MAY ISSUE: Mirrors

Tanya Shadrick in Mercury Mirror (National Trust Bucks Mills Artists Cabin)

Welcome to the third issue in Season Two of The Cure for Sleep: Stories From (& Beyond) the Book. This month’s theme over on Substack concerns mirrors: subscribers were invited to respond to the following prompt: Tell me about your face in a mirror: a time when you looked at yourself in a good new way, or confronted uncomfortable beliefs about who and what you are.

Any stories received on this theme will be curated below. Click on each name to go direct to that reader’s contribution.

Miranda R Waterton

May extract

This had become a particular thrill in the three years of my new life as a travelling speaker and self-declared writer of the outside: coming alone and unknown to a place, senses made sharp by newness. Stranger in a strange land, I went along hungry for any small signs of who I’d be among this time. 

But in the quarter-hour it took me to get from the car park to my cabin, I didn’t see a soul. Which made it all the more peculiar to reach the little brick building I’d be in, windowless on its wall that bordered the slipway, and see on its green wooden door my own name and photo. And vertiginous to open next the smaller side entrance by the cliff edge only to find a postcard waiting for me on the cold stone floor. Sent from across that North Atlantic I’d just arrived beside by the man who wouldn’t, after all, be growing old with me. 

Heart lift at first, seeing his handwriting. Then heaviness. A fatigue so great that I wanted to lie on the grass and sleep, all my bags left unpacked around me. I’d come all this way, trying to keep moving through these months of mine that would always be without his company now – but here he was, ahead of me. Marking the territory. 

Holding the postcard by one corner, mouse by its tail, I took it to the small outhouse that would be my only source of cold water. Came back then to the threshold to begin again, freed of male influence: a woman writer being allowed to work inside the carefully kept and Grade II-listed studio of two long-gone women artists who’d defied convention to live and love together. 

Curator-cautious, I went step by step through the tiny space so as not to break anything. There on the back of the staircase door were the couple’s two painting smocks, one inside the other. Hung about on hooks were their cups, a rusted nutmeg grater, a Festival of Britain jug. Then, going up the few wooden steps, and bending my head to get around the sharp turn and low ceiling, I came into their only other room. Metal-framed bed with a white counterpane, a pitcher and bowl for washing, open cupboard of art supplies. On the mantelpiece, a sinister mercury mirror I’d been warned about on the risk assessment: it was degrading fast and giving off poison – I mustn’t get too close or look into its dark, decaying surface. 

And so of course I did. 

I’d been ashamed of my face since my terrible mistake in love: all the beauty I’d felt to possess in the few months of being wanted twice over – this had left me now. My skin was bad, my eyes were tired. 

But I was here to welcome people in. What I looked like didn’t matter. 

I adjusted my headscarf, tightened my apron and went back down to make a little bower of books by the open door. Hoping, in this way, to recover some of the joy I’d had in my first year of writing beside the pool.

Shadrick, Tanya. The Cure for Sleep (pp. 267-269). Orion. Kindle Edition.

Reader responses

Scanning the numbers on the doors down the corridor, I harboured no feelings of dread, no feelings that I would find anything untoward or unexpected.

I expected to see my mother, in a hospital gown in a hospital bed. Pulling back the curtain divider in her room, I saw my grandmother’s face swimming out of my mother’s, calling out to me and admonishing me for making the trip down to see her in hospital. I was thrust out of myself.

The years swam. I lost my steadiness. And then, when I looked again, it was my mother and it was her face that was chastising me. 

I was no longer in my body. I staggered down the corridor with nothing like the steady considered steps of those patients diligently walking their laps around the ward. Collapsing into the green plasticky lounge in the visitors room, I put my head between my knees until I returned to myself. I opened my eyes and saw my face mirrored on the blank screen on the wall opposite. It was a face that I could not seem to recognise.

The years swam. I lost my steadiness.

Now the practice of looking through old photographs for the faces I saw that day in the hospital room has become a search for the right face attached to the right person. The fluidity, the distinct lack of fixed-ness, of features formed through years of familial living, astound me. Is it possible to see my face in the mirror as mine and not as a fusion of all the women I am the result of? Will my daughter see her grandmother’s face in mine one day? Does she see me when she looks into the mirror? Does she see herself?

Emily Tamas

I sit on the sofa and look at you.

‘Now then,’ says L, ‘do you know who this is? She’s come a long way to see you.’

Your brows gather fleetingly as you look at me, eyes sweep my face, up and down. You look away, uninterested, then stand up and leave the room. My heart cracks. No, you don’t know me, your youngest daughter, do not remember my face. 

Your face.

After half a century, yours is the face I see every morning when I look in the mirror. When I was younger I saw my father’s face there in the glass, but now all signs of him are gone. There is only you. I see the tilt of your nose, the curve of your lip, the arch of your brow. I see our face and think of your soft, velvety skin, know exactly how it would feel it under my fingertips.

As you drift along the corridors, uttering amorphous complaints, I wonder how you do not recall yourself in my face, even if my own identity eludes you. But even that memory is gone, eaten away by this cruellest of diseases.

You walk past the doorway, then back into the room, but as we turn to you, you walk out again. I try to hold back the tears, and cannot.

But years after you are gone, we still meet in that mirror. Mutual, poignant recognition. Heartbreak. And joy.

sally harrop

From proof to possibility…

I thought we looked alike, me and another girl in my class at primary school. Her eyes were large, and brown and her skin much paler than mine. But it was the similarities I noticed (and still do). Secretly checking off shared life experiences. Seeking connection – and the possibility of not really being alone. It was the height that caught my attention since adults would comment that I was tall or tall for a girl. Sophie and I were the same height. Had the same brown ponytail length hair. And the same outfit: floral lilac culottes and a mint green t-shirt tied in the middle; coordinated dressing on non-uniform day.

After a few weeks of revelling in our similarities I asked Dad a question that had been on my mind for some time. Gazing into the tall, narrow mirror in the bedroom I shared with my sister, I wondered…Was there a way I could become Sophie and yet still be me? Was there a way in which my thoughts could be inside of her head, so I could look out from her eyes and see and feel her body yet know I was still me? It was an uncertain, hesitant commitment to my becoming her. Because if I was her, how could I be me? Could I experience being her while still being myself? Might that be possible?

‘No’ said Dad. Though something in the tone showed an understanding of my desire to experience being through another.

A few years later, as a young teen being talked about by my classmates, I would wonder again about how my face, my thoughts and my being were connected. Self-conscious about how I appeared to the world left me staring at myself for hours in the mirror. Hoping I would somehow learn to be both inside and outside of myself. To be able to look at myself as another, as an outsider and see how I appeared. What did these harsh external judges see, who had no idea what was happening inside? What did they want? Could this watchful guarding of myself keep me safe, help me second-guess the criticisms that would come my way? For a time, I could bring my face still and staring up in my mind’s eye. No need for a mirror.

And now, in the mirror? Can I meet my ever-vigilant eye? Can space for dreams open up if the watchfulness recedes?

Can I open up for the possibilities to begin

Anna Francis

There is a mirror in my childhood bedroom…

…where I have seen my reflection grow from seven-year-old baby to 40-something mother. Through childhood dancing and singing with a hairbrush, teenage awkwardness, a variety of unsuitable boyfriends, then the one suitable boyfriend that became a husband, bumps then babies, toddlers and now young people.

When I was 7 we went to see the original Phantom of the Opera. The Phantom appears at first in a full-length mirror and pulls the heroine through into his lair. It looked just like the one in my bedroom. I was frightened of the mirror in my bedroom after that, believing a malevolent spirit was lurking behind and might reach through and snatch me away.

But looking back, that idea that a strange and odd man with a disfigured face who lived in the sewers and might GET me? Well that was just a symptom of my over-anxious and over-imaginative mind, fearing danger at every corner. I see now that the mirror refracts different personalities that I have tried on through my life.

Who is the real me? Do I still belong in that bedroom in my childhood mental constraints? Or have I blasted through the looking glass to find my true self?


What we see and what don’t see in the mirror…

…they are so close aren’t they? There in our face and also beyond – making some things weirdly distant and others sharper than they’ve ever been.

I look in the mirror on this grey Tuesday morning and there’s my mum’s neck; suddenly and rudely more wrinkled than I’ve noticed before. 

I hate my neck. I remember mum saying exactly that 20-odd years ago now; she was about the age I am now.I had peered at her then and examined her skin and found it unremarkable under a face I felt was ageing amazingly well. Indeed I heard this echoed in the compliments she received, especially in relation to me and my big sister: could she really be old enough to be our mum? Familiarity and love, too, made my judgement so much more favourable than her own.

I also always received flattery from friends as well as strangers back then; but these were often misperceived if I think about it now. I didn’t really want to look like a schoolgirl. We want to look grown-up enough to be the mother of our own child, dancing at that club, drinking at that bar, hanging out with that crowd; I needed to see myself as of an age that could cope and manage with all life seemed to hurl my way. I didn’t want to see the fear, panic, pain and confusion on my face any more than I wanted to see Mum’s wrinkles.

As I sat on the 73 bus travelling across London with my 10-month-old on my lap, my face with its girl-like appearance, passersby would say You must’ve had him young.

Not so I thought. Twenty-seven was the average age for having your first child; I was average then. But I felt anything but that. I felt panic at times. So much so that I called Social Services one day, distraught. 

What do I do if I can’t cope with my child? The question I just managed to relay to the person who had picked up the phone. I can’t recall their exact reply. I can recall the way the question landed: Was there immediate danger? Did I have support? They just didn’t get me. No-one did. Why would they? I didn’t get myself either and I really couldn’t explain this. Put the phone down. Cry and hurt alone some more.

I didn’t get what to do when I wanted to run out the door; when I needed my mum but not how to ask; when I wanted my big sister to step in and scoop me up and look after me. When I just wanted my dad to see how brilliant I could be at being grown up. My head was full of chaos and sadness and joy all in one big scramble. Yes, that’s what it was, a scramble, like eggs mixed so each one was now part of the other. Where did one emotion start and another end? What even were these emotions? I just felt alone; unable to express myself except after wine and dancing but then it seemed to come out strange and urgent and somehow more frightening than ever. But there was joy too. A lot of pure love and joy.

So now, when I see my neck and my face and the wrinkles I don’t like…I also see beauty and experience and someone who has made it through and through the toughest of times.


I have become a woman who doesn’t look in mirrors.

I don’t see myself there – I see someone else, as if a spell has been cast. I was the fairest of them all, now I’m a saggy, tired old crone. 

My hair has become a symbol of that. I started life with brown hair. Straight, thick, shiny. In my early twenties, I had a lot of fun with my hair – red and black checks, multi-coloured sunbursts, asymmetry. In my late twenties, I settled on a low-maintenance bob of varying lengths. We got on together, me and my hair. 

When I started my first chemo, I had it cut short. And then I had it shaved off. The hairdresser cried as she shaved my head. A sweet little old lady in the next chair patted my arm and told me it suited me. It was OK. Better than the constant drift of hair loss, the blocked drain in the shower, the scattering of hairs on the pillow. After chemo it came back silver. The perfect canvas. 

This time round, I haven’t lost it all. My eyebrows are gone. I have a total of 6 eyelashes – four on one side, two on the other. But I still have hair – just about. It won’t grow more than 3 cm, and it’s thin. So thin. But it’s there. I have grieved for my hair this time round. ‘I don’t want to die bald’, I tell people. I mean I don’t want to be chasing treatments until the end. I want to know when to stop. 

One of my dearest friends is now my hairdresser. Last night, in her kitchen, she tidied me up. She has made such a difference. I’m embracing this crop, this short-back-and-sides. I’ve mourned enough, time to leave that behind. There’s enough grief to come.

sarah connor

 I stand in front of the bathroom window where the light is good, tilt my chin slightly upwards before the magnifying glass, and pick up the tweezers. Brace a little, pull in my lip. Ouch ouch ouch. A tiny hit of release as each wiry intruder leaves its pore. I know every little cluster, every stretch of the skin. After the big lockdown, I stopped paying a beautician to perform this service. 

Well, I won’t have to worry about this in a few weeks’ time, I think, as I have done every day this week. Ouch, ouch, ouch.

Between Cycle 1 and Cycle 2, that’s when it begins for most ladies, they say. There are classes you can go to at Maggies, they teach you clever ways of folding scarves. Or you can get a voucher for a wig. But everyone knows it’s a wig, well everyone who knows you, who sees you in the clinic waiting to be called for your bloods week after weeks, because hair is meant to change in all kinds of subtle ways, and certain people’s – you need to take care with words like ladies nowadays – certain people’s, don’t.

Do they offer the men scarf-tying workshops, I wonder? Or wigs? I saw a bloke in the coffee shop who’d had an eye taken away last week. It makes you realise how lucky you are. He looked sort of okay with it, he’s alive, for the moment, after all, and anything is better than that.

The day it actually starts, the day your hands fill with it in the shower, unless you’ve already called your hairdresser who probably won’t charge you for that particular cut – and will certainly understand if you cry – will you stop looking in the mirror? Will you have to force yourself from the house? Will you wear that defiant, colourful hat you bought weeks ago?

I don’t know, you say. I honestly don’t know.

Miranda r waterton
%d bloggers like this: