A bee is trapped behind the curtains––its silhouette circles the head of a printed flower. Edith pulls her arm free of the tightly tucked sheet and watches the hand rising. The skin on the wrist and hand is loose, mottled, the blue veins twisted, weaving around the bones. It is the hand of an old person and she does not, will not, recognise it. A sound rises in her throat but it fades before the word, the question, reaches her lips. She wonders how she became tethered to this ancient husk.
Against the far wall is a wardrobe. One of its veneered doors is ajar, breaking the symmetry. She stretches forward to catch hold of the hanger, the wooden one, the one with the bevelled edges, its curved nape embossed with a bird in flight. Draped across its breadth is the blue organza dress.
Mother, the seamstress, the worker of miracles is watched by the young Edith. She is leaning over yards of blue material, folding and unfolding, fitting the pattern with precision, wasting nothing. She pins the pattern, cuts through the layers of cloth and tracing paper with heavy tailoring scissors. Her tacking is neat, every stitch held up to the light, her spectacles balanced on the edge of her nose catching the flash of the silver thimble in their frame with each push of the needle.
Edith looks back to the bed. The old woman is still there, her hand raised, as if frozen. Tight as swaddling, the sheets are tucked in around her as if she is mummified. Somewhere on the cusp of sleep and dream, she is slipping through doorways, sidling along high walled alleyways. She turns a corner and she is looking straight into a mirror––the wardrobe mirror. She unrolls the paper curlers revealing springs of auburn hair. She pulls and pats at the coiled slivers.
She is wearing the blue dress and she admires the tailored lines, how it hugs her body. She runs her hands over the curve of her breasts and over the arc of her hipbones, noting how the hem falls discreetly over her knees. Turning, side to the glass, she follows the contours of her calves; below are her feet in their peep-toe shoes. She feels them pinching at the heels; the first sign of a blister.
She is walking through the front door of the terraced house and onto the street, where the pavement is bleached by the sun. It is the bone end of summer and though barely dusk, the heat scorches the air. Flecks of mica flash from the paving slabs; tiny fragments of quartz have become sprinklings of diamonds beneath her feet. She walks past the end of the terrace where the road broadens into an avenue. A handbag hangs from a chain on her arm. Inside, slipped into a silk-lined pocket is the invitation. ‘You are invited to join us for the celebration of the Engagement…’
Everyone knows it is a perfect match; the families are united by decades of picnics and Sunday high teas. She was there as they skipped from one joyous reunion to the next: Edith the companion, the faithful friend, watching from the sidelines as they gushed in and out of her plain life on a festive tide.
But these are faint images, remainders, that ebb away before she can study them. She feels for the blue dress, clutching at the loose material over her body, but it is a different body, one that aches, bony and bruised. The cloth is merely a counterpane. The room echoes as she grasps at sounds, whispers––until a single voice cuts through.
‘Edith, Edith. Are you awake, dear? It’s a lovely day. Let’s go into the garden.’
Her hand is stroked, gently, with warmth––by one who knows that old skin feels more keenly, that kind strokes ease more than words. A gown is held out for her. It is blue––but this is no party dress, merely a pilled dressing gown. As she is lowered into the seat beside the bed, the light catches the chrome of its wheels.
Outside, a blackbird is jabbing at the lawn, catching the sprinklings of dew. The sun has yet to reach the pond where the blue-tailed damselflies hover and flit, zipping from one reed to the next. The lawn is a soft blanket of green for the stars of daisies.
‘He loves me, he loves me not, he loves me, he loves me not.’
Edith is chanting.
‘Who loves you Edith?’
‘He loves me…’
Her eyes close around the imprint of the sun. She listens to the sparrows as they chatter around the bird table, their wings fluttering as they dip and hover on the edge, pecking at the seed. The chatter stops and she feels a breeze lifting her hair at the nape of her neck.
Edith’s eyes are open. A flock of starlings have arrived.
‘He loves me not!’
The sky is filling with dark clouds and cold air rushes by as she is taken back to the room with the wardrobe. But something is missing––from the bed, from the pillow. It is always there. The…but she cannot remember the word. A tiny lady not made of flesh. Her favourite, her special…doll, yes, that is it. Her doll is missing. So grand in her velvet gown; Princess has always graced the throne of Edith’s pillow. Never the kind of doll to be wheeled along the street in a pram, to be poked and smudged by the fingers of others jealous of her beauty. Even Edith’s own sister must not touch.
Outside, the gutters are filling as thunder rolls, exploding in bursts of rain. But Edith is indoors, pushing a wheeled frame before her. Someone is beside her, encouraging. One step at a time, no need to rush, and she is through into a vast lounge.
‘How lovely!’ Edith exclaims.
‘So,” the face looks surprised. ‘You know who I am today?’
The visitor has her hand on Edith’s arm.
‘I have searched everywhere but…’ the woman’s voice is faltering.
Edith pats the hand, reassuring.
‘Edith. There is no trace. I am so sorry.’
The woman presses a photograph int Edith’s hand. It is black and white and the young woman in the picture is wearing a hat that is pulled down over her head. Behind her is a brick wall and the corner of a sash window. Her face is visible beneath the brim, clear in the glare of the flashlight. The eyes hold both pride and fear. She is holding a baby, a bonny baby. Edith stares. A moment of recognition. A fading smile.
The wide eyes, the tight lips are like those of her mother. The mouth, slightly pursed, like when holding the pins.
‘Keep still Edie, its hard enough without you wriggling.’
Edith is standing on a chair; Mother is tutting and pulling at the bottom edge of the dress.
‘I won’t be able to let it out any more, you know.’
‘Are you nearly finished?’
Edith is impatient. The last stitch is done but Mother does not let go of the folds of material.
‘I saw him today,’ Mother says. ‘Frank…’
Her voice is hesitant, stilted, perhaps because of the pins; perhaps because she has guessed.
Frank’s face flashes in front of Edith. She can see the line of his jaw, the tensed muscle, the flicker below the cheekbone. Nauseous, she reels.
Later, she sees him is in the queue at the cinema. He is with Lucy. They are standing under the bright lights of the box office, their pale faces distorted in the glass, enlarged. His arm is around her shoulder, the same arm that was propped against the mantelpiece that evening, the evening of the engagement party when the room pulsed, spinning with laughter, conversation, the clink of glasses, the thrum of music.
The liquid in Frank’s glass is ochre and the beads around Lucy’s neck are white; her neck is flushed. Lucy is pulling at his hand, trying to persuade him to dance, but he will not. His eyes are bright but restless, giving him an untethered look. The band starts to play. It is a number that everyone recognises; slow at first and then the music quickens. The floor fills with dancing couples. Lucy turns away; another man invites her to dance and as she spins in his arms her laughter rips across the room.
‘Well, well. If it’s not our little Edie.’
Frank’s face is blocking Edith’s view, his breath is stifling.
‘Congratulations, Frank,’ Edith says, ‘to you both, of course.’
He does not reply. Nor does he break eye contact.
‘I need some fresh air,’ he says. ‘Will you join me?’
She faces the black shadows of the garden as she leans on the railings of the verandah.
‘You’re not shy, are you?’ Frank asks.
She remembers that she is with the boy who used to live here, the boy who liked to play hide and seek, to jump out at her and Josephine, pointing at them, making fun of their screams. But now he is a man and she is with him on the verandah.
‘Edie,’ he croons.
His voice is strange. She cannot see his face because he is behind her, too close. He has one hand on either side, pressing her into the rails. His body is firm against hers so she is unable turn around.
‘I think we should go back inside,’ she says.
She remains still, but she knows he is not listening. His breath is sickly sweet. She is wedged between his body and the railings. She feels the weight of muscle and bone. She is about to say that she will scream but before she can he has covered her mouth with one hand and he is biting at the dress, pulling it away from her shoulders. The more she struggles, the more he continues, laughing as if they are playing a game. Perhaps he will claim at any moment that he is only pretending and she will feel silly for making a fuss. She holds her breath and hears the music coming from inside, so close.
It is a waltz. She is counting the beats in her head…one, two, three…
The blue dress tears as it is pulled up as he is pushing into her, hurting her. She cries out but the hand over her mouth muffles the sound. She knows that no-one can hear her now; the ears of the night are deaf.
The pain stops as the pressure against her is released and she is holding onto the cold rail as if she will never let it go. The music becomes louder, of a sudden, for the moment between the door opening and the door shutting. Edith is alone, shivering, and below her, through the railings, is a long drop to where the ground is black. She leans forward and vomits.
She will tell them; let them know what he has done, she will raise the alarm. They will see the blood on her shoes. They will believe her. They must do.
As she goes through the door, a glass is pressed into her hand and everyone in the room is standing. No-one sees her, as all eyes look towards Frank and Lucy.
‘Raise your glass for a toast to the lovely couple!’
Everyone is lifting their glasses and their goodwill fills the room. Edith sways.
‘Rock a bye baby on the tree top,’ Edith sings. She is clutching a pillow, staring into the crook of her arm, rocking forward and back. The woman is there again with her soft hands on Edith’s cold bones. She is gently pulling at the pillow and Edith releases it. She does not resist. The photograph is floating in the air, spinning like a broken wing, skimming the ground before it stops at Edith’s feet.
A spoon is dipped into the soup. Edith stops it with her tongue not allowing it to enter her mouth. The soup has the odour of salt and earth and blood. The wind is fluting through the loose pane of the window. The bee has gone and the curtains are billowing.
Her sister was the naughty one, always up to mischief, hiding in the bay of the window, legs tucked up, behind the green velvet curtain. They are in the parlour and Mother is speaking in a low voice, urgently, kneading her hands.
‘Are you absolutely sure?’
‘Yes,’ Edith says.
A crash is followed by a shattering onto the stone tiles. Her beautiful doll, the Princess, is face down on the floor, the fine porcelain face has smashed, a single eye flickers on a spring in the fractured socket. Her sister has fled.
The rain has come and water is filling the runnels and gutters, gathering around the blocked drains. It plashes the ground, filling and rising with each breath. Edith dips her head down, presses her palms together and pushes her arms up, out, back to her sides, up and out again. She is swimming.
The bathing house is empty. The blue and white tiles glisten as the sun’s rays penetrate the glass-domed roof, filtering through the deep water, reflecting tiny windows of light. The only shadow is from a bird perched high on the roof, and as it takes off, its wings spread in flight and feathered shadows disperse as Edith glides through the blue of the pool. Her body floats easily. She has no aches, no pain. The weight of her womb no longer drags and as she turns onto her back, her belly rises like a half moon. She is neither flying nor swimming––her baby swims free.
This story came third in The London Magazine‘s annual Short Story Competition, 2014 judged by Polly Samson and and last year’s winner Harriet Kline.