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Archive for February, 2017

The Dragon’s Jacket

coat

In the town where I grew up there was a flea market. It was held every Saturday in a concrete courtyard behind the High Street shops, and it was where I spent most of my money between the ages of 10 and 18.
I collected things. My collections at one time included stamps, candles, tea tins and polished stones, but the collection I have maintained for most of my life has been that of old bottles and jars. Cod bottles with marbles, ink bottles, brown glazed cream jugs, 2-toned cider flagons and the occasional stone hot water ‘pig’. In my one-hour lunch break from my teenage Saturday job (in an achingly classy furniture and gift shop) I would buy a bag of chips and head for the market, browsing at a leisurely pace, the hot vinegary chips keeping my hands warm. The stallholders all knew me, and the man with the bottle stall would sometimes keep things by for me. I had very little money, so each purchase was made after an age of deliberation: sometimes it took me weeks to decide which lemonade bottle to buy.
There was a stall next to the bottle table which was crammed with vintage collectibles – stuff like old OXO tins, deck chairs and glass beads. I browsed there too, and occasionally bought something cheap like a small box that had once held Parma Violets. One Saturday I followed my usual routine – chip shop, flea market, bottle stall. But my purposeful steps were halted suddenly by the junk stall. There, dangling from a wooden hanger, was the most amazing piece of clothing I had ever seen. It was a boxy jacket made of very dark blue, almost black, thin corded material. At its cuffs and geometric angular collar was a thin rim of dark red ribbon, and round every edge was a rope of gold braid. Down the double-breasted front marched a line of tarnished brass buttons. The lining was black satin and the smell of decades hit my nostrils as I tried it on. It was a perfect fit, albeit a bit long in the arms.
The man on the stall told me that it was the jacket of a cinema commissionaire, the uniformed presence who opened doors, presided over the foyer, helped ladies on with their coats and occasionally introduced the films, no doubt featuring Hollywood legends like Clarke Gable and Hedy Lamarr. The jacket evoked movie glamour; it had a quasi-military air and more than a hint of Sergeant Pepper about it. I wanted it so much my stomach hurt. The stallholder wanted £40.00 for it.
It was a huge amount of money for me at the time. My Saturday job paid £8.00 a week and that had to cover my clothes, my books, my going out, my Saturday chips, everything. The stallholder and I came to a deal. He dropped the price to £38.00 and he allowed me to pay in instalments. It was nearly 5 months before I paid the last of the money and got to slip the musty satin over my shoulders once more. I paraded around the market and let the stallholders see me – they all knew how long I had waited for that moment. They applauded and admired, and I felt like I was on top of the world.
I wore the jacket regularly for years. My favourite outfit at 18 was a pair of tight cream jeans, knee length leather boots, black t-shirt and the commissionaire’s jacket. People knew me by it. Several women and a couple of men tried to buy it from me. When one of my university boyfriends first saw me, I was wearing it: he turned to a mutual friend and said ‘Who the hell is that?’
Years later I made a disastrous attempt to turn over the thick ropes of braid. The gold was tarnished on the outside and shiny underneath and I wanted to reverse it to get the bright gold uppermost. I unpicked the sleeves at the shoulders to reveal wads of woollen padding that looked like furniture stuffing. My braid-reversal did not really work.

Recently, we started the process of clearing out the boxes in our shed…and the jacket has surfaced again! It is still awesome, but looks very battle-weary (as you can probably tell from the photo). I wonder if a good clean and a clever seamstress could revive its former glories? I have tried it on – it still fits, and the strange musty aroma transports me back to those teenage years; the chips, the flea market, and the power of wearing The Jacket.

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