Chapter 16

Back Street Love

Soho was once London’s centre of vice and was still an area where the underbelly of the city could be sensed. The pornographic book stores and girly clubs, not to mention the upstairs rooms rentable by the hour, had long gone, mostly replaced by down market shops, a couple of cheap hotels, over-priced wine bars, and a single fetish shop specialising in, as it said over the door, “Rubberwear for the Now Generation.” Even so, it was possible to imagine activities that might not meet the approval of polite society going on behind the curtains at the grimy windows.

As he walked up Wardour Street, Stephen Higgs was worried. Even though he was sticking to “men-allowed” routes (mainly the back streets, certainly away from shopping areas), he was out of his designated area. He had a plausible excuse for being in town, but he wasn’t convinced he’d be able to sustain it if he was stopped. It was difficult trying to keep an eye out for police patrols while still walking along as though you had a perfect right to be there. He stepped off the pavement to allow a woman coming towards him to pass. She took no notice of him as she swept by.

There was a hostel at the end of Dean Street. Un-sponsored men working in the restaurants and bars of Soho and the West End used it. Nobody took much notice of who came and went. Stephen stepped inside. The man behind the desk recognised him and nodded. Nobody asked for names here, that was understood.

The lobby was dark. On one wall, a notice board carried a myriad of notices, directives, and posters with various logos of various Government departments. Mostly it was stuff from the Department of Home Affairs with updates of the regulations. One carried a rather stern-looking photograph of Florence Daniels, the Minister for the Department. Someone had drawn a moustache on it. Stephen wasn’t sure what surprised him more: that someone had dared to do that or that it hadn’t been taken down.

He headed on through the building, along corridors lit by only bare light bulbs. Peeling paper and dingy paint told of years of neglect. He turned a corner and followed a narrow staircase down.

Opening the old dark brown door at the bottom, he went in.

“Hi! Great!” A shout of welcome greeted him from one of the group of twenty or so men inside the room. He knew quite a few of them by sight but none by name. In one corner, a half-dozen men were sitting huddled closely together, talking intently. The youngest in the group was sitting wide-eyed, obviously fascinated by what was being said. Stephen thought he recognised him. It took him awhile to work out who it was. Jim — what was his name? Oh yes, Wheeland. He’d been one of the lads hanging around with Fara Dangerfield. He was pretty sure neither Phyllis or the lad’s parents would be happy he was here. Not that it had anything to do with Stephen, of course.

The rest of the group were all sitting down, in a semi-circle, facing towards a television set in the corner of the room. This was a rarity, a TV set not controlled by an Ident Card. It had a DVD player connected to it.

One of the men got to his feet. Stephen knew him as one of the founders of the group; he’d been at all of their earlier meetings. “Hullo, everyone,” he said. “Good so many of you could make it. I’ll get on with the showing.”

Without further announcement, he slid a disk into the television’s DVD player and pressed “Play”. A flickering black and white image filled the screen — a poor, pirated print, Stephen guessed. Titles announced ‘William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.’ There was a sharp intake of breath audible around the room.

A young man in front of him asked his companion in a whispered voice, “Is this Shakespeare? We didn’t do this one at school.”

“Shhh,” his companion responded. “You’ll find out why.”

The audience got progressively more raucous as the film progressed. It was hard to tell which got the greater cheers: Petruchio’s speech, “I will be master of what is mine own: She is my goods, my chattels; she is my house, My household stuff, my field, my barn, My horse, my ox, my ass, my any thing;” or when Katharine spoke out against her sisters with “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, thy head, thy sovereign; Such duty as the subject owes the prince Even such a woman oweth to her husband;”

The applause at the end drew a “Hey, keep it down in there,” from someone at the door to the room.

Stephen waited for most of the others to go. It had been good to see something like that, he thought, a piece of normality in a crazy world. He wondered how long the group would be able to go on meeting. There was a lot of suspicion of male gatherings from the authorities and the combination of anti-dissident rhetoric in the media and the actual interventions of the Male Control Force meant being caught at something like this could be a real source of trouble. He wondered if it was worth it.

Stephen headed for the exit. The group that Jim was sitting with was still sitting and talking. Jim was nodding enthusiastically. Stephen felt uneasy. He wondered what the young man was agreeing with.

Stephen was not the only one engaged in illicit activities in that part of London.

Less than a quarter of a mile away, in the back of the Sunrise offices in Gerard Street, the four males being used in the JUMIST programme were sleeping in their cages. The room was dark, shutters at the windows saw to that, and there was no need to provide light while the men were in their cages. It was only five o’clock in the afternoon but, even so, they slept heavily, grateful for a respite from the day’s exertions and knowing that later one or more of them would have to help out in the kitchens of the Tea Parlour or spend the evening clearing up the training room and readying it for the next day’s activities.

Bernard tossed a turned, awake and asleep in his uncomfortable cage. In his dream a woman’s legs passing by beside his cage, high-heeled shoes, tight skirts, dark hose. He rolled over banging against the bars of the cage’s door. He had been, he thought, fast asleep, resting as best he could in the cramped conditions of the cage but now, suddenly, he was awake. To his astonishment, one of his companions was pushing open the door of the cage above him and climbing out. “What the fuck are you doing?” Bernard yelped quietly.

“Shhh. The cage wasn’t locked properly. Look. I just noticed when I rolled over.” He showed Bernard the padlock that had held the door shut. Its hasp hadn’t been pushed home. “I’m making a run for it. I’ve had enough of Hong Kong Phooey and her friends. That chubby bitch in the white qipao tweaking my tits was the last straw. Just go back to sleep. I won’t be missed until they come to sort out the evening shift and if you’re asleep then you needn’t get into trouble. I’d let you out, too, but I don’t know where the keys are.”

Bernard was partly relieved. The idea of escaping sounded attractive but the penalties for being caught certainly weren’t. Maybe the whole thing was a set up anyway; an excuse to punish them more – if that was possible. On the other hand maybe that girl, Fara, had made a mistake when she’d locked him in.

“That’s OK — you’ve got to take your chance,” Bernard said, watching the man grope in the darkness for the cupboard at the end of the room where he thought he might find some clothes. How far will you get, Bernard wondered, remembering what was in the cupboard, in tea-stained overalls and bare feet?