by Barbara Latham
rene stood in front of her mirror.
At this time of day, in this light, she charmed.
Of course she didn’t have her glasses on but then she was hardly offering herself to an unforgiving camera with close ups. This pleasing image of herself was for the butcher’s gaze.
Irene was not yet giving herself to his hands, which captivated as they sliced calves liver, then were swiped of blood sufficiently for him to fold her purchase in greaseproof paper before tying it up, making a brown paper parcel with string.
These days Irene bought fresh meat whenever she could and cooked the joint on Saturday, eating the remainder on what she now declared her “day of rest from cooking.”
With no cold mutton left for Monday she was in early to shop. Adam was the only one there most Monday mornings.
As she made some effort before going into town, Irene found herself once more fretting over Adam’s preferences. She didn’t know them.
What if he didn’t like ample and dimpled flesh? Many, including her husband, claimed to prefer curves yet Irene saw what caught his eye on the street.
And during those broken nights of hot sweats wasn’t she beginning to get more body hair?
If her feet had to travel a fraction of the distance her mind wandered they’d be worn out but since it was under a mile walk to his shop Irene put on heeled shoes.
Adam was a solid man yet his hands hung down as if they might belong to someone else, or at least weren’t fully his.
They hung ready to be there for others and to caress.
Irene knew she should keep in mind that they were used for others, yet the caution was useless, she wanted those hands too much. And had done so for eight months with a longing which brought back an ache in her she must have half forgotten.
Eight months of keeping it to herself. Even her closest friend, Betsy, apparently failed to notice if she straddled dissolving.
Irene found herself disconcertingly erratic, switching from lively confidence in feeling desire and feeling desirable, to dejection that she might never again be the one truly desired.
Betsy, however, was preoccupied by her husband’s illness. When Harry got cancer Betsy managed the farm with two growing sons. Several years ago she shed the Women’s Club and golf, as well as various committees the two women shared, yet came in each week for the choir in the Anglican Church where Adam sang.
Irene wished she could join Betsy’s church without it causing fuss. She’d heard Adam sing, croon some said, in several town concerts but wanted to go each Sunday in her best, with high heels, to let his voice go through her.
Irene knew others saw her as capable but would she ever recover her ability to manage if Adam found her unappealing, or suggested she not return to his shop? All good sense might drop off her then!
Not that her husband registered her being any less sensible and, like Betsy, seemed to think her far more under control than she felt.
Jim was a decent man who no longer kindled her but since she was the body in his bed continued to expect sex. He gave no hint of really finding her arousing though his eyes moved fast enough when the nubile young in bikinis strutted by down the beach.
After she put on a new perfume and cooked his favourite, the first Saturday the girls had all left home, there were a few loud snores from the sofa where she’d hoped to join him.
If she and Jim no longer excited each other, her daughters wanted escape. The eldest had married young and moved to Australia. The other two pulled away to leave her less entangled, less engaged and far more alone.
Years back, when Irene first noted that young men and old began turning to look only at her easily embarrassed girls, it made little impact on her assured manner. She continued putting on lipstick to improve herself and wore what she considered attractive, as if still drawing glances.
She only half understood her daughters were mortified by the presumption in their mother’s light flirtations until one incident.
On a walk she, the girls and their friend found a secluded pool, left abandoned clothes on a rock and went in.
From nowhere, suddenly, boys on bikes appeared through the dunes, then hovered between the rock with clothes and the pool. They were going to wait it out and the girls weren’t going to move.
Irene drew herself up out of the water, flesh wobbling, as she went straight towards the boys.
She moved as if certain of her own sexuality and clear the young men weren’t up to her.
The boys fled and Irene sat, enjoying her moment as well as the sun on her skin.
The girls rushed to put on clothes, not waiting to dry, and then the eldest shouted her humiliation.
“How could you? Showing your old body!”
Even the youngest screwed up her face at the display and tried not to weep. It felt worse than a slap. “So my baby now finds me disgusting!”
How had this happened, when it seemed yesterday that all three simply accepted her physicality as they took their own for granted and regularly squashed into her folds for comfort?
On the long walk back to the car the young ones made sure to keep out in front, away from her. Not one took her hand for a moment.
The tide left sodden clay sand interspersed with sea residue sheen, patched with dark and green beached weed. It had a poignant, murky beauty yet if the tide of mothering had so stealthily slipped out Irene saw only desolation.
And Betsy could not share how bereft this episode left her of an ease with daughters she’d expected to continue, for her two sons long ago held back from hugs, stiffening, unyielding to any embrace. Betsy wouldn’t dream of flaunting her nakedness before them.
Irene could hardly fail to recognise the way the girls began treating her as if she was not only past everything but incapable of comprehending the hormones and desires which were obviously taking them over. Though they were conceived they seemed to behave as if she was a different species – mother – not one who had been and still was a sexual being. Worse they were on guard in case she show anything to the contrary.
As the menopause began around then, Irene often found herself sliding towards lurking misery at how much was finished for her. She would never again be the bride setting out – that was for her daughters. She would never again begin motherhood.
All the best was over.
Until that day she fell in the butchers.
Her wet shoes slid in the sawdust and he was there in an instant, gently reaching out, drawing her to her feet with a delicacy which brought tears all too near.
She allowed his arms to move her to a seat by the till and sat passively while his hands removed all the sawdust from her clothes. While he put on the kettle for tea he claimed necessary, Irene discretely took out a handkerchief.
Once wanting flooded back into her drying body, it showed how thin and disembodied the memory of it had become in barren years before her fall.
Wakeful nights were taken up by possible conversations, for thought tuned into her heartbeat.
And the womb ache brought back memories of how it puzzled that first time it inhabited her in her teens.
Irene knew she once felt this for Jim and romantically assumed then that it belonged with “the one and only true love.” Yearning to surrender to what she’d found in herself she expected to give him everything. She gave as if what mattered most was having found someone to give her heart to and he took it as if it was his due as husband.
She gave as though she would not also be returned to inevitable separateness, so need not take care that Jim sufficiently consider her and her loving.
By the time Irene understood that it had been over to her to stick up for herself, even with a husband, she grew fearful of having set her daughters a dubious example. Would they realise sooner than she had that men were not driven to value as precious the gift of a woman’s heart and body but seemed driven by some need to feel potent and able to attract.
Being powerless to protect the girls’ still tender hearts, any more than she could now keep them safe, left Irene’s underbelly vulnerable. Would it be bearable if they did not love good men and shut down, toughened by wounding?
Not that she and Jim had done badly. She’d made a life with him and having already lived a fair chunk of it, it set her in place. She could not smash the nest in which she’d raised her girls.
Anyway she could not divorce and stay in town (though a handful had done so and lived with the many consequences of small town disapproval, unless they showed only that they were the downtrodden victim).
In reverting to being more fully alive, Irene wondered if the slow calcification had been but a brittle accumulation from love not matching her romantic girl expectation. But as the hardening dissolved, churned wanting and hopes of being wanted left her wide open to misgivings.
Would she go to him in her corset? Her expanding flesh had been hauled into shape by it, as any unruly lust had been firmly kept in place by the institution of marriage and the town. Also, her corset was part of what felt necessary for the dresses she wore shopping these days.
Then there was anxiety over her drying vagina because sexual juices as well as fertility had shrivelled. Decline had begun and perhaps she should brace up.
To feel longing might be a small wonder but it brought much else once she reopened. Sadness was also being allowed out, for every bit of sediment from old hurts began to stir. And there was a new threat that all this wanting might come to nothing.
Anyway what place could she have in his life?
His wife was in a wheelchair, everyone knew that, and he cared for her well with the help of his wife’s cousin who lived nearby.
Irene did consider total abandon on the sawdust, lying him on the floor, then sitting before him and slowly taking off her clothes. She wanted them to take their time, for him to witness her desire not just grab as Jim was inclined to do.
But what could she have beyond her conversation on quiet Mondays, the occasional touch on the arm and once a stroke of her face which left a trace of blood?
Adam might keep his eyes on hers and hold her gaze but at times Irene sensed him as glib and too seductive. He enjoyed women yet maybe the effort made was mainly to reassure himself that he could draw them.
Over dissected animal bodies was Adam suggesting far more than he wished to meet? Perhaps he wanted no responsibility for what he liked to arouse.
His shambling, bulky assistant occasionally watched. He was self-conscious and had no small talk.
On the days when he was the only one in the shop, as if to acknowledge the blow to Irene, his head stayed down. He mumbled and she didn’t ask what he was saying, though she couldn’t follow.
Her conversation was not with him.
The urgency to pour out her heart’s history was only for Adam. It was his solid yet light footed, agile body she craved.
Betsy was still on a party telephone line and careful. Too many listened in and, having heard the GP giving test results, spread them before Betsy had been able to face her sons with the grim news.
The two friends developed various codes and “I have to return your dish” stood for meeting urgently.
“I’ll come and get it, I’m going out your way this afternoon.”
Betsy, tense and silent, drove the Land Rover erratically to the back of the farm where no one would disturb them and where, serenaded by the lap of water, the river made its way into ocean.
There was a curiously thick stillness to the air, pierced by the mewling cry of some distant sea birds and the impatient tutting squawk of seagulls.
Betsy, however, was far from still.
She stalked across dunes as if much depended on getting somewhere.
Irene could not quite keep up. Betsy was very fit and able to stride faster whenever her friend’s pace increased.
But she stopped at the river.
Late afternoon light burst through cloud and shimmered on the surface. The tide was in and the pool forming at the river mouth glistened, jewelled green and aqua.
As a breathless Irene caught up and beneath heavy cloud across the sun, the water soup thickened to impenetrable dull shades of brown green.
All that sparkle of the apparently pure and precious vanished. And Betsy, most unlike herself, burst into tears.
“Is it Harry?” Irene asked, then as her friend crumpled right to her knees, put arms around the sobbing woman, who only said “I’ve been such a fool!”
By the time darkness began to close in fast Betsy was apologising and able to fill in sufficient detail.
He was having an affair, she was lithe and ten years younger. “She hasn’t let herself go to matronly flab as we did. She still wears stylish, sleeveless dresses with no sign of cellulite.”
The culprit, the most attractive woman in the choir, was his wife’s cousin and part time carer.
“How could I not have seen? I’ve been obsessed with him at least a year, but it was me not her he flirted with during choir.”
“It’s all very well for you, you have Jim. But after Harry’s prostate operation and chemo he took no interest in sex. My trying to entice him was horrible. He just wasn’t up to much.”
“Then Adam was all kindness when I told them the choir would have to go.
“Don’t tell me, I know I’ve been a ridiculous older woman, clutching at straws.”
“Why didn’t you say?”
“I couldn’t even let you know I’ve been feeling like a schoolgirl. You can have no idea how much I looked forward to choir! I wondered if you’d cotton on when I got the new haircut and started buying clothes. He noticed. He knew and looked at me as if we were both aware of sexual magnetism.”
“Last night I got out those photos from your twentieth wedding anniversary then compared how we both looked last year at the wedding. In those five years between we’ve really aged. Day by day you hardly notice. The photos make it stark. When Harry goes I will look old.”
While Betsy wept over her decline and the fact that there would be no last baby, no one new to give her heart to and a dying husband, Irene wasn’t sure quite what she felt, it would have to wait to come to her in the night.
Lying in the dark, while Jim snored gently, she struggled to persuade herself it had, despite all, been a gift. She had felt desirable once more and not every last vestige of that could be whisked away.
She didn’t want to share Betsy’s rage over Adam’s suggestive glances. She didn’t yet feel the cruelty that the offer of intimacy lay exposed as meaning too little.
But by the time of Harry’s funeral tears poured out of Irene. She didn’t cry as she listened to the choir, wet simply streamed down her face and she knew this was not for Harry, who’d had enough of pain and illness, but was for all that was over, which she could not have back.
Then to Irene’s surprise the solo was sung by Adam’s ungainly assistant. She looked up, her drying eyes wide. There was nothing schmaltzy in his pure tone. She hadn’t even known he sang.
At the house afterwards several mentioned the beauty of that unlikely voice.