Walking into Smuggler’s Rest was walking into a haze of smoke, bad body odours, the acrid smell of frying chips and burning meat. Adjusting my eyes to the gloom, I could make out a bleached blond behind the reception desk and the huge hulk of a bald bouncer standing just behind her. Before I could slap a few rand on the counter, the hulk spoke:
‘Well, fuck me the Warlocks are on the loose. Howzit Mikey!’
I looked up, surprised:
‘Jeez, Crome Dome. I wondered what had happened to you. What the hell are you doing here?’
‘What does it look like, you doos... I’m working here.’ He brushed his bald pate and put on a posh voice which conflicted sharply with his pockmarked face, crooked nose, cauliflower ears and bulldog neck.
‘I am in charge of security for this establishment, old bean. I’ve been here a few weeks. I get double what The Laguna paid. Mind you I need it – it’s a bit more interesting, if you know what I mean.’
He tapped the broken nose and smiled. I smiled back. This was a guy you didn’t mess with. I once saw him remove two drunken rugby-playing types from The Ship at the same time. He simply grabbed them by their collars – one in each hand – and carried them, legs dangling, through the club to the reception area. Then he placed each of them into a glass division of the swing door and swung the door so hard that they were projected across the veranda, both landing head-first in a row of cactus plants lining the edge of the pavement.
But Chrome Dome – or Norman, if you wanted to call him by his proper name – was one of the good guys and the epitome of a gentle giant if you showed him the respect he deserved. He sorted most hassles out with a tap on the shoulder and a quiet word, was always polite – especially with the girls – and didn’t mind people taking the mickey out of his size, pugnacious features or the hairless pate. In fact, he thrived on it and used to love it when Dave introduced him to the audience by shining a handheld spotlight on his head and yelling:
‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, shining like a lighthouse in a storm, a beacon in the dark, the light side of the moon or a glow stick up your arse... it’s the one and only: Chrome Dome!’
Playing along with the joke, Norman would then take a bow as we dimmed the house lights whilst keeping the spotlight on his bruised, battered and cratered cranium. Sometimes Moose would then run off the stage and proceed to administer a few blows to the bouncer’s head with a comedy oversized blow-up hammer. (Of course, rather typically, Moose had to go too far and once used a real hammer, which was the closest I’ve ever seen to Chrome Dome losing his temper with us.)
‘So what brings you to this dump, Mikey. I didn’t think that this was your type of place.’
I thought quickly.
‘Well, you know, you hear so much about Point Road. Thought I’d check it out for myself. Besides, you do food here, don’t you?’
‘If you can call it that.’ Chrome Dome threw his beady eyes to the sky. ‘Avoid the steak and kidney pies. An oke in here found a cockroach in one last week – one of them big bastards you can surf on. But the curry’s normally okay. It’s beef today – had one myself.’
I held out a few notes:
‘So what’s the damage then? I’m sure the ladies don’t come free.’
Chrome Dome laid a huge hand on the receptionist’s back and pushed the notes back across the counter.
‘Have one on me, my friend. Just give him a stamp, Moira.’
I held out my wrist and Moira branded me with a purple and blurry: Smuggler’s Rest: Admit One. And I hoped – for the sakes of at least half the men inside returning to their wives and girlfriends – that this tell-tale branding washed off without too much of a problem. Chrome Dome pulled back a red velvet curtain and waved a hand in front of his nose.
‘Smoky bastards,’ he shouted as a blast of music struck up from somewhere inside the club. ‘And why does the smokiest bastard of them all always have to sit at the back table, right next to the fuckin’ entrance.’ He glared at the back of a head just inside the club before turning back to usher me in. ‘Go on then, Mikey. The ladies are waiting.’
But I had frozen just a step before the curtain and was staring at the large glass-encased board which took up nearly the entire wall facing the entrance counter. Three red-tinted spotlights shone on an array of photographs – most of them eight by ten inches in size and all of them of provocatively dressed girls in various stages of undress. A letter board – white letters on black felt – advertised the afternoon’s entertainment:
Goldie: our very own Bond girl – shaking it up and very, very stirred; Sarah and Sasha: the lesbian twins – say no more; Big Momma: big girls can have fun too; Snaky Jane: let Jane and her friend slither onto your lap; and everyone’s favourite, the gorgeous Destiny – she’ll make all your dreams come true.
An extra-large photograph was placed under Destiny’s name. It showed her sitting on a low wooden stool, leaning forward and looking straight into the camera; her long legs spread open and her hands resting on her knees. Dressed in a short black leather dress, high stiletto mules with her long dark hair flowing forward over partially exposed breasts she looked incredibly sexy, available and almost childishly vulnerable at the same time. And yet, in spite of the perfect body, the stunning face, the dark make-up and bright red lipstick, it was still the eyes that drew me in. These eyes which before had seemed to cry out: protect me, hide me and runaway with me. These eyes that seemed to say: make me safe and I’ll be yours forever. Eyes which had once belonged to my very own ballerina – the girl who danced for me under the neon lights of the Fairhaven Hotel, her body moving gracefully to the tune of Durban’s rolling waves. Here, in stark contrast to the nervous girl lying next to the folded white dress on my Sealand’s apartment bed, her body unwrapped and willing. Here, in a cheap display for everyone to see. Here she was: my beautiful Emily.
* * * * * * * * * *
Finding a table through the haze of dark corners, cramped bodies and bad breath proved trickier than I’d imagined. Luckily, I eventually found a small bar in a dingy corner which allowed me to share a leaning spot with a few sailor-types who looked like they’d fallen off a Chinese-registered ship. I kept a wary eye on them but they didn’t take much notice of me, spending most of their time ogling the stage or glaring threateningly at a table of loud German sailors. The Germans stared back, occasionally giving them the middle finger and now and again using their index fingers to tug their eyes into squinty-eyed insults.
I nursed a beer for a few minutes and was relieved when a middle-aged guy in a grubby suit vacated a table near the stage and I was able to plonk myself into his warm seat. I pushed the remnants of his burger and chips away from me and cleared a path through the empty glasses and overflowing ashtray.
I suppose that part of me wanted to be near the stage and close to the action, but this does put you in the firing line. I was lucky with Big Momma who was just finishing off her bit as I sat down, escaping the attentions of her enormous squelchy arse and the tendency to throw her flowing see-though skirt over unsuspecting punters’ faces. One guy had already cast his fish and chips lunch to one side in protest. Another painfully thin guy who’d taken her entire weight was now looking decidedly green and I wondered if he’d ever walk again. Big Momma, however, had her fans and exited the stage to an enormous cheer from the German table as a black stagehand appeared to remove a broken chair, a cucumber, a circus-sized tent of a dress and some size ten stilettos.
But Big Momma’s body odours – or the lack of them – would in my case, have been a thousand times more preferable to the next act. A short-arsed compere with bad teeth and a grubby white suit took centre stage to announce:
‘Once again we welcome to Smuggler’s Rest the most sss…sensous and sss…saucy lady in town.”
Snaky Jane surprised us all by entering from the back of the club and making her way through the tables towards the stage. By the time I’d turned my head to catch her entrance; she and her co-performer were nearly on me. Jane wore a tight-fitting catsuit in black, white and orange snakeskin print, chunky boots and had about ten bleached-blond braids falling from her skull like serpents crawling off a Gorgon’s head. My attention, however, was completely focused on her co-performer: a massive yellow and black python which dangled from her neck nearly touching the floor. I took one look, went cold and nearly threw my beer up there and then.
Now, I simply don’t do snakes. Don’t get me wrong, I love most wildlife; have stroked an elephant’s trunk and a cheetah’s neck; have fed ostriches from my hand and patted and bottle-fed baby Lions. I’ve watched and been close to buffalo, rhino, hippopotamuses and leopards from the safety of a car and am laid-back enough to ignore most spiders, lizards and flying creatures that flutter and dart around in my bedroom at night. But snakes – they terrify me.
Of course, like a heat-seeking missile, Jane and her slimy friend came straight for me. I froze for just a few seconds, allowing myself a look into the beady eyes of my worst nightmare before – to the amusement of the crowd – I was off my seat and running for the safety of the corner bar and the Chinese sailors.
‘You no like-ee snake,’ mocked the nearest oriental.
‘You’d probably eat the bastard,’ I retorted, my face turning a brighter shade of pink.
But after a few deep breaths I began regretting my remark and kept a close eye on the pock-faced moron and his triad-like acquaintances, hoping they didn’t decide to go all Bruce Lee on me.
I stayed at the bar for the whole of Jane’s act, only returning to my table after she was down to her G-string and had abandoned the python to a stagehand.
Sarah and Sasha did their lesbian thing next, but stuck mainly to the stage – which suited me nicely as the curry and rice I’d ordered earlier had finally arrived. It didn’t taste too bad either, but was a hot one which dried my throat out even more than the cigarette, cigar and pipe haze surrounding me. By now an Indian waiter had attached himself to my table, smiling gratefully as I tipped him generously every time he brought me a double round. By the time Goldie appeared in her spandex outfit which was gradually peeled off to reveal a gold-painted body, I had polished off five beers and had a further two on order. Hoping that we’d seen the last of the reptiles and were down to nothing more dangerous than a fire-eating act, I sat back in my seat tried to make myself relax.
Part of me, I suppose, still didn’t want to believe the evidence of my own eyes and ears. I could still hear Eddie’s bitter words:
‘If you don’t believe me, Mikey, go there tomorrow and see for yourself. Then come and tell me that you still love her.’
These turned out to be his final words to me. I’d heard enough; I’d stood up, kicked the cushions to one side and stormed out of room 1212, giving his door a violent slam for good measure and yelling:
‘So why don’t you try sitting on the chairs, you stupid hippy bastard? Or why don’t you fly out of the window, like you said!’
But I doubt that he heard me through the closed door or above the final chords of ‘Slim Slow Slider’ which followed me back down the corridor as I stumbled back to my flat.
And even now, a day later, the shock of seeing her up on the poster still hadn’t really done the trick. It still felt unreal – like a bad dream, a joke or some kind of wind-up. I still had that distance that you have before you see things with your own eyes.
The waiter returned and placed another two beers on the table just as yet another big band show tune blasted out from the speakers. If there was one thing today’s excursion was teaching me, it was that Shirley Bassey songs really appeal to the exotic dance fraternity. Big Momma had paradoxically gone for ‘I (Who have nothing)’ and ‘I am what I am’ and the lesbian twins had managed to extract a disturbingly sensual slant to the lyrics of ‘Never, Never, Never’ as they twisted and gyrated to its flowing beat. Goldie made the absolute best of her James Bond connotations, revealing as much as was legally allowed in the late 1970s to the tunes of ‘Goldfinger’ and ‘Diamonds are Forever’. The drama and showy nature of ‘Goldfinger’ actually worked very well with the act, creating quite an artistic and surreal moment when Goldie laid her gold-painted body on the floor, playing dead in a pose mimicking the demise of Bond girl, Jill Masterson.
‘Big Spender’, however, was kept for the final act of the afternoon: Destiny. And it was pretty obvious that she was the star of the show. I could tell by the short-arsed compere’s drawn-out and excitable build-up. There was also a kind of restlessness and expectation in crowd – men were adjusting their seats, making sure that their glasses were full and nipping to the toilet before the act started. I got the feeling that many had seen her before. Perhaps a few had only seen her picture on the way in – but that was enough. Even the Germans had gone quiet and the Chinese now seemed to be watching the stage more than the Germans. All were ready; all were waiting.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ announced short-arse flicking some ash off the white suit. ‘Smuggler’s Rest is proud to bring you Durban’s sexiest and most stunningly beautiful woman. She’s the woman we dream of, the woman that we all want to possess. Could she be your future? Could she be your fate? Gentlemen... I ask you now... are you ready, to face your... destiny.’
I choked down half a beer in one go, partly in amusement at the compere’s words and partly in trepidation of what I was about to see. Looking up, I watched as the stage filled with smoke. A single red spotlight faded up to highlight a low stool covered in black leather. The trombone and drum introduction of ‘Big Spender’ struck up and now I could see a figure sitting cross-legged on the stool.
She was dressed in a long black leather cape which covered her entire body. For the first few seconds, nothing happened as she stared directly at the audience. Then slowly, she rose from the stool and moved her hands to the front of the cape. Holding that pose, she smiled and nodded as the trombones and drums repeated their opening pattern – and then repeated it again. Everything about it said: you will wait until I’m ready.
I suppose I was expecting the black leather mini dress of the foyer picture or something similar. Perhaps even a direct cut to semi-nudity – although judging by the slow pace of this introduction, I doubted it. But the tone of the club seemed pretty obvious – the dirty pouts and winks of the lesbian sisters and the wandering hands and parting legs of Goldie cried out rude and crude. So I was completely taken by surprise when ‘Big Spender’ suddenly ended before Shirley Bassey even had a chance to open her mouth. It was replaced by the lush strings and haunting female voice of a piece of music I knew well: Ennio Morricone’s love theme to ‘Once Upon a Time in the West.’ And then I was in for an even bigger surprise when Emily finally opened and dropped the cape to the ground. There was no black leather, and there was no nudity either. Instead she stepped forward in an elegant white dress and clear platform shoes. The same outfit she had worn the night we had spent together. Our night.
My hands tightened around the beer glass. I felt like throwing it at something or smashing it onto my table. Before my eyes I watched my ballerina – the girl who had danced for me and for me alone – as she seemed to mock and laugh at everything that had felt so right just a few weeks before. The sand, sea and stage of The Little Top were replaced by the smoke of this claustrophobic shit-hole. The beauty, mystery and playful lights from the Fairhaven Hotel were replaced by the stark red spotlight and a sea of hard washed-out faces that paid their money and took their pleasure. And now the room seemed to spinning, nothing seemed real. I thought I saw one of the Chinese men grin obscenely at me, then a German laugh and roll his tongue along his top lip. Just behind me, a man in a dusty brown suit resentfully returned my stare as his hand moved drunkenly to his crotch.
Then I felt a hand on my shoulder. While my eyes had been watching the crowd, Emily had moved down the stairs at the front of the stage and now stood next to me. She raised a leg and stepped gracefully over my body until she was straddling me, hemming me in. Then, leaning forward, she slowly brought her mouth to my ear. Somebody in the crowd whistled and a few clapped.
‘Go home, Mikey,’ she said her voice forced and tight. ‘You don’t belong here. Now go home... please.’
And suddenly I was getting unsteadily to my feet, my glass crashing to the floor as the table tipped sideways and the chair fell onto its back. Something felt wrong with my face. I touched my cheek to feel wetness. I sensed Emily move away towards the stage and could see the huge figure of Chrome Dome standing at the back, watching me approach the exit.
Hard faces stared at me as I went past. Wicked smiles, nasty gestures and some looks of puzzlement. I rubbed the tears from the side of my face and kept my eyes focused on the exit door. The smoke seemed to be getting worse; closing in, choking me. The smell was overbearing: cigarettes, pipes, cigars and even what smelt like marijuana. I kept going, just one thought in my mind: get out. Get out of this place before I go completely mad. I’d reached the back of the room when my foot caught the side of a chair and I stumbled forward. I grabbed blindly at stale air, desperately trying to stop myself falling. My hand found a table and I pushed backwards and managed to stop the momentum. My eyes were level with the guy sitting at this table.
He didn’t see me; didn’t even bother to look remotely in my direction. His eyes were focused ahead. They were watching Emily. Leaning against the back wall he stared mesmerised at the stage. And the look in his eyes was something incredible; something I would never have believed if I hadn’t seen it for myself. It was a look of pure desire. And it was a look of possession, control and pride.
He removed the cigar from his lips and blew a huge cloud of smoke right across the table. I rubbed my eyes and remembered Chrome Dome’s comment on the way in:
‘And why does the smokiest bastard of them all always have to sit right next to the fuckin’ entrance.’
I pulled myself to my feet and took one more look at him before pushing my way through the red velvet curtains. There was no doubting it. It was Cliff: Emily’s stepfather.
* * * * * * * * * *
[A run-down building on Point Road in Durban near the city end. More recently, the harbour end of the road - now named Mahatma Gandhi Road - has been developed into some modern apartment blocks.]
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