The Woman Next Door

The Woman Next Door by Cass Green



Cough, sniff, sigh.

Sniff, sigh, cough.

And so it goes on.

Mary, at the next terminal, is a veritable one-person orchestra of bodily sounds. It must be something to do with her size. She’s constantly spilling out of herself, like there’s someone bigger trapped inside.

She’s not the only person I’m finding distracting today. The old chap opposite, Jacky, I think he’s called, apparently believes an Adult Education course on Essential Computer Skills – in a library – is a suitable place to eat his lunchtime sandwiches. I can clearly hear the click of his jaw as he masticates bread, cheese, and pickle. The reason I know so much about the sandwich is because he is scattering a confetti of the contents over the keyboard.

You would think that his advanced years would have brought a little more wisdom about this sort of thing. He is possibly like many of the elderly and doesn’t really give a stuff anymore what others think. I quite envy that.

I clear my throat and turn my attention back to the screen, where I ‘scroll’ down the pages of the Mail Online. It’s all depressing: stories about immigration; teenagers heading off to join ISIS; and politicians telling the usual fibs.

But I enjoy knowing the correct word for what I am doing. I am now a woman who ‘scrolls’, ‘downloads’, and ‘surfs the web’, among other things.

Oh yes, Terry, you didn’t think I had it in me, did you?

The point is: I will no longer feel inadequate when I see people tapping away at computers, as though they belong to yet another club I am excluded from. I can do this now, too. Although heaven knows whether I really shall bother.

I look around the library, glancing at the big clock to see how much of the session is left. A couple of teenagers across the way have managed to cover a whole table with their belongings and, like the old man, are openly eating lunch. One of them has some sort of fast food and the fatty, savoury smell tickles my nose and makes my tummy give a little growl. I would never eat anything like that, but breakfast does seem a long time ago.

I think about lunch – a ham sandwich perhaps, or an omelette – and picture my kitchen. Bertie will be a big scruffy comma in his bed, gently snoring. The clock will tick with a dull thunk, which has always been a little too loud. Or maybe there just aren’t enough other noises to balance it out?

This sort of thinking will get me nowhere. I can feel one of my funks coming on and I must fight it. Maybe I will bake a cake when I get home. Something complicated, which involves skill. It could be my own small celebration for reaching the last lesson of the course?

I certainly deserve a pat on the back for sticking with it. It’s fair to say I had a shaky start, mainly because I didn’t enjoy the patronizing attitude of the tutor, Alice, an Antipodean who looks about twelve yet always reeks of cigarette smoke. She has a slightly seedy appearance; her small fingers are adorned with chipped, grubby-looking polish and her dark blonde hair has been put into those horrible dreadlocks. Why on earth a white girl would do that with her hair is anyone’s guess. They’re piled on top of her head every which way giving her the appearance of a young nicotine-stained Medusa. She speaks in a cheerful lilting way that is a little too heavy on the question marks. And she never seems to wear a bra so her small bosom jiggles about like a pair of tennis balls under the vest tops she favours.

She was patient enough when I struggled at the beginning. I’ll give her that.

It didn’t come to me easily at first. I had a tendency to lift the mouse off the table while trying to master it. When I explained, once, that I was trying to move the cursor ‘up’, she actually said, ‘Aww, bless?’ Bliss.

I was stunned! You would think I was a child or a little old lady instead of a healthy woman of just 62. I said, ‘Young woman, I suggest you show a bit of respect.’ That told her. Since then, she still does the annoying laughing thing, but her eyes are always sliding off somewhere other than my face.

No, I’m not sorry this is coming to an end. I only took the course to get myself out of the house, and I am not going to be making friends with any of this lot.

Most of them are much older than me, and the woman nearest my own age – who goes by the name ‘Binnie’ – isn’t really my class of person. She catches my eye now, then looks down again. No doubt she took it personally when I turned down her suggestion to ‘go for a cuppa’ after the class on the first week. I said, ‘I’m afraid I don’t really drink tea,’ which was a bit of a white lie, because I do in fact drink it a great deal!

But she is one of those women who positively exudes her maternal bounty like an aura. I’ve heard her going on about ‘my daughter’ and ‘my newest grandson’ to anyone who will listen. She even, if you can believe this, has a tote bag with ‘World’s Best Grandma’ and a giant picture of a gurning infant on it. She is one of those women entirely defined by the workings of her womb. I know that, if I had taken her up on her offer, the ‘cuppas’ would barely be on the table before she would be saying, ‘So Hester do you have children?’

Why do women ask this question so readily? It’s not as though we talk about the intimate workings of our bodies in any other context. It’s a very personal question and I have never really found a comfortable way to field it. I want to reply, ‘That’s none of your business’, but I’m aware that would be a little rude.

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