Some women say that the first time they look, really look at their private parts, they are struck by the beauty, the folds like petals, the soft colours from rose to amber, the intricacy. Let them. I am happy for them. I have never been the sort of woman to gaze adoringly in a glass at my own vagina, vulva, fanjo, whatever. It doesn’t appeal; there is no need for it.
But it was on the occasion I last attended a beauty salon, that the unhappy vision of my arsehole, not of my beaver, appeared before me unexpectedly. The girl waxing my bikini was holding a mirror to the whole downstairs area for me to see that it was smooth and as hair-free as an egg. I hadn’t realised that a bald arse was a thing in the summer beachwear world. It was something of a revelation. Literally. Literally revealed, exposed. Most of the time, of course, you don’t see you. By which I mean me; I don’t see me. I have, of course, seen my vulva from time to time as it is more accessible, if you will, easier to see than an anus. For, unlike a dog, I am unable to scratch my own backside with my teeth, nor, in the general run of things am I contortionist enough to inspect my bum hole. And, to be honest, it has never really occurred to me to want to do so. I do not mind one bit that I am not as flexible as my dog, and not having the tendency towards fleas I count as a bonus.
But looking at the reflection in a mirror held up by a beautician in a dirty white chemise, I was appalled by my fundament. It is a horrible looking thing. I had no idea. Way better to have it disguised or at least obscured by one’s natural pelt. Before you run away screaming, this story isn’t actually about my hole. It is an aside. Or rather, not an aside, if you look at it physiologically; what I mean is that it is a distraction. Well, yes.
I was at a beauty salon having booked an emergency mow of legs and the euphemistically termed ‘bikini line’. Except that it turned out that I hadn’t. Browsing the list of treatments online, over-excited and confused by the profusion of types of depilation on offer, I had mistaken a ‘Hollywood’ for a ‘Brazilian’. I’d plumped for the former thinking it was the latter, and the result was a red and raw bareness, akin to a freshly plucked chicken. It was not attractive, and it was not feminist. I had been deliberating the right-on-ness of hair removal for, oh, at least a minute as I perused the websites of these salons, torn between dismay at pubic hair that stood up at all angles like an over-used Brillo pad, and a yearning to be at one with the Sisterhood and say Fuck All Patriarchal Ideas of Femininity. It was a tussle, Vanitas versus my inner Sista, but all debates were immaterial since I picked the wrong thing.
When you have the whole lot off, every last sprout of fanny hair, you get less of the ‘are you off on holiday?’ questioning which is otherwise the opening gambit in a salon. This is because you don’t as a rule need the lot erased porn-star style if you are off for a seaside visit to, say, Cleethorpes. I thought to myself: I am a grownup, I own my own sexuality, I am liberated, and I currently have my legs akimbo above my head while a girl waxes my growler. I don’t have to be embarrassed about declaring ‘I’m on a promise tonight’, I can boldly say it; nay, declare it! But the girl whose grandmother I could conceivably have been (had she actually been about twelve and I had started motherhood at a precocious fifteen), had already looked at me as if I was Whistler’s Mother – an impossibly ancient old crone in a shawl with no teeth (that’s the crone with no teeth, by the way, not the shawl. Although of course the shawl didn’t have teeth either. That would have been the stuff of nightmares. And this is a metaphor anyway so let’s not get side tracked), when she first caught sight of my impossibly whiskery downstairs. I realised that the phrase ‘on a promise’ probably hadn’t been said since the word ‘trendy’ ceased to be trendy. Anyway, as the conversation was rather stilted, she must have decided simply to say something – anything – to break the silence.
‘Are you going away?’ she said hesitantly. ‘Yes,’ replied the Radical Feminist robustly. ‘Yes, I am off on holiday. And may well be wearing a bikini.’ Don’t ask, don’t ask… ‘Oh, lovely! Where are you going?’ Jesus, it is February and freezing in the northern hemisphere; I searched my head desperately to come up with somewhere that might be warm enough for bikini-wearing in the miserable second month of the year. ‘Spain.’ I said firmly, ‘South of Spain. Very very south.’ Oh Lordy, here it comes, ‘Whereabouts? My family is from south of Spain! I go there every holiday!’ My knowledge of the geography of Spain, North or South is sketchy to say the least. ‘Toledo’, I ventured, wishing I hadn’t started this. ‘Oh. That’s not really south. More middle actually. It is not likely to be that warm there at this time of year.’ She looked crestfallen on my behalf. ‘But you might be lucky!’ she said brightly. ‘Yes,’ I continued, unwisely, ‘I will certainly be lucky because it is a covered holiday place like Center Parcs. Actually, it is a Center Parcs, you know, the holiday the weather can’t spoil?’
At this development, the girl furrowed her brow, old Toledo hand as she was, ‘There isn’t a Center Parcs in Toledo.’ Suspicious now. ‘Aha, not so; it is a new one. Very new. So new it is not yet open. It is not open, and it is still a secret except to those in the know. I am road testing it. Yes, that’s it; I am like a mystery shopper trying out the facilities to make sure the heat and stuff is just right in the water-slide dome. And also,’ warming to my theme, ‘making sure that the all-you-can-eat buffet caters to every need – kosher, halal, wheat-free, vegan. Palio.’ I paused at the last one, uncertain as to whether this wasn’t a horse-and-rider event where dozens get injured every year in Siena. My beautician looked doubtful about the whole thing. ‘Well it sounds great. You must take loads of pictures.’ ‘Yes. I will. Loads’, I lied.
At this point I was saved from further revelations about my holiday, as a rap on the chipboard partition that served as a door to the cubicle, and a shrill voice, announced that we were over time and another client was waiting. ‘I’ve offered her nettle tea but she’s not keen.’
I looked down once more at my red, sore but bald pudenda and mused on the idea of ‘on a promise’. ‘Promise’ is not what it was anyway: this was going to be a dead cert, as it so often is with dating apps. I was planning to hook up with someone who looked as though the likelihood of their getting excited at the prospect of a weekend at a Lit Fest, or whose ability to discourse on Queer Theory in Post-Brexit Britain, for example, might well be seriously limited. (Yes, those had been the sort of men I had previously sought out.) And this time around I didn’t really care if he could string a sentence together, or even what his politics were. I simply wanted a shag.
I paid up for the waxing that had scalped my organs both of generation and of excretion, and made my chilly way out into the fresh air.
You know as a certainty that when men on dating sites write in their profile that they are ‘openminded’, it means they wish to bum you. It is extremely important to learn the jargon and be forewarned. I avoided men who used the word ‘gentleman’ or ‘lady’ since I knew that it flagged up someone who was likely to have wanted the UK to ‘take back control’, exit the European Union and shove those filthy foreign ramrod-straight bananas where the sun don’t shine on those unelected Eurocrats. There was a strong likelihood too that they had strong views about political correctness having gone mad. They were often ‘openminded’, however. It is quite fun, on occasion, to test the waters of a different pond, but I drew the line at ‘Brexiteers’ (itself a horrible term used solely by the sort of people who wished to give their collective act of self-harm an air of swashbuckling righting of wrongs, and an ill-thought-through Merrie Men style of stealing from the working people in the North of England – and most other non-metropolitan parts of this sceptic isle – and handing it over in fat bundles to hedge funds backing the very same exit from the EU. If I sound bitter, it is only because I am.)
But as a hobby, dating was a welcome distraction from the shit-storm that was swirling through my native land; I could make my own exit, temporarily, from Brexit. My own Sexit, perhaps. The only nod towards political sensibilities in this pastime, apart from an almost blanket ban on dating any I suspected of being Tories, was actively to cover the wider expanse of Europe and to seek out French men, German, Scandinavian, Spanish men – basically all nationalities who are distinguished by their highly superior tv drama serials. What about the Belgians, I hear you ask? Yes, yes, the Belgians too (I have chronicled a perfectly pleasant encounter with a resident of Antwerp once before and did not rule out a second viewing). Before you jump to the conclusion that this will be a catalogue of lazy national stereotypes, let me assure you that out of all the ‘funny foreigners’ I have slept with, the British are the most funny and most foreign of the lot. And not always in a good way. There is sport to be had, of course, with the game, Name Ten Famous Belgians, but the singing legend that was Eddy Wally more than makes up for the fact I can only get to 8, and that’s including the composer Orlande de Lassus whose birth place in the 1530s was technically the Netherlands.
One evening I had had a quick drink with a man called Hendrik who was something in IT in Eindhoven. He was tall and craggy and wore his jeans well. He had a devastating smile but also a not fascinating way of narrating the history and methods of water drainage in the Netherlands from 1730 to the present day. I tried to leaven the lecture with a comment about how I could do a really good Dutch accent and assayed, ‘croquette potatojz’ which I knew to be a national obsession but he simply said eagerly ‘yes we have croquette potatoes and they are super delicious. We also like chocolate schprinkles’. I can’t do the accent of course, nor am I transliterating it in any way adequately. He was not an interesting fellow, sadly, and try as I might to create a sexy fantasy about him and his to-die-for smile, his obsession with the development of dams, polders, and the Oosterscheldekering failed to get my juices flowing. When later on he sent a text saying how he wanted to ‘get my hands on your buns’ or, bunsh, I bid him a fairly fond farewell and blocked his number.
The fellow I was meeting for whom I had gone to so much trouble, pain and expense depilating my lady garden within an inch of its life had described himself as suave and sure of himself. ‘Suave’ is usually a term ascribed to a person by someone else, and anyone who accords themselves this epithet will usually turn out to be its very antithesis. This chap’s profile had caught my eye because he looked like a dead ringer for Don Draper from Mad Men; sharply-parted and bril-creamed hair which shone with glossy glamour, a firm square jaw, and a devilish smile. He was pictured wearing what looked like a very well-cut suit jacket; that in another picture he seemed to be protectively throwing an arm round a little old lady spoke to me only of his manly, yet tender filial devotion to his mother.
I dressed up girly, rooting out an old and favourite tea dress that very nearly still fitted me. My breasts boinged up out of the scalloped low-cut neckline, and a pair of stay-up stockings gave me a little frisson of excited anticipation of their discovery. I had slathered on possibly too much body lotion which was called something like, Nuits Exotiques, but might well have been named Shag Moi, so redolent was it of how I imagined a knocking shop in downtown Marseille might smell. You can’t wash the stuff off so I had to hope that a brisk walk down to the bar we were meeting in would dull down some of the headier top notes. A struggle with some shapewear – a necessary evil under this charming but too-tight dress – which left me breathlessly and claustrophobically trapped down one leg of the garment for a good five minutes, delayed my departure from home and threatened to make me late.
On reflection, walking to the date was a mistake, since it turned out to be further than I had anticipated and was made exquisitely painful by the teetering high heels that I had thought were a good idea. I arrived at the wine bar late, bad tempered and flustered. I was also, thanks to my bald-eagle style nether regions, and stockings rather than tights, ill clad and freezing on this bitter February evening. But warm lights, jolly-sounding music and noisy chat raised my spirits and warmed my arse as I entered the bar. I looked around for Don Draper (as I had come to think of him) seeking tall, handsome matinee-idol types among the drinkers and revellers. Someone waved and smiled and I thought, oh good, he’s already here and got us a table. I pushed my way through the throng to where my date was seated, his arm still aloft. Only when I got closer, I saw that he was not, in fact, seated; he was standing. Oh, I said to myself, he is quite little. His eye level was approximately my chin and I became instantly self conscious about my possible resemblance to a drag queen as I towered above him, and aware that he might easily and comfortably rest his chin on the pillowy protrusions that were my breasts. He seemed aware of this too and grinned in a toothy cheeky-chappy way that seemed less Don Draper and more George Formby. He was wearing a pale blue polo shirt buttoned up to the neck and blue jeans that had sharp creases ironed into them. He stood on his tip toes to reach up and kiss me on the cheek. I leaned down towards him at the same time and we cracked foreheads. He didn’t stop grinning however, although he must have been in some pain as was I. We sat and a waiter brought us a wine list. ‘You’re lovely’ he said, every few minutes, talking straight to my embonpoint. I tried to smile and look flattered but since he was not actually looking at my face, I am not sure he would have noticed had I managed this. Momentarily he turned from me and snapped his fingers calling, ‘Waiter!’ The red flags were getting redder and more flaggy by the moment. ‘You ladies all prefer white wine don’t you? Less calories.’ I bit back the urge to say, ‘fewer’, and nodded, trying to look pleasant and not at all as if I wished to revivify a dead, fictional and now usefully dying great aunt whose bedside I needed to attend, this minute, right now and with no delay. He poured some wine with a flourish and from a great height into our glasses, laughing as some slopped and splashed me. He leaned over the table and wiped his hand across my bosoms, mopping the drips that had landed. Reflexively I slapped his hand away but even that didn’t cause his grin to waver. ‘Oh-ho! Spirited, I like that.’ He chugged down a third of his glass of wine in one, following up with a long exhaled ‘haaaah’ and a wince, as if he thought he was Clint Eastwood after necking some rough cowboy moonshine. ‘So, lovely lass, are you enjoying yourself?’ I opened my mouth to bring up the subject of my moribund great aunt, but he carried on without waiting for an answer. I think he must have been a master of circular breathing because he managed to talk continuously about himself, and drink, and stuff fistfuls of the complimentary wasabi peas into his mouth, all without breaking his stride. He delivered a monologue on all his successes in the world from captaining a yacht in some race off the Isle of Man, to being a top trader at the Deutsche Börse during his twenties, to his facility for interior design – ‘I love black and silver’ – and his unmatched golf handicap. It seemed a little tiring to try to interject so I smiled vaguely and did a bit of nodding, which seemed to be all that was required. He was telling me how he’d not been any good at school, and frankly hadn’t seen the point, so had left and became a ‘barrow boy’, instantly making more money in a month than any of his teachers would see in a year. ‘I like reading, don’t get me wrong, but I am more of an action man than a quiet man of letters.’ No shit, I thought. At this point a wasabi pea went down the wrong way and he hoiked and momentarily ceased his relentless flow. I jumped in, ‘I’m afraid I spend almost all of my free time reading. I’m not so great at high finance but I am trying to write a history of my mother’s side of the family who– ‘ But I got no further because having coughed up the green granules into his hand, inspecting them as if panning for gold, he relaunched his broadcast with, ‘I think I’d be really great at writing if I had the time or could be bothered; my family would make a brilliant book – you should write it, I’d even pay you, heh, heh; you could take my family’s story, it’d make a brilliant film. My dad was such a one, and my gran had a bric-a-brac stall in Leather Lane, but it was all knock-off, and sometimes Dad would be sent to whack whoever had bought something she wished she’d kept, and bring the item back. They were such characters. Real salt of the earth. It’d be brilliant on telly. Like Miami Vice or The Wire, but with competitively-priced household goods. I could tell it to you and you put it into words. Who’d play me, I wonder?’ I was not wondering this; I was wondering how I could stop him mid flow.
I was also sweating profusely under my dress and the liberal amount of Shag Moi body lotion was getting oilier and more liquid by the minute. I could feel drips rolling down to the small of my back, and then the slippery sensation of the rapidly-perishing elastic around my thighs turning into fall-downs instead of hold-ups as they pooled Nora Batty-like at my ankles. My hold-u-in pants too were chafing, and the waistband cut punishingly into my beautifully held-in stomach. I stood up knocking the table and making the glasses wobble. ‘Sorry, I said, ‘Loo emergency’ and staggered off to the Ladies, my stockings flapping like waders as I went.
I locked myself in a cubicle, wrestling my way out of the now ragged bits of nylon, and freed myself from my pants using some nail scissors from my makeup purse. It was good to be able to breathe.
I strode back into the crowded bar head held high, ready to make my excuses to Don-not-Don and leave. But when I got to our table the glasses and the bottle of wine were empty and there was no sign of my date. The waiter stood in front of me, ‘He left,’ he said, simply, and handed me the bill. I passed him my credit card with a sigh and saw that he was smiling. Hello! He had such a chiselled jaw and he must have been at least 6’ 2”. And that broad, manly chest straining at the buttons of his crisp white shirt. He was a dead ringer for the young Errol Flynn but without the moustache or the tights. I smoothed down my dress, and underneath the tight fabric I felt the now very pleasant coolness of my bare skin. His fabric looked tight too, when I gazed down, and that seemed equally pleasant. I entertained the possibility that Errol Flynn might be parking in my Hollywood-style underground carpark later that night, if he played his cards right. Maybe something could, after all, be salvaged from the day. I sat down at the table and gazed up at him. ‘Join me?’ I said.