Excerpt from The Pharmacist by Justin David (Salt Publishing - June 2014)
Billy is in his usual spot, leaning against the wall of the pub, taking photographs and savouring a well-earned beer after a stressful week at work. Through half-closed eyes, he zooms in on an old man talking with the flower seller on the opposite side of Columbia Road flower market. A bunch of bright pink gerberas is being wrapped up, and then money is exchanging hands. Even from where he’s standing, Billy can see it’s more money than the cost of a bunch of flowers and the flower seller is counting it out to the old man, not the other way round. Billy lowers the camera. The old man in the cream linen suit turns and for a split second, in the fiery glare of summer, across the street, he and Billy are smiling at each other. Billy acknowledges him with a nod. But then, the old man appears a little self-conscious under his cream panama. The old man looks back, shiftily, at the flower seller who is nudging him with the bunch of gerberas. He takes the flowers. Billy watches them nodding agreeably to each other and, as they are shaking hands, he sees the old man quickly pass something, a tiny packet, to the flower seller who winks as they exchange inaudible words.
Often, on Sunday lunchtimes, Billy comes here to take photographs and chat to the traders selling the last of their flowers. He’s attracted by the atmosphere of the market and enjoys the eccentric post-modern revivalists in their vintage costume and designer accessories, who posture and parade, as if the street were a catwalk. Yet on this occasion, he’s gripped by this debonair gentleman. Billy disregards the transaction he thought might have taken place. It’s the old man he’s interested in. He must live locally. Billy’s seen him at least three times before, here on this street. Unmistakeable. When the old man walks, trailing rich aromatic smoke from his pipe, he holds himself taut and regal. This graceful image of a man is enough to spark Billy’s interest for unconventional behaviour, and he manages a couple of good shots of the man, amid his photographs of the flowers.
From his place in the sunlight, he observes the old man doff his hat and say goodbye to the flower seller, punctuated by a flourish of his hand.
Look at that, thinks Billy. The flair, the twirl – he loves that the man doesn’t conform to any normal code of behaviour. Swanning swiftly through the crowds of fashionably dressed people carrying freshly cut flowers, the old gentleman disappears round the corner into Laburnum Road. Billy follows quickly to see if he can get another shot to take back to the studio. The old man fascinates him and he wonders if he may have found a new subject. The gentleman heads down the east-end street towards the Victorian maisonettes where Billy lives. It’s a great surprise to him to see the old man take a key from his pocket and slip into the communal entrance of his building; Billy’s building. “Oh my God!” Billy can’t help saying out loud, before reaching the front door. “He lives upstairs.”
After that, Billy doesn’t see his mystery man again for days. While he’s curious about the old man living upstairs, he’s hardly had time to unpack, let alone introduce himself to the neighbours. Perhaps even a week goes by before he hears anything more than the old man’s footsteps, or the cackle of his friends sloshing wine around upstairs. One morning they meet in the little entrance hall to their maisonettes. They greet each other with the stiff, ceremonious air of businessmen, neither quite knowing how to react, having already met but not met.
“Albert Power,” offers the old man, replacing the pipe in his mouth, freeing up his remaining hand.
“Billy Monroe,” he returns. They shake hands, but with Billy beaming right at him, Albert’s eyes fall uncomfortably to the floor. He’s carrying a brown leather carry case. “Working?” asks Billy, nodding to the case.
“Er, no,” says Albert and moves the case guardedly behind his legs. “I don’t work.” Billy wonders what might be inside and why a retired old gentleman would be carrying such a thing.
Albert steps towards the interior door of his flat, adjacent to Billy’s door. “Well, neighbours we are,” he says, inserting his key into the lock.
“I’m sorry,” says Billy, allowing his voice to deepen. “I’ve knocked a couple of times since I moved in, but I keep missing you.”
“Not to worry,” Albert replies, hurriedly. “We must keep different hours. Ships in the night and all that.” He lets himself in and turns back to Billy, now that the ice has been broken, correcting what appears to Billy as plain aloofness. A streak of sunlight through the street door catches one side of Albert’s face. “But you’re here now. You’re not at work today?” Albert asks, one eye gleaming like a pebble of tiger’s eye.
There is a charged moment when their eyes meet, in which Billy feels a knowledge pass between them. It’s the kind of cruisy look he only usually gets from young guys in bars and clubs. Billy knows he should look away, but Albert doesn’t, so he doesn’t. He feels something there – the weird sensation, perhaps, that they knew each other before. “I’m on holiday from work,” Billy replies, and breaks his gaze.
“Ah.” Albert nods. “You live alone?”
Billy has no reason to be anything other than transparent now, but he finds himself saying, “Yes. I live alone.”
“No.” Not a lie – Billy sees the face of his boyfriend, Jamie, in his mind’s eye.
Though in omitting the fact that he’s actually in a relationship, he knows he’s not being honest either. He pictures Jamie and the whole family sitting around the dinner table in the home where Jamie grew up – domesticity and contentment. He knows only too well Jamie’s mum would crack him across the head for any kind of philandering. And the grandmother – doesn’t bear thinking about. Then he closes his eyes and parks the image.
“Oh?” Albert pauses.
“What?” Billy laughs nervously, through his nostrils, feeling the weight of Albert’s gaze.
“It’s just that I thought I’d seen someone else coming and going.”
Billy looks up and smiles at Albert’s blatant prying. There’s an obvious question mark hanging in the air. “That’s Jamie. He’s been helping, since I moved in,” Billy says, still being opaque. “He has a spare key,” he says and that puts an end to it, for now at least, allowing a silent moment in which Billy takes in every physical detail. Good muscles and bone structure give Albert a taut appearance. He looks younger than his attire would suggest and Billy thinks he would look more at home on the set of a Tennessee Williams play. He’s curious to see a slightly off-white shirt and a collar beginning to fray at the sides of his neck.
“Well, at last we meet,” says Albert. “Pop up for a drink sometime.” His gaze falls, less discreetly this time, over the length of Billy’s body, as if stroking each downy hair on Billy’s skin with his eyes. “I’m in and out. Just knock.” Albert turns to enter his flat.
“Thanks. I will,” says Billy. He smiles and walks out into the sunlit street.