When the bus arrives, it’s a bone-shaker. I know this at a glance, even as I climb the steps and pop my pass on the machine. The interior is old and grotty, the leather seats at the front ripped. I will probably find a ball of chewing gum when I try to sit down, off-white and gloopy, waiting to attach itself to my brown suede coat. The green light flashes, and I retrieve my card and plod down the aisle, having done my best to ignore the driver, a sullen man of indiscriminate age, who tapped the steering wheel in a show of wishing he were somewhere else. It is imperative that I find a seat to myself. I avoid eye-contact with the regulars – the woman going to visit her ninety-year-old mother, the man whose clothes are stained and who leaves me with no option but to breathe through my mouth. I find a spot three rows from the back. Good. I can place my precious cargo on the seat next to me.
The dress in the bag is a wrap-around red lace, knee-length number. What made it stand out, what I loved about it, were the bat-wing sleeves. That drew compliments at the wedding, even from the bitchy Freda, who used to sit behind me at school and prod my back with her ruler. The dress is ensconced in the tissue paper it came in. I was terrified some clumsy oaf would spill something on it on my way to the bus stop, after all the trouble I went to, hand washing it and laying it out flat to dry. That dress made me look a million dollars. I’m sorry to be parting with it, but realistically I won’t have another occasion to wear it. It’s rare to get invitations to weddings in your forties, and it’s not as if I have a wide circle of friends.
Foraging in my oversized handbag, I locate the tinfoil package. I unwrap the sandwiches – egg mayo – and begin to nibble one, though I’m not hungry yet. I’d much prefer to go to a café later, but I’ve learnt that staff are not exactly thrilled when you bring your own refreshments.
I wash down a mouthful with fizzy water, but then decide I can’t eat any more. It must be nerves, though I’m an old hand at this kind of thing. There was the grey, wool, military-style coat I bought for Christmas Day last year. I cut a right dash in that, as my mother would have said. Returned it within fourteen days, spotless. I’d been able to keep the tag on that though, hiding it under a velvet scarf. Then there was the skimpy, primrose-yellow sundress I’d modelled in the Canaries. Got more than one wear out of that one. Washed like a dream. My mother had always taught me to scrutinise labels, so I never bought dry-clean only. That was probably the most useful part of her legacy. Some mothers leave money. Others love. Mine, when she departed this world, took up residence as my inner critic.
The countryside whizzes by. The bus driver must be fairly clipping it. Cattle and horses graze in lush, verdant fields. Usually this would relax me. If I wasn’t on a mission. When I got out of that place two years ago, after things had fallen apart, I used to ride the buses several times a week. Didn’t matter where to, just the feeling of making progress, of not standing still. It’s not as if I was making any progress otherwise. In fact, I was regressing. Had to give up my job in Casey and Associates. Broke my heart, it did. It wasn’t so much the tasks, which could be tedious – typing, photocopying, making coffee for clients. No, it wasn’t the work I missed, it was the dressing up. Looking the part. Playing the part.
It was around that time, two years ago, that I started following blogs – Davina’s Divine Dresses, and such. I had time to kill, and daytime television was replete with fashion items. I became conversant with the lingo – learnt to recognise a good price point, was on the lookout for transitional pieces and always appreciated a nice pop of colour. Magazines at the hairdressers helped to fill any gaps in my knowledge. My budget didn’t stretch to forking out for the glossy mags, but I had a cheap read each time I got my hair cut. I began to develop a philosophy: if I was a total mess on the inside, at the very least I could look good on the outside. It was a ‘flowers in the front window, while the house itself is a shambles’ type of strategy, but it was the best I could come up with.
The squeal of brakes tells me I’ve arrived at my destination. I have to pack my snack quickly and grab the bag with the dress in it. Luckily, there are quite a few people alighting, which buys me some time. When I get outside, I hug my coat to me. It’s nippy for April, though at least it’s dry. I’d checked the weather forecast. Wouldn’t do for the dress to get wet. I set off towards the main street, but get stuck behind a woman gossiping on her phone, while pushing a double buggy. She’s wearing a denim jacket and hoopy earrings and her black leggings have seen better days. Although I’ve plenty of time, I’m anxious to get this over with.
La Robe boutique is nestled between a newsagent’s and a café. It’s tiny inside, barely a few footsteps between till and rails and changing room. The woman on duty is the same one I’d bought the dress from last week. She glances down at the bag I’m carrying, which sports the shop’s logo. My throat is dry, and I’m afraid my voice will come out croaky.
“Hi, I was just wondering if I could return this dress?”
The woman studies me intently. She has on a cobalt blue business jacket, over a black top and trousers, and her blonde hair is tied back in a loose ponytail.
“Any reason in particular?” she asks. Her tone isn’t friendly.
“Oh, I just had a change of mind, you know. It didn’t fit right around the bust.”
I place the bag on the counter. My hands are clammy and I hope she doesn’t notice.
The woman removes the tissue paper and shakes out the dress. “No tags?”
“They’re in the bottom of the bag there. They fell off when I was trying it on at home.”
I resist the urge to do a runner, there and then, to leave her standing with the dress in her hand. An uncomfortable silence ensues.
“It seems to be in perfect condition otherwise,” she says.
I breathe a little easier.
Tilting her head, she says, “It would make a nice dress for a wedding.”
Although she says nothing more, I know I’m busted. Either she suspects, or she knows. A picture could have gone up on Facebook. She could be a friend of a friend. That was always my big fear.
“I’ll reimburse you,” she says, “this time.”
There is no mistaking her hostility. I take the money, and though it will go towards the electricity bill, it’s tainted.
I leave the boutique red-faced. It’s two hours until the next bus. I’d planned to treat myself to a coffee next door, but now I fear she might come in on her break. I’ll have to go further afield.
In a daze, I make my way to the shopping centre, and hide myself in a booth with a cappuccino and a sticky donut. I want to cry, but I’m damned if I’ll do it in public. I’ll have the evening long for tears when I get home. The milk in the coffee isn’t heated properly and the bun sticks in my craw. This is the end of the line for me. No more rolling wardrobe. And I’d been so careful, always travelling to different towns, making sure the outfit was spotless going back. I hear my mother loud and clear. Not a spark of common sense. Will never amount to anything. All fur coat and no knickers…
Back at the bus stop, I pull my suede coat around me against the bitter chill. When the bus arrives – on time, which must be a record, I walk out in front of it. The driver sees me and blows the horn in anger, halting abruptly. He stops a foot away from me. As if in a film, I trundle up the steps of the bus, and he launches into his tirade about stupid people having a death wish. I place my pass on the machine and wait for the green light, pretending all the time that I’m not the one he’s shouting at.
I get to a seat down the back, away from prying eyes. A few tears escape, and I rub my face furiously with my bare hands. I ransack my handbag, but there’s no tissue. I take a deep breath, down into my lungs and belly, and repeat three times, like they taught me to do in that place. They were always full of solutions there – how to calm yourself in a crisis, how to settle down for a good night’s sleep, how to find purpose in your life. I was too drugged up to take in the details.
The only activity I enjoyed was the gardening, though the green area was walled on all sides, so you were locked in, even when you weren’t locked in. At least you were out in the fresh air. There was the illusion of freedom, and the hope that the act of planting brought, as the rich and fragrant earth fell between your fingers. We set pansies one day. I often wondered how they were doing, if they made it through the winter frosts and summer droughts.
There’s a horticulture course starting up in the town next to mine. A lady spoke about it on local radio last month. Probably very expensive. Probably a waste of time looking into it. I’d have to wear old clothes. Imagine, me in dungarees. My fingernails would be destroyed. I take out my phone anyway, and Google the course. The next one starts in September, and get this, they’re offering scholarships.
When the bus stops at my town, I walk up the centre aisle, making eye contact with the regulars, and then down the steps, and thank the driver. Is it my imagination, or are they giving me funny looks? I head back to the house, imagining the barren patch out the front a riot of colour, with flowers for every season. My fashion phase has come to an end, but I don’t even care. Rolling wardrobe, my eye, as my mother would have said.
Geraldine McCarthy lives in West Cork, Ireland. She writes short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Her work has been published in The Fable Online, The Incubator, Seven Deadly Sins: A YA Anthology, Scarlet Leaf Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Every Day Fiction, 50-Word Stories, Foxglove Journal, poetrypulse, Comhar, Cafelit, Five Words Volume XII, Qutub Minar Review and Books Ireland.