Cover Image for Further Under the Duvet
brand Image for Further Under the Duvet

Marian Keyes


FURTHER UNDER THE DUVET

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Contents

Introduction

1 Handbags and Gladrags

The Nicest Thing That Ever Happened to Me

I Shop, Therefore I Am

The Great Outdoors

Fabulous, Darling

My Five Top Fives

Action!

The Real Thing

2 On the Road

Passport Out of Here

Cheaper than Drugs

Stack ’n’ Fly

Thirty-six Hours in Jo’burg

Being Sent to Siberia

Queen of the Earplugs

Climb Every Mountain

3 Health and Beauty

They Say You Always Remember Your First Time…

Hand Upgrade

Knickers: A Vexed Area

Your Bad Health

Hair-brained

Mirror, Mirror

Faking It

Once Were Worriers

4 Woman to Woman

Man Power

December

The F Word

5 Friends and Family

Big Night Out

Villa-itis

Life Begins

Big Air

Eyes Wide Shut

Viva La Resolution?

Hurling Insults

Black Out

We Really Must Get Together This Year

Season of Goodwill (and chocolate)

6 But Seriously

Beyond My Wildest Dreams

Concerned

Rebuilding Children

7 Short Stories

Mammy Walsh’s Problem Page

A Moment of Grace

A Woman’s Right to Shoes

Wishing Carefully

Precious

Soulmates

The Truth is Out There

Under

Follow Penguin

By the Same Author

Watermelon
Lucy Sullivan is Getting Married
Rachel’s Holiday
Last Chance Saloon
Sushi for Beginners
Under the Duvet
Angels
The Other Side of the Story

Introduction

Hello and welcome to Further Under the Duvet, the follow-up to Under the Duvet, my first volume of journalism. I say ‘journalism’ but the articles included here are mostly humorous autobiographical pieces about subjects like my great love of make-up and ill-health and my great fear of being trapped on a bus in a foreign country with forty Irish people (it’s the singing). There are also a few more serious pieces about feminism, mediums and charity trips I’ve made to Ethiopia and Russia.

This time around, some of my short stories are also included. In fact, all of them seem to be, all seven of them. The thing is that I find it really hard to write short stories. (The clue is in the name: they’re too short. I’m only really getting into my stride with the characters and the plot, when next thing, it’s time to finish it. As a result I’ve written very few.)

Also included here is something called Mammy Walsh’s Problem Page. Mammy Walsh is a character who has appeared in several of my novels as a supporting character (a mother, as it happens) and over time she has developed a life of her own. In response to readers’ requests, she now dispenses no-nonsense advice from my website. I am slightly worried that by giving her a platform in this book, she’ll lose the run of herself entirely; she’s pretty strident at the best of times.

Some of the articles in this collection have already been published and the various publications are credited at the end of each piece. Thank you to all of them, especially the wonderful Marie O’Riordan of Marie Claire, for permitting me to reuse the pieces.

Now, just before someone writes and asks, everything in the non-fiction pieces in this book really did happen to me (yes, even turning forty), but occasionally I’ve changed people’s names to protect thegm (and sometimes me).

All my royalties from the Irish sales of the hardback will go to To Russia With Love, a wonderful charity that works with Russian orphans. And thank you very much for reading this book. I sincerely hope you enjoy it.

Marian Keyes

For Himself

The Nicest Thing That Ever Happened to Me

It was like a dream come true. My friend Aoife was made editor of an Irish women’s magazine; after I’d congratulated her, I said, ‘Give us a job as a beauty columnist,’ and she said, ‘Okay.’

I stared at her and went, ‘HAHAHA!’ She said, ‘I’m serious,’ and for one brief moment the world stopped spinning on its axis.

‘I’m serious,’ she repeated. ‘I was going to ask you but you beat me to it.’ And I went home that night, thinking: I’m the luckiest person who ever lived.

The idea was that I’d have my own page in the magazine where I’d ‘try and test’ half a dozen or so of a particular product type and award them marks out of ten. Usually when I’m doing something new I’m nervous and I doubt my ability to do it well, but not this time – I was born for this. I knew my subject matter inside out. I could hold my own in any discussion on free radicals and sea kelp. I could differentiate between Stila lipglaze and Bobbi Brown lipgloss at a glance.

Aoife had said she’d contact a load of beauty PRs and tell them to send me stuff. So from the very next morning, I began to wait. All week I stood by the downstairs window, my nose pressed to the glass, waiting, waiting…

The days passed and no free stuff arrived and then, just when I was starting to think it had all been a practical joke, the Lancôme lorry drew up outside. (Looking back, it was probably just the postman on his bike but it was so exciting that it took on mythical qualities.)

Himself answered the door, then placed a bulky padded envelope in my arms. With shaking hands I opened it, tipped the contents out onto my bed and nearly puked with excitement. I had been sent their latest night cream – expensive and fabulous – but the real prize was a selection of the forthcoming autumn cosmetics. There was a blusher, a quartet of eyeshadows, a lipstick, a bottle of nail varnish and the best bit of all: a new shade of Juicy Tube. I’ll never forget it!

I made Himself play ‘Lancôme Lady’ with me. Sometimes he’d be the customer coming into the shop enquiring about the new season’s colours and I’d be the Lancôme Lady demonstrating everything for him. Other times I’d be the customer and he’d be the woman behind the counter. We played for many happy hours. I made him. Even when he begged me to stop.

Then my sister came over to share our joy, but when she saw the Juicy Tube things threatened to turn ugly. Especially when she discovered that it wouldn’t be in the shops for another six weeks. ‘I’ll buy it off you now,’ she offered. But no amount of money could have persuaded me to part with it. ‘Don’t make me have to steal it,’ she said gently. So I emailed the girl at Lancôme, telling her the whole sorry story, and guess what? She sent another!

Two days later, the Clinique lorry arrived, laden with goodies – lipsticks, an all-weather face cream and not just one, but two foundations. Shortly after that the YSL lorry drew up outside with (what seemed like) most of their new autumn range for me to try.

It was like being in love, I was dizzy, giddy, giggly and my free cosmetics were all I could think about. I arrayed them in a little basket by my bed, so they were the first things I saw when I woke up. Even when I could no longer persuade Himself to play Lancôme Lady (or Clinique Lady or YSL Lady), I played by myself. Sometimes I arranged my products by brand name and other times by body parts (all lip products in one little heap, all skincare in another, etc.).

Every Thursday Himself and myself go to my parents’ house for our dinner, so this particular Thursday I gathered together all my free stuff, brought it with me and spilt it across their kitchen table to be admired. But instead of being dazzled, my mother was anxious: there had to be a catch. Then Dad came in, found the price lists and began to add up the value of all I’d been sent. (Once an accountant, always an accountant.) When he had everything totted up – it came to over three hundred euro – he could scarcely believe his own sums. ‘That,’ he declared, ‘is shagging well ridiculous.’

The magazine was fortnightly and, with a racing imagination, I began to plan my columns. First weeks, then months ahead. I had a big, big vision for autumn through winter, with the columns as follows: new lip colours, new eye colours, protective winter face care, winter hands, then as we came nearer to Christmas, a how-to-look-like-you-don’t-have-a-hangover column, a party make-up special, a gift-buying guide and, finally, an end-of-year thirty best products ever! Moving into January, of course, we’d start off with a detox special, then start focusing on nice stuff for Valentine’s Day, then the new spring colours would be out… All this I’d already planned in September.

Novels piled up unwritten, promotional work was abandoned and friends and family were neglected, as I took up full-time residence in a delicious dreamworld of time-defying eye creams and lash-thickening mascaras. Because I’m a perfectionist (i.e. insane) I didn’t want my column to be just any old beauty column, a patchjob of rehashed press releases. I wanted it to be fabulously funny and witty, and there wasn’t room in my head for anything else. (Triumphs included describing Clinique’s Repairwear as ‘It’s night cream, Jim, but not as we know it’ and Origins’ Gloomaway shower gel as ‘Prozac in a tube’.) I wrote and rewrote constantly, cutting, adding, honing and polishing. I admit it: I was obsessed.

I had to give marks out of ten, but I was so in love with every product I got that the lowest score I could manage to give was eight. My ratings shuttled from eight to nine, passing all points in between (8.5). Occasionally, I gave ten out of ten and, I admit it, there were even times I gave eleven out of ten. Yes, and twelve. All the way up to fifteen, but only when the product really merited it.

Part of the job was having to bond with those all-powerful women, the beauty PRs, guardians of the freebies. I’d ring, nervous as anything, and rattle off my name and rank and finish by saying, ‘So if you’re interested in having your products covered, let me know.’ In other words, ‘Please send me free stuff. Like, please.’

I’ve never been comfortable asking for something for nothing, even though, as Aoife kept reminding me, I was offering coverage and thereby saving them a ton in advertising. And the weird thing was that there was no correlation between how fabulous the brand was and how generous they were. I had thought that the more expensive and exclusive the products, the less chance I had of getting them. But it didn’t work like that at all. Truly yummy brands, brands that I had, in the past, paid good money for, like Prescriptives and Clinique, were phenomenally generous and staffed by lovely, friendly girls who didn’t make me feel one bit like a greedy scuzzball. And Jo Malone, one of the most beloved and beautiful brands on the planet, sent stuff so delicious I had to lie down in a darkened room. Whereas Chanel told me to fuck off. Okay, not those words exactly, but when I explained my mission to some French wan at their press office, she said dismissively, ‘We do not do zee: “tried and tested”.’ This was my cue to sneer, ‘Oh yeah? Afraid you can’t hack it, eh?’ But because I saw the chance of free Chanel stuff slipping from my grasp, I kowtowed shamelessly, promising ‘lovely coverage’. Alas, compromising my journalistic integrity came to nought; and nothing, not even a sample-sized eye cream, came from Chanel.

But for every knock-back, someone else came through. The day the Decléor lorry showed up, piled high with gorgeous French skincare, was another high spot, a memory I take out and polish every now and then, when I’m feeling blue.

Even when the product was all wrong for my skin type and colouring, I welcomed it anyway, then, when I’d amassed enough, had a big giveaway party for friends and family.

It was like nearly every day was my birthday. And never knowing exactly what was going to be in the envelope was so exciting – it could be anything: a hot new perfume, night cream that I would read about in Vogue next month, must-have nail kits, glittery lipglosses, hideously expensive serum, or, as happened on one unhappy occasion, cold-sore ointment. Each morning saw steady increments in my adrenalin levels as I awaited the arrival of the postman. I was bad-tempered and ratty if nothing came, or, worse, a press release but no product! Talk about rubbing salt in the wound. But some of the companies used couriers so even if the postman had been, I got a rush whenever the doorbell rang. No matter who it was – chancers offering to clean our gutters, my father looking for the return of his hostess trolley – every one of my senses went on high alert as I prepared to welcome another inbound parcel and give it a happy home.

All in all, this beauty column was the nicest thing that had ever happened to me. When I was a child, I lived in pitiful hope that my father would give up his job as a civil service number-cruncher and open a sweet shop instead, so that I’d have yummy things on tap around the clock. I was now living the adult version of that dream.

Himself watched anxiously from the sidelines. ‘When you say that it’s the nicest thing that ever happened to you, you don’t mean it’s nicer than getting published?’

‘Nicer!’

‘Nicer than getting sober?’

‘Nicer!’

‘Nicer than… nicer than meeting me?’

‘Nicer! Sorry.’

He accused me of having gone weird, of behaving like ‘a lady’. ‘You take ages to get ready now,’ he said. ‘You used to be as fast as a man.’ And yes, he had a point. I now had so much stuff to put on my face that preparing to go out took a lot longer. Once upon a time, tinted moisturizer was all I used, but now I had eye cream, day cream, skin-evener, makeup primer, concealer (both yellow and green), base, blush and powder glow. ‘You look like a toffee apple,’ he said.

Things came to a head a couple of days later. Almost a week had passed without anything arriving and, as I’d been pestering several PRs, I knew stuff was due but was afraid it had been nicked. It wouldn’t have been the first time; a consignment of Laura Mercier’s finest had disappeared only a short time before.

I was in my bedroom trying to think of another word for ‘eyelash’ when there was a commotion at the front door. Then Himself marched into the room, bearing a blue plastic crate crammed with padded envelopes. Loads of stuff. From lots of different companies! My ship had come in! Joyously I stretched out my arms and said, ‘Gimme.’ But Himself clattered the blue milk-crate yoke on the floor. ‘It wasn’t the normal postman. They had to bring it in a special van. This,’ he yelled, ‘is getting OUT OF HAND.’

He stomped from the room but soon changed his tune when one of the Jiffy bags turned out to be filled with Clinique for Men stuff. Eight different products, which he ferried off to the bathroom to try out immediately. Then he turned to me, apology stamped all over his (exfoliated, hydrated, buffed) face and said, ‘Actually, I’m beginning to understand how you feel.’

Occasionally I got to put on my good clothes and meet other beauty editors at a launch of a new product. But I soon discovered I had no clue how to behave: I was just thrilled to be in a nice hotel, having lunch, safe in the knowledge that I’d be leaving with free skincare. But the other women were like political journalists quizzing Donald Rumsfeld. They sat bolt upright, their pens poised over their pads, barking smile-free, incisive questions. ‘Does this day cream have an SPF?’ ‘If it’s so great, why does it need a serum too?’ And meanest of all: ‘Why should we use day creams when we can just have a botox injection?’

But suddenly, as abruptly as the dream started, it all stopped. News came that the magazine was shutting down; it had been doing well but the owner had decided to move into property speculation. Twenty people were out of a job and I was devastated. I tried to keep it in perspective – I was a spoilt brat and I wasn’t like the poor misfortunates who had lost their full-time job – but all the same. Something to do with the unexpected way it had stopped, totally without warning, made me feel as though I’d had a near-death experience. We know not the minute or the hour. We should live each lipgloss as if it’s our last.

Naturally, I was honour-bound to contact every beauty PR I’d been dealing with and tell them to take me off their mailing list. It killed me to do it and, between ourselves, I was hoping that a combination of my honesty and sympathy for my situation would persuade them all to keep me on anyway. ‘Sure, what difference does one more goody bag make to us?’ I had hoped to hear them say. But no.

For a few days after the terrible news, those magical Jiffy bags continued to arrive, like letters from beyond the grave. They’d been sent before news of the magazine’s demise had got out. And then the trickle dried up completely and, after eight delicious months, it was time to resume my life again.

Previously unpublished.

I Shop, Therefore I Am

If you like to shop there is nowhere in the world like New York. You can get everything in the whole world there. Here are some highlights from a recent trip.

First stop: Saks of Fifth Avenue

We had to run the gauntlet of the cosmetics hall before getting to the lifts at the back.

Himself took a nervous look at the over-fragrant melee – at the marauding gangs of sharp-suited types lying in wait with bottles of Nu, ready to spray us, at the white-coated skin therapists, ready to ambush us with their special offers – and looked terrified.

‘Just put your head down and run,’ I said. ‘And whatever you do, don’t make eye-contact with any of them.’

I launched myself into the fray, Himself on my heels. ‘Stay low, stay low!’ I urged, but the inevitable happened. ‘Christ! I got got,’ he yelped.

‘How bad?’ I asked.

He sniffed himself. ‘Paul Smith for women. Not too bad.’

We kept going, while all around us voices babbled a cacophony of temptations. Hey, gorgeous, wanna try our new spring shades? Over here, over here, spend $75 and get a free lipstick. Never mind them, what about us, our dinky travel kits are just in. But we’re showcasing our new concealer, it’ll change your LIFE

Finally we reached the lifts at the back. ‘Jesus,’ he said, wiping the sweat from his brow. ‘It’s like a Moroccan souk.’

How I got barred from Miu Miu

There are many posh shops in New York and the staff are not pleasant. At least not to me. I was given some advice by a regular: look evil and bored; waft; display no positive emotion; above all, don’t make a fool of yourself.

With Himself, my sister and my friend Anne-Marie in tow, we entered Miu Miu, where the first thing I saw was my favourite pair of boots – I was actually wearing a pair – at half price. Caught up in a fifty-per-cent-off frenzy, I decided to buy a new pair but first I had to check the size of the ones I was wearing. So I straightened my leg and stuck my foot up for Himself to see what it said on my sole. As he held my ankle at face height (he’s tall) I felt myself losing my balance and began that hopping, arm-windmilling thing people do – usually just before someone off stage throws in a bag of ball-bearings. My sister grabbed hold of me, but unfortunately also fell victim to the waves of unbalance, then Anne-Marie tried to reverticalize us, but she too got caught up in the vortex. We hovered between balance and falling for a few tortuous seconds then Himself intervened, but the combined weight of the three of us was too much and, in slow motion, in a tangle of limbs and coats and handbags, all four of us toppled to the floor. Oh my God, I’m lying on the floor in Miu Miu.

Himself refuses to go into Victoria’s Secret

Just point-blank refused. He didn’t even say, ‘Please don’t make me.’ He just stood at the door, looked at the prairies of underwear within, told me no power on earth would make him go in and that was that. I told him he’d look more like a pervert hanging around outside, but nothing doing.

I was keen to see what all the fuss was about; in the ads I’d got the impression that Victoria’s Secret was a class act but when I stood too close to one of the nightdresses and it crackled and stuck to me, I wasn’t so sure. All the same I bought a couple of bras – one pink, one lilac. Later when I told my sister about the visit, she said in disgust, ‘Oh my God. You didn’t buy anything, did you?’ I fessed up the colouredy bras. ‘Well,’ she advised, ‘just don’t stand in front of any naked flames.’

The psychic assistants in Bloomingdales

Anne-Marie told me the assistants in Bloomingdales were psychic and I thought she meant that they were so knowledgeable they were almost psychic. So Himself and myself went into Bloomingdales looking for the Eileen Fisher range and – not expecting any joy – asked an assistant if they stocked it. Without missing a beat he not only confirmed that they carried it, but gave me the exact coordinates (third floor, two-thirds of the way back, bordered by Marc Jacobs to the north, Aqua to the east and DKNY to the south). Considering that Bloomingdales is the size of a small country I thought he was having a little joke at our expense, but went to the third floor anyway. When we got off the escalator, we stood for a nonplussed second, trying to find our bearings. ‘Where…?’ I asked but got no further because a young man, about fifteen feet away from us, called, ‘Go right for twenty-two feet, then at Aqua go left and you’ll find Eileen Fisher on the third island.’ I stared at him nervously. ‘Go on,’ he urged. Uncertainly, with much looking back over our shoulders at him, we followed his instructions and found that the stand was exactly where he’d said it would be, but how had he known what we were looking for? Walkie-talkies was the only thing I could come up with; perhaps the man downstairs had radioed up and told him to expect us? Or maybe Bloomingdales just send their assistants on courses to develop their psychic skills.

Being laughed at by the Clinique girl

I approached the altar of cosmetics – tier after tier of silver-cylindered loveliness – and explained my mission. I wanted brow highlighter. My sister had some, I’d admired it, she’d got it from Clinique. But the glossy-faced girl knew of no such thing and I told her I thought it was called Sugar Sugar. ‘Oh! Sugar Sugar!’ she said. ‘Oh yeah, I remember that.’ Momentarily, she was overcome with silent, shuddery mirth. ‘That’s a trend item.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘It is so, like, OVER.’

The scary woman in Prada

I love Prada. Not so much the clothes, which are for malnourished thirteen-year-olds, but I covet, with covety covetousness, the shoes and handbags. Like, I LOVE them. If I was given a choice between world peace and a Prada handbag, I’d dither. (I am not proud of this. I’m only saying.)

Anyway, in Himself and myself go to the limestone palace on Fifth Avenue and up to the second floor to look at the accessories. I want to fling myself on the floor and sob at their beauty, but Himself reminds me of the Miu Miu debacle and I manage to contain myself.

Then I saw it. The handbag. The handbag. THE handbag.

Reader, I bought it. A Russian woman called Elena was my assistant and I think it must have been the quickest bit of commission she’d ever earned. Then I was kind of getting the hang of things and decided to see about matching sandals. But they didn’t have them in my size. Undaunted, Elena brought them anyway. It was no go, so she brought sandals that nearly matched, then sandals that didn’t match at all. And didn’t fit either. But she could not be faulted for leaving a stone unturned and, reluctantly, she let me go only when it was clear that I really wasn’t going to buy anything else from her.

Downstairs I stopped and idly admired some luggage, and Elena suddenly popped up again, two inches from my nose. Somehow she’d managed to insinuate herself between me and the holdall. ‘You would like to buy?’ I told her no thanks, that we really were leaving, but then we noticed that there was a menswear department in the basement.

Down we went, Himself picked up a shoe and a handsome young man approached and asked if he’d like it in his size. I had just opened my mouth to reply (Himself is too scared to speak in these places) when, out of nowhere, Elena appeared, did a ten-yard skid across the floor of menswear, shoved the good-looking man to the margins with her palm over his face and arrived in front of us wearing a shark’s smile, not a hair out of place. ‘You would like to try?’

Nothing bad ever happens in Tiffany’s

Oh, Holly Golightly, how could you! You try telling that to my credit card. See, what happened was, I had to buy a christening present for my god-daughter. But once I got into the cool gorgeous halls of Tiffany, something happened. I’m at a loss to describe it really, except that there were all these beautiful things. Pendants and bracelets and watches and earrings and little silver handmirrors and cute chunky key rings. Suddenly it made perfect sense to buy presents for everyone I knew for the rest of their lives. I decided to buy my sister a silver wedding-anniversary present. Even though she’s not actually married. Or engaged. Or going out with someone. Then I wanted to buy my son a watch for his twenty-first, and it didn’t seem to be any impediment whatso-ever that I don’t have children.

Eventually I got away with the christening present, a ‘piece’ for my sister for Christmas (it was April) and a birthday present for Himself, five months hence. And then the wrapping began – an intricate and deeply soothing process, like watching delicate, skilled hands produce the finest origami. First they put the item in a little black velvet box, then in a duck-egg-blue suede pouch, then in a matching Tiffany box tied up with a white satin Tiffany ribbon and, finally, in a Tiffany bag. I’ve never seen such beautiful wrapping. I felt so overcome it was a bit like the part in The Great Gatsby when Daisy weeps, ‘I’ve never seen such beautiful shirts.’

Out in the street, it was like waking up from the most pleasant dream. Except that I had all these duck-egg-blue carrier bags and a great dread of receiving my next credit card bill.

First published in Cara magazine, September 2002.

The Great Outdoors

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m not an outdoorsy type. If I was offered the choice between white-water rafting and being savaged by a rabid dog, I’d be likely to tick the box marked ‘dog’. The reasons for this? One, I have terrible hair. Four seconds in the rain makes it all bulk and frizz up so that I look like Sideshow Bob. Two, I am very short (five foot one) and haven’t worn flat shoes since 1992. As a result my calf muscles have got so used to being held up by four-inch heels that they’ve shrunk to the point where if I put my heels on the floor, my toes lift up. Three, I am almost life-threateningly lazy. See? Not outdoorsy, not outdoorsy at all. So how come I’m marching along at the crack of dawn, in (almost) flat boots, a mountain looming on one side of me, an atmospherically spooky lake on the other, with hailstones pinging off my face like gravel and – the weirdest bit of all – I’m not even crying?

A little background is necessary, I think…

Here’s how it is: I love spas. More than life itself. I’ve become so dependent on them that I’ve completely lost the ability to relax by myself. I also love my husband and I like to keep him about my person at all times, rather like a good-luck charm. But my husband – who happens to be a man – doesn’t like spas, he fears and mistrusts them. So how to reconcile the two?

Enter stage left, the Delphi spa and mountain adventure centre. I already knew about the adventure centre: a hellish place featuring macho, Snickers-eating, hair-frizzing, kayaky stuff. A place where young men stood around in luminous raingear and urged each other on to fling themselves off cliff-faces. Right? But I knew less about the spa – until it started winning awards. The Observer included it in its ‘ten of the world’s best spas’. Mariella Frostrup, doyenne of spas, described it in the Mail on Sunday as ‘a world-class spa’. Now, wait a minute – a world-class spa in Ireland? Surely some mistake. We Irish do other things well – the craic, the chat, the charm. But spas? Since when?

Well, since now. Thrilled that we had found the perfect combination – I could stagger from treatment to treatment, he could look death in the face in a variety of ways – Himself and myself set off for Delphi. It’s in the west of Ireland, in Galway. Or possibly Mayo. I never managed to establish which – both are keen to claim dominion because Delphi’s the kind of property which would add kudos to any county’s portfolio. Either way it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. The further west we drove the more soaring the peaks became, the narrower the roads and the wilder the landscape. Silver streams hurtled down the steep-sided mountains to become noisy, fast-flowing roadside brooks. Purple shale and blue-toned limestone broke the surface of the fields and the only living beings we saw for miles were the hillside sheep, coloured luminous orange and pink.

Finally, we arrived. Delphi is in a valley, surrounded almost entirely by mountains which manage to be magnificent, without also being stern and intimidating like a head nun humbling you for not doing your homework. It’s so beautiful, it’s almost shocking.

The first sign that these Delphi people knew what they were doing was in the architecture. Visitors to Ireland, especially those poor Dutch and Germans who love ‘the nature’, get terribly upset about the rash of ‘bungalowitis’ which afflicts much of rural Ireland. Primrose-yellow mini-ranches aren’t exactly simpatico but there was no fear of that here. It was very simpatico – a unique building made from glass, local wood and stone, with funny rounded roof windows so that it looks vaguely like a biggish hobbit dwelling. None of Delphi spa is actually underground, but if it was, with grass growing on the roof for hobbity cattle to graze on, you wouldn’t be at all surprised. It kind of has that magical Bilbo Baggins thing going on.

We stepped out of the car to be greeted by the best smell in the world – turf smoke hanging in damp air – and in we went.

With the interior architecture it’s as if they’ve tried to bring the outdoors indoors. Everywhere there are massive windows to maximize the views of the surrounding landscape; natural wood like beech and bog oak (no nasty orange pine) is used for flooring, doors and walls; the curving oak reception desk is supported by slabs of slate, like a mini-Stonehenge; a double-height chimney breast looks like a dry-stone round tower; everything is curved, undulating, sinuous; a stream on the property flows through the hallway, covered over with thick glass. (You can amuse yourself by jumping up and down on it to see how much weight it can take. Answer: a lot. I did it one night after my sixteen-course dinner – more of which later – and it didn’t even squeak.) But it’s extremely comfortable. There’s no point in having all that natural stuff if it’s not, otherwise I might as well just stay in a tent in the field over the road. The brochure describes Delphi’s style as ‘contemporary-luxury in a wilderness setting’ and that sums it up beautifully.

And so to the treatments! The list contained all the usual suspects – facials, massages, wraps, etc. – with more interesting stuff like reiki, Hopi ear candles and soundwave therapy also available. But I was starting with an aromatherapy massage, or so I thought. Due to a misunderstanding on my part, I’d inadvertently booked myself a wrap and I’m not a wrap-lover. (For those who don’t know, you’re smeared in smelly stuff and wrapped with your arms clamped to your sides in a heated tinfoil blanket and left to sweat it out for forty minutes or so. Some people swear by them. Not me, however.) I expressed my dismay and right away the calibre of the staff became clear. Sympathetically, calmly and quickly, another treatment room was found and my massage was back on track within minutes. In fact, over the few days I was there, it seemed as though all the therapists – a mixture of Australian, British and Irish – have diplomas in advanced kindness. They were warm, intelligent and compassionate, the effect of which is priceless. Technical proficiency counts for nothing if you feel your masseur is sniggering at the state of your thighs.

Which brings me to food! Everyone knows that you get fed well at spas; the days of wringing hollow laughter out of a diet of lemon juice and lettuce leaves are long gone. But nothing had prepared us for such quality. Dinner was a four-course extravaganza featuring organic vegetables from their own garden, locally caught seafood and any number of added extras – amuse-bouches, palate-cleansing sorbets, home-made bread, etc. It was fabulous!

The following morning Himself went off to learn to surf (it was November, can you imagine!) and I put on my white robe and took up position on a lovely padded lounger yoke in the health suite and stared out dreamily at the ever-changing light on the mountains, as I waited to be called for my treatments. It’s all so beautiful that at busy times the area can get a little crowded with towel-based baggsying of loungers that is positively Germanic.

The health suite also has a steam-room, a sauna and a roomy jacuzzi with more stunning views. However, because high expectations are simply resentments under construction, let me make a couple of things clear: there is no pool and no gym. Purists might recoil in horror but, frankly, I was delighted. Whenever I go to a spa I bring my trainers (after first blowing off the cobwebs) and even as I’m packing them, I know they won’t see the inside of the gym. Nevertheless I’m always bothered by a vague, naggy guilt for the duration of my stay, so a gym-free spa was a giddy relief. The general manager explained that the Delphi ethos is to persuade people to try something different from their usual regime. Instead of forty-five minutes on an incline on the treadmill, they might try a two-hour hill walk – on a real hill.

I nodded in agreement as all this was explained to me, but I was thinking: They’ll never get me out there, think of the hair. Instead there was a great choice of indoor activities – meditation, t’ai chi, Pilates, relaxation and yoga (hey, it’s just like Parrot Cay!) – and I decided to do Pilates. Lying on the floor, in a beautiful peaceful room, doing tiny quarter-inch movements, seemed easy-peasy. Until the next morning when I found it so hard to get out of bed I thought I’d had a stroke in the night which had paralysed me. I wasn’t making that mistake again so next day I went for the relaxation class because I thought it would be the usual lying on the floor imagining myself bathed in beautiful gold light. Instead we were taught new breathing techniques – prana something or other – which involved snorting like a horse over and over. The three of us in the class were high-pitched and giggly with mortification and as I left I decided I would never do a relaxation class again: it was way too stressful.

Meanwhile Himself was having the time of his life, having Snickers-eating, near-death experiences twice a day. His brushes with mortality included abseiling, rock-climbing and surfing, although he could also have tried high ropes, kayaking, water-skiing and all kinds of other terrible, terrible stuff.

The funny thing was that although I’d fully intended not getting dressed from the moment I arrived to the moment I left, the place worked its magic. It was just too beautiful not to get out and about. Local highlights include Killary, Ireland’s only fjord, but instead I went to Doolough, a nearby lake overlooked by jagged peaks with an icing-sugar coating of snow along the top. It was like experiencing the Himalayas, without any pesky inoculations or jet lag, and so breathtakingly wonderful that I didn’t even mind the consequent hair shame which, let’s make no bones about it, was extreme.

First published in Cara, February 2004.

Fabulous, Darling

Marian visits The Shows for Marie Claire

11.15 a.m. Horticultural Hall, Victoria: Paul Smith

Amere half-hour late and we’re off! Foghorns blare, lighthouse bells ring, the walls look like a starry night at sea – very atmospheric and exciting. Almost as exciting as my front-row seat – friends had made a special visit to my flat to admire my Row A ticket. Also to help with my wardrobe angst. Dreading gimlet-eyed fashion scorn, the look I finally decided on is ‘Inconspicuous but with a Marc Jacobs bag’. It seems to be working. Well, at least I haven’t noticed anyone mocking openly.

‘Paul’s collection (those in the know never say designers’ surnames, I’m told, and I’m keen to fit in) is Nautical but Nice and there are sailor stripes, anchor motifs and double-breasted Captain Birdseye jackets. Beautiful clothes – but the models are doing the most ridiculous walks: lifting their knees high like dressage ponies or horses who are made to dance in circuses.

The catwalk is so low and close that I could reach out and touch them – in fact, reach out and trip them up, and suddenly I’m terrified that, with one flick of my leg, I might just do that. (The same kind of irresistible impulse I sometimes get on high buildings to fling myself off.) Luckily I’m distracted by a girl clopping lopsidedly down the catwalk in one red stocking and one shoe – a style statement? It’s then I notice the single shoe at my feet, smiling up sheepishly at me. Clearly, it’s fallen off, but professional that she is, the model has carried on. A dilemma ensues – should I replace the shoe on the catwalk for her to reclaim on her return or am I running the risk of causing a dressage-pony-style pile-up? Leave well alone, I decide. And then, surprisingly quickly – only fifteen minutes – it’s over and I go for lunch with Marie and Liz, Marie Claire’s editor and fashion editor respectively.

1.45 p.m. British Fashion Council tent on the King’s Road: Betty Jackson

We actually have to run – ‘Betty’ (see, no surname, I’m a natural at this fashion stuff) has the temerity to start just under half an hour late and by the time we get in, our seats have been given away and some poor Marie Claire underling is ousted to make room for me. Mind you, I can hardly be bothered – I associate ‘Betty’ with beige cowl-neck jumpers, boring as anything. But I’m in for a shock: once the girls start down the catwalk (still doing the same silly knee-lifts, like baby giraffes learning to walk; obviously not just a Paul Smith thing) I’m transfixed. I love these clothes. Like, love them. Grown-up boho in bright spring greens, faded grape and aubergine. Funky tweed suits appliquéd with flowers, soft jersey dresses and a fabulous green-leather coat that I almost leap from my seat and wrestle from the model’s back. Excuse me, what’s going on? But, ah! Here it is! Mr beige cowl-neck jumper, we’ve been expecting you. Oh and here’s another. And one more – admittedly brown, this time, but what is brown, if not beige, only worse?

3.25 p.m. Park Lane Hotel: Temperley

A dash across town only to find they’re ‘running late’, so we go for a cup of tea. Or at least we try. We hover at the entrance to the gilt-ridden tearoom, entirely ignored, while other fashion people bank up behind us. Finally we’re led to a table, but when the waiter approaches a table of Vogue staff before us, Liz yells, ‘We were here first.’ Alas, he pays us no heed. (God, fashion is so bitchy.)

Then to the crammed art deco ballroom where I’ve never seen such a concentration of fabulous handbags. On our seats, our first goody bag of the day – Diptych shower gel – has ‘disappeared’. A spare is found which Marie graciously offers to me. I accept. I have no shame.

The music starts, it’s all very French – accordions and chanteuses – but right behind me is a man with a MASSIVE bunch of flowers and for the entire show all I can hear is the rustling of cellophane.

And down the black marble catwalk they come, pretty party frock after pretty party frock after pretty party frock. Lots of black and pink satin, with circles of jet beading, creating a doily effect. Soft wrap-over tops and flared ballerina skirts in belle époque prints, then comes a fresh wave of doily-covered party frocks and I realize I’m a teeny bit bored. Jaded already? (I really am a natural.)

Alice Temperley emerges to take her bow and for my rustling friend with the flowers, this is his moment. He surges towards the stage, but Alice skips away like a startled faun and the rustler falls back, looking foolish.

By now I’m unsettled, confused even. I’d always thought Fashion was a big joke played on ordinary people, that when Anna Wintour leads a standing ovation of a show featuring girls wearing only snorkels and gold lamé knickers, that it’s a big ‘let’s make fun of the non-fashion peasants’ conspiracy. But so far, everything I’ve seen has been disappointingly wearable.

4.35 p.m. British Fashion Council tent on the King’s Road: Gharani Strok

Now this is much more like it. The atmosphere is very buzzy, dry ice swirling, people wandering around drinking mini-Moët bottles through straws and extreme seating disarray. And I’ve hit goody bag paydirt! A Phillo corsage, a Filofax, a Pucci-style make-up bag filled with I Coloniali products and – prize of prizes – two Krispy Kreme doughnuts, apparently one of the most addictive substances on the planet. At a promotion in Ohio, when they wouldn’t give a teenage boy any more free doughnuts (he’d already had about sixteen), he attacked the staff.

The lights dim, Shaft-style seventies music starts and the first girl clopping down the catwalk is in a sliver of glitter and a pink hooker’s fur coat, followed by a girl in a bikini, a black fur coat and high knee boots. Mucho sparkly disco-wear and very Studio 54 – everything is slashed to the waist, front and back, and we see our first nipple of the day. Then our second. Then our third. It’s a veritable knocker-fest with dresses ‘accidentally’ sliding off shoulders and down to the waist and coats being worn with nothing underneath except knickers. Almost everything is totally unwearable – exactly what I’d been expecting.

Afterwards, everyone is terribly sniffy about it. Someone says the clothes looked as though they’d been run up by students in some back room. All show and no substance, says someone else. Well, I thought, hugging my goody bag closer, I liked it.

6 p.m. The Mermaid Theatre, Blackfriars: Boudicca

En route, I eat a Krispy Kreme and although extremely pleasing – delicious, in fact – it doesn’t plunge me into a week-long doughnut binge. Maybe after the Ohio incident they removed the addictive component?

We’re now running an hour late, but never mind: I have high hopes for Boudicca. Alexander McQueen described them as ‘brave’. ‘Brave’ usually being a euphemism for ‘mental’.

When they finally let us in the smell hits me: damp earth. The stage is covered in scrubby, muddy grass and weeds (all real); it smells like a sports day. Some of the seats are in the ‘field’ and as I watch fashion ladies get mired by their spiky heels in the mud, I fear for the models.

And here we go! The first girl out looks as if she works with nuclear waste – wearing a baggy, black boiler-suit with a hood that covers her entire face, but in lovely floaty fabric: what Darth Vader might wear for a romantic dinner. Then comes a similar rig-out in white plastic with a beekeeper’s veil, followed by a hooded sou’wester and matching over-trousers – that a mackerel fisherman would wear in a Force 8 Gale – but in a purple, metallic see-through fabric. Next, a gorgeous white fur coat except that someone has taken green gaffer tape and wound it round and round the girl’s shoulders and upper body. Post-Apocalypse headbands, French Foreign Legion hats, Lawrence of Arabia veils, lots of glaring faces – when you can see them – and Swampy hair: very warrior girl. Clothes that will have people stuttering in disgust, ‘And I’m meant to wear that to Sainsbury’s, am I?’ But it’s affecting and exciting and if it’s toned down a little (a lot?) you wouldn’t be laughed at in the street.

7.25 p.m. British Fashion Council tent on the King’s Road: Clements Ribeiro

Finally get to the bottom of the models’ silly walk – it’s so their legs will look thin for the photographers. Well, that makes sense because they look like tree-trunks ordinarily. Er…

As soon as they start picking their ridiculous way down the catwalk, I’m in an agony of longing. A model with plaits swirled around her ears like two Danish pastries passes in a circus-print fifties-style shirt-waister. Then a model with hair like a brioche, wearing a tweed suit trimmed with spangles. And a model with hair like a batch loaf in a petrol-blue coat, patterned with lilac triangles. There are little felt pixie hats, net face-coverers dotted with what looks like Smarties and excellent two-toned shoes with bold, big-top stripes. (The theme is a circus one.) It’s fun, cheery and knuckle-gnawingly beautiful. All too soon, it’s over and everyone is off to parties – there’s one at Hugo Boss, another at Fendi – but I’m exhausted from all that yearning, I have to go home and lie down.

First published in Marie Claire, September 2004.