(Woman Well Set Free!)
Mary Bailey allowed herself to be led by a man with a lung disease down to a small cell on the shores of the Ganges as if she was born to it.
True, her varicose vein was giving her merry hell but she ignored it, just as she had for the last year of teaching class five before she retired at Christmas 2001. This was all part of the master plan, her trip to India, a massage by an expert in Bernares, the holy city of the Hindus. They stopped at a stall on the way so that he could take some “pan” with a special ingredient and would she like some. She looked at his bloodshot eyes. They matched, perfectly, those of every cabby or rickshaw man for miles around. He smiled at her, revealing his yellow horse teeth, two missing at the front – his tongue only too apparent.
“Would little missy like to try a little of his magic potient?” He broke off a bit of leaf with its sticky brown contents. It was probably cocaine, straight from the source. Maybe she should. No one would know a thing. She adjusted her sunglasses and pulled down her sunhat as if trying to be incognito. Perhaps not, it could be embarrassing to be accosted here, or even worse when the effects took over. He shook his head –
“No, I think it’s not for you – You are, what can I say, a lady like Jane Austen – I read her books at missionary school. Would you like to read my essays?”
She gave a decisive shake of the head on both counts – One, she was certainly not going to be treated like a hippy, drugged up and thrown on a rubbish heap and Two – She was not about to comment on his work. Those days were well and truly over. As if Kali was against her, she suddenly found herself gasping for breath as she was winded by a massive black and white cow, which battled for space with her in the narrow alleyway, which led down to the burning ghats. He waved it away with an aplomb more worthy of a mahout, than a thin, middle-aged man in a frayed Varanasi shawl, wrapped twice around his neck as if he was anticipating bad weather. She squinted at him through her Polaroids. He really was a quite nasty little man. Whatever had come over her, allowing such a poor specimen to lead her to fulfil her fantasy?
She straightened her cotton frock so that it covered her knees and that unwholesome purple spot at the side. Her white buckskin sandals from Marks & Spencers looked decidedly worse for wear. It was hard to keep smart in this melting heat that they called winter. Even her underwear felt damp even though it was all Airtex cotton. It really was uncomfortable. There were mosquito bites between her thighs that bothered her every now and then. She squelched in a cowpat. It was all she could do to keep going.
Sparked up by his pick-me-up, his eyes became bright as a kra-kra. He cavorted along with his flip-flops skidding in and out of danger. He was a born survivor, she decided, occasionally clutching her arm to drag her up some appalling short cut. She could barely hold on to her white leather handbag, containing a few rupees that she hadn’t concealed in a body purse, held flat and uncomfortable against her stomach under her dress. No one had told her how one could find one’s way into it once money was demanded. The twenty rupees she had anticipated were insufficient for this would-be mugger. She had to crouch in a really undignified way as if fastening her buckle while really undoing buttons and feeling surreptiously down into her flesh coloured purse for notes. He, meanwhile began to cough and splutter convincingly, as he took his payment.
“Now you will wait for me to come back?” She asked him anxiously. Rather the devil you know, after all. He nodded and settled down on a low, stone, wall to wait. He had altered the masseur, a stringy guru in loincloth, sat resplendent on a stone, sipping tea, while awaiting her custom. This would add to the price of the massage – It would now cost all of a hundred rupees. He glared, disapprovingly, at the guide but could only advise her to bring herself next time if she wished to pay less.
There was a slit of a window where Mary could see the boats slip by, loaded with sandalwood on their way to the ghats. He showed her his book, moving like an alligator on his sinewy legs. He had been recommended by all the ladies, he told her. Would she mind removing her dress and lying down. She did so, feeling like a woman of the night. She had read Lady Chatterley’s Lover once, directly after the trial, in 1964. It was shocking, shocking. She covered herself with her hands, even though she was wearing a second best petticoat purchased in British Home Stores. She hardly ever wore it because it was racy. There was a flower embroidered on the bodice, between her breasts.
“Please would you be so kind as to remove this, memsahib, as it will get covered in oil and I will not be able to reach your skin.”
Before she could protest, it was off and she was lying flat on a thin bed, wearing only brassier and knickers covered in a white sheet stained with unguent from the last customer. It was a good job mum couldn’t see her. She would have called her ‘fast’.
His hammer claws were chopping across her body as if tenderizing steak and then the massage began in earnest. At least he was old, his face pitted and craggy as a rock. His hands were gnawed and wiry, so thorough that she had to stop them sliding under her bra but not before he had wiggled her nipples and covered them with sandalwood oil. As soon as she had moved them on they travelled across her buttocks as if they belonged there, under her knickers, as well. She would have told him off, slapped his hands, his face, but all her resolve had melted away. Anyway, who would protect her here? She had already noted the sly presence of the ugly guide at the entrance. How dare he snoop on her. The master waved him away, annoyed that he should upset a customer.
It was strange how much she was enjoying herself, she who’d never allowed a man ‘below the waist’. That was how it was in her day, unless they proposed marriage that is then they could do all sorts of unspeakable things. She fielded off a hand, this time between her legs – “No,” she said, firmly, but he persisted relentlessly in finding the spot. Most of the ladies liked it, especially the older ones with a bit of experience but no man to enjoy it with. Pleasure came intensely causing her to cry out. His hands began to work on her breasts.
“I haven’t started yet.” He said. Why was she here, a woman of sixty-two years just retired from holding court in a classroom? She blamed it on a special train journey to school. She was sixty when she first had that feeling, sitting opposite three businessmen in suits. She had to hide her face behind the Times. It didn’t matter. They weren’t looking at her anyway. There were plenty of her kind to avoid, in favour of the sexy office girls, showing off, in their tight suits and crossing their bony legs shod in stilettos fit to drive a man insane with desire. For a while she thought she was going mad. It must have been the motion of the train, she who’d never been to bed with a man, never even held one, apart from dad when he had one of his fits. She felt that her life, otherwise, was fully under control. She no longer suffered from her monthlies, thank God. They had finished years ago, not a minute too soon.
Now it was starting all over again. He was massaging her feet, so tenderly, first one and then the other. Meanwhile, his foot was doing the job of two hands where they had left off. His bony rump, covered in its white cloth was swivelling round in front of her. She sighed with pleasure. All too soon, it was over. He pulled up her knickers and handed her her large brassier that seemed to have gone astray.
“Do you think I’m good?” He asked proudly. “One hour massage – I’m a master, sixty years experience”.
“You were divine,” she replied like a character from a B/W movie, “quite, quite divine.”
“You’ll be back to see me again?” He looked at her curiously, this elderly lady of means with her large ungainly body. She was smiling at him. Her face was radiant. He knew her well, ever nook and cranny. His fingers twitched. She pushed her straying hair back into its chignon and clipped down the loose hairs.
“Are you busy tomorrow?” He jumped into the silence. She must consult her diary and see if she could fit him in. ▪
I’ve had number of stories published in Literary magazines including Ambit. My poems have been anthologised by Steve Sneyd and published in Gargoyle Us and others. I’ve published two novels. eat wishes, Susie Reynolds Prose editor of Chimera for ten years.
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