Mrs Lubin's Mitzi and the Silver Party Dress

by Ann Hayton

Competition theme: 'Between'

I remember it was late December, that strange, still time between Christmas and New Year when everything stops and the world goes quiet. It was hard not to feel flat. In a corner of our living room, its needles dropping despite daily watering, the Christmas tree looked out of place, like someone who’d outstayed their welcome and should have known to go home. It was 1984, and I had been given a burgundy coloured top in sparkly velour, some leg warmers, and a pearlized heather shimmer eyeshadow duo pack, in a case with a neatly satisfying click-shut lid. It should have been enough, but it was not.

I should have been buzzing, only I wasn’t.

Buzzing: because I had, for the first time ever, an invitation to the Yacht Club New Year’s Eve party. Out of our sprawling, Portakabin-infested comprehensive school, itself teetering awkwardly between the liberal artiness it aspired to and the stubborn remains of the grammar school it had been, only the great and the good attended the Yacht Club New Year’s Eve party.

The 1984 definition of great and good was anyone whose parents sailed at the Club, or anyone whose family lived in the older, expensive part of town, in one of the large square Edwardian houses sitting smugly in their patches of garden. This was not me, but I fell into a final category, which was basically anyone who was cool, beautiful or popular at school. I wasn’t any of those things either, but over the last year I had become accidentally friendly with Hermione Calthorpe-Jones, who was both a teenage goddess, and the daughter of the Yacht Club president. I’d been invited only because of this friendship; the first lesson of my life in how connections open doors.

“It’s your chance,” Hermione said, outlining her lips in a Cupid’s Bow of glittering red. “Oliver will be there, and I’m sure we can get him to ask you out. We just have to make sure he notices you.”

We were in her splendid bedroom, trying out hairstyles before a giant mirror surrounded by lightbulbs like in an actor’s dressing room. She handed me the lipstick, but I could not make my mouth look like hers.

“How can we do that though?” I said. I wanted to say his name aloud, but it felt wrong, like it was forbidden. If Hermione was a goddess, Oliver was the teenage Zeus of the school, effortlessly good-looking and utterly, even at seventeen years old, confident of the world and his place in it. He even had a car, a noisy little low-slung MG I dreamed of sitting in. He knew I was going to the party; on the last day of term he’d said “see you there” and I’d hugged the three little words to my heart ever since.

“I’d lend you something, but it’d never fit,” Hermione said.  She held out a long arm to the light, dripping with jangly slavegirl bracelets.  “What about that dress you tried on in Dorothy Perkins last week? The silver one? It looked amazing.”

And it was true, it had. Everyone has a moment of looking beautiful and that had been mine; twirling beneath the striplights of the Dorothy Perkins changing room, admiring the way the silver dress outlined me perfectly, the deep V of the back showing skin as warm as an orange in the sun.

“But it was £29.99 … I couldn’t afford it, not in a million years,” I said.

I was working Saturdays at the Co-op at that time, earning £9 a week handed to me in a brown envelope as the shop closed. I was supposed to be saving for driving lessons, but somehow the money disappeared between one week and the next.

“What a shame,” Hermione said serenely. She hung a pair of filigree earrings up to her ears where they sparkled in the light like tiny chandeliers. “There’s a gathering at Jeremy’s tonight. You could come, if you like? Oliver will be there.”

Terror struck through me like a jolt of electricity, followed by relief.

“I can’t.  I’m babysitting for Mrs Lubin’s Mitzi tonight.”  

Mrs Lubin’s Mitzi was not a child but an elderly apricot-coloured miniature poodle her owner could not bear to leave alone. And as Mrs Lubin departed in a whirl of umbrellas and scarves for the Half Price Pensioner Evening at the theatre – won’t be long, Mitzi, darlink – Mitzi whined a bit and paced about on the shabby carpets and then settled resignedly in her basket to wait for her return.

The flat was dark and dusty and very cluttered. Mrs Lubin was what my mother called a distressed gentlewoman; whatever, my wages for babysitting Mitzi were a paltry £2.50. It was easy money though, because all I had to do was poke around the flat the way you poke around a museum (there was no television) and keep Mitzi company till Mrs Lubin returned.

And it was while I was poking around that I found it: tucked between the pages of a copy of Faust I’d only taken down because I was doing Goethe for A level.

A folded over piece of paper, yellowed, encasing a black and white photograph with curly trimmed edges, and six old looking five pound notes held together with a paper clip.

Thirty pounds. Thirty pounds. Enough for the silver dress. Exactly enough … it was meant to be. A gift from the universe. Mrs Lubin had no idea it was there. The pages of the book were thick with dust and the money and photograph had obviously been there for ages. You don’t miss what you don’t know about. And the dress, my dress, the perfect silver dream of a dress that would bring Oliver to his knees at the Yacht Club New Year’s Eve party, was hanging in Dorothy Perkins with a £29.99 price tag on it.

I heard the scrape of the key in the lock and Mrs Lubin’s anxious call greeting her little Mitzi darlink; Mitzi’s volley of excited yaps. It was now or never: I slipped the book back onto the shelf, and the money and the photograph into my bag.

 Later, at home, I got them out.

The photograph was slightly fuzzy and showed what looked like a family in a park. Everyone had dark hair and looked vaguely alike. I supposed one of the pigtailed girls must have been Mrs Lubin, but it was impossible to tell which. They were picnicking, and there was a poodle dog, like Mitzi only black, sitting on the edge of the blanket. When I turned it over, I saw the printed word LINZ, and a date: 1924. Suddenly I didn’t want to look at it anymore. I put it in my underwear drawer, beneath my socks. I put the money in my purse.

The next day at breakfast my mother said, “You shouldn’t have taken that money,” and my whole body went cold, as if something had gone wrong with my blood.

“The £2.50. She can’t afford it. She’s saving to visit her family in Germany, and she’s only got her pension.”

To change the subject, I told her I was having lunch in town with Hermione.

Lunch, in a Wimpy bar, was a cup of coffee for me, but Hermione and the others, which included Oliver, ordered beefburgers and chips and onion rings and strawberry milkshakes, until the whole of the plastic table was covered.

“This fork is dirty. Get me another one, please,” Oliver said to the waitress. As soon as he’d finished speaking, he turned back to Hermione, his attention switched to her like the sweeping beam of a lighthouse, the waitress forgotten. The phrase ‘born to command’ slid into my head. I did not like it very much.

“And Emma’s found a wonderful dress for tonight, haven’t you Emma? It’ll knock your socks off Oliver,” Hermione said.

Except that when I went into Dorothy Perkins and brushed my fingers along the shining folds of the silver dress, something had changed. It was beautiful, but it was also ugly. I had the money but I couldn’t buy it. The money wasn’t for a sexy silver dress, it was for Mrs Lubin and her trip to Germany. I needed to find a way to slip it back between the pages of Faust. I didn’t even know if I wanted the dress anymore.

And when I got home, I found that something else had changed, and I didn’t want to go to the party anymore either. Between the Yacht Club party and my own home and my parents’ modestly festive plans to have the neighbours in and play cards, I chose the cards. Between the silver dress and my own cotton pyjamas soft and faded white with washing, I chose the pyjamas. I looked at the telephone in the hall and thought about telling Hermione, but found I couldn’t be bothered.