A heart-warming memory of Xmas cheer set in a massage parlour
For the first time, the boss had decided to open the parlour for a Christmas night shift. I signed up to be the receptionist. Everyone else was, quite sensibly, taking time off to be with their families and loved ones. Most of the girls had gone hard, and now they had gone home to their children. Except for Nicole.
Nicole, with that ream of long black hair down to her bum, who was never less than kind and patient and efficient. I liked her. She was great at folding towels; she probably had some other key skills, too. Nicole was from China — I’m not sure if she had family in Auckland or not, but she was the lone girl who had signed up to work on Christmas.
And me, her friendly receptionist. Character flaw: total honesty.
But first I had to get through Christmas Day. I woke. I’d mounted Christina’s World above my bed, and above my head Christina in her pale pink dress rustled through the yellow grass towards that grey depressing farmhouse that must have belonged to her family. What was her father like? How did she feel about him? The farmhouse didn’t look like it was full of books.
I had promised to join Dad for Christmas lunch at my grandmother’s old house in Glen Eden. My grandmother had died while I was at university, and I had not gone to the funeral for reasons I now find hard to understand. I loved my gran and had fond memories of making mud pies down the side of her house beneath the fir trees. Her house was perhaps my first experience of art. Inside, the walls were decorated with embossed wallpaper and African masks. She had a brass crocodile and an old Singer sewing machine, its glossy black frame somehow sinister and imposing. Gran used to call her toilet ‘the lavatory’, which made even going to the loo sound fancy.
The cuckoo clock on the wall between her kitchen and the lounge was an omen of deep enchantment for me. A pair of weighty iron pine cones hung on chains, tick-tick-tick. The suspense built each hour, as I waited for the little wooden cuckoo to leap out and announce, “Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!” It seems to me that my taste and my father’s traces its lineage back to that house in Glen Eden with its deeply beautiful cultural artefacts and that brass crocodile standing silently on the carpet, gleaming in waves of sunlight, its tail curved into an S.
My aunt now lived in Gran’s house with the cuckoo clock and the brass crocodile, and the Singer sewing machine would have been moved from its location on Christmas Day so that the table could be opened out and covered in an intricate white tablecloth. Outside the ranch slider, a line of fir trees. My father was round for lunch, as well as my uncle, the art historian, and his wife. I turned up late in my leopard-print boob tube and a pair of tight black pants and heels. I bought a bunch of orange Asiatic lilies, found in a dairy en route.
“That was nice of you,” Dad said. He looked grateful, maybe even proud.
A femme fatale never turns up empty handed. My black pants swished as I sauntered into the room, the youngest and the hottest in the family.
I passed the cuckoo clock — the little wooden door closed on its latch — and went into the kitchen to help serve. Perhaps I fetched Gran’s blue-and-white Wedgewood plates; I always loved the precise, stylised Japanese garden scenes on each one.
We ate lunch in the lounge. And it was nice, the table laid out with the beautiful white tablecloth — I remember it as lace, but maybe not.
Conversation, good food and wine, Christmas crackers, laughter and a daughter who had to trot off to work in a massage parlour later.
After several glasses of wine, I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave. I had a good chat with my uncle, the art historian. An early painting of his hung on the wall at my grandmother’s house. I had seen it there for many years, but never realised before that he was the artist. The oil painting was a portrait of a young woman, ruddy cheeked — pretty good. Much better than anything I could do.
“I wasn’t good enough,” my uncle said, explaining why he didn’t keep painting and instead became an art historian.
A shiver — a premonition — ran down the back of my leopard print boob tube. Or perhaps it was just my low self-esteem making its presence felt. Was art another lover that was going to ghost me? Or had I turned my back on art, too busy trying to cultivate my sexual mystique? Embodying the Belle de Jour logo was taking all the time I had. A shame I wasn’t keeping a diary on it. I just remember there were no presents that Christmas. None to give and none to receive.
“Cuckoo, cuckoo, cuckoo!”
“I have to go now,” I said. The afternoon was winding down.
“Thanks for coming, Wolfie.” A hug from my Dad and a smile. “Happy Christmas.”
I took a taxi in to catch the start of the night shift. Town empty except for a sharp shot of blue sky and buildings glinting in the waning sunlight. The odd car; odd pedestrian. I climbed the stairs to the parlour, unlocked the door, pulled it up, unleashing that aluminium rattle, and the logo on the glass glared at me.
“You’re a fool,” she said archly. “This is no place to spend Christmas Day.”
“You’re here,” I said.
“Only because I’m on the door.” She looked at her foot-long cigarette holder. “What is this thing? I’ve never even used it,” she said. “My wrist aches from holding it forever. If I could get out of this place, I’d be gone in a second, like a puff of . . .”
“Gone where?” I asked.
Nothing, only smoke. The Belle de Jour logo had settled back into her pose, an archetype that had guided me through nine months in a massage parlour, wreathed in the steam of the dishwasher, waiting to hear the roar of the industrial vacuum cleaner as the night shift trooped off at dawn, hair washed, dresses chucked in bags, like rugby kits after the game, and the small team of Thai cleaners arrived on the scene to wipe down the wipeable surfaces, but not the rubber plant. I could always take a cloth to it later.
Nicole joined me and we waited for whatever was going to happen next. Santa was in town, but he wasn’t going anywhere fast.
Santa had been erected on the corner of the Whitcoulls building on Queen Street. A giant made from painted fibreglass, he had a pale sausage finger that beckoned shoppers to come inside and a leery mechanical wink. He looked like a giant ice-cream cake, ready to melt in the sun. A pile of presents and a pair of reindeer flanked the side of the building. People joked that he was creepy and looked like a paedophile, because his eye shuttered up and down and his fat finger beckoned in slow motion. “Ho, ho, ho.”
Personally I was fond of the creepy Santa. I always wished he could come to life, like that scene of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters. I imagined Santa shaking himself off the Whitcoulls building and striding up Victoria Street, past the Sky Tower, the diners in the revolving restaurant dropping their knives and forks to their plates and running to the windows — thud — to watch his red hat with its white pom-pom pass far below. “Ho, ho, ho!” Where is Santa going? To Belle de Jour, of course, for a Christmas massage. Only a femme fatale is equipped to undo those gold buttons and baste that roly-poly tummy in a vat of massage oil. Afterwards, Nicole and I will need to use all the industrial-sized washing machines to churn through his towels.
“Quiet,” Nicole said, looking out at the empty car park and street. “Yes,” I agreed. No Santa. The sun had dipped below the harbour bridge. Night took its time to usher in. The parlour felt cold with no girls to warm the leather couches that squelched and clung to their bare skin when they got up. The atmosphere of smooth emotionless sex was agitated by nothing at all. I sat at reception — no clients to buzz in, no flies to catch. Nicole stood next to me and shook her head. We waited.
Not many people work on Christmas. Ambulance drivers. Nurse Fanny and Doctor Dick. The emergency services. The fire brigade. People in twenty-four-hour service stations pumping gas. Christmas is meant to be a time to snuggle into the warm bosom of your family and enjoy one another’s gifts, though more and more shops elect to open. Why? Because we need to pay the bills? Because we need to make money? Yes. But for me it was something else. I chose to work because Mum had often worked on Christmas Day. It was normal to me.
Unlike the old people’s home, the parlour was bereft of decorations. It didn’t have a tree. The windows were not decorated with spray-on snow and fairy lights or painted with surfing reindeer, because those would be reminders of home, that fairy-tale place the men came to the parlour to forget. I wanted to forget about it too.
I thought I had hidden from Mum and from Dad and from God and from faith and from the ‘Desiderata’ and all the stupid plaques on the walls of our granny flat and even from my burgeoning student loan (now that had a hard on). I thought I could sidestep these things and be a different person, cast off from my childhood; that I could wriggle away from death or defy it. Instead I found out the truth: I was no femme fatale.
And in nine months I’d learned that what the girls faked in the rooms wasn’t meanness but kindness. Holly told me that in order to do her job she found one nice thing about each client and focused on it for the hour. Everyone has one nice thing, don’t they?
Even the creepy Santa.
The boss had no idea if Christmas would be busy or not; he’d told me to play it by ear. I told Nicole if we didn’t get a client soon we might as well go home. She agreed.
Then a pair of blokes walked across the car park and opened the ranch slider. The skin stood up on my neck. They stood at reception and Nicole waved through the glass. But there were two of them and only one of her, and I knew I didn’t want to go through with it. They had blank faces and no credit card and the parlour didn’t take cash, so they walked off to find a machine. And I took the opportunity to close the massage parlour on Christmas Day without finding out what was going to happen next.
I spent New Year’s Eve with Holly. In the red-lit bathroom of a waterfront bar as the music surged around us, she confessed she had been molested by her next-door neighbour over many years. Her mother later said, “It ruined your life.” But Holly claimed that wasn’t true. I sunk back another Red Bull and vodka and waited for the ecstasy to kick in. I’d had my confidence in the Belle de Jour logo knocked. She wasn’t advertising anything you’d want to give your friends, especially for Christmas.
In January the Whitcoulls Santa was taken down from his perch above Queen Street. We need Santa, but we also need him to go away. A red suit trimmed with white fun fur is not appropriate attire for every day.
I was also let go in the new year.
“I told you not to become friends with the girls and you did.” The boss handed me my last pay slip. A new receptionist sat in the window and buzzed me out and I walked back down the stairs to the street.
“You’re tall, you’re good-looking and you’re going to make me lots of money,” my new boss said.
I got a job bartending at Showgirls and I didn’t look back. Until later.
In 2009, Auckland Council plucked out Santa’s mechanical wink and sold his eye on TradeMe. His fat sausage finger got extracted too and replaced by one that didn’t look so naughty. And years later still, browsing in a bookstore in London, I picked up a copy of SuperFreakonomics and noticed the first chapter was titled, ‘”How is a street prostitute like a department-store Santa?” I sat down in store and read it, even though I already knew.
The chapter “Christmas is a good time of year for whores” is taken from one of the year’s very best books, the memoir Things I Learned at Art School by Megan Dunn (Penguin, $35), available in bookstores nationwide.