Mary Paulson-Ellis is a writer living in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her debut novel, The Other Mrs Walker (Pan Macmillan 2016) was nominated for the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book Award and has been selected as the Waterstones Scottish Book of the Month for March 2017. She has an MLitt in Creative Writing from Glasgow University and on graduating was awarded the inaugural Curtis Brown Prize for Fiction. One of her first jobs was making scones at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery where this story is set and in which all sorts of dangerous women can be found if you know where to look.
The first time I ever fell in love for proper was in a gallery in Edinburgh. We had come there on a coach, shouting and talking too loud, eating our lunch before it was even ten thirty a.m., twenty-three of us and two teachers – well one teacher and a parent helper. I sat at the front next to her.
The gallery was full of men. Big ones and old ones and thin ones and brown ones (though not many of those, just a couple down in the corner of a massive painting where the people were miniature and the house they were in front of was well oversize). The men were wearing red outfits that made them look special. I pointed them out to Sam but she just went on talking to her friends as though I hadn’t spoken. No surprise there.
There were men in gold and men with kilts, all sorts of sashes. There were admirals and painters and men with large noses. There were chemists and one who invented a steam engine, reverends and men who were good at golf, someone who made a name for himself by cycling. I liked the gallery. It was a good way to get a day off school and a good way to do something other than sit indoors which is what I do the rest of the time.
The only annoying thing about the gallery was Becka Marshall. She was at the back of the group, like me, but not for the same reasons. All the way round she kept yawning and sucking the ends of her hair, fetching out her phone to check it when she thought no one was looking. She would roll her eyes at her friends whenever the woman who was the guide asked a question. Becka Marshall is one of those girls in our year who is really clever but pretends not to be, as though it all just happens by accident. I hate Becka Marshall but I can’t stop looking at her. When she sees me she always looks back so long it makes me look away first.
The men I liked best were the murderers in the library. The library smelt different from the rest of the gallery, old wood and leather, fusty, like going up into an attic when nobody’s been there for years. The library was all glass-fronted cabinets full of red books and blue books and books with names like Chiefs of Grant and Lords of Elphinstone. Also a whole bunch of small green boxes each labelled with a little sequence of letters that didn’t make any sense. I wondered what was inside those boxes but the guide had already told us that anything behind glass was forbidden. Also going onto the balcony. Can’t take the weight, said the guide. Becka Marshall laughed at that and so did a few others. Everyone knew I was the heaviest person in the room.
The murderers were lined up in a glass case looking out at us. Six men, all of them hanged. John, John, William, George, William, George. It was funny how their names were matching. Their heads were made of plaster but you could see all the little details on their faces, like their eyebrow hairs and the lines around their mouths. The guide said they were mainly made from death, but some were made from life, wet plaster and quills up the nose to breathe. As the others pushed their way out to the lunchroom, giggling and making gagging noises, I wondered what it would be like to have plaster all cold and heavy on your face so you couldn’t move, knowing that the next day you were going to be hanged and it would happen for real. It seemed odd to me that they agreed to it. But maybe they wanted to be remembered, like we were remembering them now. Except the ones in the next door cabinet were just:
Then it happened.
‘What type are you?’
She didn’t have a name, either. Only a label. One of those heads the guide had told us about where they used to study the shape of their skulls to work out their personalities. I stared at her through the glass to see if I was imagining things. She didn’t move, but I knew she was speaking to me.
She was very beautiful, her eyes closed, her hair pulled back. Serene, that was the word for her. A serene type. Not like me. The type of person who is afraid to stand at the bus stop when certain other types are already there. Blonde types like the E-type parked in Becka Marshall’s driveway. AB1 not OCD. Or Type 2 like I could go if I don’t stop gorging. Waitrose not Asda. Or the types who type but don’t know computers. Like my dad who’s hoping to work with his hands on the new Type 6.
Her voice wasn’t serene. It was insistent, impossible to ignore.
‘It’s a warship,’ I said
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘War.’ Rolling her eyes just like Becka Marshall, even though they didn’t actually move. ‘What type of warship?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘A transporter, maybe.’
‘To another continent. Or another planet.’ I was sure she winked then. ‘To boldly go…’
We both laughed. She was much too old for Star Trek and I was much too young, but somehow she knew.
‘What’s your name?’ she asked then.
‘Like the comet.’
I’d never thought of it like that before.
‘Are you?’ she said.
I blushed a little then, felt embarrassed. ‘Not really.’
‘I bet you are though, somewhere inside.’
We spent quite a long time after that discussing all the various types in the gallery that I hadn’t noticed. The silver darlings in their striped skirts, bringing up the herring.
‘Very good at maths. But a bit smelly.’
Esther the calligrapher who wrote out the scrolls.
‘Vain type. Likes to wear her own embroidery – all in black, of course.’
Elizabeth the spy.
‘She has a parrot.’
‘A parrot?’ I said.
‘A red one.’
‘I didn’t see her.’
‘Too busy look at the male types probably. They do tend to preen.’
There were the women climbing the rocks in their long skirts, only one rope between them; Jane the letter writer hidden under her small velvet cloth; Margaret beneath her leather one.
‘You can’t have missed her. She insults everyone who passes. Weren’t you listening?’
No, I thought. Obviously not.
There was Clementina who couldn’t go to parties unless she dressed in men’s clothing. And Mary with her blood soaked skirts.
‘Excellent French if you want to practice.’
Arabella who married for love not convenience.
I remembered her. ‘She starved herself to death, didn’t she?’
The woman sighed. ‘Nothing changes.’
‘Because they locked her up.’
‘Yes,’ said the woman. ‘They do that to people like us.’
I looked closely at her behind the glass, forbidden. Then down at her label.
Female, Extreme Cunning.
‘Are you dangerous?’ I said.
‘Aren’t we all.’
After that, she asked about me.
‘You’re very fat, aren’t you.’ Though it wasn’t really a question. ‘You should get out more. Run about a bit.’
‘I’m here, aren’t I.’
‘You’re nasty,’ I said.
She just laughed at that. ‘What else did you expect with a name like mine.’ Then she went on. ‘The thing is you aren’t living up to expectations.’
I could feel them then, all the women I had missed, looking at me from out of their picture frames in all the other rooms. For a moment I felt sick. Then she took pity on me.
‘Look,’ she said. She sounded exasperated. ‘Go speak to Jackie in the corridor, she’ll help you.’
‘I don’t like poetry.’
‘Yes you do.’
Becka Marshall likes poetry. I’ve seen her scribbling it down in the back of her maths book behind the cup of her hand. She does it very intently, as though nothing else matters. It’s the one thing we have in common.
‘Why don’t you speak to her then?’
This woman was rude. Always intruding on my thoughts as though she knew them before I did. I looked down at my feet. ‘She’s not my type.’
‘Yes she is.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘She’s a girl, isn’t she.’
I blushed again.
The woman was silent for a moment. Then she said, ‘You can practice on me if you like.’
That was when I realised – even nasty women can be useful. I closed my eyes, felt the cool breath of the glass beckoning.
‘Go on,’ she whispered. ‘What type of woman do you want to be?’
A few days later I decided to go into town on my own. My dad was delighted, wouldn’t shut up about it. In the end I left just to get away from him. Outside it was cold, the air full of snow. When I got near the bus stop I saw that Becka Marshall was already waiting with one of her friends. I slowed down so it didn’t look as though that was where I was heading. Then I sped up again. After all, why else had I come.
When I got there I stood as near to Becka Marshall as I could. She was wearing that spray-on scent she liked, the one from the pink coloured tin that she always carried in her bag. All I could smell was leather and dust.
‘I wrote this out for you,’ I said. ‘It’s a poem.’
Becka Marshall’s friend sort of snorted then. But Becka Marshall went still.
‘It’s by Jackie Kay,’ I said. ‘I thought you might like it.’
‘Don’t be an idiot…’ Becka Marshall’s friend tried to push my hand away. I felt my cheeks hot against the cold air, but I didn’t move, was as still as the woman in the cabinet. For a moment we were all silent. Then Becka Marshall spoke.
‘What’s it about?’
‘Two girls. Well, women.’
‘What’s it called?’
Fiere, I thought. Like my name.
Becka Marshall took the note then, read the three verses. She frowned while she did it. My whole body waited. After she’d finished she looked up. For a moment we stared at each other. Then I kissed her. I kept my eyes open, but she closed hers. She went as pink as her tin of spray-on.
It was good. But not as good as my first time.
Fiere = Scots for ‘companion, friend, equal’
Feature image: Scottish National Portrait Gallery – Entrance, Queen Street, Edinburgh, by dun_deagh on Flickr, used under CC-BY-SA-2.0 license.