricks and tips his head back. He eyes the clutch of men staggering down the steps at the bridge. They’re off their faces already, even though it’s barely past eight in the evening. They’ll be a stag night, football team, or work outing, daring each other to do some skinny rent boy in the arse while the others watch. Their shiny suits and insults will chafe equally against whoever’s dumb or desperate enough to let them get him alone in the dark.

Callum edges closer, and part of Mike wants to protect him. There’s nothing worse than a load of blokes unused to the rules and not one of them knowing how much is too much. A moment later the guys fall onto the towpath and barrel under the bridge, and Mike sinks back against the wall, relief flooding his chest. The crowd down there can look after themselves. He’s frightened enough of them himself and wouldn’t want to cross any man jack of them on a dark night.

“You know, I actually thought I’d head into town,” Mike says, releasing his fists, waiting for the sting to die out of the half-moons left on his palms. “There’s some fashion thing on. Come with me? You always make more money picking the lonely ones up in bars. You know that.”

“Make more money when I can pretend to be underage,” Callum counters wryly. It’s depressingly true enough, and Callum, with his baby face and soft mouth, can still pull it off. “Besides—” He glances down the towpath and waves at Simon, who’s leaning against the brick and checking a watch that cost more than either of them will see this year. “—I’m expected. I owe him for the party the other night. Don’t make a face. It was only a couple of grams, and I spilled most of it.” Callum shrugs, not meeting Mike’s eye. Perhaps he doesn’t want to see an expression of displeasure. “I got the two hundred I owe him in my pocket to keep him sweet—”

“Tell me you didn’t take the emergency money out of the fridge?”

“I’ll have it back by the end of the week.” At Mike’s huff, Callum looks up from under his rain-straggled hair. “Aw, come on, Mickey. Don’t be angry with your old mate. I could be charging you double what I do to stay, so I could.”

Mike rolls his eyes. “Just trying to—”


At Simon’s call, Callum turns like a puppy to its master, nervous energy in his spine and his smile edgy and forced.

Just like that, all Mike wants to do is drag him back to their flat, cuddle him on the sofa, and tell him he doesn’t care about the money and just wants Callum to whisper into his hair the stories his gran used to tell him about seals that were really part-time people. Maybe somewhere, in another dimension, there’s a Mike and a Callum who are free to do that every night in their room at some inner-city university, where they’d met as the apples of their parents’ eyes. Sometimes Mike thinks about what might have been if he’d never left home—if he’d stuck long enough to get his own place, get out from under his stepdad’s feet and, most nights, his fist. The fantasy is wistful until it stumbles upon its persistent pitfall. There is no Callum in it, and Callum’s the first real friend Mike’s ever had.

If Mike wants anything, it’s to keep Callum safe, even though the logical part of his mind knows that Callum’s been looking after himself years longer than Mike has, even though he’s six months the younger. Still, Mike itches to clutch at his sleeve and beg him not to go off with this Simon person, this unknown quantity. But work is work, and Mike’s finally getting used to that. Instead he sighs and says, “Be careful. Those guys from before were trouble and—”

“I have done this before, you know. The lads’ll look out for me.” At Mike’s skeptical eyebrow raise, Callum ducks his chin. “All right. I promise to check their nails, ’cause God forbid I let anyone who hasn’t had a manicure fuck me.”

“Serial killers have shitty cuticles, Callum. I saw it on CSI. And text me the license number if you’re getting in a Beemer. They’re the most likely to get violent.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“It’s true. I read—”

“It was on Wikipedia for fourteen minutes. You probably put it there yourself and forgot.”

Mike laughs and kicks at the ground. There’s a new hole in his trainer, and his stripy red sock pokes through it like a worm. “Still.”

“You’re worse than my mam,” Callum mutters.

They both know Mike’s not.

He pulls Callum in by his hoodie and kisses him, filling his mouth with the taste of the Sugar Puffs he had for breakfast slash dinner.

Callum smiles as he sinks back on his heels. He gazes down the knitted mesh of Mike’s jumper and the T-shirt with its classy print of a guy with his dick out. “You look obscene,” he says. “Go bag yourself someone rich and bored. The rent needs paying.”

Mike turns and walks away with a purposeful wiggle of his skinny-jeaned arse, and Callum shouts after him in the dark, “Call me if you get unlucky.”

Mike Barrow and his friends are among many boys in Manchester who think the city will be their chance to improve themselves. But for now Mike is living in a damp flat with his friend Callum, and they’re both making ends meet by working the streets. When Mike meets Chris Wildsmith, a late-twenties entrepreneur, he thinks he’s hooked a job that will pay his rent for several weeks—a windfall already.

But his connection with Chris quickly goes beyond what’s normal between rent boy and client. Mike meets Chris’s friends, goes to Chris’s parties with him as his “boyfriend,” and finds himself swept up in a world he’s never known. He’s sure it’s all going to go horribly wrong, and when Chris’s work colleague figures them out and becomes violent, he’s almost proven right. But Mike isn’t the only one who has confused professionalism with something else. The breakup that follows gives Mike the impetus he needs to relaunch himself as somebody else, a man who will hopefully be someone Chris very much wants to be with.

Editor reviews

1 reviews

Too Close for Comfort
Movie Potential – 0 – been done before.
Ease of reading – some parts easy, some parts confusing. Equal mix.
Would I read it again – Possibly. Not sure yet.

Reviewed for Divine Magazine

Warning. Hazard ahead!
Great plot and awesome characters ruined by “too close for comfort” copying of Pretty Woman. I can't even say it's done by accident, because both
the film and Julia Roberts are mentioned more than once. In what ways are they similar? Only in the best/worst ways. The best parts of the movie – the hooker and rich guy, with a penthouse apartment; the shopping spree, both the good and bad parts; and the attack by an inconsiderate jerk who sees only dollar signs.

Oh, and let me just say that I've never liked Pretty Woman anyway, so that didn't help.


Ugh! I wanted to love this book so much. As I said above, the characters were brilliant – unique, well written, really well explored in terms of depth and history – and the plot was unique in some ways that made it refreshing, at first. Then more and more little “Pretty Woman” moments cropped up. More and more things began itching away at me, telling me this wasn't as original as I'd first thought. It's just an M/M version of the movie, with more sex with Chris being a more free, tolerant, happy-go-lucky version of Richard Gere.

This book isn't about your typical high-flying, top of the line escorts, that some of these rent boy stories are about. Mike and Callum are real, honest-to-God, down on their luck kids, who just need to make enough money to pay the rent, so they can stay together.

Unfortunately, it's also written in 3rd person, present tense, which doesn't sit well with my equilibrium. The two don't mix. Then, in between, we have diary entries from Mike, written in 1st person past tense. It's really quite confusing. I took a half star off, for that fact alone. It was disconcerting to read 1 page or scene of the present story, then have to shift into reading the diary entries that were sprawled throughout. Also, it was really annoying the way that the diary entries sometimes hint – and sometimes downright shouted out – future events or things we hadn't seen yet.

The chemistry between the characters – Chris and Mike – is the brilliant part of the story. Their relationship, though odd, is remarkable and wonderful to read. I just wish the cheesy “Pretty Woman” parts had been a little more original or completely removed. They spoiled it for me and I removed a whole star for that alone. It's also really annoying to read them getting to know one another, having this brilliant chemistry, then to have the diary entries tell us that they've already separated. It's a total WTF? moment!

The storytelling – the parts that are real and original to Chris and Mike – is fantastic. Really well done, well explored and done with depth. However, I found more meaning and depth, more honesty, in the diary entries by Mike than in some of their encounters. Plus, the really important event – the one that separates them for a time and sets events into motion at the end of the story – is glossed over in memories and diary entries. We don't get to see any of what really matters and that removed the final half star. Such an important turning point in the story, in Chris and Mike's relationship, should never be glossed over in that way. It felt ignored. One minute everything was fine, in Paris, then we were back in Manchester and Mike was back living with Callum and his friends. It made no sense.

As for the supporting characters – Callum, Balil and Ben – were all interesting people, but they never really jumped out and showed too much of themselves, which was nice. I knew they were there, but they truly were background characters. Chris and Mike were the focal point. As the story was told in Mike's POV only, it took some time to get to know Chris, but once I did, I really liked him. He and Mike together were magic and that became something I really loved. Even doing ordinary things, they could bask in each other and the situation, without getting over the top.



Disappointed. I wanted this to be a 5 or even a 4 star read. But the more I read and the more I thought about it, the Pretty Woman parts were
unforgiveable. Yes, they were mutilated into something new, more modern and in keeping with the M/M theme and the character's personalities, but the fact that I noticed them was bad. It wasn't even a coincidence, since the author clearly mentioned both the film and the actors in dialogue or Mike's thoughts, so the similarity was in their mind. I just wish they'd masked it or removed it, because either could have been done without compromising the story.

The writing, storytelling and characterisation means that I'll give this author another try. But the style – of two different tenses in one book, both of which were done the opposite to how I would normally read them – unsettled me. If all the others are the same, I'll miss them, unless by strong recommendation. It's just too confusing.

The ending was also a little more abrupt than I'd have liked, with more of a feel of an HFN than a HEA. I still have questions that have gone

Like I said, I was really rooting for this one, all the way through. The blurb sounded awesome and when I read the “hooker/rich guy” theme to it, I desperately hoped it wouldn't be Pretty Woman style, but it was and that's the main reason I'm disappointed. I expected more.



I have a few, so keep with me.

Falling for you will always taste like breakfast wrapped in a duvet at sunset on a balcony – and a little bit like pickles. And oddly I don't mind that at all.

You didn't even really look, but as I turned for the door, you said, “Bye, Mike. Thanks.”
It was real soft and quiet, like the same way people say “but I love you” when the person they gave everything to just left indefinitely and they've got nothing but a door to talk to.

and the final one...

““Have a good day, honey,” I said, just before I left. I'm not sure if you could tell, but what I meant was, “I don't quite know it, but I'm already bereft.”
#1 Reviewer 127 reviews
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