Something a bit different from 'our Lil'...
I keep it in a bag, my face. It hides there of a night when I slumber and dream.
The bag isn’t new. It is black and it is padded and it reminds me of cheap, knock-off Chanel. For five years it has been home to the composite pieces that come together every morning to rebuild my mask. It is the latest in a long-line of face keepers; storing cosmetics for me since the first time I walked out of Woolworths without paying for the pearly pink lip gloss tucked into my size 6 jeans pocket. I was thirteen.
‘You look… different,’ said Julia when I walked into the youth club, mouth sparkling. There was no verbal invitation but from then on I hung out with the girls; I was one of them – when it suited. But I wasn’t a beauty. I wasn’t good enough to go to the parties, and was certainly too dull to be introduced to the boys.
Eventually I grew sick of being dropped, or having Julia turn her back on me, mid-conversation when someone more interesting walked into the room. Silly bitch. She married a thief. It’s thirty years on now, and she still thinks she’s special. She’s like a skull on legs and her husband’s back in jail. Yeah, Julia. You’re that special.
The face isn’t what it was back then. There’s far more to it. I have sculptured eyebrows in place of thick doorsteps. Add a perfect ten to that teenage size 6 and I now have a couple of extra chins. But I also have a method.
There’s the seaweed wash. There’s the algae toner. Marine moisturiser spreads thinly over my fleshy visage, followed by thick demattifier to soak up the evil oil that seeps from my pores.
Beige foundation – it’s too yellow, this one. I have to mix it with a bit of pink. I smudge it into my skin until every flaw, every blemish is covered, concealed.
I pull my hair back and look at the bare-faced lie reflected back at me in the mirror. A blank canvas. I could do anything with it. I could be anyone.
But I want to be me. I’ve always wanted to be me, not her.
The ritual begins. Rose powder on the chub of my cheeks. Coffee blusher down the sides, and beneath my chin. Pale cream below the eyebrows, bumhole brown shadow on the lids. I have a tiny pot of ebony powder – I poke the black dust into my lower eyelashes, in the centre only - for that Captain Jack Sparrow look. More black goes above my eyes at the outer edges. Keep it outside – not in, if you want big and smoky. Pinched and piggy’s not nice.
I stop for a moment. It’s stark. But it’s taking shape. Eyeliner – black. Eyebrow pencil – black. Here comes the liquid liner with its tiny brush to give me those Audrey Hepburns. I have to let it dry so I stand and stare at myself, watching the green of my irises change from oyster to verdigris. And back again.
My lips are thin. They want to pout, want to be full and luscious. I take the camel hair paintbrush – it’s meant for acrylics and watercolours, but it suits my purpose perfectly. I slide it, coat it fully in a thick, black cherry lipstick, and I start painting. There has to be precision when you design your mouth, particularly the top lip. Too pointed, and you are Siouxsie Sioux for the day; too round and you could drag for England, with the rest of the queens. I fill in the white spaces where my own lip pigment doesn’t reach… and there is my outline. I make it thicker, then thicker again. I could do mulberry pink, for the office, or violent red, for me. I opt for red, more cherry – a dirty scarlet. I push the waxy stick inside my mouth, painting it as deep as I can. Then I blend it into my outline until I have a solid, unique burgundy. I blow myself a kiss, sneer in an Elvis stylee – both sides – it’s a talent I have. Now to make it permanent.
I don’t like glossy lips, the sticky gloop looks nasty left on my tea-cup, or my glass of Sauvignon. With naturally oily skin, a glistening, wet mouth looks like the oil has run and deposited itself there. Not a good look for a girl.
Instead I take a natural translucent powder on a soft pad and dab it all over my lips, encrusting them. I blow. Gently rubbing the excess inwards and away, I reveal the plump, matte, red velvet result. I am Clara Bow.
Nearly ready. Can’t go too fast or it breaks the spell. I dip a finger into darkness, into chocolate. I rub it round my eyes, softening the effect of the dried, thin black lines.
There’s a penultimate act – chunky mascara, layer upon layer. It’s clubbing stuff for divas; it makes fat, thick lashes. I don’t temper it for day wear. I like the false look.
I am complete. Now I look like the me I want to be. I’ve stopped looking like the aunt who brought me up, dragged me up – in place of my mother. No longer resemble the vile woman who hurt and abused me from infancy.
Our hair, mahogany and thick as haystacks was always the same. Long, unkempt, wiry. I cut it all off when I was fourteen, not long after the shoplifting started. Later I bleached it blond, kept it cropped in crisp white spikes. I was disguised.
Four years ago, happily married to Jack and nursing our first child, I got a letter. ‘Dearest Zoe. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch. I’m trying to get the family back together again. Don’t you think that would be nice?’ She left her address, and a phone number. I didn’t reply. I didn’t call. I bumped into the usual cousins, uncles, nieces about town and I just had to ask, casually. But no-one else had received a letter. So why just me?
I looked down at my sweet baby, cooing in my arms, and I knew…
It was Christmas when I saw her in the street, nowhere near where she lived, but just two roads away from my house. I wouldn’t have recognised her if she hadn’t called out. I squinted, and my heart turned to stone. She was grey now, a light, indistinct grey that was short; short around her ears, short on top. She looked like me. She looked like the person I’d deliberately turned myself into. I had to swallow the bile that hit my throat.
I was a coward. I didn’t have the guts to take her to task, though all I wanted was to smash her face in for what she’d done to me, make her grovel for mercy as I crushed her skull in with the heel of my boot.
She started to walk towards me, but I shook my head, and walked away.
That afternoon I headed straight into town to my stylist.
‘I want to grow it out, Joey’ I said. ‘And I’m going natural.’
Joey fingered my locks, looking dubious.
‘What the hell is your real colour, hon?’ So I told him.
‘Mmmmn. Well, let’s do it gradually’ he said. ‘Lowlight it out. Give people time to get used to it. Because you know, at your age…’
‘Just do it,’ I told him.
I left the salon a brunette for the first time in decades.
It’s the festive season again. Millie is making paper chains, and the tree is sparkling in splendour. I’m nearly back to the original me. I have bouncing dark curls. I’ve a face I’m not afraid to look at. And whilst I’m cuddly, I’m losing weight. I’m turning back into the woman I should have been if my mother hadn’t died in a car crash when her own sister was driving. I’ve learnt to smile again, because this summer, they caught her.
"Widow Moira Gentry turned to fostering when the niece she had cared for from the age of four, left home," the newspaper said. I read on, horrified. "After Gentry approached two of her victims, now adults with new families of their own, the former foster-children each went to the police, suspicious that Gentry was trying to gain access to their own young ones".
I felt sick. That was what she had tried with me.
"One of the victims said, ‘She was disgusting. Her house was filthy; she was filthy – in every way. She used to punish us for things we hadn’t done, then use her revolting ‘special’ way of making you feel better.’"
More than half-a-dozen women came forward. The court case was plastered all over the dailies, and I read every word, appalled yet relieved beyond belief. Relieved but desperately sad I wasn’t the only one. Relieved she hadn’t got to Millie.
Every day throughout the trial I told myself I needed to go to the police myself; give them my story. Actually I was amazed they didn’t contact me. Perhaps they felt they had enough evidence to send her away for a very long time without distressing others she may have abused. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What if she got off? What if they let her free to hurt and destroy the souls of other children? I decided. I would do it tomorrow.
Divine intervention is a wonderful thing. I never had to make that call. The night I made my brave, momentous decision Auntie Moira died. She didn’t just die; she was kicked until her ribs broke and her spleen burst. She was punched in the face, repeatedly; shards of cheekbone pierced her eyeballs. It seemed only right. But most satisfyingly, the other women in the prison stamped all over her hands, smashing her evil fingers to pulp. When I read that, I sobbed. Because I thought of all the things she’d done to me with those hands, and I was glad, ecstatically glad that she suffered, that she died slowly of internal bleeding, and according to the newspapers, in horrendous pain.
It is a beautiful June morning. The light shines in through my windows and into my heart. I smile at the mirror – my face is clean and my hair is down. I am slim. I am well.
For the first time in my adult life I leave the house wearing no make-up. The fear has gone. The mask is broken.
I don’t need ‘the face’ any more.
I’m keeping it in the bag.
© Lily Childs 26 November 2009
Lily Childs is a budding writer in the mystery, chiller and horror genre, and is thrilled to have her short stories published on Thrillers Killers 'N' Chillers.
She is currently writing her first novel and lives on the Sussex Coast with her artist husband and beautiful 5-year old daughter. Lily blogs at: 'Lily Childs' Feardom'. and here.