The world envied them, derided them, adored, loathed and pitied them by turns - these women who were larger than life. Layla, Stephanie, Alice, Nancy and company - a small, vivid group of wild livers, free-thinkers, lusters after life, sex and experience, who in the last decades of the century turned the world inside out and upside down. Unable to change themselves, they turned their attention to society, and set about changing that, for good or bad.
If in achieving so much they all but destroyed themselves, who should be surprised? Being flawed, they were the stuff of tragedy as well as triumph. They walked amongst ordinary mortals like goddesses down from Mount Olympus, without so much as deigning to notice their own difference. 'Who, me?' they'd enquire, handed doctorate or writ. 'Little me?'
Others described them as feminists, but they were never quite in step; too far in front to notice what the rest were doing. Layla, Stephanie, Alice, Nancy and company. Big Women, not Little Women, that was the point: and Medusa, their creation. Medusa the Gorgon, the one who turned men's hearts to stone.
Will You, Won't You?
Slap, slap, slurp: a hollow, juicy sound. Stephanie's pasting up posters on the dark green wall of a Victorian urinal. The year's 1971. This urinal still stands there at the bottom of Carnaby Street, alongside Liberty's of London. See it now, as then. Stephanie is clearly not an expert at what's called posting bills. Paste dribbles down all over the place: they go up crooked, they overlap. But up they go. The legend Bill Posters Will Be Prosecuted gets obscured, as another poster slips and slides. 'Poor Bill Posters,' says Layla.
Stephanie doesn't get the joke. This is her life problem. Her life asset is her beauty. In 1971 she is twenty-five; she has perfect features, a lanky body, abundant blonde straight hair, and rather large hands and feet. Layla is twenty-six, shorter, plumper, funnier; she has curly dark hair. One side of Layla's face does not line up with the other, so she is called sexy and attractive, but seldom beautiful. Layla does not regard this as a life problem. She has too much to think about.
The posters declare over and over, A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle. People stare a moment and pass on. The message makes no sense. Obviously women need men. Everyone needs men. Masculinity is all. Armies need men, and government and business and technology and high finance. And teaching and medicine and adventuring and fashion. And all the serious arts. Offices, except for the typing pool, which is female, need men. It's homes which need women, except for the lawn which is male. Women are for sex, motherhood and domesticity. Men are in for status and action. Outside the home is high status, inside the home is low status. In popular myth men make decisions, women try on hats. The world is all id and precious little anima. Layla and Stephie, friends, mean to change all this. A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle. Ho, ho, ho. Everyone knows women compete for male attention; isn't this how the problem of female bitchery arises? Catty? Felines are nothing compared with women. Perhaps this puzzle poster is advertising something?
A couple of tourists, Brian and Nancy from New Zealand, emerge from the crowds in Carnaby Street. They have been rendered punch-drunk by colour, fabric, and the smell of patchouli. These are still flower-power and drug days. See feather boas, silk caftans, crushed velvet hats; lots of mauve, flares, miniskirts, platform heels; good-looking guys with lots of hair, girls with doll faces drifting behind them; wide eyes, fake lashes, white faces. Brian and Nancy both wear white Aertex shirts and tennis shoes for ease and comfort. Both are in culture shock. They flew in today from Wellington. (It took thirty-six hours.) They are accustomed to mountains, plains and sheep farms. Brian is gloriously handsome and golden. Nancy is pleasing enough to look at, but lacks eroticism: she's tall, long-limbed, and manages to appear gawky rather than slender.
Copyright © Fay Weldon 1998. Reproduced with permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press
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