I stood in the almost entirely empty lingerie department of Marks and Spencer recently, eye to eye with a neon pink brassiere. “Add a playful touch to your underwear collection with our embroidered mesh balcony bra” read the jaunty inducement to purchase the undergarment, a delicate piece of craftsmanship which also boasted some “retro-inspired embroidery”.
I quite like almost entirely empty lingerie departments. In uncertain times it can be vaguely stabilising to wander alone among a sorority of truncated mannequins, their torsos gamely twisting from hip to shoulder, their headless fibreglass selves trussed up in a dizzying array of tropical-print padded-sponge bras and peony-embroidered full cups.
I began machete-ing my way out of the department through a jungle of palm-print tangas, zebra-print Brazilians and leopardskin thongs
I need some new underwear. Or maybe, I thought, shuffling through the theatre of underwire and lace, of balcony and plunge, I actually need some armour, some backbone, some grit. Maybe I need something to help kick, squarely in its bloated backside, this growing sense of weariness I’ve been incubating, and send it slithering down the rutted boreen to oblivion.
A classic first-world response, eh? Feeling overwhelmed by a seemingly endless pandemic, by shattering climate events and reports, by the refugee crisis, by watching people close to you negotiate incertitude and disappointment, you bite your tongue, give up meat, wring your hands in front of the evening news, toss and turn, cross your fingers, petition ghosts, and finally console yourself with a new pair of knickers.
The fitting rooms were closed, however. The solidly reassuring women who normally parade the floor with tape measures around their necks were absent, and I certainly wasn’t about to negotiate a “multiway” with “low back converter” unless I had instructions on how to drive it.
I began machete-ing my way out of the department through a jungle of palm-print tangas, zebra-print Brazilians and leopardskin thongs. Filing quietly past a row of snoozing double-gussets and some sturdy body-shape sentries, I found myself (at an appropriate social distance) next to the only other shopper in the department. Together we perused an information board, which, in light of the cordoned-off changing area, was designed to instruct the breast-bearing public on how to measure ourselves at home. (It’s all about steering clear of “spillage” apparently; yes, spillage is to be avoided at all costs.)
The other customer turned to look at me over her face covering. Watery-eyed and weary, her grey roots were, like mine, pushing up through her highlighted hair. Like me, she had temples webbed with fine lines. Like me, the heat and the mask had made her eyeliner bleed below the pinkish rim of her pale eyes.
Work meant friendship and purpose, it meant lunchtimes eating cheese sandwiches in this abundant park
“When is this damn thing going to end?” she demanded, her voice angry but muffled.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
I watched her stalk away in her uncomfortable shoes, indignant, bewildered, furious, lost.
I followed her progress down the marble stairs, past sale rails of summer dresses and spaghetti tops, of linen shorts and pastel-coloured pedal-pushers, all looking limp and out of time, forgetful debutantes that had missed their season. I watched her pull her jacket tight across her untended chest, straighten up her shoulders and exit on to Grafton Street.
I had time to kill before I had to be somewhere. I sat in St Stephen’s Green, watched the ducks paddle around under the brown sky.
In the past, when I was young, searching for acting work, I’d look to this city to take the edge off my loneliness. I’d walk into town, browse the bookshops, drink tea, eat mushrooms on toast, plunder shoe sales. I’d long for a job, a gig, not only for survival but also for the camaraderie that came with it, for the sense of belonging.
Work meant friendship and purpose, it meant lunchtimes eating cheese sandwiches in this abundant park, going back to a rehearsal room, working, flinging yourself into bars on a Friday night, sharing a lipstick, a bag of chips, a bed.
Around me now, on this late September afternoon, people sat quietly on the park benches, either alone or diligently distanced. I stood up, walked over the humpback bridge towards the cordoned-off bandstand – and there she was, sitting looking at the banks of flowers, my lingerie-lingering companion. I recognised her jacket, her cruel shoes, one of which she’d slipped off.
Without her mask her face looked softer, sadder. I wondered what she was thinking, my weary doppelgänger, what piece of the jigsaw of the past she was trying to fit into the jumble of this preternaturally quiet autumn day.