It all starts with this, my day.
A single piece of fabric, pure white and delicate, so light I barely feel it on the skin of my fingers.
All the grey bleariness of the morning evaporates before it. In a blink, the pounding headache, damp heat and the heavy atmosphere are gone, and there only remains this fragile moment, hanging by a thread.
I am aware that distantly (and yet so near), the city—no, the capital—is huffing and puffing clouds of smoke and heat. It is a boiler room, a steam engine for the whole country. It never stops, constantly pumping, whistling, pushing forward. Always loud.
And yet here we are, in a pocket of calm.
A self-contained bubble, so frail in a city this tough and rough. Here is nothing more, nothing less than a fabrics shop. Its facade is worse for wear, sticky with a light film of grey, as everyplace else in the city.
But inside, the very air is different.
It is cool and light, the way the atmosphere feels like after it has finally rained. Not a particle of dust floats in that air, despite how likely that would be given the endless rolls of fabrics lining the walls. But oh, there’s glitter even in between the cracks in the tiles, shining mischievously atop the keys of an old cash register.
“Welcome! What can I help you with today?”
I can hear the smile in that old voice, raspy and a little breathless. It is a warm voice, one that has told countless stories to many a grandchild.
The shop-owner is an old man with greying hair and a thick beard and whose nose is just a little off-centre, crooked to the left. There is something about him that is so genial, so authentic you could never fake it.
And my words simply unravel from my tongue. How I, we, are here in search of fabric for wedding dresses. The notion is still so novel, so incongruous to me, that in the age of fast-food and fast-fashion, there are still random, normal people going to dressmakers and textile shops to construct an entire outfit from scraps. And that today, one of those people is me.
I think he senses my hesitancy, the slight inexperience in my requests.
“Right this way,” he smiles and extends his arm to a whole new area of the shop. And here are lace, embroidery, flowers bursting out of fabric, tulle in all shades, satin and silk and countless others I cannot name.
“Your mother,” he says conspiratorially “used to come here every week with her mother and two sisters back in the day ! They wouldn’t leave until they had found the exact matching shade of fabric they were looking for.”
From behind me, light giggles emerge. I can only imagine the very same sounds had echoed in this old shop some 20, 25 years ago.
“Every week, don’t believe her if she says otherwise!”
Already, large rolls of fabric are descending on the glass counter. Fingers are dancing over champagne-coloured silk. The whole counter is overcome, cascading with 5 different shades of pink from 5 giant rolls of cloth. And he is already taking out more from over his head, huge swathes of cloth taller than he even is. With ease and rapid precision, he is matching lace and silk, suggesting designs and rejecting others.
“Don’t take satin for this one, it doesn’t fall as nicely on the figure.” Or “Oh, look at this. Look at this, a full ankle-length dress made out of this.”
There are hearts in his eyes when he speaks, reverence in the way he approaches the fabric, the idea. He is someone who sees that the creative process begins with him, and so he gives it his all.
Already, my mother, aunt and sisters are fluttering about me, debating over choices.
That’s when I take a moment to slip away, to bask in the peace, the utter simplicity of this place. It is so removed from everything I know of the city, it is slow and not entirely practical. It is artful, a place where fantasy grows wings, where eyes catch on glistening cascades of golden cloth and weave daydreams of full skirts sweeping ballroom floors. It is a place so necessary, I realise. A safe-place for creation, for dreams which usually fall dead like butterflies in the smog of the city. But here they flutter timidly, then they soar.
As indecision stops the quiet hum of conversation, I waltz (Yes, yes) back in to help. Unhelpfully, I simply add in my own very high dosage of indecision and point to other rolls of fabric above my head. The poor old shop-owner already has 12 different rolls of fabric wrapped over and around him as it is, and I have no idea how to ask him to get some more down.
Then one, two, three sons appear.
All with the same slightly off-centre nose, the same gentle kindness. The youngest is still trying to prove himself to his older brothers, you can see. They seem to be having the time of their lives teasing him as he speaks to us, a group of 5 women. The little one fumbles a little, blushes, stumbles through his sentences. But his hands never once flinch as his sharp scissors descend down a blush pink piece of silk, as he folds it smoothly, squarely into a brown bag.
Much of the morning passes by in a back and forth of ideas, some lengthily debated upon, others cast aside, a few coveted, dreamed of, awed at. Slowly but surely, all hearts fall for some dreamy fabric or other, even mine. My heart stutters at some muted soie sauvage or wild silk, a delightful shade of ocean green. And to match it, lace of the same tone, run through by waves of white and cream and pale blue.
You’re wearing the ocean in a dress, my mind whispers. Tomboyish though I am, I can already feel the long skirt dancing in wavelets around me as I move, can hear its soft rustle like the gentle crash of waves on the shore. It is so light too, it gives me that feeling, the feeling when I lie down in the ocean, arms and legs splayed out, and let the gentle waves carry away all my worries.
“So much for lilac.” My mother teases.
Yes, so much for lilac. My mother knows me, she does. She knows there are plans in the making, wheels turning, winds changing, sails billowing.
But for now, we speak of lilac and bridesmaids and weddings. We speak of dropping anchors, broach lightly on setting sail to new horizons, both my bride-to-be sister and I.
There is something about being here, where my mother used to shop years ago, when she was the same age I am now that touches me profoundly. There is this sharing, this bonding. Like linking the past and the present, the future. It is like I have been introduced to the girl my mother was when she was my age.
It is cyclical too, I realise.
The shop-owner’s earlier words come to me now, as we are ready to leave :
“So, when is your mother going to come pay my shop a visit?”
He had been talking to my mother, reminiscing about the old times.
A hush fell over their formerly lively conversation then. And quietly, the words, tinted with a sadness that cannot ever be washed away, came out.
Yes, today I am here with my mother the way she was with her mother back in the day. Next time I come here, I am not so certain what kind of realities I will bring with me, which griefs and happinesses I will carry in my heart.
We are dropping anchors and setting sail, always.
Before we leave, I ask the shop-owner about the opening hours, because I am learning that I may need more fabric eventually for the dress.
“What time do I close? Oh, as soon as the cash register’s full!”
With a laugh and brown bags full of fabrics and secrets, we leave, losing ourselves to the city.
Listening to :