Short Story: First Signs
This is a short story I submitted to a competition a few months back, the theme was ageing.
Show me how to measure my life in something other than years.
The words held my eyes captive from their place in the poster facing me on the bus. They were part of a spiritual campaign to inspire prayer and self connection. I did feel self connected, it had stopped my breath and I couldn’t blink. It was like finding the words to finish a sentence that had been hanging unended.
The bus was packed with passengers sweating in the summer heat. Friday afternoon opportunists, like me, who had escaped work at three o’clock for the temptations of the town centre. The doors opening and closing offered no relief, only swapping hot air with more hot air. Each stop traded old passengers for new, at the next three teenage girls tumbled in and stood clustered in front of me. Their giddy excitement resumed my breathing and blinking. They were all legs, long hair, rosy cheeks and pink lip gloss. Their smiling chatter was of the imminent end of exams and their upcoming holiday to Corfu.
I moved my gaze to the world beyond the window, blurring my vision as I thought back to when I was eighteen, a defining age I had been excited about. When I got there I had been terrified, so many situations I felt I should have experienced were still hidden somewhere ahead. I remember the weight of a long unaccomplished list on my young mind. I’d felt inadequate and doomed. Passing those milestones in the years after had been on the whole uneventful and did nothing to further define me as I thought they would.
By my mid twenties upcoming birthdays spurred conversations about how old we were getting, supported by cards with jokes about anti-ageing eye creams, zimmer frames and incontinence pads. We bemoaned more missed milestones, I wondered why I never learned. Then at twenty eight I was gifted a real and very fancy eye cream. It was so expensive I’d had to say thank you, instead I’d have liked to violently squeeze it all over my friends face. I smiled at the memory knowing that being gifted an expensive eye cream now would be gratefully received, particularly if it was a new, five star rated, celebrity recommended solution. A handful of stops later the girls tumbled back out, I guessed to stock up their holiday wardrobes. My stop was next. I felt the usual excited anticipation ahead of an indulgent hour in the fancy department store, it was one of my favourite things to do when I felt uneasy about something.
Stepping off the bus and through the revolving doors in to the bright, perfumed wonderland, smiling assistants were offering promises at every turn. I headed towards my favourite counter. I didn’t have an appointment, I never did, instead I started picking up products to test, considering the move from first signs to time delay, whilst waiting to be discovered. I smelled a serum on the back of my hand, reaching for the moisturiser to try on top. I remember when serum was just something you used to de-frizz your hair, that was before. Now it was an essential part of your skincare routine, as was the cleanser, toner, face oil, mask, day and night creams. There was no end to the remedies for the passing of time.
Without looking up I noticed an assistant coming towards me. I saw her name badge first, her name spelled with a z. She had kind eyes and perfect glowing skin, she was exactly who I’d hoped for.
“Hi, my name is Suzie,” she said, “what is the main concern you’re looking to address today?”
I was slightly taken aback that she’d immediately leapt to the conclusion that I had a concern, but quickly admitted to myself that it was exactly what I had.
“I’m going to Ibiza next month and I need to look at least five years younger,” I said. I always found it incredibly easy to get to the point with strangers. Ibiza was my main concern and a source of growing unease since the trip was booked at the start of the year. I’d not voiced my anxiety to anyone, until now.
“That is so exciting!” Suzie squealed, “I’ve been to Ibiza lots of times, it’s my fave! Have you been before?” she asked.
“No,” I said, shaking my head.
Suzie winked, “You’ve come to the right place, we’re going to have a great time!”, she said whilst ushering me to a seat behind the counter. I felt better already.
“What’s your skin type?” she asks.
“Combination,” I reply.
“Ok, give me a few minutes to get some products together,” she said, giving me a reassuring smile before bobbing in and out of sight amongst customers and colleagues.
I take off my mac, hang it on the back of the chair and wedge my handbag underneath, taking my seat again with a releasing roll of my head. I thought about the group of eight of us going to Ibiza, we’d known each other for years. We were leaving husbands, children, boyfriends, jobs, the lot, for a week on the white island. The dream hillside villa was the fantasy of our twenties and always too expensive. Now everyone could afford it I wasn’t sure I wanted to go. Suzie was back and laying out her wares.
“Right, we’ve got some beautiful products I think are going to be just perfect for you. For your skincare I’ve chosen these from our time delay range,” she said, pointing to a line of pots, tubes and bottles. Marvelous, I thought, she’s skipped right over first signs and straight into time delay. I’m not surprised, but nevertheless feel a little stung.
“It’s similar to our first signs range if you’ve used that before?” she asked, I nodded.
“But better if you’re going to be in the sun because all the time delay products contain an SPF, omega-rich sunflower oil and shea butter which are super nourishing and protecting,” she said whilst the palm of her hand rested over the taller bottles.
“Sounds perfect,” I said.
“I can then finish off with this beautiful new tinted moisturiser we have, with added SPF again which is great, add some cream blush and a sweep of bronzing pearls. This will be perfect for going from the beach to sunset cocktails!” she said.
Sunset cocktails. I could definitely do sunset cocktails.
“Let’s do it!” I said.
I close my eyes as she gets to work, it feels like bliss. In the darkness I can feel my high waisted underwear and remember my body changing in my late twenties, it was so unexpected. I thought a subtle sag all over was something for much later. It was horrifying, I’d started exercising immediately. I like to think my underwear gives me a sexy fifties style, I’m not sure my twenty three year old self would agree but she was clueless on many fronts so I forgive her, but envy her hair free upper lip.
“Right,” said Suzie, “You have a nice clean face, so I’m going to start with our moisturising cucumber toner followed by the time delay serum, face oil, day moisturiser and eye cream, then see how that feels,” she said. I nod, willing her to continue and never stop.
I think about my thirties and the birthday cards that never dare make any reference to age, it’s about having a lovely or relaxing day or treating yourself usually accompanied by pictures of tea and cake . Celebrating them is optional and mostly spent in hair salons having greys quickly covered before anyone can see them. I was due a trip to the hairdresser but I wanted to wait a few more weeks to time it ahead of Ibiza.
“How does that feel?” asked Suzie.
“It feels good,” I said, “and the smell is amazing.”
“Have a look,” said Suzie, passing me a mirror.
With dread I take the mirror, instantly looking for the flaws I know so well, the small scar on my lip, the indent at the end of my nose, the fine lines around my eyes and across my forehead, and the subtle shadow of my double chin. Confirming they’re all still there takes the fizz out of the moment, but I appreciate that overall my skin looks even and well moisturised, the rest is nothing that Suzie can fix.
“Ok, now I’ll just check which of our five tinted moisturisers is going to best match your skin,” said Suzie, finding three tubes from a nearby draw and squeezing a stripe of each on to the back of her hand.
“Ok,” she said taking a brush, “ I’m thinking you’ll be number three, but let’s just see. Yes, I think three, see what you think.”
I raise the mirror back up and see the three stripes and that indeed, the middle one, three, is best matched. I nod.
“So where will you be staying in Ibiza?” asks Suzie, getting to work.
“In the hills above Ibiza Town,” I reply.
“That will be beautiful, and easy enough to head into the action when you want to. I’ve only ever stayed in the centre of Ibiza Town but last time we hired a car, it’s such a gorgeous island, so much more than just the parties. The crowd are mostly older than you or I so you have nothing to worry about,” she said.
I smiled at her kindness, relief flowing through me and emotion glazing my eyes, I didn’t care that her words might not be sincere.
“Beautiful, have a look,” encouraged Suzie.
This time my reflection was quite pleasing, the tinted moisturiser had an effect that reminded me of holidays, I thought of the teenagers on the bus.
“I love it,” I said, as she smiled and reached for the cream blushers.
“I think we should try something peachy pink for summer, lets go for coral queen,” said Suzie picking up containers and checking their names.
“Ok,” I nod, offering my cheek to her brush.
“You don’t have to use a brush, you can just use your fingertips to apply this to the apples of your cheeks and then blend outwards. There, that looks great,” said Suzie.
I agree that it looks good and start to panic that the time is nearly over.
“The finishing touch! These are our natural bronzing pearls, they have a subtle shimmer. I like to sweep this up the hollows of the cheeks like this, and then a little on the temples. There, you are Ibiza ready!” said Suzie.
I look good, I could be thirty. I give myself a very quick stern look for being so preoccupied by age before turning my attention back to Suzie who is finishing off the summary of all of the products she’s used. I know already I’m going to get most of them, it’s essential, it’s for Ibiza.
Pulling on my mac and walking over to the till I wonder what the ultimate cost will be for spending so much time obsessing over milestones, birthdays and being younger. I catch my reflection and think back to the poster on the bus. Putting my handbag on the counter I make a silent vow that Ibiza will be the start of a new me, defined by what I’m doing regardless of my age, not what I think I should be doing because of it.
“That will be two hundred and sixty six pounds,” Suzie announced.
Note the opening statement is taken from a real advertisement I saw on the London underground from the #prayersonthemove campaign.