I had dinner with a female friend last week. I can't really call her a 'girlfriend' with any accuracy, as we're both in ripe middle age so 'girl' doesn't really cut it, and 'lady friend' implies we're somehow sexually involved, which we're not. She's a chum I'm very fond of despite or perhaps because of the wealth of differences between us, not least - as was demonstrated over dinner - in our respective attitudes to our ageing.
While I'm certainly not blinding myself to where I am in my life (there are certain items of clothing I will never wear again, to my sadness, and the stark hairstyle that was my trademark for many years has been replaced with something softer as I once caught sight of my reflection and realised I looked like a concentration camp guard rather than a gamine) I'm not much given to over-reflection on how I 'feel' about being middle-aged, preferring instead to enjoy getting on with being any age at all. I've stuck with exercise and a decent moisturiser, and prefer to keep any less visible manifestations of 'seasonal changes' between me and my GP.
This slight preciousness on my part goes back directly to having been the youngest of five sisters and hence prey to continual commentary and interrogation on all my bodily developments, gynaecological and otherwise. How unfondly I recall the announcement of the onset of my menses, made accusingly by my mother in our crowded kitchen which contained at the time all four sisters, various boyfriends and husbands thereof, my horrified father, and two of his cronies from the Catholic Club. My spotty thirteen-year old face was a study in shame as a barrage of supplementary questions were hurled my way on associated topics like cramping, Feminax, and a stern warning to steer clear of Tampax as "you'll never get them in at your age." Add to that the relentless bodily scrutiny undergone and administered by all pupils of single sex convent schools in the 1970's ("She needs a bra." "She doesn't need that bra." "She stuffs her bra." "She needs to trim her pubes". "She told me she masturbates, the dirty cow!") and it comes to feel miraculous that I could ever face my own femininity at all. But I did, and I do, and I generally quite like it - I just don't need to describe it in undue detail.
So on the afternoon when the Women's Group members were examining (and celebrating) their own cervixes with the aid of some plastic speculums and dental mirrors, I had slunk off to the Library pleading essay commitments. I was not part of the women's drumming group that attempted to percussively mirror and encourage Fran Cosworth's labour pains in 1985 (up to the point at which she went into meltdown and demanded and ambulance and an epidural, to the dismay of The Sisters.). I had to be brought a chair and lowered into it carefully in the hospital as my youngest big sister provided the rest of us with a stitch-by-stitch account of the problematic birth of my nephew. And many years later, I bowed quickly out of a lunchtime chat between two female colleagues (then in their mid-Fifties) which had begun with (look away now if you're as bad as me) "yes, your mid-cycle mucus really DOES change - I sneezed last night and a load shot out!" and was moving unstoppably on to "these days I have to remind Keith to be careful when he's going at it, as it aggravates my scar tissue from when I had the twins...". I'm really not prudish, I just have nothing I want to add.
My chum takes the opposite view, however, and has already signed up for various groups and writing circles in which women get together and share their middle-aged experiences, hopes and fears. And in a good-natured recruitment drive, she quizzed me in the most forthright terms about breast tissue changes, FSH levels, and libido. "When do you think you're going to have your mid-life crisis?" she asked loudly, at one of those choice moments when the rest of the restaurant has fallen into silence. She made it sound like a dental checkup or tax return submission, one of those chores you know you're going to have to attend to at a predetermined time. I reflected briefly, and truthfully replied that I think I had mine in about 2001. "No, no no," my chum assured me. "You weren't even forty then. It doesn't count. You've still got yours to come. And you'll need support." As she talked away about the richness of her encounter groups and the warmth and honesty she finds there, I felt the smallest pang of something like - but not - envy, pleased for her that she can gravitate so easily towards a network of others not only able, but positively keen, to define themselves by their age and gynaecology, but once again feeling that I had no desire whatsoever to join her there. When she jokily mentioned donning "purple and a red hat that doesn't go and doesn't suit me" (my least favourite poem) and my face took on a certain expression, even she knew that she'd lost me. Bless her.
The time may come when I feel differently, but for now I'm getting by on denial and good cosmetics. With any luck, one morning I'll simply wake up and have transmogrified into a rather striking white-haired old lady with a good French pleat and amazing bone structure. I see them around sometimes and the sight always cheers me up. No red hats for those dames. And no red hats for me. Perhaps I need to start a women's group of my own where we get together in a pub, talk highly amusing but emotionally shallow bollocks, check out clumsily how each other's 'doing', and then go home. But would we all have to have sex changes first?