The children’s centre sat at the bottom of rickety steps descending from the end of the cul-de-sac. Dark brown brick set on an uneven weedy lawn – it was begrudgingly funded by the council. Everything was rationed and short-changed to the degree that visitors paid 50p for bitter, gritty coffee and the central heating hadn’t been turned on since austerity’s implementation a decade ago. One lonely space heater, surrounded by a harem of dribbly plastic toys, fought a losing battle against draught and condensation. The manager of the centre, a woman in her late thirties called Annette, ruled over the space heater with an indignant rage. The moment the temperature outside hit fifteen, the heater’s stained grey cord was yanked out of the wall socket and it was banished to a locked cabinet. It was the only public place to which Vanessa could walk, and she was afraid to drive. She found herself at the children’s centre so often that she ran out of 50p coins, then 20ps and 10ps, and Annette was extraordinarily salty about giving change for the coffee.
It was at the children’s centre that Vanessa met Martine.
‘It gives you a reason to get out of your pyjamas,’ somebody had joked in line for the muddy coffee, and Vanessa found an attempted laugh caught in her throat.
‘I never get out of my pyjamas,’ someone else said. ‘I nap whenever I can, and I’m wiping snot on everything… It’s not like anyone’s going to see.’
‘Fair,’ the first woman replied. ‘We’re not exactly putting in the nine to five anymore.’
‘Ladies,’ Martine had interrupted: a disembodied voice behind Vanessa as she stared at Annette counting out small change into the biscuit tin. ‘I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but have you ever thought about supplementing your income from home?’
Vanessa. Formerly Vanessa Moore, now Vanessa Shore. Thirty. Married. Mother of one. A work history of part-time administrative roles that she was glad to leave behind when she fell pregnant. A stay-at-home mum. The cosy ideal of biscuits and Peppa and crayons kept tidily on a low table with matching coloured chairs, an Instagram-perfect grid of serenity in a home she’d be able to keep immaculate without the pressures of sporadic work or the foggy, greasy hangovers of her twenties. As the heavy blanket of newborn exhaustion lifted, Vanessa looked for this life and instead found a dilapidated house in chaos, friendlessness and loneliness, endless fatigue and not a crayon in sight that wasn’t underfoot or banished as a choking hazard. With this reality came the descent of a guilty pointlessness that kept asking, what now?
The women in line behind Vanessa had stammered at Martine’s question and as Vanessa approached the front of the coffee queue, they talked over each other to awkwardly decline whatever was on offer. She placed two 20p coins and a 10p into the tin as Martine replied:
‘Ladies. It’s a life-changer. Let me know if you’re ready to be your own boss!’
With seven-month-old Charlotte attached to her torso in the awkward sling, Vanessa would climb the rickety steps back to the cul-de-sac. Back home by 11, the surrounding streets were as quiet as midnight, and as the day unfolded she would cycle through the tasks of feeding, changing and cleaning until it was dark again and clothes were laid out for the trip down the rickety steps in the morning. It was a routine of sorts; a modest timetable.
Posted on its begrudgingly mean council webpage, the children’s centre had a timetable too. Each ninety-minute slot throughout the day was allocated a name and nominal activity, although Vanessa had never been able to tell the difference between Coffee Morning (every weekday from 9 until 10.30) and Stay & Play (1 until 2.30). Rhyme Time at least involved songs, led by a forcefully animated Annette, and on Tuesdays during the coffee, a nurse would show up with a set of scales to weigh the babies. There was yoga on Monday and Wednesday evenings.
‘Why don’t you just weigh yourself and then pick her up?’ Vanessa’s husband Craig had asked when she described the nurse’s visits.
It was difficult to do this when she was too ashamed of her pyjama-clad body to even look under the beach towels for the bathroom scales. She started going to the yoga nights. They were a lot cheaper than joining a gym, which she wouldn’t be able to do for years because the only remotely affordable one did not have a creche, and the pang of excitement she always felt when stepping into the children’s centre was heightened because the evening outings were an adult venture, an independent treat. It took Martine one session to notice her.
‘You’re a coffee regular, aren’t you!’ Martine exclaimed on Vanessa’s second night. Nights were colder and damper than the mid-mornings; it was not going to be hot yoga. ‘You have the little girl with the pink hat!’
She pulled her smooth blue mat next to Vanessa’s pockmarked strip of curling PVC. ‘I’m Martine,’ she said, hand already in Vanessa’s, shaking it around. Besides Craig, who’d relieved her of baby duties so she could come to yoga, Martine was the first adult she’d made eye contact with that day.
So it was Martine who, after the hour of stretching and flexing things that the pyjamas normally covered, took Vanessa’s unlocked phone from her outstretched hand and added herself to Vanessa’s Facebook friends. Putting the phone away, Vanessa flushed hotly as they made for the exit and the wet night, the rickety steps. Besides family members wanting baby photos, Martine was the first new person she’d added on Facebook in over a year, since the NCT class girls with whom she’d not kept in touch. Her ascent of the steps was even lighter than it should have been without the baby’s weight. She was less jealous of the warm, brightly lit windows of the houses neighbouring hers, which she always imagined belonged to happier, warmer people with more fulfilled lives than her own. Nobody ever tells you, she thought, that new motherhood is such a dark, cold, muddy time.
‘You know it’s a pyramid scheme,’ Annette would say.
It took Martine a week to convince Vanessa to sign up. A near-constant presence on Facebook, her message notifications flickered brightly on Vanessa’s phone as she sat in the growing light of the early morning, staring at herself in the small plastic mirror on the vanity. More notifications came later as Martine began her morning videos, broadcast live on her Facebook page. Vanessa received a mention three times during the week on account of being part of the live audience watching Martine wash, moisturise and prime her face, talking all the while about her husband and teenage children. Face scrubbed and set, she then applied foundation, eyebrows, eyeshadow, lipstick, eyeliner and mascara without breaking the monologue. A ‘Get Ready With Me’, she called it. It took her fifteen minutes but she mentioned three times in two videos that the actual process was much quicker without the various product displays she incorporated.
‘I can do this look in under five minutes if I’m pressed for time,’ she claimed. ‘And you can too.’
The face in Vanessa’s mirror rarely wore make-up. She tilted her high, sharp cheekbone at the thin morning light. Winter skin under freckles so pale they were almost pink, only slightly creased under her wide brown eyes, and fuller lips than she felt the rest of her face deserved: Martine had called her an exquisite canvas. She placed her index fingers on her eyelids and lifted, stretching the skin and removing the under-eye circles.
You can do what I do! Ask me how.
‘I don’t think I could,’ she said aloud to Martine at yoga. A week had passed since they’d met and Martine, with a degree of intimacy that Vanessa had never known possible from a recent stranger, had shared the details of what she did for a living. On the second day of their friendship, Martine posted a thick matte brochure through Vanessa’s letter box. In a wide beige font set atop the blue of a Mauritian beach, the booklet detailed the fundamentals of Martine’s business.
‘Anyone can do this!’ Martine exclaimed at yoga, and threw her mouth open again to rectify what sounded like a damning statement on Vanessa’s simplicity. ‘Anyone with drive and passion, and self-belief. Anyone who wants it badly enough. You won’t regret it.’
The brochure smelled like a warm printing press. Beyond the beach, a hotel for the company’s annual conference sat in a ring of tropical trees and was flanked by deep blue swimming pools and bright white sun loungers. The photographs on the next page detailed the conference, available to all business owners (so it said) but subsidised for holders of Cobalt Status and above. On the following page, the matrix detailing the organisation’s hierarchy showed that Cobalt was just two levels from the top of the company, bettered only by Diamond and Raven. At the bottom, £59 and £9.99 in postage and packaging would afford Vanessa Ivory Status. Numbers and multiple denotations explained how a newly minted salesperson could move from Ivory to Rose.
‘Not salesperson,’ said Martine. She had a car, a light blue Acura, but she was gunning for Azure Status so she could work towards the famed company BMW. The Acura had taken them a mile down the road from the children’s centre to Costa. Charlotte’s babycino was on the floor. ‘Not salesperson, Vanessa. You’ll be a small business owner. This isn’t sales. This is an opportunity to become your own boss.’
They’d split the bill.
‘You can make this business whatever you want it to be,’ Martine continued. ‘It’s up to you. You get out what you put in, and if you put in enough, the world is yours. All it takes is work, but it’s so easy!’
‘You seem to work very hard, though,’ Vanessa said, wriggling along with Charlotte as she tried to anticipate the baby’s movements and avoid a slip into the sour, milky puddle on the café floor. Martine was shaking her head, rearranging her phone and car keys on the table.
‘Once you find your tribe and your why,’ she said, ‘you never feel like you work at all.’
‘Find your why,’ Martine repeated. ‘Your why is her, isn’t it?’ She gestured at the baby, whose utterances of err were increasing in volume and pitch and threatening to become squeals. ‘She’s why you live and breathe, isn’t she? You want to provide for her, but you want to be there for her. You can’t just dump her in daycare and head back to work, can you? You couldn’t live with yourself!’
Vanessa opened her mouth to reply and found it empty. She had never considered ‘dumping’ Charlotte at nursery (somehow daycare sounded harsher and ironically less caring, an Americanism she’d never heard used in conversation before). She’d never considered going back to work, whatever it would mean to go back to something that was always purposeless beyond the promise of a regular paycheque. She was aware that the jobs she’d had in the past wouldn’t cover the cost of a nursery place and had never thought about it again, relegating the days of paid employment to history.
‘Well, no,’ she admitted, suddenly shy of her stay-at-home motherhood: a goal that had not unfolded into the delicate pattern she’d anticipated but one of which she’d never felt ashamed.
‘But you want to provide for her. Give her everything and more. Holidays abroad, private school, all the little luxuries?’
‘I hadn’t thought much about school.’
‘Yes, but you will, Vanessa. You will. I see so many women who turn their lives around when their kids are young. They take a leap. They have faith in themselves. And they find purpose, Vanessa. They find independence and confidence and sisterhood. We’re all sisters!’
She exclaimed this so loudly that an older couple at the next table glanced around, furrowed brows landing on Charlotte.
‘And,’ Martine continued, furtive and conspiratorial with a quick head flick at the couple. ‘And. The opinions of people like that, and anyone who isn’t positive, they stop mattering. You just have no time for negative vibes.’
She sat back, ample jumper smoothed across her chest with the long, squared fingernails that clacked abrasively on the phone’s screen whenever she replied, so she said, to a sales inquiry.
‘I’ll think about it,’ Vanessa said, but what was £59 and £9.99 in postage and packaging for the opportunity to find her purpose, to be independent, to be free?
Both Martine and the instructions on the company website were insistent that Vanessa kick off her new venture with an online ‘party’, inviting all of her Facebook contacts to watch her open the new box of products. She was instructed to watch the company videos and learn the accepted application techniques, but it took three days of smudged blue eyeshadow and clumpy black tears for Vanessa to get a handle on it. Applying make-up had never been this difficult in her youth. The party, however, was paramount, even surpassing skills and technique in terms of importance. She had never felt so conspicuous or nervous, her last appearance in front of a live audience having been the unenthused warbling of the senior choir at the school Christmas service fourteen years ago.
‘Fake the self-confidence if you have to!’ Martine had exclaimed when Vanessa expressed her worries about the video. It was the first time Vanessa had heard exasperation instead of enthusiasm in her voice. ‘Everyone does at first, but you have to do a launch. It’s entirely on you to make this happen.’
She had written out a meagre script and recited it a handful of times. Charlotte was in her bouncer in the corner – all Vanessa’s prayers centred on the issue of the baby not crying mid-presentation. Martine messaged her a matter of minutes before she was due to start recording.
‘Don’t worry if nobody’s watching,’ she said. ‘This is to build your brand awareness, and the video will be available on your profile for replays. Ask people to comment hashtag live if they’re watching you when you’re on, or hashtag replay if they’re watching later. And don’t worry, I can get some of my girls to chime in to up the numbers.’
Her ‘girls’ were other women Martine had recruited, scattered throughout the town and indeed the country. Vanessa had been instructed to freely accept any and all friend requests she received, especially from women, as many of them would apparently constitute her ‘tribe’. When she clicked the red camera icon and confirmed that she wanted to start a live video, three, five and then eight people silently joined. Who are they? Why aren’t they saying anything? She stumbled on her rehearsed introduction.
‘Hey there everyone!’
When had she ever been one for hey there? She was the sort to say hiya, or even a dorky, ill-conceived hi guys! Never hey there. Martine had written hey there in the script.
‘Welcome to, my, ah. My launch party. Super excited to announce that I’ve just joined an international team of beauty consultants with my own business to be my own, ah. So, I’ll be on here…’
The total number of people watching dropped to seven and then six.
‘I’ll be on every morning or so, showing you guys all the, ah. So, we have…’
She fumbled with the re-boxed products, awkwardly tilting the phone. Later, it would transpire that she hadn’t angled the phone correctly and the tilt showed nothing but her grey T-shirt and the thick seam of her nursing bra. The viewership jumped back to eight.
‘We have the Lava Core mascara, and the Decadence too, both of which are set to, um, both of which increase your volume by up to two hundred percentage… per cent, and you can pair those with the basic eyeshadow palette in blue or neutral for the first, er, in the first box.’
She wasn’t confident with the eyeshadow so she’d applied it earlier, but figured that was fine given how common it was on cooking shows. A comment notification popped up: Martine, with a ‘woop wopp! You go girl!!’, complete with misspelling.
It was torturous, reminiscent of the public speaking debacles at school where she couldn’t take her eyes off the girls in the front row who tipped forwards and backwards on their chairs as they glared at Vanessa’s shaking notes.
‘F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is… about very different ways… whereby…’
‘You were superb!’ was Martine’s feedback before, rather abruptly, she excused herself from the launch party debrief. ‘I would work on product awareness. Put in an order for a selection of the bases and foundations so you can familiarise yourself with which hue works best and… maybe work on the lighting. You’re going to want to grab the lipsticks and the lip stains and do some videos on those in the next few weeks too, but if you order through my portal you’ll get the twenty per cent discount.’
And with the shopping list dispensed, she was gone.
Ten hours later, the only comments were from the tribe. Two women had asked Vanessa for more information, with the instruction from Martine being that she should reply ‘I’ll inbox you’ to any such requests. Being plants, they didn’t actually require Vanessa to send them a message. Another had simply left a hand symbol that was probably meant to be a high five. A fourth had left the ‘live’ hashtag, even though Vanessa had forgotten to give the instruction to do so.
Fifteen days later, she had recorded six videos, all under ten minutes in length, showing the products shakily in front of the phone’s camera. Her sister, ten years older than Vanessa and working as an accountant in Cardiff, asked tentatively if she was keeping a spreadsheet of revenue and profit. Her mother, watching morning current affairs on television over her thin, fidgeting fingers, asked if she was being paid for the product demos. She misspelled demos as demons and Vanessa’s palms blanched with embarrassed sweat. Fifteen days later, she had sold two sticks of mascara.
A world to be conquered; an empire to be built. Spring sunshine lit her bedroom earlier in the morning when the traffic was picking up and the day was still possibly hers, and the grassy slope surrounding the children’s centre was mowed for the first time since October. The smell wafted up the rickety steps to the cul-de-sac and it too implied fresh possibilities. Fifteen days, said Martine, was not a long time and at least she had made some sales. No, she was a long way from recouping her investment (this word was delivered with gravity) but she challenged Vanessa to name one businessperson or company who was profitable after fifteen days, and being Vanessa Moore-turned-Shore, mother of one and owner of twelve lip plumpers, she could not.
They met at the children’s centre every morning but went inside less regularly, as Martine preferred to drive to the café a mile away.
‘I’m finding the vibe there very negative,’ she offered. ‘Everyone used to be really friendly but they’re kind of bitchy and cliquey now. Annette will barely speak to me!’
‘They don’t talk to me either,’ Vanessa said in agreement. The women she saw there regularly would never have been classed as her friends per se, but they knew her by name and would happily trade stories of sleeplessness, colic and Calpol. Since her partnership with Martine, they had grown cold.
‘I guess they think I’m going to ask them to sign up,’ she mused, defeated, as they ordered the more expensive coffee.
‘Join,’ Martine corrected. ‘We don’t say sign up. And I certainly wouldn’t advise you to try that.’ A harsh spit of disdain on her breath made Vanessa’s stomach twitch with anxiety. ‘I already offered them the opportunity, but some people aren’t ready. They’re narrow-minded and negative. Or they’re haters. Those women are all bitches. It’s best we don’t go there anymore.’
‘What about yoga?’ she asked, before she could think to hold her tongue.
‘If you have to,’ Martine said.
‘You know it’s a pyramid scheme.’
The catch on her jumper as she was going in and Annette was coming out. Annette’s eyes truly on her for the first time, not flicking to the heater or the denomination of coins for coffee. The PVC mat under her arm, a touch of light still in the sky, Vanessa’s bulky sweater acting as a temporary leash.
‘She tries it on here every six months or so. I’ve asked her to leave before but if she doesn’t actively harass anyone and she buys a drink, it’s a grey area. The council doesn’t want her to kick up a fuss. It’s a pain in the arse when she does.’
They held each other’s gaze and Annette held the jumper’s hem, both aware that when she let go or looked away, the moment would be over.
‘I don’t expect you to say anything; I know how this goes,’ Annette continued. ‘She does this at a few other places around town: they’ve chucked her out of the library twice for handing out pamphlets during the toddler group. Just think about it. What’s a woman in her mid-forties with no kids doing at a children’s centre coffee morning?’
‘She has kids!’ Vanessa exclaimed, scorched scarlet with hot shame.
‘Does she? How old are they?’ Annette said, voice still almost monotone. Sad. Tired. Seen-it-all-before. Vanessa stammered.
‘They’re… well, they’re older, sure…’
‘Older? Primary school older? Or secondary? University? Left home?’
‘I… they’re at secondary school. Just down the hill. They’re still local.’
‘Yeah, but not really into Rhyme Time, are they,’ Annette said. It wasn’t a question.
Vanessa gulped at the anger in her throat, pulling lightly away and watching Annette’s hand fall.
‘Martine offered me an opportunity,’ she said, attempting assertiveness but wobbling and catching her breath on the final word.
‘Martine’s offered opportunities to at least ten women I know of who’ve taken her bait. They never make any money, Vanessa. They buy all the merch and the commission goes to Martine, and she’s happy. She gets her cut and if – when – they start to struggle, she cuts them off and calls them lazy. Says it was their fault they couldn’t sell. They’re left with a box full of dried-out crap make-up and some poor schmuck—’
She seemed to catch herself before continuing. ‘They’re left worse off, with a partner asking where the money went, and Martine waits until their kid is old enough that they don’t come to the centre anymore, and she comes back to find someone new.’
‘Pyramid schemes are illegal,’ Vanessa heard herself say, her voice as timid and small as the last 5p coin tossed into the biscuit tin. Annette nodded.
‘I’m aware of that,’ she said. ‘I’ve heard it about ten times before. Just imagine for a moment that there was no make-up. Does it change anything?’
Two sticks of mascara. A starter box and several smaller shipments of product under the window, under the mirror, awaiting the morning sunshine.
‘Has she asked you to start messaging your friends to join yet? Do they delete you from Facebook when you do?’
About twelve people, to date. Most of them quite negative, closed-minded sorts, dating all the way back to school. Good riddance. The internal monologue was as easy to parrot as the first hey there!
‘You stopped coming to the morning sessions with Charlotte. Did she tell you that the women were mean, turning against you? Jealous of your success?’
Annette’s first inaccuracy: no one had ever implied anybody was jealous of Vanessa.
‘Did she promise you a holiday in Mexico?’
‘I have to go inside now,’ Vanessa snapped, jerking further away from Annette as if she were still holding the hem of the jumper. ‘I’m going to be late for the class.’
‘I understand that this isn’t likely to change your mind overnight. It’s a cult. And I get that my approach isn’t tactful or even useful, but I’m tired. Tired of Martine’s shit, tired of watching her prey on exhausted, lonely people. She’s taking advantage of you, Vanessa, and it breaks my heart. It breaks my heart every time. We’ll all be here if you come back, and we won’t judge. One of the ladies who brings her four-year-old at half term got involved a few years ago: it happens to the best of us. Martine’s forgotten who she is, though. She even tried to recruit her again recently. Nobody is going to hold it against you.’
She moved backwards towards the car park, her day managing the centre finished and her timesheet submitted. Wage slave, said Martine in Vanessa’s head.
‘I’ll keep that in mind,’ Vanessa said, back straight, chin forced forwards sharply as she turned away.
‘You’re welcome…’ Annette said, and Vanessa thought it was sarcasm until she added, ‘any time.’
The space next to Vanessa where Martine used to lay her mat was empty, and the woman immediately to her left twitched a smile at her before edging her shoulder round a touch, turning away. The well of words that lay in anticipation at the bottom of her lungs rose to her throat and made her lips twitch with a smile too, and the shoulder turned away further. Headlights swung into the dimly lit room as Annette left the car park, glaring abruptly into Vanessa’s eyes, which were tingling with indignant tears. In her mind’s eye, tapping her fingernails on the wide, foundation-smeared screen of her mobile phone, Martine made a disgusted face and nodded.
Traffic picked up on the commuter road over the fence at just the wrong time for the morning video, but maybe the hum of the engines implied activity and busy lives, the cars creeping towards the intersection on the cul-de-sac driven by people as energised and validated as she was. She had learned from the spring training videos that recording from your own car, when it was stationary of course, gave off an air of purpose and destiny. Most consultants included at least one photo from the driver’s seat daily. Since they were encouraged to embrace their own marketing ideas too, maybe the sounds of other people’s commutes added a certain something. They were impossible to avoid. It was the beginning of summer and there was daylight from four in the morning.
That time of day felt like it held the most hope.
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