Get out more, my friends and colleagues say. Meet some new people. Go to an evening class. In the end I get so fed up with them that I take their advice.
It’s early September. A strange hot blustering wind’s been blowing all day. The class is in a hall next to the United Reformed Church. I’ve looked this church up on multi-map and set off in plenty of time to find it, but it isn’t where it should be. Half an hour driving round and round. Not another soul in sight. Have they all been struck by plague? Or are they lying motionless in neat net-curtained bedrooms waiting for dusk to fall, when they’ll rise up as an army of the living dead to march through silent streets? The sun’s already sinking.
Who are these three lads in army fatigues? I stop the car, wind down the window. A gust of hot wind snatches my words away. They’re climbing into the back seat of a shiny new landrover parked by the kerb. I see an ordinary-looking middle-aged man behind the wheel, so I pull up behind him and get out to ask if he knows where the church is. His window’s shut tight against the wind. I mouth at him from the other side of the glass. The lads in the back stare right through me. Then the window slides down. You’re in the wrong part of town, the man says. The church is a couple of miles away, he tells me, behind the new Tescos.
I find the place, park the car in a sidestreet and run across the road. I’m five minutes late now and panting. In I go. Struggle with the door, the wind’s that insistent. The class has started and the teacher has her back to me. She’s a shortish woman in dark loose trousers and a white top.
I’m sorry I’m late, I mutter, as the door rattles in its frame behind me.
She turns. Don’t worry, she says: come in. My name’s Margaretta. We’ve only just started. Find yourself a space.
Her voice carries just the faintest trace of flattened South African vowels. I take off my jacket and drop it with my bag on one of the nubbly green-cushioned chairs lined up against the wall. I scurry past the teacher with my head down, through the rows of students facing her to find a safe place in the back row. Not that the back row’s necessarily the safest spot, if you want to pass unnoticed. It’s the ones in the middle that the teachers overlook.
In the back row I find myself standing next to the only man in the class. Reddish hair bristles on his scalp; his sandy-coloured shorts would be baggy enough to conceal a bushy tail.
Feet shoulder-width apart, says Margaretta: parallel, not pointing outwards. Look in front of you. Let the crown of your head feel as if it’s being lifted up. Let your weight sink downwards. Soften your knees.
Margaretta’s white hair bounces up from her head. Her white aertex shirt shows a red yin yang symbol over the left breast. Behind her hangs a notice on the cream-painted wall: This Church is a Fairtrade Church. The planked floor is bright with varnish, the cracks between the planks black and clear against the shiny orange pine.
We’ll start with some warm-up exercises, says Margaretta.
Everyone raises their left foot, toe to ground and heel up, and tries to copy Margaretta as she moves knee and ankle round and round, first one way then the other. This is tricky. What’s the point, I wonder. Then we do it with the other foot. In front of me a skinny Japanese girl in silk trousers twists her knee like a corkscrew. In front of her a young woman in white and blue tosses long brown curls from side to side. To my left and slightly in front of me a group of four grey-haired women wobble uncertainly. One of them, a stout woman in a black T shirt and slacks, is finding it hard to make the circular movement of the ankle. Arthritic, perhaps.
Good, says Margaretta: now set your feet further apart. Keep your backs straight and sink your weight.
We open our legs wider and bend our knees.
Imagine you’re riding a horse, says Margaretta.
I’m astride Ben, riding him hard. We’re all in the saddle. The Japanese girl crouching low, the curly-haired one with head thrown back and bouncing breasts, the elderly quartet with their grey perms and their pearl earrings are urging each other on; faster and faster we ride, taking hedges and fences and water jumps and galloping our men up to the finishing post. Ben is flat out beneath me on our old wide creaking bed at home. I fall on to his sweating chest, and he puts his arms tight around me. Since Ben died I think more and more about sex. Sex, and death, of course.
Be calm, says the teacher, surveying us with kind brown eyes.
The wind thumps against the outside walls and rattles the catches on the windows.
Now turn your waist, says Margaretta: turn it from the centre of your body, and let the arms swing loose around the torso.
Our hands fly out from our bodies as we turn. They go slap, slap, slap, against bellies and backs.
Shake out your hands and feet, says Margaretta when we stop: now, some background. The T’ai Chi Form, she tells us, began four hundred years ago as a means of protecting travellers through central China. The ChiGung is even older. This is a pattern of movement and breathing which gives us balance and energy. Watch and copy, she says: this is called Falling Rain.
I align my toes against the black line of a plank edge. We raise our arms out from our sides and up to shoulder height, breathing in, turn the hands over palms up, breathe out; breathe in and raise our arms above our heads. I remember the ballet lessons I used to go to when I was a little girl. In a pink leotard and pink shoes. They were in a high-ceilinged room, probably another church hall, with windows high above our heads and big brown-painted radiators growling and gurgling as we raised our arms and pointed our toes and hopped from foot to foot. And Mrs Whatsit in front with her pleated chiffon skirt, her scarlet lipstick and her strappy brown high heels. She must long ago have pirouetted up to the great big ballet school in the sky.
We do the ChiGung three times, and to finish we place one hand over another, left over right for women, right over left for men, in front of the belly and breathe softly, in and out.
We’ll have a break now, says Margaretta: talk to each other. Tell each other why you’re here.
This is good teaching practice. I should know. It’s odd to be on the other end of it.
The foxy man turns to me, and we’re immediately joined by a blonde ponytailed woman in a pale pink tracksuit, from the row in front of us.
We’re married, she tells me, flicking her ponytail.
We were in a T’ai Chi class a few years ago, he says: but we gave it up. We thought we’d try again with a different class and different teacher.
What reason am I going to give for being here?
The stout woman in black and her three grey-haired friends approach us with smiles. They’re the old guard from last year. They’ve signed on again rather than move up into the intermediate class, which follows on from this one at 8 o’clock.
You wouldn’t catch me going up to the next class, says one of them, small and bright-eyed: you really do have to remember all the Form.
They’re awfully serious too, says another one.
I’m going to be a beginner all my life, says the woman in black.
Me too, me too, say the others, grinning and laughing.
The rest of the class are drifting back to take up their positions on the shining varnished floor.
I’m Liz, by the way, says the woman in black. And what about you? she asks, as we begin to move apart: what’s brought you here?
I wanted to try an evening class, I reply.
I don’t say: my husband died six months ago and I miss him more than I thought possible. I don’t say: when I stand in front of a class of students I feel as if my soul is being sucked from my body by the sheer hunger of their eyes. How could I say to strangers, to this funny-looking foxy man and his sugar icing wife, or to these cheerful, self-deprecating, elderly women that I feel empty and hollow-limbed? I don’t say that I’m no longer tethered to home; that first my years of mothering passed and now I’ve lost my husband too. I don’t tell them that I’m floating free above the narrow lanes and winding streets of my past, that I’m spreading out across the sky like wisps of cirrus, that I’ve become almost invisible to myself let alone to other people. I don’t say that I’ve forgotten how the ground feels beneath my feet.
Now Margaretta’s telling us she’s going to demonstrate the first six patterns of movement of LaoJia, the Old Form. We move to where some formica-topped tables are pushed to the wall and prop ourselves against them. Margaretta takes up her position.
She drops an inch or two as she softens her knees. Her back remains straight. She moves, shifting the weight of her body from one leg to another, her arms and hands rising and falling, circling, pulling in and pushing out, transferring her weight again, one leg placed delicately in front, the right forearm coming up, the other hand circling gently to touch it. Then the right hand becomes a fist and Margaretta slams it into her other palm, as she raises her right foot and brings it down hard on the floor. We jump at the sudden unexpected noise. Another series of flowing movements ripples through her body, each one pulling another in its wake. You can’t tell when one pattern ends and another begins. She holds up her right hand, fingers and thumb drooping, tips together, like a bird’s beak, and brings over the other hand to reel out an invisible line. I can hear her regular breaths.
Buddha’s Warrior Attendant Pounds Mortar, says this short stocky white-haired woman. We copy her: arms, hands, legs, feet move clumsily in emulation of her militant grace.
A door bangs and the pitch of the wind’s whistling changes. Footsteps outside, voices. It must be the intermediate group arriving. We lower our hands, folding them in front of our bellies, left over right, apart from Mr Foxy who is allowed to put his right over left. We breathe. In, out. In, out.
I pick up my bag and jacket from the chair.
See you next week, Liz and the other three call out as I walk past them.
I’m out in the blustering wind. Although dark has fallen it still blows hot and dry against my face. This is not a damp English autumnal wind. This is a wind from elsewhere, whipped up perhaps in the dusty plains of central China where travellers have always needed the protection of masters of the martial arts.
Cars barrel past with their headlights probing the dark, slowing and turning as they reach the entrance to the supermarket carpark. Leaves rustle on the pavement and rush against my legs as I cross the road and turn down the sidestreet.
I stop beside my car. I plant my feet apart and sink my weight. I raise my arms into the wind and lower them; I turn from the centre of my body; I let my hands trace circles; I pull in and I push out.
I can’t bring back my Ben. I can’t recreate my younger, stronger, surer self. But I can plant my feet on the ground, tether my soul to the soil, and here, in these dark suburban streets, I can prepare to face the armies of the living dead, and to defy them.
(Copyright SLF 2007; broadcast BBC R4 Feb 2007, read by Stephanie Cole, produced by Mark Smalley)