A few months ago I wrote a Monday Musings on the Australian Society of Authors’ digital publishing initiative, Authors Unlimited e_Book portal. At the time I decided to try it out and bought Dorothy Johnston‘s collection of short stories, Eight pieces on prostitution.
The collection comprises 7 short stories and a long story or novella. One of the stories, ‘Mrs B’, I read earlier this year in Meanjin‘s Canberra edition. Some of the other stories have been published before too: ‘The Man Who Liked To Come With The News’ (The State of the Art, 1983), ‘Commuting’ (Island, issue 52, Spring 1992, and elsewhere), and ‘The Studio’ (Southerly, Winter 1996).
The first thing I should say about this collection is that it is not salacious reading. That is, it’s not erotica. Johnston’s interest is the lives, the experience, of prostitutes as people. Who are they? Why are they doing what they are doing? How do they negotiate their relationships, professional and personal? How do they live the life they’ve chosen and are they happy?
Johnston’s prostitutes are neither glamorous nor tarty, and most work for themselves or in small establishments. They are not the prostitutes of popular imagination. That is, they tend not to work in fancy parlours under control of a madam nor in that sleazy underworld borderland managed by pimps. They are, instead, either ordinary employees or small businesswomen. Some are career prostitutes, others are university students or single mothers who need to support themselves, while still others, like Eve in ‘The Studio’, are a little more mysterious:
She lives in a small flat. She chose the national capital because she imagined it to be a city where she could fade into the background, where she could hide.
Looking back, she could not shake the feeling that she’s been on the point of understanding something important while in Harry’s company, that understanding had been no more than a breath away.
She never let herself fall into a chair like I did when she came back from a client, slumping my stomach and letting the smile drop off my face.
There is a continuity between these characters and the three women in her novel The house at number 10 which I reviewed earlier this year. Like Elizabeth Jolley, Johnston is not afraid to re-use or develop characters across her oeuvre. I rather like that.
petrol fumes are a relief after hours of perfumed towels and bubble bath.
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
It concerns a three-woman brothel established by Sue, who’d been dreaming for years of a “better system”. It’s “a co-operative … Tough that word, but they’d risen to its challenges”. Now though, the dream is being severely tested as they cope with the death of a client, on the first page, from erotic asphyxiation, “the choking game”. The story explores the “one for all, all for one” ideal. Are there limits to trust, and how far should you take loyalty, particularly when it starts to be to your own detriment? Johnston sets the story at the beginning of the new millennium adding an ironic overlay to the situation confronting the women. What sort of millennium are they setting up for themselves by their response to the death?
As in all her stories, Johnston’s view of human nature here is warm but realistic, clear-eyed. She pits the “never let a chance go by” attitude against the desire to protect, care and trust, and then tests that against the need for self-preservation.
The freedom to ask each other questions danced and shimmied in the air.
She can be quietly ironic:
Laura went on sitting in the kitchen like a Buddha, or more accurately a simpleton, a girl who’d left her mind someplace and forgotten to go back for it.
Is Laura simple or not is the question we ponder through most of the story.
In dealing with a mysterious death, “Where the Ladders Start” introduces us to that other string on Johnston’s writing bow, the crime novel. It’s a clever story, well-plotted, nicely maintaining a tension between mystery and clarity. Like most of the stories, there’s no simple resolution. Life, Johnston shows, is a messy business.
You’ve probably gathered by now that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. While there is a commonality between the women, giving the collection a lovely coherence, there is also difference. Each character is unique, each story engaging. If there’s an overall theme, it is one of survival, or perhaps more accurately, resilience. Her women get on with life. They make decisions, some good, some bad, some we are not sure about, but, and here’s the important thing, they don’t stand still. Do read it. At $9.95, I reckon this is a steal.