The Dressmaker

The Dressmaker
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“Do come in,” says Madame Colette Safran, beckoning. A narrow corridor with a rich dark carpet leads to her workroom. The walls are lined with photographs in diamond studded frames. Women look radiant in fashionable settings. Celebrities, ball gowns, sequins, men in bow ties. This could be a dream, except it isn’t.

“So. Tell me how I can help you.”

 “I have this dress. I bought it for a friend’s wedding. Then I found the front was too low. For me, that is – personally. Embarrassingly low.”

“Really?” She raises an eyebrow. “Let us regard the offending garment!” Her accent is French, or perhaps German. She eases the dress out of its cover, rests it over the back of a crimson chaise-longue. It lies there, limp, innocuous. Her posture is erect, soothing. Something in her dark, watchful eyes, gently regal smile. Out begins to pour a veritable Curriculum Vitae.

Myself. My mother. (Late mother.) My husband. Our sons. Our daughter. I relate how Julia strayed for a while. Goth, anarchist, cannabis, born-again, she is now a college librarian with an interest in refugees.

“And tell me,” purrs this dressmaker I selected from Yellow Pages Online, “more about the dress. You say that your dear mother instructed you to find a dressmaker?”

Have I already told her that? I have been babbling.

She did. Almost the last thing she told me – hours before she died.

She died months ago. I’m supposed to have passed the first stages of mourning, as they refer to it in books. I’m supposed to be remembering the good things. Tears threaten.

This is the moment when I turn my head, and spy six pale, anxious looking women gathered around me. I frown at the first one who frowns back. Look again and see the same woman to my right. Same to the left. And one over there in the corner. I notice the shabby tunic-top. Mine. Colette Safran’s workroom is not simply hung with a mirror or two, as you would expect. Three walls are made of two mirrors each, nothing but mirrors. In the last mirror this woman, late sixties, coarse hair that needs a trim turns towards me. Accusingly.

“Et alors…” Colette gathers our green dress softly on her outstretched arms. I fix my gaze on her so I won’t have to stare at these six illuminated versions of me. They stand in tight pantie-girdles, long bras (cutting into their shoulders), stomachs bulging between edges of bras and girdles. And their legs. Not that fat, actually but far too white. VeinousVenous estuaries above the knees gleam blue and purple. Our Almost Black Support Socks look dense, obsidian, vulgar.

“Voila,” Colette seems relaxed, unlike the six women whose faces now freeze in one tight, puzzled, determined expression. Like my mother at the moment of death. She sat up straight then, her mouth set stiff, not going gentle into any dark night thank you, eyes glaring, wide.

Mirrors surround me. The women in the mirrors share one expression. A brightly illuminated one. I’m slipping into a cage of cold light. Self-reflection. At my age.

The mirror on the left flickers, to get my attention. I turn round, my face close to Colette’s. She is manicured, poised, made up. Me, I never wear make-up. I look my age; people stand up for me on the tube. Colette positions herself behind me. I feel the pressure of her hands on my shoulders, as she pulls the dress half an inch higher. “I will,” she explains, “simply hitch it up on the shoulders, and then the low V will no longer be low!” When I wear it again no-one will get that view, the sweaty creek between my two big breasts.

“So.” I take off the green floral dress, fling it on the chaise-longue, put trousers and shirt on quickly, whip brush out of shabby handbag and run it through my hair.

“We need to arrange a time for a fitting. When is convenient?”

I am standing, my back to the mirrors, my eyes on the front door, but I sense movement in them nevertheless. My six doppelgangers frown in their reverse universe, their mouths open and close. I feel cold. I don’t want this. But I don’t intend to panic, just because I am in a roomful of mirrors. I take out my diary and we plan the next fitting.

“That will be delightful,” she says.

We’re saying goodbye. I wish Colette would close the workroom door but she doesn’t so I am still at the mercy of the mirrors. The women seem wary, watchful. As I withdraw and they distance themselves I think they are whispering. To my relief they retreat, turning back into their mirror world, but next thing someone comes skipping past them towards me. A small figure. Yes, a small figure runs, leaping towards me.

That is me! I’m five. My hair is dazzling auburn. I’m in the park. My body, my one and only own little body is perfect. It can do anything. I can jump, skip and hop. My mother is peeling a banana for me, my first one!

I walk shakily out past the thyme and mint, real scents mingling with those coming back to life in Colette Safran’s work room. As the front door closes, I hear her phone ringing – the old-fashioned filigree silver version. I may be shaking but I’ll have to return.

*

Tuesday, she welcomes me like a friend. She slips the dress on me, casually, and the mirrors light up. I stand stiffly, view myself in all the mirrors at once. Six identical images.

Or not. Not exactly. Out of one corner, out of the grey glassy background, some movement, it’s here, in the second mirror. A figure is slowly coming into view.

Is this a spirit, a dream? No, not at all. It is me again, growing up now. What am I doing? I’m hurtling towards myself. Here I come. From fifteen to sixty-nine, teenage me races towards the present.

Or not. Not that either. Not out of the mirror. Teenage me is running just the way I did then. I run in and out of my childhood home. I am sprinting, panting, as I did then. From front door, to kitchen, to biscuit tin, then back to front door. Yes, running, panting. Oh no, God no. Before my eyes – this is the day I couldn’t stop eating ginger biscuits.

Madame’s hands smooth the dress, to subdue a wrinkle, no a wave, no the tidal wave of chiffon which has appeared since my last visit here. There might be a fault, she says frowning. The alteration isn’t working yet.

Can’t she smell the ginger-biscuits? They are in the cubbyhole in the kitchen dresser of my childhood. I’m at the front door, it’s half past one, time to catch the bus back to school. Summertime. My emerald uniform skirt tightens week by week. This might be what teenage pregnancy feels like but I’m not pregnant. Only pregnant with frustrations, hatred of my sister, resentment of my mother who tells me to eat when I’m not hungry and to stop eating when I am. All the while I’m getting fatter.

The house stands between bus stops. Till now it was a game. You hear the bus stopping at Woodland Road, which means you have two minutes in which to run, in advance of it, to the St Michaels stop and get there, panting, ahead. An obsession I share with my sister, who today is not here. She’s at school skipping lunch losing weight. The family pattern. We go like this: fat thin fat thin, mother daughter sister cousin. See us at weddings and Christmases.

I nip back inside to get a third ginger biscuit, then stand at the front door, sun on face, and crunch. My great monster of a greedy soul tumbles in the sky, swooping down to capture me in a tornado of need so strong that it lifts me a foot in the air. Keep eating biscuits until the bus comes.

I do. I do. And incredibly that same scene replays itself whole, all these years later, in Colette Safran’s mirrors. There I go. Crunch munch watch for bus. Run inside, flip cubbyhole, get biscuit, reach porch, gobble, glance at road, then run back for another one. Like a panting puppy, I play the game over, over and over.

“Et voila! I see how to solve our problem.” With Colette’s voice the taste of ginger leaves my lips. “You will need to come back for another fitting.”

“Thank you for your hard work.” I smile falsely. She clasps my hands as I leave but I pull away. I could hate this innocent dressmaker, who I hardly know.

*

Julia called earlier. For some reason – never happened before – she asked me about the dress, the dressmaker, and we got on to wedding dresses. She asked me what mine had been like. Plain, I said, and on we chatted. I mentioned that my mother had motioned me not to speed towards the bridal canopy.

“Don’t run,” she’d whispered, a twinkle in her eye. “Not seemly!”

It’s Wednesday afternoon, two minutes to three. I’ve had time since the last fitting to reflect carefully on what is happening. I have a theory, so I skip past the thyme and mint. I know that today there will be a different scene in the mirror. A sweet one, and it will make me happy. Because my body did not remain unlovable, did it? Oh no definitely no. How could I have forgotten! Size eighteen or not, I found love. I found love, and it found love too.

So today I will seek out that body in the mirror, and ignore the irritation of Colette’s fingers, tugging gently at flaps of cloth that have still not disappeared. I won’t mind if the dress is not yet satisfactory. In fact I hope it isn’t.

Because today I’m here willingly. Today I peer eagerly, my eyes avoiding hers. My past plays brightly in her mirrors, and it is my good fortune to have been alerted to this. Yes, there I am. I’m there in a white wedding dress, my husband beside me looking nervous. There is my mother, radiant in her fifties. Years younger than I am now! She puts out a hand. “Don’t run, darling! It isn’t seemly.”

“We will need yet another fitting.” Colette’s voice comes from very far away.

I’m immersed, now, in this game, I’m learning. The mirrors want to play with my past? Let them. I’ll play too. And I’ll choose my own moments.

Such as this one now, for example. Yes, this one. Here I am, moving purposefully through the glass walls of dressmaker time towards one night I want to remember. Through the shadows I see that night. My moment of walking across a shabby landing. It is that landing. The only reality now is on this landing. That night. What happens that night? We’ve been together two or three years. We are building what people call a marriage, although I don’t see it, myself, this thing with that name. I see us.

We have a small furnished house on the outskirts of the city. The floors are made of lino which has an uneven relationship with the walls. Lino, never quite fitting snug. Dark stains where moisture gets in. Damp from the windows, spilt coffee, spilt wine. I’m on the landing, my feet cold on the threadbare carpet. Floral patterns, between rhododendrons and roses. Patches of bare carpeting create dull-brown puddles.

I’m walking across this landing, musing. Only men believe thinking and bodies belong in different spheres. What happened, in there? That room? I turn round, and see the end of the bed, the Portuguese bedspread I bought for five pounds. Malcolm’s feet splayed in the half-light. In the middle of three sensational orgasms, best ever, I’d been asking questions: Who are we. Who is he. Who am I. Who was I. Who will I become.

Will I ever feel this again, this particular sensation of damp, richly scented Being Alive in the middle of a night? (What are the smells? Walking on a forest floor perhaps. Rich dark mossy perfumes.)

I stand at the cracked sink and turn on the tap. I see the flannel and soap. Imperial Leather. The flannel is brand new, the water hot, and I wash myself slowly, luxuriously. Two hooks wobble on faded tiles with blackened grouting. Whoever hammered them in, whoever those people were, they lived in a very grubby house. Me, I live in a palace.

By now I am half asleep, ready to go back to bed, and cover my husband’s sleeping body. That’s what he does – falls asleep after sex, wakes up an hour later saying it’s cold. An answer inscribes itself across my inner eye, even though I’m so drowsy I no longer know what the question was. But the answer is a shout out, a revelation, a resolution. “We are at peace, my body and I. There is peace between us.”

“I’m happy with it, as it is,” I tell Colette today, who keeps passing her thin fingers over the material, instructing it to behave.

“You may be happy my dear but me, I am a perfectionist.”

As I drive to the next fitting, I am in labour. By the time Madame Safran is inspecting her handiwork, checking whether she has it right this time, I am ready to give birth, one more time, to Julia! The miracle of the mirrors, I’ll call it. I stare. My selves stare back. Then the pictures come.

Midwives, nurses, everyone dancing, and I’m singing. The slow movement of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony. The rise and fall of the melody matches my contractions.

People in white wipe faces and hand me Julia. My girl after two boys. Slippery but snug, carried by my body and ushered by it out into the world, Malcolm beside us looking pale. The smells of fresh sweet blood, disinfectant, sweat, dissipate as Colette’s voice closes a curtain over the mirrors. She’s sweet, actually. I’m having a great time. Next week, another fitting.

*

I’ve absolutely got it. I understand what is happening. I’ve been entertaining myself in Colette’s massive mirrors as a protection against anxiety. I would otherwise be far too fraught, forced to gaze upon my half-naked self. SIX MAGNIFICATIONS OF MY BODY IN MERCILESS LIGHT. This week I come with a jewel of a scenario in mind. I thought of it in the shower last night.

I am forty-three. My mother is sixty-nine – the age I am now. Julia is eleven. We are having a day out in Hampton Court, and my mother has provided the picnic. Her face is flushed in the sun, her arms harsh red in places, because when it’s hot – we don’t know if it’s insects or not – she scratches obsessively. White skin, capillaries staining it at the slightest irritation.

“I’ve brought the same for each of us!” She puts three melamine plates on the grass. Two sandwiches, crisps, three pickled cucumbers, two tomatoes, three rounded fish balls on each plate.

“No fish balls thank you,” says Julia critically.

“But we’re all having the same! Don’t you see? Why not have three like the rest of us!” My mother thinks Julia is too thin and it’s my fault. We’re swinging in a food chain of fish balls on a sunny day in a park and it goes on. At the end, Julia’s plate still holds a mountain of uncrunched crisps. My mother looks troubled.

“Your crisps, Julia. Do finish them. Look – our plates are empty!”

*

Colette seems to think she has solved the problem. One more fitting and the dress will be perfect. All she needs to do is unpick it again. She gathered too much material on this side, here. Literally a centimetre or two.

“It would help,” she says, “if you could stand up straight. And do me one favour. Don’t keep tugging at your bra strap.” But I can’t do what she asks. And why should I? I’m too uncomfortable.

“Please,” she repeats. “Your strap.”

But like that day years ago when my will gave way to the ginger biscuits, it now gives way again. My reflections and I are unable to refrain from pulling at our bra straps, which slide inexorably over our shoulder bones – which are not like other people’s. They are crushed. Our hands tug, stretching the dress a little. We eye Colette defiantly.

“This is getting out of hand,” she observes coolly. “For some reason, you will not relax. Please. Do me the favour of becoming calm. Ma pauvre, you are tired of these fittings.”

I assure her benignly that I’m having a great time.

My six reflections catch me in the lie, and we all smile with irony.

Their faces. All six of them, with that same self-knowing smug smile. Are they with me, these reflections, or against me? This time I drive away with a sense of having been caught out. Back home I can’t stop thinking about them. Their persistence, their ability to focus. Presumably I deserve their displeasure.

*

Warily, I have come for the last-but-one fitting. Colette busies herself with a new problem, her back to me, leaving me alone, half dressed, surrounded by my several selves. This time I look at them with real coolness, and they look back at me coldly.

It’s as if they want something. They glare, all of them, with the same searching glint. Six pairs of eyes.

I put up a hand, in a gesture, and they all raise their hands at me. But then, suddenly, we split, we separate, yolks from whites, or whites from yolks, and they’re free, or I am, or actually I’m not, because now they’re beckoning, they’re calling me, all of them, and it’s in this moment of weakness that I become theirs. They reach out, pull me, out of the crimson room, and into the other place, their cold reflected world.

I am drawn back by the shameful betrayal of my very own reflections, to the room, the bed on which my mother lay an hour before she died.

*

I’m here early. I’m beside our mother on the day of her death. Again. From nine in the morning, I sit by her, in the small hospice ward that has opened its arms to us. My sister is due at one. My mother and I have until then. She is hooked up to oxygen, and some morphine. She says quietly:

“I was going to ask you to put the post in a pile, and I’d sort it out when I get home. But then I thought: oh no, I won’t be going home.”

Rattling behind me comes from a trolley wheeled in by a bearded elder in a Stetson Hat. I read “Professor Edwards” on his name tag.

“Morning tea, ma’am?” this volunteer asks.

“Do you have cold milk?”

“Ask the nurses,” he says. “What would you like for lunch?”

“What is there?”

“Soup. Fish. Potatoes. Green beans.”

“Is the soup hot?” my mother asks assertively. He inclines his head.

“It will be so.”

“What were you a professor of?” my voice asks as if it means something, which surprisingly turns out to be the case.

“Geology,” he replies, scratching his beard. I think of mountain ranges, valleys and rock-faces and that the universe is billions of years old.

“Find a nurse, darling. I’d like a glass of milk.” Nurses are plentiful here, and I find one immediately. The milk is full fat and cold, and my mother drinks it with appreciation.

“Was that all right?”

“Another please.” I witness my mother drinking two glasses of milk at eleven o’clock, then hot soup at twelve – I steady the spoon. With my help she samples more than half of fried fish mashed potatoes and green beans. And I read her thoughts. I am calm because of the morphine, relaxed by the oxygen, but here’s a discovery. My appetite is not bad, under the circumstances. I may be in a hospice, but I surely have a few good days left.

No. Within an hour she will be dead, handled roughly by the ultrasound technician who will kill her by making her lie flat – so the fluid in her lungs will burst like a dam and flood her heart.

That hasn’t happened yet. At this moment, I’m experiencing an existentially illuminating revelation. I am counting the thousand connections between the threads of life, motherhood, food and bodies – so powerful they are death-defeating. Metaphysical and feet-on-the ground at the same time. Descartes said I think therefore I exist. My mother teaches me, an hour before her death – I eat therefore I am alive. Is it any wonder I have been a daughter on the plump side?

We set off for the ultrasound department. She is jolted from side to side of the corridor as the geologist wheels the iron bed-on-wheels, followed by me and now my sister who has, to my immense relief, come early.

The first time our mother dies my sister stays heroically beside her but can’t stop shaking. Myself, I run away, too terrified. What kind of a mother is this, who has not taught us to accept her ending? “Help us!” I shriek down the empty corridor.

I turn back into the moment, my heart thumping, and here is where the scene takes root, establishes itself, embeds itself. From now, it will simply keep happening. My mother dying her indelible death.

Her eyes roll back, right into her head. Her poor poor head.

And me? I wish I had been able to show some real solidarity, in the face of shock, instead of all that shrieking, leaping, escaping, shaking! But that’s the way it truly was. That scene happened. So from now and for always it will roll like a box-office hit the minute it finds an opportunity.

The truth. Look at myself in any mirror, with honesty, and it will be there. So I nod towards my reflections, and they nod back. It’s a draw, I suppose. Or stalemate or checkmate between me and them. Is that me, or them, smiling in that grim and finally knowing way?

*

“Just for my satisfaction. Try this on one more time.” Colette’s voice is crisp, assertive, but I refuse. So she sets about folding the dress, then swaddles it in tissue paper, finally placing it in a gold-fringed paper carrier bag. Instead of handing me the bag, she sits down, folds her arms, and nods, as if expecting me to sit down too, and say something to her. Perhaps she wants me to explain my obsessive staring at her glass walls.

But I say my goodbyes standing, then turn to leave. I open the front door, and see bees circling the herbs. She follows me to the path outside. I hold out my hand, take hers. I thank her for her devoted work, then out I go. I open the car, and toss the gold-fringed bag onto the back seat.

Deborah Freeman

About Deborah Freeman

Deborah Freeman is a playwright, and also writes short stories and some poetry. Poems have been published in Poetry Review and other journals. Stories have been published in Stand Magazine, Writers’ Forum, and since last year, in the Momaya Press 2018 Anthology of Short Stories, entitled Coming of Age. Stories published online include “Waving in the Wind”, on the website Words for the Wild. She is currently completing a novel, set in Jerusalem at the time of the Six Day War, called Paper in the Cracks, and working with a fringe venue towards a production of her new play Remedies.

Deborah Freeman is a playwright, and also writes short stories and some poetry. Poems have been published in Poetry Review and other journals. Stories have been published in Stand Magazine, Writers’ Forum, and since last year, in the Momaya Press 2018 Anthology of Short Stories, entitled Coming of Age. Stories published online include “Waving in the Wind”, on the website Words for the Wild. She is currently completing a novel, set in Jerusalem at the time of the Six Day War, called Paper in the Cracks, and working with a fringe venue towards a production of her new play Remedies.

2 comments

  1. E. Wendie Shaffer says:

    Enthralling! I read every word (I guess it was Deborah’s voice I heard inside my head!) and slowed down as I reached some particularly vividly-described detail. So much packed into so short a space. A life: being a girl, being a woman, being a mother. Thank you Debbie, I am still, and watching the evening light fade.
    I will read it again and send it to friends and family.

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