June 28, 2017 | by Emma Falk Dennis Illustrations by Julian Dennis (Instagram @jlzdnns)
“Oh my god, are you the stripper?”
I can remember the look on this man’s face as he opened the door and saw me standing there in my red lipstick and a massive suede coat pulled tightly around my body. When he’d first opened the door, I had nervously announced myself as Emma. “I’m performing here tonight,” I said, teeth chattering in the frigid air after a long and direction-challenged walk from the tube station had put my bones on ice.
Apparently, once I’d categorized myself as “performer,” this slightly leathered but not unhandsome gentleman had let his mind wander to all sorts of forgone conclusions.
Once I’d corrected him — Roger, as I learned his name was — and was shown inside, I remember thinking it odd he thought I was a stripper, given there seemed to be quite a few children running around the large house in far-flung East Ham. But then again, I thought it odd to see so many children at a gathering at which I was meant to be playing. My material, although less graphic perhaps than a strip tease, was not child friendly.
“I’m so sorry, I really wasn’t sure there for a minute. It’s my birthday, you see. I thought, I mean, I’d hoped that Diane had gone and done it. We’d joked about it, you see. Or rather, I’d suggested it. Getting a stripper. I just saw you and ...”
“No, don’t worry,” I jumped in. It didn’t feel so much that he was rambling in apology as he was trying to ascertain if there was any possibility left of actually getting me to take off my clothes. As if me knocking on the door had been the last hope of this birthday party ending with a lap dance, and he just wasn’t ready to give up on that dream.
“I get where the confusion could have come from,” I continued, inching away from him. “Happy birthday, by the way. Where’s the bar?”
I walked across the white-carpeted living room, trying to avoid the brio trains scattered around and the children’s hands attached to them, and into the kitchen where I found platters of cheese and fruit spread out over the table. And luckily, also many bottles of wine.
It had all the elements of some bloke’s birthday party, which of course, is what it was. There were lots of people in the kitchen, all of them older than I by a good seven years at least. All dressed in cardigans and jeans, bottles of Doom Bar ale and glasses of chardonnay in their hands, little sugar-drunk tots milling between their legs.
One woman, slightly more elegantly clothed than the rest of the pack, all black dress and slicked hair, made a beeline for me as I was knocking back a coffee mug full of red wine, trying to quell the sudden onset of my twilight zone tremors. If I was going to do this gig in front of little Sally and Timmy, it seemed the best idea was to do it drunk.
“So how do you know Roger?” she purred at me over her gin and tonic. Where she’d gotten the gin from was all I wanted to know.
I chose my words carefully when answering her. I felt it prudent not to make the same mistake twice. “I’m playing a gig here tonight. You know ... poetry, songs. Not lap dances, contrary to what you may have heard.”
What a knock for six this was. A complete 180-degrees different from what I envisioned when I’d accepted this gig offer — one of my first actual invitations to play. Up until this point, it had been mostly open-mic nights and the occasional Mongo show. And so, to be approached by a rather suave looking woman as I came off the stage at a poetry night in Kings Cross had been exciting. It was like a scene straight out of a Humphrey Bogart picture:
“The name’s Muriel. You got style, toots. I love your stuff. Listen, I want you to come and play for us. Come and perform at the party my production company is having next week. We’d be delighted to have you. Here’s my card. We’re in East Ham.”
I’d honestly not even heard of East Ham, but imagined it was likely in a swanky part of town, probably adjacent to Mayfair.
“Well, a production company’s party!” I mused excitedly. I’d been offered something akin to a corporate gig. Here I was, in the game for five minutes and fielding commercial offers — a fledgling rock ‘n’ roller and already potentially a sellout.
The sweat I took with me off the open-mic stage that night tasted extra sweet. I swelled with the thought of playing for an audience made up of more than just the other performers, most of whom were likely to leave once their five minutes were up. My next stop was headlining a room full of people whom, if not specifically there to see me, would at any rate not be fatigued by 15 other acts before I got in front of them.
As it turned out, East Ham was a bit further out than Mayfair. At the farthest end of the Hammersmith and City Line, it was a good two-hour tube journey from my house in Muswell Hill, out past where the “underground” part of the underground stops. A good indicator: once you reach the part of the tube line with cell phone reception, you know you’re not exactly in London any more
Come gig day, I preened excessively before I left the flat — did myself up in a sheer white top with Bolan-esque ruffles, red leather jacket, and the all-important white Chelsea boots. These were the days of my short-lived extreme slenderness. Although being stick-insect thin left me with a racing heart and frequent ear infections, it also made dressing up a hell of a lot of fun as everything looked fabulous. During this time, I relied mainly on Marlboros for sustenance. When the gnawing feeling in my stomach became too much, I would quell it with the occasional apple or overpriced bottle of kefir from the organic market in an absurd bid to remain “healthy.” This masochistic deprivation of nutrients meant I had a banging body and a very pallid complexion. My white-blond hair and bright red lips were in constant contrast to the heavy shadows pooling under my eyes. I was a skinny, androgynous, shellaced vampire.
On this night, I had also donned my massive fur-lined suede coat, draping it over my shoulders in my best Miles Davis impression. I’d been reading his autobiography and took to the way he described the looks of him and his fellow musicians as “clean.” Although I’d gleaned this nugget from a passage in which Miles also describes pimping out women for drug money, it was easy for me to relegate these more unsavory bits to the history books in favor of what felt like the perfect descriptor of badass body armour. There in my kit, I certainly felt like a clean motherfucker. Or like a “cleeeeeaaaaaaan motherfucker,” when said to myself the way I imagined Miles would say it. I was hardened against the world in suede, boots, and swagger. That is, until the wind blew the ice through and forced my arms into my coat sleeves, and my coat into the buttoned-up position, at which point I was mostly just a cold motherfucker.
When I finally arrived at East Ham station, I was glad my enthusiasm for the show had prompted me to leave my flat so early. According to the time on my cell phone I had been traveling for nearly two hours. When I finally got off the tube, I consulted the oracle of my phone once again to map my way to the venue. What would it look like? Who would I be greeted by? What kind of a PA would they have? How big would the stage be?
I took Muriel’s card out of my pocket and plugged in the name: Green Door Productions.
It was another 40 minutes on foot, the oracle notified me.
The air continued its bitter blows to my body. My top half was relatively cozy under my coats and hat, now all pulled up and down together as closely as possible. Of course, the bottom half, as was always the case, was much less protected. There was zero chance of fitting a pair of tights, let alone long johns or anything else of actual warmth under jeans as constricted as mine. As I walked on, two things became quickly apparent: I was chilled to the point of no return – my teeth chattering so loud they were likely audible from the other side of the street — and, I was nowhere near Mayfair. Or London. Nor any generalized metropolis. All I saw around me was a rusted sign belonging to an auto repair shop long since shut up for the night, and a set of swings inside an empty neighborhood park. And houses. I saw rows and rows of houses.
Despite these suburban markers and lack of street life, nerves, excitement, and anticipation were still charging through me. In fact, I’m sure they were the only things keeping my body from going full popsicle in the twilight freeze. When I reached the front door (which was indeed green) of Green Door Productions (a.k.a. Roger’s family home), I had no other thoughts but of my impending performance. That is, no other thoughts apart from the small piece of me that could think only of the warmth waiting inside and feeling returning to my feet.
He hadn’t meant anything by it. I was assuring myself as I sat in that kitchen, listening to the woman in black purr on about how she used to work in the city before she had kids, and about Roger, and some vague questions about my poetry. Surely, he’d had a drink or two. It was in jest. I should just take it as a compliment. Move on, do the show. Are you still going to do the show? What about these kids? You have to do the show, right? Especially after that commute!
My mind had gone full on internal dialogue. I’ve no recollection of what my conversation with the woman consisted of past that point. But, the wine was certainly warming my brain as well as my body, and despite myself, I began to relax a little. I was even considering a mingle round the room when Muriel finally found me.
She welcomed me, and took me to “the dressing room,” as she insisted on calling it, still trying to pretend we were in a venue rather than the kiddie-populated site of a neighborhood birthday bash. I followed her out of the kitchen and past the living room where people sat on couches with glasses in their hands, and into quarters clearly belonging to yet another youngster.
Muriel offered me a seat in front of a mirror, framed in pink wood and adorned on one side with a pair of fairy wings.
“So, are you ready? What do you think of the place? Do you need anything else? How many songs would you like to do? You can do as many as you like. Oh, hi darling!” Her daughter ran in and grabbed hold of her leg. “This is Emma. Remember me telling you about her? She’s going to do her show for us tonight.”
Yes indeed, perform for you and potentially leave a permanent scar upon the remainder of your childhood.
“Yeah, actually Muriel, I wanted to mention that to you. I’m a bit concerned with the kids. I mean sure, they’re gonna hear it all sometime, but I think some of the parents here might be concerned with the material. I mean, you’ve heard my stuff,” I said, taking another plug from my wine mug.
“Oh, don’t worry about that. We can always mention it, maybe give the parents the option of having the kids leave the room. It’s not a concern, don’t give it another thought! Again, toots, really jazzed you’re here.”
All I could do was smile back at her and her daughter, finish the wine, and head out onto the white carpet, stepping tipsily over Lego and toy trains. First, I took a deep breath, and then my place on stage. I grabbed hold of the mic, turned on the small speaker it was attached to, and let my words rip past the opening of my purple teeth and into the ears of all the young boys and girls sitting in the front row. So much for clearing the room.
At least I wasn’t showing them my breasts and gyrating to Queens of the Stone Age’s “You’ve Got a Killer Scene There, Man” (which, incidentally, is surely the strip tease song of our generation, and, I feel, highly underrated as such), as might have been Roger’s ideal version of the night’s proceedings.
From my vantage point in the middle of a circle of kids, the gig was a weird one, and certainly not the most well-executed, or well received. However, emboldened by wine and by the stage woman who hijacks my body whenever there is a microphone in my hand, I gave that audience everything I had. By the end of it, I was down on the carpeted ground, eyeball to eyeball with Tim and Sal.
Most of the other guests watching had remained in their seats on the couch in the back of the room, some were standing in the doorway of the kitchen, a couple in the doorway to the back patio. They’d simply turned around from their conversations to take a gander at what was going on in the middle of the sitting room. This gig — my big night, my first headlining slot — had been an afterthought. As I quickly came to realize during my performance, none of the guests were expecting a set from anyone, and likely less-so one from a poet, than perhaps from say, a birthday stripper.
Roger sat up on a chair near the kids, an expectant glint still hanging on in the edge of his eye. It shined a little brighter with each whisky he knocked back (where was he keeping the whisky?).
When my last line spilled past my inebriated lips, the room fell silent, and then came the limp claps from hesitant hands, the sonics of which were teeming with a mixture of confusion, amusement, and touches of patronization. I imagined the internal thoughts from the woman in black I’d been speaking to earlier: What a peculiar girl. I’m not sure I understood a thing she said, all seems very adolescent and angry to me. Well, good for her. I really don’t miss the city. Soon after my set ended, the room reverted to the background din of continued conversations, picking up from the out-of-place interruption precisely where they’d left off.
Perhaps the wine was allowing me to rationalize, but it had felt like an achievement to hush an audience, if only for a brief moment. That is, aside from the front row, of course who’d been far from silent since proceeds got underway. The kids had been very receptive. My best critics that night. They danced and sang along. They even started singing their own songs ... to completely different melodies. When one of them became particularly excited about a freestyle she’d begun, she reached out to take the microphone from my hands. It took restraint for the stage woman in me not to pull a full Pete Townshend on her.
When it was over, it was time for me to go. The usual search for “post-gig glory,” the need to take the magic and adrenaline from the the energy exchange between me and an audience and keep it going, was missing. No bright spark to, against all odds, keep burning before the sun came up and turned everything to stone. Everything was already pretty stoney — icy and bleak — and I knew outside was going to be worse. So, around 11 pm after one more quick mug of wine (I had made a final half-hearted attempt to locate the gin and the whiskey to no avail), I walked out the green door, a little drunk but still perpetually aware of how very far from home I was. Roger was standing out front in conversation with a houseguest and my wine head convinced me I needed to leave in true “cleeeeaaan motherfucker” style by saying something witty. So I took Rog by the shoulder and in a voice more slur than seduction, whispered loudly, “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”
Even with the alcohol in my system, I cringed at myself as I went down the front steps to the street, lighting a cigarette. I imagined Miles with his own cigarette in hand, cringing too.
After the arduous walk in the icy air, my legs once again cryogenically void of feeling, I finally found the golden light of East Ham station and made my way into the relative warmth of my tube carriage. Upon sitting down I fell asleep, lulled by the rocking of the train car and the heaviness of my eyes into the recesses of white noise as the wheels hit the track and we went back underground towards the city. The night had been a reverse trip down the rabbit hole — a reverie among street-level suburban strange. By the time I arrived at the stop for Muswell Hill (waking up right on time, every time) it all felt unreal. Like my internal vampire had bitten the wrong prey and subsequently spent the evening tripping on its psychoactive blood.
And for all I know, it could indeed have been an hallucination. The only proof I was left with of the evening’s existence was my horrendous hangover the following day and my new found unease at the possible connotations of walking around town in large coats. I never spoke to or indeed saw anyone from the East Ham production company ever again.
Not even any of my fervent juvenile fans.