Lipstick on stairs

Length: 5 minute read

This short story is inspired by seeing a friend begin dating again after the break up of a long relationship. It was first published in Bright Flash Literary Review in March 2021.


Tabatha steps down the staircase of her semi-detached house, leaning against the wall for support as there’s no bannister, and because she’s uncertain in her new shoes, a pair of peach-coloured sling-backs from Primark she bought last Saturday along with a matching A-line dress. She’d considered the stilettos, but she’s out of practice with heels and feels self-conscious enough already this evening without the added fear of falling flat on her face.

The staircase, while steep, is less treacherous than the one in her former house, a two-up-two-down terrace in Ynysybwl, a Welsh mining village off the Cynon Valley where she’d lived with Trevor-the-twat (pardon her language) for twelve miserable years—ten, to tell the truth; the first two weren’t so bad, back when Trevor's irreverence was a charm, and before he'd lost the warehouse job at Jones's and turned his mind to serious drinking. Eventually, she’d had enough and filed for separation after finding a new position in Gloucester as a dental practice manager (no new NHS patients, sorry).

Upon reaching the terracotta-tiled hallway, she dabs at her hair, cut and coloured that afternoon at Hair Today by a new stylist at the salon, Tina, a woman at a similar stage of life as Tabatha, who didn’t do a bad job, all told, and who she half-hopes might become a proper friend.

She checks her face in the mirror whose elaborate gold-painted scrollwork is out of place amidst the other decor, a bland selection of Nordic Functional that she’d put on the credit card two years earlier and was still paying off. Yet she keeps the mirror because it’s all that remains of the furniture she’d inherited from her mother, a defiant woman who’d lost one husband to the mines (a cave-in) and another to suicide (jumped off a bridge) before herself succumbing to lung cancer ten years ago. She’d shrunk to sinew and bone and had grasped Tabatha’s hand so fiercely against the pain that her fingers had left deep indentations in her only child’s skin long after she'd let go.

Trevor had sold the rest of the furniture once Tabatha had moved out, an act of pure spite if ever she’d had seen one, and the mirror itself had only survived due to his ineptitude at trying to erase her from his life. Yet it confirmed their marriage was over, and she petitioned for divorce. Once the papers came through, for the first and only time, she was glad they hadn’t had children and need have nothing more to do with him.

She wipes away a stray smudge of pink lipstick, similar to the shade her mother always wore, even for her funeral, and one which Tabatha had previously sworn blind she’d never use. However, she doesn’t want Peter thinking she’s a slut (at least not on their first date). To avoid appearing too prim and proper, she retrieves a cropped, black pleather jacket from the coat hook to add a touch of rebellion to her outfit. She spies her keys by the red of the ladybug rape alarm lying on top of the bookcase in the living room, which contains dog-eared copies of You Can Heal Your Heart and Year of Yes alongside Tarot for Beginners, the Backyard Gardener, and an ex-library copy of Great Expectations. She drops the keys into her peach-coloured clutch as a horn beeps outside the front door.

With a frown, she crosses the room and leans over the armchair to part the curtain. Through the rain-spattered window, she sees a white saloon car with its engine running. She checks the time on her cracked-screen phone.


A flutter of anxiety tickles her bladder. It’s followed by a flash of indignation—the taxi is too early; she ordered it for ten-to. Peter has booked the table for 9pm. If she leaves now, she’ll get there before him. She’ll appear desperate; a pitiful old divorcee sitting in a restaurant alone, staring longingly at the door. And what if he doesn’t show? The staff will laugh at her behind their hands. Worse, what if she sees someone she knows, and the people at work find out she was stood up? She’ll never live it down.

CANCEL. Don’t show up. Ghost him. Ignore his messages if he tries to contact her, not that he will, once he realises how pathetic and risible she is.

Her lip trembles. Her eyes moisten. She hangs her head as a sense of exhaustion descends upon her. Why is she putting herself through all this again?—the awkwardness (Ouch!—no, not like that), the uncertainty (have I done something wrong?), and the risk she’ll be disappointed (are you open to trying for children?). Even if things go well, conflict will inevitably follow (how many times must I ask?), resentments will fester (you always do this!) until outright rage erupts (stop nagging at me, you stupid bitch!). Her life wasn't meant to have turned out this way; she should be worrying about childcare and school choices, not whether to ask him in for coffee.

After pulling out a tissue from the box on the sideboard, she returns to the mirror to dab away the tears while the crow’s feet, faint beneath her foundation, taunt her in the reflection. She has her mother’s eyes, or so she’s been told, and for the first time she recognises their likeness. She recalls her mother’s voice, defiant until the end, telling the naysayers to go and get stuffed.

Outside, the taxi beeps, probably for the last time.

She takes a deep breath and firms her jaw. Drawing herself up, she smooths down her dress, turns, and opens the door.

S.G. Parker

2nd May, 2021


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