Sometimes, when it is late and she does not sleep, Mrs Beaten misses her husband. She thinks at great lengths of the things they did together, late at night, when there was no one else to see, or judge. She considers it important to be clandestine about some things. It is a gesture of respect to your neighbours to make sure that they have little or no idea what you do. One should have multiple lines for laundry so that items revealing too much can be hidden from viewing.
Mrs Beaten notes that it is curious how one can hate a thing at the time and miss it when it is gone. This is true of both her late husband, and the things he liked to do in the night. She does not regret his absence.
Sometimes, when the town is too quiet, and there is no sound of wind or wave to distract her, Mrs Beaten stalks her own kitchen at night. She reaches for the jams that did not quite work. For the fish jams, and the crab jams that of course aren’t sweet, or pleasant, or anything at all like jam, but which keep through the winter… She opens them, and painful compulsion takes over. She smears the contents onto her skin, her clothing or even her hair. Sometimes she wails aloud as she does this, but only very quietly so that none of the neighbours will notice her keening sounds as anything distinctive amongst the night cries of the island.
On the following morning she will have to clean herself and her home, as she always did. It feels less shameful, now. She does not judge herself for these compulsions.
Mrs Beaten slept for a long time. It was a deep, unmoving, dreamless sleep into which nothing intruded from the waking world.
She awoke, eventually, with two thoughts in her head: Firstly that she must have tea. Secondly, that she must have oil. This had happened before.
Mrs Beaten took her gnii hunting net on its long pole, and went out after dark. Their fondness for little lights always gave them away. She caught one with ease, then pulled it forcibly from the stone it had been clinging to. It squirmed in discomfort, but not for long.
Always best to press them fresh.
You couldn’t get any fresher than still alive. The oil looked more golden than green as it dripped into her glass, accompanied by those final, muffled screams.
Mrs Beaten drank the oil slowly, and felt herself rejuvenated.
Despite the cold, Mrs Beaten lies with her arms outside the covers, pressing her hands against the side of her body in the hopes that they will not go numb. She understands that it is important to keep the arms, and therefore the hands, outside the covers.
People who put their hands inside the covers may end up fiddling about with their own bodies.
Mrs Beaten is not quite sure what the fiddling about would involve. She has a feeling that the body at night, the body under the blankets, is not the same as the body by day. Something happens down there. Something it would be better not to fiddle about with.
As she tries to distract herself from the cold, she wonders who else on Hopeless Maine has the decency to sleep in this way. So many of the islanders seem indecent that she supposes most do not. She imagines the decadent snuggling of limbs beneath covers. The lustful indulgence of putting personal ease ahead of morality.
She supposes other islanders fiddle about in the night with the unspeakable things that go on with their own bodies. She supposes that it is terrible, and the terribleness holds a fascination for her that she cannot help but revisit, over and over again.
Mr Beaten. He had a face, I feel certain. I suppose there must have been all of the usual features in about the expected size, number and locations. Surely, if his face had been peculiar, I would remember that much, at least.
A woman should remember her husband. It is a terrible thing to have had a husband and not quite feel certain about why one does not have a husband now. There is a hole in my mind, and I do not know what may have fallen into it. Were we happy? Did he love me? I feel certain that I did not feel any great passion for him, only that which is decent and dutiful. From what I have seen of other people’s great passions, I am fairly certain that I have never entertained any such excitement of the nerves in any context whatsoever.
I feel reasonably certain about myself, but he is mystery and absence. I remember his voice. I think. A remember a voice, that told me what to do, and was stern and sensible. It told me essential truths like ‘always hang the socks in pairs on the washing line, one must have order in all things,’ and ‘none of us are meant to know what we look like on the inside.’
It is not that I miss him, not precisely. How can one miss what one barely remembers? It is more that I feel I should miss him, that there is something indecent in my not remembering, and not grieving. It is not proper, to be the wife, or is it widow, of an uncertainty.
I think he is a man. He has a beard. I used to think that beards signified men, but there is a Mrs Jones who has a beard and all is now uncertainty and dismay in this regard. What hellish place is this where a person cannot put their faith in the implications of a beard?
There was a puppet show. I think I have seen such a thing before but have no memory of where, or when. The red curtains, the sausages, the crocodile. There is a meaning here. I do not remember there being so much screaming, either from the puppeteer, or the audience.
I do not remember the crocodile breaking out of the booth, and savaging someone in the front row.
I do not remember crocodiles having so many legs, or eyes.
And yet, an hour later, many of them returned to watch the whole process again. I did not stay to see if the crocodile had come back, or if new sausages had been made, or what sausages in this macabre theatre might be made of. The children, revolting beasts that they are, seemed very much to like it. I think one of them may have eaten the sausages. And the crocodile. I closed my eyes at the critical moment.
It is Mrs Beaten’s life philosophy that on the whole it is better to cover everything up and never to ask what is going on underneath.
We can only speculate as to the kind of life experience that has led her to this conclusion… We can also observe that while she doesn’t want to know, at the same time, she spends a lot of time thinking about the things she is clear she doesn’t want to know about.
Mrs Beaten does not like children. She detests their sticky hands and snot encrusted faces, and lives in fear that some horrible, uncouth creature will touch her when she is outside. She is very glad that nature did not see fit to make her the mother of such monsters. Mrs Beaten is uncertain of the exact process leading to the presence of yet more vile children in the world. Mr Beaten never expressed a desire for children. He tended to say thing like “you are both my child and my wife.” Mrs Beaten did not find this statement creepy.
On those nights when she cannot sleep, Mrs Beaten lies in bed and thinks about solutions for children. The island seems to have rather a lot of them, and the excess ends up in the orphanage. She suspects islanders of giving away children they can no longer bear. She understands this – she would give away her own children, she feels certain. However, she has managed not to have any and she feels that other islanders aren’t doing enough in that regard. Sometimes she worries about where, exactly, all these children come from, but has been unable to imagine the mechanism. She assumes it must be rather unseemly.
Mrs Beaten wonders if she could lead a fundraiser to provide the orphanage with swimming lessons. The fundraiser is mostly to legitimise the whole process. She would give the lessons herself, she thinks. She would stand on a big rock and encourage them all to get into the sea. Some of them would probably die of cold. Some would be eaten. A few might learn to swim. As she sees it, there would be nothing but win, here.
No one really has a problem with death, she understands. It’s just that these things must be seen to be done properly. One cannot simply murder orphans for being annoying. One must have a publicly endorsed program that appears to be for some other purpose entirely.
It has come to my attention that some of the persons wearing trousers and sporting cropped hair are not in fact men at all! I had been making the perfectly reasonable assumption that anyone dressing like a man or possessed of locks that do not reach the jawline must of course be a man. However, yesterday I chanced upon three young creatures who were involved in such an indelicate conversation that the truth did not escape me! Women! In trousers! With short hair! And one of them had her hands shoved roughly into her pockets for good measure!
What next? Swaggering? How are the ladypersons of Hopeless Maine to tell if they are being courted by a proper boy or by another ladyperson? Now that I’ve started looking for this, I find I’m not at all sure who are the boys and who are the girls dressed up as boys, and who has linked arms with whom does not clarify matters at all. Could they be doing it on purpose? Why would they do that? It is most confusing.
It led me to the uneasy possibility that the reason some of the women of Hopeless Maine look so oddly proportioned is that they could be men, wearing dresses.
Then it struck me (oh, horror) that the reason Doc Willoughby always sounds as though he is putting inverted commas around the ‘Mrs’ when he addresses me, might be because he thinks I am in fact a chap wearing a dress. Oh, the shame of it! And I can hardly go round telling people that I’m not a chap wearing a dress because it will only serve to confirm whatever suspicions they now have.