"It's this way," Collins said. "I go in the back," he added, gesturing 'round the corner. Herbert followed, wondering yet again if he had made a mistake, if there was any gracious way to back out.
There wasn't. Herbert had agreed to come over that afternoon and to change his mind now would require an excuse that only his cell-phone could politely provide. But it hadn't rung and wasn't likely to. They had already stopped off at a cheap Chinese diner - the food, greasy but surprisingly tasty, and lord knows there had been plenty of it - Collins talking a nervous mile a minute, sometimes about work, sometimes about his collection, occasionally to bitch about mutual colleagues or the stupidity of clients. Midway through, Herbert knew he'd made a mistake, but there had been no polite way out then and there wasn't now. He was committed.
Collins lived on a shabby stretch of Queen Street West that was being slowly gentrified. A couple of blocks away, the Drake Hotel was in the final stages of its renovation. Small art galleries had sprung up between pawn shops and dingy old hardware stores.
Collins led Herbert into an alley, then stopped about mid-way down it. "There it is," he said, gesturing at an old low-rise building behind a cracked, concrete parking lot that had room for two cars, though none was parked there. Collins stopped. "Do you mind?" he said, and reached into his pocket for a pack of cigarettes. "I don't like smoking inside," he said, "not when the weather's nice."
"That's fine," Herbert said, then shook his head, no thanks, when Collins offered him a smoke. "I quit years ago."
"Good for you," Collins said. "It's a nasty habit." His hands trembled as he flicked, and re-flicked his lighter before the flame caught. He drew smoke and his whole body seemed to relax a little; his shoulders slumped and his belly protruded just a little above the narrow belt he wore to no apparent purpose on his faded jeans. "But I like it. And we all need our little vices, eh?" he grinned as if the remark hinted at some mutual, unspoken crime, some conspiracy.
Like his jeans, Herbert thought, everything about Collins seemed faded, as if he were old before his time - no, as if he were disappearing from the world. His skin was dry and very pale, his hair thin and thinning, his eyes watery and a pale blue, like a northern lake after the sun has dropped behind the hill on the opposite shore. He wore a well-pressed but shabby blazer over his equally shabby, equally well-maintained dress-shirt; he looked as if he wanted to wear a tie, but knew that doing so in a call-centre would be just a little too much. His black shoes were scuffed but polished. If he had a car, Herbert thought, he would be one of those guys who would wash it in the street every second day.
He wished Collins would finish that damned cigarette, so they could go upstairs and Collins could show him whatever it was he wanted to show him and he could finish up this mistake and finally take his leave. He didn't in fact have anything in particular to do, but Collins was getting on his nerves. Herbert feared he had entered into a one-sided friendship that only with eventual rudeness would he be able to get out of. Collins had the air of a man desperate for friendship, for connection of any kind, and Herbert feared that in agreeing to hang out this afternoon, in Collins' mind he had made a much more serious commitment.
Collins ground his cigarette out against a brick wall, then cupped the butt in his hand. "I don't like to litter," he said, "I'll drop it in the garbage upstairs." Herbert noted that the ground was strewn with butts, but decided not to say anything. It would be churlish to criticize someone for not littering just because everyone else seemed to be doing so, wouldn't it?
Collins opened a steel gate and they passed through into a very narrow yard, of sorts, then proceeded up a rusty iron fire-escape, the kind of staircase that Herbert hated. The steps gave a little with each step, the whole structure felt on some animal level as if it would give way at any moment, like some elaborate Victorian trap.
But feelings aside, they made the assent in safety and soon found themselves on the third floor landing. A tall stand-up ash-tray stood between two old chairs. Collins added his butt to the almost over-flowing collection. "Come on, then, Rob," he said, and Herbert followed him inside.