Soho, London, 2000. One weekend a soldier had a birthday and we’d heard about the sex shows in Soho, the lads asked me to come along knowing I was a virgin. I was at a funny place with all that, I’d been brought up a Muslim and sex outside of marriage wasn’t allowed, this was drilled into me and I couldn’t explain why it still felt wrong for me but it did. I didn’t like that part of me but I’d tell the lads I wanted a girlfriend and not just a shag, they accepted it and I said it enough times that I started to believe it myself. I felt like I was being held back but I didn’t want to give in to peer pressure and this was one fight I’d keep to myself. But it didn’t matter how many times I’d read holy books, prayed or fasted, I was a young man just like the rest and I wanted to see naked girls so I went with them.
The lads had cans of beer with them and we got a table on the train to London. We sat and they drank. We laughed as we showed each other scratches and cuts on our forearms from crawling on the ground during training and bruises from building heavy bridges. We were Her Majesty’s Royal Engineers. The lads were loud and full of life and their voices filled the carriage and turned heads. When the ticket inspector came round he saw our Forces Railcards and nodded his head in respect, the lads loved that and got louder. By the time we’d made it to London, some had other ideas and wanted to carry on drinking. They found the nearest pub to Waterloo opposite the Union Jack Club where we planned to stay. The birthday boy still wanted to go to the show so Darren and me went with him, we stared confused at a Tube Map which didn’t show Soho and the Underground staff told us how to get there and soon the three of us walked down Old Compton Street never having been to a sex show before.
Matt the Birthday Boy was nervous not knowing what to expect, he was a short determined man who always shouted “Yes, Corporal” when he was told to do anything. He compensated for his height by working harder than others in training and sometimes the Corporals would let him talk to them as if he were an equal. Darren slapped him on the back and rubbed his hands saying it would be great, Darren looked like a soldier should, all square jawed and big shoulders, he looked like he could drink barrels of beer before smashing them over his legs. He was strong and loyal - a mastiff. And then there was me, the Muslim virgin. We walked in the middle of the road past men kissing each other in the street and lazy music coming out of dark windows trying to take it all in. We saw a woman standing outside a door which led downstairs and she asked if we were looking for a sex show. Yes we were, Darren told her rubbing his hands, that’s exactly what we’re looking for, she told us it was twenty pounds to come in. Twenty pounds?!
We argued it was Matt’s birthday and she told us it was everybody’s birthday when they were trying to get in. No really, it was Matt’s birthday we laughed and Darren pulled out his Army ID card and she told him that didn’t impress her either. Matt said we should try further down the road and she told us they were all the same but she was wrong. We found one with a big black bouncer on the door who told us it was five pounds to come in. We liked that. Matt tried to tell the bouncer it was his birthday and make small talk, he was nervous because of the man’s size but the bouncer didn’t look interested after we’d gone past him he just tried to hustle the next lads in.
Inside it looked like a small cinema, it was dark and the walls were red and black. A small stage sat at the front with a heavy red velvet curtain hiding our dreams. A few rows of seats sat empty. Immediately to our left was a small bar with a bored girl behind it. Her hair looked like a black cloud floating away at an angle and she wore thick red lipstick on angry pouting lips. Her skin was a lovely brown lighter than mine and she wore a dress made of sequins and string. Three soldiers couldn’t take their eyes off her. She looked like she didn’t want to be there and stared back at us. Darren paid for Matt.
“Drink?” she demanded.
Darren said he’d have a beer and I said I’d have a Coke. Matt asked for a beer and she asked him for ID. He said it was his birthday and she asked if he was twelve. She didn’t even crack a smile, I liked her, she was funny, she was strong and she was real. Darren said he’d have two beers and she called for the bouncer. I drank my Coke as the big black man came in. He looked smart in his suit and white shirt and bow tie and filled the space between the curtains. The girl said she thought Matt was underage, the bouncer made a face at her and left, I wondered if they were going out together. How do you get a girl like that?
Matt was eighteen but she was right he looked young. He was short and fresh faced, he kept his sideburns higher and his hair shorter than was needed. He looked like a little boy Darren and me had dragged in for a joke or a bet. She pointed to the seats, Matt made his way nervously forwards and sat in the middle. Darren stood at the back leaning against the wall saying he was okay there. It wasn’t a big place but we had come to see the sex show so I told them to come up to the front. I was excited, Darren had gone quiet and Matt was nervous so I took charge.
I sat on the front row with Matt and Darren sat behind us, I wasn’t sure why, he seemed to have grown nervous. It was quiet and we looked back at the girl behind the bar, she just stared at nothing in front of her, I wanted to know more about her. Then some music came on, it wasn’t like anything I’d heard before but I imagined you could charm snakes to it. A girl pushed through the heavy curtain on the stage. She was taller than Matt but shorter than Darren. She had a bob of dark red hair which looked like a wig and a slim white body which looked grey in the light. She wore knickers, crosses on her nipples made of black PVC tape, shiny high heels and an awkward smile on her face which dropped off after a couple of seconds.
She didn’t look at us. She looked just under the ceiling as she danced. I looked back to see if the bar girl was looking at her or us but she wasn’t. Nobody smiled. The only noise was the music and her heels scraping on the stage. She swayed from side to side and then every so often dropped down to a crouch bouncing for a bit before arching her back up to get full height again. She turned to show us her ass and smoothed her hands up it. There was nothing arousing about it, it was very uncomfortable. This was the sex show we’d heard so much about.
As we sat three girls came from around the stage all wearing sexy dresses and smiling. They sat with us and stroked our chests. The girl on the stage still didn’t smile. The girls whispered as they rubbed us, Matt sat up in his seat and said “No” as a girl reached into his shirt. It was the first time any of us had said anything since the dancing started. Darren jokingly asked if Matt had got hard. The girl who sat next to me had black straight hair pulled back, a pointy face and a slim white body. She rubbed my chest making me nervous and asked in a hard Eastern European accent for a drink. Matt’s girl did the same. Darren raised his hand at the bar girl who came over with three drinks for the girls. Three fat glasses with what looked like coke in them. Darren tried to drink some but his girl snatched at it and gulped it down.
Darren laughed and asked for some more and the girls smiled. And more. More drinks, more smiles, more Darren. I couldn’t remember when the girl on the stage had finished but she’d gone. I couldn’t remember when the music had been turned off but that had gone too. It was just awkward conversation from us and fake laughs from the girls who said they felt drunk and dizzy. Darren laughed and told the girls to down their drinks which they did. They surrounded him and he looked like a king. He laughed, they drank and he ordered more. Matt said he wanted to leave and Darren asked why when we were having so much fun. I said we should try somewhere else too and Darren took his leave from the girls explaining that me and Matt were new to all this.
The bargirl called for the bouncer again then she gave us the bill. It was over three hundred pounds. Matt asked why and the bouncer who had his arms in front of him with one fist nestled into the other hand told us the drinks were twenty pounds each. Matt was shocked. He didn’t have that kind of cash on him and neither did I, he offered to go to the cash machine spitting out his words fast and honestly. That’s exactly what Matt would have done, run down to the cash machine and returned with the money but the bouncer didn’t know Matt like we knew him. He shook his head and told us to empty our wallets. We had around fifty pounds altogether, the bar girl looked pissed off and the bouncer scratched his chin and said it would have to do. Matt then said he thought the girls drinks were just Coke anyway. The bouncer told us to leave and never come back. Matt told him not to worry and that he would never come back because it was shit. Darren was quiet through it all.
We got out into the light of Soho. The bouncer stood outside the door as if it had never happened, as if he’d not just taken all our money off us. We looked around and I noticed people looking at us. Did they know? It was easy to be paranoid, of course they didn’t know but we were stood in the middle of the road looking shocked. Matt wasn’t happy, it had been a terrible birthday so far. Darren broke a false smile and rubbed Matt’s back and said it was all a learning experience, Darren had learnt a lot too not that he wanted to admit it.
We walked down Old Compton Street for a second time around thirty minutes after the first. Men still kissed on the street and Darren joked Matt should kiss them. Matt told him to shut up and Darren started talking about how he’d love to kick the bouncers head in, how we should get a group of soldiers and storm the place, what he’d do to the bouncer and how he’d hurt him - how he’d break his fucking jaw. Matt asked him why he hadn’t done any of those things at the time and Darren didn’t have an answer to that. Matt just wanted a drink so we headed back to join the others, and they all asked us how it was. Darren made up stories of beautiful girls with big tits and blow jobs all round. The lads roared and slapped Matt on the back and he just nodded and let it happen and I didn’t say anything, I let Matt have his day.
The author last saw “Matt” in Iraq in 2007 and they talked about the bar girl.
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