It was Christmas, and the bells were clanging all around her in her summer house.
It was not a caravan that’d ever been pulled along behind a vehicle or a horse. It had never been parked at a beauty spot or nudist colony. It had never caused car accidents on dual carriageways. Instead, it was a ruin of an old abandoned pagoda, a crumbling gazebo well hidden by undergrowth and overgrowth. Empty, open, light and airy, with windows on all four sides. Lying on a beat-up mattress on the floor, nestled in an old torn sleeping bag, Olive peered out through half-closed eyelids, safe and comfy and content – so much space around and within her.
A simple life amongst the trees. The best times were at dawn, surrounded by birds, bugs, breezes. Spiders too shared this haven. It belonged as much to them. From her dilapidated roost, this cuckoo lady sometimes thought she could hear a cuckoo. She did not clear the nettles, she did not use the land. She didn’t know how to grow a thing except herself.
Swayed by a groundswell of public sentiment, people from social services had recently dropped by to offer Olive a tidy little flat of her own, and benefits to pay for it. But Olive didn’t want all that rigmarole. She was okay the way she was, with the birds, the bugs and the spiders. She got drinking water and books from the library, and local restaurants brought her their leftovers. (She ate like a bird anyway.)
As a young woman, Olive’s aim in life had been to have as many relationships as possible. Not necessarily sexual relationships – she just wanted to get to know as many people as she could in her lifetime, to blanket herself in people.
She had had many a job: stenographer, horoscope denier, bead counter and sequin bagger, penny pincher, minor employee in a burger kiosk at an air field, and latterly, lavatory attendant. Easy with people, Olive had run the best loo in the land, offering free unguents, snacks, and other vital items to both regulars and one-offs. It would have been hard to think up something Olive didn’t have in her arsenal there on the ancient card table in the Ladies loo: aspirin, paracetamol, Calpol, cough syrup, baby powder, Savlon, hand cream, shampoo, conditioner (not to be confused with all the little bottles of perfume and breath freshener), cosmetics, tweezers, hair bobs, plasters, sweeties, safety pins, nappies, baby food, sticky tape, Q-Tips, sewing kits, MAGAZINES, spare tights and pop socks, baubles, gewgaws, knick-knacks, accoutrements of every nature. Also, a lost and found department – a shoebox full of change purses, pens, eyeglasses, mobiles, diaries, jewellery, earphones and, oddly, a jar of black treacle. Her only omissions appeared to be tampons and condoms, but these she discretely produced from the broom cupboard if asked.
She wanted to know them all, every woman that entered. For every human being is like a seagull standing on a roof, the strong neck like a ship’s mast, with ropes holding the head aloft. Different hair colours. A lolloping gait. Glasses on the face. Heels or no heels. Fingers spread outwards to say hello, or to designate a number from one to ten. You may feel shambolic, you may not feel yourself today, not at your best – but you are, you always are! This is what she would have liked to tell the women who visited her loo.
That loo job was her heyday. Less successful was her period in a corner shop, getting change wrong and never finding people the right cigarettes. She dreaded customers buying sweets, crisps and soft drinks, none of which bore a price tag – you were just supposed to know. Top-up cards were a right menace too. She mastered the cost of milk, organic and non-organic, a pint, a litre, a litre and a half; and bread, which varies greatly: brown, white, seeded, Vienna brown. Baps. Bagels. Baguettes. Potato scones. Crumpets. Waffles. Croissants. Danish. Pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins. Samosas and onion bhajis. But the limes kept going up and down – in price, not just because of her juggling. Olive was a competent juggler. She could handle a variety of spheres at a time – limes, beetroots, apples, pears, plums, satsumas, tomatoes, potatoes and garlic bulbs – while keeping a neep or pomelo or celeriac spinning with her feet. She attracted quite a crowd one day to her cornucopia of revolving nutrients, until she dropped the lot and got fired.
Things were hard now for Olive. She was smelly and couldn’t help it: she no longer had the heart to bathe in puddles or the sea. There was something greasy-looking about her that people didn’t like. It even put off the birds! The smell alone would drive a parent bird to desert its young. Nothing but magpies hopped in Olive’s wake. But magpies, they move in pairs, and this makes all the difference. Birds of a feather. They wouldn’t be so bold without back-up.
Birds all seem the same to us, but are they? Birds have their markings, their migrations, their nests and eggs. The egg of a little owl, so wonderfully round and white! But people too are alike. We share the same drives, same thoughts, same lifespans. Same body, more or less: we take the same medicines! (To ward off the same reluctant old age.) We have shins and wrists and elbows – Olive was ALL elbow.
Baby birds stopped chirping when they caught sight of Olive with her big olive face on its stick neck, looming over them like an upside-down martini. An amateur ornithologist, but with certain practical needs of her own, Olive stole nests, the closest thing she could find to a hat.
Olive had had a difficult birth: a blue baby, all legs and arms. Her mother was out cold by the time she arrived, heavily sedated, and so was Olive! She was so inert they thought she was dead, and plunged her directly into a jar of formaldehyde. It was her big mouth that saved her, when she opened it wide to cry. A kind nurse effortfully scooped Olive (so slippery!) out of the jar, slapped her, and restored her to the arms of her still unconscious mother, who never knew a thing about it. But that big mouth had had its first outing.
Olive passed not a single exam in school. She broke all records for unteachability. She broke LP records too, slinging them across the floor in rages, like Frisbees. Her mother tried to fatten her up with beans on toast, but Olive never ate a thing. She grew like a beanpole, a beanpole without the beans.
When out for a walk one fateful Christmas day in early womanhood, Olive heard a rustling in the bushes, then footsteps, heavy footsteps. She paused. Though she had had no exposure to the casting couches of Hollywood, she was wary nonetheless. She was used to taking care of herself, sure, but there was no way she could defend herself against a MURDERER. And she resented this invasion of her solitude – why couldn’t she gad about alone in dank wilderness without trouble? So she spread her big mouth wide and bellowed:
Equally surprised, an enormous man jumped right up in the air, his head briefly appearing above the ferns. Unused to being interrupted while poaching, he menacingly approached. Two dead partridges hung from his little finger, and he looked a lot like Harvey Weinstein. Olive nervously made him an offer.
“Lemme at them birds, mista. Wait’ll ya taste my cookin’.”
He introduced himself as Bluto and, high on her own aplomb, Olive set to work building a fire and burrowing for old brambles for the stuffing. Then another fellow emerged from the undergrowth. He was not as tall as Bluto, nor as gruff, but possessed amazingly powerful forearms and wore a sailor suit. Olive had always liked a man in uniform. (She had a thing for aviators too.) But the two gentlemen didn’t even care what Olive thought of them – they were intent only on each other. Born rivals, they fought it out while Olive plucked the partridges. On and on they struggled, an epic battle between big and little, evil and innocence, brawn and brain, Goliath and David, terrestrial and aquatic, hairy, not so hairy.
“You great palooka!”
“WHO’S a palooka?”
Bluto used the little guy as a PUNCHBAG, but now and again the sailor man engorged himself by some secret means – he seemed made wholly of erectile tissue – and that way got an edge. At last, Olive could wait no longer – Christmas dinner was ready.
“Aw, why don’t you two lover-boys quit with the boxing match and come eat?”
She’d rigged up a little dinner table out of a few old wooden crates. In an instant, the sailor man sat down at the table. Displaying bare arms graffitoed with tattoos, he positioned his fork and knife at the vertical, awaiting grub. For this impertinence, Bluto slapped him silly. But the little guy pulled a can of spinach out from under his chair, swallowed it in one gulp, and beefed up considerably. He then gave Bluto one mighty kick in the ass that sent the big bully flying high into the trees, where he remained, stuck fast in a prison of branches, smothered in smoke from the barbecue, and taunted by the smell of roast partridge.
“I never changes my altitude,” declared the sailor man, tucking in. Olive Oyl had met her match.
Now this was some relationship. Never a dull moment with Popeye the Sailor Man. Gee, what a guy! Olive didn’t know if she was DREAMING when Popeye was in town. He’d whisk her off to the fair and bring that mallet down so hard she won every droopy Kewpie doll in the place. He shot at metal ducks like no tomorrow – CLANG CLANG CLANG! He hurled her into her seat on the big wheel after it had already started ascending. Dropped her willy-nilly down the helter skelter slide. Plopped her from a great height on to a cloud of cotton candy. He never shied from protecting her from dubious fairground characters either, nor from strangers on a train.
He took her to the movies. He got her popcorn and removed his pipe so they could neck in the back row. A mean couple sat down right in front of them! They always do. They blocked out the whole movie. All Olive could see was the big black silhouette of the woman’s beehive hairdo, attended by real bees; all Popeye could see was the hubby’s befeathered hunting hat. The feathers tickled Olive’s nose and made her sneeze – at the BEES, who swarmed. Popeye took charge. Olive had to hide behind a curtain while he threw every punter in that cinema out the door with his bare hands, until he and Olive had the whole damn place to themselves. The bees he shooed nimbly into a quickly constructed hive, and after squeezing some honeycomb over the popcorn, it was time to get back to the necking.
They were acutely aware of the contrast between their two bodies. Popeye had all the curves, and the muscled breast, while Olive sported the narrowest hips ever seen on a girl, a slight hunchback, and no sign of a chest at all. She had long found most male forearms too scrawny – not so with Popeye. He had long found female arms unwelcoming: not so, Olive’s tender slender twigs.
Popeye had no wife in every port. Olive’s gangliness was the closest he’d ever come to real femininity. She felt light as a feather in his arms – in fact he lost her once or twice! She could squirm out of the tightest grip, she’d been squirming out of them all her life. She could squeeze through the bars of any jail cell, slip through a picket fence or picket line without a scratch. She was born to do the Twist. It made Popeye’s eyes pop to see the way she carried on.
Yet somewhere in Olive, Popeye also recognised an element of SAMENESS. To see sameness between Popeye and Olive Oyl is like pulling one being right through the other and out the other side, flesh composing and decomposing itself before your eyes. Rescued and rescuer. The plucker and the plucked. Chalk, cheese, a kiss and a squeeze.
He proposed to her aboard a raft, after a shipwreck. Olive always looked good at sea, the wind in her scraggly hair, her big skirt rhythmically blowing up and obscuring her face. She had the body of an anchor, Popeye was pleased to note. He was nothing if not nautical himself. Inside him, it was all sextants, quadrants, and compasses.
“Open, says me,” he commanded, before popping a fish on her tongue.
“Whaddya say, honey, shall we tie the knot?”
Olive was so surprised she choked on the fish and spat it out. In gratitude, the little fishy danced a jiggy on the deck, before heading deep down into the blue-green sea. Blushing red from excitement, Olive could think of nothing better than to FOLLOW the fish! She sank like a stone, and became a mermaid for a while, with fishtail, mirror and conch shells, the whole shebang. She collected shark eggs, strung pearls, sang wistful ditties, dandled octopuses, and got molested by Neptune, who bore a distinct resemblance both to Bluto and Harvey Weinstein.
Popeye the Sailor Man, left bobbing on the waves above, bereft without his Olive, a kiss without his squeeze, suddenly remembered the tin of spinach he’d managed to rope to their raft during the gale. He swallowed it whole, aside of course from the aluminium part (which bobbed for decades before winding up on a beach swarming with turtles, turtles doomed to get their noses stuck in that tin). Then he swam down to old Olive torpedo-style – ZOOOOOM! – and propelled Neptune into the jaws of a giant clam. At first Neptune whined, he Weinsteined:
“Can’t we be friends? I could use a massage.”
When the answer was No, he changed his tune.
“I will kill you, don’t think I can’t.”
And then he started to cry. Unwilling to trust the theory that Oyl rises, Popeye rushed his gal back up to the surface so fast she got the bends. She doubled over coyly, in pain.
“I loves ya, Olive.”
They lived contentedly, in the gazebo. All windows, it was the perfect place to snuggle up in the night. It seemed to be always summer there in those honeymoon days, no kidding! Birds flapping, waves lapping. They got along famously.
But Popeye died. He died. He left Olive Oyl all alone in a world full of long-form cartoons. It isn’t easy to be left. She led a constricted existence now, her needs herded into slightness. Sherry played a role. Blootered and blue-toed – finally Bluto-ed – she twitched and fretted in her sleeping bag. What had she ever done for Popeye in return for all the fun he’d given her, all the avowals of love, the perils and high jinx, and all those heedlessly acrobatic rescue missions? He sure got a kick outta her, he really did. But some memories made her blush with shame. Once she had brought home frozen spinach. It came in little discs that got caught in Popeye’s gullet. He did the shopping after that!
And now it was Christmas, the anniversary of the day they first set eyes on each other. The spiders were in hiding. Bells clanged.
One dull afternoon, years back, he’d taken her indoor roller-skating. Olive didn’t want to go, she was scared she’d make a monkey of herself. But Popeye dragged her in there anyway. The first humiliation was renting the skates. Popeye had never really focused on Olive’s feet before, an omission which suited her fine: her feet were two sore points. Now that he got a good look though, he perceived they were twice the size of his own. It reminded him of an old Fats Waller song.
“What size shoe ya need for those extremities of yours, Olive?”
“I usually take a three and a half, but an eight feels so good!”
(Still, those big feet of hers came in handy sometimes! Once, when Popeye was up a skyscraper washing windows and his window-cleaning competitor Bluto was beating him up, Olive popped her head out of the window just as Popeye plummeted off the building. He made good use of her long neck – just like a handrail during a slip in the bathroom – but the force of gravity dragged her right out with him! Heroically, she managed to cling on to the window ledge by her toes and saved the day.)
All gawky limbs atop tiny wheels, Olive was rolled out on to the floor of the roller-skating rink, flopping backward and forward like a coconut palm in a hurricane, amid a crowd of skaters all waltzing and pirouetting around her. For one marvellous moment, she too sailed sturdily upright, but something went wrong and soon she was going backwards, her arms twirling like helicopter blades. She fell flat on her back and slid straight into the boundary wall, jamming her big skull between the wooden bars.
Popeye popped her out like a champagne cork – DONG! – and leant her against the wall. Then he tried to show her how it’s done. One foot firmly on the wooden floor, the other stretched out at a right angle behind him, he glided elegantly across the arena. Popeye could roller-skate on a roller coaster! (And had.) But who wants to watch someone else show off? Torvill must have got sick of Dean, and vice versa. (They must’ve got sick of Ravel too. Unfairly.) So once again, Olive set off on her own.
Everything was going fine – except somehow she skated out on the street, and twirled round a lamp post. Next, she was lifted high atop a street elevator, rising to receive goods. She adroitly leapt off before it sank below street level, and she whizzed on, only to be nearly sliced in two by the revolving doors of a department store, which she entered wholly without any purchase in mind. Here she accidentally executed a masterful somersault, to loll briefly on a brand-new bed, before she was in motion once again, helplessly slipping backwards, grabbing at scarves and other haberdashery as they flashed by. Facing forward at the last possible moment, she swooped magnificently down the fancy escalator, her feet on the handrails, and suddenly she was outside again, rattling over cobblestones at 70 miles an hour.
Weaving tremulously around cars, buses, trams and rickshaws, she found herself hurtling downhill towards a major intersection, manned by a traffic cop. She called to him for aid. He saw her coming but couldn’t do a thing to save himself or her. Olive bumped him to kingdom come, but managed to cling to the traffic lights with both paws, and there she spun until momentum had been discharged.
But just as survival seemed a tangible aim again, her pointy ass was struck by a passing lorry and she started spinning the OTHER WAY. She got so dizzy, she had to let go. And then there were more hills, hills upon hills, as if repeated on a loop. They became skateboard ramps when the distraught Olive Oyl mounted them at speed. It looked like she might end up in the briny, head in the sand and just her great big roller skates sticking up, the wheels still vainly twirling – in her end her beginning, and a faint scent of formaldehyde? – when Popeye the Sailor Man put in a timely appearance. Gee, what a guy.
After downing some spinach, even his roller stakes swelled. Then, with rope, pulley and a certain nerdy exactitude, he lowered himself in the nick of time from the clifftop above, and scooped Olive out of the air as she shot into the abyss, his out-of-proportion forearms warmly encircling this out-of-control dame. And all she could say was:
“Let’s do it again!”
Lucy Ellmann won the 2019 Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman, for her novel “Ducks, Newburyport” (Galley Beggar Press)