Cincinnati Dancing Pig
The doorbell rings and Bex skips down the stairs in her dressing gown, her hair wrapped in a towelling turban. The house is full of sound. Material Girl. Bex is playing one of her compact discs very loudly on Billy's stereo. Through the frosted glass in the front door she can see the outline of a female head. Leona.
Bex swings the door open and is greeted with a hug and a still cool bottle of Chilean white. Leona persuaded her lift to stop off at a supermarket on the way over. The trauma of Saturday afternoon queues at the ten items or less aisle means she is gasping for a cigarette. Bex shows her into the kitchen and unlocks the back door. Leona slices through the foil sheath covering the stopper with the tine of a fork and uncorks the bottle. The girls stand in the garden in bright, late afternoon sunlight, dragging on Silk Cuts. Sunlight sparkles on wine glasses. Condensation dribbles over their fingers.
"I don't usually smoke. Just at the weekends." Leona giggles like a naughty schoolgirl. They are both high on anticipation, too young to know the perennial disappointment of night clubs and loud music, that hollow feeling that comes with age and an inevitable desire to snuggle up at home with the television.
"I'm just the same. Sorry we've got to smoke out here but Dad would go mad. His voice and all that. And he thinks I'm too young."
"Yeah, that and the stress".
Bex is at a loss to understand what stresses Leona is under. They are both seventeen. "It can't be that bad".
"People don't understand. I mean, it's not as though I'm a binge drinker or anything, you know, out all night boozing. I work at the club because of my course. I thought it would help. But yesterday my tutor gave me shit about my work and always being tired. I mean, bummer or what?"
The perennial student problem. Work, play and study. It seems that Leona is burning too many candles at odd angles.
"Anyway, I don't want to talk about it. It's my day off and we're going to hit the town. We'll start with another glass of this, get some bass thumping out of that stereo and hit the bedroom."
They finish their cigarettes, stubbing them out in a glazed blue pot full of last year's dead bedding plants, and take their glasses, the bottle and Leona's overnight bag upstairs to the bedroom Bex is using during her stay in Bideford. Towels are dug out of the airing cupboard and the shower steams.
With the basics done, both girls spend the next hour studiously making themselves up to look like they don't care; hair professionally unkempt, foundation, a hint of lip gloss, a dash of sparkle, nails scrubbed, and in Leona's case painted purple. Madonna gives way to the infectious groove of the dance floor. Basement Jaxx.
Bex fetches a box of her Dad's wine from under the stairs when they empty the bottle. Rosé at room temperature but they don’t care. The sound of girls in full fancy echoes around Billy's normally silent bachelor home.
Clothes. Experiments. Leona has brought three tops, a short skirt, jeans, leggings and assorted shoes. The girls are roughly the same size, Bex being a little taller and more firmly toned than Leona. Swaps and combinations. A halter neck little black number from the bottom of a suitcase. Agreement and giggles. It looks better on Leona, less clingy, but her selection of shoes are wrong.
Bex hits the surf section of her wardrobe; cargo pants, a long sleeve, two-tone pink top, and pink canvas pumps, but it’s all together too casual. The Basement has no formal dress code, but the girls have standards. Choices are made. Wine is drunk. Another break for cigarettes and formerly definite decisions are overturned. Raucous laughter. Strained top notes. The girls sing along to one of Billy's compilation discs; Cab Calloway, Minnie the Moocher. Hi De Hi De Ho dance steps in the bedroom.
In the end Leona goes for the little black dress, the pink pumps and a set of chunky costume jewellery. Her hair is styled in a sort of punk haystack and her makeup is understated except for eyeliner, which is thick and black. Bex opts for a splashed blue strappy top with a low neck line, short black skirt, black tights and her Doc Martins.
Reflections in mirrors. High fives. One more glass of Rosé. Seven o'clock. The light is failing and the Easter holiday influx into Bideford’s drinking dens is in full swing. The girls are on a high and expectant, facing the eager prospect of boys at Lobster Jack’s. The girls throw jackets around their shoulders, check the impossibly condensed contents of their infinitesimally small handbags and get ready to face the music and dance.
Mobile, fags, lighter, money, emergency repair kit and condoms.
The phone rings. Bex thinks about leaving it but remembers that Billy said he would call. He is in Bristol, probably just about to go to work, poor love. Bex kills the driving bass line of some blurred-out trance track and picks up the phone. Leona gestures towards the back door and Bex nods. A last cigarette. Bex mouths the words, "Out in a mo".
"Hi, love, how's things? Everything okay?"
"Yeah fine. Nice and quiet. We're just getting ready to go out. What about you?"
"Not too bad. Traffic was fine. Everyone piling down the other way. Big queues at the bridge, as usual. Just arrived at the club. Wags. Footballers wives."
"Nice! Watch yourself. What time do you kick off?"
Billy wonders. Is there a faint burr on her voice? Drinking? "Yeah, very funny. The club is called Wags. Nine. Split set. Should be through around half eleven. Quick drink and on the road. Back around half-two. You'll be back by then, I expect."
"Probably." Bex pulls a face in the mirror above the telephone table. "I mean yes, Dad. We'll do our best. The clubs start chucking out between two and three, so we might be a bit later, but not much."
"Have you put the cab money somewhere safe?" Billy gave Bex two twenties before he left.
"In my purse. Don't worry. I'm a big girl. Anyway, Leona will make sure I'm okay. We'll look after each other."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Just being a Father. How is she, by the way? Should have asked."
Bex loves him for it, loves him for the awkwardness that separates their respective generations, but he seems a little flat, a little down, monotone. "She's fine. All dressed up. Says hello. Sure you're okay, Dad?"
He ignores her last question. Now is not the time to discuss Maggie's plans to leave the country. Billy suddenly wants to end the conversation, but he is reluctant to let Bex flex her bright young wings. There is something about telephone conversations that makes him feel protective towards her. It is, he thinks, the voice, that disembodied feeling you get when you hear someone close to you but cannot see their face. It is something he has to live with. Most of his parenting has been broken by static. Letting go is hard to do, even though he knows his little girl is growing up fast.
"Bex, be careful. Take care of each other and don't do…"
Bex makes a joke of it, cutting through Billy's self-conscious fatherly discomfort. "From what you've told me that leaves a pretty wide field of play, Dad. Don't worry. We know more about these places than you do. It's different now, different sounds, different stuff. We'll both be careful, I promise."
Billy doubts that Bex knows more than he does. He has enough experience of personal misdirection and abuse to write a graphically illustrated encyclopaedia. He lets it go. Now is not the time. Bex has worked hard all week and he loves her.
"Sorry. You know how it is. Your Mum and all that. Have a great time, both of you. Say hi to Leona. Love you, Bex."
"Love you too. Give 'em hell tonight, Dad. Bye."
"Bye, love, bye".
The sound of a mobile disconnecting. Bex puts the house phone back on its cradle and nips out into the back garden. Leona has two unlit cigarettes in her hand. As soon as she sees Bex opening the back door she puts them both in her mouth and lights them, handing one to Bex.
"Ta. Dad says hello and have a great time."
"He's nice, your Dad. Must be lovely to have a famous father."
"Well, he's not that famous, not really. He's just Dad to me."
The girls finish their cigarettes and stub them out in the same neglected plant pot as before. Bex collects the butts and puts them in the wheelie bin. Before they leave the house Bex checks to make sure that she has the cab fare and her mobile.
The girls are walking into town. From Billy's house they go down to the Northam Road, past a second hand car dealer and along past Morrisons. Crossing at the lights, they cut through the back of Bideford's narrow, overhanging streets and hit the pedestrian shopping area. Two thirds of the way towards the High Street they hang a left onto Cooper Street and smile sweetly for the Saturday night bouncers on the door at Lobster Jack's.
Moon boots. The first thing Bex sees in Lobster Jack's is a girl wearing moon boots and a short, faux fur jacket. Hilarious. The jogging-bottom girls are done up to the nines. Every table is taken, the place being full of loud teenager girls and the emerging surliness of young men in their late teens and early twenties out on the prowl. Every available surface is stacked with bottles and pint glasses. Ashtrays overflow. Boys crowd the bar and the steps that divide the two split levels of the room.
The volume of a hundred conversations is matched by the commentary that fills the upper atmosphere, an atmosphere you can see despite the hum of industrial filters hanging from the ceiling. West Ham are belatedly fighting-off relegation from the Premiership. Eyes turn upwards. Four giant plasma screens are mounted on the walls; North, South, East and West.
The bar has been created out of the shell of an old and derelict warehouse. Pre-combustion engine fittings still hang on the walls. Rusted chains and pulleys. Above the television by the main entrance Bex can see the old wooden loading doors for what must have been an upper level. The place is open to the roof now and themed. Ernest Hemmingway. Pictures of the man are screwed to the walls. From the middle of the ceiling hangs a glass fibre Marlin. Fishing poses. Boats. Hemmingway in a bush hat. Nowhere is there any reference to Hemmingway the writer.
The girls fight their way to the bar, gathering glances and undress-me looks like rosebuds in May. Armfuls of lust. Winks and nods. Elbows. Cheeky chappies revving up and burning imported beer like gasoline. Leona has to shout to make herself heard. The barmaids wear skimpy black tops and short black skirts. The barmaids look frayed, smiling for the customers as an afterthought. Leona orders a couple of Buds and pays. A leering boy to her right lights up and breathes smoke into her face. Looking cool. She gives him the brush-off. They spot an opening by a pillar with a narrow shelf and a half full ashtray, and stake their claim, but there are no stools left so they stand. The pillar is set towards the back of the bar and gives them free rein to people watch.
Bex points at the Marlin. "Bit up market, isn't it? Hemmingway?"
Leona bends forward so that she can make headway against the background noise. "Most of them don't know. Probably think he used to fish out of Clovelly. That or Lobster Jack was a character in Jaws."
There is a roar from the boys in the bar. West Ham have just conceded another goal. The picture cuts to their manager who is swearing blue murder. Leona waits for the roar to subside. A glass smashes on the opposite side of the room. A cheer.
"Came here in the winter. Empty. Like a morgue. If you think this is bad, though, you should see it in July. Schools Out. Bloody heaving. It's monster."
"I bet. Did you see the sharks?"
"Predators. Eyeing us up when we came in."
"How could you miss it. Should be a good night."
Laughter. Raised eyebrows. Big tugs on their beer. Leona opens her purse and gets a cigarette. Flame and smoke. "Seen anyone you fancy yet?"
Bex shakes her head. "Far too early". She points to her half empty bottle. "Need some more of these first. Dutch courage."
Leona remembers the smoking gun at the bar. "Did you see that tosser at the bar. Thought he was so cool. Why are boys so childish? Don't answer. I want to live in hope."
The conversation spins along with sarcastic comments and dry observation. The boys in the bar are uniformly laddish; shirts worn loose and jeans, trainers, grease and muscle, full of attitude and unearned notions of respect. The girls target individual specimens and rip the piss out of them. Occasionally eyes meet across a crowded room. Brief encounters with a blue tinged facsimile of steam engine smoke hanging in the air. Bex finds herself avoiding one corner of the room where a couple of lads, brothers by the look of them, keep staring at her. The come on. Thought transference.
Having spent the afternoon on the grape juice both girls try to take it easy on the beers. Teenage constitutions are remarkable things, but even in their relatively short social lives both of them have experienced the fatal charm inherent in mixing the sauce. The process of getting tanked is being demonstrated more than adequately by a mixed group a few paces away. There are two girls, not much older than Leona and Bex, who are having difficulty standing. It is just after nine.
Another foray through the jungle of wandering hands at the bar brings two more beers. Bex buys her round. She hands a cold filtered lager to Leona. "So what was all that shit about college?"
Leona grimaces. "Don't. Poxy tutor. I'm doing my best. It's not as though anyone at home gives a fuck. My Dad thinks reading is for posh tarts, unless it’s the back page of the Sun. Without Maggie’s wages I wouldn't be able to go to college. That's what they don't understand. And it's good experience. I bet most of the kids up in London haven't got a clue. Paid up members of the local am-dram club, probably. I've worked with pros. At least I'm doing a proper job. Wankers."
"Yeah. Makes me feel inadequate." Bex tries to empathise. "Mum won't let me get a part time job. Says I've got to concentrate on getting good grades. It's not fair when my mates are doing stuff and I still get pocket money." Bex is exaggerating.
Two views, two different worlds, but neither Bex nor Leona have any particular axes to grind. It’s all shades of karma, the greys rather than the black and whites.
Leona gives Bex a slightly deeper insight into her family situation. "Everyone's got their own shit. Take my Mum. Works her arse off for a pittance. Gets paid less than the men at the pottery and has to work twice as hard. When I was thirteen I took one look at them and decided to get out. I'm going to finish my course and I'm bloody well going to be a stage manager. We've both got the same shit. It's just different shit. If that makes any sense? Being a vet is something special. Your Mum's right."
Bex is bumped by a rangy youth on his way back from the toilets. A muttered sound. No recognisable syllables. He bumbles away into the crowd.
"Not even an apology. Jesus." She marks his card and returns to the subject at hand. "I know. Dad's probably glad I didn't follow in his footsteps. What's that saying, 'Don't put your daughter on the stage Mister Whitlow'. He tries his best. The last couple of years have been pretty good. It's like we're best mates."
"That's great, Bex. Enjoy it." Leona looks at the floor for a moment. "Shit. Enough family talk, girl. Let’s just agree that life is weird. My shout."
Leona heads back to the bar to keep the juices flowing and Bex is left alone in a crowd. She fidgets, fussing with the shoulder straps of her top. Suddenly she feels as though she has iron filings running through her veins and as if drawn by a magnet she can't help but look into the far forbidden corner of the room. The brothers are still there with their mates. One of them is getting the rise. Tousled hair. Hair gel sticking to a fat kid's podgy white fingers. Good looking boys. The other brother is facing directly towards Bex and he sees her looking. He grins as Bex looks away, pretending to examine a picture of Ernest Hemmingway on the back of a boat holding up what looks like a reef shark. Grainy. Black and white. Hooked.
Leona shoves a shot glass into Bex's hand. "Come on, get that one down your neck. We can get in half price if we're there before ten. Chance to pick a good ogling spot. There's an upstairs bar with a balcony where you can watch the boys strut their stuff."
Heads back and fire on the throat. The girls trip out of Lobster Jack's and feel the chill of a Spring evening on their bare skin. Arm in arm they walk a couple of hundred metres through the pedestrian area of Bideford's main shopping drag until, on the High Street, they join the early doors queue at The Basement.
As the girls hit the end of the short queue outside the night club, Billy hits a top note on stage at Wags. Moon River. Silky smooth. It is a good night and the club is flush with well-heeled punters. Suits. Billy is on a roll. His voice is like thick double cream. The wine glasses on the tables gleam in the hushed, appreciative light. The toilets are a work of art. You know by the order and cleanliness of the place that the kitchens are spotless, that the food is top notch.
Billy is in seventh heaven. The world around him is a perfect place. Harmony and melody. He is soaring above the strings. A real show band. The Sultans of Swing. Happiness is a great meal, a good cigar and a polished crooner belting out the old favourites.
Bouncers with attitude. Paired off and cocky. Black jackets, white shirts and steroid ripples. The Basement is located in what was once the little white town’s local cinema. The multiplex has yet to arrive in North Devon, but the old Odeons and ABC's have fallen prey to the vicissitudes of consumer choice all the same. Barnstaple has the only commercial picture house in the area. The club is industrial, modelled on old machinery; scaffolding, mocked-up turbine housings and a science fiction proliferation of metal walkways.
Downstairs there is basically one large room with a coat check in one corner and a bar running along one third of the longest wall. Neon lights and LED wall panels flash incessantly. The Basement should carry a health warning for epileptics. The dance floor is at the far end of the room. The carpet in the downstairs bar area is dark and pock marked with cigarette burns and as Bex and Leona walk through the club they find their shoes sticking to the carpet. The drinking areas downstairs are divided by metal grates and there is hardly any furniture. A few metal seats are fixed to the outer walls. Iron pillars support the upstairs mezzanine.
The place feels hollow at this time of night. Most of the regular clubbers hit the queues outside around eleven and the punters on the early shift are still thin on the ground and coalesce into random groups. Girls mostly. The volume is subdued. Bex and Leona can speak without having to shout. Music switches between commercial dance tracks and RnB. Mediocre. The club is just waking up and shaking off the lethargy of the sleeping day.
The girls take advantage of 'Happy Hour' and buy a couple of vodka kicks each. After eleven the prices double and you need a good supply of cash to make it through to closing time. They climb a metal staircase made of welded steel with checker plate treads. Upstairs there is a small bar area and a narrow balcony that runs around three sides of the building. Opposite the bar is a chill-out room full of soft seats and bean bags, with space enough for twenty people. The toilet doors next to the small bar are scuffed and dented. Heel marks.
Bex and Leona wander over to the balcony and look down on the deserted dance floor. Chopperchunk flares out of the speakers. The volume increases. Through the main doors downstairs the trickle of clubbers is growing and they spot a girl in a Kill Bill cat suit, yellow with black stripes. Hen night fancy dress clobber. The girl is lithe and fits the cat suit perfectly. Sort of cool, especially when Bex spots Moon Boots from Lobster Jack's. The Basement is being flooded by short skirts, bare flesh and mockney accents.
The first intrepid boy hunters hit the bar. Poles apart. After twenty years of evolution in club land white stilettos and plastic handbags may have given way to belly button piercings and porthole dresses, but the ritual stand-off between groups of rhythmic girls and leery boys is alive and well. The sound of conversation rises with the deepening boom of the PA. The caffeine and alcohol mix in the girl's drinks is kicking in.
Leona spots something. "Over there". She points to a group of girls standing at the edge of the dance floor. "Only problem here is the kids. Underage. Lippy. The management turns a blind eye. Some nights it's like a sixteen-year-old's birthday party in here."
Bex nods. Then she realises that strictly speaking they are underage themselves. Ironic. Leona is serious, though and adds, "Shouldn't be allowed".
The current track is a cut above the previous ones. The girls sway in time to the bass line. This time it is Bex who spots something. The youth from Snuggle's, the one who upset Maggie, is at the bar. She watches him lean over and speak to one of the barmen, who nods a couple of times and then disappears through a doorway at the back of the bar.
She nudges Leona. "Isn't that the bloke from the club? Wednesday night?"
Leona takes a couple of seconds to orientate herself. Tall and thin with a crew cut. Long overcoat. "Yeah. Wonder what he's doing here? Wouldn't have thought he'd be hanging round with the underage Neds on a Saturday night."
Shaun waits by the bar, a bottle of water in hand. He likes to get in early. The management prefer it that way too, because they can tuck Shaun away in his little cubby-hole without too much fuss. Shaun tries not to look obvious as he checks-out the groups of boys and girls on the ground floor. Kids. If the plain clothes boys are looking for a bust they usually try to fit in when the crowds are at their thickest, but Shaun can spot them a mile off. They’re always slightly too old, slightly over or under dressed. It’s something about the effort they make to look right. Shaun uses the kids as cover and there’s nothing to worry about so far.
A tap on his shoulder. The barman. "You can go through. The boss is up at the top bar."
Shaun skips up the metal staircase and checks out the two girls leaning over the balcony. They have their backs to him. He is not sure, but it seemed as though they were watching him when he was waiting for the nod downstairs. They look vaguely familiar, but Shaun can see that they are way too young for the drug squad. He keeps a weather eye on them as he slides across the room and leans on the bar.
One of the two men behind the bar says something to his partner, who heads off downstairs to collect another box of plastic glasses. Alone with Shaun the barman offers him a drink.
"No, ta. Got my water."
"As ever. Sober little fuck aren't you, Shaun. Got the entrance money?"
Shaun reaches into an inside pocket in his overcoat and pulls out a deck of cash. He slides five twenties off the top and passes them to the owner of The Basement. "All present and correct. Usual place?"
"Be my guest".
To the left of the bar, next to the toilets, there is an alcove in the rear wall through which the punters would access the fire escape door if there was an emergency. A large yellow and black sign says that the door is alarmed but Shaun knows this is not true. The alarm is always switched off when the club is open. There is a stool in the alcove from where Shaun can watch the night unfold without being deafened by the soundtrack of people screwing up their lives. This position has a number of advantages. He can see the staircase clearly from here through one of the metal grid walls, which gives him time. If there is a raid he can be through the fire escape door and up onto the roof in seconds. From there it is up to him.
He checks his pockets. The usual range; E, dope, uppers, downers and the new stuff. The money that he slipped to the owner of the club is an overhead. Cash on the nose. An out of pocket expense. Routine business. A ton for his pitch. Shaun likes to think of himself as a market trader. A good one. He sells quality gear at a reasonable price. The rent means that he gets an exclusive between the hours of ten and twelve, which is more than enough time. The boys on the door know most of the local faces and keep them out until then. They also know the cops. As far as the owner is concerned it is money for old rope. Everyone has to pay their rent, but only Shaun gets the early shift, which is when the kids are still flush.
Bex and Leona watch the place fill up. The open acreage of the dance floor is turning into a sea of limbs blowing like grass in the breeze of driving bass lines. The groups of boys and girls in the drinking areas are gradually getting squeezed into ever smaller spaces. Standing room only. The heat rises. Foreheads glisten. The bars are under siege. There is always a crush in the first hour after eleven as the exodus from the town pubs hits full swing and boys start giving girls the glad eye. Jealous partners check out the opposition. Everyone has to shout to be heard.
Bex and Leona leave two empty bottles on the floor where they have been standing and move along the balcony so that they can see the dance floor and the bar area downstairs more clearly. Cigarette butts litter the floor around their new vantage point and their drinks are warm but that is the price you pay. If you order a drink that needs a glass you get a plastic one. Order a bottle and you get glass. For your personal safety. The weapon of choice.
Bex has to cup her hand and speak directly into Leona's ear. "I love this bit. All these people. When I was little Mum and I used to make up stories about people in the park. You know. She's really a witch. You can see her broomstick poking out of her shopping trolley."
Bex points to a tall, thin boy on the dance floor. "He’s an internationally famous limbo dancer."
Leona laughs. "Yeah, and her, the one in the black t-dress with the skull, she's a ring wraith. Only comes out after dark. Searching for a hobbit to take home and have her wicked way with. Likes midget sex."
Bex swings round and looks at the specimens in the upstairs bar. Through the press of sweaty bodies she can see Shaun's head in the alcove. It disappears as two of the club's clientele squeeze past a knot of female drinkers and talk to him. Their backs are towards her but she keeps watching. After a minute they head back into the crowd. Bex is fascinated. The gaunt boy from Wednesday night seems to know a lot of people, but he only ever seems to have a brief chat with them. Then it dawns on her.
She prods Leona and points at the alcove. "Stranger than fiction. I think he really is an international drug dealer."
"What, the bloke from the club?" Leona watches too. There is a brief pause. The DJ has got his timing wrong. The sound of voices without the back beat is weird. Clubbers are momentarily confused. Synthetic star shine bursts from the PA and the grind resumes. Another buyer visits Shaun in his alcove.
"You're right. Do you think that's why he went to see Jock? Drugs?"
Bex is shocked. Jock? By inference that means Maggie. "No. Can't be." She thinks around the question for a moment. "No. Maybe Jock was warning him off. Maybe there's been trouble at Snuggle's. Maggie was pretty pissed-off when she saw him. I don't believe it."
Their story telling is interrupted. Two boys emerge from the crowd and, grinning from ear to ear, they hold out two bottles of blue wonder. "Weren't you at Jack's?" one of them asks.
Bex and Leona hesitate. The better looking of the two stakes his claim for Bex. "In the corner under the telly. I kept looking at you. Remember? I'm Jim and this is Darren."
Leona looks at Bex. She has no recollection of seeing these two, but then it dawns on her that Bex might be a bit of a dark horse, too. She whispers into Bex's ear, "What do you think? Yours looks like a laugh. I think mine's a bit on the shy side, though."
The boys stand their ground, smiling and still holding out the bottles. Bex decides. "Why not. Lets have some fun."
The girls return the boys' smiles and accept the offered drinks. Late teens. Good looking in a Mancunian guitar band sort of way. Cocky but not threatening. A certain swagger about them. The bolder one of the two does most of the talking and they exchange a few jokes and comments about the punters, all of which helps the newly founded foursome to settle into something approaching a rhythm.
After a few minutes Jim leans forward and whispers to Bex. "Fancy something a little more exotic?"
Bex is on his wavelength. She has tried Ecstasy a couple of times and is up for it.
Leona's radar is also picking up incoming signals. "What did he say?"
"Wants to know if we want some E. Up for it?"
Leona is unsure. She has never tried anything harder than alcohol or cigarettes. "I'm not sure. I mean…" Her body language is becoming distinctly awkward, caught between the delicious impurity of the moment and an inherited, innate reluctance to put herself in danger.
Bex reassures her. "It's okay. I've tried it a couple of times. Makes you feel warm. Sort of right with the world. And it's brilliant on the dance floor. I promise you, it's alright."
Leona feels nervous. This is unfamiliar territory. "What if I don't like it? You know, Yvonne thingy, brain damage?"
Yvonne Miller. At the time the press was quick to report that Yvonne's death was an obvious example of the dangers of illegal drugs in general, and Ecstasy in particular.
Bex has an answer. "Wasn't the stuff. She died because she drank too much water. I checked it out before I tried it the first time. Weird, I know, but I'm into all that stuff. Chemistry and shit."
Bex nods to the boy. "Okay. We're in."
He taps his brother on his chest and Darren pulls a tenner out of his back pocket. Jim does the same and says, "Look, sorry about this, but we can't afford to buy drinks and drugs. If we all put a tenner into the kitty, I'll go and sort it. I'll leave Darren here as security."
Leona fidgets and stares down at the dance floor. Bex puts half of the cab fare that her Dad gave her into the boy's hand, enough for both of them. "No problem. I know where you're going. I can watch you all the way. If you do a runner with the cab fare I'll kneecap your brother."
"Please do, he needs waking up." Jim gives Bex a star spangled wink and then disappears into the crowd, working his way towards the alcove through shifting gaps in the contra-flows of moving bodies.
Darren decides to make his move. He and his brother have already divvied up the spoils and he has been allotted the girl with haystack hair. He steps forward awkwardly and shouts at Leona. "So, what do you do?"
Billy finishes the second half of his act with a pared down arrangement of Georgia. It is not his usual sort of song, but he likes to experiment and he is getting into Ray Charles at the moment. Just Billy and a piano, sweet and soft. He can still put feeling into a lyric and there is not a dry eye in the house. Thumbs up from the owner. For a brief moment Billy almost feels like he is back in the big time. Five hundred in his pocket for headlining and that welling-up in the soul. This is what he was born for. As the song dies, though, the acid tinge of bitterness bites back and he can’t help but feel the shame and disappointment of all those chances that he missed. He screwed up the big-time.
Off stage he has a drink with the owner and a couple of the owner’s friends and they shake on a return visit. Billy has a Coke. He has a long drive and wants to be back in time to tuck his daughter into bed. Pats on the back and the punters get to mingle for half an hour. The best of both worlds. The drive home will fly by. Billy is looking forward to dealing with teenage hangovers in the morning.
It’s all about the ups and downs of show business. One minute you’re on top of the world, the next you’re feeling like the fat kid picked last for the football team. He ought to pay more attention to simple domestic pleasures because the one thing that brings him real satisfaction is being constant for Bex. The thought of her needing him in the morning brightens up his mood, and as he glad hands and sparkles once again he is suddenly having so much fun.
Brief encounters make up the bulk of Shaun's working life. Happy shoppers. Low voices and the rustle of bank notes. Online transactions are all very well for posh tarts in London's city wine bars, but Shaun has one simple rule. He has to be able to smell the value of your money on his fingers, and trade is good tonight. A number of Friday night's rave crew have followed the supply down to Bideford and they are putting the word out. Bliss is shaping up nicely. Bex watches her beau slip between two groups of drinkers and slide into the alcove.
Jim knows Shaun by sight. "Hiya, mate. How's tricks?"
Shaun rarely smiles. Everyone wants to know your name when your pockets are full of Kryptonite, but he sees too many faces to remember features. The boy looks vaguely familiar, but it could be the setting or the background music that induces the image. Shaun has heard that smells trigger memories. The odour of rank urinals drifts out of the male toilet.
"Yeah, middling. What do you want?"
Long conversations bore Shaun. He has two hours to shift his gear and be on the road. He has spent too many years on the dance floor. Looking through people and at the fatuous décor inside night clubs has become a tedious necessity.
The boy gets the picture. Cut the crap. "Had a whip. Forty notes. Doves?"
Shaun nods and pulls four small plastic wraps from his pocket. Each one contains two tabs. Just as he is about to exchange them for the cash he stops and smiles at the boy. "Hold on. Got something else. New shit. Called Bliss."
He puts two of the wraps back into his overcoat pocket and feels for the plastic sachets given to him by Jock on Wednesday night. He selects two sachets and hands them over with the two other wraps to the boy.
"Basically the same but got a bit of an edge. All you do is lick you finger, dip and suck. One of these is the same as a couple of E's, only you get more control."
The boy looks at the sachet of yellow powder. He has heard of the stuff coming in powdered form but never seen it. It looks like the stuff in one of the jars in his mother's spice rack. Shaun takes the money from the boy.
"Oh yeah, one more thing. No Sunday blues."
Jim palms the gear into his jeans pocket and thinks about saying thanks but Shaun has already blanked him. The deal is done and Jim is history. Bliss. Jim has never heard of it and if it turns out to be washing powder he will murder the guy. Possibly. Then again Jim reckons that Shaun knows his stuff. Shaun has been dealing for as long as Jim can remember and never yet been busted. He skims the edge of the crowd and slips into a gap at one end of the small upstairs bar. After a few minutes trying to get the attention of the staff he manages to pay for four more vodka kicks and holding two in each hand by the neck he trips the slow waltz back to his brother and the girls.
Between deals Shaun sees the boy leave the bar with bottles. What the fuck. Jock can go screw himself. They always drink and drop. It is not his problem. What do these people want from him? He is not a bloody babysitter.
Raised eyebrows. Leona is spooked by the powder. She has been trying to get in the mood but is struggling. She feels disjointed, alone in a world full of foreign bodies, and there is none more foreign than Darren, who has been working hard but making little headway. Bex is in that comfort zone induced by just enough alcohol. Her defences are down and she is feeling the beat drive through her bones.
Jim pops the two wraps and offers the girls one tab each. He doesn’t want to spoil the mood. Pissing the haystack girl off will inevitably lead to the two of them making their exit stage left, which would put a real downer on the night.
"Look, it's okay. No one's going to force you. If you don't want to try anything that's fine. Take a tab and do what you want. If you're not happy about it that's cool."
He drops a tab and swills it down with bright blue vodka. Darren follows suit, as does Bex. Leona can feel the weight of the thing in her palm and she looks at Bex for reassurance.
"You're sure you've done it before?" she asks.
Bex is letting the groove lead her body. She brushes against Jim and it feels good. She nods and says, "Positive. You just get euphoric, sort of into everything. It's not like acid or anything. You don't see pink spiders crawling up the walls. You'll be fine, promise."
Darren chips in. "And the touchies. Sometimes. It's brilliant. Like you can feel everything in the universe, right down to the atoms."
Jim gives him a nudge. "Ignore the stupid little…" Now is not the time for the C-word. "He's trying to be nice. Come on, lets hit the dance floor."
The boys squeeze out from the balcony and make a gap in the crowded bar area for the girls to squeeze through. Leona grabs Bex by the arm and together they make their slow passage onto the staircase and down into the heat of the main room. The dance floor is jam packed with bodies. Trashy, liquid synth loops fill the air. The nasal melody is underpinned by diesel bass lines thumping out at one hundred and twenty beats per minute. The boys merge into the crowd, gripping their drinks tightly. Leona and Bex pick up the vibe and as they too fuse with the mass. Leona downs her tab and submits to the infection.
Shaun gets the nod from one of the guys behind the bar. Time is up. He slips off his stool and works his way through the crowds. He catches sight of the girls from the balcony on his way out. Recognition. Snuggle's. Not a problem. The one in the little black number could do him anytime. Out on the street he thrusts his hands into his coat pockets and walks down to the quayside cab rank. No sweat.
Lights. Drowning in sound. As the drugs kick in Leona and Bex find themselves at the heart of something intangible. They become one with the pulse, losing themselves between the cracks in the world's tectonic plates. Eyes wide open. Huge grins. The electron web burns brightly. Body heat. The grind and flip. Zooming and peaking. Tracks coalesce, becoming a closed circuit of rhythm.
It is too loud to speak, but Leona feels no need for words. Bex was right. She is open. She can empathise with the universe and the rush is amazing. This first time hit burns her soul with love. The fact that Darren is a bit of a goon simply doesn’t matter. He is here and he is flying with her. She is glowing, mesmerised and loving every second of it. The look on her face is all that Bex needs to see to know that the Rubicon has been crossed. Leona is just like her; a fully paid-up member of the adult race.
The night seems endless. They take a short break while Jim hits the bar again, this time for bottles of water. The alcohol has done its job in freeing them from base inhibitions and high on exaggeration, sitting astride the four points of their personal twinkling star, they don't need any more of that old shit. Bex encourages Leona to keep drinking water, telling her that dehydration is the biggest risk, but Leona is full of energy and bursting to get back to the groove. She leaves her bottle by a chair fixed to one of the side walls and dives back into the heaving press of bodies.
Bex is losing track of time. All four of them are pushing the limits. Bex and the boys take another break around two but Leona stays on the dance floor, determined to mine the night for every ounce of gold locked away in its black-hearted mother lode. Laughter all round. Exhausted but ecstatic. The DJ is playing club classics now and the dance floor is a mass of happy campers, up to their hips in love honey. The atmosphere on the dance floor is electric.
Out of breath, Bex and the boys lean against one of the pillars supporting the mezzanine floor above the main room. Jim fishes one of the sachets out his pocket and hands it Bex.
"Your share. Going to give it a whirl?"
Bex takes the sachet and grins back at Jim. "Yeah". Her eyes are gleaming under the spotlights. Her face and skin glow with rude, loop-enhanced health. Jim opens the sachet and licks his index finger. He dabs at the powder and makes eyes at Bex as he slides his finger into his mouth. Provocative. Darren wishes Leona was with them so that he could copy his much cooler older brother. Unlike the tabs the rush from the powder hits within a minute. Bliss. Jim is swept up on the rolling surf of the trance mix currently playing. On the dance floor he becomes aware of lights and vague distortions in peoples’ faces. He can feel the weight of his body but it seems to him as if he is floating just above the crowd.
Darren drags Bex back onto the dance floor and they work their way over to Jim and Leona. Bex is holding her sachet in her hand and as they melt into the white water of electronic motion all around them she takes her first hit of the new yellow powder. Like the boys she is in the twilight zone within a minute. The roof opens above her head to reveal pure white star shine. The initial buzz cascades through her body and she becomes one with the dream. She dabs her finger in the sachet again and offers it to Leona, who is so far gone on her own physical and emotional trip that she accepts it without question.
The nature of the hit is different. Vision blurs. Colours seep into the world from the edges, bleeding. The next twenty minutes burn like flares and then fade, becoming reflections like spots on eyelids after looking at the sun. Another burst. Wet fingers trigger explosions. Hitting the transmit button. Pictures and tones. Every subtle nuance of the spectrum, of the broadcast wavelength. The kids are soaring over the rooftops on wings of serotonin. Synapses flash. Blue lightning in the brain. The dopamine dance craze. Receptors firing. Acetylcholine. One hundred percent proof adrenaline.
And then the bass line revolution blurs and starts to slow, becoming one long, low growl in Leona's head. She feels as if she is speeding up, as if her reactions to and perceptions of the world are so fast that everything around her is happening in slow motion. Someone is pulling curtains across the moon. Shadow puppets are dancing in her mind's eye.
The crescendo. Bex has her arms raised above her head. She knows this track. United Noize; Fetish. The main loop repeats over and over again, hooking her into the mix. She shuts her eyes and feels the flow. Sublime. She wants to share the joy and turns to where she last saw Leona. She opens her eyes and takes a second or two to adjust the colours being registered in her head. Strobe lights. Diamond white. Ultra Violet. Black. Empty space.
Something primeval kicks in. At the base of her skull, down where the reptilian DNA regulates the basic functions of life, a small voice is calling her name. The primitive region of existence. Fight or flight. Instincts for survival. Bex is standing in the middle of a heaving dance floor, high on booze and doped up on MDMA. She should be in love with the world, but she feels dreadfully alone. The back beat gyre of sound and movement, of colour and smell, gives way to a void. She looks down and sees Leona on her knees.
Leona is kneeling up and is impossibly, unnaturally still. Her arms hang down by her side and for a moment Bex thinks that her friend is going to start praying, but as she looks into the girl's eyes she realises that the light has gone out of them. Bex stands there, motionless herself now, and wonders where Leona has gone. She is reminded of a toy robot on Boxing Day. The batteries are dry and lifeless.
Bex grabs Jim's arm and drags him down with her as she squats in front of Leona. The other dancers back away a little but keep moving. Spotlights crash through their never ending cycle of colours on the small patch of clear wooden floor around the kneeling girl. Electronic music fizzes and sparks, but Bex is no longer able to hear it as a coherent progression. Everything is disjointed and dissociated.
Jim puts his hands on Leona's shoulders and shakes her roughly, trying to get a response, trying to jiggle the batteries and switch the current back on. Clubbers on the dance floor and in the bar area are staring, all of them making the same basic assumption; stupid, pissed up kids with one mother of a hangover on the cards. No one helps. They know what to expect. As Jim and Bex call out Leona's name she vomits and Jim's shirt and jeans are covered in projectile alco-pop bile. The dancing mass parts like the Red Sea. Jim falls back and spins away from the girl. He is dragged back onto his feet by his brother, and as he lurches backwards he instinctively pushes the nearly empty sachet of yellow powder in his hand into his jeans pocket. Like the rest of club land, the boys are staring at Leona and Bex, putting together the essential facts; it's time to make themselves scarce.
Jim has taken the brunt of the disgorgement and Bex is oblivious to the state of her own clothes. The shock and surprise of the moment makes her sit back on the dance floor as Leona topples forward, face down, into the remains of her evening session. Bex can feel the music pumping away around her but she can’t hear it. She looks up at where she thinks the boys are and sees two of the bouncers standing by the edge of the dance floor, ready to hump and dump another lashed teenage raver into Bideford's Saturday gutters.
Instead of manhandling them both out of the club the bouncers are rooted to the spot. The older one of the two of them has his right arm across the chest of his number two. He has seen this shit before. He turns towards the main bar and makes two distinct gestures. He runs his thumb across his throat and then makes the sign of the Devil and puts it up against the side of his face. Telephone. Triple nine.
The seconds that follow seem like hours. Bex is aware of legs and feet moving around her where she sits. She knows that she is wired, that she should be freaking out, but all she can do is sit and stare at Leona. There is no movement from the prostrate girl. Bex is still holding the small plastic sachet full of yellow powder in her left hand.
The club's main lights go up. The world is filled with blurred voices. Shouts and screams. Bex is vaguely aware of people being herded. The bouncers and the bar staff are shepherding the punters out onto the streets. The owner of the club is standing over the girls, screaming into a mobile phone. He kills the call and turns to the senior bouncer, the one who hit the panic button.
"Get them the fuck out of here. Now!"
He means the crowds. This is his worst nightmare. He wants the kids out on the streets. Everyone knows the score. Blue lights. Paramedics. The Old Bill. If he can get them out of the place before the serious shit hits the fan most of them will drift away and it will be impossible for anyone to be a reliable witness. Most of them are blitzed up anyway and they won’t want to hang around. Cabs are filling up. The alleyways and lanes echo with hurrying footsteps. A knot of the more morbid residents of the little white town hang around the entrance.