Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 30

Shop Assistant and Teacher

In the weeks over Christmas and New Year, the fruit and vegetable department of Selfridges, the second largest and classiest department store in London, benefited from my servitude. Wealthy hostesses and film stars would dreamily request "A little fruit for the table, darling," then spend the equivalent of my week's wages on a bowl of grapes, granadillas, and a few peaches. The variety and quality of fruit both exotic and local was staggering and I became the melon and grape specialist, assisting Madam to select the perfect Israeli Ogen or Dutch Net melon, or, wearing white gloves and holding tissue paper, knowledgeably adjudicate over the selection of a pound of delicately bloomed Muscat grapes.

With an accent and lofty demeanour worthy of Jeeves, I was soon in demand by Lady this, Marquise that and the Duchess of Dogsbodies whose long-suffering chauffeurs trailed behind carrying both purchases and lap dog. One evening after bedding the stock for the night, the manager took me to the packing room where gorgeous baskets of fruit were concocted, and placed a firm hand on my shoulder. His breath was sweet, olive skin flawless, lips full, and intentions clear – I thought, so was somewhat surprised and just a tad disappointed when he merely asked if I'd become a permanent fixture, and he'd guarantee I'd be a buyer within a year. Buyers were powerful and very well remunerated – as they should be, having to be at Covent Garden markets at five o'clock every morning and not leaving the store till six. I thanked him profusely but declined. Three weeks had been sufficient for me to realise that 'serve' meant 'serf' and if I didn't quit soon I'd run amok with a peeling knife among the smug clientele.

A week later, I was scootering to Acton Town Infant School to take charge of the new entrants until their teacher returned in March. It was a portentous appointment as I was the first male to teach in that century-old establishment. Five-year-olds are as sharp as adults, a thousand times as quick at picking up new things, capable of tremendous affection and trust, disarmingly 'angelic' and supremely independent. I was in love with all of them.

Alwyn and Edgar, I didn't contact – instead, I phoned Peter Katin and we arranged to meet at the Seven Bells in Chelsea – scene of my genital jewellery debacle. I arrived too early and was so nervous I raced downstairs to the loo for a quick vomit, returning with stinking breath to find him waiting. Of the dinner party with several of his friends I remember nothing except a feeling of superfluity. It was all shop talk – who was performing where, what recordings had been made, the perfidy of agents, and other gossip. Still hoping to make amends for my sexual fiasco in Stirling, I accepted an invitation to be his guest at a concert in Croydon that weekend.

It was a long and perilous scooter ride to his house – a grand two-storey edifice where I was somewhat taken aback by the presence of a wife and two children. After minimal introductions we repaired upstairs to a huge, soundproof studio where, instead of a cuddle on the couch I had to listen to his latest recording – a Rachmaninov concerto. Half way through the interminable thing he shouted, "There! Did you hear it? They've skipped a note!" My ears were obviously clogged. There were notes aplenty – far too many in my opinion. With all those runs, trills and hammering, one note more or less seemed neither here nor there and I gazed at him in blank amazement.

After pancakes, served by his charming and obviously not so innocent wife, we drove to the concert hall where he was the first half of the programme. During interval the 'Friends of Peter Katin Society' gathered backstage to feed his ego, then we all drove back to his place. I was sorely disappointed. I wanted to hear the second half of the concert – a Mozart symphony. But no – we were there for Peter, not the music. It was my first close encounter with the gigantic egos essential to anyone contemplating the life of an entertainment superstar. Not having the sycophant gene, I withdrew – unnoticed and unlamented - and scootered the midnight miles back to my modest little bed-sit in Philbeach Gardens, Earl's Court.

The following morning the scooter was gone. The police eventually found it minus wheels and things. Insurance replaced and rebuilt it, but the first time I drove it to school in the rain a mini stopped abruptly in front of me. I smashed into the back, flew over the top and landed on the bonnet, before slithering onto the road. Cuts and scratches to me – scooter and car undamaged. The headmistress, a grandmotherly spinster of indeterminate age, viewing my ashen countenance and blood oozing from trousers and shirt, had a bowl of warm water and detergent brought to her study where she and her thousand-year-old secretary pretended they weren't excited when I stripped.

I should have listened to Mother and worn underpants in case I had an accident; but they were old enough to cope and didn't seem the slightest bit incommoded. Secure in the knowledge that no one would dare enter her sanctum without first knocking, the headmistress and her ancient acolyte tutted concern and gently swabbed and applied ointment and plasters to gashes and grazes.

The anonymity of London was a necessary tonic after the School Camp and Alloa, where I soon knew too many people and was often recognised on the street by kids and their parents. In London, the evenings were never boring; I was either dancing in a club or going to concerts and poetry readings at a queer-friendly pub with one of the best friends I've ever had – an Australian called Geoffrey. Blond, healthy, interested in many things, intelligent and fun. No sex, as I wasn't his 'type'.

He was enamoured with Terry, a slim, pimply and emotionally insecure seventeen-year-old who kept slashing his wrists. Geoffrey is one of the few people I am genuinely sorry to have lost contact with. He visited me twice in Paris and we corresponded for years, but I kept moving, lost addresses, he moved, and is now somewhere in Melbourne, or India, or Timbuktu, or dead – he was very adventurous.

For social dancing to be pleasurable, it requires a good partner and I teamed up with a mad Irish girl who one night secretly followed me back to my room and hammered on the door creating such a fuss I had to let her in, whereupon she produced a condom (something I've never bought in my life) and I, deciding submission was preferable to the neighbours calling the cops, let her ride me like a horse across the Irish bogs.

Two days later, itches. A bath that night revealed crabs! Blood-sucking parasites! Humiliated, I took the tube to the all-night chemist in Piccadilly Circus and joined the queue of druggies waiting for their National Health 'fix'. The assistant didn't even blink when I confessed my shame, merely handed me a bottle of milky liquid. On the up side… I had a good reason to tell Irish to bugger off.

When the permanent teacher failed to return to Acton Infant School at the end of February, the headmistress asked me to apply for her position. I thanked her with a peck on a withered cheek, and regretfully declined – it had been wonderful, but I was promised to another Camp School in Scotland.

Unable to face another scooter ride the length of England, I popped it on the train to Edinburgh, and scootered to Aberfoyle during a blizzard. It snowed the entire month and was great fun, as were all the camps, usually with most of the same colonial crowd with whom I became good friends – keeping my secret by sighing over a fictive photo of a fiancé prominently displayed in my wallet, and taking my mother's weekly letters away to a quiet corner to read with dewy-eyed excitement – behaviour that usually kept would-be lovers at bay.

Prue, an exuberant Melburnian with mauve hair was at every camp and I fell deeply in love with her – platonically. Our relationship was cerebral/emotional intimacy, not sexual, something I hoped would continue because her husband was also teaching at the camp. Therefore, when she snuggled into bed one night, nuzzling my neck, caressing the cods, and stifling sobs, I felt cheated. Between sniffles she told me her husband never slept with her any more, had been having affairs, and she was so miserable… couldn't I just… hold her and…

She had a slim, hairless body, which I found interesting, and although I didn't enjoy the experience, neither was it unpleasant, perhaps because I liked her more than any other woman I'd known. But I couldn't do it again. She was deeply hurt: rejected again! But what was I supposed to say? Sorry Prue, I'm a poofter? I didn't dare! How much happier and simpler life would be for everyone if no one had to dissimulate.

Fortunately, most of the boys were too young for sex to be a problem. The girls thought the boys were immature, and the boys weren't interested in them. However, one afternoon a noise in the store room opposite my bedroom demanded investigation. Instead of slithering through mud and bushes to steal the flag of the opposing team, a couple of young toughs had hived off and were tugging at each other's erections. Idiots! The room was frequently visited by staff. I grabbed their shorts, checked no one was coming, thrust them across the corridor into my room and let loose. Didn't they realise if they were caught they'd be expelled from both camp and school and their lives ruined? They didn't and were visibly shocked to discover that unpalatable truth. I let it sink in, told them to find somewhere safe next time, and handed back their shorts.

That night after lights out, they crept into to my room to thank me and ask if what they were doing was really bad. I told them it certainly wasn't, but the law was, so they'd have to find a way to live with it.

It was another twenty years before I understood that laws could be changed, and joined the fight to decriminalise my natural behaviour. Such is the power of childhood indoctrination that, being brought up to respect the law, we imagine it to be immutable.

Most Scottish Education Authorities ran camps, and all were good, although by today's standards we took incredible risks. While tramping with a group from Lanarkshire the kids nearly got blown off a mountain by sudden hurricane force winds. On another occasion, a score of boys from Perth fell through the ice on a lake and nearly drowned. We lost a girl for an hour as dusk was falling in a forest; and couldn't see more than a foot in front of ourselves for a week during a 'Ha' [dense fog] at a camp in a grand old mansion south of Edinburgh where three kids got lost for nearly a day in abandoned and dangerous mine shafts.

Best of all was a month by a lake in the highlands with a middle-aged Scottish teacher and his class of eighteen fourteen-year-olds from a private Edinburgh boys' school for ultra-high achievers. They were smart, witty, hard working, hungry for knowledge, adventurous, and sensible. Without the giggles and mocking with which girls habitually draw attention to themselves, the boys lost inhibitions and calculated the river flow, mapped the stars, climbed rocky escarpments, skinny-dipped, used trigonometry to work out the height of hills and trees, held impromptu concerts, made up plays and, throwing off the shackles of convention, accepted my assertion that they'd enjoy participating in 'free movement' to the strumming of their teacher's Spanish guitar.

Their enthusiasm for this liberating and exhausting exercise was so great that on the last night, on their own initiative they choreographed and performed an exuberant ten-minute 'ballet', some of the moves of which were so expressive I used them the next time I performed.

Not once was I tortured by a tongue in the ear; expected to fondle udders; or invited to venture into a vulva. So relaxing yet stimulating was this all-male environment I determined to join a monastery – if I could find one for homosexual atheists.

Back in Alloa one evening during high tea, (dinner in Scotland was at noon) a hotel guest to whom I'd spoken a few words mentioned a New Zealander he thought I'd like to meet. Curious, I telephoned and that weekend a smooth, Italianate young man of about my age picked me up in a Triumph Sports car. Marvin was a designer of woollen fashion clothing, and rented an up-market flat in Bridge of Allan with views across the Forth River and the ruined old bridge to Stirling Castle. He took me to William Wallace's memorial – a giant neo-Gothic Victorian phallic tower, where, after climbing the three hundred steps, he remained paralysed by propriety, haltingly pointing out the grand view.

So, I kissed him. He was taken aback. "I didn't dare hope you were queer! You look so straight!" Quite the nicest words anyone can say to a closeted homo. He took me home for the weekend and proved to be yet another selfish lover who fell asleep as soon as his lusts were quenched. Frustrating, but in other ways he was good company and I knew it was foolish to expect perfection in others when even I had a few faults. At least I now had someone with whom to share weekends and evenings without having to pretend I lusted over girls, or laugh over unfunny jokes about queers.

George had found another occasional lover to seduce in his attic, and Marvin took me to a private house where an oleaginous Catholic priest held court among a gaggle of somewhat histrionic and nervous queers overburdened by their unwanted outlaw status. That was more or less the sum total of the Stirling 'Queer Scene'

From Friday night until Monday morning we were a couple. Cooking, eating, playing, sleeping, sightseeing in the Triumph to romantic Castle Doone, abandoned villages like Blair Logie with its crumbling crofts and strange tombstones, and ancient Fife fishing villages whose silent, unwelcoming menace fed my nightmares for years. Marvin was friends with a gay couple in Callander whose bathroom was decked out in pink tulle. Embarrassment at it and the queenly behaviour of one of the pair, an otherwise pleasant young man who made hats, caused me to refuse further invitations.

At the few Glasgow parties Marvin dragged me to, I'd spend a great deal of time outside wandering the streets or, if the smog and clouds lifted, gazing at the stars to avoid cigarette smoke and alcohol-induced stupidity. A party should be fun. There should be games, jokes, banter, intelligent one-on-one conversation, a chance to get to know new people – make friends. But what hope is there of that if everyone's blind drunk and sex crazed? And I wasn't the right 'type', apparently. Whenever I tried to chat with anyone, even gargoyles, I was given the cold shoulder. It didn't bother me too much as they weren't remotely desirable – still, it was a tad discomforting to discover I wasn't universally admired and lusted over.

The existence of a supportive gay subculture bent on subverting societal values is a heterosexual fabrication designed to excuse homophobia. The truth is the opposite. Neurotic, self-absorbed, shallow, bitchy, and downright unfriendly is more typical of gays in groups. In other words, they're no different from heterosexuals.

Our crumbling ménage was finally dismantled after a weekend in Edinburgh staying in a dank Georgian mansion with Marvin's tenuously-connected-to-royalty second cousins, whose notions of hospitality were chillingly similar to the Viennese couple of the strawberries and cream and rhinestones.

In the early sixties, John Knox's ghost still held the Scots in thrall and Edinburgh sans festival was dead. I'm not a night owl, but even I was amazed that the entire city was shut down by ten o'clock! If you didn't arrive back at your private hotel, guest house, or hostel by ten-thirty, you spent the night on the street.

Marvin wasn't interested in the theatre, art, classical music, or walking too far, and was profoundly shocked when I showed him where we'd staged Macbeth and described my role. The revelation rendered him speechless and we drove in silence to Arthur's Seat, Holyrood House, and home. When, a few days later, he checked up on whether I'd sent a 'thank-you' letter to our hosts, I realised that living with him would be like living with a strict maiden aunt. We'd talked about travelling together, but he was dismissive of hitch-hiking, camping, and youth hostels. For him travelling meant cars, first-class trains, aeroplanes, and hotels. It did seem a shame that pomposity and cringing conventionality should be so attractively wrapped.

I gleaned one useful snippet of information from our Edinburgh weekend. In the window of a photographer specialising in 'art' photos of muscled men in posing pouches, I spied a discreet little notice: Creative male models required.

Before the digital age permitted us to take and print photos of ourselves, every large city boasted at least one such photographic studio. Marvin snorted with derision at the pumped-up bodies and walked on. I took note of the phone number and later made an appointment for the following Saturday.

As I suspected, 'creative' meant uninhibited and 'model' meant stripper – but I was too old, the manager informed me. Twenty-three and already too old? To compensate for my disappointment, he invited me to see for myself, and that evening I joined a few dozen middle aged to elderly, well-heeled and well-filled gentlemen in the well-appointed rooms of the Athena Club. It boasted a library, billiard room, steam room, gymnasium, dining room and kitchens, bar room, several bedrooms, and a charming little theatre complete with stage lights, curtains and seating for about a hundred, in which sexy entertainment was provided every Saturday night.

At nine o'clock, a series of skinny boys sullenly removed their clothes, a few revealing needle marks, then jerked off to the beat of pop music. The applause was grudging. I was indeed older than the fourteen to eighteen-year-olds who performed so poorly, but it was a delightful stage that cried out for professional performers, so I offered to give a show the following Saturday, promising not to charge if the audience didn't like me.

I've never understood why people think it's demeaning to perform a good striptease. They'll go to a museum and ooh and ah over a vase or carpet or painting; happily gawping at nude sculptures and scantily clad dancers and circus performers without imagining their interest cheapens the object of their admiration, so why should the lustful gaze of sad and sex-starved men cheapen me?

On the contrary, it made me feel worthwhile – of value and decent. I've given up expecting anyone to understand the fun and thrill it gave me. Living a life of pretence in a small town or crowded camp was like being sucked into quicksand. I had to do something totally different – something that would shock them if they knew, merely to avoid emotional suffocation.

I gave my standard show – a real striptease with several layers of costumes, many laughs, and audience involvement – even got some of them up to dance. The owner paid me ten Scottish pounds issued by the Clydesdale Bank, equivalent to Bank of England notes but only tradeable in Scotland, and said I could perform any Saturday night I was in the city. No need to ring in advance. Twenty minutes on stage and home in bed by ten-thirty having earned as much untaxed lucre as a week in the classroom – not bad.

Three youthful experiences indelibly coloured my perceptions of women. The first was reading about Mr. Pickwick's lucky escape from Mrs. Bardell's accusation of 'breach of promise of marriage'. The second was when a family friend, a confirmed bachelor in his thirties, was astounded to read in the paper of his engagement to a woman he'd only been seeing on a casual basis for a few months. So unnerved was he by this announcement and the huge engagement party her parents had without his knowledge organised, he capitulated and spent the rest of his life in marital disharmony. Third and most distressing was the case of a young man I'd been to school with who'd just completed his training as a doctor. He was so distraught by a marriage into which he'd been trapped, that on the morning of the wedding his mother found him hanging by the neck in their basement garage.

A pleasant, middle-aged female teacher at my school in Alloa, invited me to dinner. The Victorian villa was sturdy, the décor sombre, the cutlery sterling silver, the husband aloof, the food unmemorable, and the daughter on the cusp of spinsterhood. Suspicious of her motives, I refused the offer of tickets to a concert if I would accompany the daughter, told them I'd soon be heading for Turkey for an indefinite period, and declined further invitations.

Ishbel, another youngish woman galloping towards spinsterhood, partnered me at badminton several times and misunderstood my familiarity. One evening a knock at my door while I was reading in bed. Imagining it was one of the other guys living at the hotel, I called, "Come in." She entered shyly and stood staring gooselike at my naked chest. I patted the bed. She sat down, then realising what she'd done, bounced back up as if scalded. When her lips finally came unstuck she stuttered an invitation to a ceilidh the following week. I love dancing, but not at a Scottish Ceilidh where the whole family from mewling babe to incontinent ninety-year-olds would be there to meet Ishbel's young man.

Seldom have I been grateful to religion, but this time John Knox proved useful. Unlike her colonial peers to whom sex was simply a bit of fun, Ishbel was virginal and pure. Sex was sin. Happiness was sin. The body was sin.

"OK, if you'll sleep with me," I said, throwing back the covers to expose my 'sin'. She gazed down in fascinated horror, opened her mouth, licked her lips, stepped back as if from the edge of the abyss, stuttered that she couldn't!... It wouldn't be… not before… and fled.

School holidays arrived, so I saddled up my trusty Lambretta and, ignoring unseasonable forecasts of blizzards and storms, set off for John O' Groats.

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address (it goes directly to your clipboard without having the courtesy of mentioning that to you) to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead