Guest Lore - Prohibition
by Dominic Jackson·
I feel the sweat. Moistening my palms, dripping down the back of my shirt. My breath quickens and my mouth goes dry as I knock. Knock four times, as I was instructed. There’s some soft fumbling behind the door, before the shutter slides across to reveal an aggressive pair of eyes.
“What” the eyes state, rather than ask.
“I… I’m here to… to see Clifford” the words stick in my mouth.
The shutter slams back closed and I hear some soft muttering before the lock clicks. The door swings open and a thick arm waves me inside. A slam, and I’m inside. It takes more than a few moments for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, thick with smoke. I’m brimming with anxiety and excitement. I’ve not been anywhere this… illicit for years. I’m frightened but so tantalised to experience something that’s been missing from my life for decades.
“You know the ground rules?” the looming figure breaks my reverie.
“Ah I think so”
The tattooed tree branch that brought me in points to scruffy writing on a dirty blackboard: No touching, unless invited. No illegal drugs. No wanking.
“I, erm, yes. That should be fine for me”
As I descend the narrow staircase I notice the dim light is not from bulbs, but tumescent lard candles dripping from black sconces in the wall.
“Smart” I think to myself, “no electricity”
Further down I travel, until I come to another plain door. I can hear soft laughing and music from behind it. My hands are trembling now. I grip the brass knob and push the heavy door ajar. Immediately I am overcome. The noise of revelling; laughter and loud conversation washes over me. The smell of bacon from the candles fills my nose. I enter and am greeted by the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.
“Just yourself, sir?”
I nod affirmative, and she walks me to a plush leather wingback with a small side table. Without asking she places a glass down and fills it with chilled water from a fine glass carafe. Next to this she places a small folded card with ‘Fine Libations, New and Old’ printed on the front.
“Have a look through this, and when you’re ready to order just call over one of the staff. Do you have any questions?”
I glance through the menu. The concoctions all sound delicious, but that’s not why I’m here.
“I erm, I’m here… for eh, Clifford”
She looks at me, as though waiting for some clarification.
“I’m here to see Clifford” I restate.
“Very well sir”
She briskly walks back to her stand at the door. She seems to be fumbling in a drawer. Picking something out, she walks back. I sip my water. I am too nervous now. The water cools my thoughts just enough. The woman slips another card into my menu.
“This is the list of today’s specials.” She says quieter now, leaning close to my face “When you’ve decided what you would like ask only me. I will show you through”
With that, she turns, places the smile back on her face and resumes her place at the stand. I gingerly pick up the specials menu. My heart is racing. I am so close. I look at the list. I take a drink of water. I do not want to seem too keen. A list of names. Some masculine, some feminine, some completely new. Arranged in order of price, lowest to highest. I look at the most expensive. There’s no way I can afford it, but curiosity gets the better of me. ‘Reuben – A proud little boy’ it reads. Even if it was in my price range, that’s not what I’m after here. I look around at the other guests. Some couples, a few small groups, but mostly individual people. Men and women. I drink some more water and investigate the specials further. There is a list of extras. I have made up my mind. I start to get out of my chair. The woman from before notices and hurries over. She tops up my water glass.
“Have you decided what you would like?”
“Yes. Could I get the” this is it “Could I get the…” I glance down at the menu to make sure I don’t make any mistakes “…Could I get Jazz?” My voice is a whisper “And the” I point to the extras list.
“Jazz and a bag of meat munchies. Excellent choice, sir. Please come with me.”
She leads me to an unassuming door to the side of the room.
“Before I let you in sir, do you know the ground rules?
“Yes, the ah, the big guy at the door made sure of it”
“Excellent news. We cannot be held responsible what should happen to you if you break one of those rules, sir.”
“I understand” I say and go for the door handle. She stops me and unzips a pocket on her money belt.
“We need payment upfront sir”
In my anticipation I had almost forgotten. I pull a roll of notes from the inside of my coat pocket and start counting them out. Fumbling I drop them. Before I can reach down, she has swept down and picked the roll up. Almost instantly she has separated the correct amount out and passes the rest back to me. Gratefully I accept them, and pull a note out to offer her.
“I’ve taken my service charge already sir”
She opens the door and leads me inside by the hand. We are in a dimly lit corridor, darker even than the staircase earlier. We walk past several doors. Each door muffles the noise of the action behind it but I can still make some things out. Grunting, howling, excited yelps. Eventually we come to a halt.
“Wait inside here sir, Jazz will be through shortly”
I thank her and move inside. The door softly clicks shut behind me. I survey the room. Not much larger than a cupboard really. Dark, lit only by one familiar smelling candle on a side table. A battered old armchair next to that. I sit in the armchair and wait. I wish I had brought the water in with me now. My anxiety has lifted, I’m in too far now. I know what I want and I’m going to get it imminently. My mind swims with possibilities. What I could be about to do. Remembering the last time I was able to. A knock at the door and my heart jumps again. The door opens slightly, and a man’s voice comes through the gap.
“Jazz for you, with a bag of pork rinds”
I’m too excited to correct him. The man enters and places the bag on the table next to me. He glances at me with a smirk and says
“You’re in for a treat. Jazz is one of my favourites. She’s… enthusiastic.”
He leaves, and then I see her. A big white bitch, grinning from ear to ear. She’s carrying a little extra weight and I’m here for it.
“Come here Jazz”
She rushes in and in an instant she’s on my lap, kissing my face. The door closes behind her. I’m overcome with emotion. I can’t stop laughing! A dog! After all these years! After the bans and prohibition and the horrendous culls, a real dog! I wrestle her off me and get her onto the floor. I grab the pork rinds off the side. I find a big chunk of dried flesh and hold it over her.
“Sit… paw… good girl!”
She takes the pig snack gently, before scoffing it down fast. I can’t believe this moment. I laugh again, and stroke her head. She moves to lick the snack dust from my hand. This is wonderful! She rolls on her side, inviting me to stroke her tummy. I reach down. Suddenly there’s a banging at the door. It opens and the man from earlier frantically pushes his head in.
“It’s a raid! Get out! Get out of here!”
Jazz gets up instantly, much more nimbly than you would expect, and bolts out of the door. With the door open now I can hear much more commotion; glasses breaking, doors being knocked down, yelling and screaming. I follow Jazz out into the dark corridor, other doors being flung open with people and dogs running out. Other guests fleeing in each direction, but the dogs purposefully all heading to the end of this corridor. A crash, and I see the door man from before standing in a broken frame, wood hanging loosely from its hinges. He’s bleeding from one eyebrow, cradling a bunch of frightened pugs and chihuahuas in his arms.
“Far end! Go! Now!” He yells at me. There’s gunfire behind him. He bolts past. I quickly follow. Looking back I see a silhouette of a man brandishing a club in the doorway. I’m spurred to run faster as he belts a man trying to get past.
“We just wanted to pet dogs!” the man sobs as the cop lays into him on the ground. The door man looks at the wall at the end of the corridor. He puts the small dogs down beside him. He braces himself against the sides of the corridor. He raises a foot and slams his boot into the wall. It bursts open. A secret exit!
None of the dogs hesitate. They stream out of the door, howling and barking into the night. An enormous ridgeback barrels past me and knocks me to the floor. I look up and see Jazz hesitate at the opening. She looks back at me. The cop is on me. He rains down blows on the back of my head. Jazz turns and leaves. As I begin to slip into unconsciousness, all I can think is
“Does she know she’s just a widdle baby?”