It wasn’t until I left school that the first perks of being ginger finally raised their head. Since then, I’ve never taken them for granted, though admittedly, benefits are limited to an occasional free drink and the ambivalent satisfaction of being a subcategory on most adult websites.
Throw a Scottish accent in the mix and Americans can barely contain themselves.
But despite these life-changing advantages, which really do rival a state pension in terms of long-term financial security, the obvious drawbacks to being a redhead remain. Chronic flushing. Low tolerance for spice. Enough precancerous freckles to constitute their own cosmos.
So when my sister suggested brunch “al fresco” in the middle of Clapham, I should have simply said no — any sane person of my complexion would.
I’ve been described by well-meaning people as going a particular shade of apricot when exposed to sunlight, much like a bashful vampire, and although there is nothing quite as chic as a redhead lounging in the sun, clad in a men’s shirt with a cigarette hanging off her lips, it isn’t long before the tickle in her throat can no longer be blamed on the tar.
At the very least, a quick glance at the weather forecast would have saved me the humiliation of turning up in a turtleneck. After forgetting my sunglasses and going halfway there before realising my mistake, the dreaded sweats started long before I’d had the chance to note the prices on the menu.
My sister was wearing a sundress and sipping on a smoothie that probably cost more than my hourly wage. She was a glorious shade of honey. I could feel my hair sticking to the back of my neck.
Despite retaining her own accent, she called me “dahling” as we stickily embraced. It’s amazing what six months in south London can do to a girl. Our rendezvous turned out to be a sceney little brunch spot flanked by fragrant shrubs that seemed to be chained to the ground. At the news we’d be eating outside, I’d naively pictured abandoned beer glasses and cigarette butts.
Glancing around the gaggle of Londondites perched at their cafe tables, I marvelled at their composure, long necks craning over poached eggs like gannets over their broods. Our neighbours nodded passively, picking balefully at slices of smoked salmon. Anyone would think they were having a terrible time.
In a last-ditch attempt to retain my own poise, I threw my blistering face backwards in the hope that some gentleman in the vicinity might deposit his suncream across it. Would ordering £16 avocado toast taste better because I was the only person who wasn’t wearing a bucket hat?
Then, a horrible thought occurred to me: I was the only person there who actually needed a bucket hat. One side of my face was already burning. After 10 minutes, I had resorted to leaning so far into the shade that I may as well have laid down horizontally. The only solution was to start complaining: “If they’re gonnae smash avocado on top of sourdough, they better bring me a steak knife tae cut it. It’s like slicing wi’ a chopstick.”
My sister eyes me over her power maca smoothie. “You seem a wee bit cranky, if you dinnae mind me sayin’.”
My toast was tepid at best. I’d already dropped my fork onto the pavement twice. I wondered if having my back so close to the traffic was in any way connected to the way my chest was contracting into a tight knot.
“It was smart of you tae go for something that’s already cold,” I replied. Since I was the sort of person who sneezed at the mere mention of a grassy meadow, the inclusion of edible flowers on my plate felt like the last straw.
My feet were swelling inside my conspicuously trendy sneakers. Even with inflation, the cost of brunch in Clapham would never compare to the emotional toll of skin cancer. Who knew how much longer the delicate skin on my nose would hold out?
“Why are you greetin’?” my sister asked, frowning over the top of her glass. I tried to wipe my bloodshot eyes with garlicky fingers. “It’s nothing. I’m just really moved by this aioli.” I caught the eye of a nearby blonde in a spotty Zara dress.
“It’s not quite as good as the stuff they do in Bermondsey,” she whispered, to nobody in particular. My sister slurped the last of her smoothie. “Do you want tae go? You look a bit hot.”
“I thought you’d never ask.” I longed to be inside — or at least somewhere where the sun couldn’t reach me, like Glasgow. I hurried to the counter and put down my card. “It’s all paid,” the server said. “What?” She pointed at a man sitting in the corner. “He settled it for you. Said he liked your hair.”