I’m in a coffee shop. The blue one on the corner of Old Compton Street and Frith Street. I come here a lot. I like it here. It’s authentic. As if it’s been here for years. I don’t like the fake bohemia of Caffé Nero and Costa. If I come to Soho I like to be somewhere with a bit of history. So it’s The Stockpot not Balans. Comptons not The Village. The Colony (RIP) not The Groucho. And always this coffee shop. But what I also like about it is that you can always get a seat. I go for the corner one. By the window. It’s the perfect place to watch Soho life drift by.
Today the street is packed. There’re men with goatees, men with beards, men in jackets, men in coats, fit men, overweight men, camp men, butch men, men chatting, men laughing, men texting, solitary men, groups of men, cruising men. It’s Men Heaven.
But inside the coffee shop it’s quiet. Just a straight couple and me. The only sound, the gentle whirr of the coffee grinder and the news update coming from the tinny radio. I stir my coffee and open my notebook. Then the opening bars of a song. It’s Torch by Soft Cell. And as Marc sings, in that slightly off-key way that was once his trademark, his lyrics delicately walking the line between pure camp and basic emotion, I have a flashback moment.
It’s 1982 and I’m in Pete’s Record Shack.
Pete is the town’s DJ. He’s bisexual. Ten years older than me, with blonde hair and tight jeans, and whenever I come in he smiles at me knowingly. On this particular day I’m flicking through the vinyl, past Duran Duran (too straight), Spandau Ballet (too safe), Visage (too much), looking for my favourite group. Pete’s watching me. I can feel it. Then, on the pretence of stacking the rows, he squeezes past me, rubbing his crotch against my arse. It’s exciting. But I’m not quite sure what I should do. Pete rubs and I flick and there’s not a word said between us. It’s been going on like this for weeks and today my teenage erection is about to burst through my Farah slacks. Then, seconds from a damp patch, he shows me a record that’s just come in, one he thinks I’ll like. The cover is purple with a strange androgynous figure reclining across it. I buy it and rush home filled with excitement, because not only am I the first person in town to own it, but I’ve also now got Pete’s number. Thus Soft Cell and sex would be forever inextricably linked.
But that was many years ago. Now vinyl’s gone. Soft Cell are finished and Pete? Well. The last I heard he was still living in Weston-Super-Mare, married with three grown-up kids.
I put my coffee down and I look outside. Suddenly a blast of icy cold air fills the room.
‘Hello darlin’!’ shrieks a campy voice behind me.
‘Where’ve you been?’ asks the assistant.
‘What for? A holiday?’
‘I told you Brazil!’
‘No, where on your body?’
‘Oh. Me bum dear. Now the fanny’s done I thought I’d start on the bum.’
I turn around. It’s Angie. Sitting on the stool by the door. She’s dressed in her usual attire; black leggings, fur scarf draped around a bolero jacket, Chanel handbag with big gold clasps, leaning on her silver-tipped walking stick, looking like a Hollywood star.
‘Oh it’s you,’ she says cordially, her expression neither friendly nor unfriendly. ‘How are you?’
‘Good,’ I reply carefully, and we chat, for a while, but it’s just pleasantries. She asks me how I am. I ask her how she is. But the stilted conversation quickly runs its course.
It’s strange. I’ve known Angie for a few years and we were quite friendly at one point. But now I don’t live in Soho we rarely come across each other and when we do, we’re polite, but that’s as far as it goes. It’s as if I’m just another acquaintance. Which is just the way it goes I suppose. Some friends are for a while. Some, for the moment. Still, it feels awkward. And I feel a bit hurt. Like I don’t want to be here anymore. So I say goodbye and step outside onto the man-packed street.
I walk past Caffé Nero, Janus, heading toward Wardour Street where I’m due to meet a friend. Halfway down the street, as I pass my old shop, someone shouts my name. It’s Danny. One of the local pimps.
‘Nice to see you man,’ he says cheerfully. ‘Where you bin?’
‘Hi Danny! Oh I’ve been around. What about you?’
‘I’ve bin ‘inside’.’
‘Oh dear,’ I say sympathetically. ‘What for? Drugs?’
‘No, inside the house! Because of the weather!’
‘Oh! Sorry. I thought, err, never mind.’
We say our goodbyes and I continue on down the street. I have a few minutes to spare so I walk down Brewer Street, into the bookshop on the corner of Walkers Court. I browse the pop books, the art books, biographies, and watch as a man ventures downstairs to whatever naughtiness lies beneath. Then my mobile vibrates. It’s a text. From my friend Jonathan. ‘I’m here!’ So I make my way to the Duke of Wellington; past a gang of hoodies loitering suspiciously at the back of Prowler, past a strip joint and brassy blonde woman beckoning me in, past the ‘queen filled’ windows of Rupert Street, until I’m outside. Jonathan asks if I’m hungry, which I am, so we walk back down the street to the Vietnamese restaurant on Greek Street.
I met Jonathan about the same time as I met Angie. But on Myspace. And as well as being my creative writing teacher he was also my neighbour when I lived here. It was an interesting period for us both, although we both left under dramatic circumstances and we reminisce about that time, the conversation continuing in the upstairs bar in Comptons where we talk about Jonathan’s debut novel (London Triptych) that’ll be published later this year. Having read it in draft form and loved it, I ask him about how he planned it, how long it took, his writing habits, all the little details I find fascinating when talking to other writers. Then I tell him about my writing and how tense I’ve been, not knowing what I should write about next. But then I tell him that maybe I’m just being a big drama queen and he laughs and invites me back to his writing class in February.
Outside the street is even busier, the crowds more raucous, and we decide to end the night back at the coffee shop, passing dancing Krishnas, drunken businessmen and six blonde girls with pink fluffy headbands and weather-defying minis, their thighs turning pinky-blue with the cold.
We take seats outside. Jonathan orders the drinks. And as we watch the evening crowds I think about this column and what I should write about. And then I think, ‘Maybe I should just treat it like my diary and see where it leads.’