Still Me

Page 12


Agnes frowned. ‘Too bridal. And it makes her look thick around the waist.’
‘That’s because I am thick around the waist.’
‘We do some very good corrective panties, Mrs Gopnik.’
‘Oh, I’m not sure I –’
‘Do you have anything more fifties-style?’ said Agnes, flicking through her phone. ‘Because this will pull in her waist and get around the height issue. We don’t have time to take anything up.’
‘When is your event, ma’am?’
‘We have to be there seven thirty.’
‘We can alter a dress for you in time, Mrs Gopnik. I’ll get Terri to deliver it over to you by six.’
‘Then let’s try the sunflower yellow one there … and that one with the sequins.’
If I’d known that that afternoon would be the one time in my life I would be trying on three-thousand-dollar dresses, I might have made sure I wasn’t wearing comedy knickers with a sausage dog on them and a bra that was held together with a safety pin. I wondered how many times in one week you could end up exposing your breasts to perfect strangers. I wondered if they had ever seen a body like mine before, with actual fatty bits. The shop assistants were far too polite to comment on it, beyond repeatedly offering ‘corrective’ underwear, but simply brought in dress after dress, wrestling me in and out, like someone wrangling livestock, until Agnes, sitting on an upholstered chair, announced, ‘Yes! This is the one. What you think, Louisa? It is even perfect length for you with that tulle underskirt.’
I stared at my reflection. I wasn’t sure who was staring back at me. My waist was nipped in by an inbuilt corset, my bosom hoisted upwards into a perfect embonpoint. The colour made my skin glow and the long skirt made me a foot taller and entirely unlike myself. The fact that I couldn’t breathe was irrelevant.
‘We will put your hair up and some earrings. Perfect.’
‘And this dress is twenty per cent off,’ said one of the shop assistants. ‘We don’t sell much yellow after the Strager event each year …’
I almost deflated with relief. And then I gazed at the label. The sale price was $2575. A month’s wages. I think Agnes must have seen my bleached face, for she waved at one of the women. ‘Louisa, you get changed. Do you have any shoes that will go? We can run to the shoe department?’
‘I have shoes. Lots of shoes.’ I had some gold satin-heeled dancing pumps, which would look fine. I did not want this bill going any higher.
I went back into the changing cubicle and climbed out of the dress carefully, feeling the weight of it fall expensively around me, and as I got dressed, I listened to Agnes and the assistants talking. Agnes summoned a bag and some earrings, gave them a cursory glance and was apparently satisfied. ‘Charge it to my account.’
‘Certainly, Mrs Gopnik.’
I met her at the cash desk. As we walked away, me clutching the bags, I said quietly, ‘So do you want me to be extra careful?’
She looked at me blankly.
‘With the dress.’
Still she looked blank.
I lowered my voice. ‘At home we tuck the label in, then you can take it back the next day. You know, as long as there are no accidental wine stains and it doesn’t stink too much of cigarettes. Maybe give it a quick squirt of Febreze.’
‘Take it back?’
‘To the shop.’
‘Why we would do this?’ she said, as we climbed back into the waiting car and Garry put the bags into the boot. ‘Don’t look so anxious, Louisa. You think I don’t know how you feel? I have nothing when I come here. Me and my friends, we even shared our clothes. But you have to wear good dress when you sit next to me this evening. You can’t wear your uniform. This evening you are not staff. And I am happy to pay for this.’
‘You understand. Yes? Tonight you have to not be staff. It’s very important.’
I thought of the enormous carrier bag in the boot behind me as the car navigated its way slowly through the Manhattan traffic, a little dumbstruck at the direction this day was taking.
‘Leonard says you looked after a man who died.’
‘I did. His name was Will.’
‘He says you have – discretion.’
‘I try.’
‘And also that you don’t know anyone here.’
‘Just Nathan.’
She thought about this. ‘Nathan. I think he is a good man.’
‘He really is.’
She studied her nails. ‘You speak Polish?’
‘No.’ I added quickly: ‘But maybe I could learn, if you –’
‘You know what is difficult for me, Louisa?’
I shook my head.
‘I don’t know who I …’ She hesitated, then apparently changed her mind about what she was going to say. ‘I need you to be my friend tonight. Okay? Leonard … he will have to do his work thing. Always talking, talking with the men. But you will stay with me, yes? Right by me.’
‘Whatever you want.’
‘And if anybody ask, you are my old friend. From when I lived in England. We – we knew each other from school. Not my assistant, okay?’
‘Got it. From school.’
That seemed to satisfy her. She nodded, and settled in her seat. She said nothing else the whole way back to the apartment.
The New York Palace Hotel, which held the Strager Foundation Gala, was so grand it was almost comical: a fairytale fortress, with a courtyard and arched windows, it was dotted with liveried footmen in daffodil silk knickerbockers. It was as if they had looked at every grand old hotel in Europe, taken notes about ornate cornicing, marble lobbies and fiddly bits of gilt and decided to add it all together, sprinkle some Disney fairy dust on it and ramp it up to camp levels all of its own. I half expected to see a pumpkin coach and the odd glass slipper on the red stair carpet. As we pulled up, I gazed into the glowing interior, the twinkling lights and sea of yellow dresses, and almost wanted to laugh, but Agnes was so tense I didn’t dare. Plus my bodice was so tight I would probably have burst my seams.
Garry dropped us outside the main entrance, levering the car into a turning area thick with huge black limousines. We walked in past a crowd of onlookers on the sidewalk. A man took our coats, and for the first time Agnes’s dress was fully visible.
She looked astonishing. Hers was not a conventional ballgown like mine, or like any of the other women’s, but neon yellow, structured, a floor-length tube with one sculpted shoulder motif that rose up to her head. Her hair was scraped back unforgivingly, tight and sleek, and two enormous gold and yellow-diamond earrings hung from her ears. It should have looked extraordinary. But here, I realized with a faint drop to my stomach, it was somehow too much – out of place in the old-world grandeur of the hotel.
As she stood there, nearby heads swivelled, eyebrows lifting as the matrons in their yellow silk wraps and boned corsets viewed her from the corners of carefully made-up eyes.
Agnes appeared oblivious. She glanced around distractedly, trying to locate her husband. She wouldn’t relax until she had hold of his arm. Sometimes I watched them together and saw an almost palpable sense of relief come over her when she felt him beside her.
‘Your dress is amazing,’ I said.
She looked down at me as if she had just remembered I was there. A flashbulb went off and I saw that photographers were moving among us. I stepped away to give Agnes space, but the man motioned towards me. ‘You too, ma’am. That’s it. And smile.’ She smiled, her gaze flickering towards me as if reassuring herself I was still nearby.
And then Mr Gopnik appeared. He walked over a little stiffly – Nathan had said he was having a bad week – and kissed his wife’s cheek. I heard him murmur something into her ear and she smiled, a sincere, unguarded smile. Their hands briefly clasped, and in that moment I noted that two people could fit all the stereotypes and yet there was something about them that was completely genuine, a delight in each other’s presence. It made me feel suddenly wistful for Sam. But then I couldn’t imagine him somewhere like this, trussed up in a dinner jacket and bow tie. He would, I thought absently, have hated it.