Once Patrick heads off for work, and she realises I’m the one who’s taking her to school this morning, Becky launches herself into a pirouette and plants kisses halfway up my arm. “Can we go by walk? Please, Mummy, pleeeze.”
Why not? Anything to atone for the cruelty of going away without her, for not being here tomorrow to help her prepare for Jennifer’s party. It gives us more time together if I leave the car in the garage, and the exercise does me good. But it’s not just that. Unlike much of her generation, Becky generally prefers to travel on foot. Why hide away in the car when she can turn the street into her personal catwalk? She wants the whole world to rejoice in the perfect pink dress she’s modelling today.
I never thought I’d have such a girlie child. (I never thought I’d have a child at all, I left my biological clock ticking away for so long. Or so my mother said, at least.) A girlie child: for all I try to interest my daughter in Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, Becky insists on pushing baby dolls around in a pram. In Mothercare, I might lead her to the racks of denim, but I’m wasting my time, and she knows it. Even when the only dresses available to her are the hand-me-downs from Vanessa’s youngest, it’s a battle to get my daughter through the door unless she’s rigged out in something pretty in pink. On a day like today, I don’t even try to fight it.
Becky prances along the pavement with her hand in mine, breathing in the admiration of her public. Everyone we pass — the neighbours putting out the rubbish bins; the commuters scanning the horizon for the number 42; and especially the lollipop lady in her canary-yellow coveralls — gets co-opted into her fanclub.
By the time we reach the school gates, she’s had her fix and she wriggles her hand free of mine to wave to Jennifer, this season’s best friend. When I bend down to kiss her goodbye, every cell in her body is preparing to be off.
It could be the tears in my eyes that make her hesitate. “Don’t worry, Mummy. It’s only two sleeps till Thursday, and then you’ll be home again.”
She grabs her coat from me and skips off, a Lothario moving on to the next love affair. Such equanimity in one so young! Such fickleness! Such a contrast to last night, sobbing in Patrick’s arms while I opened up PowerPoint on my laptop.
“Don’t leave me, Mummy.”
“Don’t you want Mummy to collect her prize?” said Patrick.
Becky raised her head from the damp patch she’d created on his shirt. “Mummy’s getting a prize?”
“Sure,” said Patrick. “Bet you can’t guess what for.”
Becky considered it a moment. “I know. For being the prettiest Mummy in the conf’ence.”
I laughed. “Hardly.”
“Even better,” said Patrick. “It’s for being the top scientist this year.”
“I want to give Mummy a prize, too.” Becky jumped off Patrick’s lap and scrabbled in her toybox for her coloured pens and sketchpad. “I’ll draw you a lovely picture to take to the conf’ence.”
“Okay,” I said, “but it’s bedtime in ten minutes.”
It wasn’t, of course. In Becky’s interpretation of me receiving the Carruthers Award, the laureate’s crown alone required ten minutes of her careful attention. Then there was the regal blue gown, the pass-the-parcel trophy, the ear-to-ear smile. It was nearly nine by the time we got her upstairs, my mother’s voice echoing in my head: You let that child run rings round you.
Back home, mooning over Becky’s artwork and wondering if I’ve time for another pot of Earl Grey, it strikes me that I’m as guilty as my daughter in trying to delay the inevitable. I only wish I had half the talents Becky applies to postponing bedtime to stretch out the time before I have to leave for the station.
I fill the kettle at the sink. I can kid myself I’m reluctant to leave my family, but it’s nothing so worthy as that. When I step up to the podium tomorrow, I’ll need to look and feel the part. Trouble is, I tell the teapot, no one can predict for certain what outfit is going to work two hundred miles and twenty-four hours away. Packing for a trip is the one thing that reduces this esteemed professor of physics to one of those post-feminists who can’t boil an egg or clean the toilet without reference to some celebrity-endorsed instruction manual. Even my five-year-old is more confident about choosing what to wear than I am. If only I could take my whole wardrobe with me on the train.
On the train to Blackpool, our family has a compartment all to ourselves. Nana and Grampa have the window seats, beside the door that opens straight onto the platform, although neither of them have much use for the view: Nana with her nose in The People’s Friend and Grampa intent on filling up the ashtray with the leftovers of his Woodbines. Along the bench from Grampa, under the luggage rack where he has stowed the battered suitcase containing me and Vanessa’s best frocks, Mummy and Auntie Joan harmonise their knitting needles with the clickety-click of the train. On the opposite bench, going backwards along with Nana and the picnic basket with our salmon-paste sandwiches and mini chocolate swiss-rolls, we children play quietly with our dolls and I try to ignore the tightening knot in my stomach.
Manoeuvring Vanessa’s Sindy into a jaunty air hostess outfit, an arm comes off in my hand and falls to the floor. Even under the eyes of so many grownups, with the odds clearly against me, my first thought is of a cover-up, and I jump down and jettison the little plastic limb under the seat with a deft kick of the heel. Not fast enough. Vanessa has already pushed out her bottom lip, Auntie Joan has put down her knitting and scooped her onto her lap, and Nana has lowered her magazine and shaken her head. Before Mummy can say anything, I’m down on the floor to retrieve the severed limb.
“Get up, get up this minute,” says Mummy. “You’ll get filthy dirty down there.”
Nana snatches the arm from me and levers it back into the Sindy’s shoulder socket. Mummy spits on a hankie and rubs my knees until they burn. “Can’t you play nicely for just one minute?”
I glance across at Grampa, hoping to meet his gaze but he just sucks on his cigarette and flicks the ash into the chrome dish attached to the door.
“For heaven’s sake,” says Mummy, “try and keep yourself clean till after the contest.”
I wriggle my bottom right to the back of the bench, as far from the grimy floor as possible. I clutch my Tressy. If you press the button on her back, a lock of yellow hair sprouts from the top of her head, making it look as if her hair is growing. I don’t press the button.
Vanessa cuddles up to Auntie Joan, as if she is trying to get inside her tummy. Auntie Joan tickles her and Vanessa giggles. Mummy frowns and counts her stitches. I have heard her tell Daddy that Auntie Joan treats Vanessa like a baby, always picking her up to cuddle her.
Vanessa is the kind of girl Mummies can’t help cuddling. When she smiles, which is often, she has dimples, as if God couldn’t resist dipping his pinky into her cheeks before they were set, just like me when I can’t help poking at a freshly-iced cake. Her golden hair is soft and bouncy and you only have to twist it around your finger for it to spring into ringlets as perfect as brandy-snaps. And she never gets into trouble. She doesn’t break the arms off other children’s dolls and try to hide the evidence. She doesn’t crawl about on the floor of the compartment and get filthy-dirty when she is supposed to be keeping herself nice-and-clean for the contest. Her Mummy doesn’t have to rub her knees with a hankie until they burn.
I get down on my knees to drag the trolley-case out from under the bed. At least I’ve got decent luggage these days. And I don’t need to worry about the picnic: we’ll buy an overpriced Hawaiian chicken wrap on the train and charge it to expenses.
I go to my wardrobe, a cumbersome auction-room purchase from the pecuniary early years of our marriage. The door creaks as I open it to seek out the perfect ensemble in which to deliver the Carruthers Address.
Choose me, calls the grey wool suit that has seen me get my way in many a faculty meeting. I shake my head. You’re too formal, too sombre; I’d end up trying to persuade the audience to bump up the physics department’s IT budget.
Choose me, pleads the Little Black Dress that, with or without the sequinned jacket, has served me well at the Vice-Chancellor’s soirees. Not for the conference, though. I can’t wear you unless I’m holding a Manhattan with a cherry on a cocktail stick.
Choose me, then, cries the calf-length navy pleated skirt that sometimes gets an airing along with a white shirt on graduation day. No, you look like a school uniform and, besides, you’re for when the students are getting prizes, not me.
Which one will you choose then? chorus the contents of my wardrobe in frustration.
I’m teasing, of course. I’m not as disorganised as I pretend. I picked out my outfit in my mind all of four months ago, the very day I got the letter to tell me I’d won the Carruthers Award.
I select two hangers: a slinky silk dress in an abstract pattern of five different shades of green, along with a cropped collarless jacket in a perfectly co-ordinated aquamarine. Better check they still fit before I put them in the case. I pull my jumper over my head and step out of my jeans. The dress feels cool and clean against my skin. I pull up the zip at the back. I shrug on the jacket and push back the wardrobe door to study the prize-winning outfit in the mirror.
It’s not quite as I expected.
Who’s getting married? says the shiny green dress.
Where’s the carnation for my buttonhole? says the colour-coordinated jacket.
I step back from the mirror and look again. I turn sideways and stare back at my reflection from over my shoulder. I narrow my eyes so the greens merge as in an impressionist painting. But it makes no difference. No way is this the sartorial statement of a serious scientist at the summit of her career. I rip off the jacket and tear myself out of the dress and stand, wretched, in my bra and knickers.
I take a deep breath and lurch back to the wardrobe and rummage through the hangers. There’s stuff in here I haven’t worn for years, but none of it suitable. I peer into the depths once, twice, three times more, as if the strength of my wanting can make the right get-up magically appear. It’s useless: I haven’t a thing to wear.
I flop down on the bed, almost in tears. I can’t manage this on my own. This problem needs a whole research team to crack it.
Patrick would have been happy to help, if only I’d let him. “What are you going to wear for your talk?” he said last night, after we’d finally got Becky to bed.
“Clothes, of course.”
“Does it matter? People are interested in what I’ve got to say, not what I’m wearing. It’s not a bloody beauty contest, you know.”
In our party frocks with their scratchy layered underskirts, and a numbered pink cardboard disc tied with ribbon around our left wrists, Vanessa and I wait in a line of little girls for our turn to step out onto the open-air stage where a man with a microphone will shake our hands and ask us our names. We will curtsy to all the Mummies and Aunties and Nanas and Grampas and be presented with a silk rosebud for our efforts.
Some of the younger ones don’t know how to curtsy, which makes the audience laugh and the man with the microphone lean down and bend their legs into position, as if they were Blue Peter dolls made out of pipe-cleaners. Vanessa and I practise as we wait in the queue, holding out our skirts and stepping back with the right foot while bending the left knee, and looking up and smiling. Smiling. Even backstage, with no grownups watching, only me and another hundred hopeful Miss Rosebud 1965’s, those indentations in Vanessa’s cheeks insist this is fun. But I’m a year older than Vanessa and have seen much more of the world.
“Sue!” Down the phoneline, Harry’s voice sounds artificially buoyant, like he’s swimming with a rubber ring. “Everything’s okay, I hope?”
I glance around the bedroom, clothes strewn everywhere. “There’s a bit of a problem.”
“I haven’t got the train times mixed up again, have I?”
For one delicious moment, I realise he thinks I’m phoning from the station, storming up and down the platform, wondering where he’s got to. “No, it’s not till eleven-thirty. But I’m not going to be able to make it.”
“I’m not packed yet.” I’m tempted to invite him over to interrogate my wardrobe, but that’s not the kind of relationship I have with my senior lecturers, not even the women. “Becky threw a tantrum at the school gates. There was no way I could leave her in that state.” I vow I’ll explain all to my daughter when she is old enough, and hope she’ll forgive me for damaging her reputation. Even more, I hope her reputation in the eyes of Harry Gormley will never matter to her. “It’s put me about an hour behind.”
“Should we go for the next train then? Shall I check the times?”
“There’s no point us both being late. You get the eleven-thirty and I’ll follow on as soon as I can.”
Harry hesitates. I know he wouldn’t want to miss the inaugural address, but he’ll have been banking on our time together on the train to bend my ear about his ideas on restructuring the department. “If you’re sure.”
“Absolutely. Someone’s going to have to represent us at the opening session. I know I can rely on you.”
My smile, as I put down the phone on the bedside table, is a little smug. My deliverance from a train journey in the company of Harry Gormley, from him prattling on about the benefits of splitting off Accelerator Research from Particle Physics while managing not to mention the promotion he would expect in the process, has restored my confidence. If I can manage Harry, then surely I can manage something as basic as choosing what to wear for my presentation. After all, nothing could be as bad as my conference debut, giving a paper in the student section on my final year project. I’d won a prize for that, too, but that was no excuse for walking up to the rostrum in a third-hand biker’s jacket and ripped black jeans clanking with chains like Marley’s ghost, and my hair standing up in spikes, courtesy of two whole cans of hairspray.
Fashions change and precocious students mature into serious professors. No torn jeans in my wardrobe today. No pink party frocks either. Surely I can find something suitable between those two extremes.
What I need, I tell myself as I slide the hangers back and forth along the rail, is a grading system for the second-bests. I ought to be able to handle it; it can’t be much different to allocating the leftover places on a degree course when the A-level results come out.
Trouble is, some people get quite huffy if they weren’t selected first time. Too formal, am I? grumbles the grey wool suit. Too sombre? So you won’t be calling on my expertise to bail you out.
I hesitate before the Little Black Dress. Too frivolous? Can’t imagine me without a cocktail in your hand? You’d better have a drink now to drown your sorrows, because I’m not going to help you.
School uniform, indeed! Serve you right if you end up in detention.
What do we care if you make a fool of yourself? What do we care about the stupid Carruthers Award?
Back on the train. The same people, just a few hours older: Grampa with his ashtray; Nana with her magazine; Auntie Joan with her knitting.
Mummy isn’t knitting. She sits with her hands in her lap and her eyes closed. Her face has a crumpled look, like clothes in the ironing basket.
Vanessa has given up trying to recruit me into her game. She lines up the dolls on the bench: the Sindy and the Tressy and the Barbie and the one without a name. One by one, she walks them onto the suitcase where they twirl and flirt before an imaginary audience. She presents them with a pink silk flower on a plastic stem as tall as the doll itself. “Congratulations, Miss Rosebud 1965!”
Sitting opposite Grampa at the window, I am not so engrossed in the sheep and cows passing by as not to notice Mummy wince. It’s not a prize, I want to scream at Vanessa. We didn’t win anything.
“Congratulations!” says Vanessa to the next doll, as if just by being she has done something special.
Auntie Joan looks up from her knitting and smiles. I’ve heard Mummy tell Daddy that Auntie Joan isn’t very bright. I’ve heard her say the same about Vanessa. It means they don’t understand things the way Mummy and I do. It’s as if they really believe what Nana said, that it wasn’t the winning or losing that mattered, it was the fun of taking part.
I don’t mind so much for myself. Even as I dreamed of waking up magicked into a beauty-contest winner, I always knew I was there mainly to keep Vanessa company. But for Vanessa not to be crowned Miss Rosebud, not to be picked out to sit on a throne in the middle of the stage surrounded by a hundred little girls clutching a pink flower, doesn’t make sense.
I wait until I’m sure no one is looking. Then I drop my rosebud onto the floor and flick it out of sight under the bench. The thought of the pink petals getting filthy-dirty in the dust and grime brings me some comfort. Under the seat, starved of attention, let them wither and die.
“In the Pink, you said it’s called? Round the back of the bus station?”
I can tell the taxi driver’s fed up driving around seeking out such fripperies, but I didn’t design the one-way system. “Well, it was there five years ago.”
As we drive down Albert Street for the third time, I’m tempted to give up, tell him to drop me at the station and I’ll do the presentation in my nightie with a paper bag on my head for all I care. But then we turn the corner, and there it is: In the Pink — Designer Dressing for the Discerning Demoiselle. Brazen as anything, as if it hasn’t been playing hide and seek with us for the last ten minutes.
As I walk into the shop, the proprietor looks up from a Mills and Boon: frothy curls dyed Naturally Blonde; purple talons; heavy warpaint. “Sue! What a lovely surprise! Haven’t seen you in ages! How’s Patrick? How’s my darling Becky?” Vanessa steps out from behind the counter to give me a hug that reeks of roses. “What brings you here? Nothing the matter, I hope?”
In the mirror next to a rail of fussy blouses, I see a ramshackle creature struggling to hold back her tears. Her more decorative cousin proffers a box of tissues in pastel shades. Thankfully, no one else is in the shop to witness my humiliation.
Vanessa understands my difficulty immediately. She floats along the rails, selecting garments as if picking flowers for a bouquet. “You need something classy, with a bit of an edge to it, but not so interesting as to take you over. The kind of outfit that’s so fabulous you don’t even notice it.”
Even though she’s talking absolute nonsense, it’s a relief to let Vanessa take charge. She drops a pile of glad-rags onto the counter and holds out her final choice. “Try these.”
“Beige?” I’ve never worn anything in beige. So pale, I fear I’d disappear.
“Ecru,” says Vanessa, bustling me into the changing room and hooking three wooden hangers on the door: trousers, jacket and blouse.
When I step back out, Vanessa beams like Becky did when she met up with her friend this morning. There’s still the hint of a dimple. “You look stunning!”
I make a move towards the mirror. Perhaps it will judge me more harshly.
Vanessa grabs my arm and pulls me away. Her cheeks are flushed with excitement. “Not yet. Wait till I get you some shoes.”
She darts away to the other end of the shop. She reminds me of Becky off to raid the dressing-up box. What am I playing at? I must be desperate to delegate something so important to my ditzy cousin. Yet, I must confess, the suit feels comfortable to wear. I step to the side and the fabric flows after me, lending my movements an unusual grace.
Panting for breath, Vanessa leads me to the mirror and drops a pair of strappy sandals at my feet. “Try these.”
The woman who steps into them looks like she means business. She’s authoritative but not authoritarian, feminine without being frilly. It seems that ecru is just her colour. I smile into the mirror. “Vanessa, you’re a genius. It’s perfect.”
At the counter, Vanessa wraps my new outfit in tissue paper as if it’s a fragile ornament. She shakes her head. “Honestly, Sue, you’re such a dark horse. Why didn’t you tell me you were getting an award? We could have had a family party.”
I give a noncommittal laugh. I can’t imagine my mother and Auntie Joan finding much to celebrate in a prize for physics.
As Vanessa shakes out one of her pink carrier bags, I put out my hand to stop her. “No need. We can pack it straight into my case.”
“Just as you like.” Vanessa lifts my trolley-case onto the counter, pushing aside the carrier bag to make room. It’s made of crisp pink card with a handle of woven jute. Quite attractive in its way: designer-shop carriers are a different species from the flimsy supermarket throwaways. It might be fun at the conference to leave my briefcase in my room and carry my notes in something like that. And Becky could make good use of it once the conference is over. “On second thoughts,” I say, picking up the bag and placing it on top of the new clothes in my case.
In the Pink, I read, in show-off flowery lettering before Vanessa covers the words with the lid of my case and pulls the zip securely around the rim.
Anne Goodwin is the author of over 60 short stories, including Stepping into Dan’s Shoes and A Dress for the Address published by Halfway Down the Stairs. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, about a woman who has kept her past identity a secret for thirty years, which opens with the words “Halfway down the stairs”, was published in July 2015 by Inspired Quill. Her second novel, Underneath, about a man who keeps a woman captive in his cellar, is scheduled for May 2017.
© 2013, Anne Goodwin