In this gorgeously vivid and whiplash smart short story, Paula Coston plunges us into the world and bodily experiences of Maggie Chine, a 70-year-old woman who continues to live life to its fullest.
Some days are fine and delicate, others weighty and luxuriant to Maggie Chine. Many have a distinct odour about them; some rustle, others clink. Some are dark and some are light and some are both. It’s only at their close that Maggie knows how they have felt.
The day of the protest is glaring grey with a thrusting wind as if, like Maggie, eager to be somewhere. She sees her friends in the distance, dutifully in pink and gritting against the cold. There’s a kind of adjustment in her, readying for contact, and then her tread speeds up.
As Maggie nears, an inner voice is telling her, in the random Irish brogue it favours around her friends, ‘Well now, you can count on this pair not saying, “Why no pink?” or, “Trust you to be different there in your black.” With Viv and Fiona there’ll be no insensitive nonsense that you’re a wayward old woman on purpose, Maggie Chine.’
Maggie’s legs bring her up to Viv’s walker at last, where she unfolds one arm and clasps Viv and Fiona by the shoulders in turn.
After the moment of clumsy impact, she trusts that they’re embracing the curves her imagination endows her with – her inner blarneywoman assures her, ‘Sure they are, so!’ – instead of the string and bone she’s always lived in.
Maggie’s body memory holds her friends’ imprints, insofar as she understands them, and sure enough soon her friends spring back into 3D deep inside: the earth and pinewood scent in the plump of Viv’s neck, and the nerviness of Fiona, a kind of pent-up tremor often transmitted to Maggie since they were ten.
When the pair start their ‘Hi’s!’ and their ‘How are yous?’, Maggie knows her eyes are bright as she swings her sketchpad up from under her arm and, the edge wadded by her glove, flourishes its message: ‘Larynx on holiday. Doesn’t hurt. Managing will be fun!’
Viv’s mitten rises to her dropped jaw, and Fiona’s rusty voice says, ‘Well that’ll be frustrating, today of all days. How on earth did you communicate with your mother this morning?’
Maggie flips away what’s already done, because breakfast with mother Winifred, then the brisk walk along the streets, are slowly falling from her: the way her step-step, step-step, step-step eventually took her into the open of the city square, by then aware of one boot’s nub pressing inside, under her right heel, soft-step, firm-step, soft-step, firm-step, compounding the old sprains in that ankle – ‘Which is fitting, Maggie, really,’ according to her voice, ‘because sure and doesn’t today warrant a bit of the martyr about you?’ – she and the wind barrelling along the last few paces.
Amid her friends’ greetings, Maggie’s viewpoint opens out.
Their rendezvous is under one of the vast chrome spheres scattered about the Peace Gardens: ‘The bollock by the magnolia’, as Viv profanely calls it.
The wind teases Maggie’s trilby, which holds on by its pins.
Reliable Fiona comments on the hat style, not the colour. ‘Very Third Man!’
Maggie shoots Fiona one of their twinkling looks and mouths back, ‘Woman!’
‘We’ll be cold,’ Viv says.
Maggie pulls off her glove of fine cashmere, the metal biro clipped to the sketchpad chilling her fingers.
The grain in the paper brushes her fist, her press-lines fainter than she wishes: ‘How’re you getting on with that?’
With her book she indicates the walker, but Viv just shrugs and scans the square, saying, ‘Wonder when we should gather.’
Their snatches of words wind about Maggie, shapeless but cosy, another scarf being donned, featuring here and there the dropped stitch of a trivial unanswered question.
Her perspective widens out further, to the harmony of Fiona and Viv’s pink beanies, earmuffs, coats and trousers with the cherry blossom trees being gusted beyond them.
Maggie and her friends have joined the rally. Police, and onlookers holding up mobile phones, edge the women clad in fuchsia, powder, rose and peach milling by the fountain.
Maggie drinks in the sweat and perfumes, the seethe of others’ shoulders, an incremental rise in body heat.
Tall spouts of spray hooping up to be swished back down at a slant in the cascade basin.
‘Did anyone here know her?’, and ‘Does anyone know someone who found her?’, the calls of the reporters.
A girl in a lips costume with a magenta bauble on her head shouting, ‘Form rows of six! Form rows of six!’ through the sputter of a megaphone.
Viv chuckles, ‘A vagina? She bloody is!’, and Maggie laughs a silent uneasy laugh, writing, ‘Is nothing sacred? For goodness’ sake!’
There’s a gradual dip in chat and laughter, and the mustering instead of sadness and outrage.
‘This way, this way!’, and ‘Style it out! Look fierce for me, can you?’ come the orders from photographers and a film crew.
Maggie begins to share in the sense of massing.
The Irish voice having departed now, another of hers speaks up, little but stout. ‘Being curated! Fascinating. I am Maggie Chine though. Excuse me! I am still here.’
Her coat’s big appliqué flowers butting gently against the tweed of Fiona on one side and the faux-furred Viv on the other, she takes to the third line back.
The rally sprouts shoulders, arms and hands, blooming with placards and banners: ‘She thought the streets were for everyone,’ ‘Time for matriarchy!’, ‘Men, do better.’
Someone slings a banner across Fiona, Maggie, Viv and their neighbours: ‘OUR BODIES, OUR BUSINESS.’
Viv’s fists moor the banner hem to her walker grips; wedging her sketchbook into one armpit, Maggie holds the banner one-handed.
Soaking everything up as if through her pores she’s reminded, yet again, that everyone displays signals, really: the ginger quiff sported by one journalist; the body blasphemies of the shaven heads and mouth piercings of some nearby; the clutch at Fiona’s arm of some emphatic woman grilling her, betraying she’s expecting something of her; Fiona’s peppermint breath, which means that she’s still drinking; Viv’s pinned-on camellia, celebrating her botanical career.
Maggie’s little voice pipes up. ‘Me too! I’m still – excuse me! – an individual sign.’ For one thing, among the crowd of female pink and feminist badges, she’s more reverently clad: the one small black punctuation mark, as she sees it, of Maggie Chine.
There’s a general undulation, a vibration held. The throng could be one of her and Winifred’s mosaic projects at home, all elements poised for the making, now composed.
A collective upsurge, and Maggie moves off.
She wades in the swell of womanhood as it circles the gardens slow-marching, yelling slogans and singing raggedly, while the tall grey buildings on the perimeter roll past.
Her small voice cheeps, by now far distant, ‘Excuse me! I’m still here!’
A knot beneath her collar bone unstrings, and she exhales, her air meeting others’ air. She’s mute, one of those crystals she’s admired on YouTube that unfurl, spread out and mushroom-cloud in timelapse, subsumed and yet expanding at the same time. She’s at one: not with the universe – that was her past hippy mumbo-jumbo! – but, maybe, with… life.
Warm by now, she slides off a glove and, to enhance her immersion, reaches beneath her hat, lowering the clash of noises through her hearing aids.
From the well of muffled sound there starts to arise a chant, ‘Our bodies,’ [step-to-the-side], ‘our streets!’ [-and-kick.] ‘Our bodies,’ [step-to-the-side], ‘our streets!’ [-and-kick], uttered with zest and rhythm in a can-can marching dance.
Maggie, keen on any dancing, sweeps along in the new choreography, her soft-step, firm-step a lovely suffering amid the tide of dark, defiant feeling, but soon there’s a fumbling beside her, a slowing down: Viv can’t sidestep with her walker, let alone kick. And on top of that, Maggie’s skirt isn’t rippling nicely any more, but bunching at her shins beneath her coat.
Returning, the tinny voice apologises, ‘Sorry, but I’m still here! And Viv’s in trouble!’
Mid-row, where Viv is travelling, the banner lags. Behind Maggie’s trio, there’s a muddle and dismay: the marchers following are bumping up against them and stacking up.
Promptly accepting her share in Viv’s limitations, Maggie lies, in gestures, that her ankle can’t support her, then mimes ‘Cut?’, drawing a finger across her throat.
The wind whips up and sinks. Maggie shifts the bones of her behind against cold stone. With Viv seated on her walker, Maggie’s resting with Fiona on the steps of the Town Hall overlooking the gardens and the rally, still circuiting before them.
Viv fossicks in her walker basket.
‘Here!’ She extends her woollen hands, cupping a steamy beaker.
Maggie’s reminded of the proffering of the goblet and the murmured, ‘This is My blood’ back in that Christian phase of hers, when she was wrestling pain. A pang goes through her.
She writes, ‘Poor Juanita Jones – what a waste!’
Fiona says, ‘So young. Pretty, too.’
Maggie writes fiercely, ‘What’s that got to do with it?’ and Fiona looks chastened, and Viv says, ‘Society wastes most women,’ and Maggie sips her coffee, silted with bitter grounds.
A man in brick-red chinos approaches, around their age, a camera slung from his shoulder. ‘Hello. Any chance…?’ Against the wind he’s hard to hear; Maggie cranks her aids up, and she and Fiona bend towards him. ‘Any chance you’d talk to the local freebie?’ He plants one foot on a lower step.
By now, Maggie and her friends have seen off a fair few reporters, male and female – all younger, of course.
Most called them ‘Ladies’.
Maggie has a noiseless, appraising voice for strangers, and it’s still muttering, ‘Coy underslip of a word.’
One called them ‘Girls’, but Maggie’s critical voice was fussy: ‘Coarse and lazy. They all meant crones.’
This man hasn’t called them anything. Maggie’s silent assessor takes him in, shuffling and prioritising considerations of age, sex, appearance and lastly manner.
‘Probably more than my seventy,’ it says. ‘Passable posture. Air of shy interest. Rare and subtle flavour to a woman.’
Maggie looks to Viv and Fiona.
Their plotters’ smiles encourage her to strip off a glove and tell him in writing, ‘Why not?’
He records the others’ names on his phone, then intricate answers about whether they’re feminists. Maggie hears his name as Robert, and just before mild eyes meet hers through his designer specs, with a shock she knows that thick white beard and hair, the crackle glaze of capillaries on his face. Next Tuesday they have a date.
The glasses she wears today confess the fib of the picture she posted without them. She’s effectively in disguise, since her abundant hair – amusingly similar to his – is piled from sight within her hat. She swallows with a dry mouth.
When it’s her turn for his questions, she has to concentrate on her fingers as she riffles for the laryngitis page in her book.
Robert reads it.
‘Silent but deadly?’ he says.
He seems uncertain of his joke. Maggie achieves a trembling grin.
She pens her name, awaiting some glint of recognition, but he just says, ‘“Chine”! Means backbone, doesn’t it?’ Then, ‘I think I knew your husband! Now he was a comic genius.’
His Tony mention sends a thrill of something through her.
The wind whisks a glove from under Maggie’s fingertips, off her lap. It skitters down the steps, and she and Robert stumble after it. They scuffle, Robert betraying a bandy-gaited limp of his own as he tries to intercept it. He smells of Imperial Leather – and maybe something hempen? The glove tries to flit away, but his hand manages to catch it inside his calf.
He unbends, and so does she. When the younger journalists regarded her, Viv and Fiona, she was one of three pickles in a jar: holding firm because of the others with her, yet feeling separate in quality from the fresher produce of the protesters. But Robert’s staring at Maggie without any such separation.
Her critic tells her, ‘Eyes nailed like jet in their sockets, the caving cheeks. What must he see? A husk.’
The image of shapely grace that Maggie’s nurtured for herself shrinks away until, as in her schooldays, she’s no longer Chine but Line: a stick with spidery fingers, padded out very unconvincingly with clothes.
‘I thought it was you!’ Robert confides. ‘I didn’t want to say – you know, in front of your friends.’
Maggie sees him then, too. The cold purples his fists; flesh droops from the outer corners of his eyes. How old he is – like her! For them to see each other this way is a delicious nakedness.
It’s also a minor double death for a moment.
Then somehow Maggie’s cracking parts, her skeletal chasms, even her deceptions, dim in her awareness, as do her first impressions of Robert. And voilà! She’s girded for the concession that he may have certain… flaws; she and he resurrect themselves in her imagination, potential lovers again.
Now, as they fumble over her glove, she can foresee his thumb and hers – knobbled with the arthritis – interlocking if they hold hands. And, picturing the calf that stopped the glove, she can already feel her undressed fingers swooping over him, up the hairs of the lower leg, stroking the pale, lean sag of his inner thigh.
After taking a nap, Maggie finds her mother at the kitchen table.
Winifred raises her oxygen mask. Maggie feels its plastic indents as if on her own face, and registers the apple martini fragrance of Lovely, Win’s latest perfume.
‘So?’ Win breathes. ‘Tell me everything that happened.’
Maggie lifts her hand from Win’s soft hand and writes in bold, extra-large capitals. ‘IN THE MORNING. YOU KNOW ME. I LIKE TO LET THE DAY LIE.’
Along with their coffees and tomato sandwiches, Maggie consumes the sensations of home. It’s funny: when she first re-enters, she’s not so much aware of home as conscious she’s been elsewhere. But soon, as now, she feels home fully again. The ground-level almshouse flat is always stuffy, with heating they can’t turn down. It’s a sheath, tight with its clutter, the organs of their existence: their mismatched furniture, and the washed-out prints in frames, and the vivid heaps of the various elements of the tapestry kits that she assembles for pin money. To lighten the dimness there are assorted lamps. Sometimes the rooms can seem like a lamp shop.
Maggie indulges whimsy. Virtually, she replaces their electric hob with the original black almshouse range, their old fitted carpet with the crazy flags beneath, and a dresser lined with thick clay pots where her little DfS sofa and Win’s recliner sit wedged in the front room: for an instant it becomes a more ancient setting, like one of those living history places. Maybe her and Win’s decrepit furnishings are just the patina of age.
At home, her mental voices are mute – except when she and Win argue, or when she’s on her own; so without any inner prompting, she knows what they’ll now do. They clear the kitchen table and haul out the leaf, her mother labouring, both of them trundling the box of her concentrator. Before long, the formica is covered with newspaper and an assortment of salvaged saucers, plates and tiles. For creative reasons, many feature brown or pink or grey. One bears a pacing lion. Others are patterned with feathers, or trees with hatched-in foliage, or studded with grazing sheep.
Winifred grunts, levering off one of her slippers, setting it in their eyeline on a shelf. Again today Maggie studies its fleece dotted with rosebuds. She handles the art postcard beside it, which depicts a furry cup and saucer and matching hirsute teaspoon.
Win hoists her mask to puff, ‘Move over, whasshername!’
Maggie writes down, ‘MERET OPPENHEIM.’
‘Bloody hell. Why do I keep forgetting her?’ pants Win.
Win wants to craft a mosaic in answer to Oppenheim’s hairy exhibit. Her idea for this riposte is a jagged slipper with porcelain spikes. Maggie maintains that mosaic can’t mimic footwear, that it’s essentially a 2D medium, not 3D; but Winifred’s convinced that something can be worked out.
‘What if we found a china slipper? We could try grouting on china prickles.’
Maggie hears a far-off rumble from her inner quarrelsome voice; she shakes her head, throwing it off.
‘And I like the idea of sticking splinters inside.’
At the image, Maggie’s sore heel throbs.
‘Truce? Or debate?’ asks Winifred.
Maggie thumbs-up truce. Win puts on only the briefest show of grumbling, so Maggie unwraps her nippers and wheel cutters, sliding their steel and plastic from out of the supple chammy. She relaxes, turns to Spotify, taps on The Anvil Chorus and begins to thrum to their familiar resting pulse.
Win raises and lowers her little mallet, slapdash and floppy-wristed, just happy to be smashing things through a towel.
Over the kitchen speaker men sing heartily, ‘To work! To work!/Li-ift up your hammers!’
One day Maggie might be like Win, managing only the wildest, largest gestures; for now, she severs with satisfying precision with her tools. Her thumb joints keen deliciously to the creaks and crackings of the plates.
Maggie has days for different things. She has medical days; on these, she weighs herself and reviews her ailments, pills and medicines. For every such day she pencils in a doctor’s appointment; if she doesn’t need one, she cancels. Most other days arrange as Maggie likes them. On pamper days she turns out her makeup bag, and treats herself to the hairdresser’s – plus a massage, sauna or pedicure, if she can afford it. On some of her exercise days there are salsa classes, on others indoor climbing. There are days when for fun she limits herself to one particular colour in all she eats and drinks and wears and buys and makes. Many days are wholly Winifred days, of course. Some of those days must be health days; otherwise, together they examine sculptures and visit galleries and castles on the internet. Then there are social days, and days for FaceTimes with the family in Canada and Norway. From time to time Maggie also walks the city centre and chooses some person to watch. If she can she tracks them, collecting tantalising fragments of their lives. How she allots her time on the calendar she couldn’t say. She has a sort of instinct for how the days might lie next to each other: a knack for mapping the placement of days.
At three-fourteen in the morning, she wakes up. Her groin presses her to urinate. In the bathroom she relieves herself. Fast asleep nextdoor, Winifred wheezes, heaving in and out of her big dreams. When Maggie sits down again on the bed edge, cramp twists at her calves. She bangs it out by stamping her feet. From the movement she rediscovers the raw place on her heel, and through this, yesterday.
Her voice for solitude appears. It incants,
Viv and Fiona in pink, and all those women in rose, fuchsia and peach Maggie sees them
‘Our bodies,’ [step-to-the-side], ‘our streets!’ [-and-kick] The rhythm Viv’s earth and pinewood Maggie smells her Fiona’s peppermint breath Maggie smells her Wind, flipping at the trilby Maggie feels it Wind,
Maggie feels it, Maggie hears it Those sweet, peppered slices of tomato Maggie tastes them Soft-step, firm-step, boot rubbing one foot She feels it, and the rhythm Soil down at the bottom of Viv’s coffee A dark brown sludge Words rising from nowhere, ‘This is My blood’ She sees cupped hands, she hears the words, she tastes the blood
Wind, snatching a gl She feels the movement, sees it fly Through the netting of the present, that glimpse of home as if it were somewhere else The light transparency of it Win’s gasp-talk, gasp-talk Again, the rhythm The sweat and perfumes of an unknown crowd Smell, smell, smell The comfort of Win’s scent of apple martini That one with flavour, scent and feeling Robert with his red cheeks What a sight
Later, the fawn feathers on a tile Soft things lying on hard Pink, brown, red
The medley drops to a whisper.
The day was graduated – ‘lasured’, they sometimes call it – in spectral shades of earth
It adds lightly,
Remember that chorus hauling away to Verdi’s anvil ringing, and the crack-and-smash, the crack-and-smash of those plates? There was rhythm more than music; upbeat rhythm – and not just on the march
Maggie will relay what she can of this to Winifred in the morning – although Win’s more of a thinker than a sensualist, so Maggie’s never convinced she understands.
The voice goes on,
Imperial Leather on Robert’s skin with something else
But now, what was it?
That piece of recall eludes Maggie, although the day bristled with scents, like breezes.
The murmur says,
Yesterday was sheer, air-filled. The wind made everything buoyant Hold onto that weightlessness, and the make-believe it allowed for, a hand passing through Robert’s chinos to the leg Your hand on the flyaway paper of Win’s hand
Maggie will re-sample Robert’s fragrance when they meet.
Tomorrow, she now knows, will be a Winifred day.
About Paula Coston
Paula Coston is my pen name when writing fiction (my real surname is Iley). My first spur to venturing into print was J.R.R. Tolkien, whom I knew as a young girl, and who tolerated my puerile efforts. I acquired a 1st class degree in English Language and Literature (Oxon). A wonderfully stimulating editorial career in book publishing was followed by another as a teacher and educational consultant. Teaching thinking skills and creative writing became my passion, and I had educational books, articles and materials commissioned by various commercial publishers. Another move – to back-office roles in higher education – allowed me to put down roots in my adoptive home town of Stroud. I’ve always yearned to live by water channels – although I can barely swim! – and at last overlook the Stroudwater Canal with its evocative textile mills. In the last decade or two, I’ve had more time to devote to my first love, writing. I’ve been a freelance journalist, and blogged extensively, particularly on the themes of singledom, childlessness and older womanhood, for outlets such as Huffpost UK, Gateway Women and TheNotMom. I am currently reworking a novel about a single woman seeking to redress her childlessness through a link with Sri Lanka, and submitting another novel about two older sisters’ experiences of their bodies and mutability. I developed a large section of this second story while working for a distinction for an MA in Creative and Critical Writing with the University of Gloucestershire, which I gained last year. As I became increasingly chastened by the lack of authentic, rounded fictional representations of older women’s physical (‘somatic’) lives during these studies, I also wrote The Composition of Maggie Chine. This ‘day in the life’ is a challenge to the two most common tropes of later female bodily experience – namely, entirely pathologised or unrealistically glossed over. I am now 67; I have much more to write about older women’s lives!
Please do connect with me on Twitter: @PaulaCostonAuth or via Instagram: @paula.coston
This short story was commissioned for our latest mini-series, Our Body’s Bodies
Everything is written on the body – but what does it mean to write about our bodies in the era of Covid-19? And is it possible to write about bodily experiences in the face of such pervasive and continued violence? Using different modes of writing and art making, Lucy Writers presents a miniseries featuring creatives whose work, ideas and personal experiences explore embodiment, bodily agency, the liberties imposed on, taken with, or found in our bodies. Beginning from a position of multiplicity and intersectionality, our contributors explore their body’s bodies and the languages – visual, linguistic, aural, performance-based and otherwise – that have enabled them to express and reclaim different forms of (dis)embodiment in the last two years. Starting with the body(s), but going outwards to connect with encounters that (dis)connect us from the bodies of others – illness, accessibility, gender, race and class, work, and political and legal precedents and movements – Our Body’s Bodies seeks to shine a light on what we corporally share, as much as what we individually hold true to.
Bringing together work by artistic duo Kathryn Cutler-MacKenzie and Ben Caro, poet Emily Swettenham, writer and poet Elodie Rose Barnes, author Ayo Deforge, writer and researcher Georgia Poplett, writer and poet Rojbîn Arjen Yigit, writer and researcher Hannah Hutchings-Georgiou and many others, as well as interviews with and reviews of work by Elinor Cleghorn, Lucia Osbourne Crowley and Alice Hattrick, Lucy Writers brings together individual stories of what our bodies have endured, carried, suffered, surpassed, craved and even enjoyed, because…these bodies are my body; we are a many bodied being. Touch this one, you move them all, our bodies’ body.
We also welcome pitches and contributions from writers, artists, film-makers and researchers outside of the Lucy Writers’ community. Please inquire for book reviews too.
For submissions relating to trans and non-binary culture email email@example.com
For poetry submissions email firstname.lastname@example.org
For reviews, prose submissions, artwork and general inquiries email email@example.com
Submissions will open again in mid-autumn 2022.
Feature image: Meret Oppenheim, Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon, (1936), MoMA, licensed under fair use.