Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 9

Work and Play

By the time I arrived home I'd convinced myself I'd been lucky to have experienced a bit of the 'low life' one reads about; emerging unscathed – apart from a dose of well-deserved embarrassment. I hadn't lost any money – just performed for free. And it was rather funny – but not something I'd tell anyone. Best of all, it was clear from they way they ignored me at the end that the Boss had lost interest in me so I was perfectly safe. After a hot shower I slept like a log.

On Sunday, a twenty-seven year-old red haired South African in a bed-sit on the floor below, invited me for a pub lunch and drink with his colleague. They were clerks in the same legal firm; friendly, normal, non-athletic blokes whose idea of fun was to unsuccessfully chat up females well outside their league and talk about TV programmes. To assist digestion we walked slowly down to the river, across to Battersea Amusement Park, then ended up at a Poets' evening in a barn of a pub.

Amateurs performing their own stuff is not riveting entertainment, especially when I could only understand half of what they said, and what I did hear sounded maudlin. I'm a philistine when it comes to poetry. I only like stuff in which the poet's meaning and intention is crystal clear. I also demand that it rhymes and either triggers a smile or makes me think. Pleading an early appointment, I returned home to read and sleep.

On Monday I bought the new Equity magazine, checked it and a newspaper for jobs, then visited Melvyn at his large and discreetly elegant Bond street emporium. The demure assistants were far too polite to question my less than elegant apparel, but swapped knowing smiles when I said I was just going to see Melvyn.

In a dark suit, polished shoes and a pale grey silk tie, he nodded vaguely and said he'd be with me shortly. I thought he'd forgotten who I was, but after disposing of a fussy customer he glanced around to check he wasn't being watched, then dragged me into a dressing room to apologise for missing my show on Saturday. I graciously granted absolution; very relieved he hadn't witnessed the fiasco.

That evening we visited a classically porticoed house in a Belgravia terrace, the ground floor of which was devoted to a bar and lounge opening on to a tiny garden containing tables and umbrellas to keep off the freezing rain. It was super in summer, someone assured me.

The décor of the ineptly named Apollo Club was subdued creams and beige, chosen to match the clientele. Middle-aged, well-fleshed queens dressed casually in smart cavalry twill trousers, white shirts, ties and reefer jackets or sports coats with leather patches on the elbows. About ten of these fellows were glued to comfortable armchairs around a low central coffee table, sipping pink gins or something equally upper.

A fat, camp and irritatingly jovial barman served drinks. I carried mine to a table at one end while Melvyn chatted languidly to a large pompous fellow resonating with Home Counties vowels.

According to Melvyn, he was the Queen Mother's butler and, if you believed him, her confidant. His coterie included a parliamentary under-secretary, the second son of a lord, the secretary to someone important, a bullish guardsman from the Queen's Royal Regiment, and a couple of soft, well-fed fellows of sycophantic mien. A few younger, but not better-looking fellows slumped over the arms of chairs or stood awkwardly behind, whispering together.

Melvyn was acknowledged by the 'royal' table because he was the manager of a Bond Street Boutique – I was merely 'trade'. One's worth, in this rarefied atmosphere, was determined by one's place of work or one's antecedents. I guessed that Club Strip wasn't on their list of respectable workplaces, and felt mildly incongruous in revealingly tight trousers, T-shirt and cheap leather jacket from C&A. The music was discreet but danceable, however Melvyn preferred to gossip with acquaintances, leaving me to roam.

I tried to chat with a couple of uninteresting young men who eyed me up and down as if wondering what I was, before turning back to their equally frumpish mates. I felt unloved and unlovely.

No dancing, no kissing, no touching or holding hands. Everyone shit-scared they were going to be raided and caught in flagrante delicto.

It's impossible to imagine anything more different from the gay bars and dance halls that in recent years have resurrected Soho, which is now like a big gay village with dance halls and bars on both sides of Old Compton Street and in the side alleys; not to mention the busy clubs at Vauxhall and in the East End from Hoxton Square to Stratford. As for film festivals and Gay Pride… not even in our wildest dreams could we have imagined such things.

At the time, I just thought they were pathetic. A few weeks later after a brush with bigoted Catholic homophobia, I learned the reason for their discretion – fear. Every queer male lived with the constant fear of police harassment, public humiliation and criminal convictions. If it was thought someone was homosexually inclined they could be summarily dismissed from work or evicted from their rented apartment. At any time of the day or night, police could break into a house where they suspected homosexual activity and drag the miscreants down to the station in whatever they were or were not wearing, there to be publicly disgraced, humiliated, fined, or imprisoned and, too frequently, raped.

These laws were a useful tool of business and politics, because a homosexual label was sufficient to ruin the promising career of a rival, or rake in an income through blackmail. It's difficult to imagine anything more iniquitous than branding individuals as 'criminals' for being perfectly natural variants of human sexuality. It was, and remains in most countries, a lonely, terrifying life for a queer boy, surrounded by rabid homophobic parents, siblings, schoolmates teachers and neighbours.

On the street it was dangerous to respond to a smile from a man because police entrapment was the norm and the penalty was prosecution, fines, and imprisonment for soliciting – even if the cop smiled first. The shame and opprobrium attached to homosexuality was so omnipresent, so suffocating, that thousands suicided. I knew three young men who slashed their wrists from fear of exposure to parents, workmates, bosses, and friends.

Most queers got married simply to prevent any rumours. You had to be very brave or very stupid to be open about your orientation. Thus, those with something to lose frequented clubs like the Apollo, while those with nothing to lose went to bars around Earl's Court where daring young men in crotchless jeans, tattoos and boots posed for admirers.

But they could just as easily be queer bashers, so if you didn't want to end up as one of the thousands of murdered or maimed young homos for whom no statistics have ever been kept, then caution was essential. Those bars held as little attraction for me as the Apollo. I wanted somewhere civilized, friendly, pleasant, and fun. I've since learned that heterosexuals also often have difficulty finding that.

Melvyn took me back to his serviced apartment where the sex matched the evening… beige, although he did teach me the joys a tongue and lips can bring to sensitive skin – for which I remain very grateful. As the evening progressed I learned he had no interest in laughing, running, dancing, opera, ballet, theatre, reading, swimming, keeping fit, and, most important for me, getting enough sleep. It was my first lesson in the sad truth that sexual orientation has nothing to do with character.

I'd gone to the club imagining I'd find a room full of people like me – instead, I found myself further from the norm than usual. We made noises about keeping in touch, knowing we wouldn't.

Things were tight on the fiscal front. Still no jobs for me in the latest edition of Equity, so I tried my hand at selling central heating for a French company whose young manager was disturbingly sexy – especially compared to his English counterparts.

English houses would have been cold in Queensland in winter, with their single glazed windows, no insulation, and poorly fitting joinery. Almost all houses had been heated by coal fires until the killer smogs of the 1950s finally induced the government to ban all fires, replacing them with electric heaters, leaving it to Battersea Power Station in the heart of the city to now belch millions of tons of smoke every year. But that wasn't so bad because the chimneys were high enough to ensure a wider distribution of the toxic soot that covered everything.

Water was heated either by electric immersion heaters in uninsulated copper tanks that had to be manually switched on a few hours before anyone wanted a bath, and then switched off to prevent them boiling over, or by gas geysers. Constant hot water was a luxury unknown to the majority of people in 1960s Britain.

I was assigned to Poppy, a 'girl' in her forties who looked like a wrestler and dressed like Twiggy. Knee-high leather boots, legs encased in purple tights, crotch-length skirts and fluffy angora sweaters. She drove her new Austin A40 with its revolutionary transverse engine as if competing at Brands Hatch, scaring me witless as she tore through, rather than around the innumerable roundabouts on the new Ring Road that was supposed to cure London's increasing traffic problems, but merely ensured more vehicles entered the city. Instead of turning on the radio she kept up a monologue about her famous neighbours, her WWII experiences as an army driver, and her sex life.

She lived fairly close to me in Dolphin Square, a prestigious Art Deco apartment block built in the 1930s, set in three-and-a-half acres of private landscaped gardens. It was home to some of the nation's most celebrated people and, according to Poppy, they numbered amongst her closest friends. To her chagrin I didn't recognise any of the names she dropped.

It was a quick jog from Mrs. Hockey's to Dolphin Square, where I'd arrive about ten o'clock to meet Poppy, looking as if she'd slept in a haystack. She'd rev the engine, spin the wheels, and hurtle away while launching into detailed descriptions of the sexual athleticism of her paramour, Bertie, and the fun they'd had the previous evening. I faked awe and admiration while wishing she would pull her tiny skirt down a tad and concentrate on the road.

Every day we raced south through Bexley Heath to Seven Oaks, Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells – the stockbroker belt of detached houses, half-timbered cottages, vast Victorian mansions up long tree-lined drives, and mock-Tudor estates with brass coach lamps and Elizabethan porticoes on curving, tree encrusted streets.

Poppy would park somewhere quiet to recover from the previous night's excesses while I went from door to door pretending I was conducting a survey of home heating. On discovering they had no central heating, I'd sing the praises of this essential home improvement, insisting they deserved it. An English winter without it was unthinkable and it cost less than they'd imagine – indeed, they'd eventually save money!

Once the unfortunate housewife realised she would become a social pariah without central heating, she would beg for a visit from a representative of our company who just happened to be in the area. I was always able to juggle appointments and arrange one as a favour for her and her husband the same evening, for which she would be pathetically grateful.

I had a talent for salesmanship; the most immoral and shameful occupation humans have invented. An upper-class accent, genuine smile, sympathetic mien, appreciation of their feminine desirability, squeaky clean appearance, and a healthy body with a generous bulge at the crotch of tight trousers, were an open sesame to the hearts and minds of lonely housewives desperate to confess how cold their house, how far the shops, how unsympathetic their husbands, and how sexless their lives. Had I accepted every offer of tea I'd still be drinking.

Jacket off and shirt sleeves rolled above my biceps, I'd sprawl elegantly in a chintzy armchair sipping tea, gazing in sincere sympathy as they complained that travelling sixty miles each way on the train to the city to work every day left their husbands with no energy for 'other things'. Did I really have to go so soon? I assuaged their misery with sympathetic noises and praise for their taste, charm, paintings, books, pot plants, gardens, and anything else I laid my eyes on, at the same time failing to register the gentle stroke of hand on bare arm as I gazed at a prized portrait of the favourite grandfather.

England was not a rich country so soon after the war. Despite the tree-lined streets and cute village-green atmosphere, the interiors of many houses were as Spartan as monasteries. The middle classes will sacrifice everything for the 'right' appearance and a 'good' address, even if it means having to share a single cup-cake at tea time with one's half-starved spouse.

Alarmed at the ease with which these women could be manipulated, I decided it was morally indefensible to talk them into buying something they couldn't afford and would regret as soon as they'd signed their names.

A quick look around was all it took to gauge whether they could meet the expense of our product. If I thought they couldn't, I'd salvage my self-respect by confiding that the product wasn't really all it was cracked up to be and they'd be better off just double-glazing and putting in draft stoppers. Dewey eyed with gratitude at my honesty they'd promise never to mention what I'd said to anyone, and we'd part bosom friends.

In the evenings, Poppy and I would visit the houses I'd arranged interviews with to hard-sell our package of insulated cylinders providing continuous hot water, thermostatically controlled electric radiators, and basic insulation. The husband would be standing nervously at attention, I'd effect the introductions, then flick a tape measure around while Poppy extolled the wonders of central heating, dropping names of famous neighbours in Dolphin Square where, as she never tired of informing everyone, the continuous hot water and central heating were not luxuries – they were essential to a civilized life.

Her bizarre dress and perfectly modulated contralto vowels convinced clients of her aristocratic antecedents, for only a member of the upper class would dare call themselves Poppy and dress so outrageously. Our victims, while envying the boldness of their betters, could never relinquish polished brogues, suits and waistcoats, pearls, twin-sets, tweed skirts, stockings, and sensible shoes. After a scrutiny of my measurements and a swift flick through pages of calculations, a price would be agreed on, pressure applied, contracts presented and, if we'd done our job properly, signed.

One filthy night after I had changed a tyre in the rain I was grudgingly invited to indulge in Dolphin Square's endless hot water while Poppy took my drenched clothes to the drying room. The studio apartment was really only a bed-sitting room with tiny bathroom and kitchen alcove. However, as it was in Dolphin Square the rent was more than ten times that of my bed-sit. Poppy, impatient to get rid of me as soon as my clothes were dry, was hustling me towards the door when the fabulous Bertie arrived.

He was scrawny and fortyish, sandy moustache and thinning hair, slight stoop and an affected stutter. "Oh, I-I say, jolly dee, old chap!" he burbled, shoving out a hand. "I'm B-Bertie and you must be R-Rigby. F-Frightfully good of you to t-take care of young P-Poppy. She's such a jolly ch-chum." In his flannels and blazer, old school tie and brogues, he was straight out of Wodehouse. I doubted he was screwing the lusty Poppy more than once a month – if at all!

We shook hands and chatted about this and that. He and Poppy were childhood friends who went to restaurants and the theatre together, and partnered each other to parties but preferred to remain independent. My mother had a couple of friends like that who had been engaged for over twenty years with no desire to take it further.

Poppy and Bertie were perfectly matched; both harmless cranks still living in the 1930s when as children they'd worshipped their flapper parents. I enjoyed their company for half an hour but that was enough. I prefer to live in the present and was perfectly happy to be myself… not a caricature from a fictitious past.

As a salesman, I earned seven pounds a week with the promise of five percent of successfully concluded sales – roughly another fifteen pounds. Commonwealth citizens were lucky then; we could work for two years without paying tax while receiving the benefits of free dentists, doctors, and so on. That made it easy for employers too – no National Health Stamps and other bureaucratic bumf.

A pound a day was enough to live on but not enough to splurge. There were plays to see, places to go and things to do, and my cheap clothes were already looking shabby.

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