Every time I see a proud West African (perhaps at the airport, or the train station: always on the move, it seems) wearing giant colourful, geometric slabs of colour, either draped over broad shoulders or piled on high on a head atop a straight back, I am reminded that our expression through colour, through garments, is a reflection not just of mood projecting the present but also of a reaching out to the past and sometimes semi-forgotten events.
Yesterday was the fifth anniversary of Frank’s untimely accident and subsequent funeral, and the morning had not started well. I hate complaining. No, actually: I hate having something to complain about. After all, the discomfort associated with a blister is a consequence of an ill-fitting shoe or hole in the sock. Nevertheless the unleashing of venom that accompanied the usual complaining session on that Monday morning in the office caused me some internal shock, and I needed a diversion.
Which was how I came to be leafing quietly through my wardrobe that evening, looking for a particular piece of fabric, a particular memory, that I could wrap myself in the next day.
We had all agreed (we being Frank’s friends and family) that for the funeral we would make the effort of going the traditional route and choosing a colourful, special shirt that we would all wear to show solidarity in our grief at his all too early passing. It wasn’t a complicated affair, dark blue and grey with orange trim, nothing too daring to risk seeming happy, yet distinctive enough to separate it from the other items in the cupboard. It was a little gloomy, austere, but sat well next to the bright yellows and greens and reds from last year’s weddings and births and other miscellaneous celebrations, seeming somehow appropriate for the prevailing mood. I and a few friends had gone to canvas ideas at the various small tailor shops while the family had been busy with the larger arrangements, and when we returned to see Frank’s parents with our preferred option we were met with warm, if somewhat tired, approval. The choosing, the wearing, and the careful storage of this garment created for us all a bond, a specific link to a memory, a time, and a place that was liable at any time to trigger a chain of thought and was present both in the physical and temporal worlds.
Fortunately for me, the circle of friends centred on our common friend Frank does not overlap with any of my acquaintances at work, and I therefore managed to enjoy most of the day with my little secret: I knew what I was wearing and why, it was with me the whole day, Frank was with me the whole day, an invisible presence with depth that none of my colleagues could gauge. It wasn’t until my walk home, as I passed our local pub, that I started to see the first knowing smiles from various open windows, the waves and immediate transformation in the eyes as the colours and images seeping out of the cloth struck a chord. A few locals stopped, smiled, shook me by the hand and asked me how long it had been: I could see from their faces that there would be more wardrobe-rummaging in the coming days and I would be sure to see our shirt more often in the coming week, worn to remember in much the same was as I had sometimes gone back to my room on other days to find the embodiment of memories when I had seen my friends with ties or belts or bags that reminded me of various high or lowpoints of our common past.
And so it is with mnemonics, memes, tricks, patterns, and puzzles to keep our memories, fixed timepoints in the flow, alive. Apart from my wardrobe, I have rings, amulets, pictures, even words and phrases, that can be touched, stroked, chanted almost like mantras, to invoke the spirits and remind me of friends, children, my wife, parents, and grandparents. And the name: the moniker I proudly carry, which I respond to instinctively when it reaches my ears, which has been passed down over the years and connects me, quite directly, to my past.