Now we sit in the bar, Ali eyes me steadily. He reaches a hand out, the other draws his glass towards his lips and he exclaims.
“What took you so long? They were killing me”, and the first hand is now in the air. I conceal my satisfaction as everything has changed, I’ve found the old rogues, drunk, wounded, and without any purpose. Too far gone to reject the proposition out of hand, too desperate to weigh up the risks. I signal the barmen:
“Rum and a glass of Sancerre”, I bring my own glass to my lips.
I had tried every door, knocking and banging with no answers just the angry faces of people that didn’t like to be bothered. It was a big estate. I had it on good information that that he was somewhere in there, I had heard it from Giovanni the Italian who was really a illegal Romanian posing as an Italian, who was posing as a man of letter, thats when he wasn’t working the streets which was just about the only time I ever saw him. I ventured from tower to tower and it was raining all the time. And then on a higher floor it happened I found him, strange as it was, it has occurred like so.
I banged on a door, no one answered, I banged harder and Ali opens the door. As I say, I had tried countless other doors, I had spent an entire two day trying to find him in that maze, whilst all the time watching over my shoulder, making sure that no one was observing me, following, beating me to it, or marking my tracks. It was hard graft and leg work till finally his blood shot, ruined eyes met mine, from a door ever so slightly opened, still chained to the wall. I looked into those life weary eyes, they were like a back street or an alleyway, if you looked into them long enough you would see ruin, and worse, the truth. I had hoped our meeting might have evoked a crisper, more innocent past rather than the tired feeling that young as I was, age was prematurely encroaching.
I was done with being a rent boy, and there was Ali hiding. I wondered if he was still taking in up the arse and giving head. Was he still escorting those withered old hags back to their west London penthouses? How his eyes had changed. No he wouldn’t fetch much on the market, at best he’d be the play thing of ageing diplomats, or lawyers. Maybe the odd woman whose children had left home. Those eyes now larger, rounder, and darker, the hazel brown replaced by with muddied water. I wondered how my eyes looked. His changes were more pronounced, gone was the brightness and sharpness that I associated with his persona, and, he appeared to be on the watch, fearfully he peered out from beyond the door. The more I looked into those eyes the more convinced I became that mine could not have undergone such a transformation. Had they, I would not have made it to his door.
“Moment”. Ali had coughed the words out on my arrival as if speaking was painful. He turned his pale head and grimaced in pain. Perhaps his belly was filled with ulcers, and his mouth stricken by some beastly oral virus. He turned, lurching and I was left standing with the door half open while Ali tumbled down the hall, I could hear the sound of vomit. A violent sound.
“Mate, you alright?” I projected my voice down the hall in the hope that Ali might respond. The degenerate didn’t answer,He was a mate and I ought to at least check on the bastard, fix him some water, a tea, but instead of that happening he heard the door and rushed down the hall, his shirt half undone and his face covered in vomit, he checked my advance and caught me before I entered the building, holding the door nearly shut with his foot, a hand on the chain that I unlatched.
“I’m fine… fine… fine… I have eaten something”, and as quickly as he had returned to the door he staggered once more down the his hallway and in the direction of his toilet. I gazed inside the joint. The hall was full of cheap wood carvings, the type you come by on Portobello Rd. In the sparsely decorated room hung a poor quality painting of a lady with her hand on a Lion, an old image of the Emperor Haile Selassie, a black and white photo of an African women which seemed strange, as Ali was always calling African people ‘niggers’ as if he took issue with their colour. It was mostly reserved for rent boys drifting into the neighbourhood and taking business, when they weren’t Brazilians or Italians – the other players on the ‘John’ scene in W10 and 11.
From the very outset there was no mistaking his fall from grace. How hard is it to kill the essence of a man? I wonder now as I look at him across the table in the bar. Is it harder than killing his body? Seeing him now, so wretched, his eyes so changed I wonder if my hope is wrong. I have not seen him in a long time.
Before he had returned to Fez to come back.
Before he left Monsieur Jones.
Before the misery of the crowded bars.
Before the recession dried up the bulk of our clientele.
Perhaps he looks upon me as if I too am damned, and I too am somehow unrecognisable, not quite the Notting Hill gigolo that I once was.
“Hans can I help you?” Turning left and right, he had paused mid sentence his eyes surveying the empty corridor, a light flickered, and somewhere someone was watching a sitcom.
“Firstly Hans you have told no body I am… here”, he remarked.
Something in his tone surprised me. Even the Albanian, the one whose breath was like poison or weed killer, from some weird concoction of herbs, and offal he ate, to arm himself with rancid breath, Konstandin was his name. Yes even Konstandin was scared of him. Konstandin, the hardest pimp on Westbourne Grove, was rumoured to fear Ali ‘Fez’. Before I had a chance to take these thoughts to there natural end Ali had interjected, his tongue stuck to his mouth his voice raspy.
“Hans there are people… always people… you know. People who are, well… looking for me”. He finished, and opening his hands widely in resignation. Then closed his eyes and then opened them as if he was is surprised that I remain standing outside the door. I wondered at the state of his intoxication.
“Can I help you?” Al asked the question as if he was calling from solid ground and I was somewhere terrifying: on a high sea hurtling towards rocks.
“Well. Can I help you?” He finished with a flurry of comical nods, like a renaissance courtier, and I tried not to laugh. Perhaps Ali, in all his vanity, was afraid that I might ask for some great service! Some noble favour, a favour that he perhaps could not give, a favour that might find a wound. Would I be better going on alone?
“Ali is that it? Is that how it is? No hellos! I just wanted a word, just a word”, but it seems we have gotten off to a bad start.
“Now is not a good time”, Ali concluded in a finite manner, which suggested there might never be a good time.
“I have an idea”, I remark. The offer, a fourteen day Baltic Cruise, Brugge, Oslo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Helsinki, St Petersburg. Mother Russia is reasserting herself, and while her sons and Oligarchs are getting down to business, and there is all this talk of a new Tzar, there will be no shortage of rubbles to be splashed on Eunuchs, and play things. He smiled, a long smile that didn’t reach his eyes, eyes that assumed a strange air, with something deeper contained in them, a hunger, a cunning. And then I heard a women’s voice
“Al… Al… Are you coming back darling… Al.”
He replied some no committal response then quietly said;
“Hans come back… come back some other time”, he winks and pauses and I stare back at him.
“Whatever it is you need… anything… a reference I guess! Come back I’ll help you. I’m busy now… I’ll write you a very good reference, I’ll say whatever you need, better still, you write the reference say everything, and bring it to me I’ll sign it. Well… Done?”
Al then went to shut the door and I thrust my foot out and stop it just in time, the motion carries Al forward and his head smacked the corner of the door. Now his brow was so coiffured that just about any knock would have damaged the skin. And a small cut had appeared on the fool Ali’s forehead, then a line of pink blood appeared. Ali’s eyes open in horror, he let go of the door, and pushed a trembling hand to his forehead he brought his hand back down and looked at the blood. He started screaming. Next thing I know Ali is on the floor writhing as if he were in genuine agony, as if he were in his death throes. There’s this women running down the hall. Big, with the mother of all bosoms. She is wearing a pale green lace slip and suspenders. Her curls, real or fake are amazing whilst her great legs are a heaving mass racing at me. She’s screaming.
I become a murderer, Ali becomes a darling. She lent over the withering fool, smothering his head in those breasts and those curls. I’m scared shitless she will suffocate him.
At this point the door across the hallway opens and there’s this nutter pointing his finger at me and barking.
“Boy, what you doing?”
Another door opens further down the hall and an elderly women watches.
“Mr. I’m just visiting Ali here. I’m a mate.”
“You is up to no good.”
Two fellas who appear in the hallway. They call in unison:
“We cool Tony?”
But we aren’t cool, I am disturbing the semblance of peace
“Easy”, I replied, as one would faced with the prospect of an imminent kicking. Two fellas are coming at me and I’ve got my arms pinned to the wall. Great. Al’s still fucking screaming, and that lady’s freaking out.
“That fellas just making noise”, I state the obvious in disgust and push back. The two blokes stared back before they turned and looked at the pathetic Ali. They let me go. Al’s still a writhing on the floor.
“Open your fucking eyes, he’s pissed off his face”, and I turn to the lady. “Darling it’s just a scratch. For fucks sake!”
I tell Ali to shut up, and for once his buffoonery for the crowd ceases.
“Al let me in or these boys are gonna beat the shit out of me.”
The man Tony had shut his door, and the two men walked back down the hall with an echo of them quietly swearing, and muttering, calling me a stupid white boy.
Then I was sitting on Al’s sofa, while his woman cried madly down a phone line at some one called Cliff, telling him to come now, before Ali goes. Ali had a sanitary pad pressed against the wound and a cigar dangling from his mouth, he’s wearing boxer shorts covered in green superheroes, and, on the table there was an empty bottle of wine (Prosecco of all things).
Al was taking it all in, I could see his eyes had gone beady and he was stewing over the offer, digesting the proposition. Al smiled, and offered me a cigar, and that’s it he had said he was on board. And he’s pulling on his trousers, and the women has put the phone down, and she’s crying, and muttering and telling Ali that he couldn’t go, he couldn’t leave her, that Cliff was coming, that Cliff would find him wherever he went. I asked him if he had his passport. I tell her to shut up. Cliff could go fuck himself. And thats it. Ali was limping about the room looking for his bits and pieces, ramming them into a suit case. There wasn’t much.
Now here he is. Across the table from me and I have to admit once he’s cleaned up he would do, I signal the barmen, and get the bill. Black cab to Knightsbridge. I will clean him up at the hotel and we will buy new clothes, and in the morning Southampton, we will meet the Russian’s, board the boat and become companions and page boys of a new empire, and endless sleep, no end to a dark heavy horizon.