A short Story
The man walked along the street he had known so well as a youth. Some things were the same: the Victorian church, St James', still pointed its tall spire to where its builders hoped God might exist; the thirties-style cinema, the Odeon, was still squatting there, now prodly advertising its innovations, its disabled access, its acoustic induction loop, its licensed bar and of course its three screens - art house and mainstream movies. At the moment it was showing Apocalypto, Happy Feet, The History Boys.
When he was young there would have been just the one screen and the Saturday morning children's films. Now a long forgotten tradition the first matinee was held in 1927 they had been killed off by daytime TV in the 1960s of course. In the 40s, which was when he and all the other local kids had attended, they became community events with singing and lectures on topics like road safety besides the film screenings. All kinds of back catalogue films were shown; Disney cartoons, Westerns, gangster movies and American cliff-hanger serials like Tarzan, Perils of Pauline and Flash Gordon.
Occasionally the audience, if the lectures went on for too long, would become somewhat rowdy and boys would start flicking glowing fag ends around, and a few of the most vociferous would be chucked out by the manager, resplendent in his black tie and dinner jacket, but this was part of the excitement. Anyway, they knew they'd be allowed back the following Saturday.
What else was still here? The Edwardian buildings over the shops, though these shop fronts had changed drastically, one with a Gaudi-like frontage which even now evoked controversy.
He walked along what was still called St James' Parade, well, why change the name? It had been thirty years since he had last done so and it still looked familiar but surely there was something missing, something which had been very important in his twenties. Now there was a Sainsbury's looking brash and new. That hadn't been there in the 60s but something else had, something with a glass portico supported by thin metal columns which covered the pavement. Something with a name on the side. Yes, now he remembered 'The Atheneum Dance Hall'. How could he ever have forgotten? It was the Mecca of Saturday night's entertainment if he'd seen the film during the week. Somewhere to dance the cares away, perhaps pick up a bird, certainly get a bit squiffy at the bar, meet the lads, have a laugh.
Gone now and in its place this temple to food consumerism! He wondered if there was anything left inside to remind him of those days, the heat of crowded bodies dancing together, the smell of cheap scent and sweat. the sound of the band on that raised dais at the far end, the bar down the side, the turning ball with its glittering glass facets which flashed and reflected when the spotlight was on it and the other lights dimmed so that glowing faces were suddenly and patchily highlighted and the girls' dresses splashed with different kaleidoscopic colours.
He turned and went inside he supermarket. He knew he wouldn't buy anything but picked up a basket anyway so as not to stand out from the rest. There was, of course, nothing to remind him of the old music hall, just aisles of produce, tastefully arranged, a line of checkouts, the ceiling, flat and white and filled with strip lighting. It seemed much bigger than it had been, perhaps Lord Sainsbury had extended it at the back. Where would that rotating light have been? He looked upwards and, as he did so, a woman with a trolley came out of one of the aisles, rounded the corner and headed straight at him.
He heard her say, "Watch where you're going." He tried to step to the side but his foot slipped on something and he fell, his head striking the corner of a freezer compartment. He felt a sudden pain and then nothing.
* * * * * *
There was the sound of music in the hall. The band were playing the Beatles' hit "I Feel Fine". The 'Fab Four' had just gone to America and newspapers said they were taking the country by storm. It was called 'Beatlemania'. Here, of course without the group singing, it wasn't nearly as good but people were dancing the Twist energetically.
The lights were up they didn't lower them and use the spotlights and prism ball until the slow dances. Too afraid that people would crash into each other, I suppose, and the place get a bad name.
Along the bar the young men lined up, waiting to be served, occasionally one would push his way nearer and get a telling off from the others. "Watch it, ding-a-ling." But no one was rat-arsed enough to get really aggressive. I took my place beside a young man wearing, as I was, a clerical grey, single breasted suit with a short tailored jacket and narrow lapels, with a button-down collared shirt and thin tie. I hoped I looked as smart as him. His hair was slightly longer than mine, worn, 'Beatle Style'. Mine I had to keep short as, if I let it grow, it would curl and people called me 'Blondie'.
As I pushed in behind him, he half turned, smiled and said, "Wotcher." I was slightly surprised as I didn't know him but he was obviously a friendly sort, so I smiled back.
"Whatchoo drinkin'?" he asked.
"Nothin' yet, "I said. "I'd like a half."
"You won't get a pint in here," he said. "They think it's common." But he had the eye of one of the barmen and ordered two halves. He carried them over to a space at the side of the hall and I followed him, noticing how narrowly cut his trousers were. Very fashionable! But I wondered if I wanted my arse to be so clearly visible and, when he turned round, how his cock and balls stood out prominently.
I thought my own winkle-pickers were in fashion but I saw he was wearing Chelsea boots, and decided that was what I needed next time I'd saved up enough dosh.
"Thanks," I said, as he handed me the beer and I felt in my pocket for the 1/6d to pay him.
"Forget it,mate" he said. "You can buy the next round." So we were 'mates', were we? And it was going to be a 'stay together' sort of evening. I was a bit surprised that he should have taken up with me so quickly, but not displeased. I looked at him more carefully. He had dark hair and eyebrows, a thin face, the planes of his cheeks, flat and slightly concave. He looked, not exactly, vicious but someone you wouldn't want to tangle with. He was handsome too.
"Seen the local flick?" he asked.
It was 'A Hard Day's Night', the Beatles film and I had seen it at the Odeon last week. It was so popular that it had been retained for a second week. We discussed it for a while.
"I want to see next week's," I said. "'Dr Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb.'"
"Yeah," he agreed. "Perhaps we can go together."
He took out a packet of twenty Players and offered me one. Across the pack was printed 'Smoking can be hazardous to your health'. This had just started to be printed on the packs. I pointed it out to him.
"Don't worry, mate. It ain't the smoke in the fags that's the problem, it's the petrol from the lighters. Just make sure you don't breathe the first drag into your lungs." He flicked his Polo lighter and the flame shot up. almost burning my eyebrows. We laughed but I did as he told me and didn't take the first puff down.
The music had changed to the Rolling Stones, 'Get Off of my Cloud', and the dancers were getting even more energetic, flinging their bodies into even more curious positions.
"You want to dance?" my 'friend' asked, and for a shocking moment it almost seemed as if he was asking me to dance with him. Then he nodded to the other side where a line of girls waited. Of course the twist was the sort of dance where you didn't need contact with your partner and girls would often dance together. Sometimes I'd even seen lads do the same, though this wasn't really approved of by the management.
"Not at the moment," I said. "Need a bit more beer first."
"I'm Ray Thorsby," he said.
"Nick, Nick Grant," I said.
We solemnly shook hands and playfully he wouldn't let go when I tried to withdraw. His hand was warm and dry and held me in a firm grip. Then from behind him, a lad who was dancing, crashed into his back and pushed Ray against me. Luckily our glasses were empty so we weren't soaked with beer. Ray turned and swore at the lad.
"You fucking cunt," Ray said. For a moment the situation looked ugly but the lad apologised and said he was sorry and could he buy Ray a drink. "And my mate here," said Ray.
The lad agreed and went off to the bar, his girl trailing shamefacedly after him. She would obviously be having a go at him later.
Ray had stayed where he was so that his back was against me, or rather his side. His leg was between mine and I couldn't back off because I was against the wall.
Almost in my ear, he started singing with the music which had changed to the Byrds song, written by Bob Dylan"
"All I really want to do
Is baby be friends with you
I don't want to fake you out
Take or shake or forsake you out
I ain't lookin' for you to feel like me
See like me or be like me . . ."
His leg was jogging to the beat of the music and was actually in my groin so that it rubbed against my cock. To my embarrassment, I felt that I was getting a hard, and I knew Ray must soon feel it too.
Then I saw the guy who had bumped into us, coming back through the crowd. He didn't look all that pleased but he was carrying two beers. Ray saw him too and stepped away from me, though, as he did so, his hand snaked back and he grabbed my cock and gave it a friendly squeeze. I blushed.
"Cheers," he said to the bloke.
"Orl right." It sounded grudging.
"No harm done," said Ray as he handed a beer to me. "In fact it wasn't a bad thing at all, as it happened."
The lad looked puzzled but went off.
"What did you mean?" I asked, but Ray just smiled.
I didn't know what was happening. I didn't know why I had reacted like I had to Ray's jigging leg. Christ, what was the matter with me, getting turned on to another bloke? Of course at school, boys only, I had played around, grabbing the others' goolies in mock fights and occasionally lingering over the release. After school, I'd gone out with girls. In fact I'd just been given the shove by my most recent, a girl called Dorothy, who was now going out with a sailor who, she said, was more 'affectionate' than I had ever been whatever that might mean.
Queers, I knew, had limp wrists and a lisp and neither Ray nor I showed any signs of these so we couldn't be that. And yet I decided I liked him, had rather enjoyed the little bit of play that had just occurred. What was the matter with me?
Ray behaved as if nothing unusual had happened. He mentioned that a new TV channel had been started, BBC2 in April. Had I seen it? "Posh." he said. "All arty farty."
"No," I said, "We don't have a television set at all." Father didn't approve and of course I still lived at home.
"P'raps you can come round and watch ours," he said. "When Mum and Dad are out." He looked at me and smiled and there was something in his eyes, in the curve of his lips that suggested that watching television wasn't all he had in mind when his mother and father were out.
The music changed and they were playing a slow fox-trot. Ray got to his feet. "Come on, Nick, let's find someone to dance with, seeing as how you've turned me down."
I wasn't sure how serious that last remark was, but he set off across the floor and I meekly followed.
There was a giggle of girls lined up waiting for partners. I wouldn't have dared intrude but Ray had no such qualms. "Anyone want to dance?" he asked. "There's me, and my mate here, both as good as professionals. Come on, don't be shy."
As expected he was met with a chorus of titters but one dark-haired girl stepped forward pulling her friend with fair and fluffy hair from out of the crowd. I got the fair and fluffy one who wasn't all that pretty but was a good dancer so we got on well.
"Your friend's very handsome, isn't he?" she said after a while. This wasn't all that complimentary to me but it was true. Ray was handsome.
"He keeps on looking over here," she said, shaking her chandelier earrings. "Do you think he fancies me?"
Not that I was really interested in her but I did feel slightly miffed. She was dancing with me and yet all her attention seemed to be on Ray. I looked at Ray and he winked at me. I winked back, then, to show off did a rather complicated fishtail movement. My partner followed me exactly. I was showing off and Ray knew it. He waved and stuck his thumb up in appreciation.
"Actually," I said, getting a bit of my own back, "I think he's looking at me."
"You best friends?" she asked.
"Sure," I said, having known him for all of two hours, perhaps even slightly less.
The dance finished and I escorted her back to her group. The proper thing was to hang around, ask her if she wanted a drink, but Ray joined us and immediately grabbed me, and we went off across the ballroom, his arm round my shoulders like footballers going off the field.
"You're quite a Fred Astaire," he said.
"You're not so bad yourself," I said gallantly.
The lights dimmed and the spotlights focussed on the rotating prism ball so that we were in comparative darkness. Ray was whispering almost in my ear and I could feel his breath, almost like a kiss. Then it was one. His lips and then the point of his tongue inside. I ought to have jerked away but didn't. I wanted to turn my head so that my lips would be against his and his tongue in my mouth but I couldn't.
"Let's go somewhere private," he breathed.
"What about Highgate Woods?"
"I thought that was locked at night. Anyway it's a fair walk." I wanted to go with him but in a way I was scared.
"It's not that far, and I know a way in."
I made up my mind. It was probably the nearness of him, the nearness of his mouth to my cheek, the fact that his hand was stroking my thigh. "Right," I said.
"But I must have a piss first." He turned towards the Gents. I wanted one myself but hung back not wanting to appear too eager.
"Come on," he said. "I'm not leaving you all on your own with this lot. Fuck knows what you'd get up to." He smiled.
There was one person in the gents as we went in but he zipped up and went out almost immediately. We stood at neighbouring urinals and Ray took out his cock. I had no choice no wish not to look. He held it loosely in his hand and it was, I suppose, half hard but he was still able to piss. A stream went into the urinal. They were playing the Beatles song, 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' Quickly I undid my flies and joined him. But I was harder and couldn't piss. I heard Ray laugh just before the door crashed open.
A voice said, "Here they are, the queers."
I looked round. Standing in the doorway was the lad who had bumped into Ray, who had bought us the beer. Now he wasn't alone. There were four other blokes crowding in behind him. For a moment I was paralysed but, out of the corner of my eye I saw Ray put his cock away and zip up. Irrationally I noticed he was still dripping and knew that those drops would run down his leg.
But there was no time for anymore.
Ray turned. "Got your mates now?" he asked, with a sneer in his voice. "Made you brave?"
Then they were on us. Ray hit out at the first guy but there were too many. I'm not much of a fighter, no Cassius Clay. To be honest I was so scared it nearly started the piss, which before I hadn't been able to, running. I felt someone kick my legs from the back and I was on the floor, amongst the piss and fag ends. I could see Ray still hitting out but there were three guys onto him and he also went down.
I heard him say, "Ok beat me up but leave Nick alone," before I saw a boot raised, coming towards my head, felt a sudden pain and then knew nothing more.
* * * * * *
The man was up on his feet in a second, rubbing the side of his head where it had hit the corner of the freezer compartment. For a moment he felt giddy but it soon passed.
"I'm so sorry," said the woman with the pram. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," he grunted, wanting to get out as quickly as possible.
He didn't understand what had happened. Had it been a sort of dream? He remembered the incident perfectly now though before he would have been hard put to record the details. He remembered waking in hospital after the fight with what the doctor confirmed was slight concussion. He hadn't been able to describe the attackers though the police asked him often enough.
No one seemed to know anything about Ray.
"No, Nick," said the nurse. "No one else was brought in with you."
He asked after Ray but couldn't even remember his surname and no one knew anything. He had never seen him again.
Coming out of Sainsbury's, he felt the cool air on his face and breathed deeply. He felt strange, not ill exactly but as if something unexpected had happened. He was thirsty and remembered there was a pub just along the road, the Clissold Arms, it was called, or had been, back in those days. A drink would sort him out. A pint of beer would go down well.
Yes, the pub was still there. He could see the sign outside, a sort of nondescript coat of arms but the name was clear. He was about to push open the door when his attention was caught by the writing over the door. They didn't always have them these days, so many pubs being owned by breweries or corporations, but there it was. Clear, unmistakable, mind numbing.
'Licensed for the sale of beer and spirits, Proprietor and Landlord: Ray Thorsby. No Dancing. No Singing. No Betting/'
The name caught him like a shock. Ray Thorsby. That was 'his' name. He nearly turned away but curiosity and something else made him continue. Could it be the same person after so long? Would he recognise him? What would he say?
He pushed open the door and went in.
* * * * * *
Date started: Saturday, January 6, 2007
Date Finished: Wednesday, January 10, 2007
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