He was talking to Katharine when I entered the restaurant, in that gallant, paternal way some older men of a certain character adopt when speaking to the young. He was certainly a character, with his bear-like frame, white hair swept back and spade-like white beard which made him resemble the third-act Hemingway, although his arched eyebrows and air of joviality spoke of a lighter spirit.
We were sitting in L’Autre, an ancient Polish-Mexican hostelry in Shepherd’s Market; Polish because that’s what the founder had been and naturally what he decided his restaurant to be, and Mexican because the owner smelt a buck when once-upon-a-time the Mexican Embassy was in close proximity, and adapted the menu accordingly.
The walls were plastered with framed portraits of Greta Garbo, whom this mysterious owner once knew. Hats and peaked caps of all description were stacked on top of a high beam and, with its little glassed-in ante-room with a heavy embroidered drape swung across the doorway to keep out the cold, the faux-timbered parquetry of the interior and the heavy, dark furniture squeezed into a cramped but cosy space, it resembled some far-flung Tirolean eatery, or a stock Carpathian inn from an old Hammer horror.
We began the business of eyeing up the menu and, as we discussed the options and I gave my opinion on what I had sampled before, I stole glances at our neighbours. The Bear sat expansively at his little table – straight-backed, with a barrel-chest and gut that were all of a piece. He was a dominating presence, even sitting down, and he seemed to swell to take up most of the space as the other diners shrank into the corners. He was a character all right, a type that was becoming increasingly uncommon in these homogeneous times.
I leaned across the table towards David and whispered, “He reminds me of –”
David had opened his mouth at the same time; he was evidently thinking the same thing, as we as brothers often did. Well, not quite the same. “He reminds me of a ‘gay’ Michael,” he said, with a wry smile.
Gay? Michael was an old, now-deceased, Polish artist friend of my parents from the sixties – the pure, undistilled quintessence of the eccentric artist. But, the Bear – gay?
I glanced across again. It was true that our friend was festooned with jewellery: gold rings flashed on his fingers, a heavy gold bracelet dripped from his left wrist and, perhaps most striking of all, a gold lapel pin of a jaguar couchant pierced his jumper over his chest. But I took these for signs of mere flamboyance, rather than sexual orientation.
But then, almost for the first time, I noticed his companion, rendered almost invisible, eclipsed by the beaming Sun God seated opposite. He was a much younger man, perhaps thirty-five, and physically not insubstantial himself, although his size was of an undistinguished and disproportionate sort. He had a species of premature young man’s paunch and his limbs were of that floppy kind that were common to a certain type of effeminate male. Perhaps David was right after all.
Dinner arrived. We ate, drank, spoke and drank. The restaurant had an atmosphere that demanded heartiness and congeniality. We scoured our plates, passed the plate hand-over-hand, plate-over-plate, and I polished off the leftovers on Katharine’s. There was movement next door. Falstaff was on his feet. He was easing himself between the two tables to get out, shuffling sideways to enable the manoeuvre. His back was towards us, and this vast slab, together with his meaty buttocks, momentarily blocked out the light. He was a more portly figure when standing, almost rotund. He resembled a giant child’s spinning top and I entertained the notion of winding him up, perhaps by twisting his head, releasing him and seeing him play havoc in the restaurant like a fleshy runaway circular saw.
He placed something black and shiny on his table as he inched past. I nudged David. “Look, look!”
It was a patent crocodile leather bag – something in between a ladies’ hand bag and an old-fashioned Gladstone. And then it was gone, clasped in his ursine paw, borne away to the subterranean remoteness of the gents.
Our eyes were all left gazing in this direction, wondering at the void left by his departure. The plump companion, who was playing with his phone, looked up, suddenly aware of the combined force of our stares.
“Oh, just some photographs.” He had a mild Antipodean accent. He mistakenly believed we had been captivated by what he was doing. Chit-chat ensued. Katharine was the only one to show any real interest in what he had to say, so he swung round to sit on the bench where the Bear had been seated, to show her some of his snaps.
“Look! Look!” It was David’s turn this time. His head nodded in the direction of the freshly vacated seat. The back of it was swagged in a thick, brown fur coat. We were like kids – first the bag, now the coat; snickering, pointing out new and strange artefacts in this outlandish adult world.
“He’s showing you his porno?” The Bear was back. He stood leering down at Katharine and his Batman with a concupiscent grin. He spoke flawless English with a heavy Polish accent. There were smiles and uncertain laughter at his comment. I felt eyes on me. I looked up. He was staring at me distractedly.
“You have a fantastic beard. How long have you been growing it?” he murmured.
“Um, well, I started in September so I suppose about five months.”
“Five months! Incredible! I have been growing this 20 years and still it doesn’t match yours.”
I thanked him, embarrassed that my beard sprouted so effortlessly and feeling that his age and stature warranted a superior growth.
The plump Antipodean climbed to his feet. They were preparing to leave. The Bear had taken to us and I could see him searching his wine-soaked mind for a witty valediction.
“You are an attractive tree-angle. I would buy a video of it!” He winked at us lecherously. It was a stomach-turning idea even if he wasn’t aware of our relations to each other. The arched eyebrows indicated not only humour, but a lascivious inclination – in short, he was a saucy old goat. It somewhat undercut his magisterial bearing, but in a sense made him a sort of modern day Bacchus.
He grasped the collar of the fur coat, slid his arms into it and wrapped it around himself. It was his after all, as I was hoping it would be! And then, almost in answer to an unconscious desire in me that his eccentricity should go the whole way, he produced a camel-coloured fedora out of nowhere to complete the ensemble, and stuck it on his head.
Then, with smiles and nods of goodbye and hearty thanks to the proprietor, he ambled out, followed by his one-man retinue, and he was gone – part Falstaff, part Hemmingway, part James Robertson Justice, part Liberace, all character.
I went to the toilet.
When I got back David faced me excitedly. “I’ve been speaking to the waiter. Apparently our friend’s very high up in the old Polish aristocracy. In fact, if they still had a king, he’d have been next in line for the throne!”
Written and illustrated by Harry Chapman.