I wrote a few years ago (All That Glitters) about the Chinese lacquer wedding baskets that have been part of the furniture in my parents house, both in KL and the UK, for as long as I can remember. I wrote of the secret treasures to be found within their layered tiers, principally the beads and sequins that I coveted, along with other haberdasher’s miscellany such as embroidery silks and crocheting contraptions.

Today, on her 85th birthday, my mother got a bee in her bonnet about locating a set of brass hinges that belong to the huge antique screen that covers an entire wall of the dining room. She was certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they were inside one of these stacking baskets but she wanted to check, incase she suddenly died, and so we began sifting through their contents to find these fabled fixings.

What we discovered within the faintly naphthalene-scented compartments were layers of forgotten fragments of fabric so steeped in memory that whole days, nights, holidays, and sensations were unlocked with the touch of their fibres.

Vivid recollections of my grandparent’s cottage garden in East Stourmouth materialised. Their swing-seat that my father re-upholstered for them in a jaunty striped canvas of green, cream, black and tomato red. Glimpsing into that old paper bag of striped remnants, conjured a crystal vision in my head and a remembered scent of that place where I made my first faltering attempts to master skipping rope. A raised bed around a pear tree with a rockery border where poached-egg plants grew was right there in my mind as if it were yesterday.

Grandpa & Grandma Arthur as pantomime dame and principle boy.

Our wedding basket excavations unearthed sections of gorgeous Thai silk dress fabric in a psychedelic print of green and turquoise that I assumed had been long lost in a charity shop clear-out. These reminded me how skilfully my mother had disassembled an old evening dress of hers to create a whole new one, with a boned black velvet bodice for a seventeen-year-old me to wear to the Duke of York Royal Military School ball. (Which sounds way posher than it was) she was my own private couturier, and I felt like a film star that night. A year before, I had worn the same velvet bodice in its first incarnation, with an elegant floor length skirt of cream silk chiffon -another dissected evening dress from my mother’s glamorous ex-pat days.

The green silk dress

Before it’s long service as a mix and match foundation for a whole series of ballgowns (Yes, get me!) the black velvet had been an M&S skirt bought so that, as a child who favoured corduroy dungaree cut-offs, I might look smart on special occasions. There, among the offcuts, I found the original black satin sash that formed the waistband of this ‘Sunday Best’ garment. Nothing, I mean nothing, gets discarded in this house.

This relic immediately brought on a flush of shame as I recalled one dark Christmas Eve when the pre-teen me had a total bitch-face meltdown about having to wear that skirt to The Service of Nine Lessons & Carols at Canterbury Cathedral (back in the day when you could actually use it as a church, and go inside it without taking out a loan). I almost derailed Christmas that year with my uncharacteristically awful bad temper. In my defence, it could possibly have been a massive bout of pre-PMT, but as I replaced the length of black satin, I apologised again for my horrid behaviour of 38 years ago.

We delved deeper into the wedding box strata, and more vivid flashes of long dormant memories were unearthed. My mother identified a small square of sea blue material as a fine German flaxen fabric called Esbelin, an archaic weave that my father had taken to a Singapore tailor to be made into pyjamas circa 1963. I started to wonder if this motley collection of forgotten fibres really belonged in the temperature controlled vaults of a museum.

There were immaculate remnants of slubby raw silk in a vibrant hue of hibiscus pink from the mini shift dress that my mother wore on her wedding day. The photographs of that day show that she managed to look both classy and demure in it, while showing off her lovely legs.

There were scraps of a ditsy lightweight cotton poplin that I had chosen from C&H Fabrics in Canterbury (A wonderful emporium where my mum worked for a while. I had completely forgotten about this) The material was a requirement for our first project in Needlework at the Grammar School -‘A Top’. It was basically two squares stitched together with a neck hole somewhere along the upper seam, two rudimentary arm holes, and the added complexity of two badly executed darts to accommodate my barely-there bust. Flashback to Miss Collins’ nerve wracking lessons in ‘The Needlework Hut’ acquiring skills in how to operate a sewing machine without setting it on fire or impaling yourself. A sad reminder that the genetic material containing aptitude for creating beautiful clothes was definitely not handed to me in utero.

I could go on and on (okay, I already have) describing yet more reveries on remnants we found in these old boxes; the exquisite panel of a beaded flapper dress with a diamanté trim, discovered in the attic of my other grandparents house in St. Margaret’s Bay -An object of deep desire for the magpie me.

Or the myriad leftover limbs and yokes of colourful vintage garments purchased in Dover charity shops. These too bombarded my hippocampus with pin-sharp recollections. My mother’s expert ability to update and reinvent garments became essential when, as a non-uniform sixth-former I suddenly needed a cool new daytime wardrobe. My best friend Rachael and I fought with killer zeal to be the first over the threshold of an Oxfam shop in order to bag the best prints.

And then I discovered a crisp cotton voile shirt made for my mother by Shanghai Tai Sun & Co. in 1970s Kuala Lumpur. I wasted no time in whipping off my jumper to slip it on, and to my immense delight it fitted as if Tai Sun himself had measured me up for it yesterday. There is something supremely comforting and reassuring about fitting my body snugly into a garment worn and loved and lived in by my own dear mama. I am lucky to have one other superbly tailored garment of hers by Tai Sun; an ankle length purple cotton shift dress with cut away shoulders that I still wear every summer. My mother remarked fondly, as she admired the old blouse, what a dear little man he was. A google search revealed that a business bearing his name was still listed in Malaysia as recently as 2016. I like to think of those red embroidered ribbons still being stitched into garments specially made for life in the tropics.

Had the brass hinges surfaced yet? No. With every layer sifted and emptied, mother’s catastrophising tendencies led her to the firm conviction that ‘someone’ must had broken in and stolen them, rendering the priceless Chinese screen, hanging on the wall, completely worthless come the time for Maria and I to auction it off along with all their other treasured belongings of a long life lived.

I suggested that maybe they were still hiding, perhaps in a different box? Three sets of eyes swivelled towards the short squat feature in a shadowy corner of the dining room under the screen. A different kind of old lacquer box which, since time immemorial has been the repository for the Arthur family collection of match books and boxes from around the world. My sister dived in eagerly for a fresh hit of nostalgia and there, nestled among the exotic and exquisitely designed little squares and rectangles from a bygone era of exhaled smoke curls in hotel foyers and rooftop bars, they were!

With the hinges safely located, and my mothers anxiety temporarily assuaged, we could pack all these colourful memories safely back into their rightful places to remain, like the precious relics they are, for hopefully many years to come. The thought of parting with such a potent mechanism for total recall pains me, but I know one day I shall have to face it. There’s a growing tendency for us as we age, to live in the glorious past where everything seems to have been so bloody marvellous, to cling to stuff, to possessions, ascribing great meaning to them: Totem? Talisman? Tat. But I’m conscious to resist it. Instead I must turn my sights straight ahead and look towards all the memorable moments yet to materialise. This old cotton shirt I now stand in has a future, as well as a past, and I’m eager to live it.

Looking forward

5 thoughts on “‘I AM HALF SICK OF SHADOWS…‘

Add yours

  1. What a delight that was for me as well as for you and Maria. And your Mum. I was in need of some good memories.

    During Covid I very nearly got around to sticking hoped for price tags on some of my tat in case I woke up dead tomorrow. But there is rather a lot of it.

    1. 😆 Dear Miss Collins! I had to text Rachael to remind me of her surname! I was stuck on it beginning with an S. As R pointed out, it must have been her catchphrase I was thinking of! 😁

      1. I bumped into her about 15 years ago…an engine driver on the Kent and East Sussex line. Seriously – not even I could make that gem up!! 🤪

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