Memory Parlour


Down South Lane, tucked away behind Oxford Street, was Jenny’s memory parlour.

A remorseless stream of traffic cut through Levin down State Highway 1, beating it into place — lest it slink off when no-one was looking. Few of these travellers ever made it the short hop over to South Lane, though. As the sun quit the wide Horowhenua skies and the lights stuttered awake, occasional solitary men would come to bang on the door or harass the buzzer. When they knocked, they knocked like cops: continuous, relentless. One of Ebony’s jobs was to answer these callers, and tell them — sorry, we’re closed tonight. “What’s the fucken deal? You jokers are always closed!” If they got lippier, Ebony felt well within her rights to say, “Go to Wellington then, cunt.” They weren’t strictly correct, though: to preserve the brothel front, Jenny let a few ladies use the place whenever they wanted — no charge. Ebony observed these women closely when they came in. They were quite ordinary looking women, which deepened her interest — once, she herself had made the same mistake as the men she routinely turned away; early one evening, she too had knocked on Jenny’s door.

Normally, Jenny turned away anyone without an appointment. But, seeing Ebony on her doorstep, she hesitated.

“And what can I do for you… young lady?”

“I — I’d like… a job?”

An exquisitely excruciating silence.

“Do you have a CV?”


So it came to be that Ebony worked the counter at Jenny’s memory parlour, and cleaned up after the johns (she always thought of them as ‘johns,’ though that wasn’t exactly correct: many of them were in fact ‘jills’).

Some of the johns were Filipino farm workers, who stole away in their scarce down-time — to these, Jenny had long been in the habit of sharing her dinner, so Ebony’s duties also came to include kitchen. Ebony would do a boil up, or a big pot of chop suey (after a while, Hone came into the kitchen to show Ebony how to stop her doughboys falling apart in the boil up). Twice a week, Jenny left out Tarakihi fillets for a side of raw fish. There was a beat-up old fridge behind the counter, which Ebony was to keep stocked with cans of coke and NZ Lager — these they sold for cost price. Another task was laundry: in addition to bedding, they had stacks of charity shop pyjamas.

At the start of each shift, a list of the evening’s clients would be waiting for Ebony on the counter, with room numbers and rates. Last night’s list would be there too, in Jenny’s neat little script, to remind Ebony which rooms needed tidying.

Those evenings, the sun seemed to set so slowly. As the wide sky turned a different shade of grey, Ebony went about and flicked the lights on in the sitting room. Johns slowly filed in.

Hone was Ebony’s favourite john. He was a wiry, compact man. The first time he came to the counter, he said something to her in te reo. Ebony didn’t think she gave it away on her face, but he saw it anyway, and said gently, “Never mind, never mind.” It wasn’t his intention, she knew well, but she still felt awfully plastic after that. Hone usually arrived still wearing his hi-vis, exuding a deep, comforting smell of motor oil. They kept his bottle of Jack under the counter and his 2L of coke in the fridge; as he made his way to the saggy sofa (his spot, which the other johns kept clear for him), Ebony fixed his drink and brought it over. Mrs Erceg would usually already be there, at her crochet — they would greet each other warmly, chitchat idly. 

Some nights, the other seats might be taken by Samoan men over on the RSE scheme. Compared to the Samoans Ebony knew, these men were unusually withdrawn. Hone aimed a steady stream of conversation at them nonetheless. Occasionally, as she helped Mr Jones out of his walker, Ebony would hear snatches of this: “Your matai is not doing right by you fullas.” Hone would shake his head.

Handing him his drink, Hone would always show Ebony whatever photos he had brought for his session, explaining them effusively.

Then came Bob, whom Ebony also liked — at first, anyway. He was a lanky, middle-aged Pākehā farmer, of unremarkable aspect; but something in the way he looked at her, something very subtle, made Ebony feel like he was forever just about to start flirting with her — though he never did. Still, when Bob loped in, something about him woke her up: whenever Bob was in the sitting room with his Dom Post, Ebony busied about the counter, or ducked out to the kitchen to plate up, with a greater consciousness of her body, and all the ways it cut through the physical world. 

There was a lot of waiting for the johns. No matter how regular, all would have to visit Jenny’s office for a session, before they could retire to their rooms for the night.


In every room, there was a nightstand with lamp. On the lampshade, Jenny had written in sharpie: WRITE IT DOWN. At the foot of each lamp, there was a pad and biro.

Just like any other dream, the dreams people had in these rooms could fade, if the proper care was not taken. So, it was very important to Jenny that the johns wrote down the memories they’d revisited in the night — she didn’t want anybody angling for a refund.

Most johns took these scraps of paper with them.

Some, however, did not. 

The first time Ebony cleaned a room with writing on the pad, her pulse quickened. 

Unfortunately, it was all in Chinese.

But later, she found many: sooner or later, most johns grew careless with familiarity, and left a dream or two behind.


Jenny was a tall Melanesian lady. Her afro had a tinge of blonde to it; she wore long, colourful printed dresses. She was not communicative. In her office, Ebony saw her using an OS she’d never seen before, doing what Ebony could only describe as some Matrix-looking hacker shit. She listened to jazz CDs, some of which were, to Ebony, almost unlistenably discordant. Ebony saw her in the street only once, coming out of the TAB.

Everything else she knew about Jenny she got second-hand from Hone. The stories he told were incredible: a coup in the 2000s, her husband permanently disabled while kidnapping a Prime Minister; managing rowdy pubs in Outback mining towns and tending to racing camels in the Simpson Desert; higher education in Hangzhou. Unbelievable stories, really — were it not for the fact that Ebony couldn’t see Jenny concocting tall tales.


Ebony felt like she’d learnt most of what she knew about her sexuality from the internet. From a young age, it seemed natural to upload pictures and videos of herself — what the fuck else was there to do in Levin? And, the fact you could make some money doing that? Well, it seemed as good a way to make a living as any other, and it turned her on immensely.

Ebony’s content, however, brought in next to nothing. She told herself that that was due to the biases of the platforms, the kinds of bodies they rewarded and prioritised — and that was true. But, it was also true that Ebony’s camera and editing skills were abysmal: she shot in her poorly lit bedroom, and had a knack for selecting camera angles that cropped half her person out the picture. And to the few strangers that did click on, she never knew what one was supposed to say: she always managed to type something that made them promptly click off.


Bob started leaving behind dreams.

Pattaya July 2023 rainy season. Skinny little dark skin, black fishnets + choker…

Ebony wondered if this had been left on purpose, especially for her to find. She threw his bedding and pyjamas into the laundry bag.

One day, she noticed Jenny had massively increased Bob’s rates — about quintupled, actually. 

Jenny varied her rates based on what she thought people could afford and how annoying they were or weren’t. For instance: Hone paid slightly less, as did Tawanda from the freezing works and the Filipino guys from the dairy farms (Tawanda would tell Ebony quiet stories about Zimbabwe, and the Filipino boys began a mock rivalry with him, telling her competing tales about how beautiful their islands were, and what delicious foods and friendly people she would find there if she ever visited. Tawanda would banter back, and Ebony made earnest promises to visit both countries, in due course. One evening, Tawanda showed her how to play some simple tunes on his thumb piano.)

Conversely, Mrs Erceg got charged a little more than Tawanda and the Filipino guys, as seemed fair. 

Bob was originally charged similar rates.

It was a long time before Ebony found out why Bob’s rates went up.

One morning, she found another of Bob’s dreams. At first glance, it looked like the usual. She wondered: if he wasn’t shy about it, why not go pay for the real thing?

Later, she realised Bob must have been working up to the real ‘real thing.’

It soured her on Jenny for a while. But then again — money was money. And, from the mere fact of his frequenting her establishment, Bob had some leverage over Jenny, should he choose to go that route.

From that day on, Ebony always threw Bob’s dreams straight into the bin.


Hone rarely left behind his dreams.

The first one she found read, in its entirety:

wellington regional hospital. i am sad for baby. but i am more sad for Pauline. i want to stop her feeling so sad, but there is nothing i can do. nothing no man can do. i feel powerless. weak. i feel very close to her. we stay together. i try climb onto the little bed. bed too small. lights go down. out the window we watch. red sky black clouds. they bring baby in.

Perhaps it was by accident that he left this dream — or, perhaps it was too painful to take with him. But whatever it was, Hone had still paid to remember it, to relive that moment once more in its full vividness. 


At Christmas, Jenny asked her: “Do you want a session?”

Ebony seriously considered it — but she couldn’t think of anything she needed to remember.


One day, Jenny got word that she was about to be busted.

She moved fast.

The process was legal in New Zealand — but only for therapeutic purposes, under qualified medical supervision. Jenny was quite clear with the johns: her parlour was strictly recreational; if they needed more than that, they’d best be looking elsewhere.

Ebony was desperately curious, but Jenny evaded all questions about how she’d learnt the procedure, or where she’d got the necessary kit.

Where do such people come from?

Many years later, Ebony moved to Auckland with her husband. Every weekend, they went to the Avondale Markets. Families rocked up to the old racetrack with trucks of produce; as they set up, they blasted buoyantly sunny tunes from all over the Pacific into the crisp dawn. Her husband’s family were one such. Later in the day, when the sun had fully risen and the markets were pumping, Ebony wandered around to see what people were hawking. Past the pungent fish section, she walked slowly through arrays of bright plastic toys — cheap knockoffs, mostly, but some were still pretty cool. Old tools were popular. Ebony was fascinated by the smaller dealers and could spend much of an afternoon just watching them. There was one old Pālagi woman that Ebony liked to watch. She sat in the back of a dinged white van, trestle tables and banana boxes spread out before her. She had many beautiful pieces of jewellery for sale, the most precious of which were held in a little glass cabinet, under lock and key. When Ebony needed a break, her favourite pastime was to sit in the stalls with some hot chips and watch how this lady varied her pitches and prices to all the people that slowed down to look at her wares; Ebony would try and anticipate which of the dealer’s several approaches would be trotted out for each person.

This woman reminded her of Jenny. Where do such people come from?

She wanted to know more so badly.

But this was not to be.

Hone delivered the shipping container. Ebony marvelled at the sight: Hone glided through a full carpark, in reverse and at pace, with the tiniest clearance between cars — she’d have been nervous squeezing past in a regular vehicle, but there was Hone, coming in fast! No one else would have dared the narrow lane — but behind the wheel, Hone was an artist.

Ebony helped Jenny break down the rooms, and Tawanda helped them load out the furniture and all of Jenny’s strange, glittering machinery.

“Where you gonna go?”

Jenny fixed a slightly pained look on her, like she was a child that had asked something inappropriate.

“North. Perhaps.”

Jenny gave her $1000 in an envelope, muttering that it was “holiday pay.” Perhaps it was to keep her quiet, but Ebony didn’t think so — it felt like Jenny was just satisfied with her performance, and was merely giving her her due.

Hone grinned. “Pull it in, sis,” he said, and gave Jenny a big hug, which he scooped Ebony up in too.

Jenny smiled, briefly. 

“Gotta go to the bank. I’ll see yous soon.”

And off she went. They watched her go.

“What a woman, eh?” said Hone.

Blaze Forbes is a writer from Tāmaki Makaurau. Other stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, the Sunday Star-Times, and Tupuranga Lua.