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Miss Sally

By David Gardiner

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“I think we should take her in to hospital Miss Castle. It’s too much for one person, looking after her the way she is now. And you’re not as young as you used to be yourself.”

He must have seen my face drop, but I don’t suppose he understood why. It had nothing to do with my mother. That was the very first time that anybody had told me I was no longer young.

He was right of course. I was forty-one. He looked about twenty-five, just out of medical school I should think. Although it’s hard to be certain. Once you pass a particular age yourself your perspective shifts. People of that age become little more than children. You drag the horizon of youth along with you, like the reverse of walking to the end of the rainbow.

I suppose his calling me “Miss Castle” didn’t help. And “not as young as you used to be”. That’s a phrase for ninety-year-olds. I was Sally and I was young before he said that. After he said it I was Miss Castle and I wasn’t young any more. It happened as suddenly as that, my entry into middle age.

I suppose what really upset me was that I felt guilty. I should have been thinking about my mother and her illness and there I was, getting all weepy about myself and my lost youth. My mother died four months later. I attended her funeral every inch the Miss Castle, spinster of this parish, dark tweeds and black hat with a token strip of lace around the brim.

Your feelings get so mixed up when someone close to you dies. Unless you’ve gone through it you wouldn’t really understand. We all live mainly by routines, whether we admit it or not. My routine had been looking after Mother. That had been the pillar around which my life had been built. Everything else radiated out from that. Now she was gone and my life had no centre any more. It was Sally’s funeral as well as Mother’s. The only one left now was this new woman, Miss Castle, and I didn’t know her at all.

My brother and his wife were very good to me, had me over to stay for a few weeks, and talked to me about how life had to go on and how I was still a young and attractive woman and how I could even still have children if I wanted to. All the usual bullshit, well-meaning of course, but cliché from start to finish. I was an average forty-one-year-old, of average looks and average intelligence, I had a house of my own and a part-time job. I’d never had - what shall I call it? - a full relationship with a man and that whole area of life filled me with terror. I could easily try to blame Mother for the sort of life I had led but it wouldn’t really be true. All the time, when I was younger, she used to say: “Why don’t you go out and have a good time? Meet a few boys. It isn’t healthy staying in here all the time.” No. I was the one who had held back, and I don’t really know why. I suppose deep down it was fear of failure, or rejection. Fear of appearing ridiculous. I didn’t feel that I had anything much to offer. I knew I wasn’t beautiful, or witty, or... special in any way at all. All the girls I went to school with seemed to be prettier than me, and more sporty, and more daring. I loved to listen about their boyfriends, but if it ever became personal, like why didn’t I go on a date with so-and-so, I would find a way to avoid it. I pretended to be a bit religious to fend off any catty remarks. And of course after I left school and grew a little older it simply became harder and harder.

It wouldn’t be true to say I’d never had an advance from a man, I’d had a few clumsy attempts that I didn’t want to talk about and I’d fended them off with no great difficulty. I’d even had one man say that he loved me... well, he was a teenager really, it was in the first place that I worked, but I was far too shy to do anything about it. I think he probably meant it as a joke. He wasn’t too bad looking but I didn’t think he was a very nice person. I didn’t like the way he talked about other girls. I was tempted to let him take me out anyway... maybe just once or twice, to see what it would be like. But I didn’t, and he soon stopped asking and moved on to someone else. I was proud that I hadn’t weakened, that I’d stuck to my principles. Though looking back now, I don’t think they were really principles. Unless cowardice is a principle.

So life went on. Mother’s health deteriorated, slowly at first, then more rapidly, and Nick got married and moved out. Naturally I slipped into the carer role, and in some ways I quite liked it. I felt needed and useful, and very secure. The one or two friends I had from school kept telling me how good I was, how they could never do what I was doing. It seemed to give me a status, almost as if I had a husband and a home like the rest of them.

It was the strangest feeling, coming back to Mother’s house from my stay at Nick’s. Everything was so quiet and tidy and utterly lifeless. I realised for the first time how loud the ticking was from the sitting-room clock. For a long time I just sat there in the middle of the sofa with my case on the floor and thought.

It was a moment of rebirth, I suppose. All my life I had simply accepted whatever role seemed to be the least challenging or threatening. The path of lowest resistance. And there was still an easy option stretching out before me. The old maid who lives alone. I could get a few cats, and some of those dusty purple and blue dried grasses, like Aunt Lettie used to have in big vases in her hallway when I was a little girl. Attend all the dinner parties where Nick and his wife would try to pair me off with their divorced friends. I could start going to the Church, and the Church socials on Saturday afternoons. I could enrol for cookery classes, or pottery, or join the Amateur Dramatic Society. Only to work behind the scenes of course.

I thought about my options very long and very seriously. The thing that I found hardest to remember and to understand was that there was no longer anybody to please or to impress. Nick and his wife were kind but they didn’t really care about me. Why should they? They had their own lives and their own children and I was just an embarrassing single relation to whom they felt a certain duty. That wasn’t the same thing as caring.

For the first time in my life I tried to be absolutely honest with myself. I wasn’t going to live for ever. This was not a rehearsal. Just because something is a cliché doesn’t stop it from being true. What did I actually want for myself, leaving aside all questions of practicality?

Children? No, not really. Babies were quite cute but I had done enough caring for one lifetime. If I wanted to play with babies I could go and visit Nick. Money? But to spend on what? Holidays, perhaps. I’d had two foreign holidays in my whole life, and they were only to Spain. Most of the people I went to school with had seen places like India and South America and China. They’d sent me the post cards. I was forty-one years old and I hadn’t been anywhere. Excitement. Adventure. Every day for the last twenty years had been practically indistinguishable from every other day. That was a waste of life. That was a tragedy. Sex? I could hardly bring myself to think the word. For that you needed love, didn’t you? Well, no actually, that didn’t seem to be the case. Not if I could believe what I had been told by the girls at school, and by one or two others since. Once you stopped feeling guilty about it you could enjoy it, just like a man. Enjoy it as sex, not as a symbol of love or something above and beyond what it was. That was what they had told me.

So was that going to be part of the new life of Miss Castle? I blushed to even think about it.

But the more I did think about it the more I realised how significant it was. Sex was what I had been hiding from all those years, what I had been running away from without admitting it to myself. Not relationship, not commitment. Sex. That was the scary bit.

The first thing that crossed my mind was the notion of finding a man who didn’t want it. Somebody partially disabled, or too old to be interested. But then I realised that I was doing the same thing again, trying to run away from it. I wasn’t being forthright with myself. It was like when I was little and they wanted me to learn to swim. All those excuses I came up with, like the water hurt my eyes, or I wasn’t feeling well, or I had a suspected verruca, or I’d left my costume at home. But then, eventually, when I ran out of excuses, I gave it a try and found that it wasn’t too bad. Being able to stay afloat in the water without my feet touching the bottom was even mildly pleasurable. I became okay at swimming. Never great, but as good as most people in the class. Sex was probably exactly the same. The IDEA of it was scary, but once I’d tried it, who knows? I might even discover I liked it.

Having grown up with an older brother I did at least know something of the mechanics of the “act”. I knew where the different bits and pieces were supposed to go and I knew that it might be physically painful the first time. It had absolutely no romantic associations for me, it was another technique to be learned, like riding a bicycle or the back-stroke. I tried to imagine myself naked in front of some man and it didn’t seem the least bit erotic. What if he told me I was fat or ugly or that I ought to be ashamed of myself? How could I make myself as vulnerable as that, in front of someone I hardly knew? I assumed it would have to be someone I hardly knew – who else was there? And at least that way, if it was a disaster I would never have to see him again, or him me.

How does a shy forty-one-year-old woman go about losing her virginity? Well, the first idea that suggested itself to me was newspaper ads. There were lonely heart ads in the local paper, and other ones called “contact” ads that were a bit more direct. “Tall, slim, healthy male, separated, seeks mutual pleasure and fulfilment with sympathetic woman.” That kind of thing. Not much question about the agenda. The biggest decision I had to make was whether to tell them about my... inexperience before I met them. I felt that I should, because I didn’t want any dishonesty, but when it came to writing an actual reply to one of the ads I found that I couldn’t say it. In fact what I said was a complete fabrication. I said that I had been in a long relationship which had ended a few months ago due to my partner’s death. It wasn’t too far off the truth and it let me keep a measure of my self respect. What was the alternative? I’m a repressed forty-one-year old virgin who has lived all her life with her mother and now wants to find out what, if anything, she’s been missing. No, I don’t think so.

I was very lucky with the first reply I wrote. We met in a pub to see if we were compatible and he was very charming and not at all pushy. In fact if anything he was a bit depressed. He wanted to talk about himself and I was perfectly content to listen, so that was fine. He talked and I drank vodka and orange.

When the room had just begun to move around the tiniest bit in my field of vision I surprised myself by saying: “Michael, I think we’re compatible.” And so we were.

I don’t remember if there was any pain that first time but there was a lot of pleasure, and even more the second time, and the third time in the morning. I was amazed how little Sally knew about Miss Castle. Because of course Miss Castle had all that lost time to make up.

Michael’s depression had gone when I left him. He was fast asleep with a gentle smile on his face, like the cat who’s had the cream. Surely, I thought, to myself, something that made people feel that good couldn’t be evil or sinful.

I arrived home confused, mildly hung-over, beginning to register my own lack of sleep, but basically happier than I could ever remember feeling before. I had a shower and slumped into bed naked, which was not the way I normally slept. “The same as swimming,” I mumbled to myself as drowsiness claimed me, “exactly the same as swimming...”

The phone woke me up in the early afternoon and it was Michael. I hadn’t realised I had given him the number but obviously I had. He wanted to know when he could see me again, and I told him, very sincerely, that I had had a wonderful night with him but that now I wanted a bit of time to myself to think things over. He seemed very disappointed and a bit surprised. He went on and on, pleading with me, begging me almost, and then he said the words that were to change my life: “If it’s a matter of money, I have a good income. I would be happy to help you out.”

Help me out? Pay money? What would that make me?

I looked around at the meagre bric-a-brac that was all I had to show for twenty years of doing the right thing. A few framed pictures of relations and other people’s children. A couple of postcards I had sent to myself from Malaga. Who was I trying to impress with my morality and respectability?

“How much help would you be able to offer?” I asked quietly.

And so Miss Castle, like Sally, passed away. She died in that instant. And Miss Sally was born. Miss Sally is quite unlike either of them. She has a very clean and respectable professional clientele, and word of mouth alone has generated a substantial waiting list. She prefers the more mature gentlemen, and they her. She likes regular arrangements, not the odd night here and there, and she keeps a careful diary. She enjoys her work. She is one hundred per cent punctual, reliable and discreet. She has been on a world cruise and spent several long weekends in California, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, the Bahamas and a variety of European cities, including Venice and the Hague. She has taken up scuba diving as a rather mature student and enjoys it immensely. She has had several free flying lessons but that proved not to be to her taste. Skiing is one of the new techniques she hopes to master properly in the coming winter, and later in the summer she has agreed to spend two weeks on a large sailing yacht in the Gulf of Mexico. The wages of sin are tax free.

Nick and his wife are quite jealous I think. They imagine that I must have inherited a great deal of money from Mother that I never told them about. They are a very innocent pair, I hope they never find out anything that shocks them or turns them against me. Family ties are very important, don’t you think?