Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Red Velvet Dress by Maisie Bishop


No, none of these would do. Sara skimmed listlessly through the rack of tired-looking dresses on the charity shop rail.  The familiar musty smell filled her nostrils, and despondency filled her heart. She was beginning to feel weary now. She let out a deep sigh.

A kindly-looking woman came over to her from behind the cash desk. 

‘Can I help at all, dear? You seem a bit fed up, if you don’t mind my saying so.’

Sara warmed to her instantly. ‘You’re right. I need a really special dress. It’s my sister’s fiftieth birthday party next weekend, and I’ve absolutely nothing to wear.

The woman looked at Sara for a few seconds. ‘Why don’t you try the new vintage shop that’s just opened round the corner.  They’ve got some lovely stuff.  I think you might find something a bit special there.’

Sara looked at her gratefully. ‘Thanks, I’ll go and have a look.’

Sara could hardly believe that Lizzie was going to be fifty. Her little sister! She wasn’t really looking forward to the party. Lizzie and her friends were all so polished and confident, and they made her feel provincial and dull. Her husband Bill always told her not to worry about it, but she couldn’t help it.

From the outside ‘Past Glories’ looked similar to the charity shops, but inside it was very different. The musty smell was hardly perceptible, and the clothes were attractively displayed by decade on large circular racks. 

Sara gravitated to the 1940s rack, hoping to find a little film star glamour. The stylish shop owner, who reminded Sara slightly of one of Lizzie’s sophisticated friends, approached and explained that the sizes were indicated by tiny coloured ribbons tied to the top of the coat hangers. A nice touch, Sara thought.

 ‘Are you looking for anything in particular?’ asked the owner. 

Struggling not to feel intimidated, Sara told her she was looking for a dress for her sister’s fiftieth party. 

‘Oh, so something really special, then. Did you have any colour in mind?’ 

‘Not really. I think I’ll just browse.’ 

The owner returned discreetly to the back of the shop. ‘Let me know if you need any help.’ 

One dress instantly stood out. It was rich red velvet, V-necked with a small stand up collar, three-quarter length sleeves, a sash round the waist, and a full knee-length skirt.  A line of tiny velvet-covered buttons with loop closures ran down the front of the dress. It looked hardly worn, and felt so soft to the touch. Sara imagined herself in the dress, and felt a little thrill of excitement.

 ‘Please can I try this one on?’ she asked. 

‘Of course.’

‘Thanks.’

 As she undressed, Sara caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Well, she was fifty six, she’d given birth to two children, and she’d never been skinny like Lizzie. The best that could be said was that she was shapely, even if a little plumper than she would have liked. Bill never complained of course, but she regretted the loss of her youthful figure. 

Nervously she unbuttoned the dress and pulled it over her head, then carefully buttoned it up again. To her delight, it was a perfect fit, emphasising the curves of her body, and gently skimming her knees. This was the one! She took it off and for the first time, checked the price tag. Ouch!  Certainly pricier than the charity shop dresses, but if she was careful with the food shopping for the next month or so, it should be OK. She briefly wondered what Bill would say. He was always so careful with money, but surely he’d understand why she needed something special for Lizzie’s grand party. 

Sara left the shop carrying the dress in a paper carrier emblazoned with ‘Past Glories’ in large pink lettering, and caught the bus home. The house was empty. Bill was working the late shift, so wouldn’t be home for a few more hours. She decided to try the dress on again, just to be sure. 

It still made her feel wonderful, and if she was honest, a tiny bit glamorous. Worries allayed, at least for the time being, she sat on the edge of the bed and enjoyed the sensation of wearing the beautiful dress. As she sat down, she felt something small and roundish inside the waistband. ‘Must be a spare button’, she thought. ‘It’s not very comfortable. I’ll cut it out and put it somewhere safe.’ She took the dress off and went to find her glasses and some nail scissors. 

She turned the dress inside-out; felt for the small round object. She found a little bit of rough stitching inside the waistband, as if somebody had hastily mended a small tear. She picked the stitches open, and to her amazement a little gold locket fell out. Sara picked it up and opened it. Inside was a tiny folded piece of paper.  She unfolded it carefully, and to her astonishment she saw a faded black and white photo of a handsome, smiling young man in World War II army uniform. Across the bottom of the photo in barely legible writing were the words ‘To my beautiful one. All my love, John.’ The owner of the dress must have stitched the locket into the dress for safekeeping or secrecy, and nobody had found it until now. Sara could scarcely believe that she should be the one to find it. She took the dress and the locket downstairs, ready to show Bill when he returned. To calm her excitement she made herself a cup of tea and sat down on the sofa.

As she sipped her tea, Sara’s thoughts turned to stories her mother had told her about the wartime years.  She knew that there had been many hasty romances, with emotions heightened by the prospects of long separations and possible death on the battlefield. In fact, her mother’s closest friend Audrey had married her serviceman sweetheart just before he went off to fight, and tragically he had never returned. Audrey had never remarried, and her house was full of photos of her beloved husband. 

Other young women had had more illicit relationships, and Sara suspected that the ‘beautiful one’ must have been one of those women. Otherwise why was the locket so carefully hidden?

‘ What could her story be’, she wondered. ‘Did her parents disapprove of the romance?  Was John already married? Or was she? And what was her name?’

Of course Sara would never know the answer to any of these questions. But there were two important questions to which she did now know the answer. 

Was she worried about what Bill would say when she told him how much the dress had cost? No, because she knew his heart would melt when she showed him the locket and the photo. He was such an old romantic at heart!

Was she worried about going to Lizzie’s posh party and being surrounded by her posh friends. Not at all! For she would carry her secret with her, and stand proud in the red velvet dress, as the spirit of ‘the beautiful one’ lived on through her. 


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