TURNING ON A SIXPENCE
I first saw Elsie in the little Midlands town where I was born. My first impression was of a mountainous, untidy woman who took no prisoners. Her grey hair was scraped back and her voice was rasping. Her gaze was confrontational. She was legendary for having many “gentleman callers” of an afternoon, and my mother and I used to fantasise that, as a sort of foreplay, she would croak out when some bloke approached her: “Aww, goo on then!” She would wear a grubby “pinner” which wrapped round the front and tied at the back, and she wore a hearing aid which she referred to as “me harker”. The huge battery was carried on her chest, and looked like a third breast.
Wherever I moved, Elsie seemed to follow me. Whatever town or village I went to, there she was, just disappearing round the corner. I would always look for her in the most malodorous suburbs. When I moved to Portsmouth, I was sure she had come to town, and I looked for her in all the likely places. Sure enough, there she was: stockings rolled down to her ankles, grubby slippers with ancient pompoms, hearing-aid whistling like a police-car, grey skin which was a stranger to soap and water. I was repelled and fascinated at the same time. I developed considerable agility in hiding from her: and she could turn on a sixpence in her pursuit of me. She was adroit.
I was always obsessed with not looking like Elsie. I had the most expensive haircuts and facecream, never wore slippers, and was picky about my swains. Overly fastidious, I always washed more than I needed to. Sometimes I was prim. I expended a huge amount of energy in NOT being Elsie, but I could often hear her, maybe in my mind: “aww, goo on then!”
So far so good. I managed to keep her at bay for many years. Then came the Days of Covid. Hairdressers, gyms and beauticians were now a thing of the past. I started to put on weight, and wore the same clothes for days on end. My hearing lost its sharpness. I was anxious that I hadn’t seen Elsie for some time: had she run away, or died at last? Where was she?
I found out soon enough. There was a large mirror in my bedroom that I had avoided during lockdown. I moved the laundry-basket and the ironing board and looked at my reflection for the first time in months. Snaggle-toothed and mountainous, there I was. I was wearing a pinner and slippers. My skin was lacklustre. It was her. Elsie had stolen me away at last: and all I could think of to say was “aww, goo on then!”