IN a charity shop the other day I noticed a woman making a close inspection of the rail of long dresses. Most of them were swiftly passed over as she pushed the hangers along in a decisive way, but then she paused as one caught her eye. She unhooked the hanger from the rail to give the dress a closer inspection.
This gave me my chance, too, to glance across and notice it was a strappy, low-cut, peach chiffon number, quite pretty if you like that sort of insubstantial thing. I can only ever think of goose bumps when I see anything so diaphanous, but this woman obviously felt it could be just right.
I left her to it and concentrated on my quarry. When I reached the counter to pay for my let’s-be-realistic-about-our-climate-and-cover-everything-up denim shirt by Gap, a snip at £5.99, the chiffon-dress woman was in front of me, in conversation with the assistant.
“It’ll only be out of the shop for an hour,” she was saying. “It’s just so my daughter can try it on. It’s for her prom night. I’ll be back in before you close.”
Ah, prom night. The annual tyranny when Getting the Right Look achieves greater importance at schools up and down the land than Getting the Right Grade.
Whenever I see, hear or read anything about this now-annual parental torment I thank whoever is responsible for having made me so old that my daughter had left school before prom nights became a fixture.
And yet I did endure a sort of torment, albeit one that didn’t require me to help dream up a brilliantly original mode of transport to get my little darling to her date with destiny.
It was her end-of-school ball. Nothing as prosaic as a prom – this was a ball, no less.
Yes, of course you shall go to the ball, Cinders. Never mind that it is unlikely to be any different from what we called a dance in the dark ages, and never mind at all that you have nothing to wear. We can have enormous fun together as we seek something that meets the approval of you and your fashion-conscious, judgmental friends, not to mention your impossibly dowdy mother and father, when we only have enough money in the bank to pay for tonight’s supper.
Cinders and I drag into the nearest large town and ‘do’ the shops, enduring hot changing rooms and heartless mirrors. Of course my daughter looks lovely in everything she tries on – it happens like that when you’re 18, slim, with long, blonde, wavy, hair – and of course she thinks she is simply hideous and absolutely nothing is ‘right’. “Can’t you see that, Mum? It’s rubbish and I look awful.”
No, actually, I can’t, but whatever I say has no effect or, more often, the wrong effect.
We spend the day engaged in this soul-destroying activity, and by the end we have stopped speaking to each other. It happens like that when one of you is, as we know, 18, slim, with long, blonde, wavy, hair and the other is, as we also know, not any of those things, feels at least 100 and would happily settle for being Coco the Clown if it meant getting out of this hellhole of a shopping centre.
We do, at 5.29pm, with happy-at-last Cinders clutching a bag containing a plum-coloured piece of velvet that she insists is a skirt. “That cannot be a skirt,” I say, in my weary-mother voice. “That’s a pelmet. And anyway, who wears a pelmet, sorry, I mean a skirt, that short to a ball?” I splutter those last few words, which puts an end to all communication, even the raising of contemptuous eyebrows, for at least six days.
The following Saturday we devote the day to finding a top to go with the skirt, and the Saturday after that it’s the shoes.
Over the ensuing year we manage to repair our mother-daughter relationship and the velvet pelmet makes a number of further appearances that have nothing to do with me, I’m happy to say, being well out of my sight at university. I believe it graduated with a low-grade degree in Politics, Philosophy and Extreme Shortness.
Now Cinders and I look back on that testing experience as a learning curve that took us both way off the scale – and back again.
Nobody warns you about the agonies of shopping with your teenage daughter. They just bang on about the other rites of passage: the tightrope-walk you take to achieve the potty-training miracle, the letting-go of the hand on the first day at school and the shoulder you provide through the heart-sinking ups and downs of friendships.
It isn’t easy being a mother, but I take solace from knowing it must be hell on earth being a girl preparing for a prom night, or a ball, in the company of a desperate woman who feels at least 100 and has aspirations to be Coco the Clown.