by Gill Blow
Ruth ducks inside the pink silk dress, her nose wrinkling at the stale smell from under her arms. She struggles to reach the surface, holding her breath like an underwater swimmer, and gasps as her head is finally released into the air. Sweat creeps into the corners of her eyes and makes them sting, she squeezes them tight, when she opens them she sees herself in the mirror all pink and wobbly, her face bright red, like a blancmange topped with a cherry.
She’s got a three-dimensional viewpoint from the mirrors in the cubicle, front, side, and back. She watches her head turn and look back over her right shoulder. The pleats march like wooden planks across her bum, and the backs of her arms are mottled purple and clash with the pink. She looks at her side view and pulls in her stomach as far as she can, presses her hands on the roll of flesh to push it out of sight, but then her breath runs out and she lets go, watches her belly bulge out and lift the hem about two inches above her knees.
A curled peacock feather is thrust through the curtain behind her, the disembodied voice of her daughter crackles in the air. ‘Try this on mother, just to finish it off.’
Ruth plucks the blue and green feathered fascinator from Cleo’s hand, ‘I feel like a pink blancmange,’ she says through the thick brocade.
‘ Oh, shut up mother, and be quick.’ Her daughter’s voice is bossy, impatient. Ruth suddenly feels her strength draining away, as if everything inside her has turned into lukewarm water and is leaking down inside her legs and seeping out of her toes. All she wants to do is to sit down somewhere and have a cup of tea.
That’s what she kept saying, all the afternoon, but Cleo wouldn’t let her. ‘Not until we’ve got your outfit sorted out. Keep up.’ And she’d given Ruth a severe backward glance before she resumed her march along the polished pretend marble, haughtily rejecting the lure of window displays of thin faceless dummies wearing glitzy dresses, and the exotic smells of Chanel and Estee Lauder. She strode on with frightening purpose, her high heels nimbly side-stepping the hordes of shoppers, bags and buggies. Ruth trudged behind her, trying to ignore the sudden zing of pain from the corn on her little right toe.
Ruth looks at her reflection in the full-length mirror, in a minute, she thinks, she’ll start to disintegrate. She imagines her eyes sliding down each side of her face followed by her melting candle-wax nose, and her mouth twisting grotesquely to one side and slipping off her chin in a horrible final grimace. All that would be left of her would be a sticky candy floss mess on the carpet. Tears come into her eyes, and she lifts her chin up. That’s what that photographer had said, ‘Lift your chin up, Ruth,’ as he darted about and clicked away. He peered through the lens, ‘That’s it, makes you look years younger.’ That was at their Ruby Wedding Anniversary at the Golf Club, Pete’s arm around her shoulders, both of them smiling at the camera. She’d moved the framed photo to her bedroom after Cleo had said it was morbid to have her dad’s smile haunting her every time she walked past the sideboard.
She sticks the fascinator on top of her head, the feather trembles as if in fear of its elevated position. She lifts her chin higher and looks at herself through half-closed eyes, she pulls her skirt out each side with the tips of her fingers, she looks as if she is about to curtsy.
‘I want to see backs like ramrods!’ Miss Smithson-Pope barked. She banged her cane twice on the floor twice as she barked out again, ‘Ramrods! And ready – fingers on tutus, right foot forward – point POINT! – eyes front, chin up high and high and CURT-SY down, slowly, stiff backs! Heads bowing gracefully, hold it, and UP, feet in third position, and so.’ Her black dress gathered chalk dust from the floor as she paced in front of the wall mirror, the tassels on her red shawl fluttered in the draught. Miss Smithson-Pope stopped pacing and with her back to the ballet class, faced the mirror; Ruth could see the thick coil of her black hair trapped in a tortoiseshell comb, she could see the reflection of herself on the second row, a replica of the other nine girls in stiff white net. Sometimes, as she watched herself pointing her toes and arching her arms, as she held her head high and walked elegantly forward to meet her mirror self, she would become Margot Fonteyn’s graceful dying swan, she would be held in a perfect pose on her points by Rudolf Nuryev, she would curtsy low as she received bouquets of flowers and ecstatic applause.
‘Again!’ Miss Smithson-Pope shouted. ‘Do it again. And this time COUNT!’ She turned dramatically on the word and thrust out her cane towards the front row of girls so it came within an inch of Susan Parker’s eyes. This made Susan reel back and collide with Ruth behind her, she stepped on Ruth’s big toe and left black mark on her satin ballet shoe. So Ruth pushed her, and Susan pushed her back, and Ruth shoved her hard and Susan kicked her, and Ruth kicked her back and Susan yelled.
Miss Smithson-Pope struck her cane between them like a sword, ‘Ballet dancers do not get into brawls,’ she commanded. And she banned them from performing at the Dance School’s Gala concert. Ruth’s mother was furious, she’d already made the daisy head- dress, and she was robbed of the honour of seeing her daughter being presented to The Mayor and his Lady wife. After that, Ruth started tap dancing with Miss Lockwood, and later on, when she was older and going out with boys, she joined the ballroom dancing class. That was how she met Pete, dancing, on a Friday night at the Town Hall, when she accepted his invitation to do the quickstep to the music of Teddy Maitland and his Band.
In the confines of her claustrophobic fitting-room at Monsoons, Ruth, in her potential mother of the bride outfit, attempts a curtsy. She got as far as crouching down on both legs before she starts to topple and has to thrust both her arms out wide to steady herself against each of the full length mirrors. She now has a choice, whether to sink slowly and gracefully to the carpet, or push herself upright by inching her hands up the mirrors. She sinks down to the carpet and sits with both her legs stretched straight out in front of her and her hands in her lap, one hand resting contentedly in the palm of the other. She wishes she had something hard behind her to lean against, but there’s only the brocade curtain and if she leans against that she’ll fall out. She can just imagine herself half in and half out of the cubicle with her legs in the air, she snorts and watches her mouth widen into a grin, watches her eyes dance, her cheeks fill out. She likes her face when it laughs.
She hears Cleo chatting in her high whiny voice to someone, must be that little sales girl who’d ushered her into the fitting-room. ‘Oh don’t tell me, I have to do it all!’ And Cleo gives that laugh that’s got no humour in it. A shrill cackle that hurts the ears.
Ruth knows that she’s got barely five minutes before the whole charade starts again. ‘Right,’ she says to her mirror self, ‘I’ve got one more chance.’ She nods her head and the peacock feather nods in unison. She pulls it off and flings it in a corner. She gets onto her knees with the aid of a gilded chair and heaves herself up. She looks in the mirror, and takes a deep breath and lets it out like a long sigh. She wishes she was curled up on the sofa with a bag of salt and vinegar crisps watching Strictly. Her eyes glaze over, and in the mirror she sees Flavia and Vincent, immaculate, arrogant, Flavia’s legs curling like snakes around Vincent’s thighs, her sudden kicks, their hold so close their noses touch; the arch of Flavias’ back yielding as Vincent stretches his body over hers. She hears the hypnotic tango beat as Vincent carries Flavia high and then dramatically sends her spinning away from him across the floor. Flavia, rises to her feet and prowls slowly towards him, her sequinned arms pulled back, her fingers outstretched, her head held high, her long legs striding rhythmically on high heels, she quells him to his knees with a contemptuous toss of her head and triumphantly rests a slim ankle on his shoulder. The crowd roars. Ruth knows the dance by heart, she watches it on U-Tube at least four times a day, sometimes more, it depends on her mood, and whether she can get the computer going.
‘Right mother, that’s it! If you don’t come out now, I’m coming in!’ Cleo shakes the curtain ominously.
‘I’m not wearing this.’ Ruth says rebelliously, thinking of Flavia.
Ruth clears her throat. ‘I know exactly what I want. And it’s not this.’
‘I knew you’d be awkward. Pink is the co-ordinated colour. I told you. You can’t clash with Jonty’s mother, she’s wearing dove grey. You have to wear pink.’
Ruth arranges her face into a haughty stare in the mirror, and says, ‘I don’t have to do anything.’
Cleo says, ‘Oh God, here we go!’
Ruth unzips the side zip, folds her arms, bends to grab the hem and starts to work the dress upwards over her body. She twists and turns to ease it over her hips and belly, and when she’s got the waistband up against her bust she realises she’s stuck. She tries to pull it down again but it won’t budge.
‘ Am shtuck!’
‘I’m coming in.’ Ruth hears the curtain rattle on the rail, feels Cleo’s cold hands on her back, feels her fingernails scratch her skin as she grabs at the dress.
‘How’ve you managed this?’ Cleo tugs and pulls at the pink silk. ‘I knew this would be a disaster. This is what you do, all the time, selfish, no consideration…………’ Her voice drones on and on.
Inside the dress, perspiration running down her face, hardly able to breathe in the tight manacles of the material, Ruth feels compelled to kick her daughter in the shin. She hops from one foot to the other to stop herself, and Cleo gets hold of her and gives her a good shake.
‘Stand still!’ Her voice has risen high in her throat and comes out like a shriek, just like Ruths’ used to when Cleo was having a tantrum. Cleo was always having tantrums when she was little. ‘Sulky little madam,’ Ruth’s mother didn’t look up from her knitting. ‘She doesn’t get it from our side.’
When Ruth thought about it later, she would think of the next few moments as the turning point in her life. ‘Don’t you shout at me Cleo,’ she says, ‘I’m your mother.’ Well that’s what she meant to say, but she’s still immersed in the dress and it comes out all goobledegook.
‘Shut up and push!’ Cleo is frantic.
Ruth has another go at asserting herself, ‘I’ll get my own outfit,’ she tries to say, ‘and it won’t be pink.’ It’s like she’s wearing a gag over her mouth, all muffled, no sense. Cleo is still yelling at Ruth to keep pushing as if she is about to give birth.
‘And,’ Ruth says in her disguised voice , ‘I’m going to learn how to do the Argentine Tango.’ And she knows as soon as she’s said it, that that’s exactly what she wants to do. She feels a freedom like watching Julie Andrews running up the hill singing in The Sound of Music, even though she’s still imprisoned in the dress. Then there’s a sickening ripping noise as the silk seams surrender and split from waist to neck. Ruth and Cleo freeze.
‘Excuse me,’ a voice says on the other side of the curtain. ‘Are you okay in there?’
Copyright (c) Gill Blow 2012