This is a short story I read at the February Talking Tales event at the Left Bank. It's organised by the Stokes Croft writers group.
It's called: The Dress
She had volunteered in the end. No one else had wanted to. And so now here she is, standing in the aertex-ed hallway with its overpowering smell of Imperial Leather soap and cheap cleaning products; the smell that took her back to childhood, the smell she always associated with sitting on her grandparents’ mud-brown velour sofa, watching the soaps, watching Countdown, watching whatever came on next, the TV on even during tea, not like at home.
The TV is silent now. She can’t remember if she ever saw it so. It would go to the charity shop, along with the collection of china ornaments that covered every surface, filled every shelf and every nook – the cavorting couple, the pink-gowned woman waiting for her waltz, the shepherdess with her fanciful crook. All purchased from the back of a supplement, advertised with a curled and romantic font, paid for via a coupon. The same ornaments had always stood there, she’s sure of it. Although, would she have noticed if they were, in fact, different? Perhaps the ones she remembers had been replaced long before. She’s been absent, after all, for years.
It doesn’t matter. They were officially categorised as old now, destined for the charity shop with everything else.
She admires the neatness of her packing. The ornaments are swaddled in newspapers. The TV sits in a reclaimed box. Back in the hallway, she wrinkles her nose at the blast of soap and cleaning products. Buried beneath those white, bright scents, she can detect the smell they attempt to hide.
It’s time to tackle the bedroom.
She realises she’s never been in the bedroom before.
Stacking the romance novels into boxes, sneezing at the dust rising from the only-once-thumbed pages. Each cover blurs into the one before, each one with its voluptuous heroine: big hair and eyes as big as her mouth, a muscled hero with a penetrating stare. The only change is the hair. Sometimes light. Sometimes dark.
She notices odd classics confused in the mix. It’s easy enough to see how the gaudy covers could be mistaken for standard romance fare. Adam Bede portrayed as a ripped, shirtless farmer. Guy de Maupassant’s fallen woman resplendent in red, wearing inaccurate court shoes. Melville’s moustachio’d sailor complete with blonde mullet and unlaced shirt against broad chest.
They must’ve come as a shock: these books where no men are offered as a reward for a woman’s good behaviour. Where no hair tumbles over pillows, and no veil is drawn discreetly over the crunchiness and pleasures of life.
She turns her attention to the wardrobe. The pastel polyester from local supermarkets bristles with static. She flicks her hands into the air, shaking out the shocks gathering at her fingertips. The blouses, the skirts, the ‘slacks’, all shapeless without the body that wore them as a uniform for twenty years or more.
Finally she reaches the suitcase.
It’s old – older than the ornaments, older than anything else in the flat. She runs her hands along the leather edgings, opening the sturdy metal clips with a click.
She coughs at the musty faugh smell that greets her, waving her hand over her face to chase away the years that have passed between the last time this case was closed, and this moment, right now.
Lying on top of the case is an exquisite silk brocade ball-gown. Lifting it from tissue paper, it falls in a heavy cascade of blue, pink and gold over her arms, the silk cool between her elbows. The bow on the empire bust-line juts out. She notices the label still stitched in at the neck. Not a name to recognise, just the brand of a local shop. Long gone.
The brocade is followed by a flurry of baby-blue taffeta underneath a boned corset, petticoat after petticoat billowing below a blue overskirt. The same label, stitched in. A knee-length, sleeveless wiggle dress, white net and white wool. Label, stitched in. A pale yellow satin dress, the neckline plunging from wide straps, the cloud of petticoats barely contained by the fullness of the skirt. Label, stitched in. A deep pink silk tea dress, printed with paisley, the silk as crisp as a new five pound note, a yellowing peter pan collar. Label, stitched in.
She pulls out dress after dress, liberating each one from its neat and tight folds, until soft silks and crisp silks and firm brocades and sturdy taffeta and slippery chiffons and smooth satins surround her. In each dress the same label, stitched in.
Her hands dive into the case, excited now, lifting out shoes that are still and spotless on red velvet shoetrees with polished black handles; toes embellished with diamante clips. Satin pumps with thick heels. Neat buttons running up ankles.
She reaches in for the final dress in the case. She notes the faint stain of sweat in the underarms; a smear of powder on the neckline. There’s a softness in each fold that suggests at least one wear; a smudginess to the outline that betrays at least one outing. The buttons up the neck had been left undone. The zip gapes obscene.
She checks. The label has been unpicked. Its negative remains.
The colours. The fabrics. The romance novels. The china woman waiting for her waltz.
What other life had been dreamt of, when the last woman to touch this fabric had run her fingers along its folds? What promise had she seen, when she held the dress tight against her figure, turning her head over one shoulder to check the fit? What other life had been imagined, once, in the promise of silk and taffeta?
Her tears blob on the one worn dress, fading into the fabric.