Tuesday, 27 September 2011


MAC lipsticks in Ginza, Tokyo

We're standing in a line and she walks up and down. Her face is inscrutable, by which I mean it's on its default setting of pissed off, and we're wondering which of us is for the chop. I say which of us, but I know I'm safe, though some of the others are definitely not leaving on time tonight.

"Kate Simpson, Hannah Jones, you two stay behind. You've not even made an attempt to hide the fact you're caked in blusher".

She then gets a cotton wool pad, dips it in toner and begins wiping down our lashes - looking for that tell-tale black smear that denotes Rimmel's finest. Some girls are ahead of the game though - as well as the wondrous White Musk perfume, the Body Shop sells a clear gel mascara to foil such fascist tactics. Granted, its gluey formula makes them look like startled kittens with conjunctivitis, but it's guaranteed not to leave an inky trace.

As we wait our turn, it doesn't seem to occur to any of us that this is, if not an infringement of human rights, at least a violation of personal space, but it's a more innocent, less litigious time. And after another couple of girls get hoicked out of the line, the rest of us breathe a collective sigh of relief, and get our bags, and traipse home.

Like I said, I was never in danger of detention this way. I was the classic Tartrazine kid - you just had to show me something brightly-coloured and all around my mouth would bloom an angry, red rash. I resembled Bluto, Popeye's nemesis, which isn't the best look for a small, brown girl. It meant no ice lollies, no felt tips, no crayons, no Plasticine, no make-up, no fun.

My mother has never worn cosmetics, so it's not like they were constantly around me, but my dad's mother and sister were a good deal vainer, so whenever we'd visit them back in Mandalay, I'd linger by their dressing tables, entranced by the pots and bottles and lotions and potions which jostled for space.

My aunt gave me my first lipstick at the age of eight; it came in a fuchsia floral tube, smelt of cherries, and bizarrely the lipstick itself was green. But as soon as you swiped it over your lips, some kind of magic happened - the swampy green would blossom into pinkish red and I'd be left with the perfect rosebud mouth.

For a few moments, I was transformed into a princess, the prettiest girl around. Then I'd feel my skin start to tingle and itch and blister, and I'd grab a wad of tissue, wipe it away, and be back to being me.

Because of this unfortunate propensity, my fixation soon transferred from the perfumed contents to the trappings that surrounded it. The fuchsia floral tube of that first lipstick became supplanted by the sleek, navy lines of Max Factor, and then the shiny purple packaging of Maybelline, and then the matte black of Chanel.

It was utterly pointless - I couldn't wear any of it, but I was beginning to be consumed by the need to own as much beautiful make-up as possible, even as it began to moulder and go stale.

When the novelty cosmetic came onto my befuddled radar, I was really done for. Dior was a favourite - every season they'd reveal a new must-have, an immediate sell-out: the knuckleduster ring that swivelled to reveal a lipstick, the eyeshadow compact corsetted with black velvet ribbon, the blusher disguised as a smart leather purse.

I started stalking the counters in Selfridges, ready to pounce as soon as the next limited edition trinket was revealed. My acquisitions became manic - I even found myself bidding on eBay for the sold-out silver Dior dogtag with two contrasting shades of lipgloss (of course I had the gold one already).

Meanwhile, new formulations began to come in. Make-up brands began to cotton on to the fact that there was a whole world of face cripples out there like me, and they swapped out whatever the hell it was that was causing us so much pain and replaced it with a gentler version.

It was too late for me though - I'd become disassociated to the extent that I wouldn't dream of actually using the stuff - but I kept on buying. And buying. And buying.

I can't remember when the turning-point was. I must have caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror one day and realised that somewhere along the line the face that stared back at me wasn't a scrunched-up, awkward child, or a badly-fringed teenager, but that of a woman - a woman who had neglected her appearance somewhat. Who owned most of the make-up in the Western hemisphere, but hadn't the faintest idea how to apply it in any way.

I bit the bullet; I took myself to the Lancome counter and asked them for a full makeover. 45 minutes later, the lady stuck a mirror in front of me. A wonky Barbarella was staring back - sickly pink cheeks, lavender eyelids, powder peach lips. I stammered a thank you, left the counter and then scrubbed it all off with a wet wipe.

This was when I realised that the odds were still stacked against me - the make-up artists around hadn't a clue what to do if you weren't Caucasian, and none of the shades were really designed for an Oriental complexion anyway.

So I sighed and resolved I would try to sort myself out. I needed to start small though, and I decided I would just find a lipstick that suited me. It had to be long-lasting but moisturising, sexy but discreet, and most of all it had to be flattering. How hard could it possibly be?

Very hard. I think there's a special level of hell reserved for people who devise new make-up products - I swear all they do is come up with increasingly ludicrous claims before laughing and taking every penny I have.

Swayed by bold promises of "24 hour staying power", "collagen-plumping", or "skin adaptivity", I'd test all the colours on the back of my hand, excitedly buy the one that was The One, only to try it at home and find it did nothing of the sort. That it bled at the corners, or looked dire away from the shop lights, or smeared after a cup of tea, or faded to an ugly ring.

And never, ever, ever was it the perfect shade, the perfect red, the perfect one for me.

I don't know why this is in the past tense. I'm still looking for the right lipstick. And as soon as I do, it will be like that old cliche - when the straight-laced librarian undoes her bun and takes off her glasses, and everyone is in awe of just how beautiful she is. And at how they'd missed what was under their noses all along.

One swipe and it will turn me into a princess again. Into the prettiest woman around.

Friday, 23 September 2011


The Princess Bride

"I need to go to the US again".

My husband says this quietly, as he knows the reaction he will get. It used to be melodramatic - I'd mope and I'd wail that he'd forsaken me, and he'd fix me with a look and say,

"I don't like it either. Do you want me to quit my job? I'd do it tomorrow if you asked me."

And I'd sulk and say, no, I like having a house and money to go on holidays and all that kind of stuff.

These days, I stick out my bottom lip a little and I say, "When?".

And then we get out our Blackberries and we look at our work calendars and we try to be practical, to co-ordinate when would be best for him to be away, but inside I feel empty and sad, although I know it has to be done.

The night before he goes away, I pass him a plug adaptor to put in his suitcase and I say to him,

"I once read that Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney only spent one week apart during their whole life together".

And he looks at me and he says,

"Yeah, but who'd want to be Paul McCartney?" and there's a glint in his eye, and I can't tell if he's just amused or if that might actually be a tear (but then I'm not sure I've ever seen my husband cry, and I think this is a very good thing).

He's not the only one packing though - I made a promise to my folks that whenever he had to go away, I would come stay with them, do the dutiful Burmese daughter thing. Stupidly, I didn't realise how often this would happen.

His flight's not till the afternoon, so bed-dishevelled, he waits at the door to wave me off to work. I kiss him goodbye, and he apologises for his morning breath and I say, "Don't be silly", and that small vicious part of me I try to subdue escapes and engulfs me in panic that this is the last kiss we'll have. I go out the front gate and I turn and look, and he's still standing there, waving.

At work, I pretend it's a normal day, that we'll meet at Charing Cross tonight and get the slow, crappy train home together. But this is exposed for the lie that it is when he rings me from the departure lounge to say he's about to board. He reminds me to water the plants, and he asks me what I want back from the US.

I say, "Surprise me", and he says he loves me, and I say it back and then he's gone.

At the end of the day, I get the slow, crappy train home alone to pick up my suitcase. My dad turns up to fit the timers for the lamps, upstairs and downstairs, to make it look like people are in. I feel like I should help, but I've reverted to stroppy teenage-hood, and I watch him programme the settings to 'random' and I wonder if it actually fools anyone.

At midnight my husband is still up in the air, and I'm ensconced in my old bed. It feels very small and awkward, even though I'm no taller than the last time I was a regular occupant, but that might be because I'm trying to construct a spousal substitute in the form of a wall of pillows.

I'm wearing the shirt that he wore last night, and I fiddle with its grey collar as the clock on the wall ticks maddeningly. Eventually I get up and I take it off its hook, remove the batteries and then I sit on the bed, feeling lost where I used to belong.

In the morning, I switch on my phone and there's a text to say he's arrived and he'll Skype me tonight. So I exist through the day, till at 7pm a little Googletalk bubble pops up on my laptop and it says he's on-line.

I type, "Honey, are you there?" and the legend "X is typing" appears at the top.

"In a conference call, I'll ring you at 11", and I curse the time difference between us.

So I have a snack, and I fire up Twitter and I talk to my friends, virtual and otherwise, about trivia in an attempt to distract myself. It gets to 11 and I'm still tapping away, and it's not till five past that I notice a Skype call coming in.

"Hello darling, did you have your Twit-face on?" says a wryly handsome but pixellated face on my screen.

I blush and shut down all the stupid little programs I have running, and for the next half an hour we're together again.

He's in an open plan office - I can see his colleagues bumbling around him - and he tells me, "MiMi go chit deh," which means he loves me in Burmese (pretty much the first phrase I ever taught him).

I tell him, half-kidding, that every day he's away is agony; in fact I have a new theory:

"I think it takes an equivalent day off my life, you know - a bit like the torture machine in the Princess Bride;

You go away, what, six weeks a year? Over the past decade, you've managed to shave more than a year off my lifetime".

He laughs ruefully, and he scratches his chin, and he says, "Please don't say things like that", because he knows that I kind of mean it.

I live through another day, and in the evening, I go back to our house to pick up the post and tend to the plants like I promised. He's left instructions as to how each one should be watered in his own mildly OCD way - this is the first year we've decided to grow anything edible and he's very proud of our crop so far, so I feel like I ought to pay close attention.

As I amble about the house and around our garden with the plastic watering-can, I realise that it's beginning to bore me and taking a lot of time.

I pinch off a dead leaf, and marvel at how much he must care to do this, and I think to myself that without him, everything would just wither away.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011


[Housekeeping - I've decided to write a bit more about stuff other than food. I will still be writing about food though. Please do not be alarmed]

I walk home on autopilot, as I do every day, past the myriad shops that barely make a dent on my consciousness. The school outfitters where my parents are forced to buy every purple piece of uniform that makes us the laughing-stock of the other pupils in the area, the newsagents that sells huge bags of broken sweets for 50p but take an eternity to serve, the chippy surrounded by a stifling haze of rancid fat - all of these blur as I quicken my step.

And as I walk, I slowly replay the day's events in my head. I think about my urge to stick my hand up, even as I feel everyone's eyes burn into the back of my neck. It doesn't matter how often they call me "bod", or "swot", or "teacher's pet" - it's like I have some kind of smart-alec Tourette's. And I sigh and I think at least the teachers like me (of course they don't).

I get to the traffic lights and I pause a while, as usual. As I watch the cars criss-cross in front of me, I hear a hawking, retching noise from the other direction. I wrinkle my noise in slight disgust, but the lights change and I forget about it as I trot on.

I'm on the red slate doorstep and I ring the bell, three times, as usual. My mother opens the door and walks off into the kitchen to get my tea ready. I bounce up the stairs, taking them two at a time, anxious to change out of my school clothes, the purple shackles.

It's only when I swing my rucksack onto my bed that I see it: a yellow-flecked slug of phlegm streaking all the way down the scuffed nylon. It glistens with viscous menace and somehow continues its mottled descent, and I stare at its progress, and I will it to go away.

Tears pricking my eyes, I pick up the rucksack, and empty its contents all over the floor. I yell to my mother, "I need a new bag!" as I push and shove the old one into my pedal-bin.

Then I crawl back down the stairs, shoulders slumped, infected.