Plain Jane – articles for the sophisticated sheila


Just face’re as old as everyone else thinks you are

“There’s a couple of old biddies out there looking through the window,” says my boss, peering through the blinds of his office. “Do you think they know where the front door is?”

Old biddies, he calls them, and oldies, and – when they’re being irritating – old buggers. We pass them every day in the corridor, dragging themselves along by a prayer and a walking stick, or shuffling towards us as if following a scent trail on the carpet, noses floor-ward. We tend to them as they gather in the community hall to hear someone speak on arthritis, or how to avoid falling over and breaking a hip, or (and this was a well-attended session) sex in the golden years. They like their tea and free muffins.

Is that me, I wonder as I watch them file in – that woman there with the spine like a snail shell? Is that me, that one spilling over the edge of her electric scooter, too infirm to keep the kilos off? Or how about that one, half-blind, three-quarters deaf, the delicate skin of her arms patterned with shallow scrapes and sores that won’t heal?

Not right now – no, now, I’m young, bursting with life and health, a mere girl at fifty three. And my boss, so free with his ‘oldies’ and ‘old dears’, he’s a vibrant sixty-five. None of us here, at this not-for-profit representing the older generation, is under forty.

To the kids learning to dance the cha-cha in the hall at night, we too are unimaginable. A ten year old will never be twenty, thirty, forty, eighty. It’s as if there’s some kind of ‘amnesia’ switch, inserted by a compassionate God, that only works in reverse – we remember the past but can’t really believe our future.

“You’re only as old as you think you are,” we say, and “I’m young at heart”. But I’m not, I’m as old as other people think I am – that’s a much more accurate measure. At fifty-three, I’m pre-occupied with remaining ‘bonkable’, like the actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her ‘last fuckable day’. I dye my pepper and salt hair brown with blonde tips, and look at myself in the mirror naked and think, you’re alright, girl – you’d pass for 30 from the neck down. And I would, I really would – my body is a thing of beauty still and I treasure it dearly. But so what? One day I’ll stop looking in that mirror, because I can’t bear to. Or because I’ve got dementia.

I remember once visiting an exhibition of plasticinated bodies. In the nature of things, a lot of these dead donations to science were old, and so I found myself standing in front of these naked, partly eviscerated corpses, with their sparse grey pubic hair, breasts like dirty wind-socks, testicles shriveled like New Guinean head-hunter’s trophies. And thinking, I too will come to this – whether I’m on show or not.

As I said, I work in a not for profit organization representing the interests of what we like to call ‘older people’, – people who are entitled to seniors’ discounts, who worry about pensions and cracks in the footpath, who don’t like to be called ‘old’. The equivalent ‘youth’ organization is entirely staffed by ‘youth’ with pierced noses and rainbow badges and very bad taste in rock and roll – but not us.

‘He’s a bit ancient,’ my colleague Will says when we’re interviewing an eighty-year old for a policy position. ‘He couldn’t cope with the work.’

And it’s true, these eighty year olds, they don’t know their google from their Bing, they ‘opine’ rather than analyse, and they’ve got more bees in their bonnets than the average apiary. They’re not like us bright not so young but then not so old either things.

But then, if I look for work elsewhere, I know I’ll be confronted by even brighter young things of 20 or 30. A friend of mine’s been unemployed for two years now – she says the interview panels exchange wry glances when she comes in. I asked my teenage daughter if I should change jobs, a while ago, because I was bored. She said, sure, but whatever you do, don’t stop dyeing your hair, mum. She knows, even at her age.

The worst thing anyone can call a woman is ‘old’. My partner took me out for our anniversary a little while ago and he didn’t like my dress. So as we’re sitting in the cinema, waiting for the movie to start, he says “When do you think you’ll change the kind of things you wear? Do you think you’ll still want to wear a dress like that when you’re sixty?”

Well, the movie was almost upon us, and it was our anniversary, but in a different time and place, I would’ve been very tempted to tip my mocktail over him.

He means, when am I going to play by the rules? As set out, for instance, by my elder sister.

“No strappy dresses after forty, they show your tuck-shop lady arms. No above-the-knee dresses after fifty, your knees get too wrinkly” (but for some reason you can make an exception for long unfashionably baggy shorts). “Don’t wear a low-cut top after forty-five, all they’ll see is that transverse line you get after thirty years of your breasts falling over sideways in bed.”

I look at him, my partner. One day, I hope (but don’t necessarily expect, given his lack of tact) we’ll sit on armchairs side by side in some country idyll. His hair will be white by then, what he’s got left of it, and his knees will be knobbly and his legs will be wobbly. He will fart without realizing it (instead of, as now, turning the act into a one-man concert) and his skin will be a mass of pre-cancerous lesions (if he’s lucky).

And I will make no pretences at being bonkable – my neck by then will be a continuation of my chin, a waterfall of downward-flowing flesh, and my hips will hurt, always, and perhaps people will still admire my clothes, but never the body underneath them. Which reminds me that one saving grace of becoming old is that when the skin on your face becomes as loose as silk, you will no longer have wrinkles. Instead, your whole face will slide gently earthwards, bringing the deep-carved life lines with it, into your polo necked jumper or perhaps – if you’re defiant, or Italian – your plunging neckline.

One day I expect – but don’t necessarily hope – that we will lie in our separate adjustable metal beds, in our beige-walled cells, and be visited three times a day by cheerful young people with bucket-loads of pills for us to swallow. These people will say things like,

“Going out to the Activities Room for bingo today, darling?” and I will probably not reply,

“Why don’t you just fuck off. I hate bingo.”

I’ll probably say instead, as old people are supposed to ‘Thank you dear, but not today.” By that time, it will finally have dawned on me that yes, I am, actually, really, indeed, old.