An unusual psychological thriller. A woman in her 50’s decides to break out of her mundane existence when a strange opportunity presents itself. She grabs the chance with both hands. Where this leads nobody would have foretold. Her midlife crisis will put most women’s in the shade and leads us to question how in control we are of our own destiny. It is loosely based on an event that happened to the author and started her thinking. The story that followed wrote itself …
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The Mirror's Tale
Published by: epubli GmbH, Berlin,www.epubli.de
Copyright: © 2013 by Christine M. Hummel
Jacket design by Jürg and Chris Hummel.
And here I was thinking I was clever! I really thought I was street-wise, that I was easily bright enough to suss out what was going on... Was this to prove a humbling experience?
- Ney, my friend; much, much more than that.
Oh, shit, not morning, please, not bloody morning. Don’t let it be. It can’t be. Not really. Not already - not again! But of course it was. It always bloody was.
From that you can no doubt tell that I had woken that day feeling seriously grumpy - not an unusual occurrence, in fact a more and more common one as I was forced to wearily drag myself to work on dirty, unreliable, public transport day after day after day, the one and a half hours it took to get to the school where I had worked for 13 years. Thirteen bloody years! Unlucky for some, I thought - ‘Gone in the boom-boom of a humdrum’, I said to myself, attempting to jolly myself along. Trying, as always to be the cheerful dyed-in-the-wool archetypal teacher that I clearly wasn’t.
Habitually Pink Floyd reared up to annoy me…‘All-in-all you‘re just another brick...’ kept running through my head, endlessly. How corny can you get! An ‘earworm’ if ever there was one - the German expression for songs that ‘get on your brain’. More than that, this one had got on my wick and was becoming my theme tune. I seriously hated it but it wouldn’t budge.
This was the ‘me’ that lived through that cheerful, jokey English way of being - not who I actually was at all. I hated that too, but it was a survival strategy given the environment that I had to work in, the people I had to work with. I knew the script and practised it religiously though often wearily. If I opened my mouth to say what Ireallythought, how Ireallyfelt… God, it didn’t bear thinking about!… So I didn’t.
The previous day before it all kicked off had been a holiday, as it was some important saint‘s day and I worked at a Catholic school. ‘Thank you God for that!’ After all there had to be some kind of compensation for working in an establishment that felt like wearing a right shoe on a left foot, or vice versa. I guess I had just got used to the pain. How I had enjoyed that free day, cocooning myself at home, listening to the radio and being sumptuously lazy. Relaxing in the armchair, curled up with a mug of good coffee, rather than the instant muck we got in the staff room at school, even the smell of which really turned my stomach. It gave me wonderful expansive pleasure, this freedom to do what I liked and with no hurry involved.
Happily ingesting the programmes from ‘Start the Week’ to ‘Woman’s Hour’ (What an old-fashioned title that was, it always struck me), I had come across one item where a cheery middle-aged woman was talking about how freeing it was to be 50 and thereby becoming, to all intents and purposes ‘invisible’. I could see her sensible, scrubbed, ‘no nonsense’ face in my mind’s eye, short, frumpy, pudding-basin haircut - the sort of woman who had always disapproved of me; always instantly disliked me. Boy, had I had some run-ins with that sort of woman in my time.
She, this old bat on the radio, had found that, as far as the general population was concerned, women were no longer of any interest once they had passed their childbearing years, and were therefore apparently no longer sexually attractive. Whilst she found this liberating, it seemed to me to be profoundly sad, and harked back to the days when women were considered nothing more than breeding machines… but…. it certainly struck a chord. It niggled on and on. Had I passed my sell-by date?
I kept returning to it.
As you might guess, anyone who works with teenagers will have experienced the sensation of being part of the furniture, to be used when needed, to be sat on when tired, to be slashed at when angry, but to be otherwise ignored. However, I had somehow thought this was confined to that age group, their problem in fact, and that once past pubescence, normal service would be resumed.
Now I knew I was wrong. It seemed, it continued.
I looked in the mirror that morning. Horror! My God. Who the hell is she, that despicable, faded looking thing that even I wouldn’t be in the least bit interested in knowing. My skin suddenly looked yellow-grey, repellent.
I felt sick. I dragged myself away and went to dress. These clothes had seemed original, exciting, even statement-making, when I had worn them before; now they looked like they were from the wardrobe of that much maligned archetypal creature, the spinster librarian - or, even worse, the hand-knitted art teacher, which I hoped I wasn’t. I questioned my perceptions but they wouldn‘t shift. I now knew that I had been deluding myself. This, it seemed, was ‘truth’.
Fifty and alone; my marriage had failed in a slow, dwindling, fading kind of way, after our only daughter had decidedly taken herself out of the picture by moving to Australia. How could she? The cow. I was still fighting the anger.
There really was nothing else to say between us after that, my husband and I, so we had parted to make the pain of the realization of the ‘before’ and ‘after’, less obvious. Many of the friends we had had together also retreated silently to abet the quietness of the split; so as not to disturb the dust. And my daughter? She might as well have been on another planet.
When had I last heard from her? I wasn’t even sure…
Hey ho. Sandwiches made.
Time to go. It was raining, of course. Grab an umbrella. Take the local train to the bigger station in town. As I travelled no-one looked at me. They didn‘t bump into me but they showed no sign of noticing my existence. I dug my nails hard into my arm.
No-one acknowledged my presence. I realised this was not a new occurrence. Over the years it had become more and more the case. Was I guilty of treating the folk who were even older than I was the same way? Yes, I guessed I was. Perhaps the older you got the less you counted. What a thought! What a bloody thought! Shit.
My anger rose as I ruminated on this all too relevant issue.
Baby on Board. Yes. – Middle aged person on board? Old age pensioner on board? Never! There was a certain damning logic to it. Obviously it was O.K. to drive dangerously in the presence of these less important beings. ‘At what precise age did one become viable road-rage fodder?’ I wondered.
I tried to change the subject, think of ideas for the classes I had to teach that day. I was good at original ideas – or was I? Maybe I just thought I was… The self-doubt was seeping insidiously into all areas of my being.
Getting out at the end of the first leg of my journey, I felt old, dowdy and of no significance to anyone or anything. I walked heavily over from the first train and stepped onto the down-escalator to change platforms, my usual morning pattern. The station was overrun with people dashing to work, intent on their own goals, thinking their own thoughts, worrying over their own problems, or re-living the joys of the previous evening – simply inaccessible.
I looked at the faces as I went down underground, stepping gingerly onto the escalator. Today I was vulnerable. It was a day when things would easily go wrong When things would fall, unexplained from my fingers, my nose would run when I had no hanky, there would turn out to be no black paper left in the draw for the project I had planned for the most difficult class etc. etc. The list of annoyances and incidences of bad luck were endless and this was a form of superstition that I had come firmly to believe in. As the day began, so it would continue. Complicated patterns would emerge like, things start well then turn bad, or, no matter how bad it looks nothing drastic will occur etc. etc.
I went on my way.
I’d invented many games to pass the time on the long journeys to and from school: Worst and best dressed awards, the weirdest person, the person I would least like to be, which I now realised was designed to make me feel better about myself. It rarely did, but rather succeeded in making me feel guilty for feeling sorry for myself. I was healthy and had a roof over my head…and enough to eat, didn’t I? It wasn’t bloody enough - and I’m no woolly liberal. I would not be forced to feel grateful; so there.
My God, I felt grey. I was sorry for myself. I had crawled out from under a stone - and I wished I hadn’t.
As I descended slowly on the escalator to a lower level, a face met mine. It had intruded into my thoughts: A man’s face. It had registered me. Why? In the past I would have automatically assumed that he fancied me, but those days were all but forgotten. Did I know him? I didn’t think so, and as I rarely forgot a face, I was pretty sure. I glanced back as he passed. Yes, he was still looking at me. Then he disappeared in the crowd.
Gone. Oh. Disappointment.
Perhaps he did fancy me. Perhaps he thought he knew me. But the expression on his face had been so intense. I tried to make sense of it.
I fed on this event during the day, denying all the other possibilities that had occurred to me. He found me attractive! It was balm to my sore and weeping ego of the early morning, and I pushed away any doubts, fending them off whenever they crept near. I began to feel better, and in fact, I began to feel quite gorgeous and I knew I was walking, moving differently. I may be old but I had far more magic, charisma, than all these stupid blank young things that were everywhere, that believed themselves superior. Unpainted empty pots, they were simply uninteresting. I still felt brittle but I was exceedingly grateful for the change this small incident had brought. Perhaps my superstitions were wrong?
The following morning the weather was decidedly better. As I looked in the mirror, I dragged out the memory of the incident yet again to stoke the good feelings that were beginning to falter. It was weakening. I had overworked it and it was becoming ragged and would, I knew, soon be useless.
Then… can you believe it. It happened again. I was going down the escalator, and obviously reliving the event, although it was starting to annoy me that I kept doing this, I saw him rising up towards me and was unsure about the reality of it. He looked at me with a look of wonder, shock, incredulity! I knew it was a different event, mainly because there was more of it than yesterday. It was clearer, but more puzzling. I was definitely having a profound effect on this man. This time I was more aware of his identity. He was quite presentable, almost good-looking… well, not bad anyway and very well dressed. Good colour sense and not bald; probably about my age. Bit small perhaps but never mind.
As I worked it over and over in my mind I became a little alarmed. As a young woman at college, among my friends, I had had the reputation as someone who attracted nutters and it was true. There was the old crone who had come up to me outside Woolworth’s and told me ‘Mark my words, you’ll be fetchin’ and carryin’ all yer life’ - and she could have been right had I not taken great pains to ward off the curse and make sure I did as little fetching and carrying as was humanly possible (difficult for an art teacher who is always supposed to be bringing in this and that, and marking the essays from the art history course.) Another time a seriously deranged man who was shouting and swaying about on the pavement, had reeled round the rear of a car in which I was sitting in the back, whilst it was stationary at the lights.
He had banged on the window right next to me although I was seated in the furthest corner, opposite where he had started out on the pavement, much to the amusement of all the other occupants of the car, one of whom had, only that minute predicted just such a thing happening as the ragged apparition neared the car, ‘He’ll go for Angela’ he had said ‘You’ll see!’ He was amazed when his soothsaying turned out to be true.
Later on in life I had studied psychology and had ended up working with, if not out-and-out nutters, people with serious psychological problems. Was this yet another instance of my magnetic qualities towards the mentally insane?
I brushed it aside as me being negative. After all it was just as likely that he, the man on the escalator, fancied me, wasn’t it? Middle-aged men could conceivably fancy middle-aged women, couldn’t they? It didn’t always have to be bimbos and floosies, did it?
But would he turn out to be obsessive - a stalker, perhaps, to combine the two trains of thought? Maybe, in fact probably, but right then it really didn’t matter. It was exciting.
The following day I found I almost expected to see him, was looking out for him, and I was pleased when he sort of nodded at me along with the stare. I think I would have been disappointed had nothing new happened. I was beginning to feel good about the whole thing, and I was terribly shocked the following day when he was nowhere in evidence. To add to my consternation it was a Friday and I felt slightly wounded, and not quite comfortable about things all weekend. Was that it?
Monday morning came, as it inevitably does, and I had a strong feeling of apprehension, which vacillated between excitement and fear of being let down. I put on a rather smart black suit, something I had not had very long and was still really in the ‘for best’ category.
Looking in the mirror, my appearance seemed moderately impressive but not as alluring as I wanted it to be, just in case he showed up again. I turned the waistband over to raise the hem a touch. That was better. The black leather coat worn open and with the collar up looked a bit French, a bit ‘left-bankish’. I wasn’t too sure… but it was time to leave, and now I was stuck with it.
On the first leg of my journey I decided if I did see him I would say something, just a greeting probably as something told me that otherwise the staring thing with the perfunctory grunt would be all that happened. I wasn’t sure I had the guts and I was still mulling it over in my head – shall/shan’t, will/won’t, ought to/shouldn’t when he passed me on the escalator with a nod of the head and a strangled, over-hurried ‘Good Morning’. I was confused, both elated and disappointed, I had been prepared to do it; he had beaten me to it, damn it - but the elation won out as I continued with the more usual ingredients of my very predictable life. Sitting on the train I listened again and again to the greeting as it played in my head. Another voice warned ‘this is becoming obsessive, this is unhealthy’, but it was easily drowned out. No-one who was present that morning wanted to hear it.
This pattern continued over the weeks and, although it still gave me some comfort, and fed my wilted, impoverished ego somewhat, I no longer believed it would be my salvation. He was it seemed, no white knight. It wasn’t going anywhere. Life had returned more or less to drab, and, although I was still more careful about how I looked in the mornings, it didn’t seem to be having any effect, and I was required to fight off a pervasive sense of disappointment, an ‘Oh well that’s obviously how it would go. Nothing surprising there.’
One morning I got up to find it had rained in during the night. I had left the window wide-open, as it had been a stuffy, oppressive sort of an evening. The weather forecast had not predicted any rain and I, in naïve fashion, had believed them. Had there been a thunderstorm? If so, why hadn’t I woken up? I was a very light sleeper. I cleaned up the mess as best I could, but my diary which was on a table under one of the windows was soaked and, since I wrote it with a fountain pen, quite a lot of it was seriously smudged. I put it carefully down, hoping to dry it out without exacerbating the damage, but I knew that some of it was ruined. How much, remained to be seen.
Wiping up the sludgy mess had taken some time and I was really late leaving the house, after dressing hurriedly and not as carefully as I would have liked, and as had become necessary of late, for reasons you are already well aware of.
Surprisingly I caught my first train which providentially, also turned out to be very late that particular morning. I was lucky, it seemed. But we predictably arrived at my connection several minutes later than usual, which inevitably caused a change in the now regular pattern of events. I would have to run like hell to make my next train.
So intent I was on catching it that I almost failed to see him coming out of the newspaper kiosk near the top of the escalator. He was opening a newly bought newspaper and… it wasn’t an English one! I didn’t have time to be sure of what its title was, but I thought the headline looked like Italian or Spanish as all the words seemed to end in vowels. Ummm…. Very interesting.
I was so stunned at this revelation that I stopped hurrying and consequently, missed my connecting train. I couldn’t digest this momentous discovery and run. My legs just gave up when the master that gave them their orders was so preoccupied. This meant that I would have to wait another fifteen minutes before there would be another train.
Normally, I would have immediately phoned the school secretary to tell her that I would be late, though this seldom happened. In fact I don’t think I had been late more than once in the last 13 years, or for that matter, more than a handful of times in my entire career. I was very reliable, totally dependable.
So, it was decidedly out of character that I dismissed this course of action for the moment at least, and legged it back through the station, running up the escalator to where I had last seen him. I was almost sure that he hadn’t been aware of me at all that morning, hadn’t even caught a glimpse of me hurrying on my way. In any case, he would not know that I had missed my train. If I could locate his whereabouts I could spy on him, and maybe find out some more about who he was and what he did.
I realised as I reached the square in front of the station that this was something of a long shot. Hundreds of busy commuters were milling about there, and I had no idea where his place of work was. But I did wonder whether maybe he was in the habit of going for breakfast, or at least a coffee before work. That newspaper might be an indication of that. Coffee, croissant and reading the paper would be a good start to anyone’s day if they could afford the time. I wish! Might mean he wasn’t married, too! Where would he be likely to go? I hurriedly considered the options. There were far too many. At least seven places in the vicinity served breakfast and there was a vast choice if all one wanted was a quick coffee.
I also didn’t want to be seen, so I sneakily began with the one that was easiest to see into from an oblique vantage point. This was one where you climbed up many steep steps onto one of the station platforms, and from there you had a good view into a popular restaurant, which was built down at ground level. It was still difficult to make out the faces of the people inside, firstly because of the steep angle of the view and secondly, due to the dirty windows on this side. Probably it was virtually impossible to clean them because of the nearness to the steps that had brought me up there. I tried to peer in without attracting attention. I saw no-one that looked in the least bit like my target. Was this a ridiculous idea? Should I give up and go and wait patiently on the platform for my next train like a good girl?
I could ring the school with a story about late trains causing missed connections etc. They would definitely believe me. After all it was true to some extent and my aberration need never be known. There were advantages to be gained now from my years of boring, grinding reliability. In fact, it slowly dawned on me, there was nothing stopping me from going even later, after all I wouldn’t make it to my first class now even if I went on the next train, and there was a big gap in my timetable after that until my next one was due to begin.
My super ego was trying to make itself heard in my excited, erratic brain. You shouldn’t be doing this! But today, unusually, it didn’t stand a chance. No, I wasn’t going to be sensible, do the right thing, just for once in my middle-aged life I was going to do something unpredictable, something silly even!
It occurred to me that it was a good thing I hadn’t yet phoned the school. I could be caught on a broken-down train, couldn’t I? Why hadn’t I called on my mobile? I’d left it at home? The battery was flat? No, better - we were stuck in a tunnel! There was no signal there. It was awful. I felt claustrophobic, the lights had gone out. A power failure. I was terrified.
No, don’t overdo it. Remember - the lady doth protest too much.
Having failed in my quest to find his whereabouts at the first try I felt weary. The excitement went out of me, but I still didn’t feel like giving up and just returning to the status quo. Why don’t I go for a coffee anyway? I dared myself - regroup my thoughts. Settle myself for the inevitable return to the norm.
I chose to go to a quiet, rather dark and select place down a side street. It was one of my favourites because of the beautiful decor, something undervalued generally in this neck of the woods. It flashed through my brain that he might be there, but this thought was immediately slapped down by my more sensible, adult side. Not likely, given the number of other venues available and anyway, not very many people frequented this hidden gem. Nevertheless, I did look round carefully as I entered and a mingled feeling of relief and disappointment passed through me. Ah well! It would have been most unlikely.
I ordered a capuccino and sat in the corner furthest from the door. I needed something to do and, as I had given up smoking and had no cigarettes (I would certainly have succumbed had I had some with me. Oh bugger. Why had I given up? Why had I become so sensible?)
I thought of getting one of the newspapers or magazines the café thoughtfully provided for their well-heeled customers. This would have involved crossing the room again and my legs felt slightly paralysed, so I dismissed this option. No, I must start getting back to reality. I took out my timetable and began considering what I would be doing at school that day when I finally arrived. It was like treading heavy water to interest myself in this now seemingly distant part of my existence, but with a great effort I managed to involve myself, thinking of a difficult class I would have to cope with that afternoon. Should I change my lesson plan to something the disruptive element would take to more easily?
Having succeeded in re-entering my teaching mode of thinking, I was not prepared for something invading my periphery vision on the far right. I slowly became aware that someone was staring at me. As I started to focus on the spot in question a newspaper was raised to hide the face of whoever it was. Instantaneously, I took in the man’s hands. Neat, small, brown hands, then I more consciously took in the newspaper. It was Italian.No!
In panic I grabbed my things and left the place, aware that the newspaper had shifted and that I was being observed as I hurried out. He must have come in after me. Why had I fled? Hadn’t I been looking for him shortly before? Hadn’t I wanted desperately to find him? Yes, but only on my terms. My heart was overdoing its thing and I felt slightly sick. Suddenly I was depressed, and found myself returning to the station and my platform like a beaten dog, although I did keep looking back to see if he had followed me. He hadn’t. Again, relief and disappointment. Well, what did you want? What did you expect? Self-hatred crept in again as two parts of myself upbraided me for my stupidity. One was saying, ‘Why did you run when you had such a golden opportunity?’, the other, ‘What are you doing behaving in this juvenile manner?’ Neither of them liked me very much.
‘Whatever!’, as the kids would say. Back to reality. Sadly, and guiltily I boarded my train. It had all been for nothing, and now I would have the task of lying, with nothing at all to show for it. Sod it.
Needless to say they believed me, no questions asked (how sad) and I returned to my original lesson plan, the difficult one, to punish myself for my irresponsible behaviour.
As I went to bed that night I resolved to forget this whole sorry business, accept my age and stage in life, and not to be so silly ever again. The cage door was closing on me as before… with my help. Maybe it would have been better if I’d let it.
The next morning I reprimanded myself for considering my wardrobe yet again from his point of view, as I had become accustomed to doing of late. New habits, it seems, die hard too. I forced myself to put on the old brown felted sweater that it had been a dubious pleasure to own, even from the very beginning. It was awful. Where, and even more importantly, why, had I bought it? Cheap, no doubt, in a sale somewhere. It would do for school I had probably thought – and indeed it would, and it had. It didn’t really go with the other brown of the skirt. I put it on anyway, and that this was such an awful combination made it even better for my new ‘no-nonsense’ mood. However, as I reached the point of where his and my paths usually crossed, I was glad that my big black coat covered this horrendous lapse in taste. He clearly had a good aesthetic sense, and I would be so ashamed to be seen to be lacking in that respect.
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