Am I losing touch? Have I spent too long in the country? Last week I went to the city for lunch with a friend who now lives in the Lake District. It wasn't precisely a halfway house, but meeting in Manchester worked for both of us.
Having become a jeans and fleece sort of a girl, I really did try to make a bit of an effort. I shaved my legs, I put a skirt on and a pair of boots which last year made me feel like the bees' knees. I couldn't quite be bothered with the whole hair straighteners rigmarole but I bashed it for a while with a hairbrush and put on some make up and left feeling really quite smart. When I stopped in the village to buy a paper my friend in the newsagent said "Oh, where are you off to then?" so it clearly showed.
I parked my car in the gulp inducingly expensive carpark at Kendals (a sort of smaller, Northern version of Harrods for those who have never heard of it) and found I had half an hour to kill before meeting S so I thought I would have a quick whizz round in case I could manage to start my Christmas shopping, startlingly early for me.
And the whole thing was dreadful.
First I caught sight of myself unexpectedly in a shop mirror and had the classic experience of wondering who that fat, miserable old bat was before realising it was me. I can't even say I looked like my mother as my mother looks loads better. I just looked ancient and slightly scruffy.
In a panic I flew to the ladies' and put some lipstick on and attacked the hair again. Now I didn't look quite so ancient but as I was putting the hairbrush away three girls came in who make me feel I had wandered into an alien world. Each was deeply tanned and highly blonded, with the straight glossy hair and glossy lips of a television presenter or a female X factor judge. Each wore heels so high that they towered above me (and I am middling, not short) and each examined her reflection in the mirror so minutely that they might have been looking for hairs unplucked or pores unsqueezed. They carried handbags loaded with chains and quilting and colour. They were dressed, at eleven thirty on an autumn morning, in tiny shiny dresses, tied under the bust and short enough to display miles of leg of varying degrees of beauty or sturdiness.
They looked like pictures in Grazia. They looked as if they were trying to be Cheryl Cole. They made me feel utterly out of place and uncomprehending. I would not have looked like that even when I could have done and I fled, wondering what had happened to the feminism which sought to abolish the idea of women as sex objects. As far as I can see all that has happened is that young men are now also fair game and are thus becoming as obsessed with their looks as women once were. A form of equality I suppose.
I wandered out into the store. I am not a great shopper but Kendals is as good as it gets generally, not too huge, lots of choice, things which shout "quality" or "expensive" depending on your mood. And perhaps it was my mood that made every rail a shuddering obscenity: shirts for toddlers at £60, hideous versions of those handbags for hundreds, shoes you could not walk in for a month's salary, a child's bed for the price of a small car.
I pushed out of the store and fell gratefully into Waterstones - ordinary looking people, piles of books, yes, a business, but one that made more sense to me, that didn't make me feel queasy with excess. And then I met my friend and the hours flew by as we drank too much coffee and stayed and stayed and laughed and were serious and laughed again.
Have I spent too long in the country?