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 which you can read in full over on my free Substack. 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
The mirrors of the bathroom cabinet hold my gaze: a silvered altarpiece that needs no kneeling. A thousand of me stares out, front back and sides; nowhere to hide. I switch off my eyes and escape from view, but there is no cut and run, moonlight flit or vanishing trick. I am the act, the performer inside and outside of my head. The mirror gives me age; I give me a road less travelled.
The mirror is a cruel thing, it empties out my face and entombs me in a space. The mirror neither loves me nor dislikes me. It maintains a neutral stance. A lifetime of my faces have stared back at me searching for answers; narcissistic impulses have tempted me, tried to catch me off guard; even lied to my face. I have erred and misjudged my way through many different mirrors.
Whatever I see in the mirror I slug it down; I cannot restrain nor repress it like uncomfortable memories. Decades of sunlight have scratched my retina, leaving an impression of a life well lived; I close my eyes, but the mirror sees all.
Looking at old photographs links me to a narrative of past golden moments; a lifetime of my smiling faces packaged in the past, but my ‘now’ face unwraps them with caution. I have looked at the world with all of these different faces. My internal hall of mirrors re-create and re-structure my image of me. Corridors of masks hang there waiting to be worn, waiting for the right moment to face the world.
My eyes have fed me the world; with pie in the sky, castles in the air, cloud cuckoo land and a glimpse of bliss; all in the blink of an eye.
It all started with a routine argument.
I wasn’t cautious enough, wasn’t sufficiently vigilant and on and on it went. So I tried to defend myself, to pacify him out of habit, but then some red mist blinded me momentarily.
Enough! I’ve done nothing wrong.
I screamed back and he froze. His only working eye burning with hatred, not love –
You cannot see through to my soul, and you never will! Never!
But I saw it then. A fear of a trapped animal and aloneness, the depth of which I couldn’t yet comprehend. And there was resentment and regret and more fear. I could not unsee it any longer. All those years wanting to be like him, hanging on his every word, feeling so small without him and terrified to lose his love. The glass pedestal got cracked.
The years passed. The time came when I couldn’t look into a mirror without stabbing pain right in my core. How many times I had to pretend to be someone else to feel accepted and to chase imaginary status. I thought I got away from my past by building a new future as a wife and a mother.
I do this for my kids, I used to tell myself. But in the mirror the past was staring back at me, judging silently, reminding me that one can never get away from one’s roots, and responsibilities to them. You have forgotten your filial duties and for that you will be punished – the mirror hissed back at me in his voice, reminding me how long I carried on seeing the world through his lens. The only way forward was to rely on myself and stop judging my reflections. I won’t let a piece of glass steal my soul. I have the duty to myself, and I knew it mattered now…. Because I owe that to my children too… I have to find my way so that they can too. elena