Conservative Party poppers

poppersUntil this week, the fact that the denizens of the green benches were about to consider the rights and wrongs of the legality of buying poppers had rather passed me by.  

In fact, even when I turned on the radio one teatime and heard Crispin Blunt, the Tory member for one of those places you drive through on your way to Brighton, explaining to Eddie Mair that he was a user of the stuff, things weren’t much clearer.  It had a touch of Phil Collins endorsing Nonce Sense about it.  At that point the legislation hadn’t been passed, and when Blunt was asked for his advice to other poppers’ users (should it go through) he said he thought they should stock up on the stuff before the long arm of the law took an interest.  You wouldn’t want to run out.

It’s the first time I’ve ever heard an MP advocating panic buying.  Certainly for something that’s used primarily in sex.  And this from the party that only thirty years ago couldn’t even bring itself to use the term “anal sex” on pamphlets and adverts.  Instead, in those heavy-handed AIDS messages of the 1980s, Norman Fowler and his pals settled on “rectal sex”.  An expression that I read as a fourteen year old and thought must be something to do with a type of vicar.  And probably quite often it was.

margaret thatcher in christmas hat

 Apparently Margaret Thatcher had preferred the term “back passage intercourse” but I imagine that’s because she was a woman who liked a beautifully coined, poetic turn of phrase as much as some bracing trickle-down economics.

Just over a month ago, I saw a large display of various brands of poppers available for sale in a corner shop in Kingston-upon-Thames.  I’d nipped out of the nearby Rose Theatre during their offering of A Christmas Carol to buy some tissues and there they were on the counter butted up against the Handy Andies and the chewing gums.  They struck me as rather incongruous but who’s to say there aren’t people who, as they nip to the shop to buy a pint of milk or a packet of custard creams, don’t think a small serving of amyl nitrate wouldn’t go down a treat too.

alistair sim as scroogeMany years before that I used to perform occasionally at a particularly dour gig which took place in a Birmingham bar.  The audience slouched about on sofas and we acts would go through the motions.  One particular night, as I ordered a celebratory drink after wowing the crowd into a profound state of indifference, I noticed they too were selling poppers.  As with the shop in Kingston, there they all were: Fist, Rush Ultra and Jungle Juice.  How well they sold I’ve no idea but they seemed less out of place in a gay bar than vying for space alongside Fruitella and that week’s copy of Bella.  Once thing I did notice was that there was a little sign above the display which instead of calling them what everybody calls them, ie poppers, instead euphemistically described them as Room Odourisers.  

Apparently this (previously) legal high often employed to make make bum sex easier was coyly referred to in this way.  I trust the innocents of Kingston haven’t ever misunderstood this terminology.  The people queuing behind me last month, stocking up on tissues and fags to see them through the festive season, might have found themselves thinking: “oh I should get a couple of stand-by presents in.  You never know when you might need one.  It’s that time of year people do have a horrid habit of dropping by unexpectedly.  Just in case great aunt Maud pops in with a box of Cadbury’s Celebrations again it would be nice to have something to offer her by way of return.”old lady holding wrapped present

And for us unimaginative present-givers we all know old ladies like nice smelly things and so I can only hope that great aunt Maud is appreciative.

“What was that smelly stuff you gave me, dear?  I couldn’t place it.  Lavender, gardenia, lily-of-the-Valley?”

“No, amyl nitrate.”

“Oh, I’ve never heard of that.  Sounds foreign.  Strange scent.  Very relaxing though.”

Now that it’s been put beyond our reach, from next year we’ll have to think of something else to give the old girls in our lives.

A four-legged boyfriend, Part 5

 

interrogation room with lamp

There followed for me a period of hunkering down, of keeping away from any and all prospective partners, four-legged or with only half that.  Eventually though it was time to move on.  And despite the setbacks presented by Battersea Dogs’ Home, vicious Chinese food,  and blind dates, my next attempt at finding either a boyfriend or a boyfriend-substitute actually started more promisingly.  

Deciding that a dog rescue centre outside London might spare me an excess of violent pooches, I located a place that looked just the thing.  It wasn’t far from Biggin Hill, and its countless residents pictured on its website were often quite adorable.  Mostly, I would still be allergic to them, but at least they didn’t look like they might tear my throat out at the drop of a hat.  One in particular had made my heart skip a beat.  

His name was Bert.  He was grey and rather rangy, and about eight years old, so he wouldn’t be around forever.  His potted history described how things hadn’t been easy for him in life so far.  (Tell me about it, Bert, I wanted to whisper into his drooping, hairy ear.)  Apparently, he was looking for purely adult company as children unnerved him, and I also read how he would be happiest curled up with his owner by the fire on long, winter nights.   

Children unnerve me as well.  And I have an open fire, two in fact.  And I don’t much like leaving the house on winter nights either, nor indeed on many others, nor much in the day, truth be told.  So, I thought we looked a pretty good match.  Soulmates, even.  In fact, he sounded pretty damn well perfect.  I imagined the website only omitted to detail how he was looking for someone with whom to rediscover the pleasures of playing bridge due to lack of space.  

After parking the car, I went through to the reception and approached a volunteer behind the counter and said I’d like to view the dogs.

She looked at me sceptically,  “Oh really?”  Her voice had that slightly sarcastic tone you might use if someone asked if they could jump the queue in the post office.  There was a small, dangerous smile playing about her lips like a cat spying a mouse within pouncing distance.  “And have you made an appointment?”

“An appointment?”

“Oh yes, we ask everyone to make an appointment.”  Her eyes narrowed.  I visualised a little, grey tail hanging limply from her mouth.    

“On your website it says you’re open between eight am and eight pm, and so here I am.”  There was something in my tone even I objected to.  It was like I was trying to imply: so try and keep me away.  I was all fun, fun, fun.  “There was nothing about an appointment,” I continued feebly.

“We always ask people to make appointments to view the dogs.”   

“Anyway, I’ve come a very long way, and so if there’s any chance….”

“Well, I’m really sorry-”

If she could cut me off, I could do the same with her mid-insincere apology.  

“As I was saying, I’ve come a very long way.”  

Steeliness rather than fun was the order of the day now, I decided.  I hoped she wouldn’t ask where I’d actually come from as it really hadn’t really been that far.  Would I have to pick somewhere that sounded suitably distant without making myself sound like the sort of person who had nothing better to do than travel ludicrous distances on the off-chance of finding a dog I liked the look of?

“Well, as I say I’m sorry but that’s our policy.”  She checked something on the computer screen.  

“I had a specific dog, in mind, as it happens.”

She peered at me.

“Bert.  Grey hair, bit knackered looking.”

She visibly softened.  All the volunteers in the room shared a look with each other, the sort mothers might share as they talk of their sons gone off to war.

“Oh, what a lovely dog Bert is,” she said, palpably having swallowed the mouse by now.

“I know,” I said, feeling like we’d bonded at last.  “He’s the one I’ve come for really.”

The mouse was suddenly causing her indigestion.  “Well, I’m afraid he’s already been taken,” she snapped.

Oh no.  Bert wasn’t to be mine.  She patently wanted me to be distracted by this sad news.  But I wasn’t having any of it.

“In that case, I’d like to see the others.”  I wouldn’t let her see how the news was affecting me.  “I have come quite a way.”

Then I realised distance is always relative anyway.  Who’s to say what is far?  On the open road, with little traffic, thirty miles might count as almost nothing.  But if you’re a Russian soldier bogged down in the mire during the Siege of Berlin making it from one street corner to the next could prove an insurmountable distance.

She didn’t have the look of someone who might appreciate this sort of philosophising.  Consequently, the long way / I’m sorry exchange continued for some time to come but I won’t list all the return volleys here.

She changed tack.  “We ask potential clients to make an appointment.  The thing is,” her voice, once more, having taken on that more emollient tone, “some of the dogs are very highly strung and find it very upsetting people just turning up viewing them.  So that’s why we ask people to make appointments.”  She stressed the word viewing as if it was a really quite mucky type of activity to engage in.  Viewing dogs, you pervert.

“I see,” I said, not really seeing at all.  “Okay, but imagine I had made this appointment, how exactly would you convey this information to the dogs?”  

What did they do?  Leave a note in a bowl, send the creature an email?

“Oh no, not another one coming in to view me, Sheila?” I imagined some bored-looking spaniel might moan.  “And I had a nice afternoon planned, just putting my feet up, snaffling at my balls occasionally, watching the golf.  Maybe a G and T in hand.  And now you’re telling me there’s someone coming into ‘view’ me.”

The border guard behind the counter ignored my question.  I decided to retry an old favourite.  “The thing is, as I say, I’ve really come a long way.”  The truth was the traffic around the Catford gyratory could have been oh so much worse, and I’d positively sailed through Beckenham.

The air between us reeked of impasse.  Sheila, or whatever her name was, blinked first.

“We’re very busy,” she sighed, “but if you wait, I’ll get someone to go through registration with you.”

The next ninety minutes I sat in that room while my interlocutor and her colleagues threw me the evil eye from time to time.  

Finally, a man, who until that point, I hadn’t seen, came up to me.

“Hi, I’m John.  John Wilkins,” he said in a James Bond-ish rhythm.  

If I tell you that John was a man in his early fifties, about five foot two tall, and about five foot two across, cuboid in fact, totally bald, other than his few strands of hair scraped across his head, Bobby Charlton-style, and with absolutely no teeth, as if they’d been removed not only for his own safety but that of others, and wearing a sweatshirt caked in dried vomit and faeces, you might think I was describing one of life’s losers.  But not a bit of it.  John, John Wilkins was, according the badge he was wearing, a Senior Rehoming Liaison Executive, and so had climbed to the very top of his own particular greasy pole.

“Interested in taking on a dog?” he asked.  “That’s great news.  Always happy to meet guys like you, Neil.”  

People often think my surname is my first name and I’ve got used to having to correct them.  

“Sorry Chris.”  He now emphasised my name like I was being unnecessarily picky, and because he had no teeth in doing so he produced the wettest sound I’ve ever heard.

“So, Chris, dogs, dogs, dogs.  I’ve got over a dozen of the little bleeders at home myself.  For my sins.  Couldn’t live without them though.”  But in case I misread this line as encouragement, he continued in a deeper register, “Thing is though: we can’t just let our dogs out willy-nilly, I’m sure you can understand that.”  

He showed me into a brightly lit room with a couple of low, primary-coloured sofas and photographs of dogs on the walls with their names and dates below.  It was the canine version of visiting a theatre and seeing all the signed photos of actors who had once played there.

black cross“This is the liaison lounge,” he explained.  “A neutral space where dog and potential owner can meet and we can assess bonding potential.  We want it to feel safe and unthreatening for everyone.”  The dog had become a person in his sentence.

It had the feel of those rooms in television police dramas that are used to interview young children in.  All very reassuring and unthreatening.  In the corner was a low table with some plastic figures of humans and different dog types.  Used I imagine by the dogs to indicate where the bad man had touched them.  

John offered me the end of one sofa and he took the other.  From somewhere, he had produced the most enormous file and opening it he said, “Just a few questions.”  

With his legs crossed I felt we were at the start of a particular arduous edition of This Is Your Life.

“Question one.  Would you ever leave your dog alone?”

At first, I thought he was casting aspersions.  Would I ever leave my dog alone?  What was he implying?   That I’d get Rover back to my lair, grab him by the collar and declare, “You’re all mine now, all mine, all mine to do with as I will,” ending with a massive, devilish cackle.  

And then I realised he simply meant would I ever leave the dog on its own.  

Now, the thing about questions like this is that they’re impossible to answer.  I quickly thought it through.  If I said yes, I knew I was giving him the answer he’d be able to reject me for but if I if I said no, he’d know I was lying.  Who on earth would ever say they’d never leave their dog alone?  But it was the first question, the first question of what, when you considered the size of that bloody folder, must run into hundreds, and I didn’t want to start on a lie.  

“Yes,” I said.  “I would leave the dog alone.  Sometimes”

John sucked air noisily through his mouth, the absence of teeth turning the sound into a shocked gulp.  

“Is that the wrong answer?”

“I’m afraid so.  We always advise you don’t leave your dog alone.”  

I watched as he put a great big black cross against question number one.  

“What?  Ever?”  My voice had taken on an incredulous falsetto.  He had no teeth. I am unable to control the pitch of my voice at times of anxiety.  We all have our crosses to bear.

“Yes, we suggest you never leave your dog alone.  Dogs can find solitude very distressing.”

Earlier that day, I’d been kept waiting because I hadn’t thought to book an appointment with the dogs.  Now, I was being told they should never be left to their own devices.  They’re very fickle, I wanted to say to John, much more highly strung than I’d anticipated.  On one hand you can’t leave them alone, yet on the other you have to put something in the diary if you want to see them.  

“Really?  You’re saying I can never leave a dog on its own.”

“Well,” he said, giving ground a little, “in exceptional circumstances then ten minutes.”

A voice inside my head screamed: I couldn’t even have a tricky shit in ten minutes.  I’d have to keep getting off the toilet just to go and check the dog hadn’t slit its wrists because of a broken heart.

It went on and on like this.  Whatever question he had for me, it was as if I was a water diviner ever searching out the wrong answer.  After several pages, I said, “Look, I really don’t want to waste either of our time.  I’ve come a very long way.  You’re obviously not going to let me have a dog.”

John looked panicked, a couple of the hairs on his head he’d so carefully scraped across bounced nervously.  “No, no, no, we don’t know that at all.”

“But every answer I give you turns out to be wrong.”

It reminded me of the time I failed my driving test,  We had reached a traffic lights about to go greenyellow, criss-crossed box junction, and I was sat on it, and the moment I got there I knew I’d done the wrong thing and I’d ended up too far forward, and from that position I couldn’t see any traffic lights at all, and so didn’t know when to turn right.  I strained my neck this way and that but still couldn’t see.  But then it occurred to me that from the passenger seat my examiner might be able to get a glimpse.

“If you leaned back,” I explained, “and tried to get your head through the gap between our seats, you might be able to see when the lights go green, and then I can go.”  I tried to sound very upbeat about all of this, almost as if it was a bit of an adventure, so that, if anything, she might give me bonus points.

“I’m afraid, I can’t do that Mr Neill.”

“Oh really?  It’s just I can’t spot them from here.”  

Looking back, I reckon she knew that already.  I was still trying to keep it light and sound conversational however, almost like I was doing her a favour.  As if sticking her head between our two seats was a bit of a naughty treat, like I was trying to tempt her into having a slice of cake with her cuppa.  This examinee is fun, I wanted her to be thinking, not like all the other dull, nervy types I have in the car who just get on and let me examine them and don’t ask me to wedge my head between their seat and mine to tell them when the traffic lights go green.  This one’s a hoot.  I might sign him off for Advanced Driving here and now.  Just as a thank you.

And then I had a brainwave.  

“Here’s another idea.” I was full of them that day.  “I get out of the car and stand behind it and when the lights go green I dash back in, and off we go.”

My examiner visibly tensed.  It wasn’t the response I’d been hoping for.  

“I will instruct you not to do that.”  She looked quite clammy.

And then I realised that I didn’t need the traffic lights after all.  Because the drivers in their cars behind me started sounding their horns, and that, I could fairly safely assume, was an indication that I should get a move on.  That, and the fact that the traffic from both my left and my right was now maneuvering around me.  Who needs traffic lights, I wanted to yell in this, my eureka moment?  

Somehow I managed to join the traffic.  I didn’t stall, which I thought must be worth something, and then once we’d both calmed down, I realised I wasn’t feeling quite the Highway Code problem-solving hero I had only a moment before.  “I’ve failed my test, haven’t I?”

“We don’t know that yet.”  A pre-echo of John Wilkins and all his black crosses.  

“Of course, we do,” I yelped, now confident that nothing worse could happen.  My dreams of membership of some elite, advanced driving squad now utterly dashed.  “Two minutes ago, we were sitting in a box junction, I couldn’t see the lights, you wouldn’t help, so I suggested getting out of the car, standing at the back of it, and then making a dash back in once the lights went green, and you recoiled at my idea.  I know I’ve failed.”

She looked down at her file of questions and simply said, “Please keep driving along this road, until I instruct you otherwise.”

When it was all over, after what felt like at least another two hours, we pulled into the car park of the examination centre, and putting her hands in her lap, she turned in her seat and informed me that I’d failed to pass my driving exam.

“I told you that about an hour ago,” I said.

“We didn’t know for sure at that point.  We have to complete the test.”

I bloody did, I thought, and I’m not even the expert.

This is what it reminded me of the afternoon I tried to get a dog from a rescue centre on the edges of southeast London.  Every question I answered got a great, fat, dirty cross against it.  

Now, I don’t know anything about adopting children but I can’t really believe it can be any harder than this.  The likes of Madonna can seemingly waltz around the world picking up children wherever she goes, but I’d like to see how she fares trying to nab a Border Collie cross from near Bromley.  She wouldn’t stand a chance.  

“Do you have a garden, Chris?”  John asked.

At last!  A question I could answer honestly but with an answer that surely would be the right one.

“Yes, yes I do.”

John smiled, a great black toothless hole of approval opening up in the bottom half of his face.  I looked on proudly as he put a huge tick against this question.

“And your fences…”

“Oh yes, fences too,” I said, brimming with confidence now.

“How high are your fences?”

“Eight feet, nine feet, at least.”  I had no idea if they were eight or nine feet, but they were high and I didn’t want to undersell them.

John looked up from his papers.

“That’s very high.  Isn’t it?”

He now did the sucking thing again.  “Eight foot?  A dog can jump over an eight foot high fence.”

“No, really, I think it would be fine.  It’s quite a small garden.  There’s not enough space for him to take a run at it.”

John was looking more and more doubtful.  

“When I say it’s small, it’s not tiny.  Plenty of room for the little fellow.”  I knew I was sounding desperate.

Anyway, how keen was this dog going to be to escape me.  I wasn’t running Colditz, for crying out loud.  We were going to be bridge partners.  

“No, the thing is Chris, a dog can jump over an eight foot high fence.”

Look, it’s a dog I want.  Not a bloody surface to air missile.”

There was another huge cross.

At the end of what had so euphemistically been described as a registration process, I said to John what I’d said to my driving examiner all those years before.  “I’ve failed, haven’t I?”

John looked at me confused.  “Not a bit of it,” he said.  “You’re just the sort of person we’re looking for.”

None of it made sense, but I wasn’t going to argue.  “It’s a shame Bert’s been taken.  He looked perfect.”

“Bert was a very special dog,” John said, rubbing salt into the wound.  “But there’s plenty more.  We’ll be in touch.”

Returning to my car, I noticed a couple maybe a few years older than me, getting out of theirs.  Poor sods, I thought.  I know what you’re about to go through.  They opened the hatchback.  Out bounded Bert.

I would have recognised him anywhere.  

“Excuse me,” I called, “that’s Bert, isn’t it?”

“He certainly is,” said the man, wearily.

“So, you’re the people that got him then?  I’ve been very jealous of you.”

They looked at each other.

“He’s yours,” said the woman.  “Take him now, if you want.  Saves us going in.”

It was as if we were about to embark on a drug deal on the very doorstep of the police station.

“We don’t want any money.  We just don’t want him”

“What on earth is the matter with him?” I asked.

Bert looked placidly between the three of us.

“He seems alright now, but he’s been a nightmare.  We’ve had him a week and he’s torn every curtain in the place.  All the furniture’s ruined.”

“There’s not a room he hasn’t done his business in.  It’s not like we haven’t got a perfectly good garden.  Do you still want him.”

I stroked the dog’s head and he looked up at me adoringly, his vast brown eyes fixed on mine.  “Not sure I could cope with all that.  Sorry, Bert,” I said, petting his lovely ears.  Staying single for the time being didn’t seem such a bad idea after all.  

A four-legged boyfriend, Part 4

Dinner PartyIt wasn’t just my neighbour Pearl who thought I’d been single too long.  Others, possibly irritated by my inactivity in the field, decided to see if they could help.

When Melanie, a friend of a friend, rang me to say she knew someone I should meet, and would I like it if she introduced us, my response was unenthusiastic but insufficiently so.  Before long we were discussing the finer details.  There were two options, it transpired.  Would I prefer it if there were just the four of us (Melanie, her husband, and us mooted lovebirds) or did a larger gathering sound preferable?  

“More might be better, I suspect.  If that’s okay?”

“Perfect, I love cooking for a crowd.  Oh Chris, this’ll be great.”

As she said that, I had an overwhelming urge to go to bed.

“I know people are sceptical about blind dates.  Understandably so.  I am too.”  She took a long, audible draw on her cigarette.  “But you are talking to the woman who brought two friends together.  And, several dates, a wedding, a really tricky remortgage, and four children later well things are still going strong.  Just saying…”

Children might require a miracle, but the thermometer of my interest had drifted just above freezing.  Before dropping back when I heard the words ‘blind date’.   Surely no one ever has come out well from a blind date?  Dates were bad enough.  Adding a disability to the mix seemed unlikely to spice things up.   

As with her matchmaking, Melanie then went on to to talk up her hostessing skills.  She enjoyed playing mother-hen, she said, cooking up vats of food for chums to devour, as she clucked about making everyone feel welcome.  It crossed my mind that this might be a Jewish thing.  Melanie was always saying how she felt very Jewish, although how this squared with her elderly mother having been recently ordained as a vicar in Berkshire she never went into.  

Maybe my date would be Jewish?  Increasingly, this prospect struck me as appealing.  As the week of the dinner approached (“it’s just a kitchen supper, Chris, nothing stressful”) the image of my putative Jewish boyfriend became clearer and clearer.  Saturnine and brooding, I foresaw an intimidatingly good-looking man, or rather a man who starts off ugly but through the sheer will of his personality becomes gorgeous.  Shortish, in his late thirties, a writer perhaps, not altogether successful.  More Brooklyn than Golders Green, dark blond, with the sort of chest hair that would reward my fingers with its wiry luxuriance.  He was to be called Samuel, Elijah or Leo.  I couldn’t decide which I liked best.  

No one’s perfect though.  

An alchemy born of the weight of his people’s tragedy and his own caustic tongue made him not immediately likeable.  He would arrive at Melanie’s underdressed against the chilly spring evening.  The lapel of his jacket, the jacket slightly tight on him, would be turned up against the cold.  I could see this jacket very clearly.  It was blue serge and yet I didn’t even know what blue serge was.  Maybe this meant something profound.  I felt myself falling in love.  

In a few short weeks the prospect of meeting this man, about whom at first I had struggled to feel anything even as positive as ambivalence, had morphed into a quite fleshed-out, if rocky, romance.  

But on the Thursday before we were due to embark on our great passion, as I was sat on a train outside Woking, I summoned up the image of my lover to relieve the boredom, and I found there was nothing there.  Until then, almost tangible, now even the mantra of SamuelElijahLeoSamuelElijahLeo conjured only absence, or certainly nothing much beyond a sketch of another man with whom I would be making awkward small-talk over a plate of food.  By Saturday morning even that had turned to dust.  

But the evening rolled around and so now there we all were, gathered in Melanie’s large kitchen with its Polish film posters on the walls.  And a hard tiled floor that shoes noisily squeaked, clicked and rubbed upon, cutting through the chatter.  In silent black pumps, quitblind date cilla blacke battered at the back where she’d crushed her feet into them, Melanie’s were the exception.  She stood there in a long cardigan, hands punched into the pockets, both of which held packs of Benson & Hedges, rolling her eyes and occasionally jabbing at something in the oven with a skewer, as if testing it for signs of life.  

On my way over I had noticed a couple on Blackheath.  In their late sixties, playing with a frisbee, and focused on only each other and their game.  Similar in age to my parents, I tried imagining Mum and Dad playing frisbee with each other, careless to the judgement of others.  And I found this was only possible if I envisaged them in some sort of institution following diagnosis of a breakdown.  

Holding my glass of wine, I totted up the number of us present.  Nine including me.  How many of them knew the purpose of the evening, I wondered?  Melanie was slapping plates about, cursing things having been left in the wrong place, and generally looking extremely unhappy.  If she really did enjoy cooking for a crowd, as she had said, it patently wasn’t this one.  There were four other men, one of whose number was Melanie’s husband who was called something, a name, a word, a noise that never became clearer.  It sounded a bit like Arsa or sometimes Aisha but I found these variations never coagulated into anything usable.  Too many months had passed since we first met for me to ask and so I didn’t call him anything.  (It’s obviously a family trait.  My mother never called her father-in-law anything until about a year before he died.  When, one day, I heard her say, “do you want a cup of tea, George?” it was almost as if she had sworn at him.)  The three others seemed firmly attached to the women they were standing nearby.  Barring the arrival of any more straight couples, my blind date had to be the tenth but he wasn’t yet there.  

Melanie’s mobile gave a burst of La Marseillaise.  “That’ll be our last guest,” she chirruped, looking at me.  As she fiddled with the phone’s screen, she explained to no one in particular that he didn’t know south London at all, he’d be lost probably, in Peckham probably, hope he’s not buying drugs.  Probably.  Hahahahaha.  Maybe drugs would be good?  More hahahahaha.  “Douglas,” she cried into the receiver, furiously stubbing out a half-smoked cigarette in celebration.  “We thought you might be buying drugs … hahahaha … err… no, not really, hello, are you there?  Can you hear me?”  She clambered onto a chair and held the phone above her head near a skylight  “There’s some signal here.  Usually.  Douglas, can you hear me?” she yelled.  Nothing.  She scrutinized the phone for a moment.  “No.  He’s gone.  Fuck it.”  She stomped back down again.

Douglas?  Douglas didn’t sound remotely Jewish.  In sympathy with my smashed dreams, on the other side of the kitchen a large palette knife fell from the knife rack and broke an empty glass someone had just placed underneath it.   It felt like a sign.

“Fuck,” said Melanie.

“It’s fine, I’ll sort it,” said her husband.

“Will you?  Will you though?”

Other voices chorussed.

“Do you have any newspaper?”

“Watch out for the shards.”

“I’ll get a dustpan and brush.  Do you have a dustpan and brush?”  I asked this.  Why?  I was miles from the broken glass.  I could have entirely avoided getting involved.  

“Under the sink.”

“Wasn’t there a Sherlock Holmes film…”

Again, it was me talking.  What was I on about?  I’m not even sure I’ve ever seen a Sherlock Holmes film.  At that point, on all fours, with my head in a cupboard, I couldn’t even see a dustpan and brush.  

“… Basil Rathbone …  A rope slowly burned by a candle … At the end there’s a knife.”  

I wouldn’t bloody shut up.  Words about Sherlock Holmes kept pouring from my mouth, even though I was mainly sharing memories of this non-existent film I’d never seen with a pedal-bin.  

A tall woman I heard earlier saying how she wouldn’t allow dried cranberries in the house was suddenly now beside me, crouching, peering into the cupboard under the sink along with me.

“I think I saw that one too,” she said.  

Really?  It’s unlikely, I thought.  What with it never actually happening.  This is how mass brainwashing starts.  One minute you’re sharing memories of films that were never made and the next you’re herding Basil Rathbone-deniers into concentration camps.  Our heads were pressed side by side, just me, her and the S-bend, while people behind us carried on looking busy, telling each other to be careful.  

“A girl tied up underneath … Just as the last few fibres are burnt through she’s saved.”

“Yes, that’s the one,” I said.  “In the nick of time … By Holmes … Or Watson?  

“Who was it who played Watson?” a voice somewhere near our ankles asked.  

When we stood up again, after reversing out of the cupboard like two rear ends of a pantomime cow, I realised I still hadn’t actually got my point across.  Whatever the point might have been.  Just let it go, Chris, I told myself in an unnerving third-person.  But I wouldn’t.  “Just like that wine glass.  That’s what I meant.  Apart from the wineglass got smashed.” I said this like I’d solved a great puzzle.  

It was the cranberry-hater who had located the dustpan and brush.

The panic was still ongoing.  

“Is there a damp cloth?  I’ll wipe everything down.”

“My sister’s best friend’s daughter got a tiny piece of broken glass in her hand when she was waitressing at Aldeburgh and it went bad and she almost lost a finger.”

“It’s quite old,” Melanie said, pointing at the knife rack, “I think it’s running out of magnetism.”

“Does it work like that?” asked Tall Cranberry woman.   

“I think this one does.  It was my mother-in-law’s.”

I sidled off, feeling I’d done my bit, and went to stand next to a man and woman who were leaning by a noticeboard.  Tacked onto it, scraps of paper declared things like:  ‘Hockey Practice!’  ‘Viola string supplies,’ ‘Cannellini beans.’  

Filling up his own glass first, the man to my left who was a doctor and had terrible breath started talking at me about being a doctor.  I kept shifting position to avoid being downwind of him, but he would always face me square on so as I didn’t miss out.  He sloshed some wine into my glass and then finally his wife’s, although the bottle ran dry halfway through and he made no attempt to get any more.

“I’ll see if I can find another,” I said, eyeing an escape.

The woman gave me a look and puckered her lips into a tight little smile.  “I’m fine,” she said.  

“You sure?”

“Really.”  I could really hear that full stop.  

“The Casualty department at King’s can be a hellhole on a Friday night.  Amelia has it easy,” the man went on, pointing at his wife, “she’s in geriatrics.”

“It’s not easy.”

Melanie’s impossibly-named husband came by with wine in one hand and bearing bowls of Twiglets and cashew nuts with the other.  “Is Henry boring you with his doctor stories?” he said, as he topped up our glasses

“Piss off,” said the doctor called Henry, only half-jokingly.  “The thing is,” he explained, tapping me on the chest to make his point, “I have yet to meet a stab victim I didn’t want to stab myself.”  

Another twenty minutes passed whilst Melanie loudly checked on her food and loudly expressed concern about its edibility.  Everyone else waded through conversational lowlands: swapping details about where we lived and what we did in our waking hours, and then immediately forgot them.  

The doorbell rang.  Douglas.  A vision of something burly and Scottish leapt into my mind.  A kilt, perhaps.

“That’ll be him!” Melanie slammed the oven door for the umpteenth time on her mystery meal.

In walked disappointment.  

Arriving very late, he sported that night a sodden grey overcoat and the emblem of humans at a social disadvantage the world over: steamed-up glasses that are also wet with rain.   

“Oh, it’s been raining,” someone said.

Douglas removed his glasses, rendering him at a yet greater awkwardness as he could now see even less.  He ran long, bony fingers through long, lank, grey hair.  Was that a ponytail?  At a guess, he was twenty-five years older than me.  Here was my date: tall, stooped, unwinding himself from his satchel, all apologies and hellos in an accent I couldn’t place.  Not that this was the detail to dwell on when there was so much else to object to.  As my date and I shook hands the topic of wartime rationing crossed my mind.  Douglas’ hair was drying to reveal an absence of ponytail, at least.  A relief, for sure, but I doubted a relationship could be built on a sense of relief alone.     

I then watched as Douglas, his glasses freshly tamed by a tea towel, loped about the room making approving, consoling noises to Melanie about the dinner, and saying more hellos, and shaking more hands, and kissing a couple of the women whom he seemed to know.  Looking back, I felt certain my own encounter with him hadn’t contained any more meaning or heft than these others.  If we were meant to be on a date, shouldn’t there have been some recognition of this fact?  A glance that was held very slightly too long?  Maybe Douglas didn’t even knew why he was there?  Maybe this poor old bugger was on an even blinder date than I was?  A deaf, dumb and blind date?  

“Lovely and warm in here,” Douglas said, his accent still nomadic.  A light scree of dandruff was present on the man’s blazer and as he took it off its brass buttons glinted in the candlelight.  

We gathered at the table, and someone asked if Melanie would like us to sit anywhere in particular?  

“No, no,” she said, “wherever the mood takes you.”  

dinner party scene 1Right then, my mood would have taken me anywhere but here had it enjoyed free rein.  Sweat sprang into my armpits as I thought I might have said this out loud.  I hadn’t but I felt my lips move in anticipation.  I sat down in the nearest chair and as I did so I noticed Douglas was right at the other end, as far away as he could possibly be.  Had he done that deliberately?  Was he avoiding me?  We’d barely looked at each other, but now I noticed he was laughing with Melanie’s husband and was leaning in towards him, positioning his hairy ear in the direction of his mouth.  Properly deaf, I deduced.

“It’s a very handsome table,” said one of the other men, giving it a lengthy stroke, like a fool might try on a wild cat in an attempt to placate it.  

“It was Arshash’s mother’s,” said Melanie.  

I missed it again and looked around the table to see whether anyone else seemed as baffled as me.  

“We inherited it along with the roof rack when she died.”

“And the small matter of three hundred thousand quid,” said her husband.

“Arhshashsh adored his mother,” said Melanie as she slapped down a baking dish with some chicken thighs in it.  They were pale and their skins had broken loose, flapping about in half an inch of thin gravy like the sails of a sunken yacht.  “I do hope this will be alright.  I don’t want to poison anyone!”  

“It looks delicious,” we all lied.  Small, wizened black balls were scattered throughout the dish, some of which had got caught up in the drifts of skin.  

The woman sitting next to me looked doubtful at the chicken too and we shared a brief conspiratorial smile.  Her name was Helen, and she had a seemingly limitless supply of screwed up tissues stored in the sleeves of her green jumper, that came and went as she mopped at her nose.  I vowed not to let her get near serving spoons or any other shared cutlery.  If it came to it, I’d serve her myself.  

“Well this table is a lovely thing, a very lovely thing,” said the woman next to the man who’d brought up the sensitive subject in the first place.  Earlier, she’d told me what a nice place East Sheen was but I couldn’t remember if she actually lived there or if it was just somewhere she liked to visit.  

“Oh, and we mustn’t forget the knife rack either.  That was another Morrison family heirloom,” said Melanie, pointing at the site of the smashed wineglass.  

There was a brief silence.  Our host then attempted a saving tactic.

“Dad was a teenager during the war and they used this table as a bomb shelter apparently,” he said, running a finger along it tenderly.  “There were finials on the legs but he sawed them off as he kept hitting his head on them when he clambered underneath.  I think it was the only bit of DIY he ever managed.  He certainly never did anything around the house when we were kids.”

Somebody laughed appreciatively.

“Probably pissed,” said Melanie, “he usually was.”

“He was fourteen during the blitz, for crying out loud.”

“If you say so.  Green beans anyone?”

Suddenly everybody laughed and no one knew why.

“The black things are olives,” said Melanie.  “Pick them out if you want.”

The night expanded around the house trapping us all inside.  In the garden, trees melted into each other and then dissolved into the world beyond.   As is usually the way with large dinner parties, and as I often find in life, the far more fun conversations seemed to take place elsewhere.  From the north-western corner of the table, I was certain I heard someone mention oral sex and a gaggle of people up there were laughing and seeming to have quite a good time.  In the middle of them was Douglas and he said something I couldn’t make out.  The two women either side of him, one of whom was Melanie, laughed uproariously and that, I was certain, was the first time she had looked happy since we’d arrived.  

It was over pudding, Waitrose ice cream, that I remembered again why we were all there.  Or, rather, why I thought we were all there.  As I was serving Helen one scoop of strawberry and another of vanilla (I’d kept to my vow regarding shared cutlery) I realised that Douglas hadn’t looked across at me once.  Obviously I wasn’t remotely interested in Douglas but I was surprised Douglas seemed to feel the same.  Over the course of the meal, I’d kept checking to see if Douglas was looking back but if he was then it wasn’t when I checked to find out.  Instead, he seemed to be having a very jolly time, thank you very much, and for a hot moment I had an urge to stand up and ask everyone if they knew why we were all there, and in particular if Douglas did?  Surely Douglas knew he was being set up on a date?  But then I hoped he didn’t because if he did he was palpably as uninterested in me as I was in Douglas, more so as it wasn’t him constantly checking on me, and the thought stung me with its awful, bitter logic.  

I may not be the best looking bloke in the world but surely someone like Douglas should at least fancy me.  A bit.  

I felt myself lurch, like I’d missed a step and was tripping down two at once, as I realised that even if Douglas didn’t know he was on a blind date that was no reason for him not to have given me the eye, just a tad.  And yet he couldn’t appear to be less up-for-it, if he tried.   

Before coffee, Douglas announced he ought to get going.  He needed to show his face at a drinks party in Camden, he said in that strange voice of his.  Welsh?  Canadian?  Goodbye you all.  Great fun.  Delicious dinner.  He’d even eaten the olives.  On his feet now, he waved at everyone else still sitting down like he was the grown-up and we were small children, and this struck me as yet another rebuke.  Why did it have to be me sitting down and Douglas standing up with better places to be?  I looked at my watch.  It was only just gone eleven and in one sentence Douglas had managed to turn himself from the oldest person there, inexcusably unattracted to the person he should fancy, to the only one amongst the ten of us who had a full life, a diary with social events, and reasons to be the first to leave and the last to arrive.  rain on windows

When it came to my own turn to say goodbye, Melanie and her husband didn’t mention Douglas at all, and I couldn’t think of anything to say about him either.  The rain was heavy now and I hurried to the bus stop.  Sat on the top deck, crossing Blackheath once more I wiped condensation from the window, and tried imagining Douglas and me playing with the frisbee of love.

The front window of the bus was impossible to see through and as we slowly made our way along the wet roads of Deptford and New Cross all that was visible was a parade of shadows.  Shadows that loomed and then immediately fell back from view, filling the glass and then emptying it of unexplained imagery.

To be continued…

 

A four-legged boyfriend, Part 3

schnauzerTurning on the radio the other morning I heard a man say, “If I had a banana in one hand and a biscuit in the other, I’d have been in paradise.”  I didn’t recognise his voice and haven’t been bothered enough to discover his name and, as with so much in life, I suspect context is all.  Maybe he was making a joke, or maybe not.  Or maybe he has a very clear idea of what paradise is?  No celestial virgins for him, nor strumming on harps.  It’s bananas and biscuits all day long.  

I imagined this man like the king in some old portrait.  High and mighty on his throne, he looks out at his domain.  He is capable of both beneficence and great cruelty.  He holds his hands aloft, and one of his two favourite things are in one and the other in the other.  

To those who have studied art history this probably means something.  Context again.  Everything in a painting is a code for something else.  The upturned playing card, the fork stabbing a lemon, the inverted wine glass, the urchin in a crumpled top hat, the warty old lady and her incomplete word search puzzle.  They all mean something.  And no doubt this king of mine on the radio who selects life or death for his subjects through the code of banana or biscuit, like some Roman emperor giving the thumbs up or down, is playing at a similar game.  

Of course, this painting doesn’t exist; it just came to me as I listened to Radio 4 earlier this week.  

And yet, more often than not there is no context to consider.  No subtext to read.  No secondary meaning to fathom.  Nothing to establish or make sense of other than what you see in front of you.  The sun coming out from behind a cloud on the day of a close friend’s funeral is not them passing on a message, it’s just a feature of that day’s weather.  And look at that person over there.  The one not merely holding a banana but actually eating it, in a manner – how shall we say – of luxuriance.  The chances are he isn’t practising for a private webcam show audition (as part of a varied and interesting portfolio career).  Instead like most people he is just a person eating a banana.  Sometimes the bleeding obvious is the right answer.  

This man on the radio probably likes biscuits and bananas, and employed a bit of hyperbole for comic effect.  Nothing more.  

Things though can take on great significance.  After the failure of my trip to Battersea Dogs’ Home I felt quite dejected.  I’d assumed finding a dog would not only be easy but would make good much that then felt wrong in my life.  It would deal with my loneliness above all else.  I thought about the dog more and more and more.  He became very clear in my mind’s eye, and the right to my every wrong.

Not so much him, but our life together.  The walks, the quiet evenings at home, the sexy men who might want to sleep with me because I had such a nice dog.  Even contending with the animal’s shit was proving not such a deterrent.  Although I think I’d persuaded myself that in our early days the dog could hold it in.  And during that window of opportunity, we would engage on a bonding exercise which was mainly about the dog learning how to defecate into a bag and throw it away himself.  

And then even though I really didn’t want to go on dates that’s what I szechuan chilliesfound myself doing.  Despite myself, almost.  But they were either lacklustre or weird.  Sometimes drab and creepy.  As experiences they proved sufficiently pungent to convince me that I had been right all along, and that dates weren’t worth the bother.  Unlike my ex, who had treated the possibilities afforded by the end of our relationship with an enthusiasm only matched by a whippet catching a glimpse of a mechanical rabbit.   

I recall a Szechuan meal with a man called Dave.  His name might really have been Dave, people are actually called Dave, but the name Dave sounds to me now like my memory is lazily filling in the gaps.  We met in a pub where Dave drank two pints to my one and between cigarettes pulled his fingers to crack his knuckles.  Then we shared an oval dish of searingly hot cabbage and noodles and the occasional meaty fragment which the woman taking our order had described as ‘cupboard style’.  My whole mouth pounded in horror at the heat, and my left eye wept copiously whilst the right one stoically remained dry.

“Great, isn’t it?” Dave said, churning through a mouthful of our incendiary meal, his face violently florid.  “Like everything worthwhile two men can do together there’s sweat and pain involved,”  Then he winked.  Although I realise now he might not have been winking at all but instead it was simply an anaphylactic swelling I was misreading.     

I kept rinsing my mouth out with beer in a futile attempt to battle the arson that was taking place in there.  When we left we kissed next to a dumpster in a side street and walking home afterwards I discovered a piece of the unspecified meat in my mouth, not snaggled in a tooth, but rather lurking by a gum, and I wondered if the tongue of the man I would subsequently name Dave had slipped it across.   

To be continued….

 

A four-legged boyfriend, Part 2

man and dogOne afternoon, during a walk in Hyde Park, my friend Anthony said to me, “Well, if the thought of a boyfriend is too much, you could always get yourself a dog.”

A dog?  A dog was the last thing I wanted.

“You get everything from a dog you’d get from a boyfriend,” Anthony continued, warming to his theme.

Everything?

“Well,” companionship and affection…”  His list petered out at this point.

“And massive, wet snogs,” I said, trying to be helpful.

He didn’t disagree.

Despite myself, the idea lodged in my brain, and after a while I drew up a list of pros and cons of boyfriends versus dogs, dogs versus boyfriends.  And it seemed to me to boil down to this: With a dog I’d be offered unswerving devotion, whereas with a boyfriend I wouldn’t be required to bend down, bag up and dispose of his faeces.  Unless I chose really badly, that is.

So, I did what any Londoner on the lookout for a dog, if not a boyfriend, would do.  I took myself off to Battersea Dogs’ Home.  I’d never been there before and I imagined it to be like some sort of department store for dogs.  A John Lewis, if you will.  There would be a man sporting a green sash with the word ‘Information’ on it, greeting me as I walked in, who would then ask if he could assist?

“I’m looking for a poodle or a schnauzer,” I’d say.  “Can you point me in the right direction?”  

“Fourth floor, sir.”

“Thank you.”

“Only those two breeds, sir?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.  I’m a middle class, middle-aged homosexual: I do have allergies.”

Up on the fourth floor, in my mind’s eye I visualised selecting my adorably hypoallergenic pooch, then handing over a hundred quid or so, and walking out of the place with my boyfriend-substitute under my arm.  That is what I imagined.

Battersea Dogs’ Home isn’t like that though.  It isn’t like John Lewis.  It’s not like any department store, in fact.  It’s not even like Debenhams.  Basically, Battersea Dogs’ Home is four hundred Staffordshire Bull Terriers.  And a cat.  One fucking terrified cat.

You are shown round by a warden in a white coat.  staffordshire bull terrierMine was called Derek, and he explained that when the the dogs arrive they often have either no name or very aggressive ones like Killer or The Terminator.  Battersea wants to improve the reputation of Staffies and so changes them.  As we walked about I noticed that the names on the pens were at the opposite end of the spectrum from Brute or Hawk.  Never have I encountered so many Nancies, Petunias, Floras and Mr Snuffleses in my life.  

Other than the names used, however, my visit reminded me somewhat of that scene in Silence In The Lambs when Clarice Starling first goes to visit Hannibal Lecter.  She has to walk past all the other violent serial killers who are held in cages either side of her until she reaches her quarry, so dangerous is he he is kept behind glass.  All of Battersea’s dogs are kept behind glass, and although none of them jerked off at my arrival, as the young Miss Starling had to endure, I can’t say it was an altogether pleasant experience.  

Most of the dogs glower at you, but some bark and others snarl and just as we were approaching the end of one particular section this enormous mound of grey, doggie muscle threw itself against the glass at the sight of me.  It could be used to fell a tree.  The glass, mere reinforced glass between me and the hound, shook at the onslaught.  The dog’s eyes were rheumy and red and threads of yellow drool hung slackly from its flapping gums.  Its belly was pressed flat against the glass and a great quantity of nipples bristled in my direction.  It licked the section nearest my face.  “Ooh,” said the Derek waving at the beast, “Elsie likes you.  She’s not always so friendly.”

“She’s quite, err, big,” I said.

“More to cuddle up to,” replied Derek, winking.

But Elsie had now forgotten all about me, and with her enormous tongue was busy cleaning her arse.

“She’s very good with kids.”

I didn’t doubt it.  I imagine she could get through them for breakfast, lunch, and tea.

To be continued…

 

A four-legged boyfriend, Part 1

Suffragette, c 1910.Before I met Rory I had been single for nearly four years.  At around the twenty-four month mark people started saying to me they thought this state of affairs had gone on long enough, that being on my tod didn’t seem to make me particularly happy, and that I should start thinking about dating.  

They weren’t entirely wrong. I wasn’t particularly happy with the situation either, nor indeed life in general, but I couldn’t imagine how awkward lunches and trips to the theatre would help very much.  Dating.  The word sounded horrific.  And anyway it was mainly used by straight friends who had never thought through implications of Grindr.   

Even my seventy-five year old neighbour Pearl told me she thought I’d been on the shelf too long.  A widow for many years, Pearl had recently decided that enough was enough and not long before had started looking for love herself.  

She visited a photographer, and between them they decided she needed a new look.  She invited me in for a cup of tea one afternoon to inspect the end results.  “What do you think?” she asked.

It was obvious that between the two of them no single new look had been settled on.  And instead I stared, somewhat slack-jawed, at my neighbour essaying, amongst other things, a 1920s flapper, a flying ace and a Suffragette.  “They’re quite specific,” I told her, for want of anything better to say.  

She then signed up to an online dating website and duly had plenty of offers coming in.  Mainly from younger men, she complained.  

“Do they mention the costumes?” I asked her.  The internet has introduced us to the concept of being able to find anything you want, whenever you want it, and I suddenly realised there must be a group of straight men who find the idea of elderly ladies dressed up as social groups from before the Second World War – and Amy Johnson – quite the turn-on.

amy johnson“No one’s mentioned it.”

“Are they after your money,” I asked.  I was failing to see that it could be simply Pearl’s innate attractiveness that might be luring young men to their keyboards.

“If only,” she sighed.  Much in life makes Pearl sigh.  Not least having lots of money, or “my burden” as she calls it.  She sometimes accompanies the sigh with a little shuddering, collapsing motion, as if the weight of the world on her shoulders has finally proved too much.  “They’re very explicit about what they want sexually.”  

Did it involve chaining yourself to railings, throwing yourself under a horse, or wearing pilot’s goggles, I wondered?

Pearl is a curious creature.  It’s rare she’ll make eye contact with another human being preferring to do so only with her cat and pet terrapins.  But despite being uncomfortable with basic human engagement she has no qualms about spelling things out to you, sometimes in quite graphic terms.  Once, when she was recuperating from a hysterectomy I popped by to see how she was.  She pointed in the direction of her belly, and informed me: “It’s all gathered in a cage.”  

This verged on sounding like something in the director’s cut of Pan’s Labyrinth, and I was unable to gauge whether having a cage in your guts, post-hysterectomy, was a good thing or not.  So I simply smiled and told her I thought that was probably for the best.  

She wasn’t fooled.  She could tell I was lost.  “I didn’t think you’d understand,” she snarled.  “I can’t imagine you’re very familiar with a woman’s body.”  She then looked me up and down, as if she couldn’t quite believe her own eyes at such a sorry specimen.  

Anyway, once she batted away all her youthful suitors she finally met a more appropriate chap.  And he has really put a spring in her step.  She said she was happier and she looked better too.  She walked more upright, was wearing a bit of lipstick and eyeshadow, and had even started using her front room whereas before she’d always been out the back.  

1920s flapperThe man who caused this transformation was Leonard.  An overweight, retired truck driver from Leigh-on-Sea, with a mushroomy skin tone, nicotine-stained fingernails, and never not clad in a maroon cardigan.  He turns up in our road in Gwyneth’s Dream, a roaringly loud jeep he named after his first wife.  Gwyneth died, Pearl told me quite proudly, only three months before Leonard decided he was done with mourning and traded in his Vauxhall Corsa for his dead wife’s dream.  Buoyed up by his new purchase, he signed up for a bit of online romance and, he told me, that very night he spotted Pearl wearing a tasselled frock, with her hands on her knees, caught midway through the Charleston and thought to himself: I’m having me a bit of that.  

“So, have you met up with anyone yet?” she asked me one day as we bumped into each other outside the Co-op.

“I’ve not done anything about it,” I told her.  “Been quite busy,” I lied.

“Well you’re not getting any younger.  I hope you’re not being too choosy.”

Was I?  I couldn’t really tell.  Did I not want to consider the dreaded dating word because I was too choosy?  I didn’t think so but I was reminded of my grandmother who often complained of her snooty snob of a sister, Beattie.  “She wouldn’t even consider stepping out with someone unless he was at least under-manager at Woolworth’s,” she sniffed once.

Was I this sort of gold-digging fusspot, too?  I elevated my Grindr subscription to Premium, just to show willing.

 

To be continued…

Cynthia Payne and her job offers

cynthia payne“You’d have done very well working for me,” Cynthia Payne once told my friend Emma as we sipped our umpteenth glass of warmish white wine.  We were all huddled together in a small Knightsbridge arcade shop, and Screaming Lord Sutch was handing around the Hula Hoops.  The party was hosted by Harvey Proctor, the “spanking” former Conservative MP for Billericay.  And Cynthia, a guest more important than us, was giving career advice to Emma as we stood by a display of gaudy waistcoats, the sort you can imagine being favoured by Terry Wogan when he’s feels like wearing something fun.

In another part of the universe, the father of my friend Michael was a
greengrocer.  He lived and worked in Derby.  And none of this is, screaming lord sutchin and of itself, an especially noteworthy thing.  But Michael’s Dad was Spanish, and for years I was fascinated by the fact that a Spaniard had ended up selling fruit and veg in Derby.  Not so long ago when I shared my delight at this fact with Michael he pointed out that his father wasn’t in fact Spanish at all.  Although he was a greengrocer.

“Are you sure?” I asked, giving my friend the chance to accurately recall the land of his father’s birth, without wanting to embarrass him.  

No, Michael wasn’t mistaken.  His father wasn’t Spanish, he was from the East Midlands, and eventually I had to concede that I might be wrong, however unlikely this scenario was.  When it came to a position of authority on the topic, out of the two of us Michael had at least met the man.  

On Sunday, when I heard the news that Cynthia Payne had died, I was reminded of Michael, my erstwhile certainty of his father’s Latin blood, and my disbelief that I could be wrong.  Because I was absolutely certain that Streatham’s premier madam had croaked yonks ago, and indeed was surprised that if she was to to still be alive she had only reached 82.

It was a similar feeling to turning on Today one morning and hearing Lionel Blue draw out one of those lengthy analogies of his involving too much custard on the sponge puddings at a Jewish day centre, a conversation he’d had with his postman about aggressive dogs, and Moses doing something on the Mount.  What was he doing on the radio?  Was it a repeat?  It made no sense: I was convinced he’d died aeons before.  

When the nation’s favourite radio rabbi finally pegs it, I won’t even be able to bring myself to say “on no” in that weary way you do when you hear of the death of someone you know only through the radio.  My mourning will already be done.  The denial, anger, bargaining and depression stages I might have worked through before Woman’s Hour comes on will be superfluous to requirements.  

proctor-haveyWhether Harvey Proctor was as surprised as me to hear of Cynthia Payne’s death I have no idea; we’ve not stayed in touch.  

In the Norman Tebbit spirit of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps it wasn’t long after Harvey Proctor’s resignation as MP, and a trial at which he pleaded guilty to a charge of gross indecency, that he opened a tie shop in Richmond.  And then another one a mere rent boy’s throw away from Harrods.  Those bootstraps he pulled himself up by were in the form of a fund organised by fellow Tory parliamentarian, Tristan Garel-Jones, with a load of other Conservatives chipping in.  (A lifelong Tory lady, who lived in the shires, once told me she couldn’t understand why people thought the Tories were so mean.  By way of explanation this daughter of a city stockbroker and Conservative party candidate in Norfolk explained: “They gave me a job when I needed one.  The Labour party certainly didn’t.”)

I think at some point I bought some cufflinks from Proctor’s and was duly put on a mailing list.  Subsequently, an invitation arrived in the post one day and a guest and I were invited to enjoy a glass of wine and a chance to buy some perfect Christmas gifts for the men in our lives.  The drinks started at six, and after we’d been at the party for about ninety minutes (and hadn’t bought a thing) we got chatting with Cynthia Payne.  Shortly after expressing her regret that she’d never managed to employ Emma in her south London brothel to work with all those lawyers, MPs and vicars we made our farewells, not so much as a collar stiffener purchased.  In our defence, neither of us had men in our lives at that point so it was difficult to know what to buy.  

Tipsily, we swirled our way up Knightsbridge to our next destination, Pizza On The Park.  We had tickets to see Blossom Dearie who in those days performed annually in this small, dark room, the type of place New Yorkers call a boîte. Now, whenever I pass the place it’s saddening that it’s no more, and the chance to sit at its little tables, each bedecked with a single carnation, cleverly lit from above, is lost.  

Pizza On The Park operated an unusual system whereby if you booked blossom dearie - may i come infor the first show you were often allowed to sit through the second for free.  In the interval Blossom would work her way round the room saying hello to people, and on that evening, emboldened as I was by Harvey’s white wine and my share of the further two bottles we’d necked with our food, I wanted to make sure I had my moment.  She was remarkably friendly, especially to Emma, and she was particularly complimentary about Emma’s pink mohair jumper and vast quantities of of black eyeliner.  

“I could have done with a girl like you,” our chanteuse explained gnomically to Emma and I was ripe with jealousy at the snub.  Really?  Was Emma the one?  I mean: was it Emma who had any understanding of the “creative differences” that ensured Blossom Dearie only ever made one album for Capitol Records?  No.  Or was it Emma who had any idea from where the mink coat she wore on that solitary album’s cover had been hired?  No, I Do Not Think So.  

While Emma and Miss Dearie swapped fascinating chat about woollens and make-up, I kept trying to win her over with more fanboy knowledge.   At twenty years old, I was oblivious to the off-putting nature of my spewing forth of factoids concerning her back catalogue.  All I can say is she was lucky I didn’t have the internet at my disposal.  

Despite being hugely fond of many types of booze, Emma had the most exacting dislike of all manner of foods that I have ever encountered.  And that evening she sustained herself on merely a handful of Lord Sutch’s salty snacks and a plate of Pizza Express dough balls – the waiter given strict, if slurred, instruction that there was to be no garlic and no parsley, but extra butter.  

“Don’t forget the extra butter, I like loads of butter,” she wailed at the waiter as he left, before busying herself lighting the wrong end of a cigarette.  Then, after a coughing fit, and realising what she had done, she extinguished it with water from the carnation.  She tried again, but this time mistakenly lit two fags at once.  Brushing herself free of all the ash on her jumper she declared herself ready, and with all the clarity of a burns’ victim who’s just had the bandages unfurled from his eyes, she looked blinkingly about the room like she was taking in the world for the very first time.

The first song in the second show was Bruce and to my wine-soaked, teary delight Blossom Dearie dedicated it from her place at the grand piano to “my new friends, Emma and Chris.”  Emma had by now fallen asleep so didn’t actually hear it.

Listening to John Wallowitch’s tale of a tragic drag queen I was bursting with pride.  My friend may have had two job offers that night, but I was the only one aware of our dedication, and when she woke up I would tell her about it but rewrite the order of our names.