Sport 24: Summer 2000
Tim Corballis — Commercial
A night-time walk takes me past shops, houses and bare lawns, populated with rotating clotheslines or hidden behind high walls. Cars drift past occasionally. I come to a halt in front of a short woman, fairly solidly built, with a knee-length red skirt and a black, lacy top. She is a prostitute. She seems both young and old—though of course this is how she wants to appear; as all things to all men.
I say, ‘Do you sell anything else?’
She says, ‘What?’
I say, ‘Do you sell other products…like cigarettes, grocery items, perhaps beverages …’
She stares at me. Squints slightly.
I say, ‘Um.’ I am suddenly ashamed. ‘I suppose you have some reasons for doing this …’ Waving a hand vaguely about the street.
She says, ‘Yes, and what do you think those reasons are?’ She looks around. There is no one else close by, and she relaxes a little, steps closer to me.
I say, ‘Maybe you need the money, or…you are trapped into this by some …’
She says, ‘Have you been watching some TV programme about the tragedy of prostitution?’
The lights from the city reflect a grim, orange light on the clouds. The street, the closed shops and other buildings are cast in the same orange light. In fact I have seen such programmes, about students forced into prostitution to pay fees, or young girls from abusive homes, who know nothing else, and continue in abusive relationships with clients and pimps. I don't reply.
She says, ‘How much have you got?’
For some reason the question surprises me. I pull out my wallet, and count up the notes.
I say, ‘Seventy dollars.’page 123
She steps closer again, so that I can feel the heat of her body. She reaches around and puts a hand on the back of my neck. It is surprisingly warm. She says, ‘That'll do …’
Her face has softened visibly, so that she is some fantasy, with a gently moving body, close enough for me to imagine its touch. With her other hand she takes the money from me and folds it into a pocket, or inside some item of clothing. I had not planned for this, and wonder if I can get my money back. I try to remember my rights. The Consumer Guarantees Act? There is a decision to be made. She stands, and lets me make it.
Walking is a way of passing the time, releasing some of the frustration of staying here. I am only in Auckland for a short visit. I talk to Kelly on the phone.
I say, ‘Hi, how are you … ?’
She says, ‘Good, good. I am trying to tee things up down here.’
I say, ‘Yes. And …’
She says, ‘I'm optimistic. We need that money …’
I say, ‘Yes, I have mentioned it. I'm working on it.’
She says, ‘Mention it again. We need it.’
I say, ‘Yes, I should … though, you know, I have asked, and they know what I want.’
She says, ‘Mention it again. You need to really get through to them.’
I say, ‘I think maybe they are considering it.’
She says, ‘The only way to get through to people is by repetition. You know that … preferably accompanied by a catchy mix of music and visuals. Mention it again. Jonathan.’
I say, ‘Yes, yes I will.’
She says, ‘But, I'm optimistic. We just need money now, I think.’
I say, ‘That's good.’
My aunt and uncle live in a sprawling, one-storey house which is set in a slight depression or valley in one of the better suburbs of Auckland. Cars drive past sedately on their way to supermarkets, cafes or sports clubs.
When I arrive here, the house has its air of mythology. But as I page 124 stay longer, the fairy-tale characters, the wise and gracious king and queen in their magical kingdom, become … members of my family. It is a disappointing transition. The wands and jewels become tarnished silverware, brought out for the occasion of my visit; tumblers of whisky and sherry; crystal doorknobs set low in the wooden doors. If there is some mythology about this place, it has to do with the way I have grown up here with my aunt and uncle after my parents' death. And if there is some mythology about me, it is that I am a young, successful student. That my grades are good, and that I will go on to postgraduate study, then an academic career. That my aunt and uncle, who have brought me up for most of my life, are helping out financially with fees and living costs. That I am their Jay, Jonny, Jonathan.
My uncle says, ‘How are your studies, Jay.’
I say, ‘Good. My grades are fine … but …’
My aunt says, ‘Good! Are you enjoying it still?’
I say, ‘Yes, sort of …’
She says, ‘Good.’
I would like to be more honest, but the words are difficult. I would like to talk with them without using words—instead, I could use a catchy mix of music and visuals. We are watching television. My aunt and uncle both have books with them, which they look at during advertisement breaks or when the programme seems distasteful … They do not get up and change the channel or switch it off, and there is no remote control.
I say, ‘I have decided to leave university.’
My uncle leans towards the television, saying, ‘Shhh.’ There are pictures of bombed buildings, explosions and the bright flares of tracer bullets over a darkened city. A British reporter is commenting on the war.
My aunt says, ‘Jonny … what else would you be interested in?’
I say, ‘I have told you, I want to set up a business.’
My aunt and uncle don't reply. They are watching refugees join huge queues on the screen, while American politicians excuse themselves for accidentally bombing civilian targets. There is a break for advertisements. My uncle looks intently at his book. My aunt gets up, saying, ‘I'll put the kettle on.’page 125
There are familiar characters from a childhood of surreptitiously watching commercials: silver-haired authority figures who advertise pharmaceuticals; the hard-talking farmers and their dogs, who race about in four-wheel drive utilities. Earnest young couples, interested in house paint and insurance policies, advise that it is never too early to think about your retirement.
Kelly has said, ‘We are dealing with an incredibly sophisticated audience now. They speak the language of advertisements. We need to become increasingly subtle.’
There are happy young people on a beach … they should be advertising alcohol or ice-cream. But the advertisement has come to an end and there is no clear message. Then, stylish men and women hang around outside their cars in what we could believe was the American midwest. They give slight, flirtatious smiles. Is it jeans, deodorant, gasoline? But they seem to be advertising nothing but themselves. Audiences become unsettled, expecting a product.
Kelly has said, ‘This is the future of advertising.’
The prostitute leads me around a corner, into a poorly lit street which slopes down in the direction of the centre of town. There are fenced-off building sites visible further down. She walks slowly, and her hips sway slightly. I think, is she putting on some walk for me? She stops by a door in the brick side wall of the shop on the corner. She pushes it open, and I follow.
Inside the door, steps lead up—presumably to a room or rooms above the shopfront. There is fading wallpaper, with squares of bolder pattern where, I imagine, watercolour landscapes must have hung. The stairs turn a corner as they climb. At the top, the prostitute stops by a door. This is similar to student flats I have been in. This could be someone I have met at a party.
She says, ‘Wait …’, turning to me and again standing close but without touching. She seems to be trembling slightly. I have started to want her very much … though it is also as though I am watching someone else do this. I wonder who that person is.
She reaches behind her and raps sharply on the door a few times. Then, after a few seconds, she smiles at me, and at last allows her page 126 body to press lightly against mine. Then she pulls away and opens the door to a room which sharply contrasts with the stairs and hallway.
It is tiny. The walls are painted a deep red, and the large bed, which takes up almost all of the room, has a similarly coloured cover. There are crystals and exotic decorations about, on the walls and in the window, hanging in front of the lace curtains which seem out of place here. I follow her in and she pushes the door shut.
I put my arms around her. She says, ‘Just a minute.’ She pulls away and falls onto the bed. She lies on her back, facing me, propped up on her elbows.
I say, ‘What is it?’
She says, ‘We need to talk about this.’
I say, ‘What is there to talk about?’
She says, ‘We need to establish some ground rules here. I mean, really, what is it that you want from me?’
I say, ‘What do you think?’
She blushes. She says, ‘You just want, um …’
I say, ‘Sex.’
She says, ‘…ahh, yes. And that's it?’
I say, ‘You're a prostitute aren't you? That's what you do. I give you money, and we have sex.’
She says, ‘Well I hardly think you're the expert here.’
I say, ‘What do you mean?’ True, I have never been with a prostitute before. I say, ‘I won't abuse you or anything. I'm not violent.’
She gives me a disgusted look. ‘I can take care of myself.’
I cross my arms. I say, ‘Give me my money. I'll find someone else.’
She says, ‘You think you'll find someone else, who will just … do it with you?’
I say, ‘Yes.’
She says, ‘Go ahead.’ She smiles, and makes no effort to give my money back. ‘Strange. You didn't seem to want, um, sex, when you first talked to me.’
I pause. I'm not sure why I first talked to her. I say, ‘What do you need to talk about?’
She says, ‘Do you think this job is easy?’page 127
I say, ‘No.’
She says, ‘It's just that … you know, you're quite nice …’
I say, ‘Thank you.’
‘… but I'm not sure that I like you enough. Or, not yet, anyway.’ She is casting awkward looks down the length of her body. She says, ‘I like to fall in love with each of my clients, if possible. It makes the job easier.’
I say, ‘I see …’
She says, ‘There are two kinds of clients, in my experience. People who are lonely, and want love, and people who are escaping from their stifling relationships, and want sex.’
I say, ‘That's quite a generalisation.’ The sort of thing my uncle might say.
She says, ‘Which one are you?’
Kelly has said to me, ‘People complain about advertising. They say that it is intrusive, manipulative, and reinforces negative stereotypes of … for example … women.’
I said, ‘Yes.’
Kelly said, ‘But that is unfair to the creative effort that goes into an advertisement. They are works of art.’
I watch the advertisements on television with a renewed interest. If my family were to watch them, I am confident that they would understand … and then I would be able to communicate my dream to them, without words.
I say, ‘I want to go into business with a friend. Advertising … but, I was going to ask you … we need some money, to help set it up. We would pay it back.’
My aunt says, ‘Don't you want to continue your studies?’
I say, ‘No. This is really what I want to do. I was thinking, you give me money to help with university fees … but I could put that money towards this instead.’
She is silent for a minute. She says, ‘If you are really not going back to university at the end of these holidays, then you could stay with us a little bit longer, Jonny? It's nice to have you around.’page 128
I say to Kelly, ‘I am working on them. They seem to be considering it. But I will have to stay here a little bit longer.’
She says, ‘Don't let them push you around.’
I say, ‘They don't. It's their money I'm asking for.’
She says, ‘Then, don't let them buy you.’
I say, ‘No …’
She says, ‘I have all the connections here. But Jonathan, we need your money.’
I say, ‘Yes.’
When I have finished on the phone, my uncle is hovering in the dark, wood-panelled hall of the house. He is moving slightly on the balls of his feet as he waits for me. I know what he wants.
He says, ‘Jay, come and see the collection.’
It has been a while since I last visited, and I have known that this duty was coming. He leads me into a small room with large bookshelves, and further piles of books on the floor. He says, ‘This is new: Finnish to Polish, Polish to Finnish. I got it for the sake of completeness really.’ He shows me pages of strange words with absurd consonant clusters, or repeated letters with double dots over them. I smile at him. I am eager to get out and go for a walk, somewhere around this neighbourhood where I grew up.
‘I've been adding to this collection a lot lately,’ he says.
I say, ‘Really.’ I look at the dictionaries, not out of interest, but because they fill every part of the visual field.
A dictionary of unexpected connections.
A dictionary of obvious clues.
A dictionary of family relations.
A dictionary of escape.
I pick up a dictionary of advertising media, and flick through it. I had not expected to find something so close to my own interest here. There are pictures of the great names in advertising: the mastermind behind the campaign which popularised jeans, made a once conservative item of clothing into a sign of youth and rebellion; the genius who associated a surrealistic vision of the world with a brand of soft drink. I cannot help but envy these people.
I follow my uncle out of the room. I say, ‘This is interesting.’page 129
He looks at the book in my hand. He says, ‘A dictionary of advertising media.’ I follow him into the living room, where my aunt is sitting and reading a book. He says, ‘Why would that be interesting?’
My aunt says, ‘He says he wants to go into advertising.’
I say, ‘I do want to go into advertising. We've had this conversation.’
My uncle says, ‘You can borrow it, if you want.’
I say, ‘I would like to borrow some money …’
My uncle says, ‘We can talk about that later.’ He looks at his watch, and turns on the TV. ‘Time for the news.’
We watch stories of war in Europe, and possible US quotas or tariffs on New Zealand produce, and advertisements for cars, banks, washing powder, office equipment and stationery, and special deals at fast food chains. There is an in-depth article on New Zealand families with relatives missing as a result of war and atrocities in Europe.
If my aunt and uncle are resisting the idea that I might go into advertising, it is because they are afraid of where I might get my ideas from. They are afraid that they might see themselves on the screen, recognisable in the breaks in current affairs programmes, game shows, and British thrillers about hardened, world-weary cops and their native sidekicks. They are afraid that they might see my parents, who died many years ago.
I say to Kelly, ‘I will be back soon. I am working on them.’
The prostitute is interested in this, and in my aunt and uncle. I lie on the bed some distance from her.
She says, ‘You will be going back down south soon then?’
I say, ‘Of course. When my uncle and aunt have agreed …’
She says, ‘And your … business partner?’
I say, ‘Kelly? She will have to wait a bit longer.’
The prostitute leans across and kisses me on the lips. She says, ‘Advertising … you'd be good at it.’
I say, uncertainly, ‘Thanks.’
She says, ‘You seem honest.’
I touch her, and try to pull her closer to me.
She says, ‘Look, sorry, I've got a headache,’ and pulls back again.page 130
I say, ‘Oh … then, do I get my money back?’
She says, ‘No, you pay for your time. I'm a prostitute. This is a financial transaction.’
I say, ‘But we haven't done anything.’
She says, ‘Yes we have. Now, come on, I'd like to get some sleep.’
I say, ‘Could I see you again?’
She says, ‘Depends on how much money you have.’
I say, ‘Did you fall in love with me?’
She frowns and says, ‘Oh, OK…a bit maybe.’
I say, ‘Then don't you want to see me again? Shouldn't we … go out or something? Have a relationship?’
She says, ‘You mean, see each other repeatedly?’
I say, ‘Well, if you fell in love with me …’
She says, ‘That would cost you a lot of money.’
I start to protest, but she sighs heavily and says, ‘Please …’
So I leave. Outside, the air is thick with low silence of traffic noise, and gritty, filmed in sepia tones, as though advertising electric shavers or men's deodorant. Streets lead downhill, and continue, past billboards, warehouses and alcohol stores, under motorway flyovers and high yellow streetlamps, and further into the suburbs which stretch away endlessly. There are other prostitutes staring past each other on their separate street corners. I walk past them, on my way to my aunt and uncle's house.