WHAT A SHAWL TAUGHT ME

The shawl is cerise and gold and festooned with flowers. Some say it looks Persian, it certainly looks exotic. A flamboyant fabric garden of petals, leaves and branches.

Looking at it now I am reminded of my journey towards it. It is spring 2007 and I have been invited to attend the London Book Fair. New editions of my novels are being published and there will be a small celebratory party. I am in Dublin airport waiting for the plane and I probably should be thinking about what to say at the party, how to promote my books and myself, but instead I am looking at shawls in a shop. Subtle stylish shawls, or pashminas as they are more grandly called, shawls that whisper and embrace.

They are a mixture of gentle browns, apricot and dusky red, and other hues that seem to have settled sensually onto the soft expensive fabrics. My fingers explore their folds, my eyes feast on their details. One in particular catches my attention. I take it off the rail and hold it up, then I look at the price. Dear God, it is a designer label. I can’t afford it, but maybe I should buy it anyway. I need a shawl, something to wrap round me. People would say “Oh what a beautiful shawl!” when I met them at the party. I would feel less exposed and shy secreted behind its panache.

I stay in the dilemma for many long minutes, then I realise it would be ridiculous to miss my flight because of these deep, almost imperious longings. I am on a budget and I am paying for this trip. I am not a mega rich author. I put the shawl back where I found it and leave the shop quickly, as though fleeing a seductive but impossible lover. I know I will have to do without the beautiful shawl, any beautiful shawl, because they are all so expensive. My budget simply won’t stretch to such indulgences.

I wear a trim blue jacket to the party. It is a jacket that offers very little shelter. I find myself chatting and laughing anyway. The party is fun and the people are nice and my novels are heading out into the wider world again with lovely new covers. I’m gathered up into the day, its colours, shapes and textures, I wrap them round me instead. Maybe this is the way it was meant to be all along. .

The next day I am happy but a little weary as I trundle my bag along a busy London Street. I need to get to Victoria Station and then to Gatwick. I’m looking out for buses, preoccupied with practical matters. The moments I spent in that shop in Dublin airport seem like another world away, and so do the longings that accompanied them. Home, I want to get home now.

Then I pause by a small, slightly shabby shop window and there it is, the bright cerise and gold shawl festooned with flowers.

I don’t quite know what to make of it.. Do I like it? Yes…yes I do. But it isn’t the shawl I’d had in mind. And now London and the urgencies of buses, trains and planes are pressing in on me, I am in no mood to appreciate it. I go into the shop anyway, hurriedly. A middle-aged Indian man in rumpled clothes hands the shawl to me. His shop is a mixture of things, foodstuffs, sweets, I scarcely glance at the crammed shelves.
The shawl is about €10 and claims to be made of silk. There is no designer label and it does not feel soft, luxurious or exclusive. It is tainted by everything it isn’t, but I buy it anyway and stuff it unceremoniously, roughly into a bag.

At home I unpack it and then I leave it where it is. Months pass and I do not wear it. ‘It’s too gaudy,’ I tell myself, ‘too…cheap. It is second best, an unsatisfactory substitute. Perhaps I should give it away.’

Because I had never imagined myself wearing a shawl like that, one that reveals rather than conceals. One that is quite so wild….

And then one day I grab it. It is wintry and grey outside and at least the shawl is warm and bright. I need its colours somehow, its cheering, cheap allure. As I wrap it round me and dash out to the shops I no longer care that people will find it unstylish, a brash bargain.

But what they say is:

“It’s gorgeous….”

“Where did you find it?”

“I love it!”

“Those colours are going to be really big next season…”

Next season, goodness, my shawl is even ahead of its time!

And it’s unusual. Not a mass market one found in an airport, but tracked down to a small shop on a London Street. Yes, the story of my shawl has utterly changed. “And it was so cheap!” I say, enjoying people’s astonishment, “only €10!”

It is no longer second best, an unsatisfactory substitute. It reminds me of serendipity and how, when beauty lands in your life, you sometimes have to train your eyes to see it, wait for the moment when your prejudices fall away.

Yes, I now enjoy telling the story of the shawl I found…though sometimes it seems like it found me.

(Shared With Kind Permission of RTE Radio)

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