by Tina Zenou
The green hills come rolling up towards us. Neat hedges of brambles divide them. In the distance the glitter of the ocean.
I look at all the beauty and I want to wind down the car window and scream and sing along at the top of my voice to ‘Tainted Love’ by Soft Cell. But I don’t because I am 19 and my boyfriend is seven years older and I am trying to keep my sense of general mature coolness. Boyfriend is being unnaturally quiet for him which makes me wonder if, three hours out of London, he’s already over me.
I have my feet up on the dash board and although it’s too hot I am wearing black boots with pointy metallic toes and my hair is cropped very short and dyed a patchy black and orange colour.
This is my first paid holiday. I dropped out of some media degree and landed a job in publishing and now I get both sick days and paid holidays. The roads become more narrow and Boyfriend’s driving is jerky through the curves. I hold onto my seat and concentrate not to be sick. From the top of a hill the road looks like a snake slithering though the landscape until we roll down a hill and loose sight of it. I wonder if we have nothing in common other than the fact that he’s quite keen on having sex and I am quite keen on the idea of having an older boyfriend.
“We’ve got another couple of hours to go”, he says and sighs.10“Okay”, I say.
“She’s a bit strange my aunt”, he says.
“How do you mean?”
“You’ll see when we get there.”
He has his eyes on the road and doesn’t look at me. He has grown a beard and wears round, horn rimmed glasses. His hair is dark and slightly curly and he has 5000 records in his vinyl collection that he keeps in alphabetical order, divided by genre.
We turn off the main road that runs through the small village and drive down a dirt road. His Aunt stands at the gate when we roll up. The wild roses are in flower, I see her tall elegant figure by the wooden garden gate. Later I will come to think of her as stately. We park the car and get out. She smiles.
“Hello you two.” She has shoulder length dark blond hair and is wearing a soft brown dress of some silky material that clings to her body and is tied around her straight waist with a thin belt. Boyfriend is visibly uncomfortable when he says “Hello Aunty Judy” and when she leans in to kiss him on his cheek he keeps a good few inches of air between the rest of their bodies.
Aunty Judy was once a man. It’s just one of those things I can still tell from her nose and hands and who knows what else. I give her a big hug to compensate for Boyfriend’s awkwardness and her breasts are soft against mine. She smells of lavender which is just what I expect from a Welsh aunty.
She carries my bag inside and Boyfriend is dragging his feet and his bag behind.
“I’m sure he’s told you all about me and my little life here” Judy says with her back to me.
“No, nothing really.”
She looks beyond me at him. A flicker of a frown shadows her face and I can see the family resemblance. But it could also just be the light and the shadow playing their game through the canopy of the chestnut tree.
Judy puts the kettle on while I go into the bedroom to unpack. It is big enough to fit just a double bed and a wardrobe. Boyfriend is lying on the bed with his eyes closed and his book on his chest.
“I told you there was something unusual about Aunty Judy”, he whispers. I whisper back:
“You could have told me. She seems nice.”
“He’s a bit eccentric. Always was. Used to be John, my father’s brother”, he whispers. I have never met my boyfriend’s father. He died three years ago of cancer, before we met. Boyfriend takes my hand. He strokes it for a second then puts it on the front of his jeans and presses down. He has an erection. I can feel it through the denim.
“Not now. She’s made tea and she can probably hear us” I say and pull my hand away and get up to have tea.
“I don’t want any tea, I’m staying here and reading my book”, Boyfriend says and I walk into the kitchen.
I sit at the table. The fat fridge sounds like a bumble bee in flight. When I spill milk on the table and wipe it off with my sleeve she catches me and says: “Don’t do that.”
“Don’t ruin your clothes!” She breaks into a laugh. “It’s a plastic table cloth. You can spill pints of milk on it and just wipe it off. Great don’t you think? That’s the beauty of not being precious, takes away the fear of ruining something perfect.”
Once Boyfriend is up, three of us go for a walk into the village to buy groceries. I smell the dry earth, the cow dung, the ferns, the clematis. I hear the birds, the flies, the kids on their bikes, the farmer on a machine that I don’t know what it is.
Two boys of about twelve years old swerve around us on their bikes. They have hair shaved short to their skulls and their ears are red from the sun. When they come very close one of them calls out “Freak!” Before he has time to race on, Judy flips her arm out at him and catches him on the shoulder. “Piss off!” she shouts and he wobbles on his bike but doesn’t fall. We keep walking.
When we return home Boyfriend goes for a run. He’s training for some sponsored half marathon. While he’s out running I’m propped up on a plastic chair in Judy’s back garden drinking cheap white wine that I’m mixing with Sprite. Judy says “It’s early in the day we’d better mix it up”. I say “okay” but where I work in publishing, we have boozy lunches at least once a week, usually on a Friday unless Friday is the day we go to print. Sometimes they stretch on into the evening. It has happened that a very attractive reporter from the local newspaper turns up, because it’s their local pub too, and I have on several occasions gone to bed with him and it has always been after a boozy lunch turn into dinner. I don’t tell Aunty Judy about this for obvious reasons, Boyfriend being the principal one. The encounters always end with me getting dressed quietly in his hallway at dawn and walking all the way home. Because Boyfriend and I don’t live in the same country and mostly see each other in the holidays, we’ve never said out loud that we are not to see other people. I don’t know if he does. And the casual sex with the local reporter, does it count? I could ask Aunty Judy what she thinks but I don’t. Instead I say “This is good” and it could mean anything:
The sun tickling my skin, the deeper colours of the world behind my sunglasses, the grace of the weeping willow at the end of the garden.
“Look, do you want to see this?” she asks. She has brought out a stack of photo albums.
“Yes I say. What are they?”
“They’re photos of me and my photos, as a photographer. I haven’t showed them to Boyfriend, I’m not sure he’s open to it yet. But you seem open, to all sorts of things”, Judy says. I’m not sure what she means.
“Who’s this?” I ask, pointing to one of the photos of a young man in a singlet with cropped fair hair and a muscular arm draped over the shoulders of a woman in a short red dress.
“That’s me”, says Judy and points to the man. When I was John. I had lived in New York for perhaps a year. That’s Margaret. I was so in love with her, we’d only just met in that photo.” She tells me of growing up in West London with Boyfriend’s father, of always wanting to escape and how she couldn’t wait to leave as soon as she turned 18. Of working as a sailor, coming to New York and marrying, making a life for herself there as a photographer only for it all to collapse.
“I returned to London. The longing to be a woman dominated everything else. It started to become possible to get operations, so I did. I was one of the first in Britain.”
“But you left London”, I say and fill our glasses with the last of the wine.
“Yes, here I am the local freak. Every village has one since the beginning of time. But I know them, those brats and their parents. So they stop at calling me a freak. I can live with that. At least there is no violence.”
I want to reach out and touch her hand but I hold back. Judy is quiet. Violence, I think.
The days pass. We drive around, we go for walks, we have quiet sex in the small bedroom as Aunty Judy takes a nap on the couch in the living room. When she wakes she shows me some of her many art books. With Judy I feel no need to smooth things over or cheer things up. I just sit and listen. It happens that I edge closer to her on the couch. She exudes warmth and I want to linger in it. When I have nothing to do I flip through the pages of her extensive art book collection. There is a particular book of Salvador Dali I can’t leave alone. It is square and heavy and has gold foil edges that make it look like a box of chocolates.
One evening Judy runs a bath. She calls to me and I come to her.
“Come in, keep me company”, she says. The bathroom is hot, the steam slowly rising from the bath creating roses of humidity on the pale pink tiles.
“Sit down”, she says as I come in and I do, on the toilet lid opposite the tub. It’s one of those baths half sunken into the floor which means I look down on her floating in the water from where I sit on the toilet lid. Judy is floating in the bath. The water is clear. When I look at her I see my own body, my mother’s body, my grandmother’s. Pale, almost hairless, barely breaking through the surface of the water. The breasts flopping out to the sides, the waist, a straight trunk of a woman, her core, her strength. Her vagina just a slit, that too is almost hairless.
A body can be just a body. And it can be an explosive statement of existence. That is what she’s telling me now.
Our conversation is fleeting from one topic to the next, floating on little clouds of steam and afterwards I won’t remember any of it, I will just remember her pale and powerful body.
Finally, she gets out of the bath and I reach a towel across.
“Thank you for coming” she says and I smile at her wrapped in the towel, water still dripping from her hair. For a moment she looks lost.
I slip back into our bedroom. We haven’t drawn the curtain yet, the evening light plunges in and coats everything in gold. Boyfriend is lying on top of the covers, reading. I get into bed.
“Did you go into the bathroom with her?” he asks me although he must know. His eyes don’t leave the page but I think he has stopped reading.
“She asked me, I didn’t feel I could say no.”
“For fuck’s sake.”
“What?” I look at the ceiling, there’s a crack running from the left corner towards the middle.
“That’s exactly what he wants.”
“She. She’s a she. And so what? I was sitting on the loo talking. It’s just a body. I’ve seen naked people before.”
“No it isn’t, in Judy’s case it’s an exhibition piece, a political statement,” he says.
“Why are you so angry?” I ask and turn on my side towards him and he turns his face towards me and starts talking.
“Some years back I hadn’t seen Uncle John in ages. Dad was already sick and mum kept trying to reach him. Suddenly he wants to meet up with me, not with Mum or Dad. He wants to take me for a treat and make up for things. At least that’s how mum sells it to me. I waited for him in the middle of Piccadilly Circus and someone called my name. When I turned around it was him. Dressed as a woman. I was so fucking angry.”
“There were so many ways he could have told me, but he wanted the surprise, he wanted my reaction in front of other people.” I stroke Boyfriend’s arm and interlace my fingers with his.
“Later I figured out that I felt used. I felt helpless, trapped. That’s what my anger was.”
I don’t know what to tell him. I want to make him feel better but I’m also thinking about me. Did Judy just use me? Should I feel ashamed for being used? No. I decide to let it be my small gift to Judy. I can sit in a bathroom for a while and quietly salute the perseverance and the right to be yourself while having a conversation and trying not to stare too much at her manmade vagina. There is triumph in that naked body. A sense of freedom.
“Did you go home and tell your parents?”
“Yes, it took a while for dad to get over it, but he did.”
“So in a way you were a bridge between them. Judy counted on you doing the work for her”, I say.
“Yes”, he says and falls silent. Outside the day is closed, the wind surges through the trees.
The last night before leaving, Aunty Judy wants to take us to the only fancy restaurant in the village. We take the footpath up the hill to where it sits. We have gin and tonics in the bar and plates of seafood in the dining room. Not for a second do we care if the locals and the visitors are staring. Boyfriend sits close to Judy on the velvet couch in the booth and lets her pat his arm without moving it away. I sit opposite them and Judy tells stories of her childhood with Boyfriend’s dad. I have heard some of it before so I lean back and look around the room. Under the table my naked leg is resting against Judy’s and it feels like a promise.
When the restaurant closes at 11 I tumble into the night and look across the hills. I can’t see them clearly but I know they are there. The stars are out, I lean back and they twinkle their message to me: hold nothing back, just breathe and be grateful. I feel dizzy and straighten up. Judy comes up behind me and her hand brushes along my back and I catch it for a passing moment. We ramble down the hill, each on our own path that intertwines with the others. Seen from above we are making an elaborate pattern, embroidery stitches of a grand design. Back at the house we leave the lights off. Boyfriend says: “Time for bed. You coming?” And I say “yes in a minute”, Judy wants to show me something. I wait. She returns with a book in one hand and looks at me. We are quiet. The night is quiet. We forget about the book. We remember our bodies. They pull together. I lean in and kiss her. She drops the book on the floor and her hands touch my neck and face. And her body pressed against mine, and her mouth, they are enough.
Her hair smells of smoke and hairspray and her mouth tastes of wine and longing. Her body is strong and tender.
As easily as we have fallen into each other, we fall away. She reaches her hand out to touch me one last time, as if to say goodbye, before she ventures off to her bedroom. I stand in the dark kitchen for a moment longer listening to the low murmur of the bumble bee fridge.
We are leaving. Boyfriend whistles as he carries our bags to the car. Judy has her hair tied back in a pony tail. Stately. She smiles as she serves me hot eggs. I don’t know how the confinement of the car is going to be bearable. Or Boyfriend’s talking. As we are about to say goodbye, Judy once more goes to fetch something.
She comes back with the big heavy volume of Dali’s work. She holds it out to me and says:
“Please have it. I am trying to get rid of things. Let it be a memory.” The book is so heavy I have to hold it with both hands. When I kiss Judy goodbye it becomes a shield between us, yet she very briefly puts her hand to my neck.
We drive away. I don’t know if she waits by the gate until we are out of sight, I don’t look back. I just sit very still with the cold heaviness of the book on my knees. My fingers touching the gold foil. It feels like skin.
About the Author:
Tina Zenou is a Swedish journalist currently living in Melbourne. When she is not working in communications she writes fiction and makes baskets.