GLASS

Lately it's begun to bother me that my life has become so exclusively female. The little red notebook beside the phone has line upon line of women's names in it. My own friends, mother's of my daughter's friends. When I go into the bathroom the shelves are loaded with soap, bottles of bath oil, exfoliant gel, anti-wrinkle cream, the girl's zit lotions and eye shadows, and the cabinet bulges with what my mother would have discreetly called ‘women's things’.

Men no longer whistle at me from building sites. Girl friends ring me up to invite me to all-women dinner parties where we eat vegetarian high fibre food and discuss our ex-husbands. Men are people you pass in the street, faces on television, always with someone else in wine bars on Saturday night.

I remember when I was a child, my mother had two unmarried friends called Doreen and Sue, who lived chaste, unimaginable and (she somehow managed to imply) pointless lives without men. They lived in an Edwardian semi with Doreen's elderly mother. They had both been engaged during the war, but one fiancee had been killed at Tobruk and the other went off with a girl in the WRACS.

Doreen was a senior civil servant with short masculine hair and a series of elegantly cut grey suits with permanently pleated skirts. She had oddly sexy legs, smooth and hairless in sheer nylons, and tiny feet she pampered with hand-made leather shoes. Sue had taken up offers of training after the war and become a dentist. She was very plump and made her own dresses in bizarre fabrics that looked like furnishing material. She was lazy and comfortable and had thick blonde fluff on her upper lip she never bothered to remove.

They came into our lives on Bank Holiday weekends, evicting me from my bedroom to sleep on a shake-down on the sitting room floor. They brought my mother un-affordable Elizabeth Arden cosmetics in presentation caskets, malt whisky for my father and once they gave me the triple-layered net petticoat my mother had refused to buy. They would sit at the table in our bare, functional kitchen, after lunch, smoking cigarettes and drinking Amaretto with their coffee. The bottle had pictures of Italy on the label and a coy looking cupid in a medallion around the neck. They giggled over mutual memories, talked about politics, books, Hollywood gossip, the war. They did everything together, shopping, theatre, art galleries, holidays in France. Such a pity, my mother used to say when they'd gone. Such a waste.

I asked my friend Kate, who always seems to have a lover, ‘How do you meet men?’

‘I don't know,’ she said. ‘It just happens.’ The last one was an artist. She admired a painting in a gallery and it turned out to be one of his and he said why don't we go for a coffee and that was it.

I look at myself in the mirror. Thirty-something. Divorced. Three children. It stares back at me. All that history written in the little lines trawling my neck, the anxious tightening round the eyes, the softening outline and lengthening vision.

Kate on the other hand - twice married, two children, mid forties - is tall and magpie coloured, her face grooved like a record of everything she's ever done, and always in black clothes pinned together with bits of jumble sale diamante where the zips have gone. She looks dangerous. Perhaps that's what men go for.

I once tried it. Shoving my hair back in an old fifties turban and putting on a post-war crepe de chine dress with a dipping hem and one of those full-skirted coats with a velvet collar and nipped waist that had belonged to my mother. But I looked as though I was auditioning for amateur theatricals, so I gave the clothes to Kate.

My last encounter with a man was at an evening class. I went to learn how to make terrariums out of bits of glass and lead. It had seemed a good idea at the time to learn some kind of useful craft, and I imagined them full of green plants reflecting underwater light on the window sills of my flat. I planned to give them to friends for Christmas. The shapes of coloured glass, diamonds, squares, and hexagons of blue and wave-green, were beautiful. They had a satisfying scrunch as the cutter bit through the glass. But afterwards I cut my fingers on the rough edges and found it difficult to line them up for soldering.

The man sitting at the bench next to me used to help. He would stand behind me and put his arms over mine to hold the pieces while I moved the soldering iron down the edge. He smelt of wool and skin and hair. Natural - not cosmetic - things. He was interested in glass, he said. His grandfather had been a glass blower in Ireland. He said he dreamed of taking early retirement and having a stained glass workshop.

One night he rang up. ‘I hope you don't mind,’ he said, ‘but it's my fiftieth birthday.’ He called it the Big Five Oh. ‘I'm on my own,’ he went on, ‘and I wondered if you'd come out and help me celebrate?’

He had always seemed friendly and pleasant, so I said yes. The girls were very excited about my date. They supervised my make-up and hair and dragged out my blue dress from the back of the wardrobe. It's out of fashion, but I've kept it because of the colour. It's a happy dress, the girls tell me, a lucky dress. But they have romantic ideas imbibed from picture papers and American teenage soaps.

He'd arranged to meet me at a small french bistro near his flat. I refused the cocktails he pressed on me, preferring to stick to sherry. I know where I am with sherry. He was drinking whisky, doubles, and he ordered an extra large bottle of wine with his meal. ‘We might as well enjoy ourselves,’ he said, ‘and we don't have to stagger very far afterwards if we do have a ‘touche’ (he pronounced it the french way making a little measuring gesture with his fingers) too much to drink.’ And he laughed.

The menu was unbelievable. My eyes lingered greedily on the prawns in pernod, the peppered steak flambe'd in brandy, the chicken breasts in cream and lemon. I ordered some deep fried Camembert as a starter, little crisp brown buttons with a soft, creamy interior.

He was noisier and more expansive than he'd been at evening classes. During the meal he kept touching me, little gratuitous points of contact as he passed the wine, the accidental brush of knee under the table.

I asked him about himself. He was in insurance apparently, posted here temporarily for nine months or so. His real home was in Devon. He went back there at weekends ‘to refuel’. As he talked I could see his unmentioned wife hovering over his shoulder, washing his immaculate shirts, prising the pieces of solder out of his hand-knitted jumpers in the immaculate detached house he described overlooking the Tamar. Her whole existence confirmed by the single indiscreet ‘we’ he used when talking about a planned holiday in Spain.

I glanced down at my plate. The waiter was serving my steak au poivre on a bed of shiny red pimentos grinning up like a row of vaginas. My head was saying ‘he's a creep’, but my body was saying ‘he's not wholly repulsive and he really fancies you’. The steak was very thick between my teeth, crusted with pepper and mustard and the rich juices trickled down my throat. A little flame, lit by the wine, had begun to burn at the base of my spine. Very few of Kate's men friends would have been able to afford a meal like this. Last year it had been a climber she'd met when doing a bit of topless sunbathing in a secluded spot at the top of the Avon Gorge. He'd heaved himself over a pinnacle of rock and landed right beside her in a clatter of pitons. He was at least twenty years younger than her. ‘So what,’ Kate said. ‘I'm not intending to settle down with him for life. Anyway, who wants all that droopy middle-aged flab in bed with you? I've plenty of my own.’

I looked across the table at his polished forehead, where the hair was receding, and the expense-account bulge under his shirt and wondered what it would be like.

>It was raining when we left the restaurant after an enormous bill he'd settled with his Diner's card. I wondered how he'd explain that to his wife, and whether he would claim me against expenses for business entertaining. A skittish east wind had blown up. We both shivered and I clutched my wool coat tighter round my neck. ‘Is there room for two under that coat?’ he joked, putting his arm round me.

In the restaurant he'd asked if I would go round to his flat for a night cap. He had a bottle of champagne in the fridge for the occasion he said, and he wanted me to see the three terrariums he'd completed, all planted up. When he took early retirement, he said, he might go into business selling them.

‘What about your wife?’ I asked.

He paused, then shrugged. ‘My wife and I live on different tracks,’ he said, ‘I go my way and she goes hers. It's understood.’

By whom? I wanted to ask.

He walked me home and we stood on the doorstep like middle-aged teenagers and I explained that I couldn't ask him in because of the girls. He kissed the soft skin on the inside of my lips and touched my breasts and hair with practised hands. Stupid with wine and food and sexual desire, I could feel my body respond to these terrible, unwanted caresses, programmed by wretched biology. ‘No strings,’ he said in my ear, ‘just fun. You wouldn't regret it.’

>When I was young I used to imagine Doreen and Sue to be perpetually virgin and think how awful it must be. Later, married, I wondered about their ambiguous relationship.

Then, a few years ago, when Doreen died of cancer, my mother went to pack up her belongings and take them down to Oxfam. Sue couldn't bear to touch them. Wouldn't even go into her room. At the back of a drawer my mother found a box of letters from one of Doreen's colleagues, another senior civil servant. He was married, but couldn't divorce his wife because of his position, or so he said. They had, apparently, met for lunch every day, written to each other, and once they had gone to Italy, to Tuscany, for a holiday. They were beautiful letters, my mother told me on the phone, so full of loving. ‘Such a pity,’ she said. ‘Such a waste.’

My favourite fantasy before drifting off to sleep is the one where I meet a New Man - the kind that are never free because other women are hanging on to them like mad. He takes me out, sometimes to an expensive restaurant on the river, or to the opera. I'm wearing a dress I once saw in a boutique in Clifton, jade green and turquoise squares of silk weighted with tiny tassels of glass beads. He drives me home in his open-topped car and we make love under beech trees in a field. Sometimes I alter it slightly and he's in one of the caring professions with holes in his sweaters and we sit at a pavement café counting the pennies in our pocket linings. But the end is always the same.

Yesterday Kate rang me up to invite me to supper. ‘No men,’ she said. ‘I'm giving them up.’ She's just spent a week in Amsterdam. ‘A mistake,’ she said. ‘I thought - him being an artist . . . . but I never seem to learn. Why do we do it?’

The off-licence had some Amaretto in a green glass bottle with coloured pictures of Italy on the label. Cupid, in his medallion on the neck band, aimed the arrow with a menacing gesture - sending out the call sign we all seem programmed to read. I ran my finger gently down the long neck of the bottle, seeing the green eye of the liquid inside reflecting the room's light across the counter.

I bought some to take to Kate's.

© Kathleen Jones