The Unravelling

That she would appear in public in anything less than immaculate attire was simply unimaginable. It was not because she loved fine clothes though that she certainly did. Garments of choice were the armour in which she presented herself to an inherently hostile and imbecile world always ready to doubt and impede her. In her youth they were a letter of recommendation that spoke of her impeccable character and impenetrable virginity. They were eloquent witnesses to her integrity and wilful adherence to social customs during her married years and upon her separation they attested to an overarching determination that not even the daintiest camellia pinned on her lapel could disguise. Her wardrobe exuded a fragrance of fine fabric and leather mixed with perfume and poudre. She opened it as a general would, set to inspect the ammunition before the battle. Outfits stood to attention, patent high heels shone under her gaze, handbags were on the ready, jewellery glimmered hidden in velvet boxes. Come the occasion of an impending public appearance and her transformation from wearer of unwieldy dressing gown and threadbare slippers to an imperial galleon ready to defeat the Spanish Armada would happen within the course of an hour and be completed with a generous application of red lipstick which underlined a picture-perfect assembled self.

The fifties and sixties had been tough on her. Then the rigours of the corset and the tailored outfit and the demand for shoe-matching handbags had to be strictly adhered to on pain of public humiliation. She willingly embraced the rules and followed them to perfection. In the political upheaval of the times the search for the matching handbag was not an additional burden for a young woman making her first independent steps into a man’s world. It provided her with a sense of security: there are rules, she told herself; there must be some rules. Her father was left almost penniless after his newspaper was shut down, her family home was a hiding place for students fleeing the authorities, her uncle was perishing in political exile, she gave birth to a disabled child, there was a military coup, her marriage was collapsing but she walked the streets as if she was fitted with a small grenade: ready for everything. She had a job, she had a matching handbag, she would persevere. Not a single photograph of her survives from those years in which she is not the picture of health, beauty and faultless posturing.

In the late seventies she took to wearing a wig. This fashion accessory temporarily relieved her of the constant care for her hair which was unruly by nature and prone to frizzing. Through her relentless efforts the curls had been all but obliterated but their demise had not simplified hair styling in the least. Incapable of assuming a shape – any shape – her hair needed a lot of cajoling to stand in the place it had been assigned to. Rollers, hot irons and plenty of lacquer were required to accomplish the deed and so the shiny wigs of the seventies gave her long suffering scalp a much needed respite. The wig took pride of place on her dressing table like a knight’s jousting helmet and once pinned on her head the ever-ready coif shone down on her features complementing the reflections of the polyester blouse. As she hailed the fall of the Junta so did she welcome the triumph of the prêt-a-porter and the artificial hair. And as her faithful dressmaker faded into oblivion and the hairdresser dispensed with, she felt empowered in her non-iron synthetics and wearable locks. The new empowerment involved a lot of sweating. It was the price that had to be paid for the demise of the corset and the starched chemise and she knew all about paying the price and remunerating unknown entities for non-existent sins. In any case some degree of bodily discomfort was necessary if one has to perform well in public. It focuses the mind. It reminds one why one is where one should be. Nevertheless, sorry as she professed to be for the wigs petering out of fashion she was glad to feel the breeze on her hair once more upon her inescapable return to the salon.

On this September morning as she’s looking at the sorry state of her skull she misses the shiny wigs and remembers fondly Mirella, her softly-spoken hairdresser whose real name was Maria, who had her ways with hair, especially hair as hers which in the eighties had started thinning out. And as the coif needed fortification so did the garments with the introduction of the obligatory shoulder pads of which she made sure there was always a generous supply at the back of her wardrobe shelf. The hair was expanded with artificial means in a bid to match the architecture of the fortified shoulder and the result was an impressive rectangle, a monument of a woman not in stature but in structure: impenetrable yet conversational, immovable yet all-embracing. When she entered a room, any room, her presence filled the space: she had reached the apogee of her power. The tyranny of matching handbag overthrown, the polyester blouses shelved, the hair preserved in an elevated state with the new brand of lacquer, she ruled her loyal and increasing fans with an iron and benevolent hand. The blows she received – for she did receive some – may have wounded her deeply but they fortified her public image.

It looked as if she could have it her way after all. The battles have been fought successfully and she was looking forward to more. In her middle years when fashion was relativised as was everything else, she confronted an uncertain world with her own style which was at once elegant and antiquated. She had the capacity of transforming the most up to date style into a classic picture of accurately positioned garments which defeated fashion trends and promoted her own brand of power dressing and an old fashioned sense of proper. So embedded was her public image of steely elegance and unmistakable determination that even when an incapacitating illness deprived her of the accoutrements that evoke it, her voice alone was capable of summoning it.

Her horror was thus understandable when one fine September day she found the morning sun shining on attire not fit for human eyes. Her torso was dressed in garments now tattered, there were remnants of her skirt covering her thighs and her shoes looked too big for her legs which had barely a centimetre of flesh wrapped round their bones. It was simply ridiculous how the shoes clung on to her feet which she realised were of no use to her anyway.

The clothes selected for her last journey some three years earlier had seemed proper enough and frankly at that point she was beyond caring. She had done her bit, given out her last instructions though no one appeared to have been listening and had been nearly (though not quite yet) ready to be quiet for a while (at least about the selection of garments). The man who dressed her was competent enough and he had even asked for shoes though what would be the use of them was beyond her. Men.

She had been content to lie still for a while and in any case that was what had been expected in the circumstances. Her thoughts had seemed to be ceasing and that too appeared to be the proper thing to be experiencing at such an event. The attention she received had been as expected too. Everything had revolved around her person. All the preparations and conversations had her as their main subject. People had solemnly flocked in to say their goodbyes and for once after a long time they had appeared to be ready to listen to what she had to say. Only she had run out of words. Or perhaps not of words (she had a plentiful stockpile of those) but of the capacity to utter them. Never you mind. She was certain that not only people would fully appreciate the wisdom of her words but would deeply feel the absence of her utterances. She had felt a secret satisfaction about that fact. Let us see how they manage, she had thought, and smiled a smile no one could see. She was sure they wouldn’t manage. And she already felt vindicated. I will just have to come back later and sort out the mess, she had thought and made plans. Let them see how difficult it can be to do what I did – what it really took for me to do all this for all this time. They think it is all easy but they have one thing coming. Never you mind. They’ll soon come crawling back asking for help. And she would of course give it when the time came.

But she had decided to lie low for the time being and wait it out. She had felt she really did deserve some rest although it appeared that the rest was rather imposed on her; that the words could not be uttered not because she didn’t care to utter them but because she could not reach them. Her tongue felt heavy and numb, her throat tightened. Her index finger accustomed for so long to indicate and command rested together with the rest of her hand on her side. It did so on each own accord though admittedly she did not mind as much as she thought she would. It was only that she could not keep up appearances. She had not finished with all that she needed to say and sensed that she could not continue. For a moment an unidentified sense of panic gripped her. It was as if her public self was crumbling before her and there was nothing she could do to prevent the demolition. But it seemed that those around her had not noticed. Their solemn faces did not denote any disappointment at her inability to perform. On the contrary it seemed that they expected her silence, even welcomed it. She came back to her previous thought that lying still and not speaking was indeed the proper thing to do. She breathed one last breath and the panic subsided. It was all right. This too shall pass.

She resigned her head to be placed on a laced pillow and told herself that she had to do what’s proper as she always did; that the rest will follow; that she would live to fight another day but not yet, not yet. The world darkened. She had thought that as everyone appeared to have left she might as well wrap herself in her unwieldy dressing gown, let go of the toupee, neglect her teeth and shuffle about in the threadbare slippers. She forgot about the man who dressed her and the words that wouldn’t come and all sound had seemed to vanish.

But now this: the sun is shining, there is a pleasant breeze clean and cool after the evening rain and her clothes are in tatters. What’s more she has no head. There are a few sounds around: the irregular thud of a shovel, a man’s heavy breathing and birdsong. A heavy burden has been lifted from her chest. The relief the removal of a load brings to the one who has been suffering it was swiftly replaced by horror. Her undignified torso, her spindly legs, her ridiculous unnecessary shoes are all exposed to the public eyes, to the light of day. She feels the shreds of clothing slightly shifting in the breeze; her torso is lifted out and leaned against the sides of a rectangular earthy hole. Her arms are rigid and bent at the elbows framing her vanished breasts. She has no hands. She shouldn’t have been lifted thus, she thinks, because that’s what’s caused the head to detach itself and stay behind. Maybe she is wrong about that. But she is usually never wrong. In any case the whole affair is highly improper and she’s horrified. She cannot do anything to hide the unsuitability of her apparel and she is almost happy she’s got no eyes to see. But then the head is retrieved and is reunited with the body which is laid temporarily on to someone else’s plot, half-wrapped inside a sheet. A man continues to toil beside it, half-buried in the soil sweating and mumbling something under his breath and finally removing an immense bundle of unidentified sludge from the depths of the earth. The head is equally unacceptable as it is entirely black with a tuft of fuzzy hair on top and to add insult to injury her lower jaw has gone. When the man finds it he places it next to her blackened skull almost as an afterthought. I used to speak with this, she fumes, and blames men again for failing once more to rise up properly to the task at hand.

At least she is wrapped in a good sheet. She remembers buying those so long ago; top quality heavy cotton that took ages to iron to perfection but felt as a bed sheet should feel under one’s skin: solid and dependable. They sure not make them like that anymore. The sheet was a good choice at least. And the man wrapped her with it, though hastily because her fibulas and her tibias barely covered with blackened flesh and still clinging to the shoes are exposed. She realises that she can do nothing about it. She lies patiently feeling the fabric of the sheet which has kept the familiar smell of the cupboard’s interior. It has been a long time since she had opened that cupboard and that sheet still has the creases of a hard-pressed iron. She remembers that she was made to resign; that she has been willed to resign. Now she finds herself absent; moved on. Under the comfort of the white sheet she suddenly does not mind. It is relief that now comes over her dismantled self, as if the tyranny of the corset, the garment, the handbag, the wig, the shoulder pad, the high heel, the public self was overthrown as the body succumbed to decay. The bones do not need to stand, the skull does not have to be upright, the eyes are not obliged to look, there is no voice, no hands.

When she is bundled up and thrown into the wheelbarrow to be transported to the other part of the cemetery, she cannot wait for the next phase. On the north side, a fenced plot of land with crosses and fragments of headstones arranged higgledy-piggledy on the moist earth is ready to receive her disassembled body. She will be allowed to dissolve completely. It is a shallow grave. The man just digs a few inches and places her there and then covers her with earth. It has rained overnight; she almost sinks in. She expects that her arms fixed in a rigid state at the elbows will eventually relax; that her torso will collapse entirely, the leg bones will come apart. She anticipates eagerly the disassembling of her spine and ribcage in particular for she had stood upright for too long, too long. Even in death she had stood upright in other people’s memories, in old photographs, in the choice of furniture she left behind, even in the lettering of her signature – never a slant, a curve, a flourish. She never imagined that letting go would be such a relief. She is looking forward to a year’s time when the man will come again to check on her remains. She hopes not to disappoint him. She wants to be completely gone by then. She wishes that only her bones will have remained in a year’s time and that they will be allowed to dissolve in the communal bone pit.

Lito Apostolakou

About Lito Apostolakou

Lito Apostolakou is a visual artist and historian based in London, UK.

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