So she was larger than she wanted to be, and winter hadn't been that kind to her skin. There were bigger things to worry about, as usual, and after a few years of juggling emotions and finances and generally holding the family together, Frannie knew that this 'stage' may last as long as a decade. Through wastage her wardrobe had streamlined itself to one good pair of flat shoes, a couple of pairs of jeans and half a dozen t-shirts.
She was proud of her burgeoning bust even though it came at the cost of an equally buxom waistline and made her old collection of blouses completely obsolete. Her favourites still hung like a secret treasure trove at the far end of her wardrobe, but the only ones that would do up at the front did so by bunching up under the arms.
Anyway, they would have looked daft under the utilitarian parker jacket she had claimed from her husband's wardrobe after finding that her own coats had suffered the same fate. He didn't need it - his work had changed focus at the same time as hers had dried up and the huge, snuggly beige mostrosity was no compliment to his work suits.
Dowdy, that was our Fran, though for a while she wore even this with an air of pride, reasoning that Princess Anne had been seen in worse on her off duty days; that looking tatty (dressed to cross fields) meant you were either working class or upper crust, and that bearing and attitude were all that gave the game away. After a year or so, however, she settled into this new image of reduced circumstances, forgot (or couldn't be bothered) to put on her best smile or straighten her back before leaving the door. Catching her refelction in a shop window one day, she realised how well she fitted the mold of Council house grandmother, looking drawn, harassed, bedraggled and sort of saggy. After that she stopped looking in windows.
Sure the designer brigade turned their backs, but that was a blessing; she never had and never would have anything in common with the couffed and painted women who parked their 4x4s at funny angles outside the school gates; the 'PTA perfumery' who made every effort to saunter yet who clung to each other like glue just in case the facade wore thin. In fact, as she now had the chance to stand alone and watch, Fran began to feel particularly benign towards them, even though she knew they wouldn't thank her for such reasoning.
'What must it be like', she mused, 'to have nowhere to go but back home, or to a friend's house for coffee, yet be so driven to have perfect hair and makeup before 9 am, as if the world would come to an end or the ground swallow them up, if they failed.' Alright, this was probably more to do with how the rest of the pack would shred them, just as they verbally dissected others (I mean, what else did thay have to talk about?); more to do with horror at what their own kind would do than any personal faith. It was a strange dichotomy, to Frannie, how these women could be so sensitive and human yet at the same time so snappy and derogatory and cruel. Little things for little minds, she concluded.
Frannie's mind, at least, was in constant demand, although none of the requirements put before it were ever of her own choosing. They just seemed to turn up, like forest fires, although she generally attacked them with energy and determination. Thats probably why it took her such a time to realise how long and how severely she had neglected everything else, from herself to her house to her children. Everything but the dramas that came her way so regularly just went on to the back burner and the whole of her life fell to a grey blanket of 'bother it' and 'it'll do'.
Her soul became accustomed to living hand-to-mouth, to waiting in the wings, to standing at the back of the queue. She didn't believe in reading travel brochures if you couldn't afford to go, so neither did she believe in having dreams until there was soil to plant them in. Desire is a hurtful master when theres no practical way of fulfilling it, so she made the best of what she had, and was reasonably content, she thought.
One day, however, Frannie woke up to the startlingly analytical revelation that she was depressed. One wet Wednesday something little made her smile, and that was all it took.
It was a handbag. She bought it on the spur of the moment 'because it was so beautiful'. It was a second, also a shop soiled item, marked down twice or three times because of the time it had spent in a basket of seconds outside the store. As a brand new item, it certainly needed a wipe, in fact it called to her as if it needed rescuing. She bought it and walked away with conflicting sensations; one that she had been a daredevil and possessed something rare and beautiful, the other that it had been an impetuous buy and a total waste of money as something too joyful and perky to look anything other than completely silly, next to her man's jacket and tatty jeans.
Light pistachio green with white flecks and a tan trim, it sang of dainty little sling backs, of floaty skirts and summer cardigans and cafe lunches. She tried to reduce her adoration by reasoning that pistachio had been 'in' several years ago; that it probably looked tacky and outdated to those with any fashion sense at all. That it was only so cheap becaise nobody else in the world had wanted it.
It didn't work, and worse, as the little bag sat beside her day after day, stuffed with purse and tissues and keys and all the things that made up her life, it became more than hers, it began to represent her.
That's when she realised that she no more fitted into her dull grey life than the bag did. Frannie and the handbag were both sore thumbs, both square pegs in a round hole, both starving for want of pretty things and pretty places.
What to salvage first? There's no cure for ageing. If she sorted the waistline then how to clothe a smaller frame? The skin and the hair however, there was no masking them without a lot of money. In any case these were superficial things; she was embedded in her daily life like a pebble in concrete.
Long story short? Well, it's a bit late for that, but here's my best shot.
Her children were just children; the younger ones were as settled with the status quo as she had once been, couldn't see the wood for the trees, and nor should they, she reasoned, they were just kids. The older ones were forging their own way, vociferously denegrating her and her choices, they were going to be bigger, do things better; another normal and proper state of affairs. Her husband? Well he did notice. He even mentioned to the older children and one or tow of their friends that he was worried; shame he never mentioned it to Frannie. In the end, he reasoned that it was 'just the menopause' - in other words simply a confusing, depressing few months that would all go away again once her hormones returned 'to normal'. In short then, as far as she could tell, the real Frannie didn't actually exist, for any of them.
In the end, however, her husband was right in one way, the depressing months went away alright, because so did Frannie.
So did the bag.