Anna had agreed to follow Samar back to the brothel house, completely unaware of what was awaiting her. She was unconsciously relieved to be out of the streets and at the same time, was also slightly excited by the prospects of spending more time with Samar, an excitement that leaves her feeling dumbfounded.
Samar took Anna in through the left-most shophouse, unlocking the grill with a set of keys before sliding the door open slowly.
“Come in, but don’t make too much of noise. I’m not sure if there are any customers around.”
Anna nodded and slowly made her way in, careful not to knock over any of the vases laid out for decoration. While the exterior of the shophouse did look normal, as any other shophouse would have, the interior did not look as if it belonged to such shabby buildings. The first thing that Anna noticed was that the walls that separated one shophouse with the other were torn down so that the shophouses now resembled a big, rectangular-shaped building. While the doors and the staircases were kept intact, the vast hallways were grand enough to create the air of a sophisticated brothel house.
The walls were in a creamy shade of white, while there were embossed patterns on the wall that looked like hundreds of white hemlocks intertwined with one another. The air was filled with women’s cologne that was also clashing with the unmistakable scent of mush and male sweat. The combination was somewhat suffocating and uncomfortable for Anna, who was feeling dazed under the harsh fluorescent lights littered across the hallway.
Going up the stairs, Samar beckoned Anna to follow her.
“I’m taking you to Madam Ahjunta.”
Anna followed meekly, worried now as she was starting to feel completely out of place and out of sorts, yet she knew that she had nowhere else to go as well. Living in the streets, seeking shelter at the roadside bus stops and trees were just not feasible in the long run. Losing her memory also meant inheriting a kind of fear that meant everyone was unreliable and dangerous until proven otherwise.
Even so, she knew she was simply creating excuses for herself. Feasible or not, Anna felt more comfortable on the streets, surrounded by darkness rather than right then, in a pretentious looking building, under overly-warm lights. She knew she was only here because of the attraction she had towards Samar.
Which of course made no sense at all but since when anything concerning her made any sense from the moment she woke up in the alleyway a week ago?
The rooms were quiet despite Anna expecting to be hearing the kind of noises that were the norm in places such as this. She wondered if everyone was asleep or were they having a bad day of business. As the last thought passed her mind, she mentally kicked herself; it wasn’t as if she wanted to see those kinds of things … did she?
Anna was so engrossed with her thoughts that she hardly noticed that they had entered one of the rooms and were slowly approaching someone who was watching them intently. The woman was seated behind a desk at the corner of the room, studying Anna who was still lost in her thoughts.
“Good evening, madam.”
Anna was startled when Samar suddenly spoke out and stopped in her tracks. She finally noticed the woman seated in front of them.
“Good evening. Who is this you brought together with you?”
Madam Ahjunta appeared to be in her late forties, at least that was what Anna assumed was her age. She was plump and short, her hair tied up neatly in a bun, with pins sticking securely but visibly as well. Despite the late hours, she was dressed up in a salmon-coloured suit, appearing more bookish and accountant-like, rather than who Anna was certain she was. Her fingers were alternated with heavy gold rings, the only thing that was clashing with the other aspects of her appearance.
“This is Anna,” Samar introduced. “I found her loitering around on the streets.”
“Hello,” Anna voiced out meekly, covering behind of Samar like a frightened deer.
“Hello,” Madam Ahjunta answered curtly, before turning her attention back to Samar, effectively dismissing and ignoring Anna’s presence.
“I can’t seem to understand why you brought her here. If you were that concerned, which is surprising, you should have taken her straight to the police station.”
“Leaving her on the streets is much safer than taking her to the police station; however, neither seemed to be the right choice, as she isn’t in the possession of her memory, as she had come to consciousness in the alleyway with a blank slate for a mind.”
Madam Ahjunta lowered her glasses and peered at Anna, her eyes narrowing in doubt.
“How is that possible?” she asked.
“Well, we wouldn’t know, would we, seeing as she doesn’t remember what happened to her previously. She has her ID card with her though, so that would come in handy. We can ask Patrick to investigate her background the next time he comes for a visit. Surely doing this wouldn’t be too much to ask of him.”
“And what do you suppose we do with her up until then? None of you are free to train her …”
“I did not bring her here to be one of us,” Samar interrupted. Madam Ahjunta goggled at her.
“Then, what do you intend to do with her? There’s no way I’m allowing someone to freeload here.”
“She can be our maid.”
Anna stood there, gaping at Samar. Maid? She knew nothing of that sort.
“I doubt she knows how to be one,” Madam Ahjunta said, echoing Anna’s thought.
“Probably, but until we try, we wouldn’t know for certain if she’s good at it. I’m tired of being the only one that knows how to do decent household work here. Karmen and Aida are helping, I do not deny that, yet they too have their limitations, especially if they had a rough night. Anna can take care of all the household duties, I’ll help her too whenever I can. That way she’ll be earning her keep.”
“You thought this through,” Madam Ahjunta commented.
“No, in all honesty, I didn’t. I only had the idea when we were walking back. It makes sense though, plus, you wouldn’t be spending much; since we’re cooking here, it’s only the matter of expanding the portion a little.”
Madam Ahjunta got up from her seat and walked towards them. She circled Anna, taking note of her appearance and the state that she was in.
“She needs a shower and some clothes.”
“She can wear mine.”
Anna blushed. Wearing Samar’s clothes? Sharing them with her?
“I need you to give me your word, Madam,” Samar said, drawing both the madam’s and Anna’s attention towards her. “She is not to be auctioned or sold. She isn’t tied up to us. She should be allowed to leave just as freely as she came here.”
Madam Ahjunta stared at her.
“I wonder what kind of first impression she gave you for you to be this defensive and territorial about her.” Before Samar could disagree, the madam continued. “Do not tell me you aren’t, I can see it in your eyes, also in hers. You are my blood after all.”
Samar stayed silent at that. Madam Ahjunta turned her attention to Anna this time.
“Well, it seems as if you have a place to stay for as long as you want, or at least until we no longer exist here. That is of course provided you do well to earn your keep.” Glancing at Samar, she went on. “I have a house to run and order to maintain amongst the women here. I can’t give you much of a cushion just because you’re my niece’s ward, so to speak.”
Wait, niece? Madam Ahjunta is Samar’s aunt? She tried placing them side by side yet found no resemblance.
“Stop that,” Samar ordered as she noticed what Anna was trying to do.
Looking at both of them, Madam Ahjunta laughed.
“Looks like you have an interesting pet here, Samar. Let’s see how it works for you.”