The Cure for Sleep: Mirrors
Season 2, 003: Through a glass darkly - what we see in the mirror
your invitation to write
This month’s invitation to write for the story archive is as follows: Tell me about your face in a mirror: a time when you looked at yourself in a good new way, or confronted uncomfortable beliefs about who and what you are.
As you read (or re-read) The Cure for Sleep, you will find mirrors as a recurring motif. I place one on the floor as a small child missing a father, imagining it a portal to him and God both. I look in the round mirror of my beautiful mother’s wardrobe as she dresses each morning for her job in the grocery shop, and see myself as a frog next to the quick bright bird of her. When I reinvent myself as an artist in midlife, I stand before my bathroom mirror trying to summon the courage to begin my first public performance. Mirrors become a way of framing how I feel about myself at key points in the narrative, and the hardest of these confrontations with self - and this month’s short extract given below - happens towards the end of the book when I have made a terrible mistake in love.
A suggestion for more work around this theme in your private creative practice: Experiment with taking a series of self-portraits using a mirror or window to see yourself at an unusual angle. How do you feel about making these deliberate images of yourself?
You can read the stories already contributed by readers over on The Cure For Sleep website: bedtime stories | memory games | bonding | choosing | promises | size & shape | time | desire | regret | faith | rebirth | play | hands
(All themes are still open for contributions, so that subscribers with time or health limits have the opportunity to take part as and when they are able.)
the cure for sleep: may extract
The next settlement along on that part of the North Devon coast was still the busy tourist destination it had been in my childhood, but here there were no pubs, no cafés, no public toilets. Nor any racks of postcards or plastic beach toys. There was, I’d been told when asking what to pack, just one cottage with a serving hatch sometimes open for hot drinks and ice cream. And the only advertised attraction for the seven days I’d be in residence, aside from the ever-present beach and sea? That would be me.
This had become a particular thrill in the three years of my new life as a travelling speaker and self-declared writer of the outside: coming alone and unknown to a place, senses made sharp by newness. Stranger in a strange land, I went along hungry for any small signs of who I’d be among this time.
But in the quarter-hour it took me to get from the car park to my cabin, I didn’t see a soul. Which made it all the more peculiar to reach the little brick building I’d be in, windowless on its wall that bordered the slipway, and see on its green wooden door my own name and photo. And vertiginous to open next the smaller side entrance by the cliff edge only to find a postcard waiting for me on the cold stone floor. Sent from across that North Atlantic I’d just arrived beside by the man who wouldn’t, after all, be growing old with me.
Heart lift at first, seeing his handwriting. Then heaviness. A fatigue so great that I wanted to lie on the grass and sleep, all my bags left unpacked around me. I’d come all this way, trying to keep moving through these months of mine that would always be without his company now – but here he was, ahead of me. Marking the territory.
Holding the postcard by one corner, mouse by its tail, I took it to the small outhouse that would be my only source of cold water. Came back then to the threshold to begin again, freed of male influence: a woman writer being allowed to work inside the carefully kept and Grade II-listed studio of two long-gone women artists who’d defied convention to live and love together.
Curator-cautious, I went step by step through the tiny space so as not to break anything. There on the back of the staircase door were the couple’s two painting smocks, one inside the other. Hung about on hooks were their cups, a rusted nutmeg grater, a Festival of Britain jug. Then, going up the few wooden steps, and bending my head to get around the sharp turn and low ceiling, I came into their only other room. Metal-framed bed with a white counterpane, a pitcher and bowl for washing, open cupboard of art supplies. On the mantelpiece, a sinister mercury mirror I’d been warned about on the risk assessment: it was degrading fast and giving off poison – I mustn’t get too close or look into its dark, decaying surface.
And so of course I did.
I’d been ashamed of my face since my terrible mistake in love: all the beauty I’d felt to possess in the few months of being wanted twice over – this had left me now. My skin was bad, my eyes were tired.
But I was here to welcome people in. What I looked like didn’t matter.
I adjusted my headscarf, tightened my apron and went back down to make a little bower of books by the open door. Hoping, in this way, to recover some of the joy I’d had in my first year of writing beside the pool.
Shadrick, Tanya. The Cure for Sleep (pp. 267-269). Orion. Kindle Edition.
this month’s extra
Back in March, I joined Lorraine Candy and Trish Halpin on their brilliant Postcards From Midlife podcast to talk about life’s threshold moments: how we can step into new ways of being. Their incredible archive also includes a conversation on sexual awakenings with Three Women author, Lisa Taddeo.