I was sitting behind her on the tram. Her ears were old – oyster shells clinging to their pearls. Her hair was dyed – a reddish darkness on the nape of the neck – but coiffed and smoothly waved like the water of the lake we were passing. When the tram shuddered round the bends of the tracks, her head bobbed from side to side – doll-like – as if insecurely attached to the rest of her. She wore a tailored white dress, a gold watch, three rings on one china finger. There would be a scented handkerchief in her bag, a polished table at home, friends in small hats to meet in cafes for cake.
When she raised her arm to her hair, she touched me, too, for ever. There was a number on her arm. The doors of the tram were very loud – kept opening and closing. Outside, the city looked clean and tidy. A display of clocks glittered in a shop window. Four dark distinct digits, the marks of the camps. Then she stood up. It was her stop. A brief glimpse of a face in profile, then she got off and crossed the road.
The note in the old diary said: Zurich, 1971.
A park bench in London, in another century. The woman sitting there smiles at me as if she knows me. Her teeth are jagged, discoloured and set in a pointed, jutting chin. Her hair is a wild tangle, part orange, part grey. She is wearing two coats, maybe three. Her skirt is long and a riot of flowers, her socks striped in iridescent pink sandals. Return the look for a moment. There’s a brightness behind her eyes – an invitation? She could have wisdom to whisper, but she also smells of decay and self-neglect. So I walk on by and keep walking, wanting to run – as if in flight from some crone in a fairy tale, about to stretch out a clawed hand….
The third woman lives a world apart, in New York, now. She is the 80-something star of a documentary film named after her: Iris. An image seen only on the screen. A dedicated shopper, Iris fills apartments and lofts with clothes and exotic items picked up on her travels as an interior designer.
A true jolie-laide in enormous glasses, Iris doesn’t ‘do pretty’. She does believe in the ‘transformative’ power of jewellery and wears stacks of the stuff. Several necklaces and pendants are worn together, one on top of the other, to strange effect. ‘Sculptural’, the fashion editors call it; Chanel would turn in her grave. Minnie Mouse embroidered on a denim jacket, her slender form moves in a heavy jangle of beads and bangles through room after room. This Iris is a sound as well as a style.
A cabbie calls out to her in the street. How you doin’, Iris? The reply is dry. Still vertical!
The film tells us little about her background. She says she’s ‘a child of the Depression’; her husband is a 100 and ‘doesn’t say much’ these days. The couture collections will go to museums and galleries; much will be sold. She knows she can’t take it with her.
Three thin women on the same page. An artificial intimacy. Separate tales of elegance altered, kept, lost. If in turn their eyes – our eyes – could meet, a recognition might be read there – that sometimes there’s a dignity, a defiance even, in just getting dressed for the day. That clothes can be a kind of company and shine and defend against the night.