Something blue – winner Voice of Africa competition 2008


Susanne was known as The Prettiest Woman in the Village. But what was this worth, wondered that woman, if she was the only one not yet married? What was the point of a tiny waist, perfect breasts, shapely calves and eyes as soft as an impala’s if you were nearly thirty and still single?

It was all Auntie’s fault. If her aunt had allowed her to accept Zak the butcher’s offer of marriage, she’d be the prettiest, the wealthiest – and married, but Aunty had said no. She’d wanted assurance that Susanne loved the suave butcher, yet Susanne simply couldn’t muster up that love. So single she remained: frustrated in status and career.

Six mornings a week Susanne caught the bus from the dusty, mist-veiled village that nestled in the bend of the river, to her job in town as a seamstress in the Solomon’s shop. Most of the time she stitched endless seams on overalls; once in a blue moon she was allowed to do the work she loved.

This Monday morning brought just such an opportunity.

Susanne was sitting at her machine finishing fiddly pockets, when Mrs Solomon stuck her head around the door that divided shop from sewing room.

‘Quick, Susanne, there’s a customer. He wants a dress for “the most beautiful woman in the world”. By Friday.’

Why did customers always leave everything to the last minute? Susanne ran a hand over her newly braided hair, slipped on her sandals and followed Mrs Solomon.

Oh. My. Heavens. There at the counter was the most alarmingly handsome man she had ever seen: with crisp white shirt enhancing coppery glowing skin, one carelessly shifted cuff revealing a watch that had to be real gold and hair cut so stylishly that it could only mean one thing: City.

Susanne could already feel the blush rising, but she managed to stammer out, ‘Good morning, sir. How can I help you?’

His warm smile dazzled her. ‘Good morning to you, too. My name is Thandi.’

‘Thandi,’ she spluttered. ‘I’m Susanne.’

‘Now, Miss Susanne, I’ve probably left it horribly late, but I need a dress. A going-away dress. For this special lady.’ From his jacket pocket he drew a photograph of a willowy beauty. ‘Her measurements are on the back. Can you do it?’

Susanne felt slightly dizzy. ‘A going-away dress? So there’s to be a wedding?’

‘There is, indeed. On Saturday. The dress is to be a surprise for the bride, but I’ve just got back in town. Please tell me you can do it.’

Susanne couldn’t resist the sincerity in the pleading eyes. ‘Will the, um, bride be coming in for a fitting?’

‘No. It’s a surprise, remember.’ He grinned. ‘Will that be a problem?’ he asked.

Men are so clueless, thought Susanne. Of course it will be a problem. ‘No, not really. I’m sure I can make a plan. Do you know what style she might want?’

‘Something traditional, yet classical. I heard it was your speciality.’

Susanne had no idea where he’d heard that, and wasn’t about to ask for fear of blushing again, but it was true. When given the chance, she’s designed some of the most ravishing party gowns in the region. If she’d only the time and courage to dump the overalls and go it alone, she would. But the demand wasn’t great enough and she hadn’t dared take the risk; not while Aunty was so dependent on her income.

Life could be horribly frustrating.

‘Could you come back after lunch and I’ll have some sketches ready for you?’

‘I’ll be here at two. Thank you. Susanne.’ The way he said her name made her skin tingle and a dew of sweat gloss her upper lip.

‘I’ll see you then,’ she stammered as Thandi turned to leave the shop.

Damn. Why are all the perfect ones married? Or about to be.

But now it was action stations. Susanne’s overalls were assigned to another seamstress and a table next to the window was cleared to allow Susanne fresh air as she worked her magic.

She gazed at the photograph of the bride-to-be. If ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ was going to marry that splendid man, then so be it. She would make a dress fit for such a match and every guest at the reception would ask for her name and they would all flock to her, Susanne, demanding such dresses for themselves. Then she would open her own shop and would become rich and admired and it wouldn’t matter if there was no handsome man in her life, because she simply wouldn’t have time for one.

At two o’clock, Thandi returned; this time with shirtsleeves turned back to reveal deliciously muscled forearms.

Together they studied her designs. The first two were rejected, but when he saw the third, he sighed. ‘She’ll look perfect in that. I like the wraparound bit of the skirt, and those sleeve wing-things are great. Don’t make the neckline too low, though. I don’t want my mother fainting at the reception.

‘What about material. Do you have something blue? She looks fantastic in blue.’

Bolts of silk, linen and soft cotton lace in shades from summer sky to deep ocean were produced and layered over the counter for his perusal. As they poured over the material Susanne’s arm brushed against Thandi’s and she felt a cold sharp current run up her arm and down to the pit of her stomach. Gasping softly she glanced up into his deep chocolate eyes and saw with a shock that he had felt the same.

No, she thought, her head spinning. This couldn’t be. This mustn’t be.

‘Excuse me,’ she whispered, dashing to the back for buttons and braid … and a moment to collect herself.

When she returned, Thandi was leaning against the doorway, an odd expression on his face. ‘I’ll leave the rest to you, I think. When should I come back?’

‘Come in on Thursday afternoon and tell me if you’re happy, then I can make any changes and have it ready for you by Friday midday.’

‘Good. Good. Well, I’ll see you Thursday then.’

For three days Susanne measured, cut and sewed. In the evenings she took home panels of hazy silk on which to hand-stitch hundreds of tiny peacock blue beads. Somehow her awakening desire for this man only served to spur her on to make his bride the most beautiful going-away dress in the universe.

It’s so unfair, she thought for the thousandth time as the paraffin lamps flickered in the fading light.

On Thursday morning Thandi returned to the shop, expressing real delight at the creation. Again, Susanne felt the disturbing connection and studiously avoided eye contact. She was disappointed and relieved when he left.

By lunchtime Susanne was exhausted and decided to take a walk to clear her head. Winding her way around cars and bicycles and through throngs of pedestrians, she soon found herself in the upper end of town, where office blocks lined the streets and packed restaurants spilled out onto pavements.

It was there that she saw him, sitting under an umbrella at a café table, holding the hand of the elegant woman in the photograph. He seemed to be pleading with her and she was laughing. There was such warmth in the woman’s face and such love in his that Susanne stood locked in a moment of complete stillness as the world spun around her. Then, from deep inside came a surge of longing so strong she feared it would consume her. A great sob rose in her throat and spilled out before she could stop it and, at that moment, Thandi looked up and caught her eye.

Susanne turned and ran.

She could barely see where she was going as she sped back to the safety of the shop, but as she arrived, panting and sobbing, two firm hands grabbed her from behind and swung her round and two firm arms held her against a crisp white shirt.

Thandi!

What must he think of her? How could she have let him know how she felt? She wanted to sink through the cracks in the pavement and disappear for eternity.

‘Listen,’ he said as he stroked her hair. ‘Listen to me, Susanne. I have teased you and that was very wrong.’

‘Teased me?’ she stammered.

‘Yes. I’m so sorry. You were so sweet and pretty I couldn’t help myself… There is going to be a wedding on Saturday. No, wait!’ he commanded as she struggled to free herself. ‘It is my sister’s wedding. The dress is for her…’

Susanne raised her tear-streaked face to his. ‘Your sister? That beautiful woman is your sister?’

‘Yes. I was just asking her if I could bring someone special to the wedding. You. As my partner.’

‘And what did she say?’ breathed Susanne, the sadness now replaced by something quite, quite different.

‘She said only if I caught you in time.’

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Short story: The man in the mirror


The silver framed Edwardian shaving mirror was Julian’s most prized possession; not because it held any sentimental value, but rather that he felt perfectly at ease in its presence. If you’d asked him why, he wouldn’t have been able to tell you, but the reason is simple: it was as familiar to him as his own self. 

The mirror was beautifully wrought, respectably tarnished, somewhat dented and as neat and clear and bright and functional as an aging mirror could be.

This treasured item rested on the mahogany shelf in Julian’s spacious bathroom alongside his Eau Savage shaving soap and brush and his Mach III razor. As Julian lathered the soap he would hum to himself; sometimes it was The March of the Toreadors and other times it would be an annoying Britney Spears number that had lodged stubbornly inside his head. This morning it was Rod Stewart’s Sailing, which was also annoying, but not as much so as Ms Spears. As Julian applied the lather to his neck he lifted his chin and gazed into the mirror; as he tilted his head from side to side adding more swirls and daubs of creamy foam, his eyes would remain fixed and any observer would assume that he was watching himself go about his morning ablutions, taking care not to miss a patch of prickly skin or skim the sides of his neat yet unfashionable moustache. But that observer would be incorrect; for Julian saw nothing as he gazed into the mirror. Or rather, he saw things that were not those in which any observer could share.

When Julian looked into that mirror his face instantly receded and his mind leaned out, and from it he would conjure dreams or plans or storylines from childhood books. Sometimes he would summon up work matters that needed his attention, other times it was his mother, gently nagging him to call and invite himself to tea. All of these things and more would appear before him; but never his own face. Never his own form.

Sometimes other mirrors – in hotel rooms or gentlemen’s outfitters – permitted this private miracle. Other less accommodating mirrors were to be avoided whenever possible.

Julian believed he was invisible. If asked to describe himself he would say ‘I am grey and invisible’ and one might argue ‘No! You are not. Your eyes are olive-leaf green, your hair as silver as rain in the street light, your skin still has a golden sheen from your week of tiger fishing on the Zambezi and the freckles on your hands are constellations of copper stars. Your tie, Julian, is as red as a bloody fire engine! How could you not see this?’ But you’d be wasting your words because not only had Julian decided that he was invisible, he preferred it that way, as it often did away with the need to hide. And hiding is what he liked to do – not from the world per se, but rather from the people that populated it. Oh, he could be as sociable as the next chap if he chose to be – at the club, sipping whisky at a riverside lodge, entertaining valued clients – but if he chose not to be, and this happened in the presence of most people, he would simply disappear.

It was only when Julian was at home or at work that he felt truly present, but even then he measured himself by the objects that surrounded him. He would spend peaceful evenings chopping vegetables and stirring sauces and then would gaze around his Italian kitchen and think to himself: I am a man who cooks. He would complete the latest travelogue or political treatise, place it in his bookcase with quiet satisfaction and acknowledge: I am a man who is informed. Sometimes, after wining and dining a lady he would look at her and think to himself: In this seat sits a man who can share the company of pleasant women. But he rarely dated any one more than twice as they all shared the same annoying habit of layering him with attributes and fancies that he knew not to exist; creating, in effect, a picture of a visible man. Or even worse, they were determined to find out what lay beneath his linen and wool armour. And that would never do. (He had decided that his latest dinner date would be his last when the charming brunette leaned across the table and whispered that men should really remove their socks before their trousers as half-naked men do look funny with their socks on.)

Why was Julian this way, you ask yourself. What way, would be his answer. Is there any other way for me? And you might reply: Yes! The way of being one with your flesh; the way of facing your reflection and saying ‘you are me and I am you and we belong together’ despite the receding hairline, nobbly knees or whatever else it is that you find less than perfect about yourself.

But Julian wasn’t like that, although he believed that everyone else was; that all others had made the connection between flesh and spirit or body and heart and were happy enough with both to keep harmony in the ranks. Julian, quite simply, did not hold his corporeal form in high regard and so chose to do little more than sustain it, groom it and cover it. Apart from that, it was something of a traitor; not at all like the thinking, romantic, witty and rather brilliant being inside.

Still, the outer, invisible self did occasionally feel lonely. As did the inner man, but he was easier to assuage with books, fishing, dinner and the news. The poor tangible man had very little comfort; but why should he when he didn’t really exist?

Sometimes Julian was aware of how unfair he was on his outer self, but the alternative was… just too difficult to contemplate.

******

This morning, as on most weekday mornings, Julian walked from his apartment, along the cobbled lane, all the way up the high street and into the arcade below his offices. He enjoyed this walk whatever the weather and strode with absent-minded confidence past pedestrians, fire hydrants and lamp posts. It was only as he entered the brightly lit cave of commerce that his step faltered slightly and his eyes darted furtively. He didn’t know he was doing this and would have denied it if you’d pointed it out; but it was so.

The entrance to the arcade was cluttered with tie, sock and sandwich stalls, the newsstand and Vida e Caffè, after which came the small breathing space of Camilla’s Floral Creations to one side and GadZounds! to the other. Both of these shops remained closed until ten o’clock on weekday mornings.

Adjacent to the flower shop were the lifts to the upper level offices, the doors of which were clad in – and surrounded by – gleaming, golden, relentless mirrors. Opposite the lifts and abutting the audio shop was Armitage’s Africa Gallery, glass-fronted home to a kaleidoscope of contemporary and traditional pieces and workplace of the grave yet fair Elaine, a woman who was more of a Titian creation than a Gakere girl.

Mr Armitage insisted that Elaine open the gallery at nine o’clock so as not to miss the ‘Rolex trade’ on its way to work. Elaine had no objection to this as she liked to ease into her day with a decent cup of coffee, and was particularly partial to one of the trade; a man whose presence when he’d recently been absent for a week had been replaced by repeated viewings of Robert Donat as Mr Chips.

It was on the Jerusalem stone tiled crux between art and lifts that Julian found himself stranded five mornings a week. He knew it was coming and he was always prepared. His tactic was simple: stride to lifts, push brass button, face arcade entrance – avoiding all contact with mirrored wall – and gaze carelessly into the distance while waiting for the rescuing ping or the arrival of a colleague. 

Elaine had been eyeing Julian almost every weekday morning for the three months since she had started as Assistant Art Consultant at Armitage’s. At first she’s been amused by his regular pattern of studied nonchalance, then fascinated, then moved. By the end of the first month his regular ritual had her mesmerised and by half way through month two she was discreetly stalking him, coinciding her second coffee break with his first and taking to hovering next to the newsstand at his usual home time.

 Sometimes he glanced at her, once he half smiled and turned slightly pink, but his reserve only served to increase her fascination. He, quite simply, wasn’t like anyone else. He neither strutted nor posed, nor did he boldly insert himself into a space the way other men did: his movements were functional rather than considered. At first she had thought him shy, but then she chanced upon him eating calamari with a clutch of colleagues at the dimly lit Espelho and he was practically the life of the party; yet all his gestures were aimed inwards, Elaine noticed, and his exclamations were punctuated by unconsciously self-conscious glances into far corners.

It was at this point that she felt her heart drifting out towards him and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

Today, Julian’s usual journey was thwarted by a swarm of removal men blundering up and down the stairs and hogging one of the two lifts. Never mind, he was a patient man and, pushing the button with authority, he turned to face the entrance, but so annoying was the flurry of rug bearers, carton carriers and furniture jugglers that he was forced to turn to the mirrored wall and there, before he could stop himself, he caught the reflected eye of Elaine. Quickly he blinked and cast his eyes to the painting alongside her: a psychedelic drama of barbed wire and fire. It was too much, but as he shifted his vision he again caught Elaine’s eye and it seemed that no matter where he looked, there she was looking back at him. 

He blinked. And blinked again, harder this time, until suddenly she disappeared and all he could see was his own reflection: a tall, stooped man in a navy suit, white shirt and crimson tie. He dragged his eyes up his body and connected with his head: his still tanned, tense and lean face, his worried mouth beneath trimmed moustache, his alert grey-green eyes hidden behind silver rimmed spectacles, his closely cropped hair. He made eye contact and nodded slightly: a greeting to the grey and invisible man. Then the lift arrived and Julian stepped into safety.

Elaine gazed after him from her cocoon of colour, her cardboard coffee cup trembling in her hand.

He doesn’t see me, she whispered to herself. How is it that he doesn’t see me? Perhaps I am invisible.