Perfume Junkie

(So I thought this article was kind of Christmas appropriate, given that in the familiar nativity story, the Three Wise Men bring Jesus the precious scents of myrrh and frankincense.)

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‘Perfume is like a parenthesis, a moment of freedom, peace, love and sensuality in between the disturbances of modern living.’

(Sonia Rykiel)

‘To create a perfume you have to be the servant of the unconscious. Each idea evolves and transforms, but there should be a surprise with each note.’

(Serge Lutens)

Perfume is a strange part of our everyday lives that acts as a channel of sorts. The word perfume comes from the Latin per (through) and fumum (smoke). This conjures the image of an ethereal essence which, like smoke, carries through some kind of message. We might think of it as an unspoken means of communication, a way of emitting some essence of ourselves to those who happen to pass close enough to catch a glimpse of our secret aroma. One that releases itself only from certain spots on the body, places we have chosen to let the scent develop. I love the way that glossy magazines and figures of high fashion talk so indulgently about perfume. It’s like poetry: a complete decadence of revelry in words. It’s like reading a wine list and falling for a string of adjectives rather than the taste of the drink itself. Rich, smoky, full-bodied, bursting with dark fruits. The poetry of advertisement aims to seduce. So too does perfume: it is a seduction not only in a sexual sense but also a seduction of self. A seduction of memory.

I was probably about nine or ten years old when I made my first forays into the world of fragrance. Certainly, I was still at primary school. I used to sneak into my Mum’s bedroom while she was eating her breakfast downstairs and try on what she had. Her dressing table was never cluttered with pretty glass bottles (more like heaps of unusual jewellery and hair mousse), but she did have a couple of classic Body Shop numbers. There was of course the famous White Musk, which I started wearing often. I liked the soft but heady smell it had, not too overpowering as a floral but sweet enough to stir your senses with its blend of ylang ylang, jasmine, rose, musk and lily. Then a while later, she gave me a bottle of spray she didn’t want, this time the Body Shop’s Oceanus. Or was it Ocean Rain? – no, I am getting confused with an Echo & the Bunnymen song! It was actually quite a strong one, though it wore off fairly quickly. I suppose it was meant to smell sharp and fresh like the ocean, and actually it was quite a nice one to wear at school where P.E. and stuffy classrooms were never conducive to pleasant aromas.

We were of course, forbidden deodorant in P.E. This was at secondary school, where everyone was aware that they had, y’know, adult bodies now, bodies which tended to sweat after exercise (even the half-hearted exercise we attempted in class). The teacher would storm into the dressing rooms at even a hint of spray being used, demanding that the most suspicious looking pupils empty their bag in front of her to reveal the contraband goods. She must have hoarded a whole treasure trove of Charlie and So…? and all those other brands we clung to as adolescents. On such days I would hide my little bottle of Oceanus in a glasses case at the bottom of my bag and spray it liberally once the coast was clear. A sea tide of refreshment filled the room. The contents of that bottle seemed to last forever; in fact, I think I still have some left in my bedroom.

The first perfume that was gifted to me was a miniature bottle of Burberry Touch. It’s a pretty intimate scent, threading together notes which include jasmine, raspberry, pink peppercorn, vanilla and oak moss. It sounds sweeter than it actually is: this is a strong scent but also has an air of sophistication. It feels grown-up and even a bit masculine (perhaps that’s the base notes of Cedarwood and oak moss?). I was fourteen when I got it so it ran out fairly quickly, but I now have a big bottle of it on my dressing table.

I also, at quite a young age, acquired my mother’s bottle of Yves Saint Laurent’s ‘Paris’. Launched in 1983, this distinctive scent was meant to capture the spirit of Paris with its heady blend of Damascan rose and violet, which after hours of being on your skin transforms into English rose and whispers of mimosa, sandalwood and musk. There are other beautiful notes in there: orange blossom,  amber, jasmine, hawthorne, heliotrope. It’s so complex that I’m still working out whether I actually like it or not. I wore it all the time until I was about sixteen. It’s far too grown up a scent for someone to be wearing at that age, but somehow it matched my wearied spirit. It felt almost exotic, a smell from far away. Something about it matched the impressionistic notion of Paris I had; a Paris which shimmered with the seductions of beautiful art and mysterious, moody people. It was certainly a smell which took you out of the dreary realities of Maybole, if only for that first spritz in the morning. The pale gold bottle with its crystalline, faceted surface and satisfyingly chunky feel still has pride of place on my shelf back home. I’ll spray it every now and again – what’s left of it – when I feel the need for a bit of escapism or nostalgia.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsgutierrez/8778507488
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsgutierrez/8778507488

I like to think that when I’m using perfume I had years ago, I’m speaking to some secret old self, one that got lost in the ethereal tangles of time and change and forgetting. For Christmas two years ago, I asked for a bottle of Chloé perfume. Chloé was the first ‘proper’ fashion fragrance I bought for myself, when I was fifteen, in the Christmas sales of that freezing winter of 2009. To this day it’s definitely still one of my favourite scents. Along with Miss Dior Chérie (the orange one), which I also had as a teenager, it’s a romantic scent, sparkling with pretty florals and a dab of French sophistication. Both bottles are adorned with a ribbon to signify the femininity and lighthearted spirit they intend to convey. Chloé is quite a strange and unusual floral, with rose at its heart, honey at its base and the tartness of lychee as its top note. The blend is very smooth and does not induce headaches like some other more couture brands; it is at once instantly recognisable and also quietly luxurious on the wearer’s skin. When wearing it, you want to be riding a vintage bike through some sunshine street in Paris, where all the lamps light up for you, and your destination is a quiet picnic in the park, or a date with a good paperback under the canopies of a Montparnasse café. The bottle is quite short, almost stumpy in comparison to the tall thickness of Burberry Touch, but this makes it easy to cup in your hand to apply. It sits prettily on my dressing table, even with only a few dregs of scent left in the bottom, amid bottles of glitter nail polish and fragments of hair ribbon. If I had to pick a ‘signature’ perfume, it would be Chloé; a friend once texted me saying she was spraying it in a shop and instantly thought of me, which was sweet.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/idhren/7171470710/in/photolist-aktUVr-8QgRJY-63ty7o-dp8nWE-8N2gQN-bVHEEq-bWrF59-bVHF4w-bVHEoJ-6u9PLc-ea9vW5
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/idhren/7171470710/in/photolist-aktUVr-8QgRJY-63ty7o-dp8nWE-8N2gQN-bVHEEq-bWrF59-bVHF4w-bVHEoJ-6u9PLc-ea9vW5

When I got my second bottle of Chloé, the scent instantly evoked that feeling of being fifteen again. It wasn’t an entirely bad experience, it was a taste of having that smallness, that protected enclave of a childhood world again. Or at least, the experience of being on the brink between the world of childhood and the uncertain future of adulthood. Perfume, I suppose, makes an industry of Proust’s ‘involuntary memory’: the idea that under certain conditions, one is transported back to a clear, distinct memory. Not wilfully, but through some item containing the ‘essence of the past’, whose sensory associations stir up the scene of some personal history. For Proust, eating a tea-soaked ‘madeleine’ cake recalled a childhood scene where he ate such a snack with his aunt. For me, spraying Chloé makes me think of warm radiators and school mornings in the cold pits of winter, or getting ready to perform in jazz band concerts, sweating under the hot lights. Leaning against the window of the 361 bus, reading Margaret Atwood. Floating through Ayr on the way to college, stopping always at Debenhams to spritz on their testers. I’d spray the little pieces of cardboard they provide you with and slip them in my bag, so that all my notebooks smelled of my favourite perfume. Sometimes my friends and I would spend an hour or so trying on all the perfumes, until we left smelling like we’d fallen through some vat in a Dior factory, causing everyone in our near vicinity to sneeze violently. I still enjoy doing that, although these days I set my sights on the counters at House of Fraser.

Strangely enough though, the older I get, the more I’ve switched to simpler scents. Part of this is a side effect of student stinginess, but I also like the freedom of buying several scents and being able to choose between them, to suit the weather or the seasons. I guess perfume is just something I tend to waste my wages on, the way that others waste them on Asos, cigarettes or vodka oranges. I have too many Body Shop Eau de Toilettes to count. There’s Chocomania, a very rich and some might say saccharine rendering of lush dark chocolate – perfect for those gloomy winter mornings when already you’re craving your bed and some hot cocoa. The distinctively tropical Coconut, which is, admittedly, more Bounty Bar than fresh jar of cold-pressed coconut oil. Then there’s the clean bright tartness of Satsuma or Strawberry, refreshing for summer. The milk chocolate and almondy sweetness of Brazil Nut. Honeymania, which does what it says on the tin and makes for a perfect late summer scent. I suppose, at less than £10 each, these perfumes make great little gifts or stocking fillers, which last a surprisingly long time. You could mix and match your scents (I like the sound of chocolate orange, brazil & coconut or honey & strawberry), and the small light bottles make them portable for your handbag. And with Body Shop (I swear I’m not a brand ambassador!) there’s always the positive that everything is ethically produced, usually from Fairtrade ingredients.

In a pricier range of perfume, I recently revisited one of my favourite childhood smells, Penhaligon’s ‘Bluebell’, which I got as a present for my 21st. When I was a very little kid, my dad brought back from a trip to London a velvety purple bag full of Penhaligon’s samples. They had enchanting names, like Elixir, Gardenia, Elisabethan Rose, Levantium (oh to have a perfume with the top notes of saffron and absinthe!). The one that stuck with me was ‘Bluebell’, which felt the most quaint and old fashioned of all the scents. The bottle, for one, is gorgeous, a little bit Art Nouveau, a little bit of simple prettiness. I could easily imagine myself, smelling it now, as a little girl running about in a field of bluebells. It’s not over-sweet or stuffy; it reminds me of the kinds of luxurious scents that would be spritzed around in early twentieth century department stores. I think of Cassandra and Rose in one of my favourite books, Dodie Smith’s beautiful coming-of-age novel, I Capture the Castle (1948), as they wander through the fairyland of such a store in London and marvel over the bluebell perfume. You see, there’s more than just chemicals and packaging to perfume; it always has some kind of rich cultural and personal history living in its notes.

bluebells in Culzean woods
bluebells in Culzean woods

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Do you remember your first science classes? Most of those memories are probably enriched by the strange smells concocted from an uncertain mixture of suspicious substances. The rotten eggs of sulphur, the acridity of various nitrates. What stands out most for me was a lesson where for some reason we were experimenting with burning different types of foodstuff over our Bunsen burners, to measure reactions to starch or something. Somebody’s Pickled Onion Monster Munch made the entire classroom smell like a Chinese restaurant. The process of perfumery, while aiming for more delicate blends of scent, follows, of course, a similar (but infinitely more sophisticated) chemical process. A perfume will blend natural sources – flowers, fruits, wood, roots, gums and resins – with synthetic productions of those ingredients which don’t produce their own oils naturally, for example lily of the valley. An intriguing guide to the complex scientific process through which these raw ingredients turn into perfume can be found here. I especially like the sound of the enfleurage step, where ‘flowers are spread on glass sheets coated with grease’. Over time, the grease absorbs the scent of the flowers, like a leaf absorbing rain water, just as expression collects the precious oils of various fruits. Alcohol and water are used to distill and preserve the fragrance. That’s why you should be careful not to spray perfume on your eye, or an open wound – or an open fire, for that matter.

Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/karen_roe/
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/karen_roe/

Interestingly, like champagne or wine, a ‘fine’ perfume is left to ‘age’ to let the blends develop. Maybe this is why Chanel No. 5, for instance, is such an iconic symbol of ultimate luxury. Its yellow-gold colour always dazzles in department store Christmas displays, but it also reminds one of a pale whisky or dark champagne. Like alcohol, it is intense, maybe even difficult to stomach. Infinitely seductive… complex to create…

Perhaps, like aromatherapy, there is a system to the choice of various scents and flavours. A science to how different people are attracted to different things. While some like a fresh burst of citrus, others revel in the dark sweetness of the likes of Thierry Mugler’s Alien perfume (not a fan). We can all guess that lavender makes you sleepy, lemon is awakening…but maybe there’s more to it all than that. A curious interaction of emotion, memory, desire, sensation… Maybe, after all, it’s the cold December air that led me towards my latest perfume purchase, returning full circle to my first White Musk perfume, only this time with the Body Shop’s newest fragrance, ‘Red Musk’. With its fiery bottle which blends amber, red and black, this Eau de Parfum combines the smouldering notes of tobacco, pepper and cinnamon with a layer of spiced musk. With cinnamon, it’s a dark, shadowy twist on a festive fragrance. Moreover, it’s about time perfume embraced androgyny, as this scent does with its hints of tobacco. Gone are the feminine florals of summer. So while I might be accused of being a hoarder, stashing my perfumes like a witch hoards her bottles of potion, maybe I can justify buying this particular perfume because anything that makes you feel warm (in a flat with single glazing) has got to be good, right?

The Dreaded Dissertation: What I Learned

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It’s that little thing at the back of every undergraduate arts student’s mind: the dreaded dissertation. You find yourself at a Fresher’s Fair in the grand halls of some ancient university, poring over a prospectus for your dream course. There’s that word ‘Assessment’ and then, if you follow down the page, the words ‘Senior Honours’ and ‘Dissertation’. The percentage, length and allotted time period will vary between universities and courses. From my experience, it seems English Literature is fairly unique in its allocation of just one semester to complete your 8-10,000 word dissertation. Most other people I’ve spoken to tend to get two semesters, from September to March/April, to write their academic ‘masterpiece’.

Well, it’s not really a masterpiece, is it? It’s basically just several essays woven into an extended argument. Sounds simple enough. The trick is, they all say, to find a topic you really love and stick with it – if you manage that, then writing and researching will be a breeze. For some people, this part is easy. They’ve been waiting their entire degree to write about queer tropes in Medieval dream visions, the gender politics of Harry Potter, or, as Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood prepares to write her thesis on in The Bell Jar, twin motifs in Finnegans Wake. For others, picking a topic is perhaps the hardest bit. I fell into the latter category. The advice we are always given is read as much as you can. Devour everything. Make notes, talk to lecturers. So in my junior honours year, I picked the courses that I suspected would be most up my street: American Literature 1900-Present, Modern Literature 1890-1945, Modern Literature 1945-Present and Literary Theory. All courses I would highly recommend to anyone in second/third year thinking ahead to picking next year’s honour’s courses. I suppose the whole time I was tracing vague themes that threaded themselves through my favourite books on these courses: textual effects of the uncanny, pastoral modes, madness, poststructuralist subjectivity, psychoanalysis, psychogeography, as much Derrida as I could even slightly get my head around.

In the end, my dissertation interest fell on technology, as I was seduced by a very strange novel on my 1945-Present course: Tom McCarthy’s C. In a way, it’s an encyclopaedic novel which picks up on all of my favourite themes. A novel which, at the level of both form and content, weaves together questions of modernity, the avant-garde, wireless technology and theories of networked society and subjectivity. It’s a novel haunted by the flickering presences of insects, war, Freud, Joyce, Kafka, Ballard, Marinetti; a novel which inhales and exhales as many intertexts as it can possibly breathe in. A novel which disturbs with its themes of incest and violence, its lack of a strong sense of humanist ‘character’, but enlightens with mini-lectures on entomology, Egyptian history, the workings of various technologies. There are also bouts of dark humour that keep you sane throughout the narrative, along with its beautifully crafted imagery. McCarthy cleverly invokes the emergent technological communications of the early twentieth century to comment on our present condition in a world saturated with wireless signals and the ever-present dominion of the Internet, which is not really external to us but rather an inherent web through which we live our daily lives and experience our desires.

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We had to submit our dissertation prospectus right after our exam period in May of this year. That was a stressful time; even though these prospectuses aren’t binding, it’s still difficult to come up with a semi-logical argument and assemblage of texts when your brain is still fried from months of exam revision. Still, it’s good that we were forced to think about it early. I spent the first couple of months of summer rereading my primary texts and thinking about some ideas I wanted to develop. By August, once I’d returned from seeing family in England, I suddenly hit panic station. In a month or so, I’d be returning to uni and then it would be a matter of weeks before the deadline. I thought of all the things that might threaten my ability to complete the deadline in that time. Being called for Jury service, work, deadlines for my other course that semester (Modern American Women’s Writing), a freak spell of perishing weather, my laptop dying, losing my pen-drive, falling into the dark pits of writer’s block or depression – the worries dragged on. Thankfully, these things either didn’t happen, or only happened to a perfectly manageable degree. In fact, it turned out to be possibly my favourite semester at uni.

You see, there’s something very rewarding and liberating in being charged with your own project. There are no specific guidelines for your particular topic: aside from the annotated bibliography and the final submission, you set your own deadlines; you decide the scope of your topic, the texts you want to read; you aren’t harrowed by the prospect of a final exam which may necessitate the memorising of quotes from every last piece you find yourself reading. Of course, it varies from supervisor to supervisor your experience of all these things. They are there to give you advice, to offer you ideas for further reading, but everyone goes about it in different ways.

So throughout August and September, while we were being blessed with an unusually bright summer, I found myself in the pits of the library almost every day, trying to get my head around all the theory I was planning to use. I read countless journal articles, chapters from monographs, books on or by the likes of Freud, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, Friedrich Kittler and Bernard Stiegler. Interviews with all my chosen authors. I jotted down pages and pages of notes, filling up a little sparkly notebook I’d bought to encourage me to get started early. My bibliography was already totting up nicely with tons of references. I was putting together a plan. It felt good, to feel motivated enough to work this hard.

Luckily, I managed to keep the momentum up throughout the semester. I wrote the dissertation originally split into three large chapters, the first two comparing various texts and the third focusing on C. It was easy to write (early mornings in the library or in bed) with my personal harsh deadlines always in mind. If I finished the thing early, I could breathe easy again. Fuelled on green tea and Dairy Milk chocolate, I got most of my dissertation written by Reading Week (mid-way through term). The problem was, my word count had gotten waaaaaay out of hand. I thought this was okay; just write now, edit later. But it’s kind of impossible to cut out as many words as I had. I tried rewriting the middle chapter over Reading Week and all I succeeded in was cutting the odd paragraph and making my prose sound better; there was still some serious trimming to be done. I went to my supervisor and pleaded my word count woes. Her excellent advice was to pick one – just one – chapter and stick with that. Now that’s a terrifying thought when you’ve just spent four months researching and writing on four primary texts that you’re no longer going to use. Nevertheless, it was something I had to do; I felt that to condense my argument as it was would jeopardise the quality of my analysis. Maybe one day I’ll go back and re-work my discarded material for a Masters. It’s a thing we all have to go through as Lit students, getting the balance between variety and depth. Fitting in both theory and close reading. In the end, I chose my third chapter on C and completely rewrote it with smaller chapters. Time will tell if that worked out okay.

Sometimes I think back to the process of dissertation writing we went through in sixth year at school, writing our Advanced Higher dissertations. Admittedly, they were half the size: English Lit at 4500 words, Modern Studies at 5000. You got all year to write them and in theory, there were more opportunities for help. Still, although I worked consistently throughout the year on both, there was still that last-minute panic dash to sort out small things: referencing problems, formatting issues, those evil little things that you think will be okay but come back to bite you. I remember the day before the Modern Studies one was to be handed in, my teacher phoned my mobile to tell me he just opened it to read and noticed that there were footnotes missing, or just floating around my document. So I had to get the bus back from college and traipse into the school that night at six o’clock to fix it. Similarly, last Tuesday night I found myself at five to six (and I needed to be somewhere else at six) in a tizzy at the library, surrounded by heaps of messed up paper and broken hopes. I thought I’d finished it, proofread it fifteen times (and got others to proofread it) but reading it again I was still finding things that had mysteriously disappeared, moved, or simply needed replacing. The bibliography giving me the wrong page numbers. Queue a mad dash from my computer to the library printers (over and over) as I kept replacing the mistake-ridden pages. This day was perhaps the most stressful in five months of working on the dissertation. No kidding, give yourself as much time as possible for formatting and proofreading. Word processors will be the death of me.

Maybe this is all hyperbole; after all, I got my dissertation in over a week early. What a great feeling, although it’s only now that it’s hitting me. It’s hard to grasp how much of your mind is occupied by your dissertation until you’ve done one yourself. Until you’ve handed it in. Even now, I still get names and references flashing through my mind and I worry did I put that in the bibliography? did I remember to mention this theory? where did that quote go? It’s really difficult to let it go.

Nonetheless, it’s not all fear and stress. In the end, I loved my topic and can really see myself going back to it, rewriting and expanding it in the future. Your dissertation is one of the most satisfying pieces of work you’ll ever produce at uni. Scrolling through the finished document, it feels good to see all that prose stretched out over many pages, and know that it’s all yours. You wrote it. You should be proud of that, no matter what mark you get. Sure, there will be times when you want to hide under your bed or a desk in the library and cry, when you want to fling your books out the window or delete every last silly word you have written, but in the end you have to break through the pain and just get it written. Accept it and let it go. If you get writer’s block, spend ten minutes free writing on anything at all that’s irrelevant to your dissertation. The weird person sitting opposite you in the library, for example. This should help to get your ‘writer’s flow’ back. Moreover, chocolate helps (indeed proves invaluable), as does a supportive friend (and/or flatmate). There’s a warm sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ amongst fourth year English students, particularly as the dissertation is such a lonesome project, so it helps to talk to someone about your ideas. Also, obviously, as everyone always says, a good topic makes for a good dissertation. But either way, it will be okay. You have to learn to be good with timekeeping, to narrow your argument and find ways of connecting and condensing it. All very useful skills for any kind of future critical writing you might engage with. And out of all the stress, the feeling of finishing your dissertation makes all the hard work worth it. So to anyone who has any kind of dissertation to write either this year or next, I say don’t dread it, but look forward to it.

Mould

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It was a moon-scape she saw, peering into the mug in her mother’s study. Yes, a moon-scape with little lumps of perilous blue and grey, seeping into one another. Or maybe it was another kind of space terrain: she imagined the ground of Pluto, with its eye-like holes and fissures. She gave it a shake, and watched the particles break up and drift away, flotsam on some unreal ocean. A polluted ocean; maybe the earth’s oceans in a hundred years’ time. They told her in school that the world was filling up with waste and one day everything would melt away, like those paintings of dissolving clocks she saw when her mother took her to the museum. You could already tell it was happening, her teacher had said, the way that it gets so warm these days. The mildness of winter. It wasn’t right.

Well, the moon wasn’t right either that night. No; she could not stop thinking about what she saw in that mug. Another world, was it? She wished she could go back and count the dots, knowing that if she did she could start to chart this new universe, and in knowing it better she could sleep. She could enter its landscapes, drift across it with the powers she had in her dreams. Her mother put a sachet of lavender under her pillow and she could smell it through the cotton, soft and sweet…but it was not enough distraction. She needed to know what she had seen. But her mother might hear her and send her back to bed. It had to be worth a try. Sucking in her breath, she tip-toed back into the study, closing the door quietly behind her and flicking on the light. It was an energy-saver bulb, that took ages to properly glow. So she stood in the dull orange light, watching the wall till it got brighter. Then she would pick up the mug and see. Then she would know again.

Finally it was bright enough and so she went to pick up the mug…but this time, oh how the smell caught her! It was sharp and evil like the stench of seaweed, only worse, like the most rotten thing in the world, slowly fermenting. Yes, she smelt it and was knocked backwards almost. But it was fascinating. She let her nostrils quiver and sniff deeper as she held the mug to her nose. The she looked into it again and saw how the dunes and lumps had mushroomed and the blue was turning greenish, or maybe that was just the duller light. Still, these were definite changes. And she was thinking of the clumps of toadstools she’d seen in the school playground, while they were out measuring soil quality and watching the teacher bending in the grass with a thermometer. They were big brown flat things, ugly and intriguing, and she knew that some of them were poisonous, and some of them if you poked them let out a puff of steam. She wished she could touch these mushrooms but the thought of putting her finger in the mug was repulsing. It was kind of like a horror movie, she thought, where they showed you somebody’s festering wound, only it never looked quite real. Still, you would not like to touch it, it was just sort of funny to look at. No, she would not touch it; instead she shook it again, and this time the dunes did not dissolve, but she could see little fissures rippling across them. Her stomach turned over as if emptying something, and she felt a surge in her gullet. She put the mug down and breathed in deeply, trying to rid herself of the awful smell that clung to her like a disease.

She wondered what it was that these microbes loved so much about her mother’s tea. She considered if they’d accept her into their colony. Like them, she was partial to a glass of milk, but maybe not tea, unless it was laden with sugar. She wondered how they’d order themselves, scattered about as they were like that. Bulbous, growing over each other. It would be a ruthless economy. She sat down on the comfy office chair and span around slowly. The queasiness was leaving. She liked how all the objects rushed around her, melting into long white and orange lines. She stifled a giggle; she must not wake her mother up. She whispered stories to the mug. Telling them about the boy she wrote a letter to once in class and the time she left her homework on a bus. Soon she would say goodbye to her mother. She knew that it could not be long before she was ready to join them. They would be like ants, or the tiny people in Gulliver’s Travels – Lilliputions – running all over her body. Only, they were so small you could not see them. You could just imagine them, growing and multiplying, all over her skin.

They made the moon rocky and bumpy, like that boy whose skin was cratered with pimples. She had seen on television once two fat ladies in white coats scrubbing away green things from the corners of a bathtub. She and her mother didn’t have a bathtub, but sometimes she saw things come out of the plughole in the shower. Great streams of wiry hair that poked out, or smeared themselves upon the porcelain. Once a huge spider. She heard its legs patter and she screamed, and her mother tried to lift it out with a gardening trowel. Sometimes there were little black seeds all over the bath, and the first time she thought maybe a plant had vomited up all its babies (in class that morning she had been drawing diagrams of sepals and stigmas and filaments and seed-pellets), but then her mother told her it was just exfoliating beads from some lotion she had. She tried the lotion and it made her skin burn, but it was not unpleasant; kind of like the scratch of dry sand. It left a pinkish blotch on her legs. She was wondering if the moon was like that: all pastures of dry sand. Were there lakes or ponds or waves? Trees, even? In the mug she could not see any trees, and the only waves were from when she rippled the sticky liquid with the swirl of her wrist. She thought maybe if she lived there she’d have to invent some more things, to keep her interested. There would be a gift shop, for one thing. You could buy t-shirts with maps of the land on them, with close-up details of the blue-green growths and the tea-stains that ringed the china walls. It was like a whole continent splayed out, with all the countries slotted together, their landmasses enveloping each other. A strange thing.

She would take the mug into school on Monday, for show-and-tell. It was the right thing to do. Everybody else would bring in their cinema tickets, their remote-controlled helicopters, Pokemon cards, a book they had read over the weekend. And they would talk about themselves, nattering away about this thing that had brought them  their childish joy. Then she would take to the stage, like the prime minister on the telly, clasping her precious mug, and she would tell them how she had found the moon. At first they would laugh, she recognised that, but then they would realise how clever she was. How amazing was her discovery. She giggled just thinking about it. But I must let it rest, she reflected. After all, she needed to let her colony expand, for the spores to pile up higher upon one another until they were spilling over the edges of the mug. She wanted her colony to be huge and impressive. I mustn’t let them escape. She took a postcard from the wall – it was a painting of a lemon and a teacup by Francis Cadell – and she placed it over the mug. The moon was safe, and its surface would continue to bubble and grow in their new warmth and darkness. So she tip-toed back to bed and lay awake, her mind floating around this wondrous space. Each star was a point of contact, a possibility.

And she spoke to the stars, even as she jumped between them, as you jump between chairs and tables and sofas when you play ‘The Floor is Lava’. Each one told her a story, and she basked in the glow of all those words weaving a tapestry around her. Soon she could slip into sleep, soon, soon, soon…she closed her eyes to a new darkness, felt the warmth of the space beneath the sheets. The smell of mould dissipated from her brain, and now there was only silence, the scent of lavender, wafting in delicate waves…

When tomorrow arrived, it was Monday, so she got dressed for school and went downstairs. To her horror, she saw the mug up-ended on the draining board. What on earth…? Mummy? Her mother came down to boil the kettle and make her porridge, but was startled to see her daughter crying so early in the morning. What is it, darling? She was already late for work, and starving. She threw her handbag on the table and brushed down her jacket. What is it? she repeated. The child was pointing at something next to the sink. Mummy! she wailed, you’ve killed the moon! 

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Halloween Confessions

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(appeared originally on Medium)

There was a time when Halloween was almost better than Christmas. That was when I lived in a place that had the potential to be haunted. Halloween, I feel, has a spirit that creeps up and metamorphoses with your home. The house that I grew up in is a semi-detached one, perched on top of a drive with Rennie Mackintosh-esque roses cryptically shining from the front bay windows. There’s a skylight window which has always been shrouded in mystery: we’ve never been able to identify what room it belongs to (we reckoned we’d have to knock a hole through the bathroom wall to get into this secret space, anyhow). The outer walls are rough pink sandstone, kind of old-fashioned, romantic, but we have a modern kitchen extension built by former owners.

With its big rooms, (defunt) fireplaces and (rather decrepit) chandelier, it was the perfect venue for spooky parties. We’d drape heaps of fake cobwebs along the banister, from the lampshades, the settee, the windows. In the cobweb there’d be the plastic figures of ersatz rats and spiders, waiting to catch unwittingly in someone’s hair. Half an hour before our guests arrived, we’d turn down all the electric lights and I’d be in charge of candles. We made holders out of peeled tin cans, pierced with holes to make patterns for the light. The lanterns were strewn all around the house and outside in the patio area, where people gathered around a fire we kept crackling in a rusty old tire rim.

I filled the hall with incense and creepy dubstep music playing quietly from an iPod dock hidden in the study, so that you could only hear it thudding quietly if you ventured upstairs to use the bathroom.

There was all sorts of strange food: white buttered toast cut into triangles and sprinkled with crushed salt & vinegar crisps to resemble witches’ hats, Yorkshire puddings filled with beans (cauldrons), suspicious-looking pots of pasta meant to resemble some gorish substance, and lovely pumpkin soup that my Mum’s friend brought in a giant pan. There would also be heaps of various sweets and chocolates piled on every surface, so that it wasn’t long before everyone was hyped up on sugar. Guests would drift in and out the different rooms, sometimes lingering surreptitiously at the bottom of the drive for cigarettes. We were all quite young then, less than fourteen. I suppose we talked and drank and maybe danced at some ill-defined point later on (there was a year when I remember we all had really sore necks the day after, so we must’ve been headbanging…probably to Enter Shikari…). All the teenagers would gather in the bigger room, which had the bay windows and the old computer. One year we even had a strobe. Friends would sift through my chaotic iTunes library, and wince as their favourite tunes were ruined by our rasping speakers.

Mum and I would make fruit punch beforehand, pouring in blood-red cherry lemonade and slices of orange. The real alcohol, however, was stowed away in sleeping bags under my bed. My friends would hide up there to drink before appearing back downstairs where all the adults congregated around the fire and food. One party ended somewhat disastrously. The ‘drink to the line’ approach to vodka-consumption has never really boded well for anyone. Said friend passed out in my bed for several hours and woke up only to vomit straight into my bin. Bless her for good aiming. One of my mum’s friend’s kids happened to be wandering about and saw her in my bed, asking everyone fearfully, ‘is she dead?!’ I was sitting, secretly sipping cider and having a perfectly civilised chat to my mum when her then-boyfriend dragged another friend downstairs — she had her thumb caught in a bottle of wine. There wasn’t much explaining to do there.

In addition to these house parties, there’d be the school discos, with all the necessary alcohol action plan they required. We’d dress up (fairy, witch, Twiggy were my various outfits) and meet at each others’ houses beforehand — usually mine as I lived closest to the townhall where the discos were. So maybe someone would bring a Smirnoff Ice or some WKD, but I never had much stomach for that kind of thing. Too sweet. I’d play that old teenage trick of sneaking the household spirits and refilling the bottle with water to hide the damage (I always justify my cheeky thefts to myself through the logic that my Mum never really drinks and if she was really bothered she’d pull me up about the wishy-washy gold of her depleted Southern Comfort more times than she actually did – sorry Mum! 😉 ). The problem is, when I think about how I used to drink it makes me sick! I used to mix together the vilest things: Malibu Coconut Rum, orange juice (with bits in), Coca Cola, Jameson’s Whisky — all in the same (plastic water) bottle. We’d take turns to shot the disgusting potion and then we’d stumble, giggling, down to the town hall, playing tinny music on our phones (Bloc Party, Drive-By Argument, Paramore). Ugh.

The disco itself was always an anticlimax, an embarrassing mix of teachers critiquing the DJ’s music taste (I distinctly remember a P.E. teacher calling up some sixth year for playing the Prodigy’s ‘Smack my Bitch Up’), couples awkwardly winchin and alcohol being sneakily passed around in the toilets. I’d usually leave a little bit early, glowing with sweat and smudged eyeliner, giving myself time to wash all that hairspray and glitter out of my hair before school the next day.

Well, they were good times, sort of. Back then, Halloween still had a kind of magic to it: you could go for walks in the dark around the town and you’d still see ghosts in that carrier bag caught in the spindly branches of a tree. I guess now I have too much freedom, and a walk doesn’t have that same sense of wide-eyed luxury. At uni, Halloween seems to be an excuse for a tacky outfit and a pub crawl. It’s always around deadlines, anyway. After uni, maybe I’ll get back into the spooky house parties and punch-drinking again; but for now, it’ll be pumpkin carving and a night in, reading in some cold dark annexe of the library.

Long Hair: A Love Story

A long time ago, far out in the constellations of mythology, Rapunzel let down her hair. And what lovely hair it was, a waterfall of gold, spilling from the window of her tower. Answering the call of her keeper or lover, she unravelled her braids to form a rope. Rapunzel’s hair, then, provided the connecting threshold, the thread that stitched together her turreted psyche and the world outside. It was also her downfall, allowing her to have illicitly a lover. Her keeper, Dame Gothel, became jealous and cut her hair, and left her to live a withered existence out in the desert. The tale takes us from the lush beauty of a ‘splendid garden’ to the arid desert, where eventually Rapunzel and her lover reunite and find happiness. It’s a peculiar tale of desire, entrapment, revenge, femininity; a tale which sets the scene for wider cultural mythologising of long hair. It’s a mythology that we’re still fascinated with, as the popularity of the Disney adaptation of Rapunzal’s tale, Tangled (2010), attests.

History and myth are glutted with references to the power of lengthy tresses. Take Samson, the Israelite leader who lost the source of his strength when his lover Delilah betrayed him and cut off his long hair. Or the Sif, the wife of Thor, whose wheat-coloured locks were cut off and stolen in her sleep by the malevolent god Loki. After Sif’s husband entered a threatening rage about the hair theft, Loki ordered dwarves to weave Sif a new mane of hair out of threads of gold, more long and beautiful than before. There’s also, of course, Medusa; the monstrous Greek guardian whose hair famously consisted of venomous snakes, and whose eyes turned their onlookers to stone. In his essay, ‘Medusa’s Head’ (1922), Freud suggests that her snaky mane is linked to the castration complex, the (male) fear of having one’s genitals effectively guillotined. Freud’s typically eyebrow-raising essay links Medusa’s head to the female genitals, and the supposed threat of castration a boy experiences if he catches sight of these genitals. Well, apparently, Medusa’s snakes also alleviate the terror of castration, since they provide supplementary figures for the penis, thus filling in the implied absence of castration. And of course, Freud throws in a cheeky sexual pun, as Medusa’s head makes her ‘spectator stiff with terror’, and thus not only turns him to stone but also arouses him: ‘[f]or becoming stiff means an erection. Thus in the original situation it offers consolation to the spectator: he is still in possession of a penis, and the stiffening reassures him of the fact’. Yes, quite.

http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=images&cd=&ved=0CAcQjRw&url=http%3A%2F%2Frap.genius.com%2F821579%2FAesop-rock-the-mayor-and-the-crook%2FThen-rock-like-medusa-glances&ei=hgxSVMKiNZDwaN3qgMAI&bvm=bv.78597519,d.d2s&psig=AFQjCNEsGHzxRr7-50RvUoDaEL2wpaitkw&ust=1414749689575329
Medusa.

Well, it’s undeniable that literature has tended to represent a woman’s long hair with desire, sexuality and beauty. Take this passage from Book IV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

Medusa was astonishingly fair;
She was desired and contended for–
So many jealous suitors hoped to win her.
Her form was graced by many splendors, yet
There was no other beauty she possessed
That could surpass the splendor of her hair–

Yet while her hair made her an object of desire, a thing to be ‘contended for’, the ‘splendor’ of her snake hair also symbolises her multiplicity. As the snakes are full of a life of their own, Medusa cannot be pinned down, her personality is multiple, endless. Her hair is its own being, extending in legend and through history. It is slippery, but also a symbol of her power. Indeed, Hélène Cixous reclaimed Freud’s psychoanalytic pinning of Medusa to advance her feminist call-to-arms for women to rethink their sexuality in relation to language. In ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’ (1975) Cixous critiques the way Freud’s castration complex reinforces the mythologising of Woman as hysterical, as the Unknowable, ’dark continent’. As weak, passive, mysterious. Through writing (extending the lines of multiplicity that we find in Medusa’s hair), women may reclaim themselves, reach out and produce their desires and being through writing. Just as Cixous herself reclaims the mythical figure of Medusa from Freud’s cigar-stained fingers: ‘she’s not deadly’, Cixous argues, ‘she’s beautiful and she’s laughing’.

There is something joyful and exuberant about long hair. Think of the connotations: a young girl skipping through a field of wheat, streaming behind her a cherry red ribbon. An Austen heroine waiting to be the belle of the ball, or the flame of The Little Mermaid’s rippling tresses. It is a distinctly youthful trait, too; a symbol of childish innocence. In Victorian society, only children tended to let their hair down in public; if a girl wished to be seen as a woman or ‘lady’, she must pin up her locks, dress them in ornaments and braids. Letting one’s hair loose as a woman was seen as a sign of wantonness. Thus, the artistic portrayal of woman with their tresses flowing free represented a kind of back-to-nature aesthetic, a fetishising of the body, the long locks relishing a kind of originary femininity and sensuality. Perhaps also a wildness, a breaking forth from repressive societal values – the kind of constructed femininity that kept women as the domestic ‘angels of the house’. Think of the young Cathy in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), her hair streaming behind her as she gallantly trails the ‘savage’ Heathcliff over the hillsides, or the iconography of the ‘fallen woman’ as depicted in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Women who did not look in the mirror and reflect back the pale perfection of the chaste Victorian angel, but positively glowed with their own matter – their glorious hair – their sensuality. There is something in that: the glorious feeling of standing on a cliff edge, letting the wind whip your hair across your face and fill it with billowing energy. Just don’t try it when you’re trying to eat ice cream.

Rosetti's 'Lady Lillith'. Source: http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/study/english-literature-studies-brighton/brightonline/issue-number-two/the-fetishization-and-objectification-of-the-female-body-in-victorian-culture
Rosetti’s ‘Lady Lillith’. Source: http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/study/english-literature-studies-brighton/brightonline/issue-number-two/the-fetishization-and-objectification-of-the-female-body-in-victorian-culture

Today, like everything else long hair has been sucked into the commercial imperative. Perhaps that is why long hair has been associated with anti-capitalist and consumerist movements: the lengthy tresses of 1960s hippies, Marx with his wild white beard and mane, the fluffy mop of Che Guevara. Long hair (especially the unkempt dreads of the hippies) was never really a friend of the drone-like demands of the job market. A short sharp haircut symbolises ‘cool’, edginess, the new freedoms enabled by consumption (think of the bobbed Flappers of the 1920s). Advertising impels us to buy products, perfect your femininity, express yourself through a new style; a new cut, spray, or shampoo. ‘The latest hair trends’, the V05 website proclaims, ‘help you express yourself’. Every day is a decision about how one will adorn oneself, about one’s performance; hair becomes a web of possible signifiers, waiting to be decoded by an image-consuming public, or at least by that stranger across the street. Femininity is a performance, but the secrets of self lie in the hair. There is Kim Kardashian, that postmodern queen of the feminine, a patchwork of skin and plastic flesh, of shiny dye and hair extensions. Websites will spend considerable time and space unpicking the details of Kim’s hairstyles, as she shifts chameleon-like from blonde to black to ombre. It seems that still we read a women through the strands of her hair, as if they were lines of text.

authentic flappers!
authentic flappers!

In Greek mythology, the long-haired Sirens were alluring femme fatales who seduced sailors with their bewitching singing, leading them to perish and shipwreck on their islands. The beauty of these long-haired beings is thus inherently linked to danger, a threat to the freedom and power of masculinity. We might make a connection to the emasculating anxiety of becoming trapped in feminised domestic space. We might also make a connection to the contemporary use of the word siren in relation to (often long-haired) actresses: she’s a real screen siren, we say. Again, these sirens are beguiling, but often perilous in luring their spectators into the isolated islands of their cinematic fantasies.

Yet in addition to these chains of mythology, hair at its most basic component is protein: an element of our body which symbolises nurturance and life. Like our hair, we are always changing, growing. If we look after our bodies with sleep, good food and exercise, it shows in the glow of our hair. A quick flick through a photo album will reveal a history of hairstyles, which reflect not only on the (dodgy or not) cultural trends of the period, but also on ourselves. Who we are and were.

the mermaid in Splash. Source: http://mermaidinengland.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/mermaid-splash-darryl-hannah1.jpg
the mermaid in Splash. Source: http://mermaidinengland.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/mermaid-splash-darryl-hannah1.jpg

My own hair history is a fairly interesting one. I’ve always loved long hair, ever since (perhaps even before) I watched a rented VHS copy of Splash (1984) and decided I wanted to be a mermaid. Refusing my mother’s futile attempts to brush my hair, I went to school with a witchy mane which was only sometimes contained in double, Heidi-like braids. There’s a picture of me at my seventh birthday party, with it all crimped as I grin at the camera, wearing 90s-style Baby-Spice white leggings. It would’ve looked almost cute, if I didn’t have a full-fringe which took over half of my skull. Safe to say I’m not such a fan of primary school photos…

fierce crimping. source: pinterest
fierce crimping. source: pinterest

At least I earned the comparisons I (still) get to Hermione from Harry Potter (and not just through the geekery department). Kids at school would ask me if I ever bothered to straighten my hair (or at least brush it, one girl sighed) – this was back when everyone had to wear their hair poker-straight and smooth as if it had been recently ironed, Bridget Jones style. All that static flattened out; everyone a clone. You could almost smell the whiff of burnt heat spray as the other girls glided past. I wanted GHD straighteners for so long, that by the time I got them (a joint present for me and my brother, who was then going through his wee 12-year-old emo phase), I quite liked my hair a bit wavy or curly. I still have and use that same pair of trusty straighteners, incidentally.

Hair was always a contentious issue in my schooldays. The P.E. teacher would warn us every week that if we didn’t have it tied up in class, we’d be forced to wear rubber bands to pull it back. I’d always imagine the excruciating sensation of pulling a rubber band out a ponytail (along with half of my hair), every nerve searing with dread. By the time I was thirteen my hair was pretty long and for Halloween I bought some of that wonderful Stargazer semi-permanent dye and made a half-successful job of my hair. I think I got that sort of ethereal/faerie/cyborg look, as I dyed the top half pink and the bottom half blue, and my bad dyeing skills meant I actually got quite a cool ombre effect as the shades blended into each other. I wasn’t so good at clearing up the spattered mess of the bathroom, which resembled a mediocre Jackson Pollock painting by the time I was finished.

Me with pink hair for the Halloween Disco...and a Carrick Academy tie.
Me with pink hair for the Halloween Disco…and a Carrick Academy tie.

Oh, and with said blue dye I also did my brother’s hair once. My friend and I bought him some cheap permanent blonde stuff from Semi-Chem, thinking that because his hair was so naturally dark it would need a bleached out base. I didn’t think the blonde would do much at all, maybe only lighten the brown a bit. Somehow, however, it worked a treat and he had the most, um, skunk-like streaks of yellow in his hair. Diligently, we applied the blue dye, forbidding him to look in the mirror until it was finished. With everything all rinsed out, I suppose he looked more like Sonic the Hedgehog than the Billie Joe Armstrong look he was probably going for. It also didn’t help much that I also let my friend cut his hair in the Debenham’s family toilets (while I sipped warm wine mixed with whisky from a plastic sports bottle – classay!), leaving chunks of it over the floor like it was the detritus of some old, innocent self. After a few week’s of swimming lessons, the chlorine made the blue bleed out into a measly green, and he’ll probably never forgive me for that.

The best hair I ever had was platinum blonde. I loved it so much. I guess it was my failed scene-kid phase, when I wanted hair that was long and spiky and backcombed like a rat’s nest, a white canvas to set off my black liner and neon eyeshadow. The bleach process took over three hours for the hairdresser to do, and probably cost all my birthday money and a month or so’s worth of EMA, but it was worth it. I was born a bonnie wee blonde, but cursed with the family trait of having this fade. Having bright blonde hair makes you literally dazzle. Anita Loos was the first to say that ‘gentleman prefer blondes’, and it’s become an adage that blondes have more fun. I don’t know about all that, but you do feel like you’ve become some diamond in a sea of dull, radiating a new light. It fades though. The roots cut in like black leeches and the strands dry out like straw. You get bored. I let the blonde grow out and kept the tips as a kind of proto-ombre (I swear I got there before Alexa Chung et al), which remained as a kind of limp homage to my teen years pretty much until about a year ago, when I went the whole way with the brunette thing.

blonde tips!
blonde tips!
blonde tips again!
blonde tips again!
the blonde days...
on holiday in Italy…
looking blonde and melancholy
me all blonde and melancholy

And now I just wished I was ginger, or at least half ginger. That’s my plan now: gradually get more ginger. There’s something special about ginger hair; the way people try to hide it with lovely euphemisms – strawberry blonde – the way it’s linked to a fresh freckled face, or strange stereotypes (ginger people don’t have souls, I’ve been told). Its Celtic connotations. I want the amber and russet tones of Pre-Raphaelite tresses, that look gorgeous in autumn. It’s a sort of long term life plan, but probably achievable, although it’s one of the hardest colours to get right. You could end up with some cat-vomit orange, or a lustreless red, if you’re not precise with your dye. Yeah, I’ll do it gradually. It took me a while to get my hair as long and strong as it is now, so in spite of that saying ‘it’s hair: it’ll grow back’, I’m not risking my mane anytime soon.

Lily Cole in all her gorgeousness for Vogue Italia (source: pinterest)
Lily Cole in all her gorgeousness for Vogue Italia (source: pinterest)
The best hair colour and freckles ever. source: pinterest
The best hair colour and freckles ever. source: pinterest

Sure, I love the idea of hair makeovers. Get several inches lopped off and highlights put in and maybe an undercut. It looks cool on loads of people. But I’m definitely one of those strange souls who finds their hair a total comfort blanket, a scarf in the winter, something to chew on idly when I’m staring at a computer screen. I like being able to hide my face in awkward situations, or conceal the fact that I’ve made no effort with my makeup. It becomes a kind of signature, and people remember you by your hair. It would be hard to lose that, like shedding a self.

However, I’m not denying that long hair, rich with sensuous mythology though it is, isn’t a proper pain in the arse. The brushing, painful detangling, the half-hour plus hair-washing, the problem of it getting stuck in the door when you’re trying to clean the microwave. How to wear it for work; nobody wants a spaghetti strand of hair in their £18 steak. You do come up with a good routine though and it becomes manageable. I promise, it’s worth it.

Desire, jealousy, strength – all things long hair represents in myth. Sure, everyone has bad hair days, but maybe a bad hair day with long hair is more a ‘I just came out of the ocean’ look rather than ‘I just woke up’. Long live the mermaids.

meee 2014
meee 2014

Long hair-care tips:

  • Wash as little as possible. I wash about once a week with a teaspoon of shampoo and a heap of conditioner.
  • Good diet! Eat all your greens: kale, spinach, celery, avocado and broccoli are best.
  • Coconut oil: heat some up and slather your hair in it and leave overnight for a nourishing hot oil treatment.
  • Buy a tangle-teezer and make your life 50 x easier.
  • Try to sleep with it in a braid.
  • Wash it in the coldest water you can stand, and only start to blow dry it when it’s about 80% dry, so it’s getting less heat damage.
  • Soft scrunchies are better than harsh bands!
  • Give yourself or get someone else to give you regular almond oil scalp massages. A splash of peppermint oil mixed in also stimulates growth.
  • Regular trims will not make it grow longer (myth myth myth!) but obviously keep your ends in good shape.
  • Try using colour-depositing shampoos and conditioners as a less damaging colour upkeep as opposed to layering up permanent dye. Henna can also be good, although it doesn’t ever wash out, so be careful and do a strand test.
a drawing I did of 'scene hair' me. (oh god)
a drawing I did of ‘scene hair’ me. (oh god)

Living with Chilblains

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Seven years ago, I was a fresh-faced pre-teen on my first (and only) residential school trip. We went to Aviemore, a town in the north of Scotland renowned for its snowy mountains. We had a great weekend at the hotel, living off pick’n’mix (the hotel food was a case of cold, mushy macaroni cheese or going hungry), drinking J20s, gossiping, room-swapping, snowball-fighting and generally behaving like a pack of twelve-year-olds left to make their own amusement.

Ironically, the worst part of the ski trip was the skiing. The novelty of going up in a cable car was removed by the feeling of being packed like sardines up against big scary people in serious gear, with formidable looking metal poles and goggle-glasses that made them look like bugs. And when we finally got up on the mountains, the conditions were so awful, with blizzards and ice, that I couldn’t feel my brain from the whipping wind, I couldn’t stand for two seconds without falling and more to the point couldn’t see two metres ahead of me. It didn’t help that our instructor was useless, failing to teach us how to stop, turn direction, or even stand without falling. We were all indignant about our lack of pole provision. How were we supposed to maintain any sense of balance? If one of us went down, we grabbed whoever was closest, resulting in a domino-descent of bundling bodies, laughter, crying and billowing snow. Safe to say I came home blue with bruises.

About an hour in, I had given up trying to ski, and was more focused on trying to block out the sense of seething cold that was gnawing into me. The skiing instructor rolled her eyes when I showed her my blue little fingertips. My own fault, of course, for not bringing proper gloves. Instead of heavy-duty snow gloves I’d opted for the pretty sequinned woolly ones from Accessorize. They were fingerless.

Our teacher had apparently been handing out ski gloves at breakfast to the poor souls who didn’t have any, but I think I must have been focused on surreptitiously putting salt in my friend’s drink or something and missed out.

Well, I’ve suffered for that mistake. Since that fateful trip, I’ve been plagued with chilblains. I can deal with the toes – many people get them in their toes. You don’t have to do much with your toes. The fingers, however, are a whole other league of pain. Every year, at the threshold of winter, the dreaded chilblains creep back, like so many electric currents stinging my fingers. Sometimes they’re even there in summer, with the icy threat of air conditioning, or more likely the bitter bite of a Scottish ‘breeze’.

It’s like this: your fingers at first feel deathly numb, and maybe they’ll go bright white, yellow or purple. If you touch them, you can watch the colour burst and fade in a sphere of strange pressure. When they start to warm up again, after some brisk handshaking or running them under luke-warm water, they surge and swell painfully, often going bright red. It’s just this burning that travels relentlessly up and down your nerves. Sometimes I look in the mirror and it’s funny because they’re a completely different colour from the rest of my body, as if I’ve dipped them in paint.

Well, often they stay swollen for weeks, and that’s the worst part. Not only do you have horrible, fat, stumpy fingers, but also you have fingers that struggle to write and type. And then the itchiness. Like so many nerves tingling and writhing beneath your skin, simultaneously so awfully hot and then once again breathlessly cold. I have the hands of death: touching my fingers is like touching ice.

So yes, I’m still wearing gloves in May, and might have to through June and beyond. I apply hand-cream every five minutes to stop my skin cracking, I walk as much as I can and do star-jumps in my room, because they say that boosting circulation and keeping warm is all you can do.

And well, it seems that there is a pretty simple moral to this story: function over fashion. I should’ve listened to my mother and taken the ugly grey ski-gloves over the pretty but useless ones. Ah, but what self-respecting twelve-year-old with an eye for style would have done that? Also, it’s possible that I’d have gotten chilblains anyway. ‘Reynaud’s syndrome’ – which is probably what I’ve developed, checking the symptoms, although I’ve never been diagnosed – is most common among young woman, and usually occurs in the late teens. Check, check – that’s me. So perhaps I’m just unlucky, just dreadfully fated, to suffer the bane and pain of these chilblains. I’m guessing the Aviemore semi-frostbite I experienced didn’t help (permanent nerve damage never does), but I refuse to take all the blame for my condition. I also blame genes – my Mum and my Nan both get chilblains, albeit in their feet.

Reynaud’s doesn’t really have a cure, so I don’t have much option except keeping up the star-jumps, drinking ginger tea and making sure I don’t smoke (nicotine contracts nerve muscles). Let this be a warning to all those who want to go skiing, but also a message to help you appreciate having lovely, slender, warm and normal-coloured fingers! I am a girl with serious hand envy.