Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 4

Fashion, Shelter, Food

There was no time for sadness; I had about four hours of daylight to find digs. A nightly rate, even at the slum where we'd spent the night, was out of the question. Fortune favours the brave according to purveyors of proverbs, but it also favours the ignorant. Unaware of the accommodation shortage and the overcrowded hostels of work-seekers descending on the capital, I hoisted my bag onto a bus labelled Victoria.

"Hold very tight, please!" called the conductor, "ting, ting," went the bell as we lurched off – causing all those standing to lose their footing, and grab in panic for the straps. Flanders and Swan would have been delighted. I took it as a propitious omen.

'Pimlico,' the street signs said. I liked the name, so alighted outside a corner store with a noticeboard in the window. Under "Bed-Sits" were a dozen flyblown cards interspersed with several newish ones. A bed-sit is a wonderful invention. Enterprising couples bought up large old houses in the inner boroughs, divided them into as many rooms as possible, installed the minimum of furniture, a gas ring, and cold-water hand basin, added a couple of communal bathrooms and toilets, then let them out as individual flats.

The owners lived in the basement, hitherto the province of the servants, and raked in the shekels, having nothing to do except keep the stairways clean and bathrooms functioning. A bed-sit was exactly what I, and thousands of other young people, wanted.

Boarding houses with their fixed meal times, nosey landladies going through personal effects as they 'serviced' the rooms, were not appreciated by the new generation of individuals who wanted to be free to come and go as they pleased.

I noted the addresses on the newer looking cards, sought directions from a series of passers-by, suffered the words, "Sorry, love, it's taken," three times, crossed my fingers at the fourth address, and rang the bell at an impressive, red-paint-peeling door stuck between a pair of soot-blackened Doric half-columns. A head that bore an uncanny resemblance to Raphael's Galatea appeared in the doorway of the basement flat directly below.


"I've come about the bed-sit."

"Wait!" The door slammed and several long minutes later the red door opened.

Built like a bison. The epithet flopped into my head unbidden. Galatea's melancholy head was supported on massive shoulders and breasts, over which a gorgeously flowered mini housecoat strained its buttons. Rolled up sleeves revealed great red hams of arms, terminating in tiny fat fingers. This awesome thorax tapered to normal hips, satisfactory legs, finely turned ankles and small feet tucked into purple slippers.

She looked me up and down, spun on her heel and barked in a harsh contralto, "Follow."

I followed into a high-ceilinged hallway containing a side table, a pay telephone, and a flight of stairs with an elaborate curved banister. Double doors were set into the right-hand wall.

"That's Mr. Sanders," she said as we passed. He's been with me for nine years, so don't annoy him.

I assured her I wouldn't, and trailed her up three flights of stairs – the third markedly less elaborate as we mounted towards what used to be servants' quarters.

"It's a nice little room with morning sun," she announced, shepherding me through a narrow door into what appeared to be an under-the-stairs cupboard. Inside was like the Tardis – unexpectedly large because it opened out into the blocked off end of the hallway, providing space for a bed, gas ring, cold water hand basin, coat hooks, and easy chair. A grimy window overlooked a narrow, walled garden containing an incinerator, a broken garden chair, a dead tree, and the backs of similar dark grey terraced houses, one of which was missing – like a pulled tooth.

"Bomb hit that place,' she announced, pointing at the vacant spot. "The old bloke next door's still deaf. Whole family incinerated." With a grim smile and scarcely a pause for breath, she continued, "Two pounds a week, and how long since you washed?"

I decided not to take offence, and explained the train journey and the hotel room with cold water.

"It's only a hop and a jump down to the bathroom, so that's convenient," she stated positively, marching me down to the twin of my little closet that had been converted into a bathroom.

A gigantic claw-footed bath crowned with a showerhead shaped like a crown occupied the centre. On the wall behind hung a geyser; its gas meter below. A washbasin, mirror and hard-backed chair completed the furnishings.

There was little room to move. She flattened herself against the wall to allow me to squash against enormous soft breasts to see how to work the meter. If she was aware of the intimacy, she didn't let on. Very often as a shirtless boy or teenager, matrons would find excuses to press their breasts against my shoulders. I always assumed they didn't realise they were doing it, but of course women are well aware of the exact location of their tits and what they're squashing them against. It left me with what I can only describe as 'tit terror' – occasioning the odd nightmare in which large breasted women smother me.

My reverie was interrupted by Mrs. Hockey's abrasive contralto announcing proudly, "Sixpence will give you enough hot water for a shower and shave." It seemed fair enough, so we descended to her warm cave where I was introduced to a strikingly handsome but gaunt man in a wheelchair, knees swathed in a blanket.

"This is Mr. Hockey," she said, waving her hand in the general direction of the invalid. We shook hands. "He's in a wheelchair because the French barn his unit was sheltering in took a direct hit.

"Bloody Yank bomb! Everyone else died," she continued callously. "I suppose he was lucky – if having no legs can be considered lucky."

She started banging pots and dishes in the sink as if in protest. I was embarrassed by her candour, but her husband merely smiled, took my details, wrote a receipt for two pounds, gave me my room and front door keys and wished me luck. I hoped I didn't look as if I'd need it.

The Hockey halls were empty, so wearing nothing but the towel I'd pinched from the hotel as compensation for the broken glass, I skipped down the stairs. Sixpence in the slot, turn on the tap, blue flames roared, hot water sprayed… bang! No flames, and freezing water. Should I go back to my room and dress? The place was a morgue and it was only two flights of stairs to the basement, so I raced down and knocked briskly.

She glared at my towel, informed me that two of her tenants were Scottish lassies of a Calvinist persuasion, and she would be obliged if I would wear something more conventional in future. I apologised and explained the situation.

She waved me back upstairs, arriving almost on my heels clutching a spanner with which she loosened a nut, banged on the pipes and set it all to rights, slamming the door on the way out.

Luxuriating in the hot, steamy, soapy sensuousness of a long overdue shower, I was taking great care to inspect and thoroughly clean the bits of me that had come into intimate contact with Mik, when Mrs. Hockey's head peered around the door.

"All working?"

Before I had the wit to cover myself, she had barked a laugh and gone. I got out and locked the door, as I should have done before. I didn't mind being looked at, but I didn't want to get on the wrong side of the Calvinist lassies.

It seemed a crime to cover clean flesh with less-than-clean clothes, but with no choice, I chose the least smelly and lugged my bag down to see if the house contained a laundry. Mr. Sanders, a pleasant, somewhat corpulent man of indeterminate age, was just locking his door, so I asked him, and he directed me to the nearest laundrette… a novelty that had not arrived back home where everyone had a clothesline and the air was full of sunlight, not smuts.

He accompanied me, pointing out things he thought might be of interest on the way, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti's studio, and the house where Thomas Carlisle had written his last novel. Mr. Sanders had been active during the war, but apart from indicating a few spots where evidence remained, refused to be drawn on it.

The War. I hadn't given it a thought back home. But in London the war remained very much in evidence. Empty spaces where houses must have stood. A ruined wall. A pile of stones. Great holes in vacant land. Building and reconstruction work everywhere. Derelicts wasting away on park benches, empty-eyed, sad. Lame men standing in doorways or wandering like ghosts. To me it was an aeon since the war. To those who had endured it, it was but yesterday; a mere sixteen years.

I shook off the melancholy, dumped the entire contents of my suitcase, including the towel into a washing machine, and spent the next forty-five minutes exploring the neighbourhood. Filthy brown brick terraces with the occasional brightly painted door piercing the gloom. Narrow streets with a few shouting infants, opening on to wide, busy thoroughfares full of similar terraced houses, shops, a supermarket (from which I purchased a dozen bread rolls, a packet of cheese and a few bananas), a post office, and a modern, six-storey block of council flats. Layer upon layer of identical boxes accessed by a front walkway open to the elements. Red painted doors did little to alleviate the cheap monotony.

I wandered into one of the stairwells. Rubbish, broken glass, scratched and damaged paint, graffiti. One lift was open – the door smashed. Inside a pile of human shit and the stench of urine. If the only other lift broke down, I felt sorry for those on the top floors. Clearly not everyone was benefiting from the post-war boom. As I unloaded the dryer, I realised I hadn't seen a single tree or plant. I was in a concrete jungle. The thought was bizarrely thrilling.

After a meal of bread, cheese, and banana in my room, I took a walk through nearby streets, then home to sleep like a dead dog. I'd neither seen nor heard any other tenants.

I woke early the following morning. The sun may well have shone through my window, had clouds not been piled up in front. My clothes looked tacky after their battle with the washing machine and a too hot dryer, so I selected the least damaged and decided that job hunting would have to wait. If I wanted to be taken seriously I needed to look reasonably well dressed. After a breakfast of bread, cheese, and banana, I bounded downstairs.

The high-pitched squeals of spicy female gossip were issuing from the stairs leading to Mrs. Hockey's basement. I'm not an eavesdropper, but I wanted to ask Mrs. Hockey's advice on shopping for clothes, and it would have been rude to interrupt.

"No! Really?" The accent was different from Mrs. Hockey's Irish lilt.

"I swear, like a flagpole!" insisted my landlady.

"And…" a squeal of incredulity and a gasp of excitement, "he let you see everything?"

"Everything! He wasn't shy in the least. You've no idea how innocent he is. He's a colonial, although you'd never guess it from his accent – talks like a toff. Colonials are much easier about these things – it's all that sun; goes to their loins." Then followed a trivial anecdote as Mrs. Hockey led the way to the front door and opened it.

Well! Talk about embellishing the truth! She'd caught a mere glimpse of my manhood. And as for letting her see it, I'd had no choice in the matter; she'd barged in! Was I innocent? Ignorant, I admit, but innocent? I decided I didn't mind being labelled innocent. It might be useful. At least she'd made me sound interesting.

Mrs. Hockey was sorting the mail so I pretended I'd just come down, and asked where to buy cheap clothes.

Fulham Broadway markets lay beyond Earl's Court where the guys from the ship were possibly still waiting to share digs with me. They were pleasant enough, but respectable, and I didn't want to be respectable. Nor did I want to be disreputable. I simply wanted to be free to discover my essential self – whoever that was. I knew they'd want to party, do the usual colonials-in-London thing, while I wanted to remain healthy, well slept, drug free, fit, and honest – like the noble younger son in all those Grimm's' Fairy Tales I'd imbibed with Mother's milk. I was determined to be worth inheriting the Crystal Castle and the Princess, (I still wasn't admitting I'd prefer the Prince.) Foolish dreams? My head's always been full of those.

The market provided me with sharkskin stove-pipe trousers, so tight they had zips on the lower inside leg, two white shirts with two spare collars (London air was so filthy that collars needed washing twice a day, while the shirt could last a week if you didn't sweat) collar studs, string tie (no male was permitted anywhere in those days without a tie) black socks, and a bum-freezer collarless jacket as worn by The Beatles. No underpants because I've always hated them, and they'd show through the slinky tight trousers.

The slender, green-eyed assistant joined me in the tiny changing booth, his outrageous compliments earning him the right to defuse my erection so the trousers could be buttoned up. Feeling mightily relieved, I thanked him and falsely promised to come past again soon.

As I left, he popped into my bag a colourful knitted string tie that I wore until it disintegrated. I stuffed my old clothes into a carry bag and, sartorially resplendent, added a shiny pair of winkle-pickers with newspaper-stuffed points that extended three inches beyond my toes. Horrendously uncomfortable, but it was an essential component of a fashion that, it must be admitted, suited very few.

The streets were awash with young men looking like big-bummed pixies – from their long hair down to their skinny legs and ridiculously long pointed-toed shoes that frequently caught in escalators. But we were fashionable; until corns grew on little toes and crippled us.

The girls fared no better. Boots grew higher as skirts grew shorter and disappeared. Despite the chill there were young women with boots up to their knees, bare thighs mauve-veined from cold, and bulky sweaters that exposed one shoulder and barely covered their lacy knickers. Thousands of young women stood on trains, buses, in parks.... afraid to sit down for fear of receiving a summons for indecent exposure. But it was fun.

I'd always worn my hair brushed straight back, but the hairdresser informed me that a bare forehead did me no favours with such a large nose. He washed, rinsed, combed, snipped, and blew it dry with a hand-held dryer, a degree of attention reserved strictly for women where I came from.

Feeling wondrously decadent, I gazed in rapture at my new façade. Hair brushed forward took the arrogance off my nose and I felt like Marlon Brando as Marc Antony. It was five shillings well spent.

Mrs. Hockey grinned. "Got yourself some Westminster Abbey trousers then?"

"Westminster Abbey?"

"Yes.... the ballroom."

"But.... there's no ballroom in Westminster Abbey."

"Exactly!" She hooted like a drain.

She was right; I was only comfortable when standing, but I was fashionable and ready to storm the footlights!

Having been blessed with a mother whose idea of cooking was boiling everything to tastelessness, I've never developed a lust for food. As long as I'm not starving I'm contented. Eating only if you're hungry, makes mince as attractive as steak; bread and cheese as satisfying as any plat du jour. I still never go to a restaurant or fast food outlet if a bread and cheese merchant is handy. The savings over my life amount to tens of thousands of dollars. Until I found a job, I'd decided to eat nothing except bread, cheese and fruit, washed down with tap water.

Stomach satisfied; light of heart and head, I caught the tube to the West End. I had about four hours of daylight to find work.

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