“Miss Bay says I’m a narcissist.” Leah picks at a quick on her left thumb, which is still wrapped around her phone. “Like it’s a bad thing.”
I look at her, my first-born, my life-changer: she’s troubled, and inches away from another selfie. As though a picture could take away the trouble, packing it behind a honeycomb of pixels.
Leah’s highlights need re-doing. I’ve said it several times, but she’s waiting for me to make the appointment. I know I will make the appointment. I will also drive her to the salon and give her money to go shopping afterwards with Petra and Ellen. I will not tell her father what it costs.
“Do you know what the word means?” I turn my back and look out the window over the kitchen sink. My Japanese Maple bathes in the honey of an Indian summer, the sun behind sinking slowly as though begging for ten minutes more, just like Leah used to resist bedtime when she was small. The water has gone cold and I coat my hands with soap suds, rolling them through the water for a moment like surfacing whales, before I extract the last few teaspoons hiding underneath.
She’s back tapping on her phone. The faint clink-ping-whoosh! of messages and updates and pronouncements catapulted to and from her phone at lightning speed, to the far corners of Dublin, where she wants them to go, and the world at large, which she does not think about. “Sure. Miss Bay doesn’t know me. She probably thinks makeup makes you a narcissist. She’s always giving us these mad communist lectures about how much our bags cost.”
I don’t have a designer handbag, but my sixteen-year-old daughter does. The Michael Kors was a present, when she finished her exams in June. I didn’t tell Kevin how much it was.
When I was her age I was so afraid people would say I was up myself. I put handbags and make-up in the same category as matchy-matchy outfits and high heels: outward signs of high maintenance that would mark me out as ‘other’. Not one of the lads I so desperately wanted to be. I had decided to be down-to-earth. As much of a construct as my poor Leah’s profiles online.
“Do you know anyone you’d say is a narcissist?” I pull the chain for the stopper and let the water run down the plughole. There are too many suds. It’ll take an hour for them to disappear on their own, and they’ll leave a scum in the sink which will look dirty.
“There’s a few Fourth Years who are always putting up pictures in bikinis and stuff? And Jessa Conway told everyone she was scouted in Dundrum for a London agency. But there’s no way that happened, because she’s got, like, an underbite.”
Jessa’s mother and I once shared tea duty at a parents’ evening in the local primary when the secondary schools came to set out their stalls. She seemed fairly set on St. Blaise’s, as was I, and I wondered if our girls would be friends. Apparently not.
“Do you worry about how you look, love?” I keep my voice light. By the time I reached sixteen I had already decided that I was never going to be pretty, so there was no point in trying. Jane Shaw and Niamh Haydon would attract all the attention, but when they were done, I would be waiting in the background, being sound. Being down-to-earth. A friend with boobs.
“Why, should I?”
I turn to face my daughter and her eyes have narrowed, staring down the barrel of suspicion, her ravaged thumbs poised in mid-air, arrested in their strategic operations.
“Of course not. But too many girls do worry, that’s why I’m asking you.”
The thumbs descend once again, emitting clicks and whistles and zips to the world outside my kitchen. “No. I know what I look like.”
I’m not sure what this means. From my daughter’s dark roots down to her eighty-euro-pedicured toes, she’s doing far better than I ever did. Even I haven’t seen her without mascara in months. It’s the last thing to come off at night, the first to go on in the morning, together with the full coverage anti-bacterial foundation we spent two days trawling through cosmetic counters for, running outside to check each sample in daylight. Two exhausting, fraught, blissful days.
“Good,” I hear myself say. “Because you’ve no need to worry. You’re a beautiful girl.”
She rolls her eyes and swipes furiously at the screen of her phone, but doesn’t leave the kitchen. I tell myself that this is what counts as I take out the chopping board. Other parents tell me their daughters spend every hour they’re at home locked in their bedrooms, talking to God knows whom and doing God knows what on their tablets and laptops and phones. My Leah tends to hang around downstairs quite a bit.
I’ve met Miss Bay, Leah’s soft-spoken but severe Economics teacher. Her wardrobe rolled off the production line at some point in 1987, full of hard-wearing, starchy fabrics. I imagined her taking each item off every night and diligently sponging it down before hoisting onto padded hangers, gaps left between garments for airing. Miss Bay would rather die than take a selfie. So would I, but I think I understand better than she does what it is to be a teenager in this new high visibility world.
“Oh yeah. Petra’s coming over. We have a project thing to do. Okay?”
“Sure. I can do some extra veg.”
“Oh, Mom,” says my firstborn – and without looking, I can feel the bored resignation – “she’s not going to have dinner with us. Petra eats at lunch.”
And Petra has an eating disorder, I think, but I say nothing as I chop the carrots into batons because Kevin doesn’t like rounds and I cut florets of broccoli into equal sizes for steaming because Sam says when it’s boiled it tastes wrong and I roll the grass-fed organic diced beef in seasoned flour and place it gingerly into the casserole dish to brown. My mother could lay her fingers right into the pan and feel nothing; she’d say I’d gone soft.
When Petra walks in the door I have to stop myself from groaning, because she’s wearing the tracksuit top Leah wants. There’s no point in hoping that will put Leah off. Petra is too poised to care who copies her. I can also tell by the way Petra is modelling it that it will not suit my flat-chested daughter, but that doesn’t change the fact that I will have to find another ninety quid before Saturday to undo the damage.
I clear away the dinner plates as Leah makes coffee. Petra lounges against the counter with ease. She has never been afraid to be in this house.
“Casserole.” Her button nose turns up, not unattractively. I know she’s not being rude: not intentionally, anyway. Petra turned vegetarian when she was eleven. I put my foot down with Leah. Nobody in my house may deprive themselves of anything, not least protein.
“Yes indeed,” I say. “Lovely hunks of moo-cow in silky stew sauce.” I laugh. I’m not afraid of Petra either. “Leah says you have a school project?”
The bunny nose twitches again. “Social media awareness. Really random.”
“I would have thought you girls were extremely aware of social media,” I say. I take the milk from the fridge and hand it to Leah. Neither girl takes sugar. “Unless you’re inventing a new one.”
“Mom.” Leah warns me with a glance. I shouldn’t be talking about this stuff, not after what Miss Bay said. But I’ve seen their profiles. That picture in the bathroom of Hungry Pete’s. The look in Ellen’s eyes which didn’t match the smile on her lips. I always said as long as I saw more face than cleavage I wouldn’t worry. But wherever one girl goes, the others follow. Isn’t that what they say?
Kevin passes back through the kitchen in his shirtsleeves on his way to the study. “Hi, Petra. How’s life?”
“Oh, you know. Due to start any minute now.”
Kevin laughs, and it’s a new laugh. He never used to feel the need to try with their friends. He was just a dad, an older man in an older shirt, perfectly acceptable in an affable sort of way. I’m still waiting for that stopping of time, be it with Petra or Ellen or anybody else, the meaningless glance which isn’t glancing at all. And it disgusts me that I’m waiting for it. Like I’m staging a selfie of my soul I’ll later regret.
“You need a hand, love?” he asks me, followed a split second later by, “No? Excellent. I’ll be in my cupboard.”
Leah hands Petra her coffee and they make for the stairs, leaving me to it. Petra’s leggings are skin-tight and leave nothing to the imagination. Leah doesn’t wear them and I worry that she doesn’t like her legs. She takes all her selfies from a point above her head, looking down from some magically flattering, leg-obscuring angle. I marvel at how she gets around these things. They are ingenious, these girls, in so many ways.
I squirt washing up liquid into the enamel casserole dish and run the hot water tap. Decades of Sunday dinners have aged it black, but I remember my mother cutting chunks of dripping into it when it was still a sky-blue colour. On one day of roast beef and mashed turnip, just after I met Kevin, I asked her what her pregnancies had been like. First she said she didn’t remember. Then she laughed, saying she thought I was too selfish to want children. I remember looking at the beef sizzling wildly as she browned it in the red-hot pan, fat spitting out in every direction like a Catherine wheel. The soft underside of her wrist and forearm caught the worst of it as she pressed the beef down into the dish, but she didn’t even flinch.
Before she died I used to bake my mother queen cakes. Plain sponge, devoid of raisins or sultanas or chocolate chips. She liked the way the uniformly wan flesh disappeared in a mouthful of tea. I baked them the way I was taught. Flour and eggs, soft margarine and sugar. Not overbeaten. Baked until just golden but never ever crisp. Each time she said, “Oh, you shouldn’t have gone to any trouble.” As if the queen cakes were the trouble.
A familiar tom cat stalks across the decking, tail pointing cockily at the sky. He looks up at me, disdain dripping from each gleaming whisker, then turns sharply without breaking eye contact and walks away towards the back fence. He’ll come back in the middle of the night, when I can’t see him. Too late to tell Leah, I think: cats are the true narcissists. They don’t even care if anyone’s around to watch them being fabulous.
“Mo-OM!” Leah roars at me from halfway down the stairs. “Where’s your Chanel lipstick?”
Somewhere online there is a mother who grins wryly at this. The social media project must be going well, she thinks, laughing as she bakes another batch of perfect buns, because teenagers are so predictable, especially when they think they’re not.
That mother is not in my kitchen. The mother in my kitchen is thinking that her daughter and her daughter’s friend are in her private en-suite, rooting through physical evidence that parents are people too, adult partners who wash and pee and bleed and have sex. She does not want them there. Her en-suite and her marriage are not a social media project.
“Try the red vanity case!” I shout back. I stare stonily at my reflection in the darkening window. My mother’s shadow gazes back at me and I blink, scrubbing hard at new stains branding the old enamel.
Tara Sparling writes fiction and satire. Her blog www.tarasparlingwrites.com looks at book humour, bestselling book trends, the realities of traditional and self-publishing, writing follies, character and genre stereotypes, marketing, author success stories and spectacular failures. She can also be found lurking @TaraSparling on Twitter.