~ WRITTEN FOR ‘PAGES FOR WISDOM’ INITIATIVE ~
At seventy-five, Jean was living for the first time in her life. The universe recently handed her a clean slate. She no longer existed as the full-time mother, or the doting wife, or the cancer victim. She was just Jean. To celebrate the ‘emancipation of Jeanie’, as she liked to call it, she set sail around the Mediterranean, with her three closest companions. They were to spend two weeks soaking up the sun aboard a private yacht, kindly funded by her best friend, Valerie.
Jean smiled from her deckchair, savouring the last sip of her (third) margarita as she watched a seagull drift across the cloudless sky, wings bobbing against the sea breeze like a marionette.
“How are the ‘twins’ doing, Jeanie?” Valerie asked, draping herself over the deckchair beside her dearest friend.
“Put it this way: I won’t need a life ring if I fall overboard, not with these bad buoys!” Jean chortled, cupping her new breasts through her bright red swimsuit.
Valerie and Jean met at a support group for widows, five years earlier. At the time, Valerie, recently seventy and new in town, detested the idea of joining some tacky bingo night to make friends. Jean only recently discovered Valerie never married. Always open to the idea, she just never found a man who could keep up with her.
“Come now, ladies, do we have to be so vulgar about Jean’s…assets?” Betty, sitting on the other side of Jean, lowered her sunglasses and cast a disapproving frown at the giggling women. She did not condone lewd behaviour. Today, however, she couldn’t restrain a rogue grin from careering up her cheeks. It was too much of a blessing to witness Jean, her good friend since schooldays, laugh and joke after so long (even if not to her taste).
“Aunt Betty, don’t think we can’t see your cheeky smile,” teased Simone, Jean’s granddaughter, lathering her long legs with suntan lotion. She turned to Jean, “Gran, I reckon if you got it, flaunt it!” Although only twenty-five, Simone adored spending time with her Gran and ‘aunts’.
“Fake teeth, fake hip, and now fake boobs—I’m a hat trick!” Shrieks of delight bellied out from the women, even Betty.
Jean couldn’t begin to fathom how differently her life would have transpired, had she not met Valerie. Not long after the death of her husband, doctors diagnosed Jean with breast cancer. As she thrashed and spluttered through the churning swell of chemotherapy, Valerie stood by her, arms outreached, ready to haul her up for air. And when Jean lost both her breasts to a double mastectomy, Valerie helped her to feel whole again.
Together, it seemed they could endure anything. That was until, three months ago, Jean plucked up the courage to visit a plastic surgeon, Dr Roy, about breast reconstructive surgery.
“… Look, Jean, no one is going to see you topless, are they? You’re in your seventies now and, well, with your husband deceased. I’m just not sure what you are trying to achieve? And besides, I’m not used to such a worn-out canvas. I’m afraid I can’t help you…”
It felt like the barrier Jean had painstakingly built, to keep her recent trauma at bay, had crumbled under the weight of the doctor’s words. What was the point of defying death, if society already deemed her past her expiration date? She felt old and invisible.
Valerie wouldn’t rest until Jean’s self-worth was restored.
Two and a half months earlier.
Betty and Simone sat perched at Valerie’s custom-made kitchen counter, savouring their imported wine. She had called a clandestine meeting, and they were yet to discover why. While they waited, the women surveyed the interiors of Valerie’s renovated Victorian terrace, like a home plucked straight from a glossy magazine. From almost every wall, exquisite artworks gazed back at their surveyors, each piece with its own unique story.
“Ladies, I have summoned you here today because of someone most dear to us: Jeanie. She’s been absolutely wretched for two whole weeks — not eating, not sleeping. This cannot go on! So I’ve devised a plan to help her return to her wonderful former self, while getting back at that vile Dr Roy at the same time. But I need your help.”
The women nodded, intrigued. Valerie took a beat and glanced outside, watching beads of spring rain skip down the budding roses in her limestone courtyard. She cleared her throat and continued, “I visited the plastic surgery centre last week and have booked an end-of-day appointment with Dr Roy. By that time, most of his staff will have clocked off—the fewer eyes, the better, you see? Simone, the appointment is for you.”
“Yes. You’re considering getting your breasts augmented. I’ll join you for the appointment.”
“But what’s wrong with my breasts?” Simone looked down at her already ample bosom.
“Absolutely nothing, you’ve been blessed with a lovely duo, darling. But that’s beside the point.”
“Then why am I getting a boob job?
“You’re not, it’s merely a consult. You’re my excuse to get inside Dr Roy’s office. I need you to distract him while I steal a set of silicone implants. Now, Betty—”
Betty took a large gulp from her wine, eyes widening. If Simone was getting a boob job, what on earth was in store for her?
“I’ve done some ‘Facebook stalking’, as the kids call it, and discovered the surgery receptionist has a puppy called Rufus. While we’re inside, all you need to do is phone and tell her the dog has escaped. This will leave old boy Roy to close the clinic on his own. Also, Bets, do you still have access to the church minivan?”
Almost spitting out her wine, Betty replied, “First you ask me to lie, then I am supposed to lend you the Lord’s vehicle for a criminal act?” Betty visualised herself driving the church van, horns sprouting from her forehead and a pitchforked tail curling out from her rear-end.
“It’s just a bit of fun, Bets, God will forgive you. It’s a very worthy cause!”
“But what is Gran going to do with a set of fake boobs, Aunty Val? We can’t exactly perform the reconstructive surgery on her ourselves,” Simone wanted desperately to help Jean, but Valerie’s proposal lacked an apparent motive.
“Excellent question, Simone! This leads me to part two of my plan. I’ve booked an appointment for Jeanie with a different plastic surgeon; a woman, with a most excellent reputation. But Jean’s going to need some encouragement to even set foot inside a plastic surgery again. I’m hoping the implants will act as an icebreaker, a mood lightener, before telling her about the new appointment, you see? Even if she decides not to go, we’ll hopefully, at least, give her a good giggle. She’s usually the one cracking the jokes—wouldn’t it be nice to return the favour?” Valerie missed Jean’s goofy chortle.
“Couldn’t we just buy her a pair of those—what do the kids call them—er, turkey fillers? No, no that’s not right. Chicken fillets! Why don’t we just buy some chicken fillets?” Betty clung to hope of a sin-free alternative.
“It wouldn’t be the same, Bets. Dr Roy stole Jean’s confidence, so it’s about taking something from him in return,” Valerie decided it was best not to disclose what else she planned on taking from Dr Roy. If anything went wrong, she didn’t want her friends implicated.
“I’m so in! Now, how big should I ask to make my boobs?” Simone smirked.
“Fine, I’m in too,” Betty sighed as she made the sign of the cross. If she had to break the seventh commandment for anyone, it would be for Jean.
“Let’s call it Operation Booby-Trap!” Simone quipped. The women chuckled and clinked their wine glasses.
“Now, let’s go over the plan again. It’s important we get this right.”
Valerie waited in the car park outside the plastic surgery clinic. Her wild, red-grey curls concealed beneath a dull, grey wig, and thick chemist spectacles clouding her sharp blue eyes. A heatwave had hit London, and the city was experiencing unusually warm weather for springtime, causing Valerie to perspire under her disguise.
Simone arrived shortly after, looking summery in cut-off denim shorts and a tank top. She almost didn’t recognise her usually glamorous Aunt. “Valerie Beauvoir! You nearly look your age, for once.”
“Good, that means I’ll be invisible to that disgusting doctor!” Valerie winked, gesturing towards the surgery.
Simone noticed an ice-box on wheels sitting next to Valerie. “What’s with the cooler?” she inquired.
“It’s my supper,” Valerie pulled back the lid. Three silver, speckled fish, chilled on a generous mound of dewy ice, gleamed up at them. She gently tapped the side of the cooler with her foot and said, “It’s too hot to carry them around all day without one of these things, you see?”
Inside the surgery, Valerie and Simone approached the reception desk.
“Hello, appointment for Simone Bradley,” Valerie announced to the receptionist.
“Hello! Now, let me just find you on our system,” the receptionist pouted, face full of fillers, as she searched for the name on her computer. Her sparkly, fake nails tapped happily on the keyboard, “Found you. Great. Simone, Dr Roy is actually ready to see you now, so you can just head straight in.”
“Is it okay if I leave my cooler box out here?” Valerie asked.
“Not a problem, m’am. I’ll take good care of it for you,” the receptionist looked at Valerie, lips spreading to form what Valerie assumed was a smile, although the rest of her face remained unaffected.
Valerie witnessed Dr Roy’s face light up as Simone entered the surgery after her. Tex Avery’s Slick Wolf suddenly played out in Valerie’s mind, the cartoon wolf’s eyes bulging out of their sockets at the sight of a gorgeous nightclub dancer. He summoned the women to take a seat opposite him, on the other side of a large mahogany desk, the size of a small island. Just as the women sat down, there was a knock at the door. It was the receptionist. Although her composure was calm, remnants of mascara trailed down her face and her eyes swelled pink and glassy.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt, Dr Roy, and ladies. Dr Roy, there’s been an emergency at home. Do you mind if I leave for the day?”
“Yes, yes. Please, go! I will lock up.” Dr Roy was eager for her to leave so she would stop embarrassing him in front of his patients. The receptionist didn’t wait for him to change his mind, picked up her handbag and dashed out towards the lifts. On the way to her car she passed Betty pulling up in her church van.
After introductions, the discussion of breast augmentation proceeded. Valerie requested to inspect every form of implant available, making the doctor get up to retrieve more and more samples. Before long a small village of silicone moped about on his desk. Valerie could see Dr Roy’s patience waning.
“And this one? Have you told us about this one yet?” Valerie held an implant they had already inspected—twice—up towards Dr Roy. She let it slip from her fingers, sending it flying across the room. The disk-like orb wobbled clumsily as it waged war against gravity, hurtling towards the doctor. Before he could duck, it slapped him across his left eye, losing impetus and slumping to the floor.
“Whoops, clumsy old me.” Valerie feigned concern.
Dr Roy’s face blazed scarlet. While he bent down to pick up his silicone assassin, Valerie slipped a pair of stowaway boobs into her large overcoat pocket. She then excused herself to use the bathroom.
Alone at last with the beautiful Simone! Dr Roy’s bleached-white teeth spread across his face like the sun’s glare as he devoured her with beady eyes.
The doctor prodded thoughtfully at one of the many implants on his desk before breaking an extended silence, “So, young lady. May I inquire as to how you plan to pay for all of this?”
“Um, I guess I’ll take out a loan.” Simone wondered why Valerie was taking so long. A sliver of worry slipped through a tiny crack in her repose.
“Well, there are other ways we can cover the cost of your surgery, you know? I’m sure we could come to a mutually beneficial agreement?” Dr Roy’s words oozed out like warm pus. “Simone, if we are to proceed, I will need to closely inspect your breasts, of course.” He leant across his mahogany desk, to stroke Simone’s hand. She jerked her arm away as Valerie re-entered the room, panting.
“Oh dear, I think I got a bit lost. All the doors look the same, you see?”
“Aunty, I was beginning to worry.”
“Doctor, we won’t keep you any longer. It’s getting late.” Valerie declared. Simone nodded vigorously.
“Yes, of course, ladies. Now, just remember Simone, you’re already a ten but, with my help, you could be a twelve! Let’s talk soon, okay?” the doctor stood up to see the women out.
Valerie wanted to whack the doctor with another implant. Instead, she forced a tight smile and demanded he help carry her cooler, waiting in reception, to the lift. Dr Roy acquiesced. Watching the unfit doctor wheeling Valerie’s icebox, Simone wondered why an independent woman would request a man to do a job she was more than capable of doing herself.
“This is awfully heavy for a mature lady such as yourself! I hope you don’t have a dead body in here?” Dr Roy’s joke fell flat.
“Three dead bodies, actually”, Valerie replied, deadpan, opening the top to reveal the fish. Simone noticed that the ice looked much more propped up in the cooler than it did before, but kept her thoughts to herself as they exited the building.
Dr Roy returned to his clinic and locked up with haste. Eager to get home to his twenty-year-old girlfriend and a stiff drink, he overlooked two small blocks of ice melting into the carpet in front of the medical-grade refrigerator.
The women coasted down the highway in their holy get-away vehicle, angelic gospel hymns sighing out the tinny speakers. Valerie, riding in the front passenger seat, liberated her curls from under her wig. Chuckling, she plucked two silicone mementos from her coat pockets and waved them about triumphantly. Simone cheered from the back seat.
“Lot of trouble for something that mightn’t impress Jean all that much,” grumbled Betty, brooding over the fact God must now regard her as an accessory to theft. How many Hail Mary’s would absolve her of these wrongdoings? She decided to get a head start and began praying silently.
Betty’s prayers were cut short by the sound of sirens wailing behind them.
“Bets, you’re not speeding, are you?” Simone’s voice trembled.
“Of course not!” Betty carefully pulled the van over to the side of the road, clutching at the steering wheel to steady her trembling hands.
“Let me do the talking!” Valerie warned her companions sternly.
The women nodded as Valerie stuffed the portable boobs back in her pocket. The Policeman lumbered towards them. Betty wound down her window, heart galloping in her chest.
As the uniformed man arrived at the driver’s window, Valerie seized the first word “Evening officer! Just on our way to the soup kitchen. We’re volunteers from the church. What seems to be the problem?”
The officer flashed them a friendly smile, “Evening ladies. Look, I’m not going to stand in the way of the good work you’re doing but, please, get your left brake light checked first thing tomorrow—it’s flickering.”
“Th-Thank you, officer. Will do,” Betty’s voice wavered like someone tuning a radio. She watched the policeman return to his car. Then, emitting a hysterical cackle, she announced, “I’m going straight to hell! But, goodness, what a rush!”
Valerie arrived home and unloaded her belongings from the van. She waved goodbye to her partners in crime, buzzing from their successful heist. Inside her kitchen, Valerie opened the cooler and plucked out two fish, leaving one to rule its icy kingdom in solitude. Something beneath the ice glistened in the light, some sort of vial, just before the lid clicked shut. Valerie began preparing the fish for dinner—a tasty decoy, she thought to herself.
The dining room table was set for two. Valerie placed the fish down and opened a bottle of wine just as the doorbell chimed. Valerie opened her front door to the benevolent smile of a handsome middle-aged man. In his right hand was a bright bunch of flowers, and in his left hand he held a small gym bag.
“V, it’s been a while,” he breathed in deeply as if trying to inhale her presence, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Richard. Yes, it’s been some fifteen years! Won’t you come in?” Valerie ushered her guest inside, locking the door behind her.
It was after midnight by the time Valerie’s guest called it a night. His gym bag remained behind on Valerie’s coffee table, a crisp hundred pound note poking out the top. Valerie walked Richard to her front door.
“I owe you one, Richard. Thank you.”
“You don’t owe me nothin’, V,” he tucked a stray curl behind her ear, radiating the same warm smile with which he arrived. Then, without another word he turned and walked to his car, wheeling Valerie’s cooler behind him.
Valerie let out a heavy sigh and went back inside to get ready for bed. It had been a long, eventful day.
Two days later, Valerie hosted some other guests. Betty, Simone and Jean relaxed in her courtyard eating croissants and sipping fresh coffee. It had taken a lot of convincing to peel Jean from her armchair, which was now far too acquainted with her backside, but Betty and Simone had somehow managed it. Jean still refused to wear day-clothes, so sat slouched in a sloppy tracksuit stained with last night’s TV dinner. Jean hated to admit it, but it felt nice to be out of her apartment. She admired Valerie’s roses which were now in full bloom; their fragrance sending out an open invitation for friendly, winged tourists.
Valerie handed Jean a wrapped box. Jean turned the package over in her soft, creased hands — an unexpected gift from her favourite people. She felt so undeserving but began to unwrap it at the request of her audience. Peering inside the box she discovered a pair of see-through breasts staring back at her.
“What on earth?” Jean didn’t grasp the gag immediately but soon dissolved into fits of laughter as the women regaled their escapade. She even agreed to consider the appointment Valerie booked for her.
“You know, I think someone else had it in for Dr Roy too. Did you hear his clinic was burgled a couple of nights ago? Some £40,000 worth of Botox was stolen!” Jean reported. She knew better than to indulge in schadenfreude, but, in this instance, she would allow herself just a smidge.
“Oh, dear! We visited Dr Roy’s two days ago,” Betty gasped. “That most certainly was not us, Jeanie. As the Lord, God is my witness! C-could they hold us responsible?”
“Betty, you’re the last person anyone would ever accuse!” Jean laughed again, the muscles in her face receiving a workout after what felt like a long hiatus, “Besides, according to the newspapers, Police have uncovered nothing to suggest a break-in. Most likely an inside job! It’s suggested Dr Roy will lose a lot of business over this ordeal.”
Simone shot a suspicious glance at Valerie, “How was the fish from your icebox the other night, Aunty Val?”
“My spotted trout? I pan fried it in butter and it was delectable, thanks Simone! But I do believe it’s a dish best served cold,” she pouted her lips emphatically in Simone’s direction, her blue eyes twinkling.