The front door is open, the impression of interior, dim. Along the right-hand wall the eye picks out the one solid fact, the fact of Connie, hunched over an industrial sewing machine, peering from garment to passing foot traffic and back.
“Hi Connie,” I call from the threshold.
“Well, are you afraid to come in?” she thrusts back.
A little, yes.
She cracks a smile not unlike that of a tawny frogmouth temporarily grounded. I shed bike helmet and reservations. The place is a mess, a kind of Bag Lady Central. Plastic bags disgorge fabric innards over a shantytown of benches massed the length of the room. Those lucky few garments that have made it to hangers are suspended like sighs on a single rack.
“I’ve just come about the dress,” I offer redundantly.
Connie moves out from behind her machine, knuckles briefly supporting her weight on the narrow sewing table as she goes. Out on the floor she straightens to assess me.
“I lost it.”
I am in that pantomime, the one directed by Connie.
“I stole it to wear,” she continues, enjoying the joke of her relative size, her melted girth. She waits squarely for my comeback, ready for a bit of biff.
“You should have been a boxer.”
Connie looks pleased, an old Greek-lady pugilist in spectacles. Abruptly, she throws her arms around me in a tackle-embrace. I have served a long and disputatious apprenticeship for this moment. Sometimes it has even been painful.
“Can you see it?” Connie teases.
It is navy, princess line, with a fussy retro collar. She gestures at the curtained cubicle at the front of the workshop where a makeshift drape pulls to a stubborn six inches short of closing, offering an oblique view in through glass front door from the street. And there I am. A crack of client in unmatching bra and knickers if anyone has the nous to look which—buried in iPhones or in the hands of small children plunging toward the egregiously well-stocked sweet shop next door—they don’t.
I put the ink-dark dress on. Confront myself squarely. Connie is right there behind me. She pins the hem and pulls in the bust seams in a va-va-voom way that overturns my expectations of her orthodoxy and age, her reflexive ferocity, and stands back to contemplate her work, gaze dancing.
“Going flirty fishing?”
The circuitry of our regard in the mirror is lively. I am Connie’s cut-out paper dolly, is my mother’s opinion.
Like Shiva or an octopus, many-armed and apt, Connie recommences shaping. It is then I notice that Connie has, in a burst of reinforcing zeal, applied extra facing to the collar. The result is an air of stiff servility rather than the darkly collapsing folds, voluptuous as the velvet faces of pansies or violas I had conjectured with my inner eye. Clothed in Connie’s labour, I haven’t the heart to say that I look like a post-war air hostess.
I am not the only one to fence disappointment on this stork nest of a shop floor. Once, I find myself sidelined by an athletic, late middle-aged man who instructs Connie on the white muslin pants he will cycle across Iran in. These will be harem-style pants with knee-high slits in the lower leg which he has designed himself for maximum coolness and airflow. Future Cyclist wants the muslin pants fast, he’s even brought a prototype. He is authoritative, condescending, smug in advance of taking on Iran—its heat and salt deserts, its unfamiliar cultural protocols—so sensitively, sensibly, non-synthetically. There is a special kind of vanity in imagining his muscled-knotted white legs might give offence, hard to see how open seams will ameliorate this if so.
Connie waits him out, this overconfident Australian wishing for billowy harem pants with slits.
Just inside the door, I digest the comedy slowly as a python an XL size bush rat. Future Cyclist has usurped my spot and Connie has encouraged him to do so. She is deceptively meek before establishment figures—more usually well-heeled mothers and fathers bringing their children’s private school uniforms to be cut-price copied. It takes me by surprise the first time I witness this reflexive dampening of her vigour, of her naturally defiant instincts. Now, Connie’s deference is so convincing that when she terminates his sartorially enlightened discourse with a small shake of head and a brutally terse, “No. Sorry”, Harem Pants is astonished.
He repeats the deadline. She declines again. There’s a lacuna in which he absorbs Connie’s barefaced negative. Then there is nothing more to do but turn and depart the dishevelled shop floor with two female spectators watching on. You can feel his disoriented body wondering how the hell the currency of his mastery expired so suddenly, so completely in this deceptive dump. Our eyes, Connie’s and mine, clash like silent cymbals.
On another occasion, a languid young woman wanders through the open doorway and into a similar trap, her commission a bag of remnants to be sewn into patchwork for garments to be on-sold at the market. This woman’s expectation of compliance from the humble old Greek lady with the rheumatic stance is as unfaltering as Harem Pants’.
Connie takes a dutiful look inside the bag of scraps. Prices are discussed. Chunks of time seem to go missing in the exchange, in Connie’s silences. I get a queasy feeling. Once again, Connie indulges right to the point of blank refusal. After the young woman has left, Connie scoffs.
“For not even the price of coffee money she expects me to do that? What does she think I am? A sweatshop?”
I, conversely, am favoured by Connie’s overtly confrontational treatment from the get-go. To me is gifted the almost-familial privilege of open insult.
“Are you complaining?” is Connie’s ritual greeting, issued as soon as I enter the shop and present a beloved dress or skirt for repair or copying. The transaction stalls while she repeats variations on,
“I don’t have time if you’re complaining”,“I don’t have time if you’re in a hurry”, and “Not if you come back complaining it’s not ready.”
These disclaimers are underlined by hard-boiled eye work. The customer is presumed guilty until proven innocent, a process that in my case can take years. Is this why I meekly accept the severely reinforced collar of the princess-line dress? Connie’s prices are another inducement. These operate on an invisibly calculated sliding scale with socialist tendencies. In my case, the latter is applied with the condition, “Don’t tell them what I charge you.”
Even so, after a week of denial and resentment, stiff with dread, stiff as the collar, I return the dress.
Will Connie please remove the facing?
By way of reply, Connie takes the night-blue folds of cloth without inflection, without a murmur of protest, silent as a Pieta. Sweetly and with unaccustomed speed, she unpicks her robust stitching.
When I return for the final fitting, Connie pulls back the curtain and surprises me in my underwear. And there she remains, sociably, even proprietorially, looking on. After that we barely bother to draw the curtain between pinning and changing.
I bring all manner of things to Connie’s repair shop to copy or alter, to invisibly patch, let out or in. Connie has the gift of restoring lost time to well-loved garments. While I circulate dresses and skirts on and off in the improvised cubicle, Connie stands there, her pugnacious intelligence disarmingly at rest, casting a detached, not unfriendly gaze upon my body in its degrees of undress, expansion, and, mostly these days, of contraction.
I find I don’t mind. It’s a relief to have a female witness to age’s depredations, its incremental spotting and subsidence, its weirdly fascinating winnowing, its endurance—all of which are as frank as Connie’s gaze. There is pleasure and pride in my body’s emboldened dexterity and bidability, too, in the way it whisks things on and off, the way it will use these props, Connie’s rebooted vintage dresses, to transfigure itself, to transfigure me. The body’s passing theatre.
Connie and I watch my body pass back and forth behind the parted curtain as the sliver of street carries on regardless. Our solidarity is staunch. It has been forged over years of insult and sufferance, of sartorial desire and commercial canniness, and a sympathy greater than the sum of these parts. We have spoken of husband, lover, mothers, homeland. Our solidarity has been forged at the expense of other customers and, sometimes, cronies too. “Friends?” I enquire one day after coming in at the end of what I assume are confidences, passed in Greek, between three bundled women in the dim. The countrywomen turn a collective gaze on me, the interloper, with crafty passivity. Observing their smiling primacy, I have no choice but to sail deeper into the shop interior while they watch and smile some more.
Connie doesn’t keep the women when they collect their bags and slowly rise. Instead, she forsakes the pillows tiered to compensate for each other’s deficits and comes out from behind the machine to see the women off. Her hip is troubling her. After they have gone, she shakes her head at my sentimental assumptions.
“She goes on and on, that one. She’s looking for a husband. Other people’s husband.”
Connie nods for emphasis and regards me dryly, warming to reproach.
“And that one. She thinks God is in the church.”
“But you go to church, don’t you?” I offer, bait masked as deference. God and I live in distant, non-communicating suburbs. Connie has long since established this. Now, she shrugs and bites down on my hook because it pleases her to do so.
“I not bother so much these days. Why go to church? God is in the house, the backyard, even the café.”
I do not doubt her even though I know a little about Connie’s house with backyard. It contains a husband whose mind, spoiled by a car accident in distant middle age, has slid further into fathomless dementia, a wanderer who gives her much trouble. Connie comes to the shop to escape him or to bring him, where he sits behind a trestle, handsome and silent as a fountain deity. What a young man he must have been. Other days she tells me about her dog, the one she has trained to shit in one spot in the garden, a fact that if you frequent the dog world is cause for admiration.
Connie gestures vaguely down the street in the direction of the place where I sometimes buy her coffee with a double-heaped teaspoon of Sweet ‘n’ Low. She takes in the rioting materials of her own shop floor with sweeping gaze.
“God is in this room.”
Connie’s age spots are benign and her sandy-skinned face wide in the practical light. She is non-pacific, and God is everywhere. The tiny crucifix glitters at her neck. She is whiskery, and never quite serious, and her presence fills the room. Her eye is mild upon me. Connie’s invisible fists go up.
Next week’s short story is by Barbara Else, author of the new memoir Laughing at the Dark (Penguin Random House, $40), reviewed in ReadingRoom this coming Thursday by Dame Fiona Kidman.