“Jesus, I can’t believe it.” I said. “That shirt must be twelve years old.”
There was a pause and we looked at it there on the bed, on top of a heap of clothes, crumpled and sad.
It was my own fault for pushing my wife. A terrible hoarder, she keeps things long after the reason to keep them has gone, after the memory of what that reason was has long since disappeared. At the bottom of cupboards, in carrier bags hidden behind doors, in piles, on piles and under piles are things we do not need but never throw away. Our wardrobe still contains the suit jacket she wore on our wedding day, a beautiful pale blue herringbone, marred by a blob of jus from our first dinner as a married couple. We never got rid of the stain and she never got rid of the jacket, and after a few years I gave up asking her to. Recently I decided to lead by example and that’s how I ended up, late on a Sunday night (I always do these things late at night, when right-minded people are going to bed) looking at clothes I no longer wear and deciding what could go to the charity shop.
The early stages of the process were painless – work shirts that had never seemed like a good idea, not even at the time, Seventies patterns which were dated from the moment I got them home and soft, floppy collars that were more relaxed than I wanted to be in the office. Some were mistakes I didn’t realise until later – shirts that look respectable in the packaging but hate the iron more than I do, where after five minutes sitting on a bus you look as if you’ve slept in them. And then of course there were the t-shirts of yesteryear - some that had got a little too unforgiving, some that had got far too forgiving and some that just had slogans I couldn’t mean any more.
Then I got to the twelve year old shirt and, for the first time, I stopped.
“I remember buying this. I was living in Nottingham, and I went to a very cool clothes shop called Ark – I think it’s still there – with Dave. ‘Are you sure, mate?’ he said to me. ‘It’s not the sort of thing you usually wear.’ And I was so proud of it! It was forty pounds, I’d never spent that much on a shirt before, and it was by Mambo, and they were quite cool back in those days. This was the Nineties, remember.”
“It’s hard to believe, looking at it now.” said Kelly, and I had to admit she had a point. The rough check pattern had once been crisp and the dark blues used to sing, but now the colours had faded and the fabric seemed worn and waffly. Scrunched up in a ball it seemed like so much less than the shirt I’d worn on so many fantastic evenings in the old days, when I’d been someone else. Of course, back then I had dressed like someone who was far bigger than me and the shirt hung off me far too much, but back then I didn’t know anyone who would tell me that kind of thing. On the most recent times I’d worn the shirt it had felt a little tight and I know I wasn’t imagining it, because I have someone who tells me that kind of thing now.
I have a picture in the photo album where I’m wearing that shirt. It’s the summer of 1999 and I’m sitting in the back garden of my girlfriend’s dad’s house with my mother. It was somebody’s birthday party. I look so thin, shaven-headed, in this huge check shirt, only just turned twenty-five with no idea what the next twelve years have in store. They had put up a marquee and a DJ was in there, and he played Every Morning by Sugar Ray and You Get What You Give by the New Radicals, because it was the summer of 1999 and Mambo was a fashionable brand and I lived on another planet.
I looked at the shirt again. I knew that it was just an object, and that my memories were my memories, and that they would survive whether I put the shirt in the plastic bag or burned it out the back or buried it in the centre of the earth. So why did I feel sad about giving it away?
“It’s not in bad nick, you know. Don’t you think it has another couple of years in it?”
My wife smiled at me, because she knows as well as anybody that this sort of thing is difficult.
“No, let it go. Look at it, it’s not even all the same colour any more.”
“Look, only there’s only one shirt left. Do you remember how we bought this one?”
“How could I forget? We went to the shop and it was on a dummy perched above the escalator, and it was the only one in the whole store. You wanted to give up and leave it but I insisted on asking, so they got the dummy down and took the shirt off and it was exactly your size.”
“And you said it was an omen.”
I look at it, a light blue short-sleeved shirt with a combination of flowers and stripes. Some of my friends had never liked it, which because I’m stubborn had only made me like it more. I’d bought it before we went away on holiday to Canada in our first year of marriage, and it had fitted me perfectly. Being married, for me at least, means that I buy clothes that fit.
“This is the shirt I left in the wardrobe of that bed and breakfast in Montreal, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s the one. And you were convinced that all was lost and you’d never see it again. You didn’t stop going on about it. So I just mailed the couple that ran the B&B and they sent it by airmail, and they never even charged us.”
“And it’s the shirt I was wearing when I had that accident in Cal Pep, isn’t it?”
“The very same.”
Cal Pep is a magnificent restaurant in Barcelona where you sit at the bar and they don’t take orders, they just keep cooking in front of you and bringing plate after plate of seafood until you’re full. I was wearing the light blue floral shirt and wrestling, with no small degree of ineptitude, with some kind of clam when it opened and sprayed tomato sauce all over me. The surface area which that tiny clam managed to cover had to be seen to be believed.
“That was dreadful. I had to go back to the hotel room smelling of seafood.”
“You looked like you’d been shot! It was so funny.”
We soaked the shirt in cold water overnight, and I complained that everything was ruined and the stain would never come out. She told me not to be so stupid and that there was nothing that could go wrong that we couldn’t fix together. And that shirt and that story are emblematic of a conversation I expect we will continue to have, in one shape or another, for the rest of our lives.
“That was a lovely holiday, wasn’t it?”
I remember how we went to the rooftop terrace of the hotel, and she relaxed in the jacuzzi while I sat on a sunbed, reading an autobiography and smoking a cigar. I remember the smoke disappearing into the Barcelona skyline, and the traffic glinting in the sun on the roads below. I remember the shirt, soaking in cold water in the bath, waiting to prove me wrong. And there it was on the bed five years later, the last garment in the pile, rescued from Montreal, miraculously free of stains, ready to be disposed of. I thought to myself that the nicest thing about inanimate objects is the stories they accidentally become receptacles for.
And then I thought that I’m wrong, because it’s always been me. I’ve always been the receptacle for all those stories. Even so, I couldn’t help myself.
“Can’t I just keep this one?”
“Of course you can. I think you should.”
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