My new bedroom was an old kitchen. One wall was taken up by dozens of small cupboards and drawers, a fridge, a black stove and a little brown sink with a beige hose hanging out of it like a child’s leg. The landlord told me the fridge and stove didn’t work, but they were good for storing clothes and other things. I could use the fridge as a wardrobe, she said.
It was on the fourth floor of a fat house covered in green tarpaper, and shared a hall and bathroom with another room, where a couple lived. Neither of our rooms had doors, only door frames. All the windows looking out onto the street were covered in dirty sheets, giving the impression from the outside that the house was nothing more than an empty shell with a giant’s patchwork blanket hanging on the other side.
Along with the fridge and stove, my room had a table, a stack of flimsy chairs and a couch, which I was to use as a bed.
The kitchen cupboards were painted green and the walls were papered a reddish brown, with water spots and black mould here and there that reminded me of tinned meat that has been opened and forgotten. The sink water only ran cold.
I was very relieved. As soon as I moved in, I removed the sheet covering my small window, and washed the glass with vinegar.
A few days before, a girl from my Factory said she was leaving her place, since her Man had done well on an Exam and she could afford to move, and she told me I could take it. I was desperate to find a place and another Man, but when I went to look it was no more than a curtained-off section of a gloomy room shared with two other couples. One of the Men had brown teeth and kept licking his upper lip and leering at me as I was shown around the room. All four of them shared one filthy hotplate, and the windows were covered in long, thick, mouldy purple curtains. Damp Philosophy Books were stacked everywhere. In one corner there was a mountainous pile of empty tins, like a dollhouse for vermin. The curled, hanging metal lids reminded me of the Man’s protruding tongue.
There is nothing worse than being taken advantage of by someone else’s Man. It’s always considered the woman’s fault. I knew I wouldn’t be safe there. I was very fortunate to find the kitchen room through an advertisement posted in a cafe.
I had my own kerosene lamp, hot plate, toaster, tin bathtub and kettle, all of which Rollo let me keep because he assumed the next woman he lived with would have them too.
It was exciting to have a fridge in the room, even though it didn’t work. When I opened it, it smelled like sour milk. I found a very withered fruit in one of its drawers, so wrinkled it almost looked like it had a face. I kept it on the windowsill as a kind of artistic curiosity until I realized it probably wasn’t fruit but something much darker. I buried it in the small backyard of the house early one morning before any of the other lodgers were up.
The couple in the other room were named Pauline and Stuart. Pauline worked in a Factory sewing ladies’ intimates. She brought home samples for herself and spent a lot of time modelling them in the bathroom, where the mirror was. Mirrors were extremely expensive, we were lucky to have one, but Pauline was such a bathroom hog I had to buy a chamber pot for my room. She was anorexic and so the lingerie just hung off her in a sad way. She kept the bathroom door open when examining herself in the mirror, I suppose she wanted Stuart to pass by and see her.
She rarely flushed the toilet after she used it. She left small dark pellets in the bowl, like rabbit’s droppings.
I wasn’t frightened of Stuart because he seemed very preoccupied with himself.
He spent his time at home pacing their room, with a Philosophy Book under his arm, smoking his pipe and listening to records by Wagner and Tchaikovsky. He tried to look like he was deep in thought, but I was sure the only thing on his mind was his next tinned meat sandwich. He had a meaty smell about him. Often my hotplate wouldn’t work on account of Stuart hogging all the electricity for his records. I ruined a lot of eggs that way, and had to drink my coffee powder mixed with cold water.
Stuart always wore a red quilted night-robe with rolled up corduroy trousers underneath, and velvet smoking slippers with a slight heel, and his red blonde hair stuck up unbrushed and very dry. When he went out, to an Exam, or to buy tobacco and records, he changed his robe for an unwashed Oxford shirt and a green jumper with leather elbow patches.
He never brought much Exam money home. Often he returned slightly drunk, as it was a common custom for Men to go for a drink after one of their Exams, but I think Stuart pretended to be more drunk than he was so that Pauline would think he’d won a big Exam prize and spent it all on drink. Sometimes I don’t even think he went to a bar – I couldn’t smell any alcohol on him – but just walked around till evening before coming home.
‘Next Time, Don’t Spend Your Prize Money On Drink,’ Pauline would say in a very loud, but not yelling, voice, as if speaking to a half-deaf person she wasn’t cross at.
If one’s Man did not do well on Exams, it was considered the woman’s fault for not providing a nurturing enough environment in which they could excel.
I was jealous of Pauline’s underthings. I didn’t have anything I could bring home from my Factory, besides bits of sewing machine, but you couldn’t do anything with them unless you had an iron frame, which was too large to pocket. It was my job to paint the name of the sewing machine company onto the frame, in gold paint: nightingale.
When I first got the job, I felt bored and cruel painting nightingale on all the machines. They looked like frightened black cats, and would all have the exact same name. I thought it would be so lovely to give one a name like dancey or veronica, but of course I would be fired. It didn’t take long for it to feel like the only word I knew how to write was nightingale.
In Pauline and Stuart’s room, I could see women’s underthings hanging everywhere in abundance like cobwebs, insects and flowers, but Pauline did not offer to give me any. Their room was papered muddy green, and besides a bed, a wardrobe, and Stuart’s desk, all matching brown. The most important thing they owned was Stuart’s gramophone, which loomed over everything else like a grand rotting flower.
I didn’t have any nice underthings, perhaps Rollo wouldn’t have left me if I’d had some. He and I parted ways after he won a large Exam prize. He wanted to find a nicer place to live and a prettier girl to take care of him. I wasn’t too upset, I had prepared for something like this to happen, and I was proud he finally did so well on a big Exam.
When I first started dating him, I took him to the cinema. It was very expensive but I wanted to show Rollo I would not only take care of him but also show him a marvellous time. The film was called A Virtuous Woman. I didn’t remember any of it, only the way the title was written in big letters on a black background. Whenever I closed my eyes, I saw the word nightingale floating in black, like a film that was just beginning.
During the short time when I did not have a Man, I bought myself a grey trench coat, some plastic flowers, a pair of red rubber sandals, a tweed skirt with a few fixable moth holes and a third pair of dungarees, which I needed for work.
I felt good, but it was frowned upon to be Manless. I knew people would become suspicious of me if I went without one for too long. The way to meet Men was to go to a cafe, order a coffee and wait for a Man to talk to you. They often went, in groups, to cafes to study. The cafes had wooden booths and stools, and the floors and walls were all tiled. In the cheaper cafes the tiles were filthy and cracked, in more expensive ones they smelled strongly of bleach. The first question a Man always asked was what type of Factory you worked in. Ideal were the ones that disfigured a woman the least and paid the most. Pauline’s job was better than mine; she could’ve found a better Man than Stuart, though perhaps not because her anorexia was unappealing. Men really liked women to have breasts for them to fondle when they were nervous.
My hands were rather ruined from the chemicals in the paint I used at work. I thought about wearing gloves to the cafe, but that would’ve been deceitful, and if part of you that is normally shown is conspicuously covered, the Men know it is hiding some sort of disfigurement. I didn’t want them to imagine my hands were worse than they actually were. I was lucky not to have a disfigured face, though I did have a nasty cough sometimes.
One day at a cafe I saw a tall, red-haired young Man with lots of freckles who appealed, but a girl with brown ringlets and a black eyepatch came in sobbing and pulled him out by the sleeve of his coat before we had a chance to talk.
I felt intolerably miserable. There were posters everywhere reminding me I was Manless:
take care of your man
a good lady does not let her man loiter
feed your man well
I traded a tin of meat with Pauline for a nice bra and panty set. I styled my hair into ringlets, it was a nice golden syrup colour, and used the lipstick I hadn’t used since Rollo left me. I spent all my time off work sitting in cafes looking for Men. There was a couple I always saw: a thin, unshaven, greying, balding old Man wearing a filthy brown coat and a grimy chequered scarf, and a young woman with a nice prim body, nice hair and natural curls. She could have done much better if it weren’t for her face: she was only sixteen or so, but her face had most likely been ruined by acid in a Factory. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen something like it. They clung to each other in a desperate manner, and shared their food: one cup of coffee and a slice of toast cut in half and dribbled with golden syrup.
One evening I saw the Man sitting alone in the cafe. I assumed the girl had got pregnant and died. The Man only ordered a cup of coffee, and I didn’t see him in the cafe for a few days after that –until he showed up with a new girl.
She was fat and bald with red splotches on her skull, and wore a fake jewel necklace she played with repeatedly. The Man ordered a whole Golden Syrup Toast for himself and ate it greedily, chewing with his mouth wide open in a grin. I felt ill, and never went back to that cafe again. It didn’t much matter, the cafe menus were the same everywhere:
golden syrup toast
boiled tinned meat with toast
The tinned meat became grey when it was boiled and made the toast all wet; most people just ordered Golden Syrup Toast with Coffee. There were also pubs, that sold beer and gin, but, like libraries, women weren’t allowed in those. They were places for Men to socialize and study for their Exams in peace.
In a cafe I met a girl named Ann who played the electric Hammond organ in a Bar to entertain the Men, jolly songs to help them relax. She was bulky and had a downy moustache and very thick legs, I think from sitting at the organ all day long pressing the pedal. She smoked very quickly, bringing the cigarette to her mouth the way a greedy person eats little snacks.
She danced her fingers across the table, her shoulders wiggling along, making a buzzing with her mouth to demonstrate the organ sound.
She told me she used to have the most beautiful curls but had to cut them off because intoxicated Men would grab them. She now had a closely cropped bowl cut. She wore a blue dress with a plastic corsage safety pinned to her chest and had sweat stains under her arms.
She was on her break: she wasn’t allowed to eat in the Bar. They sold beer, gin, gherkins and toast. Gherkins were the special thing there. Sometimes she and the other girls snuck some gherkins home with them. A green thing was a fine thing to eat, so long as it wasn’t mould, Ann said. Chop them up and put them in a sandwich with mushed boiled eggs and tinned meat. If your Man is worth anything, he’ll bring you back a gherkin from the bar. I was too embarrassed to say I didn’t have a Man.
Her Man was named Tiny Bernard, and she told me his hands were like chicken’s feet, all bent with only three fingers and a little stump that was hardly a thumb. He was quite smart but never did well on Exams because he wrote so slowly. He could never finish before the time was up. Ann said she had fine hands a plenty and it was unfair they wouldn’t let her assist him with writing Exams or give him an extra few hours.
Tiny Bernard was her first Man, and would be her last, she said. ‘I wouldn’t trade him for All the Golden Syrup in the World,’ she told me before going back to work.
As she left, I noticed the seat of her dress was faded and brownish from sitting so much, and I was glad I got to wear dungarees to work instead of easily ruined dresses.
I stayed in the cafe until it was dark, and signs for Examinations were lit up all along the street. As I left, I noticed a young Man stood with his back pressed to the wall of the building across the street. Above him was a sign that said:
24 hours exams we pay cash
Between his legs was a child’s suitcase with a white rabbit wearing a bonnet embroidered on the cover.
The young Man wore a long green woman’s overcoat, a yellow jumper, wool trousers too wide and short for his long legs, and funny shoes with the laces missing. He was peeing without his trousers undone, the inner thigh of his left trouser leg quickly darkening. His hair was black, and very sparse, like the hair of a woman who works in a Factory full of chemicals. He looked about seventeen or so. I was taught not to judge a Man by his looks, that it was the inside that counts, but this one was so beautiful I wouldn’t have cared if he were stuffed with straw. I couldn’t wait for him to talk to me, he might never. I put my ugly hands in my pockets before I approached him, just in case.
The suitcase was a fortunate sign. Perhaps he had just left a woman and needed a new one, or perhaps even better, had never had one at all. He seemed very intoxicated, or nervous from Exams, and agreed to come home with me immediately. I would take care of him, I said, and carried his suitcase for him back to my house.
I didn’t realize how bad he smelled until we were in the hall of my building, a mixture of urine, rotten milk and mice.
There wasn’t enough electricity for hot water, so he had to take a quick cold bath. I scrubbed him furiously with soap until he was red and shivering.
I gave him a baggy blue jumper with brass buttons, a white cotton nighty to wear and a cup of hot beef-flavoured broth and toast, as he was so cold from the bath. He also put on grey socks and grey underwear from his suitcase, but I made him take them off because they smelled mildewy from not being dried properly. I lent him a pair of my own socks. As he ate, I unpacked the rest of his things: some children’s books and clothes.
When I saw he had no Philosophy Books, I realized he probably didn’t have any identification papers either. I was frightened, but I had already brought him home.
When he heard Pauline and Stuart come up the stairs and enter the room across the foyer he got frightened and tried to leave. I pushed him onto my couch and held him down, putting one of my hands across his mouth. ‘They were expecting me to get a Man any day now. They don’t need to know you don’t have papers.’
He was skinny enough that we could both fit comfortably on my saggy couch. It was like lying next to a beautiful, pale branch. I was terrified that he would leave me as soon as I fell asleep, but when I woke in the middle of the night it was only because he was trying to enter me, so I spread my legs to make it easier for him.
His name was Paul and he was no one and had never done an Exam.
When he was born his parents called him Bluey because he was blue and cold. Growing up, he had slept beside the open oven door.
Once they put him in the oven, promising they wouldn’t turn it on, and told him not to come out until it was quiet. When he came out, the apartment was empty and his parents were gone. Some older women took him in until it was no longer safe, he was illegal, and they didn’t want anyone thinking he was their child. He lived under stairs, in shadows, cupboards and attics.
He gave himself the name Paul, from a children’s book, because the name Bluey reminded him too much of his parents and made him sad. He was missing many teeth and sometimes couldn’t control his bladder. I didn’t mind because one of the first things a girl learns in school is that every Man has his own special problems, and its one’s duty to take care of them. I became used to cleaning, and also the sight of Paul’s saggy grey underpants draped over every surface of our room, dripping like rainclouds as they dried. After his first night living with me, I was so worried about leaving him alone, I painted the word nightingale wrong on three sewing machines, though it was the word I knew best in the world.
nitingale nigtingale nightngale
When I came home, Stuart was in our kitchen, walking back and forth, talking to Paul who sat demurely on a fold-out chair, his face very pale, his knees pressed together. He was nodding and nodding, Stuart was talking about Exams, and to my relief, not asking Paul any questions.
I told Stuart it was time to go, that Paul needed his dinner.
Paul said Stuart went on and on about Exams and Paul didn’t know a single thing he was talking about.
The next morning I left Paul some money to go sit in cafes and go to the flea market. I bought him some Philosophy Books so Pauline and Stuart wouldn’t get suspicious.
For a while Stuart thought Paul was some sort of young genius because he was so vague, but soon forgot about him when he realized Paul was of no direct use to him.
As he wasn’t registered for Exams, Paul spent his time wandering or making our home better. He made a couple of rag rugs to cover our cold floor, was good at darning clothes and knew how to cook eggs in all sorts of interesting ways. He nailed a wool blanket across our door frame so we could have more privacy. Sometimes we could see motion on the other side, as if someone was lightly punching the blanket, but didn’t know if it was Pauline or Stuart.
Paul discovered that a few of our kitchen drawers were full of forks and spoons.
Only a fool would leave so many spoons and forks in a place like this and not expect them to be stolen, he said. Perhaps they were left by the last person, and the landlord was too lazy to look through the apartment for treasures before renting it out again. After what I found in the fridge, I had been too frightened to open any of the cupboards.
He sold some of the forks and spoons at a flea market and came back with a sack of yellow onions. For weeks we ate fried onions with bread. The smell drove Pauline crazy. What she did eat was as unflavoured as possible: glasses of ration milk and slices of apple.
We also splurged on a sweet bun to share, sold from the same bakery where I bought bread, but the bits of red and green candied fruit stuck on top were actually bits of plastic, and Paul almost choked on one. He cried for a long time after.
From my Factory I got rations of powdered milk, eggs, margarine, tinned meat, tinned peaches, a fresh, waxed apple, beef-flavoured bouillon cubes and a small pouch of low-grade tobacco. Every month one was given a small circle of pale yellow cheese with an orange-coloured rind. Many said it didn’t melt, but just kind of sweated. I enjoyed it all the same, especially eaten with the tinned peaches. We were also given a tin of golden syrup quarterly. During the time between Rollo and Paul, instead of saving the non-perishable items as a woman was supposed to when single, I ate all the food myself and put on weight.
The rest of our earnings were meant for rent, bread and tobacco – if one’s Man did not have any prize money from Exams to spend on it – along with Philosophy Books and any other needs a Man might have. Paul didn’t use tobacco, and didn’t have many needs. He didn’t even eat as much as me.
My only worry, besides Pauline and Stuart discovering Paul wasn’t registered for Exams, was having a baby. Paul taught me all sorts of Uncommon tricks I had never tried before that were nice, and according to him didn’t cause babies.
It would take several months of saving my salary without buying anything to be able to afford contraceptives. It was near impossible without Exam prize-money. Some Men didn’t like to spend their prize money on contraceptives; they preferred alcohol, tobacco and bowties. There were always stories about girls who died or were left disabled by jumping down stairs to terminate a pregnancy, or little blue babies left in rubbish bins or killed in ovens and sinks.
‘He’ll pay for it, I know he will, he loves me,’ a lot of them said, but of course, that rarely happened and the girl died some way or another. It was more affordable just to find a new woman. To register a pregnancy and birth was even more expensive than contraceptives, and I could afford neither without Exam money.
It was possible for some people though, that’s how there were so many Men and women, me included. To find a Man who had enough Exam prize-money and also wanted to have children, that was the Goal of Life. I don’t remember my own parents. Boys and girls were taken away from home at age three. Girls were given five years of schooling in Life Skills and Prospects, then went to work in a Training Factory, which usually made boy’s clothes and toys, while boys stayed in school until sixteen when they started Examinations and began looking for a women to care for them.
It was common for boys to begin with an older woman, one who was no longer fertile, and so couldn’t get them into trouble, while they learnt how to get relaxation and pleasure from women. Of course, the older women, despite those advantages, had competition from women my age, in their mid-twenties, who were more sexually appealing and desperate to get as young a Man as possible because there was more hope of them succeeding compared to the older Men. The odd, idiot girl became attached to an older Man, who was obviously a failure at Exams and Life. These types of couples were the laughing stock of Society.
Women stayed in Training Factory dormitories, where bed and board was covered, until around the age of thirteen. During that time we were given a small wage that we were supposed to eventually spend on things to make our home and ourselves appeal to Men – stockings or a kettle for example. We were told that if you brought a Man home and didn’t have a kettle or toilet paper, he would laugh at you and leave. They were used the comforts of their school dormitories. We left the dorm with enough money to rent a room and a suitcase full of practical things, ready to start looking for Men and find better jobs. When a woman first got out of the Training Factory dorms, the Men went crazy for her, especially if she hadn’t started menstruating. Usually they already lived with a woman who knew how to take care them, and just wanted to use you. One could only learn so much from School and Books about Men, so it was considered good experience to learn what sort of Men were out there and what they liked as long as you didn’t get pregnant or a disease. Some girls didn’t make it through their first year out of dormitories. I still became sad when I thought about the friends I had lost that way. After my first, I never went with any Man who didn’t have birth control, that’s how I survived. I met Rollo a few years after leaving dormitories, he was in his twenties and wise about birth control and sacrificed lots of nice things in order for me to have it, like higher grade tobacco and records.
Girls who hadn’t started to menstruate were called Cheaps, because they didn’t require birth control. There were some Men who hung around the factory dormitories looking for Cheaps. Many girls, myself included, slept with those Men so we could learn, and wouldn’t make fools of ourselves when we went out on our own to meet better Men to live with. Once in a while a girl died from the pain, so you had to be careful and not be too young or careless. It could also cause Nightmares, and a Man did not want to settle down with a girl who had Nightmares or was nervous.
Men liked stability and ease most of all, but still, there were those who only went for Cheaps and ruined lots of them.
I continued to gain weight and blamed it on Paul’s small appetite, until my period stopped. Pauline didn’t get a period on account of her anorexia. I started to wear jumpers over my dungarees to work, hoping no one would notice.
There wasn’t even a chance of registering our baby because Paul had no papers. There was something liberating in that, though the thought of pain and maybe even dying scared me. There would be no one to take care of Paul, and he had become so used to having a regular home.
Our neighbourhood wasn’t well off, so you didn’t see babies there, besides the dead ones in bins or wrapped up in cloth along the pavement. One weekend, in the early stages of my pregnancy, I took a tram to a better-off neighbourhood, where successful Men lived, to try to see some Mothers. And I did, pushing prams. They looked cautious, tired and blissful. I tried to peek into their prams to see a real, live baby, but I was shy. I could hear some of them crying and wondered how I could stop mine from making so much noise when it arrived.
The women had nice make-up, faces and clothes and, despite all the frightening trials ahead of me, I felt a mysterious excitement. They would have to give their children away aged three, but as long as I kept my child hidden, and alive, it was mine to keep.
The flea markets had all sorts of plastic dollies, carriages and colourful alphabet blocks but we were too afraid someone would notice us buying baby things and report us. Paul made a rubber-band ball, covered it with glue so no bands would become loose and swallowed by our child, and painted a red star on it.
He also sewed some wonderful dolls using old socks with colourful yarn from old jumpers for the hair, and drew cheery faces on them.
I gave birth on a Friday, after work. I had felt cramped and dizzy all day, and my Nightingales were all shaky. When I got home, I ate four boiled eggs, which made me feel worse, and a few hours later went to the bathroom where I had diarrhea and gave birth at the same time. I stuffed toilet paper in my mouth and chewed on it so I wouldn’t scream. I wrapped the little thing, no bigger than a hand, up in paper and ran back into the kitchen to wash it with warmed up water from the kettle and disinfectant.
It was a tiny, waxy child, like a little cheese rind, that barely ever cried. I think it knew by some survival instinct it wasn’t supposed to, and Paul was very attentive, feeding it milk and changing its rag diapers before it became upset. He was good with children, perhaps from reading so many children’s books.
We were too scared to name it properly so we just called it Waxy.
We decided that when our child was old and wise enough to choose its own real name, it could have one.
Waxy was so small, I thought at first that giving birth wasn’t much different from menstruating, but then I fainted the Monday back at work. They gave me the afternoon off and an extra ration of beef-flavoured bouillon, assuming I was anaemic. My afternoon off was bliss, I lay on our couch with Waxy tucked underneath my nightie, and Paul read us all his books, one after the other.
We left Waxy’s cord on until it became all brown and wilted and fell off. I flushed it down the toilet.
Paul wanted to use the fridge as a hidden nursery for Waxy, but I was too scared of Waxy suffocating. We found an old picnic basket at the flea market that had a lid with lots of holes in it. We put a doll and pillow inside, and Waxy seemed to like it alright. We hid the basket behind a large framed picture of an old Man with a beard, also from the flea market.
Paul went on long walks with Waxy bundled under his coat in a scarf, but I wouldn’t let him take Waxy to flea markets because of all the animals.
Women there sold toads, worms, and diseased-looking chickens without many feathers – I knew someone who died from buying one of those chickens and eating it; it was safest to eat meat from one’s Factory rations. Some people boiled and fried the toads. One could also find rats, pigeons, rabbits. You were a desperate woman if you were trying to sell those, but some people were stupid enough to buy them, especially baby rabbits.
I knew a girl who stuck an all-white pigeon feather in her hair because she thought it was rare and beautiful, but the feather was full of diseases and she went blind. Another girl bought a baby rabbit as a pet, , but it bit her and she died horribly.
There were women all around whose job it was to spray poison on wild animals; they had the worst skin and the thinnest hair. Very few of them had Men.
Once, Paul came home from one of his walks with an old cracker tin with a picture of a boy in a green jumper feeding jam-covered crackers to a hound dog. The tin was rectangular-shaped, house-like, and Paul kept going on about how wonderful it would be if it were house-sized and we could live inside happily ever after, with the hound dog to watch over us, and nice white crackers to eat.
The tin would get really hot and burn us, I told him, and it would be dark without windows. He became quiet, but soon seemed to forget about the tin. I used it to protect our coffee powder from vermin, but kept finding buttons, rolled up bits of paper and small plastic flowers inside.
I asked Paul about it and he told me that once someone gave him a slice of ginger-powder cake with a penny hidden inside and it was the best thing that ever happened to him before he met me. He thought it brought good luck and wouldn’t listen when I told him I could choke on one of the buttons.
When Waxy had wind, it opened its mouth in a strange silent howl. Paul covered one of his fingers in golden syrup and stuck it in the baby’s mouth to suck on like a soother, but one day it didn’t work and Waxy let out a horrible howl, its first one, the one it didn’t make when it was born, and I felt both elated it had made such a sound, and terribly frightened the neighbours would hear. Stuart did.
He pushed back our wool door and barged into our kitchen with his pipe in his mouth. He stared at Waxy, whom Paul was holding.
‘Pauline’s tobacco isn’t enough for me and her,’ he said, and took my tobacco tin off our table, leaving our kitchen without another look at Waxy.
Neither of us could sleep that night, Paul kept mumbling on about the cracker tin again, but Stuart didn’t report us the next day, nor did Pauline seem to know about our little one. However, on ration day, Stuart came into our kitchen and took my tobacco again, along with a tin of meat. After a couple of weeks he told us there was much better tobacco available in the world, like Goodes’ tobacco, for example, and we knew the Factory ration tobacco was no longer enough to keep him quiet. It really ate into our budget. Paul sold more forks and spoons, but we still couldn’t afford to buy bread anymore. We had to eat our eggs and meat without toast, and soon our eggs without meat. Stuart ate all of Pauline’s and our tinned meat. He came into our kitchen whenever he pleased to help himself to our coffee and margarine, though he had enough in his own room, and his meaty smell was unbearable.
Then Stuart became Sick.
They did not have enough money for medicine. Pauline blackmailed us into giving it to them. Paul and I had to sell all of our chairs and most of my clothes, including my red sandals and also some of Paul’s books. Being Sick without savings was foolish – every responsible person put away a bit of money from their Exams and jobs into a Sick savings pot – even I had, and used it to buy a small bottle of disinfectant for having Waxy.
They refused to sell their gramophone at the market, and Stuart kept it on all the time while he lay in bed and it used our entire ration of electricity. Pauline rubbed Stuart with disinfectant and gave him a terrible-smelling green syrup and little white vitamins but none of it helped and she threw the medicine away.
Taking out the garbage a couple of days after Stuart’s illness started, I noticed the meat tins piled up on our hall were punctured with tiny holes, they looked like little cages.
I didn’t know whether it was Pauline or Paul that did it. Paul seemed too innocent, and Pauline really did love Stuart.
She sat at his bedside, feeding him cups of plain boiled water, and wearing a blue scarf over her head, like in the picture she had of a woman wearing a red and blue coat surrounded by glitter and other nice things.
Pauline asked Paul to take Stuart water during the day when Pauline was at work, but I was never sure Paul did. He was so terrified of Waxy catching the Sickness that he kept our window open for fresh air, and spent as much time as possible out, with a few boiled eggs and a thermos of coffee in a knapsack, Waxy deep beneath his coat. There was always a huge, nasty mess for Pauline to clean when she got home from work, Stuart could never make it to the bathroom and most of the time could not keep food down. All he wanted to eat was tinned peaches and apples, Pauline made us give them ours and I was terribly worried about Paul not getting enough vitamin C, though the smell of thrown-up tinned peaches in the hall made Paul swear he would never eat them again.
Of course, Pauline couldn’t quit work, and Stuart died while she was away. She came home and he was all putrid and still. Two heavyset women wearing old baggy men’s suits came to take the body away. It cost an enormous amount and I had to pay for it. They gave Pauline harsh looks for allowing her Man to get Sick and die. One of the women was pockmarked, and both of them wore their hair in buns, one of them had brown powder in her hair, to make it look thicker than it was. I suppose there were lots of chemicals in their line of work and it ruined their hair and skin. Their shoes were heavy going down the steps, and Stuart’s body, wrapped in a green wool blanket, was terribly swollen.
The night after they took Stuart away I had a dream he was still alive, but his legs were made out of tinned meat. He said they were too fat and made me chew on them until they were thin and graceful, but still an awful red in colour, and terribly dry tasting. I woke up with a headache from dehydration, and Waxy, who was sleeping in a small crevice between us, had a filthy nappy. Poor Waxy’s little legs were skinny and pasty like Paul’s fingers. I kissed them and wept as I changed Waxy’s nappy on the kitchen table.
Pauline had the gramophone and lots of lingerie so she would have no trouble finding a new Man, but weeks went by without her bringing one home.
Since she rarely ate, she had a stockpile of tinned meat, tobacco, and other goods which she placed around Stuart’s gramophone, I think as a memorial. The eggs and apples rotted, it smelled horrible passing her room. Around the house she took to wearing Stuart’s old robe, her lingerie underneath, and a navy blue tam-o’-shanter. She lurked in the stairwell like a spider, and sometimes pawed at our wool door, asking for odd things, such as buttons, forks, and socks. She didn’t take any interest in Waxy, but we said yes to everything she asked, it was too dangerous for us to move anywhere else.
We couldn’t say no when she stuck her head through the side of our wool door and said in a loud whisper, ‘I’ve seen and heard you do Uncommon things to her, Paul, I want you to do them to me, or I’ll report you.’
She came into our kitchen wearing nothing underneath Stuart’s robe, which was turning all ratty, and I could see she was completely hairless. It made me think of an awful mixture of things: maggots, babies, eggs and old bread. ‘A Man registered for Exams wouldn’t know how to do things like that,’ she said. She took Paul by the hand and pulled him out. Waxy cried. So did I, once they were both out of the kitchen. When he came back he said it was like trying to eat cold worms. He drank five cups of coffee and kept trying to pick at Waxy’s cradle cap. Pauline asked him to do it almost every day. Paul wet our couch more frequently, and I woke up all the time sweaty from bad dreams.
I had a nightmare that Paul had nightingale written on his back and I couldn’t scrub it off no matter how hard I tried. The next morning, I had to look all over his body to find it but I couldn’t.
Paul doing things to Pauline would stop her from finding a new Man who would possibly report us, but I couldn’t stand how it made Paul feel.
One morning, before work, I went into the bathroom and discovered
pauline + paul
carved into the door frame.
I was very upset, so upset that Paul said he would change his name. He looked through his books and read all the names aloud:
But none of them were quite right.
His name was stuck to him like a tattoo. I liked the name Paul. If only there weren’t Paulines in the world. They were both thin with thin black hair, as if they had been made in the same Factory. If Paul, Waxy and I just got up and left she would report us, and we would be chased. We really started to hate our home, we felt trapped inside. Paul said it was like living in the belly of a toad, and that Pauline was like a nasty tongue that licked everything so it smelled like her. She demanded more and more time with Paul, he had to spend his whole evenings and nights with her. It gave Waxy colic; I had to bang pots and sing so the other neighbours wouldn’t hear the crying. I didn’t get any sleep and got in trouble at work for writing Night, Night, Night, Night on four sewing machines, forgetting the rest of the word.
Paul acted morose around her, he just stood or sat and sulked when he wasn’t making love to her in Uncommon ways, but Pauline acted horribly silly, laughing and playfully slapping him and putting bits of golden syrup on her face with a spoon which she made Paul kiss off.
We needed to make her even with us. If she had a baby too, she couldn’t report ours, Paul decided. Then we could run away and live the type of Life he had had before, lurking and hiding but free of Pauline, who would hopefully throw herself down the stairs or out the window if she didn’t die from birth or shame.
I told him it was impossible, Pauline couldn’t have babies because she was too thin. Paul said we just have to fatten her up like the witches do to children in the fairy tales he used read to me when we had more time together.
Paul started to have sex with her in the common manner, he was able to make her want to do it with him by being less morose and giggling along with her sometimes. He didn’t mind doing it the common way as he did doing Uncommon tricks, because it was to hurt Pauline in the end.
Having sex the common way made Pauline feel sentimental, I think. She started to eat a little more, but it wasn’t enough. One weekend morning, I stood in the bathroom with my dungarees pulled down, examining my breasts in the mirror. They were all swollen with milk, and Paul stood watching me and fondling himself just as Pauline came upstairs. We had planned it out that way.
He convinced her to eat bread soaked in milk, tinned peach juice and golden syrup, boiled eggs and coffee with milk, often bringing it to her while she was naked in bed. She started to grow. The new fat did not look very nice on her. Her hair didn’t get any thicker. I thought she looked like a sweet bun with hairs and pigeon’s eyeballs stuck to it. She started to fill out her lingerie, and Paul tried to act very enthusiastic and In Love, but when he was lying beside me on our couch he would say in a flat voice, ‘I hate her, I hate her,’ until he got so riled up he had to walk in circles around our kitchen, clapping his hands, until it was time for me to go to work.
We both felt better the day she came home from work with a blood stain on the seat of her dungarees that she was unaware of. When she got undressed, she screamed and said Paul was trying to murder her. She ran around with blood dribbling down her thighs and on her hands, Paul had to clean it off her then placate her in bed with sweet songs and kisses.
She told Paul she could no longer do it the common way with him, because she didn’t want to have a You-Know-What. Paul and I decided we would have to make her pregnant whether she liked it or not. One evening, Paul put one of Stuart’s old Tchaikovsky records on, a rather nice waltz, so the neighbours wouldn’t when hear he went up behind her, grabbed her neck and pushed her onto her bedroom floor, forcing himself inside her. After, he held her feet and made her do a headstand so all the stuff he put inside her would trickle deep down inside her like golden syrup.
I told him to do it twice, just in case. He hit her until she was unconscious and did it a third time while I packed up the things we needed. He put a blanket over her head in case she woke up and saw us leaving. We put Waxy in a carpetbag, and floppy hats on our heads, and crept down the stairs of the house like ants carrying crumbs. We walked in no particular direction, avoiding the bright and flashing Exam signs, Men smoking and arguing underneath them, crumpled notepaper between their fists.
As it became colder, we went into an alley, took Waxy out of the carpetbag, and put the little thing under Paul’s coat. We longed to stop for a coffee somewhere, but we were too afraid. Paul and I put socks on our hands to keep them warm, since we didn’t own mittens. They made us look fingerless, like Paul’s homemade dolls. He started to go on again about the cracker tin, which was tied to his back with string since it didn’t fit in his suitcase. My knapsack sagged with home-made nappies, tins of fruit and extra jumpers.
‘We just need to find a safe place to put it down so we can live in it,’ Paul repeated every few minutes.
‘I told you before, Paul, it’s too small.’
‘You never know what may happen,’ he said in a very grand, serious voice, and I was too tired to contradict him anymore. I could smell Waxy underneath his coat, like a rancid molar in the back of one’s mouth.
We walked and walked, and as the sun came out, the regular time I went to work, I knew I would never paint the word Nightingale again. So I said it out loud again and again until things felt calm, nice and sure.
‘Night-in-gale, Night-in-gale, Night-in-gale.’
Camilla Grudova’s ‘Waxy’ appears in The Dolls Alphabet, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions in February 2017.
Photograph © Internet Archive Book Images