Weekend Fiction: The Makeover

She sits in the drab afternoon flicking through old photographs. She pauses and groans with shame at how she looked the day her brother got married.  She quickly turns the page at an image of her own young face. She brings it up close to inspect the detail of it.  The face smiles back.  "Are you me?" she asks.

The album squirms, she loses her grip of it and it slides down onto her knees.  It drops heavily onto the floor. She picks it up, and sees that it`s open at a picture of her mother who is looking up at her in surprise; her eyes fail to conceal her defencelessness. As if someone was stealing her soul. She wonders how she coped with dying and whether she knew.
  
She looks around the room.  The sun has more or less disappeared and the shadows stretch from one wall to the other.  The quiet is isolating. She stands up and shouts out, because now she feels like making a noise.

She slams the album shut.  "What the hell am I doing this for?" 

She`s angry.  She had wanted to look, to remember, thinking it would be nice to stop living in the here and now, just for a bit.  To recapture the feeling of what it had been like when she was young.  
  
She has a story to tell; that's why she was looking through the album. She calms down, opens it again and tells herself to start at the beginning.  She looks at the picture of Chrissy.  Her big sister.  Chrissy stands there looking awkward, screwing up her face against the sun.  A girl who listened to Radio Luxembourg and told her stories about their dad.  She said he had been "Killed In Action".  She always emphasised those three words.  Chrissy told her he was a hero.  When she told her mother what Chrissy said, her mother had smiled and said, "Ever the romantic." The truth was that her father had spent most of the war living in Ostend with a Flemish telephonist. She turns the page. She still wonders what happened to him. 
  
Outside, she hears kids screeching their way back from school. Every day the same. She thinks, "God, what a racket!  I`m sure we weren`t loudmouths like them. At least we talked at each other, didn`t yell like this lot." She goes over and looks out the window. The boys race ahead, then they veer round, gathering momentum as they speed back in the direction of the girls. 

"What a carry-on". She likes the girls; she likes their attitude. She admires the way they just walk on, working their phones, arms linked. She wishes she had been like them when she was their age. She looks away.

"Why am I staring at them?  I shouldn`t stare at young people. They don`t like it." She hates the way they make her feel old, like she doesn`t belong. "Well, you can`t turn back the clock." She looks out again. "Be a bit of a shock for them if you could!"

She grins. She can still remember the move from London at the beginning of the war.  Her dismay when they found themselves in the middle of all those old women. "God, the way they looked us up and down when we arrived!"  She had been a bit of a tomboy then.  "And we thought they were from another planet," she thinks. "Now look at me. That`s what those kids think about me now." She steps back from the window at the same time as she sees one of them light up. He blows out a ring of smoke.  Her stomach lurches when she sees this and every time she wonders why. 
  
She remembers tagging along after, hanging about the corner shop, with the older ones trying to get up the courage to buy a few fags. But it was different in those days. She never decided things. No one ever asked kids what they wanted. Not like now. She has an image of a woman with her two children in the local supermarket. She`s young, smart-looking, nice hair, expensive jeans. She keeps asking them what they want for breakfast. "Cocoa Pops, or Apple Raisin Crisps?" She repeats it again and then again, but they`re too busy doing other things.  

She sits heavily on the couch and disapproves. "What`s all that about?" Shaking her head she wonders if that young mother would have listened to her. Her gran used to say `spare the rod and spoil the child`, but to be fair, she can`t remember a time when she ever laid a finger on them. Mostly, they were left to their own devices, which is how she liked it. And the aunties never noticed the kids unless they were fighting, or ill, or weren`t hungry.  

Hungry! She laughs out loud. She was always hungry.  She remembers her embarrassment when the teachers asked her mum if she was `properly nourished`. Gran was annoyed, she knows that. She said it was a cheek because `that girl has a mouth like an ever open door`. She looks down at her stoutness. She thinks, "Maybe that`s why they started to focus on me; maybe they thought I was fading away." 

It wasn`t as if she hadn`t tried. Even at ten years old, she knew enough; if you want to be left alone, you should be careful not to draw attention to yourself. That day she had to acknowledge that all her efforts to blend in had come to nothing.  Why? Because the thought of her had suddenly materialised in one or other of their brains. One of them had decided that her appearance could do with radical improvement. They thought she would benefit from what today on the TV they call, `a makeover`.

A  makeover.  She walks into the hall and inspects herself in the mirror.  She sees how far the corners of her mouth drag down.  It makes her look anxious, although she`s not, really.  The only thing that truly worries her is that she will forget.  

She remembers when she returned from school that day; they said they would let her `scrape the bowl`. How gullible had she been; didn`t it cross her mind that something wasn`t quite right? Why would they let her? When had she ever been allowed to before, without a fight? And, another thing; she couldn`t smell anything; scraping the bowl only happened on those rare occasions when her mother had been in the kitchen baking. 

She inhales involuntarily. The memory of those warm vanilla flavours makes her mouth water. She wonders whether her mother ever knew the chaos she left in her wake. After she`d finished cooking, she`d lose interest and walk off, leaving spoonfuls of the mixture in bottom of the bowl.  Did she really assume that her children would share? Had she not realised that when it came to bowl-scraping, there is no such thing as sisterly or brotherly feeling?  
  
She looks at her watch and thinks it must be time to eat. The packages in the fridge are all wrapped neatly in cling-film.  She stands in front of the door and studies what`s inside.  She reaches in, takes one out and unpeels it.  She looks at it for a moment then puts it in the microwave. After a few minutes she retrieves it, then sits down to eat.  

She remembers how fiercely they used to argue about whose turn it was. All five were experts, each having a precise understanding of the value of each bowl; they knew the amount of pleasure to be had would vary according to the ingredients used and the amount of mixture left. For example, butter and sugar on its own, even if a good measure remained, was considered to be of less worth than if sultanas were included; but by far the best, the most valued of all, in whatever quantity, was chocolate. The peak of their ambition was to be the one; the victor who sat alone, clasping the warm bowl close, anticipating the sweetness of the warm cocoa-buttery prize before licking the spoon clean.

She pushes away her plate. "Stitched up like a kipper, I was", she thinks. She pictures herself struggling on that seat, wrapped up in a voluminous old sheet, then catching sight of all those rags on the kitchen table.  She fills up with a sense of unfairness. She stands up, feeling the need to move about. She`d thought they were there for a horrible purpose; she had felt like a patient waiting in the dentist`s chair. But then she could see they were just rags, ripped up into oblong shapes.  Some were thin, barely as long as your finger; others extended so that they slid forward, dropping down over the table top. She remembers asking what they were for and why they were different sizes.

It had surprised her to know that they were going to start with her hair. It was always all over the place, but easily tamed by the use of a thick elastic band and some handy hairgrips. She`d always thought the tut-tutting and stares of disapproval which came her way were due to her tendency to beat a hasty retreat whenever the grown-ups appeared. She hadn`t realised it was her general messiness which was the problem; all those aunties whose views on matters of female decorum hadn`t changed since Queen Victoria sat on the throne. Her fingers slide up towards her ears as she goes through the motions of tucking in the grey strands of hair. She catches herself and thinks, "All these years gone by, and I`m still doing it." 

The aunties weren`t the only ones who wanted to reform her. She still thinks her teacher, Miss Brodie was thinking of her on that morning when she addressed the class on `how fortunate you girls are to live in a civilized society`. As she informed them about the times when girls of their age had been forced into domestic service, and then had added `and goodness knows what else`, their faces had changed from bored indifference to snickering interest. Miss Brodie firmly believed that the best future for most girls, was `to attract a man who will value your female attributes, put a ring on your finger and be your protector.`  She remembers worrying over why neither her gran nor her mum had a protector. Perhaps for some reason, they were lacking those all important` female attributes`.

She can still hear him say it, she still feels the anger behind it. "You, you`re neither use nor ornament." He said that before he left.  What did it matter anyway? "You can`t make a silk purse out of a sow`s ear."  She hadn`t loved him; he was far too cruel for that.  But she regrets her choice because it had caused too much pain. She was better off on her own. At the end of the day, what did it matter what you looked like?  She had heard a saying once which had stuck in her head. `Age is the great equaliser.` It wasn`t true, but having said that, you can`t argue with the fact that everyone gets old, even the beautiful ones. 

And that`s one of the things she wasn`t. She would never be. They knew that and were probably only trying to help.  Not allowing nature to run its course. Trying to make the best of things by the creation of curls.  Even if they hadn`t been able to agree about what type of curl would be best. That`s why there had been such disparity between the length and volume of the pieces of rag.  The long pieces were for large bouncy curls, exuberant and playful. You wrapped them around the strands of hair furthest from the scalp. She would have preferred these, but by general agreement, her hair was rebellious; any wilfulness must be immediately curtailed by the short pieces of rag tied next to her scalp and secured by a very tight knot.  

She has long forgotten the discomfort. What she still remembers is her fury at being so easily cheated. It was so unfair! To add insult to injury she hadn`t even had the chance to scrape the bowl. Thinking about it now, she can still hear the tone of their sanctimonious platitudes;  `you have to be cruel to be kind`; `we`re doing it for your own good`; `she would thank them in the end`. But after a few days, her anger turned to self-pity. The curls were only temporary. She felt as if she was to blame. She didn`t get much more disapproval from the adults, it was something more like condescension. She had been brought into their world. She concluded that the makeover had failed to change her life for the better.  

She closes her eyes. All that was a long time ago. She had made up her mind after that to keep herself close. Then she met him.  He`d had a way with words.  He could charm the birds out of the trees. "He`s brought her out", that`s what everyone said. "Fancy her, lucky enough to get someone like him." She couldn`t believe it either. After a while he`d started to stay away and then later he didn`t even bother to pretend. He would get angry with her as if he blamed her for being what she was.  He was always on at her to smarten herself up. 

She carries the photo album into her bedroom and replaces it carefully where it lives on the top of the side table next to her bed.  She sits down and thinks and goes over what happened with the makeover, then with her husband, and then she thinks about how she is now.  She lies back and looks up at the lampshade with the dancing figures. She starts to cry, and can`t seem to stop even when she feels her tears soaking into her pillow.

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