Red Silk Roses

This is another one of my crazed ramblings from the MA course. We had to bring in an object which described us, then develop a piece of Life Writing around it…..this is what wrote itself for me……;

Red Silk Roses
Once a month, we used to go. I was bundled into my best scratchy woolly coat with the matching hat, and we set off to board the number 30 bus. My mother, in her ‘going-out-to-lunch’ clothes announcing to the bus conductor –
“One and a half to Harley Street please”.
He would then reel the purple-printed tickets from his little machine. They remained in my hot little hand for the rest of the journey.

We wound up through the Angel on the top deck of our red chariot, on to the West End, finally walking down the solemn paved street, up the stone steps, to the shiny black door. Even my mother had trouble ringing Professor Ridley’s doorbell. He was like a grandfather from a Dickens novel, all white moustache, fluffy hair and heavy jollity. But that didn’t make it hurt any less.

Every time he would unwind the bandages, then force my unwilling eye to do things. Then more eye drops. Left, right, concentrate, concentrate. My head was spinning with the effort, perching on the high stool with my Clarks-shod toes hanging in mid-air. More drops, more bandages, more pain. It was, however, worth it. The next part of the adventure would sustain me for weeks. We carried on along and across Wigmore Street. The stone facades were imposing, but I always disliked walking over the glass paving-stones which covered the former cellar-wells, terrified I would fall down.

Mikla Modes. Even the name has a faded 1950s feel to it. The shopfront was a monument to Art Deco, the name boldly swept in black across the white marble. My mother pushed the diagonal brass rail and we entered. Past the gorgeously draped mannequins, and the red gilded chairs. Everything was red, black, and white at Miki’s.
“Darlings” Mikla came running over. Even though she had been my mother’s boss for many years, she was even smaller than my mother, though as fair as my mother was dark. Tiny, bird-like, white-blonde hair with glittering blue eyes. Mikla hugged and kissed my mother and I enthusiastically.
“Patrizia! Let me look at you! Ach, you are too thin, where is my little Patrizia so pretty, so round? And my little leibchen, my little Claire? Come and let Miki see you”.
There was some head-shaking between the grown-ups at this point, over my head, with mutterings of doctors, hospitals and bandages. There was an unspoken rule that at this point I was allowed to play with Miki’s desk. The desk was made of scarlet Chinese lacquer, and at the time seemed as big as a house. When I was smaller I used to crawl under it, but now I loved to explore the many secret drawers nestled in-between the golden dragons and geishas on the surface. I needed to be patient while the bitter coffee was drunk with the almond biscuits and more grown-up whispering took place.

After what always seemed like an eternity, Mikla would seek me out in my hideaway.
“Do you vant to come downstairs and see ze girls?”
I could not move fast enough at this point, over the red carpet and behind the red velvet curtains, down the winding staircase to the cellar atelier, with its faint lights from the glass paving-stones in the ceiling.

The atelier was the nearest I came to fairyland, and in memory it still mingles strangely with Santa’s grotto in Selfridges. The girls, Hookie and Myffy couldn’t run to greet us. The tiniest, frailest, most bowed women that I have ever known; they must have been 80 even then. This is where the fun began. Shot silks, taffetas, organzas, silk crepes-de-chine, sumptuous velvets were lined around the walls of the cellar, each more gorgeous than the last. Next to these, sequinned fabrics, beaded satins, appliquéd diaphanous jewels. This is where ‘the girls’ really became girls. They would wind me with silks; crown me with velvets and flowing jewel-encrusted veils.

They would find me silk velvet flowers for my hair, ersatz jewels to adorn me, handbags in which to carry my dreams. I would forget briefly that I was the ugly duckling. In my glorious robes it no longer mattered what anyone thought. I would catch snatches of their laughing conversations over my head.
“Business? Ach, no-one has any longer style, they all dress from the British Home Stores”
“The duchesses, same, no eleganz, they are in the ready-mades, and the debutantes with the big bottoms in the jeans”

But for today, I was their Duchess. No customers ever spoiled our fun. But eventually, my mother would, by reminding me it was time to go and catch the bus home. From Myffy and Hookie I would receive prettily-wrapped bittersweet European chocolate.
But from Miki, it was always a part of herself. Delicate embroidered little purses, with mysterious foreign writing, impractical silk scarves “Schiaperelli pink, darling, not cerise…”
But my favourite of all were the flowers. Silk velvet or satin, soft, beautiful, impossible. I would cradle them in my hands like an amulet against encroaching reality on the darkening bus home. They represented the ‘leibchen’ of my dreams, not the bandaged stick-insect dismally reflected in the window of the rattling bus.

Over twenty years went by before I passed Miki’s again, after her death. Gone are the marble pillars, a fast food restaurant encased in shiny bright wipe-clean plastic stands in its place. I remembered the little tears that ‘the girls’ used to shed when they stood at the door to say goodbye. After all this time I asked my mother why this all happened.

The clues began to piece together.
“You do know that none of the girls were married”
I did. Miss Williams, Miss Hook and Miss Karzei. Though Miss Karzei had changed her name to Sloane. The stories gradually began to unravel.

Miss Hook had not become bent through the close work she did at the shop, as I had presumed. She was born that way, found on a doorstep, eked out a living as a milliner, eventually making her way to London for the botched back-street abortion that nearly killed her. Finally she found her way to Miki’s. She never left London again, after that.

Miss Williams had once shown me a faded photograph of her ‘beau’. What she hadn’t told me was that he had died in one war. Her parents had died in the other. Myfanwy took every penny she had and boarded a train to London. Myffy’s only family were Hookie and Miki. She never married.

“Do you remember, even when it was hot, how Miki always wore long sleeves?” I began to remember, and I remembered too the arm that she would pull away. Now I began to understand the significance of the bluish numbers I had once seen on her arm, before it was pulled back.

My mother continued:
“Miki came from a little village in White Russia. She had a large family until the Germans came and took them from one concentration camp to the other, then another, getting less numerous as time went on. First the parents, somewhere in Russia, then her sister Shprintza, somewhere in Poland, then her sister Tzipora taken off to Belsen….”
“What happened next?”
“Mikla and Shoshana were taken to Auschwitz. Somehow they managed to survive until the camp was liberated”

They came to England through the kindness of strangers; a Jewish relief organisation brought them both to London. I remember Shoshana very vaguely; she died when I was very small. But by then she was called Suzanna. Forgetting was an essential part of survival. I never knew what killed Suzanna.

“Sadness killed Suzanna, it killed them all in the end”. Shoshana and Mikla Karzei might have survived, but not completely. The pretty blondes came to the attention of a certain Dr Mengele, who wished to avoid the ‘miscegenation’ of Nazi troops with pretty Jewesses. So anyone like Mikla and Shoshana who could ‘pass for Christian’, he made sure they could never have children. Most of them died.
It killed Shoshana sooner, because she married, I think. She could never face the truth, and childlessness eventually drove her mad.

Now I began to wonder. What kept these women alive? They kept each other alive. They were a ‘family’ of sorts, of flotsam and jetsam, of found pieces. They were a symphony of damaged goods, of almosts and maybes. They survived through the vicarious enjoyment of others. The beauty of the things they made and the dresses they sold, the pleasure gained by others as they lived their lives wearing them, and brought just a little back to ‘the girls’.

Then I started to question how my mother fitted into all of this. How did her story thread between the complex lines of the ‘misses’? When my mother started to work there, in effect she was almost an orphan; her parents had emigrated, leaving her here. So another ‘almost’ there, the little sister, the little niece. I finally managed to get the other part of the story from my mother. I hadn’t known that before I was born, she had spent nine years childless, and had been told that she would remain so.

I was beginning to see the pattern. In the pattern was revealed my part in the story. I was the ersatz granddaughter to all ‘the girls’, I was the only continuation of the line. I now saw why everything was fairylike in that world. I was the dream-child in their heads, whatever my failings in reality. I now knew why they came to our house at Christmas, and why they cried when I went home.

They all died within three weeks of each other, when the shop finally closed, when elegance went out of fashion. Their story was at an end.

I looked in the looking-glass at the red velvet roses in my hair. The story was not over. I spin a crown into my hair, of hopes, dreams and fears, of my story interwoven with other, secret, histories. I wanted to wear them for all of these women, and for all of their untold, fractured lives. For the love of beauty that kept them sane, and their love for others that kept them alive.

Families are sometimes made, not born, and I like to think that a little of the blood of my extraordinary ersatz grandmothers runs in my veins. As Mikla once said to me ‘There are only three elegant colours in the world, liebchen, red, black, and white”.

Diese roten silk Rosen sind für Sie meine Omas.

These red silk roses are for you, my grandmothers.


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