Debra Waters is currently studying part-time for an MA in Creative & Life Writing at Goldsmiths. In 1996, she graduated from the same university with a degree in English & Theatre. Debra works as a digital food & lifestyle writer and editor; previously she worked as a TV reviewer, PR officer, receptionist, runner, waitress and actress. Debra is interested in writing short stories, flash fiction and prose poetry; her Goldfish submission is a mix of these genres.
So, I was in bed with my then boyfriend; we’d been going out about five months. I didn’t really like the way he treated me but I was younger then.
We got talking about our older sisters and I was doing my usual complaining about the love-hate relationship I had with mine, and that she was a daddy’s girl and I was a mummy’s girl but now that mum was dead where did that leave me? Nobody’s girl. I was digging to be his girl, but he didn’t reply.
So we had sex and then I hoped he’d tell me I was his girl but he didn’t.
We carried on talking about our sisters – his still lived in his hometown in Wales. I asked to see a picture of her and she was blonde and pale, not swarthy like him. She was in her late twenties and had her own salon, which impressed me. She looked friendly and I wondered if I’d ever be part of his family but he didn’t suggest that I would so I bit my lip, took a shaky breath, and hoped that one day he’d want me in his family.
I told him about my sister and how she’d been in a psych ward when she was 15. She’d been the only girl in there that hadn’t been sexually abused, which should have made her feel better off but it didn’t. He laughed at that; it wasn’t an unkind laugh but I don’t think it was a kind one.
I didn’t mention my sister again that night in case he thought that sadness ran in my family, which it did and it does.
After we had sex again, which wasn’t as good because I was unsure, he told me that his dad had an affair. I said that it was good that his parents had resolved it (they were still together). He laughed again and this time I was sure it wasn’t a kind laugh. One Christmas his father’s mistress called his mum, he said. She was probably hoping his mum would kick his dad out, he said. That was a bad Christmas. No kidding, I said, and because it was awful I hugged him and felt closer to him. I was always trying to feel closer to him.
We were quiet for a while then he said that the affair hadn’t actually ended, because it wasn’t so much an affair as a relationship, and his dad had two daughters with this woman and so he had two half-sisters, one of whom was very close in age to him, by a matter of weeks in fact.
All he knew was where they’d grown up; I’m sure he said Swansea but it could have been Swanage. He’d never seen photos of them and he didn’t know their names.
I wondered how his dad could have split his time between two women and two babies. I wondered which family he loved more and why he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give one up. I asked how his mum could have stayed with his dad knowing such a thing and he said he didn’t know. He seemed to have less respect for his mum than his dad.
I kissed him and told him it must have been weird and he said yes it was. He said that when he was at university he was afraid that every girl he kissed might be his half-sister and every woman he’d fancied since.
And I thought that him knowing that I most definitely wasn’t his sister – though we were born two weeks apart – must have made him feel better. But I don’t think it did.
We found a deaf dog. He’s honeycomb speckled and white. He’s small with a tar soap scent. His tail is a ragged kimono sleeve. He’s so keen we’re embarrassed for him.
He comes to us when my husband calls – we’re not aware it’s not sound that draws him over; our open faces maybe, or the vibration of our palms against our thighs. A dogwalker explains; he’s a four-sense hound. Who owns him, we ask. Not sure, he says and leaves us. We look for his owner but the park is dusky and silent so he comes home with us.
We could ask the vet but we can’t face the surgery since we said bye to the cat, another ending too soon after the first. A month ago we saw a psychic. She’s had the gift since childhood. Her mother has it and her mother had it. The psychic’s son is in prison – she predicted this soon after he was born. She saw a girl in a blue dress with blue eyes. Yes! Smiling, surrounded by light. But then the name she gave was not our girl’s, the people around her not people we knew. That girl liked games our girl didn’t play, subjects our girl didn’t like. That’s not our girl, I said to my husband. We won’t find her here.
The priest said grief has turned us inside out. Have faith in God because God has his reasons. God works in mysterious ways. Let’s not go back, my husband said, as we left the church. We won’t find her here.
My husband and I are two sides of the same tree that lightening has split. We are half-dead at the tips, half-alive at the roots. We are seven months on from her, six from the cat. The year stretches out like a vast sea of grief.
We treat him casually, our unforeseen guest. He follows us like a bleached shadow. The chicken he eats, he eats because it’s leftovers; the tennis ball he chews, he chews because her toys were given away. My husband insisted. I fought for the bedroom, which remains untouched for now.
Deaf dog spends three days playing in our neglected garden, two nights sleeping on a blanket in the kitchen. When the house is dark we hear him walking around. He sniffs and scrabbles, stirs up the stillness. There’s life again within our walls. On the second night he pads up the stairs. We hope he’ll come in but he doesn’t, instead he lies by the door and sighs. We can’t sleep for knowing why.
We try not to get used to him. He’s a materialisation, leaving traces but passing through. There are barely enough memories to bother making – his white eyelashes, perhaps, because they’re albino strange, or his strange, high bark. But on the fourth day my husband weakens, and I soon follow. He holds deaf dog and starts to cry. We should have got that puppy for her, he says, and rests his face in fur. I was worried about the smell, I say. I crouch beside them and breathe in the doggish odour I thought would wreck the sofa. And we didn’t want to spoil her, remember?
We let our cheeks be cooled by deaf dog’s cold nose. We follow his bones with our fingers and draw his outline. We will him to permanence, dare be a trio again. We rescued him, I say, now he can rescue us. He didn’t need rescuing, my husband says. He stands up and walks out of the door.
My husband puts posters up. I hope the March weather will tear them down but the owner finds us soon enough. My son is so relieved, she says. He was so upset he’s missed two days of school. I’m sorry to hear that, I say. I don’t ask deaf dog’s name. He goes home later.
“Take your top and bra off, ” said the woman in an ironed-out Essex accent.
Hannah did what was asked of her.
“I’m Julia, but the girls call me House Mother.”
“Do all strip joints have a House Mother?” said Hannah.
“Secrets isn’t a strip joint Hannah, it’s a gentleman’s nightclub.”
Hannah shivered. She was half-naked and the function room above the club was cold.
“You’re an actress?”
“Trying to be.” Hannah caught the House Mother’s look and immediately regretted her pessimism. Not that it wasn’t justified; in castings she was reduced to a type, one of half a dozen girls so alike they could pass for sisters. The rejections had worn her down, blunted her sharp mind. She wasn’t good enough, said one director; she wasn’t good-looking enough, said another; she had potential but wasn’t there yet, said a third, as he stroked the nape of her neck.
Hannah studied the House Mother. She was conservatively dressed in a grey wool skirt and black cardigan, her large ear lobes pierced with pearl studs. She could have been a member of the Women’s Institute if it wasn’t for her nails, which were as red and pointed as a Peckham beautician’s.
“Where have you danced before?” asked the House Mother, without looking over. She kept her eyes down and took a sip from a paper cup.
Hannah recognised the brand and nausea rose in her gut; the drink was from her dad’s favourite coffee chain. Dad, who she’d called on the way to the club then hung up on, knowing it would have been an exchange of certain hurt. He’d grown weary of his daughter’s cries for attention; he hadn’t even visited her in hospital. She supposed he would have said she was adult now and old enough to make her own decisions, old enough to make money how she saw fit. He wasn’t the dad he was a few years ago, the dad who wouldn’t let her wear make-up to the school dance. Nothing could outmaneuver his grief, not even “Are you sure mum would have been ok with it?” would have nudged his paternal concern. She knew this and it hurt her heart. Hannah shielded her marbled breasts. Her mum would have cried to see her like this.
“Where have you danced before?
“Sorry. Podiums in nightclubs, in London and Ibiza.”
“Stand up straight. Let me see you.”
Hannah drew in her stomach, lengthened her spine and lifted her chin. She glanced down but it wasn’t promising – false tan had streaked along her left arm and her breasts looked flat and fleshy, overwhelmed by a tributary of veins and areolae the colour of milky tea. Not pink, not perky, not boobs capable of enticing tenners from pockets.
“You’re a university graduate?“
“Yes,” she said. “But all I’ve done since graduating is cleaning and bar work.”
The House Mother didn’t reply.
“You know, because of the acting.”
Hannah wondered if she could add stripping to her C.V. between ‘contralto singer’ and ‘covers a wide range of accents’.
“I suppose you don’t get many of us,” she said, because she couldn’t quite believe education led her to this.
This annoyed the House Mother. “We get lots of graduates auditioning, one of my girls is doing a Physics Masters,” she replied, her voice scratchy with irritation. She picked up a battered Polaroid camera and pointed the lens at Hannah’s chest. “For our files.”
She’s just taken a photo of my tits, thought Hannah.
The House Mother dragged out the photograph and shook it. “Apparently it doesn’t make a difference shaking it,” Hannah blurted. She pointed awkwardly at the image of her emerging nudity, her headless body. “The photo won’t develop quicker.” A raw pause. “I read it somewhere,” she said, contritely. The House Mother stared at the image, shook it again, walked over to a table and stapled it to a paper file. Then, without saying a word, she walked out of the room.
Hannah was alone. She looked around; the place was as tatty as a student pub and there was a musty hum that reminded her of the village hall back home, that creaky old hut where she’d reached several juvenile milestones – birthday parties, ballet exams, Brownies. Brownies –Hannah felt a lurch of remorse at the memory. The welt she’d left on Amy Douglas’s cheek, the shock on Brown Owl’s face. “We do not hit our fellow Brownies, Hannah,” Brown Owl had said. “She laughed at mum’s wheelchair,” Hannah had said. “That’s by the by,” Brown Owl had said (she was the sort of woman who put order before empathy). And Amy, who stood there rubbing her smacked face, smirking. Amy, whose childhood bitchiness was almost as legendary as her teenage promiscuity. It was an irony not lost on Hannah that the girl she loathed most was now a legal secretary with her own flat and she – the promising drama student that escaped to study in the capital – was auditioning to be a stripper.
“So much for coming to London to seek my fortune,” she said, louder than she meant.
The House Mother returned without a greeting.
“Ready to dance?” she said.
“No, downstairs, there are only a few guests in at the moment.”
“In front of them, not you?”
“It’s not me you’re trying to impress. You won’t be paid for this but I’ll know whether to hire you or not. There’s no need to go fully nude today. Have you brought a G-string?”
Hannah nodded. A dull buzz began in her skull; a migraine alarm.
“Come on, I think they’ll like you.”
It was the most encouragement Hannah had heard in a while. She gathered her things and followed down a steep staircase. The walls were plastered in peeling posters promoting boxing fights and gentlemen-only events and there was a pervasive odour of hops and sweat. On the ground floor the House Mother steered Hannah into a dressing room where a cluster of semi-clad girls ignored her except for a blonde in a slashed t-shirt and pink knickers who glanced up from cigarette she was smoking.
The space was cramped and bright with a single metal clothes rail and bar stools draped in underwear. Cigarette burns had destroyed the purple flowered carpet and worktops were littered with make-up and cans of Elnett hairspray. The magnolia walls were bare except for a photocopied rota and dog-eared mini cab card and there was a solitary floor-length mirror dominated by a black girl inspecting her bikini line.
“This is Hannah,” said the House Mother. “She’s auditioning in 20.”
Hannah smiled. No one smiled back.
“I’ll show you the ropes,” said a short, curvy girl dressed in a red rubber dress and a candyfloss pink wig. “Where’s your outfit?” Hannah reached into her bag and pulled out the scanty contents. She felt unprepared and underequipped; the girls were wearing 6” stilettos, peephole dresses, suspenders and waist cinchers. “I have this?” she said, doubtfully. She took out a sheer black slip. “And I’ve got a G-string?”
The pink-haired girl leaned in. Her eyes were swathed in glittery silver eyeshadow but her cheeks were farmhand ruddy. She looked younger than Hannah, a teenager. “This is fine,” she grinned and Hannah wanted to hug her for it. “It’s so easy to make money here,” she whispered conspiratorially, as if the others hadn’t cottoned on. “I’ve just started and I love it. I’m Charlotte but I’m Carly here. What’s your name going to be?” she said without asking Hannah’s real name. “Are you a dancer? I’m studying fine art. I’m going to be a painter. My dad’s a painter, he’s called –––.” (Hannah didn’t catch his name). “You’ve probably heard of him.” (She hadn’t.) “He’s a twat but I love him.”
Hannah changed, abhorring her own nerve. Carly carried on talking – she was dancing to pay for art school, she said; she’d be debt-free, wasn’t that fucking great? You can be too, she said, that’s if you don’t stuff it all up your nose, ha ha. Hannah only half-listened; she was still trying to convince herself that this was just a job, a means to fund her acting, and her resolve troubled her.
“You need a name. You look like a Crystal. How about Crystal?” said Carly.
“She can’t be Crystal,” said the smoking girl in a strong Liverpudlian accent. “Crystal’s almost finished rehab, she’s coming back.”
“Domino?” suggested Carly.
“I had a cat called Domino.”
“It was run over.”
“She can have Violet,” said the smoking girl. “She’s definitely quit.”
“Violet, then,” said Carly with the cheerfulness of a head girl. “Right, come here, you look too natural.” She pinched Hannah’s chin and smeared her lips with magenta.
Hannah walked over to the now-vacant space in front of the mirror and stared at her reflection. It was the same blue eyes, olive skin and dark hair but she didn’t recognise herself. Since her breakdown she’d lived on her nerves, shadowed by a sense that she hadn’t been put back together properly.
“Come on,” said Carly and she grabbed Hannah’s wrist and marched her through the dressing room door, talking as she went. “You don’t have to dance naked today. You do know it’s fully nude here? Only a few clubs in London do it. Great isn’t it. It’s not scary, it’s just a fanny. They’re not allowed to touch though we’ll see about that,” and she rubbed her thumb and two fingers together. “Money,” she mouthed.
The girls walked down a dingy corridor towards a door that opened as they approached. A tall, slender redhead stepped through, nude apart from heels. Hannah felt small and ridiculous; she’d had nightmares like this, walking in public in her underwear, weak-limbed and mute.
“You’ve only got a couple of minutes,” said Carly in a low voice. “Just strip slowly, but not too slowly. Use the pole, get on the floor if you want. Improvise. Those blokes are getting a freebie, they’ll be happy whatever.” Hannah caught a hint of Carly’s West Country accent and pictured her pulling pints in a Somerset pub. She wondered if Carly felt like she did, that going home wasn’t an option.
The House Mother appeared and told Hannah the name of the song she’d be dancing to. MJ Cole’s Sincere. Did she know it? Yes? Good. She opened the stage door. Hannah didn’t move – the floor spotlights dazzled and smoke dried her throat. Undeterred, the House Mother took Hannah’s hands and spoke a few soothing words, like a mother reassuring her daughter on her wedding day: ‘”Everyone will be looking at you. You look great. Enjoy it.” Hannah nodded and egged on by Carly’s “It’s a freaking thrill” she walked to the back of the low stage, yawning with anxiety.
The stage took up the corner of a dimly lit room dotted with black velvet chairs and small tables. A few were occupied. Scarlet booths lined the left wall. At the back a dancer leaned against the bar and flirted with a middle-aged man. Hannah turned away from the audience and waited for the song to start.
Let’s take a ride, on the wild side.
Hannah started to move her hips and shoulders.
Just look what he’s done for me. My eyes are on you. So special.
She lifted her arms above her head, ran her right hand down her left arm, and looked over her right shoulder. Everyone was watching her.
Just look what he’s done for me. Baby. My eyes are on you. Feelings.
With her back still to the men Hannah danced. She lifted her black slip slowly and, to her surprise, removed it with ease. She moved her hips in time to the song then she turned, walked to the pole, and grasped it. She’d never used a pole before but instinctively placed a flushed cheek to the cool metal and slid down the pole. Then up again. She moved to the other side. Down. Up.
Don’t do it. Be sincere. I’m crazy.
Don’t do it. Be sincere. Be sincere.
Hannah put her back to the pole, lifted her arms and held on. She gyrated then turned and leaned away from the pole so her hair trailed down her back. Her hands were clammy and she worried that she’d lose her grip so she brought her body to the pole, locked onto it with the hook of her right knee, and spun gently.
Caress me. I want you tonight. I love you.
Hannah sauntered to the front of the stage. Was she sexy enough? She daren’t disappoint. Using her hands to part her knees she crouched and looked up, mouth partly open, eyes partly closed. She was on the same level as the laps of two young men in suits and ties, not the dirty old men she’d pictured. She smiled, lay on the floor and arched her back, then sat up on her knees with her back to the room and started to remove her bra – the right strap fell from her shoulder, then the left. She reached round to unhook the clasp, relieved that the false French nails didn’t prevent her. She removed the bra, uncurled her arm and nonchalantly dropped the garment then she cupped her breasts, stood up, reached her arms above her head, turned and danced languidly. Eyes closed. Mouth turned up in a slight smile.
The song ended. There was a spattering of claps. Hannah opened her eyes, disorientated, as if she’d come round from a hypnotist’s trick. She felt shaky and sick. The House Mother motioned to pick up the bra. Hannah complied and walked off stage, in shock and awe at what she’d just done. She felt powerful, sexy, ashamed. The claps continued until she’d left.
She couldn’t resist turning back – out of curiosity, fear or approval? She wasn’t sure. The men looked normal. Some were chatting; others were checking their phones. No one seemed to be masturbating, a place far more fitting for it than the Tube, thought Hannah. As far she could tell the men had just watched. She felt appreciated. Moreover, she couldn’t quite believe how easy it had been.
“Well done, you’ve got the job,” said the House Mother. She smiled at Hannah for the first time. “Happy?”
“Yes, thank you House Mother.”
But her gut told her otherwise; getting a job wasn’t the same as wanting it. She hadn’t been rejected again, at least.
“I’ll show you around the club,” said the House Mother. She took Hannah’s hand and led her to a table. “You’re Violet now, yes? Say hello to Violet, gentlemen,” she said, politely refusing one man’s offer to put Hannah on his lap; he took it in good humour and settled on cupping Hannah’s bottom instead. Another, a Sikh in a blue suit, shook her hand vigorously as if they’d just concluded a successful business meeting. Hannah nodded, smiled but stayed silent.
There was no sense of time at the club. Hannah wasn’t sure if she was required to stay and not knowing felt like a trap. The kick she’d got from dancing was starting to feel like a bruise. She was tired but stood at the bar drinking warm champagne with Carly anyway, liking her less and less. Carly talked but never asked, and her confidence was grating. When the barman gave Hannah a shot of tequila, touching her hand as she reached for it and proffering a wink and an “Anytime” her reaction was “I have to go” and though she wasn’t late for anything she handed Carly her glass, dressed quickly in the corridor rather than face the girls in the dressing room, and left through a fire exit onto a dark, damp side street.
Hannah walked to the station, glancing over her shoulder so frequently it was as if she’d developed a tic. She hadn’t said goodbye to the House Mother and was anxious she’d be followed by her or, worse, by a guest. But she also felt bracingly alive, like she’d escaped a killer’s basement. The dance had raised a devil in her, empowering but disturbing, so she was relieved to reach the sharp, clean light of the Underground station. Worried that she was still overly made-up she checked her face in the mirror of a passport photo booth and what she saw shocked her; she looked like a branded woman.
Hannah boarded a train heading east. The air was heavy and hot causing travellers to wipe their foreheads and remove their coats, but she kept hers on and sat very still. She thought about her friends with their office jobs and their boyfriends with office jobs; their mundane lives appealed now. The same friends who had said she wasn’t strong enough to do it, but she couldn’t be told. She’d believed they envied her audacity. Now she saw that they knew better.
She wasn’t a stripper, she was an actress, yet that desire had recoiled – repelled by the lengths she’d been willing to go to. She’d gorged on a glut of attention and didn’t want to be noticed again. She’d had her fill.
Outside Streatham Hill station Hannah threw her slip and G-string in a bin and deleted Carly’s number. She began to mock the House Mother who’d hired her, who’d welcomed her into the family, who’d hugged her as she left. “Some Mother!” she shouted at the night. “Some fucking Mother.”
She wasn’t going back. She’d convince her friends she’d never been serious about the job and she’d stick to that story until she believed it herself. Eventually, it wouldn’t be mentioned and they would forget and she would just have to carry it around like the guilt of an affair. Something thrilling, something shameful. No, she wasn’t going back.
It’s a prop of great expectations, that old oilskin coat of his. Not touched since I hung it up, a year ago in June. The shoulders are shrouded by marl grey dust; without him it sags, bodiless. Still, I won’t put it away, though it catches my eye when I enter the room, tugs at my guts. It’s an elephant undiscussed.
It’s a relic of our last day. Dad wore it to the Cutty Sark. He was his usual self, joking away. In a gallery beneath the ship’s raised hull stood a group of figureheads like a choir. Their features were stuck. They were so unlike us. We were animated, warm to touch. It felt like we would always be, as we drank tea, as we talked too much, laughing and tripping over words.
A weekend wasn’t enough. I begrudged the train that would take him away. At lunch I was cross so I made him pay. Put that pension to use, I said, it’s index-linked. I’m still your kid, I want to be fed. I thought right then that I’d crossed a line. He was my guest this time. But he didn’t mind.
See you soon, he said, early next day. Me, half awake, melatonin-drugged. Glad you woke me, pops, I said, and smiled. I’d been awake ‘til one, anxious that he’d let me sleep on, ignore my appeal for a wake-up call. A mother now but still his child, I needed him as I always did. It was dawn when I gave him a kiss; a bear hug his response.
Five days later his heart betrayed him. Betrayed us all. Five days later he was gone. We rushed up north but disease had won. When I next saw his face it was painted on, as rouged and lifeless as the figurehead ones. When the other mourners left the room I kissed his cool and waxy head. I touched his hand then quietly said, no more storms for you now, dad.