Alice had seen many men come through her door. She had learnt to read them, just as she had learnt to detach her mind from her body and what was being done to it. She’d learnt when to lead, when to guide, and when to stay silent. She was never just Alice – she was a fantasy, she was whatever the man in front of her wanted to be.
Most importantly, she’d learnt to live for the money Miss. Lison handed out each morning. It kept her alive. It was all that mattered. It had to be.
She worked at night, at Miss. Lison’s “parlour” as it was called. She was sixteen years old, petite, with long black hair scrapped into a high ponytail, with glitter slashed under her eyes and painted onto her nails. She was otherworldly. And every night, without fail, she worked. She served any man that came through the door and asked for her. Old men, who wanted her to cry, to beg, and sometimes, to scream. Younger men, too drunk to want anything besides sex, and others who had pregnant wives at home and were giddy over the tiny girl touching them, making them feel wanted – not sinful, never sinful. If they were here, they didn’t care.
She had a room at the back. It was her workspace, she called it, and there was a whole string of rooms next to hers, glitzy tapestries hanging from the walls, lamps flickering in the passage. One room for each girl working. It was a regular, popular business that Miss. Lison started here, nestled in the part of town too dangerous to attract rich, spoilt women, but also not too insultingly “sinful” to dissuade their egotistic, lusting husbands.
Alice had another room, too, of course. Upstairs. Miss. Lison had given it to her because she had no home to leave work for. Other girls who hadn’t anywhere of their own, either, also had rooms. But when work was busy, they hardly lived in them.
What did Alice want? We don’t know. Alice didn’t even know She didn’t have time to think about it, because she had work to do, and if she didn’t do that work she would be on the street, dead from starvation or because someone’s carriage had run over her sprawled body in the mud.
* * *
Now there was someone else in this story, too. He was an artist. Eighteen. Name was Jonathan. He’d left his parents’ estate in the country, in the middle of the night because he would never dream of confronting them, and he had a tiny apartment in the heart of the dank, seething city. He would make it, he believed he would – he just needed that big break. All artists had them, did they not? And when he did he’d prove that he could make it without daddy’s money and without mother’s high teas and bachelor banquets. He would. He hadn’t left the silky, comforting clothes and lush spreads of venison and vegetables and roasted potatoes simmering in butter to fail. It was not an option.
And yet, despite the declarations that he was through with the lifestyle he’d been born into, he was still so soft and untouched by the world. His tiny flat might have been tiny, but he kept the linens his mother had sent by way of servants, and he accepted the occasional piece of furniture or clothing if she absolutely insisted on sending it. He was trying to break away, but when your existence is so inexplicably tied to a certain life, those ties hold tighter than you’d expect. And they certainly held for Jonathan.
* * *
So what brought Jonathan to Alice? What could bring them together? Well, as it happened, another thing Jonathan hadn’t cut ties with was the friend he’d known since he was a curly haired boy in stockings and a embroidered tunic, running through the gardens of his parents’ estate.
“Her ladyship wants me to talk some sense into you,” Thomas told his friend, leaning against the door, sucking on a cigarette, and simultaneously smirking at the tiny flat with its ornate candlesticks above the fireplace and the silk sheets on the impossibly smooth bed.
“You should go. I’m working.” Jonathan swept a paintbrush across the canvas in front of him, but his heart split in two at the result. Would he ever be satisfied? Would he ever create something worthy of the London Exhibition?
Thomas sighed loudly and squashed the cigarette under his feet.
“I’m taking you out,” he said.
And somehow he got Jonathan out the door, into the street where the sticky evening seemed to rise in putrid energy from the cobbled streets. They zigzagged over the sewerage strewn around their boots, and when they got to Miss. Lison’s parlour, Thomas spread his arms wide and grinned at his friend, who was shifting uncomfortably on his feet.
“I’m not going in there,” Jonathan said. He ran a hand through his tousled blonde hair and bit his lip.
A group of men brushed past them and headed into the establishment. They all looked the same: hungry and lost. They nudged each other, their laughter was raucous and uneven, and one of them clutched at a half-empty glass bottle in his twisted right hand.
Thomas grasped Jonathan around the shoulders and propelled them both forward.
“Have some fun. Live. You did a brave thing breaking from your parents, now you need to experience the place you’re living in. I’m sick of seeing you holed up in that room.”
“I need to work.”
“Well take a break.”
* * *
Alice wore a blue slip dress today. It slit right up to her thighs, revealing the worn skin of her legs. Her feet were bare. Her hair was piled on the top of her head in a decoration of manufactured curls. Her lips were plump, her eyes sparkling with artificial glamor. And those eyes were empty, too. Hollow. But no one who ever entered
her room recognised that.
Her back was turned when the door opened and Jonathan stumbled in. He only stumbled because Thomas had shoved him. He hadn’t taken a swig of the whiskey the man lounging outside the door had offered him.
He sat down, as Alice finished washing her hands in the pristine little white basin in the corner. The sounds from the other rooms faded into the distance. All Jonathan could hear was the gentle trickle of water from the jug into the basin.
Alice turned around. Glanced at him, observed him up and down. He was fidgeting, his clothes and hair unkempt, and with a streak of bright violet paint slashed down his cheek and spotting his neck.
She smiled, despite herself.
“Can I…. can I wait here a while?” Jonathan asked.
Alice raised her eyebrows. After a pause, she glanced behind her and slid a cloth off her drawer. Flicked it at him.
He caught it before it swooned to the carpet.
“You have some paint…” She touched her own cheek.
Jonathan raised the cloth to his face, his eyes locked on hers. Slowly, he dragged the fabric down his flesh. Alice pursed her lips as violet paint was smeared, and hid her smile.
“Apologies,” Jonathan said, hastily dropping his gaze. He swallowed – he needed to say something, anything, before the sweaty perfumed atmosphere suffocated them both.
“I’m an artist,” he explained. When Alice didn’t respond, he kept talking. “Well I’m trying to be. I left my parents to try.”
Alice was just watching him, her head cocked slightly to the side. He couldn’t tell if she was listening to him, or simply mocking him.
“I don’t come to places like this. Not that there’s anything wrong with what you’re doing - I don’t – I didn’t mean that. But –“
“You’re too good for it.”
“No no not that. I’m working – all the time. I’m busy.” He glanced up at her, and she was still staring at him, and her eyes….her eyes, they were empty. There was nothing in them. No interest in what he was saying, not even disinterest, either.
Jonathan shifted on the couch and rubbed his hands down his trousers. And then he started talking again.
* * *
Alice ate her dinner while the boy talked. He must have gone on for hours. She’d heard all about his parents, about how his mother was always trying to marry him off to some beautiful, flawless girl, and how his father wouldn’t even speak to him now that he was living in the rotten heart of the city, slaving to make his art a real job. He had passion – Alice could tell by the way his eyes lit up as he spoke of his work, of the colours and composition and the genius within each stroke - and he was clearly committed.
But did she care?
She’d lost money and precious customers tonight. The boy had taken up hours of her time, and merely waffled on about his dreams and plans and with his naivety piercing every sentence. It had been agonising. A waste of her time. And now…..well now he was asleep, his long, lanky body stretched out across her cushions and intricately embroidered shawl (the only thing she had left of her pious, poverty-stricken parents).
And yet… him talking, her being in the company of another man without doing what was typically expected her, felt frighteningly unnerving. Alice bit her lip and hastened to gather her things. She needed to get back to her room, to sleep. No matter how strangely comforting it had felt being in the boy’s company, he had cost her
She shut the door behind her, leaving the boy sprawled on her couch, and almost threw a blanket over him before realising how ridiculous she was being.
She snuck through the dimly lit corridor, trooped up the stairs, and slipped into her bedroom.
* * *
When Alice opened her door the next morning, Jonathan was waiting outside.
She froze. How did he even get up here? Miss. Lison was strict; no clients were allowed to visit the girls upstairs, especially if it was outside of their work hours.
She stood in the doorway, shocked into place.
Jonathan held out his hand and Alice saw the coins.
“I never paid you –“
She turned and slammed the door shut. “We didn’t do anything.”
She started walking downstairs. He hurried after her.
“But I talked for hours, I took up your time.” He skidded to a halt, almost crashed into her when she stopped in the passageway.
She stared at him. Glanced down at the coins he was holding out.
“I thought you were an artist.”
“You can’t afford to give me coins.”
“They’re not mine. I mean, I didn’t steal them. They are mine. But they came from my parents.”
She snorted and stared up at him. “You haven’t broken free of them. You’re not trying to make it, because you’ve already made it. No matter what happens to you in this city, you have somewhere to go back to. You have security.”
“I’m – I don’t –“
She swiped the coins from his dirty palm, pocketed them, and marched away down the corridor.
Jonathan stared after her. For once, he had no words.
* * *
He showed up again the next day because he needed to explain. In fact, it was extremely important to him that he explain to this young woman about his art and his career and his relationship with his parents.
Alice, well… she was surprised to see him, but irritated enough to let him blab on and then challenge his remarks. They ended the argument with Jonathan inviting her to visit his apartment the next day, so that he could show her how he lived and how tiny the living space actually was; somehow, he hoped to convince her that he relied on himself for most things, and not his parents’ money.
Alice agreed – but only because she told herself she had to be right about this boy’s hypocritical declarations.
* * *
Alice inspected Jonathan’s apartment while he sat on the windowsill, running a hand through his mussed hair, his brown eyes following her movements anxiously. She strode around calmly, nose in the high, eyes sharp and betraying no emotion. She was wearing a simple grey dress that slipped off her right shoulder. There was a cut on her forehead, Jonathan noticed. It hadn’t been there yesterday, he was sure of it. He decided not to ask about it.
“This isn’t poverty,” Alice told him. “You live extremely well.”
“It’s tiny!” he protested.
“The space is small, but look at your furniture, your bed coverings, your curtains……and those candlesticks?”
“They were a gift,” he mumbled.
“A gift you were happy to accept from your parents -”
“I don’t have a choice.” He stared at her, exasperated. “I’ll die without their support. I won’t be able to live without their money. Until I’m earning millions of pounds from my art, I need to rely on them.”
“Maybe you should just take the leap and cut ties now. Take the risk.” She glanced at him, admiring the way his curls flopped over his ears and kissed his neck. He was so clean, even with the paint splatter on his clothes and cheeks. He was untouched – unblemished.
Alice didn’t like standing here, feeling what she was feeling, in this rich house with this spoilt boy. She glanced out of the window as if she planned to jump from it.
“And if I can’t sell my paintings? If I never have my big break? I’ll end up on the street –“
“Life always comes with hard choices.”
He stared at her. “I’m sorry.”
Alice broke his gaze and strode towards the door. “I need to go. I have work.”
“You can stay here. I’ll pay you to just talk with me –“
“What makes you think I don’t want to work?”
“No one wants to do what you do.”
She looked at him – really looked at him. “We all make choices to survive.”
“Alice, I can help, I have money –“
“Don’t,” she said, opening the door, “don’t you dare.”
And then she walked away.
* * *
That night, Jonathan couldn’t stop thinking about her. He painted a portrait of her from memory, with her in the dress she was wearing when he first met her – he covered a canvas with blues and purples and blacks and showered her skin with glitter. Then he sat by the window. She invaded his thoughts, and for the first time since he’d come to the city, hers was the only company he craved. He thought of her eyes, dulled by years that had abused her, and of the glitter and glitz of her outfit on her tiny, pale body. Of the way she’d snatched the coins from his hand like a child. Of her narrow, prim lips. Of her determination and ferocity that both scared and exhilarated him. And suddenly he could not bear to endure another night in this city without her beside him.
* * *
Alice put on a short red gown, left her hair tumbling down her back, strung feathers through the waves. She greeted Miss. Lison on her way to her room, even greeted the girls she passed in the passageway.
She sat on the couch. She wished she’d left the cushions in the mess Jonathan had left them when he’d slept there. It was too soulless in here. She tried to detach her body from her mind and feel at peace, but she couldn’t. Even when the customer came, she couldn’t do it.
* * *
Jonathan turned up at the parlour the next morning. He slid past the men and women hustling around, and crept inside. Miss. Lison stopped him on the stairs.
“What do you want?”
He glanced past her, hoping to see Alice coming out of her room.
“I’m here to see Alice?”
Miss. Lison frowned, cocked her head to the right.
“What do you want with Alice?”
“Nothing, I just – can I please –“ He moved to get past her, but she caught his arm, stopping him on the first stair.
“Alice isn’t here.”
“Where is she?”
“There was an accident.”
“Alice died last night.”
He stumbled backwards, slipping out of her grasp. “What,” was all he could say.
Miss. Lison’s face was expressionless.
“Sometimes,” she said, “the men in there get rough, lose their nerve.”
There was a buzzing in Jonathan’s ears, a sound writhing down throughout his body. His mind was foggy – his thoughts a jagged blur.
“The police, we need to, we need to get the police,” he said.
Miss. Lison snorted, and when she spoke Jonathan caught in her voice what he’d heard in Alice’s so many times.
“She was a whore,” Miss. Lison said. “No police are going to care about a whore’s death. These things, they happen a lot.”
Somehow, Jonathan found himself outside, in the rain and the humid fog, people bustling around on every side of him, the stench of sewerage and perfume thick against his body. He didn’t speak. Couldn’t think. There was just the emptiness, the overwhelming wrench of loss. And Alice wasn’t there – would never be again. And the only person he judged was himself, for not being the person she needed throughout whatever choices she made and would make again.
He would stay. He’d stay in this city. And the money from his parents? Well, he’d use it to make a difference – any kind of difference. For her sake.