Were your ship the sort that made berth in the port of Tortuga, then it's likely that what you beheld there would be little surprise to eyes that no doubt had beheld a similar sight on many occasions previous and many yet to come. As your ship drew into the docks, there would be no docksman waiting to charge you for the pleasure on the cracked and rotting planks of the wharf, waiting with greasily shining eyes to take count of your stock and name his percentage for being so kind as to permit you to redistribute them to the merchants waiting beyond. Indeed your only welcome cheer would come from the dock rats, squeaking in anticipation and scuttling amongst the decaying carcasses of fish and other sea creatures, discarded by those too drunk to finish them. Sometimes such an unfortunate diner could be spotted lying amongst the ragged fish guts, dropping suddenly stone cold dead in the midst of an alcoholic haze, his fingers and eye-sockets being dined on by those rodents, large as cats and twice as ferocious – once or twice it had even been sighted a skinny feral cat getting chased down by a couple, rancid teeth bared, when the fishy pickings were slim.
But if such a reversal of roles seems perverse, then gird your loins and steel your soul, for such perversity is the natural spawn of the port of Tortuga. Clamber across the slimy piers, slippery with seaweed, blood and the vomit of drunken sailors and mind where the tread for the moon rarely shines here and when it does it is only as the sickliest of slivers that does little to light your way. The air is cloying and evil-smelling with all the putridness that could come out of a man's belly and hazy with the smoke of fires and of pipes clogged with foreign weed, but the docks are abandoned at this early time of the morning – the far horizon is glimmering grey, and peach – a pretty colour to peek at such a damned spot.
Follow then, a path worn into the un-paved road by the eager footsteps of many bow-legged sailors, up along the beach to Tortuga itself – a tumult of sound and light that cracks the rusty night in debauched celebration. Here, where the beach ends and the taverns and inns begin, the artificially constructed shape of female figures sashay into view, backlit by the fierce orange of the taverns' cheery lights. Impervious they are to the shouting and fighting that carries on with reckless abandon behind them, tucking stray locks up behind their ears, and readjusting their bodices ever lower at the sight of fresh bait. Their faces are caked white to both enhance their beauty – though amongst many it is quickly fading – and to hide the yellowish pallour many must bear after so long working seaside, and their lips are painted a vivid red to recall you to mind of what similarly panting lips lie beneath their skirts.
They call their wares to those who move unwary amongst them:
"Hey ho, there sailor, I could suck the very oceans dry"
"If it's a rocking you fancy, then forget the sea and come with me upstairs, darling"
"You look like a chap with a mind for treasure, how about you have a look at the jewel I've hidden in my petticoats?"
And on and on with ever increasing ribaldry.
The chubbiest whores flaunt their rippling curves in the scantiest of costumes for if they've got money enough to dine so well, then they must be good at their work and sure enough one by one they are chosen and retreat to some quiet nook, whether beneath the piers for a tumble of but a minute or two, or to some slightly more refined quarters, such as a room in one of the boarding houses, where things could carry on all night. But there is one skinny beauty who never finds herself hungry and she has just come up from the docks, her latest customer already having tottered away, satiated and ready to drink himself fully into oblivion.
"'Ow was that then, Giselle?" One dark-skinned nymph jeered to the slender blonde as she rejoined her companions.
"Didn't you 'ear? My screams shook the very night!" She retorted in similar fashion and their laughter was conspiratorial.
"Well, best recover yourself, my darling, for the night ain't over yet!" With a nod, the dark girl gestured to the brimming taverns, in which a thousand more men were whetting their desire.
"Naw, that's it for me tonight I'm afraid ducks. I've 'ad it. Ta-ra!"
The other whores nod their farewells and Giselle begins her weary way to the place she calls home, a tiny room in a boarding house only a few streets up – always best not to be too far from the docks in Tortuga, for it is in those taverns the best pickings are always to be found. The streets of Tortuga have no pavement, nor pavings, being naught but tightly packed dirt, and they are littered with all manner of sewage and rubbish, giving off a grimy haze several feet above the muck around which one must carefully negotiate. Giselle knows her way well, even as sleep threatens to claim her in mid-tread, and keeps clean boots. At frequent intervals, pools of blood and alcohol join the garbage and dogs run barking and fighting for the tastiest scraps while cats screech and yowl above, their yellow eyes burning before they pounce. Sailors of ill-repute and known pirates clank tankards and dance clumsily to the rotten sounds of accordion thrusts, bellowing the words to songs they do not know, or have long forgotten, their tanned and muscled arms, patterned in rough blue tattoos in sharp contrast to the bellies paunched by rum and beer as they turned and whirled in joyous haze.
Giselle makes her way amongst these unsavoury characters, many of whom she has already bedded at least once this month, down a filthy mess of twisting streets, lined with hunchbacked squats and teetering edifices, storey after storey rising so high in the effort to cram ever more whores and sailors in that they would almost meet in the middle of the street, so precarious was their tilt. The temporary residents on either side could shake hands – or jump across, if such an occasion was called for, as it rather frequently was. The door she lets herself in is set in a comparatively impressive frame, gnarled wood carved in the fashion of voluptuous mermaids and water nymphs, offering salacious wares to hungry sailors and the boarding house is similarly impressive, huge and looming over the cramped streets it sits in the middle of. Inside, it is dark, most of its residents already gone a-bed for the night or entertaining some long-staying customer still, and the great hall is completely bare – no bother with decorating the least used part of the house in frippery. At the foot of the rickety, thin little staircase, sits The Captain, with his little toll box gripped tight in one bony claw although his head is tipped back against the panelled wall and a long stream of yellowish saliva dangles from his jaw and pools upon his ragged overcoat. The Captain lost both his legs in what he claims was a battle with The Kraken but which Giselle reckons was more likely to be a shark, one of the really big ferocious ones, and in her mind that's easily as bad as any sea beast or lore, having seen sharks only as the carcasses some fishermen bring ashore. His misshapen stumps poke out over the edge of his chair, twitching involuntarily now and then, the only indication he is even alive. Above him, nailed into the wall, is a little placard that reads:
'Ladies wishing to take sailors upstairs must pay for their rooms in advance'
"'Ard night for you then Capt'n'" Giselle remarks dryly as she mounts the unreliable staircase and commences her careful journey up. As she ascends, she catches sight of the revolver clutched tight in Captain's other hand – should any feckless visitor be so brave and foolish enough to try and break the grip on the toll box. One fellow had, once, and lost his hand for the trouble.
Up and up she climbs, growing ever more weary the higher she gets. The higher rooms are not so damp, of course, and are larger, but for pity's sake, she hates it so at this time of the day when her body is ready to drop and she can feel the cold trail of her last customer's spendings sliding down her thigh. Finally, she reaches her floor and with open relief moves toward her door, shut tight and dark beyond. The one next to it is open a crack, a warm trickle of light barely illuminating the corridor and in curiosity, Giselle pauses and then raps at it with raw knuckles.
"Evie? Evie, you in there?"
"Yes luv, come on in."
Giselle pushes the door open wider, golden light spilling into the slate blue of the dark stairwell, and beholds her friend, red hair lit gold by the light of her candles, sitting in the middle of her lurid four-poster bed and counting the night's spoils in between sips of gin. Not a very good night compared to a usual one for Evie, it looks like at a glance.
"Lawks, darlin', I thought you was being robbed."
"Naw, ducks, the bloody catch on the door is loose again. I've got to wedge the bloody chair against it to keep it shut when there's a biter up here. Not good for a fast escape, eh? Captain knows, the old bastard, but he won't do nothing about it." The whore's face wrinkled for a second before clearing once more. "And how was your night my darlin'?"
"Awright, could've been better but I can't be buggered staying up any longer. What about you, going back out again?"
Evie blew a great gust of breath out her round mouth. "I don't reckon I can, though I know I should." She finished counting and swept the coins into a threadbare silk purse, stained with the passage of time and fraying at the corners. Both Giselle and she knew that she'd wait for Giselle to leave before hiding it – friends though they be, such friendships are better not tempted too sorely. "Got to keep something for tomorrow night." And she offered her friend a lazy wink. "Have a drink if you fancy, ducks." Nodding to the bottles on the little table nearby, one with its stopper out and a couple of glasses waiting palely nearby. Giselle shook her head and pushed her hands through her straggly blonde hair. "Naw thanks, I've got to go or I'll drop. I'll see you at the Docks tomorrow?"
Evie nods and smiles grimly "Nothing could keep me away from that rum lot, least of all when they've 'ad a lot of rum!"
With a chuckle Giselle let herself out, pulling the door shut behind her and then slamming it again and once more, trying to get it to hold. Finally, she gave up, cursing quietly, and moved away towards her own room, where Evie can hear her shuffling around, undressing, depositing coins in some secret hiding place, and squatting over her pan. Finally, the creak of the bedsprings and the extinguishing of her lamp as Giselle retired for the day. Still Evie did not move to secrete her earnings – no not for a good half hour and she could be absolutely certain Giselle was asleep. Over-cautious, perhaps, but Evie only needed to learn a lesson once to remember it always and she had been robbed before.
Instead she slid off her four-poster bed and carried her gin glass over to her dressing table where a cloudy mirror threw back a skewered vision of herself. The good mirror – the one that had cost her almost an entire week's wages made during a pauper's twist – was fixed above the bed, at an angle. She'd bored a hole in either corner of the frame and knotted twine through them which she'd affixed to metal pegs hammered into the plaster wall – it was a touch her clients appreciated when they were sober enough to manage it and she knew there weren't many other whores out there who'd thought of it – or who would be willing to spend the money on such an extravagance. Though her eyes were shadowed with tiredness, she was pleased with what she saw there. Not yet out of her teens, Evie was a beautiful, if unusual looking, girl and took great pains to keep it that way. As with the mirror, as with all the furnishings in her dim little room, Evie was prepared to spend the money to protect her income, an insight that seemed to escape many of her sisters and although she called them sisters, she was not prepared to share all of her secrets if they could not be deciphered at a glance.
Here on Tortuga where the currency was so much that which had been plundered, pillaged or pilfered and was therefore of a great diversity in origin, it was generally understood that five pieces of brass or copper were equal to one piece of silver, and five of silver equal to one of gold, but the whores of Tortuga had devised their own system of payment. The sailors and pirates who came ashore were not always up on their luck – they might come in completely empty handed, or with pockets literally bursting with spoils. Work was never short for the whores of Tortuga, for even skint sailors yearned to plunder the depths of a woman after so long at sea, but one had to be careful not to price oneself out of the market. Hence, if the gents who came ashore had been in a 'pauper's twist', it was one piece of copper or brass for a tumble under the docks and two to come upstairs for the hour. If they'd had a 'turn of fortune' the cost was again one and two – but in silver. And finally, and most desirably of all, when they'd 'ransomed off the King' the fee was gold. In the strange way the Powers decreed, you would often get a run of the same lot at a time. Worse for the pirates, many of them threw in their lot for fortune and their only payment was whatever they took from the winnings. Blackbeard was the only Captain sailing at that time who offered his crew an actual daily wage. His men were always inclined to be generous, when they came around – and it helped that Blackbeard also gave them a flask of rum per day – a lubricated tongue makes the fingers slippery, as Evie's old mum used to say. But Blackbeard's crew were an exception and yes, although there was never a night a whore of Tortuga went home penniless, sometimes it was only just.
So Evie would hoard her gold and silver away, in the soles of her shoes and the false bottom of her little chair and in the top of one of her four posters, the curved head of which lifted neatly out – the bed had been there when she moved in, and she did not know how this had come to be or if the resident before her, who'd died in that bed, had even known about it herself. And when the ships came ashore, bargaining off their stolen wares for currency they could have a better use for, she would take a fat little purse down to the docks and invest it in her business. First had come the linen for her bed and its damask and velvet hangings. The bed, she knew, was the most important of all and needed to look inviting, and with the addition of a few pillows and an extra mattress or two to thicken out the sunken one bequeathed to her with the room and the bed, it looked fit for a King's Mistress, she reckoned. She couldn't know that the excess of reds and pinks looked only vulgar, especially with the mirror, and like that of any London brothel's, but nor could her customers, and the effect came off altogether well. The canopy hid the cracked and leaking ceiling and she could draw the curtains around the bed and create a new world of perfume and soft flesh. She bought new linen as much as possible, so she did not have to endure the same slimy sheets night after night, but could change them once or twice a week and pay Captain's Missus to wash them for her. A mish-mash of oriental rugs lined the age-worn panels of her floor so that not an inch of the ugly, stained wood could be seen – when Evie first took over this room, a huge blood stain had smeared the floor, right in the door way. Now it, and all other manner of sins, vanished beneath the weave of those carpets on which stood her dark wooden dressing table, taken from the cabin of a lady on her crossing, sadly way-laid and her journey through life abruptly halted, with its matching chair and sideboard, on which she lined up glass decanters of alcohol she kept regularly topped up from the cheap rubbish stocked in the taverns. The silver tray they rested on was spotted with age and the crystal wear she served them in was cracked in more than one place. But the look was the thing and she knew well enough to know there was nothing else like it on Tortuga at least. A hulking great wardrobe stood in front of the window, occupying the last gasp of space in the little room, for she had no need for the view in the evening hours and certainly no use for the sunlight during the day, where precious hours of sleep were snatched. Everything wretched on the walls that could possibly be covered, with a fan or a painting (lascivious of course), duly was and the whole effect, though patched, was one of comfort and decadence the likes of which most pirates and sailors had not seen for many months – or years. Finally there had come the mirror, just a few months ago – it had been a true extravagance at a time when no one but this ship had showed up with anything for their troubles and though she'd paid so much she'd had to offer her services to seal the deal, but it had been worth it in the end. The word would spread about the red-haired whore with the mirror above her bead and the breasts of Venus and the men would come. With the final touch of sandlewood incense and the glow from an iron, free-standing candelabra, the picture was complete and as perfect as she could make it.
This had been the work of years for her, of working long into the morning and saving with a savage wretchedness that had seen her smothering hunger with gin and coca leaf and even occasionally submitting to things she would rather have not for the promise of an extra piece of gold.
And it all had worked. Evie had enjoyed great success on the shores of Tortuga, not just for her hard won skills between the sheets, but for the 'touch of maidenly refinement' she offered.
But her clientele was changing, with her eighteenth year, and Evie knew she was going to have to rethink a few angles in order to stay on top of her game. Soaping up a sponge in her wash-basin to wipe the last traces of make-up from her face, she studied herself critically.
The face that peered out before her from the rippling glass (would it be worth a few extra coins for a better mirror?) was elfin and high-cheeked, with almond-shaped, slanting eyes and overly-full lips. Until recently her eyes had been too large for her face, adding to her youthful appearance, but with her rapid maturity they had grown into her, adding to her change in fortune. Standing at a mere five feet, her caramel coloured skin and Oriental features were confused by her red hair and the blue-grey shade of her eyes. Evie was a mongrel, and such exoticism was usually worth extra notice but she'd have more clients amongst the dark-skinned lot if only she were the quintessential English Rose, like Giselle, or more amongst the whites if she were true black, like Jasmine. But she was not – she was Evie, the little mutt, and she made the best use of what she had that she could. Finishing with her wash, she smoothed thick cream against her skin, filling the air with the scent of rose and lavender, and massaged it deep into her pores. Then she opened a little pot and scooped up a fingerful of a thick, whitish liquid and scrubbed it into her teeth. An Oriental customer had taught her the recipe – it required rock salt, mustard seed and pepper – and she used it twice a week and thought the results well worth the bleeding gums. Her teeth were yellowed only slightly and she had them all without rot and that was of great value indeed – it kept the look of the worn and beaten from her demeanour.
Standing up and out of her dressing gown, she soaped down her whole body and then rubbed the cloyingly-sweet smelling cream into every inch, stopping at regular intervals to slurp down great gulps of gin.
Her figure was splendid, gifted as she was with the full bloom of youth. Her breasts were large and perfectly shaped, her waist nipped in then burst out again for generous hips. Her bottom and belly were both gently rounded and in the Turkish way she carefully sheared off every curl of hair that sprung below the neck. However, her body was the cause of her change in fortunes, unbelievable though it may be. When she'd taken up the game at age thirteen, when her mum was simply getting too old and sick, skilled or not, to bring in what she used to and a second income was needed, they'd lamented her childish figure – the flat bosom and straight hips. Her mother's Turkish blood should've gifted her with greater voluptuousness, but it seemed her father's Irish would win out instead. Conversely, they discovered this was the secret to Evie's initial success – there was more than one man out there with a passion for youth a little beyond the acceptable and even as Evie got beyond thirteen that childish figure and elfin face ensured she passed for thirteen well enough for new customers in addition to prolonging the fantasy for the old. Evie knew well enough to know this would not last forever and so she had resolved not to trade solely on her delayed blooming, sharpening her skills with the help of her mum and her mum's friends, and adding her own touches in presentation besides – and she had done well to do so, for her eighteenth year had brought on a much delayed growth spurt that seemed to make up for its tardiness by happening in a matter of months. All of a sudden, Evie's hips widened and blossomed, and her breasts burst up like ripened apples. She even grew a few more inches and her little face fleshed out and matured, and one by one her old regular clientele was dropping off and she was left to the business of rebuilding. It was only a matter of time, she knew, but the time in between would be rough. She was already beginning to learn that her new customers preferred a lock or two of curly red hair upon her nether regions, indeed coveted a glimpse, but it was so much easier to keep free of crabs and lice without... What she could use right now is a pirate ship full of gloating, swag-laden rascals, just aching to spend their hard-fought spoils on a curvy little exotic.
Whoring was Evie's business. She had not fallen into it by accident or misfortune, not gone seeking her fortune only to be ruined and left with no other option, not trusted a man with her maidenhood only for him to duck out on her when she fell pregnant and was thrown disgraced from her family's door. She'd inherited the trade from her mother who had inherited it from her mother before her and with all that the dozens of tricks and tips that could only come from a heritage of purchasable pleasure. She knew things to do to a body that could make a man swear off God for all time and this wicked knowledge with her innocent youth meant success was hers, no matter her breeding. She considered no shame in it – she made her living honestly and with hard work. She promised a quality service, and by god, she delivered it, though sometimes it left her bone weary and cold as a grave. She'd had men plunder her relentlessly beneath the docks tossing coins disdainfully at her as they turned, their pants barely fastened, to kick sand up with their heels. And she'd had men weep in her arms for the wives and children they left behind, or the sweethearts they'd lost. It was the gentle men she remembered more than the rough, for they left their impressions more deeply – it was always to her, and her sisters, they turned for the answers – cursed women who had never known the joy of being able to hold their head high in polite society or even of knowing their alphabet, but those heartbroken and world weary men thought the whores could tell them what they were ever searching for. All Evie knew, though she never said it, is they would never find it. Her role was to listen, and cradle them against her bosom, and convince them that hour or two was all they really needed to cure them of the world's ills – enough so as they would come back again. Many a vicious pirate had wet her chemise in this fashion. And when morning came and her soul was heavy with the weeping of the world, she would lie between her crumpled sheets and swallow gin until it had countered the effects of the coca leaf she relentlessly chewed to keep her wakeful through the night, and then she would sleep.
As she moved to do now. Wedging her dressing chair firmly under the knob of her door, tight enough so she could turn the lock besides, she then took her little purse of money and clambered up onto the bed, stretching on tip toe, her mind quickened by the coca leaf restlessly convincing itself this noise would say to any eavesdropper she was merely retiring for the night. Carefully hidden in that poster, she relaxed down into the sheets, feverish brain slowly stullefied by the effects of the liquor until at last her eyelids drooped and then shut firmly and her chest rose in slow and heavy motions.
Outside, the rioting and fighting, the screeching and the laughing in the taverns and streets of Tortuga continued, unabated by the rise of the sun.