‘Do you want a dance?’ she said. She stood there smiling at me with her hand held out invitingly. I’d already decided I wasn’t going to get caught up in the dancing. But this woman — well, you should have seen her. She was about 19; as full of health, life and potential fecundity as point-of-lay pullet. And yet a vulnerability in her smile gave the impression that she’d had to pluck up the courage to ask. I said to my friend, and my friend’s friend — we’d been deep in conversation about the perilous state of a football club dear to our hearts — how could I possibly refuse and would they excuse me for a moment? They nodded curtly and returned to their football and I offered her my hand. She grasped it firmly and hauled me away.
She led me across the bar, through a swing door at the far end, down a staircase and into a small theatre with a knee-high stage and four or five rows of seats, from which about 20 or 30 young men were watching a woman with no clothes on at all and unusually pale skin lying on her back at the front of the stage and opening and closing her legs like a pair of scissors.
In the aisle behind these seats we joined a queue of other waiting couples. ‘What’s the queue for?’ I said. ‘For cubicle,’ she said. She was east European. ‘Cubicle?’ I said. ‘For dance,’ she said.
She was unperturbed by the queue. Perhaps it was only when there was a queue that her conscience, or the house rules, would allow her to relax for a moment and watch the show, such as it was. Still holding my hand she settled her lovely back against the wall and wordlessly — via hand pressure and thigh contact — invited me to do the same. My immediate reaction was that it seemed a bit ridiculous to be queuing for a dance in a cubicle when I could have been upstairs with a bottle of Peroni talking to my friend about football, and I thought about abandoning her right there. Sensing rebellion, she asked me to stay. She did this by squeezing my hand in what seemed to me the most loving, humble and intimate manner. And then she pulled my hand down by her side and kept it there, secretly and possessively, and looked with happy interest at the show, as though we were a united couple out celebrating a wedding anniversary.
And the odd thing was that because I hadn’t touched anybody’s hand for so long, her holding mine in that companionable way electrified me. Thoughts of rebellion evaporated. I was now a faithful collaborator. I settled myself against the wall and her, ostensibly to watch calmly the woman on the stage opening and closing her legs, but inwardly I was wild with joy at the touch of a woman’s hand, and at the revivifying human charge flowing from her live contact to my negative one.
Until now, the evening had been like a slow and pointless death. I’d stuck to alcohol, so far, but I was thinking of changing. Previously my friend and I had been to a party in a trendy nightclub to celebrate the launch of a new ITV programme. I hadn’t caught the name of the programme, nor was I interested enough to ask and find out. It was a terrible party. The music was too loud and there were too many people and it took too long to get a drink.
We’d tried to make the most of it. I paid a bribe to one of the harassed and exhausted bar staff and after that it hadn’t taken quite as long to obtain drinks. And then we were chatting to, or, rather, shouting at, this particular pair of bouncy, happy young women when a security guy interrupted and grimly handed each of them a wireless microphone. Assisted by colleagues, this security guy then cleared some floor space, and after a deafening musical fanfare the pair were introduced to the crowd as the Cheeky Girls, who then pranced saucily into the space provided and performed a few of their hits.
And now here I was, in this other club, in an emotional turmoil over the touch of a woman’s hand. Too uncomfortable now, I withdrew mine. If it was intimacy I was paying for, then I’d already had as much as I could bear. Whatever she was planning to do for me in the cubicle could be nothing compared to this. I got out my wad, peeled off the price of a lap dance in a cubicle, doubled it, and gave it to her. And then I trotted back upstairs to my friend, my friend’s friend, my bottle of Peroni and the intense conversation about the football club.