The clothes I wear

The garter, the underwear

I knew straight away; I knew love was spectacular.

It knocked me out, hung me upside down and checked for change. Every cell in my body felt electric, needing to plug into him to come to life again. I was desperate for him, in the middle of lectures, in the middle of meals. And I felt it in my middle. He made me spin from my middle, like a spinning top. His 6 ft 4 frame didn’t help. When I stilled, unplugged, came to, I had to readjust to an altered world – dialled up to peak sensitivity.

I started to enjoy the cold because it meant I could luxuriate in the warmth of him, his soft hairy chest, his bed – the unmade mattress on his rented floor. The sharpness of winter made the smell of him stronger.

Before the wedding, I bought expensive serum for my hair. I bought outrageously expensive matching underwear. I had an image of us I wanted to dress for. I was dressing for the memories I planned to make.

My wedding dress was beautiful, simple and elegant. But it was tiring to wear and difficult to manage. I peed on my wedding garter and knickers at our wedding reception, struggling in a tiny cubicle. I stuffed them down the sanitary bin.

The white nightdress

I got pregnant not long after our honeymoon.

When the time came, or in my case two weeks past when the time came, I was brought in for a sweep. Nothing happened, so they induced me that night.

Just outside the hospital window, yellow graffiti blared across the top of a building, but I couldn’t make out what it said. It didn’t look angry, in fact the yellow looked sort of glowing in the streetlight. Overflowing council bins lined the stone wall below.

I’d bought a fancy nightgown for hospital on eBay. White cotton, with a matching nightdress. It had a pale green satin sash. I felt like a woman living by the sea, in a pastel world without rain or dampness, all light baskets and flowers, soft and ethereal. The beautifully delicate cotton had little holes for petals. It turned up in a box, heather on top, tied in a purple ribbon. It felt so personal and loving, like a gift from an aunt. I was disappointed when I looked up the seller and didn’t recognise her.

Stupidly, innocently, I wore the nightdress the night I started to bleed. Pre-birth bleeding felt different to my period. Or maybe the ten-month reprieve had made it feel different.

My husband was sent home around ten. I lay frozen in the sterile hospital room imagining him, same tight legs and bum, same comforting width of tummy and chest beneath his hoody. To anyone, he was just some guy walking home to watch TV, maybe have a glass of wine to help him sleep.

I looked down at my fist-tight, fist-hard bump below the sheets, lying to my side so I wouldn’t feel suffocated, so my heart wouldn’t hammer so desperately. My fingers were bloated beyond recognition, wedding rings gone and my ankles, craving the cool beyond the sheets, looked angry and purple.

Again, I imagined my husband, this time sprawled on our bed, tipsy and excited for morning. The beautiful cotton gown I’d carefully packed two months ago, by now splattered in blood, the heather scent still on it, was discarded on the chair beside me.

I tried to remind myself that this was natural, that nobody could do this but me, but I felt like a small girl surprised by difficult realities in an adventure she’d spent months preparing for.

When our son was lifted out of my cervix, looking pink and chalky, I couldn’t understand the size of him. He seemed so big and solid, so whole. The remains of his cord shocked me too, a milky purple slug, already seeming old with yellowing. Sitting on the side of the bed, swollen and sore, my husband’s family came to congratulate us. I was getting my urine bag changed; I’d never seen them before without make-up.

That night, I soiled myself holding my baby. No one was around and he wouldn’t stop crying. I’ve heard other women share their stories since, about going to the toilet for the first time after giving birth. I’ve never felt like sharing mine.

But my baby boy was perfect and the feeling of him lying on my chest was one of the happiest of my life. He eased the ache in me; it felt like his little body was filling up a wound, cooling it with aloe and oatmeal, nourishing me, soothing me back to life. When sleep came it was never more delicious.

Tops to cover shoulders

After our second baby, a birth more difficult than the first, we moved to the Middle East. I arrived on another planet, flat and arid, with wide roads and huge signs like in America, only in Arabic.

The laws there meant I couldn’t work or drive without my husband’s permission. We laughed about it, of course. We’d done our Master’s together; we were equals, right?

Even if he’d granted me permission, I didn’t have a license. With that and the searing heat, I was trapped. I’d two babies under two and taxis generally came without seatbelts. I was alone in an apartment from half six in the morning until four or five in the afternoon. It was very large and very foreign. The kitchen was entirely brown with an orange and grey pebbled marble countertop and dull beige tiles on the floor. It wasn’t cheap so much as dated. It felt like I was in somebody else’s kitchen; it made me feel like I was in somebody else’s life.

We painted a lot, made playdough. I’d buy huge buckets in the local LuLu store and fill them with shaving foam and food colouring. The more mess the better; it would give me something to do for the day.

I’d make up stories about invisible pirates for my sons and they had a long love affair with a bird, Bridgey, who made a nest outside our window. We’d all walk or waddle around half-naked. When I got my period again, I’d use their nappies if I had to; it didn’t matter. I didn’t see a single person beyond my husband. Life was simultaneously full, parched and lonely.

As time went on, I grew bolder, taking them out to play in the desert grass outside the apartment in the morning, before it got unbearable. We’d make volcanoes out of twigs, surround them in my sons’ dinosaurs. The sand around the building wasn’t like beach sand. It had the same consistency but was darker, dirtier, and the bits of glass and debris made it dangerous. The street cats scared me.

Eventually, I’d fall in love with the call to prayer in the evening. The dipping sun releasing the hot glare of the day – the muezzin’s voice, undulating, as if carried on a breeze from the sea of dunes beyond the city. I loved the shape of the nearby mosque, the bright pink of the begonia against its white walls. I still miss the smells, the spices in the supermarket, the heady perfume of locals in shiny mall elevators. The unimaginable whiteness of the men’s kanduras. The taste of kibbeh, houmous and tabbouleh.

I covered my shoulders in those earlier months but resented it. I seethed, watching women wading into the sea in their full black abayas while men splashed about in togs. I stormed against the swarm of men who came like locusts from their mosques.

But they weren’t the enemy. They mostly looked at me because I was unlikely, unaccompanied, uncovered. They were labourers, living in rooms together, all men, all separated from their families. You could see the desolation in their eyes. They looked hollow. The street cleaners, in their orange and green jumpsuits, had scraps of cloth wrapped around their embattled heads in the broiling heat. One expat mum I later met described them as perverts, shared stories of them revealing themselves to young children.

I had to cover my shoulders, but inside those swarms of men, I was the lucky one. As the years went by, I dressed as I normally would.

The long floral skirt

It was the end of this first year when my husband got drunk at a brunch, fell, and woke up being arrested inside the garden of a local’s villa. I was back in Ireland – had left to avoid the cruel heat of the summer months with our two kids. He was supposed to follow.

I thought carefully about what to wear to court. I had to be fully covered though I’d been told a hijab wasn’t necessary. I’d seen my husband at the prison already, so I was prepared for his bare feet, his shaven head, his hands in chains.

When we visited the jail, far from the city, myself and my father-in-law were invited to the office for dates and coffee. They were putting on a show for my father-in-law, white-haired and professorial. His son was their prisoner, but they still wanted to create a good impression. They spent a long time explaining the fairness of their system. I struggled to contain my rage, but they didn’t care; they weren’t looking at me. I resented my father-in-law’s politeness. It sounded like weakness. Afterwards I realised it was love. The guards were dressed in military-style uniforms, many of them with surprisingly large bottoms that made their trouser legs gather uncomfortably high. It made them seem even more intolerable.

I decided on the floor-length skirt because it would be respectful but bright, hopeful. I wore a coral top I’d had made at the local tailors.

When my husband was released, I cried for all that had happened to us. And I cried for the men I’d seen lined up on the ground of the prison, no white relatives flying in to save them, no way to call home.

It didn’t feel as good getting my clothes made after that.

The winter coats

Coming back to Ireland six years later was like circling back to the start. Before London, babies (we now have three) and of course the Middle East. Last month, I bought a beautiful mustard checked coat which I wear with an old belt tied around it. It makes me feel young again; I haven’t dressed like this for years. My husband looks handsome in his winter coat, like he used to wear when I first fell for him. The cold weather makes me feel younger too, though I can see I’m ageing.

I walk to work every morning, along the river, winding up the steep hills of North Cork. My thighs are getting stronger. Every morning, I look out to the water and breathe it in, the freshness, the freedom; I cherish the seagulls gliding across the harbour, wonder at their journeys, but feel happy to be on my road, the same route every day.

I buy everything in second-hand shops now. The Oxfam off Oliver Plunkett Street has a designer rail. I often pick up COS dresses, in my size, and quietly thank my secret benefactor. I imagine she’s a solicitor or something, doing her bit for charity. I like how the clothes I wear now have their stories. I wonder where they’ve been before. What was the woman thinking when she bought it? What was she planning? How did it turn out? The dresses I wear are another layering. A new bedding down into a world I’ve come to terms with. Whatever that means. Either way, I don’t want to buy new or make new clothes anymore. I want to layer my life with the lives of others, wear their stories.

And then I want to tell them.

Jennifer Horgan is a teacher, freelance journalist, poet and lyricist. She was born in Cork, Ireland, but spent twelve years abroad in London and Abu Dhabi. She returned home in 2018 to work in Cork Educate Together Secondary School. Her work has been published in Crossways, The Children of the Nation: An Anthology of Working People’s Poetry from Contemporary Ireland, the Irish Examiner and the Evening Echo.

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