The Rules of the Kitchen

Vol XXXVII, Fractures & Religious Affairs



Religious Affairs


I was leaning against the back wall of the class room, hands in pockets, body arched forward a little, right leg bent, heel resting on top of the skirting and head cocked unintentionally to one side like my childhood photos; hiding a sulk, a shyness. A ‘little camp’ was the description offered by one student. She, herself, so debilitated by her family that she had succeeded at nothing, was getting through the course because I was writing virtually half of her work for her.
    Her brother, who had abused her as a child, had burnt himself to death in his car by throwing petrol over the inside and igniting it. She, too, had attempted suicide, driving her car at speed into a lamppost. The vehicle had split almost in two; she stepped out with a grazed face. Her sibling she had seen as selfish, there being nothing left for her to remember him by.
    Mature students, generally, had problems, especially women. The majority on this course were females and half of them were starting the long road to economic independence and, for some, hoped-for single parenthood. Their male partners were largely unsupportive, insecure and suspicious of those who were helping their women stretch to new vistas; a colleague had recently seen one of them standing in the car park looking grimly up at the staff room windows. Fresh bruises seemed a weekly occurrence. The younger girls, minimum age twenty, were not exceptions.
    For six months I had been lecturing this group in both the sociology of deviance and of medicine. Most would go on to a nursing or social work degree. Two hundred students were split into groups called ‘cohorts’ by management. I’d told the latter that as a cohort referred to a tenth of a Roman Legion and I hadn’t seen a toga or a sandal since I’d been there, the term was inappropriate.
    I disliked management and their sycophants; their eager grabbing of Edu-biz buzz words and throwing them into the air like linguistic status symbols at staff meetings, at the end of which, having remained silent throughout, I would quietly place a scribbled list of code words in front of the frowning Chair.
    The students I saw as ‘mine,’ as I did the subject I taught, and was aware that this proprietorial urge was a vestige of a working class background; my father, a caretaker, owning nothing, would claim psychological ownership of ‘his’ building, my mother, a cleaner, ‘her’ bank.
    I was doing role-plays with them and had suggested a scenario or two; the Jehovah’s Witness parents of a young injured child who were refusing to allow a life-saving blood transfusion - what would, could, the medical team do? A similar question was posed by an extremely sick menstruating woman being treated by Orthodox Jewish doctors. It was a delight to watch two Yoruba Nigerian women and a Kenyan man play the doctors.
    With encouragement they’d create their own situations and act out one or two a lesson. They particularly liked making up narratives that enabled them to dress up - tongue in cheek I’d suggest nurses’ uniforms with fishnet stockings and stiletto heels would be appreciated - and, if they justified it in the context of a genuine ethical dilemma, to use music. The head of school would look through the door and frown perplexedly at us. Once, she had marched into the classroom and demanded we changed rooms, this one having been overbooked. I’d told the class not to leave.
    ‘You can’t treat them like this.’ I’d said to her.
    ‘And I hate the way you behave towards me in front of students,’ she’d hissed angrily, and using her authority had had her way. I wondered if she’d have acted thus if most of the students had been white.
    Thandi Mnede was delivering a baby - a large black doll - from a fair-haired Spanish student, slightly shorter than the doll, lying on my desk surrounded by other ‘medical staff’ who were laughing and screaming with delight. I liked the innocence, the ingenuous nature of African women, except when it came to religion.
    I told them of European oppression and control through Christianity, that god was a construct, all predictably met with surprise, anger and, sometimes, pity. God was involved with the things that they wrote, their essays and research projects - particularly the latter where, in their acknowledgements, they would thank various organisations and individuals who had helped them, often including god. I’d suggest they put me higher on the list than god. Some took me seriously.
    Pulling a chair across I sat down, watching them. Maria was holding her new-born tightly and miming breast-feeding while Charity, the youngest in the class and wearing a stars and stripes headscarf, was jumping up and down with glee. It was she who, after I’d told them that sepia photos of ringed female necks a foot long and ‘savages’ with bones through their noses had been part of my early upbringing, had insisted to the group that the bones were fashion statements. On her mobile I knew that it permanently said, ‘I love Jesus and Jesus loves me.’
    Thandi was enjoying herself, grinning at me. She was tall, slim, with short frizzy hair, almond-shaped eyes and that slightly jutting curve at the top of her buttocks. I was seeing her that evening.
    Recently she’d been passing the staff room and I’d beckoned her in and asked what work she did. Most of the women had caring jobs outside college; she was looking after adolescent boys. I offered to help her with her project questionnaire and handed her a sheet of paper which asked if she fancied a drink one evening, under which I’d drawn a large square with a ‘yes ’under it and a small one with a tiny ‘no. ‘Please tick appropriate box.’ it said.
     She’d folded it in quarters slowly and perfectly and in her slightly brittle Zulu accent had said, ‘Why didn’t you ask me before? I knew you wanted me as soon as you walked into the classroom.’
    I’d explained that it would have been too early then and may have frightened her off. Disdainfully she’d lifted her head and walked away.
    It had been rather different in the early days when she’d been with other students chattering eagerly around my table waiting for their marks and calling me, ‘Mister Steve.’

    We met in a pub near where she lived, I arriving before her as intended. It was a dismal place; flock wallpaper, match boarded dado, fifties lampshades and a tattered, miss spelt notice stating that there were rooms to let. When Thandi came in I gestured at it and said that the landlady would probably have told any potential guests that she couldn’t shake their hands, she’d just finished putting lard on the cat’s boil. She looked bemused.
    Sitting down opposite me and with her Nefertiti head inquiringly angled she said,
    ‘Well, are you bisexual?’
    I asked if it was the earring - I wore a small gold one. Pints were pulled and a darts matched ended before she told me it was because I wore tight jeans. I jokingly sneered at her African stereotypes, until she reminded me that I’d told them that sociology was a generalising enterprise and not to apologise for it.
    She couldn’t stay long; she had a shift to do, and briefly told me about herself. Brought up outside Johannesburg in a large, extended family - I envied aspects of African culture; babies huddled in slings between their mother’s breasts, having lots of ‘mothers’, what could create more security? - she’d managed a restaurant before coming to London and its gold-paved streets. She was single, had a son Nono - pronounced with clicks after the consonants - and was thinking of adopting Tshepiso, her absent brother’s teenage child who he had ill-treated from an early age.
    ‘I want to show her and teach her love.’ she said.
    Two evenings later I was quickly shaking hands with other household members, an aunt, uncle, two cousins, a half-sister and a sister who she shared a room and a bed with. She gave me a glimpse of the room; a few African carvings, bright traditional dresses inside an opened wardrobe door, a photo of herself in a Diana Ross wig taken on the sea front at Clacton when she’d first come to Britain four years before.
    In the train on our way to see ’Umoja’ she wore a black velvet hat and, picking up a newspaper from a seat, started reading. I asked her if her not talking to me was an African thing.
    ‘We don’t show love or hold hands.’ she said, and enquired if my son was well. I was divorced, as I told my classes in response to their questioning, and my young son stayed with me some weekends. Later I was to find that she revelled in disinterest; not asking who I’d seen a film with, but where, not who had accompanied me to a gallery, but merely a polite raising of an eyebrow.
    I asked her why she had worn her hat in the theatre and hadn’t clapped and sung as many in the audience had.
    ‘We wear our hats inside. And I didn’t want to make a noise because I could see the way you looked at people when they were unwrapping sweets. But I told the people behind that you are my teacher and to take no notice.’
    There was a smile in her eyes, but I felt frustrated that she hadn’t expressed herself, had misunderstood.
    In class she acted as if we hadn’t been out together. Occasionally I rang her at her work place, she always seemed to be working and could rarely talk for long. She called me ‘darling’ on the phone and I noticed she greeted her student friends in the same manner. Childishly, I felt annoyed.
    One Sunday she rang to ask me to help her with a communications essay, the title of which she’d been allowed to choose herself. Despite precise instructions she got hopelessly lost. I drove to where she was parked and led her back to my flat. Standing by my side while I looked at her work and wearing salwar kameez trousers wrapped around her head, braided extensions pluming above them, she looked utterly African.
    Without looking up I asked her quietly when she was going to sleep with me. She pushed me playfully to the floor and stood astride me, eyes black and still. But it was church day and she had to leave and, holding her folder, walked to the gate while I returned to the screen where her essay title still read, ‘’Thou shalt lie only with whom thou love.’ Discuss.” I wondered if she recognised the irony.
    We went to the Passion play, ‘The Mysteries.’ Knowing my views on organised religion she was surprised at my choice. How many times had I told them of social inequality being legitimised by hymnal lines like,’ the rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate, all creatures high and lowly, god ordered their estate.’
    The director had encouraged members of the South African cast to act in their own languages. She casually said she could speak five of them. On the way back I mentioned that the lead black singer, the best voice on stage, should have played Eve. She made no comment, just shrugged. I tried to get her interested in the songs, the humour, the scant, but effective scenery; like the stockade made of Peter Stuyvesant cartons in which a near naked group had sung, ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ and received a standing ovation. She shrugged again, then said,
    ‘I will stay with you tonight, then.’
    I drove her home. In the bedroom she began undressing quickly, a sudden dark shape slipping under the duvet. After telling me that it was too early for us to make love, she added disinterestedly that she would still satisfy me. After delivering a short lecture on the myth of joyless servicing, I gave in to her plea that she never slept naked by letting her wear me for most of the night.
    In the morning she made herself breakfast with food she’d brought with her, picking up pieces of cornmeal to soak up her thin stew, lips making soft smacking sounds and occasionally smiling. Unravelling her cornrows into a tightly curled wedge and rubbing in sulphur cream, ‘Because this is what they do back home,’ she transformed my kitchen by putting dishes away as if she had lived here forever instead of staying a night. Looking briefly around my minimalist home she announced she’d be late for college and that when I took her class I mustn’t anger the women again by jeering that infibulation was about male control and that they didn’t have to lie back and think of Africa.
   As she started the engine of her car, barefoot on the pavement I anguished my frustration through the car window.
    ‘But I made you cum.’
     She frowned and drove away.
     During the summer I saw her only once. She had passed the course and was beginning a nursing degree at university and was working nearly all of the time, mostly with the boys. I rang her most days and if there was more than a three-day gap between calls she would ring to remind me of ‘the contract’, referring to a promise I’d made to phone her regularly.
    One evening she asked me to meet her at the street where I’d picked her up when she’d got lost. When I crossed the road to her, she wound down the side window and gently took my hands and pulled them inside the car and pressed them to her breasts. I felt awkward, like a teenager, and wanted to take her home. She grinned at me and said she had to go back, and drove off. Always she seemed to be driving away.
    She’d been at university a month before I saw her again; for the first and only time she’d arranged for someone to stand in for her at work. She walked in with a parcel of fish heads and yams and began washing up while they warmed. Noisily she sucked one of the eyes while I opened the wine, though she rarely touched alcohol. I found it pleasurable to watch her eat with her fingers.
    She hadn’t spoken since coming in, then, with eyes darker than her lashes and blacker than her fountained braids, looked up at me and said, in long continuous sentences and barely pausing for breath,
   ‘When you mimic me your accent is too strong, I am Zulu not Afrikaans, and when you come home with me at Christmas it will be very hot, but you must wear a suit to show respect for my mother and you cannot sleep with me.’ She carried on eating for a while. ‘I am beautiful inside as well as out, and if I were a virgin you would pay a thousand pounds for me, and when I go back I even give them my panties because we are poor and when I was a child my uncle said I was spoilt because I didn’t sweep the yard and cook tomatoes in the big pot like the other children and I walked like an old woman, but I hold my shoulders back for you because I am glad you took me out, though I don’t think you will come home with me at Christmas.’
    She looked down at her plate again. I didn’t know what to say.
    She stood up and began swaying with the music I’d put on, a languorous wisdom inhabiting every glance, then, moving nothing except her wrists, bending them rhythmically downwards, she was nonchalantly clutching all the sex in the world.
    There was a familiarity about the bedroom struggle to remove her clothes, until she clamped my wrist and I noticed the rag tied around her waist, which she’d said she wore for fasting. This meant that nothing was to enter her body except water.
    She laid down with her back to me, braided hair now in a loose knot on her shoulder before flowing down almost to her hip.
    ‘I am a wounded soldier making love on the battlefield.’ she whispered, and went to sleep.
    When I woke she was parading naked around the bedroom, buttocks clenching Zulu style and intently mirror-gazing. She murmured repetitive ‘mmms?’ to my thick-throated questions about when I would see her again, and her bumping into a stool, hair extensions loosening, did not interrupt her delighted solipsism. After she had gone I could still hear her sharp vowels telling me she was leaving, and lay still on the bed as I scrawled on the calendar an imaginary cross for some day next month.
    She started work-placement at a local hospital, after which she came to tell me that as her family had moved to Nottingham and she had flown back to her childhood home to bring Nono back with her, as well as adopting Tshepiso, she now had nowhere to live.
    ‘I have now been seeing a man for some while.’ she added, with that slight irregularity of English use I usually found endearing. ‘He is not African, but he will provide a home for us.’ Her eyes were sad, and also asking me to offer her my home.
    This news hurt and confused me. The flat was not large enough, my son still stayed with me, though less often, and I wasn’t sure I could cope with her two children. I felt weakened, told her I couldn’t have her, was sorry
    Then, at the end of her first year at university, instead of the dutiful relationship she had with god being little more than a socialized response, she really did find Him.

    She asked me to come to church with her and listen to her testimony. I hadn’t been to a church since a child. It was a Victorian building whose builders would never have envisaged the nature of this congregation. There were many people present, mostly ethnics, the majority Africans. The pastor, white, tanned, grey hair, tailored sports jacket, briefly shook my hand.
   ‘Hi, I’m David.’ he drawled in an American accent, and moved into the hall.
   ‘Hi, I’m a sceptic.’ I said under my breath as I climbed to the back of the balcony. I stood watching the keyboard player hitting the chords with a gospel band and, pointing to the hymn-filled screen above the stage and telling them that this was their god for the morning, he led the congregation into their devotional karaoke.
     Matrons sang, clapped and swayed, and towards the far side of the balcony I saw two students I’d taught the previous year looking across at me, eyes wide in surprise. I exaggeratedly raised my shoulders and gestured with open hands to them.
    Thandi arrived late, African time, shook my hand - I fondled hers - and introduced me to her lover, a protestant chill momentarily freezing the music. He was a pleasant looking Afro-Caribbean who welcomed me warmly and asked me to sit with them. I stayed where I was. After a sermon and further hymns it was time for her testimony. She stood in front of the audience and told them how she had come to god.
   She recited it very quickly and emotionally and I could understand little. After she had finished, with more clapping and singing from the now packed church, she came up to the balcony and gently squeezed my arm and asked me to take her back to the flat so she could tell me what had really happened. Her partner would take the children home.
    Sitting at the table with me she held my hands tightly together as if I were praying and, with her eyes closed, told me that when she was seventeen her ancestors had occupied her spirit and told her to remain chaste - a command manifested in the white rag appearing around her waist - and that when it was time for her to work for them she would be told. She assumed that, like chosen others in her country, she would ‘go away’ for two years and then return as a healer.
    Two weeks ago the ancestral spirits had demanded that she walk into the sea and there would be a crocodile waiting for her with open mouth into which she would climb. There would be snakes, a festive party and great happiness inside the creature. There she was to stay until ready to heal the sick.
    As she told me this she spoke rapidly, became excited; several times I gently slowed her down. She became more agitated, almost frantic, when she announced that a fortnight previously she had, wearing the rag, white knickers and white dressing gown, set out to obey these wishes at Southend-on-Sea while her younger sister and her boy friend had watched from the beach.
    Resisting explaining the phallic symbolism of the snakes, I imagined her, oblivious to the sounds of boy racers, the pier train, the fun fair, go-karts, the smell of vinegar and chips, moving deeper and deeper into the sea.
    Part of me wanted to laugh, almost hysterically, at the sheer incongruity of the town she’d chosen, but I believed her; believed her when she told me that as her head was going under water, god had exploded inside of her and told her to renounce what she was doing and to do Hiswork, and only His.
    She had waded back to her sister and pleaded with her to find a priest. They’d driven back and found the church - the one she had been speaking in an hour before - and she’d told David what had happened. This had been her first visit since then.       
    She began to cry. Releasing my hands I gripped hers. She opened her eyes; they shone with excitement. This was a different reality for me, a spiritual universe I couldn’t enter, and didn’t wish to. I wanted to tell her that many frigid women who gave themselves to Jesus could do so in the knowledge that they didn’t have to make love to him. She would, her humour and patience jettisoned, have cried out that it was profane, an insult. She wasn’t in the classroom; I wasn’t teaching her. I held her tightly for a long while before she left.
    I went to church with her once more. It was the last time I saw her.
    She picked me up at my home and drove northwards. In the car Tshepiso ate greens with her fingers while Thandi threw us around back streets telling me that the preachers used private jets; I proselytised about ruling classes and god until we arrived.
    In a hangar on Hackney wasteland gantry cameras arced over us like crows, people waved at screens, puzzled they were in profile, and envelopes for Jesus magically appeared. Outside, I’d noticed how permanent the fast-track buildings were, how organised it was. As well as hot food and drinks there were all the cogs of capitalism; stalls housing loan firms, insurance companies, mortgage and investment brokers, banks, estate agents, a funeral director, even an adoption agency. And inside, a bass voiced pastor was telling the congregation that all that they looked upon was all they may have.
    Knowing those who had nothing, I stood up, squeezed past Thandi with a tight smile and walked towards an exit, remembering irrelevantly the gifts she’d brought me every time she came to see me; the lemons I never ate, the popcorn I never made, the t-shirt I never wore.
    At the door I turned; saw her head with its short tufts of hair, Tshepiso and Nono grinning back at me, and under the starry night ceiling of the stage, standing in a lake of lilies, the wild hair of a singer hitting Whitney Houston notes. Turning sixties pop into gospel, Jackson Five look-alikes strutted to the front and a thousand believers raised their hands.





Fracture (third person)


    ‘You look like Sean Connery,’ she said, dropping potatoes onto her plate. She glittered a frank look at him and grinned. ‘Well, maybe David Niven.’
    Walking into the refectory, he’d seen at the counter a tall, pale, dark haired woman with large black eyes, full lips and, though only afterwards did he articulate this, a vulnerable exoticism.
    ‘Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m Mister Right,’ he said casually, with what he hoped was a trifling amusement playing around his mouth. As ever, the internal split between the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ was active, knowing instantly the impression he was, or thought he was, creating. He asked her what she was doing here. She told him she’d just begun a counselling course.
    Putting a coffee on her tray she looked at him candidly and said,
    ‘You’re forty five.’  He paused - silence is assent. ‘And you are thirty one.’ he said.
‘How d’you know that?’ she asked with a delight that was almost childlike; an expression, an attitude he came to know well and was constantly affected by and nearly always with an undertow of sadness. He let her think, as he supposed she still did, that this ageing Bond was fourteen years older than her instead of the twenty four he actually was.
    She asked him where he was sitting and he nodded towards the table just inside the door where a student was waiting for him. He wanted to finish his rant against the pernicious weltenshaung of political correctness he’d begun as they left the classroom. One of the bonuses of lecturing to mature students was that they tended to listen to lecturers both inside and outside of class. He was up to ’…is the most fascistic and repressive form of ideological, social, linguistic and economic control since Stalin. It engenders fear, distorts reality, forfeits fact.’
    They left the counter, she asked him his name. ‘Chris,’ he said; hers was Mercia. The canteen was filling. She sat down with her meal and occasionally glanced across to him. His companion didn’t seem to notice. He’d taken her that morning to a local social care office where she was prescribed methadone to help her come off heroin.   She lived on her own in a banjo shaped cul-de-sac in the mean maze of an east end council estate and was getting through his social work course with more help from him than he should have given.
    He talked to her half-heartedly. Usually, in spite of twelve years of teaching, he tended to proselytize as much outside of timetabled hours as within them, but he was distracted.
    He kept looking at Mercia’s table, some admin. staff were sitting there, a man grinned at her, she smiled back. He felt jealousy; it was quite strong, thus blanketing his ability to instantly analyse it.
    Having a class, he left before her. She glanced up at him, He shrugged, smiled, noticed his student frowning at her as he closed the door.
    He hadn’t had a relationship with someone he wasn’t teaching for many years, though there always seemed to be some kind of offers from female students to lecturers.
    He’d been a virgin till he was twenty six. If he hadn’t had a need for what he felt he’d missed, or had been more cleverly disingenuous, perhaps he’d have still been married.
    When young, he’d wondered what on earth, or in bed, it was really like and sated himself on mind flicks of skinny Iris at number twelve or the silken, misty space inside the thighs of principal boys his dad took him to see at Lyceum pantos, and since then a host of encounters: like ginger Elaine, ward of an elderly communist with an Essex farmhouse that had Karma Sutra carvings around the hall and who had wanted them to do it in front of him because he couldn’t any more, though his Scrooged nightshirt still hung from the bedpost in her room.
   And Tina from Ghana, who had made it to the local university, with her two a.m. calls about clinical psychology, dragging him from pumping gyms to thumping night clubs and, when drunk, screeching that he should go back to his ‘own colour,’ her ex-lover once following him to work and staring up at the staff room window. And there was Charity, a Ugandan who had been sexually abused by her older brother and the ubiquitous uncle.
    Next day in the canteen he saw her again. They sat down together where she told him about her course with wide, enthusiastic eyes. The place was almost empty, yet this particular table was psychologically owned by the Humanities Department, the staff of which sat down noisily around them. He could really only play the supportive teacher role, encouraging, informing, smiling, but scrawled a note on a napkin as she got up to leave, asking her if she’d like a drink one evening.
    She rang the college the same afternoon to tell him that she had a ten-year old son with hydrocephalus whom she lived for, and didn’t want to worry about or hurt someone else and was nervous about a teacher-student relationship. He liked her saying the last. Some mature female students, if they fancied a lecturer, often overtly showed it, sometimes bragging to classmates if they’d been successful. He had never made an approach to one of his own students.
    ‘I think we should start off as friends,’ she said, in a rather prim, sensible way.
     He took a call from her the day after in the small lecturers union office in the corner of the staff room that he soon came to monopolise - playing the ‘who’s going to put the phone down first’ game with her that, in retrospect, always seemed pleasantly juvenile. She gave him a potted history of herself.
    Born and raised in St. Lucia with two sisters and two brothers she’d spent a lot of time as a child sitting outside her father’s bar acquainting herself with masculine cursing. She and her siblings were part Norwegian, French, and Carob Indian, whose maternal great grandfather had owned slaves on his sugar plantation, a portion of which was occupied by a large house built by the married eldest sister. When Mercia had visited her siblings recently she had been spat at. The Sanliquot name was not popular amongst indigenous Islanders.
    At nineteen she’d married a St Lucian whom she met in England and who had returned to the Caribbean shortly after their son had been born. Chris asked what her first memories of England were. She told him how excited she’d been on a school trip as a newly-arrived twelve year old when informed they were going to the sea, and then seeing that flat grey line for the first time and crying with disappointment. He asked her why she hadn’t returned home with her husband.
    ‘He would have treated me as a Caribbean wife.’ she said. She was quiet for a while, then, ‘I used to lie next to him for months knowing he was seeing other women, but couldn’t break free. It was like a chick wanting to get out of an egg and then when it has can only lay beside the broken shell, for comfort, reassurance.’
    She was in her bath eating an ice cream when he rang her that evening. Laughing, she asked if he’d like her to eat it or do other things with it. He began to suggest something, then, as if remembering her mother’s behavioural instructions to her regarding relationships with males as she reached puberty said, ‘Oh, I’m propositioning you, aren’t I.’ He could see a long leg raised, ice cream balanced on the knee, widened eyes, slightly pouting lips.
    She told him about her course; the Rogerian approach to clients, its emphasis on ‘the now ‘and, so far, no Freud, and about Dan, who ran it, calling her ‘my dear lady’ as if he was about to kiss her hand, and who would tell the students they shared that sociology wasn’t a ‘proper subject’ but not to tell ‘the tall guy,’ meaning Chris, who imagined Dan’s eternal bow tie spinning as he said it, like a music hall comedian.
    It was Easter, he was decorating his flat, she was at the hospital where her boy was having his annual tests for his medical condition, and they spoke only briefly. He then rang to ask her to come out with him. She insisted they mustn’t be back late, her younger sister would baby sit.
    As he arrived outside a Victorian terraced house she was leaning against a large Citroen talking with a slight, Afro Caribbean girl. He could hear their animated patois as he parked and which continued as he got out and stood quietly next to them, feeling excluded.
    In a local bar she told him that she didn’t feel she was attractive. He told her how ludicrous her statement was.
    He wanted her advice on some curtain material. She went back with him, admired the Egyptian mural he’d painted on a living room wall, disagreed with his choice of cloth and said she had to go. As he braked outside her home she said rather archly ‘I don’t think the evening finished as you’d have preferred it.’ Again, the slight arrogance and the vulnerability.
    She said things that evening which she would occasionally repeat; that she didn’t know much about him, that he intrigued her, that he touched people with his eyes, that he was passionate, and how two people in a relationship should become part of each other. She wanted someone to understand her needs without stating them - she was like a demanding child, she would loved him to have told her that her command was his wish - and that people saw her as ‘a prize vase that was unobtainable.’
    In the coming months she would enjoy smugly quoting her favourite brother’s opinion that she was an ‘ice maiden’ - her actions belying it.
   Phoning him the following day she told him she’d been thinking of him most of the night. But, there was a caveat.
   ‘I’m warning you. You’ll fall in love with me. I don’t want you to for yoursake.’ He believed her, didn’t recognise it as projection, a defence. This was, of course, precisely when he fell in love with her. He felt the fear, familiar, yet new. We tend not to remember past pain clearly.
    ‘I’ve always been a sex object to men since I’ve been on my own,’ she said. He could almost see the smiling satisfaction.
     Calling him next day she announced firmly that she was ‘self sufficient’ and repeatedly asked if he’d been thinking of her. ‘I just know you have,’ she preened. He pictured her with chin raised, lashes lowered, could feel the adolescent narcissism.
    A week and many phone conversations later she asked him to her home. He met her son, Julius, was naively surprised at how dark-skinned he was. He was well built, tall, handsome, and with a shy smile. He had just finished a lesson with his tutor who, complete with tweed jacket, elbow patches and old world courtesy, was saying goodbye to his mother. It was obvious he fancied her, most men appeared to. She would say to Chris with a big grin,
    ‘I was shopping today and two men looked round at me and stared, then looked at each other and said, ‘Fucking Hell!’’
    She was familiar with using men to get what she wanted, once demonstrating in Chris’s garden how she’d got a mechanic to top up her car radiator. Crossing her hands above her breasts, heels raised together, legs looking even longer, eyes wide, she simpered,
   ‘Me? Oh, I don’t know how to do things like that. Couldn’t you do it for me?’ Then a plaintiff, ‘Please?’
    She’d come round that day for help with her college work. He’d gritted his teeth at the statistics-based research she had to comment on, but was happy to help with her mild dyslexia. She left, telling him she’d been fantasising about them in an art gallery, hands in the back pockets of each other’s jeans, laughing, sharing, oblivious to people and paintings, then, almost instantly turning around and saying, before getting into her car,  ‘I don’t want to see you for a while. I can’t do my work with you in the same building.’
    Next day she rang and said she’d started waiting by the phone, missing his voice.
    She went on work placement for a week and he didn’t see her, but she rang constantly. ‘It would be fantastic to make love,’ she’d say, ‘but you’d want more, want commitment, and I couldn’t give it.’ And, without it feeling at all hackneyed, ‘You are my soul.’ Next time it was, ‘I don’t want to share you with anyone, wherever I am I want you to be there,’ and, ‘This is too intense, I’m so scared, I keep wanting to tell you I won’t see you again,’ and, ‘I’m unhappy when I’m not with you, I can’t breath.’
   Calling him in the early hours, she said, ‘I don’t want to put you on the list of people I’ve hurt.’ Then, with exaggerated huskiness, ‘Make love to me gently tonight, tell me what to do.’ He did, as if she was in his bed or he in hers. These calls went on. She appeared to be playing at it all, wishing it were real.
   Wanting some photos of her he arranged a session with the photography lecturer. He watched from an unobtrusive distance, not wanting to distract her. She posed easily, sexily, There was something in her posing - her clothes, a slightly dated glamour, that reminded him of front covers of Picture post he remembered as a teenager. The photographer asked her if she would pose for the students. She refused.
   She told him she would come into his class one day and kiss him. She did. As she left the room he said flippantly to sixteen surprised women that although she’d said she’d do it, he never believed her. A moment later one of the admin. staff pushed the classroom door further open and with concerned voice told him that a young woman was just down the corridor looking distressed. Mercia had heard him. He left the class, apologised to her, and told her to wait in her car for him. He’d never seen her look so hurt.
    She came one evening, unarranged, insisting she undress in the spare room. He lay on his bed. Half prancing, half mincing, she Marks and Spencered into the bedroom, pale skin, pink lacy underwear, hands on waist, wetting her lips, as if saying,
    ‘Look at me, what a prize And it’s for you!’ He told her to relax, take her time.
    ’But, I want to please you, tell me what I have to do.’ 
  But, he couldn’t do it, couldn’t penetrate her. Her shiny-eyed, demanding eagerness to please elicited merely a tense exhaustion. When she left, briskly dressing, she said, ‘I’m disappointed,’ and after a pause, ‘It doesn’t matter, it won’t affect our relationship.’
   Then, when again he’d failed to make love to her, ‘I feel cheated. Why can’t I arouse you? You’d do it with a one-night stand, why not me? Am I too prudish, too young for you? I don’t want to lose you. I’m so jealous.’ She cried, stopped, then, her voice rising, ‘If you don’t break your brick walls I’ll run away and hide behind mine.’
    They had sex, of course, but not the final giving, the resolution of love, of lust. Then, after some weeks, he suggested they go away for a weekend. He rented a cottage in Norfolk, her sister looked after Julius. It was small, thatched, with rose covered porch.
   She didn’t think it would ever happen, but it did. He’d told her with half-joking bravado before they came that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with him and as the East Anglia dawn lightened the curtains after their first night together, she’d whispered,
    ‘Okay, you win, you win.’
    They went to a nearby pub, she announcing that she would love to walk into a place where every man’s eyes would be on her. As they entered, every woman’s eyes were, too.
    One afternoon during the following week, and smoothing her love-tumbled hair as she got dressed in the front room of the flat, she said,
    ‘It’s too much, it’s all too soon. I haven’t been with anyone for seven years. When I sit with you while you correct my work, it’s like sitting on a volcano. I can never give a man love. I have to protect myself, wrap my child around me.’  .
     He felt at times as if he was struggling with her to keep any rationality, any semblance of emotional intelligence. As when he’d taken her to Brighton to meet his son who was playing trumpet in a band that played Brazilian street music. She saw his son step out of the group to put an arm around a girl walking alongside and then shortly afterward, marking time till a fellow band member came level with him, and kissing her affectionately. ‘I don’t like the way he treats women,’ she’d said, and wouldn’t speak to Chris on the train back to London, as if his son’s behaviour, whatever it signified to her, was either a genetic trait or learnt, and was his father’s fault anyway.
    And when she said, rather angrily, ‘I’ve been looking for someone to understand me since a child and now I’ve found you, and you live in a cocoon,’ He hadn’t the strength to answer. Nor had he when, a few days after first meeting her, she’d said matter-of-factly, ‘You live in your head, you surprise me.’
    She moved house a week after this, not giving him the address, and a few days later rang to say that she would always be grateful to him for helping her.
   ‘Forget you ever met me,’ she said, in that imperious tone she faked so unconvincingly. And then told him that she was thinking of fostering a child and that a Care Visitor may wish to see him for a reference.
   ‘Don’t tell her that I’m the bitch that broke your heart.’ she said.

    A month ago, and four years after first meeting her, he was leaning back against a pavement barrier outside the local train station waiting for friends to see a football match, when she appeared suddenly in front of him, seeming taller than ever.
    She had a low cut top, her skin the colour of honey. She’d been to St. Lucia. He asked her casually if she was shopping in the nearby market and whether she was a counsellor yet. She was a drug abuse team leader now she told him, barely concealing her pride. She seemed restless, said she had to go.
    For the briefest moment as she turned to leave there was hurt and resigned sadness in her eyes. Then her younger sister, who he hadn’t noticed was with her, said impatiently and in parody,
    ’Come on, let’s see ‘im indoors, Dan, Dan, the teacher man.’ Her voice trailed away.
    Who was ‘Dan?’ her psychology lecturer? Wasn’t it a Daniel who used to teach Julius?  Was she living with one of them?
    Then her sister was standing directly in front of him, small, thin, looking up with baleful eyes.
    ‘Julius is dead.’ she said quietly. ‘He died.’
    She scampered away. He looked at her back, above her head, could just see Mercia further on, peering closely into a shop window with a characteristic frown.
    ‘What had happened? Had Julius’s shunt failed?  Had…
    His friends came laughing out of the station. He walked with them down the slight hill. Pictures, images, that had been lying still, whirled around, released: her trying on tailor-made dresses in her bedroom, the small waist he could almost get his hands around, the full hips, posing in the solipsistic mirror, back arched, looking at every inch of herself; she, in a department store, disappearing, and him, unguarded, panicking, intellectually knowing that it was the child in him being left by mummy - no emotions are new; her phoning him from a shoe shop, tears in her voice, saying that they wouldn’t give back her money for a pair of shoes that had broken after a week and, in frustration, tipping a rack over, cascading footwear over the floor; during the college fire drill, wearing a black cape in the quadrangle slightly apart from her new classmates, looking for him, head high, as if uncaring, and him not walking the few yards to her, not knowing why.
    And the whole litany of contradictions: the need, the almost fierce independence, arrogance, possessiveness, wanting to give herself, then vanishing into her keep, peering at him through its tiny window; telling him that when they first met me she saw so much sadness behind his eyes she had to turn away. And saying almost disinterestedly as she passed him in a corridor outside the art room,
    ‘Pull me back if I walk away.’ He never did.
    And he never moved towards her now, couldn’t see her, so many shops, doors, market stalls, people.
    He moved along, his pals hopping into the kerb and back again to give themselves room in the crowds, smelt the sharp sweetness of chips and vinegar and the musky cloud of cheap corn oil. He felt for a nanosecond the prick of a tear, then the detachment, the intellectualising, chopping into him like the rigid hands of a masseur on the back of a client.
    He silently named the type faces on the shop fascias, observed, as ever, the unnecessary apostrophes, the pvc windows aesthetically corrupting Edwardian houses in a side street, wondered why the mock castles at the sides of the main entrance to the stadium were painted cream, as if Mickey Mouse was going to skip out of this tiny Disneyland and give every fan a hug.
   A last image got through; Mercia in St Lucia after being spat upon, head held back at a slight, proud angle, looking defiantly down at the perpetrator, not bothering to wipe the spittle off.
    Then he was looking at his match ticket, reading every little word and number on it, noticing the police and behind them a yellow tape, thinking - and wanting to laugh hysterically - that it said polite notice and do not be cross.