Suit was first published in The Antigonish Review,
81-82 (1990), 45-51. In 2003, it was turned into a 14 minute short 16mm film
of the same name. Birthday Suit (the film) was
given second place (Rogers Viewers Choice: New Brunswick Shorts) in the Tidal
Wave Film Festival, Fredericton, New Brunswick, November, 2003.
Today it is my
birthday, and I am sitting in class, wearing the birthday suit my mother bought
me a year ago.
My mother always used to buy my clothes. She said I couldn't choose anything respectable for myself and she used to accompany me to the centre of town to hunt for garments in the big department stores. Last year, when I was home, she borrowed one of my father's charge cards and I pushed her, in her wheelchair, to the village bespoke tailor at the end of our road.
Mr. Gareth Morgan, the tailor, saw us crossing the road towards his shop and he flung the door wide-open. My mother got out of her wheelchair, waited until I had folded it and stacked it against the side of the doorway, took me firmly by the arm, and tottered the last few steps into the shop with me.
"Nice weather for the time of the year?"
That was how Mr. Gareth Morgan always commenced a conversation with a customer. He made a statement and, by raising his voice slightly at the end of each sentence, he turned statements into what might easily be mistaken for questions.
"Nice weather for the time of the year?"
The upward lift of his lilting voice permitted you to make the first of the series of decisions that you would face while in his shop: would you agree or disagree; answer or not; it all depended on your disposition.
Mr. Gareth Morgan was well-known in the village for the care and attention which he lavished on his handful of regular friends and customers. The truth was that hardly anybody bothered to call at his shop to buy anything any more; save for a few old and very personal acquaintances of whom my mother was one. It was known that Mr. Gareth Morgan made his home in the upper-floor flat above the shop; it was rumoured that he only kept the downstairs as a tax write-off, to be run at a loss. He used to hold annual New Year sales which lasted until March or April. But since even his sale prices were way beyond what anybody who lived regularly in the village could afford, nobody attended these sales. Except people like my mother; and she went shopping, with astonishing regularity, once a year, on my birthday.
On that birthday, a year ago, she told Mr. Gareth Morgan that it was time for me to be well-dressed as befitted an university professor. Old Mr. Morgan looked suitably impressed.
"An university professor? I knew he was a teacher... but an university professor...?"
"Yes," said mother, nodding her head, her eyes half-closed and full of belligerent sagacity, "An university professor. And he needs a new suit. A nice suit, Mr. Morgan. You know what I mean?"
"Indeed I do?"
Mr. Gareth Morgan was an old man. Being an old man, he had been a long time in the world and knew the whys and wherefores of its functioning. He had always considered himself to be a man of this world, an international citizen, always ready to help others when, in his estimation, they were having difficulties and needed help.
"You are saying he would be wanting a complete outfit?"
"Oh yes, Mr. Morgan. A complete outfit would be nice. With a shirt and a tie and a pair of socks and a matching silk handerchief for his little breast pocket."
Old Mr. Morgan rummaged round his shop. He looked me up and down, sized me up, discarded blazers and sports coats and pounced on a suit.
"Now this is a nice suit?"
"Indeed it is," said my mother, "But hadn't you better measure him first?"
Old Mr. Morgan approached me with a tape measure which he unwound with a tender loving care.
"You have put on weight this year? Quite portly I could say? I might even be tempted..." he paused, cleared his throat, and ran his tongue invitingly round his lips, "...to refer to you as stout?"
"Oh, don't be so naughty, Mr. Morgan. You do tease people so, you know. It embarrasses him to be called stout, doesn't it darling?"
It was my birthday.
That year marked the forty-third celebration of my presence with my mother in
some sort of tailor's shop here on this earth. Mr. Gareth Morgan breathed heavily
in my ear as he snaked his tape around my chest, my waist, the inside of each
of my legs.
"Legs wider apart, boy, so you can let me in?"
He chuckled at his joke, winked at my mother, squeezed my arm playfully, and my mother joined him in laughter.
"We used to call him Organ Morgan when he was a boy."
"That's because I always sang so loud in church? You'll give me some room to work?"
Old Mr. Morgan was kind and gentle. Much too gentle to be a gentleman's bespoke tailor. He had a soft velvety touch, like the fluttering of little butterflies, as he moved the brass end of his measuring tape up the inside of my trouser leg until it rested against the warm nest of my crotch.
"As short as ever?" said old Mr. Morgan, winking either at my mother or else at me.
"It's much too late for him to grow now."
"Except perhaps outward?"
Old Mr. Morgan presented me with a friendly nod, a wink, a nudge, a tap on my belly above the waistband of my pants, and a little pinch.
"This will do the job? About eight inches off the leg?"
Mr. Gareth Morgan produced the suit. And what a suit it was! Hand-tailored in England; fine, lightweight lamb's wool; by appointment to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. He held the suit up for my mother's approval; he turned it, patted it, stroked the material till it glowed in the shop and she nodded in satisfaction.
"Now that's what I call a nice suit, Mr. Morgan. And he needs a nice suit, now that he's an university professor."
"Now he must try it on?"
Mr. Gareth Morgan pressed gently against me in his attempt to assist me in removing my jacket. Then, with intimate care, he revealed the coat of the birthday suit and, as I turned to place my arms in the sleeves he held towards me, he ran his fingers lingeringly over my shoulders and back.
"Perfect fit? What a lovely boy?"
Mother again nodded her approval and now came the moment I had been dreading.
"We're going to try on the trousers now? You will want me to give you some help?"
Mr. Gareth Morgan snaked his hand towards my zippered fly but for once I was too quick for him. I turned away and stepped towards the shop window, the daylight, and the villagers who were walking up and down, stopping occasionally to peer in at the tailor's window display.
Old Mr. Morgan beamed a sly smile in the direction of my mother.
"He's grown up into a lovely big boy?"
He contrived, with the utmost of care and concentration, to slip the suit pants off their hangar and dangle them enticingly before me.
"I'll hold the waistband, you'll just step in?"
"Oh, Mr. Morgan, you shouldn't! You mustn't go to so much trouble. He can do it himself. He's a big boy now."
"I can see that," sighed Mr. Gareth Morgan, his eyes fixed longingly on a spot about halfway between my stomach and my knees, "and a lovely boy too?"
"Yes," says Mother. "Come along. Let Mr. Morgan help you into your birthday trousers, dear."
But there was a method in Mr. Gareth Morgan's madness, and help me he did: a little pull here; a little push there; a tug at the waistband... then, through a mouthful of pins, he chuckled, gurgled, cooed, squeezed my knees, my ankles, my calves, hitched the bottom of the trouser leg over the laces of the shoes he insisted that I wore, and pinned up the trousers, about eight inches, to the appropriate length.
"Oh, Mr. Morgan," sighed my mother, "You did say it would be about eight inches."
"Yes?" said Mr. Gareth Morgan, "Naked or clothed I can usually estimate how much they'll take? I'm rarely mistaken and I've a good eye for size?"
He gave me an encouraging wink and pushed me towards Mother who looked absolutely thrilled.
"He looks lovely. We'll take it."
"You'll be wanting me to do the adjustments?"
"Oh no, Mr. Morgan, that wouldn't be right. You've been much too kind already. I might be confined to a wheelchair but I'm not completely useless, you know. You must let his mother have some fun as well. We'll take the suit home and I'll adjust the trousers myself. Leave the pins where I can see them clearly."
"Now you're not rushing away and you'll be wanting me to help you?"
Quick as I was, I was much too slow to beat Mr. Gareth Morgan twice in one day. In the very second that my hands were handcuffed behind my back by both jacket sleeves, old Mr. Morgan slid his long fingers inside the waistband and undid my trousers. His back was to my mother and he winked at me at the same time as he pursed his lips and wrinkled his nose. I struggled free of the jacket just as the pants slipped neatly round my feet, imprisoning them as well.
"Mr. Morgan, do you want him to try the shirt on now?"
Before I could open mouth or say a word, my mother glared at me and threatened me into silence. She almost spat the command:
"You're having an outfit."
There was a finality to her voice which announced that my fate was sealed. Mr. Gareth Morgan led me to ties, shirts, and socks. They were draped around my neck, measured against my chest, pressed to my ankles. My mother and Mr. Gareth Morgan held a long, very serious debate about the merits and demerits of button-down collars on shirts; plain shirts and striped shirts; white shirts and coloured shirts; coloured shirts with white collars and white shirts with coloured collars; then they were on to socks: it was woolly socks or cotton socks; nylon socks or blended socks; thick socks or thin socks; plain grey socks, coloured socks, or patterned socks; short, ankle socks or long knee-length socks; next it was ties: striped ties or plain ties; club ties or school ties; matching ties or contrasting ties. Finally, they were down to the task of choosing a colour for my pocket handkerchief. Mr. Gareth Morgan wanted to tuck each suggested colour, one by one, intimately, into the "little breast pocket of your son's nice suit," but my mother was getting a little bit thirsty by then and wanted a cup of tea; so they compromised on a silk kerchief in mottled, blend-with-anything colours; and the job was done.
Mr. Gareth Morgan
accepted my father's magic plastic card and my forty-third birthday suit was
charged to my father's account. Along with it went two ties, two shirts, two
pairs of socks and a set of six silk handkerchiefs. Mr. Gareth Morgan had made
his annual killing!
Mr. Gareth Morgan wrapped our purchases in a bright yellow plastic bag which immediately announced to the whole village that the tailor had at least made a commercial conquest; then, with my mother calling farewells and waving goodbyes, I unfolded the wheelchair and, after a final, sly, loving pinch, delivered by Mr. Gareth Morgan just as I was helping my mother to make herself comfortable for the journey home, we were out in the open air and on our way.
"Happy birthday, boy," said Mr. Gareth Morgan in a final parting shot, "Come back and see me soon? I can't wait to see you in your birthday suit?"
It took me fifteen minutes to push my mother home. During that time she regaled me with prophecies about the brilliance of the lectures I would deliver in my new suit.
When we got home, I modelled the suit for my father who agreed that my mother had made a perfect choice; then I made tea for everyone. As I was drinking my first cup, I marvelled to myself that, once again, I had spent a whole afternoon shopping with my mother and had hardly managed to speak a word.
Six weeks later, my mother was dead.
I flew home for her funeral and, when I visited her mortal remains, I wore the last suit she would ever buy me.
She lay there, silent, in the coffin. I could hardly recognize her. She didn't need a wheelchair now and her wrinkles had all vanished. Her cheeks had been puffed out, from the inside, and she didn't look so thin and careworn. In addition, she had been powdered and rouged. The attendant left me with her and I discovered that her crimson lips were cold to my touch. Blue veins, relaxed now, no longer stood stiff on the backs of her hands. She was wearing a long white and gold robe, like the angels. The attendant had already informed me that this was, in fact, "her birthday suit in which she would be reborn into the splendours of heaven." In her hand she held her marriage prayer book, the one she read from on the day I was christened.
I imagined her
as I seemed to remember her: so talkative, so volatile, so spirited, so unquenchable.
This refrigerated, plumped-out clay could never have been my mother. This thing
of silence was not the woman who chattered all the way home from Mr. Gareth
Morgan's shop as she clutched the bright yellow bag in which she bore the suit
I now wore.
I stood confused by her coffin and didn't know how to mourn.
Two days later, at the funeral itself, I met Mr. Gareth Morgan. He made a point, when he shook my hand, of patting my shoulder with his other hand and pulling me towards him. He gave me a little hug, a little squeeze. At my mother's funeral, all of his gestures seemed natural and inoffensive.
"If you need any comforting you know where to find me?"
I thanked him. I thanked each one of the mourners. I shook them, one and all, by their hands. I felt their skin against my skin: dry and wet and hot and cold and damp and sweaty... All feeling flowed into this touching of hands. I did not flinch when my eyes met their eyes. I was unable to cry.
So today it is my birthday again and I am now forty-four years old. I wore my birthday suit to class this morning in memory of last year, when I went shopping with my mother. Shirt, socks, tie, shirt, suit: I wear them all. The kids, used to me in sweatshirt and jeans, look shocked.
"Going to a wedding?" asks the red-head in the second row.
"Someone die then?"
This from a boy at the back.
"No. Not yet. But they might. I'm coming round with some tests and the sooner you start, the sooner you'll know what you forgot to study."
Groans of disapproval echo round the room and I return to the teacher's desk at which I sit and listen to the sounds of pencil and ballpoint pushed over paper. As they write, I take an examination pad and scribble what you have just read.
The blonde girl in the front row, to the right hand side, is watching me again. I can feel her eyes. I look up and, her eyes locking with mine, she stares right at me.
I blush, feel embarrassed, and look back at the exam pad where I conjure up a picture of my mother and Mr. Gareth Morgan in the village shop. The girl keeps right on staring and I can feel her eyes boring into me, undoing my tie, taking my shirt off, stripping me down. As she does so, I can feel Mr. Gareth Morgan's hands crawling over my chest, my inside leg, my knees. His fingers slide again into the waistband of my pants and his voice rings in my ears:
"Happy birthday, boy; come back and see me soon? I can't wait to see you in your birthday suit?"
I look up again and, as I shudder with distaste, the blonde drops her eyes.
Somewhere, just out of reach, Mother smiles her hard won approval.
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