Recently, my friend May wanted a new car. Like every other decision she’s made about her life, she asked the opinion of her friends. After all, if we don’t know her, who does?
We’ve all been pals since the first year of high school and grew closer over the years, working our first summer jobs, going on first dates, breaking hearts or nursing them. May was always ahead, a bit fast for us, my Mum used to say. “Watch her,” she’d say, “that one knows her own mind.”
May was first with the heavy eyeliner and pale blue eyeshadow, first with the wide leg Santana jeans and cork platforms, first with Elton John, Jethro Tull and Neil Diamond. She told a good joke, smoked the occasional Sobranie and set a high bar for living as we saw it.
On her 18th birthday, she got her licence and a second-hand Volkswagon 1303. She announced she was driving to Sydney to stay with her cousin and left us behind, with too much mascara, a secret love of back-combed hair and very high shoes.
Since then, May’s lead a big life — she’s walked the Camino, done the bridge climb eight times, meditated with the Dalai Lama. She had a career as a teacher, a PR guru and finally, a wild-haired film producer. She still smokes the occasional Sobranie and wears combat boots, now with orthotics. Her nails are sometimes red, to match her eyes, she jokes.
Fifty years later, we still think of her as the frontier of cool. Our little group has agreed, when it comes to style worthy of imitation, May’s got it.
A month ago we met for lunch, the same bistro we’ve been meeting in since 1978. May turned up, parked her emerald green Audi at the front and stomped in, camo jacket swinging over a graffiti covered back brace and a torn t-shirt.
“Right,” she announced. “I’m buying a new car.”
We leaned over eagerly. What could be more stylish than the Audi? Ageing bodies with youngish minds wanted to know.
May produced a sheet of paper, the list written in purple ink. Purchase criteria! A grail list of vehicular cool for sexagenarians. I watched as the list passed from hand to hand, each face a becoming a picture of puzzlement, distaste or confusion. Then concern. The list reached me; I looked at it.
High hip point? Strong door stay? One touch close? Size adjustable interior display? The widest door opening? Independent safety rating?
“May,” I said, “I thought this list was for your new car? What about speed, reliability, colour, make, model…?”
“This time,” she said. “I’ve decided it will be all about comfort and safety. You know, the privilege of age.” She pulled a Sobranie from a vintage cigarette case.
“May!” we chorused in unison.
“Oh, it’s only an e-cig!” she said, tapping it on the table. “So, I’m getting some sort of SUV. Maybe a small four-seater.”
We all looked at each other.
May was mistaken. There is no style of small SUV for someone like her — or us. We each had our zippy little smart cars, with a plug for the iPhone, full screen navigation display and heated seats. Comfort? It was no relation to style as far as we knew.
In private conversations after that lunch, we agreed May was way off the mark. More than that, she was probably losing it. Age, we said wisely. Bound to affect her style. We sipped our spritzes and nodded.
We met back at the bistro for lunch a fortnight later. May stomped in, a bohemian print maxi dress under a leather biker jacket, white wedge sneakers. Her head in a green silk scarf.
“I’ve got the car.” She looked pleased.
“Must look great with that outfit,” someone muttered.
“Oh, but it does!” She reached for her phone. “I bought a cute little SUV, highest safety rating, ticked all the boxes. And I got it for a great price.”
We exchanged looks. May passed her phone to me. “Here. I’m picking it up at the end of the week.”
I looked at the phone. There was a picture of an SUV, a well-known model popular among retirees.
But this one had tinted windows. A sunroof. And were they iridescent side mirrors? Playful goats and sheep wandered along a green stripe painted along the side. It was a work of art.
“I had it tricked up a bit,” she said. “Adds more style — age shouldn’t stop us being individuals, should it?”
At that, humble pie became our dish of the day.
A few days later we lined up to see the new car, still applauding May at the frontier of cool.