Josie stared at the blackboard, her thin lips parted in disbelief and her eyes half shut in a vain effort to avoid seeing. The chalk drawing looked to her like a squashed tulip and couldn’t possibly resemble that place between her legs she knew only as her ‘private parts’. Beside the sketch the lecturer had written a list of words people used to describe their private parts-words Josie could not and would not ever use.
Josie wanted to run as far from this place as she could get. But how could she get to the door without everyone noticing and maybe even laughing? She was stuck, trapped by her own inability to move. All she could do was stare at her feet and just allow herself an occasional glance at the offending picture.
She had not come here by choice. She’d been coaxed and cajoled by, of all people, Mrs Summers, who did the floral arrangements for the church. For months after her husband Benny’s death, Josie had stayed indoors waiting for someone to tell her what to do. No one had, until one day Mrs Summers had called in, bringing her a bunch of flowers and urging her to visit the local community centre.
‘After all, Josie, you’re still young at fifty-five and there’s lots of things you could be doing while you’ve still got the chance.’
Josie didn’t like to offend anyone so the next day she got the bus down to the community centre and scoured the notice board for anything that didn’t involve jumping around in a leotard. ‘Self Awareness for Women’, one poster said. Josie asked the receptionist if you needed any special clothes and when she said no, Josie signed up.
This was Week Seven and they were ‘exploring sexuality’. Josie had been going to pretend she was ill and not rum up but Pat, whose presence beside Josie in class made her feel frumpy and whose hair hung straight in a neat bob, making Josie conscious of her permed grey curls, had laughed.
‘Jesus, Josie,’ she said ‘after three children and thirtyfive years of marriage, you can’t be that shy. Come on, it might be a laugh!’
Josie didn’t think it would be a laugh at all. More like torture, she thought, but Pat was adamant and had even called to the house for her so they could get the bus to class together. On the way, Pat teased and joked. Josie tried to smile and hoped the other passengers couldn’t hear Pat’s loud, crackly voice.
Pat was dressed in pale blue and wore a large tangerine-coloured crystal around her neck. She told Josie the crystal was a present from her daughter and helped her keep calm. Her daughter lived in a ‘New Age Community’, whatever that was. Josie didn’t like to ask in case it turned out to be some sort of cult or sect, where everyone ends up taking poison or shooting themselves like on the telly. She felt sorry for Pat having a daughter in a place like that but Pat herself seemed quite pleased about it and spoke about visiting her daughter at weekends. Obviously she didn’t watch much telly, thought Josie, whose three children had emigrated and who had no one to visit.
Television was Josie’s only pastime. Before Benny died they had gone once a week to the local pub. They sat in the corner, eating chips and chicken wings, sipping their drinks slowly to make them last. Benny had been a postman so they’d never been well off, but then they’d never been poor either and had just enough to manage on, provided they were careful.
The woman who ran the course was called Fiona. Josie felt reassured when she appeared behind the desk on the first day, dressed in a respectable skirt and lovely hand-knitted Aran cardigan. The first thing she did was push the desk to one side of the room saying that she didn’t want any barriers between her and the women. She chatted to them about herself for a few minutes and then she asked the women to introduce themselves and say a few words about their lives. Josie listened in terror as her new classmates talked, saying things like: ‘Hello, I’m Mary Conroy, I’ve been married for thirty years. I bake all my own bread and I knit jumpers for my grandchildren,’or ‘Hello,I’m Jackie Meadows and I used to work over in the Rit-Ex factory before it closed. I did reception and some typing and now I can’t find another job.’
Around the room it went. They were sitting in a semicircle and Josie was in the middle. She was only half-listening to the women next to her as they introduced themselves. She was busy trying to figure out what to say. She could get the hang of the ‘Hello, I’m Josie’ par.t, but what to say after that was a big problem. She hadn’t worked since she was a young girl. She didn’t bake her own bread or knit or sew. By the time Fiona smiled and nodded to let her know it was her turn all she could manage was: ‘Hello, I’m Josie, I’m a widow woman.’
Her words hung in the air as if on the edge of a silent cliff Fiona continued to smile at her and beckoned for her to say more, but Josie’s spit had disappeared and her throat was almost closed-all she could do was stare at her lap.
‘It’s lovely to have you here, Josie,’ Fiona said, and she came over and grasped Josie’s hand.
The friendly gesture made Josie’s eyes fill a little and she had to blink several times and count to seventy-nine in her head to keep from breaking down. Her hand tingled a little where Fiona had touched it. The woman beside her nudged her and winked and this turned out to be Pat.
After this it got easier and although she didn’t quite know what the point of it all was, she started to look forward to the classes, half excited and half terrified. All the subjects were new to her, things like ‘Women in a Changing Society’, ‘Health for Life’ and even ‘Relationships’. Josie thought that this meant marriage but now she knew it meant lots of things. She began to wonder if she and Benny had even had a relationship. She couldn’t remember them ever ‘communicating’ on an intimate level or discussing their hopes and dreams or fears. Of course, Benny had always known Josie had a fear of spiders and if one appeared in the bath he would remove it with a long-handled brush and shake it away in the garden. He never killed them, he even quite liked them but he folly understood how Josie felt and how she dreaded the thought of one running up her leg and tickling her thigh.
Fiona talked about relating to other people and how some people had more of these skills than others. Someone who relates well to other people accepts them for what they are, listens to them and validates them, Josie learned.
‘To validate someone as a person is to make them aware that they are special and unique,’ Fiona said, making Josie feel miserable. She couldn’t remember having done any of that for Benny.
‘I didn’t know how. No one told me how. I must have been a terrible wife!’ Josie said to Pat during tea break.
‘Of course you weren’t,’ Pat answered, ‘I bet you did all those things in your own way. Don’t worry about it. It’s just a way of talking, that’s all.’
Josie had worried, though, and after that particular class she had gone to Benny’s grave. Inscribed on the headstone were the words ‘Beloved Husband’, and Josie had knelt down and stared at the words and sobbed.
However confused these other classes had made her, none of them compared with today’s sexuality lecture. Fiona was now in the process of drawing a man’s genitals right beside the woman’s. Some of the women giggled and some some sat quietly like Josie, shifting slightly in their chairs and trying not to look.
‘As women we owe it to ourselves to explore our bodies,’ Fiona said with a bright, encouraging smile. ‘We should begin by examining our vaginas, getting to know them and to admire them.’ Josie squirmed, then rose slightly from her seat. Pat touched her arm and shook her head.
‘It’s alright. She’s not going to make us do it here!’ Fiona continued cheerfully as if she was talking about the price of apples. She talked about orgasms and erogenous zones-neither of which Josie had ever heard of. Nor had anyone else she knew, though, of course, there was always the possibility that they had and they just hadn’t told her. Since she’d started this course, it seemed like nobody had ever told her anything. At the end of the class, Fiona handed them all a leaflet which contained the same drawings as had been on the blackboard. Josie stuffed hers into her handbag and hoped to God she didn’t have an accident on the way home. The nurses would think she was awful. Pat asked her to go for coffee and Josie couldn’t think of an excuse quickly enough so off she went. Inside the cafe, she didn’t know whether to sit down at a table or go to the counter and serve herself. Pat took control.
‘Sit down over there, Josie, this one’s on me. I’ll get it while you mind the table.’ Josie sat down and fiddled with the clasp of her handbag. When Pat returned with coffee and two slices of cake, she took out some money and offered to pay her share.
‘Not at all, Josie. You can get it next time if you like.’
Next time, thought Josie. Now she’d have to come again. She couldn’t owe Pat money. She bit into her chocolate cream cake and realised with a shudder of excitement that she’d quite like to come again.
‘Here, let’s have a look at this,’ Pat said, taking the leaflet out of her bag. ‘Oh no, people will see. They’ll think we’re a bit, well a bit, you know… funny.’
‘Funny!’ Pat laughed, ‘of course they won’t. People don’t care what two middle-aged women like us do. Haven’t you noticed? When you get past forty, you’re invisible!’
Josie looked around the cafe. Sure enough no one was looking at them. Not so much as a glance! She thought of all the time she’d spent in the house after Benny’s death, waiting for someone to come, waiting for someone to notice, and no one ever did. Except for Mrs Summers, who was middle-aged herself, so she didn’t count.
Josie watched a film when she got home. It was one of those detective thrillers. Loads of action and excitement, but the average age of everyone in it was about twenty-five except for one woman, in her fifties, who was accidentally shot because she got in the way. Josie stood up and switched off the television. Benny frowned at her from his framed photograph on the mantelpiece. She turned it round to face the wall.
‘Just in case,’ she whispered as she climbed the stairs to bed. She lay there for an hour, just staring into the darkness. Then she got up, stretching slowly, and as she did she caught sight of herself in the mirror, her clean white cotton nightdress looking strangely like a shroud.
‘Not yet,’ she said to the mirror in a firm, loud voice as she covered it with a sheet. Taking her compact mirror and the leaflet Fiona had given her out of her handbag, she thought how nice it might be to be invisible. She could do what she wanted, whatever that might be!
It was difficult to explore with one eye barely open and the other tightly shut. What she could see looked nothing like a squashed tulip, more like a… Well, she couldn’t describe it really having never seen one like it before.