‘You’ve got a face like a smacked arse,’ said Mum.
‘And yours’ll look like a boiled egg if you have a face lift,’ I snapped. ‘Is that what you want?’
‘Better than one that looks scrambled,’ she replied, turning her shoulders away like a scolded child. ‘If you won’t come with me, I’ll kill myself.’
I looked into the face that once mirrored mine and sighed, ‘Grow up Mum, for heaven’s sake.’
Until I was about twenty-five, strangers would stop Mum in the street to state the obvious.
‘You’re Amber Jet!’ they’d exclaim before swivelling their star struck gaze to me to add, ‘Am I seeing double?’
Mum loved it. ‘Taken for twins again, darling,’ she preened.
Mum’s brief career as a pop star stuck in people’s memory. You can still catch her scandalous Top of the Pops performance on YouTube and ‘that’ duet with Prince. Yes, the one where they simulated sex wearing figure defining pink latex. She kept all her costumes until she caught Dad squeezing himself into her famous ‘plectrum’ dress. She wore it the night they met when he, then Screw Ewe’s guitarist, plucked away plectrums to reveal her perfect rosy nipple live on Graham Norton’s Show.
There was a time, before Dad took wearing mum’s clothes to a surgical conclusion, when the three of us looked like a less than wholesome version of the Beverley Sisters. The press loved it but lost interest after Dad left us to join a feminist collective in LA. Mum said she didn’t care but as time passed, his defection and lack of press attention began showing on her face. Staring into the mirror, she tracked each new crevice or drooping jowl. It was like watching porcelain craze and crack. Ultimately, she refused to leave the house in case some paparazzi captured her newly ravaged face and sold it to the world.
To end her incarceration, I agreed to accompany her to Buenos Aires. ‘He’s the top surgeon,’ she said, ‘And nobody knows me there. I was never big in Argentina.’ Pre op tests gave us time to explore. She laughed when I suggested we get an open top tour bus. ‘What like tourists darling?’
‘Yes,’ I sighed, ‘just like tourists.’
From the top deck, we looked down on traffic choked boulevards, exuberant architecture and formal parks. While I tried tuning into the commentary, Mum kept up one of her own. ‘How do they walk on cobbles with heels that high?’ ‘Is that man dead or just homeless?’ ‘Call that redeveloped docklands area chic? Looks like Plymouth.’ But when the bus lurched on to La Boca, she shut up. Walls painted in vivid murals could not conceal poverty and guys gathered on corners looked furtive and feral. ‘I don’t think we’ll get off for cocktails,’ she said, reapplying her sun block. The tour concluded at Casa Rosada, once home to Argentina’s sainted Evita. Outside, a group of silent women held photographs of the ‘disappeared’; children abducted by the military decades ago. I began to think the city, like my mother, had two faces. One for show, the other subterranean and tragic.
That evening, without people requesting autographs or photographs, we strolled arm in arm like any other mother and daughter. We chanced upon a group performing an impromptu tango to recorded music. The women, dressed in slashed slinky frocks entwined legs and locked eyes with their peacock partners. Tomorrow, they might return to jobs in bars or banks but tonight it was all about theatre. Mum’s thunderous applause must have made her palms hurt. When thrusting notes into their passing hat, I saw her eyes glistening.
I’d read about Milongas, events where local people gathered to dance. As mum was due for surgery the following day, I hoped this might take her mind off it. When the receptionist at our hotel handed me a bunch of glossy fliers featuring expensive cabarets, I pushed them back explaining I wanted a venue where grieving mothers might go to dance. She suggested Los Laureles, the oldest tango bar in town.
‘Very Film Noir,’ Mum remarked when the cab dropped us in the shadow of a clanking railway bridge on a deserted suburban street. I pushed her through double doors into a dimly lit room with nicotine walls lined with sepia photographs. The waiter showed us to a table set beside a scuffed dance floor in the corner of which stood an upright piano with keys the colour of mustard. The moustachioed pianist hunched over them, struck seductive chords for dancers who, despite wearing jeans and trainers, might have been making love to music.
The bar filled. At midnight, when a man with shiny black hair grasped the microphone, clattering cutlery, clinking glasses and conversation hushed. Accompanied by a thrumming guitar, he performed jaunty numbers the audience clapped and sang along with. After taking his bow, he beckoned to a round shouldered old woman seated near our table. She rose precarious on stiff knees and shuffled across the dance floor wearing slippers.
The room erupted. Holding sagging arms wide in acknowledgement, a respectful silence fell. Commanding in the spotlight, as her emerald shadowed eyes acknowledged respect, it seemed her back straightened. I glanced at Mum and saw her shiver. The voice, when it came, was molten gold gilding songs in tremulous arcs of anguish and ecstasy. We couldn’t understand the lyrics, but every human emotion was embroidered in the warp and weft of those ageless laments.
With a brisk nod, the woman accepted the deafening applause, but Mum remained silent. ‘Time we left,’ I said. ‘New face tomorrow.’
‘Not doing it,’ she replied, defiance defining her jaw. ‘I’ve just been given a masterclass in facing facts. You’re right. It’s time I grew up.’ Backlit by mellow light, I’d never seen Mum look younger.