Manu was first spotted in the display window of the old sewing-machine museum touching holes of light on a babushka costume. He seemed to have appeared from nowhere, a pied piper staging gowns as soft instruments, framed by gauzy street lights. His fingers were curled into swathes of the costume’s bulbous ruby-red taffeta skirt on a mannequin, surrounded by elaborately designed sewing machines, poised like an incongruous metal army. A spool of gold thread uncurled behind him, drinking from the night. A wind chime above the blue front door argued with the soft falling of snow. The letterbox slot had a black glove with silver studs slipped into the slash, like a misguided disruption. Manu gripped a large curved needle between his lips, wiped his brow with a spotted handkerchief. The ash in his pockets felt weightless. He inserted the needle into the skirt’s hem, unpicking a shrunken, smoggy skyline. He gathered two more mannequins standing to the side, naked, arms stretched towards the skylight in a celestial pose. Their eyes stared ahead blankly, as though fixed on a mirage in the distance that could be broken apart, then fed into their artificial skin, into cloth. He placed them in the display window, naked calling cards waiting to be dressed. The spool of thread cut diagonally across rows of sewing machines moored on metal stands, rectangular golden plaques identifying each one. There was an antique Singer 66-1 Red Eye Treadle from the 1920s, a Russian Handcrank portable number from the fifties, a 1940s Montgomery Ward Streamliner US model, a compact 1930s Jones model from Bucharest with a silver flower pattern crawling up the sides of its sleek black frame. Manu gathered the thread slowly, a ritual he performed between each creation. A splintered pain exploded in his chest. In his mind’s eye, the ash from his pockets assembled into feminine silhouettes. He needed to make more dresses, more corsets, more fitted suits, more gowns. He needed to find more ways to make women feel beautiful through his creations. The designs rose from dark, undulating slipstreams as if in resurrection. They were watery constructions, insistent, whispering what materials they needed, leaning against his brown irises until they leaked from his eyes onto the page while his fingers sketched feverishly. He walked to the atelier at the back, a hub flourishing under the gaze of light. There was a long wooden worktable, more sewing-machines dotted around it. A coiled measuring tape sat in the middle as if ready to entrap a rhinestone-covered, meteorite-shaped white gown that would crash through. Materials spilled from the edges towards the centre: rolls of bright silk, piles of linen, open boxes of lace, streams of velvet. There were jars of accessories, decorations winking in the glass: zips, studs, feathers, small jewelled delights waiting to adorn the pleat of a skirt, the breast of a jacket, dimpled soft satin. A black leather suitcase leaning against one wall spilled tiny grains of invisible sand from its gut. The air’s pressure contorted a candy-hued ballerina-style dress carelessly flung over a guillotine.
It was on this night, while leafleting, Noma was drawn to the seductive glow from the museum, orbs of light mutating in the front entrance’s bubble of glass, a coloured small window in a door, a geometric code for the eye. A head in the window of that door on a winter’s night could appear trapped there, bobbing in the glass curiously. Noma arrived at that moment through a triumvirate of migration from Swaziland to Paris to the UK. Picking fruit to sell on the scorching roads of South Africa, homeless in Paris before working in a toy factory, leafleting in London, which was repetitive, flexible, mundane but easy, bookended by daily returns to her tiny bedsit on the other side of Wandsworth, in a death trap with no fire exits just off the high street. Noma held a roll of leaflets in her right hand, a run of five hundred for a show about a woman trapped in a warehouse encountering a doppelgänger at each exit every time she attempted to leave. She tugged one strap of her rucksack further up her shoulder, walked towards the museum door. Flakes of snow christened her, like a black Venus, in the cold. Spotting the babushka dress in the display window, she pressed her face into the glass partition in the door, intrigued. The door opened. Manu smiled warmly, motioned her in with one hand, a ruffle of taffeta material in the other. It smelt like incense inside. The gentle ring of wind chimes multiplied in her eardrums; the low skyline from the babushka costume bent over the sewing machines; the pressure of air made her skin hum; her senses were heightened. She felt sucked into a vacuum. Air seeped inside her like helium in the lungs. Mannequins facing the outside had drops of dew in their mouths.
‘You have come for work,’ Manu announced. His elegantly handsome face was wise in the light. Not even awaiting a response, he turned, rushing to the atelier. Noma trailed after him; the roll of leaflets fell from her hands, becoming confetti in the view from the front door’s bubbled-glass partition.
She began working for him a week later, scouring shops for fine materials, measuring and cutting, learning to sew, hunting for unusual accessories. She visited milliners, procured fine hats the colour of quail eggs, the burnished gold of the Sahara, the hue of the Garonne at night. She watched his sketches come to life with a soft wonder in her throat, the outfits like architectural constructs waiting for bodies to invade them, her fingers spinning them slowly on a tailor’s mannequin under the kaleidoscopic glow from the skylight, the quiet language of sand stealthily spilling in a corner, the chug of the sewing-machines temporarily silenced. The pop-up atelier in the sewing-machine museum sprang up, like a small Utopia longing for the flurry of action. And the women came like drunken butterflies drawn to Eden, one by one, until the atelier became a hive of activity, leaking laughter and excitable voices. The women were seduced by Manu, his beauty, his sophistication, the unpredictability of his style, his erudite tales and the assured rumble of his voice. He told them he was born in the Gambia, Namibia, Zanzibar. He was inconsistent, flamboyant. Oh, but where was he from again? No matter. He offered them Synsepalum, wild African berries, as if the fruit grew from the blade of the guillotine, the hands of the old grandfather clock on one atelier wall, the mouths of the mannequins. The break of sweet, exotic fruit flooded the women’s tongues. They kept coming back for more; more Manu, more handfuls of Synsepalum, more Noma, flicking through his sketches, fingering the lines of all they could be, if only. Aspiration captured in drawings. All the while, kernels of pain formed inside Manu, gathering into a mass.
The orders increased. Mrs Jovan, head of the town council, had a nettle-green Boudicca gown made for her, which swished around her ankles romantically; Mrs Lonegran, owner of a chain of flower stores, cooed in pleasure at the final reveal of her metallic Joan of Arc-inspired ensemble on the atelier floor. Mrs Hunt, a wine buyer, blinked at her image in an intricately designed pale off-shoulder 1920s flapper number, with a crystallised beaded beret to match, gasping as if she hadn’t seen herself before, at least not in this way. Manu made women feel marvellous, valued, appreciated. He not only understood the female form, he celebrated it: every dip of the back, every arch of a neck, every individual flare of hips. He masked and he revealed, he obscured and he unearthed. He knew how to make the most ordinary of women feel like a goddess. This was his gift. Every woman had a quality of beauty of her own making lurking beneath the skin. Manu knew ways to make it bloom, how to tease it to the surface. And every night, Noma would return to her lonely bedsit bone tired, fall into bed, unceremoniously woken by the leak in her ceiling landing on her face, acting as an alarm for the next day’s activities.
Oh, but where was he from again? No matter. He offered them Synsepalum, wild African berries, as if the fruit grew from the blade of the guillotine, the hands of the old grandfather clock on one atelier wall, the mouths of the mannequins.
Five months passed. The women loved their new outfits. They danced in their hallways wearing them, spun in mirrors gathering mist the colour of Synsepalum. Their reflections were released, mimicking their poses in the poorer areas of town, the other side: a swish of silk skirt passing the window of a Turkish food hall that had shut down, a pantsuit limp against the keyhole of a gutted former Jamaican takeaway, a squeezed flamenco dress sleeve brushing the iron gates of an abandoned youth centre that had lost its funding. Slipstreams followed each reflection, like a watery shadow. By June, the shots of pain Manu experienced had intensified, spreading through his limbs. His hands in particular were in constant pain. He woke up in agony, the fingers appearing gnarled to him. He couldn’t keep up with the orders, with the monster he’d created. The rise of sand from the suitcase in the corner of the atelier had become too much. The mannequins were pregnant with mirages; stomachs protruded, splitting material. The glove in the post slot had swelled with blood. Designs from the periphery had begun to crash through the skylight in confused stupors, unsure of how their material versions would manifest. The chug of the sewing- machines in his ears was constant, till he found himself impersonating the sound sporadically in conversation. He’d run out of ash. And his wild African berries no longer grew in the area for him.
On the third occasion the women wore their outfits, they discovered Manu had lied to them. They could wear the designs only three times. The third time, they couldn’t get out of them. Seams tightened, buttons couldn’t be undone, petticoats became silken cages. The women rolled around in the damp earth of their gardens, climbed onto their husbands, partners, lovers, hollering to them to get the scissors, knives, shears, anything to cut them out. They spilled onto the streets. It was on this morning that Noma arrived outside the museum to find the crowd of women. Manu had disappeared, gone to the next place, the next set of women who needed to feel good, whose images of themselves he could manipulate, like startled adult changelings behind a lens. The atelier was empty, the sewing-machines and mannequins forlorn in the void. Noma spotted something glinting at the foot of the front entrance. She picked up the curved needle. The baying women rounded on her. ‘Who will make us beautiful now?’ they chorused, like a warped choir on the loose, faces strained, mouths drawn, teeth bared, closing in, scissors and shears gripped firmly, raised above their heads. Noma almost dropped the needle just as the women began to turn to ash, the pads of her fingers sweaty, just as a bright red root bloomed in the eye of the needle.
Irenosen Okojie is a Nigerian British writer. Her debut novel Butterfly Fish won a Betty Trask award and was shortlisted for an Edinburgh International First Book Award. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, the Observer, the Guardian, the BBC and the Huffington Post amongst other publications. Her short story collection Speak Gigantular, published by Jacaranda Books, was shortlisted for the Edgehill Short Story Prize, the Jhalak Prize, the Saboteur Awards and nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. She was recently inducted as a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature as one of the Forty Under Forty initiative.
Bio, and cover image courtesy of Dialogue Books.
Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie is published by Dialogue Books, priced £14.99. Available now.