An old acquaintance sent me a message a while ago, says Elaine Kingett. A photo of my ex’s jacket, draped on the back of a chair. ‘Is this blah-blah’s? Did he leave it here after dinner last night?’ She’d made a mistake. Got the wrong Elaine. My ex had subsequently married a woman with the same name. The image haunted me for weeks. I saw his shoulders, his broad back. I smelt him, felt him. I was in love with him, all over again.
In a small suitcase, in a wardrobe in my office, I have my late husband’s brown leather, Bass Weejun Penny Loafer’s. With the coin still in place. They are a death mask of his feet. In the same wardrobe, I have my daughter’s hand-smocked, Tana lawn, Liberty cotton baby dresses; my son’s blue and white striped Osh Kosh dungarees and brightly-coloured Nipper sweatshirts. I say they are for prospective grandchildren. But they are momento mori of a past life. When I wear a pair of my late mother’s flashy gold earrings, I say a prayer of guilty gratitude; remembering how often I would silently mock some of her more outrageous fashion choices. I used to sleep with my husband’s Gap grey T-shirt when he first left to work in Germany. In 30 years I had never lived without him and I wrapped it around me like a swaddling cloth.
The emotional power of clothing and of accessories is impossible to overestimate. Still, when I very rarely buy something new from a proper shop, I have to let it settle into my life before I can wear it. It has to hang around my bedroom, waiting to be introduced – like those rigid, crepe-soled, daisy-punched Clark’s leather sandals, bought in preparation for my autumn return to school. Every garment in my wardrobe has a story to tell; where I bought it, why did I buy it, where have I worn it? Who have I worn it with? I have a ‘lucky’ pink bra that fits me perfectly, bought from a charity shop with the labels cut out so I’ll never be able to replace it. I have a marmalade, panné velvet dress, made when I was a fashion student in the 60s and taught by Antony Price. I have the Chelsea Cobbler stack-heeled court shoes I got married in, I tottered ‘round the sitting room in them last week and marvelled at my past dexterity. I have a short-sleeved, screen printed, white, Haines T-shirt bought on a buying trip to New York for Fiorucci in ’73. My daughter wore it clubbing in her teenage years and then I did again in my Mad Brighton Widow incarnation in the early ‘00s. It’s in my chest of drawers, ripped under one armhole, ready for it’s next slice of life – probably at Port Eliot Festival in July, this year. If ever I had a talisman, if ever a story needed a final chapter, this will be the garment to provide it!
Elaine Kingett runs creative writing holidays in Spain and Wales and workshops in London; for more information check out Write It Down.