I feel better now that I've finally told Paul the truth about the half-hour we both spent in a Times Square massage parlour in December 1982. There have been plenty of occasions over the past 16 years when I've thought of coming clean about the incident but it always seemed a pity to spoil the jolly banter which arises whenever we get round to recalling our ten days together in New York. Why mar happy reminiscences about the delights of listening to Elvin Jones and Ahmad Jamal at the Village Vanguard and the night we both got lucky at a singles bar because two women thought we were dead-ringers for Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde with the banal details of what actually occurred at the Magic Fingers club?
But last Saturday in the Pizza Express I realised I could keep quiet no longer. Even as Paul, prompted by the sounds of a fat tenor solo filtering up from the floor below, began to talk once more about our fabulous jazz evenings together, I started blurting out the awful truth.
"You know how we've always gone on about that afternoon in the massage parlour? And I've always laughed along with you about spending half the holiday money in 30 minutes? Well, I've been lying. The fact is I had to make an excuse and go outside and wait for you in reception. Nothing happened. They gave me half my money back."
I could see from the self-destructive way he tipped more chilli oil on his American Hot that he'd already heard enough. But I ploughed on.
"I realise now it was that bloody cubicle. Nothing to do with sex. I can't cope with cubicles. Just being in one makes me feel me uneasy. And in Times Square it was double trouble. Not only you in the next cubicle but my very own cubicle invaded by someone with a tub of baby oil."
He looked up with what I took to be tears in his eyes. "You've never said anything before about cubicles."
"Paul, you've never asked me. If you had, I could have told you about how I've never been able to cope with cocaine because you're always expected to go into a cubicle with someone else to take it, and about how often I've asked doctors if it would be all right if I stripped off in front of them instead of popping into a cubicle, and how at the polling station I always go for the cubicle where the pencil is on the longest piece of string so that I can stand well clear when I cast my vote."
I knew from his streaming eyes that I'd already made my point but I couldn't help throwing in the day when I'd tried to have a passport photograph taken at King's Cross by poking my head into the instant photo cubicle rather than occupying the swivel seat inside, and the innumerable Sunday mornings I'd gone along to the indoor swimming pool in York with only a pair of Speedo bathing trunks beneath my full-length overcoat so I'd need to spend no more than two seconds in a poolside cubicle.
"Have you seen a counsellor about all this?"
"I don't need a counsellor. And anyway, some counsellors have cubicles. No, I've worked it all out for myself. It's a lifetime of guilt coming back to haunt me. I know that some day in a cubicle somewhere I'm going to be confronted by the final reckoning. I'm going to hear the sound of a shutter drawing back, I'll turn to face the wall and there'll be this shadowy face in profile. And I'll hear an Irish voice saying very quietly, 'And how long is it since your last confession?'."