Authors: Dorothy Johnston,Port Campbell Press
Tags: #Short Stories
So that's it with Simon, she thinks. It's goodbye to that. She thinks about changing the lock on her door and decides that it's a good idea. She doesn't have the energy for making plans right now. She thinks that when she's feeling stronger, when she's over all this shit, she'll take Melissa to visit their house again. Maybe there'll be someone there this time, maybe they'll strike up a conversation and she'll find out something about the history of the place.
âAll in good time,' she tells Melissa, staring down at her sleeping daughter and thinking, what if he'd hung around long enough for Missy to fall in love with him: what then?
My name's Sandy, my parlour name. I answer to it now. In the beginning it made me laugh when some guy calling himself John said, âIs that your real name?' I'd start to giggle. âCome here Sandy and let me kiss those pretty tits.' They broke me up.
I was nervous in the beginning. I repeated the patter over to myself in order to fix it in my mind; what Gail said about acting as if I had a purseful of money, being suspicious of questions, never going through the prices at the door, never saying the word sex until the client had his clothes off, until I was sure of him under my hands and he'd broken the law himself. And if he demanded to know, if he said, âI don't want to waste my money, will I get a relief or not? saying no. Better to lose a client this way than take the risk of him being a cop. And another thing to remember: if he left his underpants on, or a towel wrapped round him after he'd had his shower, he was probably a cop. Cops had blue eyes more often than brown, Gail said. Cops fancied moustaches more often than not. Gail knew a girl who'd been busted by a cop lying on the table in a towel. She knew another girl who gave this guy an oral and as soon as it was over he said, âYou're busted' and flashed his ID.
If I forgot to go over these warnings every time the doorbell rang and it was my turn, I'd get slack and get caught. I wasn't quick like Gail. I couldn't think on my feet like Gail did. Gail used to say after a bad night, âYou've got to be a split personality.' She said it regretfully, but I was full of admiration for her. I thought that, if I could split my personality like Gail did, then I'd be okay. Gail often repeated this advice. Sometimes she said it the way another person would say, âYou've got to eat breakfast if you want to stay healthy.'
Gail was putting herself through university. She had a Commonwealth scholarship; as I've told you, she was smart. You could get a living allowance if you signed up for a teacher's studentship, but Gail didn't want to be tied down. When she'd finished her degree, she wanted to travel and then decide what to do with her life. That was another phrase she often used. She was always telling me I should work out what to do with my life. But for me, at that time, it was enough that I continued to exist, that I went on breathing in and out.
âListen,' she'd lecture me, âit's us who exploit the men, not the other say around.'
But if the doorbell rang when we were just about the switch the lights off and go home, she'd say, âGo on, do him love. You need the money.' It would have been pointless to argue that she needed it as much as I did, that this was an excuse; for the truth was, I was dependent on Gail. I needed her smart talk and her savvy. I would have been hopeless on my own.
The evening the subject of law reform came up, it was very quiet; by midnight we'd only had two clients.
Gail came back into the kitchen and dumped the dirty towels in the basket behind the door. âYuk,' she said, âThat Alan!'
I nodded, relieved that she'd done him this time.
The phone rang and I said, âWell, we have a very nice general massage for twenty-five dollars.'
Gail put the kettle on and asked me if I'd seen
. âWhat did they do with our ad this week?'
I told her I thought we should go back to a plain border. âJust “Discreet Massage” and the phone number.'
Gail moved around the kitchen rattling cups. She never let herself fall into a chair like I did when she came back from a client, slumping my stomach and letting the smile drop off my face.
I said, âHave you seen that stuff about legalising prostitution?'
Gail angled herself around her coffee mug and said, âIt won't come to anything. Every few years it comes up. The government makes an issue of it when they want to take attention away from something else.'
âBut would you
it was legal?'
âSandy,' Gail said. âThink about it. If anyone from the Vice Squad turns up, you'll know it. You'll smell it in their brylcreem. Haven't I told you what to look out for? If it was legal, there'd be some system of licensed brothels. You'd have to pay tax. It'd become public knowledge that that's what you did, you fucked for a living.'
The doorbell rang just as she finished speaking. âHere love,' Gail said, âGive your hair a bit of a brush. And pull your shoulders back. Don't slouch.'
If I could get away with doing a relief, I would. Then it was a matter of having something â nice tits, a nice arse â something for them to look at while you massaged them. If you could keep them looking, maybe they wouldn't hassle you for sex. You had to work on your saleable assets; constantly giving, constantly holding back.
I told Gail about my visit to the VD clinic. I described lying on the table with my legs in stirrups, a piece of paper towelling across my belly, while the doctor poked away inside me and continued, in a low voice, with his special subject - how disease could be spread by hand, how I must keep my hands away from a man's bottom and not ânot put my hands around behind his penis', or âlet him rub himself against me'. I described the doctor glaring at me as he poked and talked, while the nurse, plastic-gloved hands folded across her chest, gave me advice on the best way to wipe yourself, and outside in the street a shout went up, a blare of horns as a water main burst right in front of the clinic. I watched through the window, still tied to the table by my stirrups, as a fountain of water shot up from between parked cars.
The nurse clapped her sterilised hands and grinned at the doctor. Together they rejoiced that there was no more water in the pipes and they could close their doors on the unclean world for the rest of the day.
Hearing that program about COYOTE was what first gave us the idea. Those women were amazing. There were things I realised would take months to talk through, if ever we got started.
Everyone was talking at once. Weren't West Action a bunch of shits? What were we going to do about them?
It wasn't only the pros, someone pointed out, âbut homosexuals, single mothers, the old men in boarding houses.' West Action wanted to clean up St Kilda and who would be left?
The Council responded by saying prostitution should be legalised, so that it could be controlled. There was going to be a big public meeting in a couple of weeks' time.
We set about writing a leaflet, hoping to put the prostitutes' point of view.
Gail wanted nothing to do with it, neither the meeting nor the leaflet; but for once I didn't go along with Gail.
âAnother thing a group like ours could do,' said a tiny woman who introduced herself as Bonny. âWe could put together a booklet on the legal stuff â you know, what to say when you get busted, stuff like that. When a girl starts working, she's often told to use a false name. But that can work against you when you get to court.'
Not everyone agreed with her. Someone told the story of a case in America where a girl was charged with soliciting and pleaded not guilty, using the defence that the cop had solicited her, and won her case.
Fifteen women came to our second meeting.
âWe don't want it legalised,' said Bonny. âIt'd mean more compulsory visits to the VD clinic.' Bonny had three rows of sleepers on her ear-lobes. When she shook her head, shells and silver charms made small, determined sounds.
âBut the law should be changed,' said someone else. âWhen you've been busted once, the cops can pick you up going to buy cigarettes. Especially in St.Kilda. The girls who work here get hassled all the time.'
We talked about how we'd started working. Bonny laughed and said, âI got my first job through the CES. “Would you like to work as a masseuse, dear?” We laughed with her because it was a familiar story.
Gail looked sceptical when I told her about the group. I told her when our next meeting was, but I knew she wouldn't come. All she wanted was to finish her studies and go overseas.
A lawyer called Therese rang me and said she'd been asked to get in touch. When I said one of us intended speaking at the public meeting, she said, âYou'll be crucified.'
I told her we planned to go around the parlours, handing out our leaflet, and that a lot of girls were suspicious of the Council. They were suspicious of what legalisation would mean. âBut some of us want the laws repealed.'
Therese offered to help us get more copies run off.
She brought a plate of cheese and biscuits to the next meeting of our group. Somehow the conversation got around to marriage.
Therese told us she'd been married for seventeen years to a man she hated. âHe used to come home and fuck me when he was drunk. You know something? I couldn't kiss him. I could bear to have him fuck me, but I couldn't kiss him.'
We stared at her uncomfortably, wondering what would come next.
âChanging the law is one thing,' Therese said. âOf course it should be changed. But it's only my experience of being married to that bastard that makes me even want to understand what it's like for you.'
I felt embarrassed and looked down. But Bonny and some of the others were nodding enthusiastically.
I thought about this afterwards. Therese was very up-front with her opinions, but then weren't we planning to be up-front as well? Wasn't that how we'd decided to be? What was it that made her so different from us, after all, but an ascending scale of boredom, the one-two, one-two rhythmic attrition of the work itself? That and a law degree.
The evening of the public meeting was dark and wet. Cars edged into parking places around the town hall, windscreen wipers batting ineffectually. Cars queued in the driveway. Drivers sat bent over steering wheels while their tyres disappeared under the overflow from gutters, covering the road with a foam that looked yellow in the streetlights and made me sick with nerves.
We shook out our umbrellas in the foyer and spoke in lowered voices.
âD'you think the weather's on our side or theirs?'
âBloody Melbourne spring.'
The mayor came in, shaking out his black umbrella. He had a red carnation in his button-hole; his hair was combed into a neat page boy.
âThere goes Hamlet,' Bonny said.
Somebody else said, âYou wish.'
When the mayor got up to speak about legalising prostitution, âbecause you can't abolish it and hope that it will go away', there were angry jeers from around the hall. I realised that he'd misjudged the mood of the meeting, as we had. No one from West Action or their supporters wanted to hear about legalisation. They wanted to kick us out of the suburb and never let us back.
I looked over my shoulder. The hall was packed and I knew it held close to a thousand people.
A voice shouted from a few rows behind us âIf you don't like St.Kilda the way it is, you leave! We love St.Kilda!'
There were a few cheers from our side, overcome by hoots and jeers. No, I thought, it's all wrong. Gail was right. I shouldn't have come. I made a face at Bonny, two seats down. No one could hear what anybody else was saying.
We'd agreed that Bonny would be the one to speak. I thought we should have chosen someone who was six foot three. When the program was being put together, we were told she'd be allowed two minutes.
Bonny stood up. âSlut!' West Action supporters shouted. âGet back to the gutter!'
Bonny bent over the mike as if it could be persuaded to calm down. She looked so tiny I could not believe that she was twenty-three.
âThere are lots of prostitutes living in St.Kilda.'
I strained to hear her, catching perhaps one word in five. But I knew what she was saying. We'd been over it ten times.
âShouldn't we have the same rights as other residents? We're people too.'
For perhaps three seconds, the crowd was quiet, then the hooting began again. âGet back to the gutter! Whore!'
We hugged Bonny when she came back to her seat. âYou were great, fantastic,' we told her.
A couple of nights later, when I went along to do my first radio interview, feeling nervous and a sham, I remembered what Therese had said. True to her word, she'd sat with us in the hall, and had coached me for the interview and helped me work out what to say. I remembered Bonny's face, clenched over the microphone. I told myself I didn't have to prove anything. I told the man who met me at the door of the station that my name was Sandy. On air, I tried to make the appeal that Bonny had - Bonny's appeal that had been squashed under the stamping feet of protest â to any sympathetic listeners who might be out there. Leave the damned whores in the history books: make a leap of the heart over thousands of years of false names.
âI must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.'
From âThe Circus Animals' Desertion' by WB Yeats.
The room was white and all the lights were on. Money had changed hands, and a naked man sat propped up on a bed. Dim lighting would have given a kinder shape to overhangs of flesh, or flesh that stubbornly refused to rise, but this was a comely man.
White light shone on Laura's bowed head, on her bent knees and supple back, while the night's heat gave the man a shiny second skin. Had Laura not been holding tightly onto him, he would have fallen over.