I don’t remember who first suggested it. I’d done some modelling when I finished school but that dried up pretty quickly. It was a Spanish brand and I never got to see the pictures, how I looked. Made a bit of cash, bought myself some wheels. Got a bit too big for my boots, Gary said.
I called to get more work through the agency, but they never got back to me. After that I just hung out with Gary. Sold a bit of weed, fucked about, got stoned.
I was supposed to be living with my Auntie Rita but most nights I was at Gary’s or round some girl’s house. I’ve been with a lot of girls. One after another. I looked good, I guess, and I’d started working out.
My Auntie Rita’s cool. I can still remember moving in with her. I would have been seven. Just me and one of those big bags you get from Ikea, filled with Star Wars Lego and my Finding Nemo duvet. Gary asked me if I was upset. But I just wanted to get away from dad’s girlfriend, Carol. She never liked me, and I always felt like she turned dad against me. He was ok until he started seeing her. And then he seemed to just stop caring. Carol cared, but only that I took up as little space as possible. Always telling me to calm down. I was just a kid.
Dad paid Auntie Rita to look after me. Until I was sixteen, I think. That was the deal. At first, he’d come round to see me, and give my Auntie the envelope. They’d whisper about stuff together and I’d try and work out what they were saying. And then, by the time I’d started big school, he’d stopped coming over. The money was paid into my Auntie’s account, first of every month.
“Regular as clockwork,” my Auntie always said, like he’d done something incredible.
Hers is a bigger house, better area. My cousin Stephen went to university not long after I moved in. He’s a good lad. Always makes an effort when he comes back to see his mum, my auntie.
If I think about family, I suppose that’s pretty much it. Haven’t seen dad in five or six years. He invited me to his wedding, to some woman I’d never met. But I didn’t want to go. I saw the pictures on Facebook. She looked good. Younger than him. I’ve got my auntie. And my cousin Steve. And Gary.
I mean Gary’s not family, as such. But we’re really close, always have been.
When we were in school, he really stood by me. Like a brother. He’s pretty much the only person I can rely on, that I can talk to about things. Plus, he’s always got weed. Always.
I would’ve been twelve, thirteen, when we had our first joint. Our mate Jace had got some off his brother and we had it at his place. I’ve smoked pretty much every day ever since. Used to give me the giggles, and now it just chills me out.
Gary’s mum and dad have let him smoke in his room since we were sixteen. They’ve got a big house, plenty of space, and if we don’t make too much noise, they’re fine. I’ve had a toke with his old man a few times. He can take his weed too, which is cool.
They’ve got a gym at the bottom of their garden. It’s like a summer house with weights and a bench. Gary likes it when we go down there and get stoned. ‘Let’s go hot box’, he’s always saying. He loves it in the summer. We shut the doors, pull down the blinds, have a smoke in our boxers and then lift some weights.
“Lookin’ good brother.”
He looks me up and down, takes a long draw, and says it like he means it. And then we’re on the floor in giggles. We must have spent months down there, hot boxing, the sweat running off of us.
He’s got a job managing some bars in town. It’s not really work, I say. Just admin. He doesn’t actually pull pints. It’s through a mate of his dad’s and I don’t really know what it involves. But it keeps him in weed and he’s free most evenings, weekends too.
If Gary had his way, we’d be hotboxing all day, every day. Getting stoned and ripped. He takes it seriously. Protein shakes and all that. But I just like getting wasted, feeling fucked.
It was someone Gary knew that got me the first modelling gig. I think he felt bad after it all dried up. But I didn’t mind. Got me my wheels, girls. I’m careful with money, squirreling it away. Rainy day and all that.
After that I got into dealing a bit. Weed, mainly. Enough to keep things ticking over.
When I was eighteen, out of the blue, I got a letter from my mum. Knocked the stuffing out of me for a few days, that did. Pages and pages, all written out in handwriting like a teacher’s. Stuff about how she wished things had been different, about how she’d had problems back then, things about dad I didn’t want to know. She said she was depressed, that she still is, but that she’s got on top of it. Problems with booze. It was like a book, going on and on. I couldn’t get through half of it.
She’d put a photograph in with it. I remembered pictures my dad had shown me. From when they were together. She seemed so small next to him. Always with this big smile, like that was something she could match him with. I wouldn’t have recognised the woman in the photo she sent. Older, of course, and quite glamorous, like she’d had some work done, maybe. She’s smiling like she knows I’m looking at the picture. Wearing a blue skirt and a white blouse, side on to the camera. Like she’s on a red carpet or something. A wall of white flowers in the background.
“That’s where you get your looks bro. She’s hot, your mum.”
“Fuck off,” I said. To Gary, and the photo I had in my hand.
I kept the letter. It’s at Auntie Rita’s somewhere. But the picture bugged me. She’d never cared for me and now suddenly she’s there in my head. I could feel her staring at me whenever I looked at the photo and after a week, I had to burn it.
Gary had got this skunk that just wiped us out and I set light to the picture in the ashtray and watched it turn into a thin sheet of ash. After it’d burned you could still see her outline, but as soon as Gary touched it, it crumbled to dust.
The weed was so strong I felt messed up, like I might start crying or something. Gary put his arm around me.
“You and me, bro. You and me.”
I woke up in the middle of the night and we were both on the floor, his arm across my chest.
I’ve never regretted burning the picture. Gary said he thought it was a bit over the top, called me a drama queen, but I was glad it was gone. I swear sometimes when I blink, I can see her, as clear as the photo, staring, like her eyes are boring holes in me.
It wasn’t Gary who suggested I strip, and I really can’t remember how it came about. Two, three years ago now. It might have been a mate of Julie’s, who I was with for a whole summer. She was well into me, my body. We spent days on end, getting stoned, mucking about in her flat. Got up to all sorts. We had a laugh but, in the end, I had to finish it. She was getting serious and for a week we thought she might be pregnant. ‘Dodged a bullet there, bro’, Gary said.
I hadn’t been hanging out with Gary so much. Don’t know why. And since Mikey got banged up for selling draw, I’d stopped dealing. I still like a smoke, most days.
I do remember the first time I met Tony at the club. Showed me the moves, some of the outfits, told me the rules. The room was huge and cold under the strip lights and smelt like bleach.
“It’s a fine line between a great night out and all of this getting shut down,” he said.
He drummed that into all of us. Who can touch who, where. How to make the ladies feel special, and safe. Some tricks of the trade to keep you looking proud. What to eat and drink. I learned a lot from Tony.
I was surprised that Gary was against the whole idea.
“You’re not a prozzie. Are you? Selling yourself for some hen do?”
“200 quid for a night’s work? I’d be a mug not to take this.”
“Dude, you’re better than that.”
“Chill, Gary. It’s just a job. Easy money, bro.”
I remember thinking how fucked up that all sounded. Up until then I’d done a bit of modelling, sold a shit load of weed, and lifted some weights. But I let it go and started up with Tony anyway.
The money was better than I’d expected. The basic for the night was one twenty, but then you’d get tips for the solo work. Stuff you did in the crowd, or solo on stage. Or the private dances with a small group, or just one on one.
I got good at the routines with the other lads. We worked hard on all that, with Leslie, our teacher. Hours in front of the mirrors, getting everything synchronised. I liked the feeling of being part of something. And being on stage, all those eyes on me. I dunno, maybe it was that feeling that they all wanted a piece of me. Hundreds of them, screaming, trying to get me to come over to their table. It was quite a buzz.
I wasn’t as keen on the lap dancing in one of the small rooms at the back. It’s all completely above board. Tony insists on that. Just me and a few girls, a bit of fun. But I preferred it when I was out front, with a crowd.
Close up’s hard. On stage it’s like a proper show, I suppose. There’s lights and smoke and we’ve got our routines nailed. Back stage we’re all together getting pumped, ribbing each other, all the tricks with pills or a ring to look big. The private dances are different. More like you’re just something to be played with. Nowhere to hide.
They always want to chat too, when it’s just one or two of them. Fantasies mainly. That you’re their boyfriend, that they can’t wait to get you in bed, to get down to it. They get this look on their faces, like they’ve become someone else, like they’re lost in the idea of it all, a big, strong man.
I know it’s all just a bit of fun for them, but I can feel trapped sometimes in that little room at the back. Some drunk girl with bad breath and devil horns touching the tattoo on my chest. Or the older ones, the ones who seem desperate, who want to hold me, who want to believe it’s all real.
You’re meant to keep it big, but not hard. Some of the lads use pumps or neck a Viagra before the show. I can just give it a couple of strokes and then I use a flesh coloured band to keep things pumped just right.
The tattoo is a heart about the size of my fist. Right where it should be. It’s a good job, done all in black with a crack down the middle and a couple of drops of blood in red. It was Gary’s idea. I like it, but in the booth at the back I’m always getting asked questions. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a tattoo.
It’s that, the intimacy, that they come for. To have a big guy, all pumped up, dance for them, tell them they look beautiful. Like I said to Gary though, easy money.
It’s the one on ones, the lap dances, I try and avoid. Unless Tony says they’ve asked for me specifically. I find the whole thing awkward and I feel like most of the women do too. It’s usually because they’ve been egged on by their mates. Or they’re so pissed they haven’t got a clue. Or else it’s someone who seems a bit lonely, like they’re buying fifteen minutes to feel that they have something, someone.
Once in a while I’ll get a client who just wants to talk. About their boyfriend or husbands, usually. Rarely what you might call uplifting. Or they ask questions about me, if I’m seeing anyone, where I live, that kind of thing.
I asked Tony if I could skip the private dances. But he said they’re good business, for him and for me. Eventually we reached an agreement. That I only take the ones that ask for me by name. Most of the clients just want a hunky guy, someone buff who they can live out their fantasy with for a quarter of an hour. Gives me time to nip out for a quick toke. An escape.
I never thought I’d do it for long, the stripping. It was good money and I was putting plenty away. I paid Auntie Rita a decent amount each week, and kept my wheels looking clean. Enough to keep me in weed and to take a girl out, once in a while.
It was just before Christmas. The club was packed and I’d been doing five nights a week. I’d hardly seen Gary in months. When I wasn’t stripping, I was with a girl, or I’d get stoned and just sleep at my Auntie Rita’s.
I’d told Tony I’d work until the end of the year, and then I was done.
“You crazy? The chicks love you man? Look at the money you’re making.”
Maybe I was stupid. I’d worked out, learned the routines, and I was making heaps of cash. But the private dances made me feel dead inside. The work was easy enough, but the close-up stuff was leaving me feeling cold and dark. I’d sit at my dressing table and fantasise about summer nights in the hot box with Gary, stoned off our faces, chilling out. Giggling, like kids.
The late show was always lively. The clients had been drinking and some of the boys would pop a Viagra to give them something to make them shriek even louder. From the stage you could always get a good sense of who was in. The hen-dos, divorce parties, a birthday. Sometimes you’d get some high rollers too. Clients with serious money. Often foreigners. Russians, eastern Europeans. Or just posh girls up for a bit of fun for the night.
I’d told Tony I wasn’t feeling my best. But this one group insisted they all wanted me. One or two at a time. There were four of them, really smartly done out.
I told him I’d do it, what with it being Christmas, and then I’d be done. He said we’d talk about it in the New Year, my plans, and sent me off to the room at the back to get ready.
I wore a bowtie, cuffs and a tiny apron that barely covered anything. The idea was that I bring a bottle of Prosecco on a tray and serve a few glasses, have one myself, and then dance for them. Tony charges the girls for the dance and the fizz. There were four of them, early forties, looked like they’d come straight from work. Merry, getting drunk, loads of cash. One had twenties stuffed into her bra and knickers, which made me giggle. I was pretty stoned.
They were sweet, a bit nervous to begin with. I could tell it was their first time in a strip club. I put on the act and let each of them sit astride me. They always wanted to ask about the tattoo, running a finger across it. And I distract them, telling them they should be concentrating on what’s under the apron.
The rule is no touching, but all the boys let the clients have a little fumble, not much more. It’s part of the job and I don’t mind. I let them straddle me in turn, one arm wrapped around my neck, and tell them they’re beautiful. In turn they grab me down there and squeeze. For some it’s like they’re hypnotised. They’d hold me in their hand and stare deep into my eyes, like they were in love or something. And some would just laugh along with their mates, all a bit of innocent fun.
It was that night that it all ended for good. She’d hitched her skirt up and was sitting on my lap facing me. She made me put my hands on her backside as she rubbed herself along my legs. It was all a show really, from me and her. We were both pretending. The other three are behind me. I can hear them egging her on. ‘Go on girl. Ride him.’ I can’t tell if she’s enjoying herself, or if she’s just going through the motions. And I’m really stoned. Counting down ‘til I can leave. I think we’re done, and then she grabs me under the apron and starts rubbing, slowly, like she means it. She’s got one hand on my tattoo, and the other down below.
“No touching love. Sorry. It’s the rules.”
I say it really nicely.
And she looks into my eyes and smiles. And suddenly it’s her. I can almost picture the wall of flowers. It’s her. I know it.
David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer, living in Brixton in South London. He’s the former Artistic Director at Battersea Arts Centre, and now splits his time between writing and working with theatres across the UK. He’s preoccupied with stories and storytelling; of all lengths and various forms. As a writer, a reader, and an audience member, he craves narratives and the way these help us make sense of the world. His first novel, The Winter Son, is currently under submission through his agent Robert Caskie.
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