Researching the dead can feel like being buried alive with them. After months spent with manuscripts and dusty books about the 16th century I even look like a corpse. But this week I am taking a heart-stimulating trip to Manhattan. I am giving a talk to the St Andrew’s Society of the State of New York, the oldest charitable organisation in the country. I was a bit concerned about frightening its members with my ghostly pallor, but a young friend from Men’s Health came to my aid. He arrived for a lunch date at the London Library looking gorgeously sun-kissed. He has been spray-tanned, he tells me, and inspired by his healthy appearance I have booked myself for the same treatment at a beauty salon in a local former mining village.
At home I find a selection of my sons on ‘study leave’. They have GCSEs and A-levels to take and instead of being at school they are here, eating enormous quantities of food. The poor things complain that they constantly hear how much tougher our examinations were than are those they slave for. The truth is that my generation took fewer exams and could get away with poorer grades. I went to Oxford without any science qualification other than O-level biology. (I still remember my classroom drawings of a man and woman with their reproductive organs. They were stuck on facing pages. Oh! The lascivious pleasure I took in closing my exercise book after Sister Esmeralda’s lessons.) But I don’t tell them any of this, of course. Better to keep them in awe. In any case, A-level boy has declared himself unworried by his examinations: ‘I have failed so many in my life that they hold no fear for me,’ he says. Good, I tell him, he has nothing to worry about. He is predicted all A grades and is scarily well read: not bad for a boy who struggled to write his own name five years ago — and yah-boo sucks to those who made it clear that they thought ‘dyslexic’ was a fancy term for ‘moron’. Of course, he is much more nervous about his exams than he admits, but there is no point in him dwelling on things so I draw his attention to a matter of more immediate import, namely my forthcoming tan. He tells me that I will come home looking like an Oompa Loompa, the small orange men featured in the film of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His brother is no more optimistic and I begin to feel slightly nervous.
I arrive for my appointment at the beauty salon dressed in loose clothing as they suggested. I am asked to strip before being escorted to a small room where a woman dressed in a boiler suit and mask is waiting for me. I notice a bucket and mop. Am I going to be mopped brown? Surely that’s too rural, even for the Midlands; more the sort of thing that would happen in Dorset. The door is shut and I’m confronted with a nozzle from a machine that had been hidden behind the woman and is now humming loudly. Freezing! The spray is quite chilly and somehow wetter than I expected. ‘It’s like painting a car,’ she tells me as the nozzle moves up and down my legs. Eventually it gets to my face. I try not to scrunch it up, fearful that if I do I’ll get a million spray-on wrinkles. I would ask her what happens if I breathe the stuff in, but to do that I’d have to open my mouth. At last it’s over. The mop now comes into its own, but for the walls rather than me. I get back into my clothes, which stick where they touch, and arrive home looking even more Oompa Loompa than the boys thought possible. Seven hours later I have a hot shower and emerge like a butterfly from its chrysalis with a delicate golden glow. Delighted, I email my friend. He warns me that some people love the effect so much they develop ‘tanorexia’, an addiction to spray-on colour. I wonder if Mr Blair is among them? Have you noticed he is always strangely brown?
My in-laws arrive for lunch by tandem, a journey that takes 40 minutes by car. They are starving, as are the children, again. I was going to barbecue butterflied leg of lamb but the supermarket butcher says Health and Safety won’t allow them to de-bone meat. How is it the job of Health and Safety to de-skill an entire generation? Marks & Spencer only hand you pre-packaged meat. It’s not chicken, it’s ‘breast of poussin wrapped in palma ham, stuffed with stilton and pierced with a sausage stick’. It’s not food, it’s absolutely disgusting. Anyway, Health and Safety will be relieved that I manage to produce a boned lamb for lunch without killing anyone. My in-laws returned home fattened like bumblebees in their black and yellow lycra, the boys went back to work, and I calmly bandaged the bloody stump of my right arm (only kidding).
Before I get on my United Airlines flight, perhaps Dear Mary could offer me some advice. I have a pair of Jimmy Choos to match the new tan. They cost more than my car (this is true). They are also so high that my legs shook the first time I wore them. My generous but no-nonsense cousins in New York may want to take me to a restaurant ‘just round the corner’. Is there a tactful way I could suggest we forgo a short stroll in favour of a cab? These shoes aren’t made for walking. Indeed, they may be designed to prevent it. When I last took them off, my feet wouldn’t go flat and I had to tiptoe to bed.
The paperback of After Elizabeth: The Death of Elizabeth and the Coming of King James by Leanda de Lisle is published this month.