On the brink, at the top of the stairs, I stopped.
“You comin’?” Jamie was looking back up. Standing, grinning in the green light seeping round the edges of the big black doors. His rolly polly North Hampton accent was made for invitations. He might as well have been asking me in for tea.
The rest of the guys were already inside. If I didn’t follow, I’d be on my own in the falling nighttime cold. If I went in…
I’d never been to a strip club before. I’d never even thought about it. The more I did – in those dwindling moments left to me to make up my mind – the more unsure I was.
It would be dishonest if I claimed too much of the moral high ground for myself back then. But, even so, in a vague not fully formed way, paying to watch people undress seemed both silly and wrong. On the other hand, if I didn’t go in, the alternative was hours on my own on the streets of Liverpool. And explaining myself to the rest of the guys.
“Come on. We’ll ‘ave a laugh. Then we’ll head into town.” Jamie was like a mother hen; albeit the sort that goes to strip clubs.
“Sure,” I started down.
“It’s ten quid to get in but you get a ticket for a free lap dance when you pay”.
Inside, the roaming half-light revealed a beguilingly normal bar. Padded bench seats and slick aluminum tables surrounded a dance floor of clean, varnished wood. The seats were filled with men. Rowdy talk and laughter rode the ebb and thump of rap music.
In the middle, four or five bikini clad women were dancing; curving like equations, swaying like wind charms.
“There’s the lads!” Jamie was less distracted than me.
Our workmates had a table in the corner. We picked a path around the edge of the dance floor to where they sat.
“Owrrr…look at that. ‘as anyone ordered a dance yet?”
“Rory’s just getting one.”
Rory was our boss. Like all the company’s managers he was well-heeled. Mid thirties, boyish but groomed, thick floppy hair and a voice plummy and polished by an expensive public school somewhere. Out on the dance floor he gave one of the women his voucher and she followed him back to the table. He sat and she began to dance in front of him.
Not sure where to look, I ended up watching the other men in the club instead. They clustered in groups, hunched closer than they needed to, herding. Each bunch was different – suits, rugby lads, thin and twitchy men in thick black jerseys – but their faces shared expressions: dopey, inflated with audacity, like misbehaving school boys.
Jamie was next to get a dance. This time I watched. He sat. She moved in close. He looked at the rest of us, grinning. She removed her bikini top and started to twist with the music. With her hands she lifted and lowered her breasts, leaning in so that they were inches away from his face. Jamie’s cheeks puffed out like he was holding his breath. The effort of having to focus on something so close was making him cross-eyed.
It must have lasted three minutes. She had a pretty face, auburn hair, and flow and curves – and yet the dance was as seductive as algebra. There was nothing tangible that made it that way; her twists and turns were technically correct, and her part-open mouth and intent stare had all the dimensions of lust. But it was acting. Of course. And I’m not sure how you’re meant to be attracted to an act.
When the time was up, she stopped in an instant and snapped her bikini back on. Her eyes radiated a bruised kind of anger. Jamie said thanks, I think, but by then she was already striding back to the dance floor.
“You like that?”
“If you buy me a beer I’ll give you my dance ticket.”
“Alright. ‘ere’s ten quid. Get me one too.”
I stood at the bar for a bit and looked around, bubbles tumbling over my tongue. Jamie was starting his second dance, the rugby lads were cheering, the nervous guys in the black jerseys were starting to relax. Around it all, a remix of one of the summer’s R & B hits was playing. A rap track that bounced over, of all things, a sample from Bach. I was walking back towards the dance floor when it happened. For just a moment the base and vocals stopped and the only music left was the sample, played on a flute.
I don’t think anyone else actually noticed. The women kept dancing and the men kept watching. But, for a second or two, context stolen by the three hundred year old ode to a prince that filled the club, it all seemed almost beautiful. Not the dancers, and certainly not the patrons but everything together – the mess we make of things.
And then, luckily, before the universe collapsed, the bass kicked in again and the moment was swallowed.
Oh – and the name of the Bach tune that was being sampled: Air on the G String. Seriously.
Hmmmmm…..well I’m going to publish this, just to get it of my drafts list. Despite the fact that it didn’t really work. And despite my worry that it will seem like empty moralising or a justification of strip bars. Just to be clear: I don’t think women who undress for money are bad, I don’t think men who go to strip clubs are bad. But I do think the whole phenomenon is kindof sad. And I think a world without strip clubs would be a better one.
[Update:the Guardian has a grim report on the English Lap Dancing industry.]