The day things came to a head with Ruth was a bit of a shock to all of us I think. It turned out Wen had been saving something up for her. It came out when, inevitably, the subject of all the men who’d failed to appreciate her comes around and Ruth concludes that they simply couldn’t cope with a rich, successful, and what’s more, beautiful woman (her words, not mine). Lisa nods sympathetically. Wen nods too, but not because she agrees. She’s considering when to make her move.
‘The thing is Ruth’ she begins, ‘you think because you’re generally considered an attractive, successful woman that you are therefore all but entitled to a man but you’re not. Men won’t commit for exactly the same reason you won’t commit – because they’re waiting for the right woman to come along and you, honey, were not it. All those “losers” you go on about, the “commitment-phobes”? They feel exactly the same way about you. I’m sorry Ruth. You were not God’s gift to mankind.’
Ruth looks at her speechlessly. Lisa looks shocked too. Raz waits for the next move, trying not to look too interested.
‘You patronising cow’ says Ruth eventually, with conspicuous restraint.
‘I’m not being patronising Ruth’ says Wen calmly, ‘but I see your mistake. Sometimes the tone of voice you have to adopt when the person you’re talking to is not very bright is very similar.’
‘And what the heck do you know?’ says Ruth, standing up. ‘Like you’d be such a catch.’
From where I’m sitting I can see her eyes shine slightly. I wonder if Wen can see it.
‘Oh I had plenty of offers’ says Wen.
‘Well I suppose some men are into that sort of thing.’
Wen smiles venomously. She’s been waiting for this.
‘And what exactly do you mean by that?’ she says.
Ruth stands defiantly. I watch Wen squinting up at her. She knows exactly what Ruth means but she’s looking forward to getting her to say it anyway.
‘Well, you know...’ She gesticulates vaguely. Her arm movements suggest expanse, bulk, unwieldiness. ‘Well, you’re not exactly...’
‘You think a man wanting to sleep with a fat woman is some sort of sick perversion don’t you, like coprophilia, or felching perhaps.’
Wen looks up directly into Ruth’s face, smiling slightly, goading her.
‘No’ says Lisa, also standing up, coming to Ruth’s rescue. ‘I’m sure she doesn’t mean that...’
‘Thank you Lisa’ says Ruth acidly. ‘I can handle this.’
Raz gently takes Lisa’s arm and gets her to sit down again. Lisa looks really upset.
‘I’ve seen how you look at me Ruth’ says Wen calmly. ‘You find me disgusting don’t you.’
‘No. Of course not. But I mean, it can’t...’
‘You think, looking the way you do, why would anyone not want to give you children? Hmm?’
‘Well I worked hard to look like this, yes. You’re not going to give me all that inner beauty crap are you, because if you are...’
‘And what really pisses you off is that someone like me had a husband who adored her and three gorgeous children – someone as disgusting and gross as me.’
‘Yes Ruth. This physique you worked on, all this haute couture and the shoes. Men don’t give a toss about all that.’
‘And you’d know I suppose Wen, from your field work?’
‘No, from just living and observing and marvelling, actually, at people like yourself. It’s a kind of fascism, these endless diet regimes and fitness fanaticism. Actually it’s feminism in its purest form. You want to know how I came to that conclusion? Because it’s a whole female way of life that has absolutely nothing to do with what men want.’
‘You haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about, now if you’ll excuse me...’
‘That’s it, scamper away, as usual.’
Ruth stands there, glaring, with her things in her arms. ‘Do you realise what you look like?’ she says.
‘Oh no. I know who I am, what I achieved. Nothing can take that away from me.’
‘Good. I’m happy for you.’
‘You are, are you?’
‘But make no mistake Ruth, who you are, what you achieved, how you lived, is the reason you had no children. That’s all I’m saying.’
‘That it isn’t possible to be a successful woman and have a family?’
‘No, that isn’t what I’m saying. The problem is that you see being “a success” as who you are. But the trouble is, it’s all you are.’
‘I have no idea what you’re on about. Now...’
‘You define success too narrowly. It leaves no room in your life for anything else. You don’t know how to do anything else.’
‘Ok, if you say so.’ Wen holds her hands up and stops, simply, bringing the debate to a close. She’s made her point.
Ruth stands, looking at her adversary. She’s exhausted. It’s obvious now. I almost feel sorry for her.
‘That’s not fair and you know it’ she says. ‘I did everything. I worked bloody hard day and night to have what I had – everything, I should have had... If I’d been a man’ she looks around, grasping for her words. ‘If I’d been a man, well, success would have got me everything. Women would have been all over me – the money, power...’
‘And more fool us’ says Wen calmly.
‘You’re a bloody idiot’ she says through her tears and realises that this would normally have been the point at which she leaves but now can’t, or not without losing face. She decides to go anyway. She refuses to wipe her eyes and nose, which are now quite shiny and bright pink.
‘That was extremely harsh’ says Lisa, clearly very upset with Wen but not, I note, prepared to go after Ruth.
‘She had it coming’ says Wen.
‘How?’ says Lisa. ‘I don’t see how.’
‘Because she seems to think the world owes her a family. She’d have been a terrible mother anyway. She’d have been obsessed with her children being “successful” all the time, hitting those milestones or whatever.’
‘I was “successful” Wen.’ says Raz ‘You don’t give me a hard time.’
There’s a definite feeling of damage done around the group and even Raz is subdued.
‘And you are happy as you are. You’re not whingeing that you were entitled to children just because you could afford them, which is basically what she was saying. You knew who you were and you got on with it, and I admire you. I was “successful” too don’t forget, maybe not by your standards but I did what I believed in, and I had to make hard choices. In the end it cost me my marriage but I never took it for granted, and I never lost my children to it...’
‘Plus there was all that stuff she said about you to her “friends” in the sauna’ I say.
‘What?’ Lisa looks incredulous again. ‘What did she say?’
‘Thank you Gabriel’ says Wen sarcastically.
‘What are you talking about?
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘No. I don’t believe you’ says Lisa.
‘I heard her Lisa’ says Raz. ‘I was there. It wasn’t very nice.’
‘She has to have everything her way Lisa’ says Wen, ‘and she doesn’t much care what she has to do to get it. She was having a go at Raz behind her back too.’
‘And you sweetie’ says Raz.
‘What did she say about me?’
‘Oh, about your illness. You don’t want to know.’
Lisa looks mortified. ‘I told her all that in strict confidence.’
‘I know darling. The thing is she’s used to playing people against each other. I don’t think she’s used to having friends.’
Raz emphasises that last word to Lisa, placing her hand on her knee, but Lisa isn’t receptive at the moment. She looks away.
‘Or her friendships don’t last very long. Always the other person’s fault of course...’ adds Wen. She leans forward and takes Lisa’s hands. ‘Lisa, she’s bad news. Forget about her.’
‘I trusted her. I told her everything.’
We all sit with her, wondering what to do. It’s getting late. There’s a small group at the other end of the boat, sitting around a candle and strumming a guitar but otherwise all we can hear is the swell, slapping against the hull below. We’ll probably just get some blankets and things and settle down here for the night. It’s what we’ve been doing lately.
‘Did she have anything to say about you?’ says Lisa to me after a while.
‘What do you think?’ I answer knowingly but actually I don’t know. I look over at Wen and she raises her eyebrows.
‘She just wondered what kind of loser you were, hanging out with a bunch of women’ says Raz happily. ‘She implied you must be gay.’
‘Ha! I get that a lot’ I say.