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An Ordinary WomanAlan Bennett
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Vol. 42 No. 14 · 16 July 2020

An Ordinary Woman

A Monologue by Alan Bennett

4012 words

An ordinary kitchen. Gwen, a middle-aged wo­man, talks to the camera.

He​  pulled up his trousers.

‘You are nice to me,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t have shown it to anybody else.’

I said, ‘Well, I hope you haven’t been doing.’

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Not much chance of that. No demand at the moment.’

He’d come home from school looking a bit down and retreats upstairs to his room and doesn’t even bother to raid the fridge, by which I take it something’s amiss. He plays his music for a bit and I’m ironing when he comes down barefoot and sits at the table watching me, which is an event in itself. Suddenly he gets up and says, ‘Mum, I’m going to show you this, but it’ll be the last time you’ll ever see it.’

And he undoes his trousers and pulls down his shorts.

He said, ‘Now, what’s that?’

Well, it was nothing. I couldn’t even see where he meant until he points it out, just a bit of a spot. Only it was the other I couldn’t get over. I hadn’t been keeping track and I don’t know when I last saw it exactly, but he can’t have been much more than twelve. And he’s only fifteen now but you wouldn’t know.

He said, ‘Are you sure?’

I said, ‘Michael. It’s a spot, love, that’s all it is,’ and I got him some stuff to put on.

He gets his trousers up sharp.

He said, ‘Don’t tell Dad.’

‘Why should I tell Dad? Why should I tell Dad anything?’

‘And don’t tell our Maureen.’

‘As if,’ I said (which is what he’s always saying).

‘I don’t want my private parts mulled over by my sister.’ He’s getting some pie from the fridge.

I said, ‘Wash your hands.’

He said, ‘You said it was nothing.’

I said, ‘It is nothing but wash your hands.’

*

It’s an aerodrome we go to, disused. We shouldn’t but he’s only fifteen so it would be illegal anywhere else, and I’m not altogether sure it’s legal there, but it’s off the road and he’s desperate to start driving. His dad’s not keen but he doesn’t have the patience to teach him anyway.

I nearly killed him though today. There was a lad gunning his motorbike about and Michael nearly went into him, scraped him. It was my fault. I should have been looking in the mirror. He scarcely touched us, this lad, and just belted off, only I had my hand gripping Michael’s leg I was so shocked. And he was trembling. He said, ‘Mum, let go my leg.’ I said, ‘I hope it hasn’t scratched the bodywork.’ He said, ‘It’s my bodywork I’m bothered about, let go my leg.’ Anyway, there was only a tiny mark on the bumper. I couldn’t hardly see it, only I said I’d tell Dad it was me that was driving.

I’d brought a flask, so we sat there on this runway having some coffee. I said, shouted actually, with having his music on, ‘Is this what they call “quality time”?’

And he nods, though whether at me or the music I couldn’t tell. And then he’s looking at his phone.

Later on, Maureen saw me checking the bumper. She said, ‘Is that a scratch?’ 

‘No, it fucking well isn’t,’ Michael said. ‘And anyway Mum was driving.’

He winks at me. And I wink back, only I can’t wink so just screwed my face up.

He looks more than fifteen.

Thinking about it afterwards, I didn’t see the bike because I was looking at Michael’s hands on the wheel and thinking how much nicer they are than my hands.

*

‘John Lennon,’ Michael said. ‘That’s the first thing Mum remembers, him being shot.’

I said, ‘Is it?’

‘Well, that’s what you told me.’

Maureen is doing her homework. ‘It’s Miss Macaulay,’ said Michael. ‘Milestones. We did it two years ago.’

‘It’s Mum I have to ask,’ said Maureen. ‘Not you.’

‘It’s true, love,’ I said. ‘I do remember that.’

‘I don’t think Miss Macaulay is into the Beatles. Who else got shot? Martin Luther King. Do you remember that? Because that’s more up her street.’

‘That,’ said his lordship, scratching his armpit, ‘is because she’s a lesbian.’

‘She never is,’ Maureen said. ‘She’s got a friend in Lawnswood.’

‘Sure,’ says Michael. ‘A lady friend.’

I said, ‘Stop it, the pair of you, or you’ll do your homework upstairs.’ I can’t bear it when he starts bickering. One minute he’s so grown up, the next he’s back to being ten years old.

‘I’m sorry, precious,’ and he puts on his caring voice and starts stroking her arm.

‘Don’t touch me,’ Maureen says. ‘Most sex crimes are committed in the family. Anybody touches me, that’s a crime.’

‘I shouldn’t worry,’ he says. ‘Nobody’s going to.’

‘What?’

‘Touch you.’

‘Nobody’s going to touch you either.’

‘Oh, really?’ he says. ‘How do you know they haven’t already?’

I put my hands over my ears and really lost it.

‘Stop it. Stop it. Leave each other alone.’ That shut them both up and she goes off upstairs, crying as usual.

I said, ‘If anybody does touch you . . .’

He said, ‘What’s this “anybody”? Do you mean a girl? Because it’s not going to be anybody else.’

I said, ‘Promise me, if a girl does touch you . . . I mean, properly . . . you won’t tell me.’

He says, ‘Don’t worry. I won’t. Why?’

‘Because I don’t want to know.’

‘Anyway,’ he says, ‘they won’t.’

I said, ‘They will. They’ll be all over you.’

‘I hate this type of conversation,’ he says, and charges off upstairs. Whereupon Maur­een comes down, having been listening.

‘I’ll tell you,’ she says.

‘Tell me what?’

‘If anything’s going on, with him.’

‘I don’t want you to tell me. I don’t want you to tell me anything. Though you must tell me if anything happens with you.’

‘It won’t,’ she says. ‘I put people off.’

At which point Dad arrives home and we send out for a curry. I let them get on with it, only Michael says, ‘Are you not having any?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘It doesn’t always agree with me. I’ll just have a bit of cheese and an apple.’

‘More for us,’ says Dad.

Later I’m stacking the dishwasher while Dad is next door watching the news. Suddenly Michael says, ‘Mum. I know what’s going on. I’m fifteen. I know what’s happening.’

I said, ‘Well, I’m 42 and I don’t. What is going on?’

‘You’re having an affair. There are all the signs. New hairdo. Lipstick.’

I said, ‘There’s no law against lipstick.’

‘And slimming,’ he said.

I laughed.

He said, ‘It’s not the menopause?’

I said, ‘It’s a bit soon for that. Anyway, what do you know about the menopause?’

He said, ‘We did it in Social Hygiene. Anyway, that’s a relief.’

‘Why?’

‘Well, I don’t go for all that father and son shit but I’d still have felt sorry for Dad.’

He wanted his shirt washing. I said, ‘There’s a clean one upstairs.’

Only he likes this one.

‘Stand by,’ he says and takes it off and I put it on a quick wash.

I said, ‘You’ve got lovely skin.’

He said, ‘So they tell me.’

I said, ‘Who? Girls?’ 

He said, ‘Well, not boys.’

He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong, is there?’

I said, ‘No.’ 

‘Because you’re thinner.’

I said, ‘That’s good, isn’t it?’

He said, ‘I like you the way you are.’

‘Fat, you mean?’

‘No. Comfortable. Adam’s mother’s got thin. It’s painful. I don’t know why they do it. What does Dad think?’

‘Oh, he won’t have noticed.’

He put his hands on his head and watches me while I ironed his shirt. I looked away.

He said, ‘Did you look away then?’

I said, ‘No.’

He said, ‘I look all right, though.’

I said, ‘You look lovely.’

He said, ‘I wish somebody else thought so.’

‘Who?’

‘Anybody.’

Then Maureen has to go and come down because I haven’t ironed her PE stuff. Michael said, ‘It was lovely till you turned up’, and clears off to his room.

Pause.

Fifteen, so I suppose he wanks. 

I lie in bed and his bed’s just on the other side of the wall, but I never hear anything.

*

He doesn’t smell. He doesn’t smell at all. His T-shirts feel a bit stale and they smell of him but they don’t smell. I didn’t think this could happen. I thought there was something, genes or something, that gave you im­munity. I can see how you could quite easily fall for your stepson, say, somebody who’s joined the family, but not your own child. I thought that was inbred. I’m lying there on his bed with all his things piled on top of me. I think I was actually chewing his T-shirt when I heard something downstairs and it’s our Maureen back from school early. Asbestos in the art room. I manage to get the clothes all into the basket and into our bedroom before she comes upstairs. She said, ‘Why is our Michael’s door open?’ I said, ‘I’m getting the washing. Have you got anything?’ She said, ‘I thought you did it yesterday. Why are you all undone at the front?’ I said, ‘It’s just something I took off to put in the wash, what do you want for your tea?’

Later on I went over to see Louisa. She still smokes so we adjourned to the end of the garden, and I said how nice Michael was being.

She said, ‘They are at that age. Just before they take off. Ricky’s the same. I can’t look at him sometimes, I fancy him that much.’ And she laughs, as if this is the most normal thing in the world. I said, ‘Does he know?’

‘That I fancy him? Course. I tell him. I tell him all the time.’

‘And doesn’t he mind?’ 

She said, ‘No. It was him that said it, he caught me looking at him out of the bath and he said, “You fancy me, don’t you?” I said, “Don’t flatter yourself.”’

‘But he was suited, you could see.’

‘Michael wouldn’t be,’ I said. ‘Though he tells me everything.’

‘No, he doesn’t, love. They never do.’

Coming away, I wish I hadn’t said anything. She makes it seem so dirty. 

I could never tell him. 

Only I have to tell somebody.

*

I’m not religious but I thought I could go and see the vicar, only I got off on the wrong foot because a woman comes to the door with her Marigolds on. I said, ‘Is the vicar in?’

She said, ‘Yes.’

I said, ‘Could I see him?’

She said, ‘It’s not a him. It’s a her. Come in. I’m just making some jam.’

She doesn’t have a collar on and I thought with her being a woman it might be easier, only to begin with I just sat there not knowing where to start.

She said, ‘How can I help you?’ Glued to the Aga.

I said, ‘I’m not sure you can. It’s my son.’

She said, ‘Has he done something wrong?’

I said, ‘No. Nobody’s done anything wrong. Are you sure it’s not burning?’

She said, ‘It needs a good rolling boil. It’s blackberry. Is that a good rolling boil?’

I said, ‘I don’t know. We generally have bought jam. I’ve always wanted an Aga.’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s a godsend, though I suppose I shouldn’t say that.’

I said, ‘Why?’

‘With being a vicar. Godsend. How old is he, your son?’

‘Fifteen. Though he looks older.’

‘They all look older now. I’ve got a partner. Didn’t you used to work at the library?’

‘I did.’

‘Sad, that going.’

‘It is,’ I said. ‘I miss it. The thing is . . . I love my son.’

‘Well, he’s your son. I hope you do.’

‘No. I mean . . . I’m in love with him. Only I’m just an ordinary woman.’

‘Nobody’s ordinary in the sight of God.’

That didn’t seem to me to get us any further, so I said, ‘Nothing’s happened. We haven’t done anything.’ (I didn’t tell her I’d thought about it.) ‘He doesn’t even know.’

‘Maybe . . .’ – and she has another squint at the jam – ‘Maybe you should tell him.’

I said, ‘He wouldn’t understand.’

She said, ‘People have more to them than one gives them credit for.’ 

I said, ‘He’s not people. He’s fifteen.’ 

She said, ‘I suppose it’s no good telling you that God would call it a sin?’

I said, ‘How’s the jam doing?’

She said, ‘It’s a crush. It’ll pass. Give it time. It’s like bringing him up and living together in the family . . . you do have a husband?’

I said, ‘Yes, I do.’

She said, ‘Only living in close proximity together bestows a kind of protective coating on members of the family, so that in normal circumstances they don’t fall for each other, and somehow your protective coating has gone missing. Why would that be, do you think?’

I knew how it started but I wasn’t going to tell her that.

As I’m going, she says, ‘Does your husband know?’

I said, ‘No.’

She said, ‘Don’t you think you should share it with him?’

I said, ‘Share? No. Good luck with the jam.’

Afterwards I went and sat in the church. 

I don’t feel . . . I don’t feel I’m even entitled to this . . . well . . . passion. It’s lofty. Shakespearean. A man came to talk to us at the library once and he said love transformed, so that even the most ordinary people could become . . . epic, I think it was.

But . . . I’m just an ordinary woman.

*

I can’t get over it. Fifteen. Fifteen

Where did it come from, this understanding? 

Where did he acquire it? Not from me. And not from his dad. 

Is this Social Hygiene? I can’t think so.

Only it’s happened.

Though nothing’s happened really.

Adam had been round, both of them upstairs playing on the computer.

Maureen came down, listening at the door as usual, saying that they’re watching porn, only I said it was none of her business . . . it’s only a phase anyway.

When eventually they do come down, I make them some French toast.

Except Maureen says, ‘I expect you’ve worked up an appetite.’

Michael takes no notice, just tells her to fuck off, but Adam’s an only child and he’s not used to sisters and goes scarlet and says, ‘We weren’t doing anything, Mrs Fedder’, and our Michael groans and tells him to forget it.

When he’s gone Michael says, ‘You are good, Mum.’

I said, ‘Why, what have I done now?’

He said, ‘Not taking on. We weren’t even watching anything, only Adam had brought round a new game. You’re lovely, though, Mum. You never get shocked. Poor Adam was creased.’

‘No point in being shocked anyway,’ I said. ‘You know it all.’

‘Well,’ he said. ‘Not quite all.’

And he looked at me, really hard. And I thought, ‘He knows.’

I said, ‘No. Not quite. Though there’s something I’ve been wanting to say.’

‘Feel free,’ he said. ‘I might have something to tell you.’

And he puts his hand over mine and leaves it there.

At which point, of course, Dad comes home from work and he takes his hand off mine really sharp, I mean as if it’s red hot.

So he’s hiding it, too.

Dad didn’t notice but we’re going to have to be so careful.

But I’m so happy.

It doesn’t seem real.

*

I thought I was on safe ground.

Otherwise, I wouldn’t have spoken.

I said, ‘But what was it you were going to tell me yesterday? I said I had something to tell you . . .’

‘You sure did . . .’

‘. . . but you had something to tell me.’

‘Oh, that I’d got a girlfriend. What does it matter now?’

Pause.

He says he’s still trying to get his head round it.

‘When you say “love”, you don’t mean sex and stuff?’

I should have said, ‘Yes. Yes. That’s just what I do mean.’

Only I said, ‘No. It depends.’

‘On what?’ he says. ‘Me being out of my mind? You’re my mother.’

And suddenly he dashes to the back door and is sick on the step.

He comes back saying, ‘Isn’t it against the law? It’s one of the few things that is.’

I said, ‘Loving isn’t against the law.’

And he just pushed me, really hard, so that I went over on my bad knee.

He said, ‘Are you all right?’

I nod. 

‘Oh Christ,’ he says and picks me up but . . . it was touching me, I suppose . . . he screws up his face and pulls away from me as if I’m dirty.

Which I suppose I am, now. The dirty mother.

The blameless father comes home later on, but nobody puts him in the picture. The dirty mother can’t face it and the object of her affection doesn’t know how to.

In the end it’s Maureen who does it, who’s unsurprised.

Sitting at the kitchen table and saying, ‘Well, I knew all along.’

‘We were so nice and ordinary,’ Michael says. ‘Now look at us.’

Maureen says, ‘I think it’s quite interesting.’

Pause.

I’ve never known the house so quiet.

*

Gwen is in bed in hospital, although we don’t see any other patients. Her hair is wild, having been washed but not set.

I never thought I’d land up here, only I’ve not been sectioned and if I wanted I could walk out tomorrow, but the way I am now one place is much like another. Dad comes and sits, bit wary at first but our Maureen comes all the time. Brings her homework and does it at the bottom of the bed. I’ve got to like her more now than I used to. Of course, she’s got no competition as Michael hasn’t been near.

I blame the therapist, Marny her name is. A doctor but just in ordinary clothes. No white coat. Lots of frizzy hair. Because I wasn’t in here to begin with. I was at home. I was on tablets and it was miserable but we were managing. Only Marny has a thing about goals, recovery is a journey and all that stuff, and now that Michael has a girlfriend one stage would be if the girlfriend stopped the night.

Not keen and nor was Michael by all accounts. We don’t talk much, only he told his dad he thought it was a bit soon and probably they wouldn’t do anything anyway. I mean, it’s only the other side of the wall.

They reckoned to give me an extra sleeping tablet but if they did it didn’t work, and I think Dad was awake too, only he never let on.

Anyway, far from not doing anything, they went on all night and apparently . . . though I don’t remember this quite . . . I must have got up in the small hours, found my hairdryer of all things, and started braying on his door. He’d locked it or else I’d’ve gone in, whatever they were doing. Apparently I was shouting, ‘Stop it. Stop it,’ and the hairdryer broke in my hand and cut me and there was blood all down the door. The girl was hysterical, Dad and Michael shouting at one another, Michael with not a stitch on and Maureen stood at her door taking it all in. ‘Family life,’ was all she said. Anyway, she had the sense to phone the ambulance. I’d severed a tendon apparently, which they stitched up in A&E before they fetched me in here for assessment.

Assessment being a lot of talking, though not by me. And Dad’s not much better, though he tries, bless him. We both of us have to learn to verbalise more, apparently. If we’d verbalised more, Marny says, it probably wouldn’t have happened. Now that he’s been told it was all some sort of symptom, Michael feels it was at least more respectable. More normal is what he means.

I don’t know that I do, because I remember what started it all and I told that to the nice Indian doctor who said that was just the trigger. Some trigger. Louisa’s been. Blames the therapist. Says lots of women feel the same. Adam’s talked to Michael, who claims he understands. He doesn’t. He won’t understand until he falls for someone inappropriate himself.

I just sit a lot of the time. Once they’ve got the tablets sorted out I can go home apparently. Back under the same roof.

*

We’re never in the same room, Michael and me. Not on our own anyway. That’s not the therapist. That’s him. Feels easier, he says. So Dad’ll be here, else Maureen, who’ll always be here anyway. I don’t know whether they’ve told her to keep me busy but she never lets me alone. She says, ‘I can’t, Mum. I love you. Have you taken your tablets?’

I asked Marny what the tablets did. She said, ‘Well, one thing they do is start to put back your insulation, make you indifferent to one another the way families normally are.’ ‘Somehow,’ she says, ‘you lost your mother’s insulation, so he stopped being your son and became just a lad.’ I said, ‘Will he have to take them too?’ Only she said, ‘No, because he’s never lost his protective coating.’

He did come in after school this afternoon with our Maureen in tow. Sits across the room like I’m infectious. I said, ‘I’m on tablets now. You can take my hand.’ Only he didn’t.

He said, ‘You mustn’t love me, Mum.’

‘I don’t any more,’ I said. ‘I’ve told you. I’m on tablets. And I can love you both now.’ 

‘And Dad as well,’ said Maureen, holding my hand, ‘Just like a proper family.’

Michael got up. He said, ‘I won’t kiss you.’

I said, ‘How many more times. It’s all right. I don’t feel anything.’

‘Best to be on the safe side,’ he says, and just blows me one.

Dad thinks I might do away with myself.

He said, ‘You must promise me not to do anything silly.’

‘Have I ever done anything silly, apart from this?’

Whereas now it’s all about forgetting and moving on. Closure.

I’m not saying anything, only I’m not going to forget, whatever they give me.

One of the doctors said, ‘You’ve no business having thoughts like that, a nice middle-aged lady like you.’

But I did.

And (here her voice breaks) I do.

Only the more I think about it, the more I think –

I’m just an ordinary woman.

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