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The Dress

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I was standing in the road when he walked by. I was wearing the nicest dress I’d ever owned, rescued from the tattered rag I’d started with. It was a fantasy of satin and brocade, a dark crimson slice sweeping wide across my breasts to a narrow point set in a skirt of copper satin. It showed my shape in a way that I should have been ashamed of, but in my situation, for once in my life, I needed to catch the eye and shine. I didn't have the money for decency or modesty if I wanted to rise from where I had fallen. 

Of course it hadn't looked nearly so fine when I first saw it. I was wearing a dress of rough shoddy, once dark brown but bleached pale and streaky by hot water and strong soap. I was nothing much to look at, and I needed to change that if I was ever to leave London and find what was left of my family. I was celebrating my bitter liberation, seeing what could be found in Petticoat Lane in the rag fair. I sorted through the dull and worn clothes on offer, serviceable corduroy and linen, sailors togs and threadbare dresses as I drifted through the stalls. My fingers, buried in a heap of castoffs, felt something soft. It wound itself gently around my fingers and I burrowed down further and pulled it upwards. I felt the cloth begin to rip, and let go, gently lifting the other garments away to see what I had found. 

The brocade was ruined, shredding and rippling down the center of the bodice. It had once been pale rose in a dress that might have once been white. The satin was butter-soft and yellow, streaked brown with god knew what. Its hem was draggling the floor but it was intact, mostly. I held it up to get a better look. Parts of the skirt were torn and fragile to the touch but there were still large panels of good cloth. The silk brocade that arrowed down the bodice tipped the top of the once perfect puff of the sleeves and piped the seams of this elegant shambles of the seamstress’s art. Just looking at it lying across my arm was a wonder. To touch it was to feel my rough fingertips catch in slippery softness. Yes, it was badly stained, and the person who had tried to clean it had only made things worse. The satin would do but the brocade was not long for this world.

I picked it up, carefully, and held it to my waist. The skirt was too long for me by several inches, but the bodice could probably be made to fit well enough. Those extra inches of satin would give me something to work with when I mended it. The full skirt had flowed warmly over my limbs as I held it and thought of all the women it had covered before it got to me. I wanted it more than anything in that moment.

"What will you take for this" I asked.

The woman who sat the stall looked at my mousy dress, my reddened hands and scuffed shoes. I could see in her eyes what she thought, and she was right. I was looking for a way to put myself on display. A bonnetless chit of an Irish girl who'd fallen, been turned out of service without a reference, with nothing but the streets before her.

"What will you give me?" she said.

I fingered the cloth with one hand, my other deep in my skirt pocket, fingers wrapped tightly around what money I had. I thought of the work ahead of me and what I'd end up with in the end.

"Two shillings,' I said.

The woman snorted. "That's silk,' she said. "That was twenty guineas or more, when it was made."

I set the dress down. "The satin might be useful, if I can get it clean enough to take dye, but it'll never be a fine lady's gown again. With all those holes, I'll get a jacket, maybe, out of what's still worth having."

Her hand reached out, touched the ruined bodice, then the stained satin.

"Can't make shoddy from silk," I said. “How long have you been trying to sell it?” 

"Four.”

I hadn't realized I was holding my breath until I let it out. It was all I had. "Done."

I bundled it carefully under my shawl and all but ran back to St. Giles. 

"So what's that, then?" Norah fingered the cloth under my arm as I turned the corner.

I didn't realize just how much I'd missed the sound of Irish voices until I had them around me again. This tiny court filled with them was the closest thing to home I'd likely ever have. I'd been sent from Dublin to enter service in London at fifteen. Tomorrow I would reach my thirtieth year. I shook out the ruined dress for Norah to see, because I could never show it to my mother. I supposed it was my birthday present, came the quiet, sad thought. Somehow I didn't feel like celebrating. It was too dearly bought. 

"Whatever I can manage to make of it," I told Norah, my smile a shield for a friend too new to see past it.

She smiled back, looking at the tattered bit of finery. "I'll be interested to see what it becomes, Roisin." New friend or no, she’d never called me anything else. The household I’d worked for had judged my name uncouth and I had been called Lucy for half my life. Another gift that I chose to cherish was the music of my name on the lips of a friend. 

I continued down the lane and into a narrow court. I climbed the stairs and entered a tiny room. The floor was freshly swept, and three pallets were laid out on it. I carefully folded my prize and wrapped it in a clean cloth, then went to pay a visit to Biddy Garrett. She had a sharp pair of scissors and a good eye.

The end of the day and I added two shots of gin to the copper full of warm water and soap. The court was filled with laundry drying on lines, and my work done, I could turn to the task I had been waiting to do. The gin and fine soap weren't cheap, but the stains on the dress I was lowering carefully into the water faded a bit more with each gentle soak. It would never be white again, but soon I could try to even out the color with dye.

Three weeks ago my life had been very different, my days laid out in clockwork misery. In some ways, little had changed. I still did laundry every day and was paid a pittance for doing it, the work was still hard and monotonous, my hands were still red and my back still sore. Now I slept on the floor instead of a narrow bed in the servants quarters, and while this room and these people were desperately poor, I was among friends, and I hoped peace would come in time.

A month ago the last letter had come from Dublin. 

To Be Continued