LET'S DANCE - JULIE WRIGHT
Originally published in Issue #6 of the now-defunct Bullet Magazine
‘Jasmine. JASMINE! What you doing?’
What am I doing? You might well ask. I take a last look at the cynical young woman in the bathroom mirror, give my nose a quick rub and plaster a smile on my face. Tonight I’m Jasmine, and Jasmine is compliant and smiles a lot.
‘Come on back to bed.’ Petulant. Impatient. The bottom lip would be out.
‘Coming.’ Still smiling, I walk into the bedroom and there he is, laying back against the pillows, looking like the handywork of a psychotic Picasso. I keep the smile in place and slide in beside him, all psyched up to give another Oscar-winning performance.
It’s an inescapable fact that when you live the life I do, you get to fuck some really ugly men.
Take Matthew, the dickless wonder huffing and puffing his way to ecstasy on top of me right now. He’s short and skinny, pot bellied, growing a forehead, and his face is…just not quite right. Things are kind of misshapen and out of line. The worst thing about him is his hands, small and soft in exactly the way a man’s hands shouldn’t be.
He insisted on doing that creepy dancing thing earlier. Again. Christ, I hate that. I decide it’s payback time, sink my teeth into his neck and bite down hard.
‘Fuck’s sake!’ he grunts, pain cutting him, stopping him mid-stroke.
‘Sorry,’ I whisper. ‘It’s just….’
But he’s off again, so I don’t need to finish. Just as well, I’ve no idea what I would have said.
Matthew’s soft as shite, easy to hurt because he can’t take pain. Teeth, claws, all come in useful when I want to even things up a bit. He thinks it’s passion that makes me tear him up. He’s buggered by it. On the one hand, he loves having scars to show off to the lads with, proof of his ability to drive Jasmine wild. On the other, he bubbles like a girlie when it gets too real. Soft get.
Matthew knows me as Jasmine. Other men have known me variously as Cherry, Lily, Daisy and Heather. And Krystal. Let’s not forget Krystal, the first in this long, sorry line of names, none of which my mother would recognise. Mind you, after this many years, I doubt she’d recognise my face, either.
She was fourteen when she had me. I was eight when she left. I caught her sneaking out of her parents’ house in the dead of night, clutching a bin bag full of clothes and slap.
‘Shhhh!’ she urged, putting a finger to her lips. ‘Don’t wake them up. They wouldn’t understand.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘How long for?’
Something that might have been guilt flickered uncertainly across her face. Embarrassed to be found in such unfamiliar territory, it skulked off into a dark corner and hid. She dropped the bin bag and knelt down to my level.
‘For good. You’ll be okay. Your nana and your granddad will look after you.’
I shrugged. ‘I suppose.’ I looked down at my grubby, eyeless bunny slippers then back at her. ‘What should I do?’
She checked her watch. ‘Don’t frown so much, you’ll get lines. Men don’t like girls who look serious. Look after yourself when you turn thirteen. Start using moisturiser. And always be sure you get this bit.’ She put her finger between her eyes, at the top of her nose. ‘Otherwise you get kind of a cornflake there, especially in the winter.’
Then she stood up, picked up her makeshift suitcase, turned away from me and crept out of the house. I watched from the window and saw her climb into a silver car parked further up the street. She didn’t look back.
She was right about the cornflake, though.
I had some things to remember her by. A strip of photographs taken in the booth in the railway station one day when she’d taken me to town. We went to Wilkinson’s and she bought me a colouring book and a big pack of felt tipped pens, then to McDonald’s, where we ate burgers and fries, chased them down with cola, more ice than pop in the cartons, then into the station, where we piled into the booth and had our pictures taken.
I was on her knee clutching the Wilkinson’s bag, both of us grinning like idiots, pulling faces, sticking our tongues out. You’d have thought we hadn’t a care in the world. Mind you, back then I didn’t.
She left a couple of books behind, trite Danielle Steel romances, contrived adversity and fake happy-ever-after endings. Also a big pile of magazines, a small one of records and an old hi-fi on a stand. It had seen better days. The plastic lid was broken and one of the speaker cones was bust in, but it worked. Crucially, the turntable ran at the right speed. It meant I could listen to her records. There was a much better set up downstairs, mind, but Mum hadn’t been allowed to touch it and I didn’t reckon I’d ever be allowed to either. It was Granddad’s. He didn’t share.
I played all her records at first, over and over, just because she’d left them. The Human League, Prince, the Police…. After a while, I tended to play just three that I don’t think were hers at all. I think one of her old boyfriends had left them, probably Scotty. He was nice. He bought me comics and he played the guitar. I was sad when they broke up. The big three were the Stooges, the MC5, and the Ramones.
I’ve still got all those albums, every one, even the Human League. Whatever’s happened, wherever I’ve been, I’ve managed to hang on to them. And I still play them.
Back then, I wore her headphones to listen so I didn’t disturb Nana and Granddad. I could smell her on them at first, hairspray and chewing gum, Charlie perfume and menthol fags, but after a while that wore off. Her folks were mightily pissed off that she’d done a runner and saddled them with me. I did my best to be no trouble.
They let me live with them until I was sixteen then they put me on the street, duty done. In some ways it was a relief. I’d spent the previous three years fighting Granddad off. Dirty old fucker.
It started on my thirteenth birthday when he put his record on, the one he thought made him trendy and with it, and asked me to dance with him. Nothing unusual there, we’d danced before. The last time had been Christmas day after the Queen’s speech, both of us larking about, me showing off, Nana laughing at me. This time Nana was making the tea, putting a candle on my birthday cake, so there was just me and him in the room. Jesus, it was disgusting. He was all over me, fat fingers and skinny lips, cheap aftershave and stale tobacco, muttering about me being ‘all grown up now’ while he tried to get his hands in my clothes. My breath caught in my throat and I felt sick. No wonder my mum had warned me about being thirteen, no wonder she’d got out when she could. I counted myself lucky I didn’t have six toes or two heads.
I learned the danger signs early on. Phil Collins. Phil Collins generally heralded an unwelcome advance. To this day, I can’t hear ‘Sussudio’ without getting up and walking out of the room. Mind you, I think that’s a completely normal reaction for anybody.
I put a bolt on my bedroom door soon after that first time. Made a right mess doing it, but it did the trick. Whenever I could I stayed with a friend or I had a friend stay over with me. In my room on my own, I had to stop playing Mum’s records. I needed to be able to keep tabs on him, listen out for him creeping around the place trying to catch me unawares. Sometimes I’d hear him breathing on the other side of the door. Or he’d try the handle and I’d jump out of my skin and pray that I hadn’t forgotten to fasten the bolt.
Despite everything, there were times when that fucking song would start up and he’d appear out of nowhere, staring and grinning. ‘Let’s dance.’
‘Oh, go on, pet,’ Nana would say if she was around. ‘Have a dance with your granddad.’ But she wasn’t watching where he put his hands. She didn’t have to feel him rubbing his cock up against her and sticking his tongue in her ear.
He did far worse if she wasn’t home.
I was quick on my feet, so if I got enough warning I could get away. But he was bigger and stronger, so if I was slow off the mark, I’d had it. I always fought him. I always thought one day Nana would want to know where he got all the bruises from.
Cast adrift at sweet sixteen, I found that I couldn’t get a job because I didn’t have a home. But I couldn’t get a home because I didn’t have a job. It’s a headfuck. I very nearly wore out the few friendships I had, kipping on people’s floors and couches, scrounging meals, bumming handouts. I desperately needed a roof over my head. Then I met a guy. Hutch. Twenty-four and streetwise, said he’d look after me. After a couple of weeks of treating me like a princess he changed my name to ‘Krystal’ and put me out to work. It’s the nearest thing I’ve ever had to a regular job. I hated it. Before long, I hated him, too.
Hutch was the first man I ever killed.
It happened because he pushed me too far. Goaded me, went on and on, the Ariston treatment. Tore up my precious strip of photographs, just to piss me off. Not thinking, I picked up a knife.
Hutch scattered the ruined photographs over me like confetti, laughed in my face. ‘What you gonna do with that? Fuck you think you are?’
I waved the knife in his general direction, scared to put it down; scared he’d take it off me and use it himself.
‘Look at you!’ he sneered. ‘Too much make-up and not enough clothes.’ He leaned in close. I could smell his breath, fags and beer. ‘You’re just another teenage prossie, darlin’, older than most, short future ahead of you.’
I don’t know who was most shocked when I stuck the knife in him. He still looked surprised when he was bled out, bone white and stone dead.
I froze when I did it and that was good because it meant I didn’t do anything rash or stupid. The other good thing was that the blade slipped in between his ribs, got in deep, the wound fatal. Lucky really. Anything less and it would have been my unblinking eyeball flies strolled around on. Eventually. Under those circumstances, mine wouldn’t have been a quick end.
Once I’d got my head together, I stuck a fork through his tongue to make sure he was really dead. Then I cleaned up, cleared out his stash, loaded whatever stuff I wanted into a suitcase and got the fuck out of Dodge.
Hutch had so many enemies, anyone could have done it. The fucking Pope probably wanted Hutch dead. Hell, God probably had a hard-on for him. The busies pretended to look for the guilty party, but their hearts weren’t in it. They didn’t want to bang someone up for providing a public service.
The nicest thing about it was I got enough cash together for a place of my own. And while it didn’t exactly get me off my back, it did get me off the streets.
That was six years ago and I’ve done pretty well since then. I’ve got my own place. Not too flash. Benefits, you know how it is. I’ve got a decent car. Good clothes. Lots of stuff. A couple of close girlfriends I’d trust with my life. And a growing nest egg that one day soon I’m going to use to get out of this shithole for good. I won’t still be doing this by the time I hit twenty-five, you can count on it.
I’m not in the game anymore. I’m more a professional girlfriend these days. Strictly short to medium term. But just because I don’t charge up front for a blow job doesn’t mean I do it for free. Only mugs fuck for free. Everything has a price.
I think of myself as a businesswoman. I’m really quite entrepreneurial. I look for a good opportunity, something that will give me a decent return on my investment. I look for men who are wealthy, wealthy and lonely. Frequently old, usually ugly. In Matthew’s case, unusually ugly. What I offer is… well, me. Whoever I take on gets to strut about with me on his arm, get blown and get laid whenever he wants, brag to whoever will listen if he’s so inclined and buy me stuff. Which is kind of the point.
Clothing, preferably designer, jewellery, holidays, I Iike them all. And cars. Cars are always a welcome gift, they’re easy to sell. I think of it as realising my assets when a project comes to an end. Certain things, things I’m confident will appreciate in value, I keep in a safety deposit box. I have some nice pieces of jewellery tucked away. Some share certificates. Some hard cash, too. Can’t put too much in the bank or else it arouses suspicion.
In addition, if there’s something I want that a man won’t either buy for me or give to me, I generally take it. I’m a good thief. Efficient. I have the knack of taking things they won’t want to report stolen. All I need to do afterwards is disappear.
Take the coke I did just now. It used to belong to Ian. He had an almighty habit. He’d have got through it in a week. It’s lasted me ages. I just use now and then when I need a bit of a lift. Something to see me through. Like when I fuck a freak like Matthew. If I was a bloke, I’d probably take viagra.
Let me tell you about my current client. You know what he looks like: ugly as sin, kind of scary, just plain wrong. But he’s rich. Very rich. Something in computers. Own business. Technical geek.
Matthew only employs men. He can’t cope with the idea that a woman might be able to think for herself. He can’t even look women in the eye. Judging by how he does look at them, I think his mother breastfed him until his age was in double figures and he misses the tit. Hence Jasmine and her lisping giggle, biddable nature and perpetual smile. I think she’s the first fuck he didn’t book in advance. It took her ages to chat him up. He couldn’t believe she was serious and she was supposed to be shy.
Matthew drives a top of the range BMW. His place is fucking incredible, a big, flashy pile on millionaires’ row. Or debtors’ retreat, as Nana used to call it. You could make all the noise in the world in there and no one would hear. Not like the cardboard-walled shack I grew up in. It’s filled with art and antiques that would make a Sotheby’s dealer weep with joy. Not that he’s blessed with taste. He bought them wholesale from some gallery place. He’s got the biggest flat screen TV I’ve seen outside of a run down council estate, and a home cinema. All that’s fine, it just means he can afford me.
Matthew’s also got a state of the art, custom-built sound system worth ten grand that sounds better than anything I’ve heard in my life. I’ve been to gigs with rigs that couldn’t match that sucker. Fuck the wall of sound, this was the temple of; just stand in the middle and worship. I want that system so much, I get a pain in my chest when I think about it.
I remember the first time I heard it in action. It very nearly knocked me out of character. Dangerous in my game. Picture this. We’d been out on our second or third date. Matthew took me into his house, his lounge this time, not just his bedroom. He indicated his sound system with a flourish, then grinned and waved a CD case at me.
‘What do you think of “X & Y”?’ he asked. I thought it was a hell of a way to spell ‘shit’, but that wasn’t what he wanted to hear. It certainly wasn’t the kind of thing Jasmine would say. I smiled like it would be the treat of my life to experience it. And it was.
Not the album, give me some credit. The system. You could hear everything so clearly. I could practically hear them breathe. Move. Fuckers could have been in the room.
What a waste. I was aching to hear something good on it.
‘Shit, that’s fucking awesome!’ I gushed in a totally un-Jasmine-like manner. ‘Hey, why don’t I bring something over? See how it sounds. Something classical.’ I pretended to think. ‘Early Stones, maybe.’ Ease him in gently, I reasoned. Play him something familiar. Then whack him with the Holy Trinity: Stooges, Ramones and the MC5.
He grinned. ‘What do you want to listen to that old shite for? Look….’ He brandished another CD case. ‘I’ve got James Blunt as well as Coldplay. Bang up to date, me.’ He changed the disc and sleazed closer. ‘You need to get with it, Jasmine. Stop being such an old fashioned girl.’ He put his clammy little hands on my waist. ‘Come on, let’s dance.’
‘I don’t d….’
He stuck his tongue in my ear. Felt me up while he pretended to dance with me, his stupid little cock sticking into my leg. I couldn’t breathe. I felt sick. Then he put his hands on my shoulders and pushed.
I remembered myself. I was Jasmine, this was work. No fun, my babe, no fun. I smiled like a good girl and my knees hit the shagpile. But I swear if he’d done that screechy ‘you’re beautiful’ thing he was so fond of, I’d have chibbed him there and then and bollocks to the consequences.
My mind was buzzing as I blew him. All that gear. All that amazing, awesome kit. A home cinema, and a DVD rack that would hold thirty if it was full. It holds about a dozen. Seven channels of sound and a CD unit that would hold fifty if it was full. It holds two dozen, tops.
‘How come you’ve not got many discs?’ I asked him. My set up wasn’t this good and I had loads more than he did.
‘No point,’ he said. ‘You can only play one at a time.’
I was stunned into silence.
He continued. ‘I like to be trendy, me. Soon as something’s out of date, I get rid. I couldn’t have a load of old stuff lying around.’ He nodded at his collection. ‘Six months time, most of that lot’ll be gone.’
I hoped that was a promise.
His biggest crime was to have a deck wired in and no vinyl. Not anymore; he’d binned the lot. Check out his artistes of choice: Coldplay and James Blunt you’re aware of; they nestled up against the Pussycat Dolls, Gwen Stefani and Girls Afuckingloud.
‘Local lass in the band,’ he told me. ‘You’ve got to support your own.’ I did. There are some great local bands. But for crying out loud, not that shite.
All that power. Not just the volume, but the depth and breadth of sound, the richness, the resonance. Aural velvet. It sounded like I reckoned heaven should. Rock ‘n’ roll heaven, volume without distortion, zips, leather and ripped denim, somewhere Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith could hang with Johnny Ramone.
I have recently, as they say, been on the horns of a dilemma. It’s Matthew’s job to provide, but he’s not coming up with the goods. Oh, he’s tipped up clothes and jewellery, a couple of long weekends away, a week in the sun, stuff like that. But nothing major. And one of the weekends was a golfing trip. I don’t golf. I shop. I’m not getting a good return on my investment. He flatly refuses to buy me a system like his. It’s a one-off, he reckons, and if he gets me one it won’t be unique anymore. Selfish pig. Another one that won’t share. And of course, if his system should be stolen, he wouldn’t hesitate to report the theft. He’d want to claim on the insurance. Then no doubt he’d tip off the police about the vampiric, lisping girlfriend with the hungry eyes, the one he can’t seem to get in touch with anymore. The whole thing has been keeping me awake nights. Should I cut my losses and walk away with what I’ve got? Can I somehow force the issue? Is there another way to deal with this? I’ve tossed and turned into the wee, small hours for weeks trying to work out what I should do.
But not that night. By then, it had all become clear. That night I slept like a log.
Next morning, I made him breakfast. Wore his shirt and looked cute, just how he liked it, bare feet numb from the cold, slate floor in the kitchen.
‘Sorry, love, I can’t see you tonight,’ I told him. ‘Girls’ night out.’ I smiled.
His fingers fluttered unconsciously to his neck, brushed the bruise that had blossomed there overnight, then reached out to me.
‘Tomorrow, though. We’ll go round the town then come back here.’ He grinned and stared. ‘We can have a little dance to James Blunt.’ That had turned into one of his favourite pastimes. But not one of mine. In fact, it was during one of those little dances, while I was feeling light-headed and nauseous, that I realised what I had to do to resolve the situation I was in.
I nodded. ‘I can’t wait.’ He looked back as he got in his car and I blew him a kiss. ‘Missing you already,’ I simpered. Or rather, Jasmine did. I don’t do shit like that.
I could just hear him telling the geeks at work how he was knackered after last night. Showing off his new scar and bragging about how carried away his lass gets. He’s such a stud. Not for much longer, though. It was time to move on.
I cleared up the breakfast things and made the bed before I left. I like a tidy house.
Late next morning my mobile rang. Eddie, one of Matthew’s people. Got my number out of the boss’s phone, apparently. I remembered meeting him at some do or other. He’d seemed like a canny lad for a techie.
‘Jasmine? Hello, pet. Look, are you sitting down?’
‘Why? What’s up?’
‘It’s Matthew. He’s… look, I’m sorry, there’s no easy way to say this. Matthew’s dead, love. It seems there was somebody in his house last night. He must have walked in on them and… well….’ I heard him sniff and cough. ‘Me and Tim went round this morning when he didn’t come in to work. The door was open. We walked straight in. Christ, Jasmine, the place was trashed.’
‘Did they take anything?’
‘The police asked that. I don’t think so. It doesn’t look like it. Just….’ I heard him sob.
‘Matthew,’ I said. My voice broke, then I cried and howled for my poor dead boyfriend, taken far too soon by a cruel, hurtful world. Eddie made all the right noises, but I could tell he just wanted to get off the phone. He’d drawn the short straw. I calmed down and he took my address. For the police. They’d be in touch.
And they were, later that afternoon.
I confirmed that I’d spent the night before last with Matthew. ‘If only I’d been there last night,’ I choked, tears clouding my vision. ‘If I hadn’t been out with the girls, he might still be alive now.’ I broke down. The nice policewoman passed me a handkerchief and put her arm around me.
My mates confirmed that we’d all been out together, his staff that Matthew had gone to the pub with them because he wasn’t seeing me. Greedy fuckers, happy to spend time with the boss just so long as he’s buying.
The next few weeks passed in a whirl of black clothing, tissues and cups of tea. His mother liked me. We cried together. I helped her with the funeral arrangements. Matthew went through the curtains at the Crem to that God-awful James Blunt number. I assured her it was her son’s favourite song. Hid my smile in my hankie and turned a giggle into a sob as he exited my life for good.
Then, finally, I got to take that beautiful system out of my loft, where I’d stashed it the day I took it from Matthew, the day I dumped a whole load of look-alike second hand gear from Hylton Road into his trashed lounge before stoving his head in with one of his beloved golf clubs. I took my time setting it up, relished every second, every connection. Balanced the speakers. Levelled the deck. Checked the speed with the strobe. Anticipation made my spine tingle.
Set up complete, I took the album I’d placed ready on the coffee table and slipped it out of its sleeve, placed it reverently on the turntable. Put a light to the three-skin joint I’d made up earlier. Hit ‘play’ on the remote and sat back, eyes closed. The room exploded into vibrant sound. The MC5 invited me to kick out the jams. I couldn’t get the smile off my face.
BIO: Julie lives by the seaside in the north east of England. She's had stories published here and there, including Powder Burn Flash, Muzzle Flash, Flash Pan Alley, Out of the Gutter and Darkest Before the Dawn. She thanks you for reading.
Irish Times Crime Fiction column, February 2018
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