Paul’s Place by Bethany Wales

Photo by Cloris Ying on Unsplash

Colin knocks on my door at 6.56 pm.

I spot him through the window at least 10 minutes before our date is due to start. His too-big overcoat is drawn tightly around his skinny torso, and his hands are rooted in his pockets. I watch him through the blinds as he approaches my door, rocks on the balls of his feet for a moment, then leans in, as if scrutinizing a notch in the paintwork.  

Escorts don’t get taken to dinner often. It’s understandable. Sex for an hour is easier than an hour of small talk.

Have you changed your hair? he says, glancing around as I press the door shut and sweep him into the hallway.   

No, I say. Perhaps you just notice it more when I’m wearing clothes.

His lips don’t twitch.

I’ve booked us a table at a small Italian restaurant directly opposite my apartment. The owner, Paul and I sometimes exchange pleasantries as we sit smoking on our respective doorsteps. He has a thing for Marlboro Reds.

He beams at us as we walk through the door. If he thinks it’s strange I’m having dinner with a man almost three times my age then he doesn’t show it.

I wait for Colin to order a bottle of wine, and when he doesn’t I ask for a house red and pour us both a large glass. He swirls the liquid around the bowl, then carefully sets it on a coaster. 

I scan the walls for a conversation starter. An oil painting of a little girl holding a peach hangs left side heavy behind Colin’s head. Beside it, a smoke alarm protrudes from the beige wallpaper, red light blinking. 

Are you a United fan? I find myself asking. 

Instead of answering, he takes my hand. His eyes remain fixed on the tablecloth and when I run my thumb across his knuckles, he squeezes me gently.

I have cancer.

My lips part at this.

In my throat, he goes on. Stage three, apparently.

Fuck Colin I-

My dad had the same.

I search for the right response. Failing to locate anything suitable, I shake my head gravely.

I thought it was tonsillitis, you know.

He leans forward and wipes his palms over his eyes. 

But apparently I had my tonsils out as a kid. Don’t even remember it.

That’s strange, I say. 

They’re going to cut part of my tongue out on Friday, see if they can’t keep me going for a few more months. Did you know they rebuild your tongue from chunks of your thigh?

No, I say.

Paul appears with a pen, and Colin orders a steak. I had planned on the beef cheek casserole, but can’t bring myself to ask for it. I order the veggie lasagne instead.

After a moment Paul looks up from scribbling on his hand, eyebrows raised expectantly.

No appetizers? 

Colin flicks a dismissive hand in his direction, and Paul smiles at me before slipping around the corner.

Colin’s eyes lock onto mine and I instinctively look away. 

How old are you? 

Nearly 22, I say. Is it rude to ask you the same question? 

He grunts and leans back in his chair. Neither of us says anything for a while. An espresso machine frothing milk drones in the background.  

You know they’ve got a cinema up at the Royal Vic? he says finally.

In the hospital?

Yeah, for the kiddies that have to stay in I suppose.

I want to ask if he has kids but the words stick to my lips.

Does your family know? About the diagnosis, I mean.

He sniffs and shakes his head.

Nah, I only found out this afternoon. Told the wife I had a last-minute darts tournament tonight. Gave you a call.

He meets my eyes and frowns as if seeing me for the first time.

You really are gorgeous. Wow.

Thanks, I say, and bat my eyelashes in a pantomime attempt at flirting. 

When our food arrives I make a show of inhaling and smacking my lips and tuck my napkin into my collar to make him laugh. He doesn’t, but raises his eyebrows in acknowledgement of the gesture.

We make small talk as we eat – food, his office job, the good weather. He asks me about my degree, and I invent assignments for a course that I’m not even sure my school offers. 

He eats slowly, pushing morsels of meat around his plate before raising them to his mouth. I wonder if it hurts him to swallow.

Once we’ve cleared our plates I wrap both my hands around his. They’re cold, rough around the joints. I lean down and breathe warm air onto his palms as if trying to fog up a window, and he pulls my fingers to his lips in return.

Paul hovers nearby. I smile at him, and he fetches the bill without offering us dessert.

How long do we have? Colin asks as he tucks a £5 note under his empty wine glass.

No rush, I say. 

The metro stops running at 11, he says.

A soft pause.

Your email said until 9. 

He clicks his tongue against the roof of his mouth when I say this. 

Outside the night is clear and cold. Stars litter the sky like luminous freckles.

Colin thrusts his tongue into my mouth before I have time to close the front door. I bury thoughts of the bulbous tumour lurking in his throat and pull him into the bedroom by his tie. His eyes are unblinking as he pushes me onto the bed, tearing off his shirt in one frenzied gesture. 

He doesn’t even bother with my clothes, and neither of us says a word as he begins to bore into me with relentless determination, his face contorted as if in pain. Guttural barks cough from his open mouth, and when he comes he collapses onto me, trembling and gasping for air. I stroke his damp hair.

He doesn’t want me to join him in the shower. When he returns he’s wrapped in a towel, a wad of cash in his hand.

Almost forgot, he says.

For a moment I think about telling him not to worry about it. I glance at the clock. 9:12. I tuck the notes under my pillow.

When I ask him how he’s feeling he rubs his face with a palm and says “well, you know.” He taps out a text in that squinting, one-fingered way old people do, and pulls on the rest of his clothes without looking over at me. When I go to kiss him goodbye he turns his face slightly so that my lips graze his cheek.

Emptiness fills the room when he’s gone. I watch him through the blinds as he crosses the road, pauses to check his phone, then continues out of sight. I stand suspended in silence, and the walls and the fireplace and the wooden floor beneath me dissolve.

I replay the evening as I lie in bed that night, searching for a feeling to file it under. The events seem muffled, far away. I sleep with my knees drawn up to my chest, the wad of cash resting under my pillow.

The next morning I wake with a lurch, gasping as the ceiling rocks into focus. Relief floods my body at the sight of my bedroom, and I untangle fistfuls of damp bedding from my fingers. 

I move the notes into my cash safe without counting them, and busy myself with coffee and filling out a GP registration form, which has been gathering dust in a kitchen drawer since I moved in last summer. 

It’s 10 am when I step outside. Saturday. The sidewalk is warm under my bare toes and I wiggle them against the gritty tarmac. 

Paul is lounging in a puddle of sunshine on the restaurant doorstep. In one hand he grips a ragged paperback, a lit cigarette resting in the other. When he sees me he swings the book through the air like a salute, shading his eyes, and calls: good morning!

Warmth trickles down my arms and collects in my fingertips, and I’m hit with a sudden urge to collapse against his chest, scream into his t-shirt, and tell him about Colin and cancer and the cash sitting in my safe. 

Instead, I lift a heavy hand, return his smile, and call out good morning.

About The Author

Bethany Wales is an author and journalist living in Austin, Texas. Originally from the UK, she specialises in writing investigative journalism and creative non-fiction about the sex industry, intimacy, and social injustice. She has two cats, one husband, and no patience for prejudice.

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