The following is an edited extract from Happy Endings by Bella Green (Macmillan Australia, RRP $34.99)
I’ve always been a Sunday afternoon hooker in Melbourne. The kind of men who seek intimacy with a stranger at 4 pm on a Sunday are made for me – divorced dads, IT nerds, international students. There’s something about lonely people I just seem to connect with.
In Sydney, I’m a Sunday night hooker. The kind of guy who goes out to party with the boys on a Saturday night is not my usual client, but the guy who’s still doing drugs by himself on a Sunday night is. I can always identify with someone who wants to get high at an irresponsible hour.
Matt booked me in the early hours of Monday morning at Casanovas, my go-to brothel for whenever I wanted to get out of Melbourne for a week and go and make some real Sydney money. He was ratty but beautiful, the kind of guy who probably got whatever he wanted until he’d ravaged his face and body with ice.
Matt had four kids, he told me.
‘You got a man?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I said. I’ve got a woman, I didn’t say.
I never tell them my truths. I have a series of half-truths, and then some complete fabrications. How old am I? Twenty-seven in Melbourne, twenty-four in Sydney. My real name? I don’t normally tell guys, but you seem special, so it’s Stephanie. Where do I live? Richmond. I have the postcode tattooed on my wrist, see? I don’t tell them I moved northside ten years ago.
I learnt early on never to trust clients. When you give a sh***y client an inch and he takes a mile, you feel like an idiot. When you feel like you’ve genuinely connected and share something personal and then they break that trust, it shakes the foundations of your instincts. Trusting no-one is the only way to be safe.
Matt and I extended for another hour every time the buzzer went off, me dialling down to reception and telling them to charge him another $300.
‘I’ve got a girlfriend on the side,’ he said.
‘Well, I did. She got crazy and I had to end it. I told her it was over and she went psycho. My own dumb f**king fault for telling her in the car.’
He pulled out his phone and started googling a news article. He showed it to me. It’s the kind of story I’d normally write off as fiction but there it was in the SMH, complete with photos of the wreck.
Matt and I talked for hours. A brothel room feels disconnected from the rest of the world, like a space that doesn’t exist. You’re with someone you’ll probably never see again. There’s no windows, no clocks, no daylight. You lose all concept of day and night. Leaving feels like walking out of a movie theatre and being surprised that it’s dark outside. Sometimes I’d finish my shift and walk past the only window in the building, a small one that led to a smoking area, and be shocked by the morning sun streaming in.
In this little room, this vacuum, Matt and I had the kind of connection you can only have with a stranger you’d normally have nothing to say to but you’re both incredibly high. But we did have something in common.
We didn’t end up f**king until the last half-hour. It was actually pretty good, f**king on ice with this raggedy man I felt a connection with.
At 7 am, the buzzer went off again and he got ready to leave.
‘I’ve gotta take my kids to school and then I’ve got court at 9 am.’
He started putting his clothes on.
‘Can I have your number?’ he asked.
Matt was kind of crossing the line here. I saw my first glimpse of a red flag, him sticking a toe out of the boundaries, and I wanted to say no but we’d had such a good night and I didn’t want to sour it. What the hell, I thought. I’ll give him my work number and he’ll go to jail or possibly kill himself by the sound of things.
He texted me about thirty minutes after he left.
The next night, I dragged my strung-out, sleep-deprived ass back on to the overnight shift.
At 1.11 am, I got a text from Matt. It simply said ‘1.11.’
At 2.22, I received another text. It said ‘2.22.’
At 4.44 am, I received another: ‘4.44.’
I had some questions. Wasn’t he supposed to be in jail? Was he in jail with a contraband phone? Was he using that phone to text the time to a hooker he met yesterday? And most importantly, was I a special hooker or was I just on some bulk mailing list?
I didn’t reply but the time texts kept on coming. I spent the last few nights I was in Sydney walking around nervously, wondering if he’d come back and what the hell it all meant. I became just like every other paranoid b**ch at Casanovas. The doorbell would ring and I’d push girls out of the way to get to the camera first. I’d interrogate them on the way out of the intro room.
‘What nash is he?’ I’d ask. ‘Is he a skinny white guy who’s been hitting the pipe?’
I didn’t see him again on that trip, but even when I was back in Melbourne, I got the time texted to me most days, multiple times a day. I’d get four a day, then I’d get two, then I’d get nothing for a few days, then it would start again. I imagined him sitting there with his phone, feverishly waiting for the time to flick over from 5.54 to 5.55.
Sometimes he got the time wrong – sometimes just a little, like when he sent ‘2.22’ at 2.23. Easy mistake. Other times, they’d be way off – ‘2.22’ at 11.44 am, then ‘4.44’ also at 11.44 am, then back to ‘12.12’ at 12.13 pm and ‘11.11’ at 11.13 pm and ‘11.11’ again a minute later.
‘Do you think it’s some kind of code?’ I asked my friend Charlotte, scrolling through screen after screen of texts.
‘He needs a good night’s sleep, is what I think,’ she said.
He stopped texting on 23 December and I thought it was all over, but then he started up again on 3 January, so I guess he’d just taken some time off over Christmas.
On 5 January I got three different texts, all at 2.23 pm: ‘10.10’, followed by ‘hi how are you?’ followed by ‘11.11’.
‘Hi how are you?!’ I screamed.
‘Just a personal touch, I guess,’ said Charlotte.
Another text came through a minute later: ‘4.44’.
And then after three months and ninety-six text messages, it just stopped. A few days went by, then a few weeks, then a few months.
I looked through court records, I looked through death records. I went back and looked for news stories he’d shown me, the car crash and the sex offender, but I couldn’t find a trace. I kept watch for him at the brothel but he never showed.
It’s been over four years now and all I have is that Facebook page. I check back every now and then, but the profile picture and the cover picture never change. There’s proof he existed, but he feels like a fever dream.
I’ve never had another client like Matt. I imagine he’s somewhere outside of time and space – a movie theatre, a prison cell, the afterlife – holding on to the darkest parts of my life while I hold on to his.
Happy Endings by Bella Green. Published by Pan Macmillan Australia ($34.99)