HAUTE COUTURE Copyright ©Pauline Fisk 2012
I stood in the queue, first in line. Over my dead body would anyone but Mum be wearing that frock in the window by tonight. I’d slept out on the broken pavement for this, guarding my place, lying to Mum about where I was, even fending off drunks.
The shop opened at nine. Shutters, bolts, bell I was first in. Behind her counter, the dressshop lady perched like a plump bird, waiting to take details of why the frock should be mine. Perhaps she did it for publicity. I don’t know. Certainly she didn’t look the sort for a free giveaway. ‘Name, age, phone number,’ she trilled. ‘And why should this year’s frock go home with you?’
Every year, as long as I remember, this happened in our town. For fiftyone long weeks, life was drab and unremarkable, but on the fiftysecond came stirrings of change. We only had one dress shop, but its door was locked, brown paper hid its window and barriers went up outside it to contain the queue.
It happened like a ritual, which was never explained. The day before the giveaway, the brown paper would come down and a frock would be displayed which no one round our way could ever own or wear or afford.
Then the queue would start forming and the street would come alive. There’d be food stalls, buskers and folks lined up with sleeping bags all round the block. I kid you not. The frocks were something weird called haute cuisine. That meant that they were special – if you liked that sort of stuff.
I’d walk with my friends past the queue to school. It was the only subject we talked about, but I never saw the point. Where, even if they won it, would anyone wear that haute cuisine? Did they really think that frills and feathers, sequinned cloth, embroidered silks and oddshaped hemlines were worth all that fuss?
But this year’s frock was worth it. Seamless, deep black velvet, studded with jet beads. A scalloped neckline, a tiny waist. A train to whisper across the floor. A dress for tragic heroines. In other words, for Mum.
Who had it in the end? I tried not to see. But the window stood empty at the end of the day, the brown paper went back and the door was locked. Then the lights went out and people disappeared. The street returned to its old self, and it definitely wasn’t me heading home with a box of scented tissue and a velvet frock. I’d told the lady Mum’s
sob story, but it hadn’t been enough.
Later I confessed to her what I’d done. ‘It isn’t haute cuisine,’ she said. ‘That means posh food. Besides, velvet’s so impractical. A writeoff when it stains, though lovely when it’s new.’
I still don’t know if Mum meant it, or was just being nice. But that day I learnt a lesson for life. Someone had that haute couture, given for free. But things like that don’t happen to people like me. 499 Two Tories called David and George, Put what’s left of our land in a forge, They stirred it around And smelted it down In a mess that those Eton boys gorged.