Last week saw the publication of Daniel O’Connor’s astonishing debut Nothing – an irreverent and mischievous novel about a man who can imagine things out of existence; about a world where nothing is as it seems. The Social Gathering is delighted to share an exclusive and equally memorable short story from Daniel about a John Lennon stripper. We hope you enjoy.
It’s only dreaming of the past that John realises the feeling he got – unbuttoning his yellow tunic over the quailing body of somebody’s eighteen year-old daughter – is what they used to call in Hamburg ungelebtes leben. In the moment it’s an unnameable pang: signalling with pec semaphore his better qualities to this young woman, a woman who’s being harried by her aunties into applying baby oil to his being, a woman who he could be and definitely is in love with, even though he’s never spoken to her outside of the context of him undressing to a Beatles megamix, even though he’s just about old enough to be her father and despises that sort of thing, even though it’s probably not her that he’s in love with but a projection of himself he hopes to find in her… all of this, only as a disarticulated interior yelp. The kind of existential noise a dog makes when someone carrying a tray of champagne glasses trips over it.
Whatever the feeling, he had no say in the matter. Thoughts are only commentary; the body has already made up its mind. Which may or may not be how John has found himself at the age of in-his-thirties being defined once more as ‘tonight’s entertainment’. Aside from buying the costumes, choreographing the routines, advertising his wares and building a solid following on social media, he never planned on becoming
His Mam A John Lennon Stripogram?!
John Yeah… It’s just, some people dress up as John Lennon. I undress up as him.
His Mam You’ll never make it.
But plans are what happen to you while you’re busy making other lives. He planned on renting the place a street over from his mam’s house. He planned on applying for the job behind the (hopefully) bullet proof screen at the Halifax down the town. He planned on microwaving his rice and plain chicken lunches (with the calories written on the lid) in the staff room of the bank. He planned on stripping way back for a daft laugh at Keeley’s hen do with his mates as the Fab Phwoar. He planned on being John (name + he has that sleepy puffin look); Jonno (George) planned on thinking that it was a daft scheme dreamt up when they were off their tits on booze and drugs and weren’t really gonna do it; they planned on not being able to find a Ringo; Macca (Macca) planned on sweating so much in the toilets at the Eston Institute & Workmens Club that the barmaid was one number 9 away from phoning an ambulance, and as a contingency plan that they wouldn’t be able to get the sick out of his trousers. And that’s how John planned on going solo.
Right now, going solo involves feeling as though he’s uniquely awful, investing all his future happiness in someone he’s meeting for the first time while thrust-ripping a psychedelic Edwardian military tunic to reveal a six(ish) pack in perfect timing with the kick drum-crash after the first line of ‘Good Morning Good Morning’. Her mates squeal. Somewhere in the excitement a shoe goes missing. He feels as though somebody has cut the brakes on his life, the whole Rolls Royce of it tumbling downwards to the inevitable sea, trying to convince himself that her loveliness is only the thought of being eighteen again – when falling for someone meant discovering a future together, rather than forgiving each other’s past. So why is he willing her beautiful eyes to look into his?
At his age he really doesn’t want to be attracted to an eighteen-year-old woman. Only a kind of paranoid quasi-feminism sees him refer to her as a ‘woman’, not agirl
The Beatles [sharp intake of breath].
She isn’t the customer, though; her mates are. She’s raw material – it’s his job to extract as much excruciation as he can. Performing hands-behind-head loin rolls, he finds her embarrassment irresistible – it’s not an awkwardness at him (is it?), but at this: her girlfriends laughing and braying, as though he’s a shame to be suffered. From her smile, he thinks she can see past the mostly naked John Lennon to the man that thought it would be a good laugh and that. And the way she carries herself, those freckles, her eyes the delicate blue of Paul’s Sgt Pepper costume… he hates himself for the slow intensity of his gyrating during the excerpt from ‘I Am the Walrus’, for getting her to rub oil into him while he flexes during ‘Come Together’, the conclusion to ‘Birthday’ where he delivers a card between his bum cheeks.
The thin bones of her hand when she thanks him afterwards make him feel as though he’s just throttled a robin.
There isn’t a shower at the club, but he manages to towel off most of the oil and changes into a turtleneck. When he first started he’d thought it would be a guaranteed way to pull, and fair enough, after someone uploaded his Sgt Pecker routine to YouTube (since removed) he was getting so much correspondence that he had to set up a polite
Ringo no more fan mail
auto-reply on his [email protected] account. But it turns out that clients are, to most strippers, what toddlers are to clowns. Usually, he’d be straight off down the gym, but his mate Al (who made the mix for him) is DJing his well-cemented slot in the club once the party’s booking is up, so he stays for one pint. He’s tied his long Lennon locks into a ponytail and actually needs the circular glasses to see proper and that; out of context he resembles an off-duty French wrestler. Plonked at the end of the bar beside the fire extinguisher, Al is critical of the birthday party playlist transitions (see Cardi B into The Smiths into BTS), explaining that teenagers
Al don’t understand juxtapositions because they’ve grown up gettin everythin they want all at once.
As though they won’t also wait all their lives for nothing to happen. Still, John nods along, watching the Birthday Girl Woman dance with her mates to some song he doesn’t recognise while the first verse of ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ paces prison-yard circles in his head. He feels greasy, as though he leaves a residue. It could be the protein shake he downed, but the thought that she might think he wants to sleep with her makes him nauseous.
A few of them are glancing over at him, giggling; he reminds himself it’s the concept that’s laughable, not him. Male strippers are, to most women, what clowns are to toddlers. It’s only now they’re leaving that he notices among the oldies, shadowed behind jackets and presents in a booth at the back of the club: first, that bloke, with the surly look of a disapproving five-year-old who’s exhausted all of his protests, is probably the dad; and then Rachel – fuck, Rachel!
She seems to be gathering everything together to exit in a way that allows her to look everywhere except at him. She didn’t make the booking – that was the girl’s mates. Is there a chance she doesn’t know he’s here? That she missed him flexing his bare arse in her daughter’s face to the accompaniment of ‘Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey’? She hugs her daughter, who’s beginning to lose her footing. And now, with armfuls of bags and cake, makes her exit.
Al There’s Rachel Smallwood. Rachel! Rachel!
John grips Al’s arm to quiet him. She clearly knows they’re there and tries to pass them off with a cursory wave, but
Al Now then Rach! How’s it goin?
Her polite-wave-and-try-to-head-off-down-the-staircase is nothing in the face of Al’s enthusiastic beckoning. John feels nailed down – to the barstool, to the moment, to the life in which he just stripped for the daughter of his ex-girlfriend. She’s trying not to look too pissed off, schlepping all the birthday baggage towards them.
Al This your daughter, then?
Rachel confirms as though she’d prepared herself to be stolid when the officer pulls back the sheet at the morgue. She can feel him measuring everything, working out how young she was when she had Anna, how soon after ‘them’. Al’s laughter sees him slapping the bar. She hasn’t put the bags down.
Al [Glancing at John] Nice surprise then?
Rachel It was an impressive routine.
Her voice is a bit posher, thinks John. She seems more diplomatic than the girl that once stamped on him over a Mario Kart race. He knows he ought to apologise, but struggles to think of a way that doesn’t bring too much shame into what ought to be a brief Hello-Goodbye. And the way she’s looking at him – I’m not scum, you know, he wants to say, to explain that the stripping has brought some control, some order to his life, that he’s not the pisshead she remembers. He can explain himself.
John You know, when you look a bit like Lennon, why not be a John Lennon stripogram?
She gives a Yeah, but smile that’s either a) you don’t really look like John Lennon, or b) being a John Lennon stripogram isn’t a legitimate extrapolation from a resemblance to the man. In fairness, once the clothes are off he’s long grown out of any Lennon uncanniness (something other than the Beatle’s physique is anticipated nowadays).
Rachel Stripper, though? I thought stripograms did messages… Isn’t that the ‘gram’ bit?
Al Didn’t you see the birthday card part then? She had to pull it from his bum.
Rachel raises her eyebrows in a way that suggests she’d buried that somewhere unspeakable. It’s all too tacit for John, but he doesn’t have a strong enough rope of words to carry his weight from this particular hole. The thought of standing from the bar stool suggests the emotional equivalent of a hernia, but he desperately wants to hug Rachel – bags and all: partly out of relief that his attraction to her daughter is probably a lingering attraction to his memory of her (how didn’t he notice the resemblance earlier?!), partly to atone for falling in love with her daughter whilst sporting nothing but a posing pouch with a walrus on the front and a pair of polished lime green boots.
Rachel [Gesturing to the exit] Anyway…
John Nice times.
John Good to see you…
he corrects himself. She tries to keep a straight face. He’d prefer it if she was angry with him; instead she seems to find the whole thing a bit embarrassing, mostly pathetic.
Rachel Yeah, you too.
For a touch too long she squints at him – as though she wants to say something else to the boy who left her trying not to cry outside the big McDonald’s windows because You’re goin to uni now (he seemed stoned – she remembers him saying it with a surreal finality between sucks on his milkshake, as though it was interchangeable with something like You’re going to be an elephant now), when really she knew he was only dumping her because he feared she’d outgrow him; because he resented the idea of her having bigger plans for her life; because he was only pencilled in; because she wanted to give it a go and said so in her most convincing voice, We could work it out; the way he said, I could write to you with an indifferent shrug – before she makes her exit. It still stings her a little; but only a little, that unlived life being so far away and abandoned.
Was that a smile goodbye? John isn’t sure. The husband waiting for her by the stairs has a What the fuck you talking to him for? look about him. If John feels smug, it’s hard to sense among the shame.
Al Same again?
He holds a hand over the dregs of his pint, declining the offer. Al points to the decks and the barmaid nods, All yours. A few of the birthday party are still there trying to find the missing shoe, sloshed early in the late summer sunlight.
After a bit of messing about with dials and leads, Al puts on Please Please Me (Cheeky fucker, thinks John), returns to his mate at the bar – who’s having another pint after all. He feels grateful to have a mate like Al, capable of making him not completely displaced. People are phoning people; the shoe still hasn’t been found.
Al I can’t believe you never recognised her, me. Must’ve had her young.
John shrugs – blushing as he realises Al was staring straight at Rachel’s daughter as he spoke. Some sapling lad is chatting deep into her ear and it reassures John that her laughter doesn’t make him particularly jealous. It’s not that he wants anything different; he certainly doesn’t want to be going out with some kid; Rachel’s kid. I don’t even want to be with Rachel, really, he tells himself. But he could do, though; or could have done.
Al looks up from his phone.
Al Ah, she’s right, you know: like telegram and that, like a letter. Fuck, yeah, you need to do messages, mate.
John nods – War is Over. Give Peace a Chance. I Wanna Hold Your Hand. That sort of thing. He thinks he should write Rachel a letter; nothing soppy or pleading, just finding a way of apologising for what just happened now without mentioning it. Asking her how things have been. Giving her a few little anecdotes. He doesn’t have her address (would it be creepy to ask her daughter?), but he’s sure he can find a way around that.
Jacques Lacan The letter always arrives at its destination
since its destination is wherever it arrives. Dear Rachel, he thinks, and then smiles at the thought of her opening this letter that makes her wish she’d held onto him, makes her dream of the life she could have had with him, this man watching her slosh-drunk daughter being shouldered from the bar, a tub of a rice and chicken sweating in his bag. The dream that keeps him idly sitting there, mulling, while Al sets things up, while the barmaid finds a shoe underneath a table in a booth. Ha! John thinks, knowing at least how he’d end the letter: P.S. I love you. She’d get it, wouldn’t she? And now it turns out it’s not the right shoe, some old brown thing; except that this is the only now, across a universe of nows, that the shoe should could have been found. As she dumps it on a shelf below the bar, John nods as though he and the barmaid are agreeing about something. Shoes, ey? Or maybe, People, eh? But no thanks, his mind’s made up: that on second thoughts, yeah, he’ll have another.