DIY & crafts

Rockabilly blue dress

22 May 2023 | Written by Grace Palmer

Grace Palmer, who runs weekly creative writing classes for The Joy Club, shares some of her own writing…

To give a bit of context to the piece, Grace says…

“In my writing classes for The Joy Club I often provide prompts using three unrelated things. The idea behind this is so that our brains are encouraged to make connections in interesting ways. As a writer I also need to be challenged and I’d like to share a story I’ve written recently.

Rockabilly Blue Dress is a short story written and edited for NYC Midnight, an international writing competition with a difference. Every writer receives feedback on their work from the judges as part of the process; usually if you are ‘rejected’ by competitions you hear nothing more, which can be dispiriting.

The NYC Midnight competition sets timed writing challenges. Writers must write a story within one week including a specified genre, a character and one element. Examples might be Comedy / Penny-pinching / A role model. The prompts for this story were:

Romance / Duplication / A tailor

This story received an honourable mention in the first heat of the competition…”

Stevie hovers next to my work desk; it’s his last day and he brings with him the hot chemical smell of dry cleaning fluid. 

‘So, Luigi, what are your favourite memories of this place?’ he asks.

I press the pedal hard down on the Bernina, take refuge in the thrum of the machine. The day I met Susannah I’d been labouring over a Crombie overcoat, repairing its mustard silk lining patterned with a fleur-de-lys relief. Stevie had called me over to the wooden counter to deal with the customer while he got on with the dry cleaning side of the business. In those days a potential client for my tailoring skills was much appreciated. 

The silk Crombie lining was still in my hands when I saw her. Her perm frizzed with rain, silver droplets like a spider’s web on her camel coat. Out of a linen bag she pulled a 1950’s Rockabilly dress. Midnight blue cotton with a white polka pattern, pearlized buttons the size of macaroons, cap sleeves, full skirt, cinched waist and a stiffened collar. I grazed my fingers over the smooth cotton, flipped the hem to admire the french seams and gave her the smile that Mama said no good girl could refuse. 

Her earrings, strung with lapis beads, swung like needles as she stroked the cloth. Her fingernails were painted iridescent beetle, ‘Can you adjust this for me? It’s too tight for dancing.’

I showed her to the cubicle, the dress draped over my arms as precious as if it were a wedding gown. I knew where I’d like to take her dancing, I imagined wearing my cream linen shirt.   

Something rustled the other side of the curtain, then she coughed, ‘I’m ready.’

Her milk white hand pulled the divide between us. I straightened the tape measure dangling around my neck to reassure her. 

The dress gaped across the shoulders and bust; didn’t do her figure justice. ‘I’ll insert two darts at the back of the dress and restitch the shoulder seams,’ I said, ‘Shall I show you?’

She nodded. I pinched the fabric across the hollow of her back and pinned, then lifted the shoulder seam, making sure my movements were respectful and delicate. The cotton moulded, transformed her into a model; she and the dress as one. My fingers became hot; how I longed to brush her pale skin sprinkled with cinnamon freckles. Right from the start it was animal magnetism for me. 

I worked on the dress longer than I should have for the task, using invisible stitches on the shoulder seam, pressing everything with a warm iron, protected with a muslin. Everything had to be perfect. 

When she returned to collect the dress, it was like Mama’s saying had come true, ‘You’ll find the one.’ She felt the same, and on our first date, sipping on a Singapore Sling, she leant over and slid her hand beneath my suit jacket, pressed my back as if testing my bones. 

We danced at The Sheridan in town on Saturday nights, and soon the two of us held the floor in a space that opened wide, solely for us to perform. Our energy was whip-hot and Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire became our anthem. We moved in sync through the basket-sway and double spin, stomping and jiving and kicking in harmony. 

The yo-yo became our speciality, as we leant back, feeling the support of each other’s hands, the pull and push as we balanced perfectly in our own unique orbit. 

We were secure, knowing we danced in step, showing everyone who we were. The dress spun out in a circle, petticoat raging underneath, my suit flying wide. How we laughed at the ballroom glamour, the dusty old chandeliers that were revitalised by those Rockabilly nights.  

I made her wedding dress, of course. 

Five happy years we spent together; dancing and dining out in fancy restaurants before the long, quick-slide toward the end. Three months from diagnosis was all we had.  

I keep circling back to that day, that moment before I met her and everything changed, that day when I was absorbed in my work, an innocent; knowing nothing of the power of love. 

Today will be twenty one years since I lost her and the pain still blooms like a flower, but at least now, in this new century, no one wears perms or camel coats to remind me of her. 

‘Coffee?’ asks Stevie. I nod and he heads out to Numero Uno with my order of estate Bolivian roast. The shop bell ping pongs and a woman in a green and scarlet boucle coat enters. Blonde bob, open face. My age.

I leave behind the polyester monstrosity that is not worth my time or training and tug my tape measure to greet the new customer at the counter.

‘Hello,’ her smile is sunshine on steroids. Perhaps my heart is not cemented shut.

‘Can you do anything with this?’ She pulls out a replica of Susannah’s dress. 

My palms sweat as I touch the fabric, examine the rear darts and recognise my repair. It can’t be. The worn silky cotton slips under my fingers. 

‘Where did you get that?’

‘Gorgeous, isn’t it? I volunteer at St Margaret’s Hospice Shop so I have first dibs. It came in this week.’  

‘Ah,’ I say, not believing what I am seeing. ‘Ah,’ conjuring my girl back to me, ‘and you’d like it altered?’ 

‘Could you? You see it’s a bit tight for me and I need some ease because I’m starting to dance again.’ I look at her then and wait. Her mouth is pursed where she is shutting something inside of herself. She takes a deep breath.  

‘Dancing; it’s my new hobby. I’ve been a couple of times to classes, since my husband died, and when I saw this dress in the shop I couldn’t resist it.’ 

I touch my St Christopher. ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph,’ I mutter. I drape the dress over my arm, the heavy cotton smelling not of Susannah’s Rive Gauche but of fabric conditioner. I  lead her to the changing room. How can Susannah’s dress have survived all this time? I gave all her clothes to charity shops. How many other women had worn this dress since Susannah? 

The customer calls me to open the curtain. Her back spills creamy where the zip cannot be drawn up. ‘You can see why I need your help.’ She laughs.

‘Of course,’ I say, and then I laugh too, huge bellows from the depths of my soul. 

‘I don’t suppose you like dancing, do you?’ She asks, ‘I know a place in Dorset that does Rockabilly revival.’

‘Yes,’ I say, standing up to my full height, ‘Oh, yes, I do, very much.’

If you would like to read more of Grace’s work, you can find her piece, In 1960, published by FlashBack Fiction – one of the the few literary magazines that takes submissions for historical writing. 

And if you would like to learn to write incredible stories of your own, why not learn from the best and book onto Grace’s next creative writing class!

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