The Clothes On Their Backs – An Extract

This morning, for the first time in many years, I passed the shop on Seymour Street. I saw the melancholy sign in the window which announced that it was closing down and through the glass the rails on which the clothes hung, half abandoned, as if the dresses and coats, blouses and sweaters had fled in the night, vanished down the street, flapping their empty arms.

There was Eunice, behind the counter, patting her blue-black lacquered hair with silver nails. How old she looked, and how forlorn, her chin sinking for a moment on her chest.

Then I saw her rouse, and raise herself up, lifting her chin with a cupped hand. She mouthed a couple of words to herself. Be brave! An impulse took me through the door, a strong pang of sympathy. I stepped inside and her perfume filled the room, inimitably Eunice – Revlon’s Aquamarine, the scent of eau de nil and gold.

‘You!’ she said. ‘Vivien, is it really you, after all this time?’

‘Yes, it’s me.’

‘I thought so. How come I never saw you before?’

‘London is very vast,’ I said.

‘A woman gets lost easy, but not me, I’ve been here all along. You knew where to find me.’

‘But I wasn’t looking for you, Eunice. I’m sorry.’

You never went to see how Eunice was? my uncle’s voice cried out, in my head. You left her all alone like a dog, my Eunice! You couldn’t even pop in to buy a pair of gloves?

‘Well,’ she replied. ‘That’s true. You and me had nothing to say,’ and she gave me a haughty stare, raising her nose high and pulling back her shoulders. ‘How is your family doing?’

The shoulders filled out her jacket, she smoothed the box pleats of the skirt. Three gilt buttons engraved with fleur-de-lis flashed on her jacket sleeve above the swollen bone of her wrist, lightly freckled. I recognised her gold watch. My uncle gave it to her. It was an Omega, his favourite brand, still revolving on quietly, tick-tock.

‘My father died last week.’ How strange it was to refer to him in the past tense, to think that I would never see again that cantankerous old man. Whatever was unresolved between us would stay unresolved unless we met again in the yane velt – that life, that other life.

‘I only saw him the two times, neither was a nice occasion, you’ll agree – your mother, though, she was very different from him. Is she still alive?’

‘No, she died sixteen years ago.’

‘That’s a shame, now she was a true lady. I’m sorry she went before her time. And what happened to the boy? Don’t look at me so innocent, you know who I mean.’

Yes. I remember. A sudden laugh, sharp little teeth, a lascivious mouth, his hands rolling his cigarettes, his red canvas boots, his spiky dark hair. His T-shirt. His guard’s cap. His fish tank. But particularly I recall his smell and what was in it: and the whole arousing disturbing sense of him flooded my veins, a hot red flush of shameful erotic longing.

The red tide subsided. ‘I don’t know what became of him, he must be in his late forties now.’ A residue of sadness, imagining the sultry, sexy boy as a middle-aged man for he had had nothing much going for him apart from youth and all its carnal excitements.