The lust of an old man is disgusting but the lust of an old woman is worse. Everyone knows that. Certainly, Susan knew it.
Susan was a woman who had never put a foot over the line. Susan, though indisputably plain, had landed a handsome, solvent husband. Susan had grunted and gasped her way through thirty years of marital congress, as she assumed all women did, for really, what was the point of sex? Susan had conceived her children without difficulty and delivered them promptly. Susan, who had loved them in the same efficient and slightly distant manner in which she herself had been loved, was known to be lucky for there had never been any big problems in her life.
She was always called Susan, never Sue or Susie, for there was something about her that called for a formal regard; she was slightly aloof, as though apart from ordinary, mortal mess. Susan sat in her bed in the hospital wing of the geriatric unit with her hair combed and a paperback (high on the list of bestselling novels) open in her clean hands and, two weeks after her eighty-sixth birthday, looked at the young woman who was reaching up to change a light bulb and felt lust stirring within her withered loins.
That last statement is not only an unforgivable cliché but is also not strictly true. Lust as everyone knows has many different forms and when something is completely new to us we have yet to learn to recognise it. What happened to Susan was that she felt tears spring into her eyes and her heart began to thud in an unfamiliar way. It is because I am old she told herself, for whenever she had been able to find a reason for something she felt better. Maybe I am dying, she said to herself, and reflected as usual that that would solve a number of problems.
However, even as she dismissed her feelings, her eyes were drawn back to Miffy’s long golden arms, which were as smooth and shiny as syrup as they reached upwards towards the light fitting and she watched Miffy’s long golden hair slide further down her back as she struggled to get the bulb into place and then her eyes moved over Miffy’s body as it wiggled and jiggled with the effort of her task; over her breasts, over her waist, over her stomach and down to her thighs as she thought, ‘So that is what youth is.’
And she could see how utterly beautiful a young body can be, how shapely, how proportionate, how cleverly curved, how lithe and graceful and just miraculous. And she began to wonder if it was possible that, once, she had had that look? And tangled up with these thoughts was another new and very troubling feeling: Susan longed to touch Miffy. Touch everything. She wanted to reach out and move her hands over the young woman’s breasts and around her back and into the curve of her waist and out over the curve of her hips and around to the curve of her . . . and here Susan had to stop. And then she was filled with shame, with a deep, deep shame handed down to her by the many years of British middle-class Protestant womanhood that had preceded her own upbringing. Susan knew it was important to be, above all, ladylike. It was not proper, it was never proper, to think in certain ways, to dress or eat or drink or speak in certain ways. And fantasies such as these were outrageously, dreadfully wrong. They were plain wrong, she told herself. They were disgusting. And Susan moved her eyes away from Miffy, who had anyway, by now, managed to get the bulb in place, and she again focused her eyes on the pages of her insipid book.
It has to be said, that, because she had, in a sense, never been used, Susan was far better-looking in her old age than in her youth. There was about her the rather cold virtue of undamaged porcelain; as though she had been locked away in a cabinet behind a glass door and it would have been true to say that, in many ways, she had never been touched. She was a small woman with well-cut hair and, in a useful metaphor for her life, since she had always worn rubber gloves for all her household tasks, her hands were still young hands with delicate fingers and smooth pink nails.
It was these hands as they held the book that caught Miffy’s eye as she reassembled herself, pulling her uniform back into shape and laughing at the effort she had had to make. And then she saw the bedside table with its glass of water, its decanter, its comb, all neatly laid out; she saw the dreadful book and the tired and anxious face that bent above it and then she looked again at the hands as though recognising that this husk of a person was once a delicate and lovely woman.
It was as though she were standing beside a bonfire of some sort and a small ember shot upwards, fell through the air and burst into light within her heart and sparked with its heat a glow of compassion.
She moved over to Susan’s bed, making those immemorial gestures of care and concern, patting pillows, smoothing sheets, tucking in blankets, batting away from the covers anything that might harm or inconvenience the occupant of the bed. And as she did this she said, ‘How are you today, Mrs Stallworthy?’
Susan, who was an inheritor of and believer in hierarchies and who did not believe in associating with the staff, found herself compelled to say, ‘Very well, thank you, Miffy. You had quite a struggle with that light bulb, didn’t you?’
She looked at Miffy’s hand, resting on the coarse weave of the washed-out hospital blanket, and remembered that once upon a time, as a treat, at teatime, she would be allowed hot-buttered toast with Lyle’s Golden Syrup, and as the butter dripped off the warm toast beneath the sheen of the liquid syrup, it was exactly that colour; the colour of Miffy’s skin. And Susan had to stop herself reaching out to touch it and almost, she thought, confusedly, from putting it to her mouth.
She lowered her eyes in case Miffy saw the desire in them but Miffy was laughing now.
‘Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. We were told we had to get a bloke from maintenance to do it but if we had waited for him it would have been weeks. And we have to have our light, don’t we, Mrs Stallworthy?’
Then, glancing at the name card above Susan’s bed, she added, ‘Or may I call you Susan?’
Miffy’s voice was soft and lilting, emphasising the second syllable. Susan loved the sound of her own name in Miffy’s mouth.
‘I call you Miffy,’ she smiled. And thus it turned out that the bonfire was real and well and truly lit and so the two women were now at risk from the flames. That was not, however, clear at the start. All that Miffy thought as she left was what a sweet, sad person Susan was and how much she wanted to be able to console and look after her. Meanwhile Susan was looking at the tea tray that had been put in front of her, trying to remember what it was like to be sitting there looking at it before this encounter with Miffy, for Susan had an analytical mind and she could tell that something irreversible had occurred. If she had known it was love she would have been surprised; if she had been told that it was lust she would have been horrified. Fortunately, lust continued to conceal itself beneath an urgent longing to see Miffy again accompanied by a faint and wistful hope that next time she might be allowed to touch her hand. Being a naturally secretive person, or perhaps a private person would be a better description, she was accustomed to saying nothing of how she felt, however like all lovers who have stumbled upon the glory of their emotions for the first time she was also bursting with the knowledge and longing to share it.
The following day Stephen came to visit his mother. Stephen was a careful man. He worked as an economist in Geneva for the UN. He could say little about his work but he was by nature quite like his mother so that suited him too. He was married to Cynthia who was an unremarkable but kind wife.
‘Poor thing,’ she had said quite reasonably, ‘She needs visitors. There will be nothing else to cheer her up.’
Susan had never paid much attention to the reasons for her incarceration in what she thought of as the Care Home. She knew it was reasonable that she should be there and that it was carefully chosen by her sons. During the preceding months she had had a couple of falls and there had been a suspicion of a small stroke. Tests confirmed it.
Nor had she ever paid much attention to her body other than keeping it clean and appropriately clothed. Now she looked at it with dismay. She saw how the furrowed skin hung in dry folds from her arms and how the skin on her thighs was churned into scaly patches. On her stomach were thin layers of pallid flesh where she had lost ten pounds after the first fall. Although the initial speculation was a little TIA as the doctors called it, she had lost weight without meaning to and so the C-word was mentioned. Once she had thought it would be a relief to shed this unrewarding shell but now, since it was the only medium through which she could contact Miffy, she did not want to lose it. Concern and revulsion mingled in an unhappy combination. Thinking of asking Miffy if she could hold her hand made Susan feel suddenly ashamed of this misshapen ugly body. Such are the perils of love and lust; better to feel nothing, but it was too late for Susan. The fire had been lit.
She wondered if she could communicate some of this to Stephen who, undoubtedly, loved and cared for her. Stephen, unaware of the tumult of his mother’s emotions, looked kindly at her.
‘How are you, Mum? Things OK around here? Are they looking after you?’
‘Yes, indeed. There are some very nice members of staff.’
‘You getting to know them?’ He was surprised.
‘I hope they are properly trained? I don’t want just anyone nursing you, Mum.’
‘Oh no, she helps in the wards. Talks to the old people . . .’ Susan’s voice trailed away.
‘Let me know if she becomes too familiar; I don’t want anyone stepping out of line.’
‘How ill am I, Stephen?’
‘Don’t you worry about that. You just focus on getting better.’
Susan stared at him from behind the barriers that lay between them; the years of indifferent affection and the undemanding conversations that swerved away from intimacy or distress. He patted her hand.
‘I’ll let Mickey know you would like to see him. He’s good at knowing this kind of stuff.’ Mickey was the younger son and a lawyer.
In many ways, although she had never really defined it like this, Mickey was her favourite. He too had been reared in her diffident fashion but when Gerald had got angry with her, it was Mickey who had said, ‘Oh come off it, Dad. That’s just Mum. You know she doesn’t mean any harm.’
Had she not meant harm?
It was so difficult to know.
Meanwhile, as Susan was struggling with these new sensations, Miffy was enjoying her familiar ones. She was naked and sitting cross-legged on the bed watching her new boyfriend in the shower. She was damp with love and desire and was holding her head back and running her hands through her tangled hair just because it felt so good to do so as her fingers scraped against her scalp and her hair bounced onto her shoulders. She was so pulsing with energy and imminent passion that her eyes were shining and her skin was glowing.
‘Hurry up,’ she said, but Ant did not hear her through the pouring water.
In part her surge of pity for Susan had arisen from the superfluity of sensual delights her current life offered her. She would have been as responsive to a lost kitten or an abandoned puppy: she felt full, full of good things, full of happy sweet things; she felt she was overflowing with good fortune and luck and happiness and when she saw the small sad woman cowering in her tidy bed beside her tidy bedside table she had wanted to scoop her up and cuddle her. She had tried to explain something of this to Ant who had said, ‘Yuck, Miffy. How can you want to touch them? They are so old; they smell disgusting.’
‘No worse than you,’ she had laughed, pushing him away. ‘Go and have a shower.’
Sometimes the gods are kind and resolve our desires with an extraordinary and abundant generosity. When Miffy returned the following afternoon she brought with her a toilet bag full of what she described as ‘my goodies’. She sat on the bed and took Susan’s left hand in her own gentle hands and stroked it thoughtfully; turning it over to examine the palm as though she would peer into Susan’s soul. Then she sighed and took out a nail file and began to shape Susan’s fingernails, saying, ‘You really have the loveliest hands, Susan.’
She softened the cuticles and tidied up the nails, as she said, ‘You really do not have much that needs doing’. She massaged an aromatic cream into Susan’s hand and then wiped and painted the nails a brilliant scarlet. ‘What do you think, Susan? You should show them off. You have lovely long nailbeds.’
Then Miffy took the other hand and started on that.
Susan looked at the top of Miffy’s head; at the narrow parting from which the blonde hair fell in what she wanted to describe as sheaves of gold. She is made of gold, she said to herself, and wondered if she were beginning to dement. She laid her painted hand on the white sheets and thought it looked wildly exotic and fascinating. When Miffy left she gave Susan the hand cream. ‘I love the scent, don’t you?’ Susan went to sleep clutching it in her hand.
The following day Mickey came to visit. Susan looked at Mickey’s cheerful face.
‘I’ve brought us a treat, Mum.’ He took two small tumblers and a half-quart bottle from his knapsack. The whisky burnt her throat and she had never really liked the taste but she loved the air of conspiracy that this introduced between them.
‘Mickey, the strangest thing has happened.’
‘What, in here?’ and he looked around with a comical air of disbelief.
She wanted to say, ‘I think I’ve fallen in love,’ but the words died in her throat. She took another sip.
‘I’ve met someone.’
Mickey looked at his mother and saw nothing but the weary old face, its features worn out as though already partially erased by time. He dreaded her dying but it would in some ways simplify life. He and Abby were not getting on, there was a girl in the office, but he did not want to open that particular can of worms.
‘Who have you met then?’
The unbridgeable distance lay between them. She feared mockery. She feared disbelief. But more than anything she feared his disgust.
‘One of the nurses. She used to work at Pauline’s. You know. The hairdresser.’ How easily and smoothly these words fell off her tongue. Where did she learn to dissemble so efficiently? Living with Gerald, of course. Never letting how she felt show. Or almost never.
‘That’s nice. Another drop?’
She accepted it. She would always accept anything Mickey had to offer and be grateful.
Susan’s new room was one of the best in the ward. After their visits, her sons had insisted that she needed a private room. It was on the corner of the building with wide windows in two walls and it got the afternoon sun. Each afternoon Susan would watch the square of sunlight move across the floor and wonder when Miffy would step into it again. She found that her mind was full of Miffy and she had formed a list of questions she wanted to ask her. The most important was always, ‘When will I see you again?’ but she was afraid of seeming too demanding. She diligently rubbed the cream into her hands, separating the fingers as Miffy had done and massaging between them.
The following morning when the doctor was doing his rounds Susan was not sitting up as neatly and tidily as usual. He requested some tests. Mickey was away from home at a conference for a few days but Stephen picked up the call in Geneva and said he would be over as soon as possible.
Susan’s face had collapsed on one side. Stephen looked at her with alarm.
‘You may be a great-grandmother soon, Mum.’
Susan would never have taken much pleasure in this. She had never been very fond of babies. She was glad of course that her sons were sensibly married to reliable wives and had stable families. The fact that the grandchildren were now starting to reproduce was admirable in many ways, however she could not quite see how that would concern her.
‘That’s nice,’ she said.
‘Julia is expecting a baby next year. We hope you’ll be up and about by then.’
Susan’s heart was squeezed by fear. Surely she would not have to go home? Suddenly, like watching a sunrise, she saw through the partly open door a slim golden shape.
Stephen who was sitting in the armchair turned his head and saw a young woman who was hesitating in the doorway.
‘I’m afraid we’re busy,’ he said.
Miffy vanished. From Susan’s eyes fell great tears.
‘She is my life,’ she said to Stephen who noted this as being an aspect of the disturbing behaviour that he had been warned his mother might start to exhibit.
When Stephen had left, Miffy came back into the room and sat on the side of the bed. She looked at Susan’s wet face.
‘I think I am dying, Miffy. No one will tell me.’
‘Are you afraid of dying?’
‘I wasn’t until I met you. Now I am. Miffy, I signed something. I can’t remember what it says. I don’t know what they are going to do.’
‘I will find out,’ said Miffy. And she leant forward and patted Susan’s face with a tissue as she promised that she would come to see her the following day and bring the information.
Twenty-four hours later and Susan was sitting up in bed watching the sunlight that was sweeping into the room. It was a soft, primrose-coloured light; flattering every surface, gentling the corners of the angular hospital furniture. Meanwhile Miffy, normally quite a law-abiding person, was opening the filing cabinet she was not allowed to open in the office that she was forbidden to enter. Knowing that she would see Miffy soon was for Susan both a joy and a burden; the waiting was terrible.
Miffy was a little breathless, more from anxiety than any exertion, when she ran along the corridor to the room. ‘I think it says, Susan, I am so sorry, but I think it says that you do not want to be resuscitated. It has your signature, like you said.’
Susan could remember the conversations with Gerald and herself as her sons held out the living will for her to sign. How readily we decide to dispense with a life when there is nothing left to use it for, she thought.
‘Don’t cry,’ Miffy said to Susan. ‘I’m sure they don’t bother to read them.’
She sat on the edge of the bed and the sunlight wrapped her in gold as she took Susan’s hand. ‘How are your nails doing? Still OK?’
‘I have so many questions,’ said Susan, ‘Why are you called Miffy?’
‘Myfanwy. My family is Welsh.’
‘I think your skin is like syrup.’
As Miffy was laughing, Susan ran her hands with their beautiful nails down the sides of Miffy’s face across her cheekbones, around her mouth and into the contours of her neck and then she spread her fingers over Miffy’s shoulders beneath the uniform. Her fingertips seemed to have grown an extra layer of sensation; it was as if she could read through them. She shut her eyes and felt the small pulse in the indentation of Miffy’s collarbone. It seemed to her that she had never before known what life was.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ said Miffy. ‘I don’t want you to be afraid. Do you believe in God?’
‘When I look at you, Miffy, I . . . yes . . . I believe in God.’
Miffy looked at Susan’s face, ardent with longing, and then, in turn, as an infant mimics its mother, she placed her hands on either side of Susan’s face and drew it towards her own. She pressed her lips against Susan’s and then, as she drew back she saw an expression in Susan’s eyes which meant that she again pressed her lips against Susan’s and parted her lips so that her tongue could slide between Susan’s parched lips. A shiver ran through Susan. A silver sliver of a shiver. A shimmering simmering glissando of joy. Lifted on a great wave of happiness, Susan said, ‘Miffy, I love you. Please don’t leave me.’
Smiling, Miffy placed her hands gently on Susan’s shoulders. ‘What do you think? Should we run away together?’
‘I could afford to keep us,’ said Susan.
‘And I could look after you,’ said Miffy.
And they stared into each other’s eyes, knowing that they neither could nor would escape their respective fates: for they were not, of course, the first star-crossed dreamers to be defeated by affection, duty and habit. Nor would they be the last.
‘Will you come back tomorrow, Miffy?’
‘I promise. I promise I will see you tomorrow.’
That evening as the sunlight withdrew leaving her room full of the mystical undertones of twilight, Susan lay there bathed in bliss. Slowly as the gentle light faded, a full moon appeared banding the room with silver. Susan held her hands up in the ghostly light. She admired her beautiful pale hands: she watched them twisting and twining, plaiting the streams of light; so her mind ran on, playing with images, poetry, dreams. Plaiting the moonbeams. I must tell Miffy, she thought. I will say, ‘I was plaiting the moonbeams’, and she could see Miffy smile as though she were still sitting beside her. Full of remembered moments with her loved one, confident of the loved one’s return, she was suspended in a between-world of bliss; radiant, weightless, happy. She had never known such a feeling of peace. Feeling therefore happy and peaceful she also felt very, very sleepy. She gave her hands with their long scarlet nail beds one final appreciative glance and then turned onto her left side and placing one scented hand under her left cheek she curled up her legs into the shape she was in her mother’s womb. In her right hand she held the empty tube of hand cream. Tomorrow Miffy would bring her a new one. She fell asleep and slept deeply with a smile on her lips.
At the end of the night shift the alarm was raised by the duty nurse. It appeared that Susan had experienced a massive cardiac event during the night and had died in her sleep. How fortunate she had been, everyone said, and would repeat endlessly over the next few days. How lucky Susan had been. We should all be so lucky as to die as swiftly and simply as that.
By 2 p.m. all trace of Susan had been removed from the room and when Miffy ran along the corridor she stopped in the doorway and then sat down quickly on the edge of the empty bed, gulping, trying to breathe for it seemed as though her chest was being squashed and her head might explode. When she had regained control she walked along to the office where they told her that Susan had died in the night. She was very lucky, they said. She didn’t suffer. It was time for her to go.
‘Did you . . .’ Miffy started to ask but she knew she would not get an answer so she walked out into the car park where she stood for a long time trying to remember why she was there. After a while she moved to the bus stop and caught the bus home where she tried to explain to Ant why she was crying. Why she could not stop crying. Ant, who was a primary-school teacher and would therefore have known a lot about empathy, listened patiently to her story.
‘Old people die,’ he said, between her sobs, for old people to him were a race apart.
‘They die, Miffy. Often it is a blessed relief to them. And to their families.’
And then later in her story, ‘I can’t believe that, Miffy. That is just gross. So gross. What were you thinking of? That’s not exactly in your job description. Come on, Miffy. Please stop crying.’
Eventually, Miffy realised she was alone with this experience.
‘They die, Miffy. She had had a good long life! She had a family. You said her sons looked after her. She was a very lucky old woman.’
Miffy wept and wept.
‘You didn’t fucking kiss her? An old woman like that?’
Once again Miffy found herself gulping for air as though under water.
The following day she went back to the geriatric unit to say that she had recognised that this work was not for her and she would not be coming in any more. She was warned that abandoning her work-experience commitment like that did not look good on a young person’s CV; she would find it hard to get another placement. Miffy said she didn’t care. She walked down the corridor and in the sun-filled room she saw a stranger in Susan’s bed. She walked home instead of taking the bus and as she walked a dry wind sprang up and whisked an annoying strand of hair into her eyes.
‘I will get it cut tomorrow,’ she said to herself.
Meanwhile, the sons had been told that their mother had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest. It was likely she had not been in pain. There were no signs of distress and she had not rung the bell, which was well within reach; she had not called out or indicated that she needed help in any way. She was found lying on her side with an empty tube of hand cream clutched in her right hand; the only unusual feature. The staff on night duty had assiduously checked her throughout the night. She had, of course, had the usual medication. Her sons expressed relief at their mother’s lack of suffering and together fulfilled all the necessary requirements for a cremation. An inoffensive humanist ceremony preceded it and the sons and the clusters of their families were all there as well as some remote cousins people mostly forgot about.
What a pity, they all said, that she did not live long enough to see her first great-grandchild. It would have given her something to live for. What a shame. It would have made her so happy. If only she had seen Julia’s baby. She would have enjoyed that, poor dear. But how fortunate she was to go like that. Really, how lucky. We should all be so lucky.
After the ceremony, the brothers collected the urn containing her ashes and Stephen placed it next to Gerald’s. Mickey looked at the urn anxiously but Stephen said, ‘Oh, come on. He can’t hurt her now.’
As they walked back to the car Mickey said, ‘We did do everything we could for her, didn’t we?’
‘Of course we did,’ said Stephen.
Artwork © Charlotte Harris, Untitled, (2003)