The Red Dress (by Jennifer Pickup)
The dummy in the window of the charity shop looked uncomfortable. Rather than being dressed in her customary cast-offs; pleated skirts and jackets with shoulder pads; she was resplendent today in the most beautiful red dress. The full, silky skirt flowed down to the ground while the tight, boned bodice bound her somewhat flat chest tightly. Her stone-frozen face appeared to be wincing. Perhaps the enthusiastic old ladies had laced her corset too tight.
Ella snickered to herself, laughing to imagine that a dummy had feelings, and carried on walking home from school, along the High Street towards the Newsagents. It had cheered her up, anyway; Miss Mincham had been horrible to her today, telling her off for not doing her English homework right in front of the whole class. It wasn’t her fault that she didn’t possess an Imagination. Ella really didn’t see what was so wrong with writing about real life anyway; it was so much more interesting than fiction. Perhaps Miss Mincham didn’t have a very interesting real life, and that was why she was continually worrying about Creative Writing. Perhaps Miss Mincham needed her Imagination.
In the Newsagents, she bought herself some chocolate: Dairy Milk. It was an unimaginative choice, and perhaps that was why it suited her. She sat on the park bench in the church graveyard and ate it, occupying herself by reading the inscription on the plaque screwed to the back: Jane Symons. Disappeared without trace, aged 16, 1972. Remembered with love by her family. Ella wondered what had happened to Jane, swallowing the comforting chocolate while contemplating her fate. Finishing the bar, she rose from the bench and walked back along the High Street towards the cut-through, back past the charity shop window, where she paused to look at the dress again.
It was the kind of dress that belonged in somebody’s Imagination; totally out of place in Keynsham town centre on a Monday afternoon, trapped in the dingy window among the unwanted detritus of people’s lives. It was the kind of dress that a beautiful lady would wear to a ball or a party. It wasn’t the kind of dress that fourteen-year-old girls aspired to, strappy and glittery and short; it was totally unsuitable for the school disco. Jordan Davies was bound to step on it; that is, if he bothered to dance with her; and she’d probably end up spilling her coke down it and looking like she’d wet herself.
But strappy and glittery and short dresses, the kind you could buy in Topshop and New Look, they cost money; twenty, thirty, forty quid, and Ella didn’t have a lot of money, unlike Rachel Parker, who had shoes that had cost her Mum nearly a hundred pounds and a pair of Chanel sunglasses that her Aunt had given her for her birthday. Ella stared at the red dress, thinking that she should go in and try it on. She’d look like an Oscar-winner headed for the red carpet; she’d look slightly out of place in the Sports Hall, no matter how many glitter balls Mrs Trewitt had rounded up, or how dim the lights were. But at least she wouldn’t look poor; that dress must have cost a fortune new, with all that tiny stitching and silken material and, if you looked closely, delicate embroidery around the top of the bodice, studded with tiny red stones.
The little bell jangled as she pushed open the glass charity shop door and made her way to the dummy in the window. The dress was even more beautiful without the dingy window to hide its glory; the red silky material gleamed in the fluorescent light, and the little tiny jewels sparkled enticingly. Ella reached out her fingers to turn over the price tag, dangling from one of the eyelets that the corset lacing ran through; eight pounds fifty, it read. Ella nodded to herself. Yes, that was do-able. She had that fiver that Granddad had given her for mowing the lawn last week, and should be able to scrape together the remaining three pounds fifty. There was at least two quid left in her pocket from her lunch money fund, and she could raid the sofa for the loose change that sometimes fell down there out of Dad’s pockets.
‘Can I help you, dear?’ The little old lady behind the counter had a friendly voice, but Ella shook her head.
‘I want to try on the dress, but I haven’t got the money with me, and I don’t want you to go to the trouble of getting it off the dummy unless I can afford to buy it if it fits.’ Ella explained. ‘Can I come back tomorrow and try it on?’
‘Of course you can! I’m working tomorrow too, so I’ll see you then! What’s your name, love?
‘Ella,’ said Ella.
The next day, Ella couldn’t wait to finish double Biology and get back to the charity shop to try on the dress. She hoped that nobody else had tried it on and bought it. As soon as the last bell rang, she whipped out of the classroom, and ran straight into Miss Mincham, scattering her marking everywhere.
‘Sorry!’ she gasped, dropping to her knees and desperately gathering up homework.
‘Ella!’ Miss Mincham exclaimed. ‘Try and see if your Imagination is down there, while you’re at it!’
Ella grimaced. Miss Mincham thought she was funny; perhaps her Imagination had clicked up a gear into ‘Delusional’.
‘Have you re-written your homework yet, Ella?’ demanded the teacher. ‘I’m still waiting for a fictional story from you, in order to give you your level for this term.’
‘Err,’ stalled Ella, ‘yes, I’m on it, I’ll have it finished by Friday.’
‘I look forward to reading it,’ Miss Mincham smiled.
The red dress was waiting for her in the window. Ella stood and contemplated it for a moment, her eyes travelling up and down the dummy. Once again, her expression seemed strangely tense, and Ella noticed something odd; the dummy’s fists were clenched. That was odd; dummies usually had their hands in elegant poses, with long, slender fingers stretched out. She dismissed the thought as the nice old lady appeared at the window, waving at her from behind the dummy and beckoning her to come in.
She watched as the old lady unlaced the bodice and peeled the delicate silky fabric from the dummy. Ella thought she heard the dummy sigh with relief as the material slid from her plasticky form, but then giggled at her own fancifulness; if she wasn’t careful, she might grow an Imagination and cause Miss Mincham to have a heart attack when she handed in a brilliant story for homework. It must have been the old lady.
It felt weird taking off her school uniform in the dingy charity shop changing room. She removed her jumper, her skirt and her shirt, but kept her underwear on, obviously. Her bra straps would show because the dress was strapless, but she didn’t care; there was no way she was taking off her bra in a public place!
She decided to step into the dress, rather than pulling it over her head; it was easier. The cool, soft silk slid easily up her bare legs and she wriggled to nest her boobs in the boning of the corset. Once she had it in position, the old lady urged her to open the door so that she could lace her up, then she could get the full effect when she looked in the mirror.
The old lady was surprisingly strong; her knarled fingers worked quickly to lace up the bodice, darting the lacings in and out of the eyelets like wildfire. Then she pulled them all tight, right down to the bottom. Ella felt like a huge trainer being laced up by an Olympic athlete, so tightly did the old lady pull the lacings.
‘That’s a bit tight!’ she gasped. ‘I can hardly breathe!’
‘It’s supposed to be tight,’ the old lady explained, finishing off. ‘That’s the style. Look what it’s done for your waist!’ and she turned Ella around to face the mirror.
The mirror-Ella twisted and preened, angling her body this way and that, so that the silky material and the red stones caught the fluorescent light and glinted, and the flowing skirt whirled out. The old lady was right; her waist was tiny, her boobs looked bigger, and her tired old white bra straps only looked slightly incongruous.
The old lady cackled, a delighted peal of noise that seemed to bubble around Ella. Then she heard another sigh, and a slight cracking. She glanced sharply across at the dummy, now standing naked in the window, facing back into the shop. Ella was astonished to see that the dummy’s face was now locked in a wide, happy smile, and her long, elegant fingers were unfurled.
‘Did you see the dummy move?’ she asked the old lady, somewhat hesitantly, thinking that she must sound slightly mad, turning back towards her.
The old lady’s admiring eyes were still on her. ‘Yes, it fits you so much better than it does Jane; your figure fills it just perfectly.’ She reached out and pushed Ella slightly further towards the window. ‘See what it looks like in the daylight, dear, away from the fluorescent strips. You go over there by the other one, and I’ll bring the mirror.’
Ella frowned. The other one? What did the old lady mean? She wandered over to the window and stood next to the naked dummy, trying to see if the light really did make the dress look different.
‘Here you are,’ the old lady had brought over the mirror, and was now standing, holding it for Ella to see. ‘Jane always was so plain, the skirts and jackets are much more her, but I can see that I’ll have to dig out the best for you. Evening dresses and summer wear, and I think there’s even a gorgeous fur coat in the back…’
Ella thought the old lady might just have flipped. ‘Err, I’ll take the dress. Let me just get my purse and change back into my school uniform.’
But the old lady shook her head. ‘Not yet, dear, just look into the mirror and then you’ll see that the dress looks so well, so well that I’m going to keep you in it for a bit, before we try anything else on you. We’ve got forever, after all!’ and she laughed again, gesturing to the mirror.
Ella couldn’t resist. One last look, and then she’d make a break for it. Just to please the batty old charity shop lady. She really did look gorgeous in the dress…she clutched her chest as she felt the material tighten. The lacing was pulling tighter, and yet the old lady was still in front of her, still holding the mirror. She tried to reach around to the lacings, but her arms seemed strangely stiff; the muscles refused to move. She tried to glance down at her hands, but her neck wouldn’t let her. She opened her mouth to speak, but her throat had closed. She glanced desperately at the old lady, who was smiling, looking very pleased. In the mirror, a beautiful dummy was modelling the red dress, a dummy that looked very like Ella.
‘Right then, Ella,’ the little old lady said, putting down the mirror. She picked up some scissors and came across to Ella, snipping away the unsightly white bra straps from her shoulders. Then she turned her around and pushed her forwards into the window. Ella tried to reach out to bang on the glass, to scream at the afternoon shoppers in the High Street beyond it, but she was completely frozen, and as dumb as the dummy beside her.
‘Right then, Jane,’ said the old lady. Ella could see her reflection in the glass as she turned to the naked dummy. ‘Let’s find you something else to wear.’
Word count: 2,000