Soho Shalom: a risky blend of sex shop, refugee centre, and sizzling romance

SOHO SHALOM

ONE

It all began in a sex shop.

At six o’clock in the evening of Friday 22nd March, I was just about to leave Sugar Lace and head back to Finchley in time for Shabbat dinner. And then Mohammed walked into the shop. I don’t know if his real name is Mohammed, but that’s what I call him. Just to myself, of course.

He strode across the dimly lit room and slapped a boxed set of our Ready-Made Massage Kit onto the counter. It’s a brilliant deal, this kit, including lubricants (or lubes, as they’re more commonly known in the trade), gels, a mini-vibrator thrown in for fun, and a special candle that turns into scented oil as it melts, so that it can be poured straight onto one’s skin ready for the massage – and all for the unbeatable price of £19.99. He certainly wouldn’t find a better deal anywhere else in Soho!

My reticent customer stood still for a good five, maybe six seconds. The wall clock above the serving counter ticked away.

At last he announced, “I have a problem.”

“Oh?” I looked up at him, with a smile, as always. “Perhaps I can help?”

I should add that Mohammed is one of our regular customers. He comes in roughly once a month and stocks up on a large number of latex items which I assume can’t all be for his own use, so my guess is that he transports them to various corners of the earth where they are not readily available.

Drawing his oily-black brows together, he looked at me as though I were a naughty schoolgirl who ought to be chastised.

“I bought ten sets of these last month, and I have received a number of complaints. There is a problem with the … mini-vibrator.” At this point he lowered his angle of vision, thereby continuing his discourse with the counter that separated his world from mine. “The batteries do not last long enough.”

Well then maybe your users take too long! I wanted to shout at him, but merely said, “Oh, I see.”

“So, unless this can be fixed, I’d like a full refund.”

I glanced over my shoulder in the direction of Fred’s office, tucked into the murky nether-regions of the shop. Was he still there? Or had he nipped out via the back door to buy me a snack for my journey home, even though I keep telling him there’s barely room to breathe in the tube at six o’clock on a Friday evening, let alone eat?

“Well – I shall have to speak to the manager about it. I’m afraid I can’t make such decisions by myself.”

“When can you speak to him?”

“Now, hopefully. One moment, please.” I turned round and headed for the thick velvet curtain that hid the door to Fred’s office.

“Please be quick. I assume this request will not be too mentally exhausting for you?”

I stopped. And turned back round. No longer smiling. How dare he stand there belittling me! Did he honestly think it was my childhood dream to endure eight hours a day within four walls that are crammed to belching point with vibrators, lubricants, rabbits, handcuffs, Tuxedo Bunny outfits, Bedside Nurses and lascivious lingerie?

“Sir,” I said tightly. “It might surprise you to know that I have a Master’s degree from University College London. The reason I happen to be in my current line of employment is because I spent half a year looking for a job in my field, to no avail. Not all sex shop assistants are brainless Barbie dolls, you know.”

He stared at me in horror.

And suddenly, Gran’s dear old face loomed in my mind’s eye. It was a face that had been etched by overlapping years of brutality, survival, release, a new world, and at last love, when she met Grandad in the local Jewish community just after the Second World War. She had been a refugee, arriving in Merseyside at fifteen without a word of English. I never asked her what that was like, being a stranger in a strange land. I’d always been more interested in the gory details of how she’d survived wartime Poland, rather than her arrival in England. And now … thinking of all that Gran had gone through back then, and the bigoted attitude of this customer, my anger paled into insignificance.

Just as I was about to apologise, my mobile rang.

Ephraim’s name flashed on the screen.

Ephraim never phoned on a Friday. Which meant there was a problem. Weren’t there problems enough already in this overloaded world of ours?

Sighing, I excused myself from my unsmiling client and headed for the loo, my place of sanctuary.

“Hiya, Ephraim, what can I do you for?” Mobile held close to my mouth, I leaned against the shut toilet door.

Pause. “Naomi, it’s ten years next month since we first started going out together, do you realise that?”

The tone of his voice did not bode well. “Yes, Ephraim, I know how to count. You helped me with GCSE maths, remember?”

“Naomi, I am not joking. You keep telling me you still love me, but you always seem to find a reason why we can’t get married. First it was your A levels – okay, maybe we were a bit too young then – but when you finished university the timing definitely was right, and that was all of two years ago!”

“So what are you getting at?”

“Not me. My parents. They’re giving us an ultimatum.”

“Ultimatum?” Oh no, please no – they hadn’t discovered the true nature of Sugar Lace, had they? ‘They’ being the Hebrew clan up there in the mists of Merseyside.

I clutched tighter at my mobile. “W-what type of ultimatum exactly?”

“Either we get married by the summer, or we call the whole thing off.”

Oh, God. What could I say to that? Not just to him, my long-term boyfriend who I’ve known since my Bat Mitzvah, but to myself.

“The summer? But the summer’s only -”

“Three months away. I know.”

“So why the sudden rush?”

Rush?” He laughed. I didn’t. “I’d say ten years is more than enough time, wouldn’t you?”

Had we but world enough and time … Who wrote that? Was it the Prophet Ezekiel? Despite my seeming composure, I was reeling inside. How could I tell Ephraim that I wasn’t ready for a nice wedding under the chuppah, or moving back to Liverpool and producing six wailing babies in swift succession, thereby joining the matriarchal coterie of Liebermans and Ackermans?

And yet …to lose him altogether?

What did I want?

And that was it. That was the moment it occurred to me that my life was meaningless. That all my years of training as a forensic anthropologist – all my ambitions to work on a UN mission in some war-torn part of the world, helping to piece together and identify the bones of victims dug out of mass graves – had come to this: having to deal with a dissatisfied customer at a squashy sex shop in Soho, and being cornered into an impossible decision by the Jewish alliance up north. What about all that promise, right from birth? All those genes, all those clusters of chromosomes, those loops of DNA, all that pre-programmed intelligence and talent, when at the end of the day it amounted to nothing? Just stupid Judaic rules and empty expectations.

Taking a deep breath, I said, “Ephraim, I’m really sorry, but I have to go. I’ll call you back tonight.”

“But Naomi, it’s Shabbat -”

“Okay, so I’ll call you on Sunday. Or Monday. Sorry.” I hung up before he had the chance to object.

My life had turned into a meaningless bowl of gruel, and unless I did something about it pretty quick, there wouldn’t be much point in continuing.

So I resolved to do something about it pretty quick.

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