The hallway at the back of the club leading to Mr Winter’s office was lit by only one 60 watt light bulb high up in the ceiling. This had the effect of casting a pall of yellow-grey light over everything and made even the most innocent of shadows look as if they hid some unnamed evil. Furthermore, the yellow paint was peeling from the wall and everywhere stank faintly of urine and months-old stale beer.
On either side of the passageway were boxes of whisky and Smith’s Crisps. Plain salted or salt and vinegar, she thought. It was a lazy refrain she threw at the customers in the club. She hated the customers. She hated the way they looked at her and pinched her bottom when the club manager Mike wasn’t looking. However, today she would have given anything for a whole army of customers rather than have to see Mr Winter.
Karen felt sick and kept looking back over her shoulder for Mike, hoping upon hope that he would call her back and tell her to forget it. But the only sound was her footsteps, which were too loud on the dirty tiled floor making her feel like a mouse in a cat’s lair.
Outside the office was a photograph of Frank Sinatra standing next to Mr Winter and another man. It was a backstage picture from one of Ol’ Blue-eyes’ trips to London, she guessed. The fact that it wasn’t over the bar suggested that the business they had been discussing hadn’t been strictly show business.
Karen took a deep breath and straightened the black pencil skirt of her waitress uniform and then raising her arm, her hand hung like executioners axe inches from the wooden door panel. She took one last look up the passage for Mike and then swallowed.
The knock was no louder than a mouse scratch and after a long moment she tried again louder. Karen realised her right leg was trembling and her nausea grew until pressed at the back of her throat.
Even though she had been expecting it, when the door opened she jumped.
“You Karen Armstrong?” Harry the Hat was a big guy. He was called Harry the Hat because he was never seen without a charcoal trilby, although one of the older girls had told her his real name was George. Karen hadn’t seen him come in. He only ever came in when there was ‘other business’ of the kind the club was designed to front. He didn’t wait for her answer. “Wait there.” It was more a threat than an order.
Karen baulked and nodded. He glared at her with his cold dead eyes and then closed the door leaving her alone again. She was put in mind of school, and bullies, and standing outside the headmaster’s office. She remembered a geography lesson and her teacher talking about geological ages. A nervous giggle escaped her throat and she clapped her hand to her mouth in terror, even her thoughts were babbling, she realised.
She thought back to Heather and shuddered. No one had seen Heather in days. The other waitress had not really been her friend. Mr Winter’s club was not somewhere you made friends, although Mike was nice enough. But Heather had at least talked to her. So when she had come up short for the rent, it had been Heather who showed her how to skim a little off the top.
“Just pin money you understand, don’t get too greedy, but a little every day and it soon mounts up. If we’re careful we won’t get caught.”
Karen had been careful right enough. On her very first day Mike had said: “You know who you’re working for? The kind of people I mean?”
“Yes, I think so.” She hadn’t. How could she? Byker was a million miles from Soho.
“Well then you know not to ever take from them. Not ever; not a drink, not a penny, not even so much as a packet of crisps.”
Karen had nodded. She had remembered his words when she had added drinks to the round too. She had been careful, but still they had been caught.
On the other side of the door someone was shouting. Mr Winter she guessed. Karen wondered if they were talking about her. She reached into her handbag and extracted her cigarettes and a matchbook.
The Silk Cut wagged in her mouth and the hand that held the match shook even worse so that the flame danced like a harem slave in far Araby. Eventually by using both hands she gained a light and the blue smoke spun away in coils making a dim dank passage even more sinister.
Then the door open.
“Get in here,” Harry the Hat barked out of the side of his mouth.
Karen dropped the cigarette and put it out with a twist of her foot. Then she made one last effort to straighten her skirt and went in.
The office was darker and even smokier than the passage outside. Somewhere in the gloom there were more pictures, mostly of boxing as far as she could make out, but she wasn’t really paying attention. Everything beyond the patch of light on the desk and the shadow of the man behind it was a hideous blur.
“Who’s this?” Mr Winter was chewing on a cigar and looked at her as if he had never seen her before.
“Karen, one of our girls, Mr Winter.” The other man was not as large as Harry, who had retreated to the wall, but he was large enough.
“Well I can see that, but what’s she doing here?” Mr Winter was a small older man with a balding head and on the few occasions that he ventured out into the club he always wore a crocodile smile along with his camel hair coat.
“She was in on it with Heather, you know, pulling a fast one, Mr Winter.”
“What this kid?” Mr Winter put on his crocodile smile and looked at her with a new respect. “That’s what I like to see, initiative. Ain’t that right girl?”
“I don’t know Mr Winter.” Karen wished he wasn’t smiling.
“No you’re alright kid. You remind me of…” he took a drag on his cigar, “oh well, buggered if I know. You only made two mistakes.”
“Please Mr Winter I won’t do it again,” Karen wailed.
“Oh shush.” There was that smile again. “Don’t take on so. Where was I?”
“Two mistakes, Mr Winter.” The other man supplied.
“Two mistakes,” Mr Winter said it like he was congratulating her. “One, you don’t take from me.” He pulled a face and shook his head for emphasis. “And two, you don’t get caught.”
Mr Winter burst into raucous laughter at this and even Harry joined in.
“But no seriously, you won’t do it again, you said that. I hear you… I hear you,” the repeated phrase was slow and devoid of menace. “I won’t even have Mike dock your wages.” Mr Winter cast his arms wide as if to say ‘I can’t say fairer than that.’
“Thank you Mr Winter.” Karen gushed with relief.
“But you’ve been a naughty girl and you have to take a little spank.” Mr Winter smirked and pulled a drag on his cigar. “Now get your things down and put yourself across the desk, there’s a good girl.”
Karen’s jaw dropped and she looked at each man in turn hoping this was a joke.
“Come on now be a sport,” The other man said almost kindly as he began to pull his belt through the hoops on his trousers.
“Please Mr Winter…” Karen blustered.
Mr Winter leaned forward and stared at her with dead eyes and then he smiled with is teeth, although his eyes didn’t join in, and tapped the table with his finger.
Karen looked around at the other two men and blushed. Then she began to fumble with the waist of her skirt, unzipping it at the back.
The skirt slipped easily over the nylon stockings and she placed it on the desk before glancing woefully at Mr Winter who nodded.
Her hands went to her hips and she shucked down her knickers, tears welling up as she did so. Then her underwear joined her skirt on the desk. She was now naked below the waist except for her stockings and suspenders, so she shielded herself in front with one hand and hugged herself defensively with the other. The man that had done all the talking placed a hand in the small of her back and urged her forward. Karen took a broken step and then flopped over the desk to give Harry and the man with the belt a clear view of her bare bottom.
“What a pretty girl,” Mr Winter said; his smile genuine this time.
Karen felt a frisson of pleasure mingle with the fear at this. Then the man with the belt said: “Stick your arse up properly.” And she blushed and did as she was told.
“Your Mum smack your bottom for you?” Mr Winter said with a grin, his face only a few feet from Karen’s.
“Sometimes,” Karen agreed. And then added meekly, “and Dad.”
“There you go then, won’t kill you.” Mr Winter winked.
The belt seared her bottom and stole her breath away just as she had stolen from Mike’s customers. With that thought, for the first time she wondered if she had got Mike into to trouble. She blinked hard not knowing how to react. She had cried for Daddy, but this was beyond tears.
The next band of fire caused her eyes to burst open and she grunted, grasping randomly at the desk top. Mr Winter reached forward and took her hands.
Then the belt fell like rain, stroke after stroke of it while Karen struggled against the desk and grunted in pain until she began to shout and tears spilled onto the tatty leather surface of the desk.
“It’s alright, just a sore bottom.” Mr Winter sounded kindly now, almost paternal.
Karen had an unexpected urge to say thank you, but the fire in her bottom put words beyond her and she reared like a wild pony.
Mr Winter and his men were in no hurry and to Karen it seemed that a small portion of her life was being consumed by the biting pain of the belt across her bottom. Then finally Mr Winter said: “That’ll do.” And it stopped.
Karen lay sobbing for a while, feeling the desk top almost as a comfort beneath her. The man with the belt replaced it around his waist and Harry took off his hat and studied the inside rim. Only Mr Winter watched her.
“Alright you can go,” he said tossing a large wad of notes onto the desk in front of her. “You can rip a few customers off if you want, it’s no big deal. But if you get caught you’ll be back here to entertain us. Fair enough?”
“Yes Mr Winter.” Karen smiled through her tears and scooped up the money. A month’s wages if she was a judge.
Then picking up her clothes she went to the door without dressing.
“Thank you sir,” she said shyly before she left.
The pokey corridor outside looked much shorter and not half so sinister now. Karen kissed the bundle of the Queen’s portraits and smiled. Then she winced as the soreness in her bottom asserted herself and she limped off to the ladies.
Lunch standing up and then back to work, she thought. Mike would be pleased not to lose her and besides, she had another little idea to get a bit of extra cash.