helen hayward

life writing

Month: November, 2020

dress

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For years, my gold silk dress lay squashed flat, underneath out-of-season clothes in a plastic tub at the top of my wardrobe. Until the last time we moved house when, feeling sorry for the dress, I put it on a hanger at the end of the rail, tucked behind my husband’s jackets. There it lived, out of sight and mostly out of mind, until a week ago.

I knew that my husband had invited friends for dinner for his upcoming birthday. For some reason, my thoughts kept returning to this gold silk dress, hanging neglected in the wardrobe. My husband has an especial love of formal dinners. I do not, preferring casual ones. But perhaps, just this once, I could surprise him and wear my gold silk dress for his dinner.

Yes, this gold dress had once been my wedding dress. But it had it been originally designed to be worn again. I’d never wanted it to be just a wedding dress. ‘Of course’, my North London dressmaker had said with a smile. ‘I can easily let in some fabric under the arms so that, in years to come, if it needs to be let out, it will be simple to do’.

Last Friday, after everyone in our house had left for the day, I took the gold dress out of the wardrobe and folded it over in the boot of my car. My dog, waiting patiently for his morning walk, looked at me expectantly over the back seat of the car.

‘Sorry, Digger’, I said to his upturned face, ‘you’re going to have to wait.’

Brenda, the alterations lady at our local dry cleaners, knows me quite well, which is why I felt I could trust her to say whether she thought my gold dress was worth saving.  

When I arrived at the shop, with the dress on my arm, I was ushered into the curtained cubicle adjacent to the bathroom. As always.

First off, Brenda handed me a short scalloped evening top that she’d let a zip into the back of – a top that, at times, late at night, I’d despaired of ever extracting myself from. This time, the black top slipped over my shoulders and zipped up the back as if the top had been made for me, rather being than a second-hand item that I’d picked up for a song.

            ‘Thank you’, I said to Brenda. ‘This top looks great’.

            ‘Yes’, agreed Brenda, pleased, perhaps, that her work was appreciated.

            ‘And this’, she said, fingering the gold silk dress, hanging on a hook in the cubicle. ‘Is this the dress that you mentioned the last time you were here?’

            ‘Yes’, I said. ‘I just don’t know about it and would like your advice’.

            ‘Sure’, she said, and left the cubicle while I changed.

I pulled the dress over my shoulders and then shut my eyes as I did up the long zip at the back. But, I thought, this dress is loose. Had I had it let out and then forgotten all about having done so? Was I really so old, could so much time have gone by, that my wedding dress had been altered and I had no memory of it? Two seams at the back of the dress, letting out two triangles of darker silk, told the tale. Yes, I was that old.

The gold dress, with it’s big skirt, sagged on my frame. It was too big. I was now too flat chested to carry off the cut of the bodice. My colouring, too, had changed since I’d married. Standing in the harshly lit cubical, the gold of the silk washed out my colouring, making me look older. I flinched, and forced myself look into the mirror. Was it just that I looked older than when I’d worn the dress at my wedding so many years ago? How, really, could I not look older?

In that moment, standing in the cubicle, my wedding felt like seconds ago. I was zipping up my gold dress, tight against my skin, all the while wondering when my friend, who’d promised to do my makeup, would appear. I was slipping on the high black strappy sandals that, although uncomfortable to the point of painful, were my partner’s favourite. At the time, that Friday afternoon, this discomfort had seemed secondary. Whereas today, 22 years later, I wouldn’t even consider wearing shoes that hurt.

Brenda flicked open the curtain, holding her cushion of pins and breaking into my daydream. Pulling the curtain behind her, she looked in the mirror. We both looked. She said nothing. Yet from where I was standing, in my gold silk dress, it was in that moment in which Brenda said nothing that she said everything there was to say about my gold dress.

‘I think this dress doesn’t work for me anymore’, I said, to fill the pause. ‘It’s still a wedding dress. And quite an old one at that. But’, I added, picking up some fabric from the skirt, ‘it’s beautiful silk’.

‘Perhaps it could be turned into a top?’ said Brenda, thoughtfully.

‘I just don’t think I’m breasty enough for that’, I said. ‘Besides this colour, it makes me look sallow’.

‘Mmm’, said Brenda.

‘No’, I said, ‘this dress is dead. And I’d rather pass it on now, as it is, than mess around and spend money on it. I’m just not the person I was when I wore it. And’, I said to Brenda, who had picked up the skirt and was looking at a seam, ‘no matter what we did with it, it will always be my wedding dress. Even if it is a lovely dress, it isn’t lovely on me’.

My phone rang on the floor and I didn’t answer it. When it rang again, I picked it up. ‘Yes?’ I said to my daughter. ‘Yes’, I said to her, as Brenda left the cubicle, ‘that is annoying. But maybe that car wasn’t right for you anyway. There’ll always be another car. By the way’, I added, ‘I’m actually in a fitting room at the dry cleaners. Can I call you back?’

Standing in the harsh light of the cubicle, I looked at myself in my old wedding dress. I felt like Miss Havisham in Dickens’ novel, years after her intended failed to appear.

‘You know’, said Brenda, as I was leaving the shop with the gold dress and black top over my arm. ‘Last week, on one of those hot days, I saw you through the window. You were wearing those tobacco-coloured pants that I took in for you last month. You had on a stripy top and your hat. And’, I thought to myself, ‘those clothes really suit you’.

‘Thank you’, I said to Brenda, meeting her eyes, ‘that means a lot to me’.

white trousers

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My husband of thirty years is writing a Short History of the World for kids, with a well-known publisher. He writes all the hours of the day and night, helped on by coffee first thing and wine at night. He skips meals to trim his waist, has a nap mid afternoon, plays tennis three times a week, and works in a wooden hut which he calls the temple at the bottom of the garden, where he can smoke undisturbed.

Over the years, we have grown in different directions, my husband and I. To the point that some days, as today, I can’t help wondering whether it’s our differences that have come to define us as a couple. Could this explain why these days we struggle to sustain a normal conversation, over and above talking about our kids, our covid-constrained social life, and the running of our home?

I don’t mind – or at least say I don’t mind – that, bar this year, my husband travels to Italy during our winter where he lives out his other life, unconstrained by family meal times and bursts of teasing from our kids. The thing I do mind is that during his last trip to Italy he bought two pairs of white cotton trousers that he wears at the first sign of summer heat. He wears these trousers with a white shirt and navy cotton jacket, which seems to me quite a lot of white. It gets to me, just seeing him in these white trousers, kept preternaturally white by an environmentally-unfriendly local dry cleaner.

My husband doesn’t wear white cotton trousers when it’s hot in order to annoy me. Though he knows they get to me, he has decided not to care. Given that he is a philosopher with a strength in aesthetics, the beauty of things, he can make up his own mind whether a particular outfit suits him or not – or so I imagine his thinking on the subject goes.

It’s not just me who objects to these white trousers. They set off our kids, too. ‘I’, these trousers announce to us, his family, ‘am not a man of the people. I do the kind of work that doesn’t get me dirty, as other people do when they work. And anyway, I like looking different. I have no interest in appearing the same as other people.’

Recently, my husband has started gardening, as a break from his writing. It took him ten years in our house with a big garden to realise that taking short breaks, by doing something different, actually helps his writing work along. And yet even when he weeds, his preferred gardening activity, he crouches down. Though he’s happy to gets his hands dirty, he doesn’t kneel on the ground and become one with the soil, an activity incompatible with wearing white trousers.

What right have I to have an opinion on my husband’s choice of clothing? Besides, I suspect that my minding about his trousers has been sparked by the impasse that I find myself at in my own writing journey, as I try not to react to the silence of a new literary agent who has yet to get back after I sent her two manuscripts two and a half weeks ago (are they, I ask myself, really that bad?). This uncertainty of mine can’t help but contrast with the guaranteed publication of my husband’s History of the World for kids, a project the scale of which makes me intellectually quake.

Long ago, my husband objected, frowning, when I wore my favourite baggy jeans. ‘It’s not the denim’, he would say, when I made the mistake of probing. ‘It’s the fit’. Eventually, after months of hesitating, I started wearing these baggy jeans – happily back in fashion – anyway. I can only suppose that it’s in the same spirit that my husband wears white trousers on hot days, refusing to care what his family thinks of them.

It makes me feel small and mean spirited, objecting to my husband’s white trousers. ‘White pants!’ my daughter taunts, as she heads off to work wearing tan workman shorts. But then, her father’s total love for her means that she can taunt him without consequence. Which is not the case for me.

Our son, away for nearly five years and recently returned, reckons that my husband and I are not as unalike as we believe ourselves to be. ‘You two’, says my son, ‘are inside the same small circle, standing back to back, looking out in opposite directions’. And damn it, he’s probably right.

One of my favourite Dr Seuss stories is about a pair of yellow trousers. These yellow trousers walk around aimfully, independent of anyone in them. One moonlit night, these eery trousers chase the narrator up hill and down dell, to the point of the narrator’s collapse. Those yellow trousers just keep on coming.

This whole Covid experience seems to have made me prickle at small things which, trivial in the grand scheme of things, loom large in the close-up daily life that I find myself leading. I would so much rather be big hearted than small minded. Yet those white trousers, as they walk up and down our garden, they’ve found me out!

to be creative or not

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I think about playing the piano a lot. I imagine drawing after dinner. I fantasise about how my garden might look. But then I let myself be put off. I move the plants I want to plant near the back door. I even water them. But I don’t get around to planting them. I listen to my daughter pound the piano keys as I busy myself in the kitchen. At night, instead of getting out my drawing things and putting on some music, I pull out The Guardian Weekly and immerse myself in important world events.

I have good excuses for not being creative. I am busy. I have writing deadlines, yoga classes to teach, washing to hang up, a dog to walk, a family to cook for. I don’t twiddle my thumbs. Yet I seem incapable of prioritising my time to make room for my own desires. Am I so timid? Am I really so afraid of failing? Have I internalised such high expectations that my creative efforts are more of a struggle than they need to be? Does my inner critic even care if I fumble to read the notes on piano pieces? Does it matter if my drawings are not wildly good? Will anyone notice if I plant things in the wrong place or a few don’t thrive?

What stops me investing in those things that I want to do, over and above necessity? Am I lazy? Or is it that I exhaust all my energy doing things I feel I have to do, leaving precious little for the things I care about more? Am I waiting for my kids to leave home? For retirement? Or am I just bad at organising my time, letting the demands of housework lord it over my creativity?

I am not lazy. I am capable of organising my time. But I do struggle with loose time, always have – even before technology came along and gobbled up so much of it. Thinking about it, if drawing and gardening and playing the piano were my job, they’d be easier to prioritise. Even yoga, now that I’m teaching it, is easier because it’s not optional. I need to do yoga regularly in order to teach it, and so I do. But the rest, well it’s just harder. Accountable only to myself, I defer and put off.

Now I have admitted my problem, what now? Do I cajole, harass or bully myself? Or just sit with it, play with it and see what follows? Any tips gratefully received. Otherwise, I’ll keep you posted.