A splash of brilliant orange between many layers. A green dress, moth-eaten, in which she had once danced with her uniformed father amidst the ruins of a broken Reich, a memorial to his death not long after. The honeymoon coat, a tent of blue-grey wool with buttons like coasters. The crowning glory of her trousseau, she had posed in it proudly outside the church. A layer of frayed herringbone tweed, remnants of a strictly sensible suit. A jacket of blue Air Force serge, serviceable as always, outgrown after childbearing but not beyond redemption. Socks, once precious, still unmended. And layer upon layer of tissue paper patterns, most still shrouded in their packaging, a few cut into translucent wardrobes for the long departed. Dresses, trousers, blouses, linens, amputated sleeves, and disembodied pant legs, all in hope and expectation of new life. Full skeins of dormant embroidery thread seeking inspiration. Still-life outlines unadorned. Patches awaiting holes and holes awaiting patches. The spirit of wartime rationing, still in force at the time of packing, rested heavily upon the fragments: nothing wasted, nothing lost. All neatly folded, layered like the generations of some fallen city from the past.
The steamer trunk, pebbled navy blue press-board with brass clasps, had lain for years in the basement, virtually untouched since England. For her children, it breathed an air of mystery behind the dusty moving boxes (otherwise undisturbed) and stacks of brittle newsprint. Like so many memories: carefully gathered, jealously guarded, never mentioned, ever present. Yet with a sharp, exhilarating air—not just of mothballs and of must, but of things forbidden, and discovery. The trunk was so constructed as to disclose its secrets to several points of view, for with the lid raised, a front panel fell forward on sliding brass guides. Best of all, better still than its dull shine by window light, or the texture of its surface to small hands, were the chambered compartments that unfolded one by one, each with a nervous squeak. More veins and layers in a labyrinth of wistfulness.
When her husband died, she moved out to the coast with the children; the trunk, still intact, had come with them. Eventually the children left, too, departing with their own secrets for the most part unbetrayed. The house was sold, and men from the church volunteered to move her remnants into a basement apartment. In the ever-diminishing space around her the trunk, given respite from prying fingers, lay once more at rest. New piles of old newspaper (“I wouldn’t want to miss anything”) rose in turn to stand tottering guard over its treasure.
Life in this country of exile had never risen to meet her expectations, although the end of rationing gave some comfort. It was a land at once too large and too small. Provincial and claustrophobic, yet limitless and ill-defined. When her husband’s stint with the Air Force came to an end, he found work refereeing professional wrestlers, as a debt collector, then selling door-to-door. When those hopes wore thin, they drove slowly west across the country, savouring the expanse of their freedom, made timid by its immensity, until the truck broke down with the foothills in sight. So there they stayed. The job he had been promised fell through. He found another. Another new life. Another basement apartment. Another fresh start.
In another box, a wooden tea-chest unexplored since disembarkment in Halifax, were sheaves of magazine clippings, page upon page. Recipes not tested, more patterns unsewn, an alluring nude in soft focus, clip-out romances, all in the genre known as “women’s fiction.” Fragments. Cuttings. The strata of reminiscence; a careful harvest of dreams.
But my father was an angry man, hard and exacting like his father before him. More than once my small fingers were paralysed by the back of his dinner knife, descending in response to some childish misdemeanour, perhaps a lack of table manners. More serious infractions merited a “hiding.” We sat rigid in our chairs, mute and frozen as they quarreled back and forth across the dining room table. Protecting us from him, she called it. “Go to your room!” was his thundering climax, to which she had plaintively replied, “But it’s our room…” Their arguments never reached any other conclusion. They simply built up over time, layer upon layer; stored away in memory, retrieved when occasion required, both players rehearsing a familiar script in which reconciliation had no place.
Her family had resented him taking her away. Eventually she came to resent it, too, but resigned herself to what she could no longer control. His death, she confessed, came as a relief after months of waiting, enforced silence, and agony. But the agony had been his alone. Consumed by cancer, his daily sustenance had been the painkillers in their neat metal match-box coffers. “It was a relief.” That might have been his opinion too, had the relief not been so permanent as to prevent reply. For both of them it ended as another hope unmet, another expectation unfulfilled. Another thin layer of memory.
Silence took the place of weeping.
Yet in the absence of all else, despite the exposing, unearthing, de-layering of all that might have been, the steamer trunk remained. No matter how many times she moved, it was always there. Like the best of shrines, its mystery lay intact, its relics safe for all she knew, the better loved for enduring unexamined. Something between a hope chest, a tabernacle, and an oubliette.
The phyllo-pastry layer of orange silk was all that survived of a wartime training parachute, vibrant and bright in order to trace more clearly the fall of its first captive. It too was now rent and fragmented. Yet precious, since in the midst of all-embracing scarcity, silk could be had no other way. One day, she thought, it might make a pretty gown. Such an image it would lend her on the dance floor! If once it had suspended lives, marionette-like, in their gentle plummet towards earth, perhaps it might do so again.
Torn and stratified between so many other remnants, it too awaited transformation. After her funeral we opened the trunk, dismembered it layer by layer, its sanctity strangely gone. There was no longer any mystery, merely a tired collection of old rags and distant memory. At the bottom of this last unveiling lay neither exhilaration nor discovery, but simple disappointment. The trunk stood empty.
Her best friend took the shards of silk (“A shame to waste such a pretty piece”), vowing to re-capture their elegance in a grandchild’s handmade quilt, a comforter, a testimony. That too remained unmade.
A scrap of orange silk, still floating to earth.