I don't think I had seen anything quite like him.
I was walking home, along the street which runs parallel to the garish multistorey car park. The traffic went past me in blips, every passenger a different ethnicity, like a BBC mock-up of what it wants to believe society is really like. The couple in the brand new Mini looked nowhere near well off enough to afford a brand new Mini, but easily wayward enough to have chosen one in such an unsuitable shade of brown. And then, as I approached the traffic lights, I caught up with him.
He was a tall thin guy, surely no older than twenty-five, in long white cotton robes that came down to the ground. They practically shone in the sun so you almost had to look away. That intensity was matched by the glare coming off the fine white skullcap he was wearing, like a lace teacosy. A straggly beard stayed close to his jawline with seemingly no ambition to progress beyond it. On his feet were trainers - white again, the lurid white of trainers that have never touched a pavement. The whole ensemble fitted in perfectly with the pale complexion of his face, and I was struck because I would never have expected him to be white. If that wasn't odd enough, his right hand played idly with his Blackberry, a squat grey brick that might have been cutting edge six years ago.
The slobby middle-aged man walking in the other direction past us - striped t-shirt stretched by a belly that hadn't been there when it was first bought, beer can gripped like a thing far more precious than it was - stared at him as if he'd fallen to earth from another planet. Personally, I wasn't sure which of them had fallen from another planet. Maybe it was both of them. Maybe it was me.
Watching him fidget and wait for the lights to change I got that feeling I sometimes get, of being a minor character in somebody else's novel. Because somebody really ought to be writing a novel about the man in white - even just seeing him for a minute I felt like there was a story there and I suspected it was better than mine. I wanted to know what the attire was in aid of and where he was going, whether he was married, what his house was like. And nobody would ever have wanted to know that about the man in the striped t-shirt, the couple in the brown Mini or even me, boiling in my suit that's slightly too big these days, wearing my huge, absurd headphones.
Some people are like that. You meet them for minutes and you feel like you're in the presence of - not quite greatness, but noteworthiness. It made me think of the one time I met Paul, because that was the way with him too.
Last year Kelly and I went to visit my aunt in Bristol during her convalescence, near the beginning of that agonising period which started with the operation and only really ended with the all clear a couple of weeks ago. We strolled up Whiteladies Road, a long grand street I only recalled from childhood memories, most of them planted by stories my parents told and not things I genuinely remembered. So for instance I had been reliably informed that it was there that I saw and cried at ET as a platinum blonde eight year old, and if you asked me I would repeat it as gospel, but I only really have somebody else's word for that. So many things in our lives that we think are fact are only flimsy transcripts in somebody else’s handwriting, but we believe them anyway because otherwise we’d have to accept that we don’t know almost anything.
At the top of Whiteladies Road, the old department store had been converted into an indoor bazaar full of independent stallholders, and the three of us had a wander round. The wares on offer were much as you would expect: some retro porcelain here, the second-hand books even Oxfam wouldn’t take there, PVC handbags and tie-dye, clothes from labels no one had heard of. A Caribbean café offered jerk chicken and I was almost tempted to try it. And there, on the other side, was the oddest stall selling perfume. Under the counter a sign said “Spritz Fragrances… makes perfect scents”. I winced; the pun was bad enough, but the tacky font was even worse.
All the display stands were at forty-five degrees to everything else in the bazaar, which was presumably meant to make it look different but instead was only jarring. We wandered through, finding a selection of apothecary jars on the shelves in the corner, all labelled. “Calvin Klein – Obsession” said one, “Dolce & Gabbana” another. They all seemed to be knock-offs or replicas, in a bazaar which itself was like a low rent parody of the kind of fashionable markets you find in Spitalfields. That was the point when we hesitated too long, and the would-be perfumer descended on us.
He was a tall, striking-looking man with coffee-coloured skin and a close-cropped beard. The thing I noticed about him first was his suit. Some people only own one suit and virtually never wear it – it is bought out of necessity, as cheaply as possible, and often doesn’t fit. This man clearly owned such a suit and from the looks of things wore it every day. The trousers were shiny with wear, though they might have been like that even when they were first taken off the hanger several years ago. I don’t know what the opposite of luxury is, but that suit was it.
“Hi, I’m Paul. Can I interest you in anything?” he said, gravitating straight towards my aunt. He had a clipped accent which could have been American or could have been Caribbean, I couldn’t really place it.
“Oh no, we’re just browsing.” she said.
“Well, what sort of smells do you like?”
This seemed like an open invitation to have the sort of long conversation I had already ruled out. My aunt told Paul the sort of scent she liked, and he launched into a long complicated explanation of fragrances which appeared, as far as I could tell, to have very little to do with anything I had read on the subject. I allowed myself to drift to the edge of our tiny crowd, but there was something about the man that wouldn’t let me break away. He should have been a charlatan. The superficial judgments I’m so partial to told me he was a charlatan. But somehow my instincts were saying something else.
“I wouldn’t say I’m a healer.” he said, “But I can tell what you need. You might not know what you want, but I think I can see what you need. You need some healing, don’t you?”
I don’t know how he could tell, but he was so nice to my aunt, who was trying so hard to hide her nervousness in crowds and her baggage, figurative and literal.
“Yes, I suppose I do.” she said.
For the next fifteen minutes or so Paul was a blur; I don’t know which worked faster, his hands or his mouth. He dabbed her wrist with stopper after stopper, mixing and blending, and he kept talking to her. Did she want something a bit lighter? No problem. Or a grassy note in there perhaps? He knew just the thing. You can go into the centre of my hometown any given Saturday lunchtime and get harassed by a crazy, preached at by an evangelist or rendered guilty by an aggressively marketed good cause, but this was something altogether more rare; we felt kind of special.
I have a feeling, looking back on it, that Paul knew that my aunt wasn’t in the market for perfume and I’m not sure that’s what he was trying to sell her. I think what he was giving her instead, without charge, was kindness and attention. And for those fifteen minutes – though there was still an element of hustle about Paul, the suit and the accent, probably – my poor recuperating aunt felt like she was receiving an individual consultation in Liberty rather than standing in a tatty arcade in Bristol with fake fragrance building up on her skinny arm. He gave her something back that I hadn’t even figured out was missing, and it was quite something to watch.
When we left, we bought a soap dish from Paul which we didn’t really need, because I would gladly have paid him for what he did for her. For Kelly, too – he told her that her aura was so warm he could barely stand next to her, and that he had a sense that great things were going to happen to her over the next few years. And I was trying to look unconvinced, but I couldn’t carry it off.
Afterwards we drifted upstairs, where the more gentrified stalls were: a photographer, some painters, a lady making jewellery. And when we went back down my aunt tried on some clothes, eventually picking up a tasteful black and grey top which didn’t quite look like anything else she owned. “I can wear it for special occasions.” she said, and I found myself hoping there would be many of them. I didn’t know back then that she would move to Reading and be given the all clear, I didn’t know she would end up in a huge flat with more space than she knew how to fill, her own bathroom, an enormous fridge freezer. I didn’t know she would get her own washing machine, something she never had in all the three decades she was stuck in that bedsit. None of us knew any of those things, we just knew that special occasions weren’t something my aunt’s life had been full of, and whenever we talked about bucking that trend there was a feeling of putting a brave face on things.
Everything about Paul should have been wrong: the patter; the suit; the font; the professed ability to sense auras; everything. The other ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I would have thought he was a fraud. Even to this day, I don’t know why I didn’t. When my aunt was buying the top, Kelly was over there talking to him again - about their black roots, about where their ancestors came from (America in both cases, as it happens), about all the things we just don’t know. You got the impression you could have talked to him all day. That’s the thing about people with charisma; they’re dangerous, they make you forget yourself. This is how wars start I tried to tell myself. This is how vulnerable people get parted from their life savings. But it wasn’t working.
I still have Paul’s business card in my wallet. Kelly and I talked about how, when my aunt was better, we’d go back and pay for her to have a personalised fragrance made up. But then she moved to Reading and it never happened. When I type Paul’s website into my browser, nothing comes up. The domain expired and it hasn’t been renewed. I searched on his full name too. It drew a blank, and his was a far from common name. Even the website for the arcade has a different shop now in the location where his used to be. It’s almost as if he never existed, to the extent where I do have to stop and remind myself that he did. I can’t help wondering where he went, whether he’s plying the same trade somewhere else, trying something new or whether he’s given up. And I find I’m slightly sad that I’ll never know; I would definitely have read the novel he was in.
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