This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece by Dan Bledwich, about working in the sex industry.
I am standing in the backyard of my new home, ruminating on how I’ll plant the Pandorea pandorana outside my window. The soil is mostly clay, so I’m considering a planter box in front of weldmesh so the vine will climb the fence and also have adequate drainage.
I’m also thinking about how to write this piece on work. These days, my odd jobs are related to tea, writing or horticulture, the latter of which I’m studying.
These decisions were logical choices to distance myself from what I used to do; I was a sex worker. I started horticulture as a means of dealing with grief, depression and anxiety, and found it to be an excellent deviation; I could still get my hands dirty without having to monitor others’ feelings or negotiate the intricacies of consent and desire. Putting an ad online or in the paper, and renting a hotel room where men would visit for thirty minutes to overnight, that wasn’t necessarily hard work, but it felt like work. Horticulture, by comparison, feels like a tangible learning experience. Working with the earth provided space for me to escape the stigma attached to sex work; I had grown world-weary.
Deep in the bowels of Terra Madre, I bump into a big beautiful man and his partner and/or gym buddy. We give each other a nod and as they discuss matcha in great depth, I am forced to intervene not to save them from the shit they’re considering buying, but because I’m not sure if sidling past them equates to jumping the queue. I am allowed to pass, glancing back only briefly.
I sit at my GPs waiting for script renewals (fluoxetine and amitriptyline hydrochloride), flicking through Instagram, wishing I had brought a book. An elderly gentleman across from me leans forward in his seat and smiles, asking, ‘Are those things heavy?’ gesturing to my boots.
I don’t want to talk to him.
‘No, not really, they’re rubber, fairly springy,’ I say before looking back to my phone.
Please don’t talk to me.
He gets the message.
A 20-something comes into the waiting room and sits on the couch next to the older man. These strangers converse easily, and it comes out that the senior has a UTI and has come for treatment. They nod mutually when the young guy says, ‘UTIs can be real buggers.’
I feel a twinge of regret that I disregarded the older gentleman so quickly, a reflexive defense mechanism that I developed at school.
My GP walks in and gives me a nod. I stand and follow.
Back in my car, I’m thinking about how I handled the situation.
Not all men are arseholes; I’ve just come across so many of them.
I start the engine and turn the Volvo toward home, unable to forget the open discussion about UTIs. What responsibilities do younger queers have to elders, even to just engage in menial conversations? For me, this is a form of emotional labour, in fact, I used to get paid for it, but I had been unfriendly. I had misjudged the situation. It was not a come on. Though if it was, sex and a human connection are not mutually exclusive, even with strangers.
At the lights, I’m thinking about what I will be like if I make it to sixty, seventy, eighty. To be at the point in life where I don’t have anything to prove, I don’t have to rush anywhere, to have reconciled the differences with myself.
I am reminded of a client I‘ve seen twice, who we’ll call Norm. We first met in Canberra, when I flew in for three days of sex work out of a hotel room. He texts me and when I reply asking him to call me, he complies. This is a good sign.
We arrange for him to visit me in my hotel room, and he texts me to say he will be five minutes late. I appreciate his respect in notifying me, rather than just wasting my time wondering if he’ll be a no show.
He knocks on the door and I open it. Norm is a very elderly gentleman. He is 79.
I fetch us water, pocket his cash, and lead him to a chair so he can undress.
The next time I’m in Canberra, I decide to use a different name and a different mobile number.
A man on the other end of the phone says, ‘I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Are you free at 2pm?’
I look at my bookings diary, ‘Yes I am.’
‘Could I see you for an hour, maybe two?’
‘Definitely. I’ll text you at 1:30 with the address.’
When he arrives, I invite him in, and turn down the music on my laptop.
He hands me cash, and I turn to the laptop again to slide the cash into the drawer below it.
When I turn round, the gentleman has removed his grey leather jacket and rested it over the back of a chair. On the bed is a grey shoehorn, which matches his jacket and shoes.
I raise an eyebrow, asking, ‘Oh, is it going to be that kind of booking?’
‘Oh God no!’ he says, looking up from his button-down shirt.
‘No no no. Definitely not. Don’t have it in me even if I wanted to!’
‘So it’s intended for its purpose?’ I ask.
‘I’m 81 and I have a bad back. My fingers don’t work on my laces too good, so…’ he shrugs.
He is seated on the chair his jacket is slung over.
It dawns on me that I’ve seen this man before.
A chink of light reaches my heart, so I sit on the carpet before him, asking his name as I remove his too-tight shoes and socks.
‘You seem familiar. I think you had the shoehorn last time I saw you too?’
‘That does sound like me. Can’t imagine too many blokes get around with one,’ he says with a smile, leaning back in the chair.
‘No, it’s pretty distinctive,’ I say with a laugh.
He has unbuttoned his shirt and removes it, handing it to me.
I get up and fold it neatly while he removes his pants. They drop to the floor, and he asks if I can get them for him.
‘My back isn’t what it used to be.’
‘It’s okay, I’ll fold them,’ I say, and gesture towards the bed.
‘Do you want massage?’ I ask him.
‘Oooh yes. Just be gentle on my lower back, okay? You won’t be able to straddle me, and you’ll have to go gently.’
I fold his pants and place them on the chair along with his shirt and jacket, noting that everything else appears immaculate besides the shoes and socks I removed.
I turn a sock inside the other, tuck it into a shoe, and place them together in front of the chair.
I make my way to the bed, where he is face down in white underwear.
‘Hooup,’ he says in pain as I sit on the bed beside him.
‘Yeah yep,’ Norm says.
I turn to the bedside table and squirt a jet of sorbolene moisturiser onto my hands, rubbing them together to warm them.
I massage his back for about twenty minutes, caressing his frail, octogenarian skin, pressing harder in his shoulders, gently moving across his mid and lower back.
When he rolls over, he struggles to achieve orgasm, never becoming fully erect.
His skin blooms in a sheer sweat. He gasps; it is over.
‘Oh no, I had my prostate removed so there’s never really much to clean up, if at all.’
His hands are dry.
‘We still have time. Do you want more massage?’
‘Yes, that would be good I think. Just give me a moment.’
I take a few sips of water and come back. He is face down again, and I slowly work more sorbolene into his back, which is looser now.
When it is time, I must help him up from the low bed. It takes a couple of tries, and I worry about hurting him but he insists quicker is better.
When we are on our feet, he goes to the shower and washes down, coming back to get dressed.
I am thinking he isn’t long for this world now. I am thinking that it’s a shame.
We talk about the tomatoes that he is growing; he has some 200 plants. I am suitably impressed. We talk about tomato passata.
It has been a lonely trip in Canberra, and I realise as I help him dress that his absence will be felt. There has been, for a while, a connection.
After we horn his feet into his shoes, he stands and puts on his jacket.
I pull on a t-shirt and turn towards him to see he is sliding the shoehorn up the sleeve of his jacket.
He laughs at this, explaining, ‘I don’t want to look like a weirdo wandering around with a shoehorn, so I keep it tucked away.’
I smile at him, lead him to the door, hug him, and send him on his way telling him I hope to see him again. I know I probably won’t.
I'm remembering all this as I have driven home, prepared a light lunch, checked the ripeness of some peaches, and greedily drunk water. I look over my outfit and approving, pull the front door closed behind me.
In the car I pull out a stick of gum and chew it, driving in a dreamlike state. The second, and likely last time I saw Norm, was in 2013. He might be 84 now.
When I get to work at a local teahouse, I prepare tea for customers and wash dishes, rising out of my meditative state. The pace of the business quickens. The kettle perpetually boils. As each new customer comes in, the old walls come up around my high school traumas, around the stigma; the cigarette burns, the shovings, the kickings, the death threats and name callings, the rumours, the lies.
I shut off the past.
I go to work.
This is a Writers' Other Jobs piece, part of a series where writers reflect on the strange, wonderful or just plain-old terrifying things they've done to keep the lights on. To read more like this, click here:
Dan Bledwich is a 30-year-old sometimes sex worker and writer who lives in Melbourne. Dan is studying Urban Horticulture at University of Melbourne, and is currently obsessed with bees, chickens and edible water gardens. Their twitter handle is @singult.