“That’s a nice shirt”. This morning I went again to the Laundryette: sometimes it puzzles me how few clothes I own, and how much meaning they carry. This double-cuff shirt, for instance; I bought it years ago from a charity shop (British Red Cross, I think) in Bolton. The fabric is pale blue with a design of fine black lines, rather elegant…but on closer inspection the lines are actually small black dots laid upon a thin band of gleaming white fabric, which makes them seem to hover faintly. For Christmas I was given a pair of cufflinks – silver, with a line of tiny black beads along each one. How perfectly matched! But my gift came from a friend who, having never seen this garment, had no idea which design of jewellery would be most apt.
While waiting for the machines to run their dreary cycle, I began dipping into Justine, the novel by Lawrence Durrell. I can’t remember when I bought this book; I would never claim that it was one of my favourites, but the language and the ideas and the atmosphere of the story fill me with wonder. An occasional phrase from the narrator or one of the characters will spark off a chain of recollections, where the places I have been (and persons I’ve met) become confused with those I have only read about.
And then sometimes, looking around me I will be reminded of the times past I have spent at various Washeteriæ; at Oxford in 1989, reading ancient sci-fi paperbacks; at Castle Bromwich in 1993, reading Ramsay Campbell; at Derby in 1997, reading Back Street Heroes; at Tamworth in 2001, reading a biography of Liszt; and now at Swinton, reading ‘Take a Break’ magazine, or Durrell, or Foucault.
“That’s a nice shirt”. I remember now one occasion when I wore this particular item, at a conference a few years back, some exciting event about the arcane world of adhesive research. After the final lecture, I had met up with some of the other delegates in the hotel bar. One chap engaged me in conversation, and we had a very polite discussion about Chemical Engineering and the problems of business travel. After a minutes’ silence he laid a gentle finger on my sleeve and said “That’s a nice shirt”.
So few words; but how much meaning. We returned to his room, took a shower together and spent about an hour in bed. Only later, when dressing, did I notice that we had flooded the bathroom floor. And now as I look out of the Laundryette window at the rain, and the eager spreading rings of light in the puddles, it all seems remote and unreal. The events in Justine, so potently described, seem to inhabit my memory more solidly than many of my own experiences.