My sister has a new man in her life: Henry, 60. He lives in a gay hotel. Or rather, it was a gay hotel in the era when homosexuality was illegal; now the Victorian seaside villa is empty save for my sister’s new boyfriend, my sister sometimes, and a transvestite maid called Rita. Sometimes he is a porter called Stan. One never knows from day to day whether he is going to appear as a male or a female, and one has to be careful not to make any rash assumptions because he becomes apoplectic if one addresses him as Stan when he is Rita, for example. But when he is Rita, says my sister, it is usually blindingly obvious, because he wears a microskirt, black net stockings and suspenders.
I didn’t get to meet my sister’s new boyfriend immediately. For about a month I only heard her talking about him. Clearly, she was very taken with the guy because she thinned down, glammed up, and her mood switched somewhat startlingly from depression to elation. She was a different person. All she wanted to do was sing Henry’s praises. He was her sun, moon and stars. Oh, I’d like him, she said. Such an interesting, well-travelled guy and such fun. He has lived abroad most of his life: Peru, Laos, Mexico, Colombia, Thailand. And these are just his favourites. Name a country — any country — and he’s been there. Because he infringed the law in some unspecified but perhaps easily guessable way, he is no longer allowed into the United States. He returned to the UK two years ago to punt the hotel, which he inherited from his father. This is proving more difficult than he imagined. He is missing abroad and restless, she said. But he really wants to meet you.
‘But he really wants to meet you.’ The dreaded, inevitable phrase. I dread it because my sister must big me up out of all proportion to the reality. Introductions to her new boyfriends always smack uncomfortably of diplomatic choreography; of credentials humbly presented by the dashing envoy of a rising power to an indifferent mandarin official of a great one. My sister ushers them into my presence, introduces them and discreetly withdraws, leaving us to talk man to man. Now an old hand at these occasions, I seize the opportunity to voice the most extreme opinions, either of the left or of the right, that I can think of.
When the day came, she wheeled a chap into the kitchen who looked how the Seventies glam rocker Marc Bolan might have looked had he survived the car crash and made it to 60. Big, curly, floppy hair, and the air of the laid-back veteran rock star reduced to Buddhism, unsure of which day of the week it is. For the occasion, he was prinked up in a broad country-check tweed jacket, trousers so tight you could see whether or not he was circumcised and pointy, shiny, caramel-coloured dress shoes. ‘Jeremy: Henry,’ said my sister. Then she left us to it.
I offered tea. Henry had brought his own refreshment. He produced a bottle of red wine, ripped off the screw top like a man possessed, tipped out a glassful of wine and tossed back half of it. ‘I’ve got to sit down,’ he said, falling backwards into a chair at the kitchen table. I joined him, liking him straight away. The face was kindly, resigned and crimson. ‘So where next, Henry?’ I said. ‘Somewhere where there’s opium,’ he said dejectedly. ‘I love opium but I can’t get it around here. Where can I go where there’s opium?’ ‘India?’ I ventured. He rebuffed the idea of going to India by screwing up his face as against driving sleet. We sat silently for a moment, thinking about where was best to go for opium. Suddenly he said, ‘Mexico!’ At the thought of Mexico his sun came out. ‘Man, I love Mexico. I love everything about it. I lived there. Have you ever been to Mexico?’ I shook my head decisively. ‘Oh man,’ he implored. ‘You must go.’
Then he made a statement about the infinite possibilities of Mexico that might possibly be interpreted by a stickler for that kind of thing as a racist statement, and he immediately retracted it and apologised. I looked at him levelly. He held my eyes guiltily. I asked him why he was apologising. ‘Well, I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was a closet racist,’ he said. I looked at him in astonishment. ‘What’s wrong with being a racist?’ I said. He thought for a while, then he said, ‘Well, I don’t feel superior to anyone — particularly.’ ‘Don’t you worry, old son,’ I said, opening my arms to welcome him to the family. ‘I’m a racist. My sister’s a racist. We’re all racists here. You carry on and be as racist as you like.’