It’s been five days since Linda considered killing her Grandmother with a tea tray. To be fair, she didn’t consider it, so much as envisage it; feel it; fantasise. You couldn’t call it pre-meditated. The way the impulse came upon her. Immediate, intense, uninvited. It would have been manslaughter, not murder. They look more leniently on that.
Self-defence or undue provocation. It happens sometimes, when women kill their husbands. She’s seen it on TV. Extenuating circumstances. Decades of domestic tyranny; physical violence, psychological abuse. Hard to argue in a court of law. Irene as the aggressor. The cumulative impact of a life-time of petty provocations, snide asides. Just as well she didn’t kill her. She’d be in all kinds of trouble now.
She takes a deep breath as she knocks on her Grandmother’s front door. Note to self. Don’t even consider decapitation. It can only end in tears.
Irene says ‘Can’t keep away?’
‘We never finished our conversation.’
Irene says ‘I rather think we did.’
No, thinks Linda. I went home. I walked out because if I hadn’t I might have accidentally murdered you.
She smiles angelically at Irene.
‘You were telling me about Alan.’
‘What is there to tell?’
‘Where he’s staying? Why he went? Why you suddenly have a stash of cash to help him in his hour of need?’
‘There’s nothing sudden about it.’ Irene says theatrically. ‘It takes a life-time of hard graft and ingenuity for a working woman to build up a nest egg. That’s something you wouldn’t understand.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ Says Linda. ‘You’ve never done a day’s work in your life.’
Although now she comes to think of it, she knows this isn’t true. Didn’t Irene have some sort of job at the Infirmary. A nurse perhaps? A cleaner? Some sort of administrative role?
‘Darling,’ says Irene regally. ‘I never stopped.’
Irene is doing her important face. Linda knows what’s coming. A trip down Memory Lane. Irene in the glory days. Irene in the War. Irene loved the war. The days when girls were girls and men were men. A heady mix of girlish wonder and coquettish adolescence. Party frocks fashioned from parachute silk. Beetroot used as lip stain. Boot polish as mascara. Irene’s ingenuity knew no bounds. Stockings painted on with tea. Gravy browning for the fake seam up the back. You should see the photograph of Irene on her sixteenth birthday. You’d think it was a cover plate from Vogue.
Linda wonders idly if Irene still has the photo in her dressing room. With all the war-time posters. The dressing room – the boudoir, as Irene likes to call it – is out of bounds. Linda hasn’t been inside for years. She can’t think how she came to be there: hiding, snooping, skulking, sulking. But the posters are imprinted on her mind. Irene’s shrine to war-time glamour. The Land Girl with red lips and a flash of black mascara. The Wren with picture-perfect make-up and a scarf wrapped round her head. The Gala Lipstick advert showing the different shades of red.
Oh. She thinks. Of course. Gala wasn’t a dog. Gala was a lipstick.
‘Not just any old lipstick.’ Says Irene. ‘Gala Lipstick.’
She rolls the word around her tongue with a near-salacious relish.
She is doing her dreamy look. The look that says ‘I’ve seen things you could never hope to understand.’
Linda isn’t quite sure what to say.
Irene starts to murmur, as though she’s in a trance.
‘Nantern Red; Heart Red; Red Bunting; Red Sequin;
Cyclamen; Cock’s Comb and Blaze.’
Different shades of lipstick; she has learnt them all by rote. A spell; a chant; a talisman. A Lipstick-Lover’s Lord’s Prayer.
‘And then there were the pinks. Heavenly Pink, Ballet Pink….’ Irene tails off. ‘And Chestnut.’ She says briskly. Her tone of voice suggests that Chestnut doesn’t really count. Mundane, verging on brown, a dull imposter in the ranks of pinks and reds.
Linda says ‘But why?’
Irene starts, as if she’s been woken from a reverie. Her dreaminess turns stern.
‘To look our best. To make an effort. Something your generation doesn’t seem to understand.’
She peers again at Linda’s face. The pale-faced impropriety, the audacious lack of care.
‘You’d feel a whole lot better if you made yourself look pretty.’
Linda absorbs the insult. Counts to ten inside her head.
‘Why did you bury it?’ says Linda. ‘It doesn’t make any sense.’
‘It wasn’t buried, so much as stashed. We had to hide it somewhere.’
‘But why hide it at all?’
Irene looks confused. As though Linda is speaking some sort of foreign language.
‘Because…we weren’t meant to have it.’
Linda processes this information.
‘Where did it come from in the first place?’
Irene smiles her enigmatic smile. Holds her finger to her lips.
Linda says ‘I’m thirty-two. Please don’t tell me to be quiet.’
But perhaps she only says it in her head.
‘So,’ she says out loud. ‘Where did you get the lipstick from, and why did you have to hide it?’
Irene is looking wistful. Over-acting. Misty-eyed.
‘It didn’t start off as a secret. In the beginning it was wonderful. They made military branded lipstick: Tangee’s Lips in Uniform; Helena Rubenstein’s Regimental Red. I had a powder puff shaped like a military cap.’
Linda has seen the powder puff. On Irene’s dressing table. So that bit’s true at least.
She says ‘So then what happened?’
Irene does a double take. As though she’s forgotten she had an audience. She looks at Linda as though she’s trying to place her.
‘They put the prices up so no-one could afford it.’
Linda tries to guess where this is going. Imagination’s never been her thing.
‘They introduced a tax on luxury goods.’
Irene holds Linda’s gaze. Waiting for a reaction. Outrage. Disbelief.
She’s going to have to spell it out.
‘They decided make-up was a luxury.’
Irene waits for the full impact of this bombshell to sink in.
‘We..ll,’ says Linda hesitantly. ‘I wouldn’t say it was exactly an essential.’
‘No.’ Irene says gently. ‘I don’t suppose you would.’
An idea is taking root in the back of Linda’s mind. ‘Were you some sort of make-up thief?’
It sounds absurd. Risible. Ridiculous. If she could take it back she would.
But Irene is wearing an expression that says ‘The penny’s finally dropped.’
‘Not a thief.’ She says at last. ‘An undercover distributor.’
Hushed tones. As though someone might be listening. As though the apartment might be bugged.
Irene shrugs. ‘Women had to get it somehow.’
Linda is surprised. She thinks of Irene’s youth as an endless whirl of glamour. Men in military uniform. Women in full make-up. She’s never given it much thought, but she’d pretty much assumed that cosmetics were compulsory. There’s a poster in the boudoir that says ‘Beauty is a Duty’. Emblazoned on a fluttering Union Jack.
She says ‘Was make-up rationed?’
‘It may as well have been.’ Says Irene mournfully. ‘First we couldn’t afford it. Then there simply wasn’t enough of it. Factories were bombed. Supply ships sunk at sea. Nothing was what it should have been. Lipstick without the lipstick case; powder without the puff. Refills wrapped in cardboard. No proper packaging at all.’
‘In the end…’ Irene leans forward conspiratorially. ‘They tried to close them down.’
Linda is struggling to keep up.
‘Close what down?’
‘The Cosmetic Houses.’
Irene imbues the words with gravitas. A secret society; a mystic super-power.
‘Revlon…’ she utters the word Revlon in tones of utmost reverence. ‘Revlon….had to make first-aid kits for the troops.’
It’s clear that Irene views this as the ultimate indignity.
‘We-ell.’ says Linda doubtfully. ‘Well, someone had to do it.’
Irene misunderstands her.
‘Well of course, someone had to do it. We weren’t going to be beaten. But it had to be a secret. We were driven underground.’
Linda tries to take this in. She does some rapid calculations in her head. Irene would have been fourteen when war broke out, twenty when it finished.
She says ‘But you were just a teenager.’
‘Quite.’ Says Irene. ‘Off the radar.’
Linda looks confused.
‘Off the radar. And inside the Infirmary. It was the perfect place to collect consignments. One more crate amidst the lotions and the potions and the ointments and the creams.’
Linda tries to take it in.
Irene says ‘You’re very quiet.’
‘I’m just processing the fact that my grandmother ran a black market cosmetics scam.’
‘It wasn’t a scam.’ Says Irene,with genuine surprise. ‘Darling, this was a Crusade.’