(This is erotic fiction, part of an unpublished collection of stories set in an Edinburgh massage parlour)
When I became a fully paid member of the world’s oldest profession, I was not proud of myself, feeling guilty, full of self-loathing, biting my nails, waking up in a sweat every night, smoking like a chimney. I had the feeling that I was a disappointment to everybody I knew, that I was letting down a lot of people. Who? I would not know. Perhaps mum? But the old cow did not know what was going on in the next room. My dead ancestors? Perhaps myself most of all? Your body is your temple, they say. In my case a fucking temple!
In the beginning, mum had tried to give us a good Christian education, but if she turned into an alcoholic it was not because she had woken up one day, looked at herself in the mirror and cackled wickedly, ‘I am going to waste myself from now on and give the girls a hard life.’ It was not her fault. It wasn’t even dad’s fault, the poor sod had had a rough life, and used alcohol as a cripple his crutch. Might even have been in her genes, which I seem to have inherited as things stand, so I had better watch it.
There was I, an able-bodied young woman in her prime, well able to make a living as a waitress at least _ and there were worse jobs _ and what was I doing? Taking the easy way out, dazzled by the fineries that I could get for myself and my loved ones by working on my back, things that nobody wanted anyway. I became depressed although I put on a brave face and never let on to my new friends and colleagues, Elaine or Isabelle, but I still had nightmares. The alcohol and drugs I consumed only helped momentarily. I kept dreaming that I was a schoolgirl on my way to school; as I turn the last corner where I expected to find the school entrance, there was only wasteland. The school was nowhere in sight. Another recurrent dream was finding myself covered in shit, or falling in pits of shit, or rains of shit falling on me. One other regular nightmare was my being at the wheel of a car, unable to steer it or brake. You didn’t have to be Sigmund bloody Freud to understand what that meant.
Magda was not just one of the sauna birds; she was a part owner of the joint, or almost certainly had shares, for she and Tim, who was the acknowledged owner often talked in whispers and scribbled things on the back of old envelopes together. We knew that she was often a guest at Tim’s mansion in Duddingston, where he claimed he gave parties for the Scottish establishment, councillors, bishops and parliamentarians. The girls suggested that she was his bit on the side, but we found out that she was one of her closest friend was Mrs … Tim! The owner himself was said to be a regular churchgoer who went to confession every week. As far as anybody knew, he never took advantage of us girls. To me Magda was always both a friend and a mentor.
She may have been past her prime but she was not past her sell-by date; she was probably the prettiest woman I have ever set eyes on. Her features were distinctly aristocratic, with the bearing of a duchess_ and I do not mean Fergie, the ex-Duchess of York. She has kindly eyes, a nice sculptured nose and high cheekbones of the type one sees on Swedish film stars. She was well-built and probably just over forty, but she had a fresh young face. They say that a lot of sex keeps you young. She has a relaxed face, and serenity emanated from it like the haar from the lawns of the Meadows on a spring morning. If I was allowed just one word to describe her I would say she was luminous. And she talked proper. She obviously had had a good education; she used words I had only come across in books; I cannot recall her swearing. Tim, having discovered a foolproof way of losing his not so hard-earned money spent most of his time in betting shops and casinos _ apparently not a Catholic sin, and it was Magda who ran the place, with Bill as her dogsbody. She did the rota and the planning, paid the laundryman and all the other bills, and Tim trusted only her and Bill with the week’s takings which one of them would take to the bank for him.
My trust in her was absolute, and when the nightmares and the shakes became too much, I thought of taking my tormented soul to her and over a coffee and a croissant au chocolat at Peter’s Yard after work one day. I emptied my eyes of their tears and aired all my angst and nightmares. She held me tight, stroking my hair and there-thered sympathetically, saying that this was a normal stage and would pass in time, trust her.
I remembered the first time I went to talk to her, she had immediately put me at ease. She had asked a few innocuous questions, which I answered truthfully because I had not yet learned to lie _ mind you I always knew how to lie on my back, whore that I am. You don’t have to feel guilty about what you’re embarking on, she said, we’re all whores, bankers, politicians, bishops and princes. Everybody has their price. You behave sensibly, she promised, and you will find us fair employers, we will respect your privacy, we will treat you like a human being. ‘By that,’ she said, ‘I mean, be punctual, don’t leave us in the lurch, avoid falling ill. If you need a day off for personal reason, you tell us two days in advance, and I’ll fix it. And of course, never be rude to your clients. Remember the competition in this city is fierce. Edinburgh is well-known for its licenced saunas and the men can go spend their money at our competitors’. I smiled as I literally saw the apostrophe she used after the s in competitors, float downwards like a feather in a mild breeze and slot in just above the letter s on its right with a soft clunk. ‘We will never give you a reason for wanting to leave us,’ she went on, ‘you may feel that we take too much commission from you, but you will find that nowhere else is fairer. We have a popular place here, and a girl can make a good living, save to buy herself a flat in five years if she was minded to do that. And another thing, with the smoking ban, we don’t go sniffing in the cabins after every session, but be discreet. Never use hash except with your regulars. Many of our callers are policemen but they turn a blind eye to that … anything harder is banned, and in any case if you use hard drugs, I can promise you that it will hamper your work here, and that you will not last too long, here or anywhere else for that matter. When we catch you, I assure you we will, you are out on your ears. Oh, one last thing, we do not require you to leave your mobile phones at the desk when you come in, but never use it when you are with a client. Ask your callers to text you and not to phone.’
Magda had always been fair, and this explains why I thought that a heart to heart with her would help.
* * * *
She had not yet opened her mouth and I was already feeling relaxed. Why was I being such a sissy? Surely I could solve my own two-bit problem without crying wolf. But it was Magda who began pouring her heart out to me without my prompting.
She came from a middle-class family. Her father was a solicitor, and she giggled as she said it could be argued that she had followed in his footsteps. Her mother was the daughter of a German psychologist; she was named for her German grandmother and felt no need to change her name when she started working in saunas. She was born in this fair city and went to Mary Erskine as a boarder, in Ravelston, when she was thirteen. A seriously expensive top of the range scholastic institution for daughters of ministers, bankers and knights of industry.
‘I was not an outstanding pupil,’ she said, ‘but I just about got the grades enabling me to gain a place at St Andrew’s all the same… perhaps daddy made a few phone calls…’ However, she dropped out, surprisingly after twice failing her German exams. Surprising because she spoke the language perfectly.
‘But what did it for me was that I had fallen in love with Prince Charming John, brilliant law student, rugby star, debater, and something of a polymath.’ She took a deep intake of smoke, slowly releasing it as she re-defined a polymath, not as somebody who knew everything, but who could talk about anything… who could exploit the first three lines of a verse to make an audience believe he knew the whole canon, who read the headlines and passed for an expert in world affairs. She breathed a sigh of relief at leaving uni, as the schedules were too demanding, and John had said that he was not going to let his wife work like a pleb. He was going to mint money, so what was the point?
‘He seemed to be as besotted with me as I was with him, and I knew that we were going to marry. Neither of us had had any serious relationship previously. Yes, she had had furtive gropings with fellow boarders, but they meant nothing. ‘I definitely did not have sapphic leanings,’ she said not looking at me. She must know about me and Elaine.
‘I knew that John had visited massage parlours in the past, but not after we met. You see I lost my cherry and gave myself to him the first night we met, and have always had a healthy sex life. In that department I could never complain.’
Although she had always known this, when one night he spelled out that to him a wife was there to look after him, cook his meals, organise his affairs, and be a hostess. She had her first intimation of walking straight into a gilded prison of her own making, and these forebodings would never leave her, even if she forced them out for just long enough to go through with the wedding.
At this point, she suggested that what she wanted was a drink, did I mind if we adjourned to our ‘local’ in Rose Street?
After downing two doubles of Laphroaig whilst I was struggling with a Pina Colada, she picked up the thread of her tale at almost the exact spot where she had left it hanging in the air.
‘John had tremendous self-confidence,’ she said the moment we had sat down, ‘he saw himself earning big bucks, taking silk at an early age, getting on the board of Rangers Football Club, and perhaps end up as Lord Chancellor one day.’ She hardly paused for breath. ‘In the beginning, he had said, we might have to depend on an allowance from daddy, but in no time at all, he’ll be making so much money we won’t know how to spend it.’
At first she made an effort to enjoy the luxury afforded to her although she did not hanker after expensive things for their own sakes. Indeed in the beginning it was exactly as he had said. He got a brilliant law degree, was called to the bar, joined one of Glasgow’s top chambers where daddy had friends, and when she left him after eight years of marriage, he had indeed taken silk.
‘The second youngest Scotsman ever to do that,’ she said, unable to disguise the lingering pride she still felt. One never entirely falls out of love. She was very happy at first, tried to be proud to be married to such an eminent man, ready to accept his superiority in everything except house-keeping. He even let her choose the furniture, the colours for their new house in Hillhead, and never questioned the menus she proposed to him when they had guests. I have every confidence in you, she would say, tapping her bottom gently. She was impressed by the people he knew, and they invariably said how much they had been impressed by the feast she had splashed out for them.
‘Oh but Concepcion my Chilean maid must take half the credit, I would answer. This, illustrates as nothing else what a sad life I was leading, I mean my having to advertise the fact that I had a Chilean maid… but I had not yet realised this.’
Of course John invariably told her how proud he was of her after the guests had left. Yes, it was a good life, and she had felt happy and secure. She never had nightmares, never entertained fears about the future, she was the woman who had everything, and Glasgow was not on a fault line. What could go wrong? John gave her a generous allowance, and in a good month she just about managed to spend half of it. Nevermind, he had said, you keep it, you might want to buy yourself a flat of your own one day, wouldn’t that be fun? What do I want with a flat of my own for, she had thought, but she did not let the problem of having too much money ruin her sleep. She went on shopping sprees at the most exclusive shops in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and on his bidding went on short visits to London, staying at Claridges and shopping in the King’s Road or Oxford Street.
They continued to have a good sex life, and tried to have children, but when she failed to become pregnant, they both assumed that it was something to do with her. He arranged for her to see a specialist but when it had been established that there was nothing wrong with her, he made it clear that he did not wish to discuss the matter. It gradually dawned upon her that even a man of John’s intelligence could not, deep down, differentiate between infertility and impotence, and that dealt a big blow to his male ego, and naturally she was the one to bear the brunt.
‘I don’t think I had a talent for motherhood anyway,’ she had said, but later she suspected that she did not mean it.
‘Children would have interfered with our lifestyle, I mean I know that. The girls who have children will tell you what a bother they can be. Don’t you be a silly lassie and find yourself with a round belly one day, Mary.’
She almost always called me Mary when we were outside the shop.
‘On the surface I was reckoned to have style and taste, knew how to cook and to keep house. Now I keep a disorderly house,’ she said wryly.
They took holidays at least twice a year, to exotic places, Bali, the Maldives, South Africa, Mauritius, you name it.
Suddenly one morning she started feeling a vague uneasiness about her life, and that feeling started asymptotically rising towards the line of despair. Was she falling out of love with John? Why? He was the same man, kind, considerate, charismatic. Perhaps he was too charismatic. He was not really selfish, not any more than anybody. He sent her flowers, bought her expensive gifts, never forgot anniversaries and birthdays, never raised his voice to her. Yes he had stopped talking about babies when it had become clear that he was the cause of the problem, but probably most men would have reacted in the same manner.
‘Then one sleepless night, out of the blue, I began questioning the institution of marriage itself,’ pursued Magda. ‘Come to think about it, how can two different people with different sets of genes and belief systems want the same things in life and operate harmoniously together? There are any number of causes for dissent and conflict. I don’t like the noise you make when you eat, or I hate it when you try to push me out of my half of the bed. Or when I want to sleep you want to read. You put the knives in the drawer with their sharp ends nearest when I prefer them the other way round as they prevent accidents. I do not like the way you hold your toast next to your mouth when you have had a bite, instead of returning it to the plate while you munch. It’s a mystery how so many couples survive. A marriage, I decided, was not a spiritual union, but a peace treaty, where the signatories have to tread carefully so as not to encroach on each other’s borders.’ As I said, she had a way with words, had Madga. She ordered another double for herself, and I declined her offer of another one.
She had always been well aware of his habit of interrupting her when they had visitors, but had not minded too much. It shocked her to realise that she had been so laid back about this, not entirely taking in its amplitude.
‘When it hit me finally,’ she said, her eyes instantaneously welling up with tears, turning away and taking another gulp to hide the fact that she was too upset to continue, but continue, she gamely did. She turned round, looked at me and smiled apologetically.
‘It was like the wall of a dam with a small crack through which water had been trickling out, suddenly bursting. The force with which this hit me was terrifying. Yes , he rarely ever let me finish a sentence, as if not to let me inflict my asinine views on his distinguished guests. His memory of events was always the right one, so that anything I said that did not correspond to his recall was balderdash. He could never abide being wrong, not even in trivial matters. The hurt was deep and profound, but I have to say that I knew that he still loved me. A man is from a different planet after all. So he has a big ego, I told myself, but what man doesn’t? God knows Dad had one the size of Arthur’s Seat, but that did not stop him being a lovely father and a wonderful spouse.’
All day long that day, she could not get rid of a niggling thought: was he really a loving husband? What is loving husband? Suddenly a seemingly isolated thought flashed in her mind’s eye: Clever people can be cruel under the guise of humour. Yes, John’s sarcasm had often been a form of cruelty and she had put up with it because everybody hates being identified as having no GSOH, and she began keeping count.
She became depressed, started sleeping badly and was losing her appetite. She knew that she had to do something about this, seek help perhaps, but doubted whether that would be of any use. It was John who needed help, not she, but with his big ego, no power on earth would make him consent to this.
Another morning, whilst lying in bed after having despatched John to an Aberdeen court, another thought hit her. Not only did she not have a life of her own, she did not even have a single friend of her own. Everybody she knew was either one of John’s colleagues or friends’ wives. Pathetic, she had said aloud, and that was the first day she had shed any tears since she was wed. She was tearful all day long, and that worsened her depression, which John obviously did not notice.
‘On an impulse, I started writing a diary. Oh yes, I had recently bought myself a laptop on a whim, having no real need for it. I opened the manual, easily remembered the instructions the young wizard at the shop had given me, and I was able to open a file and immediately I started pouring my heart out to it. I called it Diary Of A Contented Wife!
I am the woman who has got everything, I wrote, a loving (if slightly pompous husband). So why am thinking of topping myself? No, not really. I am being over-dramatic. Pompous, I said? Better add arrogant, selfish, know-all, big-headed (sorry that’s the same thing as arrogant, I know).
‘I rambled on and on, and in the end when I read what I had written, it made me laugh, and I felt much better for it. Subsequently whenever I had an attack of the heebeejeebees, I would shut myself in the bedroom, and write down anything that crossed my mind, feeling much better for it afterwards.’
She now recorded everything John said to her, hurtful things, put-downs. Every time he told her off in front of visitors, she felt secretly elated, as she was gathering one more grievance for her collection.
‘It was like watering the horsetail weed in the garden of my discontent,’ she said. The pain was when she re-read the entry later. A pattern had begun to emerge. One thing he often said to her in front of the guest was that although there was no doubt that everybody had been entranced by what she had been telling them, they would surely understand that it was a Gargantuan task after all the hours she had spent in the kitchen, and would look kindly on her if she left the task of entertaining the honoured guests to others. And he would add with a smile, specially as you seem to be repeating yourself a tad. The first time he said something like that, she had been full of sympathy for him as he had been bested in court that day, and paid scant attention. Next time he had had a little bit too much to drink, but it started becoming more frequent. The wonder was why she hadn’t even noticed this in the past, let alone resented it. He seemed to like the “Gargantuan task”. What a chump she had been. Another one was, no, no, no, my friends, if you listen to Magda, you will lose all your investment. She may be a genius at other things, I know you all think so, but in matters of finance, a blindfold and a pin would be a better guide, ha! ha! ha! (For a long time she had only remembered the genius at other things bit). Usually he tried to be subtle with his put-downs, but on one occasion when he was uncharacteristically drunk and had lost a case that he had been sure of winning, he would add with a hollow laugh, my wife hasn’t got the wits to organise an aggro between two groups of drunken Celtic and Rangers supporters. But he realised that he had overstepped the mark, and tried to palliate it by saying that it was not her fault, as all she did for intellectual stimulation was watching River City. I don’t mind that at all, he said magnanimously, I’d watch it myself if I had the time, but the difference between us is that she thinks it’s real life. That was salt by the spoonfuls rubbed in the gaping sores of her wounded ego. But it was the reaction of the guests which made it unbearable: everybody laughed heartily at his supposed witticisms, although some women winked or pouted at her in sympathy. He is awful to you, isn’t he, but of course you have to forgive him, it’s a small price to pay for sharing the life of such an extraordinary man, the women seemed to be saying. A little later, he asked her sharply to go make the coffee darling, adding, you couldn’t understand the intricacies of this case anyway. When she left, she heard him going on and on.
I could look at my wife for hours without getting bored, she overheard, in my eyes she is as beautiful as on the day we met. Sometimes when I am driving home after a gruelling afternoon in court, the thought of what she would be preparing for my delectation would cheer me up no end, but please, do not ask me to listen to her talk about anything for more than two minutes in one day.
The resentment kept mounting, but she still did not question his love for her. Yes, she told her diary, he is drinking rather a lot these days, alcohol makes him aggressive, and his thoughtless words are a safety valve. No, she wrote down immediately without erasing what she had already written _ she rarely did that. No, he is using me as a punching bag; for thoughtless read cruel. If he is in love with me, is love enough? She asked. After a lot of hesitation, she wrote, No, I must own up, he does not love anybody but himself.
That soon became a leitmotiv with her. He does not love anybody but himself. She finally admitted to herself that she was afraid of him. She wouldn’t know how to begin discussing her grievance with him. Yes, she was now using the word grievance more and more. Absent-mindedly she stubbed out a cigarette she had hardly had two puffs from. She smiled.
‘Then one fateful day, for no reason at all, I took a train to Edinburgh, and barged into George _ or Georgina _ a friend from Mary Erskine. It was in Princes Street. We had not met since we left school. I had asked her over for the wedding, but the invitation card came back … address unknown. I was really pleased to barge into her, and we decided to go to Waterstone’ s for coffee and croissant au chocolat. I was incredulous when George casually mentioned that she was a poule de luxe, operating from a posh flat just off the Royal Mile. I wasn’t sure I understood, and she asked me if I had ever seen the film, Belle de Jour. I vaguely recalled seeing Catherine Deneuve married to a rich aristocrat spending her days furtively away from home. George always liked to say outrageous things, and I told myself that my new-found friend was just out to shock. But you are from one of the best families in Scotland, you don’t come from Granton, I heard myself saying, you went to Mary Erskine for Christ’s s sake. She was indeed from a top brewing family. What has that got to do with anything? she asked in pretend amazement. If only you knew the power my job gives me over my men, she added with a mirth that she pretended she was trying to suppress, but which I knew was going to explode the more dramatically for that.’
Anyway, George told her things about a side of life that she had never even dreamt existed, the many perversions with eggs, with honey, Nutella. Magda had pretended to yawn, and George’s eyes suddenly twinkled like Magda remembered from their Mary Erskine days.
Her friend told her many a story to which she listened with apparent lack of interest. At the end of some spicy episode, she said, stop it, George, I’m really not interested, I’m sorry, but it’s disgusting and degrading, how could you do such a thing? Why would outrageous things like that be of the slightest interest to me? Georgina pursed her lips and smiled in a knowing way.
‘Degrading?’ she asked. ‘Is it any more degrading than devoting one’s life to one man who swears he will love you for ever and a day, and who then turns you into his creature, and in whose hands you become putty?’
‘How do you know things like that?’ Asked Magda surprised, ‘you haven’t been married too, have you?’
‘No, said George, but I have a father, brothers, uncles, I have watched them. They are great guys and I love them to bits, but I would still never consider becoming attached to someone like the best of them.’ She only paused to sip her coffee and munch her croissant. As she was preparing to swallow a well-chewed mouthful she recognised by the glint in George’s eyes that she had something interesting to say to her. It was a question: So your eminent John about whose exploits I read in the national press almost daily is no ideal spouse after all, admit it. This was the first time Magda had had the opportunity of airing her views about married life, about John’s attitude towards her, to anybody. She did try to find excuses for him, repeated that she was no doubt being unfair to him, but yes, George was right, it was the marriage institution which was all askew, not necessarily men.
We must meet again, George said when they parted. Yes, I’d like that very much, she said, putting George’s card in her bag, certain that that she would never make use of it. She even wrote in her diary that she prayed that Georgina Ffyfe-Tree would not have the good idea of finding her phone number in the book.
Next morning, on an impulse she picked up the phone but could not find the card. However, extraordinarily in a flash she saw the eleven digit number in her mind, dialled it, and it proved to be the right one. Georgina said that she knew she would phone that morning, as she was psychic. Just wanted to say hello, and thank you for yesterday, nothing much really, she said. I know a great Italian place in Tollcross, George said, a not so cheap but very cheerful sort of joint, how about me taking you for lunch there today? Good punishment for John, she had said, although why going out to lunch with an old friend could be deemed punishment for an insufferable husband, she did not know. She is a whore, she reminded herself, a poule de luxe — her own phrase, John would not approve.
‘But one thing, Mags,’ she said, ‘I have an appointment with a client at two, so we won’t have too much time. You don’t mind, do you?’
They had pasta and a bottle of the most expensive wine on the list, a Chateau Labatut, and then on an impulse, Georgina said, ‘Look, this Richard is a quick operator, with an assiduous blowjob I can get him out in fifteen minutes if I know him, why don’t you come with me, you might like to meet him, he is very interesting, but he is always in a hurry unfortunately. You can wait in the lounge while I am working, then I’ll join you and we can have a natter, I don’t have any more caller, and I’ll switch my mob off.
‘Why did I accept that incredible offer? It might have been curiosity, a fascination with the forbidden fruit … I have led a sheltered life, I told myself, I know nothing about anything, no wonder John despises me and says that I think East Enders or River City is real life, no doubt he is right, isn’t he always? Yes, why not?’
She accepted the offer, and they walked to her flat in Rutland Square. One thing led to another. George tried from the beginning to get Magda hooked. At first she laughed, but finally she took the plunge as a dare. The rest is history as they say.
Now she helps Tim run the place, does the paperwork, interview the girls who come for a job, and acts a mother superior, confessor and arbiter. Oh, and when one day Tim had placed a reckless bet on some horse and was being harassed by the Inland Revenue, she had offered him a loan which was later turned into a share of the business. Yes, she possesses about 25% of the Eden.
‘Oh Mary, you must excuse me, you had a problem and instead of letting you talk to me, I was blabbering on non-stop about myself _’
‘No, Magda,’ I interrupted her, ‘listening to you was all the therapy I needed. I feel much better already.’