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THE STRIP


A short story

THE STRIP

She wasn’t pretty. Used beyond her years. 25 going on 50. Aged under lights. In airless bars. Carelessly ploughed and seeded ten thousand grubby times.
But she had a soft mouth, and gentle eyes.
She dressed for the job. Slashed by bright red lipstick rendered black under the street lights.
And heavy purple eyeliner with a splash of glitter.
Fishnet tights disappeared under white leather hotpants.
She sheltered under a white vinyll umbrella. White platform shoes, cork heels. Dressed for her stage.

He was aware it was 1995 not 1968. There she was though. There she was out there working in the rain. In 1968 she kept a little locker in the foyer of the Rex Hotel from whence she would emerge after the nights toil wearing a soft green knee length dress,flat shoes, and her hair brushed out and smelling like apples.
Then she would catch a bus, then a ferry back home to the north shore cottage she rented with her mum.

A chill of unutterable sadness swept in and bit him on the neck. His spine hackled. She had questioned him. “Want a girl dearie?”
He felt like a crumpled man. Soul and clothes. Ambition had never visited him, and he was sadly happy with his situation. He had enough, but just. How much do memories cost?
He fumbled and pulled some notes and coins from his pocket. The lining stayed outside his trousers.He counted the money from one work worn hand to the other. “How long can I have for fifty?” He said.

She smiled hungrily. “Depends what you want darlin'” She gave his upper arm a compassionate flick of her long, sensuous fingers. Like his, her hands were work worn too, but child-like and tiny.
She waited, eyes locked into his. Challenging.
He said “I want…just..I’m… you know, normal..just…some time is all.”

He was nervous and she laughed. He sighed. He’d made a mistake. Just a quick impulsive mistake brought on by a silly quirk of memory. Had her hand not cupped his elbow he would have turned and fled.
Quickly she calculated the odds. In a catch-as-catch-can profession she held to a degree of discretion. Always calculate your risks.
He wasn’t drunk. Quite handsome in a bygone way. Tall, slim, mid forties maybe, but with something younger behind the beard. Nicely kept. She guessed that his eyes were brown. The beard was. The hair was. Under these streetlamps those eyes were guileless, but desperate and resolute. They had seen.

He stood with a stoop as so many tall but shy people do, trying to be smaller.
“I”ll give you a full hour darlin'” She said cupping his elbow. “Come on before I change my mind and make it half.”

With sixteen years on the game behind her she could pick and chose her john at twenty paces. She wore no dependencies of her own, she had stayed clean and healthy and had learnt a lot from her mom before her.
She even tried the high class trade, and for a while the money was good, but she had neither the class nor the looks to sustain that lifestyle of meaness and manipulation. Those men with their silver coke spoons, their vicious arrogance, their violence and brutality. Their possessions, and their ownerships.

These men were ordinary, with ordinary wives and ordinary girlfriends and ordinary families. Ordinary men alone and shy, and in need of something more. Or something else.
Ordinary youths trying out their sexuality for the first time. She knew where she belonged, on this patch. Here. Here where here mother had striven to feed and clothe, and send her to school. Here on the strip where mum had taught her the rules and psychology of the oldest profession on earth.

This one she assessed quickly, almost at a glance. Woman trouble? Some woman was hurting him…or perhaps had done once upon a time. She would give him what he wanted. Needed.
Mother love, lover love. Common sense talk. She liked these men. These BOYS. Even at twice her age they were her boys. They always screwed her so nicely. Most, gentle and considerate. Some apologetic, always a little clumsy. Poor things. So many of them in love with bullies, and bitches, and some with no love at all.
They always said thank you.

It was as you would expect, the room. Low assignations demand such drab despair as here. Everything beige and brown oak. And bare. Beige walls, and beige fly-speckled ceilings. Battered oak bedside cabinet. Borer dust on the floor and the walls greasy and smoke yellowed.
The bank downstairs owned the building, leasing this floor to a company that made poker machines. The front door opened on a plastic card, prepaid like a phone card. An alarm sounded the hour. It was profitable for both bank and poker machine company.
For all its emptiness the room echoed with the memory of quick, secret lusts,and the bed had that sound. The rusty squeak and startled PRONG! PRONG! of springs.

She adapted quickly to his mood. He was quiet, acquiescent. The man next door was not.
She mothered him out of his clothes, then quietly stood before him and dropped hers to the floor. She played no games with the costume. It was shed without exhibition. He sat naked on the edge of the bed, elbows resting on knees. Aware that his was no fine steroidal biology

It was neither lust, nor playacting that guided her cupped hand to the back of his head.His forehead rested against her breast.
His eyes closed, and he felt safe. Safe in a long time ago. He HAD intended to have her. Now? Now he was overcome with exhaustion. So tired. No need to have her.
She bent and brought his feet onto the bed. He flattened onto his back, and she rolled beside him pulling the thin threadbare sheet over them.
This was the HAVING. Just to be beside. To touch. To hold. Skin to skin, and breathe in the smell of her. The smell of the long time ago.

When she went to work he did not exactly throw her off with a yelp. Instead he clutched tight the roving hand, and hugged her close in refusal. It was hot, and the single dingy sheet was enough. So she stroked him. His arms. His hair. His face. His chest. Stroked and gentled until his breathing became a slow steady rhythm, and he slept. The years fled his face, and he could have been twenty years old.

Even then she kept on stroking. Unaware of her own thoughts, but thinking all the same, her warm, wistful images.
She turned her head a little glancing at the old wind-up alarm clock. She used it in spite of the damned old door-warning that the hour was up. It had a green enamelled casing, and big friendly face. Mr Tick Tock. It had toiled for her mother, and now stood sentinel for her. Perched on its top like a hat was the alarm bell with its clapper poised against the rim.

Half an hour.

She closed her eyes and snuggled into his childlike warmth. He smelled like a youth. Too poor for colognes, but clean like cheap soap. He stirred lightly and pressed against her.

The whore with the heart of gold is not a total myth. Certainly less common than Elvis sightings or Tasmanian Tigers, but ‘Becka was no real rarity. Just a hard working and cynical working girl. Her thoughts slid by lazy and unbidden. She would work a few more years and retire like her mum to the family cottage. The one her mum had rented and the one she now owned. With the kids. Maybe even take a lover. A plumber or carpenter. A builder or a bricklayer. Someone to do the maintenance.

‘That’s me folks! ‘Becka Green, professional whore 27 years old with rotten teeth ‘cos I’m, too scared to sit in that chair. Lotta lines under the face goop, stretchmarks on my belly from four little accidents I couldn’t live without, an’ a voice as hard and flat as the dirty old sidwalk. Yellow skin like all us night dwellers. That’s me. Lucky old ‘Becka Green.”

She knew how to doze without sleeping. Open to all the sounds of the night. Ready and able to spring into wakefullness at will. At the same time ‘asleep’ and relaxed. It was like two minds in one being. The one asleep and dreaming. The other watching and understanding the dreaming mind..

‘Not much time for that on a busy night humping!”

Her father was just sixteen when she was born. Her mother said so. Still on his ‘boys time’ in the navy. Nine years after the age of eighteen. That’s what he’d signed up for. Mum, like ‘Becka now, was 25 going on 50 then. Vietnam was on, and servicemen poured into and out of the clubs and bars on the strip in an endless stream. Neon lights, loud music, spruikers, American cigarettes, and alcohol flowing in rivers.
And mum had her one and lonely romance. Three weeks in August of 1968.
Three delicious weeks, and ten cruel months to follow. For as long as the letters kept coming, she stayed off the streets. She worked in a shoe store,and in the evenings filled whole notebooks that she bound up and sent to her sailor boy . Old enough, but only just, to be his mother.
‘Becka smiled through her doze, and a little voice warned her ‘twenty minutes dearie!’
She was a love child. She liked that idea, and mum never tired of telling her that. It was very important. “I chose your father. It warn’t no accident you was put in there.” She always indicated her crotch rather than her belly. “There was only him as rode bareback. Clean an’ sweet he was, an’ scared of the fighting he’d have to do. He was an Englishman, never went to Vietnam, Aden was his place, Yemen they called it.”
‘Becka was spoilt rotten. At the same time, treated with an honesty and openness that exists only on these streets, with these people.

The middle-aged man stirred and shifted, and she squeezed impulsively at his shoulder. “Hush baby, Hush.” She whispered gently. “Time yet sweetheart. A little time left yet.”
He sighed and snuggled.
No one had forced this lifestyle on her. She had been given choices. Good choices. She could have run the office for old Danny Tudor. He was a kind and jovial man. A Russian who had trained as an opera singer, but who found his vocation as a Bondi Real Estate agent. She could have run his office with eyes closed.
She’d done two years external studies for a BA, but mother wasn’t disappointed when she gave it away. Mum had scrimped and saved for the education, encouraged the talents, but in the end it came down to choice, and ‘Beckas choice was with these men like her mother before her.

I wonder if he loved her? I think he did… I think so. Her thoughts told her.

The last letter was dated 16th June 1969. From some forgotten place on the Horn of Africa. He didn’t know when… or if he would get back to Sydney. “But I love you anyway. I love your gentle eyes, and soft mouth, and I think I will love you always.”
Mother kept the letters in a white shoebox, and would sit ‘Becka on her knee and read them aloud without censorship or omission.
He wrote like a poet. Stripped bare for all to see.
“But he could hardly speak for shyness. Always stooped over in a shadowy corner was your dad, and too tall to fit all of him in a six foot bed!”

Fifteen minutes dearie!
“Becka was aware that she had turned towards him. Now face to face, skin to skin from head to toe. Bodies locked together in a knot of arms and legs. His slow breathing disturbing a wisp of her black hair. He mumbled something and shifted. His hand moved onto her back, and gave two light, unconscious pats. Raising himself from sleep, acknowledging her comforting shape. Her softness, her warmth, and the smell of a woman. A long, long ago smell.
The sleeping mind knew. It could be her….it could easily be.
Here in this WHEN, he was still just sixteen. Two a.m out on the strip, where the taxis sloshed and the Coca Cola sign sizzled in the drizzle, and the slick sidewalks were washed clean of filth. Sixteen and on his first ship, his first tour. A brand new type 42 Leander Class Frigate. Fast, state of the art Guided Missile Destroyer. Commissioned in Glasgow and showing the flag in Sydney before ….before…Aden, Mozabique, Somalia. Dirty little skirmishes without the hype and glory of Vietnam. Off to kill Arabs and keep petrol cheap. That, he found out later was the truth no matter what THEY told the people.

And twelve years he had served. And another twelve before he saw the lights of Sydney Harbour again. Now he was a poet. A real poet. A poet with five books, and no money. A poet passing through life like a seed through a bird.

If she’s alive she has to be sixty!

It’s easy to pretend if circumstances permit. She, this one had looked older at first. Old even, but close up she wasn’t at all. She was like SHE had been. Just used, but with gentle eyes, and a soft mouth. Scrubbed clean of the pancake she was not old. Just used.
SHE had looked so much like that. Eyes full of wisdom and….mercy.. Yes that. In three short weeks he had experienced all the love he would ever feel in his life. And it was not a sad thought here in this sleepy world.

The girl squeezed his shoulder and breathed quietly into his ear.
“Only ten more minutes dearie.”
He murmured. Stretched. “Mmmmmmm!” ‘Becka leaned on an elbow and gazed. He was a handsome man, more handsome than she had at first thought… in a thin, poor sort of way. His quiet nature a mask for the sadness carried in his heart. She felt a little guilty.
“You want a quickie darlin’? You paid for it you know.” She whispered. She pressed her hand between his warm thighs, weighing him in her cupped hand. “I’ll get you off real nice darlin’. You just relax.. lie back now”.

It was a languid, but firm refusal. Interlocking her fingers with his, and staying the silky motion of her hand. They laid together fully awake, silent. Together.
It was he who broke his own reverie. “Funny thing isn’t it…life?”
She chuckled, squeezing his hand a little tighter. The free hand brushed a lock of hair from his brow. He was sweaty. They both were.
“What you been thinkin’? What’s funny about life then?”
He took a long breath. Paused. “You…um..look a bit like someone I met once.”
‘Becka smiled inside. ‘That’s it! Right again! Lost love. Still faithful to a lost love! I KNEW it!” ‘Becka was proud of her instinctive psychology.
“Long time ago?”
“Oh… yes.. a long time ago. Must be nearly oh 26…27 years or so. Just a.. just.. well you know…just a girl name of Sharon. That was her name.Sharon.”

Mr Tick Tock jangled, just seconds before the beep beep beep from the electronic room timer. ‘Becka tossed back the sheet and slammed a flat palm against the electronic cut off button. She let Mr Tick Tock grind away until the clockwork ran out.
They dressed quickly, quietly without any more confidences. Beyond the door lay the dark corridor, empty, and musty and smelling of damp rot. At the top of the carpeted staircase ‘Becka hit the timed light switch and grabbed his hand. “C’mon! These things only give you thirty seconds to get down the stairs and get out.” She tugged at his arm and raced awkwardly down the steps, cork heels clumping.
The front door opened directly onto the strip. After the electronic lock had clicked into place behind them ‘Becka fumbled to open her umbrella. He took it from her, and cracked it open with a deft movement. She moved in close, and wrapped an arm around his waist, stepping onto the slick pavement. She looked up from underneath his armpit, a wide whores grin splashed across her used face.
“Did you get what you wanted darlin’?”
He stood, looking at her upturned face, and his own face softened. His left hand rose, and brushed hair from her brow, looking hard at her under the sodium street light, in the teeming rain and hardly a soul in sight. “Oh yes” He said softly. “Yes. I got what I wanted. And I got what I needed.” Then he laughed, embarrassed.
“I don’t even know your name.”

A vacant taxi swished around the corner, and he raised a hand at it.
“Call me Sharon darlin'” She said.
He smiled again. “Why not. Sharon then. Mines…..” But she pressed a finger to his lips.
“No dearie” She said. “Yours is John. Just John. OK?”
The taxi door opened, and he stepped in, sitting for a moment looking at her. He fumbled for a cigarette, looking at the driver who nodded. “If you do I can.” The fat man smiled, and flipped open a pack of his own.
She turned and clumped off down the strip, umbrella tilting and swaying. Just a few late night folk out now. First this man, then that man. ‘Want a girl dearie?”

He could read the replies on their faces. She was used to it he supposed. She’d find another lonely man grieving for lost love soon.

THE END

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