I have decided this week that I am going to MAKE AN EFFORT. Oh yes. No more trogging about in tracksuit bottoms that are all bally and knackered and shite. I’m tired of rocking up at the school gates looking more dishevelled than a war reporter returning from Gaza.
I’m also going to start accepting compliments. We don’t tend to be good at that, here in Ireland. ‘You’re looking well,’ someone will say to me. My response is to look behind me, wondering who they’re talking to. ‘This dress?’ I’ll say. ‘I bought it for £3 in Cancer Focus 9 years ago. It’s all cat hairs. And see? There’s a coffee stain from earlier as I tried to slice strawberries, wash lunch boxes and feed the cat while I had my breakfast.’
No more of that caper. Yesterday I off-loaded my children at my neighbour’s so I could do some work in peace. I had dispensed with my usual grotty attire and it didn’t go unnoticed. ‘You’re looking very stylish’. said Stephen. I agreed heartily with him. I did look better than usual. I’d donned earrings, (rose gold with wee diamante bits); a t-shirt from local designer Starling Bridge, and a leather skirt from the swap shop last week. I’d applied some of my ‘leg shimmer’ from Tropic so I could go ‘bare legged’ with ankle boots. I’ve no idea whether or not this look is ‘in vogue’ as such things never really occur to me. But yes, I did feel well-turned out.
It’s only been recently, you see, that I’ve started feeling reasonably contented with my refection in the mirror. For years I hated the way I looked. Everyone else seemed more put-together, more svelte and shiny (God, How I hate the shininess of some people) , or had an elusive je ne sais quoi that I lacked. I think these seeds were sown when I was very young and on the receiving end of some mean schoolyard ‘slegging.’ Wee fellas, I found, could be especially cruel. One such lad, when I was perhaps 10 or 11, screamed in my face that I was the UGLIEST person he’d ever seen. Another one, a few days later, called me ‘a God-damn disgrace to the Human Race.’ I think he liked the way the words sounded: the little iambs bashing along together. I’m sure plenty of children get insulted on a regular basis and manage to shrug it off, choosing NOT to carry the negative vibes round with them til they’re mid-thirties, but I appeared to lack the emotional resilience.
Girls can, as you know, be spiteful too. At secondary school when I was 14 or so, a first former (imagine! the cheek of the wee bastard!) accosted me in the corridor to tell me I looked like a ‘Riddler’. Have you ever seen the ‘The Riddlers’? (I actually DO look like slightly like a Riddler, with the big wide mouth and the prominent cheekbones, but that’s hardly the point). I couldn’t get over it. Later that year, when I saw her in Etams down the town, I stuck my foot out and she went flying down the aisle, headfirst into the crop tops. I pretended it was an accident. ‘Did you trip that wee girl up?’ whispered the Mothership, who knew not to put that sort of thing past me. ‘She was the one who called me a Riddler,’ I hissed, as we hurried out on to Main Street. ‘Just right then,’ said the Mothership.
That was all just childish unpleasantness. Then I met my first ‘long-term’ boyfriend. He should never have been ‘long-term’ but for reasons I’ll explain later I let him hang around longer than I ought. Having just started university, I was trying on different versions of myself and seeing how they fitted. He was 24 to my 18; and had aspirations that we could get married and buy a nice three-bed semi in Bangor. I could get a sensible job when I finished my studies and be home by 5 to cook him dinner. I felt a bit suffocated by these notions, and tried to leg it, which was when the subtle manipulation came in. I had been quite a good and God-fearing sort of teenager, so he tapped into this first. ‘God really wants us to stay together,’ he said. He tried to find Biblical quotations to illustrate his point. He failed. He didn’t like me going out with any other friends, or out dancing, or doing the normal things students did. I did them anyway. This was where the nastiness started. After I got my hair cut into an unfortunate bob; (it did make me look a bit like a hamster as my cheeks were a lot plumper back then), he told me I was so unattractive, that he didn’t think he could be seen out with me until it grew a bit. Given how awful I looked, and my myriad other faults, he insisted I was best just settling into suburban life with him. Who else would have me, after all?
After a year and a half of his nonsense, I got rid, but not without a quare dent in my confidence. I had the misfortune of bumping into him at the airport a couple of years ago as we headed off to Malaga on holiday. There he was, smug and balding, waving away with gusto, oblivious to what an absolute tool he’d been. I gave him the sourest of stares and he dropped his gaze sharpish. Even his wife visibly wilted. ‘Oh God, not again,’ said LSB. A few years ago, I’d met another ex at the airport, on EXACTLY the same flight to Prague, for maximum mortification. It’s dreadful, meeting exes at airports. There they are at the departure gate; there they are again at the baggage carousel; and then the f**kers appear at the taxi rank. There’s the distinct possibility you’ll also catch them again at Duty Free on the way home.
That was a longwinded way people, of saying that it’s taken a while, but I’ve finally started to like myself. I’ve stopped cringing at photos and feeling grossed out by my own appearance. It’s the change in perception that has made such a difference. Even looking back at old photos, I don’t feel the same pang as I used to. Yes, I may have been a different shape back then, and had some, if I’m honest, brutal haircuts. But my eyes were bright and my smile was wide and tragically my skin was much dewier than it will ever be now. I’ve cut myself some slack too. I made stupid mistakes when I was younger. I didn’t listen to some good advice, and I stayed in some relationships longer than I ought. But had all this not happened, like this, I may not have met LSB and had the two lovely wee ones. Incidentally, the Small Child looks just like me. And I think she’s absolutely gorgeous.