This was not the first thing I knew about him, or the second, or the third. For many months, he masqueraded like a lover of other things: of serial compositions, old Penguin book covers, Bauhaus furniture and Belgian white beer. He showed me what he thought I wanted to see. He wooed me with picture postcards and ice cream in the park. It took him a fortnight to bend over and solemnly lick the vanilla drip off my bared thigh on a summer’s afternoon. When I thanked him, he pretended as if nothing of any note had happened. But then, I was young and didn’t know that I was supposed to giggle and act kittenish. He was quiet; it cost him a lot to talk. He made a monumental effort, thinking it was what was required of him. I wished he’d shut up and sit peacefully, but was too polite to say so.
Instead, we tolerated our mutual efforts with the grim determination of odd people who pretend to be normal in the vain hope that the other party will either be too stupid to notice or too smitten to care. Of course, that never works out, but it is an indication of the severity of the oddness. The ritual sacrifice of one’s persona to keep loneliness at bay.
The first time we had sex, it was spectacularly awful. I suspected him of going through an entire catalogue checklist of mediocre porn, all effected with a studied expertise that made me think I wasn’t really meant to be in the room at all. Immaculate technique and not an iota of passion. Which, unsurprisingly, did nothing for the emergence of mine. I wrote it off as ‘first time sex syndrome.’
The second time wasn’t any better, except now I could spot where he was in the checklist, having lived through it once and possessing annoyingly good pattern recognition. It was dawning on me that perhaps I should either call it quits or hunt for hidden cameras once he’d fallen asleep.
On the Sunday afternoon I was preparing to tell him it wasn’t going to work out, we were walking down New Oxford Street and passed James Smith & Sons, fine purveyors of umbrellas, walking canes and riding crops. Momentarily distracted from my unpleasant task of breaking up with him, I stopped and looked in the window.
I caught his reflection in the glass and, past it, a neat row of canes, crops and whips. It was as if I was standing next to a different person. He wasn’t smiling or leering or sly. He was suddenly wearing the expression of a passionate man.
“I’ve always wondered what kind of people shop here,” I said.
“People like me,” he replied, meeting my reflected gaze.
“Do you have a favourite?”
He nodded his head towards a simple Malacca cane. “I’m a traditionalist.”
“I should have guessed.”
“Is this where you give me the push?”
I once loved a man who loved canes, and he made me his Joan of Arc.