The Unreliable Placebo

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Chapter 8 GNO

SHARON AND I have belatedly made desultory arrangements to have a proper Girls’ Night Out. Christmas is looming and if we don’t get a move on, everyone will be up to their ears in all manner of commitments. Well, most of us anyway. I can’t say that I’m inundated with social engagements. Say what you like about the strictures of married life and coupledom, but it does afford opportunities that singletons don’t necessarily enjoy. When the Arsehole got asked out anywhere, it often used to include me and vice versa. Now I don’t get asked out so much and I do wonder if it’s the fact that an unattached female is seen as a bit of a threat, a possibly loose cannon, liable to wantonly ensnare and make off with people’s husbands.

If they only knew how I absolutely wouldn’t do such a thing having had my own partner mercilessly inveigled and wrenched away from me. Except of course they don’t know, so they start to give me a wide berth and steer a course in the opposite direction.

But at least Sharon remains faithful to me. She isn’t worried I’ll snaffle her Arty. Mind you, have you seen him? You’d have to be pretty desperate to‒

But I’d better not enter that territory. Running down one’s friends’ husbands when one can’t even keep one’s own is pretty risky and dumb.

Anyway, it falls to me as the childless one (I’m bound to have more time on my hands apparently) to research and arrange the venue, and we’ll both see how many mates we can get to come along and make a real night of it. Therefore instead of thumb-twiddling at work, I’m surfing the net and trying to think of what sort of diversion lots of women would be interested in. And suddenly it comes to me. Male striptease. I reckon that’s an unseemly enough spectacle to attract most women out for an evening of wanton entertainment to liven up a drab autumn weekend.

As people come in and out of my room, it being a busy office, I have to have at the ready a serious piece of work to cover the graphic advertisements out there aimed at seducing the would-be audience. I can’t resist putting up an innocent bare licence on the screen to override the bare licentiousness of the young men’s equipment. I have to minimise their maximal assets several times an hour as footsteps approach my door until the danger has passed. Some of the ads are moving pictures. I turn the sound down as the music playing is fairly obviously of the seven veils variety.

A trawl through the internet suggests, however, that not many such delights are available in our neck of the woods. Mostly, they seem to be concentrated in Northern towns. However, I persist and come up with something in Romford. It wasn’t immediately apparent because the main billing was a drag act. I’ve always wanted to see a drag act but this pre-Christmas special also features male striptease. Great, I think. And when I research it in greater detail, it’s not taking place at a complete dive. It’s actually at quite a posh hotel (if you can believe that of Romford) where they hold conferences and things and often have several different events going on each evening. The price is eye-watering but I reckon the lure of male nudity, tastefully presented or otherwise, will attract many girls I know to come along.

AND indeed it does. Between us, Sharon and I accumulate fifteen women keen, nay anxious, to witness well-formed young men getting their kit off. Sharon and I discuss the details over the telephone.

“I hope you don’t mind. I’ve asked Susan,” I say. Susan is one of the secretaries at my firm and is known to get a bit wild when she’s had a few. She’s also only twenty-seven and therefore eight or so years younger than the rest of us. “You don’t think she’s too young do you? And, you know, a bit lively? I imagine those young strippers would like to get through the night in one piece.”

“Well actually,” says Sharon, “my friend Maggie has her cousin Cheryl from Australia staying at the moment and she’s been invited. She’s only twenty-five. I was hoping you wouldn’t mind that.”

“What’s she like then, this Cheryl?”

“No idea. But Susan and her’ll be company for each other won’t they if they find the rest of us are too staid for them.”

“I doubt if that’ll be a problem.” But it seems a reasonable idea. “So,” I say, “I’ll go ahead and hire a minibus shall I? I was thinking that everyone could meet at my house and we’ll launch ourselves from there. D’you think their various husbands/partners/other relatives would bring them here and come and collect them from mine later? Or they could order taxis?”

“No problem,” she says. “A lot of them will probably double up. It all sounds wonderful. It’s a great idea. I can’t wait.”

THE evening is suddenly upon us. I don’t have Sharon to help me get ready but I’m sure my tight gold sequin-covered dress will be more than appropriate for the occasion. I’ve cooled four bottles of bubbly to welcome them and break any ice as necessary. Not necessary apparently. They all arrive in high spirits and the bubbly is gone before I know it or have even had a chance actually to pour it all out. They’ve helped themselves. I suppose this is better than everyone standing around looking uncomfortable. Introductions seem unnecessary too.

I’ve put on the TV some downloaded Ziggy Stardust and other Bowie clips and they blare out erotically, not to mention Bowie’s tight tights. I think it hits the right mood and we’re soon bopping away in my living room. The girls are not slow to raid my drinks cabinet and they make light work of the bites I spent the afternoon preparing.

Cheryl and Susan, I note, don’t especially gel as Sharon and I had hoped. Susan, if a tad uncontrolled at times, does it in a refined way. She’s svelte and quite elegant really. This Cheryl is … well … a bit loud, a bit common actually. Her dress is cut out in lots of places which might be OK for a slim muscular girl in control of her body, but Cheryl’s is spilling out of it like a large not-quite-set blancmange. How can someone from Australia be so pale, resembling a big white slug. And yet so full of herself. She has a strong Antipodean accent and the lingo to go with it. I thought Australian slang had become passé; I guess I must be wrong. Or maybe it’s making a comeback.

Luckily Maggie seems to get on well with her cousin and I see that in fact they are quite similar in appearance and attitude. Indeed if you didn’t listen too closely to Maggie’s London accent, you could mistake her for an Aussie.

The minibus is late arriving. I receive several texts warning of its delayed progress and, in due course, of its approach, and ultimately of its various unsuccessful attempts to find my house despite Satnav and having definitely been given the correct postcode.

Eventually I see it drawing up outside and we pile in. In fact, I ordered it to be here early so we should arrive in good time, hold-ups on the A12 aside. I notice that half my drinks cabinet and store of wine has been transported onto this minibus. I hope the driver is an understanding sort. Cheryl certainly can knock back the red wine. Perhaps it’s a recognised trait of young Australian women.

As we burn along the dual-carriageway, Cheryl regales us with her itinerary. She’s staying with Maggie in Essex for a few weeks and then she’s moving onto other Pommie rellies. She seems to have cousins all over the world. She’s spent time already with her sheep-shagger rellies. She talks about the ‘North Island’ so I gather she may mean New Zealand especially as Wellington comes into it.

There are seppos she’s intending to visit at some point. This means nothing to me, but it involves flying into JFK Airport so it must have something to do with the USA but I still don’t see the connection.

When she’s done the UK, there are Micks she’ll be landing on.

She is free with her opinions about Pommies in general. Mostly they’re people whose ‘lift doesn’t go to the top floor’. When this causes some offence, she tells those affected to stop ‘spitting the dummy’.

“I hope,” she says, “that these bloke’s tockleys tonight are worth a gander. I can go to Woolworths to buy gherkins any day of the week.” Did she say Woolworths?

“Don’t you have a boyfriend back home who’s missing you while you’re away?” I have to ask. She’s such a sweet thing, surely there’s someone in her life.

“No one to get stoked about,” she replies. “There’s a banana bender I see sometimes when he visits Sydney. But it’s not serious. I need serious right now like a third arsehole.” The last word resonates with me but I don’t mention anything. As for ‘banana bender’, is she talking about a gay bloke? I’ll have to look it up on the internet later.

“Right. Good. Of course,” I say.

Cheryl and Maggie nudge each other and giggle. They take alternate swigs from a bottle of my red wine. They make me feel like a bit of a wet blanket.

I haven’t had much to drink myself. I’m actually feeling rather tense. I ought to cut this out and enter into the spirit of the thing, but I feel responsible. I’ve arranged this evening and I want it to turn out well. Perhaps a smaller party would have been better, just me and Sharon and a couple of others we know well. Though it’s too late now. I’m sure I’ll be able to lighten up when we get there.

THE VENUE is an enormous place. Its internet images don’t do it justice. Nor do they exactly portray the fabulous opulence, the competing styles, all very authentically copied I’m sure if you ignore the effects of plastic and other modern materials.

Having been dropped off and entered the building, or at least that part accessed via Entrance C, we cross a vast hall, the huge high walls of which are interrupted by large carved oak double doors (or they could be laminated) leading into presumably individual banqueting and other halls. Some events are clearly already under way as noise emanates from some of the rooms when the doors open for serving staff to enter and leave. The doors glide open and closed. The staff appear to have remote controls despite the fact that the doors, and the hall as a whole, are decked out in a similar style to the Palace of Versailles. Or how, in my ignorance, I imagine it might be. We gaze up in awe at the high ornate ceiling, no doubt a false ceiling, but ornate all the same. The girls check their appearances in the eight-foot-high gilt-framed mirrors hanging on the walls at intervals.

Dotted around the hall are lavish water features, elaborate baroque style fountains delivering cascades of water into fish ponds. Concealed lighting in oranges, reds, blues and greens illuminate the figures of dolphins, mermaids, representations of Neptune and so on giving the impression that the water itself is coloured. Actually it’s a little garish, especially as the general level of lighting in the hall is bright to blinding. I suppose it has to be for health and safety. The statues of Neptune are fully anatomically correct, giving rise to some nudging and pointing.

Somewhere near the middle of the hall, somewhat dwarfed by the other features, stands what looks like a large bird bath, except that it has a naked curly-haired cherub standing on one edge in the attitude of a peeing boy. A Manneken Pis no less. I can’t tell if this or the other statues are made of real stone or just plaster or some sort of resin. Unlike the fountains, no water is flowing and one can clearly see the hole by which the water would emerge from the boy if it was working.

I don’t go up to the cute little thing to get a closer look. Others are not so circumspect however. In particular, Cheryl and Maggie lean over and fondle the baby penis to the shrieks and jeers of the others. Cheryl even puts her forefinger in the hole and wiggles it about. The women around her go into paroxysms of ecstasy. Cheryl takes a selfie of her and Maggie.

“One for the blog,” she says drunkenly and she and Maggie almost fall backwards into the bird bath but instead end up on the floor. They and those around them scream with delight and they show off the photos, captured on continuous shooting mode, of their descent ending in legs in the air on their backs.

I don’t know that this is necessarily a good thing, at least not at the beginning of an evening or hardly into it. I’m not sure what’s wrong with me though. Sharon is laughing along with the rest of them. I mustn’t be a kill-joy. Surely I can’t be turning into a serious person, an old maid who frowns on others having fun and sits in a darkened room festooned in cobwebs, dwelling grimly on past events. But neither must I sink a disproportionate amount of alcohol to compensate and end up over a toilet bowl for most of the night.

This turns out not to be a problem once we’re seated at our table and the wine, cocktails and canapés are served. I find I have no appetite for any of it and sit sipping sparkling water. It must, I tell myself, be the time of the month. Sharon looks at me with concern.

“Are you OK?” she mouths at me from her place the other side of the table.

I nod. “Yes. Of course,” I lie. She’s not convinced but I smile at her and sink into my seat as the lights go down and the entertainment begins.

I SUPPOSE these poor young men must have grown accustomed to it, nevertheless it has to be pretty worrisome all the same to have a pack of drunken females braying at them in an unrestrained fashion. And it’s not by any means just our table. We’ve already seen the drag act and I can’t say that it was the most refined of entertainments. The man’s lipstick was smudged and his tights were laddered. The air was blue most of the time and the jokes very coarse in my opinion. Needing to get away, I took myself off to the loo more than once. Perhaps it was just me and the lack of alcohol because the others seemed to appreciate the drag act. Reactions ranged from being mildly amused to finding it side-splittingly funny, evidently in direct proportion to the amount of booze consumed.

“Hold me up,” hooted Maggie at a particularly crude joke, pretending to fall off her seat. At least I hope she was pretending.

“I’m gunna wet myself soon,” said Cheryl, with tears streaming down her face.

There is a short interval after the drag act, during which we discuss, amongst other things, what’s going on in the other rooms off the large foyer. We’d heard clapping and cheering from some of the rooms during our trips to the loo.

Sharon wonders if there are several different shows on tonight.

Cheryl expresses her opinion forthrightly, though by now extremely drunkenly.

“Nah,” she says. “Jus’ a load of ole middl’-aged tossers, wind-bagging on ’bout God knows what. Masons or summink.”

We’ve been given an instruction sheet saying that on no account are we to approach the small stage and attempt to touch any of the men or their appendages. It actually says ‘appendages’ as though they’re not really part of these handsome creatures forced to earn a living in this rather demeaning way. I think I’m definitely turning into an old maid.

There are about twenty similar tables, that’s approximately three hundred hyped up, drunken women possibly considering ignoring the handout and just launching themselves at the penis of one of the performers and effecting to make it a little less flaccid. No wonder the lads don’t look wholly comfortable.

And naturally, the first to attempt it has to be Cheryl. Followed closely by Maggie. Where, I have to wonder, does Sharon get her friends?

Without warning, previously unseen bouncers emerge from nowhere and unceremoniously manhandle Cheryl and Maggie from the room. The show continues as the rest of our table cast our eyes to the exit doors wondering where Cheryl and Maggie have been taken.

Eventually, especially after the bouncers return minus Cheryl and Maggie, a few of us have to go and investigate. We see them immediately next to the bird bath. I bite my lip and quicken my pace. Things don’t look quite as they should be. As we approach, we see that Cheryl has her index finger up the opening in the penis of the Manneken, right up to the hilt. She and Maggie are laughing uncertainly, the rest of us freely, that is apart of course from kill-joy me.

We hear cheering and the door to our hall opens. The striptease must’ve finished. The rest of our table pour out and stream over to us with graphic descriptions at the ready of the men’s final on-stage antics. Then they turn to view Cheryl and Maggie. Cheryl clearly has her finger stuck. Maggie pulls at it but Cheryl just screams at her to stop. Obviously this pair aren’t safe to be let loose on their own.

“If you pull my bloody finger off, how’m I s’posed to bat off?” Cheryl bawls.

“Wha’m I s’posed to do then?” says Maggie.

“Go and get the fucking management.”

“Oh, yeah. OK.”

And Maggie weaves an unsteady course over the huge hall to the other end, her passage interrupted by occasional difficulty with her incredibly high heels. How she knows which way to go I can’t imagine. Maybe the bouncers, recognising a pair of trouble-makers, told them where to go. I certainly feel like telling them myself. She returns quickly with a laid back sort of bloke who appraises the scene. And the first thing he asks is:

“Who made the booking?”

I wish the floor would open up. They’ll never accept another booking from me. Always assuming that I’d want to come back here. Ever. And I hope I don’t get a bill for this and any other trouble Cheryl and Maggie create. I admit that it was me. He looks at me and says something about the hotel not accepting responsibility for damage or injury. I start to apologise profusely.

“You see, she’s from Australia, she doesn’t know how to behave herself properly. I’m sure,” I say, “that this never normally happens, but‒”

“Actually more often than you’d imagine. Why d’you think we don’t have the water on most of the time? It’s because it makes a helluva mess when people put their fingers up and the water’s on. Goes everywhere. We nearly got flooded out once.”

“Er,” I say, “well why don’t you bung up the hole then.”

“We do. All the time. Only temporarily. Using, like, chewing gum and that. But people just fish it out.”

He sighs. “I’ll go and get big Sylve. She’s one of our chefs. Expert at getting people fingers out of the little shit’s dick.”

He walks off. We stand there and wait and soon ribaldry sets up again and those around me, our whole party by now, start giggling and cracking daft, mostly very rude, jokes and take photos, while others, in the main Maggie, become frantic. She starts to haul at Cheryl again and Cheryl starts to scream and the women around me hoot with laughter.

SOMETIMES circumstances conspire against one. A confluence of events takes place, like planets lining up, the forces too strong for me, or anyone really, to resist. It’s just going to happen and that’s that. A man walks out of another of the conference rooms in the direction of the gents; tall, bespectacled, dark-haired, benign expression. A man whom Cheryl would no doubt describe as a middle-aged tosser, though he’s just a couple of years older than me.

Maybe, just maybe, he won’t hear the outburst of alcohol-fuelled combined hilarity and panic going on around me. Or perhaps he’ll hear it but be too polite or embarrassed and will try to pretend not to notice. Perhaps he won’t look over in this direction. Or, if he does, there must be a small chance that he won’t notice me surrounded by drunken hysterical women in this ridiculous situation. Or, seeing me out of context, he’ll fail to recognise me. All of these possibilities may rush to my aid and knock the planets out of alignment. But do they? Of course they don’t.

Dennis walks unerringly in my direction, friendly smile at the ready.

“Form a wall,” I hiss at the women around me.



“Wall?” the less inebriated of them say.

“Yes. A human shield. So this man walking over here can’t see Cheryl.”

To give them credit, they quickly catch on and all stand up straight, ramrod stiff, giggling a little, not at all artificial-looking. Oh no, not at all. It is of course hopeless.

“Hello,” says Dennis. “I thought I caught sight of you earlier walking across the hall when the door to our room was open but I assumed I must be imagining it.” He’s quite tall. He looks over my shoulder, and over those of the human wall, at Cheryl’s large behind, her shocking pink lacy knickers clearly visible through her tights.

“Spot of bother?” Dennis asks.

Maggie continues to tug at Cheryl’s hand and Cheryl squeals. Then she groans and says unnecessarily loudly:

“Fuck. I’m gunna hurl.” And she does. Mostly into the empty bird bath but some of it goes over Maggie who swears freely and, letting go of Cheryl, crashes into the rest of us. I bump into Dennis.

“Gosh, I’m so sorry, Dennis,” I say.

“No, no. It’s OK. Is she all right though?” He doesn’t however make any move to assist her. And neither do the rest of us, not wishing to get overwhelmed by blackcurrant-coloured vomit. Cheryl starts to heave signalling another outpouring. Obviously her oesophageal sphincter has relaxed and a siphon effect is starting. We all back away as the manager returns accompanied by a vast woman in chef’s clothing. The manager bears a large tub of Vaseline in one hand and a giant pot of Swarfega in the other.

“In case,” he says, weighing the Swarfega, “the Vaseline’s not enough.”

This puts me in mind of that old rugby song about Dinah and the axle grease but I suppose we’d better not go there. Still, in a better mood, I reckon I could teach that Cheryl a thing or two.

The chef smacks a large towel round Cheryl’s face and orders her to hold it fast with her free hand.

“They always chuck,” she explains to the rest of us.

Cheryl groans and her body contorts. It sounds and looks as though she’s dying. As the towel turns crimson in colour, between them the manager and the chef work Cheryl’s podgy digit free from the stone or possibly fibre glass urethra. At last the fiasco looks as though it’s drawing to a close. The manager leads Cheryl and Maggie off somewhere to recover and get cleaned up. The others drift back to the hall where the drag act is due to start again soon.

I’m speechless with mortification. I’ve no idea what to say to Dennis in this situation. What can one say? I don’t really know these women? They’re nothing to do with me? I just happened to be passing through the foyer and‒

“Anna, I’m most awfully sorry. I’d love to stop and talk to you but this year I’m the chairman of the group I’m with and I have to get back to them. I’ve got to say a few words in a minute. Sorry. See you again soon hopefully.”

And he hurries off towards the men’s room.

“Well, thank you so much God, or fate or whoever you are,” I mutter under my breath through clenched teeth, “for arranging to put Dennis directly in my path at this particular moment in time.”

DURING the second half, everyone carries on knocking back the booze with abandon. Cheryl must’ve got through at least two bottles of red by now, though admittedly a lot if it has ended up in Maggie’s lap and the chef’s towel. I don’t know what the management did to resurrect the pair of them but their clothing doesn’t look any the worse for their ordeal. I can’t detect any give-away odours either, just some very strong perfume.

As the drag act proceeds and the lewd jokes continue to hit the mark with most of the audience, Cheryl is now well into her third bottle. I do rather want to get home tonight and not have the minibus driver refusing to admit too many clearly legless paralytic females onto his vehicle. I decide that it’s time someone waded in and tried to bring a little order to the party. So, when Maggie asks a passing waiter to bring two more bottles of Merlot to the table, raising my voice a little, I say to him that that won’t be necessary actually. There’s plenty left to drink on the table. Maggie’s reaction surprises me.

“Who the bloody hell d’you think you are?” She gets up and lurches towards me. “Miss Prissy-Bloody-Pants. You’ve been sat there all night looking as though you’re ready to put a curse on the lot of us.”

“Yeah,” says Cheryl. “You’ve got a face like a dropped pie.” A few titters go round the table at this and I file the expression away for possible future use myself, but I don’t show that I find this in any way remotely amusing.

Maggie adds: “Someone must’ve shoved a pineapple up your arse.”

“Yeah and a lemon in your gob.” Cheryl’s last comment appears to exhaust their store of insults.

I look at them coldly. “I just think you’ve had enough, that’s all.”

“Sez you,” Cheryl shouts and starts to get up as well but the effort defeats her.

“We can’t afford to have anyone being sick in the minibus. Although you’d probably call it ‘chundering’,” I say to Cheryl. That’s one Aussie word I do know.

Maggie looks as though she might be about to land a punch but instead she says:

“Bloody prig. Come outside and I’ll swipe the smug expression off of your miserable face.”

“Don’t tempt me,” I say. And I am tempted to take up the gauntlet. Maggie’s big but I’m sober. And my heels are half the height of hers. On the other hand I can’t risk Dennis, if his group are still here, coming upon me again in the middle of a fist fight this time.

“But no thanks. I’ll pass on that,” I say at which Maggie does take a swing at me. I easily duck and she lands spreadeagled on the floor. Again from nowhere the bouncers appear and haul Maggie off outside. I hope this time they don’t leave her alone to cause further havoc. I’m glad to see Cheryl slumped in her seat looking bleary, not following Maggie out.

Sharon comes over and sits next to me. We had earlier, after a hurried, whispered conflab when we first got here, strategically positioned ourselves at opposite sides of the table to maintain order. Well that hasn’t worked has it.

She pats my arm.

“That was Dennis wasn’t it?” she says and I nod. “I recognised him from looking at his website with you before your date with him. He looks very nice. Nice, kind, sensitive face.”

“He is nice.”

“I’m sorry about this lot. That pair especially.”

“It’s not your fault. They’re right in a way. I’ve been a complete wet rag tonight. Everyone else thought it was hilarious, Cheryl getting her finger stuck. You did too.”

“Yes, I suppose I did but we can’t always be in the mood for that sort of thing all the time.”

“It’s just not fair though,” I whine. “For once I’m well-behaved and sober and yet Dennis still manages to catch me in the most ludicrous of situations. And clearly trying to hide it from him too.”

“I’m sure he’ll see the funny side of it. You wait. The next time you see him, the pair of you’ll have a good laugh over it.”

“I don’t see there being any next time.”

“I’m sure there will be.” And she comes out with that old horoscope drivel. “If it’s meant to be, it’ll happen.”

She’s being kind so I can’t tell her what eyewash I think it is.

“Thanks Sharon. I expect you’re right.”

I accept a thimbleful of white wine and we toast the future together. It’s gone midnight but as the drag act winds down, I suddenly start to feel a bit happier and more optimistic.

ON MONDAY morning at work, I wonder whether to telephone Dennis and apologise but I simply can’t do it. Maggie however calls me and begs me to forgive her. Repeatedly. She can’t imagine what came over her.

“S’OK,” I keep saying but the apology goes on and on and on until I think I’m going to have to put the phone down.

I am saved by Ned walking in wanting to discuss with me in depth the drainage problem on one of his crony’s wretched light industrial estates. This has come up before. The situation, involving sewage back pressure, has been brewing up for some months and a crisis point has now been reached between Ned’s client and owners of other adjoining parts of the estate. I am to draw up an inter partes Deed regarding valves, single and double actuators, odour eradication measures and the re-routing of drains. Any other time I would have told Ned I was on a vitally important call with a client which couldn’t possibly be interrupted. Instead I tell Maggie I’ll have to speak to her another time as a serious work-related issue has come up.

Before I’ve had a chance to hang up, she tells me that Cheryl is moving on today, earlier than planned, to another relative, Morag, who lives in Glasgow. I agree with Maggie that this is probably a good thing and we say goodbye.

As Ned waddles in and slaps a thick file on my desk, a small smile of satisfaction crosses my face as I picture Cheryl going head-to-head with a red-haired firebrand from the Gorbals, and neither of them understanding a word the other says.

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