The only reason Paulo and I met at all was because we walked to work in opposite directions. We quickly started nodding. The next stage was a ‘Mornin’, boss’ (both of us), ‘Outstandin’ weather again!’ (mostly him—as the freezing rain thrashed down—it was May, after all), ‘Another day, another dollar, ‘ (mostly him again) and so on.
He was always well turned out; black, a bit shorter and slighter than me. Once we started to speak, I could hear a lot of London in his voice; but there was something else under that as well—something exotic. I hoped he wouldn’t disappear before I had a chance to find out.
This went on all through the summer (with the exception of a week away in France for me, and another week when I didn’t see him) as I trudged up the hill to my job and he went downhill to…well, I speculated, but didn’t know. One morning, I happened to be on the other side of the main road when he came into view on our usual side.
He did a double take, mimed shock and surprise and stood there pointing to a spot on the pavement, as if to say ‘Get over here!’ Traffic ruled out any chance of conversation, so I just made a baffled Aw shucks! face, and raised my palms to the sky in a What can you do? sign. He aped my gesture, shaking his head to add disappointment and disbelief, before dismissing me with a flap of the hand and bursting out into a grin. After that, we took to saluting each other from whichever side of the road.
It was a quiet Saturday morning in late August—most of the world seemingly on holiday, and the first time I’d seen him not on a weekday—when we first stopped and had a chat.
‘I thought it was just me who worked seven days a week,’ he said.
‘No…no…one weekend in three at the moment. We’re shorthanded just now. Oh joy.’
Anyway, we swapped phone numbers and names, and agreed (in principle) to go for a drink at some stage.
‘So this man is just someone you see on the way to work?’ (In an utterly disbelieving tone.) I’d told Amanda—the missus—that I was going to meet Paulo for a drink in town, diplomatically asking if there was any night better than any other for her. I’d asked her about five seconds ago, and already I wished I hadn’t.
‘Well, yeah. And we got talking—found out we’ve got a few things in common.’ I tailed off. Amanda was looking at me hard in the mirror as she put the finishing touches to her eye make-up, her mouth tight and showing displeasure.
‘Pervy, ‘she opined. ‘Pervy things, I’ve no doubt!’ She sighed, shaking her head. ‘Do what you like; just don’t wake me when you come in drunk.’
Someone’s jealous, I thought. ‘Next Thursday okay then?’ I asked brightly.
‘Mmm,’ she said, somehow managing to slam her compact shut.
And so the drink finally came to pass one squally September evening in the bar of the George along the High Street—an ancient coaching inn with an old fashioned shingle dangling over the pavement from the first floor. Bitter for me; Paulo preferring Scotch.
Turns out Paulo’s originally from Salvador in Brazil; ending up in this neck of the woods via a philosophy degree at the University of Essex and a now-very-much ex Scottish wife somewhere along the way. Most satisfying, though, was learning where he goes after I see him in the morning: he’s a Jobcentre Plus adviser in the week in a dull, sprawling town called Witton a couple of stops towards London in the week; and a suit salesman in one of the department stores here in St Eustace at weekends. (I told you he was always smartly turned out, didn’t I.)
A couple more drinks disappeared; I lost track rather as conversation flowed in our tastefully upholstered wood and leather corner of the saloon. Once or twice I toddled out through the timbered reception and down the short, bendy flight of wooden steps to the gents. Gradually, the after work shift in the hotel bar changed over to an evening crowd.
Anyway, it was gone quarter past nine—I know because I’d finally looked at the clock behind reception. Emboldened by a few drinks and a few hours away from the missus, I’d winked at the receptionist, a pretty, thin blonde (who smiled back, I’m happy to say), before finishing off a killer story about a TA summer camp a few years ago.
It was then it happened. Paulo finished his whiskey at the same time I finished my pint; we put our glasses on the low table at exactly the same moment; and he reached over and put his right hand on my left. Surprised, I looked him in the eye; he smiled mischievously.
‘When did you first know you were gay, Dave?’ he asked earnestly. I blushed.
‘I don’t…I mean I’m not…I’m…married!’ I couldn’t really get any words out, actually. He patted my hand, laughing pointedly when I said ‘married’. ‘What makes you…?’ I said. He leant back, signalling to the waiter for more drinks. ‘Too many clues.’ He smiled, shaking his head. ‘You don’t need to be ashamed of it. You English guys!’ he said, laughing out loud.
I sat stunned for a moment. Paulo looked me over intently and with quite some amusement. The drinks arrived.
‘How about we finish these and head back to mine for a nightcap?’ he suggested. He held his glass up and we clinked, me going for a smile and almost managing a grimace.
‘This is going straight through me!’ I laughed, getting up as casually as I dared.
I walked into reception. The receptionist, who’d seen the whole thing, barely managed to suppress a laugh. I nodded curtly before turning towards the gents. I waited a few seconds and then quickly walked back through reception and out into the High Street. There were three or four seconds when Paulo could have seen me if he’d turned round; but he didn’t—he was looking dreamily ahead.
‘Don’t turn the light on—I was asleep!’ Amanda complained. It was almost twenty to ten; I hadn’t messed about. Once away from the George, I’d hopped straight into a taxi on the rank just down the High Street outside Marks and Spencer.
‘Did you have a lovely time with your lover?’ she asked, sleepily—yet still managing to squeeze out a few drops of sarcasm. I glared at her in the semi-dark; If only you knew! I thought, bitterly.
It was about three weeks later—a Saturday evening. I’d taken to going the only other possible way to work—and going later—since the misunderstanding. I hadn’t seen Paulo since, although I had used him as an excuse once when I fancied an evening down the pub—much to Amanda’s fury. I didn’t know what I’d say if we did actually meet, but…well.
Anyway, I’d been toying with the idea of a mustache—don’t ask me why, but I just fancied trying something different. I put down the blue disposable razor, rubbed a patch on the steamy bathroom mirror, and looked at my face. All the rest of my beard-line was closely shaved, the embryonic moustache untouched and still wet; I’m quite fair haired, so it made it look more pronounced, new as it was.
‘Come on, David,’ Amanda said through the door. ‘They’re picking us up at quarter to.’ I went to the door and opened it; steam spilled into the hallway. She saw the mustache.
‘Oh my God! Don’t tell me you’re leaving that thing on! Go and shave it off quickly. You know how grumpy Lizbeth gets if she’s kept waiting…and the table’s booked for eight.’ She shook her head sadly, looking wounded. ‘I really don’t know what goes through your mind sometimes.’
She went into the bathroom, cursing what I’d done to the mats, and the general steaminess. I headed for the bedroom, drying my hair and then my new appendage, rubbing its short length between my thumb and forefingers thoughtfully.
‘David, please don’t tell me you’re keeping it!’ she said from the doorway. I met her eyes in the mirror—the towel on the bed, and me still in my birthday suit; my eyes flashed.
‘Paulo thinks a mustache would suit me!’ I blurted. It came from nowhere, really. Amanda turned and stalked off, thumping down the stairs, muttering things that were probably not meant to be complimentary. I slipped into my favourite peach-coloured shirt and looked at the whole picture—mustache and all—in the mirror.
‘Thank you, Paulo!’ I said aloud, and smiled back at myself. ‘No problem, Dave,’ I said in his distinctive Brazilian accent. Yes, I was going to enjoy having an imaginary gay friend.