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Cheer Up


anika has an unfortunate face; one of those long, hang-dog faces that looks as if it’s been beaten into a faint frown. No matter what she does, or how she concentrates, she can’t get over it. She just doesn’t look happy.

She had a cat once who was just the same – a black and white cat called Albert (Alby for short) – and Alby, right down to his extraordinary eyebrow whiskers, had white patches where he should have black, and black where he should have white, and every damned day, he looked terrified: every slink was a cower, every mooch, was a burst into feline tears. But if you squinted your eyes, and looked past those drowning white eyebrows, you saw Alby had a cat face. Normal. Normal eyes. He was just staring – checking out a butterfly, or a particularly crunchy bluebottle. But people put the clay on him, and Alby, well, he wasn’t much liked. Tanika could see the real him, though, and loved him all the more, because she, too, was a sad-faced stray.

And here she is: struggling down the corridor at work, bag over her shoulder, others breezing past like a warm, Caribbean wind, and they’re talking, laughing, and miming their invitations to each other for a ‘quick cuppa’ before the filing begins, but nobody says hello.

Sure, she could be reading something into these eddies and cliquish clots, that isn’t helping: maybe she should say hello? Break into her own dazzling smile. Except, that just looks… pained. Five hundred – a thousand – startled look-aways, say whatever’s plastered on her face, it ain’t encouraging. She’s not so much ‘blonde bombshell’ as ‘unexploded ordinance’.

Take the latest encounter in the kitchenette – the break-out area, whatever you want to call it. Three-and-a-half hours of sales invoicing has passed and Tanika is pretty happy, and not, as you might expect, about ready to ‘file herself’. She likes that wrote, repetitive work – she zone’s out and thinks of… well, England.

Rich Barker (Finance and Admin) is hogging the microwave; cooking up something that smells of garlic, onions and raw meat. He’s in three minutes before lunch, on this floor, because he wants to get the jump on his own 800W, prick-plastic-and-place-on-plate brigade.

Anyway, he catches her off-guard; relaxed. She’s sitting at what amounts to a school table – Formica in blue, gingham checks – reading a copy of Woman’s Weekly: ‘I Slept With my Husband’s Brother’s Wife,’ which is taking a little working out…

As Rich breezes past, fork held expectantly, microwave grumbling round like a quern stone, he says… he says – sweet Mother of God – he says, “Cheer up. It might never happen,” and gives her a wink.

He’s off now, humming along with the electric radiation that’s burning the heart out of that stinking plate of offal. But you know what, ‘it’ has just happened. Cheer up? I was bloody happy!

It may be irrational, but there are tears prickling her eyelashes and, hand shaking, she’s crushing the arching lip of her plastic cup into the bridge of her inconsequentially, pretty nose.

“I can’t stand it,” she whispers into the cool, white reservoir, lips touching a little iced water. She sighs, and the plastic amplifies the shuddering breath. It feels safe in there.

The distraught plastic flexes with a pop.

Down with the cup, slopping a jolt of water onto the magazine, and zips out into the hallway.

Other office – persons – wandering the other way, look up to smile, and then stop mid-glance, smile dying, as if this is some stranger in their midst. Look at the frowning frump! Look at that bad-tempered minny!

Cheer up. It might never happen!

Bangs through the restroom door, tears in her eyes and begs the place to be empty for five, whole minutes, so she doesn’t have to have that rictus of a smile plastered to her face; doesn’t have to expend effort on relaxed glee, while everyone else just carries it off in their sleep.

They don’t have to try and cover up that paralysing tic – whatever it is.

Looking in the mirror, in that wide open land, she can’t see anything but face. She can’t see anything. But she doesn’t look happy.

I’m not happy.

But that’s only half the story. Those lips are sliding in their terracotta ensemble, those eyelashes a little too angular, that brow a little too convergent, those eyes – a fresh, olive green like her top – are little paper slits cut into mild despair.

And here she is, bending over the taps to get close to the mirror, pulling her skin down with a finger to try and see where the damned expression beg– begins.

Muscles gather here, just by her nail. Bone beneath. The skin is firm but layered and oily. And that damned frown is hanging on her face like a wobbly milk-tooth in a kid.

I could walk out of this place the happiest woman on the planet; I could walk out a million dollars, if I could just… pull

But there’s no handle. She rolls her finger over her bad-tempered flesh, and…

“Oh. My. God.” She whispers.

…starts… rolling up a little bit of that embedded expression…

It parts easily along a straight, thin line, like something left by a razor blade. Picking then, it slops back twice, until she gets a fingernail under, and slowly pulls.

At first, it doesn’t want to come, and she’s got that sticker-on-a-book moment when half of the damn thing is threatening to tear or stay behind (please don’t leave me  with ‘carefree disgust’ or ‘hilarious despair’!), but she keeps an even pressure, keeps it taut, as it starts to pull out from her nose, and up off her cheeks – keeping in one piece like a moulded, surgeons glove; translucent and touched with the skin pores and makeup. It comes away with the taut hiss of plastic tape pulling apart, right down to the full lips that pluck back from the mask. It hangs now like an angry, shred of shadow in her hand; and what’s revealed beneath is pink, and soft, and clean of all artifice.

It’s a fresh start.

She grabs for her make-up.

Out in the corridor, Theresa says, “Hey.” Then, “You do something different with your… hair? I mean…”

Anyway, Theresa thinks she looks great.

Then, some… guy, he smiles.

Then Rich gives her ‘that look’ as he wanders past, stinking of onions, like he’s only just seen her for the first time. He waggles his eyebrows.

Back in the bin in the restroom, wrapped in paper towels, is the last of her innocent disgust.

I’m a natural blond. I have a natural smile.



1 Mark { 06.22.11 at 10:23 am }

Cheered me up no end this morning, that did. Nice one!

2 Joan { 06.22.11 at 11:40 am }

Great start. Know how she feels. I’ve always worried when my face gets hang-dog …
The idea that her nose is pretty is really very good – the fact that her one good feature (it seems) could be inconsequential because of the rest – good.
Great the way she starts rolling up her expression – I get the feeling only you could think of that, Stephen!
‘taut’ not ‘taught’ in that context.
Yeah – you’ve got it good – how someone can feel about their looks – I identified with her straightaway. I don’t suppose that is just a woman-thing, but if you were wondering, this woman knows how she must have felt.

3 Harry B. Sanderford { 06.22.11 at 11:44 am }

I don’t know whether to be happy or sad for Tanika. Things are looking up for her socially but it’s too bad she had to conform so, before anyone to saw something in her.

Another inventive and well written piece Stephen!

4 Steve Green { 06.22.11 at 10:49 pm }

It’s a big bitch in life that some people just “look” happy without even trying, and others always look miserable even when they aren’t, there are no prizes for guessing who gets the most good stuff sent their way.

This is an amazing capture of that reality.

Good to see that Tanika is emerging from the grub of one, to the butterfly of the other.

Once again Stephen you show the excellent quality of your eloquence and insight.

5 John Xero { 06.23.11 at 8:32 am }

I’m with Harry… she was happy, inside, with her old face; I fear that her new external happiness may be at the expense of some internal contentment.

“Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”
Seems apt here, the quote so often misattributed to Seuss. What other people think shouldn’t matter, but it so often does. We’re built, biologically, as social animals. In fact, without regular human interaction we can suffer physically as if malnourished…

Don’t know where I was going with that… what we do for human interaction is not necessarily good for us in other ways.

Very poignant piece this week, Stephen. The opening description was wonderful and the way her transition played out with your eye for the unusual and layers of metaphor was excellent.

There’s a real bittersweetness to it, she is accepted, making friends, but at what cost?

6 Stephen Hewitt { 06.24.11 at 12:31 pm }

@John — Interesting to think about what would happen next. Is this the answer she hoped? Possibly — folk do treat other people differently and, having had something she perceived as a disadvantage, she may have gained a measure of insight and compassion for others (something that can be a learned skill, often through hardship) prior to the change. But why should she ‘have’ to change? And maybe she cheated her way around the courage she would’ve otherwise developed to stand up for that ‘frown’. That could have implications. So yes, bittersweet is probably good way to think about it.

@Steve — I think you’re right. I think some people don’t realise the effort others have to expend just to stand in the same room. Nor should they have to, I guess, though prejudice can come from tiny things. Even if it’s just a preference, or a slow drip of perception.

@Harry — Thanks Harry. That’s an interesting point — that it’s a rather damming indictment on social interaction. Maybe she should have stuck to her ‘flaw’. It makes me want to write another story where it goes the other way, and I think I probably will.

@Joan — I know how she feels, too. This was sparked from my awareness, as a kid, that I seemed to wander around with a frown or something. There were a few incidents where people said ‘cheer up’ and I was perfectly happy. I remember thinking: ‘Thanks a lot! I was happy! So where do I go with your ‘considerate’ observation?’

I added the nose bit on a later draft and liked the implication.

Good spot on that ‘taught’, I’ll get that fixed 🙂

@Mark — well, I din’t want to mention that frown, but, ah… 🙂

7 Joan { 07.11.11 at 5:27 pm }

I’d just like to say (I seem to have been away for a few weeks) that there have been some really interesting comments on this story. Yeah, why should she have worried?

8 Stephen Hewitt { 07.18.11 at 11:58 am }

@Joan — I thought so too. Indeed, why should she feel she has to change?

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