Ulla and the Pool - by Jeremy Thomas

I am sitting on a bed in a cubicle by an indoor swimming pool  having tea with an aqua-hooker in Hamburg. I keep asking myself whether this is a dream. Judging by the heat, the smell of chlorine, it is possible but then, judging by the perfumed arm draped around my neck, the soft Germanic voice, the touch of female flesh, I think, not. What I do know is that I have already drunk too much of that disgusting sweet champagne.

I think back to how I boarded the plane at Heathrow just two days before. How I marched into the offices of the record company in Stuttgart and demanded to see the boss, and this was no small company! Of how I had bluffed and blustered my way through meetings, attended the annual sales conference at a hotel last night, put on the ultimate presentation about The Droogs, triumphantly collected a post-dated cheque, and ended up in bed with Inga the big-breasted singer, having posed as a waiter shouting ‘room service’ outside her door.

Yet I was nervous when I got here. I tried telling myself this was something I always did when I was away from home. Well, that was a stupid lie; I have never been in anything like this place before. I check my guiltometer. Since I’ve never done this before I ought to be feeling guilty - right? I remember how I justified it to myself while flying here from Stuttgart. I told myself that this was like a long stag night before one got married. Better to do these things now, get them out the way, out of your system, – and start married life with a clean slate.

I stretch across the bed and peer out through the nylon curtains, to see fluorescent lights mixed in with the water of the pool. I am coming down fast. My tongue feels as if it has been dipped in petrol, my throat is full of cough. Thank God for this cup of tea. The pool is only ten metres long and I doubt that anyone has ever swum in it. There are six cubicles on one side and presumably six on this. Over in the far corner, I can see a fat man with a towel around his waist, half lying on a white plastic sun bed. His upper body is covered in hair and rolling tyres of fat. He has his arm far up underneath the towel of one of the two girls leaning over him. They are both giggling.

I wonder why they do not play music and soften the clinical light. This is really too much like a hospital. When I lie back on the bed Ulla gently puts her hand on my chest and rests her face against mine. I wonder if she does this to all the men she sees. I hope not, because I think we have an understanding. I guess Ulla to be in her late twenties, maybe more. She is tall without being terribly tall, has pear-shaped breasts, olive skin and olive coloured eyes. She has already told me she has a nine-year old child to bring up and that this is the only way she can make ends meet. I did not question whether she was telling me the truth, because I could see from her eyes that she was. It had been touch and go at the beginning, though. The equipment did not want to function. It would be difficult to say whether I was more nervous or embarrassed. After a while she took a chance and uttered the immortal words, ‘So what is a nice man like you really doing in a place like this?’

Misunderstanding her, I offered to buy another bottle of the compulsory champagne. She delicately pushed my American Express card back into my wallet as if it were some wafer thin chocolate and turned to me in a half whisper. ‘I mean, you’re so good-looking, so young? Why are you here at all?’

I felt angry and confused. This was adding insult to injury. The ignominy of my malfunctioning undercarriage aside I felt I was being rejected while paying for it. But I did like being called good-looking.

So here I am drinking tea and trying not to look at the bottle of sweet champagne that I emphatically do not want to drink. She had explained that the maximum time for clients was thirty minutes and we had passed the forty-minute mark. I had insisted on buying another bottle, because I didn’t want to get her into any trouble with Mr Aqua Pimp or whatever he was called. At the back of my mind I also thought it would be rather nice to get a blow-job at some point in the proceedings, my membership to the ‘swimming-club’ having already set me back two-hundred pounds. But she had insisted on bringing me a cup of tea, and then had almost pleaded with me to tell her what was happening in my life, to tell her where I wanted to be in a year’s time. It was like talking to someone you had known all your life. A moment in time where you know you can free fall through the air dispersing all manner of information but safe in the knowledge that your never-meeting-the-person-again parachute is guaranteed to open.

‘Are you married? Have you got a girlfriend?’

‘That’s a rather personal question, isn’t it?’

Ulla looks at her watch and, drawing her kimono tighter around her waist, throws me a look that says we haven’t much time. I laugh at the ridiculousness of my situation and then dive head first into the deep of what she wants to hear.

‘Yes, I have a girlfriend.’

‘Do you love her?’

‘What is love?’

‘You know what I mean.’

‘Yes, I guess so. Yes, I guess I do.’

‘You only guess? I mean don’t you know?’

‘Yes, of course I love her. I’m not used to saying it, that’s all.’

‘So English! And?’     

‘And… I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing here. I don’t mean to be rude, of course you’re very attractive, ¾but why am I here? You tell me, you must know.’

‘I don’t know why you’re here but I’m happy that you are.’ Ulla said, pushing out her bottom lip and making a cooing noise, coincidentally in the same way as Anna does after making love.

I turn onto my side and wipe myself with a towel.

‘I’ve spent too much of my life dreaming, scheming and thinking about things but never doing them. Too much of my life worrying if I am doing the right thing, worrying about having the right job, right car, right house, right girl, right fucking everything   All so dreary, so uninspired.’

‘But isn’t everyone like this? Don’t we all want security?’

‘Yes to a point but I don’t think you understand.’

‘What about your girlfriend, does she understand?’

‘She does and she doesn’t. I’m taking her to America in ten days’ time as a kind of present, a kind of way of saying thank-you for her putting up with me.’

‘Why go to America? Is that what she wants?’

‘Are you a part-time psychologist or something?’ I say jokingly.

‘I am being too direct, I’m sorry. Go on please.’

‘She puts up with a lot, you see. I think she loves me. I think she must do. Yes, and maybe it is time to settle down. But not until I’ve achieved certain things. My life is weird it’s like sitting on top of an oil well but having to pretend there’s nothing underneath. I’m trying to be calm. I’m trying to do things right. But sometimes things need a certain approach, the right kind of push or they just disappear. It’s all a question of being able to pass through barriers of pain. Do you see?’

Ulla nods her head but says nothing.

‘Don’t look so serious! It’s only a matter of timing. Timing, timing, timing!’

To cheer her up I tell her a story about being breathalysed by the police the night before I came to Germany. At the end of it, I look up at her and see she is looking mournfully back at me. She has turned into Ophelia in Act Three.

‘Why don’t you stay here for a while?’

‘What?’

‘Why don’t you stay with me for a while, until it’s all blown over?’

‘Ulla, I’m not on the run you know. Just because I’ve been breathalysed…’

‘I know you’re not, but in a way you are - you just can’t see it. Why don’t you leave everything for a while, come here, and forget about pain barriers. Let fate take over. Whatever will be, will be?’

‘I can’t do that. You’re very sweet, you know, but I have to go back.’

Ulla smiles, but then looks crestfallen and sadder than she looked before. There is a silence, which I am embarrassed about. I feel as if I am visiting someone in East Berlin who wants to escape but knows she never will. There is a part of me that wants to complete the cliché and say ‘let me take you away from all this’ but thankfully for me and for her dignity, I don’t.

Ulla looks up at a bulky shadow hovering outside the nylon curtain. It is the aqua-pimp indicating the time is up. I stand up and start putting on my clothes, her hand never leaving my face. She helps me on with my overcoat. We then stand opposite one another and simultaneously stroke each other’s faces.

It is like saying goodbye in slow motion, at a border crossing point.