Nigel Jarrett is a winner of the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction. His first story collection, Funderland, was published by Parthian to wide acclaim, notably in the Guardian, the Independent, and the Times. His début poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, was published by Parthian in November 2013, and his first novel, Slowly Burning, by GG Books in March 2016. His second story collection will be published by Cultured Llama in Autumn 2016. A former daily newspaper journalist, he now freelances, reviewing poetry for Acumen magazine and jazz for Jazz Journal. He lives in Monmouthshire, South Wales.
Frankie’s Ginger Thins
By Nigel Jarrett
Criticise me if you like. These days I probably deserve it. But my defence is that life’s complicated. In any case, that’s what Lily told me. I want to introduce you to Lily and her world. It’s not so much sordid as desperate. If it comes to an end one day, I’ll probably have no regrets.
They call it a game, but Lily says it’s become too serious for that. Her place reminds me of old-fashioned railway carriages, the ones with corridors, and tongues of leather hanging below the windows. Everything about it is past its time and each attempt to scrub it clean – I remember the smell of carbolic in the compartment that took me to my first job at Palmer’s – seems like a useless exercise, something that no longer responds to a spit and a lick.
I don’t know why my memory needs to reach that far back, to when I, Frankie Kyle, was a teenager, for an illustration of Lily’s brand of fruitless assault on grime and tat. Perhaps because the furniture and fittings at Number 98 were so cheap to start with, their slide into shabbiness has been so rapid. A bit like Lily’s personal service itself, really. Sometimes it feels as if she’s just doing it to keep the old times alive. But I think myself lucky. I’ve lost my enthusiasm, too, though we can both turn in a performance that surprises us.
I sit on the bed and place my hat and coat on the chair. The sounds from the rest of the building often seem more muffled than usual. In the past year or so, I’ve noticed interlopers among them – doors slamming and shouts. These have given forbidden things a sharper edge, probably because there have been changes, but even they’ve been accommodated, or placed beyond threat by my increasing deafness. For a moment I think about the world in motion, whether I’m backing off or it’s moving away from me. Since I’m the centre of things, it must be the latter. I see myself stumbling after it with outstretched arms.
If I didn’t know any different, I might even mistake the place for a cheap hotel. The do-it-yourself tea tray is often without its packet of ginger biscuits, the ones I like, the ones that melt on your tongue as the tea swills around. Old man Palmer sold his own brand of gingers, much thicker and so brittle they could split your top plate unless you dunked them first. At that time, slim gingers were only obtainable at the posher stores. But everything comes at a price, from chocolate digestives to the attentions of Lily’s little foreign girls – ‘girls’ is what she calls them – who are really women but smile innocently like the creatures they once were, their growth to maturity having been somehow inside, invisible.
The other day the door opened suddenly, without a knock, and the face of a black man, a face I didn’t recognise, stared at me for a few seconds as though I were hiding something he wanted. He said nothing, then shut the door. This is new, too, this lack of politeness. At first, it scared me slightly, but now it has gone the way of the noises and become part of a disturbing background. Not long ago, the ceiling was Artexed, badly and in a fan-shaped shell pattern, and I noticed how the Artexer had not figured out what to do when he came to the end, so had reduced the size of the fans, which now end neatly abreast in a miniature rank. At Lily’s, men and women become experts on ceilings. There may be a distant commotion beyond the door but, as it never appears to be heading my way, I walk to the window and part the curtains (Lily likes artificial light when clients are in place). There is the road, then the river, then the football stadium, and beyond it the city centre and its high-rises. On the pavement below, a group of hooded youths will congregate, like monks, to barter. A police car will speed by. Just about the only thing I recognise from those first days, apart from the river, is the avenue of trees, with their dappled trunks and their roots gently lifting the paving-stones, which reminds me of the way my grandfather raised potatoes out of soft loam.
I’ve been visiting Lily’s for twenty years, ever since Kathryn and me started growing tired of each other in the way some couples just do. We each knew the other wasn’t to blame, or, if blame was to be split, we knew it would have to be shared equally. Neither of us was argumentative. Kathryn died before we got round to talking about the problem – if it was a problem. It was certainly a fact, our inactivity. In the weeks and months leading up to it, the bed became a place of misgiving, which the darkness and our shared silence only magnified. Starting things was an unspoken matter of guilt, of one maybe prevailing over the other, who could not bring themselves to resist or complain. I was managing one of Palmer’s three city shops then, my clothes no longer dusted with flour. In the privacy of my office – really a corner of a damp back room partitioned off with stud walls and some sheets of glass – I’d replied to the ad in the evening paper. They were covers for something else then. Everybody knew. Lily had just started, too. I remember on that first afternoon she was aggressive and I wondered whether she was trying to make a point or an impression. I also remember her squatting on top of me, bared to the waist apart from a necklace, which became more and more agitated as her head dropped and her face became screened behind falling tresses. I leave it to other men to describe what we did and how we did it. I’ve heard them – in pubs – describing with relish something I’ve done but they probably haven’t, not successfully anyway, if at all. I think now that perhaps I should have responded to the passes made by the women in the shop. I hadn’t been bad looking, when all was said and done. But there was only ever one destination in an affair because you always wanted more. Deferring the inevitable was part of the excitement, embracing it brought only misery and complication. That’s how it seemed to me, though lots of people, even a few of my friends, came through, made something from the wreckage. Today so many people don’t get themselves into awkward positions to start with. Since a few months ago, Lily has worn a tattoo. It’s a small fleur-de-lys at the top of her left arm, which obliges her to wear T-shirts or sleeveless frocks so that it can be seen. This might be how older women – she’s my age, 62 – in her profession try to look younger. She’s dyed her hair; I’ve had mine cut short to add toughness to age, though there’s nothing to be done about the grey. Some of the girls are tattooed in more intimate places.
As regards time, the routine has always been the same. I arrive by appointment, wait a few minutes (making myself comfortable, in winter often having to turn the storage heater down and in summer opening a window), spending about an hour with one of Lily’s girls, or, increasingly of late, with Lily herself, then being left to gather myself together before leaving. When I’m with Lily, it’s as if a circle has closed. There’s a certain amount of daring involved at our time of life in doing the things we do, but the thrill is in the unexpected. I’ve always thought that about paid-for pleasure performed more or less mechanically. I still look in the girls’ eyes for some kind of evidence of enjoyment – when they are not smiling innocently, that is – whereas with Lily it’s never less than abandon, giving way to what among so many people still is unspoken. An old uncle once told me I came from an abstemious family. I think he said it just to use the word. But he was right. Puritans hide their shame to make them more self-righteous, but from the depths rise only moans of approval. These, however, are always confined; they never follow me along the pavement after a visit.
A few years ago, Lily provided excitement of a different kind, when faces at Number 98 began changing frequently. I get all sorts of detail from Lily. First it was how the bothersome ‘heavyweights’, never very far away, had slunk off into some other money-spinning enterprise, then how they had returned and begun poaching her girls, then how they’d introduced them, the ones who had returned, to drugs, and after that (which brings us more or less up to date), how girls were coming to her from countries she knew nothing about. I’m not sure how these things work, and can only guess at the connections and relationships Lily has forged beyond the one we share, such as it is. We’ve never met in any other circumstances, even by accident. It’s as if she belongs exclusively to the world I enter to make contact with her. Some nights, Lily says, the embankment across the road is like a shopping mall, with Russians and Romanian girls – East Europeans, at any rate – patrolling in principal-boy boots and fake furs. Then, just as unannounced, the girls will disappear. Lily cannot make sense of it, but believes it’s related to political happenings, such as immigration and people fleeing torture and poverty. Diseases haven’t helped, but Lily is meticulous about hygiene, that sort of hygiene, which makes me smile, considering how Number 98 has become slightly frayed. For me, it all turned ugly and off-putting when Kristine, one of the new girls, was knifed a short time ago on the premises. At roughly the same time, Lily paired me with Nesta, a Lithuanian woman (she wanted to know what I thought), who stared at me icily throughout as if I faced being crushed should I attempt anything untoward. I had to report that Nesta was accommodating but contemptuous. I now accept that such reactions are justified, that one does not have to be happy in one’s work. I prefer to lie side by side, facing one another, my way of making things equal or as equal as they’ll ever be.
But trust Lily to suggest that Nesta’s contempt might be something she could turn to advantage in the fetish line, the idea of a woman being simultaneously available and remote. To me, Nesta was simply doing something against her will. Where once the girls would tell me everything about themselves, even things I didn’t really want to know, they now present histories eternally concealed, and that makes me feel I am exerting a power over them. My own confessions, offered as compensation, must sound like just a ruse. This whole business, anyway, has become confused, what with articles in the papers about women like Lily being exploiters and the girls in their charge being degraded. I’ve gone through stages: first my shame competed with what I took to be their enthusiasm, then there was something like mutual enjoyment, and now I perform guiltily beside a woman from another country who looks at me with a loathing that possibly masks fear. To writhe is now to re-position, and there’s no destination in sight. Which is why I sometimes call at Number 98 just to chat with Lily and enjoy a cigarette and a coffee. To Lily’s amusement, I insist on her accepting payment for thieving her time. Being the sort of person she is, I sense she gets a thrill out of this. She tells me the money goes to the girls and I have no reason to disbelieve her.
I’ve opted to take early retirement from Palmer’s next year. Actually, it’s not Palmer’s any more and hasn’t been for a while: a bigger company has taken over and changed the name. But at my age, it’s the past that makes the loudest noise. Frankie Kyle has a life beyond Number 98 – a loving family, no less, which knows nothing of it – and interests. There’s even a wonderful woman he’s just started seeing, damaged, like himself, by bereavement with a long reach. They might go away together, away from places that have lost their charm, and seek renewal. It would mean saying farewell to Lily and the girls. But it’s time – time, at the very least, to give them room to tell their own stories of the selling trade. Tales of joy, boredom, unrest, humiliation, and, no doubt about it, danger.
As Lily says, all of us have something to give that someone else wants, even if it’s only pleasure, the real staff of life, and even if the pleasure’s only ever been more or less one way.