In a tiny corner at the back of my mind, I knew that someday, someone would get the wrong idea. The prospect of this misunderstanding seemed so far into the future that I dismissed it even though I knew it would come.
I need time to myself — away.
Away from everyone and everything.
Living in a crowded city makes that almost laughable, but I found a way.
Our building is old — mid-1930s. Which means that the windows open (the ones that aren’t painted shut) and they are huge — almost door-sized huge.
Some paranoid soul, probably a previous owner frightened of being sued, nailed all the windows shut — but he missed one, perhaps because it is in a cupboard on our floor. I doubt that it has always been a cupboard. When the building was new, it would have been a half-width version of all the other double-hung windows, an elegant full stop to the symmetry that ran along the west wall.
For many decades it has cast daylight on brooms and cardboard boxes, coats and hats and probably bicycles.
I discovered the window’s ability one summers night after putting the children to bed.
I knew how it was supposed to work because my father worked on the restoration of old buildings. Invisible cords run through squeaky pullies pulled by heavy counterweights enabling the window to stay open at any height along its full travel.
There is a satisfying rumble as the window glides upward and the counterweights bang around inside the casement.
Cold air rushes in and hits you in the face forcing you to breathe in momentarily.
Hitching my dress up, I step uncertainly onto the wide stone ledge.
In this moment, I am the first human to step onto the stonework since the original builders packed up and went home, almost a hundred years ago. Even the window cleaners don’t step on the ledge. They glide past riding shiny metal saddles, flashing their rubber blades and soapy sponges.
This ledge is mine, shared only by the occasional bird.
Being untroubled by heights is a plus in a situation like this.
On windy days I have been worried, but I have steady hands, and I fix my gaze on a point way off in the distance. I can feel the stress draining out of me as I listen to the sounds wafting up from the street far below.
I cannot make out conversations, they are blown away before they reach me, but sirens and horns sometimes get through.
I hear the unmistakable sound of one of those ancient counterweights falling to the bottom of the wall cavity as the equally ancient cord gives way. With only one counterweight doing the work of two, the sash slowly slides down until it hits the sill and a similarly unmistakable sound of the window lock clicking into place greets my ears.
In rapid succession, my mind plays out what is likely to happen next.
I could stand here until someone assumes I’m going to jump and calls the authorities or I could break the window with my less than appropriate shoes. The second option has its dangers — loss of balance, nasty cut from flying glass, dead pedestrian far below.
I step out here so I can clear my mind and reengage with my world.
However this plays out, I believe that I have lost my only means of escape.
I don’t want to explain it all to them.
It’s so peaceful out here.
Illustration: Kenton Nelson
It doesn’t work if you use a paper cup, and at the time, I kind of knew it, but needs must, etc.
It has something to do with the rigidity or the lack thereof. Also, the paper fibres soak up the sound.
I’d been invited to a formal dinner party, which happens to me from time to time. Every good dinner party needs a successful writer, and when there is a shortage of them, I get a call. Second tier successful is better than no writer at all.
The party was mildly amusing, and I got a free meal which might not sound like much, but I like to eat, and writers don’t make very much money, so every free dinner counts.
My apartment block is tranquil most of the time but on this evening, after arriving home early — I’m so sorry to leave early, but I have an early appointment with my editor – no I don’t, but if I told you I was so bored I was in danger of chewing my arm off in order to escape you might not invite me back for a free meal.
The muffled sounds were oozing through our connecting wall, begging me to listen in. I gently placed my ear against the cold surface, but all I could hear was muffled sounds mixed with my heartbeat.
I’d seen it done in the movies, so I grabbed the paper cup from my bedside and placed it silently against the wall. The rim of the cup hurt my ear and gave no magnification or clarity to what was happening next door.
A wiser man would have continued to undress and proceed with the preparations for a sound night’s sleep, but I’m not a wiser man.
I remembered the stethoscope that belonged to my great uncle. For some reason, he willed it to me. My great uncle was a doctor in Edinborough and knew the famous Dr Bell, who Sherlock Holmes was based on.
In those days, I was a careless young man who had scant regard for family history, so I had put the stethoscope somewhere, but the exact spot was a bit of a mystery.
I found it, in its tattered leather case bearing my great uncle’s name, in the back of my sock drawer, and no, I have no idea why I put it there.
The rubber tubing was showing signs of deterioration, but the whole thing held together long enough for me to hear what was happening next door.
I cannot tell you how many times I have wished that I had just gone to bed instead of snooping.
The case caused a sensation, and the resultant publicity led to a first tier writing career. I never understood why so few people read my work before all this blew up and so many after.
I have regrets, it has to be said, but the universe pays scant regard to regrets and life goes on, but I do mourn for that dress shirt.
No matter how hard I tried, nothing would get the blood out.
Illustration: Kenton Nelson
“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