There were two planks of wood and a pile of stones on top of the the tank containing the boa constrictor, which was staring at Peter Freestone and his boss, Freddie Mercury, from behind a mattress on Michael Jackson's bedroom floor.
It had already been an eventful afternoon. Jackson had taken his guests on a tour of the Neverland grounds, introducing them to his menagerie of ducks, geese, sheep and llamas. "Soon, we were in the bedroom, and Michael was telling us how he liked to sleep on the floor as he was more comfortable being close to the earth," Freestone recalls. "Freddie couldn't stop himself, retorting by pointing out, if that was the case, surely Michael should move his bedroom downstairs."
Thirty-six years have passed since then, but Freestone remembers the day well – just as well as he remembers the first time he set his eyes on the Queen frontman. He was sitting having tea in the Rainbow Room Restaurant at Biba, 1960s London's iconic department store. "All eyes turned for some reason," says Freestone. "I looked up and there was Freddie: long hair, fox fur jacket and black painted nails. You couldn't help but stare."
It was the briefest of encounters, and Freestone wasn't exactly star-struck; he was used to meeting A-listers at the Royal Opera House, where he worked at the time – and anyway, he was more of a classical music man.
Six years later, the two crossed paths again. Mercury had just performed with the Royal Ballet when Freestone was introduced to him at the after-show party. The two got talking, and Mercury asked what exactly it was that Freestone did for work. "I explained that I looked after costumes," says Freestone, "and that was that." A week later, someone from Queen called him out of the blue. "They asked if I'd be available to do a six-week tour to look after the band's stage costumes."
After the first tour Freestone graduated from the costume department to become Freddie's personal assistant, and quickly became one of his closest friends, spending the next 12 years by his side.
"We understood each other, without knowing it at first," Freestone explains. "We had similar upbringings, both sent to boarding schools in India from when we were young." The two became so in tune, he says, that Freddie wouldn't even have to talk when he wanted something – it became intuitive. If Freddie needed a glass of water, a cigarette or an ear in which to bitch about a journalist after a press conference, Freestone would always be there.
Freddie was known for his hedonistic antics, and wherever the band were in the world, it was up to Freestone to make sure the party ingredients were on hand. "It's rock-and-roll legend, but there were never dwarves walking round parties with bowls of cocaine on their heads," laughs Freestone. Still, it was no secret his boss was a fan of the drug. "The police in Kensington knew Freddie did cocaine, but they didn't have a problem with it," Freestone tells me. "He was never blatant with it – he never did it in public or attracted attention."
Finding cocaine wasn't a challenge in London, but doing so on the road had its quirks: "In New York they had it down to a business. You'd go to a place, there'd be a queue. You'd join and a door would open – it was one in and out. When you went inside there'd be a table and a metal workbox that opened up. Each one was full of drugs. I'd just get what Freddie wanted and pay at the end."
Freestone is quick to make clear he didn't see Freddie's use as an addiction, instead suggesting the singer was always in control. "It wasn't every day. Maybe four days a week," he says, "and Freddie was one of those people who always had some left for the next day. He wouldn't do it all and then go in search of the next."
The relationship was as personal as it was professional, which meant seeing another side of his boss – the man riddled with vulnerabilities and insecurities. Freestone talks of two Freddie Mercurys: the one we all know – on stage at Live Aid with the world in the palm of his hand – but also another, a man who couldn't walk alone into a room full of strangers, lacking the confidence to introduce himself.
Garden Lodge, Kensington was all but empty on a quiet May morning in 1987. Freddie had made sure of that. He and Freestone stood in the kitchen, alone, when the singer – then just 40 – told his friend he'd been diagnosed with AIDS. "My heart dropped out of my chest," says Freestone. "We both knew it was a death sentence, and from that moment on I knew that whatever I did for him was not going to help him survive. He said from then on we wouldn't talk about it anymore. As far as Freddie saw it, he had the rest of his life to live."
In the end, Freddie decided when it was his time to die. On the 10th of November, 1991 he stopped taking the medication that was keeping him alive. As for so many men who slept with men at the height of the epidemic, AIDS had stripped Mercury of all autonomy. In choosing to stop swallowing his pills, he was taking back control. For the final week of his life, someone was always by his bedside. Three friends took 12-hour shifts to make sure he was never alone.
"He was tense at the start of the week," recalls Freestone, but that changed when – at 8PM on the evening of Friday the 22nd of November, 1991 – Freddie confirmed in a press statement that he had AIDS.
"That's exactly when I started my 12 hours with him," Freestone tells me, painting a vivid picture Mercury in his bedroom: the cream satin wallpaper and cream carpets; beautiful furniture made to fit. "For years I'd never seen Freddie so relaxed. There were no more secrets; he was no longer hiding. He knew he had to release the statement, else it would look like he thought AIDS was something dirty to be swept under the rug."
The pair laughed together and talked about the good times. For periods, Freestone would just sit on the bed in silence, holding his friend's hand.
"And then it was 8AM on Saturday morning," says Freestone, his voice slightly trembling. "And I was getting up to leave. Freddie just took my hand and we looked at each other in the eyes. He said, 'Thank you.' I don't know if he'd decided it was time to go and he knew he would never see me again, thanking me for 12 years together, or if he was just thanking me for those 12 hours. I'll never know. It was the last time we spoke."
We've been speaking for well over an hour when I ask my final question. Is it hard, I ask Freestone, to accept that his whole life is defined by his relationship to another person? Is living in Mercury's shadow something he'd liked to one day shake?
"It took a long time for me to accept it," he replies, grinning. "I worked for him for 12 years, but I've been working alongside him for another 28." At first, Freestone says, he didn't understand why people wanted to shake his hand or take photos when they met him. But slowly, as he began to embrace it, things started to make sense. "For the fans, I'm one of the last physical presences who was there with him. They shake my hand, although I tell them I've washed since then. And I know more than anyone how much he was a star."
Freddie Mercury's 'Never Boring' solo collection is out now.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.