The first thing you noticed about the young woman on her balcony across the road was that she was mostly naked.
A black, translucent veil-like thing strained at its seams but it had been designed to show off far more than it obscured, and what it revealed was a bosom she was clearly very proud of.
No, on second thoughts, that wasn’t the first thing you noticed. The first thing you noticed was the machete, a great big gleaming murderous Orc-sword of a thing, clutched in her plump hand.
Had she simply been a generously endowed woman floating about on her balcony like a character from vampire-themed erotica, I might have done the gentlemanly thing and only glanced up from my coffee 12 or 15 times. But the machete pushed the whole scene into a different league. I couldn’t look away.
On her balcony wall stood a variety of potted plants, including one very imposing cactus, and it was this plant that she now approached, tilting her head this way and that as she sized it up. There was something odd in her movements, a forced theatricality that I couldn’t quite place, but I didn’t have time to ponder any more because she was pulling on a pair of thick yellow rubber gloves. As she tugged at them the veil floated up and she made an entirely unconvincing sound of alarm and pulled it down again, hiding exactly nothing from view. And then, like a Valkyrie about to cut short a very bad date, she drew back her machete and swung it with appalling force into the middle of the cactus.
For a moment everything wobbled: the cactus, her, my grasp on reality. Then she worked the blade free and took another swing. The cactus was as thick as a thigh and somewhat indifferent to her assault. She began to saw, struggling to make headway through the flesh of the plant – apparently you never bring a machete to a cactus fight – but then she paused, pouting, one hand on her hip, and I was again struck by the curiously posed feeling of the scene. This wasn’t a slightly eccentric gardener doing some semi-nude pruning. This was a bad actor, simulating indecision and frustration for an audience.
I was pretty sure she couldn’t see me, but who else could she see in the building above me? Who else was watching this bizarre little scene? Had I stumbled into a burlesque show for one? Perhaps I was the uninvited third wheel at a daily tryst between an exhibitionist and a voyeur with a cactus kink. Even now, he or she might be sitting up behind a window somewhere, chewing a blanket and whispering, “Yes! Mr Cactus has been bad! Mr Cactus must be punished!”
With one final slash the cactus was bisected and she turned and disappeared from view. Suddenly I felt chastened. I had sexualised an innocent, bucolic scene and projected God knew what kinks onto an entirely conventional person who – holy mother of cleavage! She had returned, but the Vampira veil was gone, replaced with the smallest sequined micro-dress ever stitched together by Vaudevillian elves. Instead of a machete, she brandished a broom. Apparently this was her housekeeping ensemble. I could almost hear the voyeur upstairs saying, “Yes! I’ve been a dirty dirty little balcony and I need a broom! Broom me! BROOM ME!”
That’s the fascinating thing about the burbs. You just never know. As I walked home past picturesque Victorian semis and quaint front gardens patrolled by Jack Russells, I recalled an acquaintance who now and then indulges in a bit of sadomasochistic swinging in the suburbs. It is a midnight world of passwords and discreet invitations, where judges and housewives and academics and captains of industry descend into exquisitely appointed dungeons and do things to each other that would make the Marquis de Sade blush. It is a world kept entirely secret, entirely apart from the collective reality we share. That reality insists that sex in the suburbs or in flats opposite coffee shops is something politely middle class, an ancient ritual celebrating love or devotion or companionship. But there are other ancient rituals, too. I looked at the pretty homes containing pretty lives. That newly excavated cellar: was it for a wine collection or a rubber bench with a harness suspended over it? That new riding crop being hurried inside from the Land Rover: was it a surprise birthday present for a pony-mad child, or was it for the ageing rump of a grateful barrister?
It is entirely possible that the cactus lady was performing only for herself, enjoying the feel of the air on her skin and the sense of power that comes with swinging a machete. But there are so many other possibilities too. That’s the great thing about people. You just never know.
First published in The Times and TimesLive