Ana’s life had set into a pattern in which on the whole she was still blissfully happy. As long as she could meet Binta every day how could her life be otherwise? She hardly ever spent the night in her own flat: she normally stayed behind at the Brothel with Binta and relished their hours together spent on her bed, trying never to think about all the men that had also been there during the day and had forced themselves onto her lover. She loved everything about Binta. Every freckle, every dimple, every blemish. She loved Binta’s body: so slim, so elegant, so perfect. She loved the sound of Binta’s voice and its assertive tone. She loved the feel of Binta’s long hair as it fell over her own naked buttocks, the warmth of her skin, the salty taste of her sweat, and the ivory hardness of her teeth nibbling her skin. Ana was so lucky to be in love with someone as truly perfect as Binta, and honoured that her love was so abundantly reciprocated.
Being in love made her days in the office so much more bearable. She hated it when Mr Madir made his usual coarse comments, a cigarette forever lit and inserted into his cigarette holder, and dark bristles outlined against his pale greasy skin. “That new girl,” he might say. “She’s got tits like melons even if her face is like a monkey. But when you’re stoking the fire, as they say...” Or he might say: “You’re no boiler, Ana sweetheart, not like these bloody Deltas we’ve just taken on. Pity the client who can’t afford better. Let’s hope they’re blind, eh?” Or he might say when a prostitute had left his office after one of his mysterious interviews: “Wooahh! If they all had her talents, we’d be pricing ourselves right out of the market!”
These comments were bad enough, but even worse was his irrepressible tendency to touch her on the flimsiest of excuses. Her bottom might be pinched if he found her bending over to pick something up. His hand would brush uncomfortably against her breasts. He might place a hand firmly on her knee and she would be forced to go through the humiliation of asking him to remove it, against his assertions that there was something decidedly wrong with her or his accusations that she was just an intolerable prude. Sometimes he even greeted her as ‘the tight-legged Ana’ or ‘the convent girl secretary’ or, most foully of all, ‘cock teaser’. However, Ana learnt to ignore these remarks and put out of her mind his rather too frequent suggestions that she boost her income by taking on some part time prostitution.
“I just don’t want to, Mr Madir,” Ana replied firmly. “I’m quite happy with what I’m earning at the moment.”
“Perhaps I should give you a pay cut,” suggested the Director unkindly. “Then maybe you’d be less happy and more willing to take an active part in the work of this Brothel.”
“I wouldn’t do it if it were the only way to earn a living!”
“But it’s not a bad living. Khedra’s told you all about its benefits, hasn’t she? I simply can’t understand your reluctance. I’m sure you’d make the perfect working girl.”
Ana shook her head vehemently. “Not now. Not ever. I’m paid to work as a secretary and that’s all I want to do!”
“You’re a tough nut to crack!” smiled Mr Madir with grim good humour. “And I thought Inta was bad enough. Are you sure I can’t persuade you to regard the opportunities provided by the Brothel in a more constructive light?”
Ana was sure that he couldn’t, but fortunately the Director was not in the reception area of the office for most of the day and she could get on with her duties without worrying about him too much. However, whenever he appeared, a spark of electricity would shoot up her spine and she could feel the colour vanish from her cheeks. Most of her time was occupied in the minutiae of organising correspondence and filling up the Director’s diary with all the duties he was expected to perform. Some of the Director’s tasks took him out of the Brothel for days on end and involved meeting illustrious members of the government or civil service. Often his work kept him in other parts of the building for what purposes Ana didn’t know, didn’t care and was simply relieved that he was absent. Sometimes the Director left the office in the afternoon with a bag of golf-clubs and hideous smelling cigars which he thankfully rarely smoked when Ana was around. On these and other occasions, Ana felt particularly happy and worked so much better, her stray thoughts focused entirely on her lover.
Often Ana and Binta would meet together in the canteen, particularly when Binta’s working day finished late. Ana would leave the office, and make her way along the tortuous series of corridors that the Director had escorted her on her first day and were now so very familiar that she often paced her walk by counting off the rooms she passed. She had become so used to the array of green and red lights above the rooms and the sight of women tottering by on their punishing stilettos, that it surprised her when it crossed her mind as to what it all purported. She would be greeted cheerily by the canteen staff, who had a particular affection towards her, probably because she was one of the very few people who frequented there (especially after working hours) who was not a prostitute. They would often pass kindly words regarding the weather or whatever they had seen on television.
Ana would take her cup of coffee and sometimes a cake to nibble, and almost always sat in the same position against the wall where she could most easily spot Binta when she arrived. While waiting, she would sip her coffee slowly and watch the other girls in their red and black leather, lace and acrylic gather in larger groups, cackling in coarse bawdy humour and inevitably light up an array of cigarettes as soon as they sat down. They might notice Ana and stare at her, as well they might as no one else wore such obviously modest clothes as she. Some recognised her as the Director’s secretary and were particularly friendly to her. Ana had come to realise that although at first the prostitutes might seem threatening or not altogether wholesome, once she had any dealing with them - perhaps in arranging travel expenses, holiday pay or sterilisation fees - they never seemed like mere prostitutes again. She felt excluded from the girls’ lives, and evidently this was a gulf that was mostly respected and honoured.
It might be as much as two hours that Ana would wait for Binta: a wait that became increasingly agitated as she wondered what might be detaining her. She might read a newspaper to pass the time, although she often found the adulatory articles about President Marmeluke and the wisdom of his policies somewhat tedious. There was always a story about an alcohol bust, the shamefulness of the dealers and the wretched lives of alcohol takers. Most articles seemed perversely remote from the world that Ana knew, especially of the Brothel which was never once alluded to, although it always pleased her to read about her home district of Rif. Even there, the articles about new dams, educational schemes and agricultural initiatives appeared to have little or nothing to do with the Rif with which she was familiar.
After a torturously long time, Ana was delighted to see the naked form of Binta appear, followed by the still disapproving stares of more fully dressed girls, who would greet her from the distance with a smile. She wandered over to Ana, who noted how much her face was disguising a degree of frustration and agitation.
“I’m sorry I’m late but Kesira, my shift supervisor, kept me,” Binta remarked, standing by Ana’s table. “There’d been another complaint from a client about my performance. He’d said I was too quick and wouldn’t do what he’d asked me to do. That might be true, but I’m not obliged to do everything they ask me to do. That’d be horrid! Kesira said that if I wasn’t careful, I’d be downgraded to a Beta Minus or even a Gamma Plus, but why should I care? It’s not as if I actually get paid according to my grade, or any other grade for that matter. And I long gave up believing I’d actually gain any remission for pretending to be more enthusiastic.”
“Do you think you might be downgraded?” wondered Ana, who couldn’t understand why her lover wasn’t graded an Alpha or an Alpha Plus if beauty was the sole criterion.
“I don’t know. I don’t care. It’s all theoretical. I don’t think they would though. They earn more from me if they keep my grade up. Anyway, I’ll get a cup of coffee. Do you want one, Ana sweetest?”
Ana nodded and watched as her lover wandered over to the counter, ordered herself a couple of cups and chatted idly with the girl behind the counter. As a prisoner she didn’t pay for anything she ordered in the canteen, and when she ordered anything she ensured that Ana didn’t pay either. She strolled back holding the two cups, placed them on the table and sat down opposite Ana, briefly stroking her legs under the table as a substitute to the kiss on the mouth that would be so unwise to publicly indulge in. Binta didn’t want to add any substance to the suspicions she felt her friendship with Ana might have already engendered.
“I hate working here!” Binta declared again. “But there’s not too many more months of my sentence left, and then I’ll be free to lead my own life and not have to suffer all these disgusting men. And would you believe that at the same time as saying I’m no good at the job, they’ve already started sending me career advice to persuade me to stay working here when my sentence finishes?”
“You wouldn’t do that, would you?” gasped Ana, who more than anything else wanted to end the nightmare of suppressing her worries of what her lover was enduring from her clients every day.
Binta squeezed Ana’s knee affectionately under the table. “Of course not. Every single client is a hell I never want to repeat. I’m sure they do it automatically. In fact, didn’t you say that they’ve even approached you?”
“Yes, but I couldn’t! I wouldn’t!”
“Of course, you wouldn’t!” Binta agreed reassuringly. “And I wouldn’t either. They always want more prostitutes to replace those who leave, like I will soon. And when I leave, we’ll live together and forget this horrid place altogether.”
Ana nodded. “Then I’ll be able to leave too. I wouldn’t have to work for that odious Mr Madir just to be able to see you. It’ll be wonderful, won’t it? The two of us together. We could lead an ordinary life and be a normal couple...”
“Well, almost a normal couple,” remarked Binta with a sardonic smile. “We could walk the streets of the city. We could sit in cafés and see the world. And I’ll be able to wear clothes again. I haven’t worn a stitch for so long.”
Binta glanced down at her naked body which had the even tan she cultivated in the Brothel sun beds. Ana wasn’t at all sure she wanted even the smallest part of her lover’s gorgeous body hidden from sight, but she recognised that it would be totally impractical to be a full-time naturist working and living anywhere else in Alif.
“And I’ll be able to show you Rif,” Ana remarked. “It’d be so nice to introduce you to my family and friends.”
“And perhaps I could show you Jebel,” Binta countered, “even though I’m not too sure I ever want to go there again. It’s beautiful. It’s the most beautiful place you can imagine. But after the way I was treated there, and the way people would treat me if I returned, I don’t think I could face it. Although it would please me so much if you were to see my home. I think about it so often.” Binta dropped her head sadly, and grasped Ana’s hand for reassurance. “I may never see it again though.”
“I’m sure you will,” said Ana, without conviction.
“Perhaps Zabba is right. Perhaps we will have to make our life in Blad. What do you think of Blad? I see so little of it from inside here in the Brothel. I’d never visited it before I came here. Do you think we could make a life here?”
“Of course we could. We’d have to find a new flat together, because I wouldn’t be able to stay in my present apartment if I left the Brothel. But it wouldn’t matter what it was like or where it was, as long as we were together, and the Brothel was far behind us. Our life would be so much better. I could visit Jebel and you could visit Rif, and we would live in Blad during the week. We would go to bed together, and wake up in the morning and work in different places. We could cook together, see films together, sit in cafés together. We could spend every moment of our lives together when not at work.”
Binta smiled broadly. “That would be so good. Life would be so fulfilling. No more Pimple. No more Khedra, Kesira or whoever. No more filthy minded, unhygienic clients. An ordinary life and someone to share it with. It seems such a modest, such a simple ambition. Surely, it isn’t too much to ask for. Even if we do have to live in Blad!”
“Oh dear!” sighed Ana. “You’re not really that keen on living in the city are you?”
Binta smiled sadly. “Not that keen. I’d much rather live in the country again. I am still a country girl, and I don’t feel any enthusiasm for Blad’s noise, hustle and bustle. I’d prefer the country air, the blue sky, and everything else I miss from Jebel. But Zabba is right, there’s nowhere else in Alif we could live as a couple without being found out again by snooping neighbours, and then we’d both be incarcerated in a brothel or prison. And, anyway, how would I get a job in the country with my criminal record?”
Ana nodded her head. “But do we have to live in Alif? Couldn’t we live in Agdal? Ketaba thinks it’s a pretty good place and we wouldn’t have to worry about breaking the law there. We could really lead ordinary lives.”
Binta’s face lit up. “I suppose you’re right. It’s obvious really. Just because Ketaba’s so keen on it doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be any good for us. Nobody would hold my criminal record against me in Agdal, and we could be just like an ordinary couple. But I can’t believe it can be that easy. I can’t see the Alif government letting us leave. And why would the Agdal government welcome us? They’ve already got plenty of people much better qualified than either of us who can bring a lot more wealth with them. And if we had to bribe our way in, how could we afford to do it? I haven’t got any money. Have you?”
“Well some. But not very much.”
“Ketaba can afford to go to Agdal. She earns a lot of money. But even she says it’s expensive. I don’t think we could. We won’t be able to get the papers together, we can’t afford it and I don’t know that they’d even want us anyway.”
Ana sighed disconsolately. She picked up her cup and sipped at the coffee. “It would be nice, though, if we could. Ketaba’s photographs were very nice. Agdal seemed such a lovely place. It’d be good just to have a holiday there. And there’s an awful lot of countryside. There are mountains and hills, just like in Jebel.”
“A lot more mountains than Jebel, I’d have thought. Jebel’s not really that mountainous. And Agdal’s by the sea as well. I’d love to see the sea. All that water! And sand as well! We could sit under palm trees on the beach and watch the sun come down. Oh! It would be so nice to live somewhere like that. And we could be open about our love for each other. We wouldn’t have to be secretive. We could kiss in public. We wouldn’t have to pretend to be just friends. And people wouldn’t think we were perverts if they knew. They’d just accept it! Think how different my love affair with Mezyana would have been if we’d lived in Agdal rather than Alif.”
Binta stroked Ana’s knee, but seeing her longing gaze Ana did not feel at all reassured. She still felt unsure about her rôle in Binta’s life after her meeting with Mezyana, and often felt the heavy weight of guilt whenever she reflected on the love that the novice still expressed towards her lover. It had been so difficult reporting her meeting, and not only because of the pain the encounter caused her. She felt anguish as she observed Binta’s great interest and concern towards her former lover. Could she be so certain that she wasn’t merely a temporary aside in Binta’s great lifelong romance which would be revived once both of them had finished their sentences?
“If we had lived in Agdal,” Binta mused, “we would never have been parted. We could have been like a married couple. We would never have had to hide our love from other people.” She looked into Ana’s eyes and must have noticed her discomfort. “Oh, Ana! Oh, sweetheart! Oh, dearest! Don’t think that just because I love Mezyana ... loved Mezyana ... that my love for you is any less strong. She is in my past, and had we not been separated by the law who knows what might have been? Who knows? But that is only speculation. What matters is our love together. Don’t be jealous of Mezyana. We’re together. And that’s what matters! Isn’t it?”
Ana nodded. “That’s what matters!” She stared at her cup sadly and then looked up imploringly. “Oh, Binta! Please stay with me. Please say you’ll always love me. I couldn’t bear to be without you. Your love for me is the most precious thing in my life. Everything else is unimportant. Please always love me. You are my whole life.” She was conscious of tears welling inside her eyes, and of sniffles coagulating in her nostrils. “Please always be with me. I love you so much!”
“And I love you!” insisted Binta, looking rather sad and a little guilty. She squeezed Ana’s hand under the table so tightly that their palms sweated together. “Don’t ever think otherwise. I love you. And I want you more than you could possibly know. Just don’t ever believe anything else.”