I cannot say that the appearance of 神秘女郎 is immediately welcoming. Although the fascia has been repainted the door has not. I can’t recall whether it was newly painted when Amy took the premises a year or so ago, but it is not in a location where anything stays shiny for very long. Moreover it is shut. Sometimes it is even bolted, as when the very smelly customer was spotted walking purposefully up the street. The result is that the clientele is limited to the trusted and the apparently amusing.
I am not sure into which of the two categories I fall, but I hope to remain in at least one. Probably it is no more than that Amy likes to read occasionally of her own exploits on this site and indeed every day or so a visitor arrives solely as a result of reading about the place with alablague.
What, I thought as I passed at the door – unbolted on this occasion but nevertheless uncompromisingly shut – what Abraham Cowley, the man who originally gave us ‘great secret miss’, have made of all this chinoiserie? Did they have chinoiserie in the Seventeenth Century or were perceptions of China then limited to travellers’ tales, old copies of the Travels of Marco Polo? I had no idea. Anyway I went in.
Amy was sitting surrounded by her girls. She was explaining something to them. It was a scene not unlike the painting The Boyhood of Raleigh except that that aspiring merchant venturer would not have understood Mandarin. Two things happened as I entered the room. One of the girls, as if by prearrangement as to whose turn it was, went off to make me a cup of green tea; and the conversation mutated into English. Both were instances of that quiet courtesy that brings the customers of 神秘女郎 back again and again.
I tell a personal story, said Amy.
That’s nice, I said.
Some time ago, she said, I was interested in a boy. Can I say ‘boy’? – this was directed to me – is OK?
How young a boy? I said, to establish the nature of the issue.
My analytical powers went into overdrive. Amy’s ‘girls’ are a special case, by their own wish; so the first set of conditions that I applied was that of gender bias. Then I ran ‘boy’ through the rules for sexism tout court. I didn’t expect sensitivity as regards anthropogenic climate change but it never hurts it be sure. Finally I looked at racism: ‘boy’ (or ‘bhoy’ as they had it in the Raj) has some very sensitive overtones but they seemed remote from the present context. It depended of course on the nature of Amy’s interest, but I could always bring the discussion to an end if I felt that she was bordering on the inappropriate.
I discovered later, incidentally, that the word ‘boy’ has an asterix on the translation app, to draw attention to the possibility of its being offensive.
Go for it, I said.
Some time ago, she said, I was interested in a boy. I didn’t know is he interested in me. He was often around but he was never [she paused, fingers on the keyboard] demonstrative. One day it was late in the evening and I got him to my bed.
Was that here, Amy?
I have a vulgar curiosity about her sleeping arrangements, and indeed about that secret part of the premises beyond the public space and the private rooms but before the plumbing and the tapers.
No. This story before 神秘女郎.
Anyway, she went on. I take off clothes and he take off clothes. It is hot night. I lie on bed and hope that he will be friendly towards me.
I could not imagine anyone not wanting to be friendly towards Amy in such a state.
And was he?
No. He said, I am very cold, it is a cold night. He take his side of bed, cover with duvet, cover with counterpane folded double. He looks round the room. He takes my dressing gown. It is beautiful yellow silk. I wore it until then in order to encourage him to be friendly to me. I tied it loosely at the front. It is very beautiful dressing gown and you can see my breasts without difficulty. He said, I put this on top of counterpane – just in case.
He got under this big pile and turn to the wall. He said, I am still very cold. Then he went to sleep. He was entirely [keyboard again] inaccessible. I feel he has taken advantage from me.
That’s outrageous, I said, and I said it with feeling. Did he melt?
With the heat.
He thawed, Amy said, with a half smile. In the end.
One thing bothered me. I didn’t know if I knew Amy well enough to mention it. She had always been insistent on her exclusive loyalty to her husband. ‘I am married person from Kettering: no sex,’ she had always said to the court of appeal judge, when he attempted to be friendly towards her, and if he had had his way in the end it was not entirely with Amy’s consent.
I decided to risk it.
What does your husband in Kettering think about your interests in boys? I said.
Then she said two very surprising things.
The first was surprising because it went entirely against so many things that she had said with apparent sincerity before.
I was not entirely truthful with you about Kettering, she said.
The second was surprising as it indicated an approach to things that was totally at odds with the practicality, not to say lack of imagination, that had characterised almost everything that she had ever said to me before.
Kettering is a state of mind, she said.
And she would not be drawn further.