Social workers

Posted on 30/09/2013


girl, Uzhgorod

Darkness descends on the border settlement of Uzhgorod, a few kilometers from Slovakia and Hungary in Ukraine’s westernmost region of  Transcarpathia. People walk by as shadows along unlit streets, and the river, whose undeveloped, sultry banks trend a sweeping curve through the centre of town, is black and silent. Daytime’s busy handful of mallard ducks are already tucking their heads under feathers for the night.

We’re reading a newspaper article, whose openly misogynist register relates the misadventures of local boy Ivan, 25. The young beau met a couple of prostitutes at the railway station, came to an arrangement with Nadezhda, 26, and invited her home in return for the equivalent of twelve pounds. Their liaison proceeded successfully, until she went to the bathroom, and he fell soundly asleep, waking later to discover the tart had brazenly rifled his pockets, taking a further eleven pounds, a mobile phone, and three spare batteries, before tiptoeing surreptitiously out of the room. Seemingly unconcerned about his reputation and apparently immune from prosecution himself, an incensed Ivan went to the police who, instead of sending him on his way, told him he wasn’t the only victim of this bad mother of three fatherless children in care, and pressed charges against her for robbery and prostitution.

Alicia (not her real name), pudgy and tired-looking, dressed in black combat trousers and a jacket with golden sparkles on its shoulders, takes a seat and orders a glass of juice, but won’t look me in the eye, talking only to Zhenya, who I’ve accompanied here on her quest to photograph prostitutes for her latest project. According to the local branch of an NGO which helps sex-workers and drug addicts, Alicia is the main mamochka, or madam, in town.

– It’s really dangerous for the girls here. Fifty per cent of the clients are drunk. When they’re drunk, you don’t know what they’ll do. We’ve had so many girls killed. Cut up, beaten.

“What about the police?” asks Zhenya.

– If they find out the victim’s a prostitute, they won’t touch it. Your fault.

“Don’t you have any way of defending yourselves?”

– If you’re in the woods somewhere, maybe grab hold of a branch or something, hit him over the head..

“What about pepper spray? Or self-defence classes?”

– You know our [Ukrainian] girls. Protecting yourself physically isn’t realistic.

“So how do you deal with them?”

– Pity. Please don’t hurt me! Sometimes works. Sometimes it makes them angrier. Every time you go on a job, you just hope he’s not a bad one.

“What about a bodyguard?”

– There’s individualki. Self-sufficient call girls, you can find on the internet, you call them and they come to you. They often have a guard with them. The girls cost 400 or even 800 hrivna (£35 or £75) an hour. Then there’s girls in flats which the mamochki own, they buy them sexy underwear and shoes, cosmetics sometimes. There’s some who’ll do it for 20 hrivna, at the station. Drunks and addicts.

The waitress comes out with Alicia’s juice.

– I want to help, but I can’t have my face seen. No-one knows I do this. I have three sons. I run a shop. I know a girl you could photograph. But she’s a gypo. Are you OK with that?

“I don’t want to draw attention to particular nationalities. I want to photograph someone glamorous, not desperate. I’ll pay them for their time. We can bring them back here and work in our hotel room. Or go to one of their flats.”

Alicia looks increasingly nervous and less certain of being able to help. I suggest Zhenya shows Alicia photographs she’s already taken for her project, which she does. This seems to relax her, and she pulls out her mobile.

– I’ll talk to Ira for you.

“Who’s Ira?”

– A mamochka.

Ira agrees to meet us later, at the station, where she warns Zhenya it’ll be dangerous on her own, but OK if she’s got a man with her. Zhenya gives Alicia twenty pounds to thank her for her time, which Alicia takes gratefully, before leaving.

We arrive at the station around 1030pm. Our rendezvous point is the Tri Gorba – Three Humps – a cafe whose neon sign is the only lighting, and shows a few drunken men in motley groups loitering on the pavement. I park our hire car over by a tree, behind which a man lurches.

Zhenya phones Ira, who soon appears – she is blonde, in her mid-40s, thin, wearing a leather jacket and jeans, her once beautiful face still angular, but hardened. She shakes both our hands, and suggests we take a seat inside. In contrast to Alicia, she looks me straight in the eye, with a confident smile.

The owner, sitting with the security guard, a tired, crumbling man of around fifty, and another male acquaintance, are the only others inside the chilly cafe. She scowls at me. We take seats at a table by three fridges stacked with bottled water and soft drinks. I buy a coffee for Ira, water for Zhenya, and a tomato juice for myself.

– What did Alicia tell you?

Zhenya relates what we were told. Ira laughs scornfully.

– She’s lying! She doesn’t have three children! She doesn’t have any children! She’s not a mamochka! She’s nobody! She’s my servant!

“What about girls in flats?”

– There’s no mamochkas buying them make up and shoes! Forget it! There’s girls at the Hotel Transcarpathia, but they’re horrible. Compared to them I’m a super-hottie!

“What about clients hurting girls?”

– I was in prison 17 years. I was in four times. First time was for ripping off a morgue. I was the chief pathologist, they were delivering humanitarian aid and I sold the contents of the lorry. In prison I was a brigadier – the work gang leader. We sewed all day. I could do four times as much work as the other girls. These hands have got me through life!

She kisses them. Her fingers are long and fine, but browned, stained with what looks like fruit, and muscular, like men’s hands, with bubblegum pink nails.

– I’ve been picking sea-buckthorn today in the village, I sold some by the side of the road so I could get into town. If any man touches me, I can fend for myself. Yes, sure, lots of girls get knifed or strangled, but they bring it on themselves. A client says there’s three of them, then she gets there and it turns out there’s six. Why agree to that in the first place? As for that Alicia, she’s told you a pack of lies. Talk of the devil!

Ira’s phone, which dangles inside her top on a cord tied to one of the zips on her jacket, is ringing.

– Alish! Where are you? What’s all this crap you’ve told Zhenya?

The phone cuts out.

– I told you. She’s drunk! Crying like a baby! Hopeless.

“I think that might be my fault,” says Zhenya. “That’s the last time I pay someone for helping.”

A different phone with a different tone rings.

– That’ll be my baby. Hi sweetie, I’m in a meeting, I can’t talk now, I’ll call you back.

Alicia rings again, and calls several more times, apparently in a state, but won’t say where she is. Ira’s battery is running low, so she changes it by taking a battery out of her other phone, which is her personal one. Before removing the battery, she shows us a picture on the phone, of her boyfriend.

– He’s only twenty seven! she says grinning, apologetically. He loves me so much. He’s inside at the moment, my darling! Young people do silly things.

Ira wants to know what good taking pictures of prostitutes will do. Zhenya explains that her work is about different concepts of beauty in Ukrainian society. Ira says the only girls around tonight are addicts and bums. She gives us the names of a couple of hotels which rent rooms by the hour, where we could take them.

“Where are the hotels?”

– Just ask any taxi driver. They all know where they are.

Zhenya doesn’t want to exploit desperation. A couple of drunks barge into the cafe. After watching us for a few seconds, they get over excited, and begin brawling. Ira shouts at them to fuck off. The cafe owner gets up and pushes them out, locking the door after them. Zhenya suggests we find a girl who’ll agree to be photographed in daylight, tomorrow, and makes a deal to phone Ira when she wakes up.

As we stand to leave, Ira notices the tomato juice, which I haven’t touched, and takes it before I can place it back on the cafe counter.

– You bought that for me, right? You know it’s my favourite juice.


– I’ll bring the glass back later, Sveta? says Ira to the owner.

“Sure babe,” she smiles. “Whenever you like, sweetheart.”

A bottle smashes on the pavement as we step out. The brawlers and some other men in hoods are standing around. I hear the Russian words “filth” and “rubbish dump”, slang for police, muttered repeatedly as we pass, along with threatening laughs, and soon a few of them are walking on our heels. They think we are the Ukrainian secret police, here to buy informants, to bust dealers, working girls and whoever else, just to meet a quota. We try not to pay attention. Ira walks us to our car, and phones her boyfriend in prison.

– Hi babe! Hey, guess who I’m here with? Not just with any old people. I’m here with seriously cool people. With journalists! Don’t believe me eh? Speak to them.

She hands the phone to Zhenya.

“Hi. Your girlfriend really is telling the truth. We’ve just been spending time with her. How are you?”

– What’s she told me about you?

“Lots of good things, that you’re a very good person, and that you love her.”

– Thankyou.

“Despite the circumstances you currently find yourself in, I wish you a pleasant evening, and knowing what I know about you from your qualities that Ira has told me, I’m sure everything is going to be all right for you.”

Zhenya hands the phone back to Ira, who says she’ll call him back. She hugs us both, and returns to the nighttime scene around the Humps.

Next morning, Zhenya calls Ira, who says there’s no girls around, but if we come to the station later, she’ll find someone. So Zhenya gets on the internet, and calls a call girl, whose webpage identifies her as Maria.

– Call me Natasha. Are you a lesbian?

“No. Well, not exactly. I’m here with my partner, he might be with us in the room, but I’m the client. I want to talk and take photographs,” says Zhenya.

– Is he impotent?

“He’s not going to take part.”

– What’s wrong with him? Don’t worry, I’ll turn him on! But first you have to transfer money into my account.

“I’ll pay you when you get here. I’ll pay you a deposit, you can look at me and make your mind up. I’ll pay you the rest when we’re done.”

The phone goes dead.

Zhenya calls back. Natasha says she is in a nearby town, and says she’ll be with us in forty minutes.

An hour passes. Zhenya calls back. No answer. Another hour goes by. Finally she answers.

– What’s your address again?

“Look, you don’t need to be frightened. I’ll come out front of the hotel, you’ll see I’m a woman, quite a small one.”

– We’re going to kiss on the lips when I arrive.

The phone goes dead. Another hour goes by. Zhenya calls again. A man answers.

“Who’s this?”

– Natasha’s friend.

“Where is she? I’m waiting for her!

– Night is young lovers’ friend.

“But I wanted to see her in daylight!”

The phone goes dead. Zhenya calls back. This time, Natasha answers.

– I’m getting dressed. Are you ready to trot? Get ready, baby!

“How soon will you be here?”

– In fifteen minutes. We’ll be in a black Mercedes.

Fifteen minutes pass. Several cars stop outside our hotel, but none of them is the one. After half an hour, I suggest we go downstairs to the cafe. We sit in the darkness drinking tea. No-one shows up. Then Alicia calls. She wants to know if Zhenya’s had any luck. When she learns that the day has been unsuccessful, she offers to come by, and arrives half an hour later, looking hung over, wearing a grey cotton tracksuit. She is apologetic.

– I’m sorry I couldn’t talk earlier. One of my son’s birthdays, I had to be there. What about Ira? She told you she was a pathologist? She didn’t even work at that morgue! She’s been to prison three times.

“She said four.”

– I thought three. Whatever. She promised she’d help you, and she didn’t do anything, right?

She pulls out her phone, calls Ira, and places it on speakerphone.

– Let’s see how much she’s lying…keep quiet – I’ll pretend I’m not with you.

Ira answers.

– Irr! What’ve you been doing? You told Zhenya you’d find her a girl today, did it all work out OK?

– No. Zhenya rang this morning, I told her to come to the station tonight.

– So you didn’t help her?

– We said we’d talk later.

Alicia hangs up, somewhat disappointed by Ira’s honesty. I tell her what happened with the call girl.

– That’s typical – it’s a scam. They say they want you to put money in their account, they take it, change the phone number, and don’t turn up. It’s not even their photograph on the net, just someone else’s they’ve downloaded. Or sometimes it’s them, and they turn up. It would have been better if Patrick called her. They’re used to men, not girls. She must have known something strange was going on. Patrick can call, say he wants sex, here at the hotel. Then when she gets here you make a deal. But you can’t just pay for an hour. You call a girl, agree to meet – that’s it, the clock’s already running. All the time between when you hang up the phone and the time you finish, you pay for. Could be three or four hours, plus her taxi.

I promise to try calling a girl tomorrow.

– I feel responsible, she says. I’m the kind of person who if I say I help someone, I do it. So if you want to, you can take photos of me. Just not from close up.

“I think it’ll be better to find someone who doesn’t mind me photographing their face.”

– So let’s go to the station.

We pull up at the Three Humps. The faces of two girls and a man in his early twenties, all wearing black, show up in the headlights. One of the girls is very beautiful. Zhenya and Alicia get out. The man immediately wants to talk to Zhenya, but Alicia drags him to one side. A few moments later, Zhenya, Alicia and the girl, who I’m introduced to as Lena, get in, and we drive back to our hotel.

The outdoor cafe beside our hotel has shut, but we manage to persuade the waitress to bring us three glasses of juice – apple for me, pineapple for Alicia, grape for Lena, who has glistening pink lips, and looks not much older than twenty. Zhenya has gone upstairs to get the room ready. A few minutes later, she appears, and takes Lena away, leaving me alone with Alicia.

Our conversation is wide ranging. I tell her she is kind to have come and met us, and that she is beautiful enough to be one of the heroines of Zhenya’s project. She thanks me. I ask her if she’s been abroad. She’s been to Hungary, but her dream is to go to Paris, to go up the Eiffel Tower. I ask her if she could get a visa to go to France. She says they usually ask on the border to make sure they’ve got enough money to pay for their travels, but that a visa is difficult to get.

She yawns frequently, and nods off once or twice. I show her some pictures of tigers on my phone, from a documentary project. She tells me she and her friends like to go fishing, that they have a good group of mates, that unlike most girls, she takes her fishing seriously, that if she’s got one on the line, nothing will distract her. She likes walking in the mountains. She tells me about old Hutsul (a Ukrainian highland dwelling race) women, who still cure people with herbs, handing their knowledge down from generation to generation.

She tells me a few words associated with her trade in the local dialect. One of them is ambal – the guard, or friend, who stands by as protection while a girl is with a client. Another is sotsialnaya robotnitsa – which translates as social worker, but is the term for prostitute. Quite an apt term, she agrees, smiling.

Time passes, and the waitress comes out to tell us she is going home, so we retreat to the car. Here, in the darkness, she pulls out her phone, and shows me her favourite picture, taken in the town centre, of a mermaid sculpted from flowers. Then she shows me a video downloaded from the internet, a compilation of clips of people slapping other people unexpectedly across the face. She thinks it’s funny, and waits for my laughter, so I oblige.

Zhenya and Lena turn up. We drive to the station. Alicia asks us to pull in a few hundred yards before we get there, perhaps so that no-one sees us, or perhaps because she wants to find out from Lena how much Zhenya paid her, perhaps take a commission. I get out with Alicia and offer her money for taking the time to come and see us. She takes it, gratefully, and they both walk off.

Next day, as we are driving out of Transcarpathia along a bumpy, potholed road through a fir-lined mountain pass, Alicia calls.

– Zhenya! How are you?

“We’re fine thanks. How are you?”

– Fine, fine!

She suddenly bursts into tears.

– But not everything’s always fine. People aren’t always fair. People aren’t always good.

“What happened?”

– I can’t say!

She hangs up. A few minutes later, Zhenya manages to get through. She is crying.

– My ex- beat me up, and dragged me around the room by my hair. I can’t speak now, I can’t talk.

She hangs up.

Later, Zhenya manages to call Alicia, who has calmed down a bit. It seems she got drunk on the money I gave her, and felt a bit sorry for herself.

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