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Monday, 16 November 2009

"Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up."




Yesterday, David, the Guaridan photographer, came around for the photo-shoot to illustrate the newspaper article I had written. He warned me over the phone that he was running late because of heavy traffic. I reassured him that I much preferred people to arrive late than arrive early. Although I always like to give the impression to visitors that my tiny flat is an oasis of tranquillity, the reality is sometimes very different. As long as they don’t arrive too early, before I have had the chance to cram as much clutter as possible into cupboards and wardrobes, the illusion can be sustained. To open one of my cupboards unbidden is to risk being crushed do death under the sheer weight of the overloaded contents within.

I didn’t know if we were going to shoot outdoors or in. I fervently hoped it would be the latter. The violent winds and rains of recent days would have played havoc with my hair and I feared my 1950s cashmere coat would not survive such harsh weather. On Saturday I sidled up to the make-up counter in a local department store, just before they closed and asked for some foundation. I felt like a schoolboy asking for condoms for the first time in a chemist. The last time I had used foundation was as a teenager. Cosmopolitan magazine had demonstrated how to make up your face to produce a flattering picture from a photobooth, rather than looking like a mug-shot from off a Most Wanted list. It meant piling on layers of foundation, concealer, blusher, highlighter, eye-shadow, mascara etc. I think the whole experience put me off wearing any make-up after that, other than the occasional kohl pencil and lipstick. I explained to the sales assistant that a photographer was coming around the next day to take my picture, a comment I had never had to make before in my life. The closest I had got was to tell friends that an award winning film director was keen to discuss a possible project with me. The film-maker in question was a personal friend who wanted to do a short film about me and my corsets. He said, if I preferred, my face would be concealed but I would be filmed wearing my ever growing collection of corsets. I am of the age where I no longer give a damn. Yesterday, a research scientist claimed to be the notorious writer of an online diary, detailing her real life adventures as a former call girl. Being filmed wearing a brocade steel boned corset, as modest in its way as the average matronly swimming costume, seemed very staid by comparison. 

The sales assistant fired a series of questions at me. I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about. I never realised foundation came in so many guises. When the sales assistant mentioned blusher I said I didn’t need any as my complexion naturally had a high red colour.
The sales assistant promptly asked, in tones of kind solicitation, whether I wanted to buy green make-up to correct it.
“But I like it,” I protested.
Unable to choose between two similar shades, the sales assistant applied one on each side of my face. She had left my nose bare. When she asked me to look in the mirror I burst out laughing. My nose was bright red from the cold. I looked as if I were auditioning for a role in pantomime as Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer.
“Cover it up,” I begged.
I was not sure about either foundation. I preferred my natural skin texture.
“It’s powdery,” I said dubiously.
“It’s cream to powder. It provides perfect coverage to conceal all those things you would rather not show on camera,” replied the sales assistant smoothly.
I hope she’s not suggesting I have a lot of things to hide! I thought indignantly. Nevertheless, thinking of my ruddy nose I bought the compact anyway and then went across the road to the gym. After I had changed into my swimming costume, I examined my face critically in the mirror. I was rather impressed by the product. My skin did appear to be glowing and the skin tone was excellent. Money well spent, I mused before remembering that I had asked the assistant to remove all trace of the make-up as I was going straight on to the health club. I was now looking at my bare face.

The following day I gave myself several hours to get the flat and myself ready. I was not sure what to wear. I would certainly wear my vintage 1940s hat with the diamante clip accent at the sides .It would help stop my hair getting in to too much of a state if we ventured outside.  I tried on my navy polka dot dress which had a 1940s flavour to it. I added a denim jacket and then a cropped cardigan. The jacket felt too restrictive and the cardigan showed far too much cleavage. I was not appearing on Page Three of the Sun! I settled on my tailored Droopy and Brown ballerina length navy dress. It had certainly worked wonders on the Cad of Kensington Gardens, or perhaps it had been the silk brocade corset I had been wearing underneath. I teamed it with a pair of my scarlet shoes, the only ones which have ever made women stop me in the streets, begging to know where I had bought them from. I had set my hair rather than letting it dry naturally, giving me the air, or so I liked to think of a brunette Veronica Lake crossed with Joan of Arc.

David set up some of his equipment in the living room and started taking tests shots of me as I sat in my Edwardian captain’s chair by the window. I had rescued the chair years earlier from a Town Hall. Through the office window I could see that the maintenance man was about to fling two of them onto a fire. They were considered old fashioned and surplus to requirement. I dashed out and persuaded him to let me have them both instead. I later gave one away to a friend. I have since seen similar chairs on sale in antique shops for hundreds of pounds but at the time I acquired mine, they were seen as only being fit for firewood.

As David snapped away, I told him more about the fire and my personal suspicions as to who might have started it. Although I could not be sued, as the person in question has subsequently died, I had not wanted to cause further distress to his family if they should by chance come across the newspaper article. I therefore omitted all mention of him from the final version. At the time, the police had certainly regarded him as a prime suspect. The fire had started immediately outside his flat and he didn’t have an alibi for the night in question. There was another overwhelming reason why the culprit was most likely to have been him.

The police had asked me about the level of rubbish in A’s flat.  I knew it was untidy and I had always wondered why A managed without fail to trap some piece of litter in the door frame. It still seemed odd though that the police should harp on about the rubbish. The OF offered to take me up into the blackened communal hall to see A's flat for myself. The floor was completely covered with the remains of black bin liners which had been filled with household rubbish. There were so many, only the fact that I once had seen his flat in a reputable state meant that I could have identified which room of his flat was the bathroom or the kitchen. The volume of rubbish had been such the firemen had not been able to smash down his front door. Instead they had to hack off the top part of the door and crawl in to the flat over it.

I was horrified. Being by nature a fastidious person, the very idea of having lived above a rubbish tip was shocking. I was also exceedingly angry. When I had been fighting for my life only hours earlier, I had been inhaling the toxic fumes from hundreds of burning plastic bin liners. The police questioned A extensively but there was insufficient evidence to charge him with anything. That very same day A suddenly had his shoulder length hair cut short, despite usually preferring to wear it long. He did apologise to me but I never forgave him, the more so since he went on to fill his renovated flat with rubbish bags on two further occasions. On the final occasion, the police found him dead, lying in dreadful squalor. I have to say I was glad. It meant he could never endanger my life or my health again through his manic behaviour. David agreed, adding that in one respect it would be somewhat reassuring to think of A as the arsonist, as his death brought closure. By contrast, if it had been someone else, they might have launched a further attack on the house.

When David went into the communal hall to decide where he wanted me to stand in the stairwell, I took a sneak picture of my own of his camera equipment. At first David wanted me to sit and then stand, in the lower part of the hall staircase. Then he had me posed higher up, peering through the banisters. I was grateful I had recently had the communal hall redecorated. It had been looking exceedingly shabby earlier in the year and I would have felt quite embarrassed to have been photographed in it.

I rather enjoyed the shoot. I had to refrain from smiling broadly. It was supposed to be a serious article after all. If I look somewhat pained in the resulting photographs, it is not occasioned by my sobering reflections on the fire. Rather, I am silently wondering just how long I can hold my stomach in and keep my limbs stretched out at a flattering angle. Like Joan of Arc, I am somewhat of a martyr to the cause at times.