The following is a story from Lucy Hughes-Hallett's Fabulous, a collection of fables rewritten in modern Britain. Hughes-Hallett is the author of The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, which won the Samuel Johnson Prize, the Duff Cooper Prize, the Political Book Award for Political Biography of the Year, and the Costa Biography Award; Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions, which won the Fawcett Prize and the Emily Toth Award; and Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen. She lives in London.
No touching, he said. No problem, I said. So we mimed dancing. Leaning parallel, slantwise, as in an italic legs-eleven. Our heads dipped sideways in unison. Our palms came as close as close can be without clapping, but never clapped. Our midriffs moved alongside each other, buffered by an inch of empty air. We never kicked, never brushed ankles, never stumbled or said Excuse me. He rested his chin, not on my head but on my halo. My hand floated, light as a scrap of blown paper, not on his shoulder but on his shoulder’s aura of exuded body-heat. There would be no noisy slapping of perspiring flesh between us, no struggle or grunt.
That was all right with me. All day I touch. I get plenty of it. My fingers prod flesh, and manipulate it, and cosset it, and hurt it. I yank out hair from chins and nostrils and armpits. It smarts, I know it does, I’ve had it done myself. I know that as I rip the wax away, bringing the bristles up by their roots, I rip tears from the tear ducts, to flood the clients’ eyes. They strip so I can tweezer around their nipples. The itsy-bitsy garments the girls wear used to be called cache-sexes, but they’re not much use for hiding anything. Women sprawl, legs splayed, while I rid them of their pubic hair.
Shameless. That’s one of the pleasures of it for them. It’s warm in the salon. There are no windows in the treatment rooms, no possibility of peeping. I move towels around—ostentatiously clean ones, folded neat as new. These towels, draped over whichever part I’m not working on, are supposed to spare us all embarrassment—but where’s the modesty in discreetly covering your top while I’m extracting follicles from your arse-crack? I am far more intimately acquainted with the bodies of those I treat at Willesden Beauty, than I am with those I service up the cemetery.
I met him in the pub. I like the corner table. I like the men who stand in groups and make noise, not for purposes of communication but to show affection for each other. Got you! They holler. Nice one! Hear that, Andy? Sometimes they glance my way, but I’ve got my light dimmed. Just someone in the corner with a kindle. I’m not that much of a reader. But I do like to get inside someone else’s head in my off-time.
I am completely undefended when I am around him. I am wholly attent. So when we walked into The Lamb I knew at once that he had taken in the woman reading alone. Taken in, as in noticed. Taken in, as in offered a refuge and a home in his heart. Taken in, as in fooled like he’d fooled me. There’s really not much joy in being loved by someone who loves pretty well every loser who crosses his path.
We did what we do. He stands near the middle of the room, doing nothing much until everyone in the place is staring at him.
I buy the drinks. Peter and the others spread out, smiling, being a bit flirty with the women nattering in pairs, saying All right? to the huddles of men.
She carried on reading. She was about his age, I’d guess. Not a kid. When I handed him his ginger ale he said OK, John? and took the vodka-tonic as well, the one I’d meant for myself, and pulled out the chair beside her and offered her the drink. She looked up like she’d been asleep and went to shake her head and shoo him away, then didn’t. He stayed, sitting in that very upright way he does, as though his spine is a radio antenna and he’s picking up a signal.
They talked a bit. There’s a jukebox in that pub. It’s always the men choosing. Does every man want to be a DJ? And it’s the girls who go out on the floor first, in threes and fours, and begin to shimmy. I was dancing with Ben, doing little twitchy robot moves, mirroring each other, when I saw him stand, and gesture ‘after you’ to her, and saw her stow her rucksack under the seat and then step out and turn to him and begin to lead him in a dance so rightly calibrated it was as though the two of them were twins, or entwined serpents. Or lovers, I thought, but that wasn’t going to happen, was it?
We danced for nearly two hours that night. He was fit, sure. I could see the other women in the place eyeing him, but we were putting on such an act they could see there was no prising him away.
I swim, mostly, for exercise. I go to the pool when I’m done in the cemetery, and take a shower so hot it’s like I’m scalding the night off me. I’m usually alone there until six-ish when the suits come in for their pre-work workout. Idea was, it would be good for thinking. Me-time. Meditation. But all that goes through my mind are numbers. Counting the strokes on my back so I don’t break my skull on the pool-wall. Counting the strokes forward for no earthly reason but that my mind’s in neutral, and seventeen eighteen nineteen are about the most emotionally neutral words I know. I danced like that, without thinking about it, and it turns out that when mind stops interfering body knows what to do. Sex was like that once, between getting it all wrong, and learning how to do it to a professional standard. There was an in-between time, a good, brainless time. That was before I started working.
When they began calling Time I said Thank you, just that. I don’t recall him saying anything. I went into the ladies and took off the T-shirt and washed myself down. Make-up. Lots. The light’s low where I’ll be. Subtlety is not the way to go. Leather jacket back on over nothing much. Undo the plait and let the hair hang down. It’s long. Loose hair. Loose behaviour. The connection’s as old as hypocrisy. First thing they do to the nuns is shave it all off. High heels in the bag—I’d got a walk to do.
By the time I came out the jukebox’s flashing lights were off. He was gone. He and all his friends. I’d seen that dark one’s jealous eyes on me all night. I went up the Lane, going slow because my feet were sore, and I took the spot between the snazzy new bar and the gap in the cemetery wall. Prime location. The other girls know that if they see me coming they have to vacate it pretty damn quick.
John, he said. That was ominous. He didn’t use names much. I sometimes wondered whether he even knew us one from t’other. I’m afraid I’ve disappointed you, he said to me. Nope. You can’t be disappointed without having been hopeful—and I wasn’t. Not ever. He didn’t want anything from me, and he wouldn’t take anything either. He was sufficient unto himself. I dreamt about him—voracious, lusty dreams—but the thought that I might one day be allowed to touch his hidden skin, it never crossed my waking mind for one moment. Nor the idea that he’d singled me out, though others thought so. So, no, not disappointed as such.
We were in the cemetery. It was one of our places. It was a good place to meet. In daylight people walked their dogs there. After dark different people came in through the broken bit of the wall and got up to all sorts. There were benches, wrought iron, uncomfortable. Sometimes you’d see a mourner, her swollen feet pinched by best shoes, sitting still for hours. There was a small man, quite old, dapper, in a spotted cravat, who came every day with his terrier and fussed around putting flowers on a grave. His dog lapped water from the basin on the tomb next door, into which a fibreglass cherub poured water from a conch. There were inscriptions made of tissue paper and tinsel, blocky great capital letters like shouts —DAD, GRAN, OUR MUM—as though the bereaved were yelling at their oldsters to come on down and eat their tea. People looked at us sideways and kept their distance. Most people find a group of young men hanging out scary. I can’t pretend we were all that clean.
He was done in. He sat down on a bench and folded his hands and rocked his head back. Eyes closed. I thought he was shutting us out, seizing a bit of alone-time. You couldn’t blame him. It was getting pretty intense. Lucky thing the woman was there.
I was getting sloppy. Fair enough, I was tired. Anyone would be. But time was I made a point of getting back to my place—whatever place I had, there’ve been a I’d stopped the swimming when they put the membership up. Actually no. Tell the truth. I stopped when a man standing next to me in the trough full of chlorine said—soft, so no one else could hear—I remember that tattoo, don’t I? Magdalen? (I have a number of names.) So I never went
Change shoes, jog back to the boarding house, clothes off, make-up off, the shower, using the hand-held to sluice out my fanny, teeth, pills, plait hair, bed, and then a good two hours, with luck, before I started to hear other lodgers grumbling to each other as they queued for the bathroom. All they liked to talk about was the racket from the bar downstairs, and how it had kept them up all night. Self-righteous whingers. Inconsiderate, that’s the word they used over and over. They never stopped to consider that I might be there, my head only inches away beyond a partition made of plastic-coated air, that I might be near to hallucinating with exhaustion.
Anyway that spring I left off the routine piece by piece. Teeth—forgot them. Make-up—it’s not as though I was laying my head down on a freshly ironed linen pillowcase anyhow. Plait—what made me think I was a goat girl in a dirndl? And then, eventually, bed—who needs it? It was getting warmer. I’d save on the rent. There was a shed for when it rained. I had my down-coat, didn’t I? The stone slabs were hard but flat. I lay on them with my hands folded in front, like a customer ready for a wax.
There was a woman who came most mornings. She had four dogs. Two tiny ones with spiteful pointed faces. She dressed them in coats made from her own discarded pink quilted dressing gowns. Two bigger. All rescue dogs. Neurotic. The halt and the lame. She sat dozing in the sun and the dogs sat around and stared at her. There were hard biscuits in her pocket, smelling of Marmite. The dogs kept their eyes on her as though, by willpower or by mesmeric force, they could set those nuggets flying into their own mouths. I watched them and laughed and then stopped laughing. The way we all sat round and stared at him—not much different.
I didn’t know Magda when she came by. She was wearing one of those coats that looks like a sleeping bag. I think she used it that way. The hood was up with snakes of her hair wriggling out around her jaw. She tripped over me as she went to grab him. She said Christ don’t you care about him? I thought you were his posse. His head lolled back and flopped one way and another. She said You and you, get a hold of his shoulders. Support his head for Christ’s sake. Keep it steady. Now lean him forward. Slow. Head down. That’s it.
His face was white and matt as a peeled mushroom. She knelt between his knees and breathed into his face. She never touched him. It can’t have been coyness, not given what she’d been up to in that place. Just yelled at us to move him around like the bendyman I had when I was a kid going from one foster home to another.
Going to sit there staring at him all day, were you? She was hissing. His head dangled. There was a sad bony knob at the base of his neck and two tendons as delicate as wings straining against the downward drag of gravity. She pushed back her hood and her hair fell down either side of him, cloaking his face and resting on his sprawled-open legs. Amazing hair, yellow and crinkled, it reached the hem of the little leather skirt she wore at night. She slumped back onto her heels and ducked forward so she could hear his breathing. She must have knelt like that between men’s knees often enough. That hair was coiling around his calves now, lapping at his trainers. She made us take the shoes off and got Stephen, who’s good at that kind of thing, to massage his calves and ankles and then his feet. They were as dainty as a unicorn’s hoofs, and as lifeless. And all the time Stephen worked she was sitting so close that her hair was tangling around his hands. Sorry, he said, over and over. Sorry what? she said. I’m pulling your hair, Steve said. It was wrapped around his feet now. She said, It’s not hurting. It’s the closest I’m ever going to get to him. I’ll give him some stuff.
She pulled herself up and sat on the bench beside his slumped body, their thighs three inches apart, and brought out a wrap, a mirror, a razor blade. When she handed me the glass, a silvery round the size of a digestive biscuit, there was the neatest of lines laid across it. I licked my finger and dabbed it on his gums and after a few seconds he stirred and moaned and muttered.
We were rattled. We’d had to imagine for a minute or two how we’d be without him. What would be the point of us? Mark and Luke, they had big ideas, but the rest of us, we just tagged along with him. When he sat up we went to thank her, and one or two of the guys wanted to ask had she any more of that gear? But she was gone. She was angry. Some of our lot had been making ignorant remarks about her. It’s not as though they were exactly celibate themselves.
The next time I saw him he was being dragged through the cemetery. Big louts, one each to each of his limbs. They lifted him so that his shoulders must have been dislocated. They dropped his legs and ran with him so that those feet, that I’d seen bare only that once before, bounced over the ground. He was passive. That was his way. He was impressive but he didn’t want to impress, to leave an impression on people. He wanted to pull out what was in them. And what was in these lads was anger.
Or perhaps he was just helpless. Certainly I wasn’t helping. I wouldn’t have dared. They all got his legs next and swung his upper body so that his head bashed against slabs of black shiny marble. I stayed in the far corner with the old women twittering there. A couple of terriers were running with the group, yapping. One man kicked out at them so that he lost his balance and fell awkwardly, dragging the leg he was carrying into an angle it was never meant to reach.
I was shaking so hard I had to crouch down. I got under the crooked yew tree, where the ground’s always dry, and lay there. My hands were numb. I was convulsing, my whole body flapping where it lay like a desperate fish. When it stopped I fell asleep, there where I was, and my mind plummeted down into the dark.
Peter was the bravest. He stayed around. All that day till midnight he was going from pub to bar to barbershop. He wanted to know why it happened. He nearly got taken himself. But what was the point of that? It was too late to make any kind of deal. The rest of us split. It was left up to Double-M, as we called her. She was the only one of us to be still there the morning after. She saw a couple of them come back at first light and start digging a hole. It was dismal weather. The hole kept filling with water, and its sides collapsed. Three times that happened, before they gave up. They heaved aside a slab from one of those mausoleums that look like little houses. They lifted his broken body inside and dumped it on a kind of ledge thing. Then they got back in their transit and drove off, windows up, radio on.
I went out through the gap in the wall as soon as the van was gone. It was Saturday, and once the cemetery was properly open it would fill up with little kids on scooters punting along behind the dads jogging. I walked around all day and then I bought some wine and pitta bread. I had a confused idea that I ought to celebrate. He’d never screamed, never whimpered. I call that something. So that night I crept back. There were girls doing business but we never take any notice of each other, even if we’re opposite sides of the same tree. I slept up against the wall of his little house.
Sunday morning I drank from the standpipe they used to water the primulas on the graves. I tied my hair back and picked the sleeping dust out of my eyes. I peed round behind the clump of hazels. I composed myself. Tending bodies was my speciality. This was something I could usefully do. I went to the house of the dead and peered into the darkness. I could see his jacket—blue and yellow. It lay there, bundled up as though to cushion his poor smashed skull, but he was gone. That long, thin body had gone.
I crawled into the darkness and howled. What does it matter? said mind. He’s dead anyway. You know that. You’re not getting him back. Your relations were not physical, ever. You never so much as ran a finger over his collarbone or fluttered your eyelash against his cheek. What does it matter where his carcass has gone? That was mind’s view. But body remembered how we had danced. Body said his shoulders were broad and his fingers were pale and there was a way the flesh around his jaw furrowed when he smiled that got me every time. I sat and thought about it until my feet were numb and then I stepped out and I saw someone else.
When I was about three, or young enough anyway to need my mum to be in my field of vision the whole time, like every second of every minute of the day, I was in the park with her, and I was watching some ants coming up out of a hole in the earth. They found a biscuit-crumb, and they got together in a great disciplined work-gang and tugged it—it was like a boulder as big as a house door for them—back to the hole, and the hole wasn’t big enough. They tried one way and they tried another way, and it was about the most fascinating thing I had ever seen, these tiny creatures so hard at work.
I couldn’t stop myself. I put out my finger and touched the crumb. I was horrified because I had gone in my mind into the ants’ world but my poking finger was like a giant’s and at once I was back to being human-sized again and I looked up and there was my mother walking away and I ran as fast as I could after her, but that wasn’t very fast because my sandals were undone and I couldn’t keep up and I began to cry so loud the person looked round and she was just like my mother but I didn’t know her, or I knew her but I knew I was wrong to, because it wasn’t really her. It was a woman her sort of age and wearing her sort of jeans. You don’t really know what your mother looks like when you’re that young. She’s too much a part of you for you to step back and see her face. This woman was kind. She knelt down and said, Breathe very slowly. Pretend you’re an elephant and the air has to come all the way up your long trunk. If you do that you’ll be able to stop crying and then we can look for your mummy. But I was too distraught to pretend anything.
My mother found us, and knelt down with the not-her woman and said Meg. Meg. Megalump. Quietly now. And my howling shuddered and slowed but I was still afraid because I looked at the two women and I saw long brown hair and faces pink from the sun and similar T-shirts and I thought, How do you tell the difference? How can I be certain sure which one is mine?
I did lose my mother later, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I don’t believe in presentiments.
So, there was a man. He worked in the cemetery. Would you call him a gardener or a caretaker or a keeper? Whatever, those are all good words for him. He didn’t seem to think it was up to him to make judgments. He dragged away the fallen branches and threw out the dead flowers and cleared the brambles and binned the condoms and beer cans and sometimes I’d see him in his tool-shed, sitting rather hunched on the seat of a ride-on mower, and with his big fingers he was stitching away at a bit of coarse brown canvas, wools in old-rose and olive-green and silvery-blue trailing from his hands. I didn’t know his name, nor he mine, but that was all right. That wasn’t necessary.
There were others who worked there, who shouted at each other, and made their machines roar. This one was matey enough with them but no more than that. He’d be there suddenly. You never heard him coming. And that morning, he was there. That’s what I thought. I said, Did you hear what happened? Any of the others, I’d have been afraid to make them think I was involved. But I didn’t mind him.
He didn’t answer. He looked at me, that’s all. Very still.
Passive. And then I knew it wasn’t him. It was him.
The world went silent. My mind slipped out of gear as it does as you’re going to sleep. I believed everything and nothing. I thought this changes everything. I thought this is a blind alley in time with no significance and no consequences. I thought this is what joy feels like, so. I thought about my mother, and that other woman and the no-difference between them. I held out a hand. He took a dancing step towards me, one foot crossing over in front of the other in an unstable beautiful move from which you could only fall or fly away.
He said, No touching. No problem, I said.
“Mary Magdalene” from the collection of short stories Fabulous by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Harper. Copyright © 2020 by Lucy Hughes-Hallett.