Authors: Dorothy Johnston,Port Campbell Press
Tags: #Short Stories
by Dorothy Johnston
Maralinga My Love
One For the Master
The House at Number 10
The Sandra Mahoney Quartet
The Trojan Dog
The White Tower
The Fourth Season
The stories in
Eight Pieces on Prostitution
Â span the whole of my writing life and include my first published story, âThe Man Who Liked to Come with the News'. My first novel,
, is set in a Melbourne massage parlour, and I have continued to return to the theme of prostitution in my novels and short stories, notably in
The House at Number 10
and in this collection. âWhere the Ladders Start' is a long story, almost a novella, based around a suspicious death. Many of the stories are set in Canberra, Australia's national capital, where I lived for thirty years before returning to Victoria's Bellarine Peninsula.
The first of my Sandra Mahoney mystery quartet,
The Trojan Dog
, was joint winner ACT Book of the Year. It was published in Australia by Wakefield Press and in the United States by St Martin's Press. The second,
The White Tower
, was also published in Australia and North America. All four books feature the cyber-sleuth Sandra Mahoney and her partner, Ivan Semyonov, along with Detective Sergeant Brook, of the ACT police. Each is set during a particular season, hence the title of autumn:
The Fourth Season
Two of my literary novels,
, have been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award. I've had numerous short stories published in magazines and anthologies, and I regularly review fiction for the
Sydney Morning Herald.
I'm a founding member of the influential â7 Writers' group, which began meeting in Canberra in the early 1980s, and continued as a writers' workshop and discussion group for almost twenty years.
I'm currently working on a sea-change mystery series, set at the home of âSea-change' the TV series, on the south coast of Victoria. The first of these is called
Through a Camel's Eye
You can find out more about me and my books on my website
Eve shares the studio with a colleague her own age, and it's a good arrangement. The room is small, but because it's upstairs with windows all along one side, it feels spacious enough. These windows look down across a shopping centre to a park, where mothers stop to let small children play, and groups of high school students gather after three o'clock to smoke and gossip.
The windows have venetian blinds and dark blue curtains, which, when Eve is on her own, she always pulls right back. She likes to sit near the windows and look down; she likes seeing the same people every day, and tells herself stories about them to pass the time.
There is no separate bath or dressing room, only a wash basin in a corner behind a printed Japanese screen. Both Eve and her partner are sensible, practical and discreet. Though the studio is advertised in the Civic cinemas and local community newspaper, there is no advertising on the premises itself. Clients and would-be clients climb plain concrete stairs between a hairdresser's on one side and a Laundromat on the other.
When they first rented the studio, Eve, arriving for work, nodded and smiled at the hairdressers in their salon, who soon caught on as to the nature of her upstairs business. They did not snub her, or circulate a petition to get rid of her, and now she goes down there to get her hair cut and blow-waved; she gossips and drinks cups of tea between her clients.
Eve is neither ambitious nor greedy; she prefers slow days to busy ones. She and her partner work three days each, and the studio is closed on Sundays. Her partner is supporting herself through a psychology course at the ANU, but Eve doesn't like studying. She was a poor student at her hometown high school, and left it as soon as she could. Now, though she rings her parents regularly, and sends them brightly tinted postcards of Parliament House, she's glad she is a long way from home. On her days off she likes to go wind-surfing.
Eve's partner calls herself Rose. Rose brings her books and assignments to work and studies between clients. Both agree that someone needs to be there during the day to answer the phone and make appointments, or, if they dislike the voice on the other end, say no.
They open at eleven-thirty and close when the last client leaves. Though they often work late, it's worth being open by midday, since this is the time a lot of their regular clients prefer; a quick lunchtime fuck suits them best.
Not even Rose knows Eve's real name; no one in Canberra does. She lives by herself in a small flat. She chose the national capital because she imagined it to be a city where she could fade into the background, where she could hide. She has never made friends easily, but now she is beginning to think of the youngest of the hairdressers as a friend. They go to discos together and Eve has offered to teach her to wind-surf.
A funny thing happens one day when Eve is at the bank. She signs herself âEve' on the withdrawal slip.
It's a useful pseudonym because of the way clients react to it. Some make a crude reference to apples or to snakes. Others say, âCome now. You can't call yourself that.' When she laughs and says, âI can. I do,' they become embarrassed. Then Eve thinks: this one will become a regular. It's a kind of test.
Eve and Rose are careful. Condoms are a must. Washing is a must. âYou don't want me giving you a wasting disease,' Eve says to clients who show signs of reluctance. The only thing wrong with the studio is that it doesn't have a shower. Eve makes her clients wash in the basin, and watches to make sure they do it properly. Sometimes they make a game of it. She has never had any trouble.
Rose tells her stories. Rose seems to hear more on the grape-vine than Eve does. There are stories of rape and knife attacks. Rose says they need someone to call on if there's trouble. Eve replies, âBut we've been here for nearly a year and there's never any trouble.' They try to think of someone suitable. Neither wants a manager who would interfere with their running of the business. Rose makes a face and says, âIt's only a matter of time before something goes wrong.'
Rose comments on current events and discovers that Eve knows nothing about politics. She cannot name the Leader of the Opposition, and would have trouble locating Australia's capital cities on a map. Rose tells Eve that she is woefully ignorant and should at least be able to recognise Famous Men. âWhat if one turns up and you don't know who he is?'
Eve tells Rose that the clients don't want them to know who they are.
âSo you can say no! Just think of the trouble there'd be if â â
And Rose launches off on one of her stories about murdered police commissioners and drug criminals and secrets told in bed. âDon't say yes to any public figure,' she concludes, and Eve says demurely, âOkay Rose, I won't.'
A new client arrives shortly after five on a winter Monday. Eve is sitting by the window, watching the last of the high school students leave the park. She is day-dreaming, floating out somewhere over their heads and the tops of the trees, and the mountains in the distance that she cannot see, but whose presence she always feels at this time of day.
The buzzer startles her. She walks to the door and peers through the eyepiece.
A man in a suit stands on the other side. He is looking down at his nails and Eve cannot see his face.
She much prefers clients who make appointments beforehand. Those who just turn up she associates with late-night drunks, who either come within seconds, or are so far gone they don't know whether they've come or not.
Eve takes a step back. The buzzer sounds again in her ear.
âJust a minute,' she says. âI'll be right with you.'
She pulls the cord that drops the venetian blind, closes the curtains and unlocks the door.
The man steps inside. âIs this Studio 101?'
The man looks Eve up and down, and she does the same to him. For five seconds, neither moves nor speaks.
Then he glances round the room. âNo receptionist, no ensuite â âhe begins.
âNo sauna, no champagne, no line-up of lovelies.'
âI see.' The man smiles and asks about the prices.
Eve tells him and gives him the spiel about the condoms and the wash basin.
He shifts from foot to foot, not uneasily, and looks at his hands again. He asks Eve her name and she tells him. Without comment, he says, âYou can call me Vincent.'
Vincent pulls notes out of his wallet. Eve counts them and puts them in her bag.
He undresses behind the Japanese screen, testing its flimsy uprights before deciding they can bear the weight of his suit coat, trousers with black leather belt, pale shirt almost white.
Eve watches as the clothes appear neatly folded over the top of the screen. She makes no move to undress. When a pair of chartreuse underpants takes its place alongside some black socks, she raises her eyebrows and smiles a small private smile.
Vincent doesn't complain about the size of the wash basin and has brought his own condoms. Eve watches him hunch smelly five o'clock balls over the basin's narrow lip. He grimaces, but completes the task as thoroughly as she could wish. She hands him a white towel, thinking, as she walks across to the bed and pulls down the covers, that it's humiliating for men to stand with their pricks in wash basins and that's why she makes them do it. Here's one who doesn't fuss, she thinks, and perhaps takes many occasions in his stride.
Vincent's body is hard and unexciting, sort of square-shaped. Somewhere between forty and fifty, he has brittle grey hairs on his chest, mixed with dark ones. Eve looks into his face. This moment is important. She decides whether she will let him kiss her.
âEve,' says Vincent, reaching for the top button of her blouse.
His eyes have rings on rings. They are brown and not unkind. He undoes all five buttons, then he stops. âMind if we open the curtains?'
The setting sun fills the whole small room. Eve lies down on her back and Vincent parts her legs with his hands.
He finishes, removes the condom and places it in the waste paper basket beside the bed. Eve watches him noting that the basket is empty and the paper lining it is fresh.
Vincent plucks some tissues from a box. His eyes rest on the strips of blue curtains with the dying light between them. After a few minutes, he walks, relaxed in his nakedness, to the Japanese screen, where he lifts cigarettes and lighter from his jacket pocket.
Eve says âNo, thanks' when he offers her one. She knows, from the small travelling clock that she keeps on the floor, that he still has fifteen minutes. This is often the worst part, waiting for them to get dressed and leave.
When Vincent's cigarette is just about finished, he pats the sheet between them and says, âOh Grandmama, what a big bed you have.'
âDo you like it?'
âI was wondering how you got it up here.'
Vincent gestures with his hands, sizing up bed and narrow stairwell. He leans forward and parts Eve's hair back from her forehead with a fatherly gesture. Then he runs a finger round her mouth and says, âOh Grandmama.'
Eve pulls back and tells him, âOral is extra.'
Vincent laughs and says, âMaybe next time.' He stands up, tossing over his shoulder, âDon't worry.'
Eve wonders what he means - but only for a moment â as he turns on the taps over the wash basin. She's thinking he's the type of client who has a lot of girls, who samples them and becomes the regular of several at once; not because he's old and desperate, or even especially promiscuous; simply because he has the inclination and the money to pursue it.
When Vincent asks before he leaves, âIs it better to make an appointment?' Eve assures him that it is.
He brings her a quote from Genesis, neatly typed on memo paper. He discovers that she's never read the Bible.
She likes to find occasions for teasing him. He never asks questions about her life outside the studio and, while she is grateful for this, she is beginning to offer him snippets, a mixture of truth and lies, much the same kind of cocktail she imagines he is offering her. She tells him things to see how he will react; this is her main criterion for choosing what to say.