Good Old Fashioned
She threw out the words
like a badge of honour,
proof of value, quality, worth.
It was like she believed
things really were different,
so much better then, before.
The cars, the dresses, the hair,
the men. The afternoon teas
and the cricket whites, hot air
balloons, glimpsed once, billowing
over the downs, drifting colours
in the hot blue sky; dreaming
freedom. Do we all get like this?
Lose the thread of reality
in a vein of memory, dismiss
what is for what was, is lost.
As if the fifteen second lag
feeding us past and present
continuity, sacrifices accuracy.
Leaves us wanting.
‘Fine’, she replied in a high-pitched voice that should have warned him he’d stumbled on one of her pressure points. In her mind they were big, red buttons to be avoided at all costs but Dan said they were imperceptible, as smooth and creamy as her skin that shied away from his hands.
They sat in silence waiting to pull into a field masquerading as a decent car park. The cars were nose to tail, full of a dangerous cocktail of bored and hyperactive kids. Julia glared at the ruts in the parking area ahead. He’d better not scrape the bottom of her car on the way in. He’d better not make her trail round that huge ring watched sheep failing to give birth. She couldn’t be in an enclosed space with that smell. The memories would rise like chloroform, her past would tighten her throat, silencing and suffocating her.
‘I thought it would be a nice surprise for you.’ Dan turned towards her.
Julia tilted her chin away from him. It was certainly a surprise but only because she would never have chosen to come to a farm. If Dan thought she’d go all gooey at the sight of a few lambs frolicking he didn’t know her at all. This just confirmed what she’d long suspected. Her husband spent no time at all thinking about her feelings, her needs. She was as alone in life now as she’d ever been.
So be it. Julia straightened her shoulders and promised herself she’d get through this day without letting Dan know how uncomfortable she was. Like when she was a kid and put up with the hair-pulling, the chinese burns turning her wrists raw. She’d learnt to show no sign the other kids had affected her. She’d taken a savage pride in being the most unrewarding victim of all time.
Dan parked without grounching the car. Julia pursed her lips and followed him into a relentless queue. He already had the money in his hand and she relaxed a little. She quite liked Dan in control mode, it made such a nice change from his natural diffidence. Staring at his back reminded her he was vulnerable too. She could go a little easier on him. He didn’t mean to hurt her and she must be a bit of a minefield at times.
Her granddad used to call her Prickly Princess. He used to fold her into his lap and make her sit there until she stopped fidgeting to get away. He made her accept his touch but with such gentle love she’d enjoyed the game. He said it was like hugging a cactus but he hugged her all the same. Julia’s eyes blurred and she made herself focus on the people around them.
Families with kids. They seemed to be the only couple without offspring. Everywhere she looked people were holding their children’s hands or clutching them to their chests. Everyone was touching except her and Dan. An impulse made her reach for his hand. He turned and grasped hers as if it was an unexpected present.
The queue inched its way towards the turnstyle and then they were in and free. ‘So,’ Dan said pulling her away from the main attraction of the lambing, ‘I figured you’re rather die than do all of the farm stuff.’
Julia stared at him, ‘You’re right but why did you bring me here. It’s a working farm, it’s mainly farm stuff.’
Dan laughed. ‘True but I needed to know something.’
Did he mean to confuse her? She already felt wrong-footed, as if she was stumbling over the ground. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I needed to know if you’d trust me enough to come.’
‘To be honest it was a close run thing. I've told you how all this makes me feel.’
‘Yes I’m sorry but I had to know.’
She raised her eyebrows at him, equally annoyed and relieved. ‘You brought me here to test me?’
‘Not just that, no. I brought you here because I think you’re denying a part of yourself that would give you great pleasure.’
She shuddered, praying he wasn’t going to start on about her inability to relax in intimate situations. Not now, not in broad daylight. She looked at him, as he waited for her answer. Her voice squeezed out of her throat, tight and thin. ‘Which part?’
He pulled her away from the crowds. ‘I’ll show you.’
At least the creatures they passed were more exotic farm animals, nothing like the sheep they’d had at her parents' farm. There were llamas, goats, miniature pigs and ostriches. Julia pointed and laughed along with the kids as the mini pigs mock fought. Dan squeezed her hand and pulled her away.
‘But I liked the pigs.’
‘You can come back to them. I want you to see feeding time in the next zone. Close your eyes.’
She didn’t want to but Dan looked so expectant she felt she must. Julia had a sudden vision of an amphitheatre full of naked humans in pens being thrown pork chops as they cavorted and played tricks for their food. She felt nauseous as if all the substance from her legs had shot into her throat. She didn’t think she could keep walking, not sure where they were going or why he didn’t want her to see.
Julia clutched at the railing around the enclosure to steady herself and peered into the pen. At first she saw nothing at all but then there was a suggestion of movement. A keeper at the far end threw what looked like crab claws into the pond. A brown arrow shot through the water and surfaced under the food juggling it in its back paws. ‘Otters!’
Dan put his arm around her shoulder as Julia clasped her hands together then clapped as a second otter appeared. She was entranced by their exuberance, how they delighted in their food and chased each other around and around. She watched them for more than an hour before she turned to a smiling Dan. ‘What did you mean I’m denying part of myself?’
His face shadowed. ‘I just thought you avoided all animals because some animals reminded you of things you’d rather forget. You assume every person wants to hurt you because someone once did.’
She wrinkled her nose. ‘Well you know – defence mechanisms.’
‘It’s quite hard to love a woman in a cage.’
Did Dan really think she'd built a cage around her to protect herself? How could he get it so wrong? It was to keep her in, to stop her hurting anyone else. 'I let the lamb die.'
'On the farm. I was meant to be helping and I couldn't. The lamb died because of me.'
'You were a kid. You couldn't be expected to save it.'
'I was ten years old. Dad said that was old enough. My arm was small enough to reach the lamb, to turn it around.' Julia said but Dan didn't get it, she could see. He didn't know what had gone through her head back then. He didn't understand that, sometimes, the best way of loving somebody is to keep them at a distance.
It was a drizzly Wednesday morning in June and Maude had been awake since 5:30. Thirty years ago the pavement upon which she stood would have been blurred with the childish colours of chalk and punctuated with children splashing in the gutters. Now, however, it was largely empty. Most of the houses were boarded up in preparation for the impending demolition, or as the council preferred to call it ‘regeneration of the area’. Beneath the considerable shelter of her umbrella Maude applied a fresh layer of lipstick and, with a final glance at her old house, began making her way towards the nearest taxi rank. As usual, there were no taxis – an increasingly common and irritating occurrence in Maude’s life. How did people get around nowadays?
Again, she removed her iPhone from her bag and, by tapping diligently at the keyboard with one finger, wrote a message to James the rugby player. He had a car and, she hoped, an interest in seeing her again. Plus, he was a great deal more pleasant to look at than the average taxi driver. While she waited for his inevitable reply (for who could ignore an old woman?) Maude flicked through the various photos she had taken on her phone that morning. There was the Macpherson’s bungalow, apparently now used as a makeshift brothel for the homeless. Then the charred remains of Mr Patrackie’s off-licence right next to the flaking exterior of Julia’s old hair salon. Then the rusting scaffold of what was once Maude’s favourite park to take the children to. Gerald would have hated to see it like this, she thought. Thank god he’s dead.
James’s reply was affirmative and speedy: ‘On my way, darling’. Within minutes he pulled up and, in imitation of something he had seen in a Gregory Peck film, stepped out of the car and opened the door for Maude.
‘Would you mind taking my umbrella?’ said Maude. ‘It’s been rather well-used this morning’.
‘Sure! Shall I just put it in the boot?’
‘Wherever you please, sweetheart. As long as I don’t forget it’
James was blonde, muscular and unfamiliar with chivalry. The dates he had went on before he met Maude were of the kind where buying flowers was not just seen as inappropriate, but creepy. And so, with the aid of his father’s classic film collection, he was learning how to flirt 1950’s style. It was proving difficult. Very difficult.
Stepping back into the car James pulled a tired bouquet of roses from the backseat and handed them to Maude.
‘Oh, you shouldn’t have. What florists did you go to?’ she asked.
‘The BP garage on Baxters Road…’ replied James, instantly regretting his honesty. ‘I shouldn’t have said that. Sorry. I don’t know any florists…truth be told I’ve never bought flowers for anyone before’
Maude laughed, feeling younger than she had felt all morning.
‘It’s the thought that counts. Besides, I like roses regardless of their origin’
James started the car and drove down Princes Lane, glancing at Maude as she smelled the roses in her hand. It astounded him that someone so much older than him could, at times, have a much greater appreciation for the frivolous things in life. All the elderly people he had met before Maude had been relatively embittered by the process of aging, as if the loss of youth were the loss of life itself. Not once, however, had James seen Maude stare enviously at a younger woman or lament the fact of her age. She was, James admitted, an old woman; but she most certainly did not act like one.
‘What on earth are you doing around here? It’s a total dump’ he said, turning onto Hattree Road.
Maude grinned and let out a demure giggle.
‘This dump was once my home I’ll have you know’
‘What? Here? But…you seem a bit too posh to live around here’
‘Oh, nonsense. Just because I have some money doesn’t mean I have any class. Once upon time this was actually quite a lovely place to live. Back then, of course, people getting help from the state were actually helped, not ridiculed like they are today. At least we had a community, though. Albeit one without an Internet connection. That’s the problem though, isn’t it? We had communities but no Internet, and now we have Internet but no communities...’
Maude kept talking about politics, about the simultaneously utopian and backward world of the 50’s and 60’s, even though James wasn’t really listening. He just liked having her there.
Maude was remarkably attractive for her age. Although her body was marked by the usual wrinkles that afflict all elderly people, her face seemed as fresh as someone half as old. Her high cheekbones framed a large pair of jade coloured eyes and her long legs, while elegantly covered, were of such pertness that many younger women, upon seeing them at the swimming pool, were enraged by their own results in the lottery of genetics. James had never imagined himself with an older woman, but upon seeing Maude he had found something that all the other girls he had dated lacked – grace.
‘Where am I taking you, Maude? You didn’t say’ interrupted James as Maude lambasted the legacy of Tony Blair.
‘Oh, of course. Well, I was going to stop by the Apple store to see about my Macbook but it’s so frightfully rainy that I don’t think I’ll bother. Home should be fine. Perhaps you’d like some tea?’
Maude grinned, realising how old she sounded.
‘Or perhaps something stronger?’ she added.
James put his hand on her shoulder and, in what he thought to be the manner of Clark Gable, said ‘I’d be delighted to join you’.
Sex with Maude was invariably exciting. James supposed that after a lifetime of sex she had simply mastered every facet of carnal interaction, even ones he hadn’t previously known to exist. However, what had surprised James the most was not the energetic and mind-expanding nature of the lovemaking but rather the amount of fun he had in the hours proceeding it. Maude was a fantastic lover, but she was an even better conversationalist.
‘I’m sorry about the flowers. I should have went to a proper florists’ said James.
‘Oh, don’t be so old-fashioned. I don’t mind a jot, darling. Chivalry is dead and quite frankly I think it’s for the better. Women are capable of opening doors for themselves, you know. It’s the men barricading them closed that are the problem. Are you a feminist, James?’
‘Yes, I think so. I don’t see why women shouldn’t be paid the same amount as men and all that stuff. My sister would kill me if I said anything else’
‘How refreshing it is to hear a man say that. For all the troubles in the world I think your generation has much to be proud of, darling’
James smiled. Compliments from Maude were usually about his intellect, not his looks. A refreshing change from the rest of the girls he matched with on Tinder. She had a wonderful way of seeming both wise and gleefully naïve.
‘How often do you play rugby?’ she asked James while pulling a faded kimono around herself.
‘Uhm…depends really. At least twice a week, but usually a lot more. I’ve got training this afternoon, actually’
‘You do? I would rather like to watch you sometime, though not today. It’s much to rainy for an old lady like me to be out in the cold’
‘You’re not old’ said James.
‘However flattering that may be James it is also an enormous lie. I am an old woman and you know it’
James suddenly became irate at what he thought to be her admittance of defeat. It sounded like something that his own grandmother would say.
‘You don’t act old, then. I don’t know any other old women who are on Tinder, or Snapchat or who follow Kim Kardashian on Instagram. You act younger than my mum!’
Maude laughed heartily; this had happened before. Nearly all of the young men she had slept with sooner or later became indignant at the fact of her age and their inability to reconcile it with her behaviour.
‘Darling, listen to me. Those things you just mentioned are merely tools invented by young people to better their lives. They are not off-limits to anyone over the age of forty, despite what you might think. I use them because I can, because I am perfectly capable of using them regardless of how old I am. The young do not own technology, you know. As for Kim Kardashian, well…she has the most lavish wardrobe and I quite like looking at it. Now come on, would you like some tea?’
James leapt from the bed and started yanking on his clothes.
‘No, I don’t want any bloody tea! You’re beautiful and smart and I can’t stand seeing you pretend to be an old woman’
‘Darling, I am an old woman’
‘No you’re n-’
‘Quiet!’ Maude shouted, cutting off James mid-sentence.
‘Listen to me, please. You are handsome young man with a great deal of potential but you shall never get anywhere without seeing things for what they are. Age, my darling, matters. In certain regards it is simply a fact to be glossed over – sex, for example. However, for the most part age matters to people. It dictates how we treat one another, and how think we should be treated ourselves. Just because one is old does not mean they cannot utilize the bounties of the present, as I myself do with my mobile and my credit card and my laptop. But just because we both have an iPhone does not mean we understand one another. I am old. I go to bed very early and have my newspapers delivered. And so, if you can accept that I am, in fact, a very old woman, then I shall be delighted to see you again. If you cannot, then I shall ask you to leave before you start shouting’
James was dressed now and standing sheepishly by the dresser, fondling the various rose-scented perfumes and powders. He felt cheated. Maude, had she been fifty years younger, would have been the perfect woman for James: he found her charming and beautiful and felt obliged to give her anything she wanted, regardless of the cost. But as it stood she was sixty-eight years old and he couldn’t very well bring his pensioner girlfriend to cheer him on at the sidelines during rugby games. It was, he thought, an unfortunate but irreconcilable difference.
‘I’m leaving. I should never have come anyway’ said James.
‘Well, will you at least give me a lift into town?’
‘Get a taxi!’
‘I try but there never are any. How do people get around nowadays James?’
By this time he was darting down the stairs and heading for the door.
‘Goodbye Maud. You’re a wonderful lady’ he said, fumbling for the car keys in his pocket.
‘And you’re a charming young man’ she said, before adding: ‘And you really aren’t heading into town? I wasn’t joking about the taxi service’
‘Uber’ said James, stepping outside.
‘Pardon?’ replied Maude.
‘Uber. It’s an app. Download it. Goodbye’
‘Goodbye, darling!’ said Maude, blowing kisses as his car left her driveway.
Maude pulled her iPhone from the pocket of her kimono.
‘Uber…’ she muttered.