A Struggle too Long

One hundred years ago in the UK women got the right to vote. There! None of us can really imagine what a hard struggle it was to gain this crucial entitlement, but some brilliant, brave women strove for it and got it and we must never take it for granted.
There have, of course been many ‘watershed’ moments along the path to equality of gender but the most important thing to remember is that the path has not yet reached its destination. That is to say, women still have a long way to go before they can live lives as free and as privileged as men.
It seems to me that the principal reason for true gender equality taking such a long time to achieve is that, having enjoyed the benefits of privilege for centuries many men [not all] are unready and unwilling to give them up and the very fact of them being in positions of power and wealth [in boardrooms, for example] is self-maintaining.
You have only to glance at the vitriolic comments following any article on inequality to see how reluctant many are to surrender the superior lifestyles, the casual attitudes to degradation, the enhanced salaries and all-round benefits of not being a woman.
Here in the UK some areas are gradually improving. The number of women members of parliament has increased slowly over the years, although in 2017 the ratio was still 70:30 per cent in favour of men. There are some women cabinet ministers. The prime minister is a woman [although it is a downright shame that the only two women prime ministers in UK history are both from the political right].
But on the whole progress is slow. That even within the ongoing ‘me too’ campaign, an organisation [The President’s Club] sees no shame in staging a men-only night of debauchery in which women are paraded and objectified demonstrates how little men of certain wealth, status and notoriety care or notice. And until men [mainly white and older] begin to sit up and take notice and understand that they should not abuse their power in this way gender equality will continue to be an uphill slog.
Then in the wider world, daily, systematic abuse of women continues, with underage marriage [still legal in a number of US states], rape as a weapon of war, slavery and traffic endemic in many countries, repression and deprivation of rights rife in still more.
I had my own brush with the equal pay issue over 40 years ago when a student, working a summer job, nights in a soup factory, where we students manned machines packing powdered soup. Six or seven of us would work at the machine, moving place every hour in a non-discriminatory way. When I discovered the male students were paid more each week and asked why I was told that they ‘might be required to lift something’. Were they ever? What do you think?

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Fiction Month 2015. Unmanned on a Wednesday. Part 2

Strangers Muriel and Niamh are bonding in the launderette-and Muriel finds they have more in common than an article of clothing…

[Part 1 of this story can be found in the previous post]

She gazed into the gyrating turmoil of clothes. “It’s complicated.”

“You mean he’s married.”

Muriel stared at the circulating washing. She realised now what the familiar item was. She was sure it was a shirt; one that her husband used to wear, but hadn’t for some time. She could remember where he’d bought it, when they’d been on holiday in Italy. It was an expensive, designer shirt; flamboyant, the colours an unusual mix of purple, red and cream, the design vivid and abstract like a Picasso painting.

A machine to the right of them jolted into an angry whirl as it prepared for its rinse cycle. Muriel continued to gaze into the enigmatic circle where the mingling colours jostled for prominence.

“I’m not shocked,” she said, once the raging machine had settled for a quiet, resentful simmer, “but it makes me sad. I’m guessing he’s an older man? I’d say you were too good for him, too young and lovely to waste your life on him.” She hauled her eyes away from the washer, from which a trickling sound issued.

Niamh drew out a tissue from her sleeve and blew her nose. “I don’t know why I’m opening up to you like this. I’ve not told anyone else. You must be easier to talk to than most people. I would never be able to confide in my mother like I’m confessing to you. Can we chat again next time you come? We could go for a coffee or something.”

Muriel was silent, contemplating the revolving drum. It turned this way and that as if undecided. The younger woman stood abruptly and began pulling articles from the dryer, which had churned to a grumbling halt. The Italian shirt tumbled out into a pale blue, plastic basket, pock marked with cigarette burns. She had her back to Muriel, speaking harshly into the cavernous cylinder.

“I’ve been too personal, haven’t I? I’m always like this with people; not reserved enough, nattering like we’ve known each other for years. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I’m sorry. Say something. Please.”

She turned around. She had the shirt in her hand. Muriel nodded at it. “I see you don’t send his washing home for his wife to do.”

Niamh held the hot garment against her cheek as if the spirit of her lover was bound within its vibrant folds. “I love to do things for him,” she said. “I pretend I’m married to him. I spend hours finding new recipes to cook for him. I like to open the wardrobe and see some of his clothes hanging next to mine. That way I’ve got some small part of him when he’s not with me.” Facing the dryer as she closed the door, she missed the fleeting look of weary scorn that passed over Muriel’s face. A stab of cruelty thrust out, threatening to pierce the friendly bubble of shared confidences.

“He won’t leave his wife, you know. They never do.”

“He is going to leave. He’s waiting for the right time to tell her. He’s sensitive to her needs. I love that about him.”

She was folding garments now and placing them into a rectangular laundry bag. There was a brisk manner to the way she was pushing the clothes into the bag, as if she could press her conviction into the still warm fabrics.

“I wonder if he knows what her needs are.”

“She’s been occupied looking after the children all these years and now they’re growing up and leaving-like yours are. He has to wait for her to find a new direction in her life; something to fill the void her children have left. You must know how that feels. How have you coped with the extra time on your hands?”

Muriel smiled an enigmatic, knowing smirk. “Oh I like to travel. I’m always planning the next holiday and preparing for it. I like comfortable hotels in beautiful locations with wonderful, scenic views. I enjoy eating in expensive restaurants, shopping in exclusive stores and finding exquisite, original art works.”

She paused to observe the effect her words were having.

Niamh stared, transfixed as she listened then nodded, grinning, her creamy skin pink with enthusiasm. “My man is well travelled. He’s going to take me on exotic trips once he’s free.”

She lifted the strap of her leather satchel over her head and gripped the handle of the chequered bag. She looked at Muriel.

“Shall I see you at the same time next week?”

“It’s possible.”

“Go on, you know you want to! I can give you an update on progress. I’m seeing him tomorrow night. He might have told her by then! Bye for now!”

She pulled open the door and stepped out, leaving the bell jangling. Muriel watched as she crossed the road, negotiating the passing traffic, tossing her head to rid the glossy, dark fringe from her eyes. Then she disappeared round a corner. Although the two machines had stopped, Muriel continued to sit in the silent laundrette. Outside the light was beginning to fade and glare from the headlights of passing vehicles cast intermittent flashes into the scruffy room.

It would soon be time to start packing, she thought, wondering what she would need this time.

She was jerked from her thoughts by the strident ring of her phone.

“Ah, I’ve got you. Where are you, Mu? I got home hours ago!”

“I had to come to one of those laundry places. The new washer won’t be delivered until next week.”

“Good God, Mu! Don’t these places collect and deliver or something?”

His voice crackled. “Anyway, never mind that now. I’ve found us some flights to Geneva. Thought we’d do the Swiss lakes. Fancy it? The flights are on Friday morning. I’ve just got a meeting tomorrow night to tie up some loose ends then I’ll be free.”

Muriel stood, pocketing the phone, savouring the anticipation. Last time they’d stayed at the Grand Hotel Kempinski on the lake. Their room had overlooked the Jet d’eau fountain. She would have to contact an ironing service in the morning, one that could do a rush job. She could spend tomorrow evening researching excursions and places to eat.

She crammed her laundry items into the holdall in an unceremonious bunch, stuffing recalcitrant clothes down into the corners, heedless of the creases that would form as they dried. When the zip gaped in an obstinate refusal to close over the bulging, newly laundered items she capitulated and grasped the handles, leaving it open in her haste to be away. She pulled the door, hearing its accompanying clank for the last time as she tugged the bag through to the outside. Trudging past the window she glanced back in at the stark, Spartan room, the plastic chairs and the worn lino and exhaled a profound, heartfelt sigh of relief.

Fiction Month. Unmanned on a Wednesday-part 1

It’s Fiction Month on Anecdotage. This is the third year I’ve celebrated National Novel Writing Month by posting up a month of stories. Here’s part one of the first story- ‘Unmanned on a Wednesday’- a tale of two women, a launderette and a shirt known to both of them.

Muriel stood outside on the pavement and examined the information on display, mouthing the words: opening hours, the management accepts no responsibility…

Shielding her eyes against reflection, she peered into the gloom, scanning for signs of life, hoping for an efficient counter assistant to relieve her of her bulky bundle; someone who was familiar with the machines and the vagaries of washing one’s dirty linen in public. Inside she could make out a figure, bending to pull open a circular door.

She inhaled, grasped the handle of the bag with one hand and pushed the door with the other, hearing its incongruous jangle as she dragged the holdall in through the entrance to the launderette.

The figure straightened, turned to acknowledge her presence with a smiling ‘Hello’ then continued to feed clothing into the open mouth of the washer, flicking items or turning them inside out.

Muriel looked around. The atmosphere was oppressive with the stifling damp of detergent fumes and hummed with churning dryers and the whirring of front loaders as they went into intermittent, furious spins. She approached an idle machine warily as if it were a stray dog and studied the instructions. It needed some pound coins. She dug into her bag for her purse.

A voice hailed her from the row of chairs opposite.

“There’s a coin dispenser if you need change. It’s on the wall by the service counter.” It was a lilting, youthful voice, the words coloured with a tint of accent.

Muriel turned to face the voice, the young woman having sat down, a dog eared magazine unopened on her lap.

“A coin dispenser?” she replied, “Oh, I see-for pounds to go in the slot. Sorry! You must think I’m an idiot! I’m not used to these places. I thought there would be someone here, to take the laundry and deal with it.”

In the ensuing pause she became aware that she’d spewed out her inadequacy like an over indulgence of champagne.

The seated woman smiled again. She had an elegant, restful face; a long nose above a wide mouth accustomed to laughter.

“It’s unmanned on a Wednesday and in the evenings,” she informed the older woman. “Don’t worry. It’s quite easy when you get the hang of it, as it were.” She grinned, extracting an inadvertent smile from Muriel, who negotiated the change machine, returned to the machine and stuffed as much of the contents of the bag as she could into its gaping aperture.

“They don’t like being overloaded,” cautioned her companion. “It might be better to split the load between two machines.”

Once the two appliances were humming in harmonious tandem Muriel sat down next to her mentor and the two watched the revolving drums in a shared trance.

“You must be a regular at this,” she ventured. “You seem to be an expert.”

The young woman shrugged.  “I’ve no washing machine in my tiny flat. I don’t mind it; in fact I enjoy coming. I get to read the trashy magazines I wouldn’t buy or admit to enjoying.”

“Except for tonight!”

She laughed; a light, infectious laugh.

“Oh no, I didn’t mean I wasn’t enjoying some company for a change! I come from a large family back in Ireland so talking is what I’m used to. But what brings you here? Has your home machine broken down?”

Muriel sighed. “The new one can’t be delivered until next week. I may have to visit a second time before it comes. You might have to suffer my company again.”

“I’d like that! What’s your name?”

“Muriel.”

“I’m Niamh.” She put a slender hand out to shake.

They watched the circulating fabrics in silence. Muriel thought it curious how an item would present itself at the front in the spotlight for a few seconds then withdraw to make way for a different article’s display. One of the dryers ground to a halt, prompting Niamh to stand, pull the door open and inspect the progress of its contents. Muriel continued to watch the revolving laundry behind the doors, her attention drawn to an item, the colours of which seemed familiar. Perhaps she had an identical tablecloth or bed linen; a coincidence. The piece of laundry came and went, teasing her in its intermittent exhibition.

Having reinvigorated the dryer with more coins, Niamh returned to sit.

“I see you’re married,” she said. “Do you have children?”

Muriel flushed. Accustomed to her own company or the stilted, polite society of her husband’s associates and their wives she was unused to striking up spontaneous conversations with strangers on subjects of a personal matter. Not for her the inconsequential chatter of the supermarket queue or the doctor’s waiting room. Her groceries were delivered, her healthcare private. But she was both flattered and warmed by this beautiful young woman’s attention and besides, she’d brought nothing to do or to read, not having considered she would have to undertake the task of washing the laundry herself.

She nodded. “I do, though they’ve flown the nest. The youngest is at university.”

“So you’ve more time to spend with your husband now, is that it?”

The older woman raised her eyebrows. “You would think so, but no. My husband spends more time at work since the children grew up and left; late evenings and overnight to different cities, for training sessions, he says. So I’m on my own most of the time.”

“This is a night out for you then!”

Infected by her familiarity, Muriel felt emboldened.

“You are not married yourself?”

She hesitated. “No. I am kind of seeing someone though.”

“Kind of?”

Check in next week for Part 2-the conclusion

The Big Why

The World events of the last forty eight hours have been a grim catalogue of horrific, grisly and incomprehensible acts that leave those of us who’ve been informed by TV news, radio or newspapers reeling in disbelief and repulsion.

Worse, it is becoming clear that actions by some nations [my own included] to remove what were seen as despotic dictators have actually paved the way for zealots and terrorists to take over-the new version of al Qaeda, but in even more aggressive and unspeakably callous form.

Now, however that the genie is out of the bottle, what is to be done?

Would it help to know what it is IS really wants? In an effort to attempt to understand this I Googled the question. One disquieting discovery is that there is a commitment amongst the terrorists to ‘expand their territory’. They are also, apparently set on provoking a ‘war to end all wars’, to which end they do seem to be marching irrevocably on.

Reading an article recently by a woman posing as one with ambitions to join IS it transpires that young Moslem women and girls who are fleeing to join the ‘Caliphate’ are set on becoming part of what is seen as ‘Utopia’. Now I have my own ideas about what constitutes ‘Utopia’, but it isn’t recognisable in the twisted, repressive and brutal regime of the jihadists. Here is Wikipedia’s version:

“A utopia (/juːˈtoʊpiə/ yoo-toh-pee-ə) is a community or society possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities.”

So an IS run state, to these girls is a community possessing highly desirable or near perfect qualities. What then, to the girls, are these qualities? Piety and following their faith seem to be at the heart of them. When asked about their attitudes towards the committing of atrocities their responses were shrugging acceptance or even condonation. A number of the women have small children. It is difficult to understand how they can accept and even believe in terrorist acts while caring for their own children. It is easier to view murderous bombers and beheaders as marauding male-dominated bands who’ve become de-humanised through a lack of family life and values.

More-life for a woman in IS territory is at best tyrannical and oppressive, at worst dangerous and brutal. Their children will grow up seeing atrocity piled upon atrocity until, inevitably, they follow the same track, even perhaps becoming suicide bombers. Utopia? Not as I think of it.

According to one analyst IS will continue spreading poisonous tentacles and gathering personnel and momentum until poverty and deprivation prompt disenchantment, but he also suggests this will take a very long time. In the meantime some way has to be found to deal with the relentless and horrific acts of violence that this scourge of our age is hell bent on pursuing.

America and Europe currently have no appetite for the all-out war IS allegedly wants. There are no answers, only questions…oh…and hope. In the midst of all the despair and hatred, what is left can only be hope.

An Expert’s Guide to Partnership

I once read, years ago that your best chance of a lifetime partner is one who, on first meeting comes across as about a six or a seven out of ten. I also read that this potentially successful sharer of your life is likely to have elements of background in common with you; these might be socio-economic factors or cultural. They might, for instance have been born and brought up in a large city as you were, or raised in a remote farming community. They have spent their childhood in a poverty stricken tenement flat or be heir to a vast fortune. They may be from the same era and have a penchant for the same music and TV programmes. As long as their background is similar to your own the relationship stands a better chance of enduring. It makes sense and even more so when you are searching for this partner later in life, as many are.
At any age it is possible to become drawn by the way someone looks or acts. You have to feel sorry for the poor women who’ve been featured on our local TV news programme recently for having been duped by internet predators who stalked them for money. Those women naively assumed that the websites they were using for internet dating could protect them from such fraudsters. The potential suitors were charming, good looking and [crucially] professed great interest in their victims. They did not, however exist. It is easy to think of the women as foolish however anyone can be susceptible to the lure of flattery, especially those who’ve been on their own for some time or are vulnerable from past experiences.
Searching for a partner in later life is a tricky business, but I’ve always believed that anyone who truly wants a companion can have one, whatever the circumstances. It is just a matter of being realistic. For women, sadly, the field is still narrowed by having to search within an older age bracket-a difficult situation for older women! The singles group that [until recently] frequented one of our local bars on Friday nights was dominated by the same ageing females and dotted with a few similarly aged men, the entire group sharing an appearance of jaded acceptance, the women having each partnered one or other of the men at some time. At intervals one of the men would ask one of the women to dance, or a pair of women would take to the dance floor, after each sortie returning to their tables in a kind of desultory trance.
It is also important to remember that singledom can be infinitely preferable to unhappy partnerships.
There are women I know whose expectations are unrealistic [and I’m sure there are men who are the same]. I would say it is worth sitting down and assessing which qualities you feel are important in a potential mate. For me it would boil down to intelligence, sense of humour and downright kindness. Everything else-looks, charm, money etc would be desirable but no more than a bonus.
Of course, you do have to kiss a lot of frogs. I’m writing from experience here [and yes-I’ve told Husband I am still waiting for his miraculous metamorphosis to prince-lest he become too complacent!]

Home Alone?

                An item on a radio magazine programme recently concerned people who, by accident or design will be spending Christmas alone. Listening to these individuals explaining their situation, one stand out feature came across. The women had made a deliberate choice to spend the day in solitude, whereas the men felt themselves to be ‘shut out’ through no fault of their own and felt aggrieved. Some of the stories were painful to hear, such as the father who’d split from his wife and would not get to see his only son due to his ex having a new partner.

                There is a strange irony to all this. Even in this era of [slowly] increasing emancipation it is, at best unusual to see a woman sitting alone at a bar or a restaurant table, whereas a man in such circumstances would not be considered out of the ordinary or an object of speculation. The Dad who felt abandoned could simply take himself off to a hostelry. He might not know anyone but would at least be able to observe the revelries from the fringe or even get involved. The women in the programme had all planned their solo day already. They would not be leaving their homes, but knew exactly what they would eat, watch and do, and all were eagerly anticipating and expected to relish their time alone.

                During a mid-life period of singledom I took the bold step of booking, not one but two holidays as a single traveller. Although this rash action was partly a result of a messy relationship break up I forged ahead with the first- a week long skiing trip- not without a modicum of self doubt. ‘Think of it as a course you are going on’ encouraged a friend [I was a virgin skier]. I will never forget boarding the coach to the resort and explaining to the puzzled holiday rep that there was one in my ‘party’, or descending to the dining room at the hotel and forcing myself to ask if I might join a couple at their table when there were no empty tables available, then the continuing, painful experience with a lone breakfast supported only by a book as a prop. When I descended to the basement to join a beginners’ ski class the holiday underwent a miraculous conversion. My fellow beginners were a charming, friendly, inclusive bunch who invited me to join them for meals, après-ski, breakfast and outings for the entire week. The encouraging friend came to collect me from the airport, finding me cheerful, refreshed and hopeful-hopeful enough to approach the next lone exploit with confidence.

                I went to The Gambia, without the support of a ski class, but with a ‘go-for-it’ attitude. I engaged fellow travellers in conversation, chatted to fellow diners, went for tea with stallholders in the market, booked excursions, including a two day trip up river to stay in a thatched hut with a party of Netherlanders. Everyone I met was friendly and kind.

                These days, as blog followers know, I travel, dine and spend Christmases with Husband, a companion who, on balance, I prefer to be with than without-but I wonder when lone women diners and travelers will ever be a natural phenomenon?

Happy New Year, Brian Meadon! [part 2]

An exploratory foray into his overnight bag yields little of any use to Brian except for a towel, which he drapes around his shoulders like a cape. He has also brought some pajamas which, whilst the additional layer would be beneficial he feels reluctant to don in case of rescue. After deliberating he decides to bear them in mind as emergency clothing supplies. His feet are by far the most pressing problem, having become totally numb inside his shoes so that he compelled to scrunch his toes up periodically in attempt to regain some feeling. Should he, perhaps break into the bottle of wine he brought along as a contribution to the New Year do? He thinks not, for now; best to keep something in reserve in case, Heaven forbid, the situation worsens.

Another glance at the phone reveals the time to be 8.57pm, and forty five minutes since the last vehicle passed by. Brian realizes with a grimace that his careful calculation of timing in order to arrive not too early and not too late will now be academic. His arrival will now be, at best, late. What will the reception be like if, and when, he arrives? Misgivings flutter through his digestive system like tipsy hens and peck away at his confidence. Rob and Shelley are people he met almost a year ago and spent one week with, when comradeship was enhanced by the thrills and spills of the ski slopes. But they were charming, friendly and fun, seemed to really like having him around, have kept up with emails. The invitation had been issued with genuine warmth and re-issued as a result of his last email enquiry as to whether the party was going ahead.

Brian decides that he can utilize more of his clothing resources if he curls up on the rear seat. The time has come to employ the services of his pajamas-which he acknowledges he only brought as an afterthought, thus freeing up his towel as a foot-wrapping. The achievement of all this takes some time and energy, resulting in the opening of the wine, thankfully of the screw topped variety. He lifts his head up enough to swallow a mouthful and then shudders as a yawn escapes him. He wonders what is happening at the party now and imagines he is there, glass in hand, chatting up a woman, asking her to dance, getting close, feeling the rhythm, moving his feet, becoming warm, hot, sweating, thumping.