Tuesday, 29 July 2014


It was around early evening when the lipstick arrived. Crates and crates of the stuff, red as fresh blood, piled in numerous boxes around the camp, scattered like jigsaw pieces on concrete. Nothing could contrast more with this place than those packed boxes, in their brightness and vitality. The walls were grey, peeling like wrinkled skin; six foot high and topped with layer upon layer of jagged barbed wire knife-blade sharp, they encircled the camp with the brute force of a thousand bodyguards. Each building was regulation grey, exactly the same as the one before it, lined up in rigid rows like soldiers on parade. All that the eye could see for miles around was grey. Grey clothes. The grey sheen of guns. Grey people. It was as if a flock of jovial red birds had unexpectedly descended upon a sea of filthy pigeons, miserable in their squalor. 

“From the British Red Cross,” the creatures read. You couldn’t really describe them as people anymore. All of the life and hope had been extracted from them, pulled away, weaned from them like sunshine being filtered away by a wall of clouds. They flitted from grey building to grey building, eyes glassy and lifeless, as if ghosts already; no substance. All identity had been stripped from them when they arrived - their names forgotten, all possessions pillaged, a number scorched into their skin like a welt. What had once been many people was now one entity, all the terrified eyes becoming one, all the shrunken skulls identical. Nobody understood or even cared what the crates were for. Weren’t crates of food, or clothes, or anything else, more important? It was too late for petty gifts, or trivial little presents. What was the use of red lips on a dying face? 

Among the crowd was a woman, maybe thirty years old. She had had a name, once, before her identity was stolen and replaced by a string of numbers. Yasmin. It meant flower. How ironic, she often thought to herself, that she now looked like a wilting one, the colour from her cheeks long faded, her eyes soulless and dead. These days she walked with no intention of actually getting anywhere, feeling like she had to force through a sea of skeletons wherever she went. There was no one at the camp that she could talk to, no one she could even consider being her friend. People pushed by her, shoved her, all manners flung to the side. She looked and felt invisible, as if melting away into nothingness, slowly but surely. 

She remembered the Great War, and all of its awful retributions. Remembered people jeering and shouting in the street. Calling her hideous names that stuck to her like glue. She remembered the train, the one that had taken her away, the one that was so full of people, so crammed with mothers and fathers and grandparents and children that some didn’t make the journey. The first time she had ever seen death, right in front of her eyes. Now, though, it was commonplace. It happened all the time, everywhere she went; there was no escape from the rivers of death, the fallen angels. She couldn’t dwell on the body of a child, tears of hate and remorse filling her eyes, because before long there would be another. And another. These days she would walk by the corpses unaffected, void of emotion, not because she didn’t care but because she couldn’t. 

She remembered the day she had arrived. Guns, so many guns; nobody who arrived was armed yet they were herded like miserable sheep by the soldiers, pushed and shoved around like livestock. All her jewelry was ransacked, her necklace torn from her neck, her earrings forced from her ears. She fingered the puckered scars on her earlobes. They had ripped her hair from her, too, the hair that everybody said was beautiful. Long, wavy and black as a raven’s feather, people used to say, and they stole it. The wild animals in uniform. It didn’t matter though. Nothing mattered anymore. Hair grew, didn’t it? She didn’t need to look beautiful because there was nobody here that would care if she did. She had joined the hundreds of women and girls, mothers and daughters, all with their hair sheared carelessly to almost nothing, with what was left sticking up in melancholy tufts. The pile of hair lay on the floor like a ragged sleeping beast. Everyone had come in looking different, but now they were all identical. She didn’t want to look at the mothers with their daughters, to see them holding each other close, because her own child had been separated from her when she arrived. Her little boy, her baby. She never saw him again. 

That night, some people took the lipstick anyway. Women who still remembered what hope was. The ones who still had bigger ideas, bigger dreams. Walking silently from building to building, the desolation was still painted across people’s faces as clearly as day, but now these women had scarlet lips. They still had to wear the regulation clothes, bleak and scratchy on the skin, but the lipstick made them look almost human again. A red stain from home. A flash of colour in all the drab grey. People were no longer simply numbers. For a second, they were back to being individuals again. Dotted across the hideous landscape were pairs of bright red lips. A protest against death.

She took the lipstick in her hand, the brightness and beauty of it almost unreal. She half expected it to be pulled off of her; after all, everything else she held close long since had been taken from her. There was no mirror but it didn’t matter, because she knew she didn’t look beautiful anymore. It would just be painful to see the sharp edges piercing through the way she looked now, distorting her features sickeningly like some sort of trick. The lipstick felt soft, a rare gentleness, as she stroked it along her lips. She let herself delve into deep, sleepy memories of sitting by her mother in her bedroom as a child, knees crossed like a little lady on the eiderdown, watching her mother put on lipstick. How she had wanted to try the magical Woman War Paint that she’d seen so many times before on movie stars, so effortlessly beautiful. She remembered her mother’s smiling eyes and the scent of lavender water, sickly-sweet. 

As she rubbed the lipstick in, she felt the dingy little room transform into a ballroom, saw her pale cold feet fitted with the finest of dancing shoes. Her scratchy, ugly uniform of death lengthened and softened into silk like a waterfall, and the slicing cold of the room turned to the stuffy, noisy warmth of a party. She’d only ever been to one such dance, but in its memory she held, like a gold locket, the warm euphoric feeling of falling in love. It was through bittersweet tears that she hummed - as slowly as she could - the music for a waltz, her first waltz, and held her arms out tentatively in the air for a partner whom she’d never see again. Although it looked as though she were mad, she never once felt alone. Through the blur of tears she could almost see his face, and his eyes were as bright as she always remembered. The lipstick took her back to life, to normality, to happiness and - most importantly - the man and the boy she adored. 

Almost seventy years on, a girl with hair as black as a raven’s feather is getting ready to go out. She blinks into the mirror, hair swinging, realising something is missing. Something very important... To give her hope. With a single swipe she is done: bright red lipstick. 

By Anna Rickard.

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