In this feature from our Space issue, Jess Farrugia discusses coat pockets and chance encounters. Illustration by Maria Stoian.
I found the coat in an antique shop on Bridge Road, tucked inside a musty wardrobe that creaked when I opened the door. It wasn’t entirely my style, a mixture of tan suede and brown leather, but somehow I felt drawn to it.
When I tried it on, I found it was at least four sizes too big for me and smelt like decades of dust. It was heavier than I expected, too. As the shearling lining pressed down on my shoulders I amused myself by imagining that it was carrying an unknown burden - not quite the weight of the world, but some small part of it. There were tears around the pockets, which someone had lovingly sewn up, and a small hole on the shoulder, the width of a pocketknife, I supposed. There was something about the coat that I couldn’t quite explain. A sense of history, maybe?
And so I bought it despite its obvious flaws and made a mental note to get it dry-cleaned. I never did, though; perhaps I had, I wouldn’t have this story to tell.
For a few weeks I left the coat hanging from the picture rail in my room, slightly too embarrassed to wear it out in public. Not only did it look like an odd fit, but it jingled, too – thanks to a series of buckles down the front that reminded me somewhat of a straight jacket.
But then the weather got colder and it quickly became an infallible comfort, so thick and so enormous that no wind, rain, or snow could reach me within its cocoon; it felt like armour. (Was that why the coat had so many battle scars?) I got used to the noise it made and the way it smelt, and I came to love tiny details, like its ridiculous four-inch collar. I guess I’d grown attached to the coat, not least because its pockets were filled with my belongings.
You see, I’d done my best to make it my own, ‘wearing it in’ the way you would a new pair of shoes. I’d baptised it with souvenirs from my everyday life – emergency snacks, cinema tickets, and small tokens from elaborate nights.
However, after a few months my collection became a little impractical. Most notably, as I unleashed a flurry of receipts every time I attempted to answer a call. So, I decided to clear it out. I emptied the three pockets (two on the outside and one on the inside) and began to leaf through the contents. And that’s when I noticed – some things were missing.
Now, it was perfectly feasible that stuff might have just escaped. After all, the outside pockets were crammed with useless paraphernalia. But the inside pocket was different. That’s where I kept the things I really wanted to save – postcards from exhibitions, a reindeer keychain I’d found at a flea market – and those were the things I’d lost.
I checked the inside pocket again and again, laying the coat flat across my bedroom floor and using the torch on my phone to light up every seam. And then I saw something. A very slight shadow between the tan suede and the thick shearling lining. Not just a hole, but a pocket behind a pocket. An entire seam had been carefully unpicked.
As it turns out, my missing things had slipped through the gap and fallen into the non-space in the middle of the coat. But, even more mysterious, when I rummaged around to retrieve them I discovered two crumpled photographs that were not my own.
The first photograph had patches of transparent tape on the front, so I guessed it must have been stuck to someone’s wall. In it were six black men standing on the side of a street; the pavement was so wide that it could only have been a snapshot of America. They were all young and dressed in plain but stylish clothes that seemed to have an air of the nineties. One of the men was standing with his arms stretched wide in either pride or exasperation; the camera was out of focus, so it was difficult to read their expressions. Other than that, there were no stand-out details.
The second photograph was much clearer, though. Two men, perhaps from the earlier photograph, were posing for the camera in a small dorm. I studied the room first, noting four visible beds, including one bunk bed, and a vast array of personal decoration. There was a balloon with the words ‘LOVE YOU’ printed on it, heavy curtains and photographs taped to the wall. (Had the photographs I was holding lived on that same wall at some point?)
Next, I turned my attention to the men themselves. Both were wearing no more than underwear and a pair of flip-flops. I reasoned that there must have been a communal shower somewhere in the building. (Were they athletes?) Whilst one stood, the other crouched. The crouching man appeared to have a wedding band on his left hand, but it was his arm that interested me most. In the centre of his bicep was a small scar that made me think of the blade-like hole on the left-hand sleeve of my coat. Had it belonged to him? And had he been injured wearing it?
I began to piece together the story as I imagined it. The crouching man had taken the first photograph of his friends and had asked one of them to take the second. Both snapshots had been taped to the wall of his dorm room until he left, when he placed them in the inside pocket of his favourite coat – the coat that he wore every day, through celebrations and street fights. At some point, the coat made its way across the Atlantic, either with or without its owner. And years later, it fell into my hands and onto my shoulders.
I was right when I first thought that the coat felt heavy somehow, that it was connected to the past. I only wish I knew more than just the imagined version of the story that I’ve come up with. How is it that something so foreign and unknown can be so familiar? I’ve been carrying that coat around for years and it’s no less full of secrets than it was when I bought it.
It’s a glorious contradiction, that the space between that crouching man and me measured miles and decades, and yet, the things we treasured most were nestled side-by-side within the lining of a coat. But either way, I’m glad to be a part of it.