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It had been raining all day, but in the late afternoon it stopped. The wind blew clouds swiftly across the darkening sky. In Regent Street, the windows gleamed brighter, in contrast – the great, high-ceilinged shops were glittering palaces, with wondrous goods, lit by electric lights.
I lingered at a window. I was an obstruction – and rather a stout one, by now – to the tide of people, hurrying along the pavement, intent on completing their purchases before the shops closed.
I was not there to shop. We wore muffs, that year, to keep our hands warm, and they were a good means of concealment. As if to remind myself, to strengthen my resolve, I felt the wooden handle, and the hard, iron head, cool against the slippery fur.[private]
The traffic flowed by without an end – the ‘buses lit like Chinese lanterns, in procession; the taxi cabs that grazed the kerb. If I looked – though I hardly dared – further along the street, I glimpsed, between the bobbing hats, a woman, like myself, scrutinising a display, and another, checking her wrist watch.
Just within the open doors, I could sense the warm breath of the shop’s interior, and the shopwalkers smiled their obsequious welcome. A fine rainbow of handkerchiefs was spread to catch the eye, and lure me inside, through precarious towers of jars: bath salts, face creams, perfumes, with embossed, highly decorated labels. Marble and mirrors twinkled like a ballroom. Silk was unrolled in a shining flash, across a counter, and swiftly snipped with gleaming scissors.
There was a large black clock, suspended over the shop entrance, but it seemed to me that clock hands had never moved so slowly, and the last two minutes seemed to last for ten. I was afraid of acting too early, and ruining the plan.
I stared at the goods behind the glass, only half registering what they were. Bright materials spilled from their rolls in carefully arranged cascades. There were rows of hats, on faceless heads; a display of toys, fit for a princess – dolls’ houses, a rocking horse, and a marvellous array of teddy bears. China and glassware were artfully placed, to suggest a blissful, well-equipped home life. How appropriate, I thought bitterly, that I should be faced with demolishing that particular illusion.
Perhaps that’s the thing about life – you never really believe it’s going to apply to you. All the way through, they try to tell you, but you don’t believe them. The gap between their clumsy words and your lived experience is too great.
My mother tried, I suppose, in her feeble way. We were always too intent on protecting one another, locked in our conspiracy of mutual embarrassment, for this to do any good. She couldn’t even acknowledge her use of the lavatory – what chance did she have, with words she did not know, to describe acts she endured, with (I can only assume) the same queasy revulsion?
Instead, a confused impression had seeped through the gaps, the silences. Girls started off whole, but they inevitably became broken. Blood came, and then shame. There was something dangerous about us, something disgusting – it grew as we grew, we must always be on our guard. Something awful might happen at any moment, and it happened to almost everyone, although if you got it right, it was only supposed to happen once you were married. God had decided all of this, and it was all to do with sin.
It had happened to me, I thought, blankly – that awful thing that no one talks about. Repetition had not dulled the guilt that underlay my every waking moment, like the nausea, which was only just starting to subside. The grotesque changes to my body – a sort of horrific second puberty – were confirmation. I was ruined, already. Nothing else really mattered – the damage had all been done.
A quarter to six – the minute-hand had edged its way right between the I and the X of the Roman numerals. Then I knew it was time, because I heard the noise – a crashing and a splintering, up and down the street, swiftly followed by shrieks and shouts, and the skid of braking traffic.
I had no time to look about me. With great concentration, I drew the hammer from my muff, and aimed at the glass, with a controlled blow. It took greater force than I had anticipated. One for the rolls of material – I moved along the pavement – two for the hats – and again, with just the right force to send fractures right across the plate glass – three for the toys. It was actually quite fun, I suddenly felt, rather like playing hockey.
I stepped back, and looked around quickly. To my astonishment, no one pounced on me. A young man, nearby, was watching. He looked straight into my face, and laughed with surprise, as if we’d shared a joke. “Well, blow me down, Miss, I ‘aint seen that before. You’d best clear off quick, ‘fore they nab you!” he said. I stuffed the hammer back into my muff, and began to waddle, as briskly as I could (since my condition had now begun to hinder swift movement), up towards Oxford Circus.
The steady hum of the busy street was shattered, and all was confusion and outrage. Shop assistants ran outside to see. Crowds gathered, shouting and gesticulating to one another wildly – and at the heart of each, a grave, silent woman, hustled from hand to hand. The traffic had come to a halt, and people stood on the top deck of the ‘buses, conferring in their indignation. Policemen blew their whistles, and were hailed from all directions, and did not know which way to run.
These scenes were repeated along as far as I could see. Fullers, the Stereoscopic Co., Brooks, the Post Office, Swan and Edgars, the Aerated Bread Co – all had suffered the same fate. Large windows sagged and bowed like net curtains. It looked as though there had been a siege; the pavements were carpeted with chips of glass. The iron shutters rattled loudly down to cover the devastation, and to protect the suddenly naked displays from the outside world.
I turned down a side street, breathless from my exertion, and disappeared into the London crowds.[/private]