‘Look after this for me.’
That was the last thing Amy said to me before stuffing her holdall into my locker and running out of the changing room to chase her dreams.
I stared at the bulky bag, adjusted its position with the toe of my tennis shoe and shut the door. Amy had her own locker. It made no sense that she would use mine instead, but I had learned over the past three months of working with her that there was no point in arguing. Amy was used to getting her own way. She had a beauty that brokered no dissent. I felt grateful that she spoke to me at all. The others didn’t.
Three weeks later and Amy still hadn’t returned to work. The bulk of her holdall became an intrusion into my world and I wondered what she kept in there. Each morning as I changed into my uniform and each evening as I became myself again, draped in dull browns and greys that allowed me to hide in plain sight, I silently cursed the bag. I’d taken to crushing it with my own belongings and kicking it when it stubbornly prevented the locker door from closing. The bag was a squat toad, ugly and inflexible. I wanted rid of it almost as much as I wanted to see Amy’s angelic face again.
I missed her smile. She had distracted me from my loneliness. I had no one else. I was far too plain to turn heads and, although I was swiftly heading towards 30, I could count the number of would-be boyfriends I’d almost had on one hand. None of those had amounted to anything more than a cup of coffee that, more often than not ironically, led to the man yawning and leaving early without asking for my number. The only person who had made me feel special, even in her brusque, hurried manner, had been Amy. Where was she? Was she still chasing her dreams or did she catch up with them? Why hadn’t she contacted me?
‘Lisa, can I have a word?’ Dan was the hotel manager. I had met with him once, four months ago, when he interviewed me. I didn’t expect to get the job. He couldn’t keep the expression of mild repulsion from his face when he spoke to me. But the job was poorly paid and patrons of the hotel had a reputation for driving the better looking members of the cleaning team to distraction. Maybe that was why I was hired.
I nodded and followed him to his office, a room of broom cupboard proportions, tucked behind the reception desk. It really was a shitty hotel.
‘We’re letting you go,’ he said before I had chance to sit down.
I’m not sure what answer my face gave, but he recoiled from it.
‘Last one in,’ he said, screwing up his nose.
He didn’t even apologise.
‘Clear out your locker at the end of the day.’
My locker! Amy’s bag. Shit! ‘Do you have any contact information for Amy?’ I asked.
I glimpsed a smile I knew wasn’t meant for me. ‘We never release personal information for staff, Lisa. You know that.’
‘I have her bag.’
‘Bring it to me before you leave,’ he said. ‘Now finish the day’s duties and report to my office at the end of your shift. I’ll have your wages and termination slip ready. ‘Good luck,’ he added as a sardonic after thought.
I left the room feeling light-headed and heavy-bodied. My mind wanted to float through the ceiling but my flesh dragged it down. I trudged along the corridor, damned if I was going to clean rooms for him. I knew as I stepped into the changing room that I wouldn’t be handing over Amy’s personal items either. The thought of him drooling over her undies or sniffing her perfume made my stomach lurch. Fuck him!
I changed my outfit, pulled out both bags and left my uniform bundled up at the bottom of the locker with the key in the door. A heavy holdall on each arm I headed to the tube station and back to my bedsit. I could collect my papers another day.
I waited until I got home before I opened Amy’s bag. The zipper growled as I pulled it. Her scent rose from its innards and invaded my nostrils. It was the smell of passion and excitement. It made my skin tingle. It made me miss her even more.
I stood there, staring at the open bag. I glimpsed pastel pink wool. It felt wrong to invade her privacy this way, but maybe she left a note, a forwarding address. She should have known that at some point I would look inside.
I couldn’t do it. The zip growled shut again and I abandoned it on my single bed to make lunch.
A week later I retrieved Amy’s holdall from a cupboard and tried again. That week had been full of rejection. Dan withheld my wages, accusing me of breaking my contract by walking out. I scanned the newspapers and job shops; I phoned companies and attended interviews, but none of it landed me a new job. I had to beg my mum for rent money.
I wondered where Amy was and what she was doing. I imagined her beside a pool in Los Angeles with a movie mogul plying her with cocktails. In spite of my jealousy, I hoped she was okay.
I took a deep breath and slid open the zip.
The scent was stronger than before, as if she were inside the bag, maturing like a fine cheese. No not cheese, the perfume was pungent but definitely not repellent. It was more like a rose that expels its final perfume before withering on its stem.
I reached inside and touched wool. How Amy could afford a sweater of this quality and softness on the wages from the hotel flummoxed me. I could barely eat once I paid rent. I imagined a wealthy boyfriend, but in that scenario surely she would have left Dan’s employ earlier. The fact that I might never know caused a fat tear to roll down my cheek and spatter on the delicate fibres, making them glisten. I pulled the sweater out and placed it carefully beside the bag, refolding the sleeves to form a neat square.
Next was a pair of skinny jeans. Those I placed beside the sweater. Ankle boots with high heels, a suede jacket and lace undies. All came out and were arranged carefully across my mattress. I felt around the bag to check what was left. A leather make up purse and a pale lemon envelope with the name Amy Shaw in an elegant script hand-written on the front.
I felt around again, but the bag was empty now. Its secrets revealed. Or so I thought.
I turned the envelope over. The seal had been broken and I pulled a yellow and peach card from the sheath.
Thank you for your order from The Magic Make Up Company, guaranteed to change your life. We hope you enjoy your purchase and respectfully remind you that we cannot accept returns.
I stuffed the card back into the envelope and laughed. It would take more than a bag full of make up to change my life. Of that I was certain.
I wanted to wash the clothes, but I was afraid of damaging the fragile fabrics, and I couldn’t afford a dry cleaning bill. I tucked them back into the holdall and stashed it in a cupboard, leaving only the make up bag on my bed.
My hands shook as I emptied it.
Plump Up The Volume - a soft red lipstick in a glamorous black and silver case which reminded me of fifties starlets, Glamour - a powder foundation in a black tin, Peepshow – a mascara that promised thick and luxurious lashes, and a rosewater spray were the four items I found inside. They smelled of her. They promised I could be just like her. I don’t remember taking them to the bathroom. Seeing myself in the harshly lit mirror I shrank away. My hand hovered over the make up. I’d never developed the skill of subtle application. I’d given up wearing the stuff in my teens when my bronzed cheeks looked like I’d rolled about in dung and my pink gloss bled into the creases around my mouth. A voice in my head told me this time it would be different. That voice was a liar, and I hastily stuffed the items back into the leather purse before I made a fool of myself again.
I popped into the local store for a can of baked beans and glimpsed the well toned arms of a man buying beer. My thoughts glided back to the make up purse in my bathroom. The same voice that I’d heard in front of the bathroom mirror told me I could snag my own beautiful plaything if only I made the effort. Guaranteed to change your life. What nonsense!
I attended an interview for a part-time job in a fast food restaurant. The other female applicants had styled their hair and sculpted their faces with contour and highlighters. They looked like Kardashians - cardboard cut outs of each other and their style gurus. Before I was called to discuss my CV I knew I wouldn’t get the job, and it was no surprise that they never called me back, never even looked at my face as they discussed my lack of experience. I wondered whether it would be different if I looked beautiful. Again the make up bag whispered promises of success and glamour.
When I had dinner with my mum, she said my complexion looked dull and I should have adopted a decent skincare routine by my age. I accepted the insult as a fair price for her financial support, but I carried the wound home with me. A face only a mother could love? Not even that. Not my mother.
I decided, after I dried my tears, that the next day I would try. I would risk looking ridiculous and test The Magic Make Up Company’s guarantee.
I stood before the mirror, my judge and jury, and slathered Glamour unevenly across my face. I dabbed it with a tissue and felt like a ghost as my features disappeared. They might be ugly – big nose, thin lips, gaunt cheeks, but at least they had character. Now I was nothing. An empty page. I didn’t give up. I stabbed at my eyes with the Peepshow mascara wand, blinking in pain, trying not to cry and smudge the black gunk across my cheeks. Lipstick next. Plump Up The Volume. Red. A colour to stop traffic. Even now I considered giving up and scrubbing my face with soap and water, but I had promised myself I would do this.
I ground lipstick into my bottom lip and pressed my lips together. To be completely honest, I was scared to see the results. I started running the tap, ready to remove it all. But, as the water hissed and gurgled, I found the courage to look in the mirror at a reflection I could not recognise. I was beautiful.
A red smile filled my lower face. My cheeks glowed with health. My eyes stared in disbelief at the chocolate irises that sparkled with youthful passion. I sprayed rosewater on my face, hair and shoulders and looked again. I still found it impossible to believe the transformation. I would need a second opinion and that meant going outside.
There was nothing in my wardrobe that would work with the new me, and I couldn’t afford to go shopping. Instead I guilty slipped into Amy’s clothes. I wobbled in her heels but that was the only clue that I wasn’t authentically glamorous. I switched to scruffy old tennis shoes, doubting anyone would look at my feet. Wow! I thought. I look like Amy.
It was time to face the world outside my door, a world that had always intimidated me. Would it be easier now I looked beautiful or would people see through my mask and know the ugliness beneath? I didn’t think so. No one had glimpsed through my ugliness and seen beauty beneath, why would the reverse be true?
I opened the door and descended the shared staircase.
It was busy outside. Crowded with street sellers, people rushing to and from work. Women pushing prams. I hovered in the doorway, looking for a gap in the flow of foot traffic. Across the narrow street a man lingered. His gaze focused on my body. His eyes fixed on my budding breasts, so small they barely stretched the sweater. My subtle swells seemed to enchant him. I wrapped an arm around my torso. His eyes rose to my face and he grinned. I shuddered and joined the river of bodies, walking with the tide towards a random destination. My skin crawled as I felt more eyes on my back, no let’s not be coy, I felt them staring at my ass and regretted the form-fitting jeans I’d stretched over my skin. Hot breath on the back of my neck edged me forward until I hovered on the edges of the pavement as taxis and buses crawled past, blowing stagnant air in my face.
When I reached a quieter side street I veered off and picked up speed. They were renovating the tenements and scaffolding jutted into the street from the building on the right. Men in hard hats swung around the poles like apes. I prayed they wouldn’t notice me, but God was taking a lunch break.
Their stares pierced my flesh like knives. I bowed my head and hurried on. A whistle, not my first, one had sliced through the air and hit its intended target when I was only ten, but this was the first time I had been wolf-whistled as an adult. It wasn’t flattering. I don’t know how anyone could pretend that it was. It was shrill and echoed through my mind, above the percussion of my pounding heart. I didn’t look up to see who whistled. I didn’t want to make eye contact.
‘Hey darling, sweet ass.’
‘I’d love to pound that peach.’
‘Show us your tits.’
‘Come on, baby. Don’t be like that. Can’t you take a compliment?’
I was running before I realised. Thankful I’d eschewed the heels. I wanted to leave the workies and their jungle gym behind me.
Fuck off! I thought, but dared not call out.
I tamped down burning tears.
I didn’t stop running until I left the whistles and grunts far behind. I vowed never to walk this way again. Part of me wanted to extract a promise never to step outside my flat, but I resisted. Not all men would behave this way. I could still find a good one with my newly acquired beauty. I owed it to myself to try. There was a price to pay for everything and maybe, given time, I could learn to shut out the unwanted catcalls.
I turned right onto another busy street. This time I had to weave between the current of bodies, but I had a destination. A cafe and the siren song of chilled fruit juice. I sat in my usual corner in the comforting sanctuary of shadows. I’d seen the waiter before, but it felt as though he was noticing me for the first time. He stood at my table for what seemed like minutes before clearing his throat and asking what I wanted. I ordered a mango and orange juice with plenty of ice. He frowned as I spoke and leaned towards me as though I was whispering. He stank of sweat and cheap aftershave. It looked as though he bowed after scribbling on his pad, but perhaps he was checking out my legs. I tried to pretend it was normal but the hair on the back of my neck bristled.
Two tables away was a man I’d often watched before. He sat with a laptop in front of him as always. I imagined he was writing a detective novel or a contemporary classic, but I’d never spoken to him. I had Christened him Michael and decided he was single but with a romantic soul, simply waiting for the right woman. I day-dreamed I was that woman. Even now I was beautiful I couldn’t imagine speaking to him outside my imagination. His eyes were shielded by pale lashes and his hair was the colour of corn fields. The tap tapping of the keyboard soothed me and I felt my hair settle.
Perhaps he sensed my gaze, because he looked my way, and as if a miracle had blessed my existence, he smiled. A warm and open sign of affection. I blushed and directed my eyes to the sugar bowl at the centre of my table. When I glanced up again he was writing, but the smile still graced his intelligent face. I could hardly breathe.
My drink arrived. I used the straw to preserve my lipstick. I wanted Michael, or whatever his name was, to approach me, but I was afraid he might say something stupid and ruin my delicious fantasies. When I left the cafe he was still at his laptop, smiling softly, typing. I knew I would return the same time tomorrow, but doubted I would ever summon the courage to make the first move.
That week I visited the cafe daily. It meant I didn’t have enough money for groceries, but I figured at least the juice contained plenty of vitamins. I applied for a few jobs, but the men interviewing me made me fear for my safety, so even when they offered me work on the spot I told them I’d think about it and walked away. I was waiting to hear back from the only interview with a female boss, but held out little hope. I simply wasn’t that lucky in life.
When I wasn’t at interviews or building an imaginary life with Michael, I was hand washing the only set of clothes I now wore. I couldn’t face those drab earthy tones I’d always dressed in. As soon as I got a job, my first wage packet would be spent on a new wardrobe.
I tried to track down The Magic Make Up Company. At the rate I was using their products I’d need more in a couple of months. A Google search brought up a website. Elegant silver font on a black background stated: Guaranteed to change your life. Not available in stores. Consultation by referral only.
I tried not to dwell on the fact that I’d swapped one prison for another. I was beautiful and that was all that mattered.
Friday I had a dinner date with mother. I considered cancelling, but my painfully empty belly forced me to go. She yelped when she answered the door. Her eyes darted around my face, barely settling on my features, trying to compare what she saw to her memories of me, or so I assumed. I laughed, and even that delicate sound was pretty to my ears, not the donkey-like baying I remembered. If I had difficulty recognising myself I couldn’t expect her to find it easier. However, it took less than a minute for her to smile and usher me into the house.
‘You look well. Have you changed your hair?’ she asked.
‘New make up,’ I admitted.
‘You really are beautiful when you make the effort, but those clothes are all wrong. I’ll take you shopping tomorrow. Amelia’s son’s wife left him. Maybe I could arrange a date for the two of you? You’re not seeing anyone are you? You don’t want to end up an old maid.’
Mum had never offered to set me up on a blind date before and I wasn’t convinced that I wanted her to now, but the idea of a shopping trip sounded perfect, so I nodded. She looked excited and proud, two emotions I didn’t associate with her. The make up truly was magical. It had transformed my relationship with my mum and I had no doubt that the perfect career and boyfriend would follow.
Then came Monday. It was the kind of day I couldn’t have predicted in my wildest dreams.
After a breakfast of toast and cheap tea, I applied my make up. The phone rang.
‘Hello, is that Lisa Adams?’
‘I’m sorry I can’t hear you. Could you speak up please?’
I sucked in breath and summoned my strongest speaking voice. It sounded like singing to my ears. ‘I said Lisa speaking.’
‘I’m sorry it must be a bad line. I can hardly hear you. It’s Brenda Tucker from St Clements. I interviewed you last week. I’d like to offer you the job. Can you start this evening?’
I could hear her perfectly well, clear as the proverbial bell, although it wasn’t a call I was expecting. So I’d got a job waitressing at St Clements cocktail bar.
‘Thank you. Of course. That would be wonderful. Thank you so much. What time should I start? What should I wear?’
A sigh from the other end of the line echoed in my ears and I almost hung up, suspecting a prank, but I hadn’t told anyone I’d applied for the job and who would prank me? Brenda muttered something about a crowd of whispers.
‘I can’t hear you. If you said yes be here at seven. You will have a uniform. I’ll take you through the job when you get here. I hope you can hear me. Seven, okay?’
‘I can hear you. Seven. Thank you.’
The line went dead.
Excited, I dressed in one of my new outfits, a pair of tailored navy trousers and a pink blouse. My mum had insisted on buying me heels: “A woman is naked without them,” but I managed to convince her to invest in a pair of stylish flat pumps as well. I wore these with the outfit and spun in front of the mirror. It wasn’t long enough to show the whole of me but I was delighted with what it did reveal. Luck was keeping me company today and I decided to bring my companion to the cafe and see what she could do about Michael. Maybe today he would speak to me and I would learn his real name.
I joined the crowd. It was different than before. I wasn’t sure if I had developed blinkers to screen out the stares or whether people were reacting differently to me. My outfit screamed class. The fabric of the trousers didn’t cling to my modest curves the way the jeans had. I looked older, more serious. I was learning how clothes could define a woman. It was only when I checked around myself at junctions that I caught any lecherous looks from nearby men, but even those seemed less blatant, as though they were admiring from afar. I strode inside a bubble of protective power, but I didn’t risk passing the builders, afraid they would manage to burst it.
He wasn’t there! But he was always at the cafe. Why not today? I sat down anyway, hoping he might bustle in with his laptop bag under his arm and see me, cool and collected, at my usual table.
The cafe felt different without him in it. I noticed the other patrons. Greasy hair framed faces in which rheumy eyes were narrowed in concentration over wide nostrils. Thin lips moistened by grey tongues too fat to fit fully inside hungry mouths. Their lecherous interest made them demonic. I could discern no differences between them. Any that existed were disguised by their common lusts, making them more animal than human. Tendrils of toxic desire crowded around me, prickling my flesh and making my guts churn. I made myself small, curled up in the shadows and sipped my fruit juice, but I couldn’t escape the tug of their gazes. I left as soon as I finished my drink.
I discovered that my protective bubble only worked when I strode with purpose. The moment my pace slackened or if I paused to read a sign or study a shop window, the stares, heavy with subtext, crushed me again. If I ran, that was worse. Running suggested weakness and encouraged pursuit. I had to walk quickly, but never break into a sprint.
I hurried home, and waited there for the afternoon to end and the evening to begin. At six-thirty I braved the streets again. I kept my head down and marched to the cocktail bar to meet my new boss.
Brenda greeted me at the bar and escorted me to the changing room.
‘I’m glad you got the message,’ she said. ‘This is your uniform.’
I held the synthetic silk dress with the tips of my fingers. Was she joking? I’d seen underwear that was more substantial than this black cocktail dress.
‘Really?’ I asked. My voice betrayed me, softer than feathers. I’m not sure she heard what I said. She certainly didn’t react.
‘Come back to the bar when you’re dressed and I’ll show you how to take drink orders and who to pass them on to.’
I stared in horror at the full length mirror. The fabric clung to me. I could see the lines of my underwear.
‘Lisa, are you ready?’ Brenda asked with an impatient edge to her voice.
No! I thought. I turned around, certain she would see the problem with her own eyes.
‘You look lovely,’ she said. ‘You’ll make a fortune in tips.’
My face burned. My limbs froze as the blood drained from them to heat my cheeks.
‘We’ll need to get you some heels,’ she threatened.
Moisture escaped between my lashes as I squeezed my eyes in shame. You have to eat, I told myself. If this is the way you can keep a roof over your head then grow up and get on with it. I imagined my mother frowning, judging me. Just don’t tell her.
I followed Brenda into the second circle of Hell. She gave me instructions, a notepad and pencil and set me loose. I had no voice, but it didn’t seem to matter. My presence at any table ensured all attention was focused on me. My pad and pencil prompted the patrons to order their drinks. If anything my silence made me more desirable.
Their hands brushed my skin. Their eyes bored holes through the insubstantial dress. They told me their drink orders, how beautiful I was, what they wanted to do to me, and how much they would pay if I let them. I swallowed back chunks of vomit and moved on to the next table where the ritual was repeated. I drifted around the bar like a somnambulist for five hours until my shift ended. Then I wept and shivered until Brenda sent me home with more than two hundred pounds worth of tips in my pocket.
Nightmare visions of groping hands and rapists plagued me as I slept. I woke exhausted, afraid to return to the bar. I decided I would spend my afternoon looking for a safer place to work. However, this morning I planned to eat a hearty meal at the cafe, if Michael was there. If not I’d find somewhere else to eat.
Joy of joys, he was there. As I sat at my table, he smiled. My stomach danced to the beat of my thumping heart when he approached.
‘May I?’ he asked, indicating an empty chair.
I tried to say yes, but nothing came out, so I nodded and returned his smile.
‘I’m Greg,’ he told me.
‘Lisa,’ I whispered. I made a circle with my hand in front of my throat, to try to excuse my tiny voice. I was sure I used to talk normally once upon a time. Maybe I needed to make an appointment with a doctor?
He gazed into my eyes as though the answers to every question he had ever asked might be found inside my pupils. Romantic longing pulsed between us. I tried to pretend he could see the real me, but it was only my mask. I silently thanked The Magic Make Up Company for this chance at a fairytale existence.
My beautiful face had brought me here.
Okay, so I had to carefully navigate the city to avoid builders and building sites. I needed to wear tailored clothes I could only afford by exchanging glimpses of my body for cash. I hid indoors and spent hours preparing myself for the world outside. And what would happen when the make up ran out? Where could I buy more and what would I need to pay for it? I could never show Greg the real me. Not if I wanted him to stay.
I tried to ask him what he was writing, but I had no voice.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, standing up. Perhaps he had seen doubt in my eyes and misinterpreted my feelings.
I stood up too.
I touched his hand and leaned across the gulf of the table to kiss his mouth. My lips pressed against his, I saw one possible future. While he writes impressive novels I support us both by exploiting my looks, swallowing what remains of my pride, constantly fearful of the men attached to hands that stray up and down my exposed thighs. Oblivious to my suffering, Greg obsesses over finding the right words. He picks me up each night after my shifts at the bar and walks me home to ensure my safety.
I knew at that moment I could never let him see me without a full face of make up, and equally that he would never question the fact that my lips seem unnaturally red or why my lashes are always dark and full.
We will never argue, because I have no voice with which to answer back. My life rushes onward like a dream until my beauty fades and I can no longer hold his attention. By then, if I am lucky, we might have children that will tie him to me.
If I am lucky and if the make up doesn’t run out long before.
Our lips separated and I saw a different future. One in which I reveal my true face and he is repulsed. In this future I find my voice and frequently share contrary opinions that rock his idea of himself and the world. I make him hate me. Instead of kisses I receive punches and kicks for the crime of letting my mask slip.
If I was to ensure his love, my life’s quest would become the pursuit of beauty whatever the cost. I could never relax, never feel secure in any relationship, until I acquired the means to stay beautiful forever.
If this was a fairytale, I wasn’t the princess, I was the wicked stepmother whose mirror assured her daily that she was still beautiful. Still worthy. Still had some value.
I stared at Greg. He remained motionless, perhaps stunned by the kiss. I ran from him, equally afraid of his love and his hate. I knew this doomed romance would lead to my death, and understood at last why Amy had run, not to chase her dreams but to escape her nightmare.
While the make up remained in my possession I would not be able to resist its lure. I had to be rid of it. It was the only way to live my true life: pain, joy and all. Destroying the make up should be easy enough, but how would I face my mother?