In Whitechapel, London, there stands a pub where you can eat a kebab and watch a woman strip. It isn’t in the guidebooks.
Push open the frosted-glass door and head towards the red hatch on the left. Place an order and choose between chilli or garlic sauce. Next stop the bar, tap only, no bottles here. Don’t squeeze the pint too hard, brittle plastic cracks and beer collects like teardrops on fingers.
Fluorescent lights wipe out shadows except dark circles under eyes. The evening drinkers and Jack the Ripper sightseers are gone, only the midnight crowd gathers. They stand in small groups like leaves blown in off the street. The square wooden planks of the stage rise up and pen them in. Nobody moves; hands grip pita as iceberg lettuce melts to the floor.
A man in blue Reebok tracksuit bottoms tugs on a suit jacket and shoulders his way to the front. He holds an old Nescafe jar and greasy fingers drop in pound coins; click and rattle. Have the cash ready, no UB40, senior, or student discounts; don’t ask for change. Only when the glass is packed with gold do the lights blink off. The red curtain twitches; music thrums from a ghetto blaster on the bar. A woman strides onto the stage. She adjusts a bra-strap with the twitch of black painted nails.
Ignore the stretch-marks on her thighs and breasts: it is the yellow lamps at the corner of the stage that make the valleys run deep. She is eighteen for those who wish hard enough. Her spine twists as the music vibrates through her steady legs. Eyes fixed on the cracked tiles of the mirrorball; nostrils flared against the cold metallic smell of garlic in the air. She pivots, tilts backwards towards the floor, canter leavers with her right foot; hands tweaking the frayed cords that tie her bra and knickers into place.
A fourth cover version is playing before she stands naked. The song keeps beating, but she is done. She turns to the curtain and bows, stiffly from the waist, to pick up the thong; her lips hairless as the doner pirouetting on its pole. Sweat dribbles. No one reaches out to touch; they bite into bread and meat, and take another gulp of London Pride. Faded velvet sweeps the stage and she vanishes – until the jar is full again.
The lights come up, time to go home.