First chapter of Timed Out by Barbara Hudson
It felt like having to sit through a stranger’s funeral.
‘...Jane Lambert: a hard act to follow.’ They all stood up and drank my health. My mouth kept twisting and I blinked and swallowed and sniffed – I’m ashamed of crying in public and, besides, I wanted to look my best in the video.
Clutching an index card with a list of prompts, I rose to thank my colleagues. Twenty kind faces smiled encouragement; and behind them, from the panelled walls of the College Hall, the oil-painted Victorian ladies presided over the scene. Pioneers of women’s education, philanthropists, scholars – much harder acts to follow.
I forced a smile and looked along the table.
‘Philip. Thank you for teaching me more than I ever wanted to know about sex offenders.’
‘Clive. You’ve kept me up to scratch. You’re the fiercest critic a woman could wish for.’
‘Maria. Since you left the Department, you’ve been much missed. And we’re proud of you – not many tutors would dare return to the social work coalface.’
‘Amy. You’re the scourge of the sexists.’
I continued till they’d each had their moment in the limelight. ‘Everybody’s won and all must have prizes.’ Immoderate laughter and applause.
Maria drove me home with my pile of presents. ‘Come in for a nightcap,’ I pleaded.
‘Retirement parties make the rest of us take stock,’ Maria said later. ‘Hearing about all your achievements is quite humbling, Jane.’
‘But Maria, think of the families you’ve helped, and all that work for your church.’
‘Well, I suppose we’ve chosen different paths. Or different paths have chosen us.’
‘Thank you for not mentioning God.’
Maria grinned and changed the subject. ‘Jane, you deserve everything we said about you. You’ve every reason to feel proud and happy tonight.’
‘No, not really. I’ve made so many wrong choices. Achievements? – no, just compensation for opportunities missed, surrogates for what I’ve wanted most.’
‘Tell me,’ said Maria. Never complaining herself, she was always ready to hear the troubles of others.
‘You know – just what most people take for granted: a permanent partner, a family. Leaving work means losing the nearest thing I’ve got to a family. Some of you will stay friends – you will – but most of us will drift apart. Those stupid rituals: the Christmas cards (“Must meet up in the New Year”) and the air kisses at the University Garden Party (“Must meet up after the vacation”).’
‘You’ll make new friends and find new opportunities. For goodness sake, Jane, you’re only sixty.’
‘Yes. Rather young to retire.’
‘Taking early retirement is a big decision, but it makes sense for you.’
‘Yes. It’s a relief to know I can rush off to Wales when Mum needs me without letting everyone down. And the money was what they call “a generous package”. No more mortgage.’
‘And no more exams to mark. And no more admin – no more department meetings and form-filling and box-ticking and reports for the bureaucrats.’
‘True. I hated all that, but I’ll miss the students and my research. And I’m feeling useless already.’
‘You’ll find something.’
‘“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, Rough hew them how we will.” Discuss.’ I gave in to the donnish verbal tic that annoys my friends: turning pronouncements about Life into exam questions. But Maria had a child protection conference early next morning and left me to mull over the proposition on my own.
I fingered the bouquet of pink silk roses – I’d been disappointed to find they weren’t real – and stuck them in the spotted china vase, a gift from the students. Then I examined the other things. There were bird books and flower books, a glittery butterfly-shaped brooch and a pink woolly scarf. All chosen with care to encourage an aging woman to develop her leisure interests and go on trying to look her respectable best.
Next, I played the video Philip had made. When I laughed, you could see dark hollows where there used to be teeth. Grey streaks in my brown hair – no, not streaks, swathes. Threat of jowls and hint of double chin. My movements were slow and graceless, and the baggy trouser suit made me loom larger than the people around me. Why dress in black for one’s retirement dinner? Surely an autumnal shade would have been more apt? Not brown, though – the nation’s least loved colour, it’s said; and not yellow – the colour of decay.
The video images made me miserable, so I erased the tape.
I got into bed, wanting this day over and done with. The phone rang. My mother: ‘I waited up. I’m longing to hear about your party.’
‘Just about to ring you, Mum,’ I lied, and then gave her a cheery account of the evening: what everyone was wearing, the complimentary speeches, the fancy food, the generous presents. My mother’s pleasure and pride put me to shame. What excuse was there for discontent and self-pity?
Maria’s card proclaimed, ‘Retirement is NOT the end. It’s a NEW BEGINNING.’ Such nonsense! and yet I repeated it, mantra fashion. At my age, was it possible to turn your life around? Discuss.
For hours I couldn’t sleep, so many resolutions came crowding in. My mind transformed into a self-help manual, suggestive of a lifetime’s loyalty to Woman’s Own. A mental checklist of places to go: gym, Weight Watchers, dentist’s, hairdresser’s, and Robert Sayles’ fashion floor. Then I’d join some clubs – Ramblers, Birdwatchers, Humanists. I’d keep brain and body in trim and maybe track down that fabled and elusive Mr Right.
Two months later. I’d persevered despite setbacks both comic and painful, and I could cross off every item on that mental checklist.
At Weight Watchers there were women so much larger than me that I sometimes felt smug and was tempted to relax my regime. The meetings were part pleasure, part disappointment. It was easy to lose heart when no weight loss could be detected even after I’d rushed to the loo at the last minute; and taken off everything possible – even my belt, watch and necklace – and stood in my stockinged feet, leaning away from the scales and exhaling grimly. Fellow members provided support – and amusement, too: I grew fond of the person who insisted she felt ill without her daily fix of chocolate, and another who claimed that walking made her fat. There was something touching and heroic about their denial.
Hiking with the Ramblers proved more of a challenge. Even in a flat county like Cambridgeshire, there are slopes and the occasional surprise hill, and often I trailed behind the group, who set a cracking pace and then had to wait for me to catch up. Birdwatching suited me better – plenty of standing around in beautiful places. And the Humanists helped me to exercise my brain and begin to sort out my incoherent thoughts about the Big Questions.
In spite of all these efforts, it was another lonely, old person’s weekend. There was no rambling or birdwatching because of the heavy rain. So it was Saturday night the television, Sunday the papers for company. Now boasting a full set of teeth, hair an unusual auburny brown, ten pounds lighter, but still on my own. And looking forward to Monday.
Highlight of the weekdays was the health club in ‘concessions’ hours. Older women, mostly, except for a few fit young things enjoying a work-out en route to the office, and one paunchy man who kept us waiting for the poolside shower and got in our way in the water. The handsome trainers flirted with us: ‘Missed you over the weekend, Ms Lambert. The place isn’t the same without you!’ – ‘You’d like to borrow a towel? For you, Jane, anything!’ and turned away as soon as they could, to chat amongst themselves about skiing and scuba diving and their nights out in the clubs.
In the changing area, we kept silent. There was competition for the four cubicles and only the younger women were happy to flaunt their bare bodies, while we oldies looked away and struggled under towels and robes. One caught glimpses of the unlovely effects of aging: sparse, grey pubic hair; droopy, folded stomachs; and breasts like sagging balloons. Hateful reminders of a reality soon to come. The real Jane Lambert inside my head was still one of those pretty young women.
The swimming pool was how I imagined a Hollywood pool must look. Gazing down into its blue waters stood three white statues of water nymphs, whose firm smooth skin and perfectly proportioned curves contrasted with our own. The walls were embellished with scenes of Mediterranean splendour: broad stretches of fierce yellow sand, and vast seas and skies of a turquoise blue that assaulted the eye. My memories of the Mediterranean coast were suffused with the scent of wild herbs crushed underfoot, and those memories were chased away by the stench of the chlorine.
There was a Jacuzzi, too, but none of our group had ventured in since someone declared that it was not her custom to share her bath with strangers, and someone else brought in a newspaper cutting about legionnaires’ disease.
Before entering the pool we had two rituals to perform. First, you were supposed to wade through a little tank of disinfectant. We all stepped over it after someone’s chiropodist warned that you were more likely to catch verrucas in its murky liquid than to prevent them. Next, the poolside shower: there seemed little point to this, since the water couldn’t penetrate those nooks and crannies where our germs might be lurking; however, we each stood under it for a moment or two, lest an attendant should scold us for breaking the rules.
Standing in the shallow end of the pool, we became more sociable. That Monday the conversation began, as it usually did, with news of the weekend and the grandchildren, and talk of diet and health.
‘God! Swimming’s boring. But it’s the best exercise of all.’ The woman who said this did so several times a week and rarely said anything else.
Her much heavier friend demurred, as she invariably did. ‘Not the breaststroke, though – that’s bad for your back.’ She then gave us an update on her back trouble and everything her revered osteopath had done to her: how he’d tugged this till you could hear it crack, and pummelled that till it felt lovely and warm and tingly, and massaged her all over till she was nearly asleep. Her monologue was interrupted by a brusque ‘excuse me’ from the Man – no one knew his name – as he broke his crawl to approach the edge of the pool.
We women scattered with an ill grace, and after we re-grouped, Gina changed the subject. ‘There’ll be another man here tomorrow.’ She blushed. ‘I’ll be bringing my – er – my friend. Just for a swim; he won’t risk the gym.’
When the others had begun swimming, I asked her, ‘Who’s this friend?’
It was hard to hear her over the splashing from the pool and the pop music squealing from the loud speakers. ‘Don’t tell anyone,’ she whispered. ‘Actually, I found him on the Internet. My daughter met someone that way; so I thought let’s give it a go. Of course, he’s older than me.’ (Why ‘of course’?) Gina went on, ‘It’s so nice to be the youngest in his group of friends. I was resigned to always being the oldest person in the room; not any more! And now he’s asked me to move into his place in Milton Keynes – he finds the journey to Cambridge a trial and he likes his own bed.’
Poor Gina, I thought, she’s fitter and prettier than any of us; this doesn’t sound like love’s young dream. I said how pleased I was for her; and I resolved to try Internet dating myself, but to seek someone my own age or younger. I’d have to be proactive, like Gina, before it was too late.
I chose the wrong person to confide in: my ex-colleague, Amy. Though just a year younger than me, Amy had few wrinkles, fine features and a strong, determined chin that matched her personality; and she was slender, though she didn’t flaunt it. She wore clothes so baggy you couldn’t tell what was underneath: oversized t-shirts with billowing harem pants and even a vintage pair of bibbed dungarees. She was scornful of hairdressers, makeup and slimming diets, needing none of them herself. And she was a fervent feminist, both feared and respected, well-known for her sociological studies of oppressed female soldiers. I often thought Amy let the side down, especially when she talked about sweating and farting. My mother had taught me that ‘horses sweat, gentlemen perspire and ladies glow.’ And as for farting: well, ladies just don’t, any more than Her Majesty the Queen uses the loo.
Amy had split up with her latest lover. ‘I’ve sent him packing,’ she announced with a smile. She had what she called ‘a low tolerance threshold’. She’d never understood my enduring sense of failure about my divorce over thirty years ago, from a man who’d shown signs of indifference from day one of our short marriage.
At the end of the summer term Amy invited me to her cottage in the country.
During the drive to Suffolk, I told her about my decision to try online dating. She was horrified. ‘Women should be able to manage on their own. You know, Jane, I used to think you were the pathetic dependent type, but I’d assumed that after all these years you’d got over your divorce and learned to cope. Seems I was wrong.’
‘It’s not about being dependent. Actually, Amy, I’ve always been an independent person. I’ll have you know I left home to seek my fortune on my fifth birthday. I wanted to be Lord Mayor of London like Dick Whittington. I remember looking at my shadow and feeling big and tall and completely grown-up.’
‘Stop trying to change the subject. We’re talking about your adult life.’
‘I have managed since the divorce. But I wish there was someone to share things with, someone who cares...who asks what sort of a day I’ve had…’
‘Bollocks! You mean sex,’ she broke in. ‘You want a fuck buddy. That I can understand, but don’t dress it up as affection. You can get affection from your friends and family; and if you can’t do without sex, you should get a Bob.’
‘A battery-operated boyfriend. A vibrator.’
I wanted to laugh but I was also annoyed. ‘A vibrator’s not the same thing.’
‘No, it isn’t. It doesn’t fart in bed and hog the duvet. But if a vibrator won’t satisfy you, at least be careful. Can’t you get a bit of casual sex without need of some weirdo off the Internet? You’re asking for trouble. Think how vulnerable you’ll be with no clothes on, in bed with a stranger.’
‘Don’t be so cynical. They’re not all psychopaths and axe murderers.’
‘Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Anyway, if he’s not a psychopath he’s sure to be a loser.’
‘Maybe I’m a loser too.’ After that, we continued the journey in silence.
The thatched cottage, washed Suffolk pink, faced onto the village green. The garden was untidy but the hollyhocks flourished and there were old roses beside the path. I sniffed the roses and stood and gazed across at the church with its tall round Saxon tower.
‘I wonder what that tower is making you think of,’ said Amy impatiently. ‘Either sex or religion. Which is it?’
‘Religion, if you must know.’
‘Snap out of it, Jane. You’re always thinking about religion and it gets you nowhere. Take your suitcase.’
House martins wheeled and called overhead. Glad of a fresh topic, I told Amy about Gilbert White, the eighteenth-century naturalist who refuted the theory that martins slept beneath the mud in winter; and we had a good-tempered discussion about whether such discoveries are of any importance.
We went up to my bedroom. I noticed with distaste that Amy had hung a pair of her 1970s oil paintings there: portraits of female genitalia with lots of pink and red and purple as if their owner was in a state of high arousal or just very sore. She told everyone she’d used her own as a model, and our innocent friend Meg didn’t understand how that could be organised. Several had fetched surprising sums at an exhibition in the only gallery that would tolerate them. People like me pretended to admire them but pleaded lack of wall space.
Amy opened one of the windows. The curtains blew gently, and the sunlight streamed in. ‘Look! There’s a martins’ nest above the other window,’ said Amy. ‘Don’t open it or you’ll knock the nest down.’
At supper time, Amy brought out the wine and tried to open the bottle. We took turns to wrestle with it. I laughed; Amy pursed her lips and frowned. Then she rummaged in a drawer and pulled out a second, idiot-proof corkscrew – triumphantly, as though she’d invented the thing herself. ‘See! Women don’t need men,’ she declared, waving it like a flag.
Glaring at the painted genitals on the bedroom wall, unable to sleep and unable to concentrate on my book, I pondered Amy’s judgement of me. My marriage to Chris Lambert had ended by agreement, and for many reasons. One of those reasons might indeed have been my dependency: I’d wanted us to be together whenever we weren’t at work, whether socialising, travelling, or just spending time at home.
And Chris said he didn’t like the way I took everything lying down, how that made him feel guilty, and then resentful. ‘You’re such a doormat,’ he said. ‘And you try too hard to be nice and it makes me feel bad.’ But that was just Chris, I thought. Surely it wasn’t possible to try too hard? If I found someone else, I would do my utmost to make the relationship work: I’d be patient and considerate in bed and out of it; I’d be forgiving and generous and attractive and entertaining; and I’d try not to be clingy and let my man have plenty of space. By the time I fell asleep, my mind was awash with teenage fantasies about that perfect second marriage that lay ahead.
Next day, Amy decided the grass must be cut. She couldn’t start the mower and I couldn’t help enjoying her frustration. Then, trawling memories of gardening with my husband, memories from nearly forty years before, I recalled pulling a cord for some reason. I tried it and it worked.
‘Good for you!’ said Amy, and I beamed with pride. While Amy mowed the lawn, I enjoyed the warmth of the sun and my own self-satisfaction.
Amy went inside and came back looking upset. ‘The bedrooms are so hot and stuffy – I forgot about the nest and opened that window.’
A faint peeping could be heard and on the concrete path we found the broken nest, a mess of mud pellets and feathers and bits of fluff, and a cluster of tiny pink, writhing nestlings. The parent birds circled above us, crying their tseep tseep alarm. There was only one humane course of action. We looked at each other.
‘Sorry, I can’t,’ I said at last.
‘Nor can I,’ she said, grim-faced, and we turned away. We went to the other side of the cottage and settled in deckchairs. We tried to make conversation, but soon fell silent and lay back, as if enjoying the sunshine.
The man next door started to mow his lawn, and we sat up in our chairs and spoke at the same time. ‘I wonder...’ I said and Amy said, ‘Perhaps...’ We both stopped speaking.
‘What? What do you wonder?’ she enquired.
‘Oh, nothing.’ It seemed neither of us wanted to suggest asking the man – Amy from feminist pride, I for fear of her disapproval.
Amy stood up. ‘It’s my responsibility,’ she said, and walked away.
When she returned, her expression was hard to read and her voice hesitated between distress and triumph. ‘I found a big stone and dropped it on them. It was horrible but it was quick, and I’ve buried them.’
I wished I had been able to do it.