The old man waited; every winter solstice.
Pawprints in the snow — two sets.
The old prince had been married to the queen for more years than he could remember. They were happy enough, but the demands of office weighed heavily on them both.
None of us knows when our father will leave this life.
When the old king died, she ascended to the throne, the new queen was very young.
She took to her role bravely, and the young prince stood by her side.
There were fewer duties to perform in the winter months. They retreated to their favourite country estate — hundreds of years old. Large rooms — a stone fireplace in each one. Small dogs scurried from place to place, looking for attention, the older dogs wisely curled up before the fire.
One clear grey day, all the dogs ran to the French doors and barked a warning, clawing at the glass. Security at the castle was tight, but occasionally there were incidents. “Didn’t want to concern you, your highness. We caught him once he scaled the fence. Just a young bloke on a dare. Won’t do that again, I promise you.” A bedraggled young man between two large soldiers staggered past the window and into a waiting unmarked van. He looked sore and sorry, his long hair a tangled mess. His pitiful expression lingered long after the van pulled away.
The dogs were becoming more frantic, and the prince expected to see a soldier running through the snow, but no one came. Only the dogs could hear the sound of something desperately trying to free itself.
“Come away from the door.” The dogs obeyed, sitting a few feet back and waiting for instructions. “Wait there. I’ll call you if I need you.”
The French doors stayed open as the prince walked out onto the paved patio in his house slippers. The fabric absorbed the water from the snow, and it chilled his feet.
Determined to see what was going on across the lawn, he continued with numb toes.
As he reached the outer edge of the lawn, he heard it.
The fox looked at him with the same look he had seen on enemy soldiers as he and his comrades spilled into their trench.
The fox was trapped by its hind leg.
The prince removed his dressing gown and threw it over the fox’s head. The animal lay still.
Opening the trap was easy enough. The leg didn’t seem to be broken, but there was a lot of blood. The fox winced as the prince touched the damaged appendage.
With the dressing gown still in place, the prince picked up the fox and walked back across the lawn — his footprints the only break in the soft powder snow. He filled his own steps as he had done as a soldier. The memory made him sad.
Once back inside, the disciplined dogs could no longer contain themselves. They knew the scent of a dangerous intruder. They flocked around the prince as he walked through the house, down the corridor to the stairs leading to the servant’s quarters.
“Do you have somewhere I can deal with this?” asked the prince.
The cook looked at him with wide eyes.
“Are you going to kill it, your majesty?”
“No,” said the prince. He had a mellifluous voice, and she loved to hear him speak. His gentle tone told her that he meant what he said.
“I want to dress its wound before I let it go.”
“It probably won’t help, your majesty. It’ll get infected as soon as it walks through the mud,” said the cook. “I dressed a lot of wounds in the war.”
“I didn’t know that. Why didn’t I know that?”
“I nursed your brother,” she said, eyes down.
“God bless you for that,” said the prince.
In silence, they cleaned and dressed the fox’s wound.
The prince smiled at the cook — comrades in arms.
With the fox still wrapped up in his gown, the prince walked back through the house escorted by his pack of dogs.
“Wait here,” he said. “I’ll call out for you if I need help.”
The dogs sat at the open door.
Across the lawn once more to the bushes.
The prince put the fox down.
“Try not to chew off your bandage and stay out of the mud, if you can. Good luck — you’re going to need it.”
A year later, the prince’s dogs ran to the doors and gave the alarm.
At the edge of the snow-covered lawn stood an older fox and a younger male fox.
They stood in the snow until the prince appeared.
They stared at each other for the longest time.
When the foxes turned and walked back through the bushes, the prince turned to his obedient dogs.
“I think that’s our fox and possibly, that was his son.”
The prince walked across the house and down to the kitchen. The cook stopped what she was doing.
“I think I just saw the fox we saved last year and his cub. The dogs will back me up, they saw it too.”
The cook wanted to laugh, but she held it in.
“We did it cook. You and me, and now he came to visit.”
“I hope they stay away from our chickens.”
“Yes, there is that,” said the prince.
The prince smiled awkwardly and went back upstairs.
The following year, the scene repeated itself, but the year after that something had changed.
The older fox was not there. The damaged leg made him easy to recognise.
And yet, there was an older male fox and a younger male. They waited at the edge of the lawn, illuminated by the pure white snow.
Again the ritual played out.
An extended period of locking eyes followed by the departure.
Every four or five years, the older fox would be a former youngster. As each elder fox met its fate, a descendant would take its place and the ritual would continue.
A tear would form in the ageing prince’s eye as he realised the passing of a senior fox.
The queen and the prince reigned for many decades, and as extreme old age was upon them, the weather patterns had altered to such a degree that the snow season came later and later.
The foxes arrived later in the season.
This year, the snow came even later.
The prince and the queen had returned to their duties, and no one was there to see the fox and his cub arrive at the edge of the snow-covered lawn.
They waited for the longest time, longer than was safe.
The first in a long line to not be able to express their gratitude, they turned and walked back through the bushes.
Elizabeth was up before the sun.
Our apartment was bathed in the golden glow from the lamps that she had strategically placed around the room when we were setting up house together. It was only a few months ago, but it could have been years.
I have to get up in the dark — sparrows fart, my dad used to call it. The building industry starts early and is packed up by four, which works out well because the pubs shut at six — on the dot. The ‘wowzers’ rule this town.
A stray hair had fallen across her face as she cooked me eggs. She’d given up on brushing the hair away — too much effort.
“You don’t mind if I go back to bed when you go do you, Michael?”
“Of course not. I would if I could. Oh, and I’ll be a bit late tonight. I’m meeting Philip at the pub. I’m going to tell him what we’re planning. He could come in handy.”
Elizabeth didn’t answer. I don’t think she’s sure of Philip. I understand why she’s wary. If I didn’t know him he’d worry me too. He’s been through a lot and every bit of it shows on his face. He came apart at the stitching after Tobruk. They stuck him in this godawful hospital full of blokes who had lost touch with the real world.
They discharged him from the army once the Japs packed it in and told him he was cured.
He has trouble holding down a job.
He gets flashes.
He remembers stuff and his reaction scares the shit out of people.
I want to look out for him, but there is only so much I can do.
“Don’t drink too much. Remember we are going out dancing tonight — our new life,” says Elizabeth.
“Can you collect my dinner suit for me?”
“I’ll do it before I clock on at work,” said a very sleepy Elizabeth as she placed perfect scrambled eggs in front of me. I pulled my chair in closer, grabbed my knife and fork and dove right in.
In the army, you eat when you can and you develop the habit of gulping it down with one eye on your rifle. There are no guns in our apartment, but my habits are still echoing where I’ve been.
“Top tucker kid. Shakespeare would be proud of your eggs,” I said.
Elizabeth looked at me through dreamy eyes.
“What’s Shakespeare got to do with my eggs?”
“Apparently, he loved scrambled eggs. Wrote some of his best work on a stomach of Mrs Shakespeare’s eggs.”
“My head hurts. Put your dishes in the sink when you go. I’ll do them later.”
I finished my breakfast, picked up my jacket — it’s supposed to rain later in the day, and went into the bedroom. Elizabeth was fast asleep, rolled onto her right side facing away from my approach. I slipped my hand under the covers and leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Her hair fell across her face.
“If you keep your hand there you are going to be late for work,” she said.
I wiggled my fingers and she jiggled her whole body.
“Until tonight then,” I said and I removed the intruding fingers. She turned her head and smiled at me. I love that smile. I could fall into that smile and never be seen again.
I walked, rather uncomfortably, out of our apartment and down the stairs, making sure that the front door was locked leaving my sleeping bride safely inside.
I didn’t notice how hard the work was that day. My mind was firmly in the future.
I arrived at the pub a long time before Phillip which was very unusual for me, I’m always late.
Running on ‘Arab Time’ someone once called it, and it’s true, I like to take my time, I don’t like to be rushed, so I sat and had a ‘small beer’. When the bartender asked me what I wanted I asked for a Melbourne Bitter.
I saw him go for the big glass, but I knew it was going to be a long night, and I also knew that Phillip could drink, so I said, “Just a little one thanks, mate.”
He hesitated, and I thought that was because no one ever asks for a small beer. He found a small glass and filled it, looked up at me and said, “You did mean the beer didn’t you mate, you weren’t referring to me?”
I honestly had not noticed that this bloke was barely five foot three.
Without hesitation, I said, “No, mate. I assumed I was standing on a box.”
I think he was just winding me up, but for a second I noticed that he had an Irish accent, and I knew that this encounter could have gone an entirely different way.
My quick and casual response probably defused what might have become ugly, and I was amazed at how relaxed and loquacious I was considering the roaring headache that was developing into a migraine.
My guardian angel must have been paying attention.
“When were you demobbed?” he said.
“How do you know I was in the army?” I said.
“In this job you get to read people. The eyes mostly.”
Now that he mentioned it, I knew what he meant. My mate Philip has it written in large letters across his face, but most blokes try to hide what they have seen — it inevitably shows in their eyes.
“Did you see much action?” said the barman.
“Kokoda, Tobruk, Palestine and a couple of other buggered up places.”
“I was at Tobruk. I thought I recognised a fellow ‘Rat’.”
“I wasn’t sure I’d get out of that one,” I said. I’d never said that to anyone, but a bloke who was there would understand.
The barman nodded and continued to polish glasses.
“Don’t take this the wrong way digger, but how did you get into the army? I had fuzz between my toes and they almost didn’t take me.”
“I lied about my height,” he said and we both laughed.
“Good luck digger,” I said and I meant it.
“You too mate, cheers.”
I sat quietly in a corner looking out the window and enjoying the passing parade. It was late in the afternoon and those workers who chose to start very early in the morning were now starting their journey towards home or beer or whatever they had been looking forward to all day.
The migraine I had been gestating showed itself in what has become known as ‘the light show’. Wiggly lights that trace a path across my line of vision.
The build-up is unpleasant but once it gets going things settle down quickly as long as I avoid intense light — working in the sun doesn’t help. If I get my hydration up I’m fine—- hence the small beer. Don’t laugh, beer is one of those unusual substances that can cause or cure almost anything.
For a small beer, it lasted quite a long time and when it was almost gone Phillip appeared behind me and off to my left. My peripheral vision is pretty good even on a bad day, so I could see him standing there looking at me for several minutes. When I eventually turned and looked at him he laughed.
“Never could sneak up on you, you wary bugger,” he said.
I stood up and we hugged each other the way that blokes who have been through something together will do.
“Did you come from work?” I said.
“No. Got the sack. The mad buggers kept looking at me.”
“Mate, you need a job and blokes are always going to look at you if you explode at the slightest thing. Did you hit anyone?”
“Just a little bit.”
“How do you hit someone ‘a little bit’? One of these days someone is going to call the cops and being a returned soldier will only get you so far. Every second fucker is a returned soldier these days.”
“I know, but they shouldn’t look at me.”
“Wear a funny hat. That way they really will have something to look at,” I said and he laughed and for a moment I saw the Phil that I used to know, before the battles, before the hospitals. The bloke who rescued the kitten during ‘basic’. Kept it hidden from the Sergeant. Gave it to a little girl who lived in the Milk Bar near the camp when we got our marching order. I remember that bloke and I wonder if he is still in there.
“I’ve got a crazy idea of how we can get ahead — make something worthwhile after all the destruction. Are you interested?”
“You, me and Elizabeth?”
“Yes. All three of us.”
“I’m in,” he said and I hadn’t told him the plan yet. That was typical of Phil. He had followed me into far worse than nightclubs and movers and shakers.
“Just tell me what you need me to do,” he said.
“First up, you need a shave and a haircut and you need to get your nails done,” I said and Phil looked at me like I had asked him to stand up and sing the national anthem naked with a rose between his teeth.
“Can you get your hands on a dinner suit, a good one?” I said.
“Me dad still has his. I think it’ll fit me.”
“Good. Can you get your hands on a couple of service revolvers and some ammo?”
“Now you’re talking my language. Who we gonna shoot?”
“Take it easy. I’m just thinking ahead. They might come in handy one day. Never know what trouble we might find ourselves in. Best to be prepared,” I said and Philip nodded in agreement. I knew that he would wear a gun more easily than a good suit. But he would have to learn, otherwise, he would stick out like a sore thumb.
Phil bought another round and I told him to shout the tiny barman, “Tobruk,” I said and he knew what I meant.
With the frost forming on our beer glasses I told Phil of my plan. It sounded a bit thin in the telling, but it was richer and more fleshed out in my head.
Elizabeth, Philip and I had one thing in common, we were all good at seeing opportunities and rolling with the punches. Not that anyone had ever punched Elizabeth, but you know what I mean.
My dinner plate was on the stove resting on top of a pot of hot water.
“I got hungry,” said Elizabeth, “so I’ve eaten. Your’s should be okay. Nice and hot.”
I wrapped a tea towel around my hand and moved the hot plate to the table — chops, potatoes and peas, yum.
Elizabeth was at the table cradling a cup of coffee. I could smell it over the aroma of my meal.
“Philip is in, even though I don’t think he has the slightest idea what he is getting himself into. It will be interesting to see how he scrubs up in his dad’s dinner suit.”
“He scares me a little bit, Michael. He’s changed so much.”
“I know he does, but he adores you — would do anything for you.”
“That’s one of the things that scares me,” said Elizabeth.
When I finished my meal we did the dishes together.
“Now that suggestion you made this morning, the morse code you tapped out with your fingers? Do you think we have time before we go out? Before we launch our new career?” said Elizabeth.
“The night doesn’t really get going until eleven,” I said as I grabbed her. She kissed me and I kissed her back and afterwards we fell asleep until the alarm went off and our night’s work began.
Elizabeth looked like a woman born to wealth and I felt like we could take on the world as we stepped through the door.
The old lady from 315 stepped into the hall and let her cat out.
“Good evening Mr and Mrs Styles. Off out for the night, are we?”
“No. We’re off to conquer the world, Mrs Nunn.”
Mrs Nunn and her bemused smile stayed with us all the way to the Hotel Menzies ballroom.
“It was good of you to come in so promptly, Mr Ashton.”
“I had to be in the city today, so I thought I should fit you in, and besides, it’s not every day that I get a summons from my accountant.”
“Not exactly a summons, Mr Ashton, surely?”
“Better call me David. After all, I feel like I put your kids through private school, and summer camp, and that school trip to Austria for the skiing.”
“You’re referring to our fee structure — I’ve heard all the jokes. We are the best at what we do, and that’s why you employ us. We save you way more in tax than we charge you.”
“I know you do. I’m just feeling good today, and I thought I would take it out on you.”
Mr Ashton’s accountant seemed to relax slightly. He sat back in his chair and dropped his shoulders. He was wearing his suit jacket which David Ashton took as a sign of foreboding. Nithiyan Nathan, on the other hand, saw the wearing of the suit jacket in the presence of a client as a sign of respect.
These two men were from different worlds and only crashed into each other around tax time. Nithiyan saw things in black and white — numbers never lied to him. David saw the world as an opportunity full of risk and reward.
“So, what’s the problem? Did I allow too big a deduction for my mistress?”
Nithiyan Nathan looked perplexed, an emotion he did not enjoy.
“Relax Nithiyan. I can call you, Nithiyan?”
“Yes, of course. You were being light-hearted? I get it.”
He didn’t get. Light-hearted was for less serious people.
“I don’t have a mistress. Not that I couldn’t afford one, mind you.”
Wealth, and people knowing you are wealthy, was essential to David Ashton.
“I do your books, Mr Ashton ..”
“Yes, of course, David. I do your books, so naturally, I know you could afford a mistress.”
In his head, Nithiyan was calculating the cost of keeping a moderately priced mistress.
“So, if it isn’t my non-existent mistress, then what is it?”
“Your night watchman. You pay him approximately,” Nithiyan hated being approximate, “$183.47 per hour — based on an eight-hour shift, five days a week.”
“He works seven nights a week, and I fly him and his family to Sicily once a year for a three-week vacation. He has family there. It costs me a fortune for those three weeks because I have to employ a team of security guards to cover for him.”
“I was going to ask you about the security guards,” said a confused and intrigued Mr Nathan.
“So, now you know. Is there anything else?”
Nithiyan Nathan sat forward in his seat, putting his hands palms down on the glass-topped surface. He wanted to raise his voice, but that would be as bad as unbuttoning his coat.
“$183.47 per hour. A night watchman would be lucky to earn $18 an hour even if you factored in superannuation and a meal allowance. Is this man blackmailing you? Is he a member of the Mafia? Is he a ghost employee? These are all questions the Australian Tax Office are likely to ask, so I’m asking you before they do.”
“Do you watch a lot of TV cop shows, Mr Nathan?”
It was true that Nithiyan Nathan watched a lot of TV cop shows. It was his release from the world of numbers and clients who were determined to hide their real income.
“That isn’t the point,” said Mr Nathan.
“Okay, you’ve been a good sport, I’ll tell you why I pay him so much, but I warn you, you are going to find my reason difficult to believe at first. But I know you are a man of logic and once I explain the numbers, you will believe me even though you won’t want to.”
“Is this explanation going to take very long, I have another appointment at three o’clock, and I am charging you $500 per hour.”
“It will be worth the cost just to see your reaction. Do you remember the war, it was in all the papers?”
“Yes, I remember,” said Mr Nathan.
“Well, I spent some time playing poker with a bunch of American soldiers during the occupation. There wasn’t much else to do. They were well paid and inferior card players. My wife started to worry about where all the money I was sending home was coming from.”
“I never play cards, but I can see it would be a good way to stave off boredom.”
“We were all prone to telling ‘tall stories’, but there was one story that kept cropping up whenever Americans spoke about their time in Sicily.”
“Where your night watchman’s family comes from?”
“Exactly. The stories talked about certain houses in villages that had been destroyed by American shelling. Certain houses were untouched.”
“Probably pure luck. Just like the scenes you see after a bushfire sweeps through a country town and one house is still standing amongst all the devastation.”
“That’s exactly what I said, but they argued that it happened too often, and on each occurrence, the inhabitants were from an ethnic group known as Daemons. Sicily isn’t far from Greece where the stories about Daemons originate — I looked it up.”
“You are telling me that your night watchman is a demon?” said Mr Nathan, who’s eyes were wider than usual.
“I didn’t say demon, I said ‘day -mon’. Having a demon for a night watchman might be counterproductive. Think of all the slime and debris.” David Ashton smiled at his own witticism.
“It seems that Daemons can protect an area of land from all harm. If they have a strong connection to an area, nothing bad can befall it. In each of the primitive houses in the bombed-out areas that survived, there was a family that could trace their heritage back to this ancient tribe. They are said to exist somewhere between humans and the gods.”
“It was my experience that American soldiers were quite naive and not to be taken seriously. ‘All mouth, no trousers’ our sergeant used to say,” said Mr Nathan.
“My thoughts exactly, ‘all hat no cattle’, as my dad used to say, but there’s another saying about there being fire where there’s smoke. I had nothing else to do, so I did a bit of digging. The more I dug, the more interesting it got.
After the occupation, I went home and was glad of it. Australia was into its most significant immigration phase, and there were lots of men and families from Italy among them. I’d forgotten about the stories because I did my best to put my war experiences behind me.”
Nithiyan Nathan looked at his watch.
“I’m nearly there,” said Mr Ashton.
“It’s your money, go on.”
“I did quite well after I got back. Built up a large manufacturing concern, as you know. Making stuff means having somewhere to store materials and product and the best place for all that is industrial zoned land. Unfortunately, those areas are often run-down, and they attract the wrong sort of people. People with bolt cutters and old beaten up vans. They like to break in and carry off whatever they can carry.”
“You have insurance?”
“Yes I do, but it’s the inconvenience and the annoyance and the fact that I don’t like to lose,” said Mr Ashton, who realised that he was raising his voice. He took a moment to gather himself.
“As sometimes happens, I woke up one morning and remembered the stories from my time in the occupation. I know it sounds crazy, but I put an advertisement in the positions vacant column of The Age – Daemon wanted. Security work. No questions asked.”
“As you would expect, I got a bunch of crank calls. They all made the same assumption you did. Billy Demon here, just got out of Hades, and I’m looking for work, followed by inane laughter. But in amongst the nut bags, there was Antonio Santamaria. I interviewed him personally, which annoyed our Human Resources manager. Antonio had been out of work for some time. His English was rudimentary, and it was holding him back. I was worried that he was too desperate and would not answer my questions truthfully.
I asked him about his ancestry, and he was guarded in his response. I asked him if the rumours were true and he just shrugged.
It occurred to me that even if it was true, his protection may only extend to where he lives, his family home. Maybe it didn’t cover his place of work. I asked him, and he shrugged again.
I explained to him that we’d had three night watchmen hospitalised in the past year and that we were not allowed to issue him with a firearm so he would be taking his life in his hands if he took the job.”
“What did he say?”
“Did it work? Did he protect your warehouse?”
“I offered him double the hourly rate, and I could tell that he was going to take the job. We never had a break-in after that. I have video of deadbeats trying to cut the chains on the front gate and giving up. I have video of other deadbeats cutting through the wire fence at the back of the warehouses only to get tangled up in the wire until the police came and collected them. One bloke, who was found wandering around the streets with burglar tools, told the police he forgot where he was supposed to break in to. I could go on, but I think you get the idea.”
“So you think that Antonio developed an affinity for your land because he needed the money?”
“Buggered if I know, but I do know that businesses in our area rent space, at a premium rate, to store their goods with us. They think we have some space-age security system that is way ahead of theirs. I’ve even had security companies come sneaking around trying to figure out our system.
I keep up appearances with lights and cameras and all that stuff, but in the end, it’s Antonio.
I’ll admit that I get a few strange looks when I tell people that we have a night watchman. Most properties have roving armed guards with dogs and fancy uniforms.”
“You do understand that there is no way I’m going to tell this story to the Tax Office if they come calling, don’t you?”
“I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t tell them that story either. Tell them he saved my life during the war, I don’t care.”
“I’m beginning to wish that I hadn’t called this meeting Mr Ashton, thank you for coming in. You’ll receive my invoice in the usual manner.”
“I know I will, Mr Nathan, and thank you for listening. I’m not Catholic, so I don’t have anyone I can tell things to who can’t repeat them under threat of eternal damnation. You are the next best thing. I hope my story is not too disturbing. There are more things in heaven and earth.”
“Go in peace Mr Ashton and may we never speak of this again.”
Through a dense fog, I hear the splintering of timber. Voices. Male voices.
Something about ‘drifting away’.
I’m being wrapped in a blanket, it’s woollen, I can feel it against my skin. It’s warm.
Strong arms guide me toward my bed. More voices. ‘Cover the mirror’.
Why are these people in my room? What do they want?
I feel very light, and I see myself from a distance. A very comfortable distance.
I’m trying to decide. Do I come back or do I drift away? Drift away seems like an excellent idea.
I’m not asleep, but I’m not awake, either. I’m in that in-between place. It’s beautiful here.
When I awake, a day and a half have passed.
I’m feeling rested, and it’s quiet because almost everyone is off at work.
I take my time and bathe.
I look at myself in the bathroom mirror; I don’t look any different, but I definitely feel different.
I spend the afternoon quietly sitting in the garden listening to the birds and trying to collect my thoughts.
Eventually, my extended family begin returning to our large home.
The house is surprisingly quiet as the women prepare the evening meal.
The men bring in wood for the fire and go about the small tasks that men perform to keep a large house like ours running smoothly. There is very little of the usual chatter, and what conversation there is, is carried out in hushed tones.
It is not spoken, but everyone is thinking the same thing.
What happened, and how will it affect the fortunes of our family?
Even if they did work up the courage to ask, I would not know how to answer.
Quite simply, I don’t remember what happened.
I know that the experience almost cost me my life, and I know that I feel at peace.
Something passed between me and the mirror and even though I don’t know what that ‘something’ is I know that it was good. I know that our family will prosper and I know that I will come to be its leader, in the fullness of time.
Everyone is looking at me in a different way than they did before, and that is as it should be.
How the mirror came into our family and where it came from are two facts that are shrouded in mystery.
My favourite story? That it was enchanted by a gypsy princess.
The princess was captured by angry townsfolk who were upset about a poor crop yield, or something like that, and blamed it on the gypsies.
I guess people have always needed someone to blame.
One of my ancestors, who was a poor but chivalrous young man, rescued the gypsy princess.
She was a bit bruised, battered and dusty, but otherwise unhurt.
She took my young ancestor back to her caravan and gave him a good seeing to, which they both rather enjoyed.
She also gave him the mirror. Her enchantment meant that the mirror would respond favourably to any female member of his family who was beautiful, naked and brave.
I guess I was all of those things.
I know I’m not the same.
I dared to face the mirror, and that sets me apart.
My self-confidence goes all the way down to the tips of my toes.
I’m the same height, but I feel taller.
My thoughts are now full of answers, as well as questions. The future feels bright and full of possibilities.
Sometimes courage is its own reward, and outward beauty has very little to do with it.
I know that my daughters will be vigorous and wise. The experience with the mirror taught me that bravery overcomes all obstacles, but in the end, it is the love that comes from within that holds a family together, no matter how large or small that family might be.
Painting by Alex Alemeny
“Tiny lines of cotton that hold the world together,” said my grandfather, but he would — he was a romantic.
He wanted me to see what he saw, romance, adventure, creation.
“A woman comes to me with a dream. I never ask what that dream is, but I know it lingers beneath the request. I need a dress for a formal occasion, might translate into, My husband is losing interest in me, and I want to knock his socks off.
Or maybe the lady is trying to impress the other women in her circle — that’s serious business, or so I have been told.”
I was twelve when this conversation took place, and within a year my grandfather would be found in his workroom, needle in hand, the life having ebbed out of him. No one said he had a smile on his face, but I’d like to think so.
“The customers I love are the ones who come to me because they want to please themselves. They know they are beautiful and they realise that the clothes I make for them complement their beauty and poise. From the time they step in the front door of my shop we are engaged in a dance. A creative dance. They don’t spell everything out for me, I’m expected to participate, do my part. When I have made the garment and done the final fitting, we both know that the dance is coming to an end. The exceptional customers participate in a denouement — they let me know if the garment had the desired effect. I love it when they prolong the dance.”
I was way too young to understand the undercurrents of my grandfather’s observations, but I guess he hoped that his words would stay with me, ring in my ears at a later date.
It was never my intention to go into the family business. I could think of nothing worse than being confined in a shop fussing over women with more money than sense.
I rebelled and left home as soon as I was able. I travelled and worked and soaked up life until I thought I might burst.
Every time I saw a beautiful woman I examined her clothes — off the rack or made to measure — you can always tell.
I remember the look I got from a girl in Paris when she caught me examining the stitching on her skirt. She wasn’t wearing it at the time. She wasn’t wearing anything at all, and neither was I. We were taking a break during a long session of lovemaking on an autumn afternoon. The view from her apartment was stunning, and the sight of her was equally so, but I could not resist the urge to find out how well her clothes were made.
“Have you checked the hems to see if there is anything hidden in them,” I said.
“No, why would I?” she said.
“Some old school dressmakers will hide little things like tiny pieces of paper with something inscribed, or a fragment of ancient cloth. They feel it personalises their work.”
The naked lady thought I was marginally less crazy after my explanation and we continued to tangle erotically for several more months until she left me for a trumpet player. I minded, but I got over it and continued my travels.
Whenever the money ran out, I would seek employment, and on more than one occasion I got work at bespoke dressmakers — not the usual job for a young man, but I had my family’s name, and it opened a few doors, even if I did end up sweeping more often than designing and sewing.
I didn’t care; I was free.
The Telegram caught up with me when I was staying in a provincial city in Spain. My father had died, and my mother was distraught.
It took me a few days to get back home, but they waited for me.
After the funeral, while everyone was eating little sandwich triangles and drowning their sorrows, I went to my father’s shop, the same shop that my grandfather had owned. The gold letters on the glass door spelled out my family name.
The rest you can probably work out for yourself.
Your dress is now complete. I hope you are happy with the work?
I know it is none of my business, but I was wondering why you wanted me to make it for you?
“I don’t need another dress. I just like spending time in your shop without igniting the gossips. Does my admission shock you? Have I ruined our friendship?”
Not at all, but you might want to take the dress off.
You wouldn’t want to get it all wrinkled.
Painting by Jack Vettriano