Black Milk, a Tender Short Story By Philip A. Suggars

Chest-meat, top-bollocks, sweater-puppies, melons, hangers, Georgie Bests, Eartha Kitts. All shapes and sizes, weights and measures. Ultimately though, "tits are just bits" as the philosopher once said, and in point of fact, once you get to know the girls you don’t really notice their chests.

I squirm on my stool under the Gemini Club sign, underneath the neon nipple on the “G” that flashes like a cherry. I’ve told the owner, Jimmy, he should get me a new stool. The amount of time I sit on it, I say, I could sue for industrial injury. Then there’s the splinters. I must’ve ruined three or four pairs of trousers on this bloody stool. Nice ones too.

Times like this, early in the evening, I do miss something to take the edge off. I've got the hip flask in my jacket, my last present from Lizzie; it's a bit tarnished, but you can still read the word "Dad" engraved on it. It’s been empty for eight years, seven months and thirteen days.

Most of the girls turn up at six. This knot of cackles that turns the corner at Endell Street. It's a bit like watching a group of lionesses crossing the plain. If Endell street was all dusty and lionesses used fake tan and killed antelope by being sarcastic. Jimmy turns up at six-thirty. He wears the same suit as always, a bit too tight in the wrong places and shiny everywhere else. He barrels up to me till his chest bumps my gut, smelling of brandy and pepper-mints. He burps and I get a waft of chicken-tikka.

"Greetings, Desmondo," he says, "there’s a match on tonight. Looking slow, so I’m asking our talent to turn it up a notch, comprende?"

I nod and he sticks an anorexic cigar in my pocket and taps it.

"Maggie Thatcher, David Beckham," says Zosia coming to a halt in front of me. "Lech Walesa," I reply.

“Good boy,” he says.

As Jimmy always points out, the Gemini is not a full-service establishment, but by the end of their routines all the girls flash some snatch, parading their landing strip of crotch grass about, or as is more common these days, a triangle all covered in glitter. The pink flash is what Jimmy calls it. Cometh the pink flash, Desmondo, he says, winking at me. Hyaenas have eyes like that, I reckon.  

Zosia arrives on her own at seven. Her hair is done up in a beehive and she's wearing a long cream coat and black boots with thick heels that make her taller than me. She looks a bit like Jackie Onassis, crossed with that singer, Dannii Minogue? The one that's got a right pair of crackers. Lizzie’d know.

"Maggie Thatcher, David Beckham," says Zosia coming to a halt in front of me.

"Lech Walesa," I reply.

Our private joke. When she started these were the only English people Zosia had ever heard of. Walesa, on the other hand, is the only Pole that I know.

“No Lindsey tonight?”, I ask.

“No,” says Zosia, “have new baby-sitter. Jimmy lends me money.”

I like Lindsey. Quiet kid. Big eyes. When she's here she sits out the back and I buy her a packet of crisps and get the barman to make her a shandy, half Coca-Cola and half lemonade. “Uncle Des” is what she calls me. I can fit both her hands into one of mine.

"Cigarette?" asks Zosia. I pull a face. Jimmy doesn't like the girls to smoke. Nobody likes smoky bacon, Desmondo, not these days. I mime looking for the cigarettes I don't have.

"I’m out, love," I say. Zosia slides a hand across my breast pocket and her fingers pull out the tip of Jimmy's cigar.

"What’s this, Big-man?" she says and smiles, “you hold out on me?”  

I mug looking upwards and she saunters off with my cigar in her fake designer handbag, walking down into the passageway that makes you feel like you've been swallowed whole. Jimmy catches her on the stairs and looks her up and down, his eyes are even more yellow under a sixty watt bulb. He whispers something and she pushes him away. He grabs at her arse as she passes him. He’s not far off being a prize twat, Jimmy.

It's a mug’s game, but then we mugs are a lonely bunch aren't we?

Twenty quid for a dance, forty for a private show and then, buy the lady a drink? A bottle of cava for a hundred notes? It's a mug’s game, but then we mugs are a lonely bunch aren't we?

Sometimes, if I'm not careful I catch myself imagining our Lizzie in a place like this. Or somewhere worse. She'd be about the right age. Wherever she is. Be about Zosia's build and height. And then that black ache creeps up out of my chest and crawls up the back of my throat and squeezes all the air out of my lungs and I have to sit down and count to ten and I want a drink or a cigarette or both.

Lucky for me, it's a busy night. I throw three hooray-henries out and give the stink-eye to a couple of jerkers in various states of fiddle. It’s all about intimidation. If you have to get rough with the punters then you’ve lost it. Still, it's not really a job for a married man. That’s what Lizzie’s mum used to say. Not that it's an issue anymore.

It's about midnight when Zosia comes on. It’s quiet up top, so even though Jimmy's too tight to put another face on the door I can come downstairs and watch, hanging around in the shadows at the back. The smell of spilled booze is soaked into the carpet. Just one. It whispers to me. Just a short, or a beer. Just one.That's all you need. But I know with me it's never that.

Tereza’s just come off. Some death-metal thing she dances too. She’s all buttocks and thrusts and hips and tits that could pierce a tank. Always looks like she’s having some sort of fit. Zosia’s different. She dances to something called Black Milk. I don’t really know if that's the name of the song or the name of the band. Is Black Milk is all she says whenever I ask. Zosia slinks on and everyone forgets about Tereza.

Don’t get me wrong. The other girls are good, but there’s something about the way Zosia dances that is ... well ... I don’t know what it is actually. Everything's strong and sad. When I watch her dance I see where she came from. I imagine all these grey tower blocks made of shitty, damp concrete. I see her when she was dancing for her school and how she didn’t get a place at the academy because her dad wasn’t a member of the party; And of course she takes her clothes off. Lovely bod, Zosia.

For a bit, even the black-ache goes, then the lights go up and Zosia slides back into her dressing room, all cold and majestic. For an instant the lurkers and the jerkers and the arse-holes are all gobsmacked and then they start to clap and clap and clap. I nip back upstairs onto my perch. I think of Lizzie and a splinter sticks me in the arse.

We close at three. I drag the stragglers out and call cabs for those that can't stand. Some berk always leaves his wallet here. We share out the contents and sling it in the bin. Perks of the job. I shouldn't really, but I cadge a fag from the barman and go up onto the steps. It’s raining a bit and I smell the electrics from the tube station.

That's when it all kicks off. There's a scream and a glass smashes downstairs. My fag's in the gutter and I’m down the steps two at a time. I run into the old store room at the back that Jimmy’s converted into a changing room. The floor crunches under my feet. There are bits of glass all over the lino like diamonds. The bitter smell of spilt liquor tickles my nose.

I see what's happened right away. Zosia trying to loop a broken strap over her shoulder; One of Jimmy’s ears all shredded. He looks like a little vampire bat with a gut and a bad suit.

"Now, now, Desmondo, let's not overreact," says Jimmy out of the corner of his mouth, smearing blood around his face with a dirty hanky.

"I tell Jimmy to fuck-right-off with glass," says Zosia.

“It’s alright now, love,” I say.  

"Shut up, you skanky-cow," says Jimmy. He looks at me, ”fuck off, Desmondo, I haven’t finished.”

I don’t move. I puff up a bit more. I clench and unclench my fists.

"I told you to fuck off, you fucking gorilla," says Jimmy. A blob of spittle gobs onto his lapel. He clenches his teeth and shifts down a gear, "let us not forget the egregious state of the employment market, Desmondo," he says, his Adam’s apple bobbing like a ping-pong ball.

Without replying I press towards him and he bends his knees, getting low down, ready to pop one onto my chin. I count the bulges in that nasty little suit of his, trying to work out what nasty little tools they might conceal. Gun? No, I figure. It takes a certain amount of straight-forward bollocks to wave a shooter around. The Jimmys of this world favour knives. Easy to hide. No loud noises to attract anyone. Spend some time inside and you get handy with a knife. So we eyeball each other, each trying to radiate enough fuck you to get the other to back down.

A bead of sweat emerges from Jimmy's forehead and slips down his face. That's when he makes his move; his hand sweeps down to his left pocket, but he's a bit slow. Booze probably. I catch the hand with the knife in it and close my fingers around his thin wrist. Then I block the inevitable right that comes up. It smacks into my hand and I squeeze it till he yelps. I shake the other hand till the knife clatters onto the glass underfoot and one-by-one I get my hands around his neck, his fingers tug, but I hold on.

I imagine what it would be like to squeeze. To let my fingers do what they’re itching to. To dig into that scrawny throat and squeeze the life out of that horrible little thing that lives at the back of Jimmy's skull. To watch him twist, like a bundle of twigs in a cheap suit, flapping about like a fish out of water. It wouldn't take long.

Jimmy breathes booze all over me. I remember this feeling. The whiff of violence just a cunt-hair away. A punch to the groin. A twist of the throat. Then a bender to blank it all out.

"I'm sorry, Lizzie love", I say and put Jimmy down.

He collapses against the wall, his mouth opens, but nothing comes out. Zosia holds my arm, reading the thirteen shades of what the fuck have I done? written on my face. She leads me up the stairs. I’m shaking and my face is wet.

When we are outside Zosia riffles through her bag and wipes my cheeks with a grubby tissue.

"Come on, Big-man," she says, "don’t cry about losing job. Is land of Maggie Thatcher and David Beckham. Is land of opportunity."

"It's not that," I say.

"Don't be end-of-knob," she says, "is okay to cry."

I wave to Zosia to stay put, as I pick up my stool and smash it against the wall. I take the pieces and throw them one-by-one down into the red throat of the Gemini club, then Zosia and I walk across Endell street and into the early morning drizzle.

Philip is a writer based in Brighton. You can read more of his work at https://myelectriceye.wordpress.com/

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