"You alright kid?"
There was no care intended in those words. It was a means for her to feign politeness while masking a whole heap of judgement. It wasn't personal. That was how Ruby, the woman on the door of "The Bull", greeted every man that rocked up to see the show. We were all judged, belittled and processed. It was part of the charm of going there, to be greeted by a woman who didn't care who you were or which horse you had ridden in on.
"Ticket for one please Ruby." I flashed my most charming smile at her trying to crack some relief into that hard face of hers. A face that had seen it all and done it all and had no appetite for any more of it.
I threw in a bit of small talk. "How is your night going? Had a few laughs, have you? Ready for a good time?"
She stared at me, as she always did, her eyes leaden with judgement. She had never cracked once, and I had been coming for years. Night after night she sat in that box, rod like, chewing her gum like a stoic cow with its cud.
You had to try to break her though.
It was almost a sport.
"The Bull" was an old pub in the backstreets of Manchester. Its real name was "The Bull Dog Terrier" but nobody round these parts ever called anything by its proper name. My name is James, but I cannot remember the last time anyone called me that. Perhaps it was my mam when she would box my ears for staying out too late. I don't know, but for as long as I can remember I have been Jimmy, John, Fella, Mate, and if you are Ruby, even knowing I am forty years old, well then, I am Kid. To be fair, that's how we roll in Manchester. You can be the grand old age of death and still be somebody's kid.
Ruby flicked me my ticket with one of her trademark red, chipped talons and I turned to wind my way through the network of dark, narrow corridors that led to the main room. "The Rat Run" as it was affectionately called. A name that had evolved over decades of police raids. You had to keep your head down as you made your way, the ceilings were low and the door frames unforgiving. You were accompanied, as you made your way down into the building's bowels, by the cloying smell of damp. Mildew and mould bloomed behind the dark green glossed anaglypta making it peel and bulge. As you walked your feet stuck to the floorboards, the remains of many spilt drinks still gluey on the floor. The wall lights were all different amps and hung at varying heights making the sticky floors and peeling paper feel otherworldly. Like we were escaping reality and going somewhere mysterious and magical.
Which of course, we were.
At the end of the rat run were a set of heavy double doors that stood like the gates of hell between you and the promised land. The embrace of life that was on the other side of those doors was in such contrast to that which lay before, it was almost as if the crescendo had been designed for maximum impact.
But nothing in "The Bull" had been designed. That was most of its charm. The whole building was a succession of add ons and make dos. Nobody had the money round here to make it into something. Not that they would even if they could. It had potential, sure, but everyone knew that if you started realising the potential of something you were threatened with losing it. Us punters were happy for it to stay just as it was. This was the 1930s, before gentrification was even a thing, but we had all seen it and felt it and we all backed away from it like the stealer of souls that we knew it to be.
I sat, where I usually did, at a table near the piano. I lit a cigarette in the candle. Inhaled and sighed it out. I was home. I watched my breath curl up and away, finding its place in the room and hanging, like it had found its purpose.
Frank was on the piano. His flat, broad hands padded across the ivories like they were keys to all our hearts. He knew how to round out our edges, his music assured us that everything was going to be ok. He could calm even the most stir crazed sailor straight from the docks.
I ordered a double scotch. I always did. Some men liked to build their way into an evening, I preferred to ensure there was no doubt I had arrived. I ordered another as soon as the first had touched the sides. Then another.
I watched as the place filled up. All walks of life filtered their way into that room. The Bull was the biggest leveller in Manchester. All pretence, all scars, all kumbaya's were left at the door under Ruby's withering watch. Each of us sat, washed away in Frank's soul-searching music, waiting for the same thing.
Where we were, why we were there, what we were going back to… all background noise to the panting anticipation that fermented in The Bull every Saturday night.
It was the name you could hear breathlessly dripping from every inebriated lip.
Each lost soul. Each wanton fool. Each knight. Each hanger on. Each could do more. Each screaming Lord. Each lonely heart. Each mastermind. Each dignity. Would unite in wanting... Lilly.
Every night I would watch the momentum build. Frank played us as much as he played the piano. Fuelling us. Courting us. Mobilising our anticipation. Encouraging the pant.
Frank could reach all of us from behind that piano. He knew just what we wanted, just when we needed it. He started off low and chilled building cohesion and calm then he would build us up into a united mob. Locked and loaded. Leveraged to the point of fever pitch, on the verge of exaltation.
Li - lly!
Li - lly!
Li - lly!
They would chant.
And when the climax had peaked, and they could wait no more. Out she would step onto centre stage. A sparkling angel, wide eyed and glossy. Her long limbs and elegant assurance hypnotising us all.
Then she would push a bag of nettles into all our faces.
And we would thank her for the pain.
Lilly had a tongue that could slice through a thousand hearts with just one lash. She was ferocious, fearless and from another world. She looked so angelic but then her mouth would open, and holy hell would reach out from it and shake your nerve until you wondered which way was up.
Could she say what she did?
Should she be how she was?
Was it right?
Was it wrong?
Should you feel you belong?
No, was probably the answer to everything that was asked, but that was where the magic was at.
Sure, we all knew we hadn't come to The Bull that night for a lesson in piety. This wasn't church. We had willingly walked through the gates of hell drawn by the search for our missing pieces. We came from here and there and everywhere between, but we were all looking for the same thing... a thing we could not quite put our finger on.
We were haunted men by a nameless ghost. We knew it was there, we could feel it. Yet we couldn't speak of it. We didn't know how to. We could only feel it and be assured when we saw it staring back at us from one another's eyes.
We felt like misfits, odd balls, the weirds around town. Even if we weren't on the surface, that was how we felt inside... and that was all that mattered. We were united by it. A powder key of restraint waiting to be ignited... by Lilly.
"Hi Jimmy." Lilly called down to me as she took in the baying mob that was her audience.
"Hi Lilly" I smiled as her. I loved it when she spoke to me directly. It made me feel part of it all.
"Jimmy, can you remember when you first had sex?"
"Oh, what am I thinking, of course you do, you will still have the receipt."
The crowd laughed at my expense.
The emasculation was thrilling.
We lapped at it like starved alley cats. To be deprecated so openly and viciously, by a woman... a woman like Lilly. It was refreshing, funny, a tonic for life. She ate us alive in turn and we thanked her. We even tipped.
We could not quite describe why it felt so good.
At that time, our nights at The Bull were so far away from how the world turned. Women did not act like Lilly did. Women should not speak how Lilly would. It went against everything we had been told. The conventions of our up-bringing were being torn apart before our eyes.
We should feel bad for condoning this behaviour let alone participating in it.
All we knew was that it felt... right.
All of us could have gone to other establishments where girls danced on tables or sang sweet tunes but none of us were into that so much. Yes, a lot of us liked girls, many of us were married, but all of us knew, even then, that there was something objectionable in those other places. They were uncomfortable. We just didn't fit. We couldn't fit. We wanted something different. We didn't want to treat women like they were our toys.
We could have gone to comedy clubs and heard funny stories about a man’s mothers-in-law or their ball and chain wives but for us lot, us out of step men, that all felt so dull, done, yesterday’s greasy dish water. Wrong.
This, here with Lilly, this we all knew was everyday wrong. But... damn it... it was heart of hearts right.
It was not tried, and it was not tested, and it was not easy. But we didn't want easy, if we had we would have gone to one of the many other bars around town and felt the solidarity and security of being with men comfortable in the order of the world. Here, you had to hold your nerve. Here, you needed to walk tall. Your shoulders needed to be broad. You needed a chin that could take a different kind of punch. In a place like this you were looking the way of the world in the eye and saying that is not my bag. In a place like this, with an act like Lilly, you were escaping the mechanics of an old-world order.
Lilly was a siren of a new beginning. She led us to another world. A world where a woman could swear and tell dirty jokes in public. A world where a woman could be as sharp as any man. A world where a woman could put a man down and join in the banter like she was equal to them. A world where femininity was as powerful as masculinity and played just as self-assuredly.
There was nowhere else you could go and find that in Manchester.
Lilly was a class act.
She brought us the freedom we had no idea how to describe that we needed.