Why do people find the sound of the ocean relaxing? If there was a beach involved, and a hot sun, maybe a cocktail or two, I could understand. A CD of ocean sounds in a darkened room is another matter. After a few minutes of that I’m usually desperate for a leak.
“Can we cut the sounds?”
With my face in the cradle thing, I can’t see her move away, but I hear the gentle swish of her long skirt as she walks. A click later, and the waves are gone. She swishes back and her hands once again attack the knots in my shoulder.
“Is there anything else I can put on to help you relax?”
Her Polish accent isn’t up to scratch, though I know for a fact that she was born over there. This is the one time the establishment that habitually popped in for a rubdown liked to hear an accent. English girls are far too pure for this type of work.
“You could talk to me.”
Raising my head slightly out of the cradle, I check to see if the candle I brought with me is still alight. It is. I’ve always found the scent of vanilla to be relaxing, evoking as it does the summer days of my youth. More importantly the candle was made with a psychoactive barbiturate, and it should be making my masseuse nice and talkative. It may not be ethical, but I only have a short window of opportunity here.
Something is going on inside. It’s all boring, adult stuff with strained voices and nasty glares. Natalia is ushered outside with a bar of chocolate to keep her quiet, so she goes to the back of the hotel where it is quiet, and takes up her usual spot on the low wall. There’s the occasional shout from within, but it’s easier to ignore them with the feel of the sun on her face.
From the corner of her eye she sees movement so sudden, she almost drops her chocolate. Something is in one of the giant bins down past the kitchens. A bag lies on the ground next to it, and a second joins it, arcing through the air. Those bins have always scared her. They were big enough to swallow her up whole. They stink of rotten food and cigarette ash.
A third bag comes out, and then a pair of legs swing into view. A boy of about her age swings himself out of the bin, and onto the ground. Opening one of the bags he takes out a complete loaf of bread. The first few slices get tossed back into the bin, but the next one is evidently free of mould, and he stuffs it into his mouth.
That’s when he looks up and sees her. They stand there, the two of them, just staring at each other across the open space behind the hotel. Natalia finds herself slowly putting the chocolate bar into her pocket, out of his sight. As she does, he grabs the bags from the floor, and squeezes back out through the railings into the street beyond.
Briefly, she feels shame, as if she should have given him the chocolate. It was hers. She didn’t want to share it. She sits back down on the wall and continues to eat it.
Years later she will remember that moment and still feel regret.
“We can’t afford it.”
“It is an important day for her, beloved. We can stretch to it just this once. Things are not that bad yet.”
Her parents argue a lot these days. Natalia usually makes herself scarce, but this is an argument close to her heart. It is a beautiful dress, perfect for the occasion, and the thought of not being able to have it causes her stomach to knot. She just has to have it. Papa will not refuse her, but then, he is not the problem.
“They are that bad, it is just that you refuse to see it. It is coming up to peak season, and we can barely fill a third of the rooms. It is just a dress. There are many dresses.”
“It is not just a dress. Natalia will only turn 16 once, and I want her to feel like a princess. She is too young for reality, beloved. Let her have this.”
“You are too soft with her.”
Natalia does not stay to hear more. She knows her father has already won this argument. Running up the stairs silently to her room, she looks at herself in the mirror and tries to picture how she is going to look in that beautiful dress.
That dress was the last to go. She had felt as if her heart would break when it did.
Walking home she detours through the high street to look at clothes she cannot hope to afford. Her reflection stares back from every window, dressed in the cheapest trouser suit she had been able to find. It is not a lucky suit. It has been worn to countless interviews that all go the same way. Early optimism gives way to depressing inevitability.
Not the right fit. Best of luck.
The only problem is having been born in the wrong country. Her parents want her to move back home to them, but that country has never been her home. They left when Papa’s health deteriorated, and he could no longer afford British treatment. Natalia had driven them to Dover herself, and watched them board the ferry. Some cousin was picking them up from France. Papa had tears in his eyes as he left. Partly they were for her, but mostly they were for a country he loved, and yet was leaving forever.
That was two years ago. She hadn’t seen them since. A short weekly phone call is all they can manage, but at least the distance makes the lies easier to tell. She can’t bear them knowing the truth. If Mama ever found out, she’d be dragged off to a foreign country and a long forgotten language.
Twenty four years. Almost quarter of a century. Yet they still treat her like a foreigner. Worse; an immigrant. This is her home, and she’s damned if she’ll let them force her out.
It’s a small group, but they’ve learned the hard way to keep the numbers light. Get in quick, get out quicker, and don’t get into a fight. It’s less dangerous that way.
They split into two; distraction and grab-team. Natalia is a grabber, ready to go over the wall and make a dart for the storage bins. They take as much as they can, toss the bags over, and climb back up to safety.
It’s not stealing. Not really. It’s all out of date food fit only to be destroyed, so it represents no real loss to anyone. The food banks haven’t been able to keep up with demand in years. Immigrants like Natalia find themselves at the back of the queue. It’s inevitable that people take matter into their own hands.
As soon as the security thugs turn to the distraction, they drop down the ropes and run. As soon as they get into the storage depot, Natalia grabs whatever she can find and shoves it into a plastic bag. Within a few seconds the bags are full and they make for the ropes.
“They’re coming back.”
Natalia flings her bags high over the wall, and jumps for the rope. Her fingers close around it and she starts to climb. A sudden weight hits her and drags her off.
“Oh no, darling. You ain’t going anywhere.”
Natalia struggles but she can’t break free of his grasp. His face is so close to hers she can smell his breath. He smiles, a sickening smug grin that leaves her wishing she was strong enough to wipe it off his face. There’s something green between his teeth. At least he gets to eat well enough.
“I’m surprised they didn’t deport you.”
Having turned over on the bed, her hands are on my chest now, working my pecs and out towards my shoulders and arms. She knows what she’s doing, and takes pride in her work. We both know this isn’t a vocation for her, so I’m impressed with her professionalism.
“An old friend of my father stepped in.”
Now we get to the rub. This old friend of her father’s is the reason I’m here. Let’s call him Sir Percival Pygge. It’s not his real name of course, but it keeps me amused. Nasty piece of work. He wasn’t the first on the anti-immigrant bandwagon, but it wasn’t long before he was driving it forward like he’d been doing it all his life.
“He got you this job?”
“He still pops by every other Thursday.”
“Everybody deserves a happy ending.”
Natalia moves her hands down my body, heading south to the towel that covers my dignity, such as it is. For a moment I’m tempted. A little tension relief never hurt anyone, and it’s been a tough week.
“I wasn’t talking about myself.”
“Nobody comes here just for a massage.”
Continuing down, her fingertips move under the towel. I grab her hand by the wrist and move it back out.
“I did. That and the chat.”
She skips the towel and moves down to my legs, but I can see she doesn’t know how to finish without making me finish. After she’s done with the legs, she hovers there, unsure what to do next.
“How would you like the chance to improve your situation?”
“What girl doesn’t dream of jerking off jerks?”
“I’ll take that as a yes. I’ll leave you the candle. Make sure you light it when this old friend of your fathers comes to visit. Give it ten minutes, and ask him some questions. I’d recommend recording the answers. Maybe work your way up to Baildon.”
Natalia is a clever girl. It only takes a few seconds for the realisation to hit her, and even less to pass from anger to understanding.
“In return you expect me to share what he says?”
“Consider it an insurance policy for you.”
“Who are you?”
“You can call me Iggy. Iggy Free.”
I’m taking a risk telling her. It’s not my real name of course, but I can count on the fingers of one badly mauled hand the amount of people who can put that name to my face. I don’t really expect her to believe me, but she does.
“Thanks for the massage.”
She leans over and kisses me on the cheek.
She leaves the room, giving me privacy to dress. Off to another job no doubt. Her story is far from unique. I’ve heard many variations on the theme. That makes it no less deserving of being told. Just another voice from the static looking for their own happy ending.