Kayla, 29, was pretty, but in a pinched way, both literally thin and narrowly perched on a section of the border between beauty and ugliness that was particularly precarious. She was sitting awkwardly on some badly-carpeted stairs, holding her labia open with a greedy expression on her face. Even on her spare frame, the pose made her stomach ruffle into rolls. Her inner thighs had acne.
Sofia, 21, on the other hand, was burnished like lino. This wasn’t an afterthought for her. She’d had a spray tan to cover her knicker-marks. Her anus and vagina were partly shaded puckers in an otherwise smooth bronze surface.
Robert turned the page. Neither would do. If asked, he would have said Sofia was better, but there was something too doll-like about her. It wouldn’t always bother him, but this time was special. He didn’t want it to be hurried, or furtive, or stimulated by something nasty. He wanted to be looking at a nice, clean bit of pornography, a well-formed, beautiful woman who looked like she had a healthy body image and wasn’t in any way aspiring to appear underage or subjugated. And when he’d found it, he wanted to have a good run up at it, a nice long build up and a good strong burst of semen. The doctor kept on mentioning natural selection amongst sperm, and so he felt an obligation to make sure they were released upon the world with vigour, a positive attitude, and as little hateful degrading of women as possible.
He could hear people moving around outside. He wondered what the guy before him had chosen.
This was so much harder than before. When he was being tested, it had been a pleasure. Instead of work, masturbation – careful, hygienic, guilt-free. They did that bit in a different unit, though. You pressed a buzzer to get in, filled in a form, and waited to be ushered into a further locked corridor. Off that corridor was a locked room. That was three locked doors – two between you and anyone else. Also, in the room itself, the porn was in a discreet blue box, along with two chairs (mysteriously) and a relatively spacious en-suite toilet.
Robert definitely disapproved of the sex industry. He’d enjoyed the strip-club at his mate’s stag night, but only because it wasn’t for him, and anyway he’d made a point of smiling at the girls in a kindly and understanding manner. But this was different. It was medicinal.
The blue box contained quite some variety. There was your obvious, low-grade stuff. Nuts and Zoo. He wondered if anyone bothered with that here. If it was embarrassing in normal life to be caught reading Nuts, how much more embarrassing to satisfy yourself with Lucy Pinder’s Gigantic Jugs when countless Asian Babes were fingering themselves just a magazine away?
Mind you, the Asian Babes were not all babes. There was definite variation in quality. And they were both Asian in the sense of Indian and in the sense of Chinese or Thai. The distinction seemed to be that the East Asian girls were shaved to the point of weird asexuality, whereas the Indian ones (on the small but presumably representative sample Robert had taken) were abundant, almost aggressively so. One of them in particular made a point of emphasising how the hair spread out for at least an inch on either side of her pants. He imagined that somewhere there was probably a whole dissertation on racist archetypes of the vagina.
As for the rest of the magazines, you could literally choose from 18-80. Both extremes equally problematic.
It had occurred to Robert with reasonable frequency, both while rifling through the blue box and on the lazy walk home afterwards, that someone must have bought this stuff. Someone must have been allocated a portion of the NHS budget and told to go and buy a sufficient range of porn to cater for all tastes.
Maybe there were official categories. A tick list in triplicate. Schoolgirls? Tick. Spanking? Tick. Lesbians? Tick. Sadistic? Neo-colonialist? Quasi-paedophile? Tick, tick, tick. And did the official porn-buyer test out the goods? Did the staff at the hospital ever sneak into the wank room for a quick one off the wrist?
Not a bad thought, really. Maybe every workplace should have a masturbation room. Boys and Girls. Not next to the toilets – that would just be seedy – but in a discreet corridor (with two locked doors) off the coffee room.
Or that was what he used to think. Now, in this altogether less restful situation, he began to doubt the wisdom of it. All fine if the wank went well, but a misfire could put you in a foul mood for the rest of the day. There’s nothing like desperately trying to knock one off over dog-eared close-ups of increasingly weird-looking pudenda, and finding that turning the page faster only makes them seem even weirder, and thinking how many other people have flicked through this same magazine while vigorously rubbing their genitals, to put you off any kind of meaningful human interaction until the time you can get home and have a long bath.
He looked at the crumpled page through narrowed eyes. He pictured one of those terrifying adverts for disinfectant where fluorescent germs spread inevitably from malevolent household objects to the innocent mouth of a child.
He wondered if the handwash would be bad for his penis.
No. Concentrate. This was a serious business. He could not afford to let his mind wander. His future child’s identity was in the balance, depending on which sperm were prioritised. This was no time to end up with one of those half-limp wanks where the main emotion upon ejaculation was just relief that the whole sorry business was over. He needed a proper, sex-starved early teen epic.
He checked his watch. 9.34. He’d been in here almost ten minutes.
He rubbed a bit more vigorously, but it didn’t really help.
It all came back to this fucking room. As soon as he had entered the building, he knew it was a whole different ball-game.
For starters, there was the simple layout of the ward. Beds two feet apart, and a couple in each bed. Thin blue curtains separating them, but you could still hear the breathing, and the whispered gynaecological details. Every now and then a loud bell sounded and the gaggle of women at the main desk muttered and giggled.
Then there was the nurse. After Louise had changed into the backless gown, the nurse had come by with some forms to fill out. She was small, wizened, Chinese and extremely hacked off. They'd made faces over her head. There was another wait, and then she was back, holding a small pot like the ones you get olives in from the deli at Sainsbury’s.
“Come on,” she said abruptly.
Robert followed. With feverish bravado, he had winked at Louise. She looked like she was going to piss herself.
The nurse led him to a door between the main ward and a glass fronted office. It opened onto a small cubicle about a metre wide, with a sink inset in the wall like the toilet in a train. It reminded him inescapably of the narrow cattle pens he’d seen at his cousin’s farm. At one end was a plastic-covered chair, and there was a rack with two tatty magazines, Reader’s Wives and, in front, with an improbably busty Chinese girl open-mouthed on the cover, Asian Babes.
Robert felt an uncontrollable blush spread over his face. He tried to stand between the nurse and the busty Chinese girl. It felt indecent for them to see each other.
The last straw for his dwindling libido was the instructions. The nurse plonked the pot down by the sink and said,
“Wash your hands. Ring the bell when you’ve finished.”
His heart missed a beat. “The bell?”
She pointed. It loomed on the bare wall. The cackling laughter of the nurses echoed in his head.
“Write the exact time you ejaculate on the label,” she said. Her eyes slid over his face. “And tick if you collect the whole sample.”
She slammed the door behind her. It shook, as if it might just splinter into nothing.
He picked up Reader’s Wives. Even aside from the racism, it just seemed more moral to be looking at people who hadn’t been paid to do this.
He heard the nurse walk back over to the desk. A peal of laughter rang out. He could hear the murmur of a voice on the telephone next door.
He opened the magazine and dropped his trousers.
Now, ten minutes later, he was not much nearer his goal, and was increasingly aware of the unpleasant way the plastic covering of the chair was sticking to his thighs.
He turned the page.
Angela, 27, spread her legs and pulled off her pants in an unnecessarily elaborate way over the few pages of a picture story. By the end of it she had her finger up her arse and her pussy was wet.
He caught himself. Pussy. Seeing that on the page had made him think the word ‘pussy’. Was the porn infecting him? Maybe this was turning him into a misogynist. What would Virginia Woolf think of him now?
Her pussy was wet. Angela’s, not Virginia Woolf’s.
Stop it. Think sexy. Wet pussy.
Or was it? Was it really? This was a photo. It was set up. Did pressing her bum up to a camera with her finger up her arsehole really make her wet? Or was it just lubricant?
He looked closely. It did look quite clean and well-defined. Neatly within the appropriate space, copious and yet confined.
Maybe it had been Photoshopped.
No. If they left the acne on Kayla’s inner thighs alone, they weren’t going to bother adding highlights to Angela’s flanges.
He turned the page again. Another arse and cunt combo. Pussy after pussy. Women posed like tripods on unstable ground. It was amazing how quickly it all became routine. He should find the one. The one that would really get him going, make it a good one. He tried not to get flustered, but he couldn’t resist another peek at his watch.
He flicked past the granny section, trying not to look. Once that got in his head he’d never get rid of it.
There. Near the back. Janice. 25. Curvy. Pretty. Two buttocks presented to the camera, with a neat pink slit between them.
Now or never.
He stroked the head of his penis. This was it. He stared hard. He imagined the feel of a proper good one, the jet of it, the weakness in the back of your legs.
He stared. He adjusted his grip.
This was it.
His hand moved.
This was it!
His hand moved faster.
This was going to be his child.
Simultaneously, he felt himself about to come, and he felt his penis slacken infinitesimally. He was thinking about babies. No good. Retreat. That was worse than Kayla. But just as he was readying himself to back down and regroup, he realised he hadn’t opened the pot, and he suddenly felt the panicked certainty that he would come after all, and it would spurt out wasted over his trousers, and he’d have to either go out and explain to Louise and the nurse and the doctor, or scrape it off and risk spawning a child whose DNA was spliced with the bacon fat stain near his knee.
He scrabbled for the pot. It toppled into the sink, and he lurched forward, one knee dropping to the ground, grabbing it. Janice slipped off his lap and fluttered to the floor. He fumbled one-handed with the pot. With a thumb he popped the lid off and jabbed his penis deep into the plastic container just as, with a tiny sigh of horror, he looked down at Tiffany, 76, lying on her back in a red basque and no knickers, and came.
A Room of One's Own by Johnny Steel was read by Ben Farrow at the Liars’ League Cock & Bull event on Tuesday 8 February 2011 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Sq., London
Johnny Steel is not very sure about much in his life. His most common feeling is a vague sense of absence. He thinks he's from London, but really, your guess is as good as his.