I remember my last day in Soho; Kez was on the door and I was the only girl around. There would normally have been two of us, but the Sunday afternoon shift was particularly insidious. It was a come down to top them all off; just as the drugs were wearing thin, you had to wank off some desperate middle-aged loser. After, I would sneak through the door at the back of my room, into the old theatre space where at one time real shows would have taken place; the curtains, pillars and feathered props now stained and dusty were all that remained of the original Soho Cabaret. Not merely lewd acts performed one on one in under-decorated, poorly lit back rooms. Behind a pillar I tightened the tourniquet and pierced my arm; only a few hours to go, or perhaps not for once. I told Kez I’d had enough and he was sweet. A couple of years older than me and of slight build, he was unusually sensitive and to me seemed unlikely for a doorman of an illegal sex industry establishment. Still, like so many employees of that scene, he was born around it. I would pay him my rent plus a generous tip and then he could close since no other girl had shown up.
I took the opportunity of letting big fat Jimmy – the Glaswegian boss – know of my intention to ditch the job when he descended the stairs from the street. He predicted defensively, “You’ll be back. You’ll definitely be back. All the girls always come back to this job.” I said, “I won’t,” and was sure that I meant it, all the more sure for his affirmation. He didn’t know what was within me, what potential I held. He could not see that, otherwise he wouldn’t have been managing peepshows and brothels.
There was a degree of planning involved. I had flights booked, and I knew change was in the air; I’d never flown before. Ok it was to Amsterdam, so no great departure in ambiance, but subtle change. This time I’d walk round the notorious red light zone and I’d be a tourist, just a tourist; not a product for hire. I’d swap injectables for smokables, and I’d smoke in public with everyone else. I’d meet people too, and they wouldn’t know me or what I’d done; just a girl on holiday by herself for the first time.
I was lucky, and not for the last time; I was not from that world and I did not belong there. Yet for a while it fed, clothed and moved me, its alternative corruption infecting my growing mind. So overt was its otherness that the appeal engendered liberation, I had allowed myself to deviate from tired conventionality of suburban middle classes. In those dens of neon cocktails and painted ladies all types of men would enter to sample whatever was available, most remarkable to me was the broad spectrum of male type. Not what I had expected but although particular types proliferated, all classes and races were represented. I even had one customer of the ‘new man’ category, and he was so charming that he refused the offered favours and asked to merely talk with me, not dirty just real.
I could see that Kez was my male counterpart for that year. Bright and alert his blue eyes flashed as he questioned me. Brought up by a heroin addicted father he was staunchly averse to drug use. My own use was borderline, not fully trapped or forced to horrendous measures I engaged in a lifestyle that distanced me from many for a long time to come. But I had arrived on the scene with a ready-made visa to leave at some given point. Prior to my first shift at ‘Girls Girls Girls’, I had completed my A levels. Generally poor but when the grades came through a couple of months later, an A in English Lit was all that really counted for me from that time in the 6th form. I could have continued unhappily to take up my place at the University of East Anglia in English and Film, but around the time that I first tried injecting in the Spring, a new friend, Chris, asked me what I wanted to do with the following year. I responded that I intended to be a junkie, and so it was; and surely that was where I could learn most since there I would open myself more freely and as I felt, have the greatest chance of undoing years of socialisation and the negative affects of unhappy upbringing. I was not lonely or in bad company and the people I met interested me for their difference as well as norm-breaking vitality. Generally intelligent, their backgrounds seemed truly diverse. Drop outs and misfits from all walks of life congregated at the Slimelight in those days – an appealing mixture of the very upper class and utterly working class, many eastern as well as northern Europeans.
My last customer was an Indian chap who expected to get it all for £1.50, the misguided fool, but what aching pleasure I took informing him that he almost got what he wanted (not actually true) except that I had just at that exact moment quit and there was no one else to do the job! If there had been any doubt in my mind that today was my last there, he had quelled it.
How a girl like myself stuck it out there as long as I did may be down to certain chance factors. I don’t think I would have lasted so long in a conventional lap dancing venue for example. I don’t have that sort of pin-up feminine appeal, and alongside those sorts of ladies I don’t generally fare so favourably; I cannot always be bothered with much make up and rarely make time to shave my legs. At the Soho Cabaret one had greater freedom and could even play one’s own choice of music in the room. True – the sex acts were more full-on than mere dancing requires, but I could appreciate the irony of being accompanied by Ministry’s ‘So What’, Hole’s ‘Teenage Whore’ or Therapy’s ‘Teeth Grinder’ instead of being forced to listen to the usual inane shit. There is a particular variety of cheesy nineties dance music, the chart sort, tracks such as ‘Scat Man’ that to this day bring a shiver to the back of my head, as they were part of the looped soundtrack in ‘Girls Girls Girls’.
I don’t recall the other girls too well; on a busy shift we wouldn’t see each other much. One lady was my age now and had presumably been doing that in some form or another since her teens. Her brother she told me was a rent boy in Kings Cross. I just didn’t know anyone else like that and mature and kind as she was, I knew I never wanted that life for as long as she’d done it. But she probably didn’t know too many drop out would be students, or maybe she did. Certainly in the dancing establishments a wider variety of women worked, but down in the Cabaret, I’d have to say it was more down and out. Few were open about their drug habits although I remember Baz, another abbreviated doorman, this time of characteristic stocky bouncer-like build, claiming to be addicted to ecstasy. Not a drug famed for hooking one, he said he required at least ten a day and regularly took scores. Baz was eager to find a willing female to join him in Amsterdam working in a sex club, performing ten hours a day for a tidy sum. None were tempted, apparently not even his girlfriend.
A good shift would see me rolling home in a taxi with £500 in my bag – I’d never seen so much money before. It more than paid for my relatively cheap habits. Once a week, our dealer would visit on a Wednesday evening. A pattern quickly emerged of thereby staying up till Friday before resting in time for the weekend’s madness. Clubs on Friday and Saturday, maybe a gig on Sunday, sometimes I found it exhausting, I was not made even at that age for such relentless tumult. The emotional fall-out was contributing to my weakness considerably. Obviously I had fallen out largely with my family, mainly Mother, and whilst on one level felt such enormous relief at being shot of them and having found a new family, on another I was less strong. There was despite huge claims to genuineness, a lot of superficiality going on in that scene (The Slimelight) unsurprisingly. In the first case there was undeniably a pressure to be hot, incredibly sexy, at all times in public i.e. with friends, clubbing and at work. My identity was enmeshed with my appearance and also being suitably flirty and perhaps outrageous. I think I am naturally more introverted, and that time was a test to that personal aspect.
Secondly, despite mutual fucked-up-ness, fellow clubbing friends seemed to be less extricated in awkward emotionally trying employment. Some had been there before I knew them but their use there had fortunately expired. Unemployment may have been healthier, but never having had money, I indulged in a kind of independence. Looking back I see that I must have substituted real independence for a very compromising financial one. And what I had not counted on was how much more difficult it would be to actually re-enter the ‘middle class’ world of college and meaningful employment. I changed, and subtly my esteem reduced. Yes, I achieved a sort of would-be fame within the scene as desirable, model female, but to very few really. Drugs gave a missing confidence its first voice.
There were the effects of being sex symbol to an older male crowd. I used to marvel at the high proportion of beautiful women around, it could be a lovely and fascinating place to look at people, the Slimelight. Bold as I tried to appear, various wanted a piece of the action, and those close enough did their best to dig a portion out no matter the damage. I found my main partner quite a head fuck though it is apparent to me that I was easily his equal if slightly less knowing. To be the ‘boyfriend’ of one so wanted and even vulnerable for a lack of direction cannot have been any picnic. To this day I do not think anyone has taught me more. He had lived it all and more before, so his seven years senior to me could have been twenty-seven. It took me many more to get over him for I am sure I think that I may never be in quite such strife as I was then.
Hard as it has been to re-integrate, one beauty of such a past is that from there any improvement may be more easily appreciated. When I realised I could hold down a straight though dull job ushering at the National Theatre, I stayed for years unsure what else I could do. It was nigh on impossible to get sacked from that position as long as you didn’t try to work whilst blatantly drunk, disregarding sick audience members collapsing in the auditorium!
What had occurred with Mum? I remember her mental deterioration more than physical and on learning of her condition felt certain of karma. I had wished her dead since so young and now she was dying, already dead inside, if she had ever lived. In the evenings she’d scream, in the loft I’d drown her out with Bauhaus, Alien Sex Fiend. Irreparably unhappy, her minute world could only descend to angry ranting. I checked the music press for gigs, and set out on a night of adventure as her hatred drove me away. I found no mirror to my own sense of dereliction in those around me at school, so I went it alone in order to find new company.
Jimmy was right; I did go back. Only a few months ago I was posing naked in Wardour Street to a room of twenty-somethings, mainly men; however it was the life drawing group at the Moving Picture Company, an animation studio. I recalled my very first experience of nudity in that area. Ok, I’d worked the clip joints in my underwear, but before employing my best female friend and I, Jimmy wanted to see us stripped entirely naked in his office on Frith Street. It was simply to ascertain whether we had any unsightly scars or tattoos and lasted seconds.
They used to call her ‘the Amazon woman’ as she stood tall in a doorway on Rupert Street telling most people to fuck off when she was supposed to be enticing them downstairs. Her long red hair, striking height, menacing make up and revealing attire constructed from bullets and metal plates, together with attitude earned her such reputation. She didn’t last long in those jobs and quickly had to search elsewhere, probably for the best. She got involved with a new boyfriend shortly after beginning at the Cabaret and he didn’t react well to such vulgar means of earning, so soon she missed enough shifts to be sacked. I stuck it out alone; well, someone had to pay the rent, and unlike hers, my parents were not sending emergency cheques. Her fall out with her folks was less personal than my situation, rather religious in substance. From an obscure Christian sect her upbringing had been sheltered, so her rebellion was ideological more than emotional. Her Mother wrote imploring, loving letters which she unreservedly rejected but I could see the problem was actually less deep.
She was an extreme character, enormously attractive in so many ways. In the beginning we grew closer and closer, protecting and teaching one another. She was quite awesome to behold and her mental capacities matched up to the image. With no time for fools, she believed the world would end imminently, as soon as whichever world leader pressed the little red button. She condemned those who had children and was convinced the whole world could only be woken up by putting enough acid in the water. Other forces were also at play and our differing agendas became apparent. In some ways she was brighter than me with less heavy burden dragging her down. Simultaneously she was childish and arrogant, developing strong bitchy tendencies which eventually distanced her from many. That included me, and we never really got close again. I will always have respect and admiration for her single-mindedness and ambition. Today she lives in Jerusalem, teaching cello and singing to Palestinian children. She’d never played or sung before she left the scene.
I met her at the right time for we both needed to move and at 18 could benefit from each other’s company. A friend found us a basement of a warehouse which we rented under the guise of artists for our studio. Flouting the contract we moved in, installing cooker and bath. We knocked down plasterboard walls to create largely open plan space and a thousand square feet were decorated with unique artworks and particular lighting. Trawling the fetish clubs we drummed up business for our becoming dungeon; bankers and judges visited for punishment and humiliation, and this was the side of the sex industry that interested me most. Paid very well for what was at times surreal and often fun, we invented abstract games to employ our slaves. They longed to be feminised, pissed on and beaten; we took pleasure in providing the pain. One gentleman requested to stay for an entire weekend; well, that was a mistake. After a while we got so bored of him we couldn’t be bothered to keep up the act, and he left prematurely disillusioned!
To clarify: if domination was so financially rewarding and uncompromising mentally, why did I maintain my seedy job in Soho? Because, being a dominatrix was fun sometimes, but if I’d had to make more of an effort or done it more regularly, it would have been like any other job, and inconveniently it was in our home. It was illegal and with men visiting more frequently we may have aroused suspicion and needed full time security – not just boyfriends lurking in the bedroom. Four years imprisonment would have been standard. Soho gave me a more convenient stability.
The rest of the time our home was populated by various of our cohorts, and was a fantastic venue for parties. Our acid punch was highly memorable and I made many new friends on these occasions. It is the dancing and the celebrating that I miss most from that time. I have at times gone back to visit – the clubs that is, since that home was lost long ago. It will never be the same as when my hormones pulsated vibrantly to those industrial beats, my emotional heart feeling the earliest signs of independence. How I connected to that place, those people! At best euphoria, and not always drug induced.
Chris would deliver me to Brewer Street in the afternoons as I rushed to my position. So much of this city I saw from the back of his motorcycle, speeding dealer to den, Soho to Angel. I felt safe whatever risk we took; he alone I trusted, but also betrayed, though, in such circumstances who could blame me?
His story moved me, made mine seem innocuous; how dangerous! To save such potential, for I adored him and knew he was made for far better things; yet how I unsettled him! He knew me too well and rebuked that I might learn myself better, for my own sake.
In the end I became tired of the endless rounds of junkies arriving, mostly males, so geeky. I could do without, and a new job waitressing twelve hour days altered my pattern and introduced me to another world. I desperately needed to move on and took whatever opportunistic move life granted. It came in the form of a random Italian.
So I ask; what can one do when one has been trained so effectively in making a living by removing one’s clothes? Is it a disease and treatment available? Or will it end my days naked, only my body to store my secrets?
I seem to occupy a place just marginally, barely significant, inconsequential. Sometimes I feel most alive these days as I take Mum out in her wheel chair; whirl her on a dance floor or smash through commuting bankers to hold up a bus. Yes, my Mother and I have come a long way since my teenage rebellion and the beginning of her Multiple Sclerosis. The right things have been said, but sometimes it’s so hard to put the past behind you. I went to drama school unready for precocious and sophisticated young ladies fresh from privileged homes; when the whole point of drama is to connect, I floundered, little commonality between us. I graduated but my main achievement was putting myself in therapy; the stress of the final year saw me retreating weekly to a women’s group for those struggling with drug problems. Many drama students find that time a life changing one; it hardly registered on the scale after my formative years, and I didn’t know how to share that. I did try; my final practical dissertation was an attempted physical theatre piece, inspired by my Soho/Slimelight gap years. Not casting from my classmates I enlisted Chris, my ex, to tell his tale with me, as well as Rebecca, my sister, who was just starting at the same drama school.
A very good old friend, Chris, drawn by me the other day.
One thought on “Drawing From The Past (written 18 months ago) ~ Dedicated to Old Friends”
What a beautiful essay, full of the moment but also of insights gained over the years. Thank you.