Slap, slap, slurp: a hollow, juicy sound. Stephanie’s pasting up posters on the dark green wall of a Victorian urinal. The year’s 1971. This urinal still stands there at the bottom of Carnaby Street, alongside Liberty’s of London. See it now, as then. Stephanie is clearly not an expert at what’s called posting bills. Paste dribbles down all over the place: they go up crooked, they overlap. But up they go. The legend Bill Posters Will Be Prosecuted gets obscured, as another poster slips and slides.
`Poor Bill Posters,’ says Layla.
Stephanie doesn’t get the joke. This is her life problem. Her life asset is her beauty. In 1971 she is twenty-five; she has perfect features, a lanky body, abundant blonde straight hair, and rather large hands and feet. Layla is twenty-six, shorter, plumper, funnier; she has curly dark hair. One side of Layla’s face does not line up with the other, so she is called sexy and attractive, but seldom beautiful. Layla does not regard this as a life problem. She has too much to think about.
The posters declare over and over, A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle. People stare a moment and pass on. The message makes no sense. Obviously women need men. Everyone needs men. Masculinity is all. Armies need men, and government and business and technology and high finance. And teaching and medicine and adventuring and fashion. And all the serious arts. Offices, except for the typing pool, which is female, need men. It’s homes which need women, except for the lawn which is male. Women are for sex, motherhood and domesticity. Men are for status and action. Outside the home is high status, inside the home is low status. In popular myth men make decisions, women try on hats. The world is all id and precious little anima. Layla and Stephie, friends, mean to change all this. A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle. Ho, ho, ho. Everyone knows women compete for male attention; isn’t this how the problem of female bitchery arises? Catty? Felines are nothing compared with women. Perhaps this puzzle poster is advertising something?
A couple of tourists, Brian and Nancy from New Zealand, emerge from the crowds in Carnaby Street. They have been rendered punch-drunk by colour, fabric, and the smell of patchouli. These are still flower-power and drug days. See feather boas, silk caftans, crushed velvet hats; lots of mauve, flares, miniskirts, platform heels; good-looking guys with lots of hair, girls with doll faces drifting behind them; wide eyes, fake lashes, white faces. Brian and Nancy both wear white Aertex shirts and tennis shoes for ease and comfort. Both are in culture shock. They flew in today from Wellington. (It took thirty-six hours.) They are accustomed to mountains, plains and sheep farms. Brian is gloriously handsome and golden. Nancy is pleasing enough to look at, but lacks eroticism: she’s tall, long-limbed, and manages to appear gawky rather than slender.
Brian is reading a newspaper headline. Oz Trial Verdict — the Bear’s Obscene. He has taken the paper from its stand but seems to have no intention of paying for it. The man who owns the kiosk lifts eyes to heaven. He is a relic of the old days. He has no nose. Leprosy ate it away. People avert their eyes but buy more papers.
`Total filth,’ says Brian.
Nancy is staring at the poster, trying to make out its meaning. She senses that there is something mysterious and powerful here. Layla and Stephanie have finished with their bill-posting and now advance towards Brian and Nancy. Layla has a plank tucked under her arm. Nancy nudges Brian.
`Is something the matter, Nancy?’ asks Brian, who has a man’s dislike of subtle hints.
`Shouldn’t we get on to the Youth Hostel?’ asks Nancy.
`They fill up early.’ She tries to draw him to one side but he resists.
`Stop nagging,’ he says.
`Sorry,’ she says. Women would say this to men automatically, far more frequently then than they do now.
`Sex life of Rupert Bear,’ he says. `Getting school kids involved. Disgusting. And this Neville fellow is an antipodean. But this thing is worldwide, I reckon. A worldwide epidemic of permissiveness.’ He likes the sound of this. He repeats it.
`Could we pass?’ asks Layla, politely, since Brian and his unbought newspaper bar their way. The noseless man smiles thinly under hideous nostrils.
`Ladies say please,’ says Brian. At which Layla simply turns and swipes him to one side with the end of the plank, turns back, and she and Stephanie move on. Brian, knocked against the wall momentarily, recovers quickly.
`Aggressive bitches,’ he says.
`You were in their way, Brian,’ remarks Nancy, which makes Brian wonder exactly whose side she’s on.
`They must be feminists,’ he observes.
`How can you be sure?’ she asks.
`They don’t even walk like proper women,’ he says.
And it’s true. All around Brian and Nancy doe-eyed and adoring women drift along in the shadow of men, stumbling on platforms, trit-trotting in stiletto heels. Layla and Stephanie stride; they wear jeans and T-shirts. Their equivalents today would be muscular and well exercised. Layla and Stephanie, for all their health, strength and energy, are soft-limbed, smooth-shouldered. Men have muscles: women have defencelessness as their weapon. No wonder this world is so erotic, super-charged: composed of polarities as it is. He, she. Hard, soft. Think, feel. Yin, yang. Nancy stares down at her laced canvas sandshoes, with their flat heels which seem to sink you into soil, and is suddenly dissatisfied with all things practical and sensible. Brian shoves the newspaper, badly folded, back into the kiosk rack. The newspaper seller snarls, all red gum and broken teeth and no nose. Brian does not even notice. But on the way past, he too stops and stares at the posters.
`I don’t understand that,’ he says. `Is it some kind of stupid ad for something?’
`I think it means women could exist without men,’ says Nancy.
`But why would they want to?’ asks Brian. He’s genuinely puzzled. There will always be women waiting for Brian, with his powerful shoulders, bronzed skin and blue eyes gazing out at the white-topped, non-existent mountains. It is hard for any of us to get beyond our sample of one; namely, ourself.
Stephanie drives her little Mini home. Layla goes too. There is to be a consciousness-raising meeting at Stephanie’s house at No. 103 Chalcot Crescent. The drive takes only ten minutes. Traffic flow is half what it is now, and there are lots of parking places, even down the pretty, narrow, Georgian street which curves between Regent’s Park Road and Chalcot Square. In those days you could get a house in Chalcot Square for 30,000 [pounds sterling]. Today, expect three-quarters of a million. So it goes. Everyone has a property story. Look right from the porched windows of No. 103 and see the green of Primrose Hill, look left to the double-fronted green and white curved house at the end of the Crescent, which was once a brothel. Ancient taxi drivers would report that years ago, in his youth, a royal scion would be wheeled by giggling girls up and down the Crescent in a pram, dressed in baby clothes. Whatever changed, except the status of certain roads in certain areas? Primrose Hill, now so salubrious, used to be known as the Coalblow, so much soot drifted over from the King’s Cross marshalling yards; here was the highest bronchitis rate in the entire Western world. Not that a man in a pram would suffer much, in the time it took to get to the end of the street and back. It would be worse for the girls who lived and worked there, but they were two a penny, then as now.
At this time the Crescent was a home for artists and Bohemians: the academics were moving in: soon it would be the bankers’ turn. Stephanie’s husband Hamish lived in the Crescent and owned an antique shop around the corner in Regent’s Park Road. He was an artist by talent and temperament, but made an allied living buying and selling the artefacts of the past. In those days few could tell a Victorian handsaw from an Edwardian fire-tong, oak from pine, or Roman glass from Woolworth’s. Now everyone knows.
As Layla and Stephanie unpacked the Mini they saw Zoe approach, pushing little Saffron in a buggy. She was crying: Zoe, that is to say, not Saffron. Zoe had a degree in sociology, and staying at home to look after her child depressed her. She found the company of children boring and her husband difficult. He was an engineer and talked mostly of bridges, and occasionally slapped Zoe, which was not the sin it nowadays is. And which she could have prevented had she really tried, but she enjoyed occupying the moral high ground.
`Zoe,’ asked Stephanie, `what’s the matter?’
`Bull wouldn’t baby-sit,’ said Zoe. `I had to bring Saffron along. I hope you don’t mind. You can’t blame Bull, I suppose.’
Zoe’s husband’s name was Bullivant Meadows.
`Can’t you?’ asked Layla. `Why not?’ She had the plank tucked under her arm again. Zoe stopped crying and looked at it warily.
`It seems a bit much,’ said Zoe, `excluding men from a meeting and then expecting them to baby-sit.’
`I don’t see why,’ said Layla. `Men have babies too. And what is playing squash but a club from which women are excluded?’ Bullivant played squash for his county.
Zoe looked baffled and Stephie observed, `One day we will live in a world in which men aren’t called Bull.’ And they all went inside.
Now, inside there was all the generosity, jumble, untidiness, and the over-regard for the past and lack of regard for the future which typified those years. While only too anxious to do away with the social and domestic restraints of the present, everyone’s ambition was to retrieve the junk of the past and live with it. Dusty old kelim carpets covered the floors; old oak chairs collapsed under you, too worm-eaten to function; cracked glass paintings covered the walls; ships in bottles and matchstick palaces collected dust on every available shelf. Newness in objects had no value: only what was old and craftsman-made was accorded respect. In this ambience Hamish, buying cheap from little old ladies and selling dear to young professionals, made a good enough living. It was Stephanie’s misfortune to be earning her living in an advertising agency, which of all new trades was the newest, and the most ungentlemanly, being so concerned with commercial success. Hamish found Stephanie’s job difficult to accept. He came from Glasgow where his mother worked in a betting shop, and should, as his wife observed, have been accustomed enough to women working, and to frivolous and anti-social ends at that: nevertheless, he was troubled. He had hoped for finer more artistic things. And as their two little boys, Roland and Rafe, played with their Victorian toys upon the dirty floor, who was there ever at hand to take out the wooden splinters which so frequently pierced their poor little fingers? Only the au pair girl, whose face and accent kept changing, and whose nature and skill with a needle was unpredictable, and who had left last week, anyway.
Hamish, who is in his mid-thirties, muscular, glowing from within with a tawny, sexy flame, black Zapata moustache as was the fashion of the day, hiding an over-sensitive — or was it cruel — upper lip, stands in the conservatory beating a refectory table with a length of chain. Bang, bang, crash, tinkle, over and over again. Zoe comes to see what’s happening, dragging Saffron behind her in the pushchair. Saffron, disconcerted by the sight and sound of a man beating up furniture, sets up a wail.
`All Saffron ever does is bawl,’ complains Zoe to Hamish, by way of conversation. `She’s so ungrateful. I’m doing this for her future not mine. She doesn’t realise the risk I’m taking. Supposing Bull throws me out?’
`Bull, Bull, Bull,’ says Hamish. Zoe comes round quite a lot, to talk about Bull and eye Hamish up. All women eye Hamish up. They seem unable to help it, and he doesn’t even particularly encourage it. Hamish goes on banging.
Zoe goes on into the room where the meeting is to be held. It overlooks the street.
Stephanie and Layla put their pots of paint and paste and left-over posters with the other junk under the stairs. In this recess also find a Venetian glass goblet with a broken stem, an Etruscan vase in two pieces, half a Roman head with the nose eaten away, and other treasures. Two small dark boys with narrow faces and almond eyes sit impassively on the stairs and watch the grown-ups; Rafe and Roland. Both suck their thumbs and wear pyjamas.
`Go to bed, boys,’ says Stephanie. They rise obediently and go.
`Are they frightened of you?’ asks Layla.
`No,’ says Stephanie. `They just want a quiet life. They will do anything to avoid a conversation with me, even obey me.’
Layla’s turn to go in and stare at Hamish. Bang, bang, bang.
`What the fuck are you doing, Hamish?’
He doesn’t deign to reply. Stephie follows after to offer an explanation.
`He’s giving it a bit of age. Antiquing it up. It’s made from new wood, but in an hour you’d never know it. Old tables fetch more than new.’
`I’m surprised your principles allow you to tolerate this,’ says Layla.
`Morality is a relative when it comes to antiques,’ says Stephanie.
`A man has to make a living somehow,’ says Hamish, banging away.
`He’s not in a good mood,’ says Stephanie. `I got promotion at work today. Now I earn more than he does.’
`Women earning more than men upsets the natural order of things,’ says Hamish. `Anyone can make money in advertising.’
`You only make money in advertising or anywhere if you’re shit hot, Hamish,’ says Layla. And she enquired as to how the kids ever got to sleep in this house: she was sure she never could.
`God knows,’ said Hamish, but he gave up banging with his chain and offered the two women the glimmer of a smile. He was not without politeness. He even enquired as to how the bill-posting had gone.
`We’d have got more up,’ said Stephanie, `but we had to get back for the meeting. For all I knew you’d refuse to open the front door. Men do that kind of thing.’
Hamish said he’d left the door on the latch so women could just walk in if they felt like it and he wouldn’t have to stop work. Open house for women presumably meant just that. The point was to raise women’s consciousness, forget what kind of woman, which was never specified. Delinquent or criminally insane notwithstanding, a woman was a woman was a woman, by inference. So welcome all comers: what need of locks. Hamish did not, incidentally, think that the slogan A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle was particularly effective. It was obscure and surely Stephanie with her training in advertising understood the folly of the opaque.
`Besides,’ added Hamish, `people have more to worry about than the oppression of the female.’
`Like what?’ asked Layla.
`Paying their rent,’ said Hamish. `Saving for their funeral, their teeth falling out. Exploitation by the bosses. Hunger, penury, disease, and so forth.’
`Show me a man having a bad time,’ said Layla, `and I’ll show you a woman having a worse one. I quote our mentor, Alice.’
Layla was nothing if not honourable when it came to quoting her sources. Layla had been brought up in Rhodesia. She’d run away to London when she was nineteen and gone to Cambridge for a year before being sent down for lack of application to her studies. She owned a vast house in Cheyne Walk which she filled with friends and lodgers. It was unmodernised and she complained of the cost. Layla worked in a publishing house, not because she needed the money but because, she explained, she liked to have objectives. She had to be nailed to the ground by other people’s expectations or else she’d simply fly off the face of the earth. She said what she thought, and did as she felt, a privilege granted only to those who inherit money, and who care more what they think of other people than what other people think of them.
Hamish remarked that Alice had an elegant turn of phrase, and as a token of his appreciation he would bring the meeting coffee at half-time, and how many were expected?
`Five,’ said Stephanie.
`It is not multitudes,’ said Hamish.
`It is a beginning,’ said Stephanie.
Hamish began hammering again. He was courteous to his wife but estranged from her. Their eyes looked past one another. They were not easy in each other’s company. But neither spoke of it to the other: `talking it out’ was a concept not yet invented. Marriages were conducted in silence.
Two women now knocked upon the door, and, finding it open, simply pushed and came into the house. `Like a public meeting hall,’ said Hamish, with distaste, though who but he had left the door unlocked?
Daffy and Alice were the names of the newcomers. Daffy was in her late twenties. She wore a boiler suit and big boots, but the disguise merely accentuated her ravishing prettiness, the slender line from shoulder to buttock, the swell of the breasts, the slimness of ankle. Whatever she wore it was the same: she scarcely noticed any more. Alice was tiny, round-faced, dark-eyed, serious; only her eyes moved rapidly: the rest was slow: she had the gift of stillness. Alice was all mind and very little matter: she was an academic: asexual, as if too much thought had sucked her body dry.
Layla, Stephie, Daffy, Alice and Zoe. Five furies in the front room, sitting in a semicircle.
`Dorothy couldn’t come,’ said Stephanie. `She had to cook the children’s tea. And Maureen decided against it. She doesn’t want to upset her father.’
`The man’s lament,’ said Layla. `Where are you going, my darling? Stay home with me, wife, mother, daughter, whoever you be. Female to my male. Surely you love me? Don’t I cherish you, protect your virtue, provide the roof over your head, keep your false friends and your mother at bay? Stay home, woman, as your love for me surely dictates. Warm my bed, perfect my table, iron my shirts.’
`Do you find that tempting?’ asked Stephanie, for something melancholy in Layla’s voice suggested that she did.
`Of course. I’m a weak sister. Aren’t we all?’
`No,’ said Stephie, and her accusing eyes drifted over to where Daffy sat, and her expression said, `Weak, weak, weak.’ And Daffy smirked.
Layla said, `Since this is our third meeting could we all try to be honest with one another? Say what we really think and feel? Men have made us meek little creatures: it’s to their advantage. But we weren’t born like that.’
`There’ll be trouble,’ said Stephanie.
`Good,’ said Layla.
At the same time as Daffy smirked in Primrose Hill, so did a young reception clerk in the Youth Hostel behind Tottenham Court Road. He smirked because he saw that Brian, the simple antipodean, was taken aback to discover that the Youth Hostel no longer ruthlessly separated men from women for their overnight stay. Brian and Nancy would share a dormitory. What they did or did not do in their bunks was no concern of management. He smirked because he had what nowadays would be called an `attitude’. He was tired of dealing with tourists: of working while they had a good time: he was glad when they were disconcerted.
`It’s OK,’ he said. `We’re half-empty. You’ll be on your own.’ Nancy and Brian lugged their iron-framed, canvas rucksacks up the stairs. Then the old and rich travelled easily, with porters attending every step of the way. The young and poor had a heavier time of it. Now at least their rucksacks are lighter, being made of steel and nylon, and oppress them less.
`I told you there was no need to rush,’ said Brian.
`Half-empty’, said Nancy, `is the same as half-full. We’re here nice and early.’
Little events shake the world. If Brian hadn’t chosen to read a newspaper without paying for it, if Nancy hadn’t seen a poster saying A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle, if the Youth Hostel had been full, and so on, and so forth. But more of this later.
In the front room of the narrow house in Primrose Hill, Layla, Stephie, Daffy and Zoe were grouped round Alice, who sat like the High Priestess in a high-back chair, straight, formal and composed. She spoke coolly and with conviction. Little Saffron drowsed, still strapped into her pushchair, in the space between her mother and the oracle.
`The Socialists claim’, said Alice, `that if you improve the condition of the working man, remove the injustices of capitalism, the “women’s problem” will automatically be resolved. To improve the lot of women first improve the lot of men. But do we anticipate that men will allow this to happen? We do not. Where did our association with the Marxists and the Trotskyists leave us, we the women who wanted to join with them to change the world? Where were we when the barricades in Paris fell?’
`Making the coffee,’ said Stephanie.
`Addressing the envelopes,’ said Zoe.
`Filling their beds,’ said Layla.
`And when the State has withered away,’ said Alice, `when the rights of the workers are finally established, what’s the betting that’s where we still will be? Women cannot depend upon men to save them. We must depend upon ourselves. We must speak out with loud clear voices.’
At which Daffy stood up. Her skin was luminous: pale and fair. Her lips were full and so deeply pink it seemed she had lipstick on, but of course she hadn’t.
`But if I stand up in a room full of men and speak, my voice goes high and squeaky. Like this,’ she said, demonstrating.
`High and squeaky. I feel stupid and they all look at me.’
`I think Alice may have been speaking metaphorically,’ said Stephanie.
Stephanie came from a Jewish family of high achievers. Her father ran a chain of toy-shops but had over-expanded too suddenly and lost his money. He and Stephanie’s mother, who had been in politics and had helped engineer the National Health Service, had let the family house and retreated to Ibiza where they lived in passionate love, above a friend’s clothes shop. Stephanie was left to make her own life in London. She had met Layla at Cambridge in the days of her parents’ wealth, and even then had felt orphaned, as is ever the fate, as Tolstoy pointed out, of the children of lovers.
`What’s metaphorically?’ asked Daffy, whose mother worked part-time in a betting shop, and whose father was a railway engineer.
`Daffy,’ said Stephie, `you’re such a fool it’s hopeless telling you.’
`I didn’t risk my marriage to come here to listen to ordinary female squabbling,’ interrupted Zoe. `I can hear that any day round the toddlers’ sandpit.’
No one took any notice of Zoe. Daffy turned on Stephie.
`What right have you to call me a fool?’ she asked. `You’re so pompous, Stephie. You think you own the universe. You’re worse than a man. I’m tired of being patronised. And that goes for all of you. I do believe you’re jealous.’
`What is there to be jealous of, you silly cow?’ Layla summed up. `Sit down everyone.’ * * *
So they did and tried again. Alice continued.
`The Marxists say that men are born free but everywhere are in chains –‘
Copyright ” 1997 by Fay Weldon. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.