Jen’s Conversations – The Therapist April 1992
There I am, with my back to the wall and Neil (the latest of mum’s lovers) keeps coming closer with his arms outstretched. His smile is sickly. He looks phoney, like a Yank. His hair’s too neat and his teeth are too straight. He has no character in his face.
And Neil’s way of dealing with conflict? Hugs. Creepy, over-affectionate hugs.
Anyway, sometimes that still happens in dreams. I mean, finding myself up against a wall with Neil creeping across the bedroom towards me (which is strange because I suppose it should be Jona, my step-dad). Then usually I scream and that wakes me up. Or sometimes I wake up punching the duvet off me. By then it’s not Neil or Jona I’m fighting but a swarm of faceless shapes.
Neil turned up when I was 13 years old, a couple of years before I ran away from home. He somehow managed to stray into the chaotic world that encircles my mother and, like all the rest, it took him a long time to find his way out again. Why he ended up with us, in Sheffield, I couldn’t fathom. By all accounts he had commitments in London – business interests. He was one of those hippy entrepreneurs, like a small-time Richard Branson. Surely there were better offers for him elsewhere?
But I guess my mother has attractions of her own. And they have proved irresistible for whichever man has been in her sights at any given time. She has her own sort of glamour. She used to be a party-girl of the drugged-up, free love seventies and then she brought me up in a bawdy country house in the south Peaks. Apparently, she achieved her minor notoriety by being Keith Moon’s groupie of choice for two weeks during The Who‘s ramshackle UK tour in ’73. At least that’s how she described it to me – ramshackle. She said fights had even broken out on stage. It would be typical somehow that with my mother involved, even a professional rock tour could turn out chaotic.
All she would ever tell me about my dad was that he was little and gifted and he had black hair. But he was dead now, like Keith Moon.
When I worked out that I would have been six months old when mum was having her heyday as a groupie, I asked her if I’d been touring with The Who as well. She told me she left me back at home in Manchester with her boyfriend. He was kind and understanding, she explained, probably the best of the lot.
So yep, I suppose you could add the fact that I was bottle fed to your list of my childhood fuck-ups.
“Jennifer! Jennifer!” She can still hear her mother’s voice calling up the stairs. She hears it as sharply as the conductor’s bell. It stirs her from a doze she’d fallen into while the bus was sitting in traffic.
She straightens herself up and rubs mist from the window. The bus has reached as far as the Spreadeagle strip joint at Shoreditch railway bridge. Usually she would have jumped off a couple of stops back and walked to work along the canal. It’s too late for that now so what the hell. She doesn’t really care.
Instead, she’s trying to come up with a plan. She and Blake will have to move the day after tomorrow and it seems like an opportunity to make some changes in the rest of her life too. For a start off, this situation at work needs to change. It has been the cause of so much grief, things can’t go on like this any longer.
Tonight’s the night to put an end to it. But she can’t face going straight in, instead she decides to stay on the bus until London Bridge and then go for a walk along the river.
Another thing about my mother – home was always a mess. We had a big kitchen with a stone floor and an Aga stove no-one could use properly, and there was always piles of dirty dishes and books and musical instruments lying about the place.
Visitors would come and go. The house always had guests. At first I thought they were my aunts and uncles, I guess my mum would have told me that, but obviously they were party guests, hangers-on and lodgers. I lost count of how many times I was introduced to mum’s new lover.
She married twice. First time to a fucked-up biker called Holly. And after that to Jona, who was a sort of trust fund folk singer. They were both short, ill-fated affairs. Especially so when it came to Jona.
He arrived just before Neil, but it was enough time for my mother to move him in and get married. They met tripping at a festival. I don’t think they came down until after the honeymoon. By which time Jona was already casting about for his next piece of action. I was thirteen years old at the time.
Don’t get me wrong, I was no saint. Being my mum’s girl, I had seen plenty and tried more than some people would all their lives. Even at the tender age of thirteen. But getting the sleazy come-on from my new step-father was way over the top. Once it happened in the car. He slithered about groping me in the passenger seat until he hit his knee on the handbrake.
And there was one other time when he backed me into the bathroom. That was when I screamed the house down and someone called the police. Then the story broke in the local newspaper – after the incident was brought up in a court case relating to my mother’s fitness to look after a child.
Anyway, he didn’t get to do anything. At the time I just screamed and it felt good. He backed away and I kept on screaming.
I hadn’t planned on causing a problem for my mum. It was during the days and weeks to follow that Neil came into his own, as far as she was concerned. Now that I think about it, he must have been Jona’s friend. But while Jona vanished into thin air, Neil stayed and was a pillar of strength. That’s probably what kept me from going into care.
But it wasn’t my fault she was dragged in by the law. Not totally anyway. It was the fact that when they turned up because of my screaming episode, they found enough of suspicion to make the arrest. Amongst the mess they found drugs, drug accessories, pornographic material and other items unsuitable for minors. They also found my ‘aunts and uncles’ involved in all sorts of action in a couple of bedrooms and out around the rambling gardens of the house.
Jen thinks about Blake as the bus window mists over again. She thinks about the fact that they only have one day left to find somewhere to live. There’s little choice but to go for a bedsit, as a short term solution. She always knew it would be difficult finding a place for two. Moving solo would probably be a lot easier.
But she can’t imagine life without Blake right now. He’s the only person that has accepted her completely as she is. She would rather live on the street than take a single room and lose that connection with him.
“I see you’re rolling your own cigarette,” says a shambolic old man taking the seat next to her. He smells of stale sweat and piss.
“Yep, Golden Virginia,” Jen says without thinking.
“I used to roll my own too,” says the old man. “But that was before they gave me implants.”
“What?” Jen raises her voice. “You had implants to stop you from smoking?”
“No, no, no,” the old man shakes his head as if he’s talking to an imbecile. He leans in uncomfortably close.
“Government agents captured me and took me to a lab somewhere outside London,” he whispers. “They control my mind now.”
“Oh!” shouts Jen, rubbing the window with her sleeve. “It was the Government that brainwashed you, was it!” Heads are turning along the aisle.
“Shhh!” The old man looks anxiously about and creeps away to an empty seat.
“Liverpool Street Station!” comes the shout from the conductor. Jen is zipping up her jacket and rubbing at the window even more. She could do without being distracted by a nutter right now.
“I swear you’ll all regret it!” The old man has suddenly leapt to his feet and is gesturing with his hands. “I tell you, government agents are trying to control our brains – they want to take away our memories and our vocabulary, and our…” at which point the conductor arrives on the scene. He’s a Rastafarian who gives the ranter a doleful look, enough to bring the speech to a halt.
Jen is disappointed. Since the old man began proclaiming to all she’d been finding it interesting.
“And what else are they taking away?” she asks when the conductor returns to his cubby-hole downstairs. The old man looks her in the eyes and doesn’t blink.
“They’ll take away our meeting places.” he says spitting. “They want to isolate us – and by doing so, they can control us.”
Jen didn’t say anything but held his stare.
“They’re working on ways to put an implant in everybody’s head.” He whispers this, leaning towards her in his seat.
I’d just turned fifteen when I decided to run away to London. The time that passed since the scene with Jona had changed my mother. She was drunk and stoned most of the time. She let some hippies live for free in her house and eventually she bought a converted bus off one of them and decided to hit the road.
It’s a surprise, with retrospect, that I stuck it out with her so long before packing my bags. But it was Jona reappearing at a traveller site in Gloucestershire, and inveigling his way back into our lives, that made my mind up for me.
And London? Well, it’s been easy. Easy, that is, until I ran into Neil again. Who would have believed it?
We didn’t see him at all during my year on the road. He tried to talk my mother out of her life change. He could see she was heading off the rails.
He was the last person I expected to end up in this situation with, over four years later.
My friend Jessie recommended a place called Little Prayer – a cool vegetarian restaurant that was a hang out for artists and musicians. That’s how she described it anyway. It was a good place to work, busy but a good laugh, and the boss could pull a few strings (although it seems the only strings being pulled now are the ones on my arms and legs).
Jessie meant well, I’m sure. Perhaps when she worked there, five or six years back, it was Little Prayer’s heyday. But when I turned up for my first shift, it was more like a room full of city boys snorting charlie.
There’s plenty of cash thrown around in a private dining room out back, and the atmosphere crawls with deals and favours. And in amongst it all, there’ll be me and an even younger kid – sometimes a girl, sometimes a boy – teetering about in the outrageous costumes we are made to wear. I’m not sure where Neil finds the rest of them but they’re usually new in town and everyone refers to them as the Runaways.
Prior to Little Prayer I earned money doing whatever I could – from busking to street surveys and I even tried my hand at some art school modelling. Maybe that’s where I set a trap for myself.
And that’s how I’ve felt, for months and months, caged up like an animal.
When I turned up for the interview, it all seemed fairly normal. Tougher than I expected, I have to admit – I sat on one side of a table, a man and a woman on the other. They each took turns asking me questions. Some were weird – (What’s your understanding of organic farming? Have you ever had a veggie Tagine?), some were way out of the blue – (Would you consider yourself a prude? Are you willing to role-play in your job – say, goth one night and schoolmistress the next?).
When I reacted to the question about prudishness, the woman peered at me over her glasses. Her lipstick was dark red and perfectly applied.
“We have some bawdy gents amongst our clientele,” she said.
The interview lasted all of ten minutes. At its end I stood up and straightened my skirt, rubbing the palms of my hands dry at the same time. I offered them both a handshake. I didn’t think much of it, I was sure I’d failed. Little did I realise that not only would I get the job, but I had been secretly observed during my interview. And that the man interviewing me wasn’t the boss, but the boss was actually in his office watching the whole scene on a CCTV monitor.
And who would have thought that I’d be telling you all this?
But I feel I can trust you. After all, I’ve told you so much already.
It’s just a short skip down the steps from London Bridge into Borough Market and along a pathway through tall, empty cages that by day would spill with produce but at night became Hammer Horror. Jen enjoys the shiver up her spine, although in turn she quickens her walking pace. Her boot steps echo along the cobbles of Clink Street until she reaches the Anchor Tavern.
It’s a high tide and the river churns and screws just a few feet below as she hangs over the railing, smoking a cigarette. The lamps outside the pub are glowing orange in the riverside murk. There isn’t a soul around.
Just beyond the Anchor is a building site where someone is reconstructing the Globe Theatre. Blake brought her here a week ago. He’s writing a story with a character that represents the spirit of Shakespeare. He was overjoyed when he heard about the replica Globe.
“All the world’s a stage,” he said to her as they looked out across the river at the city skyline.
Jen throws her butt in an arc and it spits and sparks and disappears into the dark. She sets off along the path towards Southwark Bridge and decides to leave it until later, around closing time, to get to the restaurant and tell Neil that’s the end of it.
But anyway, that’s been my dilemma. With a threat like that hanging over me, I’ve felt paralysed. And now that you’ve heard the gory details, I’m sure you can understand why.
Shall I open a window? You look as though you’re hot.
Is that better?
So, I’ve been in this job longer than any other. Which is ironic because it was meant to be just another stop-gap, after we moved to Victoria Road. But working at Little Prayer has done me one favour. It’s helped me realise what I really want to do.
You see, I get to overhear what the punters are chatting about and what the latest craze is. And I’ve decided that I’m going to learn desk-top publishing. Blake keeps saying publishing is where all the money is. And computers are the future, aren’t they? Aren’t they?
You look a little distracted. Would you like me to tell you about anything else?
There’s an unconditional quality to Blake’s feelings for her – he’s like a dog. Even though he spends so much time at home writing music and books, his consistency means everything to Jen. She’s dwelling on this while sitting up at the bar of a pub she’s discovered right next to the river. There’s no-one else in but a middle-aged couple muttering to one another across a table.
Theirs wasn’t a conventional relationship. For starters they rarely had sex and Jen slept with other lads, although she hadn’t now for over six months. And when she did, it was always away from the flat. Except for one disastrous occasion when she brought home an Italian guy she’d been seeing. She figured it would be OK to have sex with him on the sofa and then, once done, to go to sleep with Blake upstairs. That backfired on her in a big way because, while Blake would have taken it in his stride – finding an Italian on the sofa – the same didn’t apply to Paolo when it came to the sleeping arrangements.
But Blake is rarely rattled and he wasn’t then. While she had been distraught at the mess and damage caused during the jealous rage, he just cleaned up, made coffees, rolled a spliff and wrapped a blanket around her.
As Jen throws back the last of her Budwar, she realises that Blake is her one true friend right now. Whatever happens will be happening to both of them. She’d said as much to him last night and he said he felt the same.
It isn’t a question of belief, it’s more like an unspoken certainty they share.
For example, Blake was the only person she could ever dream of telling about her English teacher – and how she would find ways of being kept behind for a spanking. And how he once made her read aloud the eulogy from Julius Caesar, while he beat her rear bright red with a plastic ruler. Each time she had to say ‘…and Brutus is an honourable man,” she chanted the words through clenched teeth as tears bubbled from her eyes.
And Blake is the only person who could possibly understand how she fantasises about those bouts of discipline to this day. Only he could appreciate how much Mr Burren had meant to her.
“Awwww, you on yer own darlin’?” the woman at the table speaks up while her man is off in the toilet.
“Nope,” says Jen, getting up from her stool. “I’m about to tell a blackmailing pervert to fuck off, and the spirit of my English teacher is with me.”
Well, seeing as you ask – I was christened a Catholic. Weird, given my mother’s lifestyle. But she was from a Catholic family and thought it was right for me to be brought up as one. So that’s why she decided to put me in the Catholic school. And that’s about as far as her faith goes – she donated a child to the church. She is never to be seen at mass herself.
And I guess it’s not every runaway that says they enjoyed school, but I did. No matter what pandemonium was going on at home, most days I tried to get myself there in time for morning mass. I loved the costume and the ritual, though not so much some of the attitudes. Plenty of the teachers treated the place like it was the workhouse from Oliver Twist.
Mr Burren, on the other hand, was one of those teachers you never forget. He brought books to life with the sort of passion and excitement you’d expect from professional actors. He lived inside a Dickens novel or a Shakespeare play. He gave me my love for reading. And more, he gave me the desire for a better world. Which is why it was a bit of a shock when he first kept me behind after class for talking back.
All I had done was insist that when Portia referred to carrying a ‘wound in her thigh’ for Brutus, it must surely mean her lost virginity, whereas Mr Burren had seen it more literally. I was fourteen at the time and I was pretty sure I was right.
My own thighs were certainly sore when I left school that day, after the spanking he gave me.
But he did admit I could well be right. Apparently it was the language I used to disagree with his opinion that got him angry.
“You should always argue with politeness and eloquence, Jennifer,” he told me. “Not with crude slang.”
Blake reminds her of Mr Burren. He always did, even before he began writing a novel. Jen is walking past the Stock Exchange onto Threadneedle Street. She knows these streets pretty well now. She had often walked down to the river while Blake was writing.
Now she has come to a decision about the situation with Neil, it all seems so obvious. She wonders why it has taken her so long. It’s been around a year since he first appeared at Little Prayer and made it known he was the boss. Her legs almost gave way beneath her, the night he walked in saying: “My, my! Look who we’ve picked up since I was last here!”
He held his arms out, just like he used to do back home.
But it was when he sat her down in his office and produced the video tape that her heart almost stopped.
It had been a few days since she found herself at the wrong end of a con trick at the modelling interview. She had almost forgotten about it, even though she couldn’t shake off the dread that someday it would come back to haunt her. He said a friend of his who published X rated adult stuff had passed it onto him.
“Now, it seems I’m going to have to keep an eye on you,” he looked her over sleazily. A monitor with a closed circuit view of the dining area flickered on the edge of his desk.
“As long as you work for me, I’ll make sure that this tape doesn’t hit the top shelves, if you know what I mean. You wouldn’t want your mother to see it, would you?”
And that was how she’d got herself into this mess. Neil has made the restaurant the base of his business operations, and he entertains his friends most nights of the week in a private dining room. There they are treated to the spectacle of two teenage waiting staff dressed as cabaret artists, nurses, bikers or school children while they serve. It sometimes makes her feel physically sick but she’s trapped.
At least that’s what she thought. Not so now. She is walking up Curtain Road towards Little Prayer which sits by the canal at Hoxton. As Blake said, she works in the birthplace of London theatre. And here she is, about to play a decisive scene. Soon enough she stands at the restaurant door with the voice of the mad old bus ranter in her ears – ‘they want to control us…’
She can see a table of diners near the window gathering up bags and jackets to leave. Their plates have been cleared. She draws a deep breath and throws the door of Little Prayer open one last time.
Come in! A voice called out from behind the office door and I took a gulp and stepped inside. The room was small and brightly lit. A guy with messy hair and an Adidas T-Shirt was sitting behind a small desk and opposite him was a two-seater sofa.
“Please, sit down,” he said gesturing towards the sofa.
“Thanks,” I replied and I let the door shut behind me.
“So your name is?”
“Jennifer Bray,” I said.
“And what made you choose our agency?” He was typing notes on a computer as he spoke.
“A guy at the restaurant where I work suggested I should have a go.” I noticed the blinds were drawn and there was a stand-up fan in the corner of the room which kept the air circulating. Its rotor hum filled the silences between questions. He looked up at me from his keyboard.
“Why do you want to try modelling, Jennifer?” he asked, softly.
“I’m not sure, to be honest. The money, I guess.” I felt a little flustered, not least because of the shine of his eyes.
“Well, the money can certainly be good, doing this kind of work.” He was sizing me up and I returned the compliment. He was pretty good looking. “Fashion shoots earn the most, of course, but I can get you advertising work and nude modelling.”
“Yeah. Sure,” I said.
“Would you have a problem with getting your clothes off for a shoot?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’ve done modelling for life drawing classes before.”
“Good, good.” He typed more notes on his keyboard. “In that case could you stand up please, and take your clothes off for me?”
“Ah, OK.” I kicked off my shoes and wriggled out of my skirt. I rarely wore a bra, so when I slipped the t-shirt off over my head I was as good as naked. The intermittent breeze from the fan, as it swivelled my way, brought goose bumps up on my arms.
“Could you do a complete turn, please.” He was being comfortable and matter of fact about the whole thing.
“You’re very pretty,” he said, once I was facing him again, and he gestured for me sit down. It felt odd, but somehow liberating, to be talking to someone while sitting more or less naked on their sofa.
“So you’re a student?” he asked.
“No, although I’m thinking about doing an access course,” I said.
“So, it’s just the waitressing job?”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“Yes,” I replied. Even though Blake didn’t see us that way.
“And what does your boyfriend do?” The guy continued to make notes.
“He’s starting on a novel – and before that he wrote songs,” I said.
“Oh really?” he looked up with genuine interest. “Anything I might have heard?”
“No, you woudn’t’ve,” I said.
“But he’ll publish his novel one day.” I wasn’t sure whether I believed it, but I didn’t want to doubt Blake in front of someone I didn’t know.
“So in the meantime you’d like to earn money for the both of you?” he suggested.
“Yep, that’s right.” We both looked at each other while the fan hummed and panned.
“OK, I’m going to be honest with you,” he said, looking me in the eyes. “You’re not tall enough for fashion modelling, they generally go for 5′ 6 and up.”
I nodded. That figured.
“I may be able to get you advertising jobs,” he continued. “But I can offer you nude modelling and porn work straight away.”
“I don’t want to do porn,” I said.
“You should think about it,” he replied. “You can make two hundred for an afternoon’s work, easy.”
I looked at him dubiously. He took a Polaroid camera out of one of his desk drawers and stood up.
“I could take a few sample shots now, see how you pose,” he suggested as he perched up against the edge of his desk. “Just Polaroids. You can take them away and think about it.”
He was wearing white jeans and his legs were crossed. The fact that I was sitting in front of him half-naked was giving me a thrill. I couldn’t help but lick my lips.
“OK, why not,” I said. I had no intention of taking up his nude modelling offer, but now that I was here I fancied an adventure. I lay back on the sofa, with a hand behind my head and my legs splayed while he fired off the first shot.
“You’re a natural!” he whooped. “Now let’s try one without the panties.”
I slipped them off my hips and flicked them at his face with my foot.
“Why don’t we try a few action shots?” I decided to shift things up a gear.
I got more than I bargained for. He stepped out of his jeans and I took sight of his bulge. He was by far the best hung guy I had seen. And after taking a couple of foreplay shots, he put the camera to one side and proceeded to have me one way and the next until, 20 minutes later, I lay spent on the sofa, mopping myself with a towel he threw over.
“Wow, you’re some wild package, babe,” he said.
“You’re not so bad yourself.” I was only just getting my breath back. I should have been more careful, insisted he wore a condom, but I got carried away. Luckily, he pulled out before he came – an expert piece of coitus. Just like the church would have it.
“So do I get the job?” I laughed.
“What? Porn?” he looked up at me.
“No, I’m only kidding,” I said. “There’s no way I could get into that business. It’s rotten.”
“Oh, I see.” He towelled himself quickly and got straight back into his jeans.
“But if any of that advertising work comes up, let me know.” I pulled my top back on and held my skirt up while I dusted it down.
“We’ll keep your tape on file, Jennifer,” he said. My skirt was half way on when he came out with it – and I stopped still.
“What did you say?” I asked, without looking at him.
Just then the door opened and a woman hovered at the doorway.
“Mr Mason is waiting at reception for you, James,” she said, looking at me with my skirt around my knees.
“What did you say?” I repeated the question. I felt like I was in shock.
“Give me two minutes, Rebecca,” he said to the woman. And then he stepped a couple of feet towards me while I pulled my skirt up.
“That form you signed on the way in, it gave your agreement to be film tested and for the rights of any resulting footage to belong to us.” He made to hold me by the shoulders but I pulled away from him. “This office is full of hidden cameras, we film all our interviews. I’m sorry.”
I grabbed the Polaroids and I was out of the door in a blur. I passed the receptionist and called back to her as I left the building.
“You’re working for people that exploit women!”
It took five minutes of fierce walking to realise I had got myself lost in a part of the West End I didn’t recognise. I stood in the middle of a busy pavement with my thoughts spinning as I tried to regain my breath.
What began as blind rage turned into guilt and uncertainty. I felt straight away that this was going to rebound on me.
And of course when Neil turned up with the tape, it did.
But anyway, that’s been my dilemma. With a threat like that hanging over me, I’ve felt paralysed. And now that you’ve heard the gory details, I’m sure you can understand why.
Shall I open a window? You look as though you’re hot…
“Come in!” Jen can hear Neil call out from his office, but she doesn’t step inside. Instead she pokes her head around the door and he looks up at her from his till receipts. Before he can say a word about the evening’s no-show, Jen makes her announcement.
“I’m tired of this game, Neil,” she says.
“You’ve had your pound of flesh, so go ahead – show the tape to whoever you like. I have to move on with my life now.”
His face is a picture of surprise. Behind him the back door is open and she can see out onto the tow-path. He gets to his feet as if to walk towards her with his arms outstretched. He looks as if he wants to give her a hug.
And Jen says goodbye to Neil one final time.
Then she shuts the office door, swivels on her heel and marches out of the restaurant without turning her head once to look back.