A medal for bravery, a commendation and a nice bit of cash was what he had to show for 'exceptional courage under fire'. Jake stood in front of the bathhouse, an imposing building that oozed class and sophistication. The money was burning a hole in his pocket. He must be mad. For the same price he could buy ten girls who would actually put out. But he didn't want that, never had.
However, there was something about the legendary water girls that had always fascinated him. Some said they were enchantresses who wove magic spells on men. Others said they were just fancy whores who fleeced the gullible out of all their money by playing coy. Some claimed they could make any man fall in love with them in half an hour. What was certain was that they were all beautiful, everyone agreed on that. Beautiful, talented, refined and accomplished. And now he had a chance to find out for himself. One chance, one hour, that's all he could afford, and so he had chosen the city's oldest and most exclusive establishment.
He steeled himself and walked through the heavy doors, pretending like he belonged. The large entrance hall was lined with cold marble tiles and tall pillars, and at the end was a small desk behind which stood a middle-aged lady dressed in black. The proprietress, no doubt. She peered at him over her glasses. “Good day, sir,” she said sternly.
Up until then he had been sure that money would buy him entrance, but now he began to doubt even that. He took a deep breath. “Good day, Ma'am. I'd like a bath, please.”
She pursed her lips. “I'm afraid we're fully booked.”
He knew that was nonsense, as this was hardly a popular time. As she stared at him he felt she was looking straight through him. She saw him just for what he was, a scruffy soldier on leave with a small windfall to squander on a dream, and not a promising new repeat customer.
“That's a shame,” he said casually, “Because this place came highly recommended by Commissioner Kelly.” In truth he'd only overheard him say it in passing, but he hoped the name-dropping would have some effect. It was his last chance.
She gave him a long, searching look. Perhaps she suspected he was bluffing, or maybe she hoped he really had some valuable connections. She huffed and looked past him. “Amy!” she said sharply.
“Yes, Ma'am?” he heard behind him.
He looked around. There was a young girl carrying a stack of towels in the middle of the hall, frozen still. She was not a water girl, she was only an apprentice. He could tell because she still wore her hair down.
“This gentleman would like a bath.”
“Yes, Ma'am.” She looked around for a place to put the towels.
“Over here,” she said, pointing to the desk. Then turned to him. “It seems you're in luck, we have another spot. One hour?” she asked pointedly, as if she could look straight into his wallet.
She named her price and he startled. He knew she was blatantly overcharging him, and that for only an apprentice! To think she was just using him as a warm body to practice on, for that outrageous amount. Clearly his money was not worth as much as a rich man's coin. He should walk out right now. But he didn't. He knew she'd seen him look at the dark-haired girl, and she knew she'd caught a fish. Not a big fish, but a fish nonetheless. Hook, line and sinker. And yet, to walk out now would be too much of a humiliation. He took out his wallet. “Certainly.” And there went most of his prize money.
After carefully checking the amount she smiled at him for the first time. “This is Amy,” she said, “She'll be looking after you.”
Amy flashed him a practiced smile. “Welcome, sir. Please follow me.”
She led him through a side door into a lofty hallway. Her green silk robes elegantly fluttered around her form. She pointed to a changing room after handing him a bathrobe and a pair of sandals. He quickly undressed and put on the soft robe. She was still waiting for him in the hallway. He followed her through a heavy door, and hot steam welcomed him to the main bath.
He halted on the threshold to take in the sight. Before him lay a long rectangular room, in the middle of which was a glittering pool surrounded by a marble colonnade. A skylight cupola in the roof set with colourful stained glass cast dancing lights on the water. Around the colonnade water girls in long, flowing dresses were walking and chatting with their clients. On either side of the room lay shaded, more intimate alcoves with richly cushioned seats and little tables laden with refreshments. All this was decorated with fine mosaics, draperies, exotic plants and sweet-smelling flowers. The sound of muted chatter and the splashing of a little waterfall at the end of the pool mixed with the soft tones of a harp. It was a fairy tale come true, a secret garden hidden away from the dirt and grime of the city streets.
Amy smiled at him. “This way, please” she said, and led him to a quiet little alcove half-concealed by a large fern. He sank down into the plush velvet cushions while she lit a thin candle on the table. It would tell when his hour was up. He thought her hand was shaking slightly, and he wondered if he was her first client.
Then she sat down demurely next to him and folded her hands in her lap. “Would you like some tea?” she asked.
“Yes, please.” He didn't really, but he was just going to go along with whatever she suggested.
She snapped her fingers to attract a passing apprentice and ordered a tea tray in a rather haughty, overconfident manner. Maybe she was just as nervous as he was, he thought wryly.
She bit her lip. “May I ask your name, sir?”
“Jake. Jake Peralta.”
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr Peralta.”
“Just Jake, please.”
She startled. “All right...Jake,” she said hesitantly.
Oh great, he'd already messed up. They should really publish a guidebook or something to these places. But then he supposed most regular clients here would have been introduced by older friends or acquaintances who could show them the ropes. “Eh, whatever you prefer, I mean.”
“No, I like Jake,” she replied sweetly. “It's a nice name.”
He wondered if she had memorised a list of bland compliments as part of her training. Still, it was clearly working. He'd never liked his own name better. Then the tea tray arrived, and she elegantly poured him a cup from a silver teapot. There were also small bowls filled with candied fruit on the tray, and he eagerly tried some.
“Noice,” he said with his mouth full. Maybe he looked a bit uncivilised, but he figured he'd paid for it so he was going to eat it.
She scrunched up her nose and tried to hide a smile.
“So which ones are the best?” he asked.
“Oh these ones,” she said, pointing to a bowl with orange sweets. “They're a bit sour.” Then she quickly pulled her hand back. “I mean, if you like that. Otherwise...I mean...”
“Oh yes, I love that,” he insisted, and tried some. “Mmmm, you were right. Yum.”
He looked at the burning candle. Maybe he was crazy to pay for a pretty girl to watch him eat sweets, but he sure was having a good time. He washed down the candied fruit with his cup of tea. When it was empty he put the fragile porcelain teacup back on the saucer a bit too loudly. He thought he could see her wince just slightly, and he almost apologised.
Although she was only half-finished daintily sipping her own cup she put it down immediately and placed it back on the tray. “Would you like to try the bath?” she suggested.
“Yes. Yes, that would be great.”
She led the way to the short end of the pool, where marble steps were leading down into the water. He watched as she put up her hair and firmly pinned it in place. She noticed him looking and smiled. All at once she was a real water girl, seductive and alluring. “May I take your robe?” she breathed, and his heart stood still for a moment.
“Eh, yes. Of course.”
She helped him out of it and hung up his robe next to a potted palm tree. Then she took off her sandals and slowly walked down the steps. Her movements were graceful and fluid like the waves. She coyly looked over her shoulder. “Come in, the water's lovely.”
He watched, mesmerised as her silk robes flowed in the water, and he felt drawn to her like a magnetic force. He left his sandals next to hers and walked down the steps to let the warm, soothing water envelope him.
Steam was rising off the surface of the crystal clear pool. It was not very busy; two men were playing chess on a floating board while chatting to their water girls, there were a few small groups, and another stray pair was whispering in the corner of the bath. He knew this place was where important business deals were struck, where the rich and powerful came to mingle and relax. And for one hour, he could pretend to belong. To get lost in a dream, and imagine the outside world didn't exist. To forget about friends getting blown to pieces in a pointless war. He looked around at the rest of the clientèle. Did any of these fat cats know what it was like to choose between starving in the streets and signing up to become cannon fodder?
“This way,” she said, leading him to a quiet spot where the sound of the waterfall afforded them some privacy. “So how do you like the water?”
“Oh, it's perfect.” Jake looked around the bath. “You know, one time I went swimming in the river when I was a kid, and I caught a fish in my underpants.”
She started laughing, not with a coy, mysterious smile or a flirtatious giggle, but a full-throated guffaw followed by a snort. A passing water girl frowned at her. She hid her face and nervously bit her lip.
“I'm sorry,” he said. “I didn't mean to embarrass you.”
“It's all right,” she said. “I just...I didn't expect to enjoy it, that's all.” Then she suddenly schooled her features. “What I mean is, of course I expected to enjoy your company very much, but you are even more charming than I anticipated.”
“As much as I like to hear that I'm charming, and I'm as vain as they come, I like to hear you laugh even more.”
She smiled, shaking her head. “So, tell me more about this fish then.”
“Well, it was a very hot day, and the frogs were quacking, or croaking...what do frogs do, anyway?”
He told her the whole story in vivid detail, then she told him about the time a spider had landed in someone's teacup, and soon they were chatting away effortlessly over the sweet sounds of the harp.
This is amazing, Jake thought as he floated in the warm water, looking up at the stained glass ceiling light. He suddenly noticed it featured an intricate pattern of grapes and twisting vines. Like the ivy clinging to the tall marble pillars surrounding the pool. He looked around and was suddenly dazzled by the opulence. The cloying, sweet scent of the flowers. The choking, poisonous vines. Whispered secrets, decadence and corruption veiled in a dizzying array of ethereally floating silks.
All at once the carefully crafted fantasy crumbled to dust. As he looked at the water girls aimlessly fluttering around the bath he suddenly saw them for what they really were; colourful captive birds in a gilded cage. He stole a quick glance at the beautiful apprentice by his side, with her perfect olive skin and dark eyes. Soon enough she would be a fully fledged water girl, and then she would have to try her best to snare a wealthy patron to pay off her debts to the house. Maybe they were both just toys for rich people to play with, he thought wryly, tin soldiers and porcelain dolls.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“Yes, it's just...a bit hot.”
“Shall we go back to the table then?” she suggested.
He nodded. “Yes, good idea.”
After walking back up the stairs she handed him the largest, softest towel he'd ever seen. He found it somewhat disconcerting how oblivious she seemed to male nudity. But then she must have been here for a long time, watching and learning, working and training. He briefly wondered what instrument she played. After he'd dried off she handed him his robe and they made their way back to the alcove.
As she lifted the draperies the heady smell of incense hit his nostrils. He was dismayed to find that the candle had burned down almost to a stump. The tea tray was gone, and instead there was a crystal decanter with two small glasses on the table. He watched as she sat down gingerly on a richly embroidered cushion, even though her dress was still soaking wet. She invitingly patted the pillow next to her with a coy smile and he rushed to oblige her.
He'd always considered it a very odd part of the story, that they supposedly walked around in wet clothes. But now he could see the appeal. The silk clung to her skin, accentuating every curve of her lithe form. He couldn't stop staring at her nipples through the thin fabric and he was disgusted with himself. He forced himself to look up at her eyes, which were also beautiful. She smiled and offered him a drink, and he gratefully knocked down the strong spirit. A warm glow spread through his whole body. He leaned back against the soft cushions and sighed.
Then the flame died.
He slowly put his glass back on the tray, unsure of what to say.
Amy furtively looked around, then she cleared her throat. “Let me show you out, if I may.”
“Yes, thank you.”
As he got up he suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder. “Just a little thread,” she said airily, and let a non-existent fibre fall to the floor. She quickly looked away, and the moment was gone.
He followed her back to the changing room and put his own clothes back on. They suddenly felt very strange and foreign, course and itchy to his skin. She was waiting for him back in the hallway, and slowly led him back to the entrance hall, as if she was trying to draw out the moment as much as he was.
She stopped in front of the reception desk. “It's been a pleasure getting to know you,” she said sincerely. “I hope we will see you again soon. Please ask for me,” she hurriedly added.
“I will, Amy.” It was not a lie, technically. If he ever came again, he would ask for her. “But I'm going back to the front soon.” Better have her think he was dead than that he had slighted her.
“Oh.” Her face fell.
The proprietress cleared her throat. “Was everything to your satisfaction, sir?” she asked shrewdly.
“Oh yes, certainly.”
“That's good to hear. Now if you please, here's the bill for your refreshments.”
He froze for a moment. Then he casually nodded. “Of course.”
He was spared the ignominy of not having enough money, but only just. And then he was standing outside in the cold, with a much lighter wallet and a heavier heart. So it was true what they said. They could make a man fall in love within the hour.