Binta escorted Ana from the Canteen, along another series of corridors, illuminated by lights over the doors, around a confusion of corners and up disconnected flights of stairs. Ana felt very self‑conscious of accompanying a naked woman and averted her eyes as much as possible. She had no idea where they were in relation to the Canteen and the elevator by which she had originally arrived, but she understood better the scale of the Brothel. Binta chatted idly to Ana and greeted the prostitutes they passed either by name or by just a smile. They differed somewhat in age and appearance. Not all were particularly attractive and many were immigrants. Most wore make‑up and provocative clothing, which gave the impression that they had been unexpectedly interrupted while getting dressed.
“So you come from Rif?” asked Binta. “I don’t know it, but it’s probably quite similar to Jebel, the district I come from. Do you know it?”
“No, not at all. I’ve never travelled far from Rif before.”
The door to Binta’s room was identical to all the others, paced out in both directions. The light above the door was switched off, but the light above many other doors was green. The one above the door to the right was red. Binta pushed open her unlocked door to reveal her room.
“It’s really nothing special,” she said desultorily, waving her arm around theatrically. “Almost all the bedrooms are exactly the same. Their official title is boudoir, but since it’s where I sleep and stay when there are no Clients it’s mostly just a bedroom to me.”
The room wasn’t especially exotic. It was dominated by a plain double bed with a robust mattress covered by synthetic silk sheets. Lining one wall was a wardrobe and book‑case adorned by paperback novels and inexpensive ornaments. Next to that was a small alcove enclosing a sink, a mirror and a plastic shelf supporting an array of scented soaps, shampoo and tooth‑paste. On the other side of the bed were a simple arm‑chair and a full‑length wall mirror. A sealed double‑glazed window was beside the bed, through which was a view of office blocks and a distant park. The only evidence that the room served as a boudoir was the predominant rich sherry red of the room and the three pictures on the wall displaying women in states of undress. One was a black and white photograph and the other two were prints of paintings by not particularly talented artists.
“No, I didn’t choose the decor!” laughed Binta, sitting on the edge of the bed while Ana cast her eyes around. “I hate the pictures and red is not my favourite colour! I’d have painted it green, I think, if I’d had the choice. But at least I get a nice view.”
Ana smiled shyly, closed the door behind her and strode to the window to survey the City of Blad below. It still seemed intimidating but exciting. Would she ever get used to the hustle and bustle? She turned round, her back to the window, and mused at her reflection in the mirror. She was such a timid animal with none of Binta’s natural self‑confidence. She could never walk around a Brothel with no clothes on.
“It’s a very nice mirror!” Ana remarked, her eyes tracing her figure from her buckled low‑heeled shoes to the straight hair that felt so lank and unmanaged.
“It’s in a very commanding position, don’t you think?” Binta commented, also regarding Ana’s reflection.
“Yes,” Ana agreed. It was set at forty‑five degrees from one wall to the other and cut a corner off the room. “You can see every part of the room in the mirror.”
“And it can see you in every part of the room as well. It has a television camera behind it, you know.”
Ana gasped. “What! To spy on you?”
“All the Prostitutes have them! It’s no big deal. It’s so that the Clients can view us from the selection room when we’re on duty. They scan a live video relay of prostitutes to choose the one whose services they want to purchase. When on duty, we have to stay in our rooms all the time, so they can examine us like that. Do you see the light above the door?”
“It’s just like the one outside.”
“When it’s green, that means that I’m being looked at, so I have to advertise myself and look like I’m really keen to provide my services ‑ though of course I haven’t got any idea at all of who to!”
“Ugh! That’s sounds horrid!”
“You really don’t like prostitution at all, do you,” smiled Binta indulgently. “...And when they’ve chosen you, the light goes red and you know that for the next half hour or an hour you’re not going to be able to continue doing the crossword, reading the paper or whatever else you might have been doing before.” Binta lay on her back on the bed, her head resting on the pillow. She rolled over to observe Ana who was still standing by the window. “My theory is that that’s not all they use the mirror for. I think they record us having sex with Clients and make pornographic videos.”
“I can’t believe they would do that!”
“Well, I don’t know for sure, of course. But I wouldn’t put it beyond them. I often think someone out there’s watching what I’m doing and evaluating my performance!” Binta smiled wickedly. “You mustn’t forget that this is a Brothel, you know.”
Ana felt uncomfortable, so she sat in the armchair, after facing it away from the mirror. “But living here is not all just being a prostitute is it?”
“No, not at all. It’s a prison as well. It’s all things. It’s home, work and prison. And it’s most like a prison when it’s work. Then, I’m confined here waiting for the green light to come on. And when the light is red, no matter how bad I feel, or whether it’s one Client or ten, I have to provide a service. The more Clients I serve and the more satisfaction I give the more likely I am to be offered remission for good behaviour. On a very good day, the light never goes red.”
Binta rested her head against the wall and supported her body on her shoulders. Ana’s eyes nervously wandered down the length of Binta’s slim tanned body to focus on the mass of brown hair between her legs, but she checked herself and raised her eyes up to gaze at her face.
“I can do what I like when I’m not working, as long as I don’t leave the confines of the Brothel. I can watch television in one of the television rooms. Visit other girls who’re not on duty. Drink tea in the Canteen. Keep fit in the swimming pool or gym. And even tend my garden on the roof and enjoy the little bit of fresh air that I’m allowed. It’s not such a bad life, I suppose, when I’m not working. There are people in Alif, not in prison, much worse off than me. I can see the beggars in the streets below. I’ve heard about the poverty and famine in the remoter regions of Alif. But I hate the work. I hate sex with these nauseating men! And I hate never being able to leave the Brothel!”
Ana shivered at the mention of the men and Binta noticed that.
“You’re even more appalled by prostitution than Inta, aren’t you? She hated it too, although not as much as me, I think! After all, she volunteered for it in the end. Do you have much prostitution in Rif?”
“Not very much at all. There’s a brothel in the County Town, but I don’t know anyone who’s been there and I’ve never even seen it.”
“Much the same for me in Jebel,” admitted Binta. “I always thought prostitutes were repugnant and filthy. I never believed I’d ever become one. And all the obnoxious obscene perverted things I thought that men would do: it’s all true. And worse! I don’t know how men can live with themselves. They’re all perverts. I didn’t like men before I came here, and I’m certainly never going to like them after the personal hell they’ve put me through.”
Ana’s gaze wandered away from Binta and through the window. The sight of the blue sky and the seagulls flying over the city buildings made it easier to listen to Binta. Ana’s knowledge of men was not very comprehensive and Binta’s account generated a sensation of abhorrence. Her gaze floated back to Binta and unconsciously centred again on the pubic hair, which confirmed to her how different one woman could be from another.
“I don’t suppose you’re used to being with a naked woman, are you?” commented Binta, covering her crotch with a hand. “It’s not what I would normally choose to be myself. I’m no more a naturist by conviction than I am a prostitute, but I’d rather wear no clothes at all and pretend to be one, than walk around in underwear all day. Or in leather. Or squeeze my feet into those horrible shoes with the ridiculously high heels. Or spend my life in front of a mirror covering my face with rouge, paint and lipstick. The reason I’m officially a naturist, is simply to avoid all that. And I get away with it because enough men think it’s sexy. But it does mean that I own absolutely no clothes whatsoever, and that, once a month, I have to be especially clean.”
“Most Prostitutes have to wear those clothes?”
“Of course. They’re Brothel issue. Those who’re not designated naturist are issued with a wardrobe and can wear nothing else at all when in the Brothel. There’s not much variety. It’s all rubber, leather, lace, nylon, silk or gauze of one kind of another. It’s stilettos, suspenders, basques, stockings and collars. And the make‑up! It makes everyone look like aliens from another planet. What do you think?”
Ana nodded. “I’ve never seen people dressed like it before!”
“I suppose that’s the idea of it. If Prostitutes looked like everyone else, then the Clients would realise that they’re just human. And that would never do!”
“If you hate prostitution so much, why are you here?”
“Well, it was either this or an all‑woman’s jail, where the conditions are much worse and the male warders might rape or molest you, or a convent. No convent would accept me because I never go to church and I don’t want to go to the jail.”
“But what crime did you commit? Was it drugs?”
“No, I’ve never been a drinker!” laughed Binta playfully. “What do you think it might have been?”
Ana wondered. She couldn’t imagine Binta as an armed criminal or terrorist, even with clothes on. She was too well‑educated and intelligent. Perhaps it was tax evasion, but Binta was too young to have earned enough taxes to evade. And it certainly would not have been freelance prostitution. She shook her head.
“I’ve no idea. None at all!”
Binta smiled. “No idea? I was beginning to think it was written all over my face. You really don’t know? I’m not sure I know how to tell you. You might be shocked or alarmed!”
“Is it murder?” gasped Ana, suddenly rather frightened.
“No, it’s lesbianism.”
Ana wasn’t sure that she heard right. Did such people actually exist and was she sitting in the same room as one?
“What did you say?”
“I’m a lesbian,” Binta repeated. “I’m here for repeatedly and unashamedly performing homosexual acts with another woman. It doesn’t matter that she was a consenting adult. I have committed the serious offence of lesbianism.”
“And you’re in the Brothel for that?”
“I can be grateful for small mercies. It was once a capital offence. Lesbians would be stoned to death or disembowelled or something. Now it’s just a period of incarceration.”
Ana looked at Binta’s naked body with trepidation. So, this is what a lesbian looked like. She had no preconceptions of what they were like, but she knew that lesbianism was wrong. Not only wrong but perverse: contradicting the natural, god‑given order of the world. And Binta was a lesbian. Was she safe being in the same room as her?
“I suppose just as you’ve never met a prostitute, you’ve never knowingly met a lesbian before,” Binta commented, sitting up, her hair falling over her breasts and obscuring her crotch.
“Well, you’ve probably met lesbians without knowing it.”
“Do you think so?” This was a novel concept for Ana. “I thought it was obvious.”
“Of course, it isn’t! What did you think?”
“I just had no opinions at all,” Ana confessed.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going to attack you!” Binta said comfortingly. “You really are as naive as you appear, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” admitted Ana, feeling a little foolish. “Rif’s a very quiet place.”
“Don’t worry about me being a lesbian,” continued Binta, reassuringly. “It’s just one of those things. Think of it like as if I were black. Or disabled. I’m just a little different, that’s all. If it weren’t illegal, you wouldn’t think anything of it.”
“Are you sure?” wondered Ana uncertainly.
“I’m sure. After all, lesbianism’s not illegal in every country, so it can’t really be that bad. Everyone knows that Alif’s a repressive country. Lots of things are illegal in Alif that are legal elsewhere.”
“Is that so?” queried Ana who hadn’t known this before. “What things?”
“You know: trades union membership, alcohol, gambling, women driving, lots of things.”
“And there are countries where they are legal?”
“Not just legal. Almost encouraged. Have you never thought about it? What about alcohol? Why do you think it’s banned here and not everywhere?”
“I always thought Alif was somehow a better country for banning drugs like that.”
“Why does it have State Brothels, then? Why do people smoke so much? Why is there so much poverty?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know at all!” parried Ana. What was she doing sitting in a room with a convicted criminal (a pervert at that!), listening to all this seditious talk? Perhaps Binta would ask her to take her clothes off and indulge in lesbian sex and drink alcohol. Ana thought this image would inspire absolute disgust, but the tremor of fear that shook her was precisely because it did not do so.