The Red Dress

This story isn’t very pleasant, so please be warned.

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We’ve never had much money.  Put it this way, I come from the sort of family where we don’t buy cream. Mum uses a syringe to syphon off the ‘top of the milk’ to drizzle over puddings, and it’s strictly doled out to make sure nobody has more than anybody else – even Dad.

We spend a lot of time at jumble sales, helping out as well as buying. Anyone who knows anything about jumbles will know that if you help set up the trestles, pile up the clothes, toys and bric-a-brac, sort out the tea urn and custard creams, you get first pick before the crowds surge through the doors. It’s amazing what people chuck out. We get some pretty good stuff, but not knickers though. Mum draws the line at underwear.

Anyway, that’s where my dress comes in. I see it, shoved under an old dressing gown, right before they open the doors and the old biddies elbow their way in. A bright red sundress, hardly worn. Mine. It’s cotton, broderie anglaise Mum calls it, and fitted at the bust and waist. Since I’m finally getting boobs and hips, I will definitely look grown up in it. Best of all, it’s short, way above my knees, and it makes Mum’s eyebrows rise in that way that means she’s really not happy, but won’t say why. It’s perfect.

The afternoon lasts for ever. I check my watch a million times – the stupid second hand hardly moves. As soon as the doors are locked shut, I grab my bag and dress and run off, with Mum calling behind me, “Make sure you wash it before you try it on, young lady!”

Like that’s going to happen. I don’t have time. I’m meeting my mates soon. Even though the bus shelter smells of wee (piss we call it when our parents aren’t around, killing ourselves laughing), it’s the centre of the village, and it’s where we just have to be. Sometimes, one of the lads brings a bottle of cider to pass around, if he can sneak it past his dad.

I just have time to iron my dress and spray it with Mum’s Impulse, have a quick bath and do my hair and make-up. It all takes ages, especially when I want to look really good. This dress deserves a bit of extra effort.

I always meet Hannah at the same corner at the same time on a Saturday afternoon. Hannah lives in a big house in the posh part of the village next to the park, the fields and the woods and always seems to have new clothes, a new haircut even, every week.

“We need to be fashionably late, like Mum says. She says it means you get all the attention,” she says, grinning. “The boys won’t be able to keep their hands off you in that dress. Come on, let’s go and sit on the swings for a bit.”

Like we aren’t always ‘fashionably late’ – it drives me crazy. It’s usually because Hannah’s fussing that she’s got a spot or her make-up isn’t right, or something like that. She always looks fine to me. I hate being late, but I put up with it because she’s my best friend. This time though, I didn’t mind at all. For once, I know I look ace.

Sitting on the swings when you are thirteen is way different to when you were swinging high and low at the age of nine. Sometimes, I still want to push off and away, as if I’m going to fly high over the rooftops, feel the chains go all loose under my hands and get that funny feeling in my stomach again. Instead, we just sit and gently rock backwards and forwards with the tips of our toes, giggling about boys and stuff. Every now and again we check our make-up, re-do our lipstick and cherry lip-gloss, using our identical round mirrors, the ones we always keep in our handbags. Hannah gave me my mirror for my birthday last year – I love it.

“Your dress is brill,” says Hannah, reaching across and stroking the crinkly material. She sighs. “You’re really lucky.”

“Yeah, right! Lucky how?” Lucky that I had found the dress in the pile of dull, grey clothes and it looked great against my suntan. But lucky compared to Hannah, in her big house and her perfect family? I’m not so sure about that.

“I never get to do fun stuff like jumble sales. Mum would have a fit if I brought second-hand clothes home like you do. You always look different – special. It’s so boring going to the shops and looking like everyone else, you know?”

I don’t know, I never have. I feel like I never will. “It’s more boring not going to the shops and having no money. Swap you!”

We stare at each other, not understanding. I feel weird, jealous. This isn’t how I want Saturday to go. We’re best friends and have never said anything like that before. Hannah is just Hannah, that’s all.

She flicks her hair out of her eyes and grins again, eyes sparkling, back to her usual self. “So, what d’you reckon, blue mascara, or black? Which will Robbie like best?”

We get back to better stuff, normal things, make-up, boys and hair. The sun warms our skin and the cool cotton straps of my new red dress feel lovely on my shoulders as I reach over to put mascara on my best friend’s lashes. It’s a great afternoon all over again.

“Time to go, I reckon,” says Hannah at last, looking at her watch. She always wears the face on the inside of her wrist, funny that. “Come on, time to make your entrance!”

Hannah has a Sony Walkman – of course she’s the first in the school to get one. I had teased her and said she was wired for sound like Cliff Richard, but she let me borrow it a lot, even though I took the mick so much. She switches it on as we walk across the field towards the woods. The orange headphones are clamped to her ears, and she begins singing, really badly and really, really loud. Wham! ‘I Don’t Want Your Freedom’.  She butchers it, screaming at the top of her voice.

She didn’t hear me.

One moment I’m laughing hysterically as she’s dancing around, miming George Michael, eyes closed, hand on heart and tragic to the last, the next, two rough hands grab me under my armpits, yanking me backwards into the woods.

It’s so cold, so dark in there – the trees don’t let in any sun.

And now there’s one hand over my mouth, an arm under my ribs pressing stitched flowers into my skin. My sandals rip off as he drags me deeper into the woods. My heels catch on twigs, stones and thorns. Branches rip my hair. My eyes get used to the dark – I’ve not been this far into the woods before. Never.

I can smell stale sweat. We stop suddenly. He turns me round, rough. I won’t look at him, won’t look at him. I’ll just –

Holding onto one wrist and then the other, he yanks my dress over my head, throwing it away like a rag. My handbag goes with it, skittering across the ground, hitting a tree and spilling everything out as it thuds to a stop and bursts open. My pocket mirror lies at an angle, resting against a tree root.

“No shouting, screaming, kicking, biting.”

A shaft of light bursts through the trees as a breeze rustles the leaves. For a moment, I can’t see.

He pushes me down, pins my arms up above my head, holds my wrists together. His skin feels really rough.

I’m old for thirteen. Old in my head, Grandad says constantly, that girl knows too much.  He’s right. I had left the children’s section of the village library long ago. I know about rape.

Nothing prepares me. I thought I would fight back. It’s not like in the books though. I just lie there as he does it – as he pushes my legs apart, as he makes disgusting noises, touching, squeezing and then pushing hard into me roughly, like a knife into a piece of meat.

I don’t think. I just see my face in my pocket mirror lying against that tree root, jogging backwards and forwards with every push and shove. It’s like watching a film on telly, and I can pretend it’s someone else if I try really, really hard.

But then he grabs my chin and I have to look at him as he keeps on pushing and it’s hurting and he won’t stop. I think he’s finished once because he kind of groans and lies heavy on me so I can’t breathe except a little bit, but then he starts up all over again and he makes me look at him again and he grins and shows me his dirty teeth and his sweat drips onto my cheek as he pushes and pushes and I’m really, really sore down there.

I lie there. Dead still. Dead quiet. I look at my mirror again when he gets up and I can hear him pulling his trousers on, doing up his zip and buckling his belt. I’m not there, it’s all a nightmare, a really bad, cheesy film and me and Hannah are going to absolutely wet ourselves laughing when it finishes. I keep on staring and staring at my reflection, imagining me and Hannah dancing in the field. But it isn’t working, my knickers are round my ankles and I’m naked, cold and wet.

My dress comes flying in my direction, whipping me in the face.

“You filthy slut, put some clothes on. You’re all the same,” he says.

He walks away, whistling, kicking my handbag, crunching my pocket mirror under his boots. He whistles. He bloody whistles.

And then it’s quiet, except for a crow and my blood pounding and my heart thumping. I stand up. I put my dress on, smoothing it down. Slowly. I find my handbag. I pick up my mirror. It’s cracked and crazed but I can still see enough to sort out my hair and make-up. I take the leaves out of my hair, put on concealer, powder, eyeliner, mascara, lipstick and cherry flavour lip-gloss. Then I walk the back way out of the woods.

Mum’s at the bottom of the garden when I get home, digging around in the compost heap. I hang out the back door and tell her my period has started and I have really bad pains, so I’m going to have a bath. No problem.

I run a bath, really hot, pouring in Dettol, staring at the orange liquid turn into clouds of milky white. It stings when I get in, from the heat and the bleach as it soaks into the cuts. I grit my teeth, scrubbing, running the hot tap over and over, adding more Dettol until the bottle is empty and my eyes sting.

I watch ribbons of water race down the cold surface of the mirror and drip onto the floor. I don’t cry.

I pick up the pear-shaped pumice stone from the side of the bath, turning it over and over, feeling its gritty texture, and my mind snaps back to the hands, rough and hard. I throw the stone at the bathroom mirror. I watch as it shatters. I am not here. I feel the shards cutting my feet as I get out of the bath. I leave trails of blood on the tiles as I walk out onto the landing, naked, cold and wet. The air is like millions of tiny pins on my skin.

“Is everything OK up there?” Mum calls up the stairs. “How’s your dress?”

I shut my bedroom door and stuff the dress into the bin, then drop the pocket mirror on top.

It lies there at an angle, catching the last rays of the afternoon sun as the curtains ripple in the breeze.  For a moment, I can’t see.

13 thoughts on “The Red Dress

  1. OUch. That got harder and harder to read, but you can’t fault the realism and sense of her character, poor girl. Whatever happens next. Lets hope they get the guy who did this.

    1. Thank you for commenting – this piece started out very differently. Would you believe, I wrote the first version of this almost seven years ago? I like to think I have changed and improved since then. Interestingly, I hadn’t considered tackling the other POVs – the mother, the friend, the attacker, even. Maybe I will.

    1. Fair enough, Jarred. Let me know how and I can learn. I’m very relieved to say that I’ve not been through this exact scenario myself but I have experienced some very hard situations in my time. All I know is, we deal with things differently. How would you express this?

      1. I haven’t either. I’m close to at least two people who have and I’d say for me, the problem is the hindsight. the way we cannot possibly relate to a world being shattered. most recounts and fictionalizations are matter-of-fact and detached or caricaturisations. So i’d have to think the tense can only be present and the tonal shift has to properly develop as a surprise.
        if she beieved she was an old soul, she would have thought so naively. she would have an experience of total shock wherein you are brutally confronted with your mortality, limitations, and the true hopelessness of human hatred.

      2. Thanks for your thoughts on this. Well, when I first started this piece, it was definitely in the past tense. As you say, this doesn’t work. This girl is thirteen, she thinks/writes/speaks about it as it happens, sort of. I don’t know about you, but thirteen was a tough, hormonal time for me – most of the time I didn’t know who I was anyway! I knew I was old before my time in some senses, if only because I had left the kids’ section of the library behind long ago myself. In other ways, I was not. There’s the confusion, the mix up. She’s just been attacked, she has no clue. Her mortality, limitations, her understanding of the true hopelessness fg humanity – for my character (parts of which are me) – that comes later.

  2. I thought it was well handled. The details felt right, as did the tone. I liked the way you portrayed the detachment and fractured sense of self that the act of violence evoked.

    1. Thank you. I began this piece years ago and although it looked very different, it still started out quite ‘spare’. I think, in stressful (to use an understatement) it is often the case that we focus in on certain things, as a coping mechanism. So, that was where the mirror came in. Which of course, also fractured, in the woods and in the bathroom.

  3. It was difficult to read the story since it deals with such a difficult subject. It is not easy to comment either.
    You have managed to convey the horror of the situation; the pain is palpable and real.

    1. Thank you. I don’t want to shy away from difficulty, but at the same time, I don’t want to use graphic language either. I remembered how I was at that age – I knew the words, but never used them. So, that’s how I started.

  4. Wow tough read! So good. I could see and feel that poor girl. Excellent writing. It was hard to read knowing what was coming and hoping I was wrong. You drew the reader in so well. Very graphic.

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