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Inside Sydney sex worker Tilly Lawless’ debut novel

IMAGE VIA @TILLYLAWLESS/INSTAGRAM

WORDS BY TILLY LAWLESS

An exclusive excerpt from Tilly Lawless’ novel debut.

She’s moisturising her hands again but they’re still cracked and flaking – too many years of washing dishes without gloves, she tells me. She started sex work late, when she was already fifty, and now she’s nearing sixty and none of the city brothels will hire her.

I’m here because I wanted to try a famed mining town; veteran workers always wax lyrical about the amount of cash you can make in places where women are few and men are trapped, too much cash to be believed, too much to fit in your wallet or bra, and so I made the three-and-a-half-hour drive west to this country town that is nothing like the one I grew up in, all dry eucalypts and dust, no rivers to break the heat.


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A backyard to sunbathe naked in, though; I can lie in the grass between bookings and stare at the one lone palm tree and feel like I’m on holidays. City broths could never! She wants to move back to Cambodia, she tells me, is trying to make enough money to retire there. But it’s hard when it’s a race against her age and each year new younger girls appear.

I feel that and I’m only twenty-six. I know there’s a legion of eighteen-year-olds coming up behind me, have noticed I don’t get the clients with paedophilic fantasies anymore; they reserve their whispered smut for the ears of girls much younger and more nubile than me.

Around her the notices shout down at us from baby pink and mint green walls: TO AVOID CONFLICTS DO NOT TOUCH OTHER PEOPLE’S FOOD GIRLS ARE NOT REQUIRED TO SHARE FOOD and: DEAR LADIES IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY OF ALL GIRLS TO CLEAN UP AFTER YOURSELVES AND KEEP THIS AREA TIDY and ATTENTION LADIES THIS IS A SHARED AREA MEANING NO SLEEPING ON LOUNGE AND NO LAYING DOWN ON LOUNGE WHEN OTHERS WANT TO SIT AND NO SUITCASES, MAKE-UP AND PERSONAL BELONGINGS TO BE SCATTERED ALL OVER THE PLACE!

In spite of this, the place is fairly welcoming. We can stay as long as we want with a room to sleep in without having the cost of accommodation taken from our earnings. The management are kind, because being so far from anywhere there’s a scarcity of workers and they can’t afford to frighten us away. They’re actually grateful when we show up, in stark contrast to some of the metropolitan places I’ve worked at which act like they’re doing me a favour for hiring me, forgetting that it’s my body that’s the drawcard and worksite.

‘I have an older woman friend who still works at brothels,’ I say. ‘I can text her and ask what places in Sydney hire mature-aged women, if you want.’

‘Oh, honey, please, if you could – thank you, honey.’ She gets back to me five minutes later. Amanda’s Heaven and Cougar Town. Not particularly appealing names, but I’ve worked at Real Promiscuous Massage and WivesOnly so am not in a position to judge.

Her mobile has no internet, so I look them up for her and give her their addresses and phone numbers, and as she writes them down she says, ‘Thank you, honey, oh thank you so much,’ over and over again. I know that relief, the pain of the hunt for money.

Not like her, because I’m young and White and can get hired wherever I want, but I have sat on shift after shift where I’ve earned nothing and racked my brains for somewhere else to go and feared that my time is over and that even sex work, which is meant to be the last resort, is finished for me and I can’t even sell that most basic of resources, the one I’m born with. I know the panic. And so I’m glad when the first client of the day comes in and I say no, I don’t do kissing, and he picks her instead.

I move outside to get that sun, play on my phone and find myself back on that person’s Instagram profile. Count how many photos of theirs I’ve liked, wonder why they haven’t liked any of mine, check out who else they follow and see they’ve been liking other girls’ photos. Are my photos not as good or do they not find me attractive or does the time difference just mean they miss mine in their feed or are they just not interested in me at all?

But they always reply to my messages, are happy to chat, and surely that means more than a photo like anyway? Maybe they don’t feel the need to engage in that public approval when I’m a sure thing; maybe that’s how they court someone and I don’t need to be courted. I would rather they replied to my messages and didn’t like my posts than the other way around, so why do I feel sad that they’re giving likes to others? It doesn’t take away from our communication.

Still, what does she have that I don’t? She’s a model, sure, so conventionally better-looking. But I know people find me interesting and compelling, and that’s more important in the long run. I know I’ve fucked a lot of hot people myself but it’s the ones who make me laugh that I’m drawn back to. I know it doesn’t matter yet I still obsess over it. Reread our old messages. Scroll back through every photo they’ve liked. It doesn’t thrill me as much as the first time, though, and I want more.

Another hit of dopamine, all the way from Europe. Express delivered. Instantaneous effect guaranteed. I could post this photo as a trap, but then if they don’t respond to it it’ll make me so sad; it doesn’t matter if it gets a few thousand likes when the one it was posted for doesn’t recognise it. Besides, it’s always better when they respond to something of mine I haven’t posted for them, when it’s unexpected.

‘Maddy, intro!’

Brush the grass off, bodysuit and heels on. I’m slightly sweaty but in that nice, wholesome, sun-baked way, just perspiration, like a lady, don’t even smell. Inside is cold – the sun won’t make it through these old brick walls – and I feel as if I’m striding a solitary catwalk down the carpeted hallways, imagining it is them watching me on the other side of the world, not my doppelganger in this ornate mirror.

This is an edited extract from Nothing But My Body by Tilly Lawless, Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99, available now. You can buy a copy here and learn more about Tilly Lawless here.

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