Witnesses to Glory – Magdalene

The coldest nights are the worst, and believe me this was the coldest I’ve ever known, cold as charity – and there was precious little of that to be found in the big city in midwinter, when you’re cruising round looking for some old queen ready to take you back to his hotel room for a quick leg over.

I had the sharp threads on, all dressed up for pulling, the crushed velvet strides cut so close you could tell my religion by scrutinising my crotch, and there were plenty who couldn’t take their eyes off it, I make no charge for looking at the merchandise, the chiffon shirt open nearly to the navel with the little gold medallion bouncing on my chest, the bum-freezer jacket of black glove leather that really lived up to its name that night, Cuban-heeled winkle-picker pumps that were killing me and the lisle socks with clocks up the sides, but they were built for style not comfort, and the wind is no respecter of fashion.

I like nice things, me, but in my business you need to put your money on your back, since that’s the way I earn my crust, so to speak, and sometimes I had dreams of naffing around at home in baggy tweeds or curling up alone in a nice warm bed in wincyette pyjamas and the hell with them all, but it’ll never happen. I have to wear silk, or the johns get the hump. Or I’d like to get a good auto, something with a nice long bonnet and a sexy roar to the exhaust that’ll get the macho crowd going, with a nice powerful heater blowing up my legs like the kiss of a lover, while I waited for him to come, double entendre strictly intentional.

Instead, it was a street corner designed by Robert Adam or someone especially for the north wind to howl round, and freezing the balls off me, pardon my French.

You may have guessed that street corners are not my natural habitat, and you’d be right. Gimme a good club any night, good and dark so it gets the punters thinking of having a quick grope – though I soon put them straight on that score, I can tell you, no pay no stray – the bubbly pricey enough to make them feel just a bit wicked but not over the top so there’s no dosh left for anything else.

Only this night they’d closed them up at eleven, didn’t they, all to do with the season of the year, which is a bad joke, because I just laugh and laugh and laugh like little Audrey when they call it festive: about as joyous as a Swedish black-and-white movie with a suicide in the last reel, I call it, and the peace and goodwill more like the grave than anything worth celebrating.

There was me on my street corner, and the dossers in their cardboard boxes outside the social security waiting a first shot at the jobs next day – hope springs eternal in the human trouserleg, I always say, but no one in their right minds’d give them any kind of work, especially in the catering trade which is this job centre’s specialty. Have you seen the colour of their fingers? Do me a favour, please.

All we had in common was the wind, and the black mood that comes down on all of us just before midnight, when you know the next day’s going to be just as bad as the last, with no pumpkin coach to take you home after the ball, and no glass slipper either, just the fading chance of some sweaty minutes with an old codger too far gone in booze to get it up, most times.

I have this dream of someone really nice, not too old, with gentle hands, who wants to set me up in a place where I can forget all about clubs and street corners both, take him a nice cup of tea every morning, cook a moussaka for when he gets home from the office, Martini in his glass and slippers by the fire, the whole domesticated bit, but it’s just another dream. I’ve got my regulars, of course, some of them quite kind, but most of them are married and the others aren’t into settled relationships. If they were they wouldn’t be cruising the bars, they’d be . . . God knows where, because I don’t, but it’s surely somewhere I’d never be seen dead in, so there goes that dream up the spout.

People have this funny idea about whores, of either sex, they swing between thinking we’re barely human, like some kind of fleshy garbage can for those who can’t control themselves to dump into, the other is the whore with the heart of gold, who has a nice little house in Surbiton and a nanny looking after the kids while they’re out on business.

Me, I’m just obeying market forces, like the premier says, one of the service industries. At least I can wash my mouth out and feel good and clean after, which I can’t see many politicians doing after they’ve provided their particular service for their not too particular masters. Not that I’m into politics myself, you understand, can’t afford that kind of self-deception, but people talk in bed, you know, the smoke and a chat to stave off the inevitable depression and guilt after the event, and I’ve had some prominent people in my time.

I could make my fortune with the gutter press, naming names, but I’ve got my respect, and even if I’m a whore, I’m a clean one, not like some who’d sell their grandmothers down the Street of Shame, thank you very much.

Anyway, back on my street corner I was just about to call it a wasted night when all the dossers started getting excited, jumping up and down and pointing at the sky, making enough fuss to attract the attention of the law, I shouldn’t wonder, which is one additional problem I don’t need. I steer clear of the dossers most of the time, they smell rather choice you know, and while I expect they need to get their end away like all the rest of us, I hope I never sink that low.

I looked up at where they were pointing, sort of instinctively, not really curious, and blow me if it wasn’t something more than a wino’s imaginings: a multitude of coloured lights in the sky, all clustered round the Tower, or rather behind it, plus a pure white beam shining straight down.

Everyone started running, you know the way it is, we’re just rabbits or sheep at heart aren’t we, under the skin, so I joined in the general rush, the dossers, me, some soldiers who appeared from nowhere so I wondered if my luck was changing after all, a bit of rough with a hand job in a doorway’d be better than nothing, and I had to pay the milk bill in the morning or it was black coffee for now on and I like my cream.

There was even a vicar, God knows what he was doing on the streets at that hour, dog-collar and all; I gave him a kind of a sideways glance to check out was he your classic cleric with his hand on the choirboy’s knee but nothing, so I just let myself be swept along with the crowd, past the Tower, where some of the security guards joined us in their comic-opera uniforms, gold braid and darned socks, and into the car park behind the big pub on the corner.

I don’t like that place. Barred me once they did, and me just nursing a G-and-T in the corner causing no harm to nobody, but the bouncer came over and said I was lowering the tone, which was a laugh, all that poncey red velvet and fake horse brasses had done that already, but I went nice and peaceful, you’ve got to watch your Ps and Qs when you sail as close to the law as I do.

Turned out it wasn’t the pub we were heading for, just as well, but a kind of a shed out in the carpark, a wretched little place packed with people, and all of them goggling at a young woman and her child like they’d never seen the like before. We crammed in, and at least it was nice and warm with all that crushed humanity contributing their sweaty kilowatts, even if I was a bit close to the dossers for my personal comfort.

There was a kind of a hush, like you get in church, you know, before the service starts and everyone’s half-kneeling with their heads in their hands, before the real out-loud prayers start, and though we came in chattering excitedly, the hush took us over and we quieted down pretty damn quick, craning our necks and trying to see what on earth was it all about.

Being fairly tall, I had a better view than most, but I wasn’t any wiser. The girl was quite pretty, though her face was grubby the way all street people are, when soap and water’s hard to find, but there was a sort of glow about her which turned her street-urchin scruffiness into something a painter might fall in love with.

The baby, oh he was something else. I looked into his eyes and if I tried to put a name to what I saw there, it’d be acceptance. People were on their knees by now and praying and carrying on, but I just stood there, sort of transfixed, because it really seemed as if, young as he was, he knew me, like real deep down, and he didn’t care, because all there was in his eyes was love.

I’ve noticed that in kids lots of times, before parents and school and church have filled their minds with shit, they just turn to you and take you as you are, just so long as you’re prepared to do the same, no judgements and no last names. This kid was like that, but in spades, like if the rest of kiddiedom were gurus then he was the supreme master, and there wasn’t no one going to turn him around. He wrote the book on that one, and inside the love and acceptance there was this incredible strength, not macho, and neither that beautiful maternal presence you get from some women, which I could sense in his mum, the serenity, and personally I’ll take that in preference to your average male power trip.

Look, I know about male and female created he them, because I got them both inside of me, here, and it gets me very confused sometimes, but in him there was no confusion. He was male, I mean really masculine, know what I mean, with no need to prove anything, and what I think of as the woman side in me was there too, natural and peaceful, not struggling for supremacy like it is in me, so what you might call the male and the female in him was at peace within him. And yet not peaceful like what we mean by peace, sort of dead apathy, or just the absence of aggro like when the big superpowers agree not to throw rockets at each other for the next year or two.

More like I imagine a nuclear furnace might be, like a gentle glow, banked down, but ready to give out energy like a sun exploding if need be.

All this is words, trying to tell you how I felt when I looked in his eyes, and I’m taking longer to tell it than the split-second recognition I felt there.

I don’t like my life and I’d change it if I could ever see something better, as long as it didn’t mean turning my back on me. I’ve heard the vicar preaching change, standing on the street corner by the underground station, and I wouldn’t mind some of that if it didn’t mean embracing the nuclear family male-female and one-and-two-thirds kids concept. But everyone who preaches at me, they don’t draw a distinction between what I am and what I do, any more than the rest of the world does. A whore is what I do, not what I am. The world says what I am is shit, only fit to be a whore, and in my book that’s not so different from the preachers who tell me I’m abomination, that I’ve got to deny this bit of me that looks at my own sex the way we’re supposed to look at others, that finds tenderness and affection in the hard muscled arms of ones like me, which doesn’t draw the hard-and-fast line between male and female that makes straight people feel secure in their straightness.

OK, when I was a teenage kid I used to pray, I mean really pray, to whoever there is out there, to make me different, so I could be turned on by the silly little girls in the youth club and not the other fellows flicking the towels at each other in the showers after the five-a-side. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the girls OK, and in fact my other prayer was to be made exactly like them, but neither prayer came true, and here I am, your average screwed-up herbert of our time, not exactly sure what he is and what he should be.

Looking into that baby’s eyes, though, it was if he was sure, quite sure about me, and it was OK, so I was sure too. And I felt the essence of myself separating out from all the shit things I’ve done, some to others but mostly to myself, like warm hands inside me straightening out the tangles and caressing me the way my mum used to do before she died, crooning a lullabye.

I mean, why the hell did I remember the lullabye, of all things, at this exact moment in time, bringing the tears to my eyes so the image of the mother and child blurred and just for a moment I was scared someone would see me, point the finger: Look, the little queer’s blubbering. But the image cleared, and he was still looking at me, and suddenly I didn’t give a damn who could see, like the tears were washing the filth out of my life, and I didn’t know what I had to do, but I knew he was going to help me find a way of doing it that didn’t contradict everything I thought I knew about me.

You’re going to say all this just from looking in the eyes of a new-born baby and, yes, I know it sounds crazy, but no more crazy than the way I’ve been living lately, and there’s got to be a better way than that. A guy I went with once, a bit of an intellectual he was, trained to be a priest but couldn’t make it on the celibacy trail, he said that all religion’s just a projection, what’s really happening is inside you, so perhaps that baby just helped me to realise something I already knew, deep down.

Or perhaps he really was a power, the guru of gurus, the essence of all we were meant to be and could be, not just the golden-haired white middle-class WASP kid you see on the greeting cards but a dirty little Third-World child, like the ones you see starving in the refugee camps, rejected, homeless, someone who found me within him, and found it worthy of love.

Because all that power was wrapped up in this baby’s body, incredibly frail and vulnerable, like babies are, and not only babies either. I can tell you anything you want to know about vulnerability, though I have to play it so hard and brittle-surfaced to make it on the streets, I bleed internally when I hear snide remarks or someone kicks me in the teeth.

But, compared with him, I was hard as iron. Looking into those so gentle eyes, so understanding and accepting, I realised with a kind of chill that at this time of birth there was already a promise of death, not just the inevitability of decay and decline we all carry within us, though that, too, but something more horrible, more glorious. Within the sad lovely eyes I sensed a sacrifice that wasn’t just a turning away from the bad stuff like he inspired in me, because that, too, is a kind of death, and a welcome one, too, but a surrender I wasn’t even capable of thinking about, of his very essence, a willingness quite literally to go through hell for me and my kind.

And since I saw something of myself in him, and felt him in me, a kind of terror struck me, a fear that I would be offered to sip from the same bitter cup, and I would not be able to stomach it. And I prayed it might not be so.

Suddenly this prayer made me realise I was the only one in the shed not on his knees.

The child looked deep into my eyes, and the fear vanished, as if it had never been, but I never forgot that premonition. Then he looked away, as if his work with me was done for the moment, and I suppose it was. I got down on my knees with the rest of them and it seemed like the place I should have been, all my life. 

For a song about the more (almost) Biblical Magdalene, click HERE.

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