By Bren Gosling
When I was little my old man used to take me with him to some dodgy places. Snooker halls, after- hours clubs, strip joints and the like. Ma being a nurse on night duty was none the wiser. Until she found out. Glad to see the back of him, then. She never did go with anyone else. And my Daddy, I saw less and less of. One day I heard someone say he killed a man. Never saw him no more after that.
From the kitchen of my one bedroomed flat, two floors up, on the corner of the building, I’ve got a grand stand view of Albert Circus. The streetlights come on in one big splutter. Blondie, at least, I call her that, stubs out another cigarette, and climbs into a punter’s car. Already her third. She’s on a roll tonight. After dark, this daytime haunt of dog walkers draws in cruising Vauxhall Astra’s and Alfa Romeos. Wary Asian couples hang out. In the early hours, men of a certain persuasion use the central island, topped by an ornamental bandstand, as a quick shag destination. I finish what’s left of yesterday’s microwaved beans and rice, wash down my pills with a can of Lilt, then stare into the middle distance.
I salvage the scrap of paper with the unfamiliar number on it, from last night. Fish it from the bin and hide in the cupboard under a tin of Asda spaghetti. A car door bangs and I lose my nerve. There would always have to be the If, When, and How, I reveal my small complication. The eternal opt out. Good reason for ditching any interest beyond the casual. I check my watch. There’s only half an hour to get into work. Time to give this face a lick with a wet flannel. Put on a clean T shirt.
I park my old bike against a railing and lock it. The parade of low key shops, cafes- cum- restaurants, give this part of City Road a homely feel. As I pass by, the owner of the Greek place, a big man, is pouring himself an Ouzo. At street level, my work place is well camouflaged. Beige paintwork and a permanently blinded square window. Those not in the know might mistake it for an accountant’s office. A small chrome plaque beside the buzzer reads PARADISE CLUB Members Only, but you need thick lens glasses to make it out.
The door, is, as always, ajar. Florescent light smirks entry into another world, still causes my heartbeat to spike every time I go inside. I move through the shabby corridor towards Noddy: Noddy, always with a B & H and packet of Jaffa cakes on the go. Face you could crack walnuts on. ‘Alright, mate? Alright,’ he says, gaze held by the TV screen on the wall in front of us, playing what’s on the big screen downstairs. Sound’s been turned off so as not to attract attention from outside.
‘Alright, mate. Alright.’ We never use names. Like the members, it’s all anonymous here. Most of them put down fake ID’s. I mean, come on. Who calls themselves ‘M. Mouse ‘or ‘D. Duck’? Judging by the signing in book there’ll be plenty to clear up after. Ma must be turning in her grave, her son cleaning for a living: In a sex cinema! At the beginning, it bothered me. I used to get nightmares where she rose from the grave to chide me: ‘No child of mine got business in such a Sodom and Gomorrah!’ Give me such a smacking with the belt. Like when I was twelve, and she caught me coming out of the loo with a copy of Private magazine: Had to sleep on my belly two nights running. But the boss pays cash, at above the going rate. No questions about me being on benefits. I get into the club for free whenever the urge takes me, only two hours work a night, got to be better than hoovering one of those empty open plan offices for below the minimum wage.
I turn to the TV. A dwarf with a giant dick is performing anal on a housewife, husband gagged and bound, forced to spectate. New German release, put on the loop yesterday, so it still tugs my voyeuristic strings. The Club always injects something a bit different into the mix, spices things up. As if there weren’t enough kinks down there already… I dip my head to the stairwell. ‘Many still down there?’ I know full well, it being Sunday, with one hour ‘til closing, bacchanalia will be in full swing. Noddy shoves a Jaffa cake into his mouth, and grunts, dubbing for the star of the show.
Everything is painted out dark red. As the light recedes, first come the exaggerated ‘Oh, Ja’s,’ and female animal moans. At eye level a sign threatens: ANYONE CAUGHT MISBEHAVING WILL BE REMOVED. About as effective as a ‘Drink Sensibly’ warning to a confirmed alcoholic. I push the double doors, louder ‘Ja, Ja, Ja’s’. The pheromone pull compels me forward; a smog of poppers, sweat, and cigarettes. In one corner a naked Indian with prayer beads is being fucked by an old man, trousers round his ankles. Both are regulars. I make out a dozen silhouettes amongst the seats. At the back, nearest me, the transvestite done up like a bad drag queen, is apple dunking between two laps.
I make for the toilet, situated in an alcove at the far end. Used tissues litter the floor, sticky underfoot in patches. There is distinctive whiff of something else in the cocktailed, stale air. The thought that a few feet above all this, people in GAP clothing are eating Souvlaki, on first dates, having anniversary dinners; making their way to the bus stop in the rain, gives me a hard on.
The toilet is locked. In the gap underneath the door there are two sets of trainers. I knock, a pretend policeman, but recall my own times inside this cubicle with various patrons. Difficult to believe I could’ve actually met someone nice. Last night I did… slipped up, oh so easy, inviting him back. Like lowering into a warm bath.
I bang on the closed door of the toilet cubicle, harder this time, with both fists.
No one here knows I am positive. In Paradise, everyone lives in a dream where stuff like that doesn’t exist, or any anything else that might make you think there might be consequences. Any sense of risk falls away when you come down the stairs, through those doors. Members who bring in female prostitutes use protection. But on the whole men on their own who go with other men, don’t: the middle-aged and married, those with girlfriends. In the week, ‘suits’ flock here after work. It’s like a convention sometimes. I’ve seen bankers tossing off bin men. Some try it on with me. I let it happen if I fancy them, else I say I’m staff. I am careful, always safe. We get loners too, who sit on their own rejecting all advances. Never take their eyes off the screen. Might unzip and have a quick wank, then leave, as if they’ve just been to the dentist. Gay porn is never on the menu. Girl on girl, plenty of that. I nip upstairs for a chat with Noddy or one of the other minders. A lot of the guys who come in are really kidding themselves. Noddy told me some geezer died in here once. Before my time. Said they had the police round. An ambulance wailing in front of the entrance. Had to shut down for two weeks. But everything got back to normal. Club’s got this special arrangement, see.
Noddy flashes the lights on then off in quick succession. I bang on the toilet door, again. Shout at them to finish whatever they’re up to. ‘Closing in ten minutes!’ And when the lights come up for good, most of the crowd scuttle away, sheepish expressions. One or two linger upstairs to get a DVD. For a tenner members can relive their favourite scenes in the privacy of…I survey the aftermath. Not as bad as expected. No one’s been sick or pissed in the sink. I go to the cleaner’s cupboard, fetch my stuff.
Once a month a contractor comes in and does a deep clean. The seats and all that. My job is to tide things over ‘til then. Pick up all the left overs – naturally I wear Marigolds. I mop the floor, bleach the toilet and wipe everything in there over with Lemon Cif. Give the place the equivalent of a barbers spruce up. Cheap cigarette lighters are the most common items left behind. I also find coins, even notes occasionally, which I pocket. Think of it as tips. Last week I found a nice wallet with a Platinum AmEx, fifties, and a business card. Name of some law firm I’ve forgotten. Careless. Lucky the owner is friendly with the Boss.
At the end of the shift, usually, I’m relieved at the prospect of a bed to myself. Something like going back to the womb. Unwashed sheets, only my smell. No awkward aftershocks to deal with. Yesterday put a lorry sized dent into all of that. Ought to have picked someone ugly, just gone for cock. This weakness I have for leggy men. Deep water territory soon as he opened his mouth. The soft melt of his voice was the hook. From the outset things went back to front. Phone numbers exchanged first not last, the touching up, peeling off, done at the end. And in between, actual intelligent conversation. Mistake, then, to ask, while toying with a packet of Green Papers, ‘What porn do you like?’ And offer something from my vast collection.
Sex sabotages everything.
When the moment arrived, I called shy. Put my hand on my Calvins and said, Better not…on account of him being already taken. No matter what he said about being on a long leash? Someone is bound to get hurt.
By the time I get home, Blondie has disappeared, but others are still there. I reckon it won’t be long before the Council cleans the girls away. Bethnal Green is on the up. I remove myself from the window. I am alone where I began with the years I thought I would never have. My Daddy was bold and did as he pleased, followed his every whim. Didn’t give a damn about rules. Aint no reason why I shouldn’t do the same.
I go to the cupboard. Open it. Lift the tin of spaghetti. I hesitate for a moment, then snatch the scrap of paper with the number on it, written like a code. On the back a chain of words. I let it slowly unfurl in my palm. ‘Go on.’ The message reads. ‘Call Me.’
So I do.
* * *
Bren Gosling is a Walthamstow based writer. He tweets at @brengosling