Bésame C215: 1946 Red Velvet

In a week of endless waiting, Ella discovers how a great lipstick can provide comfort and strength

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By Ella Risbridger on

I have written before about hope, and about waiting. I didn’t say – I didn’t know, until now – that hope and waiting are two sides of the same coin. Both need you to be patient. Both need you to be brave. I have never felt more vulnerable than I do now – hoping, waiting. 

You will have to forgive me if this week’s column is a little bit disjointed: as I type, we are waiting – and hoping – for some blood results. We hope they will be good enough to do a biopsy, which in turn we hope will be good enough that he can restart chemo, which in turn, we hope, will lead to the allograft, which in turn again, we hope, will lead to a stem-cell transplant, which in turn AGAIN, we hope, might lead to remission, or total remission, or a cure. 

I picture these choices as a series of doors, or, sometimes, a set of puzzle boxes, depending on how optimistic I’m feeling. 

If the doors, I picture us pushing them open into larger, airier rooms, working our way out of some nightmarish mad house. 

If the boxes, I feel that we are only going further in – that every time we figure out one piece of the puzzle, and triumphantly lift off the lid, there’s another box, underneath, stacked in like a Russian doll, and locked, locked, locked. 

In any case, the choices we make now – or that are made for us – determine the choices we get to make next. This is, of course, true for everybody. As so many things about Cancerland, it’s simply amplified here. 

This is a lipstick that opens doors, and helps you – gently but firmly, like an older, wiser friend – to be brave enough to step over the threshold

It’s as if the everyday things are being reflected back to us in funhouse mirrors: everything is the same, but incomparably different. Little things, like white blood cells, are the most important things. Big things, like work or deadlines or taxes, are not important at all. Our calendars run on hospital time: on Monday, we spent nine hours in a clinic, waiting for this biopsy, only to hear, in the end, that his white blood cells were half a point too low for it to be safe. Today, we will do the same. 

I am writing in the back of a cab, shuttling, as ever, between the real world and Cancerland. The rain is coming down hard outside, and my coat is already soaked through, and I am so frightened – I cannot get hold of the Tall Man. I have been in a meeting (my first proper break from being by his side in almost two months) and I cannot get hold of him, and the biopsy is looming, and I know that he is frightened, too. Bone-marrow biopsies hurt. They really bloody hurt, I’m told, and having seen one happen (think: apple corer to the hip), I’m not surprised. And I know, too, how much is resting on this biopsy. How much this biopsy needs to happen. How many doors will not open if this biopsy cannot go ahead, how many puzzle boxes will stay locked under our frustrated hands. 

And how essentially powerless I am. I cannot make his blood counts higher. I cannot make the biopsy hurt him less. I cannot make the results of it better, easier, more likely to open doors or boxes. I am powerless, and frightened, and hopeful, and I am waiting, stuck in the endless traffic between Great Russell Street and Clerkenwell. 

“Never seen such bad traffic,” the driver tells me, cheerily. “There’s a strike on. And the rain.” The rain is coming down incessantly, hammering on the roof of the cab, and I feel a little like I’m going mad. The world outside is completely hidden by the fog on the windows. I am completely reduced to fear, and desperate hope, and the inevitable sense of my own uselessness. I am a bundle of guilt: guilt for having had a productive meeting, guilt for having enjoyed my meeting, guilt most of all for not being there, and now I cannot get hold of the Tall Man.  

I pull out my phone to try once more, and I catch sight of myself in the dark screen, and I note, to my surprise, that my lipstick is still in place. My lipstick. I am bizarrely, totally comforted by this fact: my lipstick is still in place. I am still me. 

I applied this lipstick at 8am this morning. This lipstick gave the Tall Man a good-luck kiss. This lipstick stayed on through a hot bath, three pieces of Marmite toast, and a whole cafetiere of strong coffee. This lipstick stayed on through a bowl of minestrone soup and the rain. This lipstick stayed on through a crying jag outside the British Museum. This lipstick stayed on through three mugs of publishing-strength tea. And this lipstick is staying on now. It’s a proper, workaday, perfect red: the Tall Man’s favourite. It was sent to me by a friend – a strong lady, a lady I admire greatly – and it’s the lipstick, I’m told, that Agent Carter wears. It is called Red Velvet 1946, and made as imitation of a 1946 lipstick: a little gold bullet with red enamel writing, and a sharp, sloped point on the lipstick itself. And it has stayed on, and my reflection, briefly, is recognisable. 

There I am. Just as I have been, for the last two months of waiting and hoping, and I will not disappear now. The fog clears. 

I have been away only two hours. The Tall Man told me to go to the meeting. The meeting was unavoidable. The biopsy is unavoidable. I paint on an unnecessary coat of the lipstick, just for the pleasure of applying it. I want to define myself: the neat criss cross of my Cupid’s bow, and the broad sweep of my bottom lip. (Some lipsticks require a lipliner to be lovely. This one does not. Something to do, I think, with the shape of it, like a sloping roof.) The lipstick is smooth and soft and strong, and leaves a perfect lip-print on the tissue. 

I love this lipstick, and in this moment in the back of the cab I love it just as much for everything it represents as everything it is: if I can apply lipstick, I can go on. If I can apply lipstick, there is enough left in me to keep going, to get to the hospital, to find my Tall Man, to take him home. If I can apply bold, brazen, bright red lipstick, I can be bold and brazen and bright. I can walk right on to the ward, and find him. 

So I do. 

He is sitting up in a chair, smiling, going through consent forms with a nurse. “All done!” he tells me. “Did it while you were in the meeting. All done now. Unspeakable, obviously, but done. Can we go now?”

So we do. 

It takes us two hours to make the two-mile journey from the hospital (strike on, and the rain), and we are both exhausted. He is bleeding fairly profusely from his biopsy site; we are both soaked to the skin from a very brief foray outside. But we are going home, and the biopsy is done, and one more door can be opened. That’s how I’m thinking of it, tonight: doors, opening, and one day we will open a door to the ordinary world, and leave Cancerland behind. Today, we’ve opened one door. On Saturday, when the chemo begins (as we know, now, that it will), we’ll open another. 

But, tonight, we’re going home, and my lipstick is still on, still blazing. If my lipstick can stick around (and it does, broadly speaking – through the long journey, an enormous takeaway, a bottle of wine and another bath) – so can I. 

This lipstick is the perfect red: tough without being obnoxious, soft without being a pushover, dark without being harsh. And it’s got staying power. This is a lipstick to make you feel like yourself again. This is a lipstick that opens doors, and helps you – gently but firmly, like an older, wiser friend – to be brave enough to step over the threshold. 



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Sometimes Its the Little Things

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