Mistrust all enterprises that require lipstick

I first came across this saying in A Room with a View – it is discovered by Lucy Honeychurch written in the back of a wardrobe. Until today I didn’t realise it was a version of a quote from Walden by Henry David Thoreau –

“I say beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.”

He is so right. I’d go one step further, for female readers (Thoreau probably didn’t have much experience of this) – forget about the new clothes: even the faintest urge to put on lipstick is an indication that…

… there may be trouble ahead…

So, when I found myself slathering on the one and only lipstick (Max Factor’s Rosewood – it’s lasted for years) in order to go and visit a possible care home for Mum with my sister, I thought ‘This doesn’t bode well!’ After all, who cares what the lumpy, flaky elder daughter looks like, lolloping along like a wonky Tesco trolley behind the slim, efficient youngest daughter? I suppose the lipstick was to make it look as if I had tried, or even to confirm that I had actually woken up at some point before falling into the car and turning the key in the ignition. With it – yes, that was the look I was aiming for – especially when venturing into a home full of dementia patients.

As we sat on a tiny sofa in the Lounge discussing (or in my case, not) fees, wander alarms and social activities – karaoke, Elvis impressionists – apparently they love Elvis – patting a giant inflatable ball from one side of the room to another, etc – with the home’s administrator, an elderly gentleman shuffled up and asked us kindly if we were getting to like being there, nowadays.

I began to think, perhaps I should never leave. Like the Hotel California. I seemed to be fitting right in… If it wasn’t for that faint smell of dinner… I mean, it was big and nice and sunny. And there were paintings on the walls. And I quite fancied having a pat at that giant blue ball… There was even a cat, somewhere. There was a notice as we went in:

Warning: Baby, our resident cat, likes to sleep in the corridors. Do not trip over him.

Not much chance of that. Thirteen moggies means you never raise your eyes above your foot-level. You’re wading through cats; an ocean of tails, paws and fur.

The thing is, beyond a certain age, lipstick becomes a liability. It travels. Best to avoid red wine for the same reason, at least in public, or you risk looking like Dracula’s Granny – and not realising it.

Is it even worth putting on lipstick any more? Even when I was in my prime I had the sort of face that lipstick didn’t improve. In fact, nothing improved it. Mum was striking-looking, in her twenties, with her upswept hair and sparkly eyes – you could see why Dad fell for her – and Dad was positively handsome in a raven-haired matinee-star sort of way. The trouble was, instead of taking after either one or the other (my sister takes after Mum) I got a bit of both – Mum’s crooked front tooth, Dad’s footballer’s-knees and piano-player hands. Worse, looking in the mirror – more and more as I get older, I see that my face has a kind of meridian – Mum from the nose upwards and Dad from the nose downwards and the two sections don’t match: I’m a chimera. I’m Franken-daughter.

What I need is the niquab. Maybe it’s not too late to convert? Alternatively, maybe I could carry one of those bespangled carnival masks on a stick… all year round.

Fashion and I have always had a difficult relationship. Mum used to despair of my marriage prospects since I refused to entertain corsets, eyebrow-pencil, false eyelashes or frills. And whatever I bought – however much it cost – once on me it always looked as if I’d got it in the Oxfam shop. In the end I gave up and short-circuited the whole tedious process by actually shopping at Oxfam. Still, whatever I bought would turn out to be uncomfortable: it would either cut in, hang loose, get in the way, sag, pinch or feel conspicuous.

The most comfortable time of my life was when I lost my prestigious position as a Partner’s Secretary and found one in an outbound call centre on an industrial estate where ‘smart casual’ might mean anything from wellington-boots and kohl-ringed eyes to fairy-wings and a fez. I ditched the office schmutter and lived in men’s clothing from supermarkets. A man’s shirt or jumper is about half the price of the equivalent woman’s shirt or jumper, did you know that? Ladies, they charge us almost double simply because we’re vain and love to shop. I discovered by trial and error what size men’s jeans fitted me. I gauged shirts, tee shirts and jumpers and socks by eye and was hardly ever mistaken – but women are used to doing that, since ‘standard’ sizes vary from one label to another.

Nowadays I compromise. The universal ladies’ ‘fashion’ here at Benefits-on-Sea is for leggings. This is because leggings are cheap, fit everyone and go with everything. So I wear leggings with a variety of long tops – tee-shirts, shirts, ‘sale’ dresses – whatever I can find. I look a bit frumpy and odd but what does it matter?

When have I not?







I’m just sitting watching flowers in the rain

So we found ourselves in Sheerness in September, in the rain. This always happens at some point when my Canadian sister is staying. I suppose it’s sort of quaint, or at any rate quite unlike Edmonton, and that’s why she likes it. And seeing it’s raining cats and dogs, might as well go as not. So we go, and almost immediately split up because we are both ‘lone shoppers’ by nature. S heads for her favourite clothes shop; I squelch off on a quest for a post box and a bookshop.

I find a post box, eventually, outside the main post office; there don’t seem to be any others. Of course it’s difficult to see when the rain is running down your glasses. I may have missed the other one. It is at this point that I discover the toggle on my rain-jacket hood has somehow, internally, got knotted. I can raise the hood but there is nothing I can do to keep it on my head. And foolishly I have worn a knee-length dress-tunic thing over leggings. Cheap, comfy and accommodating to any figure, leggings go with almost anything. They are  de rigeur in Sheerness and I felt in need of camouflage. Now, in the wind and the wet, the dress starts creeping up towards the hem of my jacket and I keep having to stop in shop doorways to retrieve it, without appearing to be retrieving it. Also the knees of my leggings are getting soggy. At some point I give up the search for a bookshop and instead buy a copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter for £1 in a charity shop, duck into a café and order a cup of tea.

The café is full of gently-steaming old people, which is how they probably see me – oh, just another steamy old baggage. I don’t feel I can, as a single tea-drinker, commandeer a whole wobbly silver table and four chairs so I head for the wobbly silver stools looking out over the High Street. They are very high, for a steamy old person, but I manage to mount one in stages, and without embarrassment. The High Street is one car wide, and cars creep along between the scurryers, moochers and shoppers on either pavement, spraying them with water. Nobody seems to notice. So many people in track-suit bottoms with walking boots and inadequate tee shirts. So many push-chairs. So many walking appliances – zimmers, crutches, walkers – more wobbly silver stuff. So many ladies in those plastic concertina rain bonnets. My Mum used to have those for coming out the hairdressers after a perm. I gather a perm will go frizzy if the rain gets to it. Hers used to have polka dots: these don’t even have dots.

Waiting for my tea, still, I read the notes on the back cover of The Scarlet Letter and put it to one side – face down so as not to attract attention – and make a few notes for my next post. I am next to the door and every time someone opens it there is a draught, which reminds me that the knees of my leggings are wet. My hair is dripping down my neck. Opposite there is a florist’s shop. The sign in the window says Weddings & Funerals. The ampersand seems to be of some importance. Bunches of tall flowers stand in tall plastic pots on the pavement, and the rain rains relentlessly on.

My tea arrives. I like it in this café in spite of the awfulness of the tea. Or perhaps because. I am always happiest in places where nothing at all can be expected of me, other than ordering, sitting for a while, paying up and leaving. The mug is too small – cream with raised dots around the rim, and it has a saucer. The saucer is so that when you rescue your tea-bag from the mahogany liquid in which it swims you have somewhere to put it.

I make more notes, watched by a little girl who is leaning on one elbow. I pretend not to have seen her. My ‘note-taking’ writing, like the notebook that lives in my handbag, is tiny. Writing in word-and-shorthand (Word & Shorthand?) salad, I continue not to look at the child, who is perched on another of these wobbly silver stools. Her young mother stands facing the other way, talking into her mobile phone. How did J K Rowling ever manage to find herself on a train, with the idea for Harry Potter in her head and no pencil and paper? How could she ever have broken that cardinal rule of writing? But then, she wrote Harry Potter and made millions. And I didn’t, for all my notebooks.

A woman walks past, her face raw and tense against the rain. For a moment I think it is me, but no it isn’t. She is younger than me. I keep forgetting. It’s that doppelganger again.