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The Dress and the Bench

Tomoé Hill


n Siena there is a column at the edge of the old city: on it, a statue of Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf. Legend says when Senius and his brother Aschius—founders of Siena and the sons of Remus—fled Rome, the pair took with them the wolf as a reminder of their origin. You would not call me a seasoned traveller or nomad; to be honest, and not least of all to myself, I am the sort of person for whom travelling is escape—not in a romantic sense, but to flee. It does not mean bare survival, as we bear witness to in the news every day, but nevertheless closer to that in its small way than anything else. Survival simply means to be able to continue to exist, and there have been times where it has been necessary to try find a way back to a recognisable existence or take the opportunities which presented themselves, despite not knowing where they would lead or how I would find myself—if at all—once there.

Continuation is never equal to certainty or contentment, and its assurances are so minimal that at some point we seek to embellish our presence with meanings we glean from wherever we are. It serves as a reminder that narratives are found—or find us—as much as they are created, and as Henry Miller, writing about Big Sur says in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, ‘one’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things. Which is to say there are no limits of vision’. It is when we stop being able to see that a sense of restlessness or even fear comes over us; maybe this is in some way a primal remnant, but it is nevertheless a sense worth heeding, for it propels us towards an unknown which is necessary to who it is we eventually become, that process of becoming nothing more than another kind of journey. I had lost this sight not once or twice but three times in my life so far, each loss resulting in another relocation. It was in this way I found myself in Italy, not far from Siena.

I am a terrible tourist. In a new place, I find myself wishing the streets and buildings and faces were already committed to memory. Instead of the sharp angular motions of a head and neck turning to glimpse a street sign, I long for the grace of intuitive recognition, the almost imperceptible glance and nod of familiarity. The stride of those well-acquainted with a place is unbroken, except to stop and converse with others who are the same. Their feet know the stones and pavements below them so well that there is no need to look down at the path they take. The tourist is akin to a newborn foal: all awkward limbs and head, attempting to walk, stand, and speak in an unfamiliar tongue all at once, failing. If I longed for Miller’s new way of looking, then I also wanted its period of adjustment to be over, to settle into it with the pleasure of knowing I no longer had to account for my newness within that perception. Slowly, through a kind of osmosis, what the mind maps the body translates in its movements. This knowledge, once attained, never leaves, and even now I find myself able to mimic walking the gradual incline along the city wall near the statue, or one of the uneven sets of steps that lead down to the Piazza del Campo, replicating alongside them the scents of almond biscuits or the savoury coriander and anise of cavallucci, ‘little horses’; the by turns warm and acrid sharply violet leather drifting from open doorways whose insides displayed shelves of bags and layers of belts hanging like austere streamers; the fatty smell of chunks of soppressata flecked with nutmeg; real cigarette smoke always paired with fresh, bitterly dark espresso, the fumes of vice and necessity entwined.

There was a boutique I would stop and look into each time we came to the city; the cobbled street it was on was part of the sloping walk in from where we would park. Curiously, it was rarely open which made it feel all the more like a message from a dream. For months, a dress was on display in the window. A simple utilitarian shirtdress, it was knee-length, long-sleeved, and tied at the waist, but made of luxuriously heavy olive green silk which had the dull sheen of a mirror’s gilt worn by time. Priced at few hundred euros, I coveted the dress for almost six months but never bought it. It would have been a special purchase, but even then I could not seem to justify it. Running around a rambling property chopping and stacking wood, gathering wild herbs, aware that there were errant scorpions and spiders, I wore only practical garments which would bear the burrs and marks of such a life: to wear beautiful things meant to be stained with the juice and colours of the surrounding nature, painted by necessity.

The dress reminded me of an article I read in an obscure magazine at about age eleven or twelve. This could be one of those misremembered memories, but I remember it being called Almanac, something we received because my parents had a book subscription which consisted of monthly receipts of leather-bound gilt-edged classics such as Lolita and Winesburg, Ohio. For such an unheard-of publication, Almanac had extraordinary pretensions to the megalith glossy lifestyle and fashion magazines like Vogue and Architectural Digest. Issues were full of Absolut Vodka ads at their apogee; there were multi-page layouts of models in bold and vibrant Christian Lacroix outfits complete with hats clashing brilliantly against zebra banquettes in the reopened El Morocco nightclub; model-less but no less fashionable shoots featuring lamps of increasingly abstract designs titled LIGHT—an unsubtle declaration that even divine creation could benefit from a glamorous update. I would carefully tear them out and tape them inside my school locker, for some time unaware that teachers and students alike would double-take upon realising they weren’t inspirational posters or ones of pop stars.

Even then, I dreamt of a certain escape which I felt could be achieved through materiality; an object which would conjure a narrative beyond my Midwestern one, transforming me into something I could not imagine but nevertheless desired. That spark of unknown desire functions like a garment: in our lives we try many on, and unless intuitively versed in the language of fashion, often not realising until our later years that it is not just any one which will suit who we are. We will become struck by an abundance of both desires and clothes, trying them on and mostly discarding them, until we find the ones which we feel we have known or worn forever, though they may only fit us during a certain time in our lives. Upon understanding this, you also come to know the seasonality of desire. The necessity of allowing them to sleep and wake, to wither and bloom as if they were fruit, flowers, or as simple as animals; a destiny out of our hands, in those of something greater.

Besides these features, there were pieces written by what I now imagine were up-and-coming writers, although I no longer remember their names. A single article has remained in my memory—about regret, specifically of a purchase never made. For some weeks the author had gone to an antique shop, each time lingering inside over an old cobbler’s bench. She could not understand the attraction but always found herself hesitating over it, touching the old wood, the proprietor urging her to sit and get a feel for it. She loved that bench with the unrealised love of someone who does not yet grasp how objects can shape their outlook of the world, who still bends to the idea that one must love certain things at certain times, as if in doing so they had the ability to solidify the narrative of who they thought they must be. I cannot recall the price beyond it being the exact amount of a pair of heels that she bought instead; beautiful uncomfortable shoes which hurt her. Worn to a few parties and richly complimented, they only reminded her of the old bench of her unknown desire, since sold. All that remained of her folly were aching feet, useless shoes, and the chapter in Little Women (which she was reading), ‘Meg Goes to Vanity Fair’, where the eldest daughter, naïve of the small manipulations and machinations that fuel society, allows herself to be elaborately dressed and made up for a party, so unlike herself that she spends the evening regretting that she had not stayed true to her simpler self.

The desire for the bench was never articulated, though retrospectively she must have known precisely what it symbolised: the means to dream and create. Like Woolf’s room of one’s own, more compactly realised. But her beautiful shoes were another kind of lesson: though we may regret certain desires, they are no less important in their failure as well as their timing. It is simplicity itself to assume the narrative of one’s life follows only the easiest path, especially being reared as we are in such material surroundings. But our reality is very much that of recognising we are not the person we wished to be: that it is not possible to become with only a pair of shoes or a dress, and the tools of transformation are often mundane, invisible, even ugly to the unknowing. One does not question the purpose of the butterfly’s cocoon but we are sometimes unable to see the forms of our own cocoons, instead taking on the coloured mantle and wings too early. It is not that wisdom is drab, but unremarkable to the eye until we adjust the palette of our sight.

As much as I longed for the dress, I knew it would be of as much use as the writer’s heels. What use was its beautiful heavy silk, folds so out of place amidst the tangles of rosemary and spiderwebs which laced and embroidered the old stones? What version of myself was I hoping to recall amidst the wildness of this new life? The dress was a ghost, and I too attached to the memories of a self similarly clad to be able to fully recognise that my desire was akin to a séance. My own representation of the author’s bench—my cocoon—lay in the uninteresting but necessary purchases and everyday doings required of temporary rusticity: firewood, bags of wood-pulp pellets for heating, a new saw-blade, picking olives, looking at nothing and everything when I gazed into the valley whose edge the house perched. I was happy to embrace the simplicity, for the same reason I moved—to become part of it; the beautiful contradiction of knowing the solitude of belonging. That solitude yields what Miller again refers to as ‘the fullness and richness of life … in simplifying our lives, everything acquires a significance hitherto unknown’. One realises that new way of seeing is simply—for it is always simple when finally achieved—the result of a harmony between the internal and external. That Miller was right when he said it was not a matter of place but of perception, the ability to find and keep hold of it regardless of location. The precariousness and unease of continuation suddenly finds its stillness; the traveller is finally home.

In order to attain that becoming and vision in another culture, you live fully as those around you, sharing a dream of familiar objects and seasons; a cobbler’s bench for a community. We lived as they lived, following the clock of the earth, marking time with the last golden grapes which were the sunset of fall, then the sunrise of the citrus fruits of winter. To appreciate this bounty, you must for a while forget the summer fruits which came before, allowing them to reside in nothing but a distant memory of hope. They will come again, or perhaps not—this is what it means to live in and with time, its little deaths and rebirths. Though Miller uses Hieronymus Bosch’s oranges to illustrate the ideal of perception, to me it is Francisco de Zurbarán’s still lifes that capture the sense of my own newfound sight. His lemons, grapes, quinces, and melons, set against a black background seem to exist in a state of reflection. They do not have the vivid tones of reality despite appearing real, instead taking on the sheen of that silk dress; slightly tarnished, as if from the edges of a dream. They are present, but the black creeping ever closer to the foreground serves to remind us that their absence is never far off, a shroud that only enriches the cycle of possessing and not. Colour decomposes to black which eventually yields colour once again, a trust not dissimilar to the abyss of sleep.

What one remembers most of all is time itself is an unseen, unrealised desire. It is the ones who live under the veil of illness or a very threat to their survival who understand they are the fruits in such a painting. Here, I understood what it was to keep time and live with it, each second a conscious breath. It struck me that this form of timekeeping was non-existent in my former city. Rejecting the chronology of nature, it was instead a state of perpetual, artificial bloom in which it became impossible to both mourn and look forward. Instead of black, there was a blinding white which cast no light nor sense of life. And so I finally realised that I, too, had to shed my former existence: each time we went to Siena, I would linger for a moment or two at the shop window, admiring the dress which would have been more appropriate for my past in London. Without regret, I would then move on to the shops and stalls supplying the dream-washed moments which formed the meaning of my Italian present.


Tomoé Hill