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….


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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.


“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…


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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…

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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.

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Bears in the wild

london wetland centreAt the London Wetland Centre once, I stood at a low fence with some other types like me, free on a midweek afternoon to seek out wading birds in the suburbs, and watched as two furious ducks tore into a rather lazy otter.  Above us, the occupants of the eternal planes lined up on their way into Heathrow had no idea of the petty acts of horror taking place beneath them, and I’m sure the pilots of the Berlin Airlift had felt the same.  

The victim seemed smaller than how I imagined an otter to be, but not youthful enough about the gills to be a child one, and so was simply smaller than an otter.  The animal probably has a name but it had that look of a thickish, slickly furred snake that an otter does and I can’t say I felt much pity for it.  Maybe a lanky ferret?  An extended vole?  Maybe a bog-standard ferret or vole?  

A woman next to me winced at the scene of carnage while her daughter looked on with an increasing horror outweighed by fascination.

“Mummy,” said the little girl.  “They’re fighting.”

Up until then it had been a pretty one-sided fight but all of a sudden, shamed maybe into it by the girl’s description, the otter animal decided he wasn’t up for being ripped to shreds after all and decided to give as good as he got.  But gallingly for him he’d left things too late.  Some other birds had joined in and the otter didn’t stand a chance.  The birds pecked furiously and the little girl started to cry.

An older man to their right banged his stick on the fence at the scene of destruction taking place in front of us but the protagonists might as well have been actors on a cinema screen for all the notice they took of him.  “Maybe I should get someone?” he grumbled, casting around for a passing cop.

The girl was really upset by now and didn’t know where to look, not least because the otter had been divided up into segments and was being thrown around like so many buns at a monkeys’ tea party.  “Mummy,” she wailed, burying her head into her mother’s all-weather, breathable-fabric clothing.

“It probably started as a game,” her mother said into the top of her child’s head, trying to calm her.  There was a warning in her words, I felt.

Feeling like we were truly getting our money’s worth, my friend Caroline and I wandered off in the direction of the shovelers and lapwings (there were signs) and as we walked she asked me if I was an otter?  We had been discussing gay nomenclature earlier and she was fascinated to be introduced to the world of the bear and his friends.

“That boat sailed some time ago,” I said.  “I’m a proper bear I think now.”

She looked sceptical.

“Grrrr,” I growled, trying to make my hands into massive claws.  “It’s true.  Don’t turn your back on me or I’ll bring you down.”

Amongst gay men, bears are hairy, slightly overweight men, often with a lack of hair on their heads.  Before I heard about all this, when standing in front of the mirror I used to see a slightly overweight, balding, hairy man but then someone said I was a bear and I realised this slightly overweight, balding, hairy thing had a name.  

And bears have friends.

There are polar bears (older, grey ones), wolves (younger, tall ones), otters (younger, not-so tall ones) and cubs (younger, sometimes slightly tubby ones, of medium height).  Goldilocks would have had a field day.  There’s even apparently something called a dolphin which feels like it’s at the wrong party entirely, but as no one’s bothered to  establish a gay subculture based on sea mammals alone, we’ll just have to let him in.  What sets the dolphin apart from the rest of us is not merely his sleekness but his intelligence too, and how he brings joy to the lives of terminally ill children through the power of swim.  

“So, are you sure you’re not one of the others?”

The change might be nice but all things considered I’m just a bear.  The iPod classic of the range.  “It’s just what I am,” I replied, buying into the whole thing completely.  “Choice doesn’t come into it.  Lie on the ground and pretend to be dead and I might refuse to sleep with you though.”

By this point we’d reached a grazing marsh and were standing in a hide staring through the window at the dolphinsrushes and water beyond, the planes still on their descent into Heathrow above us, but not a sight of the birds we’d been promised.  The entry fee struck us both, we agreed, as really quite steep.

Maybe after the scene with the ducks and the otter-thing earlier word had got round and everyone was keeping a low profile.  The London Riots of 2011 were only a few weeks ahead and, as with the way of dogs sniffing out cancer long before a diagnosis, perhaps the wading birds of west London were gearing up for the trouble they knew was afoot.  

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The man who refused to die

At a party recently I got talking to a very nice woman.  I’m often drawn to the company of older women in a way that would be described as festishistic if I wasn’t gay.  She was cradling her grandson.  An ugly little baby I couldn’t take my eyes off.  At the back of his head he had a thin rim of ginger hair, like the trim on a cloth-eared old curtain and he reminded me of Captain Mainwaring.  If most babies supposedly look like Winston Churchill this one was destined for the Home Guard.  

Whereas his grandmother had a lovely face, and it seemed unfortunate that her good genes had been trampled on so callously.  With her hands full of grandchild she asked me to hold her plate of canapes and she helped herself to them from there.  Doing this for someone I’d only just met felt curiously intimate.  

She talked of her children and her children’s children, the latest one of whom was this adorable bundle of ugliness she was snuggling up to, and then she mentioned her husband.  

“Is he here at the party?” I asked, a touch jealously perhaps.  Looking around, showing an interest.  

She said, in a slightly exasperated voice, that he wasn’t.  She then went on to talk of him, his interests (which apparently bored her), and the job he’d recently retired from.  She stared into the middle distance as she reflected on all that extra time they would now have together.  It was obvious that for her, it had all the allure of a Crown court judge’s sentence of ten years hard labour.  Theirs was a marriage that had lasted well over forty years already and she feared it might make fifty.  Rather than seeming proud of that achievement, instead it struck me she was resigned to it.   

She then told me, quite matter of factly, that he had once said to her he intended to put a stash of pills aside so that, should he need them, he had the means to end his life.  “He’s never liked going to see the doctor,” she said, as if that was an explanation, “And I can’t remember the last time he went to a dentist.”

What’s his breath like, I wanted to ask?  But I didn’t.  Intimate though the plate-holding was it didn’t really give me the right.  

“Thing is he’s terrified of needles.”

Being frightened of needles has always struck me as a particularly self-indulgent phobia.  Unnecessary and mistaken amputations I get.  Tubes inserted where you’d rather they didn’t go I have no quibble with.  Force-feeding ditto.  But medics’ needles these days are tiny, little things.  I didn’t even know the man’s name but what I did know was that her husband was utterly pathetic.  

A methadone addict I got chatting to in Boots once had told me the same thing.  She was at the special counter they have in my local branch for the doling out of heroin substitutes and she was clinging onto it for dear life.  At one point she spotted me and started apologising.

“I’ve not jumped the queue,” she snapped, defensively.


“I don’t think you were ahead of me.”

“I’m not.”

And then because I didn’t want her think I was queuing for methadone too, I told her, and anyone else who might be listening, I was merely waiting for a Ventolin inhaler.  

“I just wanted you to know, that’s all.”

I could have said the very same thing; I wasn’t sure she taken on board my point about the inhaler.  But she seemed to calm down a bit anyway, and took the seat next to me and – how we got there I really don’t know – she was soon enough telling me all about her hatred of injections.  Which for a methadone addict must be the worst kind of luck.  

“Doesn’t he even have a flu jab?” I asked my new friend at the party.

“Won’t even do that, the silly sod.”  

Being asthmatic entitles me to a free flu jab even though I’m in my forties.  I’ve had it since I was 35.  I count myself enormously lucky.  Why wouldn’t you want a free flu jab?  Even if it did involve needles?  What other treats does he deny himself that usually only come with getting on a bit?  A Freedom Pass?  I dream about being the holder of a Freedom Pass in the same way some people fantasise about owning a Bentley.  All that hopping on and off tubes and buses whether you need to get anywhere or not would see me hardly ever at home.  Unimaginable luxury.  freedom pass

Some people, and I guessed my new friend’s husband was among this number, want to die at home in their own bed.  Not me.  I want my end to come whilst I’m going round and round and round and round on the Circle Line for days.  For free.  Until finally, it dawns on someone that no one needs that much sleep, prods me and finds I’ve pegged it.  They’ll have to break my cold, stiff fingers to prise that Freedom Pass from my grip.  

I didn’t tell her any of this.  

My friend helped herself to a couple of chipolatas from the plate I was holding.  “He hates the idea of hospitals and doctors,” she went on, “even more than being unwell, and he knows if he ever got checked out they’d probably find something, and he couldn’t put up with that.  And I can’t blame him really.”  A small moment of empathy.  She wiped her fingers on the napkin I handed her.  “If he found out he was terminally ill, rather than go through all that treatment he said he’d prefer to end things under his own steam, at his own pace.”  She checked her sleeping grandchild.  “Didn’t he say that?  Your grandad,” she sang to the bundle in her arms, not wanting him to be left out of his grandfather’s prospective suicide.

Ergo, the stash of tablets.

Captain Mainwaring stirred.  

And then in the same tone of voice that she might have used to complain that he hadn’t got round to cleaning out that gutter or tidied his sock drawer she said, “Of course, he’s done nothing about it.”

I laughed.  She looked at me.  I apologised.  But it was funny.  Captain Mainwaring woke up.   He really could give Arthur Lowe a run for his money.

She said, “It’s no laughing matter.”

I said sorry again, although I really wanted to congratulate her on her delivery of the line.

The baby let out a noise suggesting it was on the cusp of howling and I realised I was being rude to the late Mr Lowe.  This kid was closer to Arthur Mullard.

“There, there,” she cooed.  Something accusatory in those two syllables.

Whether it was the fact that her husband was considering ending his own life, or the fact that he’d still not got round to it despite him being in his seventies, with time starting to run out, that caused her lack of humour on the topic I never discovered.

arthur mullard sketchIt didn’t really matter.  The paper plate intimacy was lost and suddenly finding she could hold it after all she took it off me.  Feeling things slipping away, I tried to rescue the situation, to take us back to the dating stage of our relationship, when everything felt so fresh and full of possibility.  When it was just me, an old lady stranger, a sleeping child-monster, and a husband whose failed suicide preparations I knew nothing of.  But you can’t turn back time.   

I tried to save things by saying how nice the food at this party was, but I could tell it wasn’t going to cut the mustard.  I told her that a meal I’d cooked the previous week hadn’t worked at all.  Not only was the duck hard-going but the trifle was tough too, so much so you had to take a knife to it.  She seemed uninterested.  None of this was going to get me anywhere.  I’d laughed rather than give her the response she’d have preferred, whatever that might have been, and I’d never recapture the moment.  

Things moved on, we moved apart, we both talked to other people.  It was horrible being at this crowded party and not being able to talk to the one person I really liked.  As she was with her husband, I was with her.  There is nothing more infuriating and upsetting than others not doing what we’d like of them, especially when we’d been promised it.  Surely it’s not so much to ask.  

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Filed under Going out to eat, Not about food, Not Working, People, TV

Sarabjit, the teenage porn king

shirley conran laceThere was a rampant porn business at my school.  At its heart for a while was a boy called Sarabjit who had come to an understanding with a newsagent off the Staines Road in Twickenham.  

In discrete playground corners, discarded Golden Wonder bags dancing at our feet, he would hold viewing sessions where boys mulled over potential purchases.  But soon enough Sarabjit realised that too much browsing and too much mulling often failed to lead to a sale.  Instead, a good quantity of flicking back and forth through the magazines would satisfy most boys’ curiosity, with the younger ones looking on in wide-eyed horror whilst older kids feigned boredom.  One boy called Gerard, a horribly hairy lout with an over-productive mucus mechanism, snapped through the pages as you might an old copy of Hello in a dentist’s waiting room when your appointment is late.  Younger and older alike, after much inspection of the magazines, with images now seared onto retinas, they would mutter something about it not being quite what they were looking for and sidle off.  

I now look back on Mind Your Language and feel a shiver of disgust at my hilarity at it.  All those hysterical foreigners and their oh-so funny ways.  And I feel not dissimilar about my friendship with Sarabjit.  We had nothing much in common and he was even a figure of some mockery for his tawdry trade so there wasn’t kudos to be had there.  Mostly, our friendship hinged on the fact our walks home followed the same route for a mile or so.  

A number of boys would express their envy of me.  Being the recipient, so they imagined, of mates’ rates when it came to his mobile top shelf.  I stammered and I prevaricated but when it became obvious I wasn’t availing myself of these bargains suspicious voices started up.  “What are you?  A poof?”  The sight of a woman splayed out with her electric blue underwear pulled aside like she’s waiting for a backstreet smear test, trying to give herself the look of a woman who wants a backstreet smear test above all else, has never done it for me.  And anyway we had a copy of Shirley Conran’s Lace at home and I knew all about sex.  Mainly it involved Arab princes and goldfish and there was none of that in these magazines so frankly I was a bit snooty to boot.

What with prowling teachers, and girls of backcombed hair and ankle warmers feeding chewed Bubblicious to each other, the playground proved not the ideal set-up for Sarabjit’s business.  So eventually he decided to take it indoors.  

Several years later I had a Christmas job in the haberdashery department of Liberty.  As I watched the staff there deftly roll mind your languagout bolts of fabric for customers, I always thought of Sarabjit.  Our form class doubled up as a science lab and amidst the Bunsen burners and tethered goggles Sarabjit would unfurl his pages with a similarly deft, slightly dramatic action.  As if the reveal was as impressive as the goods themselves.  Later on, I watched ladies admire the iconic Liberty prints and similarly, gathered around him, boys would point to indicate something especially appealing or, to my mind, something especially gross.  Occasionally, in both places, money would exchange hands.  

Most of the women in these magazines had the eyes of roadkill.  One girl had shocking green eyes that reminded me of our neighbour’s cat when it ended up under the wheels of her son’s new Suzuki motorbike.  One Saturday afternoon, we heard him roar down the road.  As the engine went quiet we could hear some inexplicable altercation with his mother.  The result, it turned out of old, somewhat deaf, unimaginatively-named Tom being squashed.  Dead Tom is what they reminded me of.  

Mr Hussein, our form tutor, never put a stop to all this going on at the back of his class.  The major impediment to his controlling Sarabjit’s trade was that he himself was busy flogging his own stuff.  Mr Hussein had a share in a family business in Southall selling audio equipment and TVs, and once he’d zipped through the register he was keen to spend the remaining fifteen minutes seeing if he had any takers.  C60 and C90 cassettes were good value I recall, but he could sell you microphones and headphones too.

To my friend Jason, who spent most weekends sitting on top of the 290 bus travelling back and forth between Twickenham and the Hayes By-pass, he sold a couple of hifi speakers.  These he smuggled in under a weekend’s worth of physics’ marking.  With Jason’s enthusiasm for bus travel, I never understood what use he planned to make of them.

Empires fall, and by about the age of fifteen other boys had joined in on the porn mag lark.  No doubt inspired by Mrs Thatcher’s bracing free market they were now running rings around poor old Sarabjit, and like the closed shop of old, he was done for.  It had never gone that well anyway but there was now also a burgeoning trade in VHS porn to complicate matters.  He had no part to play in this what with his newsagent not getting into dodgy videos for at least another couple of years.  They were both tired, rheumy-eyed, old weavers trying to scratch a living just as the spinning jenny becomes quite the thing.    

c90 cassetteSo, he gave up selling copies of Razzle and Mayfair, Penthouse, Knave and Fiesta and instead turned his hand to discounted stationery.  As ever, his wholesaler was the Twickenham newsagent but at least now he had a potential customer base of everybody and not just randy teenage boys.  It went quite well.  The girls loved his competitively priced coloured pencils and in the 1980s no one ever had enough Tippex.  Unfortunately, some kids really liked his Tippex thinner too.  But the over-inhalation of this nearly led to a drowning in the Thames one day and so Sarabjit thoughtfully cut back.  

He might have had more cash but he was unhappier.  On our walks along Heath Road, he told me how he thought his parents might divorce, and that his sisters were no use what with them being interested only in clothes and boyfriends.  Increasingly he spent time with his extended family, most of whom lived in Birmingham.  He was wistful about the city and the way he went on it sounded a veritable paradise.  It wasn’t until I visited Birmingham many years later that I realised Sarabjit’s idea of paradise was a massive, city-bisecting dual carriageway and some all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets.  

He’d thought it all through.  After the solace of Birmingham, once he was a grown-up, he planned to go and work on oil rigs.  The money was amazing apparently.

“Will you try and sell the dirty magazines there?” I asked, trying to buoy my friend along.  “You’d make loads.”

“No point.  Blokes on the rigs won’t need me to.  They’ll have tons already.  Anyway, video’s the thing now.”  His face turned sour.  “And I don’t have the contacts.”

Adult life, he’d deduced, was potentially as crappy as that of a child.  Even that of a teenage, suburban porn king.  

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