Blogpost from an Older Woman
By Nigel Jarrett
Well, that's everything done. All packed.
I'm looking again at the card they've sent this time, with a personalised note written in gold ink, as if with a Midas fountain pen. Do they know something I don't? After the second visit, they have always posted me a welcome two weeks before my arrival, because I always book. (They appear on standard black business cards marked, Fernsby Island Hotel. S.J.Holmes, Assistant Manager.) Customer care, I've assumed. But never before in gold, or with a personal addendum. Funny.
Educated woman of a certain age, I suppose they think of me behind my back, a lady poised between elegance and fading allure, with gentility a guarantee of protection, especially against gentlemen of a certain age, the worst sort. I sometimes recognise myself in fictional characters, which is why I read selected women novelists, fascinated by how close they might come to describing me in detail. It's never happened, probably because we never really compare with the complexities of invented people, who need to abide by an ever-unravelling plot. But I dare say I'm not without interest: a short story, maybe, rather than a novel.
It's as a woman cheerfully unescorted that I wish to see myself. A widow, yes; then a divorcée, yes. But no-one in tow and no-one, as it were, towing me; and never having either raise a question or elicit a smirk. I've never needed anyone to take the place of those I've lost, either by death or bad behaviour. It's a test of my independence and my ability to rise above the low expectations of others. But not everyone: things get better, matters improve. In an age when having a door held open for you by a male - it's always a man - can give the old and simple idea of chivalry a sinister twist or, not having it done, indicate failing standards of decorum, you have to make quick judgements.
David, 'Biblical David' as I used to call him, wouldn't have had anything to do with this glistering card of welcome. I met him there last time, doing the same as me apparently: a man at a table for one a few yards over from a woman at a table for one, each pondering a single fresh carnation in separate long-necked vases. He claimed not to have known that for three years I'd been spending a week there in June. When he reminded me that it was where we'd sometimes thought of staying together, it was possible that his arrival was nothing more than chance. I didn't need reminding. The amusing thing was that they couldn't immediately replace our two single tables with a table for two. Odd for an establishment that could run to gilded cards of welcome, I know, but it took them twenty-four hours to re-arrange things, mainly because I didn't straight away want them re-arranged. Not that David and I didn't speak while we were there, but for the first dinner we each sat alone, trying not to catch each other's attention. At the end of that week, having avoided talking about our past together and ignored each other for long periods, except to mention mutual friends and what they'd been up to, we both left on the quaint contraption they use to reach the mainland three hundred yards away at low tide, though not at the same time. We just said it had been good to see each other again, which was a half-truth. But that was it. No farewell kisses. We'd behaved as though we were strangers newly met, with all that meant for me in my determination not to collapse in a romantic heap of regret and nostalgia. As I got into my car I could see him on the landing stage with a few other guests waiting for the return of the four-wheeled buggy, his raincoat folded over a suitcase. He was talking to a woman we'd met, a married woman waiting for her husband. Good, I thought.
I don't expect to see David there this year. We haven't communicated in the past twelve months, but I possibly made a mistake in telling him that my presence there had become an annual event. I didn't intend refusing to go just because he might decide to make a surprise appearance again. Of course, he might turn up for the same disinterested reason that I shall.
David was not the same as Will. When Will died on me – literally, I like to joke to myself, though you all must have put two and two together from what I'd said - David was there to help. But we've all grown up to understand that a man's help and support entertains the possibility of ambivalence. I wonder if men in my position feel the same way? Somehow, I think not. It must be every man's dream to feel that he will soon submit to a woman's sexual advances, especially if they catch him off guard or unprepared, so for him a relationship is assumed to hold that early possibility of congress, even if it never materialises. Will was the one who misbehaved; he was the misbehaving widow-maker, whereas David's lack of transgression was almost Christian, hence my nickname for him. Funnily enough, I use to hate him for it, particularly as it was my misconduct that led to the divorce. I wish he'd misbehaved more, though we were too old to establish openness after the event – or events; that has to be done at the outset before either party has committed anything, and even then it might founder in a collapse of good intentions, as it did with my friends Marjorie and Ken. I haven't seen either of them for ages, but we phone now and then and send Christmas cards. Neither Marj nor I managed to bring children into the world.
Just as I was about to drive away last time, Steve Holmes – 'S.J.Holmes, Assistant Manager' - was arriving for his afternoon shift. The weather had changed and it was spitting rain. I could see his car creeping towards me as my windscreen wiper sluiced away a week's gritty splodges. He pulled in beside me against the wall, in that old Triumph Herald of his. He's a classic-car enthusiast, as he once told me (I don't know how that cropped up in conversation). The Triumph reminded me of how Marjorie's mum used to look: an ancient buffed to a super-shine that surely outmatched her inner workings, though like Steve's ministerings to the Triumph's moving parts, she kept herself fit and healthy. I suppose Steve is twenty or more years my junior, but we talk as coevals, if that isn't too presumptuous on my part. AinstAM, the proverbial 'letters' after his name, stands for Associate of the Institute of Administrative Management. I'm old enough to be his mother, as they say of women suspected of unseemly acts.
One afternoon, while walking on the island path close to the rocks, I looked down and saw him in a swimsuit clambering on to the wooden diving platform in the cove. It was as if he'd revealed a part of himself that his duty did not encompass or sanction, a secretive act to which he knew I was privy; I noticed a quick turn of his head my way before the revelation, but no formal acknowledgement of my presence. I could have been wrong. As usual with me in such matters these days, the thought was short-lived and soon forgotten. I remembered that he'd made a perfect entry into the water, leaving a small white circle that soon imploded, like a film run backwards. When he returned to the platform, and before levering himself for another dive, he sort of suspended himself in the water by his elbows and looked out to sea through a gap in the rocks. In the car park last time, we exchanged small talk, he standing next to my part-opened window and looking in. Then, as the rain became heavier, he ran off to catch the waiting buggy, the one I'd come ashore on. But before dropping down to the jetty, he stopped, turned towards me, and waved. Then, a few months ago, I had a phone message. It was from Steve. It said, 'Hope you don't mind me contacting you. I got your number from the guest info. Thought you might like this. I've swopped the Herald for it.' Seconds later, a picture popped on to the screen of a green and gleaming TriumphTR3 sports car. I replied, 'Very nice,' and left it at that. I thought about the message a few times but didn't dwell on it. I did send a follow-up a few weeks later: 'Hope the Triumph is still going. I'll be at the Fernsby again this year. I'll be able to see it close up.' There was no reply.
I often wonder if our best intentions are not undermined by things beyond our control. I look in the wardrobe mirror. Why have I dressed this way? Why these shoes, this blouse, the bolero jacket that always makes me look, well, too young? It's to do with feeling right – but right for what, for whom? For me? And if for me, to what end other than self-satisfaction? Is a woman without escort waiting to be escorted? Is her reluctance to submit to the customary sequence of events when in the company of a man the victory over the tyranny she expects him to exert, or a denial of her own impulses? Every summer at the hotel there are couples. The ones I get to know are married. Some partners barely speak to each other at meal times. One might stare out of the window while the other, looking wistful, re-arranges the sugar cubes in their pot with a dinky silver spoon. Sometimes, though possibly I imagine it, the woman will look my way and smile. I return it not as an acknowledgement of some instinctive but tacit female confederacy but as an act that two men who were strangers to each other would never countenance: there are sisterhoods but no brotherhoods. Perhaps it would be better if there were. I am returning her recognition of there being some region of mutual interest to us as women, a kind of refuge in times of anguish where we will exchange more than sighs of resignation.
It's just that Steve Holmes' wave on the mainland jetty last time has stayed with me and brought my memories of him into focus. His facial features become clearer. I begin to remember small things about him: the way he skips down the central stairway and takes the final two steps in one neat jump; his diplomatic intervention at table that time after one of the waiters had been unjustly criticised for something by a guest; the time I saw him one evening, on his way home, pushing the Triumph towards the car park's exit, the driver's door open and his left hand on the steering-wheel as he ran faster and faster until he dropped into his seat and the vehicle shot off with a belch of exhaust smoke. He wears suede brogues; sometimes brown, sometimes blue. It's as though I am being handed pieces of a jigsaw, and some force unseen is encouraging me to snap them into place. As a picture nears completion, I see its other elements, things I'd forgotten, such as Clive the odd-job man plucking dusty anthers from the vase of lilies at Reception so that they cannot brush their indelible dust on passers-by, and the few men on their own who sometimes stay and whom I hitherto remember only as courteous presences, perhaps, like me, not wishing to disturb the tranquillity which others like them, like me, have created to make any advance beyond politeness seem untoward and cheap. Perhaps this world I'm re-creating, one I'd forgotten for a twelvemonth, is revealing a truth that's asking to be confronted: that someone, a man, has noticed something about me that I've hitherto exposed by my vulnerability or shielded with my obstinacy. Both Will and David said I had 'an obstinate streak', like some grey fault line in a head of long black hair.
Anyway, I'm ready to go. I've convinced myself that Steve's final wave on my departure last time was not unthinking formality. The message and picture, too, must have meant something. But I'm not obsessed by it: the gold greetings card may this year have gone to all the other summer visitors too. My re-forming image, however, does not admit that; it finds a place for a young man wishing to make an exception for me and buying a special pen from a craft shop. I have an image of sitting outside with him on his afternoon off – he 'lives in' during the week and goes home at weekends, wherever that is – and being bored to pleasant distraction by talk of valves and piston rings as I re-position a lock of my hair that some quickened breeze has dislodged. In my picture, my slow-moving tableau, David, as I suspected and hoped, has not shown; at least he's not there when I am: I don't go at the same time every year, so his appearance a second time would possibly be coincidence. He moves in a different direction beyond the picture's border; he is a blur beside the palms. Whereas Steve, although trying not to be obvious, is slightly over-attentive towards me and rapidly coming into full focus.
I can believe how some might see my imaginings as the pathetic fantasy of an older woman in thrall to a man twenty years her junior, not understanding how, first, there is nothing wrong with that; and, second, that the reverse – a young male having designs on an unsuspecting mature woman, or even a woman of his own generation – is simply what always happens because women allow it to. I am not a standard-bearer; I am following my own inclinations. I'm following my instincts.
I take a last look in the mirror. I'm almost sixty. In thinking I look ten years younger I'm not deluding myself. Others have said so. I've kept my shape, which I contour from the waist in a downward smoothing motion with both hands that is now sensual as well as confirming. I see me lowering myself into my three-year-old Mazda MX-5, careless of momentarily exposing my thighs and black lace stocking-tops in the inevitable and inelegant tangle of legs, and I lie back, lowered, almost supine, as if in a bed.
It's an eighty-mile journey to the Fernsby, an Art Deco hotel and the only building on the island. Daphne du Maurier stayed there a few times; there's a Lady Browning Suite, with an explanation that she was a Dame and that Browning was her married name. It's horrendously exorbitant. The buggy takes ten minutes to cross the strand at low water, pulled by a Tonka-like vehicle with four huge wheels. We passengers rock back and forth like animals in a travelling menagerie. I've heard the crossing described as 'an expensive inconvenience' - I call it The Fernsby Oxymoron. The owners wanted to build a helipad but couldn't get planning permission. It's a five-star, costly place, although for me the expense buys simplicity.
My jigsaw is almost complete. Next time I see Steve Holmes on the diving platform down in the cove I will linger and he will see me lingering. Other things may have happened before then, to do with my being 'forward', as my mother called it, and his breaches of protocol. But if they don't, it will be no matter. It will all depend on the meaning of a farewell wave and the writing of an advance greeting card by someone with a long memory who has brought a fancy pen to be used just once. There are good omens, as there have always been: David and Will both smile at me in technicolour from their separate frames on my dressing-table, and – you have to take my word for it – my disappointments never last long and have had little effect on the revival of optimism.
But I'm way ahead of myself.
The sun shines. I shall grab my suitcase, lock the front door, and squeeze into the car. There is something - don't you think? - about the sky above the horizon as you are approaching the coast that proclaims the existence of what you desire, what you deserve, albeit momentarily out of sight. My father used to call it the ozone, a layer of burnished light blue below an immensity of sky. As Ms du Maurier once said (and I quote from the Fernsby's brochure) 'Luxury has never appealed to me; I like simple things: books, being alone, or with somebody who understands.'
Nigel Jarrett is a former UK newspaperman and a double prizewinner: the Rhys Davies Award for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first story collection, Funderland, published by Parthian, was praised by the Guardian, the Independent, the Times and many others, and was longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. His debut poetry collection, Miners At The Quarry Pool, also from Parthian, was described by Agenda poetry magazine as 'a virtuoso performance'. Jarrett's first novel, Slowly Burning (GG Books) was published in 2016, as was his second story collection, Who Killed Emil Kreisler? (Cultured Llama Publishing). Templar is about to publish his three-story pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy. Based in Monmouthshire, Jarrett also writes for Jazz Journal, the Wales Arts Review, Arts Scene in Wales, Slightly Foxed, Acumen poetry magazine, and several others. His poetry, fiction, and essays appear widely. For many years he was a daily newspaper music critic, and now freelances in that capacity. When he can find time, he swims.