from ‘Queen of Love and other stories’ by Rosie Scott
It had never occurred to me that I would make old bones, but now that I’m here, at rest, with all the years mounted up behind me, it has turned out to be more refreshing than I ever imagined. Here I am, eighty years old, a survivor of the holocausts of this distraught century, being fed and kept warm like a baby, nodding off into my private daydreams whenever the spirit moves me. It is more like a state of grace than anything.
There are few distractions in this friendly house of death, with its scent of daffodils and floor wax, the murmur of television in the drawing room where all the dears, full of mumblings from the past, are staring at the screen, stranded on their seats like old rumpled seals.
I sit in the room watching the days come and go, and find a shapely pleasure in cataloguing my past desires, going over them in my mind until I am word-perfect. I am an ancient librarian holding my dusty photographs up to the light.
I have never been the sort of woman who lived through a man, or my children for that matter; thinking my thoughts has taken up a lot of my time. The great slow tracking of my mind wheeling through the world is a happiness I share with no-one.
Even now I am still the same, but there has been one change which surprised me, although like all revelations it is quite likely I knew about it all along. The memories which keep my bones warm and make me smile are all of lovers long-dead, their beauty and the power of their loving.
People could say this was grotesque of course. In the ordinary course of events, a grandmother like myself, sitting in this expensive nursing home paid for by a loving family, would be thinking of religion, or family, or her health. With my straight back, aristocratic face, flyaway hair soft as duck down, perfumed as I am with talc and baby oil, I am no sex at all, I am simply an object of veneration to my visitors. I receive them with genuine if absent-minded love. My great-grandchildren come so dutifully washed and dressed and brushed in my honour, their innocent faces overawed by the purity of age, the serenity of my surroundings. All the time, my mind circles lazily around old delights, day after day, hour after hour.
But I do not feel any shame, because to me this state of affairs is not grotesque. If the truth be known, and that is, after all, what I am most interested in at this time in my life, it would be simpler to say that I feel very privileged. Most women I know are only too happy to close their legs and hearts forever against a lifetime of men tearing into their soft flesh with or without the invitation. They spend their old age in thankful release, healing up their fearful wounds. All the love and pleasure has been burnt out of their most intimate centres.I, blessed lover that I am, still bathe in the afterglow, my papery skin is still warm from decades of well-placed caresses and consummated delights. And it seems only natural that I dwell on these past pleasures while I am slipping off into death. Loving was not only a great delight to me always, I believe now it was the wheel that turned my life over and kept me alive all these long years. There are many other things of importance to me, but sex has always been the deep and delicious undercurrent flowing beneath my life and thoughts, an occupation as real as anything else I did.
It seems to me that few humans have done justice to the beauty of it or even admitted its true spiritual worth, as a source of life, of miraculous rejuvenation. This is also so with love between the same sexes, blessed as it is. Hucksters, pornographers and all religions have trampled and sullied it — the word ‘sex’ itself, ugly, short and medical as it is, is proof of the common currency of their vinegar-thin views. Even my favourite poet Yeats, who wrote some painfully honest poems about sex in his last years, was still ashamed and disgusted at of his own late-developing raptures. Of course I am no match for the seedy greatness of those late poems, even in my thoughts, but at least there was never a time when I did not appreciate the beauty of a man, nor did I ever regret any longings or loves.
For me sex is a great richness, a transformation of every facet of existence. A trick of light, the way a man holds his head, a sudden rush of recognition, an ache for all the male beauty forever unattainable. A dance, fleshed out by smouldering fantasies, a heartbeat of time so intense it is almost unbearable, wallowing in velvet so soft you can feel each hair brushing against your skin. Even a friendly miscalculation when all the grandeur of it suddenly goes out of kilter and the bumps and pimples of mortal flesh are laid bare to the light in one glorious comical anticlimax.
I was never a promiscuous woman, more the reverse, because there were only very few men who touched the nerve lying so close to my surfaces. But once they did there was a permanent change made somewhere in my cell-structure and that was that. It was as if each lover imprinted himself forever.
That was the miracle of it to me, the fact that a man, beautiful, moving against my skin like a wild animal, delighting me with his fine arts, could leave his trace, a permanent scent that I would carry through life.
Of course, I made false starts, watching men sigh and groan and plead under the spell of a perfumed girl who didn’t know any better. But my own intelligence and meeting Mick saved me from all the fabrications of tragic romance and coy falsities in one clean blast, and the two of us looked set for eternity.
My body has always responded only to certain cues, very precise and divine indications of magic. Those qualities in men which stirred me most deeply are difficult to describe; it is like trying to dissect a butterfly. But I know them by heart.
There is nearly always brown hair, curls, an ebullience matched with grace, a face both scornful and tender, qualities of self-containment, intelligence, a dry wit, courage. A solid body with that bloom to the skin, competent hands, a touch of hardness, street wisdom. I knew that rare mixture whenever I saw it, and for all my breeding and background, it was rarely ‘gentlemen’ who set my heart beating. Hooligans, working men, were the ones that had that irresistible flash, that experience of life as they walked past me like warriors.
My beloved Mick had all these virtues and more, and so I was prepared to give up my class, my status, my family if need be to have him. It didn’t have to come to that of course, my parents being too good as judges of character, and untainted by the curse of snobbery.
I can still see him now, the day we met. He had a strong body, hair curling down his neck, he spoke in a quiet voice. He was brown from the sun, his pants work-stained, his larrikin eyes alight when he caught sight of me. You could see he wasn’t slow, his face alive with considering as he noticed my best white dress and my hair hanging down my back. The instant we met and looked at each other I wanted him in my bed. Eighteen and virgin as I was, I knew instinctively what sort of power lay in the big quiet body as he stood there in my father’s yard.
In our wedding photograph we looked sly and merry and knowing, there was nothing of the shrinking violet about either of us. For all the world, as my eldest said once, as if we couldn’t wait.
There was that powerful stance of his, his tender eyes brimming with vitality, and as for me, I showed none of the child-bride’s usual shyness. I was smiling and every inch of me was willing. Young as we were, we were full of the pleasures of our new station.
There was nothing misleading about our innocent lust either, for we were equally matched as it turned out, although we both had our low times. The tensions and troubles that came between us were just more fuel for our night-time fires. And towards the end, when we were both more peaceful with one another, we knew, luxuriously, that even with all the joy and tumult of the world raging past us, we could always have each other.
He would come home from work with that soft bloom of dust and weariness on him, so tired he could hardly speak, but he seemed to draw sustenance from me. His eyes lit up so beautifully when he saw me that he glowed and looked startlingly alive.
I would kiss my beautiful husband, sit on his warm thigh, his delicious mouth on my neck, ride astride his knee, leaving a round of secret moisture there, glistening like a kiss. That was our private joy, the eroticism of married life, our licence for the unlimited pleasure of monogamy. While the children were sleeping like little dolls in their dark beds, mouths open, dreaming of horses galloping, we had our own supple fantasies, we were lost in our own trance.
In the dark when he was above me, his shoulders gleaming in the shadows, breath rasping on my neck as his hard warm body moved against me, his eyes closed with the sweetness of it, damp curls on his neck, smelling of clean sweat, I knew that was my mortality, my religion, the secret engine which pulled me through the world.
After he died, no-one could come near me for years. It wasn’t as if I was living in purdah out of convention or necessity either, because there were plenty of suitors. It was simply a physical imperative — I could not let another man touch my skin.
When it finally happened and I met someone, he was so unsuitable that even my dear children were scandalised. I was a disgrace and an embarrassment because of course that was in the dead fifties when women sleepwalked through their days in those icy uplift bras and frilly aprons, while children lived their lives as bland as buttons with no-one to give them an underview.
Neither of us was interested in love at that time of our lives — but there was his white white skin, his decadent mouth, that sly look from under his eyelids which went straight to the hair at the back of my neck. Pat was a young adventurer, full of grace and ease in himself; he took his time over everything, shrewd, so that his lovely attentions lasted for hours.
Our fantasies meshed the day we met, he a builder’s labourer in work pants and bare white chest, tattooed; me an older woman, barefoot, perfumed, scarlet nails, moving slowly with the heavy summer afternoon.
After the first time, I remember vividly how he lay back on the pillows like a lord. His eyes narrowed against the smoke of his cigarette and he gave me that lazy half-smile of total well-being. Lying there, his pale body glimmering in the shadow, looking at me with his hooded, blue Irish eyes, lovely as an angel — that was something, it was nourishment after all my days of loneliness. Our love-making was slow and creamy and relentless; they were times of intensity, drowning in the sheets in the long afternoons. He would always want more, pirate that he was, with that smile of his, his expert hands stroking me, unwilling at first, back into delirium.
When he left our town I was sad but not shattered, for unlike the breakup of many love affairs I’d seen, there were no sour memories or recriminations. There were images I kept in my mind’s eye — his mouth, swollen after I’d kissed it, a certain spicy smell of male sweat, dust, apple-scented soap, the supple line of his white back as he bent over in the half-light to undress me.
And of course there was my next lover — blond, troubled, closed —infinitely attractive to women with his elegance and sombre blue eyes, an actor, very clever, always full of little calculations. He was a lost soul as well, a male siren, a cruel despot who taught all the women in his life lethal games. Our time together went smoothly as cream on the surface with the money, theatre parties, my job as tutor at the university, but all the time there was this deadly subterranean river flowing between us. I was always on the edge of drowning in it, in the aching sweetness of total submission to him, and its twin — rage at my self-annihilation.
I remember nights when I was so slippery wet he could not hold me, he called me his child, his pet, but I could not answer my mouth was so dry after our perverse games. He would whisper all his mockeries and commands softly in my ear as we made love, tell me about his other women in that deep cultured voice of his, and always, whatever he did, I was his whenever he wanted me, weeping, liquid, open in his arms.
I was his beautiful, assured woman during the day, and at nights a begging waif, his own creation, enmeshed in his ferocious needs. The voluptuousness of loving like that strung me out to an impossible pitch, and I became heartsick, a fool, my energies drained. I was a grandmother by then and could have been living in peace instead of chasing this man, undignified, my clothes too young, my face anxious at all the sugary parties we went to.
When he took up with a younger woman and began to teach her all his little scorching tricks I was sick with desire. I tried to lure him back, to compete with that lovely smiling girl, pleading with him to kiss me even when her scent was still fresh on his skin. Then one humiliating night I knew I had had enough. It was as if I closed off from this whole new frequency he’d tuned me into, and those sounds of distress, ecstasy and disgust ceased entirely.
No-one has ever talked to me about deep and private places like this in their lives; there is something too aching and ruttish about such behaviour for comfort. But I have a feeling that most people have experienced that hot shiver at some time, a sensation occasionally more delicious, certainly more terrible, than simple loving. He was a dark angel, this man, with his magnificent obsession with power and cruelty, his only means of showing love.
It would be boorish of me, not to say false, to deny his gifts, the exquisite pain and pleasure he provided and the dangerous territories he took me across, but I am glad I emerged safe, with only a few tender spots to keep me company when I have need of a little stimulant. Now that I am old I can say this about myself with just enough kindness and irony to keep it in perspective.
My second husband was pure sunshine after those dank delights. He was a giant of a fellow, huge, woolly, talented, kind — a comely man. We had no need of passion after our respective roller-coaster lifetimes. The sensual seep of our enjoyment together was more subtle, and slower, like luxuriating in a still, warm pond. I have such a loving memory of the two of us walking everywhere hand in hand. We were like those moth-eaten lions you see basking at the zoo. They are way past their prime, too experienced to make any unnecessary movement, but they are still observing the world closely from the sleepy slits of their wicked yellow eyes.
We gave each other comfort, and dignity and all the kindness we had. When he died, I believed my time was up as well, that I had had enough love to last me for the rest of my days.
Thus it is that the wheel keeps turning in our lives. It still seems strange to me that I am sitting here, an old woman, dreaming of these past loves, my limbs once so tender, now weighted down by age and infirmity.
But there is no real end to things, another discovery I have made recently. Even now sometimes I still catch myself thinking like a young girl, as I lie in my single monastic bed in the nursing home, my old heart beating strongly in my breast. I dream of pleasures that might still be, and then the power of love in me is like a fire, leaping out and lighting up the world.