Recently – in that seduction of delights, Marks and Spencers’ flagship store at Marble Arch – a conversation between two women – they were probably in their late ‘thirties, early ‘forties and wandering around the aisles together. One of them was staring at the shelves and racks of clothes with that hungry look that some of us know so well – that look that says ‘Which of these things can I buy to change my world into a happier place?’ and ‘Will it make me look thinner?’ She was in her dreamland. But her companion was having none of it. Her companion had something to tell and by golly she was going to tell it. It seemed urgent, exciting – her voice was determined. I was hooked. With the fear of being outed as a stalker I wanted to hear whatever it was, too. Feigning a tremendous interest in the shoe range, I listened.
It began with the weather – the weekend had been cloudy but not cold and so she went to her wardrobe – Interruption here as said dreaming friend picked a pair of shoes off a shelf and started to put them on – requiring input from the woman whom we left approaching her wardrobe. Shoes rejected, the woman who went to her wardrobe, ploughed on. Wardrobe woman was not happy about this hiatus, but she obliged. ‘Very nice’ she said which actually meant ‘Hurry Up’. The shoes were replaced. The dreamer wafted on. The woman with the wardrobe rekindled her tale. Apparently she went to her wardrobe to get its help in the matter of what to wear that weekend day. And the wardrobe obliged. Why was it so special, I wondered? But, alas, at this point her companion only wondered if they should have a cup of coffee before proceeding. The woman who had been assisted by her wardrobe was in reluctant agreement. For she had a story to tell and it was not getting told.
I, in the tradition of all writers, wanted to eavesdrop having become very keen to know how the woman and her wardrobe made their harmony together and what drove the engine of this story she had to tell. One is not only a novelist, one is a woman – and – well – one is also a woman who has never had to take a cushion with her when approaching a long sit-down on a hard seat – one carries one’s own cushion – attached. Therefore both sides of me wanted to hear the next bit. The writer wanted the excitement of overhearing something new and important, the woman wanted to hear how you open a wardrobe and find happiness – which is what appeared to have happened.
Well – the next bit was one of those exchanges that we exchange – when one is saying and thinking about one thing, and the other is saying and thinking about something else. By the time I caught up with them and slid into an adjacent table, all I heard from the woman who had dreamed over the shoes was ‘…So she’s obviously in Australia’ – which set me wondering how the she in question – given the construction of that sentence – was being quite so obvious on that Continent? This word ‘obvious’ is an interesting bit of the lexicon – for it has about it a degree of disapproval and aggression – this use of the word in conjunction with the woman in question being ‘obviously in Australia’ didn’t mean that she was running around Cairns or Wagga Wagga wearing only a Sombrero and nothing else – it meant that somewhere along the line her whereabouts was disapproved of Why, I wondered, was there this disapproval? But we were not going to get an answer to THAT – Oh dear me, no. The woman with the open wardrobe did not rise. Australia and the woman obviously in it, was not getting a look in. ‘Yes’ was all she said. You could tell she was bursting, just bursting, to go on with her tale of clothes and the weather last weekend. I slid a bit nearer. ‘So there I was standing at the wardrobe wondering what to wear…’ Yes? Yes? I thought. Did the magical wardrobe suddenly throw a garment out at you? Did it speak? What.
‘And in the end,’ she said triumphantly. ‘I decided that I would wear jeans. Jeans!’
I waited. This conversation that I had been stalking had gone on for more than twenty minutes and the result? She wore jeans. I waited because I hoped that the woman who dreamed would respond by saying something along the lines of , ‘What – jeans – with your third leg?’ or ‘Surely not while you’ve got thrush?’ But she didn’t. She sipped her coffee, dreamily, as if she understood the weight of this statement entirely and just said. ‘Hmmm.’
The dreamer did not say what I wanted to say which was, largely, what the blooming heck have you kept us in suspension over something so boring as wearing jeans for? What is so amazing about that? I’m wearing jeans, half the population of London is wearing jeans – Why?
I had to get up, go to the counter, and purchase a doughnut to compensate. A manoeuvre which possibly has something to do with my not needing a cushion on the bleachers. Women, huh? And I’m not sneering. Oh no. Because that little exchange was an example of the fundamental desire in my sex to communicate. To keep talking. Even when, as is so clearly demonstrated by this empty conversation, there is nothing, absolutely nothing, to say. Or, sadly, to overhear then write about. Obviously.
March 8th 2017 is the day designated for the International Women’s Strike. One day when, if every women stopped working, the world would undoubtedly collapse. The strike is a possibility but not a probability. Alas. Lysistrata, in 5thC Athens, had a more emotionally practical idea. She persuaded the women of Greece to strike by withdrawing sexual relations. Which soon got the men off the drug of their Peloponnesian wars and worked a treat. But that was fiction. What on earth would the world do now if for just one day women simply lay back, sipped sherbert, and said that they were not doing anything for twenty-four hours? It might make the move towards some serious changes in equality but the pain inflicted on the nearest and dearest would soon make that sherbert taste sour.
I was thinking about this when I had to dash out last night at around 5.45pm to buy low fat goat’s yoghurt. Yup – I am entirely and absolutely middle class – though I have yet to buy my first clump (or whatever the collective noun might be) of quinoa – largely because I find myself strangely drawn to hitting someone when they ask for it in a restaurant. Not only middle-class then, but also neurotic. But – back to my dashing out and the particular relevance of the time. 5.45pm. Usually I would go on any shopping errand during the day as I am free to choose my time and it’s quieter – but yesterday I had a very full day of stuff and there was no chance to go out until later and I needed that yoghurt.
So here is a microcosm of how the world works with its women. For this particular commodity I have to go to the very large supermarket, which is a short drive away, because here, in sensible Brentford, low fat goat’s yoghurt is not considered vital. So I arrived at the large supermarket at about the time when most people who work away from home are ending their day. And what I noticed was extraordinary. I’m not sure where all these shirkers and loungers and incarcerated women and immigrants living off the fat of our land might be – but they are certainly not living and shopping in this place. What they are doing (because this area of West London has a strong Asian community) is being Asian women – might be immigrants, might have been born here – who have clearly been working all day – and who have now collected their child or children from the minders’ or the after-school club, or their mother’s or somewhere – and headed to the supermarket to find something to give everyone to eat when they get home. I tell you the supermarket was buzzing with mothers whose day – as ever – did not stop when their paid employment stopped. There were very few Asian fathers. They may well have still been working at the coal-face. What they were not doing, along with millions of other fathers and husbands and partners, indigenous or otherwise, was mopping up the domestic duties after a day spent operating in their professional lives. Same old, same old.
When I lived in predominantly white, middle-class Chiswick thirty years ago it was exactly the same scenario only with mostly white middle-class families. Fathers went out to important work and came home late – mothers who worked away from home (and many who didn’t) had to follow the same pattern as their Asian counterparts are still doing now – collect child or children, stop off at the (in this case upmarket) supermarket and find something on which to feed the family when they got home. The mothers at home in this more privileged society still ran a very long day – if fathers got home at 7.30 or 8pm they were doing well. By which time, of course, the children where fed, bathed, snoozy and very acceptable. Father opened the bottle of wine and poured two glasses.
The family structure might be different, the culture might be different, the drink might be non-alcoholic – but the basic result is the same for those women and mothers I saw yesterday. Running a long, long day of keeping the mortar in the bricks of the family and therefore in society. And for that I take my hat off to women the world over. Most of whom will not strike on March 8th because they are programmed to support rather than to neglect – even in the long march to social and economic equality
I came away from that supermarket with more than just my goat’s yoghurt. I came away wondering when – and if – it would ever be different? Lysistrata had it easy. Giving up sex was harmless (though the groaning deprived, with their massive erections, which Aristophanes put into his stage directions, might argue differently) but giving up those feminine twin virtues of caring and love? Just pop along to any supermarket at 5.45pm and see for yourself… or you may be one of the many women already in there.
I seem to have lost my sense of humour. It’s to do with Donald Trump. Yes, yes – I’ve tried very hard to put him out of my mind and even harder not to write about him – but I can’t do it. The man pervades my life. He gives me minor depression and major rage. Sometimes he makes me laugh in that way we novelists often use to denote irony and scorn, he makes me laugh hollowly. I find him, like snakes, repellent and fascinating at the same time. I cannot look away from him – his tiny dogs’-bum mouth that makes such peculiar shapes, his little gestures with his little hands that look like he is orchestrating his audience (and is) – his expression that I think he thinks shows gravitas and intelligence but which actually looks like a man undergoing serious dyspepsia (perhaps he is) or planning to hire a hitman. But the worse thing of all is that he has a way of delivering statements – about Mexican Walls (didn’t I do one of those at a recent 50th birthday party?) – about healthcare, about ex-Ku Klux Klan members, about abortion rights – in a confident bar-nothing voice that he then underlines with ingratiatingly low key phrases like ‘Yes we will, folks’ and ‘It’s gonna happen’ and ‘I will do that’ – which chill the blood. There is something of the night about the way he delivers these little add-ons that leaves me weak with fear. He will do these things, folks, you’d better believe it – and we will suffer for it.
I’d like to send you a short story, for free – you just need to tell me where to send it