My ability to create characters is fuelled by six milieus in which I found myself during the course of my life. These are a convent; the x-ray department of Salisbury General Hospital; a couturier’s workshop; a bookshop; the Rhodesian department of Customs and Excise and the rooms of a plastic surgeon.
My experiences inside these places gave me various templates for character formation: the skeleton; the garment of skin and flesh; a palette of colours; fabric and design; the expression of self; the drama of everyday life; and the perception of beauty.
From the age of nine, I spent six formative years in a convent. There, for ten hours of each school day, I was exposed to the black-and-white garb of nuns who were prohibited any expression of taste in their personal attire
These women, who smelt uniformly of plain soap and mustiness, had given up their early identities and taken on the names of saints or Latin names of spiritual quality. The right to personal joy and individual character had been cauterized early on in their spiritual careers and they were clothed from head to foot in habits and veils, the style of which dated back to medieval times and surely caused great discomfort in the central African heat.
They were trained to walk with head slightly bowed and hands clasped. Long rosaries, worn at their sides, together with their heavy garments, gave off a swish-swish sound to their steps.
So, as children and adolescents, we were given no examples of how to celebrate the physical form or how to clothe it artistically. Instead the message was one of dullness, uniformity and the prim asexuality associated with convent girls. It was a message of denial and dishonesty.
Having said that, the austerity of convent life, the regulation by bells and prayer and the vivid simplicity of the Virgin Mary, whose statue graced various silent corners, helped me understand the extremes of beauty and its absence….
Working for three weeks at the x-ray department of Salisbury Central Hospital, while making career choices, I came to see the internal scaffolding of the human body. This was the inner garment, so to speak, the supporting grid that comprised elegantly fashioned bones – bones that were covered in the mother-of-pearl-like periosteum; that were eloquently jointed; and that protected vital organs.
Helping in the dark room, I watched the x-ray films reveal inner secrets of the body – the ribs, tibiae, scapulae, skulls, zigomorphic arches and other dynamic structures. Though I had studied bones in biology class, I was now witnessing them ‘live’, seeing how vital the entire skeleton was to physical composure, grace and comportment. I saw that the flesh and skin were indeed the ‘clothing’ of the skeleton – without bones, the body was but a mere bag of fluids and organs, a rumpled pile of skin, much like a discarded dress or jacket.
This was at the start of the Chimurenga War and already some horrible casualties were being brought in. So I witnessed the result of traumatic injury, the shattering of these superb weight bearers, the splintering of delicate hand and facial bones, the terrifying implications of a destroyed skull.
Inspired by everything I’d seen during my three weeks in the department, I applied to become a radiographer. But I was up against top-grade applicants and failed to gain entrance because of an inadequate maths mark and because of the poetic, artistic, unscientific reasons I gave in answer to the question of why I was choosing this particular profession….
During the following vacation, I worked for my mother’s friend, a couturier named Mimma, exploring my second choice of career and hoping she would accept me as an apprentice.
Her studio was divided into two, the workshop itself and the reception room with comfortable seating and a mirrored fitting-cubicle. Her clients were wealthy, posh women, the wives of businessmen and bankers. They came by appointment only; would page through fat volumes of fashion books and discuss what they wanted Mimma to create.
The workshop had as its centrepiece a large workbench on which Mimma cut patterns and cloth. Around this stood three electric sewing machines, a tailor’s dummy, an industrial steam iron and kitchen dresser that held a single hot-plate, cups and saucers, a kettle, an espresso machine, tins of coffee and sugar. High up from a rail hung garments in various stages of production and these would be retrieved with a long, hooked brass pole.
Against one wall were shelves holding bolts of fabric – brocades, silks, linens, satin of many colours and design. Ladies could choose from these or buy from the fashionable departmental stores – Sanders, Barbours or Meikles, where they also took tea in gracious settings. In these ladies one saw the elegant ‘strut’ and arrogance of wealth as well as the confidence that custom-made clothes imparts, so very opposite to what the convent offered.
Everything in Mimma’s rooms spoke of the endless possibility of design. They held the pervading smell of fabric, pattern card, steam iron and the trails of expensive perfumes.
I was set to work tacking, removing tacking, hemming by hand and making cross-grain braid. All this I had already learnt to do at the convent. I wanted to cut patterns and to fashion garments. At the end of three weeks, Mimma told my mother that all the hemming I had done was not uniform, lacked proper tension and had had to be unpicked and re-done. She reported that I was in too much of a hurry, lacked patience and humility, was precocious and would never make it in the trade, where one had to start at the bottom, sweeping the floor of threads and off-cuts. She told my mother that my grandiose ideas would lead nowhere and declined to take me on as an apprentice. Even so, I came away with enough knowledge to costume my future characters very well.
This extract published in New Contrast 157 Volume 40 No 1.