The suit is sensible. Safe even. An utterly plain two-piece in charcoal grey with narrow lapels and nipped mid-section. Resolutely neat, discreetly nothing, it takes no chances. Hardly worth passing comment on. Yet the suit perennially provokes loose talk. Even from those who have borne witness to it time and again, as the occasion demands.
Like now. I hover inside the entrance, nodding, pointing, directing Tom, Dick and Harry to their assigned seats, and, as usual, someone shuffling by stops, stands back and exclaims, "John! You're wearing a suit! A suit!"
I know. You know. You've said so before. You'll say so again.
Anyway, I agree. Yes, I am wearing a suit. The suit. I can hardly claim otherwise.
And they continue, on cue, "He would be so honoured/delighted/thrilled that he got you into a suit at last." And though I'm tempted to reply, "Yes, he did once say he was actually dying to see me in a suit", what I do is agree again. I agree that he would be honoured/delighted/thrilled. It's something to say, understand, something to say. Necessary prattle.
Like guessing the designer. That can murder five minutes, if drawn, or drawled, out. "Westwood?" Hardly. Far too low-key. "Gaultier?" Come, come. "Armani?" No. "Paul Smith?" Warmer. But time is passing. Tick, tick, tick. One more chance. "Jasper Conran. Right?"
Right. Four years old, bought in a sale 24 hours before Sean was to be praised in prose, verse and song, brought back for a final bow before he became a memory, and then an impression, and then a lie we told ourselves, a phantom wisp of what he once was and what he meant to us. Our loves: they leave us and they leave us and they leave us. The day was unseasonably hot and sticky - not suit weather - and I was just wandering around Covent Garden, looking but not looking, and there it was in the window, marked down to pounds 600, and I went in, tried it on, posed before the full-length mirror, looking but not looking, and found myself writing the cheque. An impulse buy. Except I couldn't name the impulse.
The assistant folded it carefully into a carrier bag, threw in the hanger for free and assured me that I had chosen well. It was the sort of material that I would "get wear out of". The suit would endure, its lack of pretension a hedge against fate and changing fashion. And I expressed surprise that I'd done what I'd done, because, as I told the friendly assistant, I loathed suits. Hated them. Felt constrained, trapped, displaced when forced to wear one. Suits made me squirm, fidget and sweat rivulets of sweat down my back. And he said, no, the suit looked good (not me - the suit looked good) and asked if it was for a special event, and I replied that special wasn't quite the word.
I could have worn what I liked, what I invariably wore. Black 501s, matching jacket, T-shirt, sports socks, old shoes polished three minutes before dashing out the door. Casual clothes that Sean would have recognised me in.
I wouldn't have been out of place. Nearly everyone would be adorned with similar pseudo-tribal garb, and heavier; leather bikers, faded denim, skinny vests and heavy boots, as if off to bar, club or hot session immediately afterward. As many probably would be, to assure themselves that life went on, trivial, profound, unstoppable, and that what they were attending was yet another gathering of the clan, nothing out of the ordinary.
Which, by then, it almost was. It certainly wasn't exceptional. No need to dress to impress. Or depress. Or to ask if it would be cheesy to cruise the aisles, blurt cheap gags when a speaker lost the plot or an anecdote imploded or the musical selection caused automatic cringe: "Ooh, Shirley Bassey singing `I Am What I Am' - that's a treat."
But I wore the suit. Keep wearing the suit. Today with a white cotton shirt, snake-thin black tie and blank expression. Neat, officious, controlled. Noncommittal. Cold under the collar.
Or perhaps the suit wears me. People don't actually talk to me; they address the suit, coo about the cost, the material, the kind cut. A conversation two-piece with the relief of disguise. The suit not only seems, the suit is seemly. It shows proper respect, or pretends to it. The suit does what I can't. The suit supplies - fakes - what is beyond me, or behind me, or beneath me. The suit is a parody of feelings past, a prop, a performance, even a private joke. The suit manufactures mourning. Familiarity and fatigue have bred this gesture of contempt, though contempt for what or who it's hard to say.
For myself, maybe. The suit is a punishment to wear, but punishment is at least a sensation. Something other than indifference and empty ritual. Our loves: they leave us and they leave us and they leave us, and so what? How many times before what we're meant to feel isn't even a reflex action, simply not important, mere words, empty oratory, unnecessary prattle, cliche?
Or maybe the contempt is for those who take the suit for what it is. Looking but not looking, they see what they want to see. And they want to see the suit. The unvarying greyness of loss, the off-the-peg wardrobe of grief. So next time I'll just send the suit. Its presence is required, not mine. Which suits me just fine. Tight fit though it is, there's no longer anyone really in it anyhown