Clothes maketh the man, Mother used to say. Her words stay with you as you riffle through the hanging ghosts in your wardrobe. It’s a moment of infinite anticipation. What to wear? The evening’s expectations are secreted among the limp fall of fabrics, the yielding crush of shoulder pads, the sly whispers of silk. You whisk two or three recruits from the comradely army in the closet and set them up around the room – over the mirror, on the twin mother-of-pearl inlaid handles of the wardrobe, or fainting on the bed. It makes it seem more like play; makes more of a ritual of it.
Often the bedroom will end up strewn with discarded clothes, denuded hangers, fleets of shoes poised in the second position and still, you won’t have made a choice. You find such disarray intoxicatingly seedy, though nothing could be further from the truth. You’re a careful dresser, in fact, discreet, but unambiguously feminine.
You don’t go overboard, of course. No polka dots, no stilettos in pre-school colours. But you don’t like sober either – otherwise, what would be the point? It is called dressing up, after all. You can’t stand calculated understatement, that eunuch look the younger ones go for. Those pin-striped trousers or sober little black suits with a white tee shirt peeking underneath and a bit of underwire cleavage just to tantalise. That really is drag. You’re doing impersonation, not caricature. You’d love to totter around in platforms or heels but there’s your feet to consider. And your height. You can’t afford to magnify flaws. It’s all about disguise as any “girl” will tell you. The opaque tights are your biggest compromise. With a different anatomy you’d go for broke and wear fishnets. But if you’re big-boned you can’t play the vamp with any kind of grace. Anyway, you want to look like a woman, not a tart.
The bridge club variety, you mean, the blue rinse brigade, George sneers. Bitchy! But according to George, you have slender hips – this said with some envy – and a real waist. You appreciate George’s fitting room verdicts, admiration professed if only to the mirror. Makes you feel real. Your biggest weakness is floral. Not loud, but more the summer garden variety. Mother used to have swing dresses with pink coins of colour like lily pads dimpling a Monet lake. You used to love those. Maybe you’re operating out of sentiment, or nostalgia. Though even you would baulk at admitting that your fashion sense is down to Mother’s frocks. But, look, you loved your mother. It’s not a crime, is it? Though these days any extravagant expression of affection, particularly for your mother, seems to arouse suspicion. Suspicion of what, you’d like to know. You’re not afraid to admit that you idolised Mother – God rest her. You keep her alive this way too, with those blessings of hers. You use them sincerely though sometimes people, including George, presume irony. (You open your mouth and your mother comes out, George says.) Maybe you cling to Mother’s memory simply because for so long there was just the two of you.
Father disappeared when you were two – he did one of those magic tricks. Put his hand in the till and went up in a puff of smoke. Left you both in the lurch, Mother would say. In your mind’s eye you saw a drunk on a deserted street, lewd smile, evil laughter, rotten teeth. Something to do with that word lurch, as if he had reeled off and blundered into another dimension. Of course, he wasn’t like that at all. The family photograph (yes, just the one; this was a time when fathers took the photos rather than appearing in them) shows him in a rumpled-looking suit, hair in corn drills, shirt collar askew. He looks like an overgrown schoolboy, his worthy clothes over-tended, unloved. He was a solicitor’s clerk. He worked in a chamber of brown linoleum, bentwood chairs, a hatless coat-stand, a mahogany desk inlaid with green leather. There was a hatch to keep the public at bay. He stayed in the Inner Office, trapped behind towers of thick-lipped manilla folders. Keeper of the cheque book.
“He couldn’t even get cheating right,” Mother would lament.
It was the first out-of-character thing he had ever done. For years he had plodded off to work every morning, peck on the cheek for Mother, and the promise of promotion. Before you came along, a late child, unexpected. Of course, you don’t remember him. Useless was Mother’s verdict. And she made him so over the years. What use could he possibly have been? Mother was your world. Authority, breadwinner, confidante. If that screwed you up, as George would put it, then so be it.
The dressing up started at home. Mother did it, and you copied her. She had a wardrobe that housed a future that never came. A ballgown in turquoise taffeta whose skirts seemed tainted with water marks when you looked at it in a certain light. A couple of cocktail dresses, one in black silk, backless, another in plum velvet with a sequined bodice, heavy as a suit of tears. Some of her clothes you can only remember fragments of now – pink netting here, the fringes of a scarf there. The greatest treasures were hidden away. A fur stole, all watchful eyes and snakish tails, pungent with mothballs, wrapped carefully in tissue paper in a hat box on top of the wardrobe. The wedding dress the light had turned to ivory still rustling superstitiously under a clear plastic shroud from the dry cleaners. And below in the shadows of frothy hems, Mother’s shoes. You remember pushing plump five-year old feet into a pair of her white patent sling-backs. Cold in there. They bowed in the middle like a sagging bridge and the heels threw you forward into the mousehole of the toe. And the lovely clatter they made, the slap and clack! It was a trade-off with Mother. If you agreed to have your hair washed and not to scream when the shampoo got in your eyes, Mother would allow you to wear her shoes for a treat after bath-time. Forget satin corsets and suspenders, you say. The memory of being naked in heels seems to you the ultimate in erotic.
Then you moved on to her evening gloves. She had several pairs – cream, pearl grey and black. Your little fingers burrowed to the tips – it was like climbing inside her – the scalloped ends bunching around your bare bony shoulder. You liked to rummage in the drawer where she stored her headscarves. Horses and anchors and nosegays of daffodils. You’d toss them in the air and in their fluttering descent, her bouquet was released – Blue Grass. You fingered her floral polyester blouses – cross your heart, fabric-coated buttons, sleek to touch but toothily static. Skirts billowed round your head. No slacks here – Mother didn’t hold with them though she acknowledged they were handy if you were a working woman. Which, somehow, implied that she was not. The final frontier was her underwear. Flesh-coloured brassieres, lace-hemmed bloomers, the shivering agony of slips. You turned her roll-on into a straitjacket, your arms and torso encased like an Egyptian mummy; then you lay on the floor and played dead.
Mother was on a fixed income. She managed a nursing home and you lived in. You spent your childhood among old ladies, querulous or melancholy, sagging folds of skin merging with crumpled clothes. Their bony fingers with rings they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, part with, twitched on counterpanes or feverishly counted off the decades on beads. There was the accompanying smell – though Mother was scrupulous about hygiene – which is not urine as people like to think, but the sour odour of organs slowing down. Vapours of decay, in other words. Not the ideal environment to grow up in but it was home. You felt singular amongst all that fading female energy, a buoyant child, beloved.
“Baby,” they would call after you as you dodged past the asparagus ferns in mock-brass urns in the hallway. They always had their doors ajar.
“Baby!” Sometimes it sounded menacing, envious. You were baby to all of them. Some other baby, some lost baby. In her turn, Mother lavished endearments on her patients – sweetheart, pet lamb, even love – and they would invariably soften and wilt and bend to her will. For a moment they would shed their pruney carapaces and smile beatifically at her. But for you she reserved a special term. Darling, come and help Mother out of her dress. Darling, run and get the bed-pan for Mrs Proctor. Darling, tell Mother that you love her.
Maybe that’s why you were slow to make friends. How could the world outside ever replicate Mother’s love and that of all those senile surrogates? You didn’t feel the lack, not when you were a child. And, afterwards, you had George. Mother and George never met. Well, you kept them apart, didn’t you? Mother would not have taken to George’s vulgar candour. Is George the kind of friend we’d like to cultivate, darling? No would have been the answer. No one would be good enough. You feel a stab of resentment when you think of it now, when you stand here faced with a wardrobe full of clothes that echo hers. It makes you wonder. Have you somehow turned into Mother? All dressed up and nowhere to go?
No, not true. Tonight you have somewhere to go. On the bed you lay out a jade velvet skirt, a black sateen jacket, a white blouse with an extravagant ruffle to hide the crepey skin around your neck. They lie there playing dead, as if you were dressing a corpse. You wanted to do this for Mother, to choose a costume for her final journey. The thought excited you even in the midst of grief. The turquoise taffeta, the fur stole? You liked the thought that the fox with its hunter’s eye and the long drip of its tails might be buried, and once below ground might reassemble itself and emerge into the night to prowl again. But no, Mother had left detailed instructions. She wanted a shroud, plain brown from the Poor Clares. But you did help with her make-up; that undertaker had no idea!
Now you sit in front of the triptych dressing table mirror doing your own. Like most of the furniture, it’s Mother’s. All wrong here. Too big and overpowering for the rooms of a semi-d on Prosperity Drive, a place Mother would have looked down her nose at. Scruffy children playing on the street and next door attached, darling! True, on summer evenings you are plagued by boys ringing the bell looking for their football back, and when you look out on your pocket-sized lawn you find your Calla lilies trampled and broken. But despite that you’ve grown to like it here. You stop and chat to that nice Mrs Devoy and have a nodding acquaintance with Mrs Elworthy, a working woman like Mother, with two little girls and no sign of a husband. You don’t belong here exactly but you can’t be put out. You own it, something Mother never did. You have something to leave. But to whom? You shake away the mournful thought and examine your pores in the mirror. You used to watch Mother doing her face. If Father had stayed around you might have been as fascinated by his shaving rituals. As it was, Mother didn’t have anyone to watch admiringly as she powdered her face sending clouds of motes reeling into the air, or applying lipstick – Coral Island – to pouted lips. No one, that is, but you. It was the ceremony that compelled you. The mask behind which Mother’s face disappeared, the glossy lips, the brooding eyeshadow – Deadly Nightshade. You were fascinated by the tweezers, the eye pencils, the emory boards. The mystery of all the little brushes – what were they for? – the powder puffs, the pale squares of make-up in a box like your water paints, the tiny bottles of gilded nail polish. Even then you were learning how to be a woman.
Mother used to bring you with her when she went to the cosmetic counters at Switzers. You used to love that. Picking up the phials of perfume, lifting the heavy glass stoppers and inhaling the scents – tea rose, verbena, musk – while Mother tested lipstick on her hand, or had her cuticles done. What a pair you must have made! Mother in her starched whites from work – she wasn’t a nurse but she said people had more faith when they saw a uniform – and you in your shorts and sandals, a crop-haired urchin. You were going through your tomboy period then. The assistants were charmed that you were so taken with the products.
“Lovely to see a sensitive boy,” one crooned. She had alarming black hair in a Cleopatra cut and an ochre complexion.
“The world will soon beat it out of him,” the other said tartly as she redid her fiercesome lashes. And they both laughed knowingly.
You blushed defiantly. Mother was too discreet to point out their mistake. Afterwards, years afterwards, she said. “But darling, that would have spoiled it for you. You wanted to be a boy then. I knew it was just a phase you were going through.”
You’re all done now. Ready for the performance. Roar of the crowd, smell of the greasepaint! Despite the numerous times you’ve made yourself up – how many times in a woman’s lifetime, who could calculate? – you’ve never quite got used to the dusty, caked feel of foundation. And the look, despite your best efforts, seems fake. If Mother were alive today – a preposterous thought; she’d be 108 – she’d say pityingly, “look at you, darling”.
Tonight is a special occasion. It’s a work thing. A party to launch the new consultants’ clinic. Fancy place, atrium preening with plants, a coffee dock, and lifts – a far cry from the old dingy surgeries and tatty waiting rooms. You work for a foot surgeon. Mr Stafford. He’s portly, self-important. But he’s got a right, you suppose. He wears three-piece suits like a lawyer and a handkerchief in his breast pocket, his only concession to flamboyance. He keeps his distance – from you, from his patients. He’s like an old-fashioned headmaster. You think he would secretly like to be called sir. You wouldn’t mind, but in this day and age you’re not sure if that’s not a crime too. So he relies on his bearing and his obvious wealth to command respect. With his fees, that’s not hard. He’s married, of course, and years older than you, but he depends on you for all sorts of things. His Girl Friday he calls you, which shows his age and yours, because you get the reference. George says you’re like the “other woman” for him. Nothing could be further from your mind but George has always revelled in being outrageous.
You met her at secretarial school. She started off as your pal, at least that’s what Mother called her. The one with the strange name, Mother would add as if you were besieged with friends. Short for Georgina.
“What a handle,” she would say, “I don’t know what possessed my parents!”
“Why didn’t you shorten it to Georgie?” you asked.
“Too Enid Blyton. Too Mallory Towers,” she said. “No, George makes more of a statement.”
George was always brighter than you. Her brisk, brunette manner was a cover for ambitions a well-read girl from her background couldn’t afford. You and she started out working in the typing pool at the gas company together. Clackety-clack, ding! A synchronised orchestra like Esther Williams and her troupe on dry land. You went for lunch every day at the Parliament Hotel, and to dances on Saturday nights at the Arcadia, long since demolished. Your first holiday abroad – when you were 32, imagine! – was with George. You went to Rome on an organised tour. It was only after you arrived you realised that it was for honeymooners, eloping or fleeing their families, or wanting to get a blessing direct from the Holy Father. You and George were the only singletons. That’s the word they use now, a production line term as if you were cartons of milk or an easy cheese serving. George flirted madly with anything in pants, but you were too embarrassed. A pair of the hotel’s breakfast waiters, brothers, took a fancy to you. There was a particular night on the Piazza Navona – the boys took you to see the Neptune fountain. Ridiculous to call them boys, but now you can’t see them as men. George was walking ahead, draped around Nando – how lightly she distributed her favours, you thought; what a prude you were then – and you were leaning against the curved lip of the fountain desperately holding off his brother. You remember the hardness of Licio’s body grinding up against yours, how insistent his ardour was, and how little it meant.
“Cara,” he breathed.
And suddenly you thought of Mother. No, not suddenly. You were always wondering what she would think. Perhaps if you had succumbed then. What? Perhaps you could have banished Mother altogether. But you couldn’t. And then you dissolved. Not discreet lady-like weeping, but something more akin to the fountain beside you, as if some inner hydrant had been opened and was spraying everywhere, drenching the bystanders. Licio backed away, hands aloft in defence, then thumping his breast in Latin exasperation saying “I do nothing.” Mother was only dead six months then.
“What on earth’s the matter?” George asked after the brothers had sloped off fearing your hysteria was contagious. You shook your head. You felt ashamed as if you had acceded to some squalid backstreet encounter and miserable because you knew you had queered George’s chances.
Despite that, she stayed. Despite her beautiful kissable mouth (she has always known how to make the most of her best features) and her sauciness and her proud, uncompromising name. You felt sure she would marry but she never did. Here the two of you are – twenty-five years on – still girls together, though others might snidely call you companions. She will be at the party too – for back-up. Nothing worse than wandering around these drinks and finger-food functions without an anchor, without someone to go back to. That’s what George has become. The woman you go back to. Like Mother, really.
There, ready. Except for the jewellery. Mother’s locket, with that picture of Father cut down to size. You thread her wedding band around the chain. It wouldn’t be right to wear it on your finger. On your breast a costume brooch – also hers – like a spray of Baby’s Breath.
Exploitation, George calls it. “I wouldn’t do it for my fella,” she says hotly. Hers is the president of a bank. George plays golf with hers; she dresses down for casual Friday.
But you don’t see it that way. The surgeon’s wife is sickly and can’t often attend these things. Nothing Mr Stafford can do about it. (Her feet are perfect, apparently.) So you’re roped in. You’re happy to do it. You see it as part of your job. You collect his dry-cleaning, you make him tea, you arrange his appointments, you order flowers for his wife. Soon you’ll be doing the rounds of nursing homes recommending the best one for her particular needs. Well, you do have expertise in that particular area. So what’s the big deal about swanning around in your finery for an evening, playing the role of hostess? Although you’d never admit it to George, you actually enjoy it. You enjoy being mistaken for his wife. You like the way he steers you about the room with his hand lightly at your elbow and introduces you as merely Pauline (though in his rooms it’s always Miss Larchet) as if you two are intimate. That’s why you have to look the part. That’s why the impersonation has to be perfect. You are not playing yourself.
Perfume – always the last thing before you leave. A quick spray at the ears and the wrists. It buoys you to the door like the splash of holy water the ladies at the home used to spray you with. A good luck charm, a way of warding off evil. Blue Grass. Mother is with you.