At the end of a busy night, the strip club is almost beautiful.
Once the empty bottles have been swept from the mahogany tables and dropped into the bin with a satisfying clank, once ring stains have been scrubbed at and velvet chairs pushed in and the deep purple carpet vacuumed by the middle-aged cleaning lady, who also plucks the occasional crumpled tissue from the floor with two fingers of her marigold-gloved hands; once all is still and silent and smelling of lemon polish, then and only then.
There is something satisfying about the proficiency with which the staff restores order and calm to the room, like a family cleaning up after a party where everyone got too drunk and did shameful things. Where just moments before there was clamour, too many bodies pressed together in too dark and intimate a place, suddenly there is just a room.
Fluorescent bulbs retired for the evening, the remaining light is dim and warm, and the small tables each have two heavy-backed chairs that face each other as if expectant of couples, and indeed many do visit. Overseeing it all from the dark-wood ceilings are cheap but very grand chandeliers, and if it were not for the glimmering pole protruding from the black-tiled stage at the centre of this room, its overall effect would be almost romantic, suggestive of clandestine meetings and groping under the tables but nothing outright salacious, like a motel bar.
It was the early hours post-Valentine’s day and Magda thought the men had somehow been more hostile that night, thought that she saw clenched jaws and hateful side-glances and money thrown down too hard, as if they blamed her for their lack of more respectable plans. But Amal said she was imagining it, and it was true that this was the sort of thing she would imagine.
She was in the dressing room, which was long and narrow and homey and cluttered, quite deficient in the glamour that was just a security-code protected door away. A discarded kebab shop carton protruded from the bin that none of them could be bothered to empty, and Magda periodically dropped used wet wipes onto it, stained with red and black and flesh tones like Rorschach tests all suggestive of the female face.
She blinked at herself in the mirror, which was marred with thumbprints and smears of foundation, and the tired face that looked back did not much resemble the face on the poster on the peeling wall behind, in which she posed with her lips parted and her eyes half-lidded. With her skin scrubbed of make-up and pinkened by her rough wiping, she looked old and young all at once.
In the silent, empty room she sighed from somewhere deep in her stomach, as if centering herself for a big show.
Amal was nervous. He was behind the bar, loading the glasswasher, and the frequent, clattering avalanches caused by his jittery movements drew glares from a kneeling Sonya, who was carefully placing various cleaning sprays back into a basket. Though she would not show it, she, too, was excited, and for the first night in many she did not wish that she was back in bed with her snoring husband.
Minutes after Sonya had thrown her yellow gloves into her basket and vanished into the back room, giving Amal one final, disparaging look as he shut the dishwasher with a resounding clang, Gazza, the doorman, bumbled in. He brought with him a blast of cold air and his vast shoulders filled too much space in the low-ceilinged room. ‘Are we ready?’ he asked, his gruff voice gleeful with excitement, and Amal kept one eye on him as he emerged from behind the bar.
Four chairs were arranged in a straight line at the foot of the stage, where a single spotlight baked the dark tiles. Sonya appeared, trailed by Zanna, the toilet attendant, a tired-looking older woman who spoke no English. They sat for the first time in a long night and the women murmured in their foreign tongue. Only Gazza’s receding hairline was visible above the high-backed chairs.
Then, as is always the case before a performance, there was an abrupt, heavy hush, a silence pregnant with expectation. The soft patter of rain against the windows was suddenly audible, and Amal remembered that had he had forgotten to turn off the fluorescent blue ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ sign outside. He fiddled with the cuffs of his shirt, damp with sweat and spilled drinks. His anticipation was the greatest of all.
There was an excruciating pause.
When the music started, his breath caught in his throat. He spied a foot, arched and bare as Magda took slow, deliberate steps onto the stage. She stood in front of the pole, looking like an impaled woman as it emerged from the top of her head and from between her legs, like a woman at the stake. She wore a loose, cotton dress that Amal recognized as one she often slept in.
She started slow. She raised one hip in a slow arc, and then the other, she swayed from side to side as if shaking something off. Her hands snaked out shapes, the spotlight shining through her parted fingers. Her body moved like waves.
When she sighed, they sighed, and they marvelled at how much weight she could put on a single toe, and how her legs did not tremble, and how her spine did not snap as she contorted her body on the floor, and rose-up as if connected to strings.
At first she circled the pole, tentative, as if afraid to ask it to dance. But when the music suddenly picked up she grasped it with one hand when her feet left the stage and cut through the air above their heads they gasped at the effortlessness with which she flew.
And when again the music rose, and rose and rose, soaring to a crescendo, she climbed the pole and began to spin, and spin faster and faster until her heart thundered in her chest and air hissed passed her ears.
And as she spun she saw crumpled tissues and crumpled twenty-pound notes, security codes and fluorescent lights, rows of men tense with an anger that was only in her head, marigold gloves and makeup wipes, old women who should be in bed and wives that waited in their beds and the worn skin of Amal’s hands. And though she could not say it in words she knew she spoke to a fury that they all felt. And though it was just a minute or two it felt like the sun must surely be rising outside and that soon the too-few windows would expose all that was cheap and tacky about the club, almost beautiful at the end of a busy night, but never in the morning.
When the music stopped she turned to a row of stunned faces and applause echoed in the empty room.