Authors: Dorothy Johnston,Port Campbell Press
Tags: #Short Stories
When the man who liked to come with the news appeared again, the first thing he asked her was, âDidn't I see you at the Melbourne Cup?'
âYou might have,' she told him. âI went with one of the other girls. It was a bit if a victory for us, to get the day off. We never get clients on public holidays, and the boss knows that, but he's usually too mean.'
She was aware of running on, and massaged him in silence. At the end of the news there was the weather report. She realized that she could concentrate on the movements of her hands in such a way that the announcer's voice receded to a whisper; at the same time she felt that it was inside her head.
âWill you vote Labor if there's another election?' he asked as they drank their tea.
âSure,' she said. âI don't think they'll win though.'
âDon't say that.'
He turned to the mirror. She stayed where she was, half sitting on the table, swinging one leg.
âThere'll be a big drama,' she said, âbut in a few months everything will be back to normal.'
âWhat's normal?' he asked, smiling at his reflection.
âThis,' she said, with a wave of her hand.
âYou think this is normal?'
âAs normal as breathing in and out.'
The man who liked to come with the news looked thoughtful as he combed his hair.
She never saw him again. She became skilled at completing a massage while absorbing each news bulletin so thoroughly she did not miss a thing. That was how she followed the political crisis to its climax, in sharp, speedy bursts that paused over a single phrase only long enough for shock to reach her skin. When the announcement came that the government had fallen, she felt a bond with other listeners who were preparing tea meanwhile, or driving home through the suburbs. If any drivers swerved, coming back to themselves with that shudder from the groin which said, another centimetre and I would have hit something; if any housewife cut a finger instead of the beans, and was brought back with a start to suck blood and search for a bandaid; if these things happened because the newsreader's voice broke long enough to allow ordinary concentration to shift, then it was quickly over and everything continued again as if perfectly normal.
When Mrs B's husband was alive, she used to spend Sunday mornings at the Scheherazade in Acland Street. She recalled winter mornings, drinking her coffee at one of the front tables with the sun warming her back, while her husband talked business out on the footpath with the other men, in their casual clothes, their European cardigans. The footpath was always crowded on a Sunday morning. Mrs B called them the Knitwear Brigade, with the accent on the âK' at the front, and pronouncing the âw' as âv'. She could still go and visit her friends at the Scheherazade. It wasn't as though they had rejected her. She could order latkes and a schnitzel. The Scheherazade made the best schnitzel in Melbourne. At one end of Acland Street were the continental cake shops and the restaurants. At the other end were the massage parlours.
Mrs B's was in a back street, in a rundown building. The paint was peeling off the walls. There was a big dip in the floor behind the front door. Denise, who was experienced, told Tony they'd better put up a sign to warn the clients. They didn't want sprained ankles. âAnd what about workers' comp?' she teased him. But to Tony, things really did seem newer, better than they'd been before. He extended this faith in shabby surroundings to his girls who, in spite of themselves, were flattered.
Tony took Mrs B on an introductory tour of the house, and talked to her about his plans.
âThis will be the African room. Can you see it? Tigers' heads, a drum in this corner.' He drummed experimentally on the window-sill. âWall hangings, coconut mats, maybe the whole room like the inside of a tent. Elephants trumpeting outside the window.'
Feeling something was expected of her, Mrs B tried to make a noise like an elephant trumpeting.
âRight.' Tony looked at her and smiled.
âThis place gives me the shits,' Denise said, coming up behind them. âLook at it. It's falling apart.'
Tony put his arm around Denise and whispered in her ear. With his free hand, he patted Mrs B's surprisingly hard shoulder and smiled again, reassuringly this time.
They sat in the kitchen with the thin necessity of smoke around them, hemmed in by three massage tables waiting to be settled in the rooms, and bright blue towels with pictures of sea-horses and starfish that Tony had got cheap from K-mart.
âYou're supposed to have white towels,' Denise said.
âWhite, schmite,' said Tony. âYou want this place to look like a hospital? At the
Touch of Class
they have towels that match the wallpaper, and there's a chick employed just to do the initials in the corner.'
Mrs B filled an electric jug at the sink. She did not expect Tony and Denise to be able to pronounce her name. She wondered whether to tell them that she was skilled at embroidery.
âWith the coloured towels,' she said, again feeling something was expected of her, but vague as to the contents, âit won't be showing so much the dirt.'
Denise said, âJesus fucking Christ.'
Mrs B hid her embarrassment while she made the tea.
When Mrs B returned to the kitchen after finishing a massage, she washed her hands carefully in the sink.
âYou can use the bathroom, you know,' Denise told her.
Mrs B said she didn't like to. She could not explain, but felt strongly, that the bathroom was the clients' domain.
Denise opened her mouth to say it wasn't hygienic to use the sink where they washed their cups and plates, then changed her mind and shut it again.
Mrs B made tea, which she drank black, accompanied by a small dish of jam. She looked up at Denise, considering before she spoke.
âThis one says I have the skinny legs for someone who is fat.'
Denise snorted round her cigarette. âYou're not fat. Don't take any notice of what they say. It's all bullshit. Do what I do and pretend you're deaf.'
Mrs B had the thick opaque skin of central Europeans, and large brown eyes with coffee-coloured circles underneath. Six grey hairs radiated from a point just above her forehead. Her hearing was acute. One of her clients called her Mary Poppins. Denise fell into giggles trying to explain. Mrs B referred to sex decorously as âthe extra' or âthe finish'. Sometimes she talked softly to herself in Polish.
âIt doesn't mean a thing,' Denise warned her, âwhen they say they're in love with you and stuff.'
One day Mrs B appeared with a big bunch of flowers. She stood in the kitchen doorway, waving them around.
âAren't they amazing?' She was delighted with her up-to-date expression.
But the flowers
amazing. They had a kind of lop-sided concentration about them, as if, in their freshly watered folds, was stored a knowledge of all the flower arrangements clients had ever bought for their favourite whores. They were smooth to the touch, even the rose thorns were smooth, as though, out of nature or beyond it, they might never wilt. And yet they were real flowers. They had been plucked alive.
Mrs B took the flowers home with her. She was gradually getting used to things. There was an incident in her immediate past which she referred to a couple of times at the beginning, afterwards not at all. It had to do with a dress shop; the stock purchased lovingly after hours of thought, the overheads inflating in front of her eyes, a recession she refused to believe in until belief broke its waters on her head. One unforgettable day she had run out and dragged a woman in from off the footpath, a woman who had the unthinkable cruelty to stand at the window and take her fill of looking, and never, never buy.
Mrs B took to sewing in the kitchen. She was decorating a shirt with a fist of King-Kong. It indicated a kind of settling in, the way she composed the intricate and hairy monster's paw, stitches piled on top of one another until it was truly three dimensional.
Denise said it wasn't a gorilla's fist at all; it was a bird's nest.
âGniazdko,' nodded Mrs B. âGniazdko.' She wrapped herself in the soft gravel of her Polish consonants.
She finished the shirt and Tony wore it, accepting the joke, making it his. He teased her, with a special look from under long brown eyelashes.
It was Tony's normal practice with new girls to pay them particular attention. After a while, he would feel genuinely that he knew all there was to know about them, and pass on to the next one. But with Mrs B, although he indulged in ordinary flirting, to make her feel at home and part of his team, things never really ran their course. He was about to hire another new girl; he'd bought three massage tables after all. The third one stood in state, in pristine state, in an alcove off the kitchen. Mrs B paused sometimes, on her way up and down the passage to the rooms, resting a hand on the table's surface. She did not ask Denise or Tony about the absent girl.
Tony was always on the verge of renovating. He consulted Mrs B about Egyptian versus Ye Olde Englande. In exchange, she told him the stories she had loved as a child.
In rooms where only the clients followed her, she arranged flowers on mantel-piece and window-sill, hesitant and flushed, a hostess before a dinner party; she stood next to them to deliver her speech about the prices, the necessity of showering and the use of condoms. If the client was a migrant like herself, she would sometimes elaborate. Then it would suddenly appear, with the force of a thousand horsemen riding into the Baltic, a vision of exactly where she was.
When the client touched her, in his impersonal hurry, in his lunch hour, on his way home from work, Mrs B lay quietly, breathing in the scent of flowers. She shook her shoulders in an unconscious movement from her childhood, and became, for a few unguarded moments, if not quite a schoolgirl, then not quite a woman either. A transparent smile rose from the pores of her skin.
Underneath her smile, Mrs B dreamt that she was skiing east from Murmansk. Her skis were skewed, pulling her towards the open sea. The sun was setting behind her. She was searching for a friend who had gone ahead. Glaciers sprang towards the setting sun like frozen fountains. When she came back to the present, the colours in the room were clearer, as though it had been raining, and the sounds of traffic from Acland Street were very loud. A feeling she had, of having to make some sort of irrevocable decision, passed over and lodged itself on the other side of a barrier. She felt that she would like never to have to decide anything again.
A client said to her one afternoon. âYou're not like the others. You're a funny one.'
âYou're the funny one,' Mrs B replied. âYou can't imagine.'
The client looked pleased. âI've always been an unconventional bloke.' He combed his hair afterwards with more than his usual flair.
âJak sobie poscielisz tak sie wyspisz,' Mrs B said to his departing back.
âYou're talking wog again,' said Tony, coming to meet her with his smile.
âIn English,' Mrs B said carefully, as though he'd asked for a translation, âit means I think, “A person makes her bed and then she better lie on it.”'
Tony continued to wear the King-Kong shirt with good-humoured bravado, while Mrs B took to singing in the kitchen and up and down the corridor. Sometimes she was singing when she arrived for work, in the voice of a migrant who has decided to keep travelling, who hasn't settled down in Acland Street, or anywhere close by. At the end of each song, her mind carried her back and made her repeat it, inhabiting another woman's body, or a memory without an anchor. The people she sang of no longer knew their place; if they recognized it for a moment, it was quickly gone. She did not think of her own personal history, running away from a European war.
And strange it was, but men who came to the shabby house in Acland Street warmed towards Mrs B. In spite of, or perhaps because she'd found a way to sing, her body never lost its ambiguous receptiveness. Her skin smiled as she lay beneath the flowers.
There was one long weekend when the parlour was packed with visitors from interstate, and Denise and Mrs B did fifteen clients between them without a break.
Tony sat in the kitchen smoking, voluble with their success, wanting to do something dramatic. He tore out of the house to buy a Russian samovar.
Denise took the phone off the hook and curled up in an armchair. Mrs B felt exhausted past the point of recovery. She was afraid of losing all the things she had hidden behind, at the same time caught up in a vision of herself serving tea with jam. She felt her smile slide along the surface of an internal river that was flowing so fast now there was no hope of stopping it. Her mind played over surfaces, not even focussed, as it had been in the rooms, on a table leg, a piece of towel. The smell of the Vistula filled her nostrils and, when Denise closed her eyes, she stood up and danced out of the kitchen, singing loudly and taking charge at last, negotiating the corridor in a series of intricate and dainty steps, out into the traffic at the wrong end of Acland Street.
Harry came to Maria with his velvet hose crinkled around grasshopper knees, knees so thin and sharp they made ladders in his stockings within minutes of his donning them. Dressed for the conquest, Harry had some difficulty extricating himself from his close-fitting headpiece of calfskin and ivory, his velvet breeches and anklets of spring jasmine. The stench of an authentic Shakespearean cod-piece, preserved for centuries in a mixture of camphor and methylated spirits, overpowered the jasmine, which withered and died promptly on his bony ankles.
âGive me a hand to get out of this.' Harry rested one of his own hands on the massage table, while the other felt its way over button holes and fastenings.
âWould you like oil or powder at the finish?' Maria asked him, ignoring the request.