THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB THE CLUB
It is 2008 and you are wasted. Really wasted. The only reason you know this is because you are walking through the streets of Hackney at 12 a.m. and you are singing the Charles & Eddie song ‘Would I Lie to You?’, which you usually hate. Every note comes out like a warbling screech. You continue, trying to make each line more controlled than the next, but instead it gets worse, your voice getting louder, battering the outside walls of the houses nearby. The houses with their curtains closed and their lights off and their black shadow lawns. The families in these houses have gone to sleep. But you are only just waking up.
You are sixteen. You are sixteen and wearing a bodycon dress from American Apparel, which is a shop that hasn’t yet gone into liquidation or been rocked by a series of sexual assault scandals. You are sixteen and your fringe is straightened and plastered to one side, which is the way fringes have been worn for most of the decade, although that is just about to change. You are sixteen and you are not alone: you are with three people in their twenties who are taking you to a gay bar for the very first time. In future years, one of these people will become a doctor on the frontline of the COVID crisis. Another will get married, twice, and move to Spain. You’ve never been sure what happened to the third. But in that moment, you are all walking together and you are singing and you cannot feel the midnight blue cold because you are sixteen and you literally do not care (that is how you pronounce the word ‘literally’ – as if it is always in italics).
The gay bar you are walking to is called The Joiners Arms and it has been around for twenty years, which is longer than you have been alive. Twenty years of sweat and twenty years of spilled spirits all over the floor and twenty years of saliva and sex and smoking inside, although by the time you arrive the smoking ban has just come into effect and now you can only smoke outside, in a small concrete yard, surrounded by stonewashed denim, swinging crucifix earrings, topless boys in tracksuit bottoms, crushed chips and dimpled skin. Inside, there is a tattered pool table that gets pushed to one side when people want to dance and there’s a rotten old fruit machine in one corner and a bedraggled-looking drag queen who is there every night, ‘entertaining’. She smells vividly and stubbornly like body odour, but you don’t care; no one cares.
At night they play UK garage and Scary Monsters-era Bowie and The Gossip and regular glossy chart-pop like The Pussycat Dolls, in no particular order – although Sundays are dedicated to techno, and Tuesdays to karaoke. They are always open until 4 a.m., apart from Mondays, and they do not check your ID or care when you go to the toilet with a hairy-chested bear called Big Jim and an old lesbian with a shaved head called Sue and come out excited and wired and, wow, you cannot believe that such a place exists. You cannot believe that life can feel like this. I am going to do this for so long, you think to yourself, now just a sticky body and two black pupils beneath pink and purple dappled lights. I am going to do this for so long, until I am old and shrivelled and physically eroded from all these years of freedom. You are in some ways wrong about that – life would become unrecognisable, as it tends to, like a creature you accidentally gave birth to – but you wouldn’t have believed me back then, even if I’d told you.
You do not yet know that you are queer, but you do not know that you aren’t queer either, and you don’t think about it too deeply because you are just here to dance. All you know is that The Joiners Arms makes you feel happy and at peace with yourself and others. Something about the actual building – the tobacco-coloured frontage, the tail-end of Hackney Road, the desolate car wash opposite – makes you want to come back, all the time. In later years, when your sexuality becomes more central to your modes of interaction and way of being, The Joiners Arms is still one of the only nightlife spots in which you feel properly free and comfortable in your own skin. It makes you swell and click into place. Admitting that out loud feels overly earnest and slightly po-faced, but if you were to speak honestly to yourself in private, at your own reflection, that is probably what you would say because that is the truth.
Months and then years will pass after that first night at the gay club. During the expanse of time after 2015 – when The Joiners Arms is boarded up and abandoned and covered in a thin, then thick layer of dust – people will try to describe the energy of the place in online ‘looking back’ essays and nostalgic pub conversations. There will be a tireless campaign to try to save it, which sort of works but mainly doesn’t because it never actually comes back. It’s supposed to be turned into offices, or exactly nine luxury flats – you can’t quite remember – but instead it just sits there, empty, for years into the future. You too will try to bottle its spirit and explain it in a book. But the words won’t sound right. You’ll start to forget what it felt like in there sometimes. The memories in your mind will resemble images of a documentary about a different time experienced by somebody else, as if they are two, maybe three degrees of separation from yourself.
Did The Joiners even exist in the way we thought it did, you’ll wonder in those moments. Because The Joiners could be shitty too, you’re sure of it. What about the stench of the place, those times it took a rough turn. The crowds of men that sometimes took over, eyes glinting in shadowy corners. One night, you’ll remember darkly, your girlfriend at the time was spiked. You carried her into a taxi, then tried to drag her upstairs, hands under armpits, but it was a struggle. The medical worker at the end of the phone told you to make sure she was lying on her side and that it would probably wear off in the morning. You lightly slapped her face a few times. She burbled and drooled. Her eyes rolled back into her head. The next morning she couldn’t remember a thing past putting a drink to her lips. She laughed about it, burying the anxiety, the way we’re taught to. Yeah, The Joiners could be shitty too. Not every queer space is a safe space. You think about that too sometimes.
But other times, briefly, when you are walking down a polluted street at night-time in winter, or spot a flash of baby-blue neon lighting, or smell a trace of stale cloying sweat and dried up Marlboro Reds, you’ll remember the joy that used to live there. Or your body will at least. And your chest will ache for a moment. Something here has been lost, it will tell you. Because bodies hold onto things like this. Bodies don’t forget the things that they are missing.