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Sport 21: Spring 1998

Catherine Chidgey — A going-away dress

page 22

Catherine Chidgey

A going-away dress

Tina lined the vases up on the mantelpiece: an odd collection of trophies. Positioned around them like certificates were cards mentioning achievement, congratulation, as if turning 21 required special talents. Tina wondered why so many people had given her vases. She had no idea where all the flowers were going to come from.

‘Very well done,’ wheezed an elderly man, and he shook Tina's hand. He'd lived next door when she was little, and had been an old man even then. He used to peer through the fence at Tina and her sister when they were playing on the trampoline. Sarah sometimes did handstands if she knew he was there.

Louisa fluttered around like a bridesmaid. ‘Who gave you the crystal one?’ she said. ‘What have you done with the card? Tina? The crystal one, I haven't noted it down.’

Tina took another sip of punch. ‘The Jamisons,’ she said, watching Louisa scribble in her notebook. ‘Or the Broadbents. No, wait, I think it was Aunty Trish.’ She plucked a strawberry from the bottom of her glass and bit it in two. ‘You should have something to drink.’ But Louisa was already sorting through discarded wrapping paper, smoothing creases, easing the knots from lengths of ribbon.

Tina slid her hands over her hips, felt the protruding bone. Now that was an achievement. Something hard, something that did not give way when she touched it. The pile of the velvet flattened under her fingers like smoothed fur. Tina's mother had made the dress. She'd always sewn for the girls when they were children: matching pinafores and pull-on trousers and airy summer dresses that let in the sun. Tina's shoulders were freckled from years of burning.

‘I don't know if I can sew velvet,’ her mother had said when she'd brought it to her. ‘It's been years since I've sewn at all.’ The fabric spread between them like an oil slick.

‘No sleeves, a plain round neck,’ said Tina. ‘It's simple. Sort of page 23 like your going-away dress.’

There was a photo of her parents, newly married, about to leave for their Bay of Islands honeymoon. Her mother was tiny, birdlike in her short black dress, her waist no bigger than her new husband's handspan.

‘I felt like Audrey Hepburn in that outfit,’ her mother said. ‘But my accent was all wrong.’

‘There wasn't anything I liked in the shops,’ said Tina. ‘I tried on every dress in town.’

Her mother fingered the velvet. ‘You're sure about the black?’

Tina nodded.

‘It is lovely material. Black can just make you look a bit gaunt, that's all. It's so colourless. I thought you might want something bright, for a party dress.’

‘Audrey Hepburn wore black.’

‘She was a film star.’

‘You wore black.’

‘My going-away dress? That was blue. Your father chose it. It just looks black in the photo.’

Tina stood very still as her mother took her measurements. She elongated her torso, sucked her stomach in until there was no room inside her. Her mother was wrong. Black was not an absence of colour; black contained every colour.

That night she looked at the photo of her mother in her going-away dress. Knowing it was blue changed the entire scene. Her mother looked staid to her now, like the Queen. Not birdlike at all.

Tina's mother stroked the velvet to make sure the pile ran the right way. Then she pinned the pattern to it, the paper so fine it felt like nothing in her hands. When she'd cut each piece out, the table was covered in fine black fibres, as if sprinkled with soot.

At the first fitting Tina squirmed away from her mother's hands, complained about the pins and ill-fitting seams.

‘I can shape that more,’ said her mother. ‘It just needs to be shaped.’ She slid pins from her mouth one by one.

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She didn't remark on the weight Tina had lost since they'd last seen each other. Tina was waiting for her to say something, to make it real. She turned slowly as her mother marked the hem. She watched herself in the mirror, crushed her hair into a bun. With her arms up, she looked like the plastic figurine in her old musicbox, describing a last slow circle. Tina had never liked shutting the lid on her. She imagined the girl pushed forward into beads and lockets and sharp charm bracelets, her hair tangled, a cold mirror at her back.

‘I don't want a key,’ she told her mother. ‘You know that mirrored key that Sarah got? I don't want one. They're hideous.’

‘I can't stop the relatives from getting you one,’ said her mother. ‘It's nothing to do with me.’

Tina had been to 21 sts before, had seen the messy traditions played out in carparks and gardens. There was always broken glass, cigarette burns on the floor, a woman weeping in the toilets. Astonishing quantities of beer were consumed, sometimes from yardglasses. They reminded Tina of elongated hourglasses, the middle section stretched as if to cheat time.

She remembered one 21st party in particular. She'd never met the girl before, but Louisa insisted it would be all right for her to come.

‘Marie won't mind,’ she said. ‘She's a great sort.’

They had arrived a little late. Everyone was in the garden, standing in a circle around Marie. Someone was filling a yardglass from a keg of beer, handing it to Marie. She seemed unsteady on her feet, and almost toppled forward with the weight of the glass. Another guest supported it for her, and she began to drink.

‘Go Mazza, go Mazza,’ the crowd chanted, twisting the base of the glass to speed things up, impatient to see how much she could take. Tina overheard words of advice: keep your throat open, don't try to swallow, just let it all pour in.

Tina left her punch glass on the table. She pulled her dress tight at the small of her back. It was even looser on her now, the bunched velvet filling her fist. She ran a finger along her collarbone and smiled.

‘It's time for the cake,’ her mother said, lighting the candles and page 25 carrying it into the lounge. It was shaped like an open book. There was even a ribbon placed down the centre, marking a sugary page. Tina watched the tiny flames cast shadows on her mother's face. Wax was already dripping on to the icing, forming itself into precarious beads.

Everyone clapped when Tina blew the candles out; another achievement. A tiny silver key was pressed into the icing. Tina's mother lifted it off with the tip of a knife.

‘For your charm bracelet,’ she said.

Tina held the key between her fingertips. It was encrusted with icing, and she placed it in her mouth, felt the tang of metal and sugar on her tongue. ‘I'll have a piece of cake later,’ she said.

She opened the back door and stepped into the garden, rolling the key around in her mouth, ringing it against her teeth. She wondered what would happen if she swallowed it; whether it would lodge somewhere inside her, slowly embedding itself into a soft pocket of flesh, becoming part of her body.

It was chilly outside, but the scent of jasmine caught in her throat, reminded her of summer. Voices from inside the house filtered out to her; pieces of her past, all talking at once, making no sense. She slid the key under her past, all talking at once, making no sense. She slid the key under her tongue for luck, closed the door on the voices and went and sat on the trampoline. She could feel the dew soaking through her dress, a cool compress on her skin.