London – November 1939
Dakota’s train is running late.
She sighs deeply, furrowing her brows in a way which would render her great-grandmother quivering in her grave. She hated the thought of Dakota being anything but the most refined lady, one who sips chamomile tea with her perfectly manicured pinky sticking out into the air with perfect grace; one whom perhaps collects delicate, porcelain thimbles, on occasion painting them with her oil-based watercolours alongside her gay old classmates and discussing how she does so adore the strapping young man working behind the counter at Lloyds Bank and she so wished he would notice the way she’s changed the parting of her hair to so resemble the delicious Katharine Hepburn, who all those charming young boys do so love.
Yes, Dakota’s great-grandmother would so hate the way she sighs and furrows her perfectly pointed brows at the sight of a delayed train in the middle of Bibury station. She even, god forbid, stamps her foot down with the slightest bit of pressure, crushing a stray corn chip into the dirt. It crumbles with a resounding crackle, but it simply isn’t enough to eradicate Dakota’s intense (and oh so unladylike) fury.
‘Twenty minutes’, declares the conductor, pacing up and down the platform, ‘until the train will arrive at the station’.
His gluttonous eyes linger on Dakota’s legs in that sumptuous skirt. Dakota wants to furrow her brows at the lecherous boar, but she knows that would land her in trouble, so she walks away, deciding by pure chance to sit beside a young man on the wooden bench at the end of the station.
He is reading. She leans forward to take a, also very unladylike, nosy at his book. Ulysses by James Joyce. What a bore, she muses. Or rather, she assumes it is. She has heard of James Joyce in passing by some of the high-rise fancy men who pass through the café she works at. Those snobby literature students who think they known how the universe works just because they’ve read some books by some old Greek fools. It looked boring, either way. Nobody cares a toss about overly-complicated drivel by old men.
Oh bother, he has noticed her staring. Looking over at her, he gives her a quizzical stare, furrowing his brows not unlike her own. She falters, speaking gibberish for some seconds before commenting on how very delightful his book appears to be.
‘Oh I’m dreadfully sorry. James Joyce I see? I do so love James Joyce.’
He smiles at her, and his cheeks spread upwards jovially, a most pleasant shade of salmon pink. ‘Why yes, I do so love his prose. A brilliant modernist innovator, he deserves every bit of praise he gets!’
Dakota isn’t too sure where to go from here.
‘Ah yes, the way he just… writes.’ Pause. ‘The way he utilises those… words.’
His eyes burn into hers, and she hides herself behind her faux leather handbag nervously. Talking was never her strong suit, as you might have already guessed, she struggles with being ladylike. She feels a sudden desire to be able to talk of all the brilliant writers in the world with perfect eloquence, thinking frantically back to the snobby café-goers. Whoever did they mention? What stuck-up men did they talk about?
‘Oh yes, but the true modernist innovator could only be Wordsridge’ she chuckles nervously.
He laughs, causing her heart to unexpectedly flutter about in her tightening chest. ‘Yes, I suppose a good bit of Wordsworth and Coleridge can be preferable to those arrogant futurists of the twenties.’
Oh lord. She got it wrong. Dakota laughs nervously, something the well-read man notices she is very prone to doing in his presence. But then again, he sighs, she is a woman after all. Woman can’t be expected to understand these things. They don’t go to school, they can’t get properly educated. It wasn’t her fault, not really. But that didn’t mean he couldn’t get slightly frustrated at her.
‘Well, doll, you’re sweet’ he coos at her. A mocking grin traces its way up his face, eyes winking at her. ‘A real standup gal, you know?’
Dakota recognises his face, the familiar face. The one those sinister, gloating students at the coffee shop always give her, especially when she turns her back to get the semi-skimmed milk from the fridge to pour into their coffees. The same smug grins she receives when these heartless, arrogant men believe themselves to be so much better, just because they were born differently. They were born with access to the world, a world Dakota could never be a part of. A world in which she doesn’t belong. A world of education and experience and travelling and careers and success. A world where you are given a choice.
Dakota has never had a choice. Of course, she would like to believe she does, that is the very reason why she furrows her brows in such a way that would make her great-grandmother quiver. Because she wants to believe she doesn’t need to be the Angel of the House. The angel everyone expects the woman to be, a perfect, pristine housewife. Dakota wants nothing less than to be a well-educated, successful businesswoman. But nobody had ever heard of such a thing. It simply wasn’t done.
But she put on a brave face. She was above all that rage and anger, for now.
‘Why thank you’ she smiles, putting on her sugary sweet face. She can’t stop staring at the book. ‘Perhaps I could maybe borrow your book to read some time?’ she asks inquisitively, tilting her head to the left in that endearing way her great-grandmother does so love, as it makes her look oh so lovely and innocent.
The man chortles, choking back an exclamation of surprise. ‘Oh- oh this one?’ He lifts up the book.
‘Yes, that one’, Dakota replies, her smile struggling to remain plastered on her powdered face.
‘Honey, you don’t want to read this sort of work. It’s simple too… difficult. Too complicated for someone of your…’ He fades off, motioning towards her generally physique in a way which Dakota finds extremely disrespectful. He brandishes the book up into her face, too harshly for Dakota’s liking. She feels her face grow a startlingly unbecoming shade of crimson. She obtains a sudden desire to take his stupid, childish book and crush it into the dirt. But instead she tells him, in a set of words that would make her great-grandmother explode in her mahogany coffin, that he can keep his special, oh-so-unwomanly book and shove it somewhere where he can truly ingest its contents and regurgitate it whenever he chooses.
When the train reaches its destination, Dakota enters the bookstore and peruses the contents of the shelves. The shop is surrounded solely by men in fancy suits, talking to other men in similarly fancy suits. They tighten their neckties and fiddle with their cufflinks as she walks through the shop and picks up a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, alongside a plethora of similar, complicated and manly books.
That night she turns to Virginia Woolf’s latest essay collection, Three Guineas, and sets herself to work. One page at a time.
Copyright © 2017 Rebecca Sherratt
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