It hardly seems possible, now that I think about it, but that dress grabbed me as I was passing by. London is overwhelmingly grey. It’s beautiful, it’s exciting, loud and lively, but it is definitely and interminably grey. Pavements, roads and buildings, and the lowering sky, that feels as though it is sitting just inches above my head. Into this monotony inserts the penetrating red, yellow and green of traffic lights, and that’s it.
The English wear black. They wear white, and they wear grey. Oh sure, occasionally some irrepressible Senegalese matron sails by, full blown, in Kitenge, vibrant in purple and gold. So, unbelievable as it may sound, that dress pulled me up short, stopped me dead in my tracks. From inside the shop it shone, sending out shafts of light that pierced my skin and left the hairs on my arms pricked upright. I turned towards the shop door. Life slowed down. My hand reached out, connecting with the cool, round, satisfying brass of the doorknob, and I stepped inside. A light and airy tinkle announced me. The shop door swung closed behind me with a pneumatic hiss of breath and the expensive silence of the place filled my ears.
In slow motion, almost with stealth, I approached the mannequin. As always, she was much slimmer than me. Already my brain was working overtime, calculating, weighing up the odds, sizing up her waist against mine, assessing her slim arms, marble shoulders, haughty neck. The dress shimmered in a haze of autumn hues, beneath which shifted something else, a colour almost impossible to capture that moved in time to the deep rhythms of the moon. I sensed that laughter might lie there in the lining, and I longed for its feel against my skin.
My reverie was broken by the plummy tones of resentment that so often emerge from the mouths of shop assistants who sell clothes they cannot afford to buy. She was dressed like a man. Her short hair made me think of Adolf, the way it was parted and oiled, lying flat on either side of a face cut with high cheekbones and slashed with an unsmiling mouth. Can I help you? It always amazes me how those innocuous words sound on the lips of someone who has no desire to help. I’d like to try this on, I said. It’s beautiful isn’t it, don’t you think? Something in her softened then. The threads of the silk shift, like connecting threads of truth, set us both free: our fear dissolved by its beauty, by the laughter that lay under the surface of its design. What size, madam? she asked. 12, I hope, came my reply.
What had allowed us to become friends? Unlikely, I know, but it’s true: that dress enveloped us both in its joy. Like a lover’s, her hand touched the small of my back as she guided me towards the velvet-curtained cubicle, and with a conspiratorial wink she pulled them shut leaving me to raise my arms and let the cool smooth silk slip down over my yearning hips.