Mandi S Lockley
Lonely, that’s how you’ll end up. Old and lonely.
His remark had reminded Louise of her mother’s reaction when she’d told her all those years ago that she never wanted to marry. Who would be a spinster by choice?
she’d asked. The word spinster was loaded with shame and rejection and Louise wondered how many girls of her mother’s generation had condemned themselves to loveless marriages just to escape that tag. Not for the first time, Louise wondered if that was why her mother had married her father.
But it was the twenty-first century now. Independence was something to be proud of and being alone wasn’t the same as being lonely. Even so, James’ words and the memory of her mother’s insult had set her thinking about her life.
She poured herself a drink and took a long swig, as if the sweetness could rinse away the nasty taste the spinster word had left in her mouth. As she drank, she wandered into the lounge. West facing, it was always bright in the evenings during the summer. She opened the sliding glass door and sat down in the opening. The sun, low on the horizon, warmed her legs, which cast long shadows across the patio.
She noticed a grey spider dangling from a rhododendron bush. With the sun behind it, she could clearly make out its silky thread and the tiny hairs on its multiple legs. Louise smiled to herself. She recalled how, as a child, she’d been terrified of spiders, had screamed at the mere sight of one. Now she thought of them as friendly housemates helping to keep down the flies. Her fear had dissolved through necessity. Who else was going to remove a spider from the sink or chase one away from the bedroom ceiling in the middle of the night? Once, she had accidently drowned one in the bath and felt so bad she had made a spider ladder out of matchsticks and string and hung it over the bath taps.
She knew she should do some work. She had a lecture to rewrite and her students’ end of term papers needed marking, but she felt frozen on the spot, her attention captured by the suspended spider, her thoughts on James.
He had joined the staff in the Autumn term and she’d been assigned as his mentor, to show him around and help him with his syllabus preparation. They had gelled from the start and after a few weeks she had enlisted his help on an overdue research project. This meant many evenings together planning and discussing their work and more often than not they ended up in the pub, catching a bite to eat and putting the world to rights over a glass or three of wine. They discovered they were similar in their ideals, both of them professionally ambitious and committed singletons. Eventually, inevitably, they became attracted to each other.
The grey spider began to propel itself towards a branch on the next bush, its silvery thread following behind. Then it slid down, stopping a few inches before it hit the ground leaving a second trail of thread in its wake. It joined the two threads with a third as it spun back up to the original branch so that a delicate equilateral triangle glistened between the two shrubs.
She remembered how the relationship with James had begun warily, both of them in denial, even after several working evenings ended in the bedroom. The rules were decided upon. No obligation, no commitment, respect for each other’s personal space and privacy. It worked. They were not a ‘we’ but two ‘I’s laughing and loving together. When their friends and family found out about their affair, they were declared a perfect couple. Dinner party and double date invitations followed.
They’re just relieved we’re not both an odd number any more
, Louise had told James. They played along, privately mocking their friends’ outmoded attitudes.
The spider abseiled to a lower branch and attached its skein there. Then it jumped to the next branch. Louise lost her train of thought as she watched. The spider was weaving a pretty frame for a web, returning to the center with every third thread. Its eight hairy legs undulated slowly as it weaved its pattern. The temperature had dropped and Louise pulled her skirt down over her knees.
A memory flashed across her mind, somehow triggered by the spider. A picnic. Several ants fell out of a jam jar lid when she opened it. She had screamed. James had laughed and pointed out the army of ants that were marching along the edge of their picnic blanket. James interrupted their marching line with cake crumbs and laughed at the ants’ confusion. She made fun of him as he droned on about the wonders of organized insect communities which relied on conformity, on every individual behaving in the same way. Later, they walked around the lake and he took a photo of two swans, their heads together, their necks forming a heart shape.
A community of ants. Swans in pairs. A solitary spider.
It was around that time that he suggested they throw a dinner party to return the favor for their friends. Louise only agreed when he offered to do all the cooking. He decided that her house, being the largest, would be the venue.
James made himself at home in her kitchen for the day, preparing the homemade stilton pate and gnocchi he would serve up later. She went upstairs to do some work and left him to it. Their friends proclaimed the dinner a big success. Hold onto him
, one said. Another asked if he’d moved in.
When everyone left, Louise joked about what a disaster it would be if they did move in together. In each other’s faces 24/7, living together and working together. Arguments over forgettable television shows and whose turn it was to load the dishwasher. How messy the house would be once he moved in all his books and papers and the cat that made her sneeze.
James didn’t laugh with her. I think we would get on
, he had said, his eyes sincere.
Louise had changed the subject.
The web was becoming increasingly complex as the spider wove in and out, up and down, its waving legs seeming to avoid the viscous fibers they secreted. It floated to the center and stopped. A framed star of fine threads glistened in the fading sun. Its beauty and delicacy struck Louise as deceitful. The fibers are strong, sticky and deadly
, she thought. A trap designed to ensnare live prey. There was no escape for an insect that found itself stuck in this gossamer mesh. The spider would hold it there until it was ready to suck out its juices.
After the dinner party things were different. Louise was quieter around him, less passionate. He noticed and became more attentive, more demanding. When he told her he loved her she withdrew even more and for seven consecutive evenings, she told him she was too busy to see him.
Sitting half inside, half outside, Louise wondered what she was afraid of. She remembered another garden. As a child, she had loved to play hide and seek behind the neat rose bushes and trimmed hedges there. One summer afternoon she ran into a huge spider’s web which hung between two trees. She screamed hysterically, her arms thrashing, her small hands trying to pull the clingy fibers from her eyes and mouth. She ran indoors to her parents and found them in the middle of an argument, the first of many. She never went near those trees again and when she and her Mum and sisters moved out, her Dad let the garden to grow wild.
On the eighth evening Louise and James had a terrible row over the phone. She reminded him of their rules; that this was never meant to be a serious relationship. James told her that the relationship had taken on a life of its own, that despite their stupid rules it had evolved into something special. He accused her of running away and refusing to confront her feelings. To prove him wrong, she agreed to meet. When she saw him and looked into those kind honest eyes she knew she didn’t want to lose him.
Starting in the center of the web, the spider began to weave around and around. A spiral was taking shape.
Her problem with James’ feelings towards her didn’t go away completely. A little voice inside told her he was closing in on her, that each time he wanted to know what she was doing when they weren’t together, he was snatching away a piece of her independence. She tried to ignore the voice. She knew she had come to love James and that his love for her had filled a space she hadn’t realized was empty. Still, the voice muttered and then he said it. He proposed. He laid down an ultimatum. Marry him or lose him. The frightened voice inside her head screamed and it was as she fled that he told her she would wind up old and lonely.
The web would soon be finished and the spider would be able to rest and wait for food. She remembered reading a philosopher who said that spiders do not know why they spin intricate webs, just as bees do not know why they collect nectar. Spinning is instinctive; a function nature designed them to perform. They have no free will. She also remembered from her studies that the word spinster had come down from a middle English word meaning woman who spins.
Louise realized that she had spun herself a web of independence and got stuck in it, but unlike the spider and unlike generations of women who came before her, she was free to choose her own destiny. The air was chilly as she rose and slid the patio door shut against the approaching darkness. She thought of the paired swans on the lake as she picked up her phone.