Imagine having to run an obstacle course in the early hours of the morning while processed cheese is poured into your ears. That's what my job was like. Piece of shit job that it was, it provided a necessary supplement to the loose change I got off the dole - I mean, I liked to eat as well as smoke. I collected glasses, Friday and Saturday nights, at Dazzler, this club in Deptford. The sort of place that after one look at the entrance - the garish light puked over the pavement through the narrow doorway, the spangly silver sign, the dickie bows of the heavies - I'd cross the street to avoid.
To me it all said gorgonzola city.
A Saturday in the summer, Seventies night, just gone eleven. A knot of half cut people lined up before the door. Normally, I would get a twinge of satisfaction at breezing past a club queue, exchanging a few words with the bouncers, and swanning on in there, but working this place had no credibility attached to it at all.
Marlowe, security man and hardcase, a Volvo of a human, was vetting a punter, patting him up and down, as I squeezed into the entrance.
'How's it going?' I asked.
'You're late,' he said, and jerked his headless neck towards the inner door with a twitch of his shoulders, meaning go on through. Marlowe communicated with his body as he couldn't breathe and talk at the same time. I watched him work a moment. Perhaps he didn't like the punter's ponytail, taking it as an insult to his own poor showing on the hair front, because he was really giving him the once over; he looked in the bloke's fag packet, his wallet and down his white socks.
Through the door was a corridor, painted black, with a fishtank stuck inside a recess.
A fishtank, for fuck's sake.
Gel, the manager, reckoned it was a class touch when he put it in six months back. Then all the fish, cheap little black ones mostly, with a few flash jobs for variety, started dying off. They had a life expectancy of about ten days, and every other night there'd be a new casualty going belly up.
So one of my extra duties, on top of leafleting, flyposting, cleaning up and massaging Gel's ego, was to nip off down the pet shop and buy new fish.
I told Gel it was all the smoke in the air. It wasn't good for them, and he'd have to get a new tank with a closed top. But it wasn't the dying fish that convinced him, finally, to go for a closed tank. It was seeing punters dipping glasses in and drinking the water after he'd turned off the cold taps in the loos.
Opposite the tank was the cloakroom, where Hell was caged. She would have made it all worthwhile, if she would only fuck me.
Every night, she was the best looking woman there. She had long curly black hair, brown eyes, a wide mouth. A few imperfections - slightly large ears and slightly crooked teeth - only served to highlight how divine everything else was. Italian designers could not have improved on the styling of her aerodynamic body. Her face was... was the way faces should be. All faces ideally, would look like hers.
She usually wore lots of black eyeliner and a pissed off look. Today she was dressed in a black fishnet top that halted just above her pierced bellybutton. Below it, I could see the tantalising top half of an exotic tattoo.
I always tried to talk to her, anxious to point out that I hated it here too, to set up a common bond.
I looked at the book, 'Introduction to Tarot', flattened on the counter before her.
'Will you read my cards for me then?'
'I don't need to read any cards to tell you your future, Lee. It's bleak.'
But she was almost not sneering as she said it, so I was making progress.
After Hell's den, the corridor branched off, one way leading to a door marked Staff Only, beyond which lay the cave where Gel planned his inept campaigns, the other one leading to the fountain of cheese. I headed for the door, knocked once, and opened it.
Gel had this thin little pointy face the colour of used sheets in a geriatric ward, and eyes that asked you how much money you made. He talked the kind of rhyming slang you could only get out of a book, like he once said he had to go sausage a gregory, meaning cash a cheque.
He was sat behind his desk, talking to Danny, who perched on one end. Now Danny was a different proposition. A short, stocky man with coke bottle glasses and a stammer, technically he was only head of security and promoter, but really, he ran the show, or at least prevented it crashing and burning.
I weaved past boxes of flyers and broken lighting equipment towards them. The heart of the club, the place from which everything else grew, the cave had the style and glamour of a prison cell. The walls were white, the ceiling was low and there were no windows. The lighting was harsh and made anyone in there look like a zombie.
'Glitter,' Gel was saying, 'glitter is the future. I know this firm, right, they'll come in, and they've got this fucking machine, right, hello Lee, this fucking machine right, like a vacuum cleaner, but in reverse, which'll spray your walls with glue and glitter, make it look silvery, fucking everywhere. Well glam. Fuck black, I'm right fucked off with black, looks like a fucking dungeon in here.'
'That's a g... great idea, Gel,' said Danny, 'great idea. But it's not one, I feel, that the k... kids are ready for. We've got a strong identity going, and we muck it about at our peril.'
'But we have to change with the times.'
'Yes, Gel, but the kids are c... c... conservative. They don't want it to change, they like what we offer, that's why they come.
'Do you want to see the walls changed, Lee?' went Gel.
Perhaps as I was the youngest person working there, Gel often sought my opinion, treating me as yoof culture consultant, a hot-line to the kids.
'No, Gel. It's like Danny says, I'm fundamentally a conservative. I don't want things to change.'
I didn't give a shit what colour the walls were, but I felt that, tactically, it was a good idea to support Danny, cause I was about to ask him a big favour. They were both looking at me, so I wittered on. 'Plus I like black, it gives the place a dangerous feel. Like, teenagers are always wanting to paint their walls black, and their parents don't let them.'
'So they come here,' went Danny, 'and they know they're in an environment where p... p... parental values don't matter, and they can be naughty as they like.'
'Yeah,' I said, nodding. 'That's it.'
'See,' went Danny, 'it's a subtle psychology thing.'
Gel looked broody a moment. 'It'll cost a lot to change it over,' he went. 'Maybe I'll wait till next year. I'll see what other people think.'
'That's the way,' said Danny. 'Why don't you go and get things going out there? You're needed.'
Gel liked to play a set himself, and Danny let him, but only for an hour, right at the start. Gel slapped his hand down on the desk.
'Let's get this arty-farty into gear,' he went, and headed off. Arty-farty meant party; I think he made that one up.
'You should be getting to w... work and all.' Said Danny to me.
'I want to ask you something.'
'What can I do you for then?'
This was my big chance. 'Well, it's like this. I want to ask your permission for something.'
I'd got a little speech planned, but in the end I junked it and went straight in there. 'I want to start dealing speed.'
Danny didn't say anything.
'I know you got dealers already, but no one's doing whizz, yeah? Not on a regular basis. It's all Es. So I won't be treading on anyone's toes. I'll give you a cut, of course, whatever's standard.'
Danny drummed his fingers on the desk at about the pace my heart was going. He looked concerned. Fuck, I thought, I've blown it.
I'd two ounces at home, waiting on his word. I'd already mixed it, chucking in a bit of guarana and baking soda, and wrapped it. I didn't want a lot of expensive origami packages sitting around.
Danny looked at his big square nails. 'Weh, weh, weh...'
He paused and fixed me with his glaring eyes, magnified by his glasses.
'We'll see. You got a c... car, yeah?'
'Right. You're giving me and Marlowe a lift home. We'll have a b... b... businesslike discussion. Now get to work.'
I headed out into the club, where a scattering of villains, wasters, wannabes, dreamers, dickheads, dossers, disco dollies, downright alcoholics and students were limbering up for the night's entertainment.
Half of them were about fourteen, the others about forty five.
They stood around in little gangs, like at a playground, and cast speculative glances at each other.
A few girls were dancing, making sure everyone else knew they were there.
Gel was playing some awful shite. Like the Seventies weren't bad enough first time around.
I hadn't fuck all to do really, just wander around hating it, picking up the plastic glasses and wondering what Danny was going to say.
I thought about how much I was clearing - forty quid, cash in hand - and how much more I'd be making if I was dealing on the side. Maybe two hundred.
I wouldn't do it without Danny's permission though. I'd seen what happened to people who did that, and cleaned up afterwards on one occasion. Next to the cave was a room, bare except for a few broken chairs, some old newspapers, and a dark stain on the carpet that just wouldn't come out.
As the night progressed the place got crammed and clammy and the people more frantic. The work got more gruelling as I was constantly pushing through the crowd, my right hand raised to bat them aside, my left holding a telescope of glasses. To them I was a piece of mobile furniture, worth barely a glance.
Every night here was identical to every other. I heard some guy saying to some girl, 'Get your coat, you've pulled,' which I heard him say the week before. Or maybe it was someone else.
When they put the lights on at two it was like a bomb had gone off; there was rubbish everywhere, the crowd lemminged for the exits, and a few casualties lay still against the walls. I blagged myself a drink, then propped up the bar and lit a fag, enjoying the silence and the emptiness.
A sweaty Gel came up and I told him what a good night it was. He gave me a few crushed tenners the way you'd lend money to a junky, and pissed off.
'Oi. Mr Big.'
Danny. He came up to me with Marlowe in tow, who'd changed into casual gear and carried a bag. It would always be a mystery to me how come Marlowe was such a favourite with the ladies. Couple of times I'd left and clocked him fucking some girl in the alley round the side. The guy moved like a robot, you'd think he'd been knocked up in a garage.
We went outside, where the sudden cold was a relief. A gaggle of party people were clustered around the hotdog van. A guy was handing out flyers for another club, and the ground was littered with them. It was freaking me out that neither Danny nor Marlowe had said anything.
Crap - that's the name of my car, a Fiesta, I called it that because it was crap - was parked down the street, and I really wanted it to start first time.
Danny got in the back, sweeping aside a collection of empty crisp packets, and Marlowe folded himself into the passenger seat, an arrangement which surprised me.
'Where do you live?' I asked them.
'Take us to Camberwell,' went Danny.
'That's a bit out of my way.'
'It's just this once.'
The car started, second time, which would do me, and I steered it out into the road and slotted some decent music into the stereo.
'What's this shit?' asked Marlowe, and I reached over to change the tape.
'Let the boy listen to what he wants,' said Danny. 'Good night?'
'They're not good or bad,' I replied, 'I just get them over with.'
Danny laughed, 'You hear that, Marlowe? Good one, k... kid.' He leaned forwards and tucked his head between the seats.
'I get the impression that you're not entirely h... happy, working for the club.'
I had to negotiate a turn here, so I got the chance to think before I replied.
'I like the club. I just think the job I do is not challenging enough.'
'You feel that you're not r... realising your full potential?' went Danny.
'Yeah, that's what I feel like.'
'Not realising your full potential,' said Marlowe, gnashing each word like toffee.
'You know the club is losing money?' went Danny.
'Why don't you run it?' I asked, 'You'd turn it around easy.'
'Truth is,' he went, 'I'm m... m... more interested in my other business concerns.'
'And what are they?'
'A b... bit of this, a bit of that.'
'A bit of the other,' said Marlowe, and we all laughed, like we were mates.
We were headed into Peckham now, making swift progress. I liked driving at night, the streets empty like this.
'So what kind of club do you like to go to?' said Danny.
'Dance stuff. You know, raves and that.'
'It's kind of p... passed us by, that scene,' said Danny.
'I guess you have to be a certain age.'
'You saying we're old men?' went Marlowe, but without menace, or no more than usual.
'No, you're just different.'
All this conversation was great, but I was wondering when they were going to get to the point. I put my foot down and whipped the car around a nightbus.
'You're a good driver,' said Danny. 'What do you reckon, Marlowe?'
'He's a good driver.'
Danny settled back in his seat and we remained silent till Camberwell. I was wondering whether I should bring up the issue at hand, or if that was bad manners.
Marlowe looked round at Danny, then said, 'I'm hungry.'
'There's a bagel place near here that's still open,' I went.
'Nah,' said Marlowe, 'I want a cheese and onion pastie.
It's got to be a cheese and onion pastie.' 'There's an all night garage in a sec, just on the right,' went Danny. He sat up straight again.
'So about me selling whizz in the club-' I went.
'Just here,' said Danny, pointing to a garage, 'this one.'
I slowed up and pulled into the forecourt.
'Park by the front,' said Danny.
'You can't,' I went. 'They move you on.'
'P... p... park by the front.' I parked by the front. Marlowe grabbed his bag and got out of the car, leaving the door open, and lumbered over to the bit where you shouted at the man behind the glass.
Danny laid his hand on my shoulder. 'Leave the engine running.'
'What's going on?' I said. I didn't believe what I saw next.
Marlowe pulled a gun out of his bag and shouted at the startled cashier. 'All the fucking cash, now!'
'Fucks sake!' I went.
'Keep your head down,' barked Danny, pushing hard at the back of head. 'They got cameras.' I ducked down, sticking my head under the steering wheel. I was suddenly very cold; the night air was rushing through the open door. I felt Marlowe land on the passenger seat.
'Fucking move then!' shouted Danny.
I ground the car into first as I came up. Marlowe slammed the door. I kept my foot down and the car screeched out of the forecourt into the street.
'Go! Go! Go!' shouted Danny.
I was lucky; there were no cars coming. I bombed down the road, hardly knowing what I was doing. The engine was whining. I let my foot off the accelerator, slipped it into second and stamped down hard. I was heading back the way we came. I discovered I was shouting. 'Fuck, what the fuck?'
'Turn around,' shouted Danny. 'Now.' I hit the brakes and the car skidded and Marlowe slid over the seat towards me. I could smell his breath.
We were side on in the road and the night bus I had overtaken earlier was charging down on me. I could see the driver's pale face. I was into reverse before I knew what I was doing and the car bucked back onto the pavement. The bus roared past, an abrupt blur of red.
'What's going on?' I shouted.
'I saw a fucking cop,' yelled Danny. 'Fucking-' I was in first and back on the road before he got to finish his sentence - 'get a move on!' I threw a glance in the mirror but didn't see any traffic. I went on past the garage, tensed up, waiting for a siren to explode.
I went straight into third and the engine started howling till I'd got up some speed. I felt better the faster we were going.
'Left. Left now!' went Danny. I hit the brakes and threw the car off the main road into a narrow turning that led into a dark estate.
'Next right,' said Danny. I made the turn, just, mounting the pavement and clipping the wing mirror on a railing. I sped through the narrow streets, the houses flashing by. I got some security from the darkness. I could feel Marlowe and Danny coiled up and alert in the dark car.
Still no sirens. All my concentration was focused on the pool of light thrown by the headlights. We went past a load of turn offs and I figured Danny was directed me into the estate cause there were so many roads to hide in.
All the streets here looked identical, variations on a few elements; streetlights, squat concrete low rise housing, straggly trees.
We didn't pass any people, which reassured me, then I wondered how many had seen my earlier manoeuvres, and I started thinking I'd have to ditch the car.
'Left here,' went Marlowe. I turned into a short cul de sac of terraced houses.
'But it's a dead end,' I went.
'Park there,' he went. 'Just there.' He pointed at the kerb.
'But they might be chasing. Someone might have seen us.'
'Just do it,' said Danny.
I stopped the car and it stalled. It was still in third. We were parked outside a house with one ground floor window illuminated by a telly.
Suddenly it was very quiet. I started shaking. My hands had been clutching the steering wheel so tight they hurt. My skin was filmed with sweat.
'That'll do nicely,' said Marlowe. He pointed at a third storey window. 'This is where I live.'
I was silent for a second. 'Where you live? This is where you live?'
Marlowe turned and looked at me. 'Fancy a bite?' he said.
In his right hand he still held the gun. In his left he had a Ginsters pasty. He had already taken a couple of bites.
He began to crack up, going huh, huh, huh, and spitting crumbs.
Danny patted my shoulder.
'Marlowe's brother works nights,' said Danny, 'at the garage.' I blinked. I took my hands off the wheel. Danny cackled. I put my head in my hands.
I chuckled once, twice, then felt it swell up from my chest, raw, pure hysteria.
'You fuckers, You fucking... fuckers. Fuck's sake.' I was crying.
'K, k... kid,' said Danny, 'you done brilliant.'
We were laughing so hard the car was rocking.
'You can sell what you f... fucking well like. Consider yourself one of the boys.'