Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Scarlet Mile by Gillian Brown

"This is good journalism. Both the chosen subject matter and the execution demonstrate a good grasp of story."

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay contest

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It is the first time I’ve visited a brothel. Perhaps this is why I picture a glamorous Madam, heavily made-up and provocatively-dressed – a fading beauty, with a cigarillo dangling from her mouth. In reality, she is of medium height, with a pretty, make-up free face; more like the woman next door than the rarefied creature of my imagination. This is only the first of many surprises to come.

I’m in Kalgoorlie, the epicentre of gold mining in Western Australia. Gold was discovered here in 1893 and is now a 24/7, multi-million dollar operation. The Super Pit mine is half a kilometre deep and almost four kilometres long. So far, 60 million ounces of gold have been extracted from this Golden Mile, generating a spending power for miners they could never have dreamed of. This is a town with all the accoutrements of modernity, but dig a little below the surface, and you step straight back into the Wild West.

During the Gold Rush, over a century ago, the town boomed. Shops, hotels and bars shot up. Likewise, brothels. In Hay Street alone, there were eighteen, and it soon became known as the Scarlet Mile.

I arrive at Questa Casa, early afternoon, on the recommendation of the young woman in the Tourist Office. ‘They do a tour,’ she said.  ‘Everyone who goes says it’s brilliant. I can book it for you, if you like.’

Surprised, but intrigued, I nodded. She made a quick phone call.

‘You got lucky,’ she said, issuing me a ticket. ‘It’s very popular.’

The entire building is built of corrugated tin; its roof and walls painted marshmallow pink – like a giant cake decorated in crinkly icing. The seven doors, equally spaced along the front, are the colour of crushed strawberry. It looks more like a place to sip tea and eat cakes than, well…you know what. Then I read the sign above the door: Open from 6:00 pm until the lights go out!

Fourteen of us are welcomed inside by the Madam. She seats us all down comfortably in a circle in the front room. ‘First a little history,’ she says. ‘Questa Casa is the only original brothel remaining from the Gold Rush days, and is over a hundred years old. The only other official brothel in town is the Red Room, next door, but it was built much later.’ She briefly mentions the ‘unofficial’ brothels, with a disapproving shake of the head.

There is a strange paradox here. These two brothels are ‘official’ as they pay income tax. Yet prostitution is illegal in Western Australia. ‘How does that work?’ I ask.

‘The girls pay me a percentage from their earnings, rent for their rooms, if you like. What they do inside them and how they manage their own affairs is up to them.’

‘And the police?’ someone asks.

The Madam shrugs. ‘The police look the other way.’ She grins.’ Except as customers, of course.’

‘How did you get into this?’ I ask.

‘My doctor was treating me for stress. One day he advised me to give up my corporate job and find something less demanding. So, my mother and I bought this brothel, not knowing the first thing about the business.’ 

The tour is to be an hour long and I have no idea what to expect. And certainly not what comes next.

‘To break the ice,’ she says with a smile that would melt ice-caps, ‘I want to show you some things.’ She dips into a dog-basket and pulls out a selection of dildos of various sizes and colours. She passes them around for inspection. ‘Get an idea of their weight, their length, how they feel,’ she says with a straight face. Surely, tongue-in-cheek?

Right enough, soon her eyes light up and she cracks a joke for each one, mostly at the expense of men, but told in an indulgent way. She has us all laughing – some more nervously than others. The last dildo to be passed round is double-ended.

‘Believe it or not,’ she says. ‘Some gentlemen get a kick out of using this version, one end dangling from each leg of their shorts!’

‘How much do the women earn?’ someone asks.

‘For fairness, I insist on a standard, minimum charge of $280 an hour for a no-frills session. From that, they give me $120. After that, they can charge as much as they like for ‘extras’, which must be agreed on with the customer in advance. That money is theirs.’

We start our tour behind the seven pink doors I saw on arrival, which open up onto the street at night. These are the infamous ‘starting stalls’– small porches where the women display themselves, meet and greet potential customers, agree to what is required, and the price. ‘Up front. No refunds given,’ the Madam makes very clear. Charming as she is, I wouldn’t want to cross her.

She leads us to the bondage specialist’s room, which is decked out with crimson curtains and a ruby-coloured bedspread. The lighting is subdued and sexy, the furnishings twenty shades of red. Black thigh boots and a whip lie on the bed, along with other tools of the trade. What could be described as a dress, but is more like an elaborate G-string, hangs above it. She allows us to take it all in for a moment, in silence.

Her clever introduction with the dildos means I am prepared for anything, or so I think. ‘These Velcro straps, attached to each corner of the bed, are for tying up her customers’ wrists and ankles,’ she says. ‘But jockeys can be a problem,’ she admits, ‘as their arms and legs are too short to reach. But I’m sure she finds some alternative.’

The sound of cracking whips and agonised screams catches my imagination. ‘Is the room sound-proofed?’ I ask.

She shakes her head. ‘Whatever happens behind closed doors is my girls’ own business. If there’s no trouble, I don’t interfere. Remember, these miners are earning $2,000 a day, and if a client has paid up to $1,000 an hour for certain optional extras, he’s entitled to let go a little.’

She avoids any mention of her ‘girls’ personal details or backgrounds – although I assume she has some financial arrangement with the resident of the bondage room – and none of us ask. But I can’t help wondering what would force a woman to such extremes.  Let’s hope it’s just an easy way of making a quick buck, before moving on, rather than a life-time profession.

The Madam grins apologetically. ‘I’m sorry, I’ve another group waiting.’ She leads us from the room. ‘I hope you’ve enjoyed your tour.’ I’m positive she still has a headful of stories to tell, but in Kalgoorlie money talks. Or perhaps I should say…gold.

Leaving, I ponder the ethics of prostitution. I certainly feel more comfortable with it after meeting this caring, charismatic Madam, whom I believe the women of Questa Casa are lucky to have in charge. And as long as the Golden Mile coughs up its precious metal, business will doubtless continue. Unless, of course, it becomes too stressful for the Madam.

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Gillian Brown was born in Scotland. She lived in several countries before settling in France, where she ran canal cruises with her husband for several years. Her travel articles have been published in various magazines and her short stories have won and been placed in competitions.