I’m on a crowded underground with my teenaged daughter doing precisely what I said I wouldn’t do. We sit together, figuratively travelling on different tracks. Me, the middle-aged supplicant, advocating for TikTok free quality time and my UN tactical negotiator conceding to a shopping expedition. The birthday and Christmas money she has carefully saved up could make a real difference to a small country’s GDP, but she’s set on Covent Garden. Checkmate on that mooch around a gallery and posh tea.
We manage the first boutique, conflict free. So far, so good. She is high from fingering polyester boob tubes, crop tops, or whatever you call a garment shaped like a wrist bangle. Rub too hard and she may well self-immolate, as natural fibres are not on her radar this week.
But it seems that this is only limbering up for the pop-up cosmetic brand temporarily located behind velvet ropes and guarded by bouncers in white coats, like a medical supply company staffed by models hosting a nightclub event. I leave her stalled in the queue and step into a lovely shop with sensible tweeds and sturdy footwear. In my day, a Laura Ashley sailor dress would see you through a few party seasons – none of this fast fashion malarkey.
Having squandered a grotesque sum on a minute tube of lip salve in cool generic packaging and sold to her in a brown sandwich bag, she’s faint from hunger. This is what happens when you ingest no more than boiled water with a sprinkle of turmeric for breakfast to detox from the kilos of Haribo that fuelled your history paper last week. (Apparently, the sugar rush challenged her ability to keep her hand on the page, but she powered through.)
We get take-away ramen so as not to lose momentum. Where did she learn to wield chopsticks and walk at the same time? My cheeks are whipped by noodles slipping off the cardboard fork and broth trails down my neck as I shuffle behind, watching for uneven cobbles. I am more duenna than role model here as I follow my charge around buskers and chuggers. I’d hoped for walking arm in arm, admiring shop windows in sync, laughing at absurdities, and feeling that complicity of yore, but I am barely tolerated. Long gone are the snuggly days of her needy babyhood. I indulge memories of the hysterical adulation every time I walked into the nursery, her language an obscure toddlereese for: ‘Its yououo. I’m so happy to see you, I’ll eat your nose.’
Hoping to introduce my offspring to my high street brands? Hard pass. She leads me into shops that seem either devoid of goods, too loud for thought, too dark to see what’s on display, or artificially scented with urinal deodoriser. I stumble on, one hand shielding my face, the other extended to keep me from striking sharp objects, praying this shopfloor with the smoke machine doesn’t have stairs.
The final insult is a brand I can only describe in the hopes of not being sued. It’s targeted at under 18s, features a limited line of clothing in one size and prides itself on not advertising, not holding sales or embracing standard consumer rights. Yeah, YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.
I’m bone tired at this point and there are none of the traditional chairs historically provided for trailing husbands. My daughter, who describes her style as ‘quirky and original’, is lost in a sea of identical jeans, puffer jackets and high ponytails. It’s like a surrealist nightmare where every time I tap my daughter on the shoulder, a stranger turns to stare back. Finally, I locate my child agonising between a postage stamp sized garment in dusty blue or dusty pink. She can afford one but not both. Rather than play into this particular drama, I offer to queue for the tills to hasten our departure from this fresh circle of hell.
With a note of hysteria, my daughter leans in to whisper that the girl working our till is from her school: ‘If she recognises me, I’ll just die.’
Having settled on the blue – ‘no the pink…definitely the blue. What should I do?’ – I stare ahead at the girls behind the cash registers. Clearly, the brand’s interview process endorses eye rolling, sneering, shoulder shrugging and conspicuous whispering about a customer’s physical attributes. You have to be cover girl pretty and model thin to channel the house brand. As we near the counter, I’m told not to make eye contact. Wait, is this a cult?
With a note of hysteria, my daughter leans in to whisper that the girl working our till is from her school: ‘If she recognises me, I’ll just die.’ I ponder CPR treatment for a girl overcome by conversational exchange with one of the mean girls from school. My loins are fully girded by the time we are at the point of payment. I’m in Momma Bear mode, despite my daughter’s having been vile to me most of the day, as I sense her distress in the face of the most luminescent girl she’s ever crossed paths with.
The girl’s name is Maya and she squeaks ‘Oh my God, how arrrre you?’ at the sight of my daughter. ‘This’ll look way good. You’re soooo fit,’ she adds, smiling broadly as she folds the tiny garment into an origami pellet and places it reverently inside a thimble sized bag.
Trembling, my daughter hands over a large wad of cash and mumbles ‘pouusfffmmmbbrr’ in teen patois.
‘Totally’, answers Maya.
‘Riiight? Oh my God is this, like, your Muuuummm?’
That’s me, I think. Fifteen hours, vaginal delivery. Thanks for asking.
‘Mm,’ I answer, trying to mirror match my daughter’s articulate insouciance.
‘Hi, I’m Maya’. This young goddess reaches over and, wait for it, actually extends her hand for a shake. That smile. Those teeth. Oh Lord, dimples as well. Is there no end to the bounty? ‘We’re at school together’ she clarifies for me, the intellect-impaired who hadn’t caught on that the girls knew each another.
I might never wash that hand. Ever. This may be love.
Grasping the thimble bag, my daughter and I retreat backwards from the counter, bowing from the waist.
We are barely through the door when my daughter turns to me and squeals ‘Ohmigod’ and ‘WhatwasTHAT?’
Shoppers harumph as they are forced to stream around us on the pavement. We are planted like statues, staring deeply into each another’s eyes, bound forever by the miracle that has just occurred. We’re every girl who ever watched the alpha female own the schoolyard, excel at netball, ace the quiz and crush her solo with the Head Boy’s arm around her shoulder. And it’s like we’ve just been asked to sit with her at lunch.
‘I know’, I whisper.
I get it and she gets that I just got it. That, for a moment, we are on the same side and I see her point of view instead of passing it through the usual lens of toxic parenting and judgemental fusty mothering.
We head for the tube and my daughter laces her fingers through mine.