This Isn’t Baker Street
by Graham Stewart
(Download “This Isn’t Baker Street” as a PDF for reading off-line.)
Simon was wearing only a towel when the doorbell rang. It was just after six and he’d been home from work long enough to grab a beer from the fridge and take a shower. He had planned to cook himself something healthy – for a change – and then slump unapologetically in front of the telly and watch the football.
He squinted through the peeper in the door. Dave. Oh, God, Dave. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Then he realised his mind was sounding like something from an overrated British film. He screwed up his eyes instead and did an almost silent snarl at the back of the door.
He was sure he had made no plans to see Dave tonight and Dave hated football, so watching that together was probably out of the question. For a moment he thought of pretending he was out.
But that was both childish and an indictment of his inability to stand up to Dave. He opened the door.
“I need a beer,” said Dave.
“Hello,” said Simon.
Dave pushed past Simon into the flat and made for the kitchen area and its fridge. Simon knew there were only two lagers left in there. And he knew that Dave would suggest the lagers were for girls because they were an unmanly 4% rather than the 5% lagers that Dave preferred.
Simon waited. Dave opened the fridge, brought out both cans and looked at them. He turned to Simon.
“Fucking hell, Simon. When you going to start drinking man’s beer?”
Simon smiled. Dave pulled the ring on the lager. After a long swig, he gestured with the can at Simon’s towel.
“Get a move on.”
“Why? Because we’re off to the Holmes,” said Dave.
“No,” said Simon.
Dave said nothing. He brought the can back to his mouth and tilted his head back and drained the lager in one long go. Then he banged the can down on the work surface and popped the ring on the second can. Only then did he look at Simon again.
“It’ll be good,” he said.
“It’s never good,” said Simon.
“Don’t be daft.”
“When? When was it ever good?”
“Last week. Those Italian birds on Tuesday. They thought you were sympatico or something.”
“Yes,” said Simon. “It was pleasant until you made a drunken grope for one of them.”
“Fuck else they in that pub for?”
“You’re right. They came to London all the way from Rome to have their tits squeezed by a drunken Londoner. It’s probably part of the marketing materials used by the travel company. Guaranteed breast fondling or your trip refunded in full.”
Dave just shrugged and took a sip of the lager. “Anyway, get out of the towel. It’s not right standing having a conversation with you in that state. You’re all pimk and hairless like some weird sort of lapdog.”
Simon closed the door to his bedroom and dropped the towel to the floor. He had previously laid out a pair of tatty jeans and a t-shirt ready for his evening home alone. That wouldn’t do for a night out, though. Without much enthusiasm, he opened his wardrobe and took out a white shirt and a pair of stone-coloured chinos.
Dave was actually sitting on the kitchen counter when Simon returned, dressed. Why couldn’t he sit on a stool, for God’s sake?
“That’s better,” said Dave.
“The thing is,” said Simon.
“Oh, and this.” Dave dropped down from the counter and held his hand out towards Simon.
“Dosh. I owe you for last week.”
“Right,” said Simon. He took the two tenners from Dave’s hand.
“What were you going to say?”
“Nothing,” said Simon.
On the District Line train, Dave kept his thoughts and his plans for the evening to himself, which Simon was grateful for. They sat side by side. Simon had a book in his inside jacket pocket that he wanted to take out and read but couldn’t face the inevitable inquisition from Dave. So he sat and stared into the near distance with the expertise of all frequent public transport users, seeing but not seeing, avoiding eye contact, shifting focus in and out of the carriage as the train passed through stations and back into tunnels.
Dave found his voice again when they surfaced at Embankment. Simon had turned right as they left the station but Dave grabbed his arm and steered him back to Villiers Street.
“I fancy a burger first. It’s early yet.”
“Fine,” said Simon, as he thought of the tuna steak he had marinated and was chilling in the fridge.
Suitably burgered, the men walked back down Villiers Street and cut through the passage past Heaven towards Northumberland Avenue. The Sherlock Holmes stood back from the main road, giving it a slight air of exclusivity it didn’t deserve. A small group of Chinese tourists stood in front of the pub taking photos of each other. Dave cut a path through them like a thuggish toddler scattering pigeons.
“Get the pints in”, said Dave. “And I’ll do a quick recce.”
This was standard Dave behaviour at the start of the evening. He walked round the pub to check for small groups of women tourists. Then he’d hang by the bar at a point nearest to these women and wait for Simon to find him with the drinks.
Half way through the first pint, Dave would have caught the eye of one of the women. By the time it came for a second drink, the women were usually involved in the round. It never seemed to fail. Part of Dave’s success, Simon believed, was that he was completely indiscriminate in his selection of targets. Age, looks, nationality played no part in Dave’s scheme. He had once told Simon that the best way to guarantee getting laid at a party or a club was to aim straight for the fat girls.
“They fuck you out of gratitude,” said Dave.
That was when Simon first suspected Dave might have a problem.
And yet here he was on another night out with Dave. The truth was, of course, that Simon was looking for love and, with no understanding of how to find love, he hoped Dave would lead him somewhere close to it. He affected to despise Dave’s attitude to women but Dave appeared to be honest in his search for nothing more than sex. And rarely failed to find it.
This amazed Simon, who had always believed that you attracted partners by being sensitive and attentive and, perhaps, witty and presentable. The evidence of Dave seemed to offer devastating proof that this theory was bollocks. Or arse about tit. Or just plain wrong.
The usual ending of a night out with Dave was Simon left talking to some foreign women while Dave left the pub with one of their friends. Simon had, to this point, never followed suit. He remained politely attentive to the women he was left with and took his leave from them at the first opportunity. He took care to stay long enough to make it look like he had not been part of some elaborate ploy to seduce their friend.
Simon carried the pints around to the other side of the bar. Dave was leaning with his back to the counter. He had already engaged a group of women in conversation. There were four of them. They were older than Simon – and Dave – and were clothed in what Simon would have characterised as typical mid-Western outfits. From the US, in other words.
“This is Simon,” said Dave. He pointed at Simon and then reached further and took the pint of lager from Simon’s left hand. “And I’m Dave.”
The women made room eagerly for Dave and Simon to join them at their table. Dave plonked himself right in the middle of the group. Simon dragged across a stool from an adjacent table and sat opposite them. He was more comfortable with them all in front of him.
Daisy, Lola, Veronica, and Shirley were all from Ohio. Daisy was turning forty and they had come to London to make it a special birthday.
“That’s sweet,” said Dave.
Simon knew that at any other time Dave would rather drink low alcohol lager than utter the word ‘sweet’.
Dave took a long swig of his lager. “How long are you in town?”
“Two more nights,” said Lola, who seemed to be the talkative one.
She didn’t seem to be the one Dave was interested in, though. Simon guessed that birthday girl Daisy was Dave’s target for the night. But Simon had been wrong before and he knew Dave was flexible enough to change aim should circumstances force his hand.
The women seemed to be enjoying the company of the two men. Perhaps their week in London together had exposed a few tensions that needed some outside presence to help relieve. Simon was finding it fun talking to them and they were open and funny and even laughed at some of his jokes. The longer the evening went on, the quieter Dave got, which was unusual.
After the first drink, Simon had bought another round to include the women but since then the women had paid for each new drink. Simon took out his phone and checked the time. It wasn’t yet 9:30. He felt they had been talking and drinking for hours.
“Do you need to be somewhere, hon?”
Simon looked up to find Shirley smiling at him. He felt himself blushing, so assumed he was blushing. If he was, Shirley was kind enough to not let it show in her smile.
“No,” said Simon.
Shirley shifted in her seat. She had been on the edge of the curved bench that faced Simon and made him feel he was facing a tribunal. Now she was a little closer to him. She wore a flowery blouse and blue slacks. He imagined they were called slacks. Her thighs seemed to fill them with abandon. Shirley looked like she enjoyed her food. She had the glow and cheery demeanour of the ample woman who is not embarrassed by her size and who may even pity the skinny wraiths who deny themselves the daily luxury of eating.
Simon felt he liked Shirley without sensing any attraction on his or her part. He felt they could be friends but for their age and background. Shirley was like some distant family member who had emigrated to the States as a child and was paying a visit to the old country. Stop it, he thought. If he drank any more he might start calling her Auntie Shirley. I’m sure that would amuse her no end.
Shirley leaned towards Simon. She said nothing but kept smiling. Simon felt an idiot because he didn’t know what to do or say. He looked to his left and reached for his drink. As he did so, he spotted that Dave and Daisy were kissing. He wondered why he hadn’t seen that coming. He quickly looked back at Shirley. Was she leaning forward for her own kiss?
“Is your friend a good guy?”
Nobody had asked Simon that question before. And now this woman – his long-lost Aunt Shirley from Iowa – was putting him on the spot. For some reason, Simon felt he wanted to be honest and he wanted to tell this woman the truth.
“I’m not liking the hesitation,” said Shirley.
Simon looked across at Dave and Daisy once more. They were still kissing. The women either side of the snoggers were laughing. He looked back at Shirley, who had stopped smiling.
“It’s difficult,” he said.
“Yes. Yes, it is,” said Simon.
Shirley stood up and reached and took Simon’s glass from his hand. She placed the glass on the table and held out her hand to him.
“Come with me,” she said. “We’re going outside to talk.”
Simon let her take his hand and he stood.
“Behave yourself.” It was Dave, who had broken off to breathe and seen Shirley take Simon’s hand.
Simon was going to ignore him but Shirley turned and smiled at Dave.
“He will,” she said.
“It was time for my nightly cigarette”, said Shirley.
They stood in the alley that ran along one side of the pub. Shirley had pulled a single smoke from a pocket in her slacks and a lighter from another. The cigarette seemed remarkably undamaged, considering it must have spent several hours in that pocket. It all had the air of a magic trick.
She handed Simon the lighter and put the cigarette in her mouth. Simon clicked the lighter a few times before it finally produced a flame and Shirley leaned in to place the end of the cigarette in it. She didn’t cup Simon’s hand in hers and she didn’t gaze into his eyes as she inhaled the first drag from the smoke. Simon was almost disappointed.
“What do you want to know?” said Simon.
“Why does it matter?”
Simon was stalling and he wasn’t sure why, unless he was trying to work out whether betrayal or dishonesty were the greater crime.
“Don’t fuck with me, Simon. That’s my dear friend in there.”
Simon was surprised at Shirley’s use of that word. It didn’t go with the blouse. Shit, it didn’t even go with the slacks.
“It looks like she’s made her own decision,” said Simon. He felt a little brave for saying that and then wondered why he was feeling such a wimp. Perhaps he should put his arms about Shirley and try to kiss her. But as soon as the thought crossed his mind he knew he could never do it and that it was a ludicrous idea. He could imagine Shirley taking the kiss in silence and with no response and, when Simon pulled away, continuing the conversation as if nothing had happened. That complete lack of response would be the most brutal comment on Simon’s attractiveness.
Shirley took a few more drags of her cigarette and then scraped it out against the side of the pub and dropped the butt into an empty beer glass standing precariously on a window ledge.
“You’re right,” said Shirley. “But I get to decide whether anything else happens.”
She stepped closer to Simon and placed her hands on his shoulders.
“You seem a nice boy and I’m puzzled. I’m always puzzled when I see people together who don’t appear to be right for each other.”
Simon was aware she had called him a boy. Any lingering hopes he may have had of something tender arising from this confrontation were immediately dispelled. Tender? Give me a break: sexual.
“Not just romantic partners,” said Shirley. “You understand?”
Simon wasn’t sure but he nodded. Shirley smiled.
“When I see how different the two of you are I wonder why you’re here? Are you the straight guy that gives Dave credibility while he works some kind of scam?”
“No,” said Simon. He thought he was telling the truth.
Simon shook his head. He brought himself to look more closely at Shirley’s face. Her eyes were a piercing blue. Laughter lines ran from the corners of her eyes downwards. She held his gaze and he let his eyes drop lower, to her mouth. Perfect teeth, of course. It made him bring his lips down over his own teeth, which he knew were neither even nor gleamingly white. He noticed some small black hairs at the corners of Shirley’s mouth. This cheered him up and he stepped back from her grasp.
“No. I’m just company for him,” said Simon.
“He doesn’t look as if he needs much company. Not male company, anyway. Is it a bragging thing?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know why we’re friends. He likes to come here and he meets tourists and he seems to be attractive to them. Some of them.”
“So what do you get out if it all?”
Simon shrugged. He felt he should be wearing short trousers and calling Shirley ‘Miss’.
“I get out of my flat,” he said.
Shirley just looked at him, as though she thought he might be making fun of her.
“Seriously,” he said. “That’s about all there is. Dave’s a real pain in the ass but he’s my pain in the ass. I’ve not been long in London.”
“Boy. You need to get a life.”
Shirley turned and walked back into the pub without waiting for Simon.
He stood outside and leaned against the ledge with the empty glass containing Shirley’s butt. He laughed as the words formed in his mind. It would need a much bigger glass, he thought. Then he felt disgusted with himself. Not just for the joke – joke?- but for being here with Dave when he didn’t want to be here with Dave. And explaining it to Shirley had just made it all seem even more pathetic.
A few people passed up the alley cutting through to Villiers Street. Nobody gave him a second glance as he stood there, without a drink, without a cigarette, alone. He thought of just turning and following them towards Villiers Street and then down to the Tube and home.
Then Shirley was there beside him. She took his arm and pulled him towards the door to the pub.
“Come on,” she said.
Simon felt like crying.
“It’s alright,” said Shirley. “Everything will be fine.”
[cover image adapted from “Sherlock Holmes pub by btwashburn]