FUN AND LAUGHTER ON OUR SUMMER HOLIDAY

When I met my husband we seemed to be each other in drag, we were so similar. Over the years our differences have become more obvious. We still share a similar sense of humour – except when he does an ironic feminist joke which falls flat and makes me shout. We like to do the same things – hang out reading and swimming in the sunshine. Call that wallowing – not swimming. He reads non-fiction and I read fiction. I have to admit I can’t completely trust someone who never reads fiction. Or worse, someone who thinks fiction is not as good as non-fiction.
Movies – he likes car chases and shouty films. He’ll watch fantasy, psychological thrillers, spy movies. We overlap on the thrillers and spy movies but mostly I love foreign language films. Mike Leigh, Woody Allen and decent comedies. He’ll join me in the Scandinavian but not the French, Italian or German. Funny. He did mention when we met that he loved German films. That avenue of pleasure has since been confiscated.
We agree on how to raise our children. Disagree on what makes food healthy. And holidays. We agree that we should go on the same holiday. But that’s where it ends.
I want to visit Italy and several of the Greek Islands. Santorini for its beauty. Hydra for its creative history and Thassos – that’s where we honeymooned. I would also love to visit Paris (painfully – I’ve never been. Done France but mostly ended up with men who hated cities, which included Paris). Every fibre of my being wants to spend time in the UK. Ireland, Scotland, Wales and my beloved England. Most of all I want to wander round London, using the tube at will. I’ve loved the tube since I was small and we travelled across to the south via public transport on family holidays. It’s a miracle of travel – you move along a coloured line – say green for the District Line, or yellow for Circle Line – and pop up somewhere different. Magic. Public transport in Australia is not magic. It’s slow and horrible. The country is too big to run ‘away days’.
Husband is quite interested in the Greek bits – knows how much I want to see Italy but that’s it. He wants to travel round Australia in a campervan; even the red bits in the middle where you could be on Mars or another hot, fiery planet out there in the solar system. If I’m going to travel in a campervan round Australia I want to hug the bits on the outside. The bits where a perfectly clean ocean can lap at my sandy toes. I do not want to spend days and days traversing across a desert. With people tagging along as it’s too dangerous to do alone. Car breakdown, flat tyres, getting bogged. I will be at my worst in the heat and the sand and I don’t want other people to witness how vile I can be.
These holidays are a long way off yet. Growing boys to feed, send on lovely trips to Paris (I will soon be the only person in this house who hasn’t visited the City of Lights), skiing trips, rugby trips etc. We both had new (to us) cars this year. One day these trips will happen. I’m thinking about shaking off the husband in Venice and hitchhiking to London. Trouble is he’s my proof reader and he’ll know of my dastardly plan by now.

NANCY’S CIRCLE

I’m meeting Eva, my granddaughter, at a café in town. A Moroccan couple run it, they sell dishes of chickpeas with couscous. I love the spicy smell. When I was young we distrusted foreign food. As if they were trying to poison us! Charlie wouldn’t eat pizza, “I’m not eating anything made by the Italians. I haven’t forgotten the war.” I served it once and he folded his arms, lips set in a line. The old sod, strictly meat and two veg, he didn’t serve in the war. Flat feet. Did I have breakfast? I can’t remember.
I walk into town, gets my old legs working. Past lines of terraced houses like brick coloured icing piped along each side of the road. Back gardens concreted over, the flowers in pots, high wooden fences. When Charlie and I moved in everyone had wire fencing you could see through. We grew vegetables, put out water butts to catch the rain, hung over those fences on warm evenings, swapping gossip and comparing ailments. People don’t talk of illness now. The fear of death. It’s just a circle, starts at the beginning and ends at the end. Today people want to live forever, with botox and vitamin pills. Not me.
When it comes to sex my Eva can use those rubber things, whereas I fell pregnant. Disastrously, but deliciously, pregnant. I refused to tell anyone who the father was. The baby was mine. I would call her Beth. I shuddered at suggestions of knitting needles and ‘aunts’ who would know what to do. And the convent? Our Lady of the Sacred Heart. I wander what Our Lady would have thought of what went on there. Not a sacred heart between them. I didn’t want my baby wrenched from me and given to ‘deserving’ parents. Who said I didn’t deserve her? God? The Virgin Mary? Or those bloody nuns. It made Charlie seem a good idea.
My feet throb as I reach the café and my cheeks are aflame. I find a seat near the window, I don’t want Eva to miss me. I ask for a glass of water and wait for my girl, listening to Moroccan folk music. The café is decorated in deep shades of red and violet and I can smell lemons. Charlie and I grew them. Strange that a man so cruel would love to nurture, green shoots and small children. So wonderful with Beth but he never forgave me for not giving him a child.
“Bitch! You think you’re so beautiful! See how you look after this.” His arms raised, the jolting blows. Black- eyes and bruises. I cut my hair and wore shapeless clothes. It didn’t keep him away. That’s what you get when your brothers pay someone to marry you. But I got to keep Beth and Charlie got a wife and servant. A fair exchange? The old bastard’s dead now.
Eva comes bursting through the door wearing a floaty orange dress. All aglow with bangles tinkling.
“Sorry, Gran.”
I stand to let her kiss me. “Don’t worry, dear. Would you order me one of those fancy coffee’s I can’t pronounce?”
Eva smiles and my heart warms. Only my girl would wear orange more than halfway through her pregnancy.
“You mean a macchiato, Gran?” She giggles. “Nancy’s been kicking all morning. Must have been the curry I had last night.”
“Eva, you can’t call her Nancy. It’s so old fashioned and ugly.” Secretly I am pleased, another circle. But Eva’s Nancy will be loved.

I wait for my coffee, listening to the music. If my life were a song I know what the title be – ‘Nancy’s Circle’. Something with a strong melody.

THE YOUNG ONES

Youth is everywhere.

It’s in the gym for starters. I’ve just joined after an absence of 10 years. It’s the first thing I noticed. There’s such a lot of it about – hard, tanned flesh and calves that intimidate the crap out of me. Tiny shorts over tiny bottoms, looking like two small apples. I know apples are supposed to be in cheeks and peaches are bottoms but it felt wrong to say that. I’ll stick with apples. The shorts are bright and draw attention – shocking pink, sunshine yellow. Even when my bottom was smaller I can’t remember ever wanting to draw attention to it.

This youth obsession: I try to avoid celebrity mags – firm faces, firm jaw lines. Foreheads that can go out without fringes – my preferred face lift. Cheap and lasts until the humidity hits.
Even the middle-aged are young now. Divas I have grown up with, actresses I know are older than me have shaved off a few years.

I remember when Cher had womanly hips – when I idolised her. Clad in denim and singing about gypsies, tramps and the other one. Whose is this panto-face starring out of a frame that must be 70 by now? For the love of Sonny, woman, stop! A cross between Charles II and a china doll. Nothing’s moving on that face, baby. Not ever.
I have two sons to send out into the world, with only me, to let them know what’s normal in the world of women. Son No.1 joined the gym with me. That’s not strictly true – I joined with him. Helicopter parenting again. I do most of my workout in the woman’s gym and occasionally, apart from me, a woman does come in. Mostly its girls – so young they look to be still at school. They stretch and bend, bottoms in the air. I’m intimidated. Surely my son doesn’t think women look like that.

But looking around a lot of them do. On late Friday afternoon we regularly attend the gym for a workout. My wild Friday nights now involve two glasses of preservative red and a bit of telly, and my son is still under my blades (helicopter). But what are these young things wearing tiny bits of lycra doing on party night? I want to yell, ‘Go child! Go into the night. Dance on tables (the way I used to attempt to firm my buttocks), laugh like a drain with friends’. I don’t.

The beach is another place for the young. I’m lucky to live a short drive from one of the most beautiful beaches. I wear a one piece now, in slimming black. Tight and sucking in my marshmallowly bits. I hope that everyone’s eye sight is as short as mine so they can’t see my thigh dimples, and the dazzling pasty, whiteness of my body. The beach is the place for the beautiful. Where I live all the ages look great to me.

Years ago an Italian mayor banned any woman less than beautiful from the beach. There was a big furore about it. It seemed to me then that European beaches were full of all ages and sizes. Maybe because I was young and gorgeous. Or maybe our obsession with our appearance has changed us. Suddenly I feel sorry for those young things in the gym. All that time spent on how we look on the outside. Is there any time for fun, for meditation? For listening to music, having a laugh? They would still look amazing without weights and exercise balls. Running to nowhere with a mirror in front of them.

I don’t choose my friends by their looks. I wouldn’t love my sons any less if they weren’t beautiful (I don’t see how that is possible, but I wouldn’t). The husband, bless him, has aged like me. As if he’s enjoyed every minute of it and would now like to sit down with a cup of tea and a cake. I love him all the more for that. I don’t want him to show me up now, do I?

LIGHTS OUT!

From time to time, since I was a child, I have had problems getting off to sleep. As a young girl I would lie patiently in my bed for, say, ten minutes after lights out, before shouting at the top of my voice “I can’t sleep!” Waking up everybody in the house. Soon after that my mum acquired some ‘sleeping medicine’ from the doctors. Pink, strawberry flavoured and most likely a placebo. It did the trick.

As a teenager I learnt that counting sheep was pointless. I’m not a natural with numbers and became stressed that I might have missed one or ten. I also felt pressurised into not losing any sheep. As if at any moment the shepherd would appear at my side with his crook, and a cross face.

In my twenties, quite frankly, who cared whether I slept or not. I could talk all night and go out for coffee at dawn in London. I didn’t want to miss a minute.

Then came babies. As if I’d turned my back for minute and there they were. Cute little feeding vessels waking up for feeds every two hours. I ironed to get myself back into sleep mode. My husband was in heaven. I’m not a natural housekeeper either and here was a pile of work shirts beautifully ironed. I was a mixture of Martha Stewart and a mad witch with hair that hung in clumps. Eyes darting left and right hunting for the next piece of crumpled cotton.

Having babies waking in the night is like trying to sleep on a long-haul flight. In fact in those early days I often dreamed of getting on a flight to London just to be waited on. To watch back to back movies, with no fear of interruption.

Today I’m an eight/nine hour a night girl. For health reasons I need my sleep. There’s none of that talking until dawn these days. And I’d given up tripping the light fantastic way before I had a clue what it was. These days I have a few tricks to getting off to sleep.

An old favourite is decorating a house. It’s always the same house. A big, doubled fronted, bay-windowed Georgian English one. The living areas on one side, the study and kitchen on the other. There’s a beautiful garden out the back; a small table with two chairs. I decorate the house in sunny colours. There’s an Aga in the kitchen. Believe it or not I’ve never made it upstairs, where you would think my imagination would design a bedroom where slumber beckoned. No need. Despite my love of decorative design I’m asleep before my feet hit the bottom step. Problem solved.

Sometimes I run through my old boyfriends. Counting them off on my fingers. Remembering their names, their charms, their faults. One boyfriend looked evil when he laughed. Another called me ‘Cherub’ which I hated. It’s not as successful as the house project but I rarely get anywhere near, in my list, to the man sleeping next to me. Snoring; probably the reason I can’t get off to sleep in the first place.

Recently I found myself running through people I admire and why. Bob Geldof of course. A good man but an angry man too. I like a bit of edginess and let’s face it Bob was the first person to say the ‘f’ word on the telly. That I could remember anyway. Speaking to middle England – ‘give us the f..ing money now’.

Russell Brand. I disliked him on sight but the first time I heard him speak on the television I was hooked. Funny, sexy and clever. What more could I ask for?

Finally Germaine Greer. For all that she’s done for feminism, her sharp intellect. And swearing. I like the swearing.

Except I’m not doing it again. I started to get into arguments with imaginary people justifying my choices. Then they came up with their choices, which I obviously hated. It went tits up (a lovely expression). It turned out to be as bad as when I write angry emails in the dark, hoping that would do the trick. Anger is good for painting walls and pounding bread dough. It’s hopeless in the quest for sleep.

Back to decorating and evil laughs. Justifying my admirations to no one. Sweet dreams.

PUNCHING ABOVE YOUR WEIGHT

I will put the finished table in our warm courtyard. I have chosen joyful colours of yellow and orange, with peaceful ones of blue and green. I want to incorporate mirrors to catch the light and shells from the beach I live so far from.
If my mother could see me now, maybe she can, I don’t know, she would consider my work. “A waste of time, Noreen. Haven’t you got anything useful to do?” She would have disapproved of my lifestyle. Mum wasn’t a lover of art or a lover of love for that matter. She lived her life neatly without leaving anything behind and when the time came she got on with the business of dying as she had got on with the business of living. Head down, no complaints. And Dad, he married Maureen Pollard from next door before the year was out. He found mum hadn’t left anything behind either.
*
I use special glue for my tiles but I also have to use tile grout and sealant. I have drawn my design and collected sea shells and marbles. A reminder of family holidays perhaps. Why is it the things you want to forget that stay in the mind and the things you cherish start to fade away? I catch a stray marble and am grateful I haven’t lost mine yet.
*
The ocean takes me back to the four of us on holiday, me, Roger and the kids. Jessie refusing to take off the cardigan she wore over her bathers. I tried to coax it from her before deciding to let the sun do its job. Like the tale of the old man in his coat and the contest between the wind and the sun. It didn’t work with Jessie, always stubborn. Her skin so fair and lightly freckled I fancy she had the right idea. As for Dan, he ran towards the ocean as soon as he could stagger on two plump legs. Skin the colour of caramel and hair as dark as rain clouds. I tried not to have favourites.
Roger and I sat in our deck chairs, me with my huge brimmed sunhat feeling glamorous and him with his battered fedora. He’d sat on it before we’d left home but still insisted on bringing it. His long moustache obscured part of his face but I knew furtive eyes covered by mirrored sunglasses checked out the bikini-clad talent doused in coconut oil.
We didn’t fear the midday sun in those days, we wanted to make the most of our holiday. We’d turn up at nine with not a smear of sun cream between us and didn’t leave before four. Back at the boarding house with tight red skin, you could almost smell burning flesh. Dan just got darker, I couldn’t imagine where he got his olive skin from. A throwback to forgotten generations? An Italian uncle who’d snuck in on our bloodline? Not that we were pedigree mind. Common or garden Australian, right down to our Hills Hoist and beetroot in a can.
Halfway through our holiday our deckchairs skirted the shoreline, the occasional wave caressed our toes. We dozed off, hats over our faces. I’d checked on the kids before, Dan building sandcastles and Jessie fashioning herself a sand coffin, never one to look on the bright side. If she’d grown up these days we’d have taken her to a psychologist, as it was Roger and I exchanged a look, gazed at the ceiling and got on with it.
I’m straying from the story, Dan’s story. We heard an anguished voice pleading for help and our eyes snapped open. A bald headed man leaning over a child, our child. I stood and screamed whilst Roger hurried to Dan, scattering beach umbrellas and sand in his wake.
“Get the bloody surf life saver”, Baldy yelled.
The beach closed, just out of season, Roger had to scramble to a payphone to call emergency services. I ran to my baby boy, hovering over him, blubbing and trying to hold him.
“Get out of the sodding way! I need space for fucks sake.”
I sat there sobbing as a bald stranger blew life into my son’s lungs. Between breaths he swore at me, terrible words but I deserved them. I’d failed Dan, I’d fallen asleep. An ambulance arrived and efficiency took over with men in overalls. Later we discovered from the newspaper that the bald man was an Anglican minister. I didn’t think religious men swore. The article said, “Cleric Saves Boy While Parents Sleep.”
Why would I want to re-create a beach scene where we nearly lost Dan? Of course we lost him anyway. He left home as soon as he could, went south and put himself through Uni; became a Marine Biologist.
“Marine Biologist! What the hell is that? He could have joined the family business, but no, not good enough for him. You bloody spoilt him Noreen.”
Roger had shoved me towards the side window where his van was parked. Thompson & Son Plumbers. “Where’s the son, Noreen? Where’s the bloody son?”
Roger’s voice quivered and his eyes filled with water. I could see a chasm opening up in the middle of our family home. Working class roots but Dan wanted more. It made me feel both proud and heartbroken. And envious it was he who had got away.
*
The ocean design had lived in my head for weeks. It would give me a rush of freedom, the one I get whenever I stand at the seas edge, looking into forever. Nothing much changes over the ages, if you stare out to sea, without glancing back at beach towels and garish umbrellas.
*
Jessie still lived at home, she hadn’t found her path. She was always lost, I just hadn’t noticed it. I didn’t know how to deal with her so she hung around like an overstuffed armchair, sitting in front of the telly, eating TV dinners. I couldn’t do a thing with her. It was not how I’d imagined things would turn out when the kids were small and saw adventure everywhere. When everything Roger or I said had been their world.
That night as Roger and I lay in bed with rain hammering on the tin roof, I thought I’d like to leave. To walk out and keep walking until I walked off the edge. I wasn’t a clever woman or even a kind one, but that didn’t mean I didn’t have plans for a better life. The rain went on and on, a wonderful sound. I felt safe and tucked up, reassured that everything would be okay, despite laying down every night next to a man I no longer loved.
*
I spread the adhesive on the table. I have arranged the tiles in a design on a sheet of cardboard next to me and I systematically add each piece. I work quickly and with some skill, art is new to me. I have tried a lot of new things in my middle years. I place the yellow tiles in a curve and scatter seashells along the shore line, adding blue and mirror tiles, waves that catch the light. I discard the tiles that aren’t quite right, that don’t fit. Some might have worked once but no longer have a use.
*
One morning as I sorted the dirty laundry into piles; food and coffee stains, I tried to think of where I would go if I did walk. I had always dreamed of Europe, the architecture and the food, so different from home. All that art, you’d think Venice would sink from it. Or America, ‘the land of the free’, they call it but on the evening news they didn’t look free to me. Stake-outs and drive-by-shootings. Not America then. An Aussie beach, the magic white light of the sun on waves that turn into infinity. Nothing resonates, I simply don’t know. Does anyone? Who doesn’t feel in the wrong place where the right place is somewhere else, carrying on without you?
By the time I finished shoving my family’s clothes into the top-loader, I knew the place I wanted. Not a country nor a distant city with dreaming spires, a space inside me where I could be separate from my family. A place I didn’t have to share. A place I could hear women all over the world yearning for. A room of my own but not with a rocking chair and a collection of imported china objet d’art, a place deep at my core, a shimmering oasis that is truly home.
That was the day the top loader went bung. I phoned Roger.
“Not my area, Nor. Phone Gav from Fixit Repairs.”
A sharp intake of breath from Gav and he announced he couldn’t be here until Tuesday.
“That’s fine. I can go a day without it.”
“Next Tuesday, love.”
*
I don’t want to lose the balance of light of my mosaic. The orange tiles are too bright, too much like an everyday beach scene. The orange of strapless bikini tops or the colour of sun baked skin. That’s not what I want. I don’t want garish beach huts and life savers flags.
*
Experimenting with curse words, I shoved a load of soggy washing into a bin liner and carried it to the car. The bag heavy felt as heavy as a dead body and I wondered how many wives had carried their dead husbands to a secret grave.
It wasn’t a body, only the detritus of bodies, pants and t-shirts, bras and knickers. In the laundromat a middle-aged woman sat reading a book. I listened to the wonderful rhythmic sound of clothes tumbling around to the whirr of a motor.
“Bugger!” I had forgotten to bring change. I riffled through my purse several times, each time expecting to find a different result.
“Can I help you?” A smooth cultured voice with upright consonants.
“I don’t have the right change.”
“Let me.” The woman held out a palm filled with 50 cent and 20 cent pieces.
“I couldn’t.”
“Don’t be silly.”
I accepted the coins and put my load into the machine, as big as a monster. I sat on the wooden bench smoothed by decades of shuffling bottoms.
“Thank you.” I handed back the remaining silver coins to the woman.
“You’ll need those for the dryer, you don’t come here much do you?”
“I haven’t been in a laundromat since school. I used to do the washing for my mum.”
The woman smiled, she closed her book and placed it in her lap.
“Don’t let me stop you.” I indicated her book with the slight angle of my head.
“Well actually I’d rather talk, if you want to.”
“Yes, I don’t get much of a chance to talk. My family don’t go in for it.”
“Families can be tricky and I must confess, I have a perfectly good washing machine at home.”
“Why do you come here?”
“Dirty clothes are a great leveler.”
I frowned and she continued, “It’s hard to pretend over soiled underwear.” She held out a beautifully manicured hand, her nails painted shell-pink, “Saffron Hughes.”
I took her hand, “Noreen Thompson. Do you really have a machine at home?”
“Yes. I know it sounds sad but I’m not. I used to work as a croupier on a ship. Very social and busy, I miss it sometimes so I come here for company.”
“Gawd, there’s no peace at my house, there’s always a row going on. Have you ever married?”
“Yes, three times.”
“No!”
Saffron counted on her fingers. “Nathanial, the accountant, dull. Timothy the Future’s Trader, unfaithful, and finally Gerald, the high court judge who preferred men.” Saffron looks down at her hands. She plays with the space on her finger where three different rings would have been. She has other rings, large and elaborate but they make her ring finger seem all the barer.
“I only have Roger the plumber and he’s still hanging around after 20 years.”
“That’s nice.”
“No. It isn’t.”
The following week Saffron sat reading a different book, her blonde hair falling in her eyes. I dumped plastic bin liners full of washing which spilled stained clothes onto the floor.
“Hi. I’m organised now. I have the right change.”
I sat down next to her and she lowered her book. I marveled at the irony of a beautiful woman spending her time in a laundromat by choice. It made me feel sad.
“I’ve a couple of tickets for the opera on Friday night. Would you like to come?”
I was silent for a moment. “I’ve never been to the opera. I wouldn’t know what to wear.”
“Don’t worry, it’s the performance people come to see. We’ll be in semi-darkness. It’s Madame Butterfly.”
*
I smooth the grout. It’s the grout that keeps it all together, prevents the tiles from separating and going their own way. I watch it dry knowing my mosaic will last. I will brush on sealant so the table can live in our courtyard, among pots of flowers and wisteria climbing the walls.
*
I dressed carefully that Friday night. I couldn’t afford a new dress but I managed to find something at the op shop, a clinging jersey dress with a vee-neck. Salmon pink with a black silk rose sewn above my left breast.
“People like us don’t go to the opera,” Roger said as I headed to the door, car keys in hand. “Don’t punch above your weight, love.”
I slammed the door and started the car, glad I hadn’t cooked him any dinner.
I met her in front of the auditorium, Saffron in black with earrings that sparkled, she made me so proud to be with her. A beautiful, cultured woman who saw something in me, plain Noreen. I was aware of Saffron in seat next to me, the lights went down and I became more aware of her. The soft curve of her body in the black dress, the rise and fall of her chest. A spotlight brought to life two figures on the stage. There was to be a wedding between an American Naval Officer and a Japanese woman called Butterfly. She wore a traditional kimono and as soon as I heard Butterfly’s incredible voice I began to cry softly and I didn’t stop until the end of act one. But nothing prepared me for the pain and release of Butterfly’s final scene as she bravely said goodbye to her son and the curtain fell.
Saffron and I stay seated while the audience leaves the theatre. She looked at me.
“It gets some people like that, Noreen. You’re very lucky. There’s not much that makes me feel that deeply.”
I smiled as my tears dried on my cheeks. Saffron touched my face gently.
We met once a week, sometimes the opera, sometimes plays or musicals. We went to restaurants and afterwards walked in the park if the moon was full. She paid for me when Roger refused to give me money. Saffron offered with grace, making light of my embarrassment.
*
I apply the second coat of sealant and step back to admire my work. I hear the door close. Our new house, chosen because of its sunny courtyard so unlike the standard Aussie backyard.
“You finished it!”
Saffron gazed at the table. “It’s perfect, Noreen. Can you see us, sitting with our glasses of Chablis, watching the sun go down?”
After dinner we sat on the doorstep, the table wasn’t dry, and I didn’t think of Roger or Jessie, or even of Dan. I sipped my wine in the clear cold night, finally home.

A FISH AND A BICYCLE

I hadn’t really noticed the media backlash to feminism until I read an article in the weekend newspapers recently. The first thing I did was research the internet. I found a post of young women holding up placards declaring why they weren’t feminists. They said they didn’t believe in feminism:
“Because I believe in equality not entitlements and supremacy”
“Because I don’t think being a woman is a disadvantage”
“Because I respect men. I refuse to demonize them and blame them for my problems”

What the? Entitlements and supremacy? You don’t have to hate men to be a feminist. You can even be a man and a feminist. Did the baton get lost sometime in the last decade or two?

I admit it was easy for me. Seeing my mum cook and clean all day, never getting a chance to sit down. She’d have time to shower and change, pour a sherry for my dad when he arrived home from work. My fifteen year old self was appalled. Five years after the Sex Discrimination Act and I still felt I was in a fifties movie, complete with pretty aprons and the smell of cup cakes wafting from the kitchen. I stopped reading Smash Hits and subscribed to Spare Rib, a feminist magazine. It took up most of my pocket money.

The movement started in the late 1800’s and the term feminism was coined by a man – a Utopian Socialist and French philosopher called Charles Fourier. Since then we have had the suffragette movement where women gave their lives to the cause. The sixties and seventies when women came out as thinkers, demanded jobs in so-called male arenas, marched for equal rights (I am Woman Hear Me Roar) and who could forget the post-feminism of the early nineties. I could actually as I never really understood it.

Basically feminists come in all shapes and sizes and I would bet that very few of them hate men. I don’t think women want to be men either – some do. However, that’s not feminism but something else entirely.

Having taken advantage of all the rights fought for in previous generations is it okay to turn our back and claim we didn’t want it anyway? It’s not about taking up a corporate job and banging our heads against the glass ceiling, it’s about freedom. The right to vote, the right to equality – politically, economically, culturally, and socially. If you think we have all those then you’re one of the lucky ones. In developing countries women are not allowed to attend schools or universities, they suffer genital mutilation. They are repressed and controlled. Murdered for adultery. If you are happy with your apartment in a nice neighbourhood, your well paid job and don’t care about the women who sacrificed themselves in the past, that’s fine.

But what would have happened if we’d turned our backs on the lives of men lost in wars? Would things have been different if it had been a man who threw himself in front of the King’s horse, chained himself to railings or endured the humiliation of force feeding in prison?

Who remembers the A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle poster? A bit much maybe, but funny. Shouldn’t we be more offended by Porn Culture and so-called Reality TV. Objectifying women and the dumbing down of our generation. In the words of Patsy Stone from Absolutely Fabulous – “It’s not objectifying women, she’s got the whip”. A lovely irony.

I won’t go into boob jobs and bum implants. Nips, tucks and fillers. If you’re happy with a strangely shiny face and bee-sting lips go ahead.

Madonna is a humanist not a feminist(?) Gwyneth Paltrow and Taylor Swift don’t like this F-word and Katy Perry is confused, Bless. There’s even an Anti-Feminist facebook page.

The definition of a feminist is simply this:- “The advocacy of woman’s rights on the grounds of equality of the sexe”s. There I said it. It’s not subversive or frightening. It’s fair.

You can bake fairy cakes in a pink tutu. Knit clothes for your entire family. Even shower before you husband comes home. It’s not about man hating or refusing to shave your legs. Burning your bra or any of the clichés tied up with the Woman’s Rights Movement. Let’s stand alongside men, not four steps behind them.

And there’s still so much to do. We are a long way from being treated as equals – even in the so-called developed world.

PS I have been gifted a subscription to ‘Good Housekeeping’ by my mother-in-law and I’m loving every minute of it. I even have a pretty apron hanging up ironically in my kitchen.

The Woman Who Loved Flowers

The room is quiet. It usually is. The furniture we bought when we married has survived this far but is fading with age. The polished dining room table has weathered scratches, the colour scheme belongs to another century, the clock above the mantelpiece, the round face surrounded by golden points, is back in fashion. It ticks away, pin pricks in the stillness.
We didn’t used to eat in silence. Roy and I chatted about work and funny things that had happened during our day. Like when Wayne Drysdale had backed into the boss’s Saab. Roy could hardly tell me for laughing. He works at Manning’s as a car detailer. Making sure the cars that leave the yard are in the best condition. Funny work really, a small part in the selling of cars but he likes to be part of a team. Our friends have always found it funnier that I’m a florist what with Roy’s hay fever.
There is little laughter in the house these days and we have become taciturn. Did we draw less joy from each day or from each other? Had we become lazy, the effort to communicate insurmountable? I try to make an effort.
“Gill came into work today. With the baby.”
Roy looked up wiping the gravy from his chin. He looked tired. “Oh. She happy?”
“Yeah. She was grinning the whole time. Showing off the bub, Barnaby. What a name!”
He drew back, surprised at my outburst, looking down at his newspaper folded neatly beside his dinner place, waiting. Was he ready for my latest news?
“Are you done?” I looked at his empty plate.
An expression of guilt strolled across Roy’s face, like shadow on a sundial. He cleared his throat. “Shall I wash?”
I waited only a moment. “No, I’ll do it.”
He went back to his paper, unable to see the fight that was going on before his eyes. He didn’t even look at me. If he had would he see fear in my eyes, the new lines drawn on my face? Were there more grey hairs than yesterday?
Yesterday I had moved about my day with the gait of a disappointed wife. One who rarely felt the hands of another on her body. I had stayed home for the dishwasher man. It had been filling up with black slime which coated its insides. The man, Richard, was tall, the sort of man who improved with age. I leant over him, lightly brushing his arm with mine, as I placed a cup of coffee on the work bench. He didn’t notice, I didn’t want him to. My skin tingled with neglect.
After he left I took a shower. That is where I found it, as I carefully soaped my breasts, not daring to feel the fear that gathered in my veins.
In bed with Roy, both of us in our own space, I clench my fists and risk my voice in the darkness. “Do you still love me, Roy?”
“What’s got into you, Carol?”
“Can’t you just answer?” My throat betrays me, it wobbles and sways. It has lost its beat, its rhythm. It implores and beseeches.
“We’ve been together for 15 years. I spend everyday with you. Is this about children again?”
A small voice in the dark. Mine. “No, not children. We agreed.”
I lay there immobile as the sound of Roy’s breathing develops into snores that surge and crash. He couldn’t say it. He couldn’t bloody say it.
I had been prettier when younger, never a looker but I had possessed a wholesome beauty some men liked. Men who liked to be safe, men who didn’t like surprises.

As I walk home from the florists where I work, holding two carrier bags, one with steaks for dinner, the other with vegetables, I stop outside a shop freshly painted royal blue and white. Sailing colours. I check out the posters in the window: Athens, Morocco, Naples. It used to be a solicitors office. The sign now reads ‘The Happy Traveler’. The name makes me smile.
I am frying the steaks when Roy walks in. He takes off his shoes and grunts hello. Tenderly he places his newspaper next to his dinner plate and goes through to wash his hands.
We sit down, at least I do. Roy notices something amiss. “Where’s my paper? What’s this?” He waves a shiny brochure in his right hand.
“I thought we would look at it together.”
He flicks through it furiously, scarcely seeing the brightly coloured photographs. “Flowers? I don’t hold much with flowers.”
“No, you don’t.” His constant sneezing and red eyes a let down for a woman who loves flowers. Misery and disappointment, with an unhealthy dose of regret, boiled inside me. I need to stay calm. It won’t help if I’m stressed all the time. All that anger, perhaps it got together and became something else. A mass, a poisonous mass.
I bang the plates down on the draining board and head for the upstairs bathroom. I sit on the toilet seat, my hands shaking with a mix of emotions I can’t separate, all coiling into a blackness so strong. Like a baby of anti-matter, this may be the only thing I give birth to. I steady my breath and look at the poster hung on the back of the bathroom door; a market stall with buckets overflowing with flowers. Poppies, peonies, sunflowers. Cyclamen and roses of every shade. Throbbing reds through to peaceful white. A seed already planted unknowingly in my brain begins to push a green shoot through the darkness.
I telephone Donna at the shop the next morning, after Roy leaves for work. He’d kissed me goodbye. I was startled.
“We’re still going to the Isle of Wight for our holidays, aren’t we Carol?”
I nod. Not daring to speak. I have a timetable to work to and if I feel a little guilt it is nothing to the thrill that thrives inside me. I will deal with the rot later, all of it. It will be there whether I get on that boat or not.
As the ferry leaves Harwich several hours later, I cling to the railing on the upper deck. The North Sea, a murky soup of slate grey, looks beautiful to me. I hold onto my woolen hat against the breeze, my small suitcase at my feet and a bubble of delight turning over in my belly.
It’s a big world, but I think there is as much going on inside our bodies as outside, a crude Disney battle of good fighting evil. It’s just a matter of time, always time. There would be no one to remember me when I was gone and why should there be? I’m just a suburban wife who’ll be particular about the flowers on her casket.
Marion, the lady in the travel agents had booked me into the Hotel Acro, in the centre of Amsterdam. I carry my own case from the front desk after checking in. The room is neat and spartan, there are no flowers or baskets of fruit. Perhaps that only happens in films. A small double bed with sheets and blankets faces a television set. From the window I can see a hundred roof tops under an overcast sky. It looks so different from home, foreign. What are the people like in Holland, in a big city like Amsterdam? Is there someone like me here, someone small and busy who works in a shop? Someone called Greta or the Dutch equivalent of Carol. Married to a man who had given up too young. A man who didn’t like surprises, let alone shocks.
Later I wander the streets, taking in the architecture, the houses built so close to each other. Some are not much wider than a door, especially those that ran along the canal. I pass inviting cafes where serious looking men drink coffee and pretty girls with backpacks eat their lunches. Bicycles are everywhere and there are flowers at the café tables and in buckets outside the shops.
The Isle of Wight indeed! We’d been there on our holidays for the last ten years. I let it happen, too lazy or weak to argue. Roy needed a good kick up the backside to change, but me. I had no excuse.
I find a café I like the look of, set back from the canal. I order a coffee and a sandwich of gouda and ham with pickles. I hadn’t left a note for Roy, I didn’t know what to write. Would he even care beyond the inconvenience of not having his dinner ready? Left to his own devices he could read the newspaper without interruption.
But I know this isn’t fair. Roy isn’t a bad man. He’s a man who fears life, who finds change difficult. The more he resists it the bigger the fear becomes and I am as guilty as him. We had sidestepped the fears that children would bring by not having them. Now we were flying headlong towards old age and there was no turning back, from life or death and everything in between.
We had met in the queue for the cinema, both delighted to find someone else who loved to disappear during the day. We both came from large families and loved privacy. These were not natural bedfellows but it turned out that we were. Happy in our quiet world just the two of us, but you can have too much quiet.
I choose a big bunch of red tulips from a flower shop near the hotel, to brighten up my room. I find a white vase when I get back, arrange them and place them on the glass coffee table. They look sensual and bold. The tulip is a passionate flower, it reminds me of a young woman, her sex unfurling. It seems inappropriate, here in a city of liberal values, and me alone.
I am booked onto the coach trip to the tulip fields in the morning. The coach will leave at 9.00am from the front of the hotel. I order dinner in my room and have an early night.
For once I am comfortable with silence, I don’t try to engage the strangers on the bus in meaningless conversation. I find I like the space it gives me, as if my mind has stretched.
The flower fields are magnificent. Creamy white tulips run from my feet to the windmill on the horizon, like snow but waving in a light breeze. The red tulips, vibrant crimson across the flat, a blush across the land, as if a child had drawn the rows with a scarlet crayon. They stand to attention, thrusting their faces to the sun. There are other flowers: daffodils, hyacinths and narcissus, but tulips have long been my favourite. They possess a beauty that is almost human.
I could stay here, get a job in a florists in Amsterdam. Rent a room in one of those narrow houses, the attic room. Change my name, devour chocolate and drink Amstell beer. Eat off paper plates and never do the washing up again. I can see myself finding a notice in a shop window, asking for a mature lady tenant to rent a room. Snow gently falling like in one of those souvenir snow domes. Roy losing weight as he waits for me to return and cook his dinner.
What is he doing now? Has he taken the day off work or carried on as if everything was normal. Does he know whether I’m coming back because I’m not sure I do.
I take a cab to the Hook of Holland. I have bought no souvenirs, taken no photographs. The ferry back to Harwich is calm. A blue sky overhead and butterflies in my stomach. I keep the ticket from the ferry trip and place it in my purse. The only proof I have that I’d ever left.
Roy sits at the dining room table, his fingers steepled, frowning. He doesn’t say anything at first but he holds me in his arms in silent thanks. “I didn’t know if you were coming back, love.”
I take his hand and hold it to my breast. “Neither of us likes change, Roy, but nothing will ever be the same now.” I guide his hand under my blouse, to the lump I had found in the shower two days before and we cling to each other in preparation for an uncertain future.

NOT YET 50

I’m a Gen X – how did I get here?
We wore bin bags and chains. We turned our back on the disco kings and queens. I went to festivals before you had to pay for them. Before the TV crews or Kate Moss in wellies. I danced freestyle (still do – ask the old man).
I threw away my bra when I could have done with the support. I believed in the cause.
I read Classic Bike, Hesse, Huxley and Sounds magazine. I dressed like a librarian for work and a strumpet for play.
I’m not yet 50. Not quite. If I wedge my feet on the ground (like Bolly when she’s for the hose) maybe I’ll buy myself a couple of days. Burning the rubber of my DM’s. Sending sparks up my trousers.
You see. I’m not 50! Not for 364 and a one half days!

THE OPAL SEAM

Beth regretted taking a table at the front of the café, in full view of city types, men and women dressed in black or navy blue hurrying along with purpose, carrying sandwiches in white paper bags and café lattes to go. No Cathy. Beth felt self-conscious, dressed in a flower-print dress which at least today wasn’t garnished with baby sick. Why did Cathy make her come into the city? It made her feel outside of her sister’s life. This wasn’t about Cathy, it wasn’t about Cathy at all.
Beth spotted her sister wearing grey. “How dull,” their mother would say. Ursula loved orange, sling-backed sandals and fairy tales. Floppy hats and men who made her laugh.
Cathy walked fast. Perhaps all those meetings she attended made her brisk and hasty, quick and testy. Her high heels snapped on the concrete, her brief case was held against her side.
“Hello, Beth. I won’t kiss you, I’ve got a summer cold.”
Cathy sat down efficiently in the empty chair, took her mobile phone out of her bag and put it on the table.
“Don’t give me that look. I’m expecting an important call.”
Beth didn’t ask what could be more important than this. But she thought it, in capitals, with a full stop after each letter. She placed a large envelope on the table in front of them. An envelope stuffed full of a daunting future.
Cathy slid the brochure from the envelope. “Valley Springs. You’ve seen this place?”
Beth nodded. “You didn’t turn up.”
“I had an urgent meeting.”
A waiter appeared dressed in black, they barely noticed him. He coughed.
“A short black. Beth?”
“A skinny latte, please.”
Cathy read from the brochure. ‘Our aim is to provide a clean, efficient environment but also a nurturing one, homely and most of all fun. Each guest…’ Cathy raised a well-plucked eyebrow at her sister.
“Oh for God’s sake, it doesn’t smell of overcooked cabbage and lavender furniture polish.”
“‘We boast excellent social facilities held in our games room, including yoga, tai chi and ballroom dancing.’ Ballroom dancing is for stiffs, Mum loves the flamenco. And it’s expensive.”
“Tell me about it, there goes my kid’s private schooling.” She couldn’t help feel resentful that Cathy would easily make the payments. Beth’s husband, Michael worked selling cleaning goods to small businesses, commission only, whilst she was on a career break from the surgery where she worked as a nurse, bringing up twins.
“I know what you’re thinking, believe it or not I will have to make sacrifices too.”
Beth looked down at her own nails, bitten to the quick. Yes, getting her low-lights done at a cheaper salon or having one less manicure a month.
“You’ve got that thin-lip look, like when we were kids if you thought I’d got more of something.” Cathy laughed good naturedly. “How are Charlie and Flora?”
Beth smiled, “They’re great. Bloody hard work though.”
“My clients seem rather like my children.”
“They don’t vomit on you and wake you during the night.”
“Have you said anything to Mum?” Cathy stared directly at her sister.
“How will it be for her, losing her freedom?”
Cathy’s spoke softly. “We don’t have a choice. She left the gas on. It you hadn’t arrived early…”
Beth thought back to their childhood. Ursula used to turn the dining room table upside down and they would pretend it was a boat. She would pack a picnic and they would spend all morning on the high seas.
“Remember Mum’s picnics?”
Cathy smiled. “She was the best Mum. She’s only sixty-five.”
“They found her at the bus stop in her nightie. She can’t live on her own any more.”
After their father had left, when the girls were still small, the dining room table stayed permanently upside down. They ate every meal off-shore from a different country, escaping to another world where their father didn’t bark, “You’re nuts, woman! I can’t get promoted at the bank with a fruit loop for a wife.”
Beth and Cathy knew she wasn’t a fruit loop. Beth shuddered. “One day Charlie and Flora could be here discussing whether to send me to Valley Springs.”
“How would you feel about that?”
“I’d rather die.”
Ursula, the free-spirit who, when the girls were teenagers, popped out for a capsicum and didn’t get home until the following morning. She’d run into friends celebrating, drinks flowed into dinner then she’d slept on the floor of a friend’s apartment. The girls were used to it, proud to have an unconventional mother. Their friend’s mothers were predictable. Although Beth knew that sometimes Cathy craved stability. She looked at her sister now, her sharp suit and reliability. Was Mum the reason Cathy spent her days banging her head on the glass ceiling? Looking for acceptance and being somewhere she felt a good fit.
“Do you remember when I brought home my first boyfriend and she threatened to set fire to his hair if he didn’t look after me.” Cathy chuckled.
“Dean Prentice. No wonder he didn’t stick around for long. She gave Michael a packet of condoms. He was so embarrassed.”
The sisters fell silent, searching silently for ways they could save their mother from her fate.
“Let’s order lunch, Beth. I don’t think we have much more to discuss, except how to break it to her.”
When plates of Caesar salad and green tea noodles arrived, the two women ate quietly, each playing snippets of family memories like movie vignettes through their minds.
“Do you remember those spectacle frames she wore, the ones with no lenses?”
Cathy snorted. “She used to scratch her eye through where the glass should be, in mid-conversation queuing at the butchers or picking up a lotto ticket from the newsagents. Nobody knew how to take her.”
“And the time she invited us for Christmas dinner, with no food or presents as she had donated the money to the Salvo’s.”
“Beth, she will still be Mum in that place? I couldn’t bear it if she just gave up.”
She put her hand on her sister’s arm. “We don’t know what it will be like. This will be new for all three of us. I wish I could give you reassurance, Cath, but I can’t. Who knows what’s ahead.”
Cathy looked down at her lunch, stopped in her tracks. Beth wondered if Cathy ever stopped to think about her life.
“All of us have our moments of darkness, Cathy. We have dreams but even if we achieve those dreams it doesn’t feel like we had imagined.”
“You always wanted a family.”
“Yes I did and it’s great. But I’d imagined sweet scented sleeping babies in a house full of calm. Life is messier, dirty nappies, and pureed food up their nostrils.”
“Sometimes I wouldn’t mind a bit of mess.”
Beth smiled. “Do you know what Mum’s dream was?”
“To join the circus, be a magician’s assistant? Anything with a sparkly costume.”
“She wanted to fall so deeply in love that it hurt.”
“Mum? She never needed a man.”
“It wasn’t about need.”
Beth saw Cathy’s face remember. “Tom.”
“At least they had five years before the accident. At least her experience of love wasn’t just dad.” Tom had fell off a friend’s boat deep sea fishing, washed up on the beach a few days later.
As lunchtime business eased, Cathy picked up her mobile phone, turned it off and slipped it into her handbag.
“Thanks, Cathy.”
Tears slid soundlessly down Cathy’s face. “I thought her life was sad, that she suffered so much pain. I didn’t want that, I wanted a structured life which didn’t allow for hurt.”
“Not being sad doesn’t mean you’re happy.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
Beth takes Cathy’s hand, her eyes watering, thinking of their beautiful mother. Of how she lived in clutter, in a Bohemian way, gorgeous dresses draped over chairs and mirrors. Piles of books where you’d least expect them. Beth had once seen a pair of tights flung over the ceiling fan.
“Mum is such an individual, I hope they don’t confuse her character with her condition.”
“Cathy, she has dementia, do you know what that means?”
Cathy shifted in her seat and shook you head. “Not really.”
“It means that we are going to lose Mum bit by bit, before she dies. She may be aggressive with us, not even know who we are. It will happen, it’s just a matter of time. And this will be the hardest thing for Mum since Tom died.”
“This should have been our time, the two of us.” Ursula had repeated whilst raising her third or fourth glass of wine. She would cry, sometimes for an hour. Nothing consoled her. Their lovely mother, her red hair unbrushed and her eyes swollen and bloodshot.
Beth and Cathy stayed with her, went to uni close to home. Beth studied nursing and Cathy a business degree.
“My sensible girls, you don’t get it from me. Maybe a sensible life brings happiness but I live for the highs and lows, when grief or love rips through me like an opal seam.”

“The rooms are nice, she doesn’t have to share. There’s space for a lot of her things.” Beth spoke between mouthfuls of croutons.
“I bet the décor is calming blues and greens. Mum says those colours make her nauseous.”
Beth sighed. “There’s not a lot I can do about that. Of course, its pastels, they all are. At least it’s not mission brown.”
“It won’t be so bad if she can have her things. What about Venus?”
“They won’t allow pets. Could you have her? Cats are unpredictable around babies.”
“I’d love to have her but Mum will be heartbroken.”
“Cathy, is dementia is genetic?”
“I don’t know. Maybe something happened to her, a trauma perhaps, which could have contributed to it. God, wasn’t she stunning when she was younger?”
“She still is. Do you think she’ll meet someone new at Valley Springs?”
Both women stifled a laugh then Beth grabbed Cathy’s hand.
“This is nothing, Mum’s going to go ballistic.”
Beth started to sob, slowly at first then fear and grief coursed through her chest. Cathy put her arms around her younger sister, held her tight. When it was over they sat back in their chairs.
“You’re wearing you lunch on your blouse.”
Cathy looked down at spinach stains, “Perhaps it is time to get messy. Come on, I’ll get the bill. Let’s go and see Mum.”
“What about work? The call you’re expecting?”
“I’ll ring in sick.”
The women walk out of the café, one stained with lunch, the other with tears, both thinking of one woman. And her opal seam.

A DROP OF THE HARD STUFF

On my way up to my room to watch a film on the lap top (while the rest of the family gathered round some fantasy action movie downstairs) I told Son. No.2, over my shoulder, that I was watching a movie about Dylan Thomas, the poet. “He drank himself to death”, I shouted. It’s a hard sentence to say without sounding Irish or Welsh. He giggled. I hadn’t meant it to be funny.
It was a beautiful and poignant film about a wondrous poet who raged. And drank. And raged. And drank. It made me think of a cousin. Our family has a weakness for booze. And a propensity for madness. Maybe every family does.
My grandfather was a heavy drinker in a time when to be so could be seen as romantic. Many of his sons were the same in an era where romance and booze were not seen through the hazy glow of romance at all. One or two went far enough to be alcoholics. Another Irish phrase comes to mind – ‘Oh but he’s an awful alcoholic.’
My cousin, a brilliant and flawed girl, drank herself to death. She really did. And broke my heart. I waited years for that phone call, unable to change her fate. My Dad rang me with the news. It wasn’t the first time I’d said the f-word but never was it more heart-felt.
My first drink was given to me at about the age of 14. By my much beloved Nan. Homemade elderflower wine. She was babysitting me. When my parents arrived home I fell off the stool I was attempting to sit on. Mum seethed silent rage. Anyone who does that to my boys would get more than silent rage. But this was the seventies, when anything homemade was good for you. My mother still labours under the misapprehension that cider is merely apple juice.
I have always been the worst party girl. In that I was completely rubbish at it. A few drinks away from loving everyone in the room. Conducting group hugs with complete strangers. Copying strange accents until the owner of them wanted to throttle me. I’ve woken up a few times wondering what had happened at the end of a party. Who had I offended? It’s not a nice feeling. And the mixture of the drink and bipolar (my particular form of madness) is neither a wise nor pleasant one.
Son No.2 again. He’s doing a project on Van Gogh. “He cut his ear off in a fit of madness.” He looked at me from under his lashes. “Don’t get any ideas will you.”