I'm working on this collection of short stories to be called Kaleidoscope –-Stories from the Frontier. In a way what we produce in our writing is the fulfilment of ourselves and our social functions as writer. As I said in my last blog , I was particularly engaged by Diana Athill’s insightful comment on the late work of Jean Rhys, with whom she worked with as editor in the last 15 years of Rhys’s long life. Athill remarked on Rhys’s writing ‘from the ‘frontiers of old age’ as being of her very best.
Here is one story which I hope will entertain you.
‘So, how’s your love life?’ Amanda’s small round face examines me, top to toe, her eyes shrewd. She pours a glass of wine from as hand-thrown clay jug and puts it in my hand, closing her fingers around mine.
Amanda and I are not as close friends as this greeting would suggest. I stand here in my black suede trouser suit in her sitting room which smells of patchouli, sweet cigarette smoke, and garlic. The room is crowded with people in tie-dyed shirts and fringed shawls. The record player in the corner clicks from disk to disk, playing modern jazz. Dave Brubeck. Take Five.
I met Amanda a month ago. I am in the city one day a week, to attend a professional course at the University. I noticed this poster advertising a meeting about women’s rights. So, having decided to give this meeting a try, I stayed on when the lectures had finished. Amanda was in a small lecture room pouring coffee for a group of women - all shapes and sizes, but young. No-one here was over thirty. That was the evening when I learned that we woman were in the business of raising our consciousness; we were participating in the beginning of the revolution which will go on well into the next century.
To be honest, my mind was already suffused with much of what was said here. None of it was news to me. As the third child of a single mother of formidable character, I had lived alongside much of this rhetoric all my life. But even so I was excited by these posh female voices putting their distinctly feminist point of you. I think some of the women, including Amanda, took to me, with my local accent and my working class demeanour, wearing me like a badge of solidarity.
And after a few meetings I came away with my consciousness well and truly raised in a very modern way. It was after one of these meetings that I removed my wedding ring, seeing now that it was a clear symbol of submission to the patriarchy.
The following Monday in my school staffroom my ringless state was remarked on. Glancing at my naked hand, Julia - my head of department shuddered. ‘If I didn’t wear my ring, Ruth, I’d feel as though I didn’t belong to anybody.’
‘Well,’ I grinned at her. ‘I don’t belong to anyone. Never have. That’s why I’m not wearing it.’
So now tonight I am in Amanda’s house at her invitation, attending more through curiosity than anything else. In a second I know that in my black suede trouser suit, in this suburban house on the edge of this university city, I am truly a fish out of water. You should know that I have these three trouser suits which I wear in turn for school: one in emerald green, one in pearl grey, one in black suede. These suits are my armour for when I’m in the classroom facing boys and girls who are only a few years younger than me and are more knowing and sharper witted than anyone in my own grammar school.
Now I am looking down at Amanda. She is smaller than me but somehow infinitely more power-packed. She is very much the hostess of this colourful house, pouring wine, laughing and joking. Everyone here – men and women - speaks clearly, on broadcast, and the scent of patchouli impregnates the very walls.
Here we have a slice of life in this university city: an island of raised consciousness in this county where pit wheels and factories dominate the consciousness of my world. My husband, standing in the far corner with a glass of beer in his hand in his dark suit and neatly knotted tie, is part of that world too. He has earned his place there with his experience -not in a lecture room but in a factory, where he started his working life on the production lines. Now as a young manager he is used to dealing amicably with both men and women. And here in Amanda’s house he seems quite at ease with the other men who are much more casually dressed than him in jeans and sandals and coloured shirts – some of these also tie-dyed.
Amanda floats away and is replaced by Janine, who lets me know very quickly that she is social worker. She is dark-haired, compact and very beautiful. She shows an interest in the fact that I come from the factory town with its low-rise estates and council housing. She nods. ‘Been across there a few times,’ she says in her London twang. ‘They told me that the Gladstone estate was pretty tough. But I’ve never had any trouble with the people on that estate. I just smile at them, and look them in the eye,’ she says. Then she flashes a brilliant film-star smile. ‘And they say come in! Come in, pet!’
‘They’re very polite. Lovely people,’ I almost growl the words, chilled by her tone. But then it strikes me that I too would do anything for her the moment she knocked on my door in my house and flashed that brilliant smile. Now she slides her eyes over my suede trouser suit and looks up at me. ‘Amanda tells me you’re a teacher in a sink secondary school.’
‘Wouldn’t call it a sink secondary school,’ I say, gritting my teeth. ‘There are some very nice kids there. Nice parents too.’ I wanted to say that I have also met some very nice social workers in my factory town. But I don’t.
She goes on.‘ I suppose there’s a lot of unemployment around there.’
I shake my head. ‘I wouldn’t say that. There’s still work in some of the pits and plenty of work for women and young people in the factories.’
She frowns slightly. I feel in my bones that she’s not very happy with my answer.
Now Amanda floats across again in a waft of patchouli and refills our glasses with more red wine. Janine nods vigourously at her. Right-on. ‘Ruth here was telling me about her school, Amanda, and the factory where her husband works.’
I haven’t said anything to her about Richard working in the factory. Amanda must have said.
‘Tell her about the posters,’ says Amanda and floats away again.
‘Yes!’ Janine turns back to me. ‘We’ve made these posters, Ruth. They’re terrific – women’s rights, workers’ rights – all that. We pin them in places for people to read. ’
‘You can pin them up in your school,’ she says. ‘And in your library. Spread the word! Perhaps you could give some to your husband to pin up in his factory.’
I smile. Richard would laugh at the idea and just shrug his shoulders. But I’m not amused. I object to these women wanting me to put their right-on consciousness-raising posters in my old-fashioned school, where male and female teachers even today have separate staff rooms.
‘Why would I do that?’ I say to this bright-faced, bright-eyed woman.
‘You’re just in the right place to do it,’ she says. ’Get the word out around the county. That’s how things change.’
Amanda returns, glass in hand; without her jug this time. Janine takes off for the other side of the room. Probably, I think, keen to escape. And that’s when Amanda says this thing to me. ‘How’s your love life?’ Her round eyes narrow and her face is now shrewd rather than open.
‘What makes you say that?’
‘You’re looking very smart,’ she says. ‘And glowing.’
I’m embarrassed by any kind of praise from women. I see it as a kind of bait to hook in some confidence. And I’m buggered if I’m going to rise to this bait from this woman or any woman in this room. Word obviously gets around in the tight confines of this university city which is now my temporary working place. The gossip here is as rife as that in any corner shop. So I won’t tell her about my new acquaintance and the growing friendship which that is making me glow.
I look around for Richard to see him tucked in a corner, a pint glass in his hand, talking quite comfortably to two men. One of them is Amanda’s husband - a gentle quiet man - and the other is a short stout lad who is waving his hands about.
Janine returns with a sheaf of papers and thrusts them into my hands. ‘There you are,’ she says, ‘do your worst!’
I clutch the papers to me and make my way through the crowd to the corner where Richard is sitting with the men. I look him straight in the eye and say, ‘I think I need to go Rick. Feeling a little dizzy.’
Amanda’s husband laughs. ‘My dear wife is too liberal with the wine as always. Makes it herself you know. I’m told it breaks up more parties than it makes.’
As we walk down the path towards our Humber we can hear bells ring through the city, down the narrow streets and along the river. Our car is much newer and shinier the other cars parked there in a random fashion: Richard’s company car, of course. He’s not quite working on the line these days.
I throw the bundle of posters in the bin by the gate, open the door and sit in the car, relieved to be going home to my neat house in my factory town. I fasten my seat belt and turn to Richard as he puts the car into gear. ‘Well then?’ I say. ‘What do you make of that?’
He shrugs. ‘It was all right I suppose. Those lads seemed okay. The young lad writes sports reports for the Advertiser, including local matches, so we could talk about football. And your friend’s husband works in a local radio. Pretty hot on current affairs. Nice enough lads.’
He is easy in this situation. So why am I coming away from that party full of anger? I don’t speak to him on the way home. When we go to bed I brush down my suede suit and hang it by the open window in the bathroom, hoping the night air with blow away the scent of patchouli. Back in the bedroom I take out my pearl grey trouser suit and hang it on the wardrobe door. Its smooth wool feels good beneath my hands.
When I finally climb into bed Richard is asleep, snoring gently. I burrow my head in my pillow and spend a while wondering about the nature of my love life.
The next evening after school I decide to put my wedding ring back on my finger. I search high and low but I can’t find it. Richard, who is watching a match on television, asks me what I’m raking around for. ‘Just some papers from school, ‘I say.
I have to wait until Saturday to go to the only jewellers in my factory town. Here I buy myself a new, second-hand wedding ring. I pick it out from a box which is closely lined in green velvet. The ring is thick and chunky. I turn it over in my hands; it feels smooth and solid. ‘I’ll take this one,’ I say to the jeweller, handing it to him and searching for my purse in my shoulder bag.
He examines it closely, holding it up to the light. ‘Made in Birmingham, this one. See!’ he says holding it out to me, showing me the hallmark. ‘1903. Been a long marriage that one I reckon. ’
‘I reckon so.’ I nod slowly. A long marriage, I repeat to myself as I slip the ring onto my finger.