Great stories, beautifully told
Brand New with Tags
by Alexis Wolfe
It’s customary not to dispose of the deceased’s belongings until after they’ve died. But Laura, my daughter, is such a control freak that she’s decided to get a head start.
She’s standing in front of the double wardrobe, doors flung open wide. Wrenching out, piece by piece, all the clothes I’d forgotten I ever owned. Some of them I’ve never even worn.
Although I’m tiny now, the last three decades have been a continual vacillation between optimistically shopping for size twelve when I’d stuck to the diet and size fourteen for when I’d let things drift. I ended up with a wardrobe full of stuff that was forever a fraction too big or slightly too small.
They really needed to make clothes in a size thirteen. I’d have saved a fortune.
‘What about this?’ she says. A red silk ball gown flows from coat hanger to carpet.
‘Keep it,’ I say. I remember the Christmas Ball. Joe, her father, handsome in his black tuxedo, the silver glitter eye shadow I wore. Laura sighs and puts it back in the wardrobe, screeching the metal coat hanger hook along to the empty end of the rail. She’s taken a day off work especially for this.
I’m propped up on pillows, a glass of water on the bedside table. I’d love a sip, but I won’t interrupt her flow just yet.
‘These?’ She holds out three pairs of patterned flared trousers. The seventies epitomised. Must have been early seventies because after she was born in ’79, I never fitted back into them.
I nod weakly.
She folds them hastily before I change my mind and drops them into the bin bag at her feet. Let’s charity shop some of the stuff you aren’t going to wear again, she’d said. I’d told her that was pretty much everything, especially if she waited another month or two. It was week thirteen already and she’d been there when the doctor told us both, probably three months at best.
Two pairs of strappy stilettos dangle from her fingertips. The black ones I don’t recognise, but the silver – now that was a night to remember! The first night abroad with Owen, a white sundress and silver heels, a moonlit walk on the beach.
I look back up.
‘Throw them,’ I whisper. Owen had turned out to be a bitter disappointment.
They all had after Joe.
‘If you’re getting too tired, we can stop.’ Laura looks concerned.
But that will only mean carrying on later.
‘No love, let’s get this done.’
She smiles. Doing stuff, keeping busy, is her way. Everyone’s different. I summon the energy to focus and make quicker decisions on each item held aloft. Yes, no, yes, yes, no. I try not to be derailed by the jumper I found most comfortable for night time in the cabin, Joe and I sitting either end of the sofa, our legs crossing over each other. Or by the flared top I’d favoured for breast-feeding, but then absorbed into my standard wardrobe. By the expensive well-made trousers, I owned in several colours, which I’d worn for nearly fifteen years in the office. All these garments, ghosts of previous lives.
‘Mum, this hasn’t even been worn, it’s brand new with tags!’ she says, holding up a navy and white cotton top. Horizontal stripes, what on earth was I thinking?
I’ll let Laura tire of this game before me, and eventually she does. After pulling out a huge wide scarf. Woollen, knitted with chunky needles. A rainbow of squares conjoined.
‘Oh, look,’ she says. ‘Dad’s scarf!’ I nod and try to smile.
‘Throw it to me.’ I want to see if it still feels the same, pressed against my face.
‘I never knew you kept it.’ I can see her eyes glistening from across the room.
‘I used to sleep with it after he died,’ I say.
She approaches the bed and lies down beside me. I take the scarf from her hands – inhale it deeply, conjuring up his smell – that the wool no longer retains – in my mind. Then Laura gently winds it around both our shoulders, interlacing us together.
‘What will you keep of mine?’
I hope she’ll want the designer heels that cost a fortune, or the leather jacket, something I’d strived for and felt proud when I earned and saved the money to buy.
‘I don’t know.’ She pauses to think. ‘Definitely your red cardigan though.’
‘Oh no, not that bobbled old thing.’ I laugh weakly.
So that was to be my clothing legacy. That cardigan, the one I threw over for early morning spring walks with the dogs, the one I got out every winter and spread over our legs as we watched a Christmas movie, that cardigan I could never quite bear to throw out myself, long after I stopped wearing it in public. Still, it had delivered loyal service. It washed well and it was certainly a true size thirteen. I’d wrapped it round me through both fatter and thinner phases. I’d worn it almost constantly, week after week, when her Dad died.
Laura’s right. Something comforting is more important than remembering achievements. I guess that’s why I didn’t keep Joe’s business shirts, but I kept his scarf. I’m sorry I’m finally going to break the promise I made to her all those years ago when Joe died, just as she became a teenager. The vow never to leave her.
I hate the word orphaned. Neither of us has voiced it yet. She’s a married woman with her own kids. But still.
We sit staring at the bin bag bulging on the floor and the open wardrobe. Doors wide apart leading into a dead end. She sighs and I wonder if she is thinking about the Narnia books that her Dad used to read to her, or the doorways that lie ahead in our future, or maybe just the amount she still has to throw away.
Copyright © 2019 Alexis Wolfe