Hiding the Folds (excerpt from a short story)

This excerpt from a short story of mine was published recently in the Write Around Queensland e-book of pieces no longer than 1000 words.

Ellen’s footsteps echoed along the corridor overlooking the courtyard which wasn’t bathed in sunlight but the distant lukewarm glow of a London afternoon. The town planners had thought to call it ‘Lincoln Fields’. There were no fields and Lincoln was a good three hours drive away. Trees were planted in tiny soil circles and imprisoned by concrete, much the same as her mother who had been imprisoned here since she was a young vibrant woman. Ellen had escaped – unemployment, drug abuse, spotty teenage mothers with ugly howling babies at their hips, soiled nappy smells and rough cut tobacco. Ellen’s hair looked different to her old friends on the estate. She had acquired a sheen, whereas the estate girl’s hair clumped and matted.
“Or-right, Elle?”
She nodded at Chantelle or Jazmyne, she could never tell one estate girl from another. Ellen’s expensively tailored suit and French perfume were a world away from the girl’s sweat shop acrylics. She didn’t feel proud here, she felt embarrassed. If her mother hadn’t raised her to appreciate beauty she would be trolling up and down those corridors in flip-flops and fake designer-wear herself.
Ellen tried the key in the door; it caught in the lock. She must get that seen to – one day it would refuse to budge and her mother would be trapped forever.
“Haven’t seen your mum for a few days, Elle.”
Chantelle was still there, breathing instant coffee fumes in her face. Her unwashed hair hung in strips like flypaper. Ellen felt guilt tapping on her bones, a light tapping, a tiny hammer like the one that broke the toffee at Christmas. She should come more often. Chantelle slunk away and cold lack blew from her childhood home as Ellen crouched over the letterbox. “Mum? It’s me; I’ll use my key. Don’t get up.” A couple of visits ago Ellen had waited at the door while her mum shuffled up the hallway. A broken ankle, swollen three times its normal size.
“I did it dancing,” her mother had laughed. It was a lie of course; it had been years since Linda had gone dancing. More likely she had fallen on the wet linoleum in the bathroom. Those horrible woolly mats she had down didn’t have a non-slip rubber underside. What with a leaky shower and the lack of damp proofing it wasn’t just the floors that sweated, it was the walls too. There had been a time when her mum loved to dance. She’d go up West to the clubs with Queenie. Like most of her mum’s friends they didn’t stick around for long. It didn’t help that Linda constantly talked about a more beautiful life: packing it all up in one of those fancy suitcases and pushing the key through the letterbox on her way out; moving to somewhere on the continent where she would work hard and enjoy the sun; meeting a rich man with a yacht big enough to do the Tango on. Linda had dark, exotic looks; no one was quite sure where they came from.
She would tell Ellen of her dreams but the girl had worked out early on that her mother hadn’t included her in her plans. “Of course you’d be around, Elle, but men don’t like snotty children hanging about now do they?” When Linda went dancing she forgot she even had a child. Ellen was left to mind herself. Linda’s babysitting money was taken up with cabs into town. Drinks, not covered by Linda’s meagre budget, were readily provided by shady men. At home, when it got dark, seven-year-old Ellen would turn all the lights on, the telly up loud for company and squeeze under her bed, clutching a bear won at the fairground. A tall man with a strange accent had shot a couple of plastic ducks and won it for her. He was the closest she’d come to a father but her memories of even him were sketchy and hard to pin down. Linda had never told her real father that she existed, which seemed harsh in the world she lived now. “How can he not know?” Daniel, Ellen’s boyfriend, had asked her.
Linda had moved out of her violent family home and been given a small council flat on account of her pregnancy. It was the first space all of her own before she gave birth to Ellen who was, by all accounts, a small, sickly infant. Linda had been embarrassed that her child’s screams could be heard through paper-thin walls but she was too proud to apologise. She had painted those walls in bright colours that were looked upon with distrust by the few friends she brought home. There was something too vibrant about her, as if she belonged somewhere else, somewhere foreign. Ellen was fair but had good bone structure and she was tall. Linda held a stray memory of the good looking stranger who wore a smart grey suit as she pressed up against him in a doorway behind the brewery in Kings Cross. Linda thought he possessed more than a passing resemblance to her daughter.
Ellen leaned down to the chair and slid her Chanel covered lips across her mother’s papery cheek. She tried not to recoil. Her mum’s wrinkles were deepening and the layers of skin seemed to separate, taking air between them like small pillows. Linda was dressed in a shapeless, grey dress and a sad blue cardigan into which she seemed to be shrinking, shrinking from life. How long would it take her to disappear so that Ellen would no longer have to visit this filthy estate? Shocked at her unkind thoughts she fussed over her mother, straightened her clothes so she looked more human, less like Mrs Pepperpot before she shrank.
“I’ll make coffee, Mum. I’ve bought that exotic blend you like.” As Ellen moved briskly about the kitchen she told herself it wasn’t her job to save her mum.

CHRISTMAS UP-WAYS DOWNSIDE

I may have finally got the hang of an Aussie Christmas. But it took time. I came from a place of festive lights in the shops, reflecting off the wet pavements in November. Christmas parties to be negotiated and aligned with your partners. Office dos, finger buffets at acquaintances and endless festive and boozy pub lunches. My favourite was my last employers in London – we whistled and a drink’s trolley appeared. For free – anything you wanted. Except advocaat – no one could get the lid off.
The really strange thing was the boyfriend (before he became the husband) used to disappear pheasant shooting in Northampton on the very day I had booked to trudge around Richmond (Surrey) snapping up Christmas presents for both our reasonably large families. Dickens and Jones, Next and Marks and Spencers. By the time I’d made it to Whittards (connoisseurs of fine tea and tea related-products) I was loaded with carrier bags and damn near in tears, I was straight. It was cold out but over-heated in every shop. I was simultaneously sweating from the armpits while any dribble turned into an icicle.
The food list was enormous – even just for us. Turkey, three veg (not including those horrible brussel sprouts). Ingredients for bread sauce, cranberry sauce and single cream for the mince pies.
Christmas day involved the two of us, cavorting on the wrapping paper, watching an old fashioned Christmas movie – (‘Father Christmas, Father Christmas, he’s the greatest man in the whole wide world’ in a Cockney accent). Me sweating over a stove while Mr C shouted out the good bits from lounge room.
Next day we visited my parents and did the whole thing again (except the cavorting). The day after that it was his parents turn to host. Both sets lived in the country – one west and one south. We drove back into London watching the tide mark of smog in the sky. Suddenly noticing the traffic outside our door and feeling several kilos heavier. Three days of turkey, the occasional goose.
There usually followed a trip to Northamptonshire for another pheasant shoot – not for me. Terrified of birds, I hung around with the girls, trying not to get plastered before the menfolk arrived back smelling of game.
New Year was spent in our local. Everywhere else you had to get tickets. We did win the worst dressed couple one year. On purpose.
You’d think after all this excess we would welcome a simple occasion in our new home. Australia. But after over 30 years of traditionally eating ourselves into a lava, cold fog on the night air, it took a while.
The food I changed immediately once down under. Seafood extravaganzas, sushi, and when the boys came along different roasts. Never turkey. Until this year. First time in nearly 20 years since I cooked a turkey, but food was never the issue.
The problem was getting that Christmas-feel in a hot clime. In the lead up to our first Christmas, backyard cricket on a steaming lawn, a friend turned round and said, “oh, it’s getting all Christmassy.” Well, not for me girlfriend.
We started playing Christmas songs earlier and earlier. Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Buble and Dana. Even Deano didn’t do it. Endless watching of Love Actually, Scrooged and Miracle on 34th Street’. Snow scenes and Robins on Christmas cards from the old country. Tinsel blowing in the dragon’s breath of humidity.
After almost a couple of decades, we’re starting to let our ideal of the festive season shift. It’s a summer holiday. We have a family lunch out, a trip to the beach on Boxing Day and a cinema date to escape the heat between Christmas and New Year.
We’ve almost let go. This is the year of the Televisual Christmas Special, courtesy of the BBC and the ABC. Doctor Who, Miranda, The Moody’s. We’re not giving up the telly.
New Year’s Eve we’re in bed by 10pm. The party invites have dried up but they are starting to open up for Son No. 1. As he used to say as a toddler ‘everything is up-ways-downside’. In more than one way.

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.

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!

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.”