The smallest, and usually the most unlikely thing, can set me off.
Like everyone else, I am finding it tough under Covid-19 restrictions, but now with a US travel ban in place, I am finding it harder than ever. I live by myself, I have relatively few friends in New York, and, while I love my apartment, I’m finding it tough not to be able to go to the gym or enjoy my daily swim.
I look at properties online, fantasising about where I might buy a place. I buy things I never knew I didn’t need (yes, you read that right) from Amazon (but then isn’t that what it’s for?) and spend subsequent days sending them back when reality hits home. This week, I splashed out on cosmetics from Laura Mercier.
I’d been on Zoom, chatting with a friend, and commented on how lovely her skin looked. Having been a Clinique, Clarins, Estée Lauder and, more recently, a Maybelline girl (that’s what pay cuts do to you), I decided to try the Mercier foundation my friend swore by. Well, two foundations, to be precise – the matt and the luminous. And a concealer. And a powder to conceal the concealer. And a powder to hide the luminosity of my shiny nose when the blackheads decide to emerge from the camouflage of foundation. Oh, yes, and a face powder to cover it all up. And an eye shadow, because suddenly, the fifty I have in my make-up drawer suddenly all seemed the wrong colour. My friend thought I also needed a primer, but as I have three I have never used, I resisted. Still, $236 (with the 15% first time buyer discount – a bargain!) for 30 seconds’ work on the internet wasn’t bad going.
I went to call Mum to tell her about the new make-up I’d discovered. A beautician and hairdresser at 16 when she left school, Mum loved her cosmetics. She was always exquisitely turned out, in her clothing, hair and make-up, and she was always on the lookout for something new that might hide the increasing number of lines on her face. “Can you see any difference?” she’d ask me, having ordered the latest new miracle cream she’d seen advertised on TV (I swear she kept the shopping channels in business, and her Amazon cache was what made Jeff Bezos a billionaire. I worry for him since Mum died).
Of course, I cried at yet another moment realising she was not at the end of the phone; and I cried because she hated the hospital stays that put an end to her putting on the face of which she was always so proud. “Your father has never seen me without make-up,” she would say during my childhood, a sentence I chose not to explore too widely.
I remember the day I realised Mum was getting old. With Dad, it had been kissing him goodnight on his 60th birthday, which would turn out to be his last. The smallness of his bones beneath his pyjamas felt as if they would snap under my hug. With Mum, it was her rouge. When I returned home on one trip from the States, she was, as ever, in full make-up, but on each cheek were two large red circles, as if she had attempted an ill-fated and abandoned attempt to mimic Norma Desmond. Then, I noticed that one of her eyebrows was shorter than the other; that she had let the dark hair on her upper lip grow; that her mascara was smudged beneath both eyes. It felt like the shock of seeing the later work of a once great artist, flawed and without merit.
Mum always said that the best present Dad ever gave her was an Elizabeth Arden vanity case, packed with goodies. It was probably the only present he ever got right. The Christmas he bought her the amethyst necklace and earrings that would have been fine for someone of 90, not 40, stands out; but that was a veritable festive dream compared to the year he gave her a china bird.
As usual, he’d bought her present just as the shops were shutting on Christmas Eve, following his office Christmas drinks. He showed me the bird when he got home and I told him she’d hate it. When the big unwrapping came around, I was praying I would be wrong. Mum’s face fell, but she looked at the monstrosity and mumbled something about the pretty colours, the shape of the bough upon which said hideous bird perched.
Before the turkey was in the oven, the house rang out with “WHAT MADE YOU THINK I’D WANT A BIRD? I HATE BIRDS . . . !” followed by every insult imaginable to our feathered friends. Her voice was even louder than the morning when Dad woke her at 6am to see the hot air balloons taking off for the Bristol Balloon Festival. “WHAT MADE YOU THINK I’D WANT TO BE WOKEN AT THE CRACK OF DAWN TO SEE A BUNCH OF BALLOONS?!”
But the Elizabeth Arden vanity case was something else. I used to love sitting on her bed as she got ready to go out dancing (my parents, brother and I were all ballroom dancers), watching the layers as they built – foundation, rouge, eye shadow, mascara and, finally, the lipstick: the seal of approval that marked a job well done.
I was less happy when Mum did my make-up for Old Tyme dancing competitions. When you are dragged out of bed at 6 a.m. to have your hairpiece welded on and are told off for blinking and smudging your mascara at 8 a.m., then smothered in bright red lipstick to make you look 30 years older than you actually are, little girls’ dressing-up fantasies begin to lose their appeal. Not for mothers, however. With the same enthusiasm with which Mum used to apply my lipstick, she decided to put her make-up skills to good use when her sister Audrey returned from India with a sari for me and Mum decided I should go as an Indian to the school fancy dress Christmas party.
Pouring water into a basin, she tipped in some powdered cocoa and mixed it with the sponge. “Chin up,” she said, lifting my face.
I saw the brown, dripping lump come towards me. “I don’t want it,” I protested.
“But you’ve got to look like an Indian.”
“I don’t want to.”
My pleas were ignored, and the cold, wet sponge continued to smother my face. I felt it trickle through my eyelashes and slip through my lips: a strong, dark taste of cocoa and the smell of chocolate. My experience with early morning mascara had taught me not to cry, but I hated the sensation of chocolate drying on my face.
There was not enough time for me to look in the mirror, and for that I was grateful. It would be a full 20 minutes before I got to see what a real Indian looked like, but from the moment I entered the school hall, I felt I already knew.
The chocolate was a mistake. If the entire Indian army had descended on the school, I could not have attracted more attention. There was an angel, face as white as a bleached rabbit; a doctor, who looked as though he had been dipped in emulsion; and three girls with white blonde hair who had chosen to come as the Beverly Sisters. I was the dirtiest girl in the class and I hated it.
I asked to go to the toilet and walked down the long corridor to the girls’ cloakroom, tripping on my sari as I went. Inside, I looked in the mirror at the painted face that met me there. My eyes were black holes, and my lips had disappeared into my face. Bits of my hair were stuck to the cocoa, and my teeth were too white for my head. It was not me. I felt as if someone had tilted me up, spilled me out and left me with nothing but this hideous, dark, orange shell.
I started to cry. Small tears at first, trickling down the side of my nose. Each drop of salt lightened the brown by one shade. Then more tears came. Quick, plopping drops that stripped the wall of cocoa in long, powerful strokes. Each one thickened and brightened the parallel lines of white made by the first tears, and I could taste the combination of cocoa and salt as it ran past my nose and into my mouth. I wiped my face with my sari, staining the apricot and unwrapping the headpiece in the process.
Now, between the patches of brown, the colour of my own skin was beginning to show through, and I could see my freckles. Slowly, I was being given back to myself. As my own whiteness returned, I stopped crying and splashed my face under the tap. The water turned brown as I watched my second face disappear in the flow. Finally, it was clear. I looked in the mirror and smiled. Apart from a patch of brown in the corner of my mouth, Cocoa the Clown had completely disappeared.
Today, I am thinking about Mum, make-up and cocoa. And I cry for the face that is gone.