Chemical Ali


Eileen Gilmour




It was the article about the toenail clinic that started it. Until then Alexandra had turned fifty with barely a backward glance.

"Quite honestly, John, there's not much difference between forty and fifty these days," she said to her husband at breakfast, her mouth stuffed full of e numbers.

"No, only about three chins and several rolls of fat," John sniggered from behind the roller coaster of his Daily Mail. "You know me, honey. I tell it like it is."

Alex smeared extra butter on her croissant. After twenty-five years with Honest John she'd grown a thick skin over her comforting layers of subcutaneous fat.

"What you see is what you get with me," he'd told her on the night of their engagement party in the scout hut. "Straight up, no lies, no silly games, pull no punches - right between the eyes."

Lovesick Alex had felt her knees turn to jelly inside her thigh-length suede boots.

Her mother told her she'd got a real gem. As for Alex's philandering dad - he wasn't present for the festivities in the scout hut. He was off up the Golden Mile with his latest floozy. Small wonder that Alex valued honesty above all else.

John had said the thing he loved most about Alexandra was her name. "All my mates have landed themselves with Carols and Janets," he'd said, rubbing his little sausage hands together. "Alexandra - now that's class."

Alex had batted her spidery stick-on lashes and contemplated a truthful, classy future.

Yep. There's been plenty of hard-core truth in this marriage, reflected Alex, butter oozing down her chin. But somewhere down the years the classiness has waned.

"Bloody 'ell," said John, who'd obviously just reached the Mail's healthy living pages. "You're going to have to keep an eye on my prostate, Al."

Alex stopped chewing as a wave of nausea washed over her.

"And what about this - they've opened a drop-in clinic where the old folks can get their toenails cut for free. Anyone over fifty, it says."

Alex put down her croissant. Now, this was a truth she hadn't seen coming: at fifty she might be deemed incapable of cutting her own toenails!

"Better get you booked in pretty sharpish. When was the last time you caught sight of your feet then, Al?" John's doughnut head wobbled with mirth.

Alex took off her varifocals and rubbed her eyes. No spider lashes these days - just a few stubby spikes had survived all that gluing.

John's ever-present mobile wolf-whistled from behind the Golden Shred.

"Honest John's Estate Agency, always here to help. Oh hi, Isabella, howya diddling, sweetheart?"

John's glamorous PA had a habit of muscling in at mealtimes.

Alex reached across the table for the paper, to check her horoscope.

'Taureans are in grave danger of falling into a torpor this week.'

Flippin' heck, thought Alex. Not another one.

"Yep, that's cool, Izzy sweetheart, we'll throw some ideas around over a bite to eat. Ciao, babe." John threw back his head and slurped his espresso. "That woman's so amazing. Nearly as old as you, but looks a million dollars. I've told you, Al, it's the HRT. Bloody magic!"

Oh yes, he'd told her all right.

John sprayed himself with a cloud of No Sweat and was gone.

Alex stared bleakly at the paper.

The terrible toenail truth had somehow pierced her defences. She could feel the beginnings of a torpor.

Alex's nice lady GP was off with stress, so she was squeezed in with young Dr Darby with the acne.

"It's the menopause, Doctor," she said. "I'm beginning to feel old. But I'm not at all sure about HRT - it seems so unnatural."

Dr Darby swivelled carelessly on his chair. “Oh, I'd definitely go for the HRT. Nature never designed women to live beyond child-bearing age. Certainly not to fifty. You need all the help you can get."

Alex took a moment to digest this information. There was a particularly prominent pustule throbbing in a crevice by the doctor's left nostril. She tried not to stare.

"What about side effects? I don't like the idea of all those chemicals in my bloodstream."

Dr Darby shrugged inside his over-sized cord jacket. "I wouldn't worry. When it comes to cancer and heart attacks it's pretty well swings and roundabouts. What does your husband think?"

"Oh, he's all in favour of HRT. But then he doesn't have to play on the swings and roundabouts, does he? He's more interested in his prostate."

Dr D nodded. "I'm not surprised. Prostates need watching." He rubbed his nose energetically as he scribbled the HRT prescription.

It was too much for the contents of the pustule.

Alex picked up the contaminated prescription with some care.

"You'll be a new woman," said the doc, tapping the details into his laptop. "Stick it on your bum and get on with your life."

Expressing profound gratitude for this excellent advice, Alex scurried off to the chemists.

A month after the HRT patch entered her life Alex felt the need to visit her older sister, Hattie, who ran a donkey rescue centre. She slammed out of her city centre insurance office early and swore her way past convoys of Morrisons lorries and tractors, before screeching to a mud-spattered halt outside her sister's cottage.

"Hells teeth, Hat, why's it always so flaming wet and miserable in the country?"

"Who rattled your cage then?" enquired Hattie, staggering to greet her with a bucket of organic donkey feed in each weather-roughened hand. "You don't seem quite yourself."

Alex threw her arms round her well-padded sister and snivelled.

"Oh, Hat - it's the HRT. My hormones have gone to pot."

Hattie clattered down her buckets. "Now that's really dumb, Ali. You should take the natural approach like me - you don't want to be dabbling with all that HRT rubbish."

"I know -1 just want to stay young for a bit longer. Have nice skin and cut my own toenails; that sort of thing."

Hattie took her firmly by the shoulders. "I'll bet it's old Honest John who's put you up to this, isn't it?"

Alex blew her nose noisily and nodded. "In a way. His latest PA's a drop-dead stunner called Isabella who's been on HRT for years and she's hardly aged at all."

"Yeah right! Another of his bits on the side no doubt."

Alex pulled away. "John doesn't have bits on the side. He's far too honest for that sort of thing. Not like Dad."

Hattie snorted and ran grimy fingers through her tangle of wiry hair. "He's just like Dad if you ask me - honest when it suits him."

There was an uncomfortable silence for a moment, then Hattie picked up her buckets. "Do you want to have a word with Mum while you're here?"

Alex nodded and followed her sister towards the crumbling black and white cottage. She should have known Hattie wouldn't understand. She'd devoted her life to donkeys rather than men so it didn't matter what she looked like. John always said she'd let herself go. Big time.

Hattie waddled round the side of the cottage and pushed open the five-bar gate to the orchard.

"I'm not dressed for this," muttered Alex, picking her way through the long grass in her black office suit and strappy heels. "We should have scattered her ashes somewhere that was free of donkey poo."

"Well, considering Mum spent ten years on a shelf in your garage, I'll bet she thinks this is heaven."

Alex smiled and had a stab at some sisterly small talk. "Everything okay in Donkey Land then, Hat?"

"Oh you know, busy, busy. We're coming up to the nativity play season. Donkeys are all blooming with health though, what with the organic diet and the homeopathy."

Alex glanced across to the next field where a bunch of homeopathic donkeys kicked and jostled for position by the gate. They look just as irritable as me, she thought.

The sisters stopped by an old gnarled apple tree in the far corner of the orchard.

"Hello, Mum, how's tricks?" enquired Alex, lamely. "Flippin' heck, Hat, this tree's looking a bit the worse for wear."

"I expect her ashes were riddled with toxins," said Hattie. "All those years of smoking like a chimney, then the lung cancer and the chemo."

Alex scratched her left buttock where the HRT patch was giving her hell. "Do you think I'm riddled with toxins, Hat?"

"Well, put it this way, Ali - when you pop your clogs I'm not scattering you in my orchard."

Alex might have been tempted to rip off her HRT patch and let herself go, if it hadn't been for some unexpectedly lavish compliments from her husband.

"Might be my imagination Al, but the old jowls look a bit less wobbly these days," he'd said when she was on her hands and knees cleaning the oven.

She was so taken aback she choked on some of the mucous membrane-destroying fumes she was spraying rather too liberally.

"And your hair's not quite as lank any more. What did I tell you about the old HRT? Magic or what?"

"Magic," gasped Alex, eyes streaming.

Even more surprisingly, goddess-features Isabella seemed to crop up in the conversation less frequently and her mealtime phone calls became a thing of the past. So on the whole Alex reckoned it was worth persisting with the HRT. The mood swings were tricky though. Working in the death and destruction department of the insurance company could be depressing at the best of times and Alex blubbed over most of the claims she had to process.

"The world's such a dangerous place," she said to John at breakfast one morning.

"Yep, you sure as hell ain't gonna get out alive, sweetheart," he said, deep in the sports pages.

"But it's all about minimising risks," persisted Alex. "I keep wondering about my HRT."

"Oh pur-lease!" John rolled his eyes theatrically. "I suppose you want to give it up and look dog-rough like your psychopath sister."

"Homeopath," corrected Alex automatically.

John lowered his paper. "Sometimes, sweetheart, you've gotta use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I don't want to look across the breakfast table at some wrinkled old bat, do I?"

Alex was grappling with a strong desire to crack a few nuts when the familiar wolf-whistle demanded attention.

"Honest John speaking. Always here to - oh hi, Isabella. What's the deal then?"

The usual oily tones had been replaced by clipped impatience.

Strange, thought Alex.

"Oh that's a shame. Well, can't be helped. Yeah, well, visiting might be tricky. See ya, sweetheart - maybe."

"What was that about?"

John shrugged and went back to the sports pages. "Oh, Isabella’s had one of those horrible cancers for a while. Didn't spoil her looks at all - until recently. Gotta go into the Royal, apparently. On her last legs, I expect."

There was silence for a moment. "You knew?"

John nodded. "Yeah, no big deal."

"But why didn't you tell me?" Alex spoke very quietly. "You tell me everything."

Honest John tapped his lips with a podgy, nicotine-stained finger. "Yeah, but Izzy wanted it kept confidential, so what could I do? She was such a head-turner. Big time."

Alex was finding breathing unusually difficult.

"Did the HRT have anything to do with the cancer?"

"Could be a link," said Honest John, lowering his eyes. "Who knows?"

"Or cares," whispered Alex.

Suddenly the annoying irritation that had been focussed in the region of her left buttock broke loose. A tsunami of pain tore through every synapse and engulfed every menopausal cell in her body, until she thought she might explode.

Alex had finally thrown off her torpor.

Big time.

©2007 Eileen Gilmour

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