Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 20

A Winter Tale

Alwyn was in freefall; plummeting from the high board of mania into a puddle of depression while his nest was dismantled, carted off to Chiswick and reassembled. Edgar, a tight bundle of self-restraint, helped me to shift enough costumes to clothe a small city, a bookshop of scripts, and the pathetic collection of sticks that was their furniture. By the time we'd finished I'd climbed the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower and gained two inches on calves and thighs.

Their new bedroom was half the size of the old but had four times the space because the bed wasn't buried under all the essential paraphernalia of a travelling theatre company, which now had its own work/storage room. There was a kitchen that did not double as a throughway for the people upstairs, a bathroom, a pleasant sitting room, and a small spare bedroom – all on the ground floor to save Alwyn's aching limbs.

While Edgar and I laboured, Alwyn interviewed new recruits. His howls of despair as each unhappy hopeful was hustled out were disquieting. I feared for his sanity. Edgar flapped around in ever decreasing circles making tea, packing and unpacking, twittering about shopping, supplies, possible adverse reactions to an all-male troupe, forward booking confirmations, mail, and a thousand other things that would have floated over his sensible head a week before.

Once settled in Chiswick, I had time to wonder what I was doing and where I was headed. I needed to clear my mind. To think. Something I do best while walking. It took but one circuit of a nearby park to reach the conclusion that I was an aimless drifter of no particular talent, content to be wafted along on the draughts of chance as long as I was independent and on stage. A recipe for mediocrity rather than fame.

A reverse circumnavigation of the park delivered no hidden depths of character. My sole requirement from life, I realised, was to avoid danger while feeling at ease in the world. I had the mental depth of a thimble.

So far, I'd made no enemies. I knew several friendly people, but I've never wanted close friends – they expect you to be like them, want what they want, and go where they go. Worse, I'd have to hide my predilection for handsome young men and give up my freedom to do whatever I wanted without fearing censure.

Since the cradle it seemed I'd been searching for 'one real friend'; the sort you would die for like Batman and Robin or the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Loving companionship, that's what I wanted. He wouldn't have to be a handsome stud. I've always had a fairly accurate grasp of my own inadequacies and knew that if you want to be loved you have to be lovable, and if you want someone sexy and attractive you have to develop those qualities in yourself.

It was cold enough for a white Christmas, but we had to make do with freezing pea-soup fogs that suited my feelings in regard to that festive wank. Christmas when I was a kid meant bad tempers, visiting relations I had no desire to see, and embarrassment at my Christmas presents which, in our house, were handkerchiefs and underpants wrapped in last year's gaudy paper. Only once did my father give me anything; a little grey plastic water pistol that didn't work. He'd found it on the side of the road and you could see the tyre marks of the car that had run over it.

Watching unlovely relatives and others stuff fodder into their gobs like starving pigs should have featured in Dante's circles of hell, along with all that determined jollity among people who normally wouldn't give each other the time of day. While the adults slumped over after-dinner drinks, I'd suffer my cousin's gloating about his sparkling new BSA bicycle with six-speed Sturmey-Archer hub gears, or a top-of-the-range pump-action air gun with which he shot a few defenceless birds. I didn't envy him. He was neither bright nor handsome nor popular. Indeed, I thanked my lucky stars I was me and not him.

I read a while ago that most people suffer from low self-esteem – I've always enjoyed a sufficiency.

Meanwhile, back in Chiswick, the final aria from La Cenerentola was bel cantoing from the upstairs flat, so I crept up to listen as Victoria de Los Angeles trilled forgiveness. Gooseflesh lifted the shirt from my back. The aria ended, I remained transfixed, and the door opened to reveal high cheekbones, square jaw, sculpted lips, golden skin, black eyes and long, black, glossy, dead straight hair.

"What are you doing there?" Unfriendly.

I found my tongue, apologised, introduced myself, explained I was starved of such music, and was invited to listen to the other side of the record when he returned from the corner shop. I walked there and back with him, giddy from the aura that surrounds truly handsome men who are unaware of their beauty.

When we returned with the milk [real milk, not the boiled, sterilised stuff they served up north in narrow necked bottles because no one had a refrigerator] two young women, also of the Chinese persuasion, were arranged over the settee – one good looking, the other plain of face but sweet of character. I was introduced, and we drank instant coffee. The record ended, and I was invited to join them the following night at a nearby church hall where a soprano of unknown abilities would be singing 'something classical'. Sounded risky, but I would have gone to hell with him.

Back on the ground floor a thirty-eight-year-old male of slim build and forgettable countenance was now the seventh and final member of our all-male cast. He had been doorman at a cinema for three years, could sustain a pleasant falsetto, and leaked gratitude at being given a chance to tread the boards once more. His stage name was Rolando, handshake firm but clammy, eyes moist, figure manly, and posture erect.

Actors are not paid during holidays and we were off for nearly four weeks, so as I didn't fancy registering with the unemployment office, Hazel's offer of work was appreciated and I visited her that evening. In the previous three-and-a-half months I'd taken tea and enjoyed polite discourse with female teachers and headmistresses after performing at their school, as well as with 'friends of the theatre' after performances of Sweeney Todd. Compared to those candid, provincial faces, Hazel looked like a raddled tart, with a hardness to her eyes I hadn't noticed before. She cut to the chase.

"What do you know about the Bloomsbury Group?"

I shrugged ignorance.

"Katherine Mansfield?"

I'd been presented with a leather-bound collection of her short stories after taking the role of Papageno in The Magic Flute at school – stories I read and re-read for their disturbing undertones; secrets I was too inexperienced to unravel.

According to Hazel, Mansfield and her partner, Middleton Murray, had lived nearby and were more famous for their nude butler and orgies with the notorious Bloomsbury Group of writers and artists, than for their contribution to literature. She was holding a 'Katherine Mansfield in Bloomsbury' party, directly after New Year and needed a couple of 'heavies' in case of trouble. One would be her 'man of all work' who had arranged the music for my previous performance, and I'd be the other – posing as the naked butler.

"What sort of trouble?"

"Nothing worse than helping a drunk to the bathroom."

"Will there be readings from Mansfield's work – that sort of thing?"

"It's an orgy!" she snorted derisively!

Well wrapped, my Chinese acquaintances and I walked the half mile to a hall that was old, cold and smelled of dust. The piano was in tune, but the soprano needed her vocal chords adjusted. A wobble on the high notes and breathiness on the low were not balanced by mellow mid-tones. I spent the evening in a sweat waiting for her to hit a bum note or run out of breath.

I blame the euphoria of release after the third and final encore and the chance of a few more minutes in the company of the perfect male, for agreeing to accompany the hand-holding homely lass upstairs where we discussed her plight as a 'coloured' person in South Africa, while drinking more instant coffee.

My three hosts nodded to each other conspiratorially, stood, and invited me to follow. In the bedroom they removed their clothes. Common sense screamed, "Flee!" But I was transfixed by the naked perfection of Perfection, as I'd begun to think of him. Smooth, golden skin. Wide shoulders and narrow hips, tiny thatch of dead straight pubic hair above a proud erection.

Hoping for a foursome, I stripped, but Perfection and his girl lay on the other bed while my girl thrust me on to the other, sucking on my penis with all the enthusiasm of a nervous limpet while I watched him thrusting powerfully, triggering little miaows of delight from his woman. I could scarcely breathe from lust. What an incredible waste!

Meanwhile, encountering little success with her vacuum cleaner impersonation, my torturer thrust me back onto the bed and meddled inexpertly with everything else while I wracked my brains for an excuse to escape. Eureka! I had no condoms – neither did she so we couldn't do it!

"It's safe," she whispered. "I'm wearing a diaphragm."

What followed was an embarrassing replay of my night of carnal displeasure with the Scottish lassie. After a great deal of tiresome manipulation, I forced the knob in. She wriggled in deluded anticipation. I fiddled around some more and managed to force in another inch but being unable now to look at Perfection groaning in apparently endless orgasm, things were shrinking fast. Eventually, after much ineffective thrusting we both faked frenzied paroxysms of excitation.

The following morning, she was outside our door waiting to invite me up again that night. I made excuses. The next day Perfection came and abused me for abusing and dumping. She had sacrificed her virginity for me. A decent man would marry her! I had no excuses that would be acceptable. I'd been dishonest and must pay the price. Angry looks and unpleasant remarks about both my character and masculinity whenever I encountered Perfection failed to dent either my steely determination, or my unrequited lust.

Alwyn thought it funny. Edgar sympathised which earned him a cuddle and permission to practice fellatio after dinner in my room if Alwyn fell asleep in front of television. He explained that South Africa was now out of the Commonwealth, so the girl only had a temporary residence permit. Unless she married a British subject soon, she would be sent home. I felt pity, but not enough to commit hara-kiri!

Everyone was raving about the Christmas decorations in Regent and Oxford Streets – the best since the war. So I took a look. I've never understood adult desire for tinsel; to me it was a total waste of money. One's 'amazement' lasted all of two minutes before the lights became merely a backdrop scarcely more interesting than street lighting. Kids were satisfied with the miraculous animated window displays in department stores, so it wasn't for them.

The millions of pounds spent on those enormous electrified garlands, as well as the gigantic tree in Trafalgar Square sent over by the Norwegian Government, was money down the drain. As bad as fireworks. [A few years ago, the Queensland government couldn't afford $25,000 for an Aboriginal volunteer group desperate to buy a utility truck so they could patrol the town at night; but spent two million dollars on a fireworks display that barely animated a populace sated with extravagance].

Humans seldom get their priorities right. And it's not just the English. That Christmas, thousands of Netherlanders flew to London to do their Christmas shopping! London was the place to buy. Everything was cheaper and there was a better selection of presents no one wanted than in Holland or anywhere else in Europe. Not for the first time, human idiocy and waste sent me into a spiral of depression and anger, making me not very nice to be near.

Conspicuous consumption – the English are especially good at that. If you were obscenely wealthy then your chauffeur could take you shopping to Selfridges and Harrods, park the Rolls illegally – there were no parking fines given to Rolls Royce owners – and then trail you around the store carrying the lap-dog and your purchases while you spent a worker's weekly wage on 'a little fruit for the table.' Benson and Hedges epitomised this attitude with their advertisement – "Benson and Hedges; the most expensive cigarettes you can buy." They topped the sales charts!

Christmas Day arrived. I'd told Alwyn and Edgar I'd be spending it with a group of colonials in Earl's Court. At breakfast they gave me a present – huge embarrassment as presents never cross my mind. It was a small book of poems by A. E. Houseman that I treasure to this day. 'The Laws of God, The Laws of Man', and 'The Colour of His Hair' remain two of my favourite poems; powerful indictments of religious and political oppression.

It was cold but clear. Well-wrapped, I followed the river to the city, crossed to the new South Bank development, then back up to Battersea Fun Park. Won a ballpoint pen at Bingo; was spun on the giant centrifuge [I was the only one who could stand out at right angles to the wall] took a few more rides; ate fish and chips followed by saveloys in batter washed down with cola, then up through Sloane Square to Hyde Park; west through Kensington. Gobbled peas, pie, chips, and eggs in a pie cart; arriving home about 7.00pm. My best Christmas day ever.

Two days later a telegram: Rigby. Meet at Shipley hotel 1.00 p.m. It was from Jeremy's father. Alwyn told me to be careful – parents are protective of their offspring and if they smelled a whiff of sexual impropriety I'd be taking Jeremy's place as Lady Macbeth!

The Hotel was Paddington passing itself off as Bayswater; a residence of faded gentility and chintz curtains. I was freezing by the time I arrived, despite a new lambskin half-length coat, skin-tight ski trousers, calf-length boots, and a Russian style fur hat. Jeremy's father was waiting in the foyer. He shook my hand solemnly then led me down the road to a café [pronounced kaff]. Sipping tea in a quiet corner he informed me that I had subverted the peaceful running of his household.

My heart skipped a beat.

Apparently unaware that his son had already confided in me, he explained, with what I imagined to be quiet menace, that it was not only my performance in Macbeth that had prompted Jeremy to apply to join our company, but my lack of clothing in Sweeney Todd. After seeing the show Jeremy and his mother never stopped talking about the sexy young naked man. Then at school Jeremy had been caught in flagrante delicto with another young lad in a broom cupboard, and summarily expelled.

I pretended surprise.

Instead of admonishing her son, his mother had joined him in discussing what sort of boys he fancied while planning the roles he would have when he became an actor. They had been very relieved when Jeremy was selected to join our company, but when he'd arrived home for Christmas and regaled them with every detail of his entry into professional theatre – including his sexual relationship with me… The voice tailed off leaving a portentous silence.

My heart fluttered off into space.

"It wasn't…"

The father heaved a sigh of resignation "I know, I know. Jeremy always manages to get what he wants."

"But I only… and he…"

The father wasn't listening.

"Sir, I accept that as I'm seven years older I should have refused. I'm sorry."

"Sorry? What for? I thought you blokes enjoyed a bit of sodomy."

"You mean you don't mind that he's…?"

"Good lord, no! I'm sixty-five and beyond caring about such trifles. I'm a lawyer and believe me a bit of bonking among young men is not the source of society's problems. As long as he's happy, that's all that matters. His older sister's divorced and offloads her brood on us far too often, and his older brother's being sued for maintenance by at least two women. Queer can only be better than that!"

I breathed short-lived relief.

"My worry is something else. Please don't be offended but I've made an appointment for you to be checked by a specialist in sexually transmitted diseases."

"But I haven't any…"

His patronising smile silenced protest. I had no idea whether I'd picked anything up, so we walked a couple of blocks to an unimpressive door behind which an impressive gentleman in tweed suit and waistcoat, stunning gold watch chain across his corpulence and a stethoscope round his neck, ordered me to strip.

"You've had lice!"


"Then why have you shaved your body?"

I explained about my Sweeney costume and the brief Caesar and Macbeth costumes, and that the director considered hair on legs, chests and other bits to be aesthetically displeasing on a stage. He grunted, then tapped and prodded, listened and observed, and did what doctors used to do and still should – checked my tongue, pulse, breath and sweat odour, skin quality, reflexes, diaphragm, lungs, spine, feet, scalp…. a long but simple list of diagnostic procedures that, if still used, would spare the country the expense of most of the x-rays, scans, blood tests and other hi-tech nonsense that have replaced observation and common sense.

After an intrusive but not unpleasant inspection of every orifice, I was declared haemorrhoid-free, infection-free, and disability-free, with the heart and lungs of a horse and the reflexes of a fly. After relieving me of a flask of urine and a test-tube of blood to be screened for diseases unable to be otherwise diagnosed, I was released.

Jeremy's dad puffed along beside me back to the hotel, chirruping about his impending retirement and a tropical cruise – without Jeremy. He didn't bother to conceal a smile of satisfaction as he said that.

A lift brought us to the fourth-floor private sitting room where Jeremy sat reading while his mother dozed in front of a gas fire. She turned with a smile.

"It's the sailor! Did you know the tiny bit of cloth went totally transparent when they threw the water over you?"

Jeremy laughed. His father harrumphed.

"Every woman in the village would like to sleep with you," she said as if informing me of the state of her rose garden.

"That sounds exhausting," I replied, hoping I'd achieved a similar air of insouciance.

"But Jeremy informs us you're homosexually inclined. Tea?"

I sat beside their son on the settee, sipping weak tea and dunking rock cakes, wondering if they were insane, having me on, or delightfully liberal. Despite my well-honed diversionary tactics they proved superior in the conversation stakes and I remained the sole topic.

Charming inquisitiveness combined with steely determination meant they eventually knew both my provenance and philosophy of life in all its shallowness. No sordid details, though! I'm not that soft in the head. But the pleasure of being with a charming, intelligent family, their seemingly genuine interest in me and my life undermined my guard and when the mother said I moved like a dancer I laughed and repeated Hazel's assessment of my abilities.

She sighed deeply. "Ahhh… dancing. I learned classical ballet, but marriage and children… I would love to see you dance. Please?"

I didn't think it was quite the place to prance around naked, but agreed to perform a comic mime I'd been working on.

In The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter, a sweet young thing skips out to pick flowers and is seduced by a young lad. Father sees it from the lighthouse and suffers a heart attack. Sweet young thing discovers father, finds doctor, then undertakers who carry the corpse down. I play all six parts and the humour lies in the facial expressions and the manner in which they each mount and descend the narrow spiral staircase [five circuits each time] starting off OK but becoming progressively exhausted.

My little audience laughed with enough gusto to convince me I hadn't made a total fool of myself and then it was time to go.

Jeremy stood and picked up a suitcase. "I'm coming with you. Mum rang Mr. Fox and he said it would be a good idea for me to stay with you at his place in London, so I can be properly prepared."

"But… there's no room!"

"He said I can share yours."

"It's a single bed."

"There's a folding bed in the storeroom."

I turned to his mother. "I'm unreliable,"

"You're every mother's ideal chaperone. Jeremy told us you get plenty of sleep, don't drink, smoke, or waste your money. Be firm and don't let him run you ragged."

From the haste with which the parents hustled us out the door, I gathered they were as determinedly pleased to be shot of their self-willed youngest son as Alwyn was to keep him!

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