Eight Pieces On Prostitution

By Dorothy Johnston

Short stories

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413
11 mins

The Studio

The Studio

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 ‘Eve’ 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, ‘Come now. You can’t call yourself that.’ When she laughs and says, ‘I 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. ‘You 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, ‘But 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, ‘It’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. ‘What 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.
‘So you can say no! Just think of the trouble there’d be if – ‘
And Rose launches off on one of her stories about murdered police commissioners and drug criminals and secrets told in bed. ‘Don’t say yes to any public figure,’ she concludes, and Eve says demurely, ‘Okay 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.
‘Just a minute,’ she says. ‘I’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. ‘Is this Studio 101?’
‘That’s right.’
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. ‘No receptionist, no ensuite – ‘ he begins.
‘No sauna, no champagne, no line-up of lovelies.’
‘I 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, ‘You 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.
‘Eve,’ 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. ‘Mind 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 ‘No, 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, ‘Oh Grandmama, what a big bed you have.’
‘Do you like it?’
‘I was wondering how you got it up here.’
‘With difficulty.’
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, ‘Oh Grandmama.’
Eve pulls back and tells him, ‘Oral is extra.’
Vincent laughs and says, ‘Maybe next time.’ He stands up, tossing over his shoulder, ‘Don’t worry.’
Eve wonders what he means - but only for a moment – 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, ‘Is 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.
The paintings are a different story. Eve’s reactions to the paintings are as varied as the paintings themselves.
Vincent brings them one by one. He walks up the stairs with a painting covered by a white cloth held securely under his right arm. Once he’s inside and the door is locked, he removes the cloth. ‘Voila!’ His voice is confident, even vain, but the way he moves his eyebrows up and down tells Eve that he wants her to like it.
He brings her his painting of the Belconnen tip, larger than any so far. There are seagulls picking over rubbish. They fly up at you out of the top half of the canvas. It’s all there in the foreground, all the garbage nobody wants – hundreds of wormy mattresses, bad for the back, black and white TV sets, bicycle seats for old model bikes, and vacuum cleaners that only need a new valve, or three.
Eve laughs because he’s crammed so much into a single painting. Vincent is offended. She says after a while, ‘There’s no love in any of your paintings. I think you should paint at least one with love in it.’

Vincent brings a set of small landscapes and lines them up under the window.
Eve kneels on the floor to look at them. ‘It’s like being out in the country,’ she says. She looks up, above the row of scenes, and the sky through the window is a singing blue, that high, dry inland blue she loves.
She says, ‘I’ve got a favour to ask. Could you – would you do some painting here, in the studio?’
‘Paint you, your portrait, you mean?”
‘Not me.’ Eve stands up and closes the curtains with a swift, sharp movement. ‘Here,’ she says. ‘Some stars and a moon. The sky at night.’

The stars Vincent paints are silver and mother-of-pearl. They wink at Eve as she lies on her queen-sized bed. Vincent is pleased with the effect, but disappointed that she doesn’t recognise the Southern Cross. They discuss the moon before deciding on a fingernail one, the thinnest crescent sliver. ‘Yes,’ Eve says, ‘that’s my kind of moon.’
She begins turning the lights out on her after-dark clients, so she can see her night sky at its best. She becomes surly and argumentative when they say they want to see what they’ve paid for. She loses some regulars, who reason that, in the dark, there’s not so much difference between nineteen and thirty-nine.
Eve is usually glad to see the back of them. At the same time she thinks, I should say yes more often. I should save money while I can.
The days are longer now. Vincent never visits the studio at night, and so never sees her curtains the way they should be seen, with only the street lights a dull glow behind stars and anorexic moon. Rose describes the curtains as artistic. Rose has exams looming and is absorbed in her work. On her days at the studio, she arrives late and leaves early. After her exams she’ll be away from Canberra for three months. There’s a decision to be made. Rose knows a girl who might be interested in taking her place, someone they can trust.

Vincent holds Eve in his hard grip, and comes hard and fast as always. He does not try to kiss her, since she told him she would rather not. He removes his condom and they wipe themselves with tissues before speaking. Eve has grown so used to Vincent that her body has found ways to respond – not the feathery pleasure or rush up the spine she can give herself masturbating – it’s not any kind of release but the opposite, a meeting of bone and muscle, a certainty of where she ends and another living being begins.
She rests, elbows on the pillow, waiting for this sensation to pass. Then she says, ‘Why don’t you ever come here at night?’
Vincent is turned away from her, dropping tissues in the basket, checking his watch. ‘I’ve other things to do.’
This time Eve won’t let it go. ‘What other things?’
Vincent rests his hand on her shoulder for a moment, then crosses to his clothes, takes a fifty out of his wallet and places it on top of the screen. Eve wonders if it’s payment for her question, or his refusal to answer. Either way, the bonus is welcome and he knows it.

Spring ends and summer begins. Rose passes her exams and her friend agrees to work her days at the studio while she is away. The friend is pleasant enough, but unreliable. Some days, she appears for an hour or two, then goes again. She claims that it’s boring on her own. Eve speaks to her about it, but indifferently. After the Christmas rush, the holidays are a slack time anyway.
Vincent turns up one mid-summer night, and they lie together on the big bed under the sky they have created. ‘A firmament,’ Vincent calls it. He speaks as though the word has been invented for that moment, his voice without its usual glimmering and edge of vanity.
Rose comes back, relaxed and full of stories. Her routine of work and study begins once again. It is well into autumn before Vincent brings Eve another painting, of herself this time, as the original Eve in the garden. It is her hair, her eyes, her naked body; but the painted feelings are those of someone else. Eve finds it comical and disturbing. She knows it would be rude to laugh.
She glances through the Canberra Times after Vincent has gone, taking his painting with him, and sees something that makes her catch her breath. It’s one of Vincent’s landscapes! A photograph, not a terribly clear one. An exhibition of new work by well-known Canberra artist, and his name really is Vincent! For some reason, this makes Eve feel extraordinarily pleased. She takes a pair of scissors from the drawer where she keeps the condoms and carefully cuts out the notice.
She tells no one about the gallery opening. When the day arrives, she finds herself leaving the studio at five, locking the door behind her. She unfolds the bit of newspaper on the passenger seat of her car.

Vincent has taken Canberra’s monuments as one subject for his show. The new Parliament House is there, huge on one wall of the gallery. Eve’s eyes snap to it as she walks in. The old House has been transformed into a wedding cake, carrying scores of lighted candles. There are real candles on either side of the painting, so that it looks like a mockery of a sacred offering. And there’s a real wedding cake in front of it. Eve wonders if it’s just to look at, or if the guests will eat it afterwards. She looks for the small landscapes Vincent once lined up under the window of the studio, but they haven’t been included; neither has his portrait of her, and for this she is grateful.
The Belconnen tip takes up most of another wall, larger than life, just as Eve remembers it, the rubbish heaving itself up out of the canvas. Seagulls wheel above her head with ugly, voracious cries; Eve is sure she hears them. She knows she ought to leave.
A few guests are looking at the paintings, but most stand with their backs to them, drinking wine and talking to each other.
Eve notices a picture of a wave towering above dry grassland. She walks across to take a closer look. In the foreground are horses pulling trotting sulkies. Their silks and harness, the jockeys’ taut, frozen ligaments, are desperately bright. The horses are glossy with sweat; and just behind them is this wall of water. A tidal wave a hundred and fifty kilometres inland, it’s already drowned picket fences, betting booths, grandstand and spectators. In a second, the horses leaping out of the picture will be swept away; only they never will.
Over dead yellow grass at the bottom, Eve spots the letters VS. She puts out a finger to touch them. She can smell the paint, as if it’s only just been finished. She holds her finger a centimetre above the signature. She knows what the subject is. It’s the flooding of the lake: Lake Burley Griffin.
Eve turns around and sees Vincent talking to a woman dressed in black.
She walks forward, holding out her hand. ‘Hello.’
Vincent flicks his head to the side. His expression is blank.
‘I’m sorry, do I know you?’
‘Sure you do. It’s me, Eve.’
Vincent offers her a small frown of concentration. ‘You’re making a mistake, I’m afraid.’
The woman in black looks amused.
‘If you’ll excuse me - ’ Vincent says.
For a few moments, all Eve sees is the colour black retreating, Vincent’s suit, the woman’s dress and long, gloved hand.
When a drink waiter appears at her elbow, she shakes her head and walks towards the door.

Eve drives to the studio and, without turning on the lights, takes down the midnight curtains with their stars and moon. She rings Rose and leaves a message, saying something’s come up suddenly and she has to go away.
Now she can walk outside any night and look at the real sky, she sits in her flat with the lights off and looks at her curtains. She must work out what to do. She has only a little money left, and no job, or prospect of one. For a whole week, she does nothing. She does not return Rose’s calls. Then she gets out her old backpack, the only thing she brought with her from her hometown when she came to Canberra.
Carefully, she cuts out the moon and stars, and sews them, using tiny stitches, onto the dark green canvas of her rucksack. They have no lustre there, but she is pleased with the effect. She sells her car and wind-surfing gear, and pays up her rent. Then she catches a bus along the Federal highway to the best hitch-hiking spot. As she stands waiting by the road, her rucksack beside her on a patch of grass, the mother-of-pearl and silver stars wink at her, and the skinny moon curves around her belongings.


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