In a charming tale of sartorial self-consciousness, Harry Chapman tells the story of young New Zealand girl, Laura, and the evolution and acceptance of her pride and joy, her new dress…
Laura loved her dress. After weeks of planning, collecting the material and sewing, it was finally finished. The excitement had been building and now the sensations inside were so intense it made her feel giddy. She loved the dress more than her mother, she thought, more even than her beloved Papa. The thought scared her a little but her happiness was so total as to overwhelm any feelings as to the fitness of her love.
The dress was her idea. Her clothes were made mostly by her mother, carved out of hand-me-downs, old curtains, or off-cuts from the haberdashers. But this dress was different. She had seen it in a dream, bright and fully formed, floating towards her, ringed with a halo. Immediately she woke, she got out her coloured pencils, sat at the kitchen table and drew her dream dress from every angle. She ignored the queries of her mother, wouldn’t be distracted until the task was done. When she was finished she handed the plans over with strict instructions. After all she was the designer, the grand couturier, her mother simply the dutiful seamstress. Everything depended on getting her vision right. Detail and accuracy were vital. So began the creation of Laura’s dress.
Mother and daughter lived in a little ramshackle colonial cottage in Inglewood, just outside New Plymouth, in the north Island of New Zealand. It was known then as a hippy town where families would grow their own vegetables and raise chickens in the back yard. It was a place where children would wander barefoot and adults would come home to find someone else’s kids sitting in their porch or living room. Here the boundaries of ownership were blurred and people shared what little they owned. For Laura it was Heaven. It was all she knew but felt, in her soul, it was home.
Her Pappy was a handsome man. She used to lie at his feet when he would sing to her, and with his long chiseled nose and dimpled cheeks she would think him the handsomest man in the world. He scraped by doing odd jobs for people, carpentry and laying stakes for fences. Mostly he would lounge, play his guitar or wander. Laura would sometimes catch her breath at his restlessness. Usually he wouldn’t be gone for more than a few days; this time it had been two months. She missed him terribly. Rumours drifted back like smoke – that there was another woman in Auckland. But she knew he was coming back. He had gone to seek his fortune as he said he would. He would return with his pockets laden with golden hen’s eggs.
The dress was for him in many ways. “My Princess Pea” he used to call her. She wanted to be ready for his return, worthy of his new found wealth and riches, girt in a dress fit for a princess. Her mother was sent out with a minute inventory – a narrow roll of red velvet, four patches of dark blue denim, a strip of pale blue silk, shreds of gossamer, green ribbons, pearl buttons. The list grew, whimsically and randomly it seemed, at times grotesquely, even counter-intuitively. It wasn’t just a case of unearthing materials and borrowing from friends – purchases had to be made, some of them expensive. She did this willingly for her daughter, without question or argument. It was a creative fantasy after all and necessary for that, just as her own life had been. She recognised the urge to follow your heart, even though in her case it had led to marrying a walking man. But this wasn’t a marriage, merely a dress, and she loved her daughter. What other reason did she need?
So the materials gathered and work progressed. Every afternoon after school Laura would run impatiently up the garden path and listen out for the soft whir of the sewing machine and the snack of scissors. And woe betide her mother if she was not hard at work! Laura was a hard task-mistress, relentless in her demands. In the quiet of the evening when her mother read next door and the crickets sawed their legs in the fields, she would stand in the kitchen and appraise the day’s efforts hanging from the dress maker’s dummy, clutching her hands, pacing round suddenly to lift a flap for inspection, scribbling notes to be handed to her uncomplaining amanuensis.
Word soon got out about the fabled dress and friends and neighbours would drop by to offer their compliments and admiration. There was never any hint of shame in the fact that her mother made most of their clothes. A number of people thereabouts spun their own yarn and kept a couple of sheep for the purpose. If anything such pluck and self-sufficiency were greatly esteemed. It was an improvised do-it-yourself environment and clothes were only ever really judged on their colourfulness and functionality, not the labels sewn in the in-seams.
So the dress was finally finished just as Laura dreamed it would be, even though, in the impatient way of children, she had doubted the actuality. Her dream dress she had dreamed into being through the weaving dextrous fingers of her mother. But its completion coincided with something of equal import (and perhaps of longer lasting significance although she didn’t yet know it). They were going to move. It all happened so suddenly. Her mother came into her bedroom to tuck her in, to talk and read to her as she usually did. But this time her eyes were red, her face strained, the tendons on her neck taut. She spoke quickly and faulteringly, as though on a tight rope, and smiled lots of little smiles that weren’t like smiles at all, but more like patched bricks in a wall, holding something up, or in. Then the sobs started and the tears came.
“I’m so sorry, my darling, we have to leave our home!”
Laura stroked her mother’s face and hair with her small hands, lovingly, thoughtfully.
“Don’t worry mother, you’ll make friends again.”
Inside she felt a little tremor of trepidation, but having lived in the same house all her life she thought all the world was like Inglewood where the kids ran barefoot and mothers made their children’s clothes.
Their new house was in the district of Ponsonby in New Plymouth. It was small and neat, made in the faux Scottish colonial style rather than being the real thing. It had a narrow porch, clipped lawns and flower beds. Each house on the street was of similar size and proportions, falling exactly in the middle of the plot and lying the same distance apart. A wooden fence or hedge of privet divided each from the other and carefully defined the boundaries.
It was Monday when they puttered up the street in their beaten up old station wagon, and no one was about. They turned slowly into the driveway and Laura thought she saw a face in one of the windows next door, but it quickly vanished behind an impenetrable wall of net curtain.
Her mother got out of the car tentatively, as though she were trespassing. Laura raced across the lawn.
“Laura!” Her mother yelled out.
The little girl turned, her smile frozen in excitement.
“Nothing, honey. It’s okay.”
They had to give the chickens away, but the cat was in the back, as were the mice.
“But where can we put the hammock?” Laura wondered as she stole beneath the parasol shade of the frangipani and drew in its sweet, sickly scent.
An outside door creaked and banged distantly against its jamb. Laura turned and saw a woman step up to her mother from next door. She was tall and spare and had on a long straight floral print dress which fell to below her knees. Her hips were wide and her breasts small and flat, looking no more than pinched excrescences under the material of her dress. So different from her mother who was soft and abundant. Laura wasn’t a shy girl but there was something about the woman that made her keep her mother between them.
“I was asked to give you these Mrs Dundas. They’re the keys to the house.”
“Annie,” replied her mother with one of her big smiles. “Please, call me Annie.” And turning to reveal Laura to the full glare of the encounter. “And this is my daughter, Laura.”
“Annie and Laura.” The woman uttered the names drily, as though holding them at arm’s length, wringing all moisture from them.
“I hear you have a daughter too… Mrs Empson?” Inquired her mother.
“Yes, she’s at school.”
“Goody!” Trilled Laura impetuously, “I can walk with her tomorrow.”
The woman smiled down at her. The mouth widened and turned up at the corners, as though the function of smiling had been learned in theory only, without any of the attendant feelings. She loomed suddenly, towering and immense, like a giantess, and Laura felt herself shrink. But it was the eyes she remembered most, particularly the right. It was pale, pale blue, ringed, it seemed, by electric white. It was full of challenge and threat and the chill blasts of indifference. Having never encountered these before Laura didn’t recognise them for what they were, but still she shuddered and inside grew cold.
The house was empty and like many empty places felt lifeless and austere. It was also scrupulously clean which made them feel uncomfortable; their old place had been joyously, riotously messy and unkempt. They drifted from room to room, her mother smiling wanly and clutching her shoulders as though cold, Laura full of wide-eyed expectation and vague plans.
The van with their furniture and bigger things was coming in the afternoon. For now they ferried in their smaller possessions from the car. Laura was crouched in front of the cat in the living room, instructing it on the new neighbourhood when her mother came in with the dress. It was still on the dummy. There were a couple of small adjustments still to be made. Laura hadn’t yet worn the dress out. She had waited. With queenly forbearance she had decided that the next day – the first full day in her new town and at her new school – she would finally reveal its glories to the eyes of the world.
“Hello. I’m Laura.”
The other little girl stared back. She was very pale and although the same age as Laura, was much smaller. She looked as though she could be carried off on a strong gust of wind. Her eyes were perfectly round, and large, like an owl’s. Even when she wasn’t staring she looked like she was. She had none of the harshness or aridness of her mother, Mrs Empson, but instead seemed overawed, impressionable, a little lost.
Laura had been waiting near the front porch for nearly half an hour, eager for a new companion to walk to school with. She was also desperate to test the power of the dress on a neutral party.
The other little girl – whose name was Bee – just stood and stared. Eventually the surprised circle of her tiny mouth swelled into something approaching a smile. Laura couldn’t take it anymore and blurted out suddenly –
“Do you like my dress?”
Bee did like the dress. In fact she loved it but found it difficult to say so. She found it difficult to say most things and so usually stared until her ears began to burn and she was either scolded by adults for being rude or mocked by other children for being a dummy.
“Dummy Bee! Dummy Bee!” They would cry and she would just stare and stare and tell herself it didn’t matter and that she didn’t care. And then her chin would begin to tremble and she knew she would need to get somewhere fast. She would lock herself in the toilet cubicle and then the tears would come, thick and fast. She had learned to cry silently so no one knew of her distress.
But today was different she felt. She loved the dress and in its brilliance and uniqueness she sensed somehow that it would protect her. She liked Laura, too, but falteringly. She had never met anyone like her and wondered what someone as special as Laura could possibly see in her. Was it a trick perhaps? A game? But Laura liked Bee too, genuinely and instantly. Although her silence was a little strange, she didn’t confuse it for a moment with stupidity. It spoke of watchfulness and thoughtfulness. She imagined that they would be best friends, that the friendship would be as special as Bee believed the dress and Laura to be.
The walk to school was like a dream. They were both on a high – Laura because she had literally been dreaming of this moment for weeks and now felt a real princess, the dress touched and animated by the hands of faeries; Bee because she felt actually accepted by someone who was as different as her but in the way the world loves. The dress shook and floated and shimmied, glinting and sparkling like a chrysalis suspended on a thread, all reds and greens and golden yellows, some deep and lustrous as a forest, others soft and translucent as spring water. Bee stole little glances at it as they went, and at the profile of her companion, so rapturous and self-contained. She felt some of the magic swirl off and lift her and she found herself giggling involuntarily. Laura gazed straight ahead. She looked not at things but seemed to see into their very essence. The trees yawned and stretched and flung out a protective arch as they passed,
“Good day, M’Lady,” they seemed to whisper, “and may we be so bold as to remark on how radiant you look!”
The Sun threw down its rays like fracturing honeydew, dazzling and intense. The adults they passed all seemed to be smiling at them, bowing like loyal couriers.
“She’ll be queen one day,” she thought she heard someone say.
“The best for a thousand years,” murmured another.
And over everything a choir of birds, running up the scale from clicking twitter to a sweet sweet held note, and above this, higher still, an insect orchestra, chirping, sawing, praising,
“Here they come! Laura and her friend. What a delight to see them! Steady boys! Let’s give them something worthy of them. A tune for them to remember us by!”
Bee felt Laura’s arm slither into her own until they were linked, and suddenly they were running and laughing all the remaining distance to the school gates.
So Laura’s dress is a hit with its wearer, her new friend and the gathered fauna, but as we all know, the acid test is yet to come. Laura’s Dress concludes tomorrow…