Plain or Beautiful?

who's asking?

Short Stories by George Donald

A Plain Woman

Jenny Paterson was, even she had to admit, a plain and unattractive looking woman. She had been born a plain baby, become a plain, pimply-faced schoolgirl and spent her working life in the same plain and dull clerical job. She dressed plainly and in keeping with her plain looks. The first thirty-five years of her life had been spent on the outside edge of the circle, always the friend and family member who was phoned simply if another person was needed to make up the numbers. Of course her mum and dad loved her and her sister's and brother's and friend's thought the world of her. Well, that's what they smiling told her when closing the door on her, after she'd babysat or obliged them with some or other favour. In any event, once she had served her purpose, most people were usually eager to say goodnight and send her on her way. "What would we do without you, Jenny?" they would all smile, but not with their eyes. She wasn't a stupid woman and accepted from an early age that she was the type of woman who would pass through life as a favourite aunt, a thoughtful sister and a dear friend, but only when she was needed and not before.She was not for marrying it was whispered, when the family and friend's thought she couldn't hear. Not Jenny, they shook their heads and quietly laughed. She was far to plain for men to take any interest in her. Her long, straight brown mousy hair, angular sad face and skinny body, equally skinny legs and bony knees just weren't what men were looking for in a girlfriend, let alone a wife. But her smile? Well, had she taken the time to use it more often, even she would have realised what a difference it made to her features and perhaps if she had smiled more often, the first thirty-five years of her life might have taken a slightly different path.

She remembered when he had first taken an interest in her. Catching the regular bus home from the city office to her flat in Hyndland, the Indian conducter had grinned at her and courteously doffed his shiny peaked cap. Taken aback, she stared curiously at the small, squat man, his overlarge nose dominating a face that revealed much scarring from childhood chickenpox, stubby hands hanging loosely below the sleeves of the oversized uniform jacket. "Baljindar," he pointed with a thick forefinger at his chest in his gruff, heavily accented English. "You…. Name?" pointing at Jenny, smiling broadly, his teeth like tombstones and eyes wide with curiosity. She blushed furiously and rushed from her seat, almost falling from the high step into the roadway in her haste to escape the strange little man. Glancing nervously back at the departing bus, she saw him on the rear platform, one hand gripping the upright steel pole while the other waved the bus company cap at her, a huge grin splitting his brown face. To her acute embarrassment and the tittering amusement of her fellow passengers, he was there again the next evening. And the next. And yet again the following evening, always with the same question. "You…. Name?" Finally, Friday arrived and she decided she would wait in the office that extra thirty minutes, time enough she decided to allow her regular bus to pass by. She would catch the next one. He was standing at the bus stop, the slight fall of rain soaking his second-hand suit that was far too tight for him across his barrel chest. Even from where she sheltered, under the canopy at the corner of the building and behind the newspaper rack, she could see his shoes were polished to a high shine, his jet-black hair slicked back and glistening in the wet. He had his back to her and she took a deep breath and stepped out into the rain, but then panic overtook her and she thought again about ducking into a nearby doorway. But something tore at her heart. The sight of the little man, a good four inches shorter than her five foot nine, anxiously standing in the rain and hoping to meet her, confused Jenny. She took a deep breath and hurried towards him, unsure what she would say or how to react to his persistent question. He turned and saw her, his face creasing into a broad smile, his face wet from the rain, wearing a vivid green tie with the broad knot atop the light purple shirt. He looked faintly ridiculous, she thought. But that's when she saw he was holding the small bunch of brightly coloured flowers.

Six years had since passed and still she wondered at her actions that day. His English was, frankly, dreadful and she couldn't spell Urdu let alone speak it. She remembered their first tentative conversation, heart beating rapidly and stomach churning, persuading him more by hand signals than speech that a nearby cafe would be a better venue than a rain soaked bus stop. They sat nervously opposite each other across the Formica topped table. She ordered two coffee's from the curious waitress, that he insisted paying for. Little by little, over the next hour and more coffee, she learned his full name was Baljindar Singh and more about him. She smiled as he hesitantly formed the name Jennifer Paterson, rolling the vowels round his tongue with undisguised pleasure. She wasn't used to being stared at in such an open manner and was oddly flattered that he found her attractive; well, that seemed obvious in that he had sought her out - and with flowers. It was almost as if…...she didn't dare even think of it… as if he was wooing her. He was younger than Jenny she discovered, but only by four years and had come to Scotland to improve his English and to Glasgow in particular, because he had relatives residing in the city. "Are you married?" she had askedhim, experiencing the curious sensation of hoping he wasn't. Then in response to his puzzled stare, she pointed to her finger and the ring on her right hand.
"No, no," he toothily grinned at her and waved his hands in denial.
She watched as he frowned, trying to decide what word to use to describe himself.
"Me…... too ugh," he said throatily, frustrated by his lack of English and then repeated, "ugh."
She didn't understand and he called to the gum chewing young waitress behind the counter. The girl was Glasgow born and bred, but of Asian parentage and listened to his rapid explanation in Urdu.
"He's telling you he's ugly and that a good looking lady like you shouldn't really be interested in someone like him," she said and returned to her workplace, discreetly muttering under her breath,.."and he's no kidding, by the way."
Jenny stared at Baljindar, her eyes smarting as she tried to refrain from crying. This little man with the huge smile thought himself ugly, too ugly for a good-looking woman like Jenny.

Their courtship had been a whirlwind romance. She ignored the cruel jibes and Baljindar, she knew, was blissfully unaware of the whispered comments. For six years they lived happily together, finding a new home and learning of each other, their differences disappearing, as they loved. His English improved and within a short time, she became a fluent Urdu speaker. In time, to their families and friends, they became a socially acceptable couple, the tall thin and very plain woman and the short, squat and quite ugly man.

It happened one day as she returned from work. It wasn't her usual shop, just a convenient store to stop by and purchase the bread and milk he had asked her to fetch when coming home. The two young Indian men behind the counter had been laughing together when she entered. "Can I help you, missus?" inquired the tall, good looking one, running a comb through his hair as he glanced sideways at his reflection in the mirror hanging lopsidedly on the wall.
She smiled at him. "Two litre carton of semi-skimmed milk and a pan loaf please."
"Now there's a right ugly looking bird," sneered the shorter one from behind the display of canned food.
Jenny flinched, not quite sure if she had heard correctly. She could see she was the only woman in the store, but he had spoken in Urdu. He couldn't suspect that she understood, that she spoke his parent's language. The man serving her smiled pleasantly as he passed over the milk, while he stared at her and replied in Urdu to his friend. "See the face on her? That nose is that sharp it could rip open a can of peas. But you're right. Imagine waking up each morning with that repulsive sight by your side."
Her blood ran cold and her stomach lurched, but she smiled tolerantly as she accepted the bread and handed over the money. She turned to leave the store, listening as the first youth spoke again in Urdu and criticised her skinny legs, her limp hair and thin face. His friend laughingly agreed and waved cheerio to Jenny. Her heart racing and tears stinging her eyes, she stumbled from the shop, too shocked and embarrassed to reveal her bi-lingual skill.

Racing home, she collapsed into the stunned Baljindar's arms, sobbing as she recounted her humiliation at the derision and indignity she had endured. The little man was outraged. Patiently he calmed her down and stroked her hair. "You my wife, my lovely lady," he soothed her with a gentle voice, holding her trembling body close to him. "What for you worry about what other idiots think? I love you and that all you need to know. Where I be without you, my darling, beautiful Jennifer?" She stared at him, her small, ugly but very sweet man. For he was right. Who cared what others thought? All she needed was Bal - and all her affectionate and tender Bal needed, was Jenny. And that, after all, was all that mattered.

It occurred the following morning, an unusual incident within a corner grocery shop on Maryhill Road in the north side of Glasgow. According to the filed police report a small, middle-aged Asian man that the victim's described as really ugly but very strong, entered the shop with a large piece of wood. As one of the two young shop assistants later stated to the police the unknown man, without speaking or issuing any kind of warning, began to beat both he and his friend with the wood and left them both bleeding on the shop floor. "But didn't he say anything?" asked the puzzled policewoman, relieved that the incident wasn't one of these racial things. The youth cradled his aching, bleeding head and then thought long and hard before replying. "Yeah, something really odd. Something he kept repeating when he was belting us," he sniffed, shuddering again at the memory of the big stick hitting him. "All he kept saying was beauty is in the eye of the beholder, whatever the fuck that means!"