Authors: Lesley Glaister
The Private Parts of Women
I could have, should have, gone round the world. I should have taken a plane and flown to a different continent, a different climate. I should have done the job properly, changed my name, had my teeth done, a nose-job, siliconed breasts, augmented cheekbones. I should have done hard, definite, permanent things instead of this soft, temporary, half-hearted means of disguise. Only hair. I should have got them to pare my bones, stuff me with something artificial. Something that doesn't feel.
I should have gone to Madagascar or Patagonia, lost myself in New York or Rome. I could have flown round the globe. I could have soared away from my old life on eagles' wings. I could have dared the sun, jumped the equator like a skipping rope, to-and-fro, to-and-fro. But what do I do?
Go two hundred miles. Rent a dreary little house in a dreary post-industrial city. Keep on doing what I do. Photographs. Scald the edges of my mind where it tries to bleed into the past. Suffer. Play safe. Even in my flight, my grand gesture, my great escape I play it safe. I do it the English, female way, the little hen way. I am no eagle, I am a scared brown hen pecking and pecking. I am little and pathetic and hindered by edges.
February is a desperate month. Whenever I said that, Richard disagreed.
âNo!' he said when I tried to explain how it depressed me. âNo, it is
depressing, quite the reverse.'
He pointed out how buds were fattening; how shoots were poking up through the soil; how evenings were lengthening; how sometimes the sun shone warm enough through glass to mimic the summer. So I was wrong.
But wrong or not, I still don't like it. It's cold but not proper winter any more â not deep, dark-at-four-o'clock winter when it feels all right to stay in. I hate taking children to the park when it's cold. I hate standing shivering by the swings pushing and pushing and pushing. I hate the undependability of the sunshine, the teasing snatches. I hate the papery crocuses, purple, yellow, that die softly in the frost, too, too tender. I hate the snotty noses; Richard's bleeper going off in the night; his worthy weariness; shreds of paper tissue flecking all the washing in the machine.
February is a terrible time to move into an empty house. The cold has owned the house by then. It squats possessively, despite the radiators clanking and occasionally leaking, despite the gas-fire. It hides in cupboards and curtain folds and as soon as the heating goes off it creeps out again with its sad, damp stench.
Oh God, listen to me. Self-pity or
I'm going to paint the walls, everything white. I've bought several 2Â½-litre tins of brilliant white emulsion and I'm painting every room on top of whatever's there which would send Richard into a fit if he was here. He's the type that likes to strip things down and do a job properly, whereas I don't care to peel off old paper. I don't care what's underneath, as long as it stays underneath.
I've had my hair cut very short and bleached it white. Roberto, the hairdresser, was unwilling. âYou'll regret it,' he warned, fingering the long brown stuff, âsuch lovely natural lights.' And when it fell from my head, drifted in toffee-coloured waves on to the floor, on to my lap, I did feel a sense of loss but such a trivial loss it was almost a relief.
âWhite,' I said.
âNot something subtler?' he encouraged. âCheryl, fetch me the shade chart.' He pointed out little tufts of nylon hair, all soft and subtle blondes. âMost of my ladies take it in stages,' he said. âHow about a warmer shade â muffin or sun-set?'
âWhite,' I said.
He sighed. âEven with our advanced treatments, it strips the hair. Plays merry hell with condition.'
âGood,' I said.
âOn your head be it,' he waved his hand in the air. I laughed.
The bleach was cold and sticky on my scalp. I sat under a lamp, with a mug of bitter coffee, flicking through a magazine, noticing how many of the models had long and flowing hair, feeling perversely satisfied.
Before and after.
Before: a long-haired woman with a push-chair and toddler attached. After: a peroxide blonde absolutely unattached. I will still carry a camera. But I will hardly be myself at all.
After a time, the bleach began to sting and caused my eyes to water. Not tears, only a reaction to the peroxide on my tender scalp. Eventually a piercing bleep signalled that I was done. The lamp was wheeled away, my hair was rinsed, Roberto dried the white fluff, lifting it with his fingers.
âIf you rub a spot of wax in,' he demonstrated, âgive it a bit of movement.' He stood back and considered my reflection in the mirror. âHmm not too bad,' he said. âI think I can see what you're after.'
My hair was white as frost and my face had changed. My skin looked dark, my eyebrows fierce, my brown eyes startling. I lifted my chin, hardened my mouth, narrowed my eyes. It was started. I did not look pretty any more and that was a relief, because I am not really pretty. Not inside.
I paid my money and stalked off, hard-faced into the February cold of my new self.
I do so hate an empty house. Not that I want company, I like to keep myself to myself. It's just that empty houses scare me, call to mind dead people, bodies without souls. All draughts and decay and what have you â but no light in the eyes, no light behind the windows.
Yesterday, the landlord showed someone round next door â a girl with long brown hair. I hope that means what I think it means. That house has been empty for a year â more. If my luck's in she'll be a gardener â that garden! It's a disgrace, a proper eyesore. Long grass and thistles tangled with all sorts: polythene rags, beer cans and a mattress thrown out by the butcher's family when they left. And a laburnum dropping its poisonous black hooks over
Fifty years in Sheffield and what is there to show for it? Only my garden like a picture in a magazine. Half a century slipped away somehow when I wasn't looking.
Half a century
. Why Sheffield? Why indeed. When I had to flee my old life I looked at a map of England and put my finger in the middle and there was Sheffield. I knew next to nothing about it, nothing and nobody. It meant nothing to me but knives and forks.
Mercy Terrace. I thought that had a nice ring to it. It's nothing remarkable. Just a low back street that runs along behind the shops at the bottom of a steep hill. I'm at the end. Over the road is the back entrance to a greengrocer's shop where, in the morning, every day save Sunday, a lorry chugs outside at eight o'clock, men unloading sacks of spuds, greens, carrots â you name it â and on hot days there's the sweet smell of squashed strawberries in the air.
It's a quiet street. The tarmac has worn away in patches, showing up the old cobbles underneath. Under the houses a river runs. The cellar is useless, damp at best, and after heavy rains the water rises an inch or more, all black and stinking. In the old days I'd be down there with my mop, sloshing about, doing battle. But now I leave it be. It always goes down in the end.
The butcher's family were a law unto themselves.
had big thick hands the colour of the slabs of meat in his shop.
was all frosty blonde â a beautician. The children â to speak plainly â were yobs.
. All that meat I suppose. They moved away eventually to a bigger house, a posher area. There used to be such a slamming of doors, such rows, such
. So little shame. And the minute Mr and Mrs were out â which was frequent â hordes of teenagers would congregate outside, filling the passage between my house and theirs, actually lounging sometimes against my own front door. The music would thud so loud the windows rattled in their frames. I used to lie in bed composing complaints, very civil mind you, and fair. But â¦ well, if the truth be told I was a bit wary of them; so bold and cheeky. Respect for their elders? Don't make me laugh. And I didn't want to speak to them anyway, not really, didn't want to get myself embroiled. So I'd grit my teeth and stick my head under my pillow and wait for the parents to return and the slamming shouting and slapping that followed before you could hear yourself think again. Or some nights I would sing too, at the top of my voice, and stamp and shake my tambourine.
They moved out in the summer. Never a word said, just a van drawing up one morning, a lot of palaver, as you'd expect, and they were off. At first I liked the quietness and privacy, relished it. Nobody to watch me in the garden, not a sound through the walls at night. But when the nights began to draw in, I did miss the companionship of a light next door of an evening. I hated the sight of those blank windows, the dark. Rather a row I thought; rather the sight of a butcher making love to a beautician against the kitchen sink; rather a string of teenage obscenities and so-called music, than nothing. The house had never stood empty for so long in all the time I've been here. I thought if nothing else there would be bound to be students in September or October but no. There was nothing. Only silence and dark.
Between the curtains, Trixie sees a white-haired person in the garden. Just for a second she thinks it's an old person, then a teenage bleach-haired boy, then she recognises the figure of a young woman. She is wearing a knee-length sweater splashed with white paint and her hands are clasped round a mug. She is standing in her garden, poking at the weeds with her foot.
Trixie is relieved. Last night she saw the oblong of frosted glass in her neighbour's front door illuminated, the blur of red stair-carpet inside. It is good to have a neighbour again, and a quiet one at that. There wasn't a sound last night, though Trixie strained her ears for the chatter of the television or music. No noisy children, just a young woman alone â possibly the ideal neighbour. Although she doesn't want to get involved, although she likes to keep herself to herself, relief and curiosity drive her to put on her coat and outdoor shoes and open her own back door.
The girl doesn't look up at first. She is staring at something on the ground. The steam from her mug, which she holds at chin level, has made her face look moist and pink. The sun hasn't got on to the gardens yet and the grass is weighed down with thick feathers of frost. Trixie looks proudly at her own garden. The pink and grey crazy-paving is surrounded on three sides with neat clumped shrubs, clipped and huddled down against the cold, but still there is colour, orange berries glow on the cotoneaster, and there is
. She does hope her new neighbour is a gardener.
âBitter,' she says and the girl jumps.
âBitterly cold,' Trixie says.
âI was just looking at these snowdrops â¦' The girl indicates them with her toe. She wears clumsy black boots, like men's work boots.
Trixie comes closer to her little hedge to look over and sure enough, there poking their heads out beneath a stiff flop of frozen grass is a frail group of snowdrops, drips of cream grown out of the frost.
âLike a miracle,' Trixie says, âfirst sign of spring. Crocuses next. Look â¦' She points at the little striped spears of crocus leaves. The girl is silent, gazing at them.
âI'm Trixie,' Trixie tries. âThought I'd best make myself known.' It is so hard to talk, she has almost forgotten how â and this girl is no help.
âInis,' she mumbles.
âMy name is Inis.'
Inis shrugs. Like squeezing blood from a stone, Trixie thinks, but then the girl does look troubled. Reminds her of someone, somehow. Something about those heavy-lidded eyes.
âHow about a cup of tea?' Trixie suggests. âI've got the kettle on.'