Fusty and dusty, the attic was filled with things – all kinds of things – crammed around the edges of the room. They were like a silent, jumbled congregation, wedged together in silent worship of the deity standing in the centre of the floor. From the skylight directly above, sunlight poured down to bathe it in a halo of golden light.
The dressmaker’s dummy stood stiff and proud, its headless outline both awe inspiring and terrifying. It was shrouded in deep red velvet that appeared almost black in places. Sparkles winked and glittered from the hundreds of tiny glass stones, sewn onto the fabric. They constantly changed colour, from purple through to pink and blue, as though a living body occupied the dress. Such was its grandeur, it didn’t take a great leap of imagination to envisage an Edwardian lady, hair piled high, wearing such a garment to an important occasion, such as dining with royalty.
The dress was old, an antique of a bygone fashion, yet it looked fresh and new as if caught in a time bubble. It oozed sophistication and style, from its low cut neckline, that would reveal just a hint of clevage, right down to the graceful sweep of the long skirt.
These thoughts and observations passed rapidly through Prudence’s mind, as she climbed the last of the attic stairs, and then came to a stop in front of the dressmaker’s dummy. She couldn’t believe her luck. She’d not been in the attic for years, not since she was a child, and had forgotten about the dress, until she’d come up here the other day, searching for something else. Prudence wasn’t even sure if she’d ever seen the garment before. But that didn’t matter, it was an absolute treasure and so beautiful. Behind her, more footsteps sounded and a second later a young man stood beside her. Her smile was uncertain as she gazed up into his rather weasel like features.
‘This is what I wanted to show you, Cal.’ She gestured towards the dress and the young man’s brow furrowed.
‘You dragged me all the way up here to see that rag?’ He pulled the back of his hand across his sweat soaked forehead. ‘I sometimes wonder what goes on in your tiny brain.’ The frown turned into something more sinister, as he added, ‘Maybe you need some sense knocking into you.’
‘Please, Cal, don’t.’Prudence’s voice was a reflection of her meek personality, which was further emphasised by her mousy hair and stick thin figure. Despite being in her early twenties, she resembled a dowdy, middle-aged spinster, dressed in a dull blouse, calf length skirt, and the obligatory saggy pocketed cardigan, along with flat heeled shoes. ‘I just thought it’d be great for the fancy dress ball next week,’ she said, hoping to placate her fiancée.
It didn’t work. Pasty face still flushed with anger, Callum Maguire curled his lip. ‘You? Wearing that? If you think you’re showing me up at the biggest social event of the year, you can think again.’ He held up a finger and jabbed it towards her face, causing Prudence to blink and step back. ‘You’ve been warned, Prue, I won’t tell you again.’
He turned towards the stairs, and as she listened to his bad tempered footsteps thundering down towards the landing, Prudence tried to hold back her tears. She dabbed at her eyes with a crumpled tissue, taken from one of the cardigan’s pockets. Why did she find it so difficult to stand up for herself? Ever since childhood, she’d done her best to be good and obedient. She’d honed self effacement into a fine art, but despite her best efforts, knew she remained a disappointment to the family.
Her parents, still known as “mummy and daddy” to Prudence, had always regarded her with distant, chilly contempt. Every time she’d been brought down from the nursery, the atmosphere instantly changed from vivacious and witty conversation, to boredom and barely stifled yawns. Young as she was, she always felt as though she was walking on eggshells.
Prudence stuffed the tissue back into her pocket and looked around the cluttered attic with a hopeless air. As her gaze roved over the stacks of old books, tied up with threadbare string, broken toys and other miscellanea, she reflected that this was where she belonged. To hide away amongst the rubbish and become invisible, especially to Cal, became an almost attractive prospect in Prudence’s troubled mind.
Browbeaten into accepting his proposal of marriage by her mother, “for the good of the family”, she’d done her utmost to love him against insurmountable odds. The prospect of spending the rest of her life shackled to a cowardly, weasley brute filled her with revulsion. That said, given her submissive nature, Prudence accepted that married life, for her, would be one long prison sentence, until death provided a release.
A loud clatter, from the other side of the room, caused her heart to leap and she looked around again, eyes wide with fear; what on earth was that? Heart still pounding, and stomach weak with terror, she nonetheless forced herself towards the source of the noise. Relief flooded her system, when she saw a large portrait lying face down on the floor. Prudence stared at it for a second, then bent over and grasped either side of the ornate frame with both hands.
Dust cascaded from the picture, as she struggled to lift it up and then lean it against the base of the dressmaker’s dummy. She stepped back, wiping her hands down her cardigan, and then froze; a face, so like and yet unlike her own, stared back at her. It was a woman, with a long, slender neck and haughty features. Her brown hair had been swept up and gathered into a knot of curls. Dark eyes, filled with pride, stared a challenge at the world, and her lips were set in a superior smile. And that was the difference between them. The woman, whoever she was, oozed confidence and self assurance.
I am a prize to be won. I will not give myself to anyone who does not deserve me. I will fight for what is mine… and so should you.
The whispered words lodged in Prudence’s mind, and she again looked around, but she was alone… except for the portrait. Surely it hadn’t spoken? Prudence shook her head and forced a brittle laugh from between her dry lips. She was being silly, or “fanciful”, as mummy would put it. And what would Cal think if she told him? Prudence closed her eyes and shuddered.
She returned her attention to the painting. It was a head and shoulders portrait and as she stepped closer, she could just make out the low cut, deep red neckline of the woman’s gown; it looked like… Prudence glanced up at the dress, then back down at the picture. The necklines were the same. She reached out to touch the portrait and then sharply withdrew her hand; the canvas felt warm! Then she noticed the small plaque affixed to the base of the frame. She wiped away some of the dust and read the name: Emily Montague. Hand pressed to her mouth, Prudence slowly stood up. This was a portrait of her great, great grandmother – the so-called black sheep of the family; it had obviously been relegated to the attic – out of sight, out of mind.
In her youth, Emily had been involved in scandal after scandal, including supporting the suffragette movement, which resulted in her being imprisoned. On her release, the family ganged up on her and forced her into a marriage to a man three times her age. She ended up living in India, where, so it was rumoured, she’d thrown herself into the Ganges River, rather than live a life she so hated.
Shocked to the very core of her being, Prudence turned towards the stairs, but the “voice” called out to her, or rather sounded inside her head again. Don’t go. Try the dress on, see if it fits. Do it now, you’ll never have another chance.
Prudence clenched her hands, until her knuckles stood out white. This was ridiculous! Perhaps Cal was right, she was losing her mind, hearing “voices.” She looked at the dress, draped elegantly on the dummy, and narrowed her eyes. No matter what Cal said, it was beautiful. ‘Too beautiful for me,’ she muttered, ‘what was I thinking?’
She glanced down at the hand she’d used to touch the portrait, her fingertips were bright red, but they didn’t hurt. Rather it felt as if she’d made contact with something – something magical. Oh how she longed for that to be true! A tingle coursed through her veins at the thought. Prudence clenched her hand into a fist, suddenly determined to try the dress on. If it looked silly, well then, so be it.
‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained,’ she panted, as she fumbled with her cardigan buttons, then the zip on her skirt.
Prudence kicked off the hated shoes and stripped the wrinkled stockings from her legs. She tugged her blouse over her head, then clad only in her underwear, stood breathless and red faced in front of the dress. She reached out and the garment seemed to unfold itself from the dummy. Arms now raised, Prudence revelled in the soft caress of the velvet as it slid down her body, touching her skin like a lover’s kiss. Invisible fingers combed through her hair, gently teasing the tendrils this way and that, until it was piled on top of her head, leaving the back of her neck exposed and a cluster of curls resting on her brow.
Prudence accepted it all. She no longer felt any fear. Her heart still raced, but with excitement, not terror. Even the sound of squeaking castors failed to alarm her, as a full length mirror trundled across the uneven floor towards her. She couldn’t see her reflection at first, due to the dust that smeared the mirror’s glass. When she started to reach out to wipe it clean, a gentle pressure on her arm stayed her. A sweet smelling breeze wound itself across the cluttered room, and touched Prudence’s cheek. As she watched, it blew across the mirror; the particles of dust rose from the glass, drifting into the air like fairy glitter. Fascinated, Prudence continued to watch, as the motes sparkled and swirled and then settled like snow upon the floorboards, where they continued to twinkle before fading away.
Look upon the beauty that is you, the voice whispered. See what has been hidden all these years.
Breath caught in her throat, Prudence raised her head and stared into the glass; a stranger looked back. She was stunned by what gazed at her from the depths of the mirror. Her hair, thick and lustrous, lay piled on top of her head in sweeping curls that accentuated her graceful neck. Shoulders, shapely and beautiful, rose from the scooped neckline, and the curve of her breasts, creamy white, nestled just above the dress’s neckline. The rich velvet encircled her tiny waist, and the skirt fell in elegant folds to her feet.
Filled with joy, she caught up one side of the dress and danced around the room in sheer, abandoned happiness. As she continued to skip and twirl, the light from the stones sewn into the fabric sent out prisms of colour that speckled the makeshift dance floor. She never wanted this feeling to go away. This feeling of lightness that made her feel as if she could fly.
Faster and faster, she whirled around until she began to feel dizzy. She tried to stop, but couldn’t; it was as if something had taken over control of her feet. Fear returned, in great tearing gasps and sobs, as Prudence tried, and failed, to halt the dance, a dance that now threatened her very existence.
Then it did stop – everything stopped. She could feel her heart slowing down, felt her breath gurgle in her throat. Her eyes grew heavy, as darkness blocked out her vision. She stood, frozen to the spot, in front of the mirror. Her reflection opened its eyes and laughed. At last, it murmured and stepped from the mirror, into Prudence’s unmoving body.
Once settled in her new abode, Emily Montague smoothed down the dress, patted a stray hair back into place, and then stepped towards the stairs and a new life.
Behind her, the picture’s canvas was now blank…
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