Mel Evans is an artist and activist. Her book Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts was published in 2015, and she is part of the recently victorious art collective Liberate Tate that sought to end BP sponsorship of Tate. Her poems and writing have been published in a range of journals.
Abi walked along the edge of the road defiantly, expanding her dancer’s frame outwards in the technique that since a teenager had made her feel safe walking the streets on her own. It was better to take on a purposeful air. The scrutinising eyes of the drivers would only be translated into unwanted interventions by her pause. People were always asking women if they were lost when they were merely thinking. A man with a map is studying it; a woman with the same stance is confused.
Abi had no need of such visible risks however. She knew where all the A-roads led. She hadn’t actually walked the route between the neighbouring small towns that largely made up her entire history in years. Once she’d scored a car why would she? But with the latest round of petrol shortages across the country her echoey fuel tank and equally empty wallet gave her restlessness a new challenge. And so she set out walking, quietly desperate for those three miles to offer something new.
Knowingly, Abi relished breaking so many of the culture’s codes. A woman should not be alone, she heard the eyes on her implicitly state. In a pub or a restaurant or walking on the side of the road. In all such instances she should be made safe by the presence of Man, ideally one with some level of ownership over her. A father; a brother; a husband; a presumed boyfriend. Otherwise she is In Danger, or so they say.
But Abi knew it was not her life or her body that was in danger at all – that would only occur through the act of another person – it is the codes of the culture that were at risk, and it is she herself who poses a threat to these codes. It is her act that is dangerous – to the entire society, but not to herself. Abi kept walking, feeling the quiet heat of the drivers’ eyes on her body as much as the aggressive early summer sun bearing down. It was mostly electric cars on the roads these days, and the near-silent vehicles crept up on her ghost like round every bend.
The halfway house pub she had worked in through her early-twenties peered around the corner. She imagined the floor behind the bar sticky with the swill and swerve of serving the customers’ infinite impatience. A brief stop here would be needed unfortunately. Her lower back had been aching all day and the warm moisture in her knickers confirmed her desire for change was, as ever, consistent with the start of her period. Abi slipped in through the fire exit, which was always ajar, and without alerting a single staff member trotted along to the busy toilets.
The culture expected women to be breeders or bitches. So when Abi walked into the bathroom the women there, all mothers – told by the lines of sleeplessness and vigilance around their eyes – looked at the shortness of her shorts (wouldn’t anything else be an oxymoron?) disapprovingly, and bitched about her, assuming by her skin tone that she didn’t speak their language. But their accents were infinitely familiar to her, and despite the aggression she felt a quiet comfort in their presence.
She jiggled the tampon machine to release a packet without paying for it and confirmed her status as a bitch with the evidence of her bleeding. She’d imagined having children many times. She’d have daughters and give them powerful, goddess names like Potentia or Manuèla. It was a phase of her life that was waiting for when she was older, a time that simply hadn’t arrived even as the years had passed. In some ways her indecision or missing accident meant she benefitted from an ageless, unearthly energy people read into her. But mostly the culture condemned with both hands: she was always too young to be speaking her mind so, then suddenly too old and her opinion irrelevant and when did she plan to have children? Men are rarely asked their age and from 25 to 49 enjoyed an effortless era of youth and authority incompatible for women.
Back on the road she relaxed into her journey, humming as she weaved through rising nettles and thistles and grasses, seeming to lace around her waist as she walked. The air was still and she was sweating now. A passing place emerged to give her respite from the weedy bank – of course, the new electric bus route stopped here. The bus would take her into the centre of town and skip the walk down row upon row of matching planned-town houses. She didn’t have more than a pound in change in her pocket.
The bus pulled in and Abi dipped her lashes meekly in a well-rehearsed beg for assistance, beamed cautiously at the bus driver’s nod, and settled herself exhausted on the upper deck. The thickly carpeted bus seat with its furry fabric aggravated her heat-prickled skin. The man in the next seats addressed her with the socially aggressive assurance of someone who feels entitled to constantly describe their own window on the world.
“When’s it due?” he asked, addressing the swell of her menstrual belly.
“Huh? Oh. I’m not pregnant. I’m on my period.”
Abi stared out his discomfort, semi-blankly. She received his unwanted gaze and reflected it back for him to experience.
After the moment of the exchange was passed, she reopened it, feeding his discomfort.
“My womb is full of blood, which is what it’s like when you’re carrying a foetus in there.”
The man, a blandly dressed white guy in his 30s, scrunched his face in disgust. He spluttered a quiet laugh, trying to blow her heavy presence away. She continued,
“If you talk about my body like it’s any of your business, I’ll give you all the gory details. Mate.”
He looked away first, focusing his eyes on the names of shops as the bus got closer into town and the signs switched from peeling paint to shimmering plastic.
Maybe this was why she never picked up any friends on one of her sudden trips. When she returned, Terry, her sometimes boyfriend, would question who she had hung out with, and seem unconvinced when she replied, “No-one”.
“Weren’t you lonely?” he’d always ask.
“Never.” she’d always reply. “A woman alone never is.”
Abi stepped off the bus into a cool dusk breeze. The air swirling round her bare legs felt earthly and sensual, even as she stalked along the cracked and weedy pavement. A plan was forming: she would go to her mother’s house. Gardener’s World would be on at 8.30pm and her mother would be planning some new project for her allotment. Abi would tidy up some leftover tea and her mother would question her life choices and Abi would complain about Terry’s inconsistencies and her mother would recommend patience and Abi would switch the conversation to her brother Kyle, who was leading an equally inconclusive existence. It wasn’t quite the elaborate getaway she’d anticipated in her initial stride out onto the highway, but it would be a recluse of sorts.
She barely noticed the man approaching until he was suddenly in her personal space.
“Hey sexy” he proclaimed.
He was a white guy, not much taller than her, late thirties probably, and smartly dressed. Like any other catcaller, he was pathetic and threatening at the same time. It was the invasion she resented the most. Here she was thinking, pondering, on her own path, and out of some sense of entitlement he interrupted all of that. Anyone asking a genuine question would say, “Excuse me.” The culture told him he owned her body with his eyes: women were property, an idea scratched out of the law only recently in its entirety. Her tired, weathered body: to his mind, for him – to look at, to judge, to touch if he wanted. But Abi was on a roll.
“Fuck off.” She scowled her carefully crafted facial expression of pure aggression and disgust.
“Well fuck you.” His eyebrows raised, confused, caught off guard.
“You’ve got no right to talk to me like that. No right at all.”
“Friendly!” he exclaimed in an attempted defence.
“Do you want me to come and punch you in the face? That’s what you deserve for talking to me like that.”
She made several steps following his retreat, billowing her body in her scrappy shorts and loose vest. The guy tripped, stumbled over his own feet; his smartphone leaped out of his hands and danced through the air as with both hands he tried to catch it before it landed by a weedy tree stump decorated with territorial dog pee. With a final glance back and reluctant defeat the man dashed on his way and out of hers. Abi checked for any casual audience that might be on hand to reaffirm her victory, but their exchange had passed unnoticed.
She peered into a nearby bar filled with pay-packet exaltation and spun away gloomy with the sight of packs of men jeering at frilly women, who were giggling and squealing in response. The order of the culture was reassuring to some, she supposed. It offered known quantities and sure outcomes. But for her the nausea of difference left her feeling cold. She found herself back on the A-road, this time walking on, away from her mother’s, away from Terry’s one-bed flat in the other town, away from her familiar.
The moon was now large and bright enough to compete with the intermittent glare of floodlights nailed to the edges of the road. A car swerved too close to her and teenage boys exploded from the windows with a firecracker of shouts and shrieks. Abi didn’t catch a word and the intent didn’t touch her either: an aura of indifference protected her now, even from the light thud of an empty beer can that hit her shoulder. They missed her head, suckers. The next aggressor was a taxi driver proposing a free ride with strings attached, with venom to spare when his offer went stoically ignored. In the opposite direction another car driver slowed then pulled over to scrutinise her body. Was he wanking himself? she asked herself in visceral disgust. She managed a slow scowl and he accelerated away in dissatisfaction. Still the night hadn’t exhausted its predators.
Abi breathed deeply and heavily with the strain of a slow ascent, the dehydration of the afternoon’s sun finally setting in. A car engine roared an aggressive statement of intent with its clutch back round the bend, and instinctively Abi leapt for the bushes this time, jauntily inserting herself into the undergrowth as the vehicle rounded the brow of the hill.
Two men. She gripped her keys from her pocket to ready her only weapon as her eyes weighed up the stones near her feet for size and sharpness, glancing up briefly – and with sudden recognition. The passenger was her brother, Kyle, scanning the horizon, and the driver was Terry, the sop, with a fiercely furrowed brow surveying the road’s scrimpy edges. It was even her car. They’d found some fuel to eek into her tank.
Abi hovered in her crouched position. A strange heaviness held her back from leaping into the road to their reassurance and her supposed rescue. She saw herself at once drifting off to sleep on the back seat home and at the same time continuing her passage over the hill and beyond, alone. Terry was driving at a slow 20mph, but her car seemed to pass before her eyes in slow motion, shiny and resilient but ultimately undesirable.
She felt herself backing further into the undergrowth. She froze at a twig snap and looked up to lock eyes with a startled vixen. Time stopped and opened up all at once as she stared into the pair of pearl black eyes. The fox turned and glanced back again, surely beckoning. Maybe this was a path she could take on her own.