Not an Odalisque

NaNoWriMo Day Sixteen.

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I haven’t paid any attention to you and I haven’t paid any attention to my novel. I’m a bad, bad girl. Instead, I’ve been labouring on clichéd, adjective-ridden short stories. My writing tutor is very demanding, she won’t just accept my spoken word that I’ve been writing, she actually wants to see the words on paper. On Wednesday, a room of students are going to tear this story to bits, and they are going to do it with the smug looks of people who are only trying to help. Maybe if it spends a while in the public sphere before its public dismemberment, I will have come to terms with its fate. I hope so anyway. As you read it, you can imagine all the horrible things people are going to say to me, and send some pre-emptive sympathy.

Angela’s Dress

“This is for you.” Stephen handed Odette a large, black box, fastened with ribbon. As she untied it, the top flaps quivered. Inside was a layer of ruched paper and, underneath that, a dress. Its tissue-paper body seemed to breath in, rising slightly, as if it had something to say.

Odette had met this dress before, months ago, when Stephen had taken her to buy her bridal gown. She hadn’t asked if he had taken Angela or Marianne to the same shop. She had almost asked him if he wouldn’t prefer to be surprised with a dress of her choice, but he’d done this twice before, she reminded herself. The surprises must begin to pale by your third wedding day. So she had agreed to him escorting her, choosing the shop, making the arrangements. He was meant to leave work early and get there by four, but the hours trickled by, and Odette sat with her book as shoppers left and were replaced by pre-theatre drinkers, then real drinkers, sipping wine from oversized glasses and flashing jewellery in the increasing dark. She placed her phone on the table and continued to wait. There’s no point calling a heart surgeon when he’s late from work. You don’t want to hear the reasons. Eventually he had appeared, all smiles and apologies and endearing creases of worry on his forehead. He had led her along snickleways secreting unexpected restaurants, puddles and waterspouts, until they reached a shambling street. Emerging from the dark mouth of an alley, Odette was dazzled by the lighted windows. Their destination sat dimly between a window of expensive china and one of antique jewellery, opal and topaz glowing through the glass. The panes of the shop were overhung by the protruding second floor of the building and revealed a few stuttering light bulbs decorated by the labours of hard-working spiders. It looked like it had forgotten it was not lit by gas.
Inside, Stephen’s friend the managing director waited for them with Beverley, the store’s manageress. She was a tall woman, dressed in a sweeping skirt and a high-necked blouse, her waist nipped in to give the impression of a shapely pillar. Her long nails were lacquered red. Beverley led her on a winding route through the building and swept back a velvet curtain which revealed a small room containing a casement window and a hat stand. “Go on in there” she pointed “and slip out of your dress.” Odette looked at her “I’ll need your measurements.” She turned, the train of her skirt descending the stairs after her. Odette tried to pull the curtain back across, but it was too high and too heavy. At least the glass was misted up, otherwise she would be on display in this lit-up room like she imagined the women in Amsterdam’s windows. Undressing, she wished she had worn a slip, and folded her arms across her chest to allay the goose-bumps. What was she meant to do now? Wait? Or was she meant to saunter out to find the woman, half-naked? She waited for a while, perched on the edge of the window seat. She thought she could hear a rustling from the next room. She shivered and, rubbing her skin, leant back, startling away from the cold panes behind her. A dark shape on the hatstand caught her eye. It was a long gown, with wide kimono sleeves. She put it on and padded out to find Beverley.
Turning into the room from which the rustling seemed to come, Odette let her eyes adjust to the dim light straining in from the streetlamp outside. The room was lined with bookshelves. She stroked the dust from the nearest volume. ‘Vogue, October 1948’, to the left, September, to the right, November. She ran her hand along a yard of copies, and caught her foot on a pile of magazines. She picked one up, ‘Vogue January 1986’. The rustling had stopped, Beverley must have gone deeper into the building. Beside the newest shelf of Vogues there was another door.
Groping into the next room, Odette felt the iron of a banister and found she was in a gallery at the top of a twisting staircase. She caught sight of a woman standing with her back to her, looking onto the street. Half-silhouetted, there were red tinges in the shadow of her dress, and a trailing veil falling from her hat over her face. She was tall and elegant, her waist half the girth of Odette’s own, and she stood completely still, poised and calm. Odette began to creep towards her. Then a piece of fabric caught her ankle, and she was falling. “Shit!” She landed in a pile slippery material. “Sorry. I-” she broke off because the woman remained still, her back turned. Her dress was as high necked as Beverley’s, the buttons running up the back. Odette lifted herself from the floor and tried to return the pile of slippery stoles to their original arrangement. They were still a rumpled mess when a shaft of light fell from behind her onto the woman at the window. She had no head, no hands, just three wooden feet.
Beverley looked down from a doorway and Odette checked that her kimono hadn’t come open in her fall.
“How did you get here?” Beverley asked. Before Odette had to answer, she heard a voice from below.
“Hello? You up there? Let me put the lights on for you,” and suddenly she found herself lit, with two heads peering up at her. She tried to wrap the lower half of her gown tighter, making a grating noise as she disturbed taffeta dresses crowding around her.
“How are you doing, love?” Stephen had called up, “you will come and show me when you’ve got something on, won’t you?” She nodded. She was almost sure she heard him murmur “or nothing on” to his friend as their voices receded.
Beverley had taken her to the original room by a different route, told her to take off her kimono, then her bra. “You can’t expect me to measure you in,” she paused and assessed, “padded M&S.” Odette had shivered in the middle of the room, watching herself, white in the mirror, with Beverley towering behind her. She flinched as the cold tape touched her skin. Murmurs rose from downstairs, but she couldn’t make out the words.
Odette went up and down the stairs in dresses the manageress handed to her, watching for Stephen’s reaction. He and his friend would look at her appraisingly, as she tried to keep her balance on the stairs, and then look at each other as they conferred. They settled on the sixth one she tried, a plain silk crepe dress, with spaghetti straps exposing her shoulders. It was heavy and cold against her skin.
“So I don’t need to try anything else on?” Odette asked.
“No, love” said Stephen. Then he turned back to his friend to pick up their interrupted conversation. Odette ascended the stairs carefully, holding the dress above her feet. As she handed it back to Beverley, she caught her eye. She was colder than ever, she was looking forward to the warmth of her woollen dress.
“You were in Angela’s room.” Beverley stated.
“The one with the magazines?” Odette asked.
“The Vogues. Every one printed for more than fifty years.”
“None recently” Odette said. She’d seen the numbers on the ones by the far doors.
“No one has brought a copy to this shop since Angela died.” Beverley said, “I wouldn’t mention it to Stephen. They don’t like people in that room.”
Angela. Not the same Angela, surely? She had only had one conversation with Stephen about his wives, she knew one had died, another had left, and that asking him about them was something like calling him at work. Or more like calling one of his patients, chest cracked and heart exposed on the table. That was how she had imagined it, Stephen ministering with his gloves stained red.
They were interrupted by calls from downstairs. Beverley went to see what the men wanted, and Odette picked up her dress and turned it the right way out. Would Stephen bring her to his dead wife’s shop? He would want to be objective, if these are the best dresses then sentimentality wouldn’t get in the way. The silk crepe of his choice hung emptily on the other side of the room. Odette turned from it and went to the doorway to see if she could hear what was going on. The rustling from the room of Vogues grew louder. A pair of brown whiskers nosed around the skirting board, then there was a creak on the stair and they disappeared. Odette scurried back behind the curtain.
“You needn’t put that back on,” Beverley told her, “he’s spotted something for you.” Then she disappeared again. Odette sat back down at the casement. She folded her hands into her dress for warmth, then thought how silly she must look, mostly naked, covering her hands. She put the dress down again.
Beverly returned with some stiff red velvet folded over her arm. When she shook it out, Odette recognised the gown from the mannequin. The stiff fabric kept a body-like shape. The manageress handed it over. She had to undo the buttons at the cuffs to get her hands through. Then she considered the row of buttons up the back. She was about to ask Beverley, “could you-,” but felt her cold fingers working up, from her buttocks, through her lower back, where the dress contracted, then her waist, where it was tighter still, buttoning up past the shoulders to the nape of her neck. The ring of the collar around her throat was tight. Beverley rebuttoned the cuffs and she was encased. Opposite her stood the woman from the window.
“You’ll need to put your hair up,” Beverley said, twisting Odette’s ponytail into a bun, “and to get some earrings. But down you go.” Odette didn’t move. She stared at the woman in the mirror. A tendril of hair was falling over her face, but apart from that she was totally still. She was beautiful.
Odette hadn’t heard Stephen’s foot on the stairs. She didn’t see him as he entered the room. It was only when he appeared behind her in the mirror that she registered his presense. They both stared at the image for a few seconds. By the time she turned to him, he had gone.
Now, here was the dress, exhaling slightly as the tissue paper settled. “You were breathtaking in it.” Stephen took the dress from the box by its shoulders and shook it out, scattering paper, then laid it on the bed. “Put it on for me.”
As her husband’s fingers were fumbling with the buttons at her waist, Odette wondered whether the rat lived among the Vogues, quietly shredding them, or if it had just been passing through. The fabric was tightening, and she tried to take shallow breaths, so that Stephen would not have to pull at it. “We were very lucky to get this,” Stephen said, “there aren’t many Angela originals left. This was one of the last designs she did.” Odette tried to nod, but Stephen was buttoning at the back of her neck, pulling the collar against her throat. “And finally,” he said, producing a smaller box, “to top it off.” It was the hat the mannequin had worn. Stephen placed it on her head and drew the netting down over her face.
Odette gazed blankly out. Only her hands were showing. The skirts of the dress weighed her down, the upper half closed around her torso and neck, and she concentrated on bringing enough air into her lungs with shallow breaths. She stood still.
Stephen walked in a circle around her. “You look perfect” he said.

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Written by Not an Odalisque

November 16, 2009 at 5:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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