There is a woman in Nottingham who worked on the streets of the red-light area for years before finally she stopped and settled down with her man. She had a baby. And as soon as that happened, she found she was short of money. She couldn’t afford to buy clothes for the child and so, one night this summer, she went back out on to the streets. The man found out.
He didn’t mind her being on the streets. He’d lived off her earnings for years before she stopped. But he didn’t like the idea that she was going to give the money to some baby shop. So he and two friends went looking for her and when they found her, they dragged her into a dark corner and the three of them took the £20 she’d managed to earn and then beat her unconscious. She ended up in hospital with her jaw wired. That was the father of her child who did that to her. He’s a pimp.
Everybody knows about pimps. They’re all gold teeth and knuckle dusters. Take these two, for example. Ruben and Zee. They’re tough. That’s easy to see. They work out and they stay fit and they slip down the street with their shoulders rolled back as if to say “Try me. Go on. See what you get.”
Then you talk to them and suddenly it’s not quite so simple. They’re not making any excuses. They’re bad and they know it. They’re violent and they admit it. But there’s more to it than that, more muddle than that, more pain and fear and twisted feeling than that in the strange, sad story of Ruben, Zee and the badtime girls.
The red-light district of Nottingham is only small, a patch of half-a-dozen suburban streets on the edge of Forest Recreation Ground, but it’s busy. The women who work there reckon there are 300 of them – not all of them working at once – but 300 women who regularly come here to stand in the street lights with their long nylon legs cocked at the passing cars. This is where Ruben met Zee.
Both of them come from good families. Ruben’s father is an engineer, who migrated from Jamaica and found a home in a nice, quiet part of Nottingham and worked hard and reared a family, who have all grown up and made him proud – except for Ruben. He was always quite bright and there was a time when he talked about becoming a lawyer, but also he enjoyed being bad.
As he went through school, he mixed more and more with the bad crowd and broke more and more rules until finally he was suspended for extorting money from richer children by threatening them with violence. Ruben shrugged it off and said he needed the money for girls and clothes and he wasn’t worried about no school. At 16, he and his friends were regularly breaking into shops. At 19, he was in jail for armed robbery.
When he came out, he found a flat near the red-light area and that was when he first saw the prostitutes. He didn’t like what he saw. “I used to ignore them. I had never been with a prostitute. It’s the truth! I called them slags. They’re not respectable. You know? You get seen with these girls, and that’s it. Who’s going to take you seriously then? And no other girl’s gonna look at you. I didn’t want nothing to do with them.”
But he saw they had money. He watched them hopping in and out of BMWs and Mercedes and he began to wonder and one day, he started to talk to one of them, a girl called Clare, who was 20 years old, slim and blonde and very pretty. And straight away he had two different feelings. They were feelings that didn’t belong to each other, but there they were, twisted right around each other: first, he liked her; second, he wanted to make money out of her.
He flirted with her, he bought her fancy presents, he told her he cared about her and that he wanted to look after her, he slept with her. He borrowed money off her and he paid it back. He borrowed some more and just kept it. He told her she needed him, he told her he loved her, he bought her dope, he bought her clothes, he said it wasn’t right that he should spend all this money on her and get nothing back in exchange. He took more money. He said he’d protect her. Once or twice he hit her. And then he was running her.
Four years later, Ruben is still pimping Clare. Early in the evening, he drives her out in his car and drops her somewhere close to the punters (not too close – there’s a vice squad busy out there). Every two or three hours, he cruises by to make sure she’s OK. If it’s quiet, he may stop and talk for a moment, give her more condoms if she’s run out, make sure everything is steady. Then he’ll collect her later (always before three in the morning – there’s nothing but freaks around after three in the morning).
He takes her money and he pays her bills – her rent, her clothes, her food and her dope, whatever he thinks she needs. And then he sleeps with her. “I have to sleep with her. To show affection. If I didn’t do that, she’d think I was just into her for the money. I have to make her feel happy or she won’t work.” Love is sweet. Cash is sweeter.
Ruben soon learned the rules of this new game and by the time he met up with Zee, he was running four girls. Zee had drifted into pimping more or less by accident. He came from Pakistan when he was a small boy and he was all set for a stable and successful life, picking up nine O levels and a place at college, when his best friend was knifed to death at a party, and Zee just gave up trying.
He started hanging around a lot of smokey bars in Sheffield and, when they closed, he got into the habit of drifting over to an all-night massage parlour, where he played the one-armed bandits and watched the drunken punters come and go. He got to know one of the girls. She was called Leslie, she was half Asian and he went out with her a few times and persuaded her that she would earn more money in Nottingham, working on the streets. She needed somewhere to live; he let her stay in his flat. She was lonely; he looked after her. She gave him money. He liked that, so pretty soon, he found a second girl, named Jiggy, and invited her to come and live with him, too. Now, they both work for him full time.
Zee pulled his girls into the same sweet little love trap that Ruben had used on his. It was like a parody of a normal romance. He gave them lots of comfort, lots of affection, but really it was only business dressed as love, none of it real – no more real than the little sighs of satisfaction that the girls put on for their punters.
“I show her I care, because I don’t want her to leave. You can’t just take their money. No girl is silly enough to just sit there and give you all her money. But if you start to feel too much affection, you have a problem. You can’t get in too deep. So, I look after her and I buy her nice things and I sleep with her – and I don’t use any condom or she’ll say I’m treating her like a whore. I show her love – and I do like her a lot – but I don’t really love her because I can’t afford to.
“She thinks one day I’m going to maybe settle down and marry her but I’m never going to do that. Think of all the men she’s been with! I’d never marry her. OK, it’s purely business, but you can’t marry a girl of that calibre. ‘Once a whore – always a whore’. That’s what they say. And that’s right. Though I would never talk that way in front of her.”
They learned to use the threat of violence to enforce their will, but for real power, they discovered, the trick was to treat them. “Fear don’t conquer everything,” Ruben says. “She is scared to a certain extent. But she feels happy that I’m there to protect her. I show her a lot of loving. I buy her stuff. I show her emotion, especially when I’m having sex with her. I talk to her deep, give her advice. I buy her flowers and jewellery and a lot of clothes. I give her a video and a TV for her flat. It shows that I’m giving something back.”
As they got to know more about their women, they found it easier to control them. “They all use coke. Some of them use smack as well. If you give them all the money, they’ll just squander it on coke. I know girls who do that. They’re so thin they look like toast racks. So you hold their money for them, buy them coke if they need it. And that gives you a certain strength. Most of the girls are not mentally too good. Their thinking doesn’t go far. Most of them have bad love stories and bad experiences. They want someone else to run their lives. ”
Zee knew that his two girls hated most men. “They’ve had bad relationships in the past and they’ve been heart-broken. Working girls don’t trust anyone. But they also have a soft spot, too. Which is me. Sometimes, yeah, I feel like I’m exploiting them. But if I don’t do it, someone else will. And they may be a lot nastier than me.”
Ruben and Zee began to enjoy the good life, staying up all night, spending pockets full of cash, laughing about the punters – the one who pays a girl to strip off and do cartwheels in the woods, the one who irritates the hell out of a girl for 20 minutes before he picks her up because he likes them to beat him and he wants to make sure they’re really angry with him. Then they began to run into problems. For a start, there were the other pimps.
Ruben was in a nightclub one time with one of his girls and he saw her talking to another man. He asked her what was going on and she said Nothing, but then she admitted he was asking her to go and work for him, telling her they’d make more money and he’d look after her better. Now, Ruben wasn’t going to take any chances. If this other guy started throwing his money around, the girl might just get the idea she’d be better off with him. So Ruben and two friends waited for him outside and beat the blood out of him.
They don’t always win their fights so easily. Zee still has the scars on his cheek where another pimp caught him with a fistful of gold rings. Ruben says a pimp broke his leg with a baseball bat. “It all kind of hardens you.”
Then there were family problems. Ruben’s girl Patricia went with a man who turned out to be a friend of her father’s. No one in her family had any idea what she was doing for a living and when her father found out, he went wild. He went round to her house and smacked her around till she told him about Ruben and where he lived.
“I was just sitting in my living room, watching TV and this guy kicks down the door and comes at me with a shotgun. I couldn’t do nothing. He held it right up on my head and told me his business. I just told him it was her idea, not mine, I was just looking after her, it was nothing to do with me. He hit me with the butt and went away. I tell you – that trigger was cocked.”
And, always, there were the police. Zee got a little over ambitious a few months ago and drove Leslie and Jiggy over to Manchester one night to see if they could make some bigger money. He left them on a street corner but when he came back a few hours later, there was no sign of them. He was on foot and he noticed a Fiesta driving around with a man and a woman in it. He wanted to stay to find his girls, but he knew there was something wrong about that Fiesta.
“Before I knew it, there were police everywhere – cars and dogs. They were sealing off the end of the street. They were everywhere. I just ran down the side of some houses and through all kinds of gardens and got back to the car. My girls were there waiting for me. They’d seen the Fiesta so they’d got out of there. We just got in the car and drove.”
Ruben is always looking over his shoulder. “We’ve never been arrested for pimping, neither of us. But I sit at home and I hear a car stop in the street. And I worry. Is that the police? Sometimes, the doorbell goes all of a sudden and my heart’s ripping. If I’m driving round, I’m careful. I don’t carry a weapon. Never. And never touch no under-age girls. Police get very heavy about that. And no rent boys. I beat them off the street with my baseball bat. I don’t want trouble.”
But trouble is their business. Often, there’s trouble with punters, who may batter the girls or refuse to pay, and if that happens, Ruben and Zee have to go after them. Most of the punters are local men, so they’re easy to find and once they catch up with them, they beat them and steal their money. Sometimes, they even steal their cars. No punter ever goes to the police to complain.
There are times when they just steal from the punters for the hell of it: the girls will take their wallets, or Ruben and Zee will wait outside the flat if one of the girls takes a punter home and they break into his car while he’s busy.
And there’s trouble, too, with the girls. Some of it is just emotional. Zee’s flat’s has only one bedroom, which is shared by the two girls, so each girl knows exactly when he sleeps with the other. “They can give me a hard time about that, get jealous of each other. They’ve had fights about it if one of them thinks I’m favouring the other.” Ruben says it’s always that way and the more girls you have, the more stress you have looking after them. The stress doesn’t stop there, though it takes Zee a while to admit it.
Deep beneath all the phony affection, it turns out that some of his lies are true. “I’m not saying I’m jealous but sometimes I have wondered about a regular punter. People don’t understand that the girls sometimes enjoy the sex. If the punter is nice, they do enjoy it. And there are punters who fall in love with girls and they’ve got loads of money, they take them to nice places, buy them things. And so, sometimes I think I’m going to lose her. And I would feel that. That’s when you have to buy her something nice or maybe get a bit strict.”
And that’s the other trouble – being ‘strict’. Both men hit their women. Ruben admits that he once put Patricia in hospital after he found out she was hiding some of her earnings from him. Zee claims that the women wouldn’t respect him if he didn’t slap them when they defied him. And just there – when they’re hitting the women, when they seem to be at their most powerful – that’s where it turns out they are at their most vulnerable.
Because the women have one power over the pimps. They can ‘sign them off’ – go to the police and sign a witness statement to prove that the man has been living off immoral earnings. That means prison. And Ruben and Zee know it.
“It’s like most crimes. If there’s no witness, they got no case. I have told my girls not to talk. I have drilled that into them, but it’s always in the back of your mind. So, you can only go to a certain extent when you hurt them. You can hit them too much and they would go and let it all out – tell the police everything. You can’t afford to have that happen. But you must never let them know that you recognise that. Or they would play on it.”
It is a delicate balance of fear. And the more that Ruben and Zee unfold their lives, the more clear it becomes that fear is everywhere. The punter is scared of the prostitute, because she may rob him or blackmail him. The prostitute is scared of the punter: he may beat her or rape her. The women are scared of the pimps and the pimps are scared of the women. They’re all scared of the police. It’s like being stuck on some nightmare carousel, all running away from each other and none of them really going anywhere at all.
And that’s why Ruben and Zee take such a lot of care to look so tough. “There’s a lot of fear,” says Ruben. “I’m telling you. A lot of stress. If I could find any other way of making this money, I would go. If I had a child, I wouldn’t want him to be nothing like me. It’s funny. People hear about pimps and all this stuff and they guess it’s all about sex. It ain’t. I’m telling you, I like rice and curry but I can’t take it every day. These girls – I sleep with them when I have to. That’s all. It’s stress more than sex. Stress equals money. There’s a lot of stress. Just don’t get the idea I like it.”
Ruben says that despite his crazy spending, he has saved more than £12,000 and when he has £25,000 he will go off and start a straight business. Zee says the same. “I want to settle down and lead a decent life. I hate this. At the end of the day, no matter what we do wrong, we are human, too. We still have feelings. I know it’s not a good thing. I don’t want to do it. In life, you don’t know what’s round the corner. Life is strange.”
Outside on the streets, the women are working. Della stands on the corner of Forest Road, turning a sullen stare on the passing cars. She knows about pimps. She had her first when she was twelve. “I was on the run, I was on drugs, I was in trouble with the police, my parents had disowned me. And he looked after me. I was in love with him. He was, like, 15 years older than me. Then he starts it. Bringing men back, telling me to go with them. It took me a couple of black eyes before I did it. He took the money, made me do it again. But I stayed with him.
“He had a nice side and he had a completely horrible bloody sadistic side. If they don’t get their money, they get into a very nasty mood. They make you feel frightened, but they look after you. He was clever with it. I stayed with him. I had two kids with him. He beat me up once when I was six months pregnant. And I fell for it. Yeah, I fell for him.”
Not any more. Della works for herself now. Sometimes, pimps try and move in on her. She says one chased her with a hypodermic needle the other night. But she won’t work for them any more. She’s learned too much about them to be fooled. “My kids are my pimps now. They get everything I earn.”