The Dressmaker

2,761 words
14 minute read

Alfie was born at the Bristol Royal Infirmary, nurses clad in all-white long gowns and caps shuffled around his mother as she gave birth, her husband standing at her side. The young Mr. and Mrs. Wilde held an enviable position in southwest England. Mr. Wilde’s father had helped establish the University of Bristol and was president of The Wilde Co., the largest manufacturer of military training equipment in Britain. Mrs. Wilde was originally from London, where her family owned a number of units in Shepherd’s Market, renting out rooms to the likes of Michael Arlen and Tallulah Bankhead. Alfie, however, never lived the life his parents did, because only six years after he was born, the German Luftwaffe bombed Bristol, and Mr. and Mrs. Wilde died, two of 40,000 English civilians killed by the raid that lasted 76 consecutive days.

The young boy was sent to London to live with his grandmother. She was no longer the wife of his grandfather, since he had remarried long before Alfie’s mother had even met Mr. Wilde. When he arrived at the building, dark grey bricks and a black door welcomed Alfie. He turned the knob, a rusted, mournful iron one that let off a damp, musty odor, and walked up the narrow staircase to room A3. Alfie knocked on the door twice. It swung open and a thin woman with short strawberry hair and freckles dotted underneath her dark brown eyes stood inside the white wooden frame. To Alfie, she didn’t look like a grandmother was supposed to. She didn’t wear glasses or a pillbox hat, and her hair was not white enough. The lady -- Alfie’s grandmother -- gave the boy a hug and helped him into the small East End flat, where he would live for the next 14 years, until he enlisted in the British Army and was sent to Birmingham for military training.

It was at Birmingham that Alfie met Harry and Harold, two brothers who had grown up in Bath, a small city only a few miles from Bristol that was famous for its Roman baths and a temple built into the side of the surrounding hills. The three young men quickly became friends and were sent together to serve in Kenya. When they returned, they decided to rent a house in Mayfair, on Balfour Place.

Their house would often glow bright with the light from the wood burning in the fireplace. The embers would jump and dance, crackled as the breeze that came through the open window gently brushed the fire. The soft sounds of a record player could be heard from outside the door front.

Harry, Harold and Aflie would all gather by the burning fire. Harry and Harold, inseparable as always, usually sat on the red sofa made of velveteen with bronze studs and a black grosgrain piping around the curls of the arms and along the top of the backrest. Alfie would sit on the brown leather parlor chair with his legs crossed in the same way that diplomats do when meeting with foreign leaders. It’s the same way Gladwyn Jebb used to sit when he served in the United Nations.

On any winter evening if someone had put their face to the cold window and looked into the tiny house on Balfour Place they would have seen the three friends calmly talking over a bottle of Macallan 1946, the kind of whisky that doesn’t burn your throat when you swallow and leaves you craving the warm pepperiness of ginger candies, their sugary coating sliding across your cheek, and their tacky inside sticking to your back teeth.

Alfie preferred Chimes Ginger Chews because they came in a tin box instead of waxed paper wrapping like Gin Gins do. He liked the feeling of untying the green bowand opening the shiny box to release shootings smells, because they reminded him of how his grandmother used to make the candies, peeling the ginger and stone-grinding it before boiling it and letting it cool overnight on the window sill.

Despite the long nights spent discussing the English League leaderboard and Harold’s impersonations of the Chancellor of the Exchequer the three friends spent little more than year together on Balfour Place. For, as rumbles of a Catholic Irish uprising spread across Britain like water creeping out of an overfilled pitcher, Alfie was sent to Belfast to serve as a member of a stationed platoon, and Harry and Harold were both sent back to Kenya for continued duty.

On a cold January morning, the fog sweeping through the hard cobblestone streets of Belfast, dampening the walls of houses and other buildings, Alfie met with an old Irish gentleman, and they arranged a weekly price for the house Alfie was to rent.

“The house is small, but it has all you’ll need.”

“Thank you,” responded Alfie. “I’m sure it will be just fine.”

The man opened the heavy oak door to the house and showed Alfie where the kitchen, bedroom and bathroom were located. The house was a two-story home; the Duke Liquor Saloon occupied the first floor of the house, and where Alfie would live was the second.

The man walked into the kitchen, Alfie attentively following his steps, and pointed to a rectangle on the ceiling.

“The attic’s up top through here,” he pulled on a chain that dangled from the rectangle and a wooden ladder slid down and landed at Alfie’s feet. The man gently touched Alfie’s back and moved him to the side, then pushed the ladder back into the attic.

“I’m sorry for the mess up there, it’s my wife’s,” said the man tenderly as he looked at Alfie. “You probably won’t ever need to go up there though.”

For two months Alfie never did need to go up to the attic, but one night, as the snow outside was melting and the sterling’s whistle echoed, Alfie was sitting at his desk writing a letter to Harry and Harold when he heard shuffling above his bedroom. He walked to the kitchen, grabbed a lantern, and lowered the ladder. He slowly walked up the creaking steps until he could look inside. Alfie peered around, turning his head from side to side, analyzing the attic, which was divided into two rooms about twenty feet by twenty feet with a wall separating each and a small archway allowing access into the far room. Each of the rooms had two small rectangular windows, no larger than a Bible. Alfie thought one of the windows may have come open and allowed the breeze to blow things around, so he checked all four windows, but they were tightly sealed.

Alfie turned around and began to make his way to the ladder when he felt his spine freeze and his fingers tighten. He could feel a chill run down his collar and into his chest as the light from his lantern lit up the far corner and caught a figure standing in the darkness. Alfie gasped and his bright blue eyes opened wide enough that he noticed the figure in the distance was nothing more than a metal dress form mannequin, the kind a tailor would use to make alterations on a man’s suit. On the ground to the left of the mannequin was a stack of fabric rolls arranged in a pyramid. A black silk roll had fallen off the pyramid and Alfie convinced himself that the roll must have fallen and made the noise he had heard earlier, so he picked up the roll and put it back onto the pile, turned away and left the attic.

Only a few days had passed, but soon Alfie nearly forgot his visit to the attic. One night he was cooking dinner in the kitchen, a beef stew with warm salted carrots and finely chopped onions, mixed in an iron-cast cauldron that hung over the gas-lit stove, when he heard a noise come from the attic. Alfie instantly remembered the noise and he knew it was one of the fabric rolls that had rolled over again, so he grabbed the lantern and walked up into the attic again to discover that the black roll of silk had fallen off of the pile again. He picked it up, and instead of putting it on top of the pile like he had done the previous time, Alfie placed it upright, leaning against the wall. He walked back downstairs, and went back to cooking his dinner.

As Alfie sat at the small table he had positioned up against the only wall in the kitchen, underneath a square window with a white lace curtain, and ate his dinner, he felt a chill. He tried to disregard the cold that gradually overcame him, but decided that he could no longer ignore it. He walked over to the radiator, its iron pipes twisting down into the floorboards, and touched it with the back of his hand, only to feel cold metal. Frustrated, Alfie stomped across the room, lifting his feet and dropping them hard against the wooden floor, to a small table where a phone was. He picked it up and telephoned the gentleman he was renting the house from.

“Good evening Mr. Nolan, this is Alfie Wilde. I’m renting your house on High Street.”

“Good evening Mr. Wilde, I hope you’re doing fine. May I ask why you’re calling?”

“Mr. Nolan, I don’t mean to disturb, but the radiator’s not working properly, and I don’t want to sleep in the cold. If it’s not too much trouble, are you able to stop by and inspect it?”

“I’ll be over soon Mr. Wilde, I don’t want you to sleep poorly in the cold.”

Alfie shut the telephone line, went back to the kitchen and sat down, only to hear a shuffling noise coming from the attic. Angered, Alfie grabbed his lantern, pulled down the ladder to the attic and went up. As he took his first step in the attic he decided that he was going to push over the entire pile of fabric rolls, so that they couldn’t fall anymore. He walked through the small archway and stopped suddenly. There were now two rolls of silk on the floor directly in front of the mannequin, the black one and now a white one. They were side-by-side, perfectly even with one another. Bemused, Alfie stared at the rolls when he heard a knock come from the front door of the house. He quickly made his way down and opened the door for Mr. Nolan, letting him into the house and leading him to the faulty radiator.

Mr. Nolan began by checking both valves on the side of the radiator; they were fine. He then placed his hand at the top of the radiator and realized that it was much colder than the bottom, so he opened the two side valves and pulled a white cotton handkerchief out of his back pocket. The old man took a radiator key and began to turn the bleed screw anti-clockwise while he held the hankie below it. Air began to whistle out of the bleed screw and water dripped onto the cloth. Mr. Nolan tightened the bleed screw and stood up.

“All’s done,” he said.

Mr. Nolan had fixed the radiator in twenty minutes, so Alfie thought it would be proper to offer him a cup of tea. They both walked into the kitchen, and Mr. Nolan noticed that the ladder to the attic was down. He asked Alfie if it was all right to go up and inspect the roof to make sure the melting snow wasn’t leaking through the tiles.

“You’re more than welcome to go up Mr. Nolan,” said Alfie. “After all, if the landlord doesn’t care for the home, he can’t expect his tenants to do any more.”

Alfie followed the gentleman into the attic, and Mr. Nolan looked around the ceiling and floor of the first room to see if there was any wet stains or marks and then walked in the second room. When he got to the corner of the room where the mannequin and rolls were, Mr. Nolan turned to Alfie.

“Do you know what this is?”

“It’s that blasted silk that keeps tumbling over and bothering me.”

Mr. Nolan looked at Alfie with a grin and shook his head.

“I’d like to show you something,” said Mr. Nolan. “Please come to my house, it’s only a few yards away.”

Alfie followed the old man, intending to accommodate his wishes in response to the consideration and kindness he had shown that night.

The two men arrived at Mr. Nolan’s house and went into the kitchen. Other than a few wooden chairs, a long dining table and a set of copper pots, the room was mostly empty; nothing hung on the wall and there was no refrigerator.

“Please sit,” said Mr. Nolan and Alfie did. The old gentleman than left the room and came back with a rolled up piece of paper that he held in his bear-like hand. He handed the paper to Alfie who unrolled it, then looked over it and realized that it was a Telegraph article about an automobile collision.

“The crash killed my wife and my daughter. We were on our way to the theatre; it was going to be my daughter’s first visit,” he said as he lifted a finger and began rubbing the top of his nose.

“My wife was a dressmaker. She used to make them for all the ladies her in Belfast; they all loved her dresses. The dress my daughter was wearing that night was one her mother made for her; it was a black silk dress and white silk gloves.”

Alfie stared silently at the old gentleman and noticed a brief smile flash across his face and then disappear.

“We used to live in the house where you are at now. My wife worked in the attic,” his voice knotted up. “Have you heard the rolls fall any other times?”

“Yes, they’ve fallen a few times,” said Alfie. “They started falling around a week or so before tonight.”

“Mr. Wilde,” said Mr. Nolan as he looked up at Alfie. “Four years ago my wife died two days from tonight. It took her ten days to make that black dress for my daughter.”

Before Mr. Nolan had even explained it to him, Alfie already knew that it was the old gentleman’s wife who kept shuffling the silk rolls in the attic. He wasn’t scared, however. He was happy, because he could see the gladness in Mr. Nolan’s face. The memories of his wife and daughter had lifted his expression, and the old gentleman’s thin black hair and pale skin shone bright as the two sat together in the empty house.

“I’d like to know more about them. Tell me all you remember,” said Alfie. The two men talked for six hours without break. Often times Mr. Nolan’s eyes would bubble up with the faint possibility of a tear; on a few occasions they actually fell, and the droplets slowly streamed down his thick cheeks -- a small pool formed in the dimple of his round chin. Staring at the gentleman, Alfie began to think of his grandmother and all she meant to him. He began to think of Harry and Harold and how they had grown together as friends in Kenya, then as so much more while at Balfour Place. He began to feel what Mr. Nolan was feeling, and he was even happier.

When Alfie got back to his house at three in the morning, he saw that they had forgotten to shut the attic door. He pulled down the ladder and began to walk up the steps, but stopped, came back down, pushed the ladder into the attic and shut the door. He had no reason to go back up, nor did he care to. He knew why the rolls kept falling, and he was content with that.

Alfie heated a cup of milk on the stove and poured the warm, foggy liquid into a glass that he took with him to his bed. He placed the glass on the iron table by his bedframe, tucked himself into the white cotton sheets and covered his legs with the flannel blanket that his grandmother had given him when he left for Africa. He stared across the room at the framed photograph of him, Harry and Harold, took a sip from the glass, shut his eyes and went to sleep.