The scent of sunscreen and overheated tarmac fills the air alongside the general malaise of too many days of British sunshine. Everyone, regardless of shape and size, has resorted to the loosest and least cumbersome items of clothing they could find, the overspilling of damp flesh ignored out of general politeness and understanding.
I take my time, wandering down the road, each step accompanied by the flapping of flip-flops and the swish of tie-dyed cotton. For the first time in ages I feel pretty, comfortable in my own skin, the summers no longer restricted to indoors and long sleeves to avoid the stares. I even get the occasional appreciative glance and acknowledge them with a demure smile, glad the wide brim of my hat hides my blush. I need to be confident. My mid-thirties swiftly approaching and I want to snatch those last few years of youth before middle age sets in. Prove that I’m still worth someone’s desire, especially after him.
He was a name online to start off with. I promised myself I was only signing up to chat, not to date, but his typed words were all charm and he soon persuaded me to send a picture. I sent one that was over five years old, with a thinner face and not a single grey hair. He told me I was beautiful and I believed him. We talked through the keyboard, then over the phone. He convinced me that I was in love, then he convinced me to meet him.
I met him in a small restaurant just off Piccadilly, one of those nameless, easily forgotten eateries that aren’t as often frequented by tourists and theatre-goers. There were several ornate mirrors on the walls and I took the chance to look in them and preen as I waited. Business dress. It wasn’t ideal but it felt safe. I’d faced down managers in the same clothes, fought tribunals, I could face a man. I’d still packed my best though, a well planned business trip giving me the opportunity to meet him.
He arrived late, the wine in my glass warm from the wait when I hadn’t wanted to drink too fast. I saw him first, looking exactly the same as his picture, handsome, silver-haired, and I took another quick peek at the mirrors surrounding us to make sure I was presentable. Convinced we would greet one another with the romance of our online conversations, I crossed the room with a smile and a sway.
His words knocked me down. I looked different in my picture. Maybe he needed to rethink the direction he was taking. It wasn’t me it was him. I knew what he was truly saying though and the words stayed with me as I ate alone. Ugly, fat, unworthy. That meal was the first of many an indulgence over many a year until I took control once more and became someone I was proud to see in the mirror again.
I catch sight of her as I’m crossing the road. Late teens, blonde haired, slim. Clad in shorts and a top, hair spilling around her shoulders, she pauses on the pavement and holds up her phone. She pouts her painted lips, the nude effect having taken a good hour to perfect I’m sure.
I cross the road but glance back, tutting as I see her with her phone still held in front of her in the same pose. How long does she need to take the ridiculous selfie for? Are her social media friends so vacuous that she needs to take the shot twenty times?
My reaction makes me pause. I should not have such cruel thoughts, not when I’ve been looked upon with an unfavourable gaze.
I place myself in her shoes, remembering the teenager I was though it had been in the time before smartphones and selfies. The opinions of others had been so important. My peer group, the older girls at school. Boys. I’d take the time to dress for school that I wouldn’t even take to dress for a wedding these days, so determined to be pretty every day.
The girl, still posing with her phone, looks young enough to still be in uniform on a weekday. I wonder what kind of friends she has. Is she the centre of the group, loved by all without the need for much effort, the first they think of inviting to any event? Or is she on the periphery, always the last thought of or spoken to? Easily forgotten unless she pushes herself forward, in doing so risking them loathing her for her neediness. I hope she is somewhere in between. Not so popular she thinks too highly of herself but not too desperate that she’s too easily hurt. I’d been the latter and it was the top of a slippery slope.
Now, what had been judged in the lunch room was judged online, an endless parade of apps, never letting anyone have a moment away from the social media glare.
I watch her lower her phone, a smile on her lips as she swipes the screen a few times, then taps. Wherever the image ends up, she’s happy with it, eyes sunny before she covers them with a pair of shades. I feel a smile tug at my own lips in response, hoping she gets all the clicks, or likes, or kudos that she’s searching for. I hope she gets hearts across her screen to make her feel pretty.
I linger by a bus stop, watching her as she heads in the other direction. A faint floral perfume catches me and I look behind to see the climbing rose on the fence, pale and fragrant. A pretty backdrop.
I reach into my bag and pull out my phone, opening it up and turning the camera to face me. I don’t have to force a smile, I’m laughing at myself too much to wear a frown. With my rose backdrop and the sunshine, the picture is passable, one of the better ones I’ve ever taken of myself. With a slightly less practised hand I swipe and tap until the picture is uploaded, out there for everyone to see.
I look at a few posts friends have shared but a little flash in the corner of the screen catches my eye and I smile. Someone likes it. An old friend, with one click, making me smile all the more. I return the phone to my bag and carry on towards my destination, looking back after the selfie girl but she’s out of sight. I wish her a good day all the same, her unconscious lesson making me a better person without a word passing her lips.
Elizabeth Montague is a multi-genre author from Hertfordshire, England. Her short story collection, Dust and Glitter, was released by Clarendon House Publications in May 2019. She has also featured in over a dozen short story collections from various publishers including Iron Faerie Publishing, Clarendon House Publications, Scout Media and Black Hare Press. She is currently working on her first novel alongside continuing to produce short stories in several genres.