Thursday, 14 November 2013

Underground by C.T. Kingston

Read by Michael Rogers

A small, nondescript bar with a pink neon sign; a basement entrance with scabby railings painted blue. That's what he told me, before he knocked back his whisky and left a pound on the bar for a five-shilling tab. I let that buy my drink too, waited two minutes, then left and followed his tall, trenchcoated figure through the evening fog, hanging back dawdling hard on corners so that we wouldn't seem to be together.

This place is discreet; it has to be, he'd said. They don't want drones crowding the front door, looking for a taste of honey, He'd spoken in a casual undertone, his eyes on a tinplate toucan advertising Guinness which was hung above the pint glasses. Momentarily his gaze had locked with mine and flicked away again. They have a couple of entrances on different streets, he'd continued, so if there's a police raid you can scatter. 

He'd waited until the barmaid was safely down the other end of the bar, busying herself with the optics. She'd have been disgusted if she'd had any idea what we were talking about. Some women these days are liberal, surprisingly so, but I'd glimpsed her pairbond ring as she was pulling my pint and she didn't look the broadminded sort. She would have fainted if she'd known I was thinking about her deep milky cleavage. I'd smiled and kept my eyes firmly on hers as she handed me my change, but peripheral vision's a wonderful thing.

That was when he caught me looking.

“Some girl got lucky, eh?” he said softly as the barmaid turned away. I twitched my head toward him fractionally, electrified, unable to believe my ears, terrified that the woman might have heard him.

“What?” I said. The barmaid moved to serve another customer. I lowered my head and leaned into him like we were flirting. He whispered in my ear, “I saw you looking, my friend. Who wouldn't? I know a little bar near here where there are girls who'd enjoy the attention.”

To my shame, I knew men like me existed, of course I did; but girls? Only in the most exotic and hardcore pornography – the kind that didn't exist in my tiny village, or even Market Burford; indeed, anywhere except the sinful city of London – did women allow themselves to be … polluted that way. The vagina and its secrets were sacred to the female sex and always had been: the only time a male should be inside one, as the old saying went, was when he was being born.

But I couldn't stop thinking about them. About it. Which was why I'd saved enough from my weekend job sweeping hair clippings at Boys' Beauty in Brookdale Village to make the daunting trip to Soho. I knew prostitutes existed, having read many a thundering leader about them in the Daily Record, but had no idea how much one might charge – especially for what I wanted. There was only one way to find out.

Girls who'd enjoy it? What was he telling me? Was this a trap? Was he a pimp? Surely no woman would allow a man to do … that, there, voluntarily? My brain span with newspaper stories of innocent young men up from the country, fleeced or worse by unscrupulous spivs and conmen who preyed on their innocence. Or perhaps he intended to blackmail me as the worst sort of pervert? Lead me astray then demand money not to have me arrested, shame my father, send me to jail, end my life ...

“Don't look so frightened!” he said with a grin, “I won't bite. Another two Bell's over here!” he called to the deep-bosomed barmaid. As she poured them he stroked my lapel coquettishly until she smiled indulgently, and gave us the privacy two lovebirds might require.

He was a handsome fellow, perhaps ten years my senior, which would put him in his early thirties; he had reddish-blond hair, blue eyes and a fresh tan which didn't come from a bottle. I liked all these things but not in a man, and God knows I'd tried. With Jake, captain of the cricket team at school. With Alastair Baker, whom I met on my first day of National Service. I had thought we were best friends, but he had a dreadful passion for me, and hanged himself in the barracks because I would not make love to him. With poor Tom of Scatcherd Farm, whose sister Joan I imagined nightly, her stockinged ankles flitting through my dreams which became nightmares because I could not catch her, and knew I shouldn't long to. Tom had looked so like Joan, I'd thought it might work – but it didn't.

After completing my National Service, I had crept, ashamed, back to my little village as a mouse might to its hole, to assist my Reverend father in the compilation of his neverending History of Middlesex Church Architecture. On weekends I swept at Boys' Beauty, hoping to meet a boy beautiful as a girl and fall in love with him, and becoming more and more convinced that I never would. This was my life, and this was all my life. The world, and the Daily Record, and my father's God told me that people like me deserved no more.

And then a man in a cheap, smoky public house on Poland Street had told me that I could have everything I had dreamed of, if only I followed him to a bar with a pink neon sign and blue railings.

The neon glowed in the drizzle like the promise of heaven. The name of the place was the Commissionary, but the first three letters had shorted out. A code word for those like myself. The ultimate perversion, the unimaginable vice. Down the wet steps past an obsequious doorman who winked at me – but he was not flirting, it was a friendly signal of complicity. Into a dark room hot with cigarette smoke and the sweetness of spirits. French wine on the tables, nestled between couples who were quite brazenly sitting together despite their opposing gender. On a tiny, spotlit stage a shapely woman with cascading blonde hair sang a duet with her male pianist about “he and she love/you and me love”. When the song ended, they kissed lightly on the lips, and everybody applauded.

I saw him sitting up at the bar, like the older brother I never had, ready to welcome me to where I'd always belonged. He raised his whisky to me and nodded at the barmaid, who smiled at me as if at an old friend.

“You're buying,” he said, “and Celia here will have one too.”

I blushed as I ordered. Celia was blue-eyed with hair red like a flame and a soft husky voice that reminded me of Joan Scatcherd and when I met her eye, she didn't look away.

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