It’s February 18 1960. Jean Cocteau has just released his film The Testament Of Orpheus. Mme Francine Weisweiller is in it, just a small part, but important nevertheless. Mme is not an actress but the aging poet’s best friend and she plays ‘la dame qui s’est trompée d’époque’ or, in translation, and I fear less smoothly, the woman who found herself in the wrong decade. Janine Janet, the creator of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s surreal window displays, is the costume designer, but Mme wears a trailing white dress by Balenciaga himself, which she paid for. Instructed by Cocteau to take his inspiration from Claude Monet and Sarah Bernhardt, Balenciaga produces exactly what suits Mme best and into the bargain doesn’t sully his reputation. Cocteau describes Mme’s appearance as a ‘live phantom of flesh and bone’.
On this second day our mood was still cheery, and we continued to wear our best behaviour like freshly pressed clothes. The next day’s stuck-in-the-mud situation got a bit dirtier. The cheeriness had already faded over breakfast as the kitchen staff repeatedly delivered the wrong order. Frustration and annoyance followed us into the car. Mr Honey Badger directed his anger at me and I looked for relief in the trees and the bush outside the window. Our mutual frustration and anger grew and swelled in the heat as the day progressed. We got stuck in the mud again. It engulfed the car like smooth porridge and nearly did the same with our feet. A few nearby construction workers came to our rescue and helpfully pulled us out with their car. We continued along the rocky, uneven road. Eventually we reached a river, only to realise there was no way to cross. We opened the windows to let in fresh air, but annoyance, frustration, and anger clung to our clothes like the red Tsavo dust.
I hesitate to describe Sophy Epstein’s dress. You won’t like it. In the first place, it was cut too low, front and back, for a shoe clerk in a downtown loft. It was a black dress, near-princess in style, very tight as to fit, very short as to skirt, very sleazy as to material. It showed all the delicate curves of Sophy’s under-fed, girlish body, and Sophy didn’t care a bit. Its most objectionable feature was at the throat. Collarless gowns were in vogue. Sophy’s daring shears had gone a snip or two farther. They had cut a startlingly generous V. To say that the dress was elbow-sleeved is superfluous. I have said that Sophy clerked in a downtown loft.
You looked once again at your phone and wondered if you had time for a quick rub. Your record was seven and a half minutes and right now you had twenty-five. You cupped your breasts over your T-shirt and squeezed them so hard they hurt. You grabbed your throat with your left hand, lined up your fingers on your jugular and slid the right hand down. Good for the nerves, yes, but is there enough time?
They have a drink on her balcony. She pretends they’re sitting on the terrace of a bar, like they might have in virus-free times. Instead they’re alone, inside her home. Two strangers in soft clothes and plain faces. The sun sets. The conversation stumbles, accelerates. They talk of fears, politics, childhoods, their intimacy growing in the darkness. The street is quiet. The buzz of cicadas and their own voices the only sounds cutting the air. Until they run out of things to say, and the cicadas alone save them from silence. Yet they refill their glasses, and move inside. She puts on music.
It was her own life that was in the middle drawer. She was the person she was not only because of her mother but because, fifty-eight years before, in the little town of Oberelsbach, another woman, whose qualities she would never know, had died too soon. Death, she thought, absolves equally the bungler, the evildoer, the unloving, and the unloved – but never the living. In the end, the cicatrix that she had, in the smallest of ways, helped her mother to bear had eaten its way in and killed. The living carry, she thought, perhaps not one tangible wound but the burden of the innumerable small cicatrices imposed on us by our beginnings; we carry them with us always, and from these, from this agony, we are not absolved.
The Babcocks owned their house and a tiny sum in the bank, upon the interest of which they lived. Nobody knew how much it was, nobody would ever know while they lived. They might have had more if they would have sold or mortgaged their house, but they would have died first. They starved daintily and patiently on their little income. They mended their old muslins and Thibets, and wore one dress between them for best, taking turns in going out.
‘It could have been made for you,’ said the saleswoman when the bank clerk put the coat on and looked at herself in the mirror. ‘It fits perfectly on the shoulders and at the waist, and the length is just right,’ she said, ‘and it really suits your skin tone. Not that I’m trying to pressure you into buying it,’ she added hurriedly, ‘obviously you’re free to choose anything you like, but if you don’t mind my saying so, the coat really does look as if it had been made for you. Just for you,’ she said again, with the hint of a smile.
Young women of such birth, living in a quiet country-house, and attending a village church hardly larger than a parlor, naturally regarded frippery as the ambition of a huckster’s daughter. Then there was well-bred economy, which in those days made show in dress the first item to be deducted from, when any margin was required for expenses more distinctive of rank. Such reasons would have been enough to account for plain dress, quite apart from religious feeling; but in Miss Brooke’s case, religion alone would have determined it; and Celia mildly acquiesced in all her sister’s sentiments, only infusing them with that common-sense which is able to accept momentous doctrines without any eccentric agitation. Dorothea knew many passages of Pascal’s Pensees and of Jeremy Taylor by heart; and to her the destinies of mankind, seen by the light of Christianity, made the solicitudes of feminine fashion appear an occupation for Bedlam.
I really must try to make him change the way he dresses, she told herself. His suits are just too ridiculous for words. There had been a time when she thought they were wonderful, those Edwardian jackets with high lapels and six buttons down the front, but now they merely seemed absurd. So did the narrow stovepipe trousers. You had to have a special sort of face to wear things like that and Cyril just didn’t have it. His was a long bony countenance with a narrow nose and a slightly prognathous jaw, and when you saw it coming up out of the top of one of those tightly fitting old fashioned suits it looked like a caricature of Sam Weller. He probably thought it looked like Beau Brummel.
Who can imagine a 1980s shoe that was absolutely white, without any logo, with no swoosh, not a single slogan? Sunday evenings, before the school week, I crouched down on the pink bathroom tiles and painted my shoes into the absolute of whiteness; like the Alice in Wonderland gardeners repainting roses. This task was performed with a toothbrush and with special paste that annihilated so many design features. Purity was attained by the application of a whitener that stank of scientific poly-syllables.
For underpants I’ll pick white cotton,
the briefs of my childhood,
for it was my mother’s dictum
that nice girls wore only white cotton.