[cw: inference of S&M]

Lucky Strike

By Sam Jenks

Manny slid the mask from his eyes and saw a small windowless room with panelled, opaque white walls; the space empty except for a day-bed, a side table and a cabinet. He sniffed the air, like new plastic. He heard a muffled version of outside; buses idling over a babel of voices. He started pacing around, mind whizzing through the Space-03 project blurb.  He fumbled in his jeans pocket, took out his mobile, tapped through to his video-journal, framed himself and pressed START and spoke to the camera.

‘Manny, you are F A K E. You know it.’ 

He pressed STOP, the ill-fitting jeans he wore cut into his waist as he flopped onto the day-bed. He played the clip back; every bit the student tourist in that Gap hoodie, you’re no artist, he thought. He told himself to get a grip; £200 a day for five days, how hard could it be? Other options were running out anyway. Doing this might even mean something. 

He found the video-guide recorded by Roy the ‘Commissioning Artist’;

‘Use Space 03 as a base to explore the area, collect materials, find connections, carry out your art practice whilst fulfilling your basic human needs. Engage, interact, participate, co-author.’

Calmed by Roy’s tone, he ran through the mobile app-controlled features and glanced around, he couldn’t see out the webcams, which he didn’t control anyway. Where was he anyway? He asked himself. The blindfold taxi journey had taken roughly an hour, at some point he’d thought he’d caught a whiff of Old Father Thames. 

He tapped select on one of the window icons. Like a cloud drifting away, a panel in front of him cleared; Manny found himself looking at the back of someone’s head; blonde pigtail and large silver earrings. They held a camera, about to shoot an obese man in a red baseball cap against a backdrop of a giant video display advertising Pepsi. Poised above the red cap, a bronzed foot. Even before Manny’s eyes scanned up the bronzed naked body with his bow taut, Manny knew that boy-god. He knew where he was; he knew around here. He might be able to pull this off after all. He used his thumbprint to release the door and stepped out onto Piccadilly Circus. 

He circled Space-03; it looked weather-worn like it had been used elsewhere. Despite its proximity to Eros; like those tents used by telecoms engineers, people steered clear of it. A group of teenagers in pale blue tracksuits, a school group, were calling out loudly to each other in Italian, aiming their mobile cameras at each other, Eros caught in the crossfire. Artistically interact? He thought, a wave of anxiety building in his gut. He retreated inside Space 03 and sat on the day-bed, head in his hands. How could this be a new direction, the start of something? He asked himself.

Last autumn, he’d chanced upon a bar popular with art students from Central St Martins. He’d overheard talk of the exorbitant tuition fees for foreign students and been intrigued by the wealth needed to secure a place. He kept going back, fascinated by the bohemian masks the students were shaping for themselves. With a whisky in his hand, Manny would smile and edge his way into one of these arty groups but they soon discovered he had nothing to talk about, and barring the occasional shag, he knew he was being kept at a distance.

One night, he pulled a lecturer, sculpture. In bed the next morning, they watched a film on his BFI Player, ‘London’, about an unseen and enigmatic psychogeographer, Robinson, who through his seemingly endless walks, maps the city in his own Blakeian way. Manny felt an instant connection with Robinson who, like himself, seemed to exist on the fringes of society, suspected in incidents beyond the pale, possibly beyond the law. But despite the difficult memories it stirred regarding his grandmother, Manny sensed the possibility for change, a different way to do things. He lapped up the accompanying bedroom lecture and soon, after looking deeper into psychogeography, began weaving a new mask and story to engage the students. 

After a hollow Christmas where trading on the fantasy of Factory Apprentice had reached a new level of boredom; the ‘Space 03’ opportunity appeared on an RCA student bulletin board,

‘Artists Wanted: Make the switch between an experience of normal life and art.’

Manny’s pulse quickened when he discovered that a Chinese PhD artist was behind it and that money was involved. With a nod to Debord, he set up ‘Naked City’, his artist website, claiming a  collaboration with an independent collective of artists in Manchester. It worked.

He sat staring at his feet, distracted by the red trainers, unable to remember whose they’d been. He decided to go for a walk and headed for Soho, a district he knew by day, by night and the times in between. He wandered aimlessly for hours, Derivé as Debord had called it. He stopped off at Bar Italia. Sipping his espresso, he gazed at the biceps of a boxer in an old monochrome photo on the wall in front of him gathering his thoughts. Soho traded a lot on its past, to the point it felt fake as if the National Trust had got their hands on it. The continental delicatessen unfeasibly overstocked, the gayness toned down. The Festival of Britain-Esque frontages in Dean St still conjured up film deals and gold discs but the newer signage spoke a different story. It gave him an idea. 

Back at Space-03, he placed his acquisition on the cabinet; a square case, cream coloured with a cerise lid and a leatherette carrying handle. Two dials protruded from a grill inscribed with the words ‘Dansette Junior’. He took the bundle of seven-inch vinyl records from his backpack and set things up. The needle touched the revolving vinyl and he heard a crackle followed by a multi-guitar intro and then a soft but insistent male voice. 

‘Cumonn little baby, let’s move it and a-groove it.’

He could hear the shape of the singer’s mouth in his voice and it made his neck tingle, he wanted to be in that mouth. As he explored Cliff’s mouth, he flicked through the handful of other records that included Freddie and the Dreamers, Billy Fury, all from that era, the late 50s. He stopped at the Expresso Bongo picture cover, captivated. A young Cliff straddled a stool, wearing loafers and pale pink socks, legs apart, mouth open, eyes to the camera, flattened palms in mid-air ready to beat on a pair of bongos which seemed to hover above his crotch. Manny stroked his own crotch, turned on by the thought that Artist Roy resembled Cliff. Serendipity, he thought, follow it. He used his mobile to hunt down and study all the early Cliff clips and photos and clips he could find. He wanted to own Cliff’s movement and facial expressions and he practised into the night until exhausted, he fell asleep on the day-bed.

The next day, his foray into Soho was less derivé, more tuned in. He returned from Brewer St with ‘boutique’ carrier bags. He peeled off his ‘student tourist’ clothes, including the lecturer’s 2(X)Ist designer briefs and stored them in the cabinet. Listening to the mournful Billy Fury swoon his teenage crush, Manny slowly pulled on the white Worsley Y-Fronts, the fine pale gold socks and the matching woollen polo jersey. 

‘Prove that you’re real and it’s my lucky day.’

These were the first new clothes he’d bought himself since leaving home. The suit and the loafers might be pre-worn, but they were vintage and he’d paid cash; they were his. He took out the self-adhesive mirror he’d bought and stuck it on the wall. He looked sharp in the pale grey single-breasted suit with drainpipe trousers. He stepped closer to consider his advantage, his smooth face. He gelled his hair but tried in vain to shape it into early British Rock & Roll. 

Hurrying back into Soho, he found a shop with men and boys B&W headshots in the window. Two old men in white coats sat in the waiting chairs; one reading The Daily Mirror, the other dozing. Manny pushed open the door, a bell tinkled; the dozy one stirred and eased himself up. Manny pointed to one of the immortalised young busts. 

‘Can I have something like that? A quiff?’

The barber looked him up and down, nodded and pointed to a chair. As he tucked the protective sheet around his collar, he leant in;

‘It’s actually a 50s pompadour, James Dean had one back in ‘55.’

‘Then Elvis copied it.’ said his colleague who had put down his newspaper.

‘And Cliff Richard?’ said Manny. 

‘Yes, then Cliff.”

‘If there’s a difference, more like Cliff, please.’

They talked about old times, Luigi and Franco. Manny asked this and that. To finish, Luigi reached for the Brylcreem and fingered the white sloppiness into Manny’s dark brown hair and combed him back into 1959.

On the way back, as recommended, he stopped off at a tobacconist’s and picked up a pack of Lucky Strike, Luigi’s smooth voice still resonating in his head;

‘Back then, you had to have your own style; you might not have much else, but you could have that.’ 

In the fading daylight he saw an almost monochrome reflection of himself in the shop-window; his hair darker, his face a solid paleness.

Standing below Eros, he opened the Lucky Strike’s and lit up with the slim Ronson lighter that Luigi had given to him.

‘It completes the look. I don’t smoke now; besides, the friend who gave it to me, way back, he would like that it found its way to a good looking lad like you.’

Remembering what he’d been taught, Manny took out another cigarette, turned it over so the filter tip faced down and slid it back in. He took a drag and looked around, the Eros crowd had morphed; less tourist but he couldn’t quite read the mood. Feeling shy, not knowing what to do next, he slid his free hand into his trouser pocket; he could see the shape of his hand through the tight fabric, pressing against his thigh. That’s a good look, he thought. 

A very old man in a wheelchair, wearing a smart blue jacket with military medals pinned to his breast, being pushed by a grey-faced pensioner weighed down by a long black mackintosh, stared at Manny as they rolled past.

‘A poor chicken that didn’t manage to fly the coop.’ said War Hero.

‘Looks like Cliff, what do you reckon?’ said Mackintosh. 

‘More Billy Fury, that paleness!’

Manny blew out a puff of smoke and sneered a smile, pleased at the impact. He vaguely knew about the history of Dilly boys, rent boys trading here at the ‘Chicken Rack’ since Eros had been erected. He looked around, the night was waiting to move in; now was the time.

Manny entered Space-03, turned on the low lighting, set the artspace to external broadcast and opened up all the panels to view inward. He sang along with Helen Shapiro on the Dansette whilst he posed in front of the mirror combing his hair back.

‘Ohh ohh ohhh…yeah o yeah yeah…every time you pass me by…you don’t know.’

He practised his look, he knew he would only have one chance to use it. He glanced outside, he had an audience. 

He changed the record to Cliff’s Expresso Bongo EP, and taking a deep breath, picked up the old Kodak camera he’d bought and stepped outside. When the audience realised he wasn’t going to sing or dance they turned away and blended back into the evening. Manny prowled the circus for a few minutes, taking shots of the glowing artspace. He found an angle where Eros appeared to hover above Space-03. As he looked through the viewfinder, lining up the shot, he saw a guy in a bikers jacket leaning against the door, all nonchalant. Manny pressed the shutter, the flash fired and the guy looked over then started walking towards him.

Engage, interact, Manny thought as he checked him out; East Asian looking, strong chest, white t-shirt, classic 501 jeans. Manny was used to approaches but was taken aback when the guy stopped in front of him, and saying nothing, took out a comb and ran it through his dyed blond greased back hair, all the while keeping his eyes on him. Manny held his look. The guy slowly put away his comb, took out his mobile and pointed the camera lens at Manny.  

‘Great look – can I? ’ said the guy.

As Manny posed, he tried to weigh the guy up. Friend or Foe? hard to tell.

‘Is it a performance?’ asked the guy.

‘Kind of; art project.’

‘Are you a star, from that era?’

‘I’m more about the place. You?’

‘I’m Tak, from Japan, Nagasaki. I work here, in film, animation.’ 

‘Ha, I meant persona. Let me guess; James Dean.’

Tak beamed.

Manny offered him a cigarette; tapping the base of the pack with his thumb; a cigarette rose, filter tip first. They smoked, not talking, looking into the city night.

‘Do you take this performance further? Sorry, your name’ asked Tak

‘Call me Adam.’.

Manny paused. He knew this kind of question could be his Achilles Heel, especially as he felt up for it, money or not. No, it would have to be art, he thought, Roy was paying.  

‘Come back with a bottle of whisky and two glasses and we’ll see.’

‘Deal.’ said Tak.

Tak reappeared at the door of Space-03 twenty minutes later holding a Japan Centre carrier-bag. He let him in.

‘Hey, Jimmy; why don’t you fix me a drink whilst I put some music on.’

Adam pretended to look in the mirror whilst setting up Space-03 on his mobile. Jimmy looked startled as Eros and Picadilly appeared. 

‘Don’t worry, this artspace is hi-tec, no-one can see in.’   

As the music of Billy Fury’s longings filled the space, Adam saw that his guest looked unsure of himself. Adam leant back against the wall, pushed both hands into his pockets and gazed at Jimmy. Jimmy smiled, picked up the tumblers of Suntory and invited Adam across. He took one and perched on the opposite end of the daybed. 

They clinked glasses. 

‘To Jimmy Dean.’

‘To Adam?’

‘Adam Meek.’

Adam got up, he needed Cliff. He changed the record. 

‘Cummon pretty baby lets move it and a-groove it.’

Adam turned and started to dance, one he’d learnt, a twist. Jimmy joined him.

When the music ended Jimmy Dean brought his hand to rest on Adam Meek’s waist. Adam faltered, angry with himself. He knew that touch, that touch cutting to the chase meaning he was just someone’s idea of a good weekend. Fuck him, this was going to be psychogeography his way; art with no game rules and the ethically free webcam was running. This WOULD mean something.

‘I can read you like a book.’ said Adam.

‘But do you want to?’ Jimmy purred.

Adam shrugged.

‘Why not, I read a lot.’

He felt Jimmy Dean’s hand press more firmly. The look, now! He thought. He raised his face, widened his blue eyes, unfurled his long eyelashes, looked into Jimmy’s eyes and slowly parted his lips.

Their deep struggle of a kiss ignited a violent fizz inside Adam’s mind, more powerful than the sexual thrill of tongues and taste. A visceral understanding of the landscape of the man swirled around, his fetish for surreal animations, the masochistic longing for the west. He knew from the way Jimmy’s hands searched across his body, that Jimmy Dean was truly lost.

And as Adam’s hands scanned over Jimmy, his head pounded with an image of a Japanese man in fine western dress, hands clasped together, standing next to a tall westerner in khaki, hands on his hips. Adam recoiled from the kiss and opened his eyes to focus on something else. Without removing the biker jacket, Adam pushed Jimmy’s T-shirt up over the back of his head so it was tight across the back of his neck. He undid Jimmy’s jeans and saw the hardness in his boxers as his jeans dropped to his ankles. Adam left the undressing it at that, keenly sensing Jimmy’s desire to remain bound up in Americana.  

Adam unzipped himself, took one of Jimmy’s hands and slid it inside. Jimmy’s hand tightened as his thumb slowly rubbed the tip of him. Adam closed his eyes, drunk on the layers of fakery on fakery, persona on persona, culture on culture.

When he opened his eyes he saw Jimmy’s stare fixed on the cigarettes. Adam picked up the pack and tapped the base; the inverted one rose.

‘You got the Lucky Strike.’ said Adam.

Adam lit the cigarette, Jimmy’s nipples hardened. 

He took the cigarette from his mouth and looked into Jimmy’s eyes. He saw the darkness. Guilt it seemed, trickled down the generations in various forms. Shocked at what he might have tapped into, he looked away. But also, at this moment, he knew he would be able to read others and understand them in some way. This was no fake.  

‘Give me a line, Jimmy, from one of your movies.’ said Adam.

‘Which one?

‘Rebel Without a Cause.’

Jimmy blinked then stared ahead, 

‘If I had one day when I’d didn’t have to be all confused and I didn’t feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace. You know?’

Adam remained silent. Jimmy looked at the cigarette.

‘Connect Adam. Just connect.’

Adam brought the smouldering tip closer to Jimmy’s chest. 

The slightest nod from Jimmy.

The lightest touch from Adam.

A wince bound up with a groan, the smell of burning flesh, the red dot appearing, like a rising sun.

Sam Jenks (he/him) is a gay writer concerned with queering psychogeography. His work has previously featured in Fruit Journal, Litro and Minnano Gallery. He is currently working on two novellas, one set in Lockdown Bath, UK; the other set in Hokkaido, Japan. He is also involved with out on the page which supports emerging LGBTQ+ writers. Follow him on twitter @SamJenksWriter

The Space Project remains, due to Covid, an unrealised work of the artist Yihang Yuan. He is currently based in Beijing as part of an independent studio collective remotely studying an MA in Contemporary Art Practice at RCA, London. You can find Yihang on Instagram here.