While Women Rage In Winter
I don’t want to occupy a place of importance. Knowing other people like to harbour their children’s swim gear safe from spray under the reef-like shelter of this plastic table, I leave one chair between me and it. In essence the seat’s already taken; there’s a small piece of putty or modelling clay, grey-white as a mushroom, moulded to the shape of the inside of a child’s hand, the curved drills of the fingers identifiable by their prints. I sit. The empty pairing now to my left hint at my isolation; I place the four books I’ve borrowed from the library here with my satchel farthest away. A small part of me thinks this shows confidence, an outward symbol of occupancy, and I can move them if I have to.
I’ve had this satchel since I was eleven. And the seats, blue moulded plastic, uncomfortable as they are and too small for my gangling frame, remind me of school. (What’s the weather like up there? peers used to shout). They amplify my aloneness to make me feel strangely small and conspicuous. It’s a peculiar meeting of oppositions. Except for one strip an inch long, thin as a baby’s eyelid, as soft as her earlobe my satchel is cracked, worn, like the soles of my feet. I should take better care of my feet but they’re at the far end of my ‘to do’ list, out of sight, far from mind. They aren’t as tired as those now padding into sight. Supported only by flat flip-flops, jandals they call them here, sun-greyed: an old woman with a small boy. He’s carrying a large holdall. I move my satchel. The woman sits. Thinking her charge might want to sit also, I pick up my books. The woman turns to me, says,
‘You don’t need to move your books, dear. Thank you.’ Her accent is neat, curt like birdsong, it’s specific yet impossible to locate. I say,
‘They’re only books; they haven’t earned their seat, the rest.’
She laughs, humouring me.
‘He doesn’t need to sit; he will be swimming in a few minutes.’
I nod. Smile. My own child is nearing the end of her training session and will be getting out of the pool as the boy gets in.
The boy is small, slightly built though well fed. He glows with health. He drops the holdall to the tiled floor, unzips, rummages inside, pulls out a fin.
‘These are not mine,’ he says. The fin, yellow and blue, is almost as long as his arm. ‘You have brought the wrong things.’
The old woman leans forward, elbows on thighs. One arm goes out to the boy, to his arm.
‘I’m sorry, dear.’
The boy turns over the flipper in his hand as if considering for the first time a dead pet.
‘These are no good,’ he says, and puts the flipper back in the bag.
‘Don’t worry. Felicity will give you some. Go and ask her.’ She’s already on first name terms with the coach.
The boy’s chest puffs up and he hurries. He trips on the strap of the bag. I hear my own intake of breath. He stumbles, regains his balance, and carries on towards the coach without looking back.
‘My grandson,’ the woman says. ‘I’m from Singapore, dear, on holiday. I have brought his brother’s things by mistake.’
It is kind of her to recognise my interest, inform me. She has a kind face. Her hair, though grey and frizzy at the ends is dark and glossy at the roots, so that both sides appear to be a reflection of the same wave flowing out from the centre of her head, crashing into curls with invisible force.
‘I’m Anna, dear.’
I smile. ‘I’m Jenny, from England but you probably already guessed that.’ The way I say it sounds like a confession and I put out my hand half expecting absolution as a substitute greeting.
Anna’s hand feels like a bird wrapped in Kleenex. Her wrist is crackled like my satchel, but unlike my satchel the cracks appear lighter, are smooth. And even though it’s warm inside because of the pool, warm outside for November because this is New Zealand, she’s wearing a thick red cardigan.
‘England?’ She sounds pleased.
I’m embarrassed; there are still people who think being English is impressive in itself, people who can be easily read, who like the books Amazon suggests based on their purchase history: if you enjoyed the Treaty of Waitangi you may also like the English.
Anna goes some way to relieving my colonial guilt.
‘Yorkshire.’ I resist being specific, it invariably leads me to an impassioned one-sided debate about Thatcherism, the Miner’s strike, going without; I can’t say I have known hunger to Anna without sounding trite, without sounding more English for all I insist on being less. I identify with fifteen thousand dialect speakers yet find myself lumped in with a whole nation of generic English. Regional and class differences are irrelevant to anyone from overseas.
‘Ah, yes,’ Anna nods, ‘I have family in Bedfordshire.’
I don’t know what to say to this so I smile and nod as my eyes travel an imaginary map of the United Kingdom, and before long I am staring at Anna’s flip-flops.
My father once made flip-flops from an old floor tile for me and a friend. She never called on me after that.
Anna, pulling the holdall between her feet, tucking the carry strap to the back, says,
‘I tell him not to leave his things in the way.’ She pushes the fin, tries to zip it in. ‘Last week, I came here and a boy, Dion was his name, you know that boy?’
I shake my head. There are so many kids who train with the swim club at this leisure centre. They all look the same in togs and swim caps, like safety matches.
‘I only recognise my daughter,’ from the shape her hand makes breaking the surface of the water. She’s a very elegant swimmer, careful in her movements, precise. She makes the rigour of an hour and a half’s exercise appear effortless.
‘Well, Dion came and took this bag, emptied it out, shook everything out onto the floor.’ Anna’s gesticulations bring my focus back to her. ‘I didn’t say anything, I didn’t want to say. Then he kicked it all across the wet floor, you see?’
I look at the tiled floor to show I see; I understand what it means to have dry clothes scattered across the chlorine soaked floor.
‘And then he saw it wasn’t his and he kicked it back, kicked it under this chair, and then I said something, I said, “Please, don’t do that, don’t do that to other people’s things, it’s rude.” He looked, ah –’ she puts her hands to her mouth, widens her eyes, ‘he looks shocked, you see, like this,’ and she shakes her head.
I say, ‘They have no manners,’ knowing her understanding negates prefixing ‘kids today’, though I think Dion is a nice sounding name and can’t reconcile how a child with such a small and gentle name could act against it, but then I remember it’s derived from Dionysus, the god of riotous indulgence, who had a man chained and torn apart by horses and drove women mad in Argos.
‘Manners,’ she nods emphatically, ‘always say please, and always thank.’
‘Always be polite,’ I concur.
Her eyes flicker with delight.
A woman I see every week comes in. Her hair is white, bleached that way. It’s slightly more noticeable than when it was grey. I don’t know her name. She’s been power walking, as people who don’t have to walk like to do. I saw her when I arrived, jogging the last few yards to the leisure centre from Lake Pupuke. The lake is really a crater. This tickles me, the fact that she runs a circuit of a volcano. Another thing that tickles me is the fact that there’s a lake right next door to the pool. Then I remember I’m on the volcano and paying for use of the pool too. She wears fluorescent clothing, is well nourished and is difficult to miss. Like lava, she gets everywhere slowly. Now we’re entering summer, she wears shorts and her legs are surprisingly fit though her knees wear their own shroud. They look sad which is ludicrous because they are only knees. She stands by the table looking at the chair with the putty on it. Looking like her knees.
I say, ‘Hello,’ because I am feeling confident, because I am clearly engaging Anna in conversation and this proves I am sociable and worth talking to. I pick up the putty.
She stretches her mouth into an anorexic smile, sits, and turns her back to me. Like lava, she is best avoided. She pulls a bag out from the pile under the table, puts it on top. Over the promontory of her shoulder, I look at her knees now smiling at me as if their tragedy was only an act. Perception is like knees, I think. And friendship is.
I lean over the gap between myself and Anna, whisper, confidentially,
‘People talk to me one week here and ignore me the next.’
‘Act like they don’t know you.’
She understands but doesn’t tell me what I suspect, that I would be popular if I had a boat.
‘I have old fashioned values, Jenny.’
Encouraged, I say,
‘Manners cost nothing.’ Then, to test our budding friendship, I tell Anna what I have told every other parent at this swimming club, ‘I’m from a poor family; I had to be polite to get by.’ Here they just brag. I have nothing to boast about, assume this is why nobody speaks to me. People who have never been poor think poverty is a disease. It’s worse than being English.
‘I am from a poor family also; married a lovely man, well educated, a lawyer.’ Her eyes fill up the way condensation gathers on my bathroom mirror.
I look away, not embarrassed by her tears, because she’s remembering her husband and I don’t want to intrude on the memory, because I am polite. Also I’m considering my own life. I glance and see her features soften further. She’s lost. When she appears to be finding her way to the present, I say, ‘I only mention it because a lot of the children around here are spoilt; they have everything they could possibly want, yet complain. They can never be pleased.’ I used to make mental notes, a moral tally of the things they said, here or on school trips, when we first arrived, but I have lived here five years now and have lost count.
‘I am a Christian,’ Anna says, smiling so widely I can see for the first time she does not have her own teeth.
I take a breath in. Hold it there.
‘A Catholic,’ she adds, ‘though that’s no matter to you, all I say is, be grateful for what you have.’ She makes a canoe from her hands, raises it.
I feel my eyebrows rising, roofing my alarm.
Last week an Indian woman died in Ireland because abortion’s illegal there, and I can’t stop feeling angry. Women like me rage in winter on the other side of the world. On this side of the world, my hands are being assailed by a Catholic Indian from Singapore whose eyes mist with devotion. My thoughts swim.
‘Gratitude is important,’ I say, trying not to get caught up on the religious aspect, and sailing past the awkwardness of it all. I imagine my voice detaching from my body, the sound waves floating out, saying I don’t believe in God myself. Then I imagine her face after I’ve said it and I can’t bear to take the happiness away from her, rift her trust; can’t bear to see my thoughts puddled by words.
I have a lot of conversations where the intention is lost in the listening, saying only enough to keep the words flowing from the other person: one-sided conversations. I have over the years developed a skill for cultivating them.
‘My daughter.’ I point to the lane she’s in. It occurs to me some people may think I simply come here to read, poolside each week, that I don’t have a reason to do so other than to sit somewhere indoors after the library’s closed; arriving as I do towards the end of the lesson, an hour after my husband and children, I must appear a disconnect, a vagrant or a weirdo. I dismiss the thoughts and focus on my daughter. I don’t attempt to point her out specifically. ‘She was once at a party,’ I say, ‘when she was small. She’s eleven now. But when she was five, there was a magician at the party.’ I almost break off again to explain details of how the party invite came about but decide against this, preferring instead to let the memory roll like a film clip as I voiceover. ‘And the magician asked her to say the magic words. He was expecting Abracadabra,’ I over explain, fearing she won’t get the punch-line otherwise. ‘And my daughter said, “Please and thank you”.’
Anna has the good manners to laugh. A small laugh but generously given. I’m grateful for it.
‘And sorry is just as important though few people ever say it,’ she says.
I see sorry people clutching tight the tiny visible part of a very large iceberg floating in a cold sea. I’m overthinking. My thinking voice escapes.
‘It is important for our kids to hear us say sorry when we’re wrong.’
‘I have five children, all boys.’ She waits for my surprise to register. I wonder how she found time to read. Perhaps she learned only by listening.
‘The first, I had no choice. I had him; I just got on with it.’ She wings her hands. ‘The second one: another boy.’ One hand flies up: Peter. ‘The third, I had some choice, another boy. I wanted a girl.’ Her other hand’s flown: Paul. ‘The fourth: boy. I cried.’ Her hands come together over the bridge of her nose, sit there like doves. ‘When I had my fifth son, I lay in the hospital bed and cried some more. The doctor said, “Why are you crying?”’
She looks at me, unblinking through her fingers. I think I can see the bars of the cot: white enamel over iron, peeling off.
Because you wanted a girl to help look after the boys, I want to say. I had to mother my brother, when he was young. I had to bath him and dress him, read him to sleep, take him with me when I went shopping, as well as cook, iron, clean. If he cried, I got spanked. All he was expected to do was grow.
Anna shakes her head: something else.
‘I worked at a police station, taking fingerprints. In nineteen seventy-five, when I was pregnant with my fifth child, the police went on strike. I didn’t get paid. I sat on a chair outside the station worrying how I was going to take care of this child when three little English children walked by. “Lady, are you alright, have you food to eat, somewhere to live? Are you in trouble?” I said, dears, I am alright. Thank you. They pointed to my stomach, and I said I am expecting a child. And the eldest, a beautiful boy said, “What do you hope your child will be like?” I said, dear, I wish for a child like you, and I put my hands on his face, like this.
‘When the doctor told me, “You have a perfect child, a beautiful child,” I didn’t believe it. I looked and I saw him for the first time, how pale his skin; how they all admired him; I took him and tucked him between my knees to keep everyone away from him, protect him, you know?’ She has her hands on the holdall. ‘I realised then what a gift I had. God had gifted me that child. My other four are Indian looking, like me,’ she points to herself in case I hadn’t noticed, ‘but the fifth is as fair as you, dear: a gift from God.’ She rolls her eyes upward, tilts her head like a saint, and I see the salt water rising over brown irises like mist, see the whites are really blue.
I take her arm in my hand – she isn’t afraid – push up her red wool sleeve, and gently rub her skin so that the looseness of it travels up and down with my hand in small waves. There is nothing I want to say.
‘Ah,’ she starts, pausing to think. Expressions flicker through her eyes like sunlight through fast moving cloud seen at great distance. Just as I think she is about to cry, she breaks into a smile.
There was an eclipse earlier in the week. I had forgotten about it. On the day I didn’t know. I thought how cold it got, how the light turned suddenly strange, almost as if my house were a stage; I looked outside half expecting to see the audience peering back at me through the glare. Everything seemed to be bathed in silver, like an old film or photograph. I couldn’t work it out; so bright and dark all at once.
‘Ten of thirteen children,’ Anna repeats.
I haven’t been listening. I was wondering about foxing.
‘My parents were wonderful. They died twenty-eight years ago. They were in their eighties.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, and repeat it, meaning it the second time.
I haven’t spoken to my father in twenty years, since my grandmother died.
After the Miner’s Strike my father had no job. What he lacked in wages he compensated with rage. We all dealt with it differently, the poverty, the fear. My brother found comfort in heroin. Mother retreated inside herself. I ran. Someday I’ll stop, catch my breath long enough to talk both ears off a conversation. But I can’t tell Anna my family isn’t wonderful, can’t disappoint her.
‘My husband was a wonderful man, a kind man, he was very good to me; an Anglo-Indian, it took five generations for the white to come out. He died twenty years ago.’
I feel uncomfortable about her infatuation.
‘My husband is up there,’ I say, pointing to the balcony overlooking the pool. ‘My son’s with him.’ I add ‘Chatting,’ just in time to prevent her misunderstanding, redirecting her sympathy.
‘My youngest son is marrying a Japanese woman; my grandchildren will look Japanese. Imagine that,’ Anna says.
Inevitably there is blossom in the picture, pink, from a cherry orchard in misted hills overlooked by mountains. There are volcanoes in Japan. The children wear kimonos and hold hands like paper dolls and are loved. And love is as simple as transfers on pottery. But love like pottery breaks when the temperature changes rapidly. Then I wonder if she thinks my husband is Japanese too. I try to see him through her eyes.
When I first met him, I thought he looked Egyptian like King Tutankhamun in profile. The first night we spent together, I leaned on my elbow and watched him sleep. He slept on his back but didn’t snore despite having had too much to drink. When he woke, he smiled, nothing more, and we looked into each other’s eyes and both saw eternity, if different kinds. After, he told me my tears were the most beautiful things he had ever touched. I hadn’t been aware I was crying.
He has black eyes – black brown that is, not bruised – and still looks boyish, clean shaven, smooth as a golden casket, even with his bald head.
I look at Anna, say,
‘You are taking over the world.’
She is laughing too much to answer.
‘Three of my children live in England, one in New Zealand, and one in Canada. I love England, for the transport. In New Zealand I can’t go anywhere on foot. For everything in New Zealand you need a car.’
I miss English trains.
‘High Streets, so friendly; England was made for people.’
I should talk, these are all things I know about, but Anna intuits my unspoken side of the conversation, the part that can be shared. She reminds me of my grandmother.
She insists I take her address.
‘You can visit me when you come to Singapore. Do you like curry?’
‘I love curry.’
‘You can come and stay with me. I have an apartment. Modest: five rooms, but plenty big enough for you to stay. I’ll cook you a curry.’
I visualise her apartment occupying the fifth floor of a five storey block; but the image in my head is one I’ve seen in my magazine, of Vienna. The building’s front is curved and colourful and every room has a balcony overlooking narrow streets. I try to superimpose tropical trees, palms, soften the whole thing with humidity rising from the hot pavements like laze. I imagine it collecting on the windows like the tears in Anna’s eyes. Then I imagine it shrunken like Lilliput because I am tall and need five rooms. I’d like to see where she lives, where Anna calls home.
‘It might be a while,’ I say, not wanting to explain how broke we are, how unlikely travel anywhere beyond my head is in our current financial circumstances, knowing talk of money trouble is internationally impolite.
‘I am seventy-five.’
I open my satchel. I have printed cards with my name and email address on one side and my artwork on the other. My art depicts a naked me. Anna might think it inappropriate. My grandmother would if she were still alive. In any case it isn’t the image of me I want her to be left with, it’s not the kind of polite I’ve cultivated, so I take out my notebook and leaf through to find a rare empty page. I keep my conversations in waiting in here.
‘Are you sure I can write in here?’
‘Yes.’ I watch her write her name. She has a child’s hand. My grandmother looked like a child the day before she died.
‘Do you want my address too?’
‘Your number’s fine.’ I tear the empty remaining half of page, write my email addresses on there, two, to show I am being encouraging, that I want to give her several options and therefore opportunities to get in touch. A moment later I realise if this were the case I would have given her my phone number also. EyebrightFamily [@] ihug.co.nz (personal); JennyEyebright [@] outlook.com (work); the email addresses are genuine and I would like to keep in touch, I say this: ‘Do keep in touch,’ as if we are old comrades.
She takes the torn slip from me, folds it; closes her hand over it.
We look at the swimmers, at the emptying public lanes. The swim class is moving to the near end, and the aqua-aerobics class is starting in its place. Generously built women jog, make waves, their laughter punctuates the music.
‘You can go on reading your book,’ Anna says.
‘The book can wait,’ I say. Then my face reddens as I realise the conversation’s over. Trying to reignite talk now is to strike a wet match against my head.
My daughter’s waiting for me. She stands over me, dripping water all over the cover of my book. It’s backed with clear plastic so I won’t have to say sorry to the library. I’ll be able to put it in the returns bin and walk away. She puts her fins down beside me. I pick up her kit bag from where she’s dropped it at my feet, and work to fit the equipment back in while she ignores my introduction to Anna and goes to the changing rooms. I pull my cardigan over my fist to wipe where the water has gone on the books, the seat. Someone may want to sit there, closer to Anna to not have to lean across to hear her speak. I gather my books, fasten my satchel. I smile as I get up but I do not look at Anna’s face. I walk over to the changing rooms, then upstairs to my husband and son.
My husband says, ‘You didn’t have to come up; you could have shouted us from downstairs.’ He stutters badly. His tongue protrudes at unexpected moments and he avoids words beginning with the letters P and S for this reason. Most people have to listen carefully, patiently, to understand him like I do.
Together we go back down. I fall behind to let two children pass so that they don’t have to let go of each other’s hand crossing the narrow poolside. My daughter’s kit bag drips water on my leg, soaks my clothes, and the drawstring is tight around my hand. I don’t wave at Anna as I pass to go outside, the tiled floor is very wet, I could fall, get hurt, and she isn’t looking. I step on my husband’s shadow, attempt to hold him. The door swings to in my face.
On the drive through Takapuna, I stare out the window and listen to roosting birds’ song overlaid with my daughter’s complaints about the other children in her swimming group. How rude they are.
‘They never talk to me,’ she says.
I imagine conversations underwater, meaning inferred only through the widening of eyes, the release of air. I understand what she means. A writer I admire wrote “The most significant conversations of our lives occur in silence.” But my daughter isn’t addressing her complaint to me.
‘Awe.’ My husband’s making appropriate noises.
I wonder how old I’ll have to be before someone like me talks to me.
‘But why doesn’t anyone want to be my friend?’ my daughter asks.
They do, they want to be your friend so much.
My daughter hasn’t yet come to terms with human complexities, how we sometimes can’t speak. To her, everything is as simple as putty (I am a thief). How can I tell her that experience can’t be reshaped, made smooth again like the mould of a child’s fear I’ve squashed in my hand? Everything adults say is coloured by their own hurt. It’s difficult to have more than a stock exchange with anyone but ourselves.
I look for the flowering trees; this is my favourite time of year, and my husband driving affords me the luxury to view without responsibility. It is starting to rain. The droplets manage to find each other on the glass leaving blurry tracks like a badly drawn family tree. They gather momentarily at the bottom of the window until the force of the car against the wind sends them away, into spray.
Takapuna means Falling Spring, in Māori. It refers to the water they found here, but I like to think it can also mean the beginning of summer because I’m English and it’s in my nature to corrupt another’s language to suit my own. The English language, for all its antiquity, its borrowed properties, is supple as young wood. But I also like this saying because it combines two seasons in one, like the lemon trees I’m passing now. I have one at home. My home is here.
Sometimes I think of England, but then it doesn’t feel like a country but a room where my grandmother shook me, hard, said ‘Crying doesn’t make a difference.’
I’d run for miles to get there when my brother beat me because he was high, because I talked too much. Life gave me lemons though they don’t grow on trees in Yorkshire, it’s too cold there. Now I grow them in my garden. The scent alone can make me weep. It never fails to awe me; while the lemon blossoms, last year’s fruit ripens on the same branch. I look out to see the green lightening each day.
First published in Short Fiction #7, now out of print.
Rachel J Fenton is a working-class writer living in Aotearoa. Winner of the 2022 NZSA Laura Solomon Cuba Press Prize for Between the Flags, her novels have placed second in the Dundee International Book Prize and been listed in the 2022 Mslexia Novel Competition, the 2021 Text Prize, the Micheal Gifkins Unpublished Novel Prize, and the Cinnamon Press Debut Novel Prize. “While Women Rage in Winter” won the University of Plymouth Short Fiction Prize.
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