Greene on prostitution
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“Going out?” Harris asked with surprise. “Where to?”

“Just into town,” Wilson said, loosening the knot round his mosquito boots.

“What on earth can you find to do in town at this hour?”

“Business,” Wilson said.

Well, he thought, it was business of a kind, the kind of joyless business one did alone, without friends.  He had brought a second-hand car a few weeks ago, the first he had ever owned, and he was not yet a reliable driver.  No gadget survived the climate long and every few hundred yards he had to wipe the windscreen with his handkerchief.  In Kru town the hut doors were open and families sat around kerosene lamps waiting till it was cool enough to sleep. A dead pye dog lay in the gutter with the rain running over its white swollen belly.  He drove in second gear at little more than walking pace, for civilian head-lamps had to be blacked out to the size of a visiting-card and he couldn't see more than fifteen paces ahead.  It took him ten minutes to reach the great cotton tree near the police station.  There were no lights on in any of the officer's rooms and he left his car outside the main entrance.  If anyone saw it they would assume he was inside.    For a moment he sat with the door open hesitating.  The image of the girl passing in the rain conflicting with the sight of Harris on his shoulder blades reading a book with a glass of squash at his elbow.  He thought sadly as lust won the day, what a lot of trouble it was; the sadness of the after-taste fell upon his spirits beforehand. 

He had forgotten to bring his umbrella and he was wet through before he had walked a dozen yards down the hill.  It was the passion of curiosity more than lust that impelled him now.  Some time or another if one lived in a place one must try the local product.  It was like having a box of chocolates shut in a bedroom drawer.  Until the box was empty it occupied the mind too much.  He thought: when this is over I shall be able to write another poem to Louise. 

The brothel was a tin-roofed bungalow half-way down the hill on the right-hand side.  In the dry season the girls sat outside in the gutter like sparrows; they chatted with the policemen on duty at the top of the hill.  The road was never made up, so that nobody drove by the brothel on the way to the wharf or the cathedral: it could be ignored.  Now it turned a shuttered silent front to the muddy street, except where a door, propped open with a rock out of the roadway, opened onto a passage.  Wilson looked quickly this way and that and stepped inside. 

Years ago the passage had been white-washed and plastered, but rats had torn holes in the plaster and human beings had mutilated the whitewash with scrawls and pencilled names.  The walls were tattooed like a sailors arm with initials, dates, there was even a pair of hearts interlocked.  At first it seemed to Wilson that the place was entirely deserted; on either side of the passage there were little cells nine feet by four with curtains instead of doorways and beds made out of old packing cases covered with native cloth.  He walked rapidly to the end of the passage; then, he told himself, he would turn and go back to the quiet and somnolent security of the room where the old Downhamian dozed over his book. 

He felt an awful disappointment, as though he had not found what he was looking for, when he reached the end and discovered that the left had cell was occupied; in the light of an oil lamp burning on the floor he saw a girl in a dirty shift spread out on the packing cases like a fish on a counter; her bare pink soles dangled over the words “Tate’s Sugar.”  She lay there on duty, waiting for a customer.  She grinned at Wilson, not bothering to sit up and said “Want jig jig, darling. Ten bob.”  He had a vision of a girl with a rain-wet back moving forever out of his sight. 

“No,” he said, “no,” shaking his head and thinking, What a fool I was, What a fool, to drive all the way for only this.  The girl giggled as if she understood his stupidity and he heard the slop slop of bare feet coming up the passage from the road; the way was blocked by an old |mammy carrying a striped umbrella.  She said something to the girl in her native tongue and received a grinning explanation.  He had the sense that this was only strange to him, that it was one of the stock situations the old woman was accustomed to meet in the dark regions in which she ruled.  He said weakly, “I’ll just go and get a drink first.” 

“She get drink,” the mammy said.   She commanded the girl sharply in the language he couldn’t understand and the girl swung her legs of the sugar cases. “You stay here,” the mammy said to Wilson, and mechanically like a hostess whose mind is elsewhere but who must make conversation with however uninteresting a guest, she said, “Pretty girl, jig jig, one pound.”  Market values here were reversed: the price rose steadily with his reluctance.

“I’m sorry. I can’t wait,” Wilson said. “Here’s ten bob,” and he made the preliminary motions of departure, but the old woman paid him no attention at all, blocking the way, smiling steadily like a dentist who knows what’s good for you.  Here a man’s colour had no value: he couldn’t bluster as a white man could elsewhere: by entering this narrow plaster passage, he had shed every racial, social and individual trait, he had reduced himself to human nature.   If he had wanted to hide, here was the perfect hiding-place; if he had wanted to be anonymous, here he was simply a man.  Even his reluctance, disgust and fear were not personal characteristics; they were so common to those who came here for the first time that the old woman knew exactly what each move would be.  First the suggestion of a drink, then the offer of money, after that…

Wilson said weakly, “Let me by,” but he knew that she wouldn’t move; she stood watching him, as though he was a tethered animal on whom she was keeping an eye for its owner.  She wasn’t interested in him, but occasionally she repeated calmly, “Pretty girl jig jig by-and-by.”  He held out a pound to her and she pocketed it and went on blocking the way.  When he tried to push by, she thrust him backwards with a casual pink palm, saying, “By-and-by. Jig jig.”  It had all happened so many hundreds of times before.

Down the passage the girl came carrying a vinegar bottle filled with palm wine, and with a sigh of reluctance Wilson surrendered.  The heat between the walls of rain, the musty smell of his companion, the dim and wayward light of the kerosene lamp reminded him of a vault newly opened for another body to be let down upon its floor.  A grievance stirred in him, a hatred of those who had brought him here.  In their presence he felt as though his dead veins would bleed again. 

This extract from The Heart of the Matter is probably autobiographical.  Greene was open with his biographer, Norman Sherry, about his frequent visits to prostitutes, both in London and abroad.  

Acquaintances in Freetown recall him asking directions to the brothel and say that the description of its location and approach are word perfect.  At the time Greene was married to Vivien, and in the midst of his wartime affair with Dorothy Glover, although he had left both women in England.  He was was not much turned on by the white women in Freetown.  He wrote in his journal at the time how, “The consistent sexiness of the middle-aged begins to get one down.  The excitement over women who even in their prime were nothing much.”   

 

 

 

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Last modified: September 20, 2006