It had been a hectic few weeks and I was looking rather haggard to say the least. The bags under my eyes were now resting gently on my cheekbones, and the crows’ feet either side of my eyes were beginning to resemble flippers. With the onset of Christmas festivities and our soirée still yet to organise, I made a strategic decision. I was going to treat myself to a relaxing facial. That would perk me up and help restore some of the sheen that had been scorched out of my skin by our blissfully-long French summer.
I went along to our local institut de beauté and browsed through their menu. I’m a bit of a trainee when it comes to women’s skincare treatments, so I wasn’t entirely sure which one would be suitable for me. Rather than stabbing around in the dark and booking something entirely inappropriate, I asked advice from madame behind the counter. She gave me a sceptical once-over and told me that my therapist would know what to do. Perfect! I duly made my appointment and keenly looked forward to a long session of pampering.
A week later I turned up and was ushered into a room filled with delicious scents from the Orient, and dimly lit by the gentle glow radiating from a clump of candles. Geneviève, my therapist, looked like she ought to be at school, but that didn’t worry me in the slightest. I merely assumed that she would be hot out of beauty college, and thoroughly up-to-date with all the latest massage techniques. I’ll admit I was quite excited by the whole prospect of ending my appointment looking fresh as a daisy and ready to do battle with the party season.
Geneviève barked a few instructions about clothes removal, pressed a button on one of her machines and left the room. She did not have quite the bedside manner I was expecting, but this didn’t matter. I was now being serenaded by the gentle sounds of whale song and distant waves as they crashed and rippled up the beach. I removed my upper garments, slid under a pre-heated blanket and snuggled down expectantly.
When Geneviève returned a few minutes later I was already feeling rather sleepy. I only half-listened to what she said, so was somewhat surprised when a spotlight was turned on and positioned around 20 centimetres from my nose. I squinted in discomfort at the light, and was immediately startled by the vision of Geneviève’s enormously enlarged face staring at me. Ah, of course, a thick magnifying glass was in the centre of the lamp – what a good idea. Geneviève had begun her diagnosis.
“Alors.” (So…) she said as she pinched my cheeks vigorously, “votre peau est très déshydraté, ceci est la cause de vos rides profondes, et vous avez les pores ouverts.” She spoke extremely rapidly so it was difficult to understand what she said, but I gathered that my skin was very dry, resulting in deep wrinkles and open pores - clearly an urgent candidate for deep cleansing. Well, in my heart of hearts, I suppose I knew this. She proceeded to list a number of different treatment options that would have been lost on me in English, let alone French. I took the easy way out and asked her to do what she thought was necessary.
Geneviève was plainly encouraged by my accommodating approach to decision-making. She began by strapping my hair down with a crepe bandage, which circled my head and was then fastened with Velcro. I began to wonder whether the compression effect this had on my skull was part of the process, when I was distracted by a heap of sand which was dumped on my face. Geneviève mentioned something about gommage and used it to scrub my skin with great vigour. There was nothing at all pleasant about it. However, I decided that this must be the deep-cleaning process and that the massage would follow momentarily. Not so.
An icy cold, rather dribbly flannel was then slapped across my face several times to drag the grains off. This certainly did the job, but it also caused rivulets of sand to run down my neck and form small dunes on my collar bones. My skin now felt decidedly naked, and a tiny bit sore.
Geneviève repacked her gommage kit and barked something else at me, which I didn’t understand at all. I looked at her upside-down face quizzically and by way of an explanation she waved a metal object above my eyes. I was just trying to focus on it when she grabbed my left hand and plonked it into my palm. “Attention,” she said, “Ceci est fragile. Ne le laissez pas tomber.” This was very strange, especially since there was a curly cable attached. Whatever it was, I was being instructed to hang on to it.
Where electricity is concerned I always think it’s useful to be clear about its intended use, so I persevered and asked the question. Once again, most of the response was hopelessly lost on me save for the part which involved my wrinkles. We had now established that they were deep, very deep in fact, so perhaps this was a new-fangled remote controlled French ironing-out treatment.
Clinging on to the metal tube for grim death, I waited apprehensively for the action to begin. Geneviève was busy behind me, chattering about goodness knows what as she mixed a concoction in a bowl. She plastered the gloopy paste over my face and most of my ears with a utensil that felt like a distemper brush. So far, so good.
I opened my eyes to comment on how pleasant it smelled when, to my horror, I saw that she was now hovering over me with a pair of tools which looked like tuning forks with balls on the end. I instinctively flinched and squashed my head into the back of my pillow, which made my crepe bandage slip. Geneviève tutted, pulled the bandage back, and continued her advance. Quaveringly, I asked what her stainless steel apparatus was and she repeated similar words to those that she had used before. Yes, it was definitely part of a wrinkle treatment so it had to be worth a go.
At first everything was perfectly acceptable. She began by tracing the deepest lines – these were the ones, she assured me, that were particularly aging. I detected a faint vibration on my skin but nothing dreadful at all. I inwardly laughed at my own silly anxieties and began to relax and enjoy this wrinkle-zapping sensation, simultaneously giving myself up to the gentle tones of the whale song. It all had such a soporific effect on me that I took very little notice of the bleeps from the machine in the background, or Geneviève who said, “Êtes-vous prêt madame?” Yes, of course I thought, bring it on, I’m ready for anything. Well I wasn’t.
I have no idea what the voltage was, but when my therapist reapplied her tongs they were charged with a very strong electricity current. I had the shock of my life. My eyes started open with fear and spied Geneviève rapt in concentration as she worked methodically over my face. She pinned down a section of skin, one lump at a time, with one set of tongs and yanked up another section towards it with the other. “Ça va?” she asked sweetly, as she plunged the tongs a little deeper into my dimple. With my face a rictus of agony and probably looking like a human form of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, of course I wasn’t alright. The problem was that the force of the electrical charge had now clamped my teeth together so the best I could do was groan at her. This she took as a positive sign, uttered, “Bon” and continued.
The very worst part of the treatment was when the electrodes were traced over my mouth. I am one of those unfortunate people whose dentist in the 1960s had a manic desire to fill teeth with as much silver amalgam as he could. At the end of each tortuous session, which usually left me a dribbling mass of bleeding gums, he would gravely present me with a small tube as a gift. This contained an amorphous blob of mercury floating in a clear liquid which my mother would sagely tell me not to drink. How kind.
It didn’t matter a jot whether or not the patient actually had cavities that needed filling, he had all the equipment on hand to create them. This resulted in me and my sister having a head full of silver before we’d even hit our teens.
I quickly discovered that silver amalgam and electrodes are not happy partners. Every time she ran over another filled tooth I had an agonisingly painful sensation that felt like its root was about to explode. I squashed my tongue behind each victim, hoping to soften the impact, but it didn’t work. By now I was convinced that she’d hit the wrong button on her machine but my ability to explain this was stymied by my present condition of lockjaw. Instead I lay rigidly on the bed, gently cooking under my blanket.
A couple of bleeps heralded the merciful end to my electric shock treatment. My therapist reluctantly prised the metal bar out of my clenched fist, set her tongs aside and appraised her work so far. She wiped off the excess gloop and gave my skin another few pinches, which seemed to inspire her next choice of product. Now I could distinctly hear the cutting sound from scissors. This was alarming.
Suddenly her use of electricity seemed to pale into insignificance when compared to what she might be capable of with a pair of cutting instruments. I feebly enquired as to what she was doing. “Masque madame,” she replied brightly, “C'est pour la peau qui est vieillissement et gravement déshydraté. Fermer les yeux s'il vous plait.” Ah marvellous, a product to combat not just aging, but severely dehydrated skin – how gratifying. But why the scissors?
With that she launched a surprise attack by swooping over me with a sheet of a material that felt like hessian sack. She placed it over my face and neck, adjusting it to put the newly-snipped holes in place over my nose and eyes. This would not have been an ideal treatment for someone with claustrophobia, which luckily I do not suffer from. The air holes were just large enough to allow me to breathe, but at this point I was more preoccupied with the relief I felt at avoiding facial wounds.
More gloopy matter was pasted over my face and Geneviève asked if I was alright. A fold of material had now stuck to my mouth making communication limited, so I flapped a hand cheerily in reply. She declared that I should rest for 15 minutes whilst the concoction worked its magic, turned up the volume of the whale song and glided out of the door.
By now, my nerves were in shreds. The very last thing I wanted to do was to suffocate slowly under a cloak of smelly, herby stuff that was, for some reason, getting very warm and hard. She hadn’t mentioned this. The crashing surf became very loud before it gradually transformed into a babbling brook. This was all I needed. As someone who has quite possibly the smallest bladder in France, the suggestive nature of the sound effects played hell with my waterworks. I tried to re-focus and pass the time by drawing up mental Christmas shopping lists and reminding myself of all the people we needed to send cards to. Then, suddenly, I remembered something that my sister had told me to have as part of my beauty experience. I was sure I could hang on long enough to have it done.
When Geneviève returned, despite feeling like a broiled chicken, I felt nothing could go wrong with my final request. With my limited knowledge of French I asked “Madame pouvez-vous colorer mes sourcils noir s'il vous plait?” I wanted my eyelashes tinted black, but I wasn’t sure whether my translation was perfect so I poked around my eyelashes to make the point. Geneviève checked her watch, stared at the offending area and replied, “Tout est possible, madame.”
I closed my eyes and relaxed. I’d had this done before. No pain, just a tiny splash of tint on the lashes and then 10 minutes of peace and quiet.
She prepared her mixture and began faffing around with my forehead, generally swabbing it with something that smelled distinctly astringent. This seemed to be a rather extravagant preparation for a simple eyelash job, but I assumed that she was just being diligent. She sat back. I began to wonder why she hadn’t applied the tint to my eyelashes, or put the protective pad under my bottom lashes, when I felt a distinct tingling sensation on my eyebrows. I suddenly realised that something must have got horribly lost in translation and my eyebrows were probably being dyed instead. For a darkish blonde person this would never do. I had to check.
Summoning up my best French, I asked her if she had definitely tinted my eyelashes. My eyes were closed of course so I couldn’t see her reaction but she paused and then replied that yes, it was raining very hard outside. I opened my eyes and stared aghast at this girl. It was at this point that I realised I was in the process of developing thick black eyebrows. “Non madame, mes sourcils, est-ce que vous avez teinter mes sourcils?” I demanded, plucking feverishly at my eyelashes. She looked quizzically at me and replied, “Mais ils sont vos cils madame, pas les sourcils! J’ai déjà teinté vos sourcils.” I’d done it again, I’d got my cils mixed up with my sourcils and she had done exactly what I had asked her to do. I was doomed.
She didn’t look at all pleased when I asked her to take it off immediately and apply it to my eyelashes instead. I emphasised the need for speed which caused her to look at her watch again. Tutting to herself she proceeded to scrape off the residual dye and splash a new liquid over my eyebrows which made them sting even more. Working off the old adage of no pain no gain, this seemed like a good sign to me. She produced her astringent-smelling product and told me to close my eyes. In a fit of pique, she layered the stuff over my eyelashes and told me it would take 10 minutes for the dye to take. With that she disappeared again.
There I was, left with a heavy layer of dye that was now resting on the skin under my eyes and some of it was seeping in between the lids. I knew that because my eyes were smarting. As a contact lens wearer this did not bode well at all. I fervently hoped that she was using a natty new product that didn’t tint the skin too, if not I was going to come out looking like a panda.
The 10 minutes passed like an hour; I was close to bursting and stiff as a board with tension by the time she returned. Through my closed eyes I could see that she had switched the lights on to full beam mode and I felt her energetically mop my eyelashes with cotton wool balls. My worst fears were confirmed as she realised her mistake. After her 50th or so ball, just at the point when my skin was about to disintegrate, she gave up. She explained that there might be the odd tache (mark) under my eyes but that it would soon go. She ended the treatment by re-smothering my face with yet more cream and with an airy, “Voila, c'est terminé,” she left the room.
I dressed hurriedly and avoided the mirror out of fear of what I might see. Geneviève had joined her colleague at the till and, as I prepared to pay, I could see the other madame eyeing me uncertainly. There was nothing for it, I was going to have to have a look. I took the two strides to the large mirror on the far side of the salon and my suspicions were confirmed. Even though my vision was reduced to that of looking through a tea bag, I could see enough. My face was covered in red blotches and looked suspiciously taut in places. I had extremely black eyebrows and it looked like I’d either been in a fight, or was suffering from severe sleep deprivation. There were dark purple rings under my eyes, some deeper in colour than others.
Geneviève joined me, told me how lovely and fresh my face now looked and asked if I would like to borrow a hair brush before I left the salon. That was it, I was off.
As I drove home I tried to exercise the life back into my aching skin. I wondered what I would say to Jack, my husband, about my foray into the world of French luxury treatments. I then wondered what he would say about my black eyes.
I walked into the house and he came up to me with his reading glasses on and a pile of papers in one hand. “You’re back early darling, how was the face thing you had?”
“I must say you look very shiny. I hope it was nice and relaxing. Possibly a bit too much eye shadow in places but that’s typically French isn’t it, and you do look lovely. Anyway, must get on, I’m in the middle of designing a new back box for my quadbike.”
How silly of me, of course it was too much for me to expect that he would have noticed anything wrong. My husband is an engineer. He can spot orange peel on a car’s paintwork from half a mile, but his capacity for spotting details, such as his wife’s face looking like a bag of nails, is limited at best. On this occasion I could only be grateful.
As I prepared our lunch I reflected on my appointment. My intention had been to enjoy a relaxing facial and just a tiny bit of pampering. Instead I had been scraped, electrocuted, partially suffocated and tattooed. My therapist was undoubtedly excellent, the problem lay once again with my lamentable command of the French language. That said, my wrinkles were quite possibly looking a little smoother, and I had escaped a full jet-black monobrow. Perhaps I should be grateful for small mercies. But will I return to our plush French salon? Maybe, but not for a while.