|Product dimensions:||5.92(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.78(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The sun, though weak, was warm. The beginnings of Beauty Parlour weather. The signal for women with the whey faces of winter to come creeping from their centrally-heated hibernations and begin to think about pink cheeks, bright eyes and the hope that springs eternal after a good rubdown with exfoliating cream.
Tabitha, nose up, scenting the first delicious hints of post-Easter spring underlying the morning exhaust fumes, contemplated the months ahead like a pointer after prey: the Christmas turkeys, the Shrove Tuesday fry-up, the gluttony for protein where only an apple was required, all brought to a head (in many cases quite literally) by Easter and its chocolate. It was a busy time from now on.
Tabitha, whose life was her Beauty Parlour, felt her heart lift as she turned the corner into the High Street. Not that the High Street itself presented a heart-lifting aspect but there, at the end of it, past the building societies, the Woolworths, the Victoria Wine and the banks, was the little cream-painted sign, swinging gently in the breeze, its elegant strawberry-pink lettering proclaiming the legend 'Tabitha's Beauty Parlour – an appointment not always necessary'.
She screwed up her eyes to focus on it and thought that it seemed further away than usual. She refocused, relaxed her face and patted the skin of her temples as if to rearrange any temporary creases. Nonsense, she thought briskly, and hurried along. When she looked again she could make out the lettering perfectly well. All the same, the lift in her heart seemed to die a little, despite her attempt to revive it.
The spring air, with its promise of burgeoning summer, is also a warning. Well might Sage Grandmother state that Beauty comes from within ... raising her trembling old finger to stab the air as she insists that you will never find a Beautiful woman who is ugly inside, shaking her grizzled locks to emphasize that Beauty feeds on a sap of kindness ...
Well indeed might her quavering voice offer up all these ancient wisdoms, but Tabitha smiles – Hot Wax to that! She turns the key smoothly in the lock. Beauty feeds on the opportunity that Nature has bestowed, and which Nature, fickle mother, then spends all her time trying to take away again. It is Tabitha's job to intercede, and redress this capricious clawing-back as best she can.
She removes the key and pushes down on the doorhandle which is shining and golden and delicately chased with cupids: fitting for a door which opens on to a little piece of Paradise.
It is a nice idea, she thinks, that Beauty radiates from within, but – she places her hand on the rose-painted door plate and gently pushes – my best friend at school, Brenda, was the sweetest-natured girl in the world. Utterly well-meaning, utterly lovely of character, utterly beautiful inside and utterly devoid of Nature's Opportunity. She had everything against her – small piggy eyes, florid full lips, plump cheeks on a face shaped like a fat pear, and a body like a tube. Open her up and she was enchanting. Look her over at a dance and you'd pass by on the other side. She could stand there all night exuding Beauty from Within and thinking Nice Thoughts, but she still had to buy her own lager-and-lime and pay her single bus fare home.
Whereas Wendy Woods, who had a toad for a soul and a desert where the milk of beautiful kindness should flow, had only to cross her legs, open her china blues and pout a bit and she was positively drowning in Babycham. Fights broke out on the bus over who should be allowed to pay her fare, be the lucky swain to take her home and have his adolescent balls crushed by her cruel and knowing ways.
It was in contemplation of this phenomenon that Tabitha's first interest in the World of Beauty began. An interest much deepened by giving her youthful heart to a chap with hair like an angel's, face like a god's, body willowy as aspen, skin soft as down and a heart as black and hard as granite – now referred to, in her most private considerations, as the Arsehole. The cream-coloured door opens noiselessly upon the salon's eau-de-Nil carpet, soothing as a secluded pool. She smiles a little grimly at the fleeting reminder of one to whom she applies such an uncharacteristically crude name. Never again, she thinks, never, never again.
She steps silently upon the velvety carpet and her nostrils take in the rich, gratifying smell of geranium oil, still hanging in the air from Saturday's broken capillaries. What Tabitha enjoys most is giving her ladies faces that fit, the confidence to get what they want and to keep it. Which is what she tells her little trainee beautician, the sparkling Chloe. Tabitha looks at her watch. The girl will be here soon. Better get the post sorted. Once she arrives there is work to be done, lessons to be learned! As she herself once learned at Bettina's Boudoir, many years ago.
Tabitha sighs for poor schoolfriend Bren. How she could have helped her now. And that was what those very plain women, who painted signs across the windows of Bettina's Boudoir, did not understand. Malicious signs suggesting all manner of unpleasantness, in very nasty letters of dribbling white paint. Words implying that the concept of society requiring your face to fit had its ultimate expression in Nazi Germany.
Well, it was a long time ago, as Bettina remarked, and should be viewed on the Great Plain of History as a blip, much as Victorian phrenology is now viewed as no more than fairy dust. So said Bettina, a wise woman, currently working on a history of cosmetics. Tabitha still sees her old teacher, now plain Betty, from time to time. Especially when Tabitha feels a little concerned about Chloe's progress and needs advice – which, oddly, has been a little more necessary of late.
She crosses to the window, stooping to retrieve a small trimming from a false eyelash, shaking her head over it. If only she could persuade that particular client how much more pleasingly natural an eyelash tint might be. But poor Miss Potter, one of Tabitha's first-ever regular clients, would not be told. Azure blue lids and a wink like a nest of spiders. No wonder she had never achieved her desire to be married.
Mostly what her ladies want is a mate, though the delicate concept is never openly discussed. On the Beautician's Couch the brash and explicit have no place. She tells Chloe this, often. It is something Chloe finds quite hard to take on board.
A good girl, though, and so lovely, thinks Tabitha as she pulls up the hint-of-a-tint-pink blind with its satin ruffles and observes the world beyond.
Out there are countless women all striving to be beautiful, to get what they want. Or at least to get the chance to belong. What Betty told those slogan-women, very crisply, was that we are all equals in the boudoir. Even Hitler found his Eva and had his moustache trimmed to oblige. Betty, a mere commoner from Hampton Wick, had done the make-up for the Coronation Ladies-inWaiting so she knew about equality all right.
Tabitha pulls down the opulent blind with a snap, for the sunlight is too strong for the faces of her ladies. The simple truth, and one not to be muddled up with politics, was that if you grin like a vacant baboon and flutter bald eyelashes you will wait a lifetime to belong. Toss a head of scented curls, smile curvaceously and ...
She opens the post.
Almost every piece of advertising matter confirms the simple truth: even Dynarod, where the woman in soft pink clasps her hands in rapture as she watches her Schwarzenegger ramming it up. Nothing is without a picture of a couple, or a male and female who are potentially a couple, and they are beautiful. 'Exactly so,' thinks Tabitha, and she slips her arms into an eau-de-Nil overall and tidies away her outdoor garments into a pink and cream cupboard with a motif of shells and cornucopias en bras.
She remembers the sudden enlightenment during English, where she and Brenda sat side by side at school and wanted to be Wendy Woods: Beauty Ruled. In the sudden clarity of understanding Tabitha went on to write a very passionate piece on the subject, which she told Chloe about the other day. She quite often tried to lift Chloe's sights a bit. And not without success, she fancied.
Tabitha recited 'On His Blindness' and explained that when the poet Milton wrote of ten thousand flocking to do God's bidding, it was on the basic assumption that God was very Beautiful. God, as we know, positively shines with Beauty. God does not have a squint and a pimple on his/her/its nose. Or dewlaps. God is firm, bright-eyed and, like all beauties, given to jealousy. Hence that fist-smiting rage at the Golden Calf; hence lying around in Heaven frothing at the mouth and kicking the Divine Walls over all those subsequent attempts to set up other Beautiful rivals; hence giving everyone boils and whatnot. Look on my glory only, said the Lord/Lady/Thing, or I will punish you by going away for ever.
It is as well to know about these things, Chloe, she told her.
Chloe nodded and said 'Quite.'
Which was considerably better than saying fuck a duck, which is what she used to say rather a lot. The modern way, Tabitha supposed.
Male God, she thinks, squirting the air with bergamot freshener, but we girls do what we can. Squirt, squirt.
Mother Theresa, Golda Meir – admirable, fearsome women, but they – Tabitha switches on the gentle lighting – forgot to cleanse and moisturize. She returns to the reception desk and leans against its pearly quilting.
Let us not, observes Tabitha to the tenderly curled rosebuds in their pink and white display, fall into the Reality Gap. Let us not, she dots each one with rose oil, get carried away on a notion of the way we would like it to be. Let us accept it as it is and Get On With It. Those silly women with their hairy legs. She shivers again at the thought.
'You only have to use your eyes,' she tells the frieze of Three Dainty Graces which adorns the walls. 'See a beautiful woman dining with her chap in a restaurant, and see the chap's eyes stray to stare at another impressive female, and if he survives without the Châteauneuf-du-Pape being wrapped around his ears, he is doing well.'
Ah, but – 'See another table in the same restaurant, at which sit a chap and his plain female companion, and then watch what happens if his eyes stray. Plain Female Companion will appear not to notice, go on sipping the Chardonnay and become riveted by the fishbones on her plate, rather than show the slightest hint of a miff.'
The Three Graces dance on. They, being plaster, have nothing to fear from time, she thinks. But even born-in Beauty is a holding position. A brief gift. No wonder Sage Grandmother says it comes from within. Sage Grandmother would, wouldn't she? But did she say that when she was wearing white dresses and tripping through the cornfields with a beau? Tabitha shakes her head. 'Not unless she was lying through her still attached teeth.'
Tabitha looks at her watch. Chloe – unless she gets a real move on – will be late again. Tabitha begins her hand exercises: flex, flex, flex.
Even the delicate rose – she touches one again – will droop and die. But pop an aspirin in its water and you can keep it going for quite a while.
Tabitha sees herself as a large white aspirin for her ladies. But not an artificer, as Chloe would have it, more a decorator. As if there were a plain plaster ceiling which mouldings and a fine carved rose would beautify. She looks up at her own, all fruit and flowers, with its central dropping chandelier of Venetian glass lilies.
Where is that girl?
If she is not here soon, she will arrive just as the first ten o'clock appointment arrives – disturbing the calm, swirling the air, her youth forgetting to hold its tongue as it marches across the threshold, rustling and fiddling as she puts on her overall and settles herself in.
Tabitha smoothes cream into her hands. Calm must always prevail. What happens when her creations go forth is none of her business, nor is it her business to engage in controversy, no matter how her ladies try to encourage it. It would hardly be appropriate to add to their insecurity by telling them that in her opinion they are making a grave error by agreeing to their lovers' demands for bondage, or letting their mothers-in-law stay for a month.
If her opinion is sought on anything more than a shade of lipstick, or whether to have overhanging lids corrected, she simply smiles, keeps the response safely locked within the confines of her skull, and the soft, pink pads of her fingers never falter. She can sigh and shake her head, or smile knowingly in a hundred different ways – full of meaning, saying nothing. A woman's art, soothing, the kind of art that no man could fathom, nor should. Tabitha has perfected this art of saying nothing very well.
She could wish, she sighs, that Chloe had grasped the notion completely. Tabitha's assistant will still venture an opinion of a controversial nature, for she is but young. Such a thought brings a creeping warmth to Tabitha's neck and cheeks. A new phenomenon. She touches her face with her hands. Best not think about that, she decides. Very probably all it requires is a little less heating now that spring has arrived. Nevertheless, the pads of her soft pink fingertips are cool by comparison. She sighs. Time. Time moving on.
With those same cool fingers she re-attends the post, throwing away extraneous matter as she would exfoliate the dead cells from tired skin. Improved salon design? She does not need that. The salon is perfect. Though Chloe's description of it, like walking into a warm ice-cream, does not exactly express what Tabitha had in mind.
It had certainly been something of a tussle, sending back the bright red handset when a new telephone system was installed. Chloe had been quite sulky. She even painted her nails to match, so that when Tabitha first walked in and discovered Chloe using the equipment it had looked, in that beautiful, pale setting, like a spattering of bloodspots on a ballerina's tutu. That was the first occasion on which Tabitha felt the rising flush.
'Red as the phone,' Chloe had giggled.
Not a very nice thing to say in the circumstances.
Where is the girl?
The last envelope contains an offer of financial help to expand the business. Tabitha throws it away. She must now consider retirement. Already daylight has become a little too cruel and the subdued glow of the salon no longer disguises the march of age, Beauty's Doom ...
And anyway, her finances are rosy, if her cheeks are fading, and she will retire to comfort somewhere in southwest Spain: Andalucia, Granada – where the Moorish connection with the perfumed, softened, tantalizing delights of the female body is in the very air of the lemon groves; where the ancient Arab memory of harem whisperings stirs the almond-blossomed boughs, and the bees weave their way drowsily through hot loops of scarlet chillis to where the fat pink flowerheads await their pleasure. Tabitha will retire there, for she has, she feels, done her bit.
I, Tabitha, she thinks.
I, Tabitha, who knows.
Training Chloe is her enduring gift. For what she knows is that, despite the lobbying of short-haired feminists in army boots, the service she gives is one as old as time. Older, even, than the Oldest Profession. Of course it is. Before selling your wares you need to make them as desirable as possible. Marks and Spencers irradiates food for a longer shelf-life; Tabitha irradiates women. The more peachy they look, the higher the price.
Older than the selling of favours is the manner of enhancing them. A little berry juice on a nipple here, a little ash beneath the eyes there, and, with the flames thrown high against the walls of the cave, you can charge an extra goatskin easy.
She switches on sweet music so that the gentling sounds of rain in a forest and the charmed song of birds susurrate soothingly around the room. Idly she rearranges the lipstick display. A shocking palette of brightness in the cool scene, but not as shocking as it might be. For Tabitha the post-punk tendency is not pleasing, and she will not accommodate it – purple lids and vampish lips are too strident in her opinion. It may be what some women feel they want but, very gently, Tabitha will dissuade them. But only gently, for the boudoir denies them nothing, unlike the angry world outside.
She opens her appointments book and listens to the Ansaphone. A new day.
Looking up, she sees Chloe hurrying down the High Street – beautiful even in her speed – good posture despite her clutching to her bosom a pile of books. Tabitha sighs again, for the books have pulled up her skirt a fraction at the front to reveal her only physical fault – her knock-knees. A small imperfection in one so otherwise perfect, muses Tabitha. And then she stares, startled.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sleeping Beauties"
Copyright © 1996 Mavis Cheek.
Excerpted by permission of Ipso Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.