Authors: Tessa Hadley
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Pearl contemplates herself. She is seventeen.
She has lifted down the full-length mirror from its nail on the wall and propped it longways beside her on the bed, so that she is lying alongside her reflection. She is naked save for a metal stud in her nose and a leather choker embroidered with beads around her neck. Her toenails and fingernails are painted green. What she sees she does not find entirely satisfactory. Her skin is chalky white with a tracery of blue veins, a disconcertingly intimate inner layer, not like the honey-colored surface of the girls' bodies in the magazines. Her breasts are too rounded and womanly, tipped heavily sideways because she is lying flat; one breast (she cannot see this from here, but she knows it and hates it) sags lower than the other. She would like small breasts, with brown bud nipples, not blunt pink snouty ones. Her stomach is too wide and pale, though she can feel her hipbones satisfactorily if she presses across them (in a habitual checking gesture) with her forearm. She is not fat but stocky and compact; she would have liked to be gaunt and long. Yet even as she frowns at the detail of her body in critical scrutiny, she is also fascinatedly aware of this matrix of herselfâbreasts, belly, the little modest triangle of her pubic hair (she hates the way her mother's hair grows high up her stomach)âas a configuration that generates desire. She is not thinking at this moment of the desire of anyone in particular but something undifferentiated, anonymous, vast. In the light of this effect, she contemplates her own body with awed surprise; it is a mystery beyond her control, a gift of power.
She is waiting for her friends to arrive. They'll spend a couple of hours dressing up together before they go out into town. Often this couple of hours and the intoxication of anticipation are the best part of the night (Pearl's learned this already). There's music (Erykah Badu) playing on her system. There's a bottle of vermouth. Pearl has poured herself a glass and to go in it she has hacked off with a penknife a slice of lemon from the fruit bowl downstairs. The bottle has to be kept out of sight of Pearl's mother, not because she minds them drinking but because she might wonder where the money came from that paid for it. (It came out of the fifteen pounds she gave Pearl that morning to pay for her clarinet lesson.)
The floor of the room is deep in a muddle of Pearl's possessions and her discarded leavings: crumpled skirts and tops and balls of dirty socks and knickers, apple cores and a half-eaten slice of pizza, eye pencils and mascaras and a spilled bottle of silver nail polish, pages of notes for the history homework she's supposed to have handed in a week ago, magazines, an overflowing ashtray, beer cans, a scatter of bright Indian bangles, CDs, coffee cups growing fur. Under the bed just out of sight (where she nudged it earlier with her foot) there's even a used sanitary pad with a single brown smear of crusted blood. The slightly stale smell that rises from all this mess, mixed up with the musky perfumes that she wears, makes her comfortable, like an animal in the smell of its own den.
She turns onto her side on the pillow and stares at herself with seriousness. She neither hates nor gloats over what she sees; she's not a dieter and vomiter like one of her friends nor serenely in love with herself like another one. Fingertips seek out a blemish on her cheek and press it. Her nose is wide across the nostrils, her mouth is small but full and red in the pale face. Her hair in a new shoulder-length shaggy cut is hennaed dark red with pink tips. Once she had hair of an extraordinary pale ginger color, like pale sand (her mother says this regretfully, fingering the new cut); in any individual strand there were white hairs and ginger hairs and blond hairs and strawberry-colored hairs all mingled together, shifting, dazzling. Pearl doesn't regret dyeing her gingery hair. She assumes that underneath the dyed color the real one is still there for her, a secret she will be able to go back to anytime she chooses.
She hasn't put on her makeup yet today (she only got up a couple of hours ago, and mostly since then she's watched telly), although last night's mascara is still smeared under her lashes. So she sees herself as if dangerously, cruelly exposed; unflinchingly she stares in her own eyes. She's trying to decide what she looks like, what she would see if she could really see herself from outside. She's weighed down by the fixed terms of this identity, this unchangeable solid body, these familiar big eyes good at glowering in the perhaps-too-characterful perhaps-rather-pasty face. At the same time she fascinates herself. Why should she be her, in particular? What is it going to be like, being her; what will it bring? She and her reflection exchange a look of cool interested acknowledgment.
She isn't alone in the house. If she were, she would have her music up twice as loud and she would already have expanded along the landing into her mother's bedroom to see what clothes she could borrow. Thinking of this, she swivels round and sits up on the bed, resumes a cigarette that has been burning away by itself in an ashtray, and then lifts the mirror and props it back up against the wall. She opens her bedroom door a crack, turning down the volume on her system at the same time. All is quiet, all is still. Noiselessly, still naked, she pads along the landing into her mother's room, which is immaculately tidy as always, the navy duvet on the single bed straightened, the pairs of shoes lined up against the wall, the books bristling with paper markers piled tidily on the bedside table with the alarm clock and the Tylenol.
Pearl doesn't really like her mother's clothes. They're much too sober and sensible, and they still have the stamp of the style that must have stood for political radicalism in her youth and now makes Pearl wince: flat childlike sandals, stripy knits, denim pinafores. But sometimes Pearl manages to persuade her into buying something more extravagant; there's a satiny pink top heavy with beads and sequins, a pair of loose green silk crepe trousers. Pearl also sometimes borrows her plain black lambs'-wool sweater and her amber drop earrings, her underwear, her T-shirts: mixed with her own things they're all right, and her mother's clothes have the advantage of being clean and ironed (she will wash Pearl's too, but only if Pearl puts them in the laundry basket). Pearl is trying to catch sight of herself again. She checks the little swing mirror on the chest of drawers and the mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door. Against her mother's neat background, her nudity seems out of place. In the wardrobe mirror, its silvering eaten away with tarnish, she is improbable, like a picture of someone lost: poignant, mythic. The young girl.
Zoe doesn't wear makeup but she does wear perfume, and Pearl helps herself liberally to Chanel Allure before she returns to her own room with the green trousers, leaving behind her a trail of scent and cigarette smoke as thick as paint. She also leaves ash on Zoe's carpet and biscuit crumbs trodden in on her bare feet from a packet torn open and forgotten.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Zoe is reading downstairs.
She's reading an important new book about the interdependencies of war, development, environment, and peace. Even though it's a very new book it's been overtaken by events in the past few weeks: the escalation of the conflict in Israel, the standoff over the U.S. Navy spy plane between the U.S. and China. She works hard at deducing from the arguments in the book what the author would offer as the significance of these new situations. (She knows him slightly; she's met him at academic conferences, so she can picture him speaking the words as she reads them.) She experiences a familiar kind of pleasurable tension at reading and responding to something good: a breathlessness, a clench of concentration in her chest. When she's really absorbed in her reading she's never relaxed; she changes her position often and urgently in her chair. At this moment she's hunched hawkishly over the page with her knees up under her chin. Frowning, she lifts her head from time to time, not to look around her but to screw up her eyes at the near distance, rehearsing what she's understood, testing it against possible counterarguments.
This isn't because she's unaware, entirely, of her actual surroundings. The blue walls, which everyone told her would be too dark, do collect a pool of shadows at the center of the room, but Zoe doesn't mind. She has the lamp switched on even though it's still light outside, and the gas fire is puttering away. The room is tidy and the supper things washed up. The big clock on the mantelpiece that Aunt Vera (really Great-aunt Vera) passed along when she moved into the retirement home, a real clock with works that need winding with a key and that has required a succession of expensive repairs, ticks out the minutes with calm meditative steadiness, although it tells entirely the wrong time as usual. It's the end of a gray day in a spell of unusually cold temperatures for late April (a reflex, now, to wonder whether that's part of natural climatic fluctuation or a result of global warming).
Zoe is aware of Pearl upstairs, too; she suppresses from time to time a twinge of irritation at the music that seeps distractingly into her concentration and keeps a suspicious ear alert to Pearl's moving around. It's not just clothes she takes but money, jewelry, Tampax, grass (if Zoe ever buys it), expensive bath oils, shoes. (Zoe's taller and thinner than her daughterâin fact, she's very much the shape Pearl would like to beâbut unfortunately they have the same shoe size.) A precious bracelet that had belonged to Zoe's dead grandmother was borrowed without asking, then heedlessly lost in a club somewhere; Pearl denied ever having set eyes on it. Zoe has thought of having a lock put on her bedroom door but decided against it on an issue of principle: you don't learn respect for other people's values through being forcibly shut out from them. She sometimes has the sensation of taking part in a painful and potentially disillusioning experiment in conflict resolution.
Zoe doesn't know yet about the clarinet lesson or the vermouth, and won't notice the green trousers until it's too late and Pearl is exiting to a waiting taxi, insolently making a joke out of trying to conceal herself and the trousers among her friends. They will descend the stairs and surge along the narrow hall like a flock of bright-plumaged screeching birds. Unlike Pearl, the friends are always polite with Zoe, but they will collaborate to deceive her nonetheless, crowding in front of Pearl and making charming considerate remarks to distract Zoe's attention from the trousers. Zoe will not be distracted, probably isn't even meant to be; it's only funny for them to pretend to care what she thinks. The trousers will be rolled up round Pearl's waist because they are too long; even so they will trail down over her shoes, Zoe will see that they are going to be dragged in the dirt and ruined. She will handle it badly, hear her voice fall into the familiar ugly wail of the worn-down and hard-done-by, instead of giving her blessing with graceful superiority to the fait accompli. Pearl, who quite apart from the trousers isn't even adequately dressed to keep out the coldâbare midriff, plunging neckline, transparent blouse, no coatâwill hustle the others through the hall, hissing at them to keep going and trampling their heels and falling over them in her mock haste. (Is she drunk? Already? On what?) And then as the taxi drives off Zoe will only think, with a subsidence of resentment like a plunge of thrashing wings to stillness, how lovely Pearl looked in the trousers anyway.