My space included a storeroom, where expensive fabrics were stored away from any stray sunlight, and commissions waited to be delivered. On a shelf and stowed in a basket, I pulled out the gown in question. A peacock blue silk comprised of a simple drape, it would need the back altered as well as the hem. A sigh escaped my lips. The smiling showgirl had coerced me into working for free. There was no doubt in my mind that even if Agatha secured the staring role she sought, her faulty memory would forget all about her promise to pay me double.
“You’re a fool Grace Sullivan.” My married surname wouldn’t cross my lips as I reminded myself of the foolish decisions made years earlier. When dad found out that I was working for free, he’d shake his head and tell me I was far too nice and accomodating. Try as I might, I simply couldn’t be any other way. But it was a lesson life seemed determine to try and drum into me.
From in a locked drawer, I retrieved my notebook where I detailed client’s measurements. Then I wheeled a nude dress form over to the cutting table. I adjusted the notches in the form to Agathas measurements, before I clothed the legless and headless figure in the gown. Before I doubted myself, I took up my shears and slit the back of the gown open. A few smaller cuts and some tucks, and the sides were pinned to reveal a daring amount of spine. Perfect for a long necklace worn backwards to dangle against her skin.
Time lost all meaning around me as I considered the drape of the fabric and the final effect. My hands snipped, tucked, and pinned. My knees ached when Sam, my best friend in the entire world, entered the shop two hours later. Beside her, the small dark haired boy who was the center of my world.
I held out my arms and Theo rushed toward me. “We’re making a kite. Can we fly it in the gardens at the weekend?” he said.
“Of course we can.” I kissed his cheek.
Samantha, or Sam as she preferred, worked in her family bakery, starting her day at a time most of us called the dead of night. That meant she finished early, collected Theo from the child minder, and walked him home for me. I couldn’t have raised my son without the support of my dad and best friend. Between us all, we might see him become a fine young man one day. Even if his features made my heart ache for his resemblance to his father with the small cleft in his chin and laughing hazel eyes. At least he didn’t have his father’s burnished copper hair, but had the Sullivan family’s dark locks.
I patted my son’s unruly hair which seemed determined to point upwards once his cap was removed. “Can you tell dad I have to work late? A client wants this finished for a party tonight.”
Sam screwed up her face. ‘You shouldn’t be walking home in the dark. I’ll ask Joseph to come fetch you, he can bring that horrid contraption he loves so much.”
Joseph was my cousin and he now boarded in Sydney Street, not far from us. Once he had been a joyful lad, who my dad referred to as wet behind the ears. Like many of our young men, he had signed up as soon as he was old enough for the grand adventure of going off to war. None of us knew the horrors he endured. Joseph returned to us with a haunted look in his eyes and his easy smile erased forever.
He was a policeman by day, but helped dad in the evenings if he needed two feet. Since dad only had one. Both men delighted in tinkering with greasy motors and Theo loved being part of man time, as we called it when the three of them sat out in dad’s workshop and garage.
“Thanks, Sam. I’ll eat when I get home.” I kissed Theo’s cheek and hugged my friend.
“You’re too thin, I’ll make sure there’s enough left over for you and mind you eat it before going to bed.” She waggled a finger at me.
I worked all afternoon and when the light faded, I flicked the light switch (offering a silent thanks to Mrs Cooper for having electricity wired throughout the building) and kept working. The seams weren’t as perfect as I’d like them, and there had been no time to hand sew them all. My reliable Singer had valiantly tackled the staggered hem and the additional fabric I added to drape beautifully around Agatha’s long legs. The scandalous back had a single drape of vibrant chiffon running down one side in a peacock pattern with a beaded edge, and that trailed behind in a modern echo of a train from long ago.
By the time Agatha pushed through the door again, my fingers hurt, my back ached, and I had stabbed myself at least three times. Would she appreciate I literally bled for her to finish on time? Probably not. I helped her dress in the fitting room with walls covered in the strawberry thief wallpaper pattern by William and Morris. The cheeky bird about to feast on a fat strawberry reminded me of the fantails that flitted around our place.
Agatha spun before the full length mirror and the silk flowed like water with her movement. “It’s beautiful. You don’t know what this means to me.” Her hands shook as she let the fabric slide through her fingers.
It meant ten pounds to me. If she had ordered such a gown in Paris, Agatha would pay nearly one hundred pounds. Perhaps one day when I grew my fashion house to have a team of skilled seamstresses, I could command such prices. Today I’d settle for a tenth of what they charged.
“What of your dress? Do you want me to wrap it so you can take it with you?” I pointed to the dress she had worn into there fitting room.
Agatha waved her hand. “I’ll collect it tomorrow. When I pay you. I absolutely pinkie swear that I’ll find the money somehow.” She held out one hand, her little finger crooked.
A childish gesture, but it might stick in her memory. I grasped her pinkie with mine and we shook on it.
“Now, wish me luck.” She beamed at me, her eyes full of expectation and hope but the whites showed a little too much as though she were holding back panic.
“Knock ‘em dead.” I did wish her well. Everybody had a dream and Agatha wanted to achieve hers. Who knew, perhaps one day I would sit in the cinema and see her dance across the screen. Even better if she wore one of my dresses and I had a fat bank account from all the lucrative commissions.
After she had left, I turned off the lights and locked the front door. A rumble came from Lambton Quay and a bright headlight flashed along the walkway in the fading twilight. A throaty motorcycle idled on the footpath.
“Grace?” a familiar voice called out.
“Coming!” I tugged the front of my cardigan against the slight chill to the air and hurried down the lane.
Joseph sat astride a motorcycle. Not my preferred form of transport, but tonight all I wanted to do was kick off my shoes and fall into bed. The Triumph would soon deliver me to home—assuming my bones didn’t rattle apart on the trip.
As a child, Joseph and I were forced together when dad and I returned to the family farm over in the Waiarapa at Christmas time. The years had changed my cousin and added bulk to his tall frame. While I once thought him annoying, I cried when he enlisted and cried even more tears in relief to have him home. While we often argued as family could, we looked out for one another.
War aged his eyes, like so many of our men. They walked up the gangplanks of the troopships with laughter in their hearts and returned weary old men. At least he came back to us. So many never did.
“Thanks for coming to get me, Joseph.”
He shrugged. “Can’t have you wandering home alone at twilight.”
He held out a hand and steadied me as I hiked up my skirt and lifted a leg over the bike. Holding onto his waist, I pressed myself to his broad back and hoped my hat stayed on my head.
We roared up Lambton Quay, thankfully avoiding the tram lines that could ensnare a narrow motorcycle tire. As one, we leaned into the left hand corner of Bowen Street. Thorndon was an odd neighbour with its mix of grand villas and old workingmen cottages. As though the strict rules governing England were shaken when the immigrants arrived Downunder. In our little neighbourhood, the upper crust lived close to labourers. My home of Ascot Street was steep like many a road around Wellington. Other bits were pedestrian access only, but no challenge to the motorcycle.
Our two storey cottage occupied an almost level site, allowing for dad’s garage crammed in between us and our lower neighbour. On the higher side of us, lived Sam and her mum.
A light glowed in our cottage as I waved goodbye to Joseph and pushed open the door. Downstairs was the kitchen, dining room and drawing room. All were combined into one space. Dad and his ever present hammer had taken down a wall to make the cottage feel less cramped with three of us in it. A small bedroom was tucked beside the steep stairs, and was dad’s private domain. Theo and I both had rooms upstairs, nestled under the steep roof.
Dad sat in an armchair in the corner closest to the cold fireplace, a book open on his chest. His eyelids fluttered open as I approached.
“I wasn’t asleep. Just resting my eyes.” He closed the book and placed it on the squat table beside him that also held an empty coffee cup.
“How was Theo this evening?” I flopped into the nearby armchair and immediately toed off my brown oxfords.
“He helped me for a bit after dinner. We’re building a bird house together. Then we had a story and he went off to bed without complaint.” Dad washed his hands over his face and scratched his head.
“Thanks, Dad.” Not only did dad cook dinner for his grandson and read him a story at bedtime, he had also raised a daughter on his own. Like many kiwi blokes, dad simply got on with the job at hand. He might bluff and bluster at times like a bear with a sore head, but he had the biggest heart.
“He’s a fine lad. Takes after me, obviously.” Dad huffed a laugh. “Your dinner’s in the oven, Sam dropped off a pie. What had you working so late?”
I padded to the kitchen in my stocking-clad feet and cracked open the old range. A plate sat within, a silver pot lid balanced on top to stop my tea drying out.
“Agatha Marshall wanted a gown at very short notice. She has some fancy party tonight.” Using a tea towel to insulate my hands, I pulled out the plate and set it on the pine table. Lifting the lid, I sniffed the meal. A slice of chicken pie, a baked spud, and a handful of beans awaited me. The golden pastry of the pie and delicious aroma could only have been crafted by Sam. While both dad and I relied on our hands to earn a living, neither of us had mastered cooking. We survived with the handful of meals we could reliably produce without burning, but Sam supplement our diet with a range of pies, casseroles, and cakes.
“Is she the one that never pays?” Dad grabbed his empty cup and carried it over to the sink.
“That’s her.” I shovelled pie into my face so could claim chewing as an excuse for not continuing that conversation.
I mouthed the next words out of his mouth along with dad. “You’re too good, Grace.”
Exactly what I knew he’d say when he found out that yet again, Agatha had skipped out of my shop without paying. I replaced the pie with a chunk of potato and nodded. The food chilled as it hit my stomach. You’re too good. But I wasn’t. That was my secret that Frank must have shared with Agatha.
“I know, Dad. But she convinced me it was a matter of life or death.” Or a matter of secrets or silence.
Dad blew a snort. “She won’t die if she wears a dress everyone has seen before. Any customer with an outstanding bill who comes here wanting work is told to bugger off. I don’t suppose you asked her for payment up front?” Dad grabbed a tea towel as I turned on the tap and let hot water flow into the sink.
I reached for the sunlight soap, held in a metal cage with a handle and agitated the water with the contraption.
“Oh, Gracie,” Dad said when I remained silent.
“She said if she made it big, she would shower me in money.” I tried not to cry and kept my gaze fixed on the soapy water. The image of a red bicycle appeared in my mind, then it shimmered and dissolved like a soap bubble.
“We’re a right pair, aren’t we.” He nudged me with his shoulder.
I balanced the soap holder above the taps to drain. Then I flung my arms around dad. “We’ll make do, just like we always have. The three of us against the world.”
Dad thumped me on the back. “Things are looking up now, Gracie, you wait and see. The bad times are behind us and everything is turning bright. Your business will take off and you’ll soon need to take on more seamstresses.”
Dad was right. Again. The world had climbed out of the trenches of the Great War only to plunge into plague pits. The influenza spread through communities and seemed to select its victims at random. It might be one soul from a family or the entire lot. We were blessedly unscathed. Dad caught it, but I nursed him through. Sam lost her dad and we buried him along with so many others.
“There does seem to be a wind of change in the air. Like the burst of spring after a long winter.” I saw it reflected in the fashion magazines. Hem became shorter, colours more vibrant, embellishments shinier. The music emerging from American had a faster tempo to match. If I could capture the wave, it might sweep our family into prosperity. All I needed was the courage to grasp the electricity shooting from the new trends and put a unique kiwi twist on them.
After we had done the dishes, I sat with dad for awhile until he muttered his goodnight and stomped off to his room. I tried to read, but the words swam on the page. My shoes dangled from one hand as I trod the stairs and peered into Theo’s room. My son slept with his Theo bear clutched to his chest and his mouth open in a gentle snore. The sight made my heart swell.
I kept my door ajar, in case Theo needed me during the night and quickly stripped off my dress and slipped on a nightgown. Once in bed, I stretched out and wriggled my toes, before curling on my side and tucking the quilt around me. When sleep found me, I was dreaming of a fabulous party with fast music and women in glorious beaded gowns.