This one is here, but it’s not alone; there are many others all over. Forget this minor thoroughfare, still enclosing Victorian gloom between shadowy carcasses of buildings venting sweet-and-sour steam over the vista of burger boxes, discarded Evening Standards and empty see-through plastic baggies. Elsewhere, beyond this area’s queasy combination of flashed-up bars owned by tag-teams of petty Albanian gangsters and petit-bourgeoisie, and the last remnants of the ‘massage parlour’ scene, there are wide high streets clogged with Ubers that see mile-long queues forming at the early-bird openings of the nightclubs. At closing, these same equivalents dutifully disgorge a hundreds-strong multitude of sweating, sneering, staggering bodies, all of them firmly and freshly stripped of their humanity, of care and concern, transformed into vessels of self-regard and base instinct, wordlessly calling for death because no-one seems willing to let them actually ever live (and what is living? What is it? Tell me, please. They’ve kept it a secret from me).
But none of those places have the purity of this one. Here they know there is nothing when the music stops; the crowd knows what ordinarily follows the cessation, and they react accordingly.
For much of the night, they sit around old tables that look fit still to receive deliveries of chicken-in-basket and beers no longer brewed. They don’t talk and don’t look at each other. They stare straight ahead, eyes locked on the sweat dripping on the walls of the humid room. Vast quantities of liquors are consumed in strange combinations. Blue, yellow, green and violet drinks are bought to the table by black-shirted spectres, the glasses and jugs festooned with the decorations of some clung-to fantasy island paradise. When finished, these are chased with hotter, burning drinks that turn stomachs into gargling bags of sludge and strip layers of protection from the inside of throats. Occasionally, white or scarlet powders from small glass vials are ingested.
The men all dress the same: they wear white t-shirts, black leather jackets and suede loafers without socks. Mirrored sunglasses hide their eyes, and the spectres bring them big cigars, which they pretend to know how to handle, emitting great lungfuls of sticky smoke that turn the environs into a shoebox of relentless asphyxiation. The women’s outfits are more distinct: skirts, catsuits, thin blouses and dresses of various lengths and cuts. Make-up drips as the temperature in the room rises; between deep gulps of liquid, the taste in mouths is often that of mascara and foundation, chemical and bitter.
The music comes several hours into the night. A DJ appears from the wings and walks across the high-mounted stage at the back of the room. He stands behind the decks, looking out from between the stacked speakers of the sound system, and begins bouncing up and down before even the first note sounds. He is full of exhilaration, riding a wave of excitement that seems to have sucked up every bit of apprehension and anticipation from the audience and left them listless. Then the drums sound with terrifying force, shaking the walls and roof, fully waking everyone trying to sleep through the whooping and whistling Soho noise within a mile radius. The crowd rises, pushing the tables to the walls, and awaits the uncanny flourish that signals to begin their bacchanalia. The DJ straps a hurdy-gurdy to himself, leaving the record spinning as synth stabs burst and ricochet between the ceiling and the matte floor, and steps to the stage’s lip. Somewhere within the tumult, the grating, whining noise of his lacklustre playing can be heard by an attuned ear; this is the flag going down, the curtain going up.
For four minutes- no less, no more- the crowd descends into a fury. Bodies convulse and crease with movement, jerking violently to either the thud of the bass or the distant whinnying of the master of ceremonies’ cranked instrument. Punters tear at each other’s clothes and bodies, ripping hair out at the root, drawing and sucking blood from thick nail-torn gashes across chests and arms and faces, shoving tongues down throats and pummelling those holding the short straws to within an inch of life, heads stomped against the floor. The dancers begin to vomit with the exhausting aggression of their performance; other bodies in their joy slip and slide and fall in this mess, this commingling of bodily fluids and unidentifiable alcohols. The hurdy-gurdy player becomes more frantic and somehow much louder, his tune forming a hideous counterpoint to the overriding rhythm, soaring and sailing against it like a boat kept under control against the odds on a sea annihilated by a storm. Every ounce of feeling, every experience which has haunted them for days, weeks, months, years is expelled by the crowd as they flail against each other, destroy each other, rely on each other to form the punchbag, the straw-man, the hunk of meat able to absorb the exorcising brutality of their blows. Where, in the other places, half-measures are drawn, and thus the life lived outside can continue safely ticking along when the big night out is finished, here there is no giving up, no compromise. All is lain to waste; everyone is driven out of the world; everyone loses themselves utterly and for good.
Finally, finally the music stops. The hurdy-gurdy DJ is nowhere to be seen. The crowd stands silently for a few seconds in the remnants of the chaos that they have created. Then every body falls to the floor, limp and lifeless, like marionettes without masters pulling the strings, like scarecrows whose supporting poles have been ripped away, like hand puppets with the controlling hand withdrawn. They lay and stay completely still until they are pulled to the dawn streets by the spectres. One week later, the ritual- always- begins again, old faces mixing with the new.
Billy Stanton is a young working-class writer and filmmaker based in London, and originally from Portsmouth. His story ‘Screwfix’ was recently published in ‘New Towns’ (Wild Pressed Books). His short fiction has also appeared in Horla and The Chamber magazines. His latest short film ‘Noli is currently in post-production. His blog can be found at: steelcathedrals.wordpress.com
If you enjoyed this story, you might also enjoy Billy Stanton’s work of legendary fiction, “Cruel.”