I came up and out of the underground station into the busy Brixton Road. It was 9 o’clock on a humid, overcast summer evening. As well as being a bustling place of departure and arrival, the precinct in front of the station seemed also to be a preferred place for the locals to meet and sit and socialise.
I was looking for an Eritrean restaurant called Adulis. Here I was to meet a woman I’d met two days ago on a dating website. This new dating website is proving amazingly fruitful, which surprises me not least because it was the first time I’ve been truthful on one. So far we’d exchanged messages, this woman and I, mainly learned ones about books we liked and different kinds of fountain pen ink. Then I’d told her I was coming to London, and she’d said to come and see her while I was up. We could talk some more about fountain pen ink, she said, or we could have great sex. Whatever I liked.
I hadn’t fully intended going to see her. I’d been to The Spectator Summer At Home party the night before (I was glad I went; it was the best for years) and I’d spent the entire next afternoon and early evening standing outside a pub in Old Queen Street called the Two Chairmen. I hadn’t eaten a thing all day and I hadn’t been to bed. And now I was drunk again. I knew I was drunk because a friend had come over in a cab after work for a drink, and I could barely speak, so he hadn’t stayed long. I knew I was drunk because I was getting disparaging or curious or amused looks from all sorts of people. I knew I was drunk because I imagined I was beyond the pale of civil society and was moreover glad about that. Also, I felt calmly judicious, as though there existed between me and the world the kind of mediating two-second time delay which I believe they use for live radio phone-in shows.
It was at this point that another message from her arrived. ‘Hallo you,’ it said. ‘Come and see me. Adulis. Eritrean restaurant. 44 Brixton Road. 7-9.30.’ Adulis, I knew, was the seaport of the ancient kingdom of Axum and a slave emporium. But where this modern eponymous equivalent was located on the Brixton Road I had no idea. I looked around the busy station forecourt for someone to ask for directions, and chose an elderly (about my age, in truth) black man standing alone beside the road safety barrier.
‘Excuse me,’ I said. ‘Have you got any idea where Adulis the Eritrean restaurant is?’
I said it fully expecting to see my inebriated state reflected back at me via this man’s uneasiness or contempt. He turned slowly to take me in, as if he was operating on the same two-second time delay that I was. But instead of contempt or unease, I found myself confronted by a face of deep kindness, of infinite patience, of hard-won wisdom. It was the face of a man who might have had them once upon a time but was now entirely without rancour or preconceptions. It was the face of one who has seen far too much of human variety and good and evil even to begin to judge a stupidly sloshed white man in a business suit.
‘Adulis,’ he said, narrowing his eyebrows and racking his brains. My problem was now his problem, it seemed. His acceptance of me plus my need was total. And his determination to help in any way he could had about it the quality of a humble father’s love for an overbearing son. There was, too, even that studied neutrality that fathers use to make their love more palatable to callous youth. What fine and refreshing people the people of Brixton are, I thought, if this man is anything to go by.
‘Adulis,’ he said, looking very anxiously and carefully up the Brixton Road, first one way then the other. ‘Adulis, Adulis, Adulis, Adulis,’ he intoned, as if it was a name he dimly recognised, and which he felt he certainly ought to have remembered, if only to be of assistance on occasions such as this. But, alas, it wouldn’t come. Then, sensibly, for he realised he had to do the thinking for both of us, even in this small matter, he said, ‘Do you have a street number?’ I did, I said. I fumbled and fished for my phone and finally found it, got the message up on the phone screen and handed it to him.
And while he closely read it, I watched his politely puzzled brow, and his murmuring lips, and I thought that here, unexpectedly, outside Brixton station, was the kindest and best and most civilised person whom I’d encountered for a very long time. And I was happy for myself that ten pints of lager or so had made me calm enough to recognise it.