My mother loved Fashion.
More than fashion – which was prone to lapses of taste unacceptable to her – she loved STYLE.
She grew up in Dublin at a time when most people were intensely proud and incredibly poor. Money, when it was there, was for essentials.
Essentials included clothes, but style– the wearing of things that were beyond essential, but necessary simply because they were beautiful – was frowned on, as was aspiration or rebellion.
But my mother wore beehives, heels with stiletto toes, coats that were there to be shapely and luxurious rather than just to keep the cold out, in colours of chocolate brown and raspberry red, in hues of ochre, with explosions of turquoise blue and jade green.
And she passed her love of style, her quietly rebellious nature, and her aspiration – less quiet, but necessarily so – on to my brother and I, though I suspect she sometimes wished she hadn’t.
I went through a period, in the 80s, of sporting a vintage* tuxedo, lined with orange and blue candy striped silk for everyday wear. The sleeves were rolled up to display the lining, and the whole thing screamed Dandy, Daring, or Sissy, depending on where you stood in 80s Dublin…
And then there was the Greatcoat: A Huge, heavy tweed affair that dwarfed my five foot three, 8 stone frame in swathes of grey and black wool, and which had shoulders that – even in the 1980’s – raised eyebrows. Put it this way: I often entered rooms sideways, and considered that moving like a crab only added to my glamour.
I wore it to the Irish Premier of ‘Letter to Brezhnev,’ the beautiful love story by Frank Clarke, and thought I looked like a pre-war German Industrialist. My mother, on the other hand, thought I looked like I was wearing a coat that someone had died in. “It’s riddled,” she announced, asking my dad – as he was going to the library – if he could look up “If you can catch TB off a coat.”
But style turned into Fashion with disastrous consequences when I stepped regally off an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin a year after I’d moved to London, resplendent in a Throat to Floor Length Yohji Yamamoto Coat of Bleached White linen and cotton, to be met by my mothers raised eyebrow – clearly, in hindsight, wondering where my feet were – and her query “Have you got a sideline at the Abatoir?”
But – generally – our styles matched. I love preppy, classic, smart fashion, and this was the style my mother grew up aspiring to.
My mother died on 26th June last year.
I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything worse in my life, both in the lead up to the event – the gradual realisation that no matter how long and hard she (and we) fought her illness, sooner or later everyone dies – and in the aftermath, where I found myself almost paused so that, as my dreams came true – my book being published, artists who I admired not only acknowledging, but celebrating me – I felt guilty, lost, and unable to connect to the wider world, to the past, or even, to be honest, to me.
I know myself. I know my style. I know I’m prone to Melodrama and emotion. I am a homosexual Dubliner (though, to be frank, the homosexuality is irrelevant here; even the straightest Dubliner is only ever a large Jameson’s shy of ‘She was only a bird in a Gilded Cage’), and so I knew – even as I was struggling to enjoy a blessed, privileged and good life – that I needed to snap out of it.
But that’s not how depression works.
That’s not how grief works.
I was immensely lucky to have love understanding and professional help.
But that didn’t stop me getting fat, and outgrowing the clothes – the beautiful, peacock hued clothes – that I loved; that my mother had loved – or would have loved if she’d been around to see them.
And I grew out of grief to a low level anger, with a side order of self-hatred. I have Love Handles. I have NEVER had Love Handles. I have a belly. These – once upon a time – would have been criminal offences. How could they be acceptable today?
This weekend, I went through the wardrobe. I threw away the things that don’t fit. Yes, I know they’ll fit if I diet and exercise and so on – and I’m already back to exercising (semi) regularly, and am eating better – but you know what? It’s OK that they don’t fit. It’s time to let them go.
I tried on everything – including a small suitcase-worth of clothes that had been bought, brought home and shoved in drawers since July last year, as I’d continued habits of normality (shopping, loving fashion) in the same way an amputee still feels themselves moving their severed limbs – and was surprised that many things not only fit, but looked good.
I have a wardrobe of new, and so-long-since-I-wore-them-that-they-feel-new clothes.
And I still miss my mam so much that it’s almost a physical pain.
And I still wish I was who I used to be, back when I dressed stylishly because it was a way of celebrating being alive, and not a way of remembering the dead.
But I hung my clothes in the wardrobe, I stared, in wonder, at shirts in all the colours of the rainbow, in cotton, linen, mixes, at scarves – the sort that serve as statements rather than insulation – in blues, greens, grays, and slashes of red, and at trousers and shorts in slate grey through to blood-bruise purple. Then, I looked out at the sunshine dancing on green trees, I looked down at my whale-white belly, and I thought “She’d approve.”
And I allowed myself to be happy.
And I was.
“Death of a Nobody,” The 2nd Danny Bird Mystery is available now.
“Death of a Diva” – The 1st Danny Bird Mystery – can be purchased here.
*We call it Vintage now; back then, it was called Second-Hand, and was, in my mothers generation, the sign of poverty, paucity and probably pubic lice.