BREAKFAST IN BRIGHTON BY NIGEL RICHARDSON
The following is one of a series of anecdotes about real characters in the English seaside town of Brighton told by journalist Nigel Richardson in his Breakfast in Brighton: Adventures on the Edge of England (London, 1998) pp. 126-137.
About the time the Blue Gardenia murder would have happened, had it happened - that is, in the late fifties or early sixties - in the small market town of Hassocks, some ten miles north of Brighton, a young boy was spending his last few pennies on a cup of tea at the end of a long hot summer's afternoon. He had caught the train from Brighton that morning with the intention of going all the way to London, but when the train stopped at Hassocks he had lost his nerve and got off. He had mooched around for half a day looking for half a chance, but it was a dead sort of place, at least from the waist down. By spending the last of his money on a cup of tea he was burning his boats; if he still wanted to get up to London, or even back to Brighton, he would have to hide in the toilet and run for it at the other end. But he didn't care.
He went into the café near the station, debated between having lemonade and tea, chose tea, and sat down at a table next to the window, with a view of the rest of the café. He drank the tea slowly, so it grew discernibly colder between sips, and looked at the men there. Those who weren't old enough to be his father were certainly old enough to be his grandfather. They were rheumy-eyed and grey-whiskered, they had hacking coughs and smoked incessantly. The boy thought of the way the flesh on an old man went grey, so it looked dead. He had seen plenty of old, ill-nourished, half-poisoned ﬂesh. But his father's flesh was brown and tough. He pictured the way the small knife had slid across the flesh of his father's forearm when he tried to stab him. There had been blood, but not much, which he regretted. Still, they must be looking for him. But no one was looking at him in this café, and he was glad because they were disgusting. What he was required to do was not disgusting at all, he could enjoy it, but whom he was required to do it with was frequently insupportable. So he was relieved not to be noticed, even if it meant he would have no money tonight.
But then a man walked into the smoky café and the boy knew pretty soon his luck had changed. The man was close in age to the men around him, but there the similarity ended. Despite the heat, he wore a belted woollen overcoat. There were drops of sweat on his upper lip and on his forehead. He was very tanned, looked foreign, Italian maybe. He was fat, but it was a sleek, prosperous fatness. He took a seat and stayed there, expecting to be served. The men around him coughed and smoked, didn't acknowledge him at all. It was as if they didn't see him, and perhaps they didn't. Perhaps they saw nothing at all any more. Minutes passed.
The owner was in the kitchen at the back, listening to the racing results on the radio. The boy looked at his tea, swilled it around the cup - stone cold now, still half an inch to go. The man loosened the belt of his coat, eased the coat open, rattled a shoe on the lino and shifted his chair. He was going to leave, but then he saw the boy. He stared at the boy quite openly, intently, as if sure that the other men in the café didn't count, would be powerless to intervene. The boy liked being looked at in this way, felt the power of the man. He wondered what it would lead to. He was ready for whatever that may be. The man nodded at the boy, stood up and left the café without being served. The boy followed, as the man had known he would.
Perhaps the man just wanted a quick toss-off in the bushes for a couple of quid, but the boy didn't think so. The man had time and money, perhaps a lot of money. The man was worth being obliging to. The man crossed the station forecourt to the left-luggage office. He came out with two suitcases, approached the boy and spoke to him for the ﬁrst time. 'Is this too heavy?' He handed the boy the smaller of the cases. The boy tried it, said no. 'Good' said the man. 'Follow me! He waddled as he carried the heavier case. Two paces behind, the boy watched him struggling along the pavement. Sweat flicked off his forehead and on to the still-warm pavement. With a half-glance behind him to the boy, the man turned into the entrance of the coaching inn, rang a bell at the reception desk just inside. As he waited for someone to come he turned to the boy and said, 'You're my son, by the way! The boy thought, I know that.
The room had two single beds. The man said, 'I'll give you ten pounds.' This was a lot of money. and the boy smiled, 'But I expect my money's worth.’ The man instructed the boy to undress while he watched. Then the man undressed. The boy was energetic and gave the man his money's worth. It was getting dark outside. They could hear laughter and the clinking of glasses coming from the bar downstairs. The boy reached for his clothes and began to dress. Now he had £10, things became possible. Up to London or back to Brighton? He still didn't know. He supposed that if he went back to Brighton he would have to face the music, sooner or later. You couldn't go around stabbing your own father and expect to get away with it. But London was difficult. He didn't know the place, had never been there, would scarcely know where to start, except for the obvious.
The man lay in bed watching the boy dressing, as he had watched him undress. The boy buttoned up his ﬂies and tied his jumper round his waist by the arms and asked for his money, holding his hand out. ‘Later,' said the man. 'I'm tired. What's the hurry?' The boy said his mother would be missing him. She knew he had gone to Hassocks. People might be looking for him. He thought of threatening to scream, but as he looked at the man, lying there in bed, he saw his eyelids drooping, and decided on another plan. 'Just calm down,’ breathed the man sleepily. 'I'll make it worth your while.’
Within ﬁve minutes the man was snoring. The boy stood over him, waved a hand right in front of the man's face. He went over to his overcoat, draped over a chair. took out his wallet and took all the money there was in it. He let himself out of the room and forced himself to walk quietly out of the hotel. He passed the receptionist, who smiled at him. The boy ran to the station. There was a train to London in seven minutes. He bought a ticket and waited anxiously for the train to arrive. Once on board he went straight to the toilet and counted his takings: £120 in tenners, ﬁvers and one-pound notes. It was an unimaginable fortune.
The boy was fourteen and had been having sex with men for money since he was nine and a man had approached him in a public toilet on the seafront. It was just tossing men off with his hand for a long time, or having it done to him, and he enjoyed it mostly. Then a man tried something different. The man asked him to hide his genitals between his legs, so he looked like a girl, then simulated vaginal penetration of the boy, thrusting away between his legs, hurting him, banging on the walls of the cubicle with his ﬁsts. When the pain and noise were reaching a crescendo the door of the cubicle was kicked in and both of them were arrested by the police, who had been staking out the toilets.
This was the ﬁrst the boy's parents knew of what he got up to. The boy's father, who was a merchant seaman and away from home for long stretches, thrashed him with a belt. It was a blood-curdling event. The father actually locked the door of the boy's bedroom before setting about him. Downstairs, the mother busied herself in the kitchen with the radio turned up. Afterwards, the boy spent twenty-four hours locked in his bedroom without food. At the suggestion and recommendation of the police, the boy's father sent him to a psychiatrist in New Church Road, Hove, who specialized in deviancy.
The psychiatrist asked the boy to describe exactly what he had been required to do by the men he had gone with. As he listened to the boy's prosaic catalogue of mechanical acts, the psychiatrist seemed to get excited. In a thick voice he ordered the boy to take off his trousers and, unable to stop himself, he pushed the boy face ﬁrst against the wall and buggered him, 'Like this, like this?' he screamed as he did it. The boy escaped and ran home. His mother was out - probably on her way to collect him from the psychiatrist in New Church Road.
In his bedroom the boy picked up a penknife and waited for his father to return from his lunchtime session at the pub. He didn’t intend to kill him, just to hurt him. In the event he hardly did that. His father was drunk, but managed to deﬂect the blow with his forearm. The boy had then run to the station and caught the London train, getting of at Hassocks. In London he went to the only place he knew of, the Dilly, and made money the only way he knew how. He was pretty by then, incredibly so. He spent some of his new-found fortune on clothes, looked like Alain Delon. He didn't need to take on the rancid, the halitotic, the furtive, the ones with alopecia, the ones with wives, with sons the same age as him, the ones who lived with their mothers, the ones who cried and wished to kiss him on the lips. He liked the sort he had made happy in the coaching inn in Hassocks, who carried around wads of money, wore belted overcoats. He liked cars, doing it in cars, on leather, the smell of leather and of mahogany. He had done it in the back of a chauffeur-driven car with the chauffeur there in the front, affecting not to notice, not to see, not to smell, not to hear. He was passed on, like a new brand of cigar. He stayed in hotels with people who were famous. He was the regular companion of a peer of the realm and of a psychopathic gangster.
He would be summoned by the gangster, along with three or four others. They would wait in a car outside a Soho club, sometimes for hours. Sometimes they were told they could go; a henchman would open the car door and say, 'Go on, fucking scarper,' without seeing the gangster at all. Usually, though, they got the word at some stage in the evening. Then they would be taken down into the club, into the cigar smoke and menace, eyes stinging with the smoke, and be sat at a table near the gangster. The gangster would joke, 'Vimto all round,’ and his friends would laugh. The gangster might make clucking noises, and they would have to cluck back. 'Come on, chickens,' he would say, 'come on, you fucking poultry, sing for your supper,' and the friends would laugh.
But he meant it, the boys would have to cluck like chickens, there and then, with stinging eyes and trembling hearts, amid the cigar smoke and menace, and it seemed as if the whole world were laughing at them then. Or the gangster was serious, wouldn't look at them the whole evening, until he pointed his cigar at the chosen one. Sometimes the gangster chose more than one at a time, which was better, safety in numbers. Going to bed with the gangster was like being locked in the lion enclosure for the night. He liked scratching their backs until he drew blood. He grew his ﬁngernails for the purpose and licked off the blood afterwards, liking the commingled taste of sweat and meat.
In the morning the boys stole the silver teaspoons from the breakfast tray brought in by the liveried bellboy. Sometimes the bellboy was about the same age as the boys and the gangster would make suggestions, raise his eyebrows and say, 'Eh, boys?' to the boys. The bellboy would stammer, 'Enjoy your breakfast sir,’ and back out of the room. The gangster might say, 'What if I want you for breakfast? and cackle smokily as the door closed. The gangster enjoyed throwing back the sheets so young bellboys would see the streaks of blood there, see what they were missing. If, however, the bellboy was old, grey and stooped with red-rimmed eyes, the gangster would fold a ten-bob note into his top pocket and say, 'There you go, cock. Have one on me.'
The boy reckoned he enjoyed protection from the gangster. How else was it that he slipped like a sprat through the net the police spread every so often over Piccadilly Circus? Uniformed ofﬁcers looked through him on Broadwick Street. In the toilets the plain-clothes men standing urineless for long periods mysteriously overlooked his allure in favour of shabby starers and flashers. Then one day it changed. Perhaps he had grown too old, too knowing in the face, too padded on the hips. Perhaps his technique, thrilling and thoughtful as it was, had grown stale. Now he would wait in the car and not be summoned. Or if he was, if he made it as far as the club. he would get no further but be dispatched upward into the night, back to the West End trolling grounds ol the Dilly and Soho.
The law's agents provocateurs began to stare at him rather than through him. He took more care, looked left and right and up and down, but you can never take enough care when they've marked your card. It happened, as he knew it would, with a punter who'd been hardly worth it in the ﬁrst place - a fat Russian diplomat with body odour and sepia-tinted fingers. No money to speak of, bad teeth, bad smells. The copper was in the next cubicle, who knows?, having a crafty J . Arthur himself while he waited. The Ruskie's mouth opened and closed soundlessly when the door was kicked in. The Ruskie shoved himself away and buttoned himself up and the boy shrugged.
The policeman had a soft round face that the boy could have stroked, strangely enough. In a moment of madness this was what he almost did. But then the Russian fled and the policeman had the boy's arm up behind his back so it was almost breaking and even then he could feel the copper's breath, if he turned his head could have kissed his cheek, and who knew what then might have happened, ﬁreworks or dungeons, exalted life or a kind of death. 'Nice out, in't it?' said the boy instead, gasping through the pain. and then, changing voice: 'Yes, well, put it away, there's a policeman coming.'
At West End Central they charged him with procuring and discovered they had netted a runaway, a juvenile wanted for a serious assault on his own father. 'You don't have to tell him, though? asked the boy helplessly. 'Please don't tell me Dad.' Then they knew they had him, could hurt him, pin him to pain like a fly to a board, dismantle him, this snake-hipped kid with his arch eyes and mocking mouth. They called Brighton Police, who went round to see the father, then they slung the boy in a cell with a drunk where he huddled and shivered all night. And in the morning the hatch over the small barred window in the cell door slid open and the boy saw, divided into strips by the bars, the face of a man with a score to settle.
He was beaten now. All the knowingness he had acquired, the manipulativeness, the humour and the art of provocation, the smile and the wink, the laugh and the shrug. his ways of winning against the world, all went when he saw that face. The face took him away, back to orderliness, propriety and wholesomeness, short back and sides and chops for tea, back to thrashings with a belt for filthy little queers. Back to Brighton, and what a very odd sort of Brighton it was, a dungeon in the basement of England. This time the locked bedroom door was a necessity as well as a punishment, buying time for the bruises and cuts to fade from their initial, unmissable luridness. The father administered a double dose, for the kniﬁng as well as the poncing. The mother listened to the radio, Round the Home turned up so the voices distorted. But the father hadn't finished with the boy, in fact had barely started.
The father had talked to a priest as well as to the police. Between them they mapped a course for the boy. He would plead guilty, in juvenile court, to the charge of procuring and would be discharged by the bench on the understanding that he would be sent to a corrective institution in west London which specialized in curing young boys of perverted desires.
And so the boy found a dungeon even deeper and danker than Brighton. The boy was stripped and shown homosexual pornography. If he responded with arousal, he was beaten. It reminded him of a story he had heard about the Gestapo. The Gestapo would strip prisoners naked, sit them down and run a live electric current a couple of inches above their crotches. Then they would bring into the room a beautiful Jewish woman who would strip in front of them, The prisoners had been without sex for years in some cases. They could not control or inhibit their bodies, they were driven mad with a desire they knew would kill them. Afterwards, as the stripper put her clothes back on and they dragged the bodies out by their feet, there was the stench of singed ﬂesh and shit. Sometimes, before the woman put her clothes back on, in a windowless room full of freshly dead bodies and smelling of shit and burned flesh, the guards would rape her, one after the other. The boy thought about this, decided he was better off, as they would never actually kill him. And then sometimes, as the days stretched into weeks, he wished they would kill him. They called it aversion therapy.
At night, the staff who took off his clothes during the day, and brought the visual material, and slapped him about, these same staff took off his clothes in the dark, and caressed him, and slapped him about, and held him down so they could take him, one after the other. He bled and ached, constantly. Then one day he got hold of some pills and tried to kill himself. He awoke in the hospital wing and wondered momentarily if this were it, heaven, the other side, eternal life for ever and ever, amen.
His eyes saw white light with a cross in the middle. He clenched them shut. The light hurt his eyes, reached into his brain and hurt that too. Would his head ache like this for ever, then? Would it hurt for ever when he went to the toilet? Would he need to go to the toilet? He opened his eyes and the white light and the cross sharpened, came into focus, as he blinked, and he realized he was looking at a window. The white light was the sky above the Goldhawk Road, The cross was the frame of the window. So it was a kind of heaven after all, or at least a future. It was a window on the rest of his life.
He looked around. A couple of other people lay sleeping beneath stiff blue blankets. He smelled Dettol. He sat up, dressed hurriedly from the pile of clothes in the bedside locker - grey trousers, grey T-shirt, plimsolls. His own beautiful clothes, his drape jacket and belted raincoat, his trousers with knife-edge creases, his drip-dry, slim-ﬁt shirts, his real leather shoes with metal toe- and heelclips, were locked up elsewhere and would be sacriﬁced to the escape, the flight from the past. He threw up the sash, climbed through the window and dropped fifteen feet into an alleyway, making no sound in his plimsolls. Then he walked off towards 5hepherd's Bush and into the rest of his life.
For several years he did not go back to Brighton. He stayed in London. but on the other side, Mile End way. He learned a trade, and he learned to have sex with lovers rather than punters. He went to drag shows - plenty of those for such a rough, butch neighbourhood. He drank and forgot. For days on end he forgot, but then a memory crept up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and walloped him between the eyes when he looked round. He learned to ride these blows, to bob his head around them. He discovered he was good with money, good at making and saving it. He bought property and traded up. He met people who went to Brighton at weekends.
Some of them followed drag artists who performed down there, some just went for the change of scene. It was very butch and gangsterish, Mile End way, and the boy couldn’t be doing with it. So why didn't he come to Brighton? He'd like it in Brighton, he really would. Very jolly, and the salt was good for your pores, just don't get it vou-know-where. But the boy always declined.
Then he got some news. His sole remaining contact with his family was an older sister who rang him occasionally. She rang to say his father had died, accident at sea. The boy silently exulted, standing there holding the receiver, winding the cord tight round his ﬁnger. He did not go to the funeral, he did not talk to his mother, who had played the radio so loud. He bided his time and when he got the all clear from his sister – the family house was sold, his mother had moved - he laid his plans.
Where he had seen shadows and a ﬁst, now he saw light and caresses. Someone said to him, when he moved back to Brighton, 'You'll love it here. When I've been away and I come back over those Downs and see the streets spread out over the hillsides, when I see the piers and smell the sea, when I get blown by the wind in those streets down to the sea, I think I've come home to the lost fucking tribe.’
And Graham said: 'Buy me a drink before I fucking weep.’
 The “psychopathic gangster” sounds from the ensuing description remarkably like London’s most famous gangster, Ronnie Kray (1933-95), who was a paranoid schizophrenic, sadistic, frequented nightclubs and was keen on teenage rent-boys. See his biography by his close friend Laurie O’Leary, Ronnie Kray: A Man Among Men (2002). If this identification is correct, then the “peer of the realm” may have been Kray’s friend, the Conservative politician Robert, Lord Boothby (1900-86), widely reported to have enjoyed teenage boys at Kray’s parties. See, for example, “The Spy Files: Lord Boothby's sordid sex parties with Ronnie Kray revealed in MI5 files” in The Telegraph, 23 October 2015.