Ezra sat at his shop counter, tapping a pen on the paper and frowning in concentration at the crossword. Five Across was defeating him. The bell over the door tinkled as someone came in. He looked up to see a dark haired young man in sunglasses peering around in the gloom.
"Hi, Ezra," the young man said, coming up to the counter.
"Good morning, Tony," Ezra said.
The young man smiled, took off the sunglasses and held out a hand for Ezra to shake.
"I'm sorry I'm a bit late, the traffic was terrible."
"Please don't apologise, it's almost impossible to drive around the city, I know. Well, is everything OK for you to start?"
Tony looked round again.
"Sure. Can I see the other room again?"
Ezra took him through to the back room. He shook his head in mock amazement at the old books, and poked round a bit. Dust swept into his face when he incautiously lifted a pile of books too quickly. He put them down rather more carefully, coughing.
"Right," he said. "There's no problem, let's get started, and my usual price for rooms this size we've already discussed. What I want for today is to get everything boxed up and put -- somewhere -- and get the walls washed down. Tomorrow I'll do the ceilings and sand and varnish the floors. Thursday I'll do the walls and woodwork, and see what needs finishing on Friday. I figure on being done by Friday lunchtime, and then everything can be moved back in on Monday. That timetable seem OK to you?"
Ezra nodded. Tony had done a few shops in the area, and everyone said he was organised, fast and most importantly, didn't try to cheat people. If he said he'd do something, it got done. Within a short space of time he found himself boxing books and carrying them in a seemingly endless amount up the stairs to the flat.
"You won't be able to turn round in here," Tony grinned. "At least it's only for a few days, right?"
The disassembled shelves ended up in the back hall, making it difficult to even get to the stairs. Then Ezra was tactfully shunted out of the way, and the rooms were swept and cleaned, and the dilapidated paint work thoroughly washed down with sugar soap. A depressing number of cracks and small holes were found in the plaster, all of which had to be carefully filled with putty. They discovered a shared addiction to various TV programmes, and Tony actually had to take a break to more forcefully argue against Ezra's views on the characters in 24.
"Kim Bauer," Tony said with great venom, "doesn't have the intelligence God gave a whelk."
"She's stressed. And she misses her mother," Ezra said.
"Did you actually watch her flailing at that trap? Please. Not to mention going into that shelter with the crazy guy. Not something showing great intelligence."
"Well, it turned out all right," Ezra said. "The one I'm sorry for is Sherry Palmer - she's not very well treated, is she?"
Tony gave him a look of silent horror, and got back to work. By the end of the day Ezra was feeling useless, and was compensating by making cups of tea every hour on the hour. Squeezing past the shelves to get up the stairs to the loo seemed to amuse Tony, although Ezra suspected that he just found the concept of so many books in one place to be eccentric and funny. Finally the rooms were judged fit to be redecorated. Tony was filthy from head to toe. He ran a blackened hand through his cobwebby hair and grimaced.
"I'm wrecked. I'm picking the sander up very early tomorrow; I'll be here by 8AM at the latest. Is that OK?"
"Oh yes. It's not like I have to come far, after all."
He showed Tony out and stopped short in amazement when he saw the car Tony was dumping his bag of cleaning materials into. It was a beautiful, gleaming open topped vintage car, massively built, with an enormous bonnet that presumably housed something more than the average family car's did. Tony laughed at his face.
"Isn't she a beauty? She was my great-granddad's, and was just sitting under a tarp in the garage till I rescued her. You would not believe how much I've spent on getting this baby restored and keeping her running. She's a 1926 Bentley 6 litre engine. Most of them were racing green, but my great-granddad had the sense to look for a black one."
"How did you fix it up?"
"I found all sorts of stuff on the Internet. You wouldn't believe the number of hits you get if you enter '1926 Bentley' into Google."
Ezra tried to look like he understood the reference.
"You were expecting a white Ford Transit, weren't you?" Tony said slyly.
Ezra gave a guilty smile.
"Not my style, Ezra. Really not my style. See you tomorrow."
* * *
The next day brought more filth and noise to the shop than it had seen for a long time. The floors were sanded, dust went everywhere, and Ezra wondered what the point of all the cleaning the day before had been. He wondered if the floors would really dry in a couple of hours, as Tony promised.
"That's what it says on the tin," Tony laughed. "Are you saying there's no truth in advertising? For shame, such cynicism."
Having explained that you didn't just put polyurethane onto bare wood unless you liked blotches, Tony went off to collect the paint while the wood grain filler dried. Ezra hoped he was doing the right thing in redecorating. It wasn't cheap, and it wasn't as if he had hoards of customers coming in. Well, it was too late now.
It was difficult to get the paint in the back door, and he wondered why they hadn't just brought it in through the front, after Tony went back into the shop and varnished, then later resanded the varnished floor. It seemed like rather a waste. By the end of the day, however, he had two brilliantly gleaming floors and sparklingly white ceilings, and the walls had been brushed down again. Already his shop looked like new. It was worth the money, he thought. It had been very shabby. Tony hauled the sander out to the car and bounced lithely back into the hallway.
"What do you think?" he asked. "Not a bad start, if I say so myself."
"It certainly looks different already," Ezra said. "I'll have to help you with the painting tomorrow, I feel so useless watching you do all the work."
"That's what you're paying me for," Tony said mildly. "You can pass me stuff, how's that? Don't think I'm giving you a discount though."
Ezra laughed at him and waved him into the downstairs kitchenette.
"I'm going over to my parents' this evening; I'll be going past a few kosher shops. Do you want me to pick up anything?" Tony asked, happily accepting yet another mug of tea.
"What?" Ezra said, the smile fading. "Is that why you made a joke about money? That's not very --"
"Hey! Fuck it, you're a suspicious bastard. You go to the West Central Liberal Synagogue like my Auntie Irene, you idiot. Don't tell me she hasn't told you every last detail about me. She goes on enough about you."
"Oh, sorry," Ezra said, his righteous anger quickly replaced by embarrassment. "You're Irene's nephew? Um. I thought -- well, she gave me the impression her nephew Anthony was about twelve years old. She's very proud of your school record, apparently."
"That's Auntie Irene," Tony said dryly. "Me, I was disappointed to find you don't go round singing like an angel all day. You should hear her 'That nice Mr Fell, such a lovely singer. And such a lovely reading voice, why they don't call on him every week, I'm sure I don't know.' You'd better watch it, I think she's set her cap at you."
Ezra cleared his throat.
"I was very sorry about your uncle, Tony. It was a terrible shock."
"Yeah," Tony said sadly. "Still, I suppose it's better to go quickly. It's hard on the family, but at least he didn't suffer, the doctor said. You really didn't know I was Simon and Irene's nephew? You were at the funeral and everything."
"I remember you now. I'm sorry, you must think I'm very rude," Ezra said. "And you should have said you keep kosher. I'd have got stuff in. Sorry."
"Nah. I look different when I'm not covered in dust and paint, that's all. And don't worry, I'm not that strict. I just sort of got the impression you were."
"From Irene, no doubt."
"Such a nice man," Tony mimicked, smiling.
* * *
"Did you really tell Jamila down at the beauty salon she should quit and become a singer?" Ezra asked the next day, filling a tray with paint and carefully handing it over.
"Yep. Have you ever heard her sing? The girl's got talent, real talent."
"Mandy was furious with you. She says she doesn't know where she's going to get another trainee with such potential."
Tony grinned as he rolled the light blue paint onto the wall.
"I really like this brand," he said. "Look at that spreading rate. Cheap paint's always a mistake."
He'd explained that the acrylic nature of the paint kept it from dripping as the drying agents began to evaporate. The colour was covering over the previous paint like anything, which meant there was clearly a high titanium dioxide content, Tony'd said. Ezra didn't know what that meant, exactly, but he was glad to see the back of the regrettable pink he'd stupidly had the shop painted in when he bought it. And he'd liked the name. 'Celestial' was much better than 'sugarpie'. He must have been drunk when he chose that, he thought.
"Well, the way I see it, Ezra," Tony continued, "Jamila could have a nice little job as a manicurist and be a very bored and boring person within a few years because she really wasn't interested in it. Or she could take a chance at something she dreamed about and really wanted. It's important to know what you want."
"How do you know she wanted to sing?" Ezra said.
"I listened to her," Tony said seriously. "If you really listen to someone you can work out what they want. If people get what they really want, they're happier. If she's happier, it's worth taking the risk, yeah?"
"Still it's stupid in this economic climate, giving up a steady job for pop music," Ezra muttered.
Tony shot him an evil look.
"Yeah. Us young people, we live for today and have no taste," he said. "Actually, the Asian music scene is really big at the moment. She could do very well for herself."
Ezra tried not to seem too impolite in his disbelief. Tony narrowed his eyes in irritation.
"Fine, educate me. Put on some proper music, then."
Ezra ran off and came back with his portable CD player. Vivaldi's Four Seasons made for good painting music, he thought. Tony listened, head cocked on one side.
"Nice," he said finally. "Not the best recording I've ever heard, though. And you deliberately went for the most -- accessible -- thing you have, right? Don't frighten the handyman with opera or anything difficult, that the idea? You wouldn't want to tax my youthful bad music tastes, after all."
Ezra looked at the sly smile.
"This is where you tell me you've studied classical music for years, isn't it?" he asked. "Are you planning on wrong-footing me every day?"
"Maybe twice a day if I have the energy," Tony sniggered, getting back to the painting. "I did music for my A levels. I was thinking about doing it in university."
Ezra laughed ruefully.
"All right, all right, I'm sorry. What would you like to listen to?"
"Vivaldi's fine. I'll bring some other stuff along for you tomorrow. I'm quite fond of some of the Italian Renaissance stuff. Do you know anything by Gesualdo?"
"I don't think so," Ezra said.
"Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa. He was a 16th century Italian nobleman," Tony said. "He murdered his wife and her lover and showed the bodies off in public. Quite mad. But a very interesting composer, he plays around with the accepted musical forms of the day."
"Oh," Ezra said. "Well, I'll listen to it if you bring it."
"That's the spirit," Tony said. "Be open to new experiences, you may find you like them. So, what about you, Ezra? How'd you end up selling second-hand books? Did you lie awake as a little boy thinking of it?"
"No," Ezra said. "I wanted to fly fighter jets, actually. I even joined the RAF. But it, um, didn't really work out. I sort of drifted into the book trade."
Tony looked over his shoulder.
"Drifting instead of flying? Why did you accept that? Why'd you leave?"
Ezra looked away.
"Personal reasons. But you know, I found I really loved being round books. Jets only let your body fly, books let your soul fly. All those really old ones you were laughing about? That's my early printed collection. It's taken me years to build up, going to trade conventions, hunting down people who might want to sell something. I don't sell any of those unless I'm in dire need. It's the stock in the main room that's for sale. It's really good to see that people still love the printed word. Even if so many of them love dreck romance novels."
Tony looked at him wryly.
"I think you are happy doing this," he said. "I'd hate to think of you dropping bombs or firing at people. You don't seem like that would be good for you. So, Dr Tony's advice is 'sell books'."
"Thank you, Dr Tony," Ezra said, amused. "Luckily I seem to be set up to do just that. What about you? What happened about the music? Is decorating your dream job?"
"Ah, my advice doesn't work for me," Tony said. "I'm as screwed up as anyone. I can hand out good advice, but I'm crap at taking it. I should have gone to Uni, but I -- I ended up not going, for various reasons. I'm my own boss, but people don't have much respect for what I do. I get to meet interesting people though. More paint, please."
He stood there, tapping his foot. He looked sidelong at Ezra, and away, fast. He looked rather like a coiled spring, Ezra thought, as he poured more paint in the tray. Tony suddenly uncoiled, turning on his heel to face Ezra.
"Um. Can I ask you something? Something personal?"
"I suppose so. What?"
Tony looked down and up again, then spoke fast.
"I wanted to ask you about your experiences of being religiously observant and gay, did you find it difficult when you, um, were younger? Because I --"
"I'm not gay," Ezra hissed, furious.
"No, look, I'm not trying to upset you--"
"I'm not. How dare you?"
Tony came over and took the tray out of Ezra's shaking hand before it spilled all over the place. He looked worried.
"Shut up, you little shit."
"Listen, I need to tell you some--"
"I need some milk. I'm going to the shops," Ezra said. And left.
He stayed away until well after six PM. When he came back the shop was completely painted, and Tony was gone.
* * *
Tony rang precisely at 8PM. Ezra regretted telling him that he preferred the Channel 4 News.
"I'm really sorry," Tony said. "I didn't mean to offend you; I wanted to tell you someth--"
"I accept your apology," Ezra said coldly.
There was an awkward pause.
"I was thinking -- do you want some help, maybe repainting your flat? No offence, but it could use a lick of paint," Tony said in an unconvincingly cheerful voice.
"I can't afford it," Ezra said. "I can barely afford having the shop done as it is."
"I didn't say 'employ me', did I? I said would you like a hand? Every now and again, till it's properly done up?"
"Are you feeling sorry for me?" Ezra said in annoyance. "My dear boy, please be assured I'm just fine. I will survive your tactlessness."
"I'm trying to be friendly. It's a simple friendly offer," Tony said, sounding both ashamed and irritated.
"Why not?" Tony said in open annoyance. "Because I am sorry I upset you. Because you're able to laugh at yourself about the music thing. Because you are clearly out of your tree about Sherry Palmer being a poor misunderstood soul. Because I like having friends."
Ezra rubbed his temple. He rather felt that he was getting a headache. Maybe they hadn't had enough windows open earlier and the fumes had caught up with him. He hoped he had some paracetamol left, and not just the aspirin, which upset his stomach. Tony hadn't meant to intrude, he knew. He didn't deserve to be snapped at.
"I suppose it is a bit past its best," he said. "Thank you. I appreciate the offer."
"Great!" Tony said, relief in his voice. "We'll talk about it tomorrow, OK? I'll see you at 9?"
"Yes. I'll see you tomorrow, then."
* * *
The next morning he made an effort not to be embarrassed, and seemed to succeed. Tony chatted away quite happily as he worked, giving another coat of paint to a doorframe he didn't approve of, and then cleaning the two rooms and the disassembled shelves thoroughly until they shone. By 2PM, everything seemed to be finished, and the empty rooms were simply waiting for the furniture to be moved back in.
"So, what do you think?" Tony said.
"Lovely. It's lovely."
"OK, then. I'm going to have to head off now, so I can do the weekly shopping and get tidied up for Sabbath dinner at my mum's, OK? But I'll be back 9AM sharp Monday, and we'll put all the shelves and books back. Don't try doing it yourself on Sunday, right, 'cos it's a two-man job. And when we're done, we'll go out for coffee."
He looked thoughtful.
"Nah. Better idea, we'll go out for a pint and a curry Monday evening. How's that sound?"
Ezra looked at him in surprise.
"Yeah. See, there's this drink, I believe the natives call it 'beer', and traditionally it comes served in what they quaintly call 'a pint-glass', and this object contains what is known as 'a pint'."
"I'm glad to see juvenile humour never goes out of fashion."
"It's all part of my boyish charm," Tony grinned.
"And I suppose you know a kosher curry-house?"
"No, I don't," Tony said. "But if you don't tell Auntie Irene she won't tell my mum, and I won't get in trouble. And if I don't get in trouble with my mum, you don't get in trouble with me. Deal?"
"Deal," Ezra laughed.
"Great. OK, after Monday I've got another job, I'll be tied up for the rest of the week. But I could come round on the Sunday if you liked, we could make a start painting the flat. Whatever room you want to do first. If you're kind, it'll be the bathroom, 'cos I'll be knackered, and it won't take too long. Then we can watch the match on your crappy little TV, and maybe grab a bite to eat Sunday night. How's that sound to you?"
"Very -- organised," Ezra said.
"You've got to be organised to get ahead," Tony said. "So make a note in your diary, OK? I don't want you standing me up Monday morning."
He sauntered to the door, and gave Ezra a sharp and wicked smile.
"I will see you on Monday, Ezra. Ciao."
He slipped the sunglasses on and was gone. Ezra looked round the bright, sun-filled room, a smile spreading across his face as he thought again how nice and bright it all looked.
"Ciao," he murmured to himself.
* * *
By Monday afternoon, everything was back where it should be. Even the books looked better in their bright surroundings. Ezra wondered if he might actually sell more of them now. Tony seemed quite justifiably pleased with himself.
"I'll see you in the pub at seven," Tony said as he went out the door.
Ezra wandered round the rooms, admiring them one last long time, read his newspaper and did the crossword, then reluctantly began to get ready to go out. He did everything as slowly as possible, to distract himself from the disturbing break with routine. In his small bathroom he squeezed a little of the toothpaste onto the brush. It was important to remember to squeeze from the end of the tube, not the middle. Astonishing how long this stuff lasts, he thought. Why, a large tube lasted for months and months, giving him the taste of Colgate long past the time he craved Aquafresh. Once toothpaste could no longer hold his attention, he mentally debated the merits of different shaving foams, sadly aware that he'd only just bought a new can - although it was more of a gel than a foam now that he thought about it - and so couldn't use unshaven scruffiness as an excuse for staying in. He'd even bought a new thing of deodorant, blast it. No excuses. He scowled at his reflection. He really could do with losing some weight. He'd had more exercise moving things around over the last week than he'd had in years.
All in all, he really felt he'd rather stay in and watch the news.
He felt much better after the first pint, which he drank far too quickly. Tony had extremely implausible stories about clients past, all of whom were movie stars and spies, if he was to be believed. Ezra thought he'd never be able to look Mandy from the beauty salon in the face again after hearing a story in which she was the criminal mastermind pulling the government's strings. The restaurant where they ended up was nice - not really what he'd have picked, but it wasn't as if he knew anything about Indian food. He was surprised to find he recognised at least one of the songs being played. He was fairly sure he'd heard it on a car advert on television. He didn't think it must have been a very effective advert as he couldn't remember the make of car at all. Just the music and the elephant being made sit on the bonnet. The dark red wallpaper could really only work in a room as large as the restaurant, he thought. It was very striking but would be overwhelming in any of his rooms. The filigree brass light fittings were overwhelming even in the restaurant.
"You know there's a Jewish community in India?" Tony said. "I swear to God, with kosher curries and all. I read it in a cookbook. So we're not really doing too bad. Have you decided what you want?"
"Um, no. I haven't the slightest idea what any of these dishes are. Are they very hot?"
"You've never had Indian food? Ever?" Tony said. "OK, well some things are hotter than others. Kormas are very mild - but they're made with cream, so you might want to avoid them; oh, and raita is made with yoghurt. You should probably not have a vindaloo, unless you want to put yourself off Indian food for life. They're far too hot for beginners. When it comes to dessert, they have sorbets and fruit salad. The kulfi's really nice, but yet again, made with dairy."
"All right. I think I'll try something with chicken then. What are you going to have?"
"Oh, I'm having a vindaloo," Tony said with a devilish grin.
Ezra smiled and let Tony do most of the talking. He did look a lot different when he wasn't covered in dust and wearing a paint splattered t-shirt and jeans. He looked very nice and presentable, although all that black did make him look very pale. Ezra turned his attention firmly away from Tony's appearance to his meal. The Indian beer wasn't bad, even if he'd rather have had wine. But it wouldn't be such a good idea to mix his drinks. He ordered a diet Coke. The food was certainly interesting and he was glad he'd let himself be persuaded to try it. Tony waved his beer bottle at him.
"You know, those artificial sweeteners are bad for you. You may as well go for the non-diet version; it may be full of sugar, but at least we know what effect that has on the body. Did you ever taste that new Coke they brought out ages ago in America? I was over there last year, and my friends had a crate of the stuff in their cellar. I don't know if it hadn't aged well, or if it was supposed to taste like that, but euch, it made Pepsi taste palatable."
"I like Pepsi," Ezra said, ignoring the horrified look he got.
"Pepsi," Tony said with great dignity, "is a sign that objective evil exists in the world. And that goes double for the stuff with lemon in it. Hey, did you know that in the States they sweeten Coke with corn syrup? Every spring they have to take it off the shelves and re-stock with Coke sweetened with sugar beet like on this side of the Atlantic 'cos it's not kosher for Pesach. It counts as being leavened," Tony said.
"Because it's made with something made from grain, and the carbonation counts as the leavening agent?" Ezra asked.
"Presumably. What am I, a Talmudic scholar?" Tony laughed, and began a story about how he'd foolishly turned down the chance to decorate the Big Brother house.
"I'm really sorry I snapped at you last week," Ezra said when Tony had taken a breather from his stories.
"Don't worry about it, it's forgotten," Tony said through a mouthful of naan.
Ezra poked at his food and took a breath and began speaking fast.
"They kicked me out of the air force. Someone reported a rumour about me. I was arrested and questioned --" he paused. "You wouldn't believe the questions. They said they'd track down each and every person in my diary and ask them questions about me if I didn't co-operate. I decided I didn't want my grandmother to have a heart attack, and I started answering. Then they kicked me out."
Tony nodded quietly.
"You didn't try taking them to court?"
"There wasn't any legal ground. They hadn't broken any law. It wasn't like today. I really missed the planes."
"So all that stuff about books letting your soul fly," Tony said, picking at the label on his beer bottle, "that was just an act."
"No. No. But it wasn't anything I could have said for several years afterwards. It's true now."
"At least you could be yourself, though," Tony said.
"Myself. Yes. Well. That's not how my parents put it. What was it you asked me? Ah yes. I'd say I dealt with -- my experience -- by sorting things into piles and deciding that I'd just concentrate on the pile marked 'religion'."
"That sounds depressing," Tony said. "Want another beer?"
Ezra drank most of the next beer in one go, wishing he'd never said anything. He should just have stayed home, and watched TV. Tony pushed the remains of his food around the plate for a while.
"I think it's perfectly possible to be both," he said.
"Both? Oh," Ezra said, wondering if he really should have drunk so fast.
"Well, I don't see why anyone should think we should have to choose. It's not fair. I'm certainly not going to be made choose, and I think I'm doing OK. Apart from the incredibly traif meal I've just had, that is."
Ezra peered at him in open-mouthed surprise. Tony sniggered pitilessly.
"You look like a fish. Dear me, I can see Auntie Irene's really been falling down on the job. I'll have to give her an accurate checklist for the next time she talks to you. I did try to tell you before."
Ezra called the waiter back and got another beer.
"You'll be sorry tomorrow," Tony said equably. "You should drink lots of water tonight, your liver and kidneys will thank you for it. At least a glass of water for every beer you've had. Do you want dessert?"
"You should have the fresh fruit salad, you're too pale - you can't be getting enough vitamin C," Ezra said, terribly glad to have the subject changed.
"I want ice cream."
"You had meat. Don't you flaunt your traif predilections at me, young man," Ezra said in mock severity.
Tony grinned and ordered the fruit salad for both of them.
"We're still on for painting next Sunday, right? What colour do you want?" Tony said.
"You said there's a bit of the blue left?"
"Yeah. There might be just about enough. I'll pick you up a small pot of white, seeing as I get it at trade prices. If we mix them together there'll definitely be enough. And it'll look at least a bit different to the shop. I'll most likely have some gloss white from this week's job, so that'll do for the woodwork."
"I respect your work, you know," Ezra said shyly. "It's practical. It's useful."
"Not exactly Leonardo, here," Tony smiled. "Here, let me get this. You can pay on Sunday. Pick a nice place, mind. I'm not keen on McDonalds."
* * *
Ezra felt a little on edge that week. He was restless enough to wander round the shop and actually suggest titles to customers. This was a move that could backfire, he knew, as most customers wanted to be left alone to ferret round by themselves. Still, it seemed to work, and gave him the idea to distract himself by drawing up signs for recommended titles.
By Saturday he'd decided he didn't need the bathroom painted anyway. He spent a long time looking at the phone before reluctantly making the decision not to ring in case he offended Tony's family by breaking the Sabbath. After sundown he realised Tony would already have got the paint and he'd be annoyed to have wasted his time, so he still didn't ring.
Tony rang on Sunday to say he'd be over by noon, and the bathroom had better be completely cleared. When he arrived he shooed Ezra up to the bathroom, refusing all delaying cups of tea. Ezra watched in admiration as he went to work with the masking tape.
"You're using a lot of that," he said. "It's just a little bathroom."
"No excuse for sloppiness, "Tony said. "You've got to pay attention to the details. That's where the devil lurks, ready to make you slop drips all over the wash-hand basin. You should open the window out in the hall as well as the one in here. It's a small room, we'll get headaches if we don't have proper ventilation."
It took a while to get the hall window open. Ezra couldn't remember ever having opened it before. After much unsuccessful messing round with it he admitted defeat and asked for help. It turned out to have been painted shut years before. Tony shook his head over the sloppy work, and tried to force it open, promising he'd repaint it properly. It didn't budge, and he had to pry at it with a screwdriver.
"Hold this," he muttered, handing over the screwdriver and jiggling at the newly loosened catch, which began to give.
Ezra hoped he'd have a window frame left at the end of it.
"Scalpel, Nurse," Tony said, holding his hand out for the screwdriver again.
He gave the frame a sharp tap. The window flew open.
"I'll sand that down and repaint it sometime during the week," Tony said. "Let's get the bathroom underway."
In what seemed like no time the bathroom had gone from a shabby cabbagey-green to a very light blue. Ezra felt it vaguely unfair that his hair was far more light blue speckled than Tony's.
"Tricks of the trade," Tony grinned. "Now you can give me that tea. I'll give this a couple of hours and then do the woodwork. I'll do it by myself, mind. Can't trust an amateur with gloss. It's not a forgiving medium, gloss paint. Not to mention that latex high gloss ought to be brushed, not rolled, unless you've got one of those orange high density flock rollers hiding around the place. Seeing as I left mine behind, I'll be the one wielding the brush."
"What about the rollers I got?" Ezra asked.
Tony gave him a withering glare.
"You shouldn't buy cheap rollers, they're a false economy. The paint goes on all uneven, and they fall to pieces in next to no time."
"Oh. All right. You didn't have to sneer at them quite so much, though."
"They deserved it. I'm not even going to get started on those pound-shop brushes you have. Want a biscuit? I brought a pack of Wagon Wheels. They're a bit squashed, sorry."
"I haven't had them for years," Ezra said. "I always loved them when I was a boy."
"They're full of mystery ingredients," Tony said reading the back of one of the individually wrapped biscuits. "levaduras, leche desnatada en polvo and aceite vegetal hidrogenado, - do you know any Spanish?"
"A tiny bit," Ezra said, turning over his biscuit for a look. "I learnt a bit for when I was in Madrid last year."
"Was it a nice place?"
"Very hot. It was lovely, I have to say. And very friendly too. I see we have the international version of these - Spanish, Russian and Arabic, but no English. That's the global economy for you."
He unwrapped the biscuit and bit into it happily, licking the marshmallow off his fingers.
"Hey, there's a Wagon Wheels Internet site," Tony said laughing, "www.wagonwheels.com."
"Doesn't that take up space that people might want to use for porn?" Ezra said indistinctly through a mouthful of biscuit.
"It's not all porn. If you look hard enough you can find some Star Trek stuff as well. You should come over to my place and use my flatmate's computer sometime. You can buy old books on the Internet, you know."
"About Star Trek or porn?" Ezra said.
"Luddite. Quick! The match is starting."
They watched the match and ate far too many Wagon Wheels and crisps in companionable silence, except for the ritual cursing of Rupert Murdoch for stealing the live footie from the terrestrial stations. Ezra was relieved not to have to do any more painting and felt no guilt at all when Tony went off to deal with the horrors of gloss paint. It did look nice when it was done.
"Right," Tony said. "Let me get some clean clothes from the car, and you can shock me with the fine establishment you want to patronise."
"I was thinking of La Paloma," Ezra said, when they were both in paint free clothes, and his hair was more or less back to normal.
"Jewish food, then?" Tony said, straight-faced.
"Yes, I checked with my rabbi," Ezra said, equally straight-faced. "And they do plenty of fish, so you can have your ice cream afterwards. And it could be Sephardic cuisine, you know."
"But it's not, is it?"
The food was pleasant, if not awfully exciting. Still, it reminded Ezra of his holiday, and he got quite cheerful. Tony idly read the wine bottle label.
"Palacio de la Vega," he read. "Vino de Navarra. Where's Navarra?"
"Up in the north-east of Spain. Pamplona's there, that place where they do the bull run through the streets of the city - you know, I'm sure I've seen that wine in Tesco's - it's where Henry of Navarre was from."
"That's a coincidence. Or do you mean he works in a supermarket?"
"Very funny. Did you ever see that French costume drama, La Reine Margot? With Isabelle Adjani? Her husband was Henry of Navarre - he became king of France."
"Ohhh - yes I saw it, I think. She had really long hair and went out in disguise to pick up commoners? Yeah, I saw it; there was a gay sex scene right in the middle of it."
"There was not."
"You just weren't paying attention. The guy who played her husband - he was the lead in Le Placard - did you see that?"
"I don't think so."
"You should. It was remarkably funny for a French comedy. Gerard Depardieu was in it as well. So, Ezra," Tony said, "Are you still concentrating just on religion? Hey, hey - take it easy with that wine! It goes to my head faster than beer. I have to drive, you know."
"I did a Torah reading this week. And your Auntie Irene says she hopes you didn't make too much of a mess and why don't you get rid of that heap of junk and buy a nice Datsun?"
"Oh, like that'll happen. Nice try at changing the subject, though. You should go out more, maybe you'd meet somebody nice."
"Thank you, Dr Tony. I don't want to go out or meet someone nice, thank you very much."
Tony grinned down into his wine.
"Well, how about coming to dinner next Friday at my mum's, then?" he said.
"It's a little known religious thing that happens every week. In my religion we call it the Sabbath. You may have heard of it. I already told her you'd be there."
Ezra scowled at him.
"I meant, why would you want an old fart over for dinner?"
"You're not that old," Tony said cheerfully. "What are you, forty-five?"
"Thirty nine," Ezra said in affront, "and a half."
"How much of a half?" Tony said, grinning.
"And I already have plans," Ezra said, ignoring him.
"No, you don't."
"Yes, I do."
"See? I told you that you weren't so old, you argue like a kid. Anyway, you have to come. I never get a lie-in on a Saturday. Every week I say 'Ease up on the wine, Ma, I have to drive home', and she pours the stuff into me, and at night it's all 'Why not sleep in your old room, Tony? Take it easy.' Then suddenly it's morning and she's screeching in my ear 'Get up this second, Anthony Jacob Crowley, do you want to embarrass me by making us late?' You could stop laughing, you know."
"Sorry," Ezra sniggered. "Please do go on."
"Anyway, as I was saying before you laughed at my predicament, if I have to drive you home, then she'll have to behave herself, and I get to sleep in. So, it's a charitable act if you come. Say yes."
"Yes. All right. I'll save you from your mother. You poor little boy. Don't you think that driving breaks the Sabbath?"
"Excuse me, but driving my car glorifies the Holy One, Blessed be He. And anyway, getting you home will be a charitable act, and acts of charity are OK. Do you ever go dancing?"
Ezra looked at him owlishly.
"No. Not recently at least. Why?"
"There's a notice in my local library about a salsa class. If I had moral support I might be interested. Couple of single guys like us'd be in great demand, you know. Those classes are always at least 90% female. I could tell Irene you'd be there," he winked.
"She's not really after me, is she?" Ezra asked in deep worry.
He was somewhat put out to see that it was indeed possible to cry with laughter.
* * *
He wasn't at all unrestful the next week, and smiled at customers more than he usually did. On Monday he got a call from Tony to argue about exactly what was happening on 24, and to make sure he hadn't used the weekend to devise an excuse for chickening out of coming to dinner. On Wednesday Tony showed up unexpectedly at lunchtime, and attacked the recalcitrant window frame with a heat gun and sandpaper. Ezra peered up the stairs at him as he worked furiously, a forgotten and cooling mug of tea beside him quickly filling with dust. The shop bell tinkled, and Ezra went off to deal with people who didn't really want to buy books, but were killing time until their tour guide took them off again to tell them what they should think of London. It took him some time to convince them that even though his shop was indeed in Soho, the only adult literature he stocked was the sort with big words and no helpful illustrations. Tony came down at a quarter to two, holding a rather unpleasant mug of dusty, cold tea. Ezra took it away before he could absent-mindedly drink any of it and made him a fresh mug.
"I really wanted to get that painted," Tony said irritably. "But I had to strip away so many layers that I was expecting Tony Robinson to come and ask me for a progress report. Sunday will be the first day I have free, if you don't mind."
"Of course not," Ezra said. "It's very good of you to have come over today."
"I really hate leaving things half-finished -- I could come back after work," Tony said. "If I wouldn't be wearing out my welcome," he continued, a little uncertainly.
"Don't be silly," Ezra said, beaming happily. "I can surprise you with my horrible cooking. I can do something like macaroni cheese, or I could get some ready meals if you want anything more elaborate?"
"Macaroni cheese would be just fine," Tony said, smiling widely. "I'd better get back, but I'll see you later."
He paused, and looked like he was going to say something, but jumped slightly as the shop bell rang and another small group of tourists came in. With some giggling they asked where the adult books were, and Ezra politely waved them towards the modern fiction shelves.
"About half-six?" Tony said, smirking at the expression that crossed Ezra's face once the tourists couldn't see him.
"That'd be lovely," Ezra said.
He waited twenty minutes after Tony left, then rudely chased the tourists away and ran off to the new Sainsbury's on Oxford Street where he bought some very good cheese and some organic fresh macaroni. He hadn't had a dinner guest for a very long time, and was determined not to disgrace himself. He thought that while he was at it he should get something to make a salad, and something for dessert, and he had no ground coffee left at all, and he should probably get white wine, seeing as it was a pasta dish. He walked out with half the shop and spent the rest of the day rummaging round the recipe books in the shop and cooking. It was worth the effort, he thought when he saw Tony's surprise.
"So much for horrible cooking," Tony said finally, staggering off to paint the window.
Ezra felt very proud of himself.
By Friday lunchtime Ezra was slightly more nervous, which was silly. He had a terrible feeling he was going to be shown off as Tony's project, who needed to get out more and was being persuaded to go to salsa lessons. Maybe he should just call and say he couldn't make it, he thought.
The day dragged on, till he turned the sign over to 'closed' at 3PM. He was ready and pacing up and down when Tony finally rang the doorbell. It wasn't too long a drive, which Ezra was heartily thankful for. Tony was far too fast a driver for the city. He shook with fear all the way across the city, and wished he had noticed there were no seatbelts before he got into the car.
"Why don't you have seatbelts?" he whispered shakily as Tony screeched to a halt at a red light.
"You want me to spoil a vintage car?" Tony said, incredulous. "This was made long before seatbelts were considered useful driving accessories, Ezra. She's seventy-seven years old. Show your elders a bit more respect. And don't think I can't hear you praying."
The lights turned green.
"I don't want to die," Ezra moaned.
Tony giggled and accelerated.
Dinner went well, Ezra thought. For a start, he was still alive. Tony's parents took one look at his face and immediately berated Tony for dangerous driving and showing off. After that Ezra was made sit down and be fed the kind of dinner he never bothered cooking for himself. When he thought about it, he'd had more proper dinners over the last couple of weeks than he'd had for years. The macaroni cheese had been the most complicated thing he'd made for ages. It didn't seem to make much sense to cook for one, after all. He wondered how he had got so depressingly lazy and set in a routine. Tony's family was a little overwhelming; sharp wits and evil smiles the lot of them. Even Tony's little nephew and niece made him feel vaguely worried. The only topic of conversation he felt safe to contribute much to was to agree that yes, Tony had done a very nice job on the shop and he'd be sure to recommend him to all his neighbours. Eventually Tony started making noises about how he really had to drive Ezra home, so no thanks, he would just have coffee, please.
It was a much nicer drive back, seeing as there was much less traffic. Ezra supposed the wine he'd been drinking also helped to cushion the sense of overwhelming fear. To his mildly befuddled surprise, Tony pulled up at the back of the shop.
"Don't want to leave my car on view," he said. "And I'm dying for a cup of tea."
"Come on up, then," Ezra said cheerily, terribly glad to be out of the car.
"Your parents are nice," he said as he filled the kettle. "And your sister's children are --"
"Very nicely behaved, I was going to say. Here. Would you like some biscuits?"
"No, thanks. Just the tea."
They drank their tea in the upstairs kitchen. Tony was tapping a finger rapidly on his mug. He pushed himself forward from where he'd been leaning against the kitchen cabinets, and carefully took Ezra's mug away and put both it and his in the sink.
"I was drinking that," Ezra said.
Tony flattened himself up against him, and kissed him. Ezra squeaked.
"Why so surprised?" Tony murmured, holding on tight. "It is our third date."
"Is it?" Ezra said in horror.
"I'm not counting Wednesday, though maybe I should because I've never seen such an elaborate pasta dish in my life. So let's say it's our fourth. We're practically going steady," Tony said. "Although I think I should tell you no one says 'going steady' anymore. What's the matter? Don't you like me? I like you."
Irene was going to kill him. Tony's parents would kill him. It was very hard not to kiss Tony back. It was very disappointing when he suddenly let go. Tony took a box of condoms from his jacket pocket with a wide smile and hung the jacket on the back of a chair. Ezra stared at him, trying to think of a way to derail things, and trying to convince himself that he should.
"I'm too old for you," he croaked. "I'm a little bit over thirty nine."
"Nice try, but for once I'm not interested in a long discussion. Take a chance, Ezra. It might make you happy."
Tony kissed him again until Ezra put his arms round him and didn't let go. He found that he couldn't seem to stop smiling.
"You know," Tony said, "sex on the Sabbath is a double mitzvah. I'm feeling observant, how about you?"
"That would be nice," Ezra said in a daze.
"We should get up," Ezra said. "It's nearly one o'clock."
"Too early," Tony said, pulling the duvet up to his chin.
Ezra sighed, and scrutinised the ceiling. The plaster had a fine crack running across the entire width, and it could do with a clean to get rid of the cobwebs, and a coat of paint. And he'd been meaning to get a new carpet for ages, and it was probably time to admit that his vacuum had long since given up the ghost and should be replaced, and Tony was going to come to his senses and run out the door and that would be that.
"Why're you looking so tragic?"
"Just thinking. About clearing things out. Cleaning things up."
"No, nuh-huh. No painting today, you pagan. If you ask me very nicely, maybe we can do some tomorrow."
"Can we please do some painting tomorrow?" Ezra said, forcing himself to sound cheerful.
"I'm sure you can ask more prettily if you put your mind to it. And you could also try telling me what's the matter."
"Nothing. Nothing's the matter."
"Hmm. I'm sorry I made you miss services. Next week we'll get up in time, OK? And you can show me off."
Ezra tried not to look too horrified.
"Or you can come to my parents' synagogue, and I'll show you off. I'm sure I have a rainbow kippah you can borrow," Tony said, in a mildly malicious tone. "Well, at least I seem to have got your mind off whatever's bothering you."
"I haven't, um, actually said anything about, um -- things -- to people in my congregation," Ezra said.
Tony looked like he was trying not to laugh in disbelief.
"Ezra. How should I put this? From everything my aunt has told me, you are a respected and well-liked member of the congregation, and no one gives a damn that you are a 'confirmed bachelor', as Irene terms it. They know, and they don't care. In fact, it was one of the things she mentioned quite frequently."
"She was warning you about me?" Ezra said in horror.
"No, idiot. She was alerting me as to your availability. She kept telling me that you're a nice Jewish boy who loves music -- exactly what I wanted. When you rang me the first time I thought she must have got tired of me procrastinating and made you get in contact."
"Oy, I'm going to crawl into a ditch and die," Ezra muttered. Damn Tony's whole and entire family, he thought wretchedly.
"No, you're not. I won't let you. Come over here. She thinks you're very nice. She thinks you're a lot better than the anti-Semite I went out with - the short version of that goes 'What was I thinking?' The long version -- don't ask. That was my rebellious era. Full of the wrong sort of people. I'm over that now."
Ezra let himself be pulled closer.
"Too old for you," he muttered.
"Too ordinary looking."
"You're just fishing for compliments, aren't you?"
"OK, how about 'I'm a gerontophiliac, I've sworn off excitement, and who needs looks anyway?' That do?"
Tony laughed heartlessly.
"How about 'I really like you', then? You can stop looking at me like I'm going to vanish, I'm not going anywhere. Well, except to the loo, but I'll be right back."
He popped his head back round the door.
"Oh, and don't you go anywhere either, because I plan on making a very compelling argument for why we shouldn't get up yet."
* * *
At 10.30AM on Tuesday morning Ezra looked up from his crossword as the shop door opened.
"Hello," Tony said. "I was in the neighbourhood."
"Really? I thought you said you were working on a house over in Islington this week?"
"It's not that far. Not if you drive fast, anyway. And they're having some kind of family emergency that necessitated removing tradesmen from the premises. So, I seem to have a day off."
"Oh, I hope no one's ill."
"Not when I ran away, anyway. The emergency seemed to involve credit card bills and bottle-blonde 18-year-olds as far as I could tell. Very unpleasant, and I didn't fancy staying round."
"So you came to buy a book to while away your free time?" Ezra said.
"Nah. I figure I'll just borrow them," Tony smiled, putting his arms round him. "See, I know the shop owner and I think I might be able to get him to let me away with it."
"He sounds like a very impressionable fellow," Ezra said happily.
"So, can I tempt you away from your life of capitalist enterprise? Unless you want to sit here surrounded by highly coloured bodice rippers," Tony said, idly picking up a just-priced romance novel.
He opened it at random and began to read it, an evil grin on his face.
"His square, callused hands prised apart her flowerlike thighs - flowerlike, mark you - the delicate chartreuse silk ripping under the brutal fingers --," his voice trailed off as he continued reading silently in open-mouthed amazement.
"My God," he muttered, turning the page.
"What's it about, other than the obvious?" Ezra asked.
"Pirates," Tony said in a strange and distant voice. "Lots and lots of pirates, in fact."
Ezra peered over his shoulder.
"Good Heavens," he said. "That lady brings a pile of these in about twice a month in part-exchange for more. I shall never be able to look at her the same way again. How did you find that bit? Is the whole book like that?"
"It sort of fell open there," Tony said, still reading. "I suppose it must have been a favourite section."
They looked at each other for a moment, and Tony gingerly put the book down and wiped his hand on his jeans.
"Anyway," he said brightly, "I was planning on continuing with my campaign of seduction. Any chance you might be interested?"
Ezra actually managed not to run to the door to lock it and turn the sign over.
"Arr, lad, that I might be," he said.
"What do you want to do for lunch?" Tony asked, later. "We could go out."
"I need to do a bit of shopping," Ezra said. "We could have something here, and go out for dinner later."
"Sounds like a plan. OK, move your lazy arse, then. Let's get to the shops."
It was a lovely sunny day, which made the walk to the shops very pleasant indeed. Tony was of the opinion that they should go to Sainsbury's, but Ezra thought that Europa Food would have pretty much everything he wanted. The streets were full of people rushing round on their lunch break, in and out of the sandwich places and cafes that had sprung up all over Soho. Just as they reached Europa Food they saw an unfortunate shopper suddenly skid and fall, her feet going out from under her.
"Oh dear," Ezra said, helping her up. "Are you all right, miss?"
"Um, yes thanks," she said, rather embarrassed.
Ezra frowned at Tony, who was clearly trying not to laugh as he kicked the slimy lemon rind that had caused the fall into the gutter.
"You might want to soak your hand," Tony said cheerfully - far too cheerfully, Ezra thought.
"Thanks," she said again, straightened her glasses and hurried about her business.
"Really. You shouldn't laugh at people like that," Ezra said.
"Me? What did I say?" Tony grinned, as they entered the shop. "I'd just never seen anyone wave their arms like that."
In the shop Ezra wandered round, frowning at the vegetables. It wasn't really a good selection, if you wanted anything more than the makings of a salad sandwich. They should have gone to Sainsbury's after all, he thought. He put a cucumber, a head of lettuce and a rather depressed bunch of spring onions in his basket and weighed some tomatoes.
"Do you like apples?" Tony said.
"Yes, but not those Golden Delicious ones. They're so tasteless."
"Yeah," Tony said, looking dubiously at the apple he was holding. "You just can't find a decent apple anymore. Well, actually you can, if you go to Marks and Spencers. I'll get you some nice Pink Lady apples next time I'm there."
Wandering down to the dairy section Ezra picked up a half-pound of cheddar, 2 litres of milk and some Flora spread that claimed to reduce cholesterol. After some internal debate he decided that if he was going to get coleslaw he didn't need to get a jar of mayonnaise as well. On the other hand, mayonnaise did keep very well, and if he was being honest with himself the coleslaw wasn't going to last very long once he opened it.
"Brown bread or white?" he asked.
"Don't mind," Tony said, looking disappointed as the brown bread was added to the basket. "You know, we could go to a matinee," he continued as they queued for the checkout.
"I want to see that new Matrix movie. How about it?"
"Hmm. Science-fiction. I'm not so sure I see the attraction."
"Ezra! Special-effects! Martial arts fight scenes! Man vs the Machine! Dodgy philosophy! Virtual reality! Explosions! Really, really big explosions!"
"I'm not really keen on going to the cinema in the daytime," Ezra said, thinking he'd hardly ever heard of a film he'd like less, "but we could go to a night-time screening, if you like," he continued, to make Tony smile again.
"I'm going to hold you to that," Tony said. He lowered his voice slightly. "Now that that's sorted out, want to go back to your flat for more mind-blowing sex?"
The cashier looked at him as if she hadn't quite heard. He gave her a bright and cheery grin and smirked evilly at Ezra, who waited a moment till the poor girl was distracted trying to count out his change.
"My dear. That wasn't my mind," Ezra said in a conversational tone of voice.
He felt very satisfied that it wasn't him that was going to be walking out of the shop scarlet-faced and embarrassed. Well, well, he thought with deep happiness, mind-blowing.
* * *
Over the next months, Ezra discovered various things. Tony was a terrible dancer, and had to be coaxed for at least an hour before each humiliating salsa class. Tony's mother seemed to enjoy fussing over him as much as she did over Tony. He quite liked that terrible science-fiction film. He was in love. He'd probably never be let drive the Bentley. He was more than happy to show Tony off at Synagogue. And not just because Irene always managed to reduce the poor boy to a squirming mass of embarrassment. He was in love. Vindaloos weren't that bad when you got used to them. It was very nice to have someone to bring him cups of tea when he was feeling under the weather. He was called up to read just as often as before. Tony loved him back. He was happy.
And he never had to wonder where he'd find a painter.