Authors: Dorothy Johnston,Port Campbell Press
Tags: #Short Stories
âTell me, Laur,' she said.
Laura had taken Josef Kafer to her room, and he'd stood there in his good clothes with an air of not expecting anything unusual. Laura had gone through the prices. When she finished, Kafer had taken off his tie and held it between his hands, then cracked it like a whip.
Laura said, âHe was like really persistent. He got undressed and did that thing with his tie again, like in case I was
. He grabbed hold of his dick and pulled it with his other hand.'
âCouldn't he speak English?'
âHe never spoke. I already told you.'
âGo on,' Sue said. âWhat happened next?'
âI started to put the condom on. He lay back with his head on the pillow. I thought, this is going to be easy. Then he just kind of like
- I don't know -'
âWhat about the tie?'
âI was so confused.'
Sue waited. Laura said, â
did it, Susie. Honestly.'
âYou must have pulled the tie.'
âNo, no! He did!'
âWhy are you upsetting her?' Camilla was at the door.
âWe have to find out what actually happened.'
âYou wont find out by getting Laura in a state.'
âYou try, then,' Sue said, feeling disoriented because she hadn't heard Camilla saying goodbye to her client. It made her wonder how much else she'd missed.
âHis eyes were sad, Cam,' Laura said. âHe had such sad eyes.'
âWas he on something?'
âI don't know.'
Laura buried her head in her arms and began to cry.
Glaring blue-white markers surrounded the three women, markers that meant danger. Even if three customers turned up together, Laura couldn't do one, not today and perhaps not ever again. Yet they couldn't take her home and leave her there; they couldn't wash their hands of her. It was unthinkable, and yet Sue thought it. She couldn't help herself.
Leaving Camilla with her arms around Laura, whispering re-assurances in Laura's ear, Sue sat down in the girls' room and carried her line of reasoning right through to its end. Once she had done so, she felt calmer.
Three was an unstable number for friendship, even at the best of times, an unstable number for a business partnership. At any given moment, two could be thinking â what if? Yet two wasn't enough for a co-operative. What if one got sick? It was bad policy to work on your own. This was one of their basic rules, that no girl should ever have to. Four would have meant a bigger flat and higher rent.
âCamilla?' Sue had queried on first meeting her. âIsn't that a mouthful?'
Camilla had shrugged. âIt's Spanish. Or Italian.' She'd grinned and sucked in the air between her top front teeth.
Sue had seen at once the discipline behind Camilla's wide red mouth, the potential in a name that suggested flamenco hair and heels. In the strong, wiry, dark-haired woman there'd been a fling of laughter heavenwards, and she'd seen this too.
Laura had been the one who loved a mystery, loved to sniff one out, or speculate - the mystery behind this John or that - was forever trying to work out who was who.
senior public servant sneaked off from his wife every Tuesday evening. Did she suppose he was at the gym?
politician was away from home and kicking up his heels.
Laura hadn't wanted to pin any of them down, much less lay a trap. She liked weaving stories; she watched the news and was adept at recalling public faces.
Laura had her faults, but then so did everyone. The three of them accommodated one another. Sue had felt, before business began slowing to a crawl, that, in a life more down than up, she had at last reached equilibrium.
The other bedroom, the one Sue preferred, was easy on the eyes. Like the girls' room, it had no ornaments and very few accessories. The floor of polished pine matched the small bedside table. Within comfortable reach of the queen-sized bed, this table held their tools of trade; the oil and tissues, condoms in a variety of styles and shapes. Its single drawer contained a modest stock of lingerie. The blinds, curtains and bedcover were dark green.
Sue sat on the end of the bed, feeling as though the whole of life was suspended in the late afternoon heat. A person could cut the heat up into blocks. They could cut it up and move it away.
The front doorbell rang. Camilla poked her head around the open bedroom door and said, âSusie. The police.'
Sue looked up and tried to smile. âIt'll be okay.'
In less than a minute, Camilla was showing two uniformed officers, a woman and a man, into the girls' room.
Laura sat down on the sofa with her hands clasped loosely in her lap.
Sergeant Saunders was tall, red-haired with light blue eyes; he was holding Josef Kafer's wallet. He held it out to Laura and asked her if she'd seen it before.
Laura took the wallet and turned it over. âNo,' she said.
âIts owner's body was discovered at the end of Simpson's Road this morning.'
Sue said, âWe saw it on the news.'
Constable McLaren took out a compact tape recorder and asked if they had any objection. She opened a notebook and uncapped a ballpoint pen.
The constable had the kind of figure that could be described as lumpy. Her blue cotton shirt with its rolled-up sleeves and shoulder pads, her straight blue skirt cut to just below the knees, seemed to exaggerate her lumpiness next to Laura, who was slim, long-legged and graceful. Sue, who was plumper than she'd like to be, felt a moment's sympathy.
She said, âWe might notice a client's wallet when he takes the money out to pay, but he doesn't actually show it to us.'
Sergeant Saunders remained standing; his arms and shoulders were relaxed.
âHave you ever had a client by the name of Josef Kafer?'
âNo,' Camilla said.
âBut your clients don't always tell you their names?'
âOf course not.'
Sue shot Camilla a warning glance, then realized she shouldn't have. Laura was keeping her eyes down. The sergeant handed her a photograph. Sue walked over to the couch and looked at it as well. They agreed they'd never seen the man before.
âNo,' Sue said. âWe might not remember wallets, but we remember faces.'
Both police officers looked disbelieving. Sue understood that they were watching Laura closely, while practically ignoring her.
The sergeant showed them a Woolworths receipt. Sue read in pencil, faint but legible, their phone number.
âAre you sure you've never seen this man?'
They nodded. Sue said, âIt doesn't mean anything that he wrote our number on a bit of paper. He probably thought of giving us a call and never got around to it.'
âNo one rang and said his name was Josef?'
âPunters never give their names on the phone. If one did I'd remember.'
âWhat about you?' Constable McLaren asked Camilla.
âI never took a call from somebody who said his name was Josef.'
Camilla shook her head.
âWe'd like the tape from your answering machine.'
âSure,' Sue told them. âGo ahead.'
âWe'll need to take statements from all three of you.'
âCertainly,' Sue said.
âYou can make a time to call in at the station. It's a matter of routine at this stage. We're checking everybody with a connection to the deceased.'
âWe don't have a connection to him.'
âThat's for us to determine,' Sergeant Saunders said.
Sue shouted at Camilla as soon as they were gone. âWhy didn't you see it! How come you didn't
see the fucking thing
âShh,' said Camilla. âKeep your voice down.'
Laura was still sitting on the couch with her hands clasped in her lap.
Camilla said, âThere were a couple of receipts.'
âWhy didn't you look at what was on the back?'
Sue thought for a moment, then she said, âWe can't be responsible for some dick writing down our phone number. They can't get us with that. We need to work out what to put in our statements. All our statements need to be the same.'
âOf course,' Camilla said, with a glance in Laura's direction. âWe're going to carry on as though nothing's happened. It'll be okay.'
The client looked surprised when Sue opened the door. He looked surprised to find himself there. This was not unusual.
âShoo,' Sue almost told him, as though he were a stray cat and the last one had eaten all of her pet birds.
âHi,' she said instead. âCome in.'
âHi,' the man replied, recovering his composure, looking Sue up and down and apparently liking what he saw.
Sue undressed and lay down on the bed, aware of how the customer's eyes had lifted every garment along with her hands.
The skin around his eyes was purplish, the way olive skin can go after a certain age. His eyes were dark brown, and the expression on their surface mild, though there nested underneath this mildness other emotions, more difficult to read. For a moment Sue wondered if he was a cop.
She decided she would behave the same way whether he was, or not. She must behave as though this was an ordinary evening.
The client seemed to be in no kind of a hurry, and Sue schooled herself against impatience, told herself to use this man as a distraction, to let him take his time. She thought that he had most probably escaped from his family, who were most probably staying down the coast. She thought they might be having fish and chips for tea, and that she might let him stay longer than the customary half hour.
Perhaps this punter expanding his anonymity inside her might bring her good luck. He hadn't bothered offering her a name, not even John, or Alan which, for some strange reason, was almost as popular. How many names there were that began with J: Sue thought how all those Js surrounded and defined a person, how that person might be alive one minute, and then dead the next.
She put this one's age at somewhere around forty. His looks were pleasant, though, to her taste, nothing special. He wore no wedding ring. He might be resolutely single; but no, she was sure he was a family man.
He'd paid in crisp, clean notes that looked newly made. Sue had almost asked about them, almost asked, âWhere did you get these?' as though suspicion, to be side-tracked, must be given a voice. She thought of Camilla counting the notes in Josef's wallet, how Camilla had taken Laura's payment and returned it, but hadn't spotted the number on the back of the receipt. Useless to cry over that now.
Josef Kafer had been a man approaching middle age. His driver's licence gave his year of birth as 1963. Not in his first bloom, but still youngish; now he could only get younger, in their minds.
Waiting for the customer to finish, Sue could not square the two - yet it was necessary - the cold body, slack skin sliced into by doctors' knives, and the good clothes, the wallet in which crouched that horrible receipt. What other details might there be, now that it was too late to go back and hide them?
Camilla had been too hasty. They had all been in too much of a hurry.
Lying on her back, breathing slowly in and out, Sue could not square the dissection that was taking place that evening, if not of a body yet, then of important facts. She felt that a stranger's life was passing into hers, and grew confused, and shook with confusion
as to which one it was
The ceiling, when she looked up, wasn't hiding anything. Neither were the walls. But death had got its hooks into her, and she shook as though with palsy.
The holiday man climaxed. Sue passed him the tissues. He seemed mildly pleased.
The hot night had a yellow colour. Viscous and yellow, rancid as old custard, heat walked through barriers that were no match for it at all. By nine o'clock, the three women could stand it no longer. They locked up and left.
Canberra was over-supplied with brothels. What use was a co-operative? What use to pool their wages if nobody was buying? What was the use of, in Sue's case, years of putting up with shit from managers, of planning and then putting into practice the better system she'd dreamt about for years?
If the punters stayed away, then they could no longer feed themselves. They couldn't pay the rent.
Sue's clients had, by and large, accepted her for the woman she was; a woman who could still get away with calling herself young, a woman of pleasant, ordinary looks, plump rather than voluptuous; but comfortable, experienced. No matter what fantasies a new client might start out with, no matter what mental images he carried, what pictures made his blood quicken as he parked his car, when Sue opened the door, the men who'd knocked on it accepted her, by and large, for who she was.
Now she stood in her kitchen, looking out over the rich dark green of her neighbour's garden; surely they were breaking the water restrictions, keeping it so green. She'd never caught them at it: what did that say, about their sneakiness, her powers of observation?
Sue felt comforted by the thought that she did not have to speak until tomorrow. She had all night to think. In the morning, they would have to dictate and then sign their statements. She wasn't stupid or optimistic enough to believe that that would be the end of it.
She thought of Laura picking up the tie; the gap of time between what
might have been
She thought of the engorging of anticipation which had led to â what?
Where were Josef Kafer's wife and family? Were they on holiday somewhere? Sue was sure, though she could not have explained why, that they were out of the country. In other circumstances, she might have found it interesting to ponder how much Mrs Kafer knew of her husband's tastes and preferences in bed.
She feared that the police were already many steps ahead. Was the assumption of a bad heart logical? She didn't have a clue.