140824 Curiosities served
2014-02-13 1:05 PM
The Red Dress - a story
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The photo-a-day prompt the other day was 'childhood' for which I posted a picture of this dress. Eventually I realised that it had been the subject of a short story I wrote as my first assignment on a creative writing course. Here it is, all true though names have been changed.
"What d'you mean, she had it made? For me? But she said she found it in the Oxfam shop! I was livid, I remember, even though she gave it to me, I was furious that it was only ever bloody Chloe who found anything decent in there! I remember, I was furious." Louise sat down abruptly. It was too much, especially now.
Mind you, Chloe had been an easy woman to dislike, or distrust at the very least. She always had so much more than everyone else, more of everything. She had her own house when the rest of them were all piled up in endless temporary rentals. She had a rich and mildly famous father, who presumably kept her well supplied with the cash that seemed to flow endlessly from her fingers. She had not one, but two husbands, and the one who should really have been an 'ex', with all the bad feeling that implied, was always around the place, painting or mending things, or having beautiful meals with whoever else happened to be passing, in that artfully messy kitchen.
On the surface it was so enviable, so carefree, so alternative. The door was never locked, and a shifting population of friends and relatives, hangers-on and passers-by drifted ceaselessly through. You could stay for an hour or a month and know that you'd be welcomed, fed, taken on one of the daily jaunts to the pub, and kept well supplied with the very best drugs the town had to offer. If you said in passing that you liked one of the many beautiful objects around the house, it would be thrust upon you, "Oh do have it. I'm just so pleased you appreciate it, please, the place is so cluttered." And it was, full to overflowing with pictures, furniture, sculptures, ornaments, objets of all descriptions, but all gorgeous, all things you would just love to have instead of the landlord's daughter's ghastly painting-by-numbers which blighted your own place. They were both always so generous. If you went to the pub, they wouldn't hear of anyone else buying a round, and the chances were that everyone would be swept off for a meal afterwards.
Mainly of course, there was the talk. You could move from room to room and drop in and out of anything, from a discussion on the latest film, a fierce argument on the rights and wrongs of private medicine, to the hottest gossip on who was sleeping with whose girlfriend or boyfriend. It was irresistible to a bored single mother, trailing through the hours on the dole, especially as it was all next door.
It was only when you became more closely involved that you realised that it was all fuelled by heroin. The relaxed atmosphere was due to a copious intake of Grade A smack, and the generosity was made possible by Chloe's current husband's activities as a major dealer (or importer as we eventually discovered, via The Sun).
Louise had already become disenchanted by the time she'd had all this explained to her. Too often the gossip would start up as soon as a person left the room; too often it would be about a deeply personal anxiety, revealed in confidence and now offered as light entertainment to anyone who happened to be around. The scariest thing was the best friend syndrome. Chloe always had a best friend, always somebody younger, meeker and poorer - which gave her a pretty free choice. She would start by showering them with compliments, taking them off on outings, and insisting that they stay the night when her husband was off on one of his 'business trips'. (Later, of course, it was understood that he'd been 'doing the deal' during this time, and she was always terrified.) The chosen one would have her wardrobe renewed, her hair styled and her every desire anticipated, and naturally she blossomed under this attention, until one day Chloe would find her boring. Then the venom would be awesome, the snide remarks, always just before the door shut on the victim, the secrets revealed, the insecurities mocked. The tally of every gift so freely given, every penny spent. It was hideous.
Louise was always terrified that Chloe would select her, as she seriously doubted her ability to withstand the onslaught, despite her revulsion at the poison at the centre of it all. Sometimes she appalled herself by feeling envious, knowing that if she were chosen all her debts would be paid off and she could collect some expensive bits and pieces for future resale. She knew it wasn't worth it, that people were left shaken and humiliated, but it could seem like a price worth paying, in an unheated flat, in January.
She didn't know why she was always overlooked, but guessed it was the child, who prevented her from ever being fully available. Every now and then though, Chloe would appear with a gift, always accompanied by a disclaimer. "I cannot bear looking at these vases a moment longer, but I can't carry them to the Oxfam, any use to you?"
Or, the case in point, "Look what I've found in the Oxfam, this darling little coat and dress, which would look so sweet on your daughter, and all for £2!" Louise would force the hated "Thank you" from her lips, and rage at the injustice of the fact that it was always bloody Chloe, filthy rich bloody Chloe, who found these outrageous bargains in the poxy Oxfam shop, which only ever had a sea of flowered crimplene when she went in. The part of her that wanted to refuse the gift was always too small, drowned out by the aching yearning ocean of desire for an escape from the grey monotony of making ends meet.
And now, twenty years later, when Chloe had been found dead in an alleyway, now they were telling her that she'd had the dress made for her, and sworn them all to secrecy. It had been the most beautiful dress she'd ever seen, thick soft velvet, in the deepest, most luscious red, with tiny smocking stitches, and the merest hint of creamy lace peeping through at the neck. With a coat to match as well - and to call it hand-made didn't do it justice, it was tailored, and perfect, just perfect. Both of Louise's daughters had worn it, to play school, to the rec, everywhere. After all, it was only from the Oxfam, and from Chloe, vicious, dangerous, and now dead Chloe, who'd never done a disinterested thing in her life.
News of her death, from an overdose of unusually pure heroin, had shocked but not surprised those who'd known her all those years ago. Reminiscences were continually interspersed with, "She was terrible, wasn't she?" as they viewed their twenty-year old selves from the perspective of their forties. "God, do you remember when…" "I know, awful, awful. Can't believe she's dead though."
Safe in the knowledge that they knew who were the good people, and who weren't. Looking sideways at Louise, and at the tears running unbidden down her face.
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