A new story…
The Changing Room
The summons came in the form of a text. As usual Felicity didn’t think to say no, or even question whether or not she would comply. Whenever Tessa said – we’re doing this, that or the other, Felicity went along with it. And if Tessa wanted something she just took it. The questions usually arrived in the aftermath.
So she found herself on the number eleven bus heading uptown, at ten o’clock on a Tuesday morning. She’d had to book the whole day as holiday and the irony of it did not pass her by. Permed buspass-holders, fractious pre-schoolers and wild-eyed women with a frayed-at-the-edges look, surrounded her. The people that travelled after ten were definitely different from her usual seven till eight crowd – the commuters were more ironed, blow-dried and purposeful. They read Kindles and iPads and sorted their e-mails on their mobiles. Not like this lot, staring vacantly into the middle distance, wishing they were heading someplace else. She wished she were heading someplace else.
She alighted and negotiated the bustle of Oxford Street. Dodging ne’er-do-wells, dawdling tourists and (arguably the most dangerous) zealous shoppers unwilling to put their mission on hold for anyone, she shouldered her way through the heavy varnished doors of Selfridges. She looked at her watch. Eleven fifteen: a little early, but better that way – Tessa’s wrath had never been worth incurring.
Within seconds, dozens of different scents assaulted her airways – no doubt individually intoxicating, but on mass, quite nauseating. She sneezed. Excited female voices hummed and crackled in her ears like electricity. She had fifteen minutes to kill. She wanted to leave. Perhaps she could sit outside on a bench and take in the weak winter sun? But that would mean the forced inhalation of several litres of carbon monoxide from several thousand vehicles – possibly the chemical cocktail indoors was the lesser of the two evils.
Feeling like a lampost on a popular dogwalking route, she managed to avoid being randomly sprayed by the tall, skinny, over-groomed men and women. She wandered aimlessly up and down the aisles. These days, the radio presenters discussed little but the recession. She saw no sign of it here. She wondered how these people could become so worked up over such inconsequence. Perhaps her world would seem less grey if she got the same kick out of palettes of unnatural hues, tubes of carmine goo and bottles of tinted water? Wandering into the jewelery section, she peered into a glass cabinet and felt even more flummoxed – five thousand pounds for a watch – she wouldn’t dare take it out of its box. Eleven fortyfive. Tessa was late. Why was she surprised? But suddenly a familiar voice rose above the rest,
‘Fliss… Fliss… Daaahling… Sooo Sorry.’ She could see a scarlet-gloved hand waving to her above the mass of expensive haircuts. Tessa kissed her twice, french style, their noses colliding as Felicity, only expecting one, failed to position her face correctly. She immediately felt wrong-footed. Tessa linked arms with her and marched towards the escalator. Inside, she sighed.
They were here to try on wedding dresses, or at least Tessa was. She’d been invited along as the support act, or more likely just the audience. As they travelled upwards through varying levels of colour and noise, her eyes remained in line with Tessa’s round behind, cossetted in designer distressed denim. Her legs ended in five-inch heels and pointy snakeskin and she could smell the new leather of her soft-as-butter camel jacket. She looked down at her own – navy-blue, buttoned up and below, neatly pressed jeans and flat pumps. She felt out of place – Mrs Middle-England, dragged out on a day trip to see how the other half live.
The Bridal Department smelled much the same as the ground floor. Felicity made sure she had a tissue to hand as she was carried along in Tessa’s wake. They were met by a beaming, coiffed and polished assistant who introduced herself as Angela. She teetered on heels as vertiginous as Tessa’s and Felicity felt like a mousey midget caught in their spotlight. She sat down on a chair, but got up promptly when Tessa barked,
‘Fliss. Over here. We only have two hours.’ Tessa brushed her outstretched arm along three metres of polythene bags filled with albino candyfloss. ‘I’ve got to try all these…’
They were shown to their own spacious changing room, which was larger than her bedroom and luxuriously furnished with a richly patterned rug, a small cream velvet sofa, an occasional table, a fancy rail and a complicated arrangement of mirrors. Angela demonstated how they could be angled in order to examine every inch of your body. She offered the girls a cup of coffee or a glass of champagne. Felicity rarely drank, but the idea of alcohol suddenly appealed. She could definitely do with a little help.
‘Are you two best friends then?’ Angela asked, returning with a small tray carrying two fizzing glasses and a bowl of Japanese crackers.
‘Friends?’ Tessa looked at Felicity and laughed. ‘No… Sisters.’
‘Oh… you don’t look alike.’
‘That’s what everyone says. I’m ten years younger than her. And I take after my Dad. Fliss is like Mum.’
‘I see.’ Angela nodded sagely, as if suddenly gaining an understanding of Pythagoras’ theorem, and added, ‘We can do lingerie – she whispered the word – when you’ve an idea of the type of gown you’re after.’ A slight panic fluttered through Felicity – a dress was one thing, but underwear… She’d not seen her sister naked since they stopped sharing a bedroom twenty five years ago and she was in no hurry to alter the status quo.
Angela wheeled out their rail and placed it next to the line of gowns. The sisters followed. Tessa examined them one by one. The assistant held various shades and fabrics up to Tessa’s face to check whether or not they complemented her colouring. Felicity stood to one side, sipping her champagne, eyes trained in the right direction, nodding at appropriate junctures, her mind elsewhere.
She’d popped in to see their mother before setting out. She was becoming ever more frail and confused and she could sense a growing impatience and distaste in her father’s strident tone – she wondered how he treated her when they were alone. She tried not to imagine.
Twenty minutes passed – Felicity surreptitiously checked her watch. Angela wheeled the laden rail back into the changing room.
‘I’ll leave you alone now, girls. Have fun! Just shout if you want advice or have any questions… Oh… and I’ll top up your glasses.’ The door closed. Tessa locked it.
‘She’s nice.’ She said. Felicity said nothing.
‘Fliss… You’ve a face like a slapped arse… Can you just engage for once?’
‘Sorry… I am engaged. Yes. She’s nice. Can I sit down now?’
Someone knocked on the changing room door. It was Angela with their drinks. Felicity took the two replenished glasses and sat down. She placed one on the table and took a glug from the other.
Tessa stripped to her undies – a white lacy bra and a miniscule thong. She examined herself for a moment.
‘I’ve been on a diet. Can you tell? How do I look?’ Felicity looked.
‘I don’t remember you needing to lose weight.’
‘That’s not what I asked.’
‘You look good Tessa.’ She did look good. She’d always had a lovely figure; curvy – tits, bum and waist all in proportion and skin that turned golden with the first hint of a sunbeam.
Tessa began to try on the dresses. They all seemed to fit like a dream. Felicity suddenly had a nightmare of a vision – her, wearing the cream chiffon off-the-shoulder confection her sister was trying on, and she giggled. Tessa glanced at her,
‘Fliss… don’t do that.’
‘Sorry. Just wondering what it would look like on me. It would drown me. I’d look ridiculous.’
‘Are you saying I look ridiculous?’
‘No… No. Not at all. You look lovely. I’m just saying I would look silly.’
Tessa huffed an irritated breath, chose an ivory satin column from the rail and wriggled her way into it. Felicity drained her glass and said,
‘I saw Mum this morning.’
‘Oh. Was Dad not there?’
‘Yes. I saw him too. I’m worried about them. He’s so impatient with her.’ Tessa turned from the mirrors,
‘I’d be impatient with her. She’s a bloody nightmare. But you know what I think… It’s not fair on Dad.’
‘Fair on Dad? What about Mum?’
‘Mum doesn’t know the time of day. Dad’s the one that’s suffering.’
‘Tessa. How can you say that? She’s doted on him for fifty years, put up with all his philandering, and now, as soon as the shoe’s on the other foot you both want to shove her in a home. She’ll fade away and die in months.’
‘Well… Maybe that’s for the best…’
‘I can’t believe you said that… She was a good mother to you… to us… I don’t understand you.’
‘She was a bloody martyr… I know that much…’
There was a loud knock on the door. The sisters both scowled at it.
‘How are we doing in there? Found anything to die for yet?’ Angela called through the door.
‘We’re fine thanks.’ Tessa called back, frowning at Felicity. She waited for the carpeted footsteps to retreat. ‘Can we not talk about this… Now…?’ she whispered. She was struggling with a recalcitrant zip. ‘Fliss?’ Felicity stood up to help and wobbled slightly.
‘Breathe in…’ She freed it from its surrounding material and fumbled with the miniature hook and eye. ‘There. Sorted.’ She sat down again. ‘But we have to talk about it sometime. I reckon if we both visit each day, morning and evening, share it between us, and we get someone to sit with her for a couple of hours in the afternoon to relieve Dad, we can hold off on the home for a while.’
‘But what’s the point? She’s going to end up in one sooner or later. You know she’s bloody doolally.’
‘She’s not. Sometimes she’s fine. She just needs people to engage with her.’
‘God… I know how she feels.’
Another knock. Felicity got up and opened the door. She took two more full glasses of Champagne from Angela saying thank you and returning her toothy smile. She sat down heavily, placing Tessa’s new glass next to the last that was still untouched.
‘Tess… have a drink…’ Felicity took a sip, ‘It’s lovely.’
‘I didn’t know you liked Champagne?’
‘I didn’t either. But there’s a first time for everything…’
‘Look. Can you help me with these dresses? I have ten no’s and five yes’s. I’m going to try on the yes’s again and I want some feedback.’
‘OK. I’m ready.’ Felicity waited a few seconds, then said, ‘But how about it Tessa? Sharing mornings and evenings with Mum?’
‘Fliss. For fuck’s sake. You’re like a stuck record. Why now?’
‘Because it won’t wait.’
‘No… No. I’m not giving up my evenings or my mornings. I’m sorry. I can’t.’
Felicity took another swig of Champagne.
‘Or you won’t…’
‘OK. I won’t. I don’t want to look after her and neither does Dad. I think we should put her in a home. There. Does that make you feel better now I’ve said it?’
‘Surprisingly… No… I’m amazed by your steely determination to get your own way.’
‘Is this what it’s all about? A battle of wills between us?’
‘No. It’s about Mum. But it does strike me that you do always seem to get your own way. And you run slip-shod over everyone…’
‘What’s brought this on?’ Tessa’s voice was suddenly shrill. ‘I ask you to help me choose my wedding dress – the most important decision a woman has to make – and all you can do is berate me about my mother?’ Tessa turned and stood in front of her, towering over her. Felicity drained her third glass and glared right back. She could feel her cheeks burning. Her sister appeared to be swaying, in and out of focus. She blinked a few times and said,
‘I would have thought the most important decision was which man you decide to marry, not the dress you choose to get married in.’
‘Oh… So that’s what this is all about? Pete?’ Tessa raised the volume a couple more notches. ‘You said you were over him. You said you gave us your blessing.’
‘Stop shouting.’ She said. Tessa suddenly sunk to the floor amidst a crumpled heap of ivory tulle and put her face in her hands. Their words hung in the pause. Felicity waited until her sister looked up.
‘I didn’t have much choice did I?’ She said quietly.
‘What do you mean? We didn’t have much choice… Pete and I… Love… Love has its own rules…’
‘That’s what you allow yourself to believe.’
‘But it’s true…’ Tessa cried. Felicity wanted to slap her, but knew that would do neither of them any good. Instead she just said,
‘Pete was the only man I’ve ever loved. That’s what’s true.’ Their eyes met for a moment. Tessa looked away first.
Felicity got up. The room shifted slightly and she held on to the door handle for balance. Tessa looked like a spoilt child messing about in a dressing up box. She almost felt sorry for her. She let go of the door handle and almost sat down again.
‘It’s not my fault that Pete wanted me more than you…’ Tessa gibed, her mouth forming a mean line. Felicity’s resolve hardened.
‘I’m going. Angela can help you choose your dress. She’s far better equipped than a spinster like me…’
‘Fliss. Stay.’ Tessa began to cry. ‘Who will help me? I need you to be my bridesmaid? Fliss… I need you…’
‘You don’t need me. And what’s more… I don’t need you. The only one who needs anyone right now is Mum.’
Felicity got up, unlocked the door and closed it firmly behind her.