Brian is reading a newspaper headline. Oz Trial Verdict - the Bear's Obscene. He has taken the paper from its stand but seems to have no intention of paying for it. The man who owns the kiosk lifts eyes to heaven. He is a relic of the old days. He has no nose. Leprosy ate it away. People avert their eyes but buy more papers. 'Total filth,' says Brian. Nancy is staring at the poster, trying to make out its meaning. She senses that there is something mysterious and powerful here. Layla and Stephanie have finished with their bill-posting and now advance towards Brian and Nancy. Layla has a plank tucked under her arm. Nancy nudges Brian.
'Is something the matter, Nancy?' asks Brian, who has a man's dislike of subtle hints.
'Shouldn't we get on to the Youth Hostel?' asks Nancy. 'They fill up early.' She tries to draw him to one side but he resists.
'Stop nagging,' he says.
'Sorry,' she says. Women would say this to men automatically, far more frequently then than they do now.
'Sex life of Rupert Bear,' he says. 'Getting school kids involved. Disgusting. And this Neville fellow is an antipodean. But this thing is worldwide, I reckon. A worldwide epidemic of permissiveness.' He likes the sound of this. He repeats it.
'Could we pass?' asks Layla, politely, since Brian and his unbought newspaper bar their way. The noseless man smiles thinly under hideous nostrils.
'Ladies say please,' says Brian. At which Layla simply turns and swipes him to one side with the end of the plank, turns back, and she and Stephanie move on. Brian, knocked against the wall momentarily, recovers quickly.
'Aggressive bitches,' he says. 'You were in their way, Brian,' remarks Nancy, which makes Brian wonder exactly whose side she's on. '
They must be feminists,' he observes.
'How can you be sure?' she asks.
'They don't even walk like proper women,' he says.
And it's true. All around Brian and Nancy doe-eyed and adoring women drift along in the shadow of men, stumbling on platforms, trit-trotting in stiletto heels. Layla and Stephanie stride; they wear jeans and T-shirts. Their equivalents today would be muscular and well exercised. Layla and Stephanie, for all their health, strength and energy, are soft-limbed, smooth-shouldered. Men have muscles: women have defencelessness as their weapon. No wonder this world is so erotic, super-charged: composed of polarities as it is. He, she. Hard, soft. Think, feel. Yin, yang. Nancy stares down at her laced canvas sandshoes, with their flat heels which seem to sink you into soil, and is suddenly dissatisfied with all things practical and sensible. Brian shoves the newspaper, badly folded, back into the kiosk rack. The newspaper seller snarls, all red gum and broken teeth and no nose. Brian does not even notice. But on the way past, he too stops and stares at the posters.
'I don't understand that,' he says. 'Is it some kind of stupid ad for something?'
'I think it means women could exist without men,' says Nancy.
'But why would they want to?' asks Brian. He's genuinely puzzled. There will always be women waiting for Brian, with his powerful shoulders, bronzed skin and blue eyes gazing out at the white-topped, non-existent mountains. It is hard for any of us to get beyond our sample of one; namely, ourself.
Copyright © Fay Weldon 1998. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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