Welcome to the World of Taupe

 

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WARNING – this one really is totally fictional – my family is wonderful.

I suppose the rebellion started seriously on my fiftieth birthday, although my sister-in-law Lizzy had been winding me up from the moment she first appeared in our front room clinging coyly to my younger brother’s arm. She simpered and paid saccharine compliments to my parents; pretended to be interested in my little sister’s doll collection and when she wasn’t talking, she was gazing at my brother with puppy-dog eyes.

They were all smitten.

I wasn’t.

Lizzy seemed to realise this very quickly and whilst she was always ‘sweet and lovely’ to me when anyone else was present, her comments inevitably held a barb.

‘I do love your hair that colour – it suits an older skin – what dye did you use?’

I hadn’t dyed my hair at all.

‘Of course, you’re at the age now where purple is the only bright colour you can get away with – although it makes you look a bit …washed out.’

She was only three years younger than me and a good five years older than my little brother.

When I first met her, she reminded me of Amy from ‘Little Women‘ – self-centred and obsessed with clothes, hair, make-up – oh and did I mention – herself? She snatched my handsome and charming brother from under the noses of several younger and much nicer girls but unlike Amy, age did not improve her behaviour.

She was always attractive; big brown eyes, curly dark brown hair that settled itself into the kind of tousled curl that we all tried to achieve with perms but ended up in tight corkscrews for a month before dropping into sad waves. Her figure fell into the realms of petite but with an impressive cleavage, a tiny waist and pert apple bum cheeks that perched themselves seductively on my brother’s knees . She did try sitting on my father’s knees once, but the look my mother gave her made her shoot up and settle on the sofa with an apologetic ‘Oops’.

I was in the last stages of planning my wedding when Lizzy started seeing my brother. I made it quite clear that I was in charge and didn’t need any assistance (apart from my mother) but Lizzy was insidious. Once she realised that I had not fallen under her spell, she whispered ideas into my mother’s ear, knowing that they would be passed on to me as her original thoughts.

No. I did not want a horse and carriage to take me to and from the church – and while we are at it – I wanted the church up the road that I had passed every day on my way to school – not the overblown cathedral in the centre of the city which had no parking and was the wrong denomination anyway.

Nor did I want a flotilla of teeny bridesmaids in varying shades of deep pink tulle and crystals.

I had plumped for a lunchtime wedding with an afternoon reception, so that we could drive off to our honeymoon hotel in daylight. Lizzy (via my mother) felt that this was rather cheap and that we should have a disco and evening buffet. She had pointed out to my mother that the afternoon reception could be for close family and the evening event could be opened up to the rest of the family and ‘our’ friends. She even drew up a list  of who should attend which event but she missed a trick with this because my mother – instead of copying the list in her own hand – gave it straight to me with slightly pursed lips.

Not surprisingly Lizzy had excluded my favourite relatives from the afternoon, and bumped up the numbers in the evening by including a host of unknown people who were ‘dear friends’ of my brother – who looked at the list and shook his head in puzzlement after only recognising one or two names.

I won.

I had the elegant old black and silver Bentley for my wedding transport, we married in my favourite church, and my best friend and little sister were my only bridesmaids –  in blue silk dresses that matched the cornflowers in my bouquet – and could be worn again for parties and special occasions.

We made sure that all the relatives were invited to my afternoon reception, together with good friends that we knew. Lizzy sulked throughout but I didn’t care. She was eventually persuaded not to wear white.

It was my day.

Of course, when Lizzy married my brother – it was the event of the century that put my brother’s bank account into the red and milked every possible penny out of Lizzy’s elderly father as well.

It was pinker and frillier and more over the top than your average gypsy wedding; Lizzy had difficulty walking in her overblown and diamante-encrusted dress. Even my brother – who usually took Lizzy’s whims with heavy pinches of salt – was a little perturbed by her excessive Bridezilla demands.

To be fair, she didn’t shout and swear when thwarted; her little lips formed a semi-permanent pout, her little feet stamped a tarantella until my brother and her father consented and stumped up more cash.

I escaped being maid of honour in florid pink frills, but only because I was heavily pregnant with my first child at the time. Lizzy had been heard to mutter that I got pregnant deliberately just to spoil her wedding.

I didn’t but I almost wished that I had.

The one-upwomanship continued; I had two boys with gas and air, Lizzy had two girls by elective sections because she didn’t want ‘down there’ messed about with. My boys were bright, funny and very active, her girls inherited their mother’s hair and pleading eyes, as well as her methods of getting their own way. Males were putty in their hands and even my mother gave in once they lisped ‘Pwease Gwandma?’ and fluttered their eyelashes at her.

Should you really use mascara on the eyes of three and five-year olds?

My husband (not in any way influenced by me of course) had a deep and profound intolerance for his sister-in-law but lately I had found a new ally in my never-ending battle against Lizzy; my little sister was now a willowy teenager with Gothic tendencies. She loathed everything that Lizzy liked and was openly rude to her in a way that I envied and could never rebuke her for. This usually resulted in my sister being sent to her room by my father, whilst Lizzy sobbed prettily into a lace handkerchief and was attended by my doting (and slightly cross) brother and the two mini-Lizzy girls.

We lived within our means and tried not to feel envious when Lizzy boasted about their new house with its hot tub. On the rare occasions we were invited round, we sat nervously on the edge of their slippery pale pink Italian leather suite and prayed that our rambunctious boys wouldn’t break anything. The house (a five-bedroom detached with integral garage and a be-decked and be-paved garden because Lizzy didn’t do gardening) was a monument to pink, silver and black. Every room had at least three mirrors so that Lizzy could admire herself from every angle; after all, the small fortune that hadn’t been spent on the house or female clothing, was invested in Lizzy’s improved cleavage, her nipped chin and tucked buttocks.

Sitting there, in my cleanest jeans and said purple shirt, sipping a glass of very dry Prosecco and glaring at my reasonably well-behaved sons, I realised that envy was the last emotion that Lizzy caused me to experience. I decided not to fight against something that meant so little, and as I tried to relax back against the spiky, sequined scatter cushions, I knew that this was not what I wanted in my life.

Back to my fiftieth birthday. My parents had offered to host a birthday party but Lizzy jumped in and said that it would be too much for them ‘at their age’ and as they had just finished decorating their newly built orangery, she and my brother would be delighted to host the party.

How could I refuse? Well, I could have done but not without upsetting my parents and my not-so-little brother. Good living and business dinners had given him a paunch and a more than slightly pompous air. He had taken over his father-in-law’s accountancy business and appeared to be making a go of it. To think that I used to have to help him with his maths homework!

We dressed in our best. My husband and my older teenage boys were pried out of their jeans and into clean chinos and shirts. I wore a dark green lace dress that had been sitting in my wardrobe waiting for a suitable event. We collected my parents and sister – the joys of having a people carrier – who were also glammed up a bit. My sister had changed her Doc Martens for a pair of red sparkly Converse boots and was wearing black velvet instead her customary leggings and an oversized tee-shirt.

I coveted those Converse boots.

We thought we were attending a family affair so finding the driveway full of upmarket cars was a bit of a surprise. Lizzy seemed to have invited most of the local gentry and other influential people – to my fiftieth birthday party.

I smelled a rat and so did my husband and little sister.

We were ushered into the ‘orangery’ which Lizzy had now renamed the ‘Atrium‘ as there were no indoor orange trees to be had. The table was laid with a range of vol au vents and dainty finger foods. A hired butler circulated with a trays of drinks and an expression of extreme disdain.

To quote my youngest son – ‘This is a bit posh Mum. When can we go home?’

Once we were all settled with drinks in our hands, Lizzy tapped a fork on her glass to get more attention. She shimmered in silver lame that matched the window blinds and smelled – rather metallic.

‘Thank you all so much for coming here today to celebrate my older sister-in-law’s fiftieth birthday. Come over here dear, and let me give you this very special present.’

She beckoned to me, and reluctantly I handed my drink to my husband and went to join her centre stage. She handed me a gloriously beribboned and wrapped box. I actually felt a little excited, and having moved aside a platter of very pink King prawns, I put the box on the table and undid the ribbon.

As I lifted off the lid I glimpsed something that cut me to the core.

Taupe!

My least favourite colour.

Taupe.

The colour of old age; of sensible clothing, of a farewell to fun.

Taupe.

A memento mori shade.

I started to put the lid back on, my face in a rictus grin.

Lizzy yanked the lid out of my hands and like a magician, simultaneously pulled a garment out of the box.

I wish it had been a rabbit.

It was a cardigan.

A taupe cardigan.

Accompanying it was a pair of taupe Crimplene slacks.

Even my mother didn’t wear Crimplene – or taupe.

Lizzy laughed her affected little laugh and patted my hand.

‘Well, you are getting on now. You really should dress your age.’

Words failed me – which was just as well because they didn’t fail my little sister.

She pulled the offensive garments from Lizzy’s hands and threw them on the marble floor. She stamped on them with her sparkly red boots, emptied her glass of champagne and then swept the entire platter of King prawns – Rose-Marie sauce and all – on them as well.

‘You can stick your world of taupe crap where the sun doesn’t shine Lizzy. My sister is far too young for that rubbish and you know it. You are a pretentious prat. No one really likes you, your children are spoilt brats and you’ve ruined my brother.’

My little sister turned revealing the red flashing LEDs on her heels, and stalked out of the room. My husband and sons followed her out, meek in the stunned silence.

Mutely, I followed too.

When we climbed back into the car, my little sister handed me a gift-wrapped box.

A pair of sparkly red Converse boots with bright purple laces and flashing heels.

Goodbye to the World of Taupe.

 

 

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‘The first of the Mohicans’

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I first met Shelley at playgroup.  I was new to the area, pregnant and with an energetic toddler.  Her little boy was very quiet by contrast; lost in a world of his own whilst my rumbustious boy cannoned round the room.  We exchanged smiles, identifying each other as outsiders from the rest of the chattering mothers.  I wasn’t able to work out why she was isolated from the group but was warmed by her friendliness, especially when it was time to go and it transpired that she lived just around the corner from us and was also pregnant.

We pushed our buggies down the road together and, surprisingly candid for a new acquaintance, she told me that she had a daughter from her first marriage, that the marriage had ended because her husband beat her, but that she had now married her childhood sweetheart and that he was the father of her son and the baby she was carrying.

Shelley wasn’t as well groomed as some of the other mothers; her conversation was simple and honest.  The love she had for her children was obvious from the way she spoke to them, but drawing on my past experience I could see that her little boy wasn’t just quiet.  There were definite signs that he had some kind of developmental delay, something was wrong.

We often walked to or from playgroup together.  We didn’t go to each other’s houses; she would have been very welcome at mine but her house was first on the route and as she seemed reluctant to ask me in, I didn’t want to put her in an awkward position.  We sat together at playgroup and although no one else spoke to us, it didn’t matter because, with one ear on their conversations, I knew that Shelley’s simple words were more honest and interesting anyway.

My baby boy was born first and I stayed away from playgroup for a while, learning to juggle the needs of two small children within the safety of my home.  By the time I made it back to playgroup, Shelley was absent having also given birth to a boy.

I saw her in the street about a month later and was slightly taken aback at her appearance.  The dowdy cotton shirt and leggings uniform adopted by so many of us mothers at the time had been replaced by a ripped black tee-shirt, black jeans and Doc Martens.  Shelley’s shoulder length hair was dyed black and cropped close to her head and she sported a piercing in the side of her nose and another in her chin.

She was accompanied by her daughter, her silent son, her equally silent husband and the new baby in a buggy.  I stopped to say hello and tried not to show my curiosity at this change in her appearance.

Smiling, Shelley told me that she and her family were on their way to church.  A church I’d often seen in passing and wondered idly what denomination it was. Shelley didn’t say – and I didn’t ask – if her transformation had come before the call to church or after. She looked happy, and I felt that having experienced the small minds and sneers prevalent in many older established religious communities when faced with the unusual, that the people attending Shelley’s church must be very accepting and open by contrast.

Shelley stopped going to playgroup and attended one at her church instead.  I had a new group of friends who invited me to their houses and to other social events. Occasionally I would see Shelley in passing; we’d wave and smile but she never stopped to talk.  Her hair went through a rainbow of colours and the piercings increased, as did the tattoos.

My eldest started school and we frequently saw Shelley at the school gates.  She was pregnant again and her youngest boy displayed all the energy that his older brother lacked. The other mothers avoided Shelley, clustering in groups and turning their backs on her when she approached.  Most of the time my husband and I dropped our son off and collected him together, so I wasn’t subject to the approval or disapproval of the mummy clique in the way that Shelley was.

After the birth of her fourth child – a girl – Shelley’s appearance became even more unusual.  Talking as someone who cried when having their ears pierced at the tender age of twenty-three, the increase in piercings and tattoos confused me and I wondered why Shelley felt the need to adorn her body in this way.  Her husband did not seem perturbed by these changes, and he continued to dress in jeans, tee-shirt and a khaki parka that he never seemed to take off.  Shelley still smiled and waved when she saw us  but we had moved to a house about a mile away and no longer saw her on the journey to and from school.

My eldest was in the same class as her eldest son.  In the way that young children do, he occasionally remarked that the lad was quiet and had a special lady to help him in classes.  My boy remembered going to playgroup with Shelley and her son, and I believe that it was this early acquaintance that led him to take a protective stance  towards Shelley’s boy throughout their years at school together.

The children progressed through primary school and without fail, Shelley and her family attended the Christmas and end of term productions, sports days and the annual fair. Without fail, heads turned, elbows nudged and snide comments were made just out of Shelley’s hearing.  She seemed impervious to it all; almost serene.

With the birth of another baby, Shelley now had three girls and two boys.  They walked to school in a strange crocodile; her eldest daughter and the two boys in school uniform, the toddler and baby dressed as most other small children of their age, with Shelley – in bondage trousers and a ripped tee shirt that  showed off her mostly religious tattoos, huge wedge boots and a face covered in piercings – always at the head of the group.  Caring and attentive, she shepherded her family across the main road, ignoring the hoots and cat calls from passing motorists.

Primary school was bad but high school was worse. At primary school people were used to Shelley but the move to a large high school that took in half a dozen primary schools brought several issues for Shelley and her family.  Her eldest daughter had managed three years without other students identifying Shelley as her mother, but her younger brother had to be brought into school by Shelley and collected by her or his father.  Other children were cruel about him and to him.  They were even more cruel about Shelley’s appearance.

Towards the end of my older son’s time at high school, along with other proud parents, we attended an evening of entertainment in the school theatre.  Shelley and her family turned up at the last minute; the children were dressed conventionally but Shelley sported a foot high black mohican; the sides of her head were closely shaved and tattooed and the wedge heeled boots were at least twelve inches tall.

A silence fell as she led her flock into the crowded auditorium.  Every eye was on her.  With the exception of her eldest son – now formally diagnosed with autism – all the children hung their heads in embarrassment.There would have been room for them to sit together if other parents and their children had swapped seats but no one would.  They just stared; stares of hostility sparked by – fear? Confusion? Or envy?

Shelley’s daughter went off the rails after leaving school.  She ran away from home and ended up living with her abusive father.  He hadn’t changed.

There was no available provision for Shelley’s eldest son. Cut loose from school he became increasingly frustrated and frightened.  His fear took the form of aggression, generally directed at his mother.  They tried so hard, Shelley and her husband, but with a new diagnosis of schizophrenia, they could no longer look after him and he was sectioned under the Mental Health Act and went to live in a secure facility.

My youngest son tells me that he is still in contact with Shelley’s younger son; he works with his father in the plumbing trade. Now both my boys have left school I don’t see Shelley, unless we happen to be driving past when she is taking the youngest children to school or collecting them.

The mohican is defiantly high, the tattoos and piercings have almost obliterated the Shelley that I remember.

It isn’t really my place to find reasons for Shelley’s behaviour or even to ask why.

Tattoos and piercings are very much a personal thing.

Perhaps it is linked to her early exposure to domestic abuse?

Perhaps she was testing those around her – especially the people at her church or the sniggering parents at school?

How did she feel when she heard the whispers, saw the sneering glances,was openly rejected by the other parents?

Did this rejection make her want to become more outrageous?

I don’t have the answers – just a bunch of psychological theories that may or may not apply.

Whatever.  I wish her well.

‘Wholly Day – mild religious references contained within’

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To some people, Easter Sunday is a holy day.  A time of religious rejoicing, spending time with the family and probably going to church at least once.

A bit like the Sainsbury’s Easter advert – I can’t help thinking that the man is going to run amok and slaughter his family now that he has found the hammer and screwdriver though.

To others. the day is a nuisance because all the big shops are shut, the TV is full of religious stuff, and everyone feels sick from eating far too many Easter eggs, bunnies, and anything else you can make out of chocolate – oh use your imagination – I’m trying to keep it clean here.

For me, religion is an extremely personal thing.

I respect the right of all other people to observe their own religions – and I expect them to respect my right to tell them to do one when they knock at my front door trying to co-opt me.

They must have all been busy today because I was blissfully undisturbed whilst munching on the chocolate bunny given to me by my Best Mate. I’m saving the giant Walnut Whip for tomorrow afternoon when Hub goes off to work.

We were regularly exposed to religion as children; the vicar had a goat that I was very attached to so going to Sunday School was never a chore.  My Mum used to deliver the parish magazine and I can remember the front room being tidied because the vicar was coming round.

When I got older, a friend and I decided to sample the delights of different churches in our area.

Probably the best was the one with the swimming pool because they gave you 50p at Christmas and 50p on your birthday.  Our attendance was short-lived; being January babies we joined in December and left in February.  Discovering that the swimming pool was used to dunk people in whilst fully clothed was a bit of let down too. Okay, so we were mercenary but 50p bought a lot of sweets in those days.

Religious studies in senior school were an eye opener.  We had two teachers: Reverend Double-Barrelled Surname (who had a very cute son) and Mr Groper, a lay preacher in more than one sense.  Not surprisingly, I preferred the Rev’s lessons as he was rather sweet and could be easily diverted into telling proud stories about his son.

The Groper would work his way round the room massaging shoulders as he preached fire and brimstone about impure thoughts whilst trying to find out exactly what kind of thoughts we had been having – it was an all girls school so he had plenty of shoulders to grope.  He only did it to me the once.  I snarled at him and he gave me a very wide berth after that.

Someone complained (not me) and he was replaced by an earnest young lady fresh out of teacher training college who tried to get us to sing hand-clappy songs but had to stop when the grumpy human biology teacher next door complained about the noise (we were not singing nicely).

In my twenties I flirted with religion to the extent that I got confirmed and for a while, was the anarchic leader of the church youth club.  Said youth club had been set up to occupy the time of the unruly choir, a rather wonderful bunch of teenagers whose company I found far more acceptable than some of the so-called Christians who’d push you out of the way in their haste to get communion before the wine ran out and had to be watered down and re-blessed.

The vicar and his sub were extremely nice people who were well aware that many of the congregation were less than Christian in their attitude.  If I learned anything about Christian charity, it was from them, not from the bigoted family of churchwardens who looked down on anyone who didn’t conform to their norm.

As the worst member of this particular family was going down for communion one Sunday morning, a spotlight fell from the ceiling and JUST missed him.   It may well have been an accident but I always felt that it was the old man up the lady flexing his muscle.

The vicar and his sub were also understanding when the youth club had a children’s tea party with jelly and ice-cream; a ham sandwich was found in a light-fitting some weeks later.  Food Fight!

They had the common sense not to come over to the church hall on Sunday evenings expecting us to be involved in bible study; more often than not the lights would be dimmed and we would all be bopping around to ‘Rocking the Casbah’ or ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’.  The bad taste Hallowe’en party at the Vicarage was perhaps pushing the boundaries a bit too far – especially when the head chorister turned up in a blood-stained loincloth as the Risen Christ.

Life moved me away from the church but the vicar’s sub got his own parish later and baptised both my boys.

For a while we did Midnight Communion at our local church because it made life more Christmassy;  especially the late comers who had lurched over from the pub in search of forgiveness or a sip of wine.

When the boys reached school age we moved on to Christingles.  Uni Boy quite enjoyed them but Gap Boy got told off because he started eating the dolly mixtures off his Christingle and wouldn’t blow his candle out when asked.

We made our own Christingles at home after that, and after extreme exposure to alternative religions at high school, both our boys are now decidedly atheist – but at least they are consistent in their attitude to religion.

I love old churches though.

I love the carved  wood, the cool stone and the solace that can come from a brief moment of quiet contemplation.

Not all churches have it unfortunately, and I know as soon as I walk in the door whether that something special is there or not.

If not I beat a hasty retreat.

I suppose I must still be a bit religious because I still can’t get to sleep without saying the Lord’s Prayer to myself. It is a bit like a mantra that keeps my beloveds safe I suppose.

I must be growing up slightly however, because I still have three Easter Eggs left and two hot cross buns that I forgot to have for lunch.

Happy Easter – and it is wholly up to you how holy your celebration is – just keep your hands off my Easter Eggs.

I shall go back to being unwholly tomorrow when Hub and I join the Bank Holiday throngs to buy exciting things for our new kitchen – but more of that to follow.