By Simon Downham-Knight
It was the height of Summer, somewhere in the early ‘90s. I was in my early twenties and had lived away from home since I was sixteen. The curtains were drawn tight to keep the sun out; the ash tray was overflowing, and I was three films into a VHS binge. I was halfway through a film called Santa Sangre that I had rented on the strength of the lurid painting on the cover and a tagline that boasted “Forget everything you have ever seen…” A bold claim, I thought, but as I lay on the sofa in the semi darkness being assaulted and seduced by this weird and transgressive tale of circus folk and mental illness; I was beginning to think it was fair. A circus elephant had just died, and the strange community were engaged in a solemn funeral parade with the elephant in a coffin that looked more like a skip. I was shaking my head in disbelief and had just taken a big draw from my joint, when the doorbell rang, causing me to jump and drop the doobie out of my mouth and down the back of the sofa, burning my hair and neck as it went. As I scrambled to put the hot rock out and looked up at the screen to see the elephant’s coffin being dropped off the edge of a cliff into a dump and hundreds of near-naked people, painted white, emerged from the dump in a free for all to chop up the elephant and devour it.
I opened the door of the flat in Pimlico, London and squinted in the brightness of the outside. She was standing there staring at me with these icy blue eyes. She had long straight hair all the way down to her bottom, in army fatigues, a blue and white Sergio Tacchini tracksuit top, and these bright white Fila trainers.
“Is that weed I can smell?” She said.
“It might be.” I said, smirking. “Do you want to come in?”
She leaned back and suspiciously scoured the length of the Pimlico street.
“Nah!” She said and smiled in a way that excited me. “Do you wanna come for a walk?” And her smile cracked open revealing a gleaming white set of teeth. “We can smoke it on the way.”
“A walk?” I said and scratched at my mane of curly hair. It was good to see her. I’d seen her out and about a few times and met her once before and been really struck by her beauty, but more by her fiery anger. From a distance, I’d seen her getting into all sorts of scrapes and fights with people. She was a real firework: beautiful, but liable to blow up in your face. As much as I was enjoying Santa Sangre and the fact that I had a nagging, gnawing feeling in my gut that it was a bad idea to go with her that day, I decided to go along.
She didn’t want to come in, so she waited outside for me in the sun and I thought about her as I twisted up three pure weed spliffs. I found her fascinating and mysterious in a way that made my body tingle. I could see she was angry at something and admired the way that that fury burned. When I told my mate, Des, that I liked her; Des had told me that she was fucked in the head.
“Complete lunatic, that one.” He said
“What do you mean?” I said.
“Something about her being served up to a load of paedos by her mum when she was a kid.” He said. “Ask her about it. She tries to tell everyone. She wants heads on pikes, she does. Some bloody retribution for what happened to her.” He said it in such an unfeeling and matter of fact way, that I suddenly felt the spike of a frosty knot in the pit of my stomach that was just beginning to stir. These tight spirals of suppressed memories of abuse would take almost two decades to fully unravel. I had lived in Pimlico for about a year and in that time, I’d met some young people who had dodgy stories about funny goings on with children and high-level sorts in various posh blocks of flats in the area. One guy I knew used to get really upset every time he got pissed or stoned. I could tell the pain was real, but I really couldn’t understand what he was talking about once he started crying. Something about being farmed him out to a high-level paedophile ring. He would become a giant snotty mess and his body would convulse with these giant childlike sobs.
I emerged out into the bright warm sunshine and smiled down at her and she smiled up at me. Standing up straight I’m a looming six foot nine and, at that time, was imbued with a new confidence; having just lost a large amount of weight and going from being a fat cunt to being a skinny cunt with loads of ugly loose skin. She put her hand through my arm and the two of us headed up the big white pillared houses of Charlwood Street towards St Georges Drive. Before long, a puzzled smile crept upon my face.
“Where are we actually going?” I said. Now, she was smiling a smile that showed a woman unable to contain herself.
“It’s a surprise.” She said. “You like surprises, don’t you?” I then turned my smile to her.
“I guess so.” I said. “It depends what though. I mean who likes shitty surprises?” She shrugged, almost imperceivably and we carried on along St Georges Drive. She pressed the button of a pelican crossing and we waited. I looked up at the street sign.
“Lupus Street.” I said. “Do you know what lupus means?”
“It’s Latin for wolf.” She said.
“It is. It is. Yes, it is.” I said, with a huge grin on my face. “It’s also a nasty disease that starts off with a painful rash that apparently looks like a wolf bite, hence the name.”
I was so into what I was saying that I wasn’t paying attention to her expression, which had clouded over. Right over! “It moves on to extreme tiredness, terrible joint pain and sensitivity to light, like a fucking vampire.” I said, my eyes blazing with excitement and enthusiasm. Suddenly, I looked down at her and saw that expression of thunder and stopped dead in my tracks. She looked me dead in the eye.
“Mah nan died in fucking agony from lupus.” She hissed and she shifted me a harsh glare that caused my face to flush bright red. “Yeah! Right!” She said. Fuck! Foot in mouth disease, or what? Suddenly her face cracked with a huge grin and she jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow. “Had you going there!” She said and giggled as she pointed to my beetroot red face. I joined in and we both giggled as we crossed Lupus Street and headed down Claverton Street. “Any fascinating facts about the meaning of the word Claverton?” She said and we both smiled. Thank fuck! She lit up a rollie and we wandered along taking in the sights and the fine weather.
We rounded the corner onto Grosvenor Road and were about to go past Dolphin Square, which was an exclusive, art deco block of private flats populated by celebrities, lords and politicians. I’d been for a swim a few times in their pool that was used in Michael Reeves’ second film, The Sorcerers, back in 1967. She stopped dead outside.
“Do you know what this place is?” She said. I looked up at the big white letters over the red brick arches.
“It’s Dolphin Square, innit?” I said and she rolled her eyes.
“Of course, it’s fucking Dolphin Square.” She said and shifted me a sour look. “Do you know what goes on in there?”
“I’ve heard some rumours and some stories.” I said.
“They’re more than rumours.” She said. “My best friend’s dad is a mural painter. He painted some of the most famous people in the sixties. Yeah, right! He painted a mural of my best friend swimming with a dolphin when he was ten years old. He also used to take my friend to sex parties in here and share him round to various Boho artists and government ministers.
“Really?” I said, as a lightbulb of recognition came on in my head.
“Really?” She said. “Really? Is that all you’ve got to say?” She turned her fierce and blazing eyes up at me. I could feel my heart beating in my chest and my breathing getting quicker and heavier. I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. “That’s the fucking problem.” She said. “People know this stuff is going down, but they just don’t give a shit about it.” She was seething and shaking her head and I feared she might scratch my face off. “Yeah, right!” She said.
“It’s not that.” I said. “It’s definitely not that. It’s just that story. I’ve heard it before. At least, something like it. My mate, he tells a similar story whenever he gets fucked up; through his sobs.” She seemed to calm down a bit and her breathing got slower and steadier. She looked through the gates and the red brick arches into the quadrangle in the middle of the building at three sculpted copper dolphins that were suspended, swimming round in a circle around the fountain. Her shoulders dropped.
“He tells everyone when he gets fucked up.” She said and took in a huge breath and let out a big sigh. “He spills over the side to anyone who’ll listen. He’s a fucking mess that kid, but it’s not his fault.” She looked at me imploringly. “It’s not his fault!” She said again. She had stopped seething, but now just looked sad in a way that made my heart ache. I reached over and put my hand on her shoulder, and she flinched, but then relaxed a little. Her shoulders dropped and she looked up and smiled at me. “Come on, let’s go and find a place where we can smoke one of them spliffs.” She said and she trotted off without me. I followed her, but I was starting to wonder whether Des was right and that I should have listened to them feelings in my guts.
It’s too late now.
I caught up to her and she put her arm through mine again and we wandered up Millbank in silence for a bit. We passed Lambeth Bridge and came to a little park by the river named Victoria Tower Gardens, because it’s in the shadow of Victoria Tower, an imposing building that always creeped me out at night because it looks like a gigantic jackal bearing down on you, with its long ears and three leering glowing eyes. We sat on the grass in the shade of a tree and blazed up. As soon as that sweet smoke hit my lungs, I felt the tensions of the last half hour or so melt away and she was starting to look good to me again. She took the spliff from me and smiled as she drew deeply. I got the feeling that we could fall in love over the course of this walk and I started thinking about the life we could have together. I suddenly had this image of her sitting at a table in an old farmhouse as I cooked us roast dinner on an AGA. I gazed lovingly at her through the hazy smoke when an old tramp startled us by making his presence known.
“You two are bea-utiful. You two are in love!” He said and I looked up and saw stained, brown-trousers ripped all the way up to his waist. His entire face, apart from an enormous Roman nose was obscured by a thick beard and greasy, grey dreadlocks. “I know what that’s like, coz I’m in love too.” He said, and she couldn’t stop herself from grinning. “You see that space over there.” He said, pointing to a large pile of rubble in a space between buildings. “It used to be a hospital. I was in there not so long ago after my wife tried to stab me in the guts with a screwdriver. I put my hand up to stop her and she got me a goodun in between my fingers. It was like a black hole right in here.” He said, pointing to a red scar between the middle finger and ring finger of his left hand. “I woke up the next morning in excruciating pain. My hand had swollen up like a big purple balloon. When I tried to make a fist…” He held his hand up and clawed his fingers a couple of times but winced before he got to a fist. “I’d never felt pain like it.” He said. “Pain close to madness, I tell you.” He lifted his clawed hand up into the air and made a fist, paused for dramatic effect. “Insanity!” He proclaimed, then brought his hand down with a flourish. “Westminster Hospital had been there since 1938 and I was in there! Not six months ago, having all the poison scooped out of the wound in my hand. People worked in there, people were fixed in there, people got better in there, got worse in there, people died in there and now look at it, gone. Gone! Soon we’ll go the same way. Dust and bones. Don’t waste your lives, young ones. Time is precious. It is the only commodity worth anything.” And with that, he took a small brown bottle of booze from his pocket, opened it and drank from it deeply before offering it to us. We both raised both hands in unison and shook our heads, no, and he staggered off leaving us both smiling at each other. She really was beautiful.
Before long, we’re walking past the Houses of Parliament.
“Do you know what that’s called?” I said, motioning up to the tower.
“It’s Big Ben innit? Everyone knows that. Yeah, right!” She said and rolled her eyes at me.
“Ah, but it isn’t.” I said, feeling smug and not a little self-satisfied. “The bell is called Big Ben, the tower itself is called St Andrews Clocktower.” And I assumed the position of somebody expecting a laugh and an arched eyebrow that showed she was impressed at my superior knowledge. I got neither.
“Who gives a shit?” She said. “Everyone calls it Big Ben. You ask someone if they know where St Andrews Clocktower is and they don’t have a fucking clue what you’re talking about. It’s called Big fucking Ben!”
My heart jumped up into my mouth and we continued on for about fifteen minutes in silence. We walked up Whitehall and passed the Cabinet Office. I thought about telling her that my dad worked in there and then thought better of it. It’s just as we passed the Cenotaph, when I took a deep breath.
“What’s with all the anger?” I said.
“You know Des, right?” She said.
“Yeah, you know I do.” I said.
“Well, I know he goes round telling people about me.” She said and I shrug.
“He’s made… allusions.” I said.
“Allusions?” She said. “Allusions? “And I could see her heckles start to rise, so, before she kicked off or bit my head off again, I said.
“Why don’t you tell me?” And she did.
“I didn’t even remember any of it until I was about eighteen. Something shifted inside me when I found this black and white photo of me; that my mum had in an old cigar tin. I was aged about four and I’m sitting on the floor in a short dress, smiling over at someone, with my legs open showing off my knickers. I could see my mum’s lap and legs sitting in a chair in the picture and I suddenly remembered being in that room with her there. She was telling me to do what the nice man asked me to do and her sister, my aunt, was sitting opposite us smiling and winking and opening her legs and flashing her knickers. She used to do that all the time; show me her knickers, then move ‘em across, like, and show me ‘er fanny. Do you think that’s weird?”
“Yeah.” I said. “More than a little bit.” She carried on.
“Yeah, right!” She said. “Next, I found all these drawings of Wendy from Peter Pan, but it was me and I…” She trailed off and appeared to be staring off into the distance, looking all wistful, before suddenly snapping back.
“I always thought he was dodgy.” She said.
“Who was?” I said.
“Peter Pan. I mean, he looked like a twelve- or thirteen-year-old but was he, actually? Like a vampire, he didn’t age. Just coz he looked like a kid; doesn’t mean he was one.” She said.
“I hadn’t thought about it like that.” I said, feeling a bit giddy from all this.
“Nobody talks about how he killed the Lost Boys when they got too old.” She said.
“Did he?” I said.
“The line in the book says: when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out.” She paused a moment for dramatic effect. “Thins them out!” She said again. “You can read the whole story that Peter Pan is actually the bad guy stealing the children away for his own selfish amusement. Captain Hook and his crew are ex-Lost Boys who managed to escape being killed by Peter. Nothing affects Peter Pan. He just forgets everything. He’s amoral” She stopped talking and stood there breathing for a few moments before continuing. “As I looked through the pictures in the cigar box, I found more pictures of me. One of me just in a pair of knickers and a blindfold, then one of me completely naked apart from the blindfold.” At this point, I was not only wishing I hadn’t asked her, but also wishing I’d stayed indoors and finished watching Santa Sangre. “So, yeah, these drawings of me around that age as Wendy.” She said.
“What age?” I said.
“Well, they were dated 1970, so I would have been four.”
“Four?” I said.
“Yeah, right!” She said, nodding vigorously, fixing me with her intense gaze. “These pictures just got worse and worse… they acted as some kind of key to unlocking these suppressed memories. I’d been mind controlled. Brain washed, y’know, to forget it. Thing is, for girls, the programming starts to break down when they’re about eighteen. For blokes it’s older, but for girls, it’s eighteen. Yeah, right!”
My head was really starting to spin with all this. Mind control? Brain washing? It all sounded so far-fetched and fucked up, but it also didn’t feel like she was lying.
“Did you talk to your mum about it?” I said.
“I tried to.” She said. “But she was mind controlled too. And her sister. My aunt. Yeah, right!”
My head was beginning to hurt with all this. I was beginning to wish she would stop talking. Then she dropped the bomb.
“They first took photos of me just in knickers and then in a blindfold to normalise it. Then the touching started and then the penetration. In my case the abuse was oral and anal.” She said it in such a blunt and matter of fact tone that it almost slipped through my head. In one ear and out the other. Almost. “They took photos of that ‘n’ all.” She said. I’m twenty-five now, so this was fucking years ago, but some shops in London are still selling my pictures. My abuse continues. Whilst there’s still cunts wanking themselves off to pictures of me, it never ends.” My ears were ringing, and my head was spinning.
“Yeah, right!” She said. I didn’t have a clue of what to say and we wandered through Trafalgar Square, surrounded by dirty pigeons, without saying a word. I started this walk feeling optimistic that I would get a jump. My first jump in a while, I was starting to realise that I hadn’t felt this unsexy in memory. What were we even doing there, anyway? Could I just leave her and go home?
“Here, let me buy you an ice cream.” She said and motioned to an old bloke, in a cloth cap with a rollup jammed into the corner of his mouth, who was standing behind an ice cream barrow. “Do you want a 99 with nuts and juice?” She said and I nodded with a smile. She smiled a winning smile back at me. “Yeah, right. Course you do. Who don’t want one with nuts and juice?” Within moments, we had gone up St Martin in the Fields, a church that had been there, in one iteration or another, since the Roman times and probably before. Past the National Opera House and onto Charing Cross Road, smiling at each other again as we ate our ice creams. She’s alright. A short walk up past Leicester Square with souvenir shops, restaurants and bookshops, and things were already getting seedier. The telephone boxes were full of coloured cards that cheerfully advertised prostitutes selling their wares declaring “Miss Whiplash” and “New young delight for watersports and hardsports” (whatever that meant), along with telephone numbers that began with 071. She motioned for us to go left down Compton Street and suddenly we were in Soho. Now, Soho in the early ‘90s was a very different beast to the Soho of 2021. It’s still considered a Red-Light District, but progress and gentrification have meant that the seediness has faded very much into the background. Shops displayed signs that read “Exotic Show” and “Strip Tease” and “Live Girls!!!” Doorways with cards taped to the outside led to dingy red-light corridors and walk ups. “Exotic Model – Come up!” read one. “Sally – Busty Blond – Slim Model” read another and the Raymond Revuebar, an enormous theatre and strip club that remained there until 2004, took pride of place, towering over all the sex shops and peep shows like a sleazy Santa’s Grotto.
“Can we just pop in ‘ere?” She said, motioning to a fairly inconspicuous looking shop front that was completely painted a dark matt grey, including all the windows, with the word Unicorn painted in white at the top. The door was open inwards and was decorated in a rainbow streamer door fringe that was fluttering in the breeze.
“Sure.” I said, feeling a little nonplussed, and she slipped inside with me close behind. As soon as he clocked her, the greasy haired, porky bloke behind the counter’s sallow face dropped.
“For fuck’s sake, not you again!” He said, and before he could get his fat arse off the stool, she had screamed “Pictures!” and overturned the first rack of videotapes and they toppled to the floor and flew everywhere with a crash. Pictures? I thought dumbly as I just stood there, just inside the doorway, like a lemon, with my mouth hanging open, not having a clue of what to do. If she brought me here as backup, she should have picked someone else. Despite being so big and tall, I was absolutely useless in these sorts of situations.
“I want my fucking pictures!” She screamed as she turned over a table full of Swedish magazines, then moved to the display cases on the wall and swept all the books and magazines onto the floor, then moved to the next one. Porky had picked up a phone and within seconds, and without dialling, he was whispering something into the mouthpiece.
“Give me my fucking pictures!” She screamed again as she picked up the end of a table full of dildos of various shapes and sizes, butt plugs and sex dolls and sent them the same way as everything else. Porky was now on his feet, with his pudgy fists clenched, moving towards her, surprisingly fast for someone so fat and sick looking. At this point I suddenly found it within myself to move and managed to get myself between him and her and hold him back as she continued her rampage.
“You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into.” Porky hissed at me. His skin looked like boiled ham and his breath smelled like an old sock that I’d worn for a week and then wanked into. I recoiled and then backed away. He knew her! My head was spinning. At this point, the place was pretty well smashed up. Most of the contents of the shop were now on the floor and she was stomping an enormous dildo to bits, when six policemen burst in through the rainbow streamers. I didn’t even have time to gasp before my arms had been grabbed from behind and I was in handcuffs. As I was grabbed, she snarled at the remaining policemen and took a run at one of them. She leapt onto him, screaming like a banshee and scratched at his face with both hands. He went flying backwards onto the floor sending sex toys flying all over the place. I lost my footing as I got grabbed and violently dragged out through the front door by two coppers, as the remaining three jumped on top of her. I was pulled out and painfully manhandled into the meat wagon that was idling in the middle of the street just outside and then shoved into the side door and into the seat, where I was wedged between the two coppers. I watched her get pushed out of the sex shop thrashing and screaming with her arms handcuffed behind her, painfully pushed up her back by one copper, while two others had her roughly by both shoulders. The two policemen lifted her into the van by her handcuffed hands and she screamed out in pain as the cuffs bit into her wrists and her arms twisted up her back.
“Bastards!” She screams. “You fucking bastards!” They didn’t listen to her. They shoved her into the seat in the same way they did me, slammed the door and soon we’re both looking at each other in stunned silence as the van drove back up Compton Street and then back onto the Charing Cross Road.
I got a bit of time to contemplate what had just happened and how much trouble I was in and I felt like I was going to throw up. Fucking hell, what a shit show. We pulled up alongside Charing Cross Station and the police officer on the passenger side of the front seats got out and opened the side door. The four coppers, she and then I, got out and stood on the pavement. She gave me a sheepish glance. He undid our handcuffs and took them off, then without saying a word, they all got back into the meat wagon and drove off, leaving us standing on the side of the road, the late afternoon sun shining down on our faces.
“Yeah, right!” She said, nodding her head. “Yeah, right!”
And, that was it. No police station, no interviews, no charges. In fact, no repercussions at all for all that destruction and carnage. Nothing. The meat wagon just drove away.
“You got another spliff on ya?” She said.
“Huh?” I said.
“You got another spliff on ya?” She said again and I nodded. We silently walked to Trafalgar Square, me feeling pretty shell shocked with loads of questions rattling round my head. Was that shop selling pictures of her being abused as a child? How come the police arrived so quickly? Why didn’t they say anything? Why did they just drop us off without arresting us? She must have done hundreds, even thousands of pounds worth of damage. I didn’t ask any of them though because, I guess I already knew the answers. The whole thing fucking stunk. We sat on the steps at the bottom of Nelson’s Column looking up Whitehall to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament and we didn’t say a word. When we had finished, she stood up and looked me straight in the eye.
“Thanks for the walk.” She said. “And for the support.”
“I didn’t do anything.” I said. “I froze up in there.”
“Yes, you did!” She said. “You did do something.” She said. “You saw what happened. You witnessed. Now you know I ain’t lying.” And with that, she slipped off into the crowd. I caught a couple of glimpses of her as she snaked her way through the throng, before she disappeared completely into the crowds of tourists and commuters, leaving me standing there, shaking my head, with my mind blown wide open.
I lost touch with her soon after that. It wasn’t so easy back then to stay in touch with people, especially people who moved around a lot and I was one of those people and so was she. I seemed to be a kindred spirit to a lot of people who had been sexually abused in childhood and around the age of thirty, I started having night terrors and nightmares that I was being chased by Mister Noseybonk, an obscene, leering penis nosed character who used to jump out on children from behind trees, from an early ‘80s TV show called Jigsaw. At the age of thirty-eight, at a very low point in my life, it was finally revealed to me that I had been sexually abused by a family friend who lodged with us in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. He used to give me records and console me after my violent father’s many beatings and I admired him and looked up to him, because he was funny and paid me attention. He was also very cruel and would break my things and spit in my face, in more ways than one. I now realise he was a dangerous predator. Another shark. I’ve spent the last twelve years trying to deal with the fallout of that knowledge one way or another. A couple of years ago, I was passing the mural of my friend with the dolphin and I stopped off to have a look, for old time’s sake. There was a plaque underneath that said he had committed suicide about twenty years ago. It was a shock, but not a surprise. He used to talk about his abuse all the time, but nobody really listened. In 2019, I spent a while looking online for my fiery friend. I found several stories about her making speeches at various demonstrations, marches and events, but the stories discredit her as a fantasist and a nutter. One of the big issues with people who have been sexually abused as kids is that they are severely damaged by it. This leads on to mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism. Things that are used to numb the pain. It then leaves them wide open to being discredited if they ever find the courage to come forward. In 2020, she got in touch with me, because she heard on the grapevine that I was looking for her and we started talking. She told me she lived in a foreign country, because the powers that be in the UK were after her. I told her that I had been sexually abused when I was a kid, but had been unable to talk about it when we had been friends. She said she understood. She asked me what his name was, and I told her. Within five minutes, she had found a story about him on the internet, serving a long sentence for the rape and sexual assault of two other children he was supposed to be looking after. One of them had gone to the police years later. This man had haunted my thoughts for nearly four decades. For half that time, I couldn’t even remember the abuse. For the other half, I had huge doubts that it had actually happened. I mean, how can you forget such a thing? How? He was like a ghost. A demon lurking in the shadows, in the closet, behind a door, under the table, and in five minutes flat, she had spotted it, grabbed its arm and yanked it out into the light. There he was, in the flesh; a grubby old paedo; spending his twilight years in fear of getting shanked and having his things broken and his face gobbed on.
This all got me thinking about dolphins and how they work together to protect each other from sharks and other predators, butting the sharks with their snouts until the shark gets the picture and fucks off. They have also been known to protect humans from sharks as well, no matter what their status. There’s an honour and a beauty to that.
Simon Downham-Knight – Copyright 2021