Tell me what you thought
It's my birthday soon, I will be forty years old. 'The Big Four Oh,' my sister says, she's 10 years younger than me and likes to crow. I tell her her time will come but she only laughs.
I have been married for twenty years to Geoff, who is quiet, reliable and totally predictable. We have two children, Alison who is almost seventeen and John, twelve.
I think I am a good mother. I make sure the family has a balanced diet, that their clothes are clean and pressed. I attend school Sports and Open Days, at which the teachers tell me my children are doing very well but that John would be better to concentrate more in class instead of talking.
I have brought them up to tidy their own rooms, brush their teeth, be polite and not eat with their mouths open. They are nice kids and I get on very well with them.
As a family, we pay our bills on time and are never in debt, because I am a competent housewife and, unlike some of my neighbours, have no desire for the latest appliance, a larger TV or a punchier stereo system.
Between us, Geoff and I keep our large garden tidy. I do the flowerbeds, weeding in odd hours during the week and planting colourful annuals each spring. He sees to the lawns and the tree pruning, the larger jobs which are a bit beyond me now that I am 40 years old.
When we were children, Mother bought my sister and me dolls or soap and talc sets for our birthdays but when we became teenagers she said she no longer knew what we really wanted, so it was better to give us money with which to buy our own gifts, and this she still does
My sister, who is unmarried and plans to stay that way always buys wine with her birthday money: an investment, she says.
I usually purchase something small and inexpensive then put the rest of the money into the bank where it gradually gets absorbed into the household accounts and until Geoff earns considerably more than he does at the moment, Mum's gift is a real help with the bills, as my fashion-conscious daughter needs new clothes practically every month and John goes through sports gear like other people use tissues.
This year however my mother has taken me aside and made me promise, faithfully, that I will spend every single penny on myself. I am surprised by her insistence for it had not occurred to me that she might be upset by what I now realise she saw as a misuse of her generosity.
At the moment our bank balance is reasonably healthy and as long as the roof doesn't blow off or the car need major repairs when it goes for its service next month, we should be fine.
So when my mother hands me an envelope with a pretty card and several crisp, new notes inside I experience the kind of anticipatory excitement I felt as a child. All that money, just for me, to do with exactly as I wish.
Because of this promise, I don't feel in the slightest bit guilty. The vow has put everything on a totally different level. I can go into town and if I see something I want, I can have it. Just like that!
As I catch the bus to the shops I feel almost as if I am doing my mother a favour: which perhaps I am.
I start by treating myself to morning tea. Coffee and gateaux in Maria's Pantry costs as much as takeaways for the whole family so understandably, I've never been in this rather elegant place before, although I've always wanted to.
I order a pot of China tea and a slice of apricot cheesecake, wincing when I hear the price but saying a silent thankyou to Mum when it arrives. I pick up the cake fork and apply it slowly to the moist, creamy triangle. I am going to enjoy this - mouthful by delicious mouthful.
After this indulgence, for which I pay nonchalantly and without a qualm, I make my way to Gerard and Hobbes departmental store.
I enter through heavy glass doors and step straight into the perfumery department. I am sure this is store psychology, to be engulfed in a cloud of pleasing aroma the moment one enters. No doubt they believe it puts the customer in the right frame of mind for spending. No doubt they are right.
Here, girls half my age, wearing makeup more suited to the stage than a store are smiling and talking to customers about this fragrance or that. I walk across to the counter and look at an array of perfumes usually well out of my price range but today, aromatically within my reach.
I pick up one or two of the bottles and sniff experimentally. I do not want to spray the stuff onto my wrist or clothing in case I do not like it. I reject all the musk-based scents, they are far too strong for my taste and anyway after seeing in a television documentary that they contain the essence animals excrete whilst in heat, I feel that by surrounding myself with such a odour I may unwittingly give Geoff the wrong kind of signal. Two children are quite enough thankyou.
I spray a light, flowery fragrance onto a 'tester card' and waft it beneath my nose. An assistant appears at my elbow and asks if she can be of service. I tell her that as I have worn the same classic but now rather boring fragrance for the past 11 years, I am looking for a new perfume.
She reaches for the largest (and most expensive bottle) and applies some to a card. Immediately I feel sick and cannot imagine why anyone should pay the equivalent of Geoff's weekly salary for a bottle of this ghastly pong. I ask her how much the flowery perfume is and she names a figure which makes me smile, I say I will take it.
Swinging a small carrier bag emblazoned with the name of the store, I move on towards 'Ladies Modes'. In this store they still use such expressions, they feels it lends a touch of class and appeals to the older customer. I wonder if I am yet in that category.
In order to get to the department where I have decided I will buy myself a nice blouse and perhaps a new skirt, I must pass through 'Lingerie' and there, displayed on a staring plastic mannequin, who seems quite unabashed to find herself in the middle of the store wearing virtually nothing, is a set of the most gorgeous underwear I have ever seen.
It is pure, virgin white, a froth of exquisite lace and satin. The bra shaped to support and persuade the breasts into provocative roundness. I remember with chagrin that mine now look more like the bombs I used to make at school from balloons filled with water.
My mother has more than once bemoaned the fact that no one nowadays makes a good 'foundation garment' which I understand was a framed contraption of elastic and metal designed to encase the female form and restrict the breathing. This delicate white bra might affect the breathing too, but not mine and I spend a few silly moments wondering what Geoff's reaction would be if I suddenly appeared in our bedroom wearing something like this.
There are panties to go with the bra and a wisp of suspender belt holding up white stockings. The whole set is quite enchanting but of course it's not for someone almost 40 years old.
Again, an assistant appears and says, 'It's beautiful isn't it? One of our most popular lines, especially with brides. For the honeymoon you know.' Briefly I remember my own honeymoon. I begin to blush and to cover my discomfiture ask the price.
She probably thinks I'm interested for a daughter who is about to marry, or a sister, though I know my sister would choose black rather than white for her underwear - and probably leather.
She names a price which is mind-blowing but well within the amount my mother has given me. In a sudden fit of devilment I ask if I can try it on, follow the girl to the changing rooms where she hands me identical garments, though a size larger, from the shelves and leaves me to change.
I do not look at myself in the full-length mirror until I have put on everything.
Panties, suspender belt, stockings, bra and special offer for this month only, a free lacy garter. Clad in this ensemble I turn and look...and gasp. I am a woman!
I am so used to being Mum, a housekeeper, Geoff's wife, middle-aged daughter to my own elderly parent, that I have quite forgotten how to be female.
I still have a reasonable shape, especially in this bra and as I twist and turn before the mirror it is as if the layers of domesticity have fallen away to reveal a sexy, feminine form which I have not seen for over 18 years. I feel good and for the first time understand fully the proverb, 'Clothes maketh the man' or in this case - woman.
If I were to wear this lingerie, even under the drabbest of my working frocks, I would be aware of every inch of my body. In this sort of underwear I could flirt and be feminine and seduce Geoff who is often too tired to make love.
Our sex life has never been what you might call adventurous. We are ordinary people who have fallen into a routine and if one or the other of us does not feel like making love, it doesn't seem to matter very much these days.
There are many reasons for this state of affairs. Geoff works very hard for a start and often brings work home with him. There have been many nights when I have left him sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by paperwork, whilst at his urging, I went to bed, hoping he would join me before I fell asleep but knowing he would not.
Then, as the children got older and more aware, we have tried to hide our sexual activity, for our sakes as much as theirs.
The noises we made in bed when they were only 3 or 4 years old, meant nothing to little ears. Now we hardly dare turn over in case the squeaking of the bed frame sends audible messages about our activity.
Teenagers are notoriously prudish about their parent's sex lives and I do not want Alison looking at me with ill concealed disgust because she has heard us 'doing it'.
Sometimes, when both Alison and John are out, Geoff will occasionally suggest we go for a cuddle but more often or not there's something more pressing to do: the ironing, or mother is coming over for tea, or if the suggestion comes from me, Geoff needs to work on the car or garden.
If we do go to bed, we enjoy the rare privacy and our love-making is affectionate and robust but afterwards we run the risk of falling so soundly asleep that our returning offspring will discover us in bed in the middle of the afternoon, which rather defeats the object of our secrecy.
I look at myself once more and sigh. I am a woman of 40, with two kids and I do not belong in sexy white lingerie. It is only a fantasy that I could wear this sort of thing beneath my sensible skirts and blouses. Besides, what on earth could I tell mother when she asks me what I'd bought with her birthday money?
I am more suited to cotton knickers and full-cup bras and as I take off the garments and replace them in their packages I realise that Geoff would probably be horrified rather than pleased if I were to buy such a set.
He has this image of me as his down-to-earth, dependable wife. He's often told me he appreciates the way I see everything in black and white, have old-fashioned values and maintain a certain standard, when the world about us seems to be slipping.
He does not really see me as a woman, to Geoff I am more like a mate, a buddy, someone he can rely on. And I rather liked that.....until I tried on the frothy white lingerie. Then, I was suddenly filled with an intense longing for him to see me as a temptress, erotic and alluring.
I leave 'Lingerie' and go buy a nice silk blouse, rust-coloured with a scoop neck. I add a tailored skirt in autumn colours and hand over most of the birthday money. I have just enough left to purchase a rather attractive chunky necklace which goes perfectly with the clothes. Then I catch the bus home in time to make tea for the family.
This year my birthday is on a Sunday but because Alison and John are both due to go away to school camps, we have decide to celebrate with a special Saturday tea, after which they will both leave, with friends, for a week under canvas
Mother comes over mid-afternoon and helps me prepare the meal. The children have especially requested burgers, trifle and chocolate cake and as Geoff fires up the barbecue in the garden, Mum and I slice the tomatoes, cucumber, beetroot and onion rings. She tells me I look nice in my new outfit and indeed the good cut and expensive fabric make me feel very smart.
The children, having finished their packing, race into the kitchen, kiss their grandmother, then relay plates of food out into the garden.
From Alison I have received a little book of love poems. She is going through a romantic phase and from the way the spine is creased I suspect she has read the book thoroughly. I wonder if she is mooning over some spotty 6th Fomer, love poetry is usually a symptom.
John has made a coffee table in woodwork at school and presents this to me with a card which he has forgotten to sign. Geoff has bought me a bottle of the classic but boring perfume, I pretend I am pleased and he smiles warmly.
The children make-multi-layered burgers which are impossible to bite into as their mouths simply won't open wide enough. John tries and fills his mouth so full it won't close. Alison tells him he is disgusting, then does exactly the same. We progress to the trifle: it has sherry in the base, then a layer of jelly with bananas, custard topped with fresh cream and sprinkled with chocolate flake. Mother says this is far too rich for her but nevertheless enjoys two helpings.
Geoff lights 10 candles on the chocolate cake. The kids apparently wanted to have the whole 40 but Dad says if they'd done that, by the time they'd lit the last ones, the first would have burned down and set fire to the cake and possibly the house as well.
Everyone sings 'Happy Birthday to you', and the children are just giving me hugs when their transport arrives and they dash to the house for their backpacks.
When they have gone, Mother suggests we brew a fresh pot of tea. Geoff says, 'How about something a little stronger?' and fetches three glasses and the Port.
We sit peacefully in the garden, in our folding chairs, surrounded by the aroma of wood fire and honeysuckle, talking and drinking companionably as the sun goes down.
Geoff and my mother have always got on well, I think this is because he is not unlike my late father, conscientious, stolid, predictable.
After her third glass of port, Mother becomes quite giggly and says she will never manage to get home. I tell her we will treat her to a taxi and she is too tipsy to refuse. As Geoff makes the phone call, I top up my glass. I rarely drink and the heady, irresponsible feeling is quite pleasant.
The taxi arrives and takes a slightly unco-ordinated old lady back to her home, whilst Geoff and I clear the tea things from the garden back to the kitchen. He says to leave all the washing up, that as it is my birthday proper tomorrow, he will do it all as a gift to me.
I find this gesture so endearing that I begin to cry and Geoff, quite concerned, takes me in his arms and asks me what on earth is wrong.
I want to tell him that I appreciate and trust him, that I love him so much it hurts, that they can keep their exciting, muscle-bound film stars, he's my hero.
I want to explain that I am scared of being 40, that I am sagging and ordinary and that life is passing me by and that I want him to see me as a woman again, even as a sex object.
Instead I put my arms around his neck and say blearily, 'Let's go to bed.'
With a Herculean effort he picks me up and we stagger to the bedroom, giggling as he almost drops me going sideways through the door.
In spite of the port, I am not tired and hope that Geoff will want to make love. He lays me gently on the bed but instead of joining me, goes to the bathroom and I feel every muscle in me droop with resignation.
Within seconds he is back and carrying a box, 'I know I already gave you perfume, ' he says, 'but I saw this and thought you'd like it. Somehow it's the real you, the woman I see when I look at you.'
And in the box, wrapped in layers of soft tissue, is a white lace bra with matching panties, a wisp of a suspender belt, a garter and delicate, bridal-night stockings.
© Lynda Finn 1997
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