Chapter 2. Chaucer’s Candle
Tallulah, Tallulah, Tallulah, you filthy, gorgeous, deviant fiend. You are the first bullet in my sparkling, loaded gun. After all, I am, therefore this revival is, partially your doing—not that you take any credit. I’m sure you think we burlesquers are all quite beneath you. Everyone was always so far beneath you. You don’t identify with any of us anymore—least of the strippers. But I don’t care. I don’t owe you a thing. My debt of gratitude was repaid long ago when I held the other end of your jewel-encrusted tether.
Do I curse or bless the first day I laid eyes on you? Do you curse or bless ever-laying eyes on me? There was a fire there once—a glorious, devious fire.
In antiquity, when civilizations were being born in the Northern hemisphere, it was a mythology that there was a great southern land that was consumed by fires that never went out. For many it was the very picture of hell; a cursed land—Van Diemen’s Land.
It’s no mistake, Tallulah, that you and I were born of this land where fire is the fatal force that is needed to replenish life. Perhaps in no other place on earth is the relationship between destruction and creation so all-pervading.
In this land the flora and fauna has adapted to the seasonal firestorms. Banksia plants develop their seeds in thick, woody fruit that can only be opened by flames. The seeds themselves have adapted to germinate in ashes. The native orchids only flower after a blaze—sprouting from bulbs that have lain dormant for 20 years; just waiting for an inferno to come. Like you and I in our dormant youths—I in Sydney, you in a rural town—just waiting for adulthood to give us our freedom.
Like any bad girl who manages to survive the systematic crushing of youth, by the time our paths crossed, you were already a master arsonist- a societal fire-starter. Some of us are born knowing we have to burn cities down for better cities to be built. You certainly had a talent for ruin.
I watched as other women, like hypnotized insects, swooned before you only to be burned as you consumed them for your pleasure. It was all just fun and games… until one day I also watched those same flames engulf you whole.
Once your flames were turned inwards there was no saving you. You may as well have just doused yourself in gasoline. I’m so sorry you chose to go that way.
When your big Johnny Rebs first stomped into my life I was unsure of what to make of you. However I did recognise your energy signature—I had met someone like you before. So when the time came I was not unfamiliar to the pattern and reasons behind your self-destruction. I just had no way to stop it.
That other bad girl was aged 14 and I was 12. In order to divulge parts of my insane childhood in this book I must make mention of a certain paedophile-riddled Christian Camp on Lake Macquarie I was sent to attend every holidays—just to get a break from the convent.
A note to parents: if you don’t want your daughter to be bent, don’t try too hard to make her straight. Hitting a child over the head with a bible will only generate fear for a short time before that fear turns into hostility. After all, even the hardest metal will bow if you hit it often enough. From there bending is as inevitable as a blacksmith’s hammer hitting an iron rod to make a shoe for a horse. In my case, becoming bent was an inexorable result of the environments I was thrust into and the passage of time.
At Christian camp, many a night was spent cantillating praises to the Baby Jesus under the hot tin roof of the mess hall. Afterwards we were to ingest red jelly as a reward for regurgitating verses from that mad old book.
Our days were spent being force fed bible stories and The Leaders (as they called themselves) would preach sermons— such as listening to Cindy Lauper would cause compulsive masturbation and if you played ACDC songs backwards you would get pregnant to the devil. After those sessions the first thing I did was try to play my ACDC cassette backward and like most teenaged girls I was already a friend of Cindy’s.
It was a holiday camp in a working class town, where wild children were sent to be restored to the bosom of Christ. It’s true my brothers and I had more than a dose of free spirit—I guess my parents thought camp would help. I had some great times at that camp. In fact it’s here I first learned to strip—aged 11 on the top bunk of Cabin 3. But that is the story of Bad Girl Anthea.
This is the story of Bad Girl Mandy. She was the most popular girl eva! A charismatic dancer well versed in jazz, ballet and tap. She could also act and sing. Mandy was born and groomed for the stage. Her parents had invested a lot of time and money in her many gifts and she was aplomb with self-assurance. Many were her acolytes, and as younger women would study and replicate her every move.
I would watch her meticulously groom her blonde flicks into place, and smear glossy pink goo on her budding teen pout. I was convinced Mandy was on an airbrushed eighties rocket ship bound for super stardom. She would blow all the boys away with her tight jeaned action at the weekly roller disco. Oh, for the times when a camel toe was permissible fashion. I did not have one. I was not permitted tight enough jeans and my inadequate wardrobe caused me much anxiety.
Mandy, who was a devilish speed-skater, would do little turns and pirouettes, her boob tube defiantly clinging to her tiny teen tits. Then, as I would stumble through my diminutive vocab of uncoordinated roller moves, she would outskate even the best of us under that slow-turning disco ball and the primary-coloured lights.
I adored her. So deep was my sycophantism that I would have gladly projectile-vomited all of that hard-earned jelly just to make a glistening red carpet for her. She was everything my awkward prepubescent self wished I could be.
On the last night of camp she devised that we all sneak out of our cabin windows and play spin the bottle on the trampolines with the surfer boys. It was innocent enough.
In the morning The Leaders frowned down at our foolish, fallen selves. For some reason the camp would tolerate The Leaders sexually abusing young boys, but teenaged girls practicing our pashing techniques on the trampolines at midnight was an unforgivable SIN!!!!!
None of the surfer boys were punished—surprise, surprise. But someone had to be blamed. Mandy was banished from the camp forever for confessing to having a ‘dry root’ with Darcy.
As she tearfully packed her bags, blue mascara running down her sweet cheeks, I asked her what a dry root was. She sniffed, ‘It’s a root with your jeanz on.” This did not clarify much to me as I didn’t know what a root was. I was very virginal.
From then on I only got to see Mandy at the skating rink and on arrival I would rush to skate proudly by her side. That was until someone pulled me aside. “Don’t talk to her. She’s a slut.”
This is the first time I remember hearing the word slut. I didn’t know how to react. I had no idea what it meant and assumed it might be something to do with speed skating. So I instantly thought it was a really cool thing to be and I wanted to be one too.
But I noticed then that no one else was saying hi to her. So perhaps a slut was a carrier of an illness and was contagious in some way. But Mandy didn’t seem sick—just kind of forlorn.
Then I thought maybe it was a race of people I hadn’t heard of and was therefore like the words ‘slope’, ‘wog’, or ‘darkie’.
I learned from the sweet Baby Jesus himself that we should treat others as we would treat ourselves; I quickly dismissed the slur as dumb.
Even at the age of twelve I knew the way Mandy was being treated was on the same level of dangerous behavior as hating someone for having a different skin color. There was something unnecessarily cruel about it all.
I watched Mandy skating around and around by herself just as she probably did every day of her life because she had nowhere else to go and because no one would talk to her. This went on for a year. It didn’t make sense. What had happened?
I didn’t like the word slut. It sounded like the phonetic love child of slit and cut. Being a dork, I decided I would solve the problem by looking up ‘slut’ in the dictionary. Here is what I found.
- A woman who has many casual sexual partners.
I did sort of know what sex was. It was how you made babies. When a man and lady love each-other very much and want to make a baby, tiny worms come out of his doodle and crawl up a woman’s wee-wee hole and make a baby in there. I knew it also involved a lot of huffing and puffing in the dark.
As my parents had been into a posh version of seventies communal life at times, this term could quite possibly describe not only my mother, but also all of the grown women I knew. So on that level I understood it pretty much meant everyone. Women really worked hard at ‘making babies’ in our circle of friends.
- A woman with low standards of cleanliness.
God was watching!!! This was a warning! My room was a mess and the Baby Jesus knew. It was true. I realised that I was also a slut. In fact I’m sure I was more slutty than other girls. In fact sometimes I was a really, really big slut! I instantly worried that everyone would find out and I too would be labelled and friendless. Baby Jesus save my wicked soul!
I then wondered how everyone knew Mandy’s room was a mess.
What really confused me is why common thugs driving down the street yelling out car windows felt the need to point out that perhaps my level of household cleanliness was not as God would like it.
As that year passed, I had started to hear the word slut a lot—just screamed at me without provocation. It seemed to have something to do with the fact that although I was a complete tomboy I was obviously starting to blossom.
This seemed to give some men the need to be angry and aggressive towards me. I figured they were just trying to make me afraid of them—not that it made any sense to do that. I wasn’t really afraid of anything back then. I guess that’s what made me a dork. I was pretty hard to reach.
I gathered from most people’s reactions to the word ‘slut’ it is something I should work really hard not to be. I resolved to clean my room more often.
But something still did not sit well with me.
Unsatisfied with my investigation I did what any good little nerd would do and searched for the source of the word. The word ‘slut’ was first written by Chaucer in the 14th century to describe the appearance of an unkempt lord in The Canterbury Tales.
A slut was also a word to describe a poor man’s candle made of fabric dipped in fat. I pictured Chaucer writing by the light of such a candle and, being in need of a metaphor, had landed upon describing this lord as the item before him. Was this how the word slut was invented?
In any case, none of the above justified the treatment of Mandy. She was not untidy—in fact she was rather OCD about her appearance and probably kept her neatly folded underpants alphabetized in some way.
As my 13 year-old, virginal self weighed up the available facts and treatment of Mandy against her crimes, I realized that probably people were overly concerning themselves in her sexual privacy and judging her by rumor alone.
It was confusing. Mandy was cool. Cool girls are sexy. Sexy girls are popular. But it seemed that if they went too far with their popularity campaign they were to be labeled sluts and everyone stopped talking to them. It seemed that girls who dry-rooted, or are even rumored to like dry-rooting, acquired some sort of social leprosy. Mandy was definitely the head of a one-woman leper colony by that point.
I wondered if I prayed really hard and spat on her like Jesus did to lepers if Mandy would be healed and stop dry-rooting everyone.
I knew Mandy had never had sex or else she would be pregnant. Mandy’s crime was far worse. Mandy had that one thing that really gets up people’s noses—especially in a working class town full of red-necked yobbos (louts). Mandy was a hot girl who knew it.
I decided to bring it up with The Leaders.
The Leaders were suspicious of me and were obviously planning a good confidence trampling in the near future. Even prior to the late night trampoline pash-a-thon, I had raised their concerns by campaigning that girls should not have to wear shirts or bikini tops in summer. As we had not grown boobs yet, and the boys could run around free, I thought it only fair.
I caused a topless protest riot of tweenaged girls on the jetty that was not easily quelled. My efforts for equal rights were thwarted by the lure of more red jelly. We lost our fight that day. However, I was definitely on the leaders ‘to do’ list of soul saving.
‘Why can’t Mandy come back to camp? Shouldn’t we be trying to help her? She looks really lonely and sad.’
This is the sense my 13-year-old brain made of their answer:
“Mandy has too much confidence and it is making boys have evil thoughts. That sort of behavior is dangerous for girls; she is asking for trouble by doing that. She should stop being happy with herself. A woman being happy with herself is called vanity.
It is the social obligation of all morons to gang up on vain girls to try to stop them being vain.
You see girls with a low self esteem are happier because they have low expectations, do the dishes and nice, feminine things like that. Praise the Lord.
On the other hand, vain girls with a high self-esteem stop doing the dishes and start saying no to men’s penis needs.
Men have special penis needs. If you don’t satisfy them, a man’s penis can get out of control and do bad things. If a man with an uncontrollable penis sees a vain girl, he starts dry-rooting her in his brain. Then he gets the devil’s horn. He needs to be sorted out.
There’s nothing worse than a vain girl that says no to sorting out a man when he has the devil’s horn. That is called prick teasing and prick teasing is bad. That’s when bitches get raped. You don’t want Mandy to be raped, do you?
You must also stop talking to Mandy or you will become a slut by association. If you become known as a slut you will find yourself in a situation where you have to take it up the crapper (anus) in dunnies (toilet block) out the back of school with the whole footy team (football team).
Now, if you are still confused you can read the bible as the bible has all of the answers. Is there anything we can do to help you feel more terrified?
I muttered no and some generic, deflective words of bewildered thanks.
I didn’t know what rape was but it was an ugly sounding word. It sounded like rip, reap or rake. I didn’t look it up in the dictionary. I took their advice and looked it up in the bible.
I found relevant passages in Deuteronomy 22:23. In short, when virgins are raped, the father of that girl must be paid 50 silver shekels by the man who did the raping; but only if it is in the fields and no one can hear her scream. If it happens within the town and no one hears her scream then she must be stoned at the town gates.
I thought this sounded ok, as people said that Uncle Ray at the posh commune was stoned all the time and he seemed to be pretty happy.
My asking The Leaders how I could get stoned bought a flurry of unwanted fussing. I showed them the relevant bible passages and, upon breathing a sigh of relief, they informed me that stoning was a way to kill raped virgins who didn’t scream enough.
None of this was helping.
I decided that being a girl was too complicated and continue dressing like a boy for as long as I could get away with it.
As the years went by I got my head around it somehow. I continued to say hi to Mandy in the hope she would stop and talk to me like old times—until one year her eyes had become as two dull marbles in her head. She looked through me as if I was made of glass.
By then I was 16 and I knew what rooting was—dry or otherwise. Rooting and sex were the same thing and you didn’t do it just to make babies.
I also learned what rape was when a distant cousin was abducted from her house, raped, murdered, and then run over by a car so many times it took the township a long time to realise that the large road-kill on the way out of town was the missing fourteen year old girl.
I now also knew what fear was.
I had difficulty coming to terms with unwanted male attention after that. Thankfully I didn’t get much unwanted male attention mainly due to the fact I was unattractively smart and my father had installed a very effective contraceptive device/ sexual deterrent on my face when he made me get braces.
Little Mandy got progressively darker. She cut off her blonde flicks and curls and sported a short, black mullet. Dark circles appeared under her eyes and she stopped smiling. In a brief passage of time she went from drinking strawberry milkshakes to drinking aspirins in Coke-a-Cola. (Yes there was a time you could get high that way.) She then got into sniffing glue and then petrol. Last I knew it was alcohol and hard drugs. And always when her skates roared past us in the speed skating round someone would whisper-shout the word “SLUT.”
It wasn’t that she was a slut. She had once represented something everyone was shit scared of. She had confidence and sex appeal, and she enjoyed using it. The weirdest thing about the Mandy episode was not just watching her, but watching those around her. The thing that disturbed me the most was seeing the sick pleasure some people took in destroying her vibrant soul. It’s then I started to realise that some part of human beings is still beastly. A primal part of us all is menacing and unkind. Some part of us enjoys being cruel—and people who like that part of themselves are always trying to make others as ugly as they are. It certainly worked on Mandy.
Mandy’s slow evaporation was one of the many events of my youth that forced me to question everything I had been told about keeping myself socially acceptable. I wondered if those Christians hadn’t have been so keen to distance themselves from her, would Mandy have vanished and been replaced by a cold-eyed woman with a drug habit? Her fire got stamped out well and truly.
The most precious thing any young person owns is their self-belief— it really is their own secret little fire. Most people don’t even know they have a little fire inside and as such never even feel it when the light goes out. But, if you do hold a bright flame and fight for it, you will most likely find yourself surrounded by abuse and human assholery. Sometimes all you can do is hide your self-belief until you can get away from them. You have to keep your fire burning no matter how much water people throw at it.
You know those Buddhist monks you read about who can slow their heartbeat down to 25 BPM? Surviving assholes and abusers is something like that; reducing your fire to an ember, and just hovering there until you can resuscitate yourself when it’s safe. This is how I survived my girlhood—by playing dead and pretending there were no flames even worth vanquishing.
Importantly, during this time of my youth I finally learned what the word slut meant. It didn’t mean anything. But it had an intention behind it that was frightening for any girl. In short, if you were a slut, you were worthless, and it was your own fault if men did bad things to you. So really the word is not so much an insult as it is a threat— a threat of being made stateless.
I decided the problem was not the word, but the fear itself, and tried not to feel any. After all, the use of the word slut says so much more about the user than it will ever say about the women they were trying to abuse. The use of the word slut is part of a defence strategy employed by weaker minds.
Now I’m grown I know that when a woman comes to realise she holds a wild flame inside of her, she wields a certain power in the world. Those who feel threatened are usually those who doused their own flames and feel confronted by those who have chosen not to.
As a stripper I have encountered a constant stream of confronted people whose eyes contest “How dare you live so brazenly and not wither in shame.”
The truth is that strippers really are all like Chaucer’s candle illuminating the darkness of socially inbred contempt. I always felt I burned brightest in lightless, dirty places.
But I digress… Where was I? Oh yes… those lightless, dirty places… how did I ever end up there? That glamorous monster, the one who taught me what fire can really do; the wild and delectable Tallulah Fish!
That is how I ended up in those places. She was the queen of a wicked empire that all of Sydney underground wanted to be a part of, and I was just one of the many fresh pelts she adorned herself with.