BBC National Short Story Award Shortlist - Frances Leviston
I was not maid of honour, not even a bridesmaid, but I was dutifully invited, and for this I needed something suitable to wear, something that would signal my grasp of the occasion as well as my transcendence of it; but no matter where I looked – and I spent hours looking – the dress did not exist. No shop possessed it. There is no point explaining now exactly what I had in mind. The details in themselves do not matter, except to say this dress should accommodate my chest without looking matronly or profane; that it should upstage the bridal gown without appearing to do so; and that I was not exactly conscious of these obstinate stipulations, but clicked through the rails of department stores in an agitated dream, like someone brainwashed to accomplish a murder without their consent.
My solution, in the end, was to make the dress myself. At university, I had done quite a lot of sewing. Gemma, one of my house mates, owned a little sewing machine she taught me how to use, though she hardly used it herself. I would run up silly costumes for my friends for Halloween, and basic items for me. “Run up” was a phrase of my mother's, one I tried not to use, not out loud at least, though it was stuck firmly to the walls of my mind, like the Blu Tack I had used in my rented room, the greasy little coins from which cost me my deposit. But since I had come back to my parents' house the previous summer, the sewing kit had stayed packed away, along with all the items it helped me manufacture. I didn't want to talk about it; I didn't want my mother to know.
Little by little, then, I decided I would make the dress in secret, and pretend it was vintage: my mother's side of the family did not approve of second-hand shopping, and Candice was her niece, her younger sister Amanda's child. My hopeless lunch-break expeditions down the high street became quiet pilgrimages to haberdashery departments, in which I kept my head down, moving quietly among the middle-aged and elderly ladies rattling their knuckles through trays of beads, drawing no more attention than I could help, and asking no questions in case I brought an avalanche of answers down on my head.
Many fabrics presented themselves, and I chose as carefully as I could, avoiding jersey, silk and satin because they would be too difficult to work, and linen because it would crease. Some bolts of beautiful patterned cotton I put back because I would not be able to make their bold edges join in any logical progression at the seams, or so I told myself, though I think I also quailed at the prospect of them drawing Candice's wedding guests' eyes towards me in the way they had drawn my own. After a few trips, I had amassed in my bedroom three metres of broderie anglaise, two kinds of thread, a roll of greaseproof paper, a pattern, and a roll of calico for practising with, which, along with the sewing kit I dug out from the bottom of the wardrobe, should have been everything I was going to need. Everything, that is, but the sewing machine.
Gemma lived two hundred miles away, and we had not spoken since our final exams. I knew nobody else except my mother who owned a machine. Buying one of my own would have been prohibitively expensive: I was temping as a secretary at the time, work which somehow contrived to pay slightly less than minimum wage, and what I didn't surrender in room and board to my parents was digging me out of an overdraft the bank kept threatening to dissolve. Even if I could have got my hands on my own machine, they were terribly noisy, which left me the same problems I would face if I chose to use my mother's: namely, finding a time when I could sew without detection.
Frances Leviston’s story Broder Anglaise has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award with Book Trust. The winner and runner-up announcement will be broadcast live from the Award ceremony on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row from 7.15pm on Tuesday 6 October 2015.
Read the entire shortlist in the BBC National Short Story Award 2015 Collection.