It is a quiet evening for Mr. Bodley and Mr. Ashwell. Thus far, a quaint supper of fried fish has followed a few happy hours at the theatre. They have been drinking quite consistently since five o’clock, and so it is a disappointment to learn that the charming woman at the fish-shop will not give them anything to wash down the greasy whitebait. Mr. Ashwell, suddenly declaring himself quite drunk enough, tells Mr. Bodley that he will proposition the fish woman. He is still smarting from an earlier rejection.
(The canteen of the Alhambra had been its usual crush of ballerinas and patrons. A new girl, Russian, rather sleepy eyed and flat nosed, had caught Mr. Ashwell’s attention. He and Mr. Bodley had approached. However, when Mr. Ashwell offered to buy her a glass of champagne, the Russian had looked at him and his friend with just a hint of curiosity in her somnolent eyes and said:
“You are sodomites I think?”)
Mr. Ashwell is therefore disposed to have a foreigner. Whether he believes that bedding one woman from outside this island of ours will send some form of psychic message to all the others, we cannot know. We can only see that his pride has been hurt and that he has begun to make obscene remarks to the Tobago-native proprietress. Mr. Bodley drags Mr. Ashwell and his paper of fried fish from the building before his pride can suffer another blow. Mr. Bodley knows what his friend truly needs, and what he needs himself come to that: a girl who can’t refuse.
Mr. Bodley and Mr. Ashwell consult the guide. Not Mrs. Castaway’s - they went there last night. And not Mrs. Bolingbrook’s (they called there the night before that). The night before that, they were sucked off by a very talented girl who’d do the both of them for only three shillings. Unfortunately, she is not to be found in the guide and probably not to be found anywhere by two light-headed fools. Mr. Ashwell announces that he’d like to be whipped. Mr. Bodley announces that he would not. Finally, with no discernable logic, they make a return visit to the house of Mrs. Fret.
These premises of Mrs. Fret’s have no real distinction from any similar establishment. They are outwardly unassuming, if you don’t stop to listen to the lady on the step negotiating with the German tourist over what one will do for the other’s pound note. Inside, they are all scarlet and gaslight and lewd French prints - very familiar scenery for Mr. Bodley and Mr. Ashwell. If they were to wake up here tomorrow morning, they could find their way out quite easily, but they would not necessarily be able to tell you the name of the place.
The house’s one quirk is that Mrs. Fret keeps her parlour on the second floor. Each day, a girl sits near the front door in a straight backed chair, and when a gentleman walks in, she leads him up the stairs and down the corridor to see the madam.
Soon after entering, Mr. Bodley recognises tonight’s fair lantern bearer. He’s had her once. Mr. Ashwell has had her twice, but he has a terrible memory for faces. She remembers them, but only because their inseparability has made them a novelty. Still, it adds a little realism to her ‘so pleased to see you again’ act.
As usual, Mr. Bodley and Mr. Ashwell are led up the stairs and down the landing. Halfway along, Mr. Bodley halts. He has just experienced that uncanny sensation often felt when one is looking into a mirror in the dark. The feeling that you have almost seen something in the corner of the reflection. Turning, he notices that the door beside him is half open, revealing a dimly lit room and, more disconcertingly, one curious eye.
The lantern bearer doubles back on herself to see what is keeping her charge.
Bodley asks her, adopting an unnecessary low voice, “Who is the girl in that room?”
“That’ll be Nan, sir; our Yorkshire girl. Only got one eye. But you know she’s that good or she’d’ve been out. You can ask for her if you like.”
Mr. Bodley nods thoughtfully. Before he can come to a decision, Mr. Ashwell has cut past him to peer around the door.
“Well, well,” he exclaims, “How macabre!”
Mr. Bodley ums and ahs his discomfort. He does not want to commit himself without first knowing what he is agreeing to, but at the same time he feels it would be impolite to look over a girl in her own room. Momentarily, he shuffles up close to Mr. Ashwell and takes the view over his shoulder. Nan is sitting on the bed, holding a lamp to her face so that they can see what they might have. Bodley thinks her fairly pretty. Her hair is dry and a dreary colour, but she has quite an outstanding complexion, save for the few pockmarks surrounding her mouth.
“I’ll take her if you won’t, old man,” Mr. Ashwell grins.
“Not so fast,” Mr. Bodley says, sombre and full of propriety, “I believe you had first choice last night and I missed out on that pippin of a girl.”
“Oh! You’re quite right. Was her name Lydia? Yes, Lydia. Fresh from the country.”
Mr. Bodley snorts, “Fresh from a milliner’s shop in Cranbourne Alley.”
“But before then, the country. You cannot get them direct.”
Mr. Bodley is about to reopen negotiations when Mr. Ashwell interrupts him with, in his own mind, an excellent notion.
“I say we share her!”
The lantern bearer lifts her brows, as though she has just heard something that confirms a personal theory.
“We get a lot of that in here,” she says mildly, “You’ll have to work it out with Mrs. Fret though. There’s been occasions two gentlemen have tried to fit in at once, and she don’t hold with that.”
The previously uninviting lamplight seems to take on a different quality once one is inside the room and the door has been shut. It is much softer, kinder, soothing. It melds seamlessly with Nan’s hands at the back of his neck, in the dip between shoulder blades. Mr. Bodley leans in to kiss Nan’s lips and she ducks smoothly away, dodging into the crook of his neck.
Mr. Ashwell stands beside an ancient chest-of-drawers. He has spied something interesting.
“Dear me!” he titters. On top of the chest-of-drawers sit a candlestick, a ribbon box, and - the thing that is too gothic for words - a glass eye. Mr. Ashwell scoops it up and tosses it joyfully from one hand to the other.
“Where did you get this?” he asks.
“Given it by a doctor, weren’t I?” says Nan, sharply.
Ashwell looks from the light blue iris in his palm to the darker colour of Nan’s natural eye that he can’t quite distinguish. “No, really, where did you come across it?”
“Would it be awful if I asked you not to talk?” Mr. Bodley mumbles.
Mr. Bodley is, perhaps, slightly on edge. He thinks this may be the first time that Ashwell will see him in the act. It is not such a great occasion. After all, he and Ashwell have watched each other being sucked by shilling whores before, and there were occasions in university where they’d help each other to relieve themselves. Yet, this seems newly strange, somehow, and Bodley is nervous of the intimacy.
“Very well,” says Mr. Ashwell, “Fuck her then.”
Mr. Ashwell believes it will be a great joke to see his friend writhing around with a one-eyed girl. When he notices Mr. Bodley shooting a glance at him, he is all encouragement:
“Dear Bodley, you’re positively prudish sometimes.”
He even picks Bodley’s trousers from the floor and places them neatly on a nearby chair.
Meanwhile, Nan has Bodley’s prick in hand, teasing it harder and charming it towards her - a job shared between her palm, the rise and fall of her breasts, and her suddenly irresistible sweet face. Bodley is reaching under her chemise. Now he gropes indelicately for her opening.
Ashwell is… disinterested. He does not know why; he was filled with anticipation mere moments before. That desire has left him. For no more than a few seconds, he is perplexed. And then he feels something - a finger… as if a finger, reaching inside of him…
He mistakes the shock of sensation for something fleeting. But as he gathers himself, it is all too clear that the finger is still there, rising from the core of him, growing like a spring bud. It is not at all like pain but it is vile. It is a red colour, like the room, like the light - no longer soft or kind or much to do with light at all. More like being in the midst of a flame. And now it pounds him. It knocks him about and makes his knees ache.
He sits down heavily, not bothering to reach for a chair.
Someone’s hot breath is prickling the skin of Mr. Ashwell’s face. It is Mr. Bodley’s. He is not here to revive Mr. Ashwell from a faint. Mr. Ashwell is quite conscious. And besides, Mr. Bodley is upon the bed, thrusting into Nan. It is his breath nonetheless. It is sweet and it is rotten. Mr. Ashwell could drink it in as easily as he could spit it out. The pounding that continues inside him is impossible to stop but the breath is worse. It is the sweetness that is the real evil of it. The sweetness, he knows, means to trap him.
He needs to know when it will end. He must move to release himself, but he cannot. He is pinned.
Mr. Bodley spends himself far more swiftly than he would have liked to in front of Mr. Ashwell. However, he has his watch upon him and he has determined to time Ashwell’s attempt to the second. It will make a fine new pastime; perhaps they will even start writing down records.
Before he can even stand, Mr. Ashwell has grabbed his arm.
“I know, I know, old man; your turn,” Bodley says. He looks up and is startled to notice the ghastly seriousness of his friend’s expression, “Good Lord! What’s come over you?”
“Get up and pay her,” is all Mr. Ashwell can find to say.
Out on the street, Mr. Bodley is still trying to discover what has put Ashwell in such a frightful mood. He won’t talk, he won’t be coerced into trying another house, he keeps, always, several steps ahead of Mr. Bodley.
Finally, he stops, quite abruptly. He has put his gloved hands into his pockets and retrieved something unexpected…
It is Nan’s glass eye.