“Don’t answer that one!”
Sue, the lady with the bright pink lipstick, holds up her hand like a stop-sign. Her fingernails are painted in the same shade as her lips and on the middle finger of each hand there is a tiny little Hawaiian scene painted on the nail – a beach at sunset, complete with miniature moon and three twinkling stars. I can’t see them now as her palm is facing towards me, but I saw them earlier when she was pointing things out on the forms she asked me to fill in. The phone is still ringing and she looks at it nervously, all the while still holding up her hand to ward me away. A skinny girl in tight shorts and stiletto heels clatters into the room and stops short at the ringing phone. She turns to us and puts her finger to her lips, conspiratorially entreating us to “Shhh”.
“Hello”. The skinny girl is concentrating hard, the bare triangle of her midriff rising and falling beneath her knotted T-Shirt.
“Let me just see. I’m just going to put the phone down for a sec”. Hesitantly she presses the hold button and carefully places the phone back on the receiver. Turning towards us she whispers “Who’s Narelle?”
Pink-lipped Sue reaches confidently for a plastic folder on her desk and starts flipping through. “Narelle must be one of our new ones – normally I know all their names”. She runs her Hawaiian nail along a list of names. Most of them are typed, but some of them are crossed out or have other things written near them. Each entry bears two names.
Melissa – Vivianne.
Joanne – Tracey.
Alison – Charlene.
Next to Narelle is Roxanne.
“Oh – it’s Roxanne. That’s an unusual one – I should have known that. Carla – take Paula here down to get Roxanne so she can see what you’re doing. Check where she’s up to though. Don’t take her out if she’s in session”
Carla smiles at me and motions for me to follow. I dart to her side, eager to appear helpful in my new role. Standing directly next to her she towers above me, but she’s fragile as a dandelion. She casts a nervous glance back towards Sue and quickens her pace a little. Once we’ve left the reception area she relaxes and smiles down upon me, her make-up faintly clownish and over exaggerated.
“Hi Carla. I’m Paula”
“Is that your real name? I’m actually called Lucy”
“Yeah – I’m really Paula. What is it with the fake names?”
Carla stops at the doorway to a tiled room labelled “Spa”. Quickly she runs her tongue across her teeth and readjusts her face, settling on a sultry look.
“Let’s check in here first”
The room is tiled in shiny black tiles with marbled gold flecks, creating the impression of 80’s opulence. A bench seat ringing the entire room is scattered with casually discarded items of clothing and fluffy bathrobes. Dangling from the ceiling an ornate chandelier softly illuminates the centerpiece of the steamy room – a massive spa bath in matching black and gold. Letting my eyes adjust to the dim haze, I take in the occupants of the shiny tub. Three middle aged men in various stages of rotundity are monopolizing the jet streams, while five women of varying nubility are squeezed in the gaps. There’s an air of forced bonhomie between the men and the topless women seem to be laughing just a little too readily. Averting my eyes from the fleshy tableau I look to Carla for clues on behaviour. She is trying out different poses, thrusting each hip out in turn, a twirl of her long, peroxided hair, hand on hip. No one notices.
All heads turn at once and Carla seems to bask in the attention.
“Hey everyone. This looks like fun!”
In unison the men appraise the new girl, quickly making their judgement in her favour.
“Come join us”
The fattest of the three gestures expansively, sweeping his arm around like a gameshow host advertising the jackpot prize.
Carla feigns delight
“Ohhh! Maybe I will. But you have to let me have Roxy first”.
A twenty something girl with dyed black hair and overly tanned skin snaps to attention.
Carla shoots Roxy a meaningful look and then twists her hair coquettishly.
“Ro-xy. This is Paula. Paula needs you upstairs for a bit, don’t you Paula?”
Clearing my throat and smiling quickly across at the spa I answer hesitantly
“Y – yes. Roxy, can you come with me a minute?”
Roxy glares at me through narrowed eyes. Her eyebrows are plucked unevenly, an arms race of over-zealous tweezering. I’m scared to speak, so I jerked my head back – gesturing to the upstairs and make the hand signal for telephone call. Roxy looks pissed off that I know something she doesn’t. She stands up quickly, shucking off the hairy man attached to her. Her body is slick like a porpoise, the water rolling off the dark brown skin. Her breasts are high and round and fake. I expected that. Her belly button is pierced and pubic hair non-existent. I expected that too. Now that she is out of the water she makes no pretence of caring for the fat men. Shoving her way roughly through the crowd, she exits the spa and ignores all the “C’mon Roxys”. Without even bothering to towel off, she wraps herself in a silky bathrobe and heads for the door. I quickly follow her. The leopard print material is stuck to her skin.
We leave Carla behind in the spa room. She was kicking off her shoes as I closed the door. The corridor feels cool after the humidity and Roxy’s skin goosebumps immediately, the wet silk making her even colder.
“Who are you?”
“Oh Hi Roxy. Umm. I’m Paula. I just started working here”
“Are you one of the girls?”
She looks me up and down, quickly appraising me.
“No. No, I’m kind of on reception”
Instantly her interest wanes like the mercury dropping on a thermometer.
Conversation closed, Roxy stalks ahead and I hustle to catch up with her.
In the back office, Roxy greets Sue with her signature glare
“What’s this all about?”
Sue is unintimidated.
“The bat phone rang. Who did you give the number to?”
Roxy looks nervous now. I can see a shadow of her real face beneath all the makeup.
“Only Mum. I told her I can’t take calls ever. Only in emergencies”
The blood drains from her face and she approaches the phone slowly, as if it’s a bomb that might go off. Respectful of her privacy, Sue and I huddle over the reception desk and pretend to look at papers.
“What is it?”
Sue and I are whispering. She looks at Roxy surreptitiously over my shoulder as she answers.
“Most of the girls can’t tell their families where they work. Or their boyfriends. That’s our private telephone, so it’s safe for the girls to give out their number”
“They pretend it’s an office?”
“They can pretend whatever they want. We don’t give any details. We just answer the phone and get the girls straightaway. They can do the explaining. They always ask for them by their real name though”
It makes sense now. Roxy is Narelle. Just a Narelle on the phone to her Mum. I turn to look. She is distressed and agitated, mascara running down her face.
“No, no, no, no”
Sue stands hesitantly, looking to Roxy-Narelle for permission to approach.
There is a little more mumbling on the phone and then she hangs up. Sue and I take a step towards Roxy. Her bottom lip quivers.
Without warning, she runs howling into my arms, almost knocking me over with the force. She is sobbing uncontrollably, clinging to me and mashing her face into my shoulder.
Sue edges round to face me and nods her head encouragingly. She gives me the thumbs up with her bright pink nail.