James Heath

 

the rope stripe

Heath.jpg

Janine stood in her underwear and remembered why she’d given up studying herself in the full-length mirror.

It was as though there was nothing left to look at. Her plain features and unfashionable hair had ruled out any popularity at school, but there had been a brief flicker of hope in her twenties. She became long and lean, and her time at university exposed her to a range of new people and experiences, making a big impact on her confidence. She was never an extrovert – when people asked her when she ‘came out,’ she could never remember … she just knew that she was no longer ‘in.’

With her fortieth birthday a mere two months away, the hope was fading. It now seemed that her looks had peaked some time ago. Was this the reason she was still single, and probably spending her birthday at home with her cats?

     ‘This is all bollocks,’ her friend, Tamsin, would say. ‘You’ve got a lot going for you. You’ve got a good job.’

     ‘What else?’ Janine was interested to know.

     ‘You’ve got a massive vinyl collection, that ought to be worth a fortune. Then there’s your mates. And anyway, you’ve got a whole other identity – most people’s lives are nowhere near as exciting as that.’

     It made her sound like a superhero, which was not exactly what Tamsin meant. And, as far as Janine was concerned, they weren’t exactly ‘mates’ … this was a collection of oddballs and misfits, who like her, had an overwhelming love of 1930s fashions. Still, she knew most of them by name, and they got together every few weeks at the club known as Dicey O’Reilly’s. It wasn’t a gay club exactly, but many if not most in that crowd were gay if not just downright flamboyant … really, it was a celebration of the 1930s for anyone prepared to dress up and get drunk.

     Janine opened a door of her wardrobe – as she often did when depressed – and looked at her ‘whole other identity’ hanging in his protective covering. It was not a superhero costume but it was, of course, far more than just a suit. It was only when wearing that suit that Janine could bring herself to look in the mirror … It made more sense on her than anything else she had ever worn. She had decided a long time ago that she belonged in that era and not this one. She behaved differently in the suit, and believed that others behaved differently around her.

     And besides, this suit was bespoke. She’d had it made to order, from the width of the lapels to the length of the turn-ups, and it was hers and hers only.

 

 

Janine’s huge collection of LPs had grown significantly in the eighteen months she had spent at her workplace, largely due to the record store situated around the corner. As a vinyl obsessive who refused to buy music online, she visited the shop several times a week, during her lunch breaks. Even if she did not buy anything, there was always something to look at.

     And not everything worth looking at in there was musical.

     Janine’s crush on the girl in the shop had been brewing for months. She complained regularly to Tasmin of the frustration she felt on every visit, when the girl was too wrapped up in her iPad, or a discussion with a colleague, to even notice her. Tamsin looked sympathetic but Janine knew what she was thinking. This girl in the shop was about twenty, and probably a student working in there part-time, and what the hell was Janine thinking and so on. Of course, this had always been Janine’s problem – her strong attraction to young girls whom she believed to be out of her league. It now seemed that they were out of her age range as well.

This was the reason she was still single. Why couldn’t she just find a sensible woman her own age and settle down? After all, this is what she longed for … companionship.

     ‘Do you know what she’s into?’ asked Tamsin.

Janine didn’t even know the girl’s name, let alone if she was into other girls. She thought she’d heard a colleague refer to her as ‘Kaz,’ which she took to be short for Karen or Katherine. Other than that, there was little to go on … other than a slender figure, a crop of very short blonde hair, two huge green eyes, a thick ring through the centre of her bottom lip, the shiny black varnish on the nails of long, thin fingers, and an ever-present pair of tight black jeans framing a beautiful, small bum that appeared, with infuriating regularity, every time she reached down for a carrier bag.

It got so bad that Janine had stopped herself from looking at it.

‘Thank you,’ she said. She didn’t even smile at this girl any more. There seemed little point.

‘Cheers.’

The girl’s one word. Over and over again.

Cheers. Never thanks.

Well, it was something.

‘Cheers,’ said Dan, and sipped his Sazerac.

Janine looked down into her Ramos Gin Fizz.

‘You look miserable tonight,’ said Dan. He removed his straw boater and wiped the sweat from his forehead. The heat from the lights in this place … the only drawback to wearing those beautiful but heavy 1930s outfits.

Janine did not want to bore Dan, or Tamsin, or Pru, or any of her other 1930s friends, about the girl in the shop. After all, they knew about her already, and she wondered if they were beginning to feel sorry for her.

Later, Janine looked at herself in the mirror in the toilets and realised, for the first time, that even her suit couldn’t make her forget her loneliness. Sure, it gave her another identity and made her feel like someone else … but that someone was just as lonely, and, worse, she could only exist every few weeks in a place called Dicey O’Reilly’s, where she had the chance to fraternise with other lonely women who liked to dress up.

As usual, she went home to her music and her cats. She hung up the suit again and looked for something to put on the turntable. There was always too much to choose from, so what would make sense this evening? Benny Goodman … Siouxsie and the Banshees … John Coltrane … Delroy Wilson … The Swingle Singers … Cannibal Corpse … Felix Mendelssohn … Radiohead … Etta James … The Cure?

It all made sense yet none of it did. In the end, she decided on Scott 2 by Scott Walker, and poured herself a large glass of wine.

At least tomorrow was Friday.

 

 

Janine smiled as she gently opened the gatefold sleeve to look at the pictures.

A sleeve is such an important part of an album … how the hell can you experience the full extent of someone’s art when you listen to music on a computer? She loved the look and feel and even the smell of LP sleeves. The only thing stopping her from putting her nose to this one was the fear of Kaz (if that was her name) looking over and thinking she was weird, which she probably was.

     It was a copy of Scott 4, and in decent nick – certainly in much better condition than her own battered re-issue copy that she’d played for twenty years. She carefully took out the thick vinyl disc and saw the name ‘Scott Engel’ – rather than Scott Walker – on the label. Yes, it was certainly an original.

     But Janine was back in the shop for other reasons. She’d found a good copy of The Pet Shop Boys’ original 12” version of West End Girls – produced by Bobby O., and which, unlike the much better-known Stephen Hague version, had flopped on release – and also a cassette copy of The Cure’s Faith, which included Carnage Visors … she’d been looking for that for years.

     She looked up from Scott 4 and saw Kaz over at the counter, sitting in her usual awkward-looking cross-legged position on a stool. Today, she was resting her elbow on one leg, with her chin settled on her hand. Her fingertips tapped gently on her top lip, and her eyes looked over her fingers at Janine.

     Something made Janine replace Scott 4 in its plastic cover and put it back in with the rest of the stack, as though she thought Kaz was suspecting her of wanting to steal it. She took her time in moving to another section before glancing over again. When she saw Kaz in the same position, with her emotionless eyes still gazing at her, she looked down again and decided she would not be looking back.

     Eventually, Janine took The Cure and The Pet Shop Boys and approached the counter, along with another unexpected find … a blue vinyl copy of Short Circuit: Live at the Electric Circus, a compilation of post-punk bands from Manchester, which included the first ever appearance of Joy Division on vinyl.

She reached the counter.

Perhaps she’d finally been rumbled. How this girl had managed to figure out that Janine had been fantasising about her for months was a mystery, but something had been making her look over for such a long time.

     ‘Oh yeah, I’ve seen this,’ said Kaz, as she took out the blue vinyl disc.

     Janine froze. She shuddered at the thought of having to respond and wondered if her nerves would cripple her.

     ‘Awesome,’ said Kaz. ‘You know, I think the black vinyl is actually more rare.’

     Janine might have felt disheartened had the need to make conversation with this girl not paralysed her thoughts.

     ‘Oh, right,’ she said.

     ‘Yeah. Still awesome, though. You can’t even get that track on the Joy Division box set.’ Kaz turned her attention to the cassette. ‘Yeah, I saw this as well. How come this is twenty quid?’

     The green eyes looked up to search Janine’s face.

     ‘It’s got the Carnage Visors music,’ she explained. ‘It was a cassette-only release. They played that over an animated film at the start of the gigs on the Faith tour.’

     ‘Oh, cool.’ She looked down at the cassette again and Janine breathed a sigh of relief at having managed to construct a sentence that sounded half-sensible.

‘Did you have a good time last night?’

     ‘Uh …’

     ‘At Dicey’s,’ said Kaz, and smiled. ‘You hang out with some real characters.’

     Janine knew she had turned bright red, and there was no way of stopping it.

     ‘Do you go there a lot?’

     Kaz’s smile was staying put, and Janine’s embarrassment only deepened.

She just nodded.

     No-one knew about Dicey’s except her close friends. No-one at work knew about it, and no-one else she saw during the daytime. She realised in that moment just how important privacy was to her. There was something unbearable about someone outside her circle knowing about this part of her life.

     And of all the people who could have known …

     ‘Did you have a good time?’ Kaz leaned over for a plastic bag and Janine noticed she was wearing black leggings today, rather than jeans. She looked back at Janine, still smiling.

     ‘Are you sure it was me?’

     ‘Yeah,’ said Kaz. ‘It was definitely you.’

     ‘How do you know?’

     ‘You were wearing a dark grey double breasted worsted suit with a light grey rope stripe. The jacket’s a button six with two to button, with very wide peaked lapels and a single vent at the back. Probably weighs twenty-odd ounces. There was a white linen pocket square in the breast pocket. The trousers are very wide, with two-inch turn-ups. They’re wide even by 1930s standards, so I’m guessing you were going for a Marlene Dietrich vibe. Then there was a heavy silk shirt with a faint broken stripe and a point collar, and a thick tie in a four-in-hand knot with some futurist type pattern on it. Are you paying by card as usual?’

     Janine thought she was in love, but that would have to wait until she found her purse.

     ‘Love what you did with the hair, by the way,’ Kaz continued. ‘You must have Brylcreemed it to fuck to get that style. Reminds me of Twiggy, or maybe you were thinking of an Ute Lemper kind of thing. It can look pretty dykey but you’ve got the bone structure for it. And anyway, it’s a timeless one.’

     The fact that she recognised the Dietrich influence was impressive. But Janine thought it truly surreal to be compared to beautiful, stick-like women such as Twiggy and Ute Lemper.

     ‘Thanks. Uh … thanks. Yes, I’m paying by card.’

     ‘No worries, take your time.’ Kaz started looking for something on her phone. ‘I was out with a couple of mates. First time I’ve been there. Here we go.’

     She held out her phone and Janine took it in her hands. In the photo, Kaz stood, drink in hand, in a beautiful long forest green silk evening gown. Her face was heavily made-up, and her short crop of hair was completely covered with a blonde wig in a 1930s style.

     Oh yeah, thought Janine. I remember her.

     What was she supposed to say?

     ‘Oh wow, that’s stunning. You look gorgeous.’ She handed back the phone.

     ‘Funny you didn’t notice me. Didn’t you notice me?’

     ‘I didn’t,’ said Janine. ‘I mean, I think I saw you, I’m sure I did. I just didn’t realise it was you.’

     ‘No no, I mean it’s funny you didn’t see me because … well, I was staring at you.’

     ‘Oh, right.’

     ‘Yeah, for ages,’ said Kaz, and smiled. ‘Surely you must have seen me.’

     ‘Why didn’t you come over and say hello?’

     ‘Uh …’ Kaz looked down again. ‘That’s fifty-three pounds, please.’

     Janine handed over her card. ‘You should have come over.’

     ‘I think I was too busy staring.’

     ‘How come?’

     ‘At the suit.’ She smiled. ‘I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Do you ever wear that anywhere else?’

     ‘No, never.’

     ‘What other places do you go?’

     ‘Oh, just … anywhere, really. I mean, I go to other places as me. Just like this, just plain old me.’

     ‘Going out tonight?’

     ‘I don’t think so. I mean, I could …’ She trailed off and Kaz looked up at her again. ‘Sometimes I go for a quiet drink at The Gate on my way home.’

     ‘Yeah, I know it. You prefer to go it alone, do you?’

     ‘No, it’s just that my mates … well, you’ve seen the sort of place my mates go to.’

     ‘I couldn’t drink alone, I don’t think.’ She handed Janine’s card back to her and waited for a receipt.

     Janine sensed that the ball was in her court, but she still didn’t know what the game was, let alone if she was even in it. ‘So what about you, any plans tonight?’ she asked.

     ‘I always find something to do. I can do whatever, really. I can always text a couple of mates. Or I could have an early one. Or I could come and keep you company.’

 

 

Janine opened her eyes and barely had time to wonder why everything seemed vague and slow before she realised she wasn’t breathing. There was no time to remember how she became submerged, and when she looked up, she couldn’t tell how deep the water was. A beautiful school of clown triggerfish swam by her face at great speed and she began looking around furiously. She wasn’t sinking but movement seemed very difficult. The wonderous creatures of the sea surrounded her: mantaray, shark, swordfish, and goldfish.
     Goldfish?
     She scrabbled towards a rough section of rock and coral in the hope of pushing herself back up, but as she moved, she stirred a cloud of dust around her. Was she near the sea bed?
     Bubbles burst upwards from behind the rock and the girl appeared. She was beautiful and naked and could only have been a mermaid, and she charged towards Janine to embrace her. Janine was transfixed by the huge green eyes, and the thick ring through the bottom lip but she had to pull away.

The mermaid wrapped her arms around her and smiled. Bubbles escaped from her mouth as she said something that sounded like ‘gone to sea ... gone to sea ...’
     Janine opened her mouth and took in a huge gulp of air. She spent a few seconds getting her breath back before she replied. ‘Sorry, did you say something?’
     ‘I said, go to sleep,’ said Kaz. ‘You were dreaming again. You keep thinking you’re drowning.’ She got out of bed and walked over to the bedroom door. ‘You’re at my place.’

She flicked a switch and Janine looked up to see dim blue lights illuminating three huge water tanks lining the back wall. Beautiful fish were swimming peacefully and ignoring them. Her breathing was back under control now and the faint bubbling sound from the tanks relaxed her. She looked over at the naked, blue-tinted Kaz, and smiled.
     ‘Oh, right. I remember. Sorry about that.’ She wondered how much she’d had to drink that night.
     ‘That’s cool,’ said Kaz, and flicked the switch. The room was in darkness again, and she climbed back into bed.
     Janine closed her eyes and thought back over the past six weeks since her first drink with Kaz after work. Since then, they had been to Dicey’s together, on two occasions, and she had shown Kaz off to her friends. She was a fashion student, and worked in the music shop part-time, so there was always plenty to talk about, but Janine never dreamed that their relationship would become anything more than a friendship.
     And then came that evening … the two of them at Dicey’s, both drunk on the Ramos Gin Fizz. Janine holding Kaz’s slim, silky waist and Kaz running her long fingers across Janine’s wide peaked lapels, and the first magical kiss that Janine thought would never end. And then back to her place, where she shared a bed with Kaz and also, it seemed, her many fish.
     When Janine awoke the next morning, Kaz was still asleep so she decided to get out of bed and make tea. She didn’t know if Kaz lived alone or shared this place with housemates, so a naked trip to the kitchen seemed unwise. With no other clothes, she put her suit on over her naked body.

In the kitchen, she noticed a full-length mirror and stood looking at herself while the kettle boiled. Kaz appears behind her, wearing Janine’s shirt, and wrapped her arms around her, kissing the back of her neck. She ran her hands over the double breasted jacket before slipping one hand inside.

     When Janine opened her eyes and looked in the mirror again, she realised she now had everything. This was the life that a part of her had always wanted.

 

 

That night, back at home, she stared out of the window and thought back over the previous evening. She wondered why she felt so empty after experiencing the best night of her life. Instead of the warmth she expected to feel from the sensation of Kaz’s skin against her own, there were many things beginning to bother her. She wasn’t bothered that Kaz hadn’t texted her. But it bothered her that she didn’t want to text Kaz.

     There were other things too.
     It bothered her that she hadn’t noticed Kaz that night at Dicey’s. The truth was that she wanted Kaz but not 1930s Kaz. The problem was that Kaz wanted 1930s Janine but not Janine.
     It bothered her that they had so much in common but it felt as though they had nothing in common. Despite the big age difference, it seemed that neither of them could learn anything from the other.
     And, more than anything, it bothered her that Kaz knew more about her suit than she did. That suit was supposed to make her the person she wanted to be. The truth was that Kaz had noticed the suit, and without the suit, she would not have noticed Janine.

     She might just as well have been a tailor’s dummy.
     The suit had opened doors to a world of nothing.
     Tamsin was right. Companionship was what she yearned for. And now she felt as though she was suffocating. Or drowning, even.
 

The next few weeks proved difficult for both of them. It was not long before Kaz started asking Janine why she never came to the shop any more, and why she never responded properly to her text messages. Eventually, she demanded that they meet up.
     ‘I’ve decided I don’t want to go to Dicey’s anymore,’ said Kaz. ‘You think I only fell for you because of that bloody suit. But I didn’t. I used to notice you before.’
     ‘No you didn’t,’ said Janine. ‘Don’t lie.’
     Kaz was furious.
     Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg.
     Nite Flights by The Walker Brothers.
     Microphonies by Cabaret Voltaire.
     One Size Fits All by Frank Zappa.
     Filles de Kilimanjaro by Miles Davis.
     Dazzle Ships by OMD.
     Dusty in Memphis by Dusty Springfield.
     So it turned out that Kaz had definitely noticed her before the suit …
     ‘Do you get more from the suit than you get from Kaz?’
     Janine had no answer to Tamsin’s question but here she was, back at Dicey O’Reilly’s. Kaz hadn’t exactly told Janine ‘it’s me or the suit’ but it seemed clear that there were three of them in this relationship, and one had to go.
     ‘This is insane,’ said Tamsin. ‘It is just a suit, isn’t it?’
     ‘No,’ said Janine.
     ‘It is a beautiful suit,’ said David.
     ‘Thanks,’ she replied.

     David was a doctor in his mid-forties and this was the first time Janine had spoken to him. ‘You can tell it’s bespoke,’ he was saying. ‘It looks heavy, but I’ll bet it gives in all the right places. Very authentic, too. Single vent, natural shoulders. It’s not often you find a rope stripe that’s quite so subtle but also very distinctive.’

Janine liked that. If only he had used those words about her and not the rope stripe.

‘God, I love it,’ he continued. ‘You must let me have the name of your tailor.’
     Janine obliged but David clearly knew one already ... his black dinner suit followed 1930s fashions perfectly, from the turned-up collar framing the batwing bow tie, to the elegant waistcoat with the opening that curved smoothly behind the beautifully-cut jacket with peaked satin lapels and one covered button.
     And there he goes, thought Janine, as David headed for the door, slipping into a double breasted navy Chesterfield overcoat. The man I would have married had life been a little more conventional.

He waved at her as he turned to leave.
     Janine looked down at her phone and a saw a message from Kaz.
     ‘Be happy. You will always look perfect to me.’
     When Janine went home, she put Scott 2 back on the turntable and sat down with one of her cats. She decided that she had been wrong … giving up on her suit would have meant giving up on life. It was hardly a straightforward life, but it was hers. The challenge lay in finding a way to make the life, rather than the suit, define and determine her existence.

     But there was one other part of her life she had to reclaim …

     The next morning, she made her way back to the record store for the first time in weeks. She did not want to buy anything in particular when she went in, but then that was not the purpose of her visit.

     And then there it was … ‘Don’t Slip Up,’ the one and only single ever released by Scottish band Meat Whiplash. Janine examined the paper sleeve with Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) on the front, and recalled that this one, as with the others, would have been folded by hand by the legendary Creation Records founder, Alan McGee. The man who later signed Oasis.

     At the counter, she paid in cash. Kaz handed her the change and held onto her hand for several seconds before letting it go.

     Janine did not know if she was at the end of her journey, or the beginning. But that was hardly the point. What mattered now was that she was no longer lonely, and she knew that the rest of her life – as with the next time she wore her suit – was just around the corner.