Short story - part two
The effect of the four gins – dormant during the bike ride back – had come out to play and she was finding it difficult to concentrate. She made coffee – proper coffee – first dropping the coffee tin lid, then the spoon. Then overfilling the mug so that it splashed down her tweed skirt. As she scrubbed ineffectually at the skirt over the bathroom sink she timorously examined her reflection for signs of disintegration. Nothing, it seemed, had changed. Springy blonde hair flecked symmetrically with grey. High eastern Mediterranean cheekbones. The neck muscular but not – thank God -scrawny. Forty-one and bearing up physically if not mentally.
Devon had been wrong that there were two left. One was now ash, another intent on discarding her gender. Two had gone to the wall, leaving only Amanda to look for the resumption of womanhood they’d all sought. A goal that had taken a horrible beating of late.
Discussions, so circular, so repetitive and in the end so desperate. Each of them clinging to The Haven’s simple aid that talk was therapy. Talk that echoed round the bare-brick cellar beneath Eyelid Studios on the northern edge of Soho. No great encouragement from the environment, Marion had said on the last evening they’d been together.
Amanda had begged for change. “Is it healthy to go on reliving the agony? If we hold ourselves responsible for that why not give the good stuff equal time? Might that help?”
It was a novel approach. It came as a surprise to learn that the man who had done such damage to Devon’s lumbar region had made his millions from a range of baby clothes decorated with ingenious copies of French Impressionists. Advised by a marketing consultant that children wouldn’t respond to such sophisticated images, he had pointed out robustly that infants wouldn’t be doing the buying. Devon, with a fine arts degree from East Anglia, had advised him to expand further into the less obvious field of medieval triptychs and he’d been grateful enough to hire a fully-crewed power yacht in which he and Devon toured the Adriatic as the two lone guests.
Alas he’d been manic-depressive when it came to financial matters and had fallen out late one Friday evening with his merchant bank. Frustrated by a series of answerphone messages when he wanted a real live whipping boy he turned on Devon instead. The fact that as he lashed out with his customised Doc Martins a three-carat emerald was being shaped to fit Devon’s ring finger merely emphasised the width of his illness.
“Did he swing back afterwards? Being bipolar, I mean.” Marion asked.
Devon sighed. “He saw me just once more. Bandaged, semi-conscious, in hospital. At the time he was still scrambled and associated me with his moneymen. Hired investigators to prove his point. At the time I had other fish to fry: whether or not to hang on to my womb.”
Marion ordered another bottle of sauvignon blanc and poured out full glasses. “Those good times. On reflection they sometimes look like the bad times, but in another set of clothes.”
“Of course,” said Devon. “You put yours through uni, didn’t you.”
Marion nodded. “The good times were always just over the horizon for us.”
The others were only too familiar with the string of betrayals and thefts Marion had endured. Amanda, who had raised the change of subject hung back. She had divorced Shane after a decade of marriage on the grounds he’d beaten her. True, up to a point. In the divorce hearing he was forlorn and defenceless and Amanda found no need to mention that Shane, somewhat beer-sodden, had delivered two half-hearted cuffs with four years in between. Or that on each occasion he’d immediately broken down in tears and asked to be forgiven. Which she had accorded.
At the time the divorce had seemed justified. It was only after meeting Marion and Devon at The Haven she learned what real beating meant, by men who had worked with a will. Had she been over-sensitive? Never mind. Shane had irritated her in other ways and she had been right to get rid of him. She’d hoped for a life without mounds of washing and the disappointment that arrived most Fridays when he handed over pitiful sums of cash in small brown envelopes. Heck, Shane was 42 – you didn’t support people at that age.
The more she thought about the early years the less she felt inclined to talk about them. Shane, a site foreman for a housing developer, had been a victim of one of the sudden catastrophes that regularly lay waste the building industry. When she first met him he was earning an irregular living doing manual work on the sort of projects he’d previously commanded. Surprisingly he had a leftist outlook and was ideologically committed to contracts based on affordable homes. Amanda, an HR manager with a hotel chain, found it mildly gratifying to subsidise him through what she imagined to be a bad patch.
But for Shane losing what was, in effect, a white-collar job had proved to be an insurmountable reverse. After eighteen months of legitimate job-hunting he slowly retreated into the curled-up protection of work which asked him for no decisions. From being a New Statesman reader he became a stoic, shrugging his shoulders at corned beef rather than sirloin, at the radiator turned off permanently in the bedroom. Unfortunately stoicism can be read as inertia and this was how Amanda eventually saw it. Even if it did take time.
And yet... and yet... Shane had been a man. And men were...
AT SEVEN in the evening Amanda’s neighbour knocked on the door for the parcel. A breathless twenty-five-year-old woman in designer clothes whom Amanda knew only slightly. “It’s rather heavy,” Amanda said.
“Power tools, I believe. My nearest and dearest is rethinking the kitchen.”
“Really?” The enormity of such work was beyond Amanda.
“He’s nothing if not ambitious. Look, these flats are all identical. You have the same kitchen as us, don’t you? I’ll show you.”
They were still chatting when Nearest and Dearest came in through Amanda’s open door. Amanda associated his tailor-made jeans with senior positions in IT. He wore them swaggeringly as he plunged into their conversation. “Ignore everything my wife says, Dear Neighbour. She has no faith in me.”
“Justifiably,” his wife said, laughing.
“That book-shelf was horribly overloaded. By whom I dare not say.”
It was a teasing, happy routine. Their marriage could hardly have been more than two years’ old and was still an endless source of amusement. They stood arm in arm as he told Amanda how he would move the fridge here and the sink there, sketching the details on the parcel now lifted on to the work surface.
“Won’t it be terribly disruptive?” Amanda asked.
They looked fondly at each other, one of them whispering. “We’re good at co-operating.” She stroked the tight fabric stretched over his bum and Amanda wanted them both out of her home.
Men – confident yet subtle – dominated the evening’s TV. A twenty-seven-year-old billionaire in the news for setting up an African charity. A new drama series featuring a smouldering French film star. Healthy men engaged in outdoors activity. Amanda ate grapes and watched the TV screen dully. Knowing she wouldn’t sleep.
In the eerie early morning of a London suburb she got out of bed, put on her dressing gown and booted up the laptop. Opened Favourites and clicked on Dates – Dates – Dates. Printed out the application form and took out her fountain pen. Reckoning ink would underline her sincerity.
First name. No equivocation here. Her parents, having struggled for a fortnight choosing Amanda, had no energy left for a supplement. “Worthy of love,” went the translation but ten years were to pass before she noticed the ambiguity. A boyfriend who had gone on to Oxbridge had dropped her with: “It’s a good name for an old blanket.”
Gender. Devon, who had avoided all juvenile crushes, would now know whether she shared Zizi’s definition of “physical”. Perhaps she had already sought comfort there. Amanda, more giving then than now, had been drawn to a third-year classmate Glynis because of her slinky name. Then to admire her glowing auburn hair. Then to reposition a barrette amidst that glow. Then to touch the broad waves of hair without the need for any excuses. In the fourth-year Jules and his flared nostrils arrived and the Sapphic fashion was quietly dropped.
Age. At forty-one the “one” sounded pedantic, an unnecessary precision. The questionnaire’s guidance notes suggested vagueness, Late Thirties being one option. But was it right to start lying so early in this self-portrait?
Occupation. Twelve years in Human Resources, previously known as Personnel, questioning and sifting applicants relative to their future employment. Ultimately the questionnaire sought to gather her qualifications as a potential lover but not her durability in that form of employment. Were her professional skills – sympathy, curiosity, persistence – assets in bed? Perhaps Shane should be invited to fill in this deceptively simple slot. Or might she lie?
Bearing (Helpfully subtitled: How we appear when standing up). Amanda was above average height and regularly checked herself in shop windows for signs of stoop. The evidence was elusive since she automatically straightened up on recognising her reflection. Might she surreptitiously hide three inches of height and start wearing flatties? Ah, but men appreciated stilettos and not for the more obvious aesthetic reasons. Something to do with women’s fortitude in the face of discomfort.
Manner. I can be all things to all men, Amanda told herself, knowing this to be untrue. Having had to fight to get into university she found the uneducated hard to take. It wasn’t a class thing. What grated was an absence of certain touchstones that formed a working minimum. That Jane Austen had also written books. Politics: a singular noun. Africa: not a country. Atoms: divisible. Race as distinct from colour. Maths seen as more than arithmetic. Likeness a snare and a delusion in painting. Strange how often they cropped up – one waited for them, gloomily. Shane had only a handful of O-levels yet had initially redeemed himself by his commitment to affordable housing, a moral standpoint.
Amanda screwed up the partially completed questionnaire and let it fall to the floor. Among the lies. But then lies were everywhere. She had lied to herself that two feeble slaps had constituted a reason for divorce. Had pretended she’d suffered in order to share the real suffering that had driven one friend to take her own life and another to shelter in a relationship that would surely end in tears.
Abruptly Shane’s brief note came to mind: “This barrier just isn’t you.”
Why not me? What did those extra locks represent? An even greater determination to keep men at bay? Looking for help in The Haven had been a logical step. Invalidated by a personal and inescapable lie.
Dawn was breaking and she wearily resumed the cold double bed. Reached beyond the left-hand side where she normally slept. Felt only still colder sheets and sensed the emptiness. Fell into uneasy sleep. Overslept and awoke, as on other occasions, to loneliness.
Worse still, to banality.