Mrs S 
by K Patrick.
Fourth Estate, 296 pp., £16.99, June, 978 0 00 856099 7
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Where would​ the gays be without the gaze? Mrs S starts with a shared look between the young matron and the headmaster’s wife, their eyes meeting across the drive of the girls’ boarding school where the older woman has just disciplined a gardener. When Mrs S turns, the matron, flushing, stands her ground: ‘Oh, she is vigilant, she knows she is not alone. I am discovered, I burn.’ The scene – and the queer longing it depicts – could have occurred at any point in the last two hundred years, but the story is set in the early 1990s, an era of Ordnance Survey maps and payphones, when the boredom of empty time can bloom into obsession.

Boarding school – as in Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, Dorothy Strachey’s Olivia or Violette Leduc’s Thérèse and Isabelle – is a sealed, adolescent world, ripe for melodrama. In Mrs S, it is just as you would expect: the grass is green, the skirts are pleated and the choir sing in Latin, ‘mouths synchronised’. On the way to chapel, the girls kiss the lips of a statue commemorating a famous alumna known as ‘the dead author’.

K Patrick’s first novel embraces and then toys with our expectations of the lesbian romance. The matron, new to England from Australia, is not frail or consumptive but self-possessed and butch: when she looks in the bathroom mirror, wearing a binder and sleeveless tee, she sees a strong jaw and brow passed down from grandfather to father. At the boarding school on a one-year placement, she owes no allegiance to the world of hockey sticks and crests; in fact, she finds its rituals absurd. Early on in the novel, horny and bored, she takes a bath and masturbates with the help of a favourite book; when she can’t find the right scene, she fantasises about the author instead. They ‘fuck the old-fashioned way’: ‘Heavy petting in a stolen, shadowy corner. Upper-class. Maybe a private library, an enclave in a large garden of a country estate. A couple of chaste fingers. The endless, busy sound of fabric.’ This sapphic pastiche is also an opportunity for subversion, and at this point the matron takes out her dildo: ‘This one flesh-coloured. Two more lie hidden at the bottom of my laundry basket. A large silicone vein runs the shaft. An accuracy I learned to love. First only the tip, then the gradual rest.’

This is not a novel full of euphemism or implication. Patrick has said they set out to write a ‘horny’ novel and this is what we have here – one composed of short, fragmentary (and at times disorienting) sentences. An outsider several times over, the matron is ‘eyed up, then largely ignored’ by the other teachers, and gently taunted by the students. Only a few years older than the girls, she can’t stand being called ‘Miss’: ‘The Girls repeat it all day long. They flirt with me, with each other, with the reverend who blushes in his long black robes. I don’t remember possessing this adolescent power. They make eye contact and hold it steady.’

If this excess of libido is directed anywhere in particular it is towards Mrs S, who wears cashmere, paints her nails maroon, walks with perfect posture and pronounces ‘spaghetti alle vongole’ with an Italian accent. The girls are infatuated. But no one is more rapt than the matron: ‘She stands by the door and removes her jumper, green. We all watch, we all want to be the only one watching. She recognises her audience. Smiles.’ What follows is a steamy ‘will they won’t they’ narrative that strives to break out of the ossified conventions of femme bodies and bodices to celebrate butchness and a more declarative eroticism.

The crush starts small. Mrs S, having run into the matron on her way to the old vicarage, drops the book she’s carrying. It slides to the floor and lies ‘spread open against the wet cobblestones’. Mrs S kneels and the matron catches her arm to steady her. It may be the first time they have touched. The novel is an accumulation of such scenes in escalating permutations, in the church, the corridor, the staffroom.

At opposite ends of the social hierarchy, Mrs S (as wife to the headmaster) and the matron (as overseas transfer) are both peripheral to the mechanisms of the school. The matron uses her spare time to lope around the grounds or lie in the bath, while Mrs S busies herself with the vicarage rose gardens. Is Mrs S happy? She is opaque, and so the matron searches for clues: her office features a portrait of Mrs S and her husband next to a Monstera ‘heavily restrained’ with twine and a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. In the staffroom, she holds her hand in the steam as the kettle boils.

In Cruising Utopia, José Esteban Muñoz writes about the challenge of finding ‘queer evidence’, both in one’s own life and throughout history. The matron is constantly on the lookout for signs of suppressed or covert queerness. Is it a stretch to read into the dead author’s ‘misery’ and undocumented personal life and find a ‘potential gayness’? Perhaps – it doesn’t stop her. In extreme close-up, she examines Mrs S for the private indications of a concealed lesbianism: nails short (tick), strong arms (tick), the ‘dark hair of her armpits’ (double tick).

Emboldened by these scraps, she offers, casually, to help Mrs S in the garden, and the older woman, just as casually, accepts. The matron turns up in the sleeveless top, hoping to show off her biceps, only for her arms to get scratched by the rose thorns. When Mrs S offers one of her husband’s shirts, there is another charged pause. Mrs S has been asking the matron about her ‘teenage girlhood’. Stood in Mrs S’s bedroom ‘gripping the cuffs … letting the shirt belong to me’, the matron feels the desire to confess to something, ‘to tell her who I am’. But no words come and the moment passes.

Today someone might ask what pronouns the matron prefers. While reading the novel, I found myself occasionally addressing the matron with they/them pronouns. It felt like a way to acknowledge in language the narrator’s sense of ambivalence; but I came to see that to use ‘they’ would be to answer an open question on the matron’s behalf. When fellow teachers use ‘her’, the narrator raises no objection, perhaps because language used to label and categorise holds little appeal. In a class on Latin declensions, the matron looks at the pronouns written on the blackboard (‘he or she or we or they’) with detachment. The exercise seems ‘pointless’ – she’s not interested in the ‘grammar of belonging’. Instead of labels, Patrick’s novel is attentive to gesture, to the physical acts that make a person appear masc or butch or camp or subby, and the book is filled with close descriptions of movement.

When Mrs S and the matron go swimming at a nearby waterfall they pass some bikers sunning themselves in the road, shirts off and ‘trouser buttons biting just below their belly buttons’. The matron gets an earful for staring (‘Come on then take a picture pussy!’), but cannot look away – she is transfixed by the casual beauty of their bare torsos and their easy camaraderie as they throw soft punches and push one another around. When the pair get to the waterfall, the matron keeps her binder on under a T-shirt while she swims, her old costume left balled up in a drawer at home – ‘I no longer know how to wear it.’ The matron sees ‘masculine legacies’ – that ‘unbreakable’ jaw – when she squares up to the mirror next to girls applying lip gloss, and others see it too: at the local pub, a woman approaches the matron from behind and tries to flirt (‘Hi there you’) only to pull back at the sound of her voice (‘Fucking hell I am drunk fuck’).

There are times when the matron’s attentiveness becomes a shield against the threat of violence or abuse, particularly when she leaves the school grounds. Her one ally at the school, the housemistress, is gay too, and a bit older. When they go for a pint, their similarity is exciting and nerve-wracking – two butches in a rural English pub is ‘pure defiance’. Their taxi driver makes a few comments on the way to a gay bar in town: ‘Fancy dress, is it?’ He hangs around with the engine idling, keen to suss out the venue, but they loiter until he drives off, ‘undeniable’ in their matching chains and gelled hair. They get a few heckles en route and this contributes to their ‘mutual hesitation’ at the threshold of the club.

At other times the matron’s attentiveness becomes a way to bear witness to physical beauty, and to tune in to those gestures that feel good: hands in pockets, nonchalant pose, back braced. With Mrs S, noticing becomes a game. They perform for one another, bringing different versions of themselves to the fore. For Muñoz, gesture ‘signals a refusal of a certain kind of finitude’, a freedom that allows Mrs S to embrace a sexual permissiveness that contrasts with her maternal responsibilities. In a scene of brazen horticultural foreplay, she shows the matron the way one rose can be ‘impregnated’ by another: the first flower, pink but ‘rimmed with a darker red, as if just sucked by a lipsticked mouth’, has a ‘tight cluster of petals’ which must be pushed back to reveal the centre ‘where all the action takes place’; the pollen is then collected and wiped onto the ‘naked platform’ of the ‘mother’ flower. Once the ritual is over, Mrs S sits back: ‘Oh, she knows what she’s doing. Lights the cigarette with her eyes on me. Blows into her words.’ There are echoes of Derek Jarman’s fantasies of naked guardsmen chasing one another through the rose gardens at Sissinghurst (‘that elegant sodom’).

Meanwhile – dim in the peripheries, in a way that can feel like an afterthought – the day-to-day life of the school continues. A girl punches a visiting boy; someone throws a rock through the stained-glass window of the church; a group of girls are caught with beers in the woods. Nothing diverts the matron from her growing obsession. When the pair do, finally, embrace it’s not in the woods or at the waterfall, but in Mrs S’s kitchen while she prepares a dish of clams: ‘Cloves of garlic are crushed under the pad of her thumb. Do you feel sorry for me? Still she doesn’t turn around. Me? Feel sorry for you? The repetitive thud of the blade. Yes, this, my scene.’

The absence of speech markers from Patrick’s prose means that it’s often unclear who has spoken, or if anyone has spoken at all. At first this blurring is hard to follow, and some readers may lose patience, but over the course of the book one can attune to the uncertainty of the flickering double exposure. In ‘Pickup Truck Sex’, a poem from their pamphlet Bodies Not Mine, Patrick describes the appeal of doubles and mirroring: ‘The ability to be both bodies is my fantasy. Do you think that’s arrogant? To at once wear the strap-on and feel it enter.’

For sex, however, Patrick chooses a language at once spare and direct: ‘When she turns me over I ask her to hit the gentle rise of my cheeks. She does. Again and again, she lifts her hand, hovers for a second, my breath breaking in the pause, bringing it down until she finds the right sound, wet and ripe.’ In snatched gaps between classes and sermons, they bite and slap and gently choke one another; they bring one another to climax with the flesh-coloured dildo (‘our cock’); and they play with power and pain (‘have you been good?’) until an ‘after-fuck peace’ is reached. It is during these sessions that the matron seems to come closest to sharing who she is. They are, she feels, ‘fucking each other into being’, forming personae without bodily shame or diffidence. But Patrick’s novel, as with any romance, seeks to find the line between being looked at and being seen. Desire takes many forms. There is the desire we feel for another person, and there is the desire to be seen in a certain way by that person. The latter desire, to be seen as strong, delicate, bratty or boyish, is just as important. This novel suggests that nowhere is the interplay between the two more immediate, or at times fraught, than during sex.

The narrative’s crux occurs when the two threads of the story – the couple’s sexual co-creation and the matron’s evolving sense of gender – pull apart. At length, and inevitably, Mrs S wants to talk about the matron’s binder. What is it for? Is it to make the matron more ‘manly’, more ‘like a man’? The matron demurs, mumbling something about ‘masculinity’, but that word doesn’t satisfy Mrs S, whose probing seems, in the context, naive and even hurtful. The matron, lost for words, fudges: ‘Yeh, it lets me feel more manly.’ What happens when one’s desire to be seen – properly seen – is at odds with one’s desire to be touched or held or fucked?

There are a number of things missing from the book that one might have expected: there is no hand-wringing about the ethics of the affair or the age difference or the power dynamic; neither party seems worried about being caught; and neither is overwhelmed by a long-buried lesbianism (Mrs S may be married, but she has done all this before). Nor does the book entertain in any serious way the possibility of the couple building a life together. Even peak-infatuation, and desperate to leave behind traces of herself in the older woman’s bed, the matron seems to prefer a state of yearning to sustained fulfilment.

If the novel shakes up its static, old-fashioned world with its horniness, the story remains a familiar one. When things break, they break quickly (perhaps, in the arc of the narrative, a little too quickly). In bed, post-sex, the matron takes Mrs S’s knickers, places them over her face and inhales. The older woman pulls the knickers back: ‘Her own shame, internalised, authoritative.’ The matron shrinks under Mrs S’s gaze. ‘Her face takes on a neutrality I cannot trust. Almost naked, I am aware of my legs, my hips, sun cutting out shapes of skin. I see it, her distaste, the mobility of her eyes, lips, how quickly they rearrange.’ Is Mrs S yet another quasi-straight woman looking to play out a queer fantasy for a couple of months before returning – replenished! – to her ‘normal’ life? Perhaps. But if Mrs S is using the matron, the opposite is surely true as well: ‘She looks for a way out, I look for a way in.’ To what, exactly, does the matron seek entry? Though Patrick’s novel stops here, it is easy (and pleasurable) to imagine the protagonist reminiscing with friends. Perhaps their pronouns have changed, perhaps not. In the world of DMs and dating apps, that earlier time becomes freighted with nostalgia: what nonsense they all got up to when they were young and unformed and still figuring out who they were. It is possible, too, to imagine the boarding school enduring largely unchanged – the same grassy view from the headmaster’s office, identical to the image on the cover of the school prospectus.

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