Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 15


London was transformed! Summer's tints and light-filled spaces had replaced wet, drab and cold. Streets had become leafy avenues and the sun shone through gaps in fluffy clouds.

From the top of the bus, Hyde Park was a sea of green, the Victoria and Albert Museum peeped coyly through verdant foliage, and the Cromwell Road boasted overhanging boughs and dappled shade as we made our way to Earl's Court, where, to celebrate my return to civilization I planned to take a room at the Overseas Visitors' Club, then walk to Kensington Gardens and through Hyde Park to Oxford Street.

Instead, however, after paying for a room I succumbed to a gnawing premonition that someone else was going to get the job with the Westminster Shakespearian Company. Throwing common sense to the winds I took the Circle Line to Victoria, hoping the casting director would think being four days early for an audition was a sign of keenness rather than stupidity.

Anticipation became anxiety as I jogged the last half mile to Alderny Street. Well-kept Victorian facades gave way to run-down tenements, treeless cul-de-sacs, glowering terrace houses and streets strewn with snotty urchins and mouldering rubbish. I knew it wasn't going to be the Old Vic or Stratford on Avon; but had hoped it would at least be a presentable little touring company. After all, it was the Westminster Shakespearian Company so it had to be OK. Didn't it?

No one had told me the Borough of Westminster ran from The City of London to Kensington and Earl's Court, and included Mayfair, Buckingham Palace, and Belgravia, as well as the almost-slums of Vauxhall, Pimlico and Victoria. To compound my disquiet, the heavens opened and I arrived thoroughly drenched in front of a three-storied, one-room-wide terrace house in the centre of a street of similar dirty, run-down abodes. A battered Austin Van was parked outside.

My bold knock on the only painted door in the street, prompted a dark head to pop out of the van's side door.

"Shhhh! What do you want?"

"Westminster Shakespearian Company."

"You've got it."

"I'm a little early for my audition."

"How early?"

"Four days."

"Ten ticks for keenness. I'm Edgar and you're?


"Alwyn's asleep and mustn't be disturbed for at least another twenty minutes. Hop in out of the rain and tell me about yourself."

The accent was Home Counties, the voice rich and theatrical, the owner short, slim and perky, and the back of the van dim and warm. A blanketed mattress occupied the centre, and wooden frames were lashed against the sides.

"Take off your wet things before you catch your death. The blanket's clean."

Edgar could have been any age between twenty-five and forty, and it was a pleasure to talk about myself to someone who listened as if he was interested. Satisfied I was indeed keen on the job, he explained that if Alwyn approved I'd be given most of the younger male roles, be responsible for getting them safely to their destination, and in charge of van maintenance.

Euphoria at the prospect of becoming a real actor with real roles was my sole excuse for permitting Edgar to conduct a physical as well as verbal audition. Only later, as my host quietly digested the upshot of a satisfying fellatio, did I wonder if I'd been subjected to the 'casting couch' – or in this case, casting mattress. Whatever, it certainly wouldn't do my cause any harm – unless the somnolent Alwyn was a jealous type.

"Don't tell Alwyn!"


The ground floor was rented to a woman no one had seen for years. The freshly-painted green door on which I had knocked so thoughtlessly, gave onto steep, narrow, well-swept stairs leading up into gloom.

The first half-landing was also a shallow kitchen, with windows looking onto the drab, grimy backs of similar houses. The next landing contained a door leading to the two rooms occupied by Alwyn and Edgar. The next half-landing was the bathroom, overlooking the same squalor as the kitchen. The final landing had two doors; one to a small storage room facing the rear, the other to a bed-sitting-room overlooking the street, rented to an elderly war widower who crept in and out when no one was looking, and kept an eye on the place when the show was on tour.

Alwyn, in beige trousers, shirt, and cardigan, was sipping tea in the living/dining room – a pleasant, cosy space filled with old furniture. The view from the windows was of the street – uninspiring and therefore curtained. My future boss was in his fifties, bespectacled, lined and severe. A professional grump, like just about every man over fifty I had ever met. He offered tea and shortbread, asked to see my driver's licence, then thrust a copy of Coriolanus into my hand and instructed me to go down to the kitchen and read. I firmed up my diaphragm, read the prologue, projecting in the approved manner, and returned.

"Where were you last?"

I told him.

"You had better luck than Eurydice, then."

I glanced helplessly at Edgar.

"Escaping from hell," Edgar explained.

Alwyn's brain and sense of humour was anything but beige. He was sharp, witty, and delightfully intolerant of everything. "Are you comfortable wearing tights?"

"I wore Jockey briefs in The Good Young Man, and recently danced naked for a private party, so … yes."

Alwyn's face lit up. "You dance! Classical ballet?"

"Just moves I make up."

"Humph. That beard will have to go."

"It'll be off tonight."

"Good. Take us shopping."

Neither of the men could drive, or knew anything about motors. We clambered in, Alwyn in front, Edgar on the mattress. The starter motor ground away merrily, but no spark. No fuel gauge either. It was still bucketing down, but fortunately the motor was situated between the front seats so I checked the fuel line – petrol O.K. Cleaned the plugs, wiped out the distributor, touched up the points and away we went.

Motors then were not the highly specialised power sources of today that require a degree in engineering to open the bonnet. Any reasonably lucid fellow with a clean rag, a couple of adjustable spanners, and a screwdriver could cure most problems. We filled shopping trolleys at Tesco's, collected Green Stamps, and then I earned my supper by acting as porter.

"Where are you staying?"

I told them.

"Why waste money? Clean out the upstairs room and you can sleep there."

Obviously, I had the job, and they had a free chauffeur. It seemed a fair exchange. I liked them both and although we'd only known each other a few hours they gave me a key to the van and front door so I could come and go as I pleased. The storeroom was chockers with scenery and props for the multitude of plays they presented. With Edgar's assistance, I cleared enough away to give access to the bed, made it up with fresh linen and promised to return the following day as I'd already paid for a room.

That night I showered and shaved – enjoying the feel of fresh air on my jaw, then danced till I dropped in the basement nightclub of the Overseas Visitors' Club. Great live band; loud, but you could still hold a conversation – not that I met anyone I wanted to converse with. I was rejuvenated and life was continuing, as it usually seemed to, to obey my wishes.

Waita had been granted a scholarship to complete his doctorate at Edinburgh University, an institute that specialised in further education for Commonwealth citizens. Our letters had been sporadic, but enough to keep the friendship bubbling so I was waiting impatiently at the BOAC Terminal.

Suddenly shy, we shook hands and he gave me a shell necklace and a garish shirt – neither of which I'd be seen dead in. I hadn't bought him anything. I dislike receiving presents and therefore don't think to give them. After a brief minute of smiles and meaningless chit-chat, he presented a shy young woman with piebald gums, tiny teeth and a nervous smile.

"This is Ellie… my wife." He read my face. "In the Solomons, Rigby, everyone marries."

I tried to be pleased for him, and to like her, but she was a dull little mouse. As for Waita; where was the daredevil in tight black trousers, long oatmeal jacket and suede boots who moved as if he had been born without bones? Where the wicked grin? The casual arm across my shoulders and secret smile of shared disdain for others? The small, religious, gossipy, conventional Pacific island had stolen his spirit.

They only had that afternoon and the following morning in London, so after dropping luggage at their Paddington hotel, we viewed all the 'must see' tourist spots from the upstairs front seats of London buses – a better tour than they'd have got anywhere else in the short time they had. Then I shouted them a meal at the Piccadilly Lyons Corner House.

I derived no pleasure from the day. I'm not good at sharing people, and wives and girlfriends are especially difficult. Instead of enjoying themselves and looking at the sights, women look at who their man is looking at, and become suspicious. Old intimacies were stifled. She as unwilling as I to share.

And then they were gone. It was over. Waita and I had travelled a short way together – now our paths had diverged; a pattern I've repeated many times. In a way, I was relieved. Foolishly, and unnecessarily, I harbour a sense of responsibility for friends that eventually becomes a burden. He had a wife and could look after himself. And I was again 'free'.

That night Alwyn played a record of Florence Foster Jenkins singing the 'Queen of the Night' aria from Mozart's Magic Flute. I laughed till tears ran down my neck, stifling my guffaws so as not to miss a note – nearly choking in the process. Alwyn was delighted. I'd passed the musical test. Later we listened to Maria Callas on the radio, live from Covent Garden in one of her last appearances. I forget the opera, but remember we held our breath every time she sustained a note, waiting for the wobble.

My elegant and widely travelled grandmother of Cupid's fig leaf, had engineered an invitation for me to a function at the Victoria League, imagining I'd be interested in meeting well-connected Brits and other colonials, and possibly securing an invitation to a Royal Garden Party. She never understood that I was born without the patriotism gene, left home because I felt no affinity with my countrymen, and had not the slightest interest in sipping tea with the patroness of that worthy organisation – the purpose of which is to promote friendship and understanding among the peoples of the Commonwealth.

The invitation was for a cocktail party and lecture to be held at Chiswick House – a delightful Palladian Villa designed for the third Earl of Burlington. Curiosity made me accept the invitation, but I had nothing to wear so Edgar took me to a warehouse of clothing seconds on Vauxhall Bridge Road, and the following afternoon I strode manfully up the drive, mounted the magnificent staircase and strutted through the classical portico resplendent in a cream linen suit, cream shoes and white silk shirt open to reveal a heavy gold stage-jewellery chain from Edgar's property box. Total cost of outfit, two pounds five shillings.

A doorman in brocade and medals directed me through to the spectacular octagonal reception room, swarming with tweed sports coats, grey flannels, charcoal-grey double-breasted suits, and Ming-blue ties. A tinkling piano competed with nasal whines. "Gidday, Bazza! Get a load of this, mate!" "Fuck I'm starved – where's the bloody food? Jeez, cobber, this sweet guk'll make ya puke!" referring to the sherry, served by waitresses in black dresses, frilly white aprons, and caps.

Nearby, a handful of Canadians in loud plaid jackets and ill-fitting trousers were trying not to sound like their south pacific neighbours, while a small group of Nigerians in pillbox hats and colourful robes ogled mini-skirted girls boasting bouffant hair, pancake makeup, frilly petticoats, and spike heels. True to form, antipodean males gathered on one side, females on the other. No wonder they were always complaining about lack of sexual success.

A bevy of tight perms, tweed costumes, well-aligned stockings, sensible shoes, silk blouses, and modest strings of pearls, shared hostess duties with a few couturier-clad bosoms swathed in yards of silk, stiletto-heels, smart hats, handbags, and demurely clasped gloves. Their owners, mostly accompanied by testy, Savile Row-clad spouses, offered polite conversation and tense smiles.

I chatted, thanked, assured them this was the highlight of my stay, then mingled; astounded at the apparent obliviousness of most other guests to both the sensibilities of their hosts and the beauty of the environment. I was also worried by a short sallow fellow in a smart suit who appeared to be following me around.

Everyone was affable, but as I had no interest in the touring cricket team, the latest pop music, what horse had won the race, which car was a cert for Brands Hatch… it was difficult to find common ground. Bottles of spirits circulated among the Australians, while smokers fouled the air and sprinkled ash and butts over the marble floor.

A fight broke out. Waitresses wrung their hands. Distraught matrons gazed at their males in mute and pointless appeal. Fortunately, the buffet was announced and everyone charged for an adjoining room. Without an audience, the fracas folded.

As usual I was unable to either eat or drink when all about me were gobbling and guzzling with gluttonous fervour. This inhibition is in part due to my father's strict insistence on my observing correct table behaviour – eating with my mouth closed, sipping, taking small bites – that sort of thing. I forgive him because it kept me slim and made me socially acceptable.

I wandered out to the portico in melancholy mood and was gazing down the driveway wondering whether to stay for the lecture on The White Man's Burden in Swaziland, or slip away, when a couple of young women made the decision easy by thrusting their tits at me with tipsy familiarity.

"Are you English?" one asked with flat vowels, a slur and a hiccup.

"Yes," I answered, temporarily ashamed of my origins.

"You're the first Pom I've met who looks healthy," the other giggled, spilling her drink onto the terrace. "What's your name?"

"What's yours?"

A high-pitched giggle and burp accompanied a nail-bitten finger that fondled my fake gold chain then ran down my chest. I pulled back in alarm – you never know where girls' fingers have been!

"They reckon Poms are useless in bed, but I wouldn't mind trying with you," the first one leered.

"How kind," I murmured. "Fortunately, I have to go."

"Not before you've kissed me," she threatened, grasping the lapels of my coat and dousing me in alcohol-sodden breath.

I was on the point of kneeing the drunken bitch in the cunt when a voice of authority announced, "I need to speak to his Lordship – please excuse us… ladies." His timing was superb and they melted away, awestruck by the cultured drawl that had so subtly reminded them of their distinctly unladylike behaviour. My elbow was taken and I was led down the stairs.

"It looked as if you needed rescuing," smiled my saturnine stalker.

"Thanks – and for the elevation to the peerage."

"It always impresses colonials. I'm Kenneth, and you're?"


Up close he wasn't handsome – nose too short, ears too large, and mouth too wide. But neither was he unattractive with his well-defined jaw. Although he only came up to my shoulder, he was perfectly formed and perky, with olive skin and a heavy 'five o'clock shadow' – always a turn-on for me.

We wandered down the drive, discovered a pub with a garden bar, and spent a lazy hour – he with a pint of Guinness, me a glass of ginger ale. He didn't smoke, hated team sports, liked the movies, reading, sex and swimming.

It was six o'clock on a Saturday evening, so we decided to grab something to eat, swim at the local baths, then go to the cinema. The swim was spoiled by about a million kids splashing around and screaming, and I've no idea what film we saw – all I remember is how expertly Kenneth opened my flies in the dark.

"How did you know I wouldn't mind being interfered with?" I demanded during interval.

He grinned. "Sexy tough boys like you love to be groped – it confirms they're desirable."

"Flattery will get you everywhere."

"I'm counting on it."

Kenneth's slightly run-down block of serviced apartments was nearer than my grotty little bedroom, so we chased each other up four flights of uncarpeted stairs to a pleasant two-roomed flat. After sharing a shower and cocoa he threw himself onto the bed, waved his legs in the air and invited me to aim for the bullseye.

Over coffee and rolls at breakfast I discovered to my surprise that Kenneth was an old man of thirty-three, an unpublished poet, and freelance journalist – very impressive! Being a left-handed, impetuous and impatient thinker, I was unable to write fast enough to keep up with my thoughts. I'd written a few love poems, of course, but they were to my physics teacher and my best friend's sister's boyfriend… so never saw the light of day. And I'd once started a novel, but completed the entire thing in two pages.

Kenneth had been at Chiswick House because he earned a few quid as the Victoria League's link with the Telegraph Newspaper – as long as his pieces were complimentary. There would be no mention of the drunken fracas, for example. He promised to read me his poems one day.

It was a grey, drizzly Sunday. Summer seemed to have made its brief appearance for that year, so when Kenneth mentioned he and eight friends were leaving London in three days' time for a Mediterranean cruise on a chartered yacht, I was somewhat jealous.

"The tenth man has come down with hepatitis, so it's going to cost us all a bit extra, which is a nuisance. I don't suppose you'd like to take his place?" he asked, adding with an irritatingly coy fluttering of eyelashes, "You'd be sharing with me."

My body ached for the sun. I yearned to roll in the sand, dive into the sea, swim, and feel natural again… I had saved about eighty pounds. There were four-and-a-half-weeks till Alwyn needed me to begin the touring season, and as my share would only be twenty-two pounds, we shook hands on the deal. The drizzle turned to rain.

Over the next three days I helped Alwyn and Edgar stock up enough food and other supplies to last four weeks, promised to be back in plenty of time for the start of the season in the second week of August, then set off for Victoria to catch the train to Dover.

You could hear them four platforms away. A gaggle of fucking galahs! Screeching, laughing, and drawing as much attention to themselves as possible. There were pink suits, large sun hats, loud shirts, green trousers, a gaudy sun umbrella, and cut-off jeans showing about three inches of sagging buttock above pea-stick legs in bovver boots! I couldn't believe that on the Dover platform of Victoria station in full view of everyone, half a dozen of my future shipmates were posing like mad mannequins, as camp as a row of tents. The others were acting more or less normally, but didn't seem to care if everyone knew they were travelling with a clutch of queers. That was bravery! I couldn't join them. My aim, when not on stage, is to blend in. OK, I try to be best dressed and attractive, but that's to win approval, not disapproval! If I'm recognised as a tourist or foreign – I've failed. I certainly won't hang a camera around my neck!

Kenneth kept looking around to see if I was coming, but I hid, waiting till they were all aboard before racing along the platform and getting into a different carriage, not joining their party until we arrived in Dover.

Then as soon as we embarked, I got 'lost' on deck, watching the setting sun turn the cliffs to gold. In Calais, night had fallen. I joined Kenneth and two others searching for our reserved couchette compartment, then pretended I was tired and climbed into my berth while the others trolled the corridors for amusement.

We clattered through the night across France, arriving in Marseilles in time for breakfast. Never again, I vowed, would I travel by night. The journey has always been at least as important to me as the destination, and to travel while asleep is not to travel at all.

From the forecourt of Gare St Charles, we could see the Mediterranean, bluer than any sea should be. The city was an exotic tessellation of white, cream, and green; the sky cloudless and light. My lungs sucked greedily of the warm, musky-dusty air and I realised that an English sun was no sun at all. Exotic charm and lack of sleep had fortunately quelled our party's excesses, and we wandered peacefully down the grand staircase and along tree-lined boulevards to the Old Port.

Our yacht was waiting, manned by three villainous looking men of indeterminate age. But it wasn't a yacht! It had a motor instead of sails, needed a coat of paint, and looked too small to leave port, let alone accommodate thirteen men!

Each cabin contained a double bed, wardrobe, and room for one person standing. The salon could seat seven – just. The deck boasted ten deck chairs, three tables, ten chairs and a tarpaulin for shade – it was where we would spend daylight hours while at sea.

Without an audience, my companions calmed down and became normal and pleasant. I think they suspected I'd been ashamed to be with them, but they were used to that and didn't hold it against me. Ages ranged from eighteen to fifty; occupations from bank clerk to carpenter to teacher to librarian.

The three older men were somewhat plump and queenly, the younger were assorted sizes of slim, and temperaments varied from sweet and innocent to arrogant and slightly aggressive. All were verbally proficient, amusing and fun, but preferred sitting around to physical activity. However, with a bit of encouragement they all had a go at leaping into the water while tied to a rope so they didn't get left behind, and everyone sunbathed. Only Kenneth and I and three others tanned, the others turned crimson and peeled within two days. Not a pleasant sight.

But no one complained – not even about the greasy food and surly crew. Goodness knows what they thought of ten naked queers frolicking over their tiny ship, fucking on deck because it was too hot below, screaming at inane jokes, and singing and dancing to the latest pop songs when we could get music on the radio.

Over the next five days we followed the coast from Marseilles to Toulon, Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, and then back to Nice. Toulon was awash with handsome sailors, but no beaches. The city is pleasant, but not worth more than the few hours we had. We were dropped at a marina, then picked up a few hours later. One reason it was so cheap was the yacht never berthed for more than a few minutes, and never overnight – that's when high charges accrue.

We'd rejoin the yacht at about sunset, motor out a little, drop anchor and rock to sleep with the waves. With only three crew and minimal equipment, it would have been dangerous to sail at night. Kenneth reckoned the ship boasted a sextant, a compass, and little else; we never thought to ask about life jackets or lifeboats!

Cannes was a day of lazing on the beach, where, amongst similarly attired, sexy young Frenchmen, my backless pouch didn't attract much attention, although the guys sweetly reckoned mine was the briefest and the best stacked. Our envy of the ostentatiously wealthy 'beautiful' people promenading and dining in the expensive boulevard restaurants, made it not so difficult to leave.

In Nice, we wandered the city for an hour, then lazed on the pebbly public beach before buying a dozen one-frank chips each and spending a couple of hours at the Casino. We were all equally gauche, it was our first experience of roulette – illegal in England, and so we simply bet noisily and excitedly on odds and evens or red and black, to the annoyance of the croupier, until we lost everything.

Monte Carlo has no handy beach, but we visited the Royal Palace and waved to where we imagined Princess Grace was sipping tea, before wandering the steep streets and shoving a few franks fruitlessly into fruit machines in the magnificent entrance loggia of the fabled casino, which boasts what surely must be the most luxuriously appointed toilets on the planet. When the others decided to go inside and play roulette, I returned to the quay, found a private spot beside a luxury yacht, stripped, dived in for a swim, then lay in the sun.

I was nearly asleep when an elderly fellow from the yacht came and invited me aboard for a drink. It was a cruise for wealthy Englishmen and their toy boys, and included famous writers and performers – none of whom I recognised. They had sailed across from Algiers for a night at the casino. After offering me a drink and asking a few questions, they lost interest and continued arguing and gossiping and downing more alcohol than anyone should ever imbibe.

They might have been rich, but they weren't beautiful. It was an afternoon to forget – which I did until twenty-two years later when a lecturer in English literature approached me in the staffroom bearing a recent biography of his hero, Anthony Burgess. Pointing to a photo he asked in an awestruck whisper, "Rigby! Is that you?"

There I was standing behind the 'great man', on board that luxury yacht. Naturally, I didn't admit I'd had no idea I was sharing the same deck as the genius author of A Clockwork Orange. And it would have been churlish to disappoint the fellow with the truth, so I modestly admitted it was me, stoically enduring his reverential regard.

From the shore, passing yachts are apparitions of autonomy; fabulous ferries transporting beautiful people to enchanted islands and exotic ports, liberated from the shackles of fences, streets, highways and borders.

From the yacht, the land is a passing delight of forested hills and mountains, rocky headlands, hidden beaches and coves, palm fringed shores, exotic old cities overlooked by ruined chateaus, beaches thronging with scantily clad, bronzed young bodies… freedom inaccessible to those trapped aboard the throbbing prison of a ship.

If I'm honest, the five days and four nights of cruising on the Mediterranean, rank among the most boring of my life – and I think the others also came to that conclusion. There's a limit to how often you want to leap overboard to cool off, or how many buckets of water you want to throw over yourself to cool down, or how much of the greasy food you can ingest. Sunbathing and fooling around on deck soon lose their appeal, as does the close proximity of a group of people with whom one would never normally associate.

Being born without a gregarious urge, I found myself unable to laugh at the same old jokes, play another game of I Spy, swap yet another scurrilous bit of apocryphal gossip, or watch another camp young man sashay around the deck for laughs. To my alarm, I began to align myself with the crew, whose basilisk gaze should have withered the spirits of our frivolous little band. Even Kenneth's bronzed body lost its appeal, and how tiresome his constant witty banter.

At least I'd regained my all-over tan and learned that a holiday shared with others means you never do what you want. I don't think anyone was unhappy when the yacht docked for the last time in the picturesque Old Port of Nice.

After farewelling them and forwarding most of my luggage at the station, I set off with a light heart and a small duffel bag containing a spare pair of shorts and shirt, a blanket, plate, and mug, to walk along the coast to Cannes. I had three weeks and twenty pounds to prove myself as independent as I thought I was.

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