My Dear Rebecca,
I pray this letter finds you well. I suppose I should begin with the traditional salutation on such an occasion, though given the state of our postal service it’s hard to anticipate the appropriate wording. Happy fiftieth, little sister. In a few days from now, or a few weeks ago, depending on when the postman sees fit to deliver this letter, your life reached/will reach a momentous milestone, and I sincerely regret not being able to be there with you to celebrate.
Of course, I know how you feel about birthdays, so doubtless you spent/will spend the day curled up in bed thinking of your younger years and wondering where the time went, but do try to do something to mark the occasion. Between wrinkles, grey hairs and sagging breasts we have enough reasons to feel sorry for ourselves without letting a little number upset us.
I’m sure it will please you to hear that the family is all doing well, or at least as well as can be expected considering the strange and frequently incomprehensible choices they make in their lives.
Our baby brother, Bernard, has finally secured his fourth divorce and has already set in motion plans for his fifth. It didn’t surprise me to hear you’ll be unable to make it over for his wedding next month. To be entirely honest, when I received the invitation I scoured my calendar for any suitable excuse to avoid attending the ceremony, but unfortunately it seems I have no valid reason to miss the occasion.
To be fair, I have had the opportunity to meet his future bride. Unlike her predecessors – the harlot, the viper, the shrew and the banshee – she seems like a lovely young woman. Even my dear Albert seemed quite taken with her. I love Bernie from the bottom of my heart, but I have no idea how he has managed to convince a leggy blonde beauty like her to marry him. He’s forty-seven years of age, she’s twenty-six. He’s overweight, balding and I’ve always considered his facial features reminiscent of a monkey, while she is slender, buxom, and while perhaps not possessing a face one would appreciate finding on the cover of a magazine, she is nevertheless attractive.
I know Bernie has a good job and a healthy income, but he also has four ex-wives and seven children, six of them under the age of eighteen, so it’s not as though he has money to lavish gifts on her. All I can assume is that our dear little brother has certain endowments of which we older sisters are fortunately unaware, though when I spoke to her I’m sure I heard a slight accent so perhaps her reason for marrying him is motivated by a desire to remain in this country. Whatever the reason for their union, I wish them the best of luck and, when the time comes, an amicable divorce.
Your niece, Catherine, is midway through her first year of University and seems to be doing well. To my utter dismay she is doing her degree in something called “Media Studies”. I’ve told her that she didn’t need to go to University to spend her day watching television, but she assures me that it’s a valid subject and there will be job prospects open to her when she finishes. Time will tell, I suppose.
She has a new boyfriend. I’ve yet to meet him, but she’s been good enough to send me a picture. She tells me that he’s studying for a degree in Art, though based on his photograph I believe he’s trying to turn himself into some kind of hideous walking work of art. Honestly, Rebecca, he has piercings in places I didn’t believe possible to pierce and an array of ghastly tattoos on every inch of visible flesh, and from what Catherine tells me I could only see the tip of the proverbial iceberg. She seemed particularly delighted when she told me that even his tongue is pierced, though why she would find that in any way pleasing I’m not quite sure.
Unfortunately, he seems intent on extending his artwork to Catherine’s body. She’s not yet had a tattoo that I’m aware of, but when she came home for Christmas I was somewhat appalled to discover she has piercings beyond just her ears. Her eyebrow, her lip, her nose and God only knows where else are now adorned with metal spikes, hoops and studs. It’s her body, and her choice, of course, but I made sure to seat Albert beside her during Christmas dinner lest she sneezed during the course of the meal.
On New Years Eve your nephew, Matthew, surprised us all by introducing us to his girlfriend. I managed to contain my amazement, but poor Albert was rendered quite speechless. As you know, we have long been convinced that Matthew’s interests lay in a rather different direction. I’m sure we can’t be blamed for reaching such an assumption. I still recall vividly how, shortly after his fifteenth birthday, I returned home to the sound of a female voice coming from his bedroom. Naturally I was concerned as I was, and still am, too young to become a grandmother, but when I intruded I was dumbfounded to discover the young lady was a friend of his from school who had come to our house not to engage in any manner of sexual activity, but rather to offer him makeup tips!
In the two years since Matthew has gone through more lipstick and eyeliner than I have used in my entire life. His attire, when not in his school uniform, has become increasingly outrageous and though I admit it could just be my imagination I swear his mannerisms have become more feminine over the past year, so I don’t think Albert and I can be faulted for reaching the conclusion we did. Albert and I have spent many an evening sitting in bed discussing his sexuality and learning to accept it, but now he has utterly confused us by introducing us to his girlfriend and announcing that they’ve been together for nearly a year!
Honestly, Rebecca, if I live for another fifty years I still don’t believe I will fully understand my children.
Speaking of children, last week I took Tiffany out shopping for the first time. I know she’s not my child, but I couldn’t help feeling quite maternal as we explored the shopping centre together. It’s an experience I never had with Catherine. That girl has always been too independent for her own good and since the age of eight she’s been utterly reluctant to be seen in any kind of shop with me other than the supermarket, so my day out with Tiffany was quite refreshing, though I must admit at times it was also exasperating.
It was her first time buying clothes in an actual store, a fact I found quite astounding. To date she has purchased her entire wardrobe either online or through catalogues, so I really felt like I was opening up an entirely new world to her. We began with the necessities – brassieres and panties – and Rebecca, there were moments when it was almost painful. Tiffany is a delightful woman, but her taste in undergarments leaves much to be desired. If it wasn’t frilly, lacy or barely large enough to cover her nether regions she wasn’t interested in even looking at it.
I tried to explain to her that at her age, and with her body, she should be shopping for comfort rather than sexual enticement, but she just wouldn’t listen and when I pushed the matter she adopted an expression akin to that of a hurt puppy. All I could do was bite my tongue and be grateful I didn’t have to wear the undergarments she chose. I really had to draw the line when she started looking at corsets. I told her, thousands of women didn’t burn their bras in the twentieth century to escape such instruments of torture only for women in the twenty-first century to inflict them upon themselves voluntarily, but she just smiled and shook her head before buying three of the ghastly things.
As fun as it was to spend the day with her, her choices that day were disastrous. I felt like I was watching a series of car accidents every time we stepped into a shop. With the right attire Tiffany could be quite beautiful, but sadly the expression “mutton dressed as lamb” means nothing to her. Her legs remind me of greasy sausages and yet she bought skirts barely longer than the average belt. Though I located a number of beautiful, elegant blouses, she insisted on buying tops barely long enough to cover her belly. What frustrated me most is…to put this as delicately as I can, Tiffany is clearly a size eighteen yet all the clothes she bought were marked size fourteen. I told her there would be pinched flesh and burst zips galore, but she just smiled and told me she likes her clothes tight.
We stopped for lunch at around two. We ate at that café – you remember the one. The little place just outside the main shopping centre overlooking the park. I felt quite guilty when I ordered the lasagne and Tiffany elected to have a salad, but my guilt was somewhat assuaged when she followed it with a large piece of chocolate fudge cake. I’ve never understood such behaviour. Why inflict upon yourself a tasteless pile of leaves only to follow it up with what is essentially a mound of sugar? When I asked Tiffany, she said the cake was her reward for being good and only having a salad for lunch. Rather than point out her foolishness I found myself just nodding and smiling.
After lunch we returned to the car with our shopping, deposited our bags in the boot and set out again for what Tiffany referred to as “the essentials”. I’m quite convinced that “the essentials” are comfortable knickers and a supportive bra, but for Tiffany “the essentials” are shoes, makeup and accessories. As I’m sure you know, Rebecca, in addition to being fairly stout Tiffany is also remarkably tall, a little over six foot in height, and yet for some reason she believes it important that any shoes she wears add at least three inches to her already formidable stature.
We traipsed around no less than eight different shoe shops until we found a pair she liked in the right size. She tried them on, marching proudly around the store before asking my opinion and I’m sorry to say I wasn’t able to contain my derision. I told her they looked like the lovechild of the 1960s and the red light district. As soon as the words left my mouth I regretted them and braced myself for pouting, even a flood of tears, but to my amazement she seemed thoroughly delighted by my words, taking them as an endorsement of her choice.
Our next stop was one of the big department stores. As you know, I’ve always bought my makeup in small, discreet stores as I can’t abide the terrible creatures the large department stores have patrolling the aisles peddling lipstick and unleashing clouds of perfume in your unsuspecting face, but Tiffany was quite insistent she wanted to buy her makeup in a large store. We were barely through to door before some foul creature pounced on us. I realise the assistants are walking advertisements for the products they’re selling, but to see a middle aged woman lunging towards you with her face caked in lipstick, foundation, eyeliner, mascara…honestly, Rebecca, I felt like I was about to be attacked by a floral-scented clown!
Tiffany seemed utterly unperturbed, of course, and when she was offered the chance for a free makeover she accepted before I could caution her against it. All I could do was watch while her lips, cheeks, eyelids, eyebrows and virtually every other part of her face was plucked, painted, brushed and curled. It took nearly twenty minutes and when the job was done Tiffany seemed ecstatic while I found myself recalling that painting by Picasso that Albert and I saw in the Louvre last year. The whole debacle was topped off with a copious dose of rancid perfume. I swear, Rebecca, it’s a good job that Tiffany doesn’t smoke, because if she’d lit up after we left the store, laden with more bags, she would have been enveloped in a huge fireball. It was all I could do to keep her away from naked flames for the last hour of our outing.
I suppose the whole experience sounds like a nightmare to you, and at the time it felt like it, but I look back on that day with a smile on my face. On the drive home Tiffany seemed happy and relaxed, and I think I finally began to understand her. She is a complicated woman, but she has a good heart and gentle nature.
I know you don’t quite approve. I can’t say I blame you. The evening I returned home to find her in my bedroom, sat on the bed I’ve slept in with Albert for the past thirty years, was perhaps the worst moment of my life. When I called you that night in floods of tears we spoke about divorce, and I must admit I’ve seriously considered it, but after six months of conversations with both Albert and Tiffany I’ve realised I actually want her in my life. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but Albert and I have been married for thirty-two years. Three decades of marriage are worth fighting for.
Next week, Albert and I have an appointment with our GP. I’m not quite sure how old Doctor Jameson is going to react, but I credit him with enough intelligence and compassion not to make either of us feel uncomfortable. Albert tells me that after the appointment he’s going to have to start living as Tiffany all the time. I expect it will be a challenge, but I’ve spent enough time with her now to know that she’s someone I can live with. Really, the only changes are going to be superficial. I’ve lived with Tiffany, slept in the same bed as her, loved her, for over thirty years, and though I didn’t know of her existence for most of that time she’s always been there.
I know what you’re going to say, Rebecca. What will the neighbours think? Honestly, I don’t care. The children are supportive, I’ve come to terms with it, so the only real issue for me is how I refer to Tiffany beyond next week. I can’t exactly call her my husband anymore, and I’m not sure I can bring myself to call her my wife, but it’s all just words. Albert, Tiffany, husband, wife, just titles with no real meaning. It is, after all, what’s inside that counts.
Your loving sister,
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