Ana began learning her secretarial duties, and finding her way around the office and the software she had to use. There was a lot to learn and her only guidance was some unspecific instructions from the Director such as where she was to sit and what she was expected to produce, but her college training had prepared her well, and she soon felt quite confident in her work.
She felt rather less confidence when she ventured outside the office to walk along the labyrinthine corridors to the canteen or to the toilet, but although often horribly lost at first, she was now more concerned about her embarrassment as she passed the scantily clothed employees. This included Binta whom she met by chance while taking some documents to the centralised photocopying room. As always, she was totally undressed and Ana blushed quite visibly as she approached from the other end of the corridor.
“Fitting in well, I hope?” Binta wondered.
“Yes, thank you,” Ana shyly answered. “I’m beginning to remember where everything goes.”
“I’m sure you are,” mused Binta, dawdling by the fire door running her fingers through her long hair. “Look...erm... do you want to come for a swim after work?”
“Yes, in the Brothel Baths. No one would mind you turning up.”
“But I haven’t brought a swimming costume with me.”
Binta laughed. “You’d look pretty out of place in one of those, I can tell you! This is a brothel, remember. No, Ana, you don’t need a swimming costume: just your sweet self. Come on! You haven’t got anything else lined up, have you?”
Ana had to admit she hadn’t, so immediately after work she eventually located the Brothel’s swimming pool, which was closed off to the public and accessible only to employees. As Ana could see before she made her way into the changing area at the pool-side, there was definitely no need for any kind of bathing costume. None of the half dozen or so girls splashing about in the pool were wearing any more clothes than Binta who was floating in the deep end with her hair fanning out around her, looking like an exotic giant water-lily. Ana self-consciously took her clothes off, uncomfortably aware that this was the first time she’d ever bared her slim untanned body in public, and stood nervously by the poolside.
Binta swam towards her, her back and buttocks obscured by a trail of long hair. “Hi there! Come on in. The water’s lovely and warm!”
Ana cautiously lowered herself down the steps into the pool, feeling the distinct chill of water progressively lapping up her legs and thighs. Then, with the courage she knew she had to find, she surrendered her whole weight to the water, braving the sting of chlorinated water in her eyes. Her head and hair sank beneath the surface where she saw Binta’s naked body glide towards her.
“This pool’s one of the few things I’m grateful for here,” laughed her friend when Ana’s head surfaced. “It’s to compensate for the hard work we do, I suppose.”
Ana regarded the other prostitutes, some of whom fastidiously swam with their faces and bound-up hair out of the water so as not to smudge the thick make-up or to get chlorine-scented locks. Ana span around and lay on her back, looking up at the evening sunlight streaming through the glass-covered ceiling. Binta was right: this was a very pleasant pool. Perhaps she could come to enjoy working here.
As she righted herself to chat to her floating friend, she was suddenly sprayed by a sudden wave caused by someone diving into the pool rather too nearby. The pale body of the culprit descended to the very bottom of the pool and then propelled itself like a torpedo to the surface.
“Why hello, Binta!” a child’s face with very short boyish hair greeted them. Ana was initially unsure whether this intruder was a boy or a girl. The chest was very flat and there were very other few signs of gender, but the girl’s nudity couldn’t disguise her sexual identity for long. She bobbed around in the water chuckling and giggling with the childishness suggested by her body. “So, Binta, who’s your new friend?”
“Ana, the Director’s new secretary,” announced Binta. “She only started a couple of days ago.”
“Oh! Inta’s replacement. Shame about her! Hi! My name’s Zabba! It’s my real name as well! My parents had a strange sense of humour. Glad to meet you. Are you new to Blad?”
“Yes, I am. It’s all very different for me.”
“I bet! And new to brothels as well, I imagine?”
“The ones where I come from don’t offer full-time secretarial work,” answered Ana, falsely suggesting that had they done otherwise she’d have taken the opportunity of working at one. “What do you do?”
Zabba laughed, with an indecent lack of restraint. “What do you think? This is a Brothel you know! I suppose I could just be a receptionist or a cook or something, though I don’t think they’d let me do jobs like that! And they certainly wouldn’t pay as well! No, Ana darling, I’m a prostitute. Like your friend, Binta! What else could I be?”
Ana’s cheeks burnt through the film of chlorinated water. She hated to be reminded of the sordid aspects of where she worked. She still found it difficult to reconcile the distasteful nature of the profession with the actual practitioners.
“Zabba’s actually quite high-grade as well,” elaborated Binta, her arms rotating to keep herself afloat. “She’s an Alpha.”
“Yes! I admit it!” the girl replied proudly. She lowered her arms to let her body sink into the water. “And as you can see, not for the most obvious of reasons. I don’t exactly have the classic Alpha grade figure, with my teeny tits and slim thighs. But girls like me who look so much younger than they are and (let’s admit it!) look like little boys: we’re in great demand. That pushes up my grade a lot. I could never be an Alpha Plus. You need more dedication, stamina and willing than I’ll ever have. But I’m quite content to be an Alpha. The pay’s good and I’ll be able to retire at the age when most people are just starting their working lives.”
“However much you earn, I’d much rather be me than you,” Binta commented, “Your clients have got the strangest obsessions.”
Zabba smiled. “I get my fair share of perverts, I must admit,” she agreed, running a hand through her short damp crop of dark brown hair. “My bottom gets ever so sore. You couldn’t imagine! But you’re only young once.”
“And you look like you’ll be young forever.”
“Well, I am young. One day my looks just won’t be marketable any more. But I’m in this trade for the money and I don’t have to do nearly as much work as a Gamma or a Beta to earn tons more than they can.”
“Well, infinitely more than me,” sniffed Binta bitterly.
“I’m sorry, sweetest. I keep forgetting you’re not here voluntarily. And if I were only a Beta, I don’t think I’d bother either. It’d hardly be worth the effort. But for me: where else could I work at my age to afford a luxury flat in the select Honey suburb and earn far more money than a young girl knows what to do with? You’ve got to admit that those of us who’ve got a lot to sell get a lot out of it!”
“If you can put up with all the abuse...”
“Not all of it’s abuse, Binta darling. Some clients are actually quite sweet, which even you’d admit if you weren’t so dead set against men. But let’s be honest: I’d be ready to go through a lot more than this for the lifestyle. The hours are great as well! I go clubbing all night and don’t have to worry about getting up like all the other girls working in this city. And I don’t believe the occasional sore bum is really such a bad penalty. It’s those who work in factories, supermarkets and restaurant kitchens I feel sorry for. They get hardly nothing for what they do. And gain nothing like the respect from their customers that I’m accustomed to.”
“Is this what you always wanted to do?” wondered Ana.
“Goodness no! I’ll be out of this profession long before my sell-by date. What I do next I really don’t know. And I don’t really want to think about it. Growing old really depresses me. I hope I never have to get older than my teens!”
Zabba abruptly broke away from Ana and Binta, and swam a length of the baths. The other two followed behind, Ana enjoying the lash of the water against her body as she kept pace. They arrived at the shallow end, where Zabba stood to rub the water out of her eyes and to reveal where she shaved to make her look even younger. Ana crouched down in the water, still too shy to stand and openly display her body.
“What do you think of the Brothel, Ana?” Zabba wondered. “Do you share Binta’s negative opinions?” Ana nodded her head. “Well, you’re new here, and I’m sure you’ll come to take a much more liberal view of it, like your predecessor. Perhaps like her you’ll be tempted to earn a bit of extra money. Everyone loses their inhibitions after a while.”
“I don’t think that’s such a good thing,” opined Binta. “But even if you weren’t a prostitute, Zabba, you’d have a fairly active and varied sex life.”
“You want to bet!” the girl laughed. “What could be more fun? Sure. Left to my own devices entirely there are pretty few of my clients, even the regular ones, I’d ever contemplate if I didn’t do it for a living. But when you get fully immersed in it, there can’t be anything more fulfilling.”
“Pah!” Binta disagreed. “It hasn’t made me any more enthusiastic!”
“Well, Binta dear, you are an exception! Nobody could accuse you of having a normal attitude towards sex.”
“I really don’t think that my preference in partners has any bearing over what I think about prostitution in general. It’s absolutely abhorrent.”
“I can’t pretend to understand you, Binta, but you’re probably quite right. Many of my clients undoubtedly prefer boys to women. The number of times I’ve had to pretend to be one myself! I’m sure you’d find that even more disgusting. Perverse even, if you weren’t yourself a homosexual. But it’s fairly harmless. And I’m sure the provision of my services spares countless real boys attention they probably wouldn’t appreciate. I am at least a professional and know exactly what to expect.”
“I don’t believe that my sexual preferences make me likely to have any more sympathy for men who lust after children. If there’s any sexual behaviour the government is quite right to make illegal, it’s that...”
“Making it illegal doesn’t stop it, you know,” laughed Zabba. “It just provides obstacles. And anyway Binta, sweetheart, if you knew some of these men as well as I do, you’d be no more censorious towards them than you’d want them to be towards you. My services are provided to sublimate such desires in a socially acceptable way.”
“Isn’t what they do to you illegal?” wondered Ana contemplating Zabba’s groin and her references to a sore posterior.
“Sure it is!” laughed Zabba. She pinched a slim buttock with a hand. “It doesn’t stop them. And it doesn’t prevent me providing the service either. As long as they’re willing to pay me that little extra that the tax-man never knows about, I’m not going to complain about a service the Brothel can never be seen to offer or condone. And those who’re most keen on that sort of thing and the ones who most like me to dress like a little school-boy and avert their eyes from what truly distinguishes me from a boy: they’re the ones who are the most publicly vehemently opposed to homosexuality and what they deem immoral sexual acts. But why should I care!”
Zabba dipped her hands into the water and desultorily splashed water over her incompletely formed body. “However, unlike you Binta, when I’ve done a day’s work, I don’t have to stay here all night. I have my own home to go to and friends to go out with. So, if you don’t mind, I’ll be off now.” She leaned over to Binta and kissed her tenderly on each cheek, and then repeated the compliment on Ana, who discovered for the first time how short Zabba was. Only the relative maturity of her conversation made her seem at all adult. Zabba left Ana and Binta swimming slowly up to the other end of the pool: Binta on her back and Ana more cautiously facing forward.
“Zabba’s very odd, isn’t she?” Ana commented.
“Odd? Why? Because of what she looks like?”
Ana hadn’t really meant that. “I suppose that’s one way. No. I mean her attitude towards prostitution. I really thought that most prostitutes would absolutely hate it, like you.”
Binta tread water to keep afloat. “I can’t speak for all the girls here. They have all sorts of attitudes. Some like Zabba quite enjoy it for one reason or another. Some detest it, and those who are convicted prisoners like me are going to hate it the most. After all, I didn’t exactly volunteer to work here. The majority though are probably somewhere in between. A job they do for the money. Or which has enough good points to seem good enough for not doing something else. You can’t be sure how honest most prostitutes are, the ones who do it by choice, that is. Some who hate it will pretend otherwise to justify their choice of career. And some who quite like it will claim to hate it to retain some kind of self-respect. However, Zabba is quite right: it’s a much better career for the higher grade. Alphas like Bezaffa and Zabba make good money, and they know they’ll be able to retire on it. Even Betas like me are generally respected by the clients. But the Deltas and Epsilons: it must be extraordinarily disheartening. They get the worst salaries, probably don’t have the choice of another career and get the most abusive and unsavoury clients.” Binta wiped her nose with the back of a hand. “But don’t listen to Zabba when she says you should contemplate prostitution as a career. You would be the very last person to enjoy Zabba’s lifestyle. You’re better off as you are. If it was so wonderful, why did your predecessor leave in such a hurry?”
“Is it only prostitutes who have liberal views like Zabba’s?”
“Of course not! But those who do, don’t necessarily want to become prostitutes. There was a girl Mezyana and I knew who was visiting Jebel who was a lot like Zabba in many ways. Well, not physically. There can’t be very many people in the whole world with a body like hers. Her name was Azhnia, from which you can guess she wasn’t an Alif girl. Her country is quite rich and although she always claimed to be broke she always seemed to be quite well off. It must be something to do with the exchange rate. God knows why she was in such a remote place as Jebel, but she claimed to love the countryside and its slow pace of life.”
“What country did she come from?”
“Gharab, I think. Somewhere where they speak the same language. Mezyana and I were really envious of her country. Homosexuality and alcohol are legal, as are plenty of other things I could never imagine being legal here. They have films with people having sex in them, some of which she said were filmed in Alif. You can openly buy all sorts of drugs, but you have to pay tax on them, of course. People are much freer in what they can say and write. They don’t have to be careful about saying something the government mightn’t like. It sounded wonderful to us, I can tell you: always having to be careful about revealing our relationship.”
“How did you meet her?”
“Mezyana and I were never really very sociable. We only met her by chance in the countryside when we were looking for a place to enjoy ourselves together. We were certainly not looking for other company. But as we were climbing up the hills, we came across this strange girl in leather clothes and short hair dyed a bizarre mix of blue and black. She was reading a book on a rock, and greeted us as we passed. Mezyana didn’t really want to chat, but I was really curious to know something about her. I didn’t know there were people in the world who dressed like that. You never find out about foreign fashions from the magazines or television programs. She had a peculiar accent, and we had great difficulty in understanding some of what she said. She was travelling in Alif and staying in a hostel near Quria. She said the hostel was really boring and she got fed up with how much people stared at her. At home, she said, nobody would look twice at someone dressed like her.”
“Is that true?” speculated Ana, who had never really thought of how foreigners might dress.
“I can’t believe that everyone wears such tight leather clothes as her, but she said there were people there who dressed a lot more outrageously. After all, there’s no law to prevent them. As she didn’t know anyone in Jebel, we got to know her a lot better. She had views about sex and so on that we found rather shocking. It was quite titillating as well, of course. She always had these stories about her boyfriends and her sexual activity which I’m afraid we found very exciting. But the nicest thing about knowing her, I think, was that we found someone to whom we could confess our relationship, and who accepted it as what it was. It was good to know that there were people who not only didn’t disapprove of lesbianism, but almost actively endorsed it. It was good to feel accepted like that.”
Binta frowned, and then, without warning, swam away towards the edge of the pool. Ana hovered for a moment in the centre, and then swam leisurely towards her. Binta’s memories of Jebel must have upset her. Binta leaned on the pool-side bar watching her long legs cycle in the water, her hair spreading around. She continued as if there’d been no break in the conversation when Ana caught up with her.
“I feel guilty thinking about Azhnia. I suppose it was the excitement of her liberating conversation, but it wasn’t long until I learnt that Azhnia wasn’t just interested in boys and the two of us...” Binta paused as she struggled to express herself. “Well, we soon got to be a little too close. My one episode of infidelity to Mezyana. Or one of several episodes to be honest: all with Azhnia. Not that my love for Mezyana was any less. It just seemed such an exhilarating and emancipating thing: having a relationship with another girl. I never told Mezyana, and Azhnia would never tell her either. And even though I felt really rotten at the time, I still went back to her for more. Now that I’m parted from Mezyana in this horrid place, I feel even worse that the only person I’ve ever truly loved, the one for whose love I am suffering so much, and who is also suffering for it ... I feel so low and deceitful and really no better than the slut that I’ve become!”
Binta was weeping, tears lost in the dampness of her face. Embarrassed, Ana hovered by, not knowing what to say or do. Her new friend lowered her face under her cascading curtain of hair and softly sobbed.
“I know Mezyana would forgive me if she were to find out. She’s like that! So charitable and understanding. All that Christian business of only seeing the best in other people. That doesn’t make it any easier: because I can never forgive myself. And I can’t blame Azhnia. She was only doing what was natural to the mores of her own country. I am the only one to blame; and however enjoyable it seemed at the time, and however easily I got away with it, doesn’t excuse me at all!”
Binta gazed into Ana’s sympathetic eyes. “I’m sorry to burden you with all this...”
“That’s all right...” Ana tried to say with as much sincerity as she could. She was slightly disturbed by the content of Binta’s confessions, but also flattered to be confided in so soon in their friendship. “I’m sure it’s good for you to...”
“Thank you! Thank you!” Binta said with a brave smile. She briefly kissed Ana on the lips and, before Ana could respond, lifted herself out of the pool and stood high above her on the edge. “I must go now! I’ve been swimming for long enough. But perhaps we can come back for a swim another day?”
“Gladly!” Ana replied, looking up at Binta, her arms supporting herself on the poolside. The two girls chatted on fairly trivial matters for a few more minutes, while Binta dried herself with a long Brothel-issue towel. Soon she left, and Ana floated on her back for a long time, recounting her conversation and revelling in the satisfaction of making friends with someone so soon in the forbidding loneliness of the city. Ana imagined that Binta had only left so soon to return to work. She waved to Binta as she passed along the glass walkway overlooking the pool, suddenly wincing as she recollected what Binta’s work actually entailed.