Toni Davidson was born in Ayrshire, Scotland. His novel Scar Culture (Canongate, 1999), has been translated into nine languages. His short story collection, A Gradual Gathering of Lust was published in 2008. In 2012 his second novel My Gun Was As Tall As Me was published by Freight Books. His most recent novel, The Alpine Casanovas also published by Freight and launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, in August 2015. For more visit tonidavidson.com.
A Short Story
By Toni Davidson
Electro knew from a young age it was unusual to have both parents going out to work late at night. And this affected his mornings. Sky was keen for him to have a normal routine even if they didn’t. “Whatever normal is.” she would add dismissively. From very young it was up to him to get up, eat something and walk to school. His friends were full of breakfast groans, tales from cornflake arguments and how they had slurped then lurched out of their home, barely ready for the day ahead. Electro had not seen the routine, the commute, the toil that most people endured. He saw very few early mornings where Sky or Bertie would schlump out of bed. The roles were easily reversed and so there was Electro inching open the door to check on their safe slumber before he left.
Sky was the working mother who eschewed her break time to slip back home to see her son. She was the nightlife entrepreneur who, along with her husband DJ Bertie ‘Reachout’ Xafer, ran the most successful hotel disco in town. For most working moms it was a snatched lunchtime, for her it was a brief breath away from the choke of dry ice and the crescendo groupies who hung around her console ogling her. At 0100 she crept past the sleeping baby sitter who lay flat out on the sofa in their apartment at the top of the hotel. It didn’t matter. No one who had worked a split shift could be blamed for conking out. They were there, that’s what counted. But when she slipped into Electro’s room she would often find him by the window, asleep with his head on the sill, his blond, floppy hair caught up in the mosquito screen, a sketchbook in his lap. She carried him into bed and pulled the sheets over him. She paused just to watch him and not rush back even though she knew Bertie would be wondering where the hell she was and why the dry ice had dried up, why the lights were stuck in a less than inspiring sequence. She had explained to him many times that she needed to go check on Electro, especially in those early years when the hotel’s club was establishing its footing and he was still so young. Bertie nodded but she felt the acknowledgement was always begrudging. “There’s a babysitter, right? He’ll be fine. He’s not going anywhere is he?”
This wasn’t strictly true.
On the early morning of his 11th birthday, Electro, a quiet, slightly built boy who nevertheless fizzed with energy went on his first night out. A clubbing debutant. Of course he’d already done all night partying; to a few sleepovers, pleasant enough stretched evenings of chocolate and silliness; pillow fights and the fizziness of their drinks bubbling up until, exhausted, they slept in sleeping bags on tiled floors. He always had to go to his friends’ homes with their more conventional routines. “My mum says I can’t stay at your place because of all the goings on.” Kurt told him while Rico’s dad said something along the lines of ‘over my dead body.’ When Electro told this to his mum, expecting her to be put out, offended at such refusal, she shrugged her shoulders, “Less crap and crumbs on my sofa then.”
Besides there was always the chance that these people were right. Electro at such a young age found it difficult to fully understand what was going on in his own home. It was like all these grown people, these freaky dressed adults had decided to have their own noisy sleepovers and then later on had to snore on Sky’s precious sofa or be propped up in the bath like a stolen corpse no one knew what to do with. On club night mornings, that is four mornings a week, Electro usually had to step through a battlefield of excess; stinking bodies lying where they had fallen, a last drink in their hand, a last word on lips still caked with ashen saliva.
Electro celebrated the midnight chimed moments of his 11th birthday by holding the plan of his escape in front of him, a carefully colour coded and beautifully drawn map showing the route from attic to basement – with safe places highlighted as well potential problems highlighted in red like the hotel security staff and getting through the lobby.
At 12.15, Electro paused at the open window, checking for the gentle breathing of Cynthia who had collapsed like she always did with her knitting in her hand. He was keen to venture and return without her waking up. He didn’t want to get her in trouble, for Sky to rage at her. He liked Cynthia. She was one of the good ones. When she said good night to him it sounded like she meant it.
He gulped in the night air, and paused to look at the shimmering boulevard, its peacock display of lights accompanied by the honks and shouts of life at night and further, the ink black sea, the shuttered pleasure craft, the bob of fishing boats. His first steps were easy and he grew into his role. It seemed right to be wearing all black. The TV show Randall had helped.Weekend afternoons were about TV and they gave Electro a chance to hang out with Bertie or at least watch him fall in and out of consciousness as they watched endless reruns of Randall. Electro liked to test Bertie, to get him to narrate the action with his eyes closed and even in the most drastic of states he could scene by scene it all. Ending usually with Randall the effortless cat burglar creeping with feline grace over rooftops then dropping gently into rooms with women sleeping, their hair flowing across the pillow. His destination was different of course but he saw the advantage and so in black top and trousers and with a too big beret he had found in Bertie’s bulging wardrobe, he walked down the rusty fire escape that took him to the back of the hotel. Electro may have descended in silence but the air was bursting with noise, the thump of bass and drum rattling the metal railings of the stairs.
This was, of course, not a surprise. Dance music had been his lullaby, his soundtrack. There was never a day without music but it was at night, at the all back to ours ‘happenings’ Bertie and Sky hosted, that the small apartment throbbed with sound. Electro could already remember being 5 and stumbling, with sleep in his eyes, into the living room where, squinting, he could see maybe a dozen adults moving as though stung by the scorpions that sometimes came into the apartment. People shouted into each other’s ears. He saw one man bite a woman’s face then push her so that her back arched, her long hair sweeping the floor. Then he realized it was a kiss not an attack and looked quickly away. One man on Sky’s precious sofa – in bare feet – was waving both arms above his head, languidly, like seaweed caught in the current. Just before Sky tackled Electro and whisked him back into his bedroom, he saw his father in familiar pose; muscled shoulders straining against his silk shirt and hunched over his turntable, a hand holding the black vinyl like it was a dish waiting to be served.
Electro paused above the public entrance to Sizzlin’ Beats. His map showed him going past this and into the hotel itself before entering the club via the member’s entrance – a golden lift to the basement club. Sky had told him and anyone else who got caught up in the buzz of Sizzlin’ Beats all about this two door policy. It was both her job and her pleasure to keep people informed about the club. She would sit on her sofa and first a journalist then a photographer then an old friend would call by. The door to their apartment at the top of the Hotel Elegance was often left open to allow for a steady procession of visitors orchestrated mostly by Sky as Bertie slept on. Electro liked to sketch what he saw and Sky paid for him pocket money for each picture.
“You remember for us sweetie ‘cos we’re gonna forget.”
He drew his mother dressed in white and posed on the white sofa, her long legs tucked underneath her, cat like, a cigarette left in a lion’s gaping jaw, an ashtray designed for the hotel’s safari theme. He found it difficult to draw her, not to capture beauty or anything like that although people always commented how beautiful she was. He twiddled his pencil and tried to stop her disappearing. In the whiteout, he managed to curl her black hair, to colour her toenails sapphire but textures of white were beyond his skills. Instead he listened to her schmoozing “We love seeing new faces and they are welcome as long as they have the right attitude.”
Music from his father’s records was on the outside as much as it was inside the club. The muffled throb and thud, was squeezed out into the cooling night air, a sudden push of rhythm that rippled through the waiting crowd. When the doormen shut the door again, the clubbers regrouped into smoking huddles to await their next opportunity to get inside.
No one saw his svelte, black figure as he ran down the alley from the back entrance of the club. This was riskiest part of his journey. At the end of the alley he would be out briefly into the glare of the boulevard where no one would pay him much attention and then he would only be in the lobby for a matter of seconds before he went sharp left to reach the lift to the basement. He would of course be instantly recognizable to the hotel front of house staff particularly the doormen who liked to tousle his hair and lift him up above their heads when he was young; up to their shoulders now that he was older. They did not see him rush past them into the lobby. The receptionist busy with new arrivals didn’t notice his sprint across the marble floor, didn’t hear the cheer as Electro dived between closing doors of the lift.
“Hi handsome, you ready to party?”
There were five people plus him squeezed into the lift. Whoever greeted him continued to talk loudly and without pause, his arrival just another event in an exciting evening. Electro felt like he had been swallowed by a beast. The fur lined walls made the lift smaller as well as more organic, as though he and the other occupants were fodder on a peristaltic journey. He felt small in this moving stomach – and under dressed. Suddenly his slick black camouflage made him naked. He understood, however, what he was seeing. It wasn’t alien to him even though one of them men was dressed in a silver suit adorned with blue jewels and hair that rocketed into the air thick with perfume. He understood because both Sky and Bertie took to the bathroom a long time before they had to leave for the club. Sometimes when he was still awake to see them leave it was like his parents had been transformed. Their day clothes could hardly be described as dour, especially Sky who dressed like a TV show the whole time, but when it came to a working night, they slipped into high colour, high visibility clothing. “My first and second skin, honey. “This from Sky and Bertie.
Of the three women in the lift two were identical, their faces coloured like jaguars, their skin tight clothing camouflaged with animal print. They curled around each other, their hands at the side of each other’s heads as they whispered, soft feline hisses with no discernible words. As the lift shuddered quickly to a halt he met the eyes of the third woman who was turning her back on the black leathered man whose hands were searching for something lost in his friend’s silver suit. She was rolling her eyes at them but smiling too and her smile broadened to fall on him, landing like an embrace. He recognised her as a friend of his parents; tall, thin, with razor’d cheek bones and deep set, vampyric eyes; a figure striking to even Electro’s young appraisement. Dressed, like him, head to foot in black but in that adult adornment way that Electro noticed but did not dwell on for too long. Clothes to him were just something you put on.
“You stepping out tonight, young Electro?”
She laughed as she asked him the question. Sister X was her name although again he wasn’t sure why. He had a good memory for things he didn’t understand as though he was storing everything up for when he did.
Sister X had a husky voice that coughed out her words,
Outside the lift, the others whooped and rushed forwards but Sister X held the door.
“Sky and Reachout know you are out tonight?”
He shook his head.
“You give your babysitter the slip?”
“Last question. You wanna see the sights?”
Electro wasn’t sure but he nodded anyway.
“I’m cool with that,” Sister X took his hand and led him out of the lift
“You keep hold of my hand, alright? If I see something I don’t think you should see we will walk away and if you see something you don’t want to see then tap your nose.
Sister C extended her long index finger, its nail painted black, and touched her nose. “Like this. Got it?”
“And when you wanna leave just shake your thing and I’ll get the message.”
Electro could feel the music invade his body, pulsing the blood in his veins; the bass boom, the drum kicks assaulting him, shaking him as he approached the silver door. The bead curtain blew outwards like the hair of a beast. He held on to Sister X’s hand as the door opened, the beast roaring, a battering of beats.
Electro didn’t realise he was holding Sister X’s hand too firmly until she shouted in his ear.
“ Relax! Leggo and just hold on to my belt.”
THIS IS THE DEFINITION OF LOVE
All around him people threw their arms into the air as a man’s voice echoed around the club.
Sister X was no exception and Electro found his own arms going up, like some kind of reflex, his fingers tickling the smoky air.
A rumbling bass line began to spike through a fuzz of electronic noise then a melody that sounded like the drip of a tap, joined in. Sister X moved away from Electro and lost herself in convulsion. Electro had once seen a boy in his class turn white then twirl and jerk, a trail of saliva hanging in the air before the poor kid had landed heavily, a sickening slurp of teeth through gum. He thought it the same but it wasn’t. The whoops and squeals all around him were full of excitement not shock or concern. When he saw a small man, dressed in white, an angel of some variety fall to the ground, no one picked him up. Instead he raised himself, arching his back and held the position as though he had been frozen.
At school, dancing was boys on one side and girls on the other like adversaries unwilling to look each other in the eye. And little Electro, in his shorts and with his north European complexion looked out of place and he sometime felt like he shouldn’t be in the class at all. But the teacher tried to keep them all entertained, locals and incomers alike. She played an old folk dance spiced down for kids to shuffle from one foot to another, their rhythm in search of rhythm. In the club nobody looked away. Everybody’s eyes were on someone. Sister X came back and gripped his hand, splashing saliva and words into his ear excitedly, “It’s just so fucking wonderful. Where else could this be?”
She took him further into the beast and Electro looked back as though expecting the doorway to have disappeared. This was how it usually happened. He had read and he had seen that when you open a door to some where you have never been, it always shuts unexpectedly. Not with a slam but with a click.
It got too much quickly. He walked maybe another five metres, as Sister X, weaved him like a dog on a lead through the crowd but then he stopped, a reluctant walker suddenly balking. For a start the music was so sickly loud his teeth chattered with the high notes that forced their way through cracks in his skull and his bowels felt like moving as the bass notes sped up his shit to its inevitable destination. He hadn’t expected it to be so physical. In the dance class, the teacher hand clapped a rhythm and shouted instructions. Nobody moved for fear of getting it wrong.
His eyes were being eviscerated by sharp lights, fogged by a sweet smelling smoke. He knew Sky was likely to be found in charge of this. After all, this was her job. “She switches things on and off. Fast.” Bertie liked to joke. “I am the Ambience Director.” she liked to say seriously. Her ambience, the lights which strafed through the crowd were now inside his head just like Bertie’s thumping tune. There was no escape.
“Come on,” Sister X, tugged at him, a little impatiently. But then the lights went down low and there was only darkness save for the red blur of emergency exits, she stopped like a convert to the cause. “Oh wait, see this, feel this. I love it when they do this. This is a Sizzlin’ Beats moment.”
With lights down so low he was surrounded by writhing shadows that stank; fusty, funky skin close to his, glistening with sweat. Cigarettes glowed like unchained fairy lights and there was the occasional flare from lighters and matches as though people were trying to find their way. At first he thought the music had stopped a power cut that sometimes happened along the boulevard but no, it was still there, muted to a rumble, a distant thunder of bass. But coming back, closer. He recognised this more than Sister X knew. Music was a stealth burglar; an intruder into his dreams as Bertie did his all back to ours events. He knew this was a favourite tune because night after night he listened to its hook rattle the bedroom door. Electro’s sleep rhythm was punctuated by off beats and tishing hihats.
The shadows around him began to clap their hands, a gentle smack that everyone had down pat. Sister X moved behind him, taking his slender arms, reaching his hands with her own and she clapped for him as though he was a babe in the club’s arms. Disco baby had come of age. He wanted her to stop and was about to complain when there was a surge both in beat and in light as another drum kicked in and a strobe light pulsed slowly above his head.
Suddenly the silent but writhing shadows erupted in a chant that punched into the darkness as another blast of scented smoke filled the air. Sister X had joined in the chant too and was being dragged away by two large men their bodies uncovered except for white underpants. Electro wondered what she had done wrong but then again, there were the smiles. What seemed wrong here was actually okay. Even as his surroundings emerged from darkness, Electro was feeling increasingly disorientated. The strobe light made his body movement slow into jagged, step by step motion. But it affected his head too. He looked for both Bertie and Sky in different places – he thought they were there in front of him, then to one side and then behind him. Sister X was waving to him but then it was Sky. He felt a hand on his head then on his back, a finger on his spine and a shadow leaving, merging with the surroundings after every blink of the strobe. A man’s face leered into his and like many others, this was a face wild eyed and painted with camouflage colours.
A moment of near silence again, then another moment. What had gone wrong? The silence rose to a hush and still longer so that the hush became a murmur. Were people worried? Suddenly, his father’s voice roared into the microphone ARE YOU SIZZLIN? As the crowd shouted, whooped or simply shut their eyes and screamed, Bertie dropped the tune that everyone had been waiting for. Relief. Release. This was a tune he knew well from his tossing and turning nights; those sweet dreams punctuated by the punch of drum, the bass caress. This soaring song with its twitchy, squelching bass line took everyone out of the shadows. His mother raised the light level and the volume of the squeaky tune just seemed to get louder and louder until BANG! Everything happened at one. One moment Electro didn’t know where he was and then the next he was everywhere, the clubs mirrors reflecting him to every corner. The brightest of lights cut through all the dark, the smoke and he saw into the distance, hands raised like mass surrender.
Electro tapped his finger on his nose, a Morse signal for distress and waited for Sister X to pull him out of the encircling dry ice. He could see her being held aloft on the shoulders of near naked men, her arms stretched out above her towards the huge mirror ball hung from the ceiling. Her eyes were closed, her smile broad and the skin on her arms was changing every moment, a dappled kaleidoscopic fur.
She wasn’t going anywhere and Electro formed his first rule: you’ve got to know when to leave the party and he turned and ran out of the club, a slalom dash through the enthralled dancers.