'A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society' by Helen Oyeyemi
A story from the acclaimed writer's collection "What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours," out March 8 from Riverhead Books.
Illustrations by Jisoo Kim
To celebrate International Women's Day, here is a story from Helen Oyeyemi's story collection What Is Not Your Is Not Yours, out today from Riverhead Books. "A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society" concerns two societies at Cambridge that don't get along. The Bettencourts, men who made a list of the school's top "homely wenches," and the Homely Wenches, a group that was founded by the women on the list, after one found her name on it. Dayang is a second-year English major who wants to join the group, but is struggling to answer one of the two questions on the application: What is a homely wench?
A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society
From: Willa Reid
To: Dayang Sharif
Date: November 12th, 2012, 18:25
Subject: JOIN US
Amongst Cambridge University's many clubs, unions, academic forums, interest groups, activist cells, and societies, there's a sisterhood that emerged in direct opposition to a brotherhood. What this sisterhood lacks in numbers it more than makes up for in lionheartedness : The Homely Wench Society. The Homely Wenches can't be discussed without first noting that it was the Bettencourt society that necessitated the existence of precisely this type of organized and occasionally belligerent female presence at the University.
The Bettencourt Society has existed since 1875. The Bettencourters are also known as "the Franciscans" because a man gets elected to this society on the basis of his having sufficient charisma to tame both bird and beast. Just like Francis of Assisi. Each year at the end of Lent term the Society hosts a dinner at its headquarters, a pocket-sized palace off Magdalene Street that was left to the University by Hugh Bettencourt with the stipulation that it be used solely for Bettencourt Society activities. If you've heard of the Bettencourters you may already know the following facts: No woman enters this building unless a member of the Bettencourt Society has invited her, and no Bettencourt Society member invites a woman into the building unless it's for this annual dinner of theirs. And getting invited to the dinner is dependent on your being considered exceptionally attractive.
The Homely Wench Society has only existed since 1949. The women who were its first members had heard about the Bettencourt Society and weren't that impressed with what they heard about the foundational principles of these so-called Franciscans. As for their annual dinner... hmm, strangely insecure of intelligent people to spend time patting each other on the backs for having social skills and getting pretty girls to have dinner with them. But people may spend their time as they please. No, the first Homely Wench Society members didn't have a problem with the Bettencourt Society until Giles Rutherford (Bettencourt Society President 1949, PhD Candidate in the Classics Faculty) was writing a poem and got stuck. What he needed, he said, was to lay eyes on a girl whose very name conjured up ugliness in a manner identical to the effect produced by invoking the name of Helen of Troy. Luckily for Gile Rutherford's poem, the first wave of female Cantabs working toward full degree certification were on hand to be ogled at. Rutherford sent his Bettencourt Society brethren out into the university with this task: "Find me the homeliest wench in the university, my brothers. Search high and low, do not rest until you've sketched her face and form and brought it to me. Comb Girton in particular; something tells me you'll find her there."  The Bettencourters looked into every corner of Newnham and Girton and found many legends in the making. They compiled a list of Cambridge's homeliest wenches, a list which later fell into the hands of one of the women who had been invited to the Bettencourt's annual dinner. This lady stole the list and sought out other women who'd accepted invitations to this dinner. Having gathered a number of them together she showed the list of homely wenches around and asked: "Is this kind of list all right with us?"
"No it jolly well isn't," the others replied. "This is Cambridge, for goodness sake—if a person can't come here to think without these kinds of annoyances then where in this world can a person go???" 
They hesitated to involve the women whose names they'd seen on the list. Some of the Bettencourt dinner invitees were friends with the homely wenches, and didn't want to cause any upset. Who wants to see their name on such a list? But in the end they decided it was the only way to gather forces that would hold. Honoring delicacy over full disclosure only comes back to haunt you in the end. Moira Johnstone, the first of the homely wenches to be informed of her place on the list had to suspend a project she'd been working on in her spare time—the building of a bomb. She'd been looking for an answer to a question she had regarding the effects of a particular type of explosion, but the temptation to test her model on a bunch of fatheads was too strong, so she stuck to books and hockey for a couple of days. The others had similar responses, but soon settled on a simple but effective riposte.  As they worked through this riposte the Bettencourt dinner invitees and the homeliest wenches discovered that they liked each other's company and were interested in each other's work; they thereby declared themselves a society and gained the support of new members who hadn't been featured on either list. Nonetheless the members of this new society dubbed themselves Homely Wenches one and all.
The 1949 Bettencourt Society Dinner began pleasantly; lots of champagne and gallantry, flirtation, and the fluent discussion of ideas. They were served at table by waiters hired for the evening, and whenever a Bettencourt disagreed with one of the guests he made sure he mitigated his disagreement with a compliment on his opponent's dress, thereby reminding her what the true spirit of the evening was. Fun! At least it was for the boys, until a great crashing sound came from the next room as the waiters were preparing to bring in the first course. Rutherford called out to the head waiter for the evening; the head waiter replied that 'something a bit odd' had happened, but that service would be up and running again within a matter of moments. Waiting five minutes for a course was no great hardship—more compliments, more champagne—but when the head waiter was asked to explain the delay he asked jocularly: "Do you believe in ghosts?"
The lights in the kitchen had been switched off and then switched on again as the food was being plated, and then the waiters had heard footsteps in the next room, and then the portrait of Sir Hugh Bettencourt in that very same room had fallen off the wall. The Bettencourt boys laughed at this, but their guests turned pale and went off their food a bit. Who could say what might have happened to it when the lights had gone out? The Bettencourt boys laughed even more. Even the cleverest woman can be silly. When the same sequence of events occurred between the first and second course—footsteps and falling objects, this time all along the floor above the dining room—the Bettencourters stopped laughing and looked for weapons that would assist them in apprehending intruders, spectral or otherwise. Their guests were one step ahead of them and already had a firm hold on every object that could conceivably be used to stab or whack someone, including cutlery. "Do you want us to go and have a look?" asked Lizzie Holmes, first-ever Secretary of the Homely Wench society.
"No no, you stay there, we'll take care of this," Bettencourt President Rutherford said, adding a meaningful "Won't we?" to his patently reluctant brethren.
"Yes, yes of course..." the Bettencourters had to go forth unarmed, since the frightened women refused to release even one set of ice tongs. Up the stairs they trooped, with no light to guide them ("We'll just wait in the kitchen," the waiters said) and they searched each room on the first floor and found no one there. When they filed back into the dining room, however, it was full of uninvited women, each of whom had taken seats emptied by the Bettencourters and were tucking into the platefuls of food the Bettencourters had temporarily abandoned. "Sit down, sit down, join us," cried Moira Johnstone, number-one Homeliest Wench. The Bettencourters looked to Rutherford to see how they should proceed; he decided the only sporting response was a good natured one, so he and his brethren had another table brought into the room, had the waiters set places at it and sat there and ate alongside all the Wenches. Their plan had been just as you must've guessed by now: Earlier that evening the last of the 'most attractive' women to enter Bettencourt headquarters had lingered at the door and let the first of the 'homeliest wenches' into the building.
As far as we know, the Bettencourt Society never compiled another list of homely wenches. The Homely Wenches Society flourished for a time, and then dwindled as ensuing generations of female Cantabs saw little need to label themselves or to oppose the Bettencourters (whose numbers remain steady.) The activities of the Homely Wench Society mainly come under the banner of 'Laughs, Snacks and Cotching'  but in response to advice from Homely Wenches who've since graduated, the Society produces a termly journal. Mostly for the purpose of posterity; we have no real readership other than ourselves.
So if you want to join our questions to you are: Who are the homely wenches of today? What makes you think you're one of us?
Your answer is a key that will unlock worlds (yours, ours) so please make it as full and as bigarurre as it can be.
Hope to hear from you soon,
Willa Reid (third-year History of Art, Caius)
Ed Niang (second-year NatSci, Clare)
Theo Ackner (second-year History, Emma)
Hilde Karlsen (third-year HSPS, Girton)
Grainne Molloy, (second-year Law, Peterhouse)
Flordeliza Castillo (first-year CompSci, Trinity)
Marie Adoula (third-year MML, King's)
Every member of the modern day Homely Wenches who isn't from South London—i.e., everybody except Ed Niang—had to have the verb 'cotch' explained to them, but once we understood we found it apt. —T.A.
It took Dayang Sharif (second-year Eng. Lit, Queen's) days to think up an answer that was full and bigarurre. As soon as she read the e-mail she wanted in—actually as soon as she'd met Willa and Hilde on the train she'd wanted in—but as with all groups the membership hurdle wasn't so much to do with convincing the Wenches that she was one of them as it was to do with convincing herself. She looked the word bigarurre up and found that it meant both "a medley of sundry colors running together" and "a discourse running oddly and fantastically, from one matter to another." "Medley of sundry colors running together" made her think of her Director of Studies, Professor Begum saying: "I saw you with your Suffolk posse, Dayang. A colorful gang!" She'd looked at him to check what he meant by "colorful" and deciphered from his grin that other definitions included "delightful" and "bloody well made my day."
Day composed an answer that centered on the evening she'd met Hilde and Willa. She'd got on at the Kings Cross with Pepper, Luca, and Thalia, all four of them covered in sweat and glitter, Day at princess level surrounded by three majestic beings—they'd had their Friday night out in London town and now they were ready to get back to Day's room and crash. Hilde and Willa sat opposite them sharing a red velvet cupcake. Day remembered trying not to fret about two whole girls afraid to eat a whole cupcake each. She didn't know them or their fears. She noticed Willa's long chestnut hair and Hilde's eyes, which were like big blue almonds. She'd never seen them before but nodded at them, and they nodded back and continued their conversation, which seemed to be a comparison between medieval and modern logistics of kidnapping. Pepper and Luca were addressing Thalia's complaints about art school, and Day was about to throw in her own tuppence worth when five boys who looked about the same age as them came swaying through the carriage singing rugby songs. Actually Day didn't know anything about rugby so they might not have been rugby songs, but the men definitely had rugby player builds. They stared as they passed Day and her friends; Day felt a twanging in her stomach when they walked back a few paces and their song died away. She could see them thinking about starting something, or saying something. If these boys said something Pepper would fight, and so would Luca, and then what were Day and Thalia supposed to do—broker peace? Hardly. Day could punch... her parents had only been called into school for emergency meetings about her twice, and both times had been about the punching. Not necessarily the fact of her having punched someone, no, it was the style of it. Day punched hard, and when she did so she gave little to no warning. She punched veins. Aside from being disturbing to witness, the vein punching was extremely distressing for Day's target; the link between heart, lungs and brain fizzed and then seemed to snap, then the target's limbs twitched haphazardly as they tried to recover their notion of gravity. Every now and again Day's sister requested punching instruction from her, but this wasn't something Day could teach. She just knew how to do it, that was all. She thought it might be connected to anxiety and the need to be absolutely certain that it was shared. And she really didn't feel like punching anybody that night. She'd had a good time and just wanted to keep having one...
A couple of the rugby boys were black. They both caught Pepper's eye, and all three looked apologetic for staring. But that didn't mean there wasn't going to be a fight. So Day, T, Pepper, and Luca tensed up. Day saw something interesting: Chestnut Hair and Blue Almond Eyes were no longer eating cake and had tensed up too. Not the way you tense up when you're about to run away, but the way you tense up when you're not about to have any nonsense. Their postures had changed in a way that made them part of Day's circle—and actually, looking around, they weren't the only ones. Others scattered across the carriage had become alert too. "Jog on, lads," a barrel-chested man advised, and the boys seemed to reflect on numbers, then left and took their thoughts of starting something with them. When they'd gone Chestnut Hair leaned across the table and said, "I'm Willa." Blue Almond Eyes introduced herself as Hilde and said, apropos of nothing: "When we were little we had chicken pox together."
"Ah," Luca said, sagely. "So you two are close."
Willa rubbed her nose. "Oh, but we didn't do it on purpose..."
Willa was seriously posh. She tried to sound estuary but couldn't go all the way. At the station Hilde turned to them and asked "Are you students here?"
T, Pepper, and Luca talked over each other: As if! Yeah right... and all three pointed at Day: "There she is, Miss Establishment..."
"Please just live your hate-filled lives happily, guys," Day said.
Willa took Day's email address and said she'd be in touch. "We should all cotch sometime."
Cotch? Pepper thought that sounded sexual, Luca said: "Maybe something to do with horse riding? That one blatantly rides horses." Thalia just giggled.
The meeting on the train sort of answered the question of what made Day think she could be a Homely Wench, but it didn't answer the question of who a Homely Wench is. Second year was a year of conscientious study for Day; she couldn't have another exam result fiasco like last year (too much time spent visiting Pepper at Oxford) so she could only return to her questions of wenchness after she'd done as much work as possible toward her degree, all the reading and note taking and following up on references that she could do in a day. Queen's was in Day's blood, since it was her father's college too. In his day he'd flown in from Kuala Lumpur specifically to enroll, whereas she'd come in from Suffolk. Her college library was at its best late at night. At night the stained glass figures in the windows seemed to slumber, and the lamps on each desk gently rolled orange light along the floors until it formed one great globe that bounced along every twist and turn of the staircase to the upper levels. When she surveyed the entire scene it seemed to be one that the stained glass figures were dreaming. And she was there too, living what was dreamed. She stretched, sighed. Well, I'm a fanciful wench, but am I a homely one? Aisha was gunning for New Hall, their mother's college.
Day hadn't sighed quietly enough: A few desks away Hercules Demetriou (first-year Law) looked over at her and smiled. She looked away. She didn't think he was evil or anything, but he definitely disturbed her. The issue was all hers for fancying him even though he'd already been elected to the Bettencourt Society. The boy was was tall and well built and had wavy hair, excellent teeth and unshakeable equilibrium. Up close you saw smatterings of acne but that was no comfort. His skin tone lent him enough ethnic ambiguity for small children whose parents had a taste for vintage Disney to run up to him and ask: "Are you Aladdin?" He flashed them a dazzling smile and answered: "Nah, I'm Hercules."
Hercules of Stockwell. So full of himself. This was not an attraction that Day could ever confess to anybody. Hercules talked to her, though. He'd say, 'See you in the bar, yeah?' as he and his friends walked past her and her friends. Then Mike or Dara or Jiro would turn to her and say things like, "So will you see him in the bar? Or his bed, for that matter?" Horrible. When Hercules Demetriou spoke to Day her heart beat loudly and her loins acted as if they didn't know what the rest of her knew about him. What was he after? Day didn't actually think she was unattractive: Her appearance was mostly passable, and sometimes even exceeded that. Two things that were not in her favor were her spectacles, which often led people (including herself) to incorrectly anticipate a sexy librarian effect. You know... the glasses come off, the hair tumbles down and there she is. Nope. She had unreasonably large feet, too. She'd never walk on moonbeams. Why would the perfectly proportioned Hercules Demetriou keep trying to befriend her? It made no sense. Unless the slimy Bettencourters were compiling another List after all.
The young hero was still looking over. She took her glasses off, cleaned them and then typed a couple of paragraphs.
Who is a homely wench? Is a girl who exhaustively screens every man her mother contemplates seeing a homely wench? Leaving these things to Aisha meant just letting it all go to hell. How about a girl who sometimes finds it easier to talk to her dad's boyfriend than she does to her dad—what manner of wench is she? Day's dad still fasted at Ramadan even though he didn't go to mosque anymore, and from time he flared up at signs of Day and Aisha's "secular disrespect," which he was almost sure they were learning from their mum (They weren't. If anything they were learning it from Dad's boyfriend, Anton.) But apart from being less hung up on manners, Anton was less sensitive than Dad. Day had once mentioned being envious of her friend Zoe for having two mums—she'd been talking about the miracle of having two mums who were both so cool, but her dad had taken her words to mean that she didn't want all the family she had, and he'd looked so crestfallen that she'd spent ages explaining her original comment and making it sound even more dismissive of him and Anton until he'd had to laugh.
A girl at the desk next to Hercules'—Lakmini, Day thought her name was—wrote him a note; must have been a hot note because he fanned himself with it. But Miss Dayang Sharif couldn't have cared less what the note said, no way.
Who are the Homely Wenches of today?
She wrote about her first boyfriend Michael, her first and only boyfriend to date. She'd been in love with him and they broke up but the love didn't. In fact the love got—not truer, just better. Their friend Maisie's parents were away on the same weekend as Eurovision so Maisie opened up her house to "all my Eurovision bitches," which turned out to be not that many. Just Maisie, Day and Aisha, until Michael showed up, with two friends he'd never told Day about, Luca and T. A taxi pulled up outside of Maisie's house and Michael, Luca, and T got out, the three of them were dressed in silk sheaths—real, heavy silk. Maisie rushed to the front door: "What? Who are they? Are the Supremes really about to come in right now? I must have saved a nation in a past life..."
It took a couple of hours to get around to talking to Thalia and Luca. She only had eyes for Michael. For the first time she was seeing that he had everything she coveted from pre-Technicolor Hollywood. Hip-swinging walk, lips that tell cruel lies and sweet truths with a single smile, eyelashes that touch outer space. If Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth had had a Caribbean love child, that child would be Michael just as he was that night. They hugged for a long time, and later they talked on the balcony outside. "Thank God for the internet," he said. "I wouldn't have found Luca and T without it. All sorts of nutters out there, but mine found me..."
He settled on the name Pepper. Day remembered the rest of that night in stop-motion—whirling around the room holding hands with Luca, who held hands with Aisha, who held hands with Maisie, who held hands with Pepper, who held hands with her, dancing around in a circle with bags and coats stacked in the centre, cheering for the countries whose stage performances made the most effort or projected the most bizarre aura. Luca and T became friends too. "For life, yeah? Not just for Eurovision..."
Thalia didn't even like Eurovision. She said she'd come along to meet Day. "This one talks about you a lot," she said, gesturing toward Pepper.
Day's stepdad Anton, who had had trouble remembering Michael's name, hailed Pepper with joy, even as he teased Day about the times she'd said Michael was the one. Day just shrugged. Pepper wasn't always on the surface, but whether she was with Pepper as Pepper or Pepper as Michael, Day had found the one she'd always be young with, eating Cornettos on roller coasters, forever honing their ability to combine screams with ice cream.
So... who is a Homely Wench?
Day wrote about Luca, muscular and much pierced Luca, and how that first Eurovision they spent together his hair was the same shade of pastel mint as the dress he wore. He and T were a bit older, in their early 20s. By day he sold high fashion pieces: "Everyone wants to fly away from here but not everyone can make their own wings... so they buy them from me..." By night he was an unstoppable bon vivant, deciding what kind of buzz was right for that night and mixing the pharmaceutical cocktail that had the least tortuous hangover attached. He'd had nights so rough he could hardly believe he was still alive: "But this can't be the after life. Ugh, it can't be!" Luca laughs long and loud and his body shakes as he does so. He's better at forgetting than forgiving; he says this is the only thing about himself that scares him. Speaking of him Day's father says, "So... vulnerable," at the same time as her stepdad says "Brazen!" Neither is quite right. When Luca was younger he got kicked out of his parent's house for a while; they'd hoped it'd make him less brazen, but it didn't—he stayed with friends and got brasher, and when he came home it was like he took his family back into his heart rather than the other way around. Day knew Pepper and Luca were together. She'd also heard that Luca liked to pursue straight men. Thalia referred to this tendency as "Luca's danger sport." Pepper said Luca'd be fine. "He's got us."
Oh, and Thalia—Day had to talk about T. Thalia's aesthetic was the most civilian (Pepper had learnt the most from her YouTube makeup tutorials) and Thalia was her full-time name. She was reserved, refined, she lived with an older man none of her friends had met; the only reason her friends even knew about the older man was because of a week when T had been ecstatic because she'd sold five triptychs and received a really considered, insightful note about them from the buyer. But then she found out the buyer was her boyfriend, so she was furious for a couple of days, and then the fury mingled with elation again. Luca argued that the boyfriend was merely investing in T's work, which would no doubt make T famous one day (Whenever T heard this she said, "Care," to indicate that she didn't.') T painted scenes onto mirrors, dramatic televisual two shots from stories that had only ever been screened in Thalia's mind. Her mirror paintings left gaps where the facial features of the characters would normally be, so that your face could more easily become theirs. T's brushstrokes are thin, translucent, and mercurial in their placement; they swirl into one other. Her colors are white and silver. Around the images Thalia paints a few words from the script: an alphabet frame. Day's favorite was a voiceover:
The poison taster is feeling a bit ill. He's well paid but he hates his master so much that today, the day he finally tasted poison, he's eaten a lot and is managing to keep a normal expression on his face until his master has eaten at least as much as he has. Eat heartily, boss, don't stop now...
Who's a homely wench? Luca is, and Day is, and so are Pepper and T and Hilde and Willa and anyone who is not just content to accept an invitation but wants more people to join the party, more and more and more. Day can just hear Pepper and Luca climbing up onto a tabletop at such a party and screaming out (they'd have to scream through megaphones as you're envisioning a gathering that'd fill Rome's Coliseum many times over): Hello everyone, it's great to see you all, you homely beasts and wenches.
The Homely Wenches have no fixed headquarters, and all the members agree that this keeps them humble, relying as they do on the soft furnishings and snack-based offerings of whichever woman is host to Wench meetings for the month. February was Day's month for hosting meetings, and this particular meeting had been called to discuss articles for the Lent term edition of The Wench. There were to be two interviews: one with a bank robber who'd turned down a place at Cambridge and half regretted it. Marie was covering that story; she had a feeling for bittersweet regret and mercenary women. The other interview was with Myrna Semyonova, author of a novel Sob Story, which she'd written to make her girlfriend laugh, consisting as it does of a long, whisky soaked celebration of all the mistakes two male poets (one young, one middle aged) had made and were making in their lives. The narrator of the novel was the bar the two poets drank at, and since Semyonova had published the book under the pen name Reb Jones she was hailed as the new Bukowski. Willa was covering that, and her reaction to Sob Story's being taken so seriously was the same as that of Semyonova's girlfriend: It made the joke twice as funny. Ed was working on a piece about female love interests in the early issues of her favorite comic books and how very odd it must be for them to operate within a story where you're capable, courageous, droll, at the top of your field professionally and yet somehow still not permitted the brains to perceive that the man you see or work with every day is exactly the same person as the superhero who saves your life at night. "Seems like someone behind the scenes clinging to the idea that the woman whose attention you can't get just can't see 'the real you', no?"
Day looked from face to face. Marie would get on with T; they both favored grave formality and never letting a single hair fall out of place, though Marie's Zaire French accent and her tendency to wear jackets over her shoulders without putting her arms in the sleeves gave her attitude more impact than T's. The Society was too small to have a leader, but if they'd had one, Marie would've been it. Sometimes, when Marie and Willa spoke together in French, glancing around as they did so, Day felt that they were disparaging her mode of dress, but Ed had reassured her that that was just how people who could only speak English naturally responded to fluent French speakers. Ed, named after Edwina Currie, was much easier to get to know. You could chat to her about anything; she was upfront in a good way. If she didn't understand a reference you made she just said so and then asked to hear more about it. It was hard to picture her becoming friends with the likes of Marie and Willa without the aid of the Homely Wench Society. She was black like Marie and a Londoner like Willa, but, as she put it herself, "a different kind of black, and a different kind of London." Willa had never set foot on a council estate (she'd walked past a few and had been "petrified")—Ed thought Willa was joking about that, but she wasn't. Until very recently Ed had never seen a horse in real life, not even the ones at Buckingham Palace. Taking an actual trip to Buckingham Palace was something mini-Ed would have considered "a mission," if indeed it had ever occurred to her. Willa thought Ed was joking about that, but she wasn't. Day could see it all. Ed had a solid boyishness about her, and had once been asked to participate in an identity parade, one of whom had a mark on his face, a cut between nose and mouth. The boy with the mark had tried to persuade Ed to mark her face too, with a key—"A really cool key as well... it ended in a lion's head." The boy with the mark said he knew people who'd do favors for Ed for the rest of her life if she just cut her face. Ed reasoned that whatever this boy had done, his victim must have marked him so as to be able to know him again. Therefore Ed was better off out of it. Where she was from the hard nuts mostly communicated with their eyes, so she moved her jaw as if chewing gum, and as she did this she shook her head no. Her petitioner accepted this and moved on to the boy next to her. Marie thought Ed was joking about all that, but...
Theo and Hilde didn't think anybody was joking unless they were explicitly told so. Theodora Ackner, Nebraska's finest, was still disconcerted by Europe's ghosts. Hilde, Ed, and Grainne could no longer hear them, but the ghosts seemed to wake up again around Theo, since she actively listened for them. Lisbon, Paris and Vienna were tough places for her, beauties clotted with blood. Hilde refused to accompany Theo to Oslo. "About a quarter of my family lives there, Theodora. Let me know these things in my own way."
And then there was Grainne Molloy, who had lobbied to be recorded in the annals of the Homely Wench Society as "the irrepressible" Grainne Molloy, unsuccessfully, since, as Hilde pointed out, "Sometimes you are repressible, though." While Grainne did truly lose her temper several times a day, that frenetic energy of hers occasionally served to obscure another trait: the cool and calculated collection of incriminating anecdotes.
The newest Homely Wench was half in love with every single one of her fellow Wenches, but she wasn't sure what she, Dayang, brought to the mix. She'd been a member for just over three months and hadn't had an idea for an article or group activity yet. She snapped the group photos so she wouldn't have to see physical proof of her being odd man out. Maybe she could do something toward recruitment; a few of her friends from college and faculty had seemed interested when she mentioned the Wenches.
Flordeliza, the youngest Wench, their first-year, arrived late. As expected. "Afternoon, ladies!" She grabbed a handful of biscuits and flopped down onto Day's bed. She'd been growing out a side Mohawk since the summer, so her front hair was still much longer than it was at the back. Her clothes were crumpled and she'd clearly slept without removing her eyeliner; Day had barely noted this before Flor announced that she had a tale of shame to tell. But also a tale of possibility.
"Go," Theo commanded from the window seat; she'd arranged Day's curtains about her so that they resembled a voluminous toga.
"Empress, I hear and obey... but first of all, you're not allowed to judge me."
"We're all friends here," Marie said, sternly.
Flordeliza revealed that a member of the Bettencourt Society was into Yorkshire Filipinas. "Or maybe just into this?" She pointed at herself.
"Oh God," Grainne shouted. "Oh God, Flordeliza, what did you do?"
Day waited to hear about Flor and Hercules. She felt a bit sick but that was just obstructed emotion, a sensation the Dayang Sharifs of this world know all too well. Spring was definitely in the air, even as early as February. Everyone except Day was in some sort of romantic relationship—Marie with a townie who rode a motorbike, Willa with a curator at the Fitzwilliam, Theo with a guide who led tours of Dickensian London, Ed and Grainne with each other, and now Flordeliza with her Bettencourt boy. Day's only hope was that Hercules Demetriou would come out of this story sounding so greasy that Day's physical response to his proximity would be mercifully dulled forever.
(The other day she'd passed him and a few other boys she suspected were Bettencourters on King's Parade, apparently conducting a survey that involved soliciting the opinions of women. "More like ranking them," she muttered, and Hercules had smiled at her and said: "Sorry, what was that?"
"Hi. Listen, do you want to—"
"Sorry, I can't. Bye!")
Flor wasn't talking about Hercules, but about a third-year at her college named Barney Chaskel, a boy she hadn't pegged for a Bettencourter because, "Well, he's sort of low-key and makes fun of his own obsession with conspiracy theories and... he's sweet."
"Sweet?!" came at her from every corner of the room. Day asked it loudest, more with curiosity than incredulity. Hilde said: "Flor, aren't you going too far?"
"Look... on the way over I actually thought about presenting all this as if I'd seduced him on purpose to get info, but the truth is I didn't know Chaskel was a Bettencourter until this morning! I said I had to run to a Wench meeting, and he was like... surely not the Homely Wenches? And I was like, yeah, the very same, and then he went 'How funny, I'm a Bettencourter...'"
"'How funny'...? This 'Barney Chaskel' thinks our decades of enmity are just a bit of fun...?" Theo wondered aloud.
"Flor," Marie said, in sepulchral tones. "So far this is the tale of our enemies evolving into ever more superficially pleasing forms. You mentioned that this was also a tale of possibility?"
"Flordeliza, if there's a twist introduce it now or there might be beats in store for you..." Ed added.
But Flor did have something good for them after all. She'd followed Barney Chaskel to Bettencourt Society headquarters and had seen him punch in the code that let him into the building. That was why she was late: She'd seen the sequence, but not its exact components. So she'd cased the joint, observed that the Bettencourters left through another door, and given herself three chances to repeat the code Barney had punched in.
"Babe," Willa said. "BABE. Third time lucky?"
Flor laughed and said: "Second." Grainne and Willa hooted and jumped on her, but Hilde, Ed and Theo were unmoved. "There's no need for us to enter Bettencourt premises," Hilde declared. Theo agreed: "The Wenches made the ultimate gesture years ago."
"No, come on, come on, we've got this so it'd basically be folly and sin not to use it!" Grainne said. But Ed backed up Hilde and Theo: "Yeah, it'd be nice to fuck with the Bettencourters' heads a bit more, but I'd rather we move on, concentrate on building ourselves up. We need more pieces for The Wench... weren't we just about to hear an idea from you, Day?"
"I think we should go in," Day said. Everybody went quiet, but her words were mainly for Marie, who hadn't expressed an opinion either way. "I think we should go in and do a book swap."
"A book swap?" Marie echoed.
"Yup. I'm betting the Bettencourters don't have many, or maybe even any, books by female authors on their bookshelves. And speaking collectively we don't have that many male authors on our own shelves –"
"Yes, but that's our desire to honor what's ours, Day," Hilde said.
"I know," said Day. "And I do. But I want to read everything. When it comes to books and who can put things in them and get things out of them, it's all ours. And all theirs too. So we go in, see what books they have, take a few and replace them with a few of ours."
"No muss no fuss," Theo said, grudgingly.
"I wanted to trash the place but I don't care what we do as long as we do something," Willa said. "I suppose that would've wrecked Flor's budding romance though."
Flor covered her face but didn't deny being keen on Barney Chaskel.
Marie spoke up: "I too do want us to do something. I have been waiting for a chance to do something to the Bettencourt Society, ever since a Bettencourter used me as a human shield on my very first Thursday at this university..." she stared out of Day's window and into the very moment of the incident. Her face was transfigured with wrath.
"Another guy was chasing him," Grainne whispered to Ed and Flor. "He said he never thought the other guy would hit a girl..."
"So I think we should do something with what you've brought us, Flor," Marie concluded. "All in favor of Dayang's suggestion, raise your hands." She raised her own hand. Day raised her hand too, as did Flor, Grainne, Willa and Theo. Theo said she was only coming along to make sure they did it right.
Day found Hercules Demetriou sitting at her usual desk in the library. Rather than talk to him she went to his usual desk, which was unoccupied, and set up her laptop there. He looked over at her three times, she looked over at him once. Just once, and he came over. Argh, was it that pitifully obvious?
He drew a chair up to her desk and leant on the corner of it. Everything about him was dark, delicious, fluid—that gaze especially. If she moved her arm just a little it'd touch his. There was an envelope in his hand.
"Listen, I heard you like John Waters," he said.
"I do," she said. "So?"
His sister Anthea ran a cinema in Stockwell... he described it as "pocket-sized." He made it sound like the kind of the place both Ed and Willa would frequent. So the Homely Wench Society wasn't the only way they could possibly have met and liked each other after all. Anthea had given Hercules two tickets for a screening of Female Trouble, and...
"Are you sure?"
"Are you finding it hard to believe that a girl wouldn't want to go and see a film with someone as amazing as you?"
He drew back, but didn't retreat. Instead he subjected her to a deeper look. The first to break the gaze would lose, so she didn't blink. "I was just finding it hard to believe that a John Waters fan wouldn't want a ticket to Female Trouble," he said, then dropped his gaze, laughing a little. "Here. Take two." He put the envelope down in front of her and went back to his desk.
Then he came back: "Dayang, can I ask you something?"
Oh my God. "If you must."
"Why did you come here?"
"Here, to this university."
She thought of Professor Arjun Begum, one of the professors who'd interviewed her, and how he'd said he liked the connections he could see her making in her mind, and the way that she tried to tend them so that they thrived. Nobody had ever said anything like that to her before. Usually it was "Aren't you overthinking things, Day?" But a gardener growing thoughts—she liked that. Also in Freshers' Week Professor Begum had saved a dead end conversation for her. She'd been cornered by a Professor who clearly felt he had some stuff to say about Malaysia and seemed to have been waiting for the right pair of ears to hear it all. "Your people," this professor boomed, having asked about her hometown, summarily dismissed "Ipswich" as an answer and enquired into her genetic makeup. "Your people have a saying..." he waved a hand so that port swirled around in his glass, but Professor Begum stole his moment of gravitas by remarking that one of the things he found interesting about contemporary tribes was that more of them were hand selected—"Nowadays there are people who choose their people one by one, as they encounter them... I can't decide if that's braver or more timorous than simply going by gender or ethnicity or favorite bands..."
If Day had been less shy—if she'd been her sister, for instance—she'd have hugged Professor Begum right there and then. He was one reason for her being there, and for her wanting to keep making space for other people engaged in the long, long comedy and tragedy of choosing their people one by one.
Hercules tired of waiting for Day to answer him: "Didn't you want to see who else was here?" he asked. "I know that's part of the reason why I came. It's the reason why I go to most parties."
Parties? She couldn't stop herself from smiling. "OK... same."
"So," he said. "I'm here. You're here. You find me off-putting at the moment, but why don't you try treating me like a person? You might like me."
"Bettencourter," she said.
His eyebrows shot up and he said: "Ah." Not an enlightened "ah." If anything he was more puzzled.
"It's Lent term. Aren't you supposed to be looking for someone to bring to that dinner of yours?"
The penny dropped. "You're a Homely Wench, aren't you?"
He gathered up his things and left the library, shaking his head and muttering something she didn't catch. Day took the cinema tickets out the of envelope and texted the date on them to Pepper:
Female Trouble in London yes or yes??
The Bettencourters were well read in various directions; that's what their bookshelves said about them, anyway. Plenty of stimulating looking books, less than ten percent of which were authored by women. The substitutions were made by torchlight, as nobody thought it was a good idea to switch on the house lights at 4 AM and risk some passing Bettencourter coming round to see if any of his brethren was up for another drink. (The keys to the rooms of the house were on a hook beside the light switch in the entrance hall, so the girls peeped into the Bettencourt Society drinks cabinet, too. It was more of a walk in closet than a drinks cabinet, a closet vertically stocked with hard liquor from floor to ceiling. There were even little ladders for more convenient perusal. Day had never seen anything like it.)
Flor, Day, Willa, Marie and Theo unloaded their rucksacks and filled them again with books from the Bettencourt shelves. Not having read any of the books she was taking, Day made her exchanges based on thoughts the titles or authors' names set in motion. She exchanged two Edith Wharton novels for two Henry James novels, Jean Stafford's short stories for John Cheever's, Marlen Haushofer's The Loft for Robert Walser's The Assistant, Dubravka Ugresic's Lend Me Your Character for Gogol's How the Two Ivans Quarrelled and Other Stories, Maggie Nelson's Jane: A Murder for Capote's In Cold Blood, Lisa Tuttle's The Pillow Friend for The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James. She stopped keeping track: If she kept track she'd be there all night. But she left with a quality haul, and so did the others. The Wenches had their noses in books that were new to them for weeks. They waited for some challenge to be issued from Bettencourt headquarters, but none came forth. They didn't seem to have noticed that their library had been compromised. Maybe a drink swap would have been more effective.
Flor and Barney of the Bettencourters really seemed to be becoming ever more of an item; it was gross but the Wenches acted as if they didn't mind so as not to encourage a Romeo and Juliet complex. Besides, Theo summed up what all the Wenches were feeling about the Bettencourt book haul when she looked up from the pages of Kim Young Ha's Your Republic is Calling You and said resentfully: "They have good taste though."
Hercules Demetriou didn't show his face at the Female Trouble screening, not that she missed him when there was popcorn and Pepper and so much divine and diabolical mayhem onscreen, plus criminal beauty and Cookie Mueller. Just 'cause we're pretty everybody's jealous!
"Were you expecting to see someone?" Pepper asked her, as they walked out of the cinema. "You kept looking round."
She lied that she'd been watching the audience. It was a plausible lie because she was the kind of person who watched audiences.
Hercules was waiting on the staircase that led up to her room, his legs stretched all along the step, his feet jammed into two slots in the banister. He was reading one of the books Flor had left at Bettencourt headquarters: for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. When he saw her he scrambled to his feet and hit his head on the stone ceiling. She felt his pain, so she patted his shoulder as he went by; he took her hand and followed her up the stairs until she came to a halt.
"Is this yours?" he asked, holding up the book.
"But you've read it?"
"It's great, isn't it? It sort of rocks you... reading it is sort of like reading from a cradle hung up in the trees, and the trees rock you with such sorrow, and as the volume turns up you realise that the trees are rocking you whilst deciding whether to let you live or die, and they're sorry because they've decided to smash you to pieces..."
"But then you're put back together again, in a wholly different order..."
"And it hurts so much you don't know if the new order will work."
"It'll heal. It has to hurt before it heals, don't you think?"
He was smiling at her again. He hadn't let go of her hand yet. It was nice until he invited her to the Bettencourt dinner. She hesitated for a surprising length of time (surprising to her, anyway) before she said: "Herc, I can't."
He wasn't daunted; she'd shortened his name, that had to mean something! "You're a Homely Wench. I'm not saying I get all that that entails, but I don't think the Bettencourters and the Wenches are that far apart in the way they see things anymore. Laughs, snacks and cotching, yeah? And we have a journal too: a journal read only by us. Can't we read each other's? I know you want me to pretend you don't look like anything much, but you're a beauty. Sorry. You are. Just come to the dinner, come and and meet the Bettencourters and actually talk to them, come and meet the people they think are beauties too. We're not like last century's Bettencourt Society. I guarantee you'll be surprised."
They both laughed at this closing speech of his. She didn't want to blush but blushed anyway, and he saw that. He thought she was a beauty! What a wonderful delusion. And she liked the idea of the Societies reading each other's journals. Maybe the Wenches could get the Bettencourters to share their liquor, too. She could just about imagine putting on a slinky dress and going along to this little dinner, making the acquaintance of his brothers in charisma and the boys and girls they'd brought along. But she could also picture the looks that some of the diners would give other diners, the words that'd be murmured when the subject of evaluation left the room. Really... her? Or Nice, nice. Both possibilities made her feel weary. With boys there was a fundamental assumption that they had a right to be there—not always, but more often than not. With girls, why her? came up so quickly.
"I can see you believe you lot are new and improved, but to have this dinner where each of you brings one person to show off to the others..."
"Isn't that what all socializing's like when you're in a relationship?" Hercules asked, resting his chin on her palm. This boy.
"Yes, well, I don't know about that –"
"Never had a boyfriend? Girlfriend?"
She took her hand back, stood on tiptoe and whispered into his ear: "Ask someone else."
"You'll be jealous," Hercules whispered back.
Day waved him away and climbed the last few steps to her door. "I won't. Goodnight, Herc."
He cupped his hands around his mouth and walked backwards down the stairs, calling out: "You like me. She likes me. She doesn't know why and she can't believe it, but Dayang Sharif likes me!"
The Homely Wench Society's final meeting of Lent Term was held in Flordeliza Castillo's room at Trinity. Plans for a trip to Neuschwanstein Castle had been finalized and there was no real business left to discuss, so Dvořák's The Noon Witch was playing, Grainne was sitting on the windowsill puffing away at an electronic cigarette with a face mask on ('A ghost! A well moisturized ghost!'), Flor was lying with her head in Day's lap having Orlando Furioso read to her, Ed and Marie were mixing drinks, and Theo carried Grainne's to the window and then back to Flor's desk as Grainne's smoke went down the wrong way and she staggered over to Ed, sputtering: "Bettencourters incoming... Bettencourter invasion!"
Flor must have been in on it. Must have. Her room wasn't easy to find. As a matter of fact, who's to say that the events of that historic afternoon weren't the culmination of a scheme Flor and Barney had hatched between them way back in September?
The small but lionhearted Homely Wench Society gathered at Flordeliza Castillo's window and looked down upon the mass of menfolk below, many of them bearing beverages and assorted foodstuffs. At their head, in place of their president, was Hercules of Stockwell, waving a white flag with much vigor and good cheer.
Excerpted from What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi by arrangement with the Wylie Agency and Riverhead Books.
- VICE US
- Helen Oyeyemi
- What Is Not Your Is Not Yours
- A Brief History of the Homely Wench Society