In June 2013, I was a finalist for the annual Vogue Talent Contest hosted by British Vogue. I didn't win, but this piece was part of my entry. It was written in response to one of the prompts to write 800 words on "something suitable for the pages of Vogue".
As a finalist, I received an invitation letter to a lunch meeting with the judges at Vogue House, and without hesitation, I booked a flight to London using all my savings and attended the event with nine other finalists. (Rosalind Jana, the winner of Vogue Talent Contest 2011, does a great job of detailing her experience.) It was a surreal and utterly thrilling experience and I do not regret any part of it.
THE PERIOD OF COLOUR
Back when my mother still worked at the Missoni boutique, I was often scrawny ankles and clumsy limbs shambling about the thick, padded carpet. Carefully, I would hold the mélange knits up against the light to trace the topography of the coloured yarns, and then measure it against my boxy pubescent figure in front of the mirror.
That was when I began my relationship with colour, when I wore blue legs after school and went to the boutique often. My mother still had a pair of good kidneys and wasn’t quite so grey and green yet, and for a period of time, colour was the thread through which our relationship was spun. We’d loved colour together.
As a teenager, colour was hypnotically catchy. My eyes could flit gloriously from a forest green to a coral orange to an eggplant, lightly skimming across the surface of everything without having to settle for anything.
On her days off from work, my mother and I headed to the stores and peeled off colourful things from the racks and slid into them inside dressing rooms. “Ages you too much,” she’d say about a dark green shift as she pushed into my arms a trapeze dress with purple, yellow and black stripes. We’d hardly buy anything even on days like that, but she’d bought that dress for me.
When I wore it, passing eyes would settle on the bright colours overwhelming my emaciated body. I’d watch these eyes quickly form an impression about me - widening, fixating, then they darted to my soft, plain face and cast away. For as long as they held their eyes to my dress instead of my face, I could be a bolder, freer version of myself, a skin away from school pinafores and racing waistlines with other girls. With my mother’s help, I used cover to obscure dull cover. This became the basis for my burgeoning self-identity.
In her remaining spare time, my mother learnt to fashion necklaces out of fabric swatches that she’d pilfered from the boutique’s inventory leftovers. She bought rolls of fabric from haberdasheries and sewed skirts. She baked and cooked and embroidered while we talked about boyfriends and make-up. An outpouring of creativity coloured most of her life at that time, and I loved stumbling upon the shape of my mother bent over the sewing machine, fingers and eyes intertwined in thread. I still have no idea what this period of colour meant to her exactly, but shortly after that, the metallic click of her sewing machine slowed down to the ticking of time. She’d traded her spent interests for harder currency and longer work shifts.
After my mother’s job switch, we hardly saw each other around the house anymore. Dust collected on her sewing machine. We stopped pursuing colours together.
An adolescence later, my mother still wasn't around much. By then I had grown up with books and the Internet and adopted wilder colours. Orange, camouflaging my shy, introverted nature in my teenage years, now loud and liberal and feminist. Purple, previously false freedom from school hierarchies, now the scarf that traversed continents with every chance I could get. Red, for putting on a bold front, now raw and spiteful from a brawl with my father when he kicked a stool against me. It didn't amount to much, but my mother stood by the side and said nothing. Did nothing.
These were the things that cemented the shape of her daughter, and she clucked her tongue disapprovingly when I wore a neon-orange asymmetrical tank top with a black sequin skirt. She thought I looked crass and garish. She blamed herself for my travelling habits, took it personally when I decided not to go to university.
She still tells me to eat my medicines when I fall ill, then she tells me about future retirement savings when I try to tell her about my writing ambitions. She tries to buy me colourful things again – silk scarves and dresses from her vacations, but I end up chucking them in the wardrobe. My mother no longer knows exactly what I want.
Try holding our relationship up against the light and its aged topography might reveal the shadowy contours of my secrets worn to dinner, and the thick, dark curves of two peaks swerving away from the other. Measure it against our bodies and the mountain contours will become the repeated outline of her red, festering kidney, or our fingerprints along an asymptote.
Now I catch my mother asleep on the couch looking tiny and old, a greying piece of thread fraying from her hair that I can easily wrap around my fingers to sew into something else - something less grey, perhaps.