Authors: Sophie Nicholls
Copyright 2011 Sophie Nicholls
It all began with a dress.
‘As so many things do,
,’ I can hear Mamma saying now in her rich, slow voice, stirring sugar into her cup. ‘As so many things do…’
It was a simple dress, a slip of oyster-coloured silk, made to fall over the body like a sigh of pleasure. On the morning that it appeared in the window of our shop on Grape Lane, I stood in my bedroom window, watching the women stopping to admire it in the street outside, some of them setting down their bags of groceries, folding their arms over their bosoms, cocking their heads to one side, imagining themselves into the swish of its silk, which Mamma had accessorised with a single strand of pearls, looped over the mannequin’s fingers.
The story that I’m about to tell you is not so simple. It has complicated seams and concealed fastenings. It has deep pockets and interfacings that won’t sit quite true. I’ll shape it for you here, as Mamma taught me to do, rolling the hem between my fingers, teasing the stray threads with the lightest touch I can manage.
You’ll have to forgive me if at times I’m clumsier than I ought to be. Mamma didn’t believe in following a pattern. She taught me to trust the fabric itself, letting the texture and colour of it find its own form on the cutting table. If I asked her what to do next, she’d smile and tell me to close my eyes while she brushed the edge of a half-made sleeve or the fold of a skirt across my cheek.
‘What do you feel,
?’ she’d say, ‘What do you feel, deep inside you? What does this fabric already know? What does it want to be?’
I wish I had the family gift, the gift of Mamma and Madaar-Bozorg and their mothers and grandmothers before them. Back in The Old Country, they used to say that the Jobrani women could divine a dress from the fragrance of the wind or the memory of the sun on the sea.
Mamma lives in America now, her America, the New Country of possibility that she always longed for. Without her, I’m learning to be my own diviner but I don’t have her knack. I’ll piece this together for you as best I can from everything that I remember, the things I’ve guessed at and the things that, no doubt, I’ve added in myself as I’ve told and retold this story over the years.
Some of it’s difficult to work with. It slips through my fingers like fine jersey or rucks up under my needle like brocade. But some of it, when I smooth it on my lap, is as light and easy as gingham, with straight lines that my thread can follow as I attach one story to another, one word to another. And that’s how I’ll make this beginning.
Now that I’m so much older and a mother myself, I can see that what I’m making here – my story, the story of Mamma and me - is a story that belongs to all of us, if it belongs to anyone.
You only need to stop for a moment, lift your arms over your head – there, that’s right, just like that – and allow the rustle of it, the soft gatherings of it, to settle over your body, just so.
And now it’s your story, yours to make and remake again, in your way, until it’s perfect.
Man’s black overcoat. Marks and Spencer. 2007.
The man was tall and badly dressed. Ella always noticed what people wore and this man wore a shapeless black overcoat, too short for his tall frame so that it flapped loosely around his calves as he moved. He held his hat in his hand, kneading its rim between his fingers. She watched the dark shape of him moving behind the glass in the shop door.
‘He’s a pain in the backside,’ Billy said, nodding towards the shop, his brow furrowing. ‘Your mum had best keep an eye out…’
‘Who is he?’
‘Councillor Pike.’ Billy’s lip curled in dislike as he flung himself down on the chair that Mamma kept in the corner of the courtyard for sunny days when business was slow. Ella watched him tilting his head from side to side, as if he were trying to shake something free, one of those thoughts that buzzes round your head like a fly.
She waited in the courtyard, sneaking sideways glances through the shop windows. She didn’t want to go inside.
She could see Mamma smiling, nodding, and the back of the man’s head, his dark hair and his white neck against the black of his collar.
There was always a man. In the places they’d lived before, there was always a man, sniffing around. But Mamma always knew what to do.
. They are like
, these people,’ Ella had once heard her say, making that clicking noise with her tongue. ‘They can smell fear. Look them in the eye. Smile. Don’t let them get a sniff of it.’
She thought of this now as she watched Mamma’s hands parting the air in pretty gestures, her hair bobbing above her shoulders, her lipsticked smile.
And here she was, walking straight towards them, one hand reaching for the door handle, the other taking the Councillor’s hand and shaking it firmly, looking him straight in the eye.
‘Ah,’ she said, the shop bell jangling as she swung it wide, ‘Mr Pike, may I introduce my daughter, Ella… and Billy, of course. Hello, Billy. How are you this afternoon?’
Ella caught the false bright tinkle in her voice, like the sound of teaspoons against china cups. Mamma’s arm crept around her waist, drawing her in close. She could hear Mamma’s heart pumping under the sprigged silk of her dress.
Ella’s cheeks flushed with heat as she tried to force them into a smile.
Don’t let them see it. Don’t let them smell your fear.
Would the man notice? She pressed her fingernails into her palms. Her throat had closed up and she found that she couldn’t make a sound.
‘What a pleasure,’ the man was purring, ‘and such a lovely little thing, just like her mother.’
She watched his eyes moving up and down, greedy eyes, like little black buttons, taking in all of her. She imagined him licking his lips, as if after a delicious meal.
Then he turned, nodding over to Billy who was kicking a pebble from one foot to the other.
‘Billy,’ he said, ‘don’t be making a nuisance of yourself now, will you?’ and he walked purposefully out of the courtyard, his black overcoat swirling behind him.
Billy scowled and dug the toe of his trainer into the cobbles. Some of them were loose and bits of moss and grit sprayed up over his socks but Mamma didn’t tell him off.
Instead, she waited until the last flick of overcoat disappeared from the courtyard, then she drew a deep breath, pulling her shoulders back, brushing her palms briskly against each other as if she were wiping off something unpleasant.
‘You know this man, Billy?’ she said quietly.
Billy pulled a face. ‘Yeah, worse luck.’
Mamma smiled at him but Ella could see that she was thinking about something else.
‘OK,’ she said then, clapping her hands together, ‘Now, who wants hot chocolate?’
Billy was the only friend that Ella had made so far since they moved to York. None of the girls in her class seemed to like her. And in the places where they’d lived before, it had always been the same.
She was too dark, too quiet. She didn’t speak in the same way as them. Something about her seemed to make them nervous so that they’d stand on one leg when she came near, wriggle their hands in their pockets, fiddle with their hair, look at her with long sideways glances.
It wasn’t much different here, despite everything that Mamma had promised.
But Billy liked her and whenever she thought about this, Ella felt a kind of certainty about it, a feeling that spread through her insides like the beginning of one of those forbidden but unstoppable laughs.
‘Who’ll show our new classmate, Ella, how things work around here?’ Miss Cookson had asked of the sea of bored-looking faces on her first day at St Olave’s, the new school, and Billy had sprung straight up from his seat in that funny way of his, his skinny legs unfolding as if on coiled springs, and he’d taken her elbow, grinning at her all the while, steering her, firmly but gently, to the rows of lockers ranged along the back of the classroom.
In that moment, Billy claimed her, like a library book or a lost umbrella. His hand cupped her elbow. His smile showed a row of shiny white teeth. She was fifteen years old. She felt that ticklish sensation in the bottom of her stomach. She thought Billy was the most interesting boy she’d ever seen.
She liked his eyes, which were blue-green-grey and looked right into her, without blinking. She liked the way that there was always a half-smile hiding at the corners of his mouth. She liked his mop of curly black hair that sprang out all over his head, and his skinny wrists that stuck out from the cuffs of his school shirt. He was everywhere and all at once. It was as if his long thin body wasn’t big enough to contain him and parts of him kept jumping out all over the place.
Now they were perched together on the fold-out stools behind the counter, cradling their mugs of hot chocolate, sipping and blowing steam.
To the rest of the world passing by in the street outside, Ella thought, they would look exactly the same as they always did: Mrs Moreno, there in that fancy new shop of hers with her daughter and that funny boy, Billy.
But if she tuned in, pressing herself up against the outside of her body, letting a part of herself float upwards, feeling with her mind for The Signals, those squiggly lines of blue and red and sometimes electric green, she could hear what Mamma was saying to herself, furiously, over and over, inside her mind.
It made her nervous. Which was why she didn’t do the tuning in thing very often.
Mamma saw her watching and smiled one of her tight bright Whatever’s-The-Matter-Ella-Everything’s-Perfectly-Fine smiles, launched herself off her stool and began tidying a table of silk scarves. Her hands fluttered above the fuschia pinks and swirls of blue, tweaking them into new shapes like the petals of origami flowers.
With her back towards them, so that Ella couldn’t see her expression, her voice came out too high, too Couldn’t-Care-Less. ‘Billy… How do you know this man, this Councillor Pike?’
‘Everyone knows Pike, Mrs Moreno,’ Billy said, his lip curling again at the corner. ‘Piece of work, so my dad says. And I’m sorry to say that I don’t like him.’
‘And what does this mean, this expression – this, how do you say it -
piece of work
?’ Mamma asked.
Billy wrinkled his brow. ‘A right piece of work,’ he said, ‘means someone badly put together, made sort of slant-wise, not quite right…’
He paused, searching around the shop for inspiration. ‘You see, it’s a bit like one of these dresses, Mrs Moreno. You know, a dress that someone brings you for an alteration. They want you to take up the hem or shorten the sleeve but, when you get down to it, when you look up close, you realise that the dress might look all nice and fancy on the outside but, really, it’s not very good at all… Maybe the lining’s all squint and the pockets are all cock-eyed and so you have to unpick the entire thing and sew it all back together better...’
Ella thought of Councillor Pike’s baggy black overcoat, the way it hung off his shoulders and flapped around his legs and the sense she’d had as she looked at him that he was hiding something under his smile.
,’ Mamma repeated softly, as if only to herself, savouring the sound of the words. ‘
Then her mouth began to twitch at the corners, the dimple appeared in her right cheek and her shoulders started to shake. Laughter burst from her lips and nose and went bouncing and echoing over the floor of the shop and soon Ella and Billy were joining in, slapping their thighs like pantomime dames, their cheeks wet with tears.
‘Stop now,’ Mamma blurted, between explosions of laughter. ‘Stop now, you two. It’s cruel. We should
laugh at this poor man,’ and then she caught Billy’s eye and started to laugh all over again. Mamma. Fabbia Moreno. Fabbia, which Ella knew meant ‘flame.’ She spoke Italian, French and a little Spanish and, of course, the Old Language, the one Ella wasn’t allowed to learn, the language of her mother’s grandmother, Madaar-Bozorg, back in Iran, the Old Country.
No matter how much Ella pleaded, Mamma would never teach her the Old Language.
‘It will only ever bring you bad luck,
,’ was what she said. ‘If you want to learn languages, start with your father’s. Italian: language of music, of art, of food. Language of love. Very beautiful language. Make you happy. Always.’
Sometimes Ella would surprise Mamma singing to herself in the kitchen, the soft upper notes that seemed to shimmer in the air and the harder sounds that came from somewhere deep in her throat in a way that Ella couldn’t imitate, no matter how much she practised in front of the mirror. Fat, blurred words and long words with drawn out sounds that mingled with the steam from the saucepans so that, when Ella swallowed Mamma’s thick stew, the one with beans and garlic, she liked to imagine she was eating the stories of her ancestors.