Both Alex and I agreed that Pimlico was a strange place. An area almost devoid of personality. An in-between place, trapped by Vauxhall Bridge Road to the East, Victoria Station to the North, the ropes of train lines in the West and the Thames to the South. Long, austere grid-like streets lined with white stucco houses broken up by carbuncular housing estates which looked like they had been dropped by a giant blind and malicious council officer. It wasn’t exactly posh. It wasn’t exactly rough either. It seemed to cancel itself out.
We had been to an exhibition of British Orientalist Painting at the Old Tate, which was technically in Westminster, but we needed somewhere to eat and Alex suggested Goya over the road in Pimlico. I acquiesced, little knowing the area and having no recommendations myself, but I had my doubts; he had described the place as tapas, which in my mind meant undersized, over-spiced portions of amorphous Mediterranean slop.
On sighting Goya the exterior did little to alleviate my forebodings. Aluminium tables were scattered about under a lank awning, on a broad pavement at a busy road. The only tangible reference to the great painter were the physical hodge-podge of waiting staff of both sexes, who ranged in age from eighteen to eighty and the grotesques who passed themselves off as customers and who were busy disporting themselves in attitudes of gluttonous surfeit or romantic paroxysm.
We took a table outside, the last one along facing the main street, and away from the crush. I took the chair with its back to the restaurant window, facing out, as was my want, which enabled me to guard for the ever-present threat of the assassin’s knife. It also gave me the opportunity to survey my fellow diners. Furthest away, by the door, a lanky, vapid man in a grey suit and an oval face sat like a question mark over a small table opposite a voluptuous Latin with jet-black hair, shimmering eyes and cheeks daubed with natural rouge. She was more than several notches higher than him in the attractiveness stakes and I wondered what she saw in that limp stick of rhubarb. I saw all the familiar signs of the dance of flirtation. They obviously didn’t really know each other because she seemed to be enjoying herself.
On the next table in was another example of amorous discrepancy. A woman, who was no worse than hogget-dressed-as-lamb, slim, sun-kissed with a face that bore only the faintest trace of the tanner’s wife, sat opposite a man who could have easily passed as homeless. Faded tattoos were doodled on his leathery forearms and the white spike of a cigarette was gummed to the lower lip of a mouth which flapped braggadocio but which smelt of cowardice. His dirty oversized jeans and t-shirt and jerky boasting spoke of the playground urchin but his face and frame spoke of adult failure and disillusionment. His companion seemed to notice none of this and I wondered if men were such a dying breed that perfectly presentable woman were searching for mates amongst such bores and bums.
The table next to us was vacant when we arrived but was soon taken by an elderly couple who aspired to the Cap d’Antibe but who were evidently cast ashore on the Costa del Sol. He was faintly reminiscent of an old naval captain with his white hair, combed back, open-necked shirt, blue blazer and healthy glow until, that is, he opened his mouth when the distinctive strains of a second-hand car dealership in Dagenham rang out. His wife, for I presume that’s what she was, resembled a faded female carbon of him. Her good looks had slunk away, cowering from the onslaught of middle-age, keeping up with the Joneses and a domineering husband and now peeped out uncertainly from behind a parvenu tan and an expensive floral dress made to look cheap by her total lack of grace.
Alex and I blathered on in our usual fashion like the good friends that we were who had been denied each other’s company for several weeks and were now bursting at the seams with things to tell. Art, music, fashion, philosophy. Topics crowded in on topics until they all toppled down and a sly, spindly mud lark of a digression took advantage of the situation and sprinted off with the conversation at right angles. We waved the waiter away twice, barely having looked at the menu, but his weary expression on his third orbit convinced us to knuckle down to the business of food choosing.