from The Santa Parade, a novel
Christmas is a good time of year for whores. Office parties. Late nights shopping in the city, presents galore. Men find shopping particularly stressful. They’re not good at navigating present lists and department stores. They arrive at the parlour in the evening after the lights have come on, blurry eyed and in need of a good seeing to. The loners need to be reassured that it’s okay to visit, that there’s nothing wrong with spending money on themselves. “Treat yourself,” I tell each client, spreading the massage oil liberally over his quivering body, as though I am an elf in Santa’s workshop, lovingly fixing up a new toy.
I stride down the hill on my way home from work; my backpack slung over one shoulder. The city is as clean as a freshly washed plate, the sky scraped clear of clouds. The shops and restaurants are shut. On the windows surfing Santas and reindeers in Hawaiian shirts romp, sun tan lotion smeared over their red noses. I whistle as I walk, listening to the sound of my feet crunch the pavement. I like this early hour of the morning before the rest of the world has woken up. The sun yolks the sky. I yawn. A few road workers are cordoning the street off, lining aluminium barriers along the route of the parade. The air resounds with the clang of metal and the drag of their boots. If this was a Diet Pepsi ad, they’d all stop and stare as I walked past, their white t-shirts oozing tanned muscles and I’d lick my lips and crack open a can, releasing the sigh of gassy bubbles. “Aaahh.” But this morning there are no takers. I blame my baggy grey sweatshirt. A silver car escapes just before the barriers close the road, a fish flitting through the ocean, the driver’s eyes still drowsy beneath the window screen.
At the bottom of the hill, Santa has magically appeared on his festive perch above the Whitcoulls building. How the hell they get him up there every year I’ll never know. He stands on the art deco awning, an overgrown gnome, in a pair of black boots and a lava suit. His famous fingers protrude from the white cuffs of his sleeves like saveloys. A line of gold buttons leads up to the fifth floor, where his thick neck rises out of the suit like a landing platform. Seagulls soar and swoop through the molten sky above his head. Poor Santa. His painted face looks as vulnerable as an ice-cream cake. His smile could melt away at any moment. Like mine.
Last night’s speed rattles my ribcage. I work in a crazy industry, but that is part of why I like it. Lots of the girls are nuts. Maybe I am too. Who knows? Sex can do that to you. It can crack you open and spill your stuffing. I’ve had clients with tongues lolling like dogs, eyeballs unfastened, roving around in their sockets. Sometimes the clients say sorry. They apologise for their desires, for the spilt milk contained inside the protective shell of the condom. I can protect myself from their semen but I don’t know how to protect myself from their sadness. Other than speed.
I reach into my bag for my cigarettes and light up. The shops will open soon. The tills will chime. Santa is versatile. At Farmers he promoted home ware, now he supports Whitcoulls selling books, stationary and DVD’s. Seagulls keel around his head, the tang of the Pacific Ocean air glazes his cheeks.
His face is jolly as a Christmas ham. His fat sausage finger beckons, “come closer, come closer, come inside and buy.” I wait for his right eye to shutter down in that mechanical wink.
A police officer leans over the silver barricade, surveys my tight blue jeans then tips his hat. “Morning.”
“Morning, officer. Merry Christmas.” I smile.
“Staying for the Parade?”
“Oh yes, wouldn’t miss it.”
Middle-aged, thick lips and raisin eyes.
“If you like,” he grins.” I can put in a good word for you with Santa.”
“Don’t bother. I’m not on his list.”
He arches an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”
“I haven’t been nice.”
We both laugh and I drift back into the crowd, which is beginning to fill the streets. I pull my sweatshirt off and wear it tied round my waist. My bag isn’t very heavy. Fortunately, my work doesn’t require anything that weighs more than a pair of high heels. Hives of cotton candy float through the sky like balloons. A little girl is holding a stick, she tears off a mouthful. Fuzzy and insulating. I lower my sunglasses, then she is gone, weaving pink cotton through the crowd. My own mouth feels remote; my teeth grate over one another, see-sawing back and forth. Must get more gum. A working girl needs her gum. If only Chloe had managed to get her arse down here. I could do with a drink and a laugh. A vodka on ice is always nice. I could go to a 24-hour bar, just for a shot, but then I would have to contend with the inevitable crusty men waiting inside. I’m not afraid of sending out the wrong message, I’m afraid of having to sympathise for one second longer than I have to.
The distant aroma of frying meat fills my nostrils. I follow the sizzle, half tempted by the idea of a sausage wrapped in bread and oiled with tomato sauce. My stomach rumbles. Inside The White Lady, a man in a chef’s hat sweats over the hotplate, flipping meat patties like pancakes. I glide past his van with the piety of the ultra thin. When I look in the glassy retina of shop windows I realise I’m now the kind of woman who collects boyfriends and husbands like charms on a bracelet, who fits size eight jeans, who can see a slice of chocolate cake and not charge towards it like snorting like a bull, when I shop for dresses these days the assistants stand in the background staring: “You’re so skinny.” That’s right. Let your thighs quiver in my wake. I’m on the speed and watermelon diet.
No one knows where I’ve been all night or what I’ve been doing and this gives me a rush, I smile, pleased at the ludicrousness of the world. A loudspeaker trumpets reassuring weather updates. What is it about the Santa Parade that attracts rain? Does God know that Santa is on his way? Is he jealous? Does he care? A large grey cloud hovers above the city like a toupee. Errant splashes hit the concrete. I shiver. So much for the good weather.
My legs stride ahead of the drugs. Queen Street is a concrete river; the buildings are blank and unshopped. Children sit on the shoulders of parents, their necks craned in expectation.
“Why’s it taking so long?” a child sighs.
“Santa has to come all the way from the North Pole,” his father replies.
His father’s eyes meet mine and I smile.
At the Santa Parade, there are rules. You can’t just jump on a float as it glides by and join in the fun. You can’t ask to sit next to Santa in his sleigh. You can only watch and wave your flag, flap, flap, in the breeze, because there are those who are part of the parade and those who are not.
First, the distant pounding of wooden sticks on taut skin. Each drumstick is an exclamation mark. In time with the drumbeat, a raindrop hits my cheek. The honk of a trumpet, golden and proud, joins the drums and a light drizzle puckers the street. The marching band is led by a piper in a leotard with her hair in a fountain down her back. Her knee-high boots edge forward, as white as candy canes. Her wrists must ache, but she’s still smiling. The shower stops; a shaft of sunlight. The piper is athletic. Thin. I bet she has the kind of abdominal muscles that flex on MTV every hour. She’s the boss; the other band members follow her well-worn boots. One tip of her marching hat and the parade flows out of her imagination.
Earlier that afternoon, the mayor of Auckland called the piper; “We have a rat problem. Can you help?”
“Sure,” she twirled her pipe like a baton. “But there will be a price.”
“Of course.” The mayor coughed. “Anything.”
The rest of the floats contain the usual suspects. Mickey Mouse. Snow White and the seven dwarves. Spongebob Squarepants. Santa knows all the celebrities and they make appearances for him, because who doesn’t like Christmas? A large inflatable gingerbread man is lashed by the wind, until one leg slips free of its mooring, then another and he rises above the crowd. Several workers struggle to tie him back into place, as though they are sailors harpooning a whale. The gingerbread man’s black eyes glint.
The wheels of the floats whirr and tick; a trailer of low-rent mermaids wearing bikini tops flutter their shiny tails, then a Paper Mache unicorn prances past.
I light up. Inhale, exhale.
The drumbeat thickens. Santa’s float is approaching.
“Here’s Santa!” Children squeal and point.
That’s when I see David standing on the opposite side of the crowd, sandwiched against the barrier, between a woman and a girl; I assume they must be his wife and daughter. He squints, reaches into his pocket for a pair of dark glasses. Streamers fill the air. Santa throws fists of sweets out of his sack. The children surge forward, screaming with delight. The elves wave and curtsey.
David’s face shifts, a crumpled frown appears on his brow. Has he seen me? He slides his arm round her waist like a belt. Strange, I didn’t imagine him as a blonde man. Her skin is tanned and polished like a well-kept coffee table. She smiles pleasantly. The smile of a woman used to keeping up appearances. I wonder what she thought about when she last gave him a blowjob? Getting the chops on for dinner? Or did she enjoy every minute, gobbling it up, waiting for the spurt at the end as though it was custard? The sun slips between us. She’s fashionable, not many middle-aged women have the audacity to wear tight white jeans. She sweeps her hair over her shoulder. This is unforgivable. I imagined her slightly dowdy with a rotund stomach disguised beneath expensive billowing clothes. Instead, she has a whopping pair of fake tits.
At work, I console myself with the thought that I’m on her side. I often feel a strange sense of kinship with the wives. I’m an hour-by-hour whore, not a lifetime whore, that’s the difference. Does she know David has been sneaking visits to a massage parlour in the evening? Is she one of those wives that forages through the receipts for evidence? How many wives know what their husbands do in stolen moments after work after Friday nights full of beer and bravado with the boys? Does she know how much he loves pillow fights? The floats move on. Multi coloured t-shirts flick past, kids run amok, jostling for stray Macintoshes toffees. I tilt my head and watch a bright yellow balloon float above the crowd.
“No Spongebob, don’t go!”