I think I saw you the other day.
The woman across the counter’s studying the pyramid of Pukka teas by the till as she speaks.
Do you have a pair of silver Doc Martens?
I have to confess I’ve never owned silver DMs. In another life I had purple ones I didn’t wear, but never silver.
Oh well, it must’ve been somebody else.
A part of me muses as I pour boiling water onto her teabag. I like the idea that she thinks I might be the kind of person to wear silver DMs. In fact, the concept of silver boots appeals more than I want to admit. Maybe I could treat myself when the bank manager and I finally negotiate a peace agreement. She pays for her tea and a slice of vegan chocolate cake, scoops her toddler off the counter and heads upstairs. I wipe my hands on the faded black apron that keeps cake crumbs off my work clothes and smile at the next customer.
Deep down I’m a show-off when it comes to clothes, but that’s a side of me the world’s seldom seen. Over the years I’ve gone for comfort. A tedious succession of grey-sack tops, flat shoes and utilitarian knickers has passed through my wardrobe. When I’ve bought more adventurous outfits, they’ve most often skulked on a hanger for months before heading to the nearest charity shop. It wasn’t always thus. As a child I loved dressing up. My mother dyed her wedding dress a deep royal blue in the hope of putting it to use as an evening gown. Then along came the three of us: myself, followed three years on by twin boys. Mum’s hopes of dancing the night away in elegant company were quashed by steaming nappies and squalling children. I inherited the gown, along with the remnants of her dream. A yellow scarf transformed my dull, brown waves into golden ringlets and I was a forgotten princess. Cinderella, with the clock forever at five to midnight.
Ah, Cinderella. If ever there was a fairy tale fraught with angst, that was the one. It wasn’t long after I started school I began to realise something was wrong with me. On my seventh birthday, my parents caved in to my pleading for a pet and bought me a pair of hamsters. Looking back, I think the experience was intended to be educational. It certainly was for Dad and Mum. Hamsters are solitary creatures by nature. There’s only one reason for two hamsters to be in the same space and the female has to be in the mood, or heaven help the male. After two days of continuous strife the male, who was considerably the smaller of the two, was dog-eared and dejected. Dad was dispatched on a life-saving errand to the pet shop for a second cage.
Notwithstanding, the educational experience continued. We read ‘How to Look After Your Hamster’ from cover to cover. We discovered that female hamsters are receptive to masculine attention fairly regularly, but the only way to tell is to introduce the male and see what happens. If she kills him, it probably wasn’t the right time. From that day forth for the following week, the poor creature was unceremoniously dumped in his tormentor’s cage every evening. Finally the moment came. Instead of trying to gouge his eyes out, she turned her back and tipped up her tail. It was as close as I ever got to that birds-and-bees talk other children have. In due course, thirteen baby hamsters in a wide range of colours appeared in the female’s nest. I was entranced. Aside from anything else, how had two rather ordinary brownish parents managed to produce such a rag-tag-and-bobtail of offspring?
To my delight, I was allowed to choose a baby to become a classroom pet. I chose a beautiful, creamy-coloured female. Each weekend a different pupil got to take her home and look after her. I found myself the centre of attention. After all, I’d gleaned a lot of information from ‘How to Look After Your Hamster’. I was more than happy to give others the benefit of my wisdom. All was well until Julia Cook’s weekend. Julia was petite, fragile and blonde. The polar opposite of me. I delivered the customary instructions and thought no more of it till Monday afternoon. My mother picked me up with a face like thunder.
How could you be so unkind?
I hadn’t the smallest idea what she was talking about.
How could you speak to Julia like that?
The mystery unravelled as she marched me home. Julia’s mother had decided my instructions constituted bullying of her precious daughter. I was mortified. I already had far too much experience of the sharp end of bullying. I was abnormally tall, my teeth stuck out and my feet were too big. None of these were good in a seven-year-old girl in 1961. I’d long made up my mind I never wanted to make anyone else feel the way I did. Now I stood accused of just that. Worse, it seemed to be precisely because I was bigger and uglier than my perceived victim. The clock struck midnight, Cinderella’s glass slipper fell off, and she was revealed as a fraud. All because her feet were too big.
Come the end of another shift in the community café, Kellie and I are cooking full English breakfast for the other staff. She’s on toast, I’m frying eggs. Kellie and I have a lot in common when it comes to relationships, and she’s on the brink of yet another train wreck. I’m pretty sure she knows it. She’s already sent him back to his mum once. Now he’s hanging around, tail between his legs and promising things will be different. Yeah, right. He’s in his early twenties, he already has two children with different mothers and she found him sleeping rough in the local skate park. There were bruises on her arms within a week of their meeting. I do not like this man, but age and experience have taught me telling Kellie’s not going to help. If we women could only be a little more hamster sometimes. Instead of men, Kellie and I are talking clothes. Kellie’s style is individual to the point of aggression and I can’t help but admire her panache. I flip the last egg.
I had a pink phase after I left Charlie.
Oh, no. I don’t like pink. Far too girlie for me.
The internet tells me Benjamin Franklin first came up with the idea that nothing’s certain except death and taxes. He’s right for sure about the two, but I’d add a third: change. I don’t mean the loose coins Google pulls up from the back of the sofa to pay its taxes. I mean the absolute certainty that nothing’s going to stay the same for ever. We hate change. We hate difference too. Together they run death a good second when it comes to things we’re most afraid of. After spiders of course, and heights. The measures we’ll take to avoid change can be alarming. Thirty-two years of incessant verbal abuse, rather than bite the bullet and walk away? Crazy.
I’m in a shoe shop with Charlie. Charlie loves shopping. He throws money round like water when he’s not necking vodka. He also loves to have absolute control over everything I buy. If I choose a green jumper, he’ll tell me blue’s better. If I admire flat shoes he’ll tell me I should have something with a heel. The one thing we’re agreed on is pink. Pink is far too girlie. To be honest, falling in love with silver sandals was never going to go well. He growls.
Silver? Totally impractical.
That’s the end of the matter, so far as he’s concerned.
Charlie’s trouble was he never did like women. I don’t mean sexually. He simply hated the fact I was different from him. No matter what, the things that made me distinctively female were always going to be beyond his comprehension. He was never going to have full control, and that made him fear me. There are a lot of men like that out there, and the fear too often translates into violence. Take this Roosh V and his ‘neo-masculinist acolytes, advocating rape then running away at the first hint of a threat to their own safety. See what I mean?
Vive la difference they say. In truth, la difference has caused me more angst even than Cinderella. This world’s all measured out by men, and different is less, as I’ve found to my cost. Pink is far too girlie, and to be a girl isn’t a good thing. How often are boys told not to be like girls?
You run like a girl.
You play football just like a girl.
Don’t cry. Crying’s for girls.
Is it any wonder they fear and despise us? Even we learn to think the less of ourselves, to hate pink just because it’s far too girlie. Eve Ensler says being a girl is so powerful that we’ve had to train everyone not to be that. The sheer power of human emotion scares us, so we suppress it. It’s OK for us girls to overflow once in a while. After all, we’re feeble and we can’t help it, but true strength remains impervious come what may.
From school bullies to men who hate women, I learned to conceal myself as far as possible down the years. Some women use fashion or make-up to do this. I used men’s shoes and utilitarian clothing. I grew so close to genderless that come the day of my own daughter’s wedding I felt as if I was wearing drag. Thus the real adventure of recent times has been to find the woman who lost herself so well. To discover who she is at heart, and to learn to love her: height, teeth, feet, flab, belly and all. Not to mention reclaiming the assertive seven-year-old who never said boo again, and all because of a hamster. Pink clothes, silver boots, burlesque corsets or nose rings. Who cares? Whatever it takes to get her out of the rut’s just fine. And I’ll confess now, I’m enjoying every minute of the journey.