On Saturday I went out with some friends to see a matinee of a new Australian musical called Evie May at the Hayes Theatre in Potts Point followed by dinner. Show – fabulous. Dinner – outstanding. Company – delightful.
Now Potts Point is the swanky end of Sydney’s red-light district, King’s Cross, and even though the liquidambars have grown to Eastern Suburbs over-arching proportions and clear sunlight scores off the paved sidewalk and the Porcupine Fountain (all Sydneysiders call it that, nobody knows what its real name is) spits joyfully twenty-four-seven there is still a sad, grimy furbelow to the streets of the Cross and the first-floor apartments of the 30s tenements, the ones that have escaped the developers cosmetic wand, still harbour the oldest profession on earth.
My friends and I were walking through the Cross on our way to the matinee when I saw a girl leaning against the wall of a tenement building slowly making up her face. When the matinee finished two and a half hours later, we passed the same girl on our way to dinner and incredibly she was still applying her make-up.
This morning I woke up with this girl clear in my mind even though the rest of the day was starting to fade into a warm, blended impression of laughter, great singing and a lovely meal. But the girl…I started to write about her in the first person, something I used to do when I was a young actress. I put myself in her psyche and wrote this. Read on.
I powder my chin, the biggest part of my face. In my tiny compact it looks like a mountain and I wish I could reduce it to a pimple with layers of foundation and powder. But nothing takes away the peaky witches point of a chin that draws a sinister line under my otherwise pretty face. I curse my father for my chin, my lips moving over words I can’t say out loud. The cops have warned me more than once. I don’t know what time it is. Daytime, that’s all I know and by the look of the crowd – well-dressed women from across the Bridge and gay couples out for a schmooze I’m guessing it’s mid-afternoon. It’s legal now, gays getting married. That’s good, I reckon. Why shouldn’t they get married if they want to? It’s good.
The wall is cold against my back, hard and brittle as Autumn even though it’s Spring. I know the seasons by the tree across the road, the new leaves are pale and minty and uncurling like grubs. Spring leaves. By mid-summer the leaves are getting tired and dusty like me. I feel like I’ve been on this corner forever but it’s only been three years. Three Christmases. Three new dresses. Time has no measure for me really. I can’t afford to look too far ahead in case there’s nothing there. Up the stairs, down the stairs, grab a takeaway, repeat until Christmas when Jimmy lets me buy myself “something nice”. A new dress. He says get whatever you want but I know he means another work outfit, short dress so I don’t have to take it off. Better that way. Faster. Earn more money for Jimmy. Up the stairs, down the stairs. What’s his name? What’s his preference? I usually know. The angry ones want fast and kinky. The lonely ones want skin and warmth. The old ones want a hard-on and the young ones want heaven.
My chin is done at last and now for my mouth – two lines of red like the showgirls who giggle past me at midnight. Gorgeous and tall and dressed like parakeets. I wish I could be one of them but Jimmy says I’ve left it too late. There’s years of training, he says. But I can do my face like them. Red lips same colour as the lines on the wrists of that girl from Europe. She only lasted a week before slashing her wrists. Cops took her away and Herman, our landlord got a warning. Cops never shut him down. Poor old guy lived through the Holocaust. Poor old sod.
Nobody even knew her name, the girl who died. She didn’t speak English. Used to cry in between clients. Couldn’t turn it off like me. Feelings. History. You got to draw a line under your past and push your feelings down. When they took her away they covered her with a white sheet and put her on a stretcher. Herman locked himself in his apartment and played loud Germanic opera music to shut out the pain but I followed her down to the street, said a little prayer for her as they put her in the ambulance. It drove off slowly, didn’t put its siren on cause she was already dead.
Why does God let people suffer like that? Kill herself. She was only young. I mean, where was God when she unpacked those razorblades? I wouldn’t let a dog suffer like God lets His children suffer. We are His children, nuns on the mission said so and He loves us, they said. Well, if that’s love…
When she was gone I was still standing on the street, no make-up, just me the way I would’ve been if Jimmy hadn’t found me and got me into the game. A pretty girl about my age smiled at me, caught me off-guard. I smiled back and suddenly all these feelings I’d been pushing down surfaced and they terrified me so much I pulled the shutters down fast, made my eyes turn to glass again, hiding me and reflecting the street. The girl’s smile faded and was replaced by a hurt, puzzled look and I felt mean. But that’s how it’s got to be. You can’t get involved. You can’t.
I’m up to my nose now, beaky, sharp as a bird’s. Blame my father again, whoever he was. Foundation and powder to soften the sharp edges. Three ladies pass me and one pauses, opens her mouth as if to speak and thinking better of it, hurries on. They’re going to the theatre round the corner, I can tell by their clothes, arty types, confident, not so judgemental as some. The sun is right overhead and the pavement glitters like they crushed up diamonds in the cement. The fountain is hissing and looks like a firecracker, the kind you see on New Year’s Eve. New Year’s Eve, Christmas, birthdays don’t mean anything to me. Just another day. I climb the stairs just the same, crawl up to my tiny room with the curtains drawn and the bed taking up most of the space. There’s a shared bathroom and a shared kitchen down the hall. In my room there’s a wardrobe for my work dresses, the bed for my work and a tiny desk, “In case I want to study something,” said the landlord, Herman. “Reading opens up worlds,” he says.
I can’t read. I tried to learn. The nuns on the mission caned me every day. “You’re not trying,” they said. Whack. Whack. I was trying. The letters danced all over the page and I couldn’t make words out of them let alone sentences.
“You’ll never amount to anything if you can’t read or write,” said mum. “You’ll end up a whore.”
Jimmy doesn’t call us that. He calls us self-employed. Jimmy handles my money for me because I can’t open a bank account and he pays all my bills. I get what I need to buy food and treats – a bit of junk now and then although Jimmy says he won’t tolerate his girls using. But we all do. It helps keep the feelings down.
Now I’m ready to do my eyes. I hate this part. My father’s eyes, mum says, flashes of green that give away the white part of me. I hate looking into my eyes because I see these green goblins peeping out of all the brown like woodland creatures, wild and free. The nuns said I’d be free if I could only learn to read and write. Free to do what? Travel? Open up worlds, like Herman says?
Black eyeliner and silver eyeshadow. Funny, I see those same three ladies coming back again. This time they all look at me and I can see pity in their eyes and for a moment I fucking hate them and I want to scream abuse at them. They can read and write. Fuck ’em. I pull the shutters down and check my face in my compact. Nice old-fashioned word “compact”. Mum give it to me before I left Darwin. “Here,” she said, “you’ll need one of these. All city girls carry compacts. Your Dad give it to me years ago. I never use it. It’s for white skin.” She flicked it open and there was this pat of creamy powder. “Your skin’s pale enough to pass for white. You should pretend to be white. If anybody asks don’t mention me. Just your Dad. He was a shearer. I think.”
It’s getting dark now. Shadows falling. The fountain and the pavement have lost their sparkle and the tree shivers. My eyes are nice and hard now, two brown and green-flecked marbles reflecting only the street. Jimmy says I’ve got at least another two years of this and then I’ll have to think of something else to do cause men won’t want me anymore. I won’t be fresh enough. A man comes round the corner, coat pulled tight, collar turned up, lonely middle-aged, shoulders stooped. He’ll be my first client of the evening. He stops in front of me, nervous. I nod and turn and he follows me up the stairs.
As he groans and sweats I look past his juddering shoulder at the tiny desk in the corner of my room. “In case you want to study something.” I wonder. If I had a patient teacher. Not Jimmy. Someone like Herman. He’d love a bit of company. He just sits alone in his room listening to opera all the time. Maybe if he could teach me how to anchor the letters so they became words, became sentences… Jimmy doesn’t need to know. It would just be between me and Herman. I could give him a bit of head now and then for payment. Jimmy don’t need to know. And I could learn from his books. He’s got a whole wall of books and they’re not all in Hebrew or German. There’s English, too.
By the time my client has dressed himself and left a handful of bills on my desk I’ve made up my mind. I put on some fresh undies and head downstairs but not back out onto the street. Herman’s playing some German opera and I have to knock really hard to make him hear. The music snaps off and the door creaks open. Herman looks at me surprised.
“Don’t get me involved,” he says, looking around for Jimmy.
“Jimmy ain’t here. He’s at the races. He won’t be back till he’s lost all his money.”
“What is it then?”
“Teach me to read.”
Herman blinks, makes me repeat it. He considers, frowns, nods and then smiles.
“Good. Good girl. I’ll teach you to read and then Liebling, the world’s your oyster.”
I don’t know what that means but I remember the nuns telling us that in some oysters you’ll find a pearl.