When I think about it, this project started in New York. I went there last December and realised, to my dismay that by being there I was exceptionally incongruous, in the global hub of sophistication, looking and feeling like an overgrown child. To cut long story short, I had lost three stone in under a year and my baggy clothes made me look like a little boy and there’s nothing wrong with that, except that it wasn’t what I wanted for myself or what I felt suited me. I thought of myself going to a job interview a month or so beforehand, desperately hoping that no one would notice that the skirt I had on was actually denim (maybe the did because I sure as hell did not get that job). I felt like I was at an odd junction; increasingly supposed to be acting, performing, interacting as an adult while still, out of little more than habit, clothing, equipping and presenting myself like a child, or at best an Awkward Young Person™.
Coming home from New York and seeing Cate Blanchett going round the same places I had been looking like heaven incarnate in Carol (2015) the week I came home did not help at all. I decided there and then that I was going to forcibly grow myself up and I was going to do it in the way I was most obviously falling behind, through my choice of material things. I bought enough crap anyway, I could at least try to buy classy crap in future. I was going to, for once in my life, dress myself and equip myself like a grown-ass woman. I would dress, therefore I would be. Almost immediately I left the Tyneside Cinema, I trotted across Monument and bought a black leather tote bag and an exceptionally snug black turtleneck dress. (Ever since I was a tiny kid I’ve wanted to be Marlene Dietrich, have always conflated her with Sophistication™, and this was vaguely the vibe I was going for). Though I had not yet mentally christened it as such, the material era of The Fully-Grown Woman had begun.
The end of August and the first week of September in Oxford this year were weirdly chilly. I would wake up and go in for the early shift of my job as a language and admin assistant and there would be a grey mist filling up Tom Quad at Christ Church, which for four weeks was my commute, and it would be almost like winter. So on the first day of September, I caved in to the cold snap and my own impetuosity and I bought myself a new coat.
It was long, soft, navy blue and made of wool. It made me look taller, slimmer and much better turned out than I actually am. It cost as much as I could possibly legitimise spending on a single item at the time. In short, it was the very epitome of a Fully-Grown Woman object. I was extortionately pleased with myself.
The day I bought it, I took up an offer to go to the Ashmolean that I’d received the previous day. I usually go to the Ash myself (like most places tbf), it’s very rare that I’ll go with anyone. This time, though, I was asked to go with some people. I should say that during my job, for a variety of reasons, I did something slightly unusual: I made a friend who is, almost to the day, three times my age. Earlier that week I’d done overtime and stayed in the office without a break to help her edit, and then the next day proof-read, her course materials for the academic literacy course she teaches. I woke up the next morning with an email from her, thanking me, calling me brilliant, and asking me if I wanted to go to the Ash with her and her class on their day-out trip. I said yes immediately, I really wanted to, and I turned up after coffee break wearing my new coat (with the tags still on because I was debating whether or not to take it back and get the next size up. In the end I stuck with the 8).
At the museum, while the class were researching for their presentations, we drifted through the glass walkways, happy to intersect decades and artistic movements fairly carelessly.
On our way, we saw the blue early Victorian pottery, exhibited with the generous help of Christie’s auction house.
“I had my first job there,” she told me, casually, as if it was nothing, “When I was a child of-…” she thought for a moment, working out how old, “Twenty-two.”
She looked at me as she said it, smiling only a little bit at first. And then she laughed at the look on my face, rested her hand briefly on my sleeve and asked me not to be cross with her.
She was laughing at the look on my face for a particular reason. The previous two days we had sat in the staffroom at Christ Church while I read through the glossary she’d written (28 pages of A4, it was comprehensive), which she was actually still writing even as I was editing. The vibe was distinctly essay crisis. And like all good essay crises, we took half an hour out in the middle of each day and procrastinated like hell, just by talking to each other.
I was telling her about something obnoxious one of my friends had done.
“How old is she?” she asked.
“Same as me, she’s twenty-one.”
I was about to go on and say something else, but I stopped because of the look on her face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“You’re twenty-one…” she repeated quietly, “You’re twenty-one.”
“Yes,” I confirmed a moment later.
“That’s ridiculous,” she explained, “The way you talk you could have been any age. You could have been a hundred.”
At that moment, I thought of two things. 1) Shelagh Delaney: “Women never have young minds. They are born three thousand years old.” 2) It had never occurred to me in the slightest that I might have seemed older than I was rather then helplessly younger.
At this moment I was faced with the possibility that my scheme to physically fashion myself into an adult was misconceived but also unnecessary. Here I had been trying to fashion and , crudely, buy my way to maturity. The way she told it (and I trusted, still trust her judgement) age, or more accurately projections of age, were an entirely linguistic construct.
I’d read Roland Barthes’ Mythologies recently (I read it for one of the classes I helped with), and I knew that objects can be imposed upon, collectively given connotations and associations, and then used to signify a sense of identity. I was not entirely mistaken in thinking I could forge and re-forge an identity through materiality. But also, I bloody love language, it galled me a little bit that I’d been so deaf to my own linguistic impact.
As ever, in times of doubt (particularly those concerning linguistic constructs) I consulted The Language, Society and Power Reader (a lifesaver in first year). It delivered the judgement that “age is a socially constructed identity category”. Yes, that much was obvious anyway; both objects and words are complicit in social constructs. I was interested in, and what still interests me, is whether or not we employ words or objects foremost in that construction, which one tips the balance and really convinces people, including yourself, that you are.
In (unnecessary) repayment for my academic help, my friend insisted on giving me a lift when my dreamy Christ Church job ended and I was forced to seek real-life employment and accommodation. She has a car and, she insisted (rightly) it would save me a lot more bother than it would cause her to drive me up to my new place in North Oxford.
My family doesn’t have a car and getting a lift, particularly at a logistically opportune moment, always feels like a moment from a parallel life. I got in the car and with all my stuff in something of a daze.
“So,” she said to me, after dispensing some (not altogether unwarranted) advice about the perils of gin, “You’re becoming a bit more grown up today.”
She stayed for a little while and helped me unpack some of my things. Opening my flatpack folder, she pulled out my antique french-language map of Paris.
I should say that I’d met my friend before. We knew each other from previous vacation courses. At Easter this year we talked about how Brexit, if it happened, would crap all over both our hearts. (Well, that happened). In the summer we both enforced our European-ness linguistically, we both did it shamelessly and we used each other to do so. She can produce French and interpret German, which is the exact reverse of me; so we would have whole conversations, generally in public, to the bewilderment of people watching, where I would talk in German and she would reply in French.
“I used to have this map too,” she told me, “I used to love it.”
I sit in my room now and look at the map that’s pinned up on my noticeboard, and think about Ros helping move in, which she didn’t have to do, and think about the weird imbalanced, alternating nexus of speech, place and thing by which we style and define ourselves, and which compose the illusive Fully-Grown Woman.