h a r r i e t m a y

Tag: Womanhood

Beside the Seaside

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“This is exactly what I wanted from a restaurant tonight,” I’m saying, looking around us. The tablecloth is red and white checked, brick walls lead up to wooden rafters, and the dimmed lights leave work for the candles on each table; it could be the backdrop for a rom com date scene. (Emphasis on the ‘com’ part of the equation, as the four year old at the next table begins a dinner-long tantrum.) I’m glad– Whitstable Oyster Company was not our first choice, but the Sportsman books up 6 months in advance, Salt Marsh was closed for a private function, and Birdies had no space for us.

On Friday Sam picked me up from work on his motorcycle, and we zoomed down the A2 to Whitstable, just over an hour east of London. It was the end of the summer, and we felt like getting away.

“Does the mackerel have bones?” I ask the waiter, suspiciously. “Yes,” she replies.

“And the skate?”

“Yes, but it’s really easy, I promise.”

“Ok, I trust you,” I say, feeling guilty for being the lazy landlubber who hates to work for her food. Sam, probably on a high from conquering his first oyster earlier in the day, has no such qualms, and confidently orders the whole plaice. “It’s going to have the head,” I say, making a face.

We had spent the day wandering between cafes and pubs, drinking oyster stout on the beach and then shimmying up to the four-person counter in Wheelers for fresh seafood. It may have been around since 1856, but Wheelers Oyster Bar is almost knowingly timeless; it’s easy to imagine the pink and blue storefront rolling its eyes at the news that Pantone has picked Rose Quartz and Serenity as the joint 2016 colours of the year.

“I’m so happy right now,” I say to Sam.

“Here?”

“Here, yes, but right now. Everything is just beginning.” We just reached the one year countdown to our wedding; I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching about the direction of my career and have, for the hundredth time, decided to push the fear aside and act instead. I worry that I am not good enough at work. Sam is good at ensuring me otherwise: There’s loads of stuff about how women only apply for jobs they think they’re capable of, whereas men apply for senior positions because they just think they can, he Whatsapps me on Friday. I don’t want to be a victim of the confidence gap. I want to be a woman of Beyoncé strength and Sara Blakely smarts.

“Ok, I think I’m bored now,” I say on our way back to the Airbnb, a charming cottage once home to William Somerset Maugham. “I’ve really enjoyed today, but I’m glad we live in London.” It’s just gone 10pm and a couple in front of us have stumbled out of a pub playing 90s anthems and straight into an Indian takeaway.

“Well,” Sam replies, matter-of-factly, “then it was a perfect weekend away.”

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The Cheap Seats

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We are well-practiced groundlings, and as we sit cross-legged in the queue outside the yard entrance to Shakespeare’s Globe with our £5 tickets we begin work on the 5 litres of boxed wine we have brought between eight of us, shared out in plastic cups. We’re about to see Caroline Byrne’s adaption of The Taming of the Shrew, which none of us really have any reference for outside of 10 Things I Hate About You. We are (pop) cultured.

When we’re let in to the theatre we move swiftly to stake our claim at the front, and although we’ve been told off enough in the past to know not to rest our cups of wine on the stage, I twice catch myself about to do just that. I’m more likely to want to do what I want than what I’m supposed to; more Kate than Bianca.

When Bianca’s suitors are introduced to her, and to us, Lauren whispers, “They’re so old!” We can’t imagine being married off by our fathers. Neither can Kate: obstinate and unmanageable, she rebels by repelling. As Kate is married against her will to Petruchio, and literally tied into her wedding dress, we mourn for her, sadly sipping our wine.

But what actually happens to Kate and Petruchio is this: their relationship is forged from equality and companionship. Bianca and Lucentio, on the other hand, both wanting different things, get them, only to find they share no common ground once inside their marriage. Petruchio has sought out what he knows will make a worthy wife– Kate’s high spirit and boldness– and she returns an unmatched sexual love and fierce loyalty.

Marriage is more egalitarian than ever, but women still must compromise with the world in order to live on their own terms. Niki Nakayama, the subject of episode four of Chef’s Table, will work only in closed kitchens after a man once walked in to the restaurant where she was working, and seeing that she was a woman, left immediately.

When the play has ended, we head down to the stoney beach beside the Thames where we finish the wine, proving none of us would do well with the deprivation Petruchio uses to tame Kate. But we too are high spirited. “To the pub!” someone shouts.

Wedding Belles

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“What do we do?” I’m asking, looking at Sam who is sitting on a petite blush settee. I squint at him slyly. “Are we supposed to… discuss this?” Now I turn to look at the shop assistant, Michaela, wide-eyed. “I don’t know what we do!” Michaela bursts out laughing.

We’re on Sloane Street in Emilia Wickstead, which is a new store here, just down the road from one of the temping agencies I used when I first arrived, desperate to find my place in London. And now here I am, in a dress by an up-and-coming designer, made famous by dressing Kate Middleton and Samantha Cameron, and it is the one I want to be my wedding dress.

I have been told not to go wedding dress shopping with my fiancé (bad luck), but he’s the only person I want there, and I already have a good track record of ignoring everyone to do what I want anyway.

Emilia Wickstead must be good at doing what she wants too; how else do you build a made-to-measure business into the foundations of an empire? The shop in Knightsbridge in which we’re standing is evidence of that– just eight short years in the making. I love this dress, but I love it all the more for being the vision of an ambitious young woman.

When Michaela mentions the dress is 30% off in the sale then darts off to calculate what that is, I think “How can that be bad luck?” but I say, “Should we do it?” The skirt has volume in the back and I am swinging it to test its dancefloor potential. It’s a big purchase and a big deal and I don’t know how you’re supposed to feel when you try on your wedding dress for the first time, except this feels pretty good.

The dusty pink Emilia Wickstead bag is huge and I hit everyone with it as I get on the tube. “Sorry,” I lie, hoping everyone wants to know what’s inside.

When we tell Jenny and Mike, Sam’s parents, they’re pleased. “Must be a family tradition,” Jenny says. “Mike came with me to buy mine.”

Bar Crawl

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“What is nduja?”

We are sitting at the counter in Pizza East, having just ordered two negronis. Sam shrugs. “Ask the waiter.”

“What is nduja?” I ask the waiter. I get my reply: “It’s a salami,” and I quickly ask my next question before he can escape, “and girolles?”

“A mushroom.”

“And guanciale?”

“Pork cheek.”

I pause, glancing back down at the menu. “And…”

The waiter has taken this brief window and sensibly rushed away. “Let’s share the nduja pizza and the girolles and guanciale pizza,” Sam suggests, knowing how indecisive I am and how long it took to even agree on Pizza East (only once I had stared sadly at the enormous queue snaking from Dishoom).

Afterwards we walk back from Shoreditch, stopping for a drink at Redchurch and then Birdcage. On the way I am explaining how upset I’ll be if anyone calls me Mrs when we get married, or assumes I’ve changed my name. “You won’t be sad when I cry if someone calls me Mrs Bourke, or worse, Mrs Sam Bourke?” Losing my own identity would be a trauma.

Sam assures me he doesn’t mind. “We’ll put something about it in the save-the-date email.”

“I feel really strongly about this, but also I don’t want you to be offended. It’s just that it’s not about you, it’s about me!”

Sam laughs and squeezes my hand. “That’s a good line.” I don’t always know what I want, but once I do, I’m certain. By this time we’re in Broadway Market, just before London Fields.

“Want to go to the secret bar?” Sam is referring to Kansas Smitty’s, the bar in the basement of Off Broadway. There’s a neon sign in the window, so it’s not really a secret, as such.

But then once you look there’s often more going on, just below the surface.