The Dress


 Joy Rhoades, Fiction

 

Cowan, New South Wales, Summer 1974

 

Bernadette Mobbs hand-sews the wedding dress's zipper in place. She is a big woman, nearing fifty, and she wears her usual long-sleeved blouse buttoned at the wrists and neck above a large elasticized skirt that reaches almost to her ankles. Tucking the needle for safekeeping into an obvious fold, she frees a pudgy hand to pat with a washer the sweat collecting below the tight permed curls on the back of her neck.

Emma Franson appears in the doorway leading from the narrow front verandah.

"Mrs. Mobbs, Macca's here. My fiancé. Can I introduce you?" Emma is almost 30, just 5 feet tall, square-framed and toned from work on her parents' cattle place.

Mrs. Mobbs follows the girl along the narrow front verandah, and down the steps. She stops and turns to push the loose top step back in place, flush with the house. "How do ya do." The man on the other side of the fence pulls off his John Deere cap. He is rangy, a mullet and ear stud at odds with conservative bone-colored trousers and elasticized boots, the uniform of local cattlemen.

Mrs. Mobbs nods. "She's chosen a beautiful pattern."

Macca glances at Emma. Mrs. Mobbs knows the local consensus is that, at her age, Emma is lucky to catch Macca, even if he is a bit of a lout. The gossip has it that he's overlooked her plainness, as he's set his sights on her parents' property.

"Interesting lawn job." Macca grins and Mrs. Mobbs is embarrassed.

"My husband Tony always cuts it low to slow it coming back." She leans down to pull away weeds that have sprouted from a garden ornament, a swan made from an old tire. The white paint has peeled away, revealing the tread.

"Maybe your old man should put that bird out of its misery," Macca suggests. The swan's neck hangs at an odd angle to the ground, bent by the hot sun or by a child jumping on it once too often, or both.

By habit, Mrs. Mobbs lifts the swan's head off the ground and tries to straighten the neck. When she takes her hand away, the head drops back to the ground.

Back in her sewing room, Mrs. Mobbs helps Emma into the partly sewn wedding dress. Inside out, it is held together with pins, making her customer look like a poorly wrapped gift. The stiff cream silk does not flow but dents and puckers to hold each knock, a physical history of the wearer's moves.

An occasional gust of rottenness in the limp breeze carries through the sewing room. An easterly spreads the stench from the town's meat works, always worse in the hot weather.

Mrs. Mobbs is pinning a sleeve seam when she stops. Both she and Emma look down at the three neat round spots bruised in a haphazard semi-circle, just above Emma's elbow. Mrs. Mobbs turns to search through the packets on her cutting table. She holds up a piece of the material from which the gown is cut. "I have enough. I can make longer sleeves."

"But there's no need. The wedding's three weeks away. And long sleeves will be too hot in this heat," Emma replies. Mrs. Mobbs puts the material on the shelf above the sewing machine.

A few days later, the hot afternoon stillness of the house is broken by the dual thumps of a tennis ball thrown against the back wall. Mrs. Mobbs looks up from the half-made dress on her lap. Hearing another noise, she lifts the dress from her lap across onto the cutting table. Her tread is soft along the corridor that forms the spine of the house, her breathing labored.

"Shane?"

She pushes the verandah screen door ajar. Strong summer sunlight forces her to shade her eyes.

"Shane."

She sees her skinny twelve-year-old start at her curt tone, a cricket-bat in his hands. He looks at her through glasses held together with tape at the bridge of his nose, his white-blonde hair cut close. He's kicked off his school shoes and socks somewhere, but still wears the gray shirt and shorts of the town's only primary school. A tennis ball rolls away from his feet and off the edge of the landing into the dead grass of the garden.

"You'll wake your father," says Mrs. Mobbs.

"He's on the late shift?" he almost whispers.

"Yes. Now quick sticks! Go and play at the Cootes."

Shane lays the bat down and nudges it with his foot under the bench, forcing it in among broken racquets and ping-pong bats. He jumps from the landing to the dirt and is gone.

Spreading dust, a whirly-wind gusts across the backyard, tossing paper and leaves about. Mrs. Mobbs pulls the screen door shut behind her and walks back along the corridor, pausing outside the bedroom to listen. On the wall hang three green plastic ducks, each higher than the next, the lowest askew. She reaches out to straighten it, then walks back to the sewing room.

 

Two weeks later, Emma arrives on time for her second-to-last fitting. After washing her hands, she strips off her riding boots and jeans to put on the dress. Mrs. Mobbs checks the bodice. She moves up from the girl's hip to her waist to her armpit, pinning where adjustment is needed at precise intervals of three-quarters of an inch for a careful, accurate fit. She reaches Emma's left underarm. This time the bruises run around the girl's arm.

"I'll put in new sleeves." The words are muffled, as Mrs. Mobbs' lips hold pins, sharp end out. Her focus is on the sleeve; to replace it will take several hours, but she has time. Emma's eyes move from her arm to the gown's unsewn hem.

Mrs. Mobbs pulls a small wooden box from under the cutting table and places it on the cracked lino next to Emma, just beyond the sweep of the dress's skirt. She helps Emma onto the box.

Emma has chosen tiny cream bows for the skirt. They need to be pinned and sewn by hand. To position the bows, Mrs. Mobbs kneels on one knee like a bulky suitor. Emma begins shifting her weight from one foot to the other.

"Try to keep still. Won't be long now."

But the skirt continues to shift about. Mrs. Mobbs looks up and sees Emma is crying. To stop tears falling on the gown, Mrs. Mobbs stands and places a towel around Emma's neck like a bib.

"I don't know why he does it." Emma's voice is low. Mrs. Mobbs lifts packets of material, searching for her tissues.

"Do your parents know?" She pulls the tissue box out from under some unhemmed curtains and offers them to Emma, who takes one.

"No. We don't talk much now. Since I moved in with Macca. They just want us to get married." Emma blows her nose and her eyes settle on her arms. She begins to cry again. "Will he stop?" she asks. "Once we're married?"

Mrs. Mobbs fiddles with the bodice seam, and turns away to get more pins. She waits for the tears to stop before she resumes pinning.

 

After Emma leaves, Mrs. Mobbs works on the dress. The sewing machine whine rises and falls with her push and release of the pedal.

"Bugger," she swears. She has caught a fold of the bodice material in a seam and will have to use care unpicking to avoid leaving thread marks on the gown.

Distracted, she puts the dress aside. She might have nicked the bodice, a serious and expensive error, and something she cannot afford so close to the wedding day. She goes to the hot semi-darkness of the kitchen and puts the kettle on.

Sitting at the table, arms folded, cigarette in the fingers of her right hand, she hears the kettle shrieking for some time before it prompts her to move. She turns off the stove and finds there is only just enough water for the tea. She half-fills the teapot and leans against the kitchen counter, waiting for the tea to brew, thinking.

She pours the tea and returns to sit at the table, fanning herself. This heat, so late in the day, means there may be rain later. She feels drops of perspiration slide down under her armpits and slow as they reach the mounds of flesh at her waist.

Balancing her cigarette on a chipped ashtray, she unbuttons each cuff to cool down just for a minute, folding up each sleeve until they reach just above her elbows, her skin cooling with the unaccustomed exposure.

She looks down at her own forearms, resting on the table, then lifts and rotates each in turn, to check. There is not much to see. This gives her pause: those that fade will be replaced. She has been very careful—but supposes one or two people have put two and two together over the years. She feels a flush of shame.

She is uncomfortable; she does not usually see herself as a thinker. There is no good in it—there is nowhere she and Shane could go. And he has never touched Shane. She takes care not to mull over things too much. She learned that early on. If she thinks too much, she gets sad. And her husband doesn't like her to be sad.

The screen door bangs, and she automatically folds down her sleeves and buttons her cuffs, relieved to be interrupted.

"Hi." Shane slings his school port onto the kitchen floor, and sits.

Mrs. Mobbs gets up to pour him some cordial. "Want a biccie?" she asks, wrestling the tight lid off the tin. He takes two and grins at her.

"Dad home?" Shane asks, his mouth full. She shakes her head. He puts a foot up on a kitchen chair. She taps it away with her hand.

They sit and he hums while munching, flipping through a Spiderman comic. She watches him closely.

 

"Hullo Mrs. M. I have to be quick—Macca's waiting," Emma, almost out of breath, greets Mrs. Mobbs. Unprompted, Emma washes her hands. Mrs. Mobbs helps her into the dress. It takes time for Mrs. Mobbs to fasten the faux pearl buttons that run down the gown's back. Each must be nudged into its own handmade loop.

"Turn around. Have a look," Mrs. Mobbs motions to the mirror on the wall behind the girl. Emma grabs two large handfuls of skirt. She turns and releases them; a tentative smile appears on her face. Smoothing the front of the skirt, she erases the puckers that have gathered.

"It's beautiful." She looks at Mrs. Mobbs, who is on her knees pulling the small train out at the back of the gown for best effect. Mrs. Mobbs heaves herself off one knee, back to a standing position and admires the result. Emma is almost beautiful, the gentle lines of the dress softening her angular workaday self.

"Thank you." Emma continues to look at her own reflection.

"Emma," Mrs. Mobbs begins, then looks down at the train. "Last time...you asked me."

Emma cuts her off. "Oh, it's all right. I was just going on."

"Yes, but," Mrs. Mobbs says, but stops when a car horn startles them both. Emma looks towards the front door.

"Can you unhook me? I've got to get going." She picks up fistfuls of skirt and backs towards Mrs. Mobbs, waiting. Emma turns towards her.

"Mrs. M—can you undo me?"

Emma looks at her. "Mrs. Mobbs?" She reaches out and touches the woman's elbow. "The buttons. Can you undo them?"

Her fingers slow, Mrs. Mobbs unfastens the buttons one by one. Emma wriggles her arms out of the long sleeves and leans forward for Mrs. Mobbs to lift the dress off over her shoulders.

Mrs. Mobbs coaxes the dress into a plastic cover and Emma tugs on her top and skirt. Emma pulls a crumpled check from her pocket and hands it over.

"Thanks again," she says, squeezing Mrs. Mobbs' hands.

The horn sounds twice, extended blasts. Emma scoops up the dress in its plastic cover on her way out onto the front verandah.

Mrs. Mobbs follows her out and calls to her. Emma stops at the fence, waiting. Mrs. Mobbs is puffing when she reaches Emma and she breathes in to attempt to speak, but says nothing. Reaching out to take Emma's hand, she tries again, but no words come. Emma smiles and climbs into the waiting ute.

Mrs. Mobbs watches the cloud of dust thrown up by Macca's wheels waft across the intersection. She leans her elbows on the fence as the dust drifts, then settles. When the car is out of sight, she drags the gate shut and walks slowly back into the house.