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Jonathan Kemp
Jonathan Kemp

Jonathan Kemp teaches creative writing, literature and queer theory at Birkbeck, University of London. His first novel, London Triptych (2010), was shortlisted for the inaugural Green Carnation Prize and won the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. His highly acclaimed collection of short stories, Twentysix, is a milestone of literary erotica in the tradition of Georges Bataille and Jean Genet. Originally from Manchester, he has lived in London for twenty years.


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London Triptych
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From 'London Triptych'


The name’s Jack Rose, or Rosy Jack as the gents like to call me, on account of that soft pink bud nestling between me rosy arse cheeks. I’m a Maryanne, see, and gentlemen pays me handsomely to do things I should likely enough do for free, though the cash definitely helps, make no mistake. Steamers, we call ‘em, the gents what come around; or swells or swanks: moneyed geezers, well mannered, classy, not like the lowlife I knew before I started in this game. But they all, to a man, love that arse of mine, love watching it pucker and pout, the filthy bastards - love to poke it, finger it, sniff it, lick it, fill it, fuck it. And I love them to do it, I’m not ashamed to admit. But I love too the gifts and cash what they show their appreciation of my little rosy star with - my asterisk of flesh, my puckered pal. This hole of mine has turned out to be a right little golden goose.          

          I don’t suppose boys are any different to girls in liking to take presents from those what are fond of us. There isn’t much wrong in gents showing their appreciation of the finer things in life with a trinket or a few shillings, is there now? I wasn’t the first and I doubt very much I’ll be the last, that much I do know. I know too that it is a harsh world, and harder still in this bloody shithole city of London I was pushed into. Fuckin’ impossible if the jaws of poverty hold you as they hold me ma and dad and the other seven miserable brats he sired. If that’s your lot you’d do you well to keep your eyes shut and crawl right back into the cunt you came from, if only that were an option. Instead we open our eyes and crawl forward, lambs to the slaughter every last one of us. A smack on the arse and you’ve no bloody choice is the truth of the matter. Every day a fucking battle. So if you can claw back a little happiness, a little pleasure, a little laughter and joy, it’s no crime. It’ll come as no surprise then when I confess that I feel like the king of the world when a coin is pressed into my palm after being pleasured. It’s bleedin’ hilarious to be making money so easily, isn’t it. And this line of work takes me places I’d never have seen otherwise, that’s for sure. When you have nothing to begin with you only stand to gain, and the way of life most rich gents take for granted seems to me to be the trappings of heaven itself. And the police are kind to me after their fashion. They shut their eyes for the most part, but then they have shut their eyes to worse than me and no mistake. The things I’ve seen in this town would make even old Queen Vic crack a smile.

          Odd the way I fell into the whole business, really. By accident, you might say. I certainly never planned it, but then again I don’t suppose anyone ever sets out to become a whore, do they? It was a bollock-numbing January in ‘93 and I was fast approaching my fifteenth birthday, though I looked much younger. Skinny as a runt and no trace of a beard as yet, though I had sprouted a soft dark down on my privates which thrilled me. I was running telegrams. Fucking awful, it was. Perhaps you’ve known it yourself, that horror when you realise all your time is being given over to others: all your thoughts are about day to day survival. Perhaps like me you have felt yourself chained to a fate you detest. I don’t know. Where I grew up ugliness was the one and only reality, joy was unheard of except for the odd booze up or street fight. I was working about fifteen hours a day running around in all weathers.

          I was born and raised in Bethnal Green, a stinking hole of a place with a cesspit the size of a small lake down the road from our home that filled the air with the stench of shit the whole time. We shared the house with three other families. We had no running water so going for a piss or a crap meant finding a space that hadn’t already been used - in or outside the house. We were all of us permanently sick and two of my sisters died before even learning to walk. My Pa is a useless alcoholic crook. Never done a day’s work in his life. Robs to get his beer money and we never saw a penny of it. He’s violent and spiteful, too, to all of us. One day I came home to find my two little sisters, Millie and Flossie, crying something awful, and when I could finally get some sense out of them, it seems Pa’d got them to pull on a piece of string threaded through a keyhole in the front door. “Pull it hard, girls” he’d said, so they did, eager to please their pa, not knowing that on the other side of the door the string was tied around the neck of a stray cat. He swung the door open to show them the poor strangled beast hanging there, dead by their own fair hands. That amused him no end. The cunt.

          He beats Ma all the time. She always puts up a fight but she always comes off worse, poor cow. I got good at cleaning her up afterwards. He’s a big fucker. We were scared shitless, the little ones crying and screaming every time he was around. I’ll never understand why Ma married him in the first place. I asked her once and all she said was, ‘He used to treat me like gold’. Sure, it’s good to be treated like gold, but I can hardly believe that ole bastard even knows how. She’s deaf in one ear after he thought it a lark to smash two cupboard doors closed on her head one day.

          It was all Ma could do to feed us proper once a week, let alone once a day. Then at the age of fourteen a stroke of luck landed me a job as a messenger for the Post Office in Charing Cross. True, I was delivering grams in storm and snow, frozen to the bone, miserable as sin and tired as a dog. But being a thick bastard I considered myself fucking lucky. All my friends, my elder brothers too, had turned to crime, for where we lived it was steal or starve. I come from a fine line of criminals – though not very good ones. Pa was always behind bars. If we ever needed to find him, we knew he’d be in the pub or in the clink. But for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to do it. My one and only joy was handing my wages to Ma once a week and seeing her face light up from the glow of the coins, both of us knowing I’d earned them honestly. But I was soon to discover another much greater source of both money and pleasure, a way of life that would show me things beyond that narrow horizon of poverty and survival.

          Strangely enough, I never thought it a crime, becoming a renter.

          

There was this other older lad who also worked the grams, Terence Thickbroom was his name. Handsome as they come and charming as the devil with it. He was always larking about and we soon became good friends and then one day he took me to the water closet in the Post Office on the Strand to show me how nice it is to have yourself touched by another’s hand and although I knew well enough already, truth be told, having shared a bed with three older brothers, still I quite liked the look of him and was curious besides to see what his yard looked like so I pretended not to know and let him show me anyhow. And he wasn’t called Thickbroom for nothing, either.

          We met frequently after that and I looked forward to it, I’m not ashamed to admit. And then one day he told me about the money I could make if I were to go to bed with a man.

          I said, “No.”

          He said, “You’ll get four shillings”.

          So I said, “Yes”.

          That very afternoon he introduced me to this older fellow named Taylor who runs a boyhouse in Fitzroy Street in Bloomsbury. It was nothing compared to some houses I’ve seen since, but on my first visit here I thought it was a palace. The carpets in the hallway weren’t exactly new but at least he had them - gas lights too. And a bog out the back. Luxury.

          He’s a fucking odd little bugger, is Taylor. I’d never before seen the like. Thin as a rail with sunken cheeks and no eyebrows and, I swear on my life, face powder. Pinched little lips, beaky nose and restless eyes, his gaze never quite meeting your own. But he was friendly enough, giving me a big toothsome grin when Thickbroom introduced me, his eyes roving up and down my self in a look of exaggerated delight.

          “’Ello, ‘andsome”, he chirped.

          He was dressed in turquoise silk pyjamas underneath a red silk kimono covered with silver birds, and a pair of jewelled golden slippers on his feet. I was mesmerised and horrified in equal measure. He ushered me into the parlour before turning to Thickbroom and saying, “Make yerself scarce ducky, and well done.”

          Despite it being bright daylight outside, the thick dirty gold velvet curtains were drawn and the room was dimly lit by gas lamps. The flames were encased in red glass bulbs, which made the whole place blush. Perfume clouded out from brass burners and filled the room with a vicious musky scent which did nothing to cover the stench of burnt onions. Despite the poor light I could make out a few old armchairs and a long battered and stained divan which Taylor gestured at for me to sit on. He immediately squeezed himself down right next to me, practically foaming at the mouth. He said, “Terence said you was goodlooking, and he wasn’t wrong. You know, you could make lots of money if you cared to.”

          I said that I did. “If any old gentleman with money took a fancy to me”, I said, “I shan’t mind. I’m terribly hard up.” At this, he arched an eyebrow.

          “The extra money will be most welcome, Mister Taylor, sir”.

          “Extra money?” he said, “No, dearie, you misunderstand me. You’ll live here and work here with me and the girls. No more running the grams for you, my fine Ganymede. You’re far too good for that.”

          Well, I’d never considered I had any particular value, so this was news to me, and so while I knew it would break Ma’s heart to see me leave (though she’d be grateful of one less mouth to fill) all the same I also knew that I’d be able to earn much more working for Taylor than I would running grams. I’d have much more fun, too. The situation with my father had made living at home hell and so it didn’t take much reflection before I agreed. Besides, I liked the idea of living there near the West End, having worked it enough times to know it felt like the centre of the universe. Liked it a lot.

          Taylor pushed ever so close to me and said in that hissy way of speaking he has, “Young man, whoring is a calling, a talent, an art of the highest order. There’s a fine tradition to be upheld in the giving of pleasure for money. A fine tradition. It’s not called the oldest profession for nothing.” And he licked his lips and grinned, before continuing, “Thankfully this knowledge has been passed down from cock to mouth for generations. But only the chosen few have been bestowed with this esoteric and erotic art. These keepers of the flame are amongst the most talented givers of pleasure the world has ever known, the most gifted of whores. In this house, this temple, you shall in time join their number and become one of the anointed. You shall know that power. You shall know it well.”

          He suddenly clutched together the folds of his kimono which had fallen open to reveal his pale white chest where the pyjamas were unbuttoned underneath. I could hear laughter coming from the kitchen, where Terence and the other boys were.

           “Yet forget this at your peril”, he said, tapping a bony fingertip on my sternum, “There are those in this world who’ll condemn you, condemn you as fiercely as they condemn their own bodies, for what you do. There are those’ll tell you that pleasure is bad and that giving it for money is the work of the devil himself. But know that they are fools. And no sane man listens to a fool. There are those who believe that only pain can give pleasure - and indeed aren’t a good deal of ‘em the very swells you’ll be servicing, giving them a fair crack of the whip for the pure hell of it, but sure they are worse than the fools, they are ‘ypocrites and you’ll come to recognise them soon enough. For aren’t they running the country, the most of ‘em? And doesn’t each and every one of them pass through that door or one as like it as to make no difference at some time or other in their miserable, Janus-faced lives?”

          He stared at me with eyes wide and I was unsure for a minute whether or not he was waiting for me to answer. But he had only paused to inhale enough breath to fuel the next onslaught. I had never known anyone talk so much, not even Pa in his cups went on so.

          “These fools preach not what they practice”, he said, “And they must be held by each and every whore in the greatest contempt. For the fools and the hypocrites know nothing of joy and would have you know nothing of it too. They have the body for a dirty thing, an animal thing, and place it second to the soul or mind or whatever else they call it.”

          His finger pointed at the window, as if those of whom he spoke were stood behind the closed curtains.

           “They find the body ugly and its parts despicable’, he said, “They curse the body and wish it dead. For only in death, or so they claim, can the spirit live in all its purity. What bollocks! And they spread this ignorance of theirs wherever they can. And they will try all they can to spread it upon you, young man, and make no mistake. But don’t you listen to a word they say, for whatever they say they are doing the opposite themselves. You know they are. You know it better than most. You know that they are not to be listened to, only laughed at, exposed and ignored. The establishment, for it is they I talk of, will use us, will use you, as often as it suits them but it is for no one to know but themselves.”

          He placed a hand on my knee, “A whore’s life is no easy thing and is not to be embarked upon lightly.”

          He moved in closer, narrowing his eyes to slits like a sly cat, and said, “But they are all wrong, see. They are all so wrong. And their mistake is your reward.”

           He rubbed his hand against my thigh.

           “Because pleasure is the greatest gift god gave you, so it is. Pleasure is divine. To give pleasure is to spread joy and to spread joy is godly, isn’t that the truth? Now aren’t we doing God’s work right here, aren’t we spreading joy? I think you’ll find we are. Just look at the smiles on the faces of those that leave.”

          He grinned, revealing yellow, crooked teeth.

           “In ‘ere you’ll learn the ancient knowledge of whorecraft, the art of giving pleasure will be yours. Didn’t the whore of Babylon alone leave enough volumes to keep you busy in your studies for years? Not to mention Nell Gwynn, or Lucretia Borgia. And that Emma Hamilton passed on a trick or two. The boys are less famous, but they are there if you care to look. Sporus, the beautiful slave boy who was castrated and dressed as a woman in order to marry Nero. What he didn’t know about sucking cock isn’t worth knowing, believe you me. Why do you think Nero wanted to marry him so desperately he chopped off the poor boy’s knackers to make him resemble a girl? And those lovely boys that serviced James the First have passed on their wisdom, too. How to make a man feel like a king, or even like a queen if needs must. And it can be yours, that knowledge, all yours.”

          He then took hold of my chin and turned my face toward a pool of red light, examining my face with screwed up eyes. “What did you say your name was, dollface?” he asked, running his calloused thumb across my lips.

          “Jack, sir”, I replied.

          He let his hand drop into my lap, his gaze scanning the room as if he were suddenly not sure where he was.

          “Yes”, he said at last, “It can be all yours, Jack, this wisdom. You will learn the secrets of your body, you will scale its heights and move beyond its limits. You’ll experience new pleasures, forbidden pleasures - pleasures beyond anything else you’ve known. You’ll understand completely what it means to be taken into another dimension. All the distinctions you’ve so far relied upon to give the world meaning will be destroyed and replaced by new ones. A new world will begin to emerge before your eyes. A world of brighter colours and fresher smells, a world of joy and perfection. All the things that aren’t usually allowed to make sense will make sense, finally and joyously. You are a chosen child, my boy, one of the blessed.”

          He moved his hand further up my leg and continued, “There are things about the human body only a few people are allowed to comprehend, secrets the body keeps locked deep within. Things about its limits and how to move beyond them, things about the edges of pleasure and how to transgress their boundaries. You’ll understand every organ and orifice and surface of your flesh so much more than you do now, in ways you are currently incapable of even imagining. You’ll unearth an entire archaeology of pleasure as yet buried beneath the shifting sands of philistine opinion. A palace lies beneath those sands, Jack, a beautiful glittering palace.”

          He emitted a faint gasp as if this palace had erected itself right there in his front room. He held a hand out as if to touch it, then turned to me and laid his clammy palm across my cheek.

          “The perfection of its structure will leave you breathless, lad, but you’ll not be able to resist entering and exploring every room, every corridor, every crevice of its domain. You’ll be a slave to its spaces, its rhythms, its commands. You’ll shiver as you perform every exploration. You may even on occasion suffer most profoundly. But over time, if you succeed, you’ll learn your way around its labyrinthine interior, room by room, secret by secret. And when you know all there is to know about the vagaries and potencies of pleasure, well then, Jack my lad, you’ll be the master of that palace, lord of all you survey!

          “Are you game?”

          And with that he grabbed my privates and moved his face so close to mine that I could smell his hellish breath. Stifling a response to retch, I nodded most eagerly, looked him straight in the eye, and said with a smile, “Aye, sir, aye, I’m game.”

          For didn’t I want to know everything? Who doesn’t dream of knowing everything?

          “Come on then, handsome, show us what you’re made of. What can you do with this?” and he whipped out a stand that gave off a stink like a latrine, and then he leaned back with his hands behind his head. I knew this was a test and that I had to pass it, I had to impress the bastard. The smell was making my eyes sting. I don’t think he’d washed the damned thing since the day his mother stopped doing it for him.

          I slid onto my knees and turned towards him - towards it - trying to look as pleased to be doing so as I could. By the time my mouth had reached it bile had risen and a watery mouthful spilled out onto his cock. I rubbed it in and he sighed. I spat some more and rubbed some more and washed the bugger down in my own spittle before letting it anywhere near my mouth. My ingenuity paid off, for he groaned all the while and I slipped the whole thing into my mouth now that it smelled slightly sweeter, or at least of myself, and the cheesy muck had for the most part been washed clean away. He only once barked at me the word “Teeth!”, clipping the side of my head as he did so. It was a job well done and he said I could work for him.

           I moved in there and then.

          

          

        

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