For years after I retired I couldn’t change out of the freshly pressed suit that I always relied on to get me through the day, looking and feeling the best I could be. The only things that changed were the fit and the age of my hands when I looked down on them. Theresa had died a few years after I left the company and as such that left no-one but our sons Samuel and Beckett to tell me if my trousers were too long over the tops of my shoes. I was always indecisive about things and other people’s opinions mattered to me more than they should. Back when I was younger it was okay if you could feel the drag of the cotton of a tailor-made trouser leg way longer than it ever should have been behind you as you walked those long, glass framed, shimmering hallways looking over all of that success. I missed looking over it.
Back then I loved and lost a lot. I’m not talking business. I’m barely talking now. But something back then stayed with me while everything else was thrown away. All those suits, I don’t know where they went. I think my wife threw them out. I was fitted in Boss and Lauren and Miyake and I’d walk out fresh as a daisy, never caring what happened after the life of the world and the style changed. I never noticed until I realised that one of them went missing that had a very important photograph in the inside right pocket that I never dared to put in my wallet in case my wife found it. Ironic given that it was her who probably threw all those suits out in the first place. It left a hollow feeling knowing that I could only try to remember the picture of a girl sat in the main park just outside the city, a starling perched next to her on the bench, summer behind her. That feeling is one long-lost but ever-present and it all came back to me twenty-four years later when the city mourned her.
I followed my morning ritual of coffee, feeding the dog, orange juice on the balcony with the orange and candy of the morning sky in front of me, just my white shirt, loose brown tie and suit trousers keeping me warm, the sound of morning TV in the background. Horns, hollers, the same distant newsreader of the past twenty-four years and then her name leaping out above it all. I left the coffee and the juice on the still frosted wooden table and turned to watch the TV as she was announced on the news before the pause in the newsreaders words and the gulp in his throat. Me, I couldn’t think anything beyond the profound silence and how all those years ago me and her couldn’t get out of all those places we found while we discovered the city, because we couldn’t find each other in them and how she never truly left my mind.
I couldn’t get the feeling right and that’s all I could think. The feeling wasn’t right and it was supposed to be because we’d tried so hard and travelled down so many roads and streets and been inside so many apartments that we’d rented and nearly owned in our minds for what seemed like lifetimes and coffee houses and booze houses and walked through too many factory doors to fuck and to find what we were looking for. But sometimes you can visit all the places in the world that you know about but the one that you don’t and still not find what you’re looking for.
Marianne had been in my life for a long time before I realised just how deeply. She came through school and found herself here in the city, twenty-two, alone, walking down the backstreet boutiques and up and coming design agencies all located around the lower district, looking so hard for a job that didn’t seem to exist until she made it, just like we were all trying to make it, so far from home. She had one of those faces that was able to bring magic like that and help you to run with it.
It all started to change around the time my grandmother died. She reminded me of my grandmother, at least in her spirit and the way she held herself and the way in which sometimes she couldn’t see anything but me in much the same way that my grandmother saw my grandfather. Their relationship was the one, the one that we all strive to have too hard, the one that could come from nowhere and haunt you for the rest of your life and you’re only lucky if you manage to catch it in a single grasp because, simply put, that’s all you have. A single grasp.
Eventually you learn that you can’t run with the kind of magic that a woman gives freely and without incentive, you can only walk sideways through it and not look directly at it. Thankfully that’s why her magic wasn’t in her eyes but in everything else around her. It meant that she could project it, push it to places maybe even she hadn’t imagined. She built a world around her in which she changed fashion; she thought of flares when flares became the most popular jeans in the streets, out in the suburbs and over at the festivals, where she met Mick Jagger and sent me photos of her and him smoking backstage at this new one called Woodstock. She knew it was going to mean everything long before it did, that it was the people on the streets that decided the direction the world turned, the sound that the musicians played and the way a dress flowed long before everyone else stopped believing they were the ones that made it happen. But like all those that innovated from somewhere other than themselves there was damage and Marianne, she fell hard to depression. Before she knew it, she was in the spire of the church that she’d created and the city was hers, even while the scaffolding was being dismantled in the world that she created.
You can’t rush a love like that, the kind of love she had for what she wanted and every once in a while a piece, an important piece would fall out from the bottom. That’s when the phone that I left underneath my windowsill would ring and I’d pick her up. At the time it was all I could afford, the business was new and growing so slowly, Theresa got a secretary job on the side to try to help pay the rent. The chord was too short for it to stretch all the way to see outside. Though me and Marianne talked every night she became more a voice and the photograph that I took of her that I could keep in my wallet but never had the heart to put it in there.
A third generation English girl, she was proud of her German heritage which came from long before it wasn’t okay to be German. On the phone, she’d tell me that there were no horror stories about to come out of her closest and I mostly believed her. Damn that old-school German persuasion, drawing me in when I should have seen sense. I didn’t care because she was the middle-child of a good family that I could visit on the southern side of the city where I’d never be seen by anybody else that knew me when Theresa was working late. To many would say I was taking too much and giving too little back but it was enough. I had more than enough. My mother eventually came to live with us and she was caring but pretty overbearing at best and my kinda alcoholic aunt who lived with us for a year or two was close enough to listen and care but distant all the same. She also had a fine liquor cabinet that she would share when she was feeling generous or when she was on a low. Then, eventually, there was sorta Marianne. I needed Marianne.
I didn’t believe in a lot before her. I’d given up on God when I left my parent’s house and would have given up on him a lot longer ago if I’d have had the choice. Dad stood there in his Sunday best, every Sunday morning and said it was ‘either God or get the fuck out’. I got my father’s determination and his dress sense and thankfully little else, from my mother her spirit, her bite and the inability to say no to beautiful things. When I take a minute to look back every once in a while I believe I’d had a pretty uneven upbringing until Marianne came along and made me see otherwise. It was going to take someone of considerable strength to be able to hold Marianne up in the end and as it turned out the cracks connected to her earthquakes and made a hell of a mess of us both. But while it was good it was the best of conflicts that you could wish for in the war of your life. Only real war of genuine magnitude was going to make us realise it. My mother always used to say that love and war were the best of friends until both of you declared one on the other, then it was free to go wherever it wanted to go and you couldn’t stop it.
The first time I met Marianne we were walking down a side-street of the main road that flows through Manchester. The only two people walking down there, I was distracted and struggling to light a cigarette while she walked up the other way and understandably guarded her bag. That was the first time that my Marianne put her guard up to me and it was the first time that I didn’t see it. It was also the first time of many that we walked into each other and realised that there was something beautifully toxic under our skins that connected after just a couple of sentences shared. The first was an apology of sorts, the second was a question about the bag I’d knocked to the floor. It looked old, genuinely old, unlike the fashion at the time of having forcibly distressed leather on accessories and upper layers. It was such that it looked like it was falling apart.
“It was my grandmothers,”, she said, looking towards the end of the street like she was going to continue heading on her way as soon as she could. “She fought for this and everything it had inside it.”
I stopped moving and looked at her when she said that with such sincerity that you couldn’t have done much else but to stop. Really, it was like it was all that mattered to her and now to me too. As I say, I’d come to learn how proud she was of that heritage as we spent the summer enjoying the bars and small restaurants that littered the area where we had first walked into each other so abruptly. I’d come to learn that she liked photographs of almost anything so long as she could fit it in her purse or her pocket and that she rarely had the same coffee with the same people and only had some Kenyan concoction around me. She didn’t like the thought of having pets. I came to realise that it was all a matter of experiences and association. Marianne would always buy small photographs from the same market seller for twenty-pence each and drink Kenyan coffee to be reminded and taken back to that summer. I didn’t make the link about everything she told me until after the feeling was no longer right.
The photograph she chose for that summer was that of a pair of starlings moving around their nest preparing it for the winter ahead of them. They had twigs and brambles in their mouths as if they were going to exchange them in order to build their home but their beady little eyes didn’t seem to connect in the right way.
“It looks terribly staged,” I’d tell her. “I’m calling taxidermy on this one,” I said flipping it back to her across her parent’s kitchen table.
She didn’t care because it was hers, dead or alive.
Still I continued to wonder what it all meant. Even while it worked and the lights were still on in the house, when it all remained stable but rocky I wondered how long it would last. I suppose you could say that through the years that had gone by and the women that had come and gone and the influences that I had grown up with I was a little bit tainted by it all and when Marianne would declare love or war on me.
Our businesses were growing and heading in similar directions the closer we got. Theresa had long since accepted that I wasn’t going to be around for long stretches throughout the week, long stretches spent in meeting rooms discussing shipping costs and material quantities that I left to Samuel while I told them all that I was needed on more important business, like there could be any.
Marianne turned up at the hotel spuriously at best. She was so in demand from the world that even she forgot about me from time to time and I spent many an hour sat staring at the clock in the entranceway to the Hilton. I always deemed waiting in the room for her too tacky, like there was something wrong with what we were doing. I always watched the concierge’s face, his smile curve as I requested a single room for a single afternoon. He didn’t know who I was but he knew her. They all knew her. How it kept from being the controversy of the city I’ll never know. When I got tired of the clock turning I’d stare down at the marble floor and wait like I was waiting for death. Then every once in a while a soft hand would graze my shoulder and roll up to my ever ageing jawline and before I knew it, we were making love in the suite and all the rough politics of business and the day and the violent portrayal of it all in my head would be soothed. Just for that one or two hours of beautiful limbo between love and war.
I saw Marianne less and less as time rolled on and Dolce and Gabbana started to take her spots and she fought vigorously to stay on top, while my business flourished and took on the direction of the supplier. We were the middle-man bringing in the finest materials from the east to meet the supply of her empire. I saw her two or three times a week in the board room and we exchange knowing glances of years of a fractured relationship where we knew each other more than anyone else did in the room, while we could only talk business. I could always tell when it was too much for her because she wouldn’t look at me because ‘sorta Marianne’ believed that I could see something that wasn’t necessarily there, at least on the outside. When you work in an industry that was increasingly becoming about the faces and not the clothes and worse still not was beneath either of them, you make your face its best and Marianne couldn’t do that with me.
In July of 1986, we were due our usual monthly status meeting, where we would iron our any creases that had appeared in stock, shipping time…all that stuff that mattered more than it should. At a quarter past ten Marianne still hadn’t turned up and her assistants went to look for her. Samuel sat with me and scoffed at her tardiness and I just stared up at the clock and tried not to listen. When her assistants returned they told me that she was in her office and was refusing to come out. I stood and told them that I would talk to her, much to their surprise. I feigned that I didn’t know where her office was and I went up the three flights of stairs to the upper flight of the building that she had built around her and gentle knocked on the door. When she realised it was me she let me inside. She was playing an old Dylan song that she’d brought back on an unmarked 45 from Woodstock all those years before and we sat in silence and I came to realise that after all that time I didn’t know what was right to say to her. I couldn’t get the feeling right and that’s all I could think. It was finally my chance to see her as vulnerable as she needed to be and I couldn’t come down to her. She sat there and told me about how her industry was done and how she’d thought about ending it all. ‘The business?’ I questioned.
‘Yes…the fucking business…it’s always business, isn’t it?’ she snarled at me. I’ll never forget the look on that face. She’d never had work on it, she never needed to and I remember thinking, ‘My God, if there was anything left in me for this right now, how I’d take you back to Woodstock and take that photograph for myself so I could understand what really made you happy, sorta Marianne.’ But I couldn’t and we just sat and looked out of the window over the city that was hers. There was no clock in that room and no time.
Slowly we both turned up less and less at those meetings and turned the business over to those around us. Samuel took over and drove the business to new heights and I couldn’t have been prouder. The little shit even bought me a Ferrari to try to make me feeling better about retiring. I acted like it had and drove it all the way to the sea, just out of the city, but well within the vision of the tallest buildings of which Marianne’s was always one.
Long after the funeral procession had left the city streets, the flowers had been swept up by the early morning road sweepers, I left my apartment at 6.30am, wearing the best suit I had, making sure it wasn’t the Dolce and Gabbana that Samuel had gifted me a decade before and got in my car and drove to the cemetery where she was resident in the main tomb before she would be buried a few days later with less ceremony. I stepped carefully through the some hundred bouquets strewn twenty feet from the walkway to the crypt doorway, walking alongside the cemetery caretaker, a surprisingly easy bribe. He let me in the main door and I sat right next to the coffin and sat and thought about how that feeling had never been right. That and the profound silence that was genuinely filling that moment in the crypt, the same silence that I always felt around her. I didn’t say anything, I just remembered and smiled and straightened my tie from time to time.
When the time felt right I stood and looked over her casket one more time, when the light caught the sharp edge and allowed me to see the two starlings carved into the very centre of that magnificent piece of wood.
Banner photograph: By Tumi-1983 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons (Clothes in Sarajevo shop)
12 thoughts on “The Starling Fashion by Todd Levin”
a blast from the past – Nothing like a bit of nostalgia to start the day – another excellent submission.
As ever, thank you Diane.
I’m envious of the way that you handle long sentences in this thoughtful piece. The flow feels effortless.
Thank you Vic. I’m always a little worried when I sit down to write, then I just do it and it kind of just happens. I wonder if I talk this way sometimes, ha.
Thank you my friend.
I felt the pain. Best wishes, June
Hi June. Thanks for your comment. As much as that’s one of the things I was hoping to achieve with this story, I hope it wasn’t too great of a pain.
Beautifully written as always, Todd. What really engages me is the thought put behind sentences. I want to be able to take out a sentence, close my eyes and just chew on that one sentence. That is pleasure. I can certainly do that with your pieces, Todd. Great job.
ATVB my friend
Haha, I might put that in the reviews on my next book. ‘The thought Todd puts into his sentences makes me want to take them out and chew on them. That is pleasure.’
As always, thank you.
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An excellent piece of writing. Not a period or a cast of characters with which I have much prior knowledge to draw upon but you brought it to life for me. Cheers, Nik
Me either Nik, I was born in 1984. But that shows you that if we try hard enough we can write anything we want to.
Hi Todd, you have a wonderful way of crafting sentences. I enjoyed this story and I think you pitched this perfectly. There were so many recognisable aspects of a free-spirit and maybe a touch of sadness on opportunities, not so much missed, but accepted.
All the very best my friend.
That’s one of the things I was hoping to achieve with this Hugh. Some stories can often come across as too sad or melancholy, and while that has it’s place this one needs a little acceptance.