I was sitting in the underground reading a newspaper and minding my own business.  It was rush hour with many passengers standing, leaving those seated in that strange, and somewhat childlike position of being in an underworld surrounded by anonymous legs, backpacks, handbags or perhaps an overgenerous coat.  Identifying to whom they belonged was out of the question. Then some jostling started up on my right. We were going full tilt and my neighbour had lent forward, lifted her cosmetics bag from the floor and placed it on her lap. Now, with arms akimbo, she was fishing around for the equipment needed to put the finishing touches to her makeup.

The said face already looked pretty ‘done’ to me, but with a tiny mirror in her left hand and selected brushes, puffs, pencils and ‘sticks’ in turn in her right, she gave her lips, chin, cheeks and eyes (lids, brows and lashes) a further pampering.

Doing one’s makeup in a bumpy, packed, train demands real skill and for that, many congratulations. On the other hand, some would question whether hers was the sort of conduct befitting of a well brought-up young woman. “Certainly not,” according to the waitress at M&S whose opinion I canvassed later. Others, myself included, might ask, why make up at all?

In the spirit of enquiry, and once the pampering was over, I posed my question. My neighbour, an attractive and very together woman in her mid 20s, looked me straight in the face – quite a force at 30cm – and without seeming to blush (but how would one know?) started to explain. In general, she was not into makeup but today was different; she was off to an audition. She had travelled down from Manchester that very morning; she was tired and her makeup needed some retouching. She was also late and had no option.

She was just trying to embark on a new career as a dancer. She had left her previous job a few months earlier and had decided to go back to a childhood love. From 5 to 15 she had been to a local dance school, run, as it happened, by her mother. At university she had performed in, and later directed, college shows and now she was missing performing terribly. No offers had followed her first two auditions and today’s was the last in the present round of applications. The job would entail working for six weeks on a cruise ship. She felt confident that her particular expertise – tap, jazz and cabaret style – would fit the bill. But she still felt nervous.

I was persuaded that there were indeed legitimate circumstances for applying makeup in theatrical amounts in the train, or wherever. And when she had finished her explanation, I asked if she was interested in knowing anything about her rush-hour inquisitor. “Yes,” she asked, “what do you, or did you do, as a living?” adding that my answer would have to be brief as she was getting off at the next station.  “I was a medical doctor and university professor.” “What subject?” “Clinical pharmacology,” I blurted. “Oh, I never found that easy at med school. Before I gave it all up for dance, I was a doctor – a pediatrician – working in a children’s hospital. ”

And then she disappeared. I had been sitting next to a brave and most unusual woman.

2 thoughts on “Vanity fare

  1. I often found, when I was a teacher in a nursery school, that I was given glimpses of other people’s lives, startling and unexpected. I might have been working with a colleague for some considerable time, and think that I knew them well, and then something would happen to make me realise this was not so, and that I hardly knew them at all. Should I be hurt that they never confided in me? Should I be full of admiration that they never sought my comfort or help, and chose to stand on their own two feet? Should I respect their privacy as I would hope they would mine, and not expect the exchange of confidences simply on the ground that we work together closely? But sometimes, I feel I should have opened the way for them to share their thoughts and feelings with me, and that I have failed them. When that happens, I hope that they found someone who was just right for that to happen. After all, I do not have any professional skills to help me help them. I can only offer friendship, which is not what a working relationship is based upon. I think there is a great deal of muddle about this in work contexts. The only way that I can deal with it is to keep friendship and working relationships separate. Not fashionable, but necessary for me.

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  2. I am really pleased you asked and consequently discovered not only her reasoning but also her background, albeit in brief.
    Most people would simply have observed and assumed, quite likely incorrectly, including me. At the same time it annoys me profoundly when people incorrectly assume the reasons behind my actions, big and small. I only wish more of us felt comfortable asking before jumping to conclusions.
    As Tina pointed out, however, there are some people who want those around them to know and understand their actions, and others who just want to keep private. This is one area when the old adage of ‘treat others as you wish to be treated yourself’ routinely falls down.

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