My Life as a Girl in a Men’s Prison
A short story by Kate Pullinger
Lois stood behind a woman whose grey-blonde hair was cut in a perfect line across her neck, like a bleached Louise Brooks. They were both attempting to look at a painting on the wall, but were stuck behind another woman pushing an elderly man in a wheelchair. The family resemblance between the pusher and the pushed was remarkable; Lois had noticed the pair earlier when someone else behind whom she had been standing whispered, ‘Isn’t that Sir Harold Arnold?’ The gallery was very crowded. In a moment the wheelchair would roll on to the next painting, the blonde Louise Brooks (it was dyed, it had to be - now that Lois had started dyeing her hair she took pleasure in assuming that everyone else did too) would have a look and then Lois could take her turn to gaze at the painting, at the two-hundred-year-old blobs of oil and egg-wash or whatever it was that painters used to fix the canvas back then.
There was a man following Lois, she was almost sure of it, although he might be following Louise Brooks; in fact, come to think of it, Lois was following Louise, everybody was following everybody else around the concourse of the gallery. Lois looked forward to the day she could view the paintings on CD-Rom Internet E-Mail and would no longer have to visit museums and galleries in person. No, it wasn’t true, she liked the crush of popular shows. Her mother had always seen picture-viewing as a chance for ‘a bit of a stroll’; she was an eternal dieter and relished the opportunity to do two things at once: culture and exercise, hence a brisk walk around a large museum before tea and cakes. Lois saw the insides of a lot of museums when she was a child, but she had never been allowed to linger over the antiquities, so now when she went to exhibitions she proceeded very slowly and sat a lot, gazing at the paintings, stepping up closer to peer at the brush work. Francisco Goya painted that with his own hands, she found herself thinking today, he himself stepped up to the easel on his short legs and applied his brush to the canvas. Painting seemed a physical art; Lois wished she was an artist instead of working in an office, but she knew that was like wishing she had been an astronaut.
Sir Harold Arnold’s daughter pushed her father’s wheelchair onward and Louise Brooks shuffled ahead and Lois took a step too, then stopped, and the person behind her trod on the back of her heel. Lois hated when that happened. She turned to see who had done it. It was him, the man who had been following her. He was short, he had longish curly black hair, and he smiled up at her rather uncertainly after murmuring an apology. ‘Let’s get out of here,’ he said, taking a step backward into the middle of the room, the space suddenly, miraculously, clear. He reached out and took her hand and took another step backward, drawing her with him, and for a moment Lois thought he was going to burst into a song. She held her breath. Was this how it felt to be in a musical? She waited.
But he did not sing. He dropped Lois’s hand and said ‘Only joking.’ Lois frowned and turned to discover she had lost her place in the crowd snaking round the walls of the gallery. She turned back to admonish Mr Friendly but, of course, he had gone.
Lois managed to insert her body into a gap in the queue and she viewed the rest of the exhibition happily. She had slipped away from the office early; if her boss mentioned it tomorrow she had only to tell him where she had been and, impressed by her edification, he would not mention it again. He was like her father that way, easily over-awed by culture, ashamed of his own ignorance. Lois’s father had never accompanied his wife and daughter on their jogs around museums; just as well, thought Lois now, gives me something to do if he ends up in a wheelchair.
Lois married at twenty-two, divorced at twenty-eight, and now, at thirty-two, found herself ensconced in a dwarfish spinsterhood which she rather enjoyed. She had a nice flat, a good job, friends, and she lived near Sainsburys. Movies, books, a little theatre, restaurants, shopping, cooking, the odd holiday - a lot of flavour, but no spice, as her mother was fond of saying. Lois did not care what her mother thought, and her mother knew it; the disapproved of marriage, then the unheard of, unmentionable, divorce ensured that. Lois liked the way her life had turned out; being on her own had not made her unhappy. However, she was not altogether sanguine about the lack of spice.
When Lois emerged blinking from the gallery into the summer haze of pollen and pollution, her man sat waiting in the forecourt of the gallery. His little legs were crossed and he grasped his knee with both hands as he watched Lois come down the steps towards him. His hair seemed even curlier in the humidity. Lois sat beside him.
‘I thought you were going to sing in there,’ she said.
‘So did I, but it seemed inappropriate somehow,’ he replied.
Lois found herself agreeing to have coffee and, as they walked in companiable silence - it was too hot to speak -she found herself thinking that she had never done this before, accepted an invitation from a complete stranger. But then she corrected herself - I can be so deluded sometimes - because the truth was she did this kind of thing all the time.
There had been that she met on a bus, she had gone for a drink with him; his eyes were so blue. He was Polish and once he had told her that he might as well have given up there and then because Lois could not stop thinking about the word Polish and was it really spelt just like polish and how unfortunate. Then there had been that Nigerian man who had turned out to be very rich; Lois had gone out to dinner with him, but they had disagreed on politics. Lois could be shockingly left-wing - she shocked herself sometimes - and he had turned out to be amazingly right-wing. She let him pay for dinner. And there had been that man she met in a bookshop when they both reached for the only copy of Pride and Prejudice. But she married him: never trust a man who reads Jane Austen was the lesson she learned from that one. One of the lessons.
‘Do you read Austen?’ she asked the short man who walked beside her now.
‘Auster?’ he asked, but just then they came to a busy road; their destination was on the opposite side. He took her by the hand once again. His hand was smaller than hers, cool and dry, which was commendable given the heat. I like a man with cool, dry hands, she thought, and then they made their dash, his five foot six frame sure-footed next to her five foot ten.
Lois’s mother had a thing about men and height; the only good men were tall. Lois’s father was six foot seven, which even now seemed a little extreme. When Lois was young she had fallen for her mother’s height fetish and the man she married was a decent six foot three. But it turned out to be a disastrous misconception, one of many of which her mother was fond, like only married women can use tampons and only widowed women wear black. Life was just not like that anymore.
The coffee house was busy but they found a table near the back. ‘Did you see the painting?’ he asked.
Lois recalled it; a priest with mad, rolling eyes was lighting an oil lamp held by the devil, a grey, horned satyr, while donkeys danced upright on their hind feet in the background. It was one of a group of paintings of flying witches, cannibals, and lunatic asylums, the kind of thing for which she appreciated Goya.
‘Yes, I saw it.’
He nodded, he seemed satisfied.
‘You are an incredible beauty,’ he said.
Now this was something new to Lois. No man with whom she had gone off had ever said anything like that to her before. She nodded, but did not reply. What did he mean by ‘incredible’? Did he mean strange? Did he mean surprising, as in not to be believed, as in weird? Did using the words incredible and beauty together actually cancel them both out leaving only ugliness in their stead? Lois thought about this while she looked at her short, curly-haired companion.
‘I meant incomparable,’ he said.
‘Oh,’ replied Lois, ‘well, that’s all right then.’
Their courtship took place quickly. Lois found herself entirely enamoured. His name was Beverly and she was enchanted by the idea of having a boyfriend with a girl’s name, as if that might mean he would have fewer of the foibles of previous lovers, more of the charms of a good friend. She loved to tower over him in public and he seemed to enjoy it as well; it became a kind of secret joke between them, creating a frisson Lois imagined somehow akin to S&M. It felt kinky, that was all. She was excited by it.
They began spending all their free time together. They went to every exhibition in the city that summer, the more crowded the better. Bev would follow directly behind Lois and, in the crush of beholding great art, Lois would feel Bev’s body pressed to hers, her buttocks level with his abdomen. She would find herself blushing and, when there was room, she would turn to face him and he would smile at her silkily. Once, just once, he actually did sing. It was an aria from an opera they had recently attended; the lover dies and as she dies, she sings. Bev kept his voice low, he held both of Lois’s hands, she caught and held his words even though they were Italian. None of the other exhibition-goers noticed what was happening. It was as though Beverly and Lois were in a higher place.
Short stories, Phoenix House/Phoenix, 1997