A YOUNG WOMAN walks down the street towards an unremarkable terrace house wearing a fetching combination of op-shop style and nonchalance. Her upper lids are lined; her brunette hair falls in layers around her pretty face. She opens the gate, knocks on the door and stands waiting nervously.
A stunning, hard-featured Asian woman in her late thirties answers the door in strappy stilettos and a slinky dress that clings to her petite form. Sleek black hair, parted on the side, hangs down her back and her long painted fingernails are decorated with tiny diamantes. She eyes the girl with a bored, unsmiling expression and speaks to her in a thick accent. 'I suppose you're Sara,' she says. 'I'm Cassandra.' She steps aside and ushers Sara in. 'Wait here. Julia won't be long.' Cassandra disappears down the hall and Sara stands in the reception area, unable to escape the image of herself in a huge gilded mirror. She takes in the velvet pink chaise longues and a misting lamp oozing vapour. The lights are down low.
The middle-aged madam sits in front of a laptop at a desk talking on a cordless phone, voluptuous in a low-cut Wheels and Doll Baby dress, her red hair piled high in a rockabilly bouffant. 'Yes, that's right,' she says into the phone, turning to nod acknowledgement of Sara with a wave. 'No problem. Bye.' She turns towards Sara and is just about to speak when the phone rings again.
'Hello, Fetish and Fantasy.' Pause. 'No, we don't do S&M. This is a no-sex, no-nudity salon that caters for niche fetishes and fantasies. We do shoe, latex, jean, uniform, pantyhose, lipstick, leg, wet shoes, washing hair, and up-skirt. We do role-play of all kinds.' Pause. 'That's right.' Pause. 'That's fine. Goodbye.' Julia hangs up and stands, moving towards Sara with a smile. 'So, ready to start then?' Sara nods and follows Julia down the hall to the staff room.
One corner of the room is the designated dressing area, with a long rack of dresses, costumes and uniforms. Beside the rack, a row of shoes is lined up against the wall. Cassandra is lying on the sofa watching TV and eating salt and vinegar chips. 'Cassandra, will you fill Sara in, please?' Julia asks, before closing the door behind her.
Cassandra begrudgingly puts the chips down and rises wearily to give Sara a reluctant orientation. She moves to the rack, placing a manicured hand on it. 'These are the clothes you'll need. They're all size eight and ten. Julia doesn't hire any other size.' She points to the row of shoes. 'Shoes. We do a lot of feet and shoes. All size six or seven and you'd be one of those.
'Okay. This is how it works. A client comes in and Julia deals with them. We never negotiate or do money with a client. If Julia isn't around, you lead them to a seat in reception and go look for her. Julia briefs us on the session. We prepare, get the client from reception, and take them upstairs. Julia will buzz you on the intercom when his time's up. You do exactly what Julia tells you and only that.
'The most important rule is never to talk to the client unless he talks to you first. Oh, and if you want to smoke, you have to go outside.' Cassandra stops, expecting a question or at least some sign of register. Instead Sara stares blankly. 'What?' demands Cassandra irritably.
'What's "up-skirt"?' asks Sara.
'It's when a guy gets off on seeing a woman's panties up her skirt,' explains Cassandra.
Sara feels a surge of anxiety; her face flushes pink and her cheeks heat up. She's not inexperienced and likes to think of herself as uninhibited, but she is seized by fear. 'I've never done this before,' she begins. 'I think I'll be good at it once I get used to it, 'cause I'm an actor. I just graduated from NIDA, and now I'm auditioning. That's why I need a night job. I waitressed all through the course and I got to the point where I thought if I have to wait on one more table I'll scream.'
She laughs uneasily, and continues talking over the awkward silence. 'Anyway, I quit the restaurant, then got behind on the rent. I know a girl who works in a dungeon but I find the chains and leather creepy, you know? Then she told me about this place and I thought, "I could do that." It's just like acting, right?'
Cassandra lifts an eyebrow in response and, grabbing a packet of Kool cigarettes from the coffee table, heads for the door. She turns to Sara before leaving. 'There's a kitchen downstairs.'
Later that night, as Cassandra paints her toenails, Sara settles down to study a script in preparation for an audition and feels suddenly overwhelmed by loneliness. Just as she is wondering whether she should stick to waitressing, Julia opens the door.
'Lipstick client,' she announces. 'Sara, let's get you started. He's a regular. Keep your lips bare. In the top drawer of the dresser, you'll find lots of lipsticks. Lay them all out on the dresser and play with them, like you're deciding which one to use. Take your time. Then go for the pink and apply it slowly. Don't forget to pout once it's on and rub your lips together. And don't look at him.'
The lipstick client, a burly biker, follows her into the room, flinging his leather jacket and helmet down on a chair. Sara sits at the dressing table facing the mirror with the lipstick client standing behind her. She opens the drawer of lipsticks. When she looks up, she can see him in the mirror. She notices that his jeans are undone. She takes out the lipsticks and lines them up. She toys with a brown lipstick, pushing the tube of colour up and down, then she does the same with a red and a purple. The client watches intently and his breathing gets louder. She tries not to look but she does – catching his hand working in a furious and distracting blur behind her. She teases with the pink lipstick, applying it slowly and self-consciously, pouting at herself in the mirror, and rubbing her lips together sensuously. He comes with three loud grunts and she watches, fascinated at the power of an action she had previously considered mundane.
An hour later, Sara stands in a bra and underpants. She slowly slips her foot into a pair of flesh-coloured pantyhose and peels the hose up her ankle and calf. The pantyhose client, an ocker in a loud Hawaiian shirt, sits in the chair spellbound as she pulls the hose up her thigh, stopping at certain points and smoothing her hand along the nylon. Finally she pulls the pantyhose over her knickers and leans forward, lifting the slack nylon up from the ankles. She turns around in time to see him masturbate to a shuddering, silent orgasm.
Her final client of the night wants shoes. She sits on the chair with her bare leg extended and her gold stiletto resting in the shoe client's hand. The shoe client, dressed in a snappy business suit and loosened tie, kneels before her, worshipping the shoe. She is no longer nervous. In fact, she is revelling in the performance so much that she verges on being hammy. 'May I kiss it?' asks the shoe client, hopefully. Sara, playing the dismissive mistress, nods yes in disdain. The shoe client bends down to kiss the shoe but immediately loses control, slobbering on her foot, licking it in broad, wet strokes. She corrects him by pushing him back with the sharpness of her pointy heel. He is instantly forlorn. 'I'm sorry. Sorry, Forgive me,' he pleads. She extends her foot to him once again. They repeat this several times before he whips his belt open and comes almost as soon as he touches himself.
Sara gathers up her belongings at the end of the evening with a sense of achievement. It is a strange world, yet it has somehow captivated her. There is an odd innocence to the men, an infantile awe. Curiously it is as if she, of herself, is not there. It is the object that's important. She says goodnight to Julia and passes Cassandra on the way out, standing out front leaning against the wall smoking, the cigarettes and lighter in her long-clawed hand.
THE NEXT SHIFT begins with the Riverdance client, whom she has already heard about. Julia, Cassandra and Sara stand in a straight line wearing short black skirts with legs bare in coloured plastic gardening clogs. The Riverdance client stands before them, his face concentrating and earnest in too-large glasses. He is a clean-cut, serious nerd who eyes the scene before him with an intense and exacting gaze. He leans down and hits the play button on a ghetto blaster and a shock of Irish folk music fills the air as he gives a short nod. The girls burst into an amateur Riverdance, keeping their arms straight down by their sides. Though they have practised the routine Julia and Cassandra know well, Sara struggles to keep up and her feet go in different directions to the other four. At one point she bumps into Cassandra so hard she almost knocks her over. The Riverdance client beats off in time to the music. The women keep poker faces and stifle giggles.
Later, as they change out of the Riverdance garb, they let go, laughing and relaxing in the wake of their client's tense formality. 'He's not the weirdest one we've had,' says Julia. 'Do you remember the guy who wanted to role-play having a sleep-over at a girls' boarding school, Cassandra?' She turns to Sara. 'He had scripts with stage directions and everything, even had props. You should have seen Cassandra as the shy schoolgirl.'
During the day, Sara goes to auditions or swims laps at the local pool. She has broken up with her boyfriend and, as much as she likes having time to herself, she misses him and the structure and focus of acting school. The life of a struggling actor is one of waiting to be seen, to be recognised; and typically, audition after audition fails to bring about that recognition. All those years at NIDA she was one of the chosen few, among the handpicked who felt their success was assured. Now she is just another hopeful on the books.
She gets the call to audition for a soap. Initially she refuses, telling her agent she will not do soaps, that it would be the death of her, but she's been talked around and two days later finds herself mid-scene exchanging lines with a chiselled actor. 'But don't you see,' she says, reading from the script in hand, 'Bella is trying to manipulate you!'
That night, Sara sits on the sofa watching TV alone while Cassandra is upstairs on a job. Julia opens the door. 'Prepare for an up-skirt session, please Sara.' Sara can't help but notice, as she leads the client up the stairs, that he is decidedly attractive. She guesses he's in his mid-forties and not at all the kind of man she expected to see at the salon. There's an aloof air about him, and he seems conflicted. 'He comes every now and then,' is all Julia had said.
The client stretches out on his back on the floor and stares up to the ceiling uncomfortably. Sara is wearing a short dress; short enough that he can see her underpants but long enough that it will be a tease. She walks around him in a circle, as close to his body as she can. His eyes follow her in anticipation of the point where he catches sight of her up-skirt. His face gives nothing away and he makes no move to unbutton his pants. She walks around and around, stealing looks at him, waiting for something to happen. After a while she becomes disconcerted; he is not masturbating, not showing any signs of arousal. His hands lie resting on his stomach yet he looks absorbedly up her skirt as she passes by. She feels annoyed and bored. It seems pointless, and she is denied the pleasure of power she usually enjoys watching a man being reduced to quivering lust by her slightest gesture. By the end of the session, she feels downright resentful.
Later that night, he comes to mind as she sits in the staff room reading. She puts her book down and turns to Cassandra. 'Cassandra, why does the up-skirt guy only look? Why doesn't he do anything?' Cassandra shrugs without taking her eyes off the television. 'I don't know. I don't try to figure them out.'
A WEEK LATER, Sara is marking lines in a script with a pink highlighter when Julia pokes her head around the door. 'Sara, up-skirt. He's requested you.' Sara puts on a baby-blue mini-dress over her lemon underpants and goes out to greet him. She forces a smile when she sees him and is determined to provoke him somehow.
The routine begins exactly like the previous time, and once again he makes no move, only tracks her with his eyes. After a while she grows impatient and throws a leg over his face, standing akimbo above him, giving him a blatant, full view up-skirt. She sees that this shocks him and that he looks unsettled, though he cannot seem to look away from her crotch. She goes back to walking in circles and he visibly un-tenses.
'It's a beautiful night isn't it?' she says, knowingly breaking the 'no talk' rule. He looks at her face. Good, she thinks, got his attention. 'What do you do?' she asks in a light, friendly voice. 'I'm a writer,' he answers spontaneously. His face contorts in a grimace. He did not mean to disclose that. She has caught him off guard. 'A writer?' she says, her tone playful and intrigued. 'Of books?' He does not answer. She continues walking and watching his face. 'What kind of books? Novels?' He lies still, tortured, staring at the ceiling, while she rabbits on. 'I used to write poetry. There are whole journals full of poems up at my parents' house. I actually pulled them out and read them last time I was there. Some of it was really corny, but some of it was pretty good. It's a bit embarrassing how much of it was about boys. But I was only young so what do you expect?' She notices he is no longer looking at her but rather looking straight up at the elaborate plasterwork around the light. 'You're not like the other men that come here,' she says, before falling silent moments before the buzzer rings out.
SOME DAYS LATER, she passes a poster for a book launch on the window of a bookshop and recognises his photo. His name is Gerard Benedek and the book appears to be a highbrow literary novel called Between Sleep. She smiles and notes the details. That evening he comes again. 'Up-skirt for Sara. He asked for you again. Looks like you've got yourself a regular,' says Julia with obvious approval. 'But this time he wants you to sit on a chair and cross your legs back and forth.'
They sit in chairs opposite each other with Sara crossing and uncrossing her legs. She toys with the timing, keeping them crossed for differing beats and watching him react when she re-crosses them. She can't tell what he is thinking, and as usual there are no signs of excitement. She smiles mischievously. 'I bet you're some kind of eccentric genius.' A flicker of embarrassment passes across his face yet he smiles a small smile as if he is touched and amused. 'I'm just a guy,' he says. 'I hope you don't think this is all I am,' she continues. 'I went to NIDA you know.' His eyes meet hers briefly. He wants to focus on her up-skirt but knows this is a request for acknowledgment. The fetish pulls him in again and he becomes mesmerised by the back and forth of her legs and the erotic flash of underpants between them.
'So you're a writer, maybe even a genius, and you're not married,' she ventures. He looks up. 'How would you know that?' he blurts. 'You don't wear a wedding ring,' she says. 'And I'm guessing you don't have children. But I think you have a cat.' She crosses her legs, leans forward with an alluring smile and her voice drops to a whisper. 'Do you have a cat?'
Their eyes lock and he cannot contain a smile. He forces his gaze back to her legs but she keeps them firmly crossed. She leans back satisfied. 'Oh, I'm sorry, am I talking too much?'
The night of the launch rolls around and Sara arrives late, having rushed from coffee with a friend. She reaches the top of the stairs to find him winding up his reading before a packed room. He stands on the stage in reading glasses with his book on a stand.
'He lay on the bed, his eyes dry and tired. The howls of animals and history sliced the numb air and children, sleeping, heard the wailing in their dreams.' He stops and looks up at the audience. 'Thank you for coming.'
He steps off the stage and is immediately swamped by the audience. She pushes through the crowd towards him. As she gets close, she sees him catch sight of her approach. He turns his back on her and engages an older woman in conversation. Sara stops, turns around and leaves, stricken with shame and the sinking sensation of regret.
SEVERAL WEEKS PASS and he does not come. She is relieved not to have to face him. But still the experience haunts her, and she can't stop thinking about him. One night she turns to Cassandra in the staff room. 'I talked to the up-skirt guy. I went to his book launch and he hasn't been back since,' Sara confesses. 'You talked to him?' snaps Cassandra. 'What did I tell you about talking to clients?' 'I know, I know, but he was so unusual. He got to me.' Cassandra looks at Sara directly. 'Let me tell you something. You think you interest them, you're wrong. It's not about you. They don't want to know you. And you don't know them.' Sara feels small and unspeakably vulnerable. She wants to cry. She had thought she could handle being a fetish mistress but she cannot. The need to be seen, to matter, to connect is too strong.
Three days later she gets a call offering her the soap role. She gives Julia two weeks' notice. On her second-to-last night, when Cassandra is outside smoking a cigarette in a halter-top and mini-skirt and Julia is in the bathroom, the doorbell rings. Sara walks down the hall and opens the door. It is Gerard. As she leads him in, he stammers clumsily, 'I'm sorry I didn't get to speak to you at the launch. I was…surprised to see you there.'
'Will you be wanting the usual session?' asks Sara, in a light, professional tone. He nods yes. 'I'm not available for up-skirt this evening, and tomorrow night is my last night here,' she says. Julia appears, having caught Sara's comment. She shoots Sara a look that says I don't know what's going on here but I'll back you. 'Cassandra will take care of you,' says Julia, as Cassandra comes back inside and assesses the situation. Gerard blushes and awkwardly hands a wad of cash to Julia just as the phone rings. Julia goes to answer it. 'Hello, Fetish and Fantasy,' she says. 'Yes, we do feet.'
Cassandra starts up the stairs with Gerard behind her. Sara turns to head back to the staff room, but when Cassandra realises she is still holding her cigarettes she calls to Sara, leans over the railing, and passes the cigarettes and lighter down. Sara fumbles and the lighter falls to the ground. She bends over to pick it up, aware that her firm, milky buttocks in white G-string will be visible. Gerard cranes his neck toward her final, spectacular up-skirt. Just as his eyes catch the promise of a glimpse, Sara stands up and, turning back with a goodbye smile, she disappears down the hall.