Welcome to my third showcase of writing on the theme of human transformation.
Last week, I showcased a short story by Meg Hung which focused on a difficult father-son relationship. This week, I’ve chosen a short story by Laura Pitman, Cashmere, which is centred on a sticky mother-daughter relationship currently undergoing a transformation now the daughter is becoming a woman with her own mind and style.
In keeping with this theme of how clothes and image reflect and shape our individual identities and can often transform us, I will then introduce to you my next piece, a short extract from my short story The Wig Show.
But first, Laura Pitman’s Cashmere, which makes good use of an omniscient narrator to reveal the multiple viewpoints of mother, daughter and shop assistant.
Laura says, “Cashmere is about a mother’s love for her daughter as she develops from infant to teenager. Catherine is quietly determined to enjoy their relationship in spite of some current friction. It was inspired by many years of mother-daughter shopping fails.”
Fear of overspending made Catherine’s legs feel like jelly. To be fair, she didn’t covet the clothes, but was intrigued instead by her fellow browsers in the town’s only ‘expensive shop’. She imagined they belonged to racy husbands who loved to feel their wives in cashmere. She pictured their daughters; they would discuss outfits together, before heading out for glamorous evenings of cocktails and dinner.
She moved towards a display of jumpers. With the heady scents of bergamot and winter jasmine (she saw the names on the diffuser bottles), the rich colours of the cashmere and the thick carpet which hushed all unwanted noise, this shop was perfect.
Catherine placed her fingers on the cashmere and instantly wondered if she dared.
Mabel would love this! Wouldn’t she?
Catherine chose, in the end, the darkest colour in the range. It was like slate or charcoal. It reminded her of the Devon farmhouse they’d rented one summer. Vincent hated it and had left after two days. Catherine, in feigned stoicism about ‘the conditions’, stayed on with Mabel, then six. In truth, she’d loved the house. From its dark slate floors and small windows, the kitchen range, the low ceilings, the unkempt grass and overgrown flowerbeds, it embodied a world so foreign to her own. She’d lit the log fire every day. She and Mabel adventured in the garden and on walks. The sumptuous jumper made her think of that treasured time; the slate and the mud. Fun. Mabel was so young then. So simple. Now, nearly 17, her character spat and sparkled like a crackling fire where the logs are too green.
Catherine left the shop, glowing. The jumper nestled in tissue paper, in a cardboard bag with handles made of ribbon.
‘Why did they have to celebrate my birthday in a pub?’ Mabel thought, as they took their seats on a busy Saturday. Mind you, their house was so dull. In that sense, there was nothing to lose. Like two gargoyles, her parents sat across the table from her. Her mother’s make-up was all wrong. Lipstick – yuck! Hair dyed the wrong shade. Father in what she believed to be called a ‘sports jacket’, but which wasn’t used for sport. However did she, so stylish, come from these two?
The food was just so … average. Sausage and mash, traditional roast. The ordinary sort. She dreamt of places like the ones she saw on TV with artichoke sorbet. Beetroot carpaccio.
The cloying normality of the Red Bull sank over her. “Can I have a drink?”
“When you say ‘drink’, do you mean ‘drink, drink’?” asked her father. He looked amused but she couldn’t see what was so funny.
She crossed her arms. “Can I have a gin and tonic?”
Simultaneously, her parents responded. Vincent with a “No” and Catherine a “Yes”.
“I’ll have a double please.”
They stared at her.
“It is my birthday!” She offered this as an explanation to their incredulous looks.
Catherine regarded their daughter. She had a nose stud (left side) and several cartilage piercings in her right ear. A small tattoo peeked out on the left side of her neck from under her dark brown hair, where it fell onto her shoulders. She had to admit that Mabel did carry off a certain style in her appearance. She and Mabel’s father did not share their daughter’s flair.
“Drinking spirits at 17 in a pub is against the law, Mabel, even with your parents present.”
“And so is breaking the speed limit,” Mabel muttered inaudibly.
Catherine spoke up, with surprising animation. “Well, I would like a gin and tonic please! Mabel, why don’t you have a glass of wine?”
Mabel looked at her mother, who was making a weird expression as she said this.
Vincent shook his head and sighed. “I’ll have half a cider.”
Mabel cringed inwardly. What sort of man orders half a cider in a pub?
The drinks came. Catherine told Vincent to fetch the menus from the bar. While he was gone, she poured her gin into her water glass. Then Mabel’s wine into her gin glass and then the gin into Mabel’s wine glass.
“Mum, what are you doing?” she gasped.
“Shh. Just drink it.”
They sat back as if nothing had happened. Mabel ordered the sausage and mash, declaring it her favourite. Turned out she hadn’t tasted anything so delicious for a while.
It was time for presents. Vincent handed Mabel an envelope containing £100 in crisp ten-pound notes. Buoyed by the alcohol, Mabel gushed her thanks.
“I didn’t want to presume, so I thought it was best you chose something yourself.”
‘Cop out,’ thought Mabel. ‘He could have asked me.’
It was Catherine’s turn.
“I’ve organised for you to have some driving lessons with uncle John.”
“No way!” Mabel was wide-eyed with excitement. “But…”
“He’s flying home this Friday. He’ll be staying with us until he finds his feet.”
John was a singer. Fun. Outrageous. Her father was so boring. Uncle John had always promised Mabel he would teach her to drive a real car since her third birthday, when he’d given her a plastic car, like a yellow igloo on wheels.
“I’ve got you train tickets for a trip to London with a friend, any time in the next month.”
“Aww, thanks, Mum!”
“And on the way home we’re going to nip into town, as I happened upon something in one of the charity shops last week.”
Mabel put down her fork.
“You’ve been to a charity shop? Catherine Atkinson has been seen in a charity shop!”
Catherine drained the wine. “I think you dress very well from all ‘those’ shops so I’ve been taking a look myself.” She sat back and fingered the scarf around her neck. “Do you like it?”
“Mum, it’s gorgeous. Which shop?”
“British Heart Foundation.” She picked up her handbag. “And this!”
Mabel took a deep breath. “That’s so cool.” She smiled at her mum. Maybe her make-up wasn’t so bad, but it needed work.
Catherine leant forward on the table. In hushed tones, she said, “There was something in the Oxfam shop which was… well, it was very nice. I thought you might like it, but I know our tastes are different. So, instead, I asked them to keep it to one side. We can pop in on the way home and see what you think?”
The girl came in from the street, long black coat wafting out behind her, heavy make-up, very stylish. Quite off-putting amongst the old ladies and mothers with pushchairs shuffling around looking at the racks of clothes.
Jan, behind the counter, guessed this was the girl whose mum had been in. “Are you Mabel?” She produced a crumpled plastic bag.
Mabel peered inside.
Jan went on. “It’s cashmere. Seems new. Your mum was lucky to spot it when it came in, and she persuaded me to keep it to one side. I’m not really meant to do that.”
Mabel pulled out the jumper, which was sumptuous, soft and gorgeous. She tried it on; baggy and floppy, just how she liked it. Her mother hated her in black and in oversized clothes. “Mum chose this?” She laughed.
In the shop’s stark lighting, she saw it wasn’t black; more of a charcoal. Dark grey, like slate or the embers in a fire. It made her think of something, a memory. Her mother? A house? She smelt the cashmere. There was a hint of scent in the fibres. Sophisticated and exciting. Not like the musty smell in the Oxfam shop.
“I’ll take it.”
She climbed into the back of the car, waiting just outside.
“Thanks, Mum, it’s great.” She smiled and leant through into the front to give her mother a kiss. She sat back, with the bag on her lap. “It’s one big nutter who buys a jumper like that and then sends it to a charity shop.”
© Laura Pitman, 2021
The Wig Show is based on a real sales event I wandered into by mistake, age 15, at an English holiday camp. Suddenly surrounded by dozens of older women, I felt as though I was entering another world! Decades later, when I understood more than I did then about gender politics, the often-ugly dynamics in marriage, and the pressure on women to remain youthful and attractive, I put everything I discovered that day into what became a fairly lengthy short story.
In this short extract, Marjorie is doing her annual sales pitch at the 1980s holiday camp in question.
Extract from The Wig Show
“Welcome to the Wig Show,” Marjorie said. “What a pleasure it is to see so many familiar faces.”
It was a voice that could crack nuts.
These were not any old wigs, she said, but wigs made from real human hair. “Teen girls from Russia are queuing up to sell whole heads of it. The optimum age of these girls is 13. Once puberty has rampaged, well, you wouldn’t wanna know.”
Someone in the front few pews mumbled something inaudible.
“Their loss is your gain, Brenda,” Marjorie said, before launching in to the whys and wherefores of how to shampoo, brush and store your wig.
“If you buy a longer wig it can be more versatile in the long run,” she croaked. “Should you get bored with it, simply pop along to your hairdresser and get them to style it for you. It can be cut and blown, or set in rollers, just as you would your own hair.”
She held up a Margaret Thatcher caramel number.
“Never be afraid of your wig. You control it – don’t ever let it control you.”
Marjorie surveyed her room. Every single head was giving her their undivided attention. “Now, who’s for trying one?”
She was instantly descended upon by 50 doves-turned-vultures.
“Calm down, calm down,” Marjorie said. “There’s no hurry. I’m here till 12.”
But she may as well have been holding back the queue outside the door of a jumble sale.
Marjorie worked the crowd of women, grabbing randomly at wigs and clinging onto them as if their lives depended on it, her years of experience coming to the fore.
“You had that one last year, dear. Perhaps you’d like to go a little more daring.” “Try this one. A tad bronzer.” “Towards the copper would look marvellous with your skin-tone. Bring out those gorgeous green eyes.” “Take your glasses off, darlin’, let’s get the full effect.”
The women lapped it up, twirling their heads to show their friends, receiving a shower of compliments with every inch of a head-turn: “Gorgeous!” “Stunning” and, from Marjorie: “Fabulous, sweetie. That is you.”
“Oh, now, Maureen! Look, Bet, doesn’t she look adorable. That ash-blonde suits her down to a tee. Doesn’t it just? To. A. Tee. Who knew you were a curly?”
The wigs were swapped around with gusto. One by one, the room of grey heads was transformed into a multitude of vibrant hues. And it wasn’t just the women’s hair that changed. Their faces began to alter, too. They began to have eye colours, of various shades and depths. Noses which had previously melded into the general gloom of their faces now stood out as hooked or button or pinched or Roman. Cheekbones appeared, eyebrows came into focus, face-shapes and distinct personalities emerged. Teeth became characterful; mouths animated and expressive. The women were becoming cheeky, mischievous, sprightly, sweet, their skin tones now distinct from one another. It was as though Marjorie had conjured, from somewhere invisible, this roomful of blondes, brunettes and red-heads, and made them tangible again.
They were all smiling, smiling, smiling.
“You’re all beautiful,” Marjorie said, clapping her hands together. “Beautiful!”
A man appeared in the doorway, looking a little ruffled and out of breath. “I was told there was an emergency,” he said and was more than a bit relieved to see his wife alive and in one piece. He was informed the emergency in question was concerning a purchase she wanted him to make on her behalf and was soon enveloped by the cheers from the women that thronged around him and swept him into the room. They all but carried him above their heads.
The man, whose name was Don, was duly presented with the purchases his wife Joy wanted to make: a curly auburn wig and a Marilyn Monroe, laid out before him like precious wares. The other women waited with expectant eyes and baited breath for Don to give the nod. You could have heard a pin drop as he took on board what was being asked of him, his tongue sucking his teeth as he wrestled with his decision. Fortunately for Joy, Don was the Man from Del Monte.
“Whatever makes her happy,” he said, at last, and reached into his inside blazer pocket for his chequebook.
© Lucy Kaufman, 2015
Unfortunately, the full story does not end as happily for all the wives at the wig show, which was the first time I encountered the shocking truth that marriage is not always the fairy tale I had been led to believe.
But it is not all gloom and doom for women as they transform with age. Next week, we meet the wonderful Iris, who discovers that, even in her eighties, it is never too late to blossom.
A huge thank you to Emmanuel Oreyeni for his fabulous wig pop art, which has really captured the retro feel of the wig show in all its colourful, cartoonish glory.
Don’t forget issue 8 of Write On! magazine is out. Read it online here.
If you’d like to see your writing appear in the Write On! ‘Showcase’, please send your short stories, poetry or novel extracts to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lucy Kaufman is an award-winning playwright and author. 34 of her plays have been performed around the UK and Australia, to critical acclaim. A person-centred/integrative therapist for 18 years, Lucy now writes full-time and teaches Playwriting and Screenwriting for Pen to Print. You can connect with Lucy on Twitter: @lucykaufman_ and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LucyKaufmanAuthor