The invitation when it arrived was printed on high quality paper. Year after year as everything went digital, when births, deaths and marriages were announced in an email or a link to a website, the invitation to the annual law ball arrived on paper and was delivered with almost anachronistic ceremony by a postman. There was no concession to modernity. It was addressed personally to me in a neat hand and RSVPs were expected to be by return mail. I suspect that a typed response was also strongly discouraged. The thrill, however, quickly gave way to dread. Once a year the drudgery and hard work of the profession was suddenly supposed to transform into a night of magic. Professional rivalries and jealousies gave way to forced banter and one had to accept that a portion of the night would be given over to toadying up to exalted seniors before you were able to give yourself over to food and drink. Every year the transition from caterpillar into a butterfly became harder and harder, not to mention more expensive. That invitation was the starting gun and marked the beginning of a well-planned campaign. The hairdresser was put on notice and damn it if their prices didn’t spike as the day approached. What did they call it? ‘Surge pricing?’ It’s what made up for all my protestant thrift during the year. As I settled into the chair the stylist sorted through my hair tut tutting at the shoddy dye job.
‘What shampoo do you use?’
I mumble something inaudible. But to them I am a corpse on the pathologist’s table whose secrets are laid bare with a pitiless forensic eye.
She paused here and there before letting out a sigh.
‘Can the patient be saved Doctor?’ I said in an attempt at humour. The bland smile gave nothing away.
I have stared down thieves and murderers but damn it if I didn’t silently plead for my life as the music pumped, and the light reflected off the garish furnishings. Then, like clockwork a bottle would be produced, some outrageously priced ‘treatment’ which might just save my sad neglected excuse for a hairstyle. I nod my silent agreement as my pockets are picked.
Having erased the sins of the past year I emerge into the sunlight to be met by my oldest friend, Jan. This next chapter requires delicate handling. Someone who has mastered the art of gentle persuasion and can make me walk the path between vanity and reality. She is my clothes doula. We always laugh about it afterwards, but not at the time. With infinite patience she allows me to exhaust my delusions on the rack of inappropriate and unsuitable clothing, before gently guiding me to stores that cater to figures that are more generously proportioned. I won’t say there aren’t the occasional tantrums; I mean who wants to admit that when one door closes the other door that opens isn’t necessarily the one you wish to walk through but with a patient and supportive guide, I accept that the figure staring back at me in the mirror has some vague resemblance to the one that lives in my imagination.
Now, finally, there are the shoes. I always save the best till last. My feet are my best feature, and if the rest of me isn’t up to chop well these two always draw an appreciative comment. Here I can give full reign to my fantasies without being reminded of the grim reality. I flatter myself that a true professional yearns for feet like mine which slips effortlessly and stylishly into any shoe. For that day only I am Cinderella and everybody else is the ugly stepsister. It is the balm for all the petty humiliations that preceded it. Like overpampered pets they eventually find themselves at the foot spa being buffed, painted and massaged as I recline on my puffed-up throne. For a moment I feel guilty that my vanity is forcing the poor pedicurist to inhale a toxic chemical cocktail, but I tip big and the girls always compete for the honour.
The transformation is now almost complete but there is one final detail: My husband. He is what the media people call a ‘work in progress’. Well, progress he must although his is a story of slow evolution rather than lepidopterous metamorphosis. But that, alas, is a story for another ball.