Visit to a Brothel

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It was almost two years after losing Tess before I finally plucked up the courage to visit one of those places. There are many of them in the area where I live – it’s that kind of area – but a mixture of grief and shame and sheer physical cowardice always kept me back. I would never have another Tess, I knew that, and the terrible things I had been through with her – the fights, the misunderstandings, not to mention what happened at the end – only served to make the memory of her more precious, more inviolable.

I knew that I would never find in another what I had found in her, and the idea of looking for it in some hired surrogate filled me with sorrow and disgust.

Often I thought of visiting one of those places, often I actually set out for one, ready to go through with whatever I might encounter there; but every time, the recollection of Tess’s eyes, of a certain way she had of looking at me with her head tilted to one side, prevented me. In the end it was this image of her which drove me into my act of betrayal. I couldn’t live with it, I couldn’t live with the memory of those infinitely liquid eyes, so changeable, so expressive; and it was the need to exorcise that image that gave me the strength to go through with an act which I myself regarded as sordid and shameful. How many people in my position have not been driven to the same thing? It’s only a matter of time before you betray everyone in this life.

The woman who ran the place was big-bosomed and businesslike. She divined my story in no time, and was quick to assure me that she had years of experience of dealing with “loss cases” like myself – that was the phrase she used. Although I found her physically repulsive – you could smell the stale sweat at five yards – there was something about her bustling, no-nonsense manner that set me at my ease. It freed me from responsibility.

I was in this woman’s hands now, like hundreds, probably thousands of clients before me. And when she said she had “just the thing” for me, a tingle of excitement went through my veins.

She was right, I told myself, aware that I was blushing like a schoolboy: two years had been too long a time. One couldn’t go on like this forever.

I was glad when she asked for payment in advance. This was the moment I had been dreading most – for I knew that after handing over my money, there would be no going back. But I should have known that a professional of the sort I was dealing with would be able to handle the situation in the most painless manner possible: we seemed to be talking about other things at the time. I do, however, remember thinking her prices extremely modest – not that I had anything to compare them to.

The business of payment settled, the woman led me out of her office – if you could call it an office – and down a short, dark corridor. The place was in a bad state of disrepair, and the air was stale and heavy. But I had expected nothing else, and I tried to look as though none of this mattered to me. I was in fact beginning to grow nervous again. The woman must have sensed this, for she put a hand on my shoulder as we walked, and her voice acquired a confiding, almost motherly tone.

“I have a feeling,” she said, opening a door and ushering me through, “that you’ll be best off with Polly. She’s terribly easy to get on with, and people always ask for her again. Or you might,” she continued, pinching her lower lip between forefinger and thumb, “you might prefer April. She’s a big, strong girl, but ever so gentle. Anyway, see what you think. The choice is yours.”

Huddled together in the gloom, as still as statues and obviously exhausted from their recent labours, were Polly, April, Evelyn, Matty and Pat. They were all thin, with the exception of April, who had an enormous belly, and none of them looked healthy. They paid little attention to me as I looked them up and down: Polly tossed her head once or twice, and Matty rolled an eye at me, but for the most part they were placid, bored, indifferent.

Feeling that if I did not do something definite now I would just turn tail and run, I went up to Polly. She did not react as I ran a hand over her shoulder and looked at her legs, which were the best thing about her. Her chest was narrow and underdeveloped, and there was something very curious about the set of her head on her neck. But she turned her head towards me as I stroked her neck, and this gave me confidence.

“You can learn a lot from Polly,” said the woman. “She’s been around, and she knows every trick in the book. All the good ones,” she added, with a rather over-hearty laugh. “Of course, it depends what you’re looking for …”

I thought of Tess, thought of burying my face in her neck, thought of the warmth of her breath upon my face, thought of the feel of her heartbeat under my palm.

I thought of her smell upon my fingers … “I’ll take Polly, then,” I said in a businesslike tone, slapping her on the rump with all the grossness of a horse-dealer. “She’ll do me just fine.”

“Do you want a whip?” the woman asked.

“What would you advise?”

“I doubt if you’ll need one,” the woman reflected, with a shake of her head. “A big strong man like you … Yes, I’m glad you’ve chosen Polly. She throws a bit at the trot, but she’s a really sweet ride.”

By Jonathan Steffen