Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 11

Interviews and Work

While other passengers read or dozed, I clung white-knuckled to my seat as the train careered along none too even tracks at over a hundred miles an hour. Exhilarated at having broken my land-speed record I jogged to the centre of Colchester, rehearsing a speech that would convince any interviewer I was deadly serious about acting.

Colchester was a large Roman garrison and is the oldest recorded English market town. Half-timbered houses, remains of walls and gates, a grim old castle, the river Colne, and a few parks and bridges… pleasant, but like every old city, encircled by a tumour of ugly new suburbs. Old towns may have been inconvenient, but at least they were visually appealing.

Albert Hall in the High Street was in need of repairs and freshening up. Colchester Repertory in those days was a tenant that had to make way from time to time for touring companies, pantomimes, and the like. They provided Weekly Repertory; that's a new play every week; very demanding on both actors and backstage crew.

I announced myself to the doorman and was taken to an office in which stood the manager – nicotine-stained, harried and twitching; and the director – lean, chain-smoking, and worried. He grasped my hand, and in an opulent voice redolent of incinerator enquired after my well-being. Gagging on the malodorous exhalation I manfully resisted the impulse to turn my head away and informed him I was rude with health – a response that triggered the lighting of a Woodbine. At that moment the stage manager arrived, in his forties, healthy, neat in khaki overalls, white shirt, and tie. He shook my hand then retreated a pace and looked me up and down as if assessing my worth. I felt like a bull at an auction.

After an interview in which I received more information about the company's problems than I gave about myself, I mounted the stage to declaim my set piece. It should have been thrilling to gaze over the orchestra pit to the stalls and dress circle in their faded crimson and gilt, but gloom seemed to permeate this temple of the muses. I'd uttered only three words… "Now my co-mates…" when there was a shout from the back of the stalls. "This isn't the fucking Old Vic! It's weekly rep!"

I nearly shat myself, swallowed my bile, and launched into Teddy Deakin's entry in The Ghost Train. I was allowed three lines then told to go for a walk and come back in a couple of hours.

Colchester had an excellent cake shop providing the best cream buns I've ever tasted, and a good selection of shops. Two hours later I had the job – starting in ten days on Saturday week at 10.00 a.m. I'd be assisting at the matinee of Arthur Miller's All My Sons. I signed a contract – six pounds ten shillings a week, no set hours, no set duties, no guarantee of acting parts, two-week's notice required by both parties to terminate the contract.

It was two o'clock, so the actors were resting before the evening performance. Frank, the stage manager, showed me backstage, dressing and rehearsal rooms, green room, etc. and introduced me to the stage crew. Two stagehands were touching up the set and a fat woman was organising props on a table in front of the cyclorama, spitting venom at a lighting technician whose unsecured cables were interfering with her arrangement. A fellow hauling backcloths up into the flies eyed me up and down and grinned. I grinned back. He tied off the ropes and held out a massive hand.

"Hi, I'm Harry. Want a bat's eye view?" He flicked his head towards a ladder attached to the wall on the prompt side of the stage. He was tall, lean, and rangy. All legs, arms, and huge hands. Hollow-cheeked, lantern jawed, large hooked nose, deep-set eyes and cavernous mouth overflowing with teeth. He looked friendly so I nodded and up we went, me first, Harry's hand unnecessarily supporting my buttocks – he must have climbed with one hand. At the top, we stood in silence on a platform gazing down. It seemed much higher from up there. Harry's breath fluffed the back of my neck and his hand followed suit. My guts went gooey and I broke out in gooseflesh – but I didn't pull away.

"Can I kiss you?" His breath was sweet.

Heart hammering.... "If you like."

With a mouth as large as his I expected it to be wet and sloppy, which I hate, but it was firm, dry, and pleasurable. One hand found its way down the front of my trousers, and another wrapped mine around something hot and hard poking through the fly of Harry's overalls. And thus we stood for several long sensuous seconds till Harry grunted a laugh, zipped himself up, and took off along a catwalk.

I followed, intrigued to see the battens, cables, pulleys, counterbalances, floods, and other stuff. Audiences don't realise that what they see is only a fraction of what's actually behind the curtain.

The stage manager was peering at an exercise book when we descended.

"Frank, Rigby needs digs so is it OK if I take him to a couple of places I know?"

Frank nodded. "See you Saturday week, Rigby. 10.00 a.m."

A ten-minute trot took us to a small brick terrace house in a street devoid of all life. On the way, I'd learned that Harry was eight years older than I, had no girlfriend, and kept racing pigeons. We shared a mutual interest in keeping fit and hiking, but he didn't like dancing, reading or classical music. When pressed for an opinion, he reckoned I got the job because the other applicants had been scrawny little runts, and as actors with my physical type were as rare as hens' teeth, I was a shoe-in. Not exactly an ego boost – I'd hoped it was my thespian skills.

Inside, I sat at the table in a spotless kitchen while Harry made tea. This was his own house and, if I liked, I could stay with him – his mortgage was taking more of his wage than he wanted, and although he valued privacy he reckoned we'd get along ok.

"How did you know I wouldn't object to you doing those… things?" The question really bothered me because I was terrified that anyone might think I was queer. As bizarre as it might seem after the previous night, I was still a hundred percent certain I wasn't really a homo. I knew in my bones, as my grandmother used to say, that I was as normal as the next fellow. I would only have sex with men until the right girl came along.

And if anyone thinks that's an unreal bit of doublethink, compare it to the mental contortions religious people get into in order to prevent themselves freaking out at believing there's an invisible, omniscient, omnipotent fellow who not only made the entire universe, but is personally interested in their sex life!

"I didn't know you were queer. You looked sexy so I took a gamble. You didn't object to my hand on your bum, nor on your neck. If you had, I'd have said I was just testing, because most actors are queer and I wanted to make sure you weren't, before becoming friendly… something like that."

"Are all actors homos?"

"At least half, they reckon. I'm the only one backstage though."

"But, do I look like a homo?" I had to get this clear. If he'd said yes, I'd have run away and become a hermit.

"No way! You wouldn't be here if you did! I hate those pansy queens." He grinned and his over-endowed face became almost handsome. "So. You staying? No sex – you're not my type. Just friends who understand each other?"

I didn't tell him he also wasn't the man of my dreams, but checked there really was a spare bedroom, paid four weeks rent in advance, shook hands manfully, and set off for the station, suffused in a vague feeling of regret. Although I'd lived only a few months in London, it was the first place in my entire life where I felt completely at home – and I didn't really want to leave.

It was after eight that night when I rang Poppy's bell, expecting to have a strip torn off me for not turning up for work. She buzzed me in and was waiting at her door impatient to confess her own sin. Her friends downstairs were having a 'Cultural Soirée' the following Saturday in their apartment. However, the Ugandan who was to have danced for their well-heeled guests had come down with pneumonia, so an important part of their programme was in jeopardy. On the strength of a few secrets I'd let slip, Poppy had promised her friends I would take his place!

I refused.

She didn't take this gracefully. I couldn't refuse! She would lose face! Her friends would never trust her again! They were relying on her and… she took time out for a sob before mentioning that I would be well paid for my efforts.

That swung it, but I wasn't going to let her off lightly. I told her I was leaving in just over a week for Colchester and asked what would happen with the five central heating contracts we had secured. She promised on her father's grave she would forward my share. That settled, I said I'd go and see her friends but I wasn't promising anything. She took me downstairs, introduced me, and slunk back to her cell.

Mrs. May and The Colonel were in their forties or fifties – it was impossible to tell, aristocratically trim and as gracious as a pair of Dobermans. I stood humbly before them wondering if I should tug my forelock. She sat upright and alert on a hard-backed chair; he sprawled on a sofa, legs wide, eyes predatory. She wore a dark blue silk dress decorated with a matching scarf pinned with a gold brooch, elegant dark blue shoes, hair scraped back into a tight bun. He was splendid in toothbrush moustache, slickly greased auburn hair, houndstooth suit, white shirt, old school tie, and polished shoes.

Was this casual at-home wear for the moneyed classes? They hadn't been expecting me. It was too late to go out for dinner and they gave no indication they were going out later. My crumpled dull-green corduroys, white polo neck, leather jacket, and scuffed desert boots paradoxically gave me a sense of superiority.

"We are patrons of emerging artists," Mrs. May announced, pausing as if for applause. "We buy tangible works, and give performers a platform to demonstrate their abilities to agents looking for talent."

I gazed around. The high-ceilinged drawing room was about twenty metres long and twelve wide. Concealed lights, mirrors, luxurious and understated furnishings, chrome standard lamps, statues in niches, Persian carpets glowing richly on polished parquetry, and a grand piano looking perfectly at home in the centre of the wall opposite long windows that would have gazed over parkland during the day. An end wall of bevelled glass doors, one of which was open, separated the dining area. Sprinkled like detritus among the Art Deco excesses of this sumptuous apartment were several garish minimalist paintings, overwrought little sculptures, and hand-woven panels in primitive frames.

"We are offering you a chance to perform before a sophisticated audience which might result in the launching of your career."

I explained that Poppy had got her wires crossed. I was an untaught amateur who would fail miserably to impress their guests. I wasn't underselling myself – I was telling the truth as I always do in these situations because I'm terrified of disappointing people. If they expect the worst then if I'm lucky they'll be pleasantly surprised.

Silence. Then… "You carry yourself like a dancer, and your modesty does you credit. However, I'll be the judge of your talent. Dance for me now!"

The severely coiffed head swivelled towards The Colonel, "Felix, record three!" The Colonel sprang from the sofa and placed an LP on the turntable of a magnificent, walnut-encased radiogram.

"I'm sure I'm not the person you want."

The Colonel looked up. "From what Poppy told us you certainly are! Twenty pounds for three, five-minute dances?"

"But I ...."

"Poppy told us about your recent modelling and TV experiences, and that your teacher made you dance au naturel." Madam May's French accent was perfect and she glared as if daring me to contradict. "The young man from Uganda was to have introduced a note of primitive eroticism, performing three traditional fertility dances in varying states of nudity. Our soirées have a reputation for daring, avant-garde entertainment. You will be introduced as 'Dionysius… naked pagan passion.' Note that I do not use the word 'dance', so you will be judged for your expressiveness, not your similarity to whatever Covent Garden is producing!"

She held up a hand to forestall interruption. "Our guests are well educated and worldly – they know the difference between sleaze and art."

The blank, expressionless stare of both husband and wife was intended to convey superiority, but I knew it was merely camouflage for nervousness. They needed me more than I needed them. I thought I knew what they wanted, but they'd only referred to the fact that I'd danced naked in the past. I had to make them state explicitly that they wanted me dancing bare for their soiree. Otherwise, if it flopped they'd tell everyone that I'd insisted on it and they'd had their doubts from the start. Then I'd be the pervert, not them.

"I'd like to be perfectly clear about what you require," I said firmly. "You are asking me to do… what exactly?"

"To dance naked," snapped the Colonel. "So, get on with it!" He pressed a button causing a giant speaker and dozens of valves to produce a richness of sound that no number of transistors can emulate. It was the last five minutes of Tchaikovsky's Italian Caprice. I knew it and loved the final orgasmic crescendo, so, obeying the imperial command, I stripped behind a delicate Japanese screen, pulled at my fear-shrunken cock to return it to a semblance of normality, called to The Colonel to turn the music up loud, and leaped out; swirling, twisting, crouching, writhing… a relentless flood of movement that would have left Kath enraptured, climaxing with arms and legs outstretched in a rigid X as the last chord evaporated. Then, as if the music had been my sole support, I collapsed like a stringless puppet.

"Hairy chest and legs are distracting. Shave them. Some of your transitions are awkward and the final slump is not right," Mrs. May declared with authority. "As the music fades hold the extension – arms and legs utterly rigid for ten seconds as the lights fade! And you must never, ever look at the audience."

I opened my mouth to remind her I'd made the whole thing up as I went along, but she held up a finger to forestall me. "The difference between art and sleaze, young man, is audience involvement. Watch."

She stood and, to my astonishment, sensually stroked her hair, breasts, abdomen, and thighs, looking 'inward' as if unaware of my presence. It was strangely moving, but neither crude nor sexually inviting. Then she repeated the same movements, this time making eye contact with me. The effect was electric. Suddenly she had become more than a flirt… almost a slut. It was a most useful lesson.

"Do you see the difference?" she asked. "As long as you appear totally self-absorbed and remote from your audience as if you were utterly alone, your nudity is sacred and nothing you do is obscene. But the minute you involve your audience in your actions you become a whore." Her lips curled in an odd smile as she continued. "Now, once again, but this time I want you to hold the pose at the end until I tell you to relax, leaning back, gazing at the heavens – hips thrust forward."

Opiates produced by the effort I'd put into the first dance were by then flooding through me and, despite tiredness and hunger, I was suffused with energy and 'saw' myself dancing with vivid clarity. I was boneless. Forming and reforming my body seamlessly with the music. Jettisoning all constraints. Exalted. Free. Then freezing - arms stretched wide, head thrown back, hips thrust forward, chest heaving as I struggled to catch my breath, my heart continuing to pump blood to all extremities.

The music stopped and I continued to hold the pose while the Colonel leaned forward and in the tone that one might use to enquire if I took The Times or The Telegraph, asked, "Does it embarrass you to hold that position now you have an erection?"

"Not at all," I answered truthfully. "But my arms are getting tired."

"Would you like to masturbate before the next dance?" he inquired politely as if asking if I wanted a cup of tea.

I don't remember experiencing any sense of surprise. After all, it wasn't the first time I'd been asked that question and I'd seen it coming. Drunk on elation I was excited by the idea, but not so carried away as to forget myself, so I lowered my arms and asked, "Now? In front of you both?"


"No, thanks."

"Why not? Too shy?"

"Not at all. It's just that I think you're both laughing at me, and I hate being laughed at!"

"We aren't laughing at you."

"Then why do you want me to do it?"

He looked at his wife. "We enjoy watching young people pleasure themselves."

"If you're too shy, forget it," Mrs. May snapped dismissively. "However, we did have another job that would have earned you thirty pounds…"

"Art or sleaze?"

She smiled thinly. "Always art."

She moved to sit beside her husband on the sofa. Their obvious voyeuristic desire had reversed our roles so I shrugged, put on the same record and wandered back towards them stroking myself sensually. It wasn't a dance, merely crudely erotic, energetic, and self-absorbed moves until the final crescendo when, sinking gracefully to my knees, I arched my back, lightly fingered my manhood and jetted onto my belly sufficient semen to fertilize every female of child-bearing age on the planet.

Mr. May tossed me a clean handkerchief. His wife nodded coolly. 'Thank you for not spilling on the parquet.'

While I mopped up the discharge, she told me I'd be performing a similar act in a week's time – the details to be confirmed once Saturday's soirée was over.

While dressing, I was informed that the Saturday event would start at eight with cocktails. At nine, a Negress from Whitechapel would sing jazz, followed by a young Albanian pianist, an eccentric young woman who wrote and read poetry, and then me. We would each perform three times for about three minutes each. I would be on fourth, eighth, and last. Then we'd be paid, and go.

The Colonel played the other two bits of music he'd chosen for my dances so I could think about them at home. They were adamant that the dances should be impromptu, not choreographed, so I would be influenced not only by the music, but also the audience reaction. That suited me perfectly, of course, and I promised to come for a walk-through with the other performers on Saturday afternoon.

Wednesday dawned dull and wet. I woke in a quicksand of despair. Descriptions of depression always sound melodramatic but they're usually not far off the mark. I was a whore. A fool for leaving London. A slut for jerking off to please a couple of perverted well-heeled wankers. Idiotic to think I could concoct a dance off the top of my head for a group of art cognoscenti. Trash for consenting to jerk off for an audience next week. I was seriously crazy! I had to die to escape the net of self-inflicted stupidities. Mind in a whirl of inadequacy, headache, self-reproach… I spent the day in bed, dehydrating, starving, unable to sleep, delirious with self-recrimination, refining plans for suicide. No other thought would stay in my head.

But I wouldn't starve myself – people always found you and shoved tubes into your stomach through your nose, and that hurt! Hunger eventually drove me to make a pot of fudge – crushed biscuits, cocoa, egg, sugar, and a little milk. I ate the whole batch of sweet, sticky stuff in one go, washed down with London's heavily chlorinated water. Threw it all up again. Went for a walk. Banged my head against every tree I passed; careful not to make damage that showed – a tacit admission I wasn't terminally insane.

When I was ten, I deliberately drank from a bottle labelled poison… but it was just a mild carbolic cleaner and only burned my throat. At twelve, I bashed my head against a concrete wall to end my woes until, blinded by streaming blood, I realised it would hurt too much to kill myself that way and cycled home, telling Mother I'd fallen off my bike. Those experiences taught me that I'd probably not have the courage to kill myself; I'd have to wait for an accident or illness.

For about three weeks when I was fifteen, I suspended my disbelief in the supernatural, and prayed each night for the angel of death to carry me off in my sleep.

The wish not to be alive has always been with me. It's not a death wish; it's simply a wish I'd never been born. Even after a life that most people can only dream of, and having everything any rational human could possibly desire in this world – I would prefer not to have lived. It unnerves people. They say I'm ungrateful. According to psychologists I'm insane.

But I'm not. I realise I've been very fortunate to have lived when and where I did and had the life I've had and still have. And I'm not sad, not at all. Quite the opposite. I'm considered a fun person by all who know me. I take some things too seriously – but hey, that's not a fault – is it? I just don't like what humans are doing to the world and each other, and seldom find pleasure in their company. Humans seem like a plague of fleas on a dog – sucking it dry until it dies. But those fleas can find another host. Humans can't. Our desecrated planet is the only one we have, and that makes humans the stupidest animal to have evolved. Everyone else I know wants to live forever, so I guess that means 'Life' has been wasted on me.

I've studied suicide methods. Bought books on it. Own a rifle of which I can reach the trigger when the end of the barrel is in my mouth at the correct angle. Sounds like despair, but it's the opposite. The knowledge that I have the means to end things is what makes it possible to live calmly. I have to have a secure exit strategy from every situation. I can't park the car nose in – it's always rear end in for an easy getaway. As for sitting in the middle of a row at the theatre? It's an aisle seat or nothing.

Dragging myself out of the slough of despond, I bought bread rolls, cheese, apples, and mince. Cooked up a stew. Filled myself and slept for another 17 hours. Woke Friday lunchtime feeling better, wondering what all the fuss had been about and excited at the prospect of the performance the following night. It's always been lack of sleep and exhaustion that sets me off – but when on a 'high' I don't realise I'm getting into that state.

Shopping shook off the last of my doldrums – I went to Burtons' Bespoke Tailors and ordered a suit. Dark turquoise with gold taffeta lining. I might need it in Colchester. In those days 'made to measure' was half the price of 'off-the-peg,' because they used such shoddy fabric and sweatshop labour. I also bought a white shirt with three separate collars, an expensive set of hair clippers to satisfy Mrs. May's desire for a smooth body to match the smooth transitions, and a basic kit of stage makeup – five, nine, eight, seven, eyeliner, shadow, carmine, powder, and cold cream, in case I was asked to act in Colchester.

After a small meal, I checked to see if the hall was empty of Scots lassies, then went down to pay next week's rent and tell Mrs. Hockey I would be leaving the following Friday. Her husband's face creased into his sad, beautiful smile as he said he'd be sorry to see me go. She just shrugged.

I'm not a very hairy person – just an even sprinkling on chest, belly and legs, but after removing every hair below the head I had to agree that for the sort of dance I was contemplating, hairless was definitely more artistic. With nothing to obscure the body's contours I looked as sleek as an eel. Luckily, there was enough tan remaining to make me look healthy.

A little subtle makeup would complete the picture. Warm brown eye shadow and black eyeliner to make my eyes seem large and soulful; slight outlining of lips and subtle hollowing of the cheeks, highlighted cheekbones, and thicker eyebrows transformed me into 'Dionysius, the sexy pagan'.

On Saturday morning, Mrs. Hockey knocked brusquely at the door and asked me to come down. We descended and sat around the kitchen table. She had a proposition. I could live rent-free for the next week if I would keep an eye on the place and Mr. Hockey, so she could take her first holiday in eight years – go back to Ireland to see her family. All I had to do was check the cleanliness of the hallway and toilets and bathrooms, and make sure that if Mr. Hockey had an accident he wasn't left unattended for too long. It was his suggestion that she ask me, so his problem if I proved untrustworthy. I would have to stay in their flat. Mr. Hockey sometimes had nightmares… her voice trailed off and I began to realise what her life had been like since the war.

A week's rent was not to be sneezed at and I could come and go through the basement door and avoid meeting Heather, so of course I agreed. She perked up, phoned the travel agent to confirm her booking, then someone to tell them they could take my room the following day. After returning my rent, she reminded me to have the room clean and to bring all my gear down before nine o'clock when the new tenant would arrive.

An efficient woman.

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