The dress was deep purple with a black velvet-lined scoop neck. ‘That leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination’ my dad had scowled from behind his copy of the times, a paper big enough to sleep under. My cheeks warmed with embarrassment and sentimentality. I thought of my dad in his hospital bed the day he died. ‘How are you feeling today?’ I’d asked, ‘Not great,’ he’d said, ‘I’m bloody freezing.’ I held the dress between my thumb and index fingers and stared for a moment longer into the neckline and images of my father. So many, but for a lifetime so few.
I laid the dress on the bed and patted it down. The creases shifted to avoid my hand and the lace hem shivered as it hung over the edge of the tea-stained mattress. The duvet was in a heap in the corner of the room below the window and the sheets and pillowcases were next door with Catherine and her family. I knelt at the foot of the bed, my knees protesting, and tickled the lace s if playing the piano from behind. ‘Thanks mum, but I’d rather not. It’s very nice and everything but I’d like to buy my own.’ That’s what Isabel had said in the weeks before her prom night when I’d shown her the dress. ‘I think the hemline is a little low for these days, you know?’ She was very tactful for a 16 year old. I had only offered out of a lingering nostalgia for my pregnancy. I had thought then with such conviction that the purple gown with the black scoop neck that I had worn only two years earlier would one day be worn by the little girl inside me. But I had matured by the time Isabel had turned 16 and knew she wouldn’t wear it. ‘It’s just, the style now, mum, you know, is a little shorter. Boys want to see your knees, you know?’ I smiled at how angrily I had reacted to that. ‘I’m sure they would like to see a whole lot more,’ both our cheeks flushed red, ‘but you wouldn’t walk around naked, would you?’ My voice was raised but hushed into a whispered shout and we were both embarrassed. I held my ground a moment longer and then stormed out of her room dramatically. Now I smiled, then I couldn’t. I wasn’t ready. Life hadn’t been about me for long enough.
My knees hurt so I moved back onto my heels and slowly rolled my bum onto the carpet. The fibres were worn and compressed but I could see a the dark green plushness of new carpet hiding under the bed. Untouched for half a century. Protected by five different beds. The paper-thin pathway around the bed worn down by two pairs of feet in countless pairs of shoes. Work boots covered in masonry plaster; hiking boots crusted in mud; dress shoes, black, brown, white polished to mirrors; heels for killing; wider heels for better balance; knee high boots; flower patterned slippers – far too young; brand new black and green infantry boots.
My friend at school had had a notion that the earlier you start adulthood the earlier it ends. ‘What happens after that, then?’ I asked her. ‘You die, I guess.’ But it’s not as clear cut as that. There are actually three eventualities. If you’re lucky you return to childhood – no responsibilities, people looking after you and responding to your every whimper. Sometimes you die – which isn’t so bad. And sometimes there is nothing. Adulthood ends but isn’t replaced. You breathe but it doesn’t matter. You see but nothing is new and the thinning of a carpet is far to slow for you to realise. This is the worst option. I had just told her I was pregnant. She was excited for a moment before hitting me with her philosophy. I didn’t believe her. But she hadn’t thought it through.
My back was bent and didn’t straighten as I leant against the foot of the bed. The wardrobe doors were open. One of my earliest memories was looking for Narnia among my parents coats and suits. I found it then but daren’t go too far from the door. If it were here now I would crawl in and never look back. There can be no fear of the future if there is no longing for the present. The space on the rail from where I had taken my prom dress pulled my gaze and I saw the wooden box beneath a pair of dusty white leather dress shoes. I knew it was there. It was not a surprise to see it. I thought about it almost every night before I slept. But the shoes stopped me from opening it and they would stop me now.
I slumped onto my left hip and slid onto my elbow and forearm – a strange position. It would look as if I had fallen, had an accident, but no one can see me and I am comfortable. My gaze is fixed on the box at the bottom of the wardrobe and my mind is already rifling through the letters. I am reading. I am smelling. I am laughing. I am stroking the rough paper on my cheek. I am crying. I am crying so hard. Tears are pouring down my face, dripping onto my cream blouse and my green flour covered apron. I am wailing. I am holding my knees to my chest. I am rocking back and forth. I am pulling at my hair. I am screaming at the top of my lungs. I am kicking the bed, the wardrobe, the bedside table. I am throwing the lamp against the wall. Smash. My daughter is shouting mummy mummy mummy. I am apologising. I am holding her. I am whispering. We are crying.