We meet once a month in a local café, a bunch of women brought together originally by our weekly exercise group. It’s a kind of informal club – middle-class perhaps, and suffering from middle-aged-spread (me at least); we blend in well with the other female folks who make up the day-time cafe society in our senior-heavy town. Ladies who lunch? I never had that luxury when I was working, so I relish the time now to sit and chat in convivial surroundings, spinning out a skinny latte and trying to resist the biscuit which is burning a hole in the saucer. It’s all a guilty pleasure, and most pleasing of all is the feeling of bonhomie and shared friendship.
Middle-aged maybe but not middle-of-the-road, I hope. We aren’t celebrities, haven’t climbed Everest, or discovered the cure for cancer. We haven’t all been married or brought up children; some of us have travelled extensively, others haven’t. But we are all independent spirits with strong opinions and interesting stories to tell. We talk and joke about anything and everything, and we listen. We learn new things, and often we reminisce about old times, but never really with rose-tinted specs. Nostalgia perhaps but tinged with amusement and sometimes relief. Sometimes we discuss the future, and what is happening now to our surviving parents. We commiserate with each other about the care problems which we, as women, take on because we always have, and because we’re good at it. On a recent gathering someone had been to a funeral, and we lamented the fact that such occasions become more common as we get older. We talked openly about recyclable coffins, cardboard and wicker versus mahogany, and what kind of send off we would like. Light-heartedly perhaps, but it’s a reflection of what faces us all, and of the camaraderie which lets us discuss such a taboo subject.
We enjoy tales of childhood, some in the Welsh valleys, the matriarchal Grandmothers and extended families, what we ate, what we wore. Home remedies – the goose-grease plastered onto our chests to ward off respiratory troubles, and on one occasion someone mentioned liberty bodices. Some of us have clear memories of these itchy under-garments, a kind of corset masquerading as a woolly vest, issued to small girls as armour against the twin perils of winter, cold and disease. ‘Catching cold’ was an ever-present fear for an older generation which had very real intimacy with tuberculosis and pneumonia. ‘Liberty’ was a misnomer for something almost as restrictive as a full French basque. Even the rubber buttons down the front were a nightmare for little fingers to deal with. The fact that we had no voluptuous flesh to be restrained was immaterial. The ‘foundation’ was laid by our mothers and grandmothers who lived and breathed (with difficulty) in body girdles and corsets, including the all-in-one flesh-coloured ‘Spencer’ my Gran preferred. Necessarily their small daughters and granddaughters should be similarly restricted, in preparation for a future of uplifted bosoms, and tight-waisted skirts, and there was the perpetual threat of ‘round shoulders’ which I realise now was to do with spinal deformity and also simply getting old. In our café group we all have round shoulders – it comes with the age package. Obviously no-one foresaw the stretch fabrics and loose-fit tops and trousers which these days make life so comfortable for women, at least those of us who no longer feel obliged to wear cast-iron corsetry, despite their spreading flesh.
Eventually we all drain the last drop from our cups and look at our watches. Time to get back – to chores, shopping, phone calls, visits to elderly relatives, all the necessities. It’s been a brilliant couple of hours setting the world to rights. We don’t need golf clubs, alcohol or Sky Sports, just a few cups of coffee or tea, and those tasty little shortbread biscuits placed on the saucer. This age-won freedom reminds me of the day I was old enough to shed my liberty bodice and wear a simple cotton vest under my school dress, without my Gran knowing of course.