The Little Black Dress
Vicky is walking through a narrow mews she has taken quite by accident. She is only a few minutes from the club but feels lost; it is as if miles from anywhere. She comes to a stop outside a shop and gazes up at a little black dress that is short, sleeveless, unassuming. Like me, she thinks.
The thought whisks away as her curiosity moves from the dress to the mannequin wearing it. She has long brown hair, brown eyes and sulky lips like she's been waiting for a boyfriend and has reached the moment when she knows he's not going to show up. The mannequin's head is turned to one side and she has one leg slightly raised, as if she has better things to do than just stand there.
As Vicky glances at her watch, she glimpses someone she doesn't know in the window's reflection and leans closer to make sure it's her. She checks her hands, counts her fingers, then stares back again at the mannequin; her forlorn look is awfully real and she wonders how they do that, how they shape plaster and make it human.
The mews is unlit and she has to wind through a series of horse posts that are leaning at odd angles along the way. Rain polishes the old cobbles staring up at her like a sea of eyes. Crossing Sloane Square is a test of wills. The traffic comes at you like fleeing rats and the Albanian girls with their headscarves and sleeping babies always make her think of the story of the Good Samaritan as she passes them by.
The tube has the smell of a charity shop. Vicky finds it odd that people who own cars use public transport. In a car, you can listen to your own music, think your own thoughts. There's no one to tell you what to do. She hangs from the overhead bar like an orang-utan, a book jiggling before her eyes, a backpack from some other passenger cuffing her about the ear. It belongs to a plump girl with blonde hair and an accent that drums like the train wheels, da-da da-da dum, da-da da-da dum, Norway or Finland, one of those places where they make luggage for exploring new worlds.
She gives up reading and just stands there staring at herself in the carriage window. She's wearing an anorak over a yellow jogging suit, the name of the club across her breast in green letters. Her eyes are glazed, her hair held back with an elastic band the postman has used to secure one of Fergus's bundles of letters.
When Vicky gets home, Fergus is browning cloves of garlic; there's an Irish jig on the radio. He kisses her on the side of the mouth and the wiry hair of his beard goes up her nose and makes her sneeze.
"Baby's got a cold, some good hot soup's what you need."
"A cold glass of wine's what I need," she replies. She gazes at herself in his blue eyes until he blinks.
"I'll open a bottle. You go and rest." He turns to add a pinch of thyme to the pot. "How was your day?"
"Cadaverous," she tells him. She likes this word and uses it whenever she can.
She spends a long time sitting on the loo. It would be nice to find fault with Fergus, have a good row, break something, but Vicky doesn't have the energy. She gazes around the room. There's potpourri in a bowl and a row of miniature Buddhas Fergus has brought back from the Far East. They all have the same intense smile and seem to be checking she uses only one square of paper to wipe herself dry.
She stands and turns to the mirror. Looking into her eyes is like opening a drawer full of forgotten things she ought to throw away. The future is a grey day in London, as inscrutable as the smiles on the plaster Buddhas. I'm twenty-three, an old maid, she says, then remembers she'd married Fergus during her last year at college. She's a physical training pro, teaching thin women how to keep their husbands by growing cadaverous. "You can't be too thin or too rich," they whisper, as if it's original, hating her for being young.
Her diploma hangs on the wall at the club. Fergus has degrees in all sorts of things and had been collecting a new one in Peace Studies when they met. He is one of those men you see on the six o'clock news with a faded shirt and earnest blue eyes surrounded by black people at famines and floods. Fergus is the voice of calm, a steady pair of hands, a brow furrowed and sown with millennial angst. In the early days of their relationship, Vicky would nuzzle against his neck, feel protected, as if his beard were an umbrella on a rainy day, a parasol in the sun, his shoulder a shelter in the storm. She had liked his long nose, the fact that he had few doubts and she agreed with his maxim that if you own more than two pairs of shoes someone in the Third World is going barefoot - and it's your fault.
She crawls into the wardrobe and counts three pairs of trainers, some sandals furred with last summer's sand and a pair of walking boots she keeps meaning to polish. They are members of the Ramblers' Association and when Fergus isn't saving the world they go out to save a Public Footpath from a thieving landowner. Life is an endless battle of Little Things. If everyone did their bit about the Little Things, the Big Things would take care of themselves.
She is leafing through her old clothes when her name comes singing up the stairs. For a moment she imagines it's her mother calling and has to make an effort not to shed a tear.
"Vicky. Vicky. V-i-c-t-o-r-i-a. Dinner's ready."
"Don't let it get cold."
Ah - nut roast, pureed parsnips, organic tomatoes in a sesame seed sauce. Fresh fruit. And a documentary about life on a Guatemalan coffee plantation. How we in the Developed World can torture the suffering swarms of Central America by actually drinking the stuff is a mystery that makes Fergus crack his knuckles and pulls at his beard. He sits forward, glaring at the screen, and still notices out of the corner of his eye as she quietly refills her glass.
"Naughty girl. Two units. That's the limit," he says.
"It's only my second," she whispers. It's a lie, of course, and Vicky is relieved that he doesn't whip out some requisite reading from the World Health Organization. Fergus is so scrupulous about what she eats and drinks, Vicky's convinced she's going to live forever and worries sometimes that she isn't living at all.
She is playing with the candle wax and lets it burn her fingers.
"Now you know what happens if you play with fire."
His eyes are glowing, growing larger as he approaches with a kiss. "Up the wooden hill," he says, and she listens as he returns the wine to the kitchen, unscrews the cork from the opener, shoves the cork back in the bottle and sticks the bottle in the fridge.
Fergus has an early flight next morning to Geneva and two days of very important talks. The running bath is a reminder. She strips off her nightie, makes a warm spot in the middle of the bed and discovers her sister's face in the ceiling cracks. Fergus smells of banana shampoo when he climbs in beside her. He balances on one elbow to extinguish the lamp, wriggling at the same time from his pyjamas. He stretches her out as if she's a roll of cloth, his knees slicing like shears between her legs, and he drums along like a sewing machine, shaping her fabric into an image he sees in his own eyes. Her eyes are pressed shut and she imagines she's at the funfair riding the big dipper, going up and down, moving faster and faster. Warm air races over her bare arms and legs. There's a strong arm around her shoulders. In her mind, she's wearing the little black dress, new shoes. She surprises herself with the thought. She shrieks at the top of her voice and Fergus freezes like a bird shot in flight.
"Shush," he says. "The neighbours."
The dress is still there when she passes on her way to work that morning; she returns at lunchtime. A woman sitting at a desk writes in a ledger; she has the same accent as the ladies in the club but she isn't thin and she's plainly reluctant to take the dress out of the window.
"It's two hundred pounds, you know."
"Two hundred pounds? For a second-hand dress."
The woman winces, as if she's drinking tea with too much sugar in it. "It's not second-hand. It's a classic."
"I'd still like to try it on." Vicky stubbornly waits as Miss Snobby reads the green script on her jogging suit. "If I may," she adds.
They work as a team, manhandling the mannequin out of the window and Vicky stands face to face with the plaster girl. They eye each other like two cats as the woman unzips the dress.
"It's Chanel, circa nineteen sixty-eight," she says.
The words reach Vicky as if muffled through the wall from another room. As she moves away, the eyes of the mannequin follow her and she remembers seeing a painting at the Tate that did that. They're the same height, Vicky and the mannequin, just over five-six. Vicky finds that momentarily odd, aren't models normally taller?
"There's a changing room in the back."
Vicky slips off her clothes. Her skin tingles as she pulls the dress over her head. She runs her hands down her arms, over her breasts. The world starts to spin. She finds it hard to breathe and for a second it feels as if a stranger's fingers are reaching for her throat. She stumbles barefoot into the shop, gasping for air.
The woman circles her like a dancer, zipping the dress up over her spine, moving her to the mirror. Vicky's eyes are glassy, her lips pale, unsmiling. She drops her head to one side. She looks like someone else.
"Delicious," the woman says. She has big teeth and a long nose like Fergus.
Vicky takes the elastic band from her hair, shaking it free, shifting her thoughts like sand in a sieve, searching for gold. She turns, one way, then the other. The woman comes up behind her holding another mirror and Vicky sees her reflection bouncing between them, moving faster and faster.
"You know something, Chanel could have cut it for you," the woman says.
"I'll take it," she replies, although she'd had it in her mind not to. Two hundred pounds is more than a year's wages for people in Guatemala.
Miss Snobby becomes Miss Friendly as she makes out the bill. She writes something in her ledger, then produces a black handbag.
"It goes with the dress." Vicky is about to speak, but the woman stops her. "It's a gift," she adds.
The woman places the dress in one bag, the handbag in another and Vicky makes her way towards the Kings Road feeling so light the bags could be wings carrying her aloft. She remembers her vision from the night before, the funfair lights, the rush of air as she rode the big dipper and it occurs to her that dreams always fade on waking. Life is like that: you dream, you wake, then there's nothing.
She enters a shoe shop and watches a sea of shoes spread about her feet as she searches for the perfect pair. The girl helping has a worried look as if affairs of state are being weighed in the balance. Music plays through vents in the ceiling and, as she slips from shoe to shoe, Vicky feels like dancing. She has to close her eyes in order to make a decision and finally points her finger at the black suede pumps with satin bows. "These," she says, and the girl nods with approval.
Outside, the sky has turned blue. The clouds have gone. Vicky notices several people smiling, and they're not even idiots. The look of hope she sees in the eyes of the young becomes hopelessness in the old. When does it change? At thirty? At forty? It was scary. It always changes. Even the rich aren't happy. The women are cadaverous. Their men are sleek and dissatisfied. There was some answer, to something, some mystery no one ever solves.
Her thoughts vaporize at the entrance to a boutique where the walls are studded with TVs showing models on catwalks. She had known the moment she tried on the little black dress with her wash-and-wear knickers she'd have to dig deeper into her savings for new underwear. She unearths two sets, one black, one white, both so pretty it's hard to make up her mind. A girl with arched eyebrows appears with an exaggerated shrug; she's Italian or French and wears a grey chiffon scarf that floats about her long neck like a cobweb.
"Get both, why don't you," she says. "It's only money."
"How true," says Vicky and does.
An envelope would be large enough for the four pieces of silk, but after being layered in tissue and fed into a cardboard tube, she needs another bag, a pink one splashed with an orange sunburst. As she strides back along the Kings Road, Vicky realizes she's rushing and it strikes her that the thin ladies always carry lots of bags and they're always rushing. There's something about new things in shiny bags that makes life urgent. Everyone's on the move, except the beggars, and the more loaded you are the less you see them.
Amanda runs her eyes over Vicky's packages when she arrives at the club.
"Do you know what time it is?" she says, inhaling deeply for suspense.
The hands of the clock are joined at ten past two and Vicky has forgotten to have lunch.
"Mrs Scott-English abhors being kept waiting."
Amanda drums red nails on the reception desk as Vicky races to the gym. The blinds are half-closed; they run vertically over tall windows and as Mrs Scott-English crosses the floor in her silver leotard she alternates between being there and not being there, a needle hemming strips of light.
Vicky loves having the house to herself. Mugs spread across tables and shelves leaving rings she'll scrub away before Fergus gets back from saving the world. She remembers the poor people in Guatemala as she brews Kenyan roast and thinks about the Small Things. And the thing about the Small Things is, you can't think about them all the time. You should, but you just can't.
Her eyes drop down the CD stack: Mozart, Tibetan chants, African hymns; she likes classical music, she doesn't mind the occasional chant, but when Fergus is away she indulges in nostalgia, the music she listened to when she was a child bringing back bittersweet memories of her parents. It also brought with it the heat of the fire that whipped through their cottage, leaving nothing but a pile of ash, and her sister Rachel sitting at her side in the crematorium in a skirt so short the curate couldn't take his eyes off her legs. Rachel was living in Barcelona with an artist named Begonia. They came to the funeral together, both with hair cut boyishly short and matching ear-rings, and left after the service to return to Spain. They're always asking her to go and visit but Fergus doesn't approve of that sort of thing!
She sifts through the cassettes in the drawer, Police, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan strolling through Greenwich Village, a girl on his arm, a fag in his mouth. Hasn't he seen the figures from the World Health Organization? She hears herself laugh and wishes she still had the bag of grass hidden in the broken clock that had stood on the shelf at college. She hasn't smoked a joint since meeting Fergus.
The smell of coffee seeps into the present. She puts on the cassette and is startled that she knows the songs so well. She couldn't recall that she'd ever paid much attention to the words, but there they all are, slipping from her mouth as if she was the girl clinging to Bob's arm in New York, circa nineteen sixty eight.
The little black dress hangs on the back of the door. The shoes are in their box. The new undies are still wrapped in tissue, gifts to herself. She dances around the room in a striptease and stops dead before the telephone. Fergus will ring at half past ten to make sure she's tucked up in bed with a cup of camomile and a novel he's chosen for her. The world would be a better place if everyone read twenty pages of a book a day.
Vicky showers and washes her hair. She uses the dryer to make it fall straight and only becomes aware that she's cutting a fringe while she's in the middle of doing it. She rings her eyes in make-up, paints her lips pink, then wipes it off and uses red instead. She likes walking about without any clothes on; she wonders if there's someone watching from across the street with binoculars and passes back and forth in front of the windows, just in case.
She dresses slowly, lingering over each movement, opening the first package, the silky white knickers passing through her fingers and loosening the scent of warm flesh on sunny beaches. The bra was designed by an engineer who started out on aeroplanes and knows how to keep objects heavier than air free of gravity. How adorable her breasts look in their little cups. Like prizes. First prize goes to...Miss Page. And the second prize to...Miss Page. Vicky Greenham? Never heard of her.
The shoes are next. As she slips them on, her shoulders straighten, her spine bows, pushing out her hips, her rib cage, her breasts. She detects a smile on her lips. If Fergus could see her now he'd come all over Zen and tell her a koan.
As she passes the telephone it leaps up at her like a cat. She calms it with a firm hand, then pulls the jack from the wall. "There. Now be quiet."
It's time for the little black dress. It slips over her body like clingfilm, sliding into position as oil slicks over the sea. She closes her eyes and opens them in front of the mirror.
"Wow. Really fab," she says to herself and dances her way through the coffee cups singing The Times They Are A Changin'. Around her shoulders she throws an old velvet jacket that she'd bought when she was still Victoria Page and hasn't worn since becoming Vicky Greenham. She puts her things in the black handbag and floats through the door in a shower of Spanish perfume. I'm twenty-three. I'm alive. Click-click. Clickety-click. She hears the ring of her new shoes striking the pavement and looks down at her legs; they are pale and long below the little black dress and seem to be in a hurry.
Pages of discarded newspapers shift over the floor in the tube. Riots in Paris, ran the headlines. Students on the Rampage.
She's back in Sloane Square. The night is clear. Spring has come like a letter from a friend. The air smells of smoke and flowers. She drifts into a place called Twist & Shout. She has never noticed it before and wouldn't normally have gone into a theme bar without giving it some thought. Her shoes are doing the walking for her.
"Cuba libre," she hears herself say. She has always wanted to say that and isn't exactly sure what it is. She drops her bag on the bar. Coke bubbles tickle her nose, the alcohol touching nerve points like little reminders of who she used to be. The music comes from far away, from the past, and two boys who look like girls are dancing, although it isn't really dancing, more a sort of swaying motion like washing caught on the breeze.
"Straight out of Hair," says another boy, climbing on the stool beside her. She has no idea what he's talking about. She has been gazing at herself in the mirrored walls behind the bar; she looks different in each square of glass, older in one, younger in another, cheerful and lonely, lost and hopeful, a stamp collection of Victoria Pages.
"Don't apologise, don't explain, have another drink."
"I'll think about it."
He cracks his knuckles. "Didn't I see you in here last night?" He's grinning, shaking his head, scratching his long nose.
"You'll have to do better than that."
"I've definitely seen you somewhere."
"In a shop window probably," she replies; he laughs and she isn't sure why she said that.
"Come on, let's have another."
His eyes shift over her glass, her breasts, her eyes. That's the thing with a little black dress. You can stand in the pub supping pints for hours in an anorak and no one gives you a second glance. You run a razor over your legs, slip on a dress and the world turns with infinite possibilities.
He orders drinks and she doesn't care how many units she's had. She stares at him through the fizz: he's retro man in embroidered jeans, a collarless shirt, long hair. His eyes reflect the lights: blue, yellow, red, then blue again.
"Now, let me think, you're a model, right?" he says.
"I bet you've said that before."
"No, I mean it. I've seen pictures of you."
"In your dreams."
"Maybe," he says, and maybe he's right. There had been someone sitting next to her as she rode the big dipper.
"Well, what shall we do?" he asks her.
"We could finish our drinks."
"There's a funfair at Battersea Park," she says.
"Nice one. I love funfairs."
"So do I," she adds, although she doesn't, and she didn't know there was a funfair at Battersea. The posters must have read themselves to her while she wasn't looking.
He offers cigarettes and she takes one. They light up and she licks her fingers, snuffing out the match.
"Careful, you know what happens if you play with fire."
"What?" she asks.
"Just wait and see."
Blue ghosts of smoke drift from their mouths, dancing above their heads. The room sways. She feels a bead of perspiration run down her back. They finish their drinks. The night is warm. It claws at her clothes. The stars are dots and if she could join them up they'd tell the future. She thinks for a moment about Fergus. She wonders why she doesn't feel guilty; she doesn't feel anything at all.
Words are coming at her like a Tibetan chant. He speaks of bombing raids and not trusting anyone over thirty, ranting on like a poet or a madman.
"Are you listening to me?" he says and sounds like Fergus when he catches her daydreaming. Their hair colour and eyes are the same.
"I wouldn't want to miss a word."
He puts his arm around her as they hurry across the road to the bridge. The river is the colour of rain on cobblestones.
"Hey, dig the sound."
They stare across the park. A mushroom of light hangs over the funfair. The music is distorted until they draw closer and she hears people singing Those were the days my friend/We thought they'd never end, then they go da-da da-da dum, da-da da-da dum, mimicking the wheels on the underground.
She can smell toffee apples and candy floss. She remembers being a child, her small hand in her father's hand as they walked endlessly towards the horizon. She has spent her whole life waiting for something. The crowd is a tide, pushing them round the helter-skelter, the coconut shy, a man guessing people's weight. The man with her is like a tune you can't get out of your head. She doesn't know his name but knows he's strong by the way he swings a mallet against a wooden block, ringing the bell. The crowd applauds. He wins a yellow gonk. His eyes sparkle like the blue flashes running over the wire roof of the dodgems. He kisses her on the lips, claiming her as a prize, pressing the gonk in her hand. She can feel the want in him like an addiction.
They ride the big dipper. Warm air strokes her body with invisible hands. His arms circle her shoulders. She watches the world change colour; it spins still as they step out of the swaying metal car, the crowd pushing them towards the mirror maze. She has an urge to see herself, check it's really her, that she's really there.
She enters the labyrinth, twisting and turning, her image trapped and misshapen. She stops at a curved mirror and remembers the mannequin in the shop window, her foot raised. She draws back and her head vanishes. As she steps closer, she grows smaller and smaller, a black fleck connected to nothing.
His hands reach for her waist. She can feel his touch but can't see his reflection. It's like he's not there, but he is there, turning her in circles along the corridor, black dresses flickering by in a blur of shadow. He spins her again and again. She is tired suddenly and feels deceived when the way out of the maze is through the same door they'd entered.
He leads her away from the crowds as if her will has been left with her image, fused on the glass, consumed by the lights and music. Her back is damp. She clutches her bag. The thud of her footsteps rise up at her with numb inevitability. She sees herself standing outside herself, detached and fascinated.
There is an iron fence along the embankment and the grass on the other side dips down to a walkway below the bridge. There is a gate ahead. The gate will be locked and he is going to help her climb the gate before jumping down behind her. He will take her hand, lead her across the grass and under the bridge. She sees this clearly. She knows what he is going to say when they reach the gate. They stop.
Don't know why there's a gate if it's always locked.
She feels oddly alive, fully awake. She studies his face like someone lost studying a map.
Come on, I'll give you a hand to get over.
She's paralysed. He starts kissing her, stroking her back. She wants to fight him off. She can feel the instinct rising inside her and knows she has to ignore it, break the flow.
Come on then.
"Come on then."
She hears the voice in her head, then his voice, an echo. It was uncanny, exciting. She can feel a thick knot of flesh pressing through her dress, sense his impatience. The stroking has stopped; his hands are gripped behind her back. He wants to hurry her, not frighten her. His mind races. She hears it like a persistent hum heard in deep sleep. She keeps her eyes open as she presses forward, kissing him, forcing her tongue into his mouth. Strong hands drift up her skirt, over her bottom. She's panting, arching her spine, his body weighing against her like a stone slab.
"You go first," she says.
She smiles, turning her head to one side, looking up at him with glassy eyes. A frisson of uncertainty brushes his features. He wedges his foot in the metal bars of the gate and glances back before swinging his leg over. He knows something's wrong but it's too late. As he jumps down on the grass, she turns, running, and keeps running until the sounds of the night ebb to silence.
The zip sticks and she has to turn the dress back to front before she can take it off. It falls to the floor and she steps away as if the fabric is alive. She bends to touch it and her fingers tingle with static.
She decides not to reconnect the telephone. She's tired, a new kind of tired, as if she's walked across a desert or saved people from a burning house. It feels good. She sleeps without moving or dreaming and wakes with a list written in her head. She drinks two cups of coffee while she packs the handbag with the black dress and sets out for the tube. She drops coins in the cups of the Albanian girls and wonders why their babies are always sleeping. She crosses Sloane Square and enters the cobbled mews that leads to the shop.
It's closed, and she wouldn't have thought it was the same shop if it wasn't for the mannequin in the window. Her head has been removed and is lying on the floor. Her hair has gone; there are scratches on her plaster skin. Victoria goes down on her haunches and the brown eyes of the model are dead eyes looking back at her.
She winds her way between the horse posts and arrives at the club. Amanda drums her nails and Mrs Scott-English stands in the corner like a skeleton in a doctor's surgery.
"You and time are out of sync," says Amanda and it's so perceptive it's hard to believe Amanda said it.
Victoria leaves the dress bag beside the reception desk and removes her diploma from the wall.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Starting again," Victoria replies, retreating to the door, the diploma under her arm.
"What about this?" Amanda is pointing at the dress bag.
"Keep it," she says, and smiles at Mrs Scott-English on her way out.
She catches a bus to Trailfinders, books a seat on the next flight to Barcelona, then returns home to pack. She dresses in jeans and the velvet jacket. Apart from her new shoes and underwear, she's only taking her cassettes and the things she'd had before she'd met Fergus.
When she sits down to write a letter, Victoria considers telling him about the little black dress, but dismisses it. Fergus wouldn't believe that sort of thing and she was beginning to doubt whether she believed it herself. Life with Fergus has been a lie and one more lie should do the trick. She feels a smile coming on as she explains that she has the same preferences as her sister and, though she'd tried, she couldn't fight it any more. She'd met someone, a girl like her.
As she's washing the coffee cups, Victoria remembers the baffled look in the man's eyes as he insisted he'd seen pictures of her before. But where, she wondered? She has four hours before the flight and the idea of going to the library comes to her like the answer to a riddle. She leaves the keys with the letter, closes her bag and sets off to Kensington High Street.
Victoria asks for the newspapers for nineteen sixty eight and sits at a cumbersome machine with a pile of microfilms. She's not exactly sure what she's looking for but knows she's getting warmer when she sees the headlines about student riots in Paris.
She rolls the film slowly forward and stops at a picture of a girl in a black dress. Model Found Dead in Battersea. She had been strangled. Victoria rolls on through May and June. In July a man was arrested. A photograph appears when he comes to trial. His hair has been cropped in prison, he's grown a beard and looks so familiar it makes her shudder. She returns the films to the desk and speaks to a plump woman wearing glasses on a chain.
"Is there a funfair at Battersea?" she asks her.
The woman's chin wobbles as she shakes her head. "No, it closed down years ago."
The woman taps into the computer and peers over the top of her glasses. "Absolutely," she replies.
Victoria hauls her bag up on her shoulder and visits the bathroom.
"Calle de la DiputaciÃ³n, por favor," she tells the mirror.
"NÃºmero ciento veientitrÃ©s."
She smiles as she buttons her jacket. There's a bulge in the pocket. She slides her hand in and pulls out a yellow gonk. It's soft and furry with glass eyes and it takes three flushes before it vanished down the loo.
Â© 2007 Clifford Thurlow