The other day, for the first time in my life, I unexpectedly found myself envying women who wear the burqua. I realise that this is a rather unconventional attitude and that it’s more traditional to pity them as voiceless victims of misogyny, or to take the French perspective and see them as potential terrorists concealing guns, bombs and Al Qaeda tracts within the thick folds of their garments.
Very few people consider the advantages of the burqua from a vanity point of view, however. For those of us who, thanks to modern media, feel perennially discontented with our appearance (ie. women), what could be more liberating than a full-body covering? Safely ensconced within the all-concealing inky black draperies, you can say goodbye to fat days, bad hair days and bad skin days. No-one will be any the wiser if you neglect to shave your legs, dye your roots or spend an entire workday with teeth red-stained from wine: as long as your mascara is unsmudged and your eyebrows in good order, you’re all set.
As I said earlier, I realise that my attitude puts me rather at odds with most people in the modern world. Most people, however, do not have the incentive I had to conceal themselves. You see, the other day I was afflicted by what makeup artists might term an ‘imperfection’, and those not in the industry must term a hideous great carbuncle. (For those turning to their dictionary, by carbuncle I mean a large pustular growth rather than a precious stone – if it were a precious stone, I’d be quite delighted to be in possession of it and would probably speak of being blessed rather than ‘afflicted’.) To be even plainer still, I had a pimple.
Pimple is such an ugly, adolescent-sounding word which my family have always avoided using. When I was growing up, my mother would instead make tactful reference to ‘blemishes, while my Dad preferred the more clinical term, ‘lesion’, conveniently ignoring the word’s more usual associations with cancer. Through a simple enquiry like, ‘What’s that on your face – some type of lesion?’, my father was thus able to transform an everyday beauty dilemma into a full-blown medical emergency.
But to return to my own massive ‘imperfection’: I won’t describe it in too much detail, and certainly won’t include a photograph on the off-chance that you are eating. Suffice to say that it was conspicuously positioned smack-bang in the centre of my forehead. And that when I opened the bedroom door, the cat recoiled in terror and left her kibble untouched all that day: it was bad enough that I didn’t have a tail or glossy coat, but this was really pushing the limit.
Greatly distressed at this unprecedented feline rejection, I turned to Richard for comfort. He stolidly insisted that I was overreacting: ‘You can barely even see it,’ he maintained. However, he rather ruined the effect by spending the entire morning staring fixedly at my forehead with that horrified-fascinated gaze people usually reserve for shark-attack victims or diseased organs preserved in jars of formaldehyde.
Consequently, I spent nearly an hour trying to conceal my carbuncle with a thick layer of foundation and powder, yet only succeeded in drawing more attention to it. I tried covering it with a bandaid but just looked like a member of a fight club. I considered wearing a beret but was afraid I’d come across as an idiot who couldn’t read a calendar well enough to know that Bastille Day was two months ago. While I haven’t had a fringe since I was ten, in my desperation I even contemplated breaking out the nail scissors and cutting myself one on the spot.
But this would have been excessive. Instead, I resolved to spend the entire day with my head dipped forward so that my hair fell in front of my face like a set of theatre curtains with just a narrow crack for a stagehand to slip through. This meant I would be at risk of walking into lamp-posts and walls of course, but it was better than looking stupid.
I would also avoid speaking to people as much as possible. I mentally checked off the people I absolutely had to communicate with that day: just one or two, I worked out, but I could email them instead – never mind that their desks adjoined mine. I would eat lunch on the roof by myself – it was pouring with rain and there was no shelter, so it was unlikely anyone else would venture up there. And I would forego my morning coffee so I didn’t have to speak to my usual Italian barista who habitually addressed everyone as ‘beautiful’, but confronted with my horrible visage, would today be left tongue-tied I was sure.
With my plan clearly established, I ventured out into the world of men. I won’t lie to you – it was agony. From the moment I set foot on the bus I felt ugly and ridiculous in the way that only a thirty-two-year old woman suffering the double ignominy of crows’ feet and bad skin can understand. And of course, to compound the situation, every other woman had chosen that particular day to break out the stilettos and designer suits and look their sleekly-polished, lip-glossed, blow-dried best.
I narrowly missed out on a seat on the bus so was forced to stand in the aisle, carnival-freak-style. And because of the constant jolting and rocking, I had to hold on with both hands and couldn’t take refuge in a novel as I usually would.
And so I played the game I often amuse myself with on public transport – what I imaginatively refer to as, ‘Guess the Book.’ Basically, I try to work out what the people around me are reading based on their age, clothes, and general demeanour. Over the course of the trip, I gradually gather more information about the book: its size, layout, glimpses of the cover and any snatches of prose I’m able to be make out. When the person snaps the book shut to leave, or I walk past them on my way out, I’m finally able to see the title and learn whether or not my guess is correct.
Ninety percent of the time it’s a Steig Larsson or Jodi Picoult (I can spot a Jodi Picoult from 50 feet in daylight.) Eat, Pray, Love has been cropping up more and more over the past few months, though, and Harry Potters are still surprisingly popular. It’s the obscure titles I enjoy most of all however, and those books which seem completely incompatible with the reader’s appearance.
On this particular morning, there was an older lady in front of me, one of those prim, neatly-starched women with rigidly waved hair the colour of a Blue Persian cat, a sensible padded blazer, and well-polished orthopaedic shoes. She was carrying a tartan umbrella and a thick, trade-sized paperback: Rosamund Pilcher, I postulated, or possibly The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Peering over her shoulder, I could just make out a subheading in the centre of the page: ‘How blowtorch was disembowelled’, I read.
The unexpected violence thrilled me. Blowtorch? Disembowelled? This was intriguing! I had expected country churches and fresh-faced girls from Cornwall but had instead got the type of heading Brett Easton Ellis might have penned were he writing a book involving defective industrial equipment. What could it mean? I dimly registered the double ‘l’ in ‘disembowelled’, which meant I was dealing with an Australian or English rather than an American publication, but that was the only clue I had. I tried vainly to read more but the bus pulled in at the next stop and I was pushed further down the aisle by the crush of new passengers. The woman got off the bus before I was able to learn anything further.
The moment I got to work I opened up Google and typed in ‘blowtorch’ and ‘disembowelled.’ Nothing illuminating came up – mainly references to a past episode of 24 involving a typically gruelling torture sequence. I tried adding ‘book’ and ‘novel’ and various other literary words, but still nothing. Unfortunately, my boss chose that particular moment to stop by, and rather than seeing cover images of the adorable children’s book involving a mouse I was supposed to be working on, she was greeted with a page-full of articles about serial killers and mutilation. She choked out a brief, ‘good morning’ before rushing off, most likely to HR to see if there was any history of animal cruelty or similar serial killer-like tendencies in my employment file. But I was too distracted too care.
My distraction didn’t subside as the day continued. I couldn’t focus on work at all, with those two incongruous words circling tantalisingly in my head. What was the connection between them? I was so caught up in this great literary puzzle that I forgot about my resolution of not talking to anyone. Instead, I spent the entire day barrelling up everyone in my immediate vicinity to ask them whether ‘blowtorch’ and ‘disembowelled’ meant anything to them (at the same time giving up all hope of ever seeing any of them outside work in a social context: ‘Do come over to our place for dinner and see the delightful collection of bodies we keep below the floorboards!’) I forgot as well about not going out for coffee and barely even noticed when the barista called me by my Christian name, which I didn’t even realise he knew, mysteriously dredging it up from some dark recess of his mind.
‘Disembowelled’ and ‘blowtorch’ – what link do those words have?’ I mused as he frothed the foam on my latte.
‘Umm, none?’ he offered cautiously, surreptitiously taking my photo so he could add it to the list of customers to be treated with caution he kept pinned behind the counter for the weekend staff.
And it was then that the break-through occurred – a matter of pure luck, as it always is in the best detective stories. A man’s voice piped up from the queue behind me: ‘It’s a Rudd* thing, I think.’
‘Really?’ I asked, intrigued. ‘It’s about Rudd? As in a dark secret from his schoolboy days?’ This was wishful thinking, really: the most interesting thing Kevin Rudd had done previously was write a children’s book about a dog and cat trying to avert a series of disasters during the Australia Day celebrations. It wasn’t particularly exciting.
‘No, I think it’s more recent that that – some sort of political scandal maybe,’ my anonymous benefactor supplied helpfully, but could tell me no more.
My course was clear, however: I had to find a bookshop with a well-stocked Australian politics section and look through every single book which could potentially involve Kevin Rudd until I found one whose size, layout and typesetting roughly matched what I had seen on the bus.
So this is what I did, and Lady Luck was on my side once again: after opening just two or three books, I came across The Rise of the Ruddbott, a recent release by political journalist, Annabel Crabbe, a woman clearly determined to stretch the creative powers of language to their full potential in order to make Kevin Rudd’s leadership seem at least mildly exciting. It was the right thickness, the font looked similar, the margins were about the same width, and there were lots of subtitles. I anxiously flicked through the pages and there it was, a bold, black heading about two thirds of the way through: ‘How Blowtorch was Disembowelled.’
So there it was: the great literary puzzle had been solved. I didn’t stop to learn more – to discover what this blowtorch business actually was, for instance – and I certainly didn’t buy the book. It was enough that it had been found. The hunt was over. My quarry had been tracked down.
And in all the excitement of my Sherlock Holmes-style detective work, I quite forgot about my hideous carbuncle.
*Kevin Rudd is of course the extremely un-dynamic, former Prime Minister of Australia (and this is most likely the only occasion I will ever refer to politics in this blog.)