"Theyre not all the same size?" Jane burst out laughing at my question,
her black eyes rolling up so far that all I could see was the whites. And the older woman
looked at me, as if for the first time. They were the first words Id spoken, or
rather whispered, since we were trying to make sure none of the other passengers
overheard. "More or less, I mean," I said, trying to recover, which of course
only made it all worse. Janes laugh came again, not muffled this time, and sounding
down the full length of the carriage. And this time the woman laughed too, an odd grin
exposing the gum above her not very straight teeth. The heads of a few nearer passengers
turned, a newspaper ruffled.
Jane, in her usual bold way, had started up a conversation with this woman just after
wed got on at Paddington. We were in uniform already, going back to school.
Shed invited me home for the long visiting weekend, since I was one of the only
girls at school whose family lived overseas. The womans over-rouged cheeks came
closer. She winked at Jane as if she were in a pantomime.
"More or less," she mimicked my tone, raising her eyebrows. "Yes, well
thats the whole long and short of itisnt it dearie?" And the two of
them exploded again, the laughter forced out between their compressed lips like air from a
balloon, eyes watering. It took me a moment to even grasp the joke. The whole notion was
so astounding. I felt the familiar hot flush prickling up my neck. Our new friend sat
back, gave me a confidential pat on the thigh. "After all, its like our bosoms,
really. Different sizesshapes for that matter." Her eyes moved over me, as if
examining fruit at a stand. She was quite common, not really a lady. Not like Janes
or my mother. And in any case it couldnt be like us at alldifferent shapes and
sizes. There were those Greek statues at museums, and the reproductions in that big book
in my fathers library that William had showed me after everyone in the house was
asleep. But Jane had only gotten started.
"What does it feel like?" The woman turned to the window, and I thought she
was going to ignore Jane. Outside, the telegraph posts going by seemed to be marking time.
But then she turned back to us. Janes face seemed to be daring the woman, with that
insolent expression that always irritated our teachers beyond endurance. But the
womans eyes seemed more curious than shocked at having heard the question from a
twelve-year-old schoolgirl on a train. And I felt a momentary sensation of
fallingnot down, but rather into myself, enveloped by the rocking motion of the
carriage, the steady metallic beat of the carriage wheels against the rails, the telegraph
poles seeming to click by in the rain outside.
Neither of them turned away their eyes. I imagined myself somehow inside the woman,
seeing Janes facethat face that it always seemed to me could do what no other
face could. It was girlish, even child-like, profoundly untroubledand at the very
same time there was another look, as if side-by-side with the first. The look that at
school we called Janes "tart face"almost shockingly lewd, frank,
coarse. I imagined the woman wondering, going back and forth between the two faces. We
would beg Jane to put on this face, in the dormitory, when the matron was down the hall
somewhere. And soon shed be mincing up and down between the beds, hands on her hips,
reciting to us in a falsetto, chin in the air: "He took herhe possessed
herhe had herhe enjoyed herhe had his way with herhe knew
her," the rest of us in fits of giggles no matter how many times wed heard it
before. Jane would already be going on, swirling the edge of her night robe out with one
hand: "Has a gentleman laid siege to your chaste treasure?"
The woman leaned forward again. "Most of what you hear about all that is stuff and
nonsense." She looked up at the ceiling of the compartment. "But since you want
to know, Ill tell you. Why shouldnt you know, after all?" She seemed to
say this more to herself than to us, her eyes narrowing, lips pursing a little as she
glanced around the carriage at the other passengers, asleep in their seats, or reading.
"Its different," she started, "different times. Thats for
starters. And with different men, its different." Here she winked at me, but I
was already thinkinghow could she, with different men? But even through the whisper
her voice seemed more weary than lewd or suggestive. "As far as that goes, were
different, toowomen, I mean." She looked out the window. I followed her eyes
out over the now open country, our pale reflections superimposed in the glass over damp
fields. It would be dark by the time we reached the school.
"But what does it feel like? When you do it?"
The woman quickly glanced at Jane again. The three of us were by ourselves, at the far
end of the carriage, Jane and I side-by-side, facing the woman. Then suddenly she bent
forward, leaning her elbows on her knees, hands clasped. I watched her thumbs making
small, irregular movements against each other. Our heads were nearly touching.
"You see, there arent exactly words for it, for the feeling. So its
hard to describe it. Especially for girls like you, who cant" The thumbs
stopped moving. "When he firstthat first moment you feel yourselffeel
him, I meanthat can send a thrill through you. If youre in the mood of
course." The woman looked at Jane, with a hopeful expression. "How shall I say
it," the woman went on. "Have you ever seen a mana boy, I meanthat
you fancied?" Jane nodded, and I followed her example, not really sure why.
"Well, you feel a little breathless, a bit warm inside. Dont you? You imagine
things?" Her eyes, so close I could see the tiny gold flecks in them, were on me now.
Had I felt it? But what? "Its like that, only more of course, because
youre bothnot wearing anything. And his hands are touching you."
"Touching you wherever he wants," Jane interrupted. I thought of a
mansboyshands on me, everywhere, up high between my legs, inside.
That idea was somehow more shocking than that of the other penetration. The hand less
blind, in some way, than that other part of him.
"Well, the fact is, men can be funny that way."
"Funny?" Janes eyes narrowed.
"I mean about touching youthere at any rate. Oh theres no problem with
the bosom, until they get bored at least." The woman looked down the carriage again.
"Some men havent a clue, you see." Her voice was a murmur. All at once she
seemed hideous to me. It was something about the skin, the flesh itself, her womans
body. Janes body was so small, light, and I felt mine becominglike that,
heavy, dense. "Perhaps I shouldnt be telling you any of this. No one ever told
me, I can tell you that. Perhaps theres no way but learning ourselves, you
know?" There was such a long silence that it seemed the conversation was finished.
I was thinkingthats goodbecause Jane could scare me the way she
never let things go, talking to a grown- up that way. But I also wanted them to go on, the
two of them with me just listening. Then Jane was whispering again.
"We dont care about all that. We want you to tell us what it feels
like." Breaking out of the silence so close to my ear it felt like her whisper was
inside mewhat it feels like, we want to know, we want to know. There was that
terrible hardness in Janes face again, in her dark eyes. But the woman answered at
once, her voice very calm and flat.
"Im telling you. He comes in, he moves in and out. It can feel lovely or it
can feel like nothing at all."
"How can it be both?" The woman smiled, sat back, watching Jane as if from a
"Well, perhaps youve nothing to learn. You know everything already."
And she looked over at me, as if waiting for me to say something.
"I dont know what its like, how it feels." Janes whisper
was steady, each word separate, the way the masters spoke to us in class if they thought
we were being willfully dense. The womans eyes left me and turned back to Jane.
"How it feels? Dont you see, its like trying to tell someone how
something tastes that theyve never eaten. It depends."
"On the man, you mean?"
"Well, yes. For starters. He can be on top of you, sweating and grunting away, and
then hes done. He lets out a big groan and collapses on you. I wont lie to you
about it. Hes all right, but youre just worked up. Or you might feel nothing
at all, might just be glad its over." It had all come out in a rush. She
stopped, went on more slowly. "With us, its not like that. It doesnt just
happen. Not that they cant have their little problems, mind you."
"Problems?" The woman moved in her seat, shook her head a little as if trying
to clear it. Again there was the furtive glance toward the other passengers.
"Well, all right. Ive gone this far. They might not get hardyou do
understand that, dont you? Or finish too quickly, before anythings really got
started. Well, there you are. You see, I shouldnt be telling you any of this."
Jane seemed to consider a moment.
"Before, you said it can feel lovely."
"Yes, thats right. And Im sure it will for you." She stood up and
pulled a small traveling bag from the rack overhead, sat down again with one hand on it.
The rhythm of the carriage wheels had begun to slow. A conductor came through the door at
the far end of the carriage and called out the station.
"Whats it feel like when" Jane paused "when, you know,
you feel himfinish?" The woman rolled her eyes up, then turned to look out the
window in the direction the train was moving, as if calculating how soon it would stop.
But then she relaxed again, settled back in her seat.
"When he ejaculates? Ejaculates his sperm?" Now the insolent look was in her
eyes, as if daring Jane. "Are those the words youre searching for? I thought
you knew everything, dear."
"Yes, then. What does it feel like then?" The woman gave out a little peal of
"Oh dear, the blessed moment. No, I shouldnt make fun of you. Im being
unkind." The train slowed into a long curve and I saw the black locomotive up ahead,
the station coming nearer. A grey postal carriage was by the platform, the horses
head inside its feedbag. "Men get easily excited, you see. Sometimes just by looking
at a womans body, just by being touchedthere. It might take one or two
minutes, and then its done."
"One or two minutes?"
"Oh yes. No, were not like them. It takes us longer." Her words kept
coming, in a grating whisper. "A man just going in and out, for a minute or two,
inside usthat doesnt make it happen. Just like that. Dont you
"Make what happen?" It was my voice.
"Ecstasy, she means." Jane answered, before the woman could. A girl from the
upper form had said that, in the dormitory. Shed run both hands through her hair,
tilting her head back, eyes closed, as she said it.
"Ecstasy? Oh, yes, all right." The woman looked over our heads at something
in the distance, a slight smile on her mouth but her eyes somehow sad, or tired. Jane
seemed not to notice. She was already whispering again.
"How much of it is there? The sperm, I mean."
"What? My god, does this girl never stop?" The woman looked at me again.
"When he does it. Inside you."
"You dont feel it, exactlynot the fluid itself, I mean. Ive told
you, he stops moving, usually, when it happens. Sort of shudders and strains against
you." There was that strange twist of her lips again. "Thats how you know.
And you gradually feel less of him, so to speak." Inside me, so impossible to
imagine. I felt the hot flush rising again on my neck. "Well, heres my
station." The whistle sounded and the carriage was almost at a stop.
"But how much?" Jane repeated. "And its hot, isnt it?"
The woman, pulling on her gloves, looked as if she werent going to answer. There was
the slightest movement of her head, then all at once she was standing up. She leaned down
toward us just as the scream of the steam brakes filled the carriage. I watched her hand
come forward and chuck Jane lightly on the chin. Now there was no triumph in her
eyesto me they were simply sad.
"Lukewarm, my girl. And it wouldnt fill a thimble."