1964 New Year.
‘What are you now sweetie?’ BB is plucking my eyebrows with what feels like a vicious attention to detail. You still an ingénue are you? Or are you over the hill?’ ‘Twenty five.’ I mutter. ‘Hmn.’ He murmurs.
I had been nearly twenty when we had last been together and it was supposed to be a significant age for me, by then I was to have known what exactly I was going to do with my talents, or die. Now here I am not having discovered the talents yet and making no move towards dying, apart from my usual over excesses on the booze and dope front. In fact I had started writing in Tangier and am sure that I have a talent for it, the discipline is quite another matter. I get ideas and make notes ostentatiously, when people enquire about my notes I tell them that I am writing a novel, but I find it hard to spend the required time actually writing, and then my handwriting has a tendency to collapse into a blur as the day progresses until by night time when I am stoned and when I have my best ideas it is indecipherable. I also lose notes regularly.
The Yank is encouraging, he looks at my work and laughs although it is not supposed to be funny. ‘Get a typewriter.’ He tells me. I will, but I put it on hold, my entire life seems to be on hold in Tangier. Like I am waiting for the reality in the shape of Soho to kick in.
‘I said do the stray hairs not remove every hair above the eyes. I’ll go to Rae’s as soon as I get back to London. She has a knack.’ I am not sure if she has a knack but she is so fast that the anticipation doesn’t get a chance to inhabit the mind, and then there are the girls to look at and you can’t squeal in front of them can you? Angelo has come up behind me and involved himself in the process of denuding my face. ‘Let me do, I have gift at this.’ So BB hands over the tweezers and remains in advisory capacity, pointing out errant hairs. I grab the mirror and see that one eyebrow is reaching the Marlene Dietrich stage of development and the other still looks like an eyebrow. I screech and remove myself from their range. ‘They are not the same sweetie.’ ‘They’ll have to do, if I let you two carry on I might as well be shaved.’ ‘Good idea, I will paint for you beautiful eyebrows.’ Angelo describes with an elegant finger. ‘After all that fucking pain you just put me through? No bleeding chance, and then I have to walk around with bristles for months. Anyway where are we going this evening?’ ‘A party darling, we go to party!’ and Angelo touches the air near his fingers and blows a kiss. ‘Will be wonderful.’ And he does a tiny pirouette without actually moving. ‘We hope.’ Says BB dryly. We have taken a little speed and it can be dangerous to experiment with facial refurbishment while under the influence of speed and sometimes the imperative of the party is quite lost in the joy of preparation.
Tarting up. That was another of the things that I missed in Tangier. That and the anonymity, I seemed to be under scrutiny all the time. And my friends of course, I missed them, and rain, or just weather in general. Salt beef and latkes were on my list along with the pie and eel shop and I longed for bright green liquor and grey London fog. None of this fits in with my own dreams of a globe trotting me. In fact homesickness arrived almost before the boat tied up. ‘You’ll get over it hen. Get yourself a feller and you’ll fit in rightly. The only thing I miss is the cold and that’s a good miss. I’m as happy as a pig in clabber.’ Collette hugs herself in a parody of delight and I want to hit her. She tells me variations of this every time I speak to her of my longing for rain. She is my nemesis, the norm with which to compare my weird homesick blues, the control to highlight my folly. Her jubilance grows along with my misery, they work in tandem.
The old geezer I met, the Yank is a good diversion, he looks like a lizard and seems like he’s in absentia a lot of the time, but he knows Lavish and I hang out with the crew of screaming queens that have established themselves here for the sex and cheap living. I don’t fit in at all with my aggravating political awareness and I realise that BB is a one off and the rest of the gay boys are as light weight as everybody else. In fact since I took mescaline I feel that everybody is light weight and I have a terrible need to talk about my inner mind and the importance of my thoughts. Naturally my newfound friends become tired of this tack though the Yank is happy to indulge me when he’s around. I feel as if I am on the edge of new and startling discoveries of the spiritual and intellectual kind. I troll around like some pregnant Madonna about to bring forth a totally new philosophy and it oozes out and I watch with curled lip, people sliding out of reach of me. I think that they don’t know what they are missing, but they do and are very glad to miss my messianic rants.
I tell BB about my discovery of self on the blower and he says it sounds like a great bowel movement of the mind and tells me to stop immediately before I crap my entire brain out on to the floor and go totally barmy. Then he says that he spoke to Lavish recently and that she is blaming BB for wishing me upon them to bore them shitless. This hurts to the extent that I sink into feelings of total suicidal despair interspersed with ones of huge imminent power, like I am waiting for the revelation.
Fortunately, as ever, while I am concentrating on one thing my mind slithers off into its own dimension. I fall in love. It is a platonic job. I have never tried this before and it seems incredibly cool to me. I have this realisation that I don’t have to allow people to invade me without my permission, my mind has clear cut off points and these are under my own control. In retrospect I see that there is a contradiction here as falling in love is giving up some power to the subject of the love, but at the time my usual facility for self delusion is in place and working well.
I first see her trotting past the café where I am sitting on the pavement drinking mint tea. She is not my usual type of bird, she moves briskly on high heels with a hat on her head and an abstracted and rather fierce look on her face. She has a ferocious chin that travels slightly ahead of her. I wonder about her but I don’t move.
I spend a lot of time drinking mint tea here in Tangier. I bury the spoon in the leaves and pile sugar in before I sip at it among the dozens of men who are also eyeing this and any female who happens along. I think it is mostly conjecture and curiosity rather than lust on my part and suspect it is the same for the men. I don’t find the men here a turn on at all, they seem sly and with none of the blatant joyful sexiness that the blacks in London have and none of the humorous badinage of the cockneys, and if they did have my French would not be up to it. Lavish swears by the boys here and describes in detail their capacity for sex. BB spared me the graphic details of his encounters but Lavish seems to get as much out of telling me as indulging in what sounds to me like relentless and rather grim sex. I am clearly missing the point of it all as I am of the whole of Tangier.
I miss BB and Angelo perhaps more than Berry. I spend time actively missing, so that my life is defined by lacks. Collette is really pissed off with me glooming around. She tells me I that I have spent quite long enough missing Berry, I hadn’t realised there is a time limit to such things. Collette is now a queen bee here and is reluctant to have me as a distraction and a passenger. Lavish feels the same about me, I am being a bore and I can’t stop. So much out of my element I can feel myself starching up into resentful permanent anger. I long for the humanity and humour of BB, of Tiger, and I even miss the men who came in the club, I long to swap some badinage with the barrow boys and would give anything to hear Frantic’s gob giving it some wellie, I imagine what she would make of it here, it wouldn’t compare with London I know and I watch my own sense of humour wash away in a torrent of disapproval of the gaggle of slightly dull witted queens. And I wonder why they don’t clasp me to their bosom. In London I would go and talk to BB or just change pubs or get a new lover. Here I feel stymied.
She carries a small attaché case and looks entirely French and entirely snooty. I am intrigued. She shows no sign of having seen me but I know she has and chemical reaction has taken place and if the odd five thousand eyes weren’t on me and if I had paid my bill I would shoot after her , but I don’t. As soon as she is out of sight I regret my backwardness in coming forward and can hear Frantic’s voice: ‘Not like you gel! You’re losing your touch mate!’ and with that I move off at speed and nearly crash into her as she comes out of a shop that sells handbags. Almost every shop here sells handbags. ‘Pardon!’ I say and she says: ‘That’s OK, do not worry.’ And it is love at first sound of near perfect English. Her face lights up with a radiant smile that reaches her eyes and lights them with warmth and I feel shy so I rabbit on until she announces: ‘Coffee, we need coffee!’ once we are inside the café she orders and her Arabic sounds perfect.
I seem to be telling BB my Tangier tale with no embellishments at all. I must shape up, he expects it.…
She is called Francoise and takes the initiative in our first conversation that is more like an interview I am entranced by her accent and air of competence. She has more information out of me, most of it lies, in a half hour than I have divulged to anybody ever in one sitting. Not that I am evasive, just it takes time to get my story straight. I hear my voice telling her that I came here to work for the uncle of a friend and that it didn’t work out so I am thinking of going back to England. I don’t tell her that he made a pass at me but I can see by a look of revulsion that slips in and out of her eyes in a second or two , that this is the message she has received and I only hope I can remember all this. I must make notes when I get home. It crosses my mind that she has the same name as Frantic and I grin. ‘You have no need to go home to that damp dull little country, it is possible to find work here. I will organise for you.’ She doesn’t look like a white slaver but you never know ‘You can type?’ said with a certainty like people are born with this skill. ‘Of course.’ I answer. ‘I will meet you here at seven this evening, in this café. ‘I am dismissed. She directs a stream of Arabic to the owner and he laughs and waves her money away.
‘Do you think you will be safe in London sweetie?’ BB is worried about me going back and this has got me worried too. Stay here with us and get a place in Brighton when you are sorted. Angelo wants you to stay too, we both do.’ BB doesn’t look any older but he has changed since he has been with Angelo, he is more happy in a steady way and it suits him. In spite of them making me welcome I feel like an outsider. I want to be an outsider too I tell myself. I need to make a life for myself. BB has got his teeth fixed and with that he has become respectable though he denies it. ‘Capitalism’s got you by the balls darling.’ I tell him as we sit on the front, Angelo is skimming stones way down the beach while we lean against the sea wall smoking Gauloise, faces up to the sun like a couple of salamanders warming themselves through. He looks sideways at me and grins. ‘Hard work more like sweetie. And Angelo, I can’t imagine life without him.’ BB is like some people I have known who take to marriage. Most, it destroys and they become a fraction of the creature they were before. BB has grown and become sleek and my jibe glances off him, still he laughs. ‘Yeah mate! I do the books and pay taxes and everything now, thinking of joining the chamber of commerce I am.’ ‘Shit, BB you’ll be joining the Masons next.’ ‘Yeah the queer division they’ll amend the handshake.’ ‘Do you think you ever would have come to Tangier?’ ‘I think we might have done, yes. Only if you had stayed there Shindig, I was worried about you.’ He takes my hand in his briefly and instead of shoving it away I hold it in mine. ‘Yeah I never took homesickness into account at all, I missed London and you and the way people leave you alone in town. I felt observed all the time there. It seemed a dispassionate business too like I was a fly on the wall but instead of me watching I was watched. Continually.’ ‘I think I would get paranoid too.’ He says. ‘So what about this woman? Francoise wasn’t it – just like Frantic eh?’ ‘ Couldn’t be more different BB.’ I laugh. ‘Cultured and cool, at least that’s what I thought.’ Angelo has come back in a peeve because we have been ignoring him and Francoise is saved for another day.
The New Year party had been good but we all three agreed it was not like the old days that feel like a different land but were really only a little over five years ago. Later with a joint in my hand and blues in the background we talk again. Angelo leans back on BB’s legs and falls asleep at some point but BB and me talk until the light shows round the edge of the curtains and birdsong and milk bottles give our ears grief. ‘You said you were going to write didn’t you?’ he peers at me. ‘Books?’ ‘I was, I am but I wasn’t ready was I?’ ‘And
Are you now?’