Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Naked on Oxford Street.

I'm standing naked on Oxford Street. Okay, so I'm not quite naked I have my bra on, only, which is not a good look. And I'm not just on Oxford Street I'm in a changing room in Topshop's flagship store on Oxford Street. But I feel so vulnerable I may as well be naked.

I am contemplating trying on another pair of very skinny jeans that are languishing at my feet on top of a pile of other similar very skinny jeans that I have just tried to struggle into. 

I should put my pants back on, I'm thinking. It's not nice for the next customer if I do not. I don't think I'd like to pull on a pair of jeans that someone tried on before me without their pants on but if I try the jeans with my pants on then they will most likely look like the last pair did: God awful, way too tight with digging-in knicker elastic showing through around the arse. Not good.

The lights are too harsh in here. I can kid myself that everything is more or less how it used to be in dim lighting. I can stand back a bit from the mirror at home, with the curtains drawn, and see, or think I see, a semblance of what I used to be, but here it's unforgiving.

The way the spotlight is raining down on me from above makes me feel like a specimen on a petri dish. It's highlighting the deep recesses beneath my eyes, the lines that have recently formed crevasses down each side of my mouth and every sag and wrinkle spoiling my once-I-was-proud-of-it body.

Add to this the heart-thumpingly loud music, the fact that it's incredibly hot and that I just had to wade through swathes of nubile young flesh to get in here and it's dawning on me that this isn't the go-on-just-treat-yourself-for-once outing I had envisaged.

I've just waved Youngest off on the train at King's Cross for a half-term break up north with his grandparents and cousins (so at least someone is having a holiday), leaving me with the relative freedom of only two older boys back at home who are this very minute dropping a trail of wet towels and dirty clothes behind them like gingerbread crumbs, before redecorating the kitchen with pancake mix. But at least I don't know this yet. 

I also don't know that this will be the only time I am alone, at all, even for a moment, for the next nine days so I should be enjoying myself. I should not be sweating to death in a changing cubicle in Topshop.

Who am I kidding? What on earth am I doing here? I'm old enough to be a grandmother to most of the girls I just slid past on the way into this hellhole. Okay, I can still get into some of this stuff, particularly the cute little 50's-style dresses I am so fond of, just about, but does that make it right? No.

The bottom line is, as it were, I don't want to be that person I hardly recognise staring back at me in the mirror. I want to be young again. Or at least younger. I want to be the person in the book I just read and couldn't put down: 26 year-old Cheryl Strayed: blonde, beautiful, American, who walked a thousand miles along the Pacific Crest Trail from somewhere in California that I can't remember, to Portland in Oregon, by herself, having mind-blowing sex with a stranger along the way and 'finding herself' in the process (not during the sex, you understand, although I'm sure that helped). You might have heard it on Radio 4, it's called Wild.

I couldn't put that book down and I think it was because, quite apart from the stark contrast between the landscape she evokes, all rolling hills and expansive vistas, and the cold grey south London streets in February that are all around me just at the moment, it was the sense of freedom she describes, of a life pared back to the bone, that appealed so much. And she was young and unencumbered, while I, standing in Topshop, looking in the mirror, have to accept that I am neither. 

I am a middle-aged mother of three, half-naked in a changing room on Oxford Street, trying to get into a pair of skinny jeans that are much too small/young for me.

I wish.

P.S. As a compromise I tried them on with just my tights underneath in the end and they didn't look too bad so I bought them. 

But now I think I'll take them back.


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Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Cutting tales.

A terrible hair cut and perm, some time ago...

I have been two-timing my hairdresser. As every woman knows this is a precarious business because your relationship with your hairdresser is important, a tiny bit sacred, and terrifying. It's a bit like your relationship with your cleaner if, like me, you are lucky enough to have one. 

Both, when stripped of the niceties: "How are you!", "I'm fine!", Mauw, mauw on either cheek. "And how are you!" (That's me with my hairdresser by the way, not with my new cleaner, to whom I am now coldly civil ever since it all got a bit heavy with the last one and she would routinely sink to her knees upon seeing me, clasping my hands, exclaiming, "I having nervous breakdown, Elizabeth!" Either because her daughter, "My Kasia," was pregnant/getting married/divorced or, once, because she had just discovered that she was "Cleaning house of homosexual men! I don't like to touch anything Elizabeth! What you think I do?") But I digress. My point is that when stripped of social polish both these relationships, with hairdresser and cleaner, are nothing more than pecuniary transactions based on necessity. 

I mean, I would really rather not have anyone come into my home to clean it. I actually resent it, and I invited her in. But my desire NOT to have to clean the filthy, crumbly old house myself overrides this. Ditto hairdressing. 

I would prefer never to set foot in a hairdressing salon again, so fraught with awkwardness, inconvenience, dampness and humiliation the whole process undoubtedly is, not to mention bank-breakingly expensive, but I want my hair cut so I have to. 

I have had some pretty harrowing experiences in hairdressing salons, especially when I was young and shy and broke. I was once told, upon producing a photograph of a pretty girl with wholesome, bouncing locks and asking if they could "do something like this", that "they could not produce miracles, only haircuts." 

I once went to a salon in Norwich on 'student night' for a cheap trim only to emerge five hours later with a peroxide blonde bob. I remember sobbing in the public loos just off the market place before walking very slowly back to the house I was sharing with four other students, who fell about laughing. (I later wrote about it, as I recall, in some free newspaper thing to exact my revenge - of course - and got a small sum of money for my trouble. So who got the last laugh there, eh?).

And there was also the time I was invited downstairs for a "massage" by the rather creepy older stylist-owner of a salon located in a handsome square just behind Barkers in Kensington (the department store, remember that?). It was after work, I was young and free and innocent, to his just-divorced-with-one-kid-and-a-bitter-ex-wife, but smart enough to realise he had engineered the whole thing so that we were completely alone in his shop. I never went back.

You see hairdressers, like cleaners, have access to the most intimate realms of our lives. For the cleaner it's the house, replete with strewn knickers and opened bank statements. With the hairdresser it's us, our very souls, replete with inadequacies (and in my case, limp, greasy hair, which, in its natural state is mouse-coloured, I think). 

We are at our most vulnerable in their hands, newly washed and towelled, staring at the stripped down version of ourselves in the mirror, thinking: Jesus Christ, is that what I really look like? 

At that point we might tell him anything, and often do. It is also then that he might cut off all our hair, scald it with peroxide, tell us he can't work miracles or that he'd like to take us downstairs to his treatment room and give us a free "massage." 

This being the case it might be best if my hairdresser of the last six years or so, let's call him Mario, with whom I have a turbulent relationship at the best of times (he once didn't speak to me through an entire cut because I was ten minutes late) and who also cuts the boys' hair every six weeks, doesn't discover that I hot-footed it off to Covent Garden last week to get my hair cut by someone else. Someone who gave me complimentary tiramisu and said "tell me all about your hair," which is tantamount to asking me to run away with him and live happily ever in my book. 

Tell me all about your hair! I think I've been waiting for that moment all my life and I think it means I will have to go back, even if he did give me a strange little fringe that I can't now do anything with and charged me a small fortune. (Incidentally he said if I mentioned him on Facebook he'd give me 15% off the next cut, so I did and made myself look even more of an egomaniac than usual in the process). But somehow we have forged a bond, Sergio and I, (what is it with Italians and hairdressing?) an intimacy based on the fact that he is numbered among the very few who know what I look like with my hair in a towel (not good). 

It's just...what on earth am I going to do about Mario?

Two better hair cuts from years gone by, cut by creepy "massage" hairdresser.


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Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Not this again!

No one has come. 

"Diiiiinnnneeeer!" I call again, while hanging onto the edge of the kitchen door and shouting in the direction of the stairs. Then I turn back to survey the table. What have I forgotten?

I fill the water jug from the tap, hollering again as I do so: 

"I said, it's diiinnneeerrr!" 

I grab glasses, one, two, three, four... five. Skidding them onto the table, one next to each plate.

"Dinner time! Now! I've called you three times!"

I have the hot tap running as well, just for good measure. I add a quick squirt of Fairy. I grab more dirty things from where they're scattered around the hob and throw them into the sink. I turn off the tap.

"It's getting cold!" 

I may as well do a bit of this clearing up while I'm waiting... 

A shove a couple of things in the dishwasher, just willy-nilly, not how husband likes it, but he's not here. Ha! 

Not the non-stick pans, though, because it ruins the coating...

Still no one comes. 

I put things away: the milk, bag of flour, the cheese. I close the bin lid to make the kitchen look nicer.

Still they haven't come. 

"It's getting cold!"

A child arrives. "Oh no!" he says.

Then the next: "Not this again!"

Then the third: "I hate this!"

I stand, deflated, hands on filthy-apron-hips.

I have chopped, simmered, boiled, strained, fried, roasted and baked.

I have walked. Entire marathons of walking. 

Across the kitchen floor from fridge to hob to bin to sink and back again.

Before that I have racked my poor brain dry, before driving/walking/clicking the mouse.

Usually I have traipsed. Aisle upon aisle of traipsing.

More than all of this I have chosen.

Extra/essential/finest/three for two/with a bottle of wine/complimentary/more value family pack/25% off/deal.

I have unloaded, paid, packed, hauled, and tried to find somewhere for it all to go.

In the past ten days I calculate that I have cooked -

Marinated, roast lamb with dauphinoise potatoes,
Lamb stir fry (and/or chicken) with noodles, Spaghetti bolognese, 
Lasagne (made from leftover spaghetti bolognese),
Baked potatoes with cheese, salad and cabbage and bacon,
Beef casserole with green beans and mash,
Saturday fry-up,
Chicken pie with peas and mash,
Butternut squash and bulgur wheat stew
Leak and mushroom and bacon pasta bake
Marinated spicy chicken thighs with olives and brown rice,
Chickpea curry with beetroot and tomatoes and couscous,
Roast chicken with all the trimmings,
Chicken and mushroom risotto.

All by hand. From scratch. None of it Findus. Not one bit of it horse.

"Not this again!" they say.

I want to kill them.


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Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The time of your life.

“So, she sent a text saying she was having the time of her life!” says friend sitting to my left in a French restaurant on Friday night. 

She’s talking about her teenage daughter, away on a school skiing trip, and so a discussion ensues between the seven of us, all mums, about the last time we had “the time of our lives”. I can’t think of anything. My friends round the table laugh. Then they stop laughing. “Come on!” they say.

“Maybe I’m just a glass half-empty person?” I say. But honestly, privately, I decide I haven’t had the time of my life. Not yet. 

This is because I never went backpacking across Australia, or island hopping in Thailand, or skiing in France, or sailing around the Greek islands with a boyfriend in my teens... 

I also never had a gap year and I didn’t have a particularly wild time at university or in the ensuing years as a twenty-something living in London after that. Mostly I sat in my negative equity studio flat in Streatham with Husband (before he was), watching episodes of Friends while he was sleeping.

We did take the kids to St Lucia once, on an all-inclusive thing when they were little, but we were all in one room, hardly slept, bickered through the entire first week and were driven mad by the constant reggae music down by the pool. And the least said about our honeymoon the better. It was in Austria. 

I think this was because I briefly flirted with 'doing what husband wanted'. I thought it would be novel - and wifely. But on the plus side, since it was so damn dull, we did make a baby. It was either that or get kitted out in Lederhosen to blend in, which, had we done so, would definitely have put paid to the baby-making.

The only things I could think of that might qualify, in that moment in the restaurant, were going on a road trip down the west coast of America all the way to Mexico (but I was with my parents at the time, and only nine); the euphoria I felt as I drove home from the BBC after directing my first studio programme; and having babies.

Certainly nothing has ever topped the natural high of giving birth, particularly the first time, as the summer dawn broke over those umber Chelsea rooftops and I held our naked newborn son against my skin after what had been an amazing, speedy, uncomplicated, drug-free labour. Never have I felt more alive than in that moment, but I don’t think that's the sort of thing they meant. So I didn't say any of that.

I carried on thinking about it after dinner and all through Lincoln (SUCH a boring film, am I the only person to think so?). When was the last time I had the time of my life?

I remembered last week when I took my eldest niece to Sadler’s Wells to see Sleeping Beauty, then both nieces stayed over and we had a family lunch the next day. 

I recalled the week before at the Hollywood Costumes exhibition at the V &A with two lovely friends, and then having dinner. 

I harked back to earlier that same day, with many of the same friends, having brunch in Soho, before going to the Manet exhibition at the R A. 

And then I thought of the night before, just supper at home as usual, with our three boys, when Eldest made tea for us all afterwards (not usual) and we sat around in the kitchen dunking chocolate biscuits and chatting. That made my heart fly back to them: my family...

Youngest would be tucked up in bed by now, Eldest was out somewhere with his charming new friend, Middle One would be sitting on the sofa next to the spot where I am usually slumped, Husband over in his chair, no doubt also fast asleep… 

Luxury though it was to be in the cinema with my wonderful friends watching a movie, suddenly I felt an overwhelming desire to be back home with them. And then it hit me: this is it. 

This is the time of my life.


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