photo by pinterest.com
A submitted story : The author wishes to remain anonymous.
She was a cold woman with a snowball for a heart. Her favourite breakfast cereal was Frosties. She liked her white wine ice-cold and rarely smiled to reveal iceberg dazzling teeth. She never wanted children, never needed a man for long and preferred witty dead writers to dull unalive people. She had a passion for Schubert, shoes and sherry. She was called Shirley and wasn’t renowned for being early. Her eyes had a greenish sheen to them but most days reflected the weather: a cloudy grey. She was short-sighted but too vain to wear glasses. What she saw of the world she didn’t exactly like; her vision was a bit bitter you could say.
One day, say, a Friday, she had a premonition that someone in her family was going to die quite soon. Sure enough, when she got home later in the day the phone rang and her mother told her that her dad was dead. Did she feel sad that her dad was dead? Slightly but it wasn’t something to make her cry like a baby or woman giving birth. So, her father’s life over, Shirley proceeded with her own life – or human progression towards the grave.
One day she dragged her tallish, slimmish body out of bed and proceeded to spoon a seedy cereal into her unpainted unsmiling mouth. Her unbrushed teeth ground to a halt as she switched on Radio 3 and Schubert’s Trout leapt like an electric eel out of the speakers. She listened until it finessed its way to the finish then remembered his short life: dead at 31. She was 41 and what had she done with her extra decade? Not composed any musical masterpieces she noted sadly. She had composed at least a dozen collections of poetry, but these, also sadly, resembled nasty crackly nylon knickers and remained hidden from the world in a drawer. All of them had witty titles – e.g. Cobras don’t wear bras, A yappy dog is not a happy dog and (cunningly, punningly) Catullus among the pigeons to name just three but all of them were unknown to people who read poetry – if anybody did in this twittering world – to use a phrase of T S Eliot’s. She had had a haiku published in a woman’s magazine (unpaid of course) which was on the (odd) theme of pubic hair. It ran:
A dark pubic hair,
A comma on the bath’s side –
The body’s language?
She might have had some other short poems published in short-lived minuscule presses but her short-term memory was no longer as sharp as it used to be and she couldn’t remember.
What else had occurred in her four decades on planet Earth? Well, she’d once had a bit part in a film about horses. Sadly, she hadn’t been saddled with any actressy fame. She’d once been to America and disliked its citizens: fat bodies, fatheads. She’d once been to Turin but it was shrouded in mist so she didn’t see much of it and it was so gelid that her breasts needed two bras just to begin to keep from shivering (quivering?) like jelly.
She’d lived in various parts of London (for six months in a garrety room in Upper Berkeley St near Marble Arch) but had largely lived around Willesden Green, that den of semi-suburban dullness with all the community spirit of the frozen wastelands of Greenland. She had spent some time just off the once-Irish Kilburn High Road however she never understood the odd logic of Emerald Isle folks’ minds. She found them much (mulch?) too bogged down in history and the men unstylishly dressed.
She liked WB Yeats and the trampish ramblings of Samuel Beckett. The queerly dated style of Wilde appealed to her in her youth but now she didn’t rejoice in him as she still did with Joyce – James, that is.
She’d once bought a vintage dress in a PDSA shop (staffed by very odd volunteers) and worn it to go for a drink in that high-ceilinged, well-established pub, the Black Lion. It wasn’t a roaring success. In her black stockings, black mules and inky eyeliner she attracted men like icebergs to the Titanic yet these putative relationships were doomed to sink before they even got afloat. The men who tried to chat her up had less chance of seeing her porthole then a, er, gay sailor.
Once, she had been on the tube at Queensway and had seen two bitchy bachelor types kissing so deeply that she’d felt like yelling ‘Zut alors!’ or whatever the French say to express disgust. Another underground incident at Baker Street involved a young Mediterranean man trying to touch up her buns (as they say in the USA) with heated lust. She had given him a withering glower of disgust and had since found it hard to trust men again – such bestial, testosterone-fuelled brutes!
Now she lived alone in two rooms on a quiet street near a cemetery which bordered on the deadly badlands of Harlesden. Paradoxically for a place which commemorated death it was teeming with life: foxes trotted nonchalantly after dusk, their tails as stiff as Viagra’d pensioners. Jays displayed their pink bits, adding a touch of gaiety to the day. Crows blackly strutted: silent silhouettes of faintly dinosaurian menace. Squirrels scurried as if on speed, scampering up and down trees eating nuts with the greed of the American obese. She marvelled at how London’s cemeteries were small (or large) oases of wild countryside within its urban jungliness.
Once in Brompton cemetery she’d come across Emmeline Pankhurst’s grave. She acknowledged the feminist strife in her life with a thoughtful nod and then mischievously thought that if she had been a whip-cracking dominatrix she could have called herself Emmeline Spankhurst! She had heard that Brompton cemetery was a pick-up place for gay men. She saw one or two fey-looking chaps dressed in ‘trendy’ twenty something clothes even though they were well into middle age. She had never understood why a man would want to bugger another man and thought that it must be some irrational fear of women brought about by their mothers. The female body was a thing of beauty even if Shirley found vaginas (including her own) slightly mysterious. Breasts, however, were another kettle of fish (well, another two jugs of milk perhaps?) How could a man not want to keep his eyes and hands off them? Shirley had never felt another woman’s of course; her own pair were more than enough. Nothing delighted her more than finding a perfectly fitting bra in luxurious fabric. She had once been to Rigby & Peller and the ritual fitting session had almost been religious in its implications… Nothing felt quite like soft silk against her skin (perhaps satin wasn’t far off?) She could almost understand why some men flirted with transvestism but homosexuality was perverse at worse and bestial at best! She’d rather be dead than try to meet another man if she were a man – a grave mistake indeed!
She remembered the crows cockily strutting from grave to grave, flapping from mausoleum to tree. Somewhere near the Fulham Road she had had a strawberry milkshake. The sign in the shop window had said ‘No great shakes – just brilliant ones!’ Hmm… what wit.
She had been to Kensal Green cemetery (one of the most magnificent of the magnificent seven she thought). She’d seen Blondin’s grave: how sad that he’d fallen off the tightrope of life forever? She’d seen Wilkie Collins’s resting place (appropriately enough clothed in a white dress with matching Essexy stilettos). She’d observed the ubiquitous crows picking their way through the gravelly graves. She’d also heard a blackbird sing so loudly that she thought it was trying to raise the dead. She’d been unconsciously uplifted by the tall green trees, poplars being a popular arboreal variety.
She had never been to Nunhead cemetery in South London, it being another country and being a nun another kind of life (or living death). Years ago, in her slightly stupid youth she had toyed with the idea of a life of nunnish piety, however no men, drink, TV or clothes to play with soon put her off. All that kneeling would have played havoc with her dresses, not to mention causing ladders or stairways to heaven in her stockings – oh my god!
Now at 41 she was a devoted follower of Richard Dawkins. She had seen him on an anti-pope march (where many women had worn placards stating ‘Keep your rosaries off my ovaries’) with his attractive wife. He was slighty tweedy and evolution hadn’t passed onto him too many height genes but he was still (semi) devilishly attractive to women. Who could priests pull these days other than young ‘cherubic’ boys or their own reproductive parts?
- An age where most women have married, given the world two kids and given up on stockings. 41. An age where career women are reaching the apogee of achievement with their smart suits, smart shoes, designer handbags and shiny mobile phones replete with some abbreviated Americanism known as apps.
Shirley had been left behind surely? Been left on the shelf like Beckett’s unreadable The Unnameable or Joyce’s Finnegans Wake even if insomnia had made wakefulness take over sleep. She’d reached the age where the game of youthfulness had been cancelled, where the endgame of ancientness was postponed but inexorably, inevitably imminent. Immanent tooth-fairies with long beards or not, death was lurking at the touchline waiting to blow his shriller than birdsong whistle.
Always a deeper than she appeared sort of woman, she had begun to wonder about death with a lively curiosity. As a girl the thought of it terrified her like PE lessons when her period was imminent. Now she knew it would swamp with her nothingness, bog her down in clammy, clayey earth. Underneath earth nothing would matter: underwear, undergraduate discovery, the Underground when it ground to a halt… To be buried didn’t worry her any more. No more boring small-talk, no more boring chores. No more eating, excreting, fleeting moments of happiness. She was ready to be a skeleton, ready to be picked over by future archaeologists, her fleshy excess eaten away by vital eyeless worms.
Yet 41 was no age as they say. Her one remaining grandmother was 91 and still going strong, growing rings round her heart like trees add rings each verdant Spring. 50 years left? Half a century to go?! She would have to take up baking, knitting, understanding test cricket or begin re-reading Proust? Or at the very least relearn the art of love and seduction…