Dear Mr Overton,
What a time it has been! I expect that things have been busy for you too, what with the ongoing financial disarray about which we hear so much. Although perhaps for providers of financial advice such as yourself, a recession provides a business boost - much as roofers must prosper in the wake of a hurricane? It must be a peculiar feeling to make one’s greatest profit at times of human woe. Now I come to think of it, though, there must be a lot of it about. Ratcatchers applauding infestations, and psychiatrists living in dread of a cure for human misery! Mr Overton, it only strikes me now: could it be that the reason most of us dwell in such dissatisfaction is that an outbreak of generalised contentment would put so many people out of work?
But I digress. I apologise. As you know, I have a habit of digressing. Although perhaps my observations are not as random as they may appear, since Derek and I have of late endured what might be regarded as our very own private hurricane, and there has been considerable cost to our contentment - or at least mine. Nonetheless, I am happy to say that things are beginning to improve. My reason for writing is to assure you that certain unusual activity on our joint account should not be regarded as untoward. Since Derek’s period of illness and consequent departure from his job, you have been striving so nobly to keep us from the debtors’ jail; and I felt that you would be understandably concerned by what you might regard as a splurge. I also know from past experience that sudden spates of largesse can set off alarm bells, in these days of identity theft. (In truth, Mr Overton, I sometimes rather yearn for someone to make off with my identity. I was once telephoned by my bank at an unseemly hour and asked if I was in Skegness and the proud owner of a new motorcycle sidecar, since my credit card had just been used there to buy one. Alas, no. It was my sidecar only in name.)
So, anyway. I wish to alert you to these purchases and assure you of their validity. You see, Mr Overton, I recently spent a full day shopping for Natalie. I realise that this will come as no small surprise to you, antipathy towards Natalie having been a significant motivating factor for me in recent times - if not, indeed, the sole spark motivating me to rise from my bed of a morning. But Natalie and I must find a way forward; and it struck me as selfishness on my part not to attempt a rapprochement. Shopping is a bonding exercise, or so they say. Has it ever struck you, Mr Overton - the extent to which we women are encouraged to combat personal difficulties by buying things for ourselves? Particularly things which make us appear more attractive from the outside? Does that ever strike you as strange? You would not expect a man to spend a day shaving, or buying shirts, to make himself feel better. A man such as you - a man, come to that, such as Derek, or at least the Derek I married - would play a game of golf, or drink himself insensible. A woman is encouraged to pamper. To increase her acceptability. I mentioned this to Natalie, while we trawled the aisles, but she was not compelled by my argument. She was busy oohing over a faux-fur stole, from which I had to physically part her. Natalie inclines toward an Old Hollywood look, and in my opinion often finds herself an opera glove or two away from being in fancy dress. Much of my usefulness during our ‘pampering’ day lay in toning Natalie down. And in managing her expectations. She has considerable expectations, does Natalie, and they require management. You might be familiar with that standing joke among hairdressers - the heavy-set and ill-favoured client who brings in a photograph of some slip of a celebrity sylph and demands to look just like her? Well, Natalie, I now know, has over a number of years maintained a scrapbook in which she collects images of ‘looks’ that she admires and wishes to emulate. This was how she phrased it: ‘I like this look; this is a look I like.’ I hardly need to note, Mr Overton, that these ‘looks’ rather neglect to accommodate the specifics of Natalie’s own appearance. I was driven to point out, I’m afraid, that one set of false eyelashes does not a Katy Perry make. Natalie got rather emotional at this. False eyelashes, Mr Overton, forsooth. They have come back into fashion, I’m told. Along with wigs, and corsets, and all sorts of troublesome items that my generation of women were rather keen to cast off. Bras! Bras are everywhere, and though they do look more flammable than ever, it does not appear that anyone is burning them any more! (Not that I ever personally felt more liberated or equal when I was flopping about all over the place, but I suppose I understood the symbolism.) And the shoes that the girls wear now - have you seen? Natalie showed me racks of the things, and though I managed to steer away from the more extreme styles and towards something more age-appropriate, her eyes were wet with yearning as she pointed out her favourites. They looked like medical equipment, Mr Overton! Like calipers. But in pink snakeskin. Look, I like nice things. I have some patent leather court shoes from Russell and Bromley that give me a quiet thrill. Looking at Natalie’s choice of shoes, though, I was put in mind less of fashion and more of a museum display I once saw of shoes that had belonged to Chinese women with bound feet. Those shoes had nothing to do with the shape of a foot, and nor did the ones that Natalie liked. I couldn’t quite believe that they were, as she assured me, the norm. We found her some nice, discreet slip-ons with a low heel.
We also bought Natalie make-up - a lot of make-up. We were approached now and then by those can-I-help-you harpies, who were obviously excited about taking on a challenging case; but I flat-out refused their services. I was not going to subject Natalie to that. One of those women once peered at me, screwed up her orange-painted nose and said, My, you have to be brave to wear as little make-up as you do! Mr Overton, I was fully made up! And she called me brave! Later, my friend Beatrice, who has worked on a beauty counter for twenty years, told me that they insult you ON PURPOSE to make you feel insecure so that you buy things. I didn’t know whether to feel better or worse. Beatrice said that she and her colleagues always pretend to estimate a woman’s age, and add on an extra decade, so that the woman flies into a frenzy of terrified self-loathing and spends forty pounds on a jar of grease. I must admit, I felt compelled to distance myself from Beatrice after that conversation.
I still haven’t got to the point, have I, Mr Overton? What a blabbermouth I am. Derek told me once that he felt as if he’d barely got a word in edgeways over thirty years of marriage. Well, I didn’t think that was quite fair, but people see things the way they see them, I suppose. The list of items. Here it is.
Those low-heeled shoes, in red
Various dresses, blouses and skirts in size 14 (Natalie is more realistically a 16, but she did insist - despite my protestations that the fit was more important than what it said on the label)
Control-top shine-effect tights, in nude, biscuit and barely black
Several sets of special medical-looking elastic underwear, which according to Natalie is all the rage in Hollywood ‘for ensuring a smooth silhouette’
Four padded push-up bras
Eight pairs of matching panties, in various styles - ‘g-string’, ‘bikini’ and ‘boy short’
Waxing procedures: legs, underarms and elsewhere (I left the room)
Soothing aloe vera ointment for waxed areas
Light-reflecting matte foundation
False lashes (I did question why these were necessary, if the previous item did what it claimed; but Natalie pouted, and I let it go)
Spray-on tan (Natalie feels she is too pale; she wanted a sunbed tan, but I told her not to be ridiculous)
It seemed so much, Mr Overton! As I said, I badly wanted a cessation of hostilities between us, and for Natalie to come away happy; but as we amassed more and more spangles, potions and support garments, I confess I felt my head begin to spin. When, at my insistence, we made a brief stop for a reviving cappuccino, I queried whether Natalie really needed so much. ‘This,’ she insisted, ‘is the bare minimum!’ And then she got out her new compact to check for froth on her top lip. ‘Il faut souffrir pour être belle,’ she said. Noting that her French accent is no better than Derek’s, I pondered the phrase. It struck me that it might be bilge. You don’t see trees suffering to be beautiful, do you? Or sunsets. Or, come to that, Johnny Depp. Those things just are, and everybody jolly well swoons.
Natalie said that she knew what I meant, but that it couldn’t be like that for her. ‘Besides,’ she said, with a little panic in her voice, ‘the rituals are part of the fun, aren’t they?’
Well, Mr Overton, I’m just not sure any more that they are. When I think of how much time I have put into ‘the rituals’, over the years - and when I look at where it’s got me - I can’t say it seems like time well spent. To be quite honest, the more I see Natalie embracing her new beauty routines - gliding around the house daubed in mud or wax or chemical-smelling dyes - the less I feel like making any alterations to myself. I even told her that she could have my make-up, which she politely declined, saying that there was a risk of infections. (Nonsense, I said - my friends and I shared the same eyeliner pencil for most of the 1960s! - but then I remembered that we did all have conjunctivitis most of the time.)
I must sign off and let you go, Mr Overton. I hope that if you have any immediate concerns about the finances, you will give me a call. At the present time, it is better if you talk to me, although I don’t expect that always to be the case. We will get ourselves together, and function like a family again.
Which brings me to the other point I wanted to raise. I was so touched, Mr Overton, by your offer to take me to dinner. A man as distinguished as you - any woman would be flattered, and I’m sure most would jump at the chance. And I can imagine why you would suppose me in need of male company, under the circumstances. But the fact is, I am still married.
Though Derek now intends to live as Natalie all the time, we have no plans to separate. What we are planning is a party, at which we will introduce Natalie to our friends and families. I’m even hoping that she can reconcile with some of Derek’s old workmates, and see about getting her job back... We would be so honoured, Mr Overton, if you would come along? Natalie is going to wear the blue, in which, I have to say, she really does look beautiful...