Clinique Long Last Soft Matte Lipstick in Matte Crimson

"That was the point of the whole lipstick-and-cancer thing in the first place. To look fierce, and brave, and visible. To keep going, wherever it is we’re headed." As Ella Risbridger and her boyfriend await test results, a bright red lipstick gives her the strength she needs

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By Ella Risbridger on

The coldest day of the winter, the lake frozen almost across. The cygnets, almost grown, pick their way across to the meltwater with unwieldy feet: I am always surprised by swans out of water, and the ice surprises them. We will all be happier when they are swimming again. Above water, they seem too heavy for themselves, their necks too thick, their ankles too spindly. Especially on ice. 

I watch them slip across and in with relief. My coffee steams, and I count coots, and watch the birds move on the lake. If you watch long enough, you see patterns in it all: an S of gulls, a wide X of coots, with one tail of the X curled like a lip around the place where the big coot nest was last summer, the swans moving amongst it all with this steady purpose. But today it’s different: the nesting place is frozen solid, and the coots stay away. Coots on ice walk like a little passel of thugs, all thrusting hips and puffed up shoulders, and they don’t like it. One makes a bold attempt at getting back to the nest, dives, slithers, bumps, and comes to a halt with affronted dignity. Everything is wrong, and they huddle. It’s been a mild winter. Perhaps they haven’t seen ice before. 

The consultant called this morning, or rather, the CNS called on his behalf: the Tall Man needs to go in for some tests. It’s sooner than we expected. I try to second-guess what this means. I come only to terrible conclusions. 

The Tall Man sighs, and says, “For goodness sake, darling, it’s because this is when they can fit me in.” I know that he is right, but still, I worry. I worry all the way around the lake, and into the cafe. I worry endlessly. I worry that it’s because the lipstick I snatched up this morning was a bright, chemo-ward red (Matte Crimson, by Clinique); that somehow the bright lipstick reminded the universe that we exist; that we used to live in Cancerland and now, briefly, do not, that returning to Cancerland is both inevitable and necessary. 

The Tall Man says, on the phone, “Well, we need these tests to happen.” So we do. I just wish it wouldn’t happen yet. The threat of knowledge – of knowing how well the Tall Man’s stem cells have done at fighting his aggressive, strange cance – or of knowing how badly they have done – hangs over the morning. I have never been one for knowing: it’s why I am such a bad academic. I always want the possibility, not the solution; I want the in-between. I want to live in Limbo forever. But it’s not how the world works. The ice melts. In we go again. Lipstick on. 

I don’t know what I want. I know we have to know. And whatever I want, it’s coming anyway. And I might as well face it, with a bright lip and my chin held high

I am not sure when I started thinking of the swans and the ice as a sort of metaphor; I’m not even sure whether the ice is Cancerland, or whether it’s this fragile little peace we have carved out above it. How long would the lake have to be frozen over before the birds learned to live with it? How many frozen days before new patterns asserted themselves? How many frozen days before the ice became home? Of course, it’s not like that. It’s never like that. The lake is never frozen all the way across – there’s always some water around the edges of the island, and the shores – and it never stays frozen even for a single day. Even as I have been sitting here, coffee steaming, lipstick smearing across the glass, the South half of the lake has become water again. And tonight it will freeze again. 

Oh, it goes on and on, and I realise that I have been holding this fragile peace these last weeks like a piece of ice in the palm, clutching it to me, and hoping it won’t melt, and it melting all the faster, but what else can I do? Day turns to night, and day again, and I can’t stop it. But I am afraid, and so I paint on, in the café, a second coat of the brightest lipstick of them all: I’m not sure if it’s a stop sign, or a beacon. I don’t want these tests, I want these tests, I want to know, I don’t want to know, I don’t know what I want. I know we have to know. And whatever I want, it’s coming anyway. And I might as well face it, with a bright lip and my chin held high. 

The lipstick is smooth and good and true, and it doesn’t cling horribly to the coldest-day cracks in my lips. That was the point of the whole lipstick-and-cancer thing in the first place, after all. To look fierce, and brave, and visible; to look like the kind of person who might not quail at the melting of the ice, or the freeze, but to take it all in my stride. To find the joy in both: the unexpected harshness of the frost, the patterns of the water. To keep going, wherever it is we’re headed. 

For now, though, I’m just headed home. The Tall Man is there, and we’re one step closer to knowing what the future looks like. Smoke from the barges hangs in the air. The swans bob their thick necks for duckweed. I don’t know what I want, but I know it’s coming. My lipstick is bright and good. We exist. Here we go again.



I’d never been much of a makeup person before last year, but strange things happen on the cancer ward. When my partner, the Tall Man, was suddenly diagnosed with a rare, aggressive lymphoma, I found myself reaching for a battered tube of Mac Ruby Woo – part armour, part warpaint, all crimson defiance. This is a column about lipstick, and about caring, and about cancer, but most of all it’s my lifeline and it’s proof – for me, at least – that putting on a brave face is half the fight. Read my story so far here.



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