The sun will set within the hour. I turn from the horizon to watch a couple on the cliffs. The young man leaps from high rocks into a churning pool. He surfaces, waves to the girl in the red bathing suit. ‘Jump’ his lips say, but she shakes her head, steps back.
‘Here they are,’ Joyce brays from a walk-in wardrobe bigger than my childhood bedroom. I step from the wide bay window into her room of lilac and lace, pale patterned mats on polished floors, dressing table heavy with potions and perfumes. Joyce, barely visible behind two ball dresses on fancy crocheted hangers, emerges from the wardrobe.
I sink to the down-soft bed, the cerise silk quilt. My stomach churns like that rock pool. I’m in love already.
‘You’re so sweet,’ Joyce had said only that morning. ‘I don’t know what we did before you.’ She pushed black glasses up her nose, closed her lips over prominent top teeth. ‘Not just a filing clerk, you’re a mother hen.’
I’d glanced around, forced a smile; the cafe was full and Joyce loud. Yes, though it’s not my job, I make tea, restock wine biscuits, clean the bench. And file, of course. Faster, more efficiently, she often says, than any school leaver.
‘Sit down, Ellen.’ She waved an arm; gold bangles rattled. ‘What did
you do down south?
Why have you come to Wellington? Have you any family?’ ‘In my application letter . . .’
She leaned back, allowed the waitress to put down the tray. ‘Yes, housekeeping, child care. But there must be more. You’re thirty-six.’ She waited. I decided she could pour. Mother hen indeed. She waited a moment, picked up the pot. ‘You’re a mystery I’m determined to solve.’
She and the other staff. I’ve seen puzzled glances from Roger in his worn corduroy trousers and home-knitted cardigans; from Jen, skinny fifteen-year-old typist, in skirt and twinset. In a past life, I’d have sneaked her an extra pudding, a spare blanket in winter.
And yet she is kind, Joyce Pembleton, office manager. Concerned. ‘Are your digs OK? That side of town . . .’
The rough side, old villa, small room, basic furniture, shared bathroom. I’m used to making do, can’t afford better. ‘Everything’s fine.’
I shook my head.
‘You’re not a talker, are you?’ She pushed a plate of cheese scones towards me. ‘And I’ve never seen you eat.’
I froze. She’s sharper than I thought. I never eat in public, even now.
‘You’ve certainly kept your figure.’ She lit a cigarette, nodded, decision made. ‘You’re coming to the ball. We have to get you out, meeting people.’
‘A ball?’ Hot suddenly, short of breath. ‘No, no.’ What was that fairy tale? ‘Not so fast, Ellen. We’ll be a group. And I have a partner in mind.’ Worse and worse. ‘A man?’ I stuttered. A prince maybe?
Her teeth flared in a loud laugh. Like a horse neighing. Uncharitable thought, five Hail Marys penance tonight.
‘Of course, a man! Unless . . . you’re not?’ The cigarette stopped mid-air.
I blushed. We’d been warned all those years ago. Mary Jacinta, more worldly, had to explain to me. No special friendships. And there hadn’t been, not in that way. But I miss her, though she got me into trouble more than once, her wicked winks, our stifled giggles.
‘No, no. I’m just . . . men . . . not used to . . .’
Not true. I know boys and men, practically brought up six brothers. Three went to war, the younger three were spared the trauma. All drink to drown their guilt. Cigarette butts, sticky beer glasses, empty whisky bottles. Underpants to wash, shirts to iron. Poor mum. Poor wives. I couldn’t stay down south.
‘We’re going to change that! You’re a good-looking woman, good figure, clear skin.’ Her mouth tightened. At my coarse black hair? My brown twinset? ‘One thing at a time. We’d better get back.’ She checked her watch. Gold with tiny sparkling stones.
‘I’ve nothing to wear,’ I blurted. ‘I can’t go.’ Relief. ‘I have two lovely dresses your size. You can choose.’
We walked up Cuba Street. Lone men at bar doors, wild hair, rough clothes. I side-stepped.
We waited for the shaky lift. Joyce touched my arm. ‘I really want you to come. My cousin needs a partner, he’s nice, forty, his wife died a few years ago.’
The ball. I’d hoped she was joking, would forget. ‘But I can’t wear your dress. You’re shorter than me.’
‘Not mine, my friend Ginny’s.’ She pushed the button. ‘Ginny’s biggest regret was being too young for the American GI invasion during the war. Made up for it though, then died in a car crash.’ The lift jerked to a halt. ‘I miss her, she was great fun.’
That night, persuaded by Joyce’s persistence rather than the story of a lonely widower, I’m in her home at the bay, the dresses like glossy meringue on her bed.
‘You’re very pale, Ellen. Stay there, I’ll get water.’ She leaves me alone. I reach to stroke silvery lavender and floral blue pink. Joyce returns and thrusts a glass at me.
I nod. ‘The walk from the bus, this heat.’ My heart thumps, I can barely breathe.
‘Stand up, dear! I think this one.’ She pulls me to a wide full-length mirror, holds in front of me the lavender and silver-grey. ‘Brocade. Tailored for Ginny, of course, I can see her . . .’ Her lips tremble. She pauses, swallows. ‘Full-length sleeveless. Wide pleated collar, falling off the shoulders, a piped waistline and full gathered skirt to give the A-line effect.’
Did Joyce once work in a dress shop?
‘I can lend you a stole, gloves, bag, and a necklace,’ she says. ‘Touch it, don’t be afraid.’
I’m a child again, fingertips exploring Aunt Maggie’s wedding dress, the shining beauty of it, the satin, the lace. ‘She married well,’ my mother used to say, regret in her voice. When Maggie visited, we borrowed unchipped cups from a neighbour.
My hands caress the brocade. The neckline is low, a deep V. The collar, as Joyce said, falls off the shoulders. And sleeveless, just a small cap really.
Will she expect me to try these on? Here? Now? ‘Try it on,’ she says.
I can’t show cleavage. No skin exposed except face and hands for so many years. And I have underarm hair. I’m hot and cold, shaky.
‘Sit.’ She pushes a chair forward. ‘More water? What’s wrong?’
‘Can I try the other one? This one’s a bit old for me.’
‘Too old? It is rather sophisticated, I suppose.’
And I’m not, though she’s too kind to say so. She brings the second dress to the mirror. ‘This has a higher neckline. Sheer nylon, floral pattern in blue grey, pink and white and grey rayon lining. I love the matching cummerbund. A-line again, gathered skirt, lots of petticoats. Like my deb frock,’ she says. ‘What was yours like?’
‘I was never a debutante.’ ‘I thought everyone . . .’
In her world, yes. But once I did dress as a bride, in plain borrowed dress and veil. I made three vows. Obedience had proved the hardest to keep.
‘Take off your skirt and cardy. You can leave the thick stockings.’ I don’t move. ‘You want me to leave?’ Her voice rises in disbelief.
‘I don’t know,’ I whisper. ‘I’ll need help.’
‘Have you never undressed in front of another woman?’ Voice another notch higher. My body shakes.
‘I’ll leave, and when you’re ready, ring that bell on the dresser.’ She rushes to the door, hand over her mouth. Is she laughing?
Alone, I strip, thick stockings and all, throw the nylon dress over my head. The petticoats, weightless on my legs after those years of black serge, float and caress. The cummerbund holds my waist as if tailored for it, the neckline sits high enough for modesty. Perfect except for the lack of sleeves. I pirouette, keeping my arms low.
I ring the bell. I am weeping.
‘My dear, you look beautiful. Don’t cry.’ Joyce rushes forward, hugs me. I sob. She pats my back, comforts me as though she’s fifty and I’m seventeen. ‘Where have
you been all these years?’ She steps back. ‘Prison?’
Not a crazy assumption. ‘The convent,’ I say.
I take a bus home. The second dress fills the large suitcase on my knee. The girl and boy from the cliffs are travelling too. They kiss, he pushes her wet hair from her laughing face.
‘I jumped!’ I hear her say.
I smile, clutch the suitcase. Cinderella, too, is taking the plunge.