Someone has carved his name into the wooden edging of the formica-topped table: 'Baz'. That makes me smile, I remember my days back in Grammar School. There'd been a 'Baz' there in some previous year who'd left his signature on most of the desks in 4a. I wonder who that earlier Baz had been - what he is doing now. He must be at least a year older than I (if he is still alive, that is), and that would make him pushing seventy-six.
The waitress appears by my side and takes my order for a cup of coffee. Her voice shakes me out of my reverie. That seems to be happening a lot these days: I find myself drifting and thinking about my childhood, the old days.
I arrange the salt and pepper pots into a neat line at the side of the faded plastic flower which stands in an empty mustard bottle in the middle of the table, and gaze around at the greasy yellow walls. I feel an almost irresistable urge to straighten the picture hanging opposite me: a scene of some anonymous shoreline so bleached-out that it could be anywhere. I haven't been in here for ages, but walking seems to be even more difficult than usual for me today, and I felt the need for a sit down. I remember this cafe's opening, in fact I remember it before it was a cafe. It used to be a florist's shop. I try to recall the name of the owner: a large, severe-looking woman with an extraordinarily unsuitable hairstyle and a fondness for Gardenias - but it's no good, the name won't come.
There are two other customers in the cafe - a man and a woman. They look as if they don't want to be here, and they're arguing quietly about someone called 'Jill'. Their grand-daughter, perhaps? Who knows?
It is often not pleasant to be old. Sometimes the mind goes first, and in some ways that's not so bad, because you don't really care what's going on. But in my head I feel exactly as I did when I was twenty. I read a lot, my mind is active, I have all of my mental faculties, but my old body is letting me down slowly but surely. I find it hard to do things I once took for granted. Walking, dressing - even getting into bed is becoming increasingly difficult.
Paul would have told me to stop complaining. Dear Paul. My lover for thirty-eight years. I think about him often. How long is it now? I calculate in my head... he's been gone fifteen years. Good grief, is it really that long? I suppose it must be. I smile and shake my head in wonder. Where do the years go to?
I turn my head to the right and look out of the sheet-glass window at the hole.
There is a hole in the road just the other side of the pavement from here. Actually it's more of a trench than a hole. At its right-hand end is a little tent, with cheerful red-and-white stripes on it, which presumably shelters the cabling or whatever it is they're working on down there. The hole itself starts at the kerb and extends some four feet into the road. Not that this is a road any more; it's a pedestrian zone. There have been no cars down here for a long time. I remember when the trams used to rumble up and down this street, their wheels screeching on the iron rails.
I don't often come into this cafe, although I pass it every week when I collect my pension from the post office a bit further up the street, next to the theatre. Ah, no, that's right - the theatre's gone. It's a Macdonald's now. Dreadful thing.
I'm just about to bring my attention back inside when the flaps of the tent part and a figure emerges. And my heart almost stops dead inside my chest.
It is a young man. He's no more than a boy really - must be eighteen or nineteen at the very most. He's wearing a dark blue teeshirt with white stripes which run from the sides of the neck along his shoulders to the ends of the short sleeves; faded jeans; and those brown leather engineers' boots that workmen seem to be wearing a lot these days. He looks around, and stretches. I am transfixed by his movements - they have the grace of a cat. As he extends his arms wide over his head, his hands formed into fists, he closes his eyes and turns his face towards me.
He is without doubt the most stunningly beautiful boy I have ever seen in my life.
I realize that I have stopped breathing and gulp in a lungful of air. I turn my head quickly, looking back at the plastic flower on the table before he opens his eyes and sees me staring fish-like at him.
I close my eyes and, frowning with concentration, examine - item by item - the after-image of his face, which my desire has burned into my retinas. His hair is the colour of a wheat field in the autumn sunshine. It is cut very short, in the style that young lads have these days: almost shaved at the sides, and at the top it is about a quarter of an inch long. His face is intensely masculine, with a strong jaw, and slight stubble around the chin, but his lips are full and soft. The nose is perfectly straight, the eyebrows flat, and his blond eyelashes are long. In my mental image - a snapshot of how he was looking when he was stretching, with his face turned towards me - his eyes are closed and he is smiling slightly with, I think, the pure enjoyment of being young, strong and healthy on a summer's day like this. I long to see his eyes. I place a mental wager with myself that they are blue.
A minor explosion on my table announces the arrival of the coffee, and the waitress - 'Julie', according to the plastic name-tag on her impressive bosom - favours me with a smile which lasts a full tenth of a second before she dismisses my existence from her life and moves away even as I take a breath to thank her. She is already wiping down the next table (an action which only serves to move the accumulated detritus around rather than removing it).
I ignore the glass cup of grey coffee which steams evilly before me (and smells vaguely of licourice), and look back at the boy. He has picked up a spade and is attacking the subsoil with gusto, his attention rivetted to the piles of stony earth he's moving to one side. As he works, his muscles ripple beneath the tight teeshirt in the most wonderful way. I find myself staring at a point midway between his shoulder blades, watching the bright sunshine playing on the blue cotton, and the nape of his neck - I have always thought that a boy's neck is one of the most beautiful parts of his body - where his short, wheat-blond hair ends in a straight line, contrasting with his sun-bronzed skin. It's been one of the best summers I can remember this year, and he's clearly been working in the hot sun for a long time - he's as brown as a berry.
I feel a longing envy simply for the way he is able to move. He digs the spade in, thumps it with his left foot, then bends down and heaves the spadeful of dense earth aside with an ease which leaves me breathless. It takes me all my time to walk these days, even with the stick - it's been a long, long time since I was last able to touch my toes (and even longer since I was able to straighten up again without professional help) - but his movements are fluid, smooth, effortless: he is poetry in motion.
He is working facing slightly away from me, and each time he bends down, a strip of snow-white underpants becomes visible momentarily through a long rip in his blue jeans (there are symmetrical rips both sides, one under each cheek of his bum). With each stroke, the brief flash of white through the sky-blue denim mesmerises me. His jeans are of the type that young men like to wear these days to go to discos in - they're tight, faded, and extremely revealing, in that they conform to every contour of his body. I find myself very badly wanting to see his crotch. But the present view is quite acceptable, thank you.
I look at his legs. They are powerful, with thick, solid muscles developed from hard physical work down holes like this one, I suppose. I don't think this boy has to 'work out' in a gym. The faded denim hugs his thighs and calves all the way down his legs, without a single crease other than small ones at the backs of his knees, which vanish and re-appear as he moves, until the denim disappears in rumpled shadows under the brown leather boot tops. I can just see the tops of his boots from here, so the hole can't be very deep yet.
His bum is one of the roundest I've ever seen - oh god, it's perfect. The centre seam of his jeans separates the cheeks with its thick double-stitching, sinking into the crack of his arse so deeply that he surely must be conscious of it with every movement he makes. I watch - hypnotised - as he raises his left foot; pushes it down onto the spade; bends forward, opening the rip (there's the flash of white); straightens up and throws the dirt onto a pile; positions the spade again, and repeats the cycle. It makes me feel both tired and exhilarated just to watch him.
I smile sadly; although you would have great difficulty believing it, seeing me as I am today, there was a time when I had a body almost exactly like that boy's. Solid, hard, muscled, toned and tanned by the sun of five continents as I laboured on board the ships. As a man experienced in using a shovel - I must have moved tons and tons of coal, sugar, spices, whatever in my years at sea - part of my mind appreciates the economy of effort the boy is displaying with his technique. But only a small part of my mind - most of it is concentrating hard on that beautiful, round arse.
I am suddenly aware that he has turned around, and I am staring straight at his crotch. Reflexively, I take in every detail: the copper-coloured metal button at the top of his fly; the round, solid bulge beneath it thrown into sharp, three-dimensional relief by the sun on its upper surface and the deep shadow below; the way the zip curves round over the bulge, the blue denim at the sides of it even more faded and worn than elsewhere; the creases at the sides of his crotch, where the denim, stretched tightly over his muscular thighs changes direction sharply to become that bulge... I drink all of this in - and then, realizing what I am doing, glance up quickly to see if I have been caught. I have. The boy is looking at me, puzzled. Then he frowns slightly, looks down (I think to see if his zip is open). No doubt he looks back at me then, but the plastic flower is again suddenly the subject of my rapt attention.
I take a sip of my coffee, and wonder if the waitress misheard my order, as this bears not a passing resemblance to that noble drink. In fact to call this... this beverage... 'coffee' is an insult to the intelligence. With a grimace of distaste, I replace the cup in its (cracked) saucer and, in an attempt to lace it with copious amounts of sugar to conceal the taste, I invert the dispenser over the oily surface. There is certainly sugar in the container, but none comes out. In desperation I remove the top, pour misshapen lumps of the damp white crystals directly into the brew, and stir hopefully.
I angle my head slightly towards the window, as if I were looking up the street, and squint sideways to make sure the boy is no longer watching me. He isn't, and so I can safely rotate my head to look at him properly. He is now standing with one foot in the hole and the other up on the road surface, balancing a tin of tobacco on his thigh while he loads a cigarette paper. He puts the lid on the tin, places it on the road, and runs his tongue slowly along the gummed edge of the paper. Even this he manages to do incredibly sensuously. He spits out a bit of tobacco, and places the cylinder between his lips, lighting it, then drops the lighter onto the tabacco tin.
He is standing in profile to me, facing to my left, his left foot up on the road. He exhales blue smoke, and then - before I can look away - glances straight at me. His eyes are on me for only a moment, then he is looking straight ahead again. After a few seconds, something strange happens: he reverses the position of his feet - that is, he changes to standing on his left leg and raises the one further away from me up onto the road. He leans forward, resting his both forearms, one crossed on top of the other, on his thigh.
In this new position, his crotch is no longer hidden by his leg, and I have an impressive - and wonderful - profile view both of his arse and of his crotch. Was this done for my benefit? No of course not - I am an old man and of not the slightest interest to him. And yet, that momentary glance... was that to see if I was still looking at him?
I watch the boy smoking his cigarette. I watch as he inserts it between his beautiful lips, slowly closing them around it; as he draws the smoke in; as he removes the cigarette from his mouth with a finger and thumb, and as he purses his lips and blows a stream of blue smoke out into the summer air. I have not smoked for decades, but seeing the pleasure he is deriving from it makes me want one now.
Against my better judgement, I raise the 'coffee' to my lips and take a sip. The application of the sugar has made it marginally less poisonous, but it still fails to please. It is also going cold - an additional handicap for it - but I know that if I want to stay here much longer I'm going to have to finish it and, heaven forbid, have another. I wonder if the tea is any better.
The boy has finished his cigarette and is once again slaving heroically with the spade. It's getting hotter outside - I can feel the power of the sun through the glass. Darker streaks are beginning to stain his teeshirt at each armpit and between his shoulder blades, and his skin is gradually becoming shiny with a film of sweat.
Once more he catches me by surprise by glancing directly at me for a moment, but then he continues with his work without breaking his rhythm - which leaves me wondering if it was my imagination.
After a while, he puts the shovel down. Crossing his arms in front of him, he grabs the bottom of his teeshirt, pulls it out of his jeans, and then - very slowly - pulls it up over his head and off. It is like watching a slow-motion film: his movements are smooth, luxurious, and sensual. He takes the inside-out teeshirt in one hand and uses it like a towel to wipe the sweat from his face and torso.
He is still in profile, and I can see his well-developed pecs, and flat stomach. There is not an ounce of surplus fat on him. He picks up the spade again, props it against the edge of the hole and - turning fully to face me - crosses his legs at the ankles and leans against the spade handle to rest. I know that he might look at me at any moment, but I can not tear my eyes away from him. This is the first time I have seen him full-on, and the effect on me is devastating.
And then, to my utter astonishment, he looks directly at me, and smiles.
I melt. Completely and utterly, I melt. Oh my dear god he is so beautiful. His eyes are indeed blue: they are the colour of the sea in the Virgin Islands, of the deepest summer sky, of... of... of heaven. He looks into my eyes, and he can see my soul. He knows what I am, he knows I am desperately in love with him, he knows I want him so very very badly - and he is letting me look. It is his gift to me. He is allowing an old man the pleasure of looking at a beautiful boy. I gaze at him, a smile of gratitude on my lips, my heart aching and my lungs burning with a desire my body has not a snowball's chance in hell of following up on. I feel a yearning, a longing so intense it hurts me. He stands with his thumbs hooked into his jeans pockets, resting, at ease, allowing me to look uninterruptedly at his heart-rendingly beautiful face, his perfect, youthful, gorgeous body. He is so beautiful.
His face and body shimmer and break up as tears well in my eyes and run down my cheeks. The only things that have done that to me in the past have been sunsets, the face of a Puma, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia.
I stand up, go out of the cafe, walk up to him, and take him in my arms. I feel his solid muscles against me, as I lick his pecs, running my tongue gently over the dark brown nipples, and then upwards, over the blond hairs on his smooth skin, up his neck, his chin - feeling the rough stubble there. And then my mouth meets his and, slowly - so very, very slowly - I kiss him full on the lips. He closes his eyes, encircles me with his strong arms, pulling me closer, returning the kiss. I run my fingers through his hair, smell his boy-smell, feel his hardening cock against my own. I slide my hands down his strong back, and my fingers grip the cheeks of that beautiful, round arse. I devour him...
"Do you want more coffee?" The waitress taps me on the shoulder.
My eyes focus on her moon-like face. I smile at her, and ask her for tea this time. She slouches off towards the kitchen.
The bitch. The fucking bitch. The bastard fucking woman - I wipe my tears away, get my breathing back under control and swallow hard, then I look out at the hole again. The boy is picking up the shovel once more. He seems unaware of my presence now. Did he see me crying? Oh god I hope not. Please, don't let him have seen me crying.
The tea, when it finally arrives, is quite horrendous. It's worse than the coffee. It has clearly been stewing for hours, with extra tea bags being added at regular intervals, and even the sugar ploy won't save it. But of course I drink it... even though I can feel it destroying my few remaining teeth with alarming rapidity.
The boy goes on digging. The sun beats down on his broad, tanned back, and the pile of earth gets bigger and longer as he gradually works his way along the trench. The afternoon is wearing on - people are hurrying home from work, and the cafe will be closing before long.
I feel a surge of alarm as the boy climbs out of the hole, and walks off across the road. Is he leaving for the day? Will he be here tomorrow? He appears to have dug the trench out completely, so is his part of the work completed now? But he hasn't taken his teeshirt. I follow his retreating back, and see him enter the shopping arcade just along the street. Ah, there are public toilets in there - he's probably going for a pee.
A few minutes later he reappears, and he is carrying something. He doesn't go to the hole, but instead he comes into the cafe, and walks to my table. Without a word, he places in front of me a small parcel wrapped in newspaper, then he looks at me for a moment, smiles gently, and says, "this is for you." He doesn't wait for a reply - I'm too stunned to speak anyway - and in a moment he is gone. I watch him collect his things from inside the little tent, then, without looking back at me, he leaves.
The hole looks lonely without him, and I am even lonlier. It is as if a part of me has gone away. I stare at the hole, feeling sad.
And then I remember the parcel. I pick it up - it is soft. Carefully I unwrap the newspaper, and for the second time today the tears come as I recognise the contents. Lying nestled in the newspaper, and folded neatly, is a pair of white briefs. Unconcerned with what any onlookers might think, I raise them to my face and breathe in the boy-scent. My tears soak into the white cotton. Later, I carefully wrap them up again and put them into my pocket.
I pick up my walking-stick and, with difficulty, stand. The waitress reappears and I pay for the tea and coffee. "Everything all right for you sir?" She asks, not caring in the slightest whether it was or it wasn't.
"Oh yes, perfectly, thank you," I reply.
I make my way out of the cafe, take a long look at the hole, and smile, before beginning the hard walk home - my fingers wrapped lovingly around the parcel in my pocket. I won't come back tomorrow - that would spoil it somehow. I have my memories...
... and the gift from a beautiful, beautiful boy.