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Underneath Your Clothes

Author's Note: The story follows the protagonist, a female lawyer in her early thirties, during a day that unfolds unexpectedly, leading her to reconsider what truly matters.

We follow this unnamed character around the office, at a family lunch, and finally on her way back home, but in reality, we are always trapped by her catastrophic thoughts and observe her balancing act between fitting in and breaking free. We meet her tired and anxious but leave her on a train platform, flustered and exposed, yet inexplicably hopeful. The story touches upon themes of self-censure, body dysmorphia, and savage self-criticism, but leads to a place of unconditional acceptance of oneself.

The story was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2019.

You’re listening to Tristan und Isolde. The Liebestod swells in your ears and you anticipate the music’s climax so much that you feel your mouth watering. That is until the phone rings and plunges you back into the sickening morning rush of the Circle line.

It’s your mother. You consider not answering, but then, what if it’s something serious, something about grandma? Remember the last time you didn't answer your mother’s out-of-the-blue calls? And so, you cave in.

“Mum, everything ok?”

“Hi honey, I was just calling to check whether we are still on for this afternoon…”

You tell her, yes, you are still on, hasn’t your PA accepted the calendar invite already? And then you say you’re on the tube and the line will break because you’re about to go under, and your voice is annoyed as if your mother is meant to know where you are at any given moment. But before she can apologise or start defending herself for the abrupt call, you have already hung up, pretending that the train has indeed gone under.

You smile at your clever little move and press play to let the Mild und Leise soar into your ears; the music a buffer that erases the feeling of your neighbour’s bag cutting into your calf, the nudging of another passenger’s elbow into your ribs, the acrid smell of coffee and stale breath and pungent deodorant. In your head, Margaret Price’s voice spirals impervious, as if nothing has happened, no interruption, no phone call, no intromission.

The morning is busy and you barely have time for a bathroom break. Finally, you step away from your desk and go to the kitchen. While you’re preparing a cup of instant coffee, Sasha waltzes in; she is blonder, taller, and slimmer than you and her forehead is unnaturally smooth. She skims over you as she drops the artisanal teabag into the mug she is holding; the aquamarine on her left hand reverberates and bounces its light back into your eyes, blinding you temporarily. You make polite conversation, agree that work is simply too busy, bitch about the new partner who hasn’t deigned to walk the floor to introduce himself. When you’ve exhausted all the topics, she excuses herself, but as she leaves, her back already turned away from you, she throws you a quiet perfect outfit. You feel yourself blushing and then, when Sasha’s completely out of sight, smile a little.

You always dress carefully and today is no exception. You wear a fitted Chanel suit jacket over a silk blouse and trousers and complete the ensemble with a matching purse. The jacket is a thing of beauty: green and blue tweed with four trademark pockets and gold, lion-head buttons. It isn’t new, but the bag is. A simple-shaped tote with short handles, made of thin cracked Italian lambskin; its iridescent hue catches the light - from teal to viridian - and complements the tone of the jacket perfectly.

You have daydreamed about owning a designer bag for years – imagined yourself commuting to work, all your essentials packed neatly inside its bespoke pockets and pouches, sipping a cocktail at the Blue Bar with your artsy friends, the bag hanging on the back of a curvaceous mid-century chair, cutting a glamorous figure as you stroll through a Tuscan piazza during a weekend getaway, the sun enhancing the gold in your hair, the bag swinging from your hand. You’ve grown up collecting magazine cutouts of iconic bags and stuck them to your bedroom wall in a constellation of desires. You ventured into your mother’s closet every Friday afternoon, when she was at the hairdresser, to caress the weaved texture of the Bottega Veneta, lift the lid of the storage box to touch the metal chain of the Chanel flap bag, inhale the heavenly smell of the Valentino nappa clutch that made your knees weaken. In the months leading to your eighteenth birthday, you hinted so many times at that Chloé bracelet bag, so popular among your friends, and were confused when you received a long, slim case containing a precious watch instead. The bag would have been cheaper, you said. A bag is not a legacy, your mother had responded.

After all of this longing, you were reckless in purchasing this purse, your first designer handbag. Payday, after a frenzied month at work, you entered the boutique and surveyed its walls lined with treasures. You pointed to the one you suddenly fancied: not a classic piece that you coveted over the years, the cornerstone of your future collection, but this season’s It bag. The shopkeeper suggested a different finish, like hardwearing textured leather; recommended going with a neutral colour, black is your best bet, she said. But right there, you didn’t care about durable, versatile options. Leaving the shop with that bag felt like losing your virginity all over again with the boy you met on a sailing trip, instead of sharing that moment with the faithful boyfriend you had been with for two years.

For lunch, you ask Lesley to get you an egg sandwich, something easy to eat while you finish drafting a memo. She says, I thought you were meeting your mother for lunch and you say, no, she is mistaken, you’ll meet her after lunch, for coffee and a private viewing.

You’ve got to eat now, so later you can pretend you aren’t hungry and avoid the repulsed look on your mother’s face whenever you tuck into the spaghetti or the mashed potatoes or any other food in carb form that you prefer over the green leaf salad she’d like you to order. For once, you can dodge her reminders that after thirty your metabolism does indeed slow down, and get that lovely, soft plum cake with your coffee, knowing that you’ve found yet another way of fooling her. She’ll be sitting in front of you, not knowing about the mayonnaise and the white bread tumbling around your intestines.

You arrive at the Delauney’s on time and the receptionist informs you that your mother is already seated. Of course, your sister will be late, so you try to come up with an excuse to stand by the door and wait for her, but the waiter is showing you to the table and you’re left with no choice but to follow him.

You walk through the panelled room with its Mitteleuropean furniture and the white linen, pass in front of the lit-up rosewood bar, crystal glasses dangling upside down from the brass bars, behind the grey pillars, and into the seductively dark dining room, until you reach your mother’s table. And there she is.

She kisses your cheeks, enquires about work, compliments your outfit, very Jackie, she says, the presidential years. You start relaxing and think that, perhaps, it won’t be so bad, perhaps you are full of preconceptions; you want to believe that it can be nice. Maybe you can share what is actually happening - the promotion you didn’t get, that date you were so hopeful about and didn’t go so well and made you feel silly and think why bother at all - so you clear your throat and place your hands on the shiny table, one on each side of the rectangular white towel and are about to tell your mother all of those things that you can never discuss, not during your hasty weekly phone calls, not over the family Sunday lunches when your job is to dispel the individual anxieties and create diversions with your amusing little stories. Certainly not, never, to bring attention to you, to the exhausting drilling of your career, the loneliness of your home after another frenzied day when, after all the drama, you think you have achieved nothing, apart from shuffling documents around.

“Mum…”

“Sorry, I’m late! Have you ordered yet?”

And your sister stands next to you with her cheeks flushed and the bouncy hair framing that perfect oval face. It’s your undeniably pretty, adorable sister, the one who lights up every room she enters. Lights up? She sets them on fire and turns them upside down, not merely lights them up. She is a flame, not a light bulb. She sits down between the two of you and kisses your mother while extending her hand to squeeze yours. The conversation quickly unfolds around the upcoming event of the year: your sister’s wedding.

“So, Josh and I have decided it will be a gift-free event”

“What do you mean gift-free? Surely you’ll have a registry and a honeymoon fund… didn’t you say you were considering Japan?”

“Mum, we already have everything we need…we certainly don’t feel the burning desire for a three-tier cake stand or a butter knife.”

“But Aunt Celia has already put aside the Victorian silver tray for you – you don’t really want that to go to your cousin, do you?”

“Martha can have it – I really don’t have the aspiration, nor the space to own a silver tray”

“You aren’t suggesting that people give you… money?”

You and your sister exchange a rapid glance at the horrified tone your mother uses whenever the M word is mentioned. As if her cashmere cardigans magically appear in her closet, or the spa treatments she swears by could take place without a transactional exchange, or even the delicate spring salad she ordered could be afforded without swiping one of the many cards she carries in her designer bag. But money is only to be owned, never to be talked about. And a monetary contribution to your sister’s wedding is com-ple-te-ly unacceptable.

“Look mum, most of our friends are still finding their way in life and it’s a big ask to add a gift on top of the travel expenses…”

“How about a charitable registry?” you interject.

“That’s an excellent idea! People could give what they feel comfortable and there are so many causes Josh and I are passionate about… Mum, perhaps you can help us select the right organisations? You’ve got such valuable experience with charities!”

Your sister, the smooth talker. Always finding a way out of a tight corner. Two words and your mother’s swooning, listing organisations and themes, already forgetful of Aunt Celia’s coveted Victorian silverware. Your sister flicks you a quick, victorious smile.

And you smile back because, of course, you love her. You can’t avoid loving her. Because she is that lovable and because she never, even once, threatened to tell how she got that awful cut on her shin, a wound that required nine stitches - but you do remember how your bike’s pedal crushed into the soft, delicate skin, lacerating it. If only you had braked, but you didn’t even try. That’s why scars exist, you consider, to expose our guilt, to remind us of what we did wrong, of the mistakes we made along the way. But shame and remorse are not the only reasons behind your love for her. It’s deeper than that. It’s the many nights she let you into her bed, her fingers wrapped around yours in the dark; the way she slept, almost immobile, knowing your insomnia could be triggered by any tiny movement; that fresh, gentle fragrance wafting from her body - the scent of clean linen and lavender sachets. She still picks up your calls too late in the night and too early in the morning. She’s still the only one you’d call.

Your mother asks about the seating arrangements – she’s nonchalant in her enquiries, but you know she’s trying to make sure your father and his new family are not seated next to the bridal table. If she could, she’d have them relegated to the back of the dining hall. Or even strike them off the guests’ list. You’ve got to drop the bomb – you were waiting for the right time, but deep down, you know the “right time” is a myth - it doesn’t exist when it comes to maternal interactions. And so you dive in.

“I’m sitting with dad.”

You try to make your voice sound casual, don’t look up as you speak and add another spoonful of sugar to your coffee.

“Is that so?”

“I figured… you and grandma will be sitting with Josh’s parents, his brother and his fiancé… there isn’t really room for me – and I’d rather not sit with Martha and the other cousins…”, your voice trails off as you speak, ears feel clogged and temples pulse like jellyfish in deep waters. Your words are met with silence and force you to add more details.

“Also, I don’t have a plus one and I’d rather not give Martha the opportunity to remind me about it all the way to dessert”, you continue, conscious that you’re arming your mother with fresh, shiny munitions, but hopeful that the pitiful image will convince her to go easy on you. Your sister looks at you with wide eyes; you know she’s thinking hard, trying to come up with a way to dispel the tension.

“Darling, did you really need that second spoonful of sugar?” your mother says and she surveys you with a look that appears to contain the answer to your protracted spinsterhood.

You’re genuinely sorry for her - but your attempts at compassion are met with resistance and every encounter leaves you deflated like an airbag after a collision. You know she doesn’t mean to hurt you when she comments on your bangs (too long), your lipstick (too dark), the way you swing your arms when you walk (so inelegant). But she does hurt you. She thinks the impossible standards she sets for you will protect you from things going wrong. You’ve touched her loneliness; the many days she spent in bed after your father left, these hours in the dark - hidden away - never to be recounted to friends, family, or the co-volunteers at the many charities she assists. These weeks of stolen fragility when she survived on a couple of spoonsful of soup per day; the maid dismissed so that nobody could witness her dismay. You picking up discarded laundry on her bedroom floor; drafting mental grocery lists on your way to piano lessons or while dropping your sister at her dance class; coming back, every day after school, to a tightly shut house, resolving to pull up curtains, open windows. Letting the light in, breaking the silence, maintaining hope that things would get better.

So today, you answer your mother by picking up the coffee cup, lifting it to your lips and sipping your beverage. It’s definitely too sweet. You choke on it and start coughing, the cup trembles in your hand, overflowing, spilling liquid. You look down at the stains on your blouse. Before anyone can say anything, you stand up and excuse yourself to go to the ladies.

In the privacy of the bathroom, you take off the jacket and the blouse. You run the cold water through the back of the stains and then rub soap on the fabric and let it rest for a moment before rinsing it. You look up and meet your reflection in the mirror; the dark shadows under your eyes appear more visible in the penumbra, you notice the skin of your arms hanging loosely instead of compactly wrapping around your triceps, you’re too aware of that lump of bulging belly fat, protruding under your visible ribs - no matter how brutally you exercise, you can’t seem to shed it. You hastily put the blouse back on, but the wet patch makes you shiver. You take it off again and fold it neatly between two soft tissues, then place it inside the bag. You wear the jacket and the lining feels cold on your skin, but as long as you keep it buttoned up, nobody can tell that you’re only wearing your bra underneath. You inspect the jacket to make sure that the coffee didn’t spill on it.

It isn’t Chanel.

You’re far too sensible to throw away a few thousand pounds on a piece of clothing, even an investment one. No, it isn’t real, but it’s a very good imitation – in fact, it’s so refined that its internal hems are lined with the chain that Coco Chanel herself had added to her models to make sure the jacket would hang perfectly straight around the body. The chain on your jacket is gold, in the same tone of the buttons. You’ve never claimed it to be an original. When someone pays you a compliment, you simply nod and thank them and then shape the conversation around other topics.

After lunch, the three of you make your way to the private viewing. The atelier doesn’t look much from the outside. It’s located on a residential street and its entrance is similar to that of the neighbouring houses: a deep red Edwardian door with intricate stained glass panels. You step inside and find yourself in a narrow cubicle with an in-built metal detector; to enter the boutique, you must first ring a bell and wait for the scan to complete before the door to the showroom unlocks itself. Inside, the wooden floors are dark and shiny and the chandeliers are brassy and low and everybody talks in whispers, exchanging grave looks and polite nods, as if you were in some hospital waiting room, expecting to hear the results of a very complex medical procedure and not at a private viewing in a jewellery atelier. Your mother has insisted that your sister’s engagement ring is re-fitted here - the jeweller has known your family for a long time. Any other goldsmith in London would have been cheaper and quicker, but she only trusts Lafonte. The jeweller takes the measurements and inspects the ring, commenting on the light and the cut of the gem, and its unusual colour. Your mother wants to see earrings to complement the ring, something to be worn at the wedding; your sister recoils at the idea, but your mother’s adamant, she can’t possibly walk down the aisle just wearing that ring. It’ll be my treat, she says. The jeweller obliges by selecting a few small boxes from the display; he places them on the counter and opens them up to reveal an array of earrings sitting on velvet cushions. There are flower-shaped studs with rose gold petals opening around dusty pink diamonds, teardrops encrusted with sapphires, simple hoops decorated with diamonds, pearls dangling from white gold filigree and finally tiny exquisite birds with eyes made of emeralds and feathers of amethyst and quartz. Your sister, reluctant at first, is convinced to try at least one pair. She twists her hair up to see what it would look like with a bridal up-do and the birds swing delicately from her earlobes, enhancing the length of her neck. Your mother’s smile reaches her eyes - she’s always been proud of your sister’s beauty – her biggest achievement. You catch a glimpse of yourself in the mirror, standing behind your sister, your lines not as graceful, your hair cut in a short bob, your signature hairstyle. You think of what an old ex-boyfriend told you once, that you are not immediately attractive; of your mother’s reassurance that, while your sister is such a classic beauty, your face grows on people over time.

You walk away. At the other end of the long counter, an assistant is serving another client and, when you approach them, he acknowledges your presence with a nod. The client, a lady in her early fifties, with short grey hair and a svelte, dynamic figure, is looking at less prestigious pieces: silver and white gold rings with little mosaic designs. You notice a signet ring and enquire about it. It’s silver, but with a stylized gold star exploding in the middle of the round seal. It reminds you of that ring you bought in Corfu, one you used to always wear on your left middle finger. That’s the only piece of jewellery you ever really loved, the only one that meant something to you, because it hadn’t been passed onto you, or given as a graduation gift or offered as a promise that was left unfulfilled. No, that ring, you didn’t need it - didn’t deserve it - you bought it on a whim. You left it on the edge of the sink in a bathroom at a petrol station, on a very hot, sticky, day travelling back from France after a family holiday. When you realised the ring wasn’t on your finger, you implored your parents, nearly cried, to turn back. But, you were already running late to catch the ferry, your mother said, and the ring was almost certainly gone. It wasn’t that valuable after all.

This ring is you in metal form, you imagine, cold, unassuming silver, but with a precious heart. The other client isn’t convinced, she’d like to see something else, something less minimalistic and the assistant moves further down the bar and unrolls a velvet jewellery case, unveiling different designs, talking about the merits of this and that piece. You’re alone now, the display case still open on the counter; the assistant must have forgotten to lock it up, or perhaps didn’t think it was necessary - that you’re allowed into the atelier is itself a proof of your honesty and of your purchasing power. You could buy this ring – it’s not that expensive and, besides, you’ve got money. You could even ask your mother to buy it for you – she’d be happy to, although she would try to steer you towards a grander design. There are many ways to acquire this ring, but you just take it. It’s easy - you barely look around - simply hover your hand over the display, lift the ring from its case and slip it onto your finger.

It fits.

You walk away, towards your mother and sister.

“We’re going for the gold rose flowers – they’ll be marvellous with the dress”, your mother announces.

“I couldn’t do anything to prevent it” your sister mockingly rolls her eyes, but then turns towards your mother and “Thanks Mum, they’re totally unnecessary but absolutely stunning and I love them.”

Your mother pays and you leave the atelier together, escorted by the wishes and congratulations of the master jeweller. You’re meant to go to a fitting for your bridesmaid’s dress, but you say you need to go back to the office, something came up, you’ll arrange for another appointment. Your sister’s eyes half close and she tilts her head and you almost give in, but then your mother exhales and tells you that is quite unacceptable to cancel an appointment last minute, she didn’t raise you that way. You say it’s work mum. That’s always been your protective blanket - it’s school mum, it’s work mum, it’s my turn at the children’s charity mum - a duty, not a choice. You kiss your mother’s cheeks hastily and hug your sister, linger in the contact, whisper an apology in her ear. She smiles at you, says we’ll reschedule it, don’t you worry you won’t escape it next time.

You walk towards the station instead of hopping on a bus. The clouds are low and dense, but the day is sultry, and by the time you reach the victory arch, you’re perspiring, a thin film of sweat over your face. When you’re finally comfortably seated, you hear the announcement that the train will be diverted and will not stop at your destination, passengers are advised to change trains and board the slow service. That’s all the way to the other end of the station. You check your watch; the announced departure is just a few minutes away. You stand up and walk against the hordes of people getting on the train, excuse yourself as you push forward and out of the carriage and then rush down the escalator. You reach the platform on time and walk quickly towards the access steps of the first carriage.

It’s then that you realise, with a spasm of fear that you left your handbag behind. On that first train. How could you? You feel unsteady, embarrassment pours over you like a gelatinous substance that stops you from moving. You look around – everyone else is running to and from somewhere, backpacks safely on their backs, bags slung across shoulders, briefcases clutched in their hands. Nobody else could be so stupid to leave a bag like that behind. The most expensive thing you ever bought for yourself. You look up at the board; the train hasn’t left yet, you have five minutes. You dive back down the escalator, rush along the station towards the first platform.

The jacket clings to your skin. Sweat forms behind your ears, on your hairline, at the nape of your neck and then rolls down your back in thick beads. At every step the heat increases and it’s getting unbearable. But you can’t stop, you must reach the platform before the train leaves. You don’t think, don’t even look down at your fingers that respond to an automatic command of your brain and undo each button as you keep on running. A gust of fresh air cools the skin of your stomach. The jacket is wide open on your chest area, the bystanders can catch a glimpse of your lacy bra, but you don’t notice anything because of the bloody train. You’re close, but the stiff fabric of the sleeves restrains your arm swing and limits the efficiency of your movements. So you take it off – one arm and then the other – throw it in the air in a precise arc behind you. The jacket falls on the ground, but you’re already metres away.

You’re really running now. A mother covers the eyes of her child as you run past, but you don’t see them. A sudden spurt of speed, steady breathing and eyes fixed on the last set of stairs. Whistles, cheering and ‘what the fuck’ thrown at you, but you don’t hear them. You do the steps two at the time, pleased to discover a precision in your eye-body coordination that you didn’t know to possess. You’re there. On the platform. You hear the signal as you turn your head and spot the train. It moves. You imagine your bag sitting on the table against the window.

It’s gone.

Everything is in that bag: keys, driving licence, phone, the make-up pouch with all your carefully selected products, the mini tablet containing access to your appointments and contacts and passwords, the wallet with your cards and all that cash that you had just withdrawn at the ATM yesterday and that photo-booth picture of you and your best-friend taken in Berlin, many years ago.

All lost.

When you taste salt you’re not sure whether it’s tears or sweat. You bring your hands to your face. Your spine rattles and shakes and your calves burn, suddenly aware of the feat they’ve been through. You don’t know how long you stay there on the platform sobbing.

And then you look up; you inhale and exhale slowly, one breath at a time as they taught you in meditation class. You can fix this. You bring your left index finger to your mouth and start biting your nail as you make a quick mental list: walk home, cancel the cards, get a police report as evidence you’ve lost the bag, call the cleaner who has a spare set of keys. You chew your fingernail. The items are jumbled in your head, don’t follow the right order, but you’re convinced now, you have it together. You move onto the cuticle skin, but your eyes fall onto the stolen ring on your middle finger. You stop the nail-biting and contemplate the ring, fidget with it, slip it off your finger, and on and off again.

At that moment it hits you. The realisation. You’ve never liked that bag. You’ve hated it. The pretentious colour, the uncomfortable handles, the garish clasp. You’ll never buy something like that again. You wipe your eyes, slip the ring back onto your finger and smile.

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