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Three facts, plain and simple.

Fact one, he was forty-six years old. He didn't know how that had happened, but it had. Forty-six times around the sun: 46 x 365 rotations about the long pole the earth had shoved up its own arse. What did that come to? He didn't know, but each time he turned to look in a mirror he saw the effects of every single orbit, every solitary revolution. In damp weather, he felt them in the knee he'd damaged falling off a motorbike back in 1972.

Fact two, his mother was rotting in hospital, coming apart, dying piece by piece. The sight, sound and smell of it was more than he could deal with, and he knew great chunks of him were shutting down in self-defence. There was nothing he could do about that, but it was OK. There was nothing he wanted to do about it. He welcomed it.

Fact three, for the first time in his life he was about to visit a prostitute.

He still couldn't quite believe that one - yet here he was, sitting in a pub just a few steps around the corner from her flat. For a quarter of an hour he'd been nursing a pint of Guinness, quietly sipping, thinking, trying to make his three facts add up. He'd always mined his own motives for answers, always believed in cause and effect, and right now he wanted to understand what the hell he was doing, and why he was doing it. Scratching around inside his memories, all he could come up with was a snatch of conversation; something overheard years ago, another pub, another time. Not just years. Decades. Even so, the words rang in his head, fresh as the shock of the needle-bruises on his mother's wasted arms.

'A man should experience everything at least once.'

He'd have been about eighteen. A seedy Birmingham boozer much like this one. Playing darts with an almost-mate, a dark-haired lad whose name he could no longer remember. But he remembered that sentence right enough. The barman had said it to a customer. Or maybe the customer had said it to the barman. Whatever, someone had said it - it had been said - and for reasons he didn't understand the words had crossed the smoke-filled, beer-stained room like the darts he was slamming into the pub's battered board. Eight throw-away words. Eight arrow-tipped darts of words that barrelled across the room and thudded smack into the bull's-eye at the dead centre of his brain. He'd felt them arrive, one after the other, thud, thud, thud. He hadn't known why then and he didn't know why now. He couldn't explain why, after nearly thirty years, they were still there, pushing him forward, driving him on with his thinning hair and his bad knee and his mother engaged in slow, messy death in a hospital on the other side of town. But they were.

'A man should experience everything at least once.'

He nodded wisely. Nodded for no good reason. Nodded as though he'd solved a puzzle, discovered a truth.

A noise behind him turned him around.

Sudden fat splats of rain were hitting the window, exploding against the glass, cutting tracks through the grime. He closed his eyes. A storm was something he could do without. On the twin screens of his eyelids he saw himself arriving on a doorstep, soaking wet; saw himself ringing a bell; saw a figure moving through the frosted glass of the slowly opening door.

He swallowed, opened his eyes, and glanced at his watch. 4:13.

The prostitute called herself Barbie. She expected him at 4.30, and he'd already timed the walk from her flat to the pub. It was just a couple of minutes. He was OK until about 4.25. The rain might have stopped by then.

But seventeen minutes wasn't long. In some ways, it wasn't long enough.

He lifted his pint and saw that his hand was shaking. Not bad enough to spill his drink, but enough for her to notice. That shouldn't matter to him, her noticing he had a case of the shakes, but it did. He wanted her to like him. Even though she was what she was, he wanted her to like him. He'd already spent time in the pub toilet, spraying deodorant under his armpits, a can in his bag specially packed for the occasion. And he'd taken particular care wiping his backside, making sure there were no unpleasant traces. But you couldn't do much about the shakes, couldn't wipe or spray them away.

He took a sip, lowered his pint, and the glass rattled slightly against the table top.

Stupid. He'd probably never see her again. And besides, women in her line of work would be used to shaking punters. They'd be used to all kinds of stuff. His imagination kicked in and he started wondering. He wondered about her room; about her bed.

Unbidden, unwanted, a freeze-frame of his mother lying in hospital flashed into his head. NHS sheets. Wasted flesh. Sores. Tubes. He struggled to dismiss it, forced his thoughts back to the here-and-now.

As far as he was aware, he'd never even spoken to a prostitute before, let alone used one.

Barbie.

Just like the doll.

She looked like the doll, too. That was intentional, of course.

He'd found her on the Internet late the previous night. She had her own website, complete with photographs. Long blonde hair, 5'8", slim. Good breasts with nice nipples - the kind of nipples he went for, not too big, not too small. Just right. In the pictures her face was fogged out like the faces of the innocent on TV crime programmes. Beneath all that fog she could look like anything. What if she was ugly as sin? A friend of his had a sister who reminded everyone of Kate Bush with her face smashed in. That was how his friend always described her to people who didn't know her, those were his exact words: my sister's a dead ringer for Kate Bush with her face smashed in. When he'd met his friend's sister he'd seen it straight away. Wonderful hair, great figure, but a face that might have been flattened by a steamroller. The woman was almost a cartoon: Tom or Jerry after one of their close encounters with a fast-moving frying pan.

What if Barbie looked like that? What would he say? What would he do?

He'd phoned her number from a public call-box that morning, straight after his visit to the hospital. The woman he'd spoken to had made out she wasn't Barbie, but she could have been. For all he knew she was. She'd confirmed the rates he'd seen on the website. '£25 for fifteen minutes, love. That's your basic hand-relief: £45 for half-an-hour, oral, full sex, the lot.'

She'd spoken in a familiar, practised tone that reminded him of something else. It took him a moment to pin it down, but then he had it. The girls at his local Chinese takeaway. The way they ran through the options when you placed an order over the phone. 'Set meal for two, sir? Certainly. Fried rice, spare ribs, prawn crackers, one chop-suey, the lot…'

He'd said OK, but he wasn't sure what he wanted yet. She'd told him that wasn't a problem, he could decide on his options when he got there. She'd given him directions and he'd jotted them down. Come to think of it, his hand had been shaking then, too.

He didn't know Barbie's part of the city. He'd made a 4.30 appointment, giving himself plenty of time in case he got lost. But he hadn't got lost, and he'd ended up with too much time, with time to kill. The pub had been a godsend, a double blessing. It gave him a safe, anonymous place to wait, plus the chance to take on a bit of Dutch courage. Irish courage, maybe. Wherever it came from, he needed it.

He sipped his Guinness and tried to stop thinking about what he'd be doing in less than fifteen minutes in case it made the shakes even worse. But then his mother slipped back into his head, trailing the events of the past seven days behind her like so much plastic tubing.

* * *

It had been a strange week. A difficult week.

'Take care,' his wife had said to him on Monday as he'd climbed into the car. He'd rolled down his window and she'd leaned in to kiss him.

'I love you,' she'd said. 'Call me when you get there.'

He'd said he loved her, too, and that was the simple truth. Her hair, hanging down into the car, had tickled his face. She'd washed it. The clean, honest smell of it filled his nostrils.

'See you in a couple of weeks,' he'd said into her hair. He hadn't wanted to leave her.

She'd waved as he'd driven off. He'd turned out of the drive and onto the road, tooted his horn, and she was gone, a shrinking figure in his rear-view mirror. An old Meatloaf song had popped into his head: Objects in the rear-view mirror may appear closer than they are. He'd felt close to her then. Closer and closer as the distance between them increased.

On the long journey to Birmingham he'd run movies of himself walking into his mother's hospital room. In the best one he'd been Mr Cool, breezing in, full of calm confidence. He'd smiled at her and stroked her head, touched her thin hair, her white hair, put her at ease. He'd reassured her.

'It's all right, Mum,' he'd said. 'I'm here now.' She'd smiled up at him, a sweet old lady, resigned to her fate. Sad but dignified.

In the worst one he'd had to force himself in through the door, and when he'd seen her lying there, stinking, crying, full of tubes, covered in shit, he'd come apart at the seams. He'd almost run his car into the back end of a lorry because he'd been watching himself dissolve in front of his mother, a pathetic puddle of tears and snot splashing about uselessly at the side of her bed.

'Should I come home?' his sister had said on the phone.

His sister was the one who'd stayed, the one who was closest, the one who still saw their mother almost every day. But not right now. Right now she was in America, visiting her own daughter, getting to know the grandchild she'd never met.

'No,' he'd told her. 'It's OK. I'll move into your place while you're away. I'll make sure Mum gets plenty of visits.'

'Michael, what if she dies?'

'If it looks that bad I'll call you.'

'What if there isn't time?'

'There will be.'

* * *

He'd got to his sister's place, found her emergency key under the pot in the greenhouse, let himself in, stood in her silent living room, stared at the walls. His wife was gone, his sister was gone, his mother was going. All the women in his life. And him, back in the big city, alone for the first time in over twenty years.

* * *

That night he'd driven to the hospital. It was hard, hard work. A hard day on the planet.

The worst thing of all, the thing that hit you straight away as soon as you walked in, was the smell. The infection she'd picked up had given her appalling diarrhoea, and they'd had to put her in a tiny isolation room with an attached toilet. They kept the doors closed, wore disposable gloves and plastic aprons whenever they dealt with her. Sometimes they got her to the toilet on time, sometimes they didn't. Whether they did or not, the smell was unbelievable.

He sat beside her and held her hand. He took the gloves they gave him, but didn't wear them. He put them in his pocket. He saw the overloaded nurses looking at her - just another old woman stinking up a hospital bed, a source of infection, a worn out bag of sagging flesh and crumbling bone that had sprung leaks, no longer viable, hardly human. But to him she was more than that. His mother. Not a bad one, most of the time. She'd tried her best. He loved her.

She didn't always know you were there. Sometimes she did, and she'd smile. Sometimes she didn't, and wouldn't.

He hadn't managed Mr Cool, but he hadn't dissolved either. After five minutes he'd gone into her toilet and quietly thrown up. He'd come back wiping his mouth with a scratchy paper towel. His mother was out of it. She didn't know. When he left her she was sleeping.

He'd quickly settled into a routine. Two visits per day, one in the morning, one in the evening. Once the morning visit was out of the way he'd walk or drive around Birmingham, looking to see what had changed, what was still the same. The house he'd been born in was still there. The one he'd lived in from eleven to fourteen had been demolished. They were rebuilding the centre of the city. Parts of it looked pretty good. Other parts looked like the surface of the moon.

A meal somewhere, then the evening visit. Was she better, was she worse?

He'd look at her notes in secret. The first time she'd seen him doing that she'd got upset: 'You shouldn't,' she'd whispered. 'It's not allowed.'

He couldn't understand all of it, but what he could understand he didn't like.

At night he'd buy himself a few cans, go back to his sister's place, read, watch TV, talk to his wife on the phone, surf the net. He felt disconnected from reality. He felt like a space-walking astronaut tied to a failing, falling ship. His connections were damaged; he had a faulty umbilical.

* * *

The prostitute thing just appeared in his head as he sat at his sister's computer, semi-drunk, looking for something to take his mind off the present. He had a search engine open in front of him. Hardly thinking, he typed in the word Birmingham, then Prostitutes. He hit 'enter' - and there they were. Lots of them. Names, pictures, prices, contact details.

A man should experience everything at least once.

He'd stared at the screen for a while, then scratched around for a pen and a pad. And that was it. That was all there was to it. He'd arranged everything in a kind of fog - but he had arranged it. And now he was here, and however bad the shakes got, however much God pissed on him, he knew one thing for sure: he was going through with it.

He looked at his watch again. 4.25. He lifted his pint, drained it, then went to the toilet one last time, just to double-check everything was OK. Outside the rain had eased down to a drizzle. He walked. He got to her block of flats at 4.29 and stared at a bank of buzzers with numbers above them. Hers was number twenty-eight. He pressed it.

There was a click, a static hiss, then: 'Yes?'

'It's Michael,' he said. 'I've come to see Barbie.'

'OK.' A buzz, another click, a push at the door. He was inside.

* * *

He stepped into a lift and pressed the floor number he'd been given. When the lift stopped and the doors opened he stepped out, looked to his left and saw, twenty yards away down a long corridor, a woman beckoning. She was dark-haired and dumpy. Not Barbie. The woman he'd spoken to on the phone, perhaps. She stood half-in, half-out of one of the doorways that lined the corridor. As he walked towards her he heard the lift doors closing behind him.

'Michael?'

He recognised her voice. Oral, full sex, the lot. He nodded. She opened the flat door wide.

'You look wet, love. Come on in.'

She showed him to a room. There was a bed, a chair, a wardrobe. Nothing else.

'She's just finishing up with a client,' said the woman. 'Shouldn't be long. Would you like the paper?'

Finishing up. He didn't know what to say, so he said yes. Yes, please.

She smiled at him, left the room for a moment, and came back with a copy of the Daily Mirror in one hand and a towel in the other. She handed them to him. He stared at the towel.

'For your hair,' she said. 'It's wet.'

'Thanks,' he said.

'Anything else?'

He shook his head.

The woman smiled again. She had a nice smile. He liked her. 'I'll fetch you when she's ready, love. Make yourself at home.'

She left him alone.

He examined the towel. It looked clean. He dried his hair and combed it, then sat in the chair and looked at the paper. He saw pictures and words, but they didn't mean anything.

He heard noises. A toilet flushed. A male voice said something. Goodbye. He heard a spray can being used. Air freshener? He sniffed his armpits.

The door opened and the woman came back in. 'She's almost ready for you now, love,' she said. He followed her to another empty room. She motioned him in then closed the door. He looked around. Dim lighting. A large fan on a stand. Various outfits hanging on a metal rail: a nurse's uniform, a maid's, some schoolgirl stuff, something in black leather. On a dressing table were some of Barbie's things: gloves; whips; vibrators; things he didn't recognise. Tools of the trade.

Jesus! What the hell was he doing here? He didn't know how to stand, or where to put his feet, or what to do with his hands. He felt too big for the room. He thought about running - but he didn't. It would have been rude. And anyway…

He stayed.

The door opened again and a tall, slim blonde walked in. She was wearing a black bra, black panties, black high-heels. She had a big, friendly-looking smile on her face.

'Hello, love,' she said. 'I'm Barbie.'

He looked at her face and his stomach lurched. It wasn't that she was ugly - no Kate Bush with her face smashed in. Far from it.

At home he had a photograph, a picture of his mother taken sometime in 1933. She'd have been in her early twenties. You could tell how long ago it was from the clothes she was wearing and the old-fashioned car in the background.

In the photograph his mother was smiling for the camera, just like Barbie was smiling at him now. The same mouth. The same eyes. Except for the clothes and the hair, it could almost have been the same woman.

He heard his friend's voice whispering inside his head: Bloody hell, Mike - she's a dead ringer for your mother, but without all those tubes and all that shitting…

'I'm Michael,' he said. 'This is my first time.'

Barbie raised her eyebrows. 'Really?'

He saw his mistake. 'Well, you know… It's my first time with… with someone like you.'

Barbie's bra fastened at the front. She unhooked it and opened herself up. He swallowed, and her smile got wider.

'I see,' she said. 'Then you're in for a bit of a treat, aren't you?'

'Am I?'

'Oh yes,' she said, stroking her left nipple, looking directly into his eyes, her voice low and slow. 'Yes, you are, Michael. All you have to do is decide what you want. I'm here to provide it.'

He swallowed again and nodded.

'So, let's get the money out of the way, shall we? After that… I'm all yours.'

'All mine,' said Michael, taking out his wallet with a hand that was no longer shaking.

* * *

She spent a long time on him. More than half-an-hour. And she was very, very good - the best he'd ever known. He kept his eyes open all the time, because whenever he closed them he saw his mother moving above him, her pale skin loose over jutting bone, her body trailing plastic tubing, pumping fluids.

'You remind me of someone,' he said, not long before he came.

'Do I, love?'

'Yes.'

She shifted her position and smiled down at him with her familiar mouth. She did something wonderful with her hips, lifted his hands to her breasts. He juddered, and her smile turned into something different.

'I always do, sweetie,' she said. 'I always do.'

ENDS (3,450 words)

 
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