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Text: World Copyright
Martin Foreman

Copyright of pictures acknowledged where possible






Buddha died at eighty

London, 2003: Half past ten on a Friday evening in autumn. I'm sitting at a pavement table in Soho, watching the world go by. The world is mostly gay and mostly young, couples sauntering, groups gossiping, singles looking for old or new friends. A few tables away a cheerful, handsome black face sits down, hunches over the table. Nineteen, I reckon, on the borderline of fashion in a bright blue sweater and black leather waistcoat. Our eyes cross, register brief interest, look away.



A few minutes later, he gets up, moves off. I watch him, less attracted than curious. Without breaking his step, he comes over and in the gesture common to hustlers the world over, smiles broadly and thrusts out his hand. "George."


I give him my name, gesture at the seat opposite. He sits, leans forward, stares at me with clear, dark and intense eyes.


"Do you want to shag me?" he asks. "No," I tell him. I'm not sure whether he believes me. "Do you want coffee?" I ask. He nods, still smiling. I order, wait for him to say something, then fill the silence. "Where are you from?"


"Nigeria."


"How long have you been here?"


"Eleven years."


"When did you last go back?"


A table tennis conversation where I must always serve. He will tell me anything, answer every question, but when I am silent, so is he. His accent and grammar unite Africa and London, every answer accompanied by a smile, as if we share some secret joke. I ask him about the violence in Nigeria. He looks blank. I explain the reputation his birthplace has. He seems unaware of it.


When my curiosity fails, we stare at each other, both amused without knowing why.


"How much do you charge?" I finally ask.


"Sixty pounds," he tells me. "For half an hour. One twenty for an hour. But for you a discount."


I bet you say that to all the men.


"Where do you meet them?" Another round of question and answer begins. Most of his customers are foreign, tourists that he meets late at night. I picture half-empty caf├ęs and solitary men in their forties and fitfties, conservatively dressed, unwilling to return to empty hotel rooms. He doesn't advertise, seems unaware of the free magazines with page after page of slender and buffed torsos, proffered buttocks and genitalia. "I deal a little," he suddenly says. "This make more money."


At one point he tells me his age, 23. Then I hear of the boyfriend, 32 years old, living and working in Geneva. He was last in London six months ago. The time before that a year previously. And the next time? George doesn't know. "Not much of a boyfriend," I venture, but that's a step too far. Better a distant lover, it seems, than none at all.


"What," I wonder aloud, "are you going to do when you stop selling yourself?"


He laughs. "Retire! No-one want a saggy arse bottom."


Then what?


"I get my pension."


I'm searching for his heart, his soul, and haven't yet found it. What does he want out of life?


His eyes light up. I've hit bullseye. "I want get girlfriend, have kids. Then I have male friend," - not the Frenchman in Geneva, I suspect - "he look after the kids."


And the girlfriend? "She stay with my Mum. The kids, they stay with me and my friend. One of each. He look after us."


I have spent twenty years observing human sexuality and emotions across the world; this is a pattern I have not met before. Unless Mum and the girlfriend are lesbian, I see difficulties ahead.


Another pause. Half a dozen black men, with genuine London accents, sit down at the adjacent table. The nearest receives a joint from his neighbour. George, without waiting for an invitation, leans over and begs a puff. Warily, the spliff is passed over. Eventually, the roach is passed back.


"You see that guy?" he turns back to me, eyes darting around so I cannot tell who he is looking at. "He sell Charlie. You ever take Charlie?"


Yes, I am about to say, thinking of cocaine. No, I tell him, thinking of heroin, I haven't taken Charlie. I mention the recent liberalisation of cannabis; another topic he's unfamiliar with.


Suddenly we are onto religion. "I'm not a Christian," he insists, as if accused of some crime. "Too many bad people Christian. They dealer junkies and they kill people, then they repent and become Christian to save their soul. Christians not good."


"Maybe they've reformed," I say. "Stopped killing and become good people."


He doesn't listen. "I'm a Buddhist," he tells me, "a Budd-hist."


"What kind of Buddhist?" I can only remember three sects: Tibetan, Thai and Japanese-who-chant-for-money.


"They four people in a square," he says, in explanation. "They sit like this" - he gestures with his hands - "with their legs folded and their hands like this. Then they meditate for ten seconds."


"Ten seconds?"


"At first. You get better, you do it longer."


"How long do you meditate?"


"Only once. I too busy, no time for meditation."


I'm sure Buddha is lenient. "What does being a Buddhist mean? What do they believe?"


"Some people get envious of Buddha, so they kill him. Him dead at eighty. Then he become a god and people worship him."


I wait for more, but there is none. We carry on talking, but we've both suddenly lost interest. He realises I wasn't bluffing when I said I wasn't a punter and my curiosity has reached the end of its trail. His cup is still half full; I suggest he sits beside me, so that he can look out into the street, scout for potential customers. He does so for a few minutes, sharing a word with his neighbour who curtly replies, then he's off. No handshake, but he does give me one last smile.

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